Ari Brostoff (senior editor): Feeling bleak and thinking about models for militancy, I recently read Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr.’s Black Against Empire, a definitive history of the Black Panther Party published in 2013. I had known that the BPP understood Black Americans as inhabiting an internal colony, and that it sought to achieve autonomy through two very different strategies: on the one hand, organizing armed self-defense, and on the other, creating “survival programs”—most famously, the Free Breakfast for Children Program that fed tens of thousands of kids in 23 cities. I didn’t know how these strategies interacted, though, and Black Against Empire offers a striking thesis in this regard.
In Bloom and Martin’s account, the Party—which saw itself as the legitimate representative of a Black community living under occupation—initially focused heavily on self-armament as a revolutionary strategy (an uncanny subject to explore in the midst of escalating terror deployed by right-wing vigalantes far more heavily armed, and far more dangerous to civilians, than the Panthers were in their day). One of its earliest activities was a cop watch program in which Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and other founding members tailed the police around Oakland, monitoring their attacks on Black residents and inspiring other community members to do the same.
By 1968, though, even as the Panthers’ membership base was exploding, much of its leadership had been killed, imprisoned, or exiled—and it was at this point that mutual aid work came to the forefront of its strategic vision. Led largely by women, who made up the majority of the Party by the start of the 1970s, the Panthers at one point ran a staggering number of programs around the country, including “liberation schools, free health clinics, the Free Food Distribution program, the Free Clothing Program, child development centers, the Free Shoe Program, the Free Busing to Prison Program, the Sickle Cell Anemia Research Foundation, free housing cooperatives, the Free Pest Control Program, the Free Plumbing and Maintenance Program, renter’s assistance, legal aid, the Seniors Escorts Program, and the Free Ambulance Program.” The BPP’s self-defense and mutual aid programs both emboldened one another and helped split the Party apart, as factions with divergent revolutionary timelines came to see one or the other strategy as the only legitimate option under circumstances of constant state infiltration, and given the growing complacency of liberal allies.
In the same period, the Party pursued its internationalist strategy to strikingly serious ends: It engaged not only in campaigns of mutual solidarity with anticolonial movements around the world, but conducted full-on diplomatic missions: In Algeria (which cut off relations with the US government after the Six-Day War) they were granted an embassy building, and in Vietnam, they negotiated prisoner exchange programs with the Viet Cong. The Party’s rise to something like real power happened staggeringly fast, as did its dissolution in the 1970s, rent by attacks by federal agents, the co-option of its social programs, internal schisms, and Newton’s growing madness. “No revolutionary movement of political significance will gain a foothold in the United States again until a group of revolutionaries develops insurgent practices that seize the political imagination of a large segment of the people and successively draw support from other constituencies . . . . This has not happened in the United States since the heyday of the Black Panther Party, and may not happen again for a very long time,” Bloom and Martin conclude. I wonder how long this very long time will be.
David Klion (newsletter editor): I’ve finally gotten around to reading Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, by my friend Stephen Wertheim, who I interviewed for Jewish Currents in March. It’s a brisk, deeply researched, and thought-provoking revisionist history of the US foreign policy establishment surrounding World War II, pinpointing the moment when America abandoned its traditional mode of engagement in world affairs in favor of global hegemony underwritten by military force. The conventional narrative many of us grew up with says that Washington was isolationist prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, which jolted the US into reluctant global leadership. Wertheim challenges this myth in two ways: first, by demonstrating that “isolationism” was a retroactive pejorative aimed at US foreign policy elites whose actual preference was for internationalist commercial engagement; and second, by identifying the real hinge point as June 1940, when the Nazis occupied Paris and the prospect of a single power dominating Europe and its colonies terrified the American ruling class. Some of the implicit conclusions might be unsettling, but this is an essential read for understanding how American empire came to seem permanent and inevitable—a topic very much relevant today.
Speaking of empires, I’ve also been rereading God Emperor of Dune, the batshit insane fourth book in Frank Herbert’s classic series, in which the universe is ruled for millennia in an enforced peace by a tyrannical human-worm hybrid with oracular visions and the memories of all of his ancestors. The book makes no sense if you haven’t read its three predecessors, and only a bit more sense if you have, and it’s plodding and problematic and trashy, but I absolutely love it and hope Denis Villeneuve someday finds a way to adapt it to film. Of all the messy Dune sequels, this is the standout.
I don’t have a clever transition here, but one more thing I want to plug is the show Players, from the makers of American Vandal, the first season of which is available on Paramount Plus. I can’t pretend to be unbiased about this—I’m kvelling that my cousin Misha Brooks is a TV star, and that his show is actually good! I don’t know that I would normally watch a mockumentary about a League of Legends team and its bratty, washed-up-in-his-late-twenties leader (who goes by “Creamcheese”), but it’s extremely funny and I fully expect Misha to go places. It’s pretty cool watching a relative you always knew was charismatic prove it beyond any doubt; now it’s everyone else’s turn to discover him.
