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Music Review: “Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone” by Lucinda Williams – posted 11/28/2014

November 28, 2014 Leave a comment

I probably should lead off by making it clear that I am a huge Lucinda Williams fan. I do not own every album but I do own “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”, “West”, “Blessed” and her double album that was originally released in 1988 that was titled “Lucinda Williams”.

When I saw she had released a new double album, I did not hesitate. “Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone” is another fine album. Lucinda wrote almost all the songs.

I will not say I love every song but there are enough great ones. Disc one is especially strong. Lucinda is a poet of the dark side. I think she writes and sings eloquently about dysfunctionality, broken relationships, and people who screw up. She clearly has had her share of down moments yet nothing has defeated her. Her lyrics are passionate, politically informed and humane.

How many country rock stars (if that is what she is) would have a song titled “Compassion” that was based on a poem their dad wrote? I do not think too many.

I love “Stand Right By Each Other”, a statement song about the need to fight to keep a relationship together in the face of big difficulties. Really the advice is good and the song totally rocks. There is an adult quality about the weightiness of relationships and how much is at stake in breaking up. There is wisdom there coming from lived experience.

I also wanted to give special mention to a number of the other songs on Disc One. I especially like “Foolishness”. Lucinda has no use for fear mongers, people promoting pie-in-the-sky or liars. She dishes on them and I do see the song as an expression of her politics. Her song “Protection” is similar in that the lyrics engage the same fight. The cool thing is the liveliness of the music. The songs move. There is nothing boring or wasted.

“Burning Bridges” is a song about self-destructive behavior. It asks why the self-destructive person is doing the bad behavior and why he keeps doing it. Why does he want to burn bridges when it is so clearly not the way to go and he is only hurting himself. The question is pertinent and common. Like the other songs I mentioned, Lucinda gives the song great energy and drive. The genius in the music is her ability to be topical, accessible, and so lively.

I did not think Disc Two was quite as good as Disc One although there are some great songs on Disc Two. My personal favorite is “Walk On”, a very catchy number. It is not so much the lyrics as the music. I have listened to it a lot. The song will grab you. I also like “When I Look At the World”. It captures the duality of life with awful sadness co-existing with life in all its glory. The song is reminiscent of W.H. Auden’s famous poem Musee des Beaux Arts. That poem took off on Brueghel”s Icarus painting where people apathetically go on with their lives, ignoring the suffering around them. “When I Look at the World” contrasts the extremes in life.

Lucinda writes:

“…I’ve been filled with regret
I’ve made a mess of things, I’ve been a total wreck
I’ve been disrespected and had my patience tried

But then I look at the world and all its glory
I look at the world and it’s a different story
Each time I look at the world.”

Patty Loveless has said of Lucinda: “She writes from the heart of real life. You can hear lives being played out in her lyrics, and the stories capture the way it really is.” Those words are true.

I will take the liberty of ending with some lyrics Lucinda wrote from a different album. I just like it. The song is “Something About What Happens When We Talk”.

“If I had my way I’d be in your town
I might not stay but at least I would’ve been around
‘Cause there’s something about what happens
when we talk

Does it make sense, does it matter anyway
Is it coincidence or was it meant to be

‘Cause there’s something about what happens
when we talk

Conversation with you was like a drug
It wasn’t your face so much as it was your words

‘Cause there’s something about what happens
when we talk
Something about what happens when we talk

I can’t stick around, I’m going back South
But all I regret now is I never kissed your mouth

“Cause there’s something about what happens
when we talk
Something about what happens when we talk

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The Declining Quality of Protest – posted 11/16/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 11/21/2014

November 17, 2014 1 comment

This piece ran in the Concord Monitor on 11/21/2014 under the title “The Decline of Protest.”

The 2014 Pumpkin Festival held in Keene New Hampshire did get me thinking. What was that about? Why did a pumpkin festival become a riot scene? Was it really a riot to fight for the right to party, that most fundamental of all American rights?

I was not in Keene to witness the mayhem but from most accounts it did seem to be a protest about the right to party and drink. Possibly it dignifies the riot too much to consider it “a protest”.

Thousands of college students descended upon Keene looking for beer. The students came from UNH, University of Rhode Island, U. Mass – not just Keene State. It was not as spontaneous as it might have seemed. Social media helped to build the event encouraging kids to rage.

