Monday, July 13, 2009

Do You Still Seek Justice?

From The New Yorker last week

Winter solitude.
In a world of one color
the sound of wind.


Mountain after mountain without a bird,
a thousand paths without a footprint,
a simple boat, a cloak of bamboo,
an old man fishing in the falling snow.

---Liu Tsung-yuan

Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

---Thomas Wolfe

In February Nation Magazine started up a discussion message board, which attracted me and a whole bunch of other lefties, some pretty well-known. At first interaction was vigorous and exciting. My first comment attracted disagreement from none other than Katha Pollitt. I thought it all was going to be different. But eventually my Internet habits took over, and I grew as weary of endless, wandering threads there as I do at other sites. I stopped clicking in.

Last week a message came from the moderator reporting only 5 people were posting. He wanted to know why no one was bothering with it anymore. He also started sending messages about what topics were getting posted, and eventually some of us have come back in. But it got me to thinking. Everywhere in the States there seems to be some kind of lethargy setting in---or something.

People I know have the same concerns they did before the US presidential election...and some have decided Obama's had enough time now to communicate the directions his administration is taking. Supporters who gave his campaign lots of time and money came to believe he really meant his message of Change. Where is that grassroots spirit now that brought the man into office? Are we disillusioned? What are our real feelings? Are we just too tired to bother? Did we pay our money, and now we want the show? What is going on in America? I'm not alone in wondering. The columns this weekend were brimming over with such questions.

But before I start siting where I think some of the best ones are, let me share with you an email I received just a couple of hours ago. It's from someone who is very much awake and still on the front lines. Here's a report from Elisa Young on the world premiere in Charleston of the new documentary Coal Country. As you may know, the film was made by Mari-Lynn Evans who also created the recent 3-part Appalachia series that showed on PBS~~~

"The premier was kind of a bipolar experiencing - extremely good things jaggedly contrasted against extremely hard things.

"I don't know how MariLynn dealt with everything that happened from Wednesday to Saturday. I think you know the Labelle cancelled. Then the hotel we were in canceled our rooms!! Then they scheduled to show the film at the cultural center in the state capitol complex. The next e-mail I got after that was that the coal industry was calling in so many threats to the cultural center that there would be police in riot gear!!

"I got there about a half an hour into the reception because the rain was so heavy we could barely see to drive down 77. Once we got there, saw lots people I've worked with over the years but have not had time to stay in touch. It felt like a reunion. Larry Gibson, Maria Lambert, Chuck Nelson, Maria Gunnoe, Judy Bonds, Matt Noerpel, Terri Blanton, on and on. Many of the students who have been actively involved turned out. I met some people fighting coal that I'd heard of or corresponded with, but had never met face to face. Me and Kathy Selvage ended up sitting together - had not met before - she is fighting MTR (mountaintop removal) and the Wise power plant in Virginia.

"Matt Peters and Corey Frost (a young man I met at Power Shift who decided to move here and work on a farm) made the trek down from Athens. Amanda Comstock who is fighting coal in Dover Ohio (AMP contracts coal mining and prep plant) caught up with us at the Blue Grass Cafe where people were visiting afterwards.

"People said there'd been some arguments/fights before I got there - miners getting mouthy and trying to start fights. State police were present - Riot gear wasn't.

"Most of the miners and coal industry people were up in the balcony during the screening, and they kept getting really loud, hurling insults, jeers, at times could not hear the movie, but I was proud of the people in our camp - they did not respond by telling them to shut up or throwing insults back over the fence, sat there respectfully. If we had responded in kind to them, it could have gotten really ugly.

"Overall I think MariLynn tried her best to tell both sides of the story, which was difficult because not many from the coal industry were willing to talk with her or go on record....

"The way I see it unless we successfully stop the industries that are fueling the demand for coal, MTR and all the other methods of coal mining will continue. Most of the underground mining in WV is mined out, the coal that's left is in the mountains and for the most part unminable by other means. As long as there is a demand for coal, the best we'll get for MTR-threatened communities is a temporary cease fire - like we just went through with Obama after all the promises he made..

