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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
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03/31/2005 Archived Entry: "Book review: Louder Than Bombs"

Louder Than Bombs: The Progressive Interviews
by David Barsamian
Publisher: South End Press

Review by Chad Denton

For the politically active liberal, The Progressive probably needs no introduction -- founded in 1909 (originally named until 1929 "La Follette's Weekly"), "The Progressive" has been an icon of American liberalism, involved in issues from arguing for non-intervention in World War I to greater support for the poor during the Great Depression to opposing nuclear weapons (famously one essay, "The H-Bomb Secret: How We Got it and Why We're Telling it," was repressed by the U.S. Government for six months until the courts decided in favor of the magazine), so it's no surprise that Louder Than Bombs, a book collecting interviews conducted by "The Progressive" journalist David Barsamian, would be both mired in the political concerns of the last seven years and in questions over globalization, neo-conservatism (or, as one interviewee puts it confusingly, 'neoliberalism'), and the Wars on Drugs and Terror.

The personas featured in this book may not be entirely familiar to everyone (there were more than a few that I've never heard of and if anyone is a 'big ass liberal,' it's me), but it is a very wide selection, from writers Edwidge Danticat, Kurt Vonnegut, and Arundhati Roy; activists Angela Davis, Haunnani-Kay Trask, Noam Chomsky, Eqbal Ahmad, and Vandana Shiva; columnist Juan Gonzalez; politician and activist Ralph Nader; historians and political writers Tariq Ali, Edward Said, Eduardo Galeano, Taylor Branch, and Howard Zinn; economist Amartya Sen; and journalists Ahmed Rashid, John Pilger, and Ben Bagdikian. Even if most of the names don't ring a bell, the book itself covers a wide range of contemporary and near-contemporary issues -- some hot-button issues, like the War on Drugs, Iraq, corporate involvement in globalization, black actors in Hollywood, the continuing effects of colonialism, and contemporary socialism -- and many which get little press even in many liberal circles: poverty and violence in Haiti, Hawaiian rights and autonomy, and alternatives to traditional prisons. Fortunately, the publisher was wise to see that the book could be valuable as a research tool and included an index of topics in the back. Given the scope of the book, which has interviews dating as early as 1997, it even provides an interesting look in liberal concerns and issues during the Clinton years and before the War on Terrorism and the Patriot Act altered the political landscape.

What of the interviews themselves? Like any skilled interviewer, David Barsamian knows to let his subjects just talk, and in many cases the interviewees simply respond to a statement or a cited fact he lays down, not to a question. He's also, as "The Progressive" editor Matthew Rothschild says in his prologue to the book, not afraid to let his subjects contradict or streamroll over him. Rothschild's favorite example of this, and mine as well, is Arundhati Roy's response to Barsamian making a statement about Roy feeling a sense of responsibility to "these silent voices that are calling out to you": "No, I don't feel responsibility because that's such a boring word."

Personally, while not every interview went in the direction I'd prefer (for instance, I felt the interview with Vonnegut could have covered more ground, especially outside of contemporary issues), I found plenty of humorous, sad, and insightful bits, even with subjects I'm not entirely familiar with. Haunani-Kay Trask, in speaking about the concerns of Hawaiian natives, laments how rents and real estate values are raised by wealthy Americans who come to live in gated communities on the islands as a second home. "They want to live on our land, but they don't want to see us," she says. Noam Chomsky agrees with a TV journalist that he is "from Neptune". Kurt Vonnegut reacts to George W. Bush: "We have a president who knows absolutely no history, and he is surrounded by men who pay no attention to history. They imagine that they are great politicians inventing something new. In fact, it's really quite old stuff: tyranny. But they imagine they're being creative." Finally ,Eduardo Galeano objects to the label of politican writer: "I hate to be classified. This world has an obsession with classification. We are all treated like insects. We should have a label on the front...Just give me the name of any writer in human history who was not political. All of us are political, even if we don't know that we are political." Obviously one's own political tastes will determine whether or not they get anything out of Louder than Bombs. Those not inclined toward activism may find it preachy or lukewarm and obviously those who agree with the likes of Christopher Hitchens or Andrew Sullivan will despise it. Still, at the least it's a collection of insights into the minds of some very active, very intelligent people, and that's always worth a try.

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