Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Remembering Richie Havens: down to earth

Richie Havens ended his tour of Planet Earth yesterday, passing away at age 72 in New Jersey.

As news outlets from the New York Times to Rolling Stone remind us, Havens was the opening act at Woodstock in 1969, though he was slated to play sixth on the schedule. Traffic and other travel delays scotched those plans, and Havens ended up playing a marathon three-hour session, improvising when he ran out of material he'd planned to play for the gig.

From David Browne at Rolling Stone:
Havens wasn't supposed to be the first act to open the festival; that slot originally was intended for the band Sweetwater, but that band wound up being stuck in traffic. Backstage, co-organizer Michael Lang approached Havens and practically begged him to go on instead. "It had to be Richie – I knew he could handle it," Lang later wrote. 

After performing a half-dozen songs, Havens ran out of material – until, he later said, he remembered "that word I kept hearing while I looked over the crowd in my first moments onstage. The word was: freedom." Havens began chanting that word over and over, backed by his second guitarist and conga player, and eventually segued into the gospel song "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," which he had heard in church as a child. The combined, surging medley wasn't just a crowd-pleaser; it later became a highlight of the Woodstock movie, which also immortalized Havens' orange dashiki.
I was too young for Woodstock, which is not true of some of the very many remembering him fondly in the comments to Ed Tracey's newsbreaking diary on Daily Kos. But one of the unanticipated benefits of organizing against apartheid on the UC Berkeley campus in the mid-1980s was that Woodstock-era artists and activists alongside we young'uns had the connections to invite fellow travelers like Havens to to lend fierce and righteous inspiration to our little corner of an international struggle.

In Richie Havens' case, the Woodstock-era connection was a woman I first met at Berkeley's 1985 anti-apartheid sit in on Sproul Plaza, and who became a very dear friend: Hannah Ziegelaub, an artist, intellectual, ardent activist, and subject of a documentary by Allie Light made some years after I met her, Dialogues with Madwomen (1994). Hannah passed away in 2006.

Hannah invited Richie Havens to perform at a pivotal moment in our campus movement, in the Spring of 1986 when it it was clear we had the moral wind at our backs, the support of campuses and communities across the U.S. and the world, but the governing Regents were standing firm against demands to divest the University's massive investment portfolio of companies with ties to South Africa's apartheid regime.

Havens agreed to come west to fuel our fire, and that's exactly what he did.

Soweto to Berkeley is a documentary about the anti-apartheid movement of the mid-1980s at Cal, made by Richard Bock and released in 1988. (I had a hand in writing the screenplay.) One of the clips from the film that Richard posted on YouTube is driven by a soundtrack of Havens on Sproul Plaza in that spring of 1986.

The clip interleaves the performer's inspired singing and playing (Going Back To My Roots) with construction of a sprawling shantytown to blockade California Hall, the campus building where UC Berkeley's Office of the Chancellor is housed. Click on the still to watch the video on YouTube (sorry, embedding is disabled).

[For the record, the 50 min. documentary is an hour well-spent, if I'm permitted to say so myself ... contact Richard Bock at the e-mail given at the end of the YouTube clip if you're interested, or rent it for a classroom showing from the Cinema Guild.]

That afternoon on Sproul Plaza was the only time I had the privilege to watch and hear Richie Havens live. I count myself lucky. The man was a bright star in a great firmament.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Nelson Mandela and the death of UC Berkeley's Eshleman Hall
The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument
When authorities equate disobedience with violence

Monday, April 15, 2013

Your turn now to help stop the Keystone XL Pipeline

Comments on the Keystone XL Pipeline project to the U.S. Dept. of State and to President Obama are welcome for one more week. April 22nd is the closing day of the last public comment period on this project.

If you have something to say, it's time to say it.

Go ahead. Finish your tax returns. Then write an e-mail to Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama at keystonecomments@state.gov.

