Friday, April 30, 2010

Giai Phong! 35 Years Since Saigon Liberated

Thirty-five years ago today the heroic forces of the South Vietnam National Liberation Front and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam smashed through the gates of the presidential palace of the South Vietnamese Republic and ended a cruel episode in history. The United States and its puppets were defeated after they sacrificed tens of thousands of their own soldiers and killed hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. They had attempted to bomb North Vietnam back into the stone age, created a toxic ecological nightmare, and sowed the soil with unexploded munitions that are still taking innocent lives.

This photo shows an NLF field hospital in the 1960s. Say what you will about the plight of refugees in the years following the war or the lack of democracy in postwar Vietnam; but the heroism of the NLF shown here is breathtaking.

Giai Phong!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Anti-American Art: A Warning to Invaders

This stamp from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, then only North Vietnam, issued in 1967, marks the 2,000th American aircraft shot down over the north. It shows a handcuffed POW being led from his burning aircraft by a female member of a civil defense militia. About 1,000 American POWs, including the war criminal-turned-politician John McCain, were released in 1973 following the Geneva peace accords which ended an active American military role in the war against Vietnam.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Anti-American Art: The Dominican People Will Win!

Today is the 45th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic back on April 28, 1965. A popular uprising against the right-wing and military loyal to the late (US-sponsored) dictator Trujillo threatened to bring down the government; fearing the spread of Communism in the Caribbean from Cuba to the DR, President Johnson ordered the marines to land at Santo Domingo, ostensibly to "protect foreigners." The US quickly moved to crush the uprising. This Chinese poster from 1965, with a wonderful tableaux rather strikingly representing the diversity of the Dominican population, urges victory to the Dominican people against the unspecified bullying enemy to the north.

Oh hey look you can get this image on a tea shirt, mug or bag!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Anti-American Art: The Iraqi Mrs. Miniver

A woman cradles her dead child outside the wreckage of a Baghdad civilian air-raid shelter targeted by the US Air force during the "First Gulf War" in 1991, on this stamp issued by the Republic of Iraq on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy in 2001. Over 400 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in the attack on the Al-Amiriya shelter, which was deliberately and not accidentally bombed. Puts 9/11 in a little perspective, doesn't it?

(My headline refers to the 1942 Greer Garson film Mrs. Miniver which tells the story of an English family in the early days of World War 2 as their town is bombed by the Luftwaffe. I would love to make a remake of this film set in Iraq.)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Your Papers, Please

In tribute to the new immigration law passed in Arizona. One wonders how long it will be before the Arizona authorities order rubber stamps like "ARYAN" and "MEXIKANEN" for applying to identity papers. Armbands would be so much more convenient!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Anti-American Art: Den of Spies

You may recall it as the Iran Hostage Crisis. In Iran they remember it, probably more accurately, as the "Takeover of the U.S. Spy Den." This was the first of many stamps issued later on various anniversaries to mark the occasion of the seizure of the US embassy in Teheran by militants shortly after the victory of the 1979 Islamic revolution. Here, an illustrated version of a photo montage: the crowd crashes the gates, a US flag burns, and one of the embassy staff is blindfolded. From the Islamic Republic of Iran, 1982.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Managua 1986: Words Everywhere

In the average American city you're constantly surrounded by advertising images. There are billboards, shop signs, advertising posters, stickers, signs on the sides of trucks and buses everywear you look. Lit up at night and sometimes blinking, these messages beg for our attention constantly, each one with its promise of our enhanced appearance or the possibility of entertainment or trying to convince us to part with our hard-earned money for something we don't want or need. Many of these signs are lies, carefully worded attempts to delude us into thinking we have the possibility of absolving our previous bad choices for something better. I work as a graphic designer, and I know what that's all about, trying to sell things I don't really believe in to people who probably would be happier without them. It's a living. But I digress: we learn to tune out the incessant chatter. When you watch TV really, how many cars can you buy, how many 4-hour erections can you fret over, how many medicinal side effects can you ponder before you risk the latest wonder drug, how much shampoo could you possibly use (rinse, lather, repeat again and again and again?), how many candy bars can you eat, how many laxatives will you then need to unclog your bowels of all this pollution you have bought? If I drink a new kind of beer will I be thin and beautiful, or if only I had a child with a terrible medical condition I could be unbelievably rich for the rest of my life thanks to weaselly sounding lawyers.

Most of these words mean nothing; they're irrelevant. It's all crap, and it's miraculous we're not all insane.

When I stayed in Nicaragua in 1986 there were also words everywhere you looked. But it was different. Few people had any money, and because of the US embargo there was nothing to buy anyway. I don't know what it's like now, but then there were no storefronts, no shopping, no brands to choose from. The competition of words was a different kind: I wonder if it was less futile. It certainly had more substance. These words offered actionable hope or righteous outrage or real-life determination.

The stencilled sign above from the official Sandinista trade union, on the side of a factory in Managua reads: "Cada Fabrica una trinchera por la defensa de la revolucion por la construccion del socialismo. No Pasaran!": "Each factory a trench for the defense of the revolution, for the construction of socialism. They shall not pass!"

There wasn't a lot of paper clutter in Nicaragua; paper was valuable and rare. Here's an unusual flyer, pasted on a wall by the Maoists of the MAP-ML/Frente Obrero calling for democratic rights.

