Thursday, July 12, 2018

On A Mission From God

This past semester, I took History of Music in the U.S. with Dr. David Cosper at Towson University. For your enjoyment, here is my final argument essay from that course. 

The setting is Maxwell Street, on the near West Side of Chicago, a street long known for its open-air markets and for being the birthplace of Chicago Blues. During the 1930s and 1940s, many black musicians arrived in Chicago from the segregated South and found that their traditional instruments were not loud enough to be heard over the crowd and the street noise. They began to adopt electrically amplified instruments, powered by extension cords provided by local business owners keen on attracting the business of people coming to hear the blues music being played on their street (Smith).

The scene shows an older black man with an electric guitar and a deep, powerful voice, performing with his band for an admiring crowd. Two white men, one tall and one stout, both wearing black suits, black hats, and dark sunglasses, stop and watch for a moment. The tall one says simply, “Yep,” before exchanging a nod with the singer and moving on with his brother into the restaurant behind them.

The white men were Jake and Elwood Blues, the Blues Brothers, played by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the 1980 film of that name. The guitar player leading the street band (billed as the “Maxwell Street Musicians”) was John Lee Hooker, who made his name in the 1950s and 1960s by developing his own style of boogie-woogie rhythm based on the country Delta Blues he grew up with.

The scene consists almost entirely of Hooker’s performance and runs less than 3 minutes within a two and a quarter hour long movie. The dialogue is both minimal and completely unnecessary to the plot of the film, but that moment encapsulates the intended spirit of The Blues Brothers. Aykroyd, whose love of blues music was described as “somewhere between encyclopedic and monomaniacal,” wrote the movie, and introduced the music to Belushi, with whom he created the act (Vanity Fair). It was Aykroyd who said of the blues musicians who inspired him and the clubs that featured them, "I want people to fill their showrooms and bars and buy their records. That's my mission" (Newbart).

Upon its release in 1980, the film met with a now-familiar mix of criticism and enthusiasm. Critics panned some of the excessive and disorganized elements of the plot while praising some of the individual performances. Pauline Kael criticized the casting of Cab Calloway as a janitor, Aretha Franklin as a waitress in a soul food restaurant, and James Brown as a preacher who tears the church apart with his sermonizing and dancing as “some-what patronizing.” And Jim O'Neal, who founded Living Blues magazine in Chicago in 1966, said that while the movie "was one of the factors that contributed to a blues boom" in the 1980s, it also contributed to the “image of blues bands to many people [as] two white guys in hats” (Newbart).

The harshest criticism suggests that the Blues Brothers act is a form of blackface minstrelsy, in which white performers make money by mimicking black people. Adam Gussow, an English graduate student at Princeton University studying post-Civil War American culture contends that the Blues Brothers’ act played up the idea that “blues is good-time party music." Gussow says, "They were responsible for re-creating blues as that. Blues has always been partly good-time party music for the black community -- but that was for the weekend, after a week of working hard under extreme duress” (Knopper).

Defenders of the Blues Brothers tend to argue that Aykroyd’s intentions were to revive the careers of his idols, and they point to the success of the film and albums as evidence that he did so. This defense is difficult to support objectively, at best. Subjectively, Sam Moore, of Sam and Dave, said that the Blues Brothers' chart hit cover version of "Soul Man" did "not a thing" for the original performers. "If anything, believe it or not, it buried us," he said, arguing that people remember the newer version, not the 1967 original (Knopper). And while the film gave John Lee Hooker and Aretha Franklin their first appearances on the big screen, Mike Kappus, Hooker's agent at the time, said Hooker greatly appreciated the high-profile appearance, but "the impact of the movie on his career was almost nonexistent” (Newbart).

Perhaps a better way to frame a defense of the Blues Brothers would be to acknowledge the problematic history of minstrelsy, and to consider the way the individual artists and band members involved in the project were treated, how they felt about their roles, and how their characters were represented in the context of the film. It is also worth considering responses to other projects where prominent white artists hire or feature black artists.

Later in the decade, similar criticism was leveled at Sting when he hired several renowned jazz musicians to play on his first solo album: saxophonist Branford Marsalis, drummer Omar Hakim, bassist Darryl Jones and keyboardist Kenny Kirkland. Marsalis’s brother, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, accused Branford of selling out and called Sting’s project a stain on jazz; and The Village Voice went so far as to dismiss the album as “Sting Sings With Negroes” in its review (Brogan). According to Sting, “The band made a decision to play with me, and it wasn't just because I was paying well. I think these guys are of such personal and musical stature, they wouldn't want to play with me if they didn't think it was worth doing. I don't see them as my back-up band. ...I felt it was a band.” It would seem that despite the criticism, the musicians agreed on that point. In particular, Kenny Kirkland continued to play on Sting albums until his death in 1996, indicating that he appreciated the collaborative spirit of the work.

In that light, The Blues Brothers could probably be viewed as another form of collaboration, and judged according to how the artists involved felt about it. Since the plot of the movie revolves around “getting the band back together,” it is worth noting the pedigree of the musicians in the band. The core of the rhythm section included Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, both alumni of the Stax record company, which was notable for being an integrated company in Memphis during the 1960s, and for producing and promoting black artists. Cropper and Dunn were members of Booker T and the MGs, as well as regular session players during the first half of Stax’s heyday (Maultsby & Burnim, 136). With Matt Murphy on guitar and Willie Hall on drums, the band was racially integrated, and firmly rooted in a Memphis sound, though with the addition of a New York horn section, and arrangements done by Paul Shaffer, the band had a distinctly upbeat, pop sensibility to it. Aykroyd described them as “a Chicago, electrified, urban blues band, fused with the Memphis Stax/Volt movement” (Kenney, 13:06).

With the band in place behind two white frontmen, the project still had plenty of room for more black performers. The four big stars featured with both speaking cameos and musical numbers backed by the Blues Brothers Band were Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin. All four have published autobiographies, as well as having official biographies; it is worth comparing their own thoughts with those of their biographers.

