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Friday, March 13, 2020

An Open Letter to Facebook Friends Who Support Bernie Sanders

An Open Letter to Facebook Friends who Support Bernie Sanders
You Aren't Voting Only for "Free College"

Dear Facebook Friends,

Mark, you sent me educational materials insisting that Bernie Sanders is a socialist, not a communist. Communists are bad; socialists are good. You did not object as three of your friends called me an anti-Semite because I don't support Bernie Sanders. Yes, the same Bernie Sanders who dubbed anti-Semite Ilhan Omar "One of the greatest people I know" is suddenly the poster boy for Jewish identity.

John, you posted a meme with a Harry Truman quote stating that "'Socialism' is a scare word they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years." Anyone who criticizes Bernie Sanders is part of some backward "they" who stands in the way of progress.

We Sanders critics are caricatures of Senator Joseph McCarthy. We are trying to start a new 1950s-style witch hunt, falsely accusing citizens of being communists, fomenting paranoia, ruining careers, sending innocents to the electric chair.

Or we are corporate shills, the privileged elite, perched on piles of ill-gotten gains, no doubt inherited from ancestors who were slave-owners and rapists-of-the-earth. We are greedy. We are bloated fat cats, hoarding the world's wealth in our tightly clenched fists.

Sometimes Bernie Bros stereotype Sanders critics as warmongers. We are characters out of Dr. Strangelove. We are just fixing for a fight, and, fists raised, we want to punch ourselves some Russkies.

Sometimes you dress us in denim overalls and plunk a straw hat on our heads and stick a blade of grass between our lips. We are yokels, lumpen proletariat, Faux News addicts. We are brainwashed, and otherwise unwashed, knuckle-dragging hayseeds. We are the masses who vote against our own self-interest. Sanders himself echoed this line. Anyone who criticizes his socialism, he wrote, is a victim of the "tremendous political ignorance in this country created by the schools and the media."

My friends, you post photos on Facebook that introduce me to your lives. These photos are replete with big porches begging for long, summer, Sunday afternoons, mountain ranges in alpenglow, expanses of pristine water punctuated by the paddles of canoes, and adorable granddaughters dabbling in finger paints. You post about books published and awards won. Somehow supporting Bernie Sanders christens you, economically successful and comfortable Americans, as spokespersons for and saviors of the masses, the working poor, the disenfranchised.

I, by contrast, am quite literally a coal-miner's daughter. I live well below the poverty line in one of America's most dangerous small cities. I post the latest record tally of police officers posed in action figure posture twenty feet from my window, my former-silk-mill apartment walls splashed with the hypnotic, throbbing red and blue lights from multiple police cars. I try to figure out what the police are here to address this time, another suicide off the Wayne Avenue Bridge or Garret Mountain's cliff face, or heroin haul, or gun pulled in the bar across the street.

I'm the one, not you, who has done manual, blue-and-pink collar labor for years at a time, as my sole means of support. I've been a nurse's aide, house cleaner, live-in domestic servant, carpenter, zookeeper, waitress, and landscaper. I'm the one who is supposed to be voting for Benevolent Uncle Bernie, who will swoop in and jackknife the millionaires and the billionaires and hand me the workers' paradise I deserve. "Arise ye prisoners of starvation … From each according to his ability, to each according to his need … Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains." I know the lyrics; I just do not want to sing along.

This dichotomy isn't just about you and me. It's worldwide. I listen to NPR and David Remnick and Brian Lehrer, two highly educated, very successful and powerful white men, hammer in to me that they, not I, really know what it is to be poor in America. They, not I, have the right to dictate for whom I should vote. I must, in their drama, sneer at the more moderate candidates I prefer, the ones who talk about patriotism, hard work, obeying the law, incremental improvements, and compromise with opposing parties. It's the Catholic Church that oppresses me, they insist. It's capitalism. It's that irredeemably tainted project, America, that I must hate and fear. It's not millionaire socialists like Bernie Sanders.

Bernie Sanders is not a communist, you tell me. He is a socialist. Communists are the ones responsible for this or that unfortunate mass grave in a galaxy long, long ago and far, far away. Socialists are warm and fuzzy philanthropists responsible for free college and healthcare-as-a-human-right.

You are playing a semantics shell game. Both Marx and Engels used the terms "communism" and "socialism" interchangeably. The Proletariat Party, the Social Democratic Party, The Independent Social Democratic Party, the Spartacus League, The Communist Party: these are the parties Rosa Luxemburg belonged to, one after the other, the same poison product rebranded with a new and improved name. Don't like the crimes committed in the name of Marxism? Don't address the crimes; just change the name of the party. The movie Life of Brian parodied this leftist game. Ancient Israelites, living under Roman oppression, are talking politics.

"Are you the Judean People's Front?" a passerby asks them.

"F--- off! We're the People's Front of Judea! Judean People's Front are wankers. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the f---ing Judean People's Front, and the Judean Popular People's Front."

