Monday, July 01, 2019

Bob Dylan’s Eyes

The films by or about Bob Dylan are every bit as strange, unique, intimate & evasive, as he is and Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story, streaming now on Netflix, is no exception, blending documentary footage Dylan had taken during the famous 1974-6 tour with more than a few fictional add-ons from the likes of Sharon Stone, Kipper Kid Martin von Haselberg, and studio exec (just not that studio nor that exec) Jim Gianapolus. But as somebody who has been listening to, close-reading and watching the troubadour of Hibbing for at least 57 years, the real stars of this paradocumentary are Bob Dylan’s eyes. They are luminous, blue and often (in the faux Noh white paint that turns up pretty much everywhere on Dylan, violinist Scarlet Rivera, and even for a bit Joan Baez, during the tour) green.[i] Most importantly, they are searching, making contact, commenting on the action we see and the inner workings behind the mask that are not given to us during the two-hour, twenty minutes of the film.

In 1974, Bob Dylan had largely been off the road for the previous eight years following a motorcycle accident before returning to do a series of stadium and arena-sized shows with The Band, the legendary backup quintet once known as Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks. During the interim, Dylan and the Band  had  been down in the basement making some glorious music, the group had become nearly as famous as their front man, and the stadium shows reflected this with alternating sets. It was a format that had become standard in the post-Woodstock era, one that lives on today all over the globe, from Coachella to K-Pop[ii]. But it is also the form that drove the Beatles into retirement from live performance in 1967 and its fundamental inhumanness is its basic truth. Rolling Thunder Review repeatedly returns to the fact that the smaller venues Dylan chose for the three-year traveling carnival he had created to succeed the gigs with the band ensured that it would never succeed financially.

But touring is an essential economic truth in the music business, where record companies were sucking up vast portions of any performer’s earnings long before the rise of the net and the cloud put control of the product into serious doubt. After a five-year touring career in the early 1960s and a six-month return before screaming masses of adoring ants, Dylan was searching for something different. Rolling Thunder was the result.

With the stadium shows, Dylan had begun rolling out his new strategy of reworking some of his standards, often quite dramatically, and the Rolling Thunder performances show Dylan’s passion for these new versions of what had already become familiar classics as well as more recent fare from the records released during the eight years away from touring. But what is really most notable are Dylan’s facial expressions, his directness with the audience, eyes rolling when Baez transposes a phrase, eyebrows arching, registering emotion. It’s not just that Dylan is having fun, although how often  have you seen him acknowledge that, but that he’s communicating and collaborating with his expressions in ways I had not seen during his folk and earlier rock periods and never in the course of his Never-Ending Tour that has gone on now for over 31 years.[iii] Like, say, Miles Davis (a performer whom at times reminds me of Dylan in his obsessional focus on the piece at hand), who seldom if ever interacted with audiences, Dylan often feels onstage is if he were alone with his band. Not so in these performances.

Which is what gives these shows & this film an intensity Dylan seldom approaches elsewhere.

Rolling Thunder was also Dylan’s attempt to create an alternative to the isolating realities of fame and travel that can bedevil musicians. Anyone who has seen Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley arriving for a concert with some backup band he has never met, let alone with whom he has practiced, or heard the exhaustion in the voice of a solo artist like Eric Andersen (who has a bit role in this film), or who can count the number of musicians who have died on the road, will sympathize. Dylan’s idea was to put together a small community of first-rate artists and take them all along for the ride. While the film returns repeatedly to the figure of the carnival, it’s really the pilgrimages of, say, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that echo most loudly here. The film’s second billing goes to Allen Ginsberg, labeled in the credits as (Dylan’s phrase) the Oracle of Delphi, who begins the tour as a central obsession for Dylan (“absolutely not a father figure” Bob insists as Ginsberg leads him to the grave of Jack Kerouac, footage everyone has seen before but given new poignancy by the context offered here ) but concludes it sharing roadie duties with Peter Orlovsky. Others in the mix include Patti Smith, Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Roger McGuinn and Joni Mitchell. Oddly missing from the interviews are most of the musicians who back Dylan up, particularly Bobby Neuwirth, Dylan’s close friend who served as the functional producer of much that ensued musically on the tour and who proves a reasonable successor to the great lead guitarists Dylan has had going back to the late Mike Bloomfield.

If the tour was, as everyone insists – from Gianapolus as producer to the jowly Dylan of just last year – a failure, it wasn’t financially[iv] so much as socially. The dynamics of the road are relentless – Baez, Dylan’s ex-lover from the sixties quits the tour & her absence as a grounding is noticeable[v]. What does it mean to have a roving commune in a world so hungry for roots? You can run away to join the circus, but the circus itself turns out to be a very circumscribed home. The commune movement, from Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters forward, was as much a seventies’ phenomenon as a holdover from the sixties, and as the sometimes incoherent pacing of appearances from Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford & Jimmy Carter[vi], reflects, the failure of the revolution of ’68 left everyone not already bunkered down in the counterculture without many alternatives. The power imbalance between Dylan and everyone else is something nobody can get past – even Baez, here as elsewhere a snarky skeptic unafraid of being incorrect, concedes to it. Bob is Bob, but unlike Charlie, he doesn’t want a harem to kill for him, or – a la Baker-roshi – to ensconce him in wealth and pussy. Dylan profoundly distrusts power, but his followers are like iron filings to his magnetic presence. It’s the Gordian knot he will never cut.

