Poetry’s Place

In the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.
– Wislawa Szymborska, in her Nobel Lecture, 1996

 

“Trump News” is Very Bad News

When Trump speaks of “Trump News,” he’s not necessarily generalizing. He may have a specific [fake] news source in mind.

Trump’s latest Tweeting kerfuffle arose yesterday (August 28), when he unleashed an irate claim that Google, Facebook, and Twitter share a clear and horrifying left-wing bias. He is certain this is true because a Google search for “Trump news” takes him only to leftie sites like, you know, CNN, never to conservative web sites. Wanting to check this claim, I also googled “Trump News.” Among the first sites to pop up was Trump’s own twitter account. The next was CNN, followed immediately by Fox News. Any bias at Google seems less than glaring. But, even though Google was the primary target of our President’s wrath, I decided to soldier on.

I found that Ask.com’s first selection is Wikipedia’s biography of Trump, followed by Fox and then the Washington Post. So, no obvious Marxist bias there either.

The algorithms at duckduckgo and Bing, while offering several of the same sites as Google and ask.com, did lead to a little greater variety, and among their top listed sites was, lo-and-behold, “trump.news.” (That, bizarrely enough, is the full URL. No dot com. Not dot org. Have I passed through a mysterious portal to the dark web?)

Check out trump.news if you want to be better acquainted with the true wingnuts of the MAGA gang. And, after taking a look, think about how many people have discovered this site only because Trump’s tweet inspired searches, like mine, using the exact phrase “Trump News.” Conspiracy theories abound on the site, but there is no “About,” no “Who We Are,” on its menu. In fact, the top bar contains no menu at all, and scrolling to the bottom also reveals no information about who is responsible for the site and what its mission might be. Those who do scroll down will merely learn that “Trump.News is a fact-based public education website published by Trump News Features, LLC.” (I haven’t been able to confirm it with web searches, but that LLC sure does sound like one of Trump’s myriad limited liability companies.)

This lack of transparency, this failure or refusal of the site’s makers to step out from behind the curtain of their wizardry, is likely one reason that Google’s algorithm does not honor trump.news with a top listing. Google has reduced the power of an “exact match domain” relative to other criteria. This means that, even if such a site’s name perfectly corresponds with the wording of a search entry, it will not rise to the top of the search results because Google does not want to give an edge to “low-quality sites” that have been named, as if by design, to draw hits from the unsuspecting, many of whom won’t recognize the flimsiness of the site they have found. trump.news is that kind of web site.

Its stories—and there are so many of them, each one crazier than the last—are written by “News Editors” or by Mike Adams or J.D. Heyes.

Adams, more googling reveals, is a controversial “conservative journalist,” respected by some and despised by others for his reporting on health and nutrition issues. A well-documented story at The Genetic Literacy Project reports that “Adams tried to cleanse his original NaturalNews.com post calling for the killing of scientists and journalists [Yikes!] and is now blocking access to the Monsanto Collaborators site, which he claims was actually set up by Monsanto and its supporters to discredit him and other anti-GMO activists, but the truth is out [Adams really is the site’s editor] and the damage has been done…The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, besieged by complaints from targets and the science and journalism communities, immediately launched an investigation of Adams and the site, with Adams facing possible felony charges of inciting violence.”

Wikipedia tells us Adams is also a professor at UNC Wilmington, where his career has been strikingly checkered; he had to sue the university for anti-Christian bias in order to earn a promotion in 2007. Oh…And he writes for The Daily Wire.

J.D. Heyes, on his page at muckrack.com, introduces himself this way: “Sr. Correspondent, newstarget.com; Editor, thenationalsentinel.com; Combat vet OEF; #MAGA; ‘Merica 1st; no prisoners.” And here’s the headline for his first story at that site: “Democrats push to drop nationwide voting age to 16, because young people are so much easier to brainwash at government-run schools.” Read thenationalsentinal.com if you can bear it.

Finally, I went to Facebook, searched again for Trump News, and quickly arrived at this FB page for the same brand of maniacal hysteria I had already found at the trump.news site. Once again, the “About” and “Information” links on the Facebook page offer no insight into who has brought it into our lives.

I don’t know that Trump had trump.news in mind when he tweeted this morning. I cannot prove that Google’s algorithm doesn’t weed out far right web sites by design, even though I believe the weirdest of alt-right sites have earned their low status in good search engines, and I’m perfectly happy not to have the most wacko of leftist sites pop up in my quick searches. I also don’t put it past the President to conspire to turn the nation towards one more nest of absurd conspiracy theorists in order to feed and possibly extend his ardent base.

