Hold It All


Category: Journalists


It is we who are responsible for Putin’s policies, we first and foremost, not Putin. The fact that our reactions to him and his cynical manipulation of Russia have been confined to gossiping in the kitchen has enabled him to do all the things he had done in the past four years. Society has shown limitless apathy, and this is what has given Putin the indulgence he requires.
–Anna Politkovskaya, Putin’s Russia

For a profile of the Russian journalist, see Anna Politkovskaya: A double-edged legacy.


Writing for the Future

In winter-spring of 2015 I read every book I could find in English translation of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.  She’s another writer who would be at home in the world of Kafka’s Axe (“But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”)

The following passages from 2001’s A Dirty War: A Russia Reporter in Chechnya deal with the Russian government’s war-making, its victims, the citizenry, the military,, the impunity of the powerful, and the profits for the greedy.  Come to think of it, Politkovskaya’s work may spark recognition in the alert U.S. reader about matters close to home…

These direct and unsophisticated  villagers are infinitely wiser and more principled than all of our Moscow politicians put together, no matter how many advisers crowd round them.  30  The present catastrophe in Daghestan has once again shown that ordinary people are a hundred times better and purer than our authorities. 33

The regime stresses that it has taken a decision to begin the war, but accepts no responsibility for the consequences. They owe us nothing, we owe them everything. 47

I thought how senseless everything happening here was. If you look at it from the State’s point of view, why scatter a vast number of mines around the city and receive in return an astronomic growth in the number of disabled people, who require tons of medicine, artificial limbs, and so on? … the reality is that the inhabitants of Grozny have been sentenced to this fate. Evidently, the ultimate aim is to ensure that as many people in the city as possible are either left without legs—or dead. Perhaps this is a new stage in the “anti-terrorist operation”, an unhurried punitive mission directed against one ethnic community, which now requires hardly any more ammunition, just the patience to wait for the inevitable outcome. 218-291 Read the rest of this entry »

“I Denounce the US Government’s Threats of War against North Korea” by Andrew Wimmer

Andrew shared this early this morning, and I  want to share it with others…

Dear Friends,

Our first obligation in the face of US war threats is to speak a word of truth, wherever we go and to whomever we meet.

With regard to North Korea, I denounce the threats of war coming from the US government.  They are not a tough stance in the face of an intractable situation.  They are just the opposite.  They are the latest and most egregious in a series of unilateral moves by the US government to reject and move away from a diplomatic solution.

Donald Trump and the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, have both made overt threats of military action against North Korea within the past two days.  I denounce them both.  Haley’s appearance at the UN yesterday was not only a study in mendacity but a reckless and immoral affront to humanity.  “We will not repeat the inadequate approaches of the past that have brought us to this dark day,” she said while attempting to rally the world to further economic sanctions against North Korea while making overt threats of war.

The media has begun its “measured analysis” that excludes diplomacy and focuses on the known disastrous consequences of the various military options.  This piece from the Guardian is a prime example.   Read the rest of this entry »

Authors for Reading Alongside Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
—Franz Kafka, Letters 

Though for us it’s absurd to cut our brother’s head off only because he’s become our brother and grace has descended upon him, still, I repeat, we have our own ways, which are almost as good. We have our historical, direct, and intimate delight in the torture of beating. Nekrasov has a poem describing a peasant flogging a horse on its eyes with a knout, ‘on its meek eyes.’ We’ve all seen that; that is Russianism. He describes a weak nag, harnessed with too heavy a load, that gets stuck in the mud with her cart and is unable to pull it out. The peasant beats her, beats her savagely, beats her finally not knowing what he’s doing; drunk with beating, he flogs her painfully, repeatedly: ‘Pull, though you have no strength, pull, though you die! ‘ The little nag strains, and now he begins flogging her, flogging the defenseless creature on her weeping, her ‘meek eyes.’ Beside herself, she strains and pulls the cart out, trembling all over, not breathing, moving somehow sideways, with a sort of skipping motion, somehow unnaturally and shamefully—it’s horrible in Nekrasov. But that’s only a horse; God gave us horses so that we could flog them.
—Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

There [Communist bloc] nothing goes and everything matters; here [USA] everything goes and nothing matters.
—Philip Roth, Shop Talk Read the rest of this entry »

American Ingenuity

[Daisy Cutters were] so named
because they were designed to explode
just above the ground
so the main force of the explosion was horizontal
in order to cause the maximum destruction at ground level.
The Americans claimed that these monsters were used only
for blasting helicopter landing pads out of the jungle.

The CBU-55 was the latest,
and most horrifying death-dealing device,
the Pentagon tried out in Indochina.
The CBU was a “mother-bomb” which spewed forth
scores of small bombs each of which sprayed
a highly inflammable aerosol gas,
ignited by a special firing device.
The resulting explosion of flame,
apart from anything else,
consumed all the oxygen in an area of several hundred yards radius,
automatically killing every living thing.

