By Al Giordano
"Too often we honor swagger and bluster and wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach nonviolence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them. ..
"Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”
- Robert F. Kennedy, April 5, 1968
He spoke those words a day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, two months and one day prior to his own death from an assassin’s bullet.
Forty-three years later, little has changed in the essence of the American character, except that technology, and in particular, media, have ramped up the echo chamber that takes a violent act in one corner (Memphis, Los Angeles, Tucson) and brings such tragedies and traumas at higher speed and reverberation to every TV room, every workplace, every school, every home, and to the inner dialogue of every lone individual seated at a computer screen or listening to the car radio or consulting his and her mobile device from a million points on the GPS map.
Previous, more intimate, ways of processing national traumas – a conversation with a loved one, a hug for a confused child, the act of stepping out into the evening for a breath of fresh air, a knock on a neighbor's door, a phone call to a confidante, or the rush to a bathroom, nauseous – increasingly have given way to more mechanized and automated reactions. Today, instead or reaching out for physical and verbal human contact, so many of us metaphorically shoot our tears or vomit all over Twitter, Facebook, blogs and online comments sections, like a message in a bottle from a desert island, seeking some kind of response or assurance.
Having been a child during the Kennedy and King assassinations, an adult during that of Lennon and the attempt on Reagan, having reported the Oklahoma courthouse bombing of April 1995 and its political consequences (which similarly came after Republicans had taken the US House of Representatives, and echoes perhaps the loudest among past traumas regurgitating themselves today) and, of course, that freshest of national traumas, the events of September 11, 2001 – a date when a child was born only to be gunned down in a Safeway supermarket in Arizona on January 8, 2011 – I, like so many of you, have lived these and other similar histories.
Honestly, I can’t say that I’ve been very proud to be an American, or a liberal (or a progressive, or whatever the word-du-jour is for a gringo that says he is opposed to the right wing) in the past 48 hours. And that’s because what I’ve mainly heard from so many who describe themselves as of the “left” since the Arizona shooting reminds too perfectly of the reaction of the “right” to the events of September 11, 2001, and, precisely, of Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleisher’s infamous scoldings at that moment that, quote, “There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that. There never is.”
(Fleischer was responding to cable TV comedian-turned-pundit Bill Maher’s critique of mechanized technologies of war, although nobody remembers that as much as we remember Fleischer’s official response.)
Back then – only a decade ago – it was the American right that seized upon the traumas caused by the 9/11 attacks to demonize, intimidate, silence and attempt to censor those they perceived as rivals: All of Islam, Iraq in particular, and, at home, anyone who would openly disagree their own ideologies and dogmas, especially liberals or those uncomfortable with war. Leaders of the religious right went so far as to blame the events of 9/11 on abortion and sexual promiscuity, and so many others tossed their own “pet issues” into the mix. When trauma turns to fear, the masses are so easily manipulated, as every aspiring tyrant of any ideology has always known. The political environment created during the Bush administration (and its willing lackeys in the commercial media like the disgraced Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, manufacturing false “evidence” of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq) led to two wars and multiplied the human suffering and death toll from thousands to millions because in an age of advanced technology the axiom of “an eye for an eye” quickly leads to “a thousand eyes for an eye.”
Much ado has been made in recent hours about Sarah Palin’s map that expressly “targeted” Arizona US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ district, and others, with graphic gun sights, and also of Palin’s (and others’) ham-handed attempts to “scrub” her own images and statements from the Internet, as well as similar use of lock-and-load ballistic language by Republicans, including by the 2010 campaign rival of Giffords who, contrary to the initial hurried media reports, still lives (for now) after a bullet went through her brain on Saturday. And, yes, all such propaganda was and is stupid and reckless, bad speech that can only be countered by good speech.
And certainly there is truth to the statement by Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik after Saturday’s shooting in his county: “I'd just like to say that when you look at unbalanced people, how they are—how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths, about tearing down the government, the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
And yet the existence of good and decent Arizonans like Sheriff Dupnik, like Congresswoman Giffords, like the heroic intern Daniel Hernández and others at the scene of the crime who saved her life and subdued the shooter, also cuts against liberal bigotries and prejudices that arise when the word “Arizona” rings like Pavlov’s bell and liberal dogs begin to salivate so smugly that they are superior to conservative canines. The self-satisfied belief by so many coastal and urbane and “educated” Americans that they are superior to other countrymen and women not like them has been pricked once again by human events.
But if I had a nickel for every Facebook status update I’ve seen in the past two days directly calling Palin the “assassin” and saying, without a hint of nuance or irony, that “hate speech” caused the violence in Tucson, I might be able to buy Zuckerberg out and put the entire social network out of its misery. To this came the predictable calls to legislate or outlaw said “hate speech,” like that of US Rep. Bob Brady (D-Pennsylvania) who is getting media attention by announcing he’ll introduce legislation “making it a federal crime to threaten or incite violence against a member of Congress or a federal official.” (Interestingly, when Hugo Chávez backed similar laws in Venezuela, the US media called it an attack on free speech and democracy, which either it is or it isn’t in either country, but it can’t be one thing in Venezuela and a different thing in the United States, can it? How about, say, in Iran, where dissidents by the thousands shout “death to the dictator” from rooftops at nightfall? Is that "hate speech" that the State is justified to punish?)
Of course, the delicate matter of who decides what constitutes a threat or incitement to violence is the 900-pound gorilla in any such attempt to legislate what can or can’t be said. In that sense, Brady and others beating that drum are the 2011 versions of Ari Fleischer of 2001. Please, just look in the mirror: Have the past 48 hours turned you, too, into a "liberal" version of Ari Fleischer?
