"As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul." -- Edmond Jabes, from The Book of Yukel, Return to the Book

Friday, September 23, 2016

Writing and reading baseball

The Courier-Post has a story today previewing the Oct. 1 Collingswood Book Festival, which will feature a program on baseball poems. I'll be reading along with B.J. Ward and Bruce Niedt, both lifelong baseball fans and fantastic poets. You can read the story here, and find the festival schedule, directions and other information here.

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It's about Charlotte -- and all of America

When Charlotte erupted in violence earlier this week, many white Americans retreated to pre-established narratives.

There were memes posted to Facebook reminding us how difficult it is for a police officer to gauge potential danger (as if anyone would dispute this).

There were calls, primarily from police supporters, that we wait to judge until the investigation is concluded -- often from the same people so willing to jump to conclusions in terrorism cases, or to judge criminal suspects in the court of public opinion.

We heard about the criminal history of the victim in Charlotte, which was then used to justify the shooting -- before the investigation played out, unmasking the bias behind calls from the same people to wait until the facts were known.
And we've heard pleas to treat incident separately, as if each had nothing to do with the other.

These seemingly distinct arguments are tied together by a couple of threads. They tend to be made by white suburbanites like myself, people who have the privilege of not fearing for our lives when we see a police cruiser in the rear-view mirror. For us, this is not an existential issue -- which helps explain why much of the debate over the NFL-national anthem protests has broken down along racial lines.

I will not speak for African Americans. I can't, nor should I. But based on what I've heard from people I've interviewed and from things I've read, each black death at the hands of police has a cumulative effect and underscores the failures of a nation built on the enslavement of Africans and the disenfranchisement of freed slaves and other people of color.

The list of black deaths is long, resembling a high school honor roll, but without the honor, and is happening at a time when support systems for the poor -- which has a disproportionate impact on communities of color -- have been gutted, when voting rights are being scaled back, when more black men are in prison than in college, and so on. The criminal justice system has been rigged against people of color -- the lawmakers, laws, administrators, police, jails, reintegration programs, etc, have been designed to or have been managed in a way that creates a disproportionate impact on communities of color (read Michele Alexander's The New Jim Crow).

So when Keith Lamont Scott is killed by police in Charlotte, under disputed circumstances, the community in Charlotte erupts. The eruption -- a riot? a rebellion? an uprising? -- is about Scott, but also about the failure of the American political and economic system to "raise all boats," to use a term favored by the free-marketeers.

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat, seems to understand this, according to The Washington Post.
Roberts said she believes the anger on her city’s streets — the bloody clashes, looting and street bonfires — is being driven by this nationwide outrage over repeated shootings of black men by police. But the anger has local roots as well, she acknowledged.

As mayor of a city that remains starkly segregated by wealth and race, Roberts said she has tried to narrow those gaps and bridge the resentment and distrust built up over years of disparate policing and economic inequalities.

“We still have discrimination in our society. We still have disparity. We’re working really hard to ameliorate that,” Roberts said. “We have many different groups working on closing the economic gap in Charlotte, people working on the gap in schools and education.”
Discrimination, disparity, botched or tainted investigations, a presidential candidate calling for the return of a stop-and-frisk strategy, a national, decades-long policy of militarize policing (read Radley Balko's work in The Washington Post or his book Rise of the Warrior Cop) and turning urban areas into occupied zones -- but African Americans need to wait, to let the facts come out, to wait for the process to determine guilt. Except, the process nearly always exonerates -- few cops are charged (Tulsa stands out because of this), fewer are indicted, fewer still go to trial and a negligible amount get convicted.

So what exactly are we asking African Americans to wait for? I'm going to end with two quotations from Martin Luther King Jr. -- I taught "Letter from Birmingham Jail" yesterday. The first, I think, places the Charlotte disturbances in context, the second explains why waiting is not an option, why justice and equality must happen now. "Riot," he said in 1966, "is the language of the unheard." It is, as it is in Charlotte, as it was in Baltimore and Ferguson, an unfortunate response, but not unexpected, the inevitable result of a lit fuse.

As for waiting, King believed that a fool's game. He said "it is an historical fact that "privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily," and that calls for calm or patience often are no more than delaying tactics.
For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
Patience, in the end, is not a virtue, at least not for those who feel as if they live in society's crosshairs. Patience, for those caught in the sites, can mean death.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Fact and fiction

There is a difference between fact and belief. Facts are verifiable, as this teaching guide from Colorado State University, points out:
We can determine whether it is true by researching the evidence. This may involve numbers, dates, testimony, etc. (Ex.: "World War II ended in 1945.") The truth of the fact is beyond argument if one can assume that measuring devices or records or memories are correct.
A belief, on the other hand, is a personal opinion or conviction. It doesn't require factual support. The best example is religious belief, which Kierkegaard said requires a leap of faith. No proof is required. Belief is assailable -- meaning it will differ from person to person. Some make the leap, and some do not, but we cannot say for sure which belief is correct.

I bring this up because the so-called "birther issue" is back in the news. Donald Trump remains unwilling to say explicitly that Barack Obama was born in the United States, though members of his campaign staff say "Mr. Trump believes that President Obama was born in the United States.”

Trump won't say it, but his team will -- sort of.

Here's Trump’s running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, on the issue, according to The New York Times. Pence, the paper said, has been "unequivocal about Mr. Obama birthplace."
Asked about it last week by NBC News, he said, “I believe that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii” and added, “I accept his birthplace.”

