Monday, December 30, 2013

"The Most Dangerous Man in America" review

I think we cannot let the officials of the Executive Branch determine for us what it is that the public needs to know about how well and how they are discharging their functions. . . . (From Daniel Ellsberg’s TV interview with Walter Cronkite)

I was in college majoring in journalism, taking a Media Law class when I learned about the Pentagon Papers case – one of the most important cases ever decided by the Supreme Court. Tricky Dick Nixon tried to suppress publication of leaked documents about the Vietnam War, but fortunately the high court ruled in favor of the Constitution.

The 40th anniversary of the case brought the Pentagon Papers in the news again. At long last, the government has declassified the entire collection – more than 7,000 documents telling the dirty truth about how four U.S. presidents helped create a war that needlessly ended 58,000 American and 2 million Vietnamese lives.

Daniel Ellsberg, a defense dept. analyst, leaked the Top Secret documents to the press. The court ruled against prior restraint, saying the government could not stop newspapers from publishing the classified papers. While I understood the impact of this decision – a triumph for First Amendment rights -- I knew next to nothing about Ellsberg. I learned that Nixon’s plumbers ransacked his psychiatrist’s office and that’s about it.

This week’s news prompted me to finally watch the 2009 documentary film, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The film, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, educated me about Ellsberg and gave me new insight into this historical drama and its relevance today. POV’s (that’s cinema speak for “Point of View”) website, showed the documentary online for free on Monday and Tuesday this week. If you didn’t see it, I say go to your local library and check out the DVD.

Ellsberg was not a hippie peacenik. He was an Establishment figure. A Harvard graduate, summa cum laude, Ellsberg then attended Cambridge University on a fellowship. Between 1954 and 1957, he spent three years as a U.S. Marine Corps commander. In 1959 he joined the RAND corporation global policy think tank. During the 1960s, he was a Dept. of Defense analyst perpetuating the Cold War line until – in good conscience – he could do it no longer.

He leaked a bombshell government study to newspapers chronicling the history of our Southeast Asian police action. The report – which Ellsberg helped write -- revealed how presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson had lied to the public and dragged the United States into an unjust, unwinnable war. Nixon, happy to see his predecessors with their pants down, nevertheless realized a whistleblower could also get dirt on him. So he went after Ellsberg and tried to muzzle the press.

The film’s title is taken from Henry Kissinger. Imagine that, a war criminal calling someone of principle “the most dangerous man in America.” That speaks loudly about the arrogance and hypocrisy of power. Hearing White House tapes of Nixon’s voice is chilling: “You’re so goddamn conscientious about civilians and I don’t give a damn.”

Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers are relevant in 2011. The U.S. military is fighting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, suicides are on the rise among veterans, wikileaks has revealed things the U.S. government doesn’t want you to know and the guys who blew the whistle are in jail on questionable charges. We would be remiss not to examine history in the context of today’s world and The Most Dangerous Man in America is a great resource for doing that.

The Academy award nominated film is modest, not a hagiography, but I came away from it, seeing Ellsberg as an American hero. It’s a view he would not share. Ellsberg, now 80, feels guilty about the six years he spent in the defense dept., knowing the government was lying to the public, and doing nothing as the death toll mounted in Vietnam.

The “most shameful episode in my life,” he says in the film, was helping Defense Secretary Robert McNamara persuade Pres. Lyndon Johnson to launch the “most disproportionate bombing campaign in the history of the world” on North Vietnam.

Ellsberg’s disaffection with the war evolved gradually, but by the end of the ‘60s, he could no longer remain “a passive bureaucrat.” The most riveting moments of the film reveal Ellsberg anguishing as he confronted a moral dilemma: violate the secrecy contracts he had signed or stay silent as more lives were lost. The man was willing to go to prison for the rest of his life if it meant stopping the war. Hearing this, there was no way I could not respect the man.

Ultimately, a federal judge threw out the government’s case against Ellsberg. (The Nixon administration had compromised the integrity of its investigation with dirty tricks.) But nobody could have foreseen the outcome.

The recent de-classification of the Pentagon Papers was a quiet news item. There were no world shaking revelations. The contents of the documents were revealed by the news media years ago. Really, the public response has been too quiet. We should be asking ourselves: what parallels do we see today? (Wikileaks for one.) Is the government, acting in our name, conducting itself honorably? What are the possible ramifications of our actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya? Is there transparency in government?

I don’t think we’ve learned from our history. Nixonian policy has become a template for the presidency and Vietnam is our template for waging war. History has vindicated Ellsberg, but if we were today fighting a war with American casualties on a scale with Vietnam, and someone leaked documents revealing executive branch weapons of mass deception, I think he would be Typhoid Mary. Most Americans would swallow that hackneyed government stand-by about that person being a traitor, costing American lives and giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

The same old song and dance.

Gateway films: One Bright Shining Moment. An intriguing documentary about George McGovern’s 1972 presidential run, this film is a reminder of a good opportunity lost.
Gateway books: Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg’s memoir, upon which much of the film is based.
The Arrogance of Power by Sen. J. William Fulbright. This book by the late Arkansas senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is a must-read. Fulbright was writing about U.S. mistakes related to Vietnam, but he could just as well have been writing about today. If only America had heeded his advice.
There is a clip of Fulbright in The Most Dangerous Man in America explaining on a TV news show why he voted with the rest of Congress to give LBJ a blank check to wage war in Vietnam. A formidable political mind, Fulbright wasn’t perfect.
A Political Odyssey: The Rise of American Militarism and One Man’s Fight to Stop It by Sen. Mike Gravel. The two-term Alaska senator is featured in The Most Dangerous Man for introducing the Pentagon Papers into the public record during a filibuster.
Integrity: Good People, Bad Choices, and Life Lessons from the White House by Egil “Bud” Krogh. The head of Nixon’s plumber’s unit, Krogh served a brief prison term, turned his life around and is the only one of the plumbers to take ownership of his actions. He is interviewed in the Ellsberg documentary.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

"How the Great Religions Began" review

I like the coexist bumper stickers. I'm interested in different faiths. Hence, when I saw Joeseph Gaer's How the Great Religions Began in a thrift store, I bought it.

