Sunday, January 24, 2010


In a recent article on "Movement Music", the invaluable David Swanson sings a hymn of praise for the equally invaluable David Rovics. Movement music, yes.

Back in 2003, the Nation devoted an entire issue to "The Power of Music" of the "protest music industry". And here in Vermont we have come up with Free Vermont Radio, a digital online music provider featuring an entire library of Vermont musicians, many of whom write and perform "movement music."

It's odd: nowhere in any of the above is there a mention of a thousand years of western classical music.

Why is lefty life -- so highly educated, morally aware, philosophically sophisticated, politically savvy --  why are we so blind, so deaf, to the radical expression and revolutionary messages therein?

I don't get it.  In "classical" music -- from the tenth through the twentieth century -- we have inherited a cornucopia of profundities, prompting and announcing social change at every step along the way, educating human consciousness towards ever-greater complexity of perception and thought, coaxing out our emotional and spiritual depths. 

The great composers have always demanded from us, and developed in us, precisely those sensibilities we need to confront the hugest issues we face -- structure, otherness, variation, modulation, time, change, form,

I think of the room in which the Eroica was first performed -- it's aristocratic, gold-leafed curlicues, it's elaborately carved chairs.  I think of Beethoven's assessment of the "princely rabble" that would seat their asses on those chairs, and the shattering indictment with which he would assault them in the name of freedom.  Seid umschlungen, Millionen, he intoned in the Ninth Symphony, masses embracing in the kiss of the entire world.  Tell it to Cheney and Obama, CENTCOM and the IMF. 

Bach's intensity and structural investigations, Brahms's sexuality unlimited, Mahler's catalogue of hetero-interactions, Wagner's engorging instability, Bartok's mesto dance, Stravinsky's primordial landscapes, Berg's evocation of interstitial states -- one could go on and on, and in and in.  Are all these irrelevant to the left, and to our goals of head and heart?

Let's talk about the means of production.  Though there are surely classical stars and consumers, by far the greatest number of sounds are made by amateurs at choral or orchestral or chamber music rehearsals and performances, or playing at home -- a democratic, participatory picture of growth, education, and community, growing since the eighteenth century.

Yes, David Rovics and the singer-songwriters of the protest industry speak strongly to us and our times.  But they are not the only music relevant to the left.  We need to recover the largesse of our musical heritage.

Yesterday, after only a few days of organizing, 200 musicians, along with the Bread & Puppet theater, came quickly together for a concert of the Brahms Requiem -- to raise funds for Haiti relief. Over $10,000 dollars was collected from an audience of 700.

The Brahms Requiem is also movement music, unbearably beautiful, revealingly deep -- like our afflicted lives.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


I won't bore or appall you with the toxic sludge spewing out of the mouths of our CEOs justifying -- sans apology -- their behaviors, salaries and bonuses. Especially during this week of Haitian horrors.

I will, however, offer you a bedtime story that relates to both. This, a chapter from an unpublished novel, When the Gods Come Home to Roost. George tells it to Demi's 10-year old daughter, Zoe:

"Zoe, Zoe, puddin an pie,
Tonight, a story that will make you cry...
And though you may eat God knows what
Never again will you eat your snot.
"I don't eat my snot, you big bugboo."
"Oh yes, you do.  I saw you.  And I saw you pick your head and eat it."
"Get out."
"You looked at it, and popped it in your mouth."
"Get out.  Ma, he's disgusting.  Find another one."
"They're too hard to come by," Demi said, and kissed George on the ear. " Into bed, and the big bad man will tell you a story.  I'll be up as soon as I finish the dishes."

