Thursday, October 06, 2016

Pence vs. Kaine

The “Winner” 
Is the Boldest Liar

            The Second Great Debate of 2016, between U.S. Vice Presidential candidates Tim Kaine (D) and Mike Pence (R), is fluttering off into the pages of history, where it may ultimately find its place in a footnote. Yet it was the political event of the first half of this week, with as much coverage or more as the killer hurricane Matthew.
            The consensus among non-partisan observers is that Pence won on deportment but Kaine won on substance.
            Therefore, by some inexplicable metric, the conclusion is that Pence won the debate. Obvious, isn’t it?
            Not really.
            Kaine’s interruptions of Pence annoyed me, to be sure. He could never be as crude as Donald Trump, but he brought Trump to mind with that style, even if his interruptions were justified by the outrageous assertions and, alternately, stone-walling on the other side.
            The thing is, Pence could not have “won” the debate because he could not defend the indefensible except by bald-faced lies. News reports admit that Pence lied by flatly denying about half-a-dozen or more statements either he or Trump has made in the course of this endless campaign. Yet the weight of opinion I’ve read and seen, liberal and conservative, gives Pence the edge in the debate because he was so contained and controlled, even as he lied.
Mike Pence
            How can you win a debate when you offer no valid counter-arguments but only a flat denial of the opponent’s well-supported charges? Or have the rules changed since I was in college? To win a debate today, do you only have to deny valid points with so cool and straight a face that people will either believe you or congratulate you for being such an unflappable liar? Is politics just a well-paying gig for an actor?
            Several commentators say Pence has his beady blue eyes on the 2020 Presidential race. They point out that Pence’s popularity as Governor of Indiana was down as he came up for re-election this year, so he hopped the Trump train out of town and avoided what might have been a defeat and a dead end to his political ambitions. Some say those ambitions are high, and that some prominent Republicans are already talking Pence for President in 2020.
            They say he’s such a cool, conservative cucumber of a guy that he could take the party back from Trump, who apparently many if not most Republicans have already assumed will lose this election. Or so they fervently hope.
            I’m sure many contenders are ready to join the slug-fest that’s coming in 2020. It’s amazing that it’s already started, but, be that as it may, I’m struck by the political popularity of a man who we know very well is lying through his teeth. The Nation’s John Nichols writes that he out-performs Richard Nixon for lying with such a straight face. Even Nixon gave himself away with tiny facial quirks. Not Pence. He’s cold as ice as he tells us what we all know to be true is false—just to win an election or as a consolation setting him up as a prime contender in 2020.
            And that’s a problem for Pence, giving me hope that after losing this election he’ll join that landfill heap of ambitious men—and women, too—who fall off the mountain before they reach the top, for which we can all breathe a sigh of relief—until, perhaps, we see the one who makes it there instead.
            Bernie said Tim Kaine is “a decent guy,” just not as progressive as Bernie would like. As a resident of Virginia when Kaine was Governor, I have to agree. I hardly knew he was Governor, he was that inoffensive, which isn’t to say he was ineffectual. But he’s a party Democrat, a kind, decent, conscientious guy, and clearly Pence’s intellectual equal and, frankly, moral superior, criticized by the hot-shot media for lacking style over substance.
Tim Kaine
            We should by now be used to such disrespect for substance in our public debates, but substance is nourishing and our public debates are anything but, even though the problems we face are truly alarming. Among them are politicians who are vacuous slaves to fund-raising. Why do they do it?
            Why does Mike Pence lie about what his CEO is up to when everyone knows he’s lying? Why do press secretaries and campaign managers efface themselves in the same way? Do we lie with a straight face to preserve our own positions or advance our ambitions? Or just to deny the other side is correct?
            It’s difficult when the men and women who want to be our leaders—make the rules for us, decide critical matters on our behalf—are so flawed. Just like any one of us. Think of it. President of the United States, the most powerful person in the world, but what makes that so? All the weapons at his/her command. Not because this person is an example of Homo-Superius, who behaves with an enlightened hand.
            I think the Presidency, like the leadership in any historical empire, is a matter of destiny. It’s something you’re born with, it has an inevitability about it, whether you’re conscious of it, as some are, or you’re not. There are no accidental Presidents, though we may all be surprised when a particular person becomes President.
            In any case, it’s said we get the President we deserve, even if we didn’t vote for the one who wins, which is food for thought for a long time to come.
            I hope I don’t deserve Trump-Pence, and I also hope I don’t deserve Pence in 2020. The man uses blatant dishonesty to gain his ends. Whatever you think of Kaine’s politics, you can’t accuse him of that.
            I admit I’m a registered Democrat, but I say Kaine “won” the debate on substance and, if it means anything, on sincerity, too. I don’t think he’s a great candidate but I also don’t think he’d stoop to Pence’s low level of argument and certainly would not support his right-wing policies. It discourages me that Pence got points for both in the early polls and media. What are people thinking?
            Or is it just a ploy to keep us all watching the unfolding drama of who will finally be our leader? Who will take charge over us and shape our history next?
            When you put it that way, it sounds sort of important.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The First Great Debate

From "The Greatness Game"
A Work in Progress

This is an op-ed poem commenting on the first Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton last night, Sept. 26, 2016.

