Talkin’ ’bout The Who’s generation?

The Who back in their rip-snorting heyday. Courtesy Die Zeit

“Talkin’ ’bout my generation!”

What generation are we talking about? It seemed very clear back when The Who’s Pete Townsend wrote and sang his strutting, archetypal ’60’s song of generational defiance, “My Generation.”

But now that Townsend himself is 73, and the band’s demonically brilliant drummer Keith Moon has been dead nearly 40 years, the question’s fair to ask.

Singer Roger Daltrey and songwriter-guitarist Pete Townsend, the only surviving members of The Who, recently took a stab at plugging back into their glory days. Courtesy the Boston Globe

The maker of the ensuing YouTube video asks the question implicitly in hilariously inspired fashion by having a group of British retirement-home residents sing Townsend’s song, a seeming act of blasphemy, even for a songwriter who seemed to sneer at any sense of the sacred.

The video starts by being very upfront about its relative contrivance of having put the creaky “lead singer” up to this, as he admits this is the first time he has done this. He then proceeds to read the proto-punk lyrics – along to a rockin’ young band playing the music.

The old coot even takes a stab at Townsend’s adolescent stutter: “I’m just talkin’ ’bout my ge-genera-shun.”

The rest of the elders sing and clap to the ongoing refrain “talkin’ ’bout my generation” with an almost loving embrace of a defiance that some of them probably bridled at, or even condemned, when their children played and sang along to the song, long ago.
So is this simply unabashed generational co-opting? To hear this, you see aspects of parody – an old woman doing Townsend’s rock-god “windmill” power-chord strumming, etc. –- but something more than parody is going on here. In the elders’ apparent joy, there’s a surprising sense of shared identity, that connects generations that might seem fatally at odds.

And that’s what makes this delicious joke also so satisfying and gratifying, even life affirming instead of a cynical diss. You sense that these old folks secretly envied their rebellious offspring, especially because “The Greatest Generation” grew up in the post-World War II era, in which a sort of bracing, patriotic conformity upheld much of their  passions. Not that that was all bad, at all. But it was perhaps inevitable that a strain of that patriotism would stagnate into a conservatism that would try to stifle ensuing American democratic life from growing and mutating in a natural, quirky, even paradoxical (think of the Altamont murder, the early death of the ’60s) manner.

As ’60s prophet Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes.) Next time you find yourself doing something unusual or contradictory that surprises other people or yourself, remember that you contain multitudes. Sometimes that contradiction is a sign of progress.”

So the lesson here is that the multitudes contained potentially spans generations. Townsend was a more encompassing avatar than he perhaps realized, at the time.

But enough reflection, let’s get on with it! The video’s been out there for quite a while, but thanks to the wonderful Madison jazz guitarist Cliff Frederiksen for, as we said in the ’60s, finally turning me onto it:

Father Sky and other rising talent heard Under the Big Tree in Riverwest

After a rainy interlude (see blue equipment tarp) Father Sky solo (singer-songwriter keyboardist Anthony Deutsch) performed as the headliner for Thursday’s Under the Big Tree backyard concert series in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. After the concert, a small bonfire was held, in the wood pit in the foreground. 


Under the Big Tree, an outdoor house concert series in Riverwest (by invitation via Facebook page: Under the Big Tree backyard concerts

The final two concerts of the series will be:

August 30 – Lady Cannon, experimental folk-jazz

September 20 – Hello Death, dark, orchestral folk music


Review: Under the Big Tree, Thursday, July 19.

Glowing behind a sheer cloud curtain, Thursday night’s half-moon seemed like a dubious goddess casting a sidelong glance down upon the proceedings below: A musician named Father Sky and his largely millennial audience in a back-yard concert called Under the Big Tree. The goddess surely wondered “Who do they think they are?”

“Give it up for the wind,” said the large-minded but slightly nervous Father Sky at one point, as if negotiating with the goddess, for the sake of his vulnerable gig, or for his generation.

