Media, politics and culture.
The Guardian site has come through with a lengthy piece, and video, marking the thirtieth anniversary of Born in the USA, written by a Springsteen biographer, on how Bruce “became political” at that time, partly thanks to Ronald Reagan (and George Will?).
As an editor and writer, for Crawdaddy, about the up-and-coming Bruce (circa 1972), I can vouch for his “lack of politics” back then, and for years after (we were good friends), and yet it did start to develop a few years before release of the 1984 smash album. Steve Van Zandt certainly played a role. But Bruce did play the anti-nukes MUSE concert in 1979, and his Nebraska album, while not “political,” certainly took a stand on the woes of the downtrodden.
But as for activism, after Reagan falsely embraced him, Springsteen’s big thing on his massive tour in 1984–85 was meeting with vets, going to their offices and hospitals and holding fundraising concerts for them, and for labor unions (or outright just giving them money), and for food banks and other community help groups.
Later he got involved in other causes, recorded the Tom Joad album, and eventually took part in first political campaigns, for Obama. Oh, he also wrote the preface to my book on Iraq, Bush and the media, So Wrong for So Long. He’s even survived the fandom of David Brooks and Chris Christie.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: Right-Wing Media Frenzy Over Bergdahl: The New ‘Benghazi’.
The right-wing media, naturally, have been on a rampage—even putting Benghazi on the back burner!—over the US-Taliban prisoner swap. Since Obama was behind it, or at least agreed to it, this must have been a horrible thing, yet another to the long list of proposed articles of impeachment. It was nice to see Jake Tapper hit Senator John McCain on this.
And maybe the US soldier’s dad should be impeached, too, for wearing such a long beard—without even having nabbing a guest spot on Duck’s Dynasty.
But even mainstream outlets have breathlessly reported the claims by former comrades of the US soldier Bowe Bergdahl that the search for him, years ago, cost a number (it varies) of American lives. Then there are the long-held claims that he actually deserted his post and was not simply snatched.
While this all gets sorted out in the days ahead, this New York Times report today questions the claims of US lives lost in the hunt.
Don’t miss this wild file via WikiLeaks from its Afghan War Logs on the night of Bergdahl’s capture (was he on the john?) and frantic search for him using copters, drones, and dog teams.
Meanwhile, VICE News just posted a big piece up just now on the long-forgotten Rolling Stone article by the late Michael Hastings—that sparked FBI interest—on Bergdahl-as-defector. I’ve never been in the “conspiracy” camp on Hastings’s death but still this is interesting reading.
At the time of the story’s publication, the media had all but forgotten about Bergdahl—who was released on Saturday after five years in the hands of the Taliban, in exchange for five Guantanamo prisoners. And, with the exception of some initial chatter, Hastings’ piece, which paints a deeply unflattering picture of Bergdahl’s unit and its leadership, hardly had the impact of some of his other investigations.
But someone did pay attention to it: the FBI.
That, at least, is what was revealed in a heavily redacted document released by the agency following a Freedom of Information Act request—filed on the day of Hastings’ death—by investigative journalist Jason Leopold and Ryan Shapiro, an MIT doctoral student whom the Justice Department once called the “most prolific” requester of FOIA documents.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: “For the 25th Anniversary: The Music That Inspired Chinese Students in Tiananmen Square.”
On the eve of twenty-fifth anniversary of the massacre of students in China after weeks of protest in Tiananmen Square, I’m proud to say that one of the five major segments in our current film Following the Ninth features footage of the protest and interviews with student leader Feng Congde.
Congde tells how he accidentally became part of the protest on the way to that area to get his computer fixed. Soon he became one of the top leaders. The students rigged up a PA system and played Beethoven’s Ninth over and over, first to block out transmissions and announcements by the Chinese government, then to keep up their own spirits and inspire them during the long days and then the fears on the eve of the massacre.
