Cover of April 14, 2014 Issue



A public arts project in Baltimore called Wall Hunters has united an international group of street artists in calling attention to slumlords’ derelict properties. QR codes beneath murals bring viewers to, a site that identifies the owner of the property and provides contact information. Read More


Doubt … More thoughtfulness in the world would make it such a better place. JoAnn Wypijewski’s “Woody, Dylan & Doubt” [March 10/17] is beautifully crafted—fair, compassionate, insightful. “The techno age meets the eleventh century” is a brilliant summary of the public’s involvement in an ongoing family tragedy. Kudos for an advanced twenty-first-century commentary. Jane Myers ann arbor, mich. There’s nothing radical or liberal about giving an accused sex abuser the benefit of the doubt outside of a courtroom. Most patriarchal societies now and throughout history have given the accused rapist/child molester the benefit of the doubt, without such benefit to the (always) less powerful accuser. Sad to see such a reactionary premise masquerading as liberal in The Nation. But too many so-called progressives enjoy Allen’s movies. pjwhite I began reading “Woody, Dylan & Doubt” goofily thinking it was about Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and metaphysical uncertainty. I was pleased as well as surprised by JoAnn Wypijewski’s intelligent, thoughtful and fair-minded piece on the latest innuendos concerning Woody Allen. David Lehman new york city Al From in Mississippi During the 1960s, I was a senior field representative for the Office of Economic Opportunity, the official War on Poverty agency—the only federal OEO employee to be stationed in Mississippi, my home state. I had planned with the legendary Jim Draper and several activists to seek employment with OEO so that the movement-related Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) would have a friend in the bureaucracy. OEO was all too eager to employ a young, native, white Mississippian, a former Baptist preacher thrown out of his church for getting involved in civil rights activities. I was in a unique position to know firsthand from the inside the OEO strategy of maximum participation of the poor in controlling the programs and resources of the anti-poverty effort. Al From, who was assigned to the OEO Office of Inspection in Washington, stayed in my home in Jackson several times on his trips to Mississippi, and I have followed his career with great interest. In view of Rick Perlstein’s mostly deserved pillorying of Al for the reactionary role he has played in national Democratic Party politics in the years since the ’60s [“From & Friends,” March 3], I felt I should set the record straight about his participation in the poverty program struggles in Mississippi. Although the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 required approval by the governor of a state before programs could be funded there, OEO found a loophole, by which programs could be funded through an institution of higher education. In the summer of 1965, the first Head Start programs were funded to local groups growing out of the civil rights movement by passing the grants through historically black colleges/universities (HBCUs): Mary Holmes College and Rust College. Subsequent struggles with the white power structure over who would control the incoming funds resulted in many of these groups continuing on a volunteer basis under the umbrella of the Friends of the Children of Mississippi until the control issue could be resolved. Senators “Big Jim” Eastland and John Stennis urged local white leaders to organize Community Action Programs, which the law required all funds to pass through. Where CAPs were not set up, CDGM and Friends of Children were funded through HBCUs to operate black-controlled programs. In counties where CAPs were set up, including Sunflower and Bolivar counties in the Delta, the movement-based groups were legally made subsidiaries to these power-structure-controlled CAPs. Neither Al From nor OEO could do or say anything about that legality. This was the setting for From’s claim that “Shriver sent me to Sunflower County to investigate a dispute between two Head Start programs, one run with federal funding by the white powers of the county—the Eastland forces—the other run on a volunteer basis by civil rights activists.” Those of us in the OEO committed to empowering local people held strategic discussions for keeping the resources and consequent political power of OEO funding in the hands of the black communities. Ultimate implementation of OEO strategy was up to the Atlanta OEO office, and Al From’s presence and participation were limited. But when he came to Mississippi representing the national office, he participated in those discussions and was on the side of the angels. His statement in his book that the fight was for “an important prize in the political balance of power in the county” was correct, as these were the first substantial institutional funds and jobs the black folks of these counties had ever controlled. In Sunflower and Bolivar counties, two Head Start programs were funded, one to the CAP and one to the local groups: Associated Communities of Sunflower County and Associated Communities of Bolivar County. By law, the funds had to flow through the CAP agencies, but in both cases OEO required that the local movement group be funded as a separate subcontractor of the CAP, with its own board, controlling structure and staff. Under the circumstances, this was the best possible outcome, and OEO relentlessly protected the independence of these groups until 1969, when Head Start funding was removed from OEO. I have no interest in defending Al From. While I was continuing to pursue every third- party and independent left initiative we could stir up over the years and working in community organizing and advocacy, Al was busy at a much higher level, doing perhaps irreparable harm to the political and economic plight of ordinary Americans by helping to restructure the party system so that no real Democratic alternative was on offer, leaving us—still—with a Clintonite-flavored administration somewhat to the right of Eisenhower Republicanism. But you could not ask for a more likable or collegial person to diminish the hopes of your grandchildren than Al From. For a short time, though, he played a positive role in empowering the black communities and children of Sunflower and Bolivar counties. Don Manning-Miller Vice president, Rust College holly springs, miss. Read More

