Friday, November 11, 2011


Understand the wait for what
it is. There will be no great leap
forward. That debate is over.
The throng does not march toward

ordained fate. There is simply each
meandering face, longing for common
flow, and the hard places along the way.

So, it behooves us to wish
each other well, to mourn the dead,
to fight like hell
for the rest. Occupy.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Debt Ceiling Blues

But all praise to memory

While we're all trying to decide how much we hate Obama's debt ceiling deal and whether or not the man has crossed our own individual political line-in-the-sand, I offer my own reflections on memory (probably, but not certainly, irrelevant to the current fiscal crisis and equally irrelevant to the lives of all but a tiny few of the admittedly small number of readers of this blog). Got that?

Last night Marrianne and I watched the 3rd episode of Falling Skies, some cable channel's 13-episode, alien-invasion series. (And, no, I am not going to get into some side discussion on what and why we were watching.) At one point, a father tries to console his son over the son's loss of his girlfriend during the struggle against alien invaders. Into the bargain, the human population of Earth has been decimated, so everybody is essentially an individual variation on a shell-shocked survivor.

"At least you have memories of her," the father comforts.

"Mom was better at this, Dad," the kid responds, both wryly and sadly.

"Yeah, that was pretty lame," says Dad.

NOTE: Do not rely on these quotes for authenticity. They are constructed from memory.

The viewer sort of nods and agrees with Dad and Son that the comforting advice is lame. That, I suspect is what we all think; that memories of a person or a pet or a place or an event are but pale shadows of the real deal and without the power to comfort especially when the loss is recent and raw.

Most of the time it may be nearly indisputable that memory is not enough, but the truth is that sometimes memory is more than loving recall of something that cannot be recreated. Sometimes memory is vividly real and as familiar as the air. I am 64 years old (or nearly so) and past my prime in, oh, so many things. But I remember prime in those many things, and remember in detail.

I'll admit straight up that what I remember may never have happened as I remember it, but that is a mere bagatelle (French, I think, for a gossipy bagel). Memory, however flawed, is the best we got for building and maintaining individual identity, so while we need to have it, we might as well tap some of its great power, e.g., the ability to hold a lover or a pet or a great moment in our lives so close to the core of our being that they come alive, tangible as a warm breeze or cool water, releasing a flow of endorphins that cleanses us and brings us close to what we most desire.

One is favored by such moments only rarely. If they happened too often, the number of square-peg people in a round-hole world would overwhelm the capacity of our institutions. As, in fact, is happening now with the tribal fantasies of the Tea Party seriously testing our political capacity to understand each other and cooperate.

Yesterday morning, while out with my middle-sized dog, Jetta, traipsing through a dry-season wetland, I stumbled upon a series of memories of myself at 12 and the games I would play with my neighborhood friends. One game, in particular, seemed perfect for our block of brick three-flats and apartment buildings. "Ditch," as we called it, was played entirely outdoors, except for the warrens of basement tunnels running under the three-story apartment buildings that squatted on three or four lots along the street. If you could get into a basement, more power to you. Just don't get caught by your pursuers on the other team or by a building janitor.

Evolved out of the almost casual inclination of any group of two or three or four or more kids to hide from, flee or "ditch" a subset of that same group, into Ditch, in which half of us pursued the other half everywhere on the block--though tunnels, over fences, off garage roofs--until we had captured and held every member of the other team. It was an adrenalin-soaked, terror-producing, entirely exhilirating after-school and weekend activity. We played it compulsively, like rats ignoring food and water in favor of the button that releases another dose of cocaine or some such drug.

I think we played Ditch often enough and hard enough and long enough to force our bodies to adapt productively. For all that fitness has always mattered to me, I don't think that my body and its capabilities were ever again so well matched. I was a wiry, agile, relentless, Ditch-playing machine.

And now, I'm 64. I can still go hard when I have to, but I can't keep it up with the same ease I used to have, and I don't recover from going hard at anywhere near the old rate. One thing I am plainly not is twelve years old. But Saturday morning, out with Jetta, I was.

We had gotten kicked off a portion of the back acreage of the Howard University Seminary and I was morose. I knew Jetta and I would be okay out on the wetland (quite dry at this time of year), but I was feeling furtive and anxious. I sat down and wrote a poem that I'll post on Outdoor Poetry Season, but the effort did not empower or invigorate me.

Moping my way off the property, I recalled myself at 10 or 11 walking across the lawn of some 10- or 12-unit apartment building and being suddenly confronted by the building janitor, who was waving a rake and ordering me off his lawn. None of us knew his name, but he was a big guy, putting us in mind of a bear, so we called him Andy Panda; a cuddly sort of label that I suppose we applied in order to diminish the fear he inspired in us.

I ran around him and when I got a safe distance, I yelled. "I'm not afraid of you, Andy Panda."

The memory stimulated additional memories and all the sights and sounds of Ditch flooded my mind. It was definitely a WWJD-moment ("J" meaning a 12-year old Jeff). Trying to caution Jetta to stealth, I made my way along the wooded fringe of the Howard property, suddenly determined to get across the three-block landscape from which I'd previously been banned, not by Andy Panda but, by a guy with a gun and sergeant's stripes.