Jack Shafer at Slate – whose first instincts on matters of speech are almost always the best instincts an American can have – decries, “The awesome stupidity of the calls to tamp down political speech in the wake of the Giffords shooting," in his essay, yesterday, “In Defense of Inflamed Rhetoric”:
“For as long as I've been alive, crosshairs and bull's-eyes have been an accepted part of the graphical lexicon when it comes to political debates. Such "inflammatory" words as targeting, attacking, destroying, blasting, crushing, burying, knee-capping, and others have similarly guided political thought and action. Not once have the use of these images or words tempted me or anybody else I know to kill. I've listened to, read—and even written!—vicious attacks on government without reaching for my gun. I've even gotten angry, for goodness' sake, without coming close to assassinating a politician or a judge…
“Any call to cool ‘inflammatory’ speech is a call to police all speech, and I can't think of anybody in government, politics, business, or the press that I would trust with that power.”
Within weeks of the September 11 tragedy, I wrote similar thoughts in The Nation (“Never Shut Up, New York,” November 5, 2001), pushing back against efforts by the Bush administration and the media to silence dissent, wielding that moment’s trauma as its bludgeon. How heartbreaking to see, today, some of the same people who cheered that defense of speech against right wing efforts advocating to quell it now promote silence and censorship if inflammatory speech comes from the right instead of the left!
The national left-vs.-right political dysfunction in the United States has been on full display since Saturday. It’s so palpable that when Keith Olbermann, on Saturday, offered a nine-minute commentary on MSNBC, eight minutes criticizing the speech of right wingers like Palin, one minute of introspective self-criticism over times his own passions had caused him to say inflammatory things he now says he regrets, and zero minutes criticizing “the left,” that the reaction from many self-proclaimed “left” circles was to accuse him of stating “false moral equivalencies.” The vested interest among many of pinning the alleged homicidal acts of 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner on Republican politicians and their partisans reveals, I fear, more worrisome impulses among the accusers than among the accused. It is too many "progressives" today, revealing that their sense of politics is no more than another version of "an eye for an eye," the same as when it comes from their conservative adversaries.
While any good newsman or blogger knows that seizing upon a national trauma leads to greater attention, ratings and hit counts, there was no way I was going to write anything here about the tragic events in Arizona on Saturday until enough facts were in to understand who likely did the shooting and; in what context? Political assassination is like a Rorschach print: It brings out the presumptions and prejudices of all of us. If we imagined, in that first moment of learning about the shooting, that it was a “tea party” member, or an anti-immigrant hater behind the trigger, how would that make us any different than others whose heads conjure images of a Mexican or a black man anytime a gun goes off in America? It is at those moments when we come face to face with our own inner cauldrons of bigotry and stereotypes. These should always be learning moments first, and teaching moments only after such introspection.
A couple of days later we know that the first reports were errant: Rep. Giffords is not dead, as originally reported: she’s alive and struggling to survive. Jared Lee Loughner didn’t have an accomplice (some poor innocent cab driver with the bad luck of having dropped Loughner off at the crime scene had his photo posted all over the Internet and TV news for almost 24 hours with the inference that he was sought by the Feds as part of some violent conspiracy). And what of Loughner’s “political” ideas?
I wonder what our interpretation of previous national traumas had been like if Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, Squeaky Fromme, Mark David Chapman, John Hinkley, Jr. – or even further back in history, say, John Wilkes Booth – or if the 9/11 hijackers had offered YouTube and MySpace or Facebook pages that revealed something of their inner thoughts to the world. (Heck, I don’t discount the possibility that we may have found out one or more of them indeed were patsies to a larger conspiracy, but that is water long over the bridge, impossible to solve at this late date, and not the topic at hand, anyway, so please spare the comments section from those time worn debates.)
Loughner posted his “favorite books” to his YouTube page. Among them he included Mein Kampf (proof that he’s a right winger!) and The Communist Manifesto (oh, wait...), as well as Orwell’s 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, among others: something for everyone that wishes to tag a violent act on a political cause to imagine as his ideological inspiration to murder.
As Laura Miller points out:
“By studying Loughner's book list for clues to the political leanings that somehow ‘drove’ him to commit murder, commentators are behaving a lot like crazy people themselves. Paranoids are prone to scouring newspaper articles and the monologues of late-night comedians for imaginary coded messages that confirm their ‘secret knowledge’ about the world. But those coded messages aren't there -- it's just random stuff with no special significance. The truth about mental illness is that it strikes without regard to political affiliation or ideological orientation, and it turns beautiful minds into nonsense factories. We can debate a social order that allows its victims access to firearms and talk about finding better ways to intervene before the minority of mentally disturbed individuals with violent impulses are able to act on those impulses. But trying to find the cause for this disease in politics, ideas or books is just plain nuts.”
So, what, if any, was Loughner’s much sought out “motivation” to unload a Glock full of bullets in a Tucson supermarket Saturday morning?
A childhood friend offered this testimony to Mother Jones magazine, telling the story of how, in 2007 (before he or any of us had heard the name Sarah Palin or of a right wing “tea party”), Loughner attended a public meeting at which Rep. Gifford invited constituents to speak with her about their concerns and issues. What was the heated political issue that burned in Loughner’s gut? Read on, kind reader:
“’He told me that she opened up the floor for questions and he asked a question. The question was, 'What is government if words have no meaning?'’"
