Imperial Massacres

Denied post mortem imagery of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, the world now has at its disposal photographs of Muammar Qaddafi, dispatched with a bullet  to the head after being wounded by NATO’s ground troops outside Sirte. Did the terminal command, Finish Him Off, come via cell phone from the US State Department whose Secretary, Hillary Clinton,  had earlier called for his death, or by dint of local initiative?  At all events, since Qaddafi was a prisoner at the time of his execution, it was a war crime and I trust that  in the years of her retirement Mrs Clinton will be detained amid some foreign vacation and handed a subpoena.

My friend and neighbor in Petrolia,  Joe Paff, wrote a response to a dreadful story about Qaddafi’s killing on Yahoo’s site, commenting “This kind of gloating is bound to come back and bite your butt. Imagine how many people in the world would like to see Netanyahu or Obama dragged from their hiding holes and tortured.  It will take about six months for everyone to regret the ‘new’ Libyan ‘democrats.’”

Yahoo’s initial electronic response was to write to Joe,  “Oops! Try again”. So he checked “post” a second time. Yahoo then rewrote his comment, complete with misspellings, stripped of any  mention of Netanyahu or Obama, and “posted” it, as “This is the kind of gloating that comes back and bites you on the butt. Just imagine how many peopel in the world would like to see Americans dragged through the streets and tortured to death.” As Joe wrote me, “Just another small episode in artificial intelligence and the present taboos.”

I suppose the first triumphalist imperial post mortem photo of such an execution in my lifetime  I can recall is that of Che Guevara, killed on the CIA’s orders at La Higuera in Bolivia on October 9, 1967. Perhaps Che’s finest hour came with his leadership of the Cuban anti-imperial forces deployed in Africa, defeating South African and white mercenary forces in one of the greatest acts of revolutionary solidarity the world has ever seen.

Qaddafi, even in his latterday accomodationist phase, was always a bitter affront to Empire – a “devil” figure in a tradition stretching back to the Mahdi, whose men killed General Gordon in the Sudan in 1885. I remember fondly the leftists and Republicans who trekked to Tripoli in the 1960s to appeal to Qaddafi for funds for their causes, some of them returning amply supplied with money and detailed counsel.

Dollar for dollar I doubt Qaddafi has a rival in any assessment of the amount of oil revenues in his domain actually distributed for benign social purposes. Derision is heaped on his Green Book, but in intention it can surely stand favorable comparison with kindred Western texts. Anyone labeled by Ronald Reagan  “This mad dog of the Middle East” has an honored place in my personal pantheon.

Since we’re on the topic of imperial executions, let us not forget October 17, 1961. Last week saw the fiftieth anniversary of the massacre in Paris of hundreds of Algerians by the French riot police. Called by the FLN, the Algerians had mustered from their neighborhoods and bidonvilles to central Paris in support of the Algerian war of liberation, then six years old. Algeria, remember, was, in formal terms, a French department.

Centering on the Charonne metro station, the French riot police attacked with lethal savagery, battering and shooting  peaceful demonstrators to death and throwing their bodies into the Seine. Corpses were later dragged from the river as far downstream as Le Havre. These days the death count is reckoned as at least 300, some of the victims murdered in detention centers around Paris.  The French Interior minister of the time in De Gaulle’s government was Maurice Papon. In 1981 , the French weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné published an article accusing  Papon  of having collaborated with the Germans during World War II. Papon was officially charged with crimes against humanity in 1983. His trial for overseeing the deportation of 1,690 Jews to a detention camp in the Paris suburb of Drancy did not take place until 1997. Papon’s role in the massacre of October 17, 1961, and indeed details of the massacre itself – long suppressed in French public memory — surfaced during his trial.

In February 1962 there was a huge protest demonstration about the October 17 massacre  in Paris. Joe Paff and his wife Karen were recently in Paris, staying in the 20th at a hotel owned by French Algerians. The owner pointed to a photo of himself in the vanguard of the demo, remembering how he was astonished at the number of photographers eager to  take his picture. Only years later did he realize that the man with whom had linked arms was Jean-Paul Sartre.

The massacre has now been reconstructed in a documentary by Yasmina Adi, Ici on noie les Algériens, “Here one drowns Algerians,” words painted in red on the parapet of one of the bridges over the Seine.

