Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A term paper worth reading: On religion and American nationalism




My Writing About the Apocalypse research papers came in last week. I just finally finished reading and grading them yesterday. One of them was so cogently written, and addressed such an important issue in such a clear headed fashion, that I wanted to post it on my blog. I had asked the writer of this essay if I could post it on my blog. The student in question said yes, but upon some further thought asked for me not to use his/her name because the person in question is currently applying to graduate schools and has some concerns about the political content of this paper. If you respond to the essay, I will forward your remarks onto the writer. This was one of the five best research essays I have received in my class in more than 20 years of teaching.


On Christian Nationalism

A popular email forward that made viral headway after the 2004 presidential election reorganized the United States along electoral lines, joining Canada with the left-leaning northeast and western coastal states under the moniker “United States of Canada,” and assigning an entirely new geographic title to the south and midwest: “Jesusland.”

The map colorfully expressed a darker reality: like a multitude of leading economic and military powers before it, the United States has embraced radical religion, buoyed by hubristic notions of national exceptionalism, that pose a dangerous liability to policymaking and to the future of the empire. The historical quandary is that while religion has by and large been an asset to mankind, there are clear exceptions to this trend, like macabre religious wars and virulent crusades.

Indeed, if history repeats itself, the model of previous military and economic powers prove that intemperate religion accompanies the decline of empires. Topics like global warming, resource depletion, and military conflict staged in Christian, Muslim, and Jewish holy lands make it imperative that United States public policy is guided by rational discourse and scientific fact, not creationism or the literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. The concerns facing the United States are perhaps even greater than those facing leading empires before it, as the world has entered a nuclear age and warfare has a new potential to bring to bear a most injurious and devastating outcome.

In an essay published in The American Conservative, Theodore Dalrymple intoned that “God is dead in Europe, and I do not see much chance of revival except in the wake of catastrophe.” (Dalymple). He continued to present an argument oft laid out by members of the religious right. Under this view, “Americans are apt to believe in their own exceptionalism,” for in addition to American military power, geographic isolation from the conflicts of other nations and a founding based on optimistic philosophies rather than sociobiology, Americans maintain an emphatic religious belief. Dalrymple argues that:


Religion has survived better [in the United States] than in countries where religious belief has been closely associated with temporal power. Once the power to enforce conformity and suppress dissent declines in states where there has been a state religion, religious belief itself declines precipitately, for it is seen as having chosen the wrong side of history. There is no danger of this in the U.S., and the religiosity of Americans keeps alive the little platoons that are so important in maintaining the vigor of civil society independent of government…. In short, the United States is free, or nearly so, from the principal factors that have led to the decline and immobilization of Europe, its sclerosis, rigidity, and lack of ability to confront the challenges facing it. (Dalrymple)

Yet Dalrymple’s proclamation disregards a long trajectory of historical precedent that illustrates the clearly negative consequences of religious overreach. The concept of American exceptionalism asserts that Americans are uniquely special, “a nation chosen by God himself to play a unique and even redemptive role in the world.” (Phillips, p. 125) Americans were destined to save the world from fascism and tyranny during World War II, and they were destined to disseminate principles of freedom and democracy across the Middle East.

This concept is not new, nor is it unique to the United States. The citizenry of all leading empires have believed themselves chosen, and much like apocalyptic theory, it is only when the belief is disproven and no plausible explanation can be provided that settles both assertions -- if it was Britain’s duty to save the world, why then must the United States save Britain? -- that adherents reject it. An ardent grasp of religion that undergirds already prevalent national hubris can be seen as a particularly disquieting bellwether signaling the end of an empire.

Religion need not be the defining causal factor of empire decline, but it more often than not occurs during the empire’s downward turn. Ancient Rome, for example, began as a polytheistic and reasonably tolerant state, but as Kevin Phillips carefully explains in his American Theocracy, an “overconfident and intolerant Christianity” practiced a coercive religion that hastened “the forces of disintegration and dissolution.” (Phillips, 221) Spain rose to power through a clear embrace of Catholic religion, reconquering the Iberian Peninsula from Islam, and greatly expanding the empire as conquistadors and religious teachers spread Catholicism throughout what would become Latin America.

Again, coercion and intolerance precipitated the empire’s downfall, as the Spanish inquisition “bred a climate of orthodoxy and fear” and Spain “sagged under the weight of church bureaucracy… and the crown’s preoccupation with advancing Catholicism globally.” (Phillips, 222-3) Catholicism engulfed any attempt at appropriate statesmanship, as historian Paul Allen explains, “Spain’s monarchs and ministers would steadfastly reject… reason of state approaches to policy in favor of providing solid support for the Catholic cause, even at the expense of Spain’s empire. In so doing, they fulfilled to the letter Phillip II’s pious vow to Pope Pius V that ‘rather than suffer the least damage to the Catholic church and God’s service, I will lose all my states and a hundred lives if I had them.’” (Phillips, 224)

In Britain, Phillips noted, “Moral pretension became a second [national] flag.” Missionary activity swelled during the nineteenth century, as did moral imperialism, “belief in Britain’s duty to save the world.” (Phillips, 225)

The rising trend of secular humanism among northeastern university graduates and cultural elites makes it more difficult to recognize the United States as a deeply religious nation, but religion has overwhelmingly shaped American history and cultural tradition. In designing the Great Seal of the United States, Benjamin Franklin proposed the seal bear a depiction of “Moses standing on the Shore, extending his Hand over the sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by command of the Deity.” (Medved, 89)

Thomas Jefferson proposed an illustration of the Children of Israel guided by fire in the wilderness. Ultimately, the chosen seal bore a secular design created by Philadelphia artist Pierre Eugene du Simitere. Alexis de Toqueville expounded on the omnipresent and insidious influence religion wielded on American life after his travels in the nineteenth century, and periodic religious revivals during this time incited a significant increase in church membership. American religions are especially suspect to revivalism, and many are wholly unique to the United States.

As cultural historian Christine Heyrman has explained, in order for Baptists and Methodists to make headway in the early South, they had to eliminate from the bible philosophies that would be considered radical to the Southern way of life, like the promotion of egalitarian social systems and opposition of slavery. This had a tendency to alter, she said, “often drastically, many earlier evangelical teaching and practices concerning the proper roles of men and women, old and young, white and black…. As a result, evangelism looked much different in the 1830s than it had in the 1790s.” (Heyrman, 216)

The United States also spawned religions like Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, all of which exert significant political impact. Among other things, Seventh Day Adventists regularly challenge labor laws, as their religion dictates rest on Saturday, Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse service in the military, and the founder of Mormonism initiated a brief run for president. Today, scholars routinely include the United States in their studies of nations where religious fundamentalism has taken root, lumping it together for analysis with nations like Iran and India.


In their compendium Fundamentalists Observed, Martin Marty and Scott Appleby argue that “fundamentalisms arise in times of crisis, real or perceived. The sense of danger may be keyed to oppressive and threatening social, economic or political conditions, but the ensuing crisis is perceived as a crisis of identity by those who fear extinction as a people.” (Marty, 882) Charles Kimball, one of the pre-eminent voices on religious and Mideast history expanded upon this in his When Religion Becomes Evil, theorizing that there are five key warning signs. Fundamentalists, he argues, claim to hold knowledge of Truth. By that notion, they “presume to know God” and manipulate religious texts to “propagate their particular visions of absolute truth.” (Kimball, 54)

They also cite an ideal time, claiming imminent apocalypse or end of days scenarios. They promote blind obedience to their religious and spiritual beliefs, and they use ends to justify means. Finally, they pursue holy wars, like the Crusades or jihad. Both Martin and Appleby and Charles Kimball are among a large group of scholars who consider Southern Baptists, the United States’ second largest religious denomination, to be fundamentalists.

The burgeoning religious right emerged as a strongly voiced political participant during the Cold War, asserting that the evil empire of the Soviet Union was both a biblical and political enemy. Religious authorities argued frequently that the Soviet government was the ultimate evil referenced in the bible. In the last thirty years the religious right shifted concern from the defunct Soviet Union to the Hussein regime in Iraq. Now state Republican parties in the south and southwest have in large number sanctioned “Christian Nation party platforms,” political platforms that espouse the radical political theology of the Christian Reconstructionist movement.

Key principles espoused by this movement include the promotion of religious schools, the subordination of women to men in keeping with the familial role women hold in biblical stories, and most worrisome, the use of the Bible as a framework for establishing and evaluating domestic law. It is true that Christian Reconstructionism is far from a household name: few Americans are familiar with the term and few self-identify as part of the movement, but it is important to note that many Christian figures who would not self-identify as part of this movement still subscribe to some or all of their positions.

