In the spring of 1994, I went to the Socialist Scholars Conference in New York, where I encountered a large red-faced man with white hair. He had the look and manner of Santa Claus, minus the beard, and he was standing behind a table from which he was selling audio and video cassettes of lectures by Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and other prominent anarchists, socialists, communists and even some vaguely progressive Democrats. He was also selling photocopies of an interview I had done with Noam for Rolling Stone.
“Hey,” I said, “that’s my interview with Noam Chomsky!”
“Cool,” said the large, red-faced man. “Would you mind if I crash on your couch tonight? I came all the way from Maine and I don’t have a place to stay.”
Thus began one of the most hallowed traditions on the American Left. Every spring the large, red-faced man, whose name is Roger Leisner, bums a ride with somebody in Maine, fills the car with boxes of tapes and CDs and DVDs to sell at the Left Forum, as the Socialist Scholars Conference is now called, and takes up residence on my couch, where he eats strawberry ice cream and cashews. This past spring, he came down with his girlfriend Roz, and I put them in my bedroom while I slept on the couch.
I like Roger a lot. He’s one of the few people on the left who is naturally enthusiastic about almost everything, whereas everybody else on the left is naturally depressed about almost everything. Certainly, I’m depressed, and Roger reminds me what it’s like to be wildly excited about, oh say, the next big pot festival in the backwoods of Maine, or posing embarrassing questions to politicians at public forums. And he’s part of an actual, genuine tradition on the left of making a living in odd ways.
I once knew a cadre of Maoists on the West Coast who paid the rent by giving away free samples of Marlboros at sporting events and county fairs. That was a suitably odd way to make a living, and the hours were flexible. But it seemed counterproductive for their ultimate goal. How do you establish the dictatorship of the proletariat when the proletariat is coughing up balls of malignant lung tissue?
So what makes Roger interesting is that he’s making a living in an odd yet moral way. He tapes lectures by knowledgeable, decent humans and then he sells them to other decent humans who want to be more knowledgeable. He even gets his stuff played on radio and television and the internet sometimes, so he’s making a living by amplifying a message that needs to get amplified. He calls this enterprise Radio Free Maine, which he started in 1988, even though he didn’t and doesn’t have a radio station.
“I was a history major in college, made the dean’s list my last couple of years,” says Roger. “History has always opened doors for me, but especially when I started taping Noam and Howard. They’re my bestsellers, but I’ve also learned a lot from lesser-known historians, like Marcus Redeker who wrote a great book about pirates (Villians of All Nations). Pirates were very democratic, you know. And I think that’s what I’ve learned over the years – how natural democracy is. There’s nothing more fun than kids getting together and choosing up sides and playing a game, and there’s nothing more exciting than adults getting together and deciding what needs to be done.”
I’ve collected a lot of Roger’s product over the years, much in the manner of Deadheads collecting tapes of legendary Grateful Dead concerts. Except I’m a Noamhead. Or Zinnhead, maybe. I’ve never understood people who say that they find Chomsky boring because his speaking style is dry. To me, it’s like watching a great conductor lead a symphony orchestra, only Chomsky is organizing facts, not musicians. And Howard Zinn – he was a brilliant comedian as well as historian, able to make fun of himself and put audiences in a relaxed mood to accept disturbing facts.
You need the DVD to get the full effect, not a couple minutes posted on Youtube.
If you want some of his product, shoot him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 207-242-0643. Radio Free Maine isn’t a Hollywood production company, just one guy, but Roger is a good sound man, so you’ll hear almost everything without a problem. And he’s very conscientious about going to the post office.
Here are some recent Radio Free Maine DVDs:
Water For Gaza (April 25, 2010 at UMass Boston) with Noam Chomsky, Nancy Murray (Gaza Mental Health Foundation) and Ziad Abbas (Middle East Children’s Alliance). This is a benefit for the children of Gaza who have been asked in surveys what they most want for their schools. It isn’t computers. It isn’t new textbooks. It’s a glass of clean water. This is a topic so ghastly that it’s almost impossible to read about, so it’s helpful to see and hear other people discuss it, just to get a living example of someone thinking about the unthinkable. Chomsky tells the history of Israel diverting water from Gaza as a method of brutalizing the Palestinians and stopping development, which has been going on since 1948: “The goal is very clear – make sure the Palestinians have enough water to survive but no more.” And Murray discusses the situation since the invasion of Gaza in 2008, when the Israelis wrecked sewage treatment and water purification facilities and left behind massive amounts of pollution from their weapons, which is now causing terrible health problems. American politicians don’t care, and Palestinian protestors get shot at with live ammunition. Ziad, who lives in Gaza, calls Israeli policy “slow genocide,” and it’s hard to see how it isn’t.
On Palestine (March 2, 2010 at Boston University) with Noam Chomsky. The occasion is Israeli Apartheid Week. Chomsky does a complete symphony here with a full orchestra of facts, comparing Israeli treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank with South African treatment of blacks in the bantustans. Then he improvises during a long question and answer period. Supporters of Israel get their arguments (largely ad hominem attacks) dissected with calm precision. There are a few technical glitches, but what the hell. You never see this kind of analysis in the corporate press. This is why Israel barred him from giving university lectures in the West Bank.
Is There Hope In This Desperate Time? (September 27,2004) with Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky at a fundraiser for the Homeless Empowerment Project. During the antiwar movement, Howard often warmed up audiences for Noam. He had a unique ability to combine moral outrage with laugh-out-loud jokes. Noam also has humor but he uses it sparingly, like semi-colons of bitter irony, as he rolls out devastating fact after devastating fact. In one of their last appearances together, the two old friends mostly riff on the topic of how not to get paralyzed with despair while looking directly at the world. Their argument is that the ruling class has a long history of declaring history over, we now live in the “masters’ utopia,” and there’s nothing to be done except being obedient. And the ruling class is always wrong. History goes in cycles, people get together and protest, and it’s never exactly the same. I’m not sure how cheered I am, because we’ve got only so many more cycles to go before our incompetent, murderous ruling class kills the planet. But it’s wonderful seeing two of the most important American dissidents of the past 50 years having fun together for a worthy cause.
A Celebration of the Life of Howard Zinn, 1922-2010 (March 27, 2010 at Boston University). You always learn things at memorial services. In this case – a symphony of anecdotes about Howard – there’s a lot of personal detail about his teaching career as a historian and funny or difficult moments in his other career as a protester. Howard was certainly hated by his enemies – John Silber, the former president of BU, right-wing greedhead and technically Howard’s boss, was one of the most prominent – but mostly he was loved by his family, students, friends and readers. The man radiated love, and you can feel it here at this service. At the very end, Roger Leisner throws in a musical addendum, singing “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down” by an abandoned factory in Augusta, Maine. I don’t know a better antidote to despair.