Saturday, May 31, 2008
In the next few months, Romaine "Chip" Fitzgerald (above), the longest held political prisoner in American history, will have another parole hearing. Fitzgerald has been in prison since 1969. Some background: In early 1969, Fitzgerald, an 18-year-old resident of Compton, joined the local Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panthers, an African-American activist organization that is wrongly described as a "terrorist" group by its right-wing critics. Like so many young African Americans living in the inner cities, Fitzgerald was angered by the rampant police abuse and lack of opportunities in L.A. in the late 1960s. Joining the Panthers offered countless black teenagers and twentysomethings a productive outlet for their simmering frustrations.
In October '69, Fitzgerald was arrested -- along with some other friends -- following an altercation with a California Highway Patrol officer (who was under orders to "shoot to kill" all known Panthers). In the affray, the officer was shot and Fitzgerald fled the scene. The officer survived, the Los Angeles police arrested Fitzgerald, and he was not only convicted of shooting and wounding the Highway Patrol officer, he was also charged with a murder of a security guard at a Vons supermarket in Los Angeles. The evidence was flimsy, but Fitzgerald was locked away in the California prison system for almost forty years. Fitzgerald vehemently denies any involvement in the murder of the security guard.
With the passage of time, we have developed a deeper understanding of the turbulent years of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Keep in mind the backdrop of events surrounding Fitzgerald's arrest and conviction. Charles Dickens' words about "the best of times, the worst of times" certainly apply here. This period was characterized by war, polarization, crises at home, racial discord and a "law-and-order" crackdowns against all dissenting groups. Now, forty years later, we are able to put this difficult period in context. Many historians agree that the federal government -- in cooperation with local law enforcement agencies -- waged a systematic and unjust war against the Black Panthers across the country.
Chip Fitzgerald was but one of many people sucked into this chaotic maelstrom. In recent years, we have learned that other political prisoners who shared his same fate were innocent. Geronimo Pratt (right), a Vietnam Veteran and Black Panther, spent 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He was eventually freed in 1997. In Louisiana, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox -- two Black Panthers from New Orleans -- were serving time for armed robbery when they were charged with the 1972 stabbing of prison guard Brent Miller. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times ran a powerful story (May 3) that raised serious questions about their guilt. In fact, Miller's widow, Leontine Verrett, told the L.A. Times: "If I were on that jury, I don't think I would have convicted them."
There are countless other Panthers who were the innocent victims of brutal repression. Add Chip Fitzgerald to that list. Having served almost forty years in prison and now approaching 60, his health is deteriorating and he is growing weaker and weaker. Last year, Fitzgerald issued a statement that accurately described the sorry state of America's prisons: "The prison system has mutated into a complex dysfunctional resource-wasting parasite of social control, political repression and revenge! Human beings are warehoused in these concrete and steel bunkers that destroy human sensibilities and the human spirit. Then following years of continuous antagonism and frustration at the hands of sadistic prison guards tortured souls are released on to an unsuspecting public to offend. There in is the cause and effect of an 80% recidivism rate."
The time is long overdue to Free Chip Fitzgerald. There are some things you can do: 1. Find out more about Chip by clicking here; you can also read a helpful Blog (from the Unapologetic Mexican) here on Fitzgerald. 2. Sign the petition to free Chip Fitzgerald by clicking here. 3. Write a letter to the parole board showing your support. The snail-mail address is:
Board of Parole Hearings
Post Office Box 4036
Sacramento, CA 95812-4036
Let's get Chip Fitzgerald out of prison. He does not belong in there. And let's end the brutal and costly war against the Black Panthers, waged by the federal government and local law enforcement authorities, once and for all. It has dragged on much too long.
Friday, May 30, 2008
Bush Loyalists launched a counter-attack while the printing press that churned out McClellan's book was still hot. Some asked why McClellan didn't voice criticisms while he was still the White House press secretary. Others insisted he's just trying to sell books and all he cares about is the almighty buck. And there are certain Bushites -- like Karl Rove -- who believe liberal book editors in New York hijacked his manuscript and ghost wrote it for him. Finally, some of McClellan's critics, such as Newt Gingrich, questioned the veracity of his claims. As Gingrich told FoxNews' Hannity and Colmes, "I don't have a great deal of faith that he is telling you and me the truth tonight any more than he apparently was telling us the truth back when he was saying things that he now says weren't true." Notice that Gingrich cannot pinpoint any lies or distortions or even half-truths in the book (who knows if he has even read it?). It's loads of fun to watch the Bushites squirming. Failing to locate any skeletons in McClellan's closet (other than serving in the Bush administration), they're now scrambling to find whatever damning little tidbit they can in a pathetic effort to discredit the book.
Easily the most ludicrous dismissal of McClellan came from the Wall Street Journal, which -- instead of countering McClellan's claims (like the White House, it can't) -- ripped into the book's publisher, PublicAffairs: "You can tell the Democratic presidential race is all but over. Cable television has returned to 24/7 coverage of whether President Bush lied us into war in Iraq. The latest peg is the Texan-bites-Bush story of former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's memoir. ... We'd merely note that the book's publisher is PublicAffairs, an imprint founded by left-wing editor Peter Osnos and which has published six books by George Soros. PublicAffairs is owned by Perseus Books, which is owned by Perseus LLC, a merchant bank whose board includes Democrats Richard Holbrooke and Jim Johnson, who is now doing Barack Obama's vice presidential vetting. One of Perseus's investment funds, Perseus-Soros Biopharmaceutical, is co-managed with Mr. Soros."