For example, Southern Baptists, Mormons, and Missouri Synod Lutherans all ascribe women secondary status, like Reconstructionists contending that the role of women should be biblical and familial. Further, groups like the First Amendment Foundation and Theocracy Watch argue that Christian Reconstructionists exert a large degree of influence via groups that share many of their more moderate viewpoints, like the Southern Baptist Convention, Christian Coalition, Assemblies of God, and Christian Broadcasting Network. The opinions of many members of the religious right are shaped not just by the Bible, which they consider to be the inerrant word of God, but by increasingly popular apocalyptic literature.

A 1999 Newsweek poll determined that more than 40 percent of Americans believe that a clear chronology of end-times events is specified in the Bible.(Ortega) Most theologians disagree with such a belief, but its origins can be traced back to the teachings of John Nelson Darby, an Angelican priest divested of his position who paid frequent visits to the United States during the nineteenth century, disseminating an inventive and radical reading of the Bible predominantly shaped by a dispensationalist interpretation of Biblical prophecies.

His claims were expounded upon through popular books by Cyrus Scofield, Hal Lindsey, and most emphatically, evangelical minister and former co-chair of Jack Kemp’s short-lived presidential campaign, Tim LaHaye, whose Left Behind series has reached an audience of approximately 60 million Americans. In the series, a Romanian politician is not only the antichrist but United Nations secretary-general, and a family of born-again Christians must save the lost in preparation for the impending Tribulation.

As Michelle Goldberg, author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism argued in Salon, the books are important because they “[provide] a narrative and theological rationale for a whole host of perplexing… policies, from the White House’s craven decision to cut off aid to the United Nations Family Planning Fund to America’s surreally casual mobilization for an invasion of Baghdad -- a city that is, in the Left Behind books, Satan’s headquarters.” (Goldberg) Obviously, it would be irresponsible to argue that every reader of apocalyptic literature is a Christian fundamentalist, but Goldberg’s larger point, that the “Christian theory of everything… that slates current events into a master narrative in which the world is destroyed and then remade to evangelical specifications…. an alternative universe in which conservative Middle Americans are vindicated against everyone who doesn’t share their beliefs -- especially liberals and Jews” is tolerable on a fantastical level, but inherently dangerous when the author is “at pains to show that the Left Behind books are meant as more than fiction.” (Goldberg)


This collection of literature helps to explain the motivation of the religious right. While certainly a special interest group, the religious right wield enormous power in the political arena. To wit, as much as 70 percent of the 2004 Bush electorate was composed of individuals who self-identified as born-again Christians or who claimed belief in the Armageddon. (Domke, 14) The belief of this interest group in biblical prophecy and end-times literature was clearly showcased in its attitudes toward United States foreign policy. Scholars argue that throughout the administration, Bush coded his public speeches to speak directly to this following, urging them to mobilize behind political initiatives that he framed as being in their religious interest.

University of Chicago religious historian Bruce Lincoln depicted one such attempt in his Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11, arguing that in an October 2001 speech in which the president introduced planned military retaliation to the terrorist attacks, the president’s word choice mimicked that of Osama Bin Laden, as “both men constructed a Manichaean struggle, where Sons of Light confront Sons of Darkness, and all must enlist on one side or the other, without possibility of neutrality, hesitation, or middle ground.” (Lincoln)

Further, he utilized metaphors from the revelation of St. John and Isaiah to hint to Christians that he subscribed to their personal spiritual beliefs. Lincoln uncovered similar coding in Bush’s 2004 acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination, where “Bush spoke of ‘hills to climb’ and ‘seeing the valley below,’ an allusion to Israel’s escape from slavery and Moses’s vision of the Promised Land as described in Deuteronomy 34.” (Lincoln)

Bush also “described losses overcome through ‘hope, steadfastness, and faith,’” in regards to the War on Terror and dampening economic climate, emphasizing their importance in his conclusion, where he “name[d] what he saw in them all. ‘For as long as our country stands,’ he proclaimed, ‘people will look to the resurrection of New York City and they will say, ‘here buildings fell, and here a nation rose.’” Lincoln further adds that Bush’s use of the word resurrection was no accident, but instead intended to impart biblical imagery. Further, Lincoln noted that Bush employed the phrase “I believe” no less than a dozen times, in some cases to “justify his wars as holy” and the will of God.


Lincoln was not the only theologian to recognize this style of coded speech: Appleby expressed concern that Bush’s mission of promulgating democracy throughout the Middle East represented a “theological version of Manifest destiny,” and David Domke, author of The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America, in a discourse that highlighted the use of religious imagery in presidential speeches from Eisenhower to Clinton, noted that while “Other presidents petitioned for blessings and guidance, Bush positions himself as a prophet, speaking for God.”


The purpose of this argument is not to criticize Bush as a president or policy maker: if one is interested in such arguments, like jeremiads against all previous presidents they are easily accessible and prolific in number, but lie outside the scope of this piece. These presidential tools are not unique to the Bush presidency. The American attention span can be difficult to attract and even more difficult to maintain, and all great orators employ certain techniques, like call and response, that are traditional to churches but of great use politically as Americans are predisposed to be receptive to the speech pattern. As Lincoln explained in an essay for The Christian Century, Assemblies of God minister and Republican political operative Doug Wead advised Bush 41 to “’signal early and signal often’… urging that the candidate’s speeches be larded with biblical allusions.” (Lincoln)

Clinton also relied heavily on biblical metaphor, but Lincoln’s larger argument explains that Bush 43 uses the technique as a political tool, not necessarily to express his own religious motivations. He does not necessarily consider himself to be on mission from God, but “if such things please you, he wants you to know that he thinks of himself as a faithful servant of Christ, and feels himself accountable to no law save God’s, no court save the Last Judgment. But if such things make you uneasy, he would prefer the question never arise…Bush employs biblical citation to communicate with his base, the linguistic equivalent of winks and nudges.” (Lincoln)

In other words, Bush framed his policies both foreign and domestic in a way that would mobilize his key interest group behind them, making them actionable and sustainable even though these policies were not necessarily designed with those interests in mind. One example, as Republican strategist Kevin Phillips points out in his American Theocracy, is oil-based foreign policy. Though the war in Iraq was acknowledged by high-ranking administration officials as having great potential benefit towards America’s oil-based future, it would be nearly impossible to mobilize Bush’s voting coalition behind such action as the 70 percent that self-identify as born again Christians or claim belief in the Armageddon believe oil to be directly linked to the antichrist and further believe that God provides all natural resources thus there can be no shortage.

In truth, Bush regularly expressed a Manichaean view of the world in which there was no obligation, political or otherwise, that could compete with the task of defeating evil. As Glenn Greenwald explained in an interview with Bill Moyers, “the idea of being a Manichaean comes from this third century BC philosophy that… understood the world [as] a never-ending battle between the forces of pure good and the forces of pure evil. And all human events could be understood … through that prism.” (Greenwald) Greenwald continues to explain that the philosophy was rejected even by early Christians as one that lacked cognizance of “the moral ambiguities” that prevail worldwide and dominate interpersonal and foreign relations. (Greenwald) Whether or not this worldview is one that Bush himself holds, it speaks directly to the beliefs of a large percentage of Americans who interpret current events through a filter of religious belief and a particular hermeneutical ability that predisposes them to dig beneath the rhetoric of political speech for deeper meaning.

The worldview and political power of this particular interest group is of extraordinary importance for a number of reasons. First, as Greenwald argued, while good and evil certainly exist, to frame one’s worldview on such a narrow and absolutist moral understanding may ultimately lead one to make questionable decisions, like mobilizing for armed conflict in Iraq. Further, such a worldview may lead one to justify the taking of actions that lie outside of his or her personal moral code -- like perhaps torture -- but that are taken in pursuit of the eradication of evil, which clearly sets a dangerous precedent.

Such a worldview also presents an unnecessary hindrance to political proceedings. In addition to an inability to process information contrary to religious framing -- a 2004 study by the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies showed that 75 percent of Bush supporters believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was assisting al-Qaeda in acts of terrorism despite the widespread dissemination of contradictory official reports -- a belief in biblical inerrancy, particularly that of the book of Genesis, make it difficult to address political concerns like diminishing natural resources, impending global warming, and petroleum geology.(Edsall, 62)

It is not in the national political interest when government officials like Senator James Inhofe, the former chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, contend that the Bible holds all answers. Instead they appear irrational and ludicrous as they cannot discuss or address impending challenges of vital importance.