Maybe Bernie Sanders sees important differences between socialism and communism. But he has said, "I don't mind people coming up and calling me a Communist." And Sanders is on record praising the USSR, Communist China, Castro's Cuba, Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega. And people calling themselves "socialist" have a lot to answer for.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Bernie Sanders signed a letter of support for Venezuela's socialist leader Hugo Chavez in January of 2003, even as Chavez's troops were firing tear gas at tens of thousands of Venezuelans protesting his rule. Chavez was also threatening to revoke broadcast licenses of anyone who criticized him. There was "property confiscation at gunpoint, politically motivated arrests, and state-sponsored gang violence." Socialist Chavez is largely responsible for a world-record-setting humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

The Journal noted the name game Marxists play. "Whether Mr. Sanders wants to call the humanitarian disaster he encouraged in Venezuela socialism or 'democratic' socialism, the press should not allow him to escape accountability."

Of communist China, Sanders said that, "they have made more progress in addressing extreme poverty than any country in the history of civilization, so they've done a lot of things for their people." Estimates of communism's death toll in China run between 40 and 80 million. China has been able, in recent years, to lift people out of poverty because China allowed the selective application of capitalism.

In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Sanders said about Cuba, "It's unfair to simply say everything is bad … When Fidel Castro came to office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?"

In other interviews, Sanders said about Castro that he "educated the kids, gave them health care, totally transformed the society … The revolution is far deeper and more profound than I had understood it to be … It is a revolution of values in which people, instead of working for their own personal wealth, work for the common good."

Before Castro, the literacy rate in Cuba was 77%. That's not bad for a small, mostly agrarian island in the mid-twentieth century. Yes, Castro can claim raising the literacy rate to 100%. But Castro's Cuba must also take responsibility for banning and burning books, and for extensive legal sanction against any production of words that criticize the ruling powers in any way. For example, anyone in Cuba who "threatens, libels or slanders, defames, affronts or in any other way insults or offends, with the spoken word or in writing, the dignity or decorum of an authority, public functionary, or his agents or auxiliaries" is subject to three months to one year in prison, plus a fine.

In his famous "Words to the Intellectuals," Castro said that the Cuban artist

puts the Revolution above everything else, and the most revolutionary artist will be that one who is prepared to sacrifice even his own artistic vocation for the Revolution … Nothing against the Revolution, because the Revolution has its rights also, and the first right of the Revolution is the right to exist, and no one can stand against the right of the Revolution to be and to exist … No one can rightfully claim a right against the Revolution. Since it takes in the interests of the people and Signifies the interests of the entire nation … I believe that this is quite clear. What are the rights of revolutionary or non-revolutionary writers and artists? Within the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, no rights at all.

Castro, like a Bernie Bro, declares that he, not those counter-revolutionary writers and thinkers, has the authority to represent the working poor. Flaunting that self-awarded imprimatur, Castro further declares that he has the right and duty to decide what artists can create, what writers can write, and what readers can read. If Sanders were being honest, he would mention that Castro's literacy program was created not to free, but to imprison human minds.

In 1987, as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders wrote to Cuban representative Ramón Sánchez-Parodi, inviting Sánchez-Parodi to visit Burlington. Remember, though the Nobel-prize-winning critic of the Gulag system, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, lived in Vermont, 1976-1994, he and Sanders never met. But Sanders did work to meet Cubans and Soviets.

Sanders is on record as making extraordinarily insensitive comments about the socialist Sandinista government's mistreatment of Miskito Indians. When confronted with Miskito reports of deadly attacks by Sandinistas, Sanders responded, "It happens not to be an area of my interest." Criticism of the Sandinistas, he said, must be understood "in the context of the society we are living in. When you discuss what is going on now, you have to look at the alternatives." Real Clear Politics reporter Philip Wegman wrote,

According to reporter Debbie Bookchin, who would later serve as press secretary for Sanders during his years in the House of Representatives, that meant improved health care, access to education, and increased literacy overall. Apparently annoyed that he was being pushed on the Miskito issue, he shot back, "I really don't think the people of Rutland are staying up nights worrying about this."

The New York Post quotes Sanders as saying, about the mistreatment of Miskito, "The word genocide is nonsense … It is a complicated issue. I'm not an expert."

Sanders' quotes on Sandinista mistreatment of the Miskito bring to mind the proverb, "In order to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs." It astounds me that these quotes have not received more press attention, and that they did not factor into the Democratic debates. Joe Biden was called to task for his lack of support for busing, and Mike Bloomberg was pilloried for jokes. Surely Sanders' wink and nod towards Sandinista persecution of Miskito is more grave.  

Sanders honeymooned in the USSR. He did so in 1988, reporting, "People there seemed reasonably happy and content … I didn't notice much deprivation."

