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04 July 2014

3 for the 4th

This week has been an interesting one in the evolution of liberty and devolution of community in the United States.

The conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, with its holding in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, continued its years-in-the-making development of corporatist libertarian legal theory and doctrine. Without a healthy counterbalance from the representatives of the People -- which is our situation today because of the institutional dysfunction of Congress and the National Security State perpetuated by the Executive Branch -- corporatist hyperindividualism becomes the norm, eviscerates the social contract and fabric, and adds further fuel to the rise of covert authoritarianism. 

So on this day, as we genuflect at the alter of "freedom," I offer three perspectives on liberty and community, offered at three distinct points in U.S. history, from some fairly unusual suspects ....

First, Lou Gehrig in 1939...


Second, Bobby Womack in 1971...


Finally, Maya Angelou in 1993...


Study these words and teach them to your children...

"Farewell" by Lou Gehrig (1939)

"Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

"Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I'm lucky. Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I'm lucky.

"When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift - that's something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies - that's something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter - that's something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body - it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed - that's the finest I know.

"So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for."

 "Communication" by Bobby Womack (1971)

I've got somethin' I wanna talk about to you
Just another communication
It could help the situation
It's not the generation
That keep gettin' on this nation

What I say, what I say
What I say, what I say

We've made this world what it is today
For the way we live and what we do and say
The pitiable show in the eye of need
You close my eyes every time I don't see

What I'm sayin', what I'm sayin'
Well, look at here

Disgusting one another
But still callin' me your brother

And listen to me now
Now if you believe in what I am sayin'
I'll be back, take a slam

Like I say, like I say, like I say
Say, like I say, like I say

All we need is just a little communication
That could make this world a better nation
Just like the preachers congregation
They're all in to his conversation

What I say, what I say

Oh, Lord, good God
Don't put down your brother
On the way he dress
I am gettin' tired
And sick of your mess

Ooh, and if you believe
Oh Lord, I know you believe in what I am sayin'
And I want every man to take a stand

All you gotta to is help me
Help, help, help me
Why don't you help me?
Help me, help me, help me sing this song

Just a little communication
Just a little communication
If you see your brother fallin' down
Give him a chance to make him come around

Got to, got to
You've got to, I've got to
I've got to, you've got to, you've got to
Everybody, come on now

Know it's gonna take me back to ...
Do it again

Need just a little communication
You can help this situation
It's got the, it's got the new generation
Just keep on tellin' down this nation

Communicate, it's a family affair
Communicate, it's a family affair
Communicate, baby

I know you hear me talkin' to you
I know you hear me talkin' to you

 
"On the Pulse of Morning" by Maya Angelou (1993)
 
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Mark the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spelling words
Armed for slaughter.
The rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A river sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.
Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more.
Come, clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I
And the tree and stone were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow
And when you yet knew you still knew nothing.
The river sings and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing river and the wise rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the tree.
Today, the first and last of every tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the river.
Plant yourself beside me, here beside the river.
Each of you, descendant of some passed on
Traveller, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name,
You Pawnee, Apache and Seneca,
You Cherokee Nation, who rested with me,
Then forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of other seekers--
Desperate for gain, starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot...
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru,
Bought, sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the tree planted by the river,
Which will not be moved.
I, the rock, I the river, I the tree
I am yours--your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me,
The rock, the river, the tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes,
Into your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.
 

16 April 2014

Listen Up and Stop Gun Violence! Jon Batiste and Duke Ellington School of the Arts Students "Fight4The33"

To everything there is a season.  This is the season in which celebrate rebirth. Yet, in the United States, 33 people every day are murdered by individuals wielding guns. 

Proponents of lax gun laws talk about how they want to preserve "liberty."  But the 33 daily U.S. victims of gun violence have no liberty because they're dead. Congress has failed them. State legislatures have failed them. Local governments have failed them.  The courts (especially the U.S. Supreme Court) have failed them... and us.

So, because the adults seem to keep failing, perhaps it's time to see if the kids can succeed.

Recently, students at Washington DC's Duke Ellington School of the Arts teamed up with New Orleans jazz musician Jon Batiste and Generation Progress to produce a video aimed at stopping gun violence.  Here it is.