As if their spoken words were not enough, here a banner behind the FSLN leadership at a "meet the people" function at a factory warns the imperialists to back off. That's FSLN chief Daniel Ortega fourth from left.

In the center of the city still unrebuilt after the earthquake of 1972, every blank wall was the canvass for another political message. Here the MAP-ML Maoists, who suffered occasional repression at the hands of the FSLN, campaign against the legalization of bourgeois political parties.

On the first of May the ruined Cathedral in the center of town was draped with banners. The one on the bottom reads "Muerte al Yanque Invasor": "Death to the Yankee Invader."

All the messages were about taking the future into one's own hands. Here the sign outside a hall says "Saca tu dolor cobarde...." "Take your pain, coward, release your sick mind...Brother are you looking for forgiveness: remember the Companeros of AA." It's an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting hall; that's the serenity prayer on the left.

If the world around me is to be cluttered up with words, I'd rather read these crude hopes and wishes and exhortations than the prettied up lies of American consumerism.
All photos copyright by me, 1986. Click on them to see them larger; they embiggen nicely.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Anti-American Art: Another War On Civilians

Surrounded by the devastation of war, American soldiers carry off a bound Korean woman civilian while her relatives cry out, in another painting from the Museum of American War Crimes in Sinchon, North Korea. I'm guessing this ends badly; and it looks like it must refer to the arrest of a specific individual during the war.

I was just listening to a report on the radio about the "attempts" of the US military to "limit" civilian casualties in Afghanistan, which struck me as sadly ironic. Maybe they should try not shooting at people. But hey, it's war, right? It's not like these are American civilians being killed! Disgusting.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"causing fear, paranoia, and hysterical behavior "

A hilarious post from the satirical website the Onion:

U.S. Flag Recalled After Causing 143 Million Deaths

Citing a series of fatal malfunctions dating back to 1777, flag manufacturer Annin & Company announced Monday that it would be recalling all makes and models of its popular American flag from both foreign and domestic markets...Millions of U.S. flag–related injuries and fatalities have been reported over a 230-year period in locations as far flung as Europe, Cuba, Korea, Gettysburg, PA, the Philippines, and Iraq. In addition, the company found that U.S. flag exports to Vietnam during the late 1960s and early 1970s resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, a clear sign that there was something seriously wrong with its product....Studies conducted by the Annin & Company research and development department revealed that faulty U.S. flags have caused more than just injuries and deaths. During the mid-1950s, the flags were found to have the bizarre side effect of causing fear, paranoia, and hysterical behavior among millions of Americans. This was dismissed as an isolated event until September 2001, when similar symptoms reemerged on a massive scale.

read the entire post. Sometimes humor is the best medicine.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Anti-American Art: The Neverending Story

Mid-1960s Chinese poster, "Drive US Imperialism Out of the Congo!" I'm guessing this is a reference to the 1964 rebellion in Stanleyville/Kisangani where leftist rebels had declared a People's Republic and US and Belgian mercenaries were brought in to suppress it. Such a sad legacy of superpower meddling in central Africa: 100 years of colonial brutality followed by fifty years of civil wars manipulated by corporate greed for Congo's resources. The violence continues today.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

23, La Luna

The following is from spiritualist Allan Kardec's "New Devotionary Spiritualist: Collection of Selected Prayers," the incredibly badly-translated and poorly-typeset prayer book used in spiritual masses by Santeros. All typos are as printed.


What a beautiful moon, its silver rostrum
Shows her face among the clouds widening its tulle
How beautiful in the seas her image reflects
With brilliant inks in blue mackground.

What gratefull aroma imparted by flowers
That bathe the brook with deaf rumor.
How beautiful and tranquil the song of love
Extend in the first the happy nightingale.

How pure the beams reducing my soul,
That lovely the ecoes I eager to hear:
How mighty oh! God your love reproduce
The fowls of the air, the flowers, the moon and the seas.

How beautiful the moon, how grateful the flowers...
How sweet is the song of the nightingale:
How pure when seeing you, ressembles my love...
How mighty oh! my God is your pure love.

I think I'll leave it at that.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Anti-American Art: Biggest Protest Demo Ever

Here's another cultural revolution-era poster from China: "US Out of Indochina" is inscribed on the one English-language protest sign here. With my near-illiterate level knowledge of Chinese characters the overall title is one of those "Peoples of the World unite against US imperialism" themes. The usual united people are here at what is surely the biggest protest demonstration ever fantasized, somewhat hilariously the center position going to a militant Albanian (in the white shirt, red vest, and white kufi). As the post-Stalin Sino-Soviet split became more pronounced, leading to a brief military confrontation in the early 1970s, China increasingly boosted its one European ally, the Albanian People's Republic lead by Enver Hoxha, and so instantly-recognizable Albanians started popping up in the militant multi-cultural ranks.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pride & Prejudice

This is the earliest known photo of abolitionist John Brown, from 1846. To me it makes a point. In the discussions of the Virginia Governor's proclamation of April as Confederate History Month, in which he originally omitted any mention of slavery, I've read many (white) people saying that southerners should not be vilified. They point out that actual slaveowners were a minority in the south, and that the masses of poor whites defending the Confederacy were not necessarily taking up arms to defend slavery. While the governor weakly apologized for his omission, he did revise the proclamation with a strong repudiation of slavery. I think the evidence is clear that despite racism in the Union, despite hesitancy on the part of Lincoln to universalize the emancipation of the slaves, the North was on the correct side of history and the South was not. If Lincoln once said that "if he could have saved the union without ending slavery he would," in the end a bloody bloody war cemented the necessity of smashing the confederacy's secession, and in so doing smashing slavery. The North did the right thing, even if that was not its original intention.

