The Spectre of
Hate, Racism and
Is Poisoning the
When I came home from Vietnam in August, 1968, I knew then and there something terribly wrong had taken hold of the United States of America—that which I would never have dreamt about before especially during my four years studying philosophy and artillery, safe and chaste, in Towers of Ivory ten hours by train or car from New York City, at the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. For the time of my brainwashing, no one hinted to me that I would have found, in Vietnam, half the troops drunk, drugged and intolerant. That I would have found my worst enemy wearing the same uniform I did. That I would have found myself being harassed by an infantry captain from Louisiana because I read the The New York Times subscription (ALL THE NEWS THAT’S FIT TO PRINT, ONLY!) my sister had sent to me to the battlefield near Cambodia for my twenty-third birthday. After a week in Vietnam I had understood why there existed a Hippie Movement. There had to have been one!
It took a long time before I could verbalize my Vietnam experiences. Not because I was in shock. Or suffering from some newly-discovered
“syndrome.” No! I just could not run into—in the State of Florida—enough people who wanted to be honest about Vietnam with me. Worst of all were the Vietnam veterans themselves. Most of them had cocooned their psyches either in hate and revenge or the heaviness of silence. I had to happen upon a place to put my thoughts in order. A place far away from the United States of America.
It was not Karl Marx so much as it was my desire to determine whether or not the “bad guys” were really anymore worse than us, the “good guys,” that had goaded me on to become eventually a Marxist-Leninist commiserator. A mitigated Marxist to be precise! Because so many insipid incidents had befallen me during my two years of active duty in the United States Army, I came to the conclusion that dust had been thrown in my eyes during my youth and my university residence. I was looking for something, someone to trust in. I had lost hope in almost everything. I felt I had to begin all over again. Even the Roman Catholic institute of higher learning I had attended had itself been subsidized by the United States’ government to allow it to train some of us (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) to be converted into artillery officers—redlegs. The Friary that housed the Franciscan monks had been called “The Hilton,” and whisky and wine bottles filled to the brim the dumpsters outside the government-supported “playpen” for chubby, brown-clad priests (10% pedophilic; 100% draft-dodging) who frolicked in their ecclesiastical “tax heaven” thanks to a military force bound, in a short time, to carpet-bomb to death millions of innocent Asiatic people. I realized then that in the United States, overflowing with the military-industrial complex, I would never feel free to say what I wanted to express about Vietnam.
But there was that still more important, crucial factor. Jean-Paul Sartre, my “spiritual father,” and Bertrand Russell, my “intellectual father,” had been so passionately, so outspokenly repulsed by the Vietnam conflict, I could not myself think to wane away the seriousness of the matter. Their presence on a world tribunal, chronicling the atrocities committed by United States’ military personnel and their allies in Vietnam, stunned me. I felt depressed—to say the least. The philosophers made me not forget even though millions in the United States continue to try to do so still today while I am writing this essay.
For a long time, I did not seek to protest; rather, I had hoped the people of the United States would come to their senses and quit mesmerizing the Vietnam tragedy into oblivion. That was wishful thinking on my part which distanced me farther from the place of my birth. I was downright frustrated with Northamericans’ in-vain attempts to make out of Vietnam something that it was not: a lost but just cause.
My first flirt (1981) with the hammer and sickle bloomed in Caracas, Venezuela. One day, I showed up at the Soviet embassy brandishing a bouquet of red roses, toting my manuscript, The Hippie Lieutenant, and dressed in the Hart, Schafter & Marx suit I had worn at the Ministerio de Informacion y Turismo where I had shuffled around cranky, haughty women journalists from Time and The Washington Post, “ladies” who had accompanied Mrs. Carter on her whirlwind Southamerican tour, and in which I had re-written the drafted speeches of then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez. At the front door of the embassy, I sucked in a deep breath, hoped Central Stupidity Agency surveillance cameras were focused on me, gave the United States’ Department of State The Finger, about-faced, then rang the bell. I had the sensation that I was making history. And I was. My history! For the first time in my life I was not making history for someone else! It was beautiful. (To do is to be: Sartre; To be is to do: Camus; Do be
do be do: Sinatra.)