Much, too much in fact, is made of the question of masks as Dylan’s only plausible defense to this conundrum, and when you hear Hurricane Carter’s snappy, upbeat chatter about how Dylan is still searching regardless of his claim to have already found some inner peace, you remember that Rolling Thunder was Dylan’s last stop before the Bible[vii]. In one sense, this is where Scorsese – Dylan’s friend since at least The Last Waltz – fails as a filmmaker. A director with some critical distance might have looked with a more jaundiced eye at the wall Dylan hits at the end of this tour, aesthetically, spiritually, intellectually. Good intentions will only get you so far. There’s a reason even Ringling Bros. gave it up in 2017, and why so many other performers have retreated to Nashville, Branson or Vegas, why the Blue Man Group or Cirque de Soleil don’t do the road. At 78, Dylan still performs at 100-plus venues per year, compared with the Stones who do 30 once every five years, and McCartney something comparable to that. Dylan is driven, albeit not by fame, fortune nor glory – his fumbling of the Nobel Prize should tell us that. In a sense, he’s like the secret cylons in Battlestar Gallactica, who know who they are by the song they can’t get out of their head, written as it was by Bob Dylan.

[i] It probably says hazel on his driver’s ID.

[ii] Incommensurable, I know.

[iii] The credit roll lists every show from 1974 through 2018 and we are talking thousands.

[iv] Billionaire Sir Paul McCartney and maybe the Gershwins must be the only other people to come close to Dylan in revenue from covers of their music.

[v] Their discussion of their marriages, Dylan to the “woman I love” in Sara (not always present on the tour and not visible here), Baez to Stanford anti-war activist David Harris (“the man I thought I loved”), is a level of intimacy nowhere available elsewhere in any film of Dylan I’ve ever seen.

[vi] How many of today’s audiences will recognize a dazed Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme being arrested after her attempt to shoot Ford at the Sacramento state capitol, or even know that Ford was the target of two assassination attempts in one month? If Scorsese had been making a film about the period, rather than the tour, he’d have noted the arrest of Patty Hearst and her SLA compatriots that same month, prompting one of the network news broadcasts to project its coverage over the background of the Beach Boys’ California Girls.

[vii] Where is T-Bone Burnett whose presence on the tour is sometimes credited with Dylan’s religious conversion? Or David Bromberg? Didn’t he get together with his wife, artist and Santeria practitioner Nancy Josephson, on the tour? So many great musicians Scorsese could have talked to and did not. Indeed, there would seem to be a documentary waiting to be made of Scarlet Rivera’s presence throughout. Having been “discovered” by Dylan walking down the street in New York – an event as improbable as Trungpa’s famous cab ride with Ginsberg – everyone seems terrified of her.  Next to Dylan, Ginsberg & maybe Baez, she’s the most visible person here, still making use of the musical career that apparently fell from the sky.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Some Limits of Space

Spatial metaphors can be useful in providing a visual frame for any activity. To think outside the box, you need a box. But problems occur if the shape of your vessel is not congruent with whatever you hope to insert into it: square peg, round hole, etc. Two of these mismatches have scratching at the blackboard of my soul of late, so I thought to raise them here.

The first of these is the autism spectrum, as if autism were a radio dial. At one end you have the lower-functioning classically autistic person: severe learning differences, possibly an absence of language, and all of the problems of daily life and isolation that then accrue. At the far end, your brilliant-but-quirky person who was formerly characterized by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual codes as an Asperger’s syndrome[i] patient: Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. Great minds, not so sharp with the social cues. Anyone who watched Dylan uncomfortably fumble about with a partially appropriated speech for having been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature will recognize the conundra that raises. Maybe it would have helped if the committee had been able to state clearly that Dylan was being given the award for song, for the idea that song itself could be literature, and not waded into the silly deep weeds of whether or not Dylan was a poet.[ii]

The reality is that no two autistic people are identical, so that, yes, the kid without language, Bob Dylan – or at least Robert Allen Zimmerman – and the Rain Man may all have some degree of what might now be diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorder, but it is not as though the former is down at 560 on the dial while the others inhabit the rock-and-religious-revival end of the AM band around 1400.  A far more accurate spatial metaphor might well be longitude and latitude as applied to the mapping of three-dimensional surfaces. What those coordinates measure, well, that would be a discussion, but it might just be a discussion worth having.

My other dystopian spatial metaphor these days is the left-right spectrum of politics, progressives to the left, conservatives to the right, even color-coded at the moment blue and red,[iii] so that the Friday political commentators on the PBS Newshour, David Brooks and Mark Shields, might be said to be 25 or 30 degrees to the right in the case of Brooks, a moderate Republican, and maybe 10 degrees to the right of center in the case of “progressive” Shields. Similarly, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer may well be anti-Trumpians,  but they are only progressives in a world skewed very far to the right, one that tacitly agrees never to challenge capital. Never mind that capital itself threatens to destroy the world and to do so in the lifetime of our grandkids, if not before.

