10 More Questions with Gary Lachman

1. Believe it or not, you and I talked all the way back in 2009 about your book “Politics and the Occult.” How does your new book, “Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump” differ from that earlier work?

In Politics and the Occult, along with giving an overview of the relation between the two in the modern world, I also wanted to show that the association of occultism and far-right politics, which has become a kind of cliche, is not as necessary or exclusive as writers like Umberto Eco believed, and that there is plenty of evidence for what we can call a ‘progressive’ occult politics. Dark Star Rising is different, first because I am writing about current events – it’s a work of journalism to some degree, or ‘history in the making’ – but also because in it I am looking at what seems to be a rise of a form of occult politics in the alternative-right, both in the United States and in Russia. So in Dark Star Rising I am looking at some occult politics that seem to be happening on the right, here and now.

2. You draw a fairly direct line from New Thought to branches of Christianity (particularly Prosperity preachers) to Chaos Magick. Do you think any of these groups acknowledge their similarities and lineage?

One of the things that struck me as very interesting was that in terms of technique, theory, practice, and aim, there seems to be much in common between New Thought or positive thinking and chaos magic. You wouldn’t think that Norman Vincent Peale and Austin Osman Spare had a lot in common, but in some fundamentals they do. I recognized this when following up the idea that the alt-right had used ‘meme magic’ – via Pepe the Frog – to put Trump into office. Meme magic – using the internet as a way of making things happen in the real world – is an offshoot of chaos magic. Chaos magic differs from traditional magic in that it does not depend on the traditional methods and appurtenances, such as the circle, wand, sword, spells, etc. Instead it relies on the magician’s initiative, creativity, imagination, and will.

Chaos magicians use whatever is at hand, rather in the manner of an objet trouve, or found art, when some ordinary item is taken out of context, placed in another, and called ‘art’. What is most at hand today is the internet and the memes that propagate on it. The idea is that Pepe became a kind of hyper-sigil, or magical symbol or spell, and by saturating the internet with images of him, the people behind this believed they could affect the outcome of the election. And it seemed it did – Trump won. This was why Richard Spencer claimed that “we” – the Pepeists of the alt-right – “willed” him into office.

Now, Trump himself is a devotee of positive thinking; Norman Vincent Peale was a mentor, he says. Peale’s positive thinking comes in an upbeat, cheery Christian wrapping, rather different than chaos magic, but what he is actually getting at is not that different. Both are results oriented, positive thinking aiming at a “realizable wish,” and chaos magic at an “achievable reality.” Both have a very flexible attitude toward facts – in fact our attitude toward facts is for both more important than the facts themselves. There are other similarities. So we have Trump the positive thinker being helped into office by alt-right chaos magicians. But then, what word characterizes Trump’s presidency so far? I’d say chaos and I think others would too. And then Pepe of course turns out to be Kek, the ancient Egyptian god of chaos…

So in answer to your question, no, I don’t think that,say, people following the prosperity gospel know that in some basic way, what they are about is not very different from what a chaos magician may get up to. Some of the more Christian of them would most likely be appalled. In fact many Christian thinkers were appalled by Peale because of the links between positive thinking and more outright occult forms of New Thought, which Peale read and which he translated into a more palatable form. And I should point out that I’m not saying that there is a direct line in any historical sense, between positive thinking and chaos magic, but that what we can call the phenomenology of the magic involved is similar.

3. Are these things, such as New Thought, etc. inherently “bad”?

By asking if New Thought is bad, you have to decide in what sense you are asking this. If you dismiss the idea that New Thought can work, then what’s bad about it is that it is false and, like other scams, can harm people who get involved with it. But if you accept the basic premise that the mind, consciousness, in some way that we do not fully understand, is an active agent in the world and can affect it – that “thoughts are things” – then we enter a different area. This is where the notion of a responsibility of the imagination – as Owen Barfield called it – comes in. And this is something that practically all esoteric, spiritual, what have you traditions make clear. So if it is the case that, unlike Vegas, what happens in the mind doesn’t necessarily stay there, then it becomes rather important to be aware of what’s happening in the mind. Of course, from our rational, scientific perspective, this is nonsense. But as I say in the book, it is precisely this perspective that is being, or has been, undermined in our post-truth, alternative fact world – which is itself the result of a process that started early in the last century. The partitions separating what is possible from what is not are thin, just as the membranes separating fact from fiction, truth from falsehood, reality and fantasy, are dissolving. I’d say we have a responsibility now to be aware of this.

