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MARINE INFLUENCE will gradually increase today with possible drizzle in the evening. Warmer weather will gradually build by midweek with light rain for the northern half of the area Tuesday. (NWS)
SCHOOL HOLIDAY NEWS
Dear Anderson Valley Community,
I hope you are doing well and looking forward to the approaching holidays and New Year! It is amazing that the first half of the year is almost completed. At both sites, the staff have been working very hard on curriculum adoptions. The elementary site will have the materials on display for the preferred option they vetted in an arduous piloting process. The Junior and Senior High will display materials in late January for parent review and input.
A Junior/Senior High ELAC meeting is planned with a light dinner on Thursday, January 12 at 5:30. All parents/guardians are welcome to attend, but we would appreciate your letting us know, so we can plan the right amount of food. Drop an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The holiday artwork around the elementary campus was heartwarming! Kindergarten was truly excited about the bulbs they grew for gifts. One thousand pounds of food was donated by our Junior/Senior High kids to our community food bank. Their generosity was featured in numerous newspaper articles. Also, we do have a community washing machine available BY RESERVATION during school hours at the elementary site. It is a coin-operated machine and is intended to help families that have a challenge with transportation to wash clothes or are facing a challenge such as a lice outbreak. Please email email@example.com, if you would like to know more about the program.
Three weeks off is a long time. It is imperative that your elementary students read during that time (or you read to them). At the Junior/Senior High School level, check your students’ grades and make sure they are working on any missing assignments that may be due. We come back so late into the semester, that if they are behind, it will be hard to make the work up. Also, at the Junior/Senior High School over the past three weeks, we have had a marked increase in the number of students using marijuana on the school grounds. It has not been vape cartridges, but joints and it is strong. We are doing everything we can, but we need some help here from our parents/guardians. Can you please talk with your students that this is unacceptable behavior at school. I want to reiterate again, if we find any students selling items or with large quantities, I will move for a mandatory expulsion and that will require the family to transport their student to the alternative school in Ukiah. Please help me and our staff, help your kids.
A safe and happy holiday to you all. We will see on back to school on January 9!
Louise Simson, Superintendent
Anderson Valley Unified School District
‘Every Student • Every Possibility • No Matter What’
SOME HELP FOR ELECTRA
Anxiety For Unprivileged And Unhoused Fort Bragg Locals
I tried to contact you by phone but I was unable to make a Clear Connection my name is Electra Ezmeralda. So I have been a Fort bragg native most of my life with the exception of living in Nevada and Tahoe basin for about 10 years I'm 10 years following I went through a nasty break up which landed me homeless I'm currently relying on these services the community provides for individuals requiring overnight Sheltering at the Motel 6 where the homeless shelter is staged I am very concerned that the police department which provides funding is not following their own guidelines for which the conditions of the shelter are provided. What they are telling the homeless community is that it is required that the temperature be below 40 degrees and a 60% chance of rain on the night they plan to provide shelter. Although they are not following these guidelines based on the fact that I'm looking at the NOAA website myself tonight it is going to be 34°. I'm trying to figure out a way to keep myself safe and alive and this is an extreme hindrance being trafficked by the Fort Bragg Police Department. I'm not sure how to address this issue because I have personally called them and let them know that they are causing anxiety and that they are not following their obvious reasonable accommodations that they I believe they are supposed to adhere to. I have tried to make this understood with the mayor and the police department and I'm getting tired running around in circles if there's anything that you can do to make this problem less shrouded please contact me my number is 707-680-0271.
Electra Ezmarelda <firstname.lastname@example.org>
COUNTY BUDGET BALANCING NOT QUITE DONE
by Jim Shields
At their most recent meetings (December 6th and 13th), the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors has been attempting to belatedly deliver a balanced budget for the new fiscal year that began on July 1.
As I have pointed out in recent columns, there are several problems with that task, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Mark Scaramella, of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, reported this past week that “Supervisor Maureen Mulheren posted an unusual budget explanation video on her ‘mo4mendo’ facebook page. She did it, she said, because she received an email (from whom? we’re not told) asking her to ‘refute’ an unspecified ‘article’ about the Supervisors and the budget, adding, ‘Sometimes the media doesn’t portray things that are happening during our meeting as they are actually happening’.”
I have to say I have no idea about whom or even what Mulheren is talking about.
Although I publish a newspaper, the Mendocino County Observer, I’m not a journalist and have never claimed to be one. I am a communicator, a good government advocate, and someone who represents working people, the middle class, and small business owners, all of which were developed, derived and influenced by my background as a former long-time elected union officer. I almost always write and talk about those issues and problems that affect those groups of people. That’s what I do.
So clearly what’s happening with the county’s budget at this time is something that touches or distresses damn near every person who lives in this county. Therefore, I’m very careful about providing accurate information — almost all of which comes from the public record and established, verified data and sourced documents.
Anyway, I know that perhaps with the exception of Mulheren, all the Supervisors probably would agree with following:
• Fiscal year 2021-22, which ended June 30 of this year, has not been reconciled and closed out yet.
• Federal law that requires that an independent, third-party audit be performed on the 2021-22 books, has yet to be completed because the County has not closed out the 2021-22 fiscal year.
• The California Government Code requires that all local governments, such as Mendocino County, must annually approve a balanced budget, which the County is unable to do at this time because it hasn’t closed out the previous year’s financials, and doesn’t know what the “carryover” is from the old fiscal year to the new fiscal year. Basically, what happens in a closeout is you establish a closing balance for end of year finances, and a starting balance for the new fiscal year. That way you’re dealing with a “clean” set of books that provide you with reliable numbers
• County staff estimate that there is probably a $6.1 million deficit in the 2022-23 budget.
• Board Chairman Ted Williams’ comments regarding the budget and county finances, when he said the following:
At the August 2nd BOS meeting, when he said, “I would like to ask my colleagues for support on direction to the CEO’s office to reach out to the state controller’s office to help us get our books in order. … I’m three and half years into a term. I worry, I’m coming up on the point where I can no longer use the excuse, ‘I’m new here.’ And yet in the three and a half years, I haven’t been able to get a credible financial report. I understand we have three different sets of books. They all differ. Why? … So how much accumulated error is there, and over how many years is it? Ten years? Is it thirty years? Is that why we have different sets of books, with different numbers? Because we never incorporate the outside audit findings? I think we have a financial crisis here, and we just don’t know how bad it is.”
