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Dystopia Chronicles, Part Two: What Will We Do For Freedom?

Nov14

by: on November 14th, 2016 | No Comments »

I often ask myself how seriously we Americans take our freedoms. It’s a good question, because for each person who risks standing for the full freedoms promised in the Constitution, there are many who allow them to atrophy from disuse. If that tendency takes over, it would be quite easy for extreme-right Supreme Court judges to deliver the death of a thousand cuts that could render freedom a nostalgic memory.

There’s a tremendous ferment of discussion and activity among progressives right now, some still hoping to head off a Trump administration, others to ameliorate its likely excesses, others to support anti-Trump demonstrators and protect them from persecution, others to explore the possibilities that remain for negotiation with an administration without clear or congruent positions on many policy issues.

I blogged right after the election about the meaning of the shock I felt. Many people responded that they were feeling something similar. But just as many posted their own criticisms of the naivete of the left, saying that outcome was predictable: the racism of white voters had virtually guaranteed Trump’s election. Sometimes these points are generalized: voters of color, I’ve been told this week, knew Trump would be elected. This would definitely be news to friends of mine who are deeply involved in the electoral system and were certain right up to the election that Clinton would win. In short, I’m never interested in engaging an argument that turns on who predicted the future more accurately: especially when the argument takes place after the election.

No, the conversation banging on a door in my head right now, begging to be let out, is in the title of this blog: what will we do for freedom?

Here in Santa Fe last night, I moderated a panel with members of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk band/performance art/human rights group. (There’s a ton of information online about them, but two documentary films will give a picture of some of their origins and actions: Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer; and Pussy Riot: The Movement. Just google them for videos, press conferences, and statements galore.)

What impresses me most about the group is the over-the-top courage its members have displayed in defying Russian authorities, at enormous personal cost, to stand for the right to dress in multicolored balaklavas, shift dresses, and tights, thrashing guitars and punching the air as they burn an image of Russian President Vladimir Putin, or crash Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior to call on the Virgin Mary to embrace feminism. Masha Alyokhina was on last night’s panel. She and Nadia Tolokonnikova spent over a year incarcerated under conditions worse even than U.S. prisons following her conviction for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” in the Cathedral protest. Amnesty International, Madonna, and countless other artists and human rights groups came to their support, training the eyes of the world on Pussy Riot and thus helping to ensure members’ survival.

Her incarceration inspired Masha to protest prison human rights violations, winning an unheard-of three lawsuits against the system. Although Pussy Riot the activist art group cultivates a punk aesthetic of chaotic outrage, members’ response to the repressions that smother Russian civil society have also been highly organized, including the creation of MediaZona, an astoundingly popular independent news agency that focuses particularly on the court and prison system, represented last night by a passionate young journalist and editor, Sasha Bogino.

To moderate the panel, I read as much as I could about the situation in Russia, and found myself engaged in the pre-election question of similarities and connections between Trump and Putin. The Russian-American writer Masha Gessen (who is interviewed in Pussy Riot: The Movement) wrote back in July about the two personalities and what they may mean post-election, well worth reading for its indictment of the failure of imagination:

“I just can’t imagine Trump becoming the nominee,” many said at the time. But a lack of imagination is not an argument: it’s a limitation. It is essential to recognize this limitation and try to overcome it. That is a difficult and often painful thing to do.

But it is Gessen’s post-election rules for surviving autocracy that stick in my mind now, holding the line against the inane good sportsmanship that offers the autocrat an invitation to prove he is not one, allowing precious time to pass while his true colors flood the nation. Especially this rule:

Rule #3: Institutions will not save you. It took Putin a year to take over the Russian media and four years to dismantle its electoral system; the judiciary collapsed unnoticed. The capture of institutions in Turkey has been carried out even faster, by a man once celebrated as the democrat to lead Turkey into the EU. Poland has in less than a year undone half of a quarter century’s accomplishments in building a constitutional democracy.

I am not in the futile business of making predictions. To me, it seems just as likely that Masha Gessen’s cautions must be urgently heeded as that Alex Young’s “The Pendulum Swings Both Ways,” reminding us that this too shall pass—and more quickly than we imagine—if only we open our eyes and use the power we have, describes what is to come.