Bernie Bros, please do me this favor. Perform a Google image search of "Leipzig 1989." Thousands of people jam public squares and streets. These people have free college. These people have free health care. What they want is written on their signs: "FREIHEIT," translated as "liberty" or "freedom." You can almost hear, through these archival photos, their chant: "Wir sind das Volk," "We are the people."

Their chant reminds me of the tension between you and me, the tension between me and the NPR talking heads who tell me that they, not I, represent the working class. Their chant calls to mind Castro's insistence that he can tell writers what to write and readers what to read because he, Castro, represents the people.

We are the people, you bastards, these East Germans said to their betters, to their vanguard. We are the people, not you.

The word "people" had been co-opted by Marxists to justify oppression. This is the people's democratic republic. This is the people's housing. This is the people's censorship office. This is the people's army. This is the people's police. This is the people's water cannon, the people's tear gas, the people's truncheon breaking your counterrevolutionary skull. We are doing what we do for the people. Leipzig was in East Germany, perhaps the most oppressive of the Soviet satellite states. These protesters risked everything to take back the word "people" from the communists who stole it from them.

I've never stood over a mass grave. Unlike my Facebook friend Anna, my mother, father, aunts and uncles were not deported to Kolyma and other Siberian camps for the sole crime of being Polish in territory the Soviet Union wanted. By the way, Bernie Bros, have you heard of Kolyma? You've heard of Auschwitz, and I can take your knowledge of that manmade hell for granted. But I cannot take for granted your awareness of Kolyma. That's part of the problem, guys.

When I was a kid, we were in constant contact with my mother's family. I don't have any dramatic stories from these letters, just the drip, drip, drip of censorship, threats, stolen items we tried to send them, and petty harassment. Their letters, in words and silences, told us what Marxism was like on the ground. We visited in the 1970s.

I remember my aunt who had been gang raped by the invading – oh, sorry, liberating – Red Army. She had what we would now call PTSD and lived a limited life. No one thought she would marry but she fell in love with a rare gentleman. He was a dissident who had been non-personed. He couldn't work, had to live under constant surveillance, and contact with him compromised anyone who dared talk to him. He was brilliant, courageous, and charismatic, and one of the most intellectually dynamic men I'd ever meet. His intellect, his decency, his dynamism, were limited to the walls of his apartment. Wasted. Because his qualities did not serve "the people."

Can you imagine, I wonder, how deeply this man's tragedy gouged a hole in my soul? That I feel him, right now, even as I write about this, and choke back tears?

I remember standing with my cousin and her friends on a dirt road, next to oceanic fields of wheat and rye, blue cornflowers and shockingly red poppies; I remember distant green mountains and the ruins of a castle. We were talking about something. I don't remember what. What girls talk about. Laughing, freewheeling. And I asked my cousin what she thought of X. I don't even remember what X was. And suddenly she looked terrified, and stopped, and silenced herself, and looked around, and everyone else did the same, and the conversation died.

There were no police around, no lampshade to hide a microphone. And they killed the conversation because I innocently asked, "What do you think of X?"

My Uncle Jan was slim, muscular, and self-reliant, making his way on an acre of land, a pig, rabbits, chickens, crops, beehives, pork parts hanging from hooks in the cellar, no stove, no refrigerator. Survived Nazism. My mother and I were chatting, again, I don't remember about what, and he jumped up from the table and shouted, "Shut up! Shut up! Don't you realize what you are doing? A man sang 'Slovak som aj Slovak budem' in the bar and he was taken away and we never heard from him again!"

I could go on all day with stories like this…

Oh, just one more. This one is from Poland, 1988. Jacek had received a scholarship to the UK. He recruited me to teach him some English. We were sitting in his dorm room. He opened a notebook and, pen poised above the paper,  asked me for the English translation of the very first word that came to his mind, a word he thought for sure he would need while shopping for food. "Smalec." Lard.

"Jacek," I assured him, "When you get hungry in Western Europe, you are not going to need to know how to say, 'lard.'"

Okay, okay, just one more story, also from Poland, 1988.

I went to a gynecologist. She had me strip and mount the table with the stirrups. When she had me all strapped in, she abruptly opened  the window across from me, exposing me to passersby in an alley. She jammed a wooden Q-tip in my privates, broke it, and then she left the room. Later, I told Polish friends. They said, "You didn't put dollars in the cup?"

"What cup?"

"There was a cup on her desk. You were supposed to put dollars in it. That's how you get health care."

One more story. Just one more, I promise.

Beata heard that someone was traveling to West Berlin for the weekend. She gave this American her entire month's salary so that the American might bring back to her one spool of turquoise thread.  

On Thursday, March 5, 2020, some lunatic raised a Nazi flag at a Bernie Sanders rally. Bernie Bros were outraged. Mass murder is very bad!

I said to you, "So, we are supposed to remember, be outraged by, and protest atrocities committed by Nazis. But we are supposed to forget, forgive, and move past atrocities committed by Marxists."

