Thursday, September 30, 2010

‘Jimmy’s World,’ 30 years after

When “Jimmy’s World” appeared on page A1 of The Washington Post on Sept. 29, 1980, the simple but deeply moving power of the story by Post reporter Janet Cooke was undeniable. Cooke’s report on Jimmy — an 8-year-old heroin addict living in the nation’s capital, a boy schooled in the how-to of addiction by a drug dealer acquaintance — riveted The Post’s readers, the nation and, ultimately, the Pulitzer Prize advisory board, which awarded Cooke the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in April 1981.

What happened next — the unraveling of what was an outrageous fiction and, at least briefly, the undoing of the reputations of The Post and the Pulitzer brand — was a cautionary tale for American journalism. Cooke returned the prize two days later, shortly before resigning from The Post after admitting that most of her story was contrived. The fabrication (the first in the history of the Pulitzers) reverberated in the industry for months afterward.

Now, 30 years later, the “Jimmy’s World” incident still has a tragic resonance for black and minority journalists still struggling to find a place in the nation’s newsrooms. For today’s black journalists, many of whom weren’t even born when the incident took place, “Jimmy’s World” is a learnable moment. ...

Read the rest at theGrio

Image credit: Janet Cooke:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ellmers’ Malign-All

“How can you get that low?” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews asked Wednesday, in a question whose rhetorical construction suggested there was really no way to answer it. Matthews, a serious political animal, was dumbfounded and outraged by a new Republican congressional campaign ad, this one coming out of North Carolina.

But when you watch it in the context of all of today’s bloodsport political season, you realize that Matthews’ question is one of those that doesn’t have an answer, but you’re obligated to ask the question — if for no other reason than to make sure the needle on your own moral compass still works.

The ad for Republican Renee Ellmers, seeking to oust incumbent Rep. Bob Etheridge for the congressional seat in North Carolina, was already circulating on YouTube, and got its big political coming-out party on “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox later on Wednesday night. It’s an elegant visual manipulation of historical tragedies — the unifying factor being? Muslims and Their Rapacious March Through History.

[End of the world soundtrack begins]

As painted images of Muslim marauders fill the screen, a narrator speaks in an ominous tone: “After the Muslims conquered Jerusalem and Cordoba and Constantinople, they built victory mosques and, now, they want to build a mosque by Ground Zero. Where does Bob Etheridge stand? He won't say. Won't speak out. Won't take a stand.”

Up jumps the gently tousled, thoroughly domestic American Ellmers, speaking directly into the camera.

“The terrorists haven't won and we should tell them in plain English, No. There will never be a mosque at Ground Zero.
I'm Renee Ellmers and I approve this ad.”

◊ ◊ ◊

For Matthews, it was a hanging curveball and he got every bit of it. “It’s going back to the seventh century, when Mohammed was around, and acting like they’re coming this way in hordes, with flashing scimitars [and] whirling dervishes to come get us, so now we’ve gotta stop them at the gates of North Carolina.”

It’s the latest conservative broad-brush attack on Muslims and Muslim Americans, blaming a people for its religion’s history, an implicit alignment of the Muslims of today with the history of a people as far back as fourteen centuries ago. Ellmers’ glue-all ad, of course, has a commanding grasp of the emotional narrative in today’s politics; for conservatives, bashing Muslims in general is the pitch to the base, the low-hanging hot-button fruit, the piñata they get to whack at with eyes wide open. She’s strong on emotionalism, but Ellmers has a lousy command of the facts.

Like the inconvenient one that undercuts her assertion that “there will never be a mosque at Ground Zero.” The fact that, according to Samuel G. Freedman, writing in a Sept. 10th report in The New York Times, a mosque was situated on the 17th floor of 2 World Trade Center, the southernmost tower, and had been since at least 1993.

“How can you get that low?” It’s not that hard when doing the Ethical Limbo comes naturally to your party anyway, when the state of the national economy makes it real easy to build a scapegoat. It’s not difficult when Ellmers, like the conservative cohort she runs with, refuses to let little things like facts get in the way of a good character assassination.

Image credits: Ellmers: Renee Ellmers for Congress.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Pop-culture warriors

The people at the National Park Service haven’t had any trouble lately with the popularity of the National Mall, in Washington. The location, roughly the space between the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol, already enjoys a great reputation as an inspiring, nationally symbolic tourist magnet, in a city with no shortage of civic attractions.

Lately, that part of the nation’s capital has become a kind of ground zero for the culture wars. The goofily flamboyant conservative tool Glenn Beck staged his own noisy little tricorn-hat-dog-&-pony show at the Memorial last month, malignly timing his attempt at “Restoring Honor” to America to be at the same site where, 47 years earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. restored honor, and made history, for real.

That was the flashiest recent conservative bid for the kind of pop-culture frisson that tends to take place more often on the other side of the political spectrum. From them, that’s as good as we’re likely to get.

