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April, 2003, Volume 10 Nr. 8, Issue 116

Three Veterans: And they say it couldn't happen here

by Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

My father, Jan, is a World War II North Africa combat veteran.  He served under General Wiatr, from 1945 - 1946, Third Corp, Egypt as part of the Polish Forces with British oversight.  My mother, Stanislawa, served in the Polish Nurse Corps in the same theater of operations.  Both of them fought fascism.  Both of them cherished freedom.  Both of them saw enough of oppression in their lives to know that after the war they wanted to live in the land of the free, the land where the citizenry could speak out, express themselves and disagree with the government, and not fear either the citizenry nor the state apparatus.  What a wonderful land.  Jan also told me about our relatives who lived in Poland after WWII under communism, who had to take walks in order to have a private  conversation.  They feared that their apartments were bugged by the state.  And bugged they were.

I am a veteran, though not a combat vet, having served in the Navy from 1968 - 1974, with two years active duty overseas in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba from 1970 - 1972.  This was during the time of the Vietnam War.  I remember my father being very concerned on the day that I went on active duty.  Even up to the moment that I headed down the subway on my way to reporting to the US Navy shipyard in Brooklyn, Jan asked in Polish, "Are you sure this is what you want to do?"  He offered me an option even then, to go to Canada.  He knew from his experiences in WWII, and from being a child during WWI, that combat soldiers are always working class kids at either end of a bayonet.  Jan also realized that there was something inherently wrong with a superpower dropping millions of pounds of bombs on top of poor peasants ten thousand miles away across the Pacific.   My father told me on many occasions that peace would not come to the world until the Palestine homeland issue was resolved within the framework of the greater geopolitical situation in Western Asia (the 21st century term for the so-called Middle East). 

It was never too far from Jan's consciousness that fascism could reveal its ugly head again at any moment.  He witnessed glimpses of fascism during the U.S. state's response to dissent in opposition to the conflict in Vietnam.   If he were alive today, I believe he would be doubly concerned.  

Frank Zappa, in his famous song sings, "The idiot bastard son", writes and sings:

The idiot bastard son:
(try and imagine the window all covered in green...
all the time he would spend at the church he'd attend...
warming his pew)
Kenny will feed him & Ronnie will watch
And enter the world
Of liars & cheaters & people like you
Who smile & think you know
What this is about
EVERYTHING...maybe so)
The song we sing: DO YOU KNOW?
We're listening...
THE IDIOT BOY! (try and imagine the
window all covered in green...
all the time he
would spend all the colors he'd blend...
where are they now?)

What my father feared and Zappa wrote and sang about is rearing its ugly head in the United States today.

A few days ago, I was visiting a small bookstore and the subject of the war on Iraq came up.  The conversation quickly led to the so-called PATRIOT Act and the owners understanding that according to that misnamed law, they would have to turn over the detailed records of their customers' book purchases upon request of the State's authorities.  This owner had set up the inventory software to self destruct the customer database with the push of one button.  The thinking working people have come to recognize what Jan feared, that fascism is alive and well in the United States and they are prepared to do something about it.  The full name for this law, House Resolution 3162, which was passed on October 24, 2001, is the "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001".  The good news is that at least four cities have passed resolutions that call the USA PATRIOT ACT a threat to the civil rights of the residents of their communities.  The bad news is that while the nation is absorbed in the war with Iraq, the boys in brown are working on passing the USA PATRIOT ACT II. 

My mother, Stanislawa, taught herself English.  Within a few years after arriving in the U.S. at Ellis Island (1952) with me as a 3-year old in tow, she was reading newspapers in three languages.  She was also the local shop steward for the  clean fill union.  She and her mostly immigrant co-workers, maintained offices and bathrooms on Wall Street.  She had no qualms about keeping the offices and the bathrooms of the rich clean.  She was proud to be an U.S. worker and union member.  She would take the subway from Jersey City to downtown New York City each evening, about an hour-and-half after I came home from school.  The terminus station eventually became the World Trade Center.  I first walked through the World Trade Center on my way home from active duty in GTMO (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) during the early summer of 1972.  The North Tower had opened in 1970.  While having only an 8th grade education, Stanislawa quickly understood the lessons of U.S. labor history and the contributions that unions and their members made in securing the worker benefits and rights that we take for granted today.  She too understood that the undermining of unions and the solidarity that they produce was a step toward the control of working people that her husband was warning about. 