John Brown, who despite the failure of his efforts to spark a slave insurrection, is testament to the fact that ordinary people can make heroic efforts; they need not sit by while monstrous institutions such as slavery were allowed to deprive African-Americans of their dignity and humanity and to make a mockery of all the pretenses of American democracy. The poor southern whites had their chance to throw their lot in with their oppressed and enslaved brothers and sisters: they chose instead to throw their lot in with the slave-owning landowners and industrialists. This should be the shame of those whose ancestors lived in the South in those times, not the pride. That anyone is attempting to downplay slavery as the core issue of the Civil War should be the shame of our times: tellingly it is instead the watchword of conservative politicians and right-wing infotainers.

It's sort of shockingly one-sided, in fact, that as we approach the upcoming 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the focus in the South will be on white southerners celebrating their heritage. To me, the celebration in the South should be all about the hundreds of thousands of southerners who were liberated by the Civil War: the slaves and their descendants, and those, like John Brown, who laid down their lives to fight the racist evil of slavery.

Here is my great-great-grandfather William W. Scott and his wife Maria Decker Scott in 1865; he's still wearing his Union Army uniform. I don't know a lot about his life; I know he was a first generation American; that his father had immigrated here from England; and I know--I'm proud--that he was on the right side of history.

As horrified as I have been by people rushing to the defense of some kind of Confederate legacy, I've also been encouraged by a number of things I've read. Here are some of the best blog essays I've read recently in the aftermath of "Confederate History Month":

* An excellent post from brotherpeacemaker entitled "Thoughtless Thinking"
* "The Confederacy Can Kiss My Yankee Ass," by my friend Jon
* One of many excellent posts on We Are Respectable Negroes entitled "It Was Just An Inconvenient Fact"
* "Heritage Not Hate My Ass" from The Field Negro
* And a reminder of my own compilation of historical quotes detailing the Confederacy's commitment to slavery
(Thanks to Jon for pointing me to a couple of these)

Here is John Steuart Curry's famous painting "Tragic Prelude," completed in 1940, depicting Brown at the center of events leading to the Civil War. It hangs in the Kansas State House.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Anti-American Art: See-Laugh-Kill

Laughing, cigar-smoking American GI's brutalize Korean civilians as they herd them to some unspeakable end; if I had to guess I'd say they were going to seal them up in that cave or railroad tunnel in the background and then blow it up, but then I've been looking at too many propaganda paintings from North Korea's "US War Crimes Museum," of which this is another.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The lessons of Ernst Thaelmann

German communist leader Ernest Thaelmann (Thälmann) was born April 16, 1886. He was murdered by the Nazis in Buchenwald in 1944. These photos are of the massive graffiti-covered monument erected in Berlin on the centenary of his birth in 1986, just a few years before the fall of Communist East Germany; I took them in 1994.

Thaelmann is a problematic hero: the leader of Germany's Communist Party (KPD) he was arrested by the Nazis in 1933 and spent 11 years in solitary confinement in a concentration camp before being executed toward the end of the war. But despite his personal heroism, the years of his leadership saw the KPD make mistake after mistake. While the KPD had mass support in Germany, it constantly minimized the threat of the nascent National Socialists, the Nazi fascists, and directed most of its ire against the social democrats. Thaelmann was not considered a theoretical heavyweight, and his adventurist tendencies did not serve the KPD well. Thaelmann himself was known to swagger around in a sort of militaristic uniform to compete with the Nazi brownshirts.

At the risk of invoking the dreaded Godwin's law, Thaelmann's story should be something of a cautionary tale for today. While the teabaggers are not exactly Nazis (yet?), I think the left makes a serious error in discounting teabagger discontent. Progressives are faced with similar challenges as they were in Germany in the early 1930s: how to press our own agenda, critique the failings of the inadequately progressive administration of Obama without subverting the parts of our agenda that are, in fact symbolized by his election; and in defending progressive ideas against resurgent far-right Republicanism without taking responsibility for Obama's failings. This is immensely complicated by the fact that the right-wing is vastly more self-aware and organized than the left in the US. I continue to believe that saying it doesn't matter whether Obama or the Republicans win is short-sighted.

The KPD missed the key dividing line in the battle between left and right, and many historians accuse them of facilitating the rise of the Nazis. Let us not forget that battle continues today.

This monument is huge; it still stands. It's classic monumental socialist realism. It's centered in a fairly dreary modern housing project in Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Gooses and Ganders

This right-wing Israeli poster reads: "Warning! PLO Agent in the White House!" and it shows President Obama being presented with a medallion by the Saudi king beneath the Palestinian flag.

A rather public pissing match has been taking place between the Obama adminstration and the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. It started with the frankly shocking dissing of Vice President Biden by the announcement of expanded Israeli "settlements" in East Jerusalem during his visit to Israel to prepare for the possibility of preparing for possible peace talk advance preparations. Netanyahu, fully bankrolled like all Israeli governments by the US, was then called home to DC for a behind-the-scenes chiding. Obama's much vaulted tough talk to Israel was shown to be so much impotent posturing. The current rumor seems to be that Obama is working up some unilateral American peace plan for the region that will somehow solve the problems that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators seem unwilling or unable to address.

