Archive for January, 2011

On Democracy And The Islamic World

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, Playthell on politics with tags , , , on January 30, 2011 by playthell

Egyptian Demonstrators and Cops Battling In the Streets


Should the US Government Support the Democracy Movement?

A populist movement for democracy is spreading across the Islamic world and established governments are crumbling from the forces they have unleashed.    It began in Tunisia, where the government was swept away by enraged citizens who turned out into the streets en masse. When the army refused to suppress the popular uprising President Ben Ali was forced to flee the country.  This populist wave of righteous anger rapidly spread to Lebanon, where the militant armed formation Hezbollah has seized power through machinations of the political process.

Even as I write the most powerful of all Arab countries, Egypt, is tottering on the brink of political collapse and President Mubarak’s grasp on power is about as secure as a sinner hanging over hell’s fire by an eyelash come Judgment Day!  The question for Americans is: what should our country do?  Should President Obama come out and unconditionally support the populist movement for democracy?

It is safe to assume that this is the burning question on the minds of all the policy wonks in the State Department and CIA, and President Obama will make his decisions about the direction of American policy after he has digested their intelligence briefs.  Although Mr. Obama is easily the most knowledgeable President on the Middle East that this nation has ever enjoyed…and the most politically enlightened, he still needs advice about how to approach the rapidly deteriorating situation.

The President’s statement in support of the Egyptian people’s right to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with their government, free from coercion by the police powers of the state, is an indication of how seriously he is taking the situation. For many Americans the choice seems simple: the president should throw the full weight of the US government in support of the democratic forces without hesitation – Would that the matter was that simple.

As President of the United States Mr. Obama is tasked with protecting American interests around the world.  Thus the objectives of his foreign policy must seek to secure these interests.  Viewed from this perspective what seems like a simple matter becomes bewilderingly complex.  What are American interests in the Middle East?  Reduced to its simplest terms – stripped of the pious and dangerous prattle about “American Exceptionalism” in which we are destined to spread “Americanism” around the world – the US is fundamentally interested in keeping the oil flowing to the west at relatively cheap prices, and building a defense against the Jihadist movement whose ultimate goal is to explode a nuclear weapon in Manhattan!   They have said as much; I believe them, and the President had better believe it too.

The President’s task is further complicated by the history of America’s uncritical support for the policies of Israel towards the Arabs, which he cannot significantly alter at this point if he wishes to serve another term.  Just read “The Israel Lobby,” by Professors Meirshimer and Walt to understand the forces he is up against. However I am certain that in his second term the President will overhaul US Middle East policy and introduce “The Obama Doctrine,” which will be much fairer and just than anything we have seen from American policy in the Mid-East.  But at present America’s history of always supporting the Israeli government against Arab aspirations, no matter how just, will remain an albatross around the President’s neck and compromise any attempt he makes to play the role of honest broker in the present crisis.


The question then becomes: How should the US go about securing its interests amidst the chaos enveloping the region?  The first thing that our policy makers must do if they are to have any chance of success is to recognize that there is no single policy that can address all the troubles of the region.  The realities on the ground in the three countries in turmoil are quantitatively or qualitatively different. Manwar Muasher, former foreign Minister and deputy Prime Minister of Jordon, had this to say about the Tunisian situation in the Teheran Times:

“The protests were triggered by economic grievances and rising prices, but it’s a mistake to think that the crisis was solely about money—economics alone did not bring people to the streets. The unrest was as much about governance as it was about the economy.  When you look at the slogans used in Tunisia and across the Arab world in recent weeks, few targeted high prices. Rather they accused the government of abandoning its people. There is a high degree of frustration about the lack of good governance, and this is a lesson that must be learned in Tunis and other Arab capitals.”

However Tunisia did not have some of the problems encountered in the other countries, which made their transition of power easier.  For instance the entire population is Sunni Muslim, so there is no sectarian strife based on religious beliefs.  The Islamicist elements in the population, who wish to establish a theocracy and impose Sharia law, have been ruthlessly suppressed; even to the point of cops snatching the Hajeb – or headscarve – from their heads of women walking along the street!

This was all intended to enforce the vision of a secular society envisioned by Habib Bourguiba, who led Tunisia to independence from French colonialism and served as its president for most of the country’s history.  Modeling himself after Kamal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, the first secular Islamic country in history, Hibib cast himself in the role of a modernizing autocrat, not unlike “Peter the Great of Russia”. President Bourguiba understood that the separation of church and state was an essential element in successfully building a modern society.  His successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, was also pledged to maintaining the secular character of Tunisian society.



Lebanon has been described as “A chemical equation not a country” by one of its intellectuals, because of its volatile ethnic and religious mix. It is the most diverse country in the region: Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Protestant Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, and Druze are all represented.  Yet in spite of this mix Lebanon was once the most open and secular country in the Middle East.

Known as “The Paris” of the Mid-East” , Beirut was long a favorite hangout of wealthy Europeans, Asians and Arabs.  Once a part of the Turkish dominated Ottoman Empire, which fell apart after World War I, Lebanon became an independent nation in 1943.  During the middle of the twentieth century Beirut was the intellectual and financial capital of the Arab world.  It was a tolerant society where Christians and Muslims lived side by side in a glittering city on the Mediterranean Sea with a bustling night life of great cafes and nightclubs. This was the milieu that attracted the international tourist trade.

However in 1975 trouble came to this Mid-Eastern paradise.  A civil war broke out all over the country, as the conflicting interest of these diverse groups could not longer  be peacefully negotiated.  Beirut became a divided city, with Muslims in the West and Christians in the East.  The once bustling downtown area became a war zone, a “no man’s land” known as “The Green Zone.”


Beirut Lebanon

“Paris Of The Mid-East


There have been several Lebanese wars since then, including two wars with Israel in 1982 and 2006.  The second war resulted in greatly enhanced power for Hezbollah, which is an armed Shiite organization with close ties to Iran.   Know as “The Army Of God,” Hezbollah began as a service organization working in the slums of Beirut attending to the needs of impoverished and powerless  Shiites, who were and ignored by the Sunni dominated Lebanese government – which only looked out for their own.  Since many believe that the organization was founded by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, an elite military unit, it is not surprising that they have emerged as an effective fighting force.  However they are also a potent force in Lebanese politics.

Thus Hezbollah have been able to elect important officials in both the Parliament and the executive branch of government.  Now they have engineered the downfall of the Sunni Prime minister Saad Hariri,  and replaced him with their choice, Najib Miqati.  The ousted Prime Minister Hariri vowed to stay active as leader of the opposition; he said of his defeat “”What has happened is virtually a coup d’etat, a political coup d’etat.”  This development has smashed the Sunni monopoly on power, shocked the Muslim world, and greatly complicates US policy in the region.

Ready to Rumble!

The Army of God

The US response to this development was voiced by Secretary Of State, Hillary Clinton, when she glumly announced that the Hezbollah “Takeover” of Lebanon would “have a clear impact” on US relations with that country.  The US had cast its fate with Saad Hariri, which leaves us the odd man out.  The fact that the Israelis regard Hezbollah as a “terrorist” organization – and Hezbollah considers themselves in a war of resistance against Israel – means that the Israeli’s are liable to treat a Hezbollah led government in Lebanon with the same hostility as they treat the Hamas government on the West Bank.

This would be a diplomatic disaster for the US, for it could well drag us into yet another armed conflict in the Middle-East.  Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah was quick to deny that the new Prime Minister Najib Migati is a Hezbollah candidate; rather he describes Migati as “a centrist.”  Whatever the truth is in this matter, it is the actions of the army that will determine if this change of power stands.  The US should do nothing to try and meddle in that process; let things take their course and express the will of the people.  Beyond this let the United Nations and the Arab League take the lead in resolving and problems that will arise.


The Explosion In Egypt!

Is righteous anger enough to bring effective change??

The situation in Egypt is the most dangerous of them all.  According to eminent academic authorities on the Region such as Professor Shibley Tel Hami, the Anwar Sadat professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the Saban Center for Mid-East Policy, “This is the largest popular uprising in the recorded history of Egypt. Even the 1952 overthrow of the Monarchy was an orderly affair.”  Indeed, it was the military who deposed the decadent King Farouk with popular support.  But the present situation is a spontaneous mass uprising which seems to be directed by agitators on Facebook and other internet venues, and as I write the situation borders on anarchy.

As the preeminent Arab power, and close ally of the United States, which means they receive hundreds of millions in military aid from the US, Egypt is the most influential Arab Nation.  From the American point of view the Egyptians are critical allies against the Islamic Jihadists as well as an indispensible partner in maintaining Israeli security.  A breakdown of the political system in Egypt would cast American policy in disarray and invite trouble of all sorts.  The most serious of which would be the rise of Muslim Fundamentalists to prominence.  There are armed Jihadist next door in Algeria and Yemen who are steeled in the fires of struggle and trained for trouble.  All they need is an opportunity and an invitation -“Have guns will travel “appears to be their motto – and the chaotic situation in Egypt offers both.

