Tikkun Daily button
Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard
Arlene Goldbard is a writer, speaker, social activist, and consultant who works for justice, compassion, and honor in every sphere, from the interpersonal to the transnational.



Let Them Talk: The Piano Prince

May2

by: on May 2nd, 2016 | No Comments »

If I asked you to name a prodigiously talented, extravagantly flamboyant, African American, sexually fluid musician with a body like an exclamation point and a taste for the rococo whose premature death left the world a little grayer, of course you’d say “Prince,”and you’d be right. Or half-right.

Every since Prince’s April 21st death was reported – ever since a tidal wave of mourning began to gather force, leaving testimonies and tributes and tall tales in its wake – I’ve been thinking surfing the Zeitgeist, thinking about James Booker.

If you don’t know Booker’s music or his story, start with the 2013 film Bayou Maharajah (it streams from all the usual sources), which traces the pianist-singer’s life from its 1939 start, his coming up in the home of Baptist-minister parents in Bay St. Louis, Louisiana, to its sad, sorry end in an emergency room waiting-area in New Orleans’ Charity Hospital, where he was born. His story is full of twisted luck and uncanny moments: the film’s sequence where a dozen friends relate contradictory stories of how Booker lost his eye. The sequence where Harry Connick, Jr., demonstrates Booker’s baroquely syncopated piano technique, which Connick as a child studied firsthand (Connick, Sr. was a New Orleans District Attorney who traded Booker a get-out-of-jail-free card for his son’s piano lessons). The sequence where a young guitarist struggling to keep up with Booker onstage describes how the musician maintained his almost unfollowable pace – more notes than any ten fingers could possible play – all the while trying on a succession of glitter-studded eyepatches, hoping to find the one that most appeal to a man in the audience he hoped to attract.

After his 1954 debut as “Little Booker,” he played with just about everybody from Fats Domino to Freddy King, Aretha Franklin, even Ringo Starr and the Doobie Brothers before issuing an amazing string of live and studio albums, many solo. Booker taught Dr. John to play the organ. He studied classical piano as a child. He played a version of “The Minute Waltz” (dubbing it “The Black Minute Waltz”), a ton of standards (I love his “Angel Eyes,” for instance) adaptations of pop songs (Doc Pomus’ “Lonely Avenue”), classic blues like “St. James Infirmary,” and original songs like the mysteriously allusive “Papa Was a Rascal,” opened and closed by these lines:

There was a sweet white woman down in Savanna GA
She made love to my daddy in front of the KKK.

You know we all got to watch out for the CIA.

Booker’s addiction to opiates started in childhood, in the aftermath of a terrible and traumatic auto accident. In 1970, he spent time in Angola for drug possession. The rest of his life he rode a surreal roller-coaster: successful gigs in the U.S. and Europe; throwing it away by ditching recording sessions to get high as soon as he got paid; worshipped by astounded fellow musicians; treated like dirt by every racist, homophobic institution that crossed his path. Knowing how good he was made it all worse. By Booker’s last years, he was seeing the CIA around every corner, tapping into not only his deeds but his thoughts. You can call it paranoia, and it would be hard to argue with that, except to say that the thicket of everyday hostility a black, gay, one-eyed, drug-addicted musician would be expected to hack his way through in mid-twentieth century America could make it very hard to see the world as a welcoming place.

Read more...

Agenda 21 for Culture

Apr8

by: on April 8th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

Ed Carroll, a friend in Europe, sent me a query:”How come there was not one mayor in the USA that was prompted to submit an application to the Agenda 21 for culture? … The absence on the Map is quite extraordinary.”

My reply? “What a good question!”

“The map” is a graphic on the international award page for cities and regional and local governments that have adopted cultural policies “linking the values of culture (heritage, diversity, creativity and transmission of knowledge) with democratic governance, citizen participation and sustainable development.”

This time around, 83 cities and local governments submitted proposals.As you will see when you click on the map, not a single one came from the United States.

