American Icons

Whenever I’m feeling down on America, particularly in the midst of what sometimes appears to be an absurd or even pointless political season, rather then allowing myself to be overcome by cynicism and bitterness I’ve found a very effective antidote.

Here is a link to one of the finest audio productions available on the internet. The ongoing series is part of writer Kurt Anderson’s Studio 360 broadcast from PRI and WNYC.

If you need reminders of what in our history has made America great, let me introduce you to Studio 360’s, American Icons. Stories on everything familiar, from “I Love Lucy” to “Mad Magazine” to the “Lincoln Memorial” to “Wizard of Oz” and “Buffalo Bill.” How did we become who we are? And who are we?

Studio 360’s American Icons

Think Maybe

Here is certainly one of the most valuable sites on the Internet, devoted to independent cinema focused on the issues facing our world. Do you truly want to know what is happening outside of the Matrix? This is like taking the ‘red’ pill:

Thought Maybe

Among the best on the thoughtmaybe.com site are the films of Adam Curtis. His documentaries meld the straightforward documentary narrative commentary of ‘Frontline’ with an impressionistic style reminiscent of the films of Jean Luc Godard. Curtis goes far beyond ‘Frontline’ in revealing how historical situations emerge out of the assumptions and delusions with which we’ve been programmed. Unlike those who sell conspiracy in order to make a buck and keep us feeling victimized Curtis delivers a coherent analysis and critique of our civilization and how we got here. The secrets held in plain sight are revealed in the context of unfolding history. Are you ready to take off the blinders?

The Films of Adam Curtis

Given the current pitched battles in Afghanistan I particularly recommend the film called Bitter Lake, which traces that country’s history with the Britain and America going back to 1946.

It’s a Good Time for Doctor Strange

(upon leaving Santa Fe)

The darkness intensifies
The mountain no longer calls me up
Fall has arrived
The world descends into chaos
Syrian women screaming at the gates
Children drowning

When we invented the internet
(The children of psychedelia)
We rejoiced to think the world was saved
Through communication
And good will
Peace. Love. Music

Instead we unleashed
All the demons of our forgotten histories
They swarm around us
And above our heads
Threatening our souls
Stealing our eyes

War creeps toward us
Like a fungus
It despoils the land
And crushes hopes
Except for those insane dreamers
Of the Apocalypse

There is no Rapture
No conspiracy
No escaping into worlds of mind
No avoiding our mirrors
There are only the revelations
And awakening

I came to this place for refuge
And respite from the World City
Where mostly we live
I came to recover the questions
And for 28 years I’ve been a fox
An outlaw cast into cause and effect

Now I’m riding the ox
Feet first
Head first
Back to the war and peace zone
Excuse me I mean
The zone where deals are made

America loves the deal maker
Is entertained by the drama
House of Cards
Madmen
Breaking Bad
The guy with the Big Hair

“I can sell you this handy device
With accompanying extras
If you take advantage right now…!”
That familiar hum of gangsta
The power broker
The guy wearing the suit
The thing about demons
They are nourished by our weakness
Our worst qualities
Our fears and angers
Our arrogance our guilt
They steal it from our veins

I believe in heroes
And stories of heroes
When we are lost
Uncertain and facing death
Honestly
They teach me not to panic

The stories help us to navigate
Unless they swallow us
They grow ever larger
The library of earth is always expanding
The record of our existence and imagination
Stored in narratives

We are always on the brink
Of life and death
Of miracles
When we can step back
We see the patterns
And the path

The city is a refuge
Galleries museums bazaars
For trading myths and memories
Separate from the real art of the world
Those inarticulate hearts
Of everyday pursuit

Who is this
What is my purpose
Am I just a ghost
Passing by in site seeing buses
Wandering the narrow streets
Filing through the Plaza

I pass you everyday
I don’t even see you
Whispering all around me
Like whiffs of shadow
Your reality
Only parallel to mine

To you I’m like the ghosts of soldiers
Looking down over the divine city
From the old hill fort
On the bluffs
Constructed out of mud
Now dissolved into mounds of sand

We wonder about Chaco
The ancient villages
The multistoried structures
The trails from everywhere
The total abandonment
What if it were a retirement community

The Spanish overwhelmed the pueblos
Until the villages rose up
A compromise was reached
Leaving saints to be martyrs
Until the soldiers of a white army
Postponed all agreements

