Steve Earle, and James McMurtry, mine the hearts of forsaken Trump voters

“Ghosts of West Virginia” album cover. Courtesy www.bear-family.com

Exacerbated by the January 6 Capitol mob attack, President Biden’s greatest domestic challenge is bridging the chasm between “red” and “blue” America, as deep and wide as any Appalachian valley. Thus, Steve Earle’s brilliantly insightful 2020 album, Ghosts of West Virginia, is so pertinent.

It took courage and empathy, but this Texas liberal imaginatively inhabits the lives of West Virginia coal miners – among Donald Trump’s most forsaken followers. 1 Earle’s outlaw country singer-songwriter sensibilities might’ve helped him to connect with the lives and spirits of other “outsiders” of sorts, plus he’s a native of the neighboring Confederate state of Virginia. 2

Ghosts became the soundtrack to a 2020 documentary theater work, inspired by the tragic 2010 explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, Coal Country, written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.

Steve Earle performs material from “Ghosts of West Virginia” in a live performance of the 2020 theater documentary “Coal Country.” Courtesy Pinterest 

Earle’s crusty singing, and the sinewy band playing, often sound as expressive as the heaving guts of a working miner, or his exhalation in pained repose and reflection. Earle unearths richly peopled story-songs,  “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground,” at once grave and scathingly boisterous, or the deep-veined singing and words of “Time is Never On Our Side,” as if Earle is tenderly scraping shards of blood-stained coal from the blast’s ravaged site. “Black Lung” is a worker defiantly testifying to The Grim Reaper, about the industry’s deadliest side-effect. On “Union, God and Country,” Earle deftly personalizes the history of mining unions, their decline, and the company’s ease in exploiting unrepresented workers.

Earle doing a solo version of “Devil Put the Coal in the Ground”:

Despite Trump’s promises, West Virginia coal miners and their industry lost both jobs and production during his administration. Courtesy commondreams.org

Hear also the achingly lovely widow’s lament “If I Could See Your Face Again” sung by the Dukes’ Eleanor Whitmore, and the indignant “It’s About Blood,” where Earle lays blame, and ends with resounding recitation of all 29 Upper Big Branch blast-victim names, like an aural tour of a fresh grave site. It rings, too, like hammers on buttresses of a rising bridge to a better, more whole America: “It’s about muscle/ it’s about bone/ it’s about a river running thicker than water/ ’cause it’s about blood.”

This review was originally published in shorter form in The Shepherd Express: https://shepherdexpress.com/music/album-reviews/ghosts-of-west-virginia-by-steve-earle-the-dukes-new-west/

***

Earle’s magnificently immersive evocation and its vividly-drawn characters – amid our careening political zeitgeist – helped me circle back to another important Texas songwriter. James McMurtry may have surpassed Earle as America’s greatest living male singer-songwriter “south of Bob Dylan,” as I put it in my review of McMurtry’s quietly stupendous 2015 album Complicated Game (Lucinda Williams-in-her-prime prompts the gender qualifier). I’ve been watching many of McMurtry’s almost-weekly  solo home virtual concerts during the pandemic, which have helped me burrow deeper into his artistic sensibilities.

He lacks the vocal expressive range of Earle or Williams but, as Texas music writer Mike Seely aptly puts it, McMurtry is “rivaled only by Jason Isbell in his ability to construct compelling tales of small-town pathos without sounding patronizing, McMurtry doesn’t exploit his characters or paint them in overly dour strokes…” 3

“Complicated Game” album cover  

So I returned to my thoughts about Complicated Game, in striving to understand the psychological makeup of a small-town, rural or working-class Trump voter, especially one who has real-world grievances and hardships, rather than racist hatred, or off-the-deep-end conspiracy-theory intoxication.

For these genuinely struggling people, intoxication may not be the word, but there’s a power Trump has over many of them, the kind who attend his rallies, and who may have shown up on January 6 to protest. Some of them may have not realized the protest would lead to forcibly attempting to stop the election’s certification. But to be clear, Trump’s demagogic culpability clearly includes cultivating the disinformation propaganda campaign that led to the protest rally, stoked by radicalized right-wing groups, and then inciting the attack. Even GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell strongly concurred (despite his hypocritical conviction vote).

Nevertheless, for possible bridge-building that such cultural beacons as Earle and McMurtry might imagine, let’s step back and contemplate the dynamic between Trump and his loyal people. He does boast an easy-sell spiritual elixir, especially in his speaking voice’s persuasiveness, as author and cultural critic Lorrie Moore has observed. What she sees as “reassuring” is the smoke in Trump’s mirrors, the quivering illusion that he, and only he, can fix their problems. Hear out this liberal writer, who’s spent most of her teaching career in Madison, Wisconsin:

“So sue me: I sometimes find President Trump’s voice reassuring. Not what he says. Not the actual words (although once in a while one of his “incredibles” reaches inside my chest cavity and magically calms the tachycardia). Trump’s primitive syntax, imperfectly designed for the young foreign woman he married, always dismays. But during a coronavirus-task-force press conference, when one hears him on the radio, his voice has music. Sorry. It does. A singer’s timbre; it is easy on the ear. Trump’s is a voice you use to calm down people you yourself have made furious. (His foremost mimics—Alec Baldwin, Stephen Colbert—have not captured its pitch, its air, its softness, which they substitute with dopiness, which is also there.) For the first ten minutes, before his composure slackens and he becomes boastful and irritable, he actually just wants to be Santa Claus in his own Christmas movie, and the quality of his voice is that of a pet owner calming a pet. I hear it!” 4

To be honest, I do, too. So it seems such people fall prey to this voice, and achieve an almost zombie-like state of acceptance, wallowing in wish-fulfilment, harkening to a lost, pure, white America that never really existed. It’s the essence of Trump’s populist demagogic appeal. But who are these people, and what makes them tick?

The typical aggrieved Trump voter is a middle-aged white male – like Earle and McMurtry – so they inhabit their empathetic characterizations like walkers-in-their-shoes, having long-observed humanity closely in Texas, the virtual Southern nation-unto-itself, and in the petri dishes of their art’s genius.

Here I refer back to my review of Complicated Game. To me, the album achieves a greatness perhaps unparalleled in recent times, partly because it sounds as confessional as it is observational. Several superb songs about the vicissitudes of love (discussed in my full-length review) are first-person and feel autobiographical, whether they are or not. 5

James McMurtry. Courtesy photosbynanciblogspot.com

This puts McMurtry at the same psychological level of his scruff-necked American archetypes – living and losing, and somehow bubbling back to the surface, right before drowning. And on Game, McMurtry casts a perspective that seemingly reaches across the nation’s myriad highways and byways.

From Culture Currents, May 2015: 

“(McMurtry) typically offers a dead-insect windshield view — but which retains the land and the people’s tough, odds-defying spirit. “Carlisle’s Haul” frames such harsh magnificence in terms of a crab-fishing job, done after the fishing season’s closed: “It’s hard not to cry and cuss/ when this old world is bigger than us/ and all we got is pride and trust in our kind.” McMurtry’s observational story-telling powers have been compared to those of his father (Larry McMurtry, who wrote The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove and the screenplay to Brokeback Mountain, among other indelible works).

 

“But the younger McMurtry also recalls Charles Dickens in the way his gritty details and array of eccentric-but-familiar characters serve a broader critique of society, industrialization, and globalization. His renowned 2005 protest anthem “We Can’t Make It Here” still encapsulates America’s economic times as well as anything.

Consider: The world’s billionaires increased their wealth by about a fifth over the course of last year – to more than $11 trillion, according to Forbes. Meanwhile, a quarter of U.S. adults said someone in their household was laid off or lost a job because of the pandemic.” 6 That’s how well Trump has fulfilled his promises to his blue-collar followers.

“Complicated Game begins to feel like a great artist’s most mature statement to date, and also a recording that ought to resonate across the nation’s political spectrum for its invocations of American freedom, and of its discontents. Both seem to flow through his veins by now. But McMurtry’s holding steady. 7

“ ‘Deaver’s Cross’ is a righteous bluegrass song and the first of two remarkably magnanimous pieces for a guy stereotyped as a grumpy pessimist: So when you’re fishing that March brown hatch/Won’t you share your morning’s catch/with those whose ground you walk across/May their memory be not lost. 

“A song that follows, after a few of the tough-minded ones, reminds us that, though unmistakably a worn-denim Texas troubadour, McMurtry has clearly traversed America, gigging and searching for dusty companionship. And hell if he can’t celebrate, even as he stares down reality, in the lovely, Uilleann-piping ode to ‘Long Island Sound.’ Riding a gentle, rolling melodic wave evoking that long, lapping coast, he sings: These are the best days, these are the best days, boys put your money away, I got the round. Here’s to all you strangers, the Mets and the Rangers, long may we thrive on the Long Island Sound.

