Thank You For Your Service — a Review by Lew Rosenbaum

[I became FaceBook friends with Robert Sommer after an exchange with Oklahoma poet laureate Jeanetta Calhoun Mish. Bob was kind enough to send me an advance copy of his book then.  Although I had difficulty extracting myself from the book once I started reading it, the content was difficult for me to process.  Difficult as any important story told with lyrical and thoughtful earnestness. Difficult to figure out the entry point into such a complex story.  Thanks to Jeannetta for the indirect introduction, and to Bob for writing.The FB page for Losing Francis is here. You can order Losing Francis (Fomite Press, 2018, $15) through your local bookstore or other used and new sources. ]

Thank You For Your Service

A Review of Robert Sommer’s Losing Francis

by Lew Rosenbaum

 

“Sometimes people told me . . . thank him for his service. They were sincere. They meant well. But now, after years of war, and with so little sacrifice by so many and so much by so few, phrases like that resonate in the hollow white noise of bumper-sticker platitudes that have become the background chorus of our lives.”  Thank him for his service?  What could they know?

That refrain repeats itself, sometimes in Francis’ own words, throughout the Robert Sommer’s powerful collection of connected essays that form a coherent memoir.  Losing Francis gives us a strong and complex rendering of the complicated story of Francis Sommer, the son of anti-war activist parents, a young man who joined the army to fight in Afghanistan. Francis, with an IQ of 140, did poorly in school and barely graduated from high school. Without prospects for college, he resorted to alcohol abuse and found his way to the army as a kind of salvation.  The army deployed him in Iraq and then Afghanistan, and 4 years later, in 2007, discharged him.  He was treated by the VA for PTSD with a variety of medications, went to Johnson City Community College (Kansas City) where he nearly completed his education in culinary arts, and then, drunk, drove his car into a ditch and killed himself in 2011.

I have waited for months to write this.  I’ve actually sat down at the computer three or four times and too much inundated my head.  I couldn’t get straight all the strands, all the interwoven threads.  But somehow the poignancy of “Thank you for your service” seems to strike at the heart of it.  What service?  Francis certainly came to question the rationale for sending him overseas.  When you are “in-country,”  you are obligated to defend your comrades’ backs, because (if for no other reason) you depend on them.  But what about the tasks you are performing on the ground?  And also, imagine the misgivings of parents, like Bob Sommer and his wife Heather, who picket against the war while their son is on the front lines.  Francis comes to understand and support this, but isn’t there at least a little kernel of guilt that can never be assuaged by the slogan: “Support the troops. Bring them home”?

And then, of course, fundamentally, the pragmatism of American life removes us from the fields of conflict, the battlegrounds, such that fewer and fewer people have any personal ties to the wars.  Without a draft, with more and more deployment of drones and high technology warfare, the number of Americans isolated from any action of armed forces in war areas is minimal and shrinking.  Just exactly who are our troops serving?  How does a soldier come to terms with  his or her “service,” perhaps what they have come to regard as crimes committed?

Robert Sommer

Robert Sommer feels bitter about the environment of “so little sacrifice by so many and so much by so few,” where “bumper sticker platitudes” fill the air.  This is how he describes what it was like leading up to his son’s deployment (p. 68):

This is an American project, an American invasion and war, and it is without doubt coming soon, any day, following a long, intense build-up of arms and troops, and fear-mongering by the Administration and its apologists. By now, thanks to additional support for the war (and fear-mongering) in much of the corporate media, Americans have been mostly won over to the cause and along the way have become expert on a handful of factoids about the Middle East, which they recite to one another in coffee shops and kitchens and break rooms and garages and offices and warehouses and bars across the country.

Whoever tells the best story wins the hearts and minds of the people.  And clearly the best story was being told, through the corporate media, and repeated in every venue, over an over again. What makes this observation relevant and resonant are the factoids and platitudes and outright lies swirling in the media environment today.  It’s not clear who has the best story, but it is clear that the best story does not have to be grounded in reality.  And when Francis Sommer returned from deployment, that very unreality clashed with the reality he knew and had experienced.

Francis Sommer – Christmas morning 2007 (from the Fomite Press web site)

Francis Sommer was diagnosed on discharge with PTSD. He showed signs while still on active duty. His father observes that PTSD is not simply isolated to the combatants.  It is contagious, it vitiates families and communities. Much of the narrative that describes Francis after his deactivation portrays his inner and external conflict. That conflict started years earlier.  Robert Sommer tells the story of a call from Iraq in 2004. There were occasions when Francis asked his father to take the call where his mother could not hear.  This was one of those calls.  Francis had killed — by mistake — one of the translators on his team.  He was trying to come to grips with what he had done (the army hand cleared him of any blame) and wanting to hear his father’s voice.  So they exchanged words and assurances.  And, Robert says, “everything wrong with that war was compressed into what had just happened and now what we said . . . turned anger and pity into jingoism and nationalism.”  How can there not be post traumatic stress and its contagion?

The outcome of Losing Francis is betrayed by its title. It’s not entirely clear when Robert and Heather lost Francis — the author questions this as well.  But there is one definitive moment, the moment that the police came to the door to inform the parents about the car crash and the death of their son.  It didn’t matter that they had avoided the scenario they had rehearsed years before, expecting the visit from military personnel.  It didn’t matter that the Francis that returned from war was not the same person as before; or that even the pre-war Francis was, in a sense lost.  This was finality.  It’s over.

Or is it?  Losing Francis brings memory to lyrical life, and “Memory is not altered by truth, only strengthened. . . Like seeing rust on the hillsides, and dying glaciers, and wars.”

One of the most suggestive details in John Singer Sargent’s ‘Gassed’ (1919) is the soccer match in the background, symbolically evoking the contrast between the worlds of war and no-war — a major theme also in ‘Losing Francis: Essays on the Wars at Home.’ (From the FB page for Losing Francis.)

 

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Who Shall Inherit The Earth? – Lew Rosenbaum

Who Shall Inherit the Earth?  

by Lew Rosenbaum

[First of all: apologies for the reproductions here, which come from my “phone” at the exhibit and consequently have all the defects associated with that.  Second, this exhibit has now left Chicago and will be opening at MoMA in New York in October, 2018; then at LACMA in Los Angeles in February, 2019. Do not miss this exhibit.  Last, with gratitude for having had the opportunity to meet Frances Barrett White, and her two children Jessica and Ian, and be welcomed into her home in the mid 1980s. — LR]

“Think! Think about what you’re tryin’ to do to me.” These lyrics from the song written by Aretha Franklin’s (1968, Aretha Now) are chasing through my head as I mull over my response to seeing the Charles White Retrospective exhibit in the Art Institute of Chicago. For the second time.  And I don’t go to exhibits more than once.  But I did make time for this exhibit, and these Aretha-lyrics come to me because of something Danny Alexander wrote.  It’s about the artist and the thought processes that galvanize the artist’s work, whether music to the ear or the visual music on paper and other media. It’s what the artist is telling the listener or viewer.  I am not skilled in the language of visual art, so I will leave it to others to comment on the techniques, of which Charles White was a master.  The force of the paintings, etchings, linocuts, drawings — everything — moved me to tears throughout the galleries.  Often tears of joy at experiencing something that struck so close to home that it felt like a personal communication, an embrace by what art should be conveying.

