Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Fall from Grace

The remnants of the construction crane that collapsed and killed two workers Friday came down today, but the bad feelings set off by this tragedy are bound to linger. This is the second collapse of a crane this year--one in March took seven lives--and the latest disaster leaves an aura of menace around the construction boom that is transforming New York City.

First there's the awful nature of the collapse itself. It took place after the March disaster set in motion a succession of government actions and inspections that were supposed to prevent things like this from happening. Early reports point to metal fatigue or operational error as possible explanations for the collapse of the crane, according to a fine report by Tony Destefano in Newsday. Whatever the cause, two men died.

Then there's the unease that accompanies our city's boom. You can't look around Manhattan these days without seeing a new office tower or apartment house looming above. I'm glad for the office towers that bring jobs, but I'm skeptical about the relentless eruption of luxury housing across Manhattan.

For all of Mayor Bloomberg's plans to build moderate income housing, I have an unshakable sense that the Manhattan that is emerging under his mayoralty will become ever more hostile to moderate income residents. Where I used to look at construction sites as dramatic scenes of a city unfolding, I now see them as siege towers hemming in a New York that provides good homes for working people.

And this disaster was more personal for me than the last one. For years I've purchased my children's soccer gear at a great old store called Soccer Sport Supply on First Avenue between 90th and 91st streets. And the apartment building under construction is scheduled to become the new home of East Side Middle School, an excellent public school that my son attended.

When I looked at the disaster site today, I noticed that Soccer Sport Supply was closed for the post-disaster cleanup. And I couldn't help shuddering at what might have happened if a crane had collapsed onto a building packed with students.

An editorial in the Daily News called for a return to the days of safety first. That's wise, but it leaves me asking how we got away from that in the first place. Answering that question means looking closely at the Bloomberg administration.

The mayor has been rightly acclaimed for bringing first-rate people into government. But Bloomberg's mayoralty rests on a devotion to business interests and market values. The mayor praises efficient government, but he seems to have little taste for a city government that redistributes wealth and power in the interest of the majority of New York's citizens.

Today, in the new Gilded Age, we need a mayor who will stand up to businesses--including the construction and real estate industries--and discipline them in the name of the public good. An effective effort to guarantee the safety of people who live, work, and walk around construction cranes would be a good place to start.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Forgotten Ellis Island

Americans have long responded to immigrants with a mixture of welcome, suspicion and rejection. All three were on display at the Ellis Island hospital complex, whose little-known story is valuably told in filmmaker Lorie Conway's Forgotten Ellis Island: The Extraordinary Story of America's Immigrant Hospital (2007).

At its best, doctors at the facility fought epidemics and treated sick immigrants before sending them on their way. At their worst, they used dubious theories of psychology and eugenics laced with nativism to reject hundreds, if not thousands of immigrants, as "feebleminded."

Of course, Ellis Island admitted more immigrants than it turned away. And the under-acknowledged hospital, as Conway shows, was an impressive facility. It effectively treated a multitude of patients--few of whom spoke English--for a wide range of ailments.

Nevertheless, the process of rejection could be cruel. Fiorello La Guardia, an Ellis Island interpreter before he served as congressman and mayor, looked back on the experience and concluded: "I felt then, and I feel the same today, that over fifty percent of the deportations for alleged mental disease were unjustified. Many of those classified as mental cases were so classified because of ignorance on the part of immigrants or doctors and the inability of the doctors to understand the particular immigrant's norm or standard."

Conway does a good job of recognizing the contrasting aspects of the hospital's history. She also restores the hospital to its proper place in history alongside Ellis Island's better-known Great Hall.

At the same time she tells her story in a creative way, with a combination of narrative, photographs, oral history, and extended block quotations that evoke and explore the hospital's history. (Full disclosure: I'm a friend of the editor.) The book has the feel of a good film, and it is not surprising to learn that Conway has also produced a documentary on the Ellis Island hospital.

The hospital complex is now being fixed up to serve as an institute for the study of immigration and a conference center. I can only hope that the deliberations there reflect Conway's recognition, expressed so well in the story of the Ellis Island hospital, that immigration brings out the worst and the best in Americans.

Requiem for a Library

I note with great sadness that the Donnell Library is immanently scheduled to close, to be reborn in a few years as the basement of a new luxury hotel which will rise from its ruins. Now, I am not a very sentimental person, especially when it comes to New York City landmarks. I haven’t lived in the city for a dozen years, and with housing prices and my income being what they are, it doesn’t seem too likely that I will ever be returning. That’s fine. You take Manhattan. I am content to live in my New York City, in the book I am writing, which is about my New York City, the city of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Whatever happened after that is really of purely academic interest. Those of you who live in the city now, feel free to do whatever you want with the city, which becomes a little less familiar with every visit. All are gone, the old familiar faces.

And I guess what you are doing to the Donnell Library is what you New Yorkers are doing to public venue after public venue to my former home, turning them into handmaidens for avarice, with public life surviving on crumbs and sufferance from extravagant wealth. The New York Public Library, as Rob pointed out a few months ago, has stopped touting its magnificent reference collection to convince young people that video games are really cool. I guess a forty story luxury condo on top of the 42nd street library would have the usual rationale the library bureaucrats give in these situations; we are strapped for funds, this new building would be a great benefice, just think of what this money could do to improve the stacks!!

