Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Intermission Music + The Demopublicans

Favorite IntermissionsIt's been a while since I've been to hear a live music performance, but one thing I love about them, especially ones involving live instruments, is the tuning and practicing that occurs before performances and during intermissions. I'd never thought that anyone might record these musical interludes, but someone has: a Seattle-based "sound artist" and musician named Christopher DeLaurenti. According to X's article in today's New York Times, for 7 years diLaurenti secretly taped intermissions with his digital audio recorder carefully rigged in a heavily miked, black leather vest, sometimes risking getting caught, and often annoying his girlfriend. He's recently issued a CD of the edited pieces, called Favorite Intermissions: Music Before and Between Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Holst, and several of the .mp3 snippets on the Times site, like his "Holst, Hitherto," resemble late 20th century to comtemporary avant-garde compositions with a bit more ambient sound, especially an added din of voices, in accompaniment; the Times writer notes that the recording falls in the conceptual tradition of which John Cage is an avatar, and as I listened to the Holst piece in particular, I thought of Cage, Ives, Feldman, and many other composers for whom such pieces might seemed to be conceptual templates. (I'd love to hear a complete orchestral piece along these lines.) In this particular piece, the glockenspiel's intermittent melodies play like a recurring motif, a scrap of memory or thought, amist the crowd noise, with sometimes distinct voices, and the various percussive instruments--especially the booming bass drum.

Although nearly all orchestras have rules banning photographs and recordings during performances, DeLaurenti's CD has so far avoided litigation, and met with indifference and bemusement from some major management figures in the American symphony world. Mark Volpe of the Boston Symphony Opera suggested that the musicians probably didn't consider the intermission music proprietary, while a lawyer for orchestral and musicians' unions remarked that DeLaurenti was not taping the music that people were paying for, i.e., the main performances. I love DeLaurenti's concept and the ingenuity he marshalled to pull this off. I also liked the other snippets I heard, and I'm going to check out the complete CD, which is available from GD Stereo, though something tells me that now that it's been highlighted by the Times, the first run of 1,000 is probably gone. There's a lot more examples of DeLaurenti's conceptual, phonographic art on his site,


I realized I could blog each day about some new transgression or multiple ones caused by the Bush adminstration, and also about the persistent timorousness of the Demopublican Party, but then I would probably stop blogging after a weak out of sheer frustration and rage. There is so much to frustrate and provoke rage, like the Democrats' recent capitulation to the President on the war supplemental. I was glad that Barack Obama did not support it, but both of New Jersey's sad sack Demopublican Senators, Bob Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, did. Before the vote, I signed several petitions and wrote to both of these men, as well as my new Congressperson, Albio Sires of West New York, to request that they vote against any bill that stripped away penalty-specific timetables and benchmarks, with scheduled troop reductions. I have not heard from either Menendez (who tends to respond a good month after he's been contacted) or Lautenberg (same), but Sires wrote back yesterday to say that he'd voted against the second amendment to H.R. 2206, U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans' Care, Katrina Recovery and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act, which gave Bush a free pass. I still cannnot grasp why the Democrats caved on this; Bush's overall approval ratings are between 28% and 34%, the worst this late in a term since Richard Nixon's approval ratings before his impeachment (which should be on the Demopublican's agenda, though the Senate and House leadership are dancing around it), and more than one poll has attested to the desire of a strong majority of Americans to impose set benchmarks and begin troop withdrawals, and a bare majority to remove the troops completely. Instead, the Demopublicans keep cowering in fear, and give Bush the extra tether he needs to hang them and the US military and Iraqi people.

I've been thinking a lot about the issue of an abrupt or schedule US troop withdrawal, and I have to say that while I cannot predict what the outcome will be, beyond an increase or worsening of sectarian slaughter, at least temporarily, until Iraq's neighbors, and in particular Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, figure out ways to achieve some sort of political consensus or partitioning, it is clear to me that we should never have gone in there, as I repeated like a mantra back in the fall of 2002, and that the US occupation is not demonstrably improving things beyond lessening some of the slaughter, so the US troops should reploy to the outlying bases, and then be brought home as quickly as possible. As it is, the slaughter, of which we see only a tiny sliver on TV every day, while Reuters reports paragraph after paragraph of carnage, is not going to lessen, escalation or no escalation; in the absence of far more US and coalition troops (say, in the range of 300,000-400,000), particularly ones from Muslim and Arab countries and a functioning, representative Iraqi government, the US troops are what some of them wanted to tell that lying Pollyanna Joe Lieberman they are: sitting targets. Yet Bush and his gang are determined, no matter what the American people feel and say, in the streets, in print, online, in the voting booth, to stay the worst possible course, which, as the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) blueprint laid out, involves hunkering down, death be damned, and maintaining a longterm presence in Iraq, to guard and control the oil facilities and from its now-rising, Vatican-sized new military installation-embassy, manipulate--to disastrous ends, as we've seen so far--Middle East affairs. In a sense, I'm suggesting that even if the Demopublicans had stood up, Bush would have still not budged, but they didn't, and until they do, there is little chance that we'll see any positive changes in Iraq, no matter how many Westerners or US troops are kidnapped, no matter how many US troops are slain or injured (and May 2007's death totals are now the third-highest since the war began), no matter how many Iraqis are displaced, abducted, raped, maimed, murdered, blown to smithereens. Frustration and rage barely capture it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Goodbye, Gotham Book Mart

Another brief post, marking what is truly the end of an epoch.

The Gotham Book Mart has been evicted, its merchandise snapped up by its landlord at auction for $400,000, its new premises to be rented to someone who can pay more.

Why is this a big deal?

The Gotham Book Mart ([Photo via Rollerboogie on Flickr]), in its former home and incarnation, was widely considered one of New York's greatest bookstores. Founded in 1920, it was one of the finest repositories of original and rare literature in the city, and, during the long tenure of former proprietor Frances Steloff, a major haunt for many notable American and foreign writers of the 20th century, and also a cultural pacesetter; the store sold censored and controversial works, even fielding a lawsuit by a ninny who was offended by its sale of Nobel Laureate André Gide's If It Die. (Those were the days--now the ninnies don't even deign to pick up works of imaginative literature any more and get worked up.) Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka in their youth worked there as clerks, but poor Tennessee Williams didn't "last a day."

My friend Eric H. was the first person to take me up there, and after that I always loved going in there because of the pleasant, attentive, knowledgeable staff members, a rarity at bookstores these days, and because I'd often find obscure poetry books--sometimes published 20 or 40 years before--still sitting behind other books (because they practiced double-packing the books!) on the shelves, waiting to be extracted, explored and purchased rather than returned to moulder a publisher's or distributor's warehouse.

Many writers I know, and especially those of previous generations, have a Gotham Book Mart visit story or three. It was one of the City's longtime literary beacons, outlasting many of this larger competitors, like Scribner's, Doubleday, and Brentano, and outliving peers like Eeyore and Shakespeare and Company, only to fall prey the rent monster. (I'd thought the previous move from 47th St. to the 46th St. former S. H. Kraus bookstore digs, which netted the owner, Andreas Brown, $7.2 million, would have have taken care of this, but now New York is so expensive it's not inconceivable that the new owner simply could not keep up.) According to Fine Books Blog

According to reports out of New York, the landlord, who was owed in excess of $500,000 in back rent, bought the contents of Gotham Book Mart this morning with a bid of $400,000 for the entire contents. The rushed sale, held with only two days' public notice, now seems as if it were intended all along to ensure that the landlord would acquire the contents. Inside, the books were arranged in group lots with titles like "wall of books" and in stacks of boxes that were virtually impossible to inspect during the 90 minute pre-sale period. One suspects that this result is what the auctioneer meant when he told me he expected one buyer to take everything.

The landlord, officially 16 East 46 Street Property LLC, but actually real estate developer Edmondo Schwartz and cosmetics billionaire and postcard collector Leonard Lauder, thus acquired the contents for the cost of paying the auctioneer and the city marshal. The rest of the $400,000 bid returns to them as partial payment of the back rent.

The owner had been recovering from his third hernia surgery, and pleaded for a reprieve, to no success. A side note: Leonard Lauder's brother, former Ambassador Ronald Lauder, founded one of the best vanity museums in the country, the Neue Galerie, on New York's Upper East Side, and just last year he spent $135 million on Gustav Klimt's admittedly astonishing portrait of the late socialite Adele Bloch-Bauer. Just do the math....

