Wednesday, September 28, 2005

New Orleans Memories

Well, I’m back from a little hiatus, brought on by a couple of projects coming to fruition. The first was a teach-in on the war in Iraq, conducted down at All-Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in South Shreveport. We had about 35 people two Saturdays ago discussing US foreign policy, the Patriot Act, the history of the Middle East, alternatives to war and various other big issues. It was intellectually thrilling, emotionally provocative and politically inspiring. Sandwiched as it was between Cindy Sheehan’s Crawford vigil and the demonstrations in DC last weekend, between Katrina and Rita, I believe it was a great experience for sleepy ol’ Shreveport, and something to build on. Special thanks must go to Greg Moses, our keynote speaker and a key participant in the teach-in, who did a great job connecting the dots between Iraq and Katrina Friday night, and spoke eloquently about the challenges and rewards of a commitment to institutional nonviolence on Saturday. For those interested, his Friday remarks have been fleshed out into a remarkable essay, “A Movement Gathers Power on the Sorrow Plateau,” which you can find on, among other places on the web.
The other preoccupation this past week or so was a long piece I wrote for the Katrina benefit at artspace Friday night. Given Rita’s approach, the crowd was a bit sparse, but it felt great to be participating something that was so concretely helping the evacuees, and I thank Chris Fowler-Sandlin and the other organizers for that opportunity.

The Living Section of the Times published a series of New Orleans reminiscences by local people on Sunday. It represented a real cross-section of Shreveport, I thought, with some folks touching on kitschy tourist elements of the city and others conveying some very soulful, profound feelings about a city that occupies such a large space in our imaginations and experiences. Nobody asked me my thoughts, but that hasn’t stopped me to this point, now has it?:

My family and I lived in New Orleans from approximately 1974-76 (corrections will follow next time after parental consultation), years six through eight for me. My parents attended New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in Gentilly, and we went to the French Quarter often. I remember most vividly a shop dedicated solely to military miniatures, seemingly painstakingly handcrafted, handpainted soldiers from every war and era known. I was fascinated by World War II specifically as a kid, and I was drawn to this shop that was part toy store (though unlike any toy store I had ever seen), part museum, for the detail that was obvious in every figure and piece of equipment.
I remember for the first time paying attention to the price of the ones I coveted and saving my allowance to buy something that seemed to have a patina of seriousness to it, unlike the comic books and baseball cards and matchbox cars I more casually collected at the time. I remember having a Rommel-looking German officer, complete with binoculars and map; a North African-based British soldier in khaki shorts and desert boots, revolver drawn; and a classic, Sgt. Rock-style U.S. infantryman, rifle in both hands, marching up the beach at Normandy. I also remember a motorcycle with sidecar, though I can’t remember if I owned that or was just fascinated by it at the store, so foreign it was to my experience.
Though I never articulated it, it was obvious to me at the time how unique this shop was, and how unique the place that supported a shop dedicated to such a unique, obsessive fetish.

After graduating from Haughton High School in 1986, I moved to Lafayette to attend the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Californians may be the only others in this country who undergo such a cultural shock going from north to south within their state. It was a refreshing change for me, and I took full advantage of the opportunities afforded me.
One of the things I got involved with was the student newspaper, the Vermilion. Early in the fall semester, Jason Berry came to campus to deliver the annual Flora Levy Lecture. He discussed that quintessential New Orleans novel (sorry, Moviegoer and Mosquitoes and Interview With a Vampire fans), Confederacy of Dunces. After the lecture, I was talking with some fellow newspaper staff, and someone suggested a drive to New Orleans for a few drinks and some beignets at Café Du Monde. Now, this was the middle of the week and I probably had French or Western Civilization or some such at 9:00 the next morning, and I was being invited on this subversive journey into the heart of Ignatius’ absurd darkness. There was no checking in with anyone, no bag to pack, no listening to any little voices preaching restraint, there was just spontaneity and the rush of living, for the first night in my life, that Kerouacesque lifestyle that I knew had been lurking around the corner all those nights, all those years, before. I barely remember the night itself, but what it represented was a rite of passage, a seminal experience that clearly delineated the life before and after, and for a college student in the South, much less in Louisiana, it’s a good bet that such an experience will involve New Orleans.
There you go, a couple of New Orleans vignettes, with more to come, most likely. I hope these stories touch some kind of universal chord, because I think we have a hell of a fight before us against those who will try to take our New Orleans and turn it into a Nashville-style corporate Disneyland. I realize that the Hard Rock Café and Margaritaville have been doing that gradually for a number of years, but there is still so much living history of cultural dissent that we all draw so heavily from here in the South, that gives us strength and solace in these dark days, that we have to fight. And fight. And fight. Peace.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Greetings, everyone. I've been so consumed with the Iraq war teach-in I've organized for this weekend that I've been neglecting these musings. That said, another couple of rejected shreveport times opinion pieces have piled up, so let's release them out into the world:

The chaos of the past few days, which has directly affected members of both my and my wife’s family, has delayed this response to Mike Johnson’s ill-conceived diatribe of Saturday, September 3 (“Opposing ideologies highlighted by Katrina”). However, the calm afforded by accounting for everyone in our families means that I can now respond, on behalf of all rational people overwhelmed by the hurricane and its aftermath, the first unavoidable, the second completely avoidable.
Johnson asserts that “What we are seeing is the natural by-product of a culture that increasingly denies God’s existence…” Even if one were to accept such a blanket absurdity in and of itself, does Johnson seriously believe that even a substantial minority of those in New Orleans when Katrina hit are atheists, agnostics or secular humanists? I saw a consistent stream of thousands upon thousands of poor African-Americans, and I would bet that that demographic represents the most devout segment of the New Orleans population.
Johnson claims that those whose mentality allows them to engage in and justify looting regard government as “our savior,” are taught as children “they have no accountability to any higher power,” and create problems “anytime the civil authorities break down.” Finally, he uses as an example of this mentality a looter who “screamed into a reporter’s microphone, ‘After years of oppression it’s time to take what’s ours!’” Now, if the government is considered by this individual to be his savior, shouldn’t the government then be the allegedly non-existent higher power? Of course, the breakdown of civil authorities is then like a death of God to this individual, if he had not already been taught a lack of accountability to a higher power. And who does that leave as the oppressor? Is it the government, proposed by Johnson as savior to one who does not feel accountability? Is the death of his allegedly non-existent savior a liberatory gesture? I have to admit, what seemed like pure right-wing hokum at first glance now takes on profound, Milton-like implications in Johnson’s hands, much more interesting than Pat Robertson’s Ugly American ravings.
Alas, Johnson cannot sustain his intellectual subtlety. First, Governor Kathleen Blanco is dismissed as “unfortunately a nurturer rather than a firm, decisive leader--…” No reason is given, no evidence proffered. Though now that I think about it, Great Britain was never hit by a catastrophically destructive hurricane during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure.
Finally, Johnson appears to believe that the American Civil Liberties Union’s state leadership may renounce their support for a strong separation of church and state, based on the appearance of a catastrophically destructive hurricane. I’m not sure where logic and rational thought processes are supposed to fit in to this process, but I don’t believe the violent deaths of thousands of people (the vast majority Christians, I will again speculate) will do much to change the minds of those who doubt the existence of a benevolent God.

This one goes back even further, before Katrina. Enjoy:

Executive editor Alan English’s myopia concerning the war against and occupation of Iraq is becoming increasingly frustrating as the weeks go by. I’ve met Mr. English and found him to be personable and passionate about his work, not at all an ideologically blinded neocon true believer. Nevertheless, the bland platitudes which populate his recent columns are, in my opinion, doing as much harm to this country and to the soldiers fighting our current war of imperialism as the shrill appeals of Bush, Rumsfeld and their traitorous ilk.
English says that in recent speeches, Bush “…legitimizes the war effort as a necessary component in a war on terror. Some agree and some don’t.” First of all, I think it would be proper to assert that Bush is attempting to legitimize the war effort, as I don’t think the majority of the American people are buying it. Second, an honest analysis of the loaded term “terrorism” would take into account the history of U.S. involvement in the Middle East region. Was the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of Iran’s President Mossadegh in 1953 a case of pragmatic Cold War realpolitik, or was it state-sponsored terrorism? Is ongoing support for dictators, such as the Shah of Iran (given exile by the too-often sainted President Jimmy Carter), the Saudi and Kuwaiti royal families, Egypt’s President Mubarek, and, of course, Saddam Hussein (even after he famously gassed his own people), the work of a nation with the moral authority to dictate the terms of democracy to another? Given the corruption inherent during the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 in Florida and Ohio, respectively, can we safely say that our democratic processes are even working?
English says that, “If the reasons Bush gave for our war in Iraq are faulty, then he does deserve blame for misleading a nation. We still can’t end this fight with the future of Iraq hanging in the balance.” I would argue that one could replace “Bush” in that statement with William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson or Lyndon Johnson, and replace “Iraq” with Cuba, Europe or Vietnam. Of course, the faulty reasons of weapons of mass destruction would then be replace with the USS Maine, the Lusitania and the Gulf of Tonkin. The common threads are lies and distortions designed to emotionally manipulate Congress, the media and the American people into fighting wars they were otherwise very rationally opposing. We do a disservice to all those who have fought and sacrificed for the legitimate defense of this country and its Constitution when we continue to let presidents get away with this kind of criminal behavior. Arguing for continued involvement in Iraq is intellectually and morally defensible, in my opinion, only if it is coupled with a call for the impeachment of the morally vacuous Commander in Chief.
Those yearning for a serious discussion of the war in Iraq and other domestic and international implications of U.S. foreign policy should know there is teach-in scheduled for Sept. 16 and 17 for just that purpose. A number of topics will be discussed and debated by local military veterans, academics, clergy, journalists and others with expertise and passion, across the ideological spectrum. It will be hosted by All Souls Unitarian Church, at 9449 Ellerbe Road in Shreveport. I am one of the organizers of the event, and we are still looking for participants for panel discussions. I would welcome Alan English to participate, and anyone looking for more detailed information can contact me at I hope to see many of you there.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Camp Casey, Part II

Hello, friends. Here is the promised second part of my adventure in Crawford. I didn't realize that I would finish the writing of it with such a heavy heart, but our beloved New Orleans has been dealt a near-fatal blow. I'm still sorting things out in my own head, and will hopefully have some commentary to share soon, but I think I can speak for every intellectually, socially and emotionally conscious Louisianan when I say a real part of our soul has been bludgeoned. For those many of us living paycheck to paycheck in Bush's America, New Orleans is our Mediterranean, our Caribbean, our Africa, our multicultural Mecca in the most literal sense, a place of renewal, adventure, escape, engagement. We always knew its beauty was fragile, but I don't think we realized its near-demise would be aided by the hubris of our very own Shakespearean monarch. I don't know what the rebuilding process will be like, but rest assured that it will rise again, and it won't be anything like Phoenix.