“Giffords' answer, whatever it was, didn't satisfy Loughner. ‘He said, 'Can you believe it, they wouldn't answer my question,' and I told him, 'Dude, no one's going to answer that.'’"
There’s no small amount of irony in the deluge of preachy lectures today that “words have meaning” (and therefore, as Fleischer said ten years ago, we should “watch what we say”) when the alleged assassin’s most important question to his Congresswoman was “What is government if words have no meaning?”
According to his friend, Loughner felt he did not get a good answer out of his member of Congress and held a grudge for more than three years. Interestingly, his friend, added:
“After Loughner apparently gave up drugs and booze, ‘his theories got worse… After he quit, he was just off the wall.’"
(So much for the next favorite scapegoat of Americans seeking to attach blame behind a crime.)
The most interesting statement by Loughner’s friend came in his analysis if what, he thought, Loughner was trying to accomplish with an act of spectacular violence:
“He wanted the media to freak out about this whole thing. He wanted exactly what's happening. He wants all of that."
So, if you’ve been freaking out and stoking the media storm, Loughner apparently didn’t kill in vain. You’ve, in a way, vindicated him, become his unwitting accomplice, at least in his confused view of the cosmos. That, according to his friend, was his goal:
"He fucks things up to fuck shit up, there's no rhyme or reason, he wants to watch the world burn. He probably wanted to take everyone out of their monotonous lives: 'Another Saturday, going to go get groceries'—to take people out of these norms that he thought society had trapped us in."
And yet, to the contrary, as with all acts that can be deemed political violence, or violent acts that impact politics whether or not influencing politics was their goal, Saturday’s violence in Arizona did not take people out of their norms, but, rather, firmly calcified existing norms and patterns around them.
And so now, too many liberals and progressives have become the new Ari Fleischers, the new Speech Cops, accusing people who may or may not inspire crimes of being guilty of them (in this case, given the facts now at hand, the suggestion that Loughner killed because he was influenced by some 2010 Republican campaign propaganda fades from credibility as the real facts sink in).
Are some doing it because they’re so shallow and unthinking that they really believe it? Most, I fear, do it cynically out of an attempt to score political points, yet they are the kinds of “points” that score only among the most weak-minded among us, making the accusations pure demagoguery whether of the right or of the left. (From a community organizer's perspective, I ask: What is the strategic goal of pushing this message? What do its proponents realistically think it will accomplish? Do they think it will turn middle America against the GOP? It might scare some, temporarilly, as the Clinton administration's similar propaganda campaign accomplished after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, but such results, history demonstrates, are short lived and fleeting.)
This is not a defense of Palin and her disgraceful ilk, nor of right wing whackos that go around speaking of “Second Amendment solutions,” nor am I saying that words don’t have consequences.
If I didn’t strongly believe that words cause actions, I wouldn’t bother to write.
I’m also a student of what some scholars call psychohistory, and was very influenced by Lloyd DeMause’s work, The Assassination of Leaders, which very much explains how psychologically disturbed individuals have so regularly throughout history been influenced in their violent acts by the messages and images in the media and elsewhere that feed fantasies of regicide and homicide. (These are not, by the way, "political" messages with ideological or partisan content, but much deeper psychological triggers that go beyond politics, right or left.)
But in a 24/7 media environment in which we are barraged by violent news stories, in which the high ratings go to TV dramas and movies about cops and robbers and serial killers and sex crimes and terrorists, and in which the entire game of “politics” has been turned into a schoolyard spat of “he did it first, so now we’ll hit back,” it seems to me a very slippery slope – one that can quickly backfire on its adherents – to try and pin the Tucson shooting on Republicans and their whacked out violent images and words.
Let me conclude by demonstrating how a very similar set of circumstances could have just as easily turned against “the left” (more often, these kinds of events do) as it turns against “the right” today:
Remember when, as a presidential candidate in June 2008, after he became the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama said, of the Republicans, said, ““If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun”?
What if, shortly after that, a Jared Lee Loughner type had gunned down a Republican member of Congress, along with constituents, a federal judge, a child born on September 11, 2001 and others in a Safeway supermarket somewhere in America? Who would be scrubbing their websites then? And which side would be making the over-the-top accusations of which political faction was somehow responsible for that tragedy?
Just because “they” do it, does not mean “we” advance our cause by doing the same. To the contrary, “we” (I put the word in quotation marks because I really don’t consider myself part of those who are saying “we” at this moment) are fueling the national dysfunction by behaving like “them.” And it is that national dysfunction that breeds insanity and violence from the synergy and dynamics afoot between “right” and “left” in their media-fueled dance steps, more than either side would be able to do it alone.
Finally, I’ve also observed in recent days that some of the loudest partisan yelling against Republicans over the Tucson tragedy has come from that same sector of self-proclaimed “progressives” that just last week (and likely, next week, too) would post Facebook updates along the lines of “Obama = Bush” and utilize “inflammatory” language (as is their right) against the US president and his policies. Yet, imagine how Saturday’s violent events would have played out had, say, John Ashcroft been Attorney General at this moment instead of Eric Holder? At least now we’ll probably get an accurate accounting of the facts as federal law enforcement authorities find them.
But in this tit-for-tat, in the he said-she said, ratings-charged media world of accusations and counter-accusations, self promoters, opportunists, Chicken Littles, manipulators and manipulated, somebody has to step forward and ring the bell – just as Robert Kennedy did 42 years ago after the King assassination – to point out the obvious: There is a deeper societal sickness underlying these events, and the media (and social media) responses to them. Has so little really changed since 1968?