Q&A With Edmund White

Edmund White, a member of the Stonewall generation, is the author of several award-winning memoirs and novels, including A Boy’s Own Story and City Boy. His new memoir is Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris. This interview has been condensed and edited. Jon Wiener: A lot of what you’ve written celebrates “the golden age of promiscuity” in 1970s New York. That seems at odds with the gay marriage movement today.  Edmund White: First, I was opposed to gay marriage because it seemed like one more way that gays were wanting to assimilate. When I realized the Christian right was so opposed to it, as well as tyrannical governments in Africa and Russia, I thought, “It must be a good thing to fight for.” Now I have a confession to make: I got married in November to my friend Michael Carroll, whom I’ve been with for nineteen years. At least we didn’t rush into it. When you arrived in France in 1983, was homosexuality a crime? No. Mitterrand had decriminalized it when he was elected in 1981. It was extraordinary. Suddenly the police were no longer allowed to raid gay bars or pick up gay people having sex in the park. Homosexuality in France has an interesting legal history. It was decriminalized by the French Revolution. Everything was fine until the Vichy government, which was in cahoots with the Nazis; they passed laws targeting homosexuals. It wasn’t until the Socialists won in 1981 that things changed again. When you left the United States in 1983, you were a famous gay writer. What did the French think about gay fiction? America thrives on identity politics, left and right. But France is opposed to the idea. Since the Revolution, the French have enthroned the idea of universalism. All of us must be equal before the law as abstract individuals, and that extends to the arts. Nobody in France would ever say “He’s a Jewish novelist” or “She’s a black novelist,” even though people do write about those subjects. It would look absurd to a French person to go into a bookstore and see a “Gay Studies” section. Even today. Michel Foucault died of AIDS in 1984—what had his understanding of AIDS been? I’d told him about it in 1981 when I was visiting, and he laughed at me and said, “This is some new piece of American Puritanism. You’ve dreamed up a disease that punishes only gays and blacks? Why don’t you throw in child molesters too?” The doctors were afraid to give him a diagnosis because he had written The Birth of the Clinic and other books that were critical of the medical profession. Was there a test for the AIDS virus in 1984? Not until ‘85. We didn’t even understand the viral nature of the disease. I found out in 1985 that I was positive, and I assumed I would be dead in two years. But I was what they called a “slow progresser.” Did your positive diagnosis galvanize you into writing more? That’s when you launched your gigantic Genet biography project. That was a kind of talismanic, magical, irrational act. I knew it would take years and years to complete, and it did in fact take seven years to write. If I had only two years left, I would never finish it. How did the Genet project go over with your friends back in New York? Larry Kramer, a wonderful fighter for gay people, felt that I was letting down my side by writing about something so far-fetched. But I didn’t just want to write about AIDS. I thought gays had been medicalized for a hundred years before Stonewall, and now we were in danger of being re-medicalized. Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50! How is your health today? I had a stroke last year. This book I wrote mostly in the hospital. I couldn’t walk or talk, but I could still scribble. The French named you a Commander of the French Order of Arts and Letters—congratulations! Thank you. It’s a rank I share with Sylvester Stallone.   Read Next: Stuart Klawans on How to Survive a Plague, the documentary on ACT UP and the early years of the AIDS epidemic Read More



