Becoming a Dissentnik

Now that I am about to become an ordinary Dissentnik, I want to describe how that happened once before—in 1954, when I held the first issue of the magazine in my hands.

I grew up in the Popular Front, reading Max Lerner and Izzy (I.F.) Stone in the daily newspaper PM. When I was eleven, I wrote a childish “History of World War Two,” which ended “Russia fights not for the lust of conquest, but to end conquest.” (I had long forgotten where I got that line until a friend told me: it came from Franklin Roosevelt’s address to the nation on D-Day, 1944—but FDR wasn’t talking about the Russians.) Paul Robeson’s “Ballad for Americans” was my idea of high culture. At thirteen, I was editing and writing a little newsletter for my friends and relatives, called Between the Lines. My politics was “progressive.” But, in 1948, with a bit of teenage drama, I “broke” with Henry Wallace over the Berlin airlift—which he opposed and I supported. And that was that: when Dissent was founded six years later, I was ready.

Still, Irving Howe and Lewis Coser at Brandeis University (where the sixties began in the fifties) were a revelation. There was nobody like either of them in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. We had our local “Red,” protected or, better, hidden by the town’s Jews. In public, all my parent’s friends were simply Democrats; I met a few Republicans at school. In 1950 or 1951, I listened to Joe McCarthy speak at a local fairground and found him frightening; I knew that the people he was attacking had to be defended, whatever disagreements I had with their politics. What Howe and Coser taught me, outside the classroom more than in it, was very simple: there was a political space between liberal Democrats and Communists—and that was a space worth living in. Politics in that space had two guiding principles: an uncompromising rejection of every form of authoritarian rule and a radical commitment to political, social, and economic equality.

It wasn’t only the politics, it was also the intellectual beauty of the democratic Left as it was in those years that captured my head and heart. I learned, perhaps too quickly, that the culture of the Popular Front was kitsch; I had to read novels better than those of Howard Fast. Howe’s Politics and the Novel would be my guide. Like Irving, I was drawn to the anticommunist intellectuals of the European Left: writers like Orwell, Camus, and Silone. Theirs was an exhilarating world, politically, morally, and intellectually serious in a way that I found irresistible. And it was fun to know that I now had enemies on both the Right and Left.

Dissent’s first issue was a joy. I wasn’t exactly a critical reader; I didn’t disagree with a single word. I soon figured out that that wasn’t the right approach; Dissentniks were supposed to disagree with one another, even ferociously...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.