If we, citizens, do not support our artists,
then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar
of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing
and having worthless dreams.
If we, citizens, do not support our artists,
then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar
of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing
and having worthless dreams.
OK, so I tired of blogging for a couple years. It presented huge pressure to produce, and frankly, my jobs require spontaneous creativity enough as it is.
Also, I was working on a book, which I am still working on, but which is mired in some legal issues at the moment.
Since I was here last, lots of good stuff has happened, and approximately one shit-ton of really horrible stuff. Which I will spare you.
All that said, things remain in flux, and while I am loathe to delve back into political and social commentary in any deep way (too much emotional bandwidth, which is at a premium in these lean times, people), I have missed the chance to articulate my moments in a space larger than my Facebook status and Twitter updates. My life does not actually translate to What I Am Doing Right Now.
So I will attempt from this moment forward to use this space to offer a POV you may or may not like, but that will be unique and sort of bizarre in that good way you like. And oh yes, Carpenter will be joining me upon threat of remote death ray. So welcome to San Francisco freelance journalist meets Philadelphia civil rights attorney and professor.
How scary is it that the right of blacks and other minorities to vote (or more specifically protections against being intimidated, handicapped or gerrymandered out of the effective use of the vote) has to be re-approved every 25 years?
There's a lot in post-Katrina Louisiana that probably deserves the attention of grand juries - political and corporate corruption being high on the list. (At CorpWatch we're about to release the report I've been working on for the last 7 months on that very issue - stay tuned.)
Instead, though, Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti is busy going after a well-respected doctor for allegedly euthanizing patients at Memorial Medical Center. He was not instantly praised as a hero, which I imagine surprised him. It is a sexy story, and I'm certain he thought he'd be celebrated. He didn't think that even the general public might find it hard to believe that a dedicated doctor - one of the only ones not to save their own skins by leaving ahead of or immediately following the storm - would risk her life and work 24/7 in a flooded, electricity-free building full of sick and dying people, just to fulfill her secret lifelong ambition to be a serial killer.
Now the ACLU of Louisiana would like to know why Foti will not release the results of his investigation into the "Gretna Bridge incident," wherein law enforcement allegedly closed the Crescent City connection on August 31, 2005, immediately following the levee breaches, when mostly black residents of New Orleans parish were trying to escape into the largely white Jefferson Parish. Police reportedly turned people back - almost assuredly signing virtual death warrants for many of them.
The incident was discussed in Geneva, Switzerland at ameeting of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which is itself curious as to whether it qualified as a violation of internationmal human rights. But Foti has yet to get around to it.
Here's a swell guy. Jim Welker, a state represnetative from the great state of Colorado, has a little emai forwarding problem. No no, not like "Oops, I hit 'reply all!'" Not "I know you hate mass emails but this one made me smile." Not petitions to save Big Bird. No, this guy forwards to his constituents the most bigoted vitriol he can find on the internet.
There have been three forwarded articles that have caused Jimster headaches. Most recently he forwarded some smack from CNS about how the severe, intractable problems in New Orleans post-Katrina are all the fault of "black culture." Previously, he forwarded an article calling black Katrina victims "welfare pampered" and "immoral" and that their "moral poverty" was the real cause of their suffering. That last one was written by a black evangelist, so you know it must be true. (Welker was forced by his own party to apologize on the senate floor for that one.)
The Rocky Mountain News asked our man Welker is he was racist (it had to be asked?) and he of course said no. (If you think you're not racist, bingo.) Like a SNL skit, he used the classic cracker evidence: "I have black people who work for me. Some of my good friends are different colors." Does he work in a bag of Skittles you think? I've never been in the Colorado legislature.
But best of all is what he forwarded a couple years back. "The article Welker forwarded claimed that gay men regularly ingest the
urine and feces of their partners, leading to massive outbreaks of
various diseases," reported Lynn Bartels for Rocky Mountain News (cache link). "It questioned why gays and lesbians were allowed to work with children, the elderly and in the food industry."