Right before headliner Father Sky (singer-songwriter-pianist Anthony Deutsch) had performed, the evening clouds directly attacked this seemingly idyllic gathering with a strong downpour. At that moment, the evening’s second performer, classical and jazz guitarist Ben Dameron, had just played a jazz standard “Here’s that Rainy Day” with an exquisitely probing exploration of the song’s melodic and harmonic depths (Being my late mother’s favorite song, I hoped that, somehow, she heard it). Dameron later admitted he didn’t realize the aptness of his opening song selection. Artistic intuition (or anyone’s intuition?) plays jokes on the artist’s consciousness more often than we realize.

With the rain coming, Under the Big Tree host Liam O’Brien, a singer-songwriter-guitarist who opened the evening’s music, herded everyone inside of the large Riverwest house, a property where he and his partner have previously rented, and where the owner generously allows this music series a second season. Dameron, a classically-trained guitarist – replete with velvet leg cloth as the instrument sits precariously on his right thigh, (classical players never use a guitar strap) –  can hardly weather rain, especially with his very small electric amp.

Though a seemingly shy, musically-focused person, Dameron had immediately shown both courage and improvisational skill by opening his set with a request to the audience: “Could anyone give me a few notes, just anything, to work with?” Someone sang out a three-note phrase and he began deftly improvising on it, before his segue into “Rainy Day,” and then Bill Evans and Miles Davis’ pre-modal masterpiece “Nardis.” When rainy night chased us inside, he continued with  jazz-guitar pioneer Django Reinhardt’s “Nuage” (or “Cloud”), another perfect and evocative choice, “Pure Imagination” from the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and “Misty.”

Though some might question the last two choices, Dameron made them work as delightful and substantial music. Despite its sappy lyrics, “Misty” has striking interval leaps and shapely chord changes which have bolstered the song’s longevity as an instrumental jazz standard and perennial crowd-pleaser. Here and elsewhere, Dameron employed grace-note pauses for dramatic and expressive effect. And he seemed proud to share a surname with the great bop-era pianist-composer-arranger Tadd Dameron, with whom he seems to share a balance of well-honed refinement, harmonic depth, and swinging derring-do.

Classical and jazz guitarist Ben Dameron performed Thursday at Under the Big Tree. Dameron has studied at the San Francisco Music Conservatory, and at the UW-Milwaukee, with acclaimed classical guitarist René Izquierdo and jazz guitarist Pete Billmann. Courtesy Ben Dameron Facebook page.

But let me back up to contextualize this enlightening evening. By very informal observation a number of baby boomer parents struggle in their relationships with their millennial offspring, probably as most parent-child relationships are fraught, at least part of the time.

As a childless baby boomer, I can’t comment on this dynamic with any first-hand authority. But I can report an experience as a cultural journalist. Thursday night I got more than a glimmer of insight into what Milwaukee millennials do, in the night, with the music, alone (together).

A well-connected boomer friend of mine, musician and poet Rick Ollman, clued me into this quietly growing cultural venue, when I spoke with him at an event at the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts. By the way,  the JGCA on Center Street (like the nearby Company Brewing) has increasingly become an important crossroads for different generations (I often see millennials sprinkled among the predominant baby boomers and Gen Xers there) and, perhaps more importantly, as a crossroads for Milwaukeeans of different colors. 1

But back to last night, and my infiltration of this largely millennial gathering, although with a smattering of older people, who were warmly welcomed.

Host (and apparent venue concept mastermind) singer-songwriter Liam O’Brien played a short opening set on his National steel-body guitar. He began with John Lennon’s “All You Need is Love,” sung almost apologetically because, he explained, he was prepping it for a wedding the next day, which had requested the song. Quiet as he played “Love,” it clearly set a magnanimous tone for the evening. He proceeded with an original that riffed on big numbers: “10,000 sheep tend to the herd,”… “will you love me in 10,000 days?”…”10 billion voices”…”10 billion years”…but with a tough, rocking guitar solo to bring his expansiveness back down to earth. The rather poetic riff on big digits recalled the great Milwaukee poet Antler, whom O’Brien should investigate, if he hasn’t. Another set highlight was O’Brien’s deftly satirical and peppery-paced “Hot Damn” (a “working title,” sung with his partner Sarah Shay) where aspects of nature behave like their all-too-frequent enemies (humans, that is, which reminds me of our current president, behaving like our enemy):

Wind watches a well-known movie show

Water argues with a worm the best school to send their kid to…

Soil, dust and sand have lawns and go for Sunday drives

and mushrooms always shop where reptiles advertise.

