Peggy Organizes the N.A.Z.I. Party

How do we respond to Nazis and other white nationalist anachronisms? My friend Peggy paved the way years ago when I was still a young hitchhiker in the seventies. I was travelling through her hometown somewhere in the Deep South.

First Amendment vs. Right to Cry “Fire”

An unusual news drama was unfolding while I was there and it culminated the Saturday before I left. It seemed that the year before, an official of the local Nazi Party had burned down the fence and slaughtered 10,000 head of cattle that belonged to a Jewish cattle farmer. He was doing time now and the rest of the party had announced a march through town and a rally to be held at the jail to organize his defense drive.

The march had originally been scheduled for a year before when his conviction was handed down, but the Jewish community, small though it was, had risen in indignation and challenged in court the legal right of the Nazis to parade their brand of prejudice and bigotry through the streets. The Nazis fought back by raising the cry of “First Amendment.” The Jews countered with the “Right to cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre” argument, claiming that the mere presence of the Nazis could inflame the emotions of the townsfolk enough to cause a riot, but they lost, and the march and rally were set for that Saturday.

The Mayor and the Whorehouse

The conservative press supported the Jews, while conceding that their opinion was based more on moral feelings than legal precedents, and so did the shrewd politicians, who knew full well that there were more Jewish sympathizers in their constituency than Nazi sympathizers.

The mayor, who had survived a scandal the year before that found him on the wrong side of a police raid on a downtown whorehouse and who knew that it would be an issue in his up-and-coming bid for re-election, announced self-righteously that, yes, he would uphold the constitution of this great country and permit the march to proceed but that he did not support their racist doctrine and was even so offended by it that, if in the event there was a counter-demonstration, he would be willing to speak at it to make his opinion known.

Naturally, this was a carte blanche invitation to all peace-love groups in town to organize a counter-demonstration, which they did. It was also an obvious hint from the mayor that he wanted to speak at it, which he did.

According to Peggy, the whole scene was a farce because it was so predictable, so she organized a counter-counter-demonstration to counter both the demonstration and the counter-demonstration. “The Nazis’ best weapon is their public reputation,” she explained before the big day. “They issue orders by threat alone and people obey because ‘they’re the Nazis.’ Now they’re threatening to hold a march and people are reacting with fear and hatred. Some fear the Nazis and will probably hide in their houses all day. Others are promising to ‘give those damn Nazis some of their own medicine.’ Either way, we help them promote their macho image.”

Meanwhile, she continued, the national media had already created a major spectacle out of what otherwise would have been an insignificant march. “Media from all over the country will be there to cover it. Anything that happens will be news. We can co-opt the headlines by attacking the Nazis where they’re strongest. Since the Nazi reputation is effective only when people take them seriously, we have to not take them seriously. In fact, not only should we not fear them, we should laugh at them, and relate to them as the clowns that they are.”

Yippies to the Rescue

What Peggy did was to invite the community, through posters that she hung on smooth surfaces all over town with a sponge and Pet Milk so they couldn’t be torn down, to: “Join the N.A.Z.I. Party.” The party was organized by a group of activist Yippies who called themselves the Nutty And Zany Idiots, and whose initials spelled N.A.Z.I. The participants gathered at the college, where make-up specialists from the theatre department painted their faces white and their noses red. They all wore swastika armbands on their arms and marched to the park in goosestep formation. At the front of the line was another clown, this one with a black painted mustache: “Der Füermonger—Adolf Hitler.”

Between Adolf and the other marchers was a cart being pulled by a jackass named Jack. In the back of the cart, two women held a giant mirror in the direction of the marchers so they could see their own reflection. Symbolically, Peggy explained, this showed that our march was the mirror image of the other Nazi march.

Jack Sticks It in Adolf’s Ear

At the park, everyone gathered around a stage and Adolf rose to address the crowd. The crowd began chanting, “Stick it in his ear, Jack,” because the theme for the march, which appeared on all the posters along with the appropriate picture, had been “Watch Jack stick it in Adolf’s ear.” Peggy’s friend Bill led Jack on stage and positioned Jack’s ass in Adolf’s ear. The crowd roared with approval, and then Peggy announced that the N.A.Z.I. Party would now begin and everyone was invited to join. Refreshments included lox and bagels and the crowd danced the hora to the accompaniment of Peggy on her guitar.

