Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Anti-American Art: Gunboat Diplomacy Fail

Here's a 2006 postage stamp from the Democratic People's Republic of (North) Korea marking the anniversary of the burning and sinking of the American ship the "General Sherman" in 1866. The ship had entered Korean territory on the Tae-Dong river near Pyongyang. A message was sent from the isolated Korean government of the time to the ship: "You have reached the walls of our city when asked to stay put at Keupsa Gate. You insist on trading with us, which is forbidden. Your actions have created a grave situation so much so that I must inform my King and let him decide what to do with you people."

Fearing an imminent foreign invasion the Koreans attacked the ship. "The enemy ship caught on fire and began to burn. The crew faced suffocation by the stench and vapor of the burning sulphur and saltpetre. They tried in vain to put out the flames and as the smoke grew thicker and thicker they were forced one by one to jump into the water. Our troops in boats surrounded the enemy ship and captured the enemy as they tried to escape. Drill-sergeant Park boarded the ship and rescued Lee. Some of the invaders waved white flags. Most of them were hacked to pieces before they reached the shore. Others were dragged ashore alive. These tried friendly smiles and soft words to win the goodwill of our people - in vain."

Needless to say, the repulsion of this early contact between America and Korea is celebrated today in North Korea. The stamp shows the burning ship complete with burning American flag.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

June 29 Is Fedaii Memorial Day

This poster of Fedaii Memorial Day was published in a magazine supportive of the Organization of Iranian People's Fedayee Guerrillas (OIPFG) back in the 1980s or early 1990s. It honors three martyrs of the struggle against the US-supported Iranian kingdom active in the 1960s and 1970s: Hamid Ashraf, Shirin Fazilatkalam, and Bizhan Jazani. I post it here not to endorse the specific politics or role of the OIPFG, but as a reminder that the struggle for social justice in Iran has deep roots; that generations of heroes have sacrificed themselves without surrendering to either religious fundamentalism or the false choices presented by predatory America.

The OIPFG was one of the major Marxist groups fighting against the Shah; when I was a college student right before the successful Islamic Revolution, exiled Iranian students held regular and powerful demonstrations at American universities in support of the ongoing struggle in Iran. I remember at first seeing almost entirely supporters of the OIPFG and OMPI (Organization of the Mojahedin of the People of Iran, a group that attempted to combine socialist and Islamic tendencies that today is more widely known as the MEK, or Mojahedeen-e-Khalq). At some point the supporters of these two organizations started to be dwarfed by supporters of the Iranian Muslim Students Association, and it was clear the nature of the struggle in Iran had undergone a significant change. (If you're a careful watcher of the movie "Cabaret," set in a Nazifying Germany in the 1930s, you'll notice the brilliant art direction has the background graffiti starting out all communisty, and by the end of the movie it ends up being all nazi. Watching this happen to the Iranian student milieu was kind of like that; I'm not actually trying to make the parallel between Nazi and Muslim just to say that the social ferment of Germany went from radical left to radical right as it seemed to have done in Iran).

The OIPFG was among the many many Iranian Marxist and Socialist organizations that were violently repressed by the new Islamic Republic. As the unforgettable 1979 Women's day chant went, "In the Dawn of Freedom There Is No Freedom." Having endured assassination of comrades, imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Shah's SAVAK secret police, many secular Iranian revolutionaries soon fell at the hands of the Islamic Republic's forces of repression.

Anyway, Hamid Ashraf was an OIPFG leader killed by government agents after they broke up clandestine meeting in 1976. Shirin (Mo'Azed) Fazilatkalam was a woman revolutionary tortured to death by SAVAK in 1975. Bizhan Jazani was a theoretician of the revolutionary student and guerrilla movement in Iran; he was executed outside Evin prison in 1975.

May the future hold fewer martyrs.

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Disco Break...

It was a very hot gay pride weekend... and my computer is not in an air-conditioned room so while I recuperate let me offer up this bittersweet confection of modern Eurodisco from Robyn, a Swedish teen-star who, while now in her thirties, still dresses as if she were in her teens. Like the best of made-for-the-gays 1970s disco, "Dancing On My Own" is lyrically a fairly unhappy tune, but our heroine's spunkily combative dance moves make us know it will all turn out right. After we get even, perhaps. It's heartbreak disco, of course, but pretty fierce, and though dance music this 21st-century isn't often my cup of tea, I've been watching this video over and over again so now you get to do the same. I don't know if Robyn writes her own lyrics, but there's something gritty about these, and those for some of her other tunes. Her ouevre is well-represented on youtube: I especially recommend the interview with a Swedish TV program where she comes across as quite a complete human being. Admirable in this day and age. Enjoy/weep/dance/stay cool!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Anti-American Art: Another Scary Predator

Here's a straightforward poster from Cuba's OSPAAAL, 1983: An American bald eagle bearing an uncanny resemblance to a military airplane prepares to sink its talons into a teeny Caribbean island. The sole copy is the name of the island, "GRENADA."

The New Jewel Movement led by Maurice Bishop came to power on the small island of Grenada in 1979. The revolutionary forces quickly established fraternal relations with Cuba and the NJM's social transformations were far-reaching. A military coup from within Bishop's government executed Bishop and a number of other NJM leaders in 1983; shortly afterwards US President Ronald Reagan sent US troops in allegedly to protect American students at a local medical school. The primary opposition to the US forces was lead by Cuban construction workers who had been aiding Bishop. After the invasion Grenada was returned to the ranks of Caribbean islands safely in the US orbit.

If you've seen the truly awful Clint Eastwood movie "Heartbreak Ridge," about how one man finds narcissistic redemption by killing some inept and overdressed commies, that was Grenada through Hollywood's eyes. Shameful.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Happy Lesbian & Gay Pride Day!

Sunday June 27 is Lesbian and Gay Pride Day in New York City, what used to be called Christopher Street Liberation Day. That's me above front and center marching in a gay pride parade in the early 1980s with my revolutionary socialist friends. That banner reads "Lesbian and Gay Libeation Through Socialist Revolution." It was, of course, bright red. Those were, as they say, the days.

I actually marched in every pride parade -- heck once upon a time we called them gay pride marches -- I attended in Chicago and New York from about 1979 to the early 1990s. I've marched with leftists and other politicos, with Pagans, with bears, and just randomly with friends. These days I'm happy to grab a half-hour peek at the parade and then park myself with some friends and some cocktails at an open-air bar and watch the party go by.

The gay pride parade, of course, memorializes the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, when the patrons of a gay bar in NYC's village refused to be subjected to yet another police raid and turned the tables on the cops. While secretive gay rights organizations had existed for decades, the days of rioting that followed are seen as the beginning of the open gay rights movement.

Here's to life! Here's to pride!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Anti-American Art: Jimmy Carter's Oasis of Doom

Iran issued this stamp and special envelope in 1986 to mark the sixth anniversary of the "Defeat of the Direct American Military Attack on Iran" at Tabas in 1980. The grim stamp shows a downed helicopter and an American corpse; the envelope's decorative cachet shows a burning American flag. This year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the doomed Tabas raid.

Ordered by then President Carter, the so-called Operation Eagle Claw was an attempt to rescue the American hostages captured in the occupation of the Embassy in Tehran. An American taskforce tried to establish a secret base in the desert near Tabas: A helicopter collided with a C-130 troop transport and eight soldiers were killed; the mission was aborted. The Islamic Republic bragged that even God was on their side, He having sent a sandstorm out of nowhere to repulse the small American invasion.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

More Heroic Statuary

Here's two more of my favorite heroic socialist realist statues. Above, and in detail below, is the monument "Bohaterom Warszawy," "To the Heroes of Warsaw, 1939-1945" in Warsaw, Poland. The statue shows a bare-chested woman crushed down on one knee but rising up to defend herself with a sword. It harkens back both to ancient statues of Nike, goddess of victory, but also to the 19th-century armed mermaid statue ("Sirenka") that guards Warsaw from its old city square. It was erected in 1964 at the height of the Polish People's Republic; I took these photos in 1976.