At any rate, sic transit gloriae urbis....

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day (Poem: Yusef Komunyakaa)

This poem, by a veteran and one of our country's finest contemporary poets, encapsulates for me to a great degree what Memorial Day is really about. From Yusef Komunyakaa's collection Dien Cai Dau:

We Never Know

He danced with tall grass
for a moment, like he was swaying
with a woman. Our gun barrels
glowed white-hot.
When I got to him,
a blue halo
of flies had already claimed him.
I pulled the crumbled photograph
from his fingers.
There's no other way
to say this: I fell in love.
The morning cleared again,
except for a distant mortar
& somewhere choppers taking off.
I slid the wallet into his pocket
& turned him over, so he wouldn't be
kissing the ground.

Copyright © 1988, Yusef Komunyakaa, from Dien Cai Dau (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press), p. 26.

A reflection of a visitor on Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Wall of 50,000 names (from

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Clifton's Lilly Prize Ceremony

Last night, through the kindness of my colleague, poet Reg Gibbons, I was able to attend the Poetry Foundation's ceremony for 2007 Ruth Lilly Prize winner Lucille Clifton. Below are some photos from the event, which was held at the Chicago Arts Club, a swanky downtown Chicago venue I'd never been in before.

Ms. Lucille's reading was a vintage affair, full of her usual humor, self-deprecation, and sly ferociousness, which she wields better than almost anyone I know. She read some of her best known poems (I always hope she'll read a number of the poems from The Book of Light, which was my first introduction to her and one of my favorites), as well as some brand new ones that dealt with stereotypical characters, like Rastus, and the current state of the country. The contrast between the Arts Club crowd--and I'd add the Poetry Foundation officialdom--and the prize recipient provoked a few moments of cognitive dissonance for me, but I was delighted to have been able to attend, and as I told Ms. Lucille, it was both an honor and joy to be there. She certainly made it worthwhile.

Krista Franklin (back to the camera), Tasha Tarpley behind her

Poet Linda Bierds (back to camera) speaking with my former colleague, Christina Pugh, Reg at back

Poetry foundation head John Barr (at right) praising Clifton

Clifton with Poetry editor Christian Wiman

Lucille Clifton with two of her daughters and her granddaughter before the reading

Multigenre author Tasha Tarpley and poet Calvin Forbes

Slovenia poet Aleš Debeljak; his wife, Erica Johnson Debeljak, a fiction writer; and Reg

The prize-winner herself

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Spent + Cicadas Serenade Us + Banksy Revealed + Comedy & the Novel

After finishing marking up the 102nd page of one my undergraduate students' independent study projects today (I have one more undergraduate one, an enthralling 300+-page novel; and two graduate ones, a series of stories and another novel, as well as a thesis project of stories to go before the quarter's over, and have been long finished with the honors projects, all of which have been great projects to supervise, as well as the various application files and other kinds of submissions), I realized I should risk the cliché and admit that my mental prose processing mechanism, or wick, or filament, or whatever the appropriate metaphor is, has basically burned out. Or as Vladimir Sorokin might write: BURNED OUT. I bet there are psychological and cognitive science studies on how much the average person can read in a given period, and I think I am usually exceeding whatever the outermost limit is. This evening I tried to pick up Alain Mabanckou's African Psycho and Roberto Bolaño's Savage Detectives, two books I have been reading for and with great pleasure, and could only make it one paragraph in the former and a few sentences in the latter before I had to put both down. With poetry I can do little better. I read a gorgeous few cascading stanzas of a Robert Duncan poem ("radiance"), and then my eyes started to roll. Even reading anything on the Internet is exhausting. As for my own writing... I just keep reminding myself, the summer is just around the corner.


Once upon a time I was entomologically challenged. When I was younger I really, viscerally disliked most insects, especially roaches, and many arthropods, particularly centipedes. I was fortunate that in the various houses where my extended family lived, roaches were rare. But when they made their appearance, it was if I were plunged into my own personal horror film, and if I didn't scream, it was a miracle. Ants, grasshoppers, praying mantides, earwigs, waterbugs, silverfish, and countless other creatures, especially of the sort that abound in the suburbs, were ever present, and in small numbers I could deal with them. (My brother once had to have a beetle--or was it an earwig--removed from his ear after we'd been to camp and lay in the grass a lot. That stopped me from that bit of leisurely activity for a while.) Wasps and hornets often built hives under the front porch awning, or in the corners of this dilapidated carport that separated the front and back yards at my parents house, and more than once I was stung while cutting the grass. (I regret ever wishing that the too-numerous bees, attracted by the tree nursery that eventually became a park behind my parents house, would be gone.) And i will never forget the experience, during my early teen years, of going downstairs in our suburban home and seeing this cloud of tiny insects all over the washing machine and dryer, and thinking, this looks really bad. I made a guess, and was right: termites! An exterminator or two paid visits, tore out some of the rotten wood, sprayed extensively, and all supposedly was well. I kept swearing that there were still things inhabiting the wood down there, but my parents assured me that, no, the termites were gone. The house is still standing, so I guess they knew what they were talking about. There are all kinds of flying and crawling creatures that slip through the screens in Chicago, or that ply the garden in Jersey City, but in general, none of them bother me at all.

My dislike--fear--of roaches persisted into adulthood, and ended--sorry, C, I have to retell this story--when, one afternoon in Charlottesville, at a Mexican restaurant that was on the famous "Corner," I bit into what I thought was a lemon wedge in my iced tea, and it turned out to be a semi-waterlogged roach, which is to say, dead as an ice cube, but still--a roach. While my impulse probably would have been to leap through the ceiling (and land somewhere in southern Maryland), I calmly set the plastic tea mug down, called the waiter over, and let him know that in fact, I had just bitten into a roach. He was obviously horrified and worried that I might start announcing this fact loudly, but I didn't; I was invited in back to speak with the manager, who apologized profusely and promised me a free meal the next time I returned. Of course I didn't. But from that point onwards, roaches have never bothered me. I had an opportunity to prove this supposition when I stayed with a person I knew who lived in Philadelphia, who had, to put it mildly, a very bad roach problem. In fact, it was so bad that as soon as you turned on the lights, roaches went scrambling in all directions, like a crowd evacuating a burning building. In my youth, such would have been my terror that I would have been forced to tell my host, as politely as I could, that I absolutely had to stay in a hotel (or motel), so as not to put him out, but on this occasion, I calmly elevated all my bags and shoes, made sure none of the blankets touched the floor, and slept without a problem. In the morning, I shook out my clothes, bags and shoes to ensure that I wasn't bringing any unwanted guests back, and that was that. In general, I'm fortunate that, as in the past, I rarely encounter roaches of any sort, in Chicago or Jersey City or anywhere else I happen to be.

As for cicadas, one of those common urban/suburban insects, I'm of two minds. I don't find them terrifying at all, but then I haven't seen one in years. I even invoked one (well, because of a rhyme) in an old, bad poem. But I have recently been reading about and hearing the gleeful descriptions of the imminent cicada swarm--labeled "Cicada-palooza" by one of Chicago's sorry excuses for a newspaper, the Sun-Times--that will soon hit whole portions of the US east of the Mississippi, and I have to admit, I am dreading it. Supposedly these cicadas, as opposed to the annual cicadas, have hibernated underground for 17 years and will emerge in droves (5 billion in Northern Illinois alone!) and cover everything in sight or on site like a quivering, electrified shroud. To ensure their future swarming they emit a series of mating noises that have variously been described as a trill, a muffled foghorn, and loud static. (Audiologo, do you know if anyone is planning to record the cicada's cries?). The males "sing" from dawn until dusk, at 104 to 106 decibels. According to something I read today, a swarm once interrupted a speech by Teddy Roosevelt--who I doubt even flinched--and one Chicagoland ice sculptor is so worried about them that he is declining requests for outdoor marriages, for fear that a cicada-furred sculpture might cause lasting trauma for a poor young couple. Instead of making people want to get in their cars and head for fields of Iowa (which are allegedly cicada-less), the radio and online commentators are giddy about these pests, and some are even describing how they will catch the mature adults and larva, and engage in culinary pursuits. Watching all those contests on Fear Factor and Survivor and countless other shows may have lowered Americans' gastronomic thresholds, but I seriously doubt people are going to be feasting on cicada skewers or cicadas Rockefeller or omelettes à la cicade, despite all the boosters. But then I am more concerned about having to bat these things off my car, or worse, pull them out of my hair. But then again, maybe that would cure my lingering unease about them. A cicada (or 100) in the hair is worth two in the....


