So, what do I read?
by Eric Jackson
I frequently get accused by MAGAs of getting all my information from CNN, or such. IF the Detroit Red Wings make it to the Stanley Cup finals, or the Detroit Tigers make it to the World Series, you can bet that I will find a place to watch it on TV — but I have no television set in my home. I do watch video snippets from here and there on my laptop, but I don’t watch TV as such. I’m a lifelong bookworm.
A shared complaint with the ultra-right about the mainstream media? They tend to be awfully conformist — to whatever party line — and dumbed down. Part of it is about political forces ´pushing their views, a lot more of the problem is large companies based on the advertiser-supported news medium business model getting ridiculously servile at the feet of advertisers, or potential advertisers. When The Panama News started out in 1994, we had that model, and ran into this rapacious ad agencies cartel that squeezed us nearly to death. More than 20 years ago the business was left for dead, except that I kept it going. Not long afterward it became a reader supported online publication, without the bother of advertisers making demands, without political foes’ threats of an advertising boycott because of something I published having much relevance. It’s no way to get rich, that’s for sure but I have been doing it for years.
Now, when running to be an officer, or at least a board member, of Democrats Abroad Panama, one of the first things to read is a copy of the bylaws. (Read them and you will find that Democrats Abroad Panama board meetings are to be at least quarterly, publicized in advance and open to the membership. Also, if the chair is unavailable to call or chair a meeting, the vice chair AND the secretary have the power to do so. You might also familiarize yourself with the global Democrats Abroad Code of Conduct, such as it is.)
What people read, what we will be allowed to read, what kids will be allowed to read — those are going to be hot-button issues in the 2024 US elections, from president down through Congress and the legislatures down to school boards. It’s appalling, really.
Within Democrats Abroad, when someone comes along flashing or pretending wealth and making extravagant claims, I am one to read up on the claims and the person. I get condemned for being some sort of Josef Stalin for doing this. But the guy could have sued me for libel, especially under Panama’s laws. Thing is, I try awfully hard to publish the truth and to run corrections when in error. In politics, you should do opposition research. In 2020 I spent a lot of time in front of the computer to track just who and what was backing Kanye West, and published that I found a lot of Trumpsters and bots, and no real base of support for him. But in 2022, in a usually Democratic district in New York, the Democratic candidate for Congress and his staff did not do this with respect to George Santos, and look where THIS got us.
You do your homework. You read what the opponents have to say, but when they lie you certainly don’t pass it on, except in rare circumstances as an illustration of a lie. My mom, a big library person and opponent of the censors, now approaching her centennial and living in Colorado, used to tell me that if more people had read Mein Kampf, World War II might have been prevented because people would have been warned. True enough, but let someone else disseminate that vicious prison fiction.
AMONG DEMOCRATS, the styles of messages should include the lengthy and erudite as well as the memes that play to the emotions and the announcements of what’s going on. The Democrats Abroad Open Group, which I set up as a volunteer at the board’s direction back in 2009, needs to have that sort of mix, which it has not had lately. These days I am blocked — no board meeting, no particulars, no “who, what, when, where and how much?”, no membership vote, no right to be heard — from that Democrats Abroad Panama group. And I categorically deny the vague allegations, which have not been amplified by their makers. It’s high school in-crowd stuff that I would oppose as secretary even were it supposedly in my favor. Democrats are an eternally arguing coalition that must be brought back together after every primary to confront the Republicans, but that sort of stuff is downright creepy.
I digress. WHAT do I read? Other than opposition research. Other than all the back-and-forth in social media?
First of all I read the news, in Spanish and English, from corporate mainstream and from progressive sources in several countries — and sometimes from others. It’s part of my job.
But let me tell you about some of my favorite stuff, and some of the reading that has most influenced my way of thinking.
Top and center, above, I was and am a big fan of the late Harlan Ellison. He mostly wrote speculative fiction — he hated the term “sci fi” — but also wrote some nonfiction. He was so often outrageous. He did some television work.