We all had a great time, much to my relief. I had expressed misgivings about possible violence at the rally but Peggy dismissed them as unfounded and unnecessary paranoia. “They’re marching to the jail, we’re marching to the park, and that’s close enough for me,” she explained. “I don’t want to meet them until the next morning’s paper includes us in the same article.”

Further, she predicted, “The media will love it. The fearful image that the Nazis nurture will be punctured and the story told the next day will be one of absurdity rather than one of fear.”

That’s the Way It Was

Actually, only about thirty people showed up to march, but the Nazis didn’t do any better. The counter-march had about a hundred because the mayor was there, but some of them left early and joined us in the park.

Sure enough, the voracious appetite of the media gobbled us up. The mayor, who was known to be a closet anti-Semite, was blasted by the press for “prostituting his beliefs, as perverted as they are, for the sake of a few votes,” a charge he didn’t need seeing as he was trying to erase his whorehouse escapade from the public’s memory. The Nazis were outraged by our taunts and a small band showed up at the park to hassle us, but when they saw the cameras they retreated because they didn’t want to look like fools.

We, however, did succeed in looking like fools, which is what we wanted seeing as we paraded as their mirror images. The festivities began at noon so that the TV stations could write their stories and get them in to their editors for the 6 o’clock news. That night, when Walter Cronkite announced “That’s the way it was,” we celebrated with a batch of Bill’s special carob brownies.

Love Means Second Chances: The Pro-Choice Novel

Susan Elizabeth Davis has written a self-consciously political novel complete with website and blog that she hopes will become a literary weapon in the pro-choice arsenal. At a time when women are having to defend themselves from humanist instincts straight out of the Dark Ages, her timing couldn’t be better. As a life-long activist for women’s rights, in particular to control their own bodies, she is the right person to write it.

Love Means Second Chances (New York: Bread and Roses Collaborative, 2011) takes place in 1992 with flashbacks to 1972. Christy gets pregnant with Ramon even though she’s on the pill because for a brief period she was on antibiotics for strep and the antibiotics rendered the pill ineffective. Impending motherhood puts a crimp on Christy’s ambition to be an opera singer, not a pipe dream by any means as she is currently a student at Juilliard. Christy tries to keep the news from Carole, her mother, a devout Catholic, because Christy’s game plan includes getting an abortion. To complicate matters, Christy herself is the result of an accidental pregnancy that Carole chose to not terminate over the objections of her impregnator-turned-reluctant-husband Jimmy, whose own dream of becoming a football player, along with Carole’s dream of becoming a nurse, was terminated by the pregnancy that wasn’t.

In addition to alienating her from Jimmy, Carole’s pregnancy led to a split between Carole and her father—her mother already was dead. So Carole became close to her mother-in-law, Mary Louise, a strong advocate of the woman’s right to choose, who supported Carole over her son Jimmy during Carole’s pregnancy and is now supporting Christy over Carole during Christy’s pregnancy even though the first case led to a non-abortion and the second is leaning toward an abortion.

The book revolves around the interactions among the three generations of women and their different responses to Christy’s pregnancy and decision to have an abortion. To Carole especially, it awakens long-suppressed anger that stemmed from her own pregnancy in 1972. Hence the flashbacks.

A side issue but one almost equally perplexing to the avid Catholic Carole is the announcement by her sister Liz, a divorced mother of three teenage boys, that she finally has found true love to Barbara—not, if you are confused, a man with a woman’s name.

The story begins during the Christmas season. In fact, it is Christy’s vomit attack in her parents’ bathroom Christmas morning that finally confirms Carole’s suspicion that Christy is pregnant.

The strength of this novel is less on the action than on the dialogue. Davis becomes every one of the women when they are speaking. She gets inside their heads and their hearts and enables them all to be sympathetic, believable characters. As a life-long feminist activist in abortion rights, there is no doubt where Davis stands on the issue of a woman’s right to choose. Nevertheless, she attempts to be fair with all of the women.