Warsaw was pretty much destroyed during the Second World War. It suffered bombardment during the Nazi invasion of 1939, but then during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1942-43 and the general Warsaw Uprising of 1944 it became a battlefield as first the dwindling Jewish population and later the Polish Home Army rebelled. Huge portions of the city were flattened and thousands and thousands of civilians were killed.

The monument really captures the heroism and desperation of the times.

This is the monument to the True Heroes of the Revolution in Managua, Nicaragua. The inscription at the base of the monument reads, "Solo los Obreros y Campesinos Iran Hasta el Fin," "Only the Workers and Peasants Will See It Through To The End" I'm not sure when after the 1979 revolution it was erected but I photographed it in 1986. It shows a young bare-chested male guerrilla with a pickaxe in one hand and a rifle in the other. The statue has a rough quality about it, and a tremendous amount of motion is captured in the lines of the figure; even his hair is wild and free.

All photos by me. Click on them to see them larger.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Anti-American Art: The Grimmest Reaper

Detail of a mural on the Avenida Bolivar in Managua in 1986: Death comes cloaked in an American flag. Photo by me (click on it for a larger view).

The Nicaraguan dictators were always special friends of the United States, and when the last Somoza was overthrown in 1979 the US wasted no time in trying to subvert the new government. When Nicaragua moved closer to Socialist Cuba and the USSR, the CIA and other forces in US government, with the full support of President Reagan, moved to finance and organize armed rebellion on the mountainous border with Honduras: the so-called Contra rebels. The mid-1980s Iran-Contra arms scandal was an attempt by the Reagan administration to illegally fund the Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries with money illegally obtained from selling arms to another US enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The US-backed Contras were known for brutality and atrocity.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A modest proposal

It's clear that General Stanley McChrystal, head of the US war effort in Afghanistan, committed serious insubordination to President Obama, his boss, as reported in Rolling Stone Magazine. As of this writing, General McChrystal is heading home at Obama's request, and a meeting between the two is scheduled for tomorrow.

Now I'm not actually in the business of telling the U.S. War Machine who should be pressing its buttons. It's clear that McChrystal represents the worst of American military culture, and not only because of the repulsive counterinsurgency strategy being executed in Afghanistan or because of the casual anti-gayness revealed in the RS article. McChrystal is the embodiment of the arrogant delusion that the U.S. has the need and right to police the world, and of the big lie that turning young Americans into psychotic killing machines makes the population here at home safer.

So by all means, President Obama, you should probably fire Stanley McChrystal. But why stop there. General Petraeus? He needs to go also. Defense Secretary Gates? Him too. And before these three can plot a coup and while we're waiting for them to be brought up on war crimes charges, you should probably put them all in prison. I'd even agree that Guantanamo might be the perfect place for them...especially if you return Guantanamo to its rightful owners, the people of Cuba. Let's move on to the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff. Yeah, fire them all. The U.S. military delegation to NATO? Time for them to go. General Odierno or whoever is in charge of the US troops left in Iraq? Have them organize the immediate withdrawal of the remaining forces and then accept their resignation. Anyone who has made a decision in the military to target Iraqi, Afghan or Pakistani civilians? Fire them. Any officer who enabled the US invasion of Iraq in the first place? Get the hook. And that military budget? I think you can find some better uses for that.

There's plenty for all those soldiers to do fighting the oil spill in the gulf, and in organizing a defensive militia and guard to protect the American people from evildoers. All those soldiers over there need to come home.

There, problem solved. Just a modest proposal.

46, El Sol

I'm late for the summer solstice! Yesterday was the longest day of the year here in the northern hemisphere. Owing to the shortage of virgins, no human sacrifice was organized for the day. Perhaps next year. Any sun gods requiring appeasement, please send a statement in triplicate with your requirements.

I'm not really a sun worshipper. I mean, I love the sun, who doesn't. But I can't really go outside and lie in it. The pale pink skin my northern European ancestors predetermined for me gets red but it doesn't really tan. Why provoke my skin's cells into cancerous subversion? Oh I love the water, as in the Caribbean, where the sun has made it warm and the goddesses of the waters have kept the water invitingly clear. But I pay a stinging price no matter how much sunblock I coat myself with.

So to the Sun I say, thanks for the warmth of the days, and thanks for not exploding into a supernova, and thanks for making the world around me lush and green, and for making a warm spot on the bed for my cat to curl up in, and for inspiring the flowers in the backyard to beauty, and for brightening the mood, and for providing much better light than eco-friendly curly fluorescent bulbs, and for glorious lightshows at sunset, and thanks for allowing me to wear bermuda shorts and sandals, and thanks for that balmy warm breeze you've sent through my open windows. Thanks for keeping the pansies on my stoop glorious, thanks for still shining when I get out of work, and thanks for what you're doing right now to all the tomatoes and fruits growing here and there so in a month or two we'll be able to taste you. Thanks for coming back every morning.

Hey, sorry about the mess down here.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Anti-American Art: Impervious to Jets

For the second anniversary of the American attack on Tripoli and Sirte, Libya issued a series of stamps practically deifying its leader Colonel Qaddafi. You can't see it on the scan, but that ornate detail around the picture of Qaddafi in the robes of a holy man is embossed gold metallic foil. While the inscription in mis-spelled English reads "2nd Anniversary of American Agression" the message is rather more focused on inducing worship of Libya's leader. He lives in a nomad's tent -- depicted here -- out back from the presidential palace, and the American attack ordered by President Reagan was in part an assassination attempt. Gaddafi was in the midst of his campaign to propagate a personal ideology around his barely readable "Green Book" (you can try it here): it's a collection of egalitarian platitudes designed to rationalize his absolute rule over the country.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Airplane Hijacking, Freedom Fighters, and the New York Times

Last week the New York Times printed a remarkable OpEd piece by Gal Beckerman of the Jewish Daily Forward entitled "Hijacking Their Way Out of Tyranny." The article recounts the planned 1970 hijacking of a small Soviet airplane by a group of dissident Jews in Leningrad. Arrested before they could seize their intended plane, the hijackers hoped to fly the plane to Sweden and then emigrate to Israel. Led by one Yosef Mendelevich, the hijackers hoped that successfull or not, their action "would make their demand for free emigration impossible to ignore." Eventually the attempt by the Soviet state to prosecute the hijackers rebounded, and a massive movement for Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union was born. Furthermore, as the piece puts it, "The bravery of the hijacking plotters also ignited a movement in the United States that would lead Congress, a few years later, to pass the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which withheld preferred trading status from the Soviet Union until it allowed tens of thousands of Jews to emigrate...As a result, not only were hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews able to build new lives, but forces were set in motion that would bring down the Berlin Wall and, eventually, an empire — a world-shaking transformation born from the hopes once placed on a small airplane that never even left the ground."

I am fascinated that the New York Times ran this piece, because it calls to mind other freedom-fighting airplane hijackers who the New York Times would never acknowledge in a similar way. Long before airplane hijacking came to imply the indiscriminate murder of civilians or the smashing of airplanes into office buildings, airplane hijacking was used as a desperate symbolic measure by Palestinian freedom fighters, who just like these desperate oppressed Soviet Jews, hoped it would call attention to the plight of hundreds of thousands of oppressed people and snowball into events that would bring down a state that was the instrument of that oppression.