I find it fascinating--and disturbing--that the simple idea of a democratic, secular state, a concept so central to American self-identity (accurately or not) is nowhere near the negotiating table. It's so fundamental to the hypocrisy and racism involved in the middle east that the core foundational values of secular democracy are actually supressed by the nation that claims to be the number one proponent of these values.

Years ago I enjoyed reading the fiction of Doris Lessing. A former Communist, she was an interesting, thought-provoking writer. She wrote a book in the 1980s about her journey to visit the mujahedeen resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan. In it, and quite incidental to her story, is a description of an impoverished Afghan village. She describes the stream of human waste--of shit--running down the center of the village's streets since neither plumbing nor basic sanitation was available. She says something like "oh it's no big deal, you get used to it. This is just our Western value system being judgmental." (That's a complete paraphrase from memory.) And I thought, what utter crap. This woman would not go outside her house and shit in the street and think it's no big deal. It might be okay for the noble third-world exotics under her gaze, but it would not be okay for her. I understand, you visit a poor country, you poop where you gotta poop--there's a story about my stay in Nicaragua and the disturbing little wastebaskets next to every toilet you really don't want to hear--but you maintain your values about what proper sanitation should be: among other things there's good science behind using a toilet rather than the street. And frankly, this small trifle in this book caused me to question Lessing's work completely, because it revealed utter corruption in her worldview. In spinning her romance with the mujahedeen she allowed herself to embrace the irrational, and excuse for others conditions she would not accept for herself.

And so it is with Israel and many otherwise rational people. Let's set aside for a short moment all the discussion of violence and genocide and who did what to whom first and who lived where when. These are important discussions but let's set them aside: why do Americans, who claim to support secular democracy, oppose secular democracy in the "Holyland"? Why do people who opposed the barrier, the wall, in the wall between the State of Israel and the occupied territories?

Hey so there's an idea. What if that wall came down. What if there was separation of church and state between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea. What if one citizen had one vote, and nobody gets pushed into that sea. In our (flawed, for sure) Democratic Secular United States of America, religious minorities are depoliticized and so they flourish in absolute cultural freedom. Why is this not the solution for the Muslims, Jews, and Christians of the so-called Holyland? Just as sanitation methods like toilets are proven methods of fighting disease, so the democratic secular state is a proven method of fighting communal violence, of fighting injustice, of preserving minority identity. The Democratic Secular State of Palestine: it's really the only solution.

What's good for us geese is also good for those ganders, right?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Anti-American Art: The People's Wrath Is for Electric Bills...

A demonstation of South Korean civilians and apparent guerrillas seems to get out of hand on this North Korean stamp from 1973. There's a lot packed into this miniature philatelic panorama: The workers, peasants, soldiers, and even a guy in a tie have beaten back a hook-nosed American GI in an explosion of firey rage. Click on the image to see the full detail of the people's wrath. I wish I had a stamp like this to choose from when mailing in my bills.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Another passing landmark

My friend David France has an article in NY Magazine about the closing of St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City. He recounts how this hospital in Greenwich Village came to be the last stand of so many gay men in their losing fight with AIDS in the late 1980s and early 1990s. My own friend John Moroney died there. Sad reading, but as NY changes under the competing pressures of real estate developers and a bad economy it's definitely worth remembering what we'll be losing with the loss of yet another landmark, even an ugly utilitarian one.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Anti-American Art: Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Dogs of War

Sadistic American soldiers sic their dogs on a bloodied crowd of unarmed Korean civilians in another painting from the Sinchon American War Crimes Museum in North Korea.

According to the US War Dogs Association (!): "Before the outbreak of hostilities in Korea the Army was using dogs in Seoul for sentry duty around warehouses and storage areas. More than one hundred dogs were stationed there and their work proved extremely beneficial in reducing theft and pilferage. One regimental commander remarked that after using a dog for a while patrols did not want to go out without them." The USWDA does not mention if the dogs were used aggressively against civilians.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The terror and beauty of difficult music and the miracle of creation

I know I'm not the first person to think that Ralph Gleason's liner notes to Miles Davis's classic 1969 album "Bitches Brew" are about the best piece of music writing ever. I mean, he won a Grammy for those notes. Now I'm lucky if I can even read, much less admire, the liner notes on modern CDs, the type is just too fucking small. But I could read Gleason's essay over and over:

"there is so much to say about this music. i don't mean so much to explain about it because that's stupid, the music speaks for itself. what i mean is that so much flashes through my mind when i hear the tapes of this album that if i could i would write a novel about it full of life and scenes and people and blood and sweat and love."

I love a lot of kinds of music. There's play music, and cry music, and help-me-get-my-work done music; there's love-making music and boogie music; there's music to make the world go away, music to make the world more fun music, and music that makes the company of friends even better. But it's really a certain kind of music that Gleason really puts his finger on:

"it's all in there, the beauty, the terror and the love, the sheer humanity of life in this incredible electric world which is so full of distortion that it can be beautiful and frightening in the same instant."