Ray Charles had already published his autobiography the year before the Blues Brothers began filming. His legacy was well-established, and he only briefly referenced the film in the 1992 re-issue of the autobiography. However, his biographer, Michael Lydon, described the 1980s as a low point in which “his invisibility as complete as it would get” (341). The film shoot was an “enjoyable few days” on the South Side of Chicago, in which Aykroyd and Belushi put Charles at ease and romped through his musical number. As the blind proprietor of a music shop who stops a shoplifter with a well-placed pistol round, Ray is portrayed as savvy and in control of his establishment, but generous enough to extend credit to the band so they can pay for their instruments. A fair assessment of the experience might be to say that Charles enjoyed this appearance as important, but considered it a small part of the resurgence of his career that he would stage over the following decade.

James Brown and his biographer agree that his career was also at a low point in 1979 when Brown decided to sue his record company and stage a comeback. Brown concisely stated his opinion about the film and the filmmakers: “People who criticized John and Danny were confused. They didn’t understand that the Blue Brothers were actors pretending to be R&B performers. I know Danny and John themselves weren’t confused about it, and you could tell from the respect they gave the real R&B performers on the movie that they knew what they were doing. They were there for every take I did, and they treated me fantastic” (256).

Brown’s biographer, R.J. Smith, was less generous, quoting Pauline Kael’s line about the casting being “some-what patronizing,” and elaborating that “The script left you wondering if they understood the culture they professed to admire” (328). He also quoted Brown’s bandmates regarding their impressions of the change in their audience that came with the boost from appearing in The Blues Brothers. Trumpet player Hollie Farris noted that “Whites knew who he was, but then they saw him in that movie and decided they wanted to see more of him.” He further commented that “in 1975, it was ninety-nine percent black audiences. And then it started to change, and before you knew it, it was mostly white.” Guitarist Ron Laster joined Brown’s band in 1979, and after playing for a crowd of 54 at New York’s Beacon Theater before the film’s release, he noted that after the film came out, “We would destroy these places because they were so packed, and the girls so close to you. We used to love it, I said love it” (330).

Aretha Franklin was pleased with her role, as were the critics. According to Franklin’s autobiography, she “was relaxed and ready to go. [She] played the part of a loving but agitated wife whose husband is about to abandon her for the Blues Brothers band” (182). Pauline Kael said of Franklin’s performance that “she’s so completely there and so funny as she sings ‘Think’ that she transcends the film’s incompetence.” There was even talk of her being considered for a “Best Supporting Actress” Academy Award nomination (Berg 184).

This talk of an Academy Award may seem far-fetched in the context of a project that is essentially a two-hour Saturday Night Live sketch, but it is worth noting that Franklin’s role seems to call back to one of the original themes of blues music: the woman who is abandoned by her man to fend for herself. Rather than wilting or breaking down, Franklin is shown as strong and able to fend for herself. It is also significant that she is the owner of the restaurant that Matt works in, even if the film’s critics tend to reduce her role there to that of “a waitress” and describe the place as “a greasy coffee shop” or a “hash house.” While it would be wrong to claim that her character breaks with any common stereotypes, the subtexts in the script and her performance combine to present her as a real black woman in a position of relative power and respect in her community. And despite making a firm plea to keep Matt at home with her, she demonstrates both independence and tolerance after he leaves. Later in the film, when the children of the orphanage are deployed by Curtis to hand out signs advertising the show, she rolls her eyes but takes the poster.

Curtis, played by Cab Calloway, is the most interesting character of the four to examine when considering The Blues Brothers as a modern example of “blackface minstrelsy.” From Calloway’s first appearance onscreen, it is clear that Aykroyd is trying to establish some legitimacy for his character by showing Curtis in the same black suit and hat that Jake and Elwood wear. Elwood explicitly says to Curtis that “you and the penguin [the nun who runs the orphanage] are the only family we got, and you’re the only one who was ever good to us” and reminisces about hearing Elmore James records as a kid growing up in the orphanage. It is clear both that Elwood truly reveres his elder influences and that Aykroyd reveres his, and wants to claim their mantle of authenticity.

Calloway, even more so than Ray Charles, had already had a long and storied career. His autobiography was published in 1976, and he described himself as being in “semi-retirement,” stating, “I’m still an active entertainer, but I pick my spots” (244). Calloway had a closer relationship than anyone involved in the Blues Brothers to actual minstrelsy, having originally become a star during the Cotton Club era of the 1920s and 1930s. By 1979, his career had followed the trends to the point that he was performing a disco version of his classic “Minnie the Moocher.” The astounding reception of his classic performance of that song in The Blues Brothers convinced him to abandon the disco version. That success may have had something to do with Calloway’s statement that “The Blues Brothers is the best role I’ve ever had” (Shypton 174).

Yet, as a professional black performer for more than five decades, it is impossible to suggest that Calloway did not recognize the built-in insult of his role in the film. Quoting David Denby in New York Magazine, Calloway’s biography says, “These vaudeville musicals...often featured jazz musicians or black singers and dancers who would never get to star in a movie of their own. ...things haven’t changed that much in 45 years... The great old Cab Calloway...sings “Minnie The Moocher” in white tie and tails, in front of a huge audience, killing time for an impatient crowd while the boys are being chased by the police. Calloway’s smile— the seal of a great entertainer’s joy in giving pleasure— shows up Aykroyd and Belushi’s sullen “cool” for the sophomoric thing it is. Yet what an insulting context for Calloway’s triumph— as a fill-in!” (Shypton 176).

The question this raises is whether Calloway considered what Aykroyd was doing to be respectful or not. Does the fact that he went along with it somehow signify that Calloway considered the project to be one that promoted black artists instead of exploiting them? It may be impossible to say that in an absolute way, but it is certain that Calloway was a pragmatist when it came to race and his career. “I’ve always accepted the fact that I’m Negro. I don’t know anything else. I’ve been kicked in my ass all my life because of it, and, hell, I’ve come through it and become a star. Everybody has got to endure a certain amount of ass kicking to make it. People will step on you as you move along and there’s no way to avoid it. The only difference between a black and a white entertainer is that my ass has been kicked a little more and a lot harder because it’s black.” In the end, whether he was too classy, too kind, or too grateful, Calloway would probably never openly criticize the project--and that says a lot about the perceived power differential between even a beloved black entertainer and the white, mainstream of Hollywood.