“It’s the understated peak of the record and it catches the setting sun on a horizon of rooftops, because McMurtry has climbed this high to see what a magnificent place the great old island is. And then, the two closing lines are poetic strokes; he turns and spies New Mexico and Carolina — by way of Austin — from that metaphoric peak. He might be looking at Anywhere, U.S.A.

scan0586Liner photo from James McMurtry’s “Complicated Game.” Photo by Shane McCauley

“And yet, McMurtry remains too much of a cold-eyed critic of easy social conventions to leave us with only comforting thoughts. The album closes with its strangest song ‘Cutter,’ about a sorry soul who physically mutilates himself with a knife, for reasons ostensibly sociological and psychological, yet ambiguous: “I miss my dog from years ago/ Where he went, I still don’t know./whiskey and coffee while I burn my toast, and build a cage for all my ghosts.” He could be one of countless desperate military veterans, or other American survivors. McMurtry’s under-appreciated vocal vibrato nails the man’s unsteady, just-hanging-on societal mask.

This character feels like just the sort of person who Trump pushed over the edge, into anarchic violence at the Capitol on that fateful January day. 

“Nevertheless, as (McMurtry) told recently told Rolling Stone, he sees his characters as ‘enduring, not fading away. Standing against the current that wants to wash you away but can’t, yet.’ ” 8

We can only hope, and strive, for the time when such folks endure as a reasonably healed part of America’s social fabric, while the raw edge of the nation’s anti-democratic and anti-diversity malignance begins to fade away. Musical storytellers like Earle and McMurtry have laid footsteps to follow.

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1 The number of people employed by the coal mining industry has fallen 15% since Trump took office in January 2017. Job losses temporarily stabilized during his years in office, according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics Data, but the trend is continuing. Jobs did not increase, partly due to Trump’s trade wars and unsuccessful efforts to use the Defense Production Act to prop up coal plants, before the pandemic curtailed coal demand and employment.

Production has followed suit. Despite coal prices remaining stable around $35 per ton over the last decade, production fell during Trump’s years in office to just 706 million short tons, the lowest amount since 1978, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

2. Earle’s empathy for surviving West Virginia family members now extends to his own profound personal loss. He just released another album, J.T., dedicated to his gifted son, the noted singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, who died in August, at the age of 38 of an apparent drug overdose.

3. Mike Seely, https://www.houstonpress.com/music/james-mcmurtrys-10-best-songs-6518030

4. Lorrie Moore, April 13, 2020 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/13/the-nurses-office

5.

James McMurtry’s “Game” reveals more of himself, and of a vividly evoked America

6. Vauhini Vara, “The United States of Amazon,” The Atlantic, March 2021, 93

7. I was even more prompted to revisit, and extoll, McMurtry’s album because it, and McMurtry himself, still seem underappreciated. I surveyed two appropriate “Best of” lists: UDiscoverMusic‘s “The 10 Best Americana Albums of All Time,” (published in May of 2020)

The 10 Best Americana Albums Of All Time

, and Paste Magazine’s “50 Greatest Alt-Country Albums,” (published in August 2016). https://www.pastemagazine.com/music/alt-country/the-50-best-alt-country-albums-of-all-time/

Neither list includes Complicated Game, much less any McMurtry album. Interestingly, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, is Number 2 on both lists, and Earle tops the “Ten Best” list with his Copperhead Road album. Several other Earle albums make Paste‘s “50 Greatest”, as does Jason Isbell’s Southeastern.

Are these big-picture best-of lists too high a bar for McMurtry? I don’t think so.

More encouragingly, Complicated Game scores 87 with MetaCritic, indicating “universal acclaim” based on 9 reviews (including Paste‘s). Isbell’s Southeastern also scores an 87 with Metacritic, which began in 2001, so the iconic Williams and Earle albums predate the site, which measures an album’s contemporary critical reception. Game also was voted No. 3 in NoDepression.com‘s Top 50 albums of 2015, and scored in All-Music‘s list of 22 Favorite Singer-Songwriter albums of 2015. History will have the last say.

8. http://www.jamesmcmurtry.com/

Robert Stone’s Rugged Power and Glory Cast Light on Today

Review: The Eye You See With by Robert Stone (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt)

As he traversed the earth, the sun also rose for the writer Robert Stone, even amid deep spiritual shadows. And the hardness of his courage shone in the glinting light, as many sweated, suffered, and died. As did he, eventually, in 2015.

He was like a carved-granite eagle in flight. He ventured to high vistas of perception, as an intellectual warrior, and dove, as a miner of humbled but ambitious soul, as it arose in the 1960s. He became very close to some iconic figures, including Ken Kesey, the acid- “enlightened” novelist (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and charismatic leader of the hippie rogues, The Merry Pranksters.

But he’s worth revisiting or discovering for many reasons.

Though primarily a novelist, Stone re-emerged recently with a far-ranging posthumous collection of his non-fiction, The Eye You See With. 1 The title gains centrality this way: “The eye you see with is the one that sees you back.” That is Stone’s distillation of a sermon by Meister Eckhardt, and Stone  was “obsessed with the absence of God…everywhere we look there seems evidence of (the divine presence), and it never yields itself to our discovery.” 2

So, some of the most compelling truths remained the most elusive. Ah, but the world and universe the creator wrought were out there waiting, beckoning. Though a tough-minded man and Navy veteran, Stone’s poetic power and his Catholic upbringing braided his consciousness, and his nearly relentless questing for truth.

Stone’s big subject was America, which he said he was striving to define through his work, a measure of his ambition, though he never said he was close to accomplishing that. Yet he kept chiseling away at the stone by taking a global attack, traveling literally, and through his story-telling, to points as far as around-the-world, in the sea-faring novel Outerbridge Reach, and, in others, with intense focus, in Central America, The Caribbean, and the Middle East.

Robert Stone visually evoked, for a novel cover, his admiration of Melville’s genius  by borrowing one of Rockwell Kent’s iconic woodcuts for “Moby-Dick,” 1930 Random House edition. Amazon

And yet, for that ostensibly broad contextualizing perspective, his focus was always very specific in story and characters, whom he often prodded to evaluate America and pose questions about it and, by extension, humanity. 3

He first really caught my attention with his novel A Flag for Sunrise, nominally echoing Hemingway, which set an American anthropologist Frank Holliwell in Central America during the same era the U.S. was politically ensnared in the revolutionary chaos of that region. Local corruption interfaces with the religious, as Holliwell helps protect a Catholic mission from bad federales, he falls in impossible love with a missionary nun. His dilemmas, which include previously having been morally compromised in Vietnam, resound metaphorically with America’s.

Stone’s most ambitious novel, Damascus Gate, mirrors in prose, Melville’s epic storytelling poem Clarel – both describing pilgrimage-like trips to The Holy Land by Americans, among others. That setting allows for powerful moral situations and conundrums, as well as plenty of human drama and suspense, set in the bloody dust of Jerusalem.

“Varieties of religious experience for the millennium,” wrote author Frank Conroy of the novel. “By turns scary, funny, and deeply moving. Prose at such a high pitch it sometimes seems hallucinatory. Stone is a genius.”

Accordingly, in the nonfiction essays of The Eye You See With, Stone addresses, sometimes at a very personal level, the dichotomies and contradictions of patriotism, and of religion, while scoring its relevance. His eyes and mind are flung wide open hearing jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s spiritual fire.

He wrote prophetically in the mid-’80s that we should resist the facile “Great America” rhetoric, which has echoed from Reagan to Trump, because the nation has betrayed its own ideals so often.

Stone the reporter underscores this hypocrisy when he does door-to-door census polling in the slums of New Orleans, in the extravagant shadows of the Superdome, which supplanted an African-American neighborhood. One black family is grappling, it slowly dawns on him, with a dying family member. Yet with a calm grace they allow him in their front door for census questions. This family is about to become less, by one. Stone reflects: “Had this been a white, middle-class household, I would never have been allowed past the door… I would never have dreamed of entering a sick room, approaching a deathbed, asking cold, irrelevant questions of people who had come  to mourn and pray. What has happened here is entirely determined by the politics of race and class – how blinding it can be, how dehumanizing, how denying of basic human dignity.” 4

In “A Higher Horror of Whiteness,” an essay originally published in Harper’s, Stone also hitches up to Melville’s uncannily “prophetic” insights from the mid-19th century, on the mysterious qualities of “whiteness.”

Stone’s chapter, from 1986, draws deeply from Melville’s famous “Whiteness of the Whale” chapter in Moby-Dick, in contemplating the insidious powers and qualities of cocaine, not just it’s inherent whiteness but a “metaphysical whiteness” akin to that which Melville patiently draws out the horrors of. Early in his meditation, the elder author even acknowledges, amid an extraordinarily-suspended sequence of dependent clauses, the role the “colorless color” plays in “the white man’s ideal mastership over every dusky tribe.” Yet that notion slowly dissolves in irony under the ensuing complexity of associative, cultural and instinctive forces, the haunting horrors within whiteness, which Melville expands on. Stone follows Melville quite a ways in this chapter.