I don’t have a full clip of that section but our original lengthy trailer (below) includes about a minute of that segment. And there’s a full chapter in our book. Excerpt here:
As the students had no weapons, music and other forms of symbolic communication would serve as a fragile carapace under which students and others could shape, if only momentarily, the resources for resistance while simultaneously telling the world via music what their struggle meant. Or as Feng put it, “We used the Ninth to create an ambience of solidarity and hope, for ourselves, and for the people of China.”
And true to every social movement, the students spoke in various accents. Freedom banners appeared everywhere, often written in English with a sense that the whole world was indeed watching. Clever hands built scurrilous effigies, witty epigrams competed with scatological humor for space on cardboard signs, and later, during the final days of the protest, the iconic “Goddess of Democracy” was carried to the center of the action. The papier-mache and foam statue, sculpted by students from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, was large and menacing to those watching from Party redoubts, as it resembled the Statue of Liberty. A tent city was built, and a minor infrastructure cobbled together for handling the everyday problems of food distribution and keeping conditions sanitary (again, echoed years later at the many Occupy Wall Street camps). And the marching, the shouting, the trucks and buses with people on top arriving from throughout the city and countryside just didn’t stop. And then there was the music.
One image in the footage that appears again and again in the early days and weeks of the protest: people singing. The communal joy is obvious, impulses given free reign, righteous ecstasy coming out from its hiding places into a nearly soulless situation for students in China who wanted more than the dreary future on offer. Singing commanded attention and brought people face-to-face with what Feng called “their dignity as human beings,” as if for the first time.
Beethoven’s Ninth provided a bridge for those connections. Classical music in general and Beethoven’s Ninth specifically was considered a symbol of Western bourgeois decadence and cultural imperialism by the Communist Party, especially during the years of Mao’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” from 1966 through 1976. Even in 1989 Feng felt the lingering effects of a decade when the “violence of culture” meant “all the good things were denied. If you liked modern dance, that was bourgeois. If you liked modern painting, that was bourgeois.”
As a member of the intelligentsia, the embrace of “counter-revolutionary” ideas—and who could tell what these were from day-to-day—made Feng a suspect in a thought crime yet to be committed.
On the Square, Beethoven’s Ninth became part of Feng’s crime against the state. Once engaged as an organizer, Feng set up a makeshift broadcasting system, cobbled together with car batteries and loudspeakers provided by both university students and working people from the surrounding neighborhood. The improvised system could not compete with the government speakers that lined the Square, broadcasting the droning speeches of Lin Peng and other lesser apparatchiks who tried to convince those arriving by the tens of thousands to stay home or return to school.
Feng described a singular moment on the Square when Beethoven’s Ninth summed up everything he hoped for his country.
With over a thousand students on a hunger strike in the Square, Li Peng announced martial law on May 19th. The droning began in earnest: “Comrades, in accordance with a decision made by the Standing Committee of the CPC Central Committee, the party Central Committee and the State Council…to restore normal order in society, and to maintain stability and unity in order to ensure the triumphant implementation of our reform and open policy and the program of socialist modernization….Their [the students] goal is precisely to organizationally subvert the CPC leadership….The reason that we were so tolerant was out of our loving care for the masses of youths and students. We regard them as our own children and the future of China. We do not want to hurt good people, particularly not the young students.” And on and on, with the carefully chosen audience clapping on cue.
In the Square, Feng pulled out a cassette. “The students, when we heard the announcements,” he told me, “we were so angry—and I put on the cassette of Beethoven’s Ninth to cover the voice of the government system. So there was a real battle for voice. Hundreds of thousands of students shouting, as we broadcast the music on the square louder than the government system. I just had a feeling of winning. Of triumph.”
Feng played the final movement of the Ninth, featuring the “Ode To Joy” with the key line Alle Menschen warden Bruder (“All men will be brothers) because “it gave us a sense of hope, solidarity, for a new and better future. And it was really fantastic that it changed us, transformed us. We feel finally we regained our dignity as human beings. We were separated by the government, but now we are free. We just feel free. So on the square, we feel a collective feeling of joy. We were free at last.”