And, like Daniel Dale in the Toronto Star, I am confident that when Trump claims, with no supporting evidence, that 96% of sites arising from a Google search for “trump news” represent the views of “National left-wing media,” he is simply revealing his panic about finding that real, documented, professional news sites appear first, with alt-right ranters lagging far behind. Want to know why “bad news” dominates any search for news about you, Mr. President. It’s because all the news really is terribly, terribly bad.

Rex Tillerson, Cowpoke Diplomat

In an interview with 60 Minutes, aired on February 18, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Margaret Brennan that he is guided by “The Code of the West,” the rules and sensibility that he was raised on in North Texas. Tillerson explained the code by saying that “as the West was unfolding there wasn’t a lot of law enforcement. And people basically relied upon each other’s word. And ‘My word is my bond.’ And I’ve used that throughout my life as well…And then a lotta the Code of the West was people were very loyal to their organizations. And the phrase, ‘Riding for the brand’ is a phrase that’s always stuck with me…[and that meant] when a cowboy signed on to a ranch or– or to that organization, he was committed to that organization.”

Now there’s a lot to admire in this code. Who faults straightforwardness, clarity, and honesty? Who derides those who keep their word? And besides, Tillerson delivers his earthy sermonette with a gentle drawl and thoughtful mien that only deepens our sense that he’s a regular Atticus Finch, committed to his ethics and devoted to his commitments.

Brennan, perhaps struck by the soft-spoken dignity of the Secretary of State (and perhaps not), was moved to know what brand Tillerson was “riding for.” He replied, “The State Department of the United States government. The American people are my brand.”

I am in part willing to believe this. Tillerson does saddle up for the State Department when he pursues some diplomatic inroads with North Korea, albeit somewhat haltingly, despite the President’s tweet insisting that such efforts with Little Rocket Man are a waste of Tillerson’s time. And he does carry himself like one of the adults in the Oval Nursery, which does some service to “his brand,” the American people.

But other parts of me ain’t buying it at all.

There is plentiful reason to think that the U.S. Department of State is not his brand. A great deal of media attention (including this from The Guardian) makes it clear that, just as Scott Pruitt has signed on to head the EPA in order to neuter it, Rex Tillerson is overseeing a diminishment of State. Acknowledging a slashing of the department’s budget, he insists that addressing and reducing conflicts around the world will lead to great financial savings for the U.S., but there is no evidence that Trump is reducing our international commitment, nor that he is not increasing the potential for new and fearsome conflicts, especially with North Korea and Iran but conceivably with Turkey and in the Arabian Peninsula.

While Brennan did not raise these issues, she did get to another heart of the miserable matter: There are still 41 U.S. embassies without ambassadors. How are we pursuing diplomacy in the hottest spots in the world when we do not have an ambassador in South Korea or Saudi Arabia? Tillerson admitted this was an issue but also insisted that “it’s just the nature of the process itself” that makes appointments so difficult. He did not explain why it has been so much less difficult with past administrations nor why Trump has not even made appointments to so many of those empty posts. But Tillerson keeps riding for the Trump brand because the President, he says, is “the decider.”

In concluding the interview, Tillerson finished as a whimsically grinning Sam Eliot might wrap up any well-narrated western, saying, “I’m here to serve my country. I committed to this president. My word is my bond. I ride for this brand. That’s why I’m here. And nothin’ anybody else says is gonna change that.” And so he asserts his nobility while failing even to acknowledge an essential understanding of adult life: there are times when you can’t be simultaneously loyal to your boss and to the good of the company. Trump always looks for men (and an occasional woman) to be loyal to him—not to the country, the Constitution, or the laws, but to him. Which means Tillerson may be just another perfect Trump man.

Possibly the most striking example, at least in this interview, of this misplaced loyalty—and of Tillerson’s failure to behave like the bullshit-free cowpoke he claims to be—arose when Brennan asked him why he continues neither to confirm nor deny that he did, in front of several other White House officials, call the President a moron. With the hint of a sneer, Tillerson called the question “very old” before going on to insist that he isn’t interested in the kind of “silly” talk that is so sadly all the rage in Washington. When Brennan repeated the question, Tillerson said, “I have answered the question.” Asked again, he said, “I won’t dignify the question…[pause]…I have answered the question.”

No he hasn’t. Nor has he really explained why he won’t. Hell, he could at least say, “I have to stick with ‘no comment’ on this one. I’m going to keep my private conversations private.” That would have some dignity. There is much less dignity in insisting that only “silly” gossips care whether so powerful a cabinet member considers his President an idiot. Also, there are other and much more dignified responses to Brennan’s perfectly appropriate question. He could have said, “It was a heated moment. I don’t recall exactly how I expressed my regrettable flash of frustration, but I know it did not represent my real judgment of the President.” That, of course, might be a lie. It’s possible he never did call Trump a moron. But why would he, while “riding for his brand,” not be comfortable explaining that? Or maybe he did spurt out the insult, and maybe it did reflect his real judgment. And if that’s the case, then we have to ask why he would sign on to such an outfit in the first place, or stick with one that proved to be so moronic.