Ellison did scary stories about dangerous visions — like Silent in Gehenna, perhaps a preview of a DeSantis administration, with a dissident cast to a weird sort of shadow ban at a militarized, highly censored university. Does the title make a Jewish reference? Well, of course. He grew up in a Jewish home in Cleveland, where Yiddish was spoken. His father, a mafia accountant of sorts, was taken away to prison when he was a boy. When I met him in Ann Arbor years ago, he asked a crowded auditorium full of students to raise their hands if they knew what Dachau was, and only a few did. He threw and angry fit about privileged kids being sheltered from the harsh realities of history, so that they might be tempted to repeat them.
Ellison marched across the bridge into the police attack at Selma. He did risky things to oppose the Vietnam War. And if some allege that his writing was misogynistic, he also did a 1970s speaking tour with fellow writer Ursula K. LeGuin, to raise money and consciousness in a campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment, which fell short.
Both Ellison and LeGuin drew great strength from exposure to other cultures and languages. Her father, a Berkeley professor, more or less founded the academic field of cultural anthropology. If you want to win against the Republicans, peruse an award-winning, harrowing tale not just about “culture wars,” but genocidal wars of extermination, by picking up her antiwar feminist classic, “The Word For World Is Forest.” The anthro prof’s daughter shows through.
But do you want to get back to The Source? The King James Bible, translated, debated and written by a panel of experts at the tail end of Shakesperean times, is whatever you think of the religion in it, also this compendium of history and law and basic decency and its violation. On its own literary merit it stands up to anything that The Great Bard ever wrote, and because it was the only book in so many homes in the English-speaking world, it is clearly the most influential book in that tongue. It’s what writers read long before they started writing.
And were you inspired by the words of Martin Luther King Jr.? The man was part of a rhetorical tradition of African-American Christian oratory. As was Reverend Earl Little, the assassinated father of Malcolm X. The son converted to Islam in prison, then perfected his understanding of both the religion and the human condition after breaking with Elijah Muhammad and taking the hajj to Mecca. Wouldn’t you know that Malcolm, the shining star of Islam’s African-American preachers, was like so many others deeply influenced by Christian preachers’ styles. My greatest live exposure? I was part of a campaign to get Black Panther political prisoner Ahmad A. Rahman out of the Michigan prison system, and it was arranged for him to make a phone call, that was patched into the PA system of a rally called by the Ministerial Association in Detroit, to oppose the arson and vandalism that marked Devil’s Night. A lot of Christian reverends spoke, but Ahmad, already recognized as an imam in his incarcerated condition, electrified the crowd. “When young girls are forced into prostitution because they have become addicted to drugs, then EVERY NIGHT is Devil’s Night” and so on. We did free Ahmad after nearly 23 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, and he went on to be a history professor in the relatively few years he had left. He was also the imam who forthrightly condemned Osama bin Laden for violating the Islamic law of warfare, which forbids attacks on innocent civilians.
Chronicler and philosopher of the American Revolution — who was with George Washington at Valley Forge — and later a voice for human rights during the craziest part of the French Revolution, Tom Paine came back to America for his twilight years to be harassed by bigots for his dissident religious views.
And Panama? The English-speaking community isn’t and never has been synonymous with the Gringo community. The West Indians and the British were here early on as well. In English and Spanish, George Westerman was a great activist and chronicler of Panama’s Afro-Antillean community. There is a long back-and-forth history of West Indians migrating back and forth between here and the United States, so if you are to address the community of US voters and potential US voters in Panama, you need to understand the history, cultures and aspirations of the West Indians. Which actually would be surplus reasons for this old history major.
Then underground comix, kind of a fading art. I started out with Batman and was big into the Green Lantern and the Green Arrow, before in my teenage rage years getting into the green and hostile Hulk. From my parents I got into Chas. Addams and the Sad Sack. The Furry Freak Brothers, Fat Freddy’s Cat and Trashman, Agent of the Sixth International rounded out that part of my education. And to this day instruct me about which are cool political cartoons to post.
Nobody has to study what I studied, nor read what I read, to do well for Democrats Abroad Panama. But we should get beyond business memos and fictional rants against other Democrats if we are to do battle with white supremacy next year.
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