Monday, March 10, 2014

Leadership on race

A new generation must take us where we need to go

In August 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. Two months earlier, I had graduated from a large urban high school that was more than 90 percent African American. Most of the white graduates went on to college. Most of the black graduates did not. I've been thinking about race, and especially about the position of African Americans in the United States, ever since.

Race and racism, and what the United States has done to African Americans and continues to do--the reality of slavery, the race-based evil present at the founding of the country, the promises Americans have broken to themselves and their neighbors since, the history and present and future that we refuse to confront, the lies that we tell ourselves--is our original and continuing sin, is democracy and fairness unrealized, is lives tossed away, is the disability we have been unable to overcome. Or so it seems to me.

Next month, my son Brendan and about 25 E.L. Haynes high school classmates will be taking a week-long trip to Atlanta, Birmingham and Selma, where they will learn more about the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s. Student preparation for the trip includes watching parts of three different movies that illuminate various aspects of slavery, of Jim Crow and of the continuing oppression of African Americans.

The first of the three films, "Slavery by Another Name," documents the post-Reconstruction criminalization of joblessness, vagrancy and debt, which made blackness the face of crime for the first time, and allowed Southerners to continue the exploitation and treatment of former slaves under virtually the same conditions that had existed before emancipation. The biggest single difference lay, perhaps, in the fact that the ex-slaves were no longer owned as assets by plantation owners. They became more disposable than they had been on the plantations.

And just as slaves had been used to create a good portion of the infrastructure and great wealth that would put the United States on the path to becoming the wealthiest country in the world, sharecropper and convict labor would continue to be a means to build more wealth utilized by those in a position to benefit. U.S. Steel, the largest corporation in the world at the beginning of the 20th Century, is only one example of a corporate expropriater of the labor of African Americans, who were used to break strikes in Pittsburgh area steel mills, and to mine coal, build factories and operate the steel mills of Birmingham, Ala.; in reality, de facto slave labor after Reconstruction built the industrial center of the deep South.

"The Loving Story" the second in the series of films, screened at Haynes last week. The documentary tells the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, a mixed-race couple convicted in 1959 for violating Virginia's anti-miscegenation law. The Lovings were not activists by any understanding of the term. After their conviction, and a suspended sentence of one-year in prison, they moved with their children to Washington, DC, motivated exclusively by a desire to avoid continued persecution.

But Washington was too urban and distressing for the couple. For years after their conviction, the Lovings continued to sneak back into Virginia to visit family. Eventually, Mildred wrote Robert F. Kennedy, then U.S. Attorney General, seeking his help. Kennedy recommended that she contact the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an appeal of their conviction. The appeal reached the Supreme Court, and in 1967 the court struck down the Virginia law under which the Lovings had been convicted and explicitly struck down the other anti-miscegenation laws still on the books in 16 states from Texas to Delaware (though it took until 2000 for Alabama to formally repeal the last remaining law).

The small-group discussions that followed the screening were guided by a series of questions, one of which asked participants to note the ways in which "whiteness" continues to be a protected condition today. The responses noted, in particular, the differential enforcement of drug laws and sentencing that send a disproportionate number of African Americans, young black men, especially, to prison. Other examples included failing public schools, particularly in urban areas where minorities live in significant numbers.

Watching the films, sitting down with teachers and parents and children, discussing what we watched and what we think, has made me, by turns, weepy and sad and angry. But listening to 15- and 16-year old Haynes kids express their feelings about the film, about the legacy of slavery and about the persistence of social conflict and problems that have their origins in race-based oppression and bigotry, also made me hopeful.

At about the same time as the Haynes discussion, I encountered this reflection, posted by Robert Reich on his Facebook page:

"I'm sitting here in the Toronto airport, after giving a lecture here last night. Every time I visit Canada I'm reminded what Canadians -- who look and sound almost exactly like us Americans south of the border -- don't have that we do (guns, the National Rifle Association, huge piles of money corrupting their democracy, withering poverty, strident and vitriolic politics), and what they do have that we don't (single-payer health care, affordable public universities, civil discourse, conservatives that would be called moderate Democrats in the States). Can any of you from Canada please explain why?"

I'm not Canadian, but to me, the single most important distinction between the United States and Canada, accounting for a good bit of our political polarization and contested social terrain, is rooted in our race-based history and culture.

It's the kidnapping and murder of Africans. It's slavery. It's a constitution that made African Americans less than Euro Americans. It's a constitution that declared African Americans less than human.

It's the Dred Scott decision and the Missouri Compromise. It's the unfulfilled promise of 40 acres and a mule. It's the fatigue that ended our national willingness after the Civil War to undo what we had done, and brought the end of Reconstruction and of black empowerment in the South for the next 100 years.

It's the near-century in American history after the Civil War when no white person, anywhere, was prosecuted for the murder of a black person. It's the post-Reconstruction decisions that made blackness criminal and lynching endemic. It's slavery by another name.

It's separate but equal. It's Jim Crow. It's Selma. It's the murder of black children. It's the Supreme Court decision in 2013 striking down key portions of the Voting Rights Act.

It's the terrible disproportion between the percentage of African Americans in the population (about 12 percent) and their percentage in the prison population (approximately 40 percent). It's the collapse of public education in African American communities.

Race and the history of race in the United States, all of it, is the biggest single difference between the United States and Canada and explains, better than any other factor, why we are an angry and ungenerous people. But were we to confront that history, and look at how it has led us to where we are today, we could free ourselves, and make amends, and move forward. We would end up a different country and the future might find Canadians asking how come they don't have what we have.

During the discussion following "The Loving Story" Te, a sophomore at Haynes, asked how come it took so long (33 years) after the Loving decision for Alabama to formally repeal the state's anti-miscegenation laws. I'm going to presume to answer that question, too.

For the biggest problems, there are no easy fixes, Te. We should all be mindful of Martin Luther King Jr.'s formulation: The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Yes, two hundred fifty years of slavery and another 150+ years of segregation and a continuing war, not on poverty, but on the poor, is edging toward a long time, a very long time, by human standards. Twenty generations, maybe.

But getting to where we are now, getting from the Middle Passage and the establishment of slavery in the British colonies in the 17th Century and getting through a civil war and to the passage one hundred years later of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, is no small accomplishment. And, in the process, the list of movements and heroes who have pursued and fulfilled some dreams, but nowhere near all of them, is no small accomplishment. New voter ID laws passed in many of the states of the Old South creating new obstacles for African American and other minority voters, the continuing impoverishment of historically black communities, the generation-after-generation imprisonment of young black men, and the daily murder of black children on the streets of some of America's richest cities, are all measures of how far we still must go to achieve the dream of a just society.

