Monday, January 23, 2006

Red River Red Readings of 2005

As America's Greatest Living Public Intellectual, it is incumbent upon me to try to stay apprised of recent literary offerings, aided in no small part by the good folks at Shreve Memorial Library. Every time I visit one of our local libraries (my favorite, by far, being the main branch downtown, for selection, architecture, staff, you name it), I visit the new releases, taking a kind of machine gun approach: for every three books I check out, I probably read one. Then, I'm probably reading one of my own (or would it be owned?) books for every one from the library (for those of you even sicker than me, of the 36 books I completed in 2005, 19 were from my personal collection, 17 from the library.)
Alright, there's no turning back now. I planned to use this space to write about a couple of books I've read in this first month of 2006, but instead, I'm now going to obsessively list and briefly review every book I read in 2005. I should be forcibly committed soon after, so this may be my last communication as a free man. The books are listed chronologically, in order of my completion of them:

1), Vermeer in Bosnia, by Lawrence Wechsler - This wonderful book of previously published essays combines cultural criticism and political analysis as only the best public intellectuals can: think Sontag, Edward Said, Cornel West, the Red River Red, Groucho Marx. The title essay refers to the trial of Yugoslavian war criminals, while other highlights include profiles of Roman Polanski and graphic novelist Art Spiegelman.

2), Bad Bet on the Bayou, by Tyler Bridges - The sordid tale of casino gambling coming to Louisiana and the long-sought conviction of Edwin Edwards is detailed in this meticulously researched book an accomplished journalist. Byzantine.

3), War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges - A veteran foreign correspondent gives us a profound meditation of the social and psychological uses of war. My wife and I gave a copy of this to our nephew just before he shipped out with the Air Force. He's in Iraq now. Who knows what became of the book.

4), Homegrown Democrat, by Garrison Keillor - My initial aversion to Keillor's homespun homilies were gradually worn down by the quality of musical guests on his show. Then he published a passionate, angry, grief-inspired denunciation of Minnesota Republican Senator Norm Coleman, who capitalized on the death of Paul Wellstone, replacing the most important antiwar voice in this country with another stupid hack politician. I cried when I heard about the death of Paul Wellstone on the radio, and Keillor's eloquent rage won me over to his corner. This book is conversational and anecdotal, a good explication of the decent Midwestern liberalism that has given us politicians like Adlai Stevenson, the late Gene McCarthy, George McGovern, Wellstone and Russ Feingold.

5), Outwitting History, by Aaron Lansky - Maybe my favorite book of last year. Lansky works for an archive collecting as many of the important Yiddish texts as possible before the language, once the primary one for many Eastern European Jews, dies. Yiddish was also very much the language of Jewish radicalism in both Europe and among immigrants to North America, and Lansky provides vivid portraits of intellectually and politically engaged liberals, social democrats, socialists, communists and anarchists debating and squabbling well into their 90's. The portrait of 20th-century Jewish immigrant culture, with its language and literature and food and causes, is intoxicating, exhilarating, touching. I need to read this one again.

6), Dixie Lullaby, by Mark Kemp - This is a music journalist's memoir, basically through the prism of his passionate but ambiguous feelings about his southern upbringing and the music that accompanied it, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers are the giants towering over this book, but the Charlie Daniels Band, REM and others also are discussed with great feeling. The guy's personal memoir is a bit melodramatic at times, but the landmarks are very familiar.

7), The Politics of War, by Walter Karp - Karp's analysis of American involvement in the Spanish-American War and World War I is meticulously researched, well-written and utterly relevant to today's headlines. Presidential deception and illusions of infallibility, manipulation of a compliant media, slandering of principled political opponents, the unconstitutional surveillance and detainment of American citizens--all of these were at work in the efforts of Presidents McKinley and Wilson to drag a reluctant American citizenry into war. Bush is often compared to Woodrow Wilson, and this book 's portrait of the latter makes clear that such a comparison is both apt and chilling.

What the hell have I gotten myself into?!? To be continued...