Did you see how Prince Donald’s hand was trembling
when he raised his glass for a sip?
Did you see him licking dry lips?
No one can blame a contender for greatness
for tremoring nerves when votes are at stake.
But his opponent, the Duchess, formerly Queen,
held her nerves in admirable check.
All the way through the first great debate,
focused and cool, she set records straight,
appearing much better prepared than her rival
to be Commander-in-Chief of a nuclear state.

(Reuters Photo)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

7 Weeks Out....

Rambling Thoughts on a 
Ridiculous Election

            It’s difficult to find anything to say about our Presidential election which hasn’t already been said. Yet one is compelled to say something! I wish I could say it’s probably not the end of our democracy, no matter which of the two contenders gets elected.
            But of course we’ve never had a democracy. (We’ve barely had a democratic republic.) We’ve always had an idealistic belief in democracy, but it’s never been true that we are all equal under the law, even though the law says we are. What has always been true—and we all know it—is that some of us are more equal than others, especially if we’re white, well-born, and educated.
            So what will change if Trump is elected? Apparently, a lot, but the details are sparse. We don’t need to know them, Daddy Trump will take care of all that, delivering jobs, security, victory in foreign wars, protection at home from terrorists and illegal immigrant thugs, increased fossil fuel exploration and production, a wall across our southern border, extreme vetting of Muslim immigrants as well as domestic critics of our country, and good deals in general for the American people at large.
And what will change if Hillary is elected? Nothing at all, if Congress, as is likely, stays Republican. The social and economic justice programs Hillary adopted from Bernie’s political revolution will be dead on arrival without Democratic majorities elected to the House and Senate. But the political revolution has lost its head and its revolutionaries are scattered in disarray. Hillary battles illness to regain her edge, given up to repeated campaign gaffs, while Trump is surging on bald-faced lies and outrageous flip-flops. At this point who wins depends more on how many people hate the other candidate the most than on which one is most acceptable for the job. That’s been true ever since it became apparent that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would be the candidates. Has there ever been such an election? Maybe in other countries, but not in America!
            Over the weekend President Obama told his African-American constituency that he’ll take it personally as an attack on his legacy if their community doesn’t turn out for Hillary as they did for him. It was quite forceful yet also moving—an appeal to their racial solidarity. Keep Barack’s legacy alive with Hillary! Trump certainly won’t do that. Hillary says she will. We can only speculate on how sincere she is. She and Obama have a history, apparently drawing them close. Are the Clintons and the Obamas friends or just political allies? Michelle hit the campaign trail for Hillary over the weekend.
imagine Hillary welcomes that support. Michelle is more beloved by the public than any of them, including her husband. It’s a shame she’s not running. There would be no contest then.
            But Trump and Hillary are the candidates, and the problem persists that this is in too many ways a ridiculous election. Trump is obviously an amoral wheeler-dealer, Clinton we know to be both ambitious and secretive, raising suspicions that she’s always up to something. Not even astrologers can pin her down, with two birth times given twelve hours apart. But either way, she’s a Scorpio with deep wells of emotional intensity she doesn’t like to share and may not even be able to. It appears she is also capable of ruthless pursuit of her ambition.
            (Trump, for those interested, is a Gemini born within hours of a full-Moon eclipse, which is a fateful omen of emotional constipation. He also can’t hope to hide his underworld tendencies—perfect for a nation enamored with organized crime but a questionable talent in a leader of the free world.)
            So while we don’t know what either of them will do if elected, we know that with Trump what we see is what we get. With Hillary we’re not sure what we see but we suspect it will be familiar Clintonian talk-from-the-left and rule-from-the-center government because that’s what Clinton Democrats do.
            As for Republicans, it used to be they talked from the right but ruled from the center as well, but that’s changed in the past twenty years or more. I first saw it clearly with Bill Clinton’s impeachment fiasco. A gang of House Republicans embarrassed themselves and the President with a public, X-rated witch hunt into a private, consensual, sexual relationship between the President and an intern of legal age. It happened during an enforced lull in their duties because those same impeaching Congressmen—no women were part of the lascivious inquiry—joined their colleagues to shut down the government, regrettably leaving the President idle. His subsequent actions are easily understood. Theirs—not so much, given the sanctimonious hypocrisy of their unattractive voyeurism.
            The right wing never had any love for Bill Clinton, but Hillary especially has rubbed them the wrong way. She taunts them, lumps them all in one bin reserved for subhuman life forms. They in turn think she’s capable of murder, among other crimes. This mutual aversion seems to mirror the feelings of millions who stand on either side of the cultural divide which first manifested (after a long gestation) in the 1960s.
The Clintons, more than any other national politicians of their generation, came across as hippies, though no true hippy would think so. But the right wing did, and nothing seemed to alarm right-wingers more than the treasonous fantasy of hippy values invading the White House—environmentalism, pacifism, gender equality, sexual freedom, sustainable living, legal pot, and rock’n’roll music occupying the very center of American power and prestige. It fed their Ronald Reagan postpartum depression for an entire decade.