4. “Dark Star” is quite informative for those unfamiliar with Chaos Magick. Would you mind giving my readers a brief description of what Chaos Magick is?

I think I’ve given that in 2.

5. So, is the alt-right filled with unintentional magick users?

Ditto.

6. Several magick groups have been supporting and promoting group rituals to counter the effects of a Trump presidency. Do you think these can have any effect?

I know that the global “binding spell” cast to impede Trump and all those who abet him, goes on, and that there are other forms of what’s being called the “magical resistance.” Will it help? That is usually the first thing people ask. But as realistic magicians know, there are always many different forces at work, and what needs to be aimed it is, as I mention above, a “realizable wish” or ” achievable reality.” Which means, ironically enough, don’t expect miracles. But the idea of magical political opposition has been around for a long time. That was one of the points of Politics and the Occult – that the two are not as strange bedfellows as we might at first think. Did the witches put a monkey wrench into Trump’s first shot at the travel ban?

7. With such a fast-changing Presidential administration, and the inherently slower pace of writing and publishing a book, how much has changed between writing the book and now? Will you consider a book with timely subject matter again?

The main change since writing the book has been Steve Bannon’s exit from Trump’s inner circle. I finished the book last August. A lot happens very quickly these days – that, as we all know by now, is the fluid character of our time – and not long after I delivered it I knew that some of it would be old news by the time it appeared. I was able to add a short note at the end to say precisely this. But as I say above, this is ‘history in the making’. It struck me, as I’m sure it did other people, that with Trump’s election, something very different had taken place. In the book I say that in one sense we can see this as the singularity people have been waiting for for awhile now. A singularity is an event in which our usual, normal ideas about reality breakdown, or at least no longer apply. It strikes me that this is precisely what has happened, and we have our post-truth, alternative fact world to show for it. A world in which there is very little difference between reality and its electronic representation. This too is the result of a process that got going more than a century ago. We are feeling the effect of what I call “trickle down metaphysics.” The post-everything world is the outcome of the nihilism that the philosopher Nietzsche saw was irrevocably on its way back in the 1880s. The relativity of all values that we welcome as a liberation from the dominance of western rationality, is exactly what Nietzsche said was coming. To see this happening is disturbing but also thrilling. History has caught up to us.

In fact I am working on a follow up book about Russia but I can’t say more than that now.

8. In the mid-nineties you moved from the U.S. to London. How do think America and Britain compare when it comes to politics and magick?

I think Americans believe in the possibility of political change – or at least used to – more than Brits, but the Brits have a longer tradition of magic. But when Americans do occult politics, they do it up right. In October 1966, during the anti-Viet Nam War march on Washington, Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsburg tried to levitate the Pentagon, while the filmmaker and magician Kenneth Anger tried to exorcise it. The Brits are mostly just worried about Freemasons.

9. Do you have any upcoming projects that you can share with my readers?

Covered in 7.

10. Parting shot! Ask us at The Magical Buffet any one question.

What do you think? New Thought, positive thinking, chaos magic – do they work?

Indeed I do. You see the power of the placebo effect and you learn that the human mind is capable of pretty amazing things.

About Gary Lachman:
Gary Lachman is the author of many books on consciousness, culture, and the Western esoteric tradition, including “Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work”, “A Secret History of Consciousness”, and “Politics and the Occult”. He writes for several journals in the US and UK and lectures on his work in the US and Europe. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he has appeared in several radio and television documentaries. A founding member of the rock group Blondie, Lachman was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

Are you still reading? Congratulations because you’re about to learn about our giveaway! That’s right, the kind folks at TarcherPerigee gave me an extra copy of Lachman’s new book “Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump” to give to one lucky reader! The giveaway will end Sunday, June 3rd at 11:59pm Eastern. Must be 18 years or older to enter. Open to international readers.

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Witches, Sluts, Feminists

So this book has been out for nearly a year. I didn’t get to it right away, and the next thing you know, here we are, nearly a year later. However, no matter how long it sat in my “to do” pile I knew I would eventually get to it. I mean, the book is called “ Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive”, how could I resist? And although almost a year old, this book is more relevant than ever.