Why is it okay to wear a t-shirt with Mao's, Stalin's, or Che's face, but not okay to wear a t-shirt with Hitler's face? Why is the swastika taboo, but the hammer and sickle is okay? 

Bernie Bros, you are politically correct. You are part of a social machine that advocates fines and professional termination for people who commit such offenses as referring to a biological male, who self-identifies as female, as "he." You've given the world safe spaces and sensitivity training. You never let Mitt Romney forget that he said "binders full of women."

Tens of millions of dead in the name of Marxism? Not even a footnote to you, as The Atlantic points out in its March 1, 2020 article, "Young People Don't Care About the U.S.S.R." Those who died under the hammer and sickle need their Anne Frank. Tens of millions – you can't get your mind around that. We need one named victim of Marxism that you might, you just might, be able to care about.

How about Chen Shuxiang? On August, 27, 1966, Shuxiang's mother walked into a room where he and his five siblings were hiding. "She was covered in blood; it was all over her face and her body," Shuxiang recalls. "She didn't look like a human being." The blood was his father's. She told her children that their father was dead. She had witnessed his murder. 

Teenagers, members of the Red Guard, had chained Shuxiang's father, Chen Yanrong, to a radiator and beaten him to death with iron bars, ropes, and belts. This was part of the Cultural Revolution. Chen Shuxiang thought to ask, "What mistake did we make? What did we do?" But of course he and his father were guilty only of being impediments on the road to free college and healthcare-as-a-human-right, or whatever promises Marxists were making that day. The murder would eventually be ruled an accidental death.

"My father was a human being, not an animal. He wasn't a cat or a dog. He was a person. They beat him to death in just a few hours," Shuxiang would protest fifty years later. Shuxiang complied a dossier documenting communist crimes. "It took me 10 years to write. It was so hard for me. Each time I tried to remember my father, I couldn't help but cry … We don't know where you are, but you will be in our hearts forever … You are an honest man, genuine, kind … We will always miss you."

"Fifty years after the murder," The Guardian reported, "Chen weeps as he says he does not even have a photograph to remember his father. 'Taking a photo was a luxury.'"

Roderick MacFarquhar, the author of Mao's Last Revolution "says Beijing's refusal to allow a truth commission … has left the door open to further violence … 'They haven't done the heart-searching that is necessary if you are going to put it behind you forever … if one doesn't face up to that, it could happen again.'"

Bernie Bros, believe me, I know exactly what you are thinking. "They" – that is the Marxists who committed atrocities on the road to Utopia – "They did Marxism wrong. We are going to do Marxism right."

Or maybe you are thinking, as one Facebook friend put it, "France has free college. There are no gulags in France."

I remember back in the days when I was a fellow traveler among card-carrying, active party members. Impassioned debates would go on into the night. If this or that historical sequence had been altered by as little as the equivalent of one frame of film, everything would have gone differently. If Lenin had not died. If America had only done this; if England had only not done that; if Trotsky had filed his nails differently; if Bukharin had used a different brand of mouthwash, then, comrades, yes, yes, then! We'd see real Marxism, the real workers' paradise! Humane, fair, just! Read this pamphlet by Rosa Luxemburg and it will all become clear!

One of you insisted, "Hey! Bernie Sanders is no Stalin!"

Well, yeah, Bernie Sanders is no Joseph Stalin. Stalin actually got things done. Even Sanders-friendly voices acknowledge that he has a slender resume, a slight list of accomplishments. If Stalin had wanted student loan debt eliminated, believe me, it would have happened immediately. Or heads would roll.

Stalin got things done through state terror. Ukrainians refuse to collectivize? Starve them to death in their millions. Sanders doesn't starve anyone to death, but he doesn't get things done. Am I implying that Sanders' ideas are unworkable in contemporary America? Yes. Prove me wrong. Get Americans to vote for Sanders' $97 trillion budget. Sell just this part of it – convince American taxpayers to assume the burden of other people's college loans. And get back to me when you are successful. I can wait.

Sanders hasn't just praised bloody, oppressive communist dictatorships, he uses their same rhetorical approaches and logic. Again and again, Sanders insists that there are bad guys out there, bad guys who are responsible for all the evils of society. Those bad guys are "millionaires and billionaires."

Would you understand how toxic, false, and irresponsible Sanders' hatemongering and scapegoating is if, instead of telling us to isolate, hate, and blame "millionaires and billionaires," he was telling us to hate, isolate, and blame Jews? Or educated people? Or members of some group other than the rich?

Why do you think singling out the rich for hatred is innocent? Do you know what has happened to rich Chinese, say, in Indonesian and Malaysian riots? I'll tell you what happens. Rich Chinese are singled out for torture and rape. Do you know that economic resentment has long been a significant spark for anti-Jewish pogroms, and that it also played a role in the Armenian Genocide?

