Letters to the Editor: September 1985
West German Peace Movement Invades East Germany
We, five activists from the West German Christian peace movement, affiliated with Prolifers for Survival, feel a deep commitment to our fellows in the East German independent peace movement, who have to work under much harsher conditions than we in West Germany.
We ourselves have had to face prison terms ranging from 20 to 150 days (we all refuse to pay the fine) for trying to blockade nonviolently a U.S. Army truck at the gates of the Pershing II depot at Mutlangen.
We were thinking about an action with which we could make it clear that people who are trying to resist preparation for nuclear war are being criminalized in both the West and the East. After a while we developed a concrete plan for action with which we could show our solidarity with the independent peace movement in East Germany and at the same time make the case of the West German peace movement public.
Thus, on March 29 we went to the Alexanderplatz in East Berlin to unfurl a banner (“No criminalization of the peace movement, either in the East or the West!”) and to distribute leaflets. Everything went so quickly: plainclothesmen came, took the banner away, and dragged us across the Alexanderplatz. We did not resist. But we did sing our songs.
The five of us — together with two guards — were locked up in the East German police headquarters for about an hour. We were all afraid. We didn’t talk at all. We were just sitting there holding hands. Only once did one of us offer a short prayer. But during this hour I felt a strength within me that I have never before experienced. I lost all my fear. They could do to me whatever, they wanted. I never felt the security which is given by God so intensely as I did in those moments.
Then, after several hours of interrogation it became clear that East Germany did not wish to take us to court, even though we had supposedly violated East German law. They finally brought us to the border and released us.
In the leaflets we had distributed in East Germany we appealed for Petra Heinrich and Peter Novik, who have been in an East German prison for more than one year for their peace activities. If, as we hope, their situation improves as a result of our action, then it was all worth the effort.
Prolifers for Survival
Niederrieden, West Germany
Ed. Note: Bernhard Friedrich is an anti-abortion, anti-nuclear-weapons activist. Other of his activities were chronicled in “Stirring Things Up in Western Europe: An Unusual Prolife/Peace Journey” by Juli Loesch in our Jan.-Feb. 1985 issue.
The Similar Paths of Robert Coles & Ignazio Silone
I was touched that Robert Coles in his May column chose to resurrect the memory of Italian novelist Ignazio Silone. I regret that there seem to be fewer and fewer people these days who have read about that so-called revolutionary saint Pietro Spina in Silone’s classic Bread and Wine.
Over the years I have found Coles’s books, articles, and NOR columns most appealing, and I am struck by certain similarities between Coles and Silone in their search for a personal role in the struggle of the poor. While these two men share the same quest, they are from different continents and generations. Silone’s search started in southern Italy in the 1920s as a full-time communist politico. Coles’s odyssey, as a child/social psychiatrist, began in the late 1950s in America.
As is often the case, both have written some of their best work from exile: Silone as a political exile, Coles more as an internal exile in America. Forced from fascist Italy in 1930, Silone spent the next 14 years in Switzerland, where he wrote Bread and Wine. Called up under the Doctor’s Draft Law of 1958, Coles was uprooted from his Boston-Harvard base and transplanted to the South. Once there, his exile became self-chosen as he wandered America for the next 20 or so years, giving us in the five-volume Children of Crisis series a panoramic study of America’s children, especially its poor ones.
Silone, after a falling out with Stalin and the Communist Party in the 1930s and after a lifetime conflict with the authorities of the Catholic Church, described himself as “a Socialist without a Party, a Christian without a Church.” The first half of this description more or less fits Coles who, except for a stint as psychiatrist in the Southern civil rights movement in the 1960s, has never been much of a joiner. He maintains his stubborn, New England version of Kierkegaardian individualism, which is no easy task in this collective, bureaucratic age.
Coles has summarized his politics this way: “I suppose I am somewhat anarchic, cranky, or eccentric. I distrust big government as well as big business. Dorothy Day is a hero of mine; I subscribe to the ideas of the Catholic Worker movement, I revere Simone Weil and George Orwell. At times I am willing to call myself a Christian Socialist, but I distrust government-imposed socialism: the awful threat of dictatorship; bureaucratic arrogance and cruelty; the daily betrayal of once noble ideas. As some big businessmen are vain and self-serving, so are a number of intellectuals or radical ideologues.”
By temperament and the dictates of their respective historical situations, both Coles and Silone have turned to telling personal stories rather than being, in Silone’s case, a political organizer, or in Coles’s, a traditional psychiatrist with a lucrative practice. Silone hedged at becoming active in the Italian Socialist Party after World War II: “I am not, and do not want to be, [a] political man…I want to remain a writer, tied to no discipline but that of my own thoughts and conscience.”
