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Self-Rule in the Balance

Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (London: Routledge, 2014), 252 pages, $30.95, paperback.

In They Rule, Paul Street offers a thorough deconstruction of the status quo of U.S. capitalism. The book’s subtitle gives a nod to the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose main victory was to popularize the concept of U.S. class conflict, as embodied in the “1 percent.” The title also recalls John Carpenter’s 1987 film They Live, a sci-fi spoof of the Reagan era that prefigured the Occupy revolt. Carpenter’s characters don “magic sunglasses” for intellectual defense against media misinformation.… One current form of that misinformation is the view that the Democratic Party exercises “left” politics. Street smashes this notion.… [However,] this is no academic query.… | more…

The Broken BBC

From Public Service to Corporate Power

In the face of austerity cuts to state infrastructure provision, the British Broadcasting Corporation has recently generated something of a moral panic about the future of public sector broadcasting—mobilizing both its own news channel and its friends in the corporate media around the issue. Yet in the midst of this ongoing existential crisis, few have asked: What is it we are being asked to defend?… As in car manufacturing, what is provided is a limitedly resourced primary product, altered for different consumption demands, by add-on and take-off parts.… | more…

“Realists of a Larger Reality”

On New Science Fiction

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.

—Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin is undoubtedly right about resistance in the “real” world, but in reading, only some books offer a call to resistance and the possibilities of a new reality. Among the books considered here, some come to us as “literary fiction”; others are marked as belonging to another, historically denigrated, form, “science fiction” or “fantasy.” This could be a distinction without a difference: two are near-future dystopian novels about corporate capitalism in the United States (both by well-established white authors); two are collections of near-future short stories that set out to critique the human powers that structure our world (written by both established and new voices, primarily writers of color). But the books that embrace rather than evade their status as science fiction or fantasy are the ones able to imagine the resistance and change that Le Guin invokes.… | more…

Socialism and Fantasy

China Miéville's Fables of Race and Class

Among a number of contemporary science and speculative fiction writers who identify as left-wing, China Miéville stands out, not only for the quality of his literary production, but also for the critical character of his political commitment, dedicated equally to socialism and to fantasy. In addition to his fictive works, he has written articles and given lectures on the nature and value of speculative and fantasy fiction; edited a collection of essays on Marxism and fantasy in an issue of the journal Historical Materialism; and, not least, published a list of “Fifty Sci-Fi and Fantasy Works Every Socialist Should Read.” I wish to discuss here the form and thematics of the early novels known (after the alternate world in which they are set) as the Bas-Lag trilogy—which remains, if you take it as a single work, his most ambitious and memorable achievement. But since Miéville is a serious critic and advocate of fantasy fiction, I will approach the books with a brief discussion of his aesthetic positions and program, gathered from essays and talks as well as from his literary works.… | more…

Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, But Mostly Conversation

Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, But Mostly Conversation

Forthcoming in August 2016

Studs Terkel was an American icon who had no use for America’s cult of celebrity. He was a leftist who valued human beings over political dogma. In scores of books and thousands of radio and television broadcasts, Studs paid attention—and respect—to “ordinary” human beings of all classes and colors, as they talked about their lives as workers, dreamers, survivors. Alan Wieder’s Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, But Mostly Conversation is the first comprehensive book about this man.… | more…

Friends of Alice Wheeldon: The Anti-War Activist Accused of Plotting to Kill Lloyd George

Friends of Alice Wheeldon: The Anti-War Activist Accused of Plotting to Kill Lloyd George

In early 1917, as Britain was bogged down in a war it feared would never end, Alice Wheeldon, her two daughters, and her son were brought to trial and imprisoned for plotting the assassination of Prime Minister Lloyd George, who they believed had betrayed the suffrage movement. In this highly evocative and haunting play, British historian and feminist Sheila Rowbotham illuminates the lives and struggles of those who opposed the war. The Wheeldons’ controversial trial became something of a cause célèbre—a show trial at the height of the First World War—based on fabricated evidence from a criminally insane fantasist, “Alex Gordon,” who was working for an undercover intelligence agency. It was a travesty of justice. Friends of Alice Wheeldon is combined here with Rowbotham’s extended essay, “Rebel Networks in the First World War,” that gives a historical overview of the political and social forces that converged upon the Wheeldon family and friends.… | more…