On December 6th Williams led off the BOS meeting with comments that were directed to Assemblyman Jim Wood who was attending via zoom, saying, “I don’t know, when I’ve voted on balanced budgets in the past, whether they were actually balanced, That’s coming to light. We have a health plan that was millions [deficit} over, and part of that was due to a holiday. I understand that’s because we got a call from the state. The state said we had accumulated too much money. We needed to spend it down. I don’t know what department of the state or why they would have done that by phone instead of writing…our finances are in such disarray, if I were in the state’s position, I would be looking at this rural county, thinking, we need to conserve them [place the county under state conservatorship], clean up this mess and then give control back. Do you have any thoughts on how we move forward? We don’t have the local labor pool; we don’t have the funds to hire the staffing. It sounds like we have an office that was based on paper and spreadsheets, not automated systems. I think the Board and staff want to move forward and get our books in order, but we don’t know how.”
At the December 13th meeting, the Supes approved a bifurcated budget plan that reduced the $6.1 million deficit by $2.5 million (through a variety of capital project deferrals and one-time funding sources), but deferred the $3.6 million remaining deficit for resolution in early 2023. That deficit results from the previous self-funded health plan that was replaced several months ago by a new, pooled health care plan that reportedly provides the same coverage but is less costly.
Williams’ comments at the December 6th meeting about, “We have a health plan that was millions over …”, refers to a very convoluted, deep-in-the-weeds structural deficit mess surrounding the old health plan, and I’ll spare you and your valuable time any more details.
The bottom line is the Supes kicked a $3.6 million can down the road to be picked up later because legally there must be an approved balanced budget.
Here’s some free advice, and I forget when and where I first heard this but I’ve never forgotten it:
“Balancing a budget is like going to heaven. Everybody wants to do it, but nobody wants to do what you have to do to get there.”
(Jim Shields is the Mendocino County Observer’s editor and publisher, email@example.com, the long-time district manager of the Laytonville County Water District, and is also chairman of the Laytonville Area Municipal Advisory Council. Listen to his radio program “This and That” every Saturday at 12 noon on KPFN 105.1 FM, also streamed live: http://www.kpfn.org.)
Appreciate the Editor’s comments re DA Dave, and my coverage of the two police misconduct cases his office has handled this year. I have no agenda, not now nor when I spent 10 years as the DA’s part-time public information officer attempting to publicly explain the DA’s policies and actions. I quit in November 2021. I have a lifelong interest as a journalist and citizen in bringing clarity to issues then, and now. In that vein, perhaps DA Dave can explain why he did not personally prosecute the Murray case, the one that led to the decision to drop sexual assault allegations made by TWO women against the disgraced police officer. In the background were the claims of a third woman, a former police trainee under Murray’s supervision when he was a sergeant with the Ukiah Police Department. The truth of the matter is that the Sacramento woman mentioned was prepared to testify until the much-delayed case was postponed for a third time.
Who knows the real facts behind the sexual assault allegations against former Ukiah Police Chief Noble Waidelich. DA Dave has had six months to offer up any information to the public but has chosen to whine in the background, and refuse to answer detailed and repeated questions put to him and his staff. We only learned the true scope of the allegation against Waidelich from the state AG’s Office after months of silence on the DA’s part. Yes, it is time for the DA to set the record straight. Sexual assault allegations are serious. Mr. Waidelich deserves to be publicly cleared if the evidence does not warrant prosecution. It is DA Dave who is dodging the public’s right to know what is going on with a case involving a former top law enforcement officer in the county.
By the way, what is DA Dave doing with a third police misconduct case turned over to his office for charging several weeks ago? More ‘he said, she said’?
Regarding Anderson Valley schools and the idea to develop some housing: with a recognition that the lack of affordable, attractive housing locally was a detriment to hiring attempts, in Round Valley about eight years ago the school board and administration pursued an option to create a little housing development, maybe four units, on a lot across the street from the high school and next to the tennis courts. We already owned the lot. What seemed affordable was the purchase of manufactured housing, single wides, of a modest description. These would cost about $60,000-$70,000 each and were fairly attractive, not bare bones hideous things. We were stopped cold when informed that this development was “public housing” and would need to conform to all the ADA requirements. The affordable, single wide manufactured units do not have ADA bathrooms, or really any of the necessary dimensions for ADA compliance. Units which meet this requirement were about 100% more expensive. We decided rather quickly that if such a housing development was to be financially viable an outfit other than the school would have to be the lead. Good luck Anderson Valley. You might have more money, or be smarter, but we just bailed on the idea of being real estate developers and we needed to stay focused on providing school facilities, services, and support. You have a good district architect, he might be able to sort through the “you can’t do this” response from the authorities with jurisdiction and get some housing for teachers built.
A BEAR KILLED ON THE WILLITS GRADE Calls Attention To Rural California’s High Rates Of Wildlife-Vehicle Collisions
Hopland resident Shawn Joaquin Padi was driving on Highway 101 this morning when he drove upon a dead black bear lying alongside the roadway on the Willits Grade. Last night or early this morning, a driver collided with the animal causing fatal injuries.…
ON-LINE COMMENT: "What a beautiful bear, cut down by humans. At least his four paws were not cut off yet. Up here where I live, the paws are gone within a half a hour of the roadkill. Nothing more disgusting than seeing a bear's body desecrated with no paws left. Real manly hunters there, straight outta Mad Max roadkill scavenging.
CATCH OF THE DAY, Sunday, December 18, 2022
CASSIDY ALLEN, Willits. Controlled substance, paraphernalia, shoplifting, stolen property, campfire without permit, failure to appear.
GONZALO ANGULO, Willits. DUI.
IRA BOWES, Covelo. Disorderly conduct-alcohol, probation revocation.
AMBER FRENCH, Ukiah. Disorderly conduct-alcohol.
KEITH GILCHRIST, Ukiah. Shopping cart, probation revocation.
JESUS MACIAS-SILVA, Ukiah. Controlled substance, probation revocation.
JASON PITT, Fort Bragg. DUI, misdemeanor hit&run.
ERIC SEALE, Fort Bragg. Domestic battery, criminal threats.
CHRISTINA VALDEZ, Nice/Ukiah. DUI.
LESLI WALL, Willits. DUI, probation revocation.
NICHOLAS WHIPPLE, Redwood Valley. Failure to appear.
DONE WRITING BEFORE IT STARTS, ALMOST
by Tommy Wayne Kramer
Son Lucas, a fraction of your age and thus able to control the internet the way you control your shower temperature, recently spent a minute showing me a new thingie on my laptop.
It’s ChatGPT and is, lacking a better term, automated writing. I ordered it to to produce “A story about pluses and minuses of living in Ukiah, CA.” Within a split-second, which means less than one second, the following story was already being typed on my screen:
“Ukiah is a city in Mendocino County, California, with a population of around 16,000 people. One of the good aspects of living in Ukiah is its natural beauty. The city is surrounded by forests, hills, and vineyards, and is a short drive from the Pacific coast. The area has a mild Mediterranean climate, with warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters.