If that's the best these sorry Bushites can come up with, then maybe they'd better set up a real-estate office down in Florida and start selling some of that prime Everglades land for new houses. It makes about as much sense to build luxury condos in the marshland as it does to perpetuate the horrific war that drags on day after day in Iraq. From where I'm sitting, this is yet another reason to hope for an Obama Victory come November.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Yes, ladies and gents, I’m feeling nostalgic for the 1970s. During the Sizzlin’ Seventies, I was a kid growing up in sunny southern
So, as a public service to highlight the positive aspects of the 1970s, I’ve formed a list of FIVE THINGS FROM THE 1970s THAT SOMEBODY NEEDS TO BRING BACK.
In no particular order, here are five things about the 1970s that ruled and deserve to be resurrected:
1. Sid and Marty Krofft Shows: You must remember Sid and Marty Krofft, the Montreal-born geniuses that gave us H.R. Pufnstuf, Lidsville, Land of the Lost and – my personal favorite, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (left). These killer dudes took big-headed puppets to the next level, infusing a combination of wry humor and psychedelic fashions into their TV shows. And who could forget the brilliant stop-motion animated dinosaurs in Land of the Lost? No wonder the Krofft Brothers are thought of as pioneers of children’s television. Please, somebody, bring back these TV giants.
2. Citizens’ Band (C.B.) Radios: “Breaker one-nine, I got a Smokey report. Looks like we got ourselves a Bear in the Air, a Kodiak with a Kodak. Smile and comb your hair and while you’re at it, move on down to the diesel digit, ‘cause the bearded buddy is in a lean and hungry mood. His 10-20 is double nickels past Bun Boy in Baker. Stack them eights all the way down the interstate to
3. Monster cereals: Remember Frankenberry, the strawberry-flavored corn and marshmallow concoction with the non-threatening pink Frankenstein – brought to you by the good folks at General Mills? Remember Count Chocula (the brown Dracula)? Boo
4. Sasquatch: The 1970s was really the Golden Age of Bigfoot. I’ll never forget watching the 1972 tour de force Bigfoot: Man or Beast on Saturday night Creature Features back in about ’77. After that, I had all the zeal of a new convert and I vowed to become a Bigfoot hunter extraordinaire. Bigfoot was the undisputed king of the cryptozoological world, and I spent many a Sunday afternoon huntin’ down strange footprints. I formed Bigfoot clubs with my cousins. We studied every single frame of the legendary 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film (shot in Bluff Creek in northern
5. Kung-Fu Grip G.I. Joe: Finally, is there any way we can bring back the classic old G.I. Joe with the peach-fuzz hair and beard? When I was a kid, I admit I was pretty right wing. I thought that
Old-school G.I. Joe with the Kung-Fu Grip (left) and the late, great Victor French from Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven (right, pictured with co-star Michael Landon). Note the resemblance. Coincidence? Or conspiracy? You be the judge.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Sydney Pollack, who died yesterday at age 73, was a great director and actor. He broke into cinema with his 1969 drama They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and eventually emerged with that rebellious 1970s cohort of filmmakers who challenged so many age-old Hollywood conventions. He was also an unrepentant liberal and humanist in the best sense of those words. There were countless tributes to him in newspapers across America, but the best one -- IMHO -- was Ty Burr's Blog on Pollack in today's Boston Globe (click here). To remember this towering giant of modern cinema, I'm including an excerpt of an interview he did with The Progressive magazine back in 2005, at the time his film The Interpreter was released in theaters. Pollack's answer to the question is eloquent and thought-provoking. A man this great deserves the last word.
Q: What is your reaction when people assert that Hollywood is some great liberal establishment?
Pollack: The essence of acting is seeing the world from another point of view. That’s what acting is. I’m not going to be an interpreter at the U.N. I’m not going to live in Africa on a farm or whatever, but I am going to see the world through those eyes when I make those films. Most human beings who are accustomed to attempting to see the world from various points of view tend to be more liberal than conservative. I have one life. I am a certain age. I’m married to one person. I have a certain number of children. I won’t have another life other than that, but I do have many lives through the films. It’s a way for me to understand what it’s like to be a murderer, to confess, to be a beaten wife, to be a minority, to be a victor, to get the girl, to lose the girl. I can do all of that through the practice of an art form. So when you spend your life being other people, as opposed to being the one person that you are, you learn that life is gray sometimes, not black and white. That what you thought was true isn’t necessarily true if you switch sides. That doesn’t mean you should go around understanding Hitler. It does mean that there are all kinds of people and they look at life in different ways.
I think that’s just one of the reasons why people that are in this profession tend to lean toward the liberal side rather than the conservative side.
