On the Uses and Disadvantages of Historical Comparisons for Life


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April 22, 2021

On the Uses and Disadvantages of Historical Comparisons for Life

A conversation between Irena Grudzińska-Gross and Dwayne Betts

  • American racism
  • Black Lives Matter
  • child parent separation
  • child separation
  • Communism
  • dissident
  • Holocaust
  • Poetry
  • Poland

9 December 2020
moderated by Jeffrey Goldfarb
introduced by Marci Shore
organized by Lala Pop

Marci: As you know, the original impetus for this forum was horror of the children being taken away from their parents at the American border, and my saying to Stephen Naron that we should use material from the Fortunoff archive to prepare a film about parent-child separation during the Holocaust. This project then opened a larger question about historical comparison. How do we understand both the uses and disadvantages of thinking across time and space? How do we negotiate the fact that in any biography or historical event, there are both elements that are unique, and elements that are universal? For me, these questions belonged to a larger question: namely, how can we understand somebody else’s experience? We cannot see into someone else’s soul, or live someone else’s experience. But some kind of understanding must be possible.

As Dwayne knows, my intellectual life in some way underwent a revolution several years ago when Tim and I met Jason Stanley and his family. Not really by coincidence, we met more or less at the moment when Donald Trump won the American elections. Those two things together brought me to think about America with an intensity I hadn’t felt before. I’m American, of course, but I’m a historian of another part of the world, and for the most part my intellectual life has been focused outside of the United States.

One of the many things I’ve come to appreciate from Jason and Dwayne is the centrality of mass incarceration in the context both of American racism in particular and of our political system more broadly. I still know relatively little about this, but it struck me that many of the people I’ve known in Eastern Europe, especially among Irena’s generation born just after the war, also have had the experience of being in prison – in their cases, as political prisoners. For a still earlier generation – the poets I wrote about in my first book who got themselves involved in communism – there was an assumption that sooner or later you would sit in prison. In an interview with Antonín Liehm in the late 1960s, the Czech novelist Jiří Mucha, born in 1915, described prison as “simply a writer’s postgraduate education.” I hope I’m not betraying anyone if I say that when I met Irena’s brother in Poland, in Krasnogruda, several years ago, there was a moment when he said to me jokingly, but not entirely jokingly: Wiesz, jestem jedynym porządnym członkiem rodziny. Jestem jedyny, który nigdy nie siedział w więzieniu. “I’m the only upright, respectable member of my family. I’m the only one who’s never been to prison.”

My friend and former graduate student, the historian Anna Muller from Gdańsk – Irena knows her, too – wrote her remarkable first book, If the Walls Could Speak, about the experience of women in prison in Stalinist Poland. Ania puts you in the prison cell with these women and keeps you there for two hundred pages or so. And it’s nearly unbearable, but also essential to understanding the Stalinist period. As Ania did the research for that book she became more and more engrossed in understanding the experience of prison. When she accepted the position at University of Michigan-Dearborn, she began teaching in the Inside Out prison education program. Now she’s involved in a Theory Group at Macomb Correctional Facility, working with a select group of poet prisoners. A year ago – before the world shut down – we were having coffee at a Slavicist conference in San Francisco and Ania told me that she was reading this amazing memoir by a man named Dwayne Betts. . .

And I thought: perhaps, across all these differences, there is a conversation worth having?

I wish we could be meeting in person. Dwayne and Irena, I think you’d really enjoy meeting in person. In any case, between you two there are all sorts of obvious differences: gender, race, nationality, generation. Irena grew up in postwar Warsaw, in a family of Polish-Jewish Stalinists. And Dwayne grew up deep in inner-city Washington, DC, or thereabouts. There are obvious differences. But I’m also wondering whether there aren’t moments of connection. You’ve both had formative experiences of prison. And poetry has played a central role in both of your lives. And you both have found yourselves in situations where you have an audience in a larger world, and you are in some ways speaking for the world from which you come, for your friends, for people who have been locked behind walls of different kinds. And you’ve both been, it seems to me, extraordinarily loyal to those places and those people; neither of you has erased where you’ve come from or tried to free yourself from associations that might be painful or embarrassing or cause people to treat you and the world from which you come as if you and it were inferior. You’ve never lost your commitment to explaining those worlds to a wider world. In this sense you’ve both played the role of translator, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. Irena’s native language is Polish, she learned Russian and French growing up in Poland, and Italian and English as an immigrant, first in Italy, then in the United States. And Dwayne, I’m going to make an argument here, that you command a bilingualism as well. When I read, say, the “Overheard in New Haven” conversations you relate in your Facebook posts, I don’t always understand the language. Actually, I often literally don’t understand the languages. And it’s your language as well – but it’s not the language you speak, say, to me. You code-switch, as Irena does when she moves between English and Polish in, say, New York depending on who’s joining or leaving a conversation. And to be a translator is to be a cultural mediator, a bridge between worlds. So, I was thinking about the connections among poetry, prison, language, loyalty and friendship. . .

Okay, I’ll stop talking now.

Dwayne: I’m good. I’m ready to go.

Jeff: I think that the goal – at least my goal – is to get you and Irena to talk to each other. So, I guess a good way of starting might be to ask each of you to ask a question of the other.

Irena: Let Dwayne start, okay?

Dwayne: You know, it’s really interesting because one thing about being an American – the interesting thing about a melting pot is that everybody else disappears. And – I actually think partly it’s because we don’t learn geography. Partly it’s because we have no clue of what the metric system is. And partly it’s because, like, as children we don’t learn world history. And we aren’t seeking to migrate to other countries. We tend to really be disconnected from the rest of the world. So, I guess my question for you is what aspects of your early education ultimately shaped your identity and the choices that you ended up making as a young adult?