The Daily Beast reported that Finnarage, a company which hosts pop-up parties on or near college campuses, advertised for a month and a half before the Pumpkin Festival that it was coming to Keene. On September 10, Finnarage tweeted, “# KSC Spring weekend!! Pumpkin Fest 2014 will be 10x crazier..YOU READY KEENE #Finnarage.”

It does not seem surprising that if you add together young people drinking excessively, setting fires, tipping cars, smashing windows, throwing rocks and bottles and police in swat gear with tear gas, tasers, pepper spray and canine units, you have a recipe for insanity.

I do not see the Pumpkin Festival riot as nihilistic. I think it is more an example of mindlessness.

At the age of 63, I feel like I have earned the right to indulge in being a curmudgeon. May I say that the behavior of the student/rioters was incredibly dumb if not moronic. Congratulations! If I was asked to give a leading example of the dumbing-down of America, I would point to the 2014 Pumpkin Festival riot, a riot about nothing.

I remember when people connected protest with a cause. Now there is a novel concept! When I was in college, I do not recall anyone feeling the need to riot for the right to get blitzed. That right was always taken for granted.

I suppose I cannot help but think back to my own college experience. Along with many others, I spent a considerable amount of time during college protesting the war in Vietnam. Demonstrating against that war may have been the archetypal experience of my whole generation. To this day, I feel proud of that dissent and protest. We college students of that era educated the nation and turned the tide of public opinion against that monstrous war.

Thinking about the Pumpkin Festival, it is hard not to see it as reflecting some debasement of the honorable act of protest. Protest at its best is about speaking up for what is right and putting human values above material values. It is about creating a more democratic and humane society. I think of values like caring, compassion and empathy.

I certainly do not see the Pumpkin Festival as the only recent example of debased protest. Before leaving Keene, a city I genuinely like, I would also mention the so-called Keene Robin Hooders. These individuals closely follow city parking enforcement officers around as the officers check on whether parking meters have expired. The Robin Hooders have put change into expired parking meters before the city’s parking enforcement officers can write tickets. They have been accused of harassing and intimidating parking meter officers by taunting, crowding, making video recordings and accusing officers of stealing people’s money. The harassment has caused one officer to quit his job.

We all pick and choose our battles in life but parking meter enforcement officers? C’mon man. That is sad. I mean in an era when we have extreme income inequality, they focus on poor beleaguered parking meter officers. Hey what about the 1% if you need a focus? I would classify this protest as stupid too.

I think the use of Robin Hood’s name is misplaced. In English folklore, Robin Hood was portrayed as robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. The Keene Robin Hooders are most certainly not doing that. No one loves paying for parking but no doubt city government needs that money to pay for essential services. The lack of revenue is a perennial problem that probably hurts the poor the most. I also think that if parking was not paid some folks would hog spaces and less people would have access to shop or do the things they need to do downtown. Paid parking allows for more turnover of the limited space available.

The dumbing down of protest is certainly not just an American phenomenon. In the international realm, I do want to give honorable mention to the Islamic State. Here we are not talking mindless drinkers on a rampage. We are talking an extremely dangerous political movement with a medieval, viciously misogynist bent.

I have read that young people from various countries have flocked to Syria and Iraq to join that fight on behalf of the Islamic State like it is some kind of idealistic mission. In between video beheadings of innocent hostages, blowing up religious holy sites, selling women into slavery , suicide and car bombings, you have to wonder about the reasons for the appeal of this movement.

Amnesty International has found the Islamic State guilty of ethnic cleansing of ethnic and religious minority groups in Northern Iraq. It is hard to keep up with the Islamic State’s track record of kidnapping, torture, executions and rape. And this from a group that publicly describes itself as acting in the name of a religion.

On the scale of mindlessness to nihilism, I think we can safely place the Islamic State as tipping the extreme nihilism end of the spectrum. As has been said about them, they are not about violence as a means to an end. They are about violence as an end in itself.

While protest may be as American as apple pie, even in the area of protest, quality matters. I have to believe we can do much better than the mindlessness-nihilism spectrum.

