Afro-Futurism Comes to Harlem

Image By: Lisa Dubos

Once More Art Mirrors the Angst and Hopes of a People

From its inception modern artists have responded to developments in society and technology. European art, from the sculptures of ancient Greeks and Romans to the paintings of the Renaissance sought to produce realistic images of mythological figures or actual life.

Often these works centered on the concerns of their wealthy and powerful patrons, which is why we have so many portraits of aristocrats. Hence the role of the artist was primarily as documentarian. But with the invention of photography, the artist was no longer needed in that role, because the camera could it faster, cheaper, and with complete accuracy.

Hence the artist had to seek ways of expressing their ideas that transcended realism. African Sculptures, which were increasingly on display in European museums – especially the Louvre in Paris, where a group of gifted artists had congregated – offered a new direction. Inspired by religious rituals, this was an art that sought to capture the spirit of things rather than realistic portrayals.

The European artist’s encounter with this art inspired the Cubism of Picasso, the Surrealism of Salvador Dali, and the impressionist movement. The descent of European civilization – which was viewed as the highest achievement of humankind – into barbarism during World War I inspired both the Jazz Age in Paris and Berlin, and the emergence of the Dadaist movement spawned in the Café Voltaire in Zurich Switzerland.

All these artistic developments reflected the angst created among European artists and intellectuals due to the Great War. Which resulted in their rejection of hierarchy and the systems of order they imposed, which they believed were causes of the war. The product of this angst was an art of chance and improvisation.

When I read the comments of Diana Sinclair, the 17year old curator of the pathbreaking cryptoart exhibition, “Digital Diaspora: Liberating Black Creativity,” I felt that I was hearing the desperate cry of black youth in the dawning decades of the 21 Century.  In an interview given to the London Guardian, 6/16/21, she recalls crying when she heard Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election:

“The past four years felt so horrible. I think it all crashed down on me at that moment…It scared me to think that [the hatred] could continue on for four more years … You saw it online in the comments, even in my own town… I was on Facebook, and I saw the horrible posts about Black women and Black people and just absolute bigotry from people that were basically my neighbors. It was horrifying … I was going through all of these scenarios and thinking about what my future would look like in this country and that was very frightening for me as a young Black queer person”.

Referring to herself as they/she – a designation that reflects her search for identity and belonging that is itself a manifestation of the angst many in the present generation of Black youths are experiencing – Ms. Sinclair observed:” It was a scary time being a Black person in America.” And after what the guardian interviewer describes as sardonic laughter she added, “It’s always a scary time, but especially then!” It was from this deep angst that the exhibition she curated was born. “The theme of the show is Afrofuturism, to express our hopes for the future. The philosophy of Afrofuturism is the idea that we’ll [Black people] be here and thriving in the future…”

As an Afro-American male who came of age in the middle of the 20th century, I am acutely aware of the deep strain of pessimism among the generation born at the turn of the 21st century or after. Popularly known as Generation Z, or Gen Z, they were typically born between 1997 and 2012, which would make their senior members 24 years old.

At first glance Americans of my generation, especially Black people, wonder at the source of their pessimism. After all, my generation, which came of age in the 1960’s, had to face a society in which white supremacy was legal and had been so since the Plessy v Ferguson Decision of 1896.

Yet one need only observe the attitudes of the students who launched the sit-in movement, or World Heavy-Weight Champion Muhammad Ali – who was the perfect embodiment of the spirit of our generation, to see that we had what sociologists call “The Eternal Optimism of the Hustler.”

Hence, we wonder at the source of Gen Z’s angst. White supremacy as a legal fact expressed in a racial caste system that included segregation in many parts of American life is gone. Black quarterbacks in the NFL are ubiquitous, Black Astronauts male and female are commonplace, and all of them have lived through two terms of a black Presidency!

These gains that the present generation takes for granted, as they should, were but distant hopes when I was a college freshman in1959, and virtually none of our parent’s generation believed these goals were attainable in our lifetimes…if ever.  Yet we were not facing the horrors of climate change. A terrifying phenomenon that world leaders seem unable to cope with because of conflicts in the national interests of nation states.

Greta Turnbuerg, the bold and brilliant Swedish teenager, who has emerged as the voice of Gen Z, whom a recent PEW survey tells us speaks for “a youth led movement that “is among the most visible in global conversations advocating climate action. “   Yet instantaneous annihilation of all life on planet Earth by nuclear holocaust remains an ever-present possibility.

Viewed from a different perspective, Afro-Futurism might well represent a hopeful reaction to the pessimism of GEN Z. Perhaps it is performing the same psychological function for their generation that Blues musicians provided for past generations of Black Americans, and people around the world who developed a Blues sensibility.  The 20th century Afro-American Blues philosopher and Renaissance Man, Albert Murray, a paragon of the Blues sensibility, distinguishes “the Blues as such” from the “Blues as music,” in his magisterial text “Stomping the Blues.”