So Stone and Melville resonate to the moment, in which the instinct of possessing  whiteness in oneself seems a perceptual pitfall, “so that all Deified nature absolutely paints like the harlot,” as Melville asserts, near his conclusion. This delusory effect manifest itself as an anarchist, racist, and deadly mob attack January 6 on the U.S. Capitol, led by white supremacists and Neo-Nazi Trump-followers.

Stone quotes Melville: “but not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul… And yet should be as it is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind…a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all color of atheism from which we shrink.” 5

Updating the profoundly agnostic Melville’s context of the word “atheism,” the term takes various forms today. But the message here is the lack of faith – in pluralistic American values and democracy – which obscures those blinded by their whiteness and radicalized away from their own interests, in thrall of the demagoguery of a cult-like leader vying for totalitarian power. Or blinded, as Stone might say, by the white-bound limits of “the eye you see with.”

Many, including President Biden, have commented on the easily breached resistance to the mob by the undermanned (by Trump) Capitol police – compared to previous violent police crack-downs on peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters – as a prime example of “white privilege.” Melville, of course, created the archetypal American demagogue with Captain Ahab, who nevertheless plays out as a tortured, bedeviled hero, pursuing the truth behind “the pasteboard mask.” By comparison, Trump, and his lying and poisonous rhetoric, play out as something quite below, perhaps clinging barnacle-like under the nation’s hull, hidden in the whiteness of the prow’s surf.

In many ways, Stone addresses American experience in these essays, which often read as travelogues, making them extremely palatable when they venture into political and philosophical discussion.

He bravely called out the military kingpins for their corrupt power warfare:

“On one (Vietnamese) hill they lost 56 men, and a general explained that Hill ‘had no military value whatsoever.’ There seemed to be a contradiction.” 6.

Nor does he slink from revisiting questionable in-country strategic calls:

“General Westmoreland was not a sophisticated man, and he appears not to have realized how gravely the cards were stacked against him. His declared tactics of search and destroy – finding and eliminating the enemy’s main force – turned to rubble in his hands.” 7

The more you read, the more you begin to understand the stony toughness of this writer, akin to, at least, the mythical Hemingway.

And Stone’s embracing of the relevance of religion reveals him unafraid to acknowledge a dark vision of God.

Cover of a book series edition Robert Stone contributed to. Amazon

The author comments:

“Because God welcomes all who give up their lives in his name. Because he will not be mocked. He wants his friends to kill his enemies. His beloved go forth to battle and leave heaps of slain.” 8

For all that, he’s also bracingly insightful about the faults of writers he admired, even with grave reservations:

Graham Greene “was tortured almost to a suicide by a grammar school mate.” This might explain Greene’s seemingly misanthropic spiritual malaise, his grieving, as a devout Catholic, of declining moral standards.

I allude to other iconic writers because Stone strikes me as a rare contemporary of our times who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with them, in ambition and talent, as if they’re aligned on a schooner ship that lists and tilts our perspective on them. Stone’s meaty topics and settings are engagingly rendered, and resonant — they grab the high winds, even if they be treacherous. He pulls you in with a pop-culture subject like Hollywood, then turns it inside-out to expose a rotting underbelly, the business that eats actors alive, but also the dazzle and beauty of the art remaining, damaged and infected, spotlighting the poignance of faded artistic power and grace. The drug and psychosis-effected narcissists in his novel Children of Light seem like names on a theater marque barely visible in a misty haze of dark impressionism, weak stand-ins for themselves — and agonizingly for one actor, Lu Anne Bourgeois, who feels deeply kindred to Rosalind in As You Like It, perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest female character, whom she’s played triumphantly in the past.

Shakespearean overtones, no less.  As Melville once proclaimed, praising Hawthorne, “Shakespeares are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio.”  Why not? Where does artistic rarity reside? Yes, Stone not infrequently achieves a resonance in time, a spiritual aroma that lingers like a haunting. That’s partly why he is always worth pursuing again, down the road. It’s why we’re thankful for novelist Madison Smart Bell for assembling and curating this collection. 9

Stone fearlessly casts a view ahead, and reports from the portal of the mortal or moral “heart of the matter,” to evoke Greene’s metaphorical courage and ambition.

But Stone was his own man, resembling, in words at least, the beautiful and sui generis human form the genius sculptor untombs with his chisel.

______________

1. Also worth reading is previous non-fiction by Stone, the memoir, Prime Green, Remembering the ’60s, P.S. Paperbacks

2. Madison Smart Bell, Introduction to The Eye You See With by Robert Stone. HMH, xxi

3. Stone’s National Book Award-winning novel Dog Soldiers takes aim at America’s greatest foreign policy folly to date, The Vietnam War, and was adapted into a 1978 film, Who’ll Stop the Rain, starring Nick Nolte. 

4. Stone, “Keeping the Future at Bay,” The Eye You See With,  179

5.. Stone, “A Higher Horror of Whiteness,” The Eye, 209

6. Stone “A Mistake Ten Thousand Miles Long,” The Eye, 41-42

7. Stone, “Out of a Clear Blue Sky,” The Eye, 104

8. Stone, Images of War (The Vietnam Experience), 104

9. Bell is also the author of Child of Light: A Biography of Robert Stone, Doubleday 2020.

 

It happened in Hitler’s Germany and – despite our election – it could still happen here

How Hitler Transformed a Democracy Into a Tyranny - The New York Times

Adolf Hitler congratulated by a mob of supporters in Nuremburg, 1933. Courtesy New York Times/getty images

The horrifying regime of Trump still festers in the mind and heart, so I was compelled to plow through a long article in The Nation about a new scholarly angle on Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. There remains fertile and fearsome grounds for a shudder of  apprehension in America, the powerful evidence of “Trumpism,” which isn’t going away because of an election loss. Indeed, 70 million Americans willing to chose a  kind of blatantly obvious American authoritarianism over democracy should keep us all awake at night. So I include below a quote from, and a link to, the article “Who Voted for Hitler?” which should stir us to reflection and action, in the ominousness of the hour.

This is no time to relax. At a personal level, I was disturbed by the slight response to my previous blog post, which suggested the blandishments of an inauguration reflect how people may be too satisfied with the presidential win as a “solution” to the nation’s gravest danger since the Civil War.

Donald Trump gesturing to his supporters. The Economic Times

The work has just begun. The violent right-wing siege on The Capitol was no joke, nor a freakish anomaly. Such allied fanatic forces are likely gathering to strike again, at some point when National Guard protections are relaxed. Here’s a quote from the article that should stir us to action. But I recommend you sit down and give this scary story time to breath in the poisoned air it probes, and understand how history just might be poised to repeat itself. I’m hardly a doomsayer, but reality is too overt and ugly now for anything but our most ardent attention.

Here’s the link to, “Who Voted for Hitler?” by Dan Simon, and below the quote from the article, which I urge you to read, at the very least: https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/trump-hitler-nazi-fascism/

From “Who Voted for Hitler?”:

All year long in 2020, we saw people of color murdered by state security forces, without redress. We protested, but the powers that be have waited out those protests. Little has changed. As Americans, our protests were muted and gentle by comparison with the wrongs we were protesting against.

We learned fear at a whole new level; we learned inequality at a whole new level. How is it that we tolerate a population of the homeless and the hungry in this, the richest nation in the world?

We withstood these daily assaults and defeats and then dealt authoritarianism a blow at the ballot box.

But there were 70,000,000 Americans who found they preferred being citizens subject to authoritarianism to being citizens in a democracy. Our job now is to make the fruits, the honor, the protections of living as citizens in a democracy so consistent and true that the arc continues to bend in the direction of justice. There’s no middle ground.

Another right-wing leader could to sweep up those millions – and what beyond them? – who’s stronger and strategically smarter than Trump.

In other words, we need to pay full attention and act, today and tomorrow, for the sake of our damaged and endangered democracy, however and whenever we can.

Yes, that means you, dear reader.

A desecration of The Crucifixion? What would Marilynne Robinson say?

