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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl expands

on his previous email:

Saturday, March 21, 2015 11:21 PM


I was six when I found out that I was a communist. It was like getting a diagnosis. I’d been watching Green Beret with John Wayne on VHS – my father was a fisherman, which in the early eighties in northwestern Iceland meant that a) you were flush (for working class) and b) you had easy access to new foreign consumer products. Iceland wasn’t a communist country but it had many things, I’ve come to realize in retrospect, in common with communist countries – not least that there was only one state TV station and one state radio station. The TV started broadcasting around 5-6 pm and stopped between 10-11 pm (the last piece broadcast was the national anthem). There was no TV on thursdays and no TV in July – TV was unhealthy and people should be protected from it (the US military, which had their own TV station at the military base in Keflavík, were forbidden to send out a signal stronger than so and so, so that the population wouldn’t see it and become americanized).

So when VHS came and video rentals it was a big thing and thursdays were video rental days in my home. My father was a big western fan and thus a John Wayne fan – he’d seen all the movies as a kid at the movie theatres in Reykjavík and was passionate about sharing his fandom. Which explains why I was watching a bloody Vietnam war-film at the age of six. I already understood some English which I had picked it up from TV – since almost nothing was dubbed, including children’s shows, but subtitled (which also meant that I learned to read pretty fast; I had to be able to read the subtitles before they disappeared). All I remember from the film was John Wayne throwing hand grenades at the Viet Cong (or the NVA) yelling: "Die, commie bastard!“

After the film was over I went to the kitchen and asked my father – who remarkably wasn’t out at sea, where he spent most of the year until I was about eight – what „commie bastard“ meant. It was the only concept I didn’t grasp, or at the very least the most important one. My father pointed at my mother and said: A commie bastard is a communist. You are a communist because your mother is a communist and your father is a communist and your grandfather was a founding member of the communist party in Siglufjörður, who at one time raised money equalling one tractor and sent to Stalin.

I remember running to my room crying. Perhaps it’s misrememberance – it’s certainly more dramatic that way. It was inconceivable that John Wayne would want to kill me, he was the face of everything good and right. I now see, of course, that John Wayne didn’t want to kill me – he wanted to kill you.

Some years later I remember getting into a fight with a friend – I may have been about 11, at least it was before the fall of the Soviet Union – over whether communism or capitalism was a better system for governance. My friend pushed my face into the snow (although tall, I was never good at fighting) and shouted: Would you rather live in the USA or the Soviet Union? And I shouted back: The Soviet Union! (although bad at fighting, I didn’t mind losing as long as I didn’t willingly give up). When I was seventeen the same friend – who’d not been my friend for years – came up to me in the high school library and asked if he remembered correctly that I was a communist. I nodded, thinking if we weren’t too old to be fist-fighting over the quality of life in the Soviet Union, which had collapsed by then, and he told me they were starting a “leftie-club” in the school and would I like to join? Apparently he’d discovered Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine and decided communism wasn’t so bad after all – on my part, I acceded that the Soviet Union had perhaps not been the greatest model for justice, and together we agreed communism could be something else.

I was active in that club for years, was chairman for awhile, edited the photocopied zine (called Turbo News) – as well as taking part in the socialist movement on a national level, and even running with the social-democrats for local council and parliament. I went through phases of being active and inactive, organising and not, but I always called myself a communist if asked, and in the sense that I believe that all people are of equal worth.

In 1998 I went to Cuba to pick oranges for the revolution – a work and friendship tour. We stayed with a nordic brigade of about 200 people in a labour camp about 40 km outside of Havana, close to a town called Caimito. And I think that was the first time I encountered true seventies kind of lefties – people of a more Stalinist tendency, what the scottish would call hard cunts. They weren’t all old – some were my age (I was twenty) – but they all shared a kind of ruthlessness about the truth. These were all europeans, mind you – the Cubans avoided politics. You couldn’t say anything negative about Cuba. They would refuse to notice the prostitutes in Havana (even after engaging in business with said prostitutes; perhaps they saw it as a gift economy, who knows). I think the most hilarious example was when one of the Icelanders – with whom I’d earlier gotten into an argument with about the “class nature” of cops, where he claimed he would never witness a cop killing, with no shades between violent big city cops or a traffic cop in northwestern Iceland – got amazingly upset that I’d called Fidel Castro “old” (he would’ve been 73 at the time).

