Friday, January 25, 2008

Why I'm For Hillary - Take 1

The great American poet, Maya Angelou, has written a prose-poem in support of Hillary Clinton. At least for the moment, what more need I say...

State Package for Hillary Clinton

by Maya Angelou
(published by The London Observer)

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may tread me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise.

This is not the first time you have seen Hillary Clinton seemingly at her wits' end, but she has always risen, always risen, don't forget she has always risen, much to the dismay of her adversaries and the delight of her friends.

Hillary Clinton will not give up on you and all she asks of you is that you do not give up on her. There is a world of difference between being a woman and being an old female. If you're born a girl, grow up, and live long enough, you can become an old female.

But to become a woman is a serious matter. A woman takes responsibility for the time she takes up and the space she occupies. Hillary Clinton is a woman. She has been there and done that and has still risen. She is in this race for the long haul. She intends to make a difference in our country. Hillary Clinton intends to help our country to be what it can become.

She declares she wants to see more smiles in the family, more courtesies between men and women, more honesty in the marketplace. She is the prayer of every woman and man who longs for fair play, healthy families, good schools, and a balanced economy.

She means to rise.

Don't give up on Hillary. In fact, if you help her to rise, you will rise with her and help her make this country the wonderful, wonderful place where every man and every woman can live freely without sanctimonious piety and without crippling fear.

Rise, Hillary.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Celebrating Martin

Over the years, I’ve read and re-read Martin Luther King Jr.’s books, particularly Strength to Love, which I’ve bought at least a dozen times, but at the moment I have no copy of it, because there were always people I wanted to give it to. His brave, smart, gracious, humane approach to effecting social change has given permanent shape to my views of politics and life itself. Every year I watch King: From Montgomery to Memphis, the best documentary about his life, marvel anew at this wise man, and thank God that I was privileged to live in his time.

It breaks my heart that King has become a postage stamp in black history, turned into a Reader’s Digest-style caricature that completely fails to showcase his brilliance, humor, and the doubts that strengthened his faith. It infuriates me that he’s been relegated to African-American history when in truth he is one of the greatest Americans of any race in all of American history – an idea supported by the fact that King was killed when his vision began to take him beyond black civil rights into an outspoken anti-Vietnam War position and a conviction that economic (class) reform and a commitment to human rights in all areas was essential to democracy.

I grew up in the sunlight of King’s work and words, so my thoughts and feelings about him have become an integral part of my personal memories. Images, sounds, words, zoom through my mind like a music video, hard quick-cuts and gauzy slow-motion set to Joan Baez’s version of We Shall Overcome.

I was nine years old when I first became aware of him, a young handsome man saying remarkable, important things regularly chronicled in the pages of Jet, Ebony and The Amsterdam News, copies of which always covered our coffee table.

I was 11 in August, 1963, as I watched the seminal March on Washington on a tiny TV in my room; I was too angry to watch with my parents in the living room, because they had been too worried about “trouble” to attend and they wouldn’t let me go without them [as part of a large group that included a friend, her parents and other kids and adults]. At the end of the “I Have a Dream” speech, I ran into the living room, tearful and furious. “Why aren’t we there?,” I yelled at my black father and white mother, “we of all people, why aren’t we there?

I was 16 on April 4, 1968, when news of King’s assassination started circulating around my high school. I stood in front of the school gates with my friends, my eyes closed against hot tears, my fists clenched, unable to move and not knowing what to do. A couple of months later, I flew down to Washington DC in a small private plane (somewhat to my embarrassment) with other Eugene McCarthy supporters. We had all helped organize the New York faction for the Poor People’s Campaign. Later that day in Resurrection City, I found myself serendipitously just a few feet from Coretta Scott King. I was excited yet confused; something vital was missing – of course, it was Martin.

I was in my early 20s when my maternal grandmother died. At her graveside, when the rabbi invited people to recount their memories of her, my father spoke up: “She was always kind to me, always treated me like a son,” he said. “But the memory I treasure most is of the day Martin Luther King was killed. She was living with us then, and that night my wife and daughter and I were going to a local church for a community service. ‘I want to go, too,’ she said, ‘he was a good man.’ And that night, this little old Jewish woman who had never set foot in a church in her life stood with us and linked arms and sang We Shall Overcome. I’ll never forget that.” I’ll never forget that my father said this.

