Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Nixonland and Obamanation

When Barack Obama gave his speech in Philadelphia on race he acknowledged something that only a Chicago based politician could have- that not all Working Class Whites are Racists and that they have often been used as whipping boys by Liberals and African American activists for their legitimate fears.

The fact that Obama admitted this and understands that the dialogue between "white ethnics" and African Americans is broken is as good a reason as any to elect him president. Because he can see both sides means maybe we can move beyond George Wallace and Stokely Carmichael.

My life (I was born in 1967) was punctuated by three events. These events hit me early in life but to this day they are viscerally part of me. The first was the 1967 Newark, NJ riots. My mother is from Belleville, NJ and when she was growing up it was a leafy suburb of Italians five miles from the nice middle class city of Newark. That is where they settled when they moved from Italy and I remember as a child the clean and safe two and three family houses and their patriotic and interesting occupants. It was an area in decline in the early 1970's but it was obvious it had been a nice place once.

My grandfather (also Ray) was a knife grinder or Moleta. He started out on a Brooklyn street sharpening knives and he built the American Grinding Company into a large business- when he died in 1980 he left a comfortable retirement for my grandmother and thousands came to his funeral. He spoke Italian, German, Yiddish, Hungarian and some Chinese and he knew every restaurant and butcher shop in Essex and Bergen counties he was a figure.

One of my earliest memories, I think I was four or five was going to visit a butcher shop that he did the knives for and asking him why every other building on the street, Springfield Avenue, was either burned, boarded up or an empty lot? He told me because "they" rioted a few years before an all the businesses were burned. For a five year old this was a strange idea? Why would people burn down the businesses of my Grandfather's friends?

Later in life we moved to Chicago. We had a family friend who lived in Chicago, in the Austin neighborhood. This lady was a nice Italian lady who knew my grandparents. But over a few months we stopped visiting her home and she moved away- losing the house she lived in for 30 years. According the my parents her neighborhood "changed" and "they" had changed it. This profound sense of loss and the resentment felt by people like my family is why for many years Democrats lost votes in our communities. It does not make it right but it is important to not discount its impact.

Finally when I was 8 in 1975 I sat in the living room with my Air Force Veteran father and watched as helicopters lifted off the rooftop of the American Embassy in Sai gon. My father had many friends who served in Viet Nam and who died there. This was the first time I ever saw horror on my father's face. The Vietman veterans I knew were all "ethnic" and they served out of honor and duty and our nation treated them like refuse when they returned. This too fueled resentment of "them".

In Nixonland, a book by Rick Perlstein the political attitudes of my "people" are chronicled. The real result of the 1960's, for all the good that was wrought was a fissure where people like my relatives- (my Grandfather was a delegate for Adlai Stevenson in 1956)- and my parents became Republicans. In 1980 the last year of my Grandfather's life his last political contribution was to Ronald Reagan.

An era of political paralysis- that currently damages our country still because of the profound fissure that the events that I felt as a small child millions of people who should be voting Democratic voted for Reagan and Bush and Bush. People who should be voting their interests voted against them because of "them" and our nation slowly shifted from the united nation of justice to the swing group-pressure group nation we live in today.

In Perlstein's book he masterfully tells us how the real and legitimate fears of people like my parents and grandparents were used by cynical politicians to win votes and divide America. The images of police dogs and marchers that morally convicted White America were replaced with "kill Whitey". "Whitey" moved away, voted Republican, and made sure that much of the progressivity of the 1960's was rolled back or destroyed. Good people whose gut would have supported progressive politics voted reactionary because they felt that Liberals sided with the rioters and not them.

This was Nixonland.

Nixonland however is ending. The America that I grew up in where fear of "them" can be used to divide people is coming to its end. Michelle Obama and I are not that far apart in age and I bet if Michelle's Dad and my Grandfather Ray has sat down for a shot and a beer they would have gotten along. But because politicians turned Michelle's father into "them" that never happened. This is not to say that racism is not a real problem- this is not to say that the rioters were not criminals- but what we need to ask is what did our republic benefit from these divisions? I cannot believe that every Black family that moved into Austin (chicago) or Newark, NJ was a problem? Yet the neighborhood in Newark where Philip Roth wrote his greatest works is today devoid of Jews because "they" moved in.

Nixonland is ending- and perhaps Obamanation is coming- is because Barack Obama understands this tension and he understands that we are all in this together. Unlike the Nixonland mentality he knows that we need to build something in unity because his very existence comes from this reality. So now we wait for the election. Will memories of riots, changing neighborhoods and resentments cause America to miss its chance to elect the person who could end the cycle?

The Republicans will continue to play these cards. As George Wallace said in 1963 "no one will ever out-ni***r me again. " But I hope that there are more people who were born to families like mine who is remember another slogan-

Yes We Can.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Reading Origen in Las Vegas

I have always been fascinated by the early Church. Easily the most interesting area for me is the birth of Monasticism in Egypt. The romantic stories of the Abbas in Egypt- Antony, Pachomius, Pambo and the great mothers like Mary of the Desert.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers are totally anathema to our current world which is based on things. When the Fathers said go to your cell and you will find what you are looking for he was challenging us to look to the gifts already recieved not to what dwells outside us. When the Desert Fathers looked as simplicity as the only way a Christian should live they were creating a paradigm that exists to this day- do you think God's will is served by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day or Desmond Tutu? Or by Creflo Dollar, Pope Julius or EWTN.