There are countless demonstrations being planned, including a massive Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration. There are many petitions circulating to abolish the Electoral College, head off Trump’s announced determination to circumvent the blind-trust anti-self-dealing rules that seek to prevent Presidents from making policies that directly benefit their personal fortunes. There will be powerful new organizing campaigns of every type.

And then there’s this question for each of us, individually and together: what will we do for freedom?

Here in the U.S., we still have access to the means of democratic dialogue, protest, and action that enable a truly mass movement, as we have been reminded most recently with Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie campaign, and more. In the case of Pussy Riot, protest in Russia is necessarily sustained by brave individuals, many of them artists, standing up in the secure knowledge they will be punished for their courage in the service of liberty. The risks have outweighed the possibilities of mass mobilization thus far. But here we still have a degree of freedom that—if we fight to preserve it—can turn the tide.

I can’t begin to aspire to the fearlessness and determination of Masha Alyokhina. But I can be inspired by her example to avoid tumbling into the ocean of fear and despair that awaits those who abandon hope in the face of a Trump presidency. This is a spiritual challenge as much as a political one, a cultural challenge even more than a political one. And so I am adding a fourth question to my litany:

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

“Nothing Without You,” Fantastic Negrito.

Now, some of us may need a reason
and some of us, we can fake the truth
and you and I, you and I are so pissed off
at the way this world has treated us
so tell me what you’re gonna do

Let Them Talk: The Piano Prince

May2

by: on May 2nd, 2016 | Comments Off

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.

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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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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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Blesed are the Meek: A Tribute to B.B. King

May16

by: on May 16th, 2015 | Comments Off

B.B. King — the king of the blues — is dead. He made his transition from time to eternity on May 14, 2015 at age 89 leaving behind a legacy of artistic expression that helps us all to hear and feel and know the complexity of our humanity. His life was an interpretation of the wisdom Jesus the Christ taught: “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

We live in a world that mistakes meekness for weakness. We think humility is humiliation, and we count gentleness equal to cowardice. This is a deception. The Greek word that is translated as meek in several versions of the Bible – praus – also means humility and gentleness. To be meek is a kind of power, the power to endure, the power of patient striving, the power to bear the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to and then wait for our just due. The life of B.B. King shows us a man born into a context of grinding poverty and vicious racism, but he was also born into a family of faith. His mother took him to church as a child, and it was within his faith community and a community of family and friends where he found his sense of self-worth.

A preacher friend of his family came over to eat on Sunday afternoons and brought his guitar. The preacher taught young Riley B. King how to play. Later, as a young man, he joined a gospel singing group. During the week, he worked from can to can’t (from first light in the morning until dark.) On the weekends, he went into Indianola, Mississippi to sing for passersby to put money in the hat. During the day he played gospel. At night, he played the blues. The blues people gave him the most money.

He was told that at some point he would have to make a decision, that he could not play God’s music and the devil’s music. Time passed and one day while working as a tractor driver, he thought he had turned the tractor off, but it kept going and was damaged. He ran away to Memphis. While there he found a group of guitar players who gave him master’s classes in blues guitar. About six months later, he decided to go back to Mississippi and to work off the debt he owned to the farmer whose tractor he had damaged. He was proud that when he left Mississippi the second time to start his career in Memphis, he started correctly.

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Music With A Social Justice Theme

Mar31

by: Silver Scharlach on March 31st, 2015 | Comments Off

A bus stop poster for the One More Shot UK Music Festival.

One More Shot UK, a breast cancer benefit music festival, will be held over the weekend of April 24-26, bridging the overstated gap between country music and social justice. Headliners include Christian Kane, Steve Carlson, and The Life of Riley. Credit: OneMoreShotUK.com.

When people on the left side of the political spectrum think of country music, the phrase ‘social justice’ rarely comes to mind. Nonetheless, the second incarnation of the One More Shot music festival combines just these two seemingly disparate entities. One More Shot is to be held in Birmingham, UK, over the weekend of April 24-26. Headlining this event is Christian Kane, known for starring in television shows including Angel, Leverage, and Steven Spielberg’s award-winning miniseries Into the West. Kane, star of recent breakout hit The Librarians, joins singer/songwriter Steve Carlson, bands including The Final Wish, and others in this event held to raise money for breast cancer research.