But now, in the home stretch to the midterm elections, progressive cultural luminaries in various high places are making their voices heard — and doing it in a way that indicates unwillingness to wait for President Obama to speak truth to power, eagerness to reach millions of Americans where they live, on the terms those Americans already recognize.

◊ ◊ ◊

Stephanie Joanne Angelina Germanatta, the multiplatinum singer and radio-friendly unit shifter whom you and everyone you know call Lady Gaga, has lately been using her stage and her lofty celebrity platform to speak out on various hot-button topics, including, on Monday, a refreshingly candid speech calling for repeal of the widely and deservedly reviled sexual preference-reflexive military policy known as don’t ask-don’t tell.

Lady Gaga spoke with fire and conviction at a Monday rally in Portland, Maine, oon behalf of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, just before the critical vote on debate of a bill to repeal DADT. The votes of Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe were thought to hang in the balance.

Gaga said “I’m here because don’t ask don’t tell is wrong. It’s unjust ... and fundamentally it is against all that we stand for as Americans. ...”

“I am here today because I would like to propose a new law, a law that sends home the soldier that has a problem … a law that sends home the homophobe.”

“Should the military be allowed to treat constitutional rights like a cafeteria? ... I’m here today in this park in Maine to say that if the Senate and the president are not going to repeal this don’t ask-don’t tell policy, perhaps they should be more clear with us about who the military is fighting for, who our tax dollars are supporting ...

“Equality is the prime rib of America ... and I don’t get to enjoy the greatest cut of meat that my country has to offer. Shouldn’t everyone deserve the right to wear the same meat dress that I do?”

No “Poker Face” there. Nothing but passion.

◊ ◊ ◊

The vote to allow debate on DADT died in the Senate, dealing the cause of gay equality in America more than a glancing blow. “It’s a very disappointing day,” said David Hall, of the servicemembers network, on MSNBC on Tuesday. But it’s not completely hopeless; there are some who hope DADT repeal will find its way into the lame-duck session. And of course, the president has the authority to act unilaterally on DADT, suspending DADT with a stroke of the pen, via executive order.

Two of the culture’s more incisive bigmouths are set to bring critical domestic issues (including DADT) front and center with live appearances on the literal eve of the midterms. Popular culture’s impact on the national debate, its ability to seep into the political discourse, will be obvious again in Washington in the next four weeks.

On Thursday, Jon Stewart, host of the blisteringly astute, entirely necessary “Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” declared he’d finally had enough from the Tea Party crowd and its enablers on the crazy-conservative fringe. “You’ve seen their signs: Obama is Hitler, Bush is Hitler,” said Stewart, whose comedic brand invokes a lacerating sense of humor in the service of an inescapable intelligence that rips the bark off various conservative sequoias.

“We have seen these folks, the wild folks, over the years dominate our national conversation on our most important national issues. … Why don’t we hear from the 70- to 80-percenters? Most likely because you have shit to do.”

Monday, September 20, 2010

The land of hot dogs & beans

Irony of ironies: In this the 24/7, immediately omniscient Information Age, good news still travels like the Pony Express. That's the only conclusion you could come to with today’s news that, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the recession that began in December 2007 officially ended in June ... 2009. (Now they tell us.) In the reverse of how it was when the economy first cratered (when the Feds told us what we'd already been living for months), the official announcement of the formal end of economic hostilities is a whimsically leading indicator — way out in front of any real-world conditions  that would make such a forecast believable.

John and Jan and Janiqua Q. Public would beg to differ. They’d probably love to say so to the president of the United States.

As President Obama is besieged on a daily basis with comments and blog posts, op-eds and professional opinions from those who have a problem with his economic policies, after awhile it must start to fade into an audible background hash, a white (black, Latino and GLBT) noise from which it’s difficult to discern anything specifically and briefly powerful, anything that breaks through the chatter that both dominates and deadens debate in the public square.

We can thank Velma Hart for giving us one of those breakthrough moments today. Hart, the chief financial officer for the AMVETS veterans service organization, got the chance to speak her mind to President Obama today, at a Washington, D.C. town hall sponsored by CNBC, the financial cable network. In a few minutes, Hart expressed the frustration that’s felt by millions of Americans. Others spoke there too; even a Wall Street hedge-fund tyro (a one-time Obama classmate) dared to show up. But it was Velma Hart who hit home.

"I've been told that I voted for a man who said he's going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I'm one of those people, and I'm waiting, sir," Hart told the president.

"I'm waiting. I don't feel it yet," said Hart, an Army Reserve veteran. "And I thought, while it wouldn't be in a great measure, I would feel it in some small measure."

"I'm also a mother. I'm a wife. I'm an American veteran, and I'm one of your middle-class Americans. And, quite frankly, I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now."

"I have two children in private school. The financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family," Hart said. "My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot dogs-and-beans era of our lives. But, quite frankly, it is starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we are headed again."

"Quite frankly, Mr. President, I need you to answer this honestly: Is this my new reality?"

