Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lining the birdcage

If words matter, and I think that they do, why are so many newspaper and other media people, as well as writers, limiting themselves to 140 characters, thinking that Twitter is the solution to their problems? This isn't about being concise, it's about being suicidal.

Hence, David Sirota's Salon column comes along, and reminds me that all these hip, oh so ironic media bloggers are part of the problem, instead of being part of the solution. It doesn't hurt that he drops a David Simon reference, either.

Sirota laments,

Beltway scribes didn't have to miss the Iraq war lies or the predictive signs of the Wall Street meltdown. Election correspondents weren't compelled to devote four times the coverage to the tactical insignifica of campaigns than to candidates' positions and records, as the Project for Excellence in Journalism found. Business reporters didn't need to give corporate spokespeople twice the space in articles as they did workers and unions, as a Center for American Progress report documents. National editors weren't obligated to focus on "elevat(ing) the most banal doings" in the White House to "breaking news," as the New York Times recently noted.

No, they certainly did not, but they did.

That's why this morning, when I thought about driving two miles to our town's one variety store, for the Maine Sunday Telegram, I poured a second cup of coffee and picked up the memoir I'm reading, instead.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A beautiful thing

Once upon a time, I wanted to save the world. I know, pretty idyllic, and not grounded in any sense of reality, either.

By the time I hit thirty, life had kicked the idealism out of me. Yeah, I still sought the perfect solution, but falling short of that, which was nearly always, cynicism became my daily bread. Family responsibilities, a string of soul-deadening jobs, and the only time I was able to escape was my weekly stint on the mound for a variety of beer league ball teams, which only reminded me of what might have been if I hadn’t blown out my shoulder in college.

Five years ago, I reinvented myself. The transition from bitter, ex-believer, failed baseball hopeful, and consummate asshole, to someone doing what he was meant to do with his life didn’t happen overnight. These things are only immediate on television, and in the movies.

This morning, I sat in a room at the Cross Building in Augusta, and was part of a group of collaborators that have accomplished something pretty amazing over the past three years—we’ve taken a grassroots project and parlayed it into a program that is having a positive effect and making a difference across the state.

As I glanced around the room of educators, members of various non-profits, and others committed to making their little corner of the state a better place, I realized how foolish I was to have at one time had the world as my focus. By “brightening the corner” where we all are, we are all having an effect on something larger.

No one in the room was there to promote their own personal agenda. In fact, many of the participants purposefully put their own pet projects, and priorities aside, for the good of the group. The irony of being in Augusta wasn’t lost on me, and I’m sure many of the others. What occurred in our three hour meeting was a model of how these kinds of things should work, and possibly, how government could function, when people don’t grind ideological, or personal axes, and put the group before individual wants. I think what I experienced was an example of community organizing in the purest sense of the word, and in its most functional form.

[Weekly musical non-sequitur:

The Tragically Hip: Up To Here-

Released in 1989, nearly a decade after I graduated from Lisbon High School, listening to Gord Downie in the boys in their early days always makes me hearken back to those halcyon high school years.

The vibe is “classic rock,” albeit with a literary bent on the lyrics, courtesy of the poetic Downie’s songwriting prowess.
I scored Up To Here on a trip to Montreal, and a consumer excursion to Eaton’s Department Store, on St. Catherine Street. Apparently Eaton’s is no more, going out of business in 1999, a victim of Wal-Mart and other big-box monstrosities, just like similar retailers in the U.S.

We were visiting our hospitable neighbors to the north, soaking up the European vibe that is a visit to Montreal.

I had heard “New Orleans Is Sinking” on WTOS, still a freeform FM mainstay. The song was like nothing else being played on the radio at the time. While The Hip were virtual unknowns in the U.S., except on the few stations like ‘TOS that prided themselves on real variety, in Canada, they were rock and roll royalty.

I picked up both Up To Here, their third release, and Road Apples, their 2nd record. Actually, back in 1992, I actually bought both on cassette, subsequently replacing them both with CDs over the past few years.