Recent

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Hello, friends, so sorry about my absence recently. As many of you may know, the Red River Red, America's Greatest Living Public Intellectual, is coming out of his early retirement. Sure, my own little Elba over here in Highland was fine for a while, my life of leisure interrupted by grueling expeditions to find books to sell to the West Coast masses, but just as Napoleon eventually returned to Paris, Macarthur to the Phillipines, Michael Jordan to the NBA, the moth to the flame, so must I return to the workaday world, on my own terms, of course.
I humbly accepted an appointment as the executive director of the West Edge Artists' Co-op, a brilliant concept soon to be a brilliant reality in the heart of downtown Shreveport. A number of artists, many well-known to the local cognoscenti, others from the hinterlands of Minden and Cotton Valley, will share gallery space, labor and expenses in a utopian enterprise sure to stir the hearts of all who approach it. The workers will control the means of exhibition, aesthetic wealth will be redistributed, and the dancing, drinking and conversation will go until dawn every night (provided our hours can accomodate it).
Yours truly will also bring to fruition a long-held dream of opening a small used, rare and collectible book shop, modest in quantity but Whitmanesque in its qualitative ambitions, containing multitudes of wisdom, inspiration, knowledge, entertainment and intellectual stimulation. Poems will be written, romances will be kindled, facts will be checked, revolution will be hatched, fortunes will be won and lost, baseball minutiae will be argued until the wee hours (Willie Mays or Ted Williams?). Bohemians, scholars, troubadours, griots, wordsmiths, bibliophiles, mystics will flock to Shreveport, decide to stay, will make Shreveport the Alexandria of the 21st century (no, the one in Egypt).
Are you ready, Shreveport? Prepare for liftoff, because I didn't come out of early retirement for nuthin'.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

It's Beginning To Look More Like Impeachment, Everywhere You Go

I know many of you out there will think my title naively optimistic, that it's biologically and politically unheard of for lemmings to change their direction, particularly if you believe the cliff is already in their rearview mirrors. But the chinks in the armor are becoming fissures, and there is still almost a whole year until mid-term elections. Pro-war Senator Hillary Clinton is already facing a primary challenge from the left, and I wouldn't be surprised if other incumbents find themselves challenged for their stands. 2008 progressive hope Senator Russ Feingold is finding national traction with his leadership of a sustained filibuster against some provisions of the Patriot Act, and some Republicans have joined on both that issue and the rising chorus against domestic spying by the National Security Agency, the Pentagon, the FBI and Homeland Security.
Michigan Congressman John Conyers has introduced resolutions to censure both Bush and Cheney, as well to convene a fact-finding commission to investigate impeachable offenses:

Resolution to Investigate
Resolution to Censure Bush
Resolution to Censure Cheney

Go to truthout.org or buy the upcoming issue of the Nation to read John Nichols' article explaining these resolutions. afterdowningstreet.org also provides a lot of invaluable context, and is also sponsoring a series of actions on Jan. 7 in support of these efforts. I believe it is imperative that there be something organized here in town to support this. If you feel the same way, email me at mpbookfreak@hotmail.com, and we'll make it happen. I'll be gone through the weekend, but will see what can be organized next week. Have a peaceful holiday, y'all.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Interesting Bedfellows for Local Land Use Study

On Tuesday, November 29, the Shreveport Times editorial enthusiastically endorsed a $125,000 study of the Shreveport/Bossier metropolitan area by an organization known for its efforts on behalf of urban sprawl-reducing “smart” growth. According to the Times, “A team from the Urban Land Institute especially will look at how real estate planning and development can lead to more economic development.” A number of innovative local organizations and developments are then praised for a number of worthy projects.
This all sounds very encouraging, until one takes a closer look at the Urban Land Institute. Among the efforts of the ULI is the annual awarding of the J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. According to the ULI’s website, “The $100,000 prize honors the legacy of legendary, Kansas City, Missouri, develop Jesse Clyde Nichols (1880-1950), a founding ULI member who is widely regarded as one of America’s most influential entrepreneurs in land use during the first half of the 20th century.” Indeed, an internet search of the words “Kansas City” and “J.C. Nichols” turns up multiple references, including some landmarks named for the developer. But his legacy is a tainted one, at best.
According to Judy Thomas, writing in February of this year in the Kansas City Star, Nichols was also a pioneer in the development of racial covenants, documents which prohibited homeowners from selling houses to select groups of people, most often African-Americans: “Nichols was among the first developers in the United States to promote the restrictions. From 1908 through the 1940’s, the J.C. Nichols Co. built dozens of subdivisions in the Kansas City area that prohibited housing sales to blacks.” According to Thomas, the covenants were ruled unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court as early as 1948, although many are still officially included in real estate contracts.
The Urban Land Institute is also active in the Gulf Coast region in post-Katrina rebuilding. New Orleans writer and activist Jay Arena has written about their activities in that city, and it was his writings on the New Orleans indymedia site (neworleans.indymedia.org) that alerted me to some of the moral and ethical ambiguities. I don’t believe the Urban Land Institute embodies the outright, blatant racism of J.C. Nichols, but their continued embrace of his name does raise some questions.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Modest Proposal For Our Fair State