Want to get more involved? Go to http://fight4the33.org

Check out Jon Batiste and Stay Human at http://jonbatiste.com

FEAR NO ART!

22 January 2014

A Little African Noël for Your Post-Holidays Pity Party...

I had the great pleasure in mid December to play a gig with the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington. They performed a wonderful African version of Noel as part of their "Sparkle, Jingle, Joy" annual holiday concert at DC's Lisner Auditorium.  I accompanied the chorus on djembe, along with fellow percussionists Doug Maiwurm (djembe), Robby Dean (gourd shaker), and my dear friend Michael Gottlieb (cowbell).  I'm grateful to Michael, a member of chorus, for getting me involved. 

This was my first time playing with such a large singing group and it was pretty intimidating....but fun! It was such a thrill to be onstage at Lisner, where I've seen so many outstanding musical performances (Suzanne Vega, The Waterboys, Warren Zevon, and Poi Dog Pondering come immediately to mind). I felt a little like a member of "the club."

So, sparkle, jingle....enjoy!



20 January 2014

The American Holocaust

Recently, Jennifer and I accompanied our daughter on a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC as part of her Jewish education. After the visit, Jen asked: "Could it happen here?"  She meant the question for our daughter, I think. But I just blurted out "It already has.... with slavery." And then, more recently, I had occasion to see the film "12 Years a Slave."  So, I'd like to explore this idea.



If the film did anything for me (and it did many things), it reinforced my opinion that slavery in the United States was the American Holocaust.  Just as Germany struggles with its Nazi past 70 years on, the United States continues to struggle with its slaver past 150 years on.  Of course, it's not really true that it's been 150 years.  Indeed, what if I posit that it has only been about 50 years since we Americans finally, ended slavery with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?  That's not very long ago, and I have concluded that, in fact, 1964 is the year that marks the end of the American Holocaust.

If we think about it this way, it can help our current understanding of contemporary American racism and how socially all-consuming and evil it remains. Slavery dehumanized millions of Africans and, therefore, it "superhumanized" EuroAmericans in an evil way. Not just the EuroAmericans who lived in the United States during the period of slavery, but all of us who've come since too. I suppose this "superhumanization" is what is referred to as "white privelege." Like Bruce Hornsby sings in his tune about American racism and white privilege, "The Way it Is":

Well they passed a law in '64
To give those who ain't got a little more
But it only goes so far
Because the law don't change another's mind
When all it sees at the hiring time
Is the line on the color bar

It's worth mentioning that the dominant culture in our society hates -- because we fear -- poor people.  But there is a special, dark place in this society's soul for poor, African American people.  In other words, the dominant culture -- the EuroAmerican culture -- hates African American people and it hates poor people. But what it really hates (and fears) is poor African American people. And it loves to feel superior; to feel "chosen" or "superhuman."

And while we might want to try to make our chosen, superhuman selves feel better by protesting "but we've elected an African American president!" I say to that: "Look at the man's suffering! He cannot even be president to African American people in the way they need him to be because he's too frightened of the accusation from EuroAmericans that, by doing so, he's not being everyone else's president!" President Obama has freely admitted this.  It's worth thinking about the reasoning that underpins that accusation and the impact that it has had on President Obama's psyche (and everyone else's too).  It certainly tells us something about these United States. 

Many of the Jews who survived the European Holocaust have received reparations because contemporary Germany, France, and much of Europe have acknowledged (somewhat grudgingly) that amends needed to be made materially. I agree, while acknowledging (and I'm sure most people would as well) that no amount of money, ever, can restore what was taken from the victims. So, with that understanding, I want to ask: Where are the reparations for the families of American slaves? As Henry Louis Gates has amply illustrated through his work in tracing the ancestry of contemporary African Americans (see http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aalives/), we can use the property records kept during the period of slavery to determine who was "owned" by whom and, roughly, what in compensation the slavers owe the victims and their issue. If the descendants of the slaver families can be found, they will need to contribute something to that compensation, but the point would be neither to bankrupt them or, in any way, to take vengeance on them. Rather, it would be to have them acknowledge the truth: that they benefited financially from their families' "ownership" and exploitation of human beings. The EuroAmerican public can make up the difference because, as a whole, we have benefited from slavery. 