It’s been awhile since I’ve listened to The Hip, even though they’ve spent considerable time in both cassette decks, and now, CD players of mine. Pulling the disc down off the shelf Saturday, I’ve been playing it regularly the past several days, including today’s trip north, to Augusta.

One hot August day, in 1998, my wife and I had gotten away for an afternoon at Old Orchard Beach. As was common, single prop planes flew overhead, with the usual advertisements for Lisa’s Pizza, local drink specials, and other assorted tourist trap enticements trailing behind. On this day, however, the trailer read, “Tragically Hip: Tonight at the State Theater.” I said to Mary, “We’re going!”

Apparently, the show was poorly promoted, as about 500 people showed up to see Canada’s Rock Gods put on the kind of high energy show that has won them legions of fans for the past 25 years. This chance encounter was one of the top five rock shows I’ve ever been to.

Long live (Canadian) rock!]

Barry Schwartz makes a case for wisdom

Sunday, March 22, 2009

History Maker Mondays-10

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
--Karl Marx

Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

If today’s chosen mode of communication is limited to 140 words (ala Twitter), what does that say about the future of literature, and the works of writers like Franz Kafka.

I first read Kafka during my sophomore year in high school. The world literature class, taught by an imposing and erudite woman, rumored to be a lesbian, was a combination of hot and cold with me. Some of the works we read were intriguing and continue to linger with me today, some 30 years later. Ursula Le Guin, Dostoevsky, Herman Hesse, and Kafka fit the latter category.

For the 15 or so students that made up World Lit class at Lisbon High School, our first exposure to Kafka was via The Trial, one of three Kafka novels published posthumously. For many of us, a work like this one was unfamiliar. A mysterious, vague storyline, and an atmosphere that at times felt equally claustrophobic and hallucinatory, with Kafka mining the dark regions of his ego. The descriptive phrase, “Kafkaesque” emanates from the storyline of The Trial, as well as Kafka’s other works, like The Metamorphosis, and The Castle.

For those familiar with the 60s television series The Prisoner, an understanding, and a corollary between No. 6 and Josef K. (Kafka’s protagonist in The Trial) would seem apparent. The Trial addresses the facelessness, and the obvious impersonal nature of government bureaucracy, in its various forms.

Kafka was born in 1883, to a middle-class Jewish family, in Prague. At that time, Prague was part of the empire of Austria-Hungary.

The Jewish Europe that Kafka was born into would be radically transformed over the next 50 years. WWI would see the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapse at the end of the war, which led to a reworking of the map of central Europe.

Kafka’s Prague disappeared behind the Iron Curtain, where his work was initially banned. The Nazi Holocaust claimed the lives of his three sisters and many of his friends. While Kafka didn’t live to see all this, the tensions and communal anxieties fuelling that destruction had shaped both him and his writing.

While Marxist literary critics are at odds about Kafka, some, like Theodor Adorno, described Kafka’s writing as “a reaction to unlimited power.” That would be obvious in the case of Joseph K., buffeted by unseen, and faceless forces, much the way that Stalin’s subjects in the Soviet Union saw their lives ruined by a baseless accusation, coming from an anonymous tip—off to Siberia you went, relegated to a life of hard labor, and a premature death.

Kafka was raised as both a German, and a Jew. His early years saw him devoted to reading and writing. He had a proclivity towards the philosophical, and the scientific, leaning towards works by Spinoza, Darwin, and Nietzsche.

Raised in a Jewish family, the Kafka’s family was not overly religious in practice, with his Jewishness remaining as a backdrop.

He attended the German University in Prague, where he studied law. After completing his doctorate in 1906, Kafka landed a job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute in 1908, where he’d work for the next 14 years. His short work day, as well as the lack of strenuousness associated with the job allowed him freedom for writing and thinking.

During his off hours, he was writing fiction, and between 1909 and 1910, he published a dozen short stories. He also became friends with fellow writer, Max Brod, who would become Kafka’s lifelong friend, and advocate of his writing.