Further, the religious right exerts great influence in questions of social policy. Their impact was perhaps most publicly noticeable in the Terri Schiavo proceedings, but they actively assert a particular vision of moral values, frequently promoting legislation against perceived immorality that is in obvious contradiction to the larger Republican political philosophy of smaller government and a hands-off approach to private relationships.

Still, this issue remains most important where issues of foreign policy are concerned. As this paper has determined, former military and economic world powers have set a precedent in which blind devotion and religious overreach factors into imperial decay, a notion which should concern American policy makers, particularly in a nuclear age where conflict between nations has the potential to exert much greater destruction and devastation than even the remarkably bloody religious wars of yore.

Works Cited

Dalrymple, Theodore. "Suicide of the West: Will America Follow Eurpoe into Anomie and Atheism?", The American Conservative, March 2010.

Domke, David. The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America. Oxford University Press, New York, 2008.

Edsall, Thomas. Building Red America. Perseus Books, New York, 2006.

Goldberg, Michelle. "Fundamentally Unsound." Salon, July 29, 2002.e

Heyrmann, Christine. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, Knopf, New York, 1997.

Kimball, Charles . When Religion Becomes Evil. HarperCollins, New York, 2008.

Lincoln, Bruce. Holy Terrors: Thinking About TReligion After September 11. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2003

Lincoln, Bruce. "Words Matter: How Bush Speaks in Religious Code." Boston Globe, September 12, 2004.

Lincoln, Bruce. "Bush's God Talk" the Christian Century, October 5, 2004.

Marty, Martin & R. Scott Appleby. Fundamentalisms Observed. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991.

Medved, Miochael. The Ten Big Lies About America: Combating Distortions About Our Nation.

Ortega, Tony. "Peace-monger." Phoenix New Times, February 13, 2003.

Phillips, Kevin. American Theocracy. Penguin Group, New York, 2006.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On the dangers of signing Cliff Lee





Surely by now you have heard the big news of the day. Around midnight last night, the Phillies signed Cliff Lee to a five year deal worth $120 million. Lee, their former ace, is the biggest free agent signing of the hot stove season. He's a player just about everyone in the city has been pining for since he was traded to Seattle almost exactly one year ago.

Surely this is no time for complaining, right?

Okay, I agree. It's been a wild and wonderful ride today. And I don't mean to be one to spoil the party. But let's take stock of what kind of beast we are building and what kind of fans we are in danger of becoming. George Vecsey's column from today's New York Times makes a valid point worth mentioning.

Here's the line that hooked my attention:

"Remember when Phillies fans had a surly underdog mentality every time the Mets and their raffish fans came to town and took over their ballpark? Ha! That era is long gone, on both sides."

With the signing of Cliff Lee, the Phils become the pre-season prohibitive favorites to win the National League pennant and win another World Series. With such free agent signings come high expectations that are hard to fulfill. The Phillies have suddenly turned from being gallant hunters into prey. Worse yet, the team I have long rooted for have become as reviled by the New York Yankees. We are no longer rooting for lovable underdogs.

This paradigm shift will take some getting used to. And it worries me that so many of the young fans who crowd the Phillies' lovely ballpark have already been spoiled by this team and that they will turn on the team with a vengance if their expectations are not met. That's not a kind of fan I wish to associate myself with.

I have long taken pride in being a loyal Phillies fan. "Loyal" is the key word. I lived and died with the team, mostly died. Expectations were always high in April and rarely if ever did the team live up to my hopes for it.

I got to see two world championships during my 50-plus years on Earth and that's two more than Phillies fans got to see who supported the team all through those dismal and disasterous decades of the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s. Back then, the Phils were perennial basement dwellers and had become the franchaise with the most losses of any team in professional sports.

I often tell my students being a Phillies fan is my cross to bear in life. I tell them when I get to the gates of heaven, I am going defend a lifetime's pursuit of wine, women and song with just one lame excuse: "Please forgive me sir, I've been a life long fan of the Phillies" and that St. Pete would crack open the pearly gates and wave his arm into heaven and yell to the heavenly hosts: "Let him in, boys! He's suffered enough!!"

You can't buy that kind of Earthly penance. It has to be earned. Mine was. I suffered a lot. I lived through the collapse of '64 and sat in a left field seat at the Vet on Black Friday when Luzinski juggled a fly ball against the wall and the catastrophic disaster of '77 transpired. I fear the younger brethren amongst us will no longer get that free pass into heaven. They'll have to find another way in. They've been spoiled. And now, so have I.

Yes, today it feels good to be on top, it's a red-letter day to bleed red. But I have to wonder any more if I won't be spit upon the next time I wear my Phillies cap in Chicago. There's be a price to pay for the joys of today. And the bill is gonna be a steep one.


To read Vescey's column in its entirety, cut and paste this link into your web browser.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/15/sports/baseball/15vecsey.html?_r=1&emc=eta1

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Matthew Dowd's great column on Wikileaks






Now that Julian Assange has turned himself in, governments around the world can breath a huge sigh of relief because Enemy Number One, the first global outlaw since Deep Throat to raise the question of the nation's political malfeasance, is finally "under control."

Matthew Dowd's column on Wikileaks is pretty close to mine own take and well worth reading. (See link below) In short, he argues that governments are inherently self-serving; they don't care much about citizens, they care only about self-preservation.

Governments expect citizens to placidly go along with any searches for information they wish to conduct, regardless of whether they violate a citizen's right of privacy. Yet when a whistle blower like Assange shines a light on government corruption or ineptitude, using the same invasive tactics that governments now use spy on their own people, they express outraged. Isn't this just another example of hypocrisy?

Dowd's second point is worth thinking about, too: why doesn't the media support Wikileaks? Doesn't the press serve as a watchdog? Isn't it supposed to be in the business of exposing wrong-doing and corruption of people who wield power? Shouldn't they be serving their readers by making government more acountable and by exposing the truth? Why has there been a blanket of silence thrown over the media regarding the apprehension of Julian Assange? Why has the press allowed its corporate masters to perpetuate the government's lie that Assange is a traitor to Western ideas of democracy?



Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the mainstream media is firmly held by large corporations that prop up governments and help elect officials who put their corporate interests ahead of the people's inherent right to know the truth?

Read Dowd's column here for yourself if you have five minutes. And shake your head in disgust at what has happened to democracy. Where are the investigative reporters? You're more likely to find them on the internet these days than drawing paychecks from newspapers or serving as TV newscasters or foreign correspondents.

Assange is someone we should admire. He is the student standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Someday, he will be universally acclaimed as a hero of democracy, a gadfly of the first rank, as patriotic as Daniel Ellsberg.

http://www.nationaljournal.com/columns/common-sense/maybe-the-government-would-earn-more-of-our-trust-if-it-invaded-our-privacy-less-20101202#comments

And for more commentary on how the media has abandoned its watchdog role in favor or cheering on the persecution of Assange, read this column from the Guardian's Simon Jenkins:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/28/us-embassy-cables-wikileaks

Monday, December 6, 2010

Follow the Daily Local News on Twitter


The Daily Local News has dozens of gift cards to Chester County restaurants and other local merchants that the newspaper is giving away just in time for the holiday season. All you have to do to have a chance to win is follow @wcdailylocal on twitter.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

2010: The Year in Recorded Music

2010 has been a vibrant year for pop music......reissues from classic rockers like The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen got most of the hype, for understandable reasons. The re-mixed release of the Stones' classic Exile on Main Street contained 10 songs culled from those recording sessions in France that were better than anything the band has released in two subsequent decades. And Springsteen's The Promise package contains a remastered version of his classic Darkness at the Edge of Town and 21 "new" songs that the Boss recorded during that fertile period of his life which didn't make the album.

Lady Gaga made headlines wearing a "meat dress" to a music awards show and sold millions of units, but got out-smarted and out-performed as the Queen of pop by Swedish star Robyn Carlsson, who is a far more interesting artist and took dance pop to glorious and frequently hilarious heights in her 2010 CD Body Works.

Since it's present-buying season and since music is "the gift that keeps on giving" all year long, consider this list of my favorite CDs of the year as recommendations for your holiday shopping. Such end-of-the-year lists have become de rigueur among music buffs in recent years and I like to indulge in the habit too with several good friends. Like all such lists, mine is subjective. But I have I hope it might reveal some pleasant surprises if you are a music fan like me.