Oh, I guess you’ve heard this before, but the shuttering of the Donnell before the forces of greed is for me a particularly hard blow. Because it was front of the Donnell Library, that, on a gloriously sunny July morning in 1989, that I first met my wife, Jane, in a blind-date we had arranged through a dating service, and she was an image of radiant loveliness then, and is an image of loveliness now. And for many years before that, I had been a patron. And Jane, in one of a series of odd jobs she found on moving to New York City as a teenager, spent several years working there as a clerk. The library was always a heterogeneous meeting place, serving the riffraff who wanted to rest their weary feet, cineastes after the latest art film, retired matrons meeting to chat, and the occasional patron wanting to find a book. It was a wonderfully cluttered, unpretentious library. Now, as everyone in the city knows, if you want to read a book, you go to the nearest Barnes and Nobles.

53rd Street just aint what it used to be. In the old days the Rockefellers knew how to buy elegance, which was what they bought in the original MoMa. Now the Museum of Modern Art has become a bloated cumbersome monument to itself. All of my old familiar cheap eateries have gone as well. (I must say I like the new Folk Art Museum, though.) As I said, New York City, isn’t my home anymore, and in a real sense, I ain’t got no home in this world, anymore. Rochester is just a place to hang my hat, if I had a hat to hang. Its nice enough, but I have no sentimental attachment to it at all. Tear down or put up any building you like. It means nothing to me. But there was a time when the Donnell Library was to me what Jerusalem was to Dante, a portal to hidden realms and true love. Now I feel as outraged as Dante might have felt if the saints in heaven had told him that they needed to expand, so they allowed a thirteenth century Florentine developer to build a luxury tower on top of the highest level of paradise. Yes, it might be a bit inconvenient, and it blocks the view of God, the stars, and the planets, but think of the revenue stream. Anyway, if anyone should now ask me, tell me, where did you meet your wife, the answer will be, “oh, I don’t know, the place doesn’t exist anymore."

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Shad On the Run

Peter Applebome's column in today's Times, "Why a Fish Didn't Show At a Festival In Its Honor," is a warning about a disturbing trend in the Hudson: the decline of ten out of thirteen species of fish in the river since the 1980s--including the shad.

Over the weekend, the environmental watchdog group Riverkeeper held its 19th Annual Shad Fest and Hudson River Celebration without serving any shad. Baked shad, cooked on a plank next to glowing coals, has long been a sign of spring in the Hudson Valley. "With the population of fish dwindling to historically low levels," Applebome reports, "the decision was made to have the festival without serving any shad for the first time."

A study commissioned by Riverkeeper levels blame at power plants on the river, but also points to overfishing, the netting of fish out at sea before they reach the river, destruction of fish habitats, invasive species, and two changes in the river's water: a decline in oxygen levels and an increase temperature. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation blames overfishing.

I'm not competent to judge which of these factors or others is to blame for the decline of so many fish in the Hudson River. But I do believe that the health of the Hudson is worth fighting for. It would be a tragedy if the reward for the cleanup of the river is a Hudson with fewer fish.

Contact Riverkeeper to learn more about its many activities, including Hudson Fisheries Defense .

Monday, May 19, 2008

Red Lantern, Green Lantern

I just finished reading David Hadju’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2008), an account of the comic book scares of the mid-1950s. I enjoyed Hadju’s book, with its expert retelling of the colorful birth of the comic book industry, which emerged from the fervid imaginations of New York City teenagers in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the promotional abilities of a number of sleazy, fly by night publishers, with tiny offices on 9th and 10th avenues. Within years they had created a new genre of popular literature, led by Superman, who transformed adolescent America’s reading taste just as easily as leaping over tall buildings in a single bound

But the center of the book is an account of how, in 1954, the publication of Frederic Wertham’s The Seduction of the Innocent, alleging a connection between comic books and juvenile delinquency, led to Senate hearings on the same subject conducted by Sen. Estes Kefauver, and the decision of the comic book industry to adopt the Comics Code, which banned violent and salacious subject matter in comics, and led to a great shakeout in the industry, from which only a few comic book makers were left standing.

But I guess I dissent from Hadju’s thesis, seconded by blurbs by such estimable folks as Sean Willentz and Victor Navasky, that the crackdown on comic books was a disaster, an example of mid-1950s America penchant for hysteria and witch hunting, akin to the red scare. Hadju ends the volume with a 14-page list of people who never worked again in comics after the adoption of the Comics Code.

There is no doubt that Frederic Wertham’s attack on comic books was shrill and greatly exaggerated the harmful effects of comic books, which probably had little or no effect on the level of adolescent crime. But Wertham was a fascinating figure, a German émigré psychologist who opened a pioneering mental health clinic in Harlem in 1946, and was an ardent supporter of racial equality, and was a close friend of Ralph Ellison. He was also a prime example of the belief in social engineering that was so prevalent in the 1950s, that bad societal outcomes such as prejudice or juvenile delinquency could be prevented or eliminated by directly changing the mental biases that led to their rise; no more comic books, no more, or at least much less, juvenile delinquency.

And Wertham didn’t have to go far to find lurid examples of comic books, which had moved, as Hadju carefully explains, from stories of patriotic superheroes to horror comics filled with grisly pictures of axe-murderers with blood dripping from their murder weapons, and romantic comics, which largely consisted of busty women in various states of undress. Hadju never really comes to grips with Wetham’s main point, exaggerated as it may have been: lots of the comic books that were being published in the early 1950s were not really appropriate for children.

