Book Review: “Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor” by Cecil Brown posted 8/24/2014

August 24, 2014 1 comment

When I think of the greatest comedians of my lifetime, three names come immediately to mind – Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. It is likely that many young people now may not know about Pryor. Really he was most famous in the 70’s. He died in 2005 although he had stopped performing in the 90’s due to his multiple sclerosis.

Cecil Brown, a writer, college professor and long-time friend of Pryor’s wrote “Pryor Lives” to give the world more background and understanding into who Pryor was as well as well as his evolution as a comic. I have to confess I did not know much of the history.

I mostly remember Pryor for his brilliant concert movies as well as Blue Collar, which was a great political movie. As a comedian, Pryor broke barriers and fearlessly told truths. He was not afraid to insult anybody and he did. He was a pioneer among Black comics, one of the first to tell it like it is. There was nothing tame about Pryor. While being outrageously funny, he delivered withering commentary especially on race and sex topics.

Brown recalls quite a few stories that demonstrate Pryor’s courage. He had a history of walking into the lion’s den and insulting the lion. Brown shows how Pryor went from being a clean comic modelled after Bill Cosby to becoming his later incarnations. There was nothing white bread about Pryor. He was a flamer.

Considering the dysfunctionality of his family and his poverty growing up, it is amazing how much Pryor overcame and achieved. He grew up in a bordello in Peoria Illinois that was run by his grandmother. Both his grandmother and his mother were prostitutes. Pryor’s father ran a bar. Brown says that many of the characters Pryor created were based upon people who showed up in his father’s bar.

Initially, Pryor started out singing, playing piano and telling jokes. He performed at a club in Peoria. The jokes got a much better response than his singing. Brown says Pryor did TV commercial jokes and he did a takeoff on Edward R. Murrow’s show, Person to Person. In Murrow’s show, the host interviewed sophisticated persons in exotic places. Pryor turned it around by pretending to interview Black sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta.

Early in his career, Pryor travelled frequently and played in places like Cleveland, Buffalo, and Chicago. After reading a piece about Bill Cosby in Newsweek, he went to New York City and the Village. It was 1963. At that point, he idolized Cosby but he wanted to go his own way. Brown tells about how Pryor connected with Cosby, and how he also appreciated Sammy Davis. He was envious of their stardom. Pryor did not want to imitate these mentors though. He chose to be an opposite of Cosby and he pulled all his characters from ghetto experience. The Wino, The Junkie and Mudbone were characters he evolved.

According to Brown, Pryor was very eclectic in his comedy tastes. Red Foxx was a huge influence. He liked Dick Gregory and Robin Williams. He also surprised Brown by telling him he thought Joan Rivers was funny too.

Pryor moved to the West Coast and Berkeley California. I did not know how big an influence the world of Berkeley, late 60’s/early 70’s was on him. He especially played at Mandrake’s, a Berkeley club. It was the time of the rise of the Black Liberation movement and especially the Black Panther Party.

Brown tells some good stories about Pryor and the Panthers. Oakland was a Panther stronghold. Pryor paled around with Huey Newton but it did sound like they had a very contentious relationship. They had a competition about who was the craziest. They competed over who could do the most cocaine. While Elaine Brown, a Panther leader, reported that Huey was the baddest, it sounded like Pryor was tough competition in the crazy department. The stories were mostly about macho bluster.

From Brown’s account, the Panthers shook Pryor down. Huey saw Pryor’s movie The Mack as exploitative of Black people. He tried to dictate roles and he interfered in the movie making. Pryor did contribute to the Party but he may have just considered it a cost of doing business. The Panthers were shaking down after hour joints and clubs in the Bay Area. Huey considered these contributions as akin to a tithe. It is hard to tell if Pryor’s contributions were genuinely voluntary. Brown says that Pryor read Malcolm X and he identified with George Jackson.

Movies brought Pryor to a much wider audience. Greased Lightning, Lady Sings the Blues, Which Way is Up?, Blue Collar, California Suite, Superman III and Stir Crazy were some of the movies that catapulted Pryor to stardom. It has been many years since I have seen Richard Pryor: Live in Concert and Richard Pryor: Live on Sunset Strip. I think they were both hilarious and I would recommend them as a great place to start if you are unfamiliar with Pryor’s work.

Pryor hated being called the Black Lenny Bruce but he certainly was in Bruce’s debt. His candor about race, sex, class and sexual preference is probably unsurpassed. Brown’s book gives a good feel for all the influences on Pryor, including Hollywood stars, famous authors, and politicos.

His life, as presented by Brown, was a pretty big mess. He could not hold it together with any one of his many wives. The famous incident in which he severely burned himself while free-basing is not that surprising considering what led up to it.

Pryor was a genius but in between his burning himself up and his MS he suffered terribly. His lawyer, whom he had trusted, ripped him off financially. Brown was close to Pryor for many years so the book does give a close insider’s view.

