Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader
Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader
Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader
Published by City Lights Publishers | www.citylights.com
1-Can you tell ZNet, please, what your new book, "Contrary Notions" is about? What is it trying to communicate?
Answer: The book's subtitle is "The Michael Parenti Reader." It is a composite selection of my various writings, focusing on the kind of systemic approach that is so grandly ignored or viciously misrepresented by many persons from across the political spectrum: left, right, and center.
The selections cover a wide range of subjects including media, empire, wealth, class power, politics, gender oppression, racism, ethnicity, culture, ideology, technology, environment, history, and historiography. I emphasize the extent to which things happen not out of simple chance and mishap, but because of structural forces, power, material interests, and concerted human agency---developments and events that are often perpetrated by leaders who are not as stupid as some people think they are.
(2) Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?
Answer: Most of the selections in "Contrary Notions" really do offer contrary notions, that is, critical ways of thinking about socio-economic and political reality. Included are excerpts from my past books and articles ranging back over 40 years. Almost all the selections in this new book have been revised, updated, and, I like to think, improved. A few have never before been published, having been written particularly for this volume. Three or four of the selections are drawn wholly or in part from my personal life. Most of the writing is anchored in extensive research and is concerned with ideas and analyses that go beyond the issues of the day, offering ways of putting things together that should remain useful to the reader long after many of the book's informational particulars have slipped from his or her recall.
(3) What are your hopes for "Contrary Notions"? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve, politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?
Answer: It is hard to measure a book's efficacy and impact on the minds of others. Of course there will be those sectarians who will try to cast ill repute upon an author by slapping derogatory and ideologically-charged labels on him or her. But I find it gratifying when the more independent-minded readers write to me and tell me that my work is lucid, well substantiated, well argued, historically informed, and useful in helping them see causalities and links where before they tended to perceive only puzzlement and shallow analysis. That's what it means to be a teacher. No amount of money can buy that kind of gratification. Those who would like to get a more comprehensive overview of my work, please visit my website: www.michaelparenti.org
II. INTRODUCTION TO CONTRARY NOTIONS
Contained herein are the contrary notions, the critical analysis that is so grandly ignored or viciously misrepresented by many persons from across the political spectrum—left, right, and center. To some readers my efforts might appear one-sided, but if it is true that we need to hear all sides and not just the prevailing conventional opinion, then all the more reason why the reflections and analysis presented in this book deserve reasoned attention.
It is not demanded of readers that they embrace my views but that they reflect upon their own. How seldom we bother to explore in some critical fashion the fundamental preconceptions that shape our understanding of social and political life. How frequently, as if by reflex rather than reflection, we respond to certain cues and incantations, resisting any incongruous notion. Our opinions shelter and support us; it is an excruciating effort to submit them to reappraisal. Yet if we are to maintain some pretense at being rational creatures we must risk the discomfiture that comes with questioning the unquestionable, and try to transcend our tendencies toward mental confinement.
My intent is to proffer contrary notions, that is, critical ways of thinking about socio-political reality that will remain useful to the reader long after many of the particulars herein have slipped from his or her recall. What you are about to dip into are readings from various works of mine, from across some forty years and covering a wide range of subjects, including culture, ideology, media, environment, lifestyle, gender, race, ethnicity, wealth, class power, public policy, political life, technology, empire, history, and historiography, along with a few selections drawn directly from my personal life. Almost all these entries have been revised, expanded, updated, and, I like to think, improved. A few have never before been published. A few other selections are from publications or books of mine that are out of print and not easily accessible. This volume presents a varied sampling of my work without trying to represent every chronological phase or every subject I have ever treated.
Most of the writing herein is anchored in extensive research and is concerned with ideas and analyses that go beyond the issues of the day. I am of the opinion that there does not have to be an unbridgeable gap between scholars and lay readers. One can write in an accessible and pleasant style while dealing with complex concepts and constructs. To write clearly and understandably does not mean one is being simple or superficial. The converse is also true: to write in a dense, dull, or convoluted manner (as one is trained to do in academia) does not mean that one is being profound and insightful.
I decided not to include any of the many letters and book reviews I have published in newspapers, magazines, and journals, nor the polemical exchanges, rebuttals, and rejoinders I allowed myself to be drawn into, nor the numerous interviews I gave that have found their way into print. Letters, reviews, and interviews can provide food for thought, I think, but in a form that seems too fragmented and off-the-cuff for this volume. (For further information about me and my talks and writings, see www.michaelparenti.org.)