Hot damn! Just look looking at them go about their lives! 2

The audience ate up O’Brien’s defiantly pro-environmental attitude, which extends deeply into the resounding poetry and musicality of Father Sky, the only one of these acts I had already known. This blog has written about Father Sky, but not at length, and he’s worth plenty more consideration.

The self-titled debut album “Father Sky.” The group Father Sky is a trio comprising singer-songwriter-pianist Anthony Deutsch (pictured above), bassist John Christensen, and drummer Devin Drobka. Photo by Danielle Simone Charles, courtesy Father Sky

And now it’s clear, this is one of the most distinctive and original jazz-related artists Milwaukee has seen for a quite some time. Deutsch can play jazz piano and sing jazz standards adroitly, and do that combination probably better than anyone in the region. His originals on his eponymous debut album Father Sky (which includes bassist John Christiansen and drummer Devin Drobka), deal in personal testimony, inspirations and evocations from the heart. The album’s clever, and sometimes blues-inflected, but spare arrangements don’t try to impress the jazz buff, but reach to the broadest imaginable audience for a serious artist, as has many a gifted singer-songwriter, ever since Bob Dylan arrived and changed that game forever.

Thursday night, when Deutsch declared that his song “Within Me, Within You” is a personal anthem, one could more precisely understand and feel where he comes from, as an artist. He sings:

Within me, within you

Don’t look for something you can’t hide.

Without me, without you,

There’s nothing separate from you.

The storm’s a comin’, to your doorstep…

It’s a struggle, constant battle –

keep your love but don’t you hide.

Be silent, be observing,

Your power has no limit.

Throughout the songs – exploring the many-webbed interfaces of Nature, spirit, and humanity – you realize this man is deeply knowing, the proverbial “old soul” in his mid-20s.

Deutsch’s pliant and furry voice reflects his primary influence, Nina Simone and yet he unabashedly acknowledged his affinity for the pop folksinger Cat Stevens. The Simone influence really gives him stylistic power and substance. Like that late great singer-songwriter-pianist, this tall, bearded young man’s voice can swim in deep registers that grab at the listener’s soul and then pull it up towards the performer’s searching-for-sky POV, unafraid of the emotional stretch or lurch involved. His rounded middle and upper registers flow easily, like fish and birds near the surface of a full-fathom-dive ocean.

In having a gifted black woman as this white man’s primary influence – and all he does with it – there’s more than a whiff of genius.

And Deutsch was playing solo outdoors, with only an electric piano, albeit a very nicely-rigged one. His sound effects-infused opening to his second song faintly evoked legendary jazz “space traveler,” Sun Ra. Somehow, by about the middle of his set, the doubting lunar goddess above, Father Sky and the audience seemed to meld into a whole, in the nocturnal light, beneath the huge canopy of leaves, in a harmony layered with hidden complexities, as is this artist’s music.

Shortly afterward, the millennials lit a bonfire, right beside the performance area. Rainy dampness had faded away. The young people, the unfettered talent, the blaze. It all gave me, and my boomer friend Rick Ollman, increasingly certain faith in this incoming generation – gathering hope, conviction and fire for their era of power and transformation.

“That seemed like something right out of the sixties,” Ollman said, with a wry smile.