But she doesn’t confuse “fairness” with leaving the reader thinking that all positions are equal. Davis wrote Love Means Second Chances in order to be a voice for choice in the abortion debate. With confidence and no modesty, she admits that she wants her book to join the long list of those that have changed social conditions and perceptions, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, Invisible Man, and The Women’s Room.

So, in a cathartic scene, Liz asks Carole, “Will you love [Christy] less if she has an abortion?” Carole admits she hadn’t even considered that line of thought but, no, of course, she would not love her less. “The pain in her heart felt like it was being ripped out of her chest. Giving in, Carole sobbed uncontrollably, gasping for air as her worst fears dive-bombed her like demons.”

Davis chooses this moment to place the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion into historical perspective when she speaks through Barbara, who tells Carole

Before 1869, the Church did not consider abortion a mortal sin. In fact, during the Middle Ages Thomas Aquinas wrote that abortions could be performed until the time of quickening—when the baby begins to move in the fourth month. So it’s only been since the Church felt its power and influence were waning in the 19th century that it took a stand against abortion.

Going beyond Catholicism, Barbara continues

Abortion is as old as civilization. Women have been giving themselves abortions in every culture on every continent since the beginning of time…. Abortion was the primary means of birth control in this country until it was outlawed in the 19th century. It was only after doctors began to specialize in gynecology and obstetrics and wanted to stop midwives from interfering with their business that it became illegal.

As a kicker she notes that Italy has the highest abortion rate of the European countries. “Those sisters are not afraid to take care of themselves if they don’t want to be pregnant.”

I can see the old men who head the Catholic Church hierarchy attacking the credibility of that entire scene. After all, who is it who is attacking Church doctrine? A lesbian! Whether intended or not, good for Davis for showing no fear here in mixing controversial issues.

But to her credit she never treats the abortion issue lightly. Davis agrees with anti-choicers who would argue that abortion can hurt women emotionally. A powerful scene takes place in Christy’s home when Carole comes over to talk after she has had time to cool off and reflect. As Christy prepares tea in the kitchen, Carole waits in the front room. They both pray to the same religious icon as they psych themselves up to represent different sides of the conversation:

Carole: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, help me … find the right words … to tell Christy that I love her, even though I don’t like what she’s doing.”

Christy: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, please don’t let Mom overpower me…. Help me stay strong.”

Later, in the clinic after the abortion, Christy waits with other women who have undergone the same experience. There is not a whole lot of laughing. As each woman is discharged, the attendant says, “I don’t want to see you here again” (as opposed to what an anti-choice novel might have the attendant saying: “Shall we make an appointment for your next visit?”).

Six months later, seemingly a long time after the abortion, Christy experiences an emotional breakdown when singing an aria from Madame Butterfly where Cio-Cio San gives up her love child and kills herself.

The message from these scenes is clear. Not every pro-choicer uses abortion as birth control. It is a painful process even for women who choose to undergo it. These women actually experience real feelings of grief, anger, and sadness. No one is evil and no one “wins.” Nevertheless, each woman has to make her own choice, for her own personal reasons, and deal with the resulting consequences, not have it mandated by the church or the state and deal with those resulting consequences, which, anti-choicers choose to ignore, also are painful.

I have to admit I’m happy that Davis confronts the Catholic Church directly. I don’t care what practicing Catholics do relative to their own abortions or non-abortions. I do care that Catholics and other religious anti-choicers think they can tell Jews what to do about ours.

In Arizona, for instance, Governor Jan Brewer recently put her signature on a “life begins at menstruation” bill. The joke by Yippie Abbie Hoffman was that “Jews don’t believe a fetus has life until it gets its graduate degree.” A funny joke perhaps but, in the abortion debate, when life begins is a non-issue for Jews. Menstruation, you say? Fine if that gives you some perverted thrill. But don’t deny women from my religious family the right to control their own bodies, as our religion permits, just because your religion claims that ownership of your women’s bodies should be in the hands of old men who supposedly don’t have sex.