Jetta was having difficulty inhabiting my vision, but I was all in. I was 12 and my heart was pumping and I was alert and tingling and ready and finally confident that no guy with a gun and sergeant's stripes was a match for me. I can't say what proportion of the journey involved stealth and slinking through the shadows and what part was sprinting and dashing ahead, but it felt a good mix. I could feel the sweep of dozens of prying eyes, but I was nearly invisible. I could sense when my pursuers got close, or when I passed near a surveillance point, but I zigged and darted and sped beyond their awareness.

At the other end of property I paused and coaxed Jetta into the shadow by the trees and looked back at where I'd been. I was safe, I was victorious and looking ahead to where I was going with fresh anticipation. All praise to memory.

And what was it we were talking about?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Definitely a Midsummer's Outdoor Poetry Season

Seasoned by climate change

Went for a walk with Jetta this morning. Out for an hour, lingered in the seasonal wetland (now, very dry) behind Howard University's School of Religion. Swung by the largely unmaintained hilltop ruins around the site of an old Civil War-era fort. It really is amazing what's only a minute away on foot around here.

In any case, I was dripping sweat by the time I got home, even though it wasn't even 9 a.m. And the streets were deserted, people already hunkered down against the heat.

What ever are they going to do by the middle of the century when the average temperature will probably be 7 degrees higher than it is now, maybe 10 degrees? Imagine, 80s when it used to be 70. 90s when it used to be 80. And a day like today would be what temperature by mid-afternoon? By 2040, maybe 110 degrees.

It wasn't like I was exercising vigorously, though I was preparing to go with Marrianne to Bus Boys and Poets for open-mike night, tonight. So I was throwing myself around imaginary stages and gesturing emphatically. It is well and truly Outdoor Poetry Season.

I'm going to recite The Unfolding first. And then The Last Night.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Matt Damon speaks,

I reshape the message just for me.

In The Adjustment Bureau, Matt Damon speaks to a crowd of adoring supporters after a tough election loss. He tells them that even though he is widely regarded as a natural, down-to-earth guy, as a candidate he has been no such thing. Holding up his shoe, he talks about the influence of consultants on him and his campaign and how unnatural he really is.

We paid this one guy, he says, to figure out the right amount of "scuff" on his shoes. If the shoes are perfect, voters will think you are a lawyer or a banker, some kind of snob, not one of them. If your shoes are scuffed like some kind of working class guy, the Damon character says, you won't get support from big money contributors. So, the right amount of scuff is a big deal.

This I have known personally all my life. My dad was a dominating, charismatic figure. He was also meticulous about his appearance, even fastidious. And he always went for maximum shine on his expensive shoes. He loved me, and wanted me to achieve great success in life, but the plan was never mine, always his.

I reacted to him, I think, so strongly that I've spent a portion of my time on this good earth trying to figure out the right amount of scuff for me. This is not so easy as it sounds. Knowing that you are not Bernie Epton is not the same as having the right footwear in the right condition for every occasion in life.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Correct me, if I'm wrong about homophobic rant

So comedian Tracy Morgan (a Saturday Night Live alumnus) recently unloaded a darker part of his soul with a line at one of his comedy shows, claiming, apparently, that "he'd 'stab' his son if he were gay (Washington Post)." Chastised by activists, Morgan recanted (as opposed to "reranting") his remarks and apologized. I'm pretty certain that his apology is sincere and his understanding of human rights and shared humanity has been upgraded. I'm also certain that he's no more tainted than the rest of us--we are all only (and uniquely) human.

But beyond that, what would it mean for any man to stab his son upon discovering that his son was gay? Lots of possible interpretations, to be sure. Here's my take on the psychology underlying the threatened homicide:

A man, a particular man, say, stabs his son when he discovers that his son is gay for two purposes.

One, though he may never have had (knowingly) a homosexual desire, let alone encounter, this particular man stabs (penetrates) in the wild hope that he could have his son before any other man might take him. This is the return of the repressed.

And two, this particular man wishes to be the sole possessor of whoever it is that he finds himself lusting after. Does stabbing guarantee that he would be the only man (or, at least, the last one) to have his son?

This is a detailed acting out of jealous sexual rage. It makes no difference what gender or sexual orientation we are speaking of here. We are all only (and uniquely) human.

But we'd also better hurry up the expansion of our collective understanding of our shared humanity. Worse is coming.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Spirit of Phyllis Hall

Rich and Forever Giving

When my mom died last fall, she was ready to go, though she nevertheless regretted that she had reached the point where death might be welcome. She didn’t want to linger in her dying, nor did she laze about much in life. Loving always, but not particularly interested in showing it. She had friends, people who loved her, but she still lived her life in a kind of isolated splendor. She wasn’t much for passing out compliments, either, though she celebrated each of us for the virtues she believed we possessed. But she loved us. Gift aplenty.