I did not think Brown’s efforts to present Pryor as a shaman worked. Brown does some academic type theorizing which could have been left out. I thought the book read better as a story. It looks like Brown self-published. Too bad the book did not find a publisher because it deserves wider circulation. Which gets me to a question: why read about Pryor now?

I will give my own view. Pryor was not a conventional comedian. He was a boundary pusher and an exposer of hypocrisy. He especially exposed racism. The world of celebrity is typically vacuous and self-referential. More often than not, it is simply another distraction in modern life. That was never true of Richard Pryor. He had something to say and he said it with guts, honesty and great humor. His example opened the door for others like Chris Rock and Lewis Black.

As a society, we honor so many celebrities who do not deserve it. Pryor deserves the honor.

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The United States of Torture – posted 8/9/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 8/14/2014

August 10, 2014 1 comment

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on August 14,2014 under the title “The United States of Torture”. Jon

President Obama has now acknowledged America’s use of torture. “We tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values.” Obama went on to try and place the use of torture in context. Recalling the desperation of law enforcement to prevent further attacks post-9/11, Obama said, ” …it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job those folks had.”

Although I am glad Obama acknowledged the fact of torture and did not try and call it a phony euphemism, I am disappointed in his response. Torture is a crime. It is not a public relations embarrassment that needs to be managed.

So much is left out in Obama’s weak response. You might think a former constitutional law professor would provide a better answer. I find what he did not say more objectionable than what he did say. Clearly, in this instance, politics is his foremost concern as he was trying to appease his right flank.

The United States is far more implicated in the systemic use of torture than Obama lets on. As outlined in Alfred McCoy’s book, “A Question of Torture”, the roots of the American use of torture date back to the Cold War. McCoy writes:

“From 1950 to 1962, the CIA became involved in torture through a massive mind control effort, with psychological warfare and secret research into human consciousness that reached a cost of a billion dollars annually – a veritable Manhattan Project of the mind. After experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, electric shock, and sensory deprivation, this work then produced a new approach to torture that was more psychological, not physical, perhaps best described as “no-touch torture”. “

Contrary to Obama’s recent statement that made it sound like torture was an aberration, examples from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reflect long-standing practice. They are consistent with the Kubark Counterintelligence manual produced long ago in 1963, which is a handbook on how to torture effectively. That manual, widely used and disseminated by the CIA,, details torture techniques that rely on sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain. The techniques were used in Vietnam as well as in counterinsurgency in the Philippines and Central and South America in the 1970’s and 1980’s

Explanations of torture blaming a few rogue sadistic soldiers or undisciplined overstretched troops are simply wrong. Authorization for the use of torture came from the highest levels. During the George W. Bush years, the torturers hid behind lawyer apologists who crafted new crackpot doctrine to defend the indefensible. Former Vice President Cheney remains a torture cheerleader to this day. Unfortunately, Obama has hardly distinguished himself.

At the same time as the United States has systematically used torture, we also have been a party to the Convention Against Torture, a multi-lateral treaty that America helped to draft, sign, and ratify. The United States is also a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Convention and other torture conventions that absolutely prohibit torture and cruel treatment of wartime detainees.

I would submit that this hypocritical contradiction does not make us that different from most other nation-states. As the late, great reporter I.F. Stone used to say, “All governments lie.” Highminded principles take a back seat to perceived pragmatic needs. Even without evidence that torture works, states want to maintain the perogative to torture.

Torture is not some peripheral legal issue. It is a watershed issue that delineates medievalism from modernity. For almost 2000 years, torture has been associated with tyrants and empires. I think it is fair to say torture has been a central issue in European law for over 1000 years.

The history of torture and European law is fascinating and quite checkered. Pope Nicholas I banned the practice in 866. On its face it seems antithetical to Christian doctrine. However, ecclesiastical courts evolved to sanction torture. During the Inquisition, Church interrogators relied on torture as a means to extract confessions. Pope Innocent IV officially sanctioned the use of torture in 1252.

European civil courts, influenced by Roman law, also used torture as a means to extract confessions. The practice was common and went on for over 500 years. It was not until 1790 that the British Parliament forbid burning women at the stake.

Until the 18th century, the medieval torture mentality reigned. As mentioned, judges routinely sentenced those convicted to the whipping post, stocks, dismemberment, breaking on the wheel, and burning at the stake. Torturers also used a technique called the strappado. Victims were suspended from the ceiling with their hands tied behind their back. Weights could get tied to the victim’s ankles with a series of lifts and drops which could cause dislocations.

It was not until the Enlightenment that the modernist idea of evaluation of evidence on its merits superseded confession by torture. Lawyers started to question the accuracy of evidence extracted by torture.

In the 1760’s, Voltaire denounced judicial torture and argued that a civilized nation could no longer follow “atrocious old customs”. The 19th century saw a further evolution toward a more rationalist and scientific approach to crime.