I was hoping the book would talk about the circumstances in parts of the world that would lead to certain religions originating in those specific regions - the land, conditions, political situations. This book wasn't that deep. However it did refer to how the caste system under Hinduism led to Buddhism and how the the oppression of Jews under the Roman Empire raised hopes for a messiah and gave birth to Christianity.

Gaer's book is basic, a little naive and innocent, respectful and for the time it was written in, quite forward. How the Great Religions Began was written in the 1920s - a time when Christianity was almost the only religion in the United States and Judaism was was a U.S. sub-culture, primarily practiced among Eastern European immigrants on the East Coast.

Religious bigotry in this country was directed at Jews and Catholics. Islam, while it may have existed here since before the Mayflower, by way of the slave trade, was still too minuscule to attract notice. Islamophobia wasn't invented yet in the United States. Of course it's here now in a big way, which makes Gaer's book - while of average scholarly significance - amazingly forward in terms of subject matter and acceptance.

In today's flat, small earth, we have the world and all its cultures accessible at our fingertips. Ninety years ago, it was rare that we would acknowledge an Eastern world existed in history, rarer still for it to be regarded with respect, equal to that of Western culture. Gaer did this, giving space and consideration to such far Eastern religions as Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism and Shintoism.

This isn't to say the book isn't dated. Some of the language, while not disrespectful, may sound that way today. The opening of the chapter on Judaism, while making a point about the diversity within the culture, sounds laughably stereotypical and un-PC today.

There are a few Jews in Abyssinia as dark as any man in that land.
There are a few Jews in China, who like the Chinese, are yellow-skinned and their eyes are almond-shaped and slanted.
There are Jews in Italy, swarthy and black-eyed.
There are Jews in Northern Russia, Canada, Sweden and Norway with blonde hair, white skins and greenish grey eyes.
And there are Jews in Denmark, Germany and Ireland who are red-haired and blue-eyed.
There are short, dark-haired Jews in warmer climates.
There are tall, light-skinned Jews in colder countries.
There are the slender daughters of Zion in Palestine, and there are the fat Jewesses in Tunis and Morocco.

The passage is painful to  read, but while it's unpalatable to modern ears, it is a reflection of the naivete' of the times. It is unlikely that Gaer was intentionally being disrespectful to any culture, and he definitely was not expressing anti-semitism. Gaer may have been marveling at the reach of his own culture.

Originally, Joseph Fisherman, he was born Jewish in Yedinitz, Russia in 1897. A lecturer in contemporary literature at UC Berkeley, he held several positions in the federal government over the years, and in 1958, he became founder and director of the Jewish Heritage Foundation in Beverly Hills. He also wrote a book called Our Jewish Heritage.

The strength of the book is Gaer's openness to world religions at a time when the Western world was not that culturally open. He can be forgiven for language that wouldn't go down well today.

Weaknesses in the book include Gaer's writing style, which sometimes sounds condescending. Not toward different cultures, but to the reader. He writes as if he's talking to a child.

Also, the book contains no bibliography or end notes, taking away from any historical value it might otherwise have. Historically, the book is accurate, but basic and without a lot of depth. A better introduction to comparative religion would be Huston Smith's 1958 book, The Religions of Man.

When reading Gaer's book, however, one can take delight in the similarities between the diverse religions: Buddha's Sermon at Benares and Jesus's Sermon on the Mount. Buddha's Four Noble Truths, Eight-fold Path, Confucios's Five Constant Virtues and Christ's Beatitudes. It was interesting to read about how Zoroastrianism influenced Judaism.

Despite Gaer's flaws, there is something fundamentally decent in his naivete' that one finds near the end of the book. In his belief that monotheism is the apex of religious thought, he writes:

The believer in One God (or Monotheist as he is called) realizes that all of mankind must be regarded as one large family, different as may be the color of people's skins, the words of their speech, or the manner of their daily lives...
The true Monotheist realizes that whatever one race does affects all other races; whatever one nation does affects all other nations; whatever one person does affects all other people - for good or for evil.
And from this the true Monotheist is forced to conclude that only what is good for mankind at large is good for the individual. And what is bad for mankind is bad for the individual in the long run.
This is what is meant by the Brotherhood of Man that all the great religions of today preach.
And through this Brotherhood of Man can be attained not through hatred, but love; not through strife, but cooperation; not through war but peace.

Oh, if it were so.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Great Songs of Christmas (Album Five)" review

You may have heard this yuletide oldie before in another life. Piping from a hi fi console at your grandparents' house back in the days when Christmas was Christmas. Maybe your grandpa got the album with a purchase of Good Year snow tires for his Buick.

For years, Good Year and Firestone had an annual rivalry. They both released Christmas albums during the holiday season, and each year's offering was a star-studded event. The tire companies and the record companies - Firestone (RCA), Good Year (Columbia) - brought out the big guns recorded Christmas carols - Bing Crosby, Mahalia Jackson, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Robert Goulet, Isaac Stern, Barbara Streisand...

Somewhere around the early '70s, there were no more records. No more albums at your mechanic and tire dealerships the way Starbucks carries CD's today. A more cynical age was taking shape. Christmas carols. TV variety shows full of singing, dancing and cornball humor - that was okay for Don Draper and Roger Sterling's cocktail lounge lives, but the roach smokin', rock generation was graduating from college, joining the workforce and starting families. They didn't care that Maurice Chevalier made a heartwarming comedy movie in 1932.

Perhaps Good Year's Great Songs of Christmas, that album I picked up from the bargain bin at the used record store is carrying the ghost of that man who picked it up with a lube job. Maybe he wore a fedora hat and kept his Pal Malls in a silver-plated cigarette case, who knows? What if that 33 rpm record is the portal? If within its groves, I would slip into the black hole that is the ghost of Christmas Past? .

Album Five, the words on the record sleeve say. That means it was released in 1965. The album sleeve is a Christmas red with images of cute little Christmas cookie angels. Below are pictures of the singers and musicians featured in the album.
O' Holy Night sung by Andy Williams is easily the best recording on the album, not only because it is the greatest Christmas song ever written, but for the way its carried by Williams's velvet-like voice. His stirring vocals give this classic carol the drama and reverence it deserves. I can envision the manger, the illustrious star, grasp the holiness of the scene. Near the end of the song, Williams's voice registers to a falsetto, accentuating its holiness.

