Archive for February, 2021

Celebrating Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021) – posted 2/28/2021

February 28, 2021 Leave a comment

In America, poets remain largely unknown. Most write in obscurity. It is a rare poet who breaks through and develops a mass audience. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died on February 22 was one of those rare poets who had a mass, non-academic audience. He was a major force in 20th century American culture.

A poet, a painter, a publisher and a progressive activist, Ferlinghetti lived in San Francisco in the North Beach neighborhood. Probably, most famously, he was a co-founder of City Lights Bookstore which both sold books and had a publishing wing. If Ferlinghetti had a mission it was to democratize literature and make it accessible to all. He wrote:

“From the beginning the aim was to publish across the board, avoiding the provincial and the academic, and not publishing (that pitfall of the little press) just ‘our gang’. I had in mind rather an international, dissident, insurgent ferment.”

Ferlinghetti regarded poetry as a powerful social force and not one reserved for an intellectual elite. He always supported writers and poets who were outsiders, not part of any mainstream.

Like many, I discovered Ferlinghetti in the late 1960’s. Somehow, I got my hands on a copy of his book Coney Island of the Mind. I remember the lines:

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
If you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun

If you don’t mind a touch of hell

now and then

just when everything is fine…

Coney Island sold over a million copies. Next to Allen Ginsberg’s book, Howl and Other Poems, it has been the most popular book of modern American poetry.

I have been fortunate to get to the Bay Area a few times and I always made a bee-line to City Lights. Opened in 1953, it was the first paperback bookstore. Back in the 1950’s, paperbacks weren’t considered real books. The poet, Tess Taylor described City Lights:

“To enter that bookstore was and is a joy, the kind of thing that will set your mind on fire and your heart thumping.”

I remember the large banner outside the store “Dissent is not un-American”. No one got pestered or kicked out of that store for looking at books. There were chairs and sofas and you could browse for as long as you wanted.

City Lights was a hangout and a mecca for the literary community. Among others, Ferlinghetti played a role in promoting the careers of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. He later inspired a Ferlinghetti Poetry Fellowship at the University of San Francisco which supports emerging poets whose work embodies a concern for social justice and freedom of expression. Ferlinghetti touched and inspired countless young aspiring poets and writers.

Ferlinghetti’s background is not what you might expect. He had an unhappy childhood and he grew up essentially an orphan. His father died before he was born. When he was very young, his mother was committed to a mental hospital. He was raised by an aunt who worked as a governess for a wealthy family in Bronxville, New York. His aunt then disappeared, leaving Lawrence with an unrelated family.

The family took him in as foster parents and raised him. They sent him to a private boy’s school. Lawrence escaped into reading.

After attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he joined the Navy. As a naval officer he commanded a sub chaser in the North Atlantic. He witnessed the Normandy invasion from offshore in the English Channel. He was part of the anti-submarine screen around the beaches. He was later transferred to the Pacific theater. He saw the ruins of Nagasaki seven weeks after the atomic bombing. It turned him into a pacifist and a lifelong opponent of nuclear weapons.

After the war, he got doctorates at Columbia and the Sorbonne on the GI bill. He started to write poetry. He had a journalism degree but he decided journalism in the New York area was impossible. He moved to San Fransisco. He liked the Mediterranean feel of the city.

Once there, he started to listen to the poet Kenneth Rexroth who had a show on KPFA radio. Rexroth had soirees on Friday nights and Ferlinghetti started going. Rexroth was a great poet in his own right and he was also a philosophical anarchist. Rexroth played a big role in Ferlinghetti’s political education.

In 1955 Ferlinghetti met Allen Ginsberg at a reading of Howl. Very enthused, he pushed Ginsberg for permission to publish it. Howl was printed in Britain and shipped to San Francisco where Ferlinghetti displayed it prominently at City Lights. Two undercover cops from the San Francisco police juvenile bureau walked into the store, bought a copy of Howl and then busted Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg for “willfully and lewdly publishing obscene writing”.

Ferlinghetti said:

“I wasn’t worried. I was young and foolish. I figured I’d get a lot of reading done in jail and they wouldn’t keep me in there forever. And anyway it really put the book on the map.”

The ACLU defended Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. They challenged both the arrests and the legal basis for the case against obscenity. After a lengthy trial in municipal court, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg won. The verdict set a precedent, weakening obscenity laws and heralding a new freedom for book publishers.