Professor Murray argues that the widespread conception of Blues music as sad is mistaken. The Blues as music, with its “heroic optimism,” is the joyous antidote to the depressive emotional state of the Blues as such. That’s why the musicians speak of “stomping the blues,” from which he took the title of his book.  Murray sums up the blues attitude thusly: “Life may be a low-down dirty shame, but we got to keep on swingin anyway!”

Perhaps, this is the deeper meaning of Afro-Futurism, the optimistic vision that functions as antidote to the angst. Looking at the works on display at the Underground Gallery + Studio last Saturday one feels uplifted. The artists on display spanned several generations. The “Baby Boomers” of my generation were represented by the pioneering Afro-Modernist painter Ademola Olugbefola, a founder of the highly influential Weusi Academy.

These “Afrocentric Visual Alchemist -” as Ademola calls them, conjured a new art that defined the visual aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960’s that continues to influence artists around the world. See my essay:  “The Afro-Modernism of Ademola Olugbefola.”  Those born a generation behind are repped by the brilliant art photographer Lisa Dubois, and GEN Y by the fabulous photographer Diaja, whose works resemble oil paintings to the untutored eye.

The works of art on display were visionary in their design and innovative in technique. Lisa Dubois has invented new ways of combining photography and painting to produce stunningly original works. The cover portrait for this essay is a poignant case in point. Diaja, the progeny of a dancer and musician who claims she was mugged by the muse and shanghaied into the arts, creates dramatic photography – employing body paint and photographs of traditional African masks, that are then superimposed on the models –  conjuring a futuristic celebration of blackness which she says “combines the past and present reimagining a new reality,” that appears to be completely original. Sui Generis.

Diaja and Her Unique Art

Diaja’s Masked Man

Ademola Olugbefola’s Afro-Modernism

A Synthesis of Traditional African Sculpture and Western Modernism, a complex wood cut print that manages to show the connection between traditional African sculpture and modern European painting.

The works on display at this Exhibition employ a wide range of materials to produce eclectic paintings, photographs and sculptures in which the artists give free range to their imaginations without regard to conventional wisdom. However, as with all movements that embrace the role of avant-garde, one must be ever aware of the distinction between “innovation” and what I have labeled: “A mindless search for novelty.” The distinction is a fairly simple one, despite the complexity of the problem it references.  Innovation is the elaboration and enrichment of a tradition, while the latter is an attempt to be merely different, even if it leads to decadence.

Obviously, an extended explication of the issues raised by this distinction is beyond the scope of this essay, but I have discussed it at some length in a treatise titled “Blues and the Abstract Truth: Reflections on the Art of Charles ‘Yardbird’ Parker,” which I presented at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, in Hartford Connecticut. It will be published in a forthcoming collection of essays. Suffice it to say that these works strike this writer as innovations, especially when viewed from the perspective of the respectful observer mindful of the artists’ intentions, rather than the omniscient arbiter who judges works of art based on what they believe the artist objectives should be.

This show was hosted by Reginal Rousseau and curated by Lisa Dubois at the Underground + Studio Gallery, which is both an exhibit space and a work  Studio for Reginal. When I discovered that he was a licensed architect, I asked why he would risk an investment of time and money in the fine art game. To wit he replied that the Gallery/Studio represents the fulfillment of a life-long dream, “I had to do it in order to live.”

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Text and Photographs by: Playthell G. Benjamin

 

Reginald Rousseau: Artist Gallery Owner

Lisa DuBois: Artist / Curator

A Black Magic Woman!

 

 

It Don’t Mean a Thing If it ain’t got that Swing!

Remembering Stanley Crouch

BLUES FOR A WORD SORCERER

Alas, the sad news has reached my ears that Stanley Crouch, a unique tribune of our times, has danced and joined the ancestors. A poet, essayist, dramatist, short story writer and novelist. Stanley was by any objective measure a GREAT writer. A native of South Central Los Angeles, Stanley began writing for the theater in a company that grew out of the great Watts riot of 1965. When I met him in 1968, he was a Poet in Residence at Pomona, one of the prestigious Claremont Colleges, just outside LA, popularly known as “The Harvard of the West.”

I was visiting the school as a guest lecturer to help make the case for the importance of Black Studies, add Stanley was part of the black campus movement attempting to establish a Black Studies Department. At the time he was a militant Black Nationalist, decked in a dishiki, dark shades with a big Afro, and had just produced a collection of weaponized words, radical poems titled: “Ain’t No Ambulances for No Niggers Tonight!”

It was clear that Stanley shared the view of writing advocated by the peerless word warrior, Ishmael Reed: “Writin is Fightin.” And although he would eventually reject Radical Black Nationalism, and abandon his leftist literary comrades, he remained a literary pugilist who would later skewer those comrades in a critically acclaimed collection of essays: “Notes Of A Hanging Judge.” For which he was awarded the highly prestigious “MacArthur Genius Award.