Now Perry Hall’s mom has died. It has taken me a day or two of thinking about it to fully grasp what Phyllis Hall gave me that no one else did. And in understanding what she did for me, I know I feel a portion of the loss that the Hall family must feel.

Perry’s been a friend my whole adult life. We don’t see each other much anymore, but if I needed him and I told him so, he would come. As I believe I would come for him. A friendship with a man like Perry would be gift enough from Phyllis Hall, but it’s only a fraction of what Phyllis gave me.

In 1970 I spent a good portion of the summer living at Perry’s mom’s house on Hobart, a street one block from Trumbull Street in Detroit. Perry lived there, too, of course. A whole lot of others, brothers, sisters, grandchildren and cousins, lived there, too. And if they didn’t live there, they were around daytime, or nighttime, or mealtime, or bedtime, or maybe all the time; there was no roster or schedule.

During the day Perry and I worked at Ed Bowyer’s Insight Magazine. The magazine was an exemplary editorial vision, but Ed didn’t have the resources to execute that vision. The first issue, showing the statue, Spirit of Detroit, tying off an arm and shooting up, created quite a stir. Insight lasted, two, maybe, three, issues. But it was beyond doubt an important place to work and Detroit was a fine place to engage in struggle.

We ran one feature, an interview of a group of black Detroit-area Vietnam vets, over a couple of issues. The interview was raw, poignant, portentous; full of the anger and frustration of African American men in America in the ‘60s and’70s.

At night Perry and I would return to the Hall homestead, share food and drink, socialize, visit neighbors; a group of autoworkers, members of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) lived across the street, sharing space with grassroots activists who worked for radical Detroit city councilman Ken Cockrell. Life that summer felt relevant and rich. But the key to it all was Phyllis Hall.

She worked a swing shift as a matron at the Detroit House of Corrections, in my mind’s eye a large, dark, forbidding place. But I knew it was a place Phyllis could handle, even as I was sure that I would barely survive there.

Sometimes on her way home from work, Phyllis shopped for groceries and cooked at midnight. Whoever was awake would gather at the table. Others would rouse themselves from sleep. There were never enough beds, so on occasion, waking for midnight dinner, I would find one or two of Perry’s nieces or nephews sleeping on top of me. That always felt like a kind of loving comfort that I did not experience again until my own infant children slept soundly (and with a profound weight) on my chest.

It didn't matter how many people were at the house during those late night dinners, who was sleeping or who was awake, because there was always enough food. Maybe because there was always plenty of love.

I never figured out when Phyllis slept. I’d guess that since she was so busy taking care of everyone else she probably wasn’t getting enough sleep herself. But she lived through Hobart Street and so much else in her life, and lived well for eight decades, so maybe it was caring for others that kept her whole and thriving.

I didn’t see Phyllis much after that summer, but I knew I’d get a warm welcome anytime I came by. I never told her how loved she made me feel, I don’t think she needed to hear such things. But now that she’s gone, I feel the need to note some of the gifts I received from her, gifts I’ve been unwrapping my whole life.

Some time in high school, I lost my innocence about race. By college I knew that equality and meaningful integration and shared understanding were, without struggle and pain, beyond our collective reach in the United States. And I knew that whiteness was both a privilege and a sort of stupidity about the world. And I thought these things with a kind of sorrow I couldn’t evade despite varied and creative efforts to do so; especially after Martin Luther King, Jr., the most enduring heroic figure in my life, was killed. But Phyllis’s house was the place where my whiteness mattered least, and where I did not have to evade the sorrow because I could briefly set it aside. All that counted, so far as I could tell, was the content of my character and that every other person coming into Phylli’s home.

In Phyllis’s house, we were all affirmed.

And, thinking of those late night meals, I am aware that what we all dined on together may not have what we wanted, but it was all that we needed.

Phyllis Hall was the exemplar of the kind of person Sweet Baby James advises us to be:

“Shower the people you love with love,
show them the way that you feel.”

I'm happy to have known her.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


To fight or not to fight in Libya or anywhere else?

That is, or ought to be, the eternal question. Whether the cost in human lives and national treasure is worth the outcome. And whether the outcome is clearly and transparently defined or is oblique and misdefined. For Americans, after all, it has never been simply a question of whether we support or oppose the clear goals of war, but also whether we have been lied to and mislead. There is a dissonance within ourselves and our country that sometimes cannot be resolved.

In my lifetime, that has been the case in Iran in 1950, in Guatemala in 1954, in Vietnam in 1956 and beyond, in Cambodia, in Chile, in Panama, in Granada, in Nicaragua, and so on and so forth. The same questions do not arise in every instance.

Most often, I am persuaded that American goals are not on the side of justice. When the U.S. intervened in Kosovo in the early '90s, many on the Left supported that intervention. The Serbian Slobadan Milosevic seemed bent on the destruction of Albanian Kosovars. But I didn't support that intervention, despite the fact that Milosevic was almost certainly a war criminal. Earlier the U.S. had left Rwandans to their fate. And been indifferent to the plight of civilians in the Horn of Africa suffering from war, expulsion and famine. How could the same country that did not trouble itself over Rwandans, Congolese, Somalians and Ethiopians be judged guileless and innocent of ulterior motives when it rode to the rescue of Albanians?