Banksy Cut OutEileen wrote in the comments section to let me know that Banksy has been unmasked. (If you don't want to see what he looks like, do not visit the link.) I was hoping that Banksy was really a distributed collective of people, based in Britain and other parts of the world, who operated as anarchic, autonomous cells. Oh well. I agree with one of the commentators on the site above that Banksy remains one of the most exciting artists of the last 10 years, though as the New Yorker article-profile on him exemplified, he's now quite famous and being written about in the likes of the contemporary New Yorker (we're not talking about the Robert Gottlieb-edited New Yorker, which expounded for pages on the likes of Richard Evans Schultes, for example), and collected by the likes of Brad Pitt, among others, so despite his politics, any claim to functioning outside the wretched big-money art system no longer carries any weight. What was it that Marx (and Benjamin and Adorno and Marcuse and Althusser, etc.) said about use value and exchange value?

At right is a cut out from If you click on it, you can get to be your own personal Banksy (see, I knew there was a way to encourage anarchic autonomous art!). Spray can not included.

(Thank you, Eileen!)


Finally, speaking of things I have been trying to read, I came across this article, "Divine Comedy," by Julian Gough, on the dominance of tragedy over comedy in contemporary fiction. He calls modern novels "worthy and dull," but I have to disagree on the latter. Was of his assessment is right: comedy is rarely treated as seriously as tragedy these days (ironic, huh?), whether one's talking about academe or mainstream literary institutions. (And comic poetry is widely considered to be even more beyond the horizon than comic fiction or prose.) Yet in an effort to make his point, he's goes a bit overboard. It's also the case that too much humor, especially of the ironic and satirical sort, loses its edge without the intermittent relief of other modes, especially the tragic, or turns into something supercilious and tart. We were supposedly in the post-ironic age after 9/11, though the people who uttered such pronouncements had obviously forgotten about what was going on in Washington, DC, which has been so tragic it's worthy of treatment in ancient comic form.

Of course he says a lot more, including things that will make no religionist and few people teaching literature and creative writing in the academy very happy, such as:

The literary novel, by accepting the embrace of the universities, has moved inside the establishment and lost contact with what made it vital. It has, as a result, also lost the mass audience enjoyed by Twain and Dickens. The literary novel—born in Cervantes's prison cell, continued in cellars, bars and rented rooms by Dostoevsky, Joyce and Beckett—is now being written from on high. Not the useful height of the gods, with its sharp, gods'-eye view of all human classes, all human folly, but the distancing, merely human height of the ruling elite, just too high up to see what's happening on the street below.

Luckily this situation is self-satirising. Campus authority generates campus comedy. The senior academic novelist is trapped in the small world of the university, cut off from the big world, embodying authority yet still driven to write. In this situation the novel, if it is to live, must turn against the novelist. Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge, writing novels at night, attacked their day-selves, their academic selves, as absurd buffoons whose work was meaningless. And the novelist in them was right.

The university model, any teaching model, of necessity implies that there is a Platonic ideal novel in some other dimension, which has all the characteristics that make for novelness and that the more of these attributes a novel has, the more like a perfect novel it is. This concept works for the tragic, it works for the epic, it works (less well, but it works) for the lyric, it does not work for the novel because, as Mikhail Bakhtin has pointed out, the novel is the only post-Aristotelian literary form. It is not bound by classical rules. It is not bound by any rules. The novel is not a genre. The novel is always novel. The novel is always coming into being. The novel cannot be taught, because the novel does not yet exist.

This professionalisation will make poor writers adequate. And will make potentially great writers adequate. Great novelists write for their peers. Poor novelists write for their teachers. If you must please the older generation to pass (a student writing for an older teacher, a teacher writing to secure tenure), you end up with cautious, old-fashioned novels. Worse, the system turns peers into teachers. Destroyed as writers, many are immediately re-employed, teaching creative writing. This is a Ponzi scheme.

The damage this is causing to novel, writer and audience is particularly advanced in America. The last 30 years have seen the effects of turning novel writing into an academic profession with a career path. As they became professional, writers began to write about writers. As they became academicised, writers began to write about writing.

And the language of the American literary novel began to drift away from anything used by human beings anywhere on earth. Thirty years of the feedback loop have led to a kind of generic American literary prose, instantly recognisable, but not as instantly comprehensible. Professions generate private languages designed to keep others out. This is irritating when done by architects. But it is a catastrophe for novelists, and the novel.

Lastly, a series of thesis units, which is your writing time guided by your thesis committee members, will fulfil the required 36 units....

Much of their fiction contains not so much tragedy as mere anxiety. Pushed to look for tragedy in lives that contain none, to generate suffering in order to be proper writers, they force themselves to frown rather than smile; and their work fills with a self-indulgent anxiety that could perhaps best be called "wangst."

He's not talking idly...

After I read Gough's article, I had to ask myself, who was the last comic or satirical writer I taught, and I was able to name several immediately: Donald Barthelme (the inexhaustible), Franz Kafka and Amiri Baraka (who both often straddle the line, edging into the tragic), and Victor Pelevin, and the first and last are consistently among the most popular with my students. In past years I have used comic, satirical and parodic works by a range of writers, from Ishmael Reed to Mikhail Bulgakov to Ben Katchor to Mark Leyner to Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá, though I admit to tending towards the tragic crowd. One of the humor writers I've taught that I most enjoyed learning about and whom students fell in love with was Fran Ross, whose Oreo is one of the masterpieces of 20th century American comic writing. And it was, unfortunately, her only published work. If you haven't read it, run to the bookstore or library, pick it up, and enjoy!

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Bad-Luck Cardinals

They are really awful.
Far worse than last year.

In fact, it's as if they have stopped showing up for games, except to haunt them. Yes, they've been struck by tragedy, caused in part by very poor judgment, and yes, their best pitcher is out with a bum elbow, while the substitutes have reverted to early post-T-ball form in some cases, but still, it's as if they're just collecting a paycheck most of the time.

Those paychecks, though, are in the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, so I guess that would be enough to get you to show up for work no matter what.

Ryan Ludwick, misplaying a ball
(AP Photo/Branimir Kvartuc)

Anthony Reyes, 0-6
(AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

Former MVP Albert Pujols, batting .270 with 7 homers
(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Who is playing well?
These people

Mets (Manager Willy Randolph and outfield Endy Chávez)
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

And these folks

Brewers (Geoff Jenkins and Bill Hall)
(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

And this crew

The Red Sox (Manny Ramírez)
(Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Actually, there are a few other teams struggling, including another team I root for. Its manager and players know they've only got a few innings left before heads start to roll.

The Yankees (A-Rod, beautiful even when frowning)
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Africa's Major Universities in Decline? + Writers' Rooms + Littlemilk on Late 90s NYC + Bellow's Neocon

One of the most depressing things I've read in recent days is this Lydia Polgreen article in the New York Times on the dreadful state of some of Africa's major universities. Now I don't know how accurate it is, because I do know that at least in a few cases outside of South Africa that some of the major African universities are doing okay, but if it comes anywhere near to a reasonable assessment of some other institutions, it bodes ill for the future of many countries there, and Africa's future generations as a whole. Polgreen describes a situation of horribly underfunded, overcrowded institutions whose infrastructures are crumbling and which cannot accommodate the students to crave to attend them. She focuses on Cheikh Anta Diop University, once the University of Dakar, in Senegal, which was build originally to handle 5,000 students but now has a student body of around 60,000, but she also cites similar problems at flagship institutions in Nigeria, such as the University of Ibadan, and Tanzania, like Makerere University. The universities were the among the institutions to suffer the worst from the waves of corruption and neglect that struck many of these countries in the late 1960s and afterwards, and the article suggests that they have not recovered. The result is that students who can gain a university education overseas strive to do so, but for those who cannot, these universities are they best and worst hope. Another issue she notes is that the student unions at some institutions have proved incubation tanks for radicals who seek to challenge the governmental and societal status quo, and while this obviously can have positive effects in certain cases, it also represents possible sources of political and social instability.

