Saturday, April 30, 2011

NATO Forces Murder Qaddafi's Grandchildren


Just in: TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi survived a NATO airstrike on Saturday night that killed his youngest son Saif al-Arab and three of his grandchildren, a Libyan government spokesman said.

Mussa Ibrahim said Saif al-Arab was a civilian and a student who had studied in Germany. He was 29 years old."
It was previously rumoured that this one of Qaddafi's several children had briefly joined the democracy protesters. One of Qaddafi's adopted children was killed almost exactly 25 years ago when President Reagan sent jets to bomb Tripoli and Benghazi.

If NATO is "protecting" the Libyan people, who will protect the Libyan people from NATO? Apparently NATO and the US are now in the business of assassinating foreign leaders, or, if they can't aim correctly, their noncombatant children and grandchildren.


Remember Chicago's Haymarket Martyrs

I took this photo 25 years ago in Managua, Nicaragua, at the 1986 May Day rally organized by Nicaragua's left parties separate from the much larger rally organized by the ruling Sandinista Front, the FSLN. This banner from the opposition Communist Party of Nicaragua reads "...Saluda a los Trabajadores Nicaraguenses este Primero de Mayo, Centenario de los Martires de Chicago." meaning "Salute to the Nicaraguan Workers This May First, Centenary of the Chicago Martyrs."

Exactly 125 years ago in 1886, anarchists organized a rally in solidarity with striking workers at Chicago's Haymarket Square. A pipe bomb was thrown at police, killing one. Chaos ensued, with cops shooting their weapons wildly. Although the anarchists had nothing to do with the pipe bomb — historians believe it was thrown by a provocateur — they were rounded up and arrested. Eight were tried, one died in prison, and four of them were executed. The persecution and murder of the anarchist martyrs was a blatant act of political repression even though none of the arrested men were proven to have anything to do with the bomb. The workers were on strike for the eight-hour day: all of us around the world today who benefit from that standard of fairness owe a debt to those activists of 125 years ago. How cool that people in Nicaragua remembered those long ago heroes when today I imagine precious few in Chicago itself nod in their memory.

(In the very early 1980s before I left Chicago for New York, the socialist group I worked with, the Revolutionary Socialist League, had its offices in what they called Haymarket Hall or Haymarket Books, an old loft building south of Downtown off Haymarket Square that was reputed to have been the former headquarters of the Industrial Workers of the World. It was a beautiful old cast-iron building where public forums were sometimes held; freezing cold in winter thanks to its virtually prehistoric heating system. The RSL being long gone I'm imagining it's now someone's fabulously renovated yuppie loft.)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

"People Dreaming They Live Free"

This is a very mellow — and quite extended — track by hip-hop artist Common from his album of a few years back "Electric Circus." It features guest appearances by a number of the most creative voices on the hip-hop scene like Bilal, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Cee-Lo, Mary J. Blige and others. It's sort of a meditative suite on spirituality, mortality and the meaning of heaven, with perspectives ranging from earthy to sublime. It's such an ultimately optimistic and humanistic perspective: this song isn't about religious dogma but about hope and acceptance. I find it quite profound.

I'm posting this not only because I really love this track, but because I was listening to this a few days ago and it set me off on an attempt to write something deep and meaningful for the blog at Easter time just passed. I wanted to tie this song in to a reading of the Bible verse it mentions and proceed to a commentary on high and low religion. But that post failed to come together, so I thought I'd just play this song instead.

You can read the lyrics, with the guest vocalists ID'd, at one of those song lyric sites, sing365. Strongly recommended!

"all mighty love,
watching over me....
a smile........brillant.....
all over .....constantly.....
warm .....comforting.....
no strain
simply peace"

(The youtube uploader cut the last half a minute off the song, a sort of instrumental breakdown, to fit a youtube time limit so this clip ends a little abruptly but no vocals are lost).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"Birtherism" Equals Racism

The above photo, of course, with the caption "Now You Know Why No Birth Certificate," is from the scandalously racist email that got a local leading California Republican in a bit of hot water this month. Anyone familiar with American racism can recognize this, like the many racist graphic "jokes" that circulated during the 2008 election, and see it for what it is. It came as part of a resurgence in the so-called birther movement, revitalized by buffoon Donald Trump (who President Obama called, today, obliquely, a "carnival barker").

Because oddly, today the White House released the so-called long form birth certificate that the birther racists claimed was being suppressed. President Obama called the affair "silliness" and a "distraction." Immediately buffoon Trump and professional quitter Sarah Palin tried to take credit for some kind of triumph, while conspiracy-minded teabaggers went deeper into their illogical, factually-challenged attempt to delegitimize the president guilty of being born black and bearing a full complement of Arabic names. Now Trump is questioning Obama's educational credentials, suggesting he's just a beneficiary of affirmative action.