            Now they’re stuck with Trump. It seems very unlikely he’ll work closely with conservatives to bring strict Constitutional law and Judeo-Christian values back to America. But he wins elections, and he says he’s Republican. He may lean toward Libertarian (if he has any political ideology at all), but most Christian conservatives can live with that...for the time being.
            However, can America live with a President who shoots off his mouth like Wyatt Erp’s six-gun? What kind of world would that be? Hillary’s knowledge and experience of international politics, with its formal protocols, seems a better bet—if we could only forget her vote on Iraq and her flawed judgment on Libya and the infamous emails (not to mention her decision to marry a philanderer).
            On the other hand, what good does it do any of us to say that neither candidate fills the bill when it’s the only bill we’ve got?
            It’s too early for me to say what I’ll do on election day. My obvious choice between these two is Hillary. I cringe at the specter of a Trump dynasty in the White House, with fresh gossip and images in newspapers and broadcasts every day, the cult of celebrity triumphantly completing its takeover of the American mind, with unknown consequences for the future.
            But I also think Hillary is the better candidate in this localized rivalry between a New-York-City developer and a former New York U.S. Senator. In that rough-and-tumble, dog-eat-dog political environment, neither of them could be clean. But it’s still no contest in my mind, and I’ll vote for her, most likely. However, I’m old enough to remember the election of 1964 when LBJ beat conservative Republican Barry Goldwater in a landslide. Democrats thought they’d decimated the right wing for good in that election, only to have conservatives persistently forge ahead to elect Nixon in 1968 and Reagan in 1980.
            After that the conservative movement coalesced around Reagan like disciples around a master, lifting to the pinnacle of greatness a President increasingly ill with Alzheimer’s disease. (You can’t make this stuff up!)
It was with Reagan that our national delusions became our reality, as if he took the whole country to a patriotic movie and
left us there. Few of us ever came out.
            In 1991 George H.W. Bush’s Desert Storm seemed to fulfill ancient prophecies of the final battle at the end of the world, but it never went that far in our reality. It only set up more battles yet to come.
            And then that brash young man—that “draft dodger,” in the words of the defeated President—acquainted us with the Presidential penis, an unprecedented revelation. Hillary stood by her man all through the sordid affair, conducting herself with great dignity, at least in public, despite traditional shaming from those suggesting she was too cold to perform her wifely duties satisfactorily.
            After that, perhaps stolen, the Presidency went to Republican George W. Bush, who must find it hard to sleep at night. He oversaw the invasion of Afghanistan and, later, Iraq, which set loose the demons now making the Middle East a hell-on-Earth and the western democracies targets for delusional mad men with bombs.
            Donald Trump would decisively destroy the mad men with bombs, in particular Isis, the terrorist group at the core of today’s fighting. Then he’ll secure Iraqi oil for world use while otherwise pulling out of the Middle East. Hillary, apparently, would stay there as long as it takes to bring that region of ancient habits into the modern  commercial world. She is part of the global capitalist establishment, of course. Trump, meanwhile, is a maverick in that same establishment, which tolerates some toying with legal limits but is not comfortable with Trump’s tendency to ignore them, behaving, it must be said, as white men have behaved around the world for centuries. And, in making America great again, he promises to reassert that arrogance.
            Political correctness, it seems to me, is basic manners. Trump is decimating manners, bringing the culture wars to a head. Maybe that’s a good thing—to have it out with the “deplorables,” as Hillary has called them: the racists, misogynists, religious bigots, nativists, and gun fanatics committed to dualistic ideologies of Us versus Them.
Are they “the real America?” If so, then it’s probably a good thing if they take over and do their worst, however others suffer. Perhaps the wars to follow will purge those elements from our humanity, allowing us to resume with greater clarity once most of life on our planet has been decimated by international corporate wars and climate change.
            But I think Hillary might—just might—be able to guide us past the major catastrophes waiting ahead if we duck our responsibility to cooperate with the rest of the world in a plan for collective survival. But if she’s invested in being the first woman President rather than the 45th President, she’ll fail.
            Trump, on the other hand, is like a Godfather figure on the international stage, allying himself with the shadow elements at home and abroad and embodying in his ego all the power, wealth, and prestige of the USA without much of our national empathy and generosity of soul.
            Unfortunately Americans, inured to incredible violence in all the media they consume and largely ignorant of the inconvenient truths of their history, are not much given to empathy or generosity these days. Something has been lost without compensation.
            So all I can think to say about this election which perhaps hasn’t been already said is that, unfortunately, we got the candidates we deserve because of the idols we worship—fat-cat success in business on one hand and an impressive resume of establishment jobs and honors on the other.
            Maybe from this, if we survive it, we’ll learn that neither really qualifies a person to be President of the United States. But will we be any better able to determine what does?