This is the danger that must be weighed against the virtues of an open democracy.   However the young people in Egypt are tired of hearing this rap; they believe it is a smokescreen that seeks to disguise a criminal police state and justify political repression.  “The old argument is that if you open up the system, the Islamists will take control. This provided the ruling parties justification for keeping the system closed and maintaining a tight grip on power. In Tunisia, it was one person who wasn’t affiliated with an Islamist party or part of an armed group who chose to burn himself out of economic frustration. This undermines the old guard’s thinking that the political system needs to remain tightly controlled” Says Manwar Muasher in the Teheran Times.

The well off, who have travelled abroad  and acquired modern taste in politics as well as clothes, are rejecting the old arguments of military autocrats like Mubarak –  Although they have successfully kept the Muslim Fundamentalists at bay for the entire history of modern Egypt.  The young Egyptian cosmopolites want the sort of open democratic government they see in the advanced countries of the West.  However if the Egyptians allowed their citizens to parade around waving guns at raucous political debates, the way they do in the US, there would be open warfare in the streets.  One could even make a credible argument that a liberal democracy in Egypt  just now would be an invitation to disaster,  because the Jihadist will exploit the situation to create havoc.

In assessing this possibility it is helpful to know that Egypt has been led by military strongmen throughout its modern history; which begins with Egypt’s overthrow of British colonialism, indirectly exercised through a puppet king, in 1952.  From the outset there was a struggle for power between the Theocrats and the secular military men.  Abdel Gamel Nasser, who led the independence movement, was an army officer trained at Sandhurst, the elite British military Academy.  He was a modern secular man and a socialist.  These beliefs shaped the way Nasser envisioned the new society, and his view of the modern secular society brought him into direct conflict with Sayyid Quthb, the brilliant Islamic theologian whose voluminous writings provide the theological justification for the modern Islamic Jihad.

Sayyid Guthb In Nasser’s Prison

Theologian of the Jihadist

Sayyid was the quintessential Theocrat, and as leader of the Muslim Brotherhood he was a power to be reckoned with.  Although they began as a religious organization committed to upholding Islamic values in a corrupt society dominated by  a Coptic Christian upper class, secular bureaucrats, etc, they became involved in the anti-colonial struggle.  However, as the old Chinese saying goes: “They were sleeping in the same bed dreaming different dreams.”  Whereas Colonel Nasser was envisioning a secular socialist state, Sayeed was dreaming of restoring the ancient Caliphate and establishing Sharia Law.  Their dreams could hardly have been further apart, and thus they were bound to clash.

The dispute became so rancorous that Muslim fanatics attempted to assassinate Colonel Nasser, who had now become President of the nation.  The Muslim Brotherhood was crushed, and Nasser hung Sayyid!   Unrepentant, Sayyid kissed the gallows before the hangman put the noose around his neck.  He departed this life with the inner peace of a man who is certain that he will awake in the bosom of Allah.  However,  since that day in 1966, there has been a legacy of hatred between the  Theocrats and the military Autocrats that still simmers just beneath the seemingly placid surface of Muslim society. Occasionally,these antagonistic contradictions explode in violence,  It has been ever thus in the modern history of Islam –as I wrote before the Iraq attack; pointing out that Bin Ladin the passionate Theocrat could never have formed an alliance with Sadam Hussein the ultimate Autocrat.( See: ” The Prophetic Commentary on Iraq”) When viewed from this historical perspective, the invasion of Iraq can be seen as not only criminal but self defeating.

As I have argued elsewhere, the smartest move – based on realpolitique rather than mindless ideology – would have been for the US to form an alliance with Sadam Hussein against Bin Ladin and Al Qaeda!   Had the Bushmen done this we would have saved perhaps a trillion and a half dollars and we would long since have had the head of Osama.  This would have thrown Al Qaeda into disarray and ended the narrative of the invincible Bin Laden, who has attacked “The Great Satan,” plunged a spear in his heart, and lived to laugh about it.  It is impossible to calculate the extent to which this has boosted the morale of Jihadists around the globe, and increased recruitment to their ranks.


The Front Line of Defense against the Jihadist!

President Nasser and Fellow Military Strongman Colonel Gadaffi

The protracted war between the Theocrats and the secular Military Autocrats has been so intense over the last 58 years that every ruler of Egypt has been a military strong man, and they had to constantly keep the Muslim militants in check. They outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and kept the Islamists under close surveillance.  Still, Nasser’s Successor Anwar Sadat, another colonel with combat experience, was assassinated by Muslim fundamentalists during a military parade!  With attempts on the life of Nasser by Muslim fanatics, and the successful killing of President Sadat, and periodic outbreaks of deadly violence by Muslim terrorists, it is no wonder that President Mubarak, yet another colonel sworn to maintaining a secular state, has pursued a policy of heavy handed repression of the Islamicist; which has resulted in restrictions on the personal liberties of the citizenry.

This is the root cause of the popular uprising in Egypt.  Yet when we consider the fact that the “Blind Sheik” who is presently serving life in prison for heading a Jihadist “sleeper cell” in the US who conspired to wreak havoc on New York by blowing up the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, is an Egyptian, as well as five of the Hijackers who crashed planes into the World Train Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, and  the fact that Osama Bin Laden’s second in command is an Egyptian doctor, we can see that Egypt remains an incubator of militant Jihadists who are pledged to the destruction of the US and all of our allies in the Middle East.

Hence the argument that in the contemporary Middle East the choice is between the military Autocrats and the Jihadists is all too real!    The question that confronts American policymakers is whether open democratic systems can effectively combat the Jihadists in the Middle East.  The situation in Pakistan Afghanistan and Iraq is supplying some of the answers to this critical question.  Thus far the Jihadists have not been decisively defeated by the new democratically elected governments.  Some will argue that this is because the elections were corrupt.  Well…duh?

What do you expect in societies with no tradition of modern democratic politics, and thus lack the shared values and political institutions that are critical to democratic governance.  I would argue that the growth of the power presently demonstrated by the Jihadists in Pakistan – which threatens to take over a nuclear armed nation – is the direct result of the rejection of military strongman General Musharif, and his replacement by a democratically elected civilian government.  And President Karsi’s hold on power in Afghanistan is so tenuous he seems scared to venture outside of the Presidential palace, without his private american security forces.

In Iraq internecine religious strife has grown so horrible that a devastated Christian community is fleeing the country. These are highly educated people whose skills  the new Iraqi nation is going to need.  There was no religious strife under Sadam Hussein; it remains to be seen if the new civilian government can suppress it.  The American invasion let that terrible Genie out of the bottle, let’s see if the elected politicians applying the rule of civilian law, written under American guidance, can put the Genie back in the bottle and end the rein of destruction it has caused.In view of these frightening realities, can the United States government simply give a green light to these spontaneous popular uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world with no thought to the unintended consequences?

Well, the ideologues shouting from the sidelines with ready made answers to all these complex problems will only lose debating points should events prove them wrong.  But Barack Obama has the fate of nation’s depending upon his decisions.  Hence prudence dictates that he proceed with extreme caution. As the embattled Egyptian President Honsi Mubarak warned the other day, in a cautionary note to all of the Americans who are quick to support the demands of the demonstrators for democracy: “Be careful what you wish for.”  I shall take a closer look at the character and dynamics of the popular uprisings as a transformative movement in my next commentary on this historic development in the Middle East.



Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

January  30, 2011

Civilization Or Barbarism?

Posted in Playthell on politics on January 26, 2011 by playthell


 Striding Toward the Future!


 President Obama Asseses the State Of the Union

  He strode into the Halls of Congress like a bronze warrior.  There was tumultuous applause all around as the President slowly walked down the aisle toward the podium. The congressmen seemed delighted to get a special hello from the President, the ladies kissed him, and others seemed to simply want to touch the hem of his garment. The atmosphere was not unlike that of religious devotees greeting their Guru. 

It looked like it was going to be a good night for the President.  And so it was.  Early on in the speech the Mr. Obama spoke of the murderous attack by a deranged gunman on a Democratic Congresswoman in Arizona. But he was careful not to venture off into a polemic about the need for gun control as many well meaning people wanted.  I am certain that in his heart of hearts the President wanted to tackle the issue too.  How could it be otherwise when his home town is leading the nation in gun homicides?

Yet it was a wise political choice to play past the issue and live to fight another day, because gun control is one of the most divisive issues in America.  Talk of gun control in this speech would play into the fears of the gun nuts – which are carefully cultivated by Rush, Glenn and the other right wing verbal arsonists who use the mass media to incite racist hysteria in the untutored mob.  The Republican politicians have joined in with the well financed National Rifle Association in a Faustian Bargain to make any discussion of gun control taboo.