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: Lifton: How and Why the Media Failed on Covering Drone Wars.
Freed from his Daily Show chains, John Oliver on his new HBO Sunday late-night show now tackles serious questions—still in a fun way—in segments that can run twice as long as those on his old show. Recently we hailed his take on hot issues and protests surrounding the death penalty in the USA.
Last night he turned to net neutrality, which he admitted at the start was not exactly fertile ground for (1) comedy or (2) storming the barricades. In fact, as he noted, as discussed on TV it can seem even more boring than Thomas Friedman.
But then he shattered expectations by making his primer for action both fun and maybe even inspiring. After all, if there’s one thing netizens love to do, it is to express themselves, so please flood the FCC with your comments, all you “monsters.”
And here’s one way to do it, via EFF. Their sample letter:
The Internet is important to me because, as a college business student, I need to know that there will not be barriers to entry for the new ideas and services that I hope to bring to the marketplace. If ISP subscribers have an easier time loading websites of existing companies than my new innovative product, there’s no way that I will be able to compete or succeed.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: “Lifton: How and Why the Media Failed on Covering Drone Wars.”
This week Secretary of State John Kerry, a drone war enthusiast, was rightly mocked for telling Edward Snowden to “man up” and return to the US. But it was easy criticism when the implications of death-by-drone deserve a deeper dive. And few are better qualified to discuss the impact of drone warfare not just on our policies but on our psyche than Robert Jay Lifton.
Since the 1950s, the famed psychiatrist—and often, activist—has produced one landmark study after another on vital issues of our day, from nuclear weapons to Nazi doctors, from soldiers at war to policymakers who send them into battle. As it happens, I have written two books with Lifton, Hiroshima in America and Who Owns Death? (on capital punishment).
Lifton last year wrote what I consider the most far-reaching and important essay on the many dangers, and ethical challenges, of drone warfare (in two parts, here and here). Nothing reveals more about this subject than the famous phrase he introduced to our language decades ago: ”psychic numbing.” I’ve interviewed him about that and another aspect: the media failure to cover this extremely important issue in any kind of deep, sustained way.
Lifton called his lengthy piece for The Huffington Post “Ten Reflections on Drones.” He introduced it this way: “Drones have entered our consciousness. Suddenly they seem to be everywhere. The following reflections—they could as easily be called meditations—do not address legal, political, or military issues, though these have great importance. Rather I seek to begin a conversation about our relationship as human beings to these robotic objects as weapons.”
To give you some of the flavor, here are a few of his ten reflections:
The lure of an intelligent, nonhuman killing machine. We can give the job of killing to an advanced technological entity, a compelling robotic instrument entirely devoid of feelings, and thereby suppress our own feelings in relation to that killing.
The illusion that we can fight wars without our own people, our soldiers, dying. As a military man (quoted by P. W. Singer) put it: “When a robot dies, you don’t have to write a letter to its mother.”
Another illusion is that of the drones’ capacity for what is called “targeted” or surgical killing, meaning the dispatching of a particular person and no one else.
Another illusory stance, also associated with a static view of history, is that of ignoring highly negative responses or blowback. Yet 97 percent of Pakistanis oppose our drones policy, as do high percentages of people in other Middle Eastern countries.
The illusion of a “rescue technology” that can turn around a failed policy. Drones have become a cure for the disarray and defeat associated with our doctrine of counterinsurgency warfare.
The ultimate issue of human and nonhuman agency. We are in a sense sharing human agency with a robot. There are accounts of varying degrees of loss of human control over the drones. And there are envisioned more and more occurrences in which action would be so rapid as to allow no time for human intervention and the drones would have to make “decisions” on their own.
Our interview follows.