Leila Khaled was--and is--a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the left-wing faction of the Palestinian movement led by George Habash that accused the mainstream Fatah movement of Yassir Arafat of accommodation to Israel. That's her on the Palestinian wall stencil above. She led a spectacular hijacking of a TWA jet in 1969, blowing up the plane in Syria after the passengers were safely taken off. She was captured in 1970 while attempting to hijack a second plane as part of the "Black September" campaign. Released in a prisoner exchange in 1971, Leila Khaled became a spokeswoman for the Palestinian cause in later years in Jordan. The PFLP soon set aside the tactic of airplane hijackings; Khaled and the PFLP always maintained that their intention was never to harm innocent civilians in their actions, though it does seem like some actions the PFLP had connection to did unfortunately cross that line.

Now as someone who has flown in airplanes let me state clearly I hope never to be hijacked. I think it's wrong, murderous intent or propaganda-only intent, to make innocent people suffer, even if not fatally, for the faults of evil and corrupt governments. I don't think hijacking airplanes was the finest hour of the PFLP or of Palestinian freedom fighters in general. And if the PFLP didn't intend to hurt civilians, clearly those who carried on the hijacking tradition after them have had no such qualms; 9/11 RIP. But Leila Khaled was not a terrorist, only a Palestinian born in a city to which she is unable to return, and neither was Yosef Mendelevich, trapped in a country where anti-semitism ran rampant. We need not associate Ms. Khaled with 9/11 any more than the New York Times associates Mendelevich with 9/11.

Clearly, the attempted seizure of this Soviet airplane in 1970 by Jewish dissidents was inspired by the seizures of airplanes by Palestinian dissidents. We shall be quietly waiting for the Times editorial board to thank Leila Khaled for freeing Soviet Jewry. And when the struggle for justice in Palestine is finally won, and the Apartheid State of Israel is swept aside like the Apartheid State of South Africa before it, and all the citizens of Palestine are living together in multicultural secular democracy, we look forward to reading, in a reevaluation of Leila Khaled's hijacking, "not only were hundreds of thousands of Palestinians able to build new lives, but forces were set in motion that would bring down the Separation Wall and, eventually, a State — a world-shaking transformation born from hopes the once placed on a small airplane."

(Above photo of wall stencil in Bethlehem snagged from tsweden's flickr)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Anti-American Art: Yankee Sonuvabitch

Two choice bits of Sandinista stencilry on a wall at the Mercado Oriental in Managua in 1986. At right, "YANKEE HIJO E PUTA SEGUIMOS DE FRENTE" (Yankee Son of a Whore We're Staying with the FSLN) with an outline of Augusto Cesar Sandino; at left "YANKE QUE SE RINDA TU MADRE PATRIA LIBRE O MORIR" (Yankee, Surrender Your Mother; Free Homeland or Death) with FSLN colors. Never have these two casual obscenities been used better.

Click on the photo for a closer peek.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Say Your Prayers?

This comedy video, "BP Spills Coffee," manages to capture the essence of the crisis of BP/Halliburton's Deepwater Horizon's Gulf Coast oil catastrophe. Somehow it makes me want to cry more than laugh.

On Tuesday President Obama gave a short speech from the Oval Office on the crisis and his plans to...pray for a solution to the problem. While I appreciate the complicated middle-fold in the space-time continuum that the President is trying to occupy, I found his speech cursory and confounding. The best critique of the speech I read was on the shrill and sensationalist Huffington Post, where columnist Jason Linkins suggested it sounded like a "mad lib written by [speechwriter] John Favreau."

Obama is of course right that the spill is a wake-up call about "our" dependency on oil. But not so much a wake-up call that he's advocating any specific new energy policies. Since the speech it does seem he's pushing the Senate to pass energy legislation already passed in the House, and that's a good thing. I'm sure betting Obama is regretting his ill-timed concessions to the "Drill Baby Drill" crowd just a few short weeks before BP's negligence allowed millions of gallons of crude to foul the Gulf's waters. I was excited that Obama in campaign mode focused so clearly on new energy sources like solar and wind (discounting his bizarre pandering fantasy of the imaginary "clean coal" technology), so I am glad to see him return to that focus. It will be a silver lining if this spill causes some second thoughts about new drilling and some much-needed regulatory and safety improvement.

I was fascinated to hear an interview after the speech with a local Louisiana politician who condemned Obama's words, because, she said, he was using the crisis to enact his overall socialist vision. She condemned him for his moratorium on deep water drilling, bizarrely insisting that such drilling was proven safe. As with the media's reporting of health reform, once again opposition to Obama from the right is conflated with opposition from the left. This trend reinforces the need for the "the left" to choose its formulations of critique carefully.

Halliburton, BP, and the regulators who inspected and passed Deepwater Horizons are now known to be proven cheats and liars. And this is where I think Obama is failing: he must seize control of the attempt to shut off the spewing well and clean up the Gulf. The oil companies are interested only in protecting their existing and future investments and profits. They should definitely be paying the full price of this catastrophe--the escrow fund ordered by Obama is a definite must--but they should not be allowed to lead what is actually going on there. While of course expropriation of the oil companies and nationalization of oil resources is the real solution...that's just not gonna happen for the forseeable future. Let me modestly suggest that US troops be brought home from the Middle East and Central Asia to perform the work of the cleanup. I read in the New York Times one expert suggest that BP is failing to shut off the spewing well because it's trying to preserve the well as a potential source of future income and is therefore rejecting methods that might ruin the well for the future. There is the obvious strategy of using explosives to seal off the well: if this is indeed practicable it's an example of something the government needs to do despite BP's wishes.

I'm all for prayer. It calms the mind. It connects you to spirit, to the energy of the universe. But it does not stop industrial tragedies or manmade environmental nightmares. The President's speech concluded on a hollow note; it's crucial that the full force of government be brought to ending this crisis sooner rather than later. Don't wait for BP to do it.

The prayer that seems most relevant right about now is the serenity prayer:
"God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference."

Focus on that third line.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Anti-American Art: The Fiery Furnace

This stamp was issued by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) to mark the intended 1965 African-Asian solidarity conference to be held in Algiers, on the anniversary of the 1955 Bandung conference. The conference collapsed.

The stamp appears to show a group of Korean workers hurling bits of flotsam labelled "USA" into an industrial fire, presumably to reforge jeep parts into plowshares or somesuch. In the background is a more properly industrial Korean worker, and dimly in the upper right hand corner seems to be a map of Korea breaking out of chains. When tensions between South and North Korea escalated in 1994, a North Korean government spokesperson said, "Seoul is not far from here, If there is a war, it will
become a sea of fire."
I wonder if this is what they meant.

The 1965 summit failed to materialize in part because of competing Sino-Soviet tensions as well as the rightward drift of the so-called Nonaligned movement.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Nicaragua 1986: the Battle of Ideas

Denounced as a beachhead of Soviet-style totalitarianism by the American government, Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution of 1979 was actually a vibrant democracy with an open civic life. What the Americans couldn't handle was that most people in Nicaragua actually supported the FSLN government. There was civil opposition from left, right, and center, with different social classes and strata tending toward different forces and parties. The disagreements were on full display on the walls of the country when I spent a few months there in 1986.

Above is wall graffiti in Managua dating from the 1984 elections. Stencils from the Communist Party of Nicaragua and its trade union federation CAUS are crossed out by a large "FSLN" and the red and black Sandinista colors: the "X" not only defaces the PCdeN graffiti, it alludes to the mark to be made in the ballot. The FSLN won handily.

Above a mural of an FSLN martyr graces a wall in Granada. A handwritten slogan reads "El llanto de las madres exigen aniquilar a los contras de Granada" or "The Cry of the Mothers Demands the Annihilation of the Counterrevolutionaries of Granada." But below the wall's upper panel is graffiti from the PLI, or Liberal Party, one of the center/right parties, reading "Yo Soy Liberal" or "I Am A Liberal" and calls to vote for the Liberal Party's candidate Godoy.