Thanks Raw Story for the round-up.
So all over CNN this morning is video of Bush chatting with Tony Blair in front of an open microphone about the war between Israel and Lebanon. The focus is, of course, on the fact that Bush said "shit," not knowing the mic was live. This is indicative of everything wrong with news today.
First of all, yeah, it's funny. Our falsely prudish national self-image is shocked, shocked by this crass development. The President cusses? God forbid. Ask me, I hate the asshole, but the fact he says "shit" makes me like him one tiny bit more than not at all.
But here's what we should be shocked at. What the guy actually said was "See, the irony is what they really need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit." This reveals what we all knew but have happily been free to deny up til now: we are being led by a simpleton. This is his idea of foreign diplomacy: Pretend major sovereign nations are kids on a playground, and have one tell his buddy to stop being a dick. Problem solved.
We are all doomed.
Nothing about Bush's "logic" indicates that he has any grasp of what is going on, and what he does seem to grasp is a perspective that has obviously been fed him (perhaps in the form of a picture book?) by pro-Israel elements in the White House. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, we stood on principle against such aggression. But when it's Israel, our big idea is to get Syria to talk its pal Hezbollah into not defending itself. And we wonder why our credibility is in the shitter (to borrow from the prez).
And furthermore - Bush talks to WORLD LEADERS with his mouth open. I wonder if he told Blair, "Guess what I'm eating? Seafood! Get it? SEE FOOD!"
It's pile-on time. Barry Bonds is the easy target of everyone's self-righteousness ... again. Selig says he won't acknowledge officially any records Bonds breaks from here on out. Fans are waving signs with asterisks. Even Frank DeFord is getting in on the action, and he should know better.
I'm not saying it isn't terribly disappointing to me -- a baseball fan, a Giants fan, a Barry fan -- to have to admit that yes, Barry is probably juiced to the nines. I'm just wondering ... I'm I the only one to notice that he isn't - and hasn't been - alone? How can you single one guy out just for wanting the same advantages his closest peers have? Where are the asterisks on Sosa's career? Where are the asterisks - and the boos - on Jason Giambi? Why on earth is Mark McGuire the anti-Bonds?
McGuire is, if anything, the proto-Bonds. Except he was never as good. So it was spectacularly unfair for Bonds, the better all-around player, to be overshadowed by McGuire, who was only exceeding Bonds' numbers through substance abuse. Bonds wanted to even the playing field - if both were juiced, we'd be able to see who was REALLY better. Sure, the motivation shouldn't be on personal records - but everyone who says that also can't peel their eyes off a good home-run record race. And if its OK for McGuire to pursue a personal record, why not Bonds?
DeFord made a good point recently - let everyone use steroids. That way, you'll level the playing field. In a way, that's what Bonds did. J.T. Snow could take steroids and never be the hitter Bonds is. Bonds is superior, steroids or no.
It comes down to what it has always come down to: the press and the public (except Giants fans who are, for the most part, way smarter than anyone else) don't like Barry because he isn't publicly cuddly. The irony is, by all accounts, he is privately sweet-natured and generous. Whereas McGuire, who was a straight-up bastard in real life, according to people in a position to know, was a smiley good-guy for the cameras. McGuire was a fake. Bonds is the real thing.
No one wants Bonds to beat Ruth's record, but not because they think him an inferior batsman. It's because it isn't as easy to picture Bonds being your best pal, big brother, or Dad. And yes, I also think race has to do with it. We forgive fewer flaws the darker you are.
The fact is, Barry is only playing the game other big hitters have been playing for years. And nothing would have come of it if it weren't for Bonds' remarkable natural talent (you can only augment something that already exists) and longevity.
Selig is making a huge mistake if he shuns Barry and ignores the records. It will then be Selig, not Barry, who has ruined the game for all of us. Look how willing we've been for decades to look the other way, to pretend not to notice the obvious. Let US decide how to remember Barry Bonds. I may celebrate him as the greatest ballplayer I ever had the good fortune to watch play; the next guy may consider him a stain on the game. At least we both get to see it our way.