Thinking.  How do you capture brain waves on paper? The text accompanying “Awaken from the Unknown recalls White’s transformation after reading Alain Locke’s 1925 The New Negro anthology, and finding there “a new world of facts and ideas in diametric opposition to what was being taught in the classrooms and text-books as unquestionable truth.”  Maybe you start there, recalling what it was like, when your mother dropped you

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Awaken from the Unknowing – Charles White (1961)

off at the public library (it was at the Chicago Cultural Center then) at 7 or 8 years old, and you reconstructed the real world from what you read there, and then walked the few blocks to the Art Institute, wandering the halls, where you said your found the work of Winslow Homer particularly influential. At least that’s what Charles White did and said, and in this piece I see myself and imagine the subject of this piece on a road to discovery, perhaps after work, exhausted, and falling asleep over the piles of newspapers, just like I have done many times.  Falling asleep in the process of awakening, kind of a visual pun, I suppose.  She’s been asleep and here is the key to awakening. Discovering the new ideas that transform. Here’s a new idea that transforms: “Think! And let yourself be free!”

Much earlier in his life, Charles White contemplated what brought him to his own understanding.  He painted these two pieces in 1942, “Hear This” and “This, My Brother.”

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This My Brother – Charles White (1942)

Both these pieces speak to a kind of awakening, or different stages of awakening.  Referring to the title of the novel by John Rood, call “This My Brother”  social consciousness, the discovery not only that classes exist, but that the workers as a class, in this case the miners, have a class enemy. This form of learning comes directly from the struggle, the battles for a better life.  It evolves out of what is often called the “spontaneous movement,” though it should be clear that there is very little spontaneity even in this process.  But then you have “Hear This,” in which the two figures are engaged in, even fighting over, the written word.  One figure, grasping a book, tries to convince the other about its point of view;  the other, seems unconvinced

Hear This Charles White 1942

Hear This – Charles White (1942)

(the text next to the paintings implies that it referred to White’s own experience learning about the social struggle from communists).  They (the man with the book, the communists) introduced something new, something that came from outside the struggle itself, something that reflected that particular role that workers play in transforming society. Changing the social order is fundamentally different from the practical role workers have in fighting for better wages and working conditions. Looking at these two pieces gives a kind of visual representation  of the difference between the school of the strike struggle and the school of revolutionary propaganda. And, of course, the relation between the two: without the learning that comes from the practical struggle, the propaganda remains so much sectarian jargon.  But in these two paintings, along with that dramatic “Awaken” piece, comes a visual lightning bolt that 100 pages of explanation can never transmit so dramatically (or, dare I say, graphically).

* * * * *

Let’s take a step backward, talk about Charles White and this “communism” thing.  The text accompanying the exhibit alludes to it in a number of places aside from what is noted above.  For example, at the entrance to the exhibit, the text calls him a “political leftist who championed the rights of the working class.”  The text accompanying his mural work reads: “White aligned himself with a group of leftist artists [in Chicago] who drew attention to inequities in American society in order to effect social change.” It was much more than that.  Frances Barrett White wrote a memoir of her life with Charles White (Reaches of the Heart, Barricade Books, 1994, o.p.).  “Charlie’s art teachers,” she writes, “encouraged his talent and twice entered his work in statewide competitions. Both times he won, and both times when he appeared to receive the awards, they were denied to him.”  It was a mistake, he was told.  Someone else had actually won.  “By the time he was fifteen, Charlie had read . . . The New Negro many times.  The knowledge of his culture he found there was overwhelming. . .”  He began to dislike school intensely, stopped attending, and found as an alternative the “Arts Crafts Guild, a group of black artists who met every Sunday. It changed the direction of his art.” In his early meanderings in the Art Institute, he had been influenced by Winslow Homer and the Hudson River School, and this translated into paying attention to landscapes.  Now, with the Arts Crafts Guild, he took his easel “into the neighborhoods and painted people. Black people. . . on the streets, on the stoops of broken-down buildings, and hanging up their laundry.”  Winning another statewide competition this time brought him a one-year scholarship to the Art Institute.

He completed his course work in 1938, a time when the depression still ravaged the streets of the U.S. The government found work for artists through the Works Progress Administration; numerous arts organizations brought writers and people in the theater and visual artists together to talk about their individual crafts and also how to address the issues raised by the depression.  Along with the fight to survive came the attempt to grapple with the issues intellectually.  Within this ferment communists brought their understanding of the drive toward World War that was seizing Europe.  In the John  Reed Clubs and later the American Writers Congress, authors debated how to stop the threatening war. Artists joined the Lincoln Brigade of the International Brigades to stop the fascist offensive in Spain. Artists looked to Mexico and the mural movement there and the involvement of artists in workers’ struggles.  The current exhibit mentions only four murals he worked on;  but Fran White relates that he “joined the WPA where he painted murals in post offices, libraries, and public buildings throughout the country, never staying in one place any longer than the work required.” In 1941 he married Elizabeth Catlett, a prominent Black sculptor, and in 1942 won a $2,000 fellowship to study the role of the Negro in the development of America.  The two of them spent the next two years in the American South studying and sketching subjects from Black life.

Drafted into the army in 1944, he suggested to his Sergeant that he could use his skills as a combat artist. He was therefore assigned to the Jefferson Barracks in Missouri, where “he painted the mess hall, the tables, the benches, and the chairs again and again, always using the same color of green paint.” During a flood he and his fellow soldiers in the segregated battalion  filled and moved sandbags, as if in a prison gang.  And shortly thereafter he came down with tuberculosis, which affected him for the rest of his life.

These are some of the events that formed the context of his early life for the intellectual development that brought him, for example, to be an art director at Wo-Chi-Ca, or Workers’ Children’s Camp in upstate New York (where he first met Frances Barrett).  Led him to form binding friendships with some of the most prominent artists of the time — Margaret Burroughs,  Gordon Parks, and Rockwell Kent — and, when he settled in New York, to form an organization, the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, in the early 1950s, including Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Langston Hughes, and Oscar Hammerstein.  He appealed to friends in the Thomas Jefferson School of Marxist Studies (the Communist Party workers’ school) for help finding a place for an interracial couple to rent an apartment in New York.  These cohorts, his colleagues, his confreres stoked that intellectual fire and helped him conclude, as the text to the exhibit proclaims, “Art is not for artists and connoisseurs alone. It should be for the people.”

