First of the Month A website of the radical imagination. 2015-03-21T17:22:46-05:00 Gentlemen of Principle, Priests of Presumption The following piece—originally written in the early 70s for a UK anthology (Approaches to Popular Culture) culminates with a celebration of Philip Levine's "They Feed They Lion." Levine mused (a few years ago) that the essay was "so moving and so relevant": "It should be reprinted somewhere..."

This chapter is offered as a survey of problems in political writing that surfaced in ways direct or oblique during the Watergate crisis

One further prefatory note—of acknowledgement. The prompting to literary reflection on Watergate came in part as a result of the appearance during the Erwin Committee sessions of a figure absent for decades from the American political scene—the politician as embryonic novelist. Again and again Mr. Baker of Tennessee foreswore standard-form fact-finding in favour of the pursuit of inner configurations of response. I am probing into your inner state of mind,” he declared to one or another witness. “How do you feel now?” Intent on probing the textures of response, ingratiatingly patient but persistent, shaking off distractions of dates and names and deeds, concerned for the quality of a qualm, Mr. Baker invited witnesses to speculate on their own emotions as recollected, to make him privy to events as known from inside. Now and then he was rewarded with some halting word about how it all felt—“I kind of drifted along,” said Mr. Herbert Porter—whereupon the senator leaned forward eagerly, catching what Lawrence would have called the momentaneous on the wing: “Now,” Baker was heard to say, now you have reached that point I would like to examine…The Senator’s interest in motive and condition of temperament did not please every observer (Mr. I.F. Stone complained that some of Baker’s questions were “fuzzy and pretentious.”) But on the whole the Tennessean’s notices were good. And if his performance can’t be thought to improve the prospect for rapprochement between novelistic art and politics, it did as I admit launch the train we ride…


Let us begin with the simplest and most obvious problem—the poverty of journalistic means. Upwards of a hundred lawyers are now engaged in research and allied adventures, under the direction of Special Investigator Cox. They were led to this task not by a hundred or so members of the White House Correspondents’ Association working in concert but rather, as everyone knows, by two young men—Messrs Bernstein and Woodward of the Washington Post. The story of these reporters’ labours has recently been told with agility and style by Mr. Timothy Crouse, late of Harvard Crimson, now a contributing editor of Rolling Stone, in a handy press critique called The Boys on the Bus (published by Random House in 1973). Mr. Crouse points out what the reporters themselves have emphasized in conversation—that the conventional beat system on their paper, as on all others, would have prohibited any newspaperman on national assignment from probing as they probed. Bernstein and Woodward were city side men, small potatoes, as it were, inexpensive and free from the obligation to “cover” pseudo-events contrived by ingenious “spokesmen for the President.” They were also—a less trivial matter than might be apparent—men passing through divorces, hence free of an evening, as they themselves remark, deprived of home lives, eager for distraction, able to work round the clock on interviews in private houses, away from inhibiting official settings. There was no backup team, no corps of investigative journalists bent on disclosing the Whole Story. Two men on an assignment that from the first clearly demanded dozens; proof not of the vitality of American journalistic institutions but of the serious underfunding of independent investigative enterprise.

Lack of means is but one side of the journalistic coin, the other reads, lack of impact. The participants in a recent BBC roundtable on the press and Watergate—they included Mr. Ben Bradlee, editor of the Post—ran on boastfully about the “power and integrity of American newspapers” and “their sleepless vigilance” and the like. Yet, as Mr. Ian Hamilton remarked, if this power was real, should not the Watergate story have had at least some effect on the Nixon landslide? (The story was fully ventilated in the papers by 10 October, weeks before the national election.) It is surely also relevant that the Post reporters, in their interview with Crouse, spoke bitterly about their own inability, despite repeated efforts, to interest other reporters and Washington bureau chiefs in the story they were uncovering. (Bradlee himself has acknowledged that for months the story could not get beyond the Post’s “own circulation area.”) What is more, much more, Watergate is in fact a rerun: the first time through, owing to the failure of the press, the story simply did not take. The record of press impact in disclosing an earlier and related scandal—that involving International Telephone and Telegraph, the San Diego Democratic Convention, Dita Beard, et alia—testifies that damaging facts spread large in the American newspapers are, under ordinary circumstances, no threat whatever to the directors of conglomerates and the Cabinet officials disposed to serve them. The particulars of the ITT intrigue, involving contributions to underwrite a West Coast Democratic National Convention (desired by the President) by ITT, in exchange for a negotiated settlement of a Justice Department action required the conglomerate to divest itself from a major insurance company—those were spelled out in a series of newspaper columns, and in testimony before a Senate committee. (The cast included Senators Gurney and Ervin, and it was during these hearings that Erving developed his helpful destestation of the doctrine of executive privilege.) The investigating journalist was Mr. Jack Anderson. The evidence he produced was never undermined or countered: to reread his ITT articles—they are now available in a little book called The Anderson Papers—is to grasp anew the absurdity of boasts about the power of the American press. An absolutely damning report on corruption in the highest places, fully documented, in printed in over a hundred newspapers; the key Justice Department anti-trust official is posted comfortably off to a Chicago judgeship; the Attorney General has no comment; headlines for a few days but no public outcry; the matter slides quietly out of sight. The moral is that, except in absolutely extraordinary circumstances, the power the press is nihil, and subliterary foundations for a penetrating literature of politics cannot truly be said to exist.


When we advance a step to middling rungs we are, as I said, face to face with zombie epic. Far the most successful pre-Watergate work in zombie epic was Mr. David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. An effective indictment of that book was in print long before the Ervin Committee sat to is labors—the words of Miss Mary McCarthy. Miss McCarthy insisted that Halberstam’s picture of an “anguished President locked in combat with his conscience” required “some comparison with reality.” Her comment deserves fuller representation.

A man divided in his mind between dispatching combat troops, increasing Special Forces, and trying out one of three bombing scenarios is hardly a figure of Greek tragedy…Yet Halberstam’s design necessitates…the incessant manufacture of suspense. Rubicons being crossed, traps closing, doors shutting forever, I do not know how many “turning points” are reached in the narrative or how many crossroads. His determination to view Vietnam as an American tragedy means that the outcome is ineluctable, foreordained (cf. the “woulds” and “were to bes”), and that all those Rubicons should be invisible to the participants…Since, like the spectators of a Greek tragedy, the reader knows anyway what the end is going to be, suspense must be created artistically, and inner conflict heightened where little may have existed in real life.

But this skepticism deterred few midcult Watergate watchers. Time and again the thumb went on the scale and the eye read heroic weights. For such behavior met in the gentlemen of principle sitting on the Watergate committee isn’t surprising. Encountering purposes and values contrary to his own, a gentleman of principle holding office is bound to remark of the person opposite him, “What a liar!” When, on the other hand, he meets clarities concerning the Just and the Good precisely paralleling his own, he cries out with the proverb that “an honest man is the noblest work of God.”

Bad as it was with the elected men of principle, so it became with commentators granted space enough to lay out their fantasies in the morning paper. Two younger American novelists were invited by a key organ of contemporary opinion, the opinion-editorial page of the New York Times, to deliver their views concerning the chairman of the special Senate subcommittee…Mr. Willie Morris set up an opposition between Senator Ervin and Messrs Haldeman and Erlichman on the basis of a regional difference, contrasting the grace and dignity of the Old South, with the rawness and amorality of the West Coast, finding for “Senator Sam” partly on the basis of qualities Morris claimed to remember from his boyhood days when he dated the Senator’s “charming granddaughters.” Mr. Lelchuk, a shade more beamish was roused by Mr. Ervin’s Shakespeariana to an “affection approaching family feeling.” “My dear Senator,” he wrote:

It’s been a long, long time in our national life since we’ve had someone to look up to, to respect, laugh with, and finally even, love. Someone whom we’d want to sit down to dinner with as well as lead us…You help us redefine the meaning of the heroic, the joining of the ordinary (downhome stories) with the extraordinary (your knowledge of the Constitution and the laws); the opportunity to meet a great challenge and take on a monstrous opponent, the acknowledgment of vulnerability while getting the job done…In the midst of dealing with lies, cover-ups, crimes, mechanical hacks and conscienceless bureaucrats, cheats, extortionists, perjurers, burglars, bagmen and blackmailers, while dealing with the low sordid crimes of the Tyrant (the higher ones, of Indochina, as you well know, need another courtroom), you have remained just, cultured, intelligent, graceful, learned.

No impulse here to breathe along the nerves of a leader, to know his innerness, to suffer the full power of his vanities and frustrations and blindness as one’s own afflictions. Those who remember Mr. Ervin in the 1960s as firmly dedicated to the proposition that the poor and the powerless should continue to be punished for being poor and powerless, because the Constitution so recommended, could not fully share this perception.

The absence of keenness was no less marked in midcult journalistic accounts of witnesses than in encomia bestowed on the interrogators. A portion of the blame for this may perhaps be laid to the need to objectify and characterize what is properly described as trade association mentality.

We may return to Mr. Baker’s questioning of Mr. Herbert Porter who disbursed large sums unquestioningly for the Committee to Reelect the President and, like virtually all the others, never blew the whistle—we might return specifically to the question, “What was your state of mind, how did you feel?” Mr. Porter’s face betrayed a touch of surprise at these questions, as well it might, for these are not queries of the kind familiar to trade association persons, and Porter and the rest—Dean, Magruder, Mitchell, Erlichman, Halderman, others—seem to have been genuine trade association men. Of what mentality do we speak when we use this phrase? Suppose yourself an employee of the Independent Grocers Association lobby in Washington: how exactly do you deal with events or experiences or questions from without? As follows, by referring them to the welfare of the Independent Grocers. An oil shortage, a riot in Detroit, the conviction of a Congressman for taking bribes from contractors, a decision about Federal control of advertising rates on cable TV channels, a new food stamps program, a drought in East Africa—about each of these issues, about all matters, a trade association man is never confused. The essential question before him cannot be moral, philosophical, professional. There is but one question, unvarying, superbly comforting. “How will this affect us?” Whatever and whenever an event occurs, the grid for its reception is prepared, the filter is fixed: “Where is our interest?” and as for one’s insides: well, the sense of personal justification and responsibility is firm. To ask the question, “How will this affect us?”, is to be doing one’s job, faithful to one’s charge, loyal, principled, dutiful…To be asked how one felt at a time when one was only doing a good trade association man’s job…It is a little like waiting in your car as a traffic violator for a cop, who when he finishes writing a summons, hands it to you accompanied by a bit of a Verdi opera. Mr. Porter is jostled. He falls back on the old worn Nixon organizational words—team player, member of the group. The media seizes on the words, we are once again off on the weary culture critique of the 1950s, conformity, etc. But the life of this instant of questioning, as of many others, lay elsewhere in the patch of moral surprise, and this life could have been touched by an alert journalist.

One can, to be sure, press too hard. I do not claim to have “the explanation,” nor do I say that I know that crowd to their bottom—the prevalence of trade association mentality explains all. America, lacking institutions, lacking a clergy, army, aristocracy, lacking professions knit tightly enough to enforce standards, has in their place trade associations, and the problem is that they are inevitably heedless of any and all larger goods. I believe such talk, laid on too heavily, isn’t sound reporting, it is editorializing, culturology. What one is after is the instant of penetration, the answer to the question, “Why did he look surprised?”—the interpreter catching and explaining a bit of feeling on the wing. And of this there is very little.


It may readily be granted that Watergate turned a searchlight on sub- and middle-literary assumptions, with a bearing on the alteration of politics, but only a solemn head would propose that the searchlight reached as far as high literary culture. Still the hearings were oddly helpful—obliquely helpful—in calling to mind features of the currently dominant aesthetic that are at least tangentially connected with problems of imagination in political inquiry. Gleefully non-referential, this aesthetic takes as the highest good the exploration through parody of the postures of literary truthseeking. At its best it produces a Mary McCarthy responsive to the genius of Nabokov and supremely hostile to the mythy kitsch of Halberstam. At its less good—well, the implicit epistemology may be characterized—unkindly—as schoolboy positivist. It announces in tones of revelation that all talk, all writing, “all expressed forms of life, reality and history [are] fiction…,” that “life, reality and history only exist as discourse…” and that no form of discourse “can be life, reality or history.” From here it advances to a chuckle at the lunacy of believers in historical or political understanding. “What is the Civil War and how do we know it”, asks Professor Poirier in 1968. “Where is Lyndon Johnson and how does anyone know him? Is he a history book, an epic poem or a cartoon by David Levine? Who invents Lyndon Johnson, when and for what immediate purpose? And what about Richard Nixon, the living schmoo? Where does fiction end and the historical figure begin?...How do we know…the Vietnam war…any more than we know Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon?”

It would be pointless to abuse partisans of these views in the name of one or another naïve realism—or other epistemological simplism. What matters is not in this instance acts of assessment but an act of recognition—awareness that the influence of the anti-referentialists has tended to elevate truths of the labyrinth, of frustration and enclosure, to sacramental status, while dismissing as delusory truths of the clearing, of satisfaction and release. The latter truths are, to be sure—R. E. Collingwood once explained this—individual and local, hinged to transitory states of feeling—but no more so than the truths of the labyrinth. And valuing the one immensely above the other has the effect, among others, of inhibiting imaginative inquiry into political experience. Where is Robert Halderman and how does one know him? One knew an instant of him—something not be confused with words—as Mr. Weicher read back his marginalia. Good! Great! One saw a person knowing in a discrete instant that he was being perceived as caught out, feeling within himself that he had been deceived, hating his deceiver, half-shamed yet not by what it was held he should be ashamed—a complex of experience, in short, different for Halderman than for Weicher, or for the viewer. Pondering all this in the present context one is less comfortable with the contemporary passion for the inaudible, the inexpressible, the unknowable; less tolerant of the ceaseless crying down of theories of literary reference that actually haven’t had standing for two centuries or longer. Well and good to mock, in fine “litry” style, the Watergate cliché: “at this moment in time.” Dangerous, though, ever to forget that authenticity about “this moment in time” is among the strongest literary suits. Lawrence himself—I note this in passing, and in embarrassment, and yet am persuaded of its relevance—repeated these words often in his discourse, as for example on the explosive truth of the relation between Van Gogh and sunflowers, a truth “at that quick moment in time,” “at that living moment.” He was no voice of simple minded mimesis like those the politicians of self-parody conjure as their enemy—yet there is surely nothing in his aesthetic to deny the possibility of a vibrant imaginative work in political settings.

A counterpart to the belief in salvation by parody is the conviction that public voices, which by definition speak seriously and attempt to imagine or incarnate national energies in a “mere” literary tone, are tastelessly presumptuous. “I am the only President you have,” said Mr. Johnson, later Mr. Nixon agrees. Perhaps partly in response, aspirants to a national voice regularly perceive themselves as hilarious clowns—challengers afflicted with loony presidential aspiration (“My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic,” says Allen Ginsberg in “America.”)—or as spokesmen on the margin, voices of special interest or local hate. Even when deformed, the ambition of such aspirants can be exhilarating (or at least funny). The democratic nerve trills when Norman Mailer gazes at Henry Cabot Lodge striding across the Saigon airport, and invents a Mr. Ambassador who feels himself to be "necessarily superb.” The intensity and rhetorical blaze of LeRoi Jones’s “Black Art” raises that poem to levels higher than those of ordinary Black Power tracts.

Yet the presumption I refer isn’t finally a mere spirit of impudence, like that which speaks loudest on Mailer’s political page, and it is invariably more inclusive than any attitude framed in the poems of LeRoi Jones. The sound is that of a summons, a demanding address to the energies of a potentially national best self. The capacity to produce this sound depends on belief in an alternative continent of power, a reservoir of sanity or of proper protest basely ignored by the authorities.

I do not imply—in order to achieve a rising tone—that the episode we are passing through is creating such a power, an audience “beyond.” I would note that there have been hints in recent months of the formation of a popular risk-all, daretaking, deeply contrary moral judgment—that which alone can enable modest men and women to contemplate with terror total change, disruption, impeachment. But it is one thing to note this phenomenon and another to dream of imminent cultural reconciliation—between the newly alienated judgmental middle classes and the permanently alienated literateurs. The country’s two best-regarded literary creators have been committed for years to a “Hegelian suspicion,” as one critic puts it, “that the world itself is governed by self-generating political plots and conspiracies more intricate than any [that writers] could devise,” and utterly beyond the comprehension of the public at large. Watergate intensifies this belief, not weakens it.

Still the mind turns and turns. Our literary culture possesses, to this day, as England does not, a poetry of political incantation. Among our gifted younger writers are some who can image astounding solidarity with the outs, the bottom dogs, who can live into a snippet of near speech—a poor black father to son, at the zoo, pack it with furious force, becoming in the process priests of presumption, touching resonances of Whitman and Blake.

Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.

Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones' need to sharpen and the muscles' to stretch,
They Lion grow.

Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
"Come home, Come home!" From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow.

From the sweet glues of the trotters
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
Of the hams the thorax of caves,
From "Bow Down" come "Rise Up,"
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They Lion grow.

From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.

I am imagining here a link between the spirit of this poem, the power of its assumed alliance and compassion, and the curious and moving national willingness—how it has awed Europe!—to consider taking our leaders out to their own and our own edge. I am imagining this and holding it forth, upward from the tangle of problems and obstacles, claiming it as our growing point. For the nurture of a literature of democratic politics, suitable for this nation as conceived, who knows better soil?

nation Benjamin DeMott 2015-03-21T17:22:46-05:00
Assimilation People who speak Spanish all have outside jobs, my daughter announces
as the Mow 'n Blow crew descend from a truck to ravish our lawn. I read her a book about dark children dancing, playing drums with wrinkled elders, eating fried plantains. Bored, she grabs Dr. Seuss.
I'm not Latin Mommy.
I'm light pink like you.

If your family would call
, I tell my husband or if you made rice and beans.
Maybe if we got somebody white to cut the grass.

She uses the brown crayon to shade him flanked by purple
flowers underneath a turquoise stripe of sky, hesitates before her own face
and then leaves it blank.

Alison Stone 2015-03-21T16:59:18-05:00
Secret Valentine oh bitter valentine
in my way-past-prime
I got you nothing this year
even though you were on my mind

oh hard-to-swallow-chocolates
well-meaning lies
I'm disappointed death's just another one
of those kinds of guys

how about a surprise
how about a grin
how about coming over here
and letting me in

how about heaven
how about a choir
how about coming over here
and proving me a liar

oh hard-to-follow weather
and whether it's time to go
my heart's as warm as a bonfire
in which the days are melting like snow

oh bitterest of valentines
cancer sent me flowers
I didn't know he was a friend of mine
now he's with me at all hours

Carmelita Estrellita 2015-03-21T16:39:57-05:00
Hotlips He speaks now in my dreams and we are again comfortable, but it has taken the decades since he died for him to move from a vague, silent, accusing dream shadow, to a distinct presence, still silent, never a factor in the dream action, still hustling his guilt trip, until now, gradually, finally, it is all apparently forgotten, and we go about our dream business together like it was better times.

It was that fucking Frankie G., telling Bobalew that I had abandoned Hotlips to the flame of his heroin addiction. The embers were always there, smoldering, and then God knows what ill wind fanned them to life –– and eventually death. One of his sons shinnied up the rainspout to our old apartment at Third and Pine and he was sitting dead on the couch with the spike still in his arm, his face stretched into a tight death mask. Skag did that to him; almost before he took the needle out of his arm, his face would go all hollow and his cheeks suck themselves in and he’d look like he’d just shot embalming fluid. The fucking heroin was dark and patient magic and it waited him out. He stayed away for decades and then it reeled him in. It only took that first hit -- one and done.

So Frankie G. through Bobalew planted that guilt seed that I hadn’t done anything, left Hotlips alone with his enchanting demon. And so my dreams took that long path of subliminal guilt. Of course, love was the key. Nobody can have that much subconscious sway unless you love them. I didn’t know that for a long time.

My closest male friends have been four dope dealers and a critic at the British Film Institute who died of AIDS. Hotlips real name was George, but his name in our dope circles was Hotlips because that was the name he used when he wrote articles for me when I was editor of The Drummer, the Philly underground paper.

Actually, I tried twice to do something for him. Then he died. Then the dreams. I was out of all that, living in Narberth, the land of rosebushes and mortgages, with a straight job, but I drove him down to Margate and the first thing he did when we got there was snort some heroin and start ragging on me. I went for a run on the Boardwalk and drove home.

The second time I went to our old apartment. He was pretty far gone, scratching his face distractedly and pulling at the skin as if tiny dope bugs were tunneling there. I said I had a project, but he had to come to Narberth and be straight. He never showed. Then he was dead.

I knew George since I was 16 and he was 14. He was a basketball outlaw then, hitch-hiking down Route 130 from Riverside every day in the summer to play at three or four outdoor basketball courts. There were a lot of summer leagues in South Jersey then.

His nickname at that time was “Bucky” and his first words to me ever at the Collingswood courts were, “What’s your average?” He said he averaged twice as many. He was cocky, and even then was built and moved like a boxer. He had a lot of fights and won most of them. But there was a lost boy behind the basketball bravado. His father was a bartender at the old Pub around Ninth and Chestnut, a brutal drunk who beat George like a red-haired step-child. Later, George went to his father’s in Cherry Hill to try to get money to go into rehab. His father told him to wait for a minute, and while George was watching his step-brothers playing basketball, his father came up behind him and hit him in the head with a brick. That was his rehab.

I had gotten kicked out of Rutgers in New Brunswick and was finishing up in Camden when George showed up in my life again. He was a true outlaw by then, a bicycle and pocketbook thief whose nickname now was the Roadrunner because he was in perpetual motion around the rundown Camden campus, hustling and robbing and chasing the college girls.

One day, four of us, including George, were sitting in a booth at The Grille, the bar near Rutgers in Camden. Across the way was a young couple, probably students. They both got up to go to the bathroom and George was there in a flash, in the girl’s pocketbook, out with the money from her wallet, and right out the door. We all looked at each other. Nobody was unduly surprised. The Roadrunner strikes again.

The young couple came back and began to leave. When the girl found her wallet empty, she set up a hue and cry. Dick Large, who owned the place and whose brother was the chief of police in Camden, came hustling back from the bar to quiet things down. The girl and the guy told him what had happened.

Just at that moment, who should come bustling in the door but George himself, all smiles and innocence, and plopped himself back in the booth.

"What’s going on, guys?” he chirped like he hadn’t seen us in days.

“You!” Dick Large bellowed. “I knew it was you. I told you to stay out of here!”

“What? What?” said George, holding his palms up, all offended virtue.

“Was he here before?” Dick Large asked the couple. They made faces, trying to remember, but they couldn’t.

“How about you guys?” he asked us. “Was he here before?”

We fucked around and sort of shook our heads because George had a violent edge that you could somehow sense, so our cowardice was both a physical one and the old mental one about snitches and squealers. I think he came back to intimidate us, and he did. He didn’t answer to anybody, and that made him both dangerous and beguiling. He had the manner of a fighter, the tough black Irish mien, too, a handsome IRA gun pug. To him, Dick Large was just another fucking bartender like his father.

When I became a Philly guy and was editor of the hippie Drummer newspaper –– twice –– George emerged in my life again, and even wrote some reviews under that Hotlips byline. We wrote a screenplay about Big Daddy Lipscomb, the pro football player, and actually got a little money from a guy who took it to Sam Solomon, the B movie mogul at American International, but it never went anywhere. That was a shame because in his heart George wanted to write movies and then direct them, but that was hard when he had to be out there hustling a fast, funky buck.