But we are another decade along now, and are led by a president whom I genuinely believe wishes to solve conflicts and ameliorate suffering, perhaps even in the case of Palestinians. And I am persuaded that many lives have been saved in Libya by the recent U.S.-led intervention. Still, I remain troubled by the notion that the among the few certainties here is that weapons manufacturers will get reorders and that even humanitarian interventions serve the interests of some who don't give a hoot about Libyans or about Palestinians or about the millions of recent dead for whom humanitarian intervention never came. But how could abstention be the answer?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Libyan War is...

A. a bad idea.
B. a necessary evil. Innocent people are dying. U.S. intervention will keep Gaddafi from murdering his people.
C. not the outcome of constitutional deliberation and process.
D. a sign of Obama's weak leadership
E. a good idea.
F. What kind of phony discussion is this? The war in Libya is another undeclared war based on a (probably incorrect calculation of) national interests that will cost the United States much more than it delivers and will fall far short of any reasonable humanitarian goal.

There is a G, of course, namely that the whole idea of intervention in Libya is confusing and difficult to assess. The probabilities seem fairly high that, if Americans were to respond to a poll asking such a question and offering A through G as possible responses, a plurality would likely admit confusion and choose G. A good number might also support the idea that some sort of humanitarian intervention is necessary. A relative few would be likely to choose A, a bad idea.

On Tuesday, March 22, the Washington Post op-ed page featured five pieces offering some sort of counsel in regard to the choice. The five opinion writers, Anne Applebaum, George Will, Michael Gerson, Richard Cohen and Eugene Robinson, arguably came down on the side of B, C (with a leaning toward A), D & B, D & B, and F (or at least, A), respectively.

Only Applebaum, in "Aim low on Libya," expresses strong support for intervention and excuses the week-long delay in getting there, arguing that quicker or more enthusiastic intervention would have resulted in a widespread perception of American war-mongering. It made sense in this case, she says, to wait for the British and the French to take the lead.

Will doesn't believe that Obama's reasons for intervening were constitutional, persuasive or grounded in a reasonable grasp of history. He calls Obama's observation that Gaddafi has lost all credibility with the Libyan people "meretricious boilerplate [apparently] designed to anesthetize thought." Will helpfully brings history into the discussion, citing the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War as experiences that could teach valuable lessons. His use of history would be even more effective here had he previously bothered to vigorously play the unconstitutional card in regard to the two wars against Iraq launched by the Bushes, father and son.

Michael Gerson, a speech writer for Bush II before he got his job as a Post columnist, endorses the attacks on Libya upfront in "Obama's late arrival," but then spends an additional 800 or so words complaining that Senators Kerry, McClain and Lieberman were quicker to arrive at the public conclusion that intervention was necessary. This appears to be so, but significance ought to be a criterion for the Post's op-ed pages.

Bombing Gadaffi might get us to the end of the "old order in the Middle East" and lead to the "stability and prosperity [that] are powerful antitodes to the violent urges of nihlism and extremism," as Gerson writes. Then, again, maybe bombing, which the United States has engaged in from time to time these last many years, provides some sort of evidence that stability and prosperity are not always antidotes to violent urges.

Richard Cohen, who plays an establishment liberal to Gerson's establishment conservative in the pages of the Post, doesn't like the way Obama governs, either, but makes the case with a little bit more humor than Gerson. In "Uncle Miltie's plan," Cohen does make the helpful point that "the search for a Unified Theory of What Is Happening [in the Middle East] is futile" and details why. All the same, Cohen's chief criticism of Obama appears to be that the president lacks a unified theory. The administration, Cohen concludes, "could have made an argument for staying out [of Libya] or a more forceful argument for going in. Instead it made both. "Milton Berle now plays the White House," he writes. And, no doubt, also haunts Cohen's ambivalent dreams.

Way below the bottom of the fold comes Eugene Robinson's "The dictators we need." Perhaps placement on the page reflects the Post's assessment of the merits of Robinson's argument, but it does have the virtue of clarity. After noting that Gadaffi is a genuine villain, threatening to "turn all of Libya into a charnel house," a blunt description of the allied intevention "clearly intended to cripple the government and boost the revolt's chances of success," Robinson offers a real-politik survey of U.S. relations with other autocrats in the Middle East. He concludes with the observation that the world would be better off without Gaddafi, "but war in Libya is justifiable only if we are going to hold compliant dictators to the same standards we set for defiant ones. If not, please spare us all the homilies about universal rights and freedoms. We'll know this isn't about justice, it's about power."

Perhaps Robinson's observation explains why, amidst all the opinions, pro, con and in between, we aren't hearing from Republican budget hawks about the cost of war. We never do.