Not surprisingly, antiwar activists immediately condemned the vote. Michael McPhearson, co-chair of the antiwar group United for Peace and Justice, noted that the Senate has "ensured the needless deaths of hundreds of soldiers and thousands of innocent Iraqis by voting to expand the war and occupation for another full year."
The funding bill in the Senate created strange bedfellows. Democrats and moderate Republicans united in their support for the bill. The 22 who voted against it consisted largely (but note entirely) of Republicans who support President George W. Bush's opposition to any sort of funding for humane veterans' programs. The bill has also caused a great deal of controversy on the campaign trail because Senator John McCain opposed it -- largely for the same reason why Bush is now threatening to veto it: Because of its ambitious domestic spending side. True, McCain -- as part of his damage control -- is calling for more modest sums to be spent on education for veterans (based on a sliding scale tied to their individual records of military service). But his plan is far less ambitious.
Historically, right-wing Republicans have been miserly when it comes to allocating any sort of funds to help ordinary American people. They'll flush billions -- trillions -- down the toilet of the Iraq War. They'll support mammoth foreign aid packages that include colossal sums of humanitarian and military spending. But when it comes to helping working-class and middle-class men and women and their families, these GOP zealots cling to a warped "pull yourself up by the bootstrap" mentality that is strangely absent in the rest of their designs to create a gargantuan bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. Is there anybody out there who still believes that right-wing Republicans are advocates of small government? If you really want limited government, Libertarian presidential hopeful Bob Barr -- not John McCain -- is your candidate.
Although Senator McCain used to be a maverick on a host of issues, he has morphed into one of those "pull yourself up by the bootstrap" Republicans who advocates socialism for the rich and free enterprise for all the rest of us.
Meanwhile, those who want an end to the bloodbath in Iraq should keep two things in mind: 1) Congress is not going to suddenly pull the plug on support for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and beat a hasty retreat. Most members of Congress would regard such a move as political suicide. The $165 billion funding bill is a time-buying measure to keep the operations going until there is a new president in the White House. 2) The domestic spending contained in the funding bill represents a very real victory for veterans and their families, who -- up until now -- have been marginalized and ignored in the worst way imaginable. Michael McPhearson is quite correct to suggest that this bill -- supported by Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- will extend this horrific war for many more months. And this is a war that has caused profound destruction, dislocation and carnage. But if the Democrats play their cards carefully, they can tie McCain's opposition to humanitarian domestic spending to Bush's failed, disastrous policies over the past seven-plus years. Sadly, Democrats have often blundered such coups, and they may just blow this one, too.
Bottom line: You can be certain Congress would have voted to continue financing the Iraq War one way or the other. The G.I. Bill-like elements of this recent funding bill represent a brilliant maneuver by Democrats to move in a more liberal direction on the home front. If Bush vetoes the bill, he'll simply expose his true colors. And McCain's opposition to it has already undermined him. What's next? Somehow, Democrats must summon the courage to reorient foreign policy in a similarly humane direction by ending the war and creating a new Marshall Plan to help rebuild Iraq.
Monday, May 26, 2008
Franken's campaign has gotten off to a sluggish start. The latest polls showed Coleman up 7 points over Franken (the May 19 Minneapolis Star Tribune poll put Coleman at 51 percent to Franken's 44 percent). In late April, Senate candidate Franken admitted that he owed taxes in some 17 states amounting to $53,000. On June 7, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (the Populist Era-sounding name of Minnesota's Democratic Party) will nominate its candidate at its state convention. Franken is expected to easily win the party's nomination, but he faces competition from a left-wing university professor, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. Both Franken and Nelson-Pallmeyer are claiming to be heirs to the legacy of beloved left-wing Senator Paul Wellstone. While most observers are predicting an easy Franken victory at next month's state convention, the comedian can't be too thrilled with a challenge from his left flank.
Now Minnesota Republicans are digging up all kinds of outrageous statements made by Franken in the past in an attempt to show that he's too "extreme" (whatever the hell that means) for the job. They've dug up an over-the-top satirical column he wrote in a 2000 issue of Playboy about his visit to a make-believe sex institute, which is full of references to sexual acts between Franken and other people and -- worse -- between Franken and various "machines." An open letter written to Franken by the Minnesota Republican Party stated:
"The words and descriptions you write about are beyond vulgar. They demean and degrade women as thoroughly and disrespectfully as any article we have ever seen, and we are horrified to believe that someone running for the U.S. Senate could have written them. This column shows flagrant disregard for women, and an extreme objectification of women as sex objects for your pleasure. While you may attempt to defend your writing as satire, we hardly find anything defensible about your finding humor in your desire to have sex with women or robots that look like women simply to give yourself a good time. Denounce this article and apologize immediately."
So far, no apologies have come from the Franken camp. I hope the leaders of the Minnesota Republican Party aren't holding their breaths. (On second thought...)
The political junkies, pundits and talking heads all seem to agree that Franken has been running a relatively lackluster campaign so far. Franken would do well to listen to the comments of Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. In reference to Franken's over-the-top Playboy column, Jacobs observed, "The Playboy story is one of many arrows to set the election as a referendum on the challenger rather than the incumbent. This is part of one strategy, which is to frame a particular question for voters: Does the challenger reflect Minnesota's values? This is a striking departure from usual re-election campaigns which are framed by the question: How has the incumbent done? Coleman loses if this question prevails."