◊ ◊ ◊

The president’s response was, frankly, less than inspiring.

"As I said before, times are tough for everybody. So, I understand your frustration."

"The life you describe — one of responsibility, looking after your family, contributing back to your community — that's what we want to reward," Obama said, noting Hart’s own personal narrative as representative of the "bedrock of America."

In his response to Velma Hart, and to others at the same event, the president mounted a vigorous defense of the policies and changes his administration has navigated through Congress, including relief for homeowners facing foreclosure, an increase in college scholarships and aggressive (and long overdue) measures to protect consumers against credit-card and mortgage companies.

But there was something wearily procedural and boilerplate in his response; on this issue Obama hasn’t fully, or certainly with any consistency, captured the rhetorical high ground and held it. The Obama White House has been a step behind in setting the agenda on restoring the economy, and framing the debate. His reputation is paying the price for that now; his party may pay a price for it in November.

◊ ◊ ◊

Velma Hart gave President Obama the these-are-the-stakes distillation he needed; without a pollster in the room, without a position paper anywhere, the American people via Velma delivered a message to the White House and the Democrats they can’t overlook, lest the bedrock of America land on him and his party like a ton of bricks.

What Velma Hart said was a supremely unspinnable moment in the national life. Her rhetorical call to arms, quietly but urgently gotten across, is a real-world assessment of Obama’s achievements and the impact of those achievements — one that’s impossible for the president to ignore:

Patience is not indefinite. When rank-and-file Americans begin to contemplate a trade of working-class notions of America as land of milk and honey for a grim reality of America as a land of hot dogs and beans ... you, sir, are in trouble.

Image credits: Velma Hart: CNBC.

The money shots

It would be a more pressing concern, of course, if you had more of it to look at in your wallet in the first place, but never mind: U.S. paper currency recently got a major whimsical makeover courtesy of the Dollar ReDe$ign Project, a competition for the best paper money redesign launched by creative strategy consultant Richard Smith. The winners of the competition (now closed) will be decided after an online vote that ends on Sept. 30.

Smith’s rationale for the competition is shaky, at best. “It seems so obvious to us that the 'only' realistic way for a swift economic recovery is through a thorough, in-depth, rebranding scheme ... Our great 'rival', the Euro, looks so spanky in comparison it seems the only clear way to [end] this global recession is to rebrand and redesign," the project Web site notes. Wow! Imagine! We can dismantle the recession with different-looking money! Who knew?

Notwithstanding such a silly premise, the project is democratic at its core, generating a wide range of artistic expressions, some worthy, some that are, let’s just say, underinspired. One reimagines the dollar as pop-art traffic signage, others are cryptic Photoshop jokes or fanciful visions too cute by half.

Four of them are, to these eyes, the most arresting of the lot. Self-taught Web designer Sean Flanagan shows that good things can happen when you’re not formally trained. His remake of the dollar hews to a traditionalism that’s both comforting in its familiarity and striking in its departure from the past. A portrait of George Washington adorns the Flanagan dollar, like he does now, but there’s more  of him to see. Washington assumes a human scale unlike the isolated, imposing visage that stares back at you from the sawbuck now. Simple, elegant typography and a background that reinforces national history makes for a redesign that’s understated, quietly magisterial, and therefore plausible.

In much the same way, a remake of the $5 bill by the designer known as Frank, bears a powerful simplicity. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln appears on the left side; on the right is all the information that’s on the current bill (necessarily) but arrayed with a spare, uncluttered visual style that runs to the edge of the bill — all in all a look that shouts “modernity!” without beating people over the head with it.

Jose Hernandez brings much the same thinking to his idea for a new currency. His family of denominations preserves green as the foundational hue, as well as the traditional elongated American Western-style typescript, but the artist imparts a clean, borderless immediacy that’s both striking and satisfying (the Kennedy $10 thoroughly communicates Hernandez's vision).

Leave it to the Brits to really take the idea of what our money should look like off the rails. Dowling Duncan, a British design team, came up with a family of multi-denomination designs suggesting that, perhaps subliminally, that the designers envision a future in which the euro takes center stage in the world economy.

Their designs for U.S. currency break with the past completely, conjuring dollars of different sizes based on their value, done in vibrant colors and illustrated with snapshot images of American achievements or American achievers. George Washington has been kicked to the curb on their $1 bill. Replacing him: President Obama. President Lincoln’s services are no longer required on the Dowling Duncan fiver; he’s been replaced by an Indian teepee (why not Geronimo or Crazy Horse?). If Stanley Kubrick had shown any images of U.S. money in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” this is what it would have looked like.

But hold on. Commenting on the project Web site, mgencleyn noted: “Just thought you should be aware, if you aren't already: A recent court ruling -- Civil Action No. 02-0864 (JR) -- has required future U.S. currency to comply with anti-discrimination laws for the blind. This means that all bills will have to be capable of being differentiated by the blind and vision-impaired. That pretty much means bills of different sizes or shapes for each denomination.”