I hope the reader's experience with this book will be not only informational but conceptual and maybe even occasionally enlightening. Everything on the pages that follow is meant to cast light on larger sets of social relations. In one way or another, everything herein is meant to engage our concerns about social justice and human well-being. The struggle against plutocracy and the striving for peace and democracy are forever reborn Along with the many defeats and deceits produced in this age of reactionary resurgence, there have been some worthwhile victories. And although we are here only for a limited time, I like to think that this is not true of the world itself.
III. EXCERPT FROM CONTRARY NOTIONS
La Famiglia: An Ethno-Class Experience
Decades ago in the northeast corner of
On certain days horse-drawn carts offered a lush variety of fruits and vegetables trucked in from Jersey and
It was in this
To talk of my family I would have to begin with my grandparents who came from the impoverished lands of Southern Italy (as did most of the Italians in
One grandmother had thirteen children of whom only seven survived, and the other had fourteen with only nine survivors. This was the traditional pattern of high fertility and high mortality carried over from the old country. Given the burdens of repeated childbirth, both my grandmothers died years before my grandfathers. Their children, however, adopted the American style of smaller families. Having discovered birth control and urban living and trying to survive the Great Depression, they rarely had more than two or three children. The image of the large Italian family is an anachronism that hardened into a stereotype.
My father's mother, Grandma Marietta, was a living portrait of her generation: a short squat woman who toiled endlessly in the home. She shared the common lot of Italian peasant women: endless cooking, cleaning, and tending to the family, with a fatalistic submergence of self. "Che pu fare?" ("What can you do?") was the common expression of the elderly women. Given their domestic confinement, they learned but a few words of English even after decades of living in
Some of the first-generation Italians were extreme in their preoccupation with the evil eye. I remember as late as the 1950s a few of the late-arriving postwar immigrants would put an open pair of scissors, with one blade deliberately broken, on top of the television set so that no one appearing on the screen could send u mal'occhio into their living rooms. As we now know, the contaminations of television are not warded off that easily.
My mother's mother, Grandma Concetta, was something of an exception to this picture of the Italian woman. Endowed with a strong personality and a vital intelligence, she turned to the only respectable profession open to rural Italian women in the late nineteenth century: she became a midwife, a skill she learned in
The men of my grandfathers' generation had toiled like beasts of burden in the old country, trapped in a grinding poverty, victimized by landlords, tax collectors, and military press gangs. Having fled to the crowded tenements of
The Italian immigrant laborers were the paragons of the humble, thrifty toilers whom some people like to point to when lecturing the poor on how to suffer in silence and survive on almost nothing. In truth, the immigrants were not all that compliant—at least not originally. In fact, they had taken the extraordinary measure of uprooting themselves from their homelands in order to escape the dreadful oppression of the
Still, in their hearts, many of the first generation men nursed a sentimental attachment to
The immigrant men drank wine made in their own cellars, and smoked those deliciously sweet and strong Italian stogies (to which I became temporarily addicted in my adulthood). They congregated in neighborhood clubs, barber shops, and the backrooms of stores to play cards, drink, and converse. They exercised a dominant presence in the home, yet left most domestic affairs including all the toil of child rearing to the women. Religion was also left to the women. The immigrant males might feel some sort of attachment to the saints and the church but few attended mass regularly and some openly disliked the priests. In the literal sense of the word, they were "anticlerical," suspicious of clergymen who did not work for a living but lived off other people's labor, and who did not marry but spent all their time around women and children in church.
The Italians who came to the
"When Mussolini came along," an elderly Italian once told me, "they stopped calling us 'wop.'" The statement is woefully inaccurate. The admiration expressed by the
The second generation, that is, the American-born children of the immigrants, usually spoke of Mussolini with scorn and derision, especially after the
The military performance of
Contrary to what we have heard, immigrant Italians were not particularly loving toward their children. They sent their young ones to work at an early age and expropriated their earnings. For most of the adults there was little opportunity to face the world with ease and tenderness. Of course, infants and toddlers were hugged, kissed, and loved profusely, but as the children got older it would have been an embarrassment, and in any case was not the custom, to treat them with much overt affection. Besides, there were so many of them, so many to feed or to bury, each new child being either an additional burden or an early tragedy but seldom an unmitigated joy.
"La famiglia, la famiglia," was the incantation of the old Italians. The family, always the family: be loyal to it, obey it, stick with it. This intense attachment to the family was not peculiar to Italians but was, and still is, a common characteristic of almost any poor rural people—be it in the Philippines, Nigeria, India, or Appalachia. More than anything the family was one's defense against starvation, the padrone, the magistrates, strangers, and rival families. As in any survival unit, its strictures were often severe and its loyalties intense. And betrayals were not easily forgiven.