"I think the greatest value of Coal Country is was done in a way that both sides of the story are told - pro-coalers can't dismiss it as propaganda - and it will to raise awareness about the injustice because people will actually see and hear it - hopefully to drive home that we need to invest, right now, in healthier ways of generating our electricity.

"The movie was great, concentrated mostly on MTR. When we were talking the next day, MariLynn told me that their family farm in WV that was lost to the coal industry years ago recently had the coal beneath it $680 million. They are getting ready to go after it.

"Here is one review written on coal country: "

There are photos at that blog, and Elisa wrote the third comment. Another review, with a photo of the film crew interviewing Ms. Selvedge, is here~~~

Around these parts, coal is probably a bigger issue than elsewhere in the world...but people everywhere are getting the message that when you flick an electrical switch, you're involved with coal. The news also is out that oil, gas, and coal are deeply invested in the legislative battle over environmental change. (I notice we're using that phrase now, as more effectively descriptive than "global warming" or "climate change.") But what of that...and other issues?

Paul Krugman this morning describes an apparent lack of response in the nation to that of a frog in an increasingly heated bowl. On Saturday Ralph Nader's column questioned elected Democrats' answers to the demands of their constituents~~~

"These lawmakers---Democrats all, who are the majority in Congress and who agree with these questioners---keep saying 'It's not going to happen' or 'It's not practical.'

"'It's just not practical' to provide a federal minimum wage equal to that in 1968, inflation adjusted, which would be $10 an hour.

"'It's not going to happen' to get comprehensive corporate reform at a time when a corporate crime wave and the Wall Street multi-trillion dollar collapse on Washington, on taxpayers and on the economy is tearing this country apart. A little regulatory tinkering is all citizens are told to expect.

"'It's just not practical' to give workers, consumers and taxpayers simple facilities for banding together in associations with their own voluntary dues to defend these interests in the corporate occupied territory known as Washington, D.C."

Then he lets loose~~~

One of Bill Moyers most critical concerns is the "select few" who seem to run our republic. On Saturdayas well, he and his main Journal partner, Michael Winship, discuss how things really get done in the nation's capitol~~~

And then there's the Bush administration, and what actions should follow what those people did to us. Here there seem to be stirrings, especially over the weekend after the news was divulged regarding Cheney. There are many reports on this today but here is one from Raw Story on Friday, about Cheney's "assassination ring"~~~
and another at Politico, where the story first broke about keeping information away from Congress. This update was yesterday~~~

We all know about the importance of vigilance in a democracy. We learned it in school, yes? May we awaken the responsibilities of our citizenship in this great country!

Friday, July 10, 2009


My mother Rhea, her older sister Leora, and their father Edward Johnson harvesting the family potatoes, possibly around 1923.

Just think of the trees: They let the birds perch and fly, with no intention to call them when they come and no longing for their return when they fly away. If people's hearts can be like the trees, they will not be off the Way.


Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

---Leonardo Da Vinci

When you've got it, there's no place for it but a poem.

---Wu Pen

Mom used to say just, "Go wander." It was advice to me on fine, long July days, sunny, not too hot. It didn't push up into the 90s often in the 1940s. It wasn't dangerous for a boy to hike somewhere alone in those days. That's what she meant: to take a long walk or bike ride, past the city limits and out into the country. To find a field or patch of woodlands, and just explore around, see what I could see.

It wasn't there was nothing for a boy to do around town during summer vacation. There were supervised activities at every school playground, sponsored by the city Recreation Department. My elementary school was just down the block, and usually I was there every day. There was Little League baseball, although I wasn't very good---and at first had a glove so cheap my coach called it "that damn mitt." Pretty shocking language for a kid to hear back my fundamentalist mother couldn't help reminding me a lot. There was the YMCA and its swimming pool, where we paddled around until we were old enough for Brownie to lead us down to the deep end---to, though scared witless, jump in. The Boy Scouts had a summer camp at Lake Chautauqua, with Bugs Sundell up there, one of the finest naturalists anywhere, from my hometown that gave the world Roger Tory Peterson. There were neighborhood kids to play softball, kick-the-can in the street, or just hide 'n seek---with some limits about how many people's yards away you could hide in.

