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In The League Of Howard Zinn, Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut, Gore Vidal - America's Vanishing Sentinels

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[I began this essay well over a year ago, shortly after the death of Howard Zinn, irrepressible teacher, visionary and campaigner for human rights and dignity for the downtrodden.   Note that what I address in this essay deals with extraordinary, heroic individuals in the intellectual and inspirational sense.   I do not intend to conflate the word sentinels with the far more abused and overused word heroes.   Hence, this is not about the brave and heroic men and women that make immense sacrifices without the slightest thought for personal gain, who have always been part of this country or the world.   Thus, this is not about the 9-11 firefighters and relief-workers whose heroic deeds speak for them.   The deafening irony in their story, of course, is that the right-wing "patriots" here (from Rudolf "911" Giuliani on down) paid at best the most insincere and revolting lip service to their sacrifice, and thereafter, these decent and courageous human beings were essentially cast aside, neglected and even abused (who will forget the obscene grilling by the reptilian Bill O'Reilly of the son of a 9-11 victim (Jeremy Glick) in his crude propaganda show, simply because this perceptive young man saw clearly through the devious facade of patriotism and Americanism that was being foisted at the time in order for this country to launch two illegal and deeply inhuman wars of aggression upon entirely innocent human beings, the crimes represented by which actions make puny by far even the attacks upon the WTC towers?).   We know well, of course, that the right-wing warmongers and racist bigots could not care less about any ordinary, decent, family- and humanity-loving people.   The fact that the appalling treatment meted out to this country's cannon-fodder (that's my term for the poor people's children who are sent out as "soldiers" to kill and be killed in the quest for corporate profits by the right-wing hatemongers and Wall Street magnates), once they return from the (usually) ignominious (poor-and-non-white) people-slaughtering campaigns that they were sent out to conduct on behalf of the GEs, the General Dynamics, the Bechtels, the Halliburtons and the likes of Rupert Murdoch, has never been a sufficient wake-up call for the media-drug-addled population in this country, is evidence enough for me that politically this pathetic duopoly is beyond redemption.   And within this past year (2010), with the right-wing once again in place to carry out their criminal enterprise, there is increasing evidence of the fresh assault upon the human rights of working people in exchange for social welfare for billionaires in frightening numbers, in state after state.   All this is unfolding before our eyes, with little or no remedy.   MRC.]

            Despite the sheer, unremitting horror of their war crimes and crimes against humanity, there is one thing for which I would express gratitude to the Bushco criminal enterprise of the past 10 years.   These years of intense government and corporate crimes (sometimes the two being indistinguishable) helped generate in me a deeper awareness of, and appreciation for, certain extraordinary individuals in this imperial nation whom I might not, otherwise, have known as much about.  

While the public airwaves, both television and radio, and much of the print media, including the warmongering New York Times, were filled with corporate cronies and flesh peddlers, screaming zealots, racists and bigots, war profiteers and right-wing operatives (the list is endless and staggering, and while some like Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Coulter, O'Reilly, and Malkin are quite obvious, I would also generally include in this ignominious group other seemingly "polished" and "nicely packaged" individuals such as Jim Lehrer, Diane Sawyer, Cokie Roberts, Tom Brokaw, Lester Holt, Judy Woodruff, and just about every so-called broadcast journalist with corporate connections, including several at such venerable institutions as NPR and PBS, in varying degrees of imperial arrogance and hubris), these remarkable human beings demonstrated to me there really was another America, one with humanity and reason, with intellectual curiosity and sense of justice and fair play, with humility and willingness to understand and change, if needed, its attitude and role before the world.