It has recently come to my attention, through the writings of Shreveport Times contributor Emily Metzgar, personal contact with local attorney Henry Walker, and other sources that the indigent defense system in Louisiana is unconscionably underfunded. Any semblance of stability is undercut by the program's reliance on the payment of traffic fines as the source of funding. As there does not seem to be the political will in our state legislature to deal with this affront to the basic constitutional rights of the mostly poor and minority defendants who suffer from the destitution of public legal defense, I would like to offer this modest proposal (with deference to Johnathan Swift).
I would like to propose that all Louisianans of sound financial means (certainly households with income over $100,000, though I suspect the threshold could be set lower) consider a personal policy of consistent and blatant flouting of traffic laws while driving.
I realize that this will be a difficult decision for many to arrive at, as traffic laws are ostensibly devised for the common good, a sort of formalized courtesy, if you will. Additionally, there are some, particularly among those who identify themselves as "Republicans," who are perfectly content with the idea of young black men being locked up, outside of any questions of guilt, innocence or constitutionally mandated standards of legal representation. I can only say to those with the financial means to absorb the cost of traffic tickets to consider it your patriotic duty to violate the law, until such point that our elected officials see fit to fulfill their constitutional duty.
For those of you stirred into a patriotic fervor by now, here are a few suggestions:

1., Remove the license plates from your car. A screwdriver should be the only tool needed to accomplish this task, and it is one of the most obvious violations, as one could potentially be cited even when the car is not moving.

2., Remove the bulb from one of your headlights and/or tail lights. This approach works particularly well in conjunction with tinted windows, loud rap music, or other evidence that the driver and/or occupants of the car are some of those people who ruined Southpark Mall and drove everyone to the safety of the Boardwalk. The bulbs can typically be easily accessed through the trunk of the car without specialized tools.

3., You can never go wrong with speed. If one's vehicle has cruise control, I would suggest a setting at least 20 miles over the posted limit. This approach works particularly well in "school zones", particularly if said school is classified as a "magnet school" or is otherwise populated mostly by "white children," as these are more likely to be patrolled by police on a regular basis. I must stress that this must be done with utmost attention to safety. Remember, we don't want anyone to get hurt. We just want to fund the indigent defense system in our state.

4., Intoxication is also a sound strategy. Tis the season, as they say, and holiday parties will provide multiple opportunities for overindulgence. Try to eat a big lunch, so your alcohol absorption will not be affected by food. If you must eat, remember that those bar peanuts are provided because they will make you thirsty for more alcohol. And don't skimp on the shots. But always know your limits. Your goal is to be impaired, but basic motor function must be retained. If this approach makes you uneasy, save it for New Year's Eve, when the police are out in force. Sometimes, there will even be convenient roadblocks set up. Drive safely to the roadblock, but accelerate as your vehicle comes into view. Call the arresting officer Roscoe P. Coltrane for the piece de' resistance, and start writing your acceptance speech for the Congressional Medal of Freedom, my patriotic friend.

5., Keep your cell phone on your person at all times, just in case you observe any of the above behaviors or circumstances in other drivers or vehicles. This can also be convenient inside a bar or restaurant, if you observe a patron leaving in an intoxicated state. Make the phone call, order another Long Island Iced Tea, and drink to freedom.

6., Encourage friends and family members to do their part. Illness can be feigned, and underage teenage children can be sent out to pick up medicine at the local apothecary (in a car missing a license plate, say). Be creative. If everyone does his or her part, Louisiana can have the best damn indigent defense system in this great country, preserving constitutinal rights for all, regardless of race, class and income level. And I'm afraid that if we aren't all doing our part, violating traffic laws on a regular basis, then the terrorists have won.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Dialogues in Dallas

Let me start this with an apology to the Shreveport Times, which did publish the opinion piece I posted a few days ago. Typically, I receive a phone call of confirmation before publication. As that did not happen this time, I incorrectly assumed that this one would not be published either. There.

The family and I visited the Dallas/Fort Worth area this past weekend, including a trip to the Dallas Museum of Art for the exhibit Dialogues: Duchamp, Cornell, Johns, Rauschenberg. This painfully small exhibit explores the intersections between these iconic modern artists. Duchamp's readymades, Johns' targets, Cornell's boxes are all there. I wouldn't say there is any one seminal work of Rauschenberg's, but there is also a concurrent exhibit of his prints, Artist-Citizen: Posters for a Better World, which highlights some of his classic collage images of the last 40 years or so. Here are some random thoughts:

It was very exciting to see one of Duchamp's original readymades, the bottle drying rack. A note on the piece said that the one displayed replaced the original in 1960. The original dates from 1914. So the original 1914 bottle drying rack, which I assume was a common functional item from the time, was replaced 46 years later by an identical one. Ostensibly, there are still hundreds, maybe thousands, of these items still in circulation, though only these two have been selected to be representative examples of modern art. To many, this would be a perfect example of the frivolousness and irrelevance of modern art. Hell, Duchamp's contrary whimsy would probably come to the same conclusion. It is brilliant, and brings a subversive smile to my face, and doesn't leave me cold and detached the way I feel when I see an Andy Warhol piece, for example.