Why You Can’t Stop Me From Speaking Ill of Thomas Jefferson

Kurt Vonnegut was the celebrated author of novels like Cat’s Cradle, Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five. This article was adapted from a speech he made in Indianapolis to the Indiana Civil Liberties Union (now the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana) on September 16, 2000. It appears in the collection If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? Advice to the Young, edited by Dan Wakefield, to be published by Seven Stories Press on April 8. There is something you are entitled to know about me—something I’m not proud to confess. This is it: I was born into a society as segregated as Biloxi, Mississippi, except for the drinking fountains and the buses. And I am the product of a lily-white public high school in Indianapolis. Shortridge had a faculty worthy of a university. Our teachers there, again lily-white, weren’t just teachers. They were their subjects. Our chemistry teachers were first and foremost chemists. Our physics teachers were first and foremost physicists. Our teacher of ancient history, Minnie Lloyd, should have been wearing medals for all she did at the Battle of Thermopylae. Our English teachers were very commonly serious writers. One of mine, the late Marguerite Young, went on to write the definitive biography of Indiana’s own Eugene Victor Debs, the middle-class labor leader and socialist candidate for president of the United States, who died in 1926, when I was 4. Millions voted for Debs when he ran for president. I never met Debs, but I was old enough after World War II to have lunch in this city with another middle-class Indiana labor leader. He was Powers Hapgood. Although he was a Harvard graduate and from a well-to-do family of businesspeople, Powers Hapgood worked as a coal miner to get close, both spiritually and physically, to those he wished to help to help themselves. He then became an officer in the CIO here in Indianapolis. Not long after our lunch, there was some kind of dust-up on a picket line, and he landed in court as a witness. The judge—Judge Claycomb, in fact the father of my Shortridge classmate Moon Claycomb—knew of Hapgood’s history, and interrupted the proceedings to ask why such a privileged person would spend his life as he had. And Powers Hapgood replied: “Why, the Sermon on the Mount, sir.” And if I am asked why anybody should support their local and national Civil Liberties Unions, I will say that it takes a powerful private organization to compel those who govern us to not violate the crystal-clear laws in the Bill of Rights, just as we would not want them to drive when drunk or park by a fireplug. Given the humane and fair and merciful intent of the Bill of Rights, what I would actually be saying, though subliminally, is: “The Sermon on the Mount, sir or madam.” If you don’t know what the Sermon on the Mount is, ask your kid’s computer. If you don’t know what the laws in the Bill of Rights are, look ‘em up, look ‘em up. And yes, I know about the Second Amendment, and I’m for it. It doesn’t say people who disagree with a president should shoot him, which is what John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald did. It says in effect that civilians interested in playing with man-killing devices and live ammunition can best serve the rest of us in the National Guard, as long as they don’t shoot unarmed college students. Four unarmed students at Kent State University were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970, while protesting against the invasion of Cambodia. To come back to my lily-white high school: it had such a stunning faculty because the Great Depression was going on, so teaching was a plum job for some of the smartest men in town. But even before the stock market crash of 1929, when I was 7, it had great teachers because teaching high school was virtually the only way brilliant and informed women could make effective use of their warmth and intellectual enthusiasm and giftedness. Most of my best teachers were women and, holy smokes, were they ever bright. So why were women barred then from so many jobs they now hold with distinction? Because of what was then believed to be a law of nature, a natural law. Why were there no African-Americans in my high school? African-Americans had their own high school, of course. It was called Crispus Attucks. And because of the peculiar name of our black high school, people of all colors in Indianapolis were unusual Americans for knowing who Crispus Attucks was. He was an African-American freeman, not a slave, who stopped a British bullet at the Boston Massacre in 1770, only six years before our nation became a beacon of liberty for the whole wide world. In one book of mine, I nicknamed Crispus Attucks High School “Innocent Bystander High.” Again: Why were there no African-Americans in Shortridge High School? Because of what was then believed to be a law of nature, a natural law. Nature had obviously color-coded people for a reason. Otherwise, what the hell were all these different colors