But surely, in a country where state governments are moving to outlaw collective bargaining rights for public employees, and public school teachers are being pink-slipped for budgetary reasons, some strong right-wing voice could be heard shouting above the din that we are already spent more than one trillion dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (see and can ill-afford another engagement that will raise the cost by billions of dollars (Tomahawk missles cost $570,000 each, the F-15 that crashed a couple of days ago cost $30 million, the first day of combat in Libya coast an estimated $100 million). Alas, no such voice is to be heard.

Is it reasonable, to follow Robinson, to observe that most weapons manufacturers are Republicans, frequently generous campaign contributors, and huge fans of reorders for expensive weapons and expended munitions? I mean, in what other business does a reorder for a single item gross upwards of one-half million dollars?

On his Nation blog, in "Ten calls from Congress for a debate about war," John Nichols appears clear (oxymoron?) on one point: If it is to happen, Congress should authorize military action in Libya. The point is legalistic, perhaps necessary, historically venerated, and insufficient.

If Libya is a humanitarian tragedy about to happen, then any war effort mounted in response ought to be congressionally authorized. But if action is necessary, congressional authorization is not enough. And if Congress does not authorize, and tragedy occurs, what would be America's share of the blame? Further, by how much would a Congressional vote to authorize be delayed as a consequence of behind-the-scenes jockeying to put off such a vote? So, no, Nichol's apparent position lacks gravity and, hopefully, does the Nation an injustice.

But the Nation did editorialize on March 18 in response to the prospect of U.S. intervention. The editors have much to say and make many useful points about the sorry history of U.S. intervention in the Middle East (Libya's in North Africa, but who's counting?) and in Arab countries. I think the piece is a must-read, but I really can't tell if they mean to endorse no-fly zones or other intervention.

Here's the thing, G (the whole Libya-thing is confusing and difficult to assess) is the most understandable answer, but I keep thinking that if I were to remain mindful of the lies and misrepresentations that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq, that preceded the first Gulf War, that justified the embargo of Iraq (which may have caused the deaths of 1,000,000 Iraqis, including 500,000 children), that accompany U.S. aid to Israel and support the continuing oppression, dislocation and disenfranchisement of Palestinians, that excuse or obscure the human rights violations of a dozen key American allies, that hide the profits of war to a select few and shed theatrical tears for the losses of many, if I keep all those things in mind, then the only honest and reasonable answer for me to make is F (What kind of phony discussion is this? The war in Libya is another undeclared war based on a probably incorrect calculation of national interests that will cost the United States much more than it delivers and will fall far short of any reasonable humanitarian goal.)

Regardless, having gone to war (again), let us conclude with a prayer, Mark Twain's War Prayer, which includes this (among its many lines):
"help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells;
help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead;
help us to drown the thunder of the guns
with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain;"

and so on.

Monday, March 21, 2011

There But For Fortune

Phil Ochs story shines with the promise of the '60s and teaches lessons about the failures of the time

Marrianne and I went to see There But For Fortune this past weekend. I did not fall asleep during the documentary, which I expected to do, because I ended up feeling almost inside the movie and was carried along by the events that were so pivotal in Ochs' short and dramatic life. One thing seems clear, Ochs is among the best songwriters ever at writing melodic and lyrically powerful songs about political realities.

His songs were important to me at the time, and though I never heard him in live performance, his songs reliably expressed my own feelings about the Vietnam War, about the overthrow of a democratically elected Socialist government in Chile, about Civil Rights, about the lives of working people, and about the nearly anonymous lives of the victims of capitalism and institutional power. Sometimes, such as at the Democratic convention in 1968, Ochs and I were in the same places, on the same streets, sharing community and shouting to be heard. At one point in the documentary, Ochs' daughter, Meegan, applauds the documentary effort, noting that her father would be thrilled to be remembered, but saddened that so many of the important struggles of the '60s were yet to be won.

Ochs struggled with manic-depression, which was likely partially inherited from his father, who was himself hobbled and institutionalized by the condition. Ochs' mania may very well have been one of the most important factors in his consistent ability to mobilize for protest and organizing. His mental illness may also have been inseparable from his creative power. By 1976, when Ochs killed himself, his depression and self-medicating alcoholism were likely the most important factors. Both his strengths and weaknesses may have been to a substantial degree the gifts of his manic-depression. But another factor in his suicide, a factor which must have undermined his previously impressive resilience, his ability to engage the fight for peace and justice, was a feeling that the promise of the '60s was dissipated, that the movement had lost too many struggles, had been defeated, compromised or had turned to violence.

Ochs was only a few years older than me, and he's been gone for almost 35 years. But watching There But For Fortune I felt both the joy of comradeship, bafflement at the ebbs and flows of creativity, and the sorrow of loss. Ultimately, I can't say whether Ochs' early death makes his life more quintessentially a '60s life, or less so. But he was vulnerable in a way that most of us are not because of the severity of his mental illness.