But some days a kid didn't feel like doing anything. There I'd be, up in my room or in the glider out on the front porch, looking glum. And that's when Mom might give me that idea. To just get out in Nature and wander. Was it peculiar eccentric advice, I'm wondering today? I've never asked friends if their mothers encouraged them to enrich their lives that way. Enrichment it turned out to be, although I didn't realize it then. I knew she wasn't just trying to get rid of me, because I wasn't bothering her---although I did sometimes, teasing for an activity. It would come out of the blue. "Why don't you get on your bike and just go wander?"

My mother was a country girl, growing up on a family farm halfway up Oak Hill Road, just outside Frewsburg, a small village 5 miles south of Jamestown, New York. Dairy country. Edward and Dora had 3 girls, the eldest named Lucille who probably took that photograph out in the big garden behind the barn. The family was United Brethren, and they held to the old ways...but with all girls, at least one of them had to help Dad. Mom, the youngest, got the job. Outdoors a lot, there was time for her to discover wandering. She learned some birds and wildflowers...and to fear snakes, even more than most girls. She named all the cows and kittens...but not the chickens I guess, one of which might be Sunday dinner. They were Rhode Island Reds and the cows she always called "Jersey Guernseys," which maybe was a mixed breed, I don't know. Even in the city many springtimes later, she could look at a quart of milk in the fridge and know if the cows had been turned out to pasture from winter in the barn.

She knew the plowhorses intimately, the names of which I've forgotten, but I'll bet my sister remembers because Mom talked about them often. Those horses would be hitched up to a buckboard sometimes, at harvest or when they needed supplies. Her dad would be gone to the "Burg" all day when there were crops left over he could sell. Rhea would wait for him in the late afternoon, standing in the meadow looking down the road, down the hill...until she'd see the horses and her dad coming home. You have no idea how long it takes for a horsedrawn vehicle to get from there to where you are, unless you've waited yourself and sensed the passing minutes.

There's a whole different dimension to time when you've done that, a dimension we moderns don't discover unless we meditate or sit in a hospital waiting room. Mom learned it and probably inadvertently passed it on to me. Space is different too, when you just wander. For one thing, you do it alone. For another, there's no destination...except to find your way back. Mom didn't "take" me wandering, she sent me. But I got to see her wandering one time.

We used to take Sunday drives in the family car, after church and chicken dinner at Anderson's Restaurant in Falconer. My father was from town, a city Swede compared to the Johnson Swedes. He danced, loved popular songs, played card games, was on the radio and appeared in plays with community theater. All that was forbidden in United Brethren families, so obviously this was a radical marriage. Dad honored my mother's history though, getting her out into the country at least once a week if he could. Ann and I didn't like these rides particularly, sitting in the back seat---no seatbelts then---fighting over how far half of the seat was. In my teen years I thought the rides would drive me crazy.

But once, Dad stopped the car on Oak Hill Road near the old farm. Mom's dad had died when she still was a girl, and the family had to sell the farm and move into the village. She never got over it really, and sometimes craved to see a bluebird in the apple orchard. Maybe she thought she saw one that afternoon, and so Dad pulled over. Bluebirds had all but disappeared from Western New York in the 1950s. DDT on those apples. She got out of the car by herself, crossed the road, and walked up the rise into the meadow toward the orchard. She stood a moment looking toward the trees...and for that moment, to me, she was 13 again. A breeze blew her dress and hair, and she leaned into it slightly, smiling, faced raised, breathing deep. She was home in that meadow, the same meadow where she'd waited for her father years before.