The Brits may be onto something. Social media reactions suggest they are; the latest vote count puts Dowling Duncan’s submission well out in front of all the others (1,952 votes so far).

We’ll see which one prevails. It’ll take more than this to revive the national economy, but the best of these designs would make earning and spending cash a more colorful experience. Until we get used to it. And we find we just can’t seem to get or keep enough of them in our wallets.

Just like now.

Vox Africanus schools the Democrats

The current disarray of the Republicans have given Democrats a certain amount of breathing space (probably short-lived) in defining themselves for the voters, who are increasingly skeptical about both parties. Voices in the punditburo have considered how the Dems can best leverage this opportunity — one enhanced by disclosures about conservative Delaware Christian candidate Christine O’Donnell’s past dabbling “into” witchcraft.

Over the weekend, The Root, the news and commentary Web site, published a cautionary tale in comic form for the Democrats — the latest in its periodic Vox Africanus series. With an impact only the visual can bestow, the comic panel by Lawrence Ross and Josh Kemble pithily warns the Democrats against doing more of what they’ve been doing for months now. The Democrats’ conciliatory, hands-across-the-aisle ideal of governing hasn’t worked from day one. The Dems’ willingness to alienate its base has the potential to be political suicide, this year and in 2012. So is adopting the duplicity and coloration of the Republicans.

We know all that. They know that … but there’s something about seeing a path to true Democratic governance smartly distilled in five comic-book illustrations. Maybe now they’ll get the message.

Paging David Plouffe ...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Season of the witch

“I dabbled into witchcraft,” said Christine O’Donnell, the Delaware GOP Senate hopeful and Tea Party savior-in-waiting, back in October 1999. “I never joined a coven. But I did, I did. ... I dabbled into witchcraft. I hung around people who were doing these things. I’m not making this stuff up. I know what they told me they do. One of my first dates with a witch was on a satanic altar and I didn't know it. I mean, there was a little blood there and stuff like that. We went to a movie and then had a midnight picnic on a satanic altar.”

With that admission, right out of the gate, the apparently media-savvy O’Donnell has been hoist on the petard of her own history on television. With that admission (tied to other strangely idiosyncratic stances on personal affairs), O’Donnell loses any leverage on the perception of American traditionalism, and conveys unto her Democratic rival (and to the Democrats generally) a semiotically viral weapon, a symbolic bludgeon to be used with glee from now unto Election Day. Is it possible? Can the wheels really have fallen off the O’Donnell Express before it even backed out of the driveway?

Think Progress, followed shortly by The Huffington Post, reported on the revelation, made Friday night on Bill Maher's HBO show "Real Time.” O’Donnell made the comments on Maher’s previous show, "Politically Incorrect" in a previously-unaired clip from Oct. 29, 1999.

Think Progress reported that O'Donnell made 22 "Politically Incorrect" appearances and that Maher, knowing a great thing when he sees it, said he plans to release a new O’Donnell clip from the program every week until she agrees to make a “Real Time” appearance. "It's like a hostage crisis," he told the Web site.

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s so many questions about this that jump at you, it’s hard to know where to start. Mostly, they have to do with reactions.

What’s this news do to the Tea Party’s animating nativist narrative? The supremacy of Christianity as the Tea Party’s guiding spiritual principle is implicit in the movement’s ethos (consistent with the party that spawned it). To see that’s true, you only have to look at the birthers and Muslim-haters in the Tea Party rank and file that the Tea Party leadership doesn’t want to talk about.

Now, in a moment of great triumph, the Tea Party Republicans are faced with their worst nightmare: a candidate for Senate once a heathen! An admitted heathen! A one-time trafficker in the occult — the Dark Arts! Not even Michael Deaver could save a candidate from this.

What’s this do to the relationship between the Tea Party and the Republicans that birthed them? You can’t really disown your own flesh and blood, and that’s the problem for the broader GOP. Some conservatives have proposed, with straight faces, that the Tea Party represents the rising tide of a wide cross-section of the American people.

With O’Donnell as part of the movement’s big national coming-out party, there’s suddenly a lot to suggest that isn’t true. For all the issues between Christians, Jews and Muslims in America, at least the God they worship isn’t the god of the underworld. O’Donnell’s admission, no matter how historically it might be spun by her advisers and handlers, adds fuel to perceptions of an exoticism about the candidate that aren’t easily ignored, and won’t be forgotten at all.

◊ ◊ ◊

And will Prince of Darkness and turdblossom generalissimo Karl Rove pivot back to his original position on O’Donnell the night she won the GOP Republican primary — when he said her background, inclination for character assassination, and “a lot of nutty things” from her past, called her qualifications into question?

That was Tuesday. By Wednesday, though, after Rove was no doubt warned by party poobahs and the Sarah Limbeck axis that Leadership spank, Turdblossom I had decided that O’Donnell wasn’t so unpalatable after all. Can’t wait to see what this new wrinkle, exquisitely timed to the slower weekend news cycle, does to Rove’s neck, torso and reputation when he hits the air again.