Book Review: “Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund” by Arnie Bernstein – posted 11/11/2014

November 12, 2014 1 comment

Arnie Bernstein’s book, Swastika Nation, peers into a little known bit of American history. Bernstein investigates the Nazi movement in the United States before World War II. I have to say it is not a movement I knew anything about. I had heard of Father Coughlin, Gerald L.K. Smith and the Silver Shirts but I did not know anything about the German-American Bund.

My reason for wanting to read the book came out of curiosity about how far the movement actually got in the United States. Where did they get their supporters? Who were they? What was the sociological make-up of the movement? What was the Bund’s relationship to Nazi Germany? I wondered if there are any lessons we could learn about right wing extremism.

Bernstein’s book provides some answers. It is more a pop history and a character study than an academic work. I think Bernstein was trying for more of a mass than academic audience. Swastika Nation tells some good stories, especially about Fritz Kuhn, who was the major Bund leader in the 1930’s. Also, Bernstein chronicles the opposition to the Bund, Jewish and otherwise. He shows how opposition came from some unlikely places, including from Jewish gangsters like Meyer Lansky and Mickey Cohen.

I guess the good news to report is that the Bund never got far in America. Even before the crimes of the German Nazis became more widely known, they never moved beyond being a very fringe movement. They struggled with self-definition. Were they German or were they American? Were they an arm of the German Nazi Party or were they an independent American variant? They never seemed to figure that out.

In the Bund constitution, membership was open “to all Americans and prospective citizens of Aryan blood of German extraction and good reputation.” It is hard not to think such a self-definition was incredibly limiting. Such an absurd self-definition contrasted with the diversity of America. On its face, it ruled out huge numbers. Unless people already saw themselves as Hitler sympathizers, I have a hard time imagining that there were Americans who were proudly seeing themselves as having Aryan blood. i think that was probably true even in the South.

The Bund always remained focused on Nazi Germany. They wanted to be just like the German Nazis, swearing allegiance to Hitler, but they were living in another country. Their efforts to adapt to America and to Americanize were never successful.

At their height in 1939 when they packed a rally with 20,000 supporters at Madison Square Garden in New York City, they attempted to manipulate the image of George Washington as some type of Nazi precursor. They surrounded a huge image of Washington with swastikas, Betsy Ross American flags, and anti-Jewish propaganda. Kuhn argued for an America ruled by white gentiles, labor unions free from Jewish communists, a thorough cleansing of the Hollywood film industries of all alien, subversive influences and a return to the policies of George Washington, free of any foreign influence.

Kuhn apparently did not appreciate the irony of his call for Americans to be free of any foreign influence when the Bund was obsessively and slavishly mimicking all things Nazi Germany. Bernstein shows how Kuhn and the other Bund leaders were always trying to get the German Nazis to give them the official nod as the true American Nazi entity, blessed by Hitler.

The German government never did strongly endorse the Bund. Kuhn made a pilgrimmage to Germany in 1936 and met with Hitler and other high-up Nazis but the German Nazis always maintained a distance.

Bernstein reported that in the 1930’s, Kuhn said the Bund had 200,000 members nationally. This is highly doubtful and there is no way to check it. In 1936, the New York Times reported the Bund membership was between 6000-8000. Most lived in large cities on the coasts or in the midwest. Bernstein wrote:

“The vast majority of the Bundists were blue-collar workers, employed as mechanics, at restaurants, lowly office clerks, itinerant job hoppers. There was a smattering of professional people within the ranks…”

The Bund was viciously anti-semitic. They despised FDR as a man with a secret Jewish past. They referred to President Roosevelt as “Rosenfelt”. Kuhn described Jews as “conniving sorcerers” devoted to the persecution of German-Americans. Jews were “money-mad leeches” and “master magicians”. Kuhn described a fantastical version of American history where Jews were a secret cabal behind the scenes pulling strings. Kuhn said Jewish carpetbaggers swept through the post-Civil War South exploiting newly freed blacks with promises of “a white woman for a sweetheart”.

