Ernest Hemingway, “A Farewell To Arms” (1929) – Ernest Hemingway! Not quite the figure of opprobrium in contemporary pop-literary circles that, say, David Foster Wallace or Charles Bukowski is, but you do see his name checked in lists of “bro” writers. I reject the entire premise out of hand as a useful way of approaching literature. But you can see why the scribblers of these lists and ironically-named “think”-pieces would include Hemingway. These are more than anything indicators of consumer preferences and I’ve seen Hemingway’s name and big bearded image used to sell products to insecure young men. Moreover, Hemingway, like any writer of semi-autobiographical fiction, was also in the business of selling a particular image of himself. Turnabout’s fair play, I suppose.
“A Farewell To Arms” is based on Hemingway’s experiences as a volunteer Red Cross ambulance driver embedded with the Italian army during the First World War. Starting a little while before the Americans enter the war in 1917, we see the experiences of viewpoint character/Hemingway analog, Frederic Henry, on the stalemated southern front between Italy and Austria-Hungary. We don’t get much about battle — Henry is severely wounded in the leg by an artillery shell in the first battle we see — but we get a lot about the things front memoirs often focus on: meals, mud, chain of command annoyances, drink. The characters are always drinking, on and behind the front. They drink all kinds of things but they often drink straight vermouth, which sounds gross but what do I know? The past is another country.
Recovering from his wound, Henry falls in love with English nurse Catherine Barker. It’s one of those early twentieth century/wartime loves that comes across suspiciously sudden by contemporary standards but which no one really questions. Henry knocks Cat up and is sent back to the front in time for a terrible Italian retreat. They’re executing officers who retreat, so Henry hops a train the hell out of there and reunites with Cat. Presumably, all this is made easier by the fact that Henry is American and can reasonably present himself as a visitor, not an Italian citizen whose place was in the military. I’m not sure what all his status was, anyway, being a non-national volunteer. I don’t think the Red Cross, Hemingway’s employer during the war, comes up in the book- Henry has an Italian army rank, it’s complicated and I guess it doesn’t really matter. Henry and Cat row across a lake to Switzerland and have an idyllic few months before tragedy strikes and the book ends.
The prose in the book isn’t the parody of telegraphic writing we’ve come to associate with Hemingway. It’s not exactly long-winded but it does stop to take in the details of the front and of the Italian and Swiss countrysides. Cat is supposedly based on a real life paramour of Hemingway’s, a significantly older American nurse who helped him when he was wounded. Apparently, she agreed to marry him after the war but reneged and married someone else. Cat’s not an especially fleshed-out character and terrible tragedy befalls her. But that’s true of Henry as well, and all of the other characters. The relationships are wartime relationships, intensely felt but short and often peremptorily cut off. I remember my grandfather, a WWII veteran, trying to find his buddies decades later. He often didn’t know last names- what was the point in the world of landing craft crews, made impermanent both by the whims of military bureaucracy shifting crews around and by death? In any event, the point seems to be that that’s life, for Hemingway’s generation and maybe for everybody. ****
One thing I’ve found relaxing in this non-relaxing time is returning to an old favorite: the webcomic Achewood. Part of me doesn’t want to write about it in my usual critical register. This is less because I worry I will tarnish something I’m fond of — I never thought Achewood or its creator, Chris Onstad, was perfect and beyond criticism and would probably like them less if I did — and more because I feel it would be a big job to do it justice. And instead, I can just relax and partake of the subdued absurdist dude’s utopia of the world Onstad made.
That said… I can’t help but do a little self-contained act of historicization. The last Achewood (so far- Onstad has taken long breaks before) was posted on December 25th 2016. Strips appeared inconsistently for most of late 2016. None of them mention Donald Trump, and only allude to the election indirectly with Onstad’s perennial joke of having adorable five-year-old otter Philippe run for President again.