You can find that e-mail address and the State Department's reports on the project (however compromised by the involvement of 'big oil' insiders) at http://www.keystonepipeline-xl.state.gov.

Here's what I wrote to the State Dept. this morning. Feel free to crib if doing so will help you become part of a decision that needs to be influenced by the many who will be affected if the pipeline is built.

Secretary Kerry and President Obama,

I am writing to express strong opposition to approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline. This project should be denied. It should not be built.

Exploiting tar sands oil is not in the U.S. national interest. It profits from the oil industry's ability to legally but recklessly 'externalize' damage to the only biosphere we have in which to live. Oil companies will profit, and everyone will suffer the consequences of carbon-release and fracking: everyone including Americans and citizens of other nations throughout the world.

Arguments that this pipeline's construction is a necessary source of U.S. jobs are smoke and mirrors: the State Department's own Draft Supplemental EIS acknowledges that construction job creation will be far less impactful than original numbers indicated by initiators of the project, and that permanent employment will be negligible.

Stacking up the job numbers vs. the damage makes it clear to this U.S. citizen that Keystone XL is not in our national interest. As a citizen of the planet, it is also clear that the project is not in the interest of humans or of other species.

It boggles the mind to imagine how President Obama could reconcile approval of this pipeline project with his statements on the subject of climate change in his State of the Union address in 2013: "for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change." How could any supporter of the President and the Democratic Party reconcile approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline with the President's statement to Congress: "I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy"?

I strongly urge the State Department to recommend against approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and the President to reject its construction.


There are plenty of opportunities to construct a comment and send it through an organization: 350.org is a great choice; Friends of the Earth via democracyinaction.org is another.

To your keyboards............

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

If you don't want to drive you've got to be driven
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind
Unvarnished truth is hard to swallow

Thanks to NFWblogs for the April 2013 image of workers mopping up tar sands oil from the Exxon Mobil Pegasus pipeline spill in Mayflower, Arkansas.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Beyond gun 'debate' noise

I've shied away from writing about gun control. Since the unbearable massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in mid-December, it seems everybody with access to a keyboard or a digital video camera has stepped up to have their say. I saw no need to compete with that. And there's not much I have to add to the 'debate' -- if that's the right word for 300 million people talking past each other. For the most part, others have said or written anything useful that I might contribute.

But the Editorial Board at the NY Times -- in The Damage Wrought by the Gun Lobby (a title that tells all about the NY Times Editorial Board's position) -- pointed out this weekend that President Obama is being shouted down by the gun lobby. I agree. Even, as the editorial points out, with 80% of Americans polled supporting universal background checks, it's the marketing arm of the firearms industry, a.k.a. the NRA, that shouts loudest.

Loudly enough to drown out reason.

President Obama made the right rhetorical points on this at the end of last month. The POtUS called for active, vocal, grassroots support for those universal background checks that four out of five of us agree are in order:
If you think that checking someone's criminal record before he can check out a gun show is common sense, you've got to make yourself heard. If you're a responsible, law-abiding gun owner who wants to keep irresponsible, law-breaking individuals from abusing the right to bear arms by inflicting harm on a massive scale, speak up. We need your voices in this debate.


Tears aren't enough. Expressions of sympathy aren't enough. Speeches aren't enough. We've cried enough. We've known enough heartbreak. What we're proposing is not radical, it's not taking away anybody's gun rights. It's something that if we are serious, we will do.

Now is the time to turn that heartbreak into something real. It won't solve every problem. There will still be gun deaths. There will still be tragedies. There will still be violence. There will still be evil. But we can make a difference if not just the activists here on this stage but the general public -- including responsible gun owners -- say, you know what, we can do better than this. We can do better to make sure that fewer parents have to endure the pain of losing a child to an act of violence.
The POtUS is right on this point: it's time for everybody to weigh in. This is especially important because his personal leadership on this issue and others provokes hostile, paralyzing opposition in the reactionary halls of Congress, as the NY Times reported yesterday in Obama must walk fine line as Congress takes up agenda.