*****

Art isn’t only to illuminate horrors of the past.  It’s to envision, to hope for the future.  So yes there is “Birmingham Totem” printed after the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham church.  And there is the series of “Wanted Posters” that summon up all the demons of

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Oh Freedom – Charles White (1956)

past enslavement and degradation post slavery.  About that group of works, done in 1969 to 1971, White said: “Some of my recent work has anger. I feel that at this point  I have to make an emphatic statement about how I view the expression, the condition of this world and of my people . . . I guess it’s sort of finding the way, my own kind of way, of making an indictment.” But there is also the ecstatic “Oh Freedom,” expansive joy in the face of the subject, with the vigorous open-handed casting of seeds (in my mind, the intellectual seeds falling on fertile soil of the oppressed).

Look also at the determination in the eyes of the woman depicted in “Ye Shall Inherit the Earth.”  I dare you to think that this woman will allow her child to inherit an earth like the one into which we have been born.  She has her eyes on the prize and will protect not only him, but all children.  Of course the title is a reference to “Sermon on the Mount,”  but keep in mind that in 1953, when he drew this piece, he could not marry his wife in the state of Michigan; and that he could not easily

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Ye Shall Inherit the Earth – Charles White (1953)

find an apartment to rent in the city of New York.  To live in this land was not his birthright, and to imagine it, well, that almost smacked of treason.

In “Hope for the Future” and in “The Children” White again turns to a rendering of the child as a symbol of what is possible.  Where can we go from here, he seems to be asking, how can we extricate ourselves from this dilemma in which we find ourselves?  It is certainly the same question revolutionaries ask themselves today, knowing that hope for our future lies with those recently born. And, perhaps much like Charles White, here we stand trying to figure out how can we prepare for that future with the best possible art? The way Charles White does it, as revealed in this exhibit and these pieces in particular, is by showing that the best art is also the best propaganda, the best propaganda is the best art. How do you convey, with the necessary ambiguity to express the shifting ground on which you are standing? Look at the massy workers’ hands — I don’t know another way of describing the strength, the weight, the solidity of those hands — gently holding the child in “Hope for the Future.” Is she looking off to the side, and if so what is she seeing?

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Hope For the Future – Charles White (1945)

Is she presenting us with a gift, this child, this future? Are “The Children” looking through the window  with confidence, anticipation, hope . . .or is it with fear? Now that we see it, it is ours to do with what we will.  It is our future now.

*****

I saw the show for the second time on the Thursday five days before the exhibit closed (Thursday nights are free at the AIC).  It was much more crowded than the first time I went, and from the moment I entered I knew I was among a group of people who were there not simply to be seen at the latest big exhibit.  These were folks who really engaged with the art, some who were, like me, old enough to be contemporary with some of his working years; others born long after he had passed on (he died at the young age of 61 in 1979).  It was a conversation starting crowd, because of the excitement with the art and what it represented.  Like when I first

The Children - Charles White (1950)

The Children – Charles White – (1950)

came into the exhibit hall and looked over the shoulders of three older people no longer looking at “The Cardplayers,” but talking about what was life like in the 1940s during the war, and what did it mean to throw all the effort into the war, what did that mean for artists, and the older man, trying to remember, the word was right on the tip of his tongue, he couldn’t quite find it, it had something to do with limited quantities of goods available in stores, and just then a younger man, standing next to me, interrupted to say the word, and they all said Yes! Rationing, that’s it!  And how do you know about rationing? And so the conversation continued with young and old appreciating each other and then talking about what they appreciated in the art work. And then they moved on, new friends made and exchanging views until, much later in the exhibit they shook hands, even embraced and bid each other good bye.

It was a conversation starting crowd.  The secret smiles between two people as they saw the same things in the drawings.  Yes this is my favorite in the whole show.  I really like the “Wanted Posters”!  I don’t know how he created this sense of motion with his pen and ink.  And near the end, I found myself standing next to an older man, perhaps my age, who wondered why it had taken so long for a show like this to be mounted. He told the woman standing next to him, I don’t give the Art Institute credit really.  They should have done it a long time ago.  Of course I’m glad they did it now. You notice one thing about his work, he tells me, and that is the large hands and feet, the parts that engage in work.  The emphasis on these, and his voice trails off. And then he begins to tell me, you know why there are so few oil paintings?  It’s because oils are expensive, and he never had enough money to spend on oils.  Well, maybe this is true.  But I cannot get out of my mind Charles White’s own words, that art is not simply for the artist or the connoisseur but, most emphatically, for the people.  And his work was displayed and copied  and shared everywhere. Prints are a form adapted to this kind of art. Often people’s first exposure to a Charles White print was a poster on a telephone pole.  “Ye Shall Inherit The Earth” was used as a poster to advertise a 1960 NAACP rally in Los Angeles.

It is disappointing that the mural — “Struggle for Liberation (Chaotic Stage of the Negro, Past and Present)” — Charles White designed for the Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library was never installed.  He began the mural in 1940, near the end of his WPA days

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Study for Struggle for Liberation (Chaotic Stage of the Negro, Past and Present – Charles White (1940)

and before he and Elizabeth Catlett went into the South to gather material for the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship.  Striking out from the left panel of the mural is the insurrectionary John Brown, while more modern forms of protest form the core of the right panel.  A color study for the mural showing both panels is in the show, and it gives some idea of his bold ideas. The exhibit also presents a study for the mural, “The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America,” the result of the Rosenwald Fund

Study for the Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America - Charles White (1943)

Study for the Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in  America – Charles White (1943)

fellowship, and still installed at Hampton University in Virginia.  The text for the exhibit identifies fourteen figures in the mural, including his contemporaries Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and Leadbelly. I listened in to the conversations around these murals, to the excited identification of the people in the murals, to the careful examination of the features of the black and white studies for the mural (Robeson and Denmark Vesey, for example).

Charles White grappled with the idea of how to introduce new ideas into widespread discourse all his life.  Roque Dalton wrote that “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.”  Bertolt Brecht or maybe Vladimir Mayakovsky perhaps wrote, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”;  Both certainly could have said this: it is congruent with their writing and their philosophy.  There is no doubt that Charles White, along with these other titans, saw his pen and brush as his weapon:  Art is, after all, not for the artist or the connoisseur but should be for the people.

*****

Huntington Museum acquires “Soldier”   

 

The Enemy of My Enemy

The Enemy of My Enemy  

by Lew Rosenbaum

You may not want to read beyond this first sentence: I actually concede that there may be individuals who have joined law enforcement because they believe that they will be called on to serve and protect the people. Honestly. (Here I think of the Czech revolutionary Julius Fucik, imprisoned by the Nazis and ultimately executed. His manuscript was smuggled out of prison by guards wearing German uniforms, yet putting themselves in

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The memoir of Communist revolutionary Julius Fucik was smuggled out of prison by a Nazi guard who sympathized with the author.