The arguments such inside-the-beltway progressives make is that Trump is so far off the charts to the right that the best means to capture the remaining portion of the political spectrum is to run a presidential candidate in 2020 who stands firmly in the center. Three guesses which candidate that might be.[iv] Never mind that, since 1996, no such candidate has ever won the presidential election. People don’t opine “Hmm, I, Mark Shields, am ten percent to the right of center, therefore I should vote Democrat.” Not even Mark Shields does that. Rather, people look at the political universe in a completely different way.

Let me give an example. In the game of chess, there are 64 squares on the board. To an utter beginner, each square is equal. But to anyone but a beginner, a chess board is a mountain in which the four central-most squares form a peak and everything is literally downhill from there, and measurably so by its distance from that hypothetical highpoint.

In the world of politics, there is a similar highpoint, meaning that the center is not the center of a spectrum, but rather a peak. In our time at least, that highpoint is wealth. People look at  that center and ask themselves, am I on the slopes of success or am I off the mountain altogether? Increasingly since the days of Ronald Reagan if not Richard Nixon, most American voters rightly conclude that they are in the flats. Whatever benefits the center disadvantages them. Therefore when it comes time to vote, the question is not am I on the left or the right, but what will disrupt the center the most.

Looked at from that perspective, every single presidential election since Jimmy Carter’s defeat of Gerald Ford arguably becomes quite predictable. Of the eleven elections that have occurred since 1976, the four that appear to fall the furthest from being completely represented by this model are the successful re-elections of Reagan, Clinton, Bush II and Obama. Here you could argue that incumbency is itself a powerful force, potentially capable of disrupting what I’m calling here the Center/Outside paradigm, although I would counter that when capital and government are perceived to be on the opposite sides of the paradigm, Capital (cap C) is seen as the center (bad) and government is seen as the potential disrupter (good). You could easily fit both Reagan and Obama into that model, Clinton likewise. And Bush II was always opposed by bulwarks of a perceived status quo: Al Gore and John Kerry, neoliberals each. Just like Joe Biden.

Donald Trump, whatever else he might be, is not a figure of the center. Even more than Reagan,  he represents an outside assault that took over what he terms the Deep State. Further, the stock market – which is not a surrogate for the economy even though talking heads on cable might think so – has responded quite positively to his agenda of cutting taxes on the superrich and enforcing none of the constraints on capital a rational person might want to employ. From the perspective of corporate CEOs, the notion that there is no sheriff in town with regards to the market is great news.

If the Center/Outside model is accurate, then the task facing the Democrats is quite clear: tie Trump to the capitalist class and promise to disrupt the collaboration of these dark forces. That sounds like a simple enough project, but it’s not if the platform of the party is to restore the center itself. That was the promise Walter Mondale made in opposing Ronald Reagan in 1988. If you remember, Mondale carried just one of the 50 states, his own, Minnesota. Putting a corporatist former Vice President up against an outsider renegade president enabled Reagan to pose himself as the disrupter even while being the incumbent. That is exactly what Joe Biden is trying to do in his campaign against Trump. Within days of announcing his candidacy, Biden announced the endorsement of the Fire Fighters Union and former senator Carol Mosley Braun and held a $2800-per-ticket fundraiser hosted by an exec of Comcast. This is a prescription for re-electing Donald Trump and giving him super-majorities in both houses of congress.

Plus the pundit-class, which lives almost entirely inside the beltway and thinks of poor sad Mark Shields as a true progressive, has been giving Biden the kind of free media ride it gave Trump in 2016, amplifying his name-recognition advantage over every other candidate. Now I like Joe Biden personally. He’s a colleague on the Penn Faculty and we even eat in some of the same restaurants around campus. But the left-right spectrum model of US politics flat out does not work and you would think 23 years of evidence to that effect would be compelling, even deafening. And if the Center/Outside model I’m proposing is more accurate, then we really need to be focusing much more on the other candidates for the presidential nomination: the socialist who gets elected time and again from Vermont; the woman with the deep, detailed policy positions from Massachusetts; the ex-DA from the capital of Silicon Valley who represents three modes of diversity with every breath she draws; the gay major from South Bend, Indiana. Every one of whom could mount a campaign in which they are the disrupter and Trump is the corrupt figleaf atop an otherwise naked capitalist class.

Of the 21 candidates running against Donald J Trump, there is only one who cannot, under any circumstances, defeat him. And that is Joe Biden.

[i] Asperger’s name has fallen out of favor given his collaboration with the Nazis during the 1940s. Plus he wasn’t the only practitioner to note that these other folks may have some successful social adaptations while still checking many of the boxes for autism per se.

[ii] My two cents: song and poetry, both interesting, not the same thing. 

[iii] A coding that is mimicked by the hearing aid industry, or vice versa.