for? And why was Thomas Jefferson, possibly the most beloved of our founding fathers after George Washington, able to write “all men are created equal,” while meaning only white males—not women, God knows—and while owning slaves? Because of what was then believed to be a law of nature. Jefferson’s slaves were mortgaged, by the way. What a shame that you can no longer take the cleaning lady, along with the saxophone, down to the hock shop if you’re short on cash. Those were sure the good old days. In quite a few ways, though, it was still the good old days for white males when I was growing up. I could still feel superior, even in the view of law enforcement agencies, to half my own race and 100 percent of all the others. That was comforting! Not only that, but I could get away with all kinds of crap because I was from a good family. But that’s another story. In our all-white sandlot football games—“Jeffersonian games,” you might call them—the ad hoc captain of the side preparing to kick off would call out, “Are you ready, Crispus Attucks?” And the captain of the receivers would inevitably reply, “We are ready, Ladywood.” Ladywood was the name of a Catholic girls’ school in Indianapolis. Come to think of it, that “Ladywood” business had an anti-Catholic ring to it. Come to think of it, we were not only male and white, but also Protestant. So that “Ladywood” insult was a kind of twofer. If I have offended some of you by speaking ill of Thomas Jefferson, tough titty for you. I can say anything I please, short of shouting “Fire!” if there is no fire, because I am a citizen of the United States of America. Your government does not exist, and should not exist, in order to keep you or anybody else—no matter what color, no matter what race, no matter what religion—from getting your damn fool feelings hurt. If you found an official powerful enough and dumb enough to actually shut me up about Thomas Jefferson, the two of you would be hauled into court, and the Indiana Civil Liberties Union would make you both feel like something the cat drug in. Which brings us to St. Thomas Aquinas, a great Italian theologian and philosopher who 700 years ago perceived a hierarchy of laws that human beings should obey. At the top were God’s laws, from the Old and New Testaments, of course. Below them were natural laws, the ways nature—obviously, to both St. Thomas and Jefferson—expected things to go. Lowest of all were man’s laws. If you think of laws arranged in that order in a deck of cards, God’s laws would be the aces, nature’s law would be the kings, and ACLU lawyers, attempting to secure the civil rights of the deuces and treys and even unpopular tens and jacks in our society, would have nothing but pipsqueak queens to play. I once heard a man dismiss the Bill of Rights as “nothing but a bunch of amendments.” Chicken feed, when compared with God and nature. And indeed, the unambiguous laws in the Bill of Rights might as well have been chicken feed, or even chicken droppings, so cruelly spotty was their enforcement until the start of the lifetimes of people my age—people born in 1922. Only two years before we were born were female citizens allowed to vote and run for office. My Lord! And for many years after that—until long after the end of World War II, for heaven’s sake—African-American citizens of both sexes were in many parts of the country, this beacon of liberty, discouraged from voting by a combination of technicalities and sheer terror. Don’t forget: nobody had ever been punished for lynching one. “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Who were and are the bleeding hearts who fought, and fight, to make our governments—local, state and federal—behave justly and mercifully and respectfully toward all its citizens, no matter how socially and politically powerless and unpopular they may be? I have an old and once-despised name for them, which may surprise you: they are abolitionists. We are abolitionists. Abolition of what? Of human slavery. Such passions for human rights as we have derive their strength from inherited guilt about the unspeakably hideous crime on which so much of the early and even present wealth of the whole of this “one nation, under God,” is based—the labor of kidnapped persons, of slaves. Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50! And “Nature, red in tooth and claw” is a quote from Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam A.H.H.,” and refers to predatory animals baring their teeth and claws, stained with the blood of the prey they killed. We tonight are also atoning as best we can for the murder of brothers by brothers, so to speak, in our Civil War. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” What did “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and all that have to do with our present enthusiasm for women’s rights? Not that much, really. Women just got lucky this time. Read Next: “The Worst Addiction of Them All,” an excerpt from the e-book Vonnegut by the Dozen: Twelve Pieces by Kurt Vonnegut Read More

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