Archive for the ‘The Good Fight’ category

Up Next: The General

April 30, 2013

So — we know what’s coming up next in Massachusetts: Ed Markey vs. Gabriel Gomez.  Markey’s a 36 year veteran in the House; Gomez is an alledgedly “pure” non politician with all the attributes the national Republican Party wants to see — Latino, a former Seal, private-equity “job creating” vampire.

We’ve seen how this can play out even in not-as-liberal-as-our-rep Massachusetts.  Remember Senator Coakley?

There are real, big differences this time of course.  No Obamacare debate, nor teabagger summer of 2o09.  We’ve seen the Republican party in its howling glory a lot in the last two and half years, and Massachusetts Democrats are profoundly committed to not seeing Scott Brown II play at any multiplexes next year.  Not to mention Ed Markey isn’t Martha Coakley, for which I’m grateful indeed.  But I’m deeply mindful of what about a dozen of us heading out to canvass for Markey on Sunday heard from this guy:

Dukakis crop

Mike Dukakis was a damn good governor, and he would have made a much better president than Bush the elder.  Dukakis is particularly admirable because, in the tradition of the good guys, he hasn’t dropped out of public life or public service just because he’s not running for anything anymore.  And boy does he know his home town.

I’d never met him before, and so after we chatted for a while, he asked me where in Brookline I live.  I’m on a truly minor one block long street which boasts a grand total of, I think, seven houses that actually have addresses on our road (we’ve got a couple more on the corners that the larger through streets claim).  I said the street name and started to explain where it was and he stopped me.  “I know them all,” he said, and I believe the man.

So what did he say?  He told us to get out and knock on every door — not just Sunday, but as much as we could before today, and then again, as much as we can, over and over again between now and June 25th, the day of the general election.  We’ve seen what happens when we don’t, he reminded us — and the he said not to pay any attention to the numbers.  “I’m the guy who was 40% ahead of Ed King with five weeks to go and lost that election.”  (Quoting from memory, backed up by this interview.)

The point is obvious, right?

Ed Markey is a hard core, old fashioned liberal.  The kind of senator we need right now, in ever greater numbers.  He’s going to start out with a substantial lead.  About three times as many Democrats as Republicans voted in this primary.  Markey’s vote total alone exceeds the GOP vote for all three of their candidates.  And he can lose.  If he doesn’t campaign better than Martha Coakley did, he may well lose.  He won’t, both because I think it is actually physically impossible to do a worse job in an election than Coakley did, and because he’s not stupid.  He’s not a charismatic guy at all, but he works and works and works.  Which is all good.

But there are no guarantees.

So my wife and I will be handing over a few more bucks, and we’ll be hitting the phones and knocking on doors.  The state party’s a lot smarter than it was when it let Brown blindside everyone three years ago, and the national party isn’t going to let this one slip either.  But if any of y’all are in the area, we could use your help.  Ask Mike Dukakis.  He’ll tell you.

Sermons in Stones

January 22, 2013

Plenty of folks have responded to what seems to me to have been an extraordinary Second Inaugural address by President Obama.  See two Jim Fallows posts for starters.  It was, as Fallows says, a striking speech on at least two levels:  that of content, with the president’s clear and unequivocal declaration of liberal intent; and that of rhetoric with its phrases infused with historical intent, American civic scripture, and compact, elegant, present-day exegesis.

But the symbolism within the speech did one aspect of the speech that hasn’t got much (any?) notice — perhaps because Chuck Schumer told the story, not Obama.

That is:  the setting of the president’s speech, the porch of the US Capitol, provided a visual and material rhetorical grace note to the claims on history and present urgency that President Obama expressed in words.

Here’s the background: design work had begun on a new dome  for the building in 1854, following an expansion of its two wings of the Capitol, completed in 1855.  That work was nowhere near complete on 4 March, 1861, the day of Lincoln’s first inauguration:


Work on the dome — or rather payment for the work — ceased for most of 1861.  The lead contractor on the project had $1.3 million worth of building materials on site — I’m not 100% sure, but I believe that you can see some  of the construction materials for the dome in the foreground of the image above — and decided it was better to keep going and hope that the federal government would pay up in time, which they did.  As the Historian of the Capitol, William Allen, notes the story that the new president himself  [PDF] ordered the continuation of the work is a myth — but the symbolic significance of the project didn’t escape Lincoln either.