Donald Trump has been referenced in Achewood, however. Using the text search function on the Achewood website (which I know is imperfect- a lot of the later strips, especially, haven’t been transcribed), I found six strips that refer to the man who is now our forty-fifth President.
The first is the strip of January 30th 2004, and it’s found in the alt-text, the little extra joke Onstad fit into the image description of his comics and that you get by hovering your mouse over the strip (not sure how one sees it if they’re viewing on mobile). This strip was part of little Philippe’s first presidential campaign. At the end of a little speech telling his caretaker/housemate Teodor that he will, as President, give every American a puppy named Mr. Poopytime, Philippe makes a hand gesture. The alt text informs us this is the “Donald Trump you’re fired gesture,” popularized by “The Apprentice,” a hit tv show at the time.
The next two — the strips of March 28th 2004 and April 19th 2004 — come from the arc where several of the Achewood crew visit Berlin. In the first one, one of the series’ main characters, impetuous rich cat Ray, has locked himself out of his hotel, is freezing cold, and hasn’t got enough German to buy a coat (in my experience of Berlin, everyone speaks English, but leave that aside). He improvises a suit of clothes — a business suit, complete with tie — out of newspapers. Impressed with himself, he announces he’s “the Donald Trump of homeless people!” and makes the same “you’re fired!” hand gesture Philippe did earlier. This doesn’t save him from being thrown in the trash by the Berlin police. He is stumbled upon by his friends Roast Beef and Teodor in the April 19th strip. Before noticing Ray, Teodor, often the voice of aesthetic disdain in Achewood, announces to Roast Beef, “Donald Trump is a corny douchebag! I’m not afraid to say it.” Ray, hung over on schnapps after his night in the trash, does not challenge this assertion.
The strip of October 1st 2004 is a pastiche meant to celebrate the three-year anniversary of the comic. One of the elements shows Teodor writing his blog. Onstad wrote in-character blogs for a dozen-odd of his characters for years. The last (to date) Achewood strip is an encouragement to read the blogs, which never took off the way the comic did. In the entry Teodor is shown writing, he says that Ray is planning on a “Donald Trump theme” for his weekly Friday party. Teodor, continuing in his disdainful vein from April, speculates that this means that Ray “would fly away in a helicopter while the party went bankrupt.” Achewood did not depict this particular party of Ray’s, if indeed it ever went off.
The June 20th 2005 strip is part of an arc where Teodor entertains becoming a (heterosexual) porn actor. In a previous strip, his “mentor” in the biz, Circus Peanut, sends him unknowing to a gay porn shoot as a joke. Gay porn legend Rod Huggins informs Teodor of what happens in this strip, and Teodor reacts with anger and a little bit of gay-panic paranoia. “I’m not gay Donald Trump, we do these things with style and dignity,” Rod explains when Teodor demands to know why Rod made Teodor a drink and talked with him rather than just telling him to get lost. Teodor does not accept this explanation for Rod’s hospitality and storms off.
Finally, we have the September 13 2006 strip. Here, Ray and his old frenemy Pat are discussing their respective sex lives. Ray reports having been “hella klondike lately-” he is romantically unsuccessful. He relates to an uninterested Pat his efforts to revitalize his love life, all futile. Finally, he declares “If things don’t turn around, I’m gonna get a sex change and a time machine and give myself the kind of science fiction romp that Donald Trump only dares to dream about!” In the alt-text, Onstad jokes “Donald Trump…making love to…female-genitals Donald Trump. The power plant at the center of a perfect universe.”
More than any “take” — Ray’s qualified admiration, Teodor’s distaste — I think that Achewood’s treatment of Trump is interesting for its context. This is an artifact of the period before the forces of American reaction found its way behind Donald Trump, and before Trump became primarily the face of American reaction. That’s not to say Trump was good or blameless at the time- he never was in his adult life and arguably before. He was just a guy on TV a lot as far as relatively apolitical artists/entertainers of the time, like Chris Onstad, were concerned, someone to make aesthetic judgments about, if that. If there’s any rumbling of the future on our doorstep in Achewood, it’s not in the comic’s scattered remarks about Trump.