The idea that this throws a wrench in the O’Donnell works apparently isn’t just idle speculation. It’s all hands on deck this weekend at Camp O’D.: The Washington Post reported that, per CBS’s Bob Schieffer, O’Donnell has pulled out of a planned appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Think Progress shortly after that reported that O’Donnell had also cancelled a Sunday appearance on Fox News. O’Donnell apparently relayed this via e-mail to the Associated Press.

Thanks to the evolution of stop-action motion picture and video technology, it’s possible to observe a train wreck in slow motion: the first moment of a moment when a locomotive begins to grind against the track, to wrench itself out of alignment, to start the cascade of interrupted velocity we call going off the rails.

Much the same is observable in a political context. We may be watching that happen to the O’Donnell 2010 campaign right now.

Image credits: O'Donnell: Associated Press. "Politically Correct" title card: ABC.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The GOP and the new adventures of odd Christine

"The vampire the GOP created in its basement is settling in, in its living room."

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, a man with a gift for journalistic distillation, thus brandished that talent Wednesday in describing what happened the day before, after election results from the seven states holding Republican primaries — the last of the preliminaries before the main bout in November.

The “vampire” in question (though “Frankenstein monster” might have been more fitting) are the Tea Party candidates, gaining mainstream visibility with big wins, most notably the Republican Senate primary nomination of Christine O’Donnell, a perennial candidate with a checkered past, who on Tuesday defeated Delaware Rep. Mike Castle in his bid for the Senate seat vacated by now Vice President Joe Biden.

O’Donnell — whose position on abortion paints her as an ardent pro-life conservative and whose stance against popular culture (and past conflation of masturbation and porn with adultery) paint her as an ardent nut — is the 18th Tea Party stalwart to prevail in this primary season.

But despite the inroads the Tea Party cabal has been making in the primaries, the Republican Party what spawned the TPers is growing nervous at the rise of the ... Frankenstein monster it created.

Amid a growing sense that the Tea Party crew may be driving the mainstream GOP off a cliff, there’s concern that past performance in the primaries may be no guarantee of future results in the general election 46 days away.

◊ ◊ ◊

You didn’t have to look far or wait long to see how possible that is. On Wednesday morning, flush with confidence, O’Donnell was interviewed on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and said the more or less unthinkable. Carving out a distinction between Tea Party loyalists and the mainstream Republicans represented by Castle, O’Donnell said “I believe we can win without them.”

The “them” O’Donnell was referring to, mind you, aren’t Democrats or independent voters. “Them” referred to ordinary Republican voters. (!) The heads-is-tails atmosphere of an already improbable primary season has reached a kind of bizzarro-world climax. Democratic good-wrench Chris Kofinis, talking with Olbermann on Wednesday night, said about the Tea Party what this blog has observed for months. “They have now paralyzed the established Republicans … They’ve become the boogeyman for the Republican Party. The GOP is now a prisoner of the Tea Party faction.”

The Republican leadership (or what passes for its leadership right now) got that right away. Within hours of O’Donnell’s win, GOP aides told Fox News that the National Republican Senatorial Committee wouldn’t be cutting any checks for her general election campaign. The committee released a statement of boilerplate congratulations "after a hard-fought primary campaign," but not saying much else.

That didn’t last, though: the NRSC, loyal in spite of itself, ponied up $42,000 — the maximum amount allowable — to O’Donnell’s campaign. And there was a flurry of post-election contributions, as donors flocked to a O’Donnell campaign Web site freshly previously scrubbed of policy positions, and put about $1 million into her coffers. Overnight.

◊ ◊ ◊

Which doesn’t really change the rising narrative of a broader conservative dilemma. After the primary victories of Tea Party-supported candidate Sharron Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky, the GOP is in an existential quandary Jean-Paul Sartre couldn’t get it out of.

The Democrats know it. “Today the Republican Party has shown just how far right it has moved," DNC Chairman Tim Kaine said Tuesday in a statement. "While Americans in Delaware and across the country are eager for both parties to work together toward solutions that move America forward, Delaware's Tea Party Republicans have nominated a self-aggrandizing and divisive candidate who seeks to tear down the progress we've made to recover from failed Republican economic policies that took us to the brink of economic collapse.”

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The informant

You’ve seen the work of the late photographer Ernest C. Withers. We all have. Throughout the heyday of the civil rights movement in America — easily the most photographically documented series of domestic events in America of the 1960s — his photographs told the story of a nation at a racial crossroads.

A much-remembered image of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1966, in repose on a bed at the Lorraine Hotel. Another image at the same Memphis hotel two years later, on April 4, 1968, the day everything and nothing changed for black Americans. A timeless shot of the Memphis sanitation workers on strike in late March 1968, carrying the signs that announced, quietly, powerfully, I AM A MAN.