1) Arcade Fire -- The Suburbs. When it came out this summer one friend told me the Arcade Fire had "become rock stars" with the release of this record. It was a savvy assessment of the band's new ascendance. Songwriter Win Butler shows a deft take on the American zeitgeist in these 15 songs, not one of which is a clunker. They skate delicately over issues both personal and political. They capture the ennui and soullessness of modern American life in a way that few other Americans artists would dare attempt. The Suburbs careens effortlessly from thoughtful, yearning folk to anthemic rock in all its glorious bombast. The rough edges that made their initial effort (Funeral) so enthralling have been chiseled off. What remains is a band working at its creative peak, a gleaming, burning machine. It reminds me of the Clash's London Calling in its reach for greatness. Its release was an instant classic that puts Arcade Fire in a class by itself. "Month of May" rocked harder than any song I heard all year.





2) Jamey Johnson -- The Guitar Song -- This double CD of classic country tunes was one of the most ambitious albums of the year. When was the last time a country artist released two CDs at once? It's unheard of. Yet the 25 songs here are strong enough to stand the test of releasing this much material all at once. Years from now The Guitar Song may be seen as a classic of traditional country music and Johnson's grasp for the brass ring. I would not classify myself as a fan of the genre, but I couldn't stop listening to it and I never stopped enjoying it. If you have country fans in your family, you'll make them happy if this one is in their Christmas stockings. Here's a small excerpt from the All Music Guide review of this terrific collection: "The Guitar Song is uncompromising. Johnson's own accomplished road band -- consisting of players symbiotically sympathetic to the material -- provides the backing, and he gives his musicians room to really play, whether it's honky tonk Southern rock or bedroom or back porch ballads. The sound is rougher edged than contemporary country; it comes from the Waylon Jennings/Hank Jr./David Allan Coe era. It rocks but it also rolls."



3) Band of Horses -- Infinite Arms. Few bands wear their influences on their sleeves as proudly or proficiently as Band of Horses from Seattle. Their shimmering, chiming guitars and lilting harmonies are not just throwbacks to the Roger McGuinn/Gene Clark era of the Byrds, they take that template for folk-rock to new heights and turn it into a signature sound of their own. Ben Bridwell is the primary singer/songwriter of the band, but his plaintive singing is exquisitely supported by new band members Tyler Ramsey and Ryan Monroe. Echoes of another California band, The Beach Boys, are all over this CD, too. Here's All Music Guide's assessment: "the album's willingness to sample from so many different genres -- roots, soft rock, alt.country, power pop, indie folk -- makes it sound like nothing else in 2010, and Band of Horses connect the dots by layering everything with canyon worthy reverb and cinematic guitars. For those who let it sink in, Infinite Arms could be a contender for the year's best album." Highlights include two plaintive, effortless love songs, the title track and "On My Way Back Home" and one amazing rocker, "N.W. Apt."



4) Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate -- Ali & Toumani. Regrettably, this is going to be the last time one of Ali Farka Toure's CDs makes my year-end list. The masterful guitarist from Mali passed away in 2006. His first collaboration with Diabate (In the Heart of the Moon) was released back in 2005, and was justifiably praised by critics and world music fans. This one was recorded in London in four days, just months before Toure died of cancer. It's his last release and a fitting tribute to the friendship and incredible musical bond he formed with Diabate. Toure's understated but gorgeous guitar picking is beautifully and attentively accentuated by Diabate's playing on kora, an African stringed instrument. They are joined on half of the album's songs by Cuban bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez. The intricate, rhythmic interplay of the three instruments is mesmerizing and seductive in its simplicity and beauty.





5) The National -- High Violet. Back in June, when I gave my "mid-year report" on the year's best CDs, this is what I said about High Violet, then my favorite record of 2010: "Hardly any pop bands feature baritone singers these days, so Matt Berninger's vocals give the National a distinct, unique sound. This is their most mature effort.... it may not jump right out of your speakers, but give it time. This one mellows like a fine cabernet and will grow on you as time goes on." I stand by that statement. The record sounded great in May and it still sounds great. "Bloodbuzz, Ohio" shows the band has an aptitude for crafting great singles, too, a skill it needs to refine and develop if it wants to break out of the alternative box many critics have put it in and climb into the mainstream.




6) Mumford & Sons -- Sigh No More. Mumford & Sons was my favorite new band of the year. They are Great Britain's answer to the Avett Brothers and they plough the same fertile territory of hillbilly folk-rock played with a punk aesthetic. I caught a mid-summer show at the TLA on South Street in Philly that was packed to the rafters. Their soaring harmonies were even more impressive in live performance than on this album. The songs seemed designed to be performed live because they're structured around a simple idea: they start out slowly and build to a rousing crescendo that is supported by thumping, stringed instruments and blaring, brass. Songs to download: "I Gave You My All", "Thistle and Weeds" and "White Blank Page." If you like the Avetts, you'll love their British cousins, the Mumfords.




7) School of Seven Bells -- Disconnect From Desire. My son says LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy has a harder edge than School of Seven Bells. And Murphy's "Drunk Girls" was a hilarious rave-up that was one of my favorite songs of the year. But for my money, this electronic-beat CD was the better album. Ben Curtis (formerly of Secret Machines) has teamed up with twin sister vocalists Claudia and Alejandra Deheza to create a stunning pastiche of dance pop songs. Great beats, soaring vocals and swirling synth riffs makes this one fairly irresistible. The disc starts out with three barn burners, "Windstorm", "Heart is Strange" and "Dust Devil" and then it's off to the races for one glorious, relentless ride. If you were a fan of Annie Haslem during her stint with Renaissance, you'll dig this one.



8) Beach House -- Teen Dream. Dreamy, blissed out folk pop by two of the most innovative musicians working in America today, Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand (the niece of French composer Michel Legrand). Chiming guitars fit hand in hand with rippling keyboard riffs while a drum machine adds tasteful taps and tics that unscore Legrand's penchant for writing musical reveries. Scally supports Legrand's dreamy vocals with deft, delicate soundscapes. Lyrically, this CD contains some of Legrand's most clear-eyed glances at the fragility of human relationships. "Wry and enough to know better than idealizing love, and romantic enough to still believe in it" is how one critic eloquently put it. This one may seem slight to people who like their music to rock, but its haunting beauty will linger for days if you gravitate to atmospheric pop. Some songs to hear first are: "Zebra," "Norway" and "Real Love."



9) Ike Reilly -- Hard Luck Stories. Like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits, the main appeal of Ike Reilly's songs are the vivid images they paint in your mind and the sense of humor they display. He sings his songs with a world-weary rasp and the same kind of untapped urgency that the young Springsteen brought to life with songs like "Rosalita" and "Blinded by the Light." Reilly's songs can barely contain the ideas they are expressing without overloading the whole works. They are backed by a roaring, road-hardened rock band, highlighted by a Farfisa organ and Ike's wailing harmonica playing. "Good Work" was my favorite song of the year, a hilarious romp that winks at high school graduation "after after party parties" and the party animals who attend them. Despite his acerbic theatrics, Reilly made the most raucous blues-based album of the year.


10) Janelle Monae -- The ArchAndroid. If this album represents the future of urban contemporary R&B, and I suspect it does, count on it to be both challenging and danceable. It's hard to put Monae's debut into any one catagory. It careens all over the musical map, from classical suites to soul rave-ups to prog rock heavyweights that would make fans of Emerson, Lake and Palmer take note. "Cold War" and "Tightrope" will rock the house down. Meanwhile, a futuristic saga of epic proportions (which takes more than a few listens to comprehend and unravel) turns the record into a soul opera worthy of George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic records. Monae makes a strong case as an artist to watch carefully.

Other 2010 releases that nearly made the cut, in alphabetical order: Belle and Sebastian, Write About Love; Bill Charlap & Renee Rosnes, Double Portrait; The Chieftains, San Patrico; Freelance Whales, Weathervanes; The Gaslight Anthem, American Slang; Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, I Learned the Hard Way; LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening; Robyn, Body Works; Spoon, Transference; Richard Thompson, Dream Attic.

Three terrific albums I can unequivocally recommend that were released with sonic extras: The Blue Shadows, On the Floor of Heaven; The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street; Bruce Springsteen, Darkness at the Edge of Town/The Promise.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why the fiscal commission's report is a house of cards


A preliminary report released by President Obama's fiscal commission last week proposed spending cuts, tax reform and dramatic changes to Social Security. The report was approved by the panel's co-chairmen, former Republican Senator from Wyoming Alan Simpson and former Clinton Chief of Staff Erksine Bowles. (Pictured above with the President at the White House when he initially announced they would co-chair his commission).

This was just the first volley in what will prove to be one of the most important and contentious policy debates between now and the 2012 election cycle. Nothing should take the nation's attention away from solving the national debt crisis. Perhaps the stunning rise of the Tea Party and it's "mandate" to downsize federal spending will provide enough incentive for both parties to take this issue seriously and for policy wonks in the press to keep it on their agenda.