He finally ended up with a nice little pot trade, all high end people he knew -- low risk, decent reward. We were living in that apartment at Third and Pine, and George had also rented a hall on Fourth Street between South and Bainbridge. He ran dances there and after-hours parties when the bars and clubs closed and the demimonde that George was so much a part of drifted down to South Street and rocked there until it was time for breakfast at the Famous deli. This was when South Street was still an adventure and every gypsy, tramp, and thief in town usually showed up. Big fun.

I learned so much from George. I learned to travel light. I learned at first hand the Digger credo of “stay high, keep moving, and give all of yourself away” although I’ve always had trouble with the last part. And I learned the arcane language of the streets, perfect and alive. He called someone a “stuffer” and when I asked him to explain he said the guy was a heroin addict and because heroin was known as “stuff” the guy was a stuffer. My conversation is still peppered with his language; the few of us left from those days still call marijuana “Ralph.”

He was the ultimate outsider. He hustled in Atlantic City in the winter before there were casinos, and that is hard core. He had his own glamour and style, like a Belmondo character: he wore a tight leather jacket with nothing under it at times and was always commando. He basically didn’t give a fuck and that is a strong pull to someone like me who is basically an observer. With him, there was action and adventure; he knew everybody from Mayfair to welfare, as he put it.

There could also be danger. We were in the office at the back of the hall he rented, smoking weed and bullshitting. It was evening and we had no particular place to go. The office was at the top of wide stairs and we could see the door to Fourth Street open and three kids from the projects come in. George knew them and they apparently knew of his pot business because they stood at the bottom of the stairs and told him they wanted his weed. They were a little drunk. He laughed and told them he didn’t have any weed here although there was a pound in a desk drawer. These were big, tough project kids. They popped knives open and said if he didn’t give them the weed they were going to take it.

This was now serious and dangerous. George was a tough dude, but he’d never been up against knives. As for me, what with the weed and the charged atmosphere, I kept focusing on the ashtray on George’s desk. It was a bronzed, full-size Rawlings baseball glove. Would I have the balls to use it as a weapon if they bum-rushed us up those stairs.

Then the phone rang.

“Let me get this,” George said and picked it up. “Hey, Billy. Man, long time. Yeah. Yeah. I’m okay, except there’s some young brothers here who want something that’s not theirs.”

It was Billy Webster. He was a self-styled jeweler and ex-boxer who mainly sold meth. Billy was bad to the bone and ended up stabbed to death with a bayonet by a bull dyke when he made a pass at her girlfriend in a cowboy bar.

He told George to keep on talking and he’d be there with two Vietnam vets he was shooting meth with.

Billy lived on 13th Street up by Dirty Frank’s. For the next ten minutes, George talked into a dead phone while the black kids edged up the stairs. He kept telling them he’d be right with them. Even on the brink of mayhem, there was a kind of telephone courtesy that kept them at bay. But that was wearing way thin.

Then the street door quietly opened and Billy and two hulking dudes slid in and began to tiptoe toward us. One guy had a .45 pistol in his hand and the other a machete. They were in a killing mood.

Billy sensed that and sprinted the last distance, spun one of the kids around and landed a giant right hand to his head. There was a loud pop and Billy started cursing and shaking his broken hand. That de-fused it.

The Vietnam dudes put the gun and machete under the other two kids’ chins while Billy told the kid he’d hit, who was on the floor, that if they ever came after George again they would be dead. Then they kicked their asses out onto the street.

George, Billy, and the vets actually had a laugh about the whole thing and then they left. We left, too, in case the kids came back with reinforcements.

At George’s funeral, his three ex-wives sat in a little triangle. They were so beautiful. We all loved him. We just couldn’t handle him. Like he would say, “How do you get under somebody whose bottom line is fuck it?”

culturewatch Bob Ingram 2015-03-20T09:10:34-05:00
Two for Phil ("Sometimes We Tremble") Roxane Beth Johnson’s first book of poetry, Jubilee, won the Philip Levine Award for Poetry and was published by Anhinga Press. In awarding the prize, Levine commented: “These luminous poems depict a world I never knew—or knew as a child and since forgot—and they do so with the authority of a totally mature voice. The artistry that unifies this collection is so perfect it is almost invisible. Altogether an amazing debut."

Here's a poem from Jubilee:

Weeknight Services

The organ's flare-hued opera hummed loud
in the small church above the bar
with its bumpy music. Our voices wound
up being too small to drown it out by far.
We sung of Jesus' blood with a tambourine,
one drum, twenty voices, paper fans, bells --
while the thump-thump of bass through the ceiling
made rhythm that silenced our fears of hell,
demons, white folks, Catholics, death's certain flood.
But the music—blood of Jesus, God bless
the child I was then—the music: The blood,
we sang would wash us white as snow. Blessed
assurance, Jesus is mine, Oh...what fears.
When I hear those drums, my heart is in my ears.

And here's one from Ms. J.'s second book, Some Glad Morning, that puts her spin on Levine's main man, Walt Whitman.

Slaves out back in the garden among the zinnias are

singing—death is a simple thing, he go from door to door. Say—this here’s how we stay alive: we pocket stones. Our favorite scripture is, Jesus wept and so we got to feel no shame. This is our hammer—we use the forked end to pull nails from our hopes. This here’s how a mother let go a child to be sold. Here’s how we beat out birds to hide in trees. Afraid we were, but knew even Jesus had no bed. Zinnias all over the place! Where’s your rock garden, girl? We need something stronger to keep the dust around our roots from going. Enough time here we’ve had, though. One last thing, though—here’s two stories we love to tell: Jesus slept on a boat during a storm; Pharaoh’s army drowned. Death is a simple thing, he go from door to door. Sometimes, we tremble.

Roxane Beth Johnson 2015-03-20T07:38:44-05:00
Who Ain't a Slave? 1. “We Left the U.S. We Chose Chile.”

In Chile, the settler-colonialist project of extermination and subjugation (a project driven from its beginning by a “native” oligarchy in a mistrustful and protean alliance with multinational capital) has always depended upon the sizable vanguard presence of colorful psychopaths, questing gringo monadological personalities, Melvillean isolates hurtling with perfect equanimity through hell: they don’t do the dirty work of the State, or they don’t do the lion’s share of the dirty work, but they do provide the State with a parody of a state of nature or a parody of the apocalypse, depending on the customs or the ideology of the moment, and in doing so they create the conditions that allow the project of centralization and monopolization to flourish (this is the paradox of liberty and of liberal capitalism: its shock troops have always been true-believers, like Melville’s sailors, who win their metaphysical liberty at the expense of their political-economic liberty and, naturally, at the expense of the citizens of what is now known as the Global South). In literature, Robinson Crusoe (modeled after Alejandro Selkirk, who was stranded on the Chilean island of Más Afuera, farther away) was the first of such characters: Jonathan Franzen, our pitiable Augustinian, is the latest, having gone to Crusoe’s island after the death of his friend, David Foster Wallace, to meditate on the sundry hemorrhoids of late-capitalist technology and on the death of his privacy, by which he means the waning of a kind of cacophonous Beckettian silence which tortures the ears of those who are known as “privileged white men” or “white male authors.” In real life, the huaso (cousin of the Argentinian gaucho), a landless criollo or mestizo, came first, his (he was quintessentially a male) liberty being nothing but his necessity elevated into a sadomasochistic ideal. Shortly after came English adventurers and other military or civilian emissaries of Empire, impoverished New England democrats (los bostoneses), fallen-on-hard-times Spanish latifundists, Napoleon-era ex-Jacobin slavers, hardy Germans who settled south of the Bio-Bio River and who now throw cake-baking festivals in their North Face Potemkin villages (Douglas Tompkins, co-founder of North Face and eco-billionaire, currently owns substantial swathes of Patagonia and like a good capitalist-with-a-conscience is trying to blackmail the government into managing his land for him), Nazis on the lam who set up colonies that divide their time between ritualistic child molestation and funneling arms for the CIA and Mossad, and most recently Ayn Rand acolytes. It’s easy to laugh at the Ayn Rand colonies in Chile (many of whose members were swindled in bad land deals) but if we laugh at them, we should also remember what drew them to Chile in the first place: a dystopian dreamscape, an imperial fantasy for those who aren’t cut out for Empire, a charnel house for failed killers or for killers who never wanted to kill in the first place and who went to the end of the Earth in order to do so.

A certain regular contributor to (Ron and/or Rand) moved to Valparaiso with his extended family to survive the coming apocalypse. Chile won out over all the possible contenders (New Zealand being too close to China and having a restive Maori population) due to its eviscerated social welfare and regulatory systems, its low taxation, its large European population, its low violent crime, its low pollution, the ease of importing pets and Social Security checks, the availability of non-GMO produce, its olive oil and wine, its solid-enough gun rights, its ski resorts, etc. The only problem is pesky leftist students who scrawl Marxist graffiti on the buildings, but that’s nothing a bucket of paint and a civic spirit can’t solve.

2. Minerva’s Owl

Even a Jeremiah is right twice an apocalypse.

According to Chomsky, whose dotage happens to coincide with what he considers the end of human civilization, Minerva’s owl, who only flies at dusk, has a lot to think about these days.

Anonymous Economist reviewers agree, but they would prefer that the owl transform itself into a neoliberal parrot that squawks its approval of the rising tides, no matter how many slaves died on the Middle Passage or afterwards. According to The Economist, slaves had the special privilege of being liberated by the British, the prime movers of their slavery, once slavery ceased to be profitable to the British Empire. Similarly, today’s victims should acknowledge that their suffering has been inflicted on them for a purpose and in fact should be grateful for the opacity of their suffering, which adds not only an element of surprise but an element of divine revelation. “Mr Baptist [Edward Baptist, author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism] has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” The Economist retracted this review, since the public was not prepared for its Tory truth-telling. Slavery was an evil system, they acknowledged, in spite of what they actually and transparently think.

What ultimately is the difference between Chomsky’s owl and The Economist’s owl-parrot? I think the difference is that Chomsky’s owl is sad and The Economist’s owl-parrot has a (metaphorical) dick as big as the Eiffel Tower which can fuck the world for a seemingly endless number of hours, or for a single gruesome and incalculable hour. But there are similarities, too. For instance, they both agree that ISIS is a troublesome epiphenomenon and that BDS is a bad idea. They both agree with the idea of a germinal moment: for Chomsky it has something to do with the Fertile Crescent and for The Economist it has something to do with the accidental-genetic spark of the Enlightenment that happened to take place, or did it only happen to take place?, in a noble white Land and in noble white Soil (I won’t say “Blood and Soil,” because after all I’m fairly polite, I’ve heard of Godwin’s Law, I know that it’s uncivilized to compare a publication that from its inception has always provided ideological cover to the institution of slavery (I’m talking about The Economist) to actual Nazis, in the same way that it’s uncivilized to compare slavery to capitalism, but it’s civilized to compare slavery to socialized medicine, which is something Rand Paul did).

It’s worth noting that in 2008 (the year of the financial crisis) the Department of Defense launched something known as the “Minerva Research Initiative” which aims to militarize the social sciences at American universities in order to enlist academics in the project of studying social unrest (with a particular emphasis on non-violent social unrest). The theory is that, in the near future, a concatenation of events will take place that closely resemble traditional notions of either the apocalypse or revolution. The events will, inevitably, be caused by global capitalism: climate change, imperial wars in the Middle East, an increasing disparity between the wealth of the global elites and the global masses, even in Europe, especially in the United States. The problem is not so much violent terrorists (who are easily discredited or isolated) but people who sympathize with “political movements aimed at large-scale political and economic change.” The goal is twofold: to corrupt the humanities and social sciences by making their funding explicitly dependent upon their loyalty to imperial projects and to actually mine their institutional knowledge for possible stopgaps or possible false consciousness-creation-measures. But it’s not the goals that are interesting. The goals were already implicit in everything the State does. What’s interesting is that, seemingly for the first time in recent history, the State itself has a theory of mind (a banal, an anodyne theory of mind). Normally it’s assumed that there’s a Kafkian gap in the center of the imperial-bureaucratic machine, a gap filled up by inertia, lust, and sluggishness: a gap filled up by House of Cards or Homeland metaphysics, for instance. Or it’s assumed that the powerful assume that their self-evident gifts are appreciated by all (which is what writers for The Economist, in their self-conscious obsolescence, think). The Defense Department, however, is a step ahead in acknowledging that national security is a self-perpetuating fetish: it doesn’t offer a better world, only a twilight world beset by the enemies that have already overwhelmed it, as if power existed in a physical place, somewhere in a castle in Bavaria or a palace in Lima, as if the barbarians or the everymen at the gate could be put off with the tritest of petty-bourgeois ideology, in the same way that Kafka, the most profound writer of the twentieth century, was put off by the promise of a nice marriage and a family, or by the promise of Zionism, or by the promise of an Italian vacation. There’s something uncanny about the Defense Department’s Minerva project (and it’s not just the name): it’s like listening to a doll speaking about strategies to remain a doll. Or if not a doll, then an Odradek.

I remember talking to a guy who said that he wasn’t particularly bothered by the Snowden leaks because he didn’t have any porn habits to hide, even though one of the Prism program’s primary objectives was to spy on anyone engaged in ill-defined or all-encompassing “dissent.” I suppose “kink-shaming,” the new ideological shibboleth of corporate gays in San Francisco, now includes political kinks, such as environmental or labor activism.

3. Great American Novelists

Let’s say that there’s a world in which such a thing as the American novel exists, and the firmament of that world, naturally, is dominated by white men who have a certain prophetic and profane vision into the nature of reality, and no one denies it, not even feminist critics, especially not feminist critics. And in that world, as Bolaño says, even writers who write in Spanish look towards the horizons set by American novelists, where they glimpse the fate of America, of all America (the real America, which begins in Polynesia and stretches west towards Easter Island), even though that fate seems inscrutable to many, or actually to everyone, but it exists more inviolably for that reason. And in that world, Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are the only books and one has to decide between the abyss of the first and adolescence of the second, and in adolescence one decides that going to hell isn’t so bad but in the abyss one decides that hell is all that exists.

4. Islamic Terrorism in the New World before Hugo Chavez

But as Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, reminds us in his new book, Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Necessity in the New World, it wasn’t the spermatic-Stalinist jouissance of the whale ship that provided the template for the expansion of American capitalism, nor was it Ahab who in his libidinal delirium unmoored himself from the profit motive in pursuit of a nightmarish and undead object (“Let the owners stand on Nantucket beach and outyell the Typhoons. What cares Ahab? Owners, Owners? Thou art always prating to me, Starbuck, about those miserly owners, as if the owners were my conscience”). It was, rather, the sealing industry with its boring brutality, its exploitation of an impoverished labor base, its resource depletion, its dwindling profit margins and volatile markets, its telos of insipid luxury items instead of productive energy, that epitomized the new economic system. And its protagonists were not Ahabs but men like Amasa Delano, a sturdy republican solipsist from Duxbury, Massachusetts, marginalized and indebted by the new revolutionary ruling class, driven, in order to maintain his own precarious class position, into a grueling and humiliating search for new markets, a search with a patina of revolutionary romanticism and Protestant individualism, but ultimately doomed and a fool’s errand (Grandin adeptly explains how Delano’s generation had shed their ancestors’ Calvinism in favor of a kind of hybrid Unitarian belief in human praxis and divine providence: but the vicissitudes of their lives, or rather the superficially episodic but ultimately monotonous pattern of their lives, proved these concepts to be nothing but ghastly mirages or spectral jokes). Delano was a distant cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, another man whose idealism was corrupted by his racial blinkeredness, by his ideological and class umbilical cord, and by the implacability and malignity of the system that exploited his ideals for its own end (or rather, that required the epiphenomenal humanism of the Delanos in times of capitalist crisis, so that the system could gather its strength or fight off its organismic entropy).

Delano was also the model for Melville’s eponymous character in Benito Cereno, a novella Melville wrote in 1855 about a daring (not only metaphysically daring, though metaphysics is Melville’s province) slave rebellion off the coast of Chile in which men and women who had survived an apocalyptic and genocidal journey across the Atlantic Ocean, the pampas, and the Andes mutinied on Laylat al-Qadr (the Night of Power, the holiest day of Ramadan), slaughtered the majority of their captors, and ordered their slaver, a Spanish captain named Benito Cerreño, to return them to the coast of Africa (according to Grandin, they first asked to go to revolutionary Haiti, which they had learned about during their sojourn in the relatively free port town of Montevideo, but Cerreño denied that such a place existed, echoing the cruel revisionism and obscurantism of not only the Right but the Left on the subject of Haiti). Cerreño stalled, sailing north and south, until near Lima they encountered Delano’s ship. For nearly a day, they managed to deceive Delano into thinking they were still slaves—slaves with an unsettling and enigmatic confidence, perhaps, a troubling and murky interiority, but slaves nonetheless—and that Delano was their ailing and aristocratic master. But Cerreño escaped and revealed the ruse to Delano, who helped to crush the rebellion, inspired not only by his desire to make a profit but by a kind of metaphysical terror and vertigo that could only be righted by annihilating violence.

The Economist, in reviewing Grandin’s book, claims that the book is an unending litany of horrors and lacks “heroes”: heroes of course can’t be Muslim slaves from Senegambia whose proto-revolutionary actions evoke ethical nausea in the stomachs of racist imperialists, slaves who give off the unfortunate stink of Third-Worldism and Islamic terrorism: heroes can only be found, naturally, in the traditional imperialist trinity of the Royal Navy, evangelical Christians, and free-market ideologues.

Melville wrote the novella, incidentally, not long after his father-in-law, Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice Lemuel Shaw, refused to grant a writ of habeas corpus for Thomas Sims, a seventeen year-old escaped and recaptured slave. Shaw, though an abolitionist (“Obama, though opposed to the systematic use of torture…”) decided to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act for the sake of some nebulous national unity. Delano was also opposed to slavery, yet he violently suppressed the slave rebellion onboard the Spaniard Benito Cereno/Cerreño’s ship (Melville drops the second “r” and the tilde) for the sake of an equally nebulous personal unity (his profit margin, since he hoped to be compensated for his efforts) and a dubious notion of international maritime law.

5. The Flickering Conscience of Writers

It’s not enough for a writer to have no owner and no conscience, but it’s a good start. It’s not enough because when he or she emerges from his or her isolation and melancholia, from the pure futility of the inland empire of liberty, there’s still the literary market to worry about and family dinners with collaborationist in-laws.

6. The Illusory Vessel of Social Democracy

The true horror of Benito Cereno is that it proves the truth of Hegel’s dictum that mankind is not liberated from slavery but through slavery. Except that, in the end, it’s not the slaves who are liberated by their pantomiming of their own slavery, but the owners’ who are liberated from their actual impotence into a new stage of free and sovereign violence. In the same way that the British and later the Americans were liberated through slavery into an unchecked imperial dominion in which slavery itself became an impediment to the free market and Latin America passed into the hands of the new comprador bourgeoisie. Grandin’s proposes a kind of social-democratic recognition of mutual dependence to counter the Milton Friedman-Pinochet model of absolute freedom through absolute repression, or the Reaganite-Central American model of the freedom fighter as amoral fascist drug-runner/death-squad entrepreneur. But the history of Latin America, which is a metaphor (but as yet a metaphor for nothing), suggests that these reformist compromises with the imperialist dialectic of liberty-slavery, these temporary truces in the belly of the whale, will come to nothing so long as the social-democratic pact exists only on a single ship, so long as the ancien régime (Benito Cereno, for instance) remains alive onboard and so long as the predatory and amorphous, or polymorphous, shadow of a fledgling new empire, which is the same as the previous empire, but worse, lurks on the open seas. Ahab and Delano are mirror images of each other, blind and implacable appetites, Ulysses with and without wax in his ears, a homosexual and a heterosexual anti-hero, a gangster and an apparatchik, or a psychopath and an Aspergers case. Think of them as Third World vulture capitalist Paul Singer and the more responsible or disciplined executives of financial capitalism, some middling IMF bureaucrat, for instance. And think of Babo and Mori, the leaders of the slave revolt, as Latin American revolutionaries, or black power revolutionaries, or Islamic revolutionaries (because the truth is they’re all three wrapped into one) who, at the moment Delano boards their ship, have to pretend to still be slaves. This ruse works for a while, but eventually the imperialists will figure them out (when they try to implement land reform or nationalize key industries), or worse, like Evo Morales, they’ll end up believing their own act and cozying up to the World Bank and turning the military against miners and against indigenous populations. Either way—the way of martyrdom or the way of treason—the play-acting of social democracy is not enough.

world David Golding 2015-03-20T06:37:29-05:00
Chicago Breakdown Thomas Geoghegan, Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement (The New Press 2014)

Thomas Geoghegan has devoted his life’s work to the defense and advancement of the American labor movement. The author of seven books, the most well-known his first, Which Side Are You On: Trying To Be For Labor When It Is Flat On Its Back (1991), Geoghegan graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He has long been a partner in a Chicago-based, union-side law firm and has represented, among other unions, the United Mine Workers, Illinois Nurses Association, and Teamsters for a Democratic Union (the rank-and-file opposition movement within the International Brotherhood of Teamsters). In addition, this activist lawyer’s many articles have appeared in The Nation, The New York Times, Dissent, Harper’s, and The New Republic. In 2009, he ran for Congress in Illinois’ 5th Congressional District on a strong liberal, pro-union platform, seeking to replace Rahm Emanuel. He finished sixth.

It is important to remember Geoghegan’s deep commitment over many years to the American labor movement and progressive causes in light of the tone and structure of his most recent book, Only One Thing Can Save Us. For as the title suggests, a deep despair suffuses the text. There is but one option, he suggests—to revive the middle class—and he is anything but optimistic of success. With labor movement membership currently at 11.1% of all non-agricultural workers (down from the mid-30% range in 1955) and the private sector even lower at 6.6% (a figure below the estimated 10% in 1910), the situation is indeed grim. But Geoghegan’s analysis veers toward fantasy as he searches for solutions that are rarely grounded in historical precedent or contemporary political experience.

He opens with a blunt declaration: The task of progressives is not to bring back labor but rather to bring back the middle class. He cites recent work by Paul Krugman on income inequality indicating that the bottom 80%’s share of income between 1978-2007 dropped almost 10% while the top 1% share grew by approximately the same percentage. Geoghegan’s call to arms is meant to address this steady growth of inequality, which has squeezed the middle class as well as the poor and working class. He promotes a “new kind of labor movement” focused on the problem of inequality that will speak to the broad middle class. Political morality matters to Geoghegan but he recognizes more practical considerations as well. His economic priorities seem to be (1) getting the middle class out from under heavy consumer debt (2) getting the federal government’s debt under control (3) addressing America’s foreign debt imbalance. He doesn’t really examine these issues or think through the specific challenges. But that doesn’t stop him from rushing to offer his ultimate solution: Build a new corporate model, based on labor-management partnership.

Geoghegan argues that the “old” labor movement with roots in the 1930s is simply incapable of addressing contemporary problems. Traditional labor can envision a struggle to raise wages but not one “to give people more rights to determine the way we work.” (39) Higher wages are important but a focus on the way we work is now more critical in order to balance power relations on the job and in the larger society. What is missing from Geoghegan’s analysis, however, is an understanding of how the American labor movement (in tandem and in conflict) with corporate employers, created the present conditions of working life. As my colleague Jefferson Cowie and I wrote a few years ago, the New Deal influence remained potent into the mid-1970s, a consequence of the enormous federal expenditures for defense during the war and the decades of Cold War that followed. Union membership sharply increased and income inequality for the lower 60% of wage earners declined.