One institution I used to be closely affiliated with was seeking to partner with Cheikh Anta Diop University, but I took another job before that potential project came to fruition, so I'm not sure how it turned out. (I believe this institution did develop a program with another university in another sub-Saharan country.) It strikes me that in addition to attaining better and more consistent governmental support where possible (as well as potential corporate support in those cases where foreign corporations are extracting resources from these countries), two small steps to address the situation might be by strengthening (or, in cases where no links already exist, establishing) non-colonialist links with state and private institutions overseas, such as major research universities, small private liberal arts colleges, and historically Black colleges and universities, to foster exchange of scholarship and resources wherever possible, and also generating foreign support both from alumni and from those interested in the necessity of human and intellectual development in these countries. The future not only of these countries, but of the planet, depends upon a drastic change in these institutions' fortunes.


Where writers write is often important. Many articles and books have focused on this topic. As an itinerant writer, I can say that my writing spaces tend to be more internal than one set physical place, which means that I'm always having to find ways to protect and preserve them. The Guardian Online has links to the writing rooms of some important contemporary British writers. Most are neat and well-appointed, which makes me think they're all either very well organized or had a week's notice before the photographer popped around. Hanif Kureishi's room is below; he explains the lovely wallpaper. I'd love to see what books are lining those shelves and tables!

Kureishi's room


A friend of mine who doesn't read blogs--or my blog, though he's fond of one written in Santo Domingo!--was telling me this afternoon about how somnolent, dreary and warzonish so much of Manhattan's 8th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues was looking these days. Once upon a time, it was still a hive of human excitement, and, because of its position as the novelty shoe mecca of the East Coast, was a magnet for people both within and outside the city. (I once heard tell of a Southern scholar who came to spend a few weeks at a university in New York, and, instead of whiling away her free moments in the libraries or taking in the city's hundreds of sights and sites, managed to visit the stores on 8th Street every day and burnt through most of her summer stipend and then some more because of all the gravity-defying, never-seen-before pedal accoutrements she kept coming across and could not deny herself.) He said that he'd heard that the landlords were hoping to evacuate every shop that had made that street unique--which is to say, the shoe capital of the Eastern seaboard, as well as all the head shops, funky clothing stores, and so on--so that the high-end stores which have now colonized most of SoHo, Chelsea, parts of the East Village, and Bleecker Street between Christopher and W 12th could move in, I guess to take advantage of the disposable dollars of all those wealthy nearby undergraduates (though this article suggests that some of them might not have a dime to eat or pay for lodging), or even wealthier people snapping up every piece of surrounding real estate, turning the West Village into a high end arrondissement. Perhaps the only thing that would remain would be the former Whitney Museum, now the New York Studio School, which I doubt is going anywhere. I told my friend that I'd actually taken pictures of the transformed 8th St. and posted them, and that in my non-enabling nostalgic mode I'd bemoaned the changes that were happening, fully aware that New York is always in transition and that things could change rather quickly if the economy hit a serious glitch. It's strange to think of mid-to-late 1990s Manhattan, when some of the trends that have now come to fruition were just beginning, as a minor golden age, but my friend suggested that it was still a special moment in New York time. Of course those were also sometimes very difficult days, especially under the supremacist regime of Rudolph Giuliani, who is again masquerading as a moderate something or other, but there were many things to recommend that era. In particular, I think of how several friends found themselves integral participants in the frenzy around the burgeoning new media culture, which culminated in a few unforgettable, truly remarkable years when those many phantasms we called Silicon Alley companies created jobs and visions of the future that would evaporate as quickly as our national sanity in 2000. One friend did not find another fulltime job for five years, and others rue the disappearance of what proved to be the some of the most exhilarating working experiences they ever had. I've tried to write about it more than once, but with no success. At any rate, I forgot to tell him to read Unbeached Whale's recent entry on this topic, so I'm forwarding the link to him, but sending J's Theater's readers there directly. O youth and halcyon days, oh memories and vanities!


Sometimes it pays to read a book twice, or at least not so quickly (though when on earth does anyone have the time anymore? I surely don't). Several years ago I did read Saul Bellow's late hatchet job novel Ravelstein--or rather I skimmed it from cover to cover--mainly because of the controversy surrounding his fictional depiction of his deceased, conservative friend, the ideologue and pedagogue Allan Bloom. I was curious to see what all the brouhaha was about, and I concluded, as more than one reviewer already had, that the text contained as much acid as honey. I should add that I read the book despite strongly disliking Bellow's racial politics, particularly as expressed in his books from the 1960s on, but nevertheless, I learned more than a few things from that novel, even though it is nowhere near his best work. But I missed one characterization in it, of a figure who has loomed quite large in our recent history, one of the arch-neocons, then only an underling but enough of a presence to imprint himself on Bellow's imaginative canvas. Who am I talking about? From Sarah Baxter's TimesOnline article "Decline and fall of the neocons":

Wolfowitz taught himself Arabic in the 1980s and had a walk-on part in Saul Bellow’s novel Ravelstein as an official in the first Bush White House who was disappointed that Saddam Hussein was left in place at the end of the Gulf war.

His recent downfall is deliciously Bellowesque (or is it Bellovian?), if you think about it.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Quote: João Silvério Trevisan and Mário Miranda

TrevisanJOÃO SILVÉRIO TREVISAN (at right, from Do you think there's a saint who is dedicated to protecting gays?
MARIA APARECIDA (A BABALORIXÁ): Ah, I'll tell you the saint who is dedicated to protecting gays: Oxumaré. Oxumaré is a very well-known saint in the south. Today everyone here [in the northern Brazilian city of Recife] is doing Oxumaré. With Oxumaré you love rainbows, nature. When this saint talks in a man's head he becomes gay: six months a woman, six months a man. So for six months he is love with men, goes and looks for men wherever they might be. And for six months he doesn't care about men, he can even about-face, get a woman or a girlfriend. Now, when Oxumaré falls on a woman's head, she becomes a lesbian, right? She doesn't like men, starts to like women and sometimes gets money from a man to keep a woman. This Oxumaré is the protector of gays.
TREVISAN: Which saint does he correspond to in the Catholic Church?
M. APARECIDA: Our Lady of the Apparition.*

--João Silvério Trevisan and Mário Miranda, a Recife-based Candomblé babalorixá using the name Maria Aparecida (Mary of the Apparition), in "Interview with a Babalorixá," from Perverts in Paradise (London: GMP Publishers Ltd., 1986), p. 179.
*Our Lady of the Apparition (our Our Lady of Aparecida/Our Lady Aparecida), who appeared in 1717 in the form of a dark-brown statuette fished by three fisherman from the Paraíba River, in São Paulo, is also the patron saint of Brazil. Her feast day is October 12, and the shrine is one of the most visited in the world.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Yolanda King RIP + Comey Testimony: High Crimes? + Illinois "Most Average" State

Ah, so now Blogger has an autosave feature again. This is one of the best things they've devised since they revamped Blogger Beta, which I guess is now Blogger (Google). Thank you, Blogger.


I was sorry to hear that Martin Luther King Jr.'s and Coretta Scott King's oldest daughter, Yolanda, suddenly passed away on Tuesday. I had always wanted to see her perform one of her theater pieces, and I can recall the period some years ago when she and Malcolm X's daughter, Atallah Shabazz, were traveling the country striving to pass on the best aspects of legacies of their parents. She had also acted in films during the late 1970s and 1980s.

One of the shocking things to me about her death was how young she was: 51. She was only 12 when her father died, and a few years later, she lost her uncle, and then her grandmother to a deranged man's bullet. So much tragedy. And now, as she was trying to do a great deal of good, she's gone. She was perhaps the most exemplary representative among her siblings of her late father's and mother's aims and achievements.


If you have not watched Tuesday's explosive Senate testimony by former Acting Attorney General James Comey, you must. The transcripts hardly do it justice. What he details is a scenario so bizarre and disturbing that you would think it would have prompted far more high-level Democrats, and even a few Republicans, to begin calling publicly for impeachment. As it is, several of the major mainstream media organs have begun a bit of huffing, with Bush enabler and Washington Post editor Fred Hiatt unironically expressing shock at the previous lack of coverage of the Bush gang's thuggery (calling the wife of the ill Attorney General, and ordering his goons over to the man's hospital room!) and likely crimes, even though the Post more than once has rolled over and played dead for this administration when it wasn't tongue-polishing its (jack)boots.

Dear Mr. Hiatt, have you forgotten your undying enthusiasm for this easily worst administration in the history of the United States?