Camp Casey II’s most prominent feature is a very large white tent, the kind a Southerner would most likely associate with an old-fashioned tent revival meeting, altogether not an inappropriate metaphor for its most recent utilization. The tent is large enough to accommodate a stage, several rows of fold-out chairs, and several more rows of tables with chairs around them. The back of the tent is dominated by a row of rectangular tables piled with food and drinks. Although the first weekend of the vigil featured hastily-prepared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, it’s now to the point where a Dallas caterer and Austin’s Food Not Bombs contingent have joined forces to provide a spread fit for an army of peaceful, nonviolent rage. I personally dined on organic roast chicken, a salad of Romaine lettuce and fresh vegetables, ripe cantaloupe and iced orange juice. There were also cold cuts, various salads (tuna, chicken and potato), watermelon, coffee and tea, desserts….
A full-length “Mothers Say No to War” banner hangs behind the stage, while info tables line the sides of the tent. Most prominent are those related to the military: Iraq Veterans Against the War, Veterans For Peace, the G.I. rights Hotline. Also prominently displayed and represented were Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice. That city, one of my favorites, seemed to brought the largest non-Texas contingent to Crawford.
We had arrived at Camp Casey around 4:00 pm, still a blazing part of the day. Although I wouldn’t describe the conditions as pleasant (get back to me in late October), the tent definitely made them bearable until the sun set. There were still a couple of hours to kill before the program of speakers and music started, so we killed the time with eating, meandering, reading (still some of the early pages of Camus’ The Rebel, the analytical classic by the man whose life of compassionate, non-dogmatic, radical humanism rivals that of Gandhi, and whose premature, romantic death rivals that of James Dean, or (dare I say it?) Dale Earnhardt). (Parker sees the pitch, he connects, it could be! It might be! It is!, the grand slam of postmodern critically relativist cultural analysis, Camus, Gandhi, James Dean and Dale Earnhardt in the same sentence! The bar has been lifted, the gauntlet thrown down, a new day is dawning!)
I assume there is a program of speakers, if not music, every evening. I know that Marcia Ball, piano and all, had played the evening before, and Joan Baez played the next evening, after we back in Shreveport. Before our evening’s musical entertainment (that sounds regretfully superficial, but it’s past 11:00), there were several inspiring, motivating, humbling speakers sharing their thoughts and experiences. I’ll just try to encapsulate a few:
Kim drove from Homer, Alaska (literally the end of the road, according to my road atlas). She owns a store there, in that pristine Kenai Peninsula town of 3946, and she let people know that she was going to Crawford, and that she would provide materials for people to make messages of support. There were profound statements of rage, of grief, of Bob Dylan quotes, all delivered by Kim, who drove what looks to me to be roughly the same distance southeast to Crawford as it would be to drive northwest from, say, Columbia or maybe Venezuela. Speaking of Venezuela, did you hear what…., no, stay focused here.
Jeff Key was a walking recruiting poster for the Marines. Six foot three at least, cap at the correct angle on his shaved head, red Marines t-shirt with military-issue pants and boots, perfect posture, handsome smile. All that, and openly homosexual. A veteran of Iraq, he was now stationed at Camp Pendleton with the Marine Reserves, 17 months after intentionally violating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Key has written a play about his experience, which he performed later that night, as we were heading back east. He said, “I will never kill an innocent person for oil, period.” He said the Iraqis he met reminded him of the Alabama dirt farmers in his family: simple, proud, devout, caught in the middle between forces they have no control over.
Tamra Rosenleaf is from Helena, Montana, and her husband is due to deploy to Iraq in November. George Vaughn and Rhea Parker are from Germantown, Maryland, and their son’s ship barely escaped a direct hit from a missile fired Jordan. Dante Zapala is from Philadelphia, and his adopted brother Sherwood served in a unit searching for weapons of mass destruction. He was killed by shrapnel from an exploding building.
Charlie Anderson lost five members of his battalion fighting in what he calls Operation Iraqi Plunder, bringing nothing but death, pain and bloodshed. His marriage has ended since his return. Juan Torres is from San Antonio. His brother Daniel was killed in February of this year. It was his second deployment, because of the stop-loss policies implemented by the Pentagon in response to sinking recruitment numbers. Michelle Deford is from Salem, Oregon, and she lost her 37-year-old son in Iraq. She is now an active member of Gold Star Mothers for Peace.
These were just a few of the speakers on one night’s program at Camp Casey II. Their grief and confusion were so palpable, so much more authentic than the flight suit and the freedom fries and the smart aleck looking for wmd’s at the press conference and the call for crusade and the incessant intoning of freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom is slavery freedom freedom freedom freedom ignorance is strength freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom war is peace freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom freedom is why they hate us.
After the last speaker, as the sun was setting, everyone gathered at the more modest display of 250-300 white crosses as Jeffrey Key the gay Marine played “Taps” on his trumpet, followed by the singing of a couple of hymns. It was an utterly fitting, moving transition.