[iv] Hint: he lives within walking distance of the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, and is a fan of Amtrak.

Monday, April 29, 2019

The Real Race for the Democratic Nomination

The need to replace the Fascist-in-Chief is so desperate that the race for the Democratic nomination carries a sense of urgency that I cannot recall in any of the presidential campaigns to which I’ve paid heed, basically back to 1960.  There are presently 20 contestants running for the nomination with the possibility of a few more who could still enter. There are polls and pundits and prognostications, and a lot of it this far out is utter nonsense. But what is not nonsense are the unforced errors everyone is already making: DSA endorsing Bernie Sanders long before it was necessary precisely to handicap the organization’s potential support for Elizabeth Warren; Joe Biden announcing on one day and then (a) refusing to apologize to Anita Hill for enabling a perjurer and abuser onto the Supreme Court, (b) coming down for the prosecution of marijuana possession and (c) allowing his first fundraiser to be hosted by a Comcast exec – a 24-hour trifecta of serious blunders; the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) refusing to work with any consultants who challenge incumbent Neanderthals, attempting to prevent any more Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez type candidates from unseating the Joe Crowleys of this world, making the Democratic party safe for Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry. All of this bodes ill for a race that is always the incumbent’s to lose, and an incumbent in this instance only too willing to let foreign powers put their Hulk-weight thumb down on the scales of opinion and the electoral college.
It would be useful here to remember what history teaches.
No Democratic centrist has won the electoral college since 1996 – 23 years and counting. It’s true that both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but that and $5 will get you a vente Americano at Starbucks with an extra shot of espresso. Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in 2008 by running to her left as the anti-war candidate: one of several tragedies that we can grieve over about his actual administration was that while he ran as a progressive, he governed as a centrist. A few cases in point: (1) he ran as the anti-war candidate to Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy, but then put her in charge of that policy; (2) he “rescued” the economy from the Bush Recession, but did so (a) without punishing a single banker beyond Bernie Madoff for the abuses – crimes – of the previous decade and (b) perpetuating Goldman Sachs’ hold over US government policy; (3) he had no plan, indeed no evident interest, in building a progressive movement in  the US, leaving state and local Democratic candidates to fend on their own with almost no support from his office or the national Democratic Party, resulting in a red wave of state legislatures ready to use voter suppression, gerrymandering and other “business friendly” legislation to set social policy as far back toward the 1920s as possible.
The lesson of the past 23 years is inescapable: centrism will always lose to its alternative, if there is one. The reason is that Democratic centrism, neoliberalism if you will, is built around the central presumption that a progressive administration can do anything so long as it does not threaten capital (Goldman Sachs in ’08, Google-Facebook-Amazon today). Unfortunately, the world’s problems, from climate change to military conflict to social inequality, all can be traced directly back to the fact that an economic system predicated on the notion that “greed is good,” and that the perpetual need for growth will always take precedence over absolute fixed limits of natural resources (land and its mineral contents; water; sunlight), presents an impossible conundrum that is only addressable by confronting capital head-on.
From this I conclude that the one thing the Democrats must not do is to put up a centrist against Trump. The inside-the-beltway notion that Trump is so far to the right that everything to his left is up for grabs fails to translate into how voters actually cast ballots. The idea that the most conservative or centrist candidate will occupy the largest portion of the political spectrum and deny Trump victory has already been tested with Hillary Clinton and we can see what that got  us. But it’s the same logic that got us two terms with George W Bush as well. Voters have been telling us for 20 years that they get it that neoliberalism doesn’t work. More of the same will enable Trump’s demented absence of any real policy to be perceived as an assault on capital elites – it’s not (really) – and that is a prescription for four more  years and at least two more Supreme Court justices to perpetuate the stranglehold over policy of white male privilege.
When I look at the Democratic field with this in mind, I see some clear enough divisions: four plausible progressives: Sanders, Warren, Andrew Yang, and conceivably John Delaney; a lot of Obama-esque faux progressives (run left, govern from the center) of whom Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have the greatest name recognition at the moment; some candidates who are trying to put themselves forward with no policy objectives at all (e.g., Beto and Buttigieg, but check out Mary Williamson); and one unrepentant centrist in Joe Biden.
From this, I come away with two conclusions: of the 20 declared candidates, there are just a couple who (a) could win and (b) could govern with enough success to give us a fighting chance to survive the coming cataclysm that climate change plus the resulting massive global displacement are sending our way. There are, however, quite a few others who might be able to beat Trump and his Apocalypse Now administration. The only candidate who cannot beat Trump, under any circumstances, is Biden. For the rest, I think the question for the not-quite-progressives comes down to who could be persuaded to pursue an administration that would challenge capitalism’s catastrophic endgame with the encouragement of a lot of outside agitation. Right  now that is deep weeds speculation and I’m not ready to wade into it here. But make no mistake, the bill on failing to rid ourselves of capitalism is coming due very rapidly. It is not only the next administration’s job one, but in many respects its only real job. Anything less is just Trump Lite.
After Super Tuesday on March 3 of next year, this race will telescope down to no more than three real candidates: one progressive, one “anybody but the socialist” candidate (Biden has the edge, but 10 months is a very long time for him to not self-destruct), and probably Kamala Harris, who will win California and may well have the faux progressive lane to herself by then. There will still be other candidates, just as there were in 2008 when the Iowa Caucus turned the race into a Hillary versus Obama contest, but they will be dropping like flies as their funds dry up. This means that the first four contests, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, matter terribly for anyone without immediate national name recognition. If Harris carries either South Carolina or Nevada, her position becomes far stronger.
One lesson of 2008 was that Hillary Clinton was prepared for any of the white male candidates (Edwards, Dodd, Biden) who might emerge as the “anybody but Hillary” candidate following the Iowa caucus, but she was caught off-guard by Obama. She could not pose her project of neoliberalism’s third term as change or new against a candidate who better represented the base of the party and was running to her left. My gut feel in late April is that how it plays out in 2020 will depend on who is the third major candidate against Sanders-or-Warren and Harris. If it’s any of the faux progressives, then I think that the advantage goes to Bernie or Liz, while Harris would be stronger if the third lane is occupied by Biden – it’s the one lineup in which her own policy history might not be a weakness.
Bernie, like Biden, has a capacity for a tin ear on positions that make his campaign a little like watching Charlie Chaplin on a tightrope over a very deep ravine. Ten months is a very long time, especially when getting there means you still have seven-plus months before the general election. Getting the DSA endorsement early was more important than people thus far have acknowledged in that it shuts out Warren from a major source for volunteers right when volunteers are most needed. She has her own blind spots to worry about, but she is much better positioned than Yang or Delaney if Bernie makes a misstep.
For the baby Obamas, the faux progressives, from former Goldman Sachs exec Cory Booker to Mayor Pete and Beto, Tulsi, Amy and Kirsten, I seriously think their best shot comes not from competing with Kamala Harris over a lane that she already has locked  up, but rather moving right to a more purely centrist position and becoming the heir apparent the minute Biden stumbles. Inside the beltway where most elected officials and pundits live, the idea of a Democratic Party that challenges capitalism sounds like a prescription for self-destruction – never mind two-plus decades of evidence to the contrary – and I do think Harris is their primary opponent at least until Super Tuesday.
And on March 4th? That is when the real race for 2020 will begin.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Thursday, April 11th