Most people don't know millionaires and billionaires. When the revolution starts, it isn't only millionaires and billionaires whose homes are ransacked. In the Cambodian killing fields, the Khmer Rouge focused on persecuting anyone who wore glasses. When Soviet Russians rounded up Poles for Siberia, they targeted stamp collectors. Wearing glasses, collecting stamps: activities associated with a better class of people. People with more than you have become acceptable targets. It's okay to bash them over the head and take what they have, because they caused all these problems. Benevolent Uncle Bernie told me so.

In 1973, in The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described a different, Christian, moral universe. "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

It's not just in his scapegoating and hate-mongering that Sanders is like more successful Marxists like Stalin. Sanders has said that he is not a capitalist, that he does not believe in the profit motive or free enterprise, does not believe that the profit motive is fundamental to human nature, and that he does not believe in competition. And one of you told me how great such a society would be. A society where we would all be equal. A society where we cooperated rather than competed. I assigned her some reading: Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron." I hope she reads it.

It's funny. Some of the same folks who embrace Sanders are proud of how science-y they are. "We're all about truth and facts!" Truth and facts, like evolution. Like the idea that competition isn't just a filthy, rotten, capitalist tool of oppression. Competition is how life on planet earth works. Species compete among their fellows and with each other. That competition hones life to its finest. Remove competition and you have the life we lived in communist Poland.

I keep struggling to describe to Bernie Bros what it was like to live in a "socialist republic." I keep throwing in the towel. Unless you lived through it, you can't know what it was like.

Imagine that you live in a world where it is taboo to attempt to score, to excel, to be higher, faster, or stronger. Where football players are anointed not on how far they can throw, how fast they can run, or how hard they can hit, but on how much their identity fits some government-decreed quota. Imagine a football game consisting  of folks in uniform milling about on the field. No cheering; too sexist. And then everyone goes home. And  then imagine a subterranean economy and social life that is rife with competition and black market deals and men in long coats on street corners whispering that they will give you a hundred times the official rate for your American money, because he needs hard currency, dollars, to shove in the cup at the doctor's office or his kid won't be seen. You maybe begin to understand what day-to-day life is like without competition, without the profit motive, where everyone is equal.

Bernie Bros, I think you don't care about my aunt, my cousins, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Chen Shuxiang, Venezuelan women prostituting themselves for a sandwich, Cuban poets rotting in jail, or the countless and uncountable tens of millions of other victims of socialism, communism, and other forms of Marxism.

I'm not saying you are cold and uncaring. I'm saying you are incorrect.

One more story. I promise this will be the last one. When I was younger, I lived in New York City and I hung out with American communists. These were folks who carried party cards and sold newspapers on subways and attended endless meetings. One of them was named "Mack." Mack was one of the most active, the most dedicated. He was also an intravenous drug user. He contracted hepatitis and was hospitalized. And none of his comrades ever visited him in the hospital.

I heard this story from several party members. I used to ask everyone who told me this story the same question: You are idealistic. You want a better world. Why not create that better world now, with your day-to-day decisions and behaviors? Why not be nice to people, donate to charities, maybe tutor literacy, that sort of thing?

Again and again, from several party members, I received the same answer. Our belief that we have the ability to make choices now, to improve anything now, is delusional. Being nice to someone is not a powerful act. It is the act of someone who has been brainwashed by capitalists. We are currently powerless. Ameliorative projects, from sending a get-well card to a friend to programs like Social Security, are chimeras designed to trick us. Ameliorative projects are the real opiate of the masses.

The better world can only come about after the workers control the means of production. We must spread propaganda convincing more and more workers to join the struggle against capital. If we spend our time visiting Mack in the hospital, we delay the revolution. The thing to do is to hit the subways and sell more copies of the party newspaper.

Not everyone is as hardcore, or as conscious of this reasoning, as my former comrades. But I do see those who shout the loudest about the need for a spectacular, world-cleansing revolution, including Bernie Bros, as often the least likely to pursue simple decency in the here-and-now world. There is so much emphasis on a future worker's paradise that the here-and-now world slips into insignificance. I believe that that future workers' paradise, as has been demonstrated by failed socialist / communist / Marxist regimes again and again, can never happen, because it defies human nature, a nature that is, yes, competitive and reward-driven, a nature that yearns to be free. You, Bernie Bros, do not believe that. So you are signing up, yet again, for what you think will be a straight-line rocket trajectory to a better future, but is really just another disillusioning ride on a stuck-in-place merry-go-round.