The exact form of the Lincoln quote in reply to a question as to why spend money on architecture in the midst of war seems a bit apocryphal to me, but there seems to be a pretty broad recollection that he said something like  “if people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.”  Certainly, when I interviewed him for this film, Allen emphasized how potent the ongoing construction was for the troops from all over the Union who mustered on the Mall before marching off to the forward positions of the Army of the Potomac.

The dome wasn’t quite complete in March, 1864, but it looked mostly as it does now — that towering white, grandly neo-classical confection, its domed shape a recognized symbol of the cosmos as a whole — of the order of heaven — in a bit of architectural iconography established at least as far back as the Emperor Hadrian, who so pointedly staked his claim of divine sanction in one of the foundational statements of western architecture.

And of course, to play a little of the political numerology so beloved of pundits, that means that the first Second Inaugural to play out against the backdrop of the dome was Abraham Lincoln’s.  The most recent, complete with language deliberately echoing Lincoln’s, came yesterday.

Schumer’s anecdote played on that connection — that Lincoln asserted the claims of union against the forces of disunion and authoritarian oppression, while Obama yesterday advanced the notion that we are a society, not an atomized cloud of individual secessionists.

We’ve lived a to-me unprecedented four years in which the opposing party has challenged not just the policies or politics of the administration, but its legitimacy, the right to exercise power conferred by democratic choice.  The echoes of race, of secessionism, of the authoritarian claim that the consent of the governed is tolerated only so long as hoi polloi make the right choices are all distant (and not always so muted) echoes of 1860 and 1861.  And yet the black man with the funny name just took the president’s oath for a second time, directly beneath what we might, not quite accurately, nonetheless call Mr. Lincoln’s dome.

This is how rhetoric engages historical change. The meaning of the dome is not the same as it was in March, 1865.  Still, it connects.  And even if President Obama’s opponents cannot bring themselves to accept the blunt reality of a Democrat, an African American, and  a mainstream-progressive (if that characterization makes sense, and I think it does) not just winning, but holding power, the dome is there to remind them of a lesson very similar to what the traitors of 1865 learned to such cost: that the union is not merely the property of entrenched power.

That’s the chief significance of the visual language of Obama’s greying head beneath that wedding cake of dome.  It’s sufficient.

But there is actually one more thing.  Somewhere — it may have been a Balloon Juice comment thread, actually — I read someone quip that with all of Obama’s talk of internal improvements, infrastructure and investments in the future, the man sounded like a Whig…just like that railroad lawyer, the young Abe Lincoln.  In that context, the Capitol dome is a perfect symbol of the innovation and swelling ambition of the nation, then and now.

For the dome is a glorious lie.  It may look like shining marble, a masonry structure just like the grand baroque domes of Europe, St. Peter’s and the like.  It’s not.  The entire thing, inside and out is a jigsaw puzzle of cast iron, painted to fool the eye.  I’ve had the exceptional good fortune to climb inside the dome, between the inner shape you see from the rotunda and the familiar gleaming confection that stands over the mall.  When you do you climb up the stairs there you duck through the ribs that hold up the outer skin and from which rods connect to the (self-supporting) inner one, each made of plates bolted together.


(Don’t be fooled — all those coffers on the inner dome that appear to be pale carved stone in the drawing above are cast iron too, painted a dull grey on the side the punters don’t see.)

The iron segments that accrete into the dome were cast — in NY, I believe, though I’m on the road, away from my notes, and my memory may be playing tricks.  The material was shipped to Capitol Hill and assembled there, like a giant erector set.

The meaning — or at least a meaning?