The Italian family could also be a terrible battleground within itself. "Nobody can hate like brothers," the saying goes, especially brothers (and sisters) who had a hard childhood ruled over by immigrant parents who themselves saw life as a series of impending catastrophes. I remember the many squabbles, grudges, and hurt feelings that passed between my father, his brothers and sisters and their respective spouses. The series of shifting alliances and realignments among them resembled the Balkan politics of an earlier era. Years later, as the siblings put the deprivations and insecurities of the immigrant family behind them and mellowed with age and prosperity and the advent of children and grandchildren of their own, they tended to get along much better with each other. It was a good example of how structural relations of the larger society influence personal relations.
I enjoyed the nourishing embrace of the big family gatherings, the outings at the beach, the picnics, parties and holiday dinners. The Italian holiday feast was a celebration of abundance with its endless platters of tasty well-seasoned foods. I wonder if those marathon meals were a kind of ritual performed by people who had lived too long in the shadows of want and hunger, a way of telling themselves that at least on certain days the good life was theirs. Whether or not there was any larger meaning to them, the dinners were enjoyed for themselves.
I have an especially fond memory of my maternal grandfather, Vincenzo, a stooped, toothless, unimposing old man who was my closest ally in early life. During his last years, finding himself relegated to the edges of the adult world, he entered wholeheartedly into my world, playing cards with me, taking me for walks around the block, watching with undisguised delight as I acted out my highly dramatized cowboy and Indian games. He always took my side and despite his infirmity was sometimes able to rescue me from the discipline of my parents—which is the God-given function of grandparents.
Years before, when Vincenzo was still a youngster in his late seventies and a widower, he was discovered to have a girl friend, a woman of about fifty-five years. She would steal into the house when no one was home and climb into bed with him. When family members discovered this tryst, they were outraged. My relatives denounced the woman as a whore of the worse sort, whose intent was to drive Grandpa to an early grave by overexerting his heart. (He died at age eighty-seven.) The poor lonely woman dared not see Vincenzo anymore; and poor Grandpa, after being scolded like a child, was kept under a sort of house arrest. In those days the idea that elderly parents might have sexual desires caused a furious embarrassment among their children.
After passing a certain age, Italian grandfathers were frequently made captives by their sons, daughters, older nieces and nephews, who all competed to put the old man under their protective custody. If a car came too close for comfort while the grandfather was crossing the street, as might happen to any pedestrian, the family would try to keep him from taking unaccompanied strolls, convinced that he could no longer judge traffic. If he misplaced his hat or scarf, as might anyone, he would be deemed unable to care for his personal effects. At the beach, if an Italian grandfather waded into the water much above his knees, one or another of his self-appointed guardians could be seen jumping up and down on the shore, waving frantically at him and shouting: "Papa's gonna drown! Somebody get him!" I read somewhere that this phenomenon of grandfather captivity still exists in parts of
I saw the protective custody game repeated with my paternal grandfather, Giuseppe, who in his later years presided in silence at the head of the table during holiday meals, a titular chieftain whose power had slipped away to his sons and sons-in-law who now earned the money and commanded their own households. While a certain deference was still paid him because of his age, more often he found himself, much to his annoyance, a victim of overprotection—which is a sure sign of powerlessness.
Years later in 1956, when an adult, I had occasion to have a few long talks with him and discovered that he was a most intelligent and engaging man—although he did have a number of opinions that were strange for that time, namely that country air was better for one's health than city air, canned foods were of little nutritional value, and physical exertion was better than sitting around doing nothing. Giuseppe also believed that doctors and hospitals could be dangerous to one's survival, automobiles were the ruination of cities, and too much emphasis was placed on money and material things. We treated such views as quaintly old-fashioned, having no idea that grandpa was merely ahead of his time.
After my birth the doctors warned my mother that with her congenital heart condition another pregnancy would be fatal. So I went through life as an only child. My mother tended to spoil me, for which she was criticized by her older sisters. More than once she mentioned how sorry she was that I had no brothers and sisters to play with, and she encouraged my playmates to come spend as much time as they wanted at our house. But I entertained no regrets about being an only child, for why would I want to share my lovely mother with some other little brat?
