Journey

In Progress

Sometime I lack the strength to read
poetry, its demand that I attend
each word, its rhythm and its relish,
its way of nestling into metaphor.

Poets ignore transitions, requiring us
to make the leap across the synapse void,
the gap in reason only intuition has
the skill to fill.

Winds’  fleet currents, footworn paths, and rivers wide
will slide to valleys, skirt the hills, without a pause
for explanation. They reach an end
but never an intended destination.

Parsing Trump’s Miserable Prose

“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”
Let’s take a close look at this one sentence from Donald Trump’s letter telling James Comey that he is fired. Let’s consider how phrasing reveals superficiality and dishonesty.
First, as an English teacher, I can’t resist pointing out some little grammar issues. 1) Because a gerund takes the possessive, Trump should have written, “I greatly appreciate your informing me.” 2) Few of us are still disturbed by a split infinitive, but the word “effectively” could easily come at the end of the sentence. I think that sounds slightly more elegant. But I admit these are quibbles. So, we move on.

We move on to wonder, given the lack of specificity or precision, whether Comey really did offer three separate assurances that Trump was not under investigation. Comey has made clear, publicly, that the FBI is investigating Russian ties to the Trump campaign and administration. As a result, Comey could not possibly have insisted that Trump would not at some time be a target himself. (I can’t wait to hear Comey’s response when reporters ask him about those “three occasions.”)

And if Comey really did offer Trump those three assurances, why does the President “greatly appreciate” it? If Comey said that no investigation had yet focused on Trump, he was simply offering the facts—and probably in response to a question from the White House. He wasn’t doing the President a favor. There is nothing there for Trump to greatly appreciate.

And what’s with the “nevertheless”? Even if Comey had somehow merited appreciation, it should have nothing to do with Trump’s concurring with the DOJ’s evaluation of Comey’s fitness for leadership of the FBI. If Trump had bothered to fire Comey in person, there would have been an opportunity for him to explain that it was nothing personal. But such a personal touch was clearly not a priority for Trump. After all, Comey learned he had been fired when the news came up on a TV monitor in the room where he was addressing FBI agents in Los Angeles. (The news reached the media before it reached Director Comey!) And Trump’s clumsy attempt to share his superficial appreciation—this irrelevant interjection in a letter made public—leaves us all feeling a little creepy. More importantly, it leaves us painfully aware that Trump is merely trying to set aside any thoughts that he would ever (Heaven forbid!) fire the FBI director because he is leading the investigation into his possible, probable, obvious connections with the bankers and other thugs running Russia today.

Finally, Trump makes an error that my high school freshman are told to avoid when he fails to acknowledge counter-arguments that are on all his readers’ minds. He makes no mention of the fact that he is concurring with the judgment of an Attorney General who has recused himself, because of his own lies, under oath, about meetings with Russians. That an Assistant Attorney General, on the job for just two weeks, made the same judgment is of virtually no interest at all. Trump is concurring with a rookie and a man implicated as a conspirator. He is thus claiming to be shocked, truly shocked, by Comey’s announcements concerning Crooked Hillary’s campaign—even though he delighted that Comey, while failing to find Clinton’s conduct criminal, did cast doubts on her judgment and proclaimed her “reckless” in her handling of classified information.

Comey was doing a great job when he threatened the success of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Now, not long after going public about investigating the Trump administration, he must be fired for the way he handled information that led to that threat on the Democratic candidate. Nonsense.

Trump had already fired Sally Yates, and had already dismissed Preet Bharara, prior to yesterday’s Tuesday Afternoon Massacre. Let it do to Trump what the Saturday Night Massacre did to Nixon. And let whatever staff writer crafted Trump’s letter firing Comey learn a little more about grammar, supporting evidence, and especially the need to recognize opposition arguments, the knowledge we all have that undermines every claim the letter makes.

 

 

Anna Deavere Smith is Brilliant

Last Friday, with my wife Jean and several friends, I saw Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes From the Field at the 2nd Stage Theater in New York. It is heart-wrenching, infuriating, distressing, but also uplifting, as it digs deeply into our criminal injustice system and especially the school-to-prison pipeline.

I had seen Deavere Smith in person only once before, when she delivered the alumni-weekend sermon in the Stanford Chapel in October 2015. My wife and I were there because a good friend, who is also a good friend of Deavere Smith, invited us to the event. The sermon was remarkably thoughtful and beautifully delivered. She preached, though she is not a preacher, and she deepened the admiration I already had for her after seeing the film version of Fire in the Mirror, her powerful one-woman show about the Crown Heights riots of 1991. Notes From the Field, like that and several other earlier productions, is a social commentary based upon interviews she conducted with players in the issue she was tackling—interviews that become the script for a performance in which she plays all the parts. She becomes each person, male and female, young and old, white and black and Jewish and Latino. These changes involve simple but telling costume shifts, arresting stagecraft based upon projected photographs and videos, and the poised, commanding on-stage presence of composer and bass player Marcus Shelby. But most of all they involve Deavere Smith’s compelling impersonations, as she takes on the dialect and cadence of each individual. No um, er, or redundancy from the interviews is eliminated. The genuine sense of each personality is beautifully conveyed. She transforms herself and, with reverence for the uniqueness of each person, she conveys tremendous understanding and compassion. No one is mocked. Everyone is heard.

