Monthly Archives: January 2017

Once more unto the breach, dear friends

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Two days before the day set aside to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that Civil Rights legend John Lewis, one of King’s most stalwart lieutenants, was “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”

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No need to compare the records of Donald Trump and John Lewis here, except to say that Lewis is to bravery what Trump is to cowardice. It brings to mind the selflessness and courage of those protesters and freedom riders and fighters for freedom and justice, among whom John Lewis stands tall, many of whom I proudly number among my friends and comrades.

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On February 1, 1960 four black college students sat down at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. They were refused service because they were “Negroes.” When asked to leave, they remained in their seats. Their heroic refusal fired a movement against Jim Crow and legal segregation.

That winter I was in the 10th grade at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. My friend Lionel asked me if I wanted to go with him to picket at the Woolworth’s in downtown Los Angeles with a bunch of students from Los Angeles City College. Lionel’s father was a communist, a lawyer, an engaged progressive in the stultifying ‘50s.

My father drove a cab. He grew up on Chicago’s South Side and was one of the most racist individuals I have ever known. When I challenged his racism, he would recall the “race riots” of 1919, when he was a teenager. 38 people were killed and over 500 injured after a black youth drowned upon being stoned by white teenagers for swimming on a segregated beach. The murder was followed by five days of violence and lynchings.

“If you go,” my father shouted, shaking his finger at me, “you will be a marked man. Marked for life. They’re all communists,” he said, as if the argument ended there.

It didn’t. I didn’t care. It was my first political action, but not my last. It was the beginning of an era of protest and political action that shook the status quo to its core. For the first time in my life I felt that I could actually do something meaningful, that I could make a difference, and it is a feeling I have never forgotten.

It is agonizing to see everything we thought we had accomplished during those years of upheaval and change being Trumped and reversed, as if history had given Bull Connor  the last laugh.

We can’t allow that to happen. We cannot stand by while history is rolled back. We can’t pretend that things have irreversibly changed for the good. They have already been reversed. Trump’s presidency, before it has even begun, is a vivid demonstration of what happens when the forces of extreme reaction seize control. They will do everything in their power — legal and illegal — to wipe out all gains made toward social and economic equality over the last sixty years regardless of the cost in human lives.

They can only be stopped by the determined resistance of the majority of people who believe in facts, in science, in progress, in peace, in liberty and justice for all.

Little did I expect that my political life would end where it began.

But it has.

I was nineteen when I stood in Sproul Plaza, Berkeley, listening to these words, more meaningful now than ever:

“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!” (Mario Savio, December 3, 1964.)

It’s time once again to bend our shoulders to the wheel.

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People and places.

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An open letter to Mick White

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Friday, December 30
St. Paul

 

Mick, I finally read Professed and enjoyed it a lot, laughed out loud a few times, and learned about things I’ve never thought about, all to the good.

Tom’s narrative was fun for the Woody Allen-esque horny, inept, shleppy guy quality. But your people are all more real than Woody’s; his are always like looking in a fish bowl at a peculiar breed of Jewish New York exotics. Tom and Nelda and Emily and Camille and Barnes and Travis are funny for very different reasons (“the valorization of blondness in this society is a disease” vs. “knowledge of the feline Heimlich maneuver could be invaluable when coping with Ben’s digestive tract,” vs. “All you ever do is see them whining on TV. I mean, they’ve got casinos, right?” (Nelda sounds curiously like Javier 😉

Camille’s narrative was my favorite although it’s difficult to explain why. It’s funny, but where I laughed at Tom, I didn’t laugh at Camille. She made me laugh. I loved all the nuances of her character and the way she dealt with the others as critical older sister, indulgent ersatz mother, baffled friend, disappointed romantic, etc.

Travis was the most unexpected. Although at times he knows a little too much (“it was sort of like TV, sort of like the jail scenes in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, but not quite…”), ultimately I loved his POV. It’s certainly the flashiest and most charismatic. He’s the kind of character Woody could never dream of, and he’s not only comic— he is The Inexplicable, the object against which everything else plays (IMHO) so it’s great that he has, in a sense, the last word (“I guess that’s maybe because all those other people don’t know enough to fucking care—?”)

But for me the real triumph is that none of them are played solely for laughs (well, Nelda… maybe… I’m  not so sure… ask me sometime what I would have done with her 😉 ). They are all up against the corporatization of education (a new concept for me I’m embarrassed to admit). They are all its observers, its critics, its victims, its antagonists. The corporate university is devoid of soul, the object of hate and dread and deadly irony. The animus is centered there. Each of the characters is suffused with a wonderfully unique humanity. You never condescend to them; you are never needlessly cruel to them; you open them up only to show us their incandescent cores. We may laugh at them, feel sorry for them, be shocked by them, want to slap them sometimes, but we never hold them in contempt and that is your stunning achievement in this book, I think. I have read many books where the author holds so much — sometimes everything — in contempt; or condescends to his material; or to his audience. But Professed is suffused with a generosity of spirit that makes the enemy — the corporate educational boogeyman — all the more heinous. Ultimately we can, in one way or another, “identify with,” or understand, or like, or cherish is some way, every one of these characters, just as much as we loathe, as they loathe, the big white elephant in the room that is sucking the life out of their lives.

Anyway, thank you, Mick. A lovely book, a lovely read. It was time well spent 🙂

Larry

 

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TRUMP Year One

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Say goodbye to old friends,
safety nets, dividends,
Medicare,  an annual bump
of point three percent
in your Social Security.
Forget it.
There are fortunes
to be made.

Raise your glass!
To JPMorgan Chase,
Citibank and
Goldman Sachs.
Uncork champagne!
Nothing’s too big to fail,
the rich are getting richer,
it’s Billionaires’ Day every day.
Now that America’s great for them,
you pay.

When did you realize
that you’d been played?
When they repossessed
your wheelchair?
or shut down Medicaid?
When you lost your job,
your house, your life?
Raise your glass!
They’re roasting your kids
for dinner
and they want more
special sauce.

You hated your neighbors
and wore a sheet,
shot black men
for nothing at all.
You’re straight, white
and Christian,
you never take the fall
so long as Muslims are on the loose,
and that’s all good until
no matter what you do,
the color of skin can’t save you
because it’s illegal
to be you.

Tyranny rocks on
History’s Top Ten.
It’s nothing new.
Only the uniform changes,
and the salute.
The same rude beast,
its hour come round at last,
slouches toward the White House
heading an all-star cast.

Feel duped? Afraid?
Empires crumble.
History is remade.
When we act together, tyrants fall,
whether resigning like Richard Nixon
or blowing out his brains
in a subterranean bunker,
clutching at the reins.
Which future shall it be?
It’s up to you.

Trust facts.
Read history.
Raise your glass!
to ‘never again’,
to jobs with peace,
equality, and justice for all,
lit by gratitude and respect
for one last chance
to get it right,
before the cynical armies of despair
put out the light.

Larry Mellman
Saint Paul, New Year’s Day 2016/17

 

 

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