"Once upon a time, there was a mighty king who scorned the gods. His name was Erysichthon."
"You got it."
"I'll call him Sickie."
"And a sickie he was, no tree-hugger he.  Sickie once went wild in a sacred grove belonging to Demeter -- slashing all the trees with his sword, wounding each of them, lopping off their branches."
"Good question.  Because he was a king and could do what he liked?"
"Because he was a bully," I think. "The trees couldn't fight back."
"Well, we'll just see about that,” said George. “So he whacked and whacked until he came to a towering oak, centuries old, hung with messages and garlands, the centerpiece of many a dance.  It would take a dozen people, holding hands, to circle it.
“But did Sickie care?  He ordered his slaves to chop it down, to fell the sacred tree. Not one would do it. So he grabbed the axe himself, raised it up and screamed, 'This tree may be the goddess's. This tree may be Demeter herself -- too bad!' and his axe bit hard into the tree's great body, and it trembled and groaned, and its leaves grew pale, and it started to bleed -- red blood."
"Do trees have blood?"
"Not most of them -- and like you, everybody was stunned. Justus, his most beloved servant tried to stop him.  His head rolled at Sickie's feet, and bumped up against the tree. As the murderer turned back to the trunk a voice came from deep in the wood. 'Hear me now in this hour of my death, Erysichthon, hear me well: You will be punished as no man has ever been.' 
“And the oak tree fell, slowly, its huge canopy laying low the trees around. Then all the spirits of the forest went mourning to Demeter, mourning and complaining, complaining and demanding revenge -- the monster's death.
“The lovely goddess nodded, and her nodding caused the fields of grain to tremble.  A simple death was too kind an end to such cruel arrogance.  Goddess of abundance, she would strangle him in threads through her antipode -- the tortured goddess Famine."
"What's that -- antipode? Like her opposite?"
"You got it.  So off Demeter flew on wingèd dragons, over the bleak Caucasus mountains, to the outer rim of icy Scythia, a dismal land where nothing grows, a land of pallid cold and fear. She looked for Famine, her negation, and found her in a stony field, digging her nails into the scrawny grass, and gnawing at its roots.  Her hair was matted, her face was pale, her eyes were hollow. A living skeleton she was, with swollen joints and leprous skin.
“'Famine,' she called, keeping her distance, 'I must ask of you a favor. Would you be warmed for one night in a royal bed?'  Famine hungrily agreed.  She followed behind Demeter's chariot, blown by the wind, and came to Erysichthon's palace in the dead of night. 
“There he was, asleep.  She crawled into the bed, and wrapped her skeleton self around him.  She breathed into his ears, her dry tongue searched out the wet corners of his mouth, she warmed her hands between his thighs, and planted hunger deep within him. Then back she flew from the land of harvests to her sterile, fruitless home."
"This is a yucky story."
"What do you think will happen?"
"He'll be hungry all the time?"
"Let's see. Can you guess what he started dreaming of?"
"Smart girl.  He chewed on the air, and ground his teeth, and swallowed, swallowed..."
"And when he awoke, he was hungrier than he'd ever been."
"Ravenous! Unquenchable hunger. He ordered banquets, and at the banquets he dreamed of banquets. He ate enough food to feed his whole town, his entire country, he spent his treasure, and sold off all he owned for food till there was only one thing left to sell."
"His daughter."
"Why didn't he eat her?"
"You don't eat daughters. And she was a very special daughter. Mestra, she was called, and so beautiful that she was loved by the god Poseidon who gave her the gift of changing shape at will. What a business they had -- a con game.  Sickie would sell her as a slave, and she would turn into a fishing girl. 'Where's my slave?' the sucker would ask. 'I paid good money for her, and there's no one here but this fishing girl.'  And then the fishing girl would be sold to another rich chump, and all there was was a milkmaid, or a cow, or a bird."
"Et cetera, et cetera..."
"You got it, Zoekins.  A good scheme, huh?  More food for her father -- till finally there was no more."
"Did he starve?"
"Not exactly. He tore apart his own body with his sharp teeth, and ate his shrinking self alive."
"Did he eat his teeth?"
"No. The teeth were all that were left."
"Were the teeth hungry?"
"No, they don't have stomachs."
"What do you think the moral of this story is?"
"Don't eat yourself up."
"George," Demi asked, "Why do you tell such stories?" She was standing in the doorway. 
"I'm attending to her education."

