Piercing Unreality

A UT Radical Paper Both Fails and Succeeds

Let the dead bury the dead, and mourn them. Our kind will be the first to blaze a trail into a new life." Those lines by Karl Marx flitted across my mind as I read the latest -- and apparently last -- issue of (sub)TEX, a radical newspaper sporadically published by a collective of the same name. Born in 1994 from the ashes of a failed campaign by progressive students against the University of Texas' fresh outrage -- the transformation of the Texas Union into another outpost of corporate culture so that it now resembles an enclosed strip mall -- (sub)TEX shows why Marx's words, now 153 years old, carry unbearable poignancy today. He wasn't suggesting that history is irrelevant, of course, or even that it could be escaped. I think he meant that the past offers glimpses of real freedom, marking as zombies those who treat it as a sealed document promising more of the same. However misguided Marx's formulas for social justice, his optimism was epic and his language incandescent.

Turning the pages of (sub)TEX, you find evidence on almost every page that paths into a new life, never more urgently needed, are in bad repair or no longer visible. The signs of a demoralized resistance are there in the stories themselves -- which tell how the power of money is having its way with people all over the world -- and in the language used to tell them, which is dead.

They cannot be faulted for lack of ambition. There's more substance, or at least more substantive issues raised, in the 40 pages of Issue 10 of (sub)TEX than in a dozen numbers of almost any other publication you'd care to name, and I urge everyone who reads this column to pick up a copy, available free all over Central Austin. Probably because they knew the cost of printing would pre-clude any future issues (on paper anyway; the website (http://www.utexas.edu/students/subtex/.web) will be updated from time to time) the people responsible for (sub)TEX aimed for the big picture this time out. The issue tours points of fracture all over the world, beginning with UT and its metamorphosis into a corporate tool, and covering a wide spectrum. There are stories on the Triangle development off 45th Street, the Austin bicycle helmet ordinance, the corruption of ACC's educational mission, human rights in Indonesia, Israel's behavior in Lebanon, the U.S. military in Okinawa, book banning in Round Rock, Shell Oil in Nigeria, the CIA's sponsorship of thugs in Guatemala, the transformation of the Internet, the realities of immigration, and Chiapas.

Most of the articles aim for a clear accounting of the facts without sinking into the mire of leftist jargon and cliché. Some succeed more than others. Narratives of impossibly difficult struggles against concentrations of power have a way of disappearing into their own context -- the familiar problem of preaching to the choir. Leaving aside the occasional lapses into total gibberish and naïve rhetoric, a bigger problem is the legacy of passive academic prose, which has a way of sneaking into even the toughest pieces, and some of the articles here, such as "`War on Drugs' Money Supports Criminal Activities," are admirably hard-nosed.

What is lacking in the language of these stories is the kind of fire and passion that might persuade an ordinary person that fighting the triumph of the grand neoliberal project -- shopping malls and insecure jobs in the First World, a sweatshop on every corner in the Third -- is not a gesture of futility, but a way of instilling everyday life with a sense of decency. Americans live in an ethereal fantasy universe to an extent undreamed of even 20 short years ago, and piercing the sheen of unreality requires hard, fierce, active language.

A beautiful and wrenching example of how this can be done is found in the December issue of Harper's, in an article by Charles Bowden called "While You Were Sleeping: In Juarez, Mexico, photographers expose the violent realities of free trade." Bowden describes a version of Mexico that is unrecognizable alongside the bland coverage prevalent in the North American media, confronts a social reality others prefer to sidestep. And no wonder: The Juarez on view in Bowden's prose and the images of the street photographers he befriended is a charnel house, a place where teenage girls walking to their $35-a-week maquiladora jobs in the pre-dawn darkness are routinely kidnapped, raped and killed, where the unthinkable occurs every day:

"Like all the shooters in Juarez, [street photographer] Julian [Cardona] is keenly aware of the seasons. In November and December, there is a bumper crop of drug murders as the merchandise moves north and accounts are settled. Then around Christmas and New Year's people hang themselves. The first few months of the new year bring fires and gas explosions as the poor try to stay warm. Spring means battles between neighborhoods (or colonias) over ground for building shacks as well as outbreaks of disease in a city largely lacking sewage treatment. Summer brings water problems to a head (Juarez will run completely out of water within five years unless something is done), more disease, and batches of murders by the street gangs. The cool days of fall open a new season of battles between colonias, and then, with the holidays, the photographers return to the drug killings and the Christmas suicides.

"...What is happening in the city is often dismissed by simply saying that many cities are violent, that gangs occur in the United States as well, that strife and dislocation are just the normal growing pains of a society industrializing, and so forth. All of these statements make a lot of sense, and all of them are lies. The photographers of Juarez know they are lies and believe body and soul that their work will state the truth. They say their cameras are more deadly than AK-47s."

Think about that as you go about your Christmas shopping; there are hundreds of maquiladoras in Juarez manufacturing thousands of products for First World markets.

Now, Bowden is a remarkable journalist with decades of experience behind him, working for a magazine that pays in the dollar-a-word range. So comparing his work to that of campus-area activists working on a shoestring is in no way fair. It is, however, unavoidable. That kind of language, vivid, eloquent, and transcending the norms of political analysis, is the only kind that will make people see sense about the evil that is being done in the name of the global market. Radicals who embrace this way of telling stories actually stand a chance of piercing the fog all around us.

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