One such, probably at the leading edge of my list of these American sentinels, is Howard Zinn (1922-2010).   I must note here that my choice of the word sentinel for these individuals is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's famous essay in response to Rabindranath Tagore's criticism of his (Gandhi's) having placed the blame for the 1934 Bihar earthquake as "divine retribution" for human misdeeds.   Tagore and Gandhi, who greatly admired one another, also had (sometimes significant) differences in their social and political worldview.   Responding to Tagore's strident critique, Gandhi wrote the essay, The Great Sentinel, whereby he paid tribute to Tagore's role as the living, strident, conscience of India.1,2   The profoundly human and humane individuals to whom I refer in this essay, are indeed the sentinels of America- they are the conscience of a land in the grip of military and business enterprises that is deeply drunken with the defiling drugs of power, plunder, arrogance and hubris.

In these dark and dismal years of a new millennium (the first decade of which has shown me irrefutable signs in many respects of a great march backwards to the dark and savage times of our human past), I had become so used to looking towards Mr. Zinn for sense and sanity, for sage commentary about the inhumanity and cruelty of American government and corporations- that of all the noble American figures that have been lost to the world in the past 10 years, years of great pain and shock- I truly feel that I miss Mr. Zinn terribly.   I feel not only saddened and bereft, but also plain concerned that America has lost one more sage voice so critically needed for the survival (and I am not being hyperbolic here) of human civilization.   I knew little about Howard Zinn prior to the neocon/right-wing takeover of the American government in 2000.   From the onset of that dark event, and the years of ruthless social and war crimes that have followed, I have essentially turned off all manner of American mass media, which are bought and paid for by the warfare and imperial industrial empire.   The period from 2000-2008 was one of unmitigated world-wide horror, instigated by the most arrogant, heartless, self-serving and vicious gang of zealots one could imagine.   During this dismal and dark period, I came across the works of Howard Zinn, principally his groundbreaking and extraordinary People's History of the United States, which offers a glimpse into the dark and gory chapters of American political and social life- chapters that rarely see the light of day in the history textbooks here, much less in discussions of social reform in this country.   For anyone even slightly interested in knowing a thing or two about class-wars in America, and its entrenched racism, bigotry, war-industry, and the military-industrial enterprise, this text is a must-read.   Zinn's more recent titles, Voices of a People's History of the United States, You Can't be Neutral on a Moving Train, and A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, only add to his monumental oeuvre.  

With the din of criminal wars raging in the distance, conducted by a country one had chosen to live and work in, I found solace repeatedly in the voices of Zinn and a handful of other American thinkers amid the savage wilderness of hate, bigotry, xenophobia and insanity.   I watched Zinn speak to Amy Goodman and her audience at Pacifica Radio and on Democracy Now!   He lent his support to Arundhati Roy in some of her more well-reasoned campaigns against imperium (incidentally, I have had problems on occasion with Roy's analyses in the Indian context, since I do not believe that one can quite so readily conflate imperialism, which is overwhelmingly a Western enterprise, with the historic strife within other nations with complex civilizations).   Where I do place value to Roy's warnings is in the arena of India's increasingly dangerous tilt towards the American model of free enterprise (which is a well-oiled euphemism for rampant greed, profiteering and plunder of the earth using money and violence) at the cost of the starving and powerless billions, and the irreplaceable resources of the earth.

My first invigorating introduction to Studs Terkel (1912-2008) occurred in the early years of the Bushco criminal enterprise.   As disturbed as I had been with the spectacle (hitherto completely improbable) of an imbecile and soulless degenerate having been thrust upon the world as the leader of the free world by nothing less than criminal judicial fiat in 2000- the drum roll for yet another imperial war foisted by this executioner and his cohorts was all around us through much of 2002 and 2003.   US mass media had become, far more transparently, the mouthpiece for the corporate government, and the parade of inane platitudes and xenophobic hatred on a daily basis on radio and TV was deafening.  

Like so much else in corporate-run America, its news media have become utterly cookie-cutter and formula-bound.   Mostly blonde airheads posing as anchors and reporters, commiserating meaninglessly with echo-chamber megaphones given mostly to the shopping list of the morning's talking points manufactured by the headquarters of xenophobia, worldwide plunder and self-assured malice (in the shape of Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch and similar corporate honchos).