You could say this is unsurprising, since no U.S.-based local government association takes part in the sponsoring organization, the committee on culture of the world association of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), “the global platform of cities, organizations and networks to learn, to cooperate and to launch policies and programmes on the role of culture in sustainable development.” Its mission is “to promote culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development through the international dissemination and the local implementation of Agenda 21 for culture.”

Read more...

The Boys Who Said NO!

Apr8

by: on April 8th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

At the Indiegogo site for The Boys Who Said NO!, a film-in-progress directed by my old friend Judith Ehrlich, you can read producer Chris Jones’ 1967 letter from his draft board in San Jose, warning him of the penalty for refusing to register with the Selective Service System. A week before, Jones had sent this note to the draft board:

My non-cooperation by many will be considered traitorous. But I assure you all that it is the only course of action which I can conscientiously take. My beliefs are founded in a deep love for America, for the democracy it can be, for the lasting peace and prosperity for all people, and for the joys of little children which force me to say: Stop the war. End the draft. I refuse to register.

With a glad heart, Christopher Jones

I anticipate the film will live up to the inspiring clip they have posted for prospective donors,and hope that many others will join the folks who’ve already contributed nearly half the target amount in exchange for perks provided by the filmmakers and key characters such as Joan Baez, Daniel Ellsberg, and David Harris. The footage I’ve seen features a wonderful conversations between Harris, founder of the The Resistance and deeply committed to nonviolence, and SDS/Weather Underground veteran Mark Rudd, who now wishes he had chosen a similar path. I saw plenty of familiar faces interviewed and kept scanning the crowd scenes for more.

You see, I worked for years for a draft counseling service in San Francisco. It started out as an activity of the associated students at San Francisco State University, then got pushed off campus during the 1968 strike, settling a block or so from Mission High in San Francisco. The people who did this work of counseling young men facing the draft had different motives: one man’s conscience had been awakened while on active duty, and he wanted to help others avoid paying the same price; others were lifelong pacifists; some opposed the war on political grounds and wanted to make it impossible to fill induction quotas. I’d started out helping my husband apply for conscientious objector status and discovered it was something I could do for others. And to a great extent, we were successful: protests were massive; it indeed became impossible to fill draft quotas in the Bay Area; widespread refusal and disruption cost the system a lot; and by 1973, the baroque structure of deferments mostly gave way to a lottery as the war wound down.

No matter how we draft counselors came to the work, we all recognized a responsibility to disrupt the class and race biases that ran the system; and we all saw something sacred in these encounters with men who had been forced to interrogate their consciences, knowing that the choices they made could affect not only their own futures but the future of this country.

Read more...

On Race, Religion, and Human Complexity

Mar10

by: on March 10th, 2016 | 4 Comments »

In a debate in Flint, MI, on Sunday, Bernie Sanders, asked to describe his “racial blind spots,” said this:

“When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto – you don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car.”

The Clinton campaign quickly mobilized to condemn him for a raft of implications, saying that not all Black people live in ghettos, that not all people who live in ghettos are Black – many are immigrants who belong to other racial categories, for instance. Some people objected that not all white people lack understanding of racism’s impact, others that there are plenty of whites who know poverty firsthand.

This is a rehearsal of politics-as-usual, of course, in which each faux pas is ammunition, and huge edifices of argument are loaded onto the usage of a word or phrase, (in Bob Dylan’s immortal words) “just like a mattress balanced on a bottle of wine.” It will happen again before November, many times. I doubt many of my progressive friends would take exception to Sanders’ underlying point – however poorly expressed – that many white people have not experienced overt discrimination and harassment on account of their race and may therefore lack adequate empathy and understanding.

I have no objection to holding candidates to a high standard of speech, so long as the standard isn’t double. But as for me, especially when it comes to elections, Dorothy Day of Catholic Worker fame is my guide: “I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.” (I have earlier written about why I choose Sanders’ actions over Clinton’s words.)