5:30 – 6:30 PM

Living Arts

307 E. MB Brady Street

Tulsa, Oklahoma

(a part of Tulsa LitFest)

Saturday, April 13th

2 PM

MainSite Contemporary Arts

122 E. Main Street

Norman, Oklahoma

Monday, March 18, 2019

I was a no vote, even though I enthusiastically support Bernie in his campaign for the presidency in 2020. But I also support Elizabeth Warren (and would have supported Sherrod Brown, had he run). And & and I would have supported Barbara Lee over any of them had my former Congressperson decided to run. But I felt that the either/or choice posed by the DSA election – Bernie  yes or no – was way too simplistic, an effort really on the part of the Bernie campaign to contain Warren’s support early in the contest. And I think socialists have a responsibility to do things better.

There several important realities at play here. One is that Bernie and Warren both represent the left and represent the left well. A second one is that representation matters. One reason that the Democrats lost in 2016 was the ticket-so-white team of Clinton & Kaine told many voters of color that their interests were not being taken seriously. Clinton got support roughly comparable to that of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign in terms of percentages, but the urban turnout declined and was more than offset by a resurgent rural rightwing vote. Cisgender white males may play well with the pundit class – which itself leans in that direction[i] – but frankly should have higher barriers to endorsement from the left. This is true for Sanders, Biden and O’Rourke, as well as for several of the vanity candidates for the 2020 nomination. A power play aimed primarily at precluding DSA support for Elizabeth Warren is itself a pretty traditional male privilege strategy, and it is depressing to think that DSA has responded without more critical depth.

Another reality is that no centrist campaign has captured the presidency since 1996. Obama beat Clinton in 2008 by running to her left and his tragedy will always be his failure to govern accordingly. Now, to be honest, both Gore and Clinton did win the popular vote, but as the Vlad the vote-counter could tell you, the electoral college was the first gerrymander. Sadly, I think the run-left, govern center strategy is exactly what we can anticipate from the Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gilliland and Corey Booker campaigns, and outright centrist candidates (Biden, O’Rourke, and most of the vanity challengers) may well adopt the same strategy once they realize that the center-right has not held in the old Wall Street-Democratic Leadership Conference coalition. No question, the voters who wanted a left alternative to Clinton in 2008 are impatient – they  are insisting on a progressive candidate this time who actually is progressive. There were tells, as poker players would say, with Obama early on, Bob Casey signing up as one of his first and most ardent supporters, but that kind of red flag will get noticed this time around. Harris, for example, is already having to run away from her record as DA and Attorney General.

