Hold It All

Month: October, 2010

A Master’s Blog

This past June, José Saramago died.  He was 87.

Awarded the Noble Prize for Literature in 1998, he was the author of such novels as BlindnessThe Gospel according to Jesus Christ, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

I recently finished the Portuguese novelist’s The Notebook, a year’s worth of literary, political, and personal entries from his blog from September 2008 through August 2009.  He shared collected “commentary, reflections, simple opinions about this and  that, in short whatever happened to occur to me.” [xi]

Therein, he characterized his wife Pilar as: “the most practical and objective of all the individuals I know.” [54]  His favorite writers included Camões, Cervantes, Montaigne, Voltaire, Pessoa, Kafka, Borges, and Gogol.  He was intensely concerned with the struggles of the Palestinian people.  A member of the Portuguese Communist Party for almost forty years, he was often critical of the Left’s fecklessness.  And there are numerous rants in these pages against the horrors done to his beloved Italy by Berlusconi.

Saramago’s blog contains passages that inspire and irritate,  move and inform, provoke and please.  What follows is a small sample…

On George Bush: A liar emeritus, he is the high priest of all the other liars who have surrounded him, applauded him, and served him over the past few years. [7]

[The market] is the instrument par excellence of authentic, unitary, simple power, global economic and financial power, which is not democratic because the people never elected it, which is not democratic because the people do not govern it, and finally which is not democratic because it does not have the people’s happiness as their aim. [19]

The Catholic Church cares little or nothing for the destiny of souls, and has always had the control of bodies as its primary aim, while secularism has always been the first door through which the body seeks its escape along with the soul, given that one of them cannot set out on a path in any direction without the other. [202]

On Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish: Rooted in life, in the sufferings and eternal longings of the Palestinian people, Darwish’s poems have a formal beauty that often skirts transcendent moments of the ineffable with a few simple words, like a diary where one can trace step by step, teardrop by teardrop, the catastrophes—but also the profound, if scarce, moments of joy—a people who have undergone a martyrdom for the past sixty years to which there is still no end in sight. [146]

We must not be complicit in the chaos with which the Bush Administration has infected half the world. Neither as governments, nor as citizens. [82]

When the Zapatistas came out of the Lacandon jungle, having crossed half of Mexico to reach Zócalo Square, I was there, one of a million people. I experienced the thrill, the pulse of hope running through my whole body, the desire for change and the desire to make myself something better, less selfish, more capable of giving myself up to it. Marcos spoke, he named each of the ethnic groups of Chiapas, and as each name was spoken it was as though the ashes of millions of indigenous Indians had detached themselves from their tombs and been reincarnated. I’m not writing literature, which comes easily, I’m trying—awkwardly—to put into words something that no words can express: the moment when the human turns superhuman, and then, in one step, reverts to its most extreme humanity. [94]

On Lisbon: We, the inheritors of this city, are the descendants of Christians and Moors, of blacks and Jews, of Indians and Orientals, in short, of all races and creeds considered good, along with those that have been called bad. [5]

In Spain, to act in solidarity (solidarizarse) is a verb daily conjugated in three tenses: present, past, and future. A memory of past solidarity reinforces the solidarity demanded by the present, and both together pave the way for future solidarity to return and show itself in its fullest glory. [135]

But each word [Colombian journalist] Laura [Restropo] writes of them are tears, groans and cries that would keep us all awake at night if our highly flexible consciences had not grown accustomed to the idea that the world is going where those who control it want it to go, and it is enough for us to cultivate our own patches the best we know how, without troubling ourselves about what may be occurring on the other side of our living room wall. [260]

What we call the state of the world is the state of ourselves, wretched humanity, inevitably made up of old people who were once young, young people who will be old, and those who are no longer young but are not yet old. [65]

Personal egotism, indolence, lack of generosity, the petty daily instances of cowardice, all of these contribute to this pernicious form of mental blindness that consists in being of the world and not perceiving the world, or in only seeing what, at any given moment, is capable of serving our own private interests. In such cases, we can hardly wish for some sign that our conscience will awake and shake us urgently by the arm, asking the point-blank question: “Where are you going? What are you doing? What do you think is going one?” What we need is an insurrection of liberated consciences. But is such a thing still possible? [262]



Shimmelstoy: Just today, I was walking to campus, and I could swear I saw Miguel Weiss on the bus!

Max: Are you serious?

Shimmelstoy: It had to be. Dead-ringer.

Max: I thought you told me he was in Chiapas.

Shimmelstoy: That’s what I heard through the grapevine.