With a top-rated TV variety show and hit records coming from all sides, Williams was a smart choice for this album. He may not have been as Christmasy as Perry Como, but he was huge deal in entertainment-at-large.

Williams's recording fittingly begins the album. First cut on side one. The second best track, appropriately enough, is the last one on side two - "Jingle Bells", sung by the swingest cat, Mr. Showbiz, Sammy Davis, Jr. and here, Mr. Davis shows why he is a consummate professional. He takes the most ordinary, cliched of Christmas songs and turns it into a hip, swingin' affair.

But Davis's "Jingle Bells" is only a medley. It leads into the only original composition on the album, "It's Christmas Time All Over the World," written by Hugh Martin, who also wrote such classics as "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." In Davis's hands, this new (for 1965) song takes on a Sinatra-like "Come Fly With Me" vibe. The children's chorus calls to mind Sinatra's "High Hopes," while giving a glimpse of what's to come seven years later when Davis will record that perennial childlike favorite, "The Candy Man."

Naturally, I would prefer that this whole album be in a ballad and swingin' mold, something along the lines of that tradition Michael Buble is keeping alive today. This is not that album. I have, however, come to appreciate what it is -  and this is the point at which the time portal works its educational magic. The Great Songs of Christmas (Album Five) is a product of those days when Broadway show tunes, opera and classical orchestras constituted hit album sales.

Take Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Can we ever have enough Eugene Ormandy Orchestra? Don't be so cavalier. I'd say he's worthy of respect. The man conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra for 44 years and he had directed the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra for five years before that.

I particularly like the orchestra's performance of "We Three Kings of Orient Are" because it's so historical. Most of us know little about The Wise Men except that they're these figures in Nativity sets who brought the Christ child gold, frankincense and myrrh. According to the book of Matthew, the only Gospel account that mentions them, they did not meet Jesus until he was around two years old and in his home. The orient the song refers to is Persia and the wise men were mostly likely priests of the high caste of Zoroastrianism who were deep into astrology. Therefore, they followed the "star," possibly a comet. Biblical scholars have written that the wise men made the journey because they were aware of the prophecies in Daniel that foretold the birth of the messiah.

Back to Eugene Ormandy. Like Sammy Davis, Jr., he was Jewish, which is interesting since they're featured on a Christmas album. Although Ormandy was born into it and of Hungarian origin.

I recently listened to a segment on NPR, asking "What happened to classical Christmas music?" This album takes the listener back to the days when classical music was still a mainstay of the season's musical palate. Opera singers Andre Kostelanetz, Richard Tucker and Anna Mari Alberghetti are featured, performing The Great Songs of Christmas.

Anna Mari Alberghetti? you ask. She was only on "The Ed Sullivan Show" more than 50 times. A lot more times than Elvis. Her soprano voice in "Caroling, Caroling" captures the sing-along, skippity-skip lilt of the song. With her girlish voice and seasonal aura, one can envision caroling merry makers in a snow-capped gingerbread neighborhood.

Dinah Shore and Doris Day have similar voices - white, sweet and virginal. They are good voices, yet the types that today would not make it past the initial auditioning on "American Idol" or "The Voice" because they would not sound contemporary enough. All the more reason to give them a listen - and a chance. Figure out what made them such smashing stars in the '50s and '60s.

The best selection on this album by a female singer is Diahann Caroll's version of "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," not only because her voice is the most original of the female voices on the album, but because the song - although it is more than 400 years old - the least known. Hence, it is the most original. The lyrics about a blooming flower are symbolic of Christ's birth.

Mrs. Webb, the music teacher at my kids's school, is good about bringing fresh  songs into the elementary school Christmas concerts she directs. The kids have sang songs about diversity and caring for the earth. Neat, original stuff. "There are about five standard Christmas songs and I didn't want to be 'that teacher,'" she told me.
Overall, The Great Songs of Christmas is that album. Perhaps, it's appropriate, consistent with the album's title. True, "The Little Drummer Boy" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas" aren't my favorite songs. But their inclusion on this album is a window into a time when Christmas conventions were par for the course. The Golden Age of Christmas music lasted from around 1940 to 1965. This album, this culture, which for a time was coexisting with the Beatles was on the wane. In an era when the Beatles are taking their rightful place in history's archives, it is interesting to see the world as it was before.

One of my favorite songs on the album - remember I prefer the jumping tunes - is "Sleigh Ride," sung by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Here's one that takes me back to the grandparent's house and the hi-fi console.  From somewhere in the house, someone was jangling bells and it was proof positive to me that Santa was flying nearby on his sleigh. This yuletide classic pop song, sung by the swift, crisp as clean, swingin' voices of Steve and Eydie captures all that razmatazz.

"Giddyup, giddyup, giddyup, let's go." Steve Lawrence's voice coming in like a lashing whip. Listening, I can only think, "How cool is this guy?"

The somber religious selections by Kostelanetz and Ormandy do seem pedestrian and staid, but when I focus more closely, I think about why they were included here, why this holiday is what it is. It becomes clear in my mind as I hear opera tenor Richard Tucker's version of "The Lord's Prayer." Somber. Reverential. Along with the toy soldier Christmas merriment I felt as a kid at Christmas, I also recapture another holiday feeling I absorbed then - the religiosity.

The belief.

I'm just as jaded and cynical as anyone else. More so, probably. But I'll open the door, the window to that place as art dictates. You may not like every song on this album or every musical style represented, but I say open yourself up and see if you don't find Christmas spirit, real as Doscher's candy canes.

                    Steve and Edyie Gorme' singing "Sleigh Ride."
                    Edyie died last August at age 84.
                                        Terrible loss.  

                          On the Christmas album, Richard Tucker sings,
                           "The Lord's Prayer." Here is Frank Sinatra's
                           beautiful version of the song.

How could this sweet thing ever be forgotten? Here is Anna Maria's beautiful number, "Love Makes the World Go Round" from the musical "Carnival."

