Archive for August, 2013

A Memo to President Obama…

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, On War and Peace in the Mid East!, Uncategorized on August 29, 2013 by playthell

A devestated Syria

A country already devastated by internecine conflict

 …No Unilateral Strike on Syria!!

Once again the saber rattlers in Washington are seriously considering a military action in an Islamic country in order to “liberate” the people from an oppressive government.  As the Obama Administration reviews evidence that the Syrian government has used poison  gas  against opponents of the embattled Assad regime, talk of an air strike  in Syria is growing louder even as the polls show that a majority of Americans want no part of it, this writer included.

This growing opposition to American intervention is fueled by a combination of war weariness and the belief that American treasure can be put to better use rebuilding our country and rescuing millions of Americans from economic desperation. There is also widespread skepticism about the so-called “evidence,” for it evokes bitter memories of the Bush Administrations “evidence” regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  Even in a nation famous for historical amnesia, this four trillion dollar debacle has not been forgotten – especially when the American Society of Civil Engineers have calculated that we could have completely rebuilt the entire infrastructure of the US, laying the basis for a new economic takeoff, for half that price.

While I cannot be counted as a fellow isolationist in lockstep with the Libertarians who believe  the US should never intervene in the affairs of a sovereign country no matter what, and even oppose the granting of foreign aid – i.e. Ron and Rand Paul – I am nonetheless cautious about American intervention in other countries.  Needless to say, as a humanitarian and one who cares deeply about the future of our country, I believe we cannot ignore genuine cases of genocide in the world, and the idea of cutting off all foreign aid from the richest country in on earth is irresponsible and dangerous nonsense!

Like the Chinese, I think our foreign policy should be largely oriented toward aid, trade and technical assistance and less toward military actions.  But I also believe that Chinese indifference to questions of human rights in their foreign policy is amoral, such as in the Sudan,  and here they can learn something from us. 

If morality is to play any role in foreign policy, and I believe the world will be a more dangerous place without it, there are situations where the deployment of military force in a foreign country can be a heroic and benevolent act.  The invasion of Nazi Germany to liberate the Jews, and a proposed invasion of Rwanda to prevent genocide are obvious situations where US intervention would be justified.

However more often than not, American military intervention has been a disaster, both for the US and the people in the countries under attack.  Iran, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, et al are excellent cases in point.  Not to mention the countless US interventions in Latin American counties, often subverting the democratic will of the people if it didn’t compliment American interests in the region – such as the overthrow of Dr. Salvador Allende in Chile.  

In every instance these interventions were justified with high minded rhetoric about promoting freedom and democracy…despite abundant evidence to the contrary.  At one point cynics about the real aims of American foreign policy began to refer to the CIA the “Community Interventionist Agency,” and the American claim as “freedom fighters” was met with the retort: “Yes, they fight freedom everywhere!”

Obviously, international relations being the complicated mess that it is there is no easy or simple answer to the question of military intervention in foreign countries.  While the strict Chinese policy of non-intervention into the internal affairs of other nations serves the interest of China well, since rapid domestic development and modernization is their paramount objective at this juncture in their history, if the rest of the world adopted a similar position every variety of evil tyrant and murderous mad man could use national sovereignty as a shield behind which to commit all manner of evil against their people, including genocide.

The way in which the US has treated Afro-Americans and Native Americans for most of its history is a strong case in point.  And although American military power made intervention unthinkable by other countries – even if they had the inclination to do so – the arrival of the Cold War in the mid-twentieth century and the coincidental rise of anti-colonial national liberation movements that resulted in the emergence of a host of newly independent non-white nations exerted tremendous pressure on the US to scrap its racist policies.

For the ruling elites in the US this dramatic about face was not a question of morality, as it is so often represented, but was dictated by the need to win the hearts and minds of the millions who lived in the “Bandung World” in order to prevent them from aligning with the Communist block led by the increasingly powerful, nuclear armed, Soviet Union.

This political reality was far more powerful than moral preachment in convincing many in the US government to dismantle racial apartheid.  Hence as a member of a powerless minority that has suffered great oppression from our government and witnessed genocide against Native Americans, I could never be persuaded to adopt a position of non-intervention no matter what that is the mantra of the Libertarian fringe of the Republican Party.

Having said this however, I feel that the US cannot continue to pursue go it alone policies, as if America has been appointed the moral arbiter of the world by some divine power – as some of my fellow citizens appear to believe.  For we have neither the wisdom nor the wealth to carry out such a task.  Hence the Obama Administration must heed the warning of the United Nations not to launch a unilateral strike, or an attack by an American made “coalition of the willing” such as we witnessed in Iraq.  Instead the US government must follow the norms of international law, and submit their findings before the UN and allow the international community of nations to act on it.

It is no secret that I believe that in messy matters of foreign policy President Obama has acted with Solomonic wisdom.  Yet because his actions must be governed by the imperatives of defending American interests in the world, while protecting the homeland against terrorist assault from the Islamic Jihadists, he will never satisfy the committed pacifist or the self-righteous ideologues on the left.  

 The President is about to make what I believe will prove to be a foreign policy blunder of historic proportions if he plunges headlong into the Syrian conflict without a genuine debate in the UN, and awaiting the unbiased conclusion of the international team of UN weapons inspectors who are assessing the situation on the ground in Syria.

Are more bombs the answer here?
A devastated Syria
A country in desperate need of peace

If we have learned anything from the colossal blunder in Iraq it is the folly of launching a military assault based on inadequate or inaccurate information.  The fact that there may have been toxic gas used in Syria, as the intelligence seems to suggest, does not tell us who used it.   And of this we must be sure before we commit American blood and treasure in that conflict. 

Furthermore, even if the Obama Administration is convinced that their intelligence proves it was the Syrian government – who controls one of the largest stock piles of chemical weapons on earth – that gave the order, they must still submit that evidence and allow the UN to adjudicate the matter.

We should also have learned by now that it is far easier to start a war than to end one, as the present attempts to disengage from a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan makes all too clear.  And that sometimes the “cure” turns out to be worse than the disease…especially in the Islamic world, a region of unfathomable complexities and contradictions.  The Syrian situation has the warning “beware of quagmires!” emblazoned all over it like a flashing neon sign.  For all these reasons, and possibly more, the US must not launch a unilateral attack on Syria!

 

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Playthell  G. Benjamin

San Francisco, California

August 28, 2013

The Blues Philosopher’s Last Chorus

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 24, 2013 by playthell

Albert Murray

The Literary Lion in his Den

 Life as a Fully Orchestrated Blues Statement

Albert Murray was not only one of the most original thinkers in American letters during the 20th century, he was also a tutor to a couple of generations of American intellectuals trying to understand their country and its culture.  For many intellectuals and artist making the trek up to Mr. Murray’s apartment in Lennox Terrace, the experience was like a religious devotee making a pilgrimage to a sacred shrine to sit at the feet of a holy man, or like the seekers of wisdom and truth who sat at the feet of Plato in ancient Greece.