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Against the backdrop of such thoughtless cheerleading of war and naked aggression, one evening I witnessed a nonagenarian (approaching 91, I believe) Studs Terkel (ST) speaking to Phil Donahue (who had one of the few TV talk shows worth watching at the time).   Years earlier, I had read ST's American Dreams Lost and Found, and even if that work highlighted the ironies and realizations in ordinary American lives, I had not known the extent of progressive and humanitarian views that ST held.   It was truly reassuring to find an accomplished American who held sensible, rational and caring views, and spoke relentlessly against war, and tyranny and fraud in government.   I eventually came to learn a great deal more about ST's distinguished career as a radio personality in Chicago, and his steadfast support for blue collar workers and labor unions.

My overall state of despondence vis-Ã-vis the savage ignorance that had permeated statecraft in this country since the Reagan years, received a rejuvenating jolt when ST, in describing the occupant of the White House at the time, used the fable of The Wanton Boy.   The wanton boy of the fable was a heartless, spoiled brat who took great pleasure in stoning to death frogs in a pond.   Even when one of the frogs pleaded with him to stop his wanton killing ("to you this is a sport, but to us it is nothing but pain and death," the frog told the savage), the wanton boy only doubled up in merriment, and continued his killing spree.   Finally, I thought, someone had summed up the dimwitted executioner perfectly.   I recall writing an essay wherein I described (rather presciently, when I look back now) the Bushco regime, personality by personality, along the lines of the Allies' favorite evil guys from WWII.   This essay was prompted by the Bushco regime's criminal invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, and, interestingly, an early part of it generated highly negative reactions from the readership at an Indian website that, I found later, was dominated by staunchly pro-American, right-wing Indians enamored by the imperial instruments of capitalism and the free-market, and joined by a common hatred of Muslims (originating from experiences within the Indian subcontinent).  

ST's career was built essentially upon the art of the interview, and several of his books bear testament to his ability to give voice to the invisible in society- the factory workers, the farm hands, day-laborers- in other words, the lives and views of the other-half, the have-nots upon whose backs are built, to this day, the shining monoliths of imperial oligarchy, industry, and right-wing ideology.   Among his major works, Hard Times (1970) portrayed the plight of the poor during the Great Depression; The Good War (1984) was actually a tongue-in-cheek indictment of all wars via material collected through his interviews during and after WWII.   In The Great Divide (1988) and Race (1992), ST discussed the persistent problems of racism and bigotry in America- problems he witnessed as being alive and well even towards the end of his long life.  

Through all their understandably gloomy outtakes on life in a heartless, profit-driven and violent world, both ST and Howard Zinn (HZ) remained optimistic and upbeat.   Their last books (ST's, P.S. Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening, 2008, written in the last and 96th year of his life, and HZ's, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, 2006, written in his 84th year) ennoble the efforts of all great thinkers and campaigners struggling to place decency and humanity above all the sectarian and gluttonous actions of the powerful.   And the hopefulness their swan songs leave behind are higher by far than any of the meaningless utterances of hope and other blasphemy in the political lives of convenience represented by Barack Obama and other politicians of whatever shade or orientation.

It was when I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa (UI) in the early 1980s that I learned about Kurt Vonnegut (KV, 1922-2007), and that he was once associated with that distinctly literary city.   One time, while searching for a place to rent, a friend and I actually stumbled upon an old brick Victorian that turned out to be a one-time residence of the accomplished author.   At the time, I knew little about Vonnegut other than simply name recognition.   It turns out that KV spent several years as a faculty member in UI's renowned Writers' Workshop.   What sets Vonnegut apart from the other sentinels in this essay (Gore Vidal is in the same category) is that he was foremost an author and a novelist; at the same time, like Rabindranath Tagore and Harold Pinter, he was also a powerful and persuasive political commentator whose humanity and human sensibility went beyond his literary works.   For me it was especially re-assuring to find that KV held liberal and progressive political views, and by the time the post-Reagan shift to narrow zealotry and vicious war-mongering had become decisively the American modus operandi, his disdain for American foreign policy (as well as Washington's coddling of Wall Street and the Military Industrial Complex) became quite pronounced in print and also the airwaves.