My father, Jan, with his 7th grade education, was conversant in 11 languages.   He loved listening to the news on short-wave radio in Polish, Ukrainian, Rumanian, Russian, etc., from the BBC, VOA, Radio Free Europe, Radio Polonia, etc.  I learned about short-wave listening and broadcasting from him and have been an avid world-band radio listener for over 40 years.  I remember the stand-upright and desktop radios of my father's day and my youth.  Many came equipped with short-wave capability, especially the parlor radios, which were designed to be fine pieces of home furniture.  They were elegantly constructed and beautiful to look at.  

It didn't take me long to realize that the news coming from overseas differed from what I was hearing at home on the A.M. (550 - 1700 KHz) dial.  It certainly was different from what was then shown on the new medium of television.  Slowly, over time, the U.S. consciousness about short-wave radio diminished and finally disappeared as F.M. radio and, especially, TV, became popular.  Radios soon no longer came equipped with short-wave reception capability.  The informed electorate became less informed.  The points of view of the citizenry became fewer.  The listener now was captive to the ever-increasing volume of corporate news, views, spin, and  preponderance of things to buy.  Norm Solomon writing "Media War: Obsessed with Tactics and Technology" for the Creators Syndicate, Inc., calls it the "media echo chamber".  

The voices from around the world which were broadcasting directly to the U.S. public began disappearing.  It's not that they were not speaking, but rather that radio and other media industry cartels realized that they could not control short-wave broadcasts with their alternative voices and often contrary news and analysis.  It soon was obvious that it was in the best interests of state capitalism to stifle anything other than its own voice.  Having the U.S. populace hearing foreign and often contradictory or radical viewpoints was and continues to be regarded as threatening to the status quo.  And this brings us to the point:  when voices are stifled, whether by intimidation or access, then the fascism which my father and mother were leery of has made inroads into our society.  When buyers of books and library patrons have the state spy apparatus doubling as book vendor and librarian oversight, there is cause and pause for concern.

This is evident today during the U.S. - Iraq war where the Al Jazeera website is somehow  unreachable.  The Yellow Times website has also disappeared. Don't like the pictures?  Shut it down.  Don't like the coverage?  Shut it down.   If my father were alive today he would be singing with Zappa, "And they said that it couldn't happen here."  Recognize, that it is happening here.  

David van Mill, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Introduction: Boundaries of the Debate" writes, 

Free speech only becomes a volatile issue when it is highly valued because only then do the limitations placed upon it become controversial.  And the first thing to note in any sensible discussion of freedom of speech is that it will be limited because it always takes place within a context of competing values

In other words, we tolerate what you have to say until such time as we find it intolerable.  When a value system is debased, especially when it is the dominant value system of the establishment and propagandized citizenry who buy into it, the proponents and practitioners of free speech will be told to shut up.  It is then that the limitations on free speech become apparent.  It is then that free speech becomes the right visibly lost, when no one any longer has the right to speak out.  So, here we are today, where state corporate talking head Newspeak is osmotically absorbed by the masses and where A.M. radio talk jocks admonish those opposed to the war in Iraq to clam up.  As U. Utah Phillips, puts it so well, 

The state can't give you free speech, and the state can't take it away. You're born with it, like your eyes, like your ears. Freedom is something you assume, then you wait for someone to try to take it away. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free.

The degree to which you stifle free speech is the degree to which you are a fascist.  And, they said it couldn't happen here.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, "I pledge on the altar of God undying hostility to any government restriction on the free minds of the people."  Contrast this with George W. Bush's, "If you're not with us, you're against us."  Perhaps, Mr. Bush would do well to read Benjamin Franklin - "'They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."  

Stanley I. Kutler, writing in There Will Absolutely Be No Dissension (Chicago Tribune, March 18, 2003) reminds us that Theodore Roosevelt, "the most red-blooded and manly of our 1918...challenged Woodrow Wilson's sweeping crackdown against dissent after the American Army's entry into World War I."  Roosevelt said,

To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.

There is now only one remaining family member of the three that came to the U.S. from overseas at the end of World War II.  One remaining veteran.  The two World War II veterans, my parents, have long ago passed on.  Their personal contribution to rid the world of fascism and their fear of its re-emergence has moved into the consciousness of their next generation and now beyond.  This newest generation knows what it means when they hear of song playlists that radio stations will not play, or when they do not see death as a consequence of war - when collateral damage substitutes for people.  They are the ones, fortunately, who are not going to let it happen here.  

2003 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski, PhD

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