The monastics of Egypt- the first Christian monks. The Monks of Egypt and Syria were influenced profoundly by many forces- the Jewish Therapeautae, the Persian Manichees whose faith is a fusion the Zoroastrian and Christian via their prophet Mani and a profound passage from St Luke. The monks of the Desert and their monastaries were radically "other" they chose to leave the world as they saw it for something better. So much of today's "christians" are not prophetic- no they are weak and vacillating. They are concerned with 'self help' instead of depth and in the end their religion is a parody.

St Luke 12 22 New Jerusalem Bible

Then he said to his disciples, 'That is why I am telling you not to worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and how you are to clothe it.23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.24 Think of the ravens. They do not sow or reap; they have no storehouses and no barns; yet God feeds them. And how much more you are worth than the birds!25 Can any of you, however much you worry, add a single cubit to your span of life?26 If a very small thing is beyond your powers, why worry about the rest?27 Think how the flowers grow; they never have to spin or weave; yet, I assure you, not even Solomon in all his royal robes was clothed like one of them.28 Now if that is how God clothes a flower which is growing wild today and is thrown into the furnace tomorrow, how much more will he look after you, who have so little faith!29 But you must not set your hearts on things to eat and things to drink; nor must you worry.30 It is the gentiles of this world who set their hearts on all these things. Your Father well knows you need them.31 No; set your hearts on his kingdom, and these other things will be given you as well.32 'There is no need to be afraid, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom. On almsgiving 33 'Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Get yourselves purses that do not wear out, treasure that will not fail you, in heaven where no thief can reach it and no moth destroy it.34 For wherever your treasure is, that is where your heart will be too.

I have always been enamoured of asceticism. But unlike Francis of Assisi who was also moved to change by this passage from Luke I am unable to be more than enamoured. The truth is that Asceticism is not easy in our world and so the irony that I am sitting poolside in Las Vegas after producing a trade show for dental industry suppliers is profound. The fact that I am reading Origen the great proto-monk of Egypt illustrates how profoundly twisted things are . I am here in the land of excess, a place modeled not on asceticism but on hedonism, and the irony continues.

I often wonder if all the hourding into barns and alike means anything? So you have money and comfort but the simple monks life would not destroy the planet.

I wonder if a lack of trial and hardship means one is lucky or one is weak because we do not face trials?

I think of the great renouncers- Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Origen, Paul, St Francis, and the lives they led and wonder why we continue to value what can be stolen from us. Wherever your treasure is that is where your heart is as well....

Saturday, May 17, 2008


Exhaustion is when you cannot stand anymore and your brain hurts. I have been working on the trade show I direct now for 8 days without rest and it makes me think about real workers- people like my grandparents who did this everyday.
Maybe we are too weak?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Language for A New Century-Asian Poetry

I am a sucker for anthologies. Many times they give us a good idea of what is going on in a place. There are some great anthologies- Poems for the Millennium, In the American Tree, Nothing the Sun Could not Explain are all masterpieces.

Last week when I was shopping at Seminary Co-op here in Chicago I found Language for a New Century; Edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar which is billed as contemporary poetry from Asia. Having just finished doing my own anthology of Chicago poetry (The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century) I know how hard this is to do.

There have been some anthologies that markedly fail in their project Legitimate Dangers edited Cate Marvin comes to mind as a work that was basically an anthology of friends rather than a real collection. Language for the New Century does not make this mistake. The work is so broad that it seems that every poet who has anything to do with Asia is included. The book is so dense as to take a long time to read and I am still working through it.

There are some really great poets in this book. Nikmet Hazmet, Sarah Gambito, Prageeta Sharma, Ha Jin and Bei Dao among them. The fact is however that the weight of the size of Asia makes this book seem unsatisfying in its scope having said that how does one encapsulate Asia in 695 pages?

The book is in reality a triumph and gives many Asian voices a chance in the American market and does what Norton does well and that is create a college textbook- and that is what this is. The poetry and the sections that were created make it accessible and the editorial choices are very fine- this is a book to buy.

One of the problems with After-Postmodern Racial politics is that there are no boundaries. When does someone stop being "asian" and become just American or British? It is hard to argue that some of these poets are really "asian" in fact 102 of the over 240 poets are in fact immigrants or natives of the USA, Australia and the UK and if their goal was to create an anthology of all poets with any Asian blood- where are the Latin American Asian poets?

Poetic identity politics is a really dangerous road. This might have been the result of the fact that all three editors are Anglo-American academics the inclusion of a poet editor from the Middle East or East Asia might have mitigated this problem. There are poets in this book who it is hard to argue they are Asian- Yehuda Amichai comes to mind is he really a Middle Eastern Poet? Is Ashkenazi Israeli culture Asian? You see why this is problematic.

Would Peter Gizzi or Jennifer Scappettone be included in a contemporary Italian anthology? Of course not- but people whose connections to Asia are just as distant are included here and I think that it is a weakness of this book. I think that the anthologists should have limited themselves to poets living in Asia or ones whose primary formation was in Asian culture not Immigrant Culture. Many of the poets included who are of Asian origin are really part of their immigrant cultures- not Asian culture directly and this is the only weakness of this book.

I think that this book is an essential addition to our libraries. I would urge people to sit with the work and I laud the anthologists for getting a tough job completed. In the end however contemporary poetic identity politics gets in the way of a book that might have been seminal instead it is only important.