To my knowledge no President has had his citizenship questioned before. And indeed there is no evidence that President Obama is anything other than who he says he is. There is not now, and never has been, any controversy over these issues. Before today's release there has been ample evidence — birth documents, eyewitness testimony, newspaper birth notices — that back up the facts of Obama's birth. There is no controversy over whether a person born in the United States, regardless of the marital or immigration or citizenship status of his parents, is other than a natural citizen. Any doubts over these questions are sheer inventions and fabrications in the fevered racist imaginations of the teabaggers and their enablers. There is no controversy among anyone with a regard for facts. Every last one of the birther assertions is manufactured out of the whole cloth of dishonesty, lies and racism, carefully pitched to the dogwhistle frequency of modern racist discourse in which few actually use the "n" word but everybody (except apparently the media) knows exactly what is being implied.

The question remains who is playing this game more successfully. Our friends at the excellent "We Are Respectable Negroes" blog wrote today that Obama has just surrendered to the birther movement by attempting to appease their irrational hatreds. In his statement today Obama failed to call out the racism that is so self evident in the birther fantasy. He made instead his typical appeal for bipartisan unity, which is certainly classic Obama.

Today's document will not silence the teabagger lynch mob, because they don't actually care whether Obama can back up his identity or not. That's all a smokescreen to cover their real racist agenda, and that agenda, fast becoming the currency of the Republican Party itself, is a mortal threat to a democratic and secular society.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Off With Their Heads!

This weekend there will be a wedding amongst a bunch of parasitic welfare cheats in England. Perhaps the English people should choose this moment to follow the great example of the French revolutionaries of two hundred plus years ago and divorce these parasites of their wealth, status, excessive leisure time, and perhaps their heads. Better late than never, eh?

I jest. A little. Honestly like everyone else who watched it and had a heart I cried during the funeral of Lady Diana years back, really I did. She seemed like a nice lady....she was devoted to charitable works and she didn't seem the type to be sending peasants to languish in the dungeon. But really, what do these royals actually do for a living? Who hired them? We certainly know who pays them; who pays for their palaces and their guards and their thrones and their crowns. We American taxpayers think we have a problem with entitlements? Hah!

Perhaps it made sense, once upon a time, to have powerful leaders who lead their nations against barbarian invaders and inspired their bands of brothers on the field of battle. Though perhaps not...perhaps that's where we went wrong in the first place. In any case, the English throne has outlasted its challengers since the 17th-century republicans were defeated. The waves of republicanism (the good kind, thank you) that swept Europe in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries may have hobbled the Windsor family — or the Saxe-Coburg Gothas if you with nostalgia for the real Germanic source of royal English blood prefer — with elections and parliaments and prime ministers, but it hasn't done what really should have been done long ago, which is sent them packing.

Star-struck Americans accustomed to celebrity worship might confuse the royals with important people like movie actors, singers or reality-television stars, but at least those people earn their keep. Of course I'm against capital punishment even for the royals so perhaps the English people needn't invest in new guillotine technology. But the citizens Windsor should be tossed out of their palaces and set to wander with the heirs to the Shah of Iran, the German Kaisers, the Austro-Hungarian royalty, the Tsars of Russia and Bulgaria, the Kings of France, the Emperors of China and Annam, and Africa's Jean Bedel Bokassa and Haile Selassie. I hear the French Riviera is lovely this time of year. I'm sure all the money being spent on the Royal Wedding could be put to better uses, perhaps subsidizing Marmite exports.

Monday, April 25, 2011

"This Is Not The Way We Put An End To War"

In the thread about "Galveston" downblog, a friend recommends Glen Campbell's version of Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Universal Soldier." It's worth a listen. I tracked down this other version with a really interesting introduction by the writer. She wrote this song back in 1964, though this is a much more recent performance. She's got an interesting take on the antiwar song: it's not about the poor cannon fodder being victimized, but instead about the people -- like you and me! -- who enable war by not stopping it. Sorta brutal. I didn't realize before how polemical this song was.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

"The Resistance Will Never Be Destroyed"

Leaving work on Friday I ran smack into this small but spirited solidarity protest apparently organized by Bahraini exiles in support of the now silenced revolutionary protest movement in that tiny Arabian Gulf nation. The protest was fenced into a small pen (f.u. NYC police!) on Seventh Avenue right below Times Square. They passed out flyers calling for "Justice for Bahrain!"

Bahrain, you will recall, is a tiny island kingdom that was gripped by a mass democracy protest about the same time as the uprising in Libya began. Hundreds of thousands of people occupied Pearl Square in a very small country, calling for democracy and reform. At precisely the moment the Western powers chose to intervene in LIbya, they greenlighted the crushing of the Bahraini democracy movement by the Bahraini monarchy acting in concert with military forces from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies. The U.S. has a military base in Bahrain and Obama was quick to avert his gaze lest the base be jeopardized. The forces of government repression actually destroyed the national "Pearl" monument at Pearl Square shortly after driving off the protesters to keep it from ever becoming a rallying point again.