A lot has changed in a short span of time. There’s more to it, but part of the appeal of Achewood to me in these times is simple nostalgia for the recent past. I think this is a relatively safe form of nostalgia to indulge- it doesn’t come with a fallacious political program attached, like other forms of (liberal) nostalgia. It fits the general mood of the comic that it contains within it little seeds of after-the-fact reminders of another time. The Trump references aren’t the only instance of this. The town itself of Achewood, after which the comic is named, is modeled off of Palo Alto, and while the whole thing does take place under the shadow of the tech industry, in some respects Achewood is a document of the South Bay before the tech industry completely metabolized it. I don’t know the area well, only having spent a bit of time there. I wonder if the Palo Alto that Achewood referenced is as gone completely as the 2006 version of Trump. One part of it is- according to his social media and blog, Chris Onstad doesn’t live there anymore. It appears he has spent the Trump years in… Portland.
Ibram X. Kendi, “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas” (2016) (narrated by Christopher Dontrell Piper) – “Stamped From the Beginning” demonstrates the pitfalls of what historians call “presentism” – and, if such a historiographical sin may be permitted a positive side, its benefits. You never know how much authors, as opposed to publishers, decide things like book titles and subtitles. But Kendi doesn’t shy away from big claims and claiming, at the beginning of one’s academic career (he’s about three years older than I am), to have written THE definitive history of racist ideas, is a big one indeed.
Does he back this claim up in the book? Forgive me, reader: I am going to split the difference. I think that Kendi’s methodological choices limit this work from being anything a historian would call “definitive.” His choice to organize “Stamped From the Beginning” around five lives — Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis — and interweaving the larger societal changes in racial/racist ideas around them could be called methodologically conservative, if I thought he was doing so out of an idea that great men (or women) are the engine of intellectual history. I don’t think that’s the case. I think it just provides a narrative hook to the book, which is aimed at a wide educated audience- think NPR listeners. Either way, I don’t think the method allows for the degree of exploration of the dynamics of the history of ideas that other methods might. Arguably, it’s not the point of works of history to be “definitive” as in “ending the discussion” at all, but that’s another conversation.
But what makes something “definitive?” Kendi bids to make an impact on the larger conversation around racism in America, not one restricted to nerds like me who care about methodology and historiography. To that end, “Stamped From the Beginning” is less “definitive” in the sense of “marshaling all of the methodological resources of the field and answering all of the questions” and more “definitive” in the sense of “providing a set of definitions and applying them widely.” Because Ibram Kendi has definitions, and he wants you to use them as thoroughgoingly as he has. If it works, then his subtitle makes more sense.
In this book, Kendi defines racism as the belief that there is something wrong with black people. Antiracism is opposition to that belief and the actions undertaken under its auspices. There are three basic positions available to everyone in the world of this book. Two are racist: the segregationist position, that holds that black people are inferior and always will be, so they should be segregated away from white society, and the assimilationist position, that holds that black people are inferior but aren’t stuck that way, that they can join white society by imitating it. Then there’s the antiracist position that black people are not inferior. Everyone in history from the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade in the fifteenth century on down can be slotted into one of these definitive and never-changing categories.
The issues this raises should be obvious. Let’s dispense with the methodological quibbles about unchanging and possibly anachronistic categorization schemes for now and start with an activist objection I’ve seen in a few places and that I wondered about as I listened. A lot of rhetorical labor has gone into redefining the word “racist” away from an emphasis on personal comportment and towards an emphasis on the use of power, and the job is by no means finished. The equation in organizing circles, as far as I’ve seen, is basically “bigotry + societal power over the target of bigotry = racism.” This means black people, effectively, cannot be racist, at least not against whites and maybe not against anybody, depending who you ask. I’ve been quietly ambivalent about this. I basically agree it’s more useful from an organizing perspective. But it’s also been a pretty transparent instrumental move, a scramble on the part of antiracist thinkers and organizers to deprive the right of its beloved cries of “reverse racism.” On the one hand, I think it’s wrong to deny any part of the human experience to any part of humanity, and that includes the worst bits, like racism. On the other, language evolves, and a term that includes both “the worst human oppression” and “little Skyler got his fee fees hurt because someone called him ‘a honky,’” like the old definition of racism did, is worth evolving beyond. I am, as I said, ambivalent, and basically willing to go along with the consensus of organizers who’ve thought more about it and have more “skin in the game.”