Eden Pastora was one of the heroes of the Sandinista revolution, known as Commander Zero. But he was not a socialist, and shortly after the triumph of the revolution he spectacularly switched sides and joined the side of the Contras. Here on an earthquake-ruined wall in Managua pre-triumph graffiti celebrating Eden Pastora is updated in broad strokes with the word "TRAIDOR" or "TRAITOR."

Finally here's graffiti from the walls of the ruined cathedral in downtown Managua expressing a more fundamental battle of priorities. Competing with "Sandino Vive" or "Sandino Lives," refering to the 1930s revolutionary hero the FSLN is named after, are various obscenities, mostly crude drawings of penises. The empty cathedral was, among other things, a cruising ground for gay men looking for sex and a little privacy.

(All photos by me. Click on the images to see them larger. Many more of my Nicaragua photos can be seen by clicking on the Nicaragua tag below or by clicking here.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Anti-American Art: The Mother of All Battles

This stamp was issued in the waning days of Saddam Hussein's regime to mark the tenth anniversary of Umm Al Marik, "the Mother of All Battles," otherwise known as the First Gulf War or Operation Desert Storm, the U.S.-and-allies attack on Iraq in retaliation for its seizure of the Kuwait microstate. The poorly-printed stamp is filled with meaning: a falcon shreds the American flag against a green-shaded outline map of the Arab world; a huge Iraqi flag waves in the background, the one to which "God Is Great" was added, allegedly in Saddam's own handwriting during that first Gulf War. In the background a Palestinian flag waves from the top of the Mosque of Omar, one of the sacred Muslim sites in Jerusalem/Al Quds, generally a symbol for the liberation of Palestine.

Saddam had come to power with the secularist Arab Ba'ath (Renaissance) Socialist Party. When he was backed by the United States in his bloody war against Iran in the 1980s Saddam tried to identify himself with medieval Arab heros who held off Persian invasion. When he came into conflict with the U.S., he painted himself as a defender of the Muslim world began to use much more religious language.

Here's a blustery quote from Saddam on the 7th anniversary of Um al Marik in 1998: "But God, the Most High, is digging pits on the path of the Americans. These pits, covered and dark, may get deeper with the passing of the time when their nervousness and disappointment increase. The Americans will retreat and depart, day after day, from the peak which they think they have reached when they dared to attack the glorious city of Baghdad with their bombs and missiles but the city, nevertheless, has proved to be impregnable to foreign aggression. They should, therefore, re-examine and reconsider what they are doing so that the unjust sanctions imposed on Iraq come to an end. They should also not be misled again or mislead themselves into believing that they can achieve by military aggression what they were unable to achieve by their means of malice, deception and trickery. This is because they have already tested it on several occasions and have thought after or before it that deceit, political deception by means of imposing sanctions and plotting in the dark could lead to their desired aims. The Americans must realize, and this should not be construed as a threat, that as we fought against them and endured their aggression over the past eight years, we have come to know their force and their power for causing harm, in the same manner as we presume they have known the power of the great Iraq and God's protection of it." The whole speech is worth reading for a taste of those long-ago days.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Echoes of a Past Life - Confessions of a Pornographer (part one)

I moved to New York City in 1981 to work on a socialist newspaper. The job was great, the salary subsistence level. It didn't take me more than a year or two to realize that the Big Apple was no place for no money, so while I continued for a while to design the paper on a volunteer basis, I jumped at the opportunity to take a real job for real money. My socialist paper gig had taught me the basics of professional graphic design and the publishing biz, so when my friend David said he knew of a typesetting job at a magazine company he thought the two of us could share, I eagerly agreed.

The magazine company was looking for an evening shift to cover its expanding roster, and yes as long as everything got covered, the two of us could divide up nights. Eventually David moved on to his real interest of journalism and the shift was all mine. We arrived at the office late each afternoon when everybody else was getting ready to leave. We were handed a manila folder of typed manuscripts ready to be typeset on their state-of-the-primitive-art CompuGraphic editwriter, a prehistoric dinosaur level computer with a spinning filmstrip that exposed rolls of photosensitive paper; which would then be developed in a special kind of dark-room simulating processor machine. The job was basically retyping and coding manuscripts to turn them into galleys of type that would be cut and pasted up by the art department the next morning.

There was one detail about Modernismo Publications that we needed to know. While Modernismo published a line of high-end knitting magazines in seven European languages, its bread and butter came from "Adult Sophisticate" magazines. The daytime typesetter preferred to work on the knitting magazines: she wanted little to do with "Adult Sophistication," which, it turned out, were codewords for smut. Modernismo published a line of pornographic gay magazines: Mandate, Honcho, Playguy, Torso and Inches, and a line of heterosexual skin magazines: Juggs, Legshow, and Cinema Blue. While I was there they started an absolutely hilarious boxing magazine called Fight Beat but that's another story.

Anyway, being a red-blooded young gay man I was familiar with the gay magazines. Mandate had literary pretensions, combining legit fiction and cultural writing with fantasy stories and skin spreads, plus the occasional travel feature and actual news story. Honcho was a little edgier, focusing on hyper-masculine models, gearing its taste in fantasy in the direction of the leather crowd. Playguy, despite its catchy name, was a sort of sad orphan, showing skinny young models who looked younger than their of-legal-age-IDs, catering no doubt mostly to the dirty old man set. It was the cusp of the AIDS epidemic and while the disease was eventually going to cut a swathe through the magazine's editorial and art staff, as well as through its audience and cultural sensibility, these magazines all still adhered to a late 1970s hedonistic sensibility of newfound freedom and openness in gay male sexuality. I thought it would be a hoot to work on these.

Modernismo was owned by George Mavety, a big man almost always seen smoking a cigar. He was a sort of poor man's Larry Flynt. Rumored to have an actual family somewhere, it was not unusual to see him keeping company with some busty young blonde. Mavety was a classic entrepreneur, and while heterosexual himself, he knew the value of his property. His cultivation of gay pornography was shrewd and successful: the gay mags were staffed all with gay men and given a fairly independent editorial voice. But Mavety was well immersed in the pornography world as a whole. One day a Japanese skin magazine came to the office and took photos of the place for a feature they were writing on the American trade. That's me at my typesetting machine in the top center of this photo montage from Japan's "Bachelor" magazine. (Modernismo eventually became Mavety Media Group; George Mavety died in 2000; his gay magazines finally shut down just a year or so ago)

Of course I had to work on Modernismo's heterosexual magazines as well and that was an education. "Juggs" and "Legshow" were not "Playboy." "Juggs," whose tagline was "The world's dirtiest tit-mag" was all about women's breasts, the bigger the better. It featured chubby models, older models, pregnant models ("lactating lovelies"), anyone who would display absolutely huge breasts. Ironically, Jugg's reigning "Tit Queen," a frequent centerfold and regular columnist was the original Candy Samples--no relation to my current Drag Queen friend of the same moniker--whose breasts were each larger than her head. "Legshow" was for the legs-and-ass crowd. Both mags were mass market hardcore, which meant they could compete with anatomy textbooks for their raw display of female genitalia, but being sold on newsstands they could not show penetration or actual sex. These magazines had no literary or cultural pretensions, just crude raw fuel for male masturbatory fantasies.

The difference between the gay and straight pornography I spent my evenings typesetting was a fascinating lesson in objectification and fantasy. I'll leave a fuller discussion of that for another essay. But I took the job and became a kind of working-class cog in the real pornography was a crazy job. I'll talk about what it was like to work as a pornographer in a third essay.