You see in the fabric of the building at least two connected thoughts:  an object lesson in the sources of the defeat of the Confederacy:  already, by the 1860s, the American metal working industries — largely concentrated in the loyal North –  were advancing to and past the capabilities of the world leader, Britain.  And in our Civil War, Yankee industrial power and skill beat an economy based on the theft of human labor.  Paying attention to science, to technology, to the skills needed to play in the big leagues actually made a difference in that war, logistically, the difference.

Such attention is still all-in-all. . Hence the significance of that portion of President Obama’s campaign and inaugural address that spoke and speak to the need to invest in the brains and the technologies that matter right now.  And all the while he spoke, the dome stood behind him, granting historical assent.

Material objects have always been able to serve as both things and symbols. That China has just opened the longest high-speed rail line in the world is of obvious practical consequence for that nation.  No one doubts it has rhetorical significance as well.  The Mars rover Curiousity is so much more than a go-cart.  And so on.

Symbols as they age change:  they gain resonance; that accumulate layers of meaning, perhaps even some that complicate each other.  The Capitol Dome was completed as an element in the argument over what kind of country the United States could hope to be.

The second inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama, performed under that great structure, advances the cause of union and of this Union at this precise moment in time.  It is altogether fitting and proper that it should do this.

*Actually, the first dome was a visual disaster all on its own, one of Charles Bulfinch’s least impressive efforts — though it must be admitted that he didn’t have an entirely free hand in his design.

Get Me To The Church On Time

October 18, 2012

Good news out of the 2nd circuit. A second appeals court rules on DOMA:

We conclude that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act violates equal protection and is therefore unconstitutional. Judge STRAUB dissents in part and concurs in part in a separate opinion.

I know that Dinesh D’Souza is a boil on the ass end of a louse infesting Eric Cantor’s sheets, but still, the juxtaposition of his story with this gives me a chuckle.  And when you read the opinion, It Gets Better:  Dennis Jacobs, Chief Judge for the circuit and a George H. W. Bush appointee, writing for the majority, handed the House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (aka BLAG)* its collective head:

BLAG argues that, unlike protected classes, homosexuals have not “suffered discrimination for longer than history has been recorded.” But whether such discrimination existed in Babylon is neither here nor there. BLAG concedes that homosexuals have endured discrimination in this country since at least the 1920s. Ninety years of discrimination is entirely sufficient to document a “history of discrimination.”


The question is not whether homosexuals have achieved political successes over the years; they clearly have. The question is whether they have the strength to politically protect themselves from wrongful discrimination…

David Lat, writing at Above the Law, pours an extra pinch of salt in BLAG’s wounds:

It would appear that the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), which is defending DOMA, has now lost at least six cases in a row — and spent about $1.5 million doing so.

Your taxpayer dollars at work.

One last thought:  Lat points to commentary by Chris Geidner at BuzzFeed (where you can find the full text of the opinion) who notes what seem to me to be a couple of very important elements to the court’s ruling. For one, as Jacobs wrote:

Because DOMA is an unprecedented breach of longstanding deference to federalism that singles out same-sex marriage as the only inconsistency (among many) in state law that requires a federal rule to achieve uniformity, the rationale premised on uniformity is not an exceedingly persuasive justification for DOMA.

And for another, perhaps yet more significant determination, Geidner writes:

Beyond striking down the law itself, the most significant development in today’s ruling is that the Second Circuit held that laws that classify people based on sexual orientation, like DOMA, should be subjected to a heightened form of scrutiny when courts examine the government’s claimed reasons for such laws. The holding that “intermediate scrutiny” applies makes the Second Circuit the first federal appeals court to do so. The First Circuit did not apply heightened scrutiny in its earlier decision striking down DOMA.

The Second Circuit, however, held:

“In this case, all four factors justify heightened scrutiny: A) homosexuals as a group have historically endured persecution and discrimination; B) homosexuality has no relation to aptitude or ability to contribute to society; C) homosexuals are a discernible group with non-obvious distinguishing characteristics, especially in the subset of those who enter same-sex marriages; and D) the class remains a politically weakened minority.”

I Am Not A Lawyer, so I’ll leave it to those members of the commentariat that are to weigh in on the significance of those aspects of the ruling.  But naively, it seems like a big deal to me.

All of which to say:  good times.