The report released on Nov. 10th, was merely the "chairmen's mark," a draft of the proposal that has not yet been approved by all 18 members of the panel. So much of what passes for politics is really a question of "how should we spend the nation's tax dollars?" Conservatives tend to want to spend it on defense. Liberals think social programs should be the priority. Forgive me if I have some doubts anything substantive will get done any time soon. Hear me out.

The chairmen's mark report proposes capping discretionary spending, raising retirement age from 65 to 67 and instituting tax rate reductions while broadening the tax base. It made five broad recommendations:

1) Enact tough discretionary spending caps and provide $200 billion in domestic spending and defense "savings" by 2015.

2) Pass tax reform that simplifies the tax code, dramatically reduces tax rates, broadens the base and reduces the deficit.

3) Addresses the Medicare "doc fix" by payment reforms, malpractice reforms and long term measure to control future health care costs.

4) Achieve mandatory cuts from farm subsidies and military and civil service retirement.

5) Ensure Social Security solvency for the next 75 years while reducing poverty among the elderly.

These are all worthy, but ultimately unachievable, goals because of the way politics is presently conducted in Washington and especially in light of the recent Supreme Court decision to allow large corporations to pour money into congressional campaigns.

We are a country with trillions of dollars of national debt, much of it owed to the Chinese because China has been the primary lender for our costly foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite this, the United States is still the world's most bellicose policeman. U.S. defense spending is not just out of control, it is outrageously out of proportion to what other nations spend on defense. Yet it drives the U.S. economy in ways that make it hard to stem. What would happen to unemployment rates if we made substantial cuts to defense spending?

Here are the figures for 2009 defense spending among the world's top ten spending nations, from India (at number 10) down to the USA, by far the world's biggest spender on defense:

10) India, $36.6 billion
9) Italy, 37.4 billion
8) Saudi Arabia, $39.2 billion
7) Japan, $46.8 billion
6) Germany, $48 billion
5) The Russian Federation, $61 billion
4) France, $67.3 billion
3) The United Kingdom, $69.2 billion
2) China, $98.8 billion
1) The United States.......

.....$663.2 billion!!!!

You read that right.

We are a nation with two large oceans on our eastern and western borders and friendly nations to the north and south of us, yet we spend seven times more in defense spending than our closest rival. Did you know that? Are you upset by this figure? Do you wonder how this is possible? Did you know the United States spends even more on defense than is officially listed in the federal budget? The federal budget includes another $50 billion that is not counted among our defense expenditures and that has no Congressional oversight. This comes comes out of the so-called "black budget" and is controlled by the CIA and the Pentagon.

Yet you hear no member of the Tea Party, no Republican congressman and even very few Democrats -- aside from that "wacko Commie" Dennis Kuchinich -- talking about these staggering defense figures. Is there any wonder why?

In a nutshell, our Congress no longer represents we, the people, who vote. Congress now represents large corporations who control almost every facet of American life, from defense contractors to food production to the media. It is incomprehensible to believe these same politicians will willingly tackling federal spending and try to get the federal budget under control. They are the hired pawns of defense contractors, armament manufacturers and food production conglomerates. If they want to stay in office, you can bet they will do the right thing for their corporate masters.

Who will benefit from the upcoming fight over the federal budget? We can cross our fingers and hope the people get mad enough to make a difference and tell their elected representatives how to vote. Don't bet on that happening.

There will be very few "real winners." I'm putting my money on these folks: The CEOs and the stockholders of those very large corporations where so many of our precious tax dollars are being spent.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Pop culture alert: Jamey Johnson's new double album is a rare country gem


I developed a taste for old-school, hard-ass honky tonk country music when I was working as a feature writer for a Knoxville magazine company in the late 1970s. It's hard to avoid country when you're living in Tennessee. Knoxville was a just two hour drive east of Nashville, the country music capital of the world.

I lived there for two years but never made it to the Grand Ole Opry. Those traditional hat acts that Nashville churns out by the dozens never really appealed to me. I tend to favor bands or artists who would probably be classified in a record store as "alt-country."

Artists like Lucinda Williams, Emmy Lou Harris, and Texans Robert Earl Keen and Joe Ely are who I stick in the CD player when I am cravin' a country fix. Bands like the Drive-By Truckers, the Bottle Rockets and the Jayhawks also catch my ear from time to time. They're all bands that have been to school on Lynyrd Skynrd's licks and that crank out guitar blasts that can knock walls down.

Jamey Johnson is a lot like those Nashville traditionalists who never stoked my fire much back in my Knoxville days. But for reasons I can't quite fathom, I can't get enough of Johnson's new album, called The Guitar Song.

I first noticed his new album was getting some acclaim while looking at a website called "Metacritic.com", one of my favorite websites. It posts composite scores and critical reviews of recently released CDs, movies, books, and TV programs. For me, it's a good way to keep my finger on the pulse of popular culture. If a handful of critics are jumping on the bandwagon of a new compact disc, it usually means it's worth hearing. Whenever a CD hits the 80 mark or higher, it lands on my wish list.

Johnson's The Guitar Song is sitting at the top of this year's CD offerings with a composite score of 90. For a country album to be earning those kind of high marks is unusual to say the least. I had to hear it.

I've been playing it for about a week now and the critical raves are justified. It's an audacious undertaking simply because these days few bands or artists have the artist vision or the sheer chutzpah to release a double album. Johnson's latest is a two-for. It offers a "black" album of 12 great songs that plum the darker regions of his heart and a "white" album with 13 songs that are more upbeat and deliver an optimistic take on life. You can play which ever suits your mood. But taken as a whole, it's a compelling package that's impossible not to admire, even if you don't enjoy country music.

Johnson covers a lot of ground on his new album. Even within the confines of standard verses/chorus song arrangements he's constantly changing the tempo and engaging his listener with snippets of hard-earned wisdom. One moment he's lowered his gravelly baritone to softly sing a meloncholy heart-tugger like "That's Why I Write Songs", dispersing life lessons:

I remember all the times I felt/
like somebody knows me too well /
'Cause it was my life story I was listening to /
I don't know about you /
But I've buried some family and a few good friends /
And held a brand new baby in my hands /
Cause it's not just what I do, it's who I am /
And that's why I write the songs


Then, two songs later, he's singing a humorous ode to Macon, Georgia.

I'm headed back to Macon /
middle of the Georga pines /
gotta keep these big wheels rolling /
to that sweet little thing of mine


When he lifts his voice into a plaintive wail in the song's chorus: "I gotta get back to Macon..." a gospel choir answers his lonesome call with: "....love all night!" This line adds a hilariously jaunty twist to what would have been a pedestrian lyric in the hands of a less accomplished lyricist.

Songs like "Good Times Ain't What They Used to Be" and "Playin' the Part" crackle with the confidence and energy of a hard-core honky tonk band intent on making booties shake on the dance floor. Johnson's voice lacks range, but it's steeped in hard-earned wisdom and is as steady of a bowl of oatmeal. You never get a sense he's less than dead sure of his own sentiments. The best songs are those when Johnson scales back the dance-floor pomp and dispenses with quiet, nearly philosophical, versions of truth and justice. There are plenty enough of them to keep you coming back to this record for repeated listenings.

If you like country music, especially the kind Nashville serves up, you'll love this two-disc package. And even if you don't, you'll come to admire a country artist plying his trade at the top of his game. Look for this one to land on my top ten list at the end of the year.

Here's a link to the L.A. Times review of this great collection of songs:

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/music_blog/2010/09/album-review-jamey-johnsons-the-guitar-song.htmlThe

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Addressing the Tea Party









Subject: YOU FINALLY GOT MAD...


You didn't get mad
when the Supreme Court stopped a legal
recount and appointed a President.

You didn't get mad
when Dick Cheney allowed Energy company
officials to dictate Energy policy and push us to invade Iraq.

You didn't get mad
when a covert CIA operative got outed.

You didn't get mad
when the Patriot Act got passed.

You didn't get mad
when we illegally invaded a country that posed no threat to us.

You didn't get mad
when we spent over 800 billion (and counting) on said illegal war.

You didn't get mad
when Bush borrowed more money from
foreign sources than the previous 42 Presidents combined.

You didn't get mad
when over 10 billion dollars in cash just disappeared in Iraq.

You didn't get mad
when you found out we were torturing people.

You didn't get mad
when Bush embraced trade and outsourcing
policies that shipped 6 million American jobs out of the country.