It took me a long time to get into Miles, to get into "Bitches Brew." For that matter it took me a long time to get into John Coltrane too, though maybe starting off with "Infinity" wasn't the best way to go for that. The music these two guys came to play wasn't always pretty, although they knew how to do that. But the kind of miraculous jazz they played just sounds terrible in the background. It's because this is music that demands you pay attention to it. It's not like you can sing along or anything, and while your body can certainly feel the pulse, the beat, sometimes even that gets a little abstract.

I suppose anybody can learn to play an instrument and make it shriek. Mercifully I gave up on my junior high school clarinet lessons before I hurt anybody. There's a lot of shrieky ain't-I-cool musicians out there, and sorry, but few have ever impressed me.

One day about ten years ago I was walking down a quiet tree-lined street in Brooklyn. Somebody standing in front of building handed me a leaflet about a free concert about to start. I had nothing better to do and went upstairs to some sort of meeting room. The guys who started playing are known on the NY independent jazz scene, and well, they're not generally my cup of tea but there was something about this afternoon. I'm fishing for names in my head I think William Parker was the bassist. Anyway the music just started. There wasn't a huge audience, and it was daytime. The music was free, and intense. I didn't know if I liked it. A woman in the row of chairs ahead of me had her eyes closed and her head was moving, far gone into the sound. Most everybody seemed to be like me, a random individual. When the music stopped, there wasn't really applause, because it would have been completely superfluous. Everybody just sort of looked up, a little dazed. We all kind of stood up, straightening our clothes out as though we had just been through something physical like an afternoon's romantic liaison. There was no chit chat. The sound of anybody's voice seemed jarring after what we had experienced...and it was sort of hard to look at other people in the eye. People just left, and went back out on the street. But there was this sense, for a moment, of having participated in something miraculous. We all returned to the regular world as though we had just changed out of our superhero costumes at the corner phone booth. As Gleason wrote:

"it's not more beautiful, just different. a new beauty. a different beauty."

Back in the eighties my friend Dean dragged me to an abandoned apartment building in the East Village. A friend of his was going to perform at some sort of impromptu venue. I can't quite remember if it was on the first or second floor of this building; I remember a dusty ruin inside open to the outside air, a couple rows of chairs for the audience and a row of chairs facing them for the musicians. The group was sort of a string quartet: my memory is dim but I'm pretty sure I remember the full complement. We were all in for a bit of a surprise: the audience pretty much all quietly gasped at once as the quartet started to play their instruments not with bows but with rusty wire brushes, and metal ball chains, the kind you hung around your neck as a kid with a key hanging from it. It was an incredibly painful cacophony, screeching and scratching. It was LOUD, and there was no discernable melody, hell I'm not sure if there were notes. I don't know how long the performance went on; it seemed interminable. You felt this "music" in your skin, which stretched and curled against this noise in rebellion. And then suddenly, quite coincidentally, an ice cream truck out on the street started to play a few notes on a bell. The musicians stopped playing and everybody looked up, knowing that it was not possible to proceed. Everyone in that room was smiling ear to ear, musicians and audience alike. It was the most glorious moment of musical ecstasy I have ever experienced. The simple beauty of the mechanical bells had somehow resolved and released all the tension wound up in this experimental free weirdness, in perfect counterpoint. There it was, Gleason's "beauty and terror and love" all laid out in this random accident of transcendence. I've never forgotten it, and I've never forgotten the sense of gratitude I felt -- I think we all felt -- to the strange musicians and the passing ice cream truck for allowing us to experience such a cosmic blessing.

When I can spare the time to focus on what I'm listening to, that's the time to turn to Bitches Brew, or turn to Impulse!-era Coltrane. Cause it's music for thought, no maybe music for experience, for working through the thoughts to a state of just being. Maybe that's what art is all about; it's an act of creation that engages our spirit to be present. Gleason's short essay is so keyed into that same creative energy that Miles was channelling. It conveys the excitement and awe and awakening that is the gift of Miles's creative act. It's like the thundercloud spinning out of or into somebody's head and the raw elemental forces on the archetypically freaky "Bitches Brew" cover art, shown above.

I'm reminded (again) of my favorite Gato Barbieri quote: "i sing sometimes, not because i like to sing but because the music needs singing. and when I scream with my horn, it's because the music needs screaming."

The world keeps spinning. It can be one fucked up place. But I thank the gods of music, of creation, for the chance to be present, to experience that which can't easily be put into words, to scream when needed, to express myself, to be.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Anti-American Art: Teddy Bear Killers

Our latest entry in the "babykillers" ouevre is this Serbian poster from the time of the Nato bombardment of Serbia during the Kosovo conflict in 1999. This is not purely Anti-American--President Clinton's air force was only one of many NATO forces to join in the gang-bang of Serbia's civilian infrastructure. The poster reads "WHY? The Serbs Have Children Too" with a cruise missile aimed straight at a teddybear. It's definitely post-socialist propaganda. Snagged from pro-militarist site

Friday, April 09, 2010

7, La Escalera

The ladder is a useful thing. You use them, well, to get high. To reach things you can't reach without help. You could use a ladder to get out of a tight spot, to escape; or you can you use a ladder to bridge the place you are and the place you want to be.

I guess I once didn't think of the ladder as a spiritual symbol, but interestingly, both my Yoruba orishas Obatala and Eleggua asked for ladders to go with their sacred tools.I've thought about that a lot, and I guess a ladder can be seen as a reminder that there is a way out of one's problems, a way, that, coincidentally, involves looking up. Although in truth you can use a ladder to go down, hopefully preserving your route of escape; perhaps it's a kind of 3-dimensional metaphor for that most famous of occult sayings, "as above, so below." Obatala, whose number is eight, no doubt likes the fact that there are eight rungs on this ladder; eight steps toward one's higher self.