Nevertheless, you have to wonder, when you have the extremely right-wing Attorney General, the Acting Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General Jack Goldsmith, the director of the FBI Robert Mueller, and other high level officials, Republicans and conservatives all of them, so unnerved they're threatening to resign en masse, something grave was obviously going on. John Ashcroft wouldn't even go along with it, not even on his sickbed!

On top of which, Comey felt the need to ask the FBI Director order his agents not to allow Andrew Card or Alberto Gonzales to throw Comey out of the room, and when Comey went to meet with Card in his White House office, Comey felt so worried that he requested that the Solicitor General of the United States, right-winger Ted Olson, accompany him lest he be alone, witnessless, with Card. Let me state again: we are talking about the Acting Attorney General of the United States and the President's Chief of Staff. The question remains: from October 2001 until March 2004, what on earth was the Bush administration up to with its warrantless wiretapping that it could not follow FISA rules? What had Ashcroft been signing off on that he now realized was grave enough that he could no longer certify it and which Comey absolutely refused to certify? It's clear why Gonzales misled Congress last year to prevent Comey and Ashcroft from testifying, so now the Senate really ought to call in Ashcroft and Mrs. Ashcroft, Mueller, Goldsmith, and anyone else directly involved in these shenanigans, even if it requires a closed-door session, because they must find out exactly what was going on, and act on their findings.

Today, W refused to answer questions reporters asked about Comey's testimony. He was busy acknowledging that his disaster of a war might have brought his pet hamster Tony Blair's popularity down to the single digits, ending his prime ministership. (Or perhaps concerns about the imminent, ignominious departure of the vulpine Paul Wolfowitz were hovering in there among the dust clouds.) Yesterday Tony Snow made light of the testimony. Subpoenas and the threat of impeachment might break the levity, you think?


Okay, here's a question: which state is the best bellwether, in terms of its status as being the "average" US state? By which I mean, which state's various population, economic attributes, social indicators, and so on, make it the "average" US state?

Take a few guesses.

It's in the "Heartland."

It contains one of the nation's largest metropolitan areas, but also a vast region of small towns and rural areas.

You've got it: Illinois. The nation's sixth largest state is also its most "average," according to a new survey by the Associate Press.

The AP ranked each state on how closely it matched national levels on 21 demographic factors, including race, age, income, education, industrial mix, immigration and the share of people living in urban and rural areas. The rankings were then combined to determine the state that best mirrors the country as a whole.

Illinois was followed by Oregon, Michigan, Washington and Delaware.

West Virginia was the least typical state — poorer, whiter, more rural — followed by Mississippi, New Hampshire, Vermont and Kentucky.

Iowa ranked 41st, meaning just nine states and the District of Columbia look less like the country as a whole. South Carolina, which also has an early primary, ranked 24th.

America is becoming more diverse, with minorities topping 100 million for the first time in 2006, according to Census Bureau figures being released today. About one in three Americans was a minority last year, a slight increase.

In 2006, the nation was 67.6 percent white, non-Hispanic; 15 percent Hispanic; 13.4 percent black; 5 percent Asian; 1.5 percent American Indian or native Alaskan; and 0.3 percent Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. The percentages add up to more than 100 in part because some people identify with more than one race and Hispanics can be of any race.

Illinois’ racial composition matches the nation’s better than any other state. Education levels are similar, as is the mix of industry and the percentage of immigrants. Incomes in Illinois are a little higher and the state is more urban the rest of the nation. But the age of the population is very close to the country’s mix of minors, seniors and those 18 to 64.

Something tells me New Jersey was probably in the top 15, though it is the richest state (or one of the richest) alongside Connecticut, is almost completely urban, and has more people of color per capita than most of the rest of the US.

But back to the Illini: I guess that means Illinois's primary should be near the front, no? Because who would that help...


Now, that's about an hour's worth of typing and quick corrections. I'll stop here, though I have countless other things I want to post (about). Back to the endless mass of work-related reading....

IDAHO: International Day Against Homophobia


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Quote: James Laughlin

Volodya [Vladimir Nabokov] is correct. Volya is my abbreviation of that. Of course, I never addressed his nobility as that, but that's the way I thought of him.

Volya was a doll in a very severe, upper-crust Russian way.

I wanted to be his friend, but he didn't want any jejune ninkapoop to be his friend. He wanted big brains such as [Edmund] Wilson and [Harry] Levin to be his friends. It was Levin who put me in touch with him. He had Vera write his terse little letters to me. He would force a smile for me sosometimes but it was a long-ways-away smile. The real smile was still on the flatcar that was transporting his grandfather's carriage and horses across Europe for the summer vacation at Biarritz. He declared that in his Gogol there were three pulls of my leg, but I've never been able to find them--and he wouldn't tell.
--James Laughlin, on Nabokov, in The Way It Wasn't (New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2007), p. 198.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Perseus Kills 2 Presses

Perseus, which was at the center of my post yesterday on the consolidation of the small not-for-profit press distribution business, appears determined to become Contemporary Publishing Enemy #1 with its most recent news: according to today's Philadelphia Enquirer, after acquiring the Avalon Publishing Group, Perseus's book division is shutting down two Avalon imprints, Carroll and Graf and Thunder's Mouth Press; selling another, Counterpoint Books; and laying off 24 employees from Avalon, with another 21 possibly to leave depending "conversations" on available positions.

As with yesterday's post, I have a personal connection to this news. My book with Chris Stackhouse, Seismosis, is distributed by Small Press Distributors, and so far, it has received very good treatment from that distributor. It was a highlighted book last fall, and even made it onto their best-sellers list (which mean essentially that it was selling, as opposed to flying off shelves), and I have not heard of anyone encountering problems when ordering it via SPD, so I'm thankful that it hasn't gotten caught up with any of the distributors who were devoured. With regard to today's news, I have a story in the Carroll & Graf anthology that E. Lynn Harris edited a few years ago, Freedom in This Village, and was pleased to see that they were actively publishing and supporting gay and lesbian writing by people of color. In addition to E. Lynn's book, some of the notable LGBT writers of color on Carroll & Graf's list include Samuel Delany, Cheryl Clarke, Noel Alumit, and Darieck Scott, but they have also published work by major literary and cultural figures like Edward Albee, Felice Picano, Cecil Beaton, and Lev Raphael, and the current list and backlists of nonfiction, history and current affairs books were also significant.

Thunder's Mouth Press has published such authors as Ishmael Reed, Henry Dumas, and John A. Williams, collections of poems by Joy Harjo and Allen Ginsberg, abd biographies of Howling Wolf and Huey Newton. While these authors will sell their work to other presses and other publishers do focus on these topical areas, it's still a shame, and quite disturbing, to consider the immediate and possible long-term effects of Perseus's purchasing rampage. But as I've noted here before, New Press founder and publisher André Schiffrin's The Business of Books spells out the larger history of what's being detailed in these articles, and without a doubt, the consolidations and related crises of American publishing in 1990s and early 2000s were probably worse, not that provide any consolation or answers.

Update: Redbone Press's Lisa Moore granted me permission to post this email she'd sent to Reggie H. conerning the Perseus news:

thanks for this article, Reggie. i know it focuses on
poetry, but it can be applied to any small press. when
i heard that PGW (Publishers Group West) was going
under, i had to hold my breath and wait for the other
shoe to drop. i've been through three distributors
going bankrupt in my short publishing history, and
that was enough. now i've learned that Perseus, which
bought PGW, *and Consortium (a distributor that was
courting me last year), and CDS have been bought by
Perseus, i'm floored.

is Perseus creating a distribution monopoly? and if
so, what's their motive? purely financial? political?
who owns Perseus? i mean, Perseus on Friday announced
they're closing Carroll & Graf and Thunder's Mouth
books, two of Avalon's imprints. Carroll & Graf has
been publishing some of the country's leading gay
literary fiction. they *just* put out Samuel Delany's
new novel, Dark Reflections. and Hex by Darieck Scott.
they published Freedom in This Village. who's going to
publish such work now? Thunder's Mouth just published
last month We Gotta Have It, film criticism by Esther
Iverem, and the Devil and Dave Chappelle, essays by
William Jelani Cobb.