 

great danger for Fucik. See here for his story).

At the same time, there is a reason (or many reasons) why I fear for my life when I see a cop car in my rear view mirror (even though I’m not Black).

So when I saw BlacKkKlansman, the new Spike Lee film, I was prepared for the worst. In fact, the film exceeded my expectations. I am not a film critic, so I will spend very little space talking about how slow moving the pace was, how cardboard the characters were, and how sloppy the side by side Klan and anti-Klan scenes were juxtaposed. On that last point: what’s the message when you see a Klan rally shouting “White Power!” side by side with a Black Student Union rally shouting “Black Power!”?

There is a politics to this film, and it is scary. In some ways, this film mimics every TV police procedural (and I’ve spent time watching them all). Each and every one has a liberal veneer. They all take pains to have one Black officer protagonist; they all have episodes in which the police themselves reveal that inside the generally good barrel there are bad apples that need to be rooted out (there is one episode of BlueBloods in which the bad apples are a whole cohort that have even organized to kill the Commissioner’s son and attempted to kill another of his sons, both cops). In the final analysis, they all support the conclusion that the good apples prevail; or, more accurately, the system prevails to protect the people, despite any flaws.

BlacKkKlansman does precisely this. Who can deny that the Klan and the Nazis (lumped together as “white nationalists,” though I can’t for the life of me understand where the “white nation” is that they claim to be defending) are fascists? If you need any convincing, there’s plenty of evidence, or at least narrative, in the movie. In case you can stomach the ordinary venality of David Duke, there are two over-the-top Klansmen who are kind-of the Abbot (and his wife) and Costello, a triumvirate of Klan caricatures in hatred.

The policemen of Colorado Springs are a mixed bag, all but one of whom turn out to be good guys at the end. All but one, that one who is and always was a confirmed racist who gets caught and arrested and presumably gets his comeuppance. And the hero of the film, Ron Stallworth, is celebrated by the whole department at the end. Maybe you want to consider that this statement should have been preceded by the phrase, “Spoiler Alert!!!” Not if you have ever seen a police procedural. You know how it comes out. And you even know that the ending, like many Law and Order endings, can be ambiguous or perhaps not exactly the happy ending you long for. And since you, who are reading this, if you’ve gotten this far, you are astute enough to know that the Klan has not disappeared and just in the last few weeks there were heralded “Unite The Right” rallies that commemorated the Charlottesville rally of a year ago. So you will not be surprised that Spike Lee makes a point of drawing a direct line from the operation in BlacKkKlansman to Charlottesville, and the killing of Cindy Heyer by Klansmen and Nazis. There’s even a clip of DJT talking about the violence on both sides. On both sides. He said it twice.

Despite every portrayal of the racism deep within the police department of Colorado Springs, the film presents the department as ultimately the professionals that will protect the public good. Ultimately. Here is how the film is being promoted:

From visionary filmmaker Spike Lee comes the incredible true story of an American hero. It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself, Stallworth bravely sets out on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. The young detective soon recruits a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into the undercover investigation of a lifetime. Together, they team up to take down the extremist hate group. . .

Stallworth is portrayed as a hero (the Jackie Robinson of policemen, breaking Colorado

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The film is very loosely based on a memoir by Ron Stallworth.

Springs’ color line, and taking down the Klan). The more dangerous mission is carried out by Flip Zimmerman, who plays Stallworth when he has to meet Klansmen face-to-face. In the film, Zimmerman is supposed to be Jewish policeman. (In real life he is not Jewish). It’s never clear, however, why they are infiltrating the KKK. In fact, the film is billed as a comedy, as if we should be laughing at the Klan antics and the very fact of a Black man doing the infiltrating. Did they actually “take down” the Klan? Charlottesville should provide the answer to that question, and so does the prominence of David Duke on the present political scene.

Spike Lee’s film isn’t entirely factual. As noted above, in the film, Stallworth’s white partner is Jewish, while in real life, he was not. In the film, Stallworth’s operation thwarts a Klan bombing. There was no such bombing and no Klan member was ever even arrested. Stallworth’s love interest in the film appears to be a made up character.

But this is not about whether or not Stallworth or Zimmerman were heroes. This is about what the role is of law enforcement agencies, and whether they deserve to be glorified. In fact, law enforcement is intended to protect the private property of the elite and has been ever since they were established as special bodies of armed people employed by the government. The private property they were established to protect was, from the beginning, both the enslaved property of the plantation owners and the industrial property of the robber barons – and the vast amount of commodities produced by each. Chicago has an especially rich history experiencing the use of police forces against workers and in defense of private property – from the days of the Haymarket Massacre (Haymarket took place only 10 years following the end of Reconstruction) through the Pullman strike to the Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel. One key method of protecting private property is in fomenting or deepening the divisions among workers, and again Chicago shows us some extreme examples: e.g. the long career of Jon Burge, the acknowledged chief torturer among the police; and the not-so-illustrious career of the Chicago “Red Squad.” Let’s not forget how the squad targeted the Black Panthers and murdered Fred Hampton, and how that history continues to the murder of Harith Augustus this summer.

There is more than enough evidence to show that the natural direction of law enforcement is to infiltrate those committed to disrupting private property. At times a conflict between different sections of the owners of private property results in some rather strange circumstances. After the Civil War, for a short time during the decade known as Reconstruction, the military had to discipline Southern law enforcement in order to break the back of the plantation aristocracy. But, once Wall Street had subjugated the plantation owners, the Klan was unleashed (inside and outside the police) to maintain the law and order of recently reinstated political leadership of the slaveocracy.

At various times within the ruling circles of this country, one section has debated with another about how to carry out the program that each have agreed on. These debates have from time to time spilled over to violence. In recent memory, the Civil Rights Movement provided such a backdrop. Again there is much evidence that the rulers were divided about how to expand the profitability of capitalism. This was the consolidation of American expansionism around the world, that coincided with the end of the direct colonial era, Europe’s domination. The extent to which the Federal Government and the Democratic Party came to be seen as the protector of civil rights comes from this era. Police, the national guard, the military and the FBI were enlisted in this effort. But this is also the period in which the FBI spied on Martin Luther King, Jr. and called the Black Panthers the most serious threat to American Democracy (while they planted provocateur infiltrators in the midst of the Panthers).