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Convention Hangover 2016

Sorting Through 
The Dumpster Trash

            It’s finally official. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) will run against Donald Trump (R-NY) for President of the United States. Two weeks of back-to-back political conventions highlighted the drama, and of course the lines are clearly drawn.
            Or are they?
            According to what the parties want us to believe, it’s a contest between I versus we, proud white male versus uppity feminist, strict Daddy versus kind Mommy.
Sky and Sarah
            But after watching all but a couple hours of the two-week political extravaganza, I’m reminded of Sky Masterson, the slick New York City crap-shooter, and Sarah Brown, the Salvation Army social worker who scolds him for his profligate ways, in the 1950 musical Guys and Dolls.
            I mean, it’s just theater, right?
            Or is it?
            As I’ve said before in the Thinking Dog’s Journal, I supported Bernie from the start, exulted in his unexpected primary victories, and felt that terrible sinking sensation in my gut when I realized he wasn’t going to make it.
            I found his release of his campaign highly honorable, and I found his re-entry into the convention rank-and-file totally appropriate. It must have been painful for him to be there and hear the party leaders’ speeches of praise for his triumphant rival. But, unlike Bush, Kasich, Cruz, and a few other of the original 17 Republican contenders for the most powerful position in the world, Bernie did not betray any sign of the sore loser. He did the right thing to the end.
            Now some of his followers are saying he betrayed the movement he started and are abandoning their loyalty to him. They will vote, they say, for Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein, or they will not vote for President at all.
Jill Stein Rally
            I understand these reactive sentiments. I also think it’s a kind of tragedy that in these times when we never needed true wisdom and vision in a leader more, we are looking at two candidates who don’t exhibit a whole lot of either.
            Trump is probably not the millennial version of a Caesar or a Hitler, though it’s tempting to make the comparison. Hillary is probably not another Eleanor Roosevelt or Margaret Thatcher, though I suspect she’d like to be both.
            But that’s part of a problem I’m having with this election. Trump seems to be branding himself as a strong man who’s going to come in and fix everything, especially security, as if he were renovating a grand, historic hotel. Hillary, on the other hand, thinks the hotel is just fine as it is and only needs her guiding hand to maintain and expand its services to more of its guests, not just the few living in the penthouse suites.
            But, while Hillary I’m sure is a compassionate and sincere advocate for the poor—single mothers and children, especially—there’s no doubt that her advocacy expanded broadly when she realized Bernie was winning primaries with his democratic socialism. Did it trouble anyone else that Hillary became a socialist in the primaries when she wasn’t one before? What’s to stop her, once the campaign is underway, from reverting—or, as they say, pivoting—back to her former moderate positions on what constitutes a fair and just society?
            Then, too, it strikes me there’s little difference between her and Trump when it comes to war. Her defense of social programs for poor children, adults and the elderly—exceeding anything I’m sure even Trump would endorse—comes with a very large commitment to military spending as well. Lyndon Johnson made that same mistake.
She promises guns and butter while Trump promises guns and maybe butter but guns 
before butter, which is what any hawkish Democrat would revert to as well.
            So while the Republicans are losing their firm lock on conservative social values and policies, they’re getting red meat from Trump on guns, war-readiness, and America-first-again style patriotism.
            Clinton argues that America is already first, and a legion of Democratic stars took to the podium at the convention to sell that certainty. Biden was the most strident and, in my opinion, the most offensive, turning the convention into a nationalist rally. If the Republicans want to make America first again, the Democrats want to make it clear that we are now, always were, and always will be USA! USA! USA!
            But there does seem to be a peculiar difference between the Trump convention and the Clinton convention that one might not expect.