Reparations are not the most we can do; they are the least. There are other actions that could be taken in addition to paying cash money to the descendants of American slaves.  One of the strongest predictors -- indeed the strongest predictor -- of social mobility in the United States is having parents who are college educated.  So, why not provide free undergraduate education and graduate or professional education to all African American high school graduates who otherwise qualify for admission for, say, the next 25 years? I'm sorry, but racial preferences given during the college admissions process are not enough. Is all of this "reverse discrimination"?  Of course it is, but unlike all human beings, all discrimination is not equal. There's bad discrimination (the kind meant to exclude), and there is good discrimination (the kind intended to include). You might ask: By including some aren't we excluding others? My answer: Yes. But neither EuroAmericans nor any American minority other than African Americans were slaves here. So my advice to EuroAmericans and others is simply to think about how they've benefited from slavery -- even indirectly -- and what they ought to pay for those benefits beyond mere racial preferences. Today's preferences are, as Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter has written, "racial justice on the cheap."  Real racial justice is expensive and it's past time to pay up.

Think about the back breaking African American labor that went into building such wonderful universities as the University of Virginia (founded by the slaver Thomas Jefferson), the University of South Carolina, and, most likely, just about every other institution of higher learning located south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Seems to me that those places, especially, should eliminate tuition, room, and board for African American students from the states in which they're located. But I don't think it should only be southern universities. It should be all public universities and any private college or university that, in some way, benefited from the American Holocaust that ended in 1964.

The American Holocaust reduced human beings to chattel (a legal term derived from "cattle"); to property. It took their names and identities from them and gave them the names of their slavers. It tore their families apart.  It featured systematic, daily brutality -- torture, rape, murder -- against a People who were brought to the United States for the sole purpose of making EuroAmericans wealthy. And African American people today, every day and no matter what their social station, live with its legacy. I suppose we all do, but no one who is not African American can ever claim to know exactly what that is like.  Even those of us who are members of other American minority groups who have experienced discrimination and racism (and their are many of us) really cannot claim to know the unique pain experienced by African American people as a result of their ancestors' unique and awful victimization.

So, I ask this day, the one on which we celebrate the birth of the American prophet Martin Luther King, Jr., what are we going to do?

07 December 2013

Amandla!


In 1995 Jennifer and I traveled South Africa for three weeks to check out this "new" nation under the presidency of Nelson Mandela.  Suffice it to say, it was a remarkable experience. 

Americans hadn't yet begun to travel much to the new South Africa, so we encountered many people who had never met Americans. Our itinerary took us from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown to Johannesburg to Durban and to a bush camp on the edge of Kruger National Park.  We traveled with our Lonely Planet guidebook and Nadine Gordimer novels, by car, bus, and on foot and saw we it all: The Cape of Good Hope, where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet; the beauty of Stellenbosch and the grinding poverty and shebeens of Crossroads Township; the police station in Port Elizabeth where Steven Biko was tortured and murdered; Umtatu (Mandela's birthplace); the Indian community of Durban where Ghandi practiced law; and the bush... lions, bush babies, hippos, jumbos (elephants), baboons, rhinos...all up close and personal (at times a little too damn close and a little too damn personal...).

So, I guess I feel like we knew Mandela a little if only because we were able to obtain some understanding of his country, of his people, of that Xhosa click.  Before Thursday, I'd never cried upon hearing of a world leader's death.  But when I heard the news on December 5, of Madiba's passing, I wept. 

On her second album, "Crossroads," Tracy Chapman included a wonderful tune about Mandela that is one of my all time favorites.  So here's a live version of it, followed by the lyrics:



They throwed him in jail
And they kept him there
Hoping soon he'd die
That his body and spirit would waste away
And soon after that his mind

But every day is born a fool
One who thinks that he can rule
One who says tomorrow's mine
One who wakes one day to find
The prison doors open the shackles broken
And chaos in the street

Everybody sing we're free free free free
Everybody sing we're free free free free
Everybody sing we're free free free free

They throwed him in jail
And they kept him there
Hoping his memory'd die
That the people forget how he once led
And fought for justice in their lives

But every day is born a man
Who hates what he can't understand
Who thinks the answer is to kill
Who thinks his actions are god's will

And he thinks he's free free free free
Yes he thinks he's free free free free
He thinks he's free free free free