Why did the media, until recently, provide little in-depth coverage of drones, even fail to confront official secrecy?
The media have had difficulty covering this subject and that’s partly because it is a revolutionary technology of killing and the media have trouble confronting what it is. There is now a certain amount of discussion of the political and legal side of drones. That’s important, but not itself fully sufficient. One has to look at why drones are so much depended on and so much an expression of executive power in our use of them. And one does have to raise legal questions about using them against American citizens but also others—especially when the purposes are not tied to war but to assassination.
Yes, some of the more thoughtful media have raised these questions but almost no one has raised the fundamental questions about drones—questions of the mind and technology. And I’m struck by the basic illusion of fighting a war without undergoing casualties. That’s at the heart of things. What that means is you don’t have to undergo the pain of losing young men and women or the related requirement of insisting that they “did not die in vain.” That’s the central image of any war fighting. No one asks whether a drone died in vain when it explodes.
This illusory release from that level of meaning is dangerous in a democracy because a major means of preventing military belligerence and war-making is that painful sentiment for the citizens, and the media, of our soldiers being sent to die for an insufficient reason or to die in vain. And that hasn’t been discussed by the media to speak of. And that’s a major illusion.
And we don’t seem worried that drones can be turned on us.
That’s the added danger of enabling war-making to be made easier. It’s an illusion because there are seventy-five countries with drones now. Even nongovernmental groups, including terrorists, could readily acquire and use them.
We have a sense of American ownership of the technology, like with nuclear weapons after World War II. But no technology, as we’ve found, is limited to any country, no matter how big a part they had in developing it.
The other thing that is so illusory that is not emphasized sufficiently: the extremity of the destruction. The accuracy of drones has been enormously exaggerated. And they terrify and enrage people and bring about a quality of humiliation and fear. This strange object in the sky that can wreak havoc causes a particular amount of humiliation—and that more than any other emotion can be a source of a retaliatory impulse.
These are the things that the media on the whole have not probed. But then, they are generally lazy and collapse before power. There has been great secrecy and barriers to coverage, true. Now the issue is surfacing, and suddenly the drones are in our consciousness and all over the place. Given today’s information structure, given the Internet and other sources, you can’t keep these things as secret for long.
Why such weak coverage of the attacks themselves? Hard to get to the scene?
You can’t say the media can’t go investigate on the ground—the Stanford group [that produced a valuable recent study] did. What better way to cover them than to see what they’re causing? That’s negligent behavior on the part of the media. Some investigative journalism groups have sent people on the ground. So that’s not an excuse.
You’ve made connections to capital punishment in the US.
This death-by-drone, carried out by killing professionals, is the idea of a speedy, “humane” killing, like with our death penalty. Every new means of putting people to death is always described as more humane than the last, from hanging to the electric chair to the gas chamber to lethal injections. By engaging in what is considered more humane killing the claim can lead to more willingness to kill, as it does with the drone.
Apart from news coverage, what about media commentary pieces?
Much of the analysis concerns a president’s right to conduct drone killing and raises the question of executive power. There have been some good pieces. One a few months ago captured some of the drone subculture around the White House. It conveyed the sense of the president involving himself so actively in the use of drones so he could be a kind of restraining force. That may be accurate, but the problem is that the claim of restraint legitimates the use of drones, and seems to eliminate the legal considerations that should be invoked.
Other commentaries find professionals endorsing drones or expressing legal opinions to say they are okay—like the legal briefs sought by the Bush administration to endorse torture.
It seems the focus of complaints, even by many liberals, is often limited to concerns about targeting Americans.
Using them on our own citizens can be held out as an egregious action, turning a technology of killing against our own people. But I agree that using them anywhere in the world against anyone deserves careful legal and ethical consideration. It’s easier for media to look critically at use of drones against Americans and thereby avoid the use of drones to kill anyone. The seemingly more egregious violation is easier to criticize but the larger significance of drone warfare is overlooked or suppressed.