Jacobs also warned: "Franken has done some things very well, but he has not yet created a consistent and effective strategy of making this a campaign about the incumbent. He has played into the Coleman campaign's strategy through inexperience and arrogance."
To complicate matters, pro-wrestler, politician and talk-show host Jesse Ventura (right) -- governor of Minnesota from 1999 to 2003 -- is now considering entering the race for the United States Senate against Franken and Coleman. So the race won't be dull much longer. Meantime, we can only hope Franken sits down with some capable advisers and maps out an effective strategy for victory.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
I spent the weekend at Anime North, a massive anime extravaganza in Toronto. It took place at a sprawling convention center and two big hotels down the street from Toronto's Pearson International Airport. For the uninitiated, anime is Japanese animation. It is often characterized by complex story lines, violence, dark themes, and a distinctive style of art work -- the big eyes, almost nonexistent noses, tiny slits for mouths. It's not just for grownups. There is also anime directed toward kids, like Sailor Moon, Hamtaro, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, etc. To complicate matters, there is also manga, which is essentially the cartoon book form of anime. Manga -- which actually dates back to the eighteenth century in Japan -- is hugely popular across North America. By the end of 2007, there were 15 manga publishers in the United States printing between 1300 and 1400 titles.
Anime North drew thousands of participants, most of them dressed in mind-boggling costumes. There were teenagers (some male, some female) in Japanese girl school outfits. There were people carrying giant hammers and swords and ornate scythes. Many wore colorful wigs -- red, baby blue, pink, green, purple -- styled in post-apocalyptic spikes. Some wore masks or other coverings over their faces. Among the costumed were Witches and Soul Reapers and dimension-hopping Warriors and Black Magicians and Medieval Priestesses and Cyber Criminals and Dark Conspirators and Ancient Knights and Fox Demons and Lecherous Monks. I saw young women with painted faces wearing eighteenth-century Japanese silk gowns. There were people dressed like Pokemon monsters (my own daughter dressed as a Pokemon called Mudkip). Large crowds of adolescents wore the elaborate, multicolored school uniforms found in the Japanese manga Host Club. When these giddy young men and women spotted their favorite anime characters, they clapped like kids on Christmas morning, whipped out their digital cameras and pleaded with them to pose for photos.
Inside the hotels, convention-goers attended anime and manga panels, sessions on how-to-draw anime characters, video gaming exhibits and autograph signings. In a vast convention hall, there were hundreds of vendor booths selling toys and dolls and manga and anime DVDs and swords and padded nunchaku (numchucks).
I must admit, when I first arrived at this anime extravaganza, I kept thinking of my dear, departed grandfather, Grandpa Ralph, a combat veteran who fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II and saw the very worst of the war against the Japanese. Grandpa Ralph passed away last year. He detested all things Japanese until the later years of his life. He even gave me grief when I bought a Mazda in the mid-1990s. I heard him call the Japanese "Japs" on more than one occasion. And I couldn't help but wonder: What would Grandpa Ralph make of this highly successful Japanese invasion of North America?
Also, I rolled my eyes at some of the uber-geekery I witnessed ("Oh, I've been hunting high and low for the volume when Yusuke defeats the Four Saint Beasts at Maze Castle!" one enthusiastic buyer cried at a manga table, as if she'd just discovered gold at Sutter's Mill.) Some of the nerdiness reminded me of those Star Trek conventions, where dorks would debate which was a better episode, Amok Time or The Trouble with Tribbles.
Yet, having said that, I must admit I found myself deeply moved by this subculture of kindred spirits, all gathered together in one place for the same purpose. The whole time I walked among those thousands of anime/manga fanatics, I never sensed any competitiveness or mean-spiritedness. The young men and women packed into the convention hall were amazingly affectionate with one another. The hugging started Friday night and happened over and over again until Sunday afternoon. Young people who didn't even know each other hugged like they were lifelong friends. At one point, a long line of anime fans stood with signs advertising "FREE HUGS." And they hugged and hugged and hugged. Nero fiddled, but these people hugged. What I witnessed was a vibrant subculture, accepting -- no, actually, welcoming -- of nonconformity and unconventionality. These people were non-judgmental. They were kind -- I mean genuinely kind, not a phony or insincere kind. As far as I could see, they weren't forming cliques or spreading hateful rumors about one another, like so many young people did back in the 1980s when I trudged through that lowest level of hell known as junior high.
When I left Anime North and headed home, I felt an affinity with this young generation. These were gentle souls. Despite their outwardly odd appearance, these were some of the sanest people I have ever seen. They offered a haven for gays, lesbians, artists, poets, sensitive teens, depressed outcasts, creative dynamos and angst-filled youths. The laughter, the hugs, the snapping photos all added up to a joyous celebration of youth. I wish I could say I'm a convert and I'm now a big anime/manga fan, but I can't because -- quite frankly -- that stuff is way over my head. But I'm proud to have been a part of such a life-affirming and vibrant subculture, if only for one weekend.