Irena: I grew up in a situation which I absolutely did not understand. Maybe this is the difference between me and you because I was in a very privileged situation of somebody who was completely mistaking not only my own identity, but also the place of my family in the country. When Marci said that I grew up in a family of Stalinists – I would never call my parents that word, that name, they were not Stalinists, unless you call Stalinists people who were communist when Stalin was in power. They were communists and went to prison before the Second World War. I mean, I come from a family of people who go – who went – to prison. Marci mentioned my brother, whom I love and who I have a very good relationship with, but he’s a very cautious guy – which was okay in my family, because, you know, they also had me there.

For me prison was a shattering experience, really a shattering experience because I had to face the reality that I didn’t understand. I grew up in the tradition of being in the resistance, though after the Second World War, in the communist Poland, my father was in the government and my mother a physician in the best Warsaw academic hospital. There was a lot they did not tell us, me and my brother, about themselves, but the stories we did hear were about their illegal communist activities in the pre-war Poland, including their prison time. It all sounded very noble. They never expected that the regime they helped to create would turn against their child and against them.  

Dwayne: See, this is why I think it’s really important that people in the United States – it’s really important for me to talk to you. I didn’t go to prison because I was a part of a resistance. I wasn’t a dissident. And, in fact, I wasn’t political at all. I was apolitical. This apoliticalness, feels contrary to what people think about mass incarceration, and creates, for me, a disconnect between my identity as a prisoner and my identity as someone who wants to radically change our system of incarceration – I have trouble recognizing the continuum. This is a difficult thing for me to express; more difficult for others to understand.

You know, I was watching a video of a young Black man in Chicago. And he said growing up every day was a risk. And you know, he’s probably my age or close to my age, maybe a decade younger. But he said growing up every day was a risk, that you had to carry a gun ’cause you might get shot, and that because you had a gun, you had to stay away from the police ’cause the gun was illegal.

And now I’m not suggesting that the experience that he describes is the typical experience of Black folks in America or young Black men in America, but when I think about the community of men that I was a part of as a teenager, and when I think of the community of men in prison, the through-line of the experience tends to be playing with guns, engaging in violence. And it’s quite contrary to being a dissident and to being incarcerated because you were in opposition to the state.

And I frequently feel like there is a desire to connect the two experiences when the two experiences are woefully distinct. And actually, I feel like the more troubling aspect of my work is that, as an artist, I have quite infrequently bridged the imaginative gap between those two identities, if ever. The best take on that gap though, in my own work, is an allusion to. . . I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages.

Irena: Oh, of course. Brodsky.

Dwayne: See? Right. So it’s an allusion. But it’s—

Irena: Yes.

Dwayne. — but if you know, you know. And if you don’t know – then you might think I’m talking about myself, but that’s even a subtle way in which I am trying to connect my experience of incarceration, with the experience of a dissident, with the experience of somebody who has experienced exile, who has experienced a profound mistreatment by their government. And maybe I did experience a profound mistreatment by my government, but the beginning of it, the kernel of it, was not protest and was not a fight for justice or democracy. It was a sort of villainous act.

Irena: May I – I would like to add something here. When I came to the United States, I was talking once to a lady, the mother of a very close friend of mine, an American lady, she was a peace activist. And she told me – she was fighting then – it was a long time ago, it was 1974 – against mass incarceration. She was a white lady. She was saying, ‘all these prisoners are political prisoners.’

And I was incensed at that time at this. I thought: people who committed crimes cannot be compared to political prisoners. But now I’ve completely changed my idea because being a dissident in Poland or in Russia or in any of these communist countries, it was not a normal activity – it was breaking the law. It was breaking the law. It was very often mischievous. And it was often not very heroic. It was not very conscious. At least in my case. I did not expect to go to prison. I was very surprised when I went to prison.

Dwayne: I was surprised, too. (laughs)

Irena: Being a dissident, that was what happened in later years. When I was in prison that term did not yet exist, was not applied to us, imprisoned students. But the fact was that we were breaking boundaries. Not violently, there were no weapons. And in fact, America, from this point of view, is completely unique. But you were a teenager. Everybody was doing incredible things when they were teenagers, illegal, challenging, and so on. So, I don’t feel that there is such a big difference—

Dwayne: Yes. I mean, I’ve struggled with it. I struggle with it as an artist, but I also struggle with it as a father. As a parent, I think, you frequently find yourself holding on to the failures of your children as your own, you know. And I – I’m certain that my mother was ashamed.

And I think that my mother won’t grow into a belief that me pulling a pistol out on a man asleep in his car was somehow noble in the way we think about Nelson Mandela. It’s not that I would compare myself to Nelson Mandela. It’s that I am unsure if I would compare anybody that’s incarcerated for the kind of violence that I committed to Nelson Mandela.

I think about George Jackson and how part of how he became a political prisoner was who he was in prison. It is not what he did to get to prison. Jackson had gotten incarcerated as a teenager for an armed robbery and was sentenced to one year to life. While serving his time in California, he became a Black Panther and a voice for Black liberation. I think history will not look less kindly upon the way we’ve treated people who have been incarcerated – even within the context of whatever crimes they were convicted of. But I do not think that, am not sure I believe, that vis-à-vis incarceration alone, we become George Jackson.

And maybe I just mean that I don’t believe that I become George Jackson. And certainly not Jonathan Jackson. Because the very premise demands I say something of what I’m committed to. Am I a dissident? ‘I want to be Nelson Mandela’ but I know I was out there robbing people for nothing: not really for money, without a strategy: I was trying to get killed. And it’s hard to hold that truth and imagine myself a revolutionary.  