Half-moon image (at top) courtesy Pinterest

  1. The Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts event I referenced was a weekly jam session, with about a 50-50 split between black and white patrons. This carries on the great tradition begun by the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery, in the same Center Street performance space, in the late 1970s through 1984 (Catch up on that historically auspicious legacy visiting Milwaukee Jazz Gallery Anthology Facebook page, which provides samples of journalistic coverage of the Jazz Gallery in its heyday).
  2. Under the Big Tree host Liam O’Brien is also the leader of the group Liam O’Brien’s Faithless Followers, which will perform for an EP-release event for their new release, Nowhere to Go. The event is titled “A Metaphysical Voyage on the Vessel of Symphonic Americana,” and will be at 8 p.m., August 17, at Anodyne Coffeehouse, 224 West Bruce St. (between 2nd and 3rd Streets) in Walker’s Point, Milwaukee. $10 cover. Besides O’Brien’s group, the event will include Caley Conway, Apollo Vermouth, and an art installation by Anika Kowalik. For information, the group’s Facebook page is Liam O’Brien’s Faithless Followers



How has capitalism worked out for you? Socialism is not a dirty word. Even less so is democratic socialism.

If a political novice like Donald Trump can become president, why not give a political novice, like New York Senate primary winner Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez –  with the energy, sharp intellect and vision of youth – a chance to apply her ideas about democratic socialism? We are, after all, a democratic society. Medium

Perhaps the most naked and time-worn example of American “anti-intellectualism” is the demonizing of the word “socialism.” Even some educated and seemingly thoughtful people instinctively react as if even the scent of socialism robs them of their precious liberties.

But the freedom capitalism promises – and now delivers so pathetically to “we the people” – is to empower or enrich persons or corporations in isolation, leaving distribution of wealth up to the enriched.

Yet in the United States, a person is almost invariably part of some community, if they admit it or not. Even a hard-working farmer, living perhaps a mile away from a neighbor, is sorely dependent on an economic system that runs fairly to compensate and support his labors. This means that a socio-economic system that balances the needs of individuals, as opposed to greedy wants, with the needs of the community makes sense. Why? Because trickle-down theories of capitalism rarely actually deliver to the people, whereas a social-minded system strives to assure the individual gets back something from the communal system.

I think a more socialist-oriented America can help redirect appropriate percentages of taxes on the rich, help close the terrible income equality gap, and stimulate the economy with greater consumer-spending power. Democratic socialism can co-exist with our capitalist system, in a dialectical tension, a check and balance, if citizens and our leaders do their jobs.

Bret Stevens, a conservative New York Times opinion columnist, reacted recently with condescending, patriarchal tone to the win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old newcomer to politics who beat out an old Democratic Party insider, Joseph Crowley, in New York’s senatorial primary, and who has captured the imagination of a lot of America. She’s a self-described “social democrat.”

Stevens then trots out examples of how a few socialist governments in Mexico and South Africa have been corrupted. In Europe, democracies have consistently strengthened or formed since World War II, based on socialist principles. But their current struggles with reactionary politics are due to mainly to massive refugee flight from wars elsewhere. The problem isn’t the democratic socialism of, for example, Germany where, despite her challenges, chancellor Angela Merkel is now, in effect, the leader of the free world, now that President Trump his virtually abdicated such a role, with his anti-allies and pro-dictatorial perversities.

His disgraceful post-Summit press conference performance beside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday is only the latest (and perhaps the worst) example.

It’s true that any political system can be corrupted. That is why democracy can never be a spectator sport, and part of the people’s role is remain vigilant about keeping our politicians honest. And Mr. Stevens, what about the gross corruptions that capitalism has wrought, time after time after time? We live in one of the worst ever –  the reason why American people across much of the political spectrum want meaningful change, not the same old same old. 1

More in America’s societal key, Stevens sings the grindingly tired “left-center-right” song that has not an ounce of intellectual creativity in it:

“If Trump is the new Nixon, the right way to oppose him isn’t to summon the ghost of George McGovern. Try some version of Bill Clinton (minus the grossness) for a change: working-class affect, middle-class politics, upper-class aspirations.” 