When I got back to Iceland I started to become more sensitive to some of the propaganda – I refused to default on taking a stand with Cuba on everything, refused to justify political prisoners, refused to “understand” that they were in a precarious situation, the revolution was in constant siege by the US and the imperialists. Other parts of the propaganda I would joyfully take part in – much of the symbols, for instance, which are important – and I would defend movements, even violent ones, that I felt didn’t overstep some barrier (for instance, in Peru I supported the MRTA, which as far as I could tell actively avoided collateral damage; and opposed Sendero Luminoso, which held public floggings and all sorts of sadistic justice courts). My politics had in effect not changed much; but my outlook on some of my comrades had.

When I moved to Helsinki in 2007 I made some friends from the Czech republic and I slowly noticed that when I referred to communism in their company I would refrain from implicating myself in it – I wouldn’t start making excuses and claiming that communism was something else, that what happened in the eastern bloc or Asia or Africa (or the revolutionary cells in Europe) was something else, and that true communism wouldn’t be like that.

I also remember that at that time I had a poster of Mao – one that I found in Iceland, at the nordic house, perhaps the time you were there, a tongue-in-cheek kind of thing for me, but meant in earnest by those who made it, about some conference or whatever – and my wife wouldn’t let me have it on the wall so I took it down.

After the financial meltdown in 2008 – which hit Iceland pretty hard, as you probably know – the rhetoric in Iceland became increasingly (and predictably) marxist. Suddenly many of my friends – who had been lukewarm social-democrats when we met – were all about that communism. I was asked to write for a book on marxist thought and wrote the editor a rather lengthy letter about my reservations about marxist thought in general – mostly that marxist thinkers don’t really care about people, let alone working class people, whom they despise, whose culture they laugh at, whom they don’t see as relevant agents, and that much of the rhetoric is just gymnastics at best and justification for crimes against humanity at worst. I suggested I could write something about this, but the editor never wrote back.

I am still a communist, however, a dying commie bastard, walking around in Hoi An with my social-realist-art T-shirt on listening to Nah’s Fuck Communism and nodding my head in agreement; you and I, Nah, I think, we are the true communists – perhaps in the vein Duong Thu Huong regards Ho Chi Minh in The Zenith, that it wasn’t Bac Ho who betrayed the revolution but the revolution that betrayed Bac Ho. And that too, is a too familiar trope – that Lenin was guilty of nothing and Stalin did it all, that it all would’ve turned out better had Trotsky won, that Mao was wasted on opium and it was the gang of four who were responsible, etc. etc. Excuses, excuses.

I am obviously not a vietnamese communist. Not card-carrying, card-wanting, card-accepting. Nor indeed vietnamese. But I am a communist. These are my contradictions, my whitmaniacal multitudes. And I don’t find much comfort either in the western university type radicalism – the kind which equates KG’s poetry reading to the slave-trade (much of that takedown rhetoric is all too reminiscent of Stalin’s rejection of dada and surrealism – to be replaced by an army of third rate Maxim Gorki wannabes – the US poetry scene seems from the outside to be a thoroughly spiteful cesspool of envy and careerist fencing; I used to want to take part in it but now it just scares me). If you don’t have a sense of proportion you should take some time off, if possible, relax, look at the world; if your primary feeling about everything is simple indignation (and the complicated justification of said indignation) you’re not a revolutionary, you’re just an asshole. If you’re incapable of embracing solidarity where you find it, you’re of no use to the revolution. If all you’re interested in is flexing your resistance on Facebook – well, one day we’re all gonna be too old for this tiring bullshit and the world will remain as fucked up as ever, with new people showing up to perform the same old tiring bullshit.

All the best,



Linh Dinh said...

Since I'm going to Dickinson College tomorrow, I have to prepare for that and so can't participate in this discussion fully. In a recent email to Ali, however, I did raise some relevant points:

I read Thomas More's Utopia when I was about 20 or so, but I should read it again. It was more or less satire, if I remember correctly.

In any case, there is no utopia or paradise on earth because evil is in the heart. You can only demand equality of opportunities, not equality of results, for that's absurd. Humans are not equal!

You'll always have rich and poor, winners and losers, because we're all individuals and we make all kinds of choices that affect our lives.

Communism isn't just appalling in practice, it's flawed in theory because there's no solidarity among the proletariat or ANY other group.

Like I said, evil (or virtue) is in the heart, and a man can go bad at any moment.

Take the family. You can't regulate what happens within each family, and within that, there are all sorts of betrayals and abuses. If people can't treat those closest to them with decency, how in hell are you going to have utopia within the larger society?