NPR reports that Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase combined have set aside $47 billion for bonuses. Haiti's entire GDP is $7 billion.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Cass Sunstein is President Obama's Harvard Law School friend, and recently appointed Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

In a recent scholarly article, he and coauthor Adrian Vermeule take up the question of "Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures". (J. Political Philosophy, 7 (2009), 202-227). This is a man with the president's ear. This is a man who would process information and regulate things. What does he here propose?

[W]e suggest a distinctive tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy theories: cognitive infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of believers by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity. (Page 219.)

Read this paragraph again. Unpack it. Work your way through the language and the intent. Imagine the application. What do we learn?

-- It is "extremists" who "supply" "conspiracy theories".
-- Their "hard core" must be "broken up" with distinctive tactics. What tactics?
-- "Infiltration" ("cognitive") of groups with questions about official explanations or obfuscations or lies. Who is to infiltrate?
-- "Government agents or their allies", virtually (i.e. on-line) or in "real-space" (as at meetings), and "either openly or anonymously", though "infiltration" would imply the latter. What will these agents do?
-- Undermine "crippled epistemology" -- one's theory and technique of knowledge. How will they do this?
-- By "planting doubts" which will "circulate". Will these doubts be beneficial?
-- Certainly. Because they will introduce "cognitive diversity".

Put into English, what Sunstein is proposing is government infiltration of groups opposing prevailing policy. Palestinian Liberation? 9/11 Truth? Anti-nuclear power? Stop the wars? End the Fed? Support Nader? Eat the Rich?

It's easy to destroy groups with "cognitive diversity".  You just take up meeting time with arguments to the point where people don't come back. You make protest signs which alienate 90% of colleagues. You demand revolutionary violence from pacifist groups.

We expect such tactics from undercover cops, or FBI. There the agents are called "provocateurs" -- even if only "cognitive". One learns to smell or deal with them in a group, or recognize trolling online. But even suspicion or partial exposure can “sow uncertainty and distrust within conspiratorial groups [now conflated with conspiracy theory discussion groups] and among their members,” and “raise the costs of organization and communication” -- which Sunstein applauds as "desirable". "[N]ew recruits will be suspect and participants in the group’s virtual networks will doubt each other’s bona fides." (p.225).

And are we now expected to applaud such tactics frankly proposed in a scholarly journal by a high-level presidential advisor?

The full text of a slightly earlier version of Sunstein's article is available for download here.

Monday, January 4, 2010


In an article on called "How to Bring in the Clowns", the author, AuntPhyl, reminds us that "Clowns grab attention. Whether it is because of exaggerated face paint, outrageous hair, oversized shoes or wonderful tricks, a clown stands out from the crowd. You can have a fun weekend sale or event with a hired clown. It is easy to bring in one of these comic performers or a crazy car full of tumbling, horn-tooting and balloon-twisting clowns. Here is how to bring in the clowns. She then essentially directs us to the yellow pages under "Clowns".

Today's anniversary of the Coney Island execution of Topsy the Elephant (see my yesterday's essay, "Elephant Execution") brings up certain themes -- disconnected, but connected -- that have been swirling around the news in the last week.

There certainly was something pathetic-clownlike about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed attempt (if it actually was that: to bring down an airliner over Detroit, his hi-tech explosive maneuver failing in a very low-tech way. But there will certainly be nothing pathetic about our president's vow of "retribution" (

Interesting words, those -- "vow" and "retribution". They are chillingly similar to those of the CIA "vow" to "avenge" the terrorist attack that killed seven of their own in Afghanistan ( And yet they are clownlike all the same, in a Heath Ledger Joker kind of way.

But these clowns of "vows" and "avenge" and "retribution -- clowns because they will all suffer sado-slapstick blowback -- have a particularly destructive effect on their audiences. Consider, for example, the most recent Rasmussen poll telling us that 58% of Americans favor waterboarding the hapless crotchbomber. Most of us know that torture brings out false information, but more than half of us want to torture him anyway. Kind of like "vows" "avenge" or "retribution".