O.K. (or not?) The painting shown in the linked article (below) is grossly sacrilegious, for anyone who acknowledges or practices in the tradition of Christianity. Or at least it should be, even for Evangelical Christians, who still support Donald Trump. Here, he’s a stand-in, as the ultimate self-glorifying victim, the worst sort of reality TV-show gag. Somehow, one can imagine him smiling smugly behind a curtain, as the unseen host, as well.
But the image is also a horrible reflection of how American right-wing media and lax social media have facilitated an alternate reality, and distortion of Christian morality.
No question, this situation has compounded the bizarre Trump Cult. The post of the painting arose the day after Christmas. Note the Trumpie comment in the accompanying article about even questioning the crucified redeemer if he critiqued Trump regarding his ties to Russia and moral compromises thereof. And there’s the declaration of lockstep-with-Trump Congressman Matt Goetz.
Or, given the cast of dubious characters floating in the dark clouds behind the cross, there’s the possibility this is a bold provocation of satire.
It all prompted me to wonder, what the great theological-oriented writer and thinker Marilynne Robinson, would think of this painting and situation.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of  “Gilead” and other novels and books of essays, may, or may not, be strongly oriented to visual art. However, her current Facebook page cover-photo image of a nature-infused watercolor painting suggests her responsiveness to painted images. And her rich metaphorical writing should allow a poised perspective on the crude symbolism under consideration.
In June of 2020, Robinson read an online lecture she says she first wrote when the “Trump phenomenon” first began to “settle in.” It is titled “Prophecy and the Present Time,” with an apparent subtitle of “Entropy and Decay.” She says she revised it on with the onset of COVID-19, and revised it a third time in considering what might lead us to sins we have repeated in the past.
This reflects Robinson’s unapologetic Calvinism, which acknowledges the inherent “original sins” and depravity of the human spirit, and flesh. Yet, the retired English professor is also a fairly unrepentant liberal, of the most humane sort. 1
Here is a germane passage from “Prophecy” regarding the political legacy of Trump’s administration, including the tragic response of the government and to coin-counting hospital CEOs, to the pandemic:
“Who doesn’t know the consequences of poverty for those who are trapped in it? Should the practice of exploiting them be met with anything but contempt, disgust?
“Here we have the great mystery of polarization laid bare. Shame would have imposed some limits on (such polarization), but in the absence of shame, we must look to legislation in the hope that meaningful laws will actually be enforced…”
But the travesty of the Crucifixion, so disgraced? Probing further, we find Robinson has deeply contemplated Christ’s passion and the human darkness he strove to redeem. And how prophetic was she, before Trump’s election?
In his superly-attuned 2015 essay titled, “Watching the World From Gethsemane: Darkness and the Devastated Self in Marilynne Robinson’s Fiction,” Scott Schomberg comments on the meditations and letter-writing of the central character of Gilead, Congregationalist Minister John Ames, who is dying of cancer in the fictional Iowa town of Gilead:
“Darkness in Robinson’s novels describes something that eludes the language we attempt to give it. Drawn into Gilead and Fingerbone, we move not within static visions of darkness in its most devastating forms—darkness as evil, sinister, corrupt, threatening, darkness as absence, emptiness, ignorance—but into a darkness that astonishes, that blinds with intense brightness. It’s an echo of the psalmist: ‘Darkness is as light to you’ ( Psalm 139:12 NRSV). When Ames describes the decades he spent alone, his long night, he looks back and sees a miracle preparing. Darkness here is like that of a womb.” 2
Lord knows, there is a bitter blend of poignance and pain in such reflection. In Robinson’s latest novel, Jack, dwells on her most problematic character in Gilead, the bedeviled titular man, who struggles with faith and morals, and is atheist more than anything.
But Robinson’s luminous prose is best understood as she understands language.  In her essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, she wrote, “I tell my students language is music…the music of a piece of fiction establishes the way in which it is to be read, and, in the largest sense, what it means.”
Even in the most anguished music, say in “the cry” of the wordless black jazz musician emitting the experience of racism, there is vibrational power, to overcome, there in the musical breath, the voice, the word made musical. Her quote about darkness rises from a Psalm. 3.
Amazon.com
Who might Jack best signify? A prodigal son, for sure. Beyond that is another discussion, as I have yet to read the novel. But there is the “miracle preparing,” as Robinson, in her “Prophecy” lecture, characterizes 2020’s  impassioned, globe-wide social protests, against racism and injustice.
A long, dark night of the soul does eventually end, if one survives it. And so has America’s long night, for now.
Such is the glimmer, the piercing ray of hope, Robinson perseveres for.
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  1. In 2012, President Obama presented Robinson with the National Humanities Medal. Here is a message Obama presented to Robinson upon her retirement:
  2. Scott Schomberg, “Watching the World From Gethsemane: Darkness and the Devastated Self in Marilynne Robinson’s Fiction”

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3. Marilynne Robinson, When I was a Child I Read Books, Picador, 2012, 130

“I can breathe” means I can write, about love in a time of angry protest

A protest march, including the author, against police brutality moves through Whitefish Bay Saturday. Photo for Shepherd Express by Tea Krulos

On Sunday morning, I wrote a commentary piece on the police brutality protest march I had participated in the day before.  The march had special meaning to me because it’s the first one of the current marches I know of that penetrated Shorewood, the nearby suburb where I grew up from my adolescence, and on into Whitefish Bay, engulfing the main thoroughfares of both municipalities.

What struck me first was the fact that I, in fact, could breathe — at the first protest march I’d partook of since the coronavirus, considering I’m quite at risk in my 60s and suffer from asthma. I thought the phrase  “I can breathe,” mirroring George Floyd’s, might be a headline phrase when I decided to submit it to the Shepherd Express, which accepted and published it yesterday in their online edition 1

Express editor David Luhrssen decided that a theme within the piece was a more striking headline, and I think he was right (I combine both ideas in my headline here). After seeing a protester wearing a red cap with the phrase, “Make America love again,” I pondered whether John Lennon’s famous notion about the power of love had potency and potential in our current crisis. I only wish I had added some lines from his great song “All You Need is Love.” So I will quote some rather profound lyrics from the song as I lead you to a link to my Shepherd Express commentary:

There is nothing you can make that can’t be made.

No one you can save that can’t be saved.

Nothing you can do but you can learn

how to be you in time.

It’s easy…

( my italics)

Perhaps it’s not always easy. But Lennon’s simple rhetorical assertion leads to the idea off applying love to the problem, perhaps learning to love in a Christ-like manner. Lennon’s notion that we can learn, through activism, how to be who we really are (or “praying with our legs” as Frederick Douglass put it) rather than through passive being or existence, is what strikes me.

The link to my Shepherd Express commentary on the protest

And thanks for reading, and for trying to be who you really are.

In addition, here are the two sides of the protest sign I made and used for the March including my satirical drawing of Donald Trump:

I didn’t arrange the book titles shown beside the sign, but their titles serendipitously resonate with ideas explicit or implicit in my Shepherd Express article. The small book at top is a portion of the Bible illustrated by Marc Chagall. 

This backside of the sign at top, from a previous march protesting police violence as supported by Trump, received plenty of comments during the march. Photos by Kevin Lynch.

Activism is also crucially about dialog as well as dissent. I’m also sharing images below, by Jonathan Klett, of Milwaukee Police Chief Alberto Morales. Here he’s talking, at a Veteran’s Park protest Sunday, with Nate Hamilton (in red jersey), the brother of Dontre Hamilton, who was killed by a MPD officer at Red Arrow Park a few years ago — the subject of the acclaimed documentary Blood is on the Doorstep. I allude to Morales’ defiant comments and to the film’s title in my SE article. I was also troubled by the fact that Morales lowered his mask to speak face-to-face with Hamilton. Is this a version of Donald Trump’s macho posturing about not wearing a mask during the COVID crisis?

Nate Hamilton (left, in red jersey) speaks with MPD chief Alberto Morales. Photo by Jonathan Klett.

Here is a brief video by Jonathan Klett of MPD Chief Morales being dissed away from the Veteran’s Park protest:

Morales leaving protest

I highly recommend Blood is at the Doorstep, about Hamilton’s death and his family’s effort towards justice, now available for streaming or purchase. I reviewed it in this blog:

Milwaukee film brilliantly embraces the family of Dontre Hamilton – a search for justice

Thanks to Klett for this link to the film:

https://streamingmoviesright.com/us/movie/the-blood-is-at-the-doorstep/

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1 The ceasing of the Shepherd Express print edition has forced the permanent lay-off of much SE staff, including my friends John Schneider and Rip Tenor (a.k.a. Art Kumbalek), a sad turn of events.

 

Of Charlottesville, the “first white president,” black football players, and Civil Rights history

The cover photo of “North of Dixie” is by Don Hogan Charles, from Newark N.J. July 1967. 

The racial profiling, physical abuse and near-murder of Seattle Seahawks star defensive lineman Michael Bennett by Las Vegas police recently demonstrates that it doesn’t matter how famous you are. If you have black skin, and especially if you’re male, you could be gunned down by the police at any time.

It’s especially resonant in Wisconsin as Bennett is the twin brother of Packer tight end Martellus Bennett (The Packers beat the Seahawks in Green Bay Sunday). Michael gained notoriety of sorts for his one-knee-on-the-ground posture during the National Anthem before Seahawks’ preseason games this year. His stance of mourning dissent was akin to Colin Kaepernick’s, and those of a handful of recent Cleveland Browns, among others. Their resistance to reflexive patriotism has eloquently and provocatively highlighted the nation’s ongoing betrayal of its exalted ideals, “the land of the free,” through pervasive systemic racism and now, a presidential administration that promotes and defends hatred and racism at most every turn.