My girlfriend and I were in New Orleans last week, and when we came back, she wrote about a group we met, and emailed it to all of her friends. The result has been astounding - we have heard of house parties being thrown in New York, San Francisco, Alabama, and even Europe to raise awareness, money, and supplies for a tenacious group of young activists in New Orleans. It bears repeating, and repeating, and repeating, so i am reprinting it here. Please cut and paste and mail it to everyone you know.
FINDING COMMON GROUND
The young man who is about to show us around this cesspool introduces himself simply as Brandon, which (and I really hate to admit this) is a name I still cannot hear without thinking of Beverly Hills 90210. He speaks eloquently and could be every bit as dashing as any primetime soap opera star, except he obviously has not showered in a very, very long time. Understandable given that water is a rare and precious commodity in this part of the world. We are a long way from Beverly Hills. There are no mansions here; the few people who call this place home live in tents. There is no Rodeo Drive; there is not really a store at all, but Americans and good Samaritans from around the globe have sent regular donations of old clothes, canned goods and other nonperishable items to this desolate land. And there are no movie studios, although it does feel like I must certainly be on the set of some chilling war epic and I keep waiting for someone to cue a sad, haunting tune that would make a much more appropriate soundtrack than the eerie silence that engulfs us.
Behind Brandon I can see mud-caked kids in make-shift hazmat suits decontaminating themselves and I really wish I had made time to get the immunization shots that were recommended before coming to this diseased area. Someone has dumped the contents of several random cans of food into a large aluminum pan and the tent-dwellers start scooping out their dinner onto paper plates. One of the recently decontaminated looks up from his plate of mush and asks me if I have ever been here before. “I’ve never been any place like this,” I answer. I can’t look anyone here in the eye because I know I had a hot shower this morning and I’ll eat well tonight before I sleep on an actual mattress. So, I spend a lot of time staring at my $100 Diesel shoes, which actually don’t look all that out of place in this depressing region – I spent good money for the “distressed” look.
It is true that, in all my travels, I have never seen anything like what I have witnessed in this place – but the truth is also that I was born and raised just over 100 miles east of here. Quite a bit of my family, until recently, made their homes within a few minutes of the barren spot I am standing on. I spent the weekends of my youth listening to the local music that once filled the streets here. But this is not the place I knew. In fact, as I look around at the conditions the people here live in now, I can’t wrap my brain around the fact that I am still within the borders of the richest nation on earth. It has been six months since Katrina blew through New Orleans, but standing in the Ninth Ward, you feel like it all happened this morning.
Having grown up on the Gulf Coast, I understand how destructive hurricanes can be. After Hurricane Frederick, I saw grand oak trees that had been uprooted and tossed about like twigs and we lived without electricity for weeks. Like the rest of the world, I watched as the water poured into the Ninth Ward and annihilated it and I knew it would take more than a few weeks to rebuild – what I didn’t expect was to be walking through it 172 days later and still see total devastation – and not one federal worker, not one state worker, not one paid professional construction worker. The only people to be seen for miles doing any work are a bunch of kids, none of whom appear to have reached their thirties. They have traveled from all over the world and used their own money to get here. None of them are being paid for their efforts, unless you count the plates of mush they are fed at the end of the day, for which they are clearly very appreciative. They spend their days wading through diseased garbage and their nights sleeping on the side of the road. They have no electricity and no running water. But don’t call them heroes or you’ll quickly be told it is not heroic to just do the right thing.
As Brandon casually swats at several flies buzzing around his face and talks about the goals they are trying to accomplish, I wonder exactly how all these kids ended up in this hellhole. It is a story that, to me, is more powerful than any natural disaster could ever be. And while I have been shamed by the response of my government to this tragedy, this is a story that humbles me and shows me what is possible when a few people refuse to be told who is worthy of humanity.