Questions about the nation’s future, what must be done so our kids can compete with the best in the world, etc would have been overshadowed by rancorous polemics about guns, and esoteric highly dubious constitutional interpretations of the Second Amendment. Instead President Oboma skillfully used the horrendous shootings in Arizona, which claimed several lives, as a vehicle to quickly move to higher ground.  It set the tone for his speech, which turned out to be a marvel of statesmanship.

There had been much speculation among the pundits about what the speech would address.  Given the rancorous rhetoric that has become the stock in trade of Republicans, and the uncivil atmosphere it has created, one wondered what the President could say that would appeal to both sides of the aisle. For although they had decided to sit side by side in a show of Congressional solidarity, in recognition of their colleague who lies in a hospital nursing a gunshot wound through the head, the distance between them may prove insurmountable.

The answer to our questions about the content and intent of the President’s speech came quickly as Mr. Obama staked out his territory. In essence the President’s speech, and the two Republican responses by Congresspersons Jack Ryan and Michel Bachman, presented the American people with a choice between civilization and barbarism.  The President’s vision for America is both progressive and humane.  Like his political ancestor Abraham Lincoln, another tall lanky guy who rose from the Illinois legislature to become President, Mr. Obama appealed to “the better angels of our nature.”

Concentrating his discussion on what must be done to move America forward, to remain a bastion of innovation and technical leader of the world, the president offered the American people a vision of how a better, more humane, society can be built upon the solid foundation of the best American values.  In an oration that combined poetic language and scientific analysis, faithful to the facts of history, and delivered with spellbinding eloquence, Mr. Obama painted a general blueprint of what a civilized society looks like in the 21st century.

 If Charles Darwin was right, that nature is red of tooth and claw and only the strong survives, what distinguishes the jungle from human society? What is the essential difference between civilization and barbarism?  The first task of a civilized society is to reject “survival of the fittest” as a guiding principle; to organize our society so that we help those who are unfit to become fit not only to survive…but flourish; with a real chance of becoming the best that they can be! 

 On the other hand, aside from being by turns boring and hysterical, the vision of America offered up by Paul Ryan and Michelle Bachman was a blueprint for barbarism. It is Social Darwinism disguised as a defense for individual freedom and the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution.  Their diatribes were devoid of poetry, innocent of facts, and morally bankrupt. 

 When all was said and done, the spokespersons for the Grand Obstructionist Party had a simply solution to all of our problems: Cut taxes for the rich, cut spending for the poor…and all our dreams will come true. That’s the long and the short of it: Survival of the fittest. It’s SOS…the same old stuff!  No grandiose rhetoric about personal freedom can obscure the fact that what they proposed is barbarism!  The only virtue to be found in the Republican position is that it leaves no doubt that President Obama’s vision is a civilized alternative.  And the fact that the latest opinion polls show 91% of those who heard the speech agreed with it bodes well for Mr. Obama’s chances.




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

January 26, 2011


On The State Of the Union!

Posted in Playthell on politics with tags , on January 25, 2011 by playthell


 President Obama Reports to Congress: Circa 2011


Tonight President Obama goes before a joint session of Congress and presents his “State Of The Union Address.” This regularly scheduled speech to the American people offers a unique opportunity for the President to present his vision of the condition and prospects of American society.  This oration comes at a time when the nation is beset with myriad troubles and woes. We are in a protracted war with the global Islamic Jihad; yet we are bogged down in two Islamic nation’s where the enemy is only nominally located, while the Jihadists metastasize into a more deadly force with each bomb or drone that goes awry and slaughters innocent Muslims.

At home we are beset with increasing violence from anti-government zealots pushed over the edge by right wing verbal arsonists in the mass media, and a protracted economic crisis that has all of our most learned Doctors of Economics befuddled. No one has a compass that shows a clear path to recovery while millions of unemployed Americans sink into despair as their lives becomes increasingly chaotic. Furthermore the mindless zealots that now dominate the electorate have put a group of ideologues in office that are clearly clueless about what this moment requires of our leaders and threaten to make matters worse. 

Thus far the only thing the Grand Obstructionist Party has been clear about in their ill defined mission is that they intend to dismantle the federal government and gut the entitlements Americans now enjoy.  Thus the first act of the new Republican led Congress is to repeal the recently passed Health Care legislation.  This was a landmark event in the history of health care in the United States; it is an achievement that has eluded presidents of both parties for over a century.

Reduced to its simplest terms it is fair to say that Presidents Obama’s most serious challenge is that he is tasked with governing a land where barbarism and civilization contend for the hearts and minds of the vast untutored and backward mob, whose numbers are such that they are now a powerful force in our political culture. The danger these people represent was clearly demonstrated in the last election.

With empty heads and twisted values they are loose cannons who are a danger to their own interests and therefore a menace to the progress and prosperity of our nation. Their fetish for guns and violent, racist, rhetoric has already driven men to bloody murder for spurious political reasons.  These clowns place the President in a position where he is damned if he does and cursed if he doesn’t.  The issues of semi-automatic and automatic assault weapons are a graphic case in point: Those on the liberal left want them banned – as does the Association Of Police Chiefs. The gun freaks in the National Rifle Association on the other hand targets any politician who advocates gun control for political extinction.

Given the President’s historical erudition and political acumen I am certain he has read the tea leaves correctly. This understanding will exert a powerful influence on the shape of the President’s message. Which, in order to be successful, must be crafted to appeal to the sane elements of the American electorate who are interested in real solutions to the nation’s pressing problems.  And he will make a serious mistake if he does not rely on his impressive record of real accomplishment on behalf of the American people in assessing the State of the Union.





Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New york

January 24, 2011

Arise and Shine!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on January 20, 2011 by playthell

Jean Carn in The Great Kwanza Re-Union Concert

A Musical Happening In The People’s Republic Of Brooklyn

One of the many blessings that come with living in New York City is the opportunity to enjoy cultural happenings that occur nowhere else.  Such was the case with the Kwanza reunion concert of Doug and Jean Carn.  It was like a rendezvous with history, as longtime fans turned out bringing copies of their old records of thirty five years ago for the duo to autograph. It was a homecoming of sorts, because the couple resided in Brooklyn back in the early seventies when they burst on the Jazz scene with a completely original sound.  In an art form like Jazz, where creativity and originality are stressed, it is hard to come up with something really new.  That’s why they rose so quickly in the Darwinian milieu of the New York Jazz world.

The music of Doug and Jean Carne in the early Seventies, when they were man and wife, was heroic.  Combining swinging straight ahead instrumental Jazz with a great singer performing lyrics of incredible spiritual gravitas and poetic beauty, their music could make your spirit dance.  After making three albums – and three children – together Doug and Jean went their separate ways; artistically and personally. While Doug kept swinging straight ahead, Jean branched off into Rhythm and Blues, signing up with the famous production team Gamble & Huff, owners of the hit making Philadelphia International label. Known around the world as “The Sound of Philadelphia, this label dominated Afro-American popular music in the 1970’s.

They did well apart, especially Jean, who had several hit records with Philadelphia International beginning with “Free Love.” This period of her career, the collaboration with Gamble and Huff, has come to define her sound for many fans that only discovered her after she abandoned Jazz for R&B.  Yet to the ears of this crowd neither Doug nor Jean ever reached the artistic heights they achieved together.  It is a verdict this writer shares.  And I had the perfect seat from which to observe Jean’s career change, because I was the leader of her touring band when she was enjoying her first hit ‘Free Love” with Philly International.

Jean and me before a concert at Lincoln Center circa 1975

While most serious instrumentalists think it’s a drag to play behind singers, there are a few exceptions.  The great Jazz Diva Betty Carter comes immediately to mind because she allowed her musicians to play full tilt with a very hard swing.  Indeed, in a penetrating interview about Ms. Carter’s approach to leading the band, conducted by Brooklyn documentarian Fukisha Cumbo, Ms. Carter says she demands that her musicians swing straight ahead!   It’s fun for musicians to play with a singer they love.

This was the case with Jean Carn, she is a first rate musician who can read musical literature as if she were reading the morning newspaper; she has great ears, she is organized and professional, and has a voice of great range and beauty.  We could hardly wait to get on the bandstand each night of the tour because we never knew what sonic gem Jean would treat us to.  The band was as big a fan as the audience.


Doug Carn is a bonefide master musician.  I have known him since he was a little boy, because we both grew up in St. Augustine Florida.  A beautiful little town on the Matanzas Bay with a classic Spanish ambience; St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest city. Doug showed a remarkable gift for music early on.  His mother was an organist and pianist, and she also taught music.  The musical environment Doug grew up in was a rich one.  There were marching bands, a concert band, and a wealth of church music.