And I would make an educated guess that the person who will step forward and seek out our better selves to make a better sense of this terrible act of violence will likely be that very same President Barack Obama. But unlike the screamers (the manipulators and manipulated, both), he’ll wait until sufficient facts are in, as I have done here, before rushing to speak about it. In that sense, I still identify more with him as a person – as critical as I’ve been and remain of many of his policies – than I do with some “activists” and “progressives” whose mouths and keypads today make me shudder with the memory of Ari Fleischer and the Speech Cops of 2001.
Oh, no, I’m not making a case of “false moral equivalency.” To the contrary, I’m saying that the voices of blame and scapegoating coming from “our” side this weekend have been more hypocritical, from people who ought to know better, and therefore morally worse. If we don’t expect better from our own selves, what moral high ground can we possibly ever claim? And what is the strategy behind it anyway? Is it to intimidate and censor political adversaries, Ari Fleischer style? Or is it just to vent any old thing on a public stage to deal with the trauma of the moment? Go ahead and vent. But if there's not a strategy behind it that really works beyond temporary blips in the polling data, it's just feeding the dysfunction, and bringing the next violent and traumatic act in this eye-for-an-eye drama series one step closer.
By Al Giordano
Your correspondent was four days off the airplane in July 1997, a 37-year-old gringo navigating Mexico City with a Spanish-English dictionary in one hand and a map in the other and arrived at the city square, El Zócalo, at the six p.m. hour. From there, the Todo Para Todos (“Everything for Everyone”) caravan would leave for somewhere in the mountains of the Mexican Southeast, and I had signed up to go with them to Zapatista territory in Chiapas.
The chilangos (Mexico City dwellers) in charge of the caravan, like many urban folks all over the world, talked fast, very fast, and communicating with them in my barely existent Spanish while having to consult the dictionary, I’m sure, was as much a pain in the neck for them as it was difficult for me. I was quickly reassigned from the main bus carrying most of the caravanistas – heading to the indigenous rebel town of Oventik, to conduct work projects in solidarity with the then-three-year-old revolution – to a covered pick-up truck. The driver, an older man named don Miguel, welcomed me and my dangling cigarette with two words, which he spoke in English: “No Smoking.”
The folks in the truck were not chilangos, they were country people, from the provinces of Mexico, and thus spoke slower and more understandably for this gringo and his dictionary appendage. They did not seem as bothered as the city slickers by their new companion’s difficulty with the language and his foreign ways, and seemed to view me as, at least, a source of entertainment and someone to laugh at during what was then a 22-hour trip out of Mexico City through the states of Mexico, Puebla, Veracruz, Oaxaca and its Isthmus of Tehuantepec and finally winding through the mountains of Chiapas to get to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, where we would receive training and instructions for how to conduct ourselves on Zapatista lands. Today, there are new highways and the same trip takes just fourteen hours, but the old route offered a much better look at the towns, flora, fauna and humanity along the way than any highway can possibly reveal.
My efforts to steal a quick smoke during every pit stop made my pickup-truck hosts uproarious with laughter. We’d pull into a PEMEX gas station and don Miguel would make hand gestures with the sound of a big explosion to portray what would happen if I smoked near the gas pumps, and so I would trot over to the roadside to light my cigarette. It was an all night drive and I barely remembered that there was also an elderly guy who was sleeping in the back of the truck while I was doing my best to communicate with, and not be an annoyance to, don Miguel and don Tacho and other solidarity volunteers in the front two rows of seats of the truck.
In the mountains of Oaxaca the winding road went through various tunnels and at one point a rainstorm made it difficult to see more than a few feet ahead. Don Miguel stopped the vehicle inside one of those tunnels and I quickly jumped out in need of nicotine. While fumbling through what was then a 45-cent pack of Faros cigarettes, the truck suddenly began to pull away, and I went running after it yelling, first in English, then in bad Spanish. Miguel quickly realized he had left the gringo behind and put on the brakes as I ran to catch up. When I got back in, Miguel and Tacho and the others were laughing their asses off. As we emerged from the tunnel – the rain had already stopped – Miguel smiled and said, “You’ve just been through the tunnel of time!” And they laughed some more.
Daylight hit somewhere along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and during a brief pitstop this curious little man – about four-feet-eight-inches tall – emerged from the back of the truck. He inspected some banana trees by the side of the road and looked at them with big eyes, motioning to me and saying something I didn’t understand while touching the long green leaves. That was my first encounter with don Andrés, who then invited me to the back of the truck with him, where I could chain smoke with his gracious permission.
In trying to talk with this seemingly ancient being I kept apologizing for my bad Spanish. He put his finger over his mouth and said not to worry, that it was his second language, too. Empathy was not something I had yet experienced as a gringo newly in Mexico. I thought it inspiring that an eighty-something farmer from somewhere North of Mexico City would want to make this long voyage all the way to Chiapas to be with the Zapatista rebels, but I didn't yet know why.
For the next three weeks I followed don Andrés around like a puppy dog while everyone around us – about fifty caravanistas, and a village of a few hundred indigenous Tzotzil men, women, children and elders – made regular comments about the old man and his “gringo son,” usually while laughing, which I never knew if it was at me or with me.