For the audience to hear so much, Deavere Smith has, quite obviously, conducted her interviews with a tremendous willingness to hear each person’s testimony herself. She has drawn people and let them speak. In Notes From the Field, she captures the voices of those accustomed to public speaking, like Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP and Jamal Harrison Bryant, Pastor of the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore, where he delivered the eulogy for Freddie Gray, whose spine was fatally snapped while he was arrested, shackled and, without any seatbelt, bounced around town in a paddy wagon. Ifill speaks precisely and thoughtfully while also being searingly articulate about racial and class inequities. Bryant raises the roof, enraging our spirits and evoking our tears. (He deserved a much better Amen corner than we supplied on December 2nd.)

But Deavere Smith also captures the voices of those who are not used to microphones, podiums, or altars. There is Allen Bullock, who joined the protests that followed Freddy Gray’s death and who knows the streets and speaks with a blend of despair, fatalism, and commitment to justice. There is Taos Proctor, a Yurock fisherman who interrupts the story of his jailhouse years with odd guffaws and erratic pauses. There is the hilarious Leticia De Santiago who explains how she raised upright kids in a downtrodden city. There is the hushed voice of Denise Dodson, who, on the eve of her parole, insists there was justice in imprisoning her for twenty-three years for being present when her boyfriend killed the man who had attempted to rape her.

And there is Congressman John Lewis, who speaks of reconciliation and forgiveness. If I wondered how well Deavere Smith takes on voices never known to the public, all doubts were dispelled when I heard how exactly she captures Lewis’s voice, its mixture of deep drawl, slow pace, and tender inflections.

The blending of these and several other voices left last Friday’s audience emotionally drained yet also inspired, stunned almost to silence yet also leaping to our feet. I’m sure that the show preaches to a choir of New Yorkers already eager—in these days of Trumpian pettiness, bigotry, and self-indulgence—for a countervailing force. If someone came to 2nd Stage with doubts that Black Lives Matter—like those of American Indians and Latinos (and, yes, everyone else)—I hope those doubts were not merely diminished but totally washed away by the torrent of Deavere Smith’s passionate commitment, open mind, and equally open heart.

If travel, the season, and the $107 ticket price don’t make it impossible, get to the theater. There is not a bad seat in the house. There are some tickets still available, at least on weeknights, but the show closes on December 18th.

Is There Any Common Ground?

Good friend Wilbur Johnson, in another of his excellent “Daily Blasts” [October 13] laments the profound polarization gripping the United States. After tracing the events, conflicts, and elections that have led us to this sorry place in our history, he asks, “ As we survey the landscape of elected officials, do we see any centrists — on either side — who could bring enough reasonable people to the table to effectively govern the country?  That seems to be the $64,000 Question.  There is talk that policy wonks Clinton and Ryan may be able to ‘work together.’  That might be our only hope, as far as moving beyond this impasse of living with a government that doesn’t govern.” Wilbur and I were talking about this question the other day, as we left a matinee of The Birth of a Nation. We both acknowledged that we have no tolerance for the Republican presidential candidate, and almost no patience for his supporters. But can we “reach across the aisle”? Can we find common ground with people who, like some of my neighbors and in-laws, are genuinely good people who simply don’t see social, political, or economic issues the way I do?

So I ask myself, in what ways am I a centrist? And here are my first, quickly brainstormed answers–the answers of an old-school FDR liberal who has sympathy for some complaints from the other side.