Soviet embassy personnel were both very cordial and very curious. I was told I could not see the ambassador. Alexander Borisov, a journalist, came to welcome me and speak to me. We spoke in both English and Spanish. He, too, was very kind and friendly. (Later, I met Alexander’s wife, Natalia, and their daughter, Iliana.) I told Alexander that I wanted to publish my manuscript in the Soviet Union. He said he would like to read it. I gave him the copy. In return, he gave me many books in English that included works by Marx, Lenin, and other communist literary and political notables. I read them all enthusiastically in six weeks’ time.
After months of meetings and Soviet cultural events and gifts of reading materials, I was asked to write some articles about Vietnam for Venezuela’s communist newspaper. I said I would prefer that any of my articles be published in Pravda! An interview with the vice-director of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ biggest publishing organization, who had stopped to visit with me on his way back to Moscow after a Southamerican tour, failed to yield results. I was invited to tour the U.S.S.R. as a guest. I was told, by telephone, that The Hippie Lieutenant might offend Ronald Reagan who was fresh in office at the White House. (I have never believed that my book could have offended Ronald Reagan; but, I would have given my right arm for it to have done so!)
From that time on, I went it alone without embassy pals, signed up for a Russian course at the Centro de Amigos de la Cultura y Ciencias de la U.R.S.S., and wished the Cyrillic alphabet would not drive me looney. Every Saturday, on my way up Avenida Los Mangos to the Centro, I took in the aromas of the splendid plants, flowers and trees doting the elegant La Florida residential zone where I lived in a rented room; sipped on my café con leche; and, reflected on my state of being: no country, no money, no ideology. It was one of the happiest times of my life. Truly Henry Millerish.
At the Centro I pawed a bit—I think—at what it means to be a communist, and I must admit that in this fraternity of all races, all ages, I enjoyed one of the most beautiful of comings-together I have ever known. Everyone was very friendly. The people were distinctly open; they were not chauvinistic. They were internationalists. Worldly-orientated. They mused in terms of a propinquity, and everyone had a right to be part of that group. All beings on Earth were accepted for whom they were—not to what they belonged. This sat well with me. (Much more catholic than the Roman Catholic Church.) I just knew I was welcomed in the company of my comrades, and I have never again embraced such a human tie in harmony with itself and others. For a few months, I rode high in the beautiful balloon of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, way up there in the air, chasing my dream across the sky, where the world’s a nicer place to be. I could fly! I could fly!! I could fly!!!
There is no politics in Italy. There is economy. The most revered Holy Picture in Italy is the dollar. St. George Washington. Italy is turned on by what it can earn, and it transfigures itself—as Marx argued—through technical and economic changes in methods of production. Always struggling to be the world’s sixth economic powerhouse (imagine how poor the rest of the world is!), the Boot kicks and stomps to open capitalism’s secret doors, and it invokes the spent, treadmill-like rhetoric of a politicized Roman Catholic Church whose miracles are made to look more ridiculous every day in light of the awe-inspiring discoveries of Science. For every inch the world progresses to achieve a better place ever more in keeping with the idea of a just and prosperous environment for all, Italy stiffens up, reacts contrariwise, and digs deeper and deeper its trenches of rancor, bigotry and chauvinism. It is no wonder, therefore, that Italy is an anomaly—capitalistically speaking—because it is “rich” while it lags behind, technologically and economically, other industrialized nations. Italy wants to play it safe. Here is a right-wing conservative’s paradise. It is in no hurry to change, and confuses the Present by clinging on to the Past. The economic game—“trick” if you will—in Italy is to invest in the Past and present it to a make-believe Future! This would be a very intelligent way to survive with European Union monetary homogeneousness—becoming more and more a ghastly nightmare for Italy—if, as Italians believe, there exists no Future!