Stanley would become one of the most decorated writers in American letters. Primarily an essayist, Stanley wrote on a variety of subjects, but his greatest distinction was as a masterful critic of the quintessential American art of Jazz, which he correctly viewed as the great contribution of US civilization to the canon of great art. I discovered his love for Jazz the first time we met.

After my speech he invited me over to his crib to hang out, and he had a set of drums in his living room. Having once played the drum kit myself, but had long abandoned them for the Afro-Cuban Conga drums, I had remained a fan and was interested in hearing him play. He put on a record and began to play along. He said he was working on “some different stuff,” that he was not ready to reveal. Among the students hangin out was the young lady who later became the famous television star “Judge Mable, and a young saxophonist I believe was Davis Murray, who became one of the truly original voices on the tenor sax.

After that visit I didn’t see Stanley again until about six years later, when we met again in New York. But I had followed his brilliant column “Crouch on Jazz,” which was published in Players magazine, a black version of Playboy. I thought they were the most elegantly crafted insightful was essays I had ever read on the art of Jazz. There was a grandeur to his conception of the music that set his writing apart from the common lot of critics, even in the Big Apple, where good writers are common fare.

Crouch’s writings on Jazz conjured up the observation of Zora Neal Hurston in a letter to James Weldon Johnson – two great early 20th century Afro-American writers who migrated from Northern Florida to the Big Apple just like me – when she said: “We are a people who love magnificence and cannot get too much of it.” In New York he joined the staff at the Village Voice, an incubator of great music critics.

From his conspicuous prestigious perch at the Village Voice, Crouch quickly became the most outstanding Jazz critic in the big Apple…the world capitol of Jazz. And his influence became such that Stanley an intellectual mentor to the trumpet genius and brilliant composer Wynton Marsalis, and was a major force in the creation of “Jazz Lincoln Center,” the nation’s most important monument to Afro-American culture!

Known as “the writer’s paper,” and the “home of the New Journalism,” the Voice, with its reverence for fine English prose and creative storytelling, was the perfect place for Stanley, as the editors prized the individual writers voice – especially the great Bob Christgeau, who edited Stanley’s finest essays penned during his tenure at the voice. Several of which ended up as award winning anthologies.

Stanley really blossomed at the Voice, as he branched out from Jazz criticism and wrote about art, literature and politics. Although the subjects of his interest changed, his poetic style didn’t, concocting a prose style that prized poetic simile and metaphor. Often his prose seemed to dance off the page, animated by the polyrhythmic phrases.

A lover of literature, I was bewitched by Stanley’s compositions and avidly read his texts. In conversations about various and sundry issues, Stanly began to chide me about writing more, At the time my writing was limited to a few academic treatises published in obscure journals, and the lyrics to songs I had written for a great singer with whom I was smitten.

Stanley began to chide me to write more. He would say: “Listen man, it would be so easy for you because you speak in essays.” I was a voracious reader, and I was always telling him about something I had read. But one day he said to me: “You know why you read so much? Because reading is a lot easier than writing!”

He badgered me until I began to take myself seriously as a writer. And once I started I have been unable to stop having now written hundreds of serious essays…1000 of them posted at www.commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com.  (However at present I have a dispute with WordPress and the site is suspended, which is why I started this blog) I have written for some of the finest publications in the English language, here and in England. Along the way I have won several awards, and two Pulitzer Prize nominations for Feature Writing and Distinguished Commentary.

The nominating letters are posted on by bio here. Had it not been for Stanley’s insistent prodding and encouragement, I might never have pursued a writing career. We became serious intellectual sparring partners for years.

In 2003, Stanley and I was commissioned to write a book commemorating the 100th anniversary of Dr. WEB DuBois’ classic American text: “The Souls of Black Folk.” Since I was a co-founder of the WEB DuBois Department of Black Studies at the University of Massachusetts in 1969, one year after our first meeting – the first free standing, degree granting, Black Studies department in the world, and acquired Dr, DuBois’s voluminous papers – and held a professorship in history there, we agreed that I would write the historical overview, reconstructing the intellectual milieu, in the US and Germany – that shaped DuBois’s education and worldview.

Reconsidering The Souls of Black Folk” consists of two complex essays in intellectual, cultural and political history and criticism centered around the historical context, text and legacy of “The Souls of Black Folk” and its brilliant author. The book was selected for discussion at the opening session of the National Black Writers Conference, sponsored by Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, and hosted by the Studio Museum of Harlem. C-Spans Book World covered the event, and I have appended the link to their video below.

See> https://www.c-span.org/video/

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

September, 2020 {Original Publication}

Flirting with Catastrophe!

One of these bombs can incinerate Manhattan

On American Exceptionalism and the Pax Americana

It was a surreal experience listening to the conversation between Joe Scarborough and Richard Hass discussing foreign affairs on WNBC television’s popular early show, Morning Joe. Scarborough, who hosts the show, was pressing Hass, who is Director  of the Council on Foreign Relations, which publishes the widely influential Journal of Foreign Affairs, to prescribe what the US response should be if a looming military conflict breaks out between Russia and Ukraine, or if China finally moves to reunite the island of Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China.