“Another good aspect of living in Ukiah is its vibrant arts and culture scene. The city is home to a number of galleries, museums, and theaters, as well as a thriving music and food scene. There are also many outdoor recreational opportunities in the area, such as hiking, biking, and fishing.
“On the downside, the economy of Ukiah can be a challenge for some residents. The city has a relatively high unemployment rate, and the cost of living is higher than the national average. Additionally, the city has struggled with crime in the past, and some parts of the city may not be as safe as others.
“Overall, Ukiah has its pros and cons like any other city. The natural beauty of the area, vibrant arts scene, and recreational opportunities can be attractive to some, but the economic challenges and crime may be a deterrent for others.”
The complete story was finished in 20 seconds or less. I challenge you to detect anything that would distinguish it from the average story in your average travel magazine article written by your average travel writer. If the next glossy issue of “Sonoma County Today!” were to be filled from front to back with stories generated by this writing machine no one, from its editor to its readers, would detect anything amiss.
The writing is bland yet descriptive, suggests sufficient knowledge of the area to convince anyone the author had, at minimum, at least passed through the region at some point and made a cursory study of its characteristics. If you were dissatisfied with the story as written, you could simply instruct the robot to remove all negative remarks and instead emphasize Ukiah’s wonderful wines, gorgeous sunsets and the 16-story luxury hotel currently being built in the center of town.
And 20 seconds later it will be done. Again.
There isn’t a high school English teacher in Northern California who wouldn’t be delighted with essays of this quality being turned in on assignments. Later, of course, that teacher would realize all of her 10th grade students write better compositions than she would be able to put together.
What’s the future for automatic writing? Well, it puts an end to newspaper columnists for one, and guarantees unemployment lines for poets, who were rendered obsolete as of last week. (Lucas requested a poem on “How to Hotwire a Car” and was provided four stanzas of six rhyming lines, each of surprising complexity and know-how, though a bit clumsy around the edges. The human-free writing program “understood” hot-wiring required targeting the red wire, and made a point of admonishing readers the activity was potentially illegal. And it rhymed.
A related cyber tool toy complements this fake writing one. It produces artworks from written suggestions, and at my command provided a drawing of Bob Dylan and Karl Marx playing ukuleles on a beach in Jamaica. Next, as requested, it printed a drawing of cows driving cars with pianos on the roof.
Then Lucas dreamed up a painting of golden retrievers as they might appear on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and was rewarded with Michelangelo-esque caricatures of winged dogs cavorting among angels and clouds.
In the end it’s just one more step along the path to social doom, I suppose. Soon enough our brains will shrink and fingers will disappear, with only pudgy lumps and outsized thumbs, the better to manipulate our cell phones.
It remains to be seen how future generations will be able to pluck individual Doritos out of bags, or open cans of Red Bull, but I’m confident mankind’s abilities to adapt to to changing circumstances will bring a happy solution.
I’ll even suggest ChatGPT write a story about it.
This is Soooo Cool!
"Raven rides the slipstream ‘bow wave’ of a truck for kilometres down the Dempster Highway."
I realize many folks around here hate Ravens, but I've always had great relationships with them, maybe because I don't feed 'em and just verbally interact with them.
If you feed a local to your property raven, they will pester you forever for more food, so I avoid that trap.
For the last 19 years I've had ravens hanging out in the tree across the alley from my house in Fort Bragg and we get along just fine, and "talk" to each other on occasion.
Years ago when I lived South of Point Arena, up Iverson Road, I used to hang out at the Saunders Reef vista point (Just North of Schooner Gulch) and watch the ravens there.
In the later afternoon when the N/NW wind would start up, the ravens would surf it for quite a long time, just hovering there right off the bluff tops only 20 feet away from me, it was mesmerizing.
ARGENTINA WINS WORLD CUP, AND LIONEL MESSI IS THE PERFECT MAN FOR THIS MOMENT
by Brenda Elsey
News update: Argentina beat France during a penalty shootout in the World Cup final on Sunday, delivering the first World Cup trophy for its star, Lionel Messi.
Argentina’s passionate football fans create the players they want to see. They adore, they chide, they analyze. And few have been on the receiving end of Argentine scrutiny like Lionel Messi, the improbably slight forward who has dominated the sport for 15 years.
Despite his global success, Argentines have doubted his patriotism and suggested he cared more about Spain, where he played for F.C. Barcelona until 2021, than his home country. Journalists have insulted him, in explicitly gendered language, describing him as “pecho frío,” or “cold chested.” After he led a technically inferior team to the 2014 World Cup final, his own grandfather criticized him on television as “somewhat lazy.”
This year’s World Cup is likely to be the last for Messi, who is 35. He has performed admirably, with three goals so far, helping Argentina secure its spot in the quarterfinals, where it will face the Netherlands on Friday. But Argentine fans have seemed to care as much about their captain’s journey as they have about winning football’s ultimate prize.
That is a striking difference from when he announced his (short-lived) retirement in 2016 because of his failure to deliver an international trophy. The team’s recent winning streak — interrupted only by a shocking loss to Saudi Arabia in the group stage — has gone a long way to ease tensions, but the pendulum has swung far beyond that. Messi, at least publicly, remains the same. Argentina, however, is a different country from the one he left in 2001 as a 13-year-old phenom. The feminist movement and its challenge to the patriarchs of football set off much of that transformation.
Messi has never fit the archetype of the “pibe,” an affectionate term for an Argentine football hero. The “pibe” was born in the poor neighborhoods of early 20th-century Buenos Aires. He outsmarted the elite with his trickery and wooed women with his charm. No one brought the figure to life more than Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup. Uncontrollable, Maradona symbolized rebellion against a militarized society. The Argentine public forgave, and often celebrated, his sexism, drug abuse and temper, which many saw as part of his “genius.”
In stark contrast, Messi, nicknamed “the flea,” is a subdued superstar. On the pitch, he pouts, he scowls and he even vomits. He was born in the provincial city of Rosario, where his father worked in a steel factory and his mother as a domestic servant. After he was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency at 11 years old, Messi’s family worried his football dreams might be over. When F.C. Barcelona offered to pay for expensive medical treatments, he signed a contract on a napkin and moved with his father to Spain. On the rare occasions when Messi discusses his childhood, he mentions the pain of separation from his mother and siblings.
Female players and their feminist allies have vocally criticized the “pibe” model and the “win at any cost” mentality perpetuated by football. In the process, they have — in the years that coincided with the peak of Messi’s career — changed the country’s football culture.
Women began playing in Argentina more than 100 years ago, but football’s gatekeepers viciously shut them out. On the rare occasion that the national federation organized matches, it failed to pay the women. The disparity in support for the two national teams was among the largest in global sports.
In 2017, the national women’s team declared that it would go on strike. The federation’s corruption enabled sexual harassment and the diversion of funds earmarked for women’s development. It was dangerous for players who spoke out and many, including the former captain Estefanía Banini, suffered retribution.