Once the comics code was instituted, the comic book industry returned to what it did best, superheros, and those of us who grew up in the shadow of the comics code, reading Superman, Batman, and Spiderman, were not aware that we were reading inferior products, and their was plenty of violence, and women dressed in tight fitting unitards. And it seems unlikely that the comic book industry would have continued at the same size it was in the mid-1950s for much longer. New media, television and horror films in particular, were making inroads, and adolescent tastes, no doubt aided by the comic book scare, changed. This was not a blacklist, but the same thing that happened to the authors of dime novels or jazz musicians during the rock and roll era. Popular culture is a harsh mistress. And as Hadju shows, what was no doubt the most important product of the comic book world of the early 1950s, Mad Magazine, transcended the comic book genre, and continued to thrive.

The only problem with comic books these days is that they have become too sophisticated, and is no longer disposable adolescent fare, and are regularly read by adults. I can’t tell you how many progressive twenty-something bloggers I read feel impelled to make a point by bringing in Iron Man, the Justice League of America, or Green Lantern. Enough! What is it that accounts for the hold of comic books over the minds of some of our best liberal commentators? Time for a new congressional investigation.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Pizza with a Side Order of Staten Island

Staten Island is rarely thought of as a culinary destination, but this attitude only betrays the ignorance of people who have never been to Denino's Pizzeria Tavern. Denino's, which has been around since 1937, serves an excellent thin-crust pie--and the bus trip there from the Saint George Ferry Terminal presents a fascinating slice of a changing Staten Island.

On my recent trip to Denino's, at 524 Port Richmond Ave., my college buddy and I ordered a ricotta pie--tomato sauce, mozzarella, and ricotta cheese--with beer and salad on the side.

Denino's motto is "in crust we trust." The crust on our pie was good but not quite excellent: wonderfully crisp around the edges, but just a touch moist underneath the middle of the pie.

The cheeses and sauce, however, were superb. The tomato sauce was light, with just enough strength to complement the cheeses. And the mozzarella and ricotta were delicate, flavorful and fresh. The result was a pizza with a good mix of flavors and textures that was not at all heavy. And the beer and salad were just fine.

After Denino's we walked across Port Richmond Avenue to number 501 and Ralph's Famous Italian Ices. The ices there, which come in many flavors, are a great dessert after a meal at Denino's.

My friend and I got to Denino's, which is in northern Staten Island, by taking a ferry to Staten Island and then the S44 Bus from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in Saint George. The bus ride took about 50 minutes; we got off the bus at Hooker Place, a short walk from the tavern.

The bus was slow, but it gave us a great chance to see landmarks of the old Staten Island--nineteenth century housing and an old synagogue--along with the many stores and restaurants that signal the arrival of Mexican immigrants in northern Staten Island.

On the way back, we hailed a cab that took us back to the ferry along the Kill Van Kull, one of the last stretches of working waterfront in New York City. As we reached Saint George, we got out of our cab near the Staten Island Yankees stadium and walked down to the boardwalk that links the stadium and the ferry terminal.

The boardwalk offers great views of the harbor, and it leads right past the Staten Island 9/11 memorial. The memorial takes the shape of two great postcards, which look like wings, engraved with the names and profiles of those lost from Staten Island. In my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful of its kind in the metropolitan area.

There's more to Staten Island than pizza, but Denino's alone is well worth the trip. It can, however, get crowded on weekend evenings. Denino's Pizzeria Tavern is open from noon to 11:45 pm, seven days a week. You can call them at (718) 442-9401.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Doesn't He Ramble

David Remnick’s profile of the inimitable radio announcer on WKCR, Phil Schaap, is this week’s New Yorker, is a throwback to the magazine’s golden era, when journalists like A.J. Leibling and Joseph Mitchell filled its pages with accounts of New York City’s compulsive obsessives, living out their enthusiasms at whatever cost to their pocketbooks or conventional notions of respectability. Their point, ultimately, was not just to entertain with stories of colorful characters, but to honor their passions and their commitments, and recognize that it through people who live out their passions, whatever the consequences, that the world is changed. What Mahatma Gandhi is to non-violent resistance, Phil Schapp is to jazz.

I have been listening to Phil Schaap for over a quarter century, introduced to him by my late brother, Freddy. When I moved up to Rochester I couldn’t listen until the internet really got working, and then after September 11, when WKCR lost its transmitter, I couldn’t listen for a few years, but everything is working now, and I find myself listening to Phil a few times a week. Of course the question is why. Schaap is legendary for his knowledge of jazz history, which can slide into the minutest of trivia on record dates, participants, birthdates, and ensembles, all recounted from memory, and all spun out at often excruciating length. Schaap’s airbreaks, when he can talk for over a hour in a relentlessly didactic style, are what make his legendary. The article by Remnick compares Schaap to baseball writer Bill James, but I don’t think the comparison is apt—James’s is relentlessly thesis driven, stolen bases are overrated, on base percentage is underrated, etc., and he is always marshalling his facts to make an argument. Schaap’s overly long, incredibly repetitive and desultory explanations often seem to have nothing to do with the records he eventually plays, or no point at all, and I often listen to him out of grim fascinating of listening to an obsessive, making every possible connection or point, like a two-page footnote in the dullest scholarly style imaginable, or like an eager graduate student who has to tell you everything he or she knows on the matter at hand.