First of all, Trump is proving far worse than Nixon, who at least had intelligence for political and policy nuance, and a sense of shame. And Nixon actually accomplished some policies that provided ordinary people social and economic benefit, unlike anything Trump has done. And summoning “the ghost of George McGovern” is lamely poking at a straw man.

As for what we should agree on, we do need finally “working-class affect, middle-class politics,” and even “upper-class aspirations.” Those are all things that a well-run government that functions for general societal benefit can provide, with good faith and creative collaboration. You might notice how Stevens’ historical cherry-picking ignores the historic elephant in the room, the most relevant history in modern America. Of course, that’s Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which produced the most successful and extended period of across-the-board prosperity in American history.

As John Nichols points out in his history of American socialism, Roosevelt “drew inspiration from the platforms of the Socialist party that (Eugene) Debs handed off to Norman Thomas. But Roosevelt, a lifelong reader of (Thomas) Paine quoted the pamphleteer’s fireside chats (‘So spoke Americans in the year 1776. So speak Americans today!’) borrowed at least as much from the distant revolutionary’s canon.” 2

We know that when social-minded policy is put on the table, conservatives often start bleating about profligate hand-outs to the needy. However, thinking of American farmers, Thomas Paine wrote in his pamphlet “Agrarian Justice”:

“But it is justice, and not charity, that is the principle of the plan. In all great cases it is necessary to have a principle more universally active than charity; and with respect to justice, it ought not to be left the choice of detached individuals whether they will do justice or not… It ought to be the act of the whole growing spontaneously out of the principles of the revolution, and the reputation of it ought to be national and not individual.” 3

I want to draw an arc from Thomas Paine to the New Deal more pointedly, to one of the most explicitly acclaimed examples of socialist success in American history – in Milwaukee – which Nichols details in his book. But it was a column on this very topic this week by Shepherd Express writer Joel McNally which actually inspired this blog.

The longtime journalist has also taught a class on urban history of Milwaukee at UW-Milwaukee. His column notes the swelling energy and activism begat by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and concisely delineates how the three consecutive Socialist mayors of Milwaukee, from 1910 to the 1960s, succeeded.

McNally explains that “there is a reason why young activists don’t consider socialism to be a scary word. They’re well-educated.” McNally then demarcates a history he taught his students, about what he calls “Milwaukee’s Socialist example.” The city’s three socialist mayors over that time were Emile Seidel (1910-1912); Daniel Hoan (1916-1940); and Frank Zeidler (1948-1960). The first, Seidel, helped clean up Mayor David Rose’s corrupt government, and Zeidler lives on as far more than a historical entity to those old enough to have witnessed his successful mayoral terms.

“But it was Hoan – the crusading socialist city attorney left standing after the 1912 purge of socialists who was elected mayor in 1916 and held the office for the next 24 years – who defined lasting contributions of Democratic Socialists to democracy itself,” McNally writes.

Socialist Milwaukee Mayor Daniel Hoan on the cover of TIME magazine in 1936. Courtesy TIME

Daniel Hoan was so successful with a socialist Milwaukee government that he was “recognized nationally for its sound financial management while expanding public employment for those out of work.” The New York Times praised Hoan in December 1931, two years after the stock market crash of 1929, for paying its bills, delivering unemployment relief to hundreds of thousands, “and at the end of the year will have about $ 4 million in the bank.”

And TIME magazine, run by conservative Republican publisher Henry Luce, put Hoan on its cover in April 1936, reporting: “Under him, Milwaukee has become perhaps the best-governed city in the US.”

McNally then describes how, despite The Democratic Party’s successful undermining of The Socialist Party, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt  “used public employment, unemployment benefits and other social safety net programs to pull the nation out of the Great Depression and become the most popular president in history.”
Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid,  Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act similarly are socialist programs, McNally notes.

“It’s as American as apple pie to elect a bright, new generation of Democratic Socialists. They’re fighting to preserve the American ideal of sharing the economic benefits of democracy with everyone, not just the wealthy.” 4

And we’re likely better off with more women public servants, like Ocasio-Cortez, baking America’s apple pie, because they’re often more skilled and experienced in the societal kitchen than men, and know how to slice and distribute the pies, to Make America Socially Equitable Again. How great would that America be?