The day after the levees in New Orleans broke and tens of thousands of people were frantically trying to get out of the sinking city, Brandon Darby and his buddy Scott Crow were desperately trying to get in. They hadn’t heard from their friend Robert King Wilkerson and they were worried that he had not been able to evacuate – so they came up with the practical idea of driving over 500 miles and then launching a 15-foot, flat-bottom skiff boat into the sea in hopes of eventually finding him. Neither of them had boating experience, but they didn’t have to be nautical school graduates to understand that they were navigating the Gulf of Mexico in a vessel not created for the open ocean.
An African America ex-felon in his sixties would not appear to have much in common with the two young, white Texans who thought he was worth floating voluntarily into the mouth of hell for – but Mr. Wilkerson had no doubt that his friends would rescue him. When King saw Darby and Crow after nine days of trying to survive the toxic flood waters that had swallowed his home, he said simply, “I knew y’all’d come.” But then Mr. Wilkerson has had a lot of experience surviving day to day on nothing but faith. He spent 29 years in solitary confinement in the infamous Angola State Penitentiary until his conviction was overturned in 2001.
Darby and Crow are members of a national coalition that was founded in the 1990’s when a man named Malik Rahim decided to speak out on behalf of King and his fellow inmates, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox – the longest survivors of solitary confinement in the history of this country. Although King became a free man almost six years ago, Wallace and Woodfox remain in their solitary cells at Angola. Rahim believes that three decades of isolation amounts to cruel and unusual punishment for anyone, but especially for innocent men. According to The National Coalition to Free the Angola Three (now with multiple international chapters), King, Wallace and Woodfox were set up. So why does the Coalition believe innocent men would be framed and left rotting in solitary confinement for 33 years? They say it is because in 1972, while the civil rights movement was taking some time to make its way into Louisiana, the Angola Three were out-spoken political activists and self-professed Black Panthers. The then governor of Louisiana had publicly vowed not to let the Panthers get off the ground in his state and King, Wallace and Woodfox were just three of the hundreds of casualties of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program which used illegal tactics to demonize the Panthers as thugs with guns. Years before Rahim, also a former Black Panther, took up the cause of the Angola Three, he had also faced a lifetime behind bars when he was arrested on a host of charges including the attempted murder of police officers. Miraculously acquitted on all charges brought against him, Rahim has been a tireless advocate for the poor and the less-fortunate ever since. When he took a look at the evidence against the Angola Three – or the utter lack of it – he thought if other people knew their story, they would care. He seems to have been correct.
The day Robert King Wilkerson left Angola, he vowed not to forget the two men he left behind and to work on behalf of their release until they are able to come home, too. It is a promise he has kept; even now when he knows they have no home to return to. King will tell you he has seen the absolute best of humanity and the absolute worst, but he keeps working because he remains confident, that in the end, the good guys always find a way to prevail. That’s why, as he sat trapped in his home, seeing everything he had managed to acquire since his release being destroyed by the unforgiving waters, he was found calmly feeding hungry birds when salvation arrived.
Had King known what Darby and Crow had to go through to get to him, perhaps he would not have been so convinced the good guys would show up. When they arrived from Texas, the two young men witnessed the Red Cross turning away almost 300 people who had shown up in Louisiana with boats to help in the rescue effort. Darby and Crow stood around for only a few moments watching the various city, county, state and federal authorities fighting over who had jurisdiction of the search and rescue before they turned and headed east until they found a place to launch their small boat, after wading though a hundred yards of knee-deep mud. The rest of their week is a harrowing tale involving a boat ride through a lightning storm and six foot swells, gun fights and destruction and death around every corner – and culminates in Darby taking a swim through toxic water infested with snakes and alligators until he was stopped by FEMA and ordered onto a rescue boat. Darby entwined himself with a car mostly submerged in water and refused to move until the officials saved his friend two blocks away. They responded with a promise to come back for King at another time. Darby felt his young white face gave him some bargaining power, so again he refused to let anyone save him, “I will not leave this spot until you pick him up.” They finally did what the kid in the water had instructed them to do and King hopped quietly into the ride that had been sent for him.