            Trump was almost universally opposed by traditional Republican top guns all the way up to the convention. Some still refuse to endorse or support him. Yet he won, it seems, fair and square.
            It’s not clear that Hillary did. The release of the DNC emails revealed the party apparatus itself plotted against Bernie. Is it credible that the Clinton campaign knew nothing about that?
            According to videos posted on YouTube by Bernie supporters on the floor, there apparently was also manipulation of the seating in the convention hall, controlling where the Bernie supporters could sit. Devices identified as “white-noise boxes,” it was reported, were mounted above the Bernie sections so their chants and boos would be muffled on television.
            Dirty tricks. Where’s the fairness? The justice? The respect for an honest dialogue among the candidates with the voters left to decide which one will serve their country best?
            No, that part of the shiny hotel on the hill didn’t get polished in time for the convention, so organizers tried to keep the cameras away. Can anyone believe Hillary didn’t know about those dirty tricks, didn’t approve them? Trump says Hillary will say anything, do anything to win. Is he right? Some obvious evidence points that way.
            Trump’s long harangue, worthy of satire in many a comedy club for a long time to come—even Tim Kaine picked up on that—was somehow interesting.
Tim Kaine
How did this guy get there out of all those traditional Republican rote scholars? Apparently not by cheating.
            And that’s a problem. Indisputably, Hillary has a long history of public service. We can debate whether her service has been wise or tainted, but there can be no doubt she knows the present system and capably navigates it. That’s her advantage.
            But her legitimacy will always be in doubt because she—or those who work for her—cheated to give her unfair advantage in the primaries and even at the convention, after nomination was assured.
            The Democrats feared a repeat of 1968, when radicals turned their convention into a police riot outside. They didn’t want anything like that again. So they repressed the opposition—subtly. It may have looked fair and square, it may even have been legal, but it was still dirty politics.
            And that’s the problem with this election. Thanks to Bernie, Hillary’s got to campaign on some progressive issues she has never fully supported before. But that makes her sincerity suspect.
            Trump, on the other hand, has some ideas about personal freedom that are attractive to both libertarians and many on the left. But he’s a hard-core conservative on defense and national security and denies climate change. These are bigger issues than social issues. They put the whole premise of the western democracies—continuing growth, onward and upward forever—at major risk of collapse into another dark age. Bernie called climate change the single-most pressing crisis facing our world, never mind the country. Hillary puts it in her laundry list of action plans. Trump ignores it. Disappointed Bernicrats say, “At least we got it in the platform.” But that’s not the same as winning the election, and we all know it.
            It’s strange to feel that the times may not produce the hero we need to lead us through the years of clear and present danger ahead. But that’s how it feels. And maybe that’s a sign that the world is changing far more than we realize, when, in a time of multiple global crises, America does not rise to the challenge. Some other country takes the baton and stylizes the next era of global politics.
            Will democracy continue to expand and evolve in the world that’s coming to be? Or will we lapse into some form of dictatorship as changes spin out of official control and anarchy threatens our streets?
A Star Is Born
            I wish that were the clear choice in this election. But it’s not. So far, it’s a choice between a star-studded Democratic campaign of nostalgia and glamour, with our politicians the biggest celebrities of all, and a Republican party stitched together, a patch-work of criminal Christianity, the separation of business and state rather than church and state, using the threat of terrorism at home and abroad to restore order in the homeland.
Missed Kiss
            Some fucking choice. Who wrote this movie? Oh, yes, that’s one thing everyone agrees on. Ronald Reagan wrote this movie. We’re all in Ronald Reagan’s movie. A multi-generational saga.
            As Bill Bendix famously used to say on the ‘50s TV sit-com The Life of Riley, “What a revoltin’ development this is.”

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Activism and Art in America

A Marriage on the Rocks?