The signs carried at the rally were a really interesting bunch: my favorite is the one of the now destroyed Pearl Square monument re-envisioned to show clenched fists holding up the iconic pearl of Bahrain's history. Notable also are the ones shown at top showing the link between the popular uprisings in Libya, Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt and Tunisia; and the one shown above "Not Shia Not Sunni Just Bahraini" giving the lie to the common media claim that the uprising was just a sectarian one (the majority of Bahrain's citizens are Shia though the monarchy is not; but the protesters were from both communities).

The protest called attention to ongoing repression against not only the democracy movement but against medical professionals who witnessed and treated victims of the government violence. And they call out the hypocrisy of the West's professed support of democracy movements elsewhere in the Middle East while remaining silent on the repression of the Bahraini people by the Bahraini and Saudi dictatorships. The organizers of the protest can be contacted on their facebook page, "Voice Against Oppression."

(Photographs by me, April 2011)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Silencing the Witnesses

This disturbing and extraordinary photograph of a little girl in Iraq, covered in the blood of her parents who have just been murdered by American soldiers, was taken in 2005 by Chris Hondros, one of the two photojournalists killed yesterday in Misurata in Libya. The other was Tim Hetherington, one of the directors of the film "Restrepo." Both were killed when struck by a RPG while covering the attack on the rebel-held town by government forces.

Photojournalists are the eyes of the world: they reveal things that most of us would not otherwise see, bringing acts of horror and heroism to light. Smart governments try to co-opt their vision; others try to repress it, and the most brutal try to silence it with violence. These photographers were real heroes. Sadly much of what passes for a free press in the United States is the pathetic drivel of infotainment or corporate and rightwing propaganda merely disguised as news. The work of these two men transcended that base standard.

Information on the rising number of journalists targeted with violence and repression can be found at the Committee to Protect Journalists website.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Adventures in Neocolonialism

Above is an outline map of Africa, 1914, showing the breadth of colonial conquest. Note two-thirds of Libya is colored "Italian" and one-third "British." That would be "French West Africa" where Cote D'Ivoire is today.

Above is an outline map of Libya between the Second World War and independence. It has been seized from Italy and split up between France and Great Britain.

The following headlines are from April 2011:

"3 Western Powers Sending Military Advisors to Libya...France, Italy and Britain."LA Times

"Ivory Coast Fighting Worsens; France, UN Bomb Gbagbo Forces"Bloomberg

"A More Assertive France in Africa"CSM

Here's a tidbit from an article entitled "Italian oil giant suspends supply from Libya": "Italy is Libya's biggest trade partner and imports 25 per cent of its oil and around 10 per cent of its gas from the North African country." — Telegraph

And here's some statistics about Cote D'Ivoire from Wikipedia: "Export goods: cocoa, coffee, timber, petroleum, cotton, bananas, pineapples, palm oil, fish
Main export partners: Netherlands 13.92%, France 10.75%, US 7.79%..."

Somehow it's all starting to add up, isn't it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Reconsidering "Galveston"

Jimmy Webb is one of my favorite songwriters of the classic sixties era. He wrote heady, thoughtful, emotionally wringing songs which were often mistaken for pop ditties. His songs are such great little pieces of music that it's no wonder so many different kinds of musicians not so much recorded them as subverted them: Isaac Hayes' 18-minute-plus take on "By the Time I Get To Phoenix" is brilliantly and soulfully seductive just as Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66 recording of "Wichita Lineman" becomes a perfect vehicle for bossanova saudade, or melancholy, perky and grooving despite its lyric of loss and regret. Levitating while Donna Summer turned the seemingly inexplicable lyrics of "MacArthur Park" into a transcendant disco vehicle on a late 1970s dancefloor was one of the highlights of my coming-of-gay-age.

Some of his songs were rightly made famous by Glen Campbell: "Where's the Playground, Suzie," "Wichita Lineman," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," and of course "Galveston." "Galveston" came out during the Vietnam War, and Glen Campbell's rousing almost martial version leaves some doubt as to the emotions it's meant to summon. While the version sung by its writer above last year is not the most beautiful version of this great song I've ever heard, Webb's explanation of the politics behind the song at the beginning of the clip is fascinating. I've heard "Galveston" described as an anti-war song, and indeed, it seems that's what it was, the intentions of rightwinger Campbell — whose singing I actually love — notwithstanding. Check out the version on Webb's 1972 album "Letters" to hear how beautifully heartbreaking this song can be.

