Pete Seeger

When someone like this dies at 94, working for what he thought was right to the very end, I don’t think there’s anything to be sad about.  Seeger’s political judgment wasn’t always the best, though he was wrong ‘for the right reasons’ (ignorance and misplaced hope, not bloody-mindedness or cruelty), and in the days he got Stalin wrong, a lot of good people did the same.  A fine musician, and a big heart.

When lefties were finding him jobs during the blacklist, he was my fourth and fifth-grade music teacher.  I still remember all the Spanish Civil War songs, union songs, and political songs he taught us, and there were a lot.  I will always think of him leading a big group of people singing together about something important, which he did as long as he could hold the banjo inscribed “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.

No tears, just gratitude.  Pete would have loved this song: “When I die, I don’t want crying and candles…I want a yellow ribbon…and a pretty girl dancing on my coffin…just music from a flute, guitar and cavaquinho.”  He would surely remind us of Joe Hill’s valedictory: “Don’t mourn for me, organize!”

Goodbye, Pete, and thanks.

“Adopted,” A poem for a cold Saturday afternoon

My step-mother Arlene Pollack published her second poetry collection, Persons, Places, and Things. Here is the first poem in the collection.



Knowing full well my search would lead nowhere,

With eyes veiled to conceal my interest,

I have looked for Mother in places known and rare.


At first I sought her in those places where

My heart felt most at home, yet, all the while,

Knowing full well my search would lead nowhere.


One summer in Rome, I thought I’d seen her there,

Retraced my steps to find her shop; could not.

I have looked for Mother in places known and rare.


I have looked for Mother deep within my heart,

Studying myself, the children I have borne,

Knowing full well my search would lead nowhere.


In my travels, making time to spare,

I have searched through records, for what I do not know.

I have looked for Mother in places known and rare.


I have not found my mother anywhere;

Yet she has never once been lost to me;

Knowing full well my search would lead nowhere,

I have looked for Mother in places known and rare.

In which I examine the unity of mind and body

Over on the Nonprofiteer I consider the expression “pain in the ass” and its application to actual asses everywhere. The money graf:

So when you go home for the holidays and abruptly find yourself troubled by an injury you’d
thought long healed, look around the room: maybe it’s Mama and maybe it’s Uncle Jim, but I’ll
bet somebody familial is the cause. And if you notice a brother who seems to manifest a limp
every time he sees you, consider this: you might be the pain in the ass of which you’ve always

Food stamps

This is vile, it stinks to heaven.  I used to be pretty good at teaching public policy in a non-partisan manner (we have some of my former students reading this blog and if I’m wrong, don’t hold back) but the last decade or so has really cramped my style, hooboy.  The insouciant cruelty of fat and happy Republicans simpering about making hungry children dependent (are there no poorhouses?  do the mills not offer employment to a deft eight-year old?) after they engineered the budget deficits they have now decided to rail about, and carried water for the “job-creators” who feathered their nests giving us the recession that’s put so many people on the street and on food stamps, is simply Dickensian.  Eric Cantor is a horrible person, whipping a gang of racists and ignorant, fearful, haters into increasingly unspeakable behavior with fake moralizing and outright lies.

And the horse’s asses he rode in on.

Medicaid expansion, too.  Mississippi, our own Haiti, land of poverty, despair, and early death, turns down free federal money in order that its poorest don’t get medical care?  It can’t even be selfishness among the plutocrats: how is it good for business that its workforce is sicker?  It’s simply cruelty, far beyond the possible bounds of policy debate or the scope of ideology, an abomination no religion can countenance. What did these people’s parents raise them to be? What were they told in Sunday School?

I give up, I’m not up to this.  But luckily, there is Käthe Kollwitz.

kollwitz 1 kollwitz 2 kollwitz 3

and George Grosz.Untitled 4Swim if you can, and if you are too fat, go under (Schwimme, wer schwimmen kann, und wer zu plump ist, geh unter!)

May your dreams be haunted with sick, starving children, you swine.





A sermonette for All Souls Day.

A sermonette for All Souls Day 2013

Descartes tried to prove the self from doubting the world. He failed; for where is the self in the pure stream of sensations? In truth, the self and the world are a distinction. If there is no world, there is no self to experience it. Similarly, the moral self is not self-created from the vacuum in some heroic autopoiesis. It is allowed to emerge in childhood by the continual struggle of parents and other caregivers to maintain a space of safety and freedom within which the young person can grow. The soul needs love as a plant needs water.

As adults, our sphere of autonomy is ipso facto an abnegation of others from interference. Our rights, fundamental and contingent, are duties of others to refrain from certain actions towards us and obligations to carry out others; duties we in turn bear towards them, and to the yet unborn. The autonomous moral agent is a member of a society of such. We may choose, in extremis, to act as moral agents in the midst of asocial anarchy and oppression. Such people are heroes by exception, not rule.

Contract, the basis of economic life, cannot be self-justifying either. The obligation to perform our promises, as it derived historically from gift exchange, is founded in reason either in morality or force of law. The individualist attempt to make contract the basis of law and ethics inverts this order, making a nonsensical heresy. Friday, Saturday or Sunday make the business week possible.

