Monday, December 19, 2005

Happy Birthday, Phil Ochs

This is a collection of blogs posted on various sites over the last few days, all on Phil Ochs' music. You can reach them here.

From a Large Circle of Friends to You, Phil Ochs

65 years old, you would be today!  Can you imagine it?

But you're gone, leaving us in too much of a hurry with just your beautiful songs for us to remember you by:

When the echoes of my ecstacy appear

Wish I was here

Sorry I can't stop and talk now

I'm in kind of a hurry anyhow

But I'll send you a Tape From California.
We got the tape.  This is just a note of thanks.

It's one of many.  The others can be found, starting here.

I want to end my series of blogs on your songs with a few comments on the one I see as your greatest: "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends":

I returned to teaching just a little over four years ago, just weeks before 9/11 and merely a football-field from the Brooklyn Bridge--just across the river from the twin towers.  We heard the sirens from the classroom, then more sirens.  Then, and in the days after, I saw people stepping outside of their own lives to help others, an outpouring as great as any I've ever witnessed.

An outpouring that could have been harnessed for the good of all humanity, but that was hijacked by crass political agendas on the part of those who rule us.  Soon, we were heading back to the isolationist "I've got mine" attitude that had characterized the eighties and nineties--and that Phil Ochs had lampooned even a decade earlier.

Toward the end of that first semester returning to teaching, that semester of 9/11, I read the lyrics of "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends" to my students.  I have read them to each class I have taught since (OK, I am an English teacher, so I even have an excuse).

The song opens with a verse inspired by the murder of Kitty Genovese while a couple of dozen people listened to her screams and did nothing:

Look outside the window, there's a woman being grabbed

They've dragged her to the bushes and now she's being stabbed

Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain

 But Monopoly is so much fun, I'd hate to blow the game

 And I'm sure it wouldn't interest anybody

Outside of a small circle of friends.
And this over a bright, tinny, honky-tonk piano.

"Hey!  It's not my responsibility."  For years, when I was younger and stronger and worked in garages (so was able to get many cars back on the road--at least enough to get them to real mechanics), I always carried a tool set in my trunk--along with a towing chain.  I did so, in part, because of this verse:

Riding down the highway, yes, my back is getting stiff

Thirteen cars are piled up, they're hanging on a cliff.

Maybe we should pull them back with our towing chain

But we gotta move and we might get sued and it looks like it's gonna rain.

And I'm sure it wouldn't interest anybody

Outside of a small circle of friends.
I don't do that any more.  Why not?  I like to claim its because I no longer have either the tools or the knowledge to work on today's cars.  But I think that I, too, have succumbed to the fear and the protectionist attitudes that have overwhelmed our culture.  So I'm promising myself: I will stop, when I see what looks like a problem.  I have a cell phone, at least; if I can't help myself, maybe I can bring others who can.

This song should be a lesson to us all (to me, too--as I said).  There are verses about attitudes towards the poor, towards free speech, and this:

Smoking marihuana is more fun than drinking beer,

But a friend of ours was captured and they gave him thirty years

Maybe we should raise our voices, ask somebody why

But demonstrations are a drag, besides we're much too high

And I'm sure it wouldn't interest anybody

Outside of a small circle of friends.
According to one report,
12.9% of the drug prisoners in state prison and 18.9% of those in federal prison were incarcerated for marijuana/hashish offenses.
Given our incredibly high rate of incarceration, isn't it strange that we can't yet see that the answer to drug problems certainy isn't throwing people in jail?  Certainly not for something as mild and innocent as marihuana.

Most of you reading this have been galvanized, these last years (as I have), into greater political action.  There is much to be done, and there will be times where our energies will flag.  When it does, all we need to do is put on this song, and then listen to the rest of Phil Ochs' music.

It can help re-energize us and help us move ahead.

Thank you, Phil, for the tapes that keep in arriving from your personal California.  And (once again) Happy Birthday!!!!!

Phil Ochs and Optimism

The song I want to talk about now is "What's That I Hear?":

One of the things we having missing today that was present throughout the sixties, even as we feared nuclear weapons and faced the degradation of our nation through the war in Vietnam, is a sense of optimism--about humanity and about the possibilities of the United States of America.  The forces of idealism that led to the "counterculture" were quite real: many of us involved believed absolutely that we could create a new and better world, building on the great work of our American ancestors even while tearing down more recent impediments.