Friday, May 23, 2008
Greetings Blog Pals,
I'll be signing off for a few days, until Monday, May 26. I'm going with my kids to a convention in Toronto called Anime North. It's also known as "Canada's premier fan-run anime convention." Ooh boy, I can hardly wait! My son and daughter and all of their pals are way into the Japanese animation known as anime. In fact, they can't get enough anime. On our cable TV, we have two -- count 'em, two -- anime on demand television channels. Frankly, I don't quite get the appeal of anime. I watch these shows with my kids and most of the time I can't figure out what in the hell is going on (which, I suppose, is the story of my life -- but we won't go there). I've been told that anime fans are really hardcore. They love the art form: the giant, watery eyes; the V-shaped faces, the tiny slits for mouths; the insane hair. The tens of thousands of fans who will converge on Toronto for Anime North dress up as their favorite anime characters. It should prove to be quite a surreal experience.
Back when I was a kid, growing up in suburban Southern California and Utah, the only anime we had was Speed Racer (above). (Later, Speed Racer was joined by another early anime show, Battle of the Planets, an outer space epic that depicted the adventures of G-Force) Speed Racer, of course, has been made into a live-action film and it's currently packing 'em in at multiplexes around the world. But I have such warm memories of the show -- of Speed racing around in his powerful Mach 5; Pops Racer (Speed's dad and mechanic) shouting all his lines; the irrepressible Spritle and Chim Chim offering the comic relief; Trixie, hovering around in her helicopter; the mysterious Racer X, who always saved Speed's rear end when the going got tough -- that I can't bring myself to see the movie.
But anime has changed over the years. It has gotten to be more complex -- bordering on incomprehensible. I can't follow the plots. The dialogue is strange. The storylines are convoluted. I have to admit, it just doesn't do it for me. Give me Tex Avery (1908-1980) -- the genius behind Droopy, Bugs Bunny and Screwy the Squirrel (right). Now there was a cartoon god!
Thursday, May 22, 2008
It is deeply poignant to see these men -- now in their mid-80s or older -- making this pilgrimage to witness a profound monument to freedom. These are men who came of age in a very different time, and they help us keep alive the memories of the many noble sacrifices Americans made during this trying period of their history. It seems like not long ago that World War I veterans were in their twilight years and World War II veterans were in their sixties. I remember watching the D-Day ceremonies back in 1984 -- on the fortieth anniversary -- and thinking how young and robust the vets still looked. Today, a good number of them use walkers and wheelchairs and canes, but you can still see that youthful gleam in many a vets' eye. Back when NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation was published in 1998, many critics accused him excessively romanticizing a very difficult period of American history (while others knocked him for mediocre writing). Maybe there was some truth to the criticism. But one can refrain from Greatest Generation nostalgia tripping and still appreciate the amazing sacrifices made by these young men to safeguard democracy.
But as Ben Lesesne points out, the men and women of this generation are passing away in great numbers. The Veterans Administration offers slightly lower figures than Lesesne, but even the VA estimates that 3 million men and women who served in the Armed Services during World War II (out of a total of 16 million) are still alive and that 1,200 are dying per day. So we're beginning to lose these precious people. That is why Honor Flight is such a tremendous service. It flies veterans for free so they can witness the monument to their heroism. To see these aging men gathered at the memorial -- remembering, laughing, weeping, reflecting -- is to see a nation at its finest.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
McCain also used the speech as an opportunity to slam Senator Barack Obama (left), who favors normalizing relations with Cuba.
The emergence of a democratic Cuba is long overdue. But McCain's strategy has been in place for about a half a century and so far all it has done is strengthen the Cuban Communist Party. McCain's speech, moreover, was a crass attempt to win support from the Cuban exile community in Miami (one Cuban-American woman at McCain's speech dramatically announced that Florida would be his for the taking). This is the same Senator McCain who supported normalizing relations with Cuba back in 2000 (granted, there were some conditions attached to his position back in 2000, but he was much more open to the idea then than he is now). This is the same Senator McCain who supports far harsher treatment of prisoners in the dungeons of Guantanamo Bay (without due process) than anything happening in Cuba's prisons. This is the same Senator McCain who was the main political figure in Washington, D.C. pushing for normalized relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam -- another communist country -- with far fewer conditions attached to normalization in that case. This is the same Senator McCain whose track record of supporting "democracy" in other parts of Latin America is not especially admirable.
Hearing neocons like McCain -- who don't really give a hoot in hell about people's liberties (where's self-determination in Iraq? I don't see it) -- prattle on and on about "freedom" and "democracy," buzzwords that don't mean a thing other than they sound warm and fuzzy, is enough to make any sane person queasy to the point of blowing chunks. It's hypocrisy at its worst. And now McCain is trashing Obama, a daring political figure who wants to take U.S. policy in a new direction, over his position on Cuba. Is there anyone out there who actually believes McCain is still a maverick? If so, I got a bridge in Brooklyn that's perfect for you --cheap -- and the papers are ready to sign.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
--President Richard Nixon, May 26, 1971 (from the White House Tapes, released March 2002)
(Illustration: Richard Nixon bowling in the White House, 1970.)