But except for the fact that I have a better sense than Phil Schaap does on when I am boring people, I have the same instincts. (I have edited four or five encyclopedias, after all.) And I learned a great deal from listening to Phil, both about jazz history, and how to listen to jazz. But like most listeners, I graduated from Phil, wanting only to listen to the music, and not his interminable blather. But I keep coming back. (The test is, when you turn him on, do you hear music or talk. At least 75% of the time, its talk.) Why? He is a historian. Most of his stories come from oral histories conducted over the years, generally on the radio, with musicians who were present at the events in question. And he plays, when he gets around it, great music, and he has single handedly done much to keep the music alive, both on the radio and in his reissue of classic recordings, which generally have the Schaapian touch, like his set of Charlie Parker on Verve that has 11, I think, consecutive takes on Bird on “Old Folks.”

He has become, in recent years, a somewhat melancholy figure on the air. The music he loves the best, jazz through about 1955 or so, is ever more irretrievably in the past, and the musicians who made the music are dying fast, and he has taken to endless laments on the fallen stature and status of jazz. I have wondered about the limitations in his canon, his endless playing of his favorites at the expense of other equally worthy figures; why Charlie Parker and not Bud Powell? Or Clifford Brown and not Miles Davis, Bix Beiderbecke and not Django Reinhardt? But you can’t get too angry at someone whose greatest loves are Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and the first Basie band. And you can’t even really get angry at someone, when I asked him a few years ago, for help in identifying a pseudonymous black jazz musician who was gigging in Bombay in 1936, said he would help if he was paid. Thanks, Phil. But I figured out myself, and he has always led a somewhat solitary, hand to mouth existence, as befitting a grand obsessive, and probably needed the money.

Stanley Crouch is quoted in Remnick’s piece as saying “there is no person in America more dedicated to any art form than Phil is to jazz.” I think that’s right, and it is finally his passion that keeps me listening (up to a point.) The first job of a historian is not to interpret the past, but to save it from oblivion, and Phil has saved much vital music and vital recollections from time’s wrecking ball, has introduced generations of wannabees to the arcana of jazz discography, and has been a unique cultural treasure for New York City. Just ramble on Phil, ramble, and I will listen until the butcher cuts one of us down

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg

Of all the great mid-century New York artists, perhaps my favorite was Robert Rauschenberg. He was without the pretension of the abstract expressionists, lacked the layer upon layer of super cool irony that can make someone like Warhol at times seem callous, or the cultivated hermeticism of some of his latter-day imitators. Rauschenberg was protean, beyond category, promiscuously embracing every artistic style at once, and in every genre, paintings, sculptures, installations, stage designs, you name it.

I guess he will be best remembered for his “combines” sculpted collages of bric-a-brac, like his famous stuffed goat surrounded by a bicycle tire. He was an artist of the randomness and complexity of urban life, and made his often bizarre juxtapositions seem natural, and in many cases, profoundly moving. The exhibit of his “combines” at the Metropolitan Musuem a few years ago was one of the most enjoyable exhibits I remember seeing. I took a special trip down to the city to see it again.

Who is of his stature today? With his passing, earlier this week, I suppose the New York School is slowly fading away, the generation and a half or so when New York City was really at the center of the art world no more. I’m no expert (but I know what I like), but to me, the contemporary art world in New York City seems at once smaller and more heterogeneous, inward-looking, and all in all less interesting. Who are today’s larger than life artists? The only name that comes to mind, in terms of the publicity side, anyway, is the quite meretricious Jeff Koons.

Perhaps it is the all consuming greed that surrounds the art world that has made it once richer and much diminished. Artists have become race horses, prized by investors for their stud fees, while their actual productions have become secondary. The whole point is to discover a fresh unknown, buy something for a few thousand bucks, hold onto it for a few years, and cash out with a cool million. Or perhaps the problem is the steady rise in real estate prices has priced artists out of Manhattan and is doing the same to Brooklyn. Nowadays only aspiring stockbrokers and corporate lawyers, and not artists, come to New York City to make their fortunes.

Oh, these are perhaps overly sour reflections, and take away from what I wanted to write about. Rauschenberg was one of our greatest artists, with a wry, perceptive, deeply felt appreciation for the sorrows and pleasures of the city that was infinitely inquisitive and never cynical. He will be missed.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Fighting Spirit

In recent Democratic primaries, observers have noted Hillary Clinton's success at winning the votes of white, working-class men and attributed this to everything from racism to patriotism. But a recent op-ed in the Times by Susan Faludi suggests that Clinton wins these men's votes because she has cast off the traditional women's role of referee and embraced the role of fighter. I think the argument is worth taking seriously, especially on the part of Barack Obama.

Faludi's colunmn, "The Fight Stuff," looks at the fighting senator and points out that

...while the commentators have been tut-tutting, Senator Clinton has been converting white males, assuring them that she’s come into their tavern not to smash the bottles, but to join the brawl.

Deep in the American grain, particularly in the grain of white male working-class voters, that is the more trusted archetype. Whether Senator Clinton’s pugilism has elevated the current race for the nomination is debatable. But the strategy has certainly remade the political world for future female politicians, who may now cast off the assumption that when the going gets tough, the tough girl will resort to unilateral rectitude. When a woman does ascend through the glass ceiling into the White House, it will be, in part, because of the race of 2008, when Hillary Clinton broke through the glass floor and got down with the boys.

Personally, I think Clinton has landed some low blows in recent rounds. At the same time, she has also broken new ground as a woman candidate.

For now, we'll need a lot more serious thinking about class (which Americans don't do very well) and race (which Americans do a lot of but not so well) before we figure out Obama's best strategy for winning the votes of white working men.