But as welcome as those decades were, they proved to be more of a “Long Exception” than a permanent transformation. The 1984 election which witnessed the demolition of the last New Deal Democratic standard bearer, Walter Mondale, by a triumphant Ronald Reagan (who amassed 46% of the trade union vote), signaled the end of the Exception. The formation a year later—by Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Al From—of the Democratic Leadership Council, with the explicit purpose of moving the Democratic Party away from the New Deal framework, marked another. The economy as well was in transition. The decade of the 1970s saw the decline of the United States steel industry as the U.S.’s former enemies, Germany and Japan, out-produced this country’s technologically antiquated, highly unionized firms. Some of those domestic firms which survived in steel, auto, and other mass production industries, moreover, also opened new plants in the right-to-work states of the American South. There they found themselves in serious competition with already established foreign manufacturers. Little wonder then that the United Auto Workers, which in 1979 had 1.5 million members, has less than 400,000 in 2015.

Technology played a considerable role in this diminishing transition—digitalization and robotics transformed industrial work in ways unimaginable for most Americans in the 1970s. The corporation re-organized itself as well. What had once been a massive institution focused on product lines increasingly became “financialized” as the expansion of a global economy offered new possibilities for both production and marketing. For many in the working and middle classes, the corporate model of the immediate post-1945 decades, with its secure job and modest upward mobility over a career in the same firm, evaporated. Corporate leaders and major stockholders grasped at the potential enormous gains in the buying and selling of their holdings, and those of their competitors, across the globe. Production was no longer always the prime value, nor did the new (often temporary) owners exhibit much loyalty to any work force.

Geoghegan never addresses these issues. He does, however, take up two other themes (in a slap-dash fashion). First, he is intrigued by the German industrial example. In today’s Germany, most industrial firms train their own workers in company-sponsored programs. Geoghegan understands these programs as integral to the development of that system of “works councils” or “co-determination” where union representatives have full voting rights on the corporation’s board. He insists, without discussion, that the sharp differences with the American experience cannot be attributed to cultural traditions. But, in fact, they have everything to do with historical and cultural patterns that go back more than two centuries. The American free market individualist creed (and all that it entails) is remote from the German experience. Ever since the origins of German industrialization, workers in the larger plants expected not only to be trained by their employer, but to grow up in the company. This did not prevent labor strife, but class struggles in Germany occurred in a very different context than in America. In the 1880s, for example, it was the government of arch-conservative Chancellor Otto von Bismarck that established serious health and safety laws, regulated hours of work, and provided medical care and housing for workers. To be sure, Bismarck worried about the growing Socialist movement, but his response drew on a pattern of labor relations rooted in German history and its evolving culture.

Geoghegan contends that the German model of worker/employer partnership is relevant in the American continuum. He cites the economist Richard Freeman to the effect that it might be foreign corporations that bring co-determination to the United States. The example of Volkswagen in Chattanooga in 2014 suggests this is anything but assured, and other foreign auto companies (often without co-determination at home) have remained conspicuously resistant.

Geoghegan then abruptly shifts to another notion about how this country could establish a new corporate model of labor/management partnership: Change the American Constitution to make the right to join a union a civil right, embedded in a Constitutional Amendment. In theory, it is true, such an Amendment would give workers more leverage “to determine the way we work.” Employees, however, ceded that right long ago. It has essentially disappeared from Labor’s demands ever since the dramatic conclusion of the 1945-46 auto workers’ strike against General Motors. Moreover, it is impossible to imagine how such an Amendment might gain approval from the requisite three-quarters of the 50 states, as even Geoghegan allows. So he indulges in one more fantasy, invoking the prospect of nurturing “inside” the corporation a new labor movement that might create American “work councils.” He also embraces the current approach of some progressives to re-orientate corporate law away from stockholders toward a broader category of stakeholders. They mean to use the law to promote the interests of workers and others in the larger environment impacted by corporations. This effort may, in fact, have moral and political potential, but it is far from clear that co-determination would be the end result.

Geoghegan’s treatment of important issues seems cavalier. His book may actually discourage readers led on by his less than clear map of labor’s options. He might have helped his readers more if his discussion had been informed by the excellent chapters on German and American industrialization in Thomas McCraw’s Creating Modern Capitalism. Similarly, on the issue of the next generation of corporation governance, the work of Lynn Stout, David Ciepley, Karen Ho, Kent Greenfield (among others) indicate the possibilities and serious obstacles involved in any evolution toward a more socially responsible form of economic organization in capitalist society. Geoghegan, unfortunately, is content to end with an anemic call for “a new kind of labor movement…[and exploring] how we can lead a democratic way of life.” He can’t shake the self-referent sense of despondency that elevates his own emotional turmoil over any vision of a viable way forward.

grindstone Nick Salvatore 2015-03-20T05:57:10-05:00
10th and Bainbridge Blues I met E. Martin in 1958 at summer camp, where he was not only our bunk’s starting shortstop and point guard but the only one who read I. F. Stone’s Weekly. He went on to lead the anti-war movement at Penn medical school, participate in Physicians for Social Responsibility and practice psychotherapy from a self-characterized “radical social-economic justice perspective.” At age 70, he relocated from suburban Boston to a sustainable farming community in western Massachusetts. So when he recommended reading Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, I did.[1]

Unsettling had been published in 1977. The title and cover design make me suspect that Avon hoped to duplicate the success of Charles Reich’s The Greening of America, a best seller list-topping, cultural phenomenon a few years earlier. While Unsettling never attained Greening’s iconic status, it came to be considered a classic of American letters. And Berry became a revered figure within the Whole Earth movement and beyond, authoring 32 books of non-fiction, 15 of fiction, and 28 of poetry, while operating a 125-acre farm, teaching English at the University of Kentucky, and protesting coal plants, strip mining, nuclear power, the death penalty, our national security strategy, and a federal program of animal identification. He has received Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships, a National Humanities Medal, awards named for, among others, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, Richard Holbrook, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and been named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Unsettling’s thesis is that, by sacrificing the family farm to industrial agriculture, America has inflamed its energy crisis, ruined its environment, and lost its soul. The farm breeds, Berry believes, quoting Jefferson, our “‘most valuable citizens,’” hard-workers, healthy in body and mind. By rooting people to the land, farming connects them to the life cycle of death and rebirth, curbs their urge for competition and profit, fosters co-operation, the sense of continuity, and the need to live within limits. Farm life teaches us, “the earth is what we all have in common.”

Dislocating people from farms to cities, in Berry’s opinion, compelled a need for “specialization,” which corrupted our society and selves. We succumbed to the destructive values of our upper class, pursuing wealth, gratifying ourselves by consumption. The quantitative, not the qualitative, rules. (“The one with the most toys at the end wins.” “Greed is good.” We’ve all heard that.) We measure our worth by what our work pays, not what it contributes to society. We exploit, not assist, others; we ravage, not replenish, the earth. We abuse our bodies and debase our spirits. We are “the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world.”


I take much of Berry to heart. I agree that man must recognize his commonality with others. I agree that the drive for acquisition is a planetary-abusing madness. But I have my doubts about his solution.

Maybe it’s because my grandfather, as a teenager, fled his family’s plot in Alliance, New Jersey, for the Babylon of South Philadelphia; but I feel Berry left unanswered the old musical question, “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen 10th & Bainbridge?” An altered national consciousness seems necessary which I can’t imagine happening. Oh, I knew those in the ‘60s who lit out for cabins in the Cascades and spreads in the Smokies; but psycho-tropic drugs usually influenced those journeys; and with the opposition fluoride still stirs, I don’t see LSD in our reservoirs any time soon. And even if a reverse migration happened, I’m unconvinced the desired result would follow.

Berry’s argument is long on poetry and short on proof. He quotes Shakespeare and Blake but discounts “statistics and experts.” He relies heavily on “personal observation,” but, his awards and deep feelings not withstanding, they advance no balls for me. (I would love to see, for instance, the amount of carbon emitted by Berry’s farm compared to that of a normal city dweller’s home, let alone the 2000-watt-limitation experts say must be reached by individuals if disaster is to be averted.) The goal Berry seeks is man becoming “healthier and happier,” and the American community he most admires is that of the Amish. But statistics measure some things, like health, more accurately than observations, and the Amish’s life expectancy is almost identical to that of most Americans (74.3 for males vs. 75.1; 79.4 for women vs. 78.3); and they have the same leading cause of death (heart disease) as the rest of us.[2]

Happiness is more difficult to assess, but, observation-wise, the Amish have never struck me as a particularly jolly bunch.[3] More tellingly, recent studies report Switzerland, Norway, Canada, Denmark, and Australia are the countries with the happiest citizens. I don’t know the percent of farmers among their populations, but what those polled valued most about work was the income it provides and leisure time it affords, which doesn’t recommend dawn-to-dusk labor as a likely mood-enhancer.


As I age, I think about the world a lot. Despite our seemingly endless wars and plagues, people, world-wide, are living longer. So we must be doing something right. On the other hand, our ability to destroy life is advancing too. The question of our continued existence seems up for grabs, and I’m inclined to not mind being absent for the answer.

What is it about man? Does something lurk within us that requires we destroy? Or is it only in some of us but, combined with other inner somethings, it enables them to drive the rest of us, lemming-like, off cliffs? Berry asks us to believe that the redemptive powers of the soil will sooth our appetites, that country lads are more apt than city boys to proffer neighbors helping hands and less likely to march to battle against them; but our history doesn’t seem to justify that faith. Three-quarters of the Confederacy’s troops killing and dying at Gettysburg to perpetuate slavery were farmers. And within the few decades before Berry wrote, low income-white farmers contributed heavily to the neo-fascist populism of Huey Long and George Wallace. (In fact, Berry’s entreaty echoes uncomfortably the Nazi Blut und Boden doctrine, which called the volk “back to the land” to re-experience the “natural order” of things, while celebrating the life of rugged “true Aryans,” as opposed to urban, Jew-tainted “asphalt culture.” (Forgive me if I’m a bit sensitive on this point, but I just watched Night Will Fall, HBO’s concentration camp documentary.)

If the planet is to be saved, I think, it will be through education, epiphany, and political compulsion. Forty-acres and a mule won’t do it. And it will require those remaining within walking distance of espresso bars and the A train in full participation.


1 This demonstrated the generosity of my spirit, since my recommendation to him of the collected Barnaby strips, volume one, had been ignored.

2 It may be argued that increased life expectancy, sustainability -wise, isn’t such a good thing, since after reaching a certain age, most people consume more than they replenish. But carrying out a policy to remedy that trend may make LSD-infusion into our water supplies look easy.

3 An acquaintance who has spent significant time among—and written well about—the Amish says that those who fit within the group are content, but that it affords no room for anyone with stirrings of individuality. Anyone, she says, with a sense of “I” will experience high levels of discomfort.

culturewatch Bob Levin 2015-03-20T05:18:29-05:00
Living in Levine Philip Levine responded to early First of the Months with assonance-first praise of your editor whom he termed a “young warrior for justice in the nut house of America.” That praise was insanely over the top and I proved it to Levine double-quick by screwing up a quote in the poem he contributed to the next First. He gave me dispensation—“Forget it.”—and I need more now since I’m about to ignore his last bit of advice about First. I checked in with him last summer: “What am I doing wrong?” He wrote back: “Ask your wife.” Then he added: “It’s good that First lives on. Maybe fewer words would let in more light & silence.” But, a month after his death on Valentine’s Day, loss means more…

My title nods to the name of a lovely chapter in Levine’s memoir, The Bread of Time. “Living in Machado” looks back on Levine’s sabbaticals with his family in Spain where he learned the language and first encountered the work of the great (impossible to translate?) poet Antonio Machado. I won’t travel as widely here but take this as my trip through the land of Levine—a big country that includes poets he didn’t know, pieces he didn’t write, and a place not on any map.


It was Presidents Day when I found out Levine had died and I’d already planned to watch Heaven’s Gate with my son—part of a push to make sure he doesn’t end up a jingo with a hole in him. Michael Cimino’s once-reviled epic film centers on a small war waged in Wyoming by land barons against European immigrant farmers captained by Christopher Walken and fellow traveler Kris Kristofferson. (It’s based loosely on an actual class struggle that took place in the 1890s.) Long before the final chapter where beautiful loser Kristofferson—back east, in the money but still bereft—gazes on endless waters from a yacht off Newport, Heaven’s Gate felt in synch with the news Levine had crossed his “nameless ocean.” Levine may have been identified as a city poet but the film’s subject and politics placed it in his realm. Cimino’s imagined immigrants under attack at the end of the century are fictional ancestors of Levine’s people in Detroit (or Catalonia). I bet the poet would have felt the actor’s fire in the scene where Walken confronts monied scum who assure him the White House has signed off on their campaign of ethnic cleansing. Walken’s handsome hick isn’t slick enough to act unsurprised by the revelation of a President’s corruption but once he takes it in... “Fuck him too!” Walken’s attitude in this scene reminds me of a figure in one of Levine’s many poems of fraternity (though Walken is narrower across the shoulders):

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.

Levine didn’t always put those curses in someone else’s mouth. He may have mellowed over the years. But the eventual Poet Laureate of America always had a fuck you in his back pocket. He knew that came with his territory (rather than, say, a “Question Authority” bumper sticker) per this commentary on his sojourns in Europe from a 1983 film about anarchism[1]:

One of the things that struck me most when I went to Europe was how fucking law-abiding the people were. And how I broke all the laws. I didn’t break the laws so much because I was an anarchist … it was just because I was an American. I mean, if I came to a traffic light, nobody was there, I went through the goddamn thing. It was just an attitude, you know, What’s the point of staying here? … I found that my European neighbors went crazy. ‘Stay in line,’ ‘Be this way,’ ‘Queue up’ (in England) … And I’d say, Fuck you, you know, first one to the bus gets on … I think it was very American. We are a people who are very smart. We’ve got a lot of street smarts—we know what the law is all about. We know who made it, and how it gets enforced. I mean, I think if you stop the average American, say, What’s the law all about? Did God make it? They’d say, Oh, bullshit, God didn’t have anything to do with it. You know who made it. John D. Rockefeller made it.

Levine’s angle on America probably began to seem out of time to him during the Age of Reagan. And recent age cohorts haven’t done much to restore his faith in his country. In a late interview, he panned millennial Columbia grad students who’d objected to him allowing an unregistered student to attend a Creative Writing seminar. He’d threatened to quit if these punctilious punks persisted in trying to exclude the undocumented learner. (They must have been unaware Levine himself took classes in the 50s with Robert Lowell and John Berryman at the University of Iowa without ever registering at the school, which he couldn’t afford.)


It occurs to me those Columbia brats (or their kind) must have passed right by another stranger/neighbor who could have taught them a lot. Back in the day I often sat on the Low Library steps talking late into the night with my friend Robert Douglas Cushman. Douglas (as he was known to his New York pals) worked for years on a book of poetry, “The City Among Us,” which he finally completed to his own satisfaction just before the cancer he battled for decades showed him the Bronx (where he died in a hospice in 2003). Douglas is in my mind since I just heard the lecture Levine gave to close out his term as Poet Laureate. Do yourself a solid and listen to his moving celebration of “lost poets”.

My lost poet grew up in the Midwest like Levine but Douglas wasn’t a city kid—he chose to become an urban person/poet. Douglas had a world view—a stance that shaped his approach to language and life: “diminish yourself in what you see.” (Levine would’ve twigged to it.[2]) He was that rare Keatsian kind who lived for the sociable (not glamorous life) without ever taking up all the air in the room.

I first met Douglas in the 70s at the West End bar where he hung with my older brother’s crew.[3] When that New York bunch faded away, Douglas found new friends to invite to lunch at ungentrified Upper West side diners where he’d religiously order a burger and a coke, buying the right to converse in public for hours. Over the years, his son Mathew inspired him to cultivate a hundred ways of being fully in New York (though it became harder for him to share his pleasure in the streets and parks and libraries and museums once he became ill). When Douglas realized he’d have to leave his family and his city against his will, he faced the awful—that was one of his words and his poetry makes it sacred—truth. It’s there in the last lines in “The City Among Us,” which evokes the distance that would soon separate Douglas forever from his son Mathew (and the games of life):

Tossing a ball
Mathew, Dalton and Eddie
run farther from me.
And farther still.

Those lines complete a note appended to this poem:

The Afternoon Light

After lunch we took our walk in the park
but soon found a bench,
me getting tired quickly now.

A young father set loose
his fierce stalker of pigeons.
Not far enough away, kids bumped and fell
in the trainwreck from their boom-box.

We eavesdropped on a group of seminarians
disputing the prophecy of numbers.
One would find the mind of Providence
in a dandelion pappus,
a second in the secrets sums of his texts
and another by what he is not,
like the salvagers of Pompeii
who pour plaster in hollows of stone
to discover a face.

A man shouted, his buddies moaned
over the slap of a winning domino.

In the afternoon light, those around us
like the leaves, which had begun to brown,
seem consumed by a continuing brightness.

We talked about her play and old movies
and Alan’s book
and my seeing the Tiepelo drawings at the Morgan
with Janet and Joe

until I fell silent
hearing the voice of Mrs. Covington,
the mother of my boyhood friend.
I hope he’s well.
Among different branches were the sounds
of father unlocking the door
to fetch the morning paper.

His attendant wheeled off an old man,
not waking him.
As others shifted home, our cast of mind
came apart with the sustaining day.

My friend must buy a fish for Alan’s dinner
she remembers.
Walking to her bus, we choke our buttons closed
and stiffen against the cold
that gives to the leaves
a severe beauty.

In the first First of the Year volume (published after Douglas's death), “The Afternoon Light” precedes this poem by Levine.

The Perfect Winter

Behind the Plymouth assembly plant
in East Warren, a clump
of tattered pin oaks and frail maples.
Sunday morning, late March,
the worshippers in dark groups
of two and three walked the long block
from the bus stop. Low clouds
dispersed, a watery sun rose
slowly toward 9 A.M. shedding
its light into standing pools
of stale water. Not far off
a river ran toward another river,
not far my father slept
his final sleep in a room
without windows. Spring punched in
right on time with iron bells
tolling from the bricked steeples,
wave after wave going out
over the acres of cars parked
in rows. I would give anything
to have February back, the perfect
winter of '37, the blanket
of snow unmelted, the dawn wind
trembling the house. My aunty Yetta
comes back in a cab, her face
smeared, her silk hose safe
between her legs. Uncle Nathaniel,
not yet my uncle, rises late
but ready, knowing the nothing
he needs to know, and brushes
his teeth with beer. Outside
snow falls on the bare branches
of the black elm, it mounds
over each link of the back fence
and buries the early thorn
of my favorite rose, a single arched
blade waiting in the nameless waste.

I doubt Levine minded my coupling an “unrenowned writer from the Upper West Side with a distinguished author from Detroit.” And I trust he’d bless my impulse to revisit their twinned City.


Levine’s speech on lost poets elaborated on a theme he’d taken up in The Bread of Time where he wrote about young writers and readers in Detroit who helped him “enter poetry.” But, as a young man, he may have been even more inspired by young jazz musicians he went to school with in Detroit—“Pepper Adams, Kenny Burrell, Bess Bonnier, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris were the first people I knew who were living the creative lives of artists...and I thought if they can do it, I can do it too.” I’m reminded just now by Levine’s invocation of Barry Harris of another moment in that jazzman’s history as an exemplar. Back in the 80s I went with my crew to see Harris play with saxophonist Charles McPherson during the closing week of shows at the Jazz Cultural Theater—the performance space/school Harris ran in the 80s until Manhattan rents got too high. (We may have passed the silver Bentley belonging to jazz patroness Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter parked outside on 8th Ave as we headed into the JCT’s un-glam room.) Harris and McPherson bopped us out. What I remember best, though, were Harris’s teacherly raps and music made during the intermission between the headliners’ sets. One of Harris’s students—a ten or twelve year old girl—sat down at the piano and played Monk tunes masterfully. I hope she grew up to live a creative life. And I’m sure Levine would want someone to pass on his respect to her teacher Harris who’s still with us down here below.

A rich piece by Levine, “Detroit Jazz in the Late Forties & Early Fifties: Reflections in Poetry and Prose,” conveys how live jazz left him “feeling happier than he ever expected to feel.” (I found the piece in the NYPL’s Levine archive, but I think he published a version in the magazine Brilliant Corners.) When Levine was in his twenties, his home on Friday nights was the Blue Bird jazz club (which was a true cultural epicenter: Elvin Jones once said his 50s stint there “introduced me to modern music. In a nutshell, that was it.”) Levine hung tight with young beboppers on the come. And he heard culture heroes from Jazz's previous epoch. He evokes how Billie Holiday sounded “after her voice had lost the floating quality that had delighted me with its lyricism, understatement and ease…”

The new sound was different: frank, pained and unrelenting. She was a different singer, probably a different woman, and still the greatest jazz singer ever.

He heard Lady’s Pres a few years earlier. A “big Irish brawler” he met in an English class at Wayne University turned him on to Lester Young:

My friend so loved the music of Pres he arranged a dance at his old high school, talked them into inviting Pres to play. A couple hundred kids, mostly white, showed up for the event, held on a Saturday night and staged in a gym. My friend and I watched from the track, which served as a balcony that night; this was the autumn of ‘46 and Pres was breathtaking. Of course almost no-one danced—we were too mesmerized to even move.

But Young wasn’t made to stay strong in America. Levine tells how he later saw Pres cheat himself and his audience. Levine likened the experience to watching Zero Mostel act out in a Miami night club after failing at stand-up—Mostel had dropped his trousers, grabbed his crotch and yelled that a female heckler “didn’t even deserve this.” Pres kept his pants on (when Levine saw him in the 50s), but he still seemed to be going down to Zero.

Levine celebrated other jazz masters who kept their dignity (without being stuck on it). The first of his many contributions to First was a felt tribute to the uncompromising art-life of Sonny Rollins (“The Unknowable”). Given our rag couldn’t compete with mainline magazines like the New Yorker, where Levine was used to publishing, it seems apt he began here by recalling an anti-careerist moment in the early 60s when Rollins stepped away from stardom to practice his horn on the Williamsburg bridge:

...“woodshedding” the musicians
called it, but his woodshed was the world.

The enormous tone he borrowed from Hawkins
that could fill a club to overflowing
blown into tatters by the sea winds

teaching him humility, which he carries
with him at all times, not as an amulet
against the powers of animals or men

that mean harm or the lure of the marketplace.
No, a quality of the gaze-downward
on the streets of Brooklyn or Manhattan.

Hold his hand you’ll see it, hold his eyes
in yours and you‘ll hear the wind singing
through the cables of the bridge that was home…

The years pass and like the rest of us
he ages, his hair and beard whiten, the great
shoulders narrow. He’s merely a man

after all—who stared for years
into the breathy, unknowable voice
of silence and captured the music.

Levine once mused on sax and aging in a letter:

I never saw Hawkins near the end. I did see Webster. And it was amazing how much he got out of the little that was left. Saw Pres near the end and that was sad. He still had chops but he didn’t care much. You’d hear moments of his genius and then he’d fart around. Too bad Thomas Hardy never took up the sax. At 85 he’d have blown us away.

There’s one other geezer who still plays like a demon: Jimmy Heath, all 120 pounds of him...