Phil Ochs sang to this spirit:

What's that I hear now ringing in my ear

I've heard that sound before

What's that I hear now ringing in my ear

I hear it more and more

It's the sound of freedom calling

Ringing up to the sky

It's the sound of the old ways falling

You can hear it if you try

    You can hear it if you try.
Does that sound quaint to you?  Naive?  Maybe it is.  But it kept us trying, striving, working for something other than our own, individual advancement.  Maybe we couldn't achieve everything we dreamed of, but the fact of working toward a dream was itself a reward.

When we become small minded, protective, grasping, we also turn mean.  And mean is what the US is becoming.  Just look at the way we treat people who want to join us here--we treat them as criminals for wanting to do no more than better their lives, for believing in nothing more than that a better world can be made.

No, the old ways haven't fallen--not yet.  But perhaps, if we listen more to Phil Ochs and less to George Bush, we can regain a faith that the future can be better--and better for everyone.  Rather than building walls and gates, maybe we can begin to find ways of improving life for everyone.

Which would be, by the way, the best possible way of fighting a "war" on terrorism.  It's the only way that war can be won.

So am I just a throwback, silly and embarrassing?  Are "we" so 'realistic' now that we don't believe that a better world can be made?  Oh, I hope not.  For, it's true, I do remain an idealist.

Which is why, as much as anything else, I still listen to Phil Ochs, and why his lyrics come into my mind almost every day.

Phil Ochs and Foreign Leaders

This entry is on "Talkin' Vietnam":

There's a great deal in this song that is specific to the situation in Vietnam in the early 1960s--the song was written and recorded before the great expansion of the war in the late 1960s.  But its greater points apply to Iraq and to the way the US views the rest of the world--particularly what it sees as "client" states.

Ochs was quite aware of the irony of our "liberation" policies:

Friends the very next day we trained some more

We burned some villages down to the floor.

Yes we burned out the jungles far and wide,

Made sure those red apes had no place left to hide.

Threw all the people in relocation camps,

Under lock and key, made damn sure they're free.

Sounds a little like what we've done to certain towns in Iraq, doesn't it?  The more things change...

The song centers on President Diem and his sister Madame Nhu, whose American-backed rule of South Vietnam ended when the US signalled to other forces in the country that a coup might be appreciated.  Diem and Nhu were assassinated.  Diem speaks to Ochs' narrator:

Said: "If you want to stay you'll have to pay

Over a million dollars a day.

But it's worth it all, don't you see?

If you loose the country you'll still have me.

Me and Syngman Rhee, Chiang Kai-shek, Madam Nhu.

Like I said on Meet the Press

'I regret that I have but one country to give for my life.'"
Ahmed Chalabi, anyone?

It's the final verse, though, that worries me with its implications for the Iraqi government just elected.  Whose government is it going to be, anyway?

Well now old Diem is gone and dead

All the new leaders are anti-Red.

Yes they're pro-American, freedom sensations

Against Red China, the United Nations.

Now all the news commentators and the CIA

are saying, "Thank God for coincidence."
What would happen, do you think, if this new Iraqi government decides it doesn't like us and wants us out?  You think it would stay around?  Somehow, I think it will toady to us, just like the South Vietnam governments did (for all the good it ultimately did them).

Phil Ochs and George Bush

This diary is inspired by the song "Here's to the State of Richard Nixon."

Early on after 9/11, many of us on the left began to feel that the patriotism we all felt in the aftermath had been hijacked for use by a right wing agenda, one that (it soon became apparent) included the invasion of Iraq.

Ochs, during the Vietnam War, had witnessed something similar--and decided to fight back.  It wasn't he and the left, he argued, that were unpatriotic, but the right.  The right (in the person of Richard Nixon--today, of course, it would be George Bush) was perverting America, changing it into another country completely.  Thus Ochs' tag-line for the song (an echo of a similar one in "Here's to the State of Mississippi"):

Richard Nixon find yourself another country to be part of.
"Love it or leave it?"  Ochs believed (as Woody Guthrie did) in America and loved it and all it had stood for.  It was the right, which was trying to change the country into something quite different from the vision of its founders, that should leave.  The damage that had been done, Ochs felt, was nearly fatal:
Oh, here's to the land you've torn out the heart of.
How many on the left would argue that Bush has not done the same, today?