You didn't get mad
when the government was illegally wiretapping Americans.

You didn't get mad
when we didn't catch Bin Laden.

You didn't get mad
when Bush rang up 10 trillion dollars in combined budget and current account deficits.

You didn't get mad
when you saw the horrible conditions at Walter Reed.

You didn't get mad
when we let a major US city, New Orleans, drown.

You didn't get mad
when we gave people who had more money
than they could spend, the filthy rich, over a trillion
dollars in tax breaks.

You didn't get mad
with the worst 8 years of job creations in several decades.

You didn't get mad
when over 200,000 US Citizens lost their
lives because they had no health insurance.

You didn't get mad
when lack of oversight and regulations
from the Bush Administration caused US Citizens to lose 12
trillion dollars in investments, retirement, and home values.

You finally got mad


....when a black man was elected President
and decided that people in America deserved the right
to see a doctor if they are sick. Yes, illegal wars, lies, corruption,
torture, job losses by the millions, stealing your tax dollars to make the
rich richer, and the worst economic disaster since 1929 were all okay with you,
but helping fellow Americans who are sick...Oh, Hell No!!


This email has been making its way around the internet for the past few days. A former colleague sent it to me. The best way to address the hypocrisy implied by the these sentiments is to go vote!

Monday, October 25, 2010

That pitch looked low to me, too!



His expression says it all: "Are you kiddin' me? He didn't really call that, did he?"

You know what they tell you in Little League: "If it's close, you gotta swing!"

You could almost hear the fans thinking through their disbelief that the season had ended: "You blew it, Howard! They pay you big bucks to come up big in situations like this! Dude! You had two runners on and a chance to win the game! C'MON!!"

Okay, that's valid...to a certain extent. Ryan Howard had no RBIs in the post season. That's "unthinkable". But can you tell me one position Phillies player who had more hits? A better average? I bet not.

Howard had 10 hits in 33 at bats in nine post season games. He hit no homer runs -- I will grant you that -- but he hit for a .303 average. That's good any any standards. He hit nearly 80 points higher than Raul Ibanez, the next "highest" hitter on the team in the post season with an average of .226.

Yeah, you read that right. The entire line-up went into a funk at the worst possible time. It hit .215 over nine games. They deserved to lose, given those numbers.

Yet, the starting pitchers and bullpen pitched so well that the Phillies challenged for a third straight pennant and a place in history. They lost four games to the Giants but they won two and they out scored the Giants 20-19 over six games. Five games were close. The Giants won three of them by one-run. It was a very close and well-played series.

So what gives? How could they have a much better team "on paper" and lose the series, 4-2?

Maybe you, too, noticed. They were out-managed.

It has to be said: Charlie Manuel came up small. He was out-coached by Bruce Boche, the Giants' manager.

I love how hard the Phils play for Manuel. I think his approach to running the team is perfect for a long 162-game season. There are a lot of highs and lows in a baseball season. You "maintain an even strain" and "let your players play" to use the standard cliches. It's smart to keep the clubhouse "happy" and to trust veteran players to play hard and give an honest effort. On those accounts, he's a great manager.

But here's where he failed. He was facing the best pitching staff in the majors. He was facing the best bullpen in baseball. He had to adjust to playing small ball and trying to win one-run games. He failed. The Phils never adjusted to the style of game the Giants were playing.

Game six is a perfect example. He had switched Chase Utley to the two hole on two occasions in the NCLS. Smart move, Charlie! You separated your two best hitters with a right-handed contact hitter, Placido Polanco. You made Boche think twice about bringing in his cadre of lefty relievers to face those all-star batters on your side. But you abandoned this heady strategy in must-win game six. You left Utley and Howard vulnerable to lefty relievers.

You made the correct move and inserted right-handed hitter Ben Francisco into the line-up in Game 4 in place of your slumping left-fielder, Raul Ibanez to face the lefty pitcher Madison Bumgardner. He had a hit and some great swings against the lefty, yet went back to Ibanez in game six.

San Francisco pitched four lefties against the Phils in innings 1 through 7. You wanna know why? The Phils line-up was loaded with left-handed hitters. You played right into their hands, Charlie.

The Phillies should have won this series...and they almost did despite their collective hitting slump. They had the better line-up on paper. They played hard and they played with heart. They just had the wrong manager in their dugout pulling the strings.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why I finally decided it was time to become a member of WXPN

No doubt many of you are already members of WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania's very fine public radio station. The station fills a wonderful niche on the local FM dial (you can find them at 88.5 if you are curious)because it plays music that you just never hear anywhere else.

XPN plays a wide variety of music: Alternative, alt-country, classic R&B, folk, the blues, confessional singer/songwriters and, best of all in my book, world music. You just never hear such a wide range of music anywhere else. Best of all, it is "listener supported." That means there are no commercial interruptions in the programming. People who listen to the station tend to be hardcore music aficionados like myself. It is one of the very few stations in the city that can honestly claim to support new artists.

I long have resisted becoming a member of XPN. I am somewhat chagrined to say why. For many years I just shrugged my shoulders and said to myself: "why pay for something that's free"? Call me a cheapskate. I enjoyed the music, but never paid for it. I listened to the station primarily because the music programming was provided without commercials, which are more annoying than a toothache. I justified my penurious behavior by telling myself I listened more to CDs in the car more than I did my radio. And when I don't have a CD handy that I want to hear, I am just as likely to listen to sports talk radio as I am XPN.

All of that changed with one simple moment on Sunday evening.

I was walking toward Citizen Band Park with my son and my brother to attend Game 2 of the National League Championship series between the Phils and the Giants. As we approached the park, we passed a six-piece brass band who were playing their faces off. They were making a joyous noise; loud, raucous, upbeat and extremely funky. They called themselves Philly Soul. The band leader, Joe Miller, told me they were members of the Cheyney University marching band, and had gotten together to entertain Phillies fans at home games since July. He said they had not yet played a paid gig in a club, but man they sure sounded ready! For five or six minutes, they played an extended jam, the same 12-bar riff, but it never became repetitive. They reminded me a lot of the Rebirth Jazz Band I had seen in New Orlenas at the Jazz Festival two years ago. To put it indelicately, they were kicking ass.

Thousands of fans streamed pass the band. You could tell -- just by looking at the their smiles -- that many of them were enjoying the band as much as I was. There was an open instrument case in front of the band and it had been generously filled by passers-by, but as I watched for several minutes, no one kicked in so much as a quarter. I called a friend to let her listen to the music for a minute and the tuba player got in my face and blew his horn directly into my cell phone. It was a beautiful moment. I appreciated his gesture as much as he seemed to appreciate mine. His eyes were alive with laughter.

I was about to turn away and head to the game when I saw a white-haired gent with a neatly trimmed beard stop to hear the band. He listened with discriminating ears for about a minute and -- without hesitation -- reached into his wallet and pulled out a sawbuck. He dropped it in the kitty and quickly went on his way to find his seat at the ballpark. I grabbed my son's elbow and told him: "hey! that's David Dye!"

Dye is one of the city's preeminant music on-air personalities and the host of my favorite XPN show, the World Cafe. It's become a National Public Radio Network mainstay and is syndicated to dozens of public radio stations around the country. At that moment, I finally realized how committed he was to his job: that it wasn't "just a job" but a calling. And I realized I had to do my part too.

I kicked in a five spot to Philly Soul, asked my brother to capture some footage of them with his camera after the game and decided it was high time to become a member of the station. This is my way of thanking Dye and his cohorts at XPN for giving me years of listening pleasure: music to listen to, to dance by, to think with. You can hear a small taste of the Philly Soul band on this raw footage, provide by my brother, Matt.

Enjoy! And the next time you see street buskers playing their butts off for you, do a random act of kindness like David Dye did! Every little bit helps. You're supporting the arts after all!~

Matt's video clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ETN1FsGbjEI

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Cheers to you, Mom!





Yesterday my siblings celebrated the 50th anniversary of my parents' wedding. I read this testimonial to my mother. Some of my siblings and my aunts and uncles have asked me to pass this along, so I am posting it here. Thanks for reading!

"Cheers to you, Mom!"


It goes without saying that most young men love their mothers and that their mothers become the template against which all other women are measured. Maybe that’s why I have so much trouble finding the right one, Mom! You were just impossible to replace!

