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Saturday, October 08, 2005

Whittling Away at the Beast.

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy.

Superpatriotism by Michael Parenti.
San Francisco: City Lights Publishers, 2004.
168 pp. $11.95 paper. ISBN 0-87286-433-2.

In the realm of American dissident politics, Michael Parenti is a man with shining credentials. He marched, and participated in more pointed protests, in the 60s and 70s. His rap-sheet shows the scars of the experience.

A Marxist during those heady days, he has resisted the temptation, during the intervening years, to go over to the other side and to take up brokerage or advertising. Instead he has become a respected writer and lecturer. His recent book, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome (2003), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

In street parlance, then, he is "O.G.": a term suggesting a kind of tough but graceful aging. In a 2001 piece in The Christian Science Monitor, on the O.G.s of the present protest movement, he offers a bit of genuine wisdom:

"I think it's a good thing that there are less of the small revolutionary cadres today," [Parenti] says. "It's for the better. There is no swift direct blow you can give to the beast."

It is as much of a coming to terms as he is likely to accept.

While his present volume, Superpatriotism, is not likely to be nominated for a Pulitzer, it continues the theme of "the beast," whittling away at it a bit at a time. If the title calls for an exact definition, the book does not deliver it. As a book of experience, a little diffuse but wise with some 70 years, however, it succeeds and the reader is not likely to be disappointed.

What the reader of Superpatriotism will find is a series of related essays written in lucid and accessible prose. Although she or he will not find a precise definition of "superpatriotism," they will find one, gratifyingly precise, of at least one aspect of "real patriotism":

Real patriots educate themselves about the real history of their country and are not satisfied with the flag-waving promotional fluff that passes for history. They find different things in our past to be proud of than do superpatriots, such as the struggle for enfranchisement, the abolitionist movement, the peace movement, the elimination of child labor, and the struggle for collective bargaining, the eight hour day, occupational safety and racial justice and gender equality.

Simple and solid passages such as this are scattered throughout this digest-sized, 168-page book. The notes at the end of each chapter make clear the range of reading and reflection from which they are composed.

On the other side of the ledger, Parenti's excursions into the tasteless Imperialism of McDonald's food and the failure of the military to allow its women soldiers to "inject a kinder, gentler, more humane modus operandi into the ranks" do his book no favors. The former is a bit like adding a penchant for third-rate cologne to the list of the execrable traits of the Genghis Kahn. The latter could serve as a promising story line for a Doonesbury cartoon strip.

Just as often, however, Superpatriotism offers the reader a well-turned observation or a particularly apt quote:

It might do us well to recall the counsel afforded by Senator William Fullbright in 1966: "We are not God's chosen savior of mankind but only one of mankind's more successful and fortunate branches, endowed by our Creator with about the same capacity for good and evil, no more or less, than the rest of humanity."

It is difficult to imagine another single sentence more to the point of our present dilemmas as a nation. It's presence in Parenti's book suggests a miner's patience and a jeweler's eye.

In many ways, this book reminds one of the political/economic writings of the great British prose stylist John Ruskin. It lacks an edginess. At times, its simplicity seems simplistic in the face of the enormities it challenges. Its strengths are the strengths of an intelligent generalist.

By the same token, a young, Indian law student, named Mohandas Ghandi, was profoundly influenced, at an impressionable age, by Ruskin's social writings. Simple, honest words expressing simple, honest ideas -- necessarily imperfect though they may be -- always have a place where there is a need to inspire readers with the sense that something can and must be done.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy has published poetry, prose and translation in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine, Poetry International (San Diego State University), The Georgia Review (University of Georgia), Grand Street, SLANT (University of Central Arkansas), Consciousness Literature and the Arts (University of Wales, Aberystwyth), Orbis (UK), Eclectica, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Links to his work online and to a selected bibliography of his work in paper venues appear at his Hyperlinked Online Bibliography.

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