One day don Miguel came to me and said that he and don Andrés were heading down the mountain into San Cristóbal for a meeting with Bishop Samuel Ruiz, and would I like to join them? The Bishop – one of the pioneers, since the 1940s, of the Liberation Theology movement, and the one that historians wrote had invented its branch of “Indigenist Theology,” was one of the major personalities of the saga between the Zapatista rebels and the “evil government,” as they called it, of Mexico, often a mediator and a big part of what had been signed, two years prior, as the San Andrés Peace Accords for indigenous autonomy.
Bishop Samuel received my new friends warmly, and treated don Andrés with great deference, like a visiting head of state. When we left the meeting I asked don Miguel, pointing to don Andrés, “Who is this guy? The Bishop seemed in awe of him.” Miguel just smiled. Returning to the pickup truck, Miguel reached for a large overstuffed envelope and pulled out a series of press clippings, with photos of the founding of the Indigenous National Congress which had don Andrés at the side of the Zapatista Comandanta Ramona and other native leaders in the rainbow colors of distinct traditional clothing of their peoples.
And so I finally realized that this very old guy whom I had been with for the past three weeks, the one who was nicest to me and least bothered by the ways in which I was different and foreign was also apparently a big fucking deal in the modern history of Mexico. And yet, to me, he was already something else: my first real friend in a new and unfamiliar country.
When after almost a month it came time for Miguel, Andrés and company to return home while I would remain behind in Chiapas, I had to fight tears while saying goodbye, worrying that I’d never see this special old man again, and we parted ways. He was 87, after all, and how much longer could he possibly live? Two hours later, walking through the streets of San Cristóbal, I turned a corner and there he was again! Don Andrés, with Miguel, still collecting rations for their long trip ahead, and there I got the idea that “goodbye” just wasn’t something to be said yet with the elder. I considered it a good omen that we would meet again.
Over the following years, don Andrés and I traveled together – usually with don Miguel and his truck – through a dozen Mexican states, stopping to visit elders of indigenous groups who were part of the Congress with him: Otomi-Nañu, Mazahua, Purépecha, Zapoteco, Mixteco, Huichol, Amuzgo, Maya and of course the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolabal and Chol of Chiapas. Around 1999, don Andrés took me to Jalisco for a peyote ceremony led by Emerson Jackson of the Dineh (Navajo) peoples of the American Southwest, where I was pressed into service as a translator between the English-speaking indigenous leader and the Spanish-speaking attendees; a task in which the physical and mental effects of the ceremonial and hallucinogenic cactus seemed to make easier, not harder, interestingly, and, besides, my Spanish – which don Andrés so patiently had shepherded in its earliest days – was much more fluent by then.
Don Andrés ninetieth birthday was celebrated in November of 2000 in my home which was then in an indigenous town of Central Mexico. It was in that little house that Narco News was born. Some leaders of the Indigenous National Congress trekked many hours to be there and salute to the health of their eldest member. There, I read him my first poem in Spanish, “Mi General,” the term with which I addressed him so many thousands of times over these years.
In 2003, don Andrés was a professor at the first Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, in Mérida, Yucatán and on the isle of Isla Mujeres. There, don Andrés met and chewed coca leaf with the Bolivian indigenous leader Felipe Quispe – El Mallku, or Great Condor – as well as Alvaro Garcia Linera, now vice president of Bolivia, as well as students and professors from many other lands. He invited one of the students, Ava Salazar, back to his town of San Bartolomé, Guanajuato, who would later marry his grandson, Juan, and have two of don Andrés’ great grandchildren, born in the USA.
When don Andrés and I would travel together, people would tend to stop and stare at this little man, on the street or in the markets, and when those passersby were of the “hippie” or “New Age” tendencies they’d usually say something like, “Oooh, look at how his eyes shine! He must be a shaman!” And while it is true that don Andrés knew encyclopedias worth of things about medicinal plants and ancient healing practices, and he would indulge the strange philosophical and even self-help questions that strangers often asked him, Andrés never once claimed to be a “shaman” or “medicine man” or anything like that. To the contrary, he disliked such terms, almost revealing a fear of them, as if they carried the connotation of “witch” and anyone defined as such might be hunted down by an angry mob and burned at a stake. I had always guessed that he had lived long enough to see that sort of thing. From that, and from my experiences watching so many hucksters and fakers sell themselves to dewy-eyed tourists as such, usually with a fee or financial transaction involved, I concluded: Anybody who tells people he is a “shaman,” by definition, can’t possibly be one. Thank you, don Andrés, for that lesson, too.
At the end of so many days, in so many parts of his country, don Andrés loved more than anything to talk politics and strategy. We would sip mescal and speak late into those nights of the country’s social movements, their strategies, their tactics, often with other elders from other ethnicities, who seemed so much to enjoy the same. That was, I think, his greatest passion, formed by a lifetime of experiences, some of which you can read about in Erin Rosa and Fernando León’s profile of don Andrés on his hundredth birthday, a month ago.
A Mexican anthropology student, who had once witnessed some of these adventures, said to me, “Do you understand what access you have? Everybody in my school would die to have this kind of access.” I found her question both funny and sad. “What you call ‘access,’” I replied, “I call friendship.” And I remembered an afternoon in 1988, in the suburban Boston home of the Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes where he had granted me an interview about ethnobotany that ended up lasting eight hours. Schultes had “discovered” for the academic world various hallucinogenic plants and had lived with Amazon tribes in South America, one of which had inducted him officially one of its own, through a ceremony that involved pricking his finger and “sharing” his blood with that of the finger of a tribal elder.