Through many of these photographs, Withers, an African-American former police officer who died in 2007, was a kind of First Witness to the civil rights movement, its progress and its setbacks. But the legacy of Withers, who was long ago nicknamed the Original Civil Rights Photographer, took a hit over the weekend, when an exhaustive news report revealed that Withers had an interest in working for what was then very much the Other Side, the enemy of that movement.

We can thank the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, which on Sunday published a stunningly comprehensive report, the outcome of a two-year investigation revealing that, in the nation’s most perilous time vis-à-vis race relations, Withers was an informant for the FBI. The Commercial-Appeal obtained the reports under the Freedom of Information Act.

From 1968 (and possibly before that) to 1970, Withers apparently collaborated with William H. Lawrence and Howell Lowe, two FBI agents attached to the agency's Memphis domestic surveillance program, providing them with photos, biographical data and the particulars of dates and schedules — all intended to keep tabs on King in particular and the leadership of the movement in general. The photograph from 1966 points to a relationship with King that may have preceded Withers' ties to the bureau.

Athan Theoharis, a Marquette University historian and author of books on the FBI, told The New York Times it was “an amazing betrayal. … It really speaks to the degree that the FBI was able to engage individuals within the civil rights movement. This man was so well trusted.”

"He was the perfect source for them. He could go everywhere with a perfect, obvious professional purpose,'' said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow told the Commercial-Appeal.

◊ ◊ ◊

But looked at through a slightly different lens, so to speak, at least some of the odious aspects of being an informant have to be reconsidered. From all accounts, Withers, a father of eight children, was not lavishly compensated financially for his work with the FBI, a fact that necessarily casts his efforts on the agency’s behalf in a more charitable light than Withers as the Judas from Central Casting.

It strongly suggests that Withers was mostly acting on what he believed to be nationalistic principles, even patriotic principles. As a former police officer, he was no doubt foundationally motivated by what he saw as a greater societal good.

Our cynical aspect will find it hard to completely drown out speculations on another grim scenario. Did Withers, King's shadow in the difficult days of 1968, have anything to do with the assassination in Memphis? FBI director J. Edgar Hoover loathed King with a monstrous passion; how far would Hoover go, what resources would he employ to discredit him?

◊ ◊ ◊

But flip the script slightly. It may well have been that Withers hoped his photographs would reveal a humanistic side to the movement that terrified Hoover — a way of showing that, rather than being a cabal of fifth columnists and domestic terrorists, the civil rights movement was mostly populated and animated by everyday people summoned to moral witness in the streets and at the lunch counters of a deeply fractious nation.

And in other important ways, the revelation of Withers as social double agent changes nothing. It can’t be overlooked that, whatever information Withers may have passed along to Jedgar and the Feds, whatever he may have told them about the civil rights movement doesn’t trump what Withers, without uttering a word, told the world about that movement: its inherent human drama, the poignancy of a people in the agonizingly painful process of awakening itself, and awakening the nation in which they lived.

An informant provides intelligence. We may never know all the specifics of what Withers told the bureau. But whatever he provided to the FBI about the most visible drive for human equality in the nation’s history ultimately pales in significance compared to what Withers communicated through the evidence of the photograph. Generations later, there’s no way to redact that information, the deeper intelligence that revealed what was at stake for America in those dangerous days.

Image credits: Top: Ernest C. Withers. All others: © Ernest C. Withers Trust via Decaneas Gallery, Boston; as published in the Memphis Commercial-Appeal.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

'Like a Rolling Stone' revisited

First in 2004 and again earlier this year, Rolling Stone magazine placed Bob Dylan’s classic “Like a Rolling Stone” at the top of its highly subjective listing of the top 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Given the name of the magazine, it’s easy to find an association there that rewards skeptics and cynics suspicious of such apparent deification.

But in the years since its release — as a single in July 1965, and as part of the game-changing album Highway 61 Revisited on Aug. 30, 1965 — the song’s more than held its own as an expression of rock’s foundational ethos of freedom amid chaos, a crystalline document of the times. Whatever times you happen to choose.

Times like these. Some will say trying to find a connection between an apparently vituperative rock song of 45 years ago and the year 2010 is a stretch. But listening to the song with ears attuned to the present day, the perilous state of the American economy, and the general sense of misfortune and dread that blankets this country, “Like a Rolling Stone” is as vital and insistent today as it was in the summer of 1965.

From the opening crack of Bobby Gregg’s snare drum, we’re on notice. We’re on point in the territory of a dangerous time. That first sound, that first break with silence might as well be a punch thrown by a segregationist in that year’s Freedom Summer, the report of an assassin’s rifle, a bomb dropped somewhere in Vietnam … or a sniper squeezing off a shot in Afghanistan.

