January 31, 2014

Dave Marsh on Pete Seeger

[I think I'm gonna ditch the piece on Pete Seeger I've been writing. Dave Marsh doesn't make several of the points I was going to, but those he does, he does better than I could and he's got some that never occurred to me. This is reprinted with permission from RRC, Rock & Rap Confidential. The permission reads, in Pete's spirit:

Please feel free to forward or post this RRC Extra widely. We only ask that you include the information that anyone can subscribe free of charge to Rock & Rap Confidentialby sending their email address to rockrap@aol.com.

So do it.]

by Dave Marsh

I met Pete Seeger about 40 years ago on the Clearwater, a refurbished 19th century sloop which had begun its then seemingly hopeless task of cleaning up the shores and waters of the Hudson River. Like a lot of the things that Pete got involved in, it was a hopeless task until it turned out to be common sense.

That day, we cruised Long Island Sound, if I remember right, from Port Jefferson to Oyster Bay, which is not very far, and back, which is still not very far. It was worth every minute, and would have been if only for the chance to spend time aboard the 106 foot, single-masted Clearwater, a gorgeous vessel, stable even in Long Island Sound’s considerable chop and carrying as cargo volumes of lore and lessons about the costs of environmental neglect.

You could say that those early Clearwater voyages were the precursors of the present-day celebrity cruise, but with fewer celebrities. No more were needed. Pete Seeger was not only the enduring star of American folk music, he was its leading evangelist and one of the greatest singer/musicians this part of the planet has produced. I remember Pete singing though not what songs, and some lectures about the important work of the ship and the ecology of the Sound and the Hudson River region, though not their specific content. The presentation did its best to be as folkie as a much-darned pair of wool socks, and unmistakably also an event with a star and a crew and an audience, never exactly commingled. It was also a strong, healthy political event, by which I mean that each of us left with a sense of mission and some ideas about how to execute it.

I wasn’t there to clean up the Sound, though I was glad to be part of the movement, or to hear Pete perform, though I knew the importance of his music. I was there to write a story for Newsday, the Long Island daily. I did what you do in those situations, where you don’t know anybody and nobody knows you, which mostly means I watched and listened and took mostly the kind of sensory notes that you don’t write down on the spot.

When we docked everyone headed for the parking lot. Pete and his wife Toshi had several bags. I introduced myself, not only because we were meant to talk for a few minutes, but as a prelude to asking if I could help carry their stuff.

I got no further than, “Hi, I’m Dave Marsh from Newsday,” before Pete turned to me and snapped—and I mean snapped, like he was already booking me for malingering—“Grab a couple of those bags. It’s good for white collar workers to do physical labor.” Thus spoke the Harvard gentleman to the brakeman’s son who’d never owned a necktie. And no, I didn’t come up with my usual smartass retort. He was Pete Seeger, who had changed not only my life but the world, and the alternative to silence was insulting him as much as he’d just insulted me, and…well, for once it was not in me.

That incident was one of the best lessons I ever had several times over. I learned lessons I’d chew on for, apparently, the rest of my life: The relation between stardom and shyness, between changing the world and retaining your self, and between trusting your perceptions and remembering not to suppose anything until you’ve made sure the person about whom you’ve just supposed it is not a cartoon.

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January 26, 2014

Book Review: Stones from the Creek

Stones from the Creek, Rick Levine's new book, is a series of loosely-linked short stories about the United States during the period between the Spanish-American War and the onset of WWI. It is a splendid venture into relatively uncharted territory for radical fiction.

But permit me to digress for a moment. This is, if memory serves, the first book review in over 500 posts here at Fire on the Mountain, dating back to 2006. In general, it strikes me that there are two reasons to write a book review (at least, if someone isn't paying you to).
A. One has views and insights to offer its other readers, striving to engage in thoughtful discussion across time and space.
B. One wants to get people pumped up to go and read the damn book.

Let's be clear. This is an Option B review. Stones from the Creek is not only a fine and in many ways remarkable work, but it is self-published, and by a first-time author to boot. That means that unless fans beat the drums for it—hard—the sucker will have a hard time finding the audience it deserves.

Now, back to the book's considerable merits. The 14 loosely-linked short stories here present a unique panoramic view of the US as monopoly capital expands its grip and becomes modern imperialism. Yet the strength of the panorama is that only one story deals with on developments at the commanding heights and that one at twin removes, telling a tale of the Crash of 1907—as an Isaac Beshevis Singer-style Yiddish folktale.

For the most part, the reader becomes engaged with a set of ordinary people, many of them actual historical figures, who are just as extraordinary as the everyday people whom we meet in life, or in the struggle. More extraordinary, because they come from cultures and backgrounds far removed from our own. 

One of my current favorites is "The Giant Believed Her," whose center is the Apache chief Alchesay. It unfolds as the story of the attempt to revive traditional tribal culture in a guise which may just conceal it from the genocidal intentions of the dominant ndaa (white) power structure. The reader is drawn to understand the behavior, the manners, appropriate to an Apache man in this period, and to celebrate Alchesay's victory. Then further reading or simple reflection reveals a universal theme many of us are dealing with. How, in a period of setback, of defeat, do we decide what fights can be won, what tactics will serve, how the base can be mobilized?