Kristen J. Sollee’s book is a fascinating exploration of the way non-conformist women have been treated by society historically and in modern times. There is an intricate web woven with the threads of sexuality and gender identity and the label witch that examined in great depth utilizing extensive research and interesting first person interviews. All of this makes “Witches, Sluts, Feminists” a must read for anyone woman who considers herself a witch and/or part of “the resistance” we’re seeing today.

If you want an informative, eye-opening read, Sollee’s “Witches, Sluts, Feminists” should go to the top of your “to do” pile!

To learn more, click here.

Wild Wild Country

You guys, I got a press release for a documentary series debuting on Netflix March 16th that looks crazy. I’m going to want to watch it and I thought you might too. Here’s the story:

When the world’s most controversial guru builds a utopian city in the Oregon desert, a massive conflict with local ranchers ensues; producing the first bioterror attack in US history, the largest case of illegal wiretapping ever recorded, and the world’s biggest collection of Rolls-Royce automobiles. Over six episodes, Directors Chapman Way and Maclain Way (“The Battered Bastards of Baseball”) and executive producers Mark and Jay Duplass (Duplass Brothers Productions) take viewers back to this pivotal, yet largely forgotten moment in American cultural history, one in which our national tolerance for the separation of church and state was sorely tested. Wild Wild Country is historical filmmaking brought to life on an epic scale. It’s a tale so wild that seeing means barely believing.

And here’s the trailer:

The UnAmerican Struggle

I received a press release for a movie I thought some of you would want to keep an eye out for. It’s premiering at the San Antonio Film Festival on August 2, 2017.

“The UnAmerican Struggle” is a feature-length documentary that examines the resurgence of racism, misogyny, sexism, and xenophobia in America brought about by Donald Trump’s words and actions as a candidate, and now his policies as president.

1366 Films, an Atlanta-based production company, is excited to announce that the San Antonio Film Festival will host the world premiere of “The UnAmerican Struggle” on August 2nd. The city served as one of the film’s prime locations, given its exemplary celebration held each January that pays homage to MLK’s legacy of inclusion and civil rights.

“The UnAmerican Struggle” speaks to the dangers of remaining silent in the face of state-inspired hate and threats to civil rights. Bigotry unchecked ushers in greater abuses to civil rights, as evident through the recent attacks on the free press, the cornerstone of American democracy. As such, the documentary provides a voice to groups affected by the intolerance and bigotry sweeping the nation like a cancer.

“The UnAmerican Struggle” pays close attention to the struggle for equality from the perspective of Immigrants, Latinos, Muslims, Blacks, Women, and Transgender People. Seventeen experts representing the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Diversity Council, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and local groups, such as Black Lives Matter, lent their voices in the film to help Americans better understand the fight to preserve America’s values of inclusion and civil liberties.

And you know I wouldn’t share this with you if I didn’t have a trailer:

Battle for the Net Day of Action

Press release provided by Fight for the Future.

On July 12, 2017, websites, Internet users, and online communities will come together to sound the alarm about the FCC’s attack on net neutrality. Learn how you can join the protest and spread the word at https://www.battleforthenet.com/july12/.

Right now, new FCC Chairman and former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai has a plan to destroy net neutrality and give big cable companies immense control over what we see and do online. If they get their way, the FCC will give companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T control over what we can see and do on the Internet, with the power to slow down or block websites and charge apps and sites extra fees to reach an audience.

If we lose net neutrality, we could soon face an Internet where some of your favorite websites are forced into a slow lane online, while deep-pocketed companies who can afford expensive new “prioritization” fees have special fast lane access to Internet users – tilting the playing field in their favor.

But on July 12th, the Internet will come together to stop them. Websites, Internet users, and online communities will stand tall, and sound the alarm about the FCC’s attack on net neutrality.

The Battle for the Net campaign will provide tools for everyone to make it super easy for your friends, family, followers to take action. From the SOPA blackout to the Internet Slowdown, we’ve shown time and time again that when the Internet comes together, we can stop censorship and corruption. Now, we have to do it again!