—adapted from Wilfred Burchett, Grasshoppers & Elephants:
Why Vietnam Fell — The Viet Cong Account of the Last 55 Days of the War


–from novel-in-progress, Our Heroic and Ceaseless 24/7 Struggle against Tsuris

Dear Randa

6 September 2009

Dear Randa,

Given how busy you must be, I can’t imagine that you would have brought along with you Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. I regret that we didn’t have nearly enough time to discuss this book while you were here in St. Louis, so I thought I would send you an occasional “rereading” of that heart-breaking, illuminating, and disturbing tome. Perhaps next summer we can resume such discussions in cafes around St. Louis.

Since his youth, Fisk had long aspired to be a foreign correspondent, and he mentions that when he was 29, he received a letter from one of the higher-ups at The Times, in which he was told: “Paul Martin has requested to be moved from the Middle East. His wife has had more than enough, and I don’t blame her. I am offering him the number two job in Paris, Richard Wigg Lisbon—and to you I offer the Middle East. Let me know if you want it… It would be a splendid opportunity for you, with good stories, lots of travel and sunshine…” [xix]

In Fisk’s preface, he quotes Israeli journalist Amira Hass as saying that the journalist’s role is to “to monitor the centers of power,” the power that invades other countries, the power that sends people to be tortured, the power that conceives of genocide and implements it, the power that draws borders of the lands of others in its interests, the power that is drunk with its own dizzying rhetoric of rectitude, the power that predictably invites “blowback,” the power that acts as if it is above the law, with a quasi-divine right to disturb the lives and worlds of others. Read the rest of this entry »

Svetlana Alexievich: Fascinated by People

Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year.  Her oral history, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, appeared this spring in the US. Translated by Bela Shayevich, the book is a compelling portrait of life in and after the Soviet Union.  The author states early in the work, “I want to know about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. Music, dances, hairdos. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. it’s the only way to chase the catastrophe into the contours of the ordinary and try to tell a story. Make some small discovery. It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life really is. There is an endless number of human truths. History is concerned solely with the acts; emotions are outside its realm of interest. In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the world as a writer and not a historian. I am fascinated by people.”

470 pages long, comprised of interviews with hundreds of people, the following passages were among the many that caught my attention…


The [tank] drivers weren’t murderers, they were just frightened kids with guilty looks on their faces.  24

Down from the throne, straight into the gutter.  30

All of you wanted capitalism.  You dreamt of it! Don’t go crying now that you’ve been lied to… 32

God is the infinite within us … We are created in His likeness and image … 36

His motto was, “Man up—the worst is yet to come.”46

They’re not afraid of anyone. Flying around in their private jets with their gilded toilets and bragging about it to boot. 54

The Russian intelligentsia never used to pander to the rich. Now there’s no one left—no one will speak for the soul except the priests. Where are the former supporters of Perestroika? 54

—- An indescribable passion for newspapers and magazines took hold of us—circulation numbers skyrocketed into the millions. Periodicals became more popular than books. In the morning, in the Metro, day in and day out you’d find  entire subway cars reading. 61

—A mysterious new life awaited us, and everyone was eager to see it. We all believed that the kingdom of freedom as right around the corner…. But life just kept getting worse.  63

—I ran into my neighbor: “I’m embarrassed that I’m so excited because of  German coffee grinder… but I’m just so happy!” It had only been moments ago—just a moment ago—that she’d spent the night waiting in line to get her hands on a volume by Akhmatova. Now she was head over heels for a coffee grinder.  66 Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Isabel (Letter/11)

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Dear Isabel

End of page 12 and all of page 13

You WERE paralyzed with fear.  Fear comes and goes.
You can write anything you want.
You can go outside the mainstream.
You can move in and out of the mainstream, whenever you want.
You can start building your post-grad-school-certified readership one person at a time. Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Isabel (Letter/10)

The End of June 2015

Page 12, paragraph 1

Can you tell me the names of journalists you respect whose work you could also accurately describe as  “Self-serving, theatrical, and soothing”?

The part of you that is not selfish, beside being sad, could also be awake and vigilant to mind-states, intentions that are self-inflating.  As I am sure you are.  If I sound a little kvetchy about all this, it’s because I think you are way too hard on yourself.

But I invite you to share one of your published pieces that you think is “self-serving, theatrical, and soothing” and tell me what else it might be besides those three adjectives.

Then, can you share pieces you’ve published that were “other-serving, undramatic, unsoothing”?

Here’s a passage from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (the context is Beirut, summer 1982 when Israel is pounding it into the dust [about 18,000 people were killed]): Read the rest of this entry »

Dear Isabel (Letter/9)

Monday 29 June 2015

Dear Isabel

Glad you had friends visiting over the weekend and that you now have a little more space for your daily practices and chill time/spaces.

Page 11, paragraph 1

Don Quixote: “Comparisons are odious.” You don’t need to compare your US writing and El Salvador writing. You may not WANT to write about the USA; if so, you can explore why that might be so.

And is it really “emoting” that characterizes your Salvador writing? Speaking of emotions and Salvador, here’s a part of an interview with Chomsky [note the comments on Joan Didion’s book]: Read the rest of this entry »