Monday, April 18, 2011

2, El Diablito

In some syncretic religions of Latin America, worshippers use little red-horned plaster statues of the devil to represent aspects of Exu, or the trickster spirit who inhabits the crossroads. The crossroads is both literal and figurative, where things could go either way, up or down, left or right, good or bad, and a deserted intersection is as good a place as any for an impromptu little shrine. In these religions -- like Macumba in Brazil, cousin though not sister to North American Lucumi/Santeria -- these little devils often look like comic-book illustrations of "The" Devil we're accustomed to in American fairytale horror stories for gullible semi-religious people not well versed in actual theology. This Exu is an aspect of the Yoruba Eleggua or Elegba, but a wild and earthy one caught mixing it up with the ancestral spirits. One aspect of Exu is Pomba Gira, a female gypsy-spirit consorting with the dead: I have a little statue of her where she is represented as a beautiful dark-coffee-colored naked woman cavorting on a lavender coffin. But these little red devils are not in any way equivalent to the great symbolic evil of the Abrahamic Satan; they're not the Manichean darkness duking it out with God's lightness, and they're not a nihilistic force of revenge summoned up by anti-social teenagers or mentally-impaired would-be mass murderers.

Instead they're a recognition of mortality and the human condition, including knowing that we don't always do the right thing, especially when we're trying to get where we want to go. Above all Exu is neither evil nor morbid, though the intended playfulness of laughing at death is often colored by the worldly knowledge that death is indeed everyone's eventual visitor. Temptation, sure: people who play with Exu are definitely playing with fire. Do the right thing? Well who's to say exactly what that is anyway: is God really a micro-manager? We make plans but things don't always (usually?) go as we hope they will. Enter the little devils.

Which brings me to what I'd actually like to contemplate, which is what I'm going to call the lesser evil of lesser evilism in American politics, our very own political little devil.

When I was a child in Chicago in the 1960s, I remember a senatorial election in which my very political parents announced they were supporting Charles Percy, a liberal (inconceivable now) Republican. I remember telling all my little friends at school that I was a Republican! At age eight I wasn't yet hip to the complexities of Chicago politics and given the progressive liberal atmosphere I grew up in, this seemed sort of logical given the dark and looming machine of the first mayor Dailey who was anything but progressive. Of course two years later as my parents dove into working for a succession of anti-war Democratic Party presidential candidates in 1968 I remember eating a bit of crow as I went around telling my little friends that I was now a Democrat. Well, we know how that ended.

Fast forward to the heady days of my young adulthood. At college I became a communist and soon learned the lessons of Leninism: the Republicans and the Democrats are the twin pillars of American capitalism, tweedle-dum to tweedle-dee. Any difference between the two was surely cosmetic, and the elaborate dancing exchange between the two a well-rehearsed trick to keep the working people from exercising their own independent class power. There might be publicity value in fielding a leftwing third party candidate, but the slogan of the hour was, "Don't Vote, They're All the Same!" And dutifully, that is what I did. And, speaking of evils that aren't so lesser, in 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president.

The left was minuscule in 1980; its influence was nil. It wasn't their fault. But I soon learned that, in fact, "they" weren't all the same. Ronald Reagan turned out be a very bad man, and he did some very bad things, including laughing and whistling while quite a few of my friends contracted the mysterious and then always-fatal AIDS. Say what you will about the cannibalistic unsustainability inherent in capitalism, Reagan and his inane trickle-down economic theories are one of the reasons the American economy is in shithole today. And while it's simplistic to ascribe the death of the left only to Ronald Reagan, nevertheless it was during his presidency that the organized Marxist left, whether or not it was overtly sympathetic to the Soviet Union or not, followed the Soviet Union into the dustbin of history. Left parties that had thousands of members soon had dozens of members; left sectlets that had hundreds of members soon had none.

Anyway by the time 1988 came around I was no longer convinced that voting in presidential elections was irrelevant. Like many leftists I worked on the Jesse Jackson campaign, which it must be said, was inside the Democratic Party. Of course he lost. I set aside organized political activism shortly thereafter.

There is a very intelligent Maoist website called Kasama. Once upon a time that would have been quite a nonsequitur, but now two decades on from the fall of the Soviet Union and well into the revolutionary egalitarian democracy of the internet, all sorts of leftists are leaving the worst of their dogmatic trappings behind and trying to regain their footing. Kasama has initiated a discussion of the upcoming elections based on the lessons of Obama. I contemplated participating in this discussion as it's one of the handful of leftist sites I read daily. But I was immediately confronted by the reality of my position: I voted for Obama, and so far, I plan to vote for him again. Because the main point of many leftists, Kasama included, remains: don't vote, they're all the same. Kasama and other leftists I've read say that the Democrats are whipping up fear of the teabaggers to scare people into supporting Democrats. My response is, yes, I'm scared!

The great American socialist Eugene Debs had an opinion on lesser evilism: "It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don't want and get it." A beautiful quote but I'm not sure that in our current era it's true. Elections have results; one side always wins. It would be great if there was a viable electoral alternative to the Democratic Party. It would be great if the great majority of working people organized themselves in their own class interest and rejected the Democrats who are always selling them (us!) out. But there is not... yet. Leftists, and I do count myself on that side, should advocate for independence and try to raise consciousness and condemn the actions of both Republicans and Democrats that need condemning. But at the same time we do this, I believe it is necessary to recognize the reality of the balance of forces in society and vote for viable candidates, which usually means Democrats. In 2000 many many leftists got behind the independent candidacy of Ralph Nader (with, I would argue, many many right-wing independent voters since "independent" voting in the United States is in recent history almost always right-wing populism). The result? A close election went to George Bush, the right-wing Republican. We can see from the 2000, 2008 and 2010 elections how it is not irrelevant who wins an election.