On weighing in

I'm not going to weigh in by inventing my own arguments. Rather, I'll quote from articles and opinion pieces that frame the question of gun control in ways I think sensible (though I don't think that all the opinions I quote make sense).

By 'the question of gun control' I mean not only requiring universal background checks, the aspect of gun-related policy that is now under active debate; but also limiting the types of weapons, clips, and ammunition available for purchase in the United States.

Not that it ought to matter much to readers of this post, but I am not declaring here a particular set of limits that I support. I haven't worked that out for myself. I will say, though, that I haven't yet seen good reasons to oppose something like Sen. Dianne Feinstein's proposed Assault Weapons Ban of 2013. I don't think that 'there are lots of assault weapons and high capacity magazines out there already' is a good reason to oppose such a ban. As the Prez said, above, There will still be gun deaths. There will still be tragedies. There will still be violence. There will still be evil. But if we would, um, stick to our guns, and keep massacre-grade weapons off the open market for a period of many years, the prevalence of operational assault weapons and ammunition would decline, gradually. It took the U.S. decades to go gun-crazy. It will take decades to fix that mistake.

But enough rathole-opening blather about what I think or don't. Better to consider and juxtapose some of the most illuminating pieces that others have written. Here goes:

Framing the issue

Here's an early, eloquent, and livid response to Sandy Hook by father and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, titled Newtown and the Madness of Guns, and posted on the very day of the massacre, 14 Dec 2012. It's as good a frame as any I've read since to an issue that's all about moral choices:
So let’s state the plain facts one more time, so that they can’t be mistaken: Gun massacres have happened many times in many countries, and in every other country, gun laws have been tightened to reflect the tragedy and the tragic knowledge of its citizens afterward. In every other country, gun massacres have subsequently become rare. In America alone, gun massacres, most often of children, happen with hideous regularity, and they happen with hideous regularity because guns are hideously and regularly available.

The people who fight and lobby and legislate to make guns regularly available are complicit in the murder of those children. They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value. Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns -- we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them -- is more important than children’s lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that’s a moral choice, clearly made.

All of that is a truth, plain and simple, and recognized throughout the world. At some point, this truth may become so bloody obvious that we will know it, too. Meanwhile, congratulate yourself on living in the child-gun-massacre capital of the known universe.
Adam Gopnik is, of course, a New York liberal of the type that elevates the blood pressure of "gun guys," from the nutters to the 'reasonable and responsible' folks like Dan Baum, interviewed in the NYT this weekend. I make no apology for excerpting Gopnik's argument.

Armed good guys protect against armed bad guys?

Both nutters and the reasonable and responsible folks on the side of the 'debate' generally opposed to gun control often advance arguments about how good guys with guns are the only effective protection against bad guys with guns. Unless you've been living under a rock these past few months (well, decades really) you've seen plenty of running-in-place on this topic, and precious little common ground between those who advance and those who dismiss these arguments. I won't reiterate any of that here. Nor will I attempt to plumb the absurdities inherent in dividing the world into "good guys" and "bad guys"; that could go on for megabytes.

What I will point out is an article of 16 Jan 2013 in Time Magazine that reveals essential truths about the effectiveness of even trained good guys with guns. The article is called Your Brain in a Shootout: Guns, Fear and Flawed Instincts, and it's worth a read-through. Its worth derives from the grounding in reality that it offers to the question of armed good guys and their capacity to thwart armed bad guys. Excerpting:
But the research on actual gunfights, the kind that happen not in a politician’s head but in fluorescent-lit stairwells and strip-mall restaurants around America, reveals something surprising. Winning a gunfight without shooting innocent people typically requires realistic, expensive training and a special kind of person, a fact that has been strangely absent in all the back-and-forth about assault-weapon bans and the Second Amendment.