I didn't care for Maurice Chevalier's singing of 
"Jolly Old St. Nicholas" and I cared even 
less for his version of "Silent Night." But, I love his song, "Mimi" 
from the 1932 movie "Love Me Tonight." You really ought to 
care about that.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

"The Chaperone" review

Louise Brooks was an icon of the silent film era. But only a few years before she became a celluloid heroine, she was a 15-year-old girl from Wichita, Kan. trying to make it as a dancer in New York. A 36-year-old housewife accompanied her on this trip, acting as her chaperone.

In her novel, The Chaperone, Lori Moriarty imagines the generational tension that likely existed between the teenage Louise and her middle aged chaperone. The two women came of age in entirely different eras and saw the world differently. It is easy to speculate, as Moriarty does, that there was friction.

Cora, the chaperone, is a product of the Victorian era. She's bundled in, wearing a corset and skirts that descend to her feet. In her world, sex is never mentioned and only hinted at in hushed, vague terms if it is even referred to at all.

Louise is already wearing her hair in the straight black classic bob style she will make famous a few years later. She wears skirts raised above the knees and at times goes without a bra. She is coming to bloom in the frivolous Jazz Age with its bathtub gin and relaxed morals.

Although Louise went on to be a film star, she's a supporting character in the novel. This story belongs to Cora. As the chaperone, she tries to keep Louise within the limits of propriety. But it’s Cora who breaks with convention and gains liberated new sensibilities. Cora finds her own unique voice and works through her vulnerabilities to emerge as a strong, independent-minded woman.

Moriarty cleverly uses the corset as a symbol in Cora’s evolving character. She treats the constricting undergarment as a metaphor for the restrictions society placed on women's lives. The moment Cora frees her body from the corset's grip, she frees her mind as well.

But don't discard The Chaperone as a "chick book." I would classify it as historical fiction with an element of mystery. There is enough going on in this book to make it enjoyable to readers of either gender.

Moriarty uses characters and situations to touch on historical events: the Victorian era, Suffragettes, World War I, the Spanish Influenza, the Orphan trains, Klu Klux Klan, the Jazz Age, prohibition, Civil Rights...

She did scrupulous research, which enabled her to get her facts straight and make her story believable. The historical precision gives her writing authenticity and authority.  Moriarty’s research shows in the way she weaves in facts about Louise's personal and professional life. Her parents were neglectful. She was molested as a child in Cherryvale, Kan. She did dance with Denishawn in New York, under Ruth St. Dennis. She did have a drinking problem. She did return to Wichita for awhile after her movie career flamed out.

Moriarty is true to Louise's character, having her say and do things like the actual Louise would have done. She is depicted as selfish, self-absorbed and manipulative, just as the real Louise was. Yet it's still easy to like her. Moriarty draws on Louise's life in ways that evoke admiration, as well as sympathy. Her acerbic lines are some of the best in the book.

The relationship between Louise and Cora is the most interesting in a book that contains several interesting and unique relationships. Their dialogue is enlivened by tension and competing interests, creating the most crisp character interplay of the book. Significantly, Cora does find commonalities with Louise, and the two women do develop a cautious respect for each other.

Change is a constant of life, and the two women’s lives are altered forever during that summer when their paths intersect. Their transformations take shape at a time when the rules of society were changing and never going back. But don’t be surprised, when reading this book, if the puritanism, prejudices and “slut shaming” in its pages don’t sound strangely contemporary.

After all, we know what happens the more things change.

Gateway literature

Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, which Cora is reading on the trip. Also read the German philosopher Schopenhauer, whom Louise was reading on the same trip. Moriarty did extensive research to make her book historically authentic, and anything from her bibliography would be worth reading. If I had to recommend one, though, it would be Louise Brooks: A Biography by Barry Paris. It's been called the "bible on Brooks."

Gateway films

Anything with Louise Brooks in her prime, of course, especially her greatest artistic achievements, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. Here is a video montage of Brooks.

Friday, November 15, 2013

"Stonewall Uprising" review

The first I ever heard about the Stonewall riots was in college when a fellow student, a gay man, mentioned it in a letter to the editor of our campus newspaper. Never heard of it before.

Today, twenty years later, college history professors and the media are giving Stonewall much closer attention. Pres. Obama mentioned it in his second inaugural address. Current events have brought the struggle for homosexual rights to increased relevance. The 2010 PBS American Experience documentary, Stonewall Uprising, is timely. For anyone wishing to gain understanding of how LGBT rights arrived at its current place in American debate, the film is a must see.

In June of 1969, police raided a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in New York’s Greenwich Village. Gays and lesbians were used to this kind of encroachment, but this time they’d had enough. A riot ensued. Bar patrons, who outnumbered  law enforcement, resisted police efforts to shut them down.

Stonewall Uprising features telling interviews with participants in the uprising as well as a retired New York police officer who led the raid.

Around half the documentary is back-story. It shows that antipathy and unsympathetic views toward consenting adults’ sexual practices were much more pervasive 50 years ago, if not as talked about as today. Black and white public service announcements and television news programs of the time depicted  homosexuals as perverts, social pariahs. In one chilling scene, a detective charged with maintaining “public morals” speaks harshly in a paranoia inducing diatribe against homosexuals before a large room of sober-faced, scary-eyed teenagers.

“If we catch you with an avowed homosexual, your parents will be the first to know,” the man says.

The historical background is the most interesting aspect of the documentary. It gives context, showing how Stonewall was inevitable – the reaction of people who were tired of being pushed around.

Watching this documentary, it becomes clear why so many LGBT people today are vocal in fighting for its rights. Traditionally, they had no rights. A McCarthy-like atmosphere hung over the lives of gays.  An individual could lose a job, get arrested and be outed in the newspaper. A person’s life could be ruined over his or her sexual orientation.

Hatemongering against homosexuals exists today among a vocal and virulent religious right. However, majority public opinion has evolved today into a view favorable toward equal rights for LGBT people (e.g.) gay marriage and freedom from discrimination. But with each decade we look back to, we find more intolerance until we’re back in the 1960s. Today we associate vituperation and homophobia with the lunatic fringe. Back then, hatred was standard.