The American Constitution reflected Enlightenment influences, particularly the 8th amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Founding Fathers opposed unusual cruelty in the methods of punishment as well as disproportionate or excessive punishment.

How we got to indefinite holding, torturing and killing prisoners at secret prisons is a long and complicated story. Obama’s weak admission must be seen in the context of this long history. As a nation we have been backsliding for some time now. Instead of seeing torture as a moral and legal abomination, we glorify its dark power on television. If we cannot honestly confront it and recognize it is an anachronism, how will we ever be able to do anything about it? Obama’s unwillingness to look back at the crimes that have been committed very much increases the likelihood that torture will recur in our future.

I think stories like the redacted senate intelligence report on torture and the fact the CIA searched senate computers are mostly indicative of how far we are from honestly engaging the larger issue: when are we going to start treating torture like the crime it is?

Meeting in a Tunnel by Uri Avnery – posted 8/3/2014

August 3, 2014 1 comment

I am reprinting a new piece written by Uri Avnery, a leader in the Israeli peace movement. Jon

THERE WAS this village in England which took great pride in its archery. In every yard there stood a large target board showing the skills of its owner. On one of these boards every single arrow had hit a bull’s eye.

A curious visitor asked the owner: how is this possible? The reply: “Simple. First I shoot the arrows, and then I draw the circles around them.”

In this war, our government does the same. We achieve all our goals – but our goals change all the time. In the end, our victory will be complete.

WHEN THE war started, we just wanted to “destroy the terror infrastructure”. Then, when the rockets reached practically all of Israel (without causing much damage, largely owing to the miraculous anti-missile defense), the war aim was to destroy the rockets. When the army crossed the border into Gaza for this purpose, a huge network of tunnels was discovered. They became the main war aim. The tunnels must be destroyed.

Tunnels have been used in warfare since antiquity. Armies unable to conquer fortified towns tried to dig tunnels under their walls. Prisoners escaped through tunnels. When the British imprisoned the leaders of the Hebrew underground, several of them escaped through a tunnel.

Hamas used tunnels to get under the border walls and fences to attack the Israeli army and settlements on the other side. The existence of these tunnels was known, but their large numbers and effectiveness came as a surprise. Like the Vietnamese fighters in their time, Hamas uses the tunnels for attacks, command posts, operational centers and arsenals. Many of them are interconnected.

For the population on the Israeli side, the tunnels are a source of dread. The idea that at any time the head of a Hamas fighter may pop up in the middle of a kibbutz dining hall is not amusing.

So now the war aim is to discover and destroy as many tunnels as possible. No one dreamed of this aim before it all started.

If political expedience demands it, there may be another war aim tomorrow. It will be accepted in Israel by unanimous acclaim.

THE ISRAELI media are now totally subservient. There is no independent reporting. “Military correspondents” are not allowed into Gaza to see for themselves, they are willingly reduced to parroting army communiqués, presenting them as their personal observations. A huge herd of ex-generals are trotted out to “comment” on the situation, all saying exactly the same, even using the same words. The public swallows all this propaganda as gospel truth.

The small voice of Haaretz, with a few commentators like Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, is drowned in the deafening cacophony.

I escape from this brainwashing by listening to both sides, switching all the time between Israeli TV stations and Aljazeera (in Arabic and in English). What I see is two different wars, happening at the same time on two different planets.

For viewers of the Israeli media, Hamas is the incarnation of evil. We are fighting “terrorists”. We are bombing “terror targets” (like the home of the family of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh). Hamas fighters never withdraw, they “escape”. Their leaders are not commanding from underground command posts, they are “hiding”. They are storing their arms in mosques, schools and hospitals (as we did during British times). Tunnels are “terror tunnels”. Hamas is cynically using the civilian population as “human shields” (as Winston Churchill used the London population). Gaza schools and hospitals are not hit by Israeli bombs, God forbid, but by Hamas rockets (which mysteriously lose their way) and so on.

Seen through Arab eyes, things look somewhat different. Hamas is a patriotic group, fighting with incredible courage against immense odds. They are not a foreign force oblivious to the suffering of the population, they are the sons of this very population, members of the families that are now being killed en masse, who grew up in the houses that are now being destroyed. It is their mothers and siblings who huddle now in UN shelters, without water and electricity, deprived of everything but the clothes on their back.

I have never seen the logic in demonizing the enemy. When I was a soldier in the 1948 war, we had heated arguments with our comrades on other fronts. Each insisted that his particular enemy – Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian – was the most brave and efficient one. There is no glory in fighting a depraved gang of “vile terrorists”.

Let’s admit that our present enemy is fighting with great courage and inventiveness. That almost miraculously, their civilian and military command structure is still functioning well. That the civilian population is supporting them in spite of immense suffering. That after almost four weeks of fighting against one of the strongest armies in the world, they are still standing upright.