Well, if Kendi has any ambivalence about calling black people racist, he does not display it in “Stamped From the Beginning.” I don’t recall him talking about segregationist black people (though he does talk about separatists like the Nation of Islam, a little). But there’s plenty of assimilationist black people, or it might be more accurate to say, black people who hold to assimilationist ideas. Anyone, after all, black or white, can dispense with their previously held ideas and become antiracist. This is roughly the character arc Kendi ascribes to W.E.B. Du Bois. But, according to Kendi, assimilationism is a racist idea, holding a racist idea means the holder is a racist, therefore, any and all holders of assimilationist ideas are racist, black or white, no exceptions. Among the exceptions that Kendi pointedly does not make are those for Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Richard Wright (the latter of whom Kendi dismisses almost entirely as a writer and man).
For an effort at definition, this raises many more questions than it answers. For one thing, Kendi’s definition of racism is a ratchet: it only goes one way. You’re a racist if you entertain any racist ideas, even if you also hold antiracist ideas, as Kendi graciously grants Douglass, King et al did. That’s not reversible- the holding of antiracist ideas don’t make you an antiracist in spite of your racist ideas. For another thing, Kendi’s concept of assimilationism is probably the most presentist of all of the ideas presented in this book- frankly, it reeks of twitter. The list of black heroes who hold to some idea that could be called assimilationist — which, especially in the early parts of the book, means any suggestion that anything in black communities need change other than their experience of oppression — is basically coextensive with the list of black heroes pre-… well, pre-twitter, basically, though Kendi would make an argument for Angela Davis. This includes figures that Kendi praises as antiracist. I’m reading a biography of journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, as courageous a figure as you’ll find in American history. Kendi cites her as an antiracist. Well, in her early days at the very least (I just started the biography), Wells very much believed black people needed lessons in “civilization” – the dreaded “uplift/suasion” (not sure how it’s written in the book). I’m not sure if she changed her mind. We’ll find out.
But more pertinently than “throwing under the bus,” to use the current and kind of insufferable phrase, generations of black leaders who fought and suffered for the rights of their people, there’s another activist conundrum here. My understanding, from the cheap seats, was that it was basically accepted that generational trauma has, in fact, created serious problems within the black community, and indeed, every other community that has ever been oppressed. That’s not to say it’s the community’s fault- many operating in the trauma framework seem to basically not bother with “fault” or else find it with oppressive structures and those on top of them. It’s not to say other communities don’t have the same problems but use their privileged positions and generally broader margins for error to avoid the brutal consequences oppressed communities face. But it’s also not to say there’s nothing wrong with the communities affected. Mass illiteracy within the community of freed people after the US Civil War was a problem, one the freed people strove mightily to solve. Every black freedom rally I have ever been to has included black speakers calling for an end to gun violence within their communities, generally to widespread applause from black attendees. Are all of these people assimilationist racists?
The nineteenth century lacked much of the vocabulary for things like “intergenerational trauma” or “structural racism” that we now have. What it did have was an idea of “civilization,” a progressive hierarchical grading of societal capabilities and niceties. There were a lot of problems with this conception, as, no doubt, there are problems with our conceptions that future generations will point out to us. It definitely loaned itself to racism, by anyone’s definition of the term. But I think that people used the concepts they had to express the truths in front of them. A lot of civilizational “uplift” thought and action seems aimed at making up for the toll generations of oppression will inevitably take. They didn’t always have the best ways of talking about it, by our standards or maybe by anyone’s. As Kendi would no doubt point out, racist ideas were intertwined with antiracist ones in the best of cases. But they worked with the framework they had, and the reality of the wounds left by generations of oppression in front of them. There was a whole range of opinion and action surrounding black community self-improvement. Lumping it all in as assimilationist racism is anachronistic at best.