While friends are anchors
That hold us to the earth
They are shadows growing more real
Even as they drift
Into the past
Becoming memory

Real cities breed desperation
There is real madness on the streets
Eyes that beg for mercy
In the midst of plenty
Not every part can fit
But every part has purpose

National Treasure

Listening to a podcast from Poetry Magazine I was turned on to the reproduction of a remarkable artifact. It brings me, in a way that no single book or essay or even film can do, to an encounter with the cultural habitat in which my own particular view (in time and place) of this world was shaped. Like something one would encounter in a book by Ray Bradbury or Lewis Carroll, on turns a corner in an obscure section of the city and happens upon a museum of wonders.

UBUWEB PRESENTS

Aspen Magazine

The Victim Thing

It finally came to me, the reason I haven’t been able to get past the middle of the second season of “Breaking Bad,” the reason I can’t abide conspiracy theories, and the reason some stories draw me in and others bring up in me a barrier of stubborn resistance.

It’s the ‘victim’ thing.

Surely there are real victims in the world, who fall to genocide, starvation, famine, war and general global neglect. These are things I want to know about, because they are part of the truth, and only when we are exposed to the truth can we take any sort of useful action.

We are all ‘victims’ of something. People cut in front of us in line, treat us unfairly, ignore our best qualities, or we are victims of our own mistakes and unrealistic expectations. Fair enough. I certainly belong to that club.

But there’s the kind of victimization that’s solely a product of the mind, which functions as a state of being, a form of self-identification. This sort of victimization has two possible outcomes, both self-reinforcing. Either we surrender to being forever the butt of some cosmic joke in which we are the eternal fall-guy and there’s absolutely nothing that can be done to change the odds, or else we try to turn the tables by becoming the victimizer of others. In either scenario we find ourselves in eternal conflict with the world as it is.

An example of the former strategy is the drama queen. I have myself taken this route on more occasions than I’m proud to admit. For years it seemed that my life was a constant internal (mostly) battle with authority figures and with their ridiculous rules and regulations and unrealistic demands. My attitude was that, as the smartest person in the room, every other agenda should be shifted to accommodate my own particular modes of being. Underneath all of this, of course, was the nagging feeling that I could never be good enough, a feeling from which I could conveniently hide by projecting it onto others.

As you can imagine, this strategy gets no one anywhere useful.

Variations of this strategy include the ‘always complaining’ victim who is more and more seen as a pain in the ass and either gets shuffled out of the way or out of the organization, or else is ‘forced’ to quit, thus completely fulfilling the requirements of victimhood. More common is the ‘passive aggressive‘ strategy where one presents a minimally acceptable face to the people in charge while undermining their authority by engaging in corrosive gossip or kvetching with one’s fellow victims in the lunchroom or behind closed doors.

The other kind of victimhood is much more insidious and ultimately much more destructive. It can be indulged in by whole cultures and used as one of the most effective tools of politics and war. Walter White of “Breaking Bad” is the perfect example of this alternative. Seeing himself as having been rendered powerless by the circumstances of his life, extending to the bad faith and betrayal that he perceives in those around him, he chooses to become the ultimate victimizer, the “one who knocks” as he so aptly puts it. We’re fascinated by his every move as he descends ever deeper into a hell of his own making.

Looking around, I see Walter White in every corner of every awful conflict in the world today. Regard the recent actions of our Republican congress in its dealings with the State of Israel. We have here two political entities who draw considerable energy from their self-portrayal as victims. Republicans see themselves as the lone defenders of the ideals of white christian destiny against the rising hordes of the envious poor, the foreign invaders of our borders, unbelievers, and the practitioners of ‘reverse-racism.’ Israel, finding itself besieged on all sides by people who view it as either an illegitimate state or an undemocratic occupier finds itself caught in a cycle of increasing paranoia (the ultimate state of victimhood) toward just about everyone, even its allies. Desperately, the Israeli Prime Minister engages in the politics of its most powerful ally by appealing to those who most closely share his fearful and apocalyptic (and imperialist) view of the world.