Every religion starts with the premise that man is flawed, even to the point of being evil, but it shouldn't take religion to point this out.

Also, the ones who insist on utopia are either so innocent, like puppies, or so hypocritical and hateful, they are eblematic of hell or dystopia, and it's telling that all of the Communist countries were virtual hells before they eased up with their utopian program.


Linh Dinh said...

As for Kenny Goldsmith, I was asked by an Australian magazine for an article on him, but I declined:

"Thanks for thinking of me, but I'm not at all inclined to discuss Kenny Goldsmith. Just as Jack Hirshmann, a Stalinist, was made Poet Laureate of San Francisco, Kenny Goldsmith is getting his White House visit, his television appearance and other media attention. A sick culture loves its clowns.

For the last several years, my focus has been on political photography, essays and poems, all aimed at a general audience. There are many urgent issues to investigate and illuminate and Kenny Goldsmith's antics aren't one of them."

I want to point out that some of the most vehement defenders of Communism are fat and decadent cats in the West who have never experienced it. These range from the bourgeoisie to the upper class. Since working class people tend to be politically conservative, these hardcore communists will ignore, shout them down or speak over them, and they will spit on the working class who have suffered (or are suffering) in actual communist countries. They don't care about people, just their ideology. They just want to look good to themselves and their friends. Similarly, whites who defend Obama are only doing so to put themselves in a favorable light, to show that they are progressive and not racist. The fact that Obama kills many brown people doesn't matter, and his immigration policy, which hurts black people (and the working class) the most, also doesn't matter. Though Obama is just a front man and no decider of anything, he's still the face of this bloody empire.

As for Jack Hirschman, below is my account of seeing him in San Francisco in 2007:

"One evening, I went to Specs in North Beach, where Jack Hirshman, current poet laureate of S.F., commanded a crowded table. Neeli Cherkovski was also there. When I was twenty, I bought Hirshman's version of Artaud, perhaps the most popular edition in English, although no comparison, really, to Clayton Eshleman's much more scholarly and thorough engagement with the French poet. In 1992, I published six issues of the Drunken Boat. For the first, I translated Tố Hữu's hysterical elegy to Stalin, accompanied with a note that went something like this: 'Tố Hữu modeled himself after Mayakovsky. Both were similarly bombastic, but whereas the Russian poet was hyper-masculine, Tố Hữu was hyper-feminine--during the war against the French, he sometimes dressed as a woman to act as a spy. He also didn't commit suicide, like he should have, like Mayakosky.' Hirshman bought a copy of Drunken Boat at City Lights, one of maybe two bookstores in the entire country carrying my obscure zine, and took exception to my suggestion, punk joke that a poet should have killed himself for kissing Stalin's ass. Jack himself has cranked out a couple of panegyrics to Gory's favorite son. This evening, he showed me a brochure from the Stalin museum and enthusiastically recommended Simon Sebag Montefiore's Young Stalin.

I asked Jack how he had managed to live all these years without a job. UCLA fired him in 1966. He candidly recounted a succession of women. When he got to Agneta Falk, I interrupted, 'So you dumped Sarah [Menefee]?'

'Yes, I did,' Jack admitted, then, quite cheerfully, 'But thanks to Marxism and Leninism, we’re still comrades!'"


Linh Dinh said...

Tố Hữu's ode to Stalin:

<Stalin! Stalin!

A mother showed to her child
A picture of Stalin with a young child
His shirt is white against red clouds
His eyes are kind, his mouth smiling

On an immense green field
He stands with a little child
Wearing a red scarf round his neck
Towards the future they both look

Stalin! Stalin!
How I loved my child’s first word
When he said the word Stalin!
The milky fragance of a baby’s mouth
Is like the dove of peace and a limpid moon

Yesterday the field speaker blared
Tore my stomach to shreds
O how the village convulsed
O how can it be… He’s dead!
O Stalin! O Stalin!

Without you, are there still sky and earth?
The love for my father, mother, wife
The love for myself are but one tenth
Of my love for you
The love for my child, country, race
Can’t be greater than my love for you

Before there was only barren desolation
Thanks to you there’s brightness and joy
Before only torn clothes and hunger
Thanks to you our rice pots are full

Before only torment and shackles
Thanks to you we have days of freedom
When people have land to till
When independence comes tomorrow
Who will we remember with gratitude?