Cats playing Jazz too, and everybody who played an instrument wanted to play jazz because of it’s artistic challenges and opportunities to be creative…to reach the point of mastery on an instrument where you could express your personality in the music you played.  The great drummer Max Roach explained it this way: “Charlie Parker once told me that you should master your instrument to the point where it becomes like another part of your body!”  But as a music that requires virtuosity from all players, not everybody realized that ambition, many made their bids but few were chosen. The church music he heard included standard Protestant hymns, modern gospel songs composed by Professor Thomas A. Dorsey and made world famous by Mahalia Jackson, “Negro Spirituals,” and European classical music.  The careful listener can here all of these elements in Doug’s music.

There are also aspects of Doug Carn’s music that reminds me of the music of the great German romantic composer Richard Wagner.  By this I am not implying actual borrowing, imitation, or even conscious influence.  It is in the nature of its esthetic values and spiritual purposes that I find a rapport between these two dramatically different musical genres.  For instance both composers are fond of brass and use horns for dramatic effect.  If you listen to the use of horns in the beginning of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkeries” and Doug Carn’s “Power and Glory” you see the same type of affects: drama, mystery and deep spirituality.  I believe that this essentially heroic sound we hear in the music of these two very different composers is inspired by their similarity of purpose.

The Maestro

Doug Carn: Directing the action at the Keyboards

Both musicians viewed their music as something far beyond mere entertainment, or even a transcendental spiritual experience that is highly esoteric and deeply personal.  Their intention is to create a music that can elevate a nation to its highest potential.  As a young man Wagner was a part of the Revolutionary “Young German Movement” popularly known as the “Forty Eighters,” a movement that sought a freer and more equitable German society but was crushed by the Prussian Army in 1848.

The young Karl Marx was also an activist in that movement; its probably where he got his ideas about “class conflict.”  Doug Carn on the other hand was a child of the black liberation struggle in the American South. He was living under a white supremacist caste system known as “segregation” in St. Augustine, when Dr. King came to town and led historic Freedom marches, which brought Jackie Robinson and other celebrities to town to walk with the local black folks in their quest for freedom.

As the most sensitive antennae in our society, the artists who came of age amid the chaos of those years of joy, pain and hope had their art molded in the fires of struggle.  You can hear it in the cries of poets, the tales of novelist and the the plays of dramatist.   And it is clearly evident in the music of Doug Carn.  For those black students who were fighting to get black studies departments on white university campuses during the early 1970’s – an expression of the black Cultural Revolution that began with the “Black Arts” movement of the 1960’s – the music of Doug and Jean Carn was “the sound of the revolution,” as Kwaku Leon Saunders, the promoter of the annual Jazz in the Gardens concerts in Miami, recalls it.  Kwaku was one of the student activists who helped to establish the W.E.B. DuBois Department at the University Of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1970.

In selecting the band’s musical repertoire, Doug was clear in his purpose: he wanted to use his music as a vehicle for the spiritual elevation and total liberation of African Americans.  In this he and Wagner were cut from the same cloth.  For instance, in spite of his genius at composing instrumental music, Wagner turned to vocal music with lyrics to be certain that he got his exact point across.  Although he was writing musical dramas Wagner disdained the word opera because of it’s Italian origins and the air of frivolity that permeated the opera  scene.   Their purpose was to entertain, and Wagner wanted to inspire and indoctrinate a nation with his ideas of Tuetonic superiority.  Thus he he coined the term  “music/festival/dramas,” to describe his work, which was highbrow agit-prop.

Doug Carn, on the other hand listened to all of the profound instrumental statements in the Jazz canon and decided to translate the messages he heard in the music into words, so that Jean could sing them.  And thus a great lyricist was born.  He also composed original instrumental works and songs with lyrics.  This explains the inspiration behind the esthetic choices Doug made.  Look at the instrumental performances he chose.  Lee Morgan’s “Search for the New Land,” McCoy Tyner’s “Contemplation,” John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and “Naiema,”  Wayne Shorter’s “Infant Eyes,” Bobby Hutcheson’s “Little B’s Poem,”  et al.

The themes that emerge from these compositions celebrate family and children, spiritual reflection and the search for higher truths, the glorification of God’s Love, and a call to nationhood.  The lyrics he wrote to the instrumental performances…sometimes writing out parts of solos, seemed to fit the complex music like they were written together.  Jean’s renditions of these arrangements revealed a spirituality and intellectual complexity that few had heard in the music before, and won new fans for the music – expanding the Jazz audience.

We also find similar themes in Doug’s Original compositions like “Power and Glory,” “Time is Running Out,”  “Fatherhood,”  “Revelation,”  “God Is One,”  “Arise and Shine!”  When this  music and Lyrics are sung by Jean it can electrify an auditorium and touch the souls of the audience.  Thus like fans of Bach or Mozart, those who heard this music in its original incarnation in the early seventies have remained loyal fans for thirty five years!  This was the crowd that made up most of the audience.

Thus it was a love fest; Doug and Jean could do no wrong.  Doug had performed in Brooklyn a few months earlier at Sista’s Place, but it didn’t attract the excitement that this concert did.  This was the great reunion that everyone has been waiting for.  On this gig Doug and Jean were accompanied by a younger group of Jazz virtuosi, propelled by the hard swing of the Carter brothers on bass and drums.  Dwayne Eubanks blew up the house on trumpet and Stacy Dillard bewitched the audience as he manipulated the many keys of his tenor saxophone to create sounds that conjured up strains of Trane.

Doug and Jean were Joined Onstage….

….by some Musicians who were yet unborn when they broke up

From the moment they took the stage the crowd was ampted up.  As they moved through their program the audience was constantly on their feet in ovation after each presentation of the old songs that inspired them in their activist youth, when the revolution seemed well under way and nothing could turn us around!   Coming at the end of the turbulent Sixties, an uncertain time when the reactionaries in the Republican Party under “Dirty Dick” Nixon had sworn to put the brakes on the revolution, forcing us to confront our weakness beside the power of the American government, this music was a healing balm to sooth our souls and steel our spirits for the fight.  That why their fans are the die hard’s that they are.

On this evening all their love and affection was returned in a superb musical offering.  As always the instrumentalists served up the music straight with no chaser.  Doug was all over the piano, as you will see on the video below, setting the pace and keeping order in a musically accomplished ensemble.   And Jean, elegantly gowned and basking in the effusive praise, sang these now classic songs with a lot of soul.  There were noticeable differences from 35 years ago; back then Doug was something of a McCoy Tyner clone on the acoustic piano…now he has found his own style and it is dazzling.

When they first recorded together Jean was only a few years away from her MET audition, and her voice still had that strong operatic power.  Today she shoots for the lower notes, brings it down a notch, and her phrasing reflects the years she has spent on the Rhythm and Blues Circuit, singing with a lot more vibrato and  relying on gospel like melismas to grab the crowd.  While there were a few young people in attendance – including their daughter Jeanie who appears on the cover of Infant Eyes as a toddler but is now a Philadelphia lawyer – it was an old timer’s affair.

For these people the music of Doug and Jean Carn represents a sound portrait of an era.  As Ralph Ellison observed “Music gives resonance to memory!”  And one of the most powerful memories I had on that evening is that this concert was promoted by the same man who promoted the show the first time I saw them perform in 1974: Brother Jitu Weusi, an intrepid promoter who is as much fan as businessman. And for musicians who put musical values first, Jitu is a God send.

Jean In A Magical Moment

The Power and the Glory of great Music!

Double Click to see Doug and Jean in concert


Text by: Playthell Benjamin

Photographs by: Jo Ann Cheatham

*Except for the picture of Playthell and Jean

On Mark Twain, Censors and Revisionism

Posted in Cultural Matters on January 15, 2011 by playthell

The Master Fabulist Chillin On his Porch

Some Reflections on Samuel Clements And His Niggers!

Again we are confronted with a controversy over the liberal use of the epithet “Nigger” in Mark Twains’s novel Huckleberry Finn, an American literary classic.  This time the debate was sparked by the decision of a publisher to remove all 200 references to the word in the text.  In the opinion of many well meaning Americans this was a good thing, but it is also considered a good thing by some Americans with larceny in their hearts and duplicity on their minds.  These are the people who want to rewrite American history in order to obscure the truth about American racism.  A black Harvard Professor even wrote a book called “Nigger,” in which he argues that the prolific use of the epithet by young blacks has robbed it of its value to hurt us emotionally.  I remain unconvinced.

Since I grew up at a time when “Nigger” was an epithet designed to deny our humanity and supply a pseudo-scientific justification for a legal,  albiet immoral, racial caste system I abhor the word.  Thus I will never be able to come to terms with it.  Although I understand that “Nigger” is a versatile term that has different meanings depending upon who is using it, intent and context are the determining factors.