Admitting this may help us to understand the other side, something that is essential both for waging war and making peace, or even a ceasefire.

WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING the enemy or having a clear concept of what we really want, even achieving a ceasefire is an arduous task.

For example: what do we want from Mahmoud Abbas?

For many years the Israeli leadership has openly disparaged him. Ariel Sharon famously called him a “plucked chicken”. Israeli rightists believe that he is “more dangerous than Hamas”, since the naïve Americans are more likely to listen to him. Binyamin Netanyahu did everything possible to destroy his standing and sabotaged all peace negotiations with him. They vilified him for seeking reconciliation with Hamas. As Netanyahu put it, with his usual talent for sound bites, “peace with us or peace with Hamas’.

But this week, our leaders were feverishly reaching out to Abbas, crowning him as the only real leader of the Palestinian people, demanding that he play a leading role in the ceasefire negotiations. All Israeli commentators declared that one of the great achievements of the war was the creation of a political bloc consisting of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates and Abbas. Yesterday’s “no-partner” is now a staunch ally.

The trouble is that many Palestinians now despise Abbas, while looking with admiration upon Hamas, the shining symbol of Arab honor. In Arab culture, honor plays a far larger role than in Europe.

At the moment, Israeli security experts look with growing concern at the situation in the West Bank. The young – and not only the young – seem ready for a third intifada. Already, the army fires live ammunition at protesters in Qalandia, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and other places. The number of dead and injured in the West Bank is rising. For our generals, this is another reason for an early ceasefire in Gaza.

CEASEFIRES ARE made between the people who are firing. Viz: Israel and Hamas. Alas, there is no way around it.

What does Hamas want? Unlike our side, Hamas has not changed its aim: to lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip.

This can mean many things. The maximum: opening the crossings from Israel, repairing and reopening the destroyed airport of Dahaniyah in the south of the Strip, building a seaport at Gaza City (instead of the existing small fishing jetty), allowing Gaza fishermen to go further from the coast.

(After Oslo, Shimon Peres fantasized about a big harbor in Gaza, serving the entire Middle East and turning Gaza into a second Singapore.)

The minimum would be to open the Israeli crossings for the free movement of goods in and out, allowing Gazans to go to the West Bank and beyond, and to support themselves with exports, an aspect which is too rarely mentioned.

In return, Israel would certainly demand international inspection to prevent the building of new tunnels and the restocking of the arsenal of rockets.

Israel would also demand some role for Abbas and his security forces, which are viewed by Hamas (and not only by them) as Israeli collaborators.

The Israeli army also demands that even after a ceasefire comes into force, it will complete the destruction of all the known tunnels before withdrawing.

(Hamas also demands the opening of the crossing into Egypt – but that is not a part of the negotiations with Israel.)

IF THERE had been direct negotiations, this would have been comparatively easy. But with so many mediators vying with each other, it’s difficult.

Last Wednesday, Haaretz disclosed an amazing piece of news: the Israeli Foreign Ministry – yes, the fief of Avigdor Lieberman! – proposes turning the problem over to the United Nations. Let them propose the conditions for the cease fire.

The UN? The institution almost universally despised in Israel? Well, as the Yiddish saying goes, “when God wills, even a broomstick can shoot.”

Assuming that a ceasefire is achieved (and not just a short humanitarian one, that no side intends to keep), what then?

Will serious peace negotiations become possible? Will Abbas join as the representative of all Palestinians, including Hamas? Will this war be the last one, or remain just another episode in an endless chain of wars?

I HAVE a crazy fantasy.

Peace will come and filmmakers will produce movies about this war, too.

One scene: Israeli soldiers discover a tunnel and enter it in order to clear it of enemies. At the same time, Hamas fighters enter the tunnel at the other end, on their way to attack a kibbutz.

The fighters meet in the middle, beneath the fence. They see each other in the dim light. And then, instead of shooting, they shake hands.

A mad idea? Indeed. Sorry.

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Book Review: “The Heart of Everything That Is” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin – posted 7/27/2014

July 27, 2014 3 comments

We lack great books about Native American history. We do have “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and “Black Elk Speaks” and “Empire of the Summer Moon” but so much history is left out.

Fortunately, we now have “The Heart of Everything That Is” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. They chronicle the history of the legendary Sioux leader Red Cloud. In the period immediately after the Civil War, Red Cloud defeated the U.S. Army. He did what other Native American leaders had not proven able to do. He united many tribes against the settler-invaders.

Why does this matter? I would submit that the conventional view of American history sidelines the centrality of the Native American struggle. Bottom line: the advancing Americans took their land. Through the means of military conquest, repeatedly dishonored treaties and overwhelming population shift, Native peoples’ were shoved aside and removed to reservations. Along with slavery, this is our original sin that remains very inadequately addressed to this day.