It was Brod that we have to thank for having any knowledge of Kafka today. Kafka had instructed Brod to burn all his writings after his death, which Brod refused to do.

Kafka began work on The Trial in 1914. In 1915, he got his first recognition for his writing when he was awarded the Theodor Fontane Prize, which included a monetary prize of 800 marks.

Kafka found romantic attachments difficult, who wrote that he found the act of having sex repulsive. Nevertheless, he managed to have numerous brief “relationships” with women, but found the romantic entanglements that accompanied them, difficult.

In 1917, after finishing The Hunter Gracchus, and The Great Wall, Kafka’s health began to deteriorate. He began coughing up blood, and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. This necessitated a leave of absence from his work, and also, his writing. He spent part of the next several years on periodic sick leaves, including time spent in 1921, in the Tatra Mountains, at a sanatorium.

Even while being afflicted by poor health, he wrote three of his most important works in 1922: his novel, The Castle, and two shorter works of fiction; A Hunger Artist, and Investigations of a Dog.

Kafka died a citizen of Czechoslovakia on the outskirts of Vienna, Austria, in 1924. He was 39 at the time.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Limbaugh: Apologist for AIG

Corporate water carrier, Rush Limbaugh, was once again back at it, chosing to promote profiteers, over the working people of America. Of course, he's been doing it for years, and this should come as no surprise, other than to the duped millions that listen to him, daily.

Per usual, these fools are merely acting out that which Thomas Frank eloquently laid out in his book, What's The Matter With Congress? How Conservatives Won The Heart of America.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Teaching abstinence

I've been listening to Tom Perrotta's book, The Abstinence Teacher, in my travels. Having been immersed in the wacky world of American Christendom, Perotta's realistic portrayal of religion gone awry resonates with me.

If you're not familiar with the book, it's about a human sexuality teacher, and how an innocent comment made in class gets wrung from its context, and plunges Ruth Ramsey into midst of controversy, courtesy of the local version of God and Co, the Gospel Tabernacle. Pastor Dennis, a neo-fundamentalist pastor, with his own baggage, has managed to control a large portion of Perrotta's fictional suburban New Jersey community.

Perrotta does an excellent job of capturing the nuances of American Xianity, the conservative brand that bashes gays, seeks to ban sex of any kind, except that practiced within the confines of marriage, and yet, always comes out on the side of guns, empire, and Republicanism.

The book's quite realistic, and listening to the narrative, reminds me of the sheltered life that I once embraced. I can see former pastors, religious hypocrites, family members, and others, represented by Perotta's various characters.

When people seek the simplistic causality provided by conservative religion, it's difficult to counter. Biblical belief forms a circular logic that probably provides solace, but robs the "believer" of anything approaching an honest intellectual rendering of facts.

Perotta allows readers to see the end result that comes with blind faith.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

History Maker Mondays-09

History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.
--Winston Churchill

David Hume (1711-1776)

David Hume was an 18th century Scottish philosopher. His best-known work was the three volume, A Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1739.

Book I lays out Hume’s views on understanding, how we arrive at ideas, and his own philosophy of free thinking, or skepticism. Book II tackles the emotions and free will. Hume concludes with Book III, with the nature of moral ideas, justice, obligations, as well as benevolence.

Hume's philosophical tour de force is infused with a radical skepticism about anything and everything. Based on his own interpretation, Hume looked at Locke’s empiricism, which to him was not much more than self-conscious common sense. He then used it as a potent weapon against the sacred cows of belief in his day. Through it all, Hume lobbied for an empirical approach, an approach that warrants some consideration today, particularly given the rise of anti-rational forces in the U.S.

It’s interesting how many conservatives claim to be fans of Adam Smith, most often to promote unfettered capitalism, yet, don’t know the first thing about Hume, despite his influence on his friend, Smith. Hume’s ideas are evident in Smith’s writings, and ideas on moral philosophy and his economic writings.