That will take more than the 33 years you asked about, Te. And it will take new heroes, perhaps you and Brendan and your classmates, to lead us, lead us with the kind of love for each other that kept the Lovings going when the odds were stacked against them. Pleased be assured that I will help.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

I’m Going To Be A Writer When I Grow Up


I wrote this awhile ago, but delayed posting it because I don't quite understand what I'm getting at here. I'm already a writer and already reasonably grown up, so the sort of provisional future I'm outlining here depends on something else. What that something might be is not entirely clear, but it certainly depends on me spending more time writing. Like long hours every day, which seems almost unimaginable. Maybe short hours, but consistently reliable ones. In any case, we're never done wrestling with ourselves about the things that we need to do more and do more diligently.

Still, there is line or two here that I'm happy to have written. I can't see the harm in sharing.


If I were to sit down and take a test designed to measure interests and skills and personal characteristics and vocational choice, I’m pretty sure it would peg me for a creative type and recommend writing or some other form of artistic expression as the right career path for me. And I do so want to be an “artist” that if I were at all worried that it wouldn’t produce the outcome that I desired, I would game it. I would manage my answers to the test in such a way that—assuming I am sufficiently cunning—the results would reflect my desire.

But the same test would not necessarily measure my ability to produce artistically, or to do it well. I might be, in reality, a square peg of sorts, forcing myself into a creatively round hole and discovering I have none of the true grease that it takes to revolve productively in that hole, or to slide in and out as my art might require.

I might be a lousy writer. Or a long-winded one. But, based on my own compulsively repetitive navel-gazing, I am persuaded of the sincerity of the tune that vibrates my heartstrings. I am lost in here and out there in my desire to produce something that moves others. I want to write. And sing. And dance. Sketch and stretch and paint and perform.

But wanting to do any of these is not the same as doing them well. Which is the real point. I want to produce something that moves others, but how will they be moved if the appeal is not moving, or, even, coherent?

I would dance, but not if you would laugh at me. I would sing, but I’ve tried that—and people told me to stop. I would draw, and might someday, when I move beyond remedial cave-painting.

Writing becomes almost the default choice. And I’ve done it. Quite a lot, really. Nothing like the millions of words that, say, Dickens or Faulkner or Morrison have written. But a million, maybe.


That’s a start.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Contested Terrain of the 1960s

Who are we together? How much better can we do?

Lingering by a CVS pharmacy desk, waiting for a prescription to be filled, I read a column in Time magazine the other day. The piece, "Boomers can't let go of the '60s," by P.J. O’Rourke, recalled the 1960s, and, in most ways, trivialized the decade. O’Rourke clearly believes that the ‘60s deserve little credit for driving cultural and political change.

The ‘60s, he wrote, loom particularly large in the rearview mirror mostly because baby boomers are strategically placed to produce and circulate the myths that make the era appear to be more important than it was (and is) in reality. In O’Rourke’s version, the decade is stripped of all its drama and significance.

Without researching the question, I’d guess that O’Rourke subscribes to the notion that the generation which begat the boomers, a mix of World War II vets and prosperity builders, is the “greatest generation,” while their children, the boomers, are smug, spoiled and over entitled. I believe something entirely different.

I believe the ‘60s (a decade, more or less, that neither began or ended precisely by the clock and ran slightly longer than most decades since) were a time of true political ferment, of hotly contested political terrain, of dramatic cultural change, of revolutionary promise. And I believe that the young activists of the period devoutly wished to do good. Of course, the specifics of that good, and how much good was achieved, are eminently debatable details.

The angry reaction the column provoked in me did not outlast the walk home on a cold winter afternoon. But later that day, comfortably situated in the living room, a fire burning in the hearth, we watched “The Butler,” a movie that adroitly contrasts the personal and tactical accommodations with which many Blacks negotiated the mid- to late-20th century with the urgent passion for change generated by the Civil Rights movement and injected into most Black households by both their children who entered adulthood during the ‘60s (or thereabouts) and by the Black media of the time.

At one point in the movie, Cecil Gaines (a fictionalized version of a man who served as a White House butler for 30 years) calls the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the most important governmental human rights action since the Emancipation Proclamation. This observation put me in mind of O’Rourke all over again. After all, his essay omits mention of the 1964 law, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

These omissions would be a major flaw in any summary of the ‘60s, except one with little purpose other than ridicule. One can’t help wondering just how well it might pay to be one of those rewarded for peddling a diminished version of the 1960s. And speculating about what ideological purpose might be served by such diminution.

Remunerative or otherwise, O’Rourke’s 600-word column included, by my rough count, at least a half-dozen trivializations of the period, with barely a nod to its most important achievements. In his telling, there is much to minimize:

“Then it all went so wrong. Shooting and killing and troops in combat gear, not only in Watts and Detroit but all the way over in Khe Sanh, Vietnam. Feminists were angry for some, as far as men could tell, feminine reason. I had to maintain a C average to avoid the draft. Turns out you can’t fly after you take LSD. There was a war on poverty. We lost. And it rained at Woodstock,” O’Rourke wrote.

His shooting-and-killing-and-troops-oh-my attitude may arise from a lack of interest in the events that immediately followed Dr. King’s assassination, the enraged and desperate rioting that occurred in the immediate aftermath and that preceded the entry of National Guard troops into the ghettos of northern and western cities. There is no serious mention of the Vietnam War here, either; only a single Vietnamese city meant to stand in for a decade of war that devastated a sub-continent and left tens of thousands of dead and wounded warriors in its wake.

Accumulated unfunded debt from that war also crippled the Great Society, President Johnson’s ambitious assault on poverty and its most important causes. But O’Rourke spares only a derisive nod to the War on Poverty (which would come under attack from Republican politicians for the next 50 years, and some Democrats, as well).

He moves on then, dismissing feminism and inverting the distinctly feminist notion that “the personal is the political.” In O’Rourke’s telling, the political becomes the personal, becomes the C-average he was forced to maintain to stay in college and stay out of the military draft. With the observation that it rained at Woodstock, O’Rourke completed his reactionary rendition of ‘60s events.

“Perhaps 1960 to 1969 keeps bothering us because it was an unsuccessful tragedy,” he conjectured. “Aristotle’s Poetics explains the failure. First, says Aristotle, the subject of tragedy must be serious. Almost any adjective can be applied to the ‘60s except that one.”

I read this stuff and wondered what O’Rourke was really doing during that time. Something other than assuming a vanguard position in the fight for progressive social change, I’m sure.

It’s not like I consider myself an exemplar of right-thinking and right-doing at the time, or later, but I was witness to quite a lot and participant in some of the action, and though there were often little victories to celebrate, there was tragedy, too. Some of that tragedy was the desperate suffering from war and injustice that popular movements of the time set out to change. And some of it was the kind of tragedy that befalls efforts that fall short of their goal.