This gratitude I’ll bear on my shoulders
One side for Uncle Ho, one for you
My child, you’re still so clueless
But you’ll learn to thank Stalin for life

Loving you a mother vowed in silence
To love village, country, husband, child
Although you have disappeared, gone
Your crimson footsteps are forever

Today on the village road at dawn
Incense smoke curled up everywhere
A thousand in mourning white, joined
In wrenching eternal remembrance of you.

Tố Hữu was also a very high-ranking Party member. Near death in 2002, he circulated a farewell poem. I translate:

To my most beloved friend in life
A few lines of verse and a bit of ash
Poetry for life, ash for the soil
In life I give, in death I also give.

The Vietnamese word for “give” is “cho.” Add a rising diacritic, however, and “cho” becomes “chó,” meaning “dog.” In oral circulation, the last line of Tố Hữu’s poem has been converted to:

In life I was a dog, in death a dog.


Linh Dinh said...

Orwell, "Lenin leads to Stalin, and would have come to resemble Stalin if he had happened to survive."

Linh Dinh said...

So it's always if Lenin, Trotsky or Ho was in charge, things wouldn't be so bad, so we're back to the enlightened king solution. Totalitarianism isn't so bad, you just need the right totalitarian at the top! I call bullshit on this.

As Orwell said, "The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they have wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian," and it's still happening, unbelievably, in spite of all the historical evidences and so much HUMAN SUFFERING, but who cares, they're just people, whereas we're cool Western leftists!

Most people don't even know that Trotsky's biggest supporter was a New York Jewish banker, Jacob Schiff. Schiff's one aim was to bring down the Czar, and so he also funded the Japanese in their war against Russia. Schiff hated Nicholas II for his treatment of the Jews.

Linh Dinh said...

Just as "democracy" and "freedom" are used to push American imperialism, "socialism" was used to advance Russian expansionism. These trumpeted ideologies and slogans are used as smokescreens to hide naked nationalism and, within that, individuals with their too-ordinary greed and power lust.

CC said...

Many of those Communist countries were virtual hells (for the bottom 99 percent, at least) before they became Communist. That's why so many of their people initially welcomed Communism.

But at least more money flowed back then.

I don't know about Lenin becoming Stalin had he survived longer. Lenin was accused of betraying Communism with his New Economic Policy, which Stalin ended after Lenin died. It would be interesting to know how the NEP would have developed had Lenin lived well past 1924. Certainly the West and its vendetta against the Soviet Union would have had a say in this.

There has to be a third (or fourth) way forward. Unfortunately, the U.S. is too polarized for it to take shape.

Ali said...

In the discussion with Linh, I brought to his attention a couple of paragraphs from this piece I was reading:

“Songs put their arms around linear time without being utopian.

The collectivization of the land with the famine it caused in the Soviet Union, and, later, the Soviet gulag with its accompanying encyclopedias of double-talk, was initiated, relentlessly pursued, and justified in the name of a utopia in which a new and unprecedented Soviet Man would soon live. Likewise, today’s ever-extending human poverty and the ongoing pillaging of the planet are justified in the name of a utopia to be guaranteed by market forces, when they are unregulated and allowed to operate freely; a utopia, where, in Milton Friedman’s words, 'Each man can vote, as it were, for the color of the tie he wants and get it.’

In any utopian vision, happiness is obligatory. This means that, in reality, it’s unobtainable. Within the logic of utopias compassion is a weakness. Utopias despite the present. Utopias substitute dogma for hope. Dogmas are engraved; whereas hope flicker, by contrast, like the flame of a candle.”

Chuck Olroski said...

Having become skeptical about Parties, institutions, and churches ability to create a just world for humanity, I happened to follow-up and read Chris Hedges recommended book, written by Reinhold Niebuhr, "Moral Man and Immoral Society."

It's not beach reading, and I liked how Niebuhr made a very basic but powerful point that the unselfishness of INDIVIDUALS makes way for the selfishness of nations and institutions.

Wish you well tomorrow at Dickinson, Linh. I agree with your point "there's no solidarity among the proletariat or ANY other group." As a 10-year Teamster dockworker/T.D.U. activist at Roadway Express, Tannersville, PA, I learned that lesson well, and what's more, I never got such fuckings from co-workers as during my final 8-years as an environmental/emergency spill manager.