Once on dry land, King, Darby and Crow sat down with Malik Rahim and the unlikely foursome began trying to figure out where they were headed. What they found they needed for their next step was common ground.
The Common Ground Collective was founded with only $50 and the belief of four people that they could do a better job than the government of the most powerful and richest nation in the world. If you take a stroll through the Lower Ninth Ward, you’d be hard-pressed to dispute that they were right. That small investment has now grown to hundreds of members who have fed, housed and provided medical care for nearly 20,000 people.
How did they do it? They went to the houses that were still standing and asked the people who were still around, “What can we do to support you?” What they kept hearing: you can’t rebuild a community that is buried under tons of garbage. So they started by picking up trash and decomposing animals and then they moved on to putting tarps on homes (without charge, not for the $2,500 per roof received by The Shaw Group who were given a federal contract and free tarps to do the same two-hour job in other parts of the city). And then they began to envision a relief organization that would be radically different from those that had come into Louisiana in the aftermath of Katrina. They decided to join together people of every background, every race and every economic level – doctors working alongside garbage men working alongside cooks working alongside lawyers working alongside kids who still have no idea what they want to be when they grow up – all for one common goal. Space in a local mosque was secured for their headquarters and soon, the assistance started pouring in and the volunteers started lining up – no easy task given an enormous military and police presence in the disaster stricken area. A medical clinic was opened and Red Cross immediately began pointing those in need of care to Common Ground. Yes, the Red Cross turned the sick away in droves and sent them to a tent run by kids and a couple of volunteer nurses. A legal aid clinic was established to provide immediate assistance to those trying to rebuild their lives and to put pressure on the authorities to focus on relief and rebuilding – and away from the harassment and violence they witnessed Ninth Ward residences enduring in a time of crisis.
As you walk through the area now, the only government employees you see are agents of the Department of Homeland Security cruising around in shiny SUVs, ostensibly to insure that no terrorists are among those rebuilding homes and feeding the hungry. While I was standing on the street, dumbfounded and heartbroken by what I was seeing, two women drove up and we began chatting. They were back in their old neighborhood for the first time since Katrina and I could not believe the composure they maintained as they talked about all they had lost. As one of the women spoke about losing every photograph that she had of her only child, it became apparent that she had already shed so many tears for everything that she had lost, she could no longer cry for all that had been washed away. The only time she got choked up is when she pointed to a couple of young Common Ground volunteers and said, “Just when you feel completely forgotten and like no one remembers or cares what you’ve been through, you look up and see these people who aren’t even from here – who have left their homes and their families to come here and do this disgusting, thankless work for people they don’t even know. I hope they know we are never going to forget them and what they have done for us when no one else cared.”
Over the last six months, the volunteers have adjusted to the changing, but still desperate, needs of the community. They are still picking up garbage and gutting homes and they are now handing out free earthworms. Yes, earthworms. It is a safe, natural way to clean up toxic soil. They are giving away certain plants that perform the same function and teaching classes on how to dig up and dispose of them after their job is done. And they are working on ways to ensure that the knowledge, resources and supplies they have acquired are available and ready to be mobilized when and if, God forbid, a disaster should strike your community. But hopefully, between now and then, our government, with all of its resources, will have learned a few things from what a couple of former Black Panthers and the kids they have inspired were able to do with $50 bucks.
If you would like to donate to the Common Ground Collective’s effort, it would be much appreciated – especially in light of the fact that the most recent Bush Administration budget allotted zero new dollars to Katrina aid. If you and a few friends can scrape up $50, imagine what they’ll be able to do with it. Their website www.commongroundrelief.org also provides a wish list of desperately needed items, which includes everything from medical supplies to tyvek suits to sledge hammers to baby diapers.
You can mail your donations to:
Common Ground Collective
1415 Franklin Avenue
New Orleans, LA
This is astounding: In two days I have read three jaw-dropping stories about literary fakery that about blew me out of my chair. Something about this bugs me more even than Jayson Blair et al; sure, Blair and Glass made up stories they (and by extension, their very trusted and influential employers) claimed were fact. But knowing journalists, I sleep OK knowing that their profit from their lies was limited by the crap wages most young reporters get.