Female players’ actions dovetailed with a blossoming of the feminist movement known as #NiUnaMenos, or “Not One Less.” Founded as a collective in Argentina that spread throughout Latin America, #NiUnaMenos organized general strikes and demonstrations to protest gender violence. #NiUnaMenos defined gender equity in broad terms, calling for reproductive rights, transgender rights and racial and class justice. The legalization of abortion in 2021 — nothing short of miraculous in a Catholic country shaped by a military regime that promoted a conservative gender ideology — was largely the result of this activism.
Fans also began to respond faster and more forcefully to incidents of gender discrimination. In the late 2010s, Argentine feminists formed gender commissions within football clubs, rewrote clubs’ antiquated bylaws, questioned discriminatory chants, and created safer spaces in the stands and clubhouses for women and L.G.B.T.Q.-identifying fans.
As waves of purple scarves, the emblem of #NiUnaMenos, flooded the streets of Argentine cities, Lionel Messi continued to thrive at F.C. Barcelona. He married a childhood friend and became a doting father of three. Diverging once again from the boyish and untamed “pibe,” Messi seems to genuinely delight in caring for his children. And he continued to astound defenders and electrify audiences. He won the Ballon d’Or, the award for the world’s best player, a record seven times; he played on a team that won the Champions’ League; he became the highest all-time scorer in Argentine history; and finally, he led Argentina to victory over Brazil in the 2021 Copa América.
Through it all, Lionel Messi has defied the machismo in Argentine football in his own gentle way. Football stadiums are part of a sexist ecosystem where displays of misogyny and homophobia are commonplace; organized fans called “barras bravas” have created terrifying conditions during matches. Messi has rejected this violence, collaborating with his hometown, Rosario, in its campaign against violence in the stadiums. The campaign’s public service video features brutal images of fans attacking one another while Messi cries.
Argentina’s squad and its coach, Lionel Scaloni, are as important in redefining masculinity in football as Messi is. Although most members of the squad play for European clubs, they were raised in Argentine youth academies, which export hundreds of players a year to ply their trade in leagues from Indonesia to the United States. In 2018, boys in these academies came forward to report sexual abuse they suffered there. Their experiences helped to reverse the stigma associated with sexual violence.
It would be hyperbolic to claim a symbiotic relationship between Messi and feminists in his home country. And, of course, discriminatory behavior continues to plague football in Argentina. In the qualifiers for this World Cup, Argentina received fines and punishments related to racist gestures and homophobic chants among fans. But it’s undeniable that there has been a push from grass-roots activists to reconsider what values really matter in Argentina’s national pastime. They have punctured crusty models of heroism, laying the groundwork for an iconography that seems much more suited to Messi.
(New York Times)
WHAT IS AN INTELLECTUAL? Odd question from me since I am one, since I am surrounded by them, since I think they are essential to the party. Yet without a precise understanding of their nature, of their function, their strengths and weaknesses, we will never solve the disputes raging among us about how the party must operate. My method has always been to argue through the answer to such questions, simply, directly, concretely. So --
The intellectual is not a capitalist. True, his standard of living, his taste, is middle class. He is conscious that he must maintain this if he is not to slide into pauperism. He is compelled to sell the product of his labor, often his labor power by the hour. And so he himself is often enough exploited, and even personally humiliated, by the capitalist or his agents. Hence he does not stand in any direct opposition to the proletariat or to the bourgeoisie. He holds himself at a right angle to both. But his status in society, his style of life, the conditions in which he works, are still not proletarian. This gives rise to a certain antagonism toward ordinary people in his sentiments and ideas.
As an individual on his own, the proletariat is nothing. It would be sentimentality to imagine otherwise. He does not have the education, the leisure, the incentive to make a personal dent on the fortress walls of society. His whole strength, his chance of progress, all his hopes and expectations, are derived from solidarity when he forms part of a big, efficient, powerful organization. This is the main thing for him. By comparison, the individual counts for very little. The proletarian fights quite naturally as part of an anonymous mass, without prospect of personal advantage and personal celebrity. He has been conditioned to do his duty in any post to which he had been assigned. There is nothing alien to him in acting the same as the others. This is his protection as well as his power and it stems from a voluntary work discipline which pervades all his feelings and colors all his observations.
The situation of the intellectual is quite different. He does not fight by means of physical presence, by weight of numbers, but by argument. His weapons are his personal knowledge, his personal talents, his personal convictions.
The proletarian does not expect to rise in society, to be given a better job with better pay. At most he wishes for a mild, evolutionary betterment. The worst would be a revolution in his circumstances and the loss of his work. The intellectual can attain almost any position at all, but only through his personal qualities. Witness my father, son of a serf, who died a hereditary nobleman.
The successful intellectual feels no gratitude, no loyalty, to any group, sect or class. It seems to him there is only one prime condition for worldly advancement and that is the freest play of his own individuality. It is only with difficulty that he submits to being a part subordinate to the whole, and then only from necessity, not from inclination. He fully recognizes the need for obedience to some rules, but only for the masses. Not for the elite, for the ellect minds. It goes without saying that he is among these last. Nietzsche's philosophy with its cult of the superman for whom the fulfillment of his own personality is everything and any subordination of that individuality to some great social aim is vulgar and despicable is the real philosophy of all intellectuals. Unless this can be cut out of them, it renders them unfit to take part in the class struggle of the working people.
— Lenin, as channeled by Alan Brian
Several years ago I remember some one asking Linda Rohnstadt what it meant to her to become rich and famous. Her reply was…
“The biggest thing is, I don’t have to go to the Laundromat anymore.”
Anybody else remember that fateful transition? (The washer dryer part, not the rich and famous part).
“When we first got our washer, I kept looking for the coin slot” (Jeff Doran)
‘Many of you know me as a legendary boxer, and I'm proud of that. However, that journey was not always easy. When I was younger, I became a fighter because I had to survive. I had nothing. I had no one to depend on except myself. I realised that boxing was something I was good at, and I trained hard so that I could keep myself and my family alive.’
On this day in 1978, one of the greatest pound for pound boxers and most adored sportsmen of the modern era was born. That man is none other than multiple weight world champion, Manny ‘Pac-Man’ Pacquiao.
Happy Birthday Champ. Many Happy Returns.
NOTES FROM THE TWITTER FILES: Twitter and the Foreign Influence Task Force (FITF)
In a curious exchange, the government expresses annoyance with Twitter for reporting little "recent" foreign activity
by Matt Taibbi
I recently posted a series of exchanges between Twitter and the FBI. One that required a bit too much explaining was left out. But it’s an important document, because it clearly demonstrates that Twitter will not only take requests from the government, it will even act quickly to align its analyses with its “partners.”