There exist two candidates for the nadir of anachronism in this book. Worse in terms of anachronism, for my money, is the aforementioned wedging of black community efforts to self-improve — I’m not talking Booker Washington appeasement here, I’m talking real accounting with the wounds of slavery — into a twitter disputant’s notion of assimilationism. Worse in terms of simply being a series of low blows, from where I sit, is Kendi’s treatment of the civil rights movement and integration. I get criticism of the Brown v Board of Education decision and think the logic that black kids need white kids around to feel good about themselves does, indeed, smack of exactly the sort of assimilationist racism around which Kendi partially structured the book. But he comes perilously close to supporting “separate but equal.” In so doing, he trashes the legacy of the millions who fought segregation. They weren’t all assimilationists and they weren’t stupid people in need of Kendi’s categorization scheme to see the light. They knew that separate but equal was a lie and always would be. Kendi takes his trashing to the literary sphere when he basically kneecaps Richard Wright for his supposed assimilationism and upholds Zora Neale Hurston, integration opponent and literary black darling of the libertarian right, as the real deal, not to mention engaging in some deeply selective readings of James Baldwin.
The book gets better as it goes on and works its way towards the present, reasonably enough for a book with a presentism problem. The segregationist-assimiliationist-antiracist triptych makes a fair amount of sense for American history starting at around the rise of the Black Power movement, though it would remain controversial and questionable as it would still posit many black people as racist. That’s when the discourse settles into something like the recognizable contemporary form, with the rhetorical framework that allows for discussion of problems in oppressed communities that doesn’t sound like, to use the current term, “victim-blaming.” His history of the rise of “color-blind” racism in tandem with the Republican southern strategy and the “New Democrats” is as good as any I’ve seen. He ends on a high note, encouraging his readership to abandon uplift/suasion and educational efforts at eradicating racism and embrace an antiracist framework that emphasizes doing away with racist policies, for which racist ideas are cover. Get rid of the policies and the ideas go away. Seems about right to me.
This is a big, long book that covers a lot of time (I really don’t have the early-modernist chops to critique his handling of the beginnings of racist ideas) and tries to convey much to a popular audience. Many of the pleas he makes to the reader — especially that of the relationship where racist policies make racist ideas necessary — are good correctives to other received ideas, though I’d say even those are open to some critique (where do racist policies come from?). I am ambivalent about how to rate it, and not just out of nervousness as a white critic judging a living and working black writer writing about racism.
As I listened to this book, its author has been the subject of some public comment. Kendi’s newer book, “How To Be An Antiracist,” is a bestseller in difficult and divisive times, which gets him a lot of attention. I’ve seen some highly complimentary profile pieces. Pieces from the right-wing press, notably Reason Magazine and I think First Things if I remember right, have been wringing their hands over Kendi proposing a federal-level “Department of Antiracism” and getting a fat check from Jack Dorsey, twitter’s founder, to pursue his work. And I just recently read a piece from Black Agenda Report denouncing Kendi, taking Dorsey’s gift as evidence (along with some stuff from “How To Be An Antiracist,” which I haven’t read) that he is a stooge for the racist capitalist power structure. Apparently, in “How To Be An Antiracist,” he plumps for “antiracist capitalism.” In “Stamped From the Beginning,” Kendi refers to capitalism and racism at twins, deriving from the same origin point in the early modern slave trade. Rare and virtuous- Kendi seems to be the only contemporary writer who uses twin metaphors who acknowledges, even implicitly, that twins aren’t photocopies. They live separate lives, have separate experiences, develop separate attributes, and die separate deaths. So it makes sense in his conception — if not in reality — that capitalism and racism can be separated. I happen to think that’s wrong, and even if it were right, capitalism, however “woke,” would still be an oppressive system and one our planet cannot sustain. I don’t regard myself as the fit judge of Kendi’s organizing potential. I will say Jack Dorsey’s faith in him reduces mine. If he was that dangerous to the status quo — if his frankly cack-handed scheme for a federal department of certified antiracism experts sniffing out racial inequities in government programs was a threat to anybody with power — he would not be sitting where he is today.