I was reminded of this yesterday while googling for a photo of Topsy and coming across an even more disturbing graphic of another elephant execution -- that of "Murderous Mary" 11 years later, for similar motives of profit. Mary, killed her keeper in a mood known only to an elephant, but apparently quickly passing. The crowd began chanting "Kill the elephant!", and a local blacksmith pumped two dozen rounds into her with little effect. Fear spread (or was spread), as it easily does, into the business community, and nearby towns threatened to ban the show if Mary was in it.

I'm sure Mary's owner was conflicted over his decision, but it's likely that the loss of his investment in Mary would be less than a potentially ruinous blacklisting, and he decided, like Edison, to kill Mary in public. Not soft on elephant-terrorists he.

Mary was sent by rail to Erwin, Tennessee, where 2,500 people paid to see her hanged like the murderer she was. Wikipedia's taciturn obit goes like this: "The elephant was hanged by the neck from a railcar-mounted industrial crane. The first attempt resulted in a snapped chain, causing Mary to fall and break her hip as dozens of children fled in terror. The severely wounded elephant died during a second attempt and was buried beside the tracks."

Here (PG 50!) is the postcard:

Bring in the clowns. And the circus-like attractions. And the hi-tech equipment. And the paying spectators. Clowns grab attention. You can have a fun weekend sale...

And of course, however mischievous, one doesn't usually PUNISH clowns --as our government court's dismissal of our government's case against our government's hired Blackwater murderers due to our government prosecutor’s ineptitude (apparent or planned), causing "trouble" for our government's foreign policy shows. More clowning around.

While looking for a Topsy graphic yesterday, I came across another photo that seemed alarmingly relevant. It is a bit of a stretch of course, and you can't tell a book by its cover, but if one inked in a little black moustache, wouldn't this capitalist entrepreneur of electrocution, sitting with his toys, resemble someone else?

Sunday, January 3, 2010


Wait! Do not activate that video -- unless you have a stomach immune to moral indigestion. Let me tell you the story first, and then you decide if you want to click the mouse that clicks the video that clicks off the elephant.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant at Coney Island on January 4, 1903. Not the accidental electrocution, but the intentional one, by one of our American heros, Thomas Alva Edison. And for purposes no higher than winning a commercial battle with his nemesis, George Westinghouse.

I reported this incident in a chapter of The Lamentations of Julius Marantz. Julius, our sweetheart, has taken the D train from Manhattan out to his homeland, Coney Island, to submit to a well-earned and inevitable suicide. But since it is a long ride, I thought my readers would like something to entertain themselves along the way. So I included a chapter called "A Study of History", which treats five FUQs -- Frequently Unasked Questions -- concerning the playland and its visitors. Here are the last two:

4. And What about Edison?  Did he come too?

At last, a native American.  Yes, yes he came, eight years before Freud he came -- accompanied by Westinghouse and Faraday, and Adam Smith, and Death.  They came to electrocute an elephant. Forty-four years before Julius was born, they came to electrocute an elephant named Topsy.

Elephants -- the highest form of animal, symbols of strength and astuteness, emblems of wisdom, of eternity, of moderation and pity, removers of obstacles, charismatic beasts suggesting the power of Buddha: miraculous aspiration, analysis, intention, and effort.  Their trunks are capable of both uprooting trees and picking the smallest of leaves, thus suggesting that humans develop their powers in both the gross and spiritual worlds.

Massive and gray, they resemble dark clouds of refreshing rain. Indra's mighty elephant digs with its tusks, and reaches its trunk deep into the earth, sucking up water, and spraying it into clouds which bring forth rain. Elephants thus link the heaven above with the chthonic below, and symbolize the mist that separates formed worlds from the unformed.

Their tusks, both digging tools and weapons, linking the beast again to things supra- and sub-terranean.  Elephants were named for their tusks, from elefas, the Greek for ivory.  Achilles sword, In Pope's Homer, had a handle "with steel and polished elephant adorned."

They are loyal and affectionate, the elephants. Older calves help younger siblings, adults their sick or wounded comrades.  They demonstrate ideals. It is said that mothers of great masters will dream of them at birth.