Perhaps the best defense of the movie is to compare the black and white characters overall. In general, black people who appear in the movie, whether as characters or extras, are “normal.” They have jobs, they are part of their community, and even when they get pulled into a dance number, they are part of an average, every day, integrated Chicago. Representation of minor characters can be seen in the recurring Chicago police officers with speaking roles who are played by both black and white actors. And as mentioned before, Franklin, Charles, and Calloway are all normal people with real jobs, just trying to get by.

By contrast, it is the white characters who are played for laughs, as silly villains or faceless and violent rubes. The country band that Jake and Elwood hoodwink (The Good Ole Boys) and the Illinois Nazis are played for foils, often coming to violently over-the-top ends. The Blues Brothers themselves are not exactly held up as role models, despite the supposed nobility of their mission. Their interactions with the wealthy (white) patrons of the fancy restaurant are played as a low rent class rebellion against the snooty well-to-do.

It seems clear that Aykroyd and Belushi had the best of intentions, and that they succeeded in creating a platform through which a few of the black artists they admired could--and did--reach a broader audience. None of the criticism leveled at them seems to offer a better way to attempt a project like this that would avoid the problematic history of minstrelsy. But perhaps the best we can hope for is that individuals like Aykroyd will continue to pay the most honest homage possible to their roots and that whether those roots are a black or white cultural treasure, we will recognize them as human treasures.



  • 2013. "Soul Men The Making Of The Blues Brothers." Vanity Fair, January 01. 72. NewsBank, EBSCOhost (accessed April 6, 2018).
  • Bego, Mark, Aretha Franklin: the Queen of Soul, Da Capo Press, 2001. 
  • Belushi, John, and Dan Aykroyd. Briefcase Full of Blues. The Blues Brothers. Atlantic, 1978, CD. 
  • Blues Brothers. Directed by John Landis. Produced by Robert K. Weiss. By Dan Aykroyd and John Landis. Performed by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. United States: Universal Studios, 1980. DVD. 25th Anniversary Edition 
  • Brogan, Daniel. "Branford Marsalis Feels The Zing And The Sting Of Instant Pop." Tribunedigital-chicagotribune. September 05, 1985. Accessed April 06, 2018.
  • Brown, James (1933-2006) with Bruce Tucker, James Brown, the godfather of soul; New York : Thunder’s Mouth Press, c1990. 
  • Calloway, Cab, (1907-1994)  and Bryant Rollins. Of Minnie the Moocher & me; with ill. selected and edited by John Shearer; New York : Crowell, c1976. 
  • Charles, Ray (1930-2004) with David Ritz, Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ own story, Da Capo Press, 1978/1992. 
  • Feather, Leonard. "A Fired-up Branford Marsalis Foresees Fun." Los Angeles Times. December 14, 1986. Accessed April 06, 2018.
  • Franklin, Aretha, with David Ritz. Aretha : from these roots; New York : Villard, c1999. 
  • Kael, Pauline. 1980. "The Blues Brothers." The New Yorker, 1980. 95. Biography in Context, EBSCOhost (accessed April 6, 2018). 
  • KNOPPER, STEVE. 1996. "Impact of "Blues Brothers' debated." The Tampa Tribune, April 03. 6. NewsBank - Archives, EBSCOhost (accessed April 6, 2018). 
  • Lydon, Michael; Ray Charles : man and music, New York : Routledge, 2004. 
  • Making of The Blues Brothers. Directed by Joseph J.M. Kenney. Performed by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. United States: Universal Studios Home Video, 1998. YouTube. February 25, 2017. Accessed April 6, 2018.
  • Maultsby, Portia K., and Mellonee V. Burnim. Issues in African American Music: Power, Gender, Race, Representation. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017. 
  • Newbart, Dave. 2005. "Film fueled interest in Chicago blues scene." Chicago Sun-Times (IL), June 22. 9. NewsBank - Archives, EBSCOhost (accessed April 6, 2018). 
  • Smith, R. J. The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. New York: Gotham Books, 2012. 
  • Shipton, Alyn; Hi-de-ho: the life of Cab Calloway, Oxford [U.K.] ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2010. 
  • Smith, Tom. "A Visit To Maxwell Street." Chicago Blues Guide. Accessed May 12, 2018.
  • " Discography The Dream of the Blue Turtles." Homepage. Accessed April 06, 2018.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Are We Thanos?

Warning: spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War are suffused throughout this post. 

I sat in the theater watching the superheroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe lose their fight against Thanos, and I noticed dozens of parallels to America's political struggles during the rise of Donald Trump. I watched individual characters fail to stop the story's protagonist as he bulled his way toward his goal. I saw the various heroes aligned against him bickering with each other as they tried to muster their opposition; and as the movie ended, I recognized the stunned disbelief on the heroes faces as they either disappeared in a dissolving fog or bled on the ground watching their friends fall.

The reaction from the audience was stunned, as well. None of us could believe that we had just spent two and a half hours watching the villain of the story win. But as I have said many times in the weeks since, Thanos was the protagonist of this movie--it was his story from the beginning. And the seeds of his story were planted as far back as that first post-credit teaser in which he grinned back at us over his shoulder.

Those parallels are numerous. The primary challengers and Democrats who see themselves as heroes were individually knocked down or knocked out. The Hulk hid inside Bruce Banner, leaving the awkward Banner to trip over his own exoskeleton ("Pokemon go-to-the-polls"). There's even a religious-right figure in Ebony Maw, the cadaverous preacher with telekinetic powers. His lines sound like misquoted scripture, meant to lend a veneer of divinity to the deeply evil goals of the Black Order:

"Hear me and rejoice! You have had the privilege of being saved by the Great Titan. You may think this is suffering. No... it is salvation. The universal scales tip toward balance because of your sacrifice. Smile... for even in death, you have become children of Thanos."
―Ebony Maw

After the 2016 U.S. election, I hated reading all of the think pieces urging "the left" to consider listening to the people who elected Thanos... excuse me, I meant POTUS... as if a) everyone opposing him was "on the left" and b) he represented any coherent political philosophy. The reasons I had opposed him as a candidate were never addressed. It seemed not to bother anyone writing these Op-Ed and urging us to "give him a chance" that he had taken every side of every issue, and had only been consistent on the worst and most vile anti-American positions: Build a Wall, Lock Her Up, and Get That Sonofabitch Outa Here.