To be honest, I would vote for any Democrat  as an alternative to Trump, and if I thought that a centrist candidate would expand the Democratic Party vote, I would be more open to the Beltway/Wall Street whinging about how the base will push the party too far to the left. But that is a patently false argument – Trump and Pence offered the most unhinged reactionary extremism a major party has ever put up for election, got 48 percent of the vote, and still has 88 percent GOP support even after having been exposed to be an incompetent small-potatoes crime family with Russian Mafia support, if not outright direction.

This doesn’t mean that it’s a done deal that the Democrats are going to win in 2020. I still  think this race is Trump’s to lose but I see no sign that it will be well run, even though well-funded. If Trump does something smart, like dumps Pence for someone like Nikki Haley, who could mute the Dem’s POC support, then it will be almost impossible to defeat him. Fortunately, betting on Trump to do anything smart is a longshot at best. But articles that his campaign is as well organized as his clown car administration is not frankly scare me.

The pro-Bernie DSA argument is pretty straightforward. Sanders has been willing to use the S word going back to at least his days as the mayor of Burlington. Warren still talks around the question. AOC she is not. And Warren  has not always been as far to the progressive side as she has evolved into over the past 15 years. But Bernie has never played well with others and is still technically an independent, and up until the past few weeks he has been tone deaf on issues impacting people of color. Cultural politics has never been his thing, to the degree that it has become part of the brand, the charm of the Grumpy Grandpa persona.

But but but – we are over 18 months from election day and you & I both  know that whoever is the front runner in this campaign is going to be hammered long and hard, with the full electoral arsenal of corporate capital and the Kremlin. In ought 8, Clinton, Obama & everyone else knew that coming out of Iowa the race was going to telescope down into Hillary and the Anyone-but-Hillary candidate. Clinton was ready to shine against any white male she might find herself up against. There was only one problem with that strategy – against Obama she no longer looked like change, like the promise of new politics. Indeed, she looked like round 3 of a very problematic center-right Democratic administration.

This time around, I think we’re in for a long bruising series of elimination bouts. I think that Kamala Harris has some serious advantages in the faux-progressive lane, an intelligent, well-spoken woman who is both Asian and black and a former prosecutor. California will give her a big victory on Super Tuesday in March. And if the race should telescope down to just two candidates, she’s a more reliable bet to be one of them than is Sanders.

Which is why I want Elizabeth Warren still in the race all the way. And having the largest socialist organization in the past half-century double down on Bernie doesn’t advance his own campaign very much except insofar as it hurts hers. And that hurts us all.

We do need to keep the S word up front and center in 2020. There is no better or quicker method for spelling out the dramatic changes this country must have if it is going to turn this Titanic state away from several potential disasters before it becomes too late. It’s not that socialism is going to happen overnight, or even in under half a century, but its unrelenting critique of capital is the one widely available diagnosis not only as to what is wrong with the world, but as to which principles need to be put forward to change the rapidly worsening status quo. EVERY – repeat EVERY – major social problem of our time can in one way or another be tracked back to its roots in an economic model that privileges power and competition, demands ever expanding markets in the face of fixed natural resources and fundamentally divides one group of humans from others in order to accomplish its goals. That all has to change, and to change now.

The entire purpose of walls is to prevent any distribution of resources from becoming equal. The invention of race – a sociohistorical reality rather than a biological one – has everything to do keeping the conditions between groups different. As with white privilege, so too with male privilege, straight t privilege, Christian privilege, etc, etc. A pseudo-liberal Democratic party that “plays nice” with Wall Street and the tech billionaires – Clinton’s neoliberal sellout – does so at the expense of the lives of the vast majority of citizens. Even when a billionaire gives away the bulk of his wealth – Bill Gates is a case in point – doing so through philanthropy removes that altruism from the clear light of review and prioritization. Obama may well have reduced the number of troops engaged in Bush’s wars abroad, but he failed to initiate the national discussion we need to have about how to walk away from global imperialism before the rest of the world pulls us under out of its own self-defense. Every empire fails – it is what they do, and usually they impoverish the very nations that to enrich themselves by casting their nets of power to the far corners of the globe. It’s a lesson China will be learning down the road, but we have to act far sooner.

Thus we have to talk about capitalism, what it has done to this world, what it is still doing. And the best, surest, quickest way to connect ALL the dots from Putin’s kleptocracy to that of Wells Fargo and Mark Zuckerberg, from the suppression of Islamic tribes in western China to the sale of slots at Ivy League academies, from the cost of healthcare to the immiseration of the Palestinian people, is to throw the S word in everyone’s face. Further, as I think Representative Ocasio-Cortez has demonstrated repeatedly, I think we are ready for it. A centrist will lose to Trump. A socialist will ultimately have a far better chance. Therefore I want Bernie AND Elizabeth Warren to lead the debate toward 2020, not to have the race collapse in a simple Biden vs. Bernie vs. Kamala Harris three-way King of the Mountain. Because that I think sets Bernie up to be roped off and contained. And I don’t think we can wait until 2024 or 2028 to have the serious discussion we need. Otherwise we won’t be discussing who lost Afghanistan or Iraq in those later races, but rather who lost Manhattan and Miami Beach.