Let’s put it this way: Ibram Kendi occupies Elie Wiesel’s old chair at Boston University. Wiesel wrote at least one important book and did a lot of good things for Holocaust remembrance. He left an indelible stamp on how we process that particular historical event- for good and for ill. He was a Zionist (wonder where Kendi stands on Palestine), a moralizer, and a contributor to the idea of the Holocaust as utterly unique and ineffable, an idea that is coming back to haunt us. I can’t imagine Kendi, with his prioritization of the Atlantic slave trade as the fulcrum of history, agreeing with his predecessor there. There were other Holocaust writers, like Primo Levi and Tadeusz Borowski, without Wiesel’s baggage. There are other writers on racism and antiracism out there today who lack Kendi’s conceptual issues and his platform, and presumably jealousy over the latter helps drive criticism, right and wrong. But in neither case does it make sense to dismiss their contributions entirely, if nothing else because of the prominence of their platform and the ways they reflect the times. Time will tell if Kendi makes the sort of impact Wiesel did, but in many ways, he is an ideal successor. ***’
Vincent Bevins, “The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anti-Communist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World” (2020) – This made for an interesting read in the current moment. I had known about the massacre of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of communists and suspected communists in Indonesia in 1965 for quite some time. I remember picking up the popular strategy board game “Twilight Struggle,” where the two players play the two sides of the Cold War, and remarking that out of all the events depicted in the game as playable cards or other features, there was nothing about this, the destruction of the third-largest Communist party in the world in the world’s fourth-largest nation. That’s just one minor instance of how under-reported this event is. More germane, in all my years teaching world history core classes to undergraduates, I don’t recall any of the instructors I TAed for making much of it, or even mentioning it. I did when I was instructor of record, but not in that much detail, I admit.
Vincent Bevins works as a reporter, and he worked both Indonesia and Brazil, the two countries that loom largest in this story (other than the United States, I suppose). He tells the story of the massacres in Indonesia in more detail than I had previously seen it, and ties it in with the larger story of the American-led anticommunist campaign. Using secondary sources, newly-declassified primary sources from the American security state, and interviews with survivors, Bevins reconstructs the chain of events that led to the massacres, though some of the events involved remain murky. The initial inciting incident of the massacres was the killing of several Indonesian army generals by a group of young officers. This was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), with scanty evidence- the PKI had been committed to working within the system set up by vaguely-socialist-flavored nationalist Indonesian leader Sukarno. The CIA (and British intelligence) definitely had been laying the groundwork for Sukarno’s overthrow in favor of a more reliably anticommunist leader, and they’re not above creating inciting incidents out of nothing, but we’ll probably never know the real story.
In most respects, it doesn’t matter. The story the Indonesian army, led by general and soon-to-be dictator Suharto, told was so embroidered with ghastly fabricated filigree — including Communist witch women mutilating the genitals of the dead generals in a blood frenzy — that it might as well have been spun out of whole cloth by a horror writer. But I guess you can’t afford to be subtle when your goal is to inspire people to massacre their neighbors. And that’s what the army, police, Islamist militias, and ordinary Indonesian citizens proceeded to do: imprison, torture, and murder hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of civilians innocent of any crime except membership in a party that until a few weeks or days before had been a part of the governing coalition, or suspected membership in or allegiance to same.