But after seeing Infinity War, and thinking for several weeks about how the movie echoed my sense of loss and disbelief since the rise of Donald Thanos, Trump... I saw the insight that some of the writers of those many Op-Eds may have intended: we were focused on defeating the Mad Titan, and not paying enough attention to his core idea.
Regarding Mussolini (XKCD #261)

In America, the press and the populace have been guilty of accepting a big lie. The press calls it "balance." It is built out of false equivalence and "whataboutism."

It is this false notion that objectivity in reporting means never calling out a lie as a lie, or condemning bad ideas like racism, segregation, and human rights abuses for what they are. Americans used to be capable of pointing at the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany during World War II and stating unequivocally that those atrocities were evil. Yes, since the rise of the Internet, it has become common for people to overstate the "evil" of ideas they don't like by comparing them to Nazis - thus the coining of "Godwin's Law." But now we have seen prominent Americans who champion the ideas Hitler championed claiming that it is wrong for those of us who oppose their bad ideas to call them what they are.

The insane evil driving Thanos's story was an idea that he stated several times: "There are not enough resources to support everyone, therefore my plan is to acquire ultimate power and kill half of all life in the universe." Americans have bought into that idea, politically; not just the austerity-loving fiscal conservatives, but centrists and moderate progressives, too. "There are not enough resources to take care of everyone, so we have to make tough choices." We've seen this idea placed at the front of discussions about everything from immigration policy, student loans, and economic recovery to healthcare, military spending, and welfare.

But this past week has shown Americans the fruit that grows from planting that seed as we have learned about the human rights atrocities being committed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at our southern border. "There are not enough resources for us to take care of everyone," we say, "and therefore we will take children from their parents and put them in cages."

Attorney General Ebony Maw... excuse me, I meant Jefferson Sessions... cited Romans 13 to justify this evil - apparently ignoring Romans 13:10, "Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law."

The truth is that America has proven that marshaling our resources and using them to do good things is a net benefit to everyone. We literally built up our former enemies up under a Marshall Plan and turned them into two of our biggest trading partners. Meanwhile, the kind of austerity and "common sense" fiscal conservatism that is offered as a counter-balance to those economic policies fail time and again. But people keep making the argument--and keep accepting Thanos's premise that there aren't enough resources, therefore, Atrocity.

We don't have to accept that idea. We should call it out for being untrue. We should point out the flaw in the premise, and resist anyone who tries to harm others in the name of this flimsy and oft-debunked idea.

In the Marvel Universe, we have to wait until next year to see how Thanos will be defeated. That echoes with American politics, as well. We have to live with the unspooling awfulness that we have allowed to take over our government. We have to sit with the rampant corruption, the evil policies, and the chaotic destruction of the peaceful world that our grandparents built out of the ashes of the last world war.

"Oh, but you're just trying to bring down Trump," his supporters will say. "You're just obsessed with hating him, and you think he's Thanos."

No. That's not what I think. I don't think Trump is Thanos. What I do think is that anyone who has bought into a bad idea - "there aren't enough resources, therefore, the 'inferior' must die" or "'Race' is a biological fact, and only our 'race' should survive" - should be kept as far away from the Infinity Gauntlet and its colorful stones as is possible. When the 350 million of us who make up this country allow the worst third of us to wield that power, I worry that we are Thanos.

At some point, it is true that I think we will have to vote to remove Trump from office. That will either happen in the course of the 2020 election or indirectly through an impeachment for one of the many, many crimes that are being uncovered. But like the Avengers discovered, the Mad Titan shouldn't be the focus of our energy: it's the Very Bad Idea driving him and his supporters that we need to fight.

Our world is better off when the people running it are not corrupt. Our world is better off when the people running it are not treating our neighbors like criminals and our criminals like kings.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Year Without a President

In January, I wrote a post warning of the kind of monarchical tendencies Donald Trump had already displayed, and I pointed out that by his own standards Trump's presidency was illegitimate before he took office. Those were superficial comments on my part because aside from his behavior and demeanor (which already should have been enough to disqualify him from the job in the minds of voters), many of the deeper reasons for finding his presidency illegitimate were yet to be revealed.

Few things in this world are ever straightforward and easy to understand. To see the big picture, you have to do some homework. You have to consider several stories that seem unrelated, and which have unfolded since the early 2000s.

Below, I've provided a "reading list" of seven articles and interviews that can give you the outlines of that Big Picture. I trust that you will arrive at your own conclusions, or at least come up with your own questions about what all of this means for our country. For me, the story here is that after the fall of the Iron Curtain, America tried to befriend the former Soviet Union, and did some massive damage to the new Russian Federation in the process. Our captains of (financial) industry swooped in and essentially taught Russia how to rip itself off.

In 2001, President Bill Clinton pardoned a U.S. financier named Mark Rich on his last day in office. Rich had fled the U.S. in 1983 to avoid tax evasion charges, and Clinton's pardon allowed him to return home. If you remember that story from 2001 (as I do), you probably understand that this event was just the tip of an iceberg which came between the U.S. and Russia over the following decade. If you only remember that story because it became part of the 2016 election, you probably wrote it off as a ploy to harm Hillary Clinton's electoral chances. (And her part in this larger story is one of several reasons I have never been eager to vote for her.)

Rich, whose wife had donated nearly half a million dollars to the Clinton Presidential Library fund, was just one of many U.S. businessmen who tried to make money in Russia post-Soviet chaos. When Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, he began a campaign of cleaning up corruption and pointed at the Clinton-era relationship with Boris Yeltsin and the later pardoning of Rich as reasons why the Russian economy at the time was doing so badly.

