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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.



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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Normalizing The Extraordinary in Medellín, Part One

Dec22

by: on December 22nd, 2015 | 1 Comment »

I arrived in Medellín, Colombia a few days after a man who claimed to be acting with divine guidance killed three and wounded nine at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.The very next morning I learned that 14 people had been killed and 22 seriously injured at an attack on a holiday party at the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health.

A day or so later, “The Daily Show” ran a montage of clips of President Obama responding to a series of mass shootings. Watching that, you start to ponder the normalization of terror.

Many people in the U.S. like to think of Americans as civilized. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone righteously condemn the barbarism of another society without noticing the scale of our own. So I can’t imagine a better place than Medellín – whose name evokes in the minds of my fellow citizens images of the narco-terrorism that allowed drug lord Pablo Escobar to hold sway over the city until he was killed in 1993 – to explore the question of how to transform a society in the grip of fear and violence into a functioning civil society.

Are you surprised that the answer is art and culture?For decades, I’ve been asking people to envision the commitment to communal creativity fully expressed in public programs, to dream into a future shaped by their largest vision.

Are you surprised when I tell you that in Medellín, I saw this future and felt as if I had walked into a dream, the extraordinary made real? I promise you I am not romanticizing: Medellín is a city of 2.5 million with a significant share of poverty, gangs, and crime. For some of the poorest, Escobar was seen as a Robin Hood and “civil society” doesn’t exactly ring a bell. The challenges of class, race, and gender privilege persist. I am not claiming to have discovered heaven on earth, but something almost as extraordinary for an observer coming from the U.S. circa 2015: a public sector that has embodied and supported the public interest in culture with tremendous forethought, intentionality, and caring; and results to match that intention.

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USDAC Statement on Syrian Refugee Crisis

Nov19

by: on November 19th, 2015 | Comments Off

Note to my readers: This is the text of a statement released today by the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, where I have the honor of serving as Chief Policy Wonk. Signatories include the full USDAC National Cabinet, members of the first and second cohorts of Cultural Agents, and members of the Action Squad. Please share!

The USDAC calls on all artists and creative activists to use our gifts for compassion and justice, sharing images, performances, experiences, writings, and other works of art that raise awareness, build connection, cultivate empathy, and inspire us to welcome those who are forced from homes that are no longer safe.

More than four million Syrians have been driven from their homes, becoming refugees. Although state governors hold no power to bar entry to the U.S., a short time after the acts of terrorism that took lives in Beirut and Paris, more than half have issued statements rejecting Syrian refugees within their borders. Polls have shown that many Americans oppose accepting Syrian refugees. Poll results from the 1930s and 1940s showed majority opposition to accepting German child refugees and Jews; and from the 1970s majority opposition to the admission of refugees from Southeast Asia.

Once again, we must ask:

  • Who are we as a people?
  • What do we stand for?
  • How do we want to be remembered?

As a culture of fear and isolation? Or as a culture that values every human life, extending love and compassion to newcomers needing refuge?


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Still, Life: Zurbaran and Van Morrison

Nov5

by: on November 5th, 2015 | Comments Off

For so many years, wherever I moved (I lost count around 25 moves), I hung a print of Zurbarán’s Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose on the bedroom wall, positioning it so I could lie in bed filling my gaze with its sublimity. The glass was chipped in one move, but I went on hanging it up, thinking of the cracked corner as a sort of battle-scar, a brittle badge of nomad honor.

Francisco_de_Zurbarán_-_Still-life_with_Lemons,_Oranges_and_Rose_-_WGA26062

I wish I had that print still, but it disappeared somewhere along the way, one of the countless objects I’ve left behind. I’ve been thinking lately—not exactly that I may have lost a bit of my mooring in the pressures and complications of the move we made two months ago, but that I need to refasten the cables, reconnect the anchor.


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Imitating Realness: Art and Authenticity

Oct23

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

The older I get, the more I interrogate my own critique of the new-new thing. Even the quickest retrospective glance reveals cultural history as a kind of ping-pong: the oldsters are appalled by the youngers, and when the youngers grow old, they are briefly surprised at finding their parents’ words emerging from their own mouths. Then they get used to it, and the generations roll on.

So take this with a pinch of trepidation, or at least a grain of salt, but I’m feeling more and more fed up with what seems to me to be a wildly misguided and rapidly emergent impulse in art and commerce, which is to hold nothing sacred, to mount an imitation of realness in which both art and authenticity are left lying on the studio floor.

Take the case of the canned parrots of Telegraph Hill. In San Francisco, that rocky North Beach neighborhood is famous for its wild parrots, tended for many years by musician Mark Bittner. He was profiled in Judy Irving’s lovely 2003 film, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, and in Bittner’s own book of the same name.

Recently, some young entrepreneurs opening the kind of trendily unspecific shop which seems more and more ubiquitous as San Francisco becomes increasingly unaffordable decided to intrigue passers-by with a display of cans labelled “Boiled Parrot in Gravy.” The display alludes to Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, of course, and the contents were carefully chosen to reflect the shop’s aspirational brand as described by the filmmaker/graphic designer who created the installation: “a curated modern general store for the neighborhood, with a creative, craft and art focus … it’ll be sort of a neighborhood clubhouse, with a retail angle.”


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Breaking The Gentlemen’s Agreement

Oct16

by: on October 16th, 2015 | 4 Comments »

I believe that the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of the drug companies, the power of the corporate media is so great that the only way we really transform America and do the things that the middle class and working class desperately need is through a political revolution when millions of people begin to come together and stand up and say: Our government is going to work for all of us, not just a handful of billionaires.

These words were spoken by Senator Bernie Sanders during the first Democratic Party debate among presidential candidates who hope to win the party’s nomination. The Washington Post has made a full transcript available online. In it, the word “billionaire” appears 13 times, all of them voiced by Sanders. Here’s another sample:

I am the only candidate running for president who is not a billionaire, who has raised substantial sums of money, and I do not have a super PAC.


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My Collective Cultural Imagination Road Trip

Sep30

by: on September 30th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

My husband is driving this noisy 16-foot truck filled with his studio materials and tools to our new home in New Mexico. A month ago, we caravanned southeast along this same route: part one of the move, our worldly goods. If I’ve been MIA (and I surely have), that’s why – packing up, moving, unpacking, all the arrangements attendant thereto, and fulfilling my work obligations have consumed months. For the first time in ages, sitting in the passenger seat, I have the mental space to ponder instead of only to plan and execute.

I’m writing from that stretch of I-5 heading south dotted with a legion of wind turbines. They’re completely still today, ranks of stately sentries marching into the distance. They fool you. Varying in size from gigantic to merely large, they make it impossible to know whether they signal distance – perspective – or stature.

Which goes to the heart of what matters most.What kind of society do we want? One in which bigshots control the frame, or a society of equals who happen to be standing in different places?


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