Bevins depicts pre-massacre Indonesia as a lively society, experimenting with various forms of political organization for their post-colonial society and making a splash on the international scene, where Sukarno attempted to organize other recently decolonized countries and other poorer, browner nations into an international bloc to compete with those organized out of Washington and Moscow. At first, the Americans were relatively willing to let him do it (the Russians basically don’t enter into this story- as usual, they let their notional allies in the developing world be violently repressed without a peep). Bevins is a little vague as to what changed between the Truman and Johnson administrations to make Sukarno’s overthrow a goal. What’s clearer is that the CIA always regarded Sukarno and the relatively open (relatively- he was a “guided democracy” guy) society he represented as an impediment to anticommunism in the region. This led to situations where the CIA was sponsoring separtist rebellions in some of the country’s many islands at the same time that the State Department was increasing ties with Sukarno. But they all got on the same page by 1965 to collude in the massacre, including giving lists of suspected communists for the Indonesian army to go kill.
After the massacres, Indonesian society, in Bevin’s telling, was not lively, or experimental, and it abruptly withdrew from the non-aligned movement and Third World leadership. Suharto remained in power for decades and kept a firm hand on political organizing and expression. Money’s always a big part of these things, of course, and the Suharto regime saw to it that American interests were free to exploit the country’s vast natural wealth, with what proceeds that stayed in Indonesia going to Suharto and his clique of corrupt generals. With Washington’s approval, Indonesia mounted a genocidal war in East Timor. There was never any accounting for the 1965 massacres, or the East Timor war, and while Suharto’s gone, it doesn’t look like his successors are going to prioritize truth and reconciliation any time soon. Other than the threat of Islamist terror or Chinese influence, Indonesia is basically as safe as houses as far as Washington is concerned, fifty-five years later.
Far from a crime or a warning, what happened in Indonesia became a model for anticommunists in much of the rest of the developing world, spurred and in part coordinated by the CIA and other Washington actors. This was made explicit in Chile with the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the rise of Augusto Pinochet in 1973. “Jakarta is Coming” graffiti cropped up in Santiago, and the generals and spies who plotted the overthrow and the tension campaign leading up to it cited Indonesia as a model. They were aided in this by the anticommunist military dictators in Brazil, who followed a similar script a year before the Indonesia massacres to rid themselves of a vaguely populist leader in Joao Goulart. The Brazilian military didn’t massacre as many people as did their Indonesian counterparts, but they exported their methods of political manipulation, torture, and murder to Chile and elsewhere in Latin America, from Argentina to Guatemala, and the world.
On a side note, American fascists today like to use imagery from Latin American right wing dictatorships such as that of Pinochet. “Weren’t they all communists?” right-wing thug “Tiny” Toese responded when asked by a journalist about his “Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong” t-shirt. I’ve always thought that was a little pathetic, even for them- these big bad American nationalists modeling themselves off tin-pot dictators in our traditional playground. Now I wonder why they haven’t called for emulation of Indonesia in 1965. It might come. I suppose one difference is that the Latin American massacres were undertaken by Christians who saw themselves as white (however much the exigencies of American race-thought would categorize them as “Latino”), whereas the Indonesia massacres were done by brown-skinned Asian Muslims. Who knows?
These massacres didn’t win the US the Cold War, Bevins argues. The Soviet Union collapsed on its own, and as mentioned above, barely protested when most of these movements or regimes were crushed. But they did shape the world in line with the interests of the US, or, anyway, the interests of the American elite and the rabid anticommunists they kept on a long leash in their intelligence services (to the extent they weren’t the same people). The massacres killed the hopes of the Third World in the fifties and early sixties. This left the Third World easy pickings for “structural adjustment,” neoliberalism, and religious and ethnic sectarianism to fill the void left by more hopeful forces. Leftists the world over noticed that the Soviets were unlikely to help them, and that the only leftist forces that survived in the Third World were those sufficiently well-armed and willing to suppress domestic opposition, like you saw in Cuba, Angola, and Vietnam, where even after killing at least a million and probably more Vietnamese, the US lost. This was a lesson figures like Pol Pot learned all too well. But in the end, even armed leftists wound up marginalized in the world the massacres made.