Hume was born in Edinburgh, and spent his childhood at Ninewells, the family's modest estate on the Whitadder River in the border lowlands near Berwick. His father died shortly after David's second birthday, “leaving me, with an elder brother and a sister under the care of our Mother, a woman of singular Merit, who, though young and handsome, devoted herself to the rearing and educating of her Children.” (From Hume's autobiographical essay, “My Own Life”). A precocious child, Hume was reading widely in history and literature, as well as ancient and modern philosophy, and also studying mathematics and contemporary science, all before the age of 12! He was taking classes at the University of Edinburgh when he turned 12.

Hume's family wanted him to pursue a career in the law, but like many autodidacts of his era, he preferred reading classical authors, especially Cicero, whose Offices became his secular substitute for The Whole Duty of Man and his family's strict Calvinism. Hume vigorously pursued his goal of becoming “a Scholar & Philosopher,” following his own rigorous program of reading and reflection for three years until “there seem'd to be open'd up to me a New Scene of Thought.”

While intensely engaged in developing his own philosophical vision, Hume arrive upon the idea that “a more active scene of life” might improve his education and make him more well-rounded. His decision to enter the world of commerce, which Hume characterized as “a very feeble trial,” serving as a clerk for a Bristol sugar importer. This idea soon passed and he returned to attempts at articulating his “new scene of thought.” Hume moved to France, where he lived very frugally, and finally settled in La Flèche, a sleepy village in Anjou best known for its Jesuit college. Here, where Descartes and Mersenne studied a century before, Hume read French and other continental authors, especially Malebranche, Dubos, and Bayle; he occasionally baited the Jesuits with his own brand of developing skepticism. Between 1734 and 1737, he worked on A Treatise of Human Nature.

Hume’s other philosophical works include An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748; a simplified version of the first book of the Treatise), An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), Political Discourses (1752), The Natural History of Religion (1755), and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). Hume also wrote an exhaustive History of England (1754–62), which became the standard work of English history for many years, and became a best seller. In 1763, Hume returned to Paris as secretary to the British embassy. It was at that time that he became a friend of Jean Jacques Rousseau, to whom he later gave refuge in England.

He returned to Edinburgh in 1768. In 1776, he was stricken by what some believe was either cancer of the liver, or bowel. He died on August 25, 1776.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Hume’s “various writings concerning problems of religion are among the most important and influential contributions on this topic. In these writings Hume advances a systematic, skeptical critique of the philosophical foundations of various theological systems. Whatever interpretation one takes of Hume's philosophy as a whole, it is certainly true that one of his most basic philosophical objectives is to unmask and discredit the doctrines and dogmas of orthodox religious belief.”

Friday, March 13, 2009

Obama and endless war

In America, stupid America, leaders come and leaders go--but our wars go on.

Yesterday I spent a good chunk of time driving across Maine's frost heave-ridden back roads. While attempted to keep my Taurus from going airborne between Augusta and Rumford on Route 17, I was listened to Thomas Ricks, speaking from the Commonwealth Club of California, about the war in Iraq. Ricks, longtime Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post, and author of The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008, warned that the war in Iraq will continue for much longer than most Americans realize.

Ricks calls Iraq, "the biggest mistake in the history of American foreign policy," adding that "we don't yet understand how big a mistake this is." No, Americans understand very little--ask 10 Americans about the economy and you'll get 10 different answers. Ask them about Iraq, and its likely you'll get a look like, "Iraq? Are we still in Iraq?" If its not on the nightly news, it no longer matters.

John Ross has a related article at Counterpunch about the war, echoing a similar sentiment to Ricks' about the longevity of the war, touching on President Obama's embrace of a war program, despite trying to sell Americans on a false drawdown.

In a nod to Orwell, Ross writes, In Obama's mad rush to channel FDR's first hundred days, he has advanced many such initiatives designed to bamboozle the citizens of a nation that elected him largely out of revulsion for the odious Bush. As always, the devil is in the details. Guantanamo will be closed but Bagham will be expanded - remember the Oscar-winning "Taxi To The Dark Side"? Even as the blueprint for closing down the Cuban torture camp is being cogitated, the torture of so-called "enemy combatants" continues daily at both facilities, according to the prisoners' lawyers. Meanwhile CIA "renditions" remain in vogue and the level of torture practiced by U.S. interrogators will conform to the Army code of physical abuse - except in those cases the Commander-in-Chief deems it necessary to waterboard.