Levine was responding to a package I’d sent that included a dub of Coleman Hawkins’s 1966 version of “Time on My Hands,” from Hawkins’s last recording session. Levine preserved the short piece of writing I enclosed with the music. Here it is straight from his archive:

Geezer Music

Adolph Sax, a Belgian, created prototypes of the various members of the saxophone family somewhere around 1840, but it wasn’t until the second or third decades of the 20the Century that anyone anywhere would figure out how to play more than imitation animal sounds and other comedic circus effects on a single one of them. Somewhere before 1920, New Orleans jazzman Sidney Bechet performed the deed on soprano sax, followed by Coleman Hawkins on tenor.

For the next 40 years, Hawkins would be known for a sensuous, often dangerous muscularity of tone and phrase, a signature warmth emanating from chest and belly. He had a “sense of a ballad” as advanced, and as simple, as any hornplayer’s ever, and was a majestic improviser. According to lore, he was the chronological FIRST to ever “tell a story” on a saxophone, and as time went by the stories got longer and more intimate. (Check the ‘39 “Body and Soul,” the ‘43 “Talk of the Town,” the ‘48 “Picasso.”)

In 1966, at his last session, the phrases he has at his command for storytelling are fairly short and unmenacing, and not always perfectly formed (or even sturdy), and they end up often as not with an almost gauzy vibrato like that favored by his acolyte and rival Ben Webster. You can just about hear columns of soundless, pitchless air vibrating, and ceasing to vibrate…sound into silence.

A minute and a half into “Time on My Hands,” the rhythm section drops out, and the for the next two minutes plus, which feel to the listener like five or six or ten—time as perceived being so palpably molded, so altered—the 62-year-old Hawk delivers not so much a story as a valedictory. So little breathing time remains, yet time is his…micro-duration is macro…all time is NOW. It’s not always such a great idea to lean heavily on metaphors, but astro-time implodes, matter too, and Sirius, brightest star in the heavens, becomes a neutron star…a campfire…a matchbook aflame in a skeleton hand. All entropy, all destiny compress the final recitation to a throaty whimper…a final peep.

A poignantly MAGNIFICENT peep, but a peep, then neverending stillness.

The copy of “Geezer Music” in the NYPL has a penned in heading—
“Sent by Benj DeMott”—which might mislead someone. It was written by Richard Meltzer who’s best known as one of the original rock critics.

Meltzer once noted those noise boys “were never as totally, abjectly outside” rock as Beats were to bop—“the music they interloped.” But Levine slips that antimony. He never aimed to come on as an insider, but he got close to players who were living jazz lives in Detroit. In that piece about musicking in his city, he recalls how the superstar of a trio featuring Bess Bonnier and Elvin Jones treated them with respect and the audience with contempt. “Up close Getz looked like a movie star; up even closer you could tell he knew it.” Levine shared reefers with Pepper Adams and hard goofs with Bonnier. (“When a woman saw Bess was blind, she gasped and said: ‘Oh my dear you’ve lost your sight.’ Bess replied: ‘How careless of me.’ Bess said to me: ‘She tried to make me feel like a penny waiting for change.’”)


First’s band of outsiders included another elder Jazz lover who was in the tradition. Nobody came closer to getting the music down on the page than Amiri Baraka. For a long time I assumed Baraka and Levine would prefer to be secret sharers when it came to jazz because they disagreed on other matters. Levine grew up hearing debates between anarchists and Communists and, unlike Baraka, he never yearned for an American Lenin. He was wary, as well, about amped-up “performative” approaches to poetry, which he feared might overwhelm the Word. But I probably overthought what separated these two originals as I realized when Levine emailed me after Baraka’s death: “The last time I saw him we read together in Newark—maybe 2 years ago—& he was amazing. And very dear.”

It’s inspiring to think of Baraka and Levine hanging tight in the Ark, setting an example for their tribes. I’m reminded just now I once planned to use a poem of Levine’s in a piece I tried to write about conflicts between blacks and Jews back in the early 90s. “The Sweetness of Bobby Hefka” begins with a Finnish immigrant schoolboy’s admission of racism in a Detroit classroom. Levine’s twin brother Eddie then asks (“menacingly”) “How do you feel about Jews?” But Bobby refuses any link between his racism and anti-Semitism: “Oh C’mon Eddie...I thought we were friends.” Their teacher intervenes…

“What is it about negroes you do not like?”
Mr. Jaslow asked in his most rational voice
which always failed to hide the fact
he was crazy as a bedbug, claiming
Capek’s RUR was far greater than Macbeth.
Bobby was silent, for a long minute, thinking
“Negroes frighten me,” he finally said,
“they frighten my mother and father who never
saw them in Finland, they scare my brother
who’s much bigger than me.” Then he added
the one name, Joe Louis, who had been
busy cutting down black and white men
no matter what their size, Mr. Jaslow
sighed with compassion. We knew that
before the class ended he’d be telling us
a great era for men and women was imminent
if only we could cross the threshold
into humanitarianism, into the ideals
G.B. Shaw, Karel Capek, and Mr. Jaslow.

Every gen in America has its own Jaslows—Sleeper cells whose fantasies about “the declining significance of race” obscure the legacy of white supremacy. Levine was aware as a child that Nazis were hunting Jews and he grew up fighting back in “the most anti-Semitic city west of Munich,” but he didn’t conflate the situation of Jews in this country with that of black Americans. (He hated what he called the “chickenshit racism” of Jewish neo-cons like Norman Podhoretz.) “Bobby Hefka” ends with lines that limn the gift of whiteness shared by European immigrants upon arrival in America. Years after high school, Levine meets up with Bobby who dreams of medical school but is “driving a milk truck for Dairy Queen”:

...He listened
in sorrow to what had become of me. He handed
me an icy quart bottle of milk, a gift
we both held on to for a silent moment
while the great city roared around us, the trucks
honking and racing their engines to make him move.
His eyes were wide open. Bobby Hefka loved me.

Levine not only saw through white eyes, he refused to not-know the dailiness of black lives:

Detroit, Tomorrow

Newspaper says the boy killed by someone,
don’t say who. I know the mother, waking,
gets up as usual, washes her face
in cold water, and starts the coffee pot.

She stands by the window up there on floor
sixteen wondering why the street’s so calm
with no cars going or coming, and then
she looks at the wall clock and sees the time.

Now she’s too awake to go back to bed,
she’s too awake not to remember him,
her one son, or to forget exactly
how long yesterday was, each moment dragged

into the next by the force of her will
until she thought this simply cannot be.
She sits at the scarred, white kitchen table,
the two black windows staring back at her,

wondering how she’ll go back to work today.
The windows don’t see anything: they’re black,
eyeless, they give back only what’s given;
sometimes, like now, even less than what’s given,

yet she stares into their two black faces
moving her head from side to side, like this,
just like I’m doing now. Try it awhile,
go ahead, it’s not going to kill you.

Now say something, it doesn’t matter what
you say because all the words are useless:
“I’m sorry for your loss.” “This too will pass.”
“He was who he was.” She won’t hear you out

because she can only hear the torn words
she uses to pray to die. This afternoon
you and I will see her just before four
alight nimbly from the bus, her lunch box

of one sandwich, a thermos of coffee,
a navel orange secured under her arm,
and we’ll look away. Under your breath make
her one promise and keep it forever:

in the little store-front church down the block,
the one with the front windows newspapered,
you won’t come on Saturday or Sunday
to kneel down and pray for life eternal.

Levine’s best-known poem rooted in the struggle of black Americans, “They Feed They Lion” (which might be re-titled, “Detroit, Yesterday”) is less despairing, though no less aggrieved. (You can hear him read it here.) In Levine’s archives, there’s a short graph about “Lion” titled: “My Favorite Poem By Me.” Levine reviews “Lion’s” literary and social sources, confessing its power lies beyond him: “I wrote this poem 30 years ago and it seems it is better than I can write.” He hears echoes of the Bible, Blake, and (“especially”) Christopher Smart. The poem, he notes, “brings together some of the feelings that obsessed me during the late 60s when our cities were burning and so many of our young men were burning or being burned in Asia.” His “Lion” was inspired, in particular, by an African American named Eugene Watkins whose way with black English gave Levine the poem’s title and refrain. I was familiar with Watkins’ role which Levine once discussed in an interview reprinted in Don’t Ask. (Levine recalled how he’d worked alongside Watkins sorting used auto parts that could be rebuilt from ones that were too badly damaged...

We had two sacks that we were putting them in—burlap sacks—and at one point Eugene held up a sack, and on it were the words "Detroit Municipal Zoo." And he laughed, and said, "They feed they lion they meal in they sacks." That's exactly what he said! And I thought, This guy's a genius with language. He laughed when he said it, because he knew that he was speaking an English that I didn't speak, but that I would understand, of course. He was almost parodying it, even though he appreciated the loveliness of it. It stuck in my mind, and then one night just after the riots in Detroit—I'd gone back to the city to see what had happened—somehow I thought of that line. "There's a poem there," I said. "But I don't know what it is. And I'm just going to walk around for a couple of days and see what accumulates.")

But I didn’t quite get what Levine meant when he mused Watkins was his first “mute, inglorious Milton.” That phrase, as many readers no doubt know, comes from Thomas Gray’s classic “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” which touched on the truth careers were not open to talent in 18th Century England (though, as a Marxist critic once noted, the poem naturalized hierarchy rather than protesting against it). Levine’s quote from the “Elegy” underscores Eugene Watkins was born into a social order that would dis him into the grave.


I found Gray’s poem in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics. I quickly came across another famous poem there, Wordsworth’s “Upon Westminster Bridge,” that opened up one of Levine’s. His “Sweet Will” recasts Wordsworth’s London sonnet for mid-Twentieth Century Hamtramck. Back in the USA, he leaves behind the bridge where Wordsworth gazed on a drowsing city and felt “a calm so deep” as “the river glideth at his own sweet will.” Levine’s city vision starts with him stepping carefully over a fellow worker sleeping off a bender on the “concrete, oily floor at Detroit Transmission.” That worker will wake “at his own sweet will,” go back to his punch press and rail against

...the oceanic roar of work,
addressing us by our names and nations--

"Nigger, Kike, Hunky, River Rat,"
but he gave it a tune, an old tune,
like "America The Beautiful"...

Levine’s song is a continent—and a comic tone—away from “Westminster Bridge” but he’s still one of sweet Will’s American kin. Levine’s trip moved me to read more of Palgrave’s Treasury, which, in turn, led me to another American Wordsworthian. I’d thought “movement of mind”—my writer father’s go-to phrase (for at least a few years) came from Mathew Arnold but it’s out of Wordsworth. It seems fitting Levine would start a train of thought that would bring me nearer to my late father. After all, he was the one who first steered me to Levine’s poetry.

I once promised Levine I’d send him a copy of an essay my dad wrote in the early 70s that built toward a celebration of Levine’s “Lion.” But the piece wasn’t easy to locate (as it was published in a British anthology) and I didn’t get the goods to him until after my pop died. He responded quickly:

I was beginning to wonder if it actually existed, but here it is–written in ’73–among other things celebrating my poem as it’s probably never been celebrated before or since. I was very moved…

Levine and my dad shared more than their feeling for “Lion.” Both of them battled (what my pop termed) “the hard man” inside themselves. My dad worried he’d been numbed down as he aged by an impactful politics of culture, but the peak of Levine’s struggle to preserve his humanness came when he was young. At the age of sixteen, after receiving a bad beating, he decided to remold himself:

I joined a Jewish Athletic Center where I could lift weights and take boxing instruction. I look for work that was physically demanding so that my body could grew larger and more powerful. I resorted to the use of my fists when I was provoked. This was totally against my nature which was contemplative and retiring. In other words without knowing it, I had internalized the image of me that a hostile world projected, and I was doing everything in my power to deny it. I had joined the enemy...

Levine even considered a boxing career: “Good thing about boxing—unlike poetry—you find out fast if you’re no good. Nobody has to tell you.” (It was always a hoot to read him on “Levine as boxer”:

I had this great trainer, had been the amateur middleweight champion of the US, & prepared for the 1940 Olympics which were cancelled because of the war. He wouldn’t fight pro—said it was wrong to hit people for money, so he just hit them for fun. His brother was a pro heavyweight, & he could take him apart when the bully brother insisted on beating down his proteges. I was strong & had a great chin, which my man Nate told me wasn’t of much use when all I was doing was getting hit. First thing I discovered I lacked was great balance. Second thing was hand speed. Third discovery came after several solid beatings: commitment. As Nate said, This is no sport to be mediocre at.)

Levine wasn’t destined for a future of scar tissue, but he might have locked on other ways of being a hard guy. Heavy industrial work helped save him from a boss fate even as it stoked his class-based animus. Soul-to-soul transmissions on the job taught him about his own capacity for decency and delicacy:

I remember working at Cadillac with a young black guy from the South. Very young, maybe eighteen, a handsome, strong cheerful fellow. We did things in tandem...The place was so dirty that we changed our clothes in a locker room before and after each shift. I remember one night dawdling in the locker room after work…I heard this odd noise coming from a toilet stall, and when the door opened there was this young fellow, the cheerful one. I asked him if he was okay, and he wondered why I asked. I said I knew it was his first week on the job, he was far from home, maybe it was tough. Right out he said, “I was crying, I’m lonesome. I don’t know anyone, I hate this job.” I said. “We all hate it, it’s terrible work.” In my mind I was saying, “Hang on, young fella,” and he seemed to hear it. He put his hand on my shoulder. It was just a moment. I don’t think that would happen at IBM. I don’t think a man as big and handsome as he was, a man working in corporate America, would just unashamedly say, “I was crying.”

Levine’s tale sent me to look for the passage in Simone Weil’s “Factory Work” where she swears there’s more emotion compacted in moments of empathy on the shop floor (or the clean-up room) than in decades of friendship among the bourgeois. There’s no circulating copy of that essay in the NYPL so I found myself reading in Weil’s journal from her year “among the class of those who do not count...and who will not count (notwithstanding the line of the first verse of “The Internationale.” (“We have been naught, we shall be all.”) Much of Weil’s journal is given over to bare figures detailing her piece work and compensation, but when she sums up what she’ll take away from her time in the factories, she’s on the same page as Levine:

The feeling of self-respect, such as it had been built up by the society, is destroyed. It’s necessary to forge another one for oneself (though exhaustion wipes out consciousness of one’s ability to think). Try to hold on to that one...The ability to be morally self-sufficient, to live in a state of constant latent humiliation without feeling humiliated in my own eyes...

“I’m not worth a thing” says the speaker in Levine’s “Sweet Will.” It’s a confession he doubles-down on, making it over into a Weily affirmation: “Not worth a thing!”


Not that he was dumb about money. In The Bread of Time, Levine recalls how he grew weary of nice bosses. He came to associate their affection “with not getting paid.”

Levine wasn’t sentimental about his fellow workers either—“you don’t leave your wallet in your pants when you hang them up because you shouldn’t tempt people who haven’t got anything.” And early on he’d learned other “hard things” about people up against it in urban situations. He once allowed growing up in the city had made him a “very defensive person.” By way of illustration he told this story about a losing fight (which became material for his poems “Silent in America” and “Thistles”):

What had happened was, a beloved big mouth friend of mine helped this fight to take place. It didn’t have to happen. I mean, there were these two guys, one of them was a university jock-wrestler, and the other was a football player. And they were immense by comparison to me and my dwarf friend. He talked to them in a way I never talk to people that size. You took one look at them and you knew they were ready to kill you for the slightest excuse. So if you’ve got wits, goddamit, use them. Well, he called one a motherfucker. Well, the guy knocked him down and began to kick him. I intervened at that point. People thought, my wife thought of me as being brave and foolhardy. I thought of myself as being an asshole. I said to her. “Not only did he ask for the beating, he needed it.” He needed it right then and there. He didn’t need to get killed…the guy wasn’t going to kill him…he might have knocked some teeth out or something. But the guy wound up breaking my jaw, kicking me in the mouth. But my friend needed it, not me. Because I would never say that to an ape…He went on to make other mistakes like that, to put other people in situations like that. He wised up finally, but it took another ten or twelve years. It cost him a lot. He’d have been better off to have gotten the shit beat out of him. I didn’t need it at all. I had already had the shit beat out of me …many many times.

Levine’s stance here (which he doesn’t “much like”) reminds me of stories shared by my old comrades in First of the Month’s original crew—Armond White and Charles O’Brien. They come from urban working class families and one (retrospective) time, they realized when they were children they’d both had the experience of getting a less than cuddly response upon arriving at home after being bullied by neighborhood kids. Both were told to get outside and fight back. Their parents assumed a boy in tough ‘hoods must learn to stand up for himself or he’d be marked for torment and become a permanent danger to his family. (In Levine’s words: “if you don’t defend yourself, either you are destroyed or you make other people defend you.”)

I think my comrades’ memories of toughing it out in the city figure in their hawkish politics in the post-9/11 era—politics that distanced them from many leftists with more genteel backgrounds/reflexes. Though I wouldn’t reduce Charlie’s or Armond’s post-9/11 positions on terror and patriotism to their past battles with schoolyard bullies. Levine’s example is on point here. I doubt he was ever convinced by First writers who made a case for the war in Iraq. That would have been a stretch for an elderly leftist who’d been a conscientious objector to the Korean War and a lifelong skeptic of America’s military-industrial complex. OTOH, Levine—unlike so many so-called radicals—didn’t presume anyone who disagreed with him about the Iraq war ought to be excommunicated from the left. As the occupation of Iraq was going to hell, he dashed off a light line in dark times: “Everyone on the left got what they wanted: Saddam’s gone and Bush failed.” Black humor, sure, but his joke hinted at his unsectarian side.

Maybe if there were more folks on the left with Levine’s instincts, Armond White wouldn’t be writing for The National Review now. In the aftermath of Levine’s death, it’s natural to wonder again about Armond’s conservative turn. He’s from Detroit and back in the late 80s, he used to cut his homey’s poems out of the New Yorker, saving them for me since I didn’t have a sub. I recall how much he liked Levine’s poem about the birth trauma (in school) of a lifelong learner: “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science At Durfee Intermediate School (Detroit, 1942).” Armond probably found it easier to follow Levine’s lines from within. And not just because the poet was a model that rolled out of the Motor City’s working class. Struck by the anti-social ending of Eminen’s neo-biopic: Eight Mile, I once thought of writing an essay on Levine’s lessons for the Hip-hop nation, but who needed it after Armond spelled out how Eminen’s original “triumph’ was founded on “the privilege of being white in America—the prerogative to whine about petty shit while leaving one’s ‘brothers’ behind.” It’s surreal to think the Levine fan who nailed white privilege is now at ease with William F. Buckley’s heirs.


Rich shits, twits and their jock-sniffers will always be with us, per Levine:

I can’t imagine what human experience would suggest to them there was a need to change. In their own eyes they are upper class, and they love it up there; they find it delicious, and one of the things that make it delicious is to have us down here but close at hand, where we can observe all the differences between our stations.

That dates back to 1993. But the wealth gap in America between the rich and the rest of us has only widened since then. My own son will grow up closer to have-nots than I ever was as the child of an increasingly prosperous prof. (Though perhaps I shouldn’t make a Picketty excuse for my downward mobility.) My guy is destined to be a scholarship boy, living a life between stations. He already knows what it’s like to be savored from above by little horrors who enjoy bringing home all the things he doesn’t have. When my son was born, Levine put up a prayer that’s taken on more resonance as years go passing by: “May Benjamin,” he wrote, “be a child at peace with himself. That’s the best life can give you. (Ask your father.)” A sentiment that reminds me just now of Uncle Armond’s gifts of the spirit to my son in Christmas Past: The World of Apu, a beautifully illustrated version of Hiawatha—presents suffused with a sense my mixed race boy wasn’t growing up “white in America” but might have a shot at becoming a citizen of an impure, better world.

Levine allowed his own sense of social possibility diminished in recent decades. For years he thought of himself as an anarchist but then (as he said) he bought a house. It was more complicated than that of course. But he mourned his loss of faith in a Someday World. His poem “To Cipriano, in the Wind” memorializes the anarchist immigrant who once taught him: “Dignidad...without is no riches.” He included “Cipriano” in his inaugural reading at the Library of Congress after he was named America’s Poet Laureate. I’m sure he dug the irony of invoking Spanish Anarchism on that D.C. stage.

When I listened again (after Levine’s death) to his call to his anarchist mentor “to come back out of the wind,” I realized there was no moral equivalent in my son’s life to the immigrant worker who gave the fourteen year old Levine his horizon. No disrespect to our President, who’s done more than anyone lately to help American children like my boy feel at peace with themselves, but his historic instantiation of Dignity is marked by large concessions to the given. Take his (fine) speech this month commemorating the anniversary of the Selma march. When Obama averred the Movement was committed to “equality of opportunity” not “equality of outcome,” his presentism traduced the Beloved Community that sparked the social revolution in the South. They were natural-born egalitarians, not wannabe meritocrats.

I’ve laid a lot of Civil Rights docs and Movement history on my kid. And he’s read (and re-read) the chapter in The Bread of Time, “Class With No Class,” about Levine’s boyhood job with a family of American Venerings who personified cupidity. But I thought I’d try to get him into Cipriano’s wind too by pressing Orwell's Homage to Catalonia on him. I probably blew it, though, by nosing around to see if he’d noticed Orwell’s summative reflections on the “mental atmosphere” of Anarchist militias during the Spanish Civil war:

Many of the normal motives of civilized life—snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. –had simply ceased to exist...However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word “comrade” stood for comradeship not, as in most countries, humbug. One had breathed the air of equality...In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps a crude foretaste of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before.

Maybe no book in the end can truly radicalize anyone. It takes an actual community or a soulful individual. Which is, on the real side, one lesson of Orwell’s Homage and Levine’s “Cipriano.”

There’s another Levine-Orwell connection, by the way. A riff in Lionel Trilling’s foreword to the 1952 edition of Homage may have influenced Levine’s self-conception. Trilling wasn’t much moved by Orwell’s “foretaste” of socialism. It was Orwell himself that made him a “figure’ for Trilling. Orwell had the great “virtue of not being a genius, of fronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have, and the work one undertakes to do.”

I suspect Levine read those words—and took them to heart. He often reflected on what it meant to be a “humble worker” in the field of poetry rather than a genius. When he was coming into poetry as a young man he found out there were even younger poets who had much more talent than him. But not all of them would remain “faithful to poetry.” And Levine learned early what work is.


Levine may have lacked genius and class privilege, but he married well (the second time around). I never got to know his wife, though she fobbed me off sweetly on the phone once or twice when the “warrior for justice” was threatening to become a pain in the ass to her husband. Levine has written about how much she loved poetry. He got into the habit of joking she didn’t write all his poems, only the best ones. I’m sure Franny (if I may) will miss being the reader over his shoulder. But she’ll probably miss his humor even more.

"Bitter is better" said someone once about Levine’s oeuvre. Levine might’ve agreed his angry poems were his hottest, but he didn’t apologize for being a “very merry” guy. I didn’t know how funny he could be until he performed at an Amherst College tribute to my late father a few years ago. I had to press him to do the gig. He didn’t know my pop’s work all that well and I hadn’t yet got him a copy of that ‘70s essay with the bow to “They Feed They Lion.” When we mulled over what he might talk about at Amherst, I suggested he address teaching/learning in different class contexts and/or read “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science At Durfee Intermediate School.” I added my mom could probably use a laugh or two. That seemed doable to him: “OK, I’ll be funny.” But he didn’t end up settling for easy laughs. His wit had pith and bite too. I remember one tale that challenged gentry in the room who assumed elite academic institutions (like Amherst) were citadels of the best that had been thought and said. Levine told how he found himself one time toweling off in a gym listening to a pair of students at a toney college discuss a cultural event that had exalted one of them. The unlucky other guy was near despair at having missed...The Three Stooges Marathon.