Someone who shares the Clinton campaign’s condemnation posted Sanders’ original statement and subsequent attempt at clarification to a progressive e-list I take part in.One response focused on calling an “old white male” to task for communicating badly on race. Another noted the word “ghetto” originally referred to areas restricted to Jews. (To be precise, the term in Venetian dialect was ghèto and came into usage in 1516 to formalize the boundaries on Jews’ residence and rights.) And that Sanders’ own family history reflected this experience: his father had emigrated from Poland, while many relatives who stayed behind perished in the Holocaust. Sanders attributes his own politicization to awareness of these events.

The “old white male” commenter retorted that “Jewish refugees from Europe were probably white. Just sayin’.”

Read more...

The Antidote to Absurdity: Winona LaDuke and Mililani Trask

Mar7

by: on March 7th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

You have to tell the story of how it happened, how you didn’t ask permission and it was okay. Because we have become a people who almost have to ask permission to do anything. And that is folly, because the people you are asking permission from have no right to grant you permission.

Winona LaDuke

How do you feel?This past Saturday at services, the rabbi asked congregants to call out reasons why it was good to have Shabbat, an island in time that grants respite from the world of doing. “As a refuge from the madness,” I found myself saying, “as a reminder that something else exists.”

This country is enduring a long bout of existential whiplash. When my attention turns rightward, a wave of nausea mounts as I consider the crass vitriol that emanates from that man-sized carbuncle of ego, Donald Trump. People seem to be asking his permission to expose their most fearful and belligerent beliefs; and he radiates a serene confidence in his right to grant it.

I see all sorts of analyses trying to explain Trump’s popularity, but they don’t settle my stomach. Reading about the rise of authoritarianism – of a longing for top-down order, of the will to submit to a leader who promises safety from whatever threatens privilege – I appreciate a neat theory. But there’s a big gap between plausible theory and actual proof or even predictability. The desire to make sense overwhelms me, and so far, I’ve failed to bat away the looming questions careening through my mind.

Gazing leftward, I am inspired by the Sanders campaign and delighted by the progress it is making.But a very expensive horse race keeps getting in the way: tons of inside baseball chatter about electability, as if predictions were more than guesses in an election that has stumped even polling wizard Nate Silver. I keep meeting people who seem to be asking permission to support a candidate whose values and aims they endorse; without permission, they may hold their noses and vote for the candidate chosen by those who’ve arrogated the label “realist” – and the right to pronounce what’s “practical” – to themselves.

Read more...

Tell Your Story Now!

Jan26

by: on January 26th, 2016 | Comments Off

It’s simple! Open a blank email, write a story from your experience that illuminates the state of our union, add your name and location, and email it to psotu2016@ctznapp.com.Read on to learn why.

The People’s State of the Union has another week to go, and we already have some amazing stories to share. All of the quotes below are excerpts from stories that have already been uploaded to the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture’s #PSOTU2016 Story Portal.

For this nine-day National Action, people around the country are forming Story Circles in their homes, schools, workplaces, places of worship, and community groups. They are telling their own stories their own ways, either in response to the #PSOTU2016 questions or questions they choose themselves:

  • Share a story you think the next President absolutely needs to hear.
  • Share a story about something you have experienced that gave you an insight into the state of our union.
  • Share a story about a time you felt a sense of belonging – or the opposite – to this nation.

Even if there’s no Story Circle planned for your own community, you can share any story that helps shine a light on the state of our union. Just type your story into a blank email, add an image if you like, and send it to psotu2016@ctznapp.com. It will automatically become part of the feed that goes to the #PSOTU2016 Story Portal.

If you add your name, location, and email, anyone who is moved by your story or wants to connect with you will be able to find you.

This woman asked me to explain to her how it was possible that Islam justifies killing so many people in the name of religion. She said all she knew of Muslims was what she saw in the media, and she wanted to know more. And I realized I had a huge opportunity to give this woman some insight, to help shift her thinking and to show at least one person some of the beauty in a religion whose capacity for beauty is so rarely discussed in this country, during this short time we had together.