The self may be rational by nature but effectively so only by nurture. Language was for Darwin “an instinct to acquire an art”. So too the arts, science, technology, law, and government are learnt from our predecessors and contemporaries. We all stand like Newton on the shoulders of giants – and of millions more ordinary pygmies. Even blogging without readers is vanity.

Some say the entire material creation is a kenosis, a self-emptying of God; the cosmos is a stream of bubbles in the divine champagne, and even the extinction of the self would be the collapse of one bubble into an ocean of light.

Thank you, everybody past and present, for letting me be me.

Class acts all around

Mariano Rivera, the long-time lights-out Yankee closer is retiring this year.   The sport agreed to retire Jackie Robinson’s number 42 from all teams, and Rivera is appropriately the last player to have it.  I’m properly skeptical of sports journalism regarding the personalities of players, having read Ring Lardner’s Champion in youth (for example) but as far as I can tell what you hear about Rivera is what you get, a real gentleman on and off the field, awesomely good at what he does, confident in his skills and not a tidge arrogant or jerky. Class act all the way.

Probably no recent ballplayer has administered more heartbreak and frustration to the Red Sox (maybe Dennis Eckersley). Before tonight’s game, the last between the rivals for the season, the Sox put on a ‘time’ for Rivera with gifts, speeches, and applause.  Another class act, what sports is supposed to be about but too often lacks.  Thanks, Mo, for the great ball, and thanks, Sox, for saying goodbye so graciously.


The democratic elite and the white working class: only connect

Andrew Levison’s book on the White Working Class is a great piece of political strategy. It’s also a great piece of self-help for the professional-managerial class who know less than they think about how ordinary people think and live.

I just finished reading Andrew Levison’s The White Working Class Today. (Uptight disclosure: Levison, as editor of The Democratic Strategist, has published a couple of my pieces and is a cyber-friend of mine.) The take-away blurb is, yes, buy the book if you’re at all interested in political strategy, rhetoric, or the future of the Democratic party. But it’s worth saying a bit more about what the book teaches, and in particular what books like this can teach the kind of out of touch, self-appointed opinion leader that I used to be. Continue reading “The democratic elite and the white working class: only connect”

Soliciting your advice

It’s rare that one has access to as much collective wisdom as is found here at the RBC. If you have any advice for me, please be so kind as to deposit a note herein:

Screen shot 2013-07-09 at 21.02.27

(Image h/t: Reddit)

Please be kind. I don’t think I could Handel the mental Strauss — or my composer, for that matter — if you all were mean. Lay Orff the unnecessary personal attacks.

On Orwell’s Rules for Writing

I’m a fan of George Orwell. I think one of the most important pieces of writing in the English language, for example, is his set of rules for how to make the perfect cup of tea. In fact, I sometimes wonder whether people can really make a cup of tea, and therefore participate in civilised society, without following those rules; I often ungraciously request that my friends read Orwell’s piece before I permit them to hand me a brew.

Because of this general affinity for Orwell’s work, it’s always with some sadness that I look over his prescriptions for what constitutes good writing. He distils these into six rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

They cause me sadness because I know full well that I violate rules one through five fairly regularly – a violation that I justify by appealing to rule six. I recognise that my own style of writing – my modus scribendi – is all-too-often characterised by florid and pleonastic writing. ← There you have it: twenty-one words in a sentence that would make Orwell spill his impeccably brewed tea all over his morning copy of Pravda. Cliché? Check. Aureate prose? Unquestionably. Prolixity? Naturally. Passive voice? Colour me checked. Argot? Affirmative. And yet, aside from being inelegantly constructed, I don’t see much of a problem with it. It conveys the point clearly, albeit pretentiously.

Ed Smith’s last column from the New Statesman argued that Orwell’s rules have been co-opted and deployed for precisely the nefarious purposes Orwell had hoped to prevent:

Orwell argues that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words.”

I suspect the opposite is now true. When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.

The argument seems plausible to me. Indeed, the Guardian has a lovely infographic that illustrates how SOTU speeches have adopted increasingly simpler vocabulary and syntax over time. You can decide for yourself whether this has accompanied more political duplicity, as Smith argues.

I enjoyed Smith’s post not just because I think the argument seems accurate. It’s because I’d like to think that in my own case, grandiloquent writing isn’t really the problem. Orwell’s concern was not with the choice of words (a stylistic concern); it was with the way words can be used to manipulate thoughts (a substantive concern). Hence, the dispositive sixth rule.

My take-away from Orwell’s writing rules, then, is that the sixth is the only true ‘rule,’ as it is the only one with substantive content – not to write anything barbarous. The preceding five ‘rules’ aren’t really rules at all. They’re more like suggestions, and Orwell didn’t have much of a bee in his bonnet for those.

Oops – a cliché. Damn that pesky first rule…

Chocolate blasphemies

In 2007 the Italo-Canadian artist Cosimo Cavallaro secured free publicity with the condemnation by idiot American Catholic reactionaries of his harmless chocolate Jesus.

Here in Spain, you can have an entire chocolate Nativity scene, as a normal expression of commercially-tinged religious sentimentality. In fact a whole 1,450 kilo sugar Nativity Granada, in a chocolate factory in the small Andalusian town of Rute. (The other industry is anis.)
Chocolate crib general

The Nativity is rather nicely put into the Court of the Lions in the Alhambra.

Continue reading “Chocolate blasphemies”