Fast forward a year or two: I left Modernismo for a job at a small family-owned type shop. Turned out I was a really good typesetter. It wasn't just typing: my typographic sense and design talent and my ability to get these primitive computers to churn out better quality turned out to be a marketable skill (for a little while, anyway) and after a couple years typing smut it was time to move on. But who doesn't need extra money? I had remained friends with the editor of the straight mags at Modernismo and I asked him if I could write some stories for him. I figured even if I was a textbook Kinsey 6 of a gay man I had lots of experience in reading these stories as I typeset them, so how difficult could it be to write them? I knew I was planning to take a spring and summer off to travel to Nicaragua, and I figured I could write stories from there, send em in, and keep a small paycheck going.

I was thrilled that he agreed. He greenlighted the one story I wrote before my trip and then I sent him a small handful of stories I typed out on my trusty manual typewriter from Managua. And I got paid; not a lot, but enough to soften the blow of my return to the States after a summer away.

Now here's the thing. I wasn't going to write gay pornography, not stories I actually found hot. I was going to write crude Juggs-style porn. The stories for Juggs were hilarious to me. Compared to the gay stories with romantic subtexts, the straight stories were raw exercises in titillating escapism where average Joes lived among ravishing women wanting nothing more than pure physicality, unencumbered by actual responsibilities or real-life complications. I wanted to take the stereotypical scenarios from straight porn and the vile objectification and rude language and ridiculous cliches and see if I could subversively produce a story that I thought was amusing. And so a new pseudonym was born, Sergeant Babs "Bust 'Em" Brady.

The stories I wrote are filthy dirty, full of words I would never use and can't believe I'm going to retype for this blog. But they make me laugh every time I read them. I don't think they're exactly erotic; they're meant to be subversively over-the-top. I still had--and have--a commitment to a certain kind of (sex-positive) feminist ideal, and I didn't want to completely betray my principles, even if the scenarios I had been typesetting for so long blurred crucial lines between rape and consensuality. But I thought it would be hilarious if I, a gay man, writing in the voice of a heterosexualized lesbian, could write satirical caricatures of straight pornography and have them published as actual pornography, and that is what I did. Here is the first of these stories. I have two more of them sitting by my 'puter and will continue these in later installments of "Confessions of a Pornographer."


"You're Under a Breast"
by Sgt. Babs "Bust 'Em" Brady
Originally published in the December 1986 issue of Juggs Magazine

[Editor's note, 2013. I decided after thinking this over and over that this writing was just too rapey to let stand. It was done with some humor that does not survive the moment, as an in-joke, and because, frankly, I was a little angry and bitter, at a lot of things. I'm not going to apologize for writing it, that would be disingenuous, but I'm gonna say it wasn't my proudest moment. So I'm pulling the actual porn story I wrote. In so doing, I'm not taking a stand against porn, or analyzing the complicated human psyche that might eroticize rape in an abstract fantasy setting; but I am taking a stand against saying that there's anything funny about actual, real rape. And I will not be adding the two other porn stories I wrote to the "Echoes of the Past" series. Sorry if you've been waiting all these years for the follow up. Live and learn. Respect each other. —ISH]

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Anti-American Art: The Brink Last Time

"Yankee Imperialism, Out of South Korea" says this 1969 poster from Cuba's OSPAAAL issued to mark the "International Month of Solidarity with the Korean Students and People." Above the headline is a fairly threatening depiction of the North Korean People's Army and the North Korean flag that could be ripped from today's front pages. According to a remarkably information-free press release from Cuba in 2009, Cuba and North Korea brag of "an excellent state of bilateral relations."

Although there's a natural affinity between common enemies of the United States government, many speculate that the ideological replacement of Marxism-Leninism with the "Juche ideal" (self-reliance) in North Korea has fundamentally changed North Korea's ideological sense of self. It's hard not to think that wouldn't effect the spirit of relations with the few remaining nominally Marxist-run states. In "The Cleanest Race" author B.R. Myers argues that North Korean ideology is actually a unique and essentially racist form of nationalism. Fascinating excerpt here.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Beneath Your Feet

It's obvious that the main square in Mexico City is old. The cathedral and buildings ringing the square date from Spanish colonial days; and the stones from which these buildings are constructed from speak of earlier days, because of course many of these stones were from the glorious Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, ripped down after the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century. You come to realize what it means that Mexico City is the oldest continually occupied city in the Americas.

I went to Mexico city in 1985, a few years after the amazing discovery--obvious in retrospect--that a few inches under the plaza, vast ruins of Tenochtitlan had remained undisturbed and unnoticed for four hundred years. Some careful excavation produced portions of the Templo Mayor itself (details shown above and below; photos by me), the main pyramid of the Aztec city. Other excavation revealed treasure troves of statues and artifacts.

Mexico is not the only place where the monumental past is literally beneath your feet. Elsewhere I've read that in the flat portions of both Iraq and large swathes of the American midwest, any rise or hill is not likely to be a natural formation, but the remnant of a Mespotamian ziggurat in the Iraqi case, or an Indian temple mound or burial mound in the American one. I guess there's a lesson there about what we think of as permanently important.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Anti-American Art: Collective Outrage

"People of the World Support the Just Struggle of the People of Vietnam Against US Imperialism" is more or less what this 1960s Chinese poster reads. Against the background of steely Vietnamese fighters, an outraged multi-national crowd cheers jeers its disapproval at America. It's quite the collection of women and men from around the world, even the requisite Albanian in his white fez, and is that a jaunty beret on the far right? The crowd here is strictly civilian; the clenched rifles are reserved for the resisting Vietnamese.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

An Unlikely Renaissance of Socialist Realism

Shown above is the new bronze "African Renaissance" statue in Dakar, Senegal, built by a North Korean company at the commission of the Senegalese government (pic snagged from the NYT). It shows the perfect heterosexual couple posed dramatically with their child pointing the way forward to the future. It's taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York. I understand all the criticism that has been made of this sculpture: the expense, the culturally tone-deaf depiction for a mostly Muslim country, the indulgence of North Korea's outdated socialist-realist aesthetic, and more importantly to me its somewhat sexist and heterosexist implication (as if); but I have to say this statue really works for me. Works of art like this are meant to be a sort of inspirational cartoon, and I find the sweeping heroic tableau visually exciting and dramatic. Check out the Renaissance Africaine website for a flash montage of close-ups and a beautifully-filmed propaganda video in French.

This is a model of the centerpiece statue for the Martin Luther King National Memorial being built in Washington DC. It was designed by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, and has predictably attracted its share of criticism. Like the African Renaissance statue, its socialist realist pedigree is clear, and, like the African Renaissance statue, I love it.

Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial was revolutionary; it's beautiful and impactful. But I think it has engendered a whole new generation of cliches as memorials embrace abstraction and endless lists of sacred names. Frankly what I love about socialist realist statuary is its almost religious manipulation of symbol and motion. The metaphors slap you in the face, sure, but they generate the requisite awe, reverence and uplift.

It's surprising to see such a widely reviled aesthetic being resurrected in two such unlikely locations, but it sure makes me want to add both of the statues to my must-see list.

(see my previous post on the huge Ernst Thaelmann statue in Berlin)

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Anti-American Art: Paper Trail

This 1985 stamp from the Islamic Republic of Iran marks the anniversary of the "Takeover of U.S. Den of Espionage," the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran shortly after the victory of the Islamic Revolution. It shows the US embassy crest shattered to reveal the mark of the CIA; the background filled with facsimiles of intelligence documents stamped "TOP SECRET." The captured documents turned out to be a treasure trove of classified information, revealing among other things a detailed report on US espionage inside Israel and a report of the deposed Shah's contacts with Israel about acquiring nuclear weapons. An earlier stamp with a similar theme was featured on The Cahokian back in April.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

What will happen?

I took these pictures of Bayou country on a visit to New Orleans in the 1990s. What will happen to this incredibly beautiful natural landscape should a hurricane sweep through the oily Gulf of Mexico on its way to shore?

As of this writing, though slightly reduced by a cap (with vents), the crude oil continues to gush into the Gulf's waters, and the massive quantities of polluted water are starting to reach Florda.

Somewhere I read the best common sense logic: if you can't fix a drilling leak at the bottom of the ocean, you shouldn't be allowed to drill there.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Anti-American Art: Beware Strangers Bearing Gifts

"He who plunders others always lives in terror" reads the Palestinian proverb atop this complicated poster from Cuba's OSPAAAL. Modelled using toys, it refers to the cozy US-Israel relationship by depicting a Trojan horse bearing American colors having apparenty delivered a belly full of Israeli soldiers. It dates from the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and is a call to solidarity with the Lebanese people and the Palestinian refugees targeted by the American-backed Israeli forces. The Israelis were successful in forcing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) out of Lebanon, though of course hundreds of thousands of Palestinians remain there.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Echoes of a Past Life - Listening to Alice Coltrane

I started writing The Cahokian blog on a lark back in 2006. I was intrigued with the medium of the blog: on the one hand it could be the inappropriate over-sharer's narcissistic fantasy, on the other it could be a vehicle for self expression, for creativity, for exercising one's own tiny share of the vox populi. For the first year or so I put things up randomly here without presuming anyone else would ever notice. It became a sounding board for my political frustrations, and the intermittent diary of life's milestones. And then I discovered music blogs. A friend steered me to all these amazing blogs where people were just giving away hard to find obscure and lost music I had spent years and years trying to find myself.

In the beginning of 2008 I jumped into the music blog fray and launched Ile Oxumare, and started sharing rarities from my own collection. Wanting neither legal nor moral complication, I made a clear decision not to do anything that could deprive an artist of compensation for his or her work: I posted only items that were out of print and unavailable anywhere else. At first I didn't have much to say about the music I shared: I was humbled by other bloggers I saw whose crate-digging credibility was far deeper than my own. But as the author of the Jazz Supreme web site, there were some things I did know about, and eventually I realized I had a point of view about the music I loved and Ile Oxumare became the place where I not only got to share things with friends, but got the fun of reviewing the music and advocating for my taste and perspective. Also, I got to explore something crucial to me, the notion that there is a message in the music, that music is not just entertainment but a vehicle for spiritual uplift.

Ile Oxumare really took off. Today it has had nearly 500,000 visitors with 1,200,000 page views and a steady daily visits count of about 450. While most of the visitors are looking for free music -- can you blame them? -- I've established friendships with many and found myself part of an international community of jazz music lovers. I post things on Ile Oxumare relatively rarely now, once or twice a month as opposed to many times a week when I started: the music blogging world has so thrived that my well of out-of-print discoveries has grown very shallow. I'm focusing more energy on The Cahokian now, with daily posts, but my music blogs continue.

So for this entry of "Echoes of a Past Life" I'm reposting three essays that first appeared on Ile Oxumare. These were all posted under my blogland identity "ish."

Alice Coltrane died in 2007. She had first recorded as Alice McLeod playing piano with Terry Gibbs. Eventually she met and married saxophonist John Coltrane, and wound up replacing McCoy Tyner as his band's pianist during its last, most exploratory and "out" period. Upon John's death, she pursued twin careers of preserving and deepening the reputation of her late husband developing his catalog of recordings, and following her own spiritual and musical muse through a solo recording career. Her albums on Impulse! and Warner Brothers from the late 1960s through the end of the 1970s playing piano, organ and harp with a long line of brilliant jazz coplayers, while not exactly fixtures on the shelves of most jazz lovers, are well respected and acknowledged for their art and innovation. But when she stopped recording jazz for major labels it was almost as though she had fallen off the edge of the earth. Until the release of her final Impulse! album "Translinear Light" in 2004, Alice Coltrane had moved to the realm of myth.

But in truth she had continued to record. A year after her passing Ile Oxumare shared her extremely rare devotional cassette from 1982 "Turiya Sings" (cover shown above); all I said was "Not much to say about this music, which is not really jazz, except that Alice Coltrane loved God." "Turiya Sings" was the first of four devotional albums she recorded in the 1980s and 1990s. She added synthesizers to her musical arsenal, as well as, quite surprisingly to me anyway, her own voice. While her devotional albums feature a chanting gospel chorus and expert solo vocalists, many of them also feature her own singing of the sacred Sanskrit hymns; and her voice reveals a window into her spirituality even more directly than her instrumental playing. I reviewed her other three devotional albums more thoroughly, and those are the essays now reposted below. Writing these reviews was revelatory to me: in listening over and over again to these albums I learned something about the music and the spirituality contained within. These reviews helped me to develop my own writing voice and I'm happy to re-present them not as an excuse to give away music but because I had something to say about Alice Coltrane's vision and art.


Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, Divine Songs, 1987
(Originally posted on Ile Oxumare 6/14/2009)

"Chanting is a devotional engagement, one that allows the chanter to soar to higher realms of spiritual consciousness. Chanting is a healing force for good in our world, and also in the astral worlds. Chanting can bring the person closer to God because that person is calling on the Lord. When one calls to even a friend, a mother, or any other relative in a kindly way, he gets the response, also in a reciprocal way." --Alice Coltrane/Swamini Turiyasangitananda in the original liner notes

Thus Alice Coltrane matter-of-factly states it: when you call out to a friend, you get a response; and so when you call out to God, you get a response as well. This extremely rare cassette recording is one of Alice Coltrane's calls to God. In the lyrics to "Om Supreme" on her first Warner Brothers album "Eternity," she was similarly up front, and I'm paraphrasing slightly: "When I call you to come to California, you know I will meet you in California. When I call you to the Divine realms, you know I will meet you there as well."

The first Alice Coltrane album I ever bought was her eye-opening 2-LP Impulse! anthology "Reflections on Creation and Space" back in the 1970s. My mind was blown by the music, and I didn't quite know what to make of the bits of what seemed at the very least a highly eccentric philosophy contained in her notes and titles. I was a young college student and not particularly spiritual at the time, and while I found her music irresistibly compelling I set aside its reference points. The cover portraits on this and the rest of her catalogue which I subsequently devoured always unnerved me: She seemed in those pictures unbelievably serene, almost like an iconic saint, if also distant, uncomfortably otherworldly, and frankly, a little kooky.

Now many years after my first encounter with her music, and, sadly now, a couple years after her passing, I have come to understand her a little better. Even though her Hindu spiritual path has not been a specific religious calling for me, the universality of her spirituality is clearly self-evident. I set aside my skepticism about her eccentricities and have come to understand that she was the real deal. Her consciousness indeed spanned the planes of being, and the music was a kind of teaching, not only another way of saying "if you call out to a friend you will get a response" but the actual shout out itself to both God and us, her listeners, her friends, seeking that response.

The music here is not jazz, though it is deeply soulful. Like her other devotional recordings it is mostly Alice Coltrane singing Sanskrit chants against various instrumental backgrounds. As with her later recording "Glorious Chants" also featured here at Ile Oxumare, there is a raw synthesizer whine on a few tracks but unlike that record it's less dominant overall. And her singing, still almost heartbreakingly soulful, is less tentative than it was on "Turiya Sings," also an Ile Oxumare first. On one song she plays her trademark harp. There are strings on many tracks; although the label doesn't credit live strings only synthesizers, they sound in places too sensitive to my ears to be entirely electronic.