In the New York City police department, for example, officers involved in gunfights typically hit their intended targets only 18% of the time, according to a Rand study. When they fired 16 times at an armed man outside the Empire State Building last summer, they hit nine bystanders and left 10 bullet holes in the suspect—a better-than-average hit ratio. In most cases, officers involved in shootings experience a kaleidoscope of sensory distortions including tunnel vision and a loss of hearing. Afterward, they are sometimes surprised to learn that they have fired their weapons at all.
Life. It's not an action-hero movie.

But if this is not a surprise to the level-headed among us, why is America talking about social policy of the highest moral import as if we're legislating CGI-space?

Tyranny v. pop-guns

The other vein of 'debate' worth calling out is the notion that individuals who own assault weapons are a legitimate, necessary, and effective means of constraining government's tendency to tyranny. Explicating that position, here's Lawrence Hunter, published in Forbes on 28 Dec 2012:
[...] the Founders looked to local militias as much to provide a check -- in modern parlance, a "deterrent" -- against government tyranny as against an invading foreign power. Guns are individuals' own personal nuclear deterrent against their own government gone rogue. Therefore, a heavily armed citizenry is the ultimate deterrent against tyranny.

A heavily armed citizenry is not about armed revolt; it is about defending oneself against armed government oppression.  A heavily armed citizenry is not about overthrowing the government; it is about preventing the government from overthrowing liberty. A people stripped of their right of self defense is defenseless against their own government.
Is Lawrence Hunter a fuzzy-thinker because he seems unable to distinguish between nuclear and conventional arms? Just in case, let's hear from a fellow traveler, Kevin D. Williamson, as published in the National Review on the very same date, 28 Dec 2012:
The purpose of having citizens armed with paramilitary weapons is to allow them to engage in paramilitary actions. The Second Amendment is not about Bambi and burglars — whatever a well-regulated militia is, it is not a hunting party or a sport-clays club. It is remarkable to me that any educated person [...] believes that the second item on the Bill of Rights is a constitutional guarantee of enjoying a recreational activity.
How to answer arguments like these? One "M.S." in The Economist addressed Williamson's arguments directly on 30 Dec 2012, a couple days after they hit the intertubes:
Militia are hopelessly inadequate as a means of defending a free country. While "people's war" militia-based strategies have been employed to wear down invading armies in numerous countries over the past century, not one of those countries (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, southern Lebanon, etc) is "free". This is not an accident of history. Freedom is the product of orderly democratic governance and the rule of law. Popular militias are overwhelming likely to foster not democracy or the rule of law, but warlordism, tribalism and civil war. [...]

As crummy as popular militias have proven at defending against "sudden foreign invasions", they've been even worse at defending against "domestic usurpations of power by rulers". There is, I think, not a single case in modern history, certainly not since the invention of the Gatling gun. No popular militia has ever prevented the seizure of power by an authoritarian ruler. In countries with well-established democratic traditions, authoritarian takeovers are rare; when they occur, popular militias do not resist, or are ruthlessly crushed by national armed forces. In countries with weak democratic traditions, authoritarian takeovers sometimes go smoothly, or in other cases touch off periods of civil war, which are resolved when one faction finally defeats the others and imposes authoritarian rule. Name your authoritarian takeover: Germany, Japan, Russia, China, Egypt, Libya, Brazil, Greece, Spain, Indonesia, the Philippines, Iran, Chile, Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Syria—popular militias never resist authoritarian takeover and preserve democracy or civil freedoms. That is a thing that happens in silly movies. It is not a thing that happens in the world.
And here's Mark Nuckols in The Atlantic, writing a month later on 31 Jan 2013 about Why the 'Citizen Militia' Theory Is the Worst Pro-Gun Argument Ever:
If America experienced a widespread political uprising today, it would bear little resemblance to Lexington and Concord in 1775, with well-disciplined minutemen assembling on the town square to defend liberty against the redcoats. It would more likely be a larger scale reenactment of the "Bleeding Kansas" revolt of 1854 to 1861, when small bands of armed zealots unleashed an orgy of inter-communal violence, unbounded by any laws of war or human decency. 


