The Howard Zinn Book Fair

Yesterday I spend a few hours at the Howard Zinn Book Fair. It was a fascinating experience.

The first thing you notice is that the book fair is Right There. The tables are set up in a big room right next to the entrance to the college.  

The second thing you notice is your own bright-eyed, slightly glassy response to all the stimulation around you. See a friend. Talk to him? Yes, but also while browsing a table full of 1$ books on sale.

Have you heard of Bolerium Books? (Their motto: “Fighting commodity fetishism with commodity fetishism since 1981″) It’s a rare and antique book store run by a couple of communists. Mostly left wing historical pamphlets, posters, books, periodicals, etc.

I remember visiting the physical bookstore about a year ago. It felt … still. A memorial to a world gone by, a portal to understanding the stories behind the stories they teach you in history class. Rooted, as it were, in the past. The two high priests who run it a dying breed.

One might find a very different scene at the book fair. Chatting with Alexander Akin, a proprietor (and friend), I got his help rooting through his 1$ book pile. Argued about Eurocommunism with a former volunteer with the PKK, who was browsing for books on Lenin. Found a compilation of key articles from the jewish wing of the communist party of the 1950s. Exclaimed as I found another copy of Teamster Rebellion by Farrell Dobbs, perhaps the best and most exciting account of labor organizing in America I have ever found.

Then, whisked away to the Jacobin Magazine booth, I talked shop about the business of magazine publishing with Bhaskar Sukara, the founder. Spent some time learning about the history of the founding of Itsgoingdown Magazine. Picked up some more posters from the justseeds artists collective.

Not to mention all the juicy conversations I must have missed between different groups. For example: Indivisible SF had a booth across from the Democratic Socialists of America.  

I started the day with strict orders to myself that I didn’t need any new books. After all, I have a library full of ones I have yet to read, including from this very event last year.

So I only left with 10 or so.

What conclusions or observations can we take from the whole experience?

  1. The big left wing upsurge of November 2016 might be receding. Or at least isn’t compounding. There weren’t noticeably more tables this year, maybe less.
  2. The DSA presence, year of year, has vastly improved (last year, five of us on the organizing committee wandered around the book fair, this year, DSA members were running and speaking on panels).
  3. Things feel less… fringey. There were fewer tiny ultra-revolutionary sects than last year. But there was a booth from Rainbow Grocery Cooperative.

Maybe that old time religion of american radicalism isn’t dead after all. Maybe those priests keeping the flame alive will have a new generation to light a new torch off from it, after all.


My memoirs in 5 minutes

Once, we lived in a world on fire. A world of slaughter and war and
fear. Out of that world, two special people were able to flee, to bulid,
to thrive.

This is not their story.

Once, there was a little boy. And his middle name was Moses. He was a stranger in a strange land. He did not collect baseball cards. He did not pray in Shul. He would never wear a black hat.

This little boy, let’s call him Moses, may have believed in god. He definitely did not believe in himself. His namesake could speak seven languages. Moses could only master two. Moses was mediocre at kickball. Moses did not know Torah.

Moses staged elaborate plays with his stuffed animals at night. When no
one watched.

One day, Moses’ best friend called him his “seventh best friend”. He was crushed.

Moses did not like to read. But his parents forced him. Moses did not know Torah, but he did know to honor his father and mother. And so he did.

One day, he found an artifact which would change his life. Tucked in the corner of his teacher’s shelves – his tyrannical, harsh (overworked, underpaid) teacher – was the first chapter book he ever read.

It was about adventure.

It was about children living on their own, as a family. Building a home in the woods. Scavenging. Thriving. Nothing would ever be the same.

Moses grew. He escaped the citadel of black hats and stern words and small thoughts. He found a new school with a sunrise painted on the side. He grew glasses from all his reading. His adversaries were not black hats but small hearts, all the same.

He was handed the poisoned chalice of praise, and drank deeply. From now on, he would be known as “smart”. He’d never be able to tear himself from that wretched goblet again.

Moses grew, and grew strange. He chased Pokemon in his
dreams. His days were the tormented mix of boredom, frustrated
exuberance, and the casual cruelty of children. He started keeping a book constantly at his side, ready to whip it out and escape every time
the teacher turned her back.

The isolation of being a foreigner ripened into the isolation of being strange. And so Moses drifted towards the other strangers. They were weak, but most had drunk from the chalice as well. They were brothers trapped by the addiction to smart.

And so they built themselves a small shtetl in the concrete walls of the middle school. Some would be able to leave through sports. Most would only be forced out with the triumph of age.

The triumph of age. The triumph of making friends, joining clubs, of having youth take you seriously. The triumph of death inexorably approaching, of being torn from the breast of friendship and scattered to the four winds.

And so our hero found himself a stranger again in a new home, surrounded by new strangers still. He found himself able to make a fresh start. And so he did.

He found love mixed with tragedy, and to this day confuses one for the other.

He found a new village in the campus. A bulwark against the cruel world outside. A community that contained its own diseases: cruelty, status, and posturing. But one that also contained power, solidarity, and action.

In that village Moses started taking up arms against a
sea of troubles, and by opposing, moderate them. As you know, the people united will sometimes win and sometimes lose. Moses couldn’t save the world, or even america. So he painted demon faces on the petty tyrants at hand and rallied the villagers to cast out the dracula. Sometimes he even succeeded.

And then – the triumph of age. The casting out. The peering through a glass window at the place that once was home. Ever the rootless jew, Moses left his last village and wandered through the desert.

He wandered through the desolate cities of Oakland and Springfield and New Haven and Rochester. He wandered through the gardens of eden in Oakland and Springfield and New Haven and Rochester. He was a itinerant knight, a Robin Hood, and a little boy with a pot helmet and a wooden stick for a sword.

And now he doesn’t know what to do next. There’s no village. All the old certainties – in his coding ability, in his affiliation with the professional left, in the abundance the world had to offer – all are gone.

What’s left? Just a little boy with a stick for a sword and a world full of dragons to explore.