This is not pity. I am okay with who I became in prison and all I came to stand for. See, I want to talk about mass incarceration in the same way that I talk about your incarceration, but it just seems like something is missing. And I guess that goes to the question of the uses of comparison. You know, for me, the use of comparison is to help make clear my own understanding of the current context. Brodsky makes me understand how incarceration made me feel like an eternal exile to my community. But it clarified my relationship to the state more than it helped me understand that this relationship has been in any way, like, synonymous to his.

Irena: Yes, I agree. I absolutely agree. I have two children. And I was always telling them, the one thing that I don’t want is for you to go to prison. One of them is a boy and the other is a girl. And they are adults now. But I was horrified that they may go to prison because the American prison for me, is – I have a vision of hell, basically. I think about the American prison as a place of concentrated violence, because the people inside are put into these extreme conditions.

I do respect Brodsky very much, when he was in exile, he wrote his best poetry. I do respect enormously how people deal with their incarceration. This is something that is incredibly difficult. And the people who manage to turn this into something that is very useful for other people as well, this is incredibly impressive.

Dwayne: I’m gonna read you a poem just because. . . I’ve actually never read this poem before. And I’m not even gonna tell you what it’s about because if it’s a good poem, you should know what it’s about when I read it.

Irena: Yes.


In the Center of Every City is a Memory
by Reginald Dwayne Betts

for Daniel’s mom

Everything lost fits into a story:
memories, time, & all of histories
forgotten caverns. The story is always
a song & the song is always about

music & after its told the world echoes
all changed, changed utterly.

New York was then a different kind
of exile, a city at the center of everything,
begging for those lost to become lost
again, those faces darkened by exile,

& all the hours it takes to carry you
from there, whatever there is in the past
that is buried, to here. We never understand.

This is what Daniel says, in a way,
we never understand. The reluctant gift
of mystery is what he means.

In the story the only song is the dress,
it is history & legacy, yours & all that ties
strangers to the teeming & endless
& mercurial city that neither sleeps or pauses.

The dress is the color of freedom & when
you walk out in the world, becoming
softened by the smiles, welcomed by the faces

that recognize you, somehow, as if an ocean
& history is not the burden that it is.
I’m told the dress was knitting by the hands

of someone who would miss you.
At some point you realized why the men &
women smiled, everything they’d learned

about this country had made them too
feel exiled, & there you were,
unknowingly saying that economics

is the science of knowing home
is found quickest by those who share
what others have lost.

Irena: That’s how it is.

Dwayne:  You should never, like, explain a poem. And it’s so funny that I wrote it for a person who will intimately understand what the poem was about. And then I’ve had to edit it as I read because I was like, oh shit, y’all are not gonna get it. Because, like, I didn’t have the word Poland in the poem. I wrote it for my friend’s mother. So his mom was from Poland. And they moved to the United States, and she didn’t speak English, and they moved to New York. And, I mean, her husband did, but she didn’t.

And so she would go around, and Black folks would always, like, smile at her. And, you know, we got a certain kind of confirmation bias, right? So at first, she just thought Black people liked her, and she didn’t understand why they were like smiling and waving and putting a fist in the air. And she thought this was like all of the time. And then it hit her that it was only when she was wearing this one dress. But she didn’t have a lot of clothes, so she wore the dress all the time anyway, right?

And it was red, black, and green. And, like, it was the ’70s, and so the Black folks that would see her, like, they saw it as the Black Liberation flag and that she was expressing this kind of kinship. And anyway, my man tells me this story, and I wrote the poem for his mom. And when we graduated, I gave it to his mom. And it really touched her. And it’s interesting ’cause, you know, I just hadn’t thought about it, the way in which we create these kind of relationships with others based on how we have these shared experiences. And sometimes, those experiences get communicated in what we wear and in who we love, more than the rhetoric that we imagine explains those things.

Irena: This is an amazing part, I understood that there’s this moment linked with the political changes that were going on in Poland at that time. And that there was the immigration from Poland that came at that time to the United States. So, I really absorbed it very personally, which is the way that poetry should be read, or heard, absorbed. Yes, it’s a beautiful, an amazing thing – an amazing thing. It kind of – you took my breath away.

Dwayne: Wow, thank you.

Irena: So I – you have to continue the conversation.

Dwayne: I’m gonna let Jeff just – Jeff is, like, man, I’m just here. I haven’t got a chance to say anything. So I’m gonna let Jeff jump in.

Jeff: I don’t want to say anything. So you two go on.  I’ll only say something if you have trouble.  The one thing that kind of interested me, that I sort of would like an answer to, is that you both described your experience of being imprisoned as starting with surprise, that you were surprised by that. You shared a common response. But I wonder what’s behind the common response for each of you. Like, Irena, why were you surprised?

Irena: I have a feeling of shame about my experience because I – I truly did not understand my situation. And I am obsessed now with trying to figure it out. I’m now writing about people who were in prison in Stalinist Russia. And I see that I’m very irritated at their memories when they do not understand what’s going on. I’m really irritated in such a way that I have to read it again and read it again in order to calm down.