Consider the lyrics. There’s been much discussion historically as to who the “Miss Lonely” of the song really is, most of their consideration focusing on a particular individual. Some say it’s Edie Sedgwick, late of Andy Warhol’s Factory orbit; others have suggested it’s Joan Baez (once Dylan’s partner) or Marianne Faithfull.

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But when you get past the specifics of the gender, there’s a universality at work that softens the song’s seemingly bitter aspect. Imagine Miss Lonely as Mr. Lonely, an everyperson, someone of either gender suddenly subjected to the velocities of the world at large. Listening to these lyrics and adopting a more generalized interpretation, what comes clear is the way the song’s character is just as easily any of us, regardless of gender, color or personal persuasion.

The current state of the U.S. economy — the worst since the Great Depression — brings it all back home: the sense of drift, of anomic helplessness, of being at the mercy of forces we can’t hope to control.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

That’s not nastiness or vitriol; those six lines perfectly distill the longing, the persistent existential angst that’s hung over our planet since at least the end of World War II. Those six lines reflect a clear, indelible understanding of our lives in the early 21st century.

Other lyrics in the song, seemingly directed at a moneyed, privileged class of poseurs getting their just comeuppance, could as easily be aimed at people today coming to grips with the collapse of the value of their homes, the implosion of their 401(k)s, dreams come-a-cropper in the face of a new economic reality, their lives rendered invisible by unseen forces.

You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal

“Like a Rolling Stone” perfectly embodies the heads-is-tails uncertainty of modern life, now and in long-ago 1965. More than just lyrically articulating the rock and roll mindset of liberation and risk, it contains the multitudes, distilling the collective experience of millions of lives caught, then and now, in the crossfire hurricane of the postwar world.

How does it feel?

Image credits: Dylan: © 2010 Bob Dylan/Columbia Records.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

9/11 nine years after

Maybe the most telling, insightful observance of the impact and power of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States, their enduring resonance and the lingering social unease they engendered took place a long way from the United States.

On Saturday in Johannesburg, a South African court issued an order barring Muslim businessman Mohammed Vawda from burning a copy of the holy Bible in a public square — in a sad, tit-for-tat would-be response to Florida pastor Terry Jones self-frustrated threat to burn a copy of the Quran, in what was billed as “International Burn-a-Quran Day.”

It’s a sad commentary on the events of nine years ago on Saturday, and the loss of 2,977 human beings in the multiple attacks on Shanksville, Pa., the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York City that what’s come to define this anniversary has as much to do with religious intolerance as with the tragedy an earlier example of that intolerance produced that September norm.

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You know the back story. Admitting that “it is a radical thing to do,” Pastor Jones, of the Dove World Outreach Center of Gainesville, Fla., got it in his head more than a week ago to exact a cultural revenge on those of the Islamic faith by burning copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy text, on Sept. 11.

After a religious and political outcry that girdled the globe (one that eventually elicited reactions from Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan), Jones announced Thursday that after "praying on it," he'd opted to cancel his protest, claiming that he’d reached some deal with the leader of a planned Islamic center near the lower Manhattan site of the Sept. 11 attacks — a deal to move the center and mosque from its planned location in an old Burlington Coat Factory space two blocks from Ground Zero.

But Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the proposed center, said he made no such a deal and has never talked to Jones.

It appeared to start off as some malign fundamentalist prank bubbling up from the conservative Florida swamp. It was hard to take seriously at first, given the reflexive animosities of the current political climate, and the likelihood of those animosities getting worse by Election Day. In the beginning there was just too much important going on to devote much media oxygen to an earnest but deeply backward and unenlightened jackleg preacher of a church with a congregation big enough to fill a oversize garage with room left over.

As it turned out, while we could not stop for stupid, stupid happily accommodated us, in the process telling the world — and particularly the Islamic world — just how little America has changed since Sept. 11, 2001.

Friday, September 10, 2010

An accidental pioneer:
Jefferson Thomas (1942-2010)

When you heard he’d passed, this accidental pioneer of American history, you couldn’t help but notice his name, its word-order inversion of the name of another American groundbreaker. But Jefferson Thomas, 67, who died Sept. 5 of pancreatic cancer at a care facility in Ohio, lived the nation’s ideals at a dangerous and uncharitable time in the national life.

Thomas was one of the celebrated Little Rock Nine, the students who integrated Little Rock Central High School, with soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division guarding them as they walked into the building.

The students who made history on Sept. 25, 1957 — Thomas, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed Wair, Terrence Roberts, Melba Pattillo Beals and Ernest Green — proved that courage under fire doesn’t always require an army or a gun. They walked into Central High amid a mob of cursing, spitting, rock-throwing white students bent on preserving the status quo of segregation.

Of the nine who enrolled, only three (Thomas and two others graduated from the school).

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Imagine if you can the terror they felt, the bone-deep fear they had surrounded by hordes of antagonists determined to stop them from getting nothing more controversial than an education. The nerve-ending electricity of hate. The N word loose in the air everywhere.