And to celebrate such, how about a couple of tunes?  The first, sent to me by a member of the BJ community, is a  sweet (perhaps too much so for some of you jackals) love song, purposed now to support same-sex marriage rights in the various referenda up for grabs around the country:

And the second? Well, consider it an antidote to any excess of sentiment above:

*BLAG is, of course, hardly bipartisan.  With three GOP members to two Dems, it is the vehicle for the House leadership to bother themselves with what American citizens do in their private lives.  It took up this case after the Obama administration decided it could not defend DOMA’s constitutionality.

Image:  Augustus Leopold Egg, The Travelling Companions, 1862.

Don’t (Diss) Party Like It’s 1999….

July 31, 2012

The other day I posted on Mann and Ornstein’s It’s Even Worse Than It Looks. I’m just about through that book, and I’ll do a direct follow-up in a day or so.  But here I want to take issue for a moment with a really powerful work that I finished reading on Saturday, Chris Hedges’ and  Joe Sacco’s Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.

That’s a riveting book, an important one, and I commend it to you all.  You can’t read it without being radicalized, in a good way.  Hedges and Sacco travel to the most destroyed, exploited, misery-infused places in the United States and document both wrecked lives and those lived in opposition to the various arrangements of power that have extracted the last scrap of cash out of their communities.  If ever there were a document that drove home the need for a true transformation in the relationship of our government to private capital, this is it.

There’s a corollary to the stories Hedges and Sacco deliver:  in their telling it becomes clear that the government we have is complicit with the particular individuals and/or corporations that have wrought and continue to wreak havoc on the people they encounter.  And so, near the end of his text, Hedges writes this:

We must stop being afraid.  We have to turn our backs for good on the Democrats, no matter what ghoulish candidate the Republicans offer up for President. All the public disputes between candidates in the election cycle are a carnival act.  On the issues that matter there is no disagreement among the Republicans and the Democrats.

Bullshit.  Pure and deadly dangerous nonsense.

Tell that to Caleb Medley.  The status quo will most likely — and the Republican health care plan would definitely leave him, his wife and his newborn daughter in debt peonage for the rest of their lives. Obamacare, though it leaves much yet to be done, would not.  That matters deeply at least to the ~30 million Americans who now lack health coverage, but will get it, if and only if Obama wins re-election

Tell that to any woman who believes that they have agency over their own bodies (and all the men who agree with them, of course), who have to confront rulings like this one.  This matters really to all Americans, I would say, but surely at least to that (slightly) larger half that possess two Xs.

Tell it to all those who got stiffed by their credit card company, and actually are going to get some payback, thank you very much — thanks to something only a Democratic President and Congress would have approved, and the GOP is still actively trying to kill.  That one case alone translates into stolen money returned to two million Americans, which is nothing to sneeze at, and which would not occur under a Republican regime.

And there’s more, of course, all issues that matter in for-real, tangible ways to lots and lots of people.  No arbitrarily begun and ended list of accomplishments or crucial acts of opposition can capture the full impact of the choice to be made here.

Sure, it’s true, monied interests buy stakes in both parties.  But it is also true that not all those with resources are the same, and a party that depends on the Kochs and the Adelson’s of the world is demonstrably worse than one that doesn’t.  What’s more: one that is capable of appointing judges who, for example, know that Citizens United was a crock — not to mention health care reform and all the other quite remarkable list of Obama legislative victories — is not the lesser of two evils but is rather an unequivocal (if not unmixed) good.

And anyway — if we are in our defiant moral certainty must reject the Democrats as being insufficiently less evil than the GOP, what do Hedges and Sacco think we should do to advance the cause of of all those who so clearly need real change?  Hedges again:

We have to defy all formal systems of power.  We have to create monastic enclaves where we can retain and nurture the values being rapidly destroyed by the wider corporate culture and build the mechanisms of self-sufficient that will allow us to survive.