I have heard that friendships among LGBT people tend to be tighter than those in  the heterosexual population. After seeing this documentary, I see why. Along with police harassment, violent assault was commonplace. People wound up in wheelchairs; they were beaten so savagely. LGBT people come from a culture and history in which it’s imperative that they watch each other’s backs.

But life was never the same after Stonewall. There were no more comparable police crackdowns. Gays and lesbians, who had been pushed into the underground, came out and embraced their own identities.

“There was no going back,” one of the Stonewall participants said. In the most poignant moment from the film, a small gay pride parade turns into a march of roughly 2,800 people.

“We became a people,” one man said. “All of a sudden I had brothers and sisters, which I didn’t have before.”

 More than 40 years later, homophobia, like racism, is still around. The Religious Right may be a minority, but it’s a loud, pugnacious one that still holds a degree of power. Certain politicians still get a bang out of exploiting hatred and paranoia.

But they’re losing more elections. They are losing their grip on the public consciousness. The time is ripe for LGBT people to enjoy the same legal protection, the same rights as other Americans. Stonewall is just a small window into what they have endured to reach this point.

Best line: “It eats you up inside, not being comfortable with yourself.”

This is a line from Raymond Castro, one of the participants in Stonewall. He died in 2010 after helping with this documentary, as did Seymour Pine, the retired NYPD officer who led the raid on Stonewall. In his final years, Pine was regretful and publicly apologized for his role in the police crackdown.

Gateway films

Out of the Past: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Rights in America – This is a documentary about Keli Peterson, a Utah teenager who formed  a Gay-Straight Alliance at her high school  in 1996 and encountered statewide backlash. Through her story, the film goes into the history of gays, lesbians and their battle for equality in America.

Anyone and Everyone – This documentary, made for PBS in 2007, explores the reaction of parents when their children come out. The film looks at families from a multitude of ethnic and religious backgrounds.

The Laramie Project –  Originally a stage production, this play was adapted to the screen and aired on HBO in 2002. Shot to resemble a documentary, this film features the reactions of townspeople from across the spectrum about the 1998 beating death of a young gay man, Matthew Shepherd, in Laramie, Wy.

Gateway literature

Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution by David Carter. This journalistic and historical treatment of the riots may be the definitive account of Stonewall. It covers the same ground as Stonewall Uprising, but at 352 pages, it contains  much more detail.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

William James (Great American Thinkers) review

I was introduced to William James in a college class. Learned he is the Father of Pragmatism – a simplified philosophy that I cottoned to. So when I recently found a thin, paperback, paperback book about William James at a book sale in a church basement, I grabbed it up.

Called the first original American philosophy, pragmatism comes down to this: the action that brings about the most practical result is the right one. James called practical consequences the “cash value” of an idea. Since that mode of thinking permeates American society today, I believe James is worthy of consideration.

A slim, succinct book (unlike James’s own books) simply entitled William James, it was written in the 1960s by Edward C. Moore as part of the Great American Thinkers series of books. This series also included short bios about Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Thorstein Veblen and others who influenced American thought.

Primarily a summary and evaluation of James’s works, the book also provides brief biographical information about James and the time in which he lived. That is the best feature of this book -- putting James’s philosophy into the context of the 19th century New England culture he came of age in. Really, I see no way not to read the book when coming upon this sentence on the first page.

“The intellectual history of William James is almost an intellectual biography of America.”

Looking over the beliefs and mythologies that have defined American history, I can see a dichotomy that parallels the opposing poles James struggled with. The Puritans brought to the colonies a Calvinist belief in God’s omnipotence, man’s helplessness and predestination. But those settlers also pioneered the prevailing American spirit of adventure, experimentation and shaping our own destinies.

The two beliefs came to a head at the time James was coming of age. As a man of science, he could not disregard empiricism and Darwinian determinism. As a man of his culture, he could not leave God and morality out of the equation. His genius was in mediating the two extremes, finding a sensible middle ground between John Calvin and Charles Darwin. In that way, you might say he was the last 19th century man and first 20th century man.

James’s most interesting – and controversial – idea was his theory of “relative truth.” This idea is easier to accept in the science realm where even the most airtight “scientific fact” (gravity, for instance) is only a theory that can be overturned by evidence. With regard to morals, however, “relative truth” doesn’t go down so well.

I can envision some preacher on Sunday morning, saying, “The world would have you believe morals are relative and can be tossed aside when they aren’t convenient.” That would be a misinterpretation of James’s view. I think of relative truth in the context of a moral dilemma. An action that’s moral under one set of circumstances might be wrong under another.

Most people probably want to believe there are immutable moral truths. I certainly do, but I also recoil at absolutism. It’s not within human power to define with certainty what constitutes meaning in the universe.

Today, the Calvinism that caused such internal conflict for James and his contemporaries is foreign even to the most Presbyterian of us. Pragmatism, we can relate to. It’s not without imperfections and limitations -- no school of philosophy is – but it’s accessible and user-friendly. James rescued philosophy from its aloof and lofty palace in the sky and brought it down to nuts and bolts. A uniquely American approach.

It has been fun reading about William James, learning the definitions of – and chewing on the ideas of – what he termed “meliorism,”” pluriverse” and “pure experience". Now, I plan to free space in my home library by parting with this book. It will be a pragmatic move. (Later) Actually, I sold it for a quarter at a garage sale.

Gateway reading:  William James’s writings, of course, particularly his magnum opus, The Varieties of Religious ExperienceT. Then there are great biographies of James, such as William James:  In the Malestrom of American Modernism by Robert D. Richardson. A book I've always wanted to read is The Metaphysical Club is about the young James, future Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Charles Spencer Peirce, logician, scientist, and the founder of semiotics, and a conversational, philosophical club they had in Cambridge, Mass. in 1872.

I would also recommend reading works by writers  who were students of James's at Harvard University: W.E.B. Dubois, Theodore Roosevelt, Gertrude Stein, George Santanya, Walter Lippman

Then there are others who were influenced by James:  Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Michael Foucalt.