But the new information about James Frey and how he apparently completely fabricated huge chunks of his huge-selling memoir "A Million Little Pieces" and then sold the bunk to Oprah, who attatched her reputation to it, and sent it into the book sales stratosphere where it made him millions, well, that pisses me off. Little crack head criminal is really law-abiding and boring? What a fucker. I liked him better as an antisocial nihilist, but what can you do? Besides, dude, you lied to Oprah. Who knows what sort of secret army of image consultants-cum-assassins she may have in her employ.
The I read about JT Leroy, a local San Francisco writer known for having hitchhiked from West Virginia as a gay teenager, only to become a homeless drug-addicted male prostitute on Polk Street, until a local couple took him in, provided him therapy, treated his HIV, and launched his much lauded literary career, which began with his debut "Sarah" in 2000. Now, I'll admit I was told by those who know these things that he was a genius, and you had to admire his overcoming such circumstances. But the writing - it was SO self-referential and self-congratulatory and, well, ordinary that it pissed me off that I wrote better than him, but without a tragic backstory, no literary career for me.
So it emerges that Leroy, too, was a big fabricator - no wait ... a fabrication. He is not a real person. Someone (actually the couple who "took him in") made up the backstory to get a nice big agent and a fat advance check, along with lovely royalties. In his very few public appearances, the woman who appeared as Leroy always wore a wig and hat (and was it turns out, the sister of the man who said he had taken Leroy in as a teenager). I hear even his agent didn't know Leroy was a fictitious fiction faker. Sure, whoever wrote Leroy's stuff didn't suck. But it would never have gotten play without the context of the author's life. That pisses me off.
And in the NY Times Sunday Magazine, I learn that the dude who supposedly infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and wrote of his discoveries (the code language, the creepy rituals, the secrecy) in the 1950s, actually made up, embellished or confabulated most of his story. What he claimed to have witnessed was for the most part witnessed by a different man who reported back to the author. This was disturbing for the "Freakonomics" authors, who wrote a chapter on the guy to illustrate information asymmetry. And it irks the shit out of me when people who do great work, like exposing the Klan, discredit themselves with stupid acts of egotism.
So the lesson today is, don't believe a single word you read. Including this --> one.
George Gerbner, former dean at the Annenberg School of Communication, died on Christmas Eve. I remember him from a project I did with he and Todd Gitling back in 1997. i was producer of one of HotWired's sites, called Synapse. We had a feature there called "Brain Tennis" in which two leading thinkers would debate an issue of the day. I put Gerbner and Todd Gitlin together for one entitled "Is Media Violence Free Speech?" In his memory, I thought people might enjoy revisiting it. He was a giant of media crit, and the world will miss him.
Brain Tennis: Is Media Violence Free Speech? with George Gerbner and Todd Gitlin. July 9, 1997.
(Your browser may not like circa-1997 frames. Here's a reprint of the debate from the Media Awareness Network in Canada.)
As in years before, I post in honor of all of those spectacular people we have lost, those spectacular people who continue to search for a cure, those spectacular humanitarians who seek real answers to the epidemic here and in Africa and reject political claptrap and the pharmaceutical industry's murderous greed.
And of course, I ask that you think of my Unca Donald - historian, academic, author, sailor, family man, raconteur, shit-disturber, and my role model. We miss you, Unca. Mwah.
Artist Judy Werthein has created a pair of sneakers called "Brincos" designed to help undocumented Mexican immigrants cross the US-Mexico border more easily and safely. The shoes include a compass, flashlight, and map on the insole of the most popular routes between Tijuana and San Diego. Judy gives them away in the desert to prospective border-jumpers, while some people are collecting them as artifacts of the current zeitgeist. Either way, this'll piss of the Minutemen more than Wednesday night's episode of Law & Order.