1 Bret Stevens,

“Democratic Socialism is Dem Doom,”, The New York Times, July 6, 2018

2. John Nichols, The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism, Verso, 2011, 46

3. Nichols, quoting Thomas Paine in The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism, 50

4. Joel McNally, Democratic Socialists Aren’t Demons; They’re Just Energized Democrats, The Shepherd Express, July 12-18, p. 10, 2018

W. B. Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming” foreshadows our perilous times with ominous urgency

A mock-up page from an introductory booklet to a reissue of the 1964 book “Nothing Personal,” a collaboration between photographer Richard Avedon and writer James Baldwin. Avedon evidently wrote down the W.B. Yeats quote as being important to the book’s thematics.  Courtesy Richard Avedon Foundation and Taschen Books.

Funny how swiftly dark clouds, even from decades ago, can ambush a celebration.

My sunny Sunday birthday on July 1 ended with a walk in the park, and very real rainmakers eliciting a thundering downpour and sweeping winds amid a tornado warning. The storm broke my gal pal Ann Peterson’s umbrella. Earlier, she’d given me a luminous gift that soon engulfed me in the ominous vision of perhaps the most famous poem of W.B. Yeats, arguably the greatest poet of the 20th century. The gift was a reissue of the 1964 book collaboration between photographer Richard Avedon and writer James Baldwin, titled Nothing Personal. Therein I soon encountered a familiar quote from Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (see image at top), handwritten by Avedon on a publisher’s mock-up page, for the original edition. 

Avedon’s mock-up photo comes from the new edition’s accompanying booklet, which includes an introductory essay by Hilton Als, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, and previously unpublished photos by Avedon.

Let me contextualize the line (bold-faced below) from “The Second Coming,” one of the most-referenced passages in modern poetry:

…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

This whole momentous passage calls out to our times with shuddering power, even if Yeats, like many visionary and prescient writers, wrote it long ago, in 1921.

“The Second Coming” closes with another famous passage, which warns of a revelatory vision that the most religious among us would’ve never hoped for – at least back then. Rather than Christ finally returning to redeem the wayward, wicked world, Yeats detects a monstrous creature, “a shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, / Is moving its slow thighs… And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”

Irish poet W.B. Yeats in 1923, two years after he published “The Second Coming”,” and shortly after he won the Nobel Prize for literature, after six years of nominations. Courtesy The New York Times

The passage has resonated variously over the ensuing centuries. In the Irish poet’s time, civilization struggled to piece the world order back together after The Great War, an unprecedented world catastrophe, a complex failing of humanity. Yet now, many have commented on the “chaos” of today’s international affairs, especially as exacerbated by Brexit and Trumpism, which has threatened not only international relations but the very democracy our nation was founded on, and functions under.

And that “rough beast” slouching toward Bethlehem, a hybrid of a lion and a man, now seems to evoke the visage of Donald Trump, with his huge, pseudo-golden orange mane and face, and his roaring Twitter posts and campaign-style speeches, always speaking strictly to this cowardly lion’s pride – his narcissism and his avid base – never as a leader of all America. A deep segment of his strangely faithful base is a strain of ostensible Bethlehem-worshippers, white Evangelical Christians. This literary comparison may risk lending a dark grandiosity to Trump’s often-fumbling, crude, instinctive behavior and very risky “policy.” Yes, Trump’s easy to frame as an unintentionally self-styled running joke.

Courtesy (This Is NOT a Richard Avedon photo)

But the grim reaper may laugh deepest, and last. He has again, most recently in the massacre of five journalists in their newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland. My blood still runs cold. I’ve spent most of my professional career in similar newsrooms. The rough beast, of course, has many guises, beyond Trump, and must be fed. More real dangers and tragedies loom, as momentous as Yeats’ poem suggests.

