I am supposed to be grading papers, but… first I want to honor Grace Lee Boggs and Vivian Stromberg

gracel-lee-boggs_robin_holland at age 100vivian_stromberg_1

I am supposed to be grading papers this evening, but I cannot leave this day without saying a word about two dignified rebels whose life stories, when I read them over my morning coffee, took my breath away. I discovered them in the New York Times: Grace Lee Boggs and Vivian Stromberg. Reading these obituaries was humbling and inspiring. I never had the chance to meet either woman. I wish I had.

As part of a vanguard social movement in Detroit focusing on African Americans and women in 1953, Grace Lee and her future husband (James Boggs, a black autoworker, radical, and writer), initially joined forces with the Black Power movement. Later they embraced nonviolent methods and became prominent fighters against urban blight. In 1992, Grace Boggs co-founded Detroit Summer, a youth program that still draws volunteers from all around the country to repair homes, paint murals, organize music festivals and turn vacant lots into gardens. In 2013, she opened the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, a charter elementary school.

Born of Chinese immigrants, she grew up above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, RI. Her passion was radical politics which in later years she has seen as a moral struggle of we, the individuals.  As Grace Boggs said during a Bill Moyers interview in 2007, “I think that too much of our emphasis on struggle has simply been in terms of confrontation and not enough recognition of how much spiritual and moral force is involved in the people who are struggling,… We have not embraced sufficiently the cultural revolution that we have to make among ourselves.”

Grace Lee Boggs was 100 years old.

Vivian Stromberg was an elementary school music teacher in the South Bronx in the early 1980s, when she joined a group of women hoping to rally public opinion against American support for the contras, the rebels trying to overthrow the left-wing Sandanista government in Nicaragua.  This group became known as “Madre” in 1983, and Ms. Stromberg was one of the founding members and later executive director. Madre works with local women’s groups in the US, Central America, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and Africa to alleviate suffering caused by war and natural disasters, and to promote human rights. Its first project was to send a ton of baby cereal and powdered milk to Nicaragua.

But activism was not new to her in the early 1980s. Politics must have been in the air while she was growing up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, in the 1940s and 50s. While in college Vivian Stromberg joined the Freedom Riders, who traveled by bus across the South in mixed-race groups to challenge racial segregation. And she was also active in the Anti-Vietnam War movement.  Since its founding in 1983, Madre has directed about $34 million in humanitarian aid. One of her most adventurous exploits was organizing, with a Jordanian women’s group, a truck convoy to drive 10 tons of milk and medicine from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad, at the end of the first Persian Gulf War.

“When you know your rights, instead of begging for something, you start asking that it not be taken away,” Ms. Stromberg told O magazine in 2008. “Your whole body language changes; you stop crying.”

Vivian Stromberg was 74 years old.

Rest in peace, dear wonderful ladies of the 20th and 21st century. Thank you both, for the way that you threw yourselves into caring for people in our world.  I bet you had a blast!

From Prairial to Pop Culture. Day Thirty-two. Even the Beatles thought twice

Being a revolutionary is hard. An example of hard choices you have to make can be found in the evolution between two Beatles’ songs of 1968: “Revolution 1” and the better-known “Revolution.” You may be surprised to learn why John Lennon’s change in wording in “Revolution” generated outrage among the Left.
What was their reason for outrage?
1. He replaced Che Guevara with Malcolm X
2. He withdrew his support for violent action
3. He improvised and sang, “all you need is love” instead of “well then you can count me in”
4. All of the above.

From Prairial to Pop Culture. Day Twenty-nine. Of finance ministers and market women

Rutledge Necker

I just finished an amazing book on Necker, the finance minister under Louis XVI.* The most interesting discoveries for me were the revelation that Necker was a friend of the rich (although that was not a big surprise), that he had promised but reneged on his promise to help the poor (ditto), and that he apparently also reneged on a promise to a certain Comtesse de C. This last nugget is wrapped around an artful device by the writer, James Rutledge.
Tucked within the pages of vitriol about Necker’s financial double-dealings is the story of a certain Countess de … to whom he owed 1,000 louis and perhaps her virtue. When she refuses to drop her case or the demand for reparation, It appears that Necker has her mauled by a mob of unruly workers who demand that she say, “Vive Necker” [Long live Necker]. At that point, the countess refuses, but not before shifting tactics and shouting out, “Vive le Tiers” [Long live the third estate]. Thereby one with the cause of the people, she is embraced by the formerly hostile mob, who joins her in touting the Tiers! The inset tale ends with the mob inviting her to join them for a drink.
Prominent in the resolution to this drama is the work of a symbolic figure that is often found in revolutionary literature. She is typically portrayed as hot-tempered, sometimes drunkenly, and prone to funny malapropisms, but her sense of loyalty to her sisters in the marketplace is equal to none. What is she called?
1. A couturière or dressmaker
2. A poissarde or fish-monger
3. An épicière or grocer
4. A pastry-maker or pâtissière