I cannot not recommend 19th century essayist, lecturer and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, the biggest name in the transcendental movement. He was James's godfather

I would suggest reading biographies of and writings by John Calvin and Charles Darwin.

Lastly, I would suggest reading more slim books from the old Great American Thinkers series. You'll find them in garage sales, library and church book sales and eBay. See where they take you in your reading.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"Strength to Love" review

For Martin Luther King, Jr. the issue of Civil Rights was as Biblical as it was Constitutional. King’s words – in his speeches and writings – make abundantly clear that his social activism was inseparable from his Christian faith. Strength to Love is a collection of sermons by King. In the book’s various essays, most of which begin with a Bible verse, King quotes the poetic words of Old Testament prophets and draws from the parables of Jesus to illustrate his message of social justice.

The Supreme Court decision overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine, King equated with the parting of the waters that cleared a path for the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery. The South’s obstinate refusal to release its Jim Crow hold over African Americans, King equated with the pharaoh’s unwillingness to grant the Jews their freedom. Coming to the aid of anyone whose beaten down and oppressed no matter who they are or what religion, nationality or color they might be – King likened to the Good Samaritan who aided the Jewish man, left robbed and beaten by the roadside.

 Strength to Love was published in 1963 – the same year King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Washington Mall. Fifty years later King and his message of racial equality have been validated by history. Conservatives even laude him, but if King were still alive, people on the right would be calling him un-American, a socialist and communist, just as they were 50 years ago.

The views he expressed from the stage and church pulpit were controversial in the 1960s and still are today. In this series of sermons, as well as other writings and speeches, King speaks out against war, imperialism and capitalist exploitation of labor. Today -- in an age when Christianity appears locked and limited to rigid conservatism, a political party, exclusion,” American exceptionalism” and a belief that the “invisible hand” of capitalism is from God -- it’s refreshing to visit King’s progressive, liberating and expansive interpretation of Christian love.

King did not yield his Christian belief to the chauvinistic view that America is blessed above all other nations. He would never have joined the clergymen who urged Pres. George W. Bush -- by letter -- to go to war with Iraq. A full year before the Gulf of Tonkin incident even sparked the Vietnam War, King was advocating for peace. He was critical of the military industrial complex and nuclear proliferation.  In the Cold War era, as in today, anyone not beating the drum for war is branded “treasonous,” and said to be “aiding and abetting the enemy.” King faced that kind of backlash, but he called for cooled, reasoned minds -- something we’re still desperately in need of today. The following quote sounds sadly appropriate in our time.

“Let us not join those who shout war and who through their misguided passions urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days when Christians must evince wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not call everyone a Communist or appeaser who recognizes that hate and hysteria are not the final answers...”

King was a citizen of the world. Drawing on Christ’s words – Love thy neighbor as thyself – he considered anyone in the global community who was suffering to be a neighbor in need of help. The plight of people living under colonial domination in Asia and Africa, in his mind, mirrored the oppression African Americans suffered under slavery and segregation.
"Were he alive today, King wouldn’t be fighting the “Culture Wars.” For the past thirty-some years, the Religious Right has been finding evil in the entertainment industry.  King saw evil in the exploitation of others, in depriving people of their human dignity. Christian conservatives home in on legalistic Biblical passages – ambiguous and open to interpretation – and stick them to peoples’ sex lives. King’s focus was on the spirit – the redemptive power of love and compassion spoken of in the scriptures.

What passes for mainstream Christianity today is small-minded and pitifully anti-intellectual. King demonstrates through these sermons, a thinking person’s Christianity. That’s evident from the first page of the book when he links a Bible verse to Hegelian philosophy.

Throughout these writings, King shows himself to be highly educated (he had a doctorate) and diverse in his reading. He shows the influence of everyone from 19th century evangelical abolitionist William Wilberforce to Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. In one of his sermons, he uses the word, “soulforce,” a term lifted from Gandhi. In another, he refers to “I-and-thou” relationships, a concept originated by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. He spoke of the Muslim-Hindu fighting that shattered Gandhi’s dream of peace in India. Clearly, King’s sense of integration stretched far beyond skin color and it’s a sure bet that he wouldn’t be jumping on the Islamaphobia plaguing America today.

One of the chapters in Strength to Love is entitled “Shattered Dreams.” He had a lot of dreams that didn’t come true – dreams that went far and above the passage of Civil Rights legislation. It’s left to the living to advance King’s work and bring those dreams to reality. King was a flawed individual. He wasn’t a saint and should not be seen as such, but his tireless activism and vision were bigger than he was.

For anyone wanting to understand King beyond the basic historical facts, Strength to Love would be a superb introduction. The book reveals the thoughts and influences that motivated King to persevere through endless marches and protests without surrender.

Anyone desiring to have their spiritual, intellectual or social consciences invigorated would benefit from reading Strength to Love. It’s not important that one shares King’s religion or even agrees with him on everything to get something from the book. His humanitarian principles were universal.

Monday, May 6, 2013

"When Religion Becomes Evil" review

Writer's note: The Boston Marathon bombing has brought the topic of religious extremism into the news again. Charles Kimball, the author of this book, has been interviewed on radio and TV frequently in the past few weeks. In that contemporary spirit, I am publishing my review of, probably, his most famous book. I indentify his as the chair of the the University of Oklahoma's Religious Studies program. When this book was published 10 years ago, Kimball chaired the Dept. of religion and divinity school at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

I’ve often been baffled by religion. It does a lot of good in the world, but it also does a lot of harm.
Obviously, religion is neither black nor white. But how do we sort through the gray matter to identify where religion crosses the line from righteous to evil? That’s the question religion professor Charles Kimball takes on in his book, When Religion Becomes Evil.

Kimball, who chairs the religious studies program at the University of Oklahoma, makes an interesting distinction between what he calls “authentic religion” and religion that has been “corrupted.” He writes that the world’s enduring, time-tested religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism…were all founded on fundamental principles of love, peace, kindness and harmony.

However, that authenticity is eroded and the essence of those faiths is lost when human corruption takes root within the religions. Kimball is balanced, sparing none of the above mentioned religious organizations as he cites examples – from history and modern headlines -- of how every one of them has been guilty of committing barbaric and ghastly acts of violence.