Like the word Fuck, which in its original incarnation was an acronym, ” For unlawful Carnal Knowledge,”  It can be a noun or an adjective; a term of of endearment or a “fighting word.”  For instance “I want to fuck you” or “Fuck you!”  It all depends upon who is using it and why.  A clear example of Twain using the word Nigger in a positive context, was when he was asked what he thought of an operatic performance he had just witnessed at the world renowned Opera House, La Scala, in Italy.  To wit Twain replied in his usual candid manner: “The Europeans can have their Grand Opera, I’d rather see a good nigger show any day!” Just as he had celebrated the American idiom in literature, Twain exalted the original music and dance of America, which he recognized was the creation of black folk.  And that tradition is now the most imitated in the world!

Even understanding the various sides to the argument however, unlike people who argue that it’s cool for rappers and other black youths to use the word, I think the popularity of “Nigger” is a reflection of the collapse of the black family and the absence of intelligent parenting! My children grew up in a hip hop dominated cultural milieu – coming of age in Harlem in the last two decades of the twentieth century -yet I have never heard either of them use the word. That’s no accident; they had intelligent parents who taught them better. This is what parents are supposed to do; it’s called “home training!”

When I have written about this in the past I have met resistance from those who want to argue that one can be a well raised, intelligent, literate Afro-American and still like to use the word Nigger.  Some have even styled the epithet into the words Niggaz, or nigga, as my homie Alexa Birdsong spells it on the Face Book thread where this Commentary originated.  Perhaps, but they are usually sports, poseurs, pretenders to a ghetto cool that they have been convinced is authentic blackness.  Their attitude toward “nigger” is the same class of phenomenon as the thrill that rich square whites get slumming in Harlem bars.  But I think this is a dangerous way to be cool.

I am convinced that the profligate use of “Nigger” gives license to the coarser elements among us – especially the  lumpen proletariat, “Underclass” is the present term of art – who use it anywhere and everywhere and thus encourage others to use it.  But when these other folks call us niggers they ain’t joking!  The tragedy in this is compounded by the fact that many of these young blacks who are calling themselves niggers, and allowing others to call them niggers, are so clueless they can’t tell if the “others” are laughing with them or laughing at them.  This tragedy becomes disastrous when our youths internalize the conception of themselves as niggaz, which is generally synonymous with ignorant, anti-social, violent, thugs!  The sort of niggaz you see in gangsta rap videos.

Even as abundantly gifted and intelligent – though grotesquely confused about the meaning of manhood – as Tupac Shakur was, he died before he ever really had a chance to live trying to be “a real nigger!”  We see the full dimensions of this tragedy in a study conducted by a group of Harvard scholars who inquired into the reasons for the dramatic rise in gun violence among young Cape Verdean men in Boston.  They concluded that the single most important factor in this disaster was the adoption of Tupac’s “Thug Life” values!

A Real Nigga?

Thug Life = Dead Before Thirty!

As to the question at hand, the use of “nigger” in the novels of Mark Twain. I have but this to say. I am viscerally opposed to the arbitrary rewriting of canonical texts. In the hands of a good teacher this text can serve as a great tool for teaching kids about the racist history of this country. This is especially true if they explore who Mark Twain was and his ideas about racial justice. Mark Twain is in my estimation the father of the American novel.

He was the first to write in the American idiom and raise it to the level of art, and he was one of the most caustic critics of American racism and a cynic on the question of “White Supremacy.”   One need only read “The Soliloquy of King Leopold,” one of the most compelling indictments of the crimes of European colonialism in Africa ever written.  When you consider the period in which it was written the work becomes all the more remarkable.

If one were to peruse the essays in the collection “The God Dam Human Race” you will find passionate and informed indictments of American government crimes in annexing the Philippines and insightful comments about the global color bar.  For instance, there is a incident in a cafe in India which causes him to reflect on the similarity in the treatment of Indians in India by the British colonialists, and the treatment of blacks in America.  This realization propts him to critically comment on the global nature of white supremacy and speculate about its eventual and inevitable downfall.   By any objective measure, for a white man who grew up in a slave society Mark Twain was light years ahead of his time. Approached from this perspective his novel can be a powerful teaching tool against racist ideology!

However the present attempt to sanitize Twain’s texts presents us with another danger: It could easily give aid and comfort to those reactionary forces who are attempting to sanitize the horrid history of the American South, even going so far as to rewrite textbooks so that slavery is never mentioned in discussions about the Causes of the Civil War!   Monkeying around with history is a dangerous business, because there are invaluable insights we can gain about the nature of contemporary life in America from a serious objective study of the past! As the Harvard philosopher George Santayana warned: Those who refuse to learn from history are bound to repeat its mistakes!

A Comment On the Question Of Revisionist History

Now, let me say a word in defense of revisionist history. Since most people think the present attempt we are witnessing by southern politicians to direct the rewriting of public school text books in order to sanitize their scandalous past as “revisionist” history, the term is routinely used as a pejorative.   But, like things you’re libel to read in the bible, it ain’t necessarily so.   History is always being revised. That’s because it’s such a vast subject that our knowledge about the past continues to grow as new evidence about what actually happened in the past is uncovered.  Sometimes these new interpretations are the result of the development of new research techniques and rules of evidence.  This is why if you look at any scholarly history book – which is to say historical studies written by professional historians who are published in peer reviewed journals and university presses – the preface to the book will always say “A history,” rather than “The history.”

The reason for this is dictated by the nature of the enterprise. Some people think that history literally means “His Story” and represents nothing more than a book of subjective speculations colored by individual biases. Others think that a history book written by a professional historian is the final word on the subject. Neither conception of historical writing is true.  There was a time in the past when that was true however; there were even historians who thought that they were interpreting the intent of God. The ancient Greek historians wrote about myths as if they were reality and included them in their interpretation of history. American historians have gone through several incarnations. But they have arrived at the present state of the art, which is a scientific approach. By scientific approach I mean that they employ the scientific method; which is based upon a simple proposition. The only way to arrive at the truth is by impartialy weighing the evidence.

Now, this is a complicated subject; I shall attempt to make it simple. When I became a history professor in 1969, the major debate among professional historians was whether writing history was a narrative art or a social science. This was no picayune discussion because the way you defined this discipline would determine both your methods and objectives.  For instance, historians are normally committed to detailed study of a discreet event or period, and they have rigorous rules of evidence. The evidence falls into different categories and are accorded different levels of importance. There is primary, secondary and tertiary evidence for instance. Primary evidence is the most important to the historian trying to reconstruct a narrative of past events. An example of primary evidence are official records like birth, marriage and death certificates.

Personal papers like letters, diaries and unpublished writings. Newspapers are a critical source of primary evidence. Secondary evidence would include letters and diaries of contemporaries, etc. Then there are massive amounts of state papers i.e. government documents and official records of the government. Depending upon the nature of the history one is writing, different kinds of documents are assigned more weight. The careful historian will check and double-check the various sources to see that they support his conclusions.

This is the approach of the traditional historian employing a scientific method, yet views his discipline as essentially a narrative art. That is to say that after they have mined this vast store of evidence they must then turn it into a coherent narrative that takes the reader into the past guided by the learned insights of the historian. This is a very complex discipline, and one of the vices the historian must avoid is the over use of literary devices.

That’s why so much academic historical writing is boring to the non-specialist, and thus they are read mostly by colleagues and students, who are in a state of involuntary servitude and must do the bidding of their professors. Those historians who gain a following outside of academia are the ones who are great writers, like Dr. W.E.B. DuBois for instance. And those who are proclaimed by the masses – like Yosef Ben-Jochannan, John Henrik Clarke and Dr. Leonard Jeffries are not historians at all based on the standards that I have outlined. They are what professional historians call “popularizers,” which are people who popularize the primary research of the historical researchers by teaching their texts to wider audiences than they would normally enjoy.  But none of these men has produced an original historical study.

On the other hand, the finest example of a great historical researcher is the brilliant and prolific Dr. Gerald Horne, the “John and Rebecca Moores” Professor of History at the University Of Houston.   Dr. Horne’s work is unusual in the sense that he writes about societies all over the world, whereas today most historians specialize in a particular period or area of the world.  All of Dr. Hornes works are based on original documentary research and published in peer-reviewed journals and university presses.  Which is the ultimate sanction of a book’s  authority.

Yet there are people who teach history for years but never actually write a study based on original research. Some write important books that synthesize the many scholarly studies into a new interpretation. That’s what I did in my book on Dr. Dubois “Reconsidering the Souls Of Black Folks,” which was written as one of two essays in a dialogue with Stanley Crouch, McArthur Fellow and member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I wrote four fifths of the book and mine was the lead essay. It is an essay in intellectual and cultural history that drew on a wide range of texts to produce a fresh interpretation of that classic American book. This was also an exercise in revisionist history.