Ferlinghetti remained an uncompromising voice of integrity. He embodied the (now declining) bohemian spirit of San Fransisco. He never sold out. He always cared that the average person not get screwed over. In 1977, he said:

“You’re supposed to get more conservative the older you get, I seem to be getting just the opposite.”

He was somewhat pessimistic though. Toward the end of his life he told the Guardian that he still hoped for a political revolution but said:

“…the U.S. isn’t ready for a revolution… It would take a whole new generation not devoted to the glorification of the capitalist system…a generation not trapped in the me, me, me.”

San Francisco named March 24, 2019, Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day. It was his 100th birthday. In 1998, San Francisco had named Ferlinghetti the first poet laureate of the city. The city also designated City Lights a historic landmark. During his life, Ferlinghetti wrote 50 volumes of poetry, novels and travel journals.

I like this advice he offered:

“If you would be a poet, write living newspapers. Be a reporter from outer space, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bullshit.”

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Rush Limbaugh, toxic entertainer – posted 2/21/2021

February 21, 2021 4 comments

I did not plan to say anything about the exit of Rush Limbaugh from our vale of tears based on the saying that if you do not have something good to say, it is better to say nothing at all. There is also the adage not to speak ill of the dead. Still, the praise Rush received upon his passing forced me to reconsider.

Former President George W. Bush described Rush as “an indomitable spirit with a big heart” and said he would be missed. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that flags in Florida will be flown at half-staff in honor of Rush. And then, of course, there was the other former president, Donald Trump. Trump said:

“He is a legend. He really is. There aren’t too many legends around. But he is a legend. And those people who listen to him everyday, it was like a religious experience for a lot of people.”

There is no denying the hold he had on older white conservative men. He had a following of more than 15 million listeners. He was first syndicated on the radio in 1988. For over 30 years, he spewed. He had a formula: stoke bigotry and champion racism, sexism, and homophobia. He was the original “own the libs” guy.

He recognized, like Trump, that being outrageous was a great attention-grabber and pushed ratings. He considered himself an entertainer, not a journalist.

Back in the 1990’s I had to drive around New Hampshire for my job and I often listened in mid-day out of curiosity. Also, radio in central and western New Hampshire was a wasteland and back then radio music options were extremely limited.

I would describe Rush as a counter-revolutionary against the New Left. My generation of 1960’s-1970’s activists wanted America to face and reckon with its lies. The country was built upon slavery and genocide of Native Americans. The Vietnam War was a crime against humanity that had to be opposed. Instead of empire, we wanted pressing needs like poverty addressed at home.

Rush was the polar opposite. He was about protecting the wealth of the richest people. First and foremost, he was about making a buck for himself, something he was good at. At the time of his death his net worth was $600 million. He was making $85 million annually. He lived in a $26 million mansion in West Palm Beach, Florida.

A fan of conspicuous consumption, Rush did not skimp on his own needs. His mansion was an homage to Versailles. Rush owned a fleet of $450,000 cars, black Mercedes Maybach S model. He also owned a private jet, a Gulfstream G550 worth $56 million. Rush said his goal was to charge ‘confiscatory advertising rates’.

In the Rush world view, the super-wealthy were over-taxed and unfairly maligned. He believed they should be held up as role models. Even though he was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Rush presented himself as the fighting, aggrieved voice of the little man. This man of the people tapped into resentment about loss of status, real or perceived.

His schtick redefined talk radio. His humor sold better than straight-up bile of the Nazi and Klan variety although nastiness was probably his defining quality. It is hard to overstate his role in influencing the rise of the Far Right and a renewed American fascism. The examples of Rush’s toxic ideology are inexhaustible.

In 2012, he called law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” when she testified before Congress that religious employers should be required to provide insurance coverage for contraception. On his TV show in 1994, he said “Socks is the White House cat. But did you know there is also a White House dog?”, while displaying a picture of Chelsea Clinton who was then 13.

He coined the term “feminazi”. He said “Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society”.

In 1990 Rush said “Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?” In 2004 he said “I think it’s time to get rid of the whole National Basketball Association. Call it the TBA, the Thug Basketball Association, and stop calling them teams. Call em gangs”.

Around 2010 Rush was interested in buying an NFL team but players (70% who were black) made clear they would not be willing to play for him. Rush said, “The NFL all-too-often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons”.