But I was like them. I was young, but I was not that young, I was not a teenager. I absolutely did not understand what I was doing. And I should have expected, and actually, I was told – Jacek Kuroń told me directly. Jacek was one of the two people – the other was Karol Modzelewski – whom we considered our leaders. They went to prison for writing a critique of the regime. We distributed their work, tried to help them get out of prison. When they were liberated, we were in full rebellion and just pulled them in again. They were both great people, truly charismatic. In 1968 we were preparing an illegal demonstration, I was very, very enthusiastic, overjoyed. Jacek kind of shook me and said: you know, we are all going to prison. I did not believe him. He’d just come out of prison, eight or nine months prior. And a few days after that conversation, he was back. Our demonstration was assaulted by the militia and soon all the schools and universities in Poland were in revolt. I was interrogated by the police, but the moment I understood I’m trapped, I’m not going to be released from interrogation, I was astonished.

Jeff: So you were surprised that you were imprisoned.

Irena: Yes.

Jeff: Surprised by what you saw or just the fact. . .?

Irena: It was like I switched from one reality into another, you know? From some kind of a game or a pushing or trying out – there was a lot of pleasure in this rebellious activity, so to say. And suddenly I realized that this is it and that I’m going to prison. From that moment I started to kind of calm myself down by saying: I’m going to be there for no more than three years. I’m going to be here for no more than – not five – three. . .  I just had to make up these games, give myself a time limit, frame the time. Because I felt completely trapped. And everything that happened after my arrest was surprising. The government propaganda was that we – the group of rebellious students – were “Zionists,” which was their way of saying Jews, but denying that it was “race” they meant, only our free political choice. I knew I was “of Jewish origin,” which was our way, the way of assimilated people not to use the word Jew. I certainly considered myself Polish, was brought up as a Pole and I did not ever face for myself the issue of my origin. Many years later, in the US, I read an interview with Hannah Arendt who said that her mother told her: when you are attacked as a Jew, you have to defend yourself as a Jew. I did not know how to defend myself. I was accused of being an alien, without any right to do what I was doing since I was not Polish and did not represent anyone. It shook me to the core.

Dwayne: Can you tell me what the dissident activity was?

Irena: We were a group of friends, high school friends, friends who created, like in a Dostoevsky novel, a circle of self-education. And we were very much interested in politics. So we were studying economy. We were studying “young” Marx, not the Marx that was officially promoted. There was something wrong in the society around us. So we wanted to figure out what it was and what to do about it.

Dwayne: Right.

Irena: This started in high school, and then it was continued at the university. And there was a situation of unrest, in general, for various other reasons. So we became leaders of a real discontent. This is what it was.

Dwayne: Like, I was surprised, too. But I was surprised more as if somebody had thrown cold water on my face because the world had been moving. I was young. I was 16. And I think what was expected of me as a sixteen-year-old – like I think that what I knew about the world from books – I’d read Stolen Legacy, I’d read Things Fall Apart, I’d read a lot. And what I knew about the world from books, in committing my crime, I wasn’t the man – I wasn’t the man that I expected to be in the world. And I didn’t even fully realize it until the cuffs were on my wrists.

I’ve read a lot of mystery novels. So even in a Walter Mosley book, there’s a certain, like, morality that rules the day. And if you expect somebody to behave in some kind of moral way, they almost have to be tasked with engaging with the idea of what this other thing means for their life.

Well, if you say, you shouldn’t pull pistols out on people because it’s just morally bankrupt to rob somebody. I was living in a space where I was engaged in having friends rob people, shoot people, fighting a lot, even though I wasn’t a fighter, so I wasn’t fighting as much, but I was around it. And I was engaged in a whole, like, sort of subculture, counterculture. The idea that we could exist in the world in this way never having anybody challenge either the prudence of the behavior or the legitimacy of the behavior. And then I get incarcerated, and I expected to go home because I hadn’t confronted on my own how illegitimate my actions were.

It’s a whole range of ways in which human beings do this. And some you just grow with, but I don’t think, like, crime and violence is one that you grow with. I immediately became ashamed. And the surprise went quickly from this surprise to that shame.

I have no robust account of what accountability is. So, you know, if I murder somebody’s son, what actually do I owe? And not in a, like, a pretend way, but what do I owe? And the reality is that most folks are probably willing to do twenty years rather than to pay what they owe. I mean, my homeboy, he got a murder case. I just went up to the parole board for him. I’m arguing for him to be free. He’s done twenty years in prison. Let’s say he lives to be seventy. So he’s forty now, he gets another thirty years of freedom. Let’s say he is brilliant, and he actually becomes a distinguished professor. And he’s a distinguished professor with twenty-five years of his life, right? But their child has been dead for the entire extra sixty years that he was alive. And if what he owes is to be this mother’s son, you might find he just says, ‘I actually don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be the son of two mothers. I would rather do the twenty years.’

And it’s just really interesting because when you tell me what you did, I find that it’s absurd for me to try to compare my conduct to yours. I think, you know, it’s almost like a mirror, and thinking about the experience of people in other countries who are fashioning their actions as a fight for freedom or fight for democracy or a fight for justice. If I hold up their conduct as a mirror to my own, I find that the reflections don’t match, and the ways in which the reflections don’t match trouble me immensely. And I actually don’t really know what to do with it. You know, that’s probably why in my next life I’m gonna be a beetle.

Jeff: A what?

Dwayne: I’m gonna be a beetle, you know.

Jeff: Ah.

Dwayne: And not a rock star. ‘Cause I think the conscious mind has a really challenging time dealing with regret. And I think that our regrets end up playing out so differently that they belie any attempts for me – the comparison is revealing because it helps me understand why I’m so uncomfortable with my own regrets.

Irena: You know, I had a lot of regrets in the prison and after. I did things that caused a lot of harm to my family. And I emigrated, which was a tragic decision for me because it looked like the separation with my country, friends and family will be forever. I could have stayed, but was unable to withstand the risks. Even today I am torn between the two places, I’m paying for what I did. I don’t look at myself as a victim. I’m living in Brooklyn, New York, nothing to complain about.  