So much for hope and change.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ideological dead-enders

In case you missed it, Glenn Greenwald has a good article posted at about the crackpots hunkered down on the far-right.

Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity have crafted a lucrative cottage industry pandering to a group of irrational, anti-social Americans that fear their government, their neighbor, and just about everybody else--except their right-wing talker of choice.

Greenwald does a good job putting all of this rage into context, as well wondering why these dead-enders never mustered any concern about things like government secrecy and domestic spying when a Republican was in the White House:

But this Rush-Limbaugh/Fox-News/nationalistic movement isn't driven by anything noble or principled or even really anything political. If it were, they would have been extra angry and threatening and rebellious during the Bush years instead of complicit and meek and supportive to the point of cult-like adoration. Instead, they're just basically Republican dead-enders (at least what remains of the regional/extremist GOP), grounded in tribal allegiances that are fueled by their cultural, ethnic and religious identities and by perceived threats to past prerogatives -- now spiced with legitimate economic anxiety and an African-American President who, they were continuously warned for the last two years, is a Marxist, Terrorist-sympathizing black nationalist radical who wants to re-distribute their hard-earned money to welfare queens and illegal immigrants (and is now doing exactly that).

Greenwald does a really good job re-introducing us to our nation's "angry white males," apparently in hibernation during the Bush years.

I also appreciate any writer who can drop a Hofstadter reference on his readers, damn egghead!

I wonder if Beck owns stock in canned goods factories, or freeze-dried foods?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Downplaying digital

Unfortunately, the demands of work last week cut into my ability to spend the requisite time I've been devoting to reading, and researching my History Maker Monday topics the past several weeks. 65-hour work weeks, plus the pull of tax season will probably prevent me once more from getting up a new HMM post this week.

While I regret not having the time to pull together the kind of research I truly enjoy doing, this time away from blogging has also allowed me to ruminate on just how beneficial my recent spate of postings really are to my longterm goals of writing, particularly the tension I'm feeling to re-engage with a new cycle of reasearch devoted to getting another book project off the ground.

While I'm not contemplating pulling the plug on blogging, I'm certainly experiencing doubts about the veracity of the hype surrounding social networking, recognizing that it can be a great waste of time, and a killer of the creative spark.

Maybe I'm just feeling burnt from work, and my tolerance for winter has reached its apex, but the few times I've done my blog crawl this week, and checked my Twitter account, have failed to elicit much in the way of enthusiasm.

My limited downtime each evening has found me sitting in my easy chair, television dark, book in hand, nursing a beer.

Friday, March 06, 2009

75 years of lies from conservatives on healthcare

History sometimes is just one big circle. Take for instance, the national debate on healthcare. As far back as 1935, there are numerous examples of health-care reform opponents reflexively lobbing the charge "socialized medicine" at any and all progressive reform proposals.

Media Matters, always on alert to counteract the sea of lies that issue daily from the right, cites 16 seperate cases over the past 75 years where conservatives have stymied progressive attempts to enact health-care proposals offering universal healthcare, time and time relying on the clichéd claim of "socialized medicine."

Speaking to a specific instance on February 27, when Rush Limbaugh dusted off this well-worn canard, Media Matters notes:

Rush Limbaugh claimed during his February 27 morning radio update that "[t]he Obama budget ... funds the relentless drive toward socialized medicine" -- a statement that is neither accurate nor original. In fact, as the Urban Institute wrote in an April 2008 analysis, "socialized medicine involves government financing and direct provision of health care services," and therefore, progressive health-care reform proposals do not "fit this description." The analysis also noted: "Similar rhetoric was used to defeat national health care reform proposals in the 1990s and, with less success, to argue against the creation of Medicare in the 1960s." Indeed, a Media Matters for America analysis found that dating as far back as the 1930s -- with respect to at least 16 different reform initiatives -- conservatives have attempted to smear those proposals by calling them "socialized medicine" or a step toward that inevitable result.