It was the spectacle of an Israeli leader making political hay with Republicans that made me see the wide ranging implications of victimhood and to understand why I find it so repellent. The horror of it all is that those who feel the most victimized ultimately become the worst offenders against human aspiration and the most passionate advocates for war. Just ask yourselves, what nation, and what party have become the driving force toward a wider war in the Middle East?
The position of Israel is not so much different than that of Walter White, in that the more aggressive the stance the more destructive the repercussions. Here Israel has made a very bad bargain, for the people with whom it has invested its hopes are those who tend to view the world in apocalyptic terms, where only the righteous shall survive while the impure unbelievers are condemned to perdition. For them, Israel has little meaning beyond being a symbol of their own global hegemony and as fulfillment of a short-term prophecy.

For every nation and every party that exists in a world of paranoia and victimhood, the world is closing in, while the worst atrocities are committed in the name of vengeance against unbelievers. But we are no longer living in a world where one people can survive by disregarding the rights of others. Ultimately, one person, or one nation, can only make war against the whole world for a limited time, until the tide shifts and the world overwhelms both fear and hope and all of our conspiracies vanish in the tide.

…and one of these days I’ll get around to watching the next episode of “Breaking Bad.”

From Selma to Montgomery 50 Years On

I finally got around to seeing the movie ‘Selma’ and I had to drive to (of all places) Los Alamos, to see it, as it had been replaced in Santa Fe by a movie about white retirees in India. Over the past month or more the film was always on the top of my ‘must see’ list, but it kept getting shuffled to second place by something else, like the movie based on a book by my favorite author, or what turned out to be a crappy biopic about Alan Turing. The Turing movie had made me a little leery of seeing another historical biopic as that one was so absolutely formulaic and boring as a film. At any rate, a sense of urgency hadn’t come over me until ‘Selma’ had left my neighborhood for a place that’s even whiter than Santa Fe.

Partly it was hearing about the anniversary celebrations and march in Selma and partly it was watching a speech by someone I consider to be a truly great president. The film is an extraordinary document, in that it views history through the eyes of recognizable human beings. It breaks totally free of the usual revisionist image of absolute sainthood, portraying Martin Luther King as a flawed and passionate man motivated by righteous anger as much as by compassion, and as a brilliant and intuitive tactician who knows when to advance and when to have patience.

I have seen, time and again, these same qualities displayed in our president. I sensed that in his Selma speech Obama, in his always carefully modulated and tempered manner, allowed a bit more of that anger to graze the surface. This is one of his best and definitely one of his most challenging, as it pulls no punches about where America sits regarding racial prejudice and politics, as opposed to where so many people think we are. I’m sure that it’s being attacked by conservatives for its audacity, criticizing their lily white intentions or impugning their sense of christian righteousness. His characterization of Americans explicitly steers away from the doctrines of ideology that govern our oppressors:

“That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it.”

Just a couple of week’s ago, when Obama spoke at the White House Prayer Breakfast he riled up the demagogues and their simpering allies with his critique of the common crimes committed historically in the name of virtually all religions. He offended some southern white christians by mentioning the truth about their own history and by avoiding their demand to continue dividing the world into waring factions of the faithful. Just last week, the Prime Minister of Isreal had the disrespect to use our congress as his platform to declare himself and his nation to be on the side of the most extreme factions in American politics. (The long term damage this has done to the relationship of Isreal and the United States – beyond the commercial interest of buying and selling weapons – is immeasurable).

The fact of the matter is that, at least since the Age of Reagan, there has been a swelling of reaction in this country against all people of color. Conservatism has become a code word for bigotry and the same sort of white crackuhs’ who for generations tortured and terrorized the black populations in the south are now the very same people making the legislative agenda in Washington. The truth is they never went away. Reagan simply got them to switch parties. Nowadays they dress better and talk better and most of the times they even manage to appear respectable. They even have their own television channels. To openly criticize them is to be accused of ‘reverse racism.’ Well, most of them happen to be white, and virtually everything they advocate reflects an underlying assumption of white supremacy so, what the hell, let’s just openly play the race card and stop bullshitting with each other.

Yes, things have improved for most people. I was five or six before I even knew black people existed, seeing one for the first time riding the bus downtown with my grandmother in my very segregated (at the time) northern city of Cleveland. I remember being threatened as a young campaigner for Louis Stokes, who became the first black mayor of a major city in the United States. I spent my high school summers in dialogue with mostly black students who were my fellows in Upward Bound, one of President Johnson’s War On Poverty programs, while the city borke out in flames all around us. When Barack Obama was nominated to run for president I had strong doubts that this country would ever elect a black man to be its leader, and I was proved wrong.