The political arena today provides us with numerous conflicts that illustrate the general problem of conflating heroes and villains, friends and enemies. Take, for example, the Mueller investigation of Trump’s administration. I can’t imagine any one of my friends, people I regularly talk with, who would argue that Trump has not committed numerous offenses and corruptions. Even more, as President he has attacked the lives of working class Americans and as such deserves to be deposed. Yet we are called to lionize the problematic office of the special prosecutor and the individual in that office. For years we have been criticizing the mainstream media for not reporting the truth; yet when Trump and his supporters call the New York Times a repository of fake news, we are called to their defense, as if they are now journalistic heroes. And now we are supposed to rally around that archetype of fascism, Jeff Sessions, because Trump is denouncing him.

Stallworth’s and Zimmerman’s stories are not unique, and they did, intentionally or not, interrupt a fictionalized rogue Klan action. But it is even more important to understand that it did not interrupt the moral arc of the law enforcement universe bending toward injustice. It did not interrupt the continuing role that Klansmen and Nazis play in our lives. This “visionary” film appears in a context in which we are directed to believe the enemies of our enemy are our friends. We may even find ourselves, as I have,  in a situation, in which it is necessary to depend on police in the face of a momentary common enemy.

With “friends” like these, once the common enemy is vanquished, watch your back.

 

The Birthday Gift

[May 10 is Greta’s (my sister) birthday.  She would be 90 years old this year, but she died almost 10 years ago.  For a time I continued to write her letters.  I had to do this to make peace with myself.  There was so much I still wanted to talk to her about, even if I didn’t get an answer.  There is still so much I want to talk with her about, and I know that will not happen.  I have this picture on my computer desktop.  It gazes out at me and I’m not sure that it comforts me with her permanent presence; or hurts me with the reminder of her absence.  I know I don’t want it to go away.  Maybe sometimes, as I sit at the computer not sure where to begin with what I need to do, I find encouragement in the smile on her face.  Maybe after I hear something new in music, like some of the songs composed and played by Adam and OneLove, I talk to her photo.  And on this May 10, on her 90th birthday, I revisited what I wrote as I was about to have my mitral valve surgery in what I called my Memento 5,  and also what I wrote (along with Diana) about this visit to Schneider Haus and the quilt competition that Diana took part in, to commemorate Greta (you can click the links to find those pieces). Maybe instead of letters, I’ll write poetry now.  LR]

The Birthday Gift 

by Lew Rosenbaum

The photograph gazes at me

from ten years agolew-greta-diana-schneider-haus-kitchener-may-2008

your birthday, Greta,

three of us standing to the side of lilacs

your eyebrows arched slightly, Greta,

eyes glimmer – are they brown?

they must be brown, all our family

has brown eyes – but my memory fails

and what I see could be gray or even

green, but I do catch the interest

as, alert, you look at the camera, not at me

standing by your side, but gaze at the

Josef Schneider Haus docent

she holds the camera and we pose

frozen in time and yet as I look at you

now alive, lips turning up in a sly smile

you betray the disease that robs you

of your humor, your laugh, the glint that

sparkled from those brown/gray/green eyes

the creases in your face melt away

I can hear you chuckle from that photo

you had just turned 80 and you could not

remember the road we had driven

many times before – we got lost on the way

to the Schneider Haus, that frightened you,

but for an instant,

standing next to the lilacs,

Diana laughs and revels in the company

in the symmetry of our mouths

a river of amusement washes over us

the three of us bathe in the pleasure

of the moment, of being alive together

 

My eyes stray from the joy I take

looking at your face to notice your gray hair

short cut, blown in the cool May breeze,

it’s not carefully combed or straight

as you are accustomed to wear it

and your red plaid shirt, the heavy one

you are wearing because it is a cool May day,

it hangs open and to the side, not the

impeccable way you would have worn

this or any other shirt, it’s that disease,

we’ve seen it before, both of us, Greta,

when you showed me how our mother,

our Chana, our Anna, would not, perhaps

could not, keep that neat appearance that

had been her hallmark, and how you

made me see the vacancy where the sentience

had inhabited her dark brown eyes, see the

hairs dangling disheveled from the corona

of braids she still wore when she could.

 

There: a smile threatens to break out on your face,

see the dimple forming in that left cheek

as the lips turn upward ever so slightly?

this is how I used to be, you tell me from the photo

remember me this way, I won’t be able to

hold this attitude much longer, you may not

see me like this again, hold me, hold onto this

moment, my brother, this, my birthday gift to you

 

Remembrance Of A Hunter Of Stories

Eduardo Galeano died in April 2015.  I think of him often, I was overjoyed to hear that Hunter of Stories would be published posthumously in Nov. 2017. This is excerpted from a post I wrote a year earlier, November 2016, on this blog:

Eduardo Galeano sat at my dining room table in my Chicago apartment on Lill Street one block away from Guild Books, pen poised and a stack of books to be signed at his side. Breakfast consumed, he had reluctantly agreed to sign some books in advance of his appearance at the bookstore later that Saturday, 1988.   He was anxious, it seemed, and we had been warned that his health was mending after some heart issues. We didn’t press him to sign books, but were delighted when he agreed with our suggestion that some folks might just want to purchase a signed copy without talking with him.

I sat mesmerized with the tremendous accomplishment of getting Galeano to Guild; even more amazed by the good fortune of giving up my bedroom to him and my relocating to the living room couch. How did that happen?

Three years earlier, in 1985, I’d been a bookseller at Midnight Special Books in Santa Monica, California. I had done many things at the bookstore, but in 1985 I was mostly the person in charge of ordering books. While the consolidation in book selling and publishing had been well underway, it was still a few years before the tremendous expansion of super stores. It was still important for sales representatives to call on booksellers for book orders.

Doug Hodges, who later became a national sales manager for Random House, s0ld the Random House catalogue to me then. He always came to see me early in the season. He told me I prepared more thoroughly than any of his accounts for our meetings, and, even with the smaller number of imprints under the Random House rubric than I would later have to deal with, meeting with Doug could be an all day event. Start at 9 AM, break at noon for lunch, then come back to wrap up from 1 to 3. All independent bookstores relied heavily on Vintage paperbacks, Pantheon literary and political titles. Less important for us were the books in the venerable Knopf imprint, the Random House titles and Crown and Villard were least important. Nevertheless I always combed through each of those catalogs to find the gems, which was one reason Doug came early to see me. He said he learned a lot about the importance of some of the books that no one else knew about. This day in 1985 was going to be one of those days.

In the Pantheon catalog I found Eduardo Galeano’s Genesis, “the extraordinary first volume of a great and ambitious project” reads the flap of the book jacket. This is probably part of the catalog copy that leaped out at me. And the first thing I said to Doug as we sat down to the Pantheon list was: “We want Galeano in our store when he tours for the book. He has GOT to come here. No place else in Los Angeles area would know what to do to promote this book or who has the connections to get people to hear him.”

Hodges sat dumbfounded. “Who is he?” Doug asked.