Have we had any single greater threat to world order, natural alliances and the nation’s democracy, since World War II? All the worse, it seems, for coming from within our nation. This circles us back to the urgency of Yeats’ gloomy assertion about his fellow contemporaries. Accordingly, I want to focus especially on the quote: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

That’s the sentence that Richard Avedon wrote down in his Nothing Personal mockup for his publisher, partly I suspect, because the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement had only begun gaining steam in 1963 or 1964, or thereabouts, when he actually scribbled down the words. 1

Cut to our times: Consider the whole dynamic of, first, Brexit and then the 2016 presidential election, and perhaps of even liberalism-versus-neo-liberalism-versus-conservatism-versus-inchoate angry, emotional populism. That complex scenario has played out over the last several decades, and brought us to our perilous position.
I’ve seen at least one interpreter some years ago read Yeats’ “the best ” as being people of intellect and reason, and “the worst” being those who respond mainly with emotion.

Can we now flesh that out to a “passionate intensity” driven by pain, frustration or fear – and worse, a certain percentage of people afflicted with misogyny, racism and xenophobia?

As for “the best” lacking all conviction, some pundits and writers have observed that certain recently-disavowed or disenchanted Republicans – like strategist Steve Schmidt or political TV host Michelle Wallace – have proven among the most passionate protesters of Pres. Trump’s obscenities, compulsive hypocrisy, and often-willy-nilly executive orders, and eloquent defenders of basic American values in a democracy at dire risk. Schmidt almost invariably also provides pointed historical perspective when he speaks.

Perhaps, as Republicans, they know how to be passionate when they really need to be, and rational and pragmatic when that’s needed. Plus, I suspect they know the most consistently effective political strategy combines those seemingly polar qualities.
I don’t really know the politics of pundit Malcolm Nance, because he’s a well-guarded professional intelligence person. But the author of The Plot to Hack America has proven one of the most urgent, truly knowledgeable and lucid voices regarding the well-documented Russian undermining of our political system in 2016, and of democratic systems in Europe, and for seeing the big, ominous picture behind all that.

What we have lacked is passionate conviction among a certain spectrum of liberals, Democrats and Independents, who may see what is going wrong. A certain segment of Independents, by nature (not the Bernie Sanders-type of independent), may tend to  equivocation. However, times demand that they take a strong stand, speak out, and act, for the sake of their imperiled country.

But a too-broad swath of liberals, Democrats and would-be Dems have, I think, been most lacking in recent times. Not that we don’t have a substantial, pulsing core of active people in that swath, especially swelling among millennials. But there are reasons why the Democrats bear some responsibility for why Republicans control all three branches of federal government, and too many state governments, even though they are by far the minority party in terms of popular affiliation and apparent support.

And yet the Dems/liberals too often spend excess energy squabbling amongst themselves and, when facing the real opposition, acting all-too-civilly, playing mainly within the rules, in between the lines. Muting potential conviction, passion, and the sharpest, toughest strategy. In football terms, Republicans usually control the line of scrimmage, often illegally or unethically – the key to winning the game. Liberal Mister Nice Guy tactics have to change now, starting with the encroaching Supreme Court vacancy, and beyond.

(Ironically, among down-in-the-dirt Trump’s most gag-inducing platitudes of praise is, “He was very nice to me,” part of the cognitive dissonance of his bizarre personality.)

Meanwhile, Republicans constantly shift the goalposts, cheat the system (as in Mitch McConnell’s hijacking of Pres. Obama’s selection for the Supreme Court), and follow in meek or overt lock-step with Trump, who lies incessantly to obscure truth and reality and further rile his base, and pervert our institutions and democracy.