In the summer of 2020, the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force (FITF*) sent a series of written questions to Trust and Safety Chief Yoel Roth by way of FBI Agent Elvis Chan and the San Francisco field office. The exchange was forwarded to Twitter on July 14, 2020, in reference to a prior June, 2020 “DHS/ODNI/FBI/Industry” briefing, which Twitter and perhaps other companies attended.
The FITF is a multi-agency task force created by Christopher Wray in 2017 that includes the FBI, DHS, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It says its mission is “to identify and counteract malign foreign influence operations targeting the United States. The photo array at the top of this page — from a larger, perfectly diverse collection of officials, all in the same suit — is from the FITF’s “protected voices” initiative. This is a series of videos designed to help “political campaigns, companies, and individuals” protect against ransomware, email compromise, and other problems.
The task force emphasizes “private sector partnerships” with “U.S. technology companies,” with whom they engage in “threat indicator sharing.” Twitter is obviously one of those companies.
In the July, 2020 letter agent Chan forwarded to Roth at Twitter, the FITF appeared miffed by something they felt they heard in the June “industry” briefing. They demanded an explanation for Twitter’s apparent assertion that it “had not observed much recent activity from official propaganda actors on your platform.”
This didn’t sit right with the task force. To express its displeasure, the FITF sent the aforementioned questions. There were many, but examples include:
In what ways and by what measures do you see official propaganda actors as less active than other groups on your platform?
What groups are you comparing to official propaganda actors?
What quantitative metrics do you use to judge volume of activity on your platform? On what scale? Can you provide these metrics?”
An interesting part is at the bottom of this letter, where the FITF included a bibliography of sorts, with articles from the Oxford Internet Institute, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, the Mercator Institute for China Studies, even the Wall Street Journal.
It’s hard to read this document and not glean that the FITF was citing the conclusions of outside think tanks and even the Journal to counter an apparent implication by Twitter that they “had not observed much recent activity” by foreign actors. This is especially bizarre because some of those papers cited intelligence reports as their sources. The Journal piece, for instance, wrote:
Meanwhile, RT, the Russian state news organization that federal intelligence officials call “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet,” uses Google’s YouTube, Facebook and Twitter as the main distributors of its content.
That same article also quoted former ambassador to Russia and ubiquitous Twitter personality Michael McFaul:
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who is now a political-science professor at Stanford University, said RT is “an instrument of Kremlin foreign policy and should be thought of that way.”
If one didn’t know any better, one would conclude from this passage that the foreign-influence assertion at least in this case was being daisy-chained into existence: public sources cite anonymous official sources, then official sources cite the public sources in their communications with platforms like Twitter. An information loop, pooh-poohing any implication that foreign influence is not a threat, or at least a recent threat.
Twitter appeared horrified that the government got the impression they didn’t believe they were seeing much foreign activity. Roth, upon receipt of the questionnaire, sent a letter on July 15, 2020 to other company executives:
The questions we received are attached. I'm frankly perplexed by the requests here, which seem more like something we’d get from a congressional committee than the Bureau. There’s a big discussion to be had about state-controlled media, which will be impacted by the label launch later this month — but I'm not particularly comfortable with the Bureau (and by extension the IC) demanding written answers here. What's your perspective on how best to navigate?
The idea that questions from the Bureau “by extension” represent the thoughts of the intelligence community is of course interesting, given that many agencies are barred from involving themselves in domestic intelligence-gathering. Roth later added to his thoughts:
In rereading the doc, the entire premise seems flawed. In our June 2020 briefing, we did not indicate that we “had not observed much recent activity from official propaganda actors on your platform.” I re-reviewed my notes from that briefing, and there's a specific item calling out official propaganda outlets as a major factor. And in multiple follow-ups… we’ve been clear that official state propaganda is definitely a thing on Twitter…
My recommendation is to get on the phone with Elvis ASAP and try to straighten this out. I’m concerned that there’s swirl somewhere in the IC about a statement that may have been fundamentally misunderstood…
Seeing Roth act so quickly in response to the possibility of a “swirl” forming in the “IC” should put to rest any questions about who is subservient to whom in this relationship.
The internal responses ratified Roth’s strategy of getting back on the phone with the FBI right away and reiterating that state propaganda is definitely a thing on Twitter. (Roth added these italics in his own document).
Incidentally, the word “swirl” popped up more than once in Twitter Files documents. In another exchange in 2020, a communications official told Vijaya Gadde, the head of legal, policy, and trust at Twitter, that there was a “swirl” developing in media around their handling of the Hunter Biden laptop story. Gadde replied, on October 20th, 2020:
Swirl from the left or the right?
It’s possible that some of the accounts in the various lists we’ve seen passed to Twitter were indeed identified by agencies like the FBI as having foreign, coordinated origin. None of the documents appear to show the agency sharing that information with Twitter, at least not yet.
Instead, what we see is the same circular pattern. Information leaves Twitter for the FBI or DOJ via the back end, goes through an analytical process of some kind at the government, then returns to Twitter in the form of moderation requests. What we’ve seen so far are mostly small-engagement accounts, belonging to ordinary Americans. It makes sense that there would be “malign foreign actors” on Twitter, but what’s been visible in our searches, mostly, is policing of more mundane accounts.
The wider issue of foreign “malign” threat remains an important talking point for all parties. How significant that threat is is hard to say, but certainly this exchange suggests Twitter’s “partners” and “stakeholders” in government are not interested in hearing any platform say — even if the statement was misunderstood — that it has “not observed much recent activity from official propaganda actors.” One would think that would be welcome news. Apparently not.
A LONELY MAN is a lonesome thing, a stone, a bone, a stick, a receptacle for Gilbey’s gin, a stooped figure sitting at the edge of a hotel bed, heaving copious sighs like the autumn wind.
— John Cheever
ONE THING TO KEEP IN MIND about the Twitter Files exposition of the overlap between Silicon Valley and secretive government agencies is that the overlap is almost certainly worse in Google/YouTube and Meta/Facebook/Instagram. Twitter has historically been the least awful major platform when it comes to resisting resisting government influence.
— Caitlin Johnstone
ON-LINE COMMENT OF THE DAY
Neanderthals? Scientists have been spending years rooting around in debris left at ancient caveman sites, including Neanderthals. One thing they did notice is that no remains or any other evidence of wolf/dogs were found at Neanderthal sites, apparently this subspecies of human never used dogs for hunting game. Homo sapien sites have lots of evidence of dogs being around in those settlements. Some scientists speculate that homo sapiens survived because they teamed up with domesticated dogs and thus canines and humans became very successful in hunting. Neanderthals may have vanished because they had no hunting dogs. If true, it’s amazing that humans are so unthankful for help in surviving. Instead, we treat canines as dogs. We kill dogs and still abuse them, and consider them our inferiors. In terms of sheer character and loyalty, dogs are way ahead of humans.