I knew plenty of committed people, too, some of them conscientious, some of them desperate. And some of them living lives so roiled by personal tragedy that just getting up in the morning and out the door was an achievement.

But O’Rourke doesn’t seem to have stepped up himself or to have known people who did. In hindsight, he sees farce where I see compassion and solidarity and magnificent striving. His essay doesn’t even mention Martin Luther King, Jr., except indirectly:

“We had heroes in the ‘60s. They had flaws. But their flaws didn’t lead to their destruction. They were killed by deranged fools.” Though O’Rourke is no doubt referencing King here (and John and Bobby Kennedy), I’m far from certain that King was ever a hero to him except in retrospect.

I don’t really care to argue whether King’s death was a tragedy in some Aristotelian sense; it seemed tragic enough to me and to millions of other Americans. I was a draft resister at the time, living in Toronto briefly when I heard the news report about King’s assassination.

It was the morning after his killing and cities across the U.S. had already begun to burn as enraged Blacks took to the streets in an orgy of destruction that led primarily to the torching of their own neighborhoods. The first report I heard focused on rioting in Chicago, my hometown. I called my father, an Illinois state legislator, from a pay phone on a Toronto street corner.

I don’t recall a moment in my life when I was ever more emotional than I was during that call, which lasted almost half an hour. “What have they done, Dad?” I cried. “What’s happening? What did they do to King?”

I couldn’t stop sobbing. I’m sure much of what I said during that call was incoherent. My father was relentlessly patient and sympathetic. Our relationship since I had left home at 18 to go off to college had not been a good one. On the question of the Vietnam War, which had become an obsession to me, we differed dramatically.

My path to Toronto had developed out of my opposition to the war. Away at college, I hadn’t done well academically. But in Ann Arbor, on the University of Michigan campus, I had discovered intellectual challenge and true political passion.

I wanted, more than anything else, to understand the historical roots of our involvement in Vietnam. How did we come to wage all-out war against a tiny, Southeast Asian country with no strategic importance to the United States and a history of resistance to foreign invaders and domestic tyrants? How could the United States conduct this brutal war overseas while Americans lived at home as though nothing was happening?

Dad had been a navigator in the Army Air Force during World War II, a much-decorated airman, proud of his contribution to that war and secure in his patriotism. He was part of that cohort that would later come to be known as the “greatest generation.” But he was also among a wealthier elite, one of the influential people who supported the war even after it was obvious to most everyone else that it was a mistake, an enterprise that had decimated Southeast Asia and a good part of a generation of Americans who served in or who opposed that war.

My father and others, heroes of the World War II victories, were also the decision-makers who launched the witch-hunts of the 1950s and the foreign interventions of the next 30 years. They were the architects and, in many cases, the most direct beneficiaries of the massive military build-up of the last half of 20th Century and the distortions of the American economy that led to economic stagnation in the ‘70s and the continuing economic devastation of the American working class.

I didn’t (and don’t) claim that Dad supported all of the policies that I objected to then and now. But he, like many of his influential contemporaries, rejected the critical analysis of governance and policy that were central to the popular movements of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Despite our political disagreements, Dad was there for me that day in Toronto when it felt like the world was coming apart. Perhaps that description, of a world falling to ruin, was a little overwrought, especially for a white, middle-class child of the ‘60s who would survive his occasionally alienated and disillusioned experience of his country with relative ease. To be sure, others have struggled, politically, socially and economically, with much worse, their personal difficulties unfolding in the context of widespread social disruption, like, say, New Orleans after Katrina.

But that, to me, was the whole point of the ‘60s. The Civil Rights movement, the Great Society, the Peace Movement, Feminism, Black Power, Environmentalism, the Farmworkers’ Union, the uprisings of Native Americans, left insurgencies within labor unions, militant demands for gay power and rights—all of these featured the agitation and activism of young people moved in their hearts and minds by the great promises of U.S. history.

We were rebelling against what the country was and did; we were moved by a belief that the greatness of the American promise—the self-evident truths, the inalienable rights, the huddled masses yearning to be free, a nation that might truly be dedicated one day to the proposition that all men and women are created equal—could be realized if we were passionate and committed and relentless. These beliefs, all of them, were resident and rooted in our minds and in our hearts.

That we would mostly fail to be true to our sense of our best selves may be the source of the angst that bubbles up as O’Rourke’s ridicule, or the source of the angst that has bathed my own brain in delusional memories of our collective heroism. Perhaps, that is my challenge. Not so much to persuade others that I am right and that the O’Rourkes and Limbaughs and Reagans and Palins of this world are wrong. But to satisfy myself that what I believed then, and mostly believe now, is not a strangely persistent naïveté, or the remnants of an altered state that merely soothes and comforts me. A half century after the yet-to-be-precisely-determined end of the ‘60s, what can I continue to reasonably believe about who I am, who we are together, and how much better we can do?


Monday, November 4, 2013

Strategically speaking, it's time to rise up

The Left ought to aspire to relevance

With some awareness of the grandiosity of my ambition, I recently assigned myself the task of describing the way the U.S. Left has wandered through the wilderness these last 40 years or so and what, exactly, the Left ought to start doing about it besides acknowledging its own existence and finding ways to build unity. One critical requirement for writing about such topics is a bit of clarity about where the country is now, how it got that way, and what writers on the Left think about such things.

In "Strategic Thinking on the U.S. Six Party System," socialist and veteran peace and justice activist Carl Davidson puts it this way:

"Successful strategic thinking starts with gaining knowledge, particularly gaining adequate knowledge of the big picture, of all the political and economic forces involved (Earth) and what they are thinking, about themselves and others, at any given time (Heaven). It's not a one-shot deal. Since both Heaven and Earth are always changing, strategic thinking must always be kept up to date, reassessed and revised," Davidson wrote.

Davidson's "Heaven and Earth" metaphor might seem gimmicky, but it grows out of the very useful understanding that strategic thinking requires the broadest possible look at the variables affecting the universe under consideration and that universe is always changing. Davidson's piece wants to take a hard look at that part of the universe conventionally understood as the two-party system; in reality, he argues, "that we live under a six-party system with two labels [Democrat and Republican]."

In the process, Davidson also notes that many would argue "...that the US has only one party, a capitalist party, with two wings, the bad and the worse."

That is, more or less, the position that Chris Hedges, a journalist widely respected by many on the Left, takes in "Our Invisible Revolution." Hedges doesn't even deign to mention Republicans in his piece, but Democrats of all descriptions "are effective masks for corporate power," he writes.