*[James Rutledge], Vie privée et ministérielle de M. Necker, Directeur général des finances, par un citoyen. Geneva: Chez Pellet, 1790. With thanks to Princeton University who sent it here via Interlibrary Loan.

Below is the very odd illustration which opens the “Supplement” where more evil deeds are laid out for public view. Il looks like Necker is taking a sledge hammer to the foundation of the republic. At its top stand symbols of the ancien regime who seem to be aiming at him. If anyone has any idea other ideas about what this symbolism means, please write in!

Rutledge Supplement

From Prairial to Pop Culture. Day Twenty-eight. “Tycoons to the barricades” = A feeble echo of what radical event of 1789?

slides.015 why have we not yet stormed the barricades

The New York Times printed an intriguing article about socially-responsible billionaires the other day, featuring the surprisingly generous words spoken recently by people such as Jeff Greene, a real estate investor, and Johann Rupert, the merchandising mogul. It appears that a small group of the super-rich are now assailing income inequality and feeling a pressure to do something about it, at least in words. Will their actions live up to their verbal bravado?  We shall see…

During the Revolution, the super-rich did not just talk about abandoning their privileges, they actually did it!

What radically generous event of 1789 puts the modern-day hand-wringing of Jeff Greene and Johann Rupert to shame?

  1. The Night of August 4th, when privileges were discarded by the noble members of the Assembly with astounding aplomb. This powerfully egalitarian gesture effectively made all (male) citizens equal before the law, and laid the groundwork for the Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen.
  2. The Night of July 29th, known in history as Le Baiser de Lambesc or “the kiss of Lambesc,” when deputies on both the Left and the Right joined together to pledge unity in addressing the nation’s financial ills. Following that symbolic embrace, they pledged to donate 50% of their income to state coffers, and 100% of the Assembly paid up within one month.
  3. The Night of July 14th, when crowds of happy workers and tradespeople of the nearby Faubourg Saint-Antoine, seeking to honor the generosity of King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, brought flowers and picnic dinners to share with neighbors and prisoners in the Bastille courtyard.
  4. The Night of May 1st, known as la Fête de Jeanne d’Arc (of the Feast of Joan of Arc), when joyous parishoners, in tribute to the new accord between the French Throne and the Roman Catholic Church, gave particularly large donations to their local parishes at a special midnight mass.

From Prairial to Pop Culture. Day Twenty-five. What is the difference between a Jacobin and a Jacobite?

Recruiting for the Prince L_tcm4-566104 JacobiteJacobin-club Lesueur

If a Jacobin is a French revolutionary, member of the increasingly radical Jacobin Club (1789-95; pictured on the right), what is a Jacobite (pictured on the left)?

  1. A person belonging to a movement called the Jacobites. They took their name from Jacobus, the Renaissance Latin form of Iacomus, the original Latin form of James. Adherents rebelled against the British government on several occasions between 1688 and 1746.
  2. A member of a political movement in Great Britain and Ireland that aimed to restore the Roman Catholic Stuart King James II of England and his heirs to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland
  3. A Catholic who hoped the Stuarts would end the ostracism of Catholics (or recusancy). Since 1593, Catholics were subject to penalties and called “Popish recusants.” The Jacobites hoped to repeal such laws.
  4. All of the above. Now we can see how important it is to know the difference!

Will 2015 be the new 1789?