Catholic law as argued by the hierarchy and their followers is absolute on the issue of abortion: “We don’t give a damn what it does to the woman; all power to the fetus.” The position on abortion in Jewish law is nuanced but it ultimately comes down to “The mother’s life comes first.” Catholics call what they want to practice religious freedom but when they force their mythology and their dogma onto us it becomes religious imperialism.

So which is better, fetus-first Catholicism or mother-first Judaism? There obviously is no correct answer to please everyone, which is why the First Amendment right to freedom of religion is so important. But that right doesn’t apply only to Catholics. If Catholic law has a valid place in the debate about health care, so must other religions, and no religion’s dogma should be enshrined in federal or state law to the detriment of any other.

I look forward to reading my first Jewish pro-choice novel. Love Means Second Chances is a model of how that can be done.

Introducing the Voices from the Underground Website

I am pleased today to introduce the Voices from the Underground website. The multi-page site is a celebration and a unique study of the underground press from the Vietnam era.

The underground press was the voice of the antiwar movement that led the long struggle to halt our own government’s crimes against the people of Vietnam. While the corporate press was largely parroting the government line about lights at the end of the tunnel and Vietnamization and enemy body counts that surpassed the total population of Vietnam, the patriots of the underground press exposed our true history of aggression, joined in solidarity with the people of Vietnam, and became the voice of peace that forced our government to withdraw our troops.

The task they faced was the task that today’s bloggers face in our efforts to get our government out of Iraq and Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Underground papers were a phenomenon made possible by what was then the new technology of offset printing. Suddenly, owning your own paper was not a possibility reserved for the rich and powerful. Left-wing, radical, liberal, progressive communities all over the country started their own papers to oppose the war but also to strengthen their emerging communities and liberation movements. Through networks like Underground Press Syndicate, Liberation News Service, and others, they joined together as a network, sharing resources and knowledge and strength. All underground papers were united in solid opposition to the war. They were a powerful force, locally and nationally. They were everywhere.

And yet today they are little known. In fact, the entire antiwar movement is little known, and for good reason. No corporate government wants its citizens to know that if they unite and speak up they can overcome their government’s imperial tendencies. So, today the Vietnam War is barely discussed in high school, or it is discussed at a superficial level that glosses over the antiwar movement. College journalism classes don’t touch the underground press, even though it was arguably a highpoint in our young country’s celebration of journalism and the First Amendment, America’s greatest gift to the world.

Today’s progressive bloggers are heirs to the underground press tradition, and yet most don’t know what the underground press was.

The four-volume Voices from the Underground Series changes that. It addresses the underground press like no other book before it, by giving voice to insiders who were key people on their own papers. Although all underground papers were united against the war, individual papers spoke to different audiences. Papers represented the gay, lesbian, feminist, Black, Puerto Rican, Native American, prisoners’ rights, rank-and-file, psychedelic, Southern consciousness, new age, socialist, military, and other voices of the many liberation movements that arose during that period.

Those voices are represented in the Voices from the Underground Series.

So, if you’ve read this far, take a look at the website. I talk about the underground press and then I give you a sneak preview into all four books, which will be released one at a time over a period of two years. I share testimonials here and here from academics and activists and media reviewers. And, while you’re waiting for your books to arrive in the mail, I share a few excerpts from other books of mine: Early Wachsberger.

Volume 1 will be officially available in January 2011 but it is expected to be in the Michigan State University Press warehouse in early December and I’ll be helping to distribute them. So don’t wait until December. Order now and take advantage of my special pre-publication price. It’s easy. Just go through PayPal.

I want to thank MSU Press for their support of Voices from the Underground. What I compiled was the equivalent of four books. I couldn’t help it. The material was there, and so was the commitment from my contributors. If they had said, “Give us just enough to fill one volume,” I would have said, “Catch you later.” But they recognized, as did I, that every story was amazing in its own way so they bought into my vision of four separate volumes. In this horrible economy, they deserve credit.

I also want to thank Hillary Handwerger for helping to turn my words into this website and Jim Campbell for producing the video.