Making things more interesting on the Right: While Senator John McCain precariously balances his "maverick" status (which is looking more and more dubious with each passing day) with his unwavering commitment to Bushite neocon politics, former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr (right) is making the race even more interesting on the right by running as a Libertarian presidential candidate. The pundits and political junkies are now debating about whether Barr will become a spoiler for McCain -- a Ralph Nader of the right -- or just another irrelevant Libertarian candidate. In the Libertarian tradition, Barr is promising to scale back government, withdraw American forces from Iraq and protect civil liberties. There was a thoughtful analysis of his campaign in the Atlanta Journal Constitution a few days ago. Have a look here if you get a chance. Barr said his Republican friends have put a great deal of pressure on him to stay out of the race, telling him his run for the presidency "would upset the apple cart." But he's going ahead with it. As Barr put it, "If Sen. McCain ... does not succeed in winning the presidency, it will not be because of Bob Barr, not because of Sen. Obama. It will be because Sen. McCain and his party did not present a vision, an agenda, platform and a series of programs that actually resonated positively with the American people. It also may be because their candidate did not resonate with the American people." If nothing else, Barr's run for the presidency is but one of many signs of increasing fragmentation on the Right side of American politics.
Finally, a Few Thoughts on Byrd, the KKK and Senator Barack Obama: When Senator Robert Byrd, 90, of West Virginia (see picture below) endorsed Obama the other day, newspapers across the country blazed with headlines similar to the one in the Charlotte Observer: "FORMER KLANSMAN BYRD PICKS OBAMA." The endorsement prompted Tonight Show host Jay Leno in his Monday night monologue to quip: "That's got to make Hillary feel good, huh? Even the Klan guy is going, 'I’m going with the black guy.'"
The repeated Ku Klux Klan references -- obviously meant to highlight the irony of a onetime white supremacist endorsing an African American -- detracted from the real significance of Byrd's endorsement. Byrd is widely known as the elder statesman of the United States Senate. He is from West Virginia, the scene of Clinton's recent triumph. Byrd's endorsement will give Obama a much-needed boost in his home state. Most importantly, Byrd is a man of great dignity. Who cares if he was in the Ku Klux Klan? Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, one of the most liberal justices in the history of the Court and a pioneering champion of racial equality, joined the Robert E. Lee Klan No. 1 branch in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1923. Black was not proud of his Klan affiliation, and neither is Byrd. As Byrd told the Washington Post back in 2005: "I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times ... and I don't mind apologizing over and over again. I can't erase what happened."
Incidentally, if you haven't read Senator Byrd's Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency, do yourself a favor and check it out. A number of books have been published in recent years that criticize the Bush Administration for its destructive policies, but Byrd's is by far the best. It's sharp, insightful, passionate and very direct. The man is 90 and he has still got it going on. For years now, Byrd has been a consistent voice for peace and justice in the Senate. The fact that he was a member for a time of the KKK (for which he has apologized repeatedly) is irrelevant.
Monday, May 19, 2008
- His parents were poor rural sharecroppers.
- His brother Charley Hicks was also a blues performer. Charley, for reasons unknown, later went by the name Charley Lincoln.
- Bob started on the 6-string guitar in his early teens but soon graduated to the 12-string.
- In his youth, Bob was part of a local blues scene that included other blues greats such as guitarist Curley Weaver and harmonica player Eddie Mapp.
- He got his nickname, Barbecue Bob, from working in Tidwell's Barbecue in Buckhead, a suburb of Atlanta. The nickname was coined by Columbia Records talent scout Don Hornsby.
- He recorded his first album on March 25, 1927. His first record sold 15,000 copies -- a damn good run for an early blues album.
- He made his first recording with his brother, Charley, on November 9, 1927.
- He made 68 recordings, yet 65 of them are still extant. Six of his recordings were rejected by Columbia. Of those six, three were later re-issued. The other three remain missing in action.
- There are only two photographs of Bob known to exist, one of them in his white barbecue chef's uniform from Tidwell's.
- He played with the blues band the Georgia Cotton Pickers.
- Eric Clapton performed a cover of his "Motherless Child Blues."
- Early in 1931, his wife died of pneumonia.
- He died of tuberculosis and pneumonia on October 21, 1931.
- He is widely seen as the most influential blues musician of his time, along with Blind Willie McTell.
- Bob's older brother, Charley, went on to record several albums, yet he suffered from severe depression much of his life. In his later life he spent time in a mental institution, then murdered a man and eventually died in prison in 1963.
My favorite Barbecue Bob CD is Chocolate to the Bone, which consists of his legendary 1927 recordings. It's an amazing mixture of playful, forlorn, soulful, anxious, mellow -- 63 minutes of pure southern blues at its very best. The lyrics tell intriguing stories of forgotten people and the guitar work is second to none. More than eight decades after its release, Barbecue Bob's Chocolate to the Bone is as fresh today as it was when the obscure, 25-year-old restaurant worker walked into the studio to record it.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
But Rep. Jones committed a terrible sin in the eyes of hawkish Republicans. He turned against the Iraq War. Rep. Jones -- who proposed changing the name of "French Fries" to "Freedom Fries" in the House dining hall back in 2003 (in reaction to French criticism of the Iraq War) -- backed President George W. Bush 100 percent when the Commander in Chief sent troops into Iraq. But Jones had a change of heart -- and a very dramatic one. Traveling to Iraq, talking to soldiers over there, coming home and seeing the disgraceful way that veterans and their families have been treated by the U.S. government, Rep. Jones turned against the war after a lot of "difficult soul searching." Especially difficult for Jones was writing letters to the families who lost loved ones in Iraq.