Word choice is important. These statements may seem "unequivocal," but the use of the word "belief" undercuts that. Pence "believes" the president was born in Hawaii, an assertion that leaves it to each of us to decide. "What do you believe?" is the unstated question.

Am I being a bit pedantic, parsing words for the sake of parsing words? Perhaps. But word choice matters. Pence could have said "Obama was born in Hawaii." Trump's campaign staff could have issued a statement saying the same thing. Instead, they chose to frame it as a question of belief.

The question is why. I believe -- and here the word choice is deliberate because I cannot prove the assertion I'm going to make -- it is because framing the birthplace issue as one of belief and not fact allows the campaign to speak in code to, if not keep a foot in, the birther movement. It's the card far too many in the GOP have been playing for much of the last eight years, and it isn't going away.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

An unhealthy debate: Random thoughts

Hillary Clinton has pneumonia. She has to take some time away from the campaign. It happens. It's not a conspiracy, but it also is not an unimportant occurrence. It raises questions -- not just about Clinton, but about Donald Trump, as well. Both candidates are up in years -- Trump would be the oldest to assume office in our history, Clinton the second oldest.

Here's the problem: Neither candidate has been transparent about their health history. Clinton, for instance, withheld information about the pneumonia until several hours after her problems Sunday morning. Had she been forthcoming -- whether when she was first diagnosed or at the time of the stumble -- this may not have lingered. (Admittedly, the conspiratorial right would have continued to harp on it, but it probably would not have remained a point of discussion by anyone but hyper-partisans.)

Trump, I would argue, has been worse. He released a half-assed letter from a physician who has explained that he dashed it off as Trump waited in his limousine.

The point here is not to downplay the scary nature of what happened to Clinton on Sunday or make light of the Trump campaign. The point is this: We need accurate and up-to-date information about the health of our candidates. They are running to take over the most stressful job in the world -- just look at how much Obama has aged over the last nearly eight years, or how much George W. Bush aged in the preceding eight. We have a right to know whether they are healthy enough to handle the strain, especially because they are at or are approaching the age when the body starts to break down -- even with the kind of health care that the candidates' wealth can buy. (Cue debate over the United States' unequal health care system.)

We also should acknowledge that the constitution accounts for the possibility that the man or woman we elect may not make it to the end of his or her term. The debate over Hillary Clinton's health should lead us to ask the same about Donald Trump. More importantly, it should point us to the men who would be vice president. Who are they? Are they ready to step in?

It is not an academic question. It has happened nine times in our history, eight times after the death of a president. It has not happened in 43 years, but it can.

Rather than conspiratorial nonsense or reflexive defensiveness, let's make what happened on Sunday an opportunity to ask legitimate questions.

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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Notes on a real 'Boss' show

Bruce Springsteen never disappoints, my wife said after last night (Aug. 30, though the calendar already turned to Aug. 31) had after The Boss ended a 4-hour, 1-minute, 34-song marathon.

He never mails it in. He never gives less than his all. He has a great time and, this is key, his complete, unpretentious enjoyment is contagious. This is why he remains, a month short of his 67th birthday, a human Dynamo on stage.

That said, I have some thoughts about this specific show:

1. He played nine songs from his first two albums, an unexpected treat highlighted by his guitar work on "Kitty's Back," which is one of my absolute favorites.

2. He essentially took requests, playing songs ID'd on placards waived by fans. Consider what this means: The set list, to at least a small degree, was not decided in advance and included songs Springsteen said hadn't been played in a while. The band, to make this happen, has to be ready, to be prepared, which means rehearsing nearly everything recorded or played over a half century of performing. That level of preparation was evident in the seamless way the band moved through the set as though they'd been playing each of these songs every night for a year.

3. His cover choices were inspired: a fiery rendition of Eddie Cochrane's "Summertime Blues," Manfred Mann's "Pretty Flamingo" (more on that in a minute, and Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout" (by way of The Beatles, of course) and "Shout." And "Jersey Girl," which isn't really a cover anymore, despite being written by Tom Waits. It has become a Springsteen signature and was a perfect closer.

4. You can't have too many Isley Brothers' songs in your set.

5. He opened "Pretty Flamingo" with a story about a young Bruce watching a red-headed woman walk down the street outside a luncheonette he used to frequent. He said everything would stop -- Max punctuating it with a snare shot stopping everyone -- as a show of respect. As he sang, it became clear where he was going, who the respect was for, the familiar climax focusing attention on Patti Scalfa, I.e., Mrs. Springsteen.

6. "Tenth Avenue Freezeout," the story of the band, honored the dead -- Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici -- with a video montage that started as he sang "the Big Man joined the band." This, The Boss said, was the most important part.

I could go on, but I'm still exhausted.

Here's the set list:

New York City Serenade
Blinded by the Light
Does this Bus Stop at 82nd Street?
It's Hard to be a Saint in the City
Spirit in the Night
Summertime blues (Eddie Cochran cover)
4th of July (Sandy)
Kitty's Back
Incident on 57th Street
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Pretty flamingo (Manfred Mann cover -- repaying the love?)
Atlantic City
I'm Going Down
Darlington County
Workin' on the Highway
Downbound tTain
I'm on Fire
Hungry Heart
Out in the Street
Living Proof
Candy's Room
She's the One
Because the Night (Live 75-85 lyrics)
The Rising

Secret Garden
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freezeout
Twist and Shout (Isley Brothers/The Beatles cover)
Glory Days
Shout (Isley Brothers cover)
Jersey Girl (Tom Waits cover, with verse added by Springsteen)