It is truly amazing that anyone could have believed this delusional crap. I am reminded of the words of Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Interestingly, Fritz Kuhn was inspired by Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company fame. Kuhn was actually a Ford employee. Henry Ford, who was one of the most powerful, wealthy and famous men in America was also a committed anti-semite. Ford was extremely public about his anti-semitism. He used a paper he financially controlled, the Dearborn Independent, to repeatedly warn that Jews were the root of America and the world’s ills. He spent heavily to take what was an an obscure local paper to try and turn it into a national force. He called his regular feature column, “The International Jew”. Eventually the columns were collected into a four volume book of the same name. Ford car dealerships were required to meet a quota for subscription sales.

Ford is the only American Hitler mentions in Mein Kampf. In 1931, Hitler told a reporter from the Detroit News that he regarded Ford as his inspiration and he explained he kept a life-size portrait of Ford next to his desk. Ford actually reprinted The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion in the Dearborn Independent. In 1938, Ford received an award from the German Nazis, “The Grand Cross of the German Eagle.”

Henry Ford created nightmares for Ford Motor Company. Others at the company tried for years to repair his damage.

Kuhn modelled his leadership on the corporate Leadership Principle used by Henry Ford. As Bernstein says, Kuhn felt one man with vision and determination could control people on a monumental scale. Hitler was the leading example of giving one man almost total power.

Kuhn called himself the Bundesfuhrer. The term president was too mild and American-like. He wanted to follow the Hitler example. Hitler was a fuhrer so Kuhn successfully sold his colleagues on this meglomaniacal title.

Things did not end well for Kuhn. He was tried for grand larceny (diverting Bund money for his personal use), forgery and falsifying entries in Bund account books. Bernstein shows how the married Kuhn used his control of Bund money to finance a long string of mistresses on the side. When he was not playing Bundesfuhrer, he was quite the playboy. Kuhn had the chutzpah to argue that as Bundesfuhrer with total control and power he had the freedom to use money however he wanted.

While the House Un-American Activities Committee usually attacked the Left, they did go after Kuhn. The famous reporter Walter Winchell also pursued Kuhn with a vengeance. Winchell called Kuhn : Phffftz Kuhn, Kuhnazi, The Shamerican, Son-of-a-Fritz and Chief of the Ratzis.

The criminal case against Kuhn ended in a conviction. The jury found Kuhn guilty of larceny and forgery. Kuhn went to prison for 3 and one-half years.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the political heat greatly increased on the Bund and other American fascists. The Bund dissolved itself within weeks of Pearl Harbor.

In 1943, when Kuhn was paroled from jail, his problems did not end. He was denaturalized and eventually deported back to Germany. In a little poetic justice, after his return to Germany, Kuhn was sent to Dachau which had been turned into a prison for German war criminals. He wanted to return to the U.S. but that request was denied. Kuhn died in obscurity and poverty in1951.

In reading Swastika Nation, I was struck by how support for anti-semitism could come from elite sources like Henry Ford. Anti-semites and fascists are not necessarily uneducated bigots. I worry that the United States remains susceptible to irrational strands of right wing populism. We are likely past Nazism but we seem to have little respect for science or intellectualism. There is a quote famously attributed to Sinclair Lewis: “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” I think this is still closer to the truth.

Bernstein’s book provides insight into why the American Nazis did not succeed. Hopefully they will never learn from their mistakes.

What Happens When a Federal District Court Judge Beats His Wife? – posted 11/2/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 11/8/2014

November 2, 2014 2 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on November 8, 2014 under the title “Why are athletes held to a higher standard than judges?”

Ever since the Ray Rice domestic violence case exploded across the media, public attention to domestic violence has probably reached an all-time high. The video of Rice’s brutal assault on his then-fiancee opened a window into a world that is almost always locked behind closed doors. Just about everyone had an opinion about how the NFL should punish Rice. The NFL ended up suspending Rice indefinitely after first blundering with a two game suspension.

Since August, there has been another high profile domestic violence case which has almost inexplicably received much less public attention. That is the case of Alabama Federal Court Judge Mark Fuller. Fuller has been on the bench since 2002 when he was appointed by President George W. Bush. Previously, Fuller was best known for presiding over the highly controversial bribery trial of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman.

While there is no video of the alleged domestic violence, there is a recorded 911 call from Judge Fuller’s wife, Kelli Fuller. The call came from a Ritz Carlton hotel room in Atlanta on the evening of August 9. Mrs. Fuller reported that the judge had assaulted her during an argument about her suspicions that the judge had been having an extramarital affair with a law clerk.