This situation brings to mind yet another line from Yeats’ great poem, “The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” In our context, there is a disconnect between “the falconer” – individuals who care but flirt with cynicism, or feel helpless, or disenfranchised – and “the falcon,” signifying any supra-individual powers that could fly exponentially. But such power takes wing only with one’s willful action, or articulation of conviction, or strategy. As Yeats scholar Richard Ellman has commented, “Essentially the falcon’s loss of contact implies man’s separation from every ideal of himself (or herself) that has enabled him to control his life…” 2 

Read the entire Yeats poem here:“The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats 

Contact your Congessperson by e-mail or phone, for starters. Use social media’s networking power constructively. Attend a public meeting on an important issue as it plays locally. Join a protest march, or a neighborhood organization. Such connections can form a curving arc that strives for the precision of the falcon’s flight, part of a greater collective power. Showing up is half the battle, as Woody Allen said. Showing up and voting on election day  is a must.

And something is really happening. “The best” are gaining conviction and passionate intensity, especially with women and more minorities becoming engaged in politics and running for office, and other aspects of the so-called “blue wave.” Yet, that term has gained so much attention that people might subconsciously start “riding” it – and imagining “the wave” will carry them to the proverbial promised land – without contributing to its momentum. Think of “the wave” in a sports event – it’s fun, and looks cool and powerful, but when the human ripples subside, everyone ends up on their butts again.

Because the Democratic “coalition” is so diverse, it’s more diffuse than the GOP, and difficult to marshall all its potential forces. Factions too easily divert into pet issues, worthy as they may be, or into a premature self-satisfaction, or tempered anxiety, which leads to creeping passivism.

“Nothing Personal” was a project of creative activism between Jewish photographer Richard Avedon and African-American novelist and essayist James Baldwin. Race relations and civil rights were primary subjects of the book. In this Avedon photo from the new edition of the 1964 book, the photographer merged the two men’s identities by creating a half-mask of Baldwin (who was unavailable at the time) beside Avedon’s own face. Courtesy the Richard Avedon Foundation and Taschen Books.

But do not forget the “rough beast” slouching toward Bethlehem. The town, of course, signifies the birthplace of the greatest modern prophet, the wise and holy man whose teachings and sacrifice are too-often forgotten or perverted by modern Christians. I am convinced that Yeats would’ve agreed with another common phrase these days, that “democracy is not a spectator sport.” I hope I don’t sound self-righteous. Believe me, I don’t think I’ve done enough to make a difference for the sake of our democracy. You do what you can, then try to do a little more.

And those who are in the crucial game, which will lead to these pivotal 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential, need to exercise smarts as much as passion. So, too-simplistic protest rhetoric such as “Abolish ICE,” seems unwise, and plays into the Trump playbook about “radical Dems” not caring about national security and happy to allow anyone across the border, as false as that narrative may be. Trump clearly has turned his incessant lies and false narratives into a rumbling P.R. strategy, undercutting progressive continuity, baiting the press and feeding his rabid base. Where does this end?

We need a strong, intelligent and compassionate border security agency. But we also need something far better than the intolerably cruel and half-assed “zero tolerance” southern border immigration policy of the Trump administration.

Ultimately, we need the most engaged citizenry possible, the most voters possible, to represent the truest political will of “We the people.” We also need oversight and safeguarding of our election system, so that it is not corrupted or perverted by any nefarious forces, either foreign or domestic.

These sorts of human failing are not new. Yeats’ poem also describes “twenty centuries of stony sleep,” since the actual birth of Christ, a perhaps too-sweeping indictment of humanity, but here we allow him some poetic license. 3
Nevertheless, today there is absolutely no excuse for another four months, much less another week or day, of stony sleep.


1. My discursion into poetics will not do any justice here to Avedon’s and James Baldwin’s powerful, vivid media-meld in the re-issued Nothing Personal. I’ve seen all the photos but haven’t read Baldwin’s text yet. His text should reveal some of his own parallel or explicit implications of Yeats’ poem. Baldwin and Avedon, who knew each other since high school, seemed extremely simpatico artists – thus the unusual collaboration. (New edition cover below, courtesy Los Angeles Times and Taschen Books) 

2. Richard Ellman, The Identity of Yeats, Oxford University Press, 1964, 259

3. William Butler Yeats, All quotes from the poem “The Second Coming,” from The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, A New Edition, Collier Books, 1989, 187.