President Obama and the Democrats have done some terrible terrible things. They have continued old wars and started new ones. They have continued to steal from working people and rewarded the rich and the corporations. They have continued to erode civil liberties. They will inadequately defend the social safety net that is being whittled away. All these things are true: each one of these things makes me furious... including being furious at myself for believing that Obama's sometimes brilliant lofty speeches meant anything at all. But if you're frustrated by President Obama, imagine President Palin or President Trump or President Bachmann or even President Pawlenty or President Christie, and be very, very afraid. That's not fear-mongering, that is the real choice before us.

I am utterly unconvinced by today's left discounting the danger from the right wing. I don't know if it's because as a gay man I'm sensitive to things that many straight white people don't see or what, but I think the left's failure to identify the teabagger movement as nascent fascism is a crucial mistake. The mainstream media like the New York Times have been busy perpetuating this absolute myth, no make that lie, that the so-called Tea Party is all about economic issues and not about the social conservatism that has been festering on the right wing for decades. Perhaps it's because the leaders of the "Tea Party" are so careful to stick to their coded dogwhistle approach, it's hard to pin them down. But anyone who cares to look can see that this new right-wing is deeply and profoundly racist and antigay; its mixture of populism and corporatism is missing only the brown shirts or white sheets. History does not repeat itself exactly: the fact that the teabaggers have not mobilized actual lynch mobs is I think irrelevant, given the right-wing infiltration of the military and militia movement. The Democrats and elections will not, I don't think, be able to defeat this new rightwing threat, but I believe for now, until the left finds a way to make itself relevant again, Democratic victories may stave off the worst of it.

Obama and the Democrats are going to do what they're going to do. I'm not so naive as to believe that "we" can do something like "hold their feet to the fire." This is the president of U.S. Imperialism we're talking about: it's in his job description, his very nature, to do terrible terrible things. But at local levels especially, leftists should be weighing the possibility of finding viable, not symbolic, candidates who can begin to change the game.

That game will change only when the Democratic and Republican parties explode and factionalize. While the people -- the working class if you will -- have tremendous power and social weight, they don't know it. And that's the task of leftists I think, not to build better sectlets and tiny little parties like they tried -- and failed at -- before. But to focus on raising the self-awareness of the people who should be fighting back against the class war of the rich people. I'm not sure I call myself a Marxist anymore, that's true. But in today's world I'm just not sure what the hell that means anymore. The Marxist left has always said that the revolution will not come from the ballot box. Okay then: I'm not seeing any revolution from outside the ballot box on its way, at least in this country. But that election's happening whether any of us like it or not. While we're building the idea of the world that could be, let's commit a little lesser evil and participate in the world that is.

Better the little devil you know?

UPDATE: I feel compelled, almost four years later, to say I'm extremely glad that I changed my mind from this piece, and in the 2012 elections decided to no longer vote for Democrats. Indeed, I question the process of voting in the United States as being singularly delusional and worthless. It strikes me now that Democrats, far from being a lesser evil, are the more effective evil, siphoning off social movements and sending them off to die. The kind of cynical realism I mused with at this stage of my life was thankfully and forcefully unravelled by participation in the Occupy movement. #LessVotingMoreRevolution

(This is part of a continuing series of meditations on the archetypal Mexican Loteria bingo cards. For earlier essays in the series click here.)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Let America Be America Again"

A despicable right-wing politician known for his bigotry and intolerance tried to use this the above phrase for his campaign slogan in the upcoming elections. Then somebody told him that it's from a poem by one of America's great poets, who happened to be both black and gay as well as a socialist, the great Langston Hughes (photo). He's thinking better of using the slogan now.


Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

--Langston Hughes, 1938

(For Annie!)

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Best Dis Ever of Ayn Rand

"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs." — KungFu Monkey blog

(A privately-financed film version of Rand's proto-teabagger fairytale "Atlas Shrugged" opens today. I will NOT be going to see it.)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Poetry of war & peace

This is a brief December 2010 performance from Brooklyn-based Palestinian/American poet Suheir Hammad. She recites two poems, "What I Will" and "break (clustered)." It's a really beautiful performance: the words are powerful and moving and her delivery is absolutely stunning. The message, of course, is everything, and somehow you know exactly what she's talking about, even though like many great poets her words are quite unspecific. It's funny because this makes the words so human, pulling shared threads together so evocatively you realize it's irrelevant whether she's talking about Palestine or Brooklyn. (Ditch the corporate propaganda video following the performance if you watch this by clicking through to the TED site. Sorry 'bout that.)

Thanks to my friend Jennifuh for turning me on to the work of her friend.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Question of Values, Continued

"In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of all working Americans actually declined. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. That’s who needs to pay less taxes?