Some of the most illustrious names in Literature, Art, Music and cultural criticism have found their way to this book laden temple of learning.  Professor Murray was Harlem’s senior sage.  He was 97 years old when he danced to his last blues chorus, and his status was unassailable.  In fact, Mr. Murray’s shoes are so hard to fill we will probably have to dip them in gold, hang them in an honored spot on a wall of heroes, and leave the position of Senior Sage open for the foreseeable future.

While I am not certain that I could define a philosopher in language that would satisfy the academic guardians of the canon, like the Supreme Court Justice when asked to define pornography: “I know one when I see one.” Since the subject of this panegyric, Professor Murray, was a master of language who was also devoted to improvisation and therefore no slave to convention, I shall feel free to take liberties in defining what I mean by philosopher in reference to him.

For me a philosopher is one who contemplates the deeper meaning of things and finds hidden connections between phenomena that escape the rest of us, with the ultimate aim of defining reality.  While the common lot of us look upon the world and our obvious predicament and ask why?  Philosophers dream of things yet unseen and ask why not?  Albert Murray was always opening our eyes to hidden truths that revealed new possibilities.

I was first introduced to his ideas by Larry Neale – the distinguished poet, essayist, editor, and teacher of literature at Yale.  And it changed the way I saw the world in important ways.  I remember well the first time he mentioned Mr. Murray to me.  I was living in an apartment in midtown Manhattan, thirty two stories above Broadway.  I was a Professor on leave from the University of Massachusetts, and was managing the Great singer Jean Carn.

A friend of mine, Tanya, a tall fine blond lady who could bust some moves like a Soul Train hoofer, was grooving to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” when Larry told her that she was not white.  He said her whiteness was a great American fiction, a superficial matter of pigment.  I was shocked at his announcement because the alabaster beauty was as white as any white person that I ever saw.   But Larry went on to explain that she was a cultural mulatto, and Omni-American!  And he held up a copy of Mr. Murray’s book.

Tanya: I thought she was white
Karen-picas editLarry Neal said she was a Cultural Mulatto…An Omni-American

Larry was such a serious intellectual and devoted teacher he died of a heart attack while presenting a lecture.  He was the sort of person who would slaughter his own sacred cows in deference to a greater truth.  This is what happened when he encountered the writing of Professor Murray.  A founding father and avatar of the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s, who along with Amiri Baraka, aka Leroi Jones, co-edited Black Fire, the seminal anthology of the early writings produced by the Black Arts movement, it was no easy task for Larry to accommodate the ideas in Mr. Murray’s book.

An unsentimental and uncompromising literary critic, Professor Murray cavalierly dismissed most of the writing produced by the Black Arts movement as aesthetic mediocrities….and some as literary atrocities.   And he irreverently referred to the lot of us black cultural revolutionaries  as “the bam bam boom boom Brillo Head Crowd.” In a startling commentary on a reading of works by some of the Black Arts luminaries that he attended in Greenwich Village, Mr. Murray denounced their works as little more than public temper tantrums devoted to ostentatious racial exhibitionism of questionable literary merit.  But he reserved his most caustic criticism for the largely white, affluent, artsy fartsy audience who applauded wildly and treated the performers as cultural heroes.

Mr. Murray concluded that with “friends” like these the black artist was doomed to mediocrity, and he placed them even lower on the scale of reliable friends than white boxing managers.  For even if one assumed that the rumors of financial exploitation of boxers under their management was true, Mr. Murray argued: “at least they were trying to produce world champions!”  The profound truth of this revelation hit me like a ton of bricks and I carefully devoured the rest of the essays in his remarkably wide ranging eclectic collection of essays, “The Omni-Americans,” his first book.

I was hooked on Mr. Murray’s learned, unique, and insightful commentaries on life, literature, the essence of artistic creation and its implications for society, as well as his penetrating iconoclastic views on politics: cultural and otherwise.  But what I loved most about Mr. Murray was his quiet assumption that Afro-Americans were the hippest and most stylish people on earth.

This is the Black America Mr. Murray Referenced

diahann-upper-crust-blacks

“Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll”

This is most apparent in his discussion of the “fakelore of black pathology,” and “the folklore of white supremacy,” a bogus intellectual construction that compelled white editors to privilege any story of black pathology over a tale of black heroism.  This rule is still all too true, as is evidenced by the muted attention being given to Antoinette Tuff, a black female bookkeeper who talked down a white male armed with an AK 47 and 500 rounds of ammunition that had begun to shoot up an elementary school in Georgia.  Ms. Tuff talked the gunman into laying down his weapon and lie on the floor until the police came to arrest him.  An although not one person lost their life, Ms. Tuff has yet to receive the kind of media adulation a white woman who had talked down a black gunman would have received.

Mr. Murray was an indefatigable defender of Afro-Americans against those who would attempt to play us cheap by portraying us as something less than what we are.  He constantly pointed out that humanity is no less complex and fascinating in a black skin than in a white skin.  Disproving that myth was a major impetus for his novels: Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree and Seven League Boots. 

One of the most interesting aspects of Mr. Murray’s critique of the study of Afro-Americans is his dismissal of the way sociologist have approached the subject.  Referencing them as mere “statistical survey technicians” he has called their method “an elaborate fraud.”  In order to demonstrate his point he critiques two studies that were considered the state of the art, one by a white social scientist and one by a black.  An American Dilemma, a massive study conducted by the distinguished Swedish social economist, Dr. Gunnar Myrdal, and Dark Ghetto, written by Afro-American Social Psychologist Dr. Kenneth B. Clarke.

Both of these scholars were prominent in their field. Kenneth Clarke, the first tenured Afro-American scholar in the City University of New York, was world famous as the result of his “Dolls” study.   This study was appended to the NAACP brief in the landmark Brown v. The Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were “inherently unequal,” and it was credited by many with swaying the Judges’ decision.   Dr. Myrdal, who headed what was the most massive research project on Afro-Americans in history, was chosen not only because he was a distinguished social scientist – since there was no paucity of able social scientists here – but also because he came from Sweden, a country with no black/white racial problem.

They funders of the study reasoned that Myrdal would be more objective writing about the volatile race problem in the US than an American scholar by virtue of his background. The result was a text of nearly a thousand pages that was roundly hailed as the final word on black life in America. Professor Murray was unimpressed with the results of both studies and emphatically dismissed them.  He said the most obvious thing about Dark Ghetto was that it was “written by a Negro who hates himself.”

Murray observed that things in Harlem could not be as grim as Clarke described them “even if half the residents robbed the other half every night.”  He took a similar position on Claude Brown’s bestselling novel “Manchild in the Promised Land,” which was being widely acclaimed as the real story of what life was like in Harlem.  Mr. Murray said it was no such thing!  He said it was merely the story of what it was like for one Negro who grew up in Harlem “and evidently had a hard time doing so.” The book told you nothing about “what it was like to be the Society Editor of the Amsterdam News,” or “one of the people who ran the most complex mass transportation system in the world.”