I’ve not edited either of the two passages quoted above.  In the text, they form a single paragraph, running from the bottom of page 266 through the top of 267.  So really that’s it:  in the face of all the ills of the American present he and Sacco have so powerfully documented, and facing the potential catastrophes of its near-future, Hedges would have us head for the hills, pace our cloisters and tend our gardens, secure in the purity of a life lived in seclusion, day following day according to whatever rule to which we submit.

To hell with society; to hell with the very fellow citizens whose awful circumstances Hedges and Sacco have spent 260 pages making real for their readers.  Let it all go down while we seek a “survival” that seems to me to be merely acquiescing in loss.

Don’t get me wrong.  Almost all the way through Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is a hugely courageous book, and I have no doubt of the bravery, moral and physical, of its two authors — in excess of mine, I have no doubt.  In fact, most of the last thoughts of the book belie what Hedges has written here. For example, he sees in the Occupy movement a real possibility for useful action.

But here, this call to inaction is to me worse than an error.  This election counts.  The differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are real.  There are consequential differences in the America and the world my son will inhabit that will come down to what happens on November 6 — and of course, what happens after, what we do to inside and outside the conventional power apparatus to force the change whose necessity Hedges and Sacco make crystal clear.

Do not party, or Party, as if it were 1999.  It’s 2012, and there is a decision to be made.

Images:  Elihu Vedder, Corrupt Legislation, mural in the lobby to the main reading room, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Bldg. 1896.

Edmund Körner, In the Convent Library, c. 1910

An Exaltation of Larks, A Surfeit of Targets

February 1, 2012

Maybe it really is too late.

Classical empires lasted centuries:  the Han Dynasty held sway for 400 years, barring that brief unpleasantness with Wang Mang.  The Romans had a similar run, depending on how you choose to bracket the rise and fall.  The Mongols were a little less permanent, but for all their brutal kin-slaughter approach to succession, they still managed to dominate Eurasia for a century and a half.  That empire on which the sun never set rose twice, in the eighteenth century, with British imperial ambition centered on North America, and then again in South Asia, the Pacific, and Africa from the latter half of the 1700s onwards, for quite a run.

The American Imperium?  Well if you count the continental expansion from Plymouth Rock and the Chesapeake west to San Francisco and the northwest rain belt — that’ll stick around for a while, I’m sure.  But our 100 years as the global power?  I’ve got no good feelings there.

That may not be so terrible.  Empires are not what you’d call friendly institutions.  But what depresses me even from within the comfort of my luxe corner of Faux America is the way the Wormtongues of our modern media village are working so hard to persuade us just to give up, to accept a world in which Mitt Romney is plausibly a President.

Others here and amongst our friends have written about just about everything that’s caught my horror-and-despair sensor in just the last 24 hours.  Brooks’ call for the running dogs of liberalism to take their turn growing turnips in the camps.  A breast cancer advocacy group choosing to kill women (welcome back ABL!) rather than suffer the taint of some of their dollars rubbing shoulders with other dollars that might pay for an abortion.  Theocrats with bully pulpits screaming victimhood unless the rest of us keep giving them tax breaks to discriminate.*  I’m exhausted by the very existence of Mitt Romney, and the fact that his whole candidacy is premised on the relentless repetition of the whatever distortion of the fabric of reality seems to play best at the moment.

But, as I say, the good folks that write this blog have been on the case — which is great, as it leaves me for now with just this little bit to add.

That would be that for all the willed and conscious bad faith that folks like Brooks sling so readily and so constantly; for all the sense that there was indeed something of an American promise, now betrayed by the figures celebrated and defended by our Village idiots; for all the three a.m. night-terrors at the thought of the world my son may inherit…for all of that, the real world of fact and reasoning can still rise up to bite the bozos in the ass.

Recall that Brooks called Murray’s book an account of “the most important trends in American society.”

And yet, strangely, that society for Murray, and hence for Brooks, includes only White Americans.  Which vision, if you are trying to study trends of significance for the next few decades, poses just a wee difficulty.  As I’m sure readers of this blog know, the numbers about these matters ain’t what they used to be, demographically speaking.