After confessing that he is an “American Exceptionalist,” Scarborough goes on to argue that the US must stand up to Russia and China with military actions should either scenario arise. A stance which also exposes him as a true believer in the Pax-Americana doctrine. In fact, the cable TV host, who has never experienced combat in America’s “forever wars” was like a kid egging on a schoolyard brawl. Although I often find myself in disagreement with Hass, despite the fact that he comes armed with a prodigious array of factual information, I found his remarks refreshing.  It was a departure from the kinds of opinions that I am often forced to dismiss as “erudite nonsense.”

Although “erudite nonsense” strikes many readers as an oxymoron, it accurately describes an argument that is based in fact but arrives at a conclusion that makes no sense. One could also classify such arguments as sophistry. Scarborough raised the question as to “What is the most aggressive move we can make to send a message to Putin that we are not going to back down like we did in 2014, we are not going to back down like we did in Georgia in 08, that we are actually going to respond in kind if they go into the Ukraine.”

No doubt mindful of the notoriety that appearances on Morning Joe provide him, Hass was patient and polite in his response to what was a transparently absurd question. “The answer is we are not,” says Hass. “Why Not?” Scarborough asks. Hass replies:

“Because the military balance and the geography is tilted dramatically in Russia’s Direction…Ukraine is not a member of NATO. There are things we can do to strengthen Ukraine’s self-defense, there are sanctions we can threaten, but at the end of the day Putin is willing to Put more chips on the table. And he has more chips to put on the table, both in capability and will, so we are not going to offer direct defense of Ukraine, we are not going to war with Russia over the Ukraine.”

Obviously dissatisfied with such a tepid response Scarborough quickly suggested that we deploy a large contingent of American troops and weaponry to Poland. Which, he noted, the Poles would “love for us to do.” He went on to point out:” That would actually embarrass Putin, so he knows if he moves troops into Ukraine to flex his muscles, we are going to move troops and defensive weapons into Poland that will make it, maybe, not worth is while.”

In response to this light-weight prattle proposing reckless and dangerous ideas, Hass explained:

“That’s a serious option. Are there things we can and should do to strengthen NATO? So that whatever Putin might gain in Ukraine would be strategically offset.  That should be on the table; that’s exactly the sort of thing we out to be thinking about. Never letting a crisis go to waste. Are there things that maybe we should have been doing all along with NATO.  One of the questions is whether the Europeans will go along with it, a bigger issue.”

Unwilling to  accept the possibility that the US cannot dictate the outcome of a Russian/Ukraine conflict, Scarborough simply ignores the “bigger issue” raised by Hass and suggest: “The Poles will go along” with his proposal. “The Poles will, but  direct defense of the Ukraine I don’t think is in the cards, not if you are talking about the United States or  other European countries going to bat for the Ukraine.  That’s not gonna happen.”  Scarborough seems to be obsessed with “embarrassing Putin,” hence he says that American troops in Poland will be a “nightmare, a black eye” for Putin.  Then he goes on the offer the ridiculous suggestion that deploying US Troops in Poland “wouldn’t be confrontational because we are not invading.”  Hence Putin’s moves on Ukraine would “not be a clean political victory.”

Playing past Joe’s jingoistic prattle, Hass calmly points out the critical importance of  getting “certain understandings about things we are not going to do. We would not go into the Ukraine…or put troops from other parts of NATO up against the Russian Border. Hass explained:

“Part of this is not simply Russia’s unique relationship with Ukraine that Putin writes about and talks about…this is also a delayed reaction to the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and NATO enlargement.  One of the things that should be on the table for ourselves is what are we prepared to think about both in an assertive way and in a reassuring way. Both ought to be on the table

This sage advice takes on a special relevance just now, because as I write the Russian government has released a statement warning the US and NATO not to cross the “Red Lines” they have set in Ukraine. They have made it clear, defying this ultimation, which bans NATO troops from Ukrainian soil, will trigger a military response from Russia. Although Putin’s fears about NATO’s expansionist ambitions are routinely dismissed as paranoia, the fact remains that just because a person is paranoid does not mean the danger they fear is not real.

The fact is that the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has trashed the understanding they had with Russia when they dissolved the Soviet Union and scrapped the Warsaw Pact, an alliance among Communist countries that served as a check NATO, a military alliance whose raison d’être was to encircle the Soviet Union and “Contain” communist power. This strategy was conjured up by the brilliant albeit misguided foreign policy wonk George Kennan, and implemented as the “Truman Doctrine” on communism.

Hence, in light of its original mission, NATO should have been dismantled with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The “Cold War,” which characterized the growing hostility between US and Russia following the end of World War II – although they had been allies against the fascist Axis Powers during the great war just four years ago – was symbolized by the formation of NATO from 11 nations under American hegemony in 1949. It was fully six years later, in 1955, that the Warsaw Pact was formed out of 7 socialist nations in eastern and central Europe, taking its name from the Polish city where the Pact was signed.  And like the NATO agreement, the Warsaw Pact called for collective defense against any aggressor – setting the stage for a Third World War.