I told him about how a generation of Mexican and South American intellectuals had cut

galeano-autograph-1

Galeano signed Genesis at my breakfast table

their critical thinking eye-teeth on Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (two decades later Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would choose to present a copy to recently elected President Barack Obama); how that was the most consistent best selling book on Latin American history in that section of the store; how the most important Latin American studies departments/teachers in the Los Angeles area from UCLA to UC Irvine to Cal State Los Angeles relied on that book, all of whom we knew and to whose students we therefore had a direct line. And when I got through Doug reiterated that was why he came to the Midnight Special first. He had never heard of Galeano, he now had something to tell other booksellers when he showed the catalog.

But Random House was not planning on touring him, it was not in their plans at all, he was too unknown in the US, Random House could not afford to bring him from Uruguay where he lived. Excuse after excuse met my rants and raves and criticism of their short sightedness.

Random House did not bring Galeano to the US in 1985.

The situation repeated itself, complete with rants and raves and refusals from Random House in 1987, when the second volume, Faces and Masks, was published. This time, however, Doug knew who Eduardo Galeano was and thought he would pre-empt my tantrum by telling me in advance that Galeano was not coming to the United States.

At the end of 1987 I packed my Toyota Station Wagon with its rebuilt engine and its 200,000 miles and drove to Chicago to join the Guild Books staff. One of the first sales representatives I met was Random House’s Mary McCarthy. While poring over the Pantheon catalog I saw that Galeano’s third and concluding volume of the Memory of Fire Trilogy, Century of the Wind, would be published that season (1988). I guess the cumulative brow beating Random House reps had gotten from the likes of Richard Bray at Guild and me at Midnight Special must have taken its toll on the Random House touring brass.

This time Galeano would come to the US.  Richard had come to know Eduardo Galeano’s agent in New York, Susan Bergholz, who insisted that Galeano needed peace and quiet while he was here, recuperating from his illness. Some place away from what she anticipated would be a flurry of activists tiring him out and keeping him from getting the rest that he needed on what looked like a very strenuous tour. He hid out in my bedroom.

So there he was, in my dining room, at the table at which he had just finished breakfast, signing books, including all three volumes of the trilogy, Open Veins, Days and Nights of Love and War, and a copy of each signed to me, all signed “gratefully, mil mil abrazos,” and more importantly with the caricature of the pig with the flower in his mouth, a trademark he said he reserved for special autographs.

But, he said, “I will not read.” OK, we thought, we don’t want to press him on this, make him angry or more anxious. Yes bookstore patrons, our bookstore patrons, want the author to give them a taste of what is in the book and talk about it.   But here is a man who is clearly nervous about the upcoming event. So we backed off, and Eduardo went for a walk, returning directly to the bookstore an hour or so before the event was to start, declaring himself willing to sign more books in advance if we wished. And yes, we wished.

As he signed, the people began to arrive for the book signing. He was seated in the back room, but heard the commotion beginning to build, glanced into the store area, and said, “I think I will read. But I left my book with my notations in your apartment.” I ran to the building, ran up to the third floor apartment (yes, we had cleared with his agent that walking up 3 flights would not be too strenuous for Eduardo), found his book and ran back with it in time to start the program.

The crowd hung on his words, as he read in English but also in Spanish, and then answered questions, altogether about an hour and a half, and then began signing books, as the line snaked throughout the store. He talked with each person as much as the person wanted; he took pictures with the customers and their children. I stood at his side doing the task that all booksellers do in this situation: open the books to the pages preferred for the signature. And about 45 minutes into the signing ritual Eduardo turned to me with a broad but incredulous smile: “They like me. They really like me!”

Before he left, Eduardo toured the 3,000 square feet of the book store and spent some time looking at the political and labor posters we had for sale, on display in a rack. He fingered the display, took some notes, and left. The next morning friends of ours recorded an interview with him on video and took him in search of Haymarket Square, a search that proved unsuccessful.

DSCF5075

The Haymarket monument, sculpted by Mary Brogger, located just north of Randolph on DesPlaines, was not in place when Eduardo went in search of Haymarket Square in 1988

Four years would pass before Eduardo would return to Guild. In May, 1992 my divorce from my first wife was finally becoming a reality, my marriage to my second wife a month away, and the book Eduardo would be signing would be The Book of Embraces. The existence of the bookstore itself was tenuous as both a Barnes & Noble and a Borders had opened in the neighborhood and as the neighborhood became less affordable for our regulars. Our core clientele were moving away. We had to close one third of the bookstore and the Guild Complex, the not-for-profit literary organization we had spawned to take up the promotion of literary events, had to move (they occupied a performance space in the South Loop called The Edge of the Lookingglass. This is where Eduardo was going to read.

This time Eduardo stayed in a hotel off Michigan Avenue. We agreed to meet in the lobby of his hotel. There were some items he had to buy while he was on tour, and we could talk while I accompanied him on his rounds. We went to one of the “Magnificent Mile’s” most appealing shopping attractions, the Water Tower Place, where Eduardo wanted to pick up some CDs for his daughter and where I knew there was a small CD store. He picked up a couple of classical CDs and a jazz CD, off the sale rack at the front of the store, but then was stymied in finding the CD his daughter wanted.
Eduardo walked to the checkout counter and asked the sales clerk, in faltering but carefully pronounced words, “Do you have anything by the [clearly and slowly enunciated] Butt Hole Surfers”? A quizzical and sheepish look spread over his face as he said it, almost apologetic. But the clerk was the one who apologized, saying that he wished the store would carry them, but probably the best place to try would be Wax Trax Records (which was right across from the Guild Book Store!).

That evening at the Guild Complex at the Edge of the Lookingglass, Eduardo Galeano read to an even larger crowd than he had the first time in Chicago. And among the things he read was this tribute to Guild Bookstore, the “largest bookstore in Chicago” in this anecdote:

Forgetting
Chicago is full of factories. There are even factories right in the center of the city, around the world’s tallest building. Chicago is full of factories. Chicago is full of workers.

Arriving in the Haymarket district, I ask my friends to show me the place where the workers whom the whole world salutes every May 1st were hanged in 1886.

It must be around here,’ they tell me. But nobody knows where.

No statue has been erected in memory of the martyrs of Chicago in the city of Chicago. Not a statue, not a monolith, not a bronze plaque. Nothing.

May 1st is the only truly universal day of all humanity, the only day when all histories and all geographies, all languages and all religions and cultures of the world coincide. But in the United States, May 1st is a day like any other. On that day, people work normally and no one, or almost no one, remembers that the rights of the working class did not spring whole from the ear of a goat, or from the hand of God or the boss.

After my fruitless exploration of the Haymarket, my friends take me to the largest bookstore in the city. And there, poking around, just by accident, I discover an old poster that seems to be waiting for me, stuck among many movie and rock posters. The poster displays an African proverb: Until lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter.