No Child Left Behind?  Is this meant to be real education, real understanding of the humanity of one's fellow beings?  Or is it simply a means of promoting competition and selfishness?

And here's to the schools Richard Nixon

Where they're teaching all the children they don't have to care

All the rudiments of hatred are present everywhere

And every single classroom is a factory of despair

Oh, there's nobody learnin' such a foreign word as fair.
This song, actually, is almost too sad, too relevant to today's world.  In light of George Bush's speech last night and his admission to having ordered illegal wiretaps just this weekend, I'll end with this verse:
And here's to the laws Richard Nixon

Where the wars are fought in secret, Pearl Harbor every day

He punishes with income tax that he don't have to pay

And he's tapping his own brother just to here what he would say

But corruption can be classic in the Richard Nixon way.

There's more... and all of it relevant.  Just replace Richard Nixon with George Bush.

Listen to the song!

Phil Ochs and the Irony of the "Free World"

This entry is on "The Ballad of William Worthy."

Maher Arar was just passing through the US on his way home to Canada.  He ended up in Syria, held and tortured for months--just for passing through a "free" country.  The irony of the last verse of "The Ballad of William Worthy" certainly should not be lost on us today:

William Worthy isn't worthy to enter our door

Went down to Cuba, he's not American anymore

But somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say

You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay.

When our leaders say they want to `protect freedom,' there's often a bit of a verbal slight-of-hand going on.  They don't mean freedom in quite the same way we do.  They are thinking of freedom in terms of `free markets,' while most of his are hearing something with a more personal and libertarian bent.  Thus, they can argue that, to protect freedom (the free market), certain other freedoms (individual liberty) must be curtailed without ever feeling they are involved in a contradiction--though many of the rest of us are left scratching our heads.

William Worthy is an American journalist who insisted on reporting from Cuba during the early days of the Castro regime.  The US government didn't like that, and actually tried to keep him from coming home, or to fine and imprison him:

Five thousand dollars or a five year sentence may well be

For a man who had the nerve to think that traveling is free

Oh why'd he waste his time to see a dictator's reign

When he could have seen democracy by traveling on to Spain?

Are we Americans too uppity when we take literally what we are told?  Or should we realize that it's not our freedoms that are important, but the market's freedoms?

It's not just traveling that's under question, but our whole relationship to the world of business and trade.

"Freedom" continues to be bandied about without a lot of thought.  George Bush can say,

They hate our freedoms--our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.
But it's not our freedoms they hate, not the ones Bush lists, at least, but the freedom of our government and industry to impinge upon them.  And that has nothing to do with "us."  After all, as Phil Ochs recognized so many years ago, what we think are our freedoms are often ephemeral:
So, come all you good travelers and fellow-travelers, too

Yes, and travel all around the world, see every country through

I'd surely like to come along and see what may be new

But my passport's disappearing as I sing these words to you.

Phil Ochs and Government in Our Lives

Today, especially with George Bush aggressively defending his authorization of spying on people in the United States, Ochs' "Knock on the Door" is increasingly relevant.

In Walt Kelly's Pogo comic strip there was a dog, in the early 1970s, who looked a lot like Vice President Spiro Agnew.  At one point, he started locking the swamp creatures up--probably for their 'own good' and the 'protection' of the swamp.  Eventually, no one was left out of jail but the dog.  The last line of the sequence is the dog thinking, "I'm lonely."

What Kelly wanted to point out was the danger of allowing to have things done to us for our own good.  Rarely, of course, do they end up being for our own good.  Just yesterday, George Bush admitted that he had authorized domestic spying

he defiantly vowed to continue such domestic electronic eavesdropping ``for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat....''

The greater threat lies in what he is doing.  To paraphrase Ben Franklin, if we sacrifice freedom for security, we will wind up with neither... and the knocks, as Phil Ochs knew, will start coming at the door.

The last verse of the song is a particular warning concerning what is happening in the United States today:

Look over the oceans, look over the lands,

Look over the leaders with the blood on their hands.

And open your eyes and see what they do,

When they knock over their friend they're knocking for you.

No, we are not the Soviet Union nor are we fascist Germany, places Ochs talks about specifically in the song, but out government is developing the same arrogance those governments had, that it is right and that it has the right to do anything it sees fit to "protect" the nation.