The catalyst for this alliance of socialist states was NATO’s decision to admit West Germany in 1955, a country which only ten years ago had been ruled by Nazis, fascist murderers that had wreaked havoc on all of them. Except for the USA, the lone nation who had avoided the devastation of the World War on its soil. The Russians alone lost 27 million citizens in the war, most of whom had been killed by the Germans.  They are determined that it will not happen again. The centrality of the West German issue was unambiguously stated in the introduction to the Warsaw treaty:

“Western Germany, which is being remilitarized, and her inclusion in the North Atlantic bloc, which increases the danger of a new war and creates a threat to the national security of peace-loving states.” 

Alas, while the dissolution of the Soviet Union removed the issue of Communism, it did not resolve the issues arising from Russian nationalism and their anxieties about national security. And these fears only have been fed by US actions since the end of the Cold War. When US Secretary of State, James Baker, met with Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1990 –  as the Russian leader was in the process of dismantling the Communist Party and dissolving the Soviet Union – Baker assured him: “There would be no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east” And Baker unconditionally agreed to Gorbachev’s demand: “Any extension of the zone of NATO is unacceptable.”

Alas, under US leadership NATO has not only reneged on promises not to expand eastward into what Russia rightfully regards as her sphere of influence, but has incorporated four nations that were once a part of the Warsaw Pact into its ranks –   Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia – and three former Soviet Republics – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  Slovenia, which was once part of Czechoslovakia, has also joined NATO.  This brings these nations under the protection of Article 5 of the NATO treaty that binds other members to come to their defense with armed forces should they get in a conflict with Russia!

In view of this betrayal, and that’s what it is no matter how the US defines it, Russia has drawn a “Red Line” at Ukraine, which shares a border and was once a part of Russia.  There is every reason to believe that should NATO attempt to deploy military forces in Ukraine will result in war with Russia. And there should be no doubt that any military conflict between two nuclear armed nations could accidently lead to doomsday, the much-dreaded atomic war that would end life on this planet. This is what’s at stake if the US military meddles in the conflict between the Russians and their Slavic cousins in Ukraine .

Joe Scarborough then raised the question with Hass as to what the US should do if the Chinese moved to reunite the island of Taiwan with the Peoples Republic of China. He pointed out with growing impatience that the US promised Ukraine in the Budapest Accord, signed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine had been a part, that if they gave up their nuclear arsenal NATO would protect them from Russian aggression. Now we are waffling on that commitment. And we have made a similar commitment to Taiwan,  which we must keep because we cannot continue to allow ourselves to be pushed around. Hass astutely pointed out that the remedy to this dilemma is for the US to cease making promises that we have neither the will nor capacity to keep.

This in my view, is the wisest path to take. Russia is a vast country with 11 time zones, the Grand Army of Napoleon and Hitler’s Nazi Juggernaut both met their doom in Russia. And China, with a population of a billion and a half people and the ability to put millions of armed citizens in the field to defend their homeland, would easily vanquish any foreign invader. With no chance of victory on the ground, it would not be long before the war would turn on air and naval power, which would greatly increase the possibility of accidental nuclear catastrophe now that these doomsday weapons are online!

The thing that I find most most remarkable about this discussion, is the fact that nobody pointed out the folly of American intervention in conflicts between peoples with long standing geographic and family ties. Neither Joe Scarborough nor Richard Hass recognized that the US is not the arbiter of world affairs, dictating what shall happen in nations thousands of miles and oceans away from our shores. That there are problems in international relations which the US cannot solve, and our intervention will only increase the death and destruction. Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq are dramatic cases in point.  And when the adversary is armed with nuclear arsenals capable of delivering atomic warheads on targets anywhere in America, that destruction might well be our own.

Alas, it is the blind, irrational, commitment to the flawed ideologies of “American Exceptionalism” and “Pax-Americana” – that the US is the moral standard to which all other nations should aspire, and a world order based on the American capitalist model can be enforced by the prolific employment of US military power – that continues to lead us into costly and futile wars.

It would seem that the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two underdeveloped preindustrial countries – squandering vast amounts of American blood and treasure – in which we finally slithered away after 20 years of combat in humiliating defeat, would make reasonable people dismiss the idea of provoking a war with major military powers like China and Russia as extreme folly!  This, above all else, is what made the conversation between Hass and Scarborough, two highly educated men, seem unmoored from reality…surreal.

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Witness the Awesome Power of a Nuclear Explosion

Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

127/2021

Note: President biden will be meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in a face to face video conference today.  I will post my analysis of the metting at a later date.