Schultes told me, on that day, “A botanist or a zoologist has a big advantage over an anthropologist when among native peoples. The anthropologist is always asking silly questions like ‘Why do you braid your hair that way?’ And people generally respond to them, ‘Because we’ve always braided our hair that way.’ The anthropologist is always looking at these people as something ‘other’ than them. But a botanist or a zoologist shares an interest – plants and animals – with people in the jungle. And in the course of studying these things alongside of these people who are also interested in them, eventually it is the botanist – and not the anthropologist – who casually finds out, also, why the natives might braid their hair a certain way, along with so many more important things to learn.”
Between don Andrés and I, his “gringo sidekick,” as some mutual friends liked to say, I never saw him as an object to be studied. I just genuinely loved him and being with him and those long night sessions of talking politics, organizing and strategy. That was our “botany,” in Schultes’ terms, our shared interest, upon which our friendship grew.
Seeing don Andrés last November 30, on his hundredth birthday, was not easy for me. This great man – the littlest giant! – could no longer see, or hear. One had to shout in his left ear and then only sometimes he would understand what was said. At that moment he did know that there were young people around him so he sat up straight on what this first morning of 2011 would be his death bed and began making a speech to the young people, who he seemed to think were Mexican and seeking his counsel about migrating to the United States. He told stories of when he had worked picking cotton near Pecos, Texas, and the mistreatment of the migrant workers he had experienced, and issued stern warnings and dos and don’ts about how to behave “on the other side” of the Rio Bravo.
At one point, don Andrés asked the group around him, “Do you know my friend Alberto? Do you have news from him?” His son Pepe, his daughter Carolina, grandaughter Lupe, and don Miguel took turns shouting in his ear, “He’s here! Alberto is here!” But don Andrés didn’t hear them and kept asking for me as I sat there helpless to establish my presence. He soon grew tired and fell asleep, and we went out with his family to celebrate his birthday while he napped.
Hours later, he awakened, and we entered his room again. This time he could hear a little bit more when I shouted in his ear. This time he recognized my voice, said my name, and his eyes, already blind, got that big childlike stare that I first saw on that roadside in 1997 as he looked at the banana trees.
“Alberto,” he said, grasping my hand firmly, “I think it will be very difficult for us to see each other again.” And then he launched into a litany of questions about the Zapatistas of Chiapas, about other friends in other movements in other parts of the country. When I answered him, he was unable to hear my responses. I was glad he was unable to see my tears. Just as quickly, he fell back asleep.
A while later, don Miguel approached me to report that Andrés was awake again, and would I like to have my photo taken with him? No, I replied, I don’t want to remember him like this, so weak and helpless: we have so many other memories from when he was strong and sharp and ready to take on and defeat the entire establishment. And then I confided in Miguel that Andrés, in his way, had said goodbye, and that I didn’t expect him to survive the year. And we looked at each other helplessly, knowing there was nothing we could do to stop it.
Well, once again don Andrés has proved me wrong. He did survive all of 2010 and hung on until the earliest hours of 2011, when he checked out of this hotel called earth. He chose the seventeenth anniversary of the Zapatista rebellion to be his final moment among us. I would have so liked to have been able to tell him of the people’s victory, yesterday, in Bolivia, where after the social movements mobilized to repeal an 82 percent rise in gasoline prices, where President Evo Morales (and don Andrés old friend Alvaro) acquiesced to an organized people’s demands. But, in a way, yes, I’m quite sure don Andrés was there. Like Joe Hill, where people fight and organize, it’s there we’ll find don Andrés.
Goodbye, mi general.
By Al Giordano
Normally when you read “seasons greetings” in a media publication, it probably means the writer has his bags packed and is on his way out the door to a ski lodge or beach cottage, leaving the junior associates behind to cover any news that might happen over the holidays, a season when so many of the "news makers" have also disappeared from the public stage.
But whether it’s a New Year’s Eve indigenous rebellion or an early summer coup d’etat, time and experience have taught us that “vacation seasons” are sometimes when hard news breaks wide open and has to be reported quickly and accurately. We never know, for example, when one of our journalists might be illegally arrested and we have to work fast to get him out, as occurred on Friday with Gianni Proiettis in Chiapas, Mexico. This sort of thing has happened regularly over the years and when one of our journalists is at risk, the world stops for us and we focus all our "firepower" on getting him or her out of harm's way. Speed and sunlight are what has rescued our journalists time and time again.
This holiday season, I’ll be staffing the news desk and continuing with the extensive planning for the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism, the development of its curriculum with our 36-plus professors, and the scouting and recruitment of scholarship applicants.
If you haven’t yet read the announcement of next May’s Narco News J-School, it’s worth a read, because you or someone you know could be an ideal candidate to attend this free ten-day intensive training session in investigative journalism, online reporting, viral video production and movement strategies for journalists. In letter after letter after letter (and after letter after letter after letter after letter, and those are just some of ‘em), graduates of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalist have referred to their time here as a life changing experience, and have urged you to contribute to make it possible for more journalists to benefit from this training. We think that’s great, especially since we’ve watched so many who have been through its doors go on to publish so many vital reports of immense international importance, again and again and again.
The end of each year is also a time to reflect, to assess what we’ve learned and done, to resolve to always improve, and to appreciate everybody who has helped, in ways large and small, to produce an impressive body of work in 2010. Let’s count ‘em: 193 original reports, about as many original translations, 22 video newsreels, the training of 73 graduates of the School of Authentic Journalism, and the good works that so many of them have continued to do since last February in every corner of the planet.