This morning before she left for work, Marrianne told me about a colleague of hers at the Department of Health and Human Services who as a boy was a refugee. At one point in his childhood, he walked hundreds of miles across an African desert to escape war and starvation. The story got me to thinking about the size of the struggle for peace and justice that we face now and how a person tempered by a childhood journey across deserts might tackle the challenge. This issue very much matters to me because I can't easily answer strategic questions about how to rebuild the peace and justice movement and restore faith in this country about the good that government can do. It is clearly a struggle for a longer haul than ever reckoned by Phil Ochs or by me. So I guess I'd have to start with the acknowledgement that if one is planning a long walk across a vast desert, one should begin in the knowledge that water and food might be frequently unavailable, but there is a promised land, of sorts, on the other side. And, of course, when food and water are available, it will seem like a banquet.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What Is To Be Done?

A blogger without a clue

Things are bad, very bad ...

1. Natural disaster in Japan could begin a series of cascading events that includes additional earthquakes on other (potentially more dangerous) faultlines near Japan, failure of Japanese infrastructure (e.g. explosions at nuclear reactors and dramatically diminished electrical supply), and severe damage to the Japanese economy with downstream damage to the already weakened global economy while

2. Gaddafi reasserts control in Libya, Libyans suffer mortal punishment and repression, and anxiety over the global oil supply causes another spike in oil prices delivering another blow to the national economies of oil importers while

3. Billionaire capitalists in the United States finance a reactionary populist attack on government and

4. Republicans in Congress block spending for economic recovery, deconstruct healthcare reform, defund social programs, whittle away at Social Security, investigate Muslim Americans, deny responsibility for climate change while

5. Republican governors Scott Walker and John Kasich win a perhaps temporary but decimating victory over unions in Wisconsin and Ohio, and

6. State legislatures with conservative majorities begin a systematic attack on women's reproductive rights, minority set-asides and Latinos born in the United States and

7. Democratic state legislators in Maryland, politically intimidated by socially conservative, church-going African Americans from Prince Georges County, defeat a bill to legalize same-sex marriage while

8. District of Columbia Mayor Vince Gray, elected as a reformer to a term that began in January, finds himself hobbled by nepotism, cronyism and corruption scandals, severely wounding optimism for a DC city government run by grownups while

9. "No HIV testing" signs pop up on storefront clinics in the District and homeless people burst into tears of gratitude for eye contact and

10. I couldn't sleep last night for thinking about the engorged deer tick I found on my back.

So, assuming other issues not mentioned in the foregoing list, like war and peace and military spending are included and leaving aside the deer tick, what is to be done? I suggest three possibilities: one, throw a massive end of the world party and/or legalize marijuana; two, choose denial, in general, or join the Tea Party and pretend none of this is actually happening; or, three, join a diverse, multi-racial multi-cultural organization in your community and live, work and organize like our lives together depend on doing so. Any preferences?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Egyptian democracy is a challenge to Israel

Watching the celebration in Tahrir Square moves me to tears. The Egyptian people have managed the peaceful overthrow of a tyrant who ruled them for 30 years. This staggers me. Imagine the possibilities.

And it suddenly occurs to me why Israel lives in mortal dread of democratic change in Egypt. It is not because the Egyptian people will suddenly turn on Israel. It is because an Egypt peacefully liberated by its own people will be a clarion call for Palestinians.

There is also this: the possibility of a democratic state in Egypt side-by-side with a Jewish theocratic state in Israel. That is the mortal threat to Israel--that its dispossession of the Palestinian people will become much clearer to Americans.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Right Attacks Planned Parenthood

When Acorn came under attack by the Right, I underestimated the depth and seriousness of the assault. The videos produced by young, right-wing zealots conveyed the impression (to some audiences) that ACORN was an edgy organization with a fraudulent social agenda whose employees stood ready to assist underworld-types how best to game the system. In truth, ACORN was edgy and hard-charging and and populist.

At the time the videos surfaced, I thought ACORN might get in a mild bit of trouble, but that it would matter little. ACORN, as I thought of it, was an over-the-hill organization with a stale agenda. I may have been right in some respects--that ACORN was tired (and undernourished)--but it turned out that the organization was indeed in deep trouble. And I entirely ignored the possibility that if a group working at the grassroots for affordable housing and a living wage, and against predatory lending, was erased, neither justice nor a movement that believed in justice would be well-served.

Now ACORN is gone. It took less than a year from the time the organization came under fire until it went under. And now, Planned Parenthood is under a similar attack.

When it happened to ACORN, the right did not know it could destroy a center/left organization. It took awhile for most right-wing organizations to recognize the opportunity that was presenting itself. That's not the case this time. The Right knows what is possible. The Right is mobilized. The Right has learned lessons about how to pursue and amplify the attack. The Right knew another attack was coming.