So much for Rush's own claim of being "the truth detector."

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Billy Bragg: The Miner's Strike-25 years ago

Historical illiteracy is endemic in the U.S. Mention something 25 minutes ago, and most dunces have little recollection.

Watching this video, and reading Bragg's thoughts took me back to a time when I was much less cynical, and still believing that the thoughts and sentiments of artists like Bragg might allow us to transcend the ideological divide of Thatcher (across the pond), and Reagan on these shores. I now realize how misguided I was in holding those beliefs.

While the comments in The Guardian are much more insightful than the typical drivel passing for thought in U.S. papers, it's obvious that historical whitewashing isn't confined to America.

I did enjoy reading through these, including this one by Peter Guillam:

This is exactly right. The defeat of the Miners was, in the UK, the pivotal moment in allowing the ascendancy of neo-liberalism with all the now manifest damage that has caused. It allowed the wholesale ransacking and selling off of huge swathes of public assets and did so not by winning the battle of ideas but by the brutal para-military suppression of alternative ideas. It unleashed the destruction of traditional jobs, security and the communities that grew out of those jobs - not just in mining but across the board - leading to the hollowed out, hedonistic and essentially immoral society we now live in. The society of McJobs, of sink estates, drug addiction, welfare-dependency, celebrity narcissism and failed and hollowed-out public institutions was all, not created, certainly, but certainly magnified by the destruction of traditional working class communities that stemmed from the defeat of the miners.

There is so much that could be said about the malign consequences of the defeat of the NUM, but just focussing on the economic aspect - the argument was that the pits were uneconomic and to continue with them would be a drain on the public purse. Well that was contentious in itself because, as was much-debated at the time, the economic viability of coal mining was very much dependent on what accounting measure were used. But even if that were not so, the ultimate consequence of the neo-liberal revolution has been to move from a situation of subsidising publicly owned productive domestic industries by spending millions to subsidising private, unproductive, offshore financiers by spending billions. Hardly an improvement even for the most hardcore accountant of the national balance sheet.

Almost all the things bemoaned by both left and right today arise from the looting and theft perpetrated against this country by the neo-liberals. The miners were the thin black line that might have prevented that looting and theft. I'm not saying that the world before 1984 was in any way perfect, or that the world after 1985 would have been perfect had the miners won. But when they were, literally, bludgeoned off the streets the possibility of a decent society was also kicked into the gutter by the anonymous, helmeted guards acting on the bidding of the neo-liberalism's gauleiter in Downing Street for a few long-ago spent overtime payments.

I fully expect on this thread and others about the Strike to see the ignorant and malign defending and celebrating the miners' defeat. As someone whose family and friends were amongst those on the receiving end I remember it very differently. But so what? As someone upthread said: "you lost: tough". But as the then victorious neo-liberalism now falls apart it becomes clear that it wasn't "we" who lost. It was just about everyone, and perhaps most especially those legions of 'ordinary, decent, folk', the 'silent majority' who thought that neo-liberalism spoke for their interests, who voted accordingly, and who have now seen their pensions, savings and job security wiped out by a revolution that in reality was never for them but always for the financiers and international corporations that they are now bailing out. They would have been wiser, to use the phrase of the time, to "support the miners".

For more on the '84 Miner's Strike, go here.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

History Maker Mondays-08

It is impossible to put a coin in a slot and have history come out. For the past is a chaos of events and personalities into which we cannot penetrate. It is beyond retrieval and it is beyond reconstruction. All historians know this in their souls.
--Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Harvey Milk (1930-1978)

The death of Harvey Milk, back in 1978, was an event—one of those historical footnotes in our lives that we are aware of, from a news story, or some other announcement--but often, it never goes far beyond that level of recognition.