It's a slippery slope we are starting down.  Let's hope we can turn around and clamber back up before it gets to this for many more than it has already:

In many a time, in many a land,

With many a gun in many a hand,

They came by the night, they came by the day,

Came with their guns to take us away.

Of course, it has already come to that for too many, even in America.  The documentless immigrants who have been hauled away and locked away; the people caged at Guantanamo without charge; and the others who have surely been spirited away without our knowledge.

Phil Ochs and the End of a Militarist Culture

This particular diary concentrates on "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore."

Fall, 1965.  I was attending a boarding school in the mountains of North Carolina.  A small school (I think there were 24 of us that year), the Arthur Morgan School focused on Quaker principles.  After lunch, for example, the entire school population engaged in chores and maintenance or building projects for a couple of hours.  One day, as I was walking by the kitchen where other kids were involved in cleaning dishes and mopping floors, I heard a clear, though unpolished voice over a simple guitar from within.  Curious, I stopped and shouted toward the building, asking who was singing.  "Phil Ochs," came the answer through the window, "and it's a record."

It was his newest, I Ain't Marchin' Anymore.  I didn't know it then, but it was only his second album.  It quickly became my favorite, especially the title song.  I loved its chorus:

It's always the old to lead us to the war

It's always the young to fall

Now look at all we've won with the saber and the gun

Tell me is it worth it all.
Lines and a question as relevant today as they ever were in the sixties.

My family had lived in Thailand the previous year, and I had attended the International School of Bangkok.  We'd been staunch supporters of Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 election, but the Christmas bombings of Hanoi quickly changed us into dissenters.  After the holidays, my school doubled in size, flooded with American dependents evacuated from Saigon now that the heat had been turned up.  In our building lived Air Force officers who participated in bombings (denied by the US government) from bases in Thailand.

By the time we returned to the States, we knew more than a little something about the war.

Protest, however, was still small.  Ochs' idealism and enthusiasm gave me, a 9th-grader, a sense that it could grow.

A few years later, "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" became even more important to me.  When I refused both a student deferment and conscientious objector status, I had an interview with my draft board, wanting to explain to them why, and why I would refuse induction.  My parents came along.  Surprisingly, the board wanted to talk to them.  Unfortunately, my father was out seeking change for a parking meter, so they only spoke with my mother.

They asked, "Is his father a veteran."

"Yes.  He served in the Pacific in WWII"

"And his grandfathers?"

"Both in Europe in WWI.  One lost a leg."

"Before that?"

"He had ancestors on both sides of the Civil War and is named for a Colonel in the Revolutionary Army."

"Well, how do you think they would feel about what your son is doing now?"

"They would be proud.  He's doing what an American should, standing up for his belief."

To paraphrase Phil Ochs, I had decided to stop marching.  The song, through its verses, recounts much of American military history, including this on WWI:

For I marched to the battles of the German trench

In a war that was bound to end all wars

Oh I must have killed a million men

And now they want me back again

But I ain't marchin' anymore

And this on the last days of WWII:

For I flew the final mission in the Japanese sky

Set off the mighty mushroom roar

When I saw the cities burning I knew that I was learning

That I ain't marchin' anymore

By the time the Vietnam War had ended, I thought the rest of the nation had learned the lesson Ochs sang, too:

Call it "Peace" or call it "Treason,"

Call it "Love" or call it "Reason,"

But I ain't marchin' any more,

No I ain't marchin' any more.

But time passed and militarism proved that it was not dead.  Instead it grew until it seemed like it was going to overwhelm our culture.  I grew depressed and pessimistic about our prospects.

Today, however, there's a new spirit growing in the land, one that Ochs would approve of.

We can be proud once again, as Ochs was, as I was when my mother spoke to that draft board, to stand up against war and violence.

I just wish we had Phil Ochs to lead us once again... as we march against marching.

Phil Ochs and the Invasion of Iraq

In this one, I present, more than discuss, his song "The Marines Have Landed on the Shores of Santo Domingo."

Back in those long ago days, when our troops were roaring towards Baghdad, reporters embedded and so much of America feeling powerful and vengeful (believing there really was a link between Saddam and 9/11, that WMDs just waited to be found, etc.), Phil Ochs' song "The Marines Have Landed on the Shores of Santo Domingo" resonated in my head.  I just couldn't believe we were doing it again, that we hadn't ever learned that this leads to nothing but destruction.