They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that’s paid for by asking 33 seniors each to pay $6,000 more in health costs. That’s not right. And it’s not going to happen as long as I’m President. (Applause.)

This vision
[the Republican proposal] is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said, there’s nothing “serious” or “courageous” about this plan. There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don't think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. That's not a vision of the America I know. " — President Obama's deficit & budget speech today

I've been pretty angry at President Obama lately, and I expected to watch his speech today on the economic crisis feeling my blood pressure elevate, especially after the details are becoming known of some of the really awful concessions made to the Republicans and the teabagger fascists during the recent budget negotiations. But I have to say I did not hate most of this speech. While of course there is an element of pandering to the Republicans and their delusions, by and large he chose to defend a reasonably liberal (in the good sense), pro-social safety net agenda. As a number of perceptive if ultimately pro-capitalist commentators have observed (Jonathan Bernstein, Greg Sargent, Paul Krugman) Obama chose to put his arguments in moral terms, and in so doing launched a powerful attack on the horrifying proposal set forth by the Republicans and their Rep. Ryan. Time will tell how Mr. Obama's words actually play out. His speech concluded with his familiar calls for "bipartisan unity" which have been so problematic, so future pitfalls are not completely averted. Danger, deal-making ahead.

The current crisis reminds us of the inadequacies of the healthcare reforms that are unfolding even as they are besieged by the right. On the one hand real government-run national healthcare would have dealt with so many of the issues that continue to pop up; on the other hand there was no way in hell such a goal was to be realized, all things considered. Many of the issues we hoped healthcare would address such as cost seem to remain in the air as political footballs. And while Obama was quick to blame some of the deficit's rise on Bush's unfunded wars, he conveniently omitted mentioning his continuation and expansion of military adventurism. This teaches us that Obama and the Democrats are ultimately not the best guardians for the social safety net, such as it is.

But at a time when I expected Obama to throw a wet paper towel at the Republicans he actually returned their fire. And that gives me some hope. Not as much hope as a real alternative to the Tweedledee and Tweedledum seesaw of a system that is fully stacked against us would give me, but at least the white flag hasn't been raised.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Signs of Spring (At Last)

My block in Brooklyn is a lovely block of hundred-year-old brownstone townhouses. It's still treelined (probably mostly a post-elm second wave), and many people plant stoop gardens. But by the end of the winter the block looks pale and bleached of color. It's as though the salt we used to melt the ice has coated everything: the sidewalks, the street, the seemingly lifeless trees, the courtyard walls.

Last year the City planted a small cherry tree in the space out front left empty after the demise of a previous leafy resident. It took a few years of calls to 311 and some begging with the visiting tree judge. But one morning in late winter a bulldozer showed up, the tree was planted with a tag on care instructions, and lo and behold it survived the year. This year, thanks to a 70-degree Monday, it's the first on the block to burst out blooming, its delicate white blooms hopefully now teasing the other trees on the block to rouse from their sleep.

Out back the neighbor's northern magnolia lost a few more branches under heavy snow this year, but it's now blooming as well, a little bit late I think; That's it below. It puts on a big but brief show every Spring before covering the ground out back with fallen petals. The feral cats living beneath it already seem more relaxed and cheerful; they too can tell they've survived another winter.

It was a snowy winter, and has been a bit of a chilly Spring thus far, but the occasional super warm day suggests the color is about to bust out all over the block. Hello world!

Click on the photos to see them larger.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Indian in a Box

Some time back in the 1960s I had a version of this toy. Mine didn't come with a horse; but I still remember how much I loved this plastic figure. I remember how the joints would creak when you moved them, the cool smoothness of his plastic skin, the slightly sticky touch and rubbery smell of his accessories, and of course the deep mystery of his lack of certain proper anatomical features. Part of me is embarrassed over this toy. How dare I, a little white boy, objectify an entire people and reduce them to a little plaything. Part of me is proud of choosing this toy over the matching cowboy: in my imaginary world the Indians almost always won as though the injustices I was reading about in the history books this toy helped me to love could be made to be unhappened and rewritten away. As much as I flinch, now, as a middle-aged adult, watching children play at killing each other with violent toys as I suppose this one was, I seem not to have indoctrinated myself into a strong urge to kill my fellow humans, join the army, or otherwise lead a life of crime or violence. In the end I think the imaginations of children are probably best left to do what they're supposed to do, stretch and expand little minds.

The thing is, playing with my toy Indian didn't really teach me anything about real Indians. It taught me to spin a narrative about Indians in my head, a narrative wrought from TV shows and old movies and daydreams which had elements of reality mixed altogether with my and other people's fantasies. My playtime did, ultimately, send me on a quest for information about Native Americans, and eventually I set aside the toys in favor of books. And to this day I'm an avid reader of books about Indian history. Which makes me well informed in a certain kind of way but in the end I'm still a (grown up) white boy trying to contextualize information about, well, others, albeit hopefully in a respectful way.