But at least this much seems clear: white working men, and I grew up in a world of them, admire a fighter. For Obama to win them over he needs to be, in the historical language of 1968, less a Gene McCarthy and more a Bobby Kennedy.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Land of Lincoln

Well, the chauvinist New Yorker in me who was hoping that we would see an end to the New York presidential drought--sixty years running and now, evidently, certain to be at least sixty-four--is certainly disappointed. Not since Thomas E. Dewey in 1948 has a New Yorker been nominated by a major party, and while the auspices certainly seemed favorable earlier this year, with both Clinton and Giuliani as plausible candidates, evidently this was not meant to be. At least California and Texas, which have produced five presidents since a New Yorker last lived in the White House, will be shut out this year.

I have long thought that New York State’s years in the wilderness as a consequence of the hubris of 1944, when two New Yorkers (FDR and Thomas Dewey, again) were the major party candidates for president. This has only happened twice before, in 1904, when
once again, there were two New Yorkers (with Teddy Roosevelt and the remarkably obscure Alton B. Parker), and in 1860, when two Illinoisans, Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were candidates. (Okay nitpickers, yes, there were two other candidates in the race that year from the South. It was a complicated election.)

But should Barack Obama become president this fall, he will become the first Illinois president since Lincoln, and will almost certainly be the first from his state to run for president since the wildly overpraised Adlai Stevenson. (Until I truly understand why the Democrats twice picked this astonishing mediocrity I will never fully understand the 1950s.) If I were one of Obama’s campaign people, who have barely missed a trick this campaign season (Did I tell you that David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign manager, was in my class at Stuyvesant High School? I think I remember him in my Spanish class) I would emphasize the Lincoln rather than the Stevenson connection.

Lincoln is perhaps the best example in American history of our penchant, in times of crisis, to pick relative unknowns and outsiders to be president. I don’t know of any other country that does this, and I must say I prefer the British model, in which prime ministers ascend to the top of Disraeli’s famous greasy pole by first serving as foreign secretary or chancellor of the exchequer or some other high executive position. By contrast, the United States has always loved newcomers, who promise to cleanse the Augean stables of Washington, and start all anew.

Lincoln was hardly an unknown, and of course had run against Douglas for the Senate in 1858, and had some influence in Illinois Republican circles. But when all is said and done,it is rather remarkable that a man whose one important elective office had been a single term in Congress a decade before, was chosen to lead this country (or at least a part of it) at what clearly was its greatest crisis and hour of need.

Obama, like, Lincoln, and like Bill Clinton, and like our current Bush (in this to be sharply distinguished from his father) has only been on the national scene for only a few years before securing the nomination, and it has long fascinated me why we think relatively obscurities can make better presidents than those who had far more experience. Sometimes this works well (as with Lincoln) and sometimes it doesn’t (as with Mr. Mission Accomplished.)

Among other distinctions, Obama--if elected, as I fervently hope--will be the first president who will be younger than me. It seems to me, speaking up for the children of the 1950s, that we have just finished with two guys born in 1946, Clinton and Stupidhead, and we move right to a man born in the 1960s, leaving the great baby boom decade of the 1950s without a president to call its own. This seems unfair, but it is just an indication that those born in the 1950s are already passé. If we grew up with thoughts of democratic possibility dancing in our heads, we have been sobered by decades of political exile, and most of us are (I guess I should speak for myself ) either too cynical or too accommodating to accept the politics of transformation for what it is. When Obama says, as he did in a flyer I received the other day, that he didn’t merely want political change, but sought to change the nature of politics, I can only quote the reverend Jeremiah Wright, and say, this is indeed the audacity of hope, and in the end I am neither particularly audacious nor hopeful.

The problem with America in 2008 is that we cannot turn back the clock to Dec. 11. 2000, the day before the Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore. We cannot undo the last eight terrible years, and we must live in the world that George Bush created. How a Democrat deals with this miserable inheritance will define the first years of a new presidency, and what Obama will do isn't all that clear.

Obama is a difficult man to read, and much like Lincoln, there are two souls at war in his breast, a deep moral sense of the possibility of personal and national renewal, twinned to an innate sense of political caution and reality. One voice tells him that America has to live up to the better angels of its nature, and that when the herald angels start to sing, a radical change is in the offing, and you better harken or get left at the wayside; the other voice tells him that is what wins is a Fabian strategy, an incrementalism, he gradual accumulation of small strategic gains. Obama is a cautious prophet of sweeping change. So was Lincoln. The problem with the politics of transformation is that once you sign up, you never know what you're going to get. Lincoln said he didn't want to free the slaves but but the logic of his presidency led him inexorably to such an action. Will Obama led us in a similar fashion to something that appears out of reach now, like single-payer health care? I hope we get a chance to find out.

I suppose that Americans are basically gamblers, and rather then taking a sure thing in hand, they would rather trade it in for what’s behind door number three. What is exciting about Obama is that we will not know, until he takes office, what sort of president he will be. Let us hope he can bind the wounds of his party, with malice towards none, and charity towards all, and get rid of the McClellans who will advise him to remain bogged down in Iraq indefinitely. (If Lincoln had enough courage to win a war, we need a president with enough courage to lose a war.)

So far, in terms of presidents, Illinois is batting 1.000. Let's hope it stays that way.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

New Stirrings in the South

Our guest contributor, Donald Shriver, is president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. His latest book is Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds.

Elections bring blends of hopes and fears. News to my Yankee friends: my hope for the USA is pinned right now on African American voters, who voted over 90% for Obama in North Carolina and Indiana yesterday.

But even more hopeful for me as a native of Virginia is the fact that in its Democratic Primary a majority of white men voted for Obama. That for me is a very good sign that Obama might in fact lift up this country toward a post-racist future. That he swept the under-44 age groups in both North Carolina and Indiana suggests as much.