The constitutional government of the United States has never been perfect, but it has repeatedly corrected its mistakes and sometime tendencies to abridge the fundamental rights of its citizens. If this basic order and balance is ever imperiled, it will almost certainly be under circumstances of severe economic stress. And in such circumstances, tolerance and good faith trust in other Americans will likely be in short supply. Even today, numerous public figures routinely characterize their political opponents as enemies of American values. And a quick glance at the comments sections of websites around the Internet reveals that many people in this country already doubt the "Americanness" of their fellow citizens and the legitimacy of existing government institutions.

So a citizen uprising at any point in the foreseeable future would probably not involve like-minded constitutionalists taking up arms to defend democracy and liberty. It would more likely be a matter of one aggrieved social group attacking another. And for the most criminal and vicious members of society, the rationale of "protecting" their own rights would be a convenient justification for straight-up looting, robbery, and bloodshed.
In a sound-byte? I'd say that Lawrence Hunter, Kevin D. Williamson, and their ilk aspire to an America that is indistinguishable from today's Syria or Afghanistan.

I would like to think we can do better than that.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

The controversy machine v the reality machine
North Korea, women's rights, and post-truth politics
Democracy makes your head hurt? What else you got?

Thanks to enigmabadger for the image BrickArms Heavy Assault Carbine Prototype With M203 Grenande Launcher, and to rcoder for the image of assault weapons, both via Flickr.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Mauritshuis visits San Francisco

Carel Fabritius, a painter of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age, studied with Rembrandt. On thin evidence, some speculate that he taught Vermeer. I'd never known of him until I visited the Mauritshuis in The Hague in 2004 and was captivated by his small painting The Goldfinch. The painter was born in 1622, and died of injuries sustained in a massive explosion of a gunpowder magazine in Delft, at the unripe age of 32.

I'm pretty sure I remember that, when we visited, Fabritius' Goldfinch was hung in the same room as Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, already launched into stratospheric popularity by the eponymous novel by Tracy Chevalier, and a subsequent film. I'd read the novel, enjoyed it, and discussed it with my reading group. I'm pretty sure I missed the movie; or maybe I saw it and have successfully forgotten it because the book evoked a better story.

Though I was excited in 2004 to have a chance to see Vermeer's masterpiece while visiting The Netherlands, I remember anticipating that the experience would be a wee bit tainted by the widespread, almost cultish worship of the painting in the wake of the recent novel and film. I was wrong. Vermeer's painting was startlingly rich and compelling. It vastly outshone its novelization. I stared at it for a long while. I wandered on to other rooms and came back to stare some more.

Nonetheless, the surprise and strongest impression made by any work on offer at the Mauritshuis was a tiny trompe-l'oeil by a painter I'd never heard of.

I bought a postcard of The Goldfinch in the museum's gift shop, tacked it to the wall beside my desk on returning home, and have been reminded of the pleasure of discovering the painting every day since.

When I learned that the Mauritshuis would be sending a part of its collection around the world while the museum was undergoing an expansion, and that San Francisco's de Young Museum had scored a place on the Mauritshuis tour, I was happiest not at the prospect of seeing Vermeer's painting again, but at the news that The Goldfinch would be included in the show.

Given the opportunity to see the painting again, I gave a bit of thought to my fascination with this little bird. I read a few pieces about the painting (mostly things I could find on-line). Here's what Tom Lubbock had to say in The Independent some six or seven years ago:
Carel Fabritius's The Goldfinch is a modest image, painted on board. Its dimensions are not far off an A4 sheet of paper. It shows, with cunning realism, an area of plastered wall, slightly discoloured and wrinkled. A feeding box and a couple of hoops are fixed to it, and perched there - its leg is attached to one hoop - is the little bird itself, depicted life-sized.