  • I think regulatory rules and government bureaucracy are bloated, irritating, expensive, and counter-productive. This doesn’t mean that I am reflexively against “big government” nor that I see no need for regulations that protect the environment, oversee banking practices, assure we are buying healthy food, or guarantee we labor in safe workplaces. Still, the regulations go beyond their good intentions. The minutiae and torturous paperwork that presently come with regulatory agencies does need to be reined in.
  • The tax laws are absurdly complicated. I might approve of lowering corporate tax rates if we also eliminated the vast and complex array of loopholes designed and understood only by lawyers from white-shoe firms. And my wife and I—who have only our pensions and a little bit of interest payments as income—still hire a CPA to make sure that we correctly file the odious forms.
  • Even though it is much less problematic right now, illegal immigration has been a significant problem over the last few decades. It has, for instance, been unfair to those who follow the legal process, waiting in the long, slow line of would-be residents. It has flooded dozens of American city school systems with students who need an education while also needing to learn English—and many of those students are transients whose attendance is sporadic and therefore disruptive. Knowing this does not mean hating, or even resenting, the undocumented workers who have come here with desperate hopes of escaping both violence and crippling poverty. The vast majority also work incredibly hard in order to get and keep a toehold in our economy. But it is foolish to insist that, because we want to treat these newcomers humanely, they haven’t created significant challenges for cities large and small throughout the country.
  • I do not begrudge a person the handgun she keeps in her night table, the shotguns and rifles he keeps in his hunting lodge, the weapons she takes to the target range. Though I am not a gun owner, I have held, loaded, and fired guns, and I actually like them. When the NRA argues that we are coming for their guns, they aren’t talking about me. But neither I nor the Supreme Court prior to 2008 and the D.C. v Heller decision, have ever believed that the 2nd Amendment is concerned with individual rights instead of the right to maintain “militias”—when the term refers to military units maintained by the state (and not in order to attack it). This is not terribly radical of me, especially when a large majority of Americans actually do want guns to be licensed and semi-automatics with huge magazines to be reserved for use by the military and police. So my position is already centrist.
  • Left and right have not, of late, been truly split about foreign policy issues (at least if we set aside Benghazi). It seems no one still believes the Iraq war was anything other than a travesty and a crisis. No one sees our fight in Afghanistan as a true success. There are people on both sides who want us to be much more wary about investing blood and money in foreign military campaigns. There are people on both sides who are full of bluster about how to smash ISIS or how to master Iran and Russia. And it seems no one knows what to do in Syria. In some ways, we are all centrists now regarding how to exert power and influence in the horrifyingly broken regions of the world.
  • The working stiffs of this country have been screwed. Even as the two political parties offer diametrically opposed solutions to the problem, income inequality angers and worries people on both the right and the left. We should be able to find common ground in efforts to address the problem. Letting Trump seize the issue by insisting that only he can make America great [again] is a serious error on the Democrats’ part. Mocking Trump for his claim is not good enough. Writing policies and platforms about fixing income inequality is not good enough. The issue, as proven by Bernie Sanders’ campaign, should be one of the constant drumbeats of the Clinton campaign.

I realize that, even as I write about common ground with my political opponents, I am still very clearly a well left-of-center kind of guy, one who will not be easily able to form a shared vision with my political enemies–those who really do deserve the “deplorable” label that has so offended them. But I don’t think those racist, bullying misogynists even approach a majority of American citizens. This campaign has shaken but not yet destroyed my faith in that belief, a faith that is somewhat strengthened as I see more and more Republicans abandon their presidential candidate.

So I do believe that I could sit on a Wyoming rancher’s porch and talk with him, maybe with some heat but not necessarily with rancor, about how some guns might be controlled. I might be able to meet a West Virginia coal miner and, as we both get past each other’s accents and styles, talk about what’s to be done to protect both his family and the world’s climate.  I could take a bar stool in my own town, and find a neighbor who’s pissed that Black Lives Matter activists “hate all cops and white people” and, if neither of us drank too much, I might hear his fear of old verities under threat, and he might hear my distress that those verities included cops having impunity in killing black folks. That last one may be a lot to ask. But we have to start asking–and without drinking too much. Which is to say, without losing our minds in tirades of visceral rage unmonitored by a knowledge of our shared humanity and the knowledge that most rage grows out of fear, worry, and a profound sense of loss or humiliation.

Hillary’s Latest Shame? Let’s Consider.

I recently had a visit with a good friend who is a banker. (Public school teachers sometimes have such friends. And she’s a good friend, too.) She told me a story about her son’s asking her to help a buddy of his, please, get a job—or a shot at a job—at her bank. She had explained to him that yes, she could ask the appropriate others in the company to give the buddy’s application a look, but she couldn’t do any more than that—both because she has no truly good reason to recommend the guy and because she shouldn’t mess too much with the bank’s application and hiring practices, especially because she could in fact influence them. There were ethics involved. It may be worth noting that her son’s friend did not get the job.

I may not be representing her story exactly. But I think I have captured the gist, which has, I think, a clear and acceptable bottom line: a person in power can, without serious qualms, help a friend (of a friend) not be overlooked, but she shouldn’t offer any greater advantage over all the other candidates. I realize that, in a perfect world, this would be a kind of corruption. Certainly it gives an advantage to anyone who is networked, and that is quite clearly not truly fair to those who don’t have any connections at all.

But how many of those in power ignore all the networked friends, acquaintances, classmates, family members, and trusted friends of family members? Is Bernie that pure? Is the vice-president of your local bank? Is the owner of that favorite deli where you buy your lunch?