In 2013 Rush said “if any race of people should not have guilt about slavery, it’s Caucasians”. When he got a call from an African-American female caller, he said, “Take that bone out of your nose and call me back”. He called Kamala Harris a “ho”.

Discussing genocide against Native Americans, he responded, “They all have casinos – what’s to complain about?”.

He featured an anti-gay AIDS-update mocking the death of gay men. He used to precede segments about openly gay Congressman Barney Frank with the song “My Boy Lollipop”. After the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, Rush called the decision “an assault on American culture” that would lead to incest and polygamy.

He famously accused Michael J. Fox of exaggerating his Parkinson’s symptoms. Ironically, he died from lung cancer after denying for years the danger of smoking. He had said, “I want a medal for smoking cigars!”.

When Kurt Cobain committed suicide, Rush said, “Kurt Cobain was, ladies and gentlemen, a worthless shred of human debris”. Cobain had polysubstance abuse issues in his life.

Rush himself came under criminal investigation for illegally obtaining prescription drugs. He had been going to many different doctors for years to obtain as many prescriptions for Oxycontin and hydrocodone as possible. A former maid for Rush confessed to a tabloid that she had bought thousands of prescription pills on the black market for him.

Rush was criminally charged and agreed to treatment. Prosecutors dropped his case and his criminal record was later expunged. Although he was an opiate addict, he was a strong proponent of locking people up (other than himself) for the most minor drug offenses.

Limbaugh received a level of respectability he did not deserve. Like Trump, he was incapable of empathy. He was pompous, self-inflated, and self-impressed. As he put it about himself, he was “talent on loan from God”.

He paved the way for Trump’s authoritarianism and he previewed the white nationalist and anti-immigrant talking points Trump later adopted. He was anti-science, like Trump, denying climate change and lying about coronavirus, calling it “the common cold”. Until the end, he was a popularizer of conspiracy theories.

Bob Moser in Rolling Stone wrote that what mattered most about Limbaugh was neither whom he helped elect nor whom he offended. Moser wrote:

“It was the effect he had on his fans – on the millions of white conservatives he coddled, flattered, tickled, entertained, disinformed, fear mongered, and pulled into a counterfactual universe that became darker over time.”

Moser says Limbaugh created the conditions for an anti-democratic Republican Party. Unfortunately, as evidenced by January 6, it is not a big leap from dittohead to fascist stormtrooper.

Rush’s passing brings to mind a Mark Twain quote:

“I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.”

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The Malign Transformation of the Republican Party – posted 2/15/2021

February 15, 2021 1 comment

I admit that I have never been a Republican. Probably like many on the left, I have seen the Republicans as a party primarily representing the interests of Big Business. As a coalition, the Republican Party has included Christian evangelicals, libertarians. the anti-abortion movement, pro-gun advocates, anti-immigration zealots and the alt-right, including white supremacists.

For a long time, the Party tried to identify as the party of tax cuts and limited government. But that was before Donald Trump. Trump has completely upended traditional political conservatism. In his run in 2020, Trump literally removed the Republican platform. There was no platform – except loyalty to Trump.

The Trump brand of politics is not about any kind of ideological loyalty. It is all about submission to an authoritarian cult leader, someone who incited and mobilized mob violence because he could not accept the results of a fair election.

Encouraging mob violence to overturn an election crosses the political Rubicon. Before this episode, both political parties abided by election results whether they liked them or not. It is telling that Trump never agreed to accept the peaceful transfer of power.

Trump’s brand of politics is not any kind of political conservatism. Conservatism is about minimizing change and conserving traditional institutions. Historically in America, since the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, the Republican Party hid its racism behind the doctrine of state’s rights. The party has promoted voter suppression, gerrymandering and worked feverishly to stack the federal courts with conservative judges but, as noted, it had accepted election results.

The Trump-dominated Republican Party has now turned against democracy. Trump fabricated a story of election fraud and he got a remarkable degree of buy-in from his base. The buy-in has been so strong that you still see Trump flags flying and “Stop the Steal” signs in rural New Hampshire where I live. I suspect, based on anecdotal evidence, this is going on elsewhere as well.

The January 6 riot at the Capitol needs to be seen as the culmination of a longer-term project. Trump wanted to de-legitimize a voting process he did not have the ability to control. He could not stop the increased turnout of minorities and young people.