I’ll go along with the Stanford report—it makes you almost proud to be an academic. It found drone warfare is causing more harm for our national security than whatever it is accomplishing. It’s a dubious technology and the pinpoint targeting is illusory.
So should all use of drones be banned?
It’s the responsibility of the press to look very critically at the use of drones in any case. We need sanctions against their use. We also need international law standards.
One has to quickly now look at drones as an international, human issue. It is a revolutionary technology and it has to be controlled. It will effect humankind, not just Americans and terrorists, and one has to examine critically the psychological aspects, such as getting the machines to do the killing for us and exonerating us ethically.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: New York Times public editor hits that Kinsley review of Greenwald book.
The New York Times’s fine public editor, Margaret Sullivan, yesterday finally took up the simmering-for-days issue of that Michael Kinsley review of Glenn Greenwald’s new book in a online column. Beyond the broad criticisms of the book by Kinsley that apply to other investigative journalists, the piece drew hard questions because of the choice of the (allegedly biased) reviewer, based on his track record. Greenwald raised all those issues, and more, in a lengthy rejoinder.
Sullivan got this weak response when she queried the recently appointed Book Review editor: “I think this is one of those subjects that people have strong feelings about, and there are obviously entrenched interests on either side…. It is a smart, lively, well-written review that took a point of view about the book and the subject matter.”
Responding, Sullivan, on the other hand, hit the weak editing of the review, calling it neither “fair” nor “accurate.”
Book reviews are opinion pieces and—thanks to the principles of the First Amendment—Mr. Kinsley is certainly entitled to freely air his views. But there’s a lot about this piece that is unworthy of the Book Review’s high standards, the sneering tone about Mr. Greenwald, for example; he is called a “go-between” instead of a journalist and is described as a “self-righteous sourpuss.” …
But worse, Mr. Kinsley’s central argument ignores important tenets of American governance. There clearly is a special role for the press in America’s democracy; the Founders explicitly intended the press to be a crucial check on the power of the federal government, and the United States courts have consistently backed up that role. It’s wrong to deny that role, and editors should not have allowed such a denial to stand. Mr. Kinsley’s argument is particularly strange to see advanced in the paper that heroically published the Pentagon Papers, and many of the Snowden revelations as well.
Now, let the battle begin (or continue): Andrew Sullivan hits the female Sullivan here. We will resist the word “sully.” Stay tuned for more responses.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: Memorial Day Over, New Film Casts Spotlight on Military Suicides.
During a weekend of media tributes to US military men and women, dead and still serving, I tried to inject the reality of the still-shocking rate of suicides among our troops on active duty and after they return home, despite fewer of them facing combat in recent months. I’ve covered this issue for more than ten years now in dozens of articles (just one example) and a book, going back to when hardly anyone wanted to hear it.
Now a new documentary aims to attract and keep a steady focus.
One of its producers, Claire Ratinon, tells me in an e-mail that Almost Sunrise, directed by Michael Collins (Give Up Tomorrow), “tells the story of two ex-soldiers, Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson, who walk across the country in a bid to heal from their time on the battlefield. The film deals with the challenges that face returning military and their families explored through their experiences and the people they meet on their 2700 mile journey, walking from Milwaukee to LA.”
The filmmakers have forged a new partnership with Stop Soldier Suicide, and Claire explains, “This film is being made to call attention to the suicide crisis and ignite the much-needed dialogue around this difficult subject—and partnering with Stop Soldier Suicide will allow us to develop a powerful outreach campaign with the film as a central tool—that will bring real, meaningful change to the lives of active military, veterans and their families.”
Here’s a link to their Kickstarter campaign which includes extensive details and a message from the director and a video, and more. On the film:
Homelessness, unemployment, PTSD, traumatic brain injury and the suicide epidemic that sees 22 veterans a day take their own life, are some of the many issues that ravage the veterans community. In fact, more soldiers have died from suicide since the war in Afghanistan began than have died in combat there.