* * * * * * * * *

We know now where the Haymarket was, where the rally was for which the Haymarket

galeano-we-say-yes-to-diana-and-lew

In his 1992 book of critical essays, We Say No, Eduardo wrote: “We say no to some people. And we say yes to Diana and Lew.

martyrs were arrested and imprisoned and executed. In 2006 Henry Holt published Eduardo’s Voices of Time, continuing the epigrammatic form he has worked with, this time “stories that I lived or heard.”   At the Guild Complex we convinced Susan Bergholz to take Eduardo’s strenuous tour through Chicago once more. He read for us at the Museum of Contemporary Art to a packed audience. For many, this was the culmination of what Guild Books had been about. For us, it was an opportunity of bringing memory, forgetting, and not knowing at all together, these themes that strike at the heart of Galeano’s work and of the revolutionary process.

May Day, 2006, just weeks earlier, I walked among almost a million Chicagoans along a route from Union Park to Randolph into the Loop and Grant Park. The steel, concrete and glass canyons resounded with the chants of marchers, many of them recent immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” reverberated from the walls of those buildings, the marchers swelling into the streets in a mass farther than anyone could see.

But before coming to the loop, just a few blocks out of Union Park, we came to Randolph and Des Plaines. I stepped to the sidewalk, stood in the shadow of the corner building and looked north as the throng walked by me. The contingent from one union, also looking north, paused briefly and saluted the sculpture across the way – a recreation of the platform from which the speakers addressed their audience that May, 1886. Most marchers seemed unaware of the historic place through which they were walking, although well aware of the historic day on which they were marching.

How could we bring this reality of American consciousness to the reading that Eduardo was going to do? We made sure that some of those union leaders representing the marchers and their consciousness of May Day introduce Eduardo. And so they did, and we had the chance to talk about the sculpture, the march, and that although many marchers did not know where Haymarket square was, the fact that their march reclaimed not only the memory of the martyrs but the reality of the struggle which continues.

********

And that’s how the blog post ends,  with shop floor union leaders who had been in the leadership of forming that march talking with Eduardo about the significance of that march, a way for us to return to the Book of Embraces, in a way to embrace this chronicler of the historic struggles of the international working class.  As I told Eduardo about this march that was more than a march, I explained that I had been to many May Days in my life.  They were travesties of what May Day used to be like.  I recounted to him how my father had walked in May Day marches in New York, as part of the insurance workers union (I didn’t know this then, but one of the largest unions in Chicago in the 1930s was the union of workers who worked for large insurance companies). In a way I felt cheated, because my sister, 14 years older than I, stood on the sidewalk with my mother while the parade went by.  But my May Days were small gatherings of at best 100 people.  And here, in 2006, hundreds of thousands of workers marched in the streets, while the ideologues had their small meetings and groused because “these were immigrants, not really workers”!

The National Museum of Mexican Arts celebrated the publication of Hunter of Stories in December, 2017. Sandra Cisneros, among others, read from the book.  She chose to read this selection:

May Day is the most widely celebrated of all holidays.

The entire world stands still to pay homage to the workers hanged long ago in Chicago for the crime of refusing to work more than eight hours a day.

On my first trip to the United States, I was surprised to learn that May 1st was a day like any other.  Not even the city of Chicago, where the tragedy occurred, seemed to notice. In The Book of Embraces I confessed that such willful forgetting pained me.

Much later I received a letter from Diana Berek and Lew Rosenbaum of Chicago.

They had never celebrated the holiday, but in the year 2006, along with the largest crowd they had ever witnessed, they paid homage to the workers sent to the gallows long ago for their bravery.

In the letter, Diana and Lew told me they finally understood the discomfort I described in the Book of Embraces.

“Chicago embraces you,” the letter said.

Hunter of Stories is a collection of  memories, sometimes gentle, sometimes sharp, alwaysGaleano Hunter of Stories penetrating.  There are, for example, two recollections of his book Open Veins of Latin America. One recounts how his native country, Uruguay, at first did not ban the book thinking that it was a book of anatomy. They discovered their error quickly.  The second, tells of the soccer player who carried the book that found its way across continents, a book pierced by a bullet that entered the back of a guerrilla fighter from El Salvador, killing him, found its way back to the hands of its author.  The book is a kind of a pearl necklace, an embrace of images of a lifetime strung artfully together for reminiscence . . . or for meditation on what is next.

 

In Search of Grown-Up Anger

In Search of Grown-Up Anger by Lew Rosenbaum

I’m forever grateful to Lee Ballinger, for writing his review of Grown-Up Anger in Counterpunch. (Read the review here)  I don’t have to do the work he did to dig into the history of the Upper Peninsula or the Dustbowl. I don’t have to spend the time Grown-Up Angerrecounting the incomparable connections that author Daniel Wolff draws between Dylan and Guthrie (the subtitle of this book is The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913), or to spend time on the music (which I am not skilled enough to do anything more than sketch). Instead I can dwell on the title, Grown-Up Anger, and why that is such an important part of this story.

At 18 years old, I was angry about Yale rejecting me, angry that my father wanted me to go to work rather than go to college, angry that Columbia accepted me without automatically giving me a scholarship, angry as an outcast at school, angry that my mother wanted me to stay close to home. I packed my resentment in my suitcases and fled from New Haven, Connecticut to Los Angeles, California to get far away from everything that made me angry. That’s how I started, and that’s what I brought to the table when I started to read Daniel Wolff’s Grown-Up Anger.

“You could start elsewhere,” Daniel begins his book. Elsewhere meaning other than being 13 and angry. “You could start here,” he writes to end the book, describing the molten lava at the core of the earth, at the core of the story of Calumet, at the core of the story of the music of both Guthrie and Dylan. But Wolff starts not with economics, not with anthropology, not with geology. The author starts with music, with hearing a raw voice coming out of the radio, the first time he heard Bob Dylan, “Like A Rolling Stone” representing what anger is all about at 13, and who isn’t angry at 13? Angry at everything, adults dismissing that anger, and, Wolff says, “I swore I’d never forget that look. Never forget how adults dismiss what kids say . . .”

Stay with me now. This is not “just another book glorifying or justifying teenage angst.” Quotes because I can see readers my age shaking their heads with knowing smiles of actualized wisdom. This is a book about perception and reality. Daniel conjures up the pictures of the angry young Dylan and Guthrie, how they see themselves and the world, how their portraits correspond to reality – or not. And, even more important, how these pictures change with changing circumstances.

So Daniel Wolff was an angry 13 year old when he first heard Bob Dylan (on the radio) singing “Like A Rolling Stone.” The more he heard it, the more everything about the song declared, “Outrage was the only way to respond to the world, the only way to get out from under the crust of lies to something like the truth.” And there you have it in one short sentence. There is a world that is a trickster and a sham. But, there is a truth that lies beneath the lies. We are justified in being angry that the world lies to us. How do we penetrate those lies to uncover liberate the truth?