OK, enough of that. i just had to get it out, i guess.
i'm gonna find out who owns Perseus and what they're
up to.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Happy Mothers' Day + Poetry Matters + Get Well, Gilly

Happy Mothers' Day to all the mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, all who serve as motherly guardians, mentors and friends, and to all of you, I say, thank you beyond measure!


How appropriate on Mother's Day to extend a tardy congratulations to poet Lucille Clifton, who received the 2007 Ruth Lilly Prize from the Poetry Foundation. This $100,000 award, was established in 1986 and is one of the most prestigious poetry honors given for a lifetime body of work. Previous recipients include Adrienne Rich, Yusef Komunyakaa, John Ashbery, Maxine Kumin, Charles Wright, and current U. S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall. As I noted in an email to a colleague, Clifton is not only a great poet, but one of the best and most precise and generous teachers, readers and critics of poetry writing that I've ever encountered. Congratulations to her again!


Also, Reggie H. has sent an email link to an article from the Poetry Foundation site on the difficulties of small-press poetry distribution these days. Poet and editor Travis Nichols's article, "If No One Finds My Book Does it Exist?," explores the recent trend of several of the important smaller, for-profit poetry distributors being snapped up--the culprit being the relentless beast called free-market capitalism--by a larger conglomerate, the publisher and now distribution behemoth, Perseus. The acquisition of the smaller distributors forced publishers to make a difficult choice: accept Perseus's terms or, ni some cases, go out of business.

While the verdict remains out, for poets whose small and micro-press books, which I would imagine constitute the majority of poetry books published in the US today, if their works aren't listed with the lone not-for-profit distributor Small Press Distributors (SPD), which the article criticizes for its passive sales approach and curatorial idiosyncrasies, they may find it increasingly difficult not just to sell their books, but even to get them in bookstores and readers' hands. To quote Nichols' article:

The low-risk, low-investment acquisitions of Client Distribution Services, Consortium, and PGW [Publishers Group West] have made Perseus the country’s largest small press distributor. Their website declares them to be an “independent provider of third-party distribution services in North America” with more than 300 small press clients—from the children’s book imprint KO Kids to the erotic Cleis Press—and thousands of new titles each year.

“We’re waiting to see how it plays out,” Wiegers says. “I see few tangible changes, beyond lowered morale among the remaining staff and rep force. What seems clear is that Perseus and CDS have far more on their plates than any one—and maybe even two—sales forces can handle.”

Understaffing and inefficient sales help are, of course, two of the major reasons most presses move from SPD to commercial distributors.

“When I joined Consortium, it felt like a family,” Coffee House Press founder Alan Kornblum told Publisher’s Weekly, “But that’s over. The family feeling is gone. It’s just business now.”

“It’s not the death of poetry,” Amherst Books’ Mark Wooton says of the Perseus consolidation, “but it is the death of a distribution network.”
The article does point to the importance of other kinds of distribution networks, such as hand-to-hand and online marketing, but none of these methods has had the same impact as the for-profit distributors, with their paid sales and marketing staffs. Years ago on-demand publishing seemed to be the brightest future option, and some self-published authors and tiny presses have taken this route, but its time may not yet have really come; as the article notes, one small publisher that tried this route, Tougher Disguises, ended up folding, and the costs may outweigh the benefits, at least for now.


One thing I've been meaning to post about for a while is that blogger Steve Gilliard, co-founder of The News Blog, has been hospitalized for several month with a serious health crisis. The News Blog was one of the early blogs and one of the only ones by a Black blogger to emerge from the DailyKos cluster. Steve was a practicing journalist, I believe, before he began blogging, and The New Blog has primarily featured provocative, left-oriented political entries, as well as posts on a range of other topics that interested him, like cooking and US and military history. (I have to admit, I never tried any of the recipes.) He even found himself under scrutiny by the mainstream media and right wingers for featuring a derisive image of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. I have sometimes quibbled with his analyses (and often bemoaned his rampant spelling and grammatical errors, even as I make my own), but his blog was one I read on a daily basis for a while, and one that I cited or quoted more than once here in J's Theater.

While he's been in the hospital, a range of guest bloggers have been contributing excellent posts, giving the blog a very different character, but also showing the friendship and courtesy that have developed across the Net. According to Gilliard's close friend and fellow co-founder Jen (who always posts in purple), he has taken a turn for the worse after a period of improvement a few weeks ago. If you pray, please do say a prayer for him, and please wish him a swift and complete recovery. While I like the cavalcade that his blog has become, I miss his perspective on events. As the caravan of scandals and the overall rotten picture of Bush's Washington have emerged over the last eight months, viewpoints like his are indispensible.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

In the Garden

I think I have an idea for a new--if not my next--book: long-distance gardening. Or maybe gardening by telepathy or telekinesis. Or maybe not. But so far, despite having to spend more time in Chicago than near the plants I put in the ground a few weeks, they've actually been flourishing. The cool spring weather and persistent rain have obviously had a salutary effect. One of the little plots looked like this a few weeks ago:

At bottom are the brussel sprouts, and above them, several varieties of sage and tomatoes, and at the far end, a mini-cloud of dill.

Here are the brussel sprouts as of today.

And here are some of the tomatoes, and the dill.

In fact all of the plants are growing well, except the fig tree, which is still a little stub.

The azaleas are particularly resplendant right now...

as is the wall of honeysuckle, whose buds are red and not yet the orange they turn when in bloom (they cover what remains of the fence that the builders knocked down to throw up the unsold monstrosity next door; part of its external concrete wall is already showing cracks). In the lower right of this photo are the blackberry bushes, which I pruned and which are already starting to show tiny blackberries, which don't usually mature until the mid-to-late summer.

The strawberries, both the regular ones and the smaller alpine ones, are also growing.

A few years ago, we thought we would start a compost heap. The first season after we created it, the organic material actually decomposed and composted properly and we had a lot of rich soil to plant with. But then after we kept adding leaves, branches and soil, we ended with what started to look like a beaver's dam. Rain, snow, raking and shoveling, nothing could get it to compost properly. So we decided we'd have to clear it out. I was convinced the only living things in it were spiders, worms, slugs, and perhaps a rodent or two (though there are enough cats in the area to ensure we don't have to deal with that).

Well, lo and behold, as C. approached one corner of the heap, a black cat we sometimes see strutting through the yard and up on our back porch darted out, and in the spot from which it had materialized we found a little burrow with three kittens! We still needed to remove the pseudo-beaver dam, so C gingerly lifted the kittens out and we temporarily put them in a box we had in the basement.

Here they are, two little black kittens and a piebald one. They occasionally stirred and cried, but we kept the box in the shade so they'd stay cool. I remembered that a friend's cat had once given birth to a litter in one of her desk drawers, atop papers and those old 5 1/2" computer disks, so I figured a few old clothes and balled up papers would be fine for a little while.

Here're two of the kittens up close. Aren't they beautiful?

When the non-compost heap had been completely cleared out, we placed the box right near the spot where the burrow had been, atop what remained of the compost soil, now dark and available for use. We weren't sure if the mother was coming back, so we called the local Humane Society, who told us to give her until tomorrow, but this afternoon, the mother cat did return, and C actually spotted her in the box. So the kittens should be fine.

I'm always reminded how much more in touch with the natural world we still are in some ways in the very urban Jersey City--like the north side of Chicago, where I've spotted a rabbit and many an opossum--is at moments like this.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Obamaphobia + Sarko Wins

I originally wrote a longish post about what might be termed Obamaphobia, prompted by this Digby entry about Senator Barack Obama (at left, photo by Michael Moore--Keene Sentinel via AP), and naturally Firefox froze and the whole entry vanished. The old Blogger, now consigned to defunct servers somewhere, used to have a restorative button, but Google's version, which temporarily disappeared my blog last year, as some J's Theater readers will recall, does not, or at least I'm not aware of it. I know I should periodically save entries as drafts, or maybe type them out in Word or another program--though the hyperlinks don't transfer properly--before posting, and I have periodically done this, but the usual result is that I don't ever complete those posts!

So perhaps I can reconstruct it at a bit....

I began by pointing out, as Digby does, citing Dave Neiwert, that has had to shut down its comments section on articles about Obama because of the toxic sludge of racism that has burst forth:
Today informed its staff via email that they should no longer enable comments on stories about presidential candidate Barack Obama. The reason for the new policy, according to the email, is that stories about Obama have been attracting too many racist comments.