Learn more and join the action here: https://www.battleforthenet.com/july12

Drug Wars

When you read that I’m about to discuss a book called “Drug Wars” your mind probably goes straight to America’s “war” on illegal drugs, but you would be mistaken. There is a war involving prescription drugs going on right now that many of us had no idea existed. It’s one where pharmaceutical companies always win and the public always loses.

A long time ago, before the mid-80’s (I can’t believe I called that a long time ago!) people realized that very few generic drugs were coming onto the market. Wait, let me back up for those of you who aren’t constantly on meds like myself. So in the fashion world designer label Louis Vuitton sells its “Saint Michel” purse for $1,700. It’s a bag, it holds stuff. You can also find on your better handbag websites what are subtly referred to as “knock off” versions for a couple hundred dollars. It’s also a bag. It also holds stuff. That’s essentially prescription drugs and their generic versions, except in this case the FDA makes sure that the bags are made of the same primary material. A prescription drug can be hundreds of dollars, but a generic drug is nearly identical at a fraction of the price. With the state of health insurance then, and now, there is an interest in generics for public consumption.

Thus in 1984 The Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act, often called the Hatch-Waxman Act, went into effect to stimulate a generic drug market. The Hatch-Waxman Act is a great idea. It attempts to strike a balance between capitalism and the common good. When a pharmaceutical company goes to market with a new chemical that company is given 5 years of exclusivity. It also streamlined the process for companies looking to bring a generic version to the market. Thus the originator gets 5 years of market dominance to recoup research costs, etc. while providing the eventual competition of a generic to make things easier on the consumer’s pocketbook and encourage pharmaceutical companies to get back to the drawing board to innovate and bring another new drug to market that again gets 5 years of competition free existence. Pretty elegant, right?

What no one saw coming, but let’s face it, those in the know probably did, was that pharmaceutical companies found ways to extend their periods of exclusivity, which of course makes things harder on us sickos of America. The use of lawsuits to stall generics going to market is common, and not surprising once you’re reading “Drug Wars”. What was shocking was the collusion between the manufacturers of the original drug and the companies making the generics. When these companies are in litigation they can fight it out, or settle. Oddly the settlement involves the manufacturer of the original drug paying obscene sums of money to the generic, and the generic agreeing to hold off going to market for several more years. There many ways safe and effect generic drugs are delayed from becoming available, and “Drug Wars” does an amazing job highlighting them. The authors, Robin Feldman and Even Frondorf, also make recommendations on how to fix these issues.

If you’re into intricate bureaucracies, healthcare in America, and a few laugh out loud absurdities then you need to read “Drug Wars: How Big Pharma Raises Prices and Keeps Generics Off the Market” by Robin Feldman and Even Frondorf.

To learn more, visit here.

People’s Climate March

This information was provided by People’s Climate March & the Sierra Club.

In the wake of the Women’s Marches, activists have announced a major People’s Climate March on April 29th in Washington, D.C. and across the country. The effort is being organized by the coalition formed out of 2014’s People’s Climate March, which brought over 400,000 people to the streets of New York City and many more around the world.

The April 29th march comes in response to widespread outrage against President Trump’s disastrous anti-climate agenda – including his executive orders advancing the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines – as well as his attacks on healthcare, immigrants, and programs and policies that improve the lives of all Americans. The event will cap off 100 days of action to fight Trump’s proposals to reverse climate action, dismantle our government and hand power over to the one percent.

Over 145 protests in local communities took place across the country in the first 100 hours of the Trump presidency, demonstrating widespread opposition to the administration’s anti-environment and corporate agenda as part of an ongoing campaign organized by the People’s Climate Movement.

The People’s Climate Movement grew out of the largest climate march in U.S. history in New York in September of 2014, creating a groundbreaking coalition of green and environmental justice groups, labor unions, faith, students, indigenous peoples and civil rights groups working to advance a climate agenda rooted in economic and racial justice.

With the 100 days of action and April march, this coalition will leverage their power once again, to resist the Trump administration and corporate leaders’ efforts to thwart or reverse progress towards a more just America.

Now more than ever, it will take everyone to change everything. So, the People’s Climate Movement is calling on everyone to join in resisting Trump, his crooked administration and the one percent who are running our country.