Levine was nobody’s stooge. (“He knows who he is,” said my mother.) Listen to his reading at the Library of Congress and you’ll hear how Levine’s deep self-assurance—bred during night shifts and nine-to-fives when he was naught—enables him to mock himself and our honors-mongering culture: “I want to thank my agent who plans to make me rich...but will fail...I’m deeply honored to be the Poet Laureate of America.—You notice how easily I say that? I say it when I’m on the subway... I say it all the time.”

Right before he ended his reading with a favorite poem of his wife’s about his own family history, he read a poem that invoked losers from Detroit (and Hiroshima) who enabled him to find his voice: “Because we were Midwestern, somebody always had to pay.”

The poem is called “Escape” and it’s one more reminder Levine never forgot those who didn’t get out. That’s why he earned the fun parts of his reading at the Library of Congress. You can feel the crowd smiling along with him then at the oddity of championing a poetic champion of Americans who were least likely to succeed. Together they make a beautifully human music—the sound of the last laugh going down.



2 I should allow, though, that my late friend Douglas’s favorite poet named Levine wasn’t Phil. Douglas liked lyrics New York poet David Levine wrote with singer-songwriter David Forman back in the 70s. Both Davids were in tune with the demotic City: “I just got back from Viet Nam/I’ve been checking with my old friends just to find out who I am/And the reason I’m calling you Rosalie/is that Shortie says you told him you like me.” That’s from “Rosalie” on David Forman (1976)—the well-reviewed but low-selling solo album that turned out to be Forman’s one shot at pop stardom. I don’t know what happened to David Levine but Forman made a life for himself as a jingle writer and singer before conceiving a new doo-woppy persona in the 90s when he fronted a band called Little Isidore and the Inquisitors. You can find good tracks from David Forman on YouTube along with Mink Deville’s cover of Forman and Levine’s “A-Train Lady” (“I saw you in the window /Checkin' out my mohair /I follow far as you go /I believe I'll find a song there”). But the most tantalizing Forman songs may be tracks from the 1998 collection Largo, which hint at how much he might have given us if more Americans had noticed his gift in the 70s.

3 Back when Douglas was hanging tight with our West End gang, I assumed he was the only poet among us. In the last few years, though, my older brother has been writing poetry and songs—singing ‘em too. The week before Levine died I sent him a poem Tom had written out of his love for the Dominican Republic—the country of his wife and son (whose life has been shaped by his family’s un-royal idylls on the island). I should’ve acted sooner but, for my sins, I worried Levine’s heart might not rise at the prospect of looking into work by another aspiring poet. He’d had thousands of students—forty(!) of them recently contributed to a book of tributes to him. Still, Tom shared a Latin thing with Levine and my brother was writing for the right reasons. On that score, I probably should’ve sent Levine a dub of Tom’s graceful version of “I Surrender Dear.” He ain’t in it to win it and that’s why he lives up to a standard.

Levine himself joked about singing standards. “My Funny Valentine” and “Body and Soul” show up in his poem “Magpiety.” Now that Levine’s gone, maybe that one will serve as his response to Tom and any maker worried they got started late...

are thirty-two
only once in your life, and though
July comes
too quickly, you pray for
the overbearing
heat to pass. It does, and
the year turns
before it holds still for
even a moment.
Beyond the last carob
or Joshua tree
the magpie flashes his sudden
wings; a second
flames and vanishes into the pale
blue air.
July 23, 1960.
I lean down
closer to hear the burned grasses
whisper all I
need to know. The words rise
around me, separate
and finite. A yellow dust
rises and stops
caught in the noon's driving light.
Three ants pass
across the back of my reddened
right hand.
Everything is speaking or singing.
We're still here.

nation Benj DeMott 2015-03-19T17:27:46-05:00
<![CDATA[Emergency Rooms and Cutting Rooms: What's Wrong with <em>The Fighter</em>]]> This piece from First's archives punctuates the set of movie-related posts above. Author Milo George grasps that even half-decent Hollywood movies based on actual events often amount to crimes against reality.

"Very few things happen at the right time and the rest don't happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects." -- Herodotus, by way of Mark Twain

Like most biopics, The Fighter is a lavish celluloid Valentine to its subject. Unfortunately, it's also a Valentine that's unfinished, riddled with typos and unwitting backhanded compliments to many of its recipients.

I'm tasked with addressing the film from a boxing standpoint, so please indulge me a thumbnail cinephile review: It's a garish, Oscar-batory acting showcase (dig those sledgehammer-subtle argument scenes, straight out of Scorsese's coke-eroded septum), a slightly less-dishonest-than-usual Hollywood sports movie (a large reason for why its ending is ultimately unsatisfying; when you're painting by numbers, straying outside the lines makes you look like a slob, not an artist) and a surprisingly anemic film from David O. Russell, a writer-director who normally brings a lot more originality and vigor than this (considering that the stories of Mark Wahlberg's struggles to get this film made have floated around for years and years, I'm guessing that Russell was not the first, second or even third directorial hired gun attached to the project).

"Irish" Micky Ward was never a true world champion; it's not in his composition and that was never his destiny. What made him so unique and valuable to the sport was that he's one of the few real throwback fighters of our times; in the ring, there was no quit in him, no matter how outgunned or outclassed he was. The Throwback is the rare class of fighter who taps directly into boxing's mythical Golden Age -- a time when men were men, Friday night was Fight Night and smoky fight clubs and small theaters in every city were packed with spectators out to enjoy round after round of broken-nosed pugs feverishly hammering their opponents in competitions that were as much a test of a human body's structural integrity and endurance as of a man's will and a boxer's skill. The success of the Rocky series comes in large part from how effectively the early films push all the key buttons related to the Throwback in our collective memory. A recurring compliment given to many of Ward's fights, win or lose, is "That fight was so amazing -- if it were in a movie, nobody would accept it as real!"

There was always drama in a Ward fight -- his left hook could and did dig him out of a lot of the holes he found himself in on judges' scorecards over the years -- but by and large, Ward came up short at the moment of truth far more often than most Hollywood or even independent-film heroes are allowed to do these days. Judging by the attendance records set and awards showered over his last handful of fights prior to retirement -- Ward made history as the first boxer with more than ten losses on his professional record to earn a million-dollar payday for a fight, and he essentially owned the Fight Of The Year award for the last three years of his career -- anyone with even a passing interest in boxing would sacrifice a dozen world champions for a true throwback. Ward was probably worth two dozen world champs. But he really doesn't have a life story that modern Americans would like -- we prefer our heroes to win all the time now and if they must lose, it should be someone else's fault -- so it's no surprise to see his story recontextualized and finessed to fit that taste. But, by trying to force Ward's square-peg life into a round (well, this being a faux indie film, perhaps we'll call it oblong) hole, this biopic film possibly takes the biggest dump on its real-life protagonist since director James Mangold and producer/star Winona Ryder reframed Susanna Kaysen writing her memoir Girl Interrupted as an act of character -- assassinating revenge against the real-life analogue to Angelina Jolie's scene-stealer.

Ward was a career junior welterweight, rarely rising much beyond 142 pounds for a fight; for whatever reason, the filmmakers present him as a full-blown welterweight. Perhaps to drive home their vision of Ward as a largely passive character or perhaps to inject some "Fuck Yeah!" moments into the film to keep the audience engaged, they significantly reframe most of the film's fights so that Wahlberg's Ward takes hellacious, Rocky-esque beatings before pulling out a come-from-behind victory.

Contrary to the common perception, boxers generally aren't aggressive people -- one trainer once referred to them as more like racehorses than tough guys -- so how shy or soft-spoken a fighter is outside the ring doesn't directly correlate to how aggressive he is in the ring, as guys like Mike Tyson and Marvin Hagler can attest. Ward was an infamously slow starter and a boxer whose focus on throwing almost nothing but power punches meant that he rarely threw more punches per round than his opponent. He had a curious habit of taking punches he didn't have to take in some fights but he wasn't just a punching bag with fight-ending power in his left hook, and he never seemed more codependent than any other professional fighter who had family for management. With that many sisters, even Wahlberg's Ward seems less codependent than simply outnumbered; it reminds me a bit of The Great White Hope's take on Jack Johnson: "He Could Beat Any White Man In The World. He Just Couldn't Beat All Of Them."

The filmmakers have an almost-forensic eye for detail -- from the accuracy of the costume design to the location shooting and even the post-fight celebration choreography and Dickie's weird bald spot -- which suggests that most of their history revisions were done for dramatic purposes. (Of course, they go to the trouble of de-aging Sugar Ray Leonard, but nearly every car has a nice big 2011 inspection sticker on the left side of its windshield.)

The Mike Mungin fight presented in the film is a near-execution between a welterweight Ward and a super-middleweight Mungin; in reality, a junior-welterweight Ward and a not-quite-full welterweight Mungin gave each other hell for 10 rounds in a close fight -- the scorecards were 94-95, 93-96 and 94-95 (two judges called it a draw, with Ward losing due to him being knocked down in the sixth round, and the other judge scored it six rounds to four for Mungin). Why did the filmmakers double the weight difference and exaggerate the fight itself to nearly cartoonish levels? Is that really more dramatic? Does Wahlberg's Ward need to have his ass thoroughly kicked to sell him quitting the sport shortly after this scene and to underline for the mouthbreathers in the theater that the movie's family really doesn't always have what's best for Ward in mind? Ward's actual first retirement occurred eight fights -- three wins and five losses, including the four-fight losing streak they mention in the film -- and three years AFTER Mungin. That's a lot of chronology shuffling just to show Ward getting his head beat in and that his family are kind of assholes.

Boxing is one of this rare sports businesses where, in the absence of any significant codified protection for the participants, the kind of manipulation and abuse shown in the film is commonplace; a boxer drops out of a fight for whatever reason, and the other guy has to fight whomever the promoter/manager/producer can find on short notice, or that fighter -- who made good on his contract in every way -- simply doesn't get paid. In that case, as the film makes clear, usually no one else in his camp gets paid either. (Of course, the promoters rarely give refunds to ticket buyers when such fights are altered or fall through entirely; somehow this is considered ethical and good business to boot.) Being a classic club fighter, Ward's professional resume is generously sprinkled with these replacement-opponent fights. Still, the film takes this practice a step further and contextualizes it as the movie family's exploitation of Wahlberg's Ward, counting on the general audience's ignorance of the fallibility of the triangle system ("A beat B; you knocked A out, so you'll beat B too") to put it into the mouths of two pro fighters with a straight face.

The filmmakers cite Ward's comeback as being a fight against someone named Hernandez at the Hampton Beach Casino in New Hampshire; that casino was the site for Ward's war with Emanuel Augustus (née Burton) a few years later -- the first fight in Ward's winning streak of collecting Fight of the Year honors until his retirement -- but Ward never fought anyone named Hernandez as a pro. Were the filmmakers afraid Luis Castillo (five wins and ten losses before the Ward fight; the same five wins plus 15 losses when he retired seven years later) or the Sheraton Inn of Lowell would sue them for libel/slander? I’d worry more the Hampton would call their lawyers over the charge that they don't even have dressing rooms for their fighters. Minutes later, they present Alfonso Sanchez and the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas with no problem -- well, except that the ring posts, round cards and canvas say Caesar's Palace -- and even get the context of the fight correct, so what gives? The filmmakers do love throwing in shout-outs to all sorts of Wardabilia, like playing Dropkick Murphys’ song about Ward for one of Wahlberg's ring marches, so perhaps citing the Hampton is supposed to be an Easter egg for Ward trivia buffs. Thanks, but no thanks.

Again, this is quite a Valentine for Dickie Ecklund, Ward and even Sgt. Mickey O'Keefe (who plays himself, no less), a pivotal but unsung figure in Ward's life. I guess it was very cool of them to give O'Keefe so much face-time in the film but, by having him as a constant in the film, the filmmakers muddy a clear sense of his importance in Ward's actual life and career. To the best of my knowledge, O'Keefe wasn't a corner-man for any of Ward's TV fights -- he didn't formally join Ward's camp until a bit after Ward's 1991 retirement, guiding him through his first few comeback bouts and away from a future as a street rat like his brother. At his retirement celebration, Ward cited O'Keefe as the man without whom he never would have made it to the heights he'd reached by then, much to the profound annoyance of his mother, brother and assorted management types. Obviously, dropping O'Keefe for Dickie would have made Wahlberg's Ward look callous -- although that's what Ward did, much to his later regret -- but inserting O'Keefe directly into Wahlberg-Ward's pre-retirement entourage is presumably the filmmakers thinking that they were doing O'Keefe a solid. Again, thanks, but no thanks.

Orson Welles used to say that every story has a happy ending, depending on when you choose to end it. By this point in The Fighter, the filmmakers obviously want to get to a happy boxing-movie ending. The only happy endings allowed in boxing movies are either winning/retaining a title belt or winning/regaining the girl. Ward already has the girl, so they fast-forward through the two fights for more significant championships that the actual Ward had and lost prior to the title fight with Shea Neary that ends the film: first Vince Phillips for the IBF light-welterweight title, which Ward lost on the cards after a cut stopped the fight, and later Zab Judah for the interim USBA light-welterweight belt, where Ward dropped a decision after being cockpunched in the first round and then outworked all night. The Neary fight is again reframed to be another come-from-behind beatdown of Ward, when in reality it was a back-and-forth, almost chess-like brawl from the opening bell.

To call the World Boxing Union a minor sanctioning body almost denigrates the word "minor" -- Ward never even defended the title after winning it. He might as well have brought a "World's #1 Dad" coffee mug into the ring to defend. The filmmakers do a good job of waving their hands around and yelling "LALALALALALALA" so most people won't notice, going so far as to cobble together the phrase "Neary is the current welterweight champion of the world" to insert into iconic HBO announcer Jim Lampley's mouth, easily the most dishonest moment in the entire film. For most of the TV fights recreated in the film, the filmmakers used snippets of the commentators' audio from the actual fights in more or less the correct context to the action onscreen. So, to chop up some audio (I sincerely hope Lampley didn't come in and loop the line in the film's post-production) and cash in on Lampley's reputation for honesty just to oversell this fight for a nickle-plated Hollywood ending is like using the footage of Walter Cronkite announcing President Kennedy's death but then manipulating Cronkite audio-video to make him describe JFK as “The greatest man who ever lived in the history of this universe or any other.”

The Fighter's ending is already staged to make just a tinny gonk largely because the problems laid down at the beginning of the film -- the challenges The Fighter (Dickie or Micky) has had to overcome -- have already been conquered before the final fight. Dickie has pierced the cycle of delusion and addiction he was trapped in, while Micky has risen above his life as a lonely stepping-stone lost in the shadow of his and his family's collective Dickie-worship.

The film's real triumph comes after Dickie returns to the gym straight from prison. Micky, without Charlene's or Mickey's prompting, follows him into in the locker room to half-heartedly tell him that he doesn't want him to be his trainer, falling back on "I promised them." Wahlberg's Ward then edges closer to being his own man by ordering his family's welcome-home party out of his gym so that he can continue training. Some Hollywood nonsense ensues -- do you have to be a boxing nerd to understand that Micky did not need Dickie to tell him to work Sanchez on the inside and wear him out if going toe-to-toe and trying to land overhand shots didn't work? -- until he finally steps up and spells out what he wants. (I don't know what to make of it being an extended harangue from Charlene, of all people, that finally breaks Micky's verbal logjam, nor why/how his mother is almost entirely silent for the entire scene; the latter is probably Alice still waiting for Micky to add her to the list of people he wants on his team after, um, forgetting her the first time.) The filmmakers don't do O'Keefe any favors by presenting him as an AA who's against forgiveness for a fellow recovering addict, with the inference that O'Keefe will lose this potentially lucrative training gig if Dickie returns. Really, it's amazing that they got the guy to play this version of himself; that much context can't be fabricated in the editing room.

Taken on its own terms, Wahlberg's Ward is right; if Dickie is sober, then he should be on Ward's team if he wants him there. Does this make Wahlberg's Ward come off as weak, even in his moment of self-actualizing triumph? America used to be a land of second chances, although it seems Real Americans hate that now too; 100% winners don't need second chances, after all. To guild the lily, the filmmakers send Dickie off on that ridiculous cake-delivering mission, again for the mouthbreathers to see that he's really real about this whole crack-is-whack, just-say-no thing, then he's off to Charlene's to make nice with her get the team back together. (Where the hell is Micky while Dickie walks to Crack Street, then walks over to Charlene's house for an extended argument/reconciliation? Micky drove over, and he still didn't get there first? It's like the movie forgets about him whenever Dickie, or I should say Christian Bale, has something to do. Even during his incarceration, when he's literally doing nothing, the movie keeps closer tabs on Dickie than it does anyone else.) It's difficult to tell if it's cleverness or confusion at the heart of these scenes; at Micky's most active moment as a character, it's Dickie who takes charge of the film again, moves events forward and has everyone together for the Neary fight.

Because we've all been so trained to view the late-second/early third acts in these films as prologue for the final competition -- in a Rocky film, everything from Dickie walking out of prison to the beginning of the Neary press conference would have been condensed to about two minutes of musical training montage -- I imagine most viewers probably dismiss these scenes as another challenge for our hero to overcome in order to ready himself to defeat The Champ and/or win (back) the heart of The Girl.

Taken as just a boxing movie, I actually quite enjoyed Wahlberg's turn as a sweet-natured, fundamentally good dude trapped in a world of perpetually on-the-cusp-of-rage shrews and their emasculated husbands -- just one unannounced visit to his ex's house to see his daughter before the Mamby fight provides an delightfully/succinctly unpleasant impression that he sought out a spouse who's just as miserable a piece of work as his mother. Wahlberg's Ward lives in an empty world; there is no art on his apartment walls, nothing in the place that's not boxing-related. He's so cut off from any sense of culture that he doesn't seem to get that seeing Belle Epoque in another town's art-house cinema is not a good idea for a first date you picked up in a bar, even if you can't bear the thought of anyone from your hometown seeing how badly you've been beaten. (As if Lowell didn't get ESPN2 back then.)

This should be the moment where I praise Melissa Leo's work as Alice Ward to the skies, but I don't see greatness; her Alice is a wonderful villainess and she acquits herself well in the goombah-kaiju shouting matches that Scorsese convinced the English-speaking world was superb drama around 1980, but her performance doesn't haunt me the way the brilliance that I've heard claimed for her should. I found Jack McGee's George Ward quite good despite having even less to work with -- his reactions to the post-prison gym scenes were subtle and affecting, I admired his involuntary twitch when he describes the cab-company owner as "very organized" and he comes off as the only family member outside of Micky and Dickie who exists outside of the scenes where he appears. (Two more Easter-egg moments I enjoyed are the action scenes at Charlene's apartment building where the dogwalkers appear to be the real-life George & Alice.)

But, how can anyone write about the film or Micky Ward's life and career without a few paragraphs about Dick Ecklund?

I was too young to catch any of Ecklund's fights, but I was the perfect age to see him several times a week for what seems like years in Maryann DeLeo, Richard Farrell (a distant cousin to the Ecklund-Ward family) and Jon Alpert's 1995 documentary, High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell, as part of HBO's "America Undercover" series. In a lot of ways, seeing the old, severely reduced but still alive and kicking Dickie and Boo Boo (the chubby, bald guy in the background) at The Fighter's end credits gave me more of a charge than seeing Micky again.

The crackumentary in The Fighter recasts Dickie as a primary character, so Bale steals two films in one. Crack Street's Dickie is at most a B-plot to the epic, heartbreaking clusterfuck of Boo Boo and Brenda's mad love with the pipe and occasionally each other. (It's disappointing The Fighter’s filmmakers chose the bland title Crack in America for their version of the documentary, instead of Nightmare on Crack Street, which I presume I'm not the only fan who misremembered it being named.) The Dickie presented in Crack Street is a reticent man-child in almost as much denial about his addiction as his mother is, but whose life revolves around drugs with boxing and his son tied for a distant second place. He isn't nearly as vocal, much less expositional and cocky, as Bale's motormouth is in just a few sentences, so it's a real punch in the gut to see him suddenly in Middlesex County jail on charges of carjacking, kidnapping and armed robbery with a sawed-off shotgun.

Bail for the movie Dickie is set at $25,000 but his actual bail was "just" $5,000, a figure so far outside the family's resources that his mother held a fundraiser at the VFW -- $10 a head to watch a tape of the Sugar Ray Leonard fight on a big-screen TV. That Night At The Fights ended early, with a fight breaking out in the crowd -- these eagle eyes insist that this is Micky's first appearance in the documentary, and it looks like he was one of the main participants in the brawl -- leaving his mom not much closer to having the five grand than she was before. After some more Boo Boo/Brenda drama, an inter-title informs us that Dickie has made bail and leads us into a segment showing preparation for one of Micky's club fights; even at this point, Dickie already seems fully aware of how thoroughly he has wasted his talent.

The crime that finally sends the film's Dickie to prison (or at least implies that it's why he's going up the river) plays out like something out of a slightly darker National Lampoon’s Animal House: Impersonating cops to shake down married johns in their cars. According to Crack Street, the docket that lands Dickie in prison reads like a low-ranking demon's summer reading: Breaking and entering in the nighttime with the intent to commit a felony; Masked armed robbery; Kidnapping; Possession of a firearm without a license. As he cracks up one last time with Boo Boo before heading off to his sentencing, Dickie has a moment of terse, Hemingway-esque clarity: "This stuff destroyed me. This stuff destroys everybody. This going-away present could (possibly "should") put me in the grave." This is nearly the largest sequence of consecutive words uttered by Dickie in the entire documentary, yet none of it appears in The Fighter; much like Ward's fights, the filmmakers chose to reframe the Dickie shown in the documentary for some inscrutable dramaturgical reason. Like the reality that he didn't really knock Sugar Ray down, the film's Dickie never directly addresses his addiction. Perhaps the film is too cool for such Afterschool Special-style frankness.

To bring the documentary into The Fighter at all is one of many odd choices the filmmakers made -- perhaps the oddest, as it makes some sense to avoid covering the Emanuel Augustus/Burton fight, a confusing-to-the-laymen brawl that Ward probably only won on the hometown scorecards, and to avoid struggling to shoehorn all of the drama, pathos and even irony of Ward's immortal "Thrillogy" of fights with the late Arturo "Thunder" Gatti in at the end. Also, Ward loses the second and third fights by pretty wide margins. The in- and out-of-the-ring drama of those fights would make a great standalone film, however boxing newbies would probably think the filmmakers were exaggerating the action.