Later in 1968, my mother, who was quite a good amateur painter, made a portrait of King from the photo that illustrates this post, which had been on the front page of The New York Times. Her art teacher fiddled around with it and somehow made King look a little like Adam Clayton Powell. For years, we called this painting Martin Luther Powell and Adam Clayton King. It hangs in my dining area, a daily, beloved reminder of both my mother and her subject.

I was in my late 20s when I participated in organized efforts to have Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday declared a national holiday. A friend was staying with me a year or so before the holiday was instituted and in the early morning of that January 15th, we propped open the door of my apartment and repeatedly blasted Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday to You into the hallway. The day before the first official holiday, during a time when I worked on publicity for a major pop diva, she and her pianist came to my apartment to rehearse her own version of Happy Birthday, which she performed at a special ceremony the next day. I was at that ceremony, too, standing near the front, and when Mrs. King made her entrance, she made a beeline right for me and shook my hand. I can only assume she was looking for a friendly face in the crowd to start out with and I felt enormously honored.

King’s death derailed this country’s forward movement; sometimes, I fear, irrevocably. How different things might have been had he lived to continue his mission! We can only hope that today’s voices for change hear his voice inside their heads. We need more than a holiday, we need a Kingian miracle.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Diet Season

It’s early January, which means `tis the season to be starving, falalalala… Millions of women (and increasingly, men) have annually ushered in the post-holidays Diet Season since back in the day, when a coffee shop “diet plate” consisted of a bunless hamburger, a mound of cottage cheese and a few slices of tomato. But here in the hard-line, born-again Puritan new millennium, food has become very political and Diet Season is no longer just about weight loss, it’s about redefining yourself as a jolly green gourmand of politically-correct eating.

I find this infuriating and fascinating and, in a way, I sort of welcome it, because the battle line between size (fat!) acceptance and orthodox thinness is getting clearer. Thinness used to be about a strict standard of beauty and increasing one’s sense of worth by starving or purging to live up to that standard. Now, it’s all tossed together with the environmental and economic costs of long-distance food cultivation and the morality of the animal rights movement which, in its intensity, is starting to make the anti-abortion crowd look like Spring Break hedonists.

To wit: there was much hoopla in 2005 about a radical diet manifesto entitled Skinny Bitch, written by two self-proclaimed skinny bitches, Rory Freedman (a former modeling agent) and Kim Barnouin (a former model). Now this diet duo have published a cookbook, Skinny Bitch in the Kitch, which provides recipes to support their militant vegan/health food/animal rights agenda. Their first book sold nearly a half-million copies and it’s expected that this companion will strut off the shelves, as well. Rory and Kim take no prisoners in their effort to separate the whole-grain wheat from the high-carb chaff. They call soda (sugar-laden and sugar-free) “liquid Satan,” so you can only imagine what they have to say about a cheeseburger deluxe.

Today’s increasingly-accepted strictures against consuming meat, dairy, sugar, processed grains and anything else resembling “good eats” have become so severe that fatness is regarded as smoking-gun evidence of personal greed, animal cruelty and callous disregard for the future of everyone’s grandchildren. Eating for pleasure, for some time seen as decadent, is now regarded as depraved and obesity is viewed as a wholly deliberate slap in the face of public health and social responsibility. Fat folks have been…lumped…with smokers, alcoholics, drug addicts and the overly-sexually active as the population that is the scourge of decent humanity. I’m amazed candy bars are still legal.

Unlike some of my comrades in the fat acceptance movement, I don’t have a problem with people who want to diet and lose weight. I reject the idea of don’t-fight-fat as much as I reject must-get-thin. I think people should eat what they want and all body sizes are acceptable. I see no reason for not eating meat and diary, but I also see no reason for abusing and torturing the animals that sustain us. I think eating what’s cultivated locally is a great idea, but I'm also okay with shipping food from coast to coast. Interstate commerce is one of the few things we haven’t outsourced to India.