After a brief pause, the evening’s musical entertainment commenced, provided by two native Texas sons, James McMurtry and Steve Earle. McMurtry is the son of Texas literary lion Larry McMurtry, and has been toiling in the country-folk coal mines for many years. I remember seeing him at a free show in a little café in the University of Texas student union just over 16 years ago, tall and rangy, laconic, a man of few spoken words, many sung. I think I still have a cassette of his Too Long in the Wasteland from that time, but I just hadn’t kept up otherwise. The show was understated for the most part, his lyrics moving assuredly through the landscape of post-prosperity America, its trailer parks and convenience stores and high school parking lots, always three-dimensional, always outraged, yet resigned, as well. The highlight was a song that I believe was titled, “Tough Around Here,” encapsulating the whole Bush plan for transforming the entire working class into cannon fodder for the new feudalism.
Finally, we were treated to Steve Earle, in one of the strangest serendipities of the whole trip. When my wife and I were planning the summer, one of our big plans was to attend the Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado, August 19-21. Though I was excited about Todd Snider and Kasey Chambers and Taj Mahal and Joan Armatrading, Steve Earle is always a good reason for me to travel across the country. Finances and logistics just didn’t work out, however to a Steve Earle-less summer. Yet one of the rumors flying around just before we left for Crawford was that Steve Earle and Joan Baez were going to be around the same weekend we were.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me Steve Earle is the ultimate political troubadour, less inscrutable than Bob Dylan, less earnest than Phil Ochs, more musically complex than Woody Guthrie, more rootsy than Rage Against the Machine, more country than Ani Difranco, more prolific than Billy Bragg. Did I mention that he just got married, as well?
The night before we left, a friendly but somewhat skeptical neighbor remarked that he and his family were going to Texas the same weekend, but it was to have fun. I answered in all seriousness that I had every intention of doing the same, that I’m one of those weirdos who finds things like this fun. I think Steve Earle must be similar to me in that respect, because he was spending his goddamn honeymoon in a field in Central Texas playing for 300 non-paying customers. He had literally married alt-country sweetheart Alison Moorer two days earlier, played the Folks Festival (interestingly enough, staged by the same folks who do the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where my wife and I spent our honeymoon) the night before, and drove through the night and day to get to Camp Casey II.
Earle’s The Revolution Starts…Now was recorded in the Spring of 2004 and conceived very much as a document of dissent, against the war and the Bush Administration. Such albums (or books or films or paintings) are often utterly necessary in trying times, but often run the risk of didacticism and irrelevance after their “moment” has passed. Guernica is perhaps the greatest example of an artwork that both freezes a moment in historical space and time and transcends it. While I won’t make the case for Earle’s album in terms of pure timeless quality, I believe it falls into the same category, and selections from it made up much of Earle’s set.
He began with a rambling introduction to a cover of Eric Von Schmidt’s “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” famously covered by Bob Dylan on one of his early albums, accompanied by a rambling introduction completely out of character for today’s silent sage on stage. He was accompanied by Moorer on “Comin’ Around,” which features Emmylou Harris on The Revolution. The older “The Devil’s Right Hand” was prefaced by Earle’s explanation of his changing position on gun ownership in his own household. He said that such a change of heart was often derided as flip-flopping in the last presidential election, but that in the rest of the English-speaking world, it’s referred to as changing your mind or coming to your senses.
Steve Earle and Billy Bragg provide the most profound, often self-deprecating, always funny and erudite political commentary between songs of anyone in the business these days, and Saturday night in Crawford was no exception. It ranged from Eric von Schmidt on Custer’s Last Stand to Stephen Ambrose on Lewis and Clark and Manifest Destiny to Joan Baez’ performance at Woodstock, and always framed the following song that deepened its resonance, as if the setting and the mission and the moon so orange you just wanted to stick a straw in it and suck it dry weren’t enough already to send a depth charge of pure, mainlined collective selfless righteousness all the way down your spine and into those lower charkas.
“Rich Man’s War” could have been the call-to-arms anthem of the night’s previous speakers, while “Warrior” captures the dark side of the recruiting-poster romanticism, the feral predator who hates those who send him to war while simultaneously thanking them for the endless opportunities. Finally, “The Revolution Starts…Now” had everyone on their feet, exorcising the despair of the last election, making us all realize that our journey to the post-Bush era, replete as it is with danger and ambush, was taking a bold leap forward, in a field in Central Texas, on a muggy August night, surrounded by strangers.
That’s what I took away from Crawford, a sloughing off of the timid political leaders whose focus-group moral outrage always stops at the Wall Street edge; a throwing off of the expectations of the corporate media, who insist on running any antiwar leader through a button-down gauntlet of American Enterprise Institute/Brookings Institution/Kennedy School of Government Skull and Bones fraternity brothers hazing rituals before determining their worthiness; a casting off of any temptation to fall into a Karl Rove/Swift Boat house of mirrors, letting my patriotism and support for the troops be impugned by those who just want warm bodies for their charnel-house petroleum imperialism. We are the majority, my friends, and Cindy Sheehan and the other mothers and fathers and wives and children of the murdered and the maimed and the emotionally shattered have not sacrificed in vain. We are evolving, my friends, and the Bushes and Roves and Rumsfelds and Cheneys, and all that they represent, will soon be consigned to the tar pits of history.