The streets are still, there's silence in the hills, the town is sleeping

And the farmers yawn in the grey silver dawn, the fields they're keeping

As the first troops land and step into the sand, the flags are weaving.

The marines have landed on the shores of Santo Domingo.

Many times, in the months and years since, as I watch or listen to reports from Iraq, the song comes to my head, filling me with an overwhelming sadness.

What a great and wonderful country we live in, yet we demean it, in our own eyes and the eyes of the world every time we act the bully and force our will on someone else.

Ready for the tricks, their bayonets are fixed, now they are rolling

And the tanks make tracks past the trembling shacks where fear is unfolding

All the young wives afraid, turn their backs on the parade with babes they're holding

The marines have landed on the shores of Santo Domingo.

Then there's the destruction, to us and to those we seek to overwhelm:

A bullet cracks the sound, the soldiers hit the ground, the sniper is calling

So they open their guns, a thousand to one, no sense in stalling

He clutches at his head and totters on the edge, look how he's falling

The marines have landed on the shores of Santo Domingo

Even today, the song reverberates from the news.  President Bush talks of victory; claims of progress are made:

Up and down the road, the generals drink a toast, the wheel is spinning

And the cowards and the whores are peeking through the doors to see who's winning

But the traitors will pretend that it's getting near the end, when it's beginning

The marines have landed on the shores of Santo Domingo

This song is decades and decades old.  Shouldn't we have progressed?  Haven't we learned anything?  "It's beginning," Ochs writes.  And it has been beginning for year upon year upon year.

Isn't it time we put a real end to all of this?  Isn't it time we became a mature nation instead of a bully?

Phil Ochs and Interconnectivity

This entry is on "Links on the Chain."

One of the greatest problems we Americans have today is a diminishing ability to see just how much each of us is like any other—including even those people living in such strange places as Iraq, Venezuela, or Korea.  It starts at home, though.  Even here, we no longer see clearly just how alike we are—and how interconnected we are.

For example, our ancestors were all immigrants (even the Native Americans came from elsewhere, though long, long ago)—but now we want to lock the door on new immigrants.  We benefit from old struggles, but don’t want to share those benefits.  We’re like those Ochs complains about in “Links on the Chain”:

see if you remember the struggles of before,

When you were standing helpless on the outside of the door

And you started building links on the Chain.

On the Chain, you started building links on the Chain.
A guidance counselor in high school couldn’t see the links to the “struggles of before,” telling me (in 1968) that I should gladly be drafted and sent off to fight for the freedom his grandfather had come to this country for, freedom from forced military service in his homeland!

Ochs was writing specifically of the union movement and how it had begun to close itself off from the “outsiders,” the people who were not already members or who were trying to organize themselves.  “I got mine.  Tough, if you haven’t made it.  Don’t ask for my help.”  Specifically, he was referring to the failure of American labor to back the civil rights movement in the 1950s:

And then in 1954, decisions finally made,

The black man was a-rising fast and racing from the shade,

And your union took no stand and your union was betrayed,

As you lost yourself a link on the chain, on the chain,

As you lost yourself a link on the chain.

Ochs point was that we all need to watch out for each other, support each others.  Otherwise, we’re all going to lose.  His point is that our best interests are also the best interests of almost every group around us—except for the elite, those who have made it to the top—the people who try to convince us to work against our own best interest:

And the man who tries to tell you that they'll take your job away,

He's the same man who was scabbing hard just the other day,

And your union's not a union till he's thrown out of the way,

And he's choking on your links of the chain, of the chain,

And he's choking on your links of the chain.

Diverting us from recognition of what is in our own interest through fear (“they’ll take your job away”) has been one of the hallmarks of the right.  They try to make us fear the poor, the underemployed, the immigrant, the foreign worker… everyone but those we should fear: the elite who see the rest of us simple as so much cattle.

Phil Ochs and American Arrogance

In this entry, I am writing about his song "There But for Fortune":

Last week, the life of Stanley "Tookie" Williams was ended.  By choice.  Not, as with Ochs' own life, by personal choice--but by choice of the state.  Choice, in particular, of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  In an arrogant, unsympathetic, politically-driven statement, the governor denied clemency because (in part) Williams lacked "remorse" for the killings he was convicted of committing.