Via the US Census Bureau, we find that right now, the White non-Hispanic fraction of the US population comes in at roughly two thirds of the total.  You’d think that number counts as a datum in an important trend given that the proportion was around 88% in 1900, and remained as high as 75% in 1990.  Already, California is majority-minority, as are Texas, Hawaii and New Mexico — and most important, the entire nation will achieve that status sometime between 2040 and 2050.  And behind those blunt numbers lies a wealth of particular ways in which different people have figured out how to make it through each day; to take pleasure in life; to cook this or that flavor that would never have made it across the border when I was my son’s age; to make cultures that we may, if we’re far luckier than we seem at present to deserve, continue to weave into what we call American culture.

All of which is to say that daily, we live in a different country.  That’s more or less how I think of the current election:  either we try to work with that country as it continuously rearranges itself — or we live with the delusions of folks like Brooks who want to pretend that the last 50 years didn’t happen and the next 50 won’t.

In my better moments, I can see past the bluster and the facile assertions of this or that immutable trend — and smell the fear lies behind every word.  I have no idea what the United States of my dotage will be like; I do know that it will not resemble whatever fantasy tthat Brooks uses to sent himself off to sleep each night.

Which, amidst all the mounds of steaming horsesh*t that we mush navigate each day, still gives me hope.  And schadenfreude.

*Why yes.  I am trawling for a Moore Award.  Why do you ask?

Image:  Albrecht Dürer, Emperor Maximillian I, 1519

Required Reading, MLK Day edition

January 16, 2012

I’m ashamed to say, that until Charlie Pierce in his own, powerful essay on MLK day pointed me to it, I had never actually read Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech to Congress urging — almost ordering — the legislators before him to pass the Voting Rights Act.

Here’s a sample:

But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.

Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society.

But a century has passed, more than a hundred years, since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight.

It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great President of another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact.

A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised. And yet the Negro is not equal.

A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is unkept.

The time of justice has now come. I tell you that I believe sincerely that no force can hold it back. It is right in the eyes of man and God that it should come. And when it does, I think that day will brighten the lives of every American.

For Negroes are not the only victims. How many white children have gone uneducated, how many white families have lived in stark poverty, how many white lives have been scarred by fear, because we have wasted our energy and our substance to maintain the barriers of hatred and terror?

So I say to all of you here, and to all in the Nation tonight, that those who appeal to you to hold on to the past do so at the cost of denying you your future.

This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all: black and white, North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies: poverty, ignorance, disease. They are the enemies and not our fellow man, not our neighbor. And these enemies too, poverty, disease and ignorance, we shall overcome.

Pierce calls this “the greatest speech an American president has delivered in my lifetime.”

Mine too.

Read it.

One last thought: One strand I draw from Johnson’s speech is that it is possible to have a politics that transcends the mere purchase and sale of interest; one in which words have both power and integrity.

I want that politics back.

Image:  Lyndon Baines Johnson with Martin Luther King on August 6, 1965, at the signing of the Voting Rights Act.

Don’t Read This One, Boston Haters: Bill Russell Testifies, Exemplifies.

February 12, 2011

Bill Russell never flapped his gums idly.  Instead, if you listened to both the words and those moments in which he chose not to speak, you’d learn something.

So we can today.

Russell is often asked about his reaction to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he will receive from President Obama on Tuesday, …

Is this the greatest personal honor in his life?

“A close second,” Russell replied.

Umm, what’s first? The tentativeness of the question elicited the familiar whooping roar of laughter occasionally emitted by this publicly serious man.

“When he was about 77, my father and I were talking,” Russell answered. “And he said: ‘You know, you’re all grown up now, and I want to tell you something. You know, I am very proud of the way you turned out as my son, and I’m proud of you as a father.’

“My father is my hero, O.K., and I cannot perceive of anything topping that,” Russell continued, his voice becoming husky. This being the mature Bill Russell, born on Lincoln’s birthday in 1934, he saw fit to add, “While I am very, very flattered by this honor.”

On the nth day in a row on which stories confirm terrible setbacks for most of us in our long-running class war, let’s remember some heroes for the good guys.  Bill Russell was surely one of them.