As a spiritual symbol a ladder also says that if you want to take yourself higher, you have to exert yourself; to focus hand over hand and climb toward your goal. If something is wanting in your life, it's kind of a reminder that even if you would really rather have the clouds open and shower you with blessings, ultimately you have to work to reach something new and better. Faith, of course, is necessary in thinking that our spiritual ladder is resting on something solid and that our goal is up there just out of sight.

I'm reminded also of those giant seige ladders of olden days: a ladder could be the means for a bunch of serfs storming the king's castle. There's resilience there as each time the ladder is pushed from the walls somebody pushes it right back and tries again. But most modern ladders are pretty plain and utilitarian: certainly this one, from the Loteria Mexican bingo deck, is actually just a flimsy paper card from a game. But real life is often pretty plain and mundane, and that's just fine; because here in a simple wooden ladder is a reminder of hope.

Besides, they sure do come in handy for changing light bulbs.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Anti-American Art: Imperialist-style Exorcism?

A bizarre one from the Sinchon museum on US War Crimes in North Korea: looking positively demonic an American army chaplain and doctor conspire to abuse an innocent Korean child, crushing it to the ground in a puddle of gore. The expression of wild-eyed glee shown by the torturers seems to cross the line into racial caricature. This is the first time I've seen Christianity singled out in this kind of propaganda.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

April Is Confederate History Month!

"WHEREAS, April is the month in which the people of Virginia joined the Confederate States of America in a four year war between the states for independence that concluded at Appomattox Courthouse; and...
WHEREAS, it is important for all Virginians to reflect upon our Commonwealth’s shared history, to understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War, and to recognize how our history has led to our present; and...
WHEREAS, all Virginians can appreciate the fact that when ultimately overwhelmed by the insurmountable numbers and resources of the Union Army, the surviving, imprisoned and injured Confederate soldiers gave their word and allegiance to the United States of America, and returned to their homes and families to rebuild their communities in peace...
WHEREAS, this defining chapter in Virginia’s history should not be forgotten, but instead should be studied, understood and remembered by all Virginians, both in the context of the time in which it took place, but also in the context of the time in which we live...
NOW, THEREFORE, I, Robert McDonnell, do hereby recognize April 2010 as CONFEDERATE HISTORY MONTH..."
-- Republican Virginia Governer Robert McDonnell, April 2010

OK then:

"The condition of slavery with us is, in a word, Mr. President, nothing but the form of civil government instituted for a class of people not fit to govern themselves. It is exactly what in every State exists in some form or other. It is just that kind of control which is extended in every northern State over its convicts, its lunatics, its minors, its apprentices. It is but a form of civil government for those who by their nature are not fit to govern themselves. We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race of men by the Creator, and from the cradle to the grave, our Government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority."--Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederate States of America, in the US Senate, 1860

"The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the 'storm came and the wind blew.' Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."
--Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America in his Cornerstone Speech, 1861 (that's him pictured on the 20-dollar bill above)

"But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil: far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually....I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good, a positive good."
--John C. Calhoun, February 6, 1837 on the floor of the US Senate (former Vice President of the United States; considered an inspiration to the Confederacy though he died a decade before the Civil War began)

"The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence."--Confederate General Robert E. Lee, 1856

"The wrongs under which the South is now suffering, and for which she seeks redress, seem to arise chiefly from a difference in our construction of the Constitution. You, Senators of the Republican party, assert, and your people whom you represent assert, that, under a just and fair interpretation of the Federal Constitution, it is right that you deny that our slaves, which directly and indirectly involve a value of more than four thousand million dollars, are property at all, or entitled to protection in Territories owned by the common Government. You assume the interpretation that it is right to encourage, by all possible means, directly and indirectly, the robbery of this property and to legislate so as to render its recovery as difficult and dangerous as possible; that it is right and proper and justifiable, under the Constitution, to prevent our mere transit across a sister State, to embark with our property on a lawful voyage, without being openly despoiled of it." --future Confederate Secretary of State Judah Philip Benjamin, 1860

"The slaves are obliged to work from daylight till dark, as long as they can see. When they have tasks assigned, which is often the case, a few of the strongest and most expert, sometimes finish them before sunset; others will be obliged to work till eight or nine o'clock in the evening. All must finish their tasks or take a flogging. The whip and gun, or pistol, are companions of the overseer; the former he uses very frequently upon the negroes, during their hours of labor, without regard to age or sex. Scarcely a day passed while I was on the plantation, in which some of the slaves were not whipped; I do not mean that they were struck a few blows merely, but had a set flogging." --Nehemiah Caulkins in an abolitionist pamphlet, 1839

"One party repeatedly plays the race card, appealing to the dark underside of American culture, to that minority of Americans who reject democracy and equality. In coded racial appeals, they embrace Confederate leaders as patriots and wallow in a victim mentality. They preach racial neutrality and practice racial division. They celebrate Martin Luther King and misuse his message. Their idea of reparations is to give war criminal Jefferson Davis a pardon. Their idea of equal rights is the American flag and Confederate swastika flying side by side." -- civil rights hero Julian Bond, speech to the NAACP 2003

(thanks to JMG for pointing this momentous holiday out)

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Me and the Chairman, Part 2

That's what I get for taking Facebook quizzes.