Most easily trained of all the beasts, they rarely forget. And when their great patience is exhausted, they have a remarkable memory for wrongs done them, and many stories are told of elephant revenge.

Mice do not scare them.

Topsy was thirty, and weighed three tons.  She began as a worker, hauling the beams and blocks that became the Island. When the parks were built, she turned entertainer, doing tricks, in pink tutu, for gawking faces. Towards the end, she became quite blind, having worn her eyes out looking at America -- and seeing nothing.

 But she did see the drunken trainer who put his cigarette out against her tongue and laughed. She picked him up, threw him against the wall, then smashed his head quite easily underfoot.  And thus she became "a rogue", a "man-killer", and her sentence was death.

Topsy was given a bale of carrots laced with cyanide, and scarfed them down without effect.  Another helping, please?  The park owners saw a chance to be tough on crime, and also make a profit. For every scratch, an itch: they announced that the murderous rogue elephant would be publicly hanged.  "No, no!" cried the ASPCA. Too cruel and inhuman.
"No, no!" cried Thomas Alva Edison.  Hadn't New York State just replaced the gallows with a new, humane, electric chair?  "I'll come and help."

There was more to this than met the eye.

In Topsy-time the Wizard of Menlo Park was engaged in his own death-struggle with George Westinghouse for control of America's electrical infrastructure. His DC system, he claimed, was safe, while Westinghouse's was deadly. To prove it, he'd been publicly electrocuting cats and dogs for years. It was he who had convinced the state to use Westinghouse's AC for their electric chair.  So much, and no more, had he accomplished: an electrocuted criminal was widely referred to as "being Westinghoused."

So what an irresistible photo-op here! How better to demonstrate the danger of his enemy's system, than to roast a full-grown elephant? Dr. Edison brought a team of technicians, and a film crew. On July 4th, 1903, before a cheering, patriotic crowd of thousands, Topsy was led to a special platform, the cameras rolled, and the switch to Coney's powerful electrical plant was thrown. Topsy's short-lived hell-on-earth lasted only ten seconds. At six thousand volts.  She convulsed, her hide began to smoke, and she collapsed.  Applause.  "It's a take." The great man showed the film to audiences across the nation to win his point, if not his contracts, and to help forge the created non-conscience of his race.
Whither reeleth our sweetheart? 
He sang to himself, in cadence count
E non voglio più servir,
No, no, no, no, no,
E non voglio più servir
, hitting on vir a low Eb -- abysmal depth, and the base tone of creation.
Non serviam.

George Orwell had warned him some time ago: "We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of civilized men."

Whither hobbles he, wandering among these ghosts? 

To the towering parachute jump which -- six years before he was born -- was transferred from the "Lifesavers' Exhibit" at the New York World's Fair, the site right next to the Centaurs.  He liked the parachute jump.  It reminded him of his father.  "It packs more thrills than any wings-in-sky interlude since Icarus," the old guides used to say.  It reminded him that it takes longer to rise than to fall.  Its rising and falling came to an end in '68, on a nearly vacant lot, in a moribund park on Coney Island.  And now, there, in front of him, it rusted.

For Hegel, the Enlightenment meant a struggle between reason and what he called "the night of the world", that chaotic mix of hatred and irrationality which can destroy humanity and what it builds, but which is paradoxically the source of its enormous energy.
For Hegel, human history revolves around the attempt to negate the negativity of "the night of the world", and turn it to productive thought and action. He would have liked to have said, "Where there is id there shall be ego."

Final question: Which tense do you want to live in?

"I want to live in the imperative of the future passive participle," our sweetheart said, "in the 'what ought to be.'"

Friday, January 1, 2010


For eight years and four months now, a group of miscellaneous folks has been standing at the top of Burlington's Church St., Monday-Friday, from 5-5:30 PM with a range of signs generally protesting the growing number of wars and their causes. We've probably made the Guiness book for person-hours demonstrating in less than mass events.

The good news is that we are now very well lit during winter nights. The better news is that very few drivers give us the finger anymore, and there are a lot of thumbs up and V-signs from passing cars, even from bus and UPS drivers. The best news is that as the signs evolve and get more provocative, more walkers stop and talk with us about what's on them. In my experience, it's the best opportunity I've ever had to talk with folks beyond the choir about various issues.

The bad news is that most of the folks doing this for the past eight years are people who were doing it during the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war and the Ban the Bomb campaigns, i.e. geezers.  And we're dying off. This is a war of attrition, and THEY seem to be winning, with always more enemies to be manufactured, and the bombs to accompany them.

I've been scratching my head about where the pool of new people might be.  It doesn't seem to be "the kids". We occasionally get a bunch that come down from UVM or St. Mike's all enthusiastic and committed, but for some reason they're off to something else before the week is out. I've made requests at peace demonstrations, but that doesn't seem to turn up anybody new. This morning I got a new idea -- to not only invite writers -- to our vigil, but also worldwide -- to join us, or begin to do it, but more importantly to use their skills to invent a new language for signs.

Here's some of what I've learned over eight years:
-- Signs like STOP THE WAR, or PEACE, etc. are basically invisible. Passers- or drivers-by simply say "Oh it's a peace demonstration," and whether they yawn or not, they dismiss and reduce the messages to a known issue, and shove them in the pigeonhole, where they quickly evaporate. How to revivify these kinds of signs?

A most successful tactic has been to hold a PEACE sign upside down. You can't imagine how many people in cars and across the street try to be helpful by signaling that we should flip it. And flip it we do -- and on the back is another sign that says SIGN OF DISTRESS.  Most people get that it's like an upside-down flag, and give us a thumbs up. But the main point is that, although probably members of the choir, they have actually seen the sign, and actively participated.

The question then is, how to invite such participation in all the signs, how to make them visible, how to make them create teaching moments. I've made a few attempts:

Long before the word was common in the Bush-Cheney days, I would hold a sign that simply said IMPEACH.  At that point, the objective was simply to get people thinking about the tactic; its object became more and more obvious. Now, when anyone holds a sign that simply says IMPEACH, many people stop and say "Impeach who? Obama???" This leads to rich discussions with all sorts of people. While most don't realize that Bush and Cheney can still be impeached, most current questioners are astounded that we might be calling for Obama's impeachment.  And here we get a chance to talk about the difference between the many Obama policies we disagree with, and the high crimes he is involved in -- actual, legal, impeachable offenses concerning upholding the Constitution, conducting several illegal wars, violating the  Geneva Conventions, the Arms Export Control Act and the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. This is an invariably rich discussion, with real information transfer.

Another concept I am trying to get out there for passersby to think about is fascism. I hold a Got Milk? parody sign which reads GOT FASCISM? Hard to believe, but people do come up to ask "What's fa...sissum?" One then gets into it at an appropriate level.

HAD ENOUGH YET? invites "Enough what?" and my answer "Well, what have you had enough of?" and its sequelae. HAVE YOU HAD A BAILOUT YET? invites much sharing. ONWARD AND DOWNWARD has gathered "What do you mean?" HOOD ROBIN TO THE RESCUE leads to "Rob from the poor to give to the rich." and "Oh, yeah." WHO IS NEXT? (with a bomb falling) yields various guesses...; BARK MORE, WAG LESS, OUR PROBLEM IS CIVIL OBEDIENCE -- and sometimes IF YOU VALUE YOUR FREEDOM, THANK A PROTESTER.

You get it: signs should be get people thinking, and get them to stop and talk. And so to the point: WRITERS v. WAR(S). Who better than writers of various kinds, especially poets, to come up with such few-word provocations, to make two or three signs, and to use them in public on a regular basis.

For those in the Burlington area, I invite you to join us as you can at the top of Church St., and bring your signs to share with others. If you can't get there, send me your texts, ( and I'll try to make a usable collection and get it out to other groups.

For folks out there on FaceBook and other social networking sites, here's a node to organize your own local groups around. It's clear that the national government and the main stream media will not speak for us, and that we have to take an increasingly active and "in the streets" approach to public education. Let's unsheathe the power of the pen as part of the struggle.