Soon must come the day
When the righteous have their way
Unjustly tried are free
And people live in peace I say
Give the man release
Go on and set your conscience free
Right the wrongs you made
Even a fool can have his day

Let us all be free free free free
Let us all be free free free free
Let us all be free free free free

Free our bodies free our minds
Free our hearts
Freedom for everyone
And freedom now

Freedom now
Freedom now
Freedom now

Let us all be free free free free
Let us all be free free free free
Let us all be free free free free


03 November 2013

Transformer

Well, well. The Economist got it right this time. The E's obits are almost always interesting, and this week, I am happy to report (about a very unhappy death) that the newspaper beautifully told of Lou Reed's passing.  They even managed to quote a verse from one of my favorite Lou tunes: "Romeo and Juliet."

Below is the obit, in it's entirety, but first I want to add my two cents.

I fell in love with Lou Reed in my early 20s, which would put us in the early 1980s.  My college buddy Beamer introduced us by spinning the Velvet Underground's Loaded (1970) one evening. I heard "Sweet Jane" and I was in love.  At least that's how I remember it.  Maybe it was Rock 'n Roll Animal that Beamer played for me. My recollections of college days have grown opaque. 

Then, a couple of years later, my wonderful law school classmate Rona Morrow (herself, like Lou, a musician and recovering heroin addict; and, like Lou, now deceased) gave me a tape of Lou's then-new CD New York and that was IT for me.  You know what I mean when I say "IT" right?  I mean that album -- every tune -- hit me like a ton of bricks.  You know how that happens, right? When you hear a tune or an album and you're at a crossroads in your life and the tune or album just tells you what decision to make, or that the decision you've already made was the right one. The latter was my situation. It's sort of what I think angels really are. Angels are messengers. It's how they operate.

The raw power of "Romeo and Juliet" and "Dirty Boulevard," both on New York, reminded me that I was about to become a lawyer so that I could work for the people Lou described in those songs and work against people like those he described in "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim." 

If I told Lou Reed that he was one of my angels I'm sure he'd slug me. I'll have to find out in a few years when we finally have a chance to meet.  I hope it will be at the Pearly Gates Bar and Grill and that he will be jamming.

Google New York and, if nothing else, read the tunes' lyrics.  Lou articulates important values and tells great stories with a biting wit. Then, turn up the volume.... all the way up... and blast "Dirty Boulevard" or "Busload of Faith." 

Here's "Dirty Boulevard" (note the audio edits...love that 1989 broadcast TV! Like I said... read the lyrics):




 And now, the obit:
 

Lou Reed

A walk on the wild side

Lou Reed, songwriter and musician, died on October 27th, aged 71

HE HAD to get there, wherever it was. Wade through seas of blood if necessary, like Macbeth. Or, in his case, wade through New York streets filled with rain-soaked mattresses, prostitutes, transvestites, exploding Uzis and men selling heroin at $26 a time. You had to push past the rage to get to the light, fight past the flames to get to the open door. And if you found a bit of magic in that “wonderful fire”, then some loss would even things out.

The world of Lou Reed was one of continuous contradictions, a good thing cancelled by a bad thing, and vice versa. His music heavily influenced the rock and punk bands that followed him, so much so that he was said to have revolutionised the scene; but he and the Velvet Underground, the band he formed and led from 1965 to 1970, never sold that many records. He stayed subversive, a dark force, a cult. Parents did not approve of him, if they even knew. His songs became the soundtrack of lives as raddled by drugs and sex as his was; but also, when smuggled by Vaclav Havel into Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, the underground anthems of liberty.
He sang of drug overdoses in lurid detail, “blood [shooting] up the dropper’s neck”. He mused dreamily on fellatio and random black girls, “doo de-doo de-doo”. When Havel wanted to take him as a guest to Bill Clinton’s White House at the height of the Monica Lewinski scandal, aides paled at the prospect. But he also produced in “Perfect Day”, his most popular song, an apparent hymn to sweet, simple, times:
Just a perfect day
Drink sangria in the park
And then later, when it gets dark
We go home
Lines so innocent could not mean what they said; and, sure enough, the kicker came:
You made me forget myself
I thought I was someone else
Someone good
The last line, many times repeated, was: “You’re going to reap/just what you sow”. Everything had its opposite, just as the euphoria of the spike in the vein, when he felt “like Jesus’s son”, was followed by the low. His style was often to mismatch melody and words, or sing flat, or comment as if he was on the sidelines, rather than in the song. Critics struggled to grasp what he was up to, but he couldn’t have cared about their “receptions, deceptions, hellos, goodbyes, huzzahs, hurrahs”. He wrote for himself, and if it was ugly to others, “you think what you’re making is beautiful”.

