For Sallie, Long Gone-Who Gets to Criticize Our Culture, Others’?

     In the summer of 1980, I wrote a book, Survival & Renewal, for the World Fellowship Foundation, in Conway, New Hampshire, in celebration of the leftist summer retreat’s fiftieth anniversary. I’d been a guest there before, taking in a wide variety of programs, political, cultural, artistic, economic, from many presenters from all over the United States and overseas. At any one time there were perhaps three hundred guests at World Fellowship, a stimulating, vibrant place whose activities go beyond lectures and discussions in a rustic setting. There’s boating and canoeing and swimming on and in magnificent Loon Lake; you can hike, play ball, make a clay pot or three, play pick-up basketball and most of all, just talk a summer away with bright, well-informed people, adults and kids.

     I enjoyed writing the history of the Golden Anniversary Summer Session immensely and most of all I loved meeting people, particular older people who challenged me to my core. There were many. I was twenty-nine and barely conscious of the gay rights movement and what I knew before that summer of women’s issues paled when I looked back on the warm months later on that fall. The learning moments there were always rich, often surprising.

     My most intimate learning moment that summer was shocking.

     Late one August morning under a gigantic birch tree, I’d just finished reading to a group of young people from Animal Farm. As these readings were always open, any adult could pull up a weather-beaten Adirondak to listen in as the kids sat on the soft grass. As we finished the kids left the shade of the birch. An older woman, Sallie, didn’t leave. I remember Sallie’s strong blue eyes, intelligent smile, her long white hair, her green and white World Fellowship Tee, her black jeans, her sandals. In her late eighties and well-known for her outspokenness even among The Outspoken, we all knew her as a former suffragette, a veteran of old, socialist and communist labor movements and as someone who’d put her body on the line more than a few times from the days prior to The Depression, during the Civil Rights Movement, and beyond. She’d known beatings and jail cells, was proud, undaunted, and rightly admired.

     Sallie had been listening intently to my Animal Farm reading and my Q&A with the children. As I stood to leave I smiled at her and moved to walk past her when she grabbed my arm hard and yanked me toward her.

-You must never criticise Russia.


-You must never, ever criticise the Soviet Union, Jonathan. Ever.

-Sallie. First, I believe I may criticise any nation, my own, or another, when I think appropriate. And I was reading Animal Farm, Sallie.

-Oh, Oh! That’s what you say, Mister! Mr. Orwell…that bum! He knew he was criticising the Soviet Union in that trash he wrote and now these children here will believe that garbage, too!

-Sallie, I….

-Jonathan! You must never criticise Russia.

     She released my arm and when I sat next to her with many others at a long table that night for dinner and later for a professor’s slide-lecture, she was as jovial as ever with me. Perhaps she’d let go of the morning as she’d let go of my arm. More likely, I think, she just assumed I’d taken her teaching to heart.

     But I never did.

     And it does still surprise me the extent to which there’s as yet a slice of the American Progressive Movement that finds it easy, if not obligatory, to criticise the Unites States for all of its sins loudly and continually (and there are and have been and will yet be many American sins) and yet ignore what we have and do that’s positive, as if, for example, celebrating the Bill of Rights as exceptional and working hard for its proper application is at best sappy or, at worst, a cover for collective crimes.

     Many American Progressives are firmly in Sallie’s camp,  not nostalgic for Stalin, of course, but about what Progressives should and shouldn’t ever criticise. Many suggest we should never criticise other nations or political movements because America is huge and powerful and congenitally guilty and that denies me the right to lodge thoughtful criticism elsewhere.

     To those who believe that, these few questions. Is it untoward for an American Progressive to criticise:

– Soviet-style communism that has transformed the northern half of the Korean Peninsula into a massive starvation-camp overseen by a military clique that imports Western porn flicks? Or is that just Rightist propaganda I’ve swallowed?

-South American dictators?

-ISIS’s desire to see you dead?

-The flat-footed Israeli action against that flotilla? (Many U.S. Progressives slammed that one. Were we out of line?)

-Rich Muslim nations’ contempt for and consistent economic neglect of their poor co-religionists in the Near East and North Africa?

-Was I to be silent in the face of Apartheid because South Africa is not South Carolina?

-Was I to be silent when the Soviets wouldn’t allow Jews out?

-Have U.S. Progressives nothing valid to say about Mexican government collaboration with cocaine cartels?

-Must we say nothing when African freedom fighters such as Mobutu become president of Zaire and then turn his nation into a dictatorship? Is it my job to be silent when the opposition there needs my voice?

-Must I be quiet when China imprisons its newest Nobel Peace Laureate or when it murders 3,000 at Tian-an-men Square at Peking on 4 June, 1989? Was I wrong to do whatever  it took to get my former student the hell out of there after that massacre?

     These ten instances alone, opportunities to assess, to criticize, and to act, tell me that if I am living up to what is best in America, that if I am proudly Progressive, I must not shy from seeing and doing what’s right when and where I can no matter where the wrong is, here or overseas.

     I love you, Sallie. I honor who you were and the good for which you fought and the good you and so many like you wrought here. But I honor and will honor, old friend, what wasn’t worst in your politics, but what was best.