The governor, an extremely lucky man, apparently has no concept of how close each of our lives is to another course.  How narrowly even the luckiest of us has averted disaster.

When Williams was killed, all I could think of, however, were these lines from "There But for Fortune":

Show me a prison, show me a jail,

Show me a prisoner whose face has gone pale

And I'll show you a young man with so many reasons why

 And there but for fortune, may go you or I.
Remorse isn't what Schwarzenegger should have been considering at all, but humanity and connectivity--not to mention the fact that, from his prison cell, Williams had become a productive member of society.  With just a few changes in luck, it could have been Schwarzenegger himself sitting in a prison cell awaiting execution.

But he does not see that--obviously.  Or he never could have put Williams to death.

"Compassionate conservative"?  Not unless they are actually able to put themselves in the places of others, and can see how their own lives might have ended up differently.

There's a verse in the song for George Bush, too:

Show me the whiskey stains on the floor,

Show me the dunken man as he stumbles out the door,

And I'll show you a young man with so many reasons why

There but for fortune, may go you or go I -- you and I.
Bush was lucky: he had a strong enough support system to allow him the leeway to overcome his addictions.  Not everybody has that.  There but for fortune....

So, so much of what Ochs writes has such a clear connection to this world of three decades since his death that the tragedy of his lonely, forgotten end wells deep emotions within me.  The final verse of "There But For Fortune" applies both to the United States of 9/11 and to the Iraq:

Show me the country where bombs had to fall,

Show me the ruins of buildings once so tall,

And I'll show you a young land with so many reasons why

There but for fortune, go you or go I -- you and I.
We need bombs and destruction now no more than we needed them forty years ago.

Phil Ochs was the spiritual child of Woody Guthrie.  His own spiritual children must be writing songs today.  Unfortunately, they are as obscure as Ochs was in his day.

If you hear a young songwriter striving to be heard, give her or him an ear.  We need them.

Phil Ochs and the Chicken Hawks

This morning I want to write briefly about his "Draft Dodger Rag":

When draft registration was reinstated over 25 years ago, I attended a rally against it.  Someone with a guitar sang Ochs' "Draft Dodger Rag."  Singer and audience all thought it an anti-draft song and applauded loudly--they hadn't listened to it, had only tranferred their own sentiments to it (they should have earlier listened to Ochs' "Bound for Glory" with its line "He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same" to understand the importance of his lyrics): the song never was an anti-draft song (though Ochs was certainly against the draft).  Instead, it was a satiric condemnation of what we now call the "chicken hawks"--the people who avoided service in Vietnam but supported the war.  The people, unfortunately, from whom our current leaders are drawn.

The narrator of the song has no moral opposition to the draft.  His morality is simply conventional: "I believe in God and Senator Dodd and keeping old Castro down" (the Senator Dodd referred to is the father of the current senator, an inveterate supporter of the Vietnam War).  This is not a song of an idealist or a fighter, but of someone of unexamined belief and paramount self-interest.  And Ochs is making fun of him.

Most telling is that last verse:

I hate Chou En Lai, and I hope he dies,

  but one thing you gotta see

That someone's gotta go over there

  and that someone isn't me

So I wish you well, Sarge, give 'em Hell

  Yeah, Kill me a thousand or so

And if you ever get a war without blood and gore

  Well I'll be the first to go
Dick Cheney, recognize yourself?

The point is that things haven't changed all that much since the 1960s.  Ochs' songs were relevant then; they are relevant now.

The neo-cons panic any time a comparison to Vietnam or the sixities is made.  Cynical and grasping, any stirring of idealism, of selfless love of country, about care for humanity, scares them.

But the comparisons can and should be made.

I'm just sorry Phil Ochs is no longer around to help us make them.

Bound for Glory Redux

Ochs was part of a tradition whose guiding light was Woody Guthrie, a generation older than Ochs.  By the 1960s, when Ochs did most of his recordings, Guthrie was incapacitated by Huntington's corea.  Ochs, like Bob Dylan, wrote a song for him, showing his appreciation.  That song is "Bound for Glory"

To honor Phil Ochs, I have taken that song and created a new version, one meant to honor Ