Friday, December 31, 2010

Legends of Black Jazz Reunite

The Black Jazz label was a pioneering jazz record label in the early 1970s. Similar to the Strata-East label, it was artist-owned, independent, and specialized in giving its roster of artists the opportunity to freely express themselves. The early 1970s was the high-water mark of post-Coltrane "spiritual" jazz, and the artists who made the music were culturally aware, political conscious, and saw themselves at the nexus of a movement to convey a sort of spiritual awakening through the artistic expression of newly empowered African-American community. Some of the Black Jazz artists, bassist Henry Franklin comes to mind, are still around and recording. Others passed on or slipped into obscurity. What I never thought is that in 2010 I would have the opportunity to hear a concert by some of the most influential and creative of the Black Jazz legends. Last night I did.

Billed as the Doug and Jean Carn Reunion Concert, a celebration for Kwanzaa, the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium brought these two amazing legends back together before an audience at the Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. Keyboardist Doug Carn recorded three albums with his then wife Jean in the very early 1970s: Infant Eyes, Revelation and Spirit of the New Land. The music was not lost to the ages: though the original vinyl in their distinctive black-and-white sleeves commands hefty collector prices, eventually all the Black Jazz albums have been reissued on CD first in Japan and then by a reactivated Black Jazz reissue label in the U.S. The Carns specialized in putting lyrics to some of the standards of spiritual jazz: songs like John Coltrane's "Welcome," "Naima," and "A Love Supreme," or Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes," or Bobby Hutcherson's "Little B's Poem" as well as some Doug Carn originals all gained new dimension as vocal works.

Jean Carn moved on to be one of the leading voices of 1970s spiritual jazz. Singing on records by the likes of Norman Connors, Azar Lawrence and others, her multi-octave soaring voice became a trademark of the genre. She then broke out into the mainstream by singing with Philadelphia International's wiz Dexter Wansel, and then gaining a contract of her own with the label, went to disco fame with several albums including the one that spawned the massive club classic "Was That All It Was." She dropped off the radar sometime in the 1980s. Doug Carn recorded an album in the late 1970s as Abdul Rahim Ibrahim combining his new Islamic faith with the sounds of jazz-funk. He recently made it back on the scene recording for independent jazz labels.

But here in Brooklyn last night Doug and Jean Carn were back, singing the songs of those three classic Black Jazz albums. Doug Carn played piano, and was joined by Stacy Dillard on sax, Duane Eubanks on trumpet, and two brothers named Carter on stand-up bass and drums. They played two Doug Carn instrumental originals before Jean Carn made her entrance. At sixty-three, she was in incredible form. Dancing around the stage in the apparent body of a twenty-something, her voice has lost none of its power and range.

The band performed an extended set, covering many, many of the songs from Doug and Jean Carn's three Black Jazz albums. Opening with strains of "Welcome," and then into "Little B's Poem," they soon performed "Time Is Running Out," Horace Silver's "Peace," and "Power and Glory." Ms. Carn left the stage for the band to perform an instrumental tribute to the late Dr. Billy Taylor who just died; a song I couldn't quite identify but was one of the highpoints of the evening. The saxophonist Stacy Dillard really impressed me -- and the audience; he had them shouting and whistling -- with some incredible playing. Jean Carn returned and the they played "Moon Child," "Revelation," and the absolute highpoint of the evening, "Infant Eyes," dedicated to their daughter, now grown, a lawyer, and in the audience. Jean Carn's range and soulful feeling, from her soaring heights to her trademark gospel growl were simply extraordinary. The audience was on its feet. They continued on playing "Naima," "Acknowledgement" from "A Love Supreme," and their vocal version of Miles Davis' "Blue in Green."

I felt like it took a moment for the band to coalesce and get into the swing of things, but when they got going the music became quite amazing. The harmonies between trumpet and sax evoked the classic modal Blue Note sound, and the almost apocalyptic religion-tinged lyrics evoked the moment of consciousness nearly forty years ago that gave birth to them. There was a righteous positivity about them that is the extension of gospel music into jazz. Straight-ahead instrumental jazz with extended bass solos can leave me a little cold sometimes, and it's the spiritual edge or the oomph of a thrilling vocalist like Ms. Carn that makes it accessible to me: the concert was all that, exciting to witness. To hear Jean Carn still able to vocalize this music was really inspiring.

It was a great audience. Because of the snow lingering on the ground from our "snowpocalypse" this week, the auditorium took a while to fill up. The show started late, opened by an extraordinary dance and drumming troupe let by a charismatic dancer from Cote D'Ivoire. But the show ran long and nobody was complaining ending at 11:30 pm on a cold winter night. I'm so impressed at the overwhelmingly African-American community that's so appreciative of this art form and working so hard to keep it alive and appreciated. And it was a treat to see incredibly well-behaved little kids air-drumming along in their seats.

I don't know if this was a one-time thing or if the Carns are planning on taking this show on the road, but if you get a chance to see these two veteran musicians, don't miss it. The original Black Jazz albums are now available at Dustygroove; hopefully the bad relationship between the label's new owners and the best record store on the internet having been patched up.

(Top photo shows Doug and Jean Carn together; the middle photo shows Ms. Carn between the Carter brothers. Bottom photo shows saxophonist Stacy Dillard next to Doug Carn at the piano. All photos by me; if you snag these please credit The Cahokian and link back here.)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010 Year's End Navel-Gazing

The end of the year is rightly a time for looking back. A year ago I resolved to make The Cahokian a major focus of my creative energy: I would post every day. I had started this blog in July, 2006, without any particular goals other than an occasional excuse to rant about politics or share some bit of news or passed along internet phenomenon. In January 2008 I branched out to my tremendously successful music blog Ile Oxumare (580,000 visits, over 1,300,000 page views, 144 blog followers) which soon became not just an excuse to share music but a forum for music and occasional social criticism. Music blogging proved to be a bit of land-mined turf, and I've cut that back to semi-comatose levels.

But here we are a year into my commitment to The Cahokian and I'm proud to say I only missed two or three days. The big challenge for a blog like this is, of course, not only coming up with something to say every day but drumming up readership. I've tried to post links to my blog at other blogs and on facebook in a reasoned fashion: but nobody loves an endlessly self-promoting blogwhore. My results are modest but encouraging. Since I installed sitemeter in November of 2009 I've had over 14,000 visits with over 22,000 page views; and fourteen of you are blog followers. The daily average readership has most definitely crept up over the course of the year. I've had spikes in readership when I've successfully drawn attention to a post that strikes a nerve or where somebody else has highlighted a blog entry on a forum or another blog. Google analytics give me somewhat higher statistics. They also tell me that my most successful posts -- from a popularity point of view -- remain my music-related posts, with "The Terror and Beauty of Difficult Music" being my all-time pageview high. My post about gay life in Nicaragua is a big winner. My "Fun Facts About Yemen" post was apparently well-titled because it's a perennial hit. Not shocking is the popularity of my piece about working at Juggs Magazine in the porn industry. Internet viewers are, apparently, always looking for a little titilation. I apologize to those of you looking in vain here for information about the ancient Cahokian civilization; for what it's worth making a pilgrimage to the Cahokian site near St. Louis is high on my travel plans. Most of my readers are Americans. The shocking statistic (according to google, I didn't notice it on sitemeter) is that my second largest audience is in Saudi Arabia. Salaam to you; I'd love to know who you are. The UK and Canada bring up third and fourth place.

I'm proud of what I've written and of the images I've curated this past year. I am occasionally disappointed to realize how completely an unseen engine controls the topic of discourse in society: my own responses to the issues of the day are clearly as subject to that manipulation as every other voice in the blogosphere. Sometimes we think we're having original thoughts on original subjects when it turns out we're just being drawn along by the pulse and beat of what used to be called a news cycle. And yet I think my voice and perspective has deepened and clarified. Writing this blog has certainly kept me creatively and intellectually stimulated all year in the face of challenging political and economic times: I hope some of you readers have found it rewarding. I recognize there's not necessarily a huge audience for an anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-zionist, pro-socialist, pro-spirituality, pro-gay, nostalgically late-boomer, urban-based, jazz-centric personal blog, but heck, that's the beauty of the internet. To those of you reading this, especially my loyal regulars, you have my profound thanks for following along.

So what does the future hold for The Cahokian? I'm not promising to keep up daily posts at quite such a religious level of commitment. My archive of anti-American art has only a few scraps lying around: I'd like to develop a new graphic series for the new year. I have files to go through for more old writings and many many photographs I'd like to scan. Having finally braved the world of digital photography (the first few times I downloaded pictures from my camera to the computer I had to reassure myself I didn't need to turn the lights off to safely do so), there are a number of photography assignments I'd like to realize. The first one of those is likely to be "Botanica windows of New York." Stay tuned. The handover of the house of representatives to Republicans is sure to provide heaping helpings of outrage. The teabaggers aren't going anywhere, a new presidential election cycle begins soon (so early!) and there is the small matter of the world at low-level war. The balancing act President Obama will have to walk this year will be interesting, to say the least. All of which means there will be plenty to write about.

It's been a good year for this blog, on to the next one. Thanks to Skynet (Google!) for the free platform. Thanks to you for reading. Thanks to God for my voice.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

At the Sunset of Time

What would it be like to watch the the end of the society you know? To watch free thinking, philosophy and scientific exploration driven into the shadows as fake populist dogma turns regular people into mobs of violent know-nothings? No, it's not the Teabagger Story, it's a wonderful movie I just watched called "Agora." Directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar and starring Rachel Weisz, Agora tells the story of the philosopher Hypatia in late Roman-empire Egypt. While apparently a big hit in Europe, the film received limited distribution in the U.S. and is just recently out on DVD.

Hypatia was the daughter of a noted Pagan philosopher and mathematician in the Hellenic tradition and became a noted figure in her own right. Rome had officially converted to Christianity in the fourth century, and by the time the movie is set in the early fifth century, Christianity is sweeping Alexandria and threatening the cultural balance in a cosmpolitan city where Pagans, Jews and Christians seem to exist in relative harmony. The Pagans guard the legacy of science and learning in their library where the rescued scrolls from the earlier classical library of Alexandria have been preserved. Christians sweep to power and their intolerance soon victimizes the Pagans and Jews. Since it's historical fact, it's not ruining the movie to note that it ends with Hypatia being accused of being a witch and being murdered by a Christian mob.

I found the movie quite moving. Where it could easily have been an average sword-and-sandal epic, it's actually quite brave in its narrative and sensibility, and quite spiritual in its contemplation of someone on the verge of cosmic understanding at the same time she sees the world around her descend into darkness. Rachel Weisz as Hypatia is given an unusual role: the brainy, intellectual heroine of the film, a woman who rejects sensual physicality in favor of more heady pursuits. The Pagans are depicted somewhat sympathetically, albeit as doomed effete slave-owners failing to keep up with the times. The film reserves its real venom for its portrayal of the dark-age Christians, suggesting them to be an Al-Qaeda-like band of unreasonable zealots hypnotized by bad thinking, and unhindered by doubt or self-exploration.

I'm fascinated that a movie was made this way. The Christians are clad in black, and their visual heaviness contrasts with the light and airy scenes of Pagan culture and society. They are shown to be unspeakably brutal in their attacks on the Pagans and their library, and later in a pogrom against the Jews of Alexandria. They call the scrolls in the library "Pagan filth" and considerable time is devoted to showing their disdain for any knowledge outside the word of God revealed in the Bible. I can't imagine a film like this being made in the United States.

The film's antihero is Davus, the slave -- later freed slave -- of Hypatia, whose bonds draw him to the social justice and charity promised by the Christians, but who ends up becoming a fanatical killer. Which, with no particular animus to my Christian friends, pretty much sums up the tragedy that religion seems to often bring upon itself when it overly dominates the public square (literally what "Agora" means). While this allegorical film casts its harshest eye on ancient Christianity, I do like to point out that Tibet, home to the peace-loving altruism of Buddhism, was home to a particularly aggressive military/feudal social structure replete with slavery abolished only midway through the last century. I'm equally certain the story of medieval Nigeria, where my Yoruba/Santeria tradition is rooted, is an unlovely tale of feudalism and slave trading.

In the end one must assume that director Amenábar is defending all manner of secularism against religious dogma; and that his allegorical portrayal of the Roman Empire on the cusp of the dark ages is meant to be a warning for our own times. The spiritual/religious person in me can only sharply agree. For if spirituality can unlock the world's most intimate secrets and bring comfort, fulfillment and peace to individuals and communities, history teaches us that it must remain separated from governance.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Snowpocalypse Part 2: NYC FAIL

I snagged this really cool picture of the highway up in the 'burbs from facebook. It's pretty incredible. We don't have quite that much snow in the city, though it seems to have been plenty, because the real story of the snowpocalypse turns out to be that it's yet another sign of our failing urban infrastructure.

My street had a stalled bus at the foot of the hill from Sunday night til this afternoon -- Tuesday -- and the street is still not plowed. Which means the busline can't run on the street at all. The crosswalk up by the main avenue is a jumbled mass of snow that people can hardly walk through. While the avenue itself is cleared there are few cutaways to the sidewalk. Any subways which spend part of their route operating above ground are still iffy. And there's been no mail delivery since last Friday; apparently that "neither rain nor snow nor dead of night" line was just a line. And it stopped snowing before dawn on Monday.

Mayor Bloomberg has come under severe criticism for his handling of the cleanup in the storm's aftermath. Budget cuts have meant layoffs and staffing reductions through attrition and it's obvious that this has had an effect on the city's ability to deal with the weather. Not a big surprise since Bloomberg values the richest residents of the city above all others. Coupled with the debacle of the rollout of electronic voting machines this last election, and subway cutbacks which have lengthened rides and dramatically increased costs, Bloomberg's last term is not chalking up a roster of achievement. His government seems callous and out of touch, living in a rarified universe far above the streets and the rest of us.

It's completely empirical, but having lived in NYC since 1981 I've seen a lot of bad weather and it's only in the past few years that the city has been brought to its knees so completely by precipitation. Even a heavy rain seems to throw the subways into crisis, and seeing normally busy streets go unplowed for two days would have once been unimaginable.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Snowpocalypse Now?

While I'm not sure last night's snowfall truly counts as the "snowpocalypse" it's being called on the news, it was an impressive storm. The wind was really something else: looking out my window you could barely see across the street. I woke up this morning wondering where the snow had drifted, and opened the front door to see that the answer was my side of the street. See photo above!

When I was a kid I was haunted by a movie whose name I never found out of people trapped in a house during a snowstorm; they had to escape out the second floor the snow was so high. So it wasn't that bad but still I had to shovel almost two feet of snow away from the door merely to have the pleasure of shovelling the snow from the front yard and the sidewalk. There were a few people bravely trekking off to work, and looking miserable for all the beauty of the snow-covered street. As of this evening the street itself has not been plowed; I saw a cross-country skier out earlier but anybody with a car is out of luck.

I was asked to take the week off from my job, and frankly I'm not complaining. I'm thinking of various friends who travelled off for short visits to family out of town and am glad I'm not dealing with that kind of uncertainty about being able to get back home.

So for now until the soot and city dirt and the dog piss kick in, my block is a bit of a beautiful winter wonderland. I'm staying inside where it's at least slightly warm, counting my blessings for a full pantry. Also counting my blessings that I'm not one of the feral cats living out back. The Christmas lights are still on up and down the block; it's the second night of Kwanzaa, and all is well.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Teena Marie Passes at 54

I was all set to write about the snowpocalypse happening outside my window when I learned that Teena Marie has died, at the age of 54; in her sleep of unspecified causes. Teena Marie is often dismissed as a sideshow to the late Rick James, with whom she was long associated. But she was an amazing musician in her own right, a prodigy of so-called "blue-eyed soul." She recorded a number of albums for Motown, before moving on to Epic and then to indie-label purgatory. Famously her first Motown album was released without her picture on the cover because the record company knew she was gonna be a soul-music hit but worried that the records wouldn't sell if consumers' first impression was her skin color and not her amazing voice. Fortunately, she was a lot smarter than that. Although it has been years since one of her records was popular in the mainstream, she continued to put out albums, though sadly like many women musicians who aren't easily pigeonholed or aren't creating lowest-common-denominator pop confections she didn't seem to get much exposure.

I loved her funky danceable tunes from the late 1970s and early 1980s like Square Biz and I Need Your Lovin', but I have to say my weak spot is for her mellow "quiet storm" ballads and her jazzy mid-tempo numbers. She could really swing, and her soulful, jazzy delivery, and amazingly flexible voice was really special. One of her post-Motown songs, Casanova Brown, about her failed personal relationship with Rick James, is one of those songs you can (and I have) listen to over and over again. Her soaring vocal swoops and emotional delivery is devastating.

Here's a live clip recorded in 1990, which while not as polished as the album version, shows the emotion she conveys. It also cuts off at the emotional highpoint of the song, "Did you hear me crying baby?/It sounded a little bit liiiiiiiike this", that word "like" drawn out into many syllables of exquisite pain. Track down the whole single.

One of her most moving songs is a spiritual tune written by Rick James for her first album. Deja Vu (I've Been Here Before) is an odd bit of spirituality, both exulting in reincarnation and karma, and then, in the end, suggesting that now she's above all that. It's extraordinarily beautiful and the song starts out simply with her voice, ocean sounds, a guitar and flutes.
"I Am Young And I Am Old
I Am Rich And I Am Poor
I Feel Like I've Been On This Earth Many Times Before
Once I Was A White Gazelle On Horseback Riding Free
Searching In The Darkness For A Piece Of Me.
I Can Feel This For Sure.
I've Been Here Before."

Then a harp clicks in and the background chorus, and the song moves to a sort of spiritual gospel climax. It's over seven minutes long.
"And I Can Feel This For Sure………..
If Hate Is On Your Mind And U Can't Give Love in Kind
If Anger Is Your Friend
Don't U Know When U Die You Will Come Back Again
In The Master's Plan, You Will Come Back Woman Or Man.
If Your Life Is Full Of Sin,
Don't U Know When U Die U Will Come Back Again!
I Thank God! I Thank God! I Thank God!
I Am Not Coming Back No More!!
I've Been Here Before.
I Thank God! I Thank God! I Thank God! (I Don't Want To Come Back No More!)"

I loved Teena Marie's music but I also loved how she decided to embrace being a white woman making soul music. She was respectful of its traditions, and mindful of the social justice embedded in that tradition. You can hear her sing a bit of Donny Hathaway's anthem "Someday We'll All Be Free" on an added bonus track to one of her CDs, for instance. And unlike so many of today's musical posers, she had actual, incredible talent, both as a singer and an instrumentalist. She proved herself every ounce the real thing. What a great loss to the world her passing is.

"Too many colors, too many colors I can't blend
One million different shades
Too many colors, too many paint-by-number minds
Too many twisted minds
It would be bliss if we were color-free
But I'm asking too much
So if you hear me cry, just know that I
I want to be touched
I need to be loved
I long to be touched and loved by too too many colors"

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Little Christ for Your Christmas

Despite this hastily-created ironic graphic that you can actually buy on your choice of t-shirt, bag, mug or coaster, I'm not actually so big on Jesus. As I type that I can of course hear a smiling voice in my head say, "well that's okay, cause Jesus is big on you." Heh heh. yes, well. Not that I have any particular issue with Jesus: rebel against Rome, inspirational man teaching people to commit acts of decency on fellow humans, nothing to hate on there. If some of his followers like the label "Christian" better than paying attention to what He actually said, I freely admit that's not Jesus's problem.

When I was a little kid I loved playing with the family creche set, a nicely painted little diorama with figures of shepherds and apparent Arab kings and a happy little family and lots of sheep, plus a little angel that never quite stayed attached to the top of that shed called a manger. But despite my mother's intentions Christianity never stuck with me, though thankfully, I've grown out of the angry rage that so many gay people have for His religion.

But Christmas is a lovely holiday; social obligations balanced by the chance to see people you haven't seen in a while, exchange some gifts, and drink a little too much. It's not clear to me if Jesus was a drinker exactly, but He did turn water into wine and that's a pretty impressive and useful talent.

So as they say in our secular society, happy holidays. But if Jesus is indeed your comrade, then may you have blessed celebration of His birth.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Anti-American Art: Welcome and Unwelcome Guests

Strangely enough, during the 1980s when Nicaragua was engaged in a de facto war with the United States, fighting off rebels armed and trained by Ronald Reagan's special forces and CIA, this is the only stamp issued by the Sandinista government that alludes to that conflict. Oh, Nicaraguan stamps were plenty political: they were largely printed in Cuba, which specialized in printing stamps for a number of countries in the vague orbit of the Soviet Union. In fact stamps issued in 1983 showing Karl Marx were distributed by the Reagan government to members of the U.S. congress to prove that the Sandinistas represented the communist threat at the American doorstep. But the stamps with political themes were largely confined to marking the anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, fallen Sandinista martyrs, and occasionally an anniversary of note to the international left.

Incongruously to outsiders, this stamp showing crowds carrying a banner was issued as part of a series marking the visit of Pope John Paul II to Nicaragua in 1983. It reads "Nicaragua Lucha por la Paz" or "Nicaragua Fights for Peace." The depicted banner reads "Por Nuestros Hijos Venceremos la Agresion Imperialista: No Volveran": "For Our Children We Will Defeat Imperialist Aggression: They Shall Not Return." The Sandinistas were hoping the Pope would show the church's commitment to social justice and embrace them. The Pope hated communism much more than he loved social justice and pretty much turned his back.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dear American South: Let Me Refresh Your Memory...

"I just don’t remember it as being that bad," -- current Mississippi governor and leading Republican Haley Barbour remembering his youth in Missippi in 1962.

"Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
Can't you see it
Can't you feel it
It's all in the air
I can't stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day's gonna be my last
Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don't belong here
I don't belong there
I've even stopped believing in prayer
Don't tell me
I tell you
Me and my people just about due
I've been there so I know
They keep on saying "Go slow!"
But that's just the trouble
"do it slow"
Washing the windows
"do it slow"
Picking the cotton
"do it slow"
You're just plain rotten
"do it slow"
You're too damn lazy
"do it slow"
The thinking's crazy
"do it slow"
Where am I going
What am I doing
I don't know
I don't know
Just try to do your very best
Stand up be counted with all the rest
For everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
I made you thought I was kiddin' didn't we
Picket lines
School boycotts
They try to say it's a communist plot
All I want is equality
for my sister my brother my people and me
Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you'd stop calling me Sister Sadie
Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You're all gonna die and die like flies
I don't trust you any more"

-- singer Nina Simone, 1963

"Had I found myself alive in those days, I think, I hope, to pray to God, I would have fought the way my ancestors did ... for the South." --Thomas Hiter, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organizer of the Carolina Secession Ball, just held to mark the 150th anniversary of the secession of South Carolina immediately preceding the American Civil War. (That's a photo of the Slave Market in Charleston, South Carolina, still standing.)

"Our master ordered a pot of mush to be made for our supper; after despatching which, we all lay down on the naked floor to steep in our handcuffs and chains. The women, my fellow-slaves, lay on one side of the room; and the men who were chained with me, occupied the other. I slept but little this night, which I passed in thinking of my wife and little children, whom I could not hope ever to see again. I also thought of my grandfather, and of the long nights I had passed with him, listening to his narratives of the scenes through which he had passed in Africa. I at length fell asleep, but was distressed by painful dreams. My wife and children appeared to be weeping and lamenting my calamity; and beseeching and imploring my master on their knees, not to carry me away from them. My little boy came and begged me not to go and leave him, and endeavoured, as I thought, with his little hands to break the fetters that bound me. I awoke in agony and cursed my existence. I could not pray, for the measure of my woes seemed to be full, and I felt as if there was no mercy in heaven, nor compassion on earth, for a man who was born a slave. Day at length came, and with the dawn, we resumed our journey towards the Potomac. As we passed along the road, I saw the slaves at work in the corn and tobacco-fields. I knew they toiled hard and lacked food but they were not, like me, dragged in chains from their wives, children, and friends. Compared with me, they were the happiest of mortals. I almost envied them their blessed lot." -- former slave Charles Ball, writing in 1837

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter Solstice 2010

Today is the Winter Solstice, and in the middle of the night, for the first time in several hundred years, a full eclipse of the moon will occur at the same time as the solstice. I took the photograph above in New Orleans about 15 years ago: it's a cast iron plug reinforcing a wall, common on very old buildings. It has nothing actual to do with the Solstice, but the classic simplicity of its design, a cross with four equal parts set in a circle, shares something with the easy-to-grasp classic simplicity of the Pagan concept of the Wheel of the Year: a rotating circle, divided into four solar seasons, turning, repeating and spinning into eternity. The wheel turns, time passes: the darkest, shortest day of the year -- now -- soon recedes as the days, cold at first, start to lengthen and brighten, warming, the Earth reacting to the changing light and temperature. If today's extra dark solstice night is a sign that soon the light will return, the returning light is also a sign that the darkness will also return. And so it goes.

I have nothing against complex theology. Actually it can be rewarding: I like arcane detail, and the mystical understanding that comes from deeper knowledge. That's true about subjects not limited only to spirituality and religion, I might add. But while a spiritual love affair with a chosen, or discovered, religious path might deepen with knowledge of the accumulated wisdom of generations of the faithful, there's much to be said for that simplicity of an idea so profoundly straightforward as the Solstices and the turning of the seasons.

My own spiritual journey began with acknowledging that simple natural event. And certainly that natural event continues -- and will continue hopefully for a very long time -- whether I, or anybody, notices or names it: it's so much bigger than mere humanity. Unlike Christmas with its questionable blend of Northern European quasi-Pagan folk tradition, historically doubtful Middle-Eastern myth, and perfectly modern rabid consumerism, the Solstice is just there. It happens, without a lot of explanation or doctrinal debate. Nobody has to look anything up. And conveniently, it doesn't actually contradict the teachings of any of the many worthy religions out there. I'm going to light a candle in the space where there is no light, but whether I do or not, that light will eventually return.

To me the turning wheel suggests the mysterious engine of life force called God, but that's me and my enjoyment of a quest for meaning. But to celebrate the Solstice you don't even have to make that leap of faith. You just have to marvel at the way the world is, was, and will be again. And if you're so jaded that you don't find it particularly marvelous, well, there it is, just a piece of cast iron hardware holding up a wall in a convenient and pleasing shape.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Anti-American Art: The Fickle Finger of Fate

In honor of the failure of the Korean War to restart today, after provocative live-fire military exercises by South Korea off the coast of North Korea, here's a North Korean stamp from 1973 from a series calling for the reunification of the peninsula. I don't know what the caption on it says, but it's a giant finger (of God? Doubt it!) pointing at an American tank stationed in the barbed-wire no-man's land of the Demiiltarized Zone.

After a month of sabre-rattling, North Korea had threatened to respond to today's military exercises with, well, unspecified violent-sounding retribution. With American prodding the South Korean government went ahead anyway, and fortunately North Korea has responded with...more rhetoric. Everybody should be happy about that.

I read an article on the New York Times about Bill Richardson's peace-making trip to North Korea. Most people in the comments on the web post of this article called North Korea a "bully." I thought that was darkly hilarious....the residents of the most powerful nation in the world, whose military forces are camped out on the border of the tiny nation of North Korea, whose nuclear missiles and spy satellites are pointed at that tiny improverished nation, are callying North Korea the bully. Really, people?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

DADT Repealed!

Played with the strategic wizardry of a chess master, President Obama today achieved one of his campaign promises, the repeal of the Clinton-era "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law that was used to purge the American military of lesbians and gays. Coming down to the wire in the lame duck session of Congress, Obama's skill at compromise and building support paid off for a major item in the liberal agenda. Repealing DADT was a campaign slogan, then given more urgency in this year's State of the Union address. He completely lined the ducks up in a row: he organized his Department of Defense and military bigwigs to advocate for repeal, and then worked with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to come up with compromise language to suggest that repeal of the DADT law wouldn't imply immediate culture shock to the armed forces. Through a year of ups and downs, slow advances and setbacks, with the liberal and gay community constantly calling "foul" and suggesting Obama was selling them down the river, the final duck was lined up with his tax compromise that, signed and delivered, allowed him to bust Republican unity and swing several Republican senators over to his side. The vote today was historic, possibly the first piece of stand-alone gay civil rights legislation to pass through Congress. Along the way there was lobbying, backroom deals, protests, and howls of betrayal. As it is, implementation of the repeal is likely to be slow.

On the one hand I think it's important to recognize a civil rights advance, one that adds potential momentum to civil rights advances in other areas, especially employment non-discrimination. It's important to see this as a victory for Obama as well: just weeks after the midterm elections his maneuvering skills seem formidable. The fact that the right and center wings of the Republican party were just completely outmaneuvered is major. We'll see how this plays out after the new year when the House reverts to Republican control: we're not likely to see even minimally progressive legislation make it through there for a while. But I think it's also important to be reminded of what the repeal means: that gay people now have the equal right to kill and die for imperialism.

And this is not an abstraction: the U.S. remains engaged in, depending on how you count, at least two wars of aggression, and numerous questionable military engagements all over the world from Korea to Somalia. All those gay Arabic-language military translators who were fired over the last few years (and there were dozens), they will shortly be able to keep their jobs.... ensuring American and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. So as much as the extension of a democratic right is a victory, it remains incumbent on those of us on the side of peace to continue to advocate for the gay community to make wise choices. The presence of openly gay volunteer soldiers will not make these wars more just, nor make them go away. These wars are still wrong: don't enlist!

And if Obama's manipulation of the forces of government was a thing to behold, there is a caution for those on the left. He, as a force in the center, is likely to be successful in some ways that are not at all progressive. In that his strategic victories in the DADT fight make him stronger, there is the danger that it makes his repressive instincts stronger also. The Department of Justice has already made raids on leftists in the midwest, attempting to taint certain leftists with the tar of terrorism. His sabre-rattling over Korea and Iran should be watched with caution.

Still, a battle won. I'll take the good news with the bad.

(Graphic "I Want You To Die in a Foreign Desert for Corrupt Politicians...Don't Be An Idiot Don't Join up!" snagged from a comment on Queerty.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Please Dawn, Not on Christmas!

In honor of Christmas shopping, most of which I finished doing today, here's a brilliant clip from the John Waters camp classic film "Female Trouble." This is one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies, a cautionary tale for gift-givers everywhere. That is, of course, the late Divine as Dawn Davenport. If you're partaking in this sort of holiday tradition this year, pay attention!

The closest I came to holiday drama as a child was when I was given a sort of rag doll I must have asked for (yes, I had progressive parents!), and the poor thing's head fell off within minutes of unwrapping, spilling sawdust everywhere. I can still remember what felt like hours of shrieking horror at the grisly tragedy that befell my new doll. I was inconsolable. The next day my parents exchanged it for an unbreakable plastic baby doll, the kind you filled with water which would soon dribble out of a tiny hole between its legs. There are many of life's lessons right there.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

From the Annals of Hatred...

The more things change, the more they stay the same. One of the gay blogs I read everyday, that's it on my RSS feed on the left, Joe.My.God., specializes in paying attention to the rantings of the anti-gay fringe hate groups. With an apparent cast-iron stomach, blogger Joe Jervis consumes vast quantities of bigoted filth, offering up choice excerpts of outrage on a daily basis. He's made a heroic career of following the trajectory of all the groups who claim to be fighting gay and lesbian rights not out of bigotry but out of concern for "Christian civil rights," "traditional values," or pseudo-scientific "family research." I can't say my own stomach is strong enough to read all of it.

In my files I found a fascinating photocopy of an original direct mail solicitation from the original Queen of Homophobia, Anita Bryant. I grew up with Ms. Bryant's false smile shilling for Florida agri-business and selling orange juice on TV. But in 1977 Bryant became outraged at the passing of a non-discrimination ordinance in Dade County, Florida, and she became a crusader against gay civil rights. I thought it would be amusing to post a few paragraphs from this ground-breaking solicitation of anti-gay hatred to show how unoriginal are the mouthings of today's anti-gay bigots. It's been a broken record for over thirty years, sometimes louder, sometimes softer, but always the same melody of thinly disguised bigotry.

The front page of the six-page letter is shown above (go ahead and click it to see it larger). It's done in a folksy hand-typed style, with fake handwritten underlining and emphasis marks. It's a masterpiece of fundamentalist Christian, intolerant right-wing propaganda. Its fearmongering, its howling sense of victimization, its matter-of-fact dismissal of gay civil rights, and its brilliant attempt at guilt by association linking gay rights to kiddie porn is a thing to behold. Make no mistake, this is not a defense of religious freedom, it's a veritiable miniature Mein Kampf calling the black hordes of bigotry to action...and making donations. On the "stationery" of Protect America's Children here are a few hateful excerpts:

Dear Friend:

I don't hate the homosexuals!

But as a mother, I must protect my children from their evil influence. And I'm am sure you have heard about my fight here in Dade County, Florida -- and nationwide -- for the rights of my children and yours.

But I had no idea my speaking out would lead to such frightening consequences:
...ugly persecution at the hands of militant homosexual groups.
...the attempted blacklisting of my career.
...constant bitter threats to shut me up for good.
...misguided individuals hounding me and my family -- even when we go to church.

All this, because I stood up for my children -- as a mother --as an American -- as a Christian. [snip] I cannot remain silent while radical, militant homosexuals are raising millions of dolars and waging a campaign for apecial privileges under the disguise of "civil rights"... and they claim they are a legitimate minority group.

Do you realize what they want?

They want to recruit our school children under the protection of the laws of the land! [snip] One miltant homosexual group actually publishes a newsletter giving techniques to entice and recruit young men to commit unnatural sex acts. [snip]

I don't hate the homosexuals. I love them enough to tell them that truth!

She goes on to raise the issue of child pornography. (Related how?) She paints a grim picture of adults persuading children to act in porn for the price of an ice cream cone. Then she moves on to violence on TV:

Sex, violence, beatings, rape and sexual perversion is an everyday affair and happens nightly in your living room in full view of your children. Is the answer to smash your TV set? Perhaps.

She ties to all together with her "love of the Lord" and says she's not afraid of standing up for what she believes in.

I have just received a disturbing report that the militant homosexuals are planning to mount a massive public relations campaign...will you help me stop the militant homosexuals? ...and stop the evil child pornography business? ...and stop the sex and violence on television?

How? a gift of "love." $10, $15, $25, or $100 "if these issues really shake you as they do me."

That's her signature, and her clean-cut picture perfect family. There's no date but it's likely this is from 1977. Thankfully, Bryant's career as a spokesperson of hate caused her career to tank, and she was laid low by financial difficulties. She fled to the midwest, and today continues her hateful activities from Oklahoma.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Anti-American Art: This Is My Rifle, This Is My... Shell

"The Vietnamese People Must Win!" reads this oddly blocky 1960s Chinese poster. A Vietnamese soldier and a militiawoman gaze loftily into the distance as American planes fall from the reddened sky in the background. But it's hard to remove one's gaze from the remarkably phallic artillery shell the soldier holds with his chunky hand. His companion has her own weapon but his is clearly the most powerful.

The lip service Cultural Revolution-era Chinese propaganda paid to gender equity is commendable. Women were shown to be the equals of men quite matter of factly in posters like this one. It's interesting that since downfall of Mao's widow Jiang Qing shortly after the Chairman's death, the Chinese Communist Party seems, at least to the casual outside observer, completely male dominated. For all Madame Mao's vanities and excesses her role in the cultural aesthetic of classic Maoism was remarkably proto-feminist. I wonder what the political future of women is in capitalist road China.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Stamps from the Land of Dignity

I've shown many postage stamps in my Anti-Americana series: these tiny works of art serve an expressive and propagandistic purpose, a direct communication from the issuing nation not only to its own citizens but to the peoples of the world. There's an interesting story in this regard just now coming out of Palestine.

With the establishment of the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority on the Occupied West Bank and in Gaza following the Oslo Peace Accords, Israel granted the PA limited control of its own postal services including the right to issue its own stamps. Even though international authorities like the Universal Postal Union don't usually recognize the authority of states that are not fully independent, an exception was made and the new stamps of the Palestinian Authority were to be recognized as valid on international mails. Given the complex political and diplomatic situation between the Palestinian Authority, the Arab states and Israel this has not always been smooth going, but it's all legit in theory.

Israel placed several demands on the Palestinians: the subject matter of the stamps had to be "peaceful," and Israel reserved the right to reject stamps--and the mail bearing them--whose designs were deemed controversial. The Palestinian Authority began issuing stamps in 1994. The first batch of stamps were denominated in "mils," the currency of the pre-Israel Palestine mandate. Israel objected, and the Palestinians had to recalibrate the stamps in Jordanian currency.

Then the Palestinians issued a set of stamps picturing the original stamps issued by the Palestine Mandate back in the 1930s. Again Israel objected. So the Palestinian Authority played by the rules and stuck to extremely "safe" subjects: the flora and fauna of the region, Christmas holidays (think Bethlehem, in Palestine), international sporting events, and the like. As relations between the PA and Israel worsened, and then when the Hamas movement won legislative elections in Gaza, normal things like issuing stamps fell to the wayside. In 2009 the Palestine Authority tried to issue stamps to honor the central role of Jerusalem/Al Quds in Arab culture (part of an international series by many Arab countries), and Israel suppressed the effort, seizing the printed stamps before they could be released.

Now, nearly two years after Israel's brutal attack on Gaza, the so-called "Operation Cast Lead," the Hamas-run Gaza wing of the Palestinian Authority has found its own voice. Several sets of stamps have been issued this year with designs and themes that most definitely would not meet the approval of Israel censors. Hamas basically issued a big "fuck you" to the rules about content, which probably means mail using these stamps won't make it through Israeli controls. One senses the "fuck you" is also aimed at the Al-Fatah wing of the Palestine Authority, which, according to Wikileaks anyway, seems to have given tacit assent to the Israeli attack on Hamas and Gaza's civilians.

One of the sets is shown above. The stamps read, "Gaza, Land of Dignity," and the special commemorative envelope bearing them honors "Our People's Steadfastness against The Siege." Others released at the same time mark the "Significance of Al-Aqsa and Al-Quds in Muslims' Hearts," "Palestinian National Unity," and the "Resistance Victory Against Aggression on Gaza," this one showing two small children embracing amidst the ruins of the Israeli attack.