In 1982, after the USSR clamped down on Solidarity in Poland, Susan Sontag gave a speech at Town Hall in New York City. Sontag said,

There are many lessons to be learned from the Polish events. But, I would maintain, the principal lesson to be learned is the lesson of the failure of Communism, the utter villainy of the Communist system. It has been a hard lesson to learn. And I am struck by how long it has taken us to learn it … I can remember reading a chapter of Czeslaw Milosz's The Captive Mind … When it came out in 1953, I bought the book, a passionate account of the dishonesty and coerciveness of intellectual and cultural life in Poland in the first years of Communism, which troubled me but which I also regarded as an instrument of cold war propaganda, giving aid and comfort to McCarthyism …  We believed in, or at least applied a double standard to, the angelic language of Communism …  We thought we loved justice; many of us did. But we did not love the truth enough … We tried to distinguish among Communisms, for example, treating "Stalinism," which we disavowed, as if it were an aberration, and praising other regimes, outside of Europe, which had and have essentially the same character … Communism is in itself … fascism with a human face … In our efforts to criticize and reform our own societies, we owe it to those in the front line of struggle against tyranny to tell the truth, without bending it to serve interests we deem are just.

This first appeared at Front Page Magazine here

Monday, March 9, 2020

"From Fire by Water" Sohrab Ahmari Book Review

Iran-Born Shiite Muslim, Marxist, Catholic Convert, Conservative Author, and Ardent Trump Supporter

Sohrab Ahmari was born in Iran, grew up Muslim, immigrated to Utah in the United States, became a Marxist, left Marxism, became a conservative journalist, and converted to Catholicism in 2016, when he was 31 years old. His 2019 memoir, From Fire by Water, describes this journey.

Ahmari made national headlines with his May, 2019 First Things op-ed, "Against David Frenchism." In that piece, Ahmari argued that Christians must resist cultural trends like drag queen story hour and the "paganized ideology" of "elite institutions." Christians must "fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good." Donald Trump, Ahmari argued, is the Christians' ally in this culture war against pagan ideology. Trump has shifted politics and culture "away from autonomy-above-all toward order, continuity, and social cohesion. He believes that the political community – and not just the church, family, and individual – has its own legitimate scope for action. He believes it can help protect the citizen from transnational forces beyond his control."

Ahmari's piece touched off a widespread debate among conservatives. Critics accused Ahmari of arguing for a Christian theocracy in the US. His article could have been titled "For Theocracy," said Nico Perrino of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

I could not wait to read From Fire by Water. I imagined it would be like Seeking Allah; Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi, Nonie Darwish's Wholly Different, and Mosab Hassan Yusef's Son of Hamas. All these books dramatically recount their authors' conversion from Islam to Christianity. I also thought From Fire by Water would be like David Horowitz's Radical Son and Mortality and Faith, memoirs that also follow the journey of a former leftist who became a prominent conservative author.

In fact From Fire by Water is not like any of these books. Ahmari was never much of a Muslim, in spite of growing up in Iran, and his journey was more gradual, cerebral, solitary, and bookish than those of the previously mentioned authors.  

Initial news accounts of Ahmari's conversion often mischaracterized his journey. "If I was reacting against anything, it was against the materialism and relativism that had taken root in the West beginning in the nineteenth century. I had turned my back against Marx, Nietzsche, and Foucault, not the prophet Muhammad, whose religion had left only faint imprints on my soul by the time I entered adulthood."

Ahmari's Iranian family was not particularly observant of Islam. They were members of the well-to-do educated elite, living in Tehran, the capital city. Their faith "such as it was," "amounted to a kind of liberal sentimental ecumenism." Islam was worthwhile insofar as it contained some humanistic elements. Zoroastrianism was revered because it arose in ancient Persia. Christianity "was simply wonderful, a gentle, Western religion." Armenian Christians in Iran were his family's source for wine, arak, and salami.

"I thought I was American before I ever set foot in the United States," he writes. He arrived just before turning 14 years old. He already spoke English fluently, with an American accent he had picked up from the movies. He had concluded that the West was superior to Iran, based on the elegant packaging of Toblerone chocolate bars. Relatives returning from trips West brought with them the scent of a better world. Iran smelled of "dust mingled with stale rosewater." Iranian culture alternated between "burning, ideological rage" and "mournful nostalgia." Iranian narratives were informed by fatalism that dictated misfortune. In Western narratives, heroes confronted obstacles that they overcame, all through their own gumption. In the West, "an individual mattered as an individual." In contrast, a boy who donned a suicide vest and threw himself at an Iraqi tank was one prototypical Iranian hero.

Ahmari writes that he would eventually discover that those Western action heroes, capable of changing their own fate, were not rooted in the careful packaging of Toblerone bars, Western air freshener, or any other expression of consumer-item superiority. Eventually, he says, "I would find the heart of the West somewhere entirely different – in events that took place on a dusty, bloodstained hilltop on the outskirts of ancient Jerusalem."

Niloofar, Ahmari's mother, studied abstract expressionist painting at a university. Ahmari tells us that she was "sweet tempered, mild to a fault, and something of a great beauty," but he never tells us much more about her.

The author describes his father Parviz at greater length. Parviz Ahmari was unconventional, a man of "sensuous self-indulgence" and "utterly incapable of restraining his passions." He smoked and drank heavily, and was "a thoroughly irresponsible husband and father … rumors of mistresses, gambling, and opium addiction swirled around him."