Go read the whole piece (and the SI profile that the NYTimes linked to in the quote above).  It’s worth remembering, as Russel does, both from whence he and we have come:

Russell was born in West Monroe, La.; his parents knew people who had been born slaves. Once his mother made a handsome suit for herself, and police officers told her not to wear “white women’s clothes,” [Russel's daughter] Karen Russell said.

“Black people had to wait in line at a drugstore or gas station, and white people went first,” she continued. “One day, my grandfather tried to pull away from a gas line, and the owner pulled a shotgun and said, ‘Boy, you’re going to buy your gas from me.’ ”

And how far we have come, notwithstanding how much, much farther we have to go:

And what does he, the country’s first black professional coach, think about receiving a medal from its first black president? …

“Well, you know, I know him for a while, long before he was president,” Russell said. “And the last time I talked to him, I said, I am very proud of him, not because he is the first black president, but ‘because you’re an intelligent, competent politician and you arrived at the top of your profession, and so, I’m proud of you for your accomplishments as a man.’ ”

Bill Russell (in what is not intended as an epitaph): Si monument requiris, circumspice...which may be translated as “If you seek his monument, look around you.”

Image:  Francisco de Goya, Retrato del Duque de San Carlos, 1815.

Brain Candy — Ex Tagger Art as Performance, Big Al edition.

August 11, 2010

Visiting friends now, just before I head off to my mountain internet-less fastness.

Last night I got to talking with the eighteen year old in the house, who has been doing remarkable work with at-risk kids in his community* and he showed me this video taken at the big inspirational conference his organization put on to connect with the community with whom they engage.

For reasons that are probably obvious to regulars here, it connected with me.


*word from the street:  marijuana is the easiest abusable substance to get, and causes few problems; alcohol is only slightly more difficult for underage drinkers to acquire, but causes many, many problems. California voters this November might want to take note.

The Anatomy of Influence: Woody to Bruce to RATM edition

July 14, 2010

And as long as we are on the subject of Woody Guthrie and his ongoing influence, look at how short a journey it is from Woody’s Tom Joad, to Bruce’s Ghost, to this:

Art makes art.

Pure Family Happiness: I Should Age So Well/Happy Birthday, Bob Seidman/Sunday Night Tuneful Optimism Before Reality Comes Crashing In: Marley-Hopper-Marley Edition

March 1, 2010

We celebrated my father-in-law’s 90th birthday this weekend.  (The actual day was last Wednesday.)

Bob was born in February 24, 1920, just three and a half months before my own father was. There were odd near-intersections that followed that coincidence of birth years:  they were classmates — but did not know each other — at Harvard, class of ’41.  Still, they must have passed close by — both men counted among their acquaintences/friends the historian of technology/American Studies Leo Marx, for example.

They both had plans after graduation — my dad signed up for graduate school in Chinese history, which he ultimately completed, to good effect, (and yes, I’m inordinately proud of him, and have not begun to pay the full measure of my filial duties to him, but that’s for another time), and as for Bob…

…Well Bob was and is much smarter than your average bear.  (See this if you aren’t old enough to catch the reference.)

He planned to become a teacher, and in October, 1941 enrolled at the Graduate Teachers College of Winnetka, Illinois (as he wrote later to his kids, a school “known to a very select few as “the Harvard of Winnetka, Illinois”).  But he grasped the reality beyond the ocean barriers that muffled American senses of urgency, and so, just before heading west, he took the examination for an officer’s commission in the Coast Guard (then a unit in the Navy)

Why did he do this?  Especially given his politics, which were and are on the left, and as anti-war in a general sense as  you can get?  Because, he told his daughter, my wife, once, it was already obvious to him that someone had to be prepared to kill Germans.

He was salty as hell — he’d been sailing since more or less the time he could walk, and was an excellent offshore navigator — and he passed, but did not receive word of a commission by December 7.  So he decided to head to the local Navy recruiting office to sign up any way he could.  Facing the crush of eager volunteers, the recruiters told him to check with the Coast Guard to see what was up — and he found that his commission had arrived from DC literally ten minutes earlier.  He was sworn in on the spot, and proceeded to have a real war.