And life-like? [...] If the picture were hung on a wall, similar to the one it depicts, then the feed-box, the perch, and the stationary life-sized. bird could all be mistaken for three-dimensional things, standing out, casting plausible shadows. In this case, the discrepancy between subject and paint would simply be abolished. The paint would have turned (as far as the eye is concerned) into a bit of the real world.

In this picture that doesn't quite happen. The most basic necessity of an illusionistic image is that, at all costs, you mustn't notice the pigment. You must see the thing depicted, and not the paint it's made of. And on this point The Goldfinch is divided. Fabritius very efficiently sets up a trompe l'oeil trick. And then he undoes it. The goldfinch itself is all too clearly made of paint.

[...] Look at the finch's head, analysed into slightly squared patches of colour, and the wedges of pigment that make up its beak. Look at the lightning-flash of gold on its wing. The little creature is all a matter of paint, paint applied and shaped by hand.


Fabritius effects a perfect truce between reality and paint. Every brushstroke is true; the painting doesn't take off on a career its own. But every brushstroke is, clearly, also a bit of dried paste. By holding a marvellous balance between unerring observation and overt hand-painting, The Goldfinch holds before you the fundamental discrepancy of Western art. How strange that painting's persuasions should come down to a daubing of coloured mud. How remarkable that coloured mud should be capable of such metamorphosis.
All true, and well-said. But I'm not smart enough about the technicalities of painting for Fabritius' formal accomplishment to strike so deeply.

So what is it about this little painting?

In the end I think it's the chain. Painted in thin, exact strokes, easy to miss if one doesn't look carefully, it's the chain that turns this lifelike bird into a distillation of how I imagine life in 17th century Holland.

All those plump, self-satisfied merchants etched by Rembrandt van Rijn and his contemporaries (many of them also currently on exhibit at the de Young, in a parallel show titled Rembrandt's Century)? A naturally-wild bird chained to a plastered wall perfectly captures their era's bourgeois obsession with acquiring and taming rare, strange, beautiful, foreign things. No wonder that vanitas still-lifes came into morbid flower in the same place and era ... there was something diseased about fetishizing material possession to the degree brought on by Holland's mercantile success. Look no further than the obsession for things that drove Rembrandt himself into bankruptcy ... from Wikipedia:
Rembrandt lived beyond his means, buying art (including bidding up his own work), prints (often used in his paintings), and rarities, which probably caused a court arrangement to avoid his bankruptcy in 1656, by selling most of his paintings and large collection of antiquities. The sale list survives and gives us a good insight into Rembrandt's collections, which apart from Old Master paintings and drawings included busts of the Roman Emperors, suits of Japanese armor among many objects from Asia, and collections of natural history and minerals; the prices realized in the sales in 1657 and 1658 were disappointing. Rembrandt was forced to sell his house and his printing-press and move to more modest accommodation on the Rozengracht in 1660.
And so, Fabritius: a lovely bird, seemingly alive on the canvas, perched on a hoop in the manner of birds ever-ready to fly off on their own mysterious business ... except that this goldfinch can't fly far. The bird is captive. Not a wild thing, but an artifact of wildness, a pretty toy possessed by some owner of pretty 17th century toys.

To me, that thin parabola of chain makes all the melancholy difference in The Goldfinch.

The show from the Mauritshuis is on view at San Francisco's de Young through June 2nd. Though I hopped on the BART and visited spontaneously a few days ago, I'm sure I'll go again before the exhibition moves on. For one, I've promised an old friend to see the show with her. And who knows when I'll have a chance to visit The Hague again?

I bought a second postcard at the de Young on Friday, to mount on the wall of my cubicle at work.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Eureka! Boy led horse to San Francisco's de Young Museum!
Portraiture and history: Masters of Venice at the de Young Museum
Picasso from Paris at the de Young Museum

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image of Fabritius' The Goldfinch. Thanks to the British Museum for use of the image of Rembrandt's etching The Shell, © Trustees of the British Museum.