During all my adult years in the South, as a Democrat and as a Christian, when an election approached, I checked with my black friends to see which candidate, in their judgment, was the better. Like the criterion, "Is it good for the Jews?", we southerners needed to ask, "Is it good for the blacks?" In Obama, I believe, we have a candidate who will be good for us all.

North Carolina is the state that sent Jesse Helms and Terry Sanford simultaneously to the US Senate. Puzzle on that if you want, but know that things are stirring down South, and the new brew tastes good to me.

Raised in the first 18 of my years in Virginia, having lived for 17 subsequent years in North Carolina, and now having lived 33 years in New York City, I carry in my mind the need of this country to get over its North-South division but not in superficial terms like, 'Let bygones be bygones.' Avoiding that superficiality is the message of my recent book, Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Planked Shad at Shorakapok

Every spring the shad return to the Hudson River to spawn, and with them the Hudson Valley tradition of the shad bake. Both remind us of the gains made in cleaning up the river, the work still to be done to guarantee public access to the river, and the good taste of baked shad. All that and more were made clear Saturday, May 3 at "Drums Along the Hudson: A Native American Festival and Shad Fest" held at Inwood Hill Park in northern Manhattan.

The park, where Spuyten Duyvil meets the Hudson, occupies a spot the Lenape called Shorakapok. "Drums Along the Hudson" featured a wide range of Native American dancers and singers; their artistry was a reminder of the many Indian cultures of North America. There were also elements of modern pan-Indian culture for sale, including "Indian Tacos" (which my friend knew as "Navajo Tacos" when he ate them in Navajo Country): fried bread with refried beans, ground meat, salsa, cheese and sour cream. They're great even if they don't help your cholesterol count.

But for me, as a second-generation Hudson River canoeist, the culinary treat of the day was the Hudson River shad. Christopher Letts of the Hudson River Foundation and Tom Lake of the New York Dept. of Environment and Conservation set up a shad bake and an educational display. I learned a lot about preparing shad (which I will put into practice) and the state of the eel population of our oceans (which is declining for hard-to-understand reasons.)

Letts served samples of pickled shad and smoked shad, which were prepared in advance, and baked shad cooked on a white oak plank propped up next to a bed of coals. I liked all three.

I've enjoyed shad cooked in an oven, but the coals and the oak make planked shad a special treat. Here's a recipe from the Hudson River Foundation.

Build a hardwood or charcoal fire on sand, dirt or gravel.

Take an untreated plank of wood an inch thick, a foot wide, and about 18 inches long.

Place two shad fillets lengthwise on the plank. Place strips of bacon across the fillets and tack them to the plank to hold the fish in place.

Prop the plank near the fire at an angle of about 60 degrees. If you like, nail wooden legs to the sides of the plank to hold it upright.

Cook the shad slowly, moving the plank so the shad doesn't cook too fast or burn. If the plank or bacon burn, the plank is way too hot. Give the fish at least an hour to cook. This is slow food of the finest kind. (And if you're health conscious, shad is rich in the omega III fatty acids that reduce cholesterol levels and heart problems.)

There are a few more shad bakes between now and the end of the shad season. You can get the dates from the Hudson River Foundation. They'll also give you reasons to eat Hudson River shad that go way beyond their rich flavor:

Your participation at a shad bake puts you in the ranks of those who support traditional Hudson River commerce. It says you appreciate recreational opportunities along the river and espouse land use practices that insure public access and public use of resources. A vote for a baked shad is a vote for a healthy Hudson River.

The News From Guam

So the news from Guam is that Obama defeated Clinton by seven votes, 2,264 to 2,257, a Florida-like finish in this closely watched, hotly contested primary. No, seriously folks, why is Guam a butt of jokes, or the primary itself an object of derision, with well-informed and usually sensible bloggers making the argument that since Guam isn’t a state, what business does it have voting in presidential primaries?

I have a soft spot for Guam. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the connections between New York State and Guam. A few years ago, I met with two Guamanians who were trying to put together an encyclopedia on Guam, and it had the all-time best title for any encyclopedia I have ever heard of; the Guampedia. (I don’t think it ever came off.)

I decided that Guam is a lot like New York State, some minor differences like size and economy aside. They both first fell under the ambit of Europe at about the same time. If Giovanni di Verrazzano was the first explorer to see New York harbor in 1524, Guam had an earlier, and even more prestigious” discoverer,” Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, on his voyage of exploration that would make first European contact with many future American colonial possessions, including Guam, the Marianas Islands, and the Philippines. (And both Magellan and Verrazzano shared the fate of being killed by native peoples.)

Formal colonization came later, and in 1668, four years after the English took over New Netherland, the Spanish established control over Guam, at first a Jesuit mission under the direction of Father Diego Luis de San Vitores, S.J. His mission to the native Chamarro people went well at first, but native hostility grew, and in 1672 he was murdered by Chamarros outraged by his baptizing of infants without their permission. After considering his case with all deliberate speed, in 1985 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

The basic difference between New York State and Guam seems to be this: New York ceased to be a colony in 1776, and became a constituent state in a sovereign country, while Guam has never ceased to be a colony. While it does not match Puerto Rico, which in this year of 2008 completes five centuries of colonial status—the first Spanish governor there was appointed in 1508, and this has to be a world’s record—it might be in second place. The United States the largest colonial power in the world today, and it controls what are by far the oldest colonies. For Guam this has meant, 230 years of Spanish rule; two period of direct control by the US Navy (1899 – 1941, and 1944 – 1950, interrupted by a very nasty Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1944, control by US Department of Interior from 1950 to 1971, when finally the Guamanaians were given a modicum of self government and allowed to elect their own governor.