A Christian minister, Kimball was educated in comparative religions and has worked internationally with interfaith organizations.  He draws on his extensive education and experience and identifies five warning signs that religion is about to turn evil: absolute truth claims, blind obedience, establishing the “ideal” time, the end justifies any means and declaring holy war.

One or more of these patterns are always present when a religion takes a turn for the bad and all religions are susceptible to corruption, Kimball writes. In essence, all five warning signs come down to this: a disregard for humanity in the name of God. Anytime a religious organization uses doctrine or the religious institution itself to justify hurting others, that religion has become evil. When a religion employs violent or anti-social means, when it fails to follow the Golden Rule, the religion has been contaminated.

Religions are “human institutions,” Kimball writes. That’s an important reminder. It explains why a beautiful religion can take a wrong turn.  Throughout history, people have been led astray by charismatic political leaders so it stands to reason that they can be misled by charismatic religious leaders as well.

A religious leader could take a passage from a “sacred text” out of context and use it to justify cruel or violent behavior. These passages are open to many interpretations and any leader who claims to have the “absolute truth” is opening the door to abuse.

When Religion Turns Evil talks about cult leaders like Jim Jones, Ashara Shoko and David Koresh, but what I find interesting is that a religious leader doesn’t have to be that extreme, doesn’t even have to be violent to cross the line into evil. Any time a religious leader demands “blind allegiance” to his authority or to the institution and prohibits questions or dissent, the religion is tainted.

The best message to come out of this book is to have an open mind and keep your critical thinking powers activated. It’s the best defense against manipulation by an abusive religious leader. Kimball makes a case for the individual asking his own questions, defining what he believes and finding his own path, rather than having a religious authority tell him what to think. That sounds intellectually healthy.

I enjoyed his comparative religions approach. It served him well in writing this book and opened my mind to other belief systems. Of course, Kimball was practically born into comparative religions. His Jewish grandfather and nine siblings immigrated to the United States from Russia. His father married a Presbyterian woman he met, while performing in Vaudeville and Kimball became an ordained Baptist minister.

For me it’s fascinating, finding the commonalities between my Christian faith and Islam or Buddhism.  But not everyone will be receptive to the idea of placing the different religions on an equal playing field. I know Christians who consider Islam in any form to be the great Satan, and no doubt, the reverse is true. And that kind of thinking exacerbates the problems. Religious exceptionalism tends to dehumanize those with a different view.

This book re-enforced for me that the spiritual dimension of a person’s life is about more than just doctrines. Theological views may differ, but people across the cultural and religious spectrum can agree on basic morals. Religious views, we take on faith, anyway. We really don’t know anything for a certainty in this life.

I found interesting, this quote Kimball shared from the Qur’n: “If God had so willed, He would have made all of you one community… so compete with one another in good works. To God, you shall all return and He will tell you the truth about that which you have been disputing.”

Watched an interview with this guy on CNN, yesterday, while on the treadmill at the YMCA. Was looking to publish that recent clip, but couldn't find it as of deadline.

Gateway Literature

Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill by Jessica Stern. A former member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Stern is an expert on worldwide terrorism, having visited refugee camps and interviewed Christian, Muslim and Jewish extremists from Pakistan, Indonesia and all over. That's what I call being a hard-core, investigative reporter.

Many Mansions: A Christian's Encounter with Other Faiths by Harvey Cox. For decades, a professor of divinity at Harvard University, Cox, traveled throughout the world and gained insight, hearing how people of multiple faiths perceive Christ. Cox is a prolific author and this book should help inquiring minds grow beyond the White-Male-Christian-American Exceptionalism box.

Also, I say read all you can about Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Confucious, Moses...We won't agree with everything from the various faiths, but in a small, multi-faceted world, we'll make it a lot better with one another, knowing a little something about the many beliefs.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

'Mean Old Man' review

 It’s been said that if Elvis was rock’s first superstar, Jerry Lee Lewis was its first SOB.

Born out of hellfire, Pentecostal fury, and Original Sin in a patch of Louisiana, the Killer sprang forth upon this earth for the cause of meanness and hell raisin.’

Like Keith Richards, Lewis should have never lived this long. In an alternate universe, Elvis would’ve lived to be an old man (oh, he would lose a toe or two to diabetes, but he’d be around), while Cash and Lewis would have died young, fallen to a drug overdose or the killing end of a bullet. As it is, here in the real world, Elvis could have never grown old gracefully, but Jerry Lee flaunts his longevity with bred-in-the bone bravado.

“If I come on like a mean old man, that’s what I am,” he sings – the first words uttered in the 2010 album’s opening title track, a song written and recorded by Kris Kristofferson sometime back in the ‘80s. Kristofferson contributes vocals and guitar playing, but Lewis steals the song. Lyrics pour out the Killer’s throat as if they were written with him in mind.

“If I come on like a voodoo doll that’s what I am,” he sings as the tempo picks up. “I’d rather scratch you than to have to crawl.

The rock royalty chomping at the bit to jam with Presley and the TCB Band in the early 70s, yet held at bay by the Colonel’s iron curtain, got another chance with Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. With Mean Old Man, Lewis (as he did with his 2006 Last Man Standing album) again gives the biggest names in rock the opportunity to record with him. Mean Old Man features the musicianship and vocalizing of cats like Richards, Eric Clapton, John Fogerty, Kid Rock and a skinny, chickenwalking Swingin’ London veteran, Tina-Turner-emulatin’ crap shooter ___

Mick Jagger.  The greatest cut by a mile is Lewis’s duet with Jagger on the Rolling Stones’ classic Dead Flowers -- enriched by the steel guitar of Greg Leisz -- and it’s appropriate, given that the entire album has something of an early 70s’ Stones-Gram Parsons-Sticky Fingers-Exile on Main Street feel.

The resurgent Last Man Standing was a digital restoration of vintage Lewis -- plenty of pumping piano, the killer summoning young man rhythm and all the boogie-woogie and Little Richard-era style and frenzy implied. Mean Old Man goes another way, drawing back to middle-aged Jerry Lee Lewis and true country-rock.