Enter Niebuhr ever sensible thought. Thank you.

x larry said...

i'd like to play devil's advocate if i may.
there is absolutely no sense in talking of utopias of any kind at the present. i have nothing like the experience of one who lived in a 'socialist' or 'communist' country. the only brief hope i have had since i've become somewhat politically aware was in 2011, starting with the arab spring and ending with occupy. to show how clueless i was, i still watched democracy now every night during arab spring. i took as active a part in occupy as i could, considering a very nightmarish marriage and the fact of having a 6 month old. this was in brighton, england. i went down on a few occasions during the heyday at 10pm and did night security duty till around 4 or 5 am. the whole thing quickly fell apart. a core group tried to restart it in late january of 2012. we met every week, discussing our first open to the public general meeting. our weekly meetings were somewhere between fruitless and impossible. the main guy, besides me i think and one other, was a typical person in this country. all he could conceive of is, 'we have to reach out to the 1%'. i fought this attitude with everything i had. i so convinced some at least, that for the general meeting of around 40 people i wrote and read aloud our sort of manifesto. it was uninimously accepted. two days later our small group convened again. the first thing the other guy did was present his own manifesto. everyone there said it was ridiculous, that the whole gm had just accepted mine unanimously. anyway, it just went downhill from there, and i finally not long after quit in disgust. many accusations were bandied about about who was a govt agent. my point is, occupy, at least the version i saw, was a most horrific letdown. it was an excuse for the marauding anglo-saxons (mas's, as i call them), to party, get laid, get off their head on drugs, perhaps even get lucky and have a fight. that said, london seemed far, far better, the three or so times i visited. i saw there an inspiring speaker from barcelona who discussed their incredibly courageous stand there, with people taking turns getting beaten by riot police.
anyway, some of the stuff i saw at occupy brighton was jaw dropping, to say nothing of deeply depressing. let me just say i couldn't anywhere, and no exceptions, sense the vaguest political bone. i often declaimed passionately to this person or that. it was a great waste of time--not that i believe things are total wastes of time as we always can learn unexpected things, unfortunately almost never positive ones.

x larry said...

i have no real hope for such an insane species. only wilhelm reich, if even him. i have recently read some american indian stuff (ward churchill, vine deloria) with great sadness. i can only say perhaps that i'm more and more anti 'civilization'. i think we live most unnaturally. what a terrible, terrible existence. but i still can't stop asking myself, why? and, as ever since i was very young, i try to show care, compassion, hope, some kind of love, to the people around me. what can one do but suffer? and, as linh has said, there, even a little bit these days, can be, if not great, then SOME beauty.
finally, if not socialism, then what? we can rant on about armchair theorists, and i agree, especially of the recent type, from whom i've run so far from about age 18 that i must say i hardly even know them. but i have brushed with some of these types, mentioned by linh above.
surely all can agree that corporate capitalism, or fascism, is very bad? is it not as bad as a real totalitarian state? (don't answer!) i would say, wait and see. it's getting so much worse so quickly, and certainly in pick a victim country, yes, it is--especially as this fascist empire gives heavy support to the worst totalitarians.
well, again, i just think we're fucked. so i'd better get back to work in trying to prepare my kids to salvage their own asses. but is it even worth it? suicide, it has much to commend it. so here we are, dumb, violent animals--we're only 'smart' because of our large memories, mainly for a bunch of garbage, which we mainly put to use to hold, and never forgive, grudges. 'all very stupid', as an old japanese philosopher once said (though i can't say in what context).

Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl said...

Regarding the Trotsky, Lenin, Ho rhetoric – that was my point exactly, there is no plausible reason for believing that they would've been any better. There is however the case of the revolutions – here, there and everywhere – betraying its own visions and standards, which is why we look to these early-revolution revolutionaries for purity. I think answering the question why on earth revolutions literally always descend into hell is a question worth pondering.

As for Kenny one shouldn't underestimate the jesters, their foolishness is of a divine nature. I can however perfectly appreciate that not everyone has a taste for him – or indeed an interest – but it takes a certain kind of assholishness to wanna paint him up to be the face of the anti-christ.

Utopia isn't a place (doesn't it literally mean that, not-a-place?) – it's a goal. Like happiness for the family. Just because happiness isn't something constant, just because it's hard to rely on, and just because the family's struggle for it has been difficult, doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile goal. I worry more about realpolitik, that shit really (!) don't exist!

Anonymous said...

Governments have gone the way of the dinosaurs and video stores. Corporations have made governments irrelevant. A corporation that pays for the military to do its biding to further its shareholders interests.

I thought left sometimes means radical, and anti-totalitarian.


About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007), Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009) and A Mere Rica (2017), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.