The spirit of exuberant collaboration is very much celebrated in this exhibit, and it is a spirit I see at work in the Shreveport arts scene right now. It was shared at the time by such figures as composer John Cage and dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham, and was very much in contrast to the macho, competitive posturing of Pollock, De Kooning and other peers.

Rauschenberg is the Bono of modern art. The prints exhibited show an artist engaged in the global issues of his day, putting his artistic gifts to work on behalf of the large benevolent institutions dealing with human rights, population, housing, etc. He seems to realize, like Bono, that he is an international celebrity of a sort, and to perpetuate an angry young man/pox on all their houses streetwise purity persona would be empty posturing. It would be impossible to imagine the soundtrack of my adolescence without Sunday Bloody Sunday or Pride (In the Name of Love), but it would get old if Bono were still climbing into the rafters with a white flag every concert. In the same way, the prints don't convey the same kind of cathartic thrill of Combine and Bed, to name two seminal Rauschenberg works from the mid-1950's, but they are very effective, beautiful and inspiring comments on the issues addressed.

Well, it's late, I don't know if I'm making any sense at all, and we're leaving for Baton Rouge in less than seven hours. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Peace.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Just Getting Ridiculous Now

It just seems to be an overt conspiracy on the part of the Shreveport Times to deny their readers any access to thoughtful political discourse. I've met Craig Durrett, Alan English and other members of the Times editorial board, and they seem thoughtful and serious about what they're doing. So why do they continually deny this city's most astute political analysis and urbane witticisms, those of America's greatest living public intellectual and an invaluable natural resource, the Red River Red? Alas, we may never know, but here is yet another well-written, informative and relevant guest column not to be (in the interests of full disclosure, the Red River Red has been elected to the executive board of the Northwest Louisiana chapter of the ACLU since this piece was submitted to the Times):

In the second sentence of his diatribe against the American Civil Liberties Union, Stanley F. Kolniak challenges us to “look at the facts.” He then proceeds to distort the facts to support his portrait of a far-left straw man for the right wing cabal whose representation on the Shreveport Times editorial page seems to be the exact inverse of their grasp of political reality.
Kolniak refers to the ACLU’s founding “in 1920 by Roger Baldwin, a communist sympathizer and pronounced socialist.” I would not argue with that representation of Baldwin… in 1920. Like many people of conscience in that area, still traumatized by the irrational slaughter of World War I and the lies and manipulative propaganda used by President Woodrow Wilson to justify U.S. participation and the unconstitutional persecution of dissidents, Baldwin was infatuated with the humanistic potential of the Russian Revolution and the early years of the Soviet Union. However, Stalin’s purges in the 1930’s and the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in 1939 woke Baldwin up to the true nature of the totalitarian society, as it did for so many others. Although the ACLU and its founder continued to advocate for the constitutional rights of Communists, after 1940 members of totalitarian organizations could no longer serve on the board. Additionally, Baldwin was appointed by General Douglas MacArthur a civil liberties consultant in postwar Japan. Although John Birch Society members accused Generals Eisenhower and George Marshall of Communist sympathies, I believe MacArthur’s patriotic credentials were always considered impeccable.
Despite Kolniak’s protests to the contrary, the record most certainly does not indicate that the ACLU is “hell bent to do away with Christianity.” What the ACLU does believe is that “the right of each and every American to practice his or her own religion, or no religion at all, is among the fundamental of the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The ACLU works to ensure religious liberty is protected by keeping the government out of the realm of all religions” (aclu.org).
The ACLU is also called to task by Mr. Kolniak for its disregard for “orderly society” and “overbearing concern for homosexuals, sex offenders, drug pushers, rioters, anarchists, draft dodgers, murderers and others who have broken our laws.” One of the reasons I am a member of the ACLU is precisely because of its insistence that the Constitution, and our society, are strengthened when we fight for the rights of those considered marginal, whether the laws they broke were just or unjust. The recently departed Rosa Parks is one dramatic example of an individual whose disruption of orderly society in Montgomery would almost certainly be cited by Mr. Kolniak and most Americans as justified.
Finally, what is never mentioned by Kolniak is the ACLU’s ongoing leadership on issues ranging from the unconstitutional provisions of the Patriot Act to the illegal detention and torture of terrorism suspects to the fight for retention of voting rights won during the Civil Rights Era. These are some of the front lines in our battles to preserve and strengthen the Constitution and our country. I invite all of you, including Mr. Kolniak, to go to aclu.org and join the ACLU in those battles.

Michael Parker lives in Shreveport and is a card-carrying member of the ACLU.