As for Mr. Myrdal’s “landmark study,” Murray thought it had been a great waste of money if the objective was to help us understand black life in America.  His indictment of the study was spurred by the fact that nowhere in those hundreds of pages filled with numbers and sociological jargon did anyone ask what was the meaning of the blues among black Americans, who invented the art form and based the great American art of Jazz on its deeply moving changes?

This question reflected Mr. Murray’s conception of art and its function in human society.  His view was summed up in his contention that “an art style is the refinement and elaboration of a lifestyle.”  If this assumption was true, then the question of the meaning of the blues in Afro-American culture was no picayune consideration. Mr. Murray thought it was critical to understanding the amazing grace that Afro-Americans had shown during the long night of racial oppression.  He would go on to answer this question in the text that I consider his magnum opus: Stomping the Blues; which many critics believe is the best book ever written on Afro-American music –this writer included.

Bill “Count” Basie
Count Basies Band-singer JimmyRushing1943
Master of the Fully Orchestrated Blues Statement

In this text Mr. Murray waxes philosophical about the meaning of the blues and corrects some widely held misconceptions.  The most pervasive of which is that the blues is sad music.  He skillfully dispels this myth by exploring the origins of the concept of blues by dividing his quest into “The Blues as Such” and the “Blues as Music.”  Mr. Murray shows that while the blues as such is a feeling of sadness and melancholy, and can be traced back to the idea of “blue devils” in Elizabethan England, the blues as music is the antidote to the blues as such.  Hence when viewed in its proper cultural context, the “down home Saturday night function” i.e. a dance party held among Afro-Americans in the south, the blues becomes a music of celebration.

Black musicians played the blues to chase away the blues as such; they “stomped the blues.” This is the meaning of the title of Mr. Murray’s text: Stomping the Blues.  He pointed out that there are several ways of dealing with the blues as such.  One could commit suicide, turn to alcohol  and drugs, or get sharp and go out dancing to a blues band.  His central point throughout this amazing text is that contrary to conventional wisdom the blues is a music of affirmation not resignation – as both the Black Nationalist activist/intellectual Mualana Karenga and the revolutionary black psychiatrist Franz Fanon had concluded.

This was the basis of his criticism of both the portrayal of black life in Richard Wright’s Native Son and the nihilism that characterized so much of the rhetoric of black radicals in the 1960’s.   Murray thought we relied far too much on the grim pessimism of the sociologists – who were mostly square white boys that knew little of real life and could be taken off for everything they had by “any fourth rate Harlem hustler” once they stepped outside their class rooms – rather than rely on the wisdom of the blues.  He pointed out that the blues sensibility was the antithesis of the “sack cloth and ashes” view of life.  While the blues admits “life is a low down dirty shame” we have to keep on swinging.

Through his eyes musicians became heroes and “blues idiom dancing,” his description of typical Afro-American popular dance, was a heroic exercise.  For Mr. Murray, the ability to dance gracefully is a core value of Afro-American culture; it is so widely shared that it is “disgraceful to be awkward on the dance floor.”  The importance he placed on this as a signature of ones integration into the Afro-American cultural idiom is clearly demonstrated in his essay on Gordon Parks, a brilliant multi-talented Afro-American contemporary.

In his description of Gordon Parks upon their first meeting as young men he describes Park’s talents and concludes with the comment “and he was graceful on the dance floor.”   But when he describes Gordon Parks later in life, after he had become enormously successful and was lionized by white society, Murray notes his many successes then comments wryly: “But he was no longer graceful on the dance floor.”

Albert Murray’s writing was a revelation to me, and many other black intellectuals who took the time to carefully read him.  He offered new perspectives on many levels and prompted us to rethink a lot of our ideas.  For instance he considered the description of Harlem and other black communities as “ghettos” to be erroneous, the result of “too much pillow talk between black intellectuals and their Jewish lovers.”

He thought that Malcolm X’s preachment about the white man convincing Afro-Americans to  hate our looks  was nonsense, and said all one had to do was watch “American Negroes” on the dance floor to see that it wasn’t true.  He said that Afro-Americans who were good looking knew that they looked good, and those who thought they were ugly probably were.

Blues Idiom Dancers
Jazz Dancers The Elegance Albert Murray Witnessed

He also thought Malcolm’s contention that house slaves were more impressed with the master than field slaves ignored the fact that it was the house slaves who saw the masters for the flawed creatures that they were, because they were all up in their business i.e. no man is a hero to his butler.  And he pointed out that it is déclassé intellectuals that lead revolutions because ordinary working people don’t spend their time thinking about the things one has to think about in order to organize a revolution.  That is the province of the intellectual.

Although I would come to have my disagreements with Mr. Murray, sometimes about culture but mostly about politics, and even argued with him personally on the value of sociology, accusing him of throwing the baby out with the bathwater….I regard his presence among us as a blessing, and his literary legacy a benefaction.

His collaboration with Count Basie on his autobiography “Good Morning Blues” provides us a look into the world of the Jazz musician and the evolution of the big band that is unprecedented, and his intellectual repartee with the great visual artist Romare Beardon, even naming some of his master works, along with his critical role in the founding of Jazz At Lincoln Center – a seminal event in the history of American culture, is further evidence of Mr. Murray’s widespread influence on American civilization.  Mr. Murray has been justly showered with many accolades in recognition of his singular contribution. I believe we are not likely to see his kind again. For the elements so blended in him that such a man may come along once in a century.

A career Air-Force officer and a refined gentleman, an intellectual of great depth, a prolific writer and iconoclastic thinker, a professor and philosopher, an epicure, elegant dresser and graceful dancer, a devoted husband and good father, and pater-familias to a tribe of intellectuals and artists who are shaping the culture of the world.  When one considers that he taught literature and military aviation, was a novelist and essayist of distinction, an equally able and insightful critic of literature, music and the visual arts – all of which he wrote highly original treatises on – we are compelled to place him among the modern renaissance men.

Mr. Murray was an exemplar of a type of black southern gentleman that is fast fading from the scene.  He was cut from the same cloth as my Uncle Jimmy Strawder, who also danced and joined the honored ancestors just days before Mr. Murray played his out chorus.  Both were men from small southern towns, Mr. Murray from Nkomis Alabama, Uncle Jimmy from St. Augustine  Florida.  Both men grew up during the era of American apartheid, when the ruling ideology was white supremacy, and although life in their birthplace was really a low down dirty shame they kept on swinging for a nearly a century – Jimmy Strawder for 90 years Albert Murray for 97!

One could say their lives were like “fully orchestrated blues statements,” a term Mr. Murray coined, in that they were complete and left nothing to be desired.  They were “Killer Dillers;” handsome hep-cats who dressed to the nines and strutted their stuff like peacocks on the dance floors of elegant ball rooms that were all the rage in their youth; places with names like the Savoy Ballroom, Grand Terrace and Paradise Lounge.  This is where the fabulous big bands like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Cab Calloway, Chick Webb, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm played the fully orchestrated blues statements Mr Murray wrote so insightfully about, music played at “the velocity of celebration.”

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra
Ellington
“America as She Was Swung!