The background vocals are mostly sparse and tasteful; there's a couple more rousing chorus-and-Indian percussion numbers that might make the casual listener a little more sympathetic to the robed Hare Krishnas still found occasionally here in NYC.

Take this music as it was meant: not as an artistic statement or bit of entertainment (though it is both), but as the evidence that Alice Coltrane was in fact some kind of sainted holy woman. It's not that this music will cure your aches and pains, protect you against swine flu, nor give you an "e-ticket" into the religious paradise of your choice; and nor should it convince you to give away your belongings and linger about in airports dressed in pastel robes, but let it be your proof that if you call out to the spirits of peace, and wisdom, and serenity, you will be answered.

Alice Coltrane - Turiyasangitananda
The Vedantic Center Ashram's Infinite Chants, 1990

(Originally posted on Ile Oxumare 5/12/2010)

The late Alice Coltrane's least known works are the series of devotional cassettes recorded for her California ashram in the 1980s and 1990s. Between her last Warner Brothers album released in 1978 and her comeback album "Translinear Light" released a few years before her passing, she had largely disappeared from the jazz world. I've tried to feature everything I could find by her from that period on this blog, and here is the last piece I know of, "Infinite Chants."

Very much in the style of "Glorious Chants" this is far from a jazz recording; and unlike "Turiya Sings" and "Divine Songs," Alice Coltrane does not sing here. She is heard in the background as an instrumental presence, her whooshing synthesizers and noodling organ setting a spacey mood for the exuberant choral chanting. Again the material is all Sanskrit Hindu devotional songs. But I hesitate to call these traditional songs. There are some wonderful new albums of kirtans, sing-along chant albums by American Hindus such as David Newman that meld accessible pop-folk to the religious songs that actually feel somehow more traditional, at least as in the chant-along do-it-yourself-Hinduism new-age bookstore tradition. But the energy of this album is very different than that.

The songs here are flavored more by a gospel sensibility: the massed anonymous voices give way to some remarkable solo moments, and the spiritual fervor communicated is, at least to me, quite affecting. Repeatedly on this album the combination of vocal harmony, percussion, spacey synths, and one of the singers standing out from the mix creates an absolutely sublime moment inside songs that are otherwise, as they are meant to be, repetitious and not particularly melodic or hook-laden. And of course there's the visionary presence of the Swamini Turiyasangitananda, as Mrs. Coltrane came to be called, with its completely off-center, ecstatic, man-overboard commitment to sharing her spiritual quest.

The only thing the All-Music Guide has to say about this album is that some of this music is from a television program called "Eternity's Pillar." I used to have a short VHS clip from that program: it had a bizarre low-budget, public-access flavor, featuring Turiyasangitananda doing her best Sun Ra impersonation, seemingly broadcast from another plane of reality where most of her consciousness was otherwise engaged. Sort of a mesmerizing culty trainwreck at first glance. But as with this album, if you can suspend your disbelief long enough to realize how deeply heartfelt all this stuff is, you can connect not just with its blissful spiritual energy if you're so inclined, but with its musical beauty.

Alice Coltrane - Turiyasangitananda, Glorious Chants, 1995
(Originally posted on Ile Oxumare 5/31/2008)

"these chants are humbly commended into the lotus hands of bhagawan sri satya sai baba to his praise and glory."

if you're looking for alice coltrane's late period hidden jazz masterpiece, you won't find it here. in the mid-1990s she was deep into her life as a religious teacher, light years away from her musical explorations as john coltrane's widow; and she had sworn off secular recordings, not as yet ready for her brief and glorious comeback shortly before her passing. instead, this is a meditative album of devotional songs.

but just like alice coltrane went to far out planes of being to bring back amazing jazz--or literally communed with stravinsky's ghost to learn the art of arrangements for strings--here she goes to some far out plane to bring a distinctive presence to these chants.

i've heard some really nice kirtan albums recently: albums of peppy hindu chants that you can't help but sing along to; the bells and drums irresistibly pulling you in just like pop music does, but joyous and filled with spirit. but here turiyasangitanda, for that is what she went by then, mostly omits the bells and the drums for weird synthesizer noodling, sometimes almost soporific or cheesy, like a cheap sci-fi movie soundtrack, and sometimes howling like an air-raid siren, while the members of her ashram peacefully sing chanted devotional songs, sometimes joined in solo by a pair of singers from india. the songs are slow and long: this is not about musical virtuosity, and these are not jams and certainly no kind of jazz. this is about a state of being: there are highs and lows, some glorious peaks and some valleys where not much happens, like slow slow intakes and outtakes of rarified air. the production is seemingly amateur, which is oddly effecting, as though emphasizing not the presence of musicians but the diaphonous presence of spirit in the silent spaces between the almost muffled sounds.

this is certainly not the best music that alice coltrane ever recorded. but i take it as living proof that she had one foot in this world and one in another, bringing back some wordless secret message for us mere mortals. by the last number on this record, i hope you find, as i do everytime i listen to it, your heart filled with some profound and otherworldly joy.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Anti-American Art: Bombers Bursting in Air

Chinese poster from the 1960s honoring the Vietnamese anti-aircraft defenses warding off American bombing missions over Vietnam. Be sure to click on this one to enlarge and see all the detail. There are camouflaged gun teams, armed gunboats, and even female militia shooting down the jets with rifles. Practice makes perfect, and these heroic defenders clearly had lots of it.

During his 2000 campaign, US Senator and war criminal John McCain, downed by one of these heroic teams in 1967, said "I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live." For those of us on the side of the Vietnamese defenders, John, the feeling is mutual.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Things Everybody Knows

I find myself a little at a loss for words over the Israeli act of war against the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and its aftermath. It's not that Israel has not done many brutal things before: as body counts go this one pales before Israel's attacks on Lebanon and Gaza in the past few years. There's just something so shameless about the rationalizations offered up by Israel's defenders, the horrifying lies and justifications of murder offered up by Israel's mouthpieces, and the utter complicity of the American press and worse, the American government. Everybody knows that Israel will rationalize its actions, Everybody knows that Israel will claim anyone it has killed is a terrorist.

I'm not one for stoking the fires of international conflict among the den of thieves known as NATO, but shouldn't it be a scandal that Israel attacked a NATO member's civilian vessel and the other NATO members are standing around whistling in a corner? I'm not one for the arbitrary valuing of American life above foreign life, but shouldn't it be a scandal that Israel murdered a completely innocent born-in-America Turkish/American young man -- Furkan Dogan, shown above -- with four bullets to the head and one to the chest, and the U.S. is equivocating? Everybody knows that there's no real justice; that Israel and the U.S. determine how so-called international law is applied.

I listened to NPR radio last night to the most vile propaganda imaginable, and the Israeli ambassador to the US basically admitted
Israel's premeditated assault
on the Turkish ship where so many were killed and wounded: "The particular ship that did encounter the violent incident was simply too large to stop by nonviolent means. The others ships were not and that is one of the reasons they were towed safely to port," Oren said on the program that aired today.

Worst of all is this ridiculous American notion that there must be some truth to both sides, that sure, Israel has done some bad things, but HAMAS are TERRORISTS! ROCKETS! MISSILES! ROCKETS! SELF-DEFENSE! Let me say that unequivocally here: there are not two sides to this story, and anybody who says there are is complicit in the racist and inhuman demonization of the Palestinian people. All those rockets Hamas is supposed to have fired have killed fewer people than Israel just did this week in its attack on the Freedom Flotilla. As I have written before, if you are for separation of church and state, if you are for equal civil rights for all people, if you are for peace, you must recognize Israel for the murderous monstrosity that it is. Everybody knows that to listen to the lies of the Israelis you must shut your mind to the truths of the Palestinians.