This was only made possible because so many of you (and you know who you are) contributed a few bucks here and there, distributed our alerts widely, Twittered and Facebooked our reports, and spread the word among friends and family that there is this thing called Narco News, called the Narcosphere, called The Field, called the School of Authentic Journalism, named Bill Conroy, named Erin Rosa, named Fernando León, named Al, and with so many other names that have brought their truth to our truth here, where, together, we continue constructing a bigger truth.
So if I haven’t said thanks loudly or often enough, let me sing it from the mountaintop: THANK YOU.
We love doing this, our life’s work, it doesn’t matter at all that after ten years we’re still not getting rich doing it. That wasn’t why we started in the first place. We began because, in the year 2000, journalism was dying and there was no place to practice authentic journalism, so we had to invent a home for it.
It’s a humble home, and we still live close to the land, with low overhead, and probably always will. The only safety net we have is each other, the international network and alliance in which you are part of that “we.”
As the end of this year approaches – and, to repeat, we’re not going anywhere; we’ll be reporting the news just as alertly during this holiday season as we do every other time of year – and you reflect upon your own 2010, we hope you’ll share in our pride and good cheer over what we’ve accomplished, with your collaboration, and what we will continue to do into 2011 and beyond.
As our 2010 graduate (returning as a professor in 2011) Milena Velis wrote last week:
“When I applied for the School of Authentic Journalism, I was a stressed out, confused, and newly minted reporter trying to understand what the hell was going on in the journalism ‘industry’ I had so recently joined. With little experience or training, I had found myself covering the entire city of Philadelphia as part of a staff of two reporters for a local Spanish language weekly...
“I felt like no one knew how to answer the questions I was struggling to answer each day. What’s the relationship between journalism and organizing? Should journalism be objective? How do you communicate when you don’t own a newspaper or a TV station? And who gets to call themselves a journalist anyway?
“When I got off a plane in Cancun, and traveled to the campus at a nearby undisclosed location, I got a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet and learn from the very people who could help answer my questions, and more…”
And so, kind reader, I have an assignment for you as the year turns: Go out there and find us our next Milena, our next Fernando, our next Erin, your next correspondent, and encourage him and her to apply for the 2011 School of Authentic Journalism, because the work they do won’t just be ours, but it will belong to you, too, and to everyone else on this earth.
You probably already know somebody who is like that: someone with immense dedication, social conscience and talent, with communications skills, and with a desire to improve those skills to be able to do something meaningful with his or her life and who will not settle for anything less. Is that you who we’re talking about? Then request an application for the May 2011 School of Authentic Journalism by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org (for Spanish language applications, write email@example.com ). Completed applications are due January 23, 2011.
And if that person isn’t you, chances are you know – or know of – somebody who is like that. Maybe it’s a family member or a friend. Maybe it’s somebody whose work you read or viewed on the Internet or in other media. It might be that person who always seems to show up with a camera in hand or who chronicles human events on her or his blog or social networking pages. Every community has somebody like that. But here’s a little secret they don’t always let show: People who do this work often feel quite alone in it, and they may not know yet that this world is filled with so many others just like them, each in their own communities, and that the chance is coming up in May 2011 to meet many of the best of them, share with them, learn from them, and never walk alone in this work again.
And if this is a gift-giving season for you, we hope you’ll remember our friends at The Fund for Authentic Journalism, founded and managed by readers of Narco News, all who whom are volunteers, who use every penny and peso of your contributions to support these projects in authentic journalism.
Likewise, if you’re in the position to benefit from tax-deductible contributions for the year 2010, The Fund is a 501c3 organization and will be happy to provide you, on request, with a receipt for your records.
At the end of any year, we’re all besieged by appeals for donations from many worthwhile ventures. We want to support them all, but we can’t. One of the questions many of us ask ourselves when considering which project to support is this: Which is going to provide the greater return on our investment? Narco News’ School of Authentic Journalism – the only project like it on earth, one which confronts and solves the problem of media in our times like no other project does – guarantees that your gift will multiply and grow, through the works of our graduates for years, even decades, to come. You can be 100 percent certain that you’ll be proud to have donated. What other project can make you such an ironclad guarantee?
Additionally, your contribution along with those of others, up to $20,000, will be matched. Your investment will be doubled immediately, and then continue to work, and work hard, for truth-telling investigative journalism, freedom of speech, human rights, authentic democracy, justice and freedom. A donation to The Fund for Authentic Journalism? Priceless!
You probably know the drill already. You can donate online at this link:
Or you can send a check to:
The Fund for Authentic Journalism
PO Box 1446
Easthampton, MA 01027 USA
I sincerely hope this and all seasons are good ones for you, if you’re with friends or family or both (or if you’re a grunt like me remaining at your post because “somebody has to do it”), I, and the entire Narco News Team, wish you the best and an even better year to come.
You, our readers, are the only “Santa” we’ve ever had. This year we leave cookies and milk by the fireplace – aw, we’ll leave something a little stronger than that, too - and a hand-written note requesting not just material gifts, but human ones: candidates for the next graduating class, the next generation of authentic journalists… the gifts that keep on giving.
From somewhere in a country called América,
By Al Giordano
Narco News School of Authentic Journalism professor Mercedes Osuna reported moments ago from outside the offices of the attorney general of the state of Chiapas in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, in Mexico's southernmost state, that Monica Mendoza, the personal secretary of the assistant attorney general Jorge Javier Colebro Damas, emerged in recent minutes to speak with family, friends and attorneys for Gianni Proiettis.