It finally dawned on me – just how special you are, and how difficult it would be to find someone like you to spend a life with – when an old friend who’s never met you read my Mother’s Day story from the Inquirer Magazine and said how touched he was to read that story. He told me it must be hard to live with a mother who is a saint. He was right about that. It was hard then and it still is hard today. It is hard because you set the bar so high. You and Dad really demanded greatness of us. None of us achieved that, of course. Not yet. I keep waiting for Mark to outshine us all when his graphic novel hits the best seller’s list. Here’s the working title: “My Abusive Childhood: Collective Memories Growing Up Catholic at Kidzaplenty Place”

We know how hard you worked. Just the daily routine of taking care of such a large home and feeding 11 children was exhausting to witness. And coming into the second floor bathroom every morning and seeing three or four piles of laundry that awaited you, was a constant reminder of all the work to be done while we were off in school. That work alone, in a house as large as ours, should be enough to get the beatification process started in Rome. Mother Teresa started out in life as an Agnes, too. Did you know that?

We remember the sacrifices you made for us. We all made them, too! We sacrificed our appetites when we were fed macaroni and cheese once a week, or liver and onions twice a month; or broccoli stalks and brussel sprouts and blood-red beets and other inedible vegetables we hated but that you knew we needed. We remember how you fed a family of 11 for years on a $60 grocery allowance. We always hoped for spaghetti and meatballs and Italian sausages, and, despite how much work that took, we were fed that meal more than any other because you knew how much we all we all loved your sauce.

We remember seeing you stooped over the family sewing machine, sewing missing buttons on our shirts or hemming hand-me down pants from the Hopkinson boys or mending torn kneecaps and holey socks or making the girls dresses or even sewing clothes for their baby dolls, doing all you could to ensure we were not dressed like street urchins out of a Dicken’s novel. You might think all that work was God’s penance for having such a large family, but we tend to think you were doing God’s will. There’s grace in performing those mundane motherly tasks that all mothers do and you earned a ton of it, Mom.

We remember the stories you told us growing up in Holland. We experienced first hand a treasure trove of those Dutch customs every Christmas. The time you spent in the kitchen making saucijsbrooges and stollen, and separating each and every piece of a dozen grapefruits with the curved edge of a grapefruit knife and then sprinkling sugar on top. We remember the tales of Black Peter putting coal in stockings and of the Dutch songs you would sing to us in words we couldn’t understand but that delighted us anyway because they always made you laugh when you finished them. We all remember the way you and dad turned Christmas day into a never-ending event of good vibrations by making us sit as a pajama collective in a wide circle and unwrap our gifts individually, one at a time. It stretched that glorious holiday out for hours.

Only rarely did any of us get the present we most wanted, but none of us has forgotten the experience of those Christmases past or forgot how much they brought us close as a family. We learned then to appreciate the things that really matter in life. Some of us went to our friends’ homes on Christmas afternoon to play with their shiny new Erector sets or slot car tracks or their Lionel trains or to play with their soft, new Care Bears or My Little Ponies or their shiny and leggy Barbie Dolls. We likely wished we had those presents too.

But I know none of us would ever trade the lessons we learned about the real meaning of Christmas for the neighbor’s presents. All of us wish we could bottle those Christmas mornings and sell them to the rest of America. Not because it would have made us fortunes, but because it would have made us all rich in love and people everywhere would thank us for sharing those wonderful vibes of sheer joy. You earned some heavenly points there, too, Mom.

You made all of the holidays special in some way. We all remember your incredible pies at Thanksgiving we somehow forgot to save room for but devoured anyway; the painted Easter eggs at Easter we hunted in the vast uncut openness of the spring front lawn; the costumes you made at Halloween. Points, points, more heavenly points.

You were a Queen among moms. And I suspect my friend from Loyola knew all of this when he made his comment to me about what a saint you were. But that’s not really what he was talking about. When he mentioned how difficult it must be to live with a mother destined for sainthood, he was talking about your courage, your willingness to show the world of powerful men that mothers count too; that the opinion of mothers was what got politicians elected and that they should be held accountable for their decisions, especially when their governments ask America’s mothers to send their sons and daughters off to foreign lands to protect the nation’s economic interests.

You wanted them to take their oaths of office as seriously as you took your own responsibilities as a mother. You knew that the lives of American youth was too high a price to pay to fight unnecessary wars. You knew that the very idea of war was something people had to start to question. You knew that “Question Authority” was not some trite political slogan but a social responsibility all citizens have. I never personally knew anyone who was willing to go to jail for this just cause, Mom. Until you did. You showed us all that one person could make a statement of goodness and purpose with her life; that in fact, there is no higher purpose in life than that: to try to speak the truth and to embrace life itself and all its goodness.

I don’t think too many of us ever really understood or appreciated the toll those actions took on you, Mom; on your marriage and on your relationship with your siblings. But God knows. And he loves you very much for those sacrifices and maybe we are all a little bit jealous of you for that. That’s probably what my friend was thinking of when he told me how hard it must be to have a saint for a mother. It’s hard because none of us possess the same amount of fortitude to follow our hearts as you do. We look up to you for a wide variety of reasons, most of all for showing us how to love our own children, and we emulate you and honor you and we sing your praises in birthday cards and in anniversary parties like this. But we find it impossible to follow in your footsteps and place our personal freedom at risk to live a life of conviction.

All of this is just prelude to a moment we shared together. You and I. You probably won’t remember it, but I can’t ever forget it. It held for me the secret of who you are and why you did what you had to do when you took on the government and the war machine and the arms dealers. I knew in my heart I would write about this moment some day. All of us have some very private and special moment with you we hold sacred, Mom. This is mine.

I had gone with you and some of the siblings to the Schretlen family reunion in Holland in 1988. It was July and I was leaving my job soon at the newspaper in Virginia and I was coming home soon to start my teaching job at West Chester. Isabel turned one during the week I was away in Holland, so the trip cost me the experience of sharing her first birthday.

One day the Schretlen clan planned an afternoon trip to your parish church. It was centuries old, made of old brown stones from some local quarry. As we walked into the interior of the church, it smelled musty and the sanctuary seemed smaller and darker than churches I was used to in America. The pews were made of an old hard, dark wood and the kneelers were worn. After 10 or so minutes, I followed you and one of my aunts up a small path towards a grove of tall trees, mostly pine. It looked like we were approaching a park. When we got to the summit of the hill, I was surprised to see a series of small plots of ground encircled by stone walls about three or four feet high. Initially, I thought they were small gardens. They were meticulously cared for and, because it was the middle of summer, all of them had a variety of blooming flowers in them, a blaze of color. Primroses, daffodils, irises, nasturtium, scarlet sage, sunflowers, violas, catmints, polyanthas, and foxgloves. It was as if I had stepped into a well-tended English arboretum.

It was stunning and peaceful, quiet except for a slight rustle of the tree branches and birdsong that filtered gently through the pines and leaves. I thought to myself I had found a small slice of heaven. But I couldn’t quite figure out why the garden was separated by these small stone walls and divided into plots. It was almost as if this sacred place were a 4-H competition…. each plot more meticulously planned and carefully tended than the next, as if someone were coming soon to judge them and one of them would win the gold medal.

Then we walked to a small plot that was less well tended. Flowers bloomed there too, but it hadn’t been weeded in quite some time. Soggy leaves left over from the last year’s fall were stuffed into corners of the stone walls and the lush, emerald grass was uncut, growing wild, several inches higher than the trimmed plots that surrounded it. I was puzzled and couldn’t understand why this one was different than the others. The overall effect of the place was one of serene, lush beauty, a place as alive as any I had ever been in. Even this untended plot had been lovingly cared for, but just not as recently as the others.

You and Aunt Celine stopped and looked around the plot and you both became quiet and respectful. When you looked down at the ground, it suddenly dawned on me that we were in a cemetery. And then you started crying. Very softly, as if you didn’t want to worry us or to interrupt our own thoughts. Then I finally realized where we were: at the gravesite of your sister Mary and your brother, Bluffy. The aunt and uncle I had never met. And I knew that it had been a very long time since you had been back to visit them.

Maybe you were crying because of things you remembered about them. The shade of Mary’s ash blonde hair in her teenage youth or the way she sang to you to sleep at night. Or maybe you were thinking of Bluffy’s small and tender hands and they how they felt in your own fingers when you took him for a walk over the shady streets of your neighborhood. Maybe you were remembering back to that tragic day when the Americans were trying to drive the Nazi’s out of Nijmegen and they were killed by American bombs in an air raid. Maybe you were crying because there was no one from the immediate family left to take as good a care of their final resting place as the other cemetery plots were so lovingly cared for. Or maybe you were crying because you were afraid you might never come back to this serenely quite place, where your sister and brother would spend eternity, thousands of miles away from you and your other siblings.