This is denial on a massive scale. Everybody knows that the twin evils of the war on drugs and the narco-trafficking criminal empire which waste so much life, so much money, strand so many people in prisons, cause such pain, plunge entire nations into the depths of corruption, all these things, would just go away if drugs were legalized. Well here's the news: the violence in the middle east? The rise of fundamentalism and terrorism? The corruption of undemocratic regimes? The waste of so much life, human suffering on a grand scale? The solution for these problems is before us as well, and everybody knows it. The white people of South Africa have lived with majority rule for almost two decades now. There are challenges, to be sure. But the arrival of justice did not bring genocide. The Jewish people living in Palestine can adjust to being equal citizens with their Arab neighbors. A future of justice and decency demands it. The time is coming for the end of Israel as we know it.

Here are some more links of value about the Flotilla massacre. I will not link to any of the Israeli propaganda videos justifying their murder of innocents.

Eyewitness account from Mary Hughes, cofounder of Free Gaza movement.

Another survivor's account here.

Putting Names to the Faces of those Murdered by Israel

Evidence of digital fakery in Israel's so-called proof

Naomi Klein on the shooting of an American art student during a protest of the flotilla massacre on the West Bank.

Glenn Greenwald speaking truth to the corrupt media/political establishment.

The AngryArab puts narcissist NYT columnist Thomas Friedman in his place

Finally thanks to Jews Sans Frontieres for publicizing the graphic below:

Update: Required reading, a detailed refutation of Israeli talking points.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Anti-American Art: Stovepipe Hat, Lightnin' Why Don't Ya Hear Me Cryin'

A 1980 poster from Cuba's OSPAAAL entitled "World Solidarity with the Cuban Revolution." It shows a lightning bolt zapping through Uncle Sam's head, and a large Cuban flag.

According to wikipedia, Uncle Sam dates back to the War of 1812, and this most classic visual imagination of him dates to a World War 1 recruiting poster from 1917.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Massacre Monument

When I was a boy in the 1960s, I used to linger at this statue in front of the Chicago Historical Society. It's huge--certainly in my memory--these figures are larger than life. It shows the Potawatomi Chief Black Partridge rescuing the white settler woman Margaret Helm from being killed during what is remembered as the Fort Dearborn Massacre, when Indian tribes allied with the British during the war of 1812 successfully destroyed the Chicago-area settlement of Fort Dearborn. It's an evocative statue in a sort of heroic realist style. The "hostile" warrior raises his tomahawk to strike, the "friendly" chief's hand raised to stop him; the lithe Ms. Helm writhes dramatically, indeed erotically, between them. A white baby raises his teeny hand out for aid at their feet. I don't remember the other side clearly, though I remember further mayhem: I think another Indian crouches over his fallen victim. There's a visceral quality to it all: the rippling muscles, the violent instant eternalized in bronze.

Sometime after my departure from Chicago in the 1970s this statue was removed to a warehouse, a victim of changing sensibilities, and protests from Native Americans have prevented its planned re-installation in a memorial park for Fort Dearborn. Indeed the term "Fort Dearborn Massacre" seems to be falling out of favor, replaced by the Battle of Fort Dearborn.

I'm sure the railroad robber baron who commissioned this statue in 1893--interestingly enough a few short years after the final defeat of the Sioux nation at Wounded Knee--intended it to strike fear into the hearts of little white boys and virginal white maidens. It's surely some kind of triumphant monument to the final defeat of the fearsome savages, and proof that the industrious white race deserved its victory, so recently having proved its mastery of the continent. It's a justification for everything that happened between 1812 and 1893 as the United States moved west, pushing the indigenous residents onto smaller and smaller patches of land at bayonet point.

Oh it's clear that in the battle/massacre of Fort Dearborn, the Indians killed about half of those hapless settlers, soldiers and civilian alike, about 45 of them, and the half who survived were sold to the British allies. But in the ocean of blood spilt by the new republic as it pushed into Indian lands, this massacre was but a drop.

I don't remember feeling fear when I looked at this statue as a little boy. What I remember feeling was a kind of admiration. I wanted to meet those fearsome Indians, and it didn't matter whether it was the "bad" one about to deprive Ms. Helm of her scalp, or the "good" one nobly intervening. Those weren't savages, those were people; mysterious and compelling people, but people nevertheless. When me and my little friends played settlers and Indians I knew from this statue I always wanted to be the Indian. In my own play fantasies with my little toy figures I remember that the Indians always won the battle of the bedroom floor. My poor little cowboy and pioneer figures; half the time I was content to leave them in the toybox and just play with plastic Indians. Is this the way the world works among children? Do we choose sides so early?

Today America's bugaboo is no longer wild Indians, it's Muslims and terrorists, though in the popular imagination those two words mean the same thing anyway. A community board in New York City has just given permission for the construction of an Islamic mosque and community center, Cordoba House, near the "ground zero" site of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, and predictably there's no end to the outrage. The imam of this center, Feisal Abdul Rauf, has plainly condemned terrorism; numerous victims of the 911 attacks were Muslims, and yet somehow, in typically bigoted American fashion, because the 911 hijackers were Muslim extremists this mosque is being called an insensitive insult to the memory of the fallen. Well, to the memory of the fallen non-Muslims apparently, since they're the only ones who count. Somehow the presence of an Islamic center near the eventual 911 memorial is just too much for these people to bear.

Even on the gay blog I read frequently, Joe.My.God., this mosque has engendered a fierce debate, with numerous gay men repeating ridiculous canards against Islam, basically suggesting that all Muslims want nothing more than to behead gay men on sight.

I am struck by how the tomahawking Indian savage of past American imagination has been replaced by the bomb-throwing, sword-bearing Muslim savage of present American imagination: both are charging fearlessly toward our heads, their goal expanded from just our scalps to our entire heads. This is rich with metaphor. Americans are nothing if not consistent. I suppose we are lucky that artistic sensibilities have changed: I'm trying to picture the bronze statue showing fiendish Muslims ravaging a modern Ms. Margaret Helm.

There's just something so arrogant about American intolerance. 911 was a terrible tragedy. I witnessed it. I lived with it. I walked home across the bridge with thousands of other frightened, saddened people. Every morning for weeks after the attack I saw the pillar of fire and smoke from my bathroom window. The nearly three thousand innocent people who died that day deserve to be honored and remembered. But we have no monopoly on tragedy. Our suffering as Americans doesn't make us superior beings. How many 911s has the United States inflicted on the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in its almost ten-year quest for vengeance? If you're a family in the rugged borderlands of Pakistan murdered by a predator drone that's mistaken you for a band of terrorists, is your death less tragic than an investment trader doomed at his or her desk? In the ocean of blood spilt during this misbegotten war between the US and "terror," what drops reflect the innocents of 911? Are those redder drops than all the people killed by "shock and awe" and its aftermath?

Whatever monument is built at the site of 911, I hope there are directions from there to Cordoba House. The monument to those lost that day needs to humanize people not demonize them. Oh I'm not saying it needs to rehabilitate the criminals who carried out the 911 attacks, nor am I offering sympathy for the perverse fundamentalists of Al-Qaeda. But as long as Americans fail to see themselves reflected in the faces of others, it will just be a matter of time before we have to build yet another monument to another massacre.

By way of humanizing the Potowatomi nation who won the Battle of Fort Dearborn--or committed the massacre of Fort Dearborn, your choice--check out The Pokagon Times for a video of the Pokagon band of Potawatomi performing at the rededication of a park at the site of Fort Dearbon in Chicago in 2009. A detailed history of the Potawatomi nations can be found at Also recommended is the First Nations site index.

Top postcard photo from Chuckman's Chicago Nostalgia. Bottom image of the statue at its original location on the south side of Chicago from Wikipedia.