            As far as we know, Shakespeare did not take to the streets to protest the tyranny and injustice of the ruling class of his day. He did not write inflammatory pamphlets or confront
the nobility with a litany of accusations, demanding social change. He did not attack the Queen or her court for their pretentious foppery or point fingers at corrupt officials.
            Rather, he held up a mirror to his culture and showed us examples of tyranny and nobility which have served as moral beacons ever since. We recognize ruthless, naked ambition because Shakespeare wrote a play about such a tyrant in Macbeth. We recognize how personal tragedy unfolds when feuds between neighbors erupt out of control, destroying the lives of the innocent, because he wrote Romeo and Juliet.
            Does that mean that Shakespeare’s portrayals ended tyranny or fatal family feuds? Of course not. But we don’t hear critics say that Shakespeare’s writings and the subsequent performances of his works over centuries were just more or less meaningless talk. We say that Shakespeare was a major influence in western culture, articulating perspectives on a wide variety of experiences that we still encounter today in our collective and personal lives.
            Yet the demand upon artists persists. Don’t just talk about it, do something!
            This criticism of the poet’s role in society came up at the book release party we held last Friday, July 1, at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk, my artistic base since 2009.
            The book is A Conversation About Race Among Poets. It’s the collective work of six poets who met weekly for three months in the winter-spring of 2015 and, under my
From top-left, myself, Jack Callan,
Betty Davis, C.J.Expression,
Judith Stevens, Madeline Garcia
synthesizing supervision, created a performance out of our back-and-forth poetic exchanges. The performance got some local attention for its diversity and honest perspectives on race and race relations, and a video of the performance, posted on 
YouTube, attracted the interest of Kathleen McBlair, a friend who runs a small publishing company, Words on Stage. After a year of editorial collaboration between Kathleen and myself, the book was released last week with a special performance of some of its contents. (It is now available at for $10.)
            In a Q&A session following that performance, one audience member, while complimenting the quality of our work, criticized spoken word in general as ineffectual and, in a sense, self-indulgent. Talk is cheap, he seemed to say. We’re not doing anything of real value unless we’re taking direct action.
            Nathan Richardson, a local poet we all love and respect, seconded that sentiment and talked persuasively about spoken word as a preparation for non-violent protest in the tradition of the civil rights struggle led by Martin Luther King. As the mentor of Teens with a Purpose, a spoken word ensemble which performs regularly across our area, Richardson has done a great deal to draw out the talents of many young poets who might otherwise have been creatively stifled.
            But, he says, he is not training them as poets or entertainers but as activists because poetry is not enough to change society. Only non-violent direct action can do that.
            It struck me as a sort of cognitive dissonance that a poet would, in a sense, disrespect his art in that way. Are we poets wasting our time with our self-indulgent attention to a craft which is basically irrelevant in today’s tumultuous world of crisis after crisis? Does our art represent, at best, a preparation, a warm-up, a pep talk for the real thing in the streets or at the gates of the monolithic towers of power? Are we ineffectually preaching to the choir when we should be actively confronting the powers that be?
            Frankly, I have heard this dismissive point of view since I was in school, and I have to take issue with it. I certainly have no quarrel with Martin Luther King or Nathan Richardson on the call for non-violent resistance. I agree that non-violence is an effective way to resist injustice, bigotry, and, as JFK put it, “the officious state.” I believe, ultimately, that it’s more honorable to suffer violence willingly than to inflict it.
            But I have trouble with the argument that creating art—poetry, music, drama, fiction, painting, sculpture, photography—is not doing anything. In fact, I feel hurt by that suggestion. Not doing anything? Really?

Conversation About Race in Rehearsal

            In the summer of ‘64—after the Kennedy assassination and during the right-wing Goldwater Presidential candidacy—my wife Jala and I, freshly wed six months earlier, took a student flight to Europe, where we traveled around for three months.
            I didn’t know why we were going to Europe, though I’d been the one to suggest it. I told Jala the summer before if she’d marry me I’d take her there, but I don’t know why I even said that.
            But as the summer unfolded, it seemed clear we were called to Europe—as were many other student-age Americans at that time, with cheap, round-trip charter flights for $250.
            In Europe we discovered our deeper selves living beneath the superficial facade of American cultural naiveté.
            We arrived in Paris, spent a few days in awkward adjustment—my French was a laughing-stock pretty much everywhere we went—then we rented a car and headed west for Chartres—we’d heard of the cathedral there and were duly awed in its presence. We continued from there toward the beaches on the Atlantic coast. Beaches were a kind of security. They were all we really knew about how to spend a vacation. It’s incredible how dumb untraveled Americans are.
            We followed the French coast into Spain and down to Madrid, where our guidebook strongly advised a visit to the Prado Museum, one of the best art museums in the world, it said. So we thought, since we were in Madrid, we may as well go there.
            Only twice in my life have I experienced a major change of consciousness in a single afternoon. That afternoon at the Prado Museum in Madrid was one of them. The art that hung on those walls blew my mind.