And I thought: what can I do in my life to make these opportunities come up more often? It’s so rare to be able get to a safe space in the conversation where people feel they won’t be judged, where they’ll be able to engage in a way that they might otherwise be afraid to, and ask questions that allow for the possibility of growth and understanding instead of unexamined fear. (Mia Bertelli, Santa Fe, NM)

It’s not too late to host your own Story Circle either. You can sign up here to download a free Toolkit and find other resources to host a Story Circle before #PSOTU2016 ends on January 31.A Story Circle event can be a few friends around a kitchen table or a hundred people dividing into circles of folding chairs in a high-school gym. It’s an amazing experience of democratic dialogue where everyone’s story counts and every story deserves attention and respect.

It wasn’t until 1995 that I got involved in Labor organizing in Chinatown. There was a case with a restaurant paying their workers 75 cents an hour. This was 1995. I was 16 years old and thought I’d see a bunch of hippies in Birkenstocks protesting. I had no idea I was going to see people who looked just like me – Chinese immigrants, working class families. I felt, for the first time, a sense of belonging. My family got involved. The workers won that case, winning back $1.1 million for nearly 60 workers in 1997. (Betty Yu, Brooklyn, NY)

Most of us are full of opinions (myself included). When you ask about the state of our union, we quickly tell you it’s solid or in need of repair, who’s helping and who’s not. Of course, our assessments don’t always agree. Sometimes the disagreement is so profound that discussion turns into argument and friends into foes. But when we share actual stories instead of opinions – specific moments we’ve seen or experienced – several things change.

Read more...

Reagan and Trump: Tragedy and Farce

Jan24

by: on January 24th, 2016 | 5 Comments »

“History repeats itself,” wrote Karl Marx in 1852, “first as tragedy, second as farce.”He was referring to Napoleon I and his nephew Louis Napoleon. One hundred and sixty-four years later, my subject is Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.

People talk about “the Sixties” as a heyday of activism in the U.S., and they’re not wrong. I feel so grateful to have come up in a time when social imagination was encouraged, when social experimentation was rampant, when the desire to expand human liberty and human rights pervaded so many communities.

But the Sixties lasted more than a decade.Well into the Seventies, social action for justice and equity was going strong. It took a long time for the movement against the Vietnam War to succeed in stopping the war – or at least in exhausting the American people’s belief in the wisdom of our war leaders – but finally, the draft effectively ended in 1973 in response to massive protest and civil disobedience, and when Saigon fell in 1975, the war effectively ended too. There was a sizable People’s Bicentennial to counter the triumphalist official celebrations in 1976. Through the late Seventies, quite a bit of public money was still being invested in community development, including public service jobs that supported artists working in community to the tune of $200 million a year. It was by no means heaven on earth, but the enormous civil and human rights protests of the Sixties and early Seventies had made an indelible impression, creating the fervent hope and tentative expectation that justice would grow.

Back then, I lived in a world of the like-minded: San Francisco in the Seventies had not yet succumbed to the extreme gentrification brought on by high-tech corporate occupiers, and there were legions of organizers working from the micro – block-by-block politics – to the macropolitics of incipient globalization (a term that only began to take hold in the Seventies).

Here are two of the things that were widely believed in my circles at the time:

Social progress, in the form of the expansion of human rights and increasing equity, would continue. The force of history was unstoppable.

It didn’t make much difference who was elected President; we didn’t feel represented by either major party, and neither acted at all accountable to our values.

To say this was naive is drastic understatement.Within a startlingly short time following his election, Reagan had enacted a program that had been carefully planned in collaboration with the far-Right Heritage Foundation, abolishing public service employment and most community development funding, and going on to break unions, cut budgets for every type of social good, and reward his friends and supporters with tax-breaks and sweetheart deals.

Read more...

World So Undivided: John Trudell

Dec30

by: on December 30th, 2015 | Comments Off

I sat down to write about John Trudell’s music, thinking to write the second in a series I’m calling “A Life in Art.”Back in November, I described the blogs in this series as “turning on a work of art – painting, sculpture, music, poetry, film, maybe even cooking – that has sustained me in a moment that yearned for consolation or fulfillment or the reassurance of beauty, the presence of the sublime.”