The basic rule of thumb seems to be, if , like Puerto Rico, a US possession maintains a native majority and widely spoken language other than English—about half of the Guamanians are Chamorro, and English and Chamorro are the official languages—statehood becomes almost impossible. (If Hawaii had maintained a native majority population, , I am sure that it too would still be a territory.) As I understand it, Hilary Clinton, pandering shamelessly as she is doing in the gas tax holiday, called for Guamanians to be able to vote for president, and not just in primaries. I think it is a great idea . After all, we already permit Washington DC to vote for president without real representation in Congress, and the status of our current colonial possessions¬—Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands—seemed fixed in a twilight zone of semi-colonial status. Why don’t we just extend the principle of Washington DC, and recognize that other non-states ought to be able to vote for president as well? Of course this will never happen, and there will be howls of opposition, claiming that such a move would besmirch that crown jewel of our political system, where no question of unfairness or malapportionment has ever been raised, the electoral college.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Greater New York takes a break from primary-related controversies, and Gov. David Paterson’s ridiculous allegation that he was obliged to fess up to his infidelities because of some sort of secret spy squad within the New York State Police---this not especially well connected blogger heard rumors of his carryings on before he made it public, and it must have common coin among those in the know in Albany---to note a significant passing, the death, at the very respectable age of 102, of Albert Hoffmann, the discoverer, or probably more accurately, the inventor of LSD.

It was in 1943, in a Switzerland surrounded by a Europe at war, that Hoffmann, an industrial chemist, first ingested LSD, and had his famous bicycle trip, where the world seemed new to him, its colors changed, and every flower and tree pregnant with new meaning. In the pantheon of the greatest of illegal drugs—marijuana, cocaine, heroin and various other opiates—only LSD can be limited to a particular period of time, really just a handful of years, about 1965 to 1970. (Let me say that when I was young and open to such things, I can’t recall ever trying LSD, so what follows are not the nostalgic musings of an ex-tripper.)

It is hard to imagine the late 1960s without LSD, and I suppose it is a mildly interesting counterfactual question of how “the sixties” would have been different without psychedelic drugs. Other drugs were either stimulants or depressants, LSD was neither, or both. Its worked to place people in an entirely different mental space altogether, a radical challenge to conventional notions of what the world was, and how it was supposed to work. Somehow I suspect without LSD, the late 1960s would have been much calmer.

The power of LSD was early recognized; so was its ability to be misused. The CIA experimented with in the early 1950s as a sort of brainwashing/truth serum/chemical torture drug, until several human guinea committed suicide under its influence. And Timothy Leary hijacked its use into something that was purely hedonistic and disgustingly excessive, and in the end he recapitulated the worst aspects of the obsessive consumer culture from which his followers were supposedly trying to escape.

But LSD was intended to be something more; a spiritual chemical, one that could help people unleash their hidden and unknown potentials, and put them into contact with a more elevated plane of existence. And there is considerable evidence, that for many people, LSD and other psychedelic s could do just that. I recently read, for the first time, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, famous for having its title borrowed by Jim Morrison for The Doors. It’s a remarkable work, in parts sober and analytical (he writes listening to the music of the cool serialist Anton von Webern while under the influence, about as far from “Light My Fire” as one could imagine), and in parts an ecstatic paean to the spiritual possibilities of psychedelics. Many took such claims seriously. When LSD and similar psychedelics were still legal, and Timothy Leary was still on the psychology faculty of Harvard University, he convinced Howard Thurman, dean of Chapel at Boston University, on Good Friday in 1963, to permit an “experiment” in which a group of divinity students, in a basement chapel, were given psychedelic drugs in the course of the service. One or two had bad trips; most of the rest reported it was one of the most profound religious experiences of their lives.

But with an anarchic and immature proselytizer like Timothy Leary, LSD never had a chance, and probably, given how powerful a drug it is, it was inevitable that by the mid-1960s it would have widely abused, and then made illegal. I think this is a pity. To the end of his life, Albert Hoffman was convinced that his creation had the potential to revitalize the staid dogmas of traditional religion, creating new religious experiences for every user, rather than forcing seekers to re-live second hand accounts of the past. Obviously there is no need to use chemistry to achieve states of heightened consciousness, and most of the great mystics have their thing without any drugs on board. And there is a debate on whether drug-induced highs can be legitimately compared to “natural” mysticism, and I am no expert, but I think they can be.

As this total non-mystic understands it, when mystics have their moments of ecstatic union, everything trivial falls away, and all is revealed as an interacting and deep and profound unity. This sort of mysticism, as Thurman and others have noted, can be an adjunct to social change, and when the mystic returns to the world, the goal becomes to try to overcome boundaries, and seek the unity of humanity that is the goal of all true religions. Or something like that. We certainly were not mature enough as a society in the 1960s to deal seriously with the implications of manufactured spirituality, and I doubt we are now. In the meanwhile, if it’s okay with you, I will picture myself in a boat in a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Voters Speak and They Hate the Process

Democratic voters may have mixed feelings about their party's candidates for the presidency, but they are united on another point: they don't like the nomination process.