My mother was kicked out of her job. My father was kicked out of his job. My brother, miraculously, was admitted to the university rather than being taken into military service. My father would have been fired anyhow – 1968 was a purge of old comrades by the new apparatchiks.  But the fact is that the consequences of my being in prison were very dire for everybody around me.

Dwayne: Yeah.

Irena: But I was never regretting what I did, actually. What I regret very much is that I was so stupid, that I didn’t understand the politics of what was happening. Hence my obsession is now to understand everything.

I think that the difference between our stories is radical because the United States is a country of violence unlike any other country that I know of. And this violence, the presence of guns in everyday life is the thing that completely changes the possibilities of dissidence, of resistance. Especially for teenagers, as you were at the time. The fact that everybody can have a gun – this is mind boggling. The fact of so many weapons in private hands – this privatization of violence when in other countries the violence is state-owned. It’s something that completely changes the possibilities of dissidence, especially if you are from a minority community.

Dwayne: I don’t know if I agree with that. But you know, I will say two points. One, I don’t know. I’m not sure if I agree with that, but I’ll get to that last. I think the thing that you just said that I find really compelling, actually, and it’s a real commonality, is the way in which, you know, our incarceration affected our families. And I do think that – like, your family paid a higher burden, but my family paid a steep burden, too. And once I stopped thinking about me, and I think about them, then I think it is a true obsession. And I think we share the same obsession in terms of trying to understand all of these processes and what they mean, even if the pathway towards understanding takes us down different roads.

But you made me think. I’m not like a pro-gun rights person. I got my gun permit right there, though. It’s actually on my wall. It’s interesting ’cause—you look astonished. (laughs)

Irena: I am.

Jeff: (laughs)

Dwayne: Because in the United States, you know, a lot of states strip you of your right to vote if you have a felony conviction. And so you might decide to move to a different state to get the right to vote, but most states won’t give you a right to own a gun. But the gun is almost a badge of citizenship in the United States. Until no one has a gun. And so I wanted to get my gun rights back. And I went back to Virginia, and I appeared before a judge because I wanted the judge to have to confront who I am now. And I’m probably in agreement that most people shouldn’t have guns at all, but given that people have a right to carry guns, to hunt, for protection, as pieces of brutalist art, I wanted a judge to have to look at me and make a decision about whether or not I had access to all the American rights because I’m a citizen. And I went before the judge and the prosecutor. The judge said, ‘I’m gonna grant this,’ and ‘does the state have anything to say in the opposition?’ And the prosecutor – now, mind you, I’ve been in front of a judge and a prosecutor before where they were calling me a menace to society and suggesting that I be punished to the full extent of the law, which at that point was a life sentence. This prosecutor in the same city where I got sentenced says to the court, ‘this guy is a super citizen. I have nothing to say except I commend him on all of his positive work.’

In some ways it’s kind of moot. I have a permit to own a gun in Virginia. But the permit is worthless in Connecticut. In Connecticut, a felon cannot own a gun. I am still a felon, unless I’m pardoned. So I do not own a gun. The last time and only time I touched a gun was the night I robbed and attempted to rob some folks. And so, if the gun permit is a badge of citizenship, then in that respect I am certainly still a felon. I’m certain people would think me absurd for saying the right to own a gun is the mark of full citizenship. And I hear the absurdity of it in my own head. But there is a tension – who determines full participation in society? What should it be permissible to give up? Maybe the right to bear arms, in exchange for a prison system that isn’t as wretched. Maybe the right to vote in exchange for a prison system that doesn’t believe years and years and years in prison solves anything.

Anyway, there are dissidents here. People in the street. And the kinds of rights they are fighting for, the freedoms they are demanding, are capacious. The Black Lives Matter protests. And I see your story reflected in that work. I think. Because they are about trying to radically transform the society.

Irena: What I have in mind is the difference. You know, in Eastern Europe now, in Poland and in Belarus, there are powerful, active movements that are structured very similarly to Black Lives Matter. In Poland the movement was triggered by an extreme abortion ban and is organized by women. It took on even the Catholic Church, which never happened in my lifetime. In Belarus, the massive protest was triggered by stolen elections. It too is organized and led by women. In both of these countries the state has a monopoly of violence and people do not own guns (but for hunters). These are street movements, with massive support. They are definitely under the influence of Black Lives Matter. They have an ideology of care, loose structure, no leadership that you can arrest and remove, and then the movement is finished. They have a very spontaneous organization with some women organizers and advisory committees. In Poland the state is so far relatively restrained as far as violence goes. In Belarus there are massive arrests, tortures and killings. The difference between Black Lives Matter and these movements is that there’s no street violence, no eruptions of looting, there’s not even a threat of this type of violence.

You know, it’s a very, very radical difference. And it’s a difference that is historically motivated. For example, the Solidarity movement, in Poland in 1980, it was a pacifistic movement. It was a pacifistic movement, not only because all the weapons were on the other side.

Dwayne: Right, right.

Irena: But also, because of a certain tradition that you really cannot do it there. It doesn’t make sense. So that is—

Dwayne: But that’s the devastating part, though, ’cause I’m not sure if it’s a tradition as much as – I think in the United States, within these movements, right, we have a real conflicted understanding of what it means to be incarcerated. And so I think there is more gray area in conduct that is criminal than there should be, which – there, even saying that, I hear the criticism that says that Dwayne sounds like a conservative.

I had a poem that said some people are throwing the trash can through Sal’s window, calling that protest. And I’m talking about Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. And at the end of the movie, after they choke out Rodney King and they kill him – the police kill Rodney King – what erupts is a protest that includes the destruction of Sal’s Pizzeria.