Of course, many previously-anonymous, unarmed black men, like St. Louis’s Anthony Smith, became famous posthumously at the deadly hands of police – a disturbing recurring story. It just keeps happening over and over, which is why a longer perspective on American race relations and reform of police procedures and behaviors is urgently needed. (Please see footnote) 1
The powerful and incisive new article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the latest Atlantic magazine provides deep and illuminating insight into the mentality and real-life effects of whiteness and white privilege, and why Donald Trump and his administration have boldly supported and advanced racist activities and policies. It’s a meaty and tough-minded read but well worth your time:

“The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A provocative historical premise of the article undercuts the conventional wisdom that Democrats must woo back working-class whites to win again: “The myth of the virtuous white working class was made central to American identity, its sins needed to be rendered invisible. The fact was, working-class whites had been agents of racist terrorism since at least the draft riots of 1863; terrorism could not be neatly separated from the racist animus found in every class of whites.” 2

Coates’ article, with its long historical perspective on race in America, complements visual history in one of the year’s most compelling photography books, North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South by Mark Speltz, a public historian from Madison. The book documents how the Civil Rights movement and racism of the 1960s extended deeply into the North (and protests went as far back into the 1930s Jim Crow era). As the book’s website notes: “Photographs inspired activists, galvanized public support, and implored local and national politicians to act, but they also provided means of surveillance and repression that were used against movement participants.”  3

Author Speltz explains that many Northern newspapers and magazines, fearful of controversy, refused to publish many of these civil rights photos, such as the one of Malcolm X below. Contextualizing them today, the photos may also give insight as to why Trump won in rust-belt states nobody expected him to win, which gained him his Electoral College victory.

You’ll also see imagery not far removed from that seen in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently the subject of profound and tragic controversy regarding white supremacists, white nationalists and Nazis. The photo below from North of Dixie looks like a shot from Charlottesville in 2017, but it’s actually counter-protesters taunting Chicago Freedom Movement marchers in 1966. It illustrates how frequently young men seem to be attracted to fascist ideology, if they are cultivated into racial hatred.

Photo by Art Shay, Chicago, Illinois 1966

The next photo below, also from Chicago, suggests how early such hatred can be developed, certainly before young people are properly educated. It underscores the crucial role of education, in terms of teaching the nation’s democratic foundation of equal treatment and opportunity espoused by the framers of the Constitution. Also one must learn of the tragedy of the Civil War fought over the South’s social and economic dependence on slavery. Sadly, the social animus – and its underlying hateful, fearful and anti-American presumptions – persist today, not only in the South.

Photo by Art Shay, Chicago, Il 1966

These photos are journalism, but 1966 Shay’s alley shot has an art photo’s symbolic resonance, as it leads the eye from the nasty, illiterate pavement scrawls to the boy’s smirk, then down a deep perspective, following a zig-zagging crack into an uncertain and ominous future. That future is now, when bigotry and hate crimes have spiked dramatically since Donald Trump began his provocative, divisive presidency. But it also queries where we go from here.

The ensuing photo shows a Civil Rights protester serving a dual purpose, opposition to the Vietnam war as well as to racial hostility in America. This correlates to the intelligence and strategies behind today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

Photo by Julius Lester, New York, NY 1967

Malcolm X was the militant Civil rights leader who embraced nonviolence late in his life. Then, a black man killed him, perhaps for renouncing violence. So often, tragedy begets irony. In the photo below, Malcolm displays the Nation of Islam newspaper, with its shocking headline. This was an unpublished picture, among hundreds taken for a May 31, 1963 LIFE magazine article. Ugly reality scorched our land, but LIFE hid from racist death. Ah, but what is life if not, in its bottom line, defiance of death and injustice?

Photo of Malcolm X by Gordon Parks, Chicago, Illinois, 1963

It’s also important to remember that people on both sides of the racial divide are only human, all “sinners” as a true Christian should acknowledge, though some transgressions are worse than others, like that of Malcolm’s killer.

Let’s consider Ezekiel Elliott. Justice, ideally blind to her own biases, seems also a gagged-and-bound hostage, somewhere beneath a football stadium. Elliott, a star running back and alleged girlfriend-beater is playing this season for the Dallas Cowboys. A procedural decision by a Texas judge recently overruled the NFL’s evidently appropriate decision to suspend the African-American Elliott for the first six games of 2017 season, without pay. Regardless of those who question her motives, his ex-girlfriend Tiffany Thompson was quite evidently abused and beaten by Elliott multiple times in 2016 – as photos of her show – right before the Cowboys drafted him. Since being charged, he also forcefully exposed the breasts of another woman in public, not having learned much, it seems. The Cowboys have a history of ignoring some of the worst behavior of football players, if they think they can squeeze out some wins by hiring them. A bit like the blind loyalty of some Trump supporters, it’s a sad commentary that the Cowboys remain “America’s team” with by far the NFL’s leading profits of fan sales of team merchandise.

The league, to its credit, finally listened to a woman seriously, and will continue to pursue this case. For his many faults, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell shows he can learn and change. So, one hopes, justice has her day.

But Elliott is the African-American exception, having won a large measure of privilege that he’s apparently abused as well. By contrast, Civil Rights activists have been peaceful, strong-backed, but largely non-violent, unless the police or counter-protesters get physical or worse, as Speltz’s important book shows.

Photos by Charles Brittin, Los Angeles, CA 1965

The next photos (above) by Charles Brittin show that police tactics were not much different back in the 1960s, as we see a black woman In Los Angeles in March 1965 being brutally removed from a peaceful non-violent site protesting the shocking violence in Selma, earlier that month.

The shot below by Julian Wilson graphically Illustrates the courage of non-violent protesters, risking being buried alive in hopes of stopping construction of a new school that would further segregate neighborhood schools. The image also hauntingly recalls the burial of exterminated Jews by Nazis during the Holocaust. 4

Photo by Julian C. Wilson, Cleveland, OH April 1964

This daring sort of act may have inspired “Tank Man,” (below, photo not from North of Dixie) a single anonymous protester at Tiananmen Square in 1989. He stopped the Communist Chinese government tanks in their tracks by simply standing up to them, part of a student-led protest demanding freedom of speech, freedom of the press and government accountability. The protests were forcibly suppressed after the government declared martial law. In what became known in the West as the Tiananmen Square Massacretroops with assault rifles and tanks killed at least several hundred demonstrators trying to block the military’s advance towards Tiananmen Square.

Photo of “Tank Man” in Tiananmen Square, June, 1989,  by Jeff Widener Associated Press (not in “North of Dixie”) 

North of Dixie also covers one of the most subtly pernicious and far-reaching aspects of systemic racism: redlining or housing discrimination. My own hometown of Milwaukee – to this day one of the most segregated cities in America –  became a fair-housing hotbed, especially when the iconoclastic Catholic priest James Groppi began leading the fight against housing discrimination. Groppi – whom I was fortunate enough to have studied religion with as a young elementary school student – was an inspirational and hard-headed figure. I’m sure he helped inspire me to later do fair-housing testing: going to homes for sale posing as a prospective home buyer with a black female partner. (A 2017 independent report on the Milwaukee police procedures and policies, requested by the police chief, found the department sorely lacking in its relations with, and profiling of, the minority populations it ostensibly serves.)

In the North of Dixie photo below, Groppi stands with two other pioneers, Milwaukee’s first black alderwoman Vel Phillips, and (at left, in the white hat), comedian and social activist Dick Gregory, who recently died, but not before publishing a powerfully provocative book of his own, Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies. But here, one can palpably feel the resolute determination in both Groppi and Gregory’s faces, as they gaze at a challenge beyond, perhaps taunting counter-demonstrators, or bearing the weight of Frederick Douglass’ famous dictum, “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

Dick Gregory, Father James Groppi and Ald. Vel Phillips. Unknown Photographer, Milwaukee WI, Sept. 1967, from “North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South.”

I can’t wait to read Gregory’s new book, but he has been on my radar as an author ever since I bought his first book From the Back of the Bus in the early ’60s. It was a collection of his stand-up observations, which included pithy posed photos of Gregory illustrating some of his gags and points, and it came two years before his better-known 1964 autobiography Nigger.

Dick Gregory’s 1962 photo-illustrated book “From the Back of the Bus” helped open my young eyes and mind to Civil Rights, and Gregory himself is a subject in Mark Speltz’s new photo documentary book “North of Dixie.” Photo by Kevin Lynch   

A telling Gregory comment in From Back of the Bus addresses Northern redlining of real estate: “Down South, they don’t care how close I get as long as I don’t get too big; and up North, they don’t care how big I get as long as I don’t get too close.” 5

The final photo I’ll share from Mark Speltz’s North of Dixie book shows the human side of the controversial Black Panthers, a militant civil rights activist group of the era. The Panthers did resort to violence at times, by the dictum of “by any means necessary” for racial justice.  However, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover effectively demonized them whole-cloth. In the photo below, we see Panther Charles Bursey serving breakfast to a child in Oakland, California. The Panthers raised enough funds and resources to help feed numerous neighborhood children and families throughout the United States.