Suffice it to say that revisionist history can be a positive or negative thing. When I entered the academy, American historians were engaged in a massive revision of the racist histories that had been written by historians who were committed racist and attempted to rig the historical record to serve their contemporary objectives.  The effort of American historians to revise that racist narrative was a noble quest…one of the professions finest hours!

What we are facing now is something else. The effort to revise the historical record is not led by professional historians, but clueless politicians trying to create a fictional narrative posing as history that will serve their contemporary political objectives!    Professional historians regard this as “special pleading.”  Hence they are not interested in correcting the historical  record, they just want to create propaganda that will be useful in recruiting their red neck cracker constituents. This is dangerous and must be opposed!

The best way to deal with this thorny problem is to leave the writing of history to the professionals, who are motivated by a passionate search for truth, and bound by ironclad rules of evidence.  No courtroom has  more exacting standards!  The politicians who want to substitute propaganda for history in order to achieve short term political ambitions should be drawn, quartered, and fed to the wolves!!!



Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

Janurary 15, 2011

With Malice Toward None

Posted in Playthell on politics with tags , , on January 14, 2011 by playthell

Barack Binds Up The Nation’s Wounds

I have long believed in the power of oratory to calm the raging beast of malice, and lift the spirits of the down trodden.  President Obama demonstrated that power last night when he answered the nations call to eulogize the slain victims of the Arizona assassin.  The memorial also reminded me however: If the orator is an evil fiend that same power can drive men to commit atrocities. While Cicero argued that all true eloquence is to be found in the written word, Adolph Hitler concluded: “It is the spoken word not the written word that drives men to action!”  Der Fuehrer’s mastery of the art of oratory – which he studied and practiced in the mirror for many hours – plunged the entire world into war and cost the lives of 50 million human beings around the globe!

In the Arizona tragedy we are witness to the power of the spoken word to produce both good and evil.  In spite of the attempts to deny it, I continue to believe the toxic climate of hate created by verbal arsonists who spew hysterical rhetoric 24/7 over the airwaves is at the bottom of this atrocity. I think the argument that these rants played no part in the Arizona massacre is nothing more than a case of collective denial and self delusion. President Obama understands the power of words – written and spoken – that’s why he said  Americans must learn how to use words to heal rather than hurt each other.

The President’s speech on this occasion offered a poignant demonstration of what he was talking about; putting his manners where his mouth is.  Every thinking person who understands the potential for disaster in this volatile situation was waiting with bated breath to hear what the President had to say.  There is a swelling chorus among the American public calling for the President to show “more passion” in his public pronouncements.  It remains to be seen if the President’s performance will satisfy their lust for verbal combat.   Alas, in spite of his great productivity in getting landmark legislation passed that will enrich the lives on millions of Americans, a lot of Democrats and assorted leftist just want to see him get mad and go off on the Republican provocateurs.

The feeling on this issue grew so virulent that I even wrote a commentary titled: “Does Barack Need to Smack Somebody?”  My answer was that Barack was playing the “rope-a-dope” with the pugnacious Republicans.  Like Muhammad Ali, he was picking the exact moments to take the offensive, and his record of accomplishments demonstrates that his strategy is working.  He was true to his nomme de plume “No Drama Obama,” quiet but deadly.

The President’s choice of unifying themes and his dynamic delivery at the Tucson memorial won the audience, momentarily silenced his persistent critics, and initiated a national discussion on the question of maintaining civility in our political discourse.  Although the soaring increase in gun sales and long firing ammo clips suggest that a portion of the electorate didn’t get the message.

The big question in everyone’s mind was whether the President would use the occasion to denounce incendiary propaganda in right-wing media and call for tightened gun laws. He decided that this was not the proper moment for that kind of discussion.  Instead the President chose to speak to the pain the families were feeling, and brought a measure of satisfaction… even joy, as he recounted the lives of the fallen; which included many bright moments.  The high point of his speech was when he recounted the life of the marvelous little girl who had come out to witness our democratic political system in action and wound up dead.  Christina Taylor Green – whose body was interred today – was a superbly gifted, spunky, self assured nine year old who was happy with her life, supremely optimistic about the future, and had unlimited potential to contribute to our society.

The President’s decision to use the tragedy of her wanton murder as a focal point for his discussion of the need for Americans to turn to each other rather than on each other, was very effective.  It was a fathers plea for America’s grown ups to live up to the expectations our children have for us – to build a better world where they can fulfill their dreams.  Even Pat Buchanan – one of the right wing verbal arsonist in the GOP who has contributed mightily to the hateful political atmosphere that has engulfed the country – had to concede that it was a masterful speech.

While I seldom agree with Patty on anything, he has served as a presidential speech writer and knows an effective speech when he hears one.  He thought the effectiveness of the speech lay in the fact that the President  personalized the pain of the victims and their families and spoke from the heart.  That this was the right speech for this occasion is verified both by the gratitude of the families, who were buoyed by the president’s appearance and the healing words with which he anointed them and soothed their pain, and his precipitous rise in the opinion polls this morning.

Although this message of national unity echoed the spirit of Abraham Lincoln in his message to Americans after the disaster of Civil War – “with malice toward none and charity for all” – he must remember that the Confederates remained unrepentant, and that Lincoln’s failure to fully understand that cost him his life!  It is equally clear that the Republicans have only called a time out in order to try and shift the spotlight from their nefarious role in this tragedy.  Even now, they are trying to spin the story so that the left will be equally implicated, or just paint the guy as a nut whose actions are inexplicable.  And their self-serving praise for the President’s peace should fool no one.  They are running about looking for an alibi like blind dogs in a meat packing plant!

Hence the President must return to this conversation and speak frankly about the role of right-wing media in manufacturing the kind of fear and rage that is a common theme in every one of the right-wing assassins story.  The state of the union will be a great place to do it.  And this time he should forget the poetry and stick to the facts…like Sergeant Friday would say: “Just the facts please!”




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

December 14, 2011

A Nation In Denial?

Posted in Playthell on politics with tags , , on January 12, 2011 by playthell

Confusing The Issues: The BS Began on Morning Joe


Even in the aftermath of the horrendous mass murders in Arizona virtually all the talking heads in mainstream mass media, the cultural apparatus that shapes public opinion in modern societies, are refusing to call a spade a spade and tell it like it really is.  It is as if everybody got together in some proverbial smoke filled room and agreed that whatever happened, nobody would tell the unvarnished truth about the causes of the massacre.  Early the morning after, as most Americans were trying to digest the news listening in a mild state of shock and plenty confused, all the media commentators talked as if they were oblivious to the history of the last two years.  And they vied with each other to declare the insignificance of what they do.

To listen to them tell it there is no possibility that this gun wielding mad man could have been driven to murder by the constant anti-government harangues emanating from the right-wing propaganda machine, with their gun fetishes and fear mongering. As evidence for their conclusion they are all desperately clinging to the argument that the gunman is just crazy!  They passionately argue out that the rancid rhetoric of the Republican / Tea Party zealots has had no affect on the executioner.  It is now Wednesday and the chorus of denial continues to swell.

Yet there is no way that they can know whether the constant vilification of the government by right-wing verbal arsonists had no affect on the decision of this guy to attempt to assassinate the congresswoman. He had not been systematically examined by psychiatrist, and if he has none of them has been privy to his record.  Therefore any conclusion about his motives must be regarded as speculation.  But reasonable speculations must be based on observable facts.  First of all the fact that he is mentally deranged does not rule out the possibility that his decision wasn’t made in a vacuum, unaffected by the hateful anti-government rhetoric emanating from the kind of rightwing media that pollutes the air with hateful rhetoric in Arizona, or the celebration of guns and placing one’s opponent’s in the cross hairs of a gun in political ads!

As I have written over and over again ad-nauseum, it is precisely the mentally unstable lost souls who are often driven to commit atrocities as a result of these right wing harangues.  This was true of Popolowski, Von Bruhn –who shot up the Holocaust Museum and killed the African American Guard.  The guy who ran his plane into an IRS building must have also been unbalanced.  Yet when we look at what these people had to say about why they did the things they did, the themes that emerge from their explanation are the same themes we hear in the diatribes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reiley and Glenn Beck!  These themes are also echoed in the rhetoric of the Republican Party – especially the Tea Party crowd who is mesmerized by Sarah Palin!  Yet we are expected to believe there is no connection? Why, because to conclude otherwise suggest that a leader of the Republican Party has blood on her hands,  that her reckless rhetoric has incited mass murder?

During the 1960’s Congress passed a federal law against inciting to riot.  Hubert “Rap” Brown, a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was actually convicted under this law after he made a speech in Cambridge Maryland and a riot later broke out!  The 24/7 anti-government diatribes emanating from the verbal arsonist on the right,  broadcast by FOX television and ABC radio is far more persuasive than a stump speech by Rap Brown.