And what seems to justify the destruction of Sal’s Pizzeria is that Sal was a racist. So even within that film, it is subtly suggesting that a certain kind of criminality is okay if like, the ideology that the people who are engaged in it believe in is right. And I, you know, I feel that first it’s important to say that when we talk about protests in the street, and we talk about marching in the street, and we talk about Black Lives Matter, I think it’s important to say that frequently the police started the violence.

Irena: Yes.

Dwayne: I think that’s important to note.

Marci: Irena, this difficulty of grasping how people can be two things at the same time is also at the center of the debates about Polish-Jewish relations during the war that have been so important in your life and your work for at least the past twenty years. The difficulty of coming to terms with Polish antisemitism and the role of Poles as co-perpetrators of violence against Jews is bound up with the overwhelming reality of Poles as victims of the Nazis. Why is it so difficult for us to come to terms with how the victim and the perpetrator can be one and the same person? Why are we wedded to thinking in terms of dichotomies given that in fact much of our lives are lived in conditions of moral ambiguity? We want a world of moral clarity, of superheroes and villains, but that world is largely a fantasy. This is one of the reasons why I thought the Czech film set during the German occupation, Divided We Fall (Musímy si pomáhat) was so brilliant. Is there a way forward?

Irena: I am not making the Polish and Belarussian movements saintly and holy, at least not intentionally. I think I am right in describing them as totally wedded to non-violence. Right-wing movements in Poland are extremely violent and the prewar leftist movements in Poland were very violent. The states in Poland and Belarus are as violent as all states are. I am making a much more limited point, which is possibly wrong, that the eruptions of violence during Black Lives Matter demonstrations are conditioned by the state, by the police and people’s possession of weapons. That causes an acceptance of violence as means of expression of social anger.

And I would certainly not deny that people can be victims and perpetrators at the same time. But this was not my point.

Dwayne: I think that the conflict, in terms of understanding, is that we have an understanding of mass incarceration that doesn’t equip us to also understand crime. So the critique of mass incarceration doesn’t equip us with the tools to understand crime. And because it doesn’t equip us with the tools to understand crime, I think sometimes we are at odds. You know, if I support the end of mass incarceration, does that mean that I can’t vigorously protest certain kinds of criminal conduct?

And frankly, I mean, I used to be on panels, and they would say: ‘Dwayne, don’t tell people what you were locked up for.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, don’t tell people what I was locked up for?’ They said, ‘well, that’s kind of counterproductive, and it makes people focus on the crime and not the policy.’ And I was like, ‘Well, if I put a gun in your face, you’re gonna focus on the crime.’

Jeff: (laughs)

Dwayne: And then they would be like, ‘See, Dwayne, you always saying stuff like that. Don’t say that on the panel. I know you’re just joking.’  And I’d be like, ‘No, I’m serious.’

Jeff: Wow.

Dwayne: And then they’d be like, no, you’re joking, right? And then I’d say, ‘See, that’s the thing: you don’t like crime and violence either, but you’re afraid to confront it because if you confront it, you might end up agreeing with the people who think I should spend the rest of my life in prison.’

I just think we don’t discuss it enough in the United States. And because we don’t discuss it enough in the United States, we can’t get to the root of why every conversation about Black Lives Matter ends up also being a discussion of looting, because we just can’t get at it. We can’t get at how we really feel about crime.

And if we wanted to, what would we do? I’m not a leader. I’m not an advocate. I’m not an activist. I just do whatever it is that I do. But if I was on the ground and I was an activist, and I was leading a march, I feel like it would be my duty to ask questions about how I make sure that this organization that I’ve built, that I’m leading, is disciplined and cannot be looked at as a cause of the violence, right? I mean, maybe that’s missing, but maybe it actually exists, and we just don’t talk to the people who are doing that work.

Jeff: I’m kind of fascinated by how self-understanding is a key to both of your experience of being incarcerated and thinking about the experience after the fact. I have a couple of things. First of all, immediately to what you just said about violence and the leadership, and the confusion of a social movement with its unanticipated or undesirable consequences. I’ll actually now speak for myself. I am an old New Leftist. There was a time when I was active in the anti-war movement, the end of the 1960s to the beginning of the 1970s. And one of the most extraordinary experiences about being a leader in such movements is that most of our time was spent actually trying to get relatively marginal people not to do destructive things. You know, so the radicals were actually the ones who tried to stop the violence. And my guess is that that’s actually true in the demonstrations now that developed around the country in the United States, that most active people were the people actually working against that. And the difficulty of messaging that without undermining the project.

Dwayne: And it’s also the parallel question of mass incarceration because to condemn it ends up supporting the very apparatus that you want—

Jeff: Exactly.

Dwayne: —to get rid of before having a replacement for that apparatus. I mean, it’s all intensely troubling because you also end up talking about property crimes and you should be able to discuss property crimes in a way that it is far easier to engage with than to discuss violence. You should be able to say: You know what? Frankly, we need to prevent car theft. Or: insurance will cover property crimes as we figure out a system where joyriding isn’t weekend entertainment and car theft isn’t thought of as a legitimate income stream.

Jeff: Right.

Dwayne: And if we can’t prevent theft of property, that is why we have insurance, you know, and keep it moving, right? But nobody wants to say that. Nobody wants to say, look, I don’t like burglary, but I dislike prison more. And you have homeowner’s insurance, so deal with it. Imagine, like, if you were an advocate, and you were against mass incarceration, and you just said: ‘well, Dwayne, I understand you are against mass incarceration. And I don’t want to talk about this as a big idea. I just want to talk about two crimes that are troubling our community – local level, right? Two crimes – car theft and burglary.’