JFK DOCUMENTS POINT TO WHAT THE CIA WAS HIDING
by Michael Isikoff
Just seven weeks before the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the CIA intercepted a curious phone call to the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City. “My name is Oswald,” said the caller, speaking in broken Russian, seeking information about his request for a visa to return to Russia. It was indeed Lee Harvey Oswald, the Marxist misfit soon to be identified as Kennedy’s accused assassin. In this instance, Oswald didn’t get very far. Seeking an update on his visa request, the Soviet official who answered the phone told Oswald he had no update to give and then hung up on him.
Most of a 23-page internal CIA memo documenting that phone call and other details of Oswald’s pre-assassination trip to Mexico City — a visit that has been the subject of endless speculation — was released years ago. But a few previously classified portions of that memo were finally released this week, a small part of the more than 13,173 newly unredacted documents disclosed by the National Archives under a 1992 law requiring the release of all government material relating to what was arguably the most shocking and consequential crime in American history.
So what was the CIA hiding all these years? The long-concealed section speaks for itself. “This piece of information was produced from a telephone tap center which we operate jointly with the office of the President of Mexico,” the memo reads, explaining how the CIA intercepted Oswald’s call to the Soviets. “It is highly secret and not known to Mexican security and law enforcement officials, who have their own center.”
In short, like much of the newly disclosed JFK papers, the memo didn’t contain any bombshells that prove an elaborate conspiracy to kill Kennedy. Instead, it was the CIA trying to hide how it does its business — in this case, forging a relationship with a foreign official to operate a secret listening center on Mexican soil.
The Kennedy assassination remains to this today the mother of all conspiracy theories, giving rise to countless books and movies arguing — take your pick — that the Mafia or the Cubans or the Russians or the CIA itself played a hidden role in the president’s murder. And there is little doubt that the agency’s failure to release all of its records relating to the assassination has fueled the idea of a massive government cover-up. “What are they hiding?” Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son and namesake of Kennedy’s brother and, to many, a notorious conspiracy theorist himself, asked two months ago when a new lawsuit was filed to force the release of the remaining material.
But the latest release only underscores the point that what has been hidden from the public is largely about highly sensitive agency collection activities and exotic plans for operations that, while in some instances highly embarrassing and by today’s standards indefensible, bear little if any relevance to the crime itself. A prime example is one of the newly disclosed documents — a seven-page Aug. 31, 1962, Defense Department memo about Operation Mongoose, the secret operation to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government that had been authorized by Kennedy (and overseen by his brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy) after the disastrous failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Written more than a year before Kennedy’s assassination, the memo tells us nothing about that event. But it does reveal the extraordinary lengths to which the officials running Operation Mongoose were prepared to go to achieve Kennedy’s desired result: “Arrange for caches of limited Soviet-Czech arms to be ‘discovered’ in selected Latin American countries, ostensibly smuggled in from Cuba,” one section of the memo reads. In short, it was a plan to frame the Cubans by linking them to a gun-smuggling operation that the U.S. itself would conduct.
In that sense, the document meshes perfectly with the guiding thinking behind Operation Northwoods, the Pentagon plan to stage a so-called false flag terror attack on the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay that could be used as an excuse to launch a U.S. invasion of the island. “We could blow up a ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame Cuba,” read one previously released memo from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (The idea was rejected by Kennedy.)
But the newly released August 1962 Pentagon memo shows that the idea of launching covert U.S. military operations against Cuba didn’t disappear. The memo mentions apparent proposals to dispatch saboteurs to blow up oil refineries, electrical plants and a paper mill in Cuba. It is far from clear how much, if any of this, was actually carried out. As the memo itself notes: “Each operation entails risk, not only physical risk for the saboteurs, but also risk of attribution to the U.S. in case of capture. Care will be taken to give these the appearance of being done by internal resistance groups, and in isolating team members from press sources upon return.”
Like the CIA’s previous attempt to assassinate Castro using notorious Mafia figures, all of this was unquestionably unsavory — and as details have emerged over the years, it has given the Cubans no shortage of talking points to hammer the U.S. government.
But what, if anything, does it tell us about Oswald himself — and whether he had any secret contacts with anybody in the U.S. government in the months before the assassination? He was, of course, on the FBI’s radar screen. An agent in Dallas was assigned to keep tabs on him given that he had previously defected to the Soviet Union) and the agent’s brief, testy dealings with Oswald — in particular an angry letter Oswald wrote to the agent after he had tried to interview his wife — was destroyed and hidden from the Warren Commission, a panel appointed by President Lyndon Johnson that investigated the assassination. But it has been an article of faith among many JFK conspiracy theorists that something far more sinister was going on — that CIA operatives working to overthrow Castro had some sort of “operational relationship” with Oswald and, using anti-Castro Cubans in the United States, were somehow manipulating them.
But there is nothing in any of the CIA material that was released this week, not to mention the thousands of pages of documents that were previously disclosed, that points to that. In fact, the CIA memo on Oswald’s trip to Cuba suggests otherwise. The memo establishes that, of course, the CIA was aware of Oswald and had a file on him. But here is how the news of Oswald’s arrest went down inside a clearly chaotic CIA headquarters.
“When word of the shooting of President Kennedy reached the offices of our operating divisions and staffs on the afternoon of Friday 22 November 1963, transistor radios were turned on everywhere to follow the tragedy,” the memo reads. “When the name of Lee OSWALD was heard, the effect was electric. A phone message from the FBI came at about the same time, naming OSWALD as the possible assassin and asking for traces.”
At that point, here is what happened, per the memo: James Jesus Angleton, the chief of CIA counter-intelligence, passed the FBI’s message on to something called the Special Investigations Unit. Another operative, a woman named Betty Egerter, “immediately recognized” Oswald’s name and “went for his file.” The Mexico desk chief called in to remind his colleagues “that we had something on Oswald.” A cable was dispatched to Mexico City asking “for more information on OSWALD.” At that very moment, the CIA station in Mexico City sent its own cable as a “reminder of the information the Station had sent in on him.”
What emerges from this account is not so much a portrait of CIA officials horror-struck that their role in the president’s murder might be exposed but of government bureaucrats scrambling to find details about the accused assassin and cover themselves, no doubt worried that they might be blamed for not paying more attention to him before the murder.
Will the new release settle anything? Of course not. Even with this week’s release, the CIA acknowledged in a letter to the White House just made public that the agency is still withholding “limited” material that might reveal, among other things, the names of particular CIA employees, “intelligence assets and sources, specific tradecraft and intelligence methods still in use, specific operational details, foreign intelligence liaison relationships, certain CIA installations” and, perhaps most intriguing, “still-classified covert action programs still in effect.”