Of course, Planned Parenthood isn't ACORN. Planned Parenthood is a bigger organization with a better foundation, a larger constituency, more resources and more access to resources. All to the good, because Planned Parenthood may be facing a fight for survival here. And if there's still a Left out there, it better show up for this fight.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Gun Control According To Harvey Wasserman

Or Harvey Gives Us Hope

I used to believe that the left ought to make a loud and constant racket about banning automatic weapons, banning concealed-carry and limiting gun rights, in general. As a member of the Ann Arbor City Council in the '80s, I even sponsored an ordinance that would ban all hand guns from the city. The ordinance created great consternation statewide and commanded the attention of all manner of gun owners, hunters and self-styled militia-types from around the country. Several statewide organizations mobilized members and supporters to participate in lobbying campaigns against the ordinance and attend Council hearings in Ann Arbor.

I got one (pink) postcard from an anonymous source to the effect of "we have our sights on you, Comrade Epton." Several others left similar messages on my home answering machine or corresponded to the same effect.

I didn't return such phone calls, but in instances where people included their own address, I took the opportunity to disagree in writing. I also spoke to several groups, including opposition ones. Despite frequent and furious hostility, the general tone of the discussion was reasonably civilized and frequent focused on larger questions about violence in America and its causes. Many participants seemed to feel that there were larger philosophical questions about justice at stake. The ordinance lost--the Ann Arbor City Council was not so liberal as people imagined and at least one member of the council voted against the ordinance because it would "disarm" African-Americans.

But the discussion of gun control seems to have moved much further to the right since then, and has made writing about gun violence not worth the agony of an increasingly confrontational political environment. Into the bargain, the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision appears to greatly enhance the lobbying strength of the National Rifle Association and other anti-gun control groups.

Ultimately, the simple assertion that the 2nd Amendment confers broad rights to own and carry guns of all descriptions seems to occupy the middle ground in the current debate about gun control, successfully stifling initiatives to reestablish significant limits on handguns and automatic weapons. But here comes Harvey Wasserman making the argument that the 2nd Amendment demands gun control. If the left wants to reengage the question, Wasserman's simple formulation is the place to start.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Obama's State of the Union

Can the left live with it?

President Obama's speech last night was definitely not a leftist call to arms. But in the wake of a stinging electoral defeat for Democrats in November, it was, by and large, the speech Obama needed to give; and a speech well within his strike zone. One might have expected progressives to condemn Obama's caution, his willingness to concede space to Republicans with commitments to freeze discretionary spending, take on tort reform and and control Medicare spending, but attacks from the left, so far, are muted and seasoned with approval for some of the things he did say.

Nation writer John Nichols adopted a balanced tone in assessing the State of the Union speech. While noting Obama's declared intention to soften some regulations, continue supporting free-trade agreements, in general, and accommodate other Republican interests, Nichols also applauded Obama's forthright defense of Social Security and government investment in infrastructure.

"Obama has more political capital than he did in the weeks after the election .And he used it to defend Social Security -- rather then embrace calls for slashing benefits or experimenting with privatization – and to renew commitments to classic infrastructure investments in roads, bridges and transit, as well as 21st century projects such as high-speed rail and the development of national wireless networks," Nichols wrote.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), noted that Obama's call for further controlling healthcare costs should be perceived as a way to defend, not attack Medicare. "In reference to Medicare and Medicaid, President Obama stuck to the facts and pointed out that the problem is the broken U.S. health care system, not inefficiencies in these programs. He noted the progress made in controlling health care costs in the Affordable Care Act, but acknowledged the need to go much further in containing costs," Baker said in a written statement released by CEPR today.

The statement also credits Obama with resisting "...the immense pressure from the financial industry and other opponents of Social Security and Medicare by refusing to call for large cuts in these programs in his State of the Union Address. Given the power of these groups, this would have been the easiest path for him to take. However, he instead insisted on the need to protect Social Security and to ensure that future generations of workers can also depend on it."

But Baker was clear about the speech's shortcomings: "The most disappointing aspect of the speech is that it largely skipped over the current economic crisis. This may reflect a view that there is little that Congress will agree to do to at this point. But it still is unconscionable to accept the idea that 25 million workers will go unemployed or under-employed, with millions more losing their home, because of the economic mismanagement by the country’s leaders."

He also took exception to Obama's continuing support for free trade, arguing that an over-valued dollar is the fundamental cause of the continuing U.S. trade deficits, "the largest imbalance in the economy today."

Robert Scheer's critique of the speech must rank among the best expressions of left-wing frustration with Obama's centrism. Scheer's post today on The Smirking Chimp dismisses the speech as "platitudinous hogwash." Obama ignored "... the depth of our economic pain and the Wall Street scoundrels who were responsible—understandably so, since they so prominently populate the highest reaches of his administration," Scheer wrote. "The speech was a distraction from what seriously ails us: an unabated mortgage crisis, stubbornly high unemployment and a debt that spiraled out of control while the government wasted trillions making the bankers whole."

Scheer's points are well-taken and only occasionally hyperbolic (the government spent $1 trillion on the Wall Street bailout, not "trillions"). Indeed, there are certainly more bankers and brokers in the Obama administration than there ought to be, but it won't be the presence of Wall Street big shots in the administration that will undermine any moves Obama makes to increase investment in infrastructure and high tech. Nor will they force Obama to compromise his defense of Social Security and Medicaid.