Nothing in the code says a cowboy can’t quit.

 

One GOP Lie About Our Government’s Shutdown

This morning, Mike Mulvaney, the Trump administration’s budget director and a former member of the House of Representatives, explained why it was OK for Republicans to vote against the 2013 Continuing Resolution (CR) while Democrats are now obstructionist to cast a similar vote. The distinction, he claimed, is that he and other conservative Republicans voted against the CR because it contained funding for the ACA, an act which they vehemently opposed. Today, all but five Democrats voted against the CR even though they support everything in the bill: continuing government funding, renewal of the CHIP program, and a delay in some specific government funding.

Mulvaney is a very articulate, impressive debater and must be very convincing to many, many people. The trouble with his argument, however, is that it’s a crock. Here, Wikepedia explains how the the issue of the ACA was part of the 2013 CR only because Republicans insisted upon it.

“A ‘funding-gap’ was created when the two chambers of Congress failed to agree to an appropriations continuing resolution. The Republican-led House of Representatives, in part encouraged by conservative senators such as Ted Cruz[5] and conservative groups such as Heritage Action,[6][7][8] offered several continuing resolutions with language delaying or defunding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly known as ‘Obamacare’). The Democratic-led Senate passed several amended continuing resolutions for maintaining funding at then-current sequestration levels with no additional conditions. Political fights over this and other issues between the House on one side and President Barack Obama and the Senate on the other led to a budget impasse which threatened massive disruption.[9][10][11]

“The deadlock centered on the Continuing Appropriations Resolution, 2014, which was passed by the House of Representatives on September 20, 2013.[12] The Senate stripped the bill of the measures related to the Affordable Care Act, and passed it in revised form on September 27, 2013.[12] The [GOP controlled] House reinstated the Senate-removed measures, and passed it again in the early morning hours on September 29.[12] The Senate declined to pass the bill with measures to delay the Affordable Care Act, and the two legislative houses did not develop a compromise bill by the end of September 30, 2013, causing the federal government to shut down due to a lack of appropriated funds at the start of the new 2014 federal fiscal year.”

It was conservative Republicans like Mike Mulvaney, a Tea Party firebrand, that inserted the anti-ACA language in an attempt to cripple Obamacare, which had already been law for over three years. Today, Mulvaney joins the chorus that claims only the Democrats have ever held up a Continuing Resolution for reasons “unrelated” to the immediate budgetary issues.

None of this means that I’m convinced the Democrats are politically astute to be blocking the present CR. It does mean, though, that I remain sickened by the White House’s ongoing pattern of lying about and demonizing their opposition. Nor do I forgive Trump for failing to negotiate in good faith to assure the Dreamers a secure place here in the United States, the only country they have ever really known.

Passing Away

I just finished watching Sister Act 2, an unimportant movie filled with engaging music. Whoopi Goldberg, Lauren Hill, and Ryan Toby kick song-and-dance ass, and there’s no reason not to love the tunes’ exuberance, even while looking askance at the sentimental nonsense of the plot. Part of my problem is that I don’t know whether just the music or also the sentimentality has left me suddenly close to open weeping.

I don’t think of myself as terribly vulnerable or emotionally repressed, but it seems I’m a raw nerve. Maybe I’m just attuned to the emotional power of music. Maybe I’m out of touch with my own heart and mind.

For the last two days, Jean and I have hauled furniture from her family home to her brother’s house in Weston, our nephew’s temporary apartment in New Haven, our son and his girlfriend’s loft in Brooklyn, our own house in Norwalk, and city dumps in both New York and Connecticut. I’m exhausted. And I’m terribly aware that we are shutting down the house that Jean grew up in, the house her father and his family built by hand, the house that was home to all of them and all their friends and neighbors and eventual sons-in-law and thirteen grandchildren. It has been a joyous house and my second home.

And last night I got in touch with M______ to see if he and A_____ are up for a visit. I’m glad they are—despite the prognosis and the chemo. My old, close friend is dying. I don’t think about it all day, every day, but when I think about it, clouds and sleet fill my chest.

And also, although she seems well out of danger now, for the last year one of my closest teaching friends has suffered, when much too young and with a five-year-old to raise and cherish, from the effort of kicking stage-4 breast cancer out of her life.

Today I told Jean that it’s clear the problem of friends’ dying will be with us the rest of our lives. She nodded.

Only pain and suffering, extreme hate and love, would really matter much, would evoke sudden, fierce emotions, if it weren’t for mortality. Knowing we will die, and perhaps soon, each joy is tainted and made precious by the knowledge of its passing.