May 3, 1808 by Francisco de Goya
Prado Museum, Madrid

            I realized that afternoon that I, too, wanted to be involved in the creation of beauty, drama, and myth. I, too, wanted to express ideas suddenly bubbling up inside of me, ideas I hadn’t even unpacked yet. I suspected—as time has proven true—that my greatest happiness would not be in the academic world I was preparing for but in the rough-and-tumble uncertainty of an artist’s life, where security is a joke.
            But that’s where I wanted to be. I couldn’t draw or paint, but I was already a decent writer, and way in the back of my mind, behind a curtain where I’d reluctantly left him after high school, was an actor contemplating a return to the stage.  
            I wanted to stay in Europe, but that was impossible, so we returned to the United States, as scheduled, in September, 1964. Since that time I have experienced over and over how little regard my culture has for artists. Entertainers, yes. Industry whores, really. But we honor them because, for one thing, they make a lot of money with their extraordinary talents, and we respect money and idolize glamor.
            But as a culture we don’t really respect art. We think art must have a purpose beyond itself, and as artists we often feel unworthy in America because the dedication and discipline it takes to create a timeless poem or story or song or character on the stage is not particularly valued unless there is a result beyond simple, elegant expression.
            In short, as a culture, we can’t let art be a good in itself. It has to have a utilitarian purpose to have value. Thus, we shame our artists because they aren’t “doing more.” We suspect they’re lazy or wasting time when they sit under a tree with a pencil and a sketchbook or notebook. (Time, after all, is money.) To me, that seems insensitive to the greatness that is embodied in the art of western culture.
            Leonardo, Michelangelo, Dante, Shakespeare, Moliere, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams—were they not doing enough?
That's me in 2012. I protested a
meeting of Repub big-wigs outside
Harrison's Pier in Ocean View.
            My own defense of A Conversation About Race Among Poets, if I really need to make one, is that speech is action, especially potent with the care of craft behind the words. Why else would it be a Constitutionally protected right? It has consequences, it changes minds, it stimulates thought, it enables communication, and, in the action of putting together and delivering a performance, it creates solidarity among a diverse group of poets, which then extends to include an audience in a positive experience. In my opinion, that’s doing something, and for me it is enough. If anyone wants to take it to the streets after hearing it, that’s a choice. If any poet wants to take it to the streets after speaking it, equally good. I’ve done that myself. But no poet should feel inadequate for being “just a poet.” No artist for being “just an artist.”
            Activism and art are two separate disciplines. They can merge, they often do, but why must they? Has activism become a new group think, a new tyranny? I hope not! Is poetry ultimately the province of arm-chair philosophers and hypocrites? I don’t think so!
            Just as thoughts are things, speech is action. A prayer may be just as effective as a protest and a poem at least as powerful as a raised fist.
            I rest my case.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Presumptive Nominees