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With the globally destructive rampage of the Bushco regime in full throttle, KV became both outraged and despondent (as did a great many thinking and caring human beings of worldwide prominence on all inhabited continents).   As his biography in Wikipedia notes:   ".with his columns for In These Times, he began an attack on the Bush administration and the Iraq war. "By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East?" he wrote. "Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas." In These Times quoted him as saying "The only difference between Hitler and Bush is that Hitler was elected." 3,4   Clearly, Kurt Vonnegut had understood perfectly the audacious war crimes, both at home and abroad, being committed by the Bushco regime, and the xenophobic, war-hungry U.S., in general.   KV felt alienated from the surreal, hateful and utterly insensitive country that he lived in, and he expressed his sense of hopelessness in one of his very last books, A Man Without a Country.   Imagine a highly honorable and accomplished thinker and citizen of a land becoming thus disillusioned and frustrated with the land of his birth.   But then, I feel, KV is in very good company.   Henry David Thoreau and Mark Twain, two genuinely great Americans, felt exactly the same way many years earlier.   Vonnegut had written his account of the savagery of war (an essential Western tool for domination and conquest) decades earlier when he witnessed the barbarous acts of the Allies and the Axis (with the exception of Japan, every party to the bloodfest being of Western origin) in WWII.   Slaughterhouse Five laid out his disdain for imperial conquests, political lies accompanied by racism and bigotry, and the deadly alliance of corporations with government.  

I was struck by Gore Vidal's (GV, 1925-) obvious brilliance, wit and intelligence during the 1980s when he appeared on several occasions in the late night talk shows, such as the one hosted by Johnny Carson.   Long before watching him on TV in the U.S., I had read some of his literary works, such as Myra Breckinridge and Myron as a student back in India in the 1970s.   At the time, I was insufficiently informed about American society and politics.   As a result, these works did not leave any significant impression upon me.   I did not realize Harry Blackmun and William Rehnquist were real-life Supreme Court justices, and that the latter was a vicious right-wing ideologue who would later help purloin the election of 2000 for the Texas executioner.   Now, in the early 1980s, I watched GV speak on TV, and was impressed by his intellect and erudition.   Here was someone, I realized, who was an heir to America's Royal Family, being related to Jackie O, and who could quite readily have chosen to become one of that country's political overlords.   Yet, he had chosen to be distinct and notably separate from the prevailing political establishment.   I could see that he understood the frightening farce that was American politics, on the (so-called) left and on the right.   It was subsequent to those early encounters that I became far more familiar with GV's political writings, and his incisive dissection of American political barbarity, and corporate criminality, both within and around the world.  

GV's humanism, liberalism and egalitarianism have been evident over a very long and extraordinarily productive life.   Who can ever forget his famous (to some, infamous) sparring with the Guru of the current right-wing movement, William F. Buckley, in 1968?   Who will forget the immortal (and I daresay, apt) words, Crypto-Fascist?   For speaking the truth about the absolute corporate and imperial control over the fates of human beings around the world, GV received (from Mr. Buckley, then, and many others, later) nothing but personal attacks, including the usual harsh epithets about his personal life.   To me, reading GV has always been an intellectual treat- his biting satire and incisive takes on the corrupt and the powerful- these will likely fly well over the heads of a great many readers whose measures of political reading are limited to Ann Coulter and Tom Friedman.   During the dismal and blood-splattered Bushco years, I have found solace in reading GV's Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Dreaming War, Imperial America and others.

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Monish R. Chatterjee received the B.Tech. (Hons) degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering from I.I.T., Kharagpur, India, in 1979, and the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering, from the University of Iowa, (more...)

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