Drury and Clavin present a clear narrative about the struggle of the Sioux to come to grips with the advancing whites. It is not the story you got growing up in school if you got any kind of story at all.

To their credit, Drury and Clavin let it all hang out. They do not prettify or sugarcoat any side. The brutality and violence of both sides was extreme.While they appreciate the heroism of Red Cloud, they show him as a complex human being. Here is one description:

“In later years when old Sioux who had ridden with Red Cloud reminisced, they invariably recalled three traits the young brave always exhibited. The first, surprisingly, was his grace. He rode, walked and stalked like a panther, his every action shorn of extraneous movements. The second was his brutality; he was like flint, they said, hard and easily sparked. On one occasion he killed a Crow boy who was guarding a herd of ponies and the next day he waited in ambush for the pursuing Crow chief, the boy’s father, to kill him too. On another occasion he took obvious joy in jumping into a river to save a floundering Ute from drowning, only to drag him up onto the bank, knife him to death and scalp him. The third trait was his arrogance, essential to any Sioux leader…” (p.76)

The fighting qualities he exhibited earned Red Cloud great respect. As Drury and Clavin explain, he did not spare himself the self-inflicted pain common in Sioux warrior culture. He underwent the Sun Dance ceremony which subjected the brave to excruciating pain. Drury and Clavin explain that the Sioux believed such extreme physical suffering could give a physical edge that would make it harder for them to be killed.

While the book tells many stories about Red Cloud, there was one particularly tragic story about his love life. Red Cloud loved two women. In Sioux culture, a man could take as many wives as he could afford. Although Red Cloud was more attracted to a young woman named Pine Leaf, he decided to marry Pretty Owl, his other love, because it was a more politically advantageous match. Pine Leaf’s family did not have the prestige of Pretty Owl’s.

The morning after Red Cloud’s wedding to Pretty Owl, he stepped out of his tepee. A short distance away, hanging from a low branch, was his first love, Pine Leaf. Red Cloud returned to his mother’s teepee and did not move. He was in traumatic shock and grief. Pine Leaf’s family cut her body down and then her male relatives slashed Red Cloud’s honeymoon lodge to shreds. Red Cloud remained monogamous for the rest of his life. Drury and Clavin wrote that Pine Leaf’s suicide made Red Cloud more dour and smothered any joy in his life. He did remain married to Pretty Owl for 59 years though.

From a very early age, Red Cloud was seen as a major tribal leader and a feared warrior. The book shows Red Cloud’s genius as a military tactician. The guerilla war he led was unprecedented. As noted, he defeated the U.S. Army for a period of time. I did not realize the extent of the internal divisions among the Native American tribes. Red Cloud had a very rare ability to unite previously warring tribes, At the height of his power Red Cloud and the Sioux controlled a huge swath of land from Iowa to Idaho.

On November 6, 1868, after years of battles, Red Cloud rode into Fort Laramie and triumphantly signed a treaty whereby the United States conceded to the Sioux the territory from the Bighorns eastward to the Missouri River and from the forty sixth parallel south to the Dakota-Nebraska boundary. As the book says, this was the proudest moment of Red Cloud’s life.

The United States did not live up to this treaty. Red Cloud went to New York and Washington DC in 1870 to try and obtain treaty compliance and wrest concessions. He met a wildly popular reception and masses of people lined the New York streets to see him. Popular mass appeal did not however equate with meeting Native American demands.

Drury and Clavin say that it was on this trip east that Red Cloud realized the futility of his aspirations. He told the Secretary of the Interior: “Now we are melting like snow on the hillside, while you are growing like spring grass.”

One statistic that impressed me: in 1866, when Red Cloud was fighting there were fewer than 2 million whites populating the West. Twenty-five years later, with the advent of railroads, that number shot up to 8.5 million. Today it is 86 million. Those numbers alone show what the Native Americans were up against.

The book highlights some colorful western characters whom history has left behind. I would mention Jim Bridger who was a larger than life character. He was nicknamed Old Gabe after the Archangel Gabriel. Bridger was a mountain man, a trapper, a scout, and a pioneer with experience fighting Indians. According to the authors, he took part in a Congressional scientific survey seeking the source of the Yellowstone and he discovered a mountain pass that shortened the route between Denver and Salt Lake City for the overland mail coach. (It is now U.S. Route 40). Bridger was friendly to some tribes and he was very ambivalent about the advance of the white settlers. He had a Shoshone wife and his loyalties were often in doubt. He had conflict with the Mormons and Brigham Young that escalated to violence. A posse of Mormons who were out to arrest him attacked a stockade he controlled and burned his large stock of whiskey and rum. They took his livestock and never returned them.

Bridger spoke French, Spanish and close to a dozen Indian tongues. Drury and Clavin say this about Bridger:

“His bravery was unquestioned, and he was said to be the best shot, the savviest scout, the most formidable horseman, and though functionally illiterate, the ablest interpreter in the Rockies. He took two arrows in the back in a fight with Blackfeet in 1832; his companions could extricate only one. Three years later…a passing surgeon was enlisted to remove the other.” (p.98)

The authors do a good job in getting inside the characters of both the Native American leaders and the military men pursuing them.

“The Heart of Everything That Is” can be read as an adventure story, a historical narrative, a biography and the story of a people. The authors did remarkable research which must have been hard to come by. S.G. Gwynne, the historian, described the book as “big blazing history writ large on the High Plains.” Hard to argue with that.

While many profess sympathy, it seems to me that Americans maintain a blind spot around the history of Native Americans. Great books like this are really important because at least the authors tell the story honestly. It is easy to be skeptical that we as a society will ever do the right thing around Native American issues. At least with a book like this we can begin to understand what happened and how Native Americans became so marginalized.

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Terie Norelli is a Hard Act to Follow – posted 7/13/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/26/2014

July 13, 2014 Leave a comment

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on July 26, 2014 under the title “House, New Hampshire Will Miss Speaker Norelli”. Jon

New Hampshire’s Speaker of the House, Terie Norelli, is retiring after serving in the House for eighteen years. Terie was Speaker from 2006 to 2010 and then she returned to the role in 2012.

She is the second woman to become Speaker (after Donna Sytek) and she is the first Speaker to lead a House Democratic majority in 100 years.

I first met Terie early in her tenure in the House. She was pretty much of an unknown legislator then. She served on the lively House Science, Technology and Energy Committee but I got to know her because of her efforts working to raise New Hampshire’s minimum wage.

Terie was the prime sponsor of the bill to raise New Hampshire’s minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour. As a lobbyist for New Hampshire Legal Assistance working on that bill, I was fortunate to get to know her.

It was always a pleasure to work with Terie. She was personable, relaxed and funny. But she was also informed, passionate, and strategic. She always did her homework and had utterly realistic notions about bill possibilities.

Looking back, I have to say Terie was the ideal bill sponsor. She was very smart, articulate, and responsive to suggestions and criticism. At the same time, she was excellent at reaching across the aisle to find support from Republicans. She understood the need to message in a way that could win maximum support.

Terie taught the value of dogged persistence. We lost and lost and lost but Terie did not quit. Passing the minimum wage bill took ten years. The bill was introduced five times before it finally won. By that time, Terie had ascended to being Speaker.

Terie treated everyone in and around the House with civility and respect. She appreciated the essentially volunteer nature of being a state representative. It takes considerable time during the week and it is a labor of love. The pay is $100 a year plus mileage.

While Terie is a strong progressive, she was the opposite of a dogmatic ideologue. She knew early on that legislators need to be able to work together collaboratively whatever their party affiliation. She respected differences of opinion and believed all should get a hearing.

She recognized the need for and inevitability of compromise. It is in the DNA of the Legislature. She set a respectful tone, consistent with a longstanding New Hampshire House tradition.

She was not a bully. She did not treat the House like it was a narrow club of like-minded true believers out to remove or shun heretics. As Speaker, she changed seating arrangements in the House so Republicans and Democrats sat next to each other. Previously, House members separated by party and sat in party blocs.

Terie worked to ensure that all members of the public would be listened to respectfully at public hearing. For anyone who has been around the House for a long time, they know that has not always been the case. Committee Chairs can exercise wide discretion. I do believe Terie encouraged her Committee Chairs toward fairness and giving the public a full opportunity to speak out at public hearings. The tone promoted by the Speaker matters.

I do think Terie was a master of the legislative process. The House is quite a different beast than the Senate. You have 400 state representatives and 24 state senators. House Democrats can often be more progressive and less subject to party discipline than their senate counterparts. Figuring out how to craft a winning agenda and approach that stays true to progressive values is not easy. Compromise can dampen enthusiasm and can stir up political hornet nests. Terie knew how to thread the needle and still win many significant political victories.

As Speaker, her legislative accomplishments are impressive. In addition to minimum wage (a battle that must be fought again), I think of Medicaid expansion, participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), marriage equality, in-state college tuition freeze, reestablishing a CHINS program, eliminating the Developmental Disabilities waitlist and the defeat of payday lending. Everyone of these victories was huge.

Terie’s leadership was nationally recognized. She became the president of the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) in 2012. NCSL is a very valuable, bi-partisan organization that serves all the nation’s state lawmakers. NCSL alternates all leadership positions between the two parties each year.

I do think Terie’s role as New Hampshire House Speaker will someday be seen as historic. It also reflects an undeniable turning point as New Hampshire shifts as a state in a more progressive direction. I know some people on the Right think Terie’s departure is a good omen as far as their long-term prospects. I see it otherwise. Given the changing demographics of the state, the increased importance of womens’ role in politics, and the extremist bent of Republicans, it is not going to be another 100 years before the next Democratic Speaker. Democratic Speakers could become a regular event.