The United States, Jones insisted, invaded Iraq with "no justification" and Congress and the American public were “given misinformation intentionally by people in this administration.” In 2005, Jones -- along with Democratic Reps. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii -- proposed legislation to establish a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. As Jones put it, "I just feel that the reason of going in for weapons of mass destruction, the ability of Iraqis to make a nuclear weapon, that's all been proven that it was never there."
Rep. Jones' strong antiwar position prompted conservative Republican Joe McLaughlin to run against him in the North Carolina primaries this year. McLaughlin claimed that Jones was not a true conservative. He insisted Jones was "betraying" the troops in Iraq. He visited the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune, located in the 3rd Congressional District, where he questioned Jones' patriotism. "We are blessed in the 3rd District with a very active military presence," McLaughlin told the press. "The men and women fighting overseas deserve a congressman who supports their mission." Going door to door, McLaughlin told voters, "The biggest difference between me and Walter Jones is I believe when you're in a war, you find a way to win it, not a way to get out."
When voters went to the polls on May 6, Jones won with 60 percent of the popular vote -- a sign that even in heavily conservative eastern North Carolina, people are becoming fed up with the catastrophe that is the Iraq War. They instinctively understood that you can be pro-troops but against this reprehensible conflict. Jones has vowed that he will continue to oppose the Iraq War. "Mine is just a heart that aches because we should never have gone into Iraq to begin with," Jones said. "This has been my mea culpa."
Good for Jones. Here is a man with guts and, most importantly, integrity. His victory over McLaughlin in the North Carolina primaries earlier this month serves as an indication that American voters are no longer swallowing the lies and propaganda about this most terrible of wars.
Echoes of 1968 still ring through the modern world
Few years in modern history were as tumultuous as 1968. Assassinations, war, political polarization, invasions, racial tensions and uprisings dominated that time of torment.
Forty years later, people around the world are reflecting on the events of 1968. In the Czech Republic, plans are already underway to commemorate Prague Spring and the brutal Soviet invasion that crushed it.
The Vietnamese are organizing events in their homeland to highlight the fortieth anniversary of the bloody Tet Offensive, in which tens of thousands of communists struck a decisive blow against the American military presence in South Vietnam.
The student-worker rebellions in Paris in 1968 will be the subject of retrospectives, conferences, documentaries and museum exhibitions in France. In England, Ireland, Germany, Mexico and other parts of the world, the 40th anniversary of the sea changes that occurred in 1968 will be marked in various ways.
But no other nation was as thoroughly shaken by the turbulence of 1968 as the United States. As an opening salvo in January, the massive Tet Offensive in Vietnam shook the American public to the core, raising doubts about a war that most citizens had supported up until that point.
The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April and Bobby Kennedy in June snuffed out voices of idealism in a dangerously polarized land.
Protests at Columbia University in spring, the Chicago Democratic National Convention in August, not to mention the nightmarish race riots after King's assassination and the countless antiwar demonstrations throughout the year, contributed to a sense in 1968 that America was unravelling.
So much has changed, and yet so much remains the same.
Embers of political activism still glow, but there are no moral giants to unify the masses around causes of peace and social justice. Barack Obama can certainly deliver a stirring speech, but he lacks the sheer messianic power of King. Indeed, since 1968, no public figure --African American or otherwise -- has approached King in his power to articulate a more just society or unify such a wide array of people behind his noble cause.
As was the case in 1968, war still rages today. But the Iraq war is a post-Cold War conflict, far more modest in scale than Vietnam. Critics of the Iraq war insist on comparing it to Vietnam, but the two wars have little in common, except for the tragic hubris of the Washington officials most responsible for them. Vietnam was a more destructive intervention. Round-the-clock bombing of the Southeast Asian country proved far more catastrophic than anything we have witnessed thus far in Iraq.
Unlike the Iraq war, which was the creation of hawkish neo-conservatives, the architects of the Vietnam War were primarily Cold War liberals who believed they were at the forefront of a global crusade against communism. Since 1968, the Cold War has ended, only to be replaced by the post-9/11 war on terror. Yet the latter "war" lacks the breadth and focus of the former.
In fact, not surprisingly, today the war on terror is widely viewed as an American creation, with the debacle in Iraq being its most lethal manifestation.
Like 1968, America in 2008 faces a presidential campaign with an uncertain outcome. In 1968, antiwar "doves" and militaristic "hawks" battled for the soul of the Democratic party over the war in Southeast Asia.
Meantime, Richard Nixon -- a man who lost the presidential race to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and the California gubernatorial race two years later --made an astonishing comeback on the promise of "law and order" and a "secret plan" to end the war on Vietnam. The Nixon of 1968 appeared more confident and mature -- less of a rigid cold warrior -- than the Nixon of 1960. His appeal to the "silent majority" of "non-protesters" resonated with a traumatized public, especially at a time of so much unrest.