Again, the filmmakers reshuffled the chronology of events so that Crack Street made its debut during Wahlberg-Ward's retirement; Ward was already two or three fights into his comeback by then. It is quite dramatic to have Ward mount his comeback on the heels of so much of his family's dirty laundry being aired in public -- it makes some psychological sense that it would liberate him from the pretense that his brother/co-trainer was perfectly fine, and give him permission to pursue his goals and dreams on his own terms, with the woman he loves watching him rise the next morning and stride into his own better tomorrow. To their credit, the filmmakers don't pull any Rocky or Cameron Crowe bullshit by giving Charlene a short speech about how she believes in him or pound the soundtrack with some inspirational classic rock; instead, Wahlberg-Ward walks to the gym to the sound of a nearby church tolling seven o'clock in the morning, a subtle but powerful signifier that probably only works on the Catholic dog-whistle frequency. Still, does everything in this fucking film have to be about Dickie in some form or another? All pro boxers quit and come back a few years later; what made Ward unique is that he came back truly refreshed and better than he was. (Since I've already shat on the other Oscar winning performances, I should address Bale's acting before moving on from the movie: He's good, really nails the Lowell accent; he should use that voice instead of his Cookie Monster one in the next Batman movie.)

As for Ward, after the Neary "title" fight that climaxes The Fighter, he went on to wage 40 rounds of see-sawing total war with Augustus/Burton and then Gatti, with the last three rounds of his career seeing him get hit in the head so hard that it shifted his brain's positioning in his skull, giving him vertical double-, triple- and sometimes quadruple-vision for more than a year afterward. He fought on in that bout regardless, proving his mettle with the same quiet, slightly bemused steadiness he brought to every fight.

Gatti was a fellow member of the Throwback elite who, lacking Ward's one-liver-punch knockout power and workman's ethic, made up for it in superior natural talent, better management, tons of raw grit and a casual stoicism that saw him take the worst that larger men could dish out -- in his case, against far stiffer competition than Ward faced -- and keep coming forward to at least try to win every round he fought. Often plagued with hand injuries, Gatti broke his right hand on Ward's hip in Round Four of their third fight; during the round break, he informed his trainer of the injury and then said he was going to keep fighting anyway. The right hand gradually returned to his arsenal late in the fight, once it was damaged enough that it went numb. That's a Throwback.

Ward and Gatti complemented and, in many ways, completed each other, Gatti going so far as to say that fighting Ward was what he imagined fighting himself would be like. After each of their battles, they spent much time in the Emergency Room together, joking and chatting about how they really should be paid more to nearly kill themselves and each other. After Ward made good on his vow to retire after the Gatti rubber match, he joined Gatti's camp as a trainer/corner-man/advisor until Gatti's retirement in 2007.

Micky Ward is not an ex-world champion; he's a family man and a working stiff, one with the kind of fight resume a lot of world champs envy.

grindstone Milo George 2015-02-13T00:38:38-05:00
Mindless Pleasures No one sings in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie Inherent Vice, the first film adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel. This is quite strange, considering that of all Pynchon’s quirks, his characters’ tendency to burst into song Hollywood musical-style would appear to be among the most welcoming to the general audience, the most “filmable.” And it’s especially strange coming from Anderson, who 16 years ago padded his film Magnolia, already overstuffed, with an unfortunate, outta-nowhere singalong sequence set to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” (memorable for all the wrong reasons). So it’s not that P.T. Anderson, probably Hollywood’s most celebrated writer-director under 50, has anything against diegetic singing per se. He just doesn’t think it has any place in his Pynchon movie. Yet Inherent Vice is praised as an uncommonly “close” literary adaptation.

As Kevin Lincoln of New York Magazine’s Vulture blog put it: “Pynchon’s subject, and therefore Anderson’s, in Inherent Vice is the sheer extent to which we are powerless and ignorant in a world that could destroy us at any second, and, if we’re being honest, probably is [sic]. It’s nihilism, countered by faith in a sort of benign pleasure: love, booze, and easy drugs—the promise of the ’60s, a promise unfulfilled, even crushed.”

Lincoln is likely recalling here that Gravity’s Rainbow’s reported working title was Mindless Pleasures. And if Lincoln is right, Pynchon was wrong to change it. It seems to me, though, that Mindless Pleasures was an ironic title, a cute irony (‘cause Pynchon’s actually very smart, see?) that would have drowned in the novel’s grave irony. Gravity’s Rainbow’s humor is deeper than black; it’s desolate. The book ends with a movie-theaterful of people following the bouncing ball as they’re about to be blown to smithereens…by a Nazi rocket, not an impersonal “world.” “Faith in a sort of benign pleasure”? More like giving the lie to the whole idea of benign pleasure as an ultimate aspiration, much less “the promise of the ‘60s.”

Anderson’s perspective in Inherent Vice is his own, not Pynchon’s, and totally consistent with the rest of his work. His status in Hollywood makes sense, as he is, in a way, the emblematic popular filmmaker of the post-cinema period. It’s worth noting that his father, Ernie Anderson, was a well-known TV comedian who, in later life, was under exclusive contract to ABC as a voice-over artist. Anderson Sr., during his ABC days, was credited with reinventing the network’s on-air promos. I think these facts help reveal where P.T. Anderson’s coming from: He’s a Gen-Xer whose native cultural element is TV (he’s done segments for Saturday Night Live and is married to a former SNL cast member, Maya Rudolph) and for whom movies are exotic, exciting, a little weird, not to mention an irresistible gateway to various kinds of cultural cachet. His filmmaking has verve but is bereft of any sense of the scale of human action. (The lesson he keeps failing to learn from his avowed primary inspiration Robert Altman, whose protagonists never acted like protagonists.) Everything arrives on screen already buffed to a high sheen of significance, because Anderson uses TV tactics to sell us cinema. His comedy has no earned reference to either sincerity or seriousness, which means his straight-faced films are always verging on comedy. The macho-awkward confrontations of Punch-Drunk Love are essentially similar to Daniel Day-Lewis’s psycho-tantrums in There Will Be Blood. And the rain of frogs that concludes Magnolia has as little spiritual feeling as Day-Lewis pegging bowling balls at Paul Dano and shouting “I am the Third Revelation!” at the end of TWBB. It is only Anderson’s command of the zeitgeist—his tele-facility—that prevents audiences from spotting his tells.

But Anderson’s lack of a sense of proportion makes him singularly ill-suited to do a Pynchon adaptation. Far from a reliable interpreter, he’s a pure example of what Pynchon warned about in book after book: His nihilism is inadvertent, born of an insufficiently recognized moral confusion–the bad part of postmodernism. In Inherent Vice, set in L.A. in 1970, Anderson models his style on European art films of the period, out of pure perversity, not because the thematic or plot content in his long talky two-shots bears any resemblance to The Mother and the Whore or Celine and Julie Go Boating. More than anything, it’s a chance for Anderson to see what he can get away with. The wall-to-wall pot-smoking in this film really is in the spirit of blogger Kevin Lincoln: It evokes today’s environment of semi-legal marijuana use rather than the desperate pleasures of the decayed hippie counterculture. Gone is the scene from the novel where hero Doc Sportello proffers pot to his parents, on one condition: “Not when you’re babysitting, okay?”

Not that Inherent Vice is a perfect book. It’s full of sensory and sociological details the reader can connect to form an idea of a particular time and place, but its characters stick out a bit too self-consciously in the scheme. I can’t help but think that by 1970, Pynchon must have been fully suspended in the life-intensive process of writing Gravity’s Rainbow, likely having little time or occasion to fraternize with the “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” types that populate the much-later novel. In writing Inherent Vice, he does the best he can with the memories and feelings nearest to hand. In the film, Anderson does even these modest (by Pynchon’s standards) achievements a disservice by assigning Sportello’s ruminations from the novel to a superfluous narratrix (played by Joanna Newsom). He lays waste to the book’s delicate material when he pries Pynchon apart from the protagonist who served as a vessel for his feelings. Similarly, Anderson is deaf to the impulse that makes Pynchon sing out through his characters over and over: The drive to communicate who one is is a bet against nihilism.

Contact Ben Kessler at His Twitter handle is @koolfresh

culturewatch Ben Kessler 2015-02-12T23:13:18-05:00
<![CDATA[The Resistance to <em>American Sniper</em>]]> As more than twenty-five million Americans now know, American Sniper dramatizes the life of Navy Seal Chris Kyle, who with 160 confirmed kills and 255 probables became the most lethal sniper in our history. An imperfectly-successful rodeo rider, Kyle enlisted at the age of thirty after hearing about Al Qaeda’s embassy bombings in 1998. Almost immediately after marrying he served four tours in Iraq, retired, contended with PTSD, and began helping other veterans by taking them shooting, one of whom murdered him. There is not even a whisper of a rumor that Kyle committed any war crimes in Iraq. This might have made American Sniper an unlikely film to have excited the savage moralizing that the newspapers began reporting within days of the its release (“How Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper’ stoked the American culture wars”, in the Washington Post shortly after the film’s release, another such in the New York Times, and since then a lot more). Eastwood’s Americans neither commit atrocities which Eastwood then excuses—the charge leveled against Zero Dark Thirty—nor do they suffer any, real or invented, which might plausibly stoke Islamophobia. The only atrocities committed by Eastwood’s Iraqis are committed upon one another, and the only Iraqi atrocity we see committed is the punishment of an informer, clearly intended to discourage others. While very ugly—the scene shows a Sunni insurgent threatening a child and then murdering an adult with an electric drill—atrocious reprisals against informers are proverbial in most insurgencies. Kyle calls the insurgents ‘savages’, and although the word has provoked a lot of indignation it surely ranks pretty low on the scale of offensive things soldiers have called one another, and may not be absolutely unforgiveable in a character contending with child suicide bombers and electric drill murders.

Much has been made of the movie’s alleged inaccuracies. How serious are they? On the considerable authority of Dexter Filkins, torture with electric drills was almost exclusively a Shi’a rather than a Sunni practice, but Kyle fought against both Shi’a and Sunni insurgents, and one Sunni insurgent torturer known as ‘the Butcher of Ramadi’ (Amir Khalaf Fanus) did favor electric drills, and did operate in a city in which Kyle fought (Kyle was known to the insurgents as ‘the devil of Ramadi’). Both men have been described as in effect inventions, Kyle because of pretty minor bits of directorial license plus omissions of a few likely fibs about details of his post-war life. Fanus’s equivalent has been dismissed more baldly, in one case because the character modeled on him wears some black leather. The refusal to believe that people like the Butcher of Ramadi existed—and exist in Iraq today, on both sides of the current fighting—is disheartening. The objection to the black leather seems merely trivial, also unprovable—complete data on Fanus’ wardrobe does not exist.

No-one has yet caught Kyle in any exaggerations about what he did and suffered in Iraq, which is interesting, because soldiers are generally thought to remember with advantages. The film adds some details and subtracts others—on Kyle’s account there was no sniper duel, and he never shot a child, so Eastwood has added these two incidents. But if these additions change our view of Chris Kyle from what it would have been after a more accurate biopic, after learning of them our opinion of him almost certainly improves: after all, we now know that he declined to frame his combat experience as a scene out of a Western, with one gunslinger triumphing over another, and he never killed a child.

As for Eastwood’s possible artistic reasons for making these two changes, Kyle’s chief antagonist is another sniper, who uses the same methods and techniques, and is at least comparably skilled at his trade, since the insurgent, allegedly a Syrian volunteer, is reputed to have been an Olympic marksman. In the world outside the film Kyle neither killed this man nor spent much time thinking about him, but his presence in the film makes both men into something very old in heroic epic—two antagonists identically armed and profoundly skilled. Kyle and Mustafa are serving as recognizable versions of Achilles and Hector transformed into killers at a distance, in some senses morally identical, and logically deserving equal admiration for their prowess. But while the people who like the film have not objected to an Iraqi version of Hector, most people who are enraged by the film have barely noticed him. This is odd, because it is possible to imagine part of what Homer does with Hector as describing him defending his Middle Eastern society against Western aggressors who will eventually very disproportionately avenge a comparatively trivial wrong with both mass murder and the sexual enslavement of thousands. One would have thought that depicting an Iraqi insurgent as a Hector-surrogate would gratify critics with an intensely romantic view of the Iraqi insurgencies, but some people want even more egg in their beer. Adding the scene where Kyle in significant distress shoots a child, a combination of a human shield and a human sword who is preparing to kill Americans, is among other things a plausible way of dramatizing the horror of war against insurgents who disguise themselves as non-combatants. I doubt that this addition makes the prospect of protracted counterinsurgency warfare more appealing to the film’s viewers. Very soon, however, the objections weren’t even a footnote to the real news about the film (although they may remain one to the intellectual history of the Anglophone Left), because within two weeks of its release American Sniper became the highest-grossing war film in American history. People bought $110 million dollars worth of tickets during a late-January holiday weekend—a record—and over the next two weeks bought a lot more, so that by the 4th of February U.S. box offices had taken in more than a quarter billion dollars, with foreign sales racking up close to another hundred million more.

It’s almost impossible to determine the political import of any box office triumph because we know little if anything about why strangers go to movies, and it is almost as difficult to be confident about filmmakers’ intentions, but this has never stopped opinion-mongers from claiming the contrary. The ineffable Chris Hedges, in his characteristically-titled “Killing Ragheads for Jesus”, is certain about both the film maker’s intentions— “American Sniper lionizes the most despicable aspects of U.S. society“—and the people who went to see it: “There is no shortage of simpletons whose minds are warped by this belief system…They populate the armed forces and the Christian right…They have little understanding or curiosity about the world outside their insular communities. They are proud of their ignorance and anti-intellectualism. They prefer drinking beer and watching football to reading a book.” Other people on Hedges’ side of the question were usually a bit less scornful of the people who went to see the movie, but equally contemptuous of what they thought they had seen.

One of Salon’s reviews confidently described the film as “the revisionist propaganda piece of myth-making and nationalistic war porn”, but another, by a celebrated journalist, was more charitable: “it's a simple, well-lit little fairy tale with the nutritional value of a fortune cookie…a saccharine, almost PG-rated two-hour cinematic diversion about a killing machine with a heart of gold…a movie whose politics are so ludicrous and idiotic that under normal circumstances it would be beneath criticism.” British views from the Left were similar: the Independent quoted a celebrated British filmmaker—someone it clearly considered an expert witness—opining that “Adolf would have been proud to have made it”. Unfortunately, this gentleman also remarked that “the whole Obama thing” showed “how deep-rooted it [American fascism] is”, so the Indy may have been overly generous in awarding him expert status about, well, the whole fascism thing. The Guardian published other more (and less) thoughtful pieces, one of them claiming that “The film celebrates a man who has a talent for shooting people dead when they are not looking and who, apparently, likes his job”. There was an awful lot more of this sort of thing, e.g. Slate (“one of the most mendacious movies of 2014"), Jezebel (“essentially a porn parody of Black Hawk Down on a spiritual and intellectual level”), the New Republic, which assessed and dismissed the film on the basis of the trailer, and many more who were less scrupulous and charitable. So the cultural-critical Left loathing for American Sniper has been pretty striking. Some of the attacks are said to have been solicited by studio PR people who were paid to tarnish a rival for the Oscars, and had no dog in the fight—the same motives were said to be at work in the cases of Selma and at least two more contenders—but this cannot explain the breadth and venom of these responses. American Sniper makes some people in this profession crazy, and they’ve said some crazy things, but some of what they’ve said is illuminating about our current Left’s attitudes toward their countrymen who have recently been to war.

The first remark to make a large impression was Michael Moore’s, on Facebook, January 18th, and it was very widely reported. “My dad was in the First Marine Division in the South Pacific in World War II. His brother, my uncle, Lawrence Moore, was an Army paratrooper and was killed by a Japanese sniper 70 years ago next month. My dad always said, "Snipers are cowards. They don't believe in a fair fight. Like someone coming up from behind you and coldcocking you. Just isn't right. It's cowardly to shoot a person in the back. Only a coward will shoot someone who can't shoot back."

If Michael Moore’s father actually believed that Japanese snipers were cowards he was a strikingly original man. The list of vices associated with the Japanese Army’s behavior during the Second World War is long and various—startling sadism, perfidious surrender, horrific rotation rape, competitive beheading contests reaching triple digits, vivisection without anesthesia on prisoners of war, testing biological weapons on both military and civilian prisoners, including women and infants, grotesque medical experiments that come close to overshadowing Mengele’s work at Auschwitz, etc.—but to the best of my knowledge, no-one who either fought or even read about them ever accused the Imperial Japanese Army of cowardice. Complaints tended to run in the opposite direction, and I have known men who when brooding about the experience of contending with Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth SS Panzer Army during a blizzard suddenly cheer up after reflecting that they had never had to fight the Japanese.

When charging snipers in general with cowardice Moore is on slightly stronger ground, but this idea has been less and less common since the composition of the Iliad. The distaste for killing at a distance has generally had a strong class and as well as Continental component—Pierre Terrail, seigneur de Bayard, celebrated by his social peers as le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, made a habit of killing any peasant infantryman he found with a gun, until, in 1525, one shot him, nowadays considered something of a pleasantly ironical outcome. Robin Hood, by contrast, killed at a distance, and has been celebrated for his skill ever since. An aristocratic preference for war as a contest between identically-armed high status social equals slicing one another up at close range is not a position associated with people claiming to speak for and from the Detroit working class, or with any Americans. We’ve instead admired marksmen, far too extravagantly in some eyes, and have rarely scorned them for shooting from cover. We’ve been very proud of Concord, Lexington and what British gentlemen scorned as our “skulking way of war”, as proud as the English have been of their archers at Agincourt (who also killed their social superiors at a distance) and have generally extended this regard to foreigner snipers. Ludmyla Mykhailivna Pavlychenko, who was believed to have had three hundred and nine kills (although she apparently didn’t count her first two Rumanians) toured the country with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1942, was given a Colt .45 automatic and a Winchester, spoke at war bond rallies and attended CIO meetings. Woodie Guthrie recorded a song in her honor (“Miss Pavlichenko’s well known to fame/Russia’s your country. Fighting’s your game/The world will love you for a long time to come/For more than three hundred Nazis fell by your gun”). Mass cultural celebration of marksmen was not only a wartime tic—Sergeant York was filmed and released before Peal Harbor, and Jerome Kern, the first man approached for the job, didn’t start composing Annie Get Your Gun until November of 1945. Nor did our enthusiasm for snipers foreign and domestic end with the Second World War, only to be ghoulishly resurrected by jingo Republicans: Paramount released Enemy At the Gates in 2001, and that film celebrates the sniper Vasili Grigoryevich Zaitsev, who killed 225 Germans before suffering a mortar shell wound to his eyes.

Although he is still lurching back and forth on the question, Michael Moore almost immediately began to qualify his views of snipers, or at least his definition of them: “I wanted to clarify what I meant by "sniper." A sniper, to me, is the person in the invading force…the Arab sniper in American Sniper—what was he doing? He was trying to stop the invading force.” But on Moore’s theory the Arab sniper wasn’t a sniper, despite Moore calling him one. The sentence is unwittingly comical, but the thought is anything but, because Moore is refusing to acknowledge the moral equality of combatants, a particularly urgent principle of the laws of war. The moral equality of combatants is why we are obliged to punish soldiers who have committed atrocities but forbidden to punish soldiers who have served in what victors almost invariably describe as unjust wars. The moral equality of combatants recognizes the humanity and even the virtue of enemies; aggression is a crime restricted to states, atrocities can only committed only by individuals, and whole peoples cannot be guilty. If everyone is guilty—a claim rehearsed by one of the more distinguished critics who has written about American Sniper—then no one is guilty to the degree that we must punish them, which means no one is really guilty of anything that matters. Agreement on what constitutes ius in bello—just methods of fighting—can be difficult but has often seemed possible, even while a war is under way. Agreement on ius ad bellum—the right to employ force at all—has been much harder and often impossible. Refusing to acknowledge the moral equality of combatants would destroy the laws of war, because losing one would mean risking a death sentence, in which case moderation would always be imbecility. The moral equality of combatants is why the American Army convicted one of the two American soldiers who had tortured an Iraqi general--Abed Hamed Mowhoush—of negligent homicide. It is a precious principle, always in danger and always deserving our defense. The refusal to concede the moral equality of combatants seems to be one of the reasons American Sniper made some of the critics crazy.

Three weeks on, some of the critics are still reading the movie with amazing carelessness. Here’s Gail Collins, on the 5th of February, in the New York Times: “The film is certainly powerful, and it celebrates our Iraq veterans. But it also eulogizes the killing of Iraq insurgents, including children, and critics feel it ought to be put in the context of an invasion that didn’t need to happen in the first place.” “Eulogize” means to praise with great enthusiasm, which I do not think American Sniper ever does—some of its characters do, but that is a very different thing. “Celebrate” is less obviously wrong, but it misses Eastwood’s obvious sorrow over and pity for his veterans, and the objections to his failure to put those veterans in a context that reassures the viewer that the war “didn’t need to happen” is the equivalent of faulting Casablanca for not dwelling on the alleged injustices of the Treaty of Versailles.

What too few (if any) of the critics remark on is what I find most striking about American Sniper: its protagonist’s unprecedented prowess in war has no effect on the outcome of the war he is fighting. The film severs the link between epic skill at arms and both personal and collective outcomes as thoroughly as any of the First World War literature does: its hero is invincible on the battlefield but its war is by implication unwinnable, and the losses it recounts cannot be offset by any appeals to political forms of thinking. This is not an uninteresting vision for a movie that has so far grossed a quarter billion plus, and while it may not be true either in whole or even in part, my guess is that most of the ticket-buyers noticed this vision and thought about it. There is no reason to assume that the people who flocked to the movie were as inattentive as the critics and bloggers who exulted in so noisily dismissing and despising it.

culturewatch Fredric Smoler 2015-02-12T21:52:37-05:00
<![CDATA[<em>Mr. Turner</em> & Mr. Leigh]]> Mike Leigh’s latest work, a highly episodic “scenes from the life of the artist” film about J. M.W. Turner, begs a question that has dogged me throughout life. I have gazed dutifully upon Turner’s paintings and repeatedly wondered, “Why am I doing this?” In college, in a class called “Introduction to Modern Art” we were required to buy an anthology with a Turner seascape on its cover. I knew enough to identify the image as a Turner, but also noticed that few of the readings mentioned Turner at all. And his name came up not once—I repeat, not once—in 12 weeks of class discussions of French and Spanish and American artists. Why, I continue to ask, J. M. W. Turner?

Mr. Turner makes a pretty good stab at answering that question, if not conclusively. If we know anything about Turner at all (and most Americans don’t, or so it has seemed to me in conversations I’ve had with friends since this film came out) we associate him with the prescient abstraction of his late work even though it may confound us. His work is hard for non-experts to locate on any timeline of Western art that tries to map a progression from realistic representation to abstraction. It is disorienting to be in the presence of a Turner painting if you think in terms of conventional art historical periods, and Leigh recreates that uncertainty by refusing to place events of Turner’s life directly on a calendar. This temporal displacement causes some people to say, “Wait, I thought Turner was later than this,” while others say the opposite, “Wait, wasn’t he earlier than this?”

I think Leigh wants to surprise us by contrasting the radical late Turner with what came out of the cultural cauldron that produced Victorian normalcy. Turner died in 1851 and so his last decades coincided with the first productive decades of Victorians such as Dickens, Thackeray, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and John Ruskin, a figure very much present and rather brutally treated within the film (by brilliant young actor Josh McGuire).