And if I said, ‘I get it. Those are problems. And that’s why you have car insurance, and that’s why you have homeowner’s insurance. Those things are gonna happen. And when they happen more than a 15% click, then we could reevaluate this. But for now, it’s 8% of the cars get stolen and just, we’re gonna absorb that loss, and that’s why we have insurance.’ Nobody would support me.

Jeff: (laughs)

Dwayne: Okay, you know. And I would say, ‘Listen, I’ve talked to the mayor. We found out that home alarms will reduce burglaries by 6%. So now we’re just gonna mandate that every home have an alarm as a part of your insurance package. If you don’t have an alarm, you can’t get insurance because we’re just gonna assume you left your door open.’

You know, like we advance policies that would deter property crimes. But most folks would find those policies odious, you know? They would be like, ‘No, we’re not going to dictate that people have alarms. What if people can’t afford alarms?’ And then I’ll say, ‘I get it. That’s why we have the police and prison.’ But no, we can’t have prison either. Then, like, well, what can we have?

Irena: But you know, what I fear, which is that the violence is there because there’s always a danger to life. This is why it exists. The police are so incredibly violent because they’re at the same time provoking the violence and reacting to violence. You are right. Everybody – you said it very nicely – it’s a temptation to have a new TV. But this violence is all about life. I mean, the cars and the other property, it’s one thing. But people – especially in minority communities – are always in danger of being killed. If people have guns on the streets—

Dwayne: That’s why I think we’re consistently attempting 17 different conversations simultaneously, and it’s unbelievably difficult.

Irena: Yes.

Dwayne: And all of them are contradictory. And so Black Lives Matter and racial justice and social justice and it is fundamentally about police brutality. And if you talk about police violence and you include just the physical harassment, and you include violence that’s short of death, it’s really hard to measure. Of course, the measuring might not be the point, the way it is all so overwhelming might be. And that is the impetus for Black Lives Matter. But if you tried to look at the likelihood of you being killed by the police, I mean, at the age of like eighteen to thirty-five, you’re more likely to die of heart disease than to get killed by the police as a Black person. And I don’t know anybody from eighteen to thirty-five that’s died from heart disease. So that means that, you know, just purely as a metric, a number, it’s not at all likely to happen. You’re far more likely to go to prison as a Black man from eighteen to thirty-five than to get killed by the police. But for me, that just doubles down on the psychological effects of feeling so immensely vulnerable to the violence of the state in routinely mundane ways.

So I’m not suggesting that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be protesting because the symbolic death of one person, I think, might be, you know, worth the actual death of 100,000, which is just to say, when Tamir Rice was murdered it became a memory in my head as significant as the Gettysburg Address. I believe this is true for others.  And maybe that’s where you get this push.

But I think the other tension, the one I hold close to vest, is that if you just talked about violence and the historic notion of Black communities being under-protected by the police and overincarcerated and overpoliced, if you just talk about the under-protected aspect, you would ultimately have to ask serious questions about why I thought it was okay to pull a pistol on someone. That is the question that, no matter how we appreciate the broader societal challenges, demands a particularly individual explanation that is never going to be satisfactory.

And I think the answer to those two things often feels at odds. And I think it’s smarter people than me who have thought about it. And frankly, I try to hold fast to the notion that that’s not the space I operate in. And I’m just a poet. And I think about getting people out of prison. And I think about getting people out of prison based on who they are in this moment, not who they were when they committed the crime. I often find that my opinions are contrary to others, but you know, I’m a poet and I’m a convict. Many people don’t like my friends who have murdered people and rob people, and many of these people are in state legislatures and on parole boards and working as prosecutors, not to mention just shopping in your local grocery. And many of these people would want to see my friends and others like them stay in prison forever – maybe not most people, but the fact that those serving ten- and fifteen- and fifty-year sentences aren’t the emblem of the fight against mass incarceration is telling. You won’t find a story that is arguing for my freedom. You will find stories and documentaries arguing for the freedom of people who are innocent and got exonerated or who are innocent and still in prison. Or you’ll find documentaries about, like, the Central Park Five who were sent to prison and were exonerated. You will not find a single documentary – a popular documentary – that’s about somebody like me who was guilty and confessed and did their time and probably shouldn’t have been imprisoned for as long as I was or in places as violent as I was. Like, we don’t have a story. I’m likely being far too proscriptive with all of this. I’m sure there are people making the arguments that we need to dramatically decrease prison sentences and radically reimagine parole. It’s just not at the center of the talk and I fear the reasons why it’s not.

And most people don’t want to hear that because that’s a much more complicated discussion.

Marci: Dwayne, you just brought up the difference between the person who committed a given crime and the person he/she might be twenty, thirty years later, at some different moment. This raises a philosophical-existential question about the continuity of the “I” across time. In some ways, Eastern Europe in the second half of the 20th century was dominated by the question of what to do about the former Nazis and the former Stalinists. Arthur Koestler is the classic example of the literary genre of confessions of repentant ex-communists – not only his novel Darkness at Noon about the Old Bolsheviks purged and subjected to Moscow show trials, but also his autobiographical essay “The God That Failed.” Critics of postmodernist philosophy and literary theory have pointed to the turn in Heidegger’s postwar philosophy away from anything approaching a substantive subjectivity; to Paul de Man’s deconstructionist insistence that texts undermine themselves, leading us to an impasse of meaning; to Hans Robert Jauss’s insistence on the non-identicality of the I who is remembered and the I who is doing the remembering, and so on, as perhaps being moves slightly too personally advantageous for thinkers who have a vested interest in separating their past selves from their present selves. Neither Heidegger nor de Man nor Jauss took responsibility for his engagement with Nazism – none of them owned his past the way, Dwayne, you do every time you speak. So there’s a question about guilt, confession, responsibility, and about the relationship between taking responsibility and the continuity of the self across time. I think this question, perhaps in a slightly different way, is also central to the relationship of Irena, her friends and their milieu/generation of 1968 in Poland, to their parents. Did – do – the parents –Irena’s mother is 101 and still alive—acknowledge their complicity, their guilt? Did they take responsibility for their own past?