Lewis and his band of all-stars take an obscure early ‘60s soul-pop hit, “You Can Have Her”, and turn it into southern fried rock, bolstered by the guitar work of Eric Clapton and James Burton, bringing to the tune a lifetime of rhythm and rockabilly flourish. John Mayer’s blues guitar work in “Roll Over Beethoven” is flat out mean. Jerry Lee, with his piano playing and old man voice, surpasses his own 1970 recording of the song, giving this standard, overplayed Chuck Berry tune renewed vigor.

The Beatles have been as overplayed as Elvis, but I'm posting this video because Lewis covers "Roll Over Beethoven" with Ringo contributing drums. In this video, the Beatles cannot always be heard over the screams, but the energy is there in the body language. Here, Starr plays with a ferocity that doesn't come across as lively on his recording with Lewis.

While the country-fashioned superband is stellar, too many times Lewis’s trademark piano is submerged under the weight of it all. Not that he’s ever upstaged. Make no mistake on that one. Clapton, three Rolling Stones and a Beatle perform on this album, and they’re all in deference to Jerry Lee Lewis. Musically, though, there are times when I want more of him and less of them.

There’s always the risk that on an all-star collaboration like this, the party atmosphere will take over and the album will become more of an Event and less a professional objective. Mean Old Man comes close to that line at times, but is ultimately saved by hard musician work and ear-pleasing gems.

Kid Rock is one of the stars whom you might most worry about when facing the danger of pop-rock celebrity overkill, but he actually contributes to some of the best driving rock of the album – and I’m talking about Jerry Lee Lewis. He pounds over the 88 keys in whole lotta shakin’ style and his low voice complements Kid Rock’s screechy ventilator vocals in the Lewis classic, Rockin' My Life Away. Since Kid Rock --  more than any other contemporary rockstar – channels within his soul, the wild ass side of young Jerry Lee Lewis, maybe it’s only organic, the way his excesses actually serve the old man. Even with his two-tables-and-a-microphone Kid Rockisms, the young rock-rapper-country star never comes off as less than humble and with abiding respect in the presence of Jerry Lee Lewis. 

And you got Slash on guitar. Doesn't get much better.

Most of the guest vocals on this album can’t be heard over Jerry Lee and the other musicians – Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow, with their high raspy voices being the most prominent exceptions. While Kid Rock wails with rock n’ roll fervor, Sheryl Crow brings in a shot of estrogen and controlled sweetness. You hear in her singing of “You Are My Sunshine” with Lewis. For vocal distinction, harmonizing & a superior song to work with, however, Jagger and Jerry Lee can’t be beat.

Which brings us to a saucy Stones gem “Sweet Virginia,” sung with Keith Richards --  an ingenious guitarist who can’t sing. But Lewis and Richards have an affinity with the tune and each other that comes through with unique style. After all, it’s a song about dissolution, druggin’, depression and all the happiness of the vineyards from California to Ol’ Tom Jefferson’s Monticello.

The only real disappointment on this album is the final track, a remake of Lewis’s 1970s’ country hit, “Middle Age Crazy.” The original version had sincerity, an honesty that conveyed what Lewis was going through in his life at the time. Today it’s just another song, and Tim McGraw’s voice on the revised track sounds like that of a million other country singers. Yes, the authenticity is gone as Lewis crossed the mid-life crisis bridge some time back.

But take him for all he’s still giving. “The real deal right here.” Kid Rock can be heard saying that after Lewis just kills it at the end of Rockn’ My Life Away. Like Willie Nelson, Chuck Berry, Keith Richards and the recently departed George Jones, this old guy is a survivor.

Jerry Lee Lewis and he’s damn sure here to stay.

Gateway Music

Everything from the Golden Age of the Rolling Stones (1968-1972) from Beggar's Banquet to Exile on Main Street. Mick and the boys rode the British invasion, reviving Buddy Holly and turning white kids on to Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, Percy Sledge, Solomon Burke and the Temptations. In their Golden Age, they would harken to cool dead people from Robert Johnson to the Louvin Brothers.

Everything by Gram Parsons from his late 60s work with the Byrds, International Submarine Band and Flying Burrito Brothers and especially his classic early '70s solo albums, GP and Grevious Angel. Gram turned Keith on to country music and Keith turned Gram on to heroin, so they say.

Nashville -- Solomon Burke. The African-American self-proclaimed king of rock and soul paid tribute to country music -- a love of his since boyhood -- about a year or two before he died. A must hear. Posting a link to an NPR story about Burke and this album upon its release. I remember hearing the news story in my car radio.

Beaucoups of Blues -- Ringo Starr. Around the time the Beatles disbanded (circa 1969-70), each of the boys explored their own individual voices and interests on solo records. Here, Starr indulges his love of country music with A-list Nashville musicians.  I'm talking guys who'd worked with the likes of Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins, Tammy Wynette, the Statler Brothers -- hardcore Nashville. 

Gateway literature

Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story by Nick Tosches. A kick-ass writer whose taken on everything from journalistic treatments of Dean Martin and boxing legend Sonny Liston to gothic novels about vampires and Dante's inferno. I first read excerpts of his biography of Lewis in an "Entertainment for Men" magazine when I was in junior high. What my buddies didn't know when we were oggling the girls in stolen moments by the water tower after school is that I was also -- in private moments -- reading the Playboy interviews, short stories, jazz reviews and book excerpts and though I didn't realize it at the time, I was studying.

 My favorite version of the song. Wasn't this portrait taken after Jerry Lee got drunk and waved a gun from inside his white Lincoln Continental near the gates of Graceland?

A forgotten artist whom we would do well to rediscover. He had something. "You Can Have Her" was covered by Lewis, Elvis, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Rich & I don't know who else.

I kept trying to post a Stones video of this song and I'd get this message about it being too big for my player or something like that. Then I googled how to get around that, but the tutorials confused me more. The ADHD set in deeper. This video has only been seen  around 557 times. Some of the best ones are. Anyhow, I was getting so frustrated, I almost said "screw it" & posted some bar band doing a half-assed cover of the song. You know something? Let's do that anyway.

This is where it started for The Killer -- Jerry Lee Lewis.