I sat down to think about Trudell dying three weeks ago, too young at 69,and then the news came through that the police officers who killed 12 year-old Tamir Rice would not be indicted. Rice’s mother heard the news along with everyone else, via an official statement from the prosecutor’s office. Across the U.S., people are calling on the Department of Justice to prosecute Tamir Rice’s killers.

I sat down to listen to the song called “Tina Smiled,”an achingly beautiful loving lament in Trudell’s characteristic spoken-word style, backed by the yearning guitar of the late Jesse Ed Davis and the drumming and chanting of Quiltman and others who later made up the core of Trudell’s band Bad Dog. Like so much of Trudell’s work, the song layers the exquisite and the shattered, the artist’s memory of love and pleasure side-by-side with his awareness of a deep brokenness at the heart of this society.

Read more...

Normalizing The Extraordinary in Medellín, Part Two

Dec28

by: on December 28th, 2015 | Comments Off

Note: This is the second of two parts on Arlene Goldbard’s visit to cultural development projects in Medellín, Colombia, in early December; you’ll find the first here.

Ana Cecilia Restrepo, the director of La Red de Escuelas de Musica de Medellín – that Colombian city’s network of music schools that are much more than schools, as you can read in Part One – was driving me back to my hotel on the last night of my stay. Medellín is widely recognized as a city that has successfully launched its transformation from a place terrorized by drug lords and their gangs, in which going out at night was basically not an option, to one explicitly and assertively aligned with its own remaking. See Michael Kimmelman’s New York Times piece from 2012, for instance, or this account of Medellín being named Innovative City of the Year in 2013, particularly for its new transportation infrastructure.

As she drove, Ana told me one of the city’s famous rejuvenation stories. Below, I share it with you. But first I want to tell you about my visit to an amazing cultural center in Medellín.

Read more...

Clay Feet Abounding: The Presumption of Progressive Virtue

Dec23

by: on December 23rd, 2015 | 1 Comment »

There’s a scandal swirling around progressive organizing circles right now.An impressively large number of women have come forward to accuse Trevor FitzGibbon, principal of a large and widely respected public relations firm employed by countless movement organizations, of sexual harrassment and sexual assault. Find the story on Vox and elsewhere.

The FitzGibbon charges have stimulated lively and painful discussions online and in person. Over the last few days, I’ve read dozens of posts from women who now feel invited, even impelled, to share stories of offenses committed against themselves and their colleagues. I’m certain the patterns will be familiar to you, dear readers: women who endured repeated humiliation but feared speaking out because of reprisals; women who spoke out and were ignored; women who rebuffed advances from men at work who had power over them, and found themselves tacitly stigmatized and denied opportunity until they moved on; women who were fed up to the breaking point with the daily repetition of mundane offenses – men who steal your ideas for their own, being ignored in meetings, casually offensive comments on one’s body or dress, and so on.

Before I move on, let me stipulate that women can be abusers and men can be victims too. It just doesn’t happen nearly so much as the other way round.

I recognize that gender-based offenses are widespread and can easily feel like a separate matter from all the other injuries of class, race, and so on we humans mete out. But the heart of the matter is always abuse rooted in power differentials, whether those stem from the instrinsic privilege granted white skin or male gender in this society, or from other gaps in social and personal status.

I’ve been engaged in social justice organizing for my entire adult life. At two critical points, I had to learn a lesson about the ubiquity of clay feet. The first was when as a young artist I was forced to recognize that great creative skill and capacity don’t equate to either goodness or kindness, that talent, self-love, and recognition from others can inflate egos to the bursting point. The second was when as a young organizer I was forced to recognize that working for a good cause doesn’t make you a good person, that a great love for The People and Justice as categories doesn’t guarantee that you will treat individual members of the species with compassion and respect – let alone justly.

The first step to addressing abuses of power is always the same: let go of the illusion that people whose politics you find virtuous are going to be more ethical, compassionate, or just in their behavior than people whose politics you find objectionable.People are people, full stop.

Read more...