New Hampshire was fortunate to have a leader of Terie’s character, dynamism and reasonableness. She is a hard act to follow and she will be missed.

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Rob Doyle – posted 7/6/2014

July 6, 2014 2 comments

My friend Rob Doyle died on May 1. I have to say Rob’s death was utterly shocking to me. I had a hard time believing it could have happened. Rob was a vital presence. Rob lived to 72 but he was not a person who ever seemed old at all.

The last time I saw Rob was in the summer of 2010 before I moved to Alaska. Rob came to a going away party my wife Debra had organized at my home in Wilmot NH. I was actually surprised he came because it was at least a two hour drive each way. I had not seen Rob for a long time before that. Rob stayed late and it was great to see him again. He gave me the names of some of his old Alaska friends. He had worked in Alaska Legal Services early in his legal career.

I first met Rob in 1981 when we were in a childbirth class together before the birth of his son Jason and my son Josh. Rob and Diane and my ex-wife Carol and I all lived in Dorchester, near Fields Corner. We used to hang out a lot together.

That is when I first learned about Rob’s legal career. At the time, I only dimly glimpsed what an unusual and extraordinary lawyer Rob was. I knew he had been involved with defense of American Indian Movement (AIM) activists at Wounded Knee. I also knew he was a Movement lawyer with an office in Boston.

Rob was a founding member of the Boston National Lawyers Guild (NLG) chapter and a member of the Law Commune, an alternative law firm of the late 60’s, early 70’s. The Massachusetts NLG website described the Law Commune this way:

“The law commune, as the term suggests, practiced law in a new way, serving activists, representing antiwar demonstrators and involving themselves directly in anti-war and community work as participants in the front lines. They also rejected all hierarchy – including distinctions between lawyers and non-lawyers – and functioned like many of the groups they served as egalitarian collectives, making decisions cooperatively and unanimously (often through marathon meetings replete with “criticism and self-criticism”). It was widely corroborated that the men took up knitting and would knit at the meetings. The lawyers took turns answering the phones, and they eschewed all the paraphernalia of private privilege, including individual offices. They couldn’t afford phones with buttons that lit up to indicate which line a call was going to, so whenever the phone would ring, they never knew who it would be for. Even desks lacked separate drawers for separate people; they were slabs of plywood with files on top.”

The NLG history of the early years also quotes a story about Rob:

“The Guild lawyers supported themselves (barely) with appointed criminal cases, contributions from clients, and by driving cabs and waiting tables. Rob Doyle reported that a client came to eat at a restaurant where he was a dishwasher – they had a good laugh. The joke was that the Guild attorneys would ask new clients,”How much should we pay you to represent you?”.

When i was in my first year in law school in 1982, Rob came to Concord NH to defend a Black revolutionary Christopher King. King had been stopped and arrested at a rest area in Attleboro Ma when he was in a car with Jaan Laaman, a white prison radical. There were illegal guns in the car and a shoot-out eventually ensued between Laaman and the police. The reason the police pursued the search was because there was a Black guy and a white guy in the same car at 2am. That was the only basis for the stop. There is much that could be said about the case but suffice it to say the case went on for years.

Rob stayed at my apartment while he tried the case which had been removed to federal court in Concord NH. The case was before Judge Martin Loughlin, a very humane, down-to-earth judge.

I decided to blow off law school classes one day to watch the trial. I remember entering the back of the courtroom. I got there early. There were a group of women on one side. They asked: “Who are you?” I explained my relationship to Rob. They said, “Come over here and sit with us. We’re witches and we are casting spells on the prosecutor”. Not wanting to take any chances, I did move to their side, promptly.

I remember Judge Loughlin calling Rob “Bobby”. I wasn’t sure if it was an Irish thing but it seemed like the judge really liked Rob.

The King case had a complicated history with both federal and state charges. Because of police misconduct and wiretapping of attorney-client conversations, the case was remanded back to the federal court in NH by the First Circuit. The case came back the next year. Rob became a witness in the case and Bill Kunstler was brought in as counsel. Rob again stayed at my place.

I took some time off from law school classes again to watch. I saw Bill Kunstler cross-examine an FBI agent. This time Judge Loughlin called Bill Kunstler “Billy”. Kunstler very generously took Rob, me and my friend Steve Cherry out to lunch at the old Thursday’s restaurant in downtown Concord. It was a memorable moment for both me and Steve. Kunstler was a legend already having represented the Chicago 7, H. Rap Brown, the Attica Brothers and so many other famous defendants. It was a heady experience and Rob had made it possible.

Kunstler was very entertaining and a bit of a showboat. I remember him flashing a large wad of hundred dollar bills. (He paid for lunch) I don’t remember much of the conversation but I do remember Bill told us that the secret to a long life was to have sex everyday. Always good to get important advice from senior attorneys!

