Poet Power

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Art, Articles

Tyrants are scared of poets. Osip Mandelshtam penned a poem about Stalinone by one forging his laws, to be flung/like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin—that was eventually his ticket to the labor camps where he died. Poet Kim Chi-Ha wrote “The Five Bandits” to expose the corruption of military rule in South Korea. Lines describing government ministers—They waddle from obesity, and sediment seeps from every pore—earned him the wrath of strongman Park Chung Hee and ultimately several prison sentences. And in 1998, when then-mayor of Istanbul Recep Tayip Erdogan quoted a poem that compared minarets with bayonets, the military-backed government accused him of inciting religious hatred and sentenced him to a 10-month jail term (Erdogan has had the last laugh—he is now Turkey’s prime minister).

Tyrants are so scared of poets, in fact, that they will often keep several of them close to their chest. Romania’s Nicolae Ceaucescu, who since his overthrow and death in 1989 has become a kind of ur-dictator, bribed and coerced a legion of poets to sing his praises. Several of them—Adrian Paunescu, Corneliu Vadim Tudor—remain on the literary and political scene in Romania, though their verses have long since been crumpled up and thrown into history’s waste bin. In his blistering novel Life is Elsewhere, Czech novelist Milan Kundera chronicles the rise and fall of just such a court poet.

President George W. Bush also has had his court lyricists. Consider the accidental poet laureate of the United States: former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld. As compiled by Slate, Rumsfeld’s utterings suggest that he missed his real calling (ah, if we were only so lucky):

Clarity

I think what you’ll find,
I think what you’ll find is,
Whatever it is we do substantively,
There will be near-perfect clarity
As to what it is.
And it will be known,
And it will be known to the Congress,
And it will be known to you,
Probably before we decide it,
But it will be known.
—Feb. 28, 2003, Department of Defense briefing

With the help of Rumsfeld and his ilk, the Bush administration created a world of words to create, implement, and justify its policies. “The word is no longer valued for its power of negotiation, diplomacy, understanding, but only for its power to control, to pacify,” writes FPIF contributor Sarah Browning in Hear This Hammer Ring. “Which is why we need poetry now, more than ever. We need poets to tell the complex human story. Poets cut through the fog of propaganda and remind us of the real consequences of our government’s actions.”

This week, dozens of splendidly authentic poets will come to Washington to cut through this fog of propaganda and exorcise the spirit of Donald Rumsfeld. Designed to coincide with the anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Split This Rock festival will highlight the poetry of resistance and hope. It will feature an extraordinary line-up of American poets: Dennis Brutus, Carolyn Forche, Martin Espada, Alix Olson, Ishle Yi Park, and FPIF’s interviewer-in-residence E. Ethelbert Miller.

Leading up to the Split This Rock festival, which Sarah Browning has helped to organize, we’ve also been featuring poems by the participants, including Patricia Smith’s powerful hymn to 34 victims of Hurricane Katrina. With the “near-perfect clarity” that Rumsfeld never managed to achieve, Smith describes the consequences of the United States neglecting catastrophes at home as it has pursued catastrophes abroad.

Iraq War Anniversary

When all the politicians and journalists and pundits began beating their breasts a couple years ago over their misguided support of the Iraq War, it took a great deal of self-control to avoid saying, “We told you so.”

Well, that self-control has broken down. To mark the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we’ve decided to republish excerpts of FPIF work from 2002 and 2003 outlining our prescient objections. Back then, “influential U.S. pundits failed to express the kind of universal disapproval of the fateful invasion that might have discouraged the Bush administration from moving forward with this boondoggle,” writes FPIF’s media director Emily Schwartz Greco in Five Years Later, a side-by-side comparison of mainstream versus FPIF commentary on the war. “Foreign Policy In Focus predicted this war would be a colossal disaster before it began. We knew that Iraq’s reconstruction and democracy-building would fail, before President George W. Bush declared ‘mission accomplished.’ We knew this military operation would make the United States and the rest of the world less safe.”

FPIF contributor Stephen Zunes was one of our main Cassandras. “This war will continue to impact your life for many years to come,” he writes to his daughter in Letter to My Daughter. “Seeing you as a beautiful, smart, and competent young woman—facing an uncertain future in this militarized, divided, and economically weakened society—I wish there was something more I could have somehow done five years ago to prevent this war from happening.”