However, as Obama says in his speech, our march is not finished. How could it be? The wounds we’ve inflicted on one another don’t just go away without a long time to heal. Between the end of the civil war and the 1970’s over 3200 blacks were murdered in this country by white people, for no other reason than that they were black and somehow ‘offended.’ An enormously disproportionate number of people of color are imprisoned or excluded from the political process. As we’ve been shown, time and again, many of our communities are still governed by brutality.

In my years as an adult I’ve watched our society’s attitudes toward diversity broaden while at the same time I’ve watched the rise of political forces that seek to keep us back in the age of ignorance and intolerance. Obama’s election, perhaps more than any other single factor, served to flush much of the lingering hatred and prejudice out of the ol’ woodpile. The dawning of the Internet has accelerated this process of exposure. Talk radio and comment sections are dominated by bigotry, and ignorance has become a public virtue. While the right has organized and thrust itself into power the liberal left has acted like petulant short sighted children for the most part, angry because they don’t get the favors they demand and using this as justification for crapping out of the political process.

What I most admire in those who have been and are great leaders is the quality of patience, bred through a sense of true compassion and a willingness to take chances, risking unpopularity when the situation demands. These are the people with whom I choose to stand.

Here’s the speech:

Transcript

Video

Between the Self and the Truth

“All men are created equal.”

– Thomas Jefferson

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“Money, not morality is the principle of commercial nations.”

– Thomas Jefferson

“…just starting with the question of “What happened to black people?” is not sufficient to understanding that at the end of the day, the very notion of settlement in this country was about procuring resources for the purposes of wealth accumulation. That was true for most who came to this country, maybe not true for a small band of Puritans who landed in Massachusetts, who imagined the recreation of a very special, religious community. But even that vision of American society didn’t last very long…it’s certainly true, as far as I’m concerned, that over the last 225 years, Thomas Jefferson’s second point about money– has far outlasted and triumphed over the notion of freedom.” – Khalil Muhammad

Happy Fourth of July.

Here is a link to the Bill Moyer’s interview with one of our most prominent young black historians. In light of an election that will be, as was the last, decided partly around the issues of race, I think that this is an important perspective for all Americans to understand. Unfortunately this is a time when most Americans will do almost anything to avoid the truths of their own history, a time when the vestiges of white supremacy will attempt, perhaps successfully, to purchase the upcoming elections.

This is one of the best and most informative interviews I’ve ever seen, and given the brilliant history of Moyer’s interviews, that’s saying something. The fair minded clarity of both men is beyond reproach, offering an unmatched glimpse of the undercurrents that run through our culture along with their historical roots.

America has been living a contradiction since its founding, and over 200 years later we have yet to overcome that contradiction. We are at a crux in our evolution as a society. Along one path, the path known as “conservatism”, America continues to be viewed primarily as the “ownership society”, where absolutely everything is valued only as a commodity, including our concept of freedom and speech, our communities, even our closest relationships. Along this road we are a society bought and sold, where human rights are measured only in terms of what we own. In my opinion this path, in the long term, is doomed to collapse and failure.

Fortunately, emerging out of this collapse is another point of view, mostly held by the young, who have grown up in a world where the boundaries between nations and races has been largely broken down through the rise of global digital culture. Surveys have shown that young people are less susceptible to the influence of television and religion, the primary tools used by the ‘Baby Boomer Generation’ for the promulgation of bigotry and paranoia. (I was both surprised and encouraged by a debate I recently listened to on NPR’s Intelligence Squared that asked the question Would The World Be Better Off Without Religion, where both sides were very eloquently argued.)

I recently returned from a trip through the midwest and part of the deep south and was dismayed at the level of ignorance and cultural isolation that I sensed as I crossed this wide and beautiful nation. On the other side I’ve been inspired and uplifted by watching the HBO drama Treme which goes to the true heart of America through the music and culture of New Orleans as it rebuilds itself after Katrina. In these episodes I’ve seen reflections of myself and my own attitudes, both good and bad. There’s the hopelessness that turns into depression and rage, directed both against the outside and against the self. On the other side there’s the sheer joy of being alive and the will to continue on, to celebrate and to be a part of one another. Maybe its only through something dying that something new can be born.