On the Yahoo News “Skullduggery” podcast, Jefferson Morley — a former Washington Post reporter and prolific author who runs a website dedicated to the assassination — argued that the CIA is playing a “shell game” and concealing documents that will ultimately reveal Kennedy was “killed by enemies in his own government who had the ability to make it look like something else.” But how did that work? “That’s shrouded in secrecy and so I can’t explain the mechanics of a conspiracy,” he said.
Philip Shenon, a former New York Times reporter who wrote his own book on the assassination entitled “A Cruel and Shocking Act,” offered a different perspective. Oswald — who had purchased the Italian-made rifle that was used to kill Kennedy and then left it behind when he fled the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository after the assassination — was too erratic and unstable to have been part of any conspiracy, he said.
Still, Shenon acknowledged, the new release of material won’t settle the matter. “This is the ultimate rabbit hole,” he said on “Skullduggery.” He then cited the view of then-Sen. Richard Russell, the Georgia Democrat who Johnson had named to the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination. When it was all over and the commission released its report naming Oswald as the lone gunman, Russell was quoted as saying “people will still be debating these conspiracy theories a thousand years from now.”
THERE REALLY ISN'T ENOUGH RESPECT for just how much better the US is at propaganda than other nations. It's completely incomparable in its power and effectiveness. Comparing Russian and Chinese propaganda to US propaganda is comparing baby scribbles to da Vinci.
— Caitlin Johnstone
UKRAINE, SUNDAY, 18 DECEMBER
A Russian missile barrage dealt a major blow to Ukraine's civilian infrastructure Friday, leaving many Ukrainians without light, power or heat.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said services were restored for millions of residents by Saturday evening, but large-scale outages remained in some areas.
The city of Kryvyi Rih took the brunt of the strikes, with four people killed and 13 hurt, local officials said. Crews recovered the body of a young child Saturday.
After the attacks, Zelensky renewed his plea for air defense support from allies. The US may soon send advanced Patriot missile defense systems, CNN reports.
TEACHING ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN’S THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO IN PRISON
There are many disturbing similarities between the brutality imposed on Stalin’s victims and the injustices endured by the incarcerated in federal and state prisons.
by Chris Hedges
Two nights a week for the last four months, I plowed my way through the three volumes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago with 17 students in the college degree program offered by Rutgers University in the New Jersey prison system. No one in my class endures the extremities imposed on the millions who worked as slave labor, and often died, in the Soviet gulag, or work camps, set up after the Russian revolution. The last remnants of the hundreds of camps were disbanded in 1987 by Mikhail Gorbachev, himself the grandson of gulag prisoners. Nor do they experience the treatment of those held in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and our secret black sites who undergo mock trials and executions, torture, extreme sensory deprivation and abuse that comes disturbingly close to replicating the hell of the gulag.
Nevertheless, what Solzhenitsyn underwent during his eight years as a prisoner in the labor camps was familiar to my students, most of whom are people of color, poor, often lacking competent legal representation and almost always coerced into signing confessions or accepting plea deals that include crimes, or versions of crimes they were involved with, which were often false. Over 95 percent of prisoners are pressured to plead out in the U.S. court system, which is not capable of providing jury trials for every defendant entitled to one, were they to actually demand one. In 2012, the Supreme Court said that “plea bargaining . . . is not some adjunct to the criminal justice system; it is the criminal justice system.”
My students, like Soviet prisoners, or zeks, live in a totalitarian system. They too work as bonded laborers, putting in 40-hour work weeks at prison jobs and being paid $28 a month, money used to buy overpriced basic necessities in the commissary, as was true in the gulag. They too are identified by their assigned numbers, wear prison uniforms and have surrendered the rights that come with citizenship.
They are deprived of nearly all personal possessions; stripped of all the outward markers of biography and individuality; forced to endure humiliation, including stripping naked before the guards; cannot express anger at their captors without severe retribution; endure military-style regimentation; cope with constant surveillance, including, as in the gulag, a network of prison informers; can be sent to prolonged isolation; are cut off from their families, as well as the company of women; and given lengthy sentences that, short of a miracle, will mean many will die in prison. They, too, have been demonized by the wider society, forced, as were those released into exile from the gulag, into a criminal caste system that punishes them for the remainder of their lives.
They live in what the sociologist Gresham Sykes called A Society of Captives, with its peculiar customs, slang, rituals and codes of behavior, all of which were replicated in the gulag as they have been in prisons throughout the centuries.
U.S. prisons, which hold around 20 percent of the world’s prison population, although we are less than five percent of the global population, are forms of social control, along with militarized police, propaganda campaigns that seek to make us fearful and therefore passive, wholesale surveillance of every citizen, and a court system that has stripped legal protection from the poor — in effect, criminalizing poverty. The deindustrialization of the U.S. and impoverishment of the working class, especially people of color, has effectively severed many from society, turning them into outcasts who live in internal colonies under the boot of paramilitary armies of occupation.
The U.S. legal system, as under Stalin, shares a fondness for quotas, laying out in advance the number of arrests it needs, often for such non-crimes as selling loose cigarettes or having broken tail lights. Many police departments, prosecutor’s offices and even counties in the U.S. depend on revenue generated by imprisonment, tickets, fines and civil asset forfeiture — a form of legalized theft whereby the state can seize assets, including cash, cars and homes, alleged to be connected to unlawful activity, generally without requiring a conviction or even a criminal charge. A 2019 report by Governing, a research and analysis journal that focuses on local and state policies, found that nearly 600 small towns and cities across the U.S. obtain over 10 percent of their overall budget from such means. This increased to 20 percent of the budget for at least 284 towns and cities and to over 50 percent for 80 of them.
“Look for the brave in prison,” Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago echoing an old proverb, “and the stupid among the political leaders!”
The power of his book, arguably one of the greatest works of nonfiction from the twentieth century, is that it is as much a meditation on power, resistance and living a moral life, as it is a chronicle of the gulag. Solzhenitsyn, a university graduate and a Captain in The Red Army when he was arrested, wore his old officer’s coat to remind the guards and his fellow zeks of his former status. He had to learn to shake off the arrogance and hubris that came with his elevated position in society. Pride, he wrote, “grows in the human heart like lard on a pig.” The intoxication of power is a strong inducement to commit evil. Few are exempt.
“If my life had turned out differently, might I myself have become just such an executioner?” he wrote, suggesting that everyone should ask themselves that question.
“If only it were all so simple!” he lamented. “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
The initiation into this society of captives begins with arrest, a “shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another.” It tosses the victims into what he calls a subterranean “sewage disposal system.”
“Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you, ‘You are under arrest,’” he wrote.