Max: He can’t be here looking for Carrie, can he? He has got to know she’s in Kabul.

Shimmelstoy: Those two have a very strange relationship. They are like a very laid back version of Shams and Rumi.

Max: Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

Shimmelstoy: Yeah, but somehow, they glow together. You can see the sparks shooting between them.

Max: I always did think you were a little jealous of him, even when you were married to Miriam.

Shimmelstoy: Max, you really don’t mess around, you know my shit. Yes, a little bit jealous, which was completely unjustified.

Max: Maybe he is just passing through.

Shimmelstoy: That’s him exactly. Just passing through.

Responsibility to Our “Unworthy Victims”

On Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, The Politics of Genocide.

Many years ago, I wrote a critical study of acclaimed moralist Elie Wiesel in which I tried to account for his trajectory from being on the margins of Western culture (a young, unknown Holocaust survivor living in France in the 1950s) to reaching the heights of cultural and social power by the late 1990s (Nobel Laureate, advisor to U.S. presidents). To analyze Wiesel’s human rights advocacy, I drew on the collaborative research of U.S. dissident intellectuals Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. In their 1979 two-volume work, The Political Economy of Human Rights, Chomsky and Herman differentiate three kinds of contemporary bloodbaths– constructive, nefarious, and benign—based on how they are presented in U.S. culture. Almost a decade later in their Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, the authors examine the distinction in the U.S. ideological system between “worthy” and “unworthy victims.”

Recently, Herman joined with David Peterson to update and apply this critical analysis to events over the last couple of decades. This is their summary of “the politics of genocide”: “When we ourselves commit mass-atrocity crimes, the atrocities are Constructive, our victims are unworthy of our attention and indignation, and never suffer ‘genocide’ at our hands—like the Iraqi untermenschen who have died in such grotesque numbers over the past two decades. But when the perpetrator of mass-atrocity crimes is our enemy or a state targeted by us for destabilization and attack, the converse is true. Then the atrocities are Nefarious and their victims worthy  of our focus, sympathy, public displays of solidarity, and calls for inquiry and punishment.” [103] Read the rest of this entry »



Even before Hamas won in the January 2006 general elections, Israel had been further tightening the screws to the Palestinians in Gaza. The summer 2005 Israeli settler pullout was a relief: Gaza had been a costly albatross around Israel’s neck, but no longer. Some people erroneously believed that the “occupation of Gaza was over,” but Israel’s domination and control continued-by land, air, and sea. Ariel Sharon’s government was intent on increasing the pressure by limiting what could come in and go out from the territory. A grave humanitarian crisis was building.

Though the Israeli leadership proceeded with their typical seriousness to force the Palestinians to face reality, the leaders of the Jewish state were not without a sense of humor. Dov Weisglass brought laughter from Sharon and the cabinet ministers when he said in the fall 2005, “We won’t starve the Palestinians; we’ll just put them on a little diet.”


Some results of the diet are becoming clearer. In early 2009, the prestigious British journal The Lancet issued a report on the health condition of people in the Palestinian territories. The authors of the report noted that “stunting during childhood is an indicator of chronic malnutrition and is associated with increased disease burden and death.” In 1996, stunted growth was found in 7.2 percent of the children in Gaza, whereas by 2006 the percent had grown to 10.2 percent.

One psychiatrist noted, “We see children who are 12 years old yet have the bodies of 8 year olds.” Beyond the obvious physical impairments, the children are harmed cognitively as well.



Eric Hazan, Notes on the Occupation: Palestinian Lives (2007)
Sarah Boseley, “Gaza conflicts stunt children’s growth,” The Age, March 6, 2009

From Guatemala to Gaza


It was Ash Wednesday 1983.  In a darkened sanctuary with some lighted candles, an unfamiliar Catholic priest and several other people entered the sanctuary and sat in the front row.  The people wearing bandanas were refugees from El Salvador who had fled from the death squads and chaos of their country.  In his sermon, the priest planted the seed of an idea: Our community could offer public Sanctuary to such people as our guests.  We eventually did offer such shelter and protection to a Salvadoran family, in defiance of the INS ruling that they had no right to be in the U.S.

In my middle twenties in Louisville, I and many other people became a very small part of a movement of solidarity with the peoples of Central America. A few people I know gave their lives over to it, as they relocated for long stretches in Nicaragua; others made frequent visits to and maintained strong connections with grass-roots movements in Guatemala. Many of us participated in peace delegations, put pressure on Congress, wrote scores of op-eds and letters to the editor, and joined in civil disobedience against aid to the contra terrorists attacking Nicaragua. Read the rest of this entry »