"All Iranians had to perfect the art of leading double lives." Young Sohrab had to be trained not to talk about his family's behavior in front of strangers who might deliver his family members to government imprisonment or torture. A family friend was caught with cassettes of Western music and flogged. "The skin on his back" looked "permanently like challah bread." Ahmari's family was once interrogated for two hours because there was an unrelated man in the same car with his parents. The police suggested that the only reason the man was there was for a planned ménage-à-trois. As in Iran's theocracy, children must also be trained in communist dictatorships. Don't tell strangers what books mommy and daddy read, what jokes they tell, what foods they consume, and what company they keep.

Alcohol is forbidden in Islam, but the Ahmari family attended parties where alcohol was served. Unrelated men and women mingled at these parties. When discovered by the komiteh or morality police, the police would lecture them sternly, accusing them of behaving like customers at a whorehouse. The Ahmaris and others had to empty their pockets to pay bribes. Upon receiving the bribes, the komiteh would be on their way, forgetting any question of upholding public virtue.

Similar hypocrisy reigned in schools. One teacher upbraided Sohrab for his "Westoxication," an Islamist slur for Iranians who valued the West. That same teacher kept Sohrab after school in order to access his family's "movie guy," who provided bootlegged, contraband videotapes of Western films. The West-hating Muslim teacher wanted to see Titanic. When Sohrab and his mother announced their move to America, this same devout Muslim teacher, eager to condemn "Westoxication," asked Niloofar about the green card process. "He, too, hankered for the Great Satan's embrace."

As in other authoritarian systems, the worst rose to the top. One Koran teacher was a sadist in sweat-stained, ill-fitting clothes, "the very type of the uncouth provincial who, thanks to the revolution, had suddenly come to wield great authority in a big-city school." He forced children to assume stress positions for extended periods and sent them reeling with his blows. "Mr. Sadeghi was a bruiser." Sadeghi trained children in regarding self-sacrifice for Islam as the highest good. Remembering Hussein, a Shiite hero, "the sound of some four hundred men and boys beating their chests filled the schoolyard."

The family's live-in maid, a "homely, illiterate old woman," told little Sohrab ghost and djinn stories. "All of her stories had the same moral … it was always the skeptical characters whom the djinn would drag into the netherworld." Ahmari became an atheist around age 12. Ahmari realized he had made the break with his childhood belief when he stopped believing in djinn. Ahmari says that "if the Islamic Republic collapsed one day, it would leave behind the world's largest community of atheists."

In 1998, Ahmari, his mother and grandmother immigrated to Utah. A bookish boy, he rapidly became a teacher's darling. In classroom debates, he would argue for infanticide in order to get a rise out of others. He considered himself a nihilist and began to read Friedrich Nietzsche. Ahmari read Thus Spake Zarathustra "belly down on my bed … barely stepping out to eat and wash." "Values are relative," he learned. "What was wrong for the many was, perhaps, right for the few … all faith is but a fanciful tale that helps weak minds cope … organized religion is a con played by the hustling cleric on his gullible flock."

Seeing similarities between Nietzsche's concept of the Ubermensch and the communist concept of the vanguard that would lead the mass of men to a brighter future, "by the age of eighteen, I was quite literally a card-carrying Communist." Ahmari changed colleges and traveled from Utah to Washington in order to be closer to communist comrades. By the time he joined the Party, communism had already been discredited by the fall of the Soviet Union. Why, then, did he join? "The thrill of épater les bourgeois" and to act out his disappointment that the American he migrated to was not the America of his childhood imaginings.

Ahmari continued to spend days reading, no doubt belly down on his bed. He worked through Foucault, Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Judith Butler. He hung out with other "cool" guys, also readers. He drank and often woke up painfully hungover and wondering what he had done the night before. "In those black hours, it did me no good to recall that all moral norms are historically contingent or that resisting Western hegemony Is the duty of the subaltern." He would pray, and then feel ashamed of himself for praying.

Ahmari graduated college and joined Teach for America. This was the turning point. No longer was Ahmari lying belly-down on his bed, alone in his room, reading. Suddenly he was responsible for other young lives. "At the slightest contact with reality, much of the bosh that clouded my mind dissipated." Ahmari met Yossi, an Israeli-American. They almost had a physical fight. Yossi once called Ahmari an "anti-Semitic piece of garbage." But Yossi's example would change Ahmari's life.

Yossi went against the Teach for America grain. He did not teach his students to feel like helpless victims and future troops in inevitable class warfare. Yossi demanded order, responsibility, and consequences. Observing Yossi's example, Ahmari concluded, "Character and virtue, then, preceded material circumstances; leftist ideology put the cart before the horse. People and their conduct weren't reducible to language, race, class, and collective identities."