But Turner was a Victorian only in the most literal sense. In fact, he was one of those brilliant oddballs England produced just before it became synonymous with “Empire.” Jane Austen, born in 1775, the same year as Turner, is another, and then there is William Blake, born not that long before either of them. All three have attained reputations beyond their national borders and yet each, in his or her own way, beyond possessing that famously British trait of eccentricity, has come to stand for a certain way of being English. Blake, a revolutionary visionary constitutionally opposed to anything that could be labeled “orthodox,” enjoyed little repute in his own time and would have been astounded, I suspect, to see his poem “Jerusalem” come to be regarded as England’s “unofficial national anthem.” Austen, meanwhile, was an unaccountably shrewd observer of social hypocrisy and, for all her good humor and Johnsonian reason, was arguably the first novelist to observe the endemic spread of neuroses in modern life—and yet she now stands for whatever Bridget Jones is about, and while the film Austenland poked some fun at the commodification of Jane, it would be naïve to rule out the possibility that somebody will someday build an actual theme park in her honor.

Why though, again, Turner, and what does he mean to the English? Hard to say. It’s not terribly easy and probably impossible to connect him to a particular ideology or agenda. Decades ago, John Berger shocked people by pointing out that 18th century landscapes by the likes of Gainsborough were little more that elaborately illustrated property deeds, paintings whose message could be reduced to: “Mr. and Mrs. Andrew own this land. You don’t. You think the landscape is beautiful (and it is) because you don’t own it. We do.”

But nobody owns the sea, not really, even though perhaps no one tried harder to do so than English people during Turner’s lifetime and, indeed, he may at times have been playing to English patriotism. Isn’t there something John-Bullish in his paintings of warships? Is that why the British have voted and chosen Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire” as the greatest painting in England? If so, its nationalism is hard for a non-Brit to see. It’s not an image of the role that ship played in Nelson’s famous victory at Trafalgar; instead, it shows the boat being dragged across the harbor to a salvage dock to be disassembled. Not a celebration of empire building so much as an allegory about the way of all flesh, “The Fighting Temeraire” is an aquatic Ozymandias. For the film Leigh invents a scene in which Turner eyeballs the dragging of the Temeraire and plays it for a laugh about the painting’s iconic status, but beyond that Leigh is not really interested in exploring Turner’s contribution to the English semiotic landscape in way that answers the question of why Turner looms so large in English visual history. The film’s mood, at times elegiacal and always autumnal, might suggest that what the English like about Turner has less to do with naval victory and more to do with a feeling for the Natural Sublime and a deep fear of death-by-drowning expressed in English literature as old as Beowulf. But what does “Turner” signify to the English? Mike Leigh makes us wonder but doesn’t tell us.

Of greater apparent concern is the disciplined dedication of an iconoclastic artist to a life of work. One of my suppositions here is that Mr. Turner is probably as close to an autobiography as Leigh will create. It’s not quite Leigh’s 8 ½ and, in fact, Leigh seems critically distant from his subject character at times so as to depict aspects of Mr. Turner’s behavior and attitudes that are, surely, remote from those of Mr. Leigh. I don’t think we are encouraged to draw any particular inferences about Leigh’s own thoughts on how to deal with the business-of-life issues that run through the story: aging while managing lifelong parasites and rivals, aging and dying, aging and sexuality.

In relation to the latter theme, it’s hard not to mention rumors about Leigh’s becoming personally intertwined with Marion Bailey, the actress who plays Turner’s own love interest in the film and is featured in some of the movie’s most startling episodes. But surely we are not to make autobiographical connections between Leigh and Turner’s behavior toward women in general. Leigh show us acts and implied feelings that place Turner in his time but shed little light on how we are to measure his misogyny in relation to his art. It is more than a little annoying to have to note Leigh’s unwillingness to interrogate Turner’s cold treatment of his estranged wife and daughters. Far worse is the painter’s hideous objectification of his housemaid, an especially long-suffering but ostensibly willing sex partner subject to being taken from behind by the master while she’s preoccupied with dusting the knickknacks upon his mantel.

In his own art and (I imagine) life, Mike Leigh treats women with more respect, and many of his stories set in more recent times can easily be seen as overtly feminist—the pro-choice Vera Drake being the most conspicuous example. He gives great freedom to his female actors, notably Lesley Manville and Sally Hawkins in recent years, and he has clearly followed their lead throughout production. Acting is a more conspicuous art than directing in many of best films. Topsy Turvy, Leigh’s first history film about 19th century popular art, generates its greatest dramatic tension by tracking ironic continuities between the performers’ backstage reality and onstage performance. We learn more about the physical hardships and economic vicissitudes of the Victorian theater than we do about Gilbert and Sullivan themselves; this is a masterpiece of dramatized social history.

Leigh values collaboration and community, sometimes at the expense of biographical particulars. While Mike Leigh gets more out of characterological surfaces than just about any storyteller in any genre I can think of, he provides little more interiority than a good painter, and much less than the great ones. I’m not sure I want to fault him too much for that, though, and there are major exceptions to this rule. There is nothing but interiority in the magnificent chamber piece of 2010, Another Year. And Timothy Spall is yet again perfect here as Turner, hermetically sealed but eloquent when he wants to be, and generally allowing actions to speak more than words.

Mr. Turner is not about acting, though Spall captures all the physicality, much of it fairly gross and uncomfortable, that Turner put into his art. But Mr. Turner feels like a director’s film, albeit one spectacularly supported by its cinematographer, Dick Pope. Telling stories of popular artists of the past in Topsy Turvy and Mr. Turner, Leigh has found a way to explore issues relating to culture, representation, and politics (the meaning of labor in particular), that arose more peripherally in his customary milieu, working-class life in modern English cities. Mr. Turner doesn’t explain Turner’s importance quite as clearly or movingly as Leigh accounts for Gilbert and Sullivan. However, as in Topsy Turvy, Mr. Turner reveals the blood, sweat (and again, weirdly) skin disease that seem to follow in the wake of making great art, popular and otherwise.

Making films about Gilbert, Sullivan, and Turner is also Mike Leigh’s choice, conscious or not, to become more publicly self-reflective. Biographers tell us that he spent time at art school, and while there liked to take his sketchbooks outside for inspiration “from the source.” Linking this practice to Leigh’s working technique of encouraging his actors to bring the findings of their own research into the development of plots and dialogues, Leigh scholars provide a clue about why Leigh might have been drawn to Turner, known for his heavy reliance, way ahead of his time, on the en plein air technique. A bigger clue, and one that finally does shed some light both on why we must care about Turner and Leigh’s appreciation for him, comes through its provocations, not about what art means, but about what making art, art as a process and a life’s work, means for artists themselves. In Turner’s late period, as much as our own, assumptions about culture, nature, society and technology were changing as rapidly and quickly as the English weather. Social change has always been in the foreground of Leigh’s films; it has been interesting, however, to watch him holding on to that commitment in own late career even as he has turned to historical, rather than contemporary, stories that awaken strongly individuated, non-collaborative intimations of mortality.

At its own most abstract level, though, Mr. Turner does tend to associate the urge to make art as a metaphor for the will to live, and it is ultimately less about communicating meanings through pictures than it is about the search for reasons to justify the impulse to make art, movies as well as paintings, in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This is the first of Leigh’s film to be shot digitally. Of course, to refer to a movie shot digitally as a “film” is to employ a dead metonym. One can even argue that the kind of color layering and shading possible with digital editing is closer to painting than anything ever possible in film technology. What’s lost in sharpness and clarity—the possibility of film—turns out not to be all that bad a thing within the genre of the artist biopic. Dick Pope’s cinematography and post-production work emphasize the painterly quality of which digital imagery can be capable.

I would argue, though, that it’s editing that spares the audience from forgetting that images—painted, filmed, or pixilated—are manufactured illusions. At numerous moments in Mr. Turner we are forced to ponder whether we’re seeing a photograph of a landscape or a photograph of a painted landscape. Our feelings and our thoughts co-exist at such moments. This is a fine answer on Leigh’s part to the critics who faulted his early films of “social realism” for relying too heavily on bourgeois narrative conventions developed to conceal ideological messages. Thus, just as our attention is gracefully pulled between so “real life” to “performed life” in Topsy Turvy, so also Mr. Turner deliberately and productively estranges us from the illusionary nature of film and leads us to contemplate the labor normally hidden behind it.

The long, virtually wordless opening scene of the film makes it clear that the difference between a photograph and a painting, and then again the difference between a still image and a moving one, is inevitably an issue in any appraisal of Mr. Turner. Like a symphonic overture, the film’s opening shots establish the film’s recurring themes and questions. We see a postcard image of a place (Holland?), a picture perfectly composed. A windmill (the old-fashioned kind) set in front of a sinking sun. Everything is ochre save a bit of azure and white cloud higher in the sky. It’s not clear at first, but we soon discern movement within the frame; there’s a wind; the image is moving.

Soon we become conscious of sounds as well—mostly the muffled voices emanating from two distant figures approaching at a slight angle from the right. They are women, perhaps best friends, two women walking home at the end of the workday—we guess they are agricultural laborers from their costumes (also the old-fashioned kind—this must be the 18th/19th century). They are animated, moving their arms and laughing. As they come into the foreground, we realize they are speaking something non-English (Dutch?) and completely ignoring the small figure on the hill to the left. That figure seems to be completely still, but as the camera give it more attention we realize it (now a “he”) is moving a pencil or pen across a notebook in his hand, drawing the scene we have been watching, but seeing it from a slightly different angle. Somehow this artist, perhaps solely because he seems so steadfast in his solitude, occupies a place of privilege—not necessarily one of ownership but one that controls our own visual interpretation of the scene we have just watched. This guy got there before we did. This guy goes to work, he doesn’t leave it, at end of day, at what moviemakers call “golden hour” or “magic hour”—the time of day when light and atmosphere conspire to radiate the earth in a way that resembles . . . a painting by Turner.

“The sky [or sea] looks like a Turner”—how easily those words can come to mind at the end of a certain kind of day. What did people say about such days before Turner came along? Turner didn’t invent the beauty of windmills and peasant women on their way to a gambol after work. Such things pre-existed him in the work of painters he admired, especially Claude Lorraine and Poussin. We have been told by historians that no one in Europe appreciated the beauty of mountains before the Florentines discovered it in the Renaissance, and we have also been told that many people in the 18th century feared the sea. Turner’s sea paintings partake at times of the Sublime—beauty and fear—but just as often the beauty of Turner’s sea and landscapes is neither menacing nor awe-inspiring, it is simply sort of out of reach, as ephemeral as a breeze, as unique as a single wave. Nature is neither a place to own nor a place to fear. It is where we live, where we work, what we are.

Mike Leigh, in a recent interview, is quite laconic when he explains why he gave up on years of “being a Luddite” and accepted that digital filmmaking was here to stay. All the labs are closing. You have to accept history and historical change and be honest about it. (It is hard, by the way, to think of anything more Marxist than that). What else can you do?

One thing you can do is what the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) did, and that is why, in my opinion, Leigh gives Turner a moment to gaze upon the first Pre-Raphaelite paintings and chortle with disbelief. Repulsed by modernity and machinery, the PRB tried to turn back to the clock—but that in itself did not make them counter-revolutionary. Ruskin, an ardent supporter of both Turner and slightly less ardent supporter of the PRB, saw the former as a Painter of Nature and Truth, but understood that the members of the PRB were seekers of a different kind of Truth, an immaterial one. It is very easy today to associate the PRB with the worst kind of Victorian kitsch melodrama and evocations of what Peter Brooks called the “moral occult,” but seen properly in their time
they actually have more in common with Ruskin’s understanding of Turner than Leigh would probably grant. It is easy in retrospect to overlook how revolutionary they were because they made the very mistake Marx warns against in the opening of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: the French Revolutionaries defeated themselves, in part, by costuming themselves in the style of the ancient Romans. They ended up reinventing tyranny, just as surely as the PRB, with its ostensible rejection of the prettifications and city slicker ways of Raphael, ended up reinventing aestheticization.

The body of Turner’s work—and to a certain extent the body of Turner himself—could never be gussied up in yesterday’s modes. Whether his late work strayed from mimesis or achieved perfect mimesis, ultimately the message of his work is the work itself. Leigh includes a scene in which Turner refuses to sell his personal collection of his own work at a great price so that he might give it to England—and this collection still exists, in tact, at the Tate Britain. Seeing all of it at once is much more impressive than seeing a single Turner on its own; the power of the collected work pulls us toward an aesthetic that is more alert to the fact of labor than the search for hidden moral truth in the single image.

The long-term importance of Turner to modern art may lie less in the “Truth of Nature” (Ruskin’s phrase) than in what Turner may not have intended at all, an incredibly prescient embrace of abstraction (“He is trying to bring order to a chaotic universe,” one observer in Mr. Leigh exclaims, rather anachronistically to my ear). He employed the en plein air technique before the French Impressionists, and he maintained a sheer, simple willingness to just plain keep on keepin’ on in the face of the new visual technologies. And he acknowledged the body’s presence in artmaking from beginning to end. An important scene is that in which, before the eyes of his fellow Academy members, Turner attacks one of his own paintings with spit and sweat and pure muscle to bring it closer to his own idea of what it means to “finish” a painting. The result isn’t just abstraction, it’s approaching abstract expressionism.

The incorporation of the physical body as an element in his art is also displayed, with even bigger philosophical reverberation, in the film’s inclusion of an apocryphal event in Turner’s life, an incident in which he insisted upon having himself tied to the top of a ship’s mast during an ice storm. Why Leigh inserted this scene in the film was not at first apparent to me, but in retrospect it feels crucial. Behind the character he’s playing we see the human Spall looking physically battered by the snow and rain hitting his face in this scene. Let’s hope for Spall’s sake that this is more CGI than documentary footage. In an atmosphere of that much possible human pain, all in the name of exploring the purpose and practices of human art, this viewer can’t avoid thinking of Adorno and Horkheimer’s use of Homeric imagery to capture the essence of the Dialectic of Enlightenment: the figure of Ulysses chained to the mast, able to hear the sirens, the beauty of nature. This is the most terrible kind of alienation, but the only one we’ve got. Both enabled and disempowered by technology, the enlightened artist has no choice but to accept, and perhaps to come to know and exploit, the chains that bind him. They are the chains wherein he has chosen, because he has had no choice, to make his home.

There’s no place like home—no magical alternative within the present one, however strongly the PRB tried to invoke one--so you have to use it. Leigh’s earliest films may have tried to garb anti-capitalist messages within middle-class realist narrative form (as some of his critics used to complain, back in the ‘70’s and 80’s), but his later films, most obviously Happy Go Lucky and now Mr. Turner, show an acute awareness that eschewing popular forms for the sake of utopian content is itself a pretty dismal way to live.

grindstone Karen Hornick 2015-02-12T21:00:33-05:00
<![CDATA[<em>Selma</em> vs. LBJ]]> In 1991, Oliver Stone slandered Lyndon Johnson in his film JFK, accusing Johnson of complicity in the assassination of President Kennedy. A number of historians and political figures (including Johnson Aide and Carter Administration Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano, Jr.) have argued that Ava DuVernay’s new movie Selma defames LBJ as reluctant to send Congress a voting rights bill and as opposed to the Selma voting rights campaign.

Selma is, indeed, unfair to Lyndon Johnson, but criticizing Selma is more complicated than criticizing JFK, both because DuVernay’s misrepresentation has more of a basis in fact than does Stone’s conspiracy theory nonsense and because of the way in which Hollywood has represented (or not represented) the Civil Rights movement in the past. On the other hand, it is arguably more problematic to misrepresent Johnson than it is to misrepresent a historical figure who has gotten his or her due or who has been inaccurately lionized.

Lyndon Johnson is one of the most maligned presidents in the history of the United States. Yes, he did great harm in escalating the U.S. war in Vietnam, but he did great good in engineering the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in introducing and shepherding to passage the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, immigration reform, and many other laws that have brought justice and a measure of economic security to the American people. Yet his catastrophic Vietnam policy and the unjustified hagiography surrounding John F. Kennedy, along with Johnson’s justified reputation as a wheeler-dealer and his sometimes crass personality have made him a loathed figure to many.

Johnson has been undergoing a rehabilitation for more than a decade – possibly for decades, plural. In 1981, Robert Caro published the first volume of his five-part biography of LBJ: The Path to Power, which painted a complex portrait of Johnson. However, his second volume The Means of Ascent, published in 1990, depicted Johnson as self-serving and crooked. It was in the third volume, Master of the Senate, published in 2002, that the good of this multifaceted man started to outweigh the bad for Caro.

Also in 2002, John Frankenheimer made The Path to War about Johnson’s escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The HBO movie portrays Johnson not as a warmonger, but as a man overwhelmed by circumstance. The Path to War touches on the Selma marches and the Voting Rights Act and is more accurate than DuVernay’s movie.

In 2013, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, the first part of his two-part LBJ stage cycle, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; it then picked up a star – Bryan Cranston – in the role of Johnson and moved to the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge; finally it opened on Broadway, where both the play and Cranston won Tony Awards. I have seen all three incarnations. In Oregon, it was ambiguous as to whether LBJ pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 out of moral conviction or in order to help him win the 1964 presidential election, and the play seemed to lean in the direction of opportunism. By the time of the Broadway production, thanks to script changes and Cranston’s interpretation, Johnson came across as unambiguously acting from conviction. Interestingly, the play indulges in at least one, if not two, unfair historical inaccuracies. It depicts Johnson as giving in to blackmail by J. Edgar Hoover and authorizing FBI surveillance of Martin Luther King – it was JFK who did this. The play also has Johnson removing a voting rights plank from the 1964 civil rights bill. This is not supported by evidence in any book I have read; however, Mark K. Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum, also made this claim in his article on Selma in Politico Magazine; however, when I raised this issue with him in recent correspondence, Updegrove could not recall any source to back up his assertion.

Lee Daniels’ 2013 movie The Butler depicts Johnson positively – the two presidential keepsakes that the lead character, a White House butler, wears to his meeting with President Obama are John Kennedy’s tie and an LBJ tie clip (he takes no mementos from any other three presidents depicted in the movie).

I have made my own modest contribution to the LBJ rehabilitation with my play The Great Society, which premiered off-off Broadway in 2013. (It was overshadowed by Schenkkan’s work and I’ll allow I’m not the most objective reader of his play.)

The rehabilitation campaign (or the passage of time, or the fact that there has not been a president since Johnson who has combined legislative skill with New Deal Democratic values) has worked. As President Obama began to flounder during his first term, progressive voices expressed a longing for LBJ and his ability to get things done (which, in turn, provoked other liberals who responded that Johnson did not have to deal with the Congresses confronting Obama).

It is frustrating that Selma came out as the LBJ rehabilitation seemed to be gathering steam. One can assume more people will see a well-received major Hollywood movie like Selma than will read Caro’s books or see a Broadway play. LBJ looms very large (and very darkly) in Selma. And that portrait seems certain to reach a deeply impressionable audience since corporations and prominent individuals have established a fund to enable 7th, 8th, and 9th graders to see the movie for free.

As I said above, Hollywood’s past representations (or lack thereof) of the Civil Rights Movement make a criticism of Selma problematic. To my knowledge, only one major Hollywood movie, prior to The Butler, focuses on non-violent civil rights activists in the South: Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988). The fact that there was only one such movie between the apex of the Civil Rights Movement in 1965 and the release of The Butler in 2013 speaks to Hollywood’s marginalization of black life and history. (It should be noted that television has done somewhat better in dramatizing African American history: the 1970s saw a proliferation of TV movies and miniseries such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, King, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and the historic Roots.) Like most studio movies, Mississippi Burning was, unlike The Butler and Selma, directed by a white man. Though one civil rights movie does not a trend make, Mississippi Burning is part of a long tradition of movies about racism told from the perspective of noble, white saviors. The classic of this genre is Robert Mulligan’s undeniably great To Kill a Mockingbird. The heroes Mississippi Burning are two white FBI agents (which is particularly galling in light of Hoover’s persecution of King).

So, I am somewhat uncomfortable in saying that Ava DuVernay is not giving credit to the great white savior Lyndon Johnson, and she was right when she said on the radio program Fresh Air, “This film is not about LBJ. This is a film that's about the people of Selma and the black leadership of Selma and the allies who came to the aid of black people who were being terrorized in Selma.”

However, Selma’s treatment of Johnson goes beyond a withholding of credit: it portrays him as hostile to the voting rights movement. In Johnson’s first scene, he says of King’s insistence on the introduction of voting rights legislation, in essence, “What more does he want?...I already gave them the Civil Rights Act.”

In his criticism of Selma, Califano cited a recording of a January 15th, 1965 phone call between Johnson and King. In that phone call (nearly two months before Bloody Sunday – March 7th), Johnson says of voting rights legislation, “I talked to the Attorney General, and I’ve got them working on it.” In his correspondence with me, Califano wrote, “LBJ told [Attorney General] Katzenbach in December 1964 (I believe the date was Dec. 14) to start drafting voting rights legislation.” This does not mean that Johnson was ready to submit it to Congress. In At Canaan’s Edge, the third volume of his history of the Civil Rights Movement, Taylor Branch writes that, in a February, 1965 meeting with King, Johnson “insisted on his prerogative to choose the content and moment for any voting rights bill.”

Still, there is significant difference between, on the one hand, having a voting rights bill drafted but reserving the right to choose the moment to send it to Congress, and, on the other hand, a stony unresponsiveness to King’s priorities (“What more does he want?”).

The most pernicious distortion in the film was described by the New York Times as follows: “the president, angered by Dr. King’s plans in Selma, asks to get Hoover on the phone. Soon after, Coretta Scott King is shown listening to a tape of anonymous threats, followed by the sounds of Dr. King moaning with a lover.” The Times goes on to summarize historian David A. Garrow’s assertion that “the tape, which Mrs. King listened to in January 1965, had been recorded and sent to the headquarters of Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in late 1964 by the bureau’s intelligence division, and had no direct connection to Selma or to Johnson.”

Not only was Johnson not involved in sending King the blackmail tape, he ignored Hoover’s evidence of King’s infidelity when he was presented with it. In Pillar of Fire, the second volume of his civil rights history, Taylor Brach writes that just after a Hoover aide delivered a transcript of the sex tape to the President, Johnson shocked the bureau by announcing to reporters that he had invited King and other civil rights leaders to the White House.

DuVernay’s changing the date of the incident is the kind of minor alteration of historical fact that filmmakers, playwrights, and historical novelists indulge in all the time. I have no objection to the fact that DuVernay makes it seem as if the September, 1963 killing of four little girls in the bombing of a Birmingham church occurred after Dr. King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December, 1964. I took much license in writing The Great Society. I invented a confrontation over Vietnam between Johnson and King, which never occurred. I made Bayard Rustin King’s omnipresent advisor, which he was not, so he could voice his own ambivalent views about Vietnam in that fictitious scene. I altered the timeline of events surrounding Selma. I had Johnson send Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and Johnson aide Jack Valenti to see King in Selma, when, in reality, it was Assistant Attorney General John Doar and former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins. (Katzenbach and Valenti were in other scenes of my play and Doar and Collins would have been introduced for this scene only.)

Dramatic license, though, doesn’t excuse DuVernay’s fabrication of Johnson authorizing Hoover’s blackmail. That’s beyond the pale because it falsely attributes a morally reprehensible act to a real human being. DuVernay’s implication that Johnson may well have had no intention of introducing voting rights legislation amounts to another defamation.

While dramatic license is defensible in many instances, smearing people is unethical. No one deserves to be slandered or libeled, but it’s particularly galling when the slander is aimed at a man who has already been falsely accused of murder in a major motion picture.

nation Alec Harrington 2015-02-12T16:59:37-05:00
<![CDATA[<em>Selma</em> to <em>Timbuktu</em>]]> I

Selma traduces LBJ (see above), but what’s worse is its take on Martin Luther King’s deliberations in the days after the police riot on Pettus Bridge terminated the first major Civil Rights march in Selma.