Happy New Year, readers!  The most interesting new trend afoot in French politics for 2015 is the increasing prominence of the Association for a Constituent Assembly.  Founded in 2004, this group’s impact is now being felt on policy debates across the Hexagon.  The APUC proposes a peaceful, time-honored means to bring the government of the French Republic back in line with the its founding principles.  Although APUC leaders include a former deputy of the National Assembly, writers for the high-profile Le Monde diplomatique, and academics employed by France’s elite universities, its members hail from all walks of life.  Constitutional “circles” have formed in 19 French cities and their numbers are steadily growing.  Will they succeed in creating enough momentum to prompt a national election?  In order to help Anglophone readers understand the gravity of the French situation, and the relevance this group’s efforts to the inspiring principles of 1789, we’re posting below the English translation of the Association’s call to action.  Click here for the French original, on the APUC website.  This may be a rare chance for us to witness deliberative democracy in action!

Association for a New French Constituent Assembly

This is a call for a grassroots vote of no confidence in our governing institutions. This is a call for the creation of new Constituent Assembly (originally established 1789-1791, but also 1848, 1871-1875, 1945, and 1946).

Fellow citizens of France,

The time has come to make known to the professional politicians that they cannot legitimately represent the people’s interests anymore.

During the last few years, the leaders of France have adopted a technocratic mode of governing that has made matters less and less transparent to those who do not walk the halls of power. They have abandoned the country’s political and financial sovereignty, claiming that the welfare state cannot be sustained, given the need to compete in world markets.  Instead of heeding the people’s legitimate demand for representation and justice, they have thrown their efforts behind an anti-democratic effort to build up Europe. The technocrats currently leading the “political class” are overlooking massive sectors of the population and dismissing calls for greater representation and democracy.

Furthermore, the executive branch has evolved into an autocracy led by a president whose decisions are dictated solely by his own views.  Forgetting his campaign promises, the president has led with an antidemocratic, antisocial iron hand.

The government’s indifference to popular opinion has reached the breaking point.  Who can forget the government’s reaction to the French vote of NO against the European Constitution in 2005?  Despite a resounding majority of negative votes, the referendum’s result was ignored. Organizers of the vote willfully overlooked article 3 of the constitution, which stipulates that “national sovereignty belongs to the people.”

Over the last ten years, the founders of the Association for a New French Constituent Assembly (Association pour une Constituante) have striven to put policy decisions back in the hands of the electorate.  Instead of waiting for the system to fix itself, or watching in vain for the lame-duck Parliament to regain its role in the balance of powers, we call for a grassroots movement to demand that the people’s voice be heard.

Our goal is the creation of a new Constituent Assembly: a corps of elected deputies entrusted with the creation of a new Constitution that would reform governmental institutions to serve the people of France.  We encourage citizens across the country to create local groups of deliberative democracy, in the hopes of organizing a national vote on a new Constituent Assembly.

Citizens, pass along this call to action!  Organize!  To reform the current institutions and redefine the rules governing the political system, we must demand the election of a new Constituent Assembly!

Contact: The Association pour une Constituante:  www.pouruneconstituante.fr

13 rue du Pré Saint Gervais, 75019 Paris


Bonnet1 2mo pour Assoc pour une Constituante

On Eric Hazan, French turmoil, and doing something to keep the spirit of 1789 alive

Check out the latest interview with Eric Hazan on the Verso website, then read on.

What can you say of a man whose work is sometimes inspiring, and whom you’d like to admire for his long and principled life, but …  I have to admit I have a problem with people like Hazan who don’t vote and claim it is some sort of civic act.  Or incite people to think of making others “vanish.”  Revolution did happen so you could vote! And so we could avoid violence in public affairs.   Democracy demands that we believe it matters, remain informed, and make elections count. France does have deliberative processes by which change can happen without violence. When Hazan speaks of “thinking about the means of insurrection,” and dismisses the ‘intermediate stages’ such as “election of a constituent assembly etc.,” what exactly is he encouraging?   The ambiguity is irresponsible.

After reading the Verso interview, I think it only fair to give a “tip of the hat” to a group in France which is trying to bring about change from within the system, using the tools inherited from the revolutionary past, for the better.  They are called Association pour une Constituante:  www.pouruneconstituante.fr .

A personal note:  My admiration for the ideals of the Fr Rev (plus having kids come of age) has led me to start teaching a weekly class of writing for children, which I’ve been doing since 2012. It seems so puny and insignificant next to the “revolutionaries” calling for “insurrection” or “vanishing” of institutions.  But equality is my personal dream, and giving underprivileged kids a way to speak and be somebody is my chosen method.  My wish for all of us is peace, and to have a chance.   What is yours, readers?


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