I prefer Davidson's take: The notion that we are actually living under one-party rule "is reductionist to a fault," he writes, "and doesn't tell you much other than that we live in a capitalist society, which is rather trivial." Of course, the point isn't trivial, at all, but Davidson is focussed on describing a complex reality here that includes the Tea Party, the Republican Multinationalists, the Blue Dogs, the 'Third Way' New Democrats, the Old New Dealers and the Congressional Progressive Caucus (and the Progressive Democrats of America). The last grouping, PDA/Congressional Progressive Caucus, lies at the heart of Davidson's assertion that it is reductionist and misleading to claim that Republicans and Democrats are simply two wings of one party fronting for and managing on behalf of corporations and capitalism.

The PDA/CPC's "...policy views are Keynesian and, in some cases, social-democratic as well. Its recent 'Back-to-Work Budget' [would serve] as an excellent economic platform for a popular front against finance capital...it has opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Davidson writes, using such slogans as "'Healthcare Not Warfare' and 'Windmills Not Weapons'." That congressional progressives haven't gotten very far with their agenda doesn't seem to be a function of their alleged role in one-party rule, but the result of political weakness on the Left, the absence of a movement of any sort that could force Congress to take such policy positions seriously.

And speaking of "a movement of any sort," a recent Nation article, by Greg Kaufmann warned about impending food stamp cuts that would adversely affect 48 million people receiving benefits. The piece, titled "This Week in Poverty: No Time to Wait on a Movement," argued that "...when it comes to responding to the struggles of the more than one in three Americans who are living below twice the poverty line—on less than about $36,600 annually for a family of three—we prefer to look the other way."

This is true, of course, but the problem here is that there wasn't anything that the Left could do about the cuts when Congress passed them and the President agreed to them, and there wasn't anything anybody could do to stop them last week, either. On Friday, the budgeted cuts became reality in the lives of millions of households around the country. But as a title for the piece, "No time to wait for a movement" is misleading. We can't just "wait" for a movement to come along, of course, but until we build one, we're going to see more safety net cuts, more government shutdowns and more healthcare debacles.

Hedges seems to feel that a movement is already on the way. "...once the tinder of revolt has piled up, as it has in the United States, an insignificant spark easily ignites popular rebellion. No one knows where or when the eruption will take place. No one knows the form it will take. But it is certain now that a popular revolt [against the corporate state] is coming." Hedges has more to say, but most of it raises a single set of questions in my head: How does he know this? And, where is the evidence?

As a journalist, Hedges has great skill, courage and instincts for the kind of news that the rest of us need to hear and read. But when he's merely sharing his opinion, he's rather like a lot of the rest of us on the Left, full of stories about how we're gathering strength, about how we stopped an American attack on Syria, about how we prevented the appointment of Larry Summers as head of the Fed, or about how Occupy was "...ruthlessly crushed by the corporate state."

But if anybody or anything stopped a Summers appointment, it was the Congressional Progressive Caucus' ability to swing at least a little weight against a possible Obama appointment before it became a certainty. There was a popular outcry on the Left against armed intervention in Syria, to be sure, but ordinary Republican resistance to anything Obama, as we have witnessed repeatedly for the last five years, would have been (and was) more than sufficient to force Obama into a different course of action. Further, if taking away Occupy's tents was, overall, about what it took to crush that movement, then, yes, the corporate state behaved ruthlessly.

It might be past time for a movement, but it ain't gonna happen in advance of a strategy to build it. At the end of his piece, Carl Davidson quotes Alvin Toffler: "If you don't have a strategy, you're part of someone else's strategy."

For a long time now, what has happened to the Left in the U.S. has been part of someone else's strategy.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Time To End the Left's Long Losing Streak

It's going to take a while and it's going to take a strategy

The shutdown and debt ceiling fight had me thinking hard about exactly where in the wilderness the American Left might be and what the map back to relevance might look like. I blogged about that a bit in "A few thoughts about the debt ceiling and a call for a Left political strategy." In the process, I started outlining a blogging/writing challenge for myself that goes something like this: Outline the elements of a comprehensive strategy and make the case for a Left unified around that strategy.

Ridiculous pipe dream, right? Still, I really do think the Left has been wandering through a desert of political irrelevance for almost 40 years now and it is past time for settling down and committing to something different.

Coming up with that strategy and some sort of stirring call to action must cover a range of important considerations. Among them:

Describe the wilderness. What has the Left devoutly wished for these last four decades and failed to accomplish? What has been lost? Who is it, exactly, who has been doing all that wandering? What were the Left's achievements during that period and why weren't they the path to larger political success? Other than its appeal as part of a metaphor, why make 40 years the period of concern?

Compare the Left's decades-long failure to the political success of the extreme right-wing, which never should have achieved the influence it has, given both the cruelty and the lunacy of most extreme-right policy positions.

The list goes on, of course. What are the main causes of the Left's failure? What are the strategic perspectives that ought to shape the development of a new Left strategy? Who should be a part of a newer, bigger Left and why should they bother? What should be the goals and objectives of that strategy? What tools, resources and institutional structures are necessary to support a struggle for political relevance?

There are other important questions, I know. Every time I sit down to think about the whole idea (or get up to wander and noodle the idea), I come up with a different list. But I'm pretty certain that I'm not going to reach any kind of clarity about the project until I start it.

So that's what I'm going to do. And I'm hoping this blog will help me move the project along. This post isn't really the beginning of that discussion--it's more like the introduction, but the discussion, maybe, starts here, if others will weigh in. I don't really care if I end up with any ownership of the idea, what I care about is that all of us who have been wandering in the alleged wilderness come out of it together, more aware of what we need to do and how we must work together to do it.

I'm rereading Rick Perlstein's Nixonland right now. The book focuses on the years 1964-1972, a period bookended at the start by Lyndon Johnson's overwhelming victory over Barry Goldwater and, at the other end, by Richard Nixon's smashing defeat of George McGovern. Perlstein writes that between 1964 and 1972, "...the battle lines that [currently] define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire."

What struck me most in the early parts of Nixonland is the sense of how close the country came in 1964 and '65 to establishing a policy and politics that would serve the best interests of the vast majority of Americans.

As Perlstein puts it:

"Johnson kept on rolling out his Great Society: preschool for poor children. college prep for poor teenagers, legal services for indigent defendants, economic redevelopment funds for lagging regions, landmark immigration reform, a Department of Housing and Urban Development, national endowments for the humanities and arts--even a whole new category for the liberal agenda, environmentalism: a Highway Beautification Act, a Water Quality Act, a Clean Air Act..."

There was also the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, but then Watts burned, and LBJ expanded the war in Vietnam, and the wheels came off the Great Society. It all seemed to run into a wall almost at the moment the ride began. The losses and compromises litter the road since and now, from exile, we watch the Tea Party, the mother-ef'n Tea Party, for gosh sakes, exercise a power that eludes the rest of us. That's why we need a strategy.




