November 2003

David Harris


The Activist by Renee Gladman

In an era of extreme paranoia, everything is about perceptions, not evidence, so everything can be spun to suit a cause. Not even a journalist can be relied upon to see clearly. These are the lessons of Renee Gladman's powerful prose poem The Activist.

The narrator of this book is a journalist drawn into a pressure-cooker tale of politicians versus activists. But she discovers following the activists is a dangerous business because objectivity is difficult to cling to in the presence of a swelling sense of righteousness and deepening commitment.

The cause? The cause barely matters. And it is not even easy to discern. Has a city bridge been bombed and destroyed or not? Such an apparently simple question is confused and confounded by the spin and the rest of the world looking on is required to make up its mind based on mere perceptions because there is no truth to be found.

With the administration putting its case and the evidence from others at odds with it, a specialist on perception theory and war summarizes it thus:

"This is the situation we're facing: a shockingly high number of witnesses claim that the bridge is in perfect form, the President of our nation is convinced that the bridge has been exploded, another group asserts that the bridge has collapsed, not exploded, and a handful of researchers contests that there never was a bridge."

The Activist is almost too explicit for allegory. It is practically a direct metaphor for current circumstances in the United States, where the book is set. And yet, it explores ideas that go far beyond the current situation and are applicable to any case in which civil liberties are at issue and a government is trying desperately to support its own agenda at the expense of the truth. It peers insightfully into the activities of activists and discovers their strengths and shortcomings.

Demonstrators are protesting the bridge situation, but the purported ringleader, one Alonso Mendoza, is not to be found. Yet, the absence of evidence is simply not acceptable to an administration hell-bent on proving its case:

"Three men -- Al Mendoza, Alejandro Mendoza, and Alpine Mencini -- were questioned at police headquarters about their political affiliations."

Later, as the administration's desperation increases:

"This morning, forces stormed the homes of Altar Mendleshon, Alvin Mendocci, Alsana Mendoza, and Alonso Mitchell in search of the spurious leader of the Commuters, now accused of three felony counts of conspiratorial behavior."

You can fill in the intervening time with quotes of your choice taken from newspapers since 9/11 and particularly since Iraq War II: Bigger, Badder, Bloodlustier.

But The Activist is not a mere polemic against the current administration's actions. A critical eye is turned on the activists involved:

This last declaration calls each member's wandering mind to attention. While the pitch of the utterance can be quickly characterized as Stefani's pitch, its authenticity is entirely suspect for most of the group. Alonso recognizes her, but the rest do not. Stefani, at once, registers the discomfort and obvious fluster of concern that infects them. However, her struggle to recall the precise words of her speech, to then correct them, yields no reward.

A map that mutates as some of the activists study it is a metonymic representation of the overall plan. The activists have trouble keeping track of their goals and end up doing what they are able to do rather than what they planned to do.

As time passes, the activists become less coherent as a group and less effectual. The administration is not any more successful but its force of overwhelming power leads directly to war. A war on what or whom is never made explicit, and nor does it need to be. Meanwhile, the activists turn inward and make their own war on each other.

Our narrator journalist has been drawn in to the battle, unable to remain an independent observer. But what did she experience? In the haunting chapter, "The State," the journalist is psychologically tortured -- but who got to her? Is it really the State or is it the Commuters? In any event, independence is gone and truth has lost it's only potential champion for this battle. The proliferation of extremism has won, with barely anybody noticing.

The specialist on perception theory and war made the ridiculousness clear at the beginning, but we still had to watch it all unfold: "Now imagine how this sounds to people in other countries, or just on the other coast."

The Activist by Renee Gladman
ISBN: 192865018X
146 pages