Through Tom and Anthony’s cross-country journey, ALMOST SUNRISE meets veterans who battle these issues every day, issues that experts say will continue to grow as vets of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq come home and grapple with a return to daily life.
ALMOST SUNRISE also frames the compelling issue of moral injury, an emerging term in the mental health field identified by professionals frustrated with the failure of traditional institutional efforts to make a dent in the suicide rate. Moral injury is used to describe the psychological damage service members face when their experiences on the battlefield challenge their moral beliefs.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: Guest column: Cooperstown’s mayor on Obama’s visit (and that anti-fracking protest).
Last Sunday I visited Cooperstown, New York, a few hours north from my home, for a screening of the film I co-produced, Following the Ninth, on the amazing influence of Beethoven’s final symphony, at a benefit for the local food pantry. It turned into an amazing community gathering, with 300 attending (a huge number in this village of 1,600) and three dozen singers and musicians performing the “Ode to Joy,” plus a fund-raising party at a local distillery. Then I spoke to three high school classes the following day.
One of the highlights, however, was lunch with Cooperstown’s mayor.
Jeff Katz, who won his second term unopposed, is an unusual figure in this town—as a Jew from Chicago and as one of the first Democrats to serve as mayor in this conservative region. But he’s got the baseball fanaticism down, in this home for the hallowed Baseball Hall of Fame. Katz even has a book coming out next spring from Thomas Dunne Books on the epic major league baseball players’ strike in 1981, titled Split Season. Even more impressively, I learned that not long ago he had taken his two sons to another hallowed place I’ve visited more than once—Big Pink, near Woodstock, New York, where so much fantastic music from The Band and Bob Dylan was born in 1967.
Like most others in town, Katz was also buzzing about the rather shocking news that President Obama would be coming to town in a few days, and not just as a tourist but to deliver a policy speech at the Hall of Fame. He said he’d been asked directly by the White House to start preparing, but oddly had received no word if he would greet or even meet the president. I joked that the White House probably assumed he was a Republican, forgetting his name is Katz. On the eve of the visit, Katz via e-mail said he was still uncertain that he’d get that presidential handshake.
There was also this intriguing context: Cooperstown has served as a hotbed of anti-fracking activism in the fight to get Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban the practice throughout the state. The activists, I learned, planned some sort of respectful protest during the Obama visit (Cuomo would also be there). One of the village’s residents, a retired former top executive at Mobil, Lou Allstadt, has spoken out widely and powerfully against fracking and its link to climate change, and recently appeared on Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show. In fact, Lou and his wife Melinda Hardin graciously hosted my wife and I as overnight guests at their home on Main Street.
So yesterday afternoon I watched the twenty-minute Obama speech live at the Hall. He joked that he was just checking out the place for Frank Thomas of his beloved White Sox, who will be inducted this summer. He revealed that his wife had tossed out the “Mom jeans” he was caught wearing in a famous photo when he threw out the first pitch at a ball game. And… well, I’ll let Jeff Katz tell the rest of the story…
* * *
by Jeff Katz
Last Thursday I met and chatted with the great Tom Morello before a Springsteen show in Albany. There was no doubt that this would be my biggest brush with fame for quite some time. By the next night the Cooperstown chief of police had informed me that the president was coming to village, where I’m mayor, to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and talk about the importance of tourism.
After the public release of the news on Saturday, mentioned as a snippet in the president’s weekly address, local anti-fracking activists were debating via e-mail and online chatter how to deal with Obama, in many ways their hero, who’d caused anguish with his pro-natural gas policies. In April of 2011, the Village of Cooperstown became the first municipality in the area to officially oppose fracking. Our towns, Middlefield and Otsego, would soon follow.