This brings us forward to the next steps for The Black Lives Matter movement and the implicit query of all these photos: Will we learn, from the history laid bare in this book, that racism’s poisoning and coagulation of the American spirit infected the North as well as the South? BLM is now forming new initiatives – The Electoral Justice Project and The Black Futures Lab – which, they say, will address black voter alienation and transform the ways that African-American communities participate in the 2018 election and beyond, as reported by Dani McClain in “The Future of BLM” in The Nation. 6

In this age of increasingly visually-oriented information and learning, a book like North of Dixie takes us to the heart of our greatest and oldest struggle as a nation, something that Northerners as well as Southerners must own, and help overcome together. The road ahead, like Art Shay’s 1966 photo above, may feel like a defaced, cracked back alley, with misguided youth headed in the wrong direction. But the greater mass of millennials cry out for a more just and equal America. We press ahead in search of our nation’s spiritual replenishment and deliverance. Imagine the day when a Black Panther’s photo might symbolize that dream, no longer deferred.

Photo of Black Panther Charles Bursey by Ruth-Marion Baruch, Oakland, California, 1969

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For more information and to order the North of Dixie book, visit the official website: North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South
3. An important new book, Policing the Black Man, edited by Angela J. Davis, with essays by Davis, Bryan Stephenson and others, documents the rampant police killing of black men and the full scope of systemic racism, from hands-on-the-hood street profiling to excess sentencing in the highest state courts and a very profitable penal system. In the September 15 acquittal of St. Louis officer Jason Stockley from a first-degree murder charge of Anthony Smith, the system allowed Stockley to avoid a jury case and the Republican judge claimed insufficient proof that the officer did not “fear for his life.” The prosecution argued that Stockley planted a silver revolver in Smith’s car to cover his murder. The only DNA on the gun was Stockley’s –- not Smith’s – and police cameras show no evidence of a gun in Smith’s car during the chase and incident, according to a CNN report. Stockley was recorded rummaging through a bag in his car and returning to Smith’s car, allegedly to plant to revolver. If the gun were Smith’s, it almost surely would’ve contained his DNA. Further, the police cruiser recorded Stockley saying, “I’m going to kill that mother fu–er. Don’t you know it.” The judge claimed that the statement “can be ambiguous depending on the context.” There is no ambiguity in this context, especially given that Stockley shot Smith five times less than a minute later. Such lame judicial reasoning in such an important case is unforgivable. No wonder protests broke out. This is not untypical of the way the judicial system almost always acquits police killings of unarmed black men.
2. “The First White President,” The Atlantic, October 2017, 80
4. My friend, Chuck LaPaglia, founder of the original Milwaukee Jazz Gallery,  sees a historical precedent in America’s current extreme hatred and racism, especially regarding the potential deportation of DACA “Dreamers” which he frames in the backdrop of the Holocaust. His Facebook post is worth considering: “EXILE (definition) The state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons.
  1. The same Fascists who were behind the exile (and extermination) of Jews in Nazi Germany are the ancestors of our present day Nazis and white supremacist. The exile of 800,000 of our children is red meat for the Fascists. They can’t be allowed to get away with it.”

    A group of 7,000 Jewish people expelled from Germany by the German Nazi authorities and living in Zbaszyn on the Polish-German border, 3rd November…
    GETTYIMAGES.COM
    5.. Dick Gregory, From the Back of the Bus, Avon, 1962, 64
    6. “The Future of BLM,” cover story by Dani McClain, The Nation, Oct 9, 2017, 14

 

Stone Soup Shakespeare sends the fate of “Julius Caesar” to the stars and back

 

brutus

Miquela Cruz, as Brutus, declaims in Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of “Julius Caesar” Saturday at the Shorewood Library. 

 

Their current website epigraph reads: “Men are sometimes masters of their own fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.”

It’s Cassius speaking, in the great play Julius Caesar, not long before “dear Brutus” colludes with Cassius in assassinating Caesar, the powerful Roman general, just returned from a triumphant war against Pompey. Brutus is also Caesar’s dearest friend.

Chicago-based Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of Julius Caesar showed the “men” in firm control of their theatrical fate, despite swirling winds and a couple of wailing fire trucks trundling past the outdoor setting of the Shorewood Library lawn.

Despite the limits of barebones props and sets, the young troupe conveyed the drama, moral conundrums and tragedy of this story of betrayal, political assassination, and profound self-questioning. It was a deeply moving foray into Shakespeare’s tragedies, from a company which has typically toured the Bard’s comedies and fantasies. So,  for this attendee, it amounted to their most gratifying production to date. And the crowd showed great appreciation at the end. 1

Unlike the comedies, this had minimal madcap motion and slapstick. Accordingly, the company presented the text with greater clarity and impact than previously. The Bard’s drama and poetry shone forth like so many faceted jewels.

julia

Caesar (Julia Stemper) begins to feel the pressure of political unrest, and perhaps a hint of his looming fate, in Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of “Julius Caesar.”

Especially after the dreadful, bloody or heroic deed, Brutus must wonder if the difficult answer about his fateful decision dwells only in the enigmatic glimmer in the sky. Indeed, Brutus’s closest ally in the murder plot, Cassius, is a head-spinner, alternating between such reflective illumination and utter hotheadedness, a contrast well-drawn by Josh Pennington.

cassius

Cassius (left, Josh Pennington) consoles Brutus (Miquela Cruz) who has just lost his closest friend, Julius Caesar, in an assassination they both participated in. 

Regarding Cassius’s epigrammic comment: Does the “fault” lie in their life-snuffing act or in Caesar’s exceedingly “great ambition” to become Rome’s emperor, which compels Brutus to betray Caesar most of all?

Short of assassination, the play resonates today in the dilemma of Donald Trump and fired FBI director James Comey, especially in Trump’s “hope” — or “directive” as Comey sees it —  that he be utterly loyal to Trump, rather than to his nation and the Constitution. Trump’s fate as president may lie in himself, his own “great ambition” and it’s many seemingly self-destructive faults. And like Brutus, Comey is aiming to act for the sake of the nation. A Brutus utterance might be Comey’s: “For I am arm’d so strong with honesty that (threats) pass by me as the idle wind, which I respect not.” Comey admits being “stunned” and intimidated by Trump in one-one-one meetings.

And yet Comey did finally speak “honestly” in a manner that may seal Trump’s fate, as surely as Cassius’ fury and Brutus’s decisions seal Caesar’s. Certainly Trump has behaved more like a self-indulgent, impulsive Roman ruler than a democracy’s president and guardian, especially in never admitting any wrongdoing, even about his most demonstrably-false tweets. “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins with remorse from power,” Brutus comments.

A difference is that Comey seems hardly as close to Trump as Brutus is to Caesar, whom Brutus feels a truly great man: “As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoiced at it; as he was valiant, I honor him; but – as he was ambitious, I slew him.”

In the moment before he’s killed, Caesar unwittingly borrows Cassius’s celestial metaphor to aggrandize himself: “I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.” It’s a brilliant Shakespearian flourish of irony.

Once Caesar lies dead, Brutus is ravaged with self-doubt and recrimination. So Shakespeare dramatizes one of the greatest moral and psychological conundrums a human in a certain position of power might face. As Brutus, Miquela Cruz carries the mightiest role burden with grace and equipoise. She does underplay Brutus’s apparent angst. But, unlike Cassius, it’s in Brutus’s character to strive for a certain balance between extreme emotions, which makes his decisions and actions no easier, as the wrenching ending proves. Under Eric Mercado’s direction, Cruz, along with Julia Stemper as a vivid Caesar, showed how well this company pulls off non-gender-specific casting.

choreo

Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance of the tragedy “Julius Caesar” was offset by choreography, song, ensemble chanting and drumming, and an audience member as a surprise performer.

It may seem improbable that this small band of 21st century American millennials, juggling roles throughout, might actually reach into the Elizabethan and Roman Empire eras. Yet, aloft in energy and passion, they rode “the tides of time” back, like mythical birds following the constant currents and the northern star, through history’s ceaseless cycles.

sculpture

The sculpture “Congruity” by Narendra Patel overlooks the setting for Stone Soup Shakespeare’s performance Saturday of “Julius Caesar.” All Photos by Kevin Lynch

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1 It’s worth noting, despite play’s violence, the company didn’t even resort to stage weaponry. So this managed to be family-friendly fare, as serious as it mostly was. Also, Stone Soup has done staged readings this year of such meaty fare as Richard III and Hamlet, clearly demonstrating their range beyond the comedy that might seem to tour easier to outreach locations they normally pursue.