It Should Have Been Better Than This

            The last time I wrote about politics in this space was back in early May of this year, when there was a chance Bernie Sanders could still win the Democratic nomination for U.S. President. I was dispirited when that was no longer a possibility. (I hold out a vain hope it could still happen.) But I was angry when I learned that the AP and CBS had called California for Hillary before people had even voted. I thought that was unethical and gave the distinct appearance of media interference in the election process. It should be illegal.
            Nevertheless, as in the terribly dispiriting Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, I realize it’s a done deal. Bernie’s clear vision of restoring and updating FDR’s New Deal, thus reclaiming the soul of the Democratic Party, isn’t happening this year. The surge wasn’t quite strong enough to sweep aside the skeptics who fear the economic turbulence of change and the insiders who fear losing control of the party if Bernie’s revolution succeeds.
            So now we have Hillary, who, by winning her party’s nomination, has reached the next-to-top step on her ambitious ladder of success. And on the other side is Trump, who all the pundits agree has already disqualified himself from office by his outrageous insults and fact-free policy statements. And although the pundits have been wrong about Trump from the beginning, this time they may be right. So far, anyway, Trump is coming across as a major-league bumbler. I can’t imagine enough American voters are ignorant enough to believe that he has the personal stature to fill that office.
            But then, I, too, did not think Trump would be the Republican nominee, though I’ll say he was the most interesting character in that absurd line-up of contenders, all competing for the title of Most Conservative Republican. The winner, Trump, may not even be all that conservative. Real estate moguls rarely are, except where it serves their business interests.
            Still, it seems of late Trump has looked pretty bad in the glare of the national spot light. Meanwhile, the party bosses and elder statesmen, like a posse of vigilantes, gather their forces to round up Trump and take him into custody—or take him out, as most would really prefer. No one thinks Trump can win unless he cooperates with the party, but he says he can run successfully without them. I’ll bet a lot of people would cheer him on if he tried. Even so, however the finger of fate vacillates, the Republicans just don’t look that good these days.
            I’m predicting the American people will abandon the Republicans in large numbers, except some Republican candidates will quickly move to the left a little and save their seats. But a Democratic Senate is more than possible. I think it’s a sure thing.
            Meanwhile, I hear Hillary quoting Bernie these days, when she isn’t thumping Trump. But she’s not giving Bernie credit for her incremental conversion to his campaign message. She sounds like she believes in socialism now, though I haven’t heard her say the word and I doubt she will. Some progressives think it’s a good thing Bernie forced her to the left, and, as a progressive myself, I suppose it is.
            But I have a problem with Hillary when she talks about social and economic inequality, breaking up the power of Wall Street, reforming criminal justice, fixing America’s infrastructure, free college tuition, transitioning out of fossil fuels and into renewables—all Bernie’s issues that Hillary didn’t support until she started to lose elections. Does she think our memories are that short that we don’t notice she’s changed her positions? That where before she was center-left, with the possible exception of her more conservative positions on economics and defense, her campaign now matches Bernie’s on a number of major progressive fronts?
            In a debate Bernie once ironically congratulated Hillary for “coming to religion” on the urgency of addressing climate change—a modification from her previous, more conservative, wait-and-see position. As a citizen who supported Bernie, I feel the same irony about Hillary’s seeming conversion to full left frontal. Is she really leaving behind the cultural Boomer she and Bill personified when she was First Lady and he was First Man? Her sudden shift to the left in her politics during the primaries and now, as we approach convention time, affirmed ever-more shrilly, should at least help me feel okay about this election. But I don’t. I feel there’s an opportunity missed that can’t be recovered. I feel that the wrong choices have already been made.
            Then the only hope is to minimize the damage. All good souls to the front! Peace and justice must prevail. Nothing else will work for all of us, and anything less is a kind of genocide.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Norfolk Elects

What About 
Those Pesky Floods?

             In the Norfolk, VA, municipal elections on May 3, I voted with my fellow citizens in two out of three contests.
            In my home Ward 6 I voted for an innovative outsider, Andrea McClellan, to replace incumbent Barclay Winn on City Council. I came to that decision after I took an online preference test on a range of local issues. My preferences put me over 60% in line with Ms. McClellan, who unseated Winn and also defeated the third-place candidate, Warren Stewart, an educator.
            For school board in Ward 6 I had the choice between Noelle Gabriel, an incumbent, and Carter Smith, a business consultant. Gabriel has a day job as a pediatrician in a local children’s hospital. Where she finds the time to practice children's’ medicine, serve on the school board, and raise a family, too, is beyond me, but I voted for her, and she won over her opponent, 
business consultant Carter Smith, who seemed abrasive in his public comments and had no significant experience with education.
            But the main event of the night was the contest for mayor, an office vacated by the man who’s held it for 22 years. Until 2006 his office was appointed by City Council, but in 2008 Norfolk held its first mayoral election, which Fraim won by a large majority, becoming the city’s first elected mayor.
            As I understand local history, giving voters the choice of mayor was another step in the slow process of Norfolk’s liberalization from an oligarchy to something like a limited republican form of government where the oligarchs give up some small fraction of their power to assure social order.
            That era of transition from liberal oligarchy to limited populism, which Mayor Fraim oversaw, is over. Other, more diverse forces are in play now.
            Replacing Mayor Fraim is Kenny Alexander, a Norfolk native, presently a Virginia state senator, and not only the first new mayor in 22 years but the first African-American mayor in Norfolk history.
            I voted for Andy Protogyro on the basis of a televised candidates’ debate. I thought Protogyro, who presently sits on Council, seemed better prepared to be mayor than Alexander or Norfolk Sheriff Bob McCabe. Obviously, half of Norfolk disagreed with me.
            Half of Norfolk, it turns out, is 28%, which is twice the turn-out which reelected Fraim in 2014.
            Nevertheless, I’m happy with the peoples’ choice. It seems right to me, a positive step forward in Norfolk’s evolving image of itself as an international city, yet still American Southern to the bone.
            But what about sea-level rise? What about the human contribution to climate change? Will the incoming Mayor Alexander sacrifice his roots to the rising seas?
            Now that these candidates have been elected, maybe they’ll talk more about those less popular matters.