[i] Consider that MSNBC floods the final seven hours of its news day with six white men and Rachel Maddow. And while Chris Hays and Lawrence O’Donnell are among the finest commentators on television, Ari Melber’s faux hipness, Chuck Todd’s fawning incorporation of rightwing commentators posed as “balance,” Chris Matthews’ interruption of every single answer to any question he ever poses, and Brian Williams’ servile superlatives toward any guest willing to stay up long enough to still be wearing clothes during his time spot, is not precisely a ringing endorsement of available talent. And that’s just MSNBC.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Oscars as always are a mixed bag, often better for the couture than for the films that grab the gold. The Green Book was not a dreadful film and it may well pass the ten-year test, making the cable movie channel rounds a decade from now. But the Driving Mr Shirley plotline, cringe-worthy ending around the Christmas tree, and Viggo Mortenson’s noble (failed) attempt to make Italians look like Vikings (or vice versa) do not a great picture make. It certainly wasn’t as original or well done as Black Panther, The Favourite or Roma, or for that matter Cold War, If Beale Street Could Talk, or Leave No Trace, none of the last three even getting a best pic nomination. Which films will still matter in, say, 20 years? That test probably brings the list of worthy 2018 films down to just three: Roma, Cold War and The Favourite. A 50-year test might include Cold War alongside Roma, but only the latter is likely still to be considered a great film a century from now.

It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, pairs Roma up with Black Girl, Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 debut about a young woman who moves from Dakar to Antibes to work as a domestic servant. Today, Black Girl often occupies the slot of “founding film” for African cinema, a role in US cultural history that used to belong to the racist Klan epic, Birth of a Nation[i]. Black Girl and Roma would make a great double-bill, but I suspect the latter will look more like an homage to Italian neo-realism (turning the title into a subtle, possibly delicious pun). But Black Girl isn’t even Sembène’s second or third best film.

Prizes are always crazy and yet they have real-world consequences. What makes the Oscars is the opportunity to look at the stars vamping in great outfits, and isn’t that what made Busby Berkeley a hit 80 years ago? The Pulitzer gets coverage from every news organization because it’s about them[ii], but the creative awards have been random at best, great one year, head-scratching the next. I haven’t met a young writer who could tell me the last half-dozen winners of the Yale Younger Poets award in decades but when I was in college pretty much every MFA candidate could recite them without blinking. The MacArthur may bring fortune, but seldom fame – and generally has done a better job representing art forms other than literature.  The Levinson Prize, the one literary award in the US that pre-dates the Pulitzer, is all but anonymous.[iii] Having given awards to Pearl Buck and William Golding, the currently-suspended Nobel Prize in literature is hardly in any position to serve as a model of the process. When Czeslaw Milosz won the prize in 1980, it’s unlikely that many poets in the Bay Area – with a few very notable exceptions – considered him among the five best poets in Berkeley. For his accomplishment, the University of California did give him its most coveted award, a parking spot in his own name.

What is the purpose of such competition in the arts? The oft-cited purpose of awarding excellence would come across as more real if in fact excellence even appeared to remotely be a criterion. Calling attention to the medium itself seems a more likely, and more justifiable, goal. The Oscars are an ad for the movies just as the Pulitzer is an ad for poetry. Quite a few other awards exist to argue that different configurations of judges might be at least as well-qualified to identify excellence in a given field. And prizes like the American Book Awards and Lambda prizes do a lot of good simply pointing out that there is more to literature than cisgender white males.[iv]  

But what is the value in an ad for the medium? There appears to be some evidence that sales for award-winning films get a tic upward after receiving a major prize. But a secondary award, like best director or best foreign language film? Too bad for Roma, which will have to make do with glowing reviews and great word-of-mouth, where a win might have triggered a broad release in US theaters, still a good way to see a movie. Cold War continues to be a wonderful flic, the greatest Jerzy Koziński tale Truffaut ever filmed.[v] But mostly, it’s apt to remain a secret.

[i] One could argue that this alone tells you all you need to know about the history of colonialism in each place.

[ii] Which means that the end of print journalism, already quite visible on the horizon, will render the Pulitzers moot, at least as presently constituted.

[iii] Having won one, I know.

[iv] The Nobel gave awards to Selma Lagerlöf and Rabindranath Tagore within its first 15 years, and yet its long-term record hasn’t been especially good, 100 prizes to men, just 14 to women, the majority since 1990 Even within the last three decades, nearly twice as many men as women have received the award. Prizes to writers in English outnumber any other language by more than two to one. Of non-European languages, only Chinese and Japanese have received more than one prize. Tagore was the first and last Bengali writer to receive the award, and much of his writing was in English.