Saturday, October 19, 2013

A few thoughts about the debt ceiling and a call for a Left political strategy


Not raising the debt ceiling would be like a rather simple-minded declaration of bankruptcy, but the big question is how to turn a Republican setback into a long-term political rout

1. John Boehner is right; the Republicans did fight "the good fight" and they lost it, but the debt ceiling was never a real issue. It was only a viable tactic for Republicans because Democrats had given in before, e.g., the sequester. The Republicans' maneuver was an inspired procedural action, but they won't weaponize it again. Democrats have shown that they have an effective defense against that weapon.

2. It was, in any case, always a dumb idea. Not raising the debt ceiling is like declaring bankruptcy without any legal protections. Imagine a decision to stop paying bills without filing for bankruptcy. One would be entirely at the mercy of creditors free to proceed against you as they wished. It would be like leaving your front door unlocked and posting a sign out front inviting all comers: "Take what you want, I am without hope."

3. Meanwhile, there were an awful lot of people relegated to bystander status or worse during the federal shutdown. Federal employees watched the fight from the sidelines. So did most voters in Blue states, though those who insisted that their elected representatives hold the line on the debt ceiling and shutdown may have helped to strengthen Democratic spines. Working people and poor families across the country had no political options while they suffered through layoffs, lost work time, closure of Head Start programs and food stamp cuts. The list could go on and on, but the point is that working folks in huge numbers found they could do little or nothing that would affect the standoff.

4. The fight was at least a temporary disaster for Republicans. But absent a political strategy to attack the House majority in red-state congressional districts, the Tea Party will live to fight another day and the Republican House will continue to be the tail that wags the dog.

5. In the week or two before the shutdown, plenty of people on the Left were busy celebrating so-called "populist victories" over the elite. A friend of mine, apparently in the full belief that popular resistance to intervention in Syria and opposition to the appointment of Larry Summers as Fed chief were attributable to some long-awaited resurgence of the Left in the United States, declared his belief that we have reached "the end of nearly four decades of rightward drift in the United States." In view of the fact that the Left was another of the groups watching helplessly from the sidelines while the Tea Party celebrated obstruction and shutdown, it's hard to take that claim seriously.

6. But the assertion that we have lived through "... four decades of rightward drift ..." does resonate. Right to work laws, stagnating wages, growing wealth inequality, record levels of incarceration, new and higher barriers to voting, prohibitively high college costs, virtually unregulated campaign spending by corporations and the wealthy, and more are features of the rightward drift that sometimes feels like a stampede.

7. Arguably, the last really sustained and effective progressive movement in this country was the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s that resulted in the Civil Rights Act(s) of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The liberalization of national politics that grew out of that movement also helped to assure the creation of Medicare in 1965. That liberalization also created cultural space for feminism and new employment protections for women and minorities.

8. The celebrated anti-war movement of the '60s and early '70s raised important questions about the Vietnam War, U.S. imperialism, in general, and the military-industrial complex, and raised important questions about mainstream politics and media, but petered out with no strategic accomplishments to show for a great deal of political engagement.

9. One of the great strategic actions of the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement that followed were that they took political action in the South and the great cities of the North. Those movements empowered people who might otherwise be victims of an oppressive political environment to take action on their own behalf. They also attracted supporters to the fight, often getting those supporters to establish roots for the long-term in places where the struggle was centered.

10. From where I stand, the challenge now is to articulate a political strategy that takes the fight to where success, measured in a variety of ways, will make the most difference:

--to the red states, for example, to engage in sustained electoral action aimed at replacing Republican representatives with Democrats, where possible, and aimed at making uncompetitive state legislative and congressional districts competitive,

--to do this for the long haul, not merely for 2014, or 2016, but through 2020 and the opportunity to redistrict in the red states,

--to build district-based networks capable of maintaining a permanent educational and organizing presence.

There is more to suggest, of course, but the point is that even if the brief bright flare of Occupy, the resistance to intervention in Syria and to the appointment of Larry Summers to the Fed mean more than I think they do, they will mean little without a commitment by the Left to organize electorally and to take that effort to where the fight is. It has been many years since the Left has made any political difference one way or the other in the United States. Even the Tea Party makes more difference than we do. Are we ready to change?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Errata or

What might be the intro to the 2nd printing,
were such a thing to happen

                  It turns out I owe Jill Littlewood an apology, whether she thinks so or not. On the way to publishing Wild Once and Captured, I wrote a preface, an author’s introduction to the terrible, terrible deeds recently committed by the writer, soon to be shared with the reader. It was not actually a very confessional piece; it was instead a justification of sorts for publishing my own damn self without good reasons, beyond vainglory, for the action and the product that resulted.

                  I remain, by the way, quite proud of the work that Ella Epton, the book’s designer and my sister-in-law, and Stacee Kalmanovsky, the book’s illustrator and my niece, did in making Wild Once a reality. Happily, I have also grown fonder of some of the poems within.

                  In that preface, I sought to frame myself as a poet, coyly beginning the whole thing with the phrase “if I am a poet” so that I might maintain deniability . “Oh, no,” I would claim, “I didn’t mean to say I was a poet, only that if there were readers out there who considered the contents to be poems, and if any of them were to wonder, in a general way, how I came to write some of them or all, then here, in a general way, is how that came to pass.”

                  The truth, of course, is that I would like for you to consider me a poet, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. That was the argument beneath the apology in the preface that begins by crediting Geoffrey Chaucer, Mr. Rast and Jill Littlewood for their continuing influence on me, up to and including the point where I thanked them for instigating in me a love of writing in short phrases and forms.

                  Jill and I were in all the same English classes throughout high school. We were never really friends, but she seemed to be a good student. Knowing myself to be anything but studious, I respected that apparent characteristic in Jill. In the original preface I attributed a line from a poem, “mud luscious and puddle wonderful,” to something she wrote.

                  This turns out to be a sort of recovered memory of mine. The phrase is actually from an e.e. cummings poem, one that I likely encountered later in life, but somehow conflated with a memory of Jill.

                  When I tracked Jill down (after nearly 50 years of no contact) and sent her a copy of Wild Once and Captured, she responded quickly, noting with regret that she had plagiarized e.e. cummings in her youth. She also said very nice things about the book. Unfortunately, I can’t track down that message, which raises the possibility that sometime in the future I will misrepresent her, again.

                  In any case, the fact that I misattributed a line from cummings to Jill needs to be clear. It was my bad, notwithstanding her willingness to take the rap.