I was a sophomore in high school when Milk, along with San Francisco Mayor, George Moscone, were murdered by San Francisco supervisor, Dan White. I probably read the news account in my local daily newspaper, at the time, as I began my day before school with a newspaper, over breakfast. I’m sure I also caught something about it on the evening news. I vaguely remember White’s famous “Twinkie defense.” (This well-written SF Chronicle article shows that this so-called “Twinkie defense,” was in fact a myth. It also provides some valuable background on White.)

Growing up in a rural state like Maine, much of the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s seemed far away. The Vietnam War, the protests, the changes happening in American culture were often just images in the nightly news, or black and white newsprint characters. The issues facing men like Harvey Milk—recognition and acceptance of the gay lifestyle—seemed hundreds, or thousands of miles away.

Being raised Roman Catholic, the strictures against homosexuality were part of my religious inculcation. Additionally, society was not as accepting of alternative lifestyles thirty years ago, as they are today.

Milk: The Movie

My wife and I went to see the movie, Milk, the first Saturday in February. I had been hearing the buzz about the film, and every review I read was positive about Gus Van Sant’s movie. I like Van Sant as a filmmaker, and I’ve always respected Sean Penn’s acting, so we decided to take a trip into Portland and catch it.

I’m always a bit leery of Hollywood’s treatment of a multifaceted and complex human subject like Harvey Milk. There is a tendency to play loosely with history, embellishing facts, or short-changing realities, in an attempt at advocacy moviemaking, or creating an unrealistically hagiographic account of Milk, painting him as a martyr figure.

To the movie’s credit, from the very beginning, this biopic had the look and feel of something much bigger. Penn, who deserved his Oscar for his performance as Harvey Milk, is sitting at a table, speaking into the kind of tape recorder we used back in 1978. He is leaving behind a record of the things that were going on, in the event that he was assassinated. From what Milk was saying, it was obvious that he knew at some point that his death was inevitable, and maybe even imminent. From there, the story moves backward, and we see Milk in New York, before he became radicalized politically. He was just another gay man of the time, living a double life, closeting who he was in the 9-5 world of work, and also looking for love and acceptance on the personal side.

Two things in particular resonated with me and made a strong impression in seeing the film. First, Milk was 40-years-old when his political “coming out” took place. I can identify with that because I was about 40 when my own life changed, and I experienced my own reinvention, much like Milk did. Second, the movie uses actual footage from the 1960s and 1970s, showing how the police at the time, routinely rounded up gay men (and also, women), for being in a bar frequented by gays and lesbians. The archival footage shows the brutal treatment perpetrated on people that were merely following their own natural proclivities to be together.

Sitting in the darkened movie theater, I was trying to think back 30 years ago, coming to terms with the realities of that time, I leaned over and said to my wife, Mary, “were they rounding up gays when we were in high school?” Obviously, they were.

Milk moved to San Francisco, from New York, in 1972. He settled in the Castro District of the city, known simply as “the Castro.” The neighborhood was working-class, with a large contingent of those of Irish descent having settled there in the 1930s.

The Castro came of age as a gay center following the Summer of Love, which was centered in the neighboring Haight-Ashbury district in 1967. That summer, tens of thousands of middle-class youth from all over the United States descended on Haight-Ashbury, spilling over into the Castro. Prior to that, the Castro had become a settling place for displaced gay men, when according to documentary filmmaker, Morgan Spurlock, the U.S. military offloaded thousands of gay servicemen in San Francisco during World War II after discharging them for being homosexuals. Many settled in the Castro, and helped cement the neighborhood’s reputation as a place for homosexuals to move to.

With the neighborhood’s burgeoning gay population, the Castro was the perfect place for Milk to settle, and launch his own political career.

The Castro became a place where many gay men began to feel a sense of personal, economic, and political empowerment. Milk became a local businessman and community leader, opening Castro Camera, which became a meeting place for those interested in politics and activism.

While a Hollywood script would have Milk ascend to political stardom overnight. In reality, Milk ran unsuccessfully, three times, before winning his seat as city supervisor, in 1977.