I think this kind of postal or philatelic resistance is inspiring. Despite the attempts of the Israeli state and the western powers to subdue the Palestinian people through fake peace talks and negotiations for an apartheid-style Bantustan micro-state, the Palestinians are going ahead and acting like a nation.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Anti-American Art: Four-Way Fight

Here's a modern mural, in English, from Tehran in the Islamic Republic of Iran. "Down with USA & Israel" and "His excellency the leader: Imam Khomeini's followers are always supporting palestinians and fight their enemies." That's a combination American flag/Star of David on the left. The center depicts the Al Aqsa Mosque and Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem (Al Quds), the Holy Kaaba in Mecca, and I believe another mosque in Iran. The portrait on the bottom is the invalid founder/leader of the Palestinian Hamas organization Sheik Ahmed Yassin assassinated by Israel in 2004. The quadraplegic civilian leader and spiritual figure was attacked by a helicopter gunship and the bodyguards and civilians around him were also killed. And yet somehow it is Hamas and not the Israeli government that is on the list of terrorist organizations. Which is why you see that combo star and stripes up there.

Anyway, neither Hamas' nor Iran's politics are my cup of tea, but the Palestinians are free to choose their own manner of resistance and pick their own friends. I'd rather they chose the path of secularism and socialism, but who am I.

(Photo snagged from the "Murales Politicos" website.)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Time to Castrate Testicular Metaphors And Bring Back Some Feminist Clarity

"If she gave him one of her cojones, they'd both have two." James Carville on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008

“If Hillary gave up one of her balls and gave it to Obama, he’d have two,” James Carville in Nov. 2010

"[Arizona governor] Jan Brewer has the cojones that our president does not have." - Sarah Palin to FoxNews, August 2010

"Obama and the Democrats have no balls!" - a million commenters in the liberal blogosphere, December 2010

Okay, I am a gay man, and as an admirer of the male anatomy let me say I have a fond appreciation for a nice pair of low-hangers. A nice pair of high and tight ones ain't bad either. Whether mysteriously and tantalizingly bulging inside clothing, swinging wild and free, or squeezing out behind a misplaced strap or seam, the lovely and delicate male appendage known as testicles, balls, nuts, cojones, or junk is a monument of natural wonder and sensual pleasure. But what it is not is a useful political metaphor.

The vulgarity and stupidity of using the term "balls" for political leadership or courage should be immediately self-evident from the nature of the people who use it the most. Vampire-like underminer and enabler James Carville and quitter/ignoramus Sarah Palin are now pioneers among the political class "daring" to bring such a vulgarism into everyday political discussion, and FoxNews, the great moral arbiter of our time, thinks that's fine. It is positively insidious that a linguistic moron like Sarah Palin should be setting cultural discourse by planting her finger so firmly up the anus of American media culture. It was she, of course, who uttered the barbarically cynical line, "How's that hopey-changey thing working out for you now?" A quotable line which has started to work its way not only through low-information right-wing regurgitators, but through liberal ones now manipulated into feeling betrayed by Obama.

But this is bully talk. Talking about politicians showing "balls" is an attempt to avoid actual discussion of issues. It's an attempt to oversimplify issues with dark intent, to silence deeper questioning. To narrow issues of immigration, as Palin has done, down to a testicular level is not only to evoke fear, but to suggest that immigrants themselves are somehow sapping America's "manhood," that the correct response is defensive crotch grabbing, and that it's all a schoolyard contest to see whose swagger is the widest. And these bullies are counting on intimidating those who secretly worry about their own testicular inadequacy into shutting up and going along with loud, empty-headed braggarts.

This is utter stupidity. Which might be expected from the ilk of Palin and Carville. But it's even worse that the vulgar idiocy of right-wing morons is seeping leftward as progressives react to Obama's response to a new political reality.

This equation of political power, determination, ability, and leadership with testicles is profoundly sexist and misogynist. There's a word I try very hard to avoid: it's "hysteria." And why? Because "hysteria" is a linguistic migration from crackpot sexist psychology into popular usage: it describes women losing control, shrieking and flailing about because of uncontrolled natural urges provoked by their genitalia. "Hysterical" in its original sense means acting like a woman who has lost control of herself; she has allowed her womb to take over and turn her into an irrational, raving animal: the cure for hysteria is a good slap from a stern man, or failing that, being sent away for a while. Somehow "hysterical" has been confused with "hilarious" and people use "hysterical" for something so funny they lose control of themselves. I choose not to perpetuate the notion that it is some inner "female" defect that causes us to lose control. Well I feel the same way about "balls."

Even in the backhandedly complimentary way being applied to Hillary Clinton, courage and leadership should not be considered "male" properties. It's always struck me as deeply ironic that patriarchal male-dominated society insists female submissiveness is the natural order when history shows us both the repressive origins of male dominance and thousands of examples of female leadership.

People on the left should know better than to fall for this crap. It's really a shame that feminist theory and analysis has been so marginalized and discredited with accusations of "political correctness" (always a vile, slanderous, and right-wing dodge) that disgustingly sexist language -- and the intent behind it -- is creeping back through popular culture. For a disturbingly eye-opening experience read the comments about any (probably right-wing) woman on a gay blog and start counting the c-words and the b-words and worse. Using sexual stereotypes is such an easy thing to fall into; but it only requires a little effort and sense of respect and human decency to restrain oneself.

And questioning a male leader's "balls," as is being done about Obama, isn't it rather a lot like calling him a f*g? Perhaps no one is saying Obama is literally gay, but in demasculinizing him aren't they sissyfying him? It's the same thing they mean when they, these multimillionaire rightwingers, call him an "elitist." They mean a pansified, glasses-wearing, sissy who thinks he's too rarified to hang out with the boys, with the real men. Bully speech. Kick his ass!

And let's not even go into why these people think it's cute to call balls "cojones," especially when they're plotting against Hispanic immigrants.

But perhaps what irks me the most about questioning Barack Obama's, or the Democratic Party's, metaphorical balls is that I think it is a facile argument and an incorrect interpretation of what's happening in Washington.

People on the progressive left wanted very much to believe that Obama and the Democrats are on their side. But in truth the Democrats' consensus and Obama himself are much more middle-of-the-road than all the glorious hype of the 2008 elections. But if the Democrats and Obama are a first line of defense against the advancing right-wing resurgence, it does not mean they are actually themselves left-wing.

Let's look briefly at the issue of education reform. Most on the liberal left think it means defending schools against cutbacks, defending education against bizarre testing standards, restoring quality and priority to childhood education. But to the political center (and right) education reform also means busting teacher's unions. That is a crucial difference of position. And anyone can look into Obama's rhetoric to see that he is committed to both the humanistic value of improving education and the corporate value of busting unions. This will lead him to both good and bad policies. And so it is with the economic crisis and his solutions and compromises. What the left perceives as weakness is actually a difference of position, a divergence between what we really wanted a symbolically game-changing president to be and who Obama actually is.

Obama is not a leftist. And let me add, outside of a Bernie Sanders/Dennis Kucinich fluke here and there, leftists will not be elected to government anytime soon in the kind of numbers that will make an actual difference. That is just the way it is. Hopefully, I might add, not forever. But for now.

So when the left accuses Obama of not having "balls," that is, the leadership and courage to stand up to the Republicans on the economy, I think the left is missing several crucial points. And in missing these crucial points I think the left continues to disarm itself. There is a left-wing solution to the economic crisis. And you know what? Cancelling the Bush-era tax cuts for millionaires is an insignificant teeny-tiny-tip of that iceberg. It's symbolically hugely disappointing, sure. It was nice to think that a President might draw that kind of line in the sand. But in a world where the "defense" budget will not be surrendered to right the economy, where banks and corporations will continue to be encouraged to rape the population, what's more important? That symbol -- or the extension of unemployment benefits to millions of people and a modest second economic stimulus?

The left needs to find a way to articulate its vision, advance its agenda, and pragmatically react to the reality of the times. Why are Americans not out in the streets? Right now it's a very one-sided class struggle and our side is losing. Badly and without putting up much of a fight. And we're accusing Obama and the Democrats of being weak?

So fondle some testicles today. It's fun for everybody, except, well, Lesbians (sorry, Sapphic sisters!). But stop talking about them like they're more than a random body part. It doesn't make you sound tough, it makes you sound stupid. And worse, it makes you act stupid.