There is likely a lot for you to learn about Putin and Russia that is crucial to understanding today's headlines, but the way I would put it is this: Putin (and because he tells this story constantly through his state-run media apparatus, the Russian population) believes that the U.S. in general, and the Clintons in particular, humiliated Russia in the 1990s. He was a pragmatic communist before communism fell, and in the decades since, he describes himself as believing in "managed democracy," which I have learned bears a striking resemblance to organized crime. His vision throughout the 2000s was to use the booming oil market to rebuild Russia and to restore it to its rightful place of superiority in the world; and now that they have been rebuilt, to knock the U.S. from its position as the "only remaining Super Power."

In other words: Putin wants to humiliate the U.S. the way Russia was humiliated by the U.S.

Bill Browder's story is key to understanding current events because he was in Russia during Putin's early years, and his company is at the center of several of the stories playing out in the news, now. (His testimony to the U.S. Senate is below, and he has a book out called Red Notice that tells the story in greater detail.) He is the reason the U.S. passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012 - the sanctions bill which Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya tried to discuss with Donald Trump, Jr. - you might remember his famous episode over the summer in which he said she just wanted to talk about "Russian adoptions"? That was because the Russian government barred U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children in retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, and the Russians had apparently not yet figured out that the Trump people were too stupid to know anything about these issues.

But all of this is just the backdrop to the Big Picture. Here are the seven promised links for you to go and start doing your own "homework":
  1. The Vital Questions on Trump and Russia - The Guardian, by Tom McCarthy (30 Oct 2017)
  2. All the Trump Administration Ties to Russia (That We Know About) - Esquire magazine, by Jack Holmes (1 Dec 2017)
  3. Bill Browder's Testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee - The Atlantic, by Rosie Gray (25 July 2017)
  4. Journalist Explains How Panama Papers Opened Up The World's Illicit Money Networks - NPR Fresh Air (transcript + audio) interview with Jacob Bernstein (20 Nov 2017)
  5. Paradise Papers: Offshore Trove Exposes Trump-Russia Links And Piggy Banks Of The Wealthiest 1 Percent - published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (5 Nov 2017)
  6. Journalist Investigating Trump And Russia Says 'Full Picture Is One Of Collusion' - NPR Fresh Air (transcript + audio) interview with Luke Harding of the Guardian (21 Nov 2017)
  7. How Trump Walked Into Putin's Web - Luke Harding, the Guardian (15 Nov 2017)
Now, once you put all of that together, you may have some concerns. I know I do.

But consider that list of people - like Wilbur Ross, and Paul Manafort - whose names appear in multiple places in this Big Picture story. Think about how many top positions in our government the Trump Administration has left unfilled; and then think about how lucky we are that they remain empty. Think about how incompetent those who are in office are, even according to Trump supporters.

In many ways, 2017 has been a year without a president. The man in the office is possibly the least qualified we have seen in living memory and is certainly the least trustworthy to hold the responsibility of the U.S. nuclear arsenal under his control. And whether you interpret these stories to mean that he has been knowingly compromised by Vladimir Putin, or simply that he has been a useful idiot of the Russian president, it is abundantly clear that Moscow is getting what it has long wanted: a weakened and humiliated United States.


Monday, August 14, 2017

Love Is Not For Cowards

This is for my daughter.

My daughter is angry, scared, and disappointed. She is disappointed because in the first U.S. Presidential election she was eligible to vote in, America lost. She is angry because as a young, independent lesbian in a multiracial relationship, she watched as the man who is now the 45th President of the United States ran and won on a platform that overtly targets her, the people she loves, the people she lives with and people she works with.

I am no less angry, scared, or disappointed. I'm disappointed (but not at all surprised) that so many of the people I've spent my career serving and serving with have turned out to be okay with what is happening every week at the highest levels of our government. I'm devastated (but again, not surprised) at how many former friends and family are making excuses for what happened on the street in Charlottesville.

In every way possible, I'm right there with my daughter, fighting through the anxiety and dread, and trying to do what is right; not only for her, because she's my daughter, but for everyone around me. They deserve better than they are getting.

And that's why I have to call something out. My daughter reposted this today, and it is something that I know a lot of her friends and mine are feeling - but it is wrong:

Can we stop the bullshit liberal rhetoric of "love trumps hate" and "post cute puppy pics to spread love instead of hate"? You probably think that prioritizing love makes you better then the nazis and white supremacists that spread hate. But guess what? It is a thinly veiled excuse to be passive in times of injustice. Your silence and deflection is not an act of bravery, but an act of absolute cowardice. You are naive if you believe that "spreading love" will stop LITERAL NAZIS from believing in terrible and violent ideologies.
So, let's just all stop kidding ourselves and take a stand. Not by spreading love, but by taking action.

Here's what's wrong with that:

Love does not equate to weakness.

I do agree that ignoring what is happening and failing to take action is a mistake - cute puppies won't stop the Nazis. But love is far more than cute puppies and vague, dippy happiness. Love is the thing that makes us better than them.

When my son was going through the worst of his issues in elementary and middle school, there were several years where we struggled to work with the school to get his behavior under control. We were fighting to get his diagnosis documented and recognized, and fighting to get him the assistance he required. There were people in our life who told me that the only way to get through to him would be to "beat his ass." They told me I was weak for not doing it, and that I was a fool if I thought medication and coddling would help.

Instead of listening to them, I chose to love him. We pulled him out of that school, and since he had a problem listening to me, his mom did the heavy lifting of going over his lessons and preparing him for high school. I did my best to support her - finding educational shows like Cosmos and Your Inner Fish for her to use to keep him interested in learning, and making sure her uniforms were ironed at night and ready every morning so she could go to bed on time, and get her rest.

When he tested to go back to school for his freshman year, he tested at or well above grade level, even in the subjects he hated most.

Love won. "Beating his ass" would have destroyed him.

The people we are up against now are hoping to spark what they see as a race war. Any violence against them will be used against us - if you can stomach watching Fox News, Breitbart, and the fringe sites that 45 has turned into acceptable mainstream outlets, you can already see that in the way they malign Black Lives Matter and SURJ, and how they're reporting the events in Charlottesville. 

Will we fight them? You can bet on it. But until the moment when we have no choice but to meet violence with violence, we must be patient and use the tools we have: love, law, and patience. We will have to be tougher than they are because love is sometimes a harder tool to use than a weapon.