I ask this because Hillary Clinton is being raked over the coals, once again, for the apparently gross corruption revealed in a handful of emails that reveal that her aides facilitated meetings between a couple of power brokers and a supporter or two (I think the total really is two) of The Clinton Foundation.

Now, I really do understand that there is something unseemly here. Just as it is essentially unfair to improve, even slightly, a nephew’s shot at a job interview, it is queasy-making, at a much higher level of power, to help a fat cat get a sit-down with a major mover-and-shaker. But I invite all expert nerds to hack into the emails of every senator and representative, of every cabinet member and White House aide. Of every real estate broker. Is any one of them so pure as to never have done a small favor for a friend or colleague?

I recognize that there are reasons to find Hillary Clinton corrupt. I know that FBI investigators have found three Clinton emails that shared improperly marked but still confidential information. For this, apparently, we should “lock her up.” And yes, they have also found some insider favoritism regarding two Foundation donors’ making connections to some D.C. bigwigs. For this, I’m told, we should once again brand her as “unworthy of the office of the President” (no matter how much we must ignore Presidential history in order to assert that conclusion).

But should we, for this, also insist that she’s just as corrupt as the lying, manipulative, vicious, callous, narcissistic, and thoroughly bankrupt demagogue that is her opposition?

No, we should not.

If you’re looking for a squeaky clean, beautifully pristine person to lead the nation, you’ll have to look for a person who is so divorced from the way national leadership works that they actually have no idea how to lead.

And you certainly cannot give a pass to the malignancy who for decades has plagued New York City and the nation with his enormous of bravado, malice, fakery, greed, narrow-mindedness, and self-aggrandizement—and the bankruptcies that have made him rich.

It Is Correct to be Politically Correct

Following the killing of 49 and the serious injury of 50 others in Orlando, Donald Trump has once again risen to his drunken soapbox to proclaim that Americans continue to be mowed down – occasionally by crazy Muslims but more often by nuts of a more Christian stripe – solely because Obama and Crooked Hillary refuse to call the killers “Islamic Terrorists.”

This bemuses me.

It is worth noting , though Donald fails to do so, that Obama continues sending out drones to drop explosives on the heads of every Islamic Terrorist (or wedding party) he can find. He threw bin Laden’s corpse into the sea. He commands air strikes on ISIS every day. He has kept troops—advisory and otherwise—in both Iraq and Afghanistan in order to keep trying to quell the Muslim creeps who won’t say “Uncle.” There is, it seems, ample evidence that Obama recognizes the threat of Islamic Terrorism.

Yes, Obama does avoid the term. He is “politically correct” in that he cares about the political impacts of the words he chooses to use. (How careless and vapid he must be.)

The President explains that he doesn’t want to use any expression that suggests Islam and terrorism are somehow inextricably or inevitably linked. He does not want to hint at disparagement of a whole religion, even though he clearly knows there is a sect of that religion that is devoted to raining down horror on those who don’t share their twisted love of Allah. He does not, as he makes clear, want to give the terrorists any other tools with which to recruit more lost and frantic martyrs.

One can question that political calculation. Some might, for instance, decide that in their own speeches, press releases, interviews, or tweets, they will indeed use the term “Islamic Terrorism”; and they might do so without claiming that Obama and Clinton’s diction causes that terrorism to spread.

What one might do, it’s clear, is not what Donald does.

Because Donald wants to stomp his feet. He wants to get attention. He wants to make the mob swoon in ecstasies of righteousness. He’s hot to get the guys fired up. They’re set on rushing into the streets, eager to search for beaners to beat , rag-heads to roust. The shithead in robes? Who cares if he claims he’s Buddhist?

I know. Donald hasn’t called for attacks on those in saffron robes. But once the mob is all het up, they’ll settle for any Other.

The point is this: the hatred of “political correctness” boils down to a contempt for diplomacy, for any effort to take a stand without bloodying toes you never meant to crush. But the stomp and crush is what Trump lovers love. “Wipe away the niceties,“ they cry. “Fuck the sensitivities.”

And somewhere, Muslims hear that cry. As Mexicans do.

And so do I.

A 100-Word Rant (re. Trump)

I’m befuddled by and afraid of Donald Trump—and especially by his legion of fans who caterwaul at his rallies, who pummel the black and brown and young protesters gathered there, and who troll his opponents with death threats, racial slurs, and the grossest misogyny. Are they the economically and culturally dispossessed, made obnoxious only by their understandable insecurity, their sense that everything that once made sense is slipping away? Or are they merely the same old lunatic fringe that has always feared and despised the other? Are they now crawling out of the cracks when Trump turns out the lights?

I discovered a very clever web site: http://100wordrant.blogspot.com/. My students found it inspirational, and it left me with yet another way of expressing my considerable Trumphobia. There’s no practical, political use in spilling my predictable guts this way, but I need the therapy.