At his best, as on the “Transformer” album, his songs could be lyrical, as well as witty and sharp; at his worst, he was just dissonant and tedious. The first song that got him into trouble, “The Black Angel’s Death Song”, which the Velvet Underground performed once too often (having been told not to) at the Café Bizarre in Greenwich Village in 1965, was a long toneless lyric over screeching electric viola. (Happily, though, it caught Andy Warhol’s attention, and hanging out at Warhol’s Factory made the band famous.) His album “Metal Machine Music” (1975), forced out of him (it was said) by a recording contract, was four sides of feedback from an electric guitar. He said he knew no one who had listened to the whole thing.

The man could be just as perplexing, and played it up. Was he really a badass city boy? In fact he came from the New York suburbs, and for two years—between leaving the Velvet Underground in 1970 and making his first solo albums, helped by David Bowie, in 1972—he worked as a typist in his father’s accountancy firm. Did he really take so many drugs? No, he didn’t take them at all (he blurrily told a circle of reporters at Sydney airport in 1974), but he thought everyone else should, because they were “better than Monopoly”. Was he homosexual? He had a very public transvestite love affair once; in the mid-1970s he adopted leather jackets and short blonde curls; later he wore nail varnish and mascara. But there were heterosexual marriages too, paired with romantic songs.
 
The twisted stars

He was clever, and a poet; that was a fact he wanted everyone to know.
Caught between the twisted stars
The plotted lines the faulty map
That brought Columbus to New York
Betwixt between the East and West
At Syracuse University (briefly subdued by electric-shock treatment ordered by his parents) he had studied English; after that he went to Pickwick Records to write hit songs to order, which he found he couldn’t do. He approached his lyrics like a novelist, he said, or as Tennessee Williams might have done. Shakespearean echoes were everywhere (though “You can’t be Shakespeare and you can’t be Joyce/So what is left instead/You’re stuck with yourself,” he had concluded).

Tantalised by literary greatness, but labelled as a rock musician, he was crushingly rude to those who tried to analyse him. He preferred to leave them in confusion. Perhaps, as his songs said, he wanted to “nullify” life; or perhaps, contrariwise, he was high on it. The world he sang of was very often vicious, decadent and dirty. But, he said later, “My heart was pure and my soul was pure too,” as he passed through the fire to wherever he was going.
_________________________

Addendum...

One last thing. On the flip side of the tape Rona gave me in 1989 was an album from a new band called Cowboy Junkies.  It contained a cover of Lou's "Sweet Jane."  They killed it:





14 April 2013

Oh, Maggie, Maggie what did we do?

Margaret Thatcher's death last week has brought on a considerable wave of reflection from different quarters. 

This week's cover of the The Economist proclaims Maggie a "Freedom Fighter," which -- for those of us who've actually done some freedom fighting and worked for and with freedom fighters -- just feels downright offensive.  Perhaps Maggie did some good things for the UK, but freedom fighting wasn't one of them.

The Economist print cover
Really? Let's ask Mr. Mandela.
An alternative, critical perspective is in order; one taken from the time during which Maggie served as PM. In 1983, Pink Floyd released its album, The Final Cut: Requiem for a Post War Dream. It is a scathing commentary on Thatcherism, and the title of this post is taken from the the last line of the album's first cut, "The Post War Dream" (pun certainly not intended!).

The Final Cut was accompanied by a wonderful 19 minute video EP, presented here.

One of the tunes on the album, but not featured in the EP, is "Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert." Here are the lyrics:

"Oi...Get your filthy hands off my desert!"
"What 'e say?"

 Brezhnev took Afghanistan.
Begin took Beirut.
Galtieri took the Union Jack.
And Maggie, over lunch one day,
Took a cruiser with all hands.
Apparently, to make him give it back
  
Short and to the point. You get the idea.