These reflections caused Ahmari to realize that there is an internal measure of virtue. From whence that internal guide, if there is no God? Ahmari educated himself about the dark side of communism. He concluded that "To restrain man's hand against man, he has to be bound by some absolute authority outside himself … How was it possible to uphold the dignity of the person if there wasn't something special about his origins?"

Ahmari found the answer to these questions in the Judeo-Christian tradition. "Western democracies were morally superior … because they still hewed to a Judeo-Christian line … if I savored the ordered liberty that I saw around me, I had to give credit to the religious ideals that had given birth to it." Eventually he would come to conclude that "A skeptical and infertile West lacked the spiritual resource to deal with an energetic and virile Islam … To deal humanely and intelligently with Islam … Americans and Europeans needed to honor their own Judeo-Christian roots."

One Sunday evening, afraid of appearing a "gullible sap," Ahmari walked into a Catholic church. During the re-enactment of the Last Supper, he broke into sobs. "I was in the proximity of an awesome and mysterious force, a force bound up with sacrifice, with self-giving unto death."

As ever, books brought him around, specifically, Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses and Joseph Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth. The universality and timelessness of the Bible caused him to ask if the Bible was the work of "human hands alone." The Bible is simply not comparable to other religious works that are thousands of years old. Most Pagan texts are "of merely archaeological, historical, or literary interest; the Torah was a living text that spoke fresh truths across a distance of three thousand years." The story of the Fall offers a truer insight than can be found in more recent attempts to explain human nature. People are broken, and no intervention, short of Jesus' sacrifice, will fix us. Of course Ahmari read Augustine. "All false doctrines, Augustine said, seek to negate man's responsibility for sin."

From Fire by Water is largely a journal of books read and interior life. One chapter, "The House on the Cape of Olives," stands out as quite different. Ahmari describes, on journalistic assignment, posing as an Iranian migrant traveling along the route from countries like Afghanistan into Europe. This chapter evokes Ahmari's experience vividly. A group of men hide out in a migrant safe house. The house is crawling with cockroaches. "Migration itself is a form of jihad!" one insists. Another man, a sadistic bully, torments an effeminate boy. This chapter is brief but unforgettable. Ahmari includes it, he says, to demonstrate what a hell on earth human beings can make for each other, absent God.

Again, From Fire by Water is not like the other memoirs I had read about Muslims converting to Christianity or left-wingers moving right. It is very much a book about a man for whom reading big-name authors is a primary activity. I was truly astounded by the "Cape of Olives" chapter because I had begun to wonder if Ahmari could write narrative prose with description, characters, and plot. Clearly he can, and he can do so superbly.

I'm a more plebian Catholic than Ahmari. My religion is less about what I read and more about what I do, and how I interact with others. As a woman, I was troubled by the relative silence of women in this text. Clearly Ahmari's mother is a key figure, but he says next to nothing about her. Yes, there are Islamic constraints on how much a man can discuss his mother in public. But Ahmari does vividly describe what appear to be two prostitutes who try to drum up business during his assignment as a faux migrant.

For this review to be complete, I have to mention Ahmari's insistence on unquestioning obedience to clerical authority. Ahmari was instructed in Catholicism by a priest who asked him few questions, and invited no discussion. "This was catechesis, not a dialogue … what, really, did I have to say to the Church that she needed to hear? Nothing."

Ahmari's silent, unquestioning submission is very much not exemplary of Biblical or Church tradition. God converses with humans, including the lowliest, throughout the Bible. Adam, Cain, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, The Samaritan Woman at the Well, all converse, argue, debate and bargain with God or angels, voicing their most mundane concerns, which God takes seriously. Hannah, a woman shunned because of her barrenness, named her son "Samuel," meaning "Heard by God." Jacob's name was changed to "Israel," "He who wrestles with God," after Jacob did just that. St. Teresa of Avila, a Doctor of the Church, complained to God about falling in mud. She also griped about her wagons getting stuck in mud. "If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them," she famously said, to the creator of the universe.

Ahmari acknowledges an accusation made by not a few critics. "Had I found in the Catholic faith a way to express the reactionary longings of my Persian soul?" I don't know. I do know that unquestioning obedience to Catholic clerics has a spotty history in recent days. I think, of course, of the clerical abuse crisis. My Catholic Church is a church that can handle questions, and provide answers, and participate in dialogue.

My other hesitation about From Fire by Water. I keep thinking of that young man "belly down" on his bed, reading some great author or other. Ahmari details his own history from influential author to influential author. I wish From Fire by Water had provided the reader with greater assurance that Ahmari is finally home, and he won't be moving to any new ideology any time soon. He does provide a careful roadmap. Nihilism, Marxism and postmodernism left him with questions, questions that were answered overwhelmingly during the mass' reenactment of the Last Supper. I just wish I could feel more secure that my new brother in faith won't go through the process he has gone through before, that is, finding a new author or ideology that refutes the previous one.

Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery

This review first appeared in Front Page Magazine here