Weight Watchers has launched their Diet Season with a clever new marketing campaign: Diets Don’t Work! Stop Dieting, Start Living! Personally, I think WW is the most rational, natural and sustainable program in the insidious $40 billion diet industry and I’m heartened that they’re even pretending to promote sensible eating as an alternative to frantic crash diets. That said, their use of the fat-acceptance battle cry reminds me of what we used to call in public relations “I wouldn’t hype you” hype, which is the publicity equivalent of the great George Burns’ definition of acting success: “The thing about acting is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

I think it’s time that we as a culture stopped trying to cut a deal with God (“please don’t create the end of the world and we’ll stop having fun of any kind”) and start accepting that we are indeed at the end of the world as we know it, whether we have another 20 years or another 200; in geological time it’s all a blip on the cosmic radar and we’re essentially on the way out. Which is why, even given my new efforts to eat better now that I have diabetes, I’ll continue to eat some things that make me close my eyes, moan with satisfaction, and feel that life’s worth living. But for those of you who’ve begun your diets: best of luck and season’s greetings.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Primary Concerns

Sort of in preparation for the Iowa Presidential Primary on Thursday (January 3rd), I’ve watched three political films in the past few days: the classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the 90s’ under-appreciated Primary Colors (both favorites that I’ve seen many times) and The Good Shepherd, last year’s acclaimed fictional bio-pic about the CIA (which I found leaden and confusing, but never mind). I passed up another favorite, Wag the Dog, because it was on commercial television and snippets of film interrupted by innumerable quick-cut commercials make me feel like I’m having an epileptic seizure.

The point is, both political pop culture and actual politics are filled with unforgettable examples of idealism, cynicism, cronyism, shameless manipulation of the voting public and genuine efforts to serve the public good, efforts usually thwarted by the steamroller muscle of high-stakes politics. As always, the media treat political campaigns like horse races, as if there were nothing crucial at stake and they have no obligation to prompt serious discourse about critical social issues.

And more than half the public tunes out the entire process the way I manage to avoid absolutely everything about sports. Indeed, it is this high-octane blend of public ignorance and indifference that has helped degrade the political process for years and, most recently, gave us two terms of George Dubya that have literally run this country into the ground. In some ways, I can’t blame my fellow citizens for opting out of this charade, especially since the 2008 campaign is shaping up as interminable, stiff, phony and just plain stupid. Unfortunately, it matters very much who becomes our next president and how we can try to repair the incalculable damage of the Bush years.

Much will be made of who wins and who loses in Iowa, even if there are no decisive winners and even though Iowa will be a dim memory come June. There will be many more primaries leading up to the pointless, staged, inordinately expensive conventions this summer, and by November, those of us who have not been driven into mental institutions by the campaign will do our best to force all the red and blue shit to hit the fan (as much as the electoral college will allow).

It pisses me off that there’s been no opportunity to reflect on the significance, and triumph, of the country’s first genuine, viable, woman and black candidates. It appalls me that despite the 122,397 “debates” that have already been held, there has been no in depth, meaningful discussion of real issues. It severely troubles me that all of the candidates on both sides of the political fence are competing for each other’s existing constituencies instead of courting the millions of potential voters who are completely disengaged from the political process. It infuriates me that the major TV networks, who literally had their broadcast spectrums bestowed on them as gifts decades ago, and who all now have multiple channels under their digitized, high-definition belts, are not required by law to run political ads pro bono (which would hugely reduce the costs of campaigning, since most of the candidates’ war chests are spent on media).

It outrages me that the Democrats don’t have the balls to reclaim their traditional political niche as the progressive, liberal champion of the middle- and working-class and the poor, and, that the Republicans are equally ball-less in not turning their backs on the religious right and reclaiming their traditional niche as fiscal conservatives and social libertarians.

Most of all, I am bitterly disappointed that the post-O.J. Simpson sensationalist broadcast and print media have failed to demonstrate the courage and insight to recognize that they can no longer cover politics as if it were a cross between Survivor, American Idol and Jerry Springer. We can no longer afford bullshit, bread-and-circuses, jingo journalism.

Here in the first decade of the 21st century, our reality has been profoundly altered by 9/11 and terrorism; the radical evolution and expansion of television; and the birth and growth of the Internet, which has created unprecedented opportunities for social communication and interactive involvement in the processes that govern our lives. We are contending with unimagined climate change, unspeakable national debt, a dangerous merging of church and state, a yawning gap between the rich and everyone else, crises in health care, education and employment that are reshaping the national profile, the threat of recession and increased inflation, and the inability to relax with a cigarette in a coffee shop or bar. These are perilous times.

I hope Hillary wins in Iowa. It’s not much, but it’s a start.