Coles has no such ties either, but his independence has not blinded him from facing the limits of the writer’s ability to effect social change. In 1972-1973, after having awards showered on him — a Pulitzer Prize and a Time magazine cover story for Volumes II and III of Children of Crisis — he painfully saw what it meant: “for millions of blacks or Appalachian whites, in rural areas or in our ghettos, Volume II and III…meant nothing, utterly nothing; and I knew that would be the case as I wrote them.” By the time it came to start work on Volume IV, he didn’t see the point of continuing his work: “Better that I join their picket lines, or stop kidding myself and join the psychiatric staff of a hospital, someplace, anyplace. But they [the Chicano union organizers in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas] would have no part of my coy demurrers. They insisted that they themselves, as Chicano organizers, often weren’t able to understand how many of their own people come to think and feel as they do.”
Coles, thank God, continued his series, but with those doubts. Coles and Silone have not only been plagued by the realization of their limits, but both have experienced the void of “ideological bankruptcies” in their lives. For Silone the dogmas of Marx failed, but even more distressing was the cruelty of the Communist Party as an institution, and the unresponsiveness of the Church (Don Benedetto, the old priest in Bread and Wine, states it this way: “Christianity is not an administration…”).
Coles was never tempted to join the Communist Party. For him the failure was the killing of the dream of liberal politics and Freudian analysis. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy affected him deeply, as well as the turn to violence and the anti-working-class arrogance and anti-Americanism of the authoritarian Left in the 1960s: “how possible it is for those caught up in a hard social struggle to become self-righteous and moralistic and narrowly, punitively ideological.” The competing psychiatric dogmas of his profession were just as disturbing, especially coming from rigorously trained people who were supposed to be “healers.” He would come to say that he has never seen such meanness as he experiences at psychiatrists’ conferences.
Some, like Irving Howe, have argued that Silone believes that “political goals can be achieved without political organization.” Howe’s complaint was that refusal to organize with one’s fellows “can only lead to acquiescence in detested power or isolated and futile acts of martyrdom or terrorism.” I think Howe went too far here, as both Coles and Silone would agree that political parties and organizers are needed. One of Coles’s heroes is, in fact, the politician Robert Kennedy. Yet, politicians must always possess an Augustinian self-scrutiny of their motives for power.
Coles and Silone can both be viewed as “Catholic priests” in disguise. However, they offer two different paths within their surrogate priesthoods. Coles is more the traditional, pastoral, compassionate priest, like the hero in one of his favorite books, Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos. Silone represents the more primitive first-century Christian: a prophetic, revolutionary priest.
In one of the Letters to your journal, a reader asked, regarding Coles’s columns (which are overtly Christian and against professionalism and smug intellectualism) whether the secular authorities at Harvard Medical School really know what Dr. Coles is about? Do they know that Coles is (and I know how Coles resents those who too eagerly classify people) a Christian moralist in the disguise of a child psychiatrist? Indeed, he is more concerned with pastoral listening than clinical diagnosis and cure. He takes the here-and-now, surface content of what a poor person says more seriously than the possible symbolic meanings and childhood disorders behind it.
Another observer, after reading Coles’s summer 1970 “underground dialogues” with Fr. Daniel Berrigan (then sought by the FBI for burning draft board files) said that it appears that Coles was more the traditional “priest” — concerned with church, family, and even country — while Berrigan was more the radical psychiatrist who sought to end the Vietnam War, and for that matter all war and violence, and transform the human psyche itself.
Ironically, Silone has the revolutionary fugitive, Pietro Spina in Bread and Wine, disguised as a priest to dodge the fascist police, while Coles, three decades later, sheltered in his home the anti-war priest Berrigan, an American Spina, who we presume was not in clerical garb at Coles’s home, but in the disguise of a civilian. The other irony is that Silone’s Spina, as a priest, demonstrated the dignity, courage, and rebelliousness that more Catholic priests should have had in struggling against Mussolini’s Fascism. Spina’s non-doctrinaire socialism was his way of serving God. He was “not so much seeking God, as pursued by Him.” Coles is more seeking God, but the way he’s traversed America, listening, lecturing, writing over 30 books, he must be pursued by Him too.
