To those of you who have, in recent correspondence, taken me to task for my opinions, my appearance, my ancestry, for the length of my hair and the cadence of my sentences, I apologize for not replying individually. As 2018 gets underway, let me make amends.
First, to my charming interlocutor who accused me of being a “wild-eyed revolutionary,” the flippant, Oscar Wildean answer is that “I’m not wild-eyed.”
You can agree with me or disagree with me – that is, clearly, your choice to make. But once you start equating dissent with treason, the gates to dictatorship have been thrown wide open.
I’m sorry you don’t like my headshot The Sacramento Bee runs; I’m not crazy about it either. But I promise you, photos taken when I’m wine tasting, say, or traveling, or interviewing sources, don’t show wild eyes. Sometimes they show happy, or tired, or concerned eyes. Like most people, I run the gamut of emotions.
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The less flippant answer is that hurling the word “revolutionary” as a sort of catch-all slur is entirely un-American. You may, perhaps, have heard of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine. All were, when the moment demanded, quite explicitly “revolutionaries.”
All believed that when the status quo was fundamentally unjust, the notion of the social contract between governed and government gave ordinary people the right to revolt. I’m pretty sure Martin Luther King believed the same thing, as did the suffragettes who fought for women’s right to vote. Jesus would have qualified as an anti-imperial revolutionary. St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the poor, could easily have been assailed for his “revolutionary” philosophical leanings. Gandhi was a nonviolent revolutionary. You get the point.
Now, I’m not saying that I am a revolutionary. My more radical friends, who take me to task for my reformist impulses, scoff at the notion that I am a barricades-building firebrand. But if I were a revolutionary, that, in and of itself, would be neither good nor bad. It’s to what ends that revolutionary impulse is put, and by what means those ends are attained, that determine the moral worth of the word.
To those of you who accuse me of being an “atheist,” my answer is that it is my constitutional right to believe in any God or in no God. And, frankly, in a country that has for nearly a quarter of a millennia had the separation of church and state as a cornerstone of its political system, it’s none of your Goddamn business whom I worship or if I worship.
To those who hurl at me the terrible word “foreigner,” I say, who among us, in this country of immigrants, isn’t a foreigner? That I grew up in London ought to be seen simply as a biographical detail. In these twisted times, however, in an era of Blood-and-Soil rhetoric, some readers see it as diabolic.
To those who accuse me of supporting Stalin’s gulag system, how dare you? My great-grandfather, Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky, was a resident of that gulag. I have no sympathies for that system, no nostalgia for its unfathomably cruel workings, no desire to imprison those who disagree with me politically or morally.
To the contrary, I have written on America’s prison system – which, incidentally, houses the world’s largest incarcerated population – for more than 20 years. And I urgently believe that prisons should be a place of last resort, used only to confine those so dangerous, so violent, that no other alternatives can ensure public safety. Certainly, words uttered ought not to be grounds for imprisonment; though, given the inanity and illogic of so much that passes for political discourse these days, one can at least make a case for sarcastic riposte or gentle mockery.
As for the charge of “socialism” and “communism,” apart from using such words as cudgels against those with whom you disagree, do you actually know what these phrases mean? Do you have any sense of the movements across continents and across centuries that embraced these terms, or grappled with their profound moral, political and philosophical implications?
Have you ever read Marx’s Communist Manifesto? Have you ever parsed the meaning of its most famous phrase: “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains”?
Do you know the difference between, say, Stalin’s or Pol Pot’s vicious and perverted, totalitarian ideas of communism, and the democracy-embracing Eurocommunism of the 1970s? Or the difference between the Chartists of 1830s and 1840s England, campaigning for living wages and suffrage for the working class, and latter-day Cuban revolutionaries? Do you have any sense of how Gorbachev’s politics differed from, say, that of Bernie Sanders?
All are in some sense “socialist,” yet in the particulars they could hardly be more different. Before you cast such nebulous “insults,” at least spend time researching the complex etymology of those words you throw.
To those who call me a “traitor” for critiquing their Great Leader, I would venture to suggest the previously common-sense notion that the right to challenge political leaders in print is foundational to democracies. Such is not treasonous, it is simply commentary. You can agree with me or disagree with me – that is, clearly, your choice to make. But once you start equating dissent with treason, the gates to dictatorship have been thrown wide open.
The road you are traveling is not a pretty one. The insults you hurl aren’t indicators of a thriving democracy. Rather they are the calling card of a deeply fearful and increasingly authoritarian culture.
Sasha Abramsky is a Sacramento writer who teaches at UC Davis. His latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.