Dana Bassett (development director): Is there a word for the déjà vu-like feeling of doing something again for the first time since this pandemic started? I had one of those experiences recently, when I went to see a live puppet show by Poncili Creación at the Market Hotel (which is actually not a hotel, but a large, open room with a stage and a bar in the back) in Brooklyn.
I had seen Poncili, the collective name of Puerto Rican twins Pablo and Efrain Del Hierro, perform dozens of times before Covid, but not since. When I arrived, the space was packed with maskless 20-somethings, making me feel doubly out of place as a “still wearing a mask everywhere even when it is decidedly uncool” 30-something. Luckily, the performance started shortly after I walked in, as Efrain creeped on stage to request the audience back up ten paces and sit on the ground. Everyone obliged, and the vibe shifted immediately from a buzzy tangle to quiet anticipation. I stayed back, pressed against the wall and away from the crowd, which I remembered at that moment was also my preference when I attended live shows in my previous life.
I don’t want to give away too much about the actual performance, which was 15-ish minutes of pure joy and wonder, but suffice to say, this is not your average puppet show (I described Poncili to a colleague as “puppets but actually cool” and I stand by that description). Wrapped in colorful cloaks and wielding oversized painted foam appendages, Poncili Creación do not present puppets, they are the puppets. (Los títeres has become one of my favorite Spanish vocabulary words.) The twins’ ability to transform space using only their bodies is mesmerizing, and despite the fact that I was semi-horrified by the masklessness of the crowd, it was extremely charming to see adult faces light up as if they were children watching a marionette show at a farmers market. Their mouths opened and eyes widened as Pablo and Efrain’s figures merged into superhuman configurations and bright, chromatic monsters made from broomsticks and bedsheets.
It’s the kind of thing you have to see to believe. And happily, Poncili Creación are performing outdoors(!) at the end of this month as part of the exhibition Life Between Buildings at MoMA PS1. You can see their puppet-gnomes-turned-sculptures on display through January 2023, and sign up for a free ticket to their performances the last week of July.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): For many years I’ve kept a commonplace book, noting lines in books I’m reading with which I identify. As it’s developed and grown, the total of this is my autobiography, but one without a single word of my own. Unsurprisingly, the writer who appears most often is the uncompromising, misanthropic French philosopher E.M. Cioran. Somewhat unexpectedly, right behind him is the English-born novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer. Some of the latter’s interests are as foreign to me as could be—like his taste for drugs, raves, and tennis. But his sensibility, his literary and some of his musical tastes, chime with mine, and so I put up with his praise for Burning Man.
The Last Days of Roger Federer, Dyer’s latest book of essays, is not a collection. Rather, it’s an eccentric essai fleuve, a lengthy rumination on a couple of topics, mainly that of the final phase of an artist’s life and of the Nietzschean concept of the Eternal Recurrence, through which a final work is just a prelude to a return to the beginning.
Dyer’s conception is a bold one, as it drifts seemingly at random from Nietzsche to J.M.W. Turner to D.H. Lawrence to Pharaoh Sanders. But within it are two key clues that explain his method. The first is his mention of sometimes having been forced during his youth in England to take the “milk train,” a night train that wandered slowly along its route, stopping at stations big and small, yet always arriving at its destination. The other is his discussion of William Basinski and his beautiful and moving The Disintegration Loops (an obscure musical work beloved by me and my son). Dyer describes them perfectly: “In the first of these [loops] a very simple melody, lasting perhaps six seconds, is looped over and over. It sounds like a recording of a melancholy brass band, with parts of the past from which it is exhumed still clinging to it. With some reverb and other small, subtle treatments the loop continues to unfold but, as it does so, the sound quality slowly and imperceptibly deteriorates.”
This description of Basinski’s masterwork can serve as a stand-in for everything Dyer looks at in The Last Days of Roger Federer. He speaks of artists who died young or suddenly didn’t have a last phase, death having arrived too soon, while other artists who died old still had other works they might have produced. Some artists go on far beyond their prime; others never return after initial success.
Dyer’s reading is vast, his insights profound, whether about the work of Tennyson or the last records of John Coltrane. It is a breathlessly exciting work, full of marvelously clever insights. The best of them all is a question, one that went directly into my commonplace book, expressing the universal joy whenever an event we are attending draws to a close: “Why did we come if while being here we would end up being so preoccupied by no longer being there. Could it be that our deepest desire is for everything to be over?” I’ll answer that: yes.
Before you go: applications for the 2022-2023 New Jewish Culture Fellowship, which is run by Jewish Currents Contributing Editor Maia Ipp and Rabbi Matt Green, are now open! To learn more and to apply before the August 1st deadline, click here.