                  The follow-up lesson here is that one can create facts out of memories regardless of their accuracy, making fraudulent history in the process. This also suggests to me that writing is almost by definition a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland experience in which words always mean either more or less than they were supposed to mean and never define, describe or depict exactly what I intended them to mean.

I also have no difficulty imagining myself picking up a pencil and writing a piece that borrows the words of another writer. Obviously, I’ve done it already—in the event, stealing words and then framing Jill for the theft.

One of my poems, The Unfolding, references my relaxed position on plagiarizing:

I set out line by line
to steal a poem from others
and piece by piece
to build my own.

Nevertheless, writing, sometimes a burdensome process, is often great fun for me. Sometimes, it is the most liberating thing I do. After all, humans can imagine just about anything.

This is a capacity that most of us, myself included, underutilize. Still, I try. I’ve attached another poem here, perhaps one day also to be included in a reprint of Wild Once and Captured. The poem, titled “The Transgressive Acts of Men,” may need a little explaining, which I’m not actually going to do.

But let me say, regarding the title, that the poem has little to do with multiple transgressions and wrongdoing by men of whatever description. This may be disappointing to some readers, but then Norman Mailer’s 1967 novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?, only mentioned that country once and provoked numerous discussions about whether the book had actually answered the question it raised. So it might be with “The Transgressive Acts of Men.”

The transgressions in question here are in reality singular and limited to me imagining myself to be an earth mother of sorts. Hubris and delusion, yes?

The Transgressive Acts of Men

Excluded from the matrilineal ascent,
I intrude.
I am before and beyond
all my mothers,

all my daughters,
mothering the clan;
in my DNA,
the Amazonian last daughter

staring in wonder
at the brink,
holding the hand
of all my sisters,

mindful of our brothers,
among whom I once was counted;
all who we were,
all who we are gone nova.

The end
when it comes,
almost more than we can bear,
more for certain than we can know,

memories on the way,
partners on the road,
dreams on the wing,
exploding outward.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Storm's coming,

but not yet.

Soon enough, though. The wind's rising and the sky's getting quite dark.

Just a bit ago, I was walking up the hill on 17th, getting to Jackson. To my right, there was a cop on a motorcycle, cruising slowly up to a stop sign. The vibe I got was pretty relaxed. Still, a cop.

And ever since I sat in front of a TV watching thugs with guns and badges beat civil rights marchers, and ever since I got caught up on the losing side in a police riot in Chicago in 1968, and later got myself thrown to the ground and handcuffed (more than once), when I see a cop my first response is to assess possible risks.

But at the Dayton Voice in the 1990s, I had a very different, and somewhat sustained, experience of a different sort of cop--Lt. David Sherrer. Constantly in trouble during his career with the Dayton police department, Sherrer came to the Voice in '97 or '98 with a story about how the department was persecuting him for criticizing other cops who didn't follow procedure, and brutalized people on the street. Sherrer was also detailed in his criticisms of the way the department dealt with African-American officers in general.

Early in our collaboration, I told Sherrer that I didn't trust police very much and had my doubts about him. Suck it up, he responded. After all, he observed, he was in a postion where he had to trust a white newspaper publisher.

David was pretty much always angry. There didn't seem to be much happiness in his life. He's gone now; here's his obituary, which tells quite a lot about his difficulties with his employer and the troubles in his life generally.

So, there was the cop on the bike. He looked around at the stop sign and roll through. He looked at me and nodded. I waved a hand and laughed. He was still a cop, and he looked  pleased to be one, but it didn't look like he was full of the power of his position, he just looked like he felt pretty good on a warm day, looked as though something like joy pulsed through him. A feeling that David Sherer didn't have very often.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Privacy, security and umbrage

I have concerns I'd like to discuss,
but I don't share the apparent hysteria.

 Is it too blunt to say so? To suggest that so many on the Left--colleagues and allies and heroes and Facebook friends--are overreacting to the news that the NSA is capturing data about the phone habits and patterns of tens of millions of Americans? I mean, I love Daniel Ellsberg, but I sure don't share his assessment that Edward Snowden's actions in revealing a classified NSA-operation is an act of courage and sacrifice even remotely close to Ellsberg's actions in stealing, compiling and releasing the Pentagon Papers.

The publication of those classified documents in 1971 made clear for the first time that government strategists believed that the Vietnam War could not be won and that elected officials were lying about what they were doing and what they intended to do. The New York Times was briefly enjoined from publishing the documents and Ellsberg, who made no claims about his own courage and sacrifice, was systematically and illegally investigated and harassed by the same Nixon-administration operatives central to the Watergate break-in.

History may one day affirm the notion that Edward Snowden did a great thing, but it can never show that Snowden revealed anything that most of the Left and much of the rest of the country didn't already know. For evidence, I submit a column by Walter Pincus, "A surveillance history lesson," in today's Washington Post.

More than 40 years ago, Pincus tells us the NSA was engaged in a whole range of spying activities that  surprised staff of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, collecting data from ordinary eavesdropping, but also from "cables and intercepts from satellites," Pincus writes. The committee demanded and eventually received "a full description of the NSA's then expanding worldwide collections, how the material was being used, and the means by which the NSA minimized reading or listening to non-relevant material on U.S. citizens."

In his piece, Pincus also notes a 1979 Supreme Court decision upholding a lower court ruling that said, in part, "there is no constitutionally protected reasonable expectation of privacy in the numbers dialed into a telephone system."

One can, of course, object passionately to the court's decision, but it is another matter for anyone on the Left to experience shock at the notion that our government is engaged in surveillance of all sorts of people and all manner of activities that seem routine and ought to be private. We know better than that. We know our history. We know that governments, both democratic and otherwise, will use every available technology to gather any information that the government deems necessary to protect and/or control. And we know that the U.S. government spies on us in ways that we'd rather not think about.

We also know that government will go too far in defense of its prerogatives and that some agents of the government will try to evade oversight in the exercise of police power. Snowden may not be a hero (check out Richard Cohen's take on Snowden, "A scoop of hot air"), but it is a demonstration of overreach to characterize him as a traitor. He must not be punished for telling us what we already knew.

Marrianne McMullen, the person to whom I am married (and a federal employee), points out that the Department of Health and Human Services manages a database that has the name, salary, social security number and other information about every single legally  employed person in the United States.  The database is used only for child support enforcement and may be one of the most important factors in reducing poverty in single-parent households. Access to the database is absolutely restricted to authorized personnel engaged in child support collection activities.

Ultimately, the employment/income database exists because the technology to collect and manage the information exists. Not collecting it would be a grievous government failure.