The Deeper Lessons of the 9/11 Jihadist Attack

The World Trade Towers on 9/11

Adding the Dimension of Historical Perspective

A national remembrance ceremony, a period of collective mourning, has become common fare on 9/11, as Americans honor the fallen, who were victims of the terror attack on the US by Islamic Jihadist.  However, this remembrance ceremony is intensified by the fact that it marks 20 years since the attack, and there has been much discussion in the media of the causes of the attack.  These conversations are wide ranging but just now, as in the moments after the attack two decades ago, too much of the discussion consists of playing the innocent victim.  In this twisted telling, the US was suddenly attacked by Islamic terrorists simply because they were evil and hated Americans because of our just and democratic society.

Alas, this simple-minded self-serving explanation has been advanced by some of the nation’s most thoughtful preachers, powerful politicians, and prestigious pundits.  And millions of Americans believed it, convinced that it was the whole story.  If ever there was a time and circumstance where the admonition of Harvard philosopher George Santayana was needed it is here and now: ”Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it’s mistakes.”  Here a note of clarification is called for.  I do not mean to suggest that history repeats itself, nor do I believe this is the essence of Prof. Santayana’s axiom.  It is more like Mark Twain’s observation that history may not repeat “but it rhymes.”

In other words, there are classes of events that repeat themselves such as international wars, national liberation movements, socialism, fascism, racism, genocide, etc. And studying these phenomena as a class will help us understand their origins, history, and function.  Hence when we see these patterns  arise, we will be better equipped to recognize the pitfalls and avoid them.  It does not mean that these events will recur in the exact form as before, but they will share enough basic characteristics as to fall into the same general category.  Hence, we can use the past events as a guide for dealing with the present.  I believe this is the most productive use to which the study of history can be employed.

In all societies it is the ideology of the ruling classes – what they think is valuable, important, even sacred –  that shall determine how the society is organized and what its priorities are.  In advanced societies these values are refined into policies, foreign and domestic.  And to understand the ideology of the US ruling class, and how it is reflected in the policies of our government, requires the added dimension of unsentimental historical analysis. When viewed from this perspective, and told with unvarnished candor,  the story of how and why 9/11 happened, and the 20-year war in Iraq and Afghanistan sounds very different from the popular narrative spun by the official myth-makers and their self-appointed boosters.

The true origins of the tragedy of September 9, 2001,  and the two decades that just ended with a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, that long fabled “Graveyard of Empires,”  has deep roots in US history.  The ideas that led to this catastrophe can be found in the 19th  century belief in “Manifest Destiny,” and the Monroe Doctrine.  Both of which is reflected in the 20th century belief in American Exceptionalism.

The “Containment Theory” authored by the brilliant Foreign Policy wonk George Kennan in 1947, which became the basis of the “Truman Doctrine” in the aftermath of  World War II, ushering in the “Cold War” with the Soviet Union and other nations governed by Communist Parties – which the US government erroneously insisted were nothing more than “Soviet Satellite’s” – lies at the root of the continuous wars, internal subversions, and covert actions carried out by the CIA against leaders the US did not like.

From the liberal progressive democratically elected leader of Iran Muhmmad Mossadegh; to the Salvador Allende in Chile, to Patrice Lumumba,  Kwame Nkrumah, and Nelson Mandela in Africa, to Ho Chi Mihn and Mao Tse Tung in Asia, to the Cuban Revolutionary leader Fidel Castro in the Caribbean.  And after the fall of the Soviet Union, which created a unipolar world with only one super-power, the US developed a policy of Pax-Americana, roughly based on the old Pax-Romana or “Roman Peace,” by which Rome ruled the world by imposing order through the positioning of powerful Roman Legions in far off lands on territory ceded to Rome in perpetual treaties.  Like the US military base in Guantanamo Cuba.

The idea of Pax-Americana became the basis of American foreign policy during the Bush Administration, due to the ascension of the cabal of hawkish  vulgar imperialist policy wonks from the “Project for a New American Century,” in the panic that consumed the Bush Administration in the Aftermath of 9/11.  This Cabal of right-wing Neo-con policy wonks led the US into the ill-fated invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein,  an offshoot of the “mission creep” in Afghanistan, whose raison d’etre was the destruction of Al Qaeda in retaliation for the 9/11 attack.

But, alas, under the direction of the PNAC cabal it became a mission to reshape the geo-politics of the mid-East region based upon a blueprint crafted in Washington and Tel Aviv.  Alas, this ill-conceived strategy backfired.  It resulted in the rapid spread of radical  Islam and a dramatic growth in the ranks of armed Jihadists, that expanded a conflict which was initially viewed by its promoters as a swift little war that would eradicate Militant Muslim fundamentalist – the same people that the US government encouraged, and the CIA trained, including Osama bin Laden, during the recent Cold War with Russia when it was still the Soviet Union.

This reckless exercise in hubris and folly, resulted in the 20 year war that we are just retreating from in defeat, after squandering trillions in US treasure and spilling buckets of American blood.  The toll in life, limb and property among the Iraqis and Afghans is too ghastly to contemplate.  This is the real story that should be told in the grand gluttonous rhetoric of pious pontificators in every nook and cranny of the land today.