For more information on The People’s Climate Movement and the mobilization on April 29th, please visit: https://peoplesclimate.org/

Don’t Believe the Job Killer Hype

Press release provided by The Environmental Integrity Project.

Washington, D.C. – As incoming President Donald Trump prepares to appoint an anti-regulatory EPA Administrator based on claims that environmental regulations “kill jobs,” a new report that synthesizes decades of economics research documents that this claim is false.

The Environmental Integrity Project’s report, “Don’t Believe the Job Killer Hype,” examines data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as well as reports from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, and more than two dozen economists and researchers.

The federal government data show that only about two tenths of one percent of layoffs are caused by government regulations of any kind, including environmental regulations. Layoffs are caused far more often by corporate buyouts, technological advances, and lower overseas labor costs.

“The evidence shows that there is no simply no truth to the idea that regulations kill jobs or stifle growth,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “In fact, regulations provide huge economic benefits to our society, with minimal, though generally positive, effects on jobs and productivity. On the other hand, the absence of regulation can have severe economic consequences, with perhaps the most notable example being the 2008 financial collapse.”

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate is scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing on Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as Trump’s pick to serve as the next EPA Administrator. Pruitt has made a career of repeatedly suing EPA for its “overreach” and has promised to make “regulatory rollback” a top goal.

President Elect Trump’s website praises Pruitt for his opposition to what it calls “job killing” regulations. The Trump website features quotes praising Pruitt including this one from Texas Governor Greg Abbott: “I look forward to working with Scott as he brings common-sense policies to a federal agency that has been one of the biggest job-killers in the Obama administration.”

This term has been used repeatedly by Trump and Congressional Republicans, but an examination of economics data and literature reveals that the claim lacks a factual foundation, and is just an empty rhetorical device that journalists should challenge and the public should reject.

Here are the facts, all of which are backed up by detailed citations listed in the report:

• According to information reported by employers to the U.S. Bureau of Labor
Statistics, only two tenths of one percent of mass layoffs – defined as more than 50 people laid off for at least 30 days — are caused by government intervention or regulations (of any kind, not just environmental regulations).

• For every job lost due to regulations, 15 are lost due to corporate cost cutting and 30 are lost due to changes in the ownership of business or other organizational changes, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

• A 2014 review paper from the London School of Economics concluded that the effect of environmental regulations on the competitiveness of businesses is “negligible compared to other factors such as market conditions and the quality of the local workforce.”

• Over the last decade, the benefits of environmental regulations have exceeded the costs they impose by a ratio of more than ten to one, according to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

• All told, major regulations provide net economic benefits to the U.S. of over $500 billion per year.

• A 2014 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that stronger environmental policies lead to short-term gains in productivity growth, resulting in permanently higher levels of productivity.

• Clean air and water regulations often require power companies and municipalities to hire construction workers and engineers to build filtration systems. A report prepared for the Utility Air Regulatory Group estimated that the installation of a sulfur dioxide scrubber on a 500-Megawatt coal plant, for example, creates over 100 full-time jobs for three years.

• In 2009, Economists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst found that per dollar of spending, solar and wind energy projects create twice as many jobs as coal or natural gas, including more jobs in manufacturing and construction, and more “high-credentialed” jobs at an average hourly wage of $24.50.

Abel Russ, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project and author of the report “Don’t Believe the Job Killer Hype,” noted that by selecting Scott Pruitt to run and possibly dismantle EPA, Trump appears to buy into the argument that it’s better to delegate environmental regulations away from the federal government and towards the states.

“If this happens, we may also see a repeat of what some economists observed during President Reagan’s efforts at deregulation in the 1980s,” Russ said. “States with stronger environmental policies will outperform weak states and create more jobs, while states with weak environmental policies will suffer. Senators should keep this in mind when they vote on Pruitt’s confirmation during the hearing this week.”

To view the report, visit here.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 15-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington D.C., dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. To learn more, visit http://www.environmentalintegrity.org/.

Banned Books Week 2015

Young Adult books are the focus of Banned Books Week in 2015. Banned Books Week, the annual celebration of the freedom to read, will run from September 27 through October 3, 2015, and will be observed in libraries, schools, bookstores and other community settings across the nation and the world.