Artists hold tremendous social and financial capital in this society. For artists to be willing to spend that capital in the service of others is an all-too-rare phenomenon. Christian Kane has made a habit of doing just that in his career, covering topics including domestic violence (“Mary Can You Come Outside”), poverty (“Something’s Gotta Give”), and disenchantment with capitalism (“Pretty as a Picture”). He has also directly challenged colonialism from the perspective of his own Cherokee heritage (“Spirit Boy”). I feel pleased and proud to see my faith in him renewed as his efforts give rise to such powerful positive results.

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The Perils and Pitfalls of Singing for Gaza: A Review of 2 Unite All

Jan8

by: Robert Cohen on January 8th, 2015 | 1 Comment »

2 unite all gaza relief album

Credit: 2 Unite All

I was asked to write a review of the new benefit album for the people of Gaza. During the violence of last summer more than 2,000 Palestinian were killed, the vast majority civilians and the casualties included more than 500 children. Many more people were left permanently injured, physically, mentally or both, and thousands lost their homes.

I’d already downloaded all twenty-six tracks of 2 Unite All (126 minutes of music from more than thirty artists) before I realized that the task was impossible.

Writing about a project motivated by peace and love is a complete minefield. What’s the point of saying anything about the music when the real aim is not artistic but humanitarian. In such circumstances, is it ethical to be critical?

But then it occurred to me how much else there was to say about this particular endeavor, even before a single song is considered.

What should the relationship be between the artist and the recipient of the aid that they raise? Is it possible to separate out the humanitarian need from the causes that created it? Is it enough to just sing about peace and love?

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Happy Blog-iversary (and A Half) to Me

Oct25

by: on October 25th, 2014 | Comments Off

I forgot to notice that this past May was the tenth anniversary of my blog, which I started in 2004 to coincide with the publication of my novel Clarity. It has a small but devoted following. And if you’re interested, you can buy it used for a song. I still think it would make a good movie…

I started thinking what I might have learned in this decade-plus.The first thing that came to mind was this: people have been calling me an optimist for most of my life, but I didn’t accept it as one of my true names until quite recently. Partly, that was about expanding my definition of the word. An optimist, I now believe, is someone who sees great possibility in the human project (not someone, as I once supposed, who is certain that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, pace Voltaire).

Still, I don’t totally get this about myself. I grew up in a world of low expectations and lower hopes, where adults understood themselves as refugees from and survivors of history, and I was regularly counseled not to want too much. I asked my husband to help me think about it: why, with my history, am I an optimist when so many others who have walked similar paths are anything but?

His answer made perfect sense to me: “Because you’re all about changing things. You have to believe it’s possible. A person can’t be as oriented to change as you are and be a pessimist. What would be the point?”

True dat.


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Pete Seeger: A Personal Remembrance

Jan28

by: on January 28th, 2014 | 3 Comments »

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger performs at the Clearwater Festival in 2007. Credit: Creative Commons/Anthony Pepitone.

I could scarcely believe my ears when staff members at Tikkun told me that Pete Seeger had just called to ask if he could perform at the first national Tikkun conference in New York City in 1988. I had raised my son on Seeger’s music, and had myself been moved by some of his radical songs. He was already a legend, and I was already a fan when I was in high school.

Seeger understood that the kind of Judaism we espoused was rooted in the universalist and prophetic tradition that had led so many Jews to become deeply involved in the movements for peace and social justice – not the chauvinist nationalism that was becoming dominant in large sections of the organized Jewish community – and he told me that he had followed my case in the 1970s when the Nixon White House had indicted me (at that time I was a professor of philosophy at the University of Washington) for organizing anti-war demonstrations. The trial was called “The Seattle Seven,” and eventually all charges were dropped after spending some time in federal penitentiary for “contempt of court” – a charge overturned by the 9th Circuit Federal Appeals court.

Seeger became a fan of Tikkun and a supporter of our activities, and his appearance at our conference was one of the highlights of the event. Even Jewish folksinger Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who also performed at that conference, told me he felt joy and awe at Seeger’s presence at the Tikkun conference.

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