The fact that one gets no hint that “Fatha” Hines and his great orchestra was playing for dancers at the elegantly appointed Grand Terrace, a scene so hip Al Capone came by to dance to the music, in Richard Wright’s wildly acclaimed novel Native Son, which was set in Chicago during this era, is one of Mr. Murray’s most potent grievances against the text.

Mr. Murray would become a military officer and a writer, Uncle Jimmy became a military officer and would have become a writer if Columbia University – to their everlasting shame – had not turned him away after congratulating him on his distinguished war record as a decorated combat officer, and his outstanding performance on the entrance exam, part of which he took in Latin, with the cold announcement” ‘Columbia College already has its quota of Negros.”

As I noted in my eulogy to Uncle Jimmy: “If white Americans who survived the Great Depression and fought World War II can be considered “The Greatest Generation,” men like Uncle Jimmy and Professor Murray” are the greatest of The Greatest Generation!   Thus I bid these good men… officers and gentlemen, hail and farewell.

Playthell and Professor Robert O’Meely of Columbia at Sorbonne

Me and Robert O'Mealy

Analyzing the influence of Mr. Murray on Wynton Marsalis, Virtuoso trumpeter
 
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 Double Click to see the Basie Orchestra Swing!
http://youtu.be/hHMYhajNtNg
A fully Orchestrated Blues Statement
Double Click to Hear Duke Ellington and his Orchestra!
http://youtu.be/NW1mGHABhgU
Duke plays his classic compositions
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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
August 23, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Egypt its a Fight to the Finish!

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, On War and Peace in the Mid East! with tags , , on August 21, 2013 by playthell
Islamic militants take to the streets
egypt-coup-morsi-us
Fear of death has not deterred them

But What Should the US Do?

The widening conflict in Egypt and the rising body count contains the fundamental feature of classical tragedy, magnificent mortals pitted against cosmic forces whose heroic efforts are doomed to failure.  For some time now I have been writing about the situation in Egypt and the possibility of an armed conflict between the Islamic theocrats and secular military strong men, as they contend for power in that oldest and most populous of the Arab nations.

One can simply enter “On Egypt” in the search engine on this blog to review the paper trail, and it will reveal why I am not surprised that it has come to this tragic state of affairs in that ancient country.  The record will show that I have always believed it would come to something like this i.e. open armed conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Armed forces that will result in one side vanquishing the other.

Let me hasten to confess that I have no crystal ball and do not claim supernatural powers.  Nor do I have vast intelligence agencies briefing me.  Instead I rely on the lessons of history and take the Islamist at their word.  Hence at the onset of the so called Arab Spring, an impromptu movement for popular democracy in the Arab world characterized by disruptive mass demonstrations directed from Facebook, I have always been skeptical that the movement would result in anything like the western democratic societies as many had vainly hoped.

In fact I have consistently argued that we were far more likely to wind up with a “Tyranny of the Majority,” as Alexis de Tocqueville, that prescient 19th century tribune and incisive analyst of American democracy called it.  Even in the US, this has been the case when the racial caste system is taken into account.  Hence in this land of ancient grievances, the most potent of which in the modern era being based in religious disputes and secularist vs. theocrats, democracy is a synonym for tyranny.  In such a scenario the common place bromides about the virtues of popular democracy do not apply; ideology is contradicted by reality and thus things fall apart.

We have been assured of this result by no less an authority than the official ideologist of the Andropov regime in Soviet Russia, who confessed that the powerful Communist Party of the Soviet Union collapsed mainly because “when reality disagreed with our ideology we dismissed reality.”  That’s what some “experts” who now talk about restoring “democratic government” in Egypt are doing.  As history has repeatedly demonstrated: In the Muslim world, when unfettered popular elections allow the majority of the populace to express their political will, they often elect Islamic parties to power.

It has even happened in Turkey, a nation founded on the principle of separation of church and state.  Indeed, the key to understanding the present conflict in Egypt is to grasp the significance of the Turkish experiment with constructing a secular democracy in an Islamic country.  Kamal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, had figured out that there was a correlation between the modernization of western societies and the separation of church and state that had occurred there.

He saw that in a modern secular society science is given primacy over religion, physics over metaphysics, and merit over tribalism.  Ataturk recognized that these changes were the essential  building blocks of modernity.  And he understood that if the Islamic countries were going to ever catch up to the West they would have to undergo a similar religious reformation as that in the west, and he put measures in place to insure the development and preservation of secularism in Turkish politics and public policy.

But the secular character of Turkish society in now threatened by the success of the Justice and Development Party, which is an Islamic Party. One female Turkish journalist that I recently interviewed – and who wishes to remain anonymous – is horrified by the rise of this Islamic Party to power. She is hoping that the military will intervene to stop them from passing repressive laws against women and curtailing other civil liberties.  And she is very worried about the fact that some top military men have been removed from their positions, since Ataturk had envisioned the military as the guardian of Turkey’s secular democracy.

Islamic Demonstrators in Turkey
turkey_demonstrators001_16x9
A frightening sight to secular democrats

The Egyptian government has been able to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood only by employing the heavy hand of the military since the middle of the twentieth century; which is why Muhammad Morsi is the first elected civilian leader in Egypt’s history.  The entire history of the modern Egyptian state is marked by the rule of military strongmen: Abdel Gamal Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Honsi Mubarak, all army officers. And for most of this period the country was governed under martial law, a system which gave extraordinary powers to the government.

When criticized on this policy by the US and other western governments the Egyptian strong men said martial law was necessary in order to keep the Islamic militants in check, preventing them from wreaking havoc. They were convinced that if the Muslim Brotherhood ever took over the country they would establish Sharia i.e. Islamic law. As modern secular men the military has been consistently opposed to the Islamicization of Egypt.   That’s why the Egyptian activist, who led the pro-democracy movement that toppled the Mubarak regime and forced the military out of politics, were begging them to overthrow the Muhamad Morsi government before he was halfway through his first term as President.

The reason millions of Egyptians who had cursed the military establishment just a year or two ago now enthusiastically sing their praises, is because after giving them a taste of power they now recognize that the Muslim Brotherhood, like all Islamic parties, is fundamentally opposed to a secular democratic society.

Hence no matter what they say, they are committed to establishing an Islamic Caliphate. Yet to the careful and informed observer all of this was predictable, as you can see from reading my essays on Egypt.  To grasp what has happened here one need only remember that the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt was the incubator in which the theology of Sayyid Guthb, the theologian whose writings inspired the modern Jihad, was hatched. And they have not repudiated these beliefs.

Thus in order to understand the Muslim Brotherhoods political behavior, understanding their view of politics is essential.  The most important thing to understand about their attitude toward democratic politics is that Sayyid Guthb preached that all the troubles of the contemporary world are rooted in the separation of church and state.  To them all the world should be living under Sharia Law, which they believe was handed down from God/Allah and is therefore the perfect plan for a fulfilling and righteous human community.

