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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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