But that is only the start. The interrogation is next, designed to coerce a confession. The tactics differ little across cultures or periods of history Sleeplessness. Physical intimidation. Lies. Threats. Prolonged isolation. The “conveyor” — continual interrogation for hours and days on end. My students knew from experience what Solzhenitsyn found out for himself, that “it is much smarter to play the role of someone so improbably imbecile that he can’t remember one single day of his life even at the risk of being beaten.”
What, he asked, “do you need to make you stronger than the interrogator and the whole trap?”
From the moment you go to prison, you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself: ‘My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. I am condemned to die — now or a little later. But later on, in truth, it will be harder, and so the sooner the better. I no longer have any property whatsoever. For me those I love have died, and for them I have died. From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.’
Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogator will tremble.
Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.
Solzhenitsyn argued that hope not grounded in reality is one of the greatest pacifiers in tyrannical societies: the belief that justice will ultimately prevail, that amnesty is on the horizon, that a life sentence will be commuted, that new evidence will surface which will result in a fair trial and freedom. This false hope, which Solzhenitsyn says is akin to religious belief among prisoners, is debilitating.
“Does hope lend strength or does it weaken a man?” Solzhenitsyn asked. “If the condemned man in every cell had ganged up on the executioners as they came in and choked them, wouldn’t this have ended the executions sooner than appeals to the All-Russian Central Executive Committee? When one is already on the edge of the grave, why not resist?”
He went on: “After all, we have gotten used to regarding as valor only valor in war (or the kind that’s needed for flying in outer space), the kind which jingle-jangles with medals. We have forgotten another concept of valor — civil valor. And that’s all our society needs, just that, just that, just that! That’s all we need and that’s exactly what we haven’t got.”
Hope is far more intangible. It is the ability in extreme situations to retain your humanity, your dignity and your self-worth, all of which prisons attempt to crush. Solzhenitsyn wrote of an incident at the Samarka Camp in 1946 when a group of intellectuals were facing imminent death, worn down by hunger, cold and punishing work details. They formed a seminar and delivered lectures to each other, even as participants slowly expired and were taken to the morgue.
This intangible hope is why the hours spent in a prison classroom are sacred. They restore and nurture the humanity and dignity of the demonized. In the experiences of others, it is possible to see one’s own experience and to be reminded that we are not who those in authority tell us we are.
Solzhenitsyn saw in those who rebel — even if the rebellion is doomed — the only route to freedom. Each act of rebellion, he wrote, creates imperceptible cracks in totalitarian edifices.
Solzhenitsyn described one solitary rebellion in the gulag:
In the spring of 1947 in the Kolyma, near Elgen, two convoy guards were leading a column of zeks. And suddenly one zek, without any prior agreement with anyone, skillfully attacked the convoy guards on his own, disarmed them, and shot them both. (His name is unknown, but he turned out to have been a recent front-line officer. A rare and bright example of a front-line soldier who had not lost his courage in camp!) The bold fellow announced to the column that it was free! But the prisoners were overwhelmed with horror; no one followed his lead, and they all sat down right there and waited for a new convoy. The front-line officer shamed them, but in vain. And then he took up the rifles (thirty-two cartridges, “thirty-one for them!”) and left alone. He killed and wounded several pursuers and with his thirty-second cartridge he shot himself. The entire Archipelago might well have collapsed if all former front-liners had behaved as he did.
Solzhenitsyn’s journey through the gulag was spiritual as well as physical. This journey resonated with my students, some of whom came into the prison illiterate or barely literate, and who doggedly worked their way into the college program. Those with long sentences had often told their wives to get divorces; their girlfriends to find someone else; their mothers, fathers and siblings to stop visiting; their friends and relatives to think of them as dead.
Those who survive best in prison are endowed with an antenna and emotional intelligence that allows them to quickly read the people around them, knowing whom to trust and whom to avoid. Snitches are especially dangerous in prison. They are usually the first people in a prison uprising, including those in the gulag, to be killed by fellow prisoners.
And always the secret sensor relay, for whose creation I deserved not the least bit of credit, worked even before I remembered it was there, worked at the first sight of a human face and eyes, at the first sound of a voice — so that I opened my heart to that person either fully or just the width of a crack, or else shut myself off from him completely. This was so consistently unfailing that all the efforts of the State Security officers to employ stool pigeons began to seem to me as insignificant as being pestered by gnats: after all, a person who has undertaken to be a traitor always betrays the fact in his face and in his voice, and even though some are more skilled in pretense, there was always something fishy about them.
Prisoners do not have the luxury to be nonviolent. Those who will not stand up for themselves in physical altercations are crushed. “People with soft, conciliatory expressions die out quickly on the islands,” he warned. No one will fight to protect you, although sometimes they will fight alongside you.
Prisoners, he insisted, have one composite commandment: “Don’t trust, don’t fear, don’t beg!”
It is only by letting go of pride, material possessions, a lust for power, personal advantage and even your life that you can protect your conscience and your soul.
“Do not pursue what is illusory — property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night,” he wrote. “[D]on’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing.”
I begin each class by having a student summarize the chapter being discussed. I assigned a chapter in the second volume titled “The Ascent” to Luis, who grew up in poverty in a housing project and was arrested at the age of 16 after robbing a jewelry store. His co-defendant shot and killed the jewelry store owner. Luis spent 31 years in prison for felony murder.
Solzhenitsyn wrote that prisoners can choose to survive at any price, which usually means “at the price of someone else.” Or they can undergo a “profound rebirth as a human being.”
Luis turned to the passage that read: “Let us admit the truth: At that great fork in the camp road, at that great divider of souls, it was not the majority of the prisoners that turned to the right. Alas, not the majority. But fortunately neither was it just a few. There are many of them — human beings — who made this choice.”
“It is not the result that counts! It is not the result — but the spirit! Not what — but how. Not what has been attained — but at what price,” Solzhenitsyn wrote.
I heard Luis’s voice break. He fought back tears. He was not only speaking of Solzhenitsyn’s transformation, but his own — and that of the other students in the classroom.
“Looking back, I saw that for my whole conscious life I had not understood either myself or my strivings,” Solzhenitsyn recalled. “What had seemed for so long to be beneficial now turned out in actuality to be fatal, and I had been striving to go in the opposite direction to that which was truly necessary to me.”
“And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: ‘Bless you, prison!’,” he wrote.
A week after that class, I took the witness stand in a Jersey City courtroom at Luis’s resentencing hearing. I told the court about the class. I told them Luis was overcome with emotion because this was a chapter he, and most of my students, could have written.
Luis was released on December 15, a boy who grew up inside a prison, a man who became, as Solzhenitsyn did, a moral human being. I am not romantic about suffering. I saw a great deal of it as a war correspondent. Suffering can destroy you. But it can also elevate you. The tragedy is that Luis leaves so many good men and women behind.