If you missed it, Part 1

Anti-American Art: More Babykillers

Another gory painting from the Sinchon Museum on American War Crimes in North Korea: American GIs apparently prepare to execute a small child after dispatching her father. The face of the GI in the center is positively mirthful. It's interesting to me to compare this North Korean propaganda to Chinese propaganda. The "enemy" in Chinese propaganda is dehumanized through its absence, and the "good guys" are always shown on the winning side, if not triumphant and least resolute. Korean propaganda seems to specialize in portrayals of the "bad guys" as either simpering weak-looking caricatures or brutal strong-looking monsters; the "good guys" are often shown as victims.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Murderer's Eye View: "It's Their Fault for Bringing Their Kids To a Battle"

Please watch this disturbing film leaked by Wikileaks of an American helicopter executing a group of Iraqi civilians from the sky in 2007, including two journalists, and then blasting at the van--which carried two children--which came to try to rescue the wounded Iraqis lying bloody in the street.

I can't seem to go directly to the Wikileaks I've linked to the Gawker post containing this incredibly disturbing film. The Gawker point of view on this event is somewhat disappointing.

The tape was filmed by the American helicopter crew; and their loathesome chatter is really hard to listen to, but crystal clear. I want to make a cogent condemnation of the American war against Iraq and its ripples and aftermath but after watching this video I find most of the words sucked out of me.

Be a total fag!

Gay pride season will soon be upon us. What to wear???

Consider the Total Fag Shoppe for teeshirts and other items with the probiotic look of delicious Greek yogurt. Okay, it's a cheap attempt at graphic appropriation and irony displaying a questionable word that you're only allowed to use if you're on the right team (which I am, thankyou). A girl has to earn money somehow. But really, buy one! Be the envy of your friends. Featuring the same quality products as the Scarlet Menace propaganda art store.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Anti-American Art: Red Dawn

While this 1960s Chinese poster doesn't directly mention the United States, the message is clear. The people of Asia, Africa and Latin America are rising up to a new day free of imperialism. It's a classic Chinese-style socialist realist tableaux: all eyes are raised upward; the sweeping arrangement of the figures almost ballet-like; the unity of races and genders, and even though these aspirants are civilians, they're still packing heat to fight off any oppressors; the rising sun and pink sky speaking of a new beginning. This is the kind of propaganda art I like best with its almost religious quality: each component of the tableaux is laden with meaning and significance.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

In review of HBO's "Pacific": No More Great Wars!

I've been watching the new HBO TV miniseries "Pacific." Produced by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who also produced the series "Band of Brothers," it aims to tell the story of the Pacific theater of the Second World War using the same combination of ultra-violent realistic action sequences combined with small-scale intimate character development that made that earlier series such a compelling watch. "Band of Brothers" largely avoided discussion of the larger issues raised by the war: it followed the story of a paratroop company in the last year of the war, from the Allied invasion of Normandy through various ill-fated attempts to invade Germany through the liberation of the concentration camps and the surrender of German forces. Although it portrays its characters as brave and heroic, and they were, it doesn't glamorize what being at war was about. It looks hellish. It makes occasional attempts to humanize the foot soldiers of the "enemy," but as one would expect doesn't step away from the standard narrative of what the war was about.

I'm not finding "Pacific" quite as compelling. Something about the story-telling isn't as successful. The expensively-filmed action sequences are that convincing combination of violence-voyeurism and dangerous excitement that most of us who were once little boys find irresistible; but so far the characters seem undeveloped and confusing to me. Nevermind that, of course, I'll keep watching it through. But if the traditional narrative of the WW2 and a miniseries like "Band of Brothers" is able to claim a sort of moral high ground by focusing on the forces that fought the embodiment of evil Hitler and the Nazis, fer crissakes, and touches on the liberation of the concentration camps, it seems to me that the same moral high ground is missing in a depiction of the Pacific war.

The photo above (taken by me) is from the massive Soviet war memorial at Treptow, outside Berlin. Built on the scene of Soviet triumph against the Nazis, and hosted for decades by the now obsolete satellite regime of the German Democratic Republic, the memorial glorifies the Russian military machine. Surrounding an eternal flame there are many concrete panels like the one shown, all with depictions of heroically unstoppable Soviet legions, with occasional hovering Communist icons like the floating head of Lenin shown here. The memorial is stirring to visit: and it's true that millions of Soviet citizens were killed in the Nazi onslaught; and millions heroically braved incredible hardship to push the fascist forces back and liberate eastern Europe and the Russian homeland. I'm well aware of the various historical positions on the left about this conflict: my own pacifism and anti-imperialism is certainly challenged by the nihilistic brutality of Nazism. I suppose we're let off the hook by history and what actually happened. I think it would require a certain amount of pretzel logic to suggest it didn't matter that Nazism was defeated.

But I'm left with much less certainty about the war between Japan and the various European and American colonial powers. It's true that Japan was allied with the European fascists. And it's true that in China and Korea Japan acted with brutality and a colonial mentality. But in much of South East Japan bolstered anti-colonial independence forces. In the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, India, and other places the Japanese were throwing off American, English or Dutch rule for Japanese sponsorship of supposedly local independent governments. Japanese imperialism, as a new player on the stage that was making up for lost time with aggressive military force, but was, say, Japanese occupation of the Philippines so much worse than Spanish or American occupation of the Philippines?