For most of my life, I have feared old age, especially since watching my mother crumble under the weight of alzheimer’s. When I was thirteen or fourteen, my parents were concerned about my discomfort around old and feeble people, a discomfort I largely outgrew. But I still have a dread of being old and feeble myself. Nonetheless, for most of my life I have felt free of any fear of death. An agnostic who leans strongly towards atheism, I remember arguing with a friend about having no fear of death because endless, dreamless sleep and angst-free oblivion could do me no harm. He found such nullity more terrible. He actually preferred the possibility of Hell to disappearance and the soulless existence it implies.

Nowadays, I feel his point. And I may need to reflect on this much more.

Right now, though, I simply don’t think I’m the proverbial atheist in a foxhole. At 66 and having had a few health scares, I can see my death in the near distance, but it’s not imminent. I feel well and look forward to travel and weddings and celebrations that I have every expectation of getting to enjoy. But the health scares—along with the hair loss and the aching joints and a tendency to slip into napping during free afternoons—do tell me I’m not the robust youth I used to be.

And so mortality haunts the back of my mind and sometimes asks for attention, as it has today, as I write this reflection about slipping into tears while watching a hackneyed movie.

Lara Trump’s “Real News”

Screen Shot 2017-08-02 at 4.01.44 PM.pngLara Trump, former producer at “Inside Edition” and also wife to the hapless younger son from President Trump’s first marriage, has created a weekly “real news” program on Facebook. Her explicit purpose is to bring viewers the good news of the good things done by her father-in-law’s administration each week. You can find her latest report, which clocks in at well under three minutes, here.

Almost every story that she reports, after suggesting they have not been covered in “the fake news,” had reached me already through the mainstream media, and most of my sources are the ones Trump derides most: The NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, CBS, and NPR. (I don’t think Trump ever mentions The New Yorker or The Nation.)

First, she speaks of the president’s contributing his first quarter salary to the Parks Department, his second to the Department of Education. (Yes, I knew this already.) She does not acknowledge the fact that Trump’s policies, as implemented by these two departments’ secretaries, are designed to reverse the mission—indeed, the very purpose—of each department. It’s also worth noting that 25% of the president’s $400,000 salary is, trust me, significantly less than the $9.2 billion that he has cut from the Department of Education.

Next she touts “Jobs, jobs, jobs.” And she isn’t wrong. (I know, because my fake news sources have already reported on this.) The unemployment rate really has been falling since Trump was elected—just as it did throughout the last several years of the Obama administration. It isn’t particularly fair to suggest that Trump somehow created that trend or can take credit for it, though I’m certainly glad he hasn’t reversed it. And when she cites Foxconn’s promise to create 13,000 new American jobs by moving some manufacturing to Wisconsin, she doesn’t also mention that Foxconn has reneged on such promises in the past. Nor does she seem aware that Foxconn is a tremendously controversial Taiwanese corporation that has even been charged with running sweatshops so severe that they drive some employees to suicide. And she fails to mention the fact that Wisconsin has offered Foxconn $3 billion in tax breaks and exemption from several environmental regulations in order to deserve the corporation’s largesse.

Ms. Trump also celebrates the muscular stock market. I guess it’s true. I already knew that the Dow was rising. I don’t know why—but then I never have understood Wall Street. What she calls a “booming economy” could be a result of renewed consumer confidence (which apparently is on the rise) or of big time investor’s confidence that corporations, banks, and the 1% in general are sure to keep on thriving under this administration. Lara Trump doesn’t mention either possibility, simply letting “booming” speak for itself. Nor does she consider how clearly this boom is merely a whimper for the middle and working class workers whose wages and salaries have been frozen or declining for decades.

Ms Trump’s pro-Trump reporting then moves on to praise the administration’s respect for men and women in uniform. This week the president awarded the Medal for Valor to the officers who brought down the shooter at the Republican baseball practice; he met with veterans in Ohio; and Vice-President Spence visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed. There is certainly nothing wrong with any of these events, and all have been reported by the mass media. They are also very typical of what any administration is expected to do. They are good things, but hardly exceptional.

As for her delight in Trump’s speech to police officers and ICE officials on Long Island, she’s correct that it was the president’s way of announcing his ongoing commitment to cracking down on gang violence, such as the perfectly righteous arrests of MS-13 members out in Nassau County. She doesn’t mention (as the mainstream media certainly has) that this particular speech was laced with Trump’s urging the gathered officers to “get rough” with suspects they arrest, which comments were met with cheers from many of the men and women in blue in his audience, and met with shock and even derision from police officers and union officials following the speech—a speech that might have been even worse than his address to the national Boy Scout Jamboree, except that this time he was addressing adults, who should have known better.

Kinda like Lara Trump.

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.