The night of Trump’s inauguration inspires this protest march

park crowd

The crowd for the first gathering of the Milwaukee Coalition Against Trump crowded into Red Arrow Park on Friday, before beginning a protest march throughout downtown, on the night of Donald Trump’s inauguration. The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts is in the background. All photos by Kevin Lynch.

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The national news today report, and document live, huge rallies and marches – 600 different marches – across the United States in response to the Trump inauguration, including the Washington women’s march, over 500,000 strong. This represents perhaps an unprecedented groundswell of grassroots political response. But my report below is a prelude to all that, a protest rally in Milwaukee last night, only hours after the inauguration.  

MILWAUKEE – The looming fog and surly mist may have reflected the dark inner mood that brought thousands of people to Red Arrow Park in downtown Milwaukee Friday evening. They came from all directions, gathering to protest what they felt was the questionable legitimacy and ominous threat of Donald Trump, who had just been inaugurated as America’s 45th president hours before. Now, while Trump gallivanted around to various inauguration balls in Washington, the crowd milled about, some hopping back and forth to stay warm, their own little dance of defiance.

The event didn’t unfold seamlessly; the Milwaukee Coalition Against Trump at this point is perhaps a bit too ad hoc to have provided for electric amplification for leaders to speak to the throng. Instead they use hand-held megaphones and, standing about 15 yards away from their podium, I and others near to me could not hear what the speakers said, except for fleeting words.

So I climbed a staircase behind the podium and crowd and got a better vantage point and suddenly could hear better. One woman then announced that time had come to begin a march through downtown.

The massive coil of humanity began to unfurl and snake its way west onto State Street. As I followed, I passed a woman standing next to a park bench. She held a sign and told marchers: “Don’t forget Dontre Hamilton!”

Yes, of course, I thought to myself. This is Red Arrow Park, and that bench is probably the very one that Hamilton, a young black man slept on a few years back, until he was accosted by Milwaukee police who then shot and killed him –  after other officers had previously reported that Hamilton posed no threat to anyone. It was Milwaukee’s own dire story of police violence against unarmed black men, which has repeated itself time after time, seemingly week after week, across America in recent years.

protest rink

The crowd begins to begin a march by leaving beside the Red Arrow Park skating rink, and past the park bench where Dontre Hamilton was killed by Milwaukee police.

Donald Trump, however, had campaigned on “law and order,” and apparently more of the same, a stance strongly supported by David A. Clarke, the controversial cowboy hat-wearing black Milwaukee County Sheriff, who was the object of several chants this night, especially as the crowd reached the police station and County Sheriff’s office.

protest on stateThe marchers head west on State Street toward The Bradley Center and, in the background, the Milwaukee Courthouse.

The protest march moved across The Milwaukee River, past The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel communications building, where I once worked. Spirits now rose as chants began and the walking marshalled energy, including a woman, her hat bedecked with pro-women buttons, pushing a young man in a wheel chair. In the next moment, the march ground to a halt, at the corner of Fourth and State Streets in front of the marquee of the Bradley Center advertising for an upcoming Bucks game.

Suddenly police became conspicuously evident especially gathered on Fourth and State. Television cameramen scrambled around, trying to get good angles to shoot from.

“Why did it stop?” one woman asked. “Is this as far as it’s going to go? They said we would go much further than this.”

“I don’t know, maybe the police stopped it,” I answered.

But one of the organizers, a short, African-American woman with a megaphone, continued to muster rhythmic phrases, which the crowd chanted in unison: “NO TRUMP, NO KKK, NO RACIST USA!”…“NO TRUMP, NO KKK, NO RACIST USA!”

Some of the countless handmade signs spoke quite bluntly, including one message, held aloft by several young women, which read simply “PUSSY GRABS BACK,” a reference to an obscene comment that Donald Trump had made about his efforts to molest women, in a recording that gained notoriety during the presidential campaign. My own hand-made sign read “Chop Down Trump the Stump” and included a printout of a satirical drawing I did during the campaign, depicting Donald Trump as a tree stump, with a number of small banners stuck into it, bearing various racist, sexist and xenophobic comments he made during his improbable rise to the presidency, despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2.8 million votes.

Still, the march remained stalled. Police stood by in ready, their dark uniforms silhouetted in the night.

“I’m getting scared,” a middle-aged woman said to me. I said nothing but patted her on the back reassuringly.  An electronic sign flickered above with the image of Milwaukee Bucks giant All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo, a sort of real-life god whom, in this uncertain moment, anyone might claim for their cause.

The minutes passed in increasingly agonizing slowness, as the trailing end of the marchers now began massing more tightly in the intersection.

And then for no apparent reason, the marches began moving forward. I wondered if the coalition’s strategy was to stop to make a statement at this conspicuous spot, where the largest crowds gather in downtown, although for sporting events.

protest overpass

The crowd continued up State Street until we made a left turn and headed toward the brilliantly lit tunnel that penetrates the Milwaukee County Courthouse building.

protest tunnel

The marchers enter the Courthouse tunnel and raise a thunderous din.

And here something extraordinary happened. The crowd instinctively realized the acoustic resonance of the long tunnel and a huge roar began swelling as they entered and occupied the extended space. The sound magnified into a boisterously massive white noise of human passion, and probably some defiantly anarchic energy. The tunnel normally expedites swift-moving cars, and right there I felt thankful that the protest organizers had apparently received the proper permits to march through most of the major downtown streets that cars normally prowl.

protest courthouse

That became all the more striking when the march approached, from 3rd Street, the entrance to the Grand Avenue Mall and then turned left onto Wisconsin Avenue. Though a Milwaukee native, I had lived in Madison for nearly 20 years, until returning to my hometown in 2009. I had participated in some Madison protest marches. Now, it suddenly struck me: I was walking down the middle of Wisconsin Avenue, the main street of Milwaukee at 7 p.m. on a Friday night, protected by the river of humanity.

protest on Wis

A large protest sign floats down Wisconsin Avenue, like a ghost from the 1960s.

We approached the Riverside Theater and its grand, gleaming marquee advertising upcoming live performances by big-name entertainers. (Continue reading blow)

 

Protest on Wis toward RivProtest Rivprotest Riv 2The protest crowd heads down Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee’s downtown main street, to the Riverside Theater.

It struck me how our own cultural and political performance now intersected with the downtown’s other primary venue of entertainment performance, besides the Bradley Center. It felt like we were playing out a statement about what seemed important and vibrant and culturally alive, right now. One young woman began singing out the great Civil Rights-era anthem “We Shall Overcome,” and others nearby, including myself joined in. Right here, in this moment, the song’s resolute, hopeful lyrics, and stately, chest-heaving melody moved me, and I knew I was not alone.

Again we crossed over the Milwaukee River and eventually wended our way back to Red Arrow Park, situated across from another of the downtown’s largest entertainment venues, The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Yes, ours was a performance, a drama of dissent, but it was virtually spontaneous, aside from its provisional organizing.

“What does democracy look like?” one of the organizers had shouted through a megaphone several times during the march.

“This is what democracy looks like!” The crowd responded. Yes, it’s a familiar refrain at American protest marches. It signifies the people getting their moment to sing out, to let their cultural utterance seek out the truth, even as the dawn of a new presidency feels as dark and gloomy as this night, which seemed akin to the Trump’s strikingly ominous inauguration speech.

James Fallows, the National Book Award-winning author and national correspondent for The Atlantic, has read all 45 presidential inauguration speeches. Fallows noted last night that Trump’s was the first such speech to not display humility in honor of the office, nor an effort to open his arms to all of America, to try to bring us together, despite our differences.

But the light of energy this crowd radiated for several hours is the kind of force that could turn that dark dawn, slowly but surely, into something powerful, positive and righteous for the great mass of the American people and their democracy, which tonight looked like this, in cities all across America.

 

 

This is No Cold War Joke. It’s President-select Donald Trump Feeding Russia the Punchlines, One at a Time. Who’s Gonna Bomb First?

trump-putin

Courtesy cdn.images. express. co.uk

“The word mammoth is derived from the Tartar word mamma meaning the earth :”… From this some mistakenly came to believe that the great beast had always lived underground, burrowing like a big mole. And they were sure it died when it came to the surface and breathed fresh air!” – Roy Chapman Andrews from All About Strange Beasts of the Past (An epigraph to Lorrie Moore’s novel Anagrams)

“Whenever I’m serious, the only vocabulary I can come up with our words that have been spoken in the last 30 seconds. My sentences become anagrams sentences before. (That is an argument about intelligence and sexual fidelity in marriage”) – Lorrie Moore, from “The Nun of That,” from Anagrams

Has anyone been feeling furious lately, like right in the middle of the morning, without knowing why until they happen to check the news on their smart phone or turn on the tube?

Well, let’s try to focus that fury a bit into some something concentrated and somewhat analytic.