She didn't see a bluebird that day, but she gave me a memory of her I treasure forever. I'm more thankful for that picture in my mind than ever I could write here. She was wandering for a few moments to find a bluebird. She passed on to me a love of Nature that it may be impossible to get any other way. With it came a quality of observation so keen that my grade school teachers commented on it. Not to leave Dad out, those long Sunday drives probably had something to do with that skill too. Together this unlikely couple taught my sister and me to appreciate things in life that may be a rarity these days. I don't know, maybe it's not so rare. I think we all must have memories of childhood like that, when we learned to see things, to see them in a distinctly family way. It's a way you don't teach exactly. It's the Way you show.

Saturday, July 04, 2009


The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.

---Samuel Harrington

If society fits you comfortably enough, you call it freedom.

---Robert Frost

The love of one's country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?

---Pablo Casals

I guess I need to begin this with a couple of explanations. First, allow me to assure you I had planned to use this photograph and caption for a couple of days before Alaska's governor dropped her bomb upon the nation yesterday. The illustration is from the Sarah Palin 2008 calendar for the month of July. Therefore the photo of a possibly naked (but probably bikini-suited, also flag-designed) body wrapped in Old Glory is not something dug up from beauty pageant days by a frothing liberal. Either she or her staff did it for her own commercial calendar.

Second, the caption by Sinclair Lewis was not on the calendar---but added by a blogger, possibly frothing at the time. Maybe Sinclair Lewis was agitated when he wrote that in his last major work, It Can't Happen Here, but our first Nobel Prize winner for literature was a pretty in-control guy...except for alcohol. Author of Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth, Sinclair Lewis offered insight into American behavior and values that probably would benefit us to read again today.

I use the illustration because of clothing we're bound to see worn on this day at parades and celebrations. Over the past 8 or 9 years, I've noticed conservatives and particularly Evangelicals decorate themselves with the United States flag at work and at play. Sarah Palin does too, and I'm sure wanted to identify herself with such people in her calendar. But I remember a time when you could be scorned by the very same conservatives and Evangelicals, and maybe land in jail, for wearing the flag.

Abbie Hoffman was a co-founder back in the early 1960s of a group called the Youth International Party...usually referred to as the Yippies. Abbie used to wear a shirt made from a flag that would be completely in conservative style today, but which caused outrage just 40 years ago. You can see it here in a discussion about the Obama flag pin controversy. Hoffman, and I believe Jerry Rubin, the other co-founder and also member of the Chicago Seven, were accused of desecrating the flag by wearing it. How did things get so turned around in just 40 years?

Well, many things have gotten turned around in those same 40 years. We might want to ponder some of these changes in style---economic, political, diplomatic---on this 4th. Maybe it would be good to read the Declaration of Independence aloud at the picnic table. Conservative talk show hosts are recommending it, and it seems like good advice. However, they also are flirting with gatherings and demonstrations today to encourage revolution against our elected government. These same people would have shouted treason at anyone suggesting that 5 years ago. Even disagreement was cause for questioning one's patriotism and loyalty.

These are strange times, and we appear to be staggering under the load of 9/11. We've never been very good at accepting tragedy. We're a comedy nation...and we know only to lash out when challenged. The Greeks thought tragedy was a more important teacher than comedy, but we disagree. Sinclair Lewis introduced "boosters" in Babbitt, and I guess we didn't catch the satire long enough to avoid a trade of citizenship for consumerism.

I'm going to be marching in a 4th of July parade in a couple of hours here in Athens, Ohio. I won't be in the military contigents, but rather a group of theater folk celebrating a new production of Oliver that somehow I've gotten myself into. Charles Dickens, who wrote Oliver Twist when he was in his 20s, had been dead for 15 years before Sinclair Lewis was born. Wouldn't it be wonderful to imagine a conversation between the two? Someone want to write a play? Time to go, but if you want a witty view of Governor Palin's appearance yesterday, I suggest Gail Collins' column in the New York Times this morning. Have a safe and sane Fourth!