Allah’s Army

Uprising

They will not be easily deterred

They also believe that all leaders of predominately Muslim countries that are not governed by Sharia law are apostates worthy of death.  They are referred to as “Jahlili,” which means a barbarian or savage who is living in contradiction of God’s Plan.  Sayyid divided the world into “Dat El Islam” and “Dar El Harb,”  the difference between the two is one is governed by Sharia Law and the other by laws of man.  In his view these societies are natural enemies and  the latter must be subordinated to the former by any means nescissary,  Hence they view it as their duty to eradicate secular democracy in Muslim countries because they are sacrilegious abominations that interfere with God’s perfect plan.  There’s is a totalitarian doctrine; Just like the Communists who believe that Marxism is a socio-political version of what physicist call “Unified Field theory,” a theory that explains everything.

However since the standards of physics is far more exacting than Marxism physicist readily admit that they have no such theory; yet the Marxist are certain that they have.  Hence in any coalition with communist their objective is to eventually take it over and impose their worldview.  If you add to the certainty of the Marxist that they have the “science” that explains every aspect of human society, to the Islamic theocrat’s view that their plan was handed down to man by God almighty himself, even a blind man can see that there is no compromise to be found with them.  Hence they must be defeated!

It is this understanding on the part of secular military men, supported by Egyptians who have witnessed enough of the Muslim Brotherhood’s approach to governence to know that they cannot be trusted to safeguard democracy and religious pluralism.   This has led to the present violent conflict between the supporters on the Muslim Brotherhood and those who support the ideal of secular democracy.  Since Americans would not wish to live under religious dictators, and it is not in the interests of the US to have an Islamic fundamentalist government in Egypt, it would be both hypocritical and self-destructive for President Obama to follow the advice of those who are calling for him to cut off aid to the Egyptian military.

Although the scenes of carnage we see on our television screens are troubling, the consequences of an Islamic fundamentalist government would be far worse – remember the mass executions in Iran after the Ayatollahs came to power in an Islamic revolution spurred by American meddling?   This is a situation where all of the choices are bad.  Hence while moralist look for a perfect solution, politicians must choose the lesser evil.  In the present instance this means supporting the Egyptian military.  Anyone who is not capable of making this kind of old blooded decision based on realpolitik should choose another profession – such as a preacher or philosopher.

The Carnage in Syria

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Slaughtered innocents are everywhere

Alas, the most critical lesson of the Egyptian crisis – and other upheavals in the Middle Easy – is that the US is not the world’s policeman and thus cannot control the behavior of other nations.  That is a lesson we should also remember when our political leaders talk about wading into the Syrian Quagmire, where thousands of people are being slaughtered as I write.  The region is on fire and the danger zone is everywhere!  We will continue to monitor this developing situation in the Arab world with great interests.

The Middle East is Being Reduced to Rubble
 Free Syrian Army fighters are seen as a fire burns after what activists said was a shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Homs
 And America has no solution to this.
 

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
August 21, 2013

Afro-American Jazz and Black South Africans

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 19, 2013 by playthell

 Hugh Masekela

Hugh Masakela: A South African Original

 

 On the Transformative Power of Black Jazz

Growing Up in Mantzi I have been Fortunate enough to come from a Township of Soweto that in the early sixties and all the way to the rule of the ANC had electricity and telephones in our community.  Why is this important?  I grew up with uncles who were playing 78 rpm dicks on a gramophone, and we gradually upgraded to what was called Pilot FM radio (big and huge like caskets which contained a turntable and a FM radio.  Eventually we came to be exposed to Hi Fi systems in the late 1960’s and 70’s and graduated to more sophisticated name brands like Marantz and the like.

Music was the driving force in the evolution and American Jazz was one of the most powerful influences that we were exposed to.  Our elders, uncles and big brothers collected all of the great artist such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and all the seminal figures Playthell Benjamin cites in his essay “Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art, as the produced this music. And we sought to get in their favor by our recognition and approval of the importance of their treasure troves of LP vinyl Jazz albums.

Furthermore, we were living amongst musicians who played Jazz and formed big bands here in Mzantsi; we were also imbibing a lot of South African Jazz that embodied all the diversity characteristic of South Africa in its sound.  As we grew older we extended our listening and appreciation of the music by forming Jazz Clubs in the late Sixties whilst still in high school.

Our weekends were spent getting together bring new vinyl recordings we might have bought on Friday, and sample it with other members.  If they could not identify the record one was made Jazz Appreciation King for the day and it lasted the entire week until we met again.  Exposure to American Jazz was very important for us and it affirmed and solidified our beliefs that we were not mere “Kaffirs” (niggers) who were backward in all we did or were – African American Jazz told us, that those who looked like us, that those who looked like us, were the best in the world in this art form.

The Great Edward Kennedy “Duke Ellington”
Duke+Ellington - paragon of elegance 
Composer, Pianist, Bandleader, Paragon of Male Elegance
Dollar Brand
Dollar Brand
South African Pianist, Composer

This told us too, that we are the better people in the world, just from the Jazz perspective.  We imbibed art forms and so forth from our African American brothers, but Jazz was paramount in entrenching and embedding beliefs about ourselves.   Some of us went as far as to walk, talk, and dress like our Afro-American brothers.  Others named themselves accordingly.

As we became more mature and refined in our understanding of the wide world of Jazz, we began to travel overseas to Jazz concerts all over the states, Canada and Europe.  This expanded our horizons beyond the brutal apartheid world of South Africa.  We became well marinated in the Jazz Milieu, which knew no national boundaries because of the recording industry.  What has all this to do with Wynton Marsalis, the subject of Playthell’s recent essay?  Everything!

Playthell’s analysis of the heroic role of Wynton in the advancement of Jazz as a vibrant art form supports the fledgling arguments of those among us here in South Africa, who have been insisting that Wynton has advanced Jazz beyond what the hard core Jazz classist here in Mzantsi think of a real Jazz, in fact they insisted that Wynton was not playing Jazz at all.

Wynton Marsalis

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The Most Versatile Trumpeter in the World

I think the fact that he came from the Baroque side of classical music was lost to these detractors here for they knew nothing about the fact that Wynton had become the Master Jazz/Trumpeter /Composer/Innovator of the art and literally lifted and elevated Jazz into the 21st century.  They just couldn’t wrap their minds around that fact.

I also suspect that they have lost touch with what Wynton was doing and saying, and hung on to the old ways of understanding Jazz.  Wynton blew some of us away when he merged modern Jazz with African drummers on the same stage.  We were amazed and fascinated as we watched his rehearsal sessions with these Africans, especially the way that he was able to show the similarities and the origins of Jazz as an African art form.

Conducting the performance of Congo Square
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The Lincoln Center never witnessed anything like it!

Soul to Soul

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The Rhythmic circle remains unbroken

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The drum choir blended perfectly with the band

This edified us and lifted our long held beliefs that the music we were listening to called Jazz had melodic signatures which can be found in our own traditional songs and Jazz music here in Mantzsti.  Playthell’s essay “Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art,” is for me and Jazz Aficionados of kindred spirit, is so filled with erudite analysis about the art of Jazz and Wynton’s role in preserving and advancing the best of the tradition, that I feel compelled to post it on all the African sites I have access to.