For media people like Joe Scarboro to argue otherwise is the grossest hypocrisy.  This is because his job depends on the belief that he can influence the choices of his audience. The whole business model of commercial media is based on this assumption.  Commercial media does not exist for the edification or recreation of the audience.  That is only a means to their real ends: the selling of advertising time!   You cannot have it both ways – for instance you can’t have physics and meta-physics too – either these people can influence the choices of their listeners or not.

It is simply not believable that these media personalities can influence the choices of their listeners through intermittent 30 second commercials – for which companies spend millions to advertise their products – but the hours they spend indoctrinating their audience with impassioned diatribes about how the government – a body elected by the American people through a prescribed constitutional process mind you – is our enemy! These people routinely libel the President’s attempt to provide health care for those Americans who do not have access to medical care as the equivalent of Nazi death camps – which, along with making ignorance fashionable, has been the major contribution of Silly Sarah Palin to American political discourse.

Yet this disgraceful ditz has the unmitigated gall to appear on television as I write and accuse those of us who question her role in the Arizona massacre of “blood libel.”   Well Sarah, blood libel is your thing!  We are just pointing out the consequences of your amoral, racist, reckless approach to politics.  It is as much because of her rhetoric and fetish for guns and tough talk that whites have been going out buying guns in record numbers since the election of Barack Obama as anything I can think of.  But because she is both stupid and amoral, and a megalomaniac to boot, she actually has the chutzpa to try and cast herself as the victim.  In so doing she is counting on her followers to remain the mindless sycophants they have always been….even in the face of bloody murder!  As the Rastas would say: “Boobus Americanus to Ras!”

Silly Sarah

A Dangerous Megalomaniac and Unrepentant Moron!

Three days into the tragedy the outlines of the discourse as to its causes and ultimate meaning are emerging.  The conservatives have selected their talking points and they are repeating them in lockstep like ideological lemmings.  The party line is that there is absolutely no connection between this slaughter of innocents in Arizona and the rancorous rhetoric that has dominated Republican political speech since the election of President Obama.  They are sticking to their story with the same kind of iron discipline the Grand Obstructionist Party has displayed in their attempts to block every legislative proposal offered by President Obama. And the Liberals appear thus far to agree.

The most spurious argument in a field overrun with dubious polemics is the contention that because the Assassin was reading both Carl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” and Adolph Hitler’s “Mein Kempt” he could not possibly been motivated by the rancid rhetoric from the right that has so thoroughly polluted our political discourse and enraged many citizens to the point that some are using images of the President for target practice, and the Secret Service is receiving the highest volume of death threats in history.  When arrayed against the facts however, this argument is quickly exposed for the dangerous sophistry that it is.

The reference to the assassin’s reading material is intended to expose the fact that he does not know the difference between Communism and Fascism; hence he does not know that the two philosophies are diametrically opposed.   But that is the case with most of the people in the Tea Party movement, who routinely portrayed President Obama as a communist and as Adolph Hitler!  Thus he is a typical Tea Party type, a clueless white boy lost in the blues!

If you combine this fundamental confusion about political philosophy with his irrational hatred of the Federal Government you have a classic Tea Party candidate.  I defy any of the talking heads who have so confidently announced that the Arizona assassin was totally unaffected by the hate filled diatribes of the right, to present their evidence that me – and the much maligned Arizona Sheriff who agrees with my assessment – to present the evidence in support of their conclusions.  Thus far I am totally unimpressed with their transparent apologia – which so far as I can see, is prompted by opportunism, delusion, denial and fear!

This explains why, in spite of the lack of any convincing evidence, the emerging consensus is that these are the actions of a single lunatic,  there fore nothing useful can be learned about the danger to the stability of our society – i.e. our national security – from the manufacturing of anti-government hatred by the verbal arsonists in the Republican party and their shills in the media.  This attitude is reflected in the polls measuring public opinion on the question of whether the inflammatory, violence laden, anti-government rhetoric played any role in the Arizona slaughter.

Fifty Seven percent of Americans said they thought it played no role at all.  As strange as it seems to me, it’s not surprising in light of the recent election results, when millions of Americans voted against their Interests – read “On Our Dysfunctional  Democracy” and “Triumph Of The Untutored Mob!”  Predictably,  the Palin apologist on the right are emboldened in their approach, and liberals in the media are cowed into going along with this absurd conclusion because their decisions are market driven.

The suits who run these networks – for profit lest we forget – do not want to offend their market just to tell an unpopular truth – even if real lives are at stake. After all they are businessmen not moral leaders.  Thus it is profit not virtue that they are concerned with.  Their behavior brings to mind an observation made by that old German gadfly Karl Marx “The capitalist will sell the hangman the rope to hang them with if they think they can make a profit!”



Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

January 12, 2011

Murder She Wrote!

Posted in On John McCain, On Republican Women on January 11, 2011 by playthell

MaMa Grizzly: The Chief Murder Mouth!

Some Reflections On The Tucson Massacre

The mass murder of six American citizens, including a federal judge and a nine year old girl, in an attempt to assassinate Democratic Congressman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, brings to light once again the volatile forces percolating just beneath the surface of a seemingly calm and stable American society.  Yet for those who have been paying attention to the level of antagonistic anti-government rhetoric dished out daily by the talking heads in right-wing media – which is routinely referred to as “hate” media by those who operate in the mainstream – this horrible slaughter comes as no surprise.  You cannot murder mouth government officials, especially the things the verbal arsonist say about Democrats, and not expect something like this to happen.

In the aftermath of this slaughter Republicans can be seen shedding crocodile tears everywhere on television, expressing shock and confusion that something like this could happen.  But I have been warning about the probability of this kind of tragedy since President Obama took office, given the incendiary rhetoric of the Republicans and their Tea Party shills.  When you have elected officials like Congresswoman Michel Bachman talking about she wants her constituents “armed and dangerous” it is easy for a zealot or lunatic to take them seriously.

The most nauseating spectacle in the Republican rush to wash their hands of any responsibility for this mass slaughter is the statement issued by the Alaskan Barbarian Sarah Palin.  For a woman who has described herself as “a pit bull with lipstick,” which is a synonym for a evil vicious bitch, her apology appears about as authentic as a wooden nickel.  From the moment of her entrance on the national scene Palin made the sorts of hysterical charges that riled up the right –wing nut cases.  She even put out political ads with depicting political opponents in gun sights – including Congresswoman Gabrielle

One need only look at Palin’s rally in Strongville Ohio, which was held during her presidential campaign with McCain, to see that her rhetorical style and reckless charges could incite mob violence against Democrats.   At that time she was trying to convince voters that Barack Obama was in collusion with terrorists.  The rally can be seen on You Tube, and there are interviews with people after the rally.  What these enraged air-heads had to say was chilling.  Since their heads were empty, a pervasive characteristic among the Tea Party crowd, they believed whatever Palin had told them.  They said they believed that Barack Obama was colluding with terrorist and was not an American citizen.

It was clear that Sarah had no sense of decency or responsibility. She was clearly willing to create social chaos if it could win elections.  Since they lost the election this Malevolent shrew has become even more reckless in her charges.  It was Sarah Palin who said that the President’s health care program included “death panels” for the elderly!  And she put out political ads with political opponents in rifle sights.  And when Republican zealots showed up at Town Hall meetings to discuss health care brandishing guns, all of the Republicans, especially the Tea Party types, argued that they were just exercising their Constitutional rights!  They said the same thing when these same kooks showed up at Presidential appearances with guns.

Sharon Angle of Nevada, who nearly beat Senate Majority leader Harry Reed, openly talked about citizens resorting to “Second Amendment” solutions if they fail to have their way at the polls.  No one in the Republican Party denounced such talk.  They had their mind on taking control of Congress and they were prepared to make a deal with the Devil to do it.

Listening to spineless clowns like Jim Boehner in the House and vulgar opportunist in the Senate like John McCain, crying crocodile tears and professing their shock and sorrow makes me want to puke!!  They are all responsible for this and the other murders committed by people like Richard Popolowski who murder three cops in Pittsburg because he was enraged over his paranoid belief that President Obama was going to take away white peoples guns so blacks could enslave them, or the lunatic who murdered Dr. Benjamin Tiller outside his church because he performed abortions.

Bill O’Rielly, a pompous megalomaniacal verbal arsonist who not only named Dr. Benjamin Tiller “Tiller The Baby Killer” but also gave the doctors address out over the air repeatedly, was directly responsible for the Doctors murder!  Yet like privileged white boys throughout the history of our country, this verbose asshole got away with inciting murder!  The greed for profit on the part of FOX Television, and political advantage on the right has caused the Republicans to encourage fanatical elements in the US population so long as they could direct their hostility and paranoia toward the Democrats.

That’s why Republican cries of outrage over the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords rings hollow and feels like hypocrisy!  I don’t believe a word of it!  I believe that after stirring up a shit storm of violet rhetoric, the Republicans are scrambling to find a safe place to hide when the shit hits the fan!

Double click to see Sarah incite Strongsville Rally

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

January 10, 2011



The Crisis In West Africa

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, Playthell on politics with tags , on January 7, 2011 by playthell

Abidjan: Capitol Of Ivory Coast

Towards A Pax Africana?

To western observers who are untutored in the history and cultural traditions of Africa, the crisis in the Ivory Coast must look like a protracted political farce, a burlesque on modern statecraft.  Yet for those of us who witnessed 20th century African history unfold it is all too familiar; everywhere we see the truth of George Santayana’s axiom: “Those who refuse to learn from history are bound to repeat its mistakes.”  Hence as the New Year dawns we are once again facing the possibility of genocidal violence in Africa; it is becoming a redundant phenomenon, and the world is becoming cynical or indifferent to this self-destructive folly – whether it happens in Africa or elsewhere.

This time it’s the Ivory Coast, a Francophone nation that was once the wealthiest and among the most stable countries in Africa. Yet, even as I write, the newly appointed UN Ambassador for the recently elected government in waiting, Youssoufou Bamba, warns that “the country is on the brink of genocide.”  The immediate problem is that the incumbent President, Laurent Gbagbo, won’t step down and allow the government formed by Alassane Ouattara to take the reins of power and govern.

The fact that Quattara is recognized by the international community as the legitimate winner of the presidential election has had no affect on the Gbagbo clique.  At present this includes the Ivorian Army, a rag tag group of armed miscreants who wouldn’t last an hour against a real army – like the French for instance – but is quite adept at terrorizing their civilian population at the behest of autocratic thugs like Gbagbo.  The allegiance of military men to particular leaders rather than to their constitution, which is the symbol of the nation, is a great part of the problem in Africa.

Laurent Gbagbo: Tin Horn Martinet!

What The Devil Look Like In Africa

To underscore the complexity of the Ivorian problem we have only to consider the fact that the present crisis involves antagonistic factions in different regions of the country: North vs. South, which is a synonym for ethnic conflict, added to this murderous mix is religious animosity between Christians and Muslims!   This is the same combination of malignant factors that precipitated genocidal internecine slaughter elsewhere in Africa.  It is no wonder that we are hearing warnings about impending genocide in the Ivory Coast even while genocide in the Sudan and Congo are ongoing horrors, and the mass slaughter in Rwanda remains a vivid and horrifying memory.

The fundamental issues that precipitated the present crisis are deeply rooted in the unresolved contradictions between the colonial heritage, the traditional culture and the requirements of running a successful modern state.  Resolving these contradictions would be a herculean task under any circumstances, but when the machinations of the intelligence forces of the former colonial powers – often with the assistance of the American CIA – is factored in the task of progressive, honest African leaders who are committed to national development becomes nearly impossible.

While it has become conventional wisdom that multi-party participatory democracies are the best path to modernization and economic development, this is often not the case in multi-ethnic societies that are still in the process of national integration.  What often happens is that opportunistic politicians with a stunted vision simply manipulate the political process and demagogue ethnic or racial issues to their political advantage at the expense of political stability and economic development. This is the case in much of the world; it will play a major role in shaping the future of Iraq and Afghanistan. What is most likely to emerge in these societies is not a liberal democracy such as exists in Europe and the US, but a tyranny of the majority where the dominant ethnic group rules.

When I queried a contemporary Kenyan political activists and writer, Mr. Karanga, about implications of the crisis in the Ivory Coast he offered the following observation. “To fully understand the situation in the Ivory Coast one needs to understand the complexity of the African political scene. Unscrupulous leaders capitalize on poverty, illiteracy and especially ethnic divisions in order to cling to power.  They operate on the assumption that a hungry man has no principles and thus can be easily bribed.  This has defined their approach to politics, but I believe it is gradually coming to an end and new forms of political behavior are slowly emerging.”

However no analysis of the human condition in contemporary Africa can be complete without mentioning the criminal history of subversion and murder promoted by the machinations of western intelligence services who were opposed to real African independence.  It is a history that is well documented.  Whether we read ex-CIA covert agent John Stockwell’s “In Search Of Enemies,” The marvelous catalouge of exposed covert actions “Dirty Works” volumes I and II, or Amie Caesaire’s insightful drama “A Season In The Congo,” the pattern of subversion is clear.

But for an intimate insider view, the analysis of a brilliant observer who was an eye witness on the continent as the honest revolutionary African leaders who led the independence movements being overthrown and murdered,  read Stokely Carimichal aka Kwame Toure’s autobiography “Ready For Revolution.”   Written with Ekwame Michael Thelwell – a brilliant novelist and Professor Emeritus Of Literature in the WEB Dubois Department  Of  Afro American Studies – it is the best single chronicle of the world black liberation struggle in the last half of the Twentieth Century.   It provides an indispensable first hand view of how the western neo-colonialist subverted the African revolution  and  unleashed the dogs of chaos.

The determination of the leaders of neighboring West African states to prevent the outbreak of another genocidal war has led ECOWAS – Economic Community Of West African States – to threaten the use of military force to remove the outlaw regime of Laurent Gbagbo by force if he does not soon step down and allow the lawfully elected government of Alansane Quattara to govern the country.  This is the becoming the only viable solution to this dangerous stalemate.

The Ivorian Army: Play Play Soldiers!

Can These Suckers Fight?

While it is embarrassing to witness ECOWAS spokesmen crying poor mouth and saying that they will need aid from the international community to carry out this policing function, it is nowhere near as embarrassing as having the French Army come in and resolve the conflict.  As the Kenyan scholar Dr. Ai Mazuri pointed out years ago in his insightful book “Towards A Pax Africana,” once the European powers retreat from the continent Africans themselves must find the means to keep the peace.  The crisis in the Ivory Coast is a test of whether Africans are able to meet that goal a half century since the emergence of Ghana as the first modern African state.




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

January, 7 2011

Swinging In the New Year At Dizzy’s Club!

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , on January 2, 2011 by playthell

The Joint Was Jumpin!

Dizzy’s Coca Cola Club is arguably the most beautiful jazz club in the world!  Like every other performance venue located in the jazz At Lincoln Center complex, The sound in this room is magnificent, because the room is acoustically engineered to capture the true sound of the music in all its splendor. The wall behind the bandstand is all glass provides a stunning view of Fifth  Avenue looking over Central Park.  The whole experience is magical.  With the splendid  menu and wide assortment of intoxicating elixers Dizzy’s is the ideal New York Supper club.  Jimmy Heath, Saxophonist and composer extraordinaire, led a band that included Terrance Blanchard on trumpet and Cyrus Chestnut on piano.  Needless to say, that was a hard swinging affair!

However a highlight of the evening was the band of teenagers who performed a set after the New Year arrived and brought the house down.  They were there at Wynton’s request and he sat at the edge of the stage and gave these young virtuosi his undivided attention.  It was just another demonstration of what I have witnessed for years: Wynton instructing and encouraging young musicians.  It is a recurrent theme in the interviews I have done of all the leading yoing virtuosos on every instrumrnt.   Wynton is not only a brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning composer and “the greatest trumpeter in the world,” in the estimation of Gerald Wilson and this writer too, he is also the most influential teacher of the art.  A national treasure indeed!

But on this occasion he left his trumpet at the crib and was a fan. I have never seen anyone more devoted to their chosen vocation than Wynton Marsalis.  And American culture is all the richer for it.  The ambience could not be better when the New Year Arrived…everything was swinging and a vibe conveying joi de vivre innundated the room.    It was a jazz bucchanal!

 It Was A Big Party!

With Gourmet food And Plenty of Spirits


Jimmy Heath Rocked The House

Everything Was Copacetic!


Wynton Was In the House

Cold Chillin!


Wynton’s Lady!

The Beautiful, Elegant, Trey

These Lovely Ladies Were Hangin Out

Wearing Tiaras The Look Like Crowns



Some Pretty Girls

Brightened The Room With Beaming Smiles

There Were Hugs


And Main Squeezes


Everywhere You Looked folks Were Huggin Up



And PlantingWet Kisses Too!


People Wore Funny Hats

And They Came From Everywhere!

This lady Came all The Way From Japan!

We Had A Ball!

As the Sound Of Real Jazz Filled The Room


As I walked Out Of The Lobby

The Golden Lady On Daili’s “Surreal Piano”’ Kept Watch

Out On Broadway

Peopled Partied In The Street


There Were Families

And Lone Revelers

The Party’s Over!

Strolling Along Central Park West Reflecting On New Year




Do(uble Click link to see Jimmy Heath in Performance


Text and Photos By:

Playthell Benjamin

New York City

Janurary 2, 2011