Thomas, just turned 15 years old, was faced with turning the proverbial other cheek. “Mentally, what would hurt was when little puny guys came up and slapped you in the face. You couldn't hit back,” he told the Los Angeles Times years later.

But it took their innocent courage to bust a cap in Jim Crow; the high-minded principles of freedom, all the lofty language this country’s based on, came down to them having the nerve to call on this nation to walk the walk. It came down to Jefferson Thomas quietly demanding this country deliver on the promise of equality enshrined by one Thomas Jefferson.

In his 1998 book “Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965,” the historian Taylor Branch observed that “never before was a country transformed, arguably redeemed, by the active moral witness of schoolchildren.”

Branch was speaking of the sacrifice made by civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., that other later cauldron of segregationist poison. That place where four schoolgirls died in an act of terrorism as absolute and as nationally transformative as that which went down on 9/11.

But he may just as well have been talking about the Little Rock Nine. He may as well have been describing Jefferson Thomas, the self-described “skinny little guy” whose outsized courage we should hit our knees for, in gratitude, today.

Image credits: Jefferson Thomas, Sept. 1997: AP/James A. Finley. Jefferson Thomas, 1957: AP file.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Labor Day sales: Obama, the Dems and the GOP

Labor Day — the traditional day of celebration of the American worker — must seem like a bad and hollow joke to the roughly 11 million Americans who can’t find labor on this or any other damn day in the year. This year, Labor Day falls less than two months before the midterm congressional elections that will, rightly or wrongly, be seen as a referendum on the Obama White House and its agenda vis-à-vis unemployment in America.

Since taking office those 20 long months ago, President Obama (with the help of determined Democrats in Congress) has performed the equivalent of zero-gravity brain surgery with one hand tied behind his back, partly because of his own missteps and those of the administration, but largely because of a fundamentally antagonistic Republican leadership arrayed against him for reasons that have less to do with policy than with obstinacy for its own sake.

That’s not necessarily a partisan assessment. “It’s a real phenomenon,” said Steven Smith, a public affairs professor at Washington University. “There’s a very credible claim that in this Congress and the last Congress, the minority party very deliberately slowed down legislation to make it difficult for the majority to appear to be governing effectively, and knew perfectly well that [while] some legislation would get enacted, the total volume of legislation that would eventually get enacted would be undercut.”

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Smith said this at a D.C. symposium on Obama and the Congressional Democrats on Sept. 2, but people have been saying that for months around the watercooler (if they happen to be where watercoolers are commonly used). Rank and file Americans, restless and angry as they are, recognize intellectually what the 44th president of the United States has done in record time. Back in March, my partner in lines Kevin Broughton at Brown Man Thinking Hard took the time to put together a list of 100 of the signal accomplishments of the Obama White House.

You can quibble about the specifics; what’s undeniable is the breadth of enacted legislation and executive orders by Team Obama. It’s doubtful there’s been such a succession of transformational achievements by a single administration since the flurry of changes ushered in during the early years of the Lyndon Johnson era.

But despite it all, President Obama faces the uphill climb expected of all presidents approaching the halfway point in their first term. For the most consummate communicator of American political vision certainly since Clinton and arguably since Reagan, what’s left in the next 57 days is nothing less than salesmanship. And there’s really no parallel for it in pop culture; save your references to Willie Stark from “All the King’s Men” or Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman.”

For the first time both for independent voters and moderates in the Republican ranks, and for the once hardcore but lately dispirited supporters who swept him to victory in 2008, President Obama is in the sales business — not just pitching what he intends to do, but also reannouncing his party’s brand and its accomplishments, what they’ve already done.

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The Democrats are hunkering down with various ideas, most of them very good, on how to win the message war. Democratic good-wrench Chris Kofinis observed last week in Politico: “Our message needs to be more positive, more hopeful, more focused ... talk to the economic reality of everyday Americans and their families.”

Leave it to one of Obama old hands to put things in broader perspective. Addressing the sky-is-falling forecasts of big Dem losses in the House and possibly the Senate, Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “we won so many elections in 2006 and 2008, even in a neutral electoral environment, it was clear we were going to give some of that back.”

Plouffe’s somewhat anodyne view endorses the idea of a tidal political gravity at work, and that’s part of it. But it’s clear that the Obama White House — its force scattered by a number of planned domestic initiatives, unexpected domestic incidents and tragic global inheritances — has been challenged on the messaging front. Whether it’s with more of a presence on Facebook or Twitter, or by making more use of the ultimate IM — addresses from the Oval Office or news conferences from the East Room — the president needs to more fully use the bully pulpit for that which it was intended.

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To go by his rousing speech today at a labor union rally in Milwaukee, President Obama gets it. His barnburner talk with the party faithful shows he knows the importance of laying out the stakes in this election for the Democratic base — the same base that put him in the White House. And he knows how to go on offense (if a little late in doing it), reinforcing the ways that the “new Republican Party” proffered by Ohio Representative and tanning enthusiast John Boehner is same as the old.

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