The outlines of the Trump project are clear. Make it harder to vote; attack mail-in voting; and try to get the U.S. Postal Service to delay the delivery of ballots. Use a raft of lawsuits to overturn the vote of the people. Arm twist state officials like Brad Raffensberger to find votes to sway the election.

Use demonstrations like the million MAGA marches and State House takeovers as in Michigan to create pro-Trump momentum. Place loyalists at the top level of the Pentagon in an effort to neutralize the military.

January 6 was his last ditch attempt to stop the election from being certified. It was his coup attempt but it failed. The longer-term project was an effort to install Trump as a dictator. Had he been successful it would have been the end of the rule of law, representative democracy and the three branches of government with separation of powers.

If you wondered what most Republicans are now thinking about Trump and his coup attempt, a new poll from the American Enterprise Institute provides disturbing findings. The survey found that nearly three in ten Americans, including 39% of Republicans, agreed that “If elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves even if it requires violent actions”.

The survey found major division between Republicans and Democrats on the 2020 presidential election with two out of three Republicans saying President Biden was not legitimately elected while 98% of Democrats and 73% of Independents acknowledged Biden’s win.

At the state level, absolute allegiance to Trump remains a defining quality of the Republican Party. Look at the censure leveled against Liz Cheney, Ben Sasse, Doug Ducey, Cindy McCain and Jeff Flake. They all dared oppose Trump. And also the condemnation directed against Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy for voting for impeachment. It would appear that the anti-Trump forces in the Republican Party are now the outliers.

The majority of Republicans have hitched their wagons to a demagogue who has only shown commitment to his own self-aggrandizement. His M.O. is well-established: call all negative information about his actions fake news or a witch hunt. Always blame a scapegoat like immigrants, Black Lives Matter of Antifa.

I agree with Paul Krugman who claims “the G.O.P. is an authoritarian regime in waiting, not yet one in practice”. Krugman thinks we could become like Poland or Hungary where right-wing, nativist parties were elected and then effectively established one-party rule. Krugman says these parties:

“ maintain the forms of popular elections, but have destroyed the independence of the judiciary, suppressed freedom of the press, institutionalized large-scale corruption, and effectively delegitimized dissent.”

When he was in power, Trump tried to override Congress, denied its subpoenas and generally rejected its oversight. He liked to claim “total power” as President. He personally attacked judges and questioned the constitutional authority of the judiciary.

Still, Trump was only able to get so far. He could work to suppress the vote but he could not cancel the election, outlaw his political opposition or declare himself President-for-Life. He had the Proud Boys, not armed, uniformed stormtroopers.

Those poll results are not encouraging though. Republicans have lost seven of the last eight national popular votes. If they become convinced they cannot win a democratic election, you have to wonder if Trump 2024 or the next Trump-equivalent would opt for some version of fascism. They might see representative democracy as an obstacle to their goals rather than a means to achieve them.

The threat to democracy remains very much alive.

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February 2021 – posted 2/13/2021

February 13, 2021 3 comments

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January 6 and the Sumner Precedent – posted 2/7/2021

February 7, 2021 3 comments

Since the insurrectionist mob attacked Congress on January 6, the most common historical parallel cited has been the War of 1812. In that war, in 1814, British forces overran Washington DC and set fire to many public buildings, including the U.S. Capitol.

While the War of 1812 is most cited, I would mention a different historical precedent. 1856 witnessed the most infamous day in the history of the Senate. On May 22, 1856, Congresssman Preston Brooks (D-S.C.) viciously attacked Senator Charles Sumner (R- Mass) on the floor of the Senate. Brooks beat Sumner so badly he almost died.

I think that the attack on Sen. Sumner has the most historical resonance with our time. A white supremacist could not countenance promotion of equality between the races. The division and polarization reflected in that episode remain consistent with the hate we saw at the Capitol in January.

To place the Sumner beating in context, the central issue facing the United States then was slavery. Kansas was going to be admitted as a state into the United States and there were questions whether slavery would be permitted or prohibited.

Anti-slavery forces had believed the question was settled by the 1820 Missouri Compromise which had established a boundary line above which no people in a state could own slaves. Kansas was above the line.