I knew then Mom, why you did what you felt you had to do when you were breaking laws and going to jail and becoming the disgraced sister of your siblings, the family’s embarrassment to many of us. I tried to imagine how I would feel if I was coming to the burial plot of Lisa and Matt and their graves were so far away that I would not be able to leave flowers there or trim the grass and tend to their garden so others would feel welcomed there. I tried to understand the complex emotions you were feeling but I failed utterly to do so. I couldn’t imagine having to endure that much pain in my life and I hoped I never would.

The searing memory of those five or six minutes with you at that small plot of land surrounded by small stone walls has never left me. It made me understand so much about your desire to try to change the world, try to make it a better place; to do what little you could, as a single person, a mother and a grandmother, to eliminate the violence and the horror and the implicit, everlasting sorrow that reside in weapons of mass destruction. I am so very proud of you for that. And I feel more than a little shame that I have not yet been able to bear your torch and carry on the fight you so nobly waged against what President Eisenhower once called the “military industrial complex”.

You have set an example for all of us with your service to peace and justice,
Mom. And those minutes in the cemetery in Nijmegen at the graves of Mary and Bluffy told me all the reasons I ever needed to know about why you had to speak out about war.

And dad, I know you initially were reluctant to embrace mom’s acts of civil disobedience. It was more than an inconvenience to you…and I know how hard it must have been to field questions about mom’s behavior from her siblings. She didn’t ask you for your blessing when she went and got herself arrested. But I have to tell you, I never felt prouder to be your son when you fielded those questions gracefully and told the relatives how much you admired her and that she had a mind and will of her own and she was following her conscience.

At that point, it finally seemed to me your marriage to Mom was one based on trust and respect. It seemed to me you had learned the hardest lesson of marriage one has to learn: how to adapt to your partner and support your partner when your partner’s life suddenly takes a course you never expected and that you don’t necessarily trust or approve of. Surely you turned to your faith in God in those moments and surely you heard God’s answer: that Mom’s work here on Earth was pretty darned important too and that you would have to make some personal sacrifices to adapt to Mom’s newfound purpose.

In those moments, it seems to me, you and mom really forged a marriage for the ages, one we honor here today. You have given us all more than a lifetime of love and blessings. You have shown us the meaning of personal sacrifice and commitment to an ideal. We are all so blessed to have you as our parents.

So in closing, Yes, I must agree with my old friend. It IS hard to live with a mother who is a saint. But I thank God mothers like you, mom, walk among us.

You inspire us to greatness and to accountability. That’s the best kind of work that parents can do. You both did your jobs very well. We all love both of you very much.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Philly News columnists get it right on intolerance


One of my pet peeves about mass media lately is that its desire to provide "balance" has created a golden opportunity for conservatives on the far right fringes of the GOP to set an agenda of religious intolerance that is dividing the country.

Just in time to help the party in the mid-term elections to boot!

Reporters have tough jobs. And the tenets of the profession can usually be boiled down to two or three essentials: be accurate, be fair and be fast. Reporters are told to "keep your opinion out of the story" and to "always provide at least two sides of an issue and let the reader make up his own mind which one is right."

But what exactly are reporters supposed to do in today's climate when damnable lies and falsehoods pass as "opinion" and are used to spread hatred and intolerance? Should they print untruths when they know the lies will breed hatred? GOP spin doctors have been playing the media for dupes. Provoked by the FOX News propaganda machine, the national media -- particularly print media -- have been cowed into a corner like frightened puppies. In the name of "balance" reporters now allow GOP talking heads to spread shameful innuendos that spread the seeds of religious hatred toward Muslims and help bring voters to the polls.

The Inquirer and the Daily News each ran recent columns that point the finger exactly where it should be pointed: at GOP Congressional leaders and presidential wanna-be's and at the media itself.

Trudy Rubin made this salient point In the Currents section of the Sunday Inquirer:

"Prime among the Islamaphobes is Newt Gingrich: He said on Fox last month that 'the folks who want to build this mosque are really radical Islamists' whom he compared to Nazis seeking 'supremacy' in the United States. For good measure, Gingrich charged Obama with 'pandering to radical Islam.' This dovetails with the anti-factual conservative campaign that has convinced 18 percent of Americans the president is a Muslim.

"Another typical example of inflammatory GOP rhetoric came from State Rep. Rex Duncan of Oklahoma, who warned of a 'war for the survival of America,' because Muslim sharia law was threatening the Constitution. There are too many similar examples to quote here.

"This scary political climate, in which Sarah Palin fuels the flames, has so spooked mainstream Republicans that they appear loath to tamp down the anti-Muslim rhetoric. Meantime, in the background, Rush Limbaugh keeps up the phobic beat and fundamentalist preachers such as Pat Robertson warn that Muslims are on the verge of 'taking over.'

To read more, click here:

http://www.philly.com/inquirer/columnists/trudy_rubin/20100919_Worldview__Fomenting_hatred_of_Muslims_hurts_U_S_.html#ixzz10Ba6uWmo Watch sports videos you won't find anywhere else

And Daily News columnist Fatimah Ali, herself a Muslim, held the media accountable for allowing a tinhorn Florida preacher named Terry Jones to have his 15 minutes of national fame simply because he threatened to provoke Muslims by burning the Quran.

In her latest column she wrote:

"Attention-seekers like Jones pop up all the time, but they aren't always successful in duping the media. The last media-savvy Jones who put the title 'Reverend' in front of his name was Jim Jones, and we all know how that turned out: He managed back in 1978 to lead 900 followers to their deaths in a mass suicide in Guyana.

"It's not that I don't believe that Terry Jones fully intended to consummate his hatred of Islam by burning 200 Qurans, until a wiser head warned him that such a move such would only serve to cause harm to Americans overseas. It's just that news isn't really news until it actually happens.

"And for reporters to have spent endless days and nights covering an event that he said he was planning only served to drive further hatred of Islam and its 1 billion followers.

"As a Muslim, I know that Islam is not a religion of violence or terror, but it gets a bad rap because of the heinous acts committed by a handful of fanatics who've distorted its truth. But who besides Muslims, or religious scholars, will know about the beauty of Islam if they don't read the holy book that Jones threatened to burn?


Read more: http://www.philly.com/dailynews/columnists/fatimah_ali/20100914_Fatimah_Ali__Post-9_11_tolerance___media_hysteria.html#ixzz10BjKWnf5 Watch sports videos you won't find anywhere else

Kudos to both Rubin and Ali!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Katrina, five years later












Yesterday marked the five-year anniversary of the nation's worst natural disaster. Hurricane Katrina left 1800 dead in its wake and tens of thousands of people homeless. It decimated not just New Orleans, one America's most unique and inspirational cities, but hundreds of miles of the Gulf Coast region.




But perhaps its most pervasive, enduring damage was to the nation's psyche. It gave us all the feeling that government is powerless to help citizens who need help the most -- or worse, that it willfully neglected to do what was necessary to protect its people. That feeling will linger much longer than it will take to rebuild New Orleans' residences and reconstruct its battered levees.


Many of the nation's newspapers ran front page articles yesterday recalling the catastrophe and its enduring aftermath. Few of us needed to be reminded of the terrible events of that day. We still carry vivid images of the hurricane's terrible landing: the whiplash rain pelting the streets of the city like bullets; huge oaks upended by 70 mile per hour gusts along St. Charles Avenue and downtown palm trees on Canal Street bent double; the roofs of buildings torn off; cars and boats piled up like so much flotsam.

And then, in the tortorous, apocalyptic days that followed, who could ever forget the crowds of impoverished people, with no means of escape, crammed into the windblown Superdome, clutching their worldly possessions and clinging to loved ones, begging for relief; stranded survivors standing on the rooftops of their flooded homes, waving white flags to National Guard helicopters, desperate to escape the oppressive heat and their hunger.


And finally, as the full recognition of the tragedy finally struck home, we witnessed dozens of embarrassing images of drowned bodies, floating face-down in flooded, stagnant streets, dispossessed of life but lying out of reach of anyone who could give their carcass a decent burial.
Katrina still hurts us emotionally. It it made America look like a Third World nation. Elected officials in Washington, D.C. and Baton Rouge, La. had known for decades the levee walls would be breached some day. None of them took steps to prevent it from happening. When the bill finally came due, none of them took blame either.


New Orleans is one of the most remarkable cities in the world: the birthplace of jazz, a place of rich and varied architectural styles and exquisit cuisine. It was left in harm's way.


As the Sunday front page stories attested yesterday, New Orleans is gradually recovering from the hurricane, primarily because the people who lived there before the hurricane love it so much. The place is too special to abandon.


We must never forget the lessons of Katrina. The forging of our national character demands that much.