Because of course my Indian in its box had nothing much to do with any actual flesh and blood people. There are people I have come to know who have ancestors who lived here before white people and survived the rapacious thirst of European immigrants for land, just like others I know have ancestors who came here for all sorts of complex reasons, some of whom probably participating in various unspeakable acts of ethnic cleansing. It's ludicrous to even try and say it, but none of us is lifted up or cursed by this ancestry, we're all just regular people: some have values in common with me and some don't. And this brings me to the point I'd actually like to make, which is not about Indians at all.

Today France outlawed the wearing of Islamic face-coverings: either the Afghan-style Burqa bodysuit or the niqab, a veil draped across the face. A couple weeks ago that bigoted American pastor in Florida who had threatened to burn a Holy Q'uran fulfilled his promise; and while the American media took a pass on covering the event it was later used by fundamentalist demagogues across the planet in Afghanistan to whip up a crowd who last week wound up murdering a handful of innocent United Nations workers.

These three events all have in common, I think, a basic failure to recognize ourselves in the faces of others. These are all actions based in fear. Certainly the murder of innocent people is the worst of them. But the other actions are repellent also: societies where religious freedom is allegedly cherished acting in these ways? We should be ashamed. Because just as the fundamentalist demagogues in Afghanistan have put non-Muslims in a box, so fundamentalist demagogues like Pastor Jones or the racist politicians behind France's new law are putting Muslims in a box: the dehumanizing box of otherness and objectification.

Only now, it's not children's playtime. These reactions are not based in reality, they're based in narratives going on in the heads of the perpetrators.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

A Question of Values

It's not as complicated as it's made out to be.

Sure, the economic ruin brought by decades of greed and mismanagement isn't imaginary. But thanks to two centuries of unbridled imperialism, this is the richest country in the world. The United States is not broke. Don't believe the hype. There's plenty of money. The problem is, the people with the money don't want to share, don't want to be told what to spend their money on. They want to spend money on making more money. Which means spending money on war is good, but spending money on healthcare is bad. And they think they have rights and privileges over the rest of us which means they think we should express our gratitude to them for sitting at the helm of the economy by paying our taxes quietly while letting them find ways out of paying theirs.

They have made a choice; and their choice is to make us sweep their crap off the floor.

The Republican long-term budget proposal, apparently unironically entitled "The Path to Prosperity," is an ideological broadside against what little is left of the old-fashioned liberal safety net. It's a roadmap for eliminating the government's deficit by eliminating social programs. It is an utter outrage. And the Republican maneuvering over the short-term budget threatening the economic shutdown of government, is just a preview. Led by the racist teabag lynchmob-in-waiting, the Republican party is seizing the moment to intimidate and frighten Americans into giving in to their outrageous demands. And one suspects that a good deal of Obama and the Democrat's posturing of opposition to the Republicans will give way to mewling capitulation.

The Republicans and their social conservative teaparty fascists have revealed their hand. But it doesn't have to go their way.

It's possible to choose the right thing. Stop those three wars. Repeal those tax cuts for millionaires. Nationalize healthcare and set the rates and costs of medical services. Rebuild the school system instead of selling it to profit-making charter school vampire. Pull back those outsourced jobs.

The economic crisis didn't happen: it was made, by people making bad choices. Which means all we have to do is make the right choices. It's not that hard.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Belief Without Doubt?

"Stones from the River" is the story of a young German woman growing up before, and living through, the Second World War. Written by German-American author Ursula Hegi, it's not a new book: a copy has been floating around my office and it was my turn to read it. It was published in the early 1990s and at some point achieved the dubious award of being an Oprah book club selection. Anyway the perspective of the book's heroine, Trudi Montag, is quite unique. She's an outsider in her community since she was born a "little person," or dwarf. It's a satisfying story with, of course, more than its share of tragedy given the setting. Trudi isn't an international spy or resistance hero, she's just a person trying to live her life, though her personal morality helps her to make important decisions to reject the national chauvinism and anti-Semitism rising with the Nazification of the world around her.

Anyway one passage caused me to fold up the corner of the page it resonated so clearly. It's about the time she hears Hitler give a speech shortly after he took over the government. At the risk of invoking the dread Godwin's Law, I thought this little bit of fiction shined a spotlight on a phenomenon I worry about in our own trying times. Which isn't to say any of the current wave of political demagogues out there are quite so genocidally single-minded or precipitously bound for dictatorship as was Hitler. History doesn't repeat itself exactly, but it makes one grateful that the current crop of hateful idiots out there in the public square seem to lack the charisma necessary to truly rise above the mobs in which they are ensconsed.

Here's the excerpt:

"He was not nearly as tall as she'd expected from newspaper photos, and he look straight at her when he talked, not excluding her like the assistant pastor, Freidrich Beier, who spoke above her head as if she were too insignificant to be included.... Herr Hitler's mouth moved independently of his eyes. There was something wrong with his face: the features didn't work together. But he looked directly at her — at everyone in the swollen crowd — like a magician performing some amazing trick of singling out everyone at once, and it was that gaze — filled with an immeasurable greed — that held all of them while his high-pitched voice spun silken ropes around them.