That compromise was being superseded by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was co-authored by Sen, Stephen Douglas (D-Ill) and Sen. Andrew Butler (D-S.C.). The Act overturned the 1820 Missouri Compromise by mandating popular sovereignty to decide whether a state would allow slavery. The Act was hated by strong abolitionists like Sen. Sumner.

On May 19, 1856, Sen. Sumner delivered a speech in the Senate that lasted five hours over two days. Sumner passionately denounced the effort by Missouri “border ruffians” to force a pro-slavery constitution on Kansas. The speech called “the Crime Against Kansas” speech zeroed in on slavery as an evil and Sumner particularly criticized the law’s co-authors.

He charged Sen. Butler of South Carolina with “taking a mistress…who though ugly to others…is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight…I mean the harlot, Slavery”.

Congressman Brooks, a relative of Sen. Butler, was enraged by Sumner’s speech. On May 22, he sat in the Senate gallery waiting for the session to end. After the Senate adjourned, Brooks walked onto the Senate floor, surprised Sumner and beat him senseless with a gold-topped gutta-percha cane. Brooks hit Sumner thirty times around the head and shoulders, leaving him a bloody mess. Sumner temporarily lost his vision.

When other senators approached to help Sumner, they were blocked by two other Congressmen who were Brooks’ accomplices. One of Brooks’s accomplices, Rep. Lawrence Keitt, pulled a pistol and forced the potential help to back off. The beating was so bad Brooks’ cane broke. Finished, Brooks strolled out of the Senate, leaving Sumner unconscious on the floor.

As the historian of abolitionism, Manisha Sinha, has written, Brooks’ assault on Sumner was “not just a matter of personal honor but a deliberate attempt to chastise an abolitionist”. Sinha says that Brooks beat Sumner “the way a slaveholder whipped a slave, or a slave’s ally”.

The House voted to expel Brooks but it lacked the 2/3 vote needed to remove him from office. Brooks resigned from Congress but he ran again in the special election held in August, just several months later. Brooks won re-election. Most Southerners approved of his conduct.

The injuries to Sumner were severe. He was not able to return to the Senate for three years, until 1859. Along with the head trauma, he experienced migraines and chronic pain for the rest of his life. Karma dealt with Brooks. At age 37, he had an unexpected early and painful death from croup a year after beating Sumner.

The caning of Sumner on the Senate floor had a seismic shock effect on the North. With the emotional force of a 9/11, the event had a galvanizing effect on the anti-slavery cause, moving the nation closer to Civil War. Sumner’s caning had also openly exposed the ruthlessness and amorality of the Slave Power.

The Massachusetts Legislature passed resolutions that equated the assault on Sumner with an attack on representative government and free speech.

The insurrectionist mob attack on the U.S. Capitol was also an attack on representative government. The mob wanted their candidate declared president contrary to the certified vote of the people. While falsely claiming the election was rigged and stolen, the mob showed itself willing to junk democracy to obtain their desired result.

Congress is a place where legislators are supposed to speak and listen. It is not a place for anyone to be brandishing weapons. Nothing could be more destructive of civil discourse and demeanor. The experience of Sen. Sumner speaks to that.

Does anyone doubt that if the January 6 mob had gotten their hands on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nancy Pelosi or Mike Pence, there would have been murders? The gallows constructed outside the Capitol sent a message. There was a reason Congresspeople and their staffs were hiding, locked in their barricaded offices.

In any workplace, you cannot have people threatening the lives of their co-workers, saying they are going to put bullets in people’s heads. That is unacceptable behavior that should be punished by expulsion from Congress or any legislature. In a workplace, such threats would certainly constitute grounds for firing.

Given the demonization of the Squad by right wing media, those legislators now require 24/7 security. The incitement has unleashed dangerous extremists who make unhinged threats against those perceived to be anti-Trump. Freshman Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich) said in an appearance on MSNBC that he and other members were buying body armor.

Rep. Meijer and Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo) have said some GOP colleagues voted to overturn the election results or against impeaching Trump out of fear that their families’ lives may be put in danger. The question arises: are others too afraid to vote their conscience?

In light of our present stay of polarization, all legislators should have to go through metal detectors, without exception. We have done it at the airport for years and we have reached a point where the need for safety in Congress dictates this common sense measure. Whatever we can do to prevent episodes like what happened to Sen. Sumner, need to happen.

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