The point has not been lost on me (and from looking at his twitter, has not been lost on the author) that while the admixture of military involvement to civilian participation varied massacre by massacre, all of them involved the enthusiastic assent of at least a portion of the civilian population (and in all of them, the police were instrumental). Perhaps this is what we in the biz call “a presentist reading” but it seems to me that even in countries with no anticommunist tradition, like Indonesia, somewhere around twenty percent of the population are, to put it bluntly, violence-craving meatheads. They want to see blood, preferably the blood of people marked as “other” (there was a notable ethnic component to the Indonesia massacres, where a lot of Chinese Indonesians were targeted) and that of do-gooders and reformers. They don’t care if they miss out on opportunities to make their own lives materially better, they don’t care if they wind up worse off, possibly seriously worse off, they want blood.
And, sorry “both-sides”-ers, there is no equivalent population that, say, wants to see the blood of their social superiors at all costs. I’ve spent a long time on the left and can tell you, it’s not there. Historically, you get two kinds of mass bloodshed on the left. One is in the heat of a revolution, where people act out on long-held grievances or are terrified that their oppressors are going to come back and so kill people they think are liabilities. The numbers of people killed this way don’t add up to the sort of figures you get in massacres meant to suppress revolutionary activity. Uncoordinated crowds without a tradition of mass violent action (as distinct from populations used to sectarian or racial violence) are inefficient killers. The bodies stack up more in the second category of mass leftist bloodshed, that pursued to keep a given regime in power. Structurally, these resemble the massacres of any other regime, as harped on by those who love the Nazi-Soviet equivalency. There’s nothing uniquely leftist about them. To the extent left-leaning regimes rally their civilian populations behind their atrocities, they use much the same language and imagery as rightist killers- the enemy within, the threat to the country, subversives, and the dynamic winds up benefiting those who already hold power, just as it does in right-leaning countries. It just happens those holding the power are party bureaucrats instead of landowners or whoever.
No- if it were “both sides,” if there was an equivalent bloc of the population that sought the blood of social superiors in the way there is one that seeks the blood of social inferiors (and those who’d advocate the downward distribution of power), then America would look quite different right now. I always want to ask the chuds- if antifa were dedicated to destroying civilization, and would stop at nothing to do so, why haven’t some of us just bought assault rifles and walked into a megachurch or a mall? Of course, I’d get some alternate-reality answer like reference to the “Bowling Green massacre.” One of the right’s important abilities, as illustrated by “The Jakarta Method,” is to be able to imagine themselves as victims even when they’re the ones victimizing. From Jakarta to Brazil, the world has been inundated by their crocodile tears. I’ll be honest: this dynamic, where a lot of people will kill for the sheer joy of keeping others down and most people will let them, has led me to wonder what the point is of a people-centric politics. I was never a believer that most people are good. It’s in fact the insight that most people aren’t that has driven me left- I want to see power distributed downward and ultimately scattered because I don’t trust people to have power over each other. Still… that stubborn twenty percent (at least) is a major stumbling block, in practice and in theory.
Anyway… that was just one unfortunate vista of thought this book opened up for me. The stories Bevins tells, and especially the global connections between them, deserve to be much better known. I am glad to see this book getting traction- I’ve noticed multiple non-historian friends talking about it. I would compare it to Mike Davis’s “Late Victorian Holocausts” for its potential ability to break open accepted, underthought assumptions about global history and show what’s underneath. “The Jakarta Method” is not a tour-de-force of scholarship like “Late Victorian Holocausts.” Bevins is a journalist, not a historian, and the book is written for a broad popular international (he explains what the KKK is to readers who might not know) audience. This means it can be a little light at times, but in all that’s a good thing, as it will hopefully help it reach as many people as possible. Here’s hoping it’s not too late for its lessons to help make a better future. ****’