Irena: I am glad you are asking this question, Marci. In my life, I did not question the “identicality of I” through time. From early on in my life I was asking my parents about their past. Without understanding much, I sensed that there were secrets that had to be faced. This may have been one of the reasons for the rebellion of my group of friends; the war secrets were one of the causes of the 1968 youth rebellion in all of Western Europe, after all. And no, my parents did not speak about their past, they were masters of not talking about what was the most important. My mother told me some facts I was asking about for years and years only after she turned 100! First, in the early Stalinist times, they did not talk about it because they were afraid. They continued to be afraid after 1956, and then, after 1989, they were not talking about it because they were ashamed. I understand it was very difficult for them to review their lives in an atmosphere of total devaluation by history of their ideology. Soon after the end of communism in Poland, communism became equal to fascism; today, writing about the failed putsch by Trump-followers, Adam Michnik in passing mentioned “bolshevism and fascism” in one breath. And Adam comes from a communist family and loved and respected both of his parents. The old comrades were not only defeated, they were also humiliated. In fact, for me the most important question is that the system they were part of was organized in such a way as to subjugate every individual so that nobody could say about oneself ‘I lived my life honestly and I maintained self-respect.’ There are ways to expiate guilt. But humiliation remains.

I was very angry at my parents, especially at my mother who escaped into her work and denied everything else. Now that she is over 100 years old, we have both mellowed. My experience of prison was humiliating. Her experience of prison, Nazi camp, party membership was humiliating. She did not want to talk about it. When forced by me to say something, she minimized her past beliefs. When I retreated and stopped asking, she told me some facts. A family mini-tragedy.

You are mentioning Koestler: I am writing now about the 1930s and am looking at Koestler’s reminiscences very often. He understood. He wrote very well about Rubashov’s guilt, not guilt artificially induced by his interrogator, but the real guilt due to his own actions as a party functionary. He enforced the party line that caused people to die. But as Koestler changed his allegiance to communism for a fanatical anti-communism, he was trying to convince Americans to drop the bomb on the USSR. People were like fish in nets, they were thrashing.

Marci: Thank you both so much. I’m so happy to see you all, even if virtually.

Irena: Thank you.

Jeff: Me, too.

Irena: This is for me a very, very important conversation. I thank you so much. And thank you, Dwayne.

Dwayne: Thank you, guys. It was – it was amazing. I’m encouraged because now I feel like, you know, I might be able to sneak in a publication of my poem in the transcript and be like, hey, look.

Marci: Absolutely.

Jeff: We would love that.

Dwayne: Yeah, that would be cool.

Irena: I absolutely have to have this poem.

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a Ph.D. in Law candidate at Yale. His major research interests are administrative law, criminal law, empirical legal studies, and law and literature. He holds a B.A. from the University of Maryland and a J.D. from Yale Law School, where he was awarded the Israel H. Perez Prize for best student note or comment appearing in the Yale Law Journal. While a J.D. candidate, he spent his summers with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the District of Columbia’s Public Defender Service. In 2016-2017, he was a Liman Fellow working in the New Haven Public Defender’s Office.

Prior to law school, Dwayne was a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies and a Soros Justice Fellow. In addition, he served by appointment of former President Barack Obama as a practitioner member of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The author of three books, Betts’ latest collection of poems, Bastards of the Reagan Era, has been named the winner of the Pen New England Poetry Prize. His first collection of poems, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, won the Beatrice Hawley Award. Betts’ memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, was the recipient of the 2010 NAACP Image Award for non-fiction.

Irena Grudzińska-Gross is a literary critic, historian of ideas, a 1968 émigré from Poland.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research. He is also the Founder and Publisher of Public Seminar. His work primarily focuses on the sociology of media, culture and politics. 

He also runs the Democracy Seminar, a worldwide committee of scholars, journalists, activists, and citizens who seek to understand the origins of the threats, to analyze their dimensions and, most importantly, to exchange ideas and experiences about how to oppose them.

Marci Shore is associate professor of history at Yale University. She is the translator of Michał Głowiński’s The Black Seasons and the author of Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968, The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, and The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution. In 2018 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship for her current book project, “Phenomenological Encounters: Scenes from Central Europe.”

This contribution is part of the larger forum engaging artists and authors, from very different places and writing in very different genres, in a conversation on “the uses and disadvantages of historical comparisons for life.” The idea initially arose in response to the American presidential administration’s family separation policy on the southern border. A short documentary film, The Last Time I Saw Them serves as a point of departure. The intention is to provoke a discussion that could be an Aufhebung of the ‘is Trumpism fascism?’” debate: what can and what can we not understand by thinking in comparisons with the past?

Read Marci Shore’s introduction to the project here. Find the Table of Contents listing all contributions here

The project is a collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the Democracy Seminar, and the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at the New School for Social Research.

Image created by artist Kenan Aktulun; the images come from each of the families. Images courtesy of the Margulies family (Fortunoff Video Archive).


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