Love requires character. Love requires you to be for other people, not just against the Nazis. Being against Nazis and Lost Cause Confederates is easy; it's harder to be for the ones in the middle. The ones trying to keep their heads in the sand and pretend that #AllLivesMatter to the Nazis. Those are the ones doing the most damage right now.

But Love insists on being tolerant and forgiving enough that even while someone is hurting you, you can keep a firm hold of their hand.

I know when you're this scared and this angry, what I'm saying sounds insane; but I have lived it. I've only made it through the worst moments of my life because of love and patience. I wouldn't be married to my best friend without both. I wouldn't have the family I have if I had done what so-called Common Sense and my worst instincts had told me to do.

"You probably think that prioritizing love makes you better then the nazis and white supremacists that spread hate." You're goddamned right I think that. Because I am better than them - and so are you. But you're fooling yourself if you think I'm being passive. I'm sure as hell not being silent.

There may come a day when I have to go out in the street and throw things to save my daughter and my family and my neighbors from these awful people, but until that day is here, I will keep taking care of my beautiful general, keep counseling my children, keep encouraging my employees and colleagues to do the right things.

And I vote. Which is something that more people should have done when they saw that the fucking Nazis were supporting the reality show host running roughshod over the "normal" candidates.

I don't know what is just over the horizon for our country, but I am pretty sure that the good and noble outnumber the fascist and bigoted. I know that when the time comes to make a choice, I won't hesitate to finish what my great-great grandparents started in the Civil War and my grandparents tried to finish in World War II. I hope we can finish it with little or no bloodshed.

But until the time comes, don't give up on Love. Love is not for cowards. Love is for the strong, because it is what makes us strong.

Whatever is required of me, Love is what will make me give it.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

"All Things Bright and Beautiful" to my #AtheistEar

One song from our hymnal happened to have a series of books and TV episodes associated with it. I actually never got to watch this particular TV show when I was a kid, because it was aired in a Sunday morning time slot that put it squarely in the middle of our church services.

But I read the living heck out of the books, and while this wasn't the intent of the author, the lessons I took from his stories planted the seeds of skepticism in my brain.

I can't recall whether any of my choral groups performed this version of the hymn or not, but the John Rutter recording seemed the most familiar (and least cheesy) of those I could find on YouTube.

(Lyrics - and music - are available here.)

Songs like this one, which take the sense of wonder we all feel when we look at the world around us, and attribute that wonder to a concept of God are pretty common, across many cultures. The words bugged me when I was younger, because they focused so heavily on the pretty and charming side of nature, while completely ignoring the inherent danger. That seemed creepy and Orwellian to me, even then.

Nature's red in tooth and claw seems to be as apt a thing to attribute to an omnipotent being as each little flow'r that opens or each little bird that sings. And if we were going to give God credit for all of the sweet, pretty, and delightful things in the world He made, shouldn't he also get credit for making the violent, brutal, and dangerous things, too? When I questioned that, I got uncomfortable and tortured answers, which seemed to indicate that my elders were uneasy with the implication that an omnipotent God should also be held to account for what we call "evil."

It would take me about thirty years to process the cognitive dissonance that this produced. For several years during college, I was obsessed with the musical Jesus Christ Superstar in part because the character of Judas does what he does out of a sense of duty. He thinks he is "the good guy" when he goes to the Pharisees to turn Jesus in; and when he realizes that he was manipulated into doing an "evil" deed as part of God's plan, he is devastated:

I know you can't hear me
But I only did what you wanted me to
I'd sell out the nation
For I have been saddled
With the murder of you

God I'll never know
Why you chose me for your crime
Your foul bloody crime
You, you have murdered me

taken from: Jesus Christ Superstar - Judas' Death Lyrics | MetroLyrics 

Considering things from Judas's point of view is not generally approved of by the elders, either, by the way. They will remind you (with no sense of irony whatsoever) that Jesus Christ Superstar is fictional. But if you set aside the interesting puzzle of how much of the Jesus story is literally true, you will notice that they are still attempting to pull that sleight of hand wherein God gets all the credit and glory for everything good. The point of this trick is to shift anything evil - even if it was His idea, and necessary to His plot - onto you.

None of that epic philosophical struggle shows up in James Herriot's very popular books about a Yorkshire veterinarian in the 1930s. Instead, you get a lot of amusing stories that reveal the character of the small towns and farms of the English countryside. Herriot certainly doesn't set out to undermine God, here; in fact, I rather think that he would consider the themes in his stories to revolve around how humans misunderstand nature.

Selecting the lyric of that hymn for his title would indicate that he, too, attributes all of the goodness he sees around him to God. If anything, I think his intent was to bring out the good and the noble side of the subjects of his tales, and show that much of what people consider "evil" is better treated as ignorance or fear of the unknown, and that knowing more gives you the power to do more good. I still embrace that hopeful theme.

The TV series I always wanted to watch...
Among the anecdotes about farting boxers and contrary cattle, the stories that I related to most were those that revolved around Herriot's frustration with the science-denying farmers with their terrible "home remedies." In some of these tales, Herriot would contrast attitudes he ran across through several visits to different farmers.

One might have a calf with an easily treated calcium deficiency, but he would treat it with absurd tinctures and potions to avoid a veterinary bill. That farmer would finally give in and call Dr. Herriot, only to attribute the miraculous recovery to whatever arcane ritual had been performed before the good Doctor's arrival.

Another would call the vet right away only to find a deadly and un-treatable condition that required Herriot to put down a "perfectly good animal."

And then - possibly the worst feeling - there would be a case so difficult and mysterious that even after Dr. Herriot thought he would lose the animal. Yet, when he solved the mystery and miraculously saved the animal, the farmer would shrug, unimpressed, and mumble something like, "That's what ye charge so much for, innit?"

Sharing Herriot's affable frustrations over the years primed me to recognize the human animal's susceptibility to fooling himself. Failing to spot the holes in the stories we tell ourselves is widespread, and it's rare indeed that anyone responds well to having those holes pointed out.