She fought the excitement of his gaze and voice because what he wanted from her was only too familiar — belief without doubts — something she'd resisted since first grade.

She fought him by reminding herself what her father had said to Emil Hesping — that they lived in a country where believing had taken the place of knowing..... Trudi had a sudden image of him, alone in his bedroom.... The greed she'd felt in him, the greed which had sucked all those people into his influence, was still in the room with him, and she was seized by a deep fear for the world."
[emphasis added by me]

Isn't that it exactly? "Belief without doubts" and "a country where believing has taken the place of knowing" seem to sum up exactly what I find so terrifying about the right-wing in America. There is no factual discussion to be had; no argument that can be won on its own merits. In line with yesterday's musings on lies and liars, today's demagogues are free to say whatever they want because people are greedy for easy solutions, for easy answers, and they know that there is an audience out there who will not question or doubt what they say. Trying times indeed.

Image is a 1933 German propaganda postcard from the online German Propaganda Archive.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Lies! All Lies!

I was reading an article in the Times this weekend about Rep. Michelle Bachmann, presumed far right Republican presidential candidate. It treated her seriously, which I find remarkable in and of itself. Also remarkable were the comments on the Times' website, where outraged conservatives called her "highly intelligent" and accomplished. I think these are remarkable because to me, setting aside for the moment the quite real possibility that she is clinically mentally ill, I'm not sure I have ever read a statement coming from Rep. Bachmann that wasn't if not a complete and total lie, at least in large part full of dishonest intent and insinuation. What kind of person would vote for a liar like her?

Or consider Donald Trump, a wealthy buffoon who seems to be also toying with a run for President on the Republican ticket. While most serious prognosticators say that is unlikely, he's certainly all over the internet trying to make a name for himself as the last of the "Birthers," that is, promoters of the thinly-disguised racist lie that President Obama is somehow not actually an American citizen. Nobody seems to believe that Trump actually believes what he is saying, which is a reasonable argument because Trump's line of argument seems to have emerged untainted by actual facts like a giant turd directly from his ass. But nevertheless the man is making at least internet headlines just by spinning yarns. What kind of person finds a liar like him even slightly amusing?

President Obama announced his reelection campaign today, which gave me pause to remember all the hopes most of us placed on him after eight years of listening to Bush bumble (and lie) his way through a presidency that seems to have been nothing but a huge disaster for the United States and the world. Obama has of course fine-tuned the art of lying... or at least misleading and deflecting. I'll save for a rainy day my overall analysis of his presidency -- it isn't all bad news, considering -- but I'm saddened to announce that he is safely ensconced back in the ranks of lesser-evil Democrats. For me the last straw has been the utter atrociousness of his Middle Eastern policy and the facility with which he has wandered into a new war. But let's set aside any specific criticism or damning praise and say that we all know Obama is a lying politician -- just like the rest of them.

I googled "bible verses on lying" and got back a list of well over a hundred references, split between the Old and New Testaments, which means that most people raised with even a casual awareness of the Abrahamic faiths which so influence world culture are exposed to the idea that lying is a bad thing. And yet I would imagine that most people in most countries, our own certainly included, believe that their governments routinely, if not habitually, lie to us. Indeed some governments probably lie almost exclusively.

So my question -- and this time around I have no answer -- is how did this come to be? How do we, the lied-to, come to be so accepting of what we know are lies? I try very hard not to lie in my personal life. Little white lies torment me. The seductively manipulative power of lying is always offset by guilt and self disgust. I suppose lies of omission come easier, but it all seems so stressful and complicated. Who wants that?

Lying is of course a valued professional skill. In fact we have an entire industry -- it's called "marketing" -- which specializes in prettified lying. We beg to have our aspirations manipulated, which I suppose contextualizes at least American politics. But since I think politics is more important than breakfast cereal or new cars or poisonous medicines, I think it's fair to ask, why do we put up with this? What would happen if we didn't? And isn't it interesting that in politics, by my definition anyway, the "good guys" are the ones who can embrace the cynicism of knowing better and the "bad guys" are the ones who pretend that nothing's wrong?

What a mess! Welcome to Pinocchio culture! What kind of people are we?

Sunday, April 03, 2011

A Little Sunday Churchifying

This is one of my favorite songs by the late Donny Hathaway, "Thank You Master for My Soul." It's a sublime combination of gospel vocalizing and jazz instrumental harmonies, and was recorded back in 1970. Tragically Donny Hathaway committed suicide later that decade while under treatment for depression. But here he sings of profound spiritual gratitude and reverence. He sings of human frailty and divine redemption, presenting to my ear anyway a profound optimism and sense of perspective, once again a valuable touchstone in troubled times. I don't go to church every Sunday -- not my thing -- but Sunday is as good a day as any for a moment of reverence and reflection.