Republican opposition, of course, will be the first cause compromising Obama's ability to move forward with domestic infrastructure investments, with further action to control health care costs, with effective follow-up on Sec. of Defense Robert Gates proposed cuts in the military budget and other initiatives progressives wish to see. But a left that cannot refrain from unnuanced and relentlessly hostile critiques of Obama's performance and agenda could pose a further problem.

Right now most observers on the left seem willing to give Obama the benefit if the doubt. That comes as a little bit of a surprise, given the widespread perception that Obama and Congressional Democrats didn't go far enough with health care or squeeze out a bigger stimulus bill. But the odds are that the left was as chastened by the November election results as was Obama. If so, would it be too much to ask that a progressive follow-up include electing a few more progressives to Congress and organizing to take back a few Congressional districts from the Tea Party?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Michelle Rhee's achievement

It says here: DC schools are not the very worst

Check out the most recent edition of Lapham's Quarterly. In his preamble,"Dancing with the Stars", Lapham sketches out the anatomy and history of celebrity, associating it with earlier manifestations like, "the vanity of princes" or the "wish for kings" or the "pretension to divinity " found in some leaders in all societies, including ours, especially "since John F. Kennedy was king in Camelot, and the collective effort [to manufacture fame]--nearly fifty years of dancing with the stars under the disco balls in Hollywood, Washington and Wall Street..."

There is always, always, a hot new thing, and always a new niche opening. For the moment, former DC public school chancellor Michelle Rhee occupies a celebrity niche in education; type Michelle into a search engine and Rhee will pop up before Obama.

But her moment is likely passing. Rhee has moved on to her own nonprofit organization, Students First, and to Sacramento where she will live. The Students First website promotes the organization as the agent of a national movement that will influence educational policies down to the state and local level. The website features glowing generalities about great teachers, informed parents and motivated students, but little about the Rhee's confrontational attitude toward teachers unions, the ultimate basis for her celebrity. Rhee and Students First, according to Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss, "are attempting to raise $1 billion for her new effort to take on the teachers unions." Rhee, it appears, still prizes confrontation with teachers unions above all else.

In her short turn as chancellor, a little over three calendar years on the job (but likely less than that in real time), Rhee crafted her own image as a teachers union nemesis. And the media responded. See, for example, Time magazine's 2008 take on Rhee, who posed on their cover holding a broom with which she would presumably sweep out the "bad" from America's schools as a way to get on the right track, or Fast Company's 2008 cover story, "The Iron Chancellor," which applauded Rhee's serve-the-children-damn-the-adults rhetoric, or the same magazine's 2010 follow-up on Rhee, which included her off-with-their-heads explanation for the firing of some 250 teachers, "I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school," Rhee says. "Why wouldn't we take those things into consideration?"

Standardized test scores improved after Rhee's first year on the job, but the results from the next two years were mixed. Nevertheless, Rhee gets lots of credit for "fixing" a disastrously bad school system. "When Rhee took over in 2007, D.C. schools were tied with Los Angeles for worst-in-the-nation status," writes Richard Whitmire (author of The Bee-Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation's Worst School District), in "Rhee's necessary toughness." Her achievement, Whitmire, observes, "boosted the District off the cellar floor." Such an improvement hardly seems worth celebrating, but Whitmire is pleased with it and pronounces his disappointment at being unable to "identify one state poised to make Rhee-style academic gains."

So in the wake of Rhee's scorched-earth march through DC, we are now looking for other leaders who will, at a minimum, literally decimate the teachers unions in various school districts, abandon her post in three years or so, and leave behind minimal gains on standardized tests that cannot be correlated with specific, sustainable reforms. Such are the gifts of celebrity.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Power of Our Grief

There was a time when nobody cared what I did. That is a time to which I am fast returning.

The difference is that the first time around I was unaware of anyone else's active interest in me (or lack thereof), but this time around I am clear that nobody cares.

But why should anybody do so? We all ply this dark river in our one-woman or one-man canoes, and it is too fast a river, and too turbulent. Under those circumstances active caring for another person is an act of grace. The pains and the aches and the memories of wounds and losses are personal burdens that can't easily be shared.

That is one of the things that sex is for--to bridge the gap, to greet the world naked and to share it, to love and be loved, to touch the sky. But one cannot ask too much of lovers, nor grab for too much sky.

It's a funny thing (and a blessing, I guess) when you, and maybe others around, believe that what you do next might make a difference. Might save some lives, or parts of lives. Might help set some people free.

That's where the promise of who we are comes in to play, the promise of who we are willing to try to be. Do we dream across the threshold of ourselves, a person who maybe makes the world a vanishingly small bit better? If ever we are to become that person, it will be love more than skill, openness rather than dedication, the power of kindness, of naked touching, of ecstatic longing and deliberate vulnerability; feelings that first come to us at birth, at sleeping deeply and with each loving encounter.

We can be awesome in our grief for the world. And we can be restored by our shared grief, and wonder that we might always have been okay.