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America In Our Hearts

Adam Hochschild on authoritarianism, Antifa and Amy Coney Barrett


Paul Wilner finds shelter from the electoral storm with journalist, author, and Mother Jones co-founder Adam Hochschild

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“All great historical events and personages occur, as it were, twice,’’ Karl Marx famously wrote, quoting Hegel, adding his own spin: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” It is a rare writer who can address the cartoonish developments of America’s recent history in a way that separates the signal from the noise. But that’s what historian and author Adam Hochschild has been doing over the course of his career.

Hochschild has scrupulously gone his own way since the 1986 publication of Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son,’’ about the complicated relationship he had with his father, a German-Jewish immigrant who made a fortune in mining, both in Africa and Latin America. Hochschild's political awakening led him to join the crew of muckrakers at Ramparts magazine and co-found Mother Jones, where he still serves on the board of directors.

Half the Way Home was compared by the New York Times to such classics as Geoffrey Wolff’s The Duke of Deception and Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time. After this graceful memoir, Hochschild widened his lens, producing impeccably written and researched accounts of everything from Stalinism (The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin) to the roots of the anti-slavery movement (Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves), a book especially relevant to this racially charged moment.

In all of these books, Hochschild combines investigative reporting with an elegant, understated prose style, and is one of the few journalists who has a right to claim the title of historian.

Arguably the most compelling of Hochschild's historical accounts is 1998’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terrorism in Colonial Africa. Hochschild uncovered the hidden history of Belgium’s King Leopold, a man whose pathological greed, pride and competitiveness led to atrocities in the Congo unmatched even by his colonial predecessors. Knowing that he was late to the colonial party, and on the wrong side of history, Leopold cloaked his enterprise in the rhetoric of uplift.

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King Leopold of Belgium and victims of his colonial enterprise. Along with a deep dive into Joseph Conrad's influences in Heart of Darkness, Hochschild's book was a psychological portrait of Leopold set within the context of European and African history.

Hochschild’s recent volumes, 2016’s Spain in Our Hearts – Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 and Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes, published earlier this year, take on different aspects of the complicated radical tradition. The “Cinderella’’ book, about a Jewish working-class woman who married into one of the wealthiest family in the country, has particular resonance, given the plutocratic circumstances of the author’s youth.

Amidst fears of rising authoritarianism – and a President who openly says he may not accept the results of an election – Hochschild spoke with Journal of the Plague Year about his concerns, and his vision of a less dystopian future.

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JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR: You’ve devoted your career to uncovering what lies below or is buried beneath the official version of events. Yet we live in a time of instant gratification, where information is communicated in tweets and forgotten the next day, hour, and minute. How has the information revolution, which Marshall McLuhan predicted, affected your work? Do you still feel like you can get your message out?

AH : I do. Amazingly, despite the daily deluge of tweets, Facebook feeds, and whatnot that threatens to bury us, people still read books. It surprises me, but it’s true. Counting foreign editions, my King Leopold’s Ghost has sold more than three quarters of a million copies, and To End All Wars, my book on the First World War, well over 100,000. Plenty of other writers can make similar claims. I think people are hungry for well-told, significant stories, and for books that grapple with issues that matter.

JOTPY: Even the more serious journalists of our time seem to have become captive, in some ways, to the 24-7 news cycle. I’m thinking of pieces like Barton Gellman’s widely circulated Atlantic Monthly article, “What If Trump Refuses to Concede?’’ On one hand, it’s a warning call of some of the dangers that lie ahead, but it also seems part and parcel of a tendency, particularly on the Left, to doomsday speculation that can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies, and can give leaders with authoritarian tendencies, like Trump, a feeling like, “Hey, that’s a good idea!’’ Is there a danger in this approach?

AH: I doubt that any journalist who cares about democracy is going to give Trump and his enablers ideas they haven’t already thought of. I’m grateful for Barton Gellman and others like him who are focusing on the dire risks we face in the weeks ahead. With a president openly threatening to defy election results, we’re at a new, highly dangerous moment in American history.

JOTPY: To cut to the chase, how concerned are you that Trump will actually seize control of the government, regardless of the outcome of the election, and that we will be plunged even deeper into the authoritarian nightmare that people have been dreading for the last three-and-a-half years?

AH: I’m congenitally an optimist. Maybe too much so. However much he may want to do something like that, I don’t think he’ll be able to get away with it. Democratic institutions and traditions are far more deeply rooted in this country than they were, say, in the Germany of 1933.

JOTPY: What parallels – and significant differences – do you see between The Resistance of today and the mass anti-Fascist movements of the past, that you chronicled in Spain In Our Hearts?

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Swarthmore student Joe Seligman, the first American to join the Battle for Madrid. After he left, his parents in Kentucky received an envelope mailed by a friend: “By the time you get this letter I will be in Europe. I am going to Spain. . . . I am really too excited and angry . . . to do anything else.” Read an excerpt from Hochschild's book here.

AH: In some ways, things may have seemed clearer to people in the 1930s: when the war in Spain began, it was between a democratically elected government and a clique of right-wing generals backed by Hitler and Mussolini. Morally and politically, there was no doubt which side a decent person should be on.

Today, it’s clear that Trump is a danger to democracy; it’s not always clear what’s the best method or strategy to send him packing, especially given the extreme oddity of our electoral college voting system.

JOTPY: What commonality, if any, do you find between the very loosely defined, and deeply demonized, Antifa movement of today, and the Wobblies of the ‘20s and ‘30s, which also had significant support in the Pacific Northwest. Are the activists in Seattle and Portland part of that legacy?