Clearly there would be protesters on Main Street to greet the president. I wasn’t going to start the week of preparations saying, in effect, “President Obama, welcome to Cooperstown and, by the way, we oppose your energy policy.” It would be inappropriate. That being said, it is, as they say, a free country, and wherever people wanted to express their opinion on public space, well, no one needed my permission.
Yesterday started with last-minute prep and cleanup and, between 6-6:45 am, four live TV interviews for me. (I left options trading in Chicago so I wouldn’t have to wake up at 5 am anymore, but, in service to the village, I was happy to oblige the morning shows.) Much of the information on the president’s visit was still locked down—time of arrival, motorcade route, etc.,—for security reasons. Cooperstown is so small, any house was as likely as any other for potential viewing, so I told people to sit on their porches and hope for the best.
The anti-fracking protesters were out in good numbers, well over 100. Pro-frackers and anti-SAFE Act protesters were on site in much smaller numbers. Though I wasn’t out to make waves, the Village had made it clear that fracking was bad for us, bad for tourism and incompatible with our way of life and I made that position clear to interviewers as the day progressed.
I don’t consider fracking a political issue per se. Sometimes it tends to line up as Republicans pro- and Democrats anti-, but it’s not that clear-cut. There are Home Rule issues, private property issues, the ability of local governments to decide what it wants for its communities despite what bigger government wants. The widespread view in Cooperstown was that President Obama’s visit was something special. During the course of the week I spoke to the most Republican of Republicans and the most Democratic of Democrats, and all agreed this was a colossally good thing for us. The last time a sitting President visited Cooperstown was in 1839, when Martin Van Buren stopped by.
Cooperstown’s tourism scene stretches well beyond our anchor, the Baseball Hall of Fame. On the village’s edge are the Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmers’ Museum; further outside the village but very much a part of the Cooperstown scene are Brewery Ommegang and the Glimmerglass Festival opera company. All are world-class institutions. Then there’s beautiful Lake Otsego. You could come to Cooperstown for the weekend and do twenty-five things and never have to repeat. Today was my day to talk about it, and President Obama’s presence gave me the opportunity.
All invited guests to the speech were escorted into the Hall early in the afternoon and a little later a few of us got to meet the president. He and I are about the same height, 6'1", but, man, there’s a palpable presidential aura. I felt teeny. We shook hands, talked about Cooperstown (“You’ve got a beautiful place here,” he observed), talked about Chicago, and I was done, whisked politely away. The speech would take place in the Plaque Gallery, the president’s podium on the edge of the atrium where the faces of the first class from 1936—the ghosts of Mathewson, Wagner, Ruth, Johnson and Cobb—could look on. (What must that ol’ racist spectral Tyrus Cobb think of this president?).
The president talked for almost twenty minutes on the positive economic impact of tourism in America, a real job creator (that’s a photo by my wife, Karen Katz, above). I have to say, when he said “I want to thank your mayor, Jeff Katz, for having me, and his great hospitality,” it was hard to process. Perhaps it’s our similar age, our Chicago background or the sense that the Obama family is not so unlike the Katz’s, that makes me feel a real kinship with this president.
The speech ended with (how’s this for perfect closure?) Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams.” As I exited to sunny Main Street, some of the anti-frackers were still out, wondering how it went inside. They swooned at the photos I produced and expressed a genuine affection for Barack Obama. The sense that, even in intense disagreement over the major issue of fracking, there was a core connection between the people and their president, that they could be opposed but still together, gave truth to the words of the (other) Boss.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: “Anthony Bourdain: The World Has Robbed Palestinians ‘of Their Basic Humanity’”
I like Anthony Bourdain but only watch his weekly TV series, past and present, when I see he’s visiting one of my areas of interest. So, yes, I did catch that excellent episode of his Parts Unknown on Israel and Palestine last September. And now he’s won a top “Courage and Conscience” award from MPAC (Muslim Public Affairs Council) for it.