Let’s pay a little closer attention and start at a microscopic linguistic level. How might Trump morph into an American Putin? Is it any more than a coincidence that their two surnames are very pugnacious utterances when spoken aloud? Then notice how close they are to anagrams of each other. Try some letter juggling with Trump: “Pmurt.” Or “putrm.” Knock the second curve off the m, and you have “putrn.” Chop the curve off the “r” & pin it on top and you have Putin!

(Add the r to “putin” and turn the p upside down & you have “putrid.” How mellifluous.

A bit more seriously in a literary manner.  now certainly have perhaps the two strangest presidents to ever lead the two most openly antagonist superpowers in the globe. Trump and Putrid, I mean, Putin and Stump.

They are both mammoths, whose power is almost totally circular and inward-feeding from the energy and resources of the great nations they seem to be leading as elected presidents.

trump-angry

See The Donald Mammoth roar. Media.salon.com

It’s a bit like a woolly mammoth, say, from rising up from a prehistoric grave like a Neanderthal man wearing a woolly mammoth coat and headdress. Everybody flees in horror and they try to blow down any courageous challengers who might be a lingering. The working class or the lumpen proletariat seem to like some of the outrageous racist utterances from Trump’s mouth: Mexican rapists, radical Islamists (so let’s get rid of all his Islam Americans, even though the vast majority of domestic terrorism in America since the war and terror began has been committed by domestic right-wing offensive proto-Nazi mass killers).

But when people go to his rallies or get all their information from social media things like the truth are easily filtered out and Trump fans love the huff and the puff.

Let’s imagine a little showdown between Trump and Putin in which they’re both stripped-down to shirtless and face off, with Trump’s southward-sloping profile his belly curves tantalizingly close to Putin’s chest, being quite a bit taller and fatter.

putin-horse

Vladimir Putin. courtesy huffingtonpost.com

Although we’ve never seen Putin exhaling a big huff and puff, we’ve just seen the very posed photo op of him topless on a horse. But he seems to be in considerably better shape than Trump.

But the eyebrow-raising “bromance” between the two proceeds apace, to where we can only guess. We know that Trump admires Putin and probably wishes he was that smart and autocratic. Putin is possibly the richest man in the world because he has contrived to funnel a great percentage of his own nations GDP into his own bank account and is worth reportedly $86 billion.

As for Trump’s worth, who knows because he still hides behind a supposed audit to refuse to release his tax returns. We are aware of course that he lost something like $91 million a number of years back which may have allowed him to avoid paying income taxes for 15 years.

The Russian hacking of the U.S. election “was an attack on America, less lethal than a missile but still profoundly damaging to our system. It’s not that Trump and Putin were colluding to steal an election. But if the C.I.A. is right, Russia apparently was trying to elect a president who would be not a puppet exactly but perhaps something of a lap dog — a Russian poodle.”  – Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times

Is this a cruel, unfair metaphor? We know that Mr. Kristof, despite his Pulitzer Prizes, is one of those highly specious “liberals.” Consider, as per the Times’ Maureen Dowd, who seems to hate Hillary Clinton more than any other politician if you consider her journalistic track record. So she’s going to give her opponent a fair shake, no?

She wrote of the last debate: “Talking about Putin, Trump once more offered the simple reason he has flipped his party’s wary stance toward the Evil Empire, subjugating his party’s ideology to his own ego: ‘He said nice things about me.’’’

It seems the most disarming thing that any raging mammoth can do to this orange paper sabre-toothed tiger is not to stomp on him like Hillary Clinton did with mighty psychological glee especially in the last presidential debate, in which he finally responded with a devastatingly policy-dismantling riposte: ”Such a nasty woman.”

No, all a smart person like Vladimir has to do is ”say nice things” about him. The Donald seems to have an Pavlovian response to niceness when it is directed at him. This is the height of quasi-erotic banality, something that perhaps the French filmmaker Luis Bunuel might have worked into one of his satires of the empty lives of the bourgeoisie, laced with odd sado-masochism (think of Belle de Jour).

Of course, Trump is the bourgeoisie bloated into the upper 1%, his wealth is the whole buttressing of his self-esteem and ego. He seems to have no firm principles or values other than accumulating money and its attendant shiny object sheen and “prestige.”

So “saying nice things” to him, to disarm him seems a reasonable equivalent to petting a lapdog poodle. The little creature, with the funny red sweep of fur over his brow, and and involuntarily begins to wag his tail. He quivers and emits a tiny shuddering yelp of pleasure.

Is the tail wagging the dog? It certainly seems to be. Let’s remember that Pavlov was a great Russian psychologist and the best leaders of that nation have employed such manipulative powers, including Joseph Stalin. Look at Pavlov.

pavlov-photo

This is a man who knows what he want, and needs to do, to extract the desired effect in his object of experimentation which, by now, is well-accepted scientific psychological truth.

pavlov

Add “NICE POODLE” (in soothing tones with steady strokes), to the left column of this chart. Then another “SALIVATION”.

Because the tail is being orchestrated by Vladimir Putin, like a hypnotist whispering to the alert tail, “You are getting verrry sleepy.” The tail begins following the Russian’s swaying vest clock… The poodle himself is virtually oblivious of this behind-the-butt love waltz.

You might also take one of those cute red “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” baseball caps and put it on the head of Putin’s poodle, and his perky ears hold it in place neatly.

Such a “nice” image. Of course, that is nice mainly if we focus on the poodle’s perky, pretty posterior. If we look up front, prettiness, um, needs a napkin, or three.

pavlov-dog

Courtesy inkart.com

Now, this image of a “Pavlov’s dog” is not nearly as pretty as a lap poodle would be. But let’s imagine it starting as a Neanderthal in mighty-woolly-mammoth drag, morphing slowly into a fast-shedding shaggy dog, morphing into finally, a manicured lap poodle.

So  then one of his aides would read the whole column to him. You know what comes next .A detailed policy speech on culture intelligence strategies for responding to Russian hacking? Well, no. Maybe something more like, you know, what all (make America) great presidents do when challenged. He tweets. Eg.:

31 Dec 2016

This nasty blogger and people like Hillary are just jealous because Putin says nice things about me, and not them! Ha Ha!

OK, he’s eloquent. So let’s give our Trumpoodle a break, especially with the “optics.”

Ah, butt Larry King seems to have the right idea here:

larry-king-petting-trump

“Good Trump, good Trump.” celebalite.c

Okay, Okay, Trump fans who have, or are capable of, reading this far. I’ve tried to include lots of pictures. (I wonder, would The Donald read this far? Sure, if he scrolls down and sees his own face. So he’ll probably start reading around here. Sensing this possibility, I am striving for a bit of a Pavlov angle here 🙂

I am certainly willing to wait to see how the “president-select” (see the Electoral College fiasco) Trump “performs” once he puts his paw on the Bible and takes that solemn oath with a few muffled “ruffs”.

However, seriously speaking, what is scaring me is his cabinet appointing. If approved, it will be the most radically right-wing one in American history.

Trump media relations will be based on a propoganda mode; a daily misinformation campaign. Note his recent comment on the Russian hacking of the Democratic party files: “In the computer age, nobody knows exactly what’s going on.”

Media critic and professor of journalism Jay Rosen comments: “Journalism that tries to find its public through ‘inside’ coverage of the political class is vulnerable to rejection by portions of the public that are busy rejecting that class.  This is a hard problem, to which “listening” sounds like a soft, warm and fuzzy solution. It isn’t.”

The media needs to find fresh ways of actually listening to the public, especially that which completely distrusts the press, following Trump’ cues fervently.

Rosen extensively quotes Andrew Haeg, CEO of the journalism start-up Groundsource, who has a smart approach in mind.

“Haeg recently tried to sketch what a ‘listening’ model looks like. I found inspiring his imaginary description of a two-person listening team:

Emboldened by election postmortems urging better listening, inspired by (the movie) Spotlight, trained in new tools and techniques, and stoked to pioneer new forms of listening-first investigative journalism, the duo works deep into the night, tipped over Chinese takeout, bleary-eyed, adrenaline-fueled, writing as they go a new playbook comprised of equal parts data journalism, community outreach, crowdsourcing, and investigative journalism.

They print and post handmade signs in grocery stores and truck stops: “What should we know?” with a phone number to text or call. They FOIA 311 data, download 211 data from the United Way, use Splunk and IFTTT and other tools to trigger alerts when key community datasets are updated. They hold town hall forums, set open office hours at local coffee shops and diners, and form key partnerships with community organizations to invite underserved communities into the conversation. They build a community of hundreds who ask questions and vote on which ones get answered, get texts with updates on the newsgathering progress and ongoing opportunities to share their concerns and stories. The community feed that develops is rich, authentic, and often shockingly prescient.

 

A new strategy by the press in the interest of factual truth for every citizen to use, no matter how they voted, is crucial to the new American surreality that Trump toys with daily.  Or is it Putin doing the reality-manipulating daily, via his lap dog, right here in our very own virtual back yard?

Isn’t Trump’s possibly impeachment-worthy complicity with Putin your answer?