'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, May 08, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Arm the Spirit, a Woman's Journey Underground and Back (Part 2) 

Diana Block was a 1970s radical with feminist roots. As a bisexual, she fused her sexually liberatory perspective with a revolutionary, anti-imperialist leftism. Through AK Press, she has published a memoir about her experiences both above and below ground. In Part 1, I inquired as to why her efforts to build a broader movement that incorporated her libertarian, collectivist social vision failed as it related to gender and sexuality within a Third World oriented Marxism.

In this concluding post, I shall write in a different key, highlighting her decision to go underground, and the psychological complexity associated with that decision. Block emphasizes two aspects of it. First, she describes her motivation to do so, as you might expect, in political terms. In 1978, through her involvement with Prairie Fire, a publicly visible, grassroots organization launched by participants in the Weather Underground, she became involved in the militant effort in support of Puerto Rican independence. She related to this struggle within the larger context of Third World national liberation struggles in countries such as Cuba, Vietnam and Zimbabwe, while also connecting it to police repression and incarceration of people of color within the US.

Clandestinity was becoming a primary focus of such efforts, especially in relation to the Puerto Rican struggle, which was known for violent attacks upon institutions associated with US domination of the island. Despite misgivings, she decided, in 1981, to go underground to participate in a support network for violent resistance against the occupation. Her fear that such a decision would result in political isolation was prescient.

Second, Block relates this decision in terms of her personal life. In the late 1970s, she was involved in a relationship with an older Latina woman named Lola, a former actress who had participated in the Weather Underground and thereafter Prairie Fire, a woman who, when Block met her, was struggling with the mundane pressures of raising four children on low income while living in a house in the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. Block eventually moved in with Lola and her family, and lived with them for about a year and a half. She soured on the relationship, however, and fell in love with someone else after she was unable to permanently integrate herself into a low income family.

Hence, unlike her South American revolutionary brethren, Block does not appear to have been capable of consciously becoming part of the working class as a means of engaging in direct organizing among workers, as happened in Venezuela, for example, although, she was, ironically enough, later able to do so in order to support her subsequent family while engaging in underground activity. Her subsequent relationship with a woman named Kyle was emotionally fulfilling, but politically deficient.

It is tempting to construe Block's decision to go underground as a stereotypical instance of running away from personal responsibility, but that is too facile. After all, her political motivations are credible, her politics were (and remain) central to her life, so such an interpretation is too dismissive. Even so, there are some additional personal aspects that are worthy of speculation. Again, an invocation of Fassbinder may provide insight. In his brilliant film about German terrorism, The Third Generation, Fassbinder presents the fascination of his protagonists with violence and covert life as a manifestation of dissatisfaction with their everyday lives. As Christian Thomsen describes one of the film's most riveting scenes:

Edgar and Susanne have gone into hiding, after one of the members of the group is killed. In despair they cling on to their new identities and monotonously try to learn them by heart ('I am David Greenbaum, born, etc. I am Sarah Greenbaum, nee Stiefel . . .') as they disquise themselves with new wigs and makeup, a scene that is drawn out endlessly. It is a desperate picture of two people who hoped, through this terrorist group, to find true identity in an activity full of meaning and excitement, resisting the false roles of their previous everyday lives. They are forced to realize that this way leads to renewed loss of identity, further role-play and even greater frustration.

One wonders whether Block was familiar with the film before she went underground, as she periodically expresses her interest in foreign film throughout the book. In any event, Thomsen provides us with some touchstones for evaluating Block's decision in more personal terms. For example, the notion that Block was unconsciously motivated to go underground partially because she wanted to abandon the falsity of her life is quite plausible, because, after all, one of the prominent cultural features of the left was the belief that a revolutionary transformation of capitalist society would be personally liberatory.

But was it ultimately unsatisfactory for her? In this instance, it appears not. One of the striking paradoxes of Block's decision is the fact that, in order to ignite a violent rebellion against US capitalism, she was now forced to live like millions of other Americans who were, in comparison to her, apolitical and, by and large, straight. She works in a variety of lower middle income clerical and administrative assistant type jobs, she falls in love with man, a man who was part of the group that went underground, and has two children. She lives in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh while severing all contact with her friends in San Francisco. All in all, it appears to have been an effective way of distancing herself from her Marxism, which she must have recognized was losing its allure, even in her social circles, her bisexuality and the sybarism of the Bay Area. The marvel is that she didn't end up here in Sacramento, which has always been the perfect destination for those seeking to leave the Bay Area and attain domestic tranquillity, preferably with state civil service employment.

Of course, I am exaggerating a little, but the larger point may well be valid. There was just one problem: she was still committed, along with her partner, to violent resistance against the US occupation of Puerto Rico. As she settled into family life, her social fulfillment was dependent upon illegal actions in support of Puerto Rican independence. The impossibility of this situation eventually became evident, when the family discovered, while living in Los Angeles in 1984, that they were under FBI surveillance, causing them to go even further underground, with new identities. Amazingly, she did so by initially separating from her partner with a two week old son. Upon being reunited, they lived in Minneapolis and then Pittsburgh. Later, in the early 1990s, they returned above ground, and her partner served a prison term in for attempting to purchase explosives for Puerto Rican militants.

Naturally, upon leaving Los Angeles, the prospect of any future political activity evaporated. Security was paramount, necessitating obsessive practices in all aspects of their personal life. Block's account of the stress that the family experienced as a result is compelling, when even the most innocuous things become problematic, such as assisting her 5 year old son with the preparation of a family tree for school. In addition to the turmoil of her family life, she was no longer actively working to bring about the revolution, or the independence of Puerto Rico. She was completely isolated not only from activism, but also access to experiences and information that would enable her to understand the political changes that she was limited to observing on television with her equally confused partner.

Meanwhile, Lola is a ghost that haunts the narrative. Years later, in the mid-1990s, above ground again in the Bay Area, Block discovers that Lola is near death, with multiple sclerosis. She talks with Lola briefly before her death, and then subsequently attends a ceremony for her in the Berkeley hills. Lola's mother shatters the celebratory nature of the event by demanding where all of them had been when Lola was ill, broke and dying. It was a most damning accusation, because Block, along with many of the others present, had sought to replace the family, considered repressive, with an extended social network of friends. But, as Fassbinder would have anticipated, they failed, and Lola had died, as people had for generations, primarily in the presence of her family.

Not only that, Block and others had abandoned Lola and created families of their own. Instead of creating a social system that transcended race and class, they had merely reproduced the old one in a more liberated form. Admittedly, families have often revealed themselves to be imperfect as well, but the radicals of Block's generation held themselves to a higher standard. Through her revelations about Lola, she encourages exploration and experimentation in order to attain it.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?