Flash forward to 2008. There is still polarization in America, but conservatives, not liberals, are setting the agenda. The failure of Vietnam contributed to the decline of liberalism in America, just as the failure of Iraq is undermining conservatives. Still, the current political landscape is characterized by a strong right and a weak left.
Today's Democrats - with the exceptions of John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich - are too anchored down by their own poll-watching centrism to take the bold risks that Kennedy took four decades ago. Even Obama, for all the excitement he has generated, is not as daring or inspiring as Kennedy.
Despite the passage of 40 years, echoes of 1968 still reverberate. Much has changed. The Cold War is over, Vietnam has a flourishing market economy, and many countries once controlled by autocratic regimes are now freer places.
In the United States, though, the legacies of war, the assassinations of great visionaries, and the victory of Nixon's conservatism still shape the tenor of these times.
Andrew Hunt is chair of the department of history at the University of Waterloo.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Stewart had an idyllic childhood in Indiana. He was an Eagle Scout, he attended the local high school Indiana and then went on to Mercersburg Academy. He eventually graduated from Princeton University in 1932 and tried to become a stage actor. It was a difficult way to make a living. "From 1932 through 1934, I only worked four months," Stewart later recalled. "Every play I got into folded." He went out to Hollywood for his first screen test in 1934 and the rest -- as they say -- is history.
At age 41, Stewart married Gloria McLean (the two met at a party at Gary Cooper's house). He adopted his wife's two sons, Ronald and Michael, from her previous marriage. Ronald was killed in Vietnam. Michael still lives in Phoenix. Another interesting story: Jimmy was a conservative Republican who backed Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He once got in a fistfight with his close friend Henry Fonda, who was an ardent liberal, over some minor political disagreement. The two quickly buried the hatchet and remained friends until Henry Fonda's death in 1982.
Jimmy Stewart often played noble characters with strong principles. Sometimes his characters had a dark side, but they almost always possessed an instinctive sense of right and wrong. In my all-time favorite film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Jimmy Stewart's character Jefferson Smith articulated the finest American ideals during his dramatic filibuster scene. At one point, hoarse and exhausted, Smith struggles to remain standing on the Senate floor, but his words are pure poetry:
JEFFERSON SMITH: "Just get up off the ground, that's all I ask. Get up there with that lady that's up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won't just see scenery; you'll see the whole parade of what Man's carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so's he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That's what you'd see. There's no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And, uh, if that's what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them, then we'd better get those boys' camps started fast and see what the kids can do. And it's not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here; you just have to see them again!"
Toward the end of his life (he died in 1997), Jimmy wrote a lot of poetry. One of his most beloved poems was one he wrote about his dog Beau. He read it on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and it touched Carson so much it made him cry. It's a loving poem. Stewart's compassion and kindness reverberate from the words.
I'll give Jimmy the last word with his moving poem:
By Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) [Beloved Actor, WWII Veteran, Humanitarian]
He never came to me when I would call
Unless I had a tennis ball,
Or he felt like it,
But mostly he didn't come at all.
When he was young
He never learned to heel
Or sit or stay,
He did things his way.
Discipline was not his bag
But when you were with him things sure didn't drag.
He'd dig up a rosebush just to spite me,
And when I'd grab him, he'd turn and bite me.
He bit lots of folks from day to day,
The delivery boy was his favorite prey.
The gas man wouldn't read our meter,
He said we owned a real man-eater.
He set the house on fire
But the story's long to tell.
Suffice it to say that he survived
And the house survived as well.
On the evening walks, and Gloria took him,
He was always first out the door.
The Old One and I brought up the rear
Because our bones were sore.
He would charge up the street with Mom hanging on,
What a beautiful pair they were!
And if it was still light and the tourists were out,
They created a bit of a stir.
But every once in a while, he would stop in his tracks
And with a frown on his face look around.
It was just to make sure that the Old One was there
And would follow him where he was bound.
We are early-to-bedders at our house
--I guess I'm the first to retire.
And as I'd leave the room he'd look at me
And get up from his place by the fire.
He knew where the tennis balls were upstairs,
And I'd give him one for a while.
He would push it under the bed with his nose
And I'd fish it out with a smile.
And before very long
He'd tire of the ball
And be asleep in his corner
In no time at all.
And there were nights when I'd feel him
Climb upon our bed
And lie between us,
And I'd pat his head.
And there were nights when I'd feel this stare
And I'd wake up and he'd be sitting there
And I'd reach out my hand and stroke his hair.
And sometimes I'd feel him sigh
and I think I know the reason why.
He would wake up at night
And he would have this fear
Of the dark, of life, of lots of things,
And he'd be glad to have me near.
And now he's dead.
And there are nights when I think I feel him
Climb upon our bed and lie between us,
And I pat his head.
And there are nights when I think
I feel that stare
And I reach out my hand to stroke his hair,
But he's not there.
Oh, how I wish that wasn't so,
I'll always love a dog named Beau.
[From Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, 1989]