Do I believe that the government may go too far in collecting data? Yes, absolutely. But I also believe that if an extended computerized analysis of information that does not compromise individual identities or jeopardize people without probable cause can help identify danger to Americans, it's worth doing. The important questions go way beyond whether such data collection is occurring. The areas that need full public discussion are connected to who collects the data, who oversees the collectors, and where the line between privacy and security is drawn.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Missing the moral fortitude to oppose gentrification

Why I'm not gonna get involved

I got back from walking Jetta at about 10:00 this morning. On the last leg of the walk, Jet and I went down a block with several newly planted street trees. It was obvious that when those trees reach some green-crowned maturity, the whole streetscape will be beautified. Into the bargain, the air will be a little bit cleaner and the houses below will be little bit cooler on an 80-degree day like today. The houses will all be worth more, too.

That all sounds good, I suppose. Who wouldn't want to live in a more valuable property, in a cooler house on a shadier street?

Nobody would wish otherwise I think, assuming the changes don't suddenly make living there unaffordable. But that's the way Washington, DC is headed for a lot of people who have roots here two or three generations deep, roots deep in the house they live in now, deep in the neighborhood, deep in a local church, deep and solid like the work they did and the businesses they built and maybe passed on.

Parts of Northwest DC have been very upscale for a very long time. The rest of the city has long been a different place--majority African American, lower income, and frequently the object of official disinterest and neglect. But always home to hundreds of thousands of African Americans who were born here or moved here, were educated here, raised families here and from here participated in every struggle for freedom and civil rights and for a new deal and a better deal.

You don't really have to walk down a street and see a few young trees to predict that upscale and mostly white and very professional Northwest DC is expanding inexorably into Northeast and even parts of Southeast. You can see it at every Red Line Metro station in Northeast. You can see the mid-rise, high-density housing coming for the recent college graduates and the new political interns flooding into the city. You can see it in every remodeled supermarket with their salad bars and their health food aisles. You can see it in the new taverns with craft beers on tap replacing the old neighborhood bars. You can see it in the fading community churches selling land to developers. You can see it in all the new young families moving in, some black, most white.

When the change spreads far enough, DC will be a majority white professional city with first-class bike lanes, new trolley lines and, even, improving public schools. Though there will be a spreading chain of Bus Boys and Poets restaurants and bookstores with a bias toward empowerment and human rights, all the bus boy-poets, like the young Langston Hughes once was, will be gone. No more of the community that nurtured Chuck Brown's Go-Go mix of funk and soul and rock 'n roll, either. No more of the Chocolate City that showed George Clinton and Parliament the love.

It wasn't all good. No way. After Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, rioting in DC left 12 people dead, more than 1,000 injured and 6,000 arrested. Twelve hundred buildings were burned, almost 1,000 businesses destroyed. Historic black business strips in Columbia Heights and U Street and H Street were devastated. For some, the riots were merely an opportunity to take what they felt had been denied them. But for others the riots were an expression of pain and loss and frustration and rage. Still, even some of the scars from the riots have acquired a patina of beauty and a whiff of something profound just from aging in place. From enduring. Those monuments of street and struggle will be gone, also.

What a loss. It's too bad that I don't have the courage or fortitude or energy to join with the opponents of gentrification here in the city, don't have the will to testify to the value of the community and the history and the slaves and free men who came here and built this city.

Right now, I live in the nicest house I've ever lived in on the quietest street I've ever lived on. The house may get a little nicer over the years as we work on it. Those changes might not make the house more valuable, but they will make it even nicer for us. The street won't change much, either. But the streets around us will likely improve in that the houses on those streets will be renovated and remodeled and, as time goes on, increasingly occupied by people who are wealthier or more professional than the people they replaced. And everybody's house will go up in value. Quickly. So will their taxes.

People unable to keep up with higher taxes and insurance premiums will move away. Heritage and soul and community of a particular sort will be lost. And I won't be standing in the way.

I like that my house will increase in value. I like that a super market will be developed nearby. And that we won't have to leave the neighborhood to find a good restaurant. I don't want to live anymore in a neighborhood that's falling apart, like Five Oaks in Dayton did, or in a low-income community with a lot of marginal housing and big parking lots and no trees like 33rd and S. Wallace in Chicago. And I can't work up any particular hate for the newcomer in our DC neighborhood, either. After all, we're among the "pioneers" in a neighborhood that was fully pioneered long before we got here.

So, I'm not going to stand in the way, but I'll tell you that I dream of something else entirely. I don't want to be a gentrifier. Nor do I want to be gentrified. Instead, I dream that someday I'll live up in northern Michigan somewhere, near Petoskey or Traverse City. I'll build a big, roomy house to live in, on a piece of land that's green and inviting and all of you who go on fighting the good fight will be welcome to come by and stay for a little R & R.


Friday, May 10, 2013

The Worst Thing about Drones


I drove Brendan to school this morning--actually, I do that every morning. His school day is long enough as it is. If he had to take the DC metro and bus system to and from school, it would add more than two hours to his day. Throw in his track or basketball practice and he would spend almost 12 hours a day marching in lines under somebody else's command. Call me a slacker, but I think that's a bad deal even for adults, no matter that they get paid for some of that marching.

On the way home, I heard a story about a former Air Force drone operator on NPR's Morning Edition. He's a kid, really, but by the time he was, oh, say 20 years old, he had likely killed more than one innocent and killed at least one child with missiles he fired while sitting in a trailer on an Air Force base somewhere in Nevada.

Brandon Bryant's in college now, but it sounds like he's hurting and probably battling PTSD, a battle a lot of soldiers end up losing. And how can he actually win that fight? To a certainty he knows he killed a child while running no risk to himself at all.

I know this: Left to my own devices that kind of guilt would bring me to my knees.

And he sure as hell is left to his own devices. The American public doesn't even know Brandon Bryant went to war. That's the worst part of the drone program--suddenly almost all war is on the verge of becoming clandestine. And we in the US are going to lose track of our wounded vets when the day comes that none of their scars are visible.

Over the past two generations, we have done so many things to make war more bearable for civilians. We eliminated the military draft. We acquired global military superiority and a whole range of weapons that would allow us to kill wholesale at a great reduction in American dead and wounded. Now, we have drones and a kind of silent combat we can wage from our desks.

It's a game in which we run up the score and always shut out the other side. But our combat vets are invisible and, as has always been the case in war, the children they kill are invisible, too. The collateral damage is mounting. And every drone that explodes in Yemen or Mali or Sudan also blows up something here. Early education funding, maybe, or unemployment spending, to say nothing of the damage to a warrior's conscience.

Friday, May 3, 2013

No-fly zone in Syria should be a no-no


The odds of U.S. intervention in Syria accomplishing much other than increasing the death rate seem very low to me. Sure, destroying Syrian air fields in order to keep Syrian planes on the ground would reduce the rate at which Bashar al-Assad can kill civilians. That would be an unequivocal good.