[v] Even though neither had anything to do with it.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019


Walt Whitman often is characterized as an apotheosis of the American cult of individualism with Song of Myself presented as exhibit A – Stephen Mitchell, for example, writes
Certainly the poem embodies an outrageous egotism, an “I” so shamelessly naked that even a bodhisattva can admire it[i],
but I hear something different. It may be because I have been teaching Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons at the same time that I have been rereading Song, in Mitchell’s faux version of the 1855 first publication in Leaves of Grass that presented the text as a single unbroken long poem, in a truer version of the first edition[ii],  and in the 1891 “deathbed” edition that replicates the 1881 final variant, broken now into a suggestive 52 sections and using a title that did not settle on the text until 1876. Song was published in six different compositional stages during Whitman’s life, with Mitchell’s 1993 edition representing what he himself characterizes as a “conflated version”.
Preparing my notes on Stein’s prose poems, I’m reminded that while Whitman was dying in Camden, an event reported on by the US press on a daily basis, the 17-year-old Stein[iii] was in Baltimore preparing to attend Radcliffe and certainly was aware of America’s most famous and thoroughly out gay poet. Matt Miller has written of Whitman’s influence, for example, on The Making of Americans[iv], a title that fairly screams it out and whose scope recalls the ambition of Song if not the whole of Leaves of Grass. 43 years ago, G. Thomas Couser observed that:
two of our most eccentric writers and autobiographers – Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein – seem to share many intriguing similarities.[v]
True that. But where Couser locates these similarities in time and identity, what I hear instead is a tic in number, very nearly a drumbeat of the plural.

In the original 1855 edition, it jumps right out in the sixth line:
Houses and roof perfumes . . . . the shelves are crowded with perfumes
By the deathbed version,  two additional stanzas had been inserted into  the poem, pushing this line into the second section while converting Whitman’s four-period ellipsis into a comma, and trading in roof for the rhyme of rooms, a revision that spells out the primacy of sound in this text:
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes
Rooms also has the advantage of being plural. The number of multiples in just the first few pages of the poem are stunning:
·         Echoes, ripples, and buzzed whispers
·         green leaves and dry leaves
·         darkcolored sea-rocks
·         belched words . . . . words
·         A few light kisses . . . . a few embraces . . . . a reaching around of arms
That is a page-and-a-half from the Mitchell. In addition to having composed a 50-page poem that favors exposition over narrative,  Whitman has written one in love with the plural:
Do I  contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain  multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh,
The conversion of roof to rooms is fortuitous, as Rooms is the title of the third and final section of Tender Buttons, the chapter of Stein’s book that is not a series of short, witty prose poems but very nearly an  essay (in Stein’s unique manner) on method. Buttons likewise concentrates “toward them that are nigh” as the world it conveys is very much that of bourgeois women of pre-First World War Paris, poem titles filled with hats, coats, umbrellas, and “a long dress,” with relatively few references to men beyond soldiers and that “white hunter.”  
Plurals categorize right where creative writing workshops argue that one should focus on the specific. In theory the singular is concrete, the plural general. It’s not an accident that we target in on the wheelbarrow, sensing a softer, almost fuzzy focus on the chickens. Yet as that shipwreck of the singular, George Oppen, reminds us at the start of Of Being Numerous,
There are things
We live among ‘and to see them
Is to know ourselves’.
That is very much what Stein is getting at with her invocation of familiars throughout Tender Buttons. And it is also what I hear throughout Song of Myself.
Whitman’s language in this sense is the antithesis of Pound’s, whose preference is for specifics drenched in historical & sometimes mythological connotation. Which also was what Williams heard in The Waste Land:
Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on a point to escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself – rooted in the locality which should give it fruit[vi]
O stars of heaven,
O suns . . . . O grass of graves . . . . O perpetual transfers and promotions
Lists like this from the 49th canto of the deathbed Song lack Stein’s percussive alliteration, but, once stripped of the romantic “O,” the major difference is between Stein’s invocation of an interior world, household objects and food, over Whitman’s wider ranging, often more abstract or “transcendental” categories. Whitman’s plurals can be concrete, as with the twenty-eight young men observed splashing in the water in the 11th section or the
Blacksmiths with grimed and hairy chests […]
The lithe sheer of their waists plays even with their massive arms
Overhand the hammers swing, overhand so slow, overhand so sure,
They do not hasten, each man hits in his place
He’s closer here to Williams than Stein, employing the plural to set up a close-up. Looking at the following famous stanza, you will see that even the singular nouns other than “I,” categorize. They may be singulars but they’re plurals at heart.
Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great-grandsons around them,
In walls of adobie, in canvas tents, rest hunters and trappers after their day’s sport,
The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these and all I weave the song of myself.

First presented at the Five Up on Walt pre-birthday celebration at Kelly Writers House, Feb. 5, 2019

[i] “Editor’s Preface,” Song of Myself, edited by Stephen Mitchell, Shambhala, Boulder, 2018, p. xi.

[ii] Online in a Roslings Ditgital Publications PDF available from the Western Illinois University website:

[iii] The same age I was when William Carlos Williams died in 1963. It was Williams who opened the door of poetry to me through his poem “The Desert Music.”

[iv] Miller, “Making of Americans: Whitman and Stein’s Poetics of Inclusion,” Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 3, Autumn 2009

[v] Couser, “Of Time and Identity: Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein as Autobiographers,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 17, no. 4, Winter 1976

[vi] Unsigned biographical essay on Williams on the Poetry Foundation website.