There are some pretentious self- proclaimed Jazz gurus and avid fans who cannot accept anything new in Jazz.  Not since Babatunde Olatunji took his “Drums of Passion” orchestra to Carnegie Hall – industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s gift to New York City and the art of music –has anyone achieved that.  Wynton, however, took it a step further; many levels higher in fact, by merging both ensembles – African American musicians and a choir of African master drummers – on the same stage as part of one group.  To me it was one of the things Wynton did that silenced the howling jazz dinosaurs in the Appreciators here in Mzantsi.

THE GOAT

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 Greatest of All Times!

I concur with all that Playthell wrote about Wynton Marsalis….and then some.  I have learned so much from reading this article that I immediately went over to my collection of Wynton’s records and have been following on some nuggets he doled/dropped in the essay.   This kind of study will upgrade one’s understanding, appreciation and listening skills; enabling you to better grasp the techniques Wynton is employing to make such marvelous music.  I am happy to have found Playthell’s article, for it confirmed what we had long believed.   Jazz is an African art form and it resonates loudly with us here in Mzantsi and wherever it is played.

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Double Click to see Dollar Brand 

Double click to see Dollar Brand in a clearer video

Click to see Hugh Masakela  perform tribute to Mandela

Double Click to see Wynton conduct Congo Square with Orchestra and African drums 

Double Click to hear the Winston “Mankunzu” Ngozi Quartet

 

Skhokho Sa Tlou

Mzantsi, South Africa

August 19, 2013

 ** All Photos of Wynton and Congo Square Concert 

by: Frank Stewart, official photographer for JALC

Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 18, 2013 by playthell

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 Conducting his innovative suite “Congo Square” with Ghanaian Drummers

 I have written about Jazz in the New York Daily News, The Sunday Times of London, The Guardian- Observer of London, he Village Voice et al.  And I have major essays anthologized in books.  I have also covered the New York Jazz scene on WBAI FM.  I have written about Wynton in all these venues and interviewed him on radio. I am about to put those interviews online. I have also appeared with Wynton and Ellis in a lecture/demonstration on Jazz and wrote the program notes for Jazz at Lincoln Center Concerts.  Hence I have firsthand knowledge of the jazz milieu and I have paid close attention to Wynton’s career.

The Jazz scene in New York had become so dismal by the late 1970’s that I published an essay despairing over the future of the art form – See: “Will Jazz Survive: Notes on the State of the Great American Art ” in the Freedomways Reader – because the last commercial jazz station in New York, WRVR, had suddenly gone off the air.  I wondered how the tradition could survive if the jazz community in the Mecca of Jazz couldn’t even sustain a single radio station devoted to this quintessentially American art. How could you produce new stars if young musicians couldn’t even hear the music on the radio?

Then I heard this young trumpet player from New Orleans perform with the Herbie Hancock VSOP orchestra…and my spirit danced.  I knew he was going to be the next big thing the anointed one – having seen all the great innovators from Pops Armstrong to Freddie Hubbard live, I felt qualified to make the judgment – and history has proven me right…as it often does with my political prognostications.

Later I heard Wynton play the classical trumpet; a magnificent art that most jazz fans no know nothing about and many jazz musicians can’t play….I was amazed.  As a failed trumpeter I understand the technical requirements for performing the masterworks by the great European composers.  I know what embouchure is; I understand the difficulties of triple tonguing and circular breathing; I know how hard it is to achieve great intonation, and the complexity of fingering.  All of which a trumpeter must master in order to play the European classical repertoire. Yet Wynton makes it look so easy people who have no hands on experience trying to play the trumpet are clueless as to the degree of difficulty involved.

It’s not surprising that music for the trumpet is so difficult in European art music, especially the Baroque music Wynton is so fond of; the trumpet is, after all, their instrument.  I am presently writing a piece about Wynton’s influence on the great young classical trumpeters.  Most people will be shocked to discover how many of the principal trumpeters in the great symphony orchestras were inspired and tutored by Wynton’s performances.

Yet the classical trumpet is Wynton’s second language on the horn.  He is first and foremost a jazz trumpeter, who was raised by Ellis Maralis – a great pianist who is so devoted the art of Jazz piano that he named his son after a piano player, the marvelous Wynton Kelly, who was of Jamaican background – and he was tutored in the art of jazz by Alvin Bastise, a New Orleans clarinetist who is a master of Jazz and European classical music.

I watched as a member of the New York media as Wynton became the most sought after musician /commentator for the art of Jazz by virtue of his unique “skill set” as a bilingual trumpet virtuoso who was also a serious student of the history of Jazz and European art music; he was erudite, articulate, charming and funny.  Plus he was good looking and a fabulous dresser: he was a television producer’s dream! That’s how it happened; the role was thrust upon him even as other’s would have given anything to play the role.  That’s the real reason for all the hatin.

Much of Wynton’s style on and off the stage  came from his tutelage under the great writer Albert Murray, author of the single most important book on Afro-American music: Stomping the Blues,” and whom Duke Ellington said was “The hippest cat I know.”  In 1996 I presented a paper at a conference on Afro-American music held under the auspices of the European and US Associations of American Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris exploring this relationship titled: “The Influence of the Writings of Albert Murray on the Musical Compositions and Sartorial Style of Wynton Marsalis.  But the point is that for all of these reasons I have cited here, i.e. his myriad virtues, Wynton became a favorite of television producers and hosts: And it is the best thing that ever happened to Jazz.  In fact, I believe Wynton’s advocacy for the form as artist and advocate resurrected classic acoustic jazz – which is the highest expression of the art form.  And I am prepared to argue this point with anyone!

Wynton Conducting the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra

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A Master of his Trade

As a former history professor and co-founder of the first degree granting, freestanding, black studied department in the world – the WEB DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at U-Mass Amherst, which awarded full Professorships in black music to Jazz Masters Max Roach and Archie Shepp – I know something about the history and cultural development of Afro-Americans, and I would argue that the Jazz at Lincoln Center program here in Manhattan is the most important cultural development in the history of black America!

And it definitely would not have happened without Wynton Marsalis.  In order to get a Jazz department in the Lincoln the first task was to convince the Princes and Powers at the Lincoln Center – the world’s greatest performance emporium – that Jazz was an art form worthy of inclusion in a cultural warehouse that was stocked with classical European arts: Ballet, Grand Opera, Chamber Music, and the New York Philharmonic.  Wynton was the ideal person to sell them on the artistic merit of Jazz precisely because he had won Grammy’s for the best Jazz and Classical instrumental performances – an incredible feat that no other musician in the world has repeated!  And they bought what he was selling to the tune of 150 million dollars.

That’s why Congressman Jerry Nadler, who represents the district, said on opening day of the 150 million facility – “If Yankee Stadium can be called The House that Babe Ruth built, then Jazz at Lincoln Center will henceforth be known as the House that Wynton built.”  As for the criticism of other musicians: I say bring them on!!!!!!  Like the late great Sugar Ray Robinson I love a good fight, although, I must confess, that thus far they wither like snow balls in the sun when they cross swords with me on this question.  However I would like to conclude this little discourse with the following observations about musicians and Wynton.