I get why people respond so poorly and unpredictably to having their worldview challenged. I get why they would be suspicious of someone trying to change the way they think. It can be terrifying to realize that the core assumptions you've made about the nature of the universe and the benevolence of the God you worship have some internal inconsistencies. Most people who realize that their myths aren't true are going to recoil in horror.

Some may face the dilemma that fictional Judas faced; a deep sense of guilt for acting in a way they thought was good. Some may feel less noble, and simply double down to save face. And if you're the one pointing out the dangerous flaw that threatens their sense of self, their integrity, their nobility? Well, you're probably going to take the brunt of their reaction.

Don't feel bad - that's just nature demonstrating how wise and wonderful it is.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Ben Folds Five's "Mess" to an #AtheistEar

"And I don't believe in God
So I can't be saved
All alone, as I've learned to be
In this mess I have made."
It's a little bit embarrassing to admit this, but the first time I heard these words, I had to pull my car over to the side of the road and weep.

I remember that sensation of shock. It felt like my organs turned into liquid and drained down into my legs. My arms felt weak, and once I was safely stopped with my hazards on, I turned the music off and sat limply in the driver's seat with my eyes closed until the feeling passed.

Then I played it again.

(Lyrics are available here.)

This happened in England, in 1999. My friend Neil had given me a pirated cassette copy of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner with a hand-written label. I probably still have it, though I bought my own copy as soon as I could locate one. The whole album spoke to me, and I've written about that before. But this song, with this chorus, was like a lightning bolt.

I can point to that moment in my tin-can Mini, pulled over and weeping on the A-10, as the moment when I realized that I didn't believe in God, and hadn't for some time. I still did not publicly acknowledge this until much later.

One good question I've asked myself over the years is why it took so long for me to realize I was not a believer any more. Part of that answer lies in my environment. My family was a strong influence on my beliefs as a child, of course, and after I joined the Air Force in 1994, I was surrounded by people and groups bent on ensuring that I conformed to some broad notion of American Protestantism. They didn't seem phased by the contradictions inherent in insisting that military members follow a Bronze Age pacifist whose central message was "love thy neighbor;" in fact, they didn't seem to care what anyone actually practiced or believed, as long as they "believed in something."

As a kid, I had actually been more of a fire-brand type of believer than most of those in my church and family. They worked hard to curb my more outrageous fundamentalist tendencies, and as I grew up, I began to recognize the worst parts of myself that religion brought out in me. Much of my book (available on Amazon, if you haven't read it!) describes the drawn out process I experienced of recognizing the corrosive influences of my religious faith, and the uncomfortable realization that the Truths I had never questioned didn't hold up to a rational examination.

But despite the slow trajectory of my departure from the faith of my childhood, I was still conditioned to react with disgust and aversion to the idea that I might be an atheist. So, I went along with the confirmation classes required to baptize our first child, and paid lip service to the military leaders who insisted on maintaining my "spiritual fitness." (Strictly speaking, that term came into fashion after I left the service; it was a vague, universal notion while I was in, but mostly nameless.)

Societal pressure from outside was only part of the answer, though. The other part was purely internal. For at least that decade prior to Reinhold Messner's release, I clung to the notion that there had to be something intelligent running the universe. I couldn't figure out what it was or ought to be; I couldn't see it through all of the conflicting descriptions attributed to it by humans. But without it, I felt lost.

Without some kind of God, I realized, I was the only one accountable for myself. And I couldn't handle that.

"All alone, as I've learned to be, in this mess I have made."

The most common reaction a religious person has to discovering that I don't believe in the supernatural is to accuse me of "hating God." Christian theology is built entirely on the idea of salvation: of God taking the responsibility of our "sin" off of our shoulders for us, and they see that as some kind of great gift. They don't understand why anyone would turn down such an amazing gift, much the way someone deeply invested in a multilevel marketing scheme can't understand why anyone would turn down the amazing opportunity they are offering.

What I realized in that car that day was that I couldn't hate something that didn't exist...but I was terrified to accept that there was no Eternal Being out there responsible for my mess. I was scared and angry to face facts.

That heavy moment passed, though, and I realized that without a mystical Savior to push my mistakes onto, I needed to sort out my own mess. Despite what a childhood in Christianity had taught me, I knew better. I knew wishing and believing wouldn't accomplish anything. So after I had spent the previous decade telling myself I was spiritually searching for answers, I spent the following decade owning the answer and fixing my mistakes.

It's a work in progress, clearly. But once you accept the hard truth, you can make progress.

You save yourself. That's how you get saved. But you're not alone; that's why I'm here.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Smoking Gun That Brings Down Trump

Sorry about the clickbaity title, but if I've learned anything from my years spent on social media, it is that reasonable behavior is ignored in favor of the unacceptable. Human nature, I suppose.

But with the inauguration in five days, I felt compelled to address the subject of Trump's illegitimacy as a U.S. President. If you're angry with me for expressing my anger over the election of Donald Trump, I suggest you consider these thoughts:

First: No, he did not win the election - by his own standards.

Before the election, it was well known that Trump had stated (and his fans & surrogates had embellished with suggestions of violence) that if he did not win the election, that said election would be illegitimate. The only way he could lose, he claimed, was if "they stole it" from him. Had the vote been precisely reversed - had Hillary Clinton taken the Electoral College victory while Trump took the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes - Trump supporters claim that they would have taken up arms and taken to the streets.

Since the results did fall the way they fell, however, I have had to accept the Electoral College results. I do this because those are the rules I agreed to by being a citizen of this country, even while knowing that if things had gone the other way, all of the people now gloating and telling people to "get over it" would not have been remotely as gracious in defeat as they insist we should be.

Second: My stance is not a mere "difference of opinion" for you to ignore.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the words "we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal" he expressed an idea that was itself imperfect but which pointed towards the kind of society that we are still trying to build. Progress means ensuring that "all men" includes all people, and that "created equal" means equal treatment under the law. But Jefferson had to call these truths "self-evident" because he and the other American Revolutionaries were trying to create something that had never existed before, and which we are still trying to understand and define.

Our foundation was not actually based on any existing, widely accepted idea. It did not come from any existing tradition or pedigree that people of that time would have recognized. It was a direct and purposeful denial of the tradition of the "divine right of kings." Our democracy aimed from the beginning to place the power over the government into the hands of the people being governed, and not leave it in the hands of a king. And the only way for that founding ideal to be legitimate is for that power to be held and exercised by everyone who is subjected to it.