Bob, the gentlest of men as I know him, served on the North Atlantic convey runs — on his first trip to Reykjavik to meet up with his ship, he sailed on a convey that hit a wolf pack, and arrived safely on one of seven vessels of the thirty four that left the US, and he helped shepherd three more convoys through wolf pack attacks on that duty.

Then, in 1944, he took over command of LST 767, which he led through several island invasions in the Pacific, the great typhoon of ’45, the kamikaze threat, and VJ day.  In that duty, he had another near miss with my dad, at the battle of Leyte Gulf — my dad was a Japanese-language officer on Admiral Kincaid’s staff on the flagship; Bob was landing troops on Leyte Island; and, as an added coincidental bonus, the father of one of our closest friends was flying a torpedo bomber of the decks of one off the jeep carriers in the action that saved my dad and Bob from the Japanese battleship task force that aimed to blow the landing group out of the water.

Along the way, Bob saw all he needed of violent death, death by drowning, by exposure, by blunt trauma or overpressure.  He came back from the war with a renewed, or never-flagged urgency for social justice, along with a temporary surcease to any wanderlust.  He married Ann (Wilcox) Seidman, his sweetheart from before the war, started a family, went to law school, and started a conventional law practice in CT, whilst co-founding an unconventional interracial co-housing community on Long Island Sound.

Boredom with the law side of things led to unwary conversation at a cocktail party in the early ’60s, which led to a career first teaching law in Africa sponsored by the Ford Foundation, then, with his economist wife, Ann, an intellectual passion for the use of law as an instrument of development and social change, and finally, the creation of an approach to legal drafting aimed at giving developing nations the tools with which to make laws that could do what those enacting them sought to achieve.

That idea turned into a UN and USAID sponsored third or fourth career travelling the world in partnership with Ann to new and emerging democracies (and anyone else that cared to listen) helping them think about the nuts and bolts of making law.  Their travels ranged across Asia and Africa; Bob only stopped showing up in the Vietnams, Khazakistans, Bhutans and South Africas — and the one Bagdad –of the world in the last three or four years.  (Ann, a mere 84, still takes the show on the road.)  The both of them are teaching BU law students right now and more from around the world via a distance program — when Bob shows up in class on Tuesday, he will be 90 years and 6 days old.

All of which is to say, this is a man who has seen if not the worst we can do to each other, acts much closer to that worst than I have, or hope I ever shall…and has spent many decades of a long life trying to help folks not to repeat the error.  I should do half as well…

Not to mention that he’s been a heck of a father in law, and a proud (if occasionally somewhat stunned) grandfather to the last of his grandchildren, my son, whom Bob first met a few weeks after his 80th birthday.  Not to mention the fact that he has proved extremely tolerant of his mostly land-bound and power-tool impaired son-in-law who, for all his patient attempts to instruct him, still cannot reliably tie a bowline when called upon.

So, happy birthday, Bob Seidman.  You are an emblem and an exemplar.  (And congratulations to you, Ann, without whose intellectual and emotional partnership there is no doubt that Bob could not have come up with a fraction of what he and you have done together.)

And on that note:  I’m not going to start my week thinking how gruesome our politics are, how bankrupt and morally contemptible so many of our GOP-aligned friends have become (and I’m not even going to rehearse the conversations I’ve been having in my head with the too-numerous folks like these, to whom I merely want to echo Army Secretary Joseph N. Welch’s question to Joe McCarthy:  “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”).

Instead, I’m going to think of Bob’s life, his work, still ongoing, the work to be done yet, and the pleasures of family of which I was reminded when I broke bread (actually, boneless leg of lamb stuffed with a ground veal and prune pate) with twenty people, just last night, three generations, starting and ending the evening with champagne, with eighty years of experience separating and joining Bob to my own kid, a grand evening in celebration of a life that evokes all the fabric of astonishing history, but is present, and lived, and in which, right here, a wife and children and spouses, and their children may share and share alike.

So, to that thought I offer this bit of music which, for all its associations of pain and struggle, and wrongs overcome, if not always righted, remains for me as sweet and hopeful as it ever could be.



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