(Art of anonymous nuts snagged from the excellent nostalgic gay porn blog "BJ's gay porn-crazed ramblings." It's from his post on the dread "mooseknuckle" phenomenon.)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Anti-American Art: Holiday Cruise Package Deal

"Come Alive, Leave Dead" reads another Vietnam-war era cartoon of uncertain origin, published in China. It's sardonically humorous like this previous entry in our series, and is essentially the nautical version of this one, as a ship going out labelled "U.S." is full of soldiers and war materiel, and the similarly labelled ship returning is full of coffins and wreaths.

The war was won not only because of the military brilliance of the Vietnamese and the righteousness of their cause, but because the draft meant that the American GIs were mostly not voluntary cannon fodder, and draft resistance and rebellion in the ranks of the military coupled with protests from draft-age young people were becoming real problems for the American aggressors. Can you believe the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been going for almost ten years and people are still signing up to join the military? Crazy. What's wrong with those people. One does suspect that if there was a draft the wars would have been over about five years ago.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Stirrings on the Left

Today I listened in to a bit of independant socialist senator Bernie Sanders's symbolic filibuster attempt in the U.S. Senate. It may be that ugly compromises are the best we can hope for right now, but it sure was nice to hear an actual senator saying all the right things, even if it was a futile exercise.

So it's fitting that also today I ran across an interesting web statement. It's called "An Open Letter to the Left Establishment," and it's a letter from a number of mostly B-list and C-list (no disrespect intended) leftwing figures to the symbolic bigwigs of what passes for a left in this country, people like Michael Moore, Barbara Ehrenreich, Katrina van den Heuvel and the like. Among the better known signatories are people like Cornel West, Cindy Sheehan, Cynthia McKinney, Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, and included are leftists I read daily like Louis Proyect. Most of the signatories seem like people who have never really been in the Obama camp, while the addressees are all leftists who signed on to backing Obama.

(I must fess up to being a completely E-list leftist myself who, as is plain to see here at The Cahokian, has at times vigorously supported Obama. I've often argued that supporting Obama was a necessary tactic, and I reserve the right to do so again. I believe in pragmatism and realism, and almost as much as I hate the idiocy of the right-wing teabaggers I dislike what has often appeared to me as hyperbolic whinging outrage and the almost juvenile jilted-lover routine of many who have come to oppose Obama. But I am a socialist, I do believe in fundamental change, and, well, Obama is no longer the symbolic candidate of progressives yearning to breathe free, he's the head of the most powerful military machine and instrument of mass repression on the face of the earth. Time waits for no one.)

I don't know if I'm ready to add my name to this open letter, and its organizers are indeed seeking endorsement and support, but I'm ready to ponder its message. I'll leave off the lists of signatories -- you can go to to see them and more about this campaign -- but I'm copying and pasting with source code so you can follow links the organizers provide to back up their claims. Here's the statement:

This letter is a call for active support of protest to Michael Moore, Norman Solomon, Katrina van den Heuvel, Michael Eric Dyson, Barbara Ehrenreich, Thomas Frank, Tom Hayden, Bill Fletcher Jr., Jesse Jackson Jr., and other high profile progressive supporters of the Obama electoral campaign.

With the Obama administration beginning its third year, it is by now painfully obvious that the predictions of even the most sober Obama supporters were overly optimistic. Rather than an ally, the administration has shown itself to be an implacable enemy of reform.

It has advanced repeated assaults on the New Deal safety net (including the previously sacrosanct Social Security trust fund), jettisoned any hope for substantive health care reform, attacked civil rights and environmental protections, and expanded a massive bailout further enriching an already bloated financial services and insurance industry. It has continued the occupation of Iraq and expanded the war in Afghanistan as well as our government’s covert and overt wars in South Asia and around the globe.

Along the way, the Obama administration, which referred to its left detractors as “f***ing retarded” individuals that required “drug testing,” stepped up the prosecution of federal war crime whistleblowers, and unleashed the FBI on those protesting the escalation of an insane war.

Obama’s recent announcement of a federal worker pay freeze is cynical, mean-spirited “deficit-reduction theater”. Slashing Bush’s plutocratic tax cuts would have made a much more significant contribution to deficit reduction but all signs are that the “progressive” president will cave to Republican demands for the preservation of George W. Bush’s tax breaks for the wealthy Few. Instead Obama’s tax cut plan would raise taxes for the poorest people in our country.

The election of Obama has not galvanized protest movements. To the contrary, it has depressed and undermined them, with the White House playing an active role in the discouragement and suppression of dissent – with disastrous consequences. The almost complete absence of protest from the left has emboldened the most right-wing elements inside and outside of the Obama administration to pursue and act on an ever more extreme agenda.

We are writing to you because you are well-known writers, bloggers and filmmakers with access to a range of old and new media, and you have in your power the capacity to help reignite the movement which brought millions onto the streets in February of 2003 but which has withered ever since. There are many thousands of progressives who follow your work closely and are waiting for a cue from you and others to act. We are asking you to commit yourself to actively supporting the protests of Obama administration policies which are now beginning to materialize.

In this connection we would like to mention a specific protest: the civil disobedience action being planned by Veterans for Peace involving Chris Hedges, Daniel Ellsberg, Joel Kovel, Medea Benjamin, Ray McGovern, several armed service veterans and others to take place in front of the White House on Dec. 16th.

Should you commit yourselves to backing this action and others sure to materialize in weeks and months ahead, what would otherwise be regarded as an emotional outburst of the “fringe left” will have a better chance of being seen as expressing the will of a substantial majority not only of the left, but of the American public at large. We believe that your support will help create the climate for larger and increasingly disruptive expressions of dissent – a development that is sorely needed and long overdue.

We hope that we can count on you to exercise the leadership that is required of all of us in these desperate times.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Digging in the Crates: Art Webb Reissued on CD!!

At various times in the history of digital music since CDs started to take over in the 1980s, reissues of pre-CD LPs have gone through many phases. When digital technology first took over, record companies rushed to put parts of their catalog back on the shelves. I remember furiously making the rounds of record stores every week, hoping against hope that some of my favorite wax albums had been upgraded and brought back to life by CD. Sometimes I scored, often via costly European and Japanese imports. As CD technology improved, record labels would go through another wave of back-catalog reissues, and sometimes in addition to re-reissuing remastered albums they'd dig a little deeper and broader and more forgotten vault treasures would spring back to life on the shelves. Falling for record-company hype over and over again, there are even a handful of albums I have bought three times on CD. It's a familiar pattern. The first digital reissue was welcome but didn't sound so good. Then the remastered version. WOW! And then the remastered deluxe edition in a nice digipak or mini LP-sleeve with bonus tracks. DOUBLE WOW! And the record company makes money over and over again from the same repertoire. But some albums just didn't seem to make it into the CD age, and I have on several occasions replaced favorite worn out-of-print vinyl LPs with slightly fresher less worn-out used copies.

A few years ago when digital downloads and iPods started to change how music was consumed, free (called by some, illegal) file-sharing became the rage. All of a sudden thousands of lost LPs were digitized by music lovers and shared for free over the internet. What fun! As both a consumer and sharer (through my music blog Ile Oxumare), I found this amazing. LPs I thought I had no hope of hearing again or for the first time even circulated freely among a community of music heads, real fans most of them, dedicated to the love of the groove.

And yet as the death of the CD is hourly reported, as music lovers have rediscovered crates and crates of great old LPs, it seems record companies have discovered that licensing old titles out to semi-independent labels has a little more money-making life left in it. Music blogs seem to have proved that crate diggers and seventies-grooves connoisseurs are still a loyal audience who buy enough CDs to make a new, even deeper, foray into the vaults worthwhile.

Which brings me to my discovery that two of my favorite 1970s discofied jazz-groove albums have finally made it to CD. Courtesy of the Wounded Bird reissue label, I am happy to welcome back flautist Art Webb's albums "Mr. Flute" and "Love Eyes," both, I believe, originally released back in 1977. (I bought both my copies from of course).