That there are forty to fifty Italian political parties in existence at any given time, startles every democrat—but not one Italian. Leaders of these feudal-like entities talk and talk and talk politics, but connive as brokers dividing up the Italian pecuniary pie—for themselves and their clientele. There has never been a consensus decided upon by these economic paladins and their constituencies. The reason is simple: they are always back-stabbing each other, in their “democratic” charades, to get a bigger piece of that cream-filled—for them—Italian political pie. Italian “politicians” fake that they are democratically inclined—they call for elections so often just to prove it! Italians are always voting their brains out! But, the methods—these means to ends—are often far from being Jeffersonian. Their idea of democracy is a government in which small groups exercise control for corrupt and selfish purposes. (As I write [July, 1997] this sentence, seven hundred doctors, in the Milano area, are under police investigation for bilking what is assumed to be one billion dollars from government health agencies. The money is said to be in Swiss bank accounts, naturally.) Italian government is a bureaucratic, Kafkaesque malaise that serves its fat-cat oligarchy and tortures its legions of “democrats.” Italy resembles more a caudillismo venezuelano than it does a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them. Italy is Caracasing.
When I settled (1 May 1983) in Italy’s most “communist” region, Toscana (Tuscany), I was immediately impressed with the large number of recreational, club-like bars and cafés that were canopied with the hammer and sickle of the Partito Comunista Italiano, and I tried, casually, to affiliate myself with some of them because they offered me a cheaply-priced cappuccino and a chance to read the party’s newspaper, l’Unità, for free. I spoke little Italian at the beginning, and mostly looked at newspaper pictures and, most importantly, the faces of my Italian “comrades” who viewed me with indifference or scorn once they pinned down that I came from the United States of America. (Tut! Tut!! Tut!!!)
I gradually came to understand, to speak, to communicate, to learn. It took years to get where I could comprehend well enough and delve deeper, then deeper, to try to get to the soul of Europe’s most prodigious communist group—save, at that time, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics itself. And this is what I learned: At the entrance to each Italian “communist” circolo there is a sign which declares, in no uncertain terms, that the club is reserved for members only. That is, it is not reserved for members only!—if you want to go into the front room and spend some of that most repugnant of capitalistic quiddities: legal tender. If you are a citizen of the United States, Tunisia, Albania—even Senegal—you can enter if you pay out. If you are a Senegalese who has slept under a bridge all night in freezing weather, you can come in and buy a cappuccino. If you stop buying and want to stay warm in that front room, you will not be asked to leave, you will be asked to buy more! If club members talk to you—and they just might sometimes—they will not ask you your name and welcome you; they will ask you from where you come. Then they will refer to you as an “americano, marocchino, albanese, or senegalese.” You will not be invited to join their club. If you want to go to the bathroom, you must ask for the key. If you sit and “nurse” your cappuccino, no club member will come to you, sit next to you, speak to you. You will feel just as any Afroamerican does in an all-White Mississippian golf club which has been obliged by federal law to accept his/her membership, his/her presence.
If you have the courage to ask for the key to the bathroom, or are too embarrassed to urinate in the cold street after you have imbibed your cappuccino, you can enter the inner sanctum (back room) where the circolo’s only dirty bathroom (“W. C.”) is. And here you will light upon the heart and soul of Italian “communism,” the members of the Rifondazione Comunista party—that special interest group which remained “faithful” to Marx and Engels and Lenin when the old Partito Comunista Italiano broke ranks to form a “new left.” (There had never been an “old left.” Just parole, parole, parole about it.)
The back room is a cloud of cigarette and cigar (toscani, naturally!) smoke, and the stench
(windows are sealed shut in winter) is incredible. Men—not one woman—are huddled over tables playing cards, reading the party’s house organ. No one is discussing. They are shouting, screaming. They sound frustrated, desperate. The waiter brings more red wine. One bellows louder than the other, and he says he is being cheated. You cannot see one man under the age of fifty. In some circoli there might be upwards of two-hundred men howling en masse. They want Rifondazione Comunista to get a higher pension for them; they want Rifondazione Comunista to keep the government from lowering their pensions. They moo about high inflation. They croak about Italy’s hopeless health care system. They whine about the long lines at city halls. When they lose their hand, they bang on the tables. They stridulate for another glass of wine. They go to discharge urine and stand before the urinal in a puddle of yellow gook, dejected and wrathful.