But a Tomahawk missile costs $1.4 million. And, according to Sharon Weinberger of the Center for Public Integrity, quoting William Hartung, the no-fly zone in Iraq cost $1 billion a year to maintain. The one established in Libya cost more than $100 million in the first day of operations. In a time of sequester, in a time of cuts in childcare funding and unemployment benefits, every missile exploded in Syria also injures Americans.

Arguably, immediately reducing the rate at which Assad kills civilians would make no real long-term difference. After all, he has so many other options, like tanks, mortars and automatic weapons, for a more retail approach to killing civilians. Assad's regime will fall, but the sectarian violence that follows will make victims out of tens of thousands of other Syrians.

This is not a slam at Muslims or Arabs, either. Great power intervention and exploitation in the Middle East has structured the region geographically and politically in a way that ensures continuing power struggles and fratricidal violence.

The Iraq Body Count Project reports more than 100,000 documented civilian deaths in Iraq between 2003 and 2012. Sanctions on Iraq during the period between the first Gulf War and the U.S. invasion of Iraq reportedly resulted in the deaths of more than 500,000 Iraq children. That figure has been disputed, but even Reason.com, a libertarian operation, concedes that sanctions probably caused the deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqi children.

Tens of thousands of Afghani civilians have died since the U.S. launched a war against the Taliban in 2001. Hundreds of thousands of Afghani civilians died during the Soviet Union's invasion and ten-year war that ended there in 1989. During that period the U.S. gave billions of dollars in aid to various Afghani military governments and to insurgents, many of whom evolved to become the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

And, though U.S. forces have almost completely withdrawn from Iraq, IEDs are still exploding every day, maiming and killing Iraqis. The question must be asked: How, exactly, does U.S. intervention spare civilian lives in the before, during or after the event?

And the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq alone have cost the U.S. somewhere between $4 and 6 trillion, a spending decision that has had adverse consequences in both the Middle East and in this country. A truly humanitarian intervention supported by the U.S. would rely on the UN and NGOs and be exclusively focused on aiding Syrian refugees wherever they might be and finding ways to get Syrian civilians out of harm's way. But the history of other U.S. interventions in the Middle East suggests that only Raytheon, the manufacturer of the Tomahawk missile, stands to benefit from establishing a no-fly zone in Syria.


Friday, April 19, 2013

The Courage All Around

Boston could mark a point on the path to building a national community that we would like to live in.

More or less the letter I wrote to the Washington Post the day after the bombings at the Boston Marathon:

Editor,

I've been struck by how many conversations I've heard (or overheard), both public and private, focusing on the suddenly imaginable possibility that we've entered a period in history when Americans face new threats from bombings aimed at civilians. This might indeed be so. Experts have predicted the possibility for years. So have novelists and screenwriters.

If it happens, it will be a different sort of mayhem than the kinds we have faced in the past as drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. It will require no more of us than has already been demonstrated by workers who work at dangerous jobs, or by victims of abuse and battering, or by children who grow up in dangerous places.

Each death from terrorism will be a tragedy. But it will also be a profile in courage of those who choose to continue living in public places. The individual suffering may be horrific, but collectively we will survive it and, even, transcend it. A test of shared courage, perhaps, but exactly what we ought to expect of ourselves.

Jeff Epton, Washington D.C


Have we finally arrived at our berserker future?

The Post edited it down a bit and headed it in a way that suggested the letter was responding to an article in their paper. But it was a response to an event, not to the relentless media coverage of the event. So be it. (See the Post's version, "Living in public after violence.")

When I heard the news about Boston, about runners and spectators, civilians randomly victimized in a terror attack, John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar came to mind, as it has many times since I first read it in the early '70s. The novel tells the story of a highly urbanized, overcrowded, dystopic world--one that in reality seems to have been creeping up on us for a very long time.

Of course, though Brunner's vision could not have been accurate in most details (after all, even tomorrow and the day after seem a little hazy from here, no matter that we are standing quite close), more than a few of us seem to be living within shouting distance of Zanzibar. In Brunner's world relative innocents, shopping and dining and purposefully walking in crowded places, sometimes fall victim to berserkers, hyperadrenalized maniacs exploding into suddenly murderous rages that usually don't end until the maniacs burn themselves out.

I couldn't help wondering if we'd finally arrived at our berserker future.


What the letter meant to say, maybe

If that's our future, then we will need to make more deliberate choices to live in public places. But we should not kid ourselves on either of two points.

One, we are not heading into combat here. Plenty of people--neighbors, friends, family--already live their lives courageously. We will be required to follow their lead. No more.

The corollary to that is we should also learn that the courage shown by soldiers or by first responders is not a different sort of courage, either. Their courage is human courage, we all have it in us. Skills and strength and a little training help, too, but we can teach each other what we need to learn (and maybe fix our public schools along the way).


The Courage All Around

When Marrianne and Brendan and I first got to Washington, I'd go a couple of times a year to Bus Boys and Poets open-mic night. It was always very exciting. Most of the poets who made it to the mic were rappers. They were driven by rhymes and rhythms and an apparent need to get up on the stage and say who they were and what they cared about.

And every once in a while I'd get up and try to rumble a few lines, injecting a little blank verse, substituting assonance or alliteration for rhyme and, quite obviously, an occasional longer word when a shorter one might have done. The audience was always patient, but usually hungry for the next rapper. 

In the upshot, I learned far more from them than they learned from me. And, watching the risks they took, I learned that I needed to take more risks, too, and put more heart into speaking my poems. I wrote "The Courage All Around" for them:


Late-night honest
with myself
My boy shames me
The courage he shows
drumming at the Metro
Spare change pours in
Folded bills drifting like
snow covering his lap

Ten years old, first
sharing a buck
with a woman who asks,
then shooing her away
when she won’t stop
asking for more

He goes about his business,
a lionheart tending his
pride of intentions,
while I flinch at the work
before me, at stepping up
before you, at speaking my piece

But where he’s heading,
where heart and skill
and the company of others,
the company of you,
colleagues with an instinct
to be movement and reach

we can believe in,
that place, that thought, swells
my heart The world you will build
beckons and beguiles
and because the heart is
a complicated thing
I feel no shame here
I feel the courage all around


The point, maybe, is still another thing.

There ought to be some emphasis on what we might get, if we learn to live together with more courage. We might learn to prefer human-scale humans and human-scale events over celebrity and spectacle. We might learn to get out of the way of little acts of creativity and sharing, and to see how much such things enrich our lives and strengthen our communities.

I could lengthen that list, but so could you. I could try to prove that I'm right, but I ain't got no data.

All I know is that right after Boston, following on the heels of my thoughts about the berserkers in our future, I was suddenly excited by the thought that we really could do much, much better.