The Personal Is Political

The Political Economy of Noncommercial Radio Broadcasting in the United States

In this essay, I look at the problems facing progressives and those on the political left in the United States in participating in political analysis and debate in mainstream journalism and the news media. I focus on radio broadcasting, as this is where much of political discussion takes place in the United States. Radio broadcasting is the least expensive of the media for production and reception, is ubiquitous, has adapted itself to the Internet, and is uniquely suited for locally based programming.… I look specifically at my own experience hosting a weekly public affairs program on an NPR (National Public Radio)-affiliated radio station in Illinois from 2002–2012. This was, to my knowledge, the only NPR series hosted by a socialist in the network’s history.… | more…

In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself

In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself

Marsh identifies four sources for our contemporary malaise (death, money, sex, democracy) and then looks to a particular Whitman poem for relief from it. He makes plain what, exactly, Whitman wrote and what he believed by showing how they emerged from Whitman's life and times, and by recreating the places and incidents (crossing Brooklyn ferry, visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals) that inspired Whitman to write the poems. Whitman, Marsh argues, can show us how to die, how to accept and even celebrate our (relatively speaking) imminent death. Just as important, though, he can show us how to live: how to have better sex, what to do about money, and, best of all, how to survive our fetid democracy without coming away stinking ourselves. The result is a mix of biography, literary criticism, manifesto, and a kind of self-help you're unlikely to encounter anywhere else.… | more…

Who Was This Pete Fellow?

Pete Seeger was bigger than life. And like a character in a mythological tale, before long his shoe size will grow to such a degree that he will scale snowy mountains and wade across oceans. He will look over the tops of Redwood trees and when he dips his hand down into the Hudson River, the water up to his elbow, his fingers will reach down to the bottom of the deepest pool and pull up a giraffe and a baby grand and we will forever sing about the magic river.… This mythology will be enjoyed by the living for generations to come. A next generation of troubadours will sing deep into the little faces who, with wide eyes, imagine such a music man.… | more…

Don’t Waste Any Time In Mourning

In the many accolades Pete Seeger received…after his death, there was often something missing—as absent in tributes from admirers who share his revolutionary politics as in those aiming to reclaim him for respectability. That absence is Seeger’s role as an organizer, and, more broadly, the role of music (and other kinds of cultural work) as organizing, which his life exemplifies.… Seeger’s work as an organizer may have been most obvious, its goals most blatant, in the field…. But his work, as a singer, as a song-collector, as a song-teacher, was not any less a labor of organizing in the concert hall. And that’s not exceptional. That…is what makes someone a radical cultural worker. What’s exemplary about Pete Seeger is how damn good at it he was. What we need to pay attention to and learn from is how he did this important work so well.… | more…

Friends and Neighbors

Remembering Pete Seeger and Camp Woodland

I attended Camp Woodland, a progressive summer camp in upstate New York, for four summers starting in 1955 when I was ten years old. When Pete died last year, it was my fellow Camp Woodlanders that I most wanted to connect with.… Fortunately, a camp reunion in 2012 had revived many old friendships. “Pete’s music was the soundtrack to our lives,” one former camper reminisced on the camp listserv. “Pete modeled our values and transformed how we lived in the world, just like at camp,” another wrote.… | more…

Pete Seeger, Musical Revolutionary

In the late 1950s, Pete Seeger received a letter from his manager, Howie Richmond, begging him to write a new hit song. … [Richmond] believed that “protest songs” were not marketable. Seeger was angry—he had a new song in mind, with words from a poem that he had set to music, and he believed it was, in a deep and significant sense, a song of protest.…. The song, of course, was “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season),” which continues to be performed and recorded by many artists, and most famously became a huge folk-rock hit for The Byrds. It was as though, despite himself, Seeger produced a hit song, even when commercial popularity was the furthest thing from his mind—an example of how inseparably his songwriting talents and political principles were bound together.… | more…

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