"It's very simple," Mike Sims, director of News and Operations for, told me. "We have our Rules of Engagement. They prohibit personal attacks, especially racist attacks. Stories about Obama have been problematic, and we won't tolerate it." does sometimes delete comments on an individual basis, but Sims said that was not sufficient in the case of Obama stories due to "the volume and the persistence" of the objectionable comments.

There has been a fierce debate about how news outlets should handle reader comments.'s Jim Brady, whose site, like, does not have the resources to filter comments in advance, told Howard Kurtz that he'd "rather figure out a way to do it better than not to do it at all."

But Post reporter Darryl Fears told Kurtz that comments should be eliminated if they can't be pre-screened for offensiveness.

"If you're an African American and you read about someone being called a porch monkey, that overrides any positive thing that you would read in the comments," he said.
Neiwert, who on his Orcinus blog writes extensively* about the extremist right, anti-Semitism, religious fanaticism, and the entire fetid sociopolitical-ideological constellation in which they all mutually co-exist and cross-pollinate, in fact notes that

It really shouldn't be a surprise, I suppose, that Barack Obama's run for the presidency is bringing out innate racism of so many right-wingers these days. After all, so many of them have had to suppress their Inner Theodore Bilbo for so many years now, it's bound to come squirming out when given the opportunity -- and nothing draws them out like liberal blacks running for political office. Making it the presidency drives them into another sphere altogether.

So far, we have been regaled with the oft-repeated "Hussein" note, the Fox smear of Obama's Muslim background, followed by Limbaugh's astonishing riff on "Barack the Magic Negro". That these reflect a barely concealed racial animus mixed with general white xenophobia should be obvious, and notably, these are all occurring on a national scale, within ostensibly mainstream media sources.

For right-wing audiences, cues like this signal just how far they can take things themselves. So on the public level, the result of this kind of talk is a regular outpouring of old-fashioned racist bile, permission having been granted by leading right-wing voices.
Did someone say Limbaugh? Because he's the broadcaster on whose show the President, Vice President and numerous prominent Republicans have repeatedly appeared over the last eight years, and whose rhetoric has is so blatantly over the top it can't easily be subsumed by diversionary chatter about hip hop and rap's effects or attributed solely to his history of drug abuse:

The Rush Limbaugh radio parody "Barack the Magic Negro" is picking up speed on the Internet with lyrics that mock Sen. Barack Obama's popularity with white voters and portray African-American activist Al Sharpton as sputtering with jealousy of the younger black politician.

Dissemination of the parody, which has been airing on the conservative radio host's show for a few weeks, renews in a new context the contentious American conversation about race in politics and society.

Obama's status as the first African-American with a realistic chance of winning the presidency highlights the ambivalent state of racial tolerance in the country: Even as he attracts massive and adulatory crowds, he also inspires hateful remarks and threats that carry distinct racial undertones.
The controversial parody got its start in March shortly after the Los Angeles Times published a provocative column by a black writer calling Obama the "Magic Negro." The article said Obama fits the prototype of the black cinematic figure who arises to "assuage white guilt over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history."

Columnist David Ehrenstein suggested Obama is running in the public imagination for the office of "Magic Negro"—a kind of benign African-American figure who is there to help and for whom even mild criticisms are waved away "magically."

The term "Magic Negro" in cinematic circles dates to the 1950s.

Not long after Ehrenstein's column was published, Limbaugh began to air "Barack the Magic Negro," sung to the tune of "Puff, the Magic Dragon." The song was familiar to his listeners before critics began to pick up on it in recent days.
But it's not just the right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh, because the mainstream media have repeatedly been laying the stage for the kinds of extremism that have exploded on As I noted back 2 days into the new year

Last month I reported on the mainstream media's nascent campaign against Illinois's junior Democratic US Senator, Barack Obama, one of the presumptive leaders in the 2008 campaign. In addition to members of the media fixating on Obama's Arabic middle name, "Hussein," and joking about how close "Obama," his Luo family name is to "Osama," CNN's Jeff Greenfield compared his style of dress to that of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a right-wing columnist, Debbie Schuessel, in a fit of bizarre pseudo-psychoanalysis, suggested that he might be a Muslim Manchurian candidate. After a series of critical blogabaloos, most, though not all of the offenders apologized or feinted as if they had. But of course it wasn't over. We've got a year and 11 months to go, and Obama's fame and popularity aren't waning, they're waxing.

So it didn't take one day to pass in the New Year before the media, in this case CNN, started up its hijinks again, running the tag line "Where's Obama?" over an image of Al Qaeda's unaccountably still-free leaders Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden during Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room show. As soon as I saw this on DailyKos's site, I fired off an email to CNN's "Situation Room" site, and apparently enough other people did that both anchor Soledad O'Brien and Blitzer himself apologized on air to Obama today.

Jeff Greenfield, Jonathan Alter, and others--not considered "right wing" among the punditocracy--have all participated in this madness (one could draw an analogy, absent the issue of race, with the "mainstream" media's "War Against Gore" during the 2000 campaign). My reading is not simply that these people are racists (at least not consciously so), but that they are invested in a particular narrative and outcome, which is that Hillary Clinton be the nominee (and the misogynistic commentary about her would deserve another entry), which appears to be what the leadership of the Democratic Party, as well as corporate and business interests, and many on the Right, who are convinced that a Republican candidate could defeat her, most want. (This also brings to mind Dr. SWEAT's quotation a while back about the steady, powerful and negative effects of daily non-spectacular racism, which rarely receive much commentary, but which create the conditions and contexts in which more overt and spectacular forms occur.)

I had some other thoughts, but can't recall them now. They led me to link to this pricelessly racist-but-she-doesn't-realize-it post by Washington doyenne Sally Quinn, which articulates what a great deal of the punditocracy are thinking, and which is receiving criticism across the blogosphere:

I was reminded of [her feeling good about herself because she hadn't thought of the "color" of a Bahian professor she met during a Carnaval visit there shortly after Nixon's resignation] the other day watching Barack Obama. I realized that when I look at him, I don't see a person of color. I see a really smart, appealing, thoughtful person. There is something about his manner that seems to demand that he be seen for who he is and not for what color he is.

Of course, Obama has many attractive attributes. He is charismatic and has a youthful exuberance. He is a new face and connects with both young people and key Democratic constituents. But there's something else going on here as well.

Is it possible that Obama's incredible popularity in such a short time is a reflection of that same feeling I had in Bahia? Could it be that Obama makes people feel proud of themselves because they can look beyond the color of his skin? Perhaps some of the many people who are supporting him sense that doing so brings out the better part of their nature.

I recently took another trip, this one around the world, and everywhere I went, all that people wanted to know about was Obama. In every country, when people learned I was American, the questions were the same: Could a black man possibly be elected president of the United States? More important, would Americans actually elect someone like him to represent their country? In almost every case the reaction at the possibility was admiration.

But "she" ("we") doesn't "know who he is," who he surrounds himself with, where he's coming from, so she's quite worried. (His advisors do appear to be known to more than a few in Washington and elsewhere, though not, apparently, to Quinn.) I mean, she doesn't see his color or race or whatever, but then again, he could get into office and appoint the likes of Jesse Jackson Sr. and Al Sharpton to high-level posts, or start issuing laws requiring ebonics, or proclaim a National Day of Collard Greens, Fried Chicken and Cornbread, or, God forbid, have some of those rappers he's been seen with, like Ludacris, performing at a state dinner! And he and the dangerous Democrats might even go so far as to pass a reparations bill that not only hands out encyclopedia-sized packages of $1000 bills to all the clambering Black folks in this country...but they might even start sending them back to Africa! I mean, you just never know, do you? But seriously, the basic question for people like Quinn is, is he too Black?

In another sense, he's in good company, because during the Bill Clinton impeachment hullabaloo, Quinn made clear her utter contempt for the President and his wife, who she denounced for having come from the sticks and simply made a mess of themselves before official Washington. The loathing for the Clintons has hardly dissipated in said quarters, I'm sure, and the very mention of Hillary Clinton's name sends some of these people frothing, just as they remain utterly obsessed with her husband and his success, despite all (their) odds. It's probably fair to say, however, that however much horror the Clintons inspire in the punditocracy, the media, and the GOP, Obama revs it up by several orders of 10. And it's not because of his youth or inexperience....