My father played a more distant role than my mother, as was the usual way in Italian working-class families—and in just about any other family where the division of labor is drawn along gender lines. He labored long hours for meager sums, sometimes two jobs at a time. Born in
My father understandably blamed his poor academic performance on his work burdens. As he put it: "I was too damn tired to learn to read and write." His fatigue often overcame him and he would fall asleep in class. He dropped out of school at age fourteen to work full time. Almost sixty years later, shortly before his death, I talked to him about his youthful days and recorded his thoughts. The things he remembered most were the toil, the humiliation of not being able to speak English, and the abuse he received from teachers. There was one bright spot, as he tells it:
The only teacher that cared about me was Miss Booth because she saw me carry ice a few times on
In his adult life, my father's friends were all men. Cross-gender friendships were not a common thing in those days. The women in a man's life consisted of his mother, his wife, his sisters, and other female relatives. He might know various women in the neighborhood and stop and chat with them briefly but it would have been considered inappropriate to let things develop further. To illustrate the patriarchal mentality of my father's world I might recall the time he informed me in troubled tones that Uncle Americo, while drunk one night, had started beating his wife, Aunt Fanny (my mother's sister). Americo's son, my cousin Eddy, forcibly intervened and wrestled his father to the floor. What shocked my father was not Americo's behavior but Eddy's. "I don't care what happens," he concluded, "a son should never raise a hand to his father"—a pronouncement that left me wondering what I would have done had I been in Eddy's place.
Hovering over us was the Great Depression, a mysterious force that explained why there was never enough money, why my father was away working all the time, why I couldn't have this or that new toy. I remember during one unusually difficult period my mother bought a small steak and cooked it for me as a special treat. She sat watching intently as every morsel disappeared into my mouth. When I offered her a piece she declined, saying she wasn't hungry. Only years later did I realize with a pang that she very much would have wanted some.
None of my relatives talked of "careers"; I don't think the word was in vogue among us. But everyone talked about jobs—or the fear of being without one. A high school education was considered an unusual accomplishment, and the one uncle who had graduated high school was considered something of a celebrity. My mother's dream was that I would someday get a high school diploma, for then all doors would be open to me. As she said, I would be able to "dress nice every day not just Sundays" and "work in an office," a fate that sounded worse than death to a spirited street boy.
Toward the end of World War II the struggle for survival eased a bit. My father got steady work driving his uncle's bread truck and my mother found a job in a neighborhood dress shop, toiling at a sewing machine all day. I pledged to her that someday I would earn lots of money so that she would never have to set foot in that sweatshop again, a vow that heartened her more because of its expression of concern than because she believed she would live to see the day. As it happened, when I was seventeen she died at age forty-three, still employed by the same shop.
During my childhood I would wonder about the world beyond East Harlem, about the strange inhabitants of downtown
When I was about twelve or thirteen I chanced upon a copy of Life magazine that contained an article describing
But the new lifestyle had a downside to it. One uncle, who used to have huge parties for friends and relatives in his home on Third Avenue complete with mandolins, accordions, and popular and operatic songs—drawn from the amateur talents of the guests themselves—now discovered that no one came to visit him on the outer edge of Queens. An aunt of mine, who had lived all her life within shouting distance of at least three of her sisters, tearfully told my mother how lonely she was way out in
In time, I went off to graduate school and saw far less of my extended family, as they did of each other. Years later in 1968 I got a call from my cousin Anthony asking me to attend a family reunion. It took place in Anthony's home in Queens, attended by a crowd of cousins and their fourth-generation children, the latter being youngsters whom I was meeting for the first time and for whom East Harlem was nothing more than a geographical expression, if that.
Time had brought its changes. The women wore coiffured hairdos and stylish clothes, and the men looked heavier. There was much talk about recent vacations and a slide show of Anthony's travels to
In the late 1970s I began to have recurring dreams, one every few months or so, continuing for a period of years. Unlike the recurring dreams portrayed in movies (in which the exact same footage is run and rerun) the particulars and fixtures of each dream in real life—or real sleep—differ, but the underlying theme is the same. In each dream I found myself living in a lovely apartment; sometimes it had spiral stairwells and bare brick walls and sometimes lavish wood paneling and fireplaces, but it always turned out to be a renovation of
We might think of recurring dreams as nightmarish, but these were accompanied by sensations of relief and yearning. The life past was being recaptured and renovated by the life now accomplished. The slum was being gentrified. The working-class Italian youth and the professional-class American academic were to live under the same roof. I had come home to two worlds apart. Never quite at home in either, I would now have the best of both. Once I understood the message, the dreams stopped.
Contrary Notions: The Michael Parenti Reader
Published by City Lights Books | www.citylights.com