That time after “Bloody Sunday” was one of many sequences during the 60s when King would end up “fire-fighting.” The late historian Lawrence Goodwyn coined that term to evoke what happens when leaders must cool out their own followers who are burning up with participatory democratic zeal. Goodwyn noticed the momentum of serious social movements often rests on the capacity of such leaders to encourage collective acts of strategic restraint without trashing principle or quashing insurgents’ spirits. When King was assassinated, the Movement lost not just an inspirational leader, but its indispensable fire-fighter. Selma, though, fails to help viewers grasp this dimension of King’s contribution to the Movement. Its muddle through the conjuncture after Bloody Sunday amounts to mystification.

King’s first response to the outrage on Pettus Bridge was to call for a second march through Selma to the state capital of Montgomery. Folks from all over the country stepped up and longtime activists were hot to take it back to the place where John Lewis and others had been beat down only a few days before. But Judge Frank Johnson ordered the march be postponed, pending a hearing on Governor George Wallace’s petition to ban the protest. While there was no constitutional justification for denying marchers’ right to assemble, Judge Johnson took it slow when the Governor forced the issue. Johnson was no segregationist hack. His record on the bench had established him as the most important pro-Civil Rights jurist in the South. What’s more, he was a federal judge and the Movement aimed to cultivate a working alliance with feds in opposition to the segregated South’s local white supremacist law enforcement agencies.

King was in a bind. He didn’t want to cross the judge but he was alive to his people’s felt need to demonstrate their humanity in the wake of Bloody Sunday and he was (usually) in the business of heightening contradictions.[1] After hearing out his longtime advisers (who couldn’t come to a consensus) as well as emissaries from LBJ (who pressed him to obey the judge’s order noting it was likely to be lifted after the imminent hearing), King decided he couldn’t call off the march. Minutes before it started, though, Leroy Collins (ex-governor of Florida and one of two representatives sent by LBJ)—gave King an out. Collins had gone directly to those in charge of the State troopers and Selma cops as they were mustering to block the march and (with King’s blessing) proposed “a face-saving solution for both sides.” King and company would march to the bridge but instead of challenging cops (and the judge) by heading out for the state capital, they’d turn around and go back to the church where they’d started from. The Alabama officers, including the infamous Sheriff Jim Clark, agreed to the deal (after consulting on the phone with someone whom Collins presumed was Governor Wallace). Though they insisted marchers follow a particular route to and from the bridge, which Clark mapped out on a scrap of paper. Collins rushed back to King with that map and made his plea. King worried the police might charge marchers even if he made it clear he meant to avoid a confrontation. But he promised he’d try to get his people to turn around after they reached the bridge. When the critical moment came later in the day, things got extra dicey as the cops suddenly backed off, opening up the way forward and seeming to tease King into starting for Montgomery. But he kept to the agreement he’d made with Collins and the cops did too. (In Collins’ words: “both sides kept their word to the letter.” Though that doesn’t quite explain the cops’ backing off—which may have been George Wallace’s attempt to coax King and/or other marchers into further flouting Judge Johnson’s injunction.)

Not much of this history made the cut in Selma. And that won’t do since King’s behavior on the bridge during the second march is one of the movie’s focal points. The script’s refusal to clarify why King turned around leaves the film with a hole in its heart/head. King is treated here not as a canny strategist with his eyes on the prize, but as a more mercurial figure.[2] Selma’s audience is left without a clue. Was King’s choice on the bridge a sort of Christian whim? Or perhaps even a failure of nerve due to personal travails that had sapped his faith in himself? In the movie, his choice becomes a subject of an inconclusive, post-march dialogue between the soon-to-be-martyred minister James Reeb and another pious existentialist. But Selma ends up letting the mystery be. That’s not entirely false to the experience of most marchers who were confused by King’s move even as they followed him back to the church. Nor did King clear everything up in the aftermath of “Turnaround Tuesday” in part because he was going to have to testify before Judge Johnson and wanted to avoid going on record about exactly how the deal went down. That left him open to criticism from an ain’t-gonna-let-nobody-turn-us-around caucus, which included movement stalwarts such as SNCC’s James Forman.[3] Selma touches on the pre- and post-march tensions between Forman and King (and ex-SNCC King allies like John Lewis) but it reduces political conflicts (with heavy back stories and future consequences) to personal quirks.

Selma’s director, Ava Duvernay, didn’t have to make the drama surrounding the second march to Pettus bridge a centerpiece of her movie, but having done so, the truth can’t be dissed as too much information.


Alec Harrington’s play, The Great Society, does better on this score. One of its most compelling scenes dramatizes King’s to-and-fros with LBJ’s reps and his own counselors during the run-up to the march. Harrington’s Q&A strays from the historical record too (as he allows here). Still, his staging of King et al.’s passionate intellection underscores the movement was a...movement of mind.

Harrington’s LBJ nods to King’s “political sense.” His/LBJ’s clarity about the need for fire-fighting beats Selma’s misfire. But Harrington seems unaware the following imagined exchange between LBJ aide Jack Valenti and the president invokes a test case that exposed LBJ’s worst political instincts.

VALENTI: [King] took everybody by surprise. The SNCC people were pissed.

JOHNSON: Good. Now he knows how we felt during the shitstorm over the Mississippi Fuckin’ Democrats.

Harrington’s hero is referring here to what went down at the 1964 Democratic convention when the Mississippi Freedom Democrat Party (MFPD)—a delegation organized by African Americans (with help from SNCC and other Civil Rights groups)—challenged the legitimacy of the regular whites-only Mississippi Democratic party. MFDP spokespeople—including the undeniable Mrs. Fanny Lou Hamer—galvanized the convention as they made their case against the segregated Mississippi delegation. But LBJ didn’t want to offend the regulars since he was worried about losing white votes in the South. He came up with a plan that would’ve enabled the regulars to retain their 68 votes. The MFDP, meanwhile, was told to accept a “compromise” that would’ve left their members represented by 2 delegates-at-large. It wasn’t only the uneven terms that made LBJ’s attempt at fire-fighting a dud. LBJ and his agents treated the MFDP with contempt. They even insisted on vetting/picking the two black delegates they’d deigned to seat. Intense pressure was put on any liberal who continued to support the MFDP’s challenge to the regulars. And the democratic process at the Convention was corrupted. The compromise was rammed through the Credentials Committee as leaders of the MFDP were deflected by phony negotiations with LBJ’s reps in another room. “You cheated!” cried Bob Moses—legendary leader of MFPD/SNCC (who’s just turned 80)—when he realized he’d been faked out.

King was one of many liberal luminaries called in by the Democratic Party to get the MFDP to take their medicine. (Contrary to Harrington’s implication in his play, King knew better than LBJ what the sell-out felt like.) It was an ugly job but King didn’t dishonor himself. When he met the delegation he wouldn’t advise them to accept or reject the compromise: “Speaking as a black leader I want you to take this, but if I were a Mississippi Negro I’d vote against it.” Looking back, King’s candor looks pretty good. His honesty (and subtlety) then suggest why he became the Movement’s main man. Bob Moses, though, wasn’t moved by King’s negative capability. He followed King to the podium and (according to one witness quoted in Taylor Branch’s Pillar of Fire) “tore King up.” Moses insisted the MFDP wasn’t about bringing “politics to our morality”: “We’re here to bring morality to our politics.”

Moses didn’t re-up on his criticism of King when he was interviewed about the MFDP for the fine documentary Freedom on My Mind (1994). (Maybe King’s refusal to choose seemed less bad to Moses in retrospect? And/or Moses must’ve been aware his old plaint about the martyred King’s imperfect politics might seem righteous-to-a-fault.) But Moses still dammed LBJ’s—and the Democratic Party’s—betrayal of the MFDP. His rap is a sort of landmine for anyone locked on LBJ’s rehab:

You lost a group of young black people who were looking to…enter into real power-sharing. Then you also began to disillusion a generation of white people. [Moses is referring here to Freedom Summer vets who participated in organizing the MFDP.] The Democratic Party missed the chance to capture the energy and enthusiasm of the generation that set the tone for the 60s…What happened in 64 symbolized the situation we’re in now. The Party and the political leadership said: “Ok, there’s room for these kind of people.” And it was the professional people in our group who were asked to become—and did in fact become—part of the Democratic Party. But, on the other hand: “There is no room for these people—the grassroots people, the sharecroppers, the day workers.” There’s room for them as recipients of largesse—poverty programs and the like. But there’s no room for them as participants in power-sharing. A different scenario that could’ve worked its way out would have empowered the MFDP. There would have been struggle—vicious struggle. But not armed struggle. Once it got into armed struggle and riots. Then it got into polarization which we’re not out of yet.

Demotic voices in Freedom on My Mind back up Moses’ message from (and to) the grassroots. One of them recalls how he was finished with the Democratic Party after Atlantic City. Moses’s 1994 critique of the Party, though, seems slightly out of time in the Obama era.[4] “Grassroots people” have surely figured as more than “recipients of largesse” during Obama’s two presidential campaigns even if true power-sharing still seems a bridge too far. Obama’s rise has brought folks into the political process who had never before felt like citizens per all those reactionary Youtube videos mocking black voters as deviant takers. I'm reminded too just now of a respectful story from back in 2008 about an Obama devotee—and newly registered voter—who was a single mom supporting herself and her child by dancing in a strip club somewhere in the Dirty South. She would’ve identified with one of Freedom on My Mind’s most winning witnesses—the late Endesha Ida Mae Holland. Ms. Holland was one of her hometown’s bad girls back in the early 60s. When SNCC folks first arrived in Greenwood, Mississippi, she checked them out, hoping she might be able to turn a trick. But her meeting with Moses et al. was life-changing. She livingly evokes the example of the older women in SNCC’s orbit:

It was so beautiful to see people like Ms. Lulabelle Johnson or Mrs. McGhee. They’d be walking with pride. Their titties would be sticking out in front of them a whole long way. Mama would say “you could see they titties a block ‘fore you see them”…They’d be marching and I remember trying to walk with that heavy step that they used—looked like the earth would catch their feet and hold them.


Mrs. McGhee and her family deserve a movie of their own. (And so much more!) Her three sons became known for their defiance of the caste system in the wake of 1964 Civil Rights Act. They fought back against beatings, cuttings and shootings. One was shot in the head at close range—the 38 slug broke his jaw and went down his throat. His mother kept the bullet a black doctor took out of him (after white medical personnel had left him lying on a gurney). At a certain point, Mrs. McGhee was done with turning the other cheek. Civil rights worker/volunteer lawyer Bob Zellner has recalled how in 1964 Mrs. McGhee once knocked out a Southern cop who’d tried to keep her from joining a parley between a lawyer for one of her sons (who’d been jailed) and her town’s chief of police.[5] She was arrested but not charged after Zellner convinced the chief it would be embarrassing for the cops if the story got out:

It was, Zellner thought, a valuable lesson in race relations. “A new day is coming when a Black woman can just whip the yard dog shit out of a white cop and not have to account for it.”

But giddiness about the shape of things to come shouldn’t tempt anyone to forget Mrs. McGhee and her sons were outliers, even as their courage energized a generation of blacks coming of age in mid-60s Mississippi. What’s hardest to convey now about the strange career of Jim Crow is the pervasive sense of fear and shame that gripped black communities. Selma’s loud-as-bombs take on Southern terrorism can’t disguise a certain blankness about the dailiness of life down home. Holland and the other black elders who tell it like it was in Freedom on My Mind don’t double-shuffle around past humiliations.[6] The most penetrating white commentator in Freedom, Marshall Ganz, adds on to their blue notes. He recalls how his run-ins with Southern cops made him crazy. And then he goes deeper, allowing he wasn’t stuck in a state of “powerlessness and rage.” He was a volunteer who’d come down for Freedom Summer and could go home anytime; he had no way of knowing from within what it was like for his black comrades to live out life sentences in the segregated South.

Casey Hayden’s testimony here about her road trip to Mississippi in 1963 takes the measure of that distance too. She wasn’t in terror on her trip. She didn’t witness a lynching or beating. Nothing physically fearsome happened, yet her memory still speaks to an overriding sense of dread. She hides on the floor of the car to avoid being seen sitting next to black guys. But she can’t help being a vector of danger to black males. When she slips out to pee in the nasty colored-only toilet at a gas station—“I didn’t use white only facilities”—her gesture of solidarity results in her scaring the bejesus out of an elderly black man who reacts reflexively to the sight of a strange white woman coming toward him out of a bathroom.

Freedom’s and Hayden’s gritty, tiny details about Great Fear are truer than Selma’s “beautifully shot” re-enactments of brutality.[7] Oprah Winfrey’s presence early on signaled to this viewer the movie would get irreal. Though one reviewer for Vanity Fair (predictably?) celebrated her role as the “smartest bit of cameo-casting of the year”:

I like to think I suspend disbelief when I go to the movies, but as Annie Lee Cooper's head smacked against the ground my reaction was strong and fierce: “Oh My GOD they did NOT just do that to Oprah!! To fucking OPRAH?!?!?”

I came to Selma knowing the story of the march. In 10th grade we watched Eyes on the Prize and spent months writing essays on Civil Rights leaders. The image of Oprah in harm's way shook me out of my complacency. I was engaged with the movie before this scene; after it I was riveted. For viewers less educated about the actual events, I imagine the effect may be even greater.

It’s wack (and vain) to imply Selma’s celeb-mongering beats the conscientious approach to the past taken in films like Eyes on the Prize or Freedom on My Mind. It’s also spits on the spirit of the movement. Ms. Lulabelle Johnson and Mrs. McGhee weren’t in it for fifteen minutes. Their minds were stayed on freedom.

If Oprah’s opening cameo hints the movie owes more to celebrity than history, “Glory”—the original song by John Legend and Common featured at the end—seals it with an inauthentic kiss-off that's presentist and hoary. (Legend and Common’s lip-synched performance of “Glory” at the Grammys amounted to an auto-critique of their song’s shallow soul.)[8] “Glory’s” shout-outs to protestors in Ferguson call to mind a ghettoside response to another “black” movie aimed to go where streets were watching. Ice Cube once described how Spike Lee’s disappointing X killed Cube’s crew’s interest in the movie’s subject—and their faith in conscious rap—though it was the hip hop generation that had brought Malcolm X back into the cultural conversation in the late 80s: “People felt like we already knew struggle and the Malcolm X movie just peaked it. After that movie went the whole power movement in hip hop. Fucking went and fell off a cliff and people just went back to the gangsta shit.”

Brothers and sisters with their hands up now won’t fall into apathy if they see Selma. But the movie might well leave them with an unhelpful take-away. When Selma takes a pass on the complex relationship between local civil rights organizers and the federal government in the King years, it implicitly makes common cause with contemporary moralizers locked on a dim antimony between “protest” and “politics.”[9] Let’s hope those wannabe purists don’t keep community mobilizers from brainstorming about how to use feds. While local people’s priorities will only rarely match up perfectly with any president’s, fruitful alliances (or respectful disagreements) are possible. In the Obama era, organizers have a shot at playing an inside-outside game (especially when the president has told them “to shoot for the moon”). They shouldn’t blow off this opportunity or assume roots and feds are always at odds.


Selma wastes a useable past moment of concordance when it underplays King’s reaction to LBJ’s speech announcing the submission of 1965 Voting Rights Act to Congress. King never cried in public (according to John Lewis). (King may have aimed to save his emotion for his own public performances.) But when LBJ echoed the Movement’s catchphrase—“We shall overcome”—King broke down. White 60’s vets have been known to mock LBJ’s “ventriloquism.” (Bob Dylan, for example, is snooty about LBJ’s line in Chronicles.) But the testimony of James Bevel—one of the most creative Southern freedom-fighters—talks back to LBJ haters:

[I]f I was to rate the Civil Rights speeches of the '60s…I would give that speech the number one place…I think it's classical, in terms of rising above being a Southerner, being white, being anything…and just in that moment possessed by the spirit of being a man looking at America, looking at the Constitution, looking at the struggling people. And I think there was a genuine sense of love and respect that went from Johnson to all people. And I think it's very clear in that speech that it is not a political speech. It's more or less a sermon. And it was the same effect that I get when I hear good preaching. It's, you know, it's like this guy is really saying it and he's not playing, and because he is saying it and because he is not playing something is going to be done. And it was like that's the law. That the President is speaking...and people hear him and they know that he is right and they're going to address the problem. And it was like, yeah, well, that is solved…

Bevel’s own patriarchal biases—he’d go on to organize the Million Man March in the 90s—may partly explain his deep responsiveness to the TCB vibe in LBJ’s speech. But if anyone needs confirmation the Movement wasn’t a Man’s Man’s Man’s world, they might check Freedom On My Mind’s archival footage of a matriarch at the funeral of James Chaney—one of the three American civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi during Freedom Summer by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Chaney's mother stands at a church pew, wearing a black veil. She was a beautiful woman. An obvious comparison to Jackie Kennedy in mourning comes to mine. But there’s something different about Fannie Chaney—she seems a woman beautiful not by the standards of human beings or history but by those of rivers, rain, nature. She’s cradling her younger son’s head against her hip as she stares ahead at the nothingness they had to look forward to. Her boy is crying but still trying to sing “We Shall Overcome” along with other mourners.[10]

It’s probably not fair to note there’s more emotion compacted in that thirty second flashback to the Chaney funeral than in all of Selma. But it seems just to note there’s a scene in another movie out now that makes grief sing. In Timbuktu—Abderrahmane Sissako’s film about everyday life under the recent Islamist occupation of that city—a woman is whipped for making music (which is haram along with playing soccer, going without socks or gloves, etc.) She begins to wail as the lashes keep coming. And her scream turns into a keen. It’s a desert spiritual. She shall overcome.

There are those on the left (and right) who resist the imperative to connect American civil rights struggles—including the latest post-Ferguson insurgency—with fights against Islamist fascists overseas. All politics is local and there are risks in rolling with a superficial globalized liberalism. But I don’t want any part of a left that ain’t trying to hear what contemporary Afro-American protestors have in common with that Malian sister-singer.


1 Selma addresses this aspect of King’s approach to raising “white consciousness.” There are teachable moments here, though scenes often slide from depicting history in the making into “timeless wisdom—and timeless wisdom is just platitudes.” To borrow a phrase from Adolph Reed’s prescient critique of Spike Lee’s X.

2 Hollywood product rarely cultivates a taste for democratic politicking. (That’s not entertainment.) Selma’s unresponsiveness to King’s fire-fighting calls to mind Marshall Ganz’s critique of last year’s biopic Chavez:

Cesar could be a brilliant strategist, a skill observable in agile and imaginative interaction with determined opponents, turning apparent weaknesses into sources of strength. But the film treats him largely as a creature of impulse, committed to be sure, but not the brainy strategist who took special joy, as he put it, in “killing two birds with one stone…and keeping the stone.”

3 Per David Garrow’s biography of King: “King was caught in a strange crossfire between movement workers seeking his assurance he hadn’t made a secret deal, and newsmen asking if he had not agreed to a turnaround so as not to breach the court order. It was extremely awkward.”

4 The president’s 2008 campaign was informed in part by the organizing tradition embodied by Moses and MFDP. Training sessions for campaign workers run by Marshall Ganz—a Freedom Summer Volunteer who went to Atlantic City with the MFDP (before moving on to work for years with Cesar Chavez)—helped shape the Obama “movement’s” attempt to bring morality to electoral politics. Ganz has since criticized Obama for acting more like a top-down executive than an organizer-in-chief. His criticism is serious. (I invite him to elaborate on it here in First!)

5 Zellner’s version of the fight as recounted in Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995) takes on an almost comic valence.

When Mrs. McGhee tried to go in a cop slammed the door and stood in front of it, telling her she couldn’t go in there…She says, ‘The hell I can’t. I come down to get my son, Jake.’ He says, ‘you can’t go in there.’ And she says, ‘Bopp!’ – hit him right in the eye as hard as I ever saw anyone hit…I remember it just like a movie…I remember his eye swelling up and I remember thinking to myself, ‘God I didn’t know you could see something swell up…’ And he was losing consciousness and, sliding down on the door. Meanwhile, Mrs. McGhee is following on the way down. She’s not missing a lick…boom boom boom.—and every time she hits him, his head hits the door. Meanwhile he’s reflexively reaching for his gun, but the man is practically knocked out. By the second or third time she hit him, they’re trying to get out from inside the office…Everytime the chief would try to open the door it would hit the man – whomp – in the head again.”

Charles Payne jumped (in I've Got the Light of Freedom) from the many tales of the McGhee family’s resistance to contest standard ways of measuring the Movement’s historical progress.

Legislation serves our need to render history understandable by giving us convenient benchmarks, and we may therefore be tempted to exaggerate its significance. The bill [The Civil Rights Act of 1964] itself though may be less important than the willingness of people like the McGhees to insist that it be enforced. That insistence, I would argue, is the crucial break with the past not the legislation itself. There is nothing about the record of the post-war Federal government, the Kennedy administration not excepted, to suggest that Washington was going to enforce any more Black rights than it had to enforce.

Payne’s reference to Kennedy, though, might be a tell. It wasn’t the Kennedy administration that got the Civil Rights Act passed. That was Johnson’s achievement. And pace Payne and Selma (and Moses?) it mattered LBJ’s administration was more committed to enforcing black rights than any previous one. (OTOH, ask anyone who grew up dodging punches in newly integrated Southern public schools during the 70s and they’ll teach you the civil war between blacks and whites didn’t end during the LBJ administration.)

6 By contrast, the only actor in Selma who seems up to bearing the burden of the past is the one who plays the father of (the murdered) Jimmie Lee Jackson.

7 The phrase is from Darryl Pinckney’s NYRB review of Selma.

8 Beyonce’s lip-synched “Lead Me On”—which she linked with Selma where it’s covered by another pop gospel singer pretending to be Mahalia Jackson—was another turn-off.

9 Darryl Pinckney was steered by Cornel West (No doubt!) to one Reverend Osagyefo Sekou—a pastor from Boston who’s spent a lot of time in Ferguson lately trying to “incarnate a theology of resistance of the historically othered.” Pinckney talked up Sekou’s notions of resistance in a NYRB report on his own recent trip to Ferguson:

To Sekou, it matters how we define political participation. “If it’s only the ballot box, then we’re finished.” He sees voting as “an insider strategy,” one without much relevance to a town like Ferguson where two thirds of the adult population have arrest warrants out against them. Things don’t come down to the vote, they come down to the level of harassment as people get ready to vote, he added. Sekou ventured that given the little black people have got for it, voting fits the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and each time expecting a different result.

There’s more to politics than the franchise, but it’s B.S. for this Westy fantast to disparage voting by black populations. (And NYRB should be shamed for providing a platform for his “liberatory” pieties.) There are plenty of towns in the St. Louis area (like Ferguson) where black majorities are at the mercy of local law enforcement regimes presided over by white elected officials. It would be…insane if organizers didn’t try to increase black turnout in local elections.

10 Ben Chaney would grow up to join the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army where he pursued armed struggle. He was convicted of killing a white Southerner in the early 70s. He ended up doing 13 years in prison. His life story takes you back to Bob Moses’ truth attack on LBJ and the Democratic Party, yet Ben Chaney’s pain probably shouldn’t be processed into anyone’s crisp narrative.

nation Benj DeMott 2015-02-12T15:28:22-05:00