Other figures who shine include a buffalo soldier who rescues Teddy Roosevelt's ass at San Juan Hill and is given a hard a way to go as a reward, the four-year-old Paiute girl whose life is changed when her grandmother slashes the throat of a BIA investigator, and the young wife heading the procession carrying the statue of San Miguel to its home in a New Mexico church, 

"The Sun Shone So Brightly" is perhaps the closest to a traditional work of "proletarian fiction," both in its subject matter, class unity forged in a miners' walkout, and in its optimism. But Levine is a materialist, and history is history. Two of the most unsettling stories feature Smedley Butler in the "banana wars" of Central America. As Major General Smedley Butler, he is known for his declaration in the 1930s, "I was a racketeer, a gangster for capital." Butler is hero to many of us, and especially members of Veterans for Peace. The stories tell, from the point of view of then-Captain Butler and of the Hondurans he is sent to repress, exactly what he did that caused him decades later to adopt that self-description. 

The closing story, "In the Midst Of The Valley," takes up one of the central themes of the book, race. White supremacy and the color line must lie at the heart of any honest look at the history of this country. Few works of fiction that I know of explore the complexities of this reality with depth of Levine's 30 page look at the question of indigenous nations, African descent, white privilege and political power through the experience of a man pursuing a dream of "a New Africa, a Black Zion."

To return to my digression at the start of this review: Go and read the damn book!

You can find it at Amazon.com in Kindle or dead treeversions. If you patronize Facebook, go and "Like" the "Stones From The Creek" page, and catch some snippets from these stories. 

[Full disclosure: While it would be stretching things to say that Rick Levine and I are friends, he is an acquaintance. And a really good and interesting writer.]

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January 15, 2014

The War On The Planet

[This talk was delivered two days ago, by my old friend Gary Goff. The Brooklyn Museum is featuring an exhibition called WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath. The Museum asked Brooklyn For Peace, a presence in the community for 30 years, to organize what they called a "Perspectives Talk." Gary, who is active in BFP's Climate Action working committee delivered--short and sharp!]

The War On The Planet

by Gary Goff

We usually think of violence as something that is abrupt and explosive --a bomb going off, a bullet finding its mark. The photos on exhibit here tend to reinforce this view.

But there is another kind of violence that is increasing worldwide, – the violence of climate change. Because it is incremental, it’'s mostly invisible, or at least not perceived as violence. But we need to reassess this view. Climate change is both violent and largely caused by human activity. It’'s as violent as war. People’'s homes and livelihoods are destroyed, their countries devastated, their lives taken. According to the UN there have been more than 4 million climate-related deaths since the 1970s.

As startling as that number is, the relationship between war and the environment is more than the high casualty rates they share. Environmental disasters cause wars and wars cause environmental disasters. Let me explain.

War destroys the environment – wrecking agriculture and infrastructure, killing and displacing millions of people, leaving a landscape of lethal chemicals, heavy metals, and radioactivity in its wake.

If we step back from the news items about war and environment that we see daily, we may be able to perceive a pattern here, a macabre cycle of cause and effect.
  • Our national dependence on fossil fuels makes us intervene in countries that are rich in fossil fuels
  • Which means we need a huge military
  • Which is so dependent on fossil fuels that we have to intervene in other countries to keep it supplied
Even when not engaged in war, the military causes environmental damage. The burning of fossil fuels--coal, oil, natural gas--causes climate change and the US military is the biggest single user of fossil fuels in the world.

And environmental disasters set the stage for war. Climate change is causing droughts, wildfires, floods, famines, and storms like we’ve never seen before. Rising sea levels threaten island dwellers around the world. Huge numbers of people are forced to leave their homes. The International Red Cross says there are now more environmental refugees than political refugees. In 2009,– the last year for which we have statistics,– 36 million people were driven from their homes by environmental destruction. You don’'t have to be a sociologist to understand that this many environmental refugees exacerbates the conditions that lead to war.

Increasingly wars are being fought for access to – and control of – resources like oil, gas, water, and arable land.

Today we’'ve heard about:
  • The war abroad –in Asia, the Mideast, and elsewhere
  • The war at home – attacks on communities of color, cutbacks in schools, hospitals, and infrastructure that Noam Chomsky calls "pure savagery"
  • And now, the war on the planet. Climate change is threatening the continued existence of human beings on this planet.
In Brooklyn For Peace, we say that you cannot stop any of these three wars unless you stop all of them. And we can only stop them if large numbers of people demand it and work for it. People like you.


Climate-related deaths.
Climate Change and Health: Fact Sheet No 266, World Health Organization


US military'’s use of fossil fuels.
Greenwashing the Pentagon, Joseph Nevins, Truthout, 13 June 2010


Environmental refugees.
Climate Refugee, National Geographic Educational


Climate Refugees: The Human Toll of Global Warming, Teresita Perez, Center for American Progress, 7 December 2006


Climate Refugees in the 21st Century, Petra Durkova, Anna Gromilova, Barbara Kiss, Megi Plaku, Regional Academy on the United Nations, December 2012



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