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Let me give you  some opening paragraphs from one of the greatest descriptions of farm work ever committed to paper:

Farm work is hard not only in the sense of being skilled but also in the sense of requiring toil, exertion, and extended physical effort. When arriving in the early morning to begin work, Pablo Camacho would often say, “Ya llegamos al campo de la batalla” – “Now we arrive at the field of battle.” Although intending to provoke a smile, Camacho was not being ironic. Most people who have worked in the fields say that it is the hardest work they have ever done. It is hard to put up with the inevitable pain and physical exhaustion, to last until the end of the row, the end of the day, the week, the season. “To last” is not quite the right word. The right word is a Spanish one, aguantar: to endure, to bear, to put up with.

Pablo Camacho was proud of his ability to aguantar, even arrogant about it, often claiming that he never felt pain while he was working. That is a pose that a lot of farmworkers assume, even among themselves. At work, no one complains about pain. Camacho believed that the ability to put up with pain was part of the Mexican national character, especially evident in sports. Like many farmworkers, he was an avid boxing fan. He could name all the boxing champions in the lighter divisions from the 1930s to the 1970s, as well as recount the ways Mexican fighters had been denied championship opportunities. Mexicans were the best boxers in the world, he argued, especially in their ability to withstand punishment. They were also good marathon runners and long-distance bicycle racers, he said, sports in which endurance and patience are the essential virtues.

But Mexicans do not have an exclusive franchise on the ability to tolerate hard work. Endurance is a trait of slaves and the oppressed in general, and also characteristic of peasants and other agricultural people – whether free or unfree. Agriculture by its very nature requires patience. Farmworkers have to wait for nature to do her work. They must plant, water, and wait. Weed and wait. And, finally, after enduring the wait, they may harvest.

Physical labor has received bad reviews since people began to write. It is Adam’s curse in the Old Testament. Aristotle contended that “occupations are … the most servile in which there is greatest use of the body.” The dynamic relationship between the brain and the hand was ripped asunder by early philosophers, leaving two separate activities: valued intellectual labor (suitable for free men) and devalued manual labor (suitable for women and slaves). This philosophical predisposition against the work of the body had its greatest worldly triumph in the development of capitalism and the factory system. As Marx so passionately chronicled, English factories destroyed English handicrafts. What he called “modern industry” – machines built by other machines strung together in a continuous process of production, where laborers are “mere appendages” to the machinery – replaced the earlier system of production that “owed its existence to personal strength and personal skill, and depended on the muscular development, the keenness of sight, and the cunning of the hand.”

The cunning of the hand, what farmworkers call maña, remains the basis of California farm work as surely as it is the basis of a major league pitcher’s job, or a skilled craftsman’s. Many farmworker jobs are not only hard to do but hard to learn, often requiring years to master, and skills typically are passed from one generation to the next. Farmworkers use hand tools: knives, hoes, clippers, pruners. They do not tend machines or have to keep up with an assembly line.

I’m quoting from Frank Bardacke’s brilliant, long-awaited Trampling Out the Vintage: César Chávez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers which will be published by Verso later this month. I read an earlier draft of Frank’s book in manuscript and the chapter, “The Work Itself” bowled me over with its marvelous descriptions and observation. Frank himself worked  for three years in the fields around Salinas.

When Frank asked me for an endorsement of the book, I wrote “There’s so much marvelous stuff in Frank Bardacke’s book that’s simply not been done before. At the book’s core are the men and women who pick the crops in California’s fields and orchards. Bardacke gives those people, mostly seen only in distant fields, a huge presence, one crackling with political vitality: those surges the UFW had no idea were coming; those moments when a strike spread like wildfire across the fields. Here are the farm workers, their skill and endurance, the world  they built among themselves, the ways they shaped the history of the UFW. It is their story—refreshingly, sympathetically, and beautifully told—that makes this book stand apart and will make it stand forever.”

In our current newsletter we run most of the chapter “The Work Itself.” I hope you get the book. If you want a taste of its qualities, read our exclusive excerpt.

Also in this newsletter we continue our series on the Obama Record. Linn Washington Jr. contributes a terrific piece, “Black Backlash Against Obama.”

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Alexander Cockburn can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.