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What Russian novels, Catalonian cannabis clubs and umbrellas have to tell us about anti-fascism

War and Peace



A few moments before Sens. Richard Burr and Mark Warner, chair and co-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee respectively, came out to present an update on their investigation into Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 election, a man walked out carrying a large cardboard sign – not a protest sign, but one of those press-conference explainers that are always terrible but expensive-looking.

The posterboard laid out the extent of the committee's investigation: They interviewed more than 100 people for more than 250 hours in 11 open hearings. Then, with a clip-art picture of a book, it noted "100K PAGES of Documents Read" and below that, with no real explanation of the link: "80+ COPIES of War and Peace."

As it turns out, that was the most interesting part of the presentation, which was, essentially, like a news report bragging about how much reporting was done, without actually telling the story. There was no new information.

I kept wondering if there was some hidden meaning in the poster. It was, after all, an example they were using in their hearing on Russian hacking. Given the paranoia surrounding Russian meddling, the War and Peace reference made it seem as if even Tolstoy were in on the scheme. Maybe some staffer made an inside joke, or more likely, it was just because War and Peace is a really big book. I asked; Warner's office thought it was a good question, but had no answers, saying that the chair's office created it. I wrote and called Burr's office numerous times and got no response.

But as I stood in the back of the crowded briefing room listening to the Senators take credit for the work their staffers were doing, I couldn't help but stare at the clip-art book beside the words "War and Peace" and ponder how, when you look at something too long, it splinters into millions of micro-realities. I found myself thinking of The Umbrella Man, Errol Morris' mini-documentary about a man who was seen in the footage of the crowds along the motorcade route in Dallas on the day that Kennedy was assassinated.

The film starts with a man in a black suit, holding an umbrella, walking. It cuts to Josiah Thompson, who made Six Seconds in Dallas, a film examining the assassination in great detail, explaining the "Umbrella Man" theory: "And then I noticed in all of Dallas there appears to be exactly one person standing under an open black umbrella, and that person is standing where the shots begin to rain into the limousine," he says. "Can anyone come up with a non-sinister explanation for this?"

Every sort of conspiracy sprung up. In a "Talk of the Town" New Yorker piece in December 1967, John Updike offered a philosophical rumination on the Umbrella Man and Thompson's micro-examination of the photographs and films of Dallas that day. "It's as if there's the macro level of historical research where things sort of obey natural laws and usual things happen and unusual things don't happen, and then there's this other level where everything is really weird," Thompson says in the film, paraphrasing Updike.

In Updike's piece, he ends the passage Thompson cites by declaring that the search for the truth about the few seconds when Kennedy was killed "seems to demonstrate how perilously empiricism verges on magic." It seems like everyone is lost in some form of magical thinking at the moment, digging deep into their favored minutiae and ignoring everything else.

When Thompson found the man with the umbrella, he came to testify before the House Select Committee on Assassinations. "He explained then why he had opened the umbrella ... that day," Thompson said. "The open umbrella was a kind of protest. A visual protest. It wasn't a protest of any of John Kennedy's policies as president. It was a protest of the appeasement policies of Joseph P. Kennedy, John Kennedy's father."

That's right: The Umbrella Man was an anti-fascist activist.

And that's another of these strange coincidences, because the 200 protesters – many of whom are also anti-fascist activists – being charged with conspiracy to riot at the Trump inauguration use an umbrella as the emblem of their Defend J20 campaign. Like the Umbrella Man, many of them wore black. Like the Umbrella Man, they carried umbrellas. But unlike the Umbrella Man, they are being criminally charged for their umbrellas.

"Participants in the 'black bloc' often bring items that can serve a dual purpose (i.e., a sign that can double as a shield, a large banner that can be used to project a message and block the passage of police trying to carry out an arrest, or an umbrella that can also be used to deflect pepper spray)," reads the government's recently filed notice that they would call an expert in the trials of the defendants, which begin Nov. 20.

On Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, it was not raining. In Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day, it was. If someone is spraying you with pepper spray and you have an umbrella and you don't use it to protect yourself, you are insane.

The world saw the same kind of storm-trooper police violence that was used against the Inauguration protesters during the Catalonian referendum a couple of weeks ago. People there are deeply anti-fascist. I was in Spain reporting on cannabis clubs just before the inauguration, and many people I talked to linked the clubs to the anarchist collectives that existed before the long fascist regime of Franco. For them, a government that tells you you can't do what you will with your own body is, de facto, fascist.

Anna Obredors, a consultant I interviewed, was convicted this week for drug trafficking for working in one of the clubs. It was, she says, devastating. But the larger political situation is just as frightening. "It's scary," she wrote me. "Spanish state is about to send the army here if the independence is declared ... and it doesn't seem Europe will be helping ... after a century we feel somehow like our grandpas did on 1936 ... weird and scary."


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