“Young Adult books are challenged more frequently than any other type of book,” said Judith Platt, chair of the Banned Books Week National Committee. “These are the books that speak most immediately to young people, dealing with many of the difficult issues that arise in their own lives, or in the lives of their friends. These are the books that give young readers the ability to safely explore the sometimes scary real world. This Banned Books Week is a call to action, to remind everyone that young people need to be allowed the freedom to read widely, to read books that are relevant for them, and to be able to make their own reading choices.”

In recent years, the majority of the most frequently challenged books in libraries have been Young Adult (YA) titles. Six YA titles were on the list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2014, according to the American Library Association. Attempted bans on books of all kinds also frequently occur under the guise of protecting younger audiences.

Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to read by encouraging read-outs, displays, and community activities that raise awareness of the ongoing threat of censorship. Last year, tens of thousands of people participated in Banned Books Week online. More than 500 videos were posted in a virtual read-out, and thousands participated in hundreds of events in bookstores, libraries, and schools and universities across the country.

BannedBooksWeek.org is a hub for information about how individuals and institutions can get involved. The website also includes resources and activities provided by event sponsors.

Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, American Booksellers for Free Expression, American Library Association, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Association of American Publishers, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Freedom to Read Foundation, National Association of College Stores, National Coalition Against Censorship, National Council of Teachers of English, People For the American Way Foundation, PEN American Center, and Project Censored. (via the American Library Association website)

So what are the top challenged Young Adult* books of 2014-2015?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon Books/Knopf Doubleday)
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison (Holt, Rinehart, and Winston)
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (Bloomsbury Publishing)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky (MTV Books/Simon & Schuster)
Drama, by Raina Telgemeier (Graphix/Scholastic)
Chinese Handcuffs, by Chris Crutcher (Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins)
The Giver, by Lois Lowry (HMH Books for Young Readers)
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros (Vintage/Knopf Doubleday)
Looking for Alaska, by John Green (Dutton Books/Penguin Random House)

Data courtesy of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.

* Young Adult literature is generally written for an audience between the ages of about eleven or twelve to about seventeen or eighteen. This is not a steadfast rule, but rather a general parameter. For the purpose of this list, the sponsors of Banned Books Week have defined Young Adult as books that have been taught in middle and high schools, and/or are located in the teen collections of public and/or school libraries.

Curious as to what the full list of banned and challenged books were for 2014-2015? Check it out here.

Report challenges to books to the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom! And remember to read!

Looking for a Young Adult book to read? Buzzfeed lists 37 Books Every YA Fan Needs To Read Before They Die (According to Goodreads Users).

10 Questions with John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco, PhD

1. For readers too young to even remember breaking off relations with Cuba. Can you give a brief explanation as to why America decided to sever diplomatic ties with Cuba and put in place the trade and travel embargo?

The United States cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961 because Washington was suspicious of Fidel Castro and feared that Cuba would become a communist nation. This was the period of the Cold War, when U.S. leaders and the general public were consumed with curbing the power of the Soviet Union, especially in the Americas. While initially Cuba was not communist, the nation opened trade deals with the U.S.S.R. and refused to bow to U.S. commercial demands and political expectations. President Eisenhower approved a CIA plan to remove Castro from power in what would become the Bay of Pigs in April of that year. Tensions mounted and U.S.-Cuban ties were cut.

2. After that, what have relations been like between the United States and Cuba?

Overall they have been rocky, at least in official terms. The October Missile Crisis in 1962 revealed that U.S.-Cuban animosity could escalate to near world war. The CIA continued attempted assassinations of Fidel Castro. By the late 1960s, there was a cool dynamic of non-communication and non-interaction. President Jimmy Carter attempted some form of reconciliation, but in the end this failed. There has been a steady stream of Cubans immigrating to the United States, to the degree that nearly 2 million Latinos claim Cuban heritage today. There also has been a history of Americans traveling to Cuba in defiance of the embargo for humanitarian, academic, or political reasons. Part of what my upcoming book shows is that Cuba was a resource-rich nation for Left politics in the United States during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Cuba – Photo – John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco
3. You traveled to Cuba multiple times as an academic while the trade and travel embargo were in place. What was that like?