Progressives aren’t simply focused on the past. We’ve consistently pushed for different policies. In Progressives for Success in Iraq, FPIF contributor Adil Shamoo outlines an alternative program: “promoting the safe and orderly removal of our forces; the use of the UN to administer peace keeping forces, if needed; drawing in Iraq’s neighbors; winning the battle of ideas and bankrupting the nihilistic policy of al-Qaeda and other extremists; associating our interests with the majority of Iraqis—the nationalists—from all sides; and using our advances in education, technology and business to help rebuild Iraq.”

Finally, as part of our coverage of the anniversary, we feature a set of powerful testimonials, Messages to the People, collected by the Brussels Tribunal, including comments by Richard Powers, Tariq Ali, Haifa Zangana, and Susan Crane.

Guantanamo and Beyond

Our strategic focus on the U.S. military footprint continues this week with an analysis of gender and U.S. bases in the Asia-Pacific region. “Military personnel are trained to dehumanize ‘others’ as part of their preparation for war. Their aggressiveness, frustration, and fear spill over into local communities, for example in acts of violence against girls and women,” write FPIF contributors Ellen-Rae Cachola, Lizelle Festejo, Annie Fukushima, Gwyn Kirk, and Sabina Perez. “Although most U.S. troops do not commit such violations, these incidents happen far too often to be accepted as aberrations. Racist and sexist stereotypes about Asian women—as exotic, accommodating, and sexually compliant—are an integral part of such violence. These crimes inflame local hostility and resistance to U.S. military bases and operations, and have long-lasting effects on victims/survivors.”

With Guantamano, meanwhile, the focus has been on the detention facilities that the United States maintains for terrorist suspects. But as FPIF contributor Frida Berrigan points out in Guantanamo: The Bigger Picture, the base has played an integral role in U.S. imperial policy.

“Eighty years ago, Guantanamo was crucial to colonial expansion and the smooth extraction of resources from Latin America,” she writes. “Thirty years ago, it would have been justified as playing a key role in supporting anti-democratic regimes in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. More recently, the war on drugs served as rationale. But, before 2001, the number of military personnel stationed at the base had dwindled to about 300.” Today, as a result of the dubious global war on terror, there are 8,000 military personnel at Guantanamo.

A World of Selfistans?

The military junta in Burma has announced wide-ranging reforms: a new constitution, a referendum, elections, and transition to a civilian government. FPIF analyst May Oo is skeptical of the government’s plans but urges the opposition and the international community to come up with a serious response.

“The Burmese government’s approach—which involves the National Convention, the constitutional drafting, a referendum, and elections in 2010—does not seem to promise the people of Burma the future they have long been anticipating, which is a genuinely peaceful union,” she writes in Change in Burma? “And peace requires participation. People cannot be forced into a democracy not of their own making. The people of Burma will not participate as long as they are under attack, militarily and otherwise. They cannot participate in a transition if they remain as refugees in Thailand. A democratic transition cannot proceed as long as there is a war against Burma’s minorities.”

Meanwhile, FPIF contributor Sreeram Chaulia wonders whether Kosovo’s declaration of independence will trigger a succession of “Selfistans,” a reference to Salman Rushdie’s sarcastic aside in his novel Shalimar the Clown, “Why don’t we just draw a circle around our own two feet and call it Selfistan?”

“The good news for self-determinists is that Kosovo’s severance from an unwilling Serbia has given them added confidence that their day of glory may also come,” Chaulia writes in A World of Selfistans? “The bad news for them is that nation-states facing separatist clamor have feasible options to parry threats to their territorial integrity. If ‘freedom struggles’ pick up momentum after Kosovo, so will the determination of states seeking to contain ethnicity-based atomization. A world of Selfistans with 300 or 400 mini-states is a hypothetical possibility. But realistically, it is a chimera.”

Finally, FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan looks at a very real tragedy in a very real ‘stan: Afghanistan. In A River Runs Backward, Hallinan writes that the failures in Iraq mean that the United States is putting even more of an emphasis on demonstrating victory in Afghanistan. The problem is, the facts on the ground suggest the opposite. “Last year was the deadliest for Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, with more than 6,200 Afghan deaths,” he observes. “Suicide bombs have increased eightfold, roadside bombs are up 24%, and diplomats are warned not to dine out in the country’s capital, Kabul.”

FPIF, March 10, 2008

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