In a police report, Mrs. Fuller stated that after she confronted him, the judge pulled her hair, threw her to the ground and kicked her. She also stated that she was dragged across the hotel room. She reported that the judge hit her in the mouth several times with his hands. Mrs. Fuller further reported the judge had been drinking that night.

The officers on the scene reported Mrs. Fuller had “visible cuts on her mouth and forehead when she answered the door in tears”. The officers observed bruises on Mrs. Fuller’s legs. Judge Fuller had no visible injuries.

In his interview with the police, Judge Fuller said he acted defensively after his wife hurled a drink glass toward him while he watched CNN.

Judge Fuller’s 17 year old stepson who was also at the hotel told the police that this episode was similar to past confrontations between Mrs. Fuller and the judge.

After his arrest for misdemeanor battery, the police released Judge Fuller from jail and he posted $5000 bail. He then subsequently accepted a plea deal in which he agreed to go to 24 weeks of counselling. After the completion of once-weekly abuse counselling and a drug/alcohol evaluation, his arrest record will be expunged. There will be no trial to establish facts. As Margaret Talbot pointed out in an excellent article in the New Yorker, nationally fewer than 10% of domestic abuse charges lead to pretrial diversion programs like Fuller’s. The judge is effectively getting a slap on the wrist.

Meanwhile, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal appellate court overseeing the federal court in Alabama, suspended Judge Fuller from hearing cases, pending an investigation. For now, all Fuller’s cases have been reassigned to other judges and he will not be assigned new cases. He does continue to receive his salary.

So far Judge Fuller has refused calls that he resign. He has made it clear he intends to resume his judicial duties soon. He has requested privacy so his family can heal.

Congresswoman Terri Sewell of Alabama’s 7th Congressional District has publicly called for Judge Fuller’s resignation as has the entire Alabama Congressional Delegation including both Republican Senators, Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions. If Judge Fuller does not resign, Congresswoman Sewell has announced an intention to initiate impeachment proceedings.

In a recent interview, Judge Fuller and his attorney, Barry Ragsdale, both dismissed calls to resign as response to “public pressure and public passions that a federal judge doesn’t have to respond to.” Judge Fuller’s attorney took it a step farther:

“It got caught up in the Ray Rice and NFL scandals and it’s gotten lumped into a category of domestic violence that I don’t think it belongs in”.

I do not think it is going out on much of a limb to say that if a federal judge commits domestic violence, Congress should impeach him if he does not resign. While impeachment for off-the-bench misconduct by a federal judge may be rare, I do not see the circumstances as a close to the line situation. Judge Fuller is way over the line. Wife-beating is one of those off-the-bench acts of misconduct that makes the impeachment-worthy list.

At present we have Ray Rice going down and losing his job but Judge Fuller gets a sweet deal and skates. At least that is where things stand now. I have been surprised how muted reaction has been to Judge Fuller’s case. To date, the federal judiciary’s response to Judge Fuller has been weaker than the NFL’s response to Rice. I would think the court would be worried about double standards and such a tiny punishment for a serious crime.

The Code of Conduct for United States Judges could not be clearer: “A judge should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities”. The prohibition applies to both professional and personal conduct.

Commentary on the judicial canon goes on to state: “Public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct by judges…A judge must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny and accept freely and willingly restrictions that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen.”

As should be obvious, it tarnishes the federal judiciary to keep a wife-beater on the bench. I also think it is an insult to victims of domestic violence as Judge Fuller’s continued presence on the bench trivializes the crime. The judge should not be able to hide behind a veil of privacy.

The feminist movement over the last 50 years has shown how the concept of family privacy shielded wife abuse. It is now recognized that wife-beating does not fall into a zone of privacy. It is a crime against the community – not just the victim. As law professor Reva Siegel has pointed out, there is a long history of men who assault their wives being granted immunity from prosecution supposedly in order to protect the privacy of the family and domestic harmony.

So what happens when a federal judge beats his wife? Apparently not a lot. It needs to be studied. Judge Fuller must be hoping he can simply ride out what storm there is. Are we really going to let a professional football player be held to a higher standard than a federal judge? It remains to be seen what price Judge Fuller will pay.