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Activating History 

Activist Daniel Coleman has written a timely novel about a misunderstood political movement

At 49, Chapel Hill activist Daniel Coleman is a relatively soft-spoken man, whose intonations place his childhood firmly in New York state. At a recent reading of his new novel, The Anarchist, Coleman sat with his legs crossed, in jeans and a cobalt blue button-down shirt, having settled into a chair amid the audience at the Regulator Bookshop looking relaxed enough to be mistaken for any of the dozen or so attendees. From his demeanor, you could be forgiven for assuming that he'd written a genteel book about fly-fishing or small-town life in the South, rather than a highly polemical historical novel about a political movement that claimed the lives of six heads of state. Between 1894 and 1912, anarchist assassins took out President Carnot of France, Premier Canovas of Spain, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, King Humbert of Italy, President McKinley of the United States, and Premier Canalejas of Spain. It was a period of time--the Gilded Age--which, to borrow Lewis Lapham's formulation in a recent Harper's magazine essay, was "another age of wealth and ease rudely awakened from its dream of moral sovereignty."

Coleman's novel, his first, focuses on just one of those high-profile assassinations, the one closest to home. The Anarchist is a political coming of age story about Jon Parker, a fictional medical student, aspiring psychiatrist and intern at an Auburn, N.Y. penitentiary. A middle-class guy with middle-class sensibilities, Parker collides with American history when President William McKinley is shot and killed in the fall of 1901 while visiting the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The assassin, an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, is brought to the Auburn penitentiary where Parker works, to await execution.

Deemed competent to stand trial for his crime, Czolgosz is an intriguing object for Parker's curiosity about the criminal mind and his newly acquired knowledge of psychoanalysis (he reads Freud in the untranslated German). Through a series of short interviews, he attempts to understand Czolgosz and his motivations. In the process, Parker transforms his own views, achieving a broader awareness of the political experience.

Parker serves as a device for Coleman's exploration of turn-of-the-century American politics. And the highly articulate and opinionated members of the Auburn community serve to challenge Parker's assumptions: The local pub is a hub-bub of political debate and a hangout for Auburn's most prominent anarchist; Parker's love interest is a Vassar-educated feminist who slips him a copy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Women & Economics; anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman even makes a surprise appearance.

Naturally, this cast of politically minded characters speaks to contemporary concerns. Coleman is quick to point out parallels: McKinley's 1896 campaign is viewed as the first modern presidential campaign, because of the amount of money spent and the introduction of large corporate contributions (Rockefeller, Carnegie and Vanderbilt were all supporters of McKinley).

And then there is the anarchist movement--widely misunderstood regardless of the time period. "Anarchists have always been involved in anti-corporate activism. That hasn't changed," Coleman says. "In 1901 it meant supporting the labor movement. What we are seeing now is a re-emergence against capitalist hegemony and the next step in consolidation of capitalist power--with the protests against the IMF and the WTO."

By its very nature, anarchism resists definition. Coleman's novel at least attempts to dispel stereotyped images of the movement as violent and chaotic, offering an anarchist community whose ideology ranges from pacifism to assassination. The more you talk to the author and learn about his background, the less a surprise it is that this man has attempted a sympathetic portrayal of a movement the proponents of which (sometimes violently) sought to, in Lewis Lapham's words, "destroy the systems in place (the secular consumer society then known, more simply, as the bourgeoisie) with what they called 'the propaganda of the deed.'"

In the late summer of 1985, Coleman and a group of more than 40 activists gathered at Chapel Hill's Church of Reconciliation for a meeting of the Carolina Interfaith Taskforce on Central America. One CITCA member, Wes Hara, introduced the statement of the Green Party platform. Already feeling disillusioned with the Democratic Party since Mondale's loss in the 1984, Coleman was educating himself on ecopolitics, reading books like Murray Bookchin's The Ecology of Freedom. Coleman and Hara got to talking that night and, in the weeks that followed, the Orange County Green Party was born.

Of course, founding a local arm of the Green Party was not a spontaneous act. And Coleman's views about Green politics have been shaped by a longstanding involvement in the Triangle progressive community. During his 20 years in the area, he has been involved in the Democratic Party, the Sierra Club and CITCA, and has participated in the Horace Williams Zoning Committee and the Orange County Task Force on Affordable Housing. When Coleman found himself dissatisfied with introductory books on Green politics, he wrote his own: Ecopolitics: Building a Green Society.

Coleman spends a lot of his time in the public light, but he doesn't jump to explain how his activism intersects with his personal life, or to relate it to his activating or transformative experiences. When asked how his life has informed his politics, Coleman hesitates, then says abstractly that it has something to do with leading an ethical life and accepting the responsibility that life carries. His parents were not political, but Coleman credits his grandfather, who was "actively engaged in thinking about what it means to be an ethical person."

"He would always open up books and show me his underlined passages, and I came of age with some understanding of how to be ethical," Coleman says.

Although he's not quick to offer a road map of his motivations, he does name a few mileposts. Moving to North Carolina in 1979, a single parent to a 5-year-old son, Coleman's time was more than occupied by his work as a computer consultant and father. But, as his son grew and Coleman's schedule became more flexible, his opposition to Reagan's involvement in Central America led him to become involved in Mondale's 1984 bid for president. It was the aftermath of that election that spurred him to action--searching for an alternative to the conventional forms of liberal organizing. "It was so sad that Reagan could not be defeated--as vile as he was," he says. "That was when I committed myself to a study of political movements and theory." Within a year, the Orange County Greens began organizing. He currently serves as a member of the group.

Like much of the political landscape, the parallels Coleman draws between 1901, the year in which his novel is set, and 2001, shift when read in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States and our subsequent attacks on Afghanistan. The Anarchist portrays a time when the American public--accustomed to hearing about anarchist assassinations abroad--was shocked by the country's vulnerability at the time of McKinley's death. It was also a time rife with intense workers' strikes, when the position of the Left was challenged by government restrictions on civil rights and the Polish community feared ethnic profiling. Coleman points out that from 1880 to 1905 there was an average of 1,000 strikes a year, and federal officials were commonly called to break the strikes, often violently. But it was an optimistic belief that change was possible, if not imminent, that led to the labor movement at the turn of the century. And this was appealing to Coleman as a historical setting, because "people were actively looking for a better society while working conditions were much worse."

History was an important guide for Coleman's first novel: The text is based on a significant amount of research, Czolgosz's character is based entirely on recorded facts, the anarchist debates in the book are drawn directly from writings of the time period, and Parker's character, while fictionalized, is kept historically accurate. It's easy to see why Coleman chose the densely informational style of his novel, which functions more as a tract than as a sustained narrative or experiment in prose style. In his activism as well as his writing, he believes an understanding of history is the best groundwork for lasting change.

"I think that reform is very difficult," he says. "It is ultimately going to take many millions of people with understanding of the roots of the problems we have to create and sustain meaningful change."

The Anarchist is Coleman's latest effort to foster that understanding. EndBlock

Daniel Coleman will be reading from his book, The Anarchist, on Thursday, Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. at Borders Books in Chapel Hill. Call 929-8332 for details.

More by Clancy Nolan


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