Wolff discovers “Like A Rolling Stone,” discovers Dylan, goes poking around in record bins to find more, and happens a few years later, when in college, on an album by Woody Guthrie. Listening to Guthrie, Daniel Wolff finds it easy to see what Dylan learned from Guthrie. But in searching for more Guthrie (hard to find) he finds an album recently released by Guthrie’s son Arlo, with a song Woody wrote called “1913 Massacre.” Reaper - blog copyThe tune, he recognizes, was what led him to Woody in the first place, a tune used by Dylan in his first album, an homage called “Talkin’ Woody.” Now this is a story of how everything is connected, not in some imaginary way grafted on to reality to make it seem to fit like a Procrustean Bed. This is pure dialectics. That Guthrie and Dylan are tied together through this “Talkin’ Woody.” But that the tune of “Talkin’ Woody” comes from an actual Woody Guthrie tune, “1913 Massacre,” that is linked to the context in which both songwriters/singers were coming to terms with the reality, the truth of the world around them.

One thing that’s really great about this book is how Daniel Wolff unpacks the context of the thread he is following—by the time the first chapter ends you know that you will find clues in the massacre in 1913, where more than 70 children died for money and greed. Dylan’s anger, from the days of “Like a Rolling Stone,” has transformed into some kind of icon; while Guthrie’s hopeful music of the world yet to come has receded into some kind of history. “Is that what happens to anger? Is there no way for it to grow up.”

Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie both created myths about themselves, and one part of the book delves into what is the truth, what isn’t, and does it really matter? Or put another way, when is the myth truer than truth? And while it may seem that this question is in the realm of biography, which so often is falsified (especially in terms of celebrities), Wolff also takes his lens to the truth and myth of Calumet on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the massacre that happened there in 1913. It does matter if the doors in that building opened in or out. It does matter how the mineowners treated their workers. It does matter how the union responded to the demands of the miners. This book is about perception and reality, about context, and, near the end of the book Wolff returns to pursue the theme of anger growing up. Here’s Woody Guthrie, writing about two kinds of anger:

What is an outlaw? . . . [T]he outlaw is beat. Beat to start with. The whole world is against him. Reason why is because he’s not organized. He’s just by his self. Wants to holler, cuss, fight, work to change the world around a little bit better . . .but he’s by his self. Bound to lose . . . Why do people set down and write great songs and ballads about their outlaws?

Here’s why. An outlaw does it wrong . . . And the Union does it right . . . [But] an outlaw does one big thing. What? It’s easy.

He tries.

Tries his best.

Dies for what he believes in. Goes down shooting.

 

In “East Texas Red,” Guthrie’s song tells the story of a group of hobos who against a railroad brakeman, known to be the meanest man on the line, who has kicked over their dinner, a pot of stew, and sent them packing. They kill the brakeman next time he threatens them, then sit down to eat their stew, “no compromise” says Wolff, “an outlaw likearollingstoneballad about grown-up anger.”

I don’t mean to imply that Grown-Up Anger is prescriptive. The book is a quest for “The history of anger. Hope. The truth.” Quests are journeys, not end points. An extended description of “Like A Rolling Stone” three quarters of the way through evokes the feeling of listening to the song even years after the author first heard it. The music of the book is as much the author’s poetic voice as his fugal musical sensibility. Far from prescriptive, the most satisfying part, in a way, is how the geology, anthropology, economics, and history of Calumet are also metaphor for the music of the book. For what else is the fiery magma contained within an 1800 mile rock shell and a 5 mile crust holding lead, copper and sulfur than some kind of rage waiting to break free? “You could start there.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saying “Merry Christmas” Again?

Saying “Merry Christmas” Again?  by Lew Rosenbaum

So what’s wrong with being able to say “Merry Christmas” again? There’s the historical reason, and here’s a four minute synopsis of Xmas celebrations in the US (Christmas was

puritan-christmas-ban

General

banned in Boston by the Puritans; General Sherman presented the captured Savannah to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift).  There are also personal reasons, such as the fact that not everyone celebrates Christmas in the US today (when I was a child my family did not exchange gifts at Xmas or at Chanukah). I don’t deny the reality that this country in which we live is a “Christian” country, despite the various religions and non religions that make up the landscape. Despite laws to the contrary, Christianity is as much the national religion as a religion can be – if you take account of the fact that Christianity has more incarnations than a hydra’s head. English, French and Spanish colonialists conquered the Americas in the name of their religion(s). Today the US is still one of the most (fundamentalist) religious countries in the world. And of course the religion has merged with the worship of commerce. Still, even today I resent it when people wish me Merry Christmas, because it assumes I share their religious beliefs (in a way that is different from when someone says “Bless you” after I

ShermanLincolnTelegram.jpg.CROP.article920-large

Gen. Sherman’s tele-gram to Pres. Lincoln

sneeze). The historical emphasizes the word again;  the personal takes issue with Merry Christmas itself.

But there’s a third category of why I cringe when I hear Donald Trump declare we can now say “Merry Christmas” again. It’s a philosophical category. It is related to the historical, but in some sense transcends it. It’s because “saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again” creates an alternative reality, creates what Trump himself calls “alternative facts.” It assumes a false history and a false composition of what makes up the USA.  What Trump excels in, as a propagandist, is repeating alternative facts so often that they come to be regarded as reality. We could laugh this off, because, after all, it’s not reality. But it belongs in the same sphere as “the greatest tax reform in a quarter century,” and Clinton winning California because of the undocumented worker vote, and terrorists streaming across the US-Mexico border. When Hitler employed this tactic, we called it the big lie. Said often enough it takes on the quality of truth. And that is what we are witnessing in the White House.

While it may seem that “saying Merry Christmas again” is harmless drivel that will end once the holiday season is over, the reality is no. It’s not going away. The ability to create

Thomas Nast Xmas il_570xN.285056923

Thomas Nast popularized the figure of St. Nick in the 1850s

fact and reality out of nothing will only snowball and build on itself. The active intent of the administration in Washington is to undermine scientific investigation and assessment of reality. In a sense it is a return to the mediaeval reliance on a central supernatural authority (then in the hands of the clerics of the Church whose responsibility it was to interpret the word of God as written in the Bible). But nothing is a return to an earlier period. Today the White House declares itself the sole interpreter of reality. This is a cultural gambit toward fascism.

That’s why it’s so important for those of us involved in spreading new ideas about what is possible to take this moment seriously. Laughing it off is the work of sectarian snobs. The moment is now to enter the battle for the morality of the American people, find that center, the stable base that has joined in the ongoing and spreading battle for survival (as the oligarchs in Washington and on Wall Street raise their champagne glasses). This is where we find a social force that can and must reorganize society, to develop vision based on the realities and possibilities of today.