As Silone told the stories of his cafoni peasants in his beloved mountainous, but poverty-ridden region of Abruzzi in southern Italy, Coles has told the stories of the children of America’s poor migrants, sharecroppers, mountaineers, Chicanos, Indians, and blacks and whites of the inner cities: The Children of Crisis. Neither Silone nor Coles pretends to be poor or a peasant, and maybe because of that, seldom does either stoop to pseudo-folk romanticizing. Coles admires the doctor/poet William Carlos Williams, who wrote eloquently about “plain, ordinary people” of Paterson, New Jersey, but who was decidedly not concerned with being “the proletarian poet and novelist who turns factory workers or yeoman farmers into larger-than-life-heroes.” Nor does Coles or Silone.
However, both have their critics who have accused them of creating caricatures of the poor. Silone is charged with deprecating his peasants, having their narrow, traditional, “backward lives” (compared to our presumably “forward” lives) literally stuck on a donkey in the Abruzzi mud. Coles, in his desire to dignify the poor to middle-class readers, has been charged with going too far the other way — with touching up not only their characters, but their grammar and syntax, making many of the oral histories too poetic, too coherent. Gore Vidal has said that “Bishop Coles” is “a born explainer…. ”
An example of Silone’s irritable realism, blended with a romantic belief in the power of literature to effect personal and social change, is in his story “Polikushka” from the collection Emergency Exit. Silone had the idea to read Tolstoy’s “Polikushka” to a group of indigent, illiterate peasants of the Farmer’s League. So he carefully selected a piece of literature he thought would speak to their lives. Regretfully, he does not find among the peasants much interest in or compassion for Polikushka. Silone had hoped these Italian peasants would relate to a story of a fellow Russian peasant who had a reputation for drinking and pilfering, but hoping to rehabilitate himself by doing an important job for his mistress, loses the money entrusted to him and hangs himself in desperation. The peasants listening to Silone tell the story didn’t have the least bit of sympathy for Polikushka, but rather wanted to know what happened to the money he lost. Silone gives up and goes home disappointed. It appears that literal peasants are more interested in the money than in identifying with a fellow peasant and exploring the motives for his suicide.
One possible difference between Silone and Coles in temperament can be demonstrated at the end of Silone’s “Polikushka” story. One of Silone’s ironically endearing shortcomings is his lack of patience with the apolitical peasants, while Coles appears to have endless Christian tolerance with his poor folks — maybe because he is just trying to listen to them and not organize them for action.
After Silone has returned home from his meeting with the peasants and gone to his desk to study, one of the farmers who was not very active in the League approached him because he had missed the reading of the story. He complained, “If I had known I Would have come. What’s the story about the man who hangs himself and then they find the money he lost?”
Silone responds: “I’ll tell you about it some other time, but I’m busy now.” Maybe I am imagining here, but I suspect that Coles would never just dismiss that peasant farmer like that, activist or not, but would rather stop his studying and patiently tell him the whole story.
Whether patient or irritated with the poor, neither Coles nor Silone is ever about to give up on the cause of the poor. They remain utterly committed to the poor as the flawed, but proud human beings they are. Coles and Silone can be excused if they occasionally varnish up or sand down their poor folks. For Silone, his commitment stems from his confidence in Christian “certainties,” not absolutes, and Coles accurately labels Silone a “religious humanist” who believed, as Howe said, “not in Jesus’ resurrection, but his agony: Jesus is the first and perhaps last, fully human being.” On the other hand, Coles believes, of course, in both the Jesus of Good Friday and Easter.
Silone’s (qualified) belief is in “the certainty of the ability to communicate to human souls…the fraternity of men and women, and…the love for the oppressed that is born from it,” and in values that put “life experience above theory, charity over discipline…[and] the human person over all the economic and social mechanisms which oppress him.” Coles’s life work, of telling life stories rather than case histories, and the unashamed columns in this journal about those who have inspired him, Christian and humanist alike (Dorothy Day as well as George Orwell), show that he shares these certainties and values.
Silone and Coles are moral heroes for those of us who have been forced by the history of the 20th century to put aside many of the dogmas of social, psychological, and religious radicalism, but who still struggle to retain some hope, transcend big defeats, celebrate small victories, and remain faithful to that rebellious impulse and that feeling for human solidarity that lay behind the dogmas. I offer thanks to Ignazio Silone and Robert Coles for trying to keep hope alive.
Robert B. Langfelder
East Palo Alto, California
I was blown away by Juli Loesch’s “Abortion Clinic Blues” article (May). Her semantics about providing “a better…option” than abortion are ridiculous, since it is always an option to bear a child. She is truly anti-choice — and would like to make abortion legally impossible.
My position supports hers, but hers does not support mine. Please cancel my subscription.
Cranbury, New Jersey
John C. Cort
The columns by John C. Cort, inaugurated last year, are a great addition to your magazine. He writes with intelligence, understanding, and a deep spirituality.
Greensboro, North Carolina
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