AH: I don’t see much commonality. A lot of Antifa types are people who seem to be spoiling for a fight, without caring about whether that fight is actually going to inflict defeats on the forces of reaction in this country, or inflame them.

The Wobblies at their best—which they not always were—led some strikes that either achieved real victories or dramatized terrible working conditions to a wider public not yet aware of them.

I suspect that Antifa, as was the case with the Wobblies, is heavily infiltrated. Today perhaps less with FBI agents than with right-wingers who know that provoking any kind of violence that can be blamed on the Left is catnip for Trump.

JOTPY: What responsibility – or blame - does the media bear for our current predicament? In the introduction you wrote for a new edition of Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia,’’ you wrote:

“The Spanish Civil War captured the world’s attention like virtually no event of its time. During the nearly three years it lasted, the New York Times had correspondents on both sides and ran more than a thousand front page headlines about the conflict – more than on any other single topic, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the rise of Nazi Germany, or the calamitous toll of the Great Depression.’’

The analogy may be inexact – they ran plenty of stories on Trump, too – but one can’t help thinking of the Times’ obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails in the runup to 2016. If they had handled things differently, do you think it might have affected the outcome, or is that just a fantasy of the chattering classes?

AH: I’m no big fan of Hillary Clinton, but I do think the Times got carried away with trying to be even-handed in its coverage of the 2016 election, at a time when we had an imperfect but very mainstream politician running against a proto-fascist. On the whole, though, I think it’s still one of the world’s great newspapers, and I’m grateful that we have it, and for some of the exposes they’ve done on Trump and the people around him.

JOTPY: You also wrote about the conflicts during the Spanish Civil War between Republican — as in leftist — sympathizers like New York Times correspondent Herbert L. Matthews and the Catholic rear-guard editors and reporters he battled with. And there was the difference between Orwell, who reported on what was going on as he saw it, and amateur correspondents like Hemingway and others who shaded reportage to help the cause. These seem like ethical dilemmas hard-wired into the profession. Is there a solution, simple or otherwise?

AH: Yes, these are ethical dilemmas wired into the profession, and nowhere were they clearer than in Spain. Both Orwell and Hemingway knew that there was a dark underside of brutal Soviet influence in the Spanish Republic.*

Orwell chose to write about it during the war; Hemingway ignored it during the war but wrote about it afterwards. Interestingly, each greatly admired the other’s work. They apparently met briefly in Paris in 1945, but no one knows what, if anything, they said to each other. I would have loved to have been there and asked some questions.

JOTPY: In the introduction to a new edition of “For Whom The Bell Tolls,’’ Hemingway’s great-grandson takes issue with your portrayal of his sometimes blustery antics on the battle front. Is there an inherent danger when a celebrity – even a literary one – takes on such a role? I’m thinking Sean Penn…..

AH: In this war, Hemingway considered himself a soldier first and a journalist/writer second. I wish, though, that he had spoken out about things he knew at the time. It might have had some effect.

JOTPY: “Rebel Cinderella – From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes’’ seems as relevant in many ways as “Spain In Our Hearts’ to the current dilemma. Your book opens with a scene of Stokes – a Jewish woman from the working class who married into one of the richest families in America - defying the Comstock Act by advocating for birth control, and distributing literature about it (at Carnegie Hall!) What would she have made of the controversy surrounding Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination and the ongoing attempts to turn back the clock?

AH: Rose Pastor Stokes is not a perfect heroine, but I’m sure she would have been appalled that now, 100 years after her involvement with this issue, we are still arguing about the right to access abortion and birth control.

JOTPY: Lastly, your November 2019 New Yorker article, “Obstruction of Justice – When mass deportations were planned a century ago, one man got in the way’’ illustrates the government overreach in the Palmer Act, named for former Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer – perhaps the Bill Barr of his day. Conducted in November 1919 and January 1920 under the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, these were raids to capture and arrest suspected leftists, mostly Italian and Eastern European immigrants.

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These raids, which resulted in 3,000 arrested and the deportation of 556 foreign citizens, including a number of prominent leftist leaders. In the end, though, Palmer's efforts were largely frustrated by officials at the U.S. Department of Labor. The similarities in Red Scare rhetoric today are striking. What lessons do you think this chapter of American history has for us? Are there grounds for hope, as well as despair?

AH: I was drawn to write about the US in 1917-21 because it seems to me to be the most Trumpian period of American history before Trump: widespread thundering about deporting people, hostility to immigrants, fierce racial conflict, and something Trump would dearly like to do but hasn’t yet managed: draconian press censorship. Yet the country survived all of this, though not without deep scars. I think we can survive Trump as well, and the scars, I hope, will not be so deep.

* The Second Spanish Republic started as a constitutional government dedicated to modernization and socialist principles but overstepped by suspending elections, banning Jesuits who ran many of the country’s schools and expropriating property. It lasted from 1931 until 1939 when the reactionary general Francisco Franco took power. He ruled until 1975.

Paul Wilner is a veteran journalist, poet and critic. He lives on the Central Coast of California.

Fighting In The War With Spain ::: Wilner Watts

Deportee ::: The Byrds

Hemingway’s Whiskey ::: Kris Kristofferson

Hemingway ::: John Cale

Spanish Bombs ::: The Clash

For Whom The Bell Tolls ::: Metallica

Hemingway ::: Paolo Conte

Bad News ::: Melody Gardot

Headlines In The News ::: Fats Waller

Bad News ::: Johnny Jenkins