Here’s a fine review with two clips from the show, as he travels from the Wailing Wall to Gaza to an Israeli settlement. Bourdain, by the way, was born half-Jewish.
Posted below: his brief, heartfelt, acceptance speech on humanity and the Palestinians. Excerpt:
We show regular people doing everyday things–cooking and enjoying meals… It is a measure, I guess, of how twisted and shallow our depiction of the people is that these images come as a shock to so many. The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity.
Greg Mitchell blogs daily, sometimes hourly, at his Pressing Issues.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: When I exposed Tom Robbins to the World.
I see in today’s New York Times that there’s a new memoir by novelist Tom Robbins just out, and it gets an okay review, though many may see it as damned with faint praise, as it’s judged at least better than his late novels. It’s kind of shocking to see that this drug-toking, fun-loving, seventies cult star (who became a perennial best-selling institution) is now in his 80s. Kinda makes a boomer feel old.
Also, it reminded me that Tom lied about his age during his Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—you remember the lesbian commune and Sissy with the big thumb?—breakout phase. He’d been Pynchon-like until then but somehow I coaxed him, via snail mail, into his first major interview, for my magazine, Crawdaddy, in 1977. Then he nearly got me killed (slight exaggeration).
I’d flown out to San Francisco, to hang out in Japantown for a few days and interview Robbins. He had warned, “My publishers haven’t gotten used to my craziness yet, and I think they may be a little nervous about what I might say.” Robbins had never been interviewed previously at length—he kept his whereabouts a mystery. Now he made me promise to keep hidden where he lived, claiming fans were starting to camp out on his front lawn (Vonnegut had gone through this a few years back).
As I expected, Tom acted predictably offbeat as we walked around Chinatown, with his young girlfriend Margie, ducking in and out of Asian toy shops he loved. He was into transformers way ahead of the rest of us. His mantra seemed to be “play” which he said he took “seriously.” (This was before he coined the oft-quoted “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”) At a vegetable stand he picked up a stalk of asparagus and placed it on top of his head, as if to launch it into space via his own thought-beams. His next book, he revealed, would be titled, Woodpecker Rising.
With a thick head of hair and ’stache, Tom was youthful in both appearance and manner. Perhaps all those magic mushrooms he’d ingested back in the day had something to do with that. From some of his colleagues at a newspaper back in Virginia where he got his start, however, I’d discovered that he’d long lied about his age (cutting quite a few years off) and a couple other things. Robbins was uptight where Vonnegut had been relaxed about his status as an aging hero of younger readers. Still, he seemed like a good guy, and he invited me to a party that night for him, on a local houseboat, a former bait-and-tackle shop—another seaside attraction.
It was quite a bash, featuring an all-cowgirl bluegrass band (unlike Robbins’s famous heroine Sissy Hankshaw, they were not all-thumbs). I met Tom’s friend, a Seattle artist named Lead Pencil, and one of his many female admirers, actress Joanna Cassady. He seemed almost Leonard Cohen–like as a magnet for attractive women. Robbins said that 80 percent of his fan mail came from women, even though a lot of feminists were “confusing sexuality with sexism.”
At some point I found myself sitting next to young songwriter Rodney Crowell, who had just penned a tune for Emmylou Harris based on Cowgirls, at the bar. Crowell, who was touring as part of Emmylou’s backup band, was chatting with someone behind me but I could hear every word. Rodney said something like, “Emmylou is still so upset about that damn Crawdaddy article on Gram Parsons”—her fabled mentor who had overdosed and then his body found burned at Joshua Tree—“after she read it on the tour bus, I told her, if I ever find the guy who wrote it, I’d beat the shit out of him.” I’d co-written that article. So I casually got up and found another seat, out on the deck.
Of course, if Rodney had managed to ID me, I would have just blamed it all on my co-author.
Greg Mitchell’s popular personal blog is Pressing Issues.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: “Media Giants Sue Over Secrecy Surrounding US Executions”/em>