Alas, sadly this kind of straight talk will be as rare as flying elephants, instead the people will be fed the same old lies and deceptions whose objective will be obfuscation not education, useless disinformation, puerile propaganda unworthy of the citizens of the world’s most powerful country. For while lies my give us a temporary high, making us feel good, it cannot help us understand our past, navigate the present, nor fathom the future.

Hence this feel-good narrative will not help us navigate the thorny terrain of international relations in a multi-polar world, and thus it cannot keep us from drifting into future wars.  To accomplish this, we first must accept the fact that American Exceptionalism is a dangerous myth, and that we cannot make foreign nations over in our image with guns and bombs. Then we can perhaps learn the valuable lessons that our history has to teach….and be born again.

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Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

Fall 2021

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Commentaries on the Times

Editor/Commentator Playthell Benjamin

Chastising Christopher Hictchens after debate on Iraq War

 (Watch it on You Tube)

Statement of Mission

       Praising Saints

Unmasking Charlatans

Enlightening the Untutored Mob!

 Over a decade ago, when I left the New York Daily News, where I was an award winning Editorial Page Columnist and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1995, I composed an essay titled “Why I Retreated into Cyberspace.”  I addressed the reality that aside from the fact that there were not many opportunities for a left of center black columnist who refused to stay on the intellectual plantations that white editors – and all the editors at the kind of major publications I was routinely writing for were lily white – thought of as my proper place, I could see that pulp publications were declining in importance in relation to the various forms of electronic media.

Hence I began to seek out online journals to write for.  Over the past few years I have published many pieces on politics, culture and sports on The Black World Today, under the able Editorship of “Superb Herb” Boyd, an intrepid tribune of the people and one of Harlem’s cultural griots.   The online journal provided a home for the text I produced for my “Commentaries on the Times” series broadcast over WBAI radio, a 50,000 watt FM station on the middle of the dial in the greatest city on earth.  Some of these commentaries turned up on websites all over the world, and were quoted in print publications too – when they were not simply plagiarized ala Maureen Dowd, due to fuzziness or absence of copyright laws regarding content on the internet.

When I first started writing online blogs were unheard of; even now the word is not in the dictionary on my computer.  But in the intervening years this form of journalism has become respectable and often drives news reportage.  My blog and website will serve as the home for the texts from my “Commentaries on the Times,” which address all of the great issues of the day. They cover politics – local, national and international – as well as a wide range of cultural matters.

The occasional sports event also finds its way into my commentaries.  There will also be feature stories on a wide range of topics, original reporting and cultural criticism.  This will include book reviews, theater and music criticism, and films too.  And the website will be a repository for archival material.

However the paramount objective of all my labors is to supply an independent Afro-American perspective on the great questions of the day; and to make sure that voice is vigilant in its opposition to the muddled headed rightwing propaganda masquerading as serious and thoughtful commentary on the news.

When I was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary for my column in the New York Daily News, the nominating letter – which can be read in my unabridged bio – said the following: “With a perspective that comes out of the black experience, his column in the Daily News last year took on topics ranging from the celebrations of D-Day, which he assailed as Eurocentric, to gangster rap, which he denounced as a danger to American youths. He wrote about Foreign Affairs and the O.J. Simpson case with equal insight.   He took on demogogues of the left and right, both black and white, with fervor.” 

Hence the ultimate raison d’ etre for this blog /website is to expose and denounce the ideological duplicity and moral depravity of the rabid right, the “Army of God” types.  The American Taliban who would subject us to a Christian version of Sharia American style.  But as the citation from my Pulitzer nomination states, I have an extensive record of criticizing ideologues and zealots on the left also.  In fact, let me be unambiguous on this point: I detest ideologues and charlatans of any stripe, left or right!  So what you will get in these pages is the truth in so far as it can be ascertained from a rigorous review of the facts at hand.

That I am a man of the left is beyond question, and proudly so; you could say that I am a committed member of the Libertarian Left.   This is to say that while I am a democratic socialist and believe in a well funded public sector – with generous support for art and culture – I also believe that the role government bureaucrats play in this process should be limited to evaluating and dispensing grants.

They should have no say in the creative decisions of artist except to prohibit funds for projects that sow racial, ethnic or gender hatred, and this means that a distinction must be made in writing between edgy art and hateful propaganda.  And I have no doubt that such a standard can be clearly defined.  What Justice Felix Frankfurter said of pornography is also true of hate propaganda: I know it when I see it!

At this point the reader may well ask: “Why should I listen to this guy?  After all, the blogisphere is full of people writing their opinions.” Well my resume will speak to my professional qualifications and experience, and it can be read on the website.  But in the end the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and I have been right on critical issues when all of the leading pundits – mostly know-it-all white boys – were embarrassingly off course.

The present quagmire in Iraq is a case in point; hence the first commentary I will post here is a piece written on the eve of the invasion and now reads like prophecy; Nostradomus would be quite happy to claim this text!  And it will become apparent as you peruse my oeuvre that no pundit presently writing has a broader range of intellectual interests.