It was during this time that California Sen. John Briggs (R-Fullerton) launched Proposition 6, a statewide initiative that would, in essence, permit school boards to fire teachers who acknowledged their homosexuality. This created a firestorm in the gay community, as members felt that Briggs, along with Anita Bryant, who campaigned up and down the state for its passage, were waging all out war against their community.

In October of that year, LA Times staffer Robert Scheer asked Briggs if “simply being a homosexual and admitting to that fact is grounds for firing.”Briggs replied: “That is correct. If you are a homosexual, publicly admitted or practicing, that is automatic grounds for the removal of a teacher or a school administrator or an aide or a counselor.”

It’s hard to fathom this legislation now, and its far-reaching, and chilling implications it posed for gay teachers. Interestingly, Ronald Reagan, who has become the patron saint of Republicans that probably were supportive of efforts like Proposition 6, actually opposed it at the time. Reagan was very public in his opposition to the measure. Reagan issued an informal letter of opposition to the initiative, answered reporter's questions about the initiative by saying he was against it, and, a week before the election, and even wrote an editorial in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner opposing it.

To Reagan’s credit, he was very well aware of the future fallout that could come from his opposition, because he had decided he would be running for president, in 1980. Reagan biographer, Lou Cannon, wrote that Reagan was “well aware that there were those who wanted him to duck the issue but nevertheless chose to state his convictions.”

Reagan stated in his November 1st editorial for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual's sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child's teachers do not really influence this.” ["Editorial: Two Ill-advised California Trends". Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. p. A19.]

Bryant was brought in by Briggs, to rally support from conservative Protestant congregations in the state. She spread a wealth of misinformation about homosexuals, in churches, and elsewhere, such as this lie: “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children.”

Harvey Milk’s Politics

Milk has done a great service in bringing Harvey Milk back into clear focus for countless Americans, particularly members of the LGBT community, looking for someone to frame their politics moving forward into the 21st century. To see Milk as merely a gay activist, and leave it there however, is to miss the larger context of the man, his issues, and ultimately miss the importance of who he really was.

While the movie briefly touches on the populist nature of his politics, particularly in referencing that he had partnered with the organized labor in building a broad based political coalition in running for office, Milk in fact recognized that working strategically with unions and the city’s fragmented ethnic and racial groups were keys to building the kind of alliance that would help Milk organize groups of minorities into a majority voting block. This is born out in an NPR interview last November, with Anne Kronenberg, who coordinated Milk’s successful campaign for the city’s Board of Supervisors.

Milk supported the local Teamster’s Union, during a local boycott of Coors Brewing. This allowed the openly gay candidate to receive the endorsement of both the Teamsters and the local Firemen’s union.

Walter Kaplan, who was Milk’s lawyer in the 1970s, explained his pragmatic approach to pulling together support from various groups.

“Harvey built coalitions and understood the dynamic of how politics works.”

In his campaign speeches from the years 1973-1977, Milk regularly outlined plans to bridge the deepening divide between the haves and the have-nots which "machines" across the country were creating. The core of Milk's political populism was the simple belief that “the American Dream starts with the neighborhoods--if we wish to rebuild our cities, we must first rebuild our neighborhoods.” The city could only be saved by the industry of its residents, Milk maintained, not “governmental charity.” Rather than “face the problems it's created,” and taking “responsibility for the problems it's ignored,” the machine sought to bribe the urban poor with welfare programs. Instead of empowering the urban poor, these programs had actually trapped them in “concrete jungles,” caged within a vicious cycle of dependence. In order to break this dependence, Milk maintained, the neighborhoods must firmly grasp the reigns of power, in order to lead the city “down the route no major city has ever tried.” [from The Mayor of Castro Street, by Randy Shilts, St Martin's Press (New York), 1982, p. 362.]

My hope, particularly after seeing the movie about his life, is that a new generation of activists will rise up from the ranks of the GLBT community, and turn their attention and energy not just to sexual politics that can be divisive (as once again was witnessed in California, with Proposition 8), but honor the memory and vision of Harvey Milk in reaching across the divide to all Americans, gay and straight, to focus on areas of social justice, including economic justice for everyone.