On behalf of the prosecutor's office, "she apologized," Osuna told us via cell phone. "She said it was a case of mistaken identity."
Proiettis will, according to the prosecutor's office, be released momentarily with no charges filed against him.
We would like to thank all the people, journalists, readers and colleagues, who spread the word, rallied and drew global attention to the illegal arrest of Proiettis, a journalist for Il Manifiesto, Liberacion and Narco News, among other publications.
And we remind the governments of the world: This is not the first time you've screwed up. Multiple arrests have been made over the past decade of our reporters by states that were not happy with our reporting. And in every single case, our journalists have been freed within 24 hours, after speedy, voluminous and global organizing campaigns to liberate them, with no charges pending. This international network of authentic journalists will never leave one of its own undefended. Come for one of us, and we're all coming right back at you.
By Al Giordano
Photo taken in January 2010 by journalist Gianni Proiettis during interview with family members of assassinated anti-mining organizer Mariano Albarca in Chicomuselo, Chiapas, Mexico. DR 2010 Gianni Proiettis.
Gianni Proiettis walked out the door of his San Cristóbal de Las Casas, home at one p.m. today and on his way to the corner store, neighbors witnessed three uniformed men in an unmarked white vehicle kidnap Proiettis and take him away. When family members and friends went to the Chiapas state police headquarters in that city to report the crime, they found that Proiettis was being held by those same police, and was being transported to the state capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
Asked by family members and an attorney what crime he is charged with, authorities said only that Proiettis had been present last week in Cancún (twelve hours away, where he had been covering, along with many other reporters, the climate summit meetings and protests for the Italian newspaper, Il Manifiesto).
Proiettis, an Italian native who resides in Mexico legally on a work visa, is a professor of history at the state university - Autonomous University of Chiapas (UNACH, in its Spanish initials) - and has resided in San Cristóbal de Las Casas since 1993. During those 17 years he has reported regularly for Il Manifiesto, for the French publication Liberación and since 2006, for Narco News, among other publications. A tall, thin, soft spoken man with white hair and goatee, Gianni also teaches at an eco-tourism project in the Chiapas town of Venustiano Carranza, site of numerous conflicts in recent years between the state government and nonviolent townspeople. Gianni also reported earlier this year, for Narco News, on struggles against international mining companies in Chiapas.
A January 23, 2010 report in Narco News by Proiettis, an interview with the father of assassinated Chiapas anti-mining leader Mariano Abarca, was particularly bothersome to Canadian mining company Blackfire Exploration, LTD, and state officials that act to protect the company.
Given that they wer state, and not federal, officials who took Proiettis, and that hundreds of national and international reporters also covered events in Cancún last week, it seems highly improbable that his attendance there as one reporter could be the real motive or a legal pretext for his arrest.
Attorneys are now moving for an ampáro – a special protective order under Mexican law – to prevent authorities from continuing to hold Proiettis and also to bar them from deporting him from the country where he has resided for almost two decades.
Narco News considers an attack on the press freedom of Gianni Proiettis or any of our journalists to be an attack upon all and we will not rest until our colleague is free and his rights under law are reestablished. We are alerting our international network of journalists and friends and inform authorities that if they hoped they would be able to attack the press freedom of this journalist quietly, that has already become impossible. We will be monitoring this situation 24/7 and posting updates here when we encounter new information and until Gianni Proiettis is freed.
By Al Giordano
I hope this this story we published today isn't the last interview that WikiLeaks' Julian Assange will be able to give. After all, US Army soldier Bradley Manning, accused of leaking more than 250,000 classified documents to WikiLeaks, has been held in solitary confinement since his arrest, denied access to news organizations. There are people in power that would like to see Assange silenced the same way, or worse.
The interview was conducted yesterday by Brazilian journalist Natalia Viana, graduate of the 2004 Narco News School of Authentic Journalism, now co-chair, with Bill Conroy, of our investigative journalism program. It's a rare exclusive interview with an important newsmaker who doesn't give them often, and it was his final interview before his arrest this morning by British police pending hearings on his extradition to Sweden.
At today's US State Department press briefing, official spinner P.J. Crowley rattled sabers: "What we’re investigating is a crime under U.S. law. The provision of 250,000 classified documents from someone inside the government to someone outside the government is a crime. We are investigating it. And as we’ve said, we will hold those responsible fully accountable. That investigation is still ongoing."
For those readers who mainly or only check this page, The Field, this historic interview is yet another reason to put the Narco News front page, also, on your browser list for daily review.
My take on this controversy is very clean cut: Julian Assange did the work that most news organizations do when government documents are sent to us and they are newsworthy. He published them. His legal status is as a journalist, and he enjoys the same First Amendment protections under US law as the New York Times. Therefore, any attempt to prosecute him would be illegal and unconstitutional, and I don't believe it would - or should - survive in court.
I bet the Justice Department knows that also, and thus the screeching by the Secretary of State and her spokesman are no more than public tantrums combined with rattle shaking and pandering to the haters, out of frustration of working for a government with a Constitution that guarantees freedom of the press.
To prosecute WikiLeaks or its staff for practicing journalism would constitute a threat to all journalists and publications. It doesn't matter whether Assange is viewed as a hero, a villain or something human in between, or whether one is happy or not that these documents are coming to public light; under the law, he is a journalist. And that is the standard by which his work must be defended and protected by all journalists, especially the authentic ones.
Read the Julian Assange interview on Narco News, and base your own opinions on the facts.