All of those I have heard criticize him are clearly his inferiors as musicians and promoters of the music.  I could name names but I won’t….unless my veracity is called into question …but I’d rather not go there because my intention here is to set the record straight about Wynton not rag on other musicians.  But if properly provoked I’ll sing like a canary.  For the moment I a representative anecdote that is characteristic of what I found investigating the gripes of Wynton’s critics among musicians will suffice.

There was this very well know jazz trumpeter who used to dog Wynton’s playing; said it didn’t have enough ‘grits’ or some such inexplicable foolishness.  So Wynton issued a challenge for him to come down to Lincoln center during a concert and “cut my head,” which is Jazz parlance for engaging in a competitive duel called “cutting sessions.”  After the challenge was issued Wynton told me “That joker ain’t gonna show up…I’ll bet money on it.”  He seemed so sure about this prediction that I hesitated to accept a wager that at first looked like easy money.  So I declined the offer and instead asked him how he could be so sure the other trumpeter wouldn’t show.  “Because he can sell all the Woof tickets he wants out in the streets,” said Wynton, “but he and I have practiced together and he knows the truth!”  As Wynton predicted the dude punked out!

The affect that Wynton has on other trumpet players reminds me of the way flute players responded to Hubert laws when he first showed on the scene, another ambidextrous musical genius.  Hubert scared everybody to death and it resulted in people saying dumb stuff like “his tone is too pretty,” or “he does not make enough mistakes” or “he plays like a machine.”  I recognized it as the baseless slander of jealous peers back then, and the criticism I have heard of Wynton today does not rise above that level in my estimation.  THEY ARE ALL JEALOUS HATERS!!!!!!!!!

The World’s Greatest Trumpeter?
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Gerald Wilson Thinks So!

However let me conclude on the upbeat.  While Wynton has his detractors he also has many ardent admirers among musicians.  Dr. Billy Taylor, the Dean of musician/critics, loved the ground Wynton walked on and considered him the best hope for the music’s survival and growth.  He told me that because of Wynton’s efforts to promote the music to a wider audience many of the musicians who criticize him are working more than ever.

When I wrote a big feature story for the Sunday Times of London on Betty Carter and the jazz youth festival she was hosting at the Majestic Theater and Brooklyn Academy of Music titled “School For Cats,” all of those brilliant young musicians – which included such virtuosi as pianist Cyrus Chestnut and drummer Adonis Rose – told me that one of the main reasons why they were seriously playing Jazz was because “Wynton came to my school and gave a talk on Jazz.”

At the time Wynton was in a little feud with Miles Davis, whom Wynton tells us in the interview with David Frost was his major influence.  I asked the Empress of Swing, who had seen and heard them all, what she thought of the beef.  “Miles is just jealous!” she said.  “I knew Miles when he was Wynton’s age and has never been the trumpeter that Wynton is.”

Maestro Wilson Conducting JALC Orchestra
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A Swinging Octogenarian

When I interviewed the legendary bandleader/arranger/composer Gerald Wilson – who also happens to be a trumpeter of long standing – I asked him what he thought of Wynton’s playing. He said without a moment’s hesitation: “Wynton Marsalis is the greatest trumpeter in the world!    One of the virtues of writing in this new digital medium that is not enjoyed by writers in print publications is the ability to create multi-media presentations.  Hence by virtue of You Tube I can demonstrate Maestro Wilson’s Claim.

I have selected two performances by Wynton Marsalis: a classical European composition and a wholly improvised jazz performance.  Both performances were chosen because of the technical demands on the artist, which require the highest level of virtuosity in each genre.  The extent of the difficulty an artist must overcome is the measure of their mastery of the horn.  In the first video Wynton performs “The Carnival of Venice.”  When the great composer of martial music John Phillip Sousa formed the US Marine Corps band he billed it as “The greatest Brass Band in the World!”

The brook of fire trumpet and cornet players had to cross in their auditions was to perform the Carnival of Venice,” a composition that contain myriad pit falls into which a hapless player will be devoured.  It is a piece that demands mastery of all the elements of trumpet performance.  The second video features Wynton playing Cherokee at break neck speed.  It was the composition that those who aspired to share the bandstand with the elite players had to perform, often in a jam session when all eyes were on you.

Whereas in European art music all solos are composed, with improvisation allowed only in cadenzas, a kind of extended ornament, in jazz extemporaneous coherent musical statements is the rule.  This demands the ability to create music at the speed of thought.  Thus the more complex the musical statement – which must be negotiated within the restrictions of complex harmonic changes and polyrhythmic pulses – dictate the level of virtuosity required to perform it.   To the untutored ear it may all sound the same but, as a matter of fact, they are vastly different.

Check them out, and you need not be highly tutored in musical performance in order to recognize the Genius on display here. And you will lose any desire to argue with Maestro Gerald Wilson when he declares: “Wynton Marsalis is the best trumpeter  that I have ever heard and I played with all the greats,” So there!  You have it from the lips of the Gods….I say fuck the haters!!!!!

 

He is the best that I have ever heard and I played with them all!!!” So there!  You have it from the lips of the Gods….fuck the haters!!!!!

Me and Dr. Robert O’Meely Droppin Science at the Sorbonne

Me and Robert O'Mealy

Exploring the relationship between Wynton and Albert Murray 1996
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Double click here to see Wynton Perform Carnival of Venice  
http://youtu.be/0-jDld11jhw
This video has a million and a half views!
Double click here to see Wynton perform Cherokee
http://youtu.be/9OtZrIjQuwA
Double click to see Wynton interviewed by David frost 
http://youtu.be/mFNIvo-tx2s
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Text by: Playthell Benjamin

All photos by: Frank Stewart – except pic from the Sorbonne

August 17, 2013

America, the Bewildered Civilization

Posted in Guest Commentators with tags , , , , on August 10, 2013 by playthell

 Detroit Slums

The Once Great Motor City

     What Happened to the American Dream?

To the rest of the world, America remains a bewildered and troubled civilization.  Often poets have a far more profound understanding of civilization than social scientists or public intellectuals.  The African American poet Langston Hughes wrote in his poem:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

 There are signs that the American dream has been deferred not just for black folks but also for the struggling white working class.  There is much evidence that the bodypolitic has become a festering sore that is chronically infested.  Historically, nothing seems to even get settled in America.  The bodypolitic fell apart in 1860 and the question of slavery was settled by a bloody civil war that left over 300,000 Americans dead on the battlefield and even more shattered by wounds sustained in that catastrophic war.

          The thirteen, fourteenth and fifteenth amendment to the constitution was to settle the issues of slavery, citizenship and the right to vote. With the compromise of 1877, the Union troops were drawn from the South and the defeated Confederate racists were allowed to create the Jim Crow segregated structure that re-institutionalized white supremacy and white privilege.  The Jim Crow system confined the newly unchained black sharecroppers and laborers to an immiserated position in the division of labor.  That dastardly system prevailed, particularly in southern states until the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

Some degree of restoration of rights which were lost after the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877 was restored in the 1960s.  Black folks now could exercise the right to vote and to exercise the human dignity of access to public places. The Jim Crow era lasted from 1877 to 1965, approximately 78 years.  Now the restoration of constitutional rights and the Voting Rights Act are currently imperiled.  The Roberts Supreme Court, over-riding Congress, has struck down the extension of the Voting Rights Act.  The same Jim Crow- inclined court has dismantled affirmative action and given us Citizens United that has allowed corporate money to undermine the democratic process.