It was interesting and fulfilling in so many ways. Without proper relations in place, things become much more difficult for Americans. Remember that there is still no U.S. banking in Cuba, so I had to do everything with cash – no travelers checks or credit cards. But these difficulties were not insurmountable and they made the human connections that much more important and heartfelt. People opened their homes, possessions, and knowledge to me. Most Cubans I came to know always had time for a conversation and coffee. The hospitality I received—from people with little to give—was at times extraordinary and showed that populations from countries at odds with one another still could have decent humane interactions.

4. What did it appear life was like for the average Cuban while living under the U.S. embargo?

For the average Cuban, life was (and still is) difficult. “No es fácil” (It’s not easy) is something you hear often around Havana. If one is able to work in proximity to tourists or has additional income from remittances from friends and family living overseas, then his or her life can be better. But for those relying on the government system alone, day-to-day life can be quite encumbering.

5. How did cultural exchanges, perhaps the best known being the Buena Vista Social Club franchise affect Cuba’s relationship with the West?

There has been a constant stream of tourism to Cuba, including from the United States, so when the film came out more tourists were requesting these songs. Cubans found this humorous because this style of music was older, from the 1930s and 1940s, but tourists wanted these songs. So Cuban musicians rediscovered these melodies in order to satisfy the tourist demand for them.

6. And how did academic exchanges, like your experiences and Cuba offering medical training to Americans, influence their relationship with the West?

Cultural and academic exchanges have been hugely important to maintaining some sort of link between countries. A lot of Americans do not know that some of their fellow citizens have trained to become doctors in Cuba. The academic friendships I made have been the foundation to my field of study and my current career. These are avenues of dialogue that have succeeded where traditional government channels have failed.

7. Now the Obama administration wants to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba, including a U.S. embassy in Cuba, and the recently opened Cuban embassy in Washington D.C. and a large portion of America flips out. Republicans, Democratic, progressives, and conservatives. What’s going on there?

Actually, for many years now most Americans have favored normalization of ties with Cuba and a repeal of the embargo. A recent Florida International University poll disclosed that now even the majority of Cuban-Americans favor reestablishing diplomatic ties and overturning the embargo. The issue is that the pro-embargo constituency is strong and well connected. They have reliable representation in Congress and still enjoy economic and political influence.

8. Do the guys flipping out have valid points?

Yes they do. One of the main points of contention is human rights violations in Cuba. Political imprisonment, limited access to free speech and information (like internet), political intimidation—there are many things Cubans have to live with that most democratic governments, the U.S. included, do not support. However, anti-embargo people say that the embargo has not forced the Cuban government to abide by U.S. standards of leadership. Normalizing relations has a better chance of doing this because the Cuban government realizes that it will have to make concessions in order to have a fruitful relationship with the United States and with other nations in the hemisphere. In fact, Havana has already made some favorable changes in recent years. Finally, by repealing the embargo, the United States will be conforming to the desires of the international community. In 2013 the UN General Assembly voted 188-2 in favor of the United States ending the embargo. Only the U.S. and Israel voted no. It was the 22nd year in a row that the UN has voted this way.

9. So seriously, where does this leave me with getting a bottle of Havana Club Rum at my local liquor store?

That might be some time, yet. However, people have been bringing back Cuban rum into the United States for years, so it depends on the connections of your local spirits guru.

10. Parting Shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one question.

Is there any room for Cuban food on this buffet?

Oh absolutely! Cuban Sandwich? So good! Frita, the Cuban hamburger sounds delicious. Always room for more food at this buffet!

About John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco:
John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco, PhD, became interested in Cuban history when he studied in Spain during his junior year in college. He entered the PhD program in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), and after his first (of four) visit to Cuba as a graduate student, decided to make it a part of his specialization. Toward the end of his graduate study, Dr. Gronbeck-Tedesco was awarded UT’s most prestigious dissertation fellowship.

He is currently an Associate Professor and Convener of American Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Dr. Gronbeck-Tedesco has presented at several conferences outside of the United States and is among the growing number of scholars committed to international and transnational studies.

He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Cuba, the United States, and Cultures of the Transnational Left, 1930-1975” (Cambridge University Press, October 2015) and has been published in academic journals and different online forums including Journal of American Studies, Journal of Latin American Studies, Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, American Quarterly, CounterPunch.org, TheHill.com, Truth-out.org.