For me, supporting my country and my fellow citizens requires me to oppose anyone who seeks to take their power away and concentrate it in the hands of a king. I am required by the oath I took at the beginning of my career to oppose enemies "foreign and domestic" who attack that fundamental power.

I don't take that lightly, and I have lost friends over the years because they tried to dismiss what I had to say as a "difference of opinion." And my objection to Donald Trump's presidency is driven by his inattention to foreign enemies (specifically, Russia) as well as his tacit support for domestic enemies (specifically, the KKK and white nationalists using the label "alt-right").

If I have to, as my ancestors did, I will fight in any way I can to defeat those enemies.

Third: I will not throw flowers for Hitler.

For nearly a decade, the rhetoric I have heard from Donald Trump himself, and from people who now support him, has sought to indict Barack Obama's presidency as illegitimate, foreign, and monarchical. One of the friendships I lost during Obama's first term was that of a woman I knew in college who tweeted that the Obamas were behaving like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and that they should meet the same fate at the guillotine. I called her out on that, and she and her husband - a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, no less - attacked me for doing so. Another of the friendships I lost at that time was a colleague who declared me a "traitor" for voting for Obama. He and I did not speak from 2009 until his death a couple of years later.

I don't need friends who act that way.

Now I see a lot of parallels between that 2008 election and 2016, in that the same kind of people - and the president-elect himself - now want to claim a mantle of legitimacy that they tried to deny to a man who actually won his election. These are people who demonstrate daily that they have not read and do not understand our Constitution, even while they spent these past eight years running down a President who taught Constitutional law. I do not claim that President Obama's views and positions were always "right" — I think he made a lot of terrible mistakes regarding executive power and civil liberties — but I do assert that he was qualified to be a President. You might say I consider him qualified to make those mistakes.

But Donald Trump's behavior during his campaign, the policies he espoused, the people he chose to support, and his actions since the election have all proven him to be uniquely unqualified to be President. He has already declared himself to be above the law. He has already ignored foreign interference with our electoral process and demonstrated a pattern of putting his whims and his fortunes ahead of the country's needs. He is so ignorant of the law and of the consequences of his choices, he is unqualified to make the mistakes he is already making.

In short, he has so far behaved exactly like a monarch... and his defense of this behavior has not been to say, "No, I am not a monarch," but instead to say, in essence, "I accused Obama of behaving like a monarch, and you accepted him; so now you have to accept me."

After years of accusing a legitimate, sitting President of being a secret foreigner/sleeper agent and un-American dictator, Trump has demonstrated that he is going to behave like an un-American dictator while actual evidence of foreign manipulation of our media, our electoral process, and our president will be swept under the rug.

Last: Even you don't "agree with" Trump.

Over the course of my adult life, I have engaged in debates of various form and tone with any number of friends, family, and acquaintances. Individually, we share a lot of common ground when it comes to personal morals, integrity, and basic human values. We tend to disagree on "fundamental principles" which we struggle to understand, let alone defend. We are all pretty weak on economics; we all grapple with the philosophical purpose of laws; we have a hard time dealing with identity politics; and we differ on the existence of the supernatural.

I often complain about tribalism, and object to the loss of nuance that follows when we confine ourselves to addressing complex problems with oversimplified political talking points. I hate that many of you consider me to be "a liberal" and yourselves to be "conservatives" when those labels distract us from our commonalities. I regret how often I'm forced to rely on the dumbed-down shorthand of those labels.

Many of my so-called conservative friends and family are actually economic liberals, and their stated values of democratic government, individual liberty, and rule of law make them "liberals" by the standards of global history. But even those areas where you are truly "conservative" in a meaningful sense of that word are areas where Donald Trump promises to violate your values.

Where you and I agree that the economy should not be micro-managed by the government, Donald Trump has promised to personally interfere for the sake of "jobs." He has already claimed to do this several times, and as a conservative, you ought to be vehemently opposed to both his intent and his methods. He distracts from this by decrying "regulation," but again, he has no idea what those regulations are, or what they actually do, and if he fulfills his promises to eliminate them, our food supply, our air, and our water will all be put at risk. Let alone our jobs.

Where you and I agree that our political parties are corrupt and unduly influenced by money, Donald Trump has certainly shown them up. But instead of forcing reform, he has simply paved the way for an amoral "might makes right" form of political discourse. (Not to get side-tracked, but what he has done closely resembles what Vladimir Putin did in Russia during his first election.) His election has assured that those with power will be able to choose their electorate in order to keep power, instead of ensuring that the people have the ability to get rid of leaders who work against their interests.

Where you and I agree on morals, like "love your neighbor" and the Golden Rule, Donald Trump has demonstrated a complete lack of these morals. He is a bully who abuses the law in his business dealings and cheats those who work for him whenever he thinks he can get away with it. He doesn't even conform to the behavioral norms that those of you I disagree with consider desirable. He is an admitted sex offender ("grab 'em by the pussy"), a serial divorcee, a failed socialite and B-list celebrity who embodies all of the things in our society that you consider gross and offensive.

And where you might be piously religious, he is most obviously not. "Two Corinthians"? Even I have more respect for the Bible than that. The fact that I, as an atheist, reject his amorality and his pretense at belief instead of embracing him as some kind hero of non-belief should tell you something disturbing about him. He does not, and will not, represent you or your values.

My hope is that those of you who don't really support any of the things Trump represents will "get over" your distaste for those of us you would rather write off as sore losers, and recognize the peril that we are both in. You need to recognize that this isn't about Hillary anymore; her candidacy is off the table. But we are at a point where any alternative to the danger we are facing would be preferable. We just need a smoking gun to condemn the guilty party.

The smoking gun that will take down Donald Trump is you.

You need to contact your congressional representatives, particularly in the Senate, and let them know that you will not support them if they prop up a monarch and destroy our Constitution. For now, we still have the power to stop this; if we ignore the problem, it may be too late in just a couple of months.

And that is not just my opinion.