This point was made with absolute clarity in a New York Times/CBS poll that ran on page one of the May 1 Times: "Fifty-one percent of Democratic primary voters say they expect Mr. Obama to win their party’s nomination, down from 69 percent a month ago." In contrast, the percentage of Democratic voters who expect Hillary Clinton to win the nomination climbed in the same period from 21% to 34%.

The Times interpreted such results as a sign that recent weeks have taken a toll on Obama. But the really striking statistic is voters' views on the nomination process. The survey polled Democrats, but I can imagine independents and Republicans responding similarly.

"Has the campaign focused too much on personal attributes like race and gender?"

Too much 63%

About right 31%

Not enough 3%

"Does the current system of nominating presidential candidates produce the best candidates?

Yes 39%

No 55%

With results like that, the politicians, journalists, fundraisers, advertisers and political consultants who produce our primaries should to take a lesson: change the system or get out of the way. Nothing less than the health of our democracy is at stake.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

More on Wright and Obama

I was speaking the other day to someone who knows the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and he said, well, you know, that’s just Jeremiah being Jeremiah, a man with an ego as big as Chicago’s South Side. The problem with him, I was told, was that he was one headstrong man, and you can’t tell him anything. This is often an occupational hazard of being the senior pastor of a large congregation; you become too used to having your own way, comfortable in being obeyed, and spend Sundays speaking your truths to packed churches that murmur amen and raise their right hands in approval. God’s prophets are rarely humble.

It has been fascinating to see people, who for the last month, have tried to explain Rev. Wright by adding context to his more inflammatory comments –typical post-1970 black church boilerplate, a prophetic mode that is prone to rhetorical excess, etc.—move away from him this week when it became clear that he is a pompous ass whose purpose in life is now, apparently, to destroy, the presidential chances of the first serious black presidential candidate, out of a sense of pique and hurt pride. It reminds me of the story of another Chicago preacher, J. H. Jackson, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA , Inc. (the largest black religious organization in the country.) He had spent many years battling Martin Luther King , Jr. (why? It’s a long story and the topic of another post.) Anyway, in the summer of 1968, after King was assassinated, the Chicago city fathers renamed a main thoroughfare in King’s honor. The main entrance of Jackson’s church was on this thoroughfare, the side entrance on a much smaller street. Rather than put King’s name on the stationary of the church, he changed its address to the side street.

Well, unlike Obama, I did leave a religious congregation because I didn’t like the political sermons I heard there. The rabbi of the synagogue I belonged to gave too many AIPAC flavored sermons on Israel for my taste, and I decided to take my davening, such as it is, elsewhere, and I don’t think that I’m that unusual. I would distinguish between sermons that you sort of agree with, but feel the reverend/rabbi has pushed things too far, and sermons that you positively and strongly disagree with . I suspect that, to Barack Obama’s hearing, Brother’s Wright’s sermons were more of the first type, probably a bit too lefty for his tastes, but he agreed with the basic thrust of much of what he heard, and made allowances for preacherly exaggeration. But Obama 20 years ago was a man searching for his identity, seeking to put down roots in the African American community, and found the Rev. Wright intellectually stimulating and provocative, and tolerated his excesses, which weren’t, in the context of the times, all that excessive. There are many, many, people in the black community who, for instance, admire some of the works of Louis Farrakhan, the Million Man March in particular, while decrying his racial separatism and anti-Semitism. And if you can’t say both God Bless American and Goddamn America, loving what is wonderful about this country, and hating what is repulsive, you haven’t been paying very close attention.

What is most upsetting about this whole episode, as Rob alludes to, is its fearful asymmetry; how the words of Rev. Wright, have been, long before this became front and center of this campaign, seen as a liability, while there has never been a right wing Christian conservative wingnut who has ever received more than a wrist slap. The Times today makes clear what had been obvious, that Wright’s bruised feelings started when Obama’s people stopped him from offering the invocation when Obama announced his candidacy. What is of course behind this is the fear that, behind his smooth façade, Obama will be seen as a closet radical, who will grow his Afro in office, and make Huey Newton’s birthday a national holiday. Obama has been on a long journey, and if one wants to be elected president, one must watch one’s words carefully. He is not a radical, and I don’t think he ever was one. Still, I hope there is a kernel of radicalism in his soul, an ability for prophetic indignation at injustice, an ability to strip things down to basics, and offer fundamental, unsparing critiques of what is wrong (and what is right) about this country.

I have been reading some of Joan Didion’s political reportage of presidential primaries past to gain some insight into the present morass. She writes of a “certain Sisyphean aspect” to our presidential politics. “The crucible event in the candidate’s ‘character’ would again be explored. Even that which seemed ineluctably clear would again vanish from collective memory, sink traceless into the stream of collapsing news and comments cycles that had become our national River Lethe.” So it has proved, again. Obama’s “character” has now swallowed up all else. And in some fundamental way, it turns on the profound unease, in many quarters, about having a black president, and having Obama prove, again and again, that he is not one of “those” sort of blacks. A good friend of mine thinks that Obama might become the Al Smith of 2008. Both were good men, first time candidates from a background that many Americans had long looked on with suspicion. In 1928 Americans applauded themselves for nominating a Catholic, while while defeating and destroying his candidacy through anti-Catholic bigotry. I hope 2008 is not 1928 redux, with race replacing religion. I have been relatively neutral in this campaign, and my decision between Obama and Clinton was essentially decided by a coin toss. But if Obama should not win the nomination because of these irrelevancies, or, worse, a Democrat should fail to win in November because of this, all I will say is “goddamn America.” Or keeping God out of this, we will have, once again, damned ourselves; having forgotten nothing, and learned nothing.