I read one reviewer of "The Pacific" say that watching war movies once made him feel patriotic, causing him to entertain fantasies of running off to join the army, even now so many years later. But to me the miniseries emphasizes not the heroism of the fight, but the futility, the utter waste of human life. Here young Americans fight young Japanese on islands they had never previously heard of so that Japan could dislodge England and America as master of the East and exploiter of the region's resources. Was what Japan was doing so much worse than the self-entitlement exercised by the western colonialists? When you consider the role of Europe and America in destabilizing China in the first half of the 20th-century, it may have been less militarily brutal than Japan's attacks on China, but it was not occupying any better moral place. The righteousness of the Chinese struggle against foreign domination ultimately needed to vanquish the Western powers as well as Japan; and the fighting there was not over til the end of the forties as the war of liberation against Japan was transformed into a war of liberation against the Kuomintang.

Indeed it's hard to separate American fury against Japan from American racism. The Japanese were demonized and dehumanized in American consciousness in a way that the Germans were not. And many have speculated that experimental weapons of mass destruction, the atomic bombs, would not have been used against European civilians as readily as they were used against Japanese ones. If the destruction of Japanese militarism was ultimately a good thing for the Japanese nation, it's hard not to think it would be better still if all those Japanese who died...hadn't.

From the heyday of Soviet propaganda and socialist graphic art in the 1930s come these Russian stamps marking the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, then just called "Great." Showing bombs falling on a city; the flight of refugees, and ranks of strong young men turned into cripples these images get at some of the stupidity and futility of that war. It was popular rejection of the vast human waste of that war that sparked the waves of social transformation that marked much of the twentieth century. Both the good changes and the bad can be laid at the feet of that war, from the revolutionaries who rid Europe of a handful of repressive monarchies to the reactionaries and revanchists who were invigorated to a new level of military adventurism. If as historians we can now look back at the Second World War and see similar transformative events, I for one can not forget about the terrible cost in human life. And I refuse to quantify the loss of American life as more tragic than the loss of Japanese life.

Are we beyond all this now? Or how many smaller-scale local but brutal wars does it take to add up to a new global conflict? In today's post-ideological world, aren't we back to the sort of mindless brutality of self-interest exemplified by the First World War? Where is the new egalitarian or pacifist consciousness that will prevent the next global conflagration? Does war porn like HBO's "Pacific" turn people into pacifists or turn them into willing cannon fodder for the next American military adventure? Perhaps the reason this TV series isn't as compelling as the previous one is that stripped of the veneer of fighting the inhuman Nazi war machine, the paroxysm of violence in the islands of the Pacific is revealed to be pointless.

There's a message in the past; we ignore it at our own risk.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Anti-American Art: Urban Crossbows

Here's a cultural-revolution-era poster from China, another marking Chairman Mao's statement in support of the African-American people. While well-meaning, the cluelessness in its depiction of American black people is a little mind-blowing. The only thing that can be said is that you can tell it's about American black people because Chinese posters about people in Africa tended to also feature half-naked people playing drums. I just really don't know what to say about the crossbow.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

What do the teabaggers want?

I spent some time looking over the photos on "Look At This Fucking Teabagger dot com," (concept loosely based on the less disturbing site "Look At This Fucking Hipster") which mockuments the signs and people at various rightist "tea party" rallies. I suppose it's cheap to deride these people for their crazy ideas, bad spelling, and questionable taste in attire, but it stops being so amusing after a couple minutes. As I've argued before, I think these people are all about their subtext.

I remember when Bush decided to channel American anger over 9/11 against Iraq. In those days of big-lie-spreading before the U.S. attacked the country it had already been blockading for a decade, there were a handful of very large anti-war rallies in New York. I was surprised at the turnout of many of them: people at work were discussing these rallies and going to them; and I'm not just talking the handful of personal friends who I knew had lefty tendencies. People thought attacking another country, thought war, was wrong. Once the bombs started falling and the tanks started rolling the momentum was lost. It was clear that no amount of popular sentiment was going to stop Bush's juggernaut. Later rallies I witnessed were pretty much all hardcore left sects and a handful of independent people.

So who are these people going out in the streets over what, government spending? In a country where the socialist left is microscopic and disregarded, who are these people who seem to actually believe that the country is being taken over by a new red menace? What is actually motivating these people to get politically involved? Because I don't believe for one moment that these demonstrations are about what they say they are about.

I think these people get closest to honesty when they say that they "want their country back." But what is their country and who is it who has taken it away from them? These are the questions that are seldom articulated, only shouted. Their enemies are called liberals, socialists, communists, fascists; but these accusations sound like so many synonyms for "bad guys."

What I think these people want is White America. They want their English-only society; they want to be deferred to by black people. They want the gays to stop being in their face. They want their picturesque image of the way it should be (please see the source of the image at the top of this post below). They want to not be afraid that they are no longer in control.

How long before the mispelled signs and crazy ideas stop being funny? Ironically new media seems to get what these people really mean, while old media doesn't.

(Art note: I'm not sure I realized, before I saw this 100-bill from the Confederacy, that the Southern side in the civil war actually bragged about slavery. It's hard to infer anything different from the engraving front and center.)