If anyone is interested in the King case, there are two Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court opinions. The first Commonwealth v. Christopher King case is at 389 Mass 233 (1983). The later opinion is at 400 Mass 283 (1987). I am not clear on the whole procedural history since there was a federal dimension to the case as well. I did not know how much heat Rob had taken for his role in the case. At the memorial event recently held for Rob, it was mentioned that the feds put tremendous pressure on him, his law partner Ed Berkan and his firm.

Rob embodied some very unusual qualities for a lawyer: a genuine passion for social justice, modesty, cool competence and humility. While he was an excellent and skilled trial attorney, he was almost self-effacing about it. He was very matter-of-fact and egalitarian. He was quite a non-judgmental mentor as well. He was easy to talk to.

Rob always had interesting cases going on. Along with criminal defense, he represented tenants facing eviction, injured workers, and people victimized by lead paint and other toxins. Rob laid it all on the line. He put heart and soul into his practice. I would mention that there is a lovely video tribute to Rob on the Massachusetts NLG website (www.nlgmass.org) by Rob’s law partner Carol Steinberg. You can track it down on the the Mass Dissent Online section of the site.

I always thought of Rob as something of a Renaissance Man. He sailed, skied, was a good builder, and he was also technologically savvy. I remember some of his creative building projects from his old house in Dorchester. I did not know how he learned to do so many things so well. I always remember Prairie Home Companion on in the background at his house.

I regret that I never reconnected with Rob after being in Alaska. We talked about meeting in Lawrence as Rob said he had some work there. I always assumed there would be more time and in that I was wrong. I guess there is some kind of lesson there about not waiting on things in life. What is good and vital can be wrenched away in a heatbeat.

I miss Rob and his presence on the planet. It is like the forces of justice in the universe shrank with his passing.

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Five Highlights of the Montreal Jazz Festival – posted 7/3/2014

July 3, 2014 1 comment

It has been nine years since I was lucky enough to go to the Montreal Jazz Festival. Fortunately, I made it back this year. (For anyone who still can make it, the festival runs until July 6.)

The festival is such a great event. I am not sure which is better – the food in Montreal or the music at the festival. Both were wonderful. Since I went in 2005, the festival seems bigger. I think there are more shows with a wider diversity of international music being played.

For those who have never been there, there are a number of big stages set up downtown. From early evening til almost midnight, there are live shows. Most shows are free. There are some paying concerts for bigger name performers. Montreal is an excellent venue for young unknown musicians who get a chance to play before large crowds so they can make a name for themselves.

i thought I would highlight some of the acts and food places which wowed me. The food places are not connected to the festival but I wanted to mention them anyway:

  • Ester Rada – I had never heard of this Israeli artist before the festival. She is a very lively performer and singer. There are jazz, funk, soul, and reggae sounds in her music and her band is tight. I think she has released a CD entitled Ester Rada. Check out her song Nanu Ney.
  • Mai Xiang Yuan – This hole in the wall, totally unpretentious Chinese restaurant is located at 1084 Boulevard St Laurent in Montreal. It is the place for dumplings. They are made from scratch. You can get them boiled or fried. I thought the boiled were better. My wife Debra and I tried the shrimp, coriander and pork. We also tried the shrimp, egg and leek dumplings. The dumplings are to die for. The place has a limited menu – dumplings and soup with dumplings but what they do, they do great.
  • Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite – These guys don’t need praise from me but their concert was terrific. Charlie seemed to be loving playing with Ben. I liked “I’m in I’m Out and I’m Gone”. Also, “You Found Another Lover (I Lost a Friend)”. There is no better blues harmonica player out there than Charlie.
  • Au Pied De Cochon – My friends Mike and Sue suggested this restaurant. It was a treat. Debra and I split a duck special. The duck was thinly sliced in a very flavorful sauce. We also shared yummy poutine au foie gras. Debra had codfish fritters for an appetizer. She thought it was better than any she had eaten on Cape Cod which is high praise. We split sugar pie for dessert. It had a creme sauce and it tasted like luscious pecan pie. The place is not cheap but it is a find. I definitely would love to go back sometime.
  • Diana Krall – She did a hugely attended free show at an outdoor stage. There was no room to move it was so crowded. Fortunately they had big screens set up so you could see even from faraway. I have always liked her music and it appeared thousands of Montrealers felt the same way. I liked her version of Temptation. Also her version of the Band’s Ophelia. She did a tribute to Neil Young and sang a fine version of Man Needs A Maid. Her husband Elvis Costello came on to sing a few songs with her at the end. I think she did more covers than usual, quite a bit of Dylan. I give her credit for doing Subterranean Homesick Blues, not a song I think she ever would have tried to do.

This is the 35th year of the festival. It is an annual event. If you can swing it, this is always a tremendous event. Go in the future if you can…

Categories: Uncategorized
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