Two or three times a year, these men sober up enough to rise to the occasion. They go to the kitchen and borrow their wives’ pots and pans, put on their red shirts, their red and yellow scarves with the hammer and sickle, put a whistle between their teeth, and go into the street to yowl some more for more money. They rarely obtain it. Medicine prices augment. Food prices magnify. Fuel prices thicken. Telephone and electricity bills greaten. More wine. More nicotine. They salute their comrades from World War II “glory days.” Old “communists” limp home to their wine bottles. Overhasty and forfeited, they promise their grandson or granddaughter—if they have one—that they will go to church to bear witness to his or her First Holy Communion. Their wives—if they have one—call them imbecilli when they come home.
What would Marx say? A betrayal? Are they crazy? Was it not Marx and Engels who, horrified by the unrestrained capitalism of their time when rampant exploitation and oppression were the kismet of the working class, were animated to fight for justice and equality in a pitiless society? What would Marx say seeing these broken, pathetic, bigoted Italian “communists” impoverished, spiritless, and irredeemable? What would Marx say of one capitalist guru’s (John Kenneth Galbraith) short, pithy statement: “We must comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”? What would Marx say about these absurdities?
Fausto Bertinotti, Rifondazione Comunista’s clever and level-headed leader would naturally respond for Marx with absolutely brilliant rejoinders and counterstatements, and Italian television cameras would be sure to propagandise Fausto’s charm and percipience. After all, Italy is a democracy—I repeat: d-e-m-o-c-r-a-c-y—and is even ever grand enough to accept a minority party’s frivolities and capricci. Fausto is prudent, explicit. A great spokesperson and a genius at interpretation. A politicalized professor. But, Fausto is not a politician. He is an Italian politician. He is cautious to protect his piece of the pie. He does not seek unanimity. He holds his cards close to his chest. He is conservative. He is against progress. He is not a communist. Jesuits call him pragmatic and intelligent. Fausto is not a believer, but he is not an atheist! (Wants his cake and eat it, too!) He was married in a Roman Catholic Church! Reads St. Paul. He is just another breakneck pawn in the Italian economic disaster. A simpatico one, however. Fausto, stop hiding behind those Karl Marx and Che Guevara tee-shirts! Reflect on this: Italy, according to French philosopher André Glucksmann, is the mirror of Europe. He trumpets: “Italians, you are the best of buffoons in a continent without an iota of common sense!”
For it to survive, Italy needs a good dose of courage and the will of all its citizens to reflect a good while on their motives and aspirations. When the Italian political system becomes a serious, responsible institution set to serve the interests of its citizenry and not those of its now counterfeit, self-satisfied, heavy-weighted, oligarchic clique, progress may become a reality. Fausto Bertinotti is one of the few in Italian politics sufficiently talented and sensitive to spark the debate, with the individuals he represents, to help upend Italy. That he does not do so is tragic for all of us.
Fausto Bertinotti, do be do be do! Come on. Loosen up. Come to Firenze, and let us visit a Rifondazione Comunista circolo together. Leave your bodyguards and armed car in Roma. Forget about those beautiful Roman restaurants and their fantastic wines. Come here and eat a pannino with one slice of ham on it and drink a glass of cheap wine with me. Let us teach our comrades that all men are created equal. That they can be friends with an americano or a senegalese or an albanese or even a marocchino! That they should ask what they can do for their country, and not what their country can do for them. That they can clean the W.C. That all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That they do not have to drink rich red wine and play cards to pass their time. And, let’s get them to open circoli windows!
Fausto, you must stem the tragedy unfolding within Rifondazione Comunista’s ranks. Hundreds of thousands of your members are over sixty-five years of age. Forty percent of Italian families have one child! Rifondazione Comunista risks going out of business. You must open the Rifondazione Comunista doors to all races, to all ages. Your party cannot remain the domain of red-faced sycophants, bent on hate, racism and xexophobia, if it is to prosper and spread beyond the limits of its self-imposed pettiness.
Do be do be do!
Written 1 July 1997
Revised 18 June 2001
Anthony St. John