To end on a different note, in the current New Yorker Larissa MacFarquhar profiles Obama in a piece entitled "The Conciliator." Her view is mixed and full aware of many of the ironies that attend Obama, but positive. One of my favorite quotes from the piece:

In the office reception area, crowds of people milled about, many of them unscheduled; the office had become something of a tourist attraction. Marian Wright Edelman had marshalled a group of faith leaders, parents, and sample sick children to speak with Obama for a minute or two about children’s health. About twenty rotund, middle-aged firefighters arrived and, too many to fit in the office, stood in the hallway, blocking the door. A couple of reporters from the Chicago Tribune—two of several people the paper has assigned to cover the Obama beat full time—waited on the sofa for a delayed interview. (The day had begun with a candidates’ forum sponsored by a builders’ union at which Obama was scheduled to speak after Senator Joseph Biden, and, as a consequence, a winking press aide told the reporters—we all know what happens when you speak after Joe Biden—Obama was going to be late to everything for the rest of the day.) A white father from Winnetka had brought his two sons, the elder of whom, about nine years old, begged to wait as long as it took to spot Obama for even a second. (After an hour, a receptionist suggested that they come back the following morning.) Two teen-age girls—one, from Lake Elmo, Minnesota, carrying a soda, another, wearing pink tights and carrying a frozen yogurt—stopped by, hoping for a photograph with the Senator. A receptionist gave them a black-and-white portrait from a pile she kept at her desk, and the girls squealed in delight. The girl with the soda snapped a few photographs of the reception area and the empty conference room next to it and signed the guest book. “Where are you? No picture?” she wrote, next to more conventional comments (“Good luck Your Sweet,” “My hero!,” “Thank you, you rock!”).

Lynne Duke's article in today's Washington Post also is worth reading. It provides a response to Quinn's piece that doesn't tiptoe around the elephants in the room.

They watch him. They listen to him talk. Is he the kind of person they think he is? The kind of black man? The stakes are oh so high. It's the presidency he's after, the breaking down of a historic barrier. Can he transcend racial divisions? Is it safe to support him? Is he safe from harm while running for president in a nation of such abiding racial tension?

For Sen. Barack Obama's white supporters, this is the dialogue of race, the parsing of perceptions and expectations as they watch their man campaign.

They are people like Katie Lang, 32, a Tampa insurance executive, who has her own simple formula for judging Obama. In a word, it's transcendence. She believes Obama, when it comes to race, rises above the fray.

"Obama speaks to everyone. He doesn't just speak to one race, one group," she says. "He is what is good about this nation."

At a campaign event in Tampa last month, she hung on Obama's every word as he spoke to an adoring crowd packed into the courtyard of the historic Cuban Club of Ybor City. As she listened, race wasn't in the forefront of her mind, she says later. It usually isn't, she says.

"Kind of like, if I could compare him to Tiger Woods. When I look at Tiger Woods, I see the best golfer in the world," she says. "So when I see Barack Obama, I see a strong political candidate. I do not see 'Oh, that's a black man running for president, or African American or multiracial black.' It's not what comes to mind first. What comes to mind first is: great platform, charismatic, good leader, attractive."

If the United States is to elect its first black president, it is white voters like Lang who largely will make that choice. Though much has been made about whether Obama is "black enough" for black voters, perhaps a more relevant question is this: Has the nation's white majority evolved to a point where it can elect a black man as president?

*Neiwert's most recent entry touches upon a group of Alabama militiamen who were planning to launch a "machine-gun attack" against Mexican immigrants....


Monsieur "Action Man," Nicolas Sarkozy, is the new president of France. He defeated his Socialist opponent, Ségolène Royal, by the projected total of 53% to 47%. She swiftly conceded. An estimated 85% of eligible voters cast second-round ballots, the highest since 1981. Sarkozy, the first person of direct immigrant background to become French president, had won the first round and held a distinct lead up until voting began on Saturday, despite inspiring "fear" in nearly half the electorate. Ségo, whose platform and policies drifted hither and thither without coherence, attempted to play on these fears, issuing a last minute warning about possible riots if Sarko were elected, but the call appeared to backfire, as did Ségo's vocal challenges to Sarko in their debate last week. (She was all but called "hysterical" by the French and American press.) The new president, who possesses significant state power, including command of the military and the ability to dissolve the Assembly and call for new elections, will take office May 6, replacing outgoing president Jacques Chirac. Before then, he will be campaigning for his conservative UMP party to control the legislature, and he has promised a dramatic "break" with Chirac's Gaullist policies. His Reaganesque aims include breaking the 35-hour workweek rules and permitting overtime pay, slashing corporate and personal taxes, increasing criminal penalties for various offenses, and streamlining the deportation of immigrants. He has vowed to weaken France's powerful unions and attack "political correctness."

Although Sarko barely campaigned in any of working-class banlieues or cités, which erupted in the summer and fall of 2005, he has interestingly enough proposed affirmative action programs to address the disparate unemployment levels among the Black and Arab French citizens, particularly the young, as well as a controversial Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, whose name has echoes of the pro-Nazi, Vichy period. This was one way that he captured the vote of the far right; another was the adoption of Jean-Marie LePen's infamous "France, love it or leave it" slogan, which fit his previously harsh rhetoric about France and Frenchness. Despite having served for five years in Chirac's government, including as Interior Minister, he paid little price in the final tally. But perhaps it's best to think of his victory in light of the absence of real options from Ségo, who offered glamor and platitudes by the busloads, but no plausible rethinking of France's economic and social policies, nor any sense that she could achieve the policies she had proposed, Sarko's unfortunate victory is not surprising. This election marks the third straight presidential loss for the Socialists, who will yet again engage in self-examination and recrimination. While not failing as badly as in 2002, when the Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin failed to outpoll LePen, forcing millions of left-leaning and leftist voters to support Jacques Chirac, Ségo's showing was still a severe disappointment. Given that she did not have the full support of senior figures in her party, it's questionable whether she will be the party's candidate in 2012.

The Guardian Online describes it thus:

Mr Sarkozy, the right-wing former interior minister, who believes France has shifted firmly right, fought the campaign on a promise of restoring rightwing values - authority, the merit of work, a hardline on law and order and controlled immigration.

Unashamedly courting the far-right, he had promised to be a "protector of the nation" and restore pride in a country suffering "a crisis of confidence", with stagnating economic growth, rising public debt, severe unemployment and social unrest on housing estates.

Promising to turn France into a nation of hardworking homeowners he had offered a rallying call to a "silent majority", the France "that wakes up early".

Doug Ireland notes another important point about Sarko's victory, relating to the progressive traditions that Sarko vowed to "liquidate" in his attack on "the May '68 heritage":

Sarkozy absolutely hates the left -- in part because the Communists burned his aristocratic family's chateau in Hungary (from whence his family emigrated to France) in 1944. And, in a major campaign speech just days before the election, Sarkozy surprisingly devoted 20 minutes of his discourse to a violent denunciation of the May 1968 student-worker revolt (Sarko was only 14 at the time of that rebellion.). The heritage of May '68, Sarko thundered, must be "liquidated." He blamed it for a generalized attitude of "laxisme," for France's having become a country " in which work has no value, in which people think they can do anything they feel like doing, in which people are lazy," and on and on. May '68 was, of course, the fountain of social ferment that led to the sexual revolution, to women's liberation and the legalization of abortion, the gay liberation movement and the eventual repeal of laws criminalizing homosexuality, the relaxation of censorship laws, and a whole series of other cultural changes that opened up a stuffy, paternalistic, arteriosclerotic French society. But May '68 was also a general strike by 11 million French workers that gained union recognition in many factories, higher wages, and that won a reinforcement of the social safety net in an agreement (negotiated on behalf of then-President Georges Pompidou by a young Jacques Chirac) that became known as "les accords de la rue de Grenelle" (the agreement of Grenelle Street). What was unstated in Sarko's anti-May '68 speech was that all that sort of thing, too, must be "liquidated." Dark days are ahead for those who love liberty, equality, and fraternity in France.

The "freedom fries" crowd perhaps will be able to take a new look at their chosen bête noir: Sarko not only made a pilgrimage to meet with W. Bush during the campaign, but made clear during his victory speech that he was reaching out to the United States to renew the two countries' relationship (which has continued, despite the public rancor), and he even received a congratulatory call from W shortly after he was elected. He will thus be a useful replacement for W's longtime lackey Tony Blair, who is set to step down soon, with his likely replacement being the dour and more traditional Labourite Scot Gordon Brown.