Finally, let there be no question about the purpose of the commentaries: It is to agitate for the ideas and policies that I believe represent the most just and humane ways of organizing our society.  In this endeavor my role models are Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Ida B. Wells, WEB Dubois, George Schuler and Harold Cruse. The incomparably eloquent and insightful Frederick Douglass stated my purpose succinctly:

History holds no more august claim than where there is no struggle there is no progress.  Men who profess to stand for freedom yet deprecate agitation are men who would have corn without plowing the fields, rain without thunder and lightening; the ocean without the awful roar of her many waters!   Where there is no struggle there is no progress.  The struggle may be moral, or it may be physical, or it may be both.  But there must be a struggle.  Power yields nothing without demand.  It never has and it never will!   Men may not always get what they pay for in this life, but they will surely pay for all that they get!”

I believe that truer words have never been spoken on the question of how progressive change occurs in human societies.  It is a statement that combines poetry and philosophical gravitas in a way that has rarely been equaled.   And it expresses the deepest sentiments of my soul.  In terms of my use of language in polemics against the rabid right, I shall again defer to one of our greatest moral clarions and intellectually pugnacious bullies for justice, William Lloyd Garrison.

On New Years day 1831, three decades before the outbreak of Civil War in the destruction of slavery, Garrison launched The Liberator – a newspaper that became a major force in bringing this cataclysmic event about that freed American civilization from its original sin – along with genocide against Native Americans – of slavery.

Garrison’s statement of his terms of engagement has been adopted in letter and spirit, whole soul and body, by this editor; and shall henceforth serve as my guiding light in this enterprise.  Like the great Novelist and essayist Ishmael Reed, I believe writin is fightin!  Garrison wrote:

“I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; – but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – AND I WILL be Heard!”

 “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate! “

 

Sayeth My Spiritual Father Frederick Douglass

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 Playthell G, Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Summer 2021

 

 

THE TRIUMPH OF THE TALIBAN IN AFGHANISTAN….

Taliban Leaders in the Afghan President’s Office
It Was All Predictable: A Classic Case of American Folly!

Over a quarter century ago, when the US government thought it was a good Idea to arm the radical Islamic fundamentalists with advanced US weaponry, I thought it was a grave mistake and said so in a “Commentary on the Times,” which was then a series broadcast over WBAI fm radio in New York City, where the Commentaries series was created nearly 40 years ago. At the time, the Islamic Jihadists were called the “Mujahadeen,” and we were told they were righteous “freedom fighters.” Our government bequeathed this honorific on these soldiers of Allah because at the time their Jihad was aimed at the Soviet Union, their communist neighbor, with whom the USA had been embroiled in a “Cold War” since the middle of the 20th century.

In their struggle for world supremacy the white American elite formed alliances with all sorts of smarmy characters. Right-wing dictators were a favorite in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the islands of the seven seas. Hence today we see the US in bed with the murderous theiving Saudi Royal Family and the Brazilian fascist Bolsonaro, while still trying to reverse the peoples revolution of Cuba – where low life lying scoundrels and political reactionaries like Republican Governor de Santis, and Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz would be preferable as leaders on the island.

It was this kind of twisted thinking that led to the argument that we should support and promote Islamic fundamentalism because as “people of the book,” all believers in the great “Abrahamic religions” – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – we have much more in common with them than the communist atheist of Soviet Russia.

Guided by this flawed logic the US government dispatched the CIA – “Community Improvement Association” in the view of deluded “American Exceptionalist” – who proceeded to arm and train the Islamic Jihadist in league with the military intelligence services of Pakistan, a nuclear armed nation whose government and military is riddled with Muslim fundamentalist. And we were assured these Muslim militants were “freedom fighters” who stood with us against the advance of communism in the Islamic world.

Alas, history has shown they created a hydra headed monster that begin with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which morphed into ISIS! Once the Russians were driven from Afghanistan these forces turned against “The Great Satan,” the enabler of the Zionist in Israel, and Christian “Crusaders.” Who have been enemies of Allah since the days of the Crusades during Medieval times.

It was a classic case of folly, as defined by the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning historian Barbra Tuckman in her path-breaking book “The March of Folly.” Simply put, “Folly” occurs when a nation pursues a policy despite the fact that all the historical and contemporary evidence presages disaster!

Hence if the results were not so tragic for the innocent citizens of Afghanistan seeking to live free in the modern world- especially the women and girls – it would be hella funny watching all the know-it-all white pundits wringing their hands and wondering WTF happened? Alas, one need not possess the prescience of the Prophet in order to have predicted this disaster.   I will soon post an extended analysis on this question.

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A NOTE TO THE SEEKER OF WISDOM AND TRUTH: In trying to see things clearly, it helps immeasurably if your head is not stuck up yo ass!!!!!

Playthell George Benjamin
Harlem, New York
August 29, 2021