I bought both of these LPs back in the day. Having fallen in love with Blue Note jazz flautist Bobbi Humphrey's albums when I was in high school, I somehow assumed that all jazz flute must sound like her. Sorta funky, gurgling with danceable energy and complex, heady electric arrangements, and the occasional mellow if unvirtuosic background vocal, when I started consuming jazz LPs upon my arrival at college I kept running into disappointment in the pursuit of more jazz flute. Artists I now respect as awesome like Lloyd McNeill and James Newton disappointed the hell out of me at the time. Herbie Mann? Gees, guy pick a style and stay with it. And then I found Art Webb.

Art Webb turns out to have been a mainstay of the New York Latin music scene, and while these albums are not Latin music per se, his cred in that area comes shining through. "Mr. Flute" does conclude with an almost Santana-like Latin fusion tune cut with the group Raices, but I tended to skip that track in my hip-swinging youth. The real starmaker of "Mr. Flute" is producer Patrick Adams, who spent the late 1970s and early 1980s pioneering a gloriously glossy urban sound. And by urban I mean disco, baby. This album sounds like jazz funk dipped in a little Salsoul, with sweeping strings, a propulsive Latin beat, and the best background grooves studio singers and musicians could sell. Oh yeah and Art Webb plays the flute.

Which comes across as mean, I suppose, but what I realized from Bobbi Humphrey and Art Webb both is that the flute is a brilliant focus for a groove, riding along like foam on the crest of a wave, but I have no idea if their playing is particularly good. Oh the music is brilliant: it seduces each part of my body to the parallel lines of its groove. A little chunky guitar, the congas and cowbell, the cooing of female vocalists, the glorious bells, buried harmonies of golden horns, the sweep of those strings. Some of these songs have words, I suppose, but they're not lyrical ballads, these snatches of phrases and words whose beauty is momentary and whose meaning is nothing except the joy of getting lost in this beautiful sound. When that singer commands us to Smile in my favorite track of "Mr. Flute." that is exactly what I do. And if Herbie Mann's attempted forays into disco about the same time sounded crass and cliched, almost embarassingly forced, Art Webb via Patrick Adams gets it exactly right. While I don't think this music made it big on anybody's playlist -- it was still, after all, consigned to the deadly bins of Jazz -- the sound captures something about the spirit of the boogie, if you will, all in it together, no stars, no self, just groove.

I even featured a scratchy rip of one of these albums in the early days of Ile Oxumare. The new CD sounds terrific though, and my rip is now officially retired.

"Mr. Flute" was an album of mostly originals, and as much as it made an impression on me, it didn't really crack the charts. The follow up, "Love Eyes," tried to remedy that by including some covers, strangely all from the orbit of late Charles Stepney-era Earth Wind and Fire. There's "You Can't Hide Love" and "Devotion" which EWF both performed, and the amazing "Free" which made Deniece Williams a star under EWF's tutelage. Hubert Eaves is now in on electric piano and Patrick Adams is replaced by the eclectic John Lee and Gerry Brown, flown in from the continent on some starmaking errand, no doubt, from backing up for obscure-in-America European fusion musicians. The covers are more than serviceable -- God bless a world filled only with Earth Wind and Fire covers, I mean, really -- and even though the general formula is the same as "Mr. Flute," the album doesn't have quite the same brash freshness to my ear as the first. Not that I could live without either of these albums. These are wonderful things to have on pristine digital reissues, and whether or not the end of the CD is nigh--certainly the first thing I did when I got these is rip them to my iTunes--I'm thankful that somebody is still digging in those crates and bringing these tunes back into the light.

Thanks Art, for making this music!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Anti-American Art: Ninja Peek-a-boo

DADT repeal -- on or off? Obama -- sellout or pragmatist? Global warming, hey, it's effing COLD outside! Julian Assange -- hero or rapist? Let's take a break from today's confusing headlines and go back to basics courtesy of the reliable Democratic People's Republic of Korea propaganda machine.

"Don't be deceived by U.S. disguises" reads this atypically dour North Korean poster, more or less. That's a combination Ninja-US Military Policeman failing to hide himself very well behind an olive branch....see the dangling olives? Note the talons, the ruby red ring, the icy blue eyes, the sharp knife, and the lack of a Kim Jong Il pin. Now there's clear messaging. Beware!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Deal: Compromise and Contradiction

I heard this quote on the radio, and was glad to see it in print: “Sympathetic as I am to those who prefer a fight over compromise, as much as the political wisdom may dictate fighting over solving problems, it would be the wrong thing to do. The American people didn’t send us here to wage symbolic battles or win symbolic victories.” That's President Obama on Monday at his announcement of his deal with Republicans in Congress to temporarily extend the Bush tax cuts, including the ones for millionaires, in return for 13 months of extended unemployment pay, a bit of a tax holiday (at the expense of social security), and other bits and pieces including a compromise that splits the difference over the Estate Tax for gazillionaires which the Republicans call "the death tax."

Once right-wing pundit Andrew Sullivan called it a masterstroke, a virtual second stimulus deal that ensures Obama's reelection. Liberal NYT columnist Paul Krugman calls it a shortsighted capitulation to the Republicans that weakens his future chances. A sober analysis on the supremely unsober site Gawker sees Obama staking out the turf of the "last reasonable man in Washington."

Obama was shown on TV today attacking the Republicans for holding the economy hostage, and also for attacking the progressive/liberal left for valuing "abstract ideals" above results and for being unwilling to compromise. But what I find the most revealing of all these contradictions on these deeply unsatisfying events are Obama's words quoted above; they give me pause to consider the last three years.

Because as those of us who felt a glimmer of real hope about Obama know, it was all about the symbols, all about the abstract ideals. The Obama campaign were masterful manipulators of symbolism, and they called it right. Those symbols got him elected. Now as I have said before it turns out that the problem with symbols is that what they stand for is highly subjective, and the country wasn't really making a hard left turn at the last election, despite the wishes of those of us on, well, the hard left.

In truth Presidents do horrible things: American capitalism with all the good things like relative political freedom is actually a pretty horrible institution and the person who gets to be in charge of it all is going to be pretty horrible probably no matter what. By which I mean, Obama is risking something by shattering the last illusions of himself as the second coming of FDR, or rather, the 70-years-later liberal myth of what we wish FDR was, but not that much: he's not actually the progressive liberator. While his compromises with the Republicans are unattractive to behold, his pragmatism is probably actually doing something, short-term at least, to make things better for people in difficult times. Certainly the people whose unemployment benefits won't be cut off would agree with that.

It was exhilarating to see him elected. But from the moment of his inaugural address, though, the hard realities started to clear away the symbolic fog. He was revealed to be, well, just another American President. Which is, um, what the point of having those elections was in the first place. I strongly supported his election, and while this is not the moment, I often find him brilliant and likable. I strongly believe given the realities of 21st-century America, voting for Democrats is usually going to be the necessary...wait for it...compromise. Even when their election puts brilliant and (sometimes) likable people in charge of war machines and spies; in charge of the institutions of state repression; and in charge of the corporate/financial juggernaut that strengthens wage slavery and gives to the rich at the expense of the sweat of working people; making them instantly a lot less likable. Well it will ALWAYS do that. Until the game changes.

There's no mass movement, no socialist party, no class consciousness, and the ones out there waving the torches and pitchforks, those scary cretinous legions are no friends of progress, peace, and justice. I'm sobered by Obama's renunciation of the symbols that got him elected. But the choices, the alternatives, are few. I don't plan on surrendering my voice, my advocacy of real and permanent solutions--real socialist ones. I don't intend to renounce the hope the symbols give me. Oh it could be so much better. I know that.

But oh, it could it be so much worse.

Graphic courtesy of my blogfriend Fritz of the Album Art Exchange blog. That's the famous Sheperd Fairey poster variously entitled "Hope" or "Progress" completely subverted.