The backward notion of state rights has raised its ugly head with a new vengeance.  State legislatures controlled by pea-minded Republicans have used their power not to create jobs, to rebuild the infra-structure or to reduce poverty but to pass legislation on abortion to restrict a woman’s right to choose that was settled in 1973 in the Supreme Court decision, Roe vs Wade.

The same state legislatures have sought to undermine the Affordable Care Act and are oblivious to the benefits of a healthcare system that would include the working poor and the millions of uninsured.  In the same vein, the new Jim Crow political mentality is designing new ways of excluding minority voters from participating in the democratic process.  These measures were adopted by some states like Ohio, Florida and Virginia but the United States Attorney General was able to thwart the undemocratic practices.  In the absence of certain provisions in the Voting Rights Act, state legislatures are already seizing the opportunity to restrict the people’s right to vote.

This bewildering state of dysfunctionalism was vividly manifested in Boehner’s House of Representatives when the Republicans had to appease the Tea Party elements by passing the farm bill bereft of the nutritional programs that feed the working poor and children who benefit from school lunches.  The Tea Party elements in the Republican Party want to gut the food stamp program in an age when inequality is at its zenith in comparison to the decades 1930-1970 that Paul Krugman calls The Great Conveyance.

As we write, the Trayvon Martin jurors have exonerated George Zimmerman.  That case, which resulted in the death of seventeen year old black male, has split black and white America.  The atavistic nature of race in America did not evaporate with the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States of America.  Like the Civil War of the 1860s, like the post-Reconstruction period in America, white racism is ingenuous in reinventing itself.  It is a persistent theme that recurs at intervals in US history like the chorus of a song.

The same racial dialectics raised its head in the battle for immigration reform.  An onerous bill has been passed by the Senate but the Republicans, inside and outside of the House, are adamant about giving the eleven million undocumented workers a pathway to citizenship.  Nonetheless, the America of the nineteenth century is not the same America of the early twentieth century or the late twentieth century.  The coalition that elected Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012 is the America of the future.  The Phyllis Schlaflys represent a dying America.  The Republican Party that has cultivated and benefited from white privilege from 1968 is like a dinosaur that is on its way to becoming extinct.

As the African American poet Langston Hughes exhorted “Let America be America”.  An America, based on the new demographics, will extricate itself from the lingering racism and establish a genuine multi-racial democracy.  That will not be accomplished overnight but it is inevitable.  In the meantime, in the words of the poet, Robert Frost, “We have miles and miles to go before we sleep”.  And there are epic struggles ahead.

A Harbinger of the New America?
Barack's Brown Babies 
What are they Dreaming?
 

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By: Basil Wilson
 August 9, 2013
Queens, New York
Originally published by the Carib News, 7/17/13

In Defense of the Catholic Church

Posted in Cultural Matters, Uncategorized with tags , , , on August 9, 2013 by playthell

St Benedict

                       The Church of St. Benedict The Moor

A Reply to Comments On My Essay On the Pope

While everything that has been said in the responses has the ring of truth, it does not tell the whole story. Since my intention is to always tell the truth, to render unto God that which is God’s and unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and even give the Devil his due, I must set the record straight regarding my views on the Catholic Church.

While the wildly popular protestant evangelist Reverend Agee calls the mother church of the Christian faith “the Whore of Babylon,” and the Anti-Defamation League Grand Inquisitor Abraham Foxman was indifferent when questioned about his alliance with Rev. Agee in Israeli support groups, I feel compelled to say a few words in favor of the Church and their work.

There is for instance the charity and service rendered by dedicated priests and nuns who have pledged to spend their lives serving their fellow man around the world; often at great danger to themselves and almost always under difficult circumstances; willing taking a vow of poverty in order to serve others. Needless to say I could recount myriad examples. But let me cite a couple from my own life.

When the rigid laws of Florida prevented me from entering elementary school in the public system because I wasn’t yet six years old, although I could read better than some adults, the little Catholic school funded by the church of “St. Benedict the Moor” took me in and gave me my first formal education. We were not catholic, but staunch members of First Baptist Church, located right around the corner. Yet they took me in and the white nuns who taught us – and taught us well – were the only white people I ever encountered growing up in Florida who treated us as the precious children of God.

I found their colorful costumes and pagan rituals – bowing before idols and burning exotic incense – an intriguing dramatic show; and their curious cannibalistic ritual of drinking wine and “eating the body of Christ” bizarre and somewhat frightening; it kept me awake at night the first time I experienced it. And the way they described the horrors of hell and purgatory was enough to make me walk a straight and narrow line and try my best to keep the Ten Commandments.

Hence I’d say my experience at St. Benedict the Moor was a good thing, and as I look back now and reflect upon the fact that they chose to serve us in the Apartheid south, with all of the danger and inconvenience that must have attended their mission, I take my hat off to them with eternal gratitude.

When I decided to reject the idea of God at thirteen years old I sat in a pew in the white Cathedral downtown on Easter  Sunday morning, when blacks were allowed to sit in the back pews, and I cursed God when the priest was reciting “Escum spirit tu tu o” or something like that – my Latin is less than weak – and announced the presence of God’s spirit at the elaborately decorated altar.

When no lightning bolt crashed through the ceiling and wiped me out, I said it again, and again! When I left church that Easter Sunday I was convinced that both God and the Devil were figments of the imagination of man, designed to scare children into submitting to the orders of their dictatorial elders.

I have since discovered that the purposes of religion are far more complex and vital to human existence than that – after all I was only a 13 year old colored boy in apartheid Florida – but I have never since doubted that man created God rather than the other way around. And thus gods have no powers other than those designated by man. I have clung to this belief even on the high seas when the angry waves tossed the tanker around like a beach ball, and the old Salty Dogs who had long sailed the seven seas fell to their knees, passionately praying to God for deliverance…while I sat silent.

Still, I have been saved by the charity of the Catholic church more than once during my life as a scribe churning out graffiti for dollars in New York City, a town full of fine writers willing to become media whores for the fool’s gold of the corporate press. In such a marketplace an honest scribe can starve.  Hence in my dramatic falls from grace after having written some incendiary text that offended my publisher, who then decided to teach me the danger of biting the hand that feeds me, I turned to catholic charities to pay my rent.

It is no exaggeration to say that they saved me from the shame and agony of homelessness in New York City, and they never asked me what parish I belonged to. If the catholic church could save an un-churched heathen like me without question – and have done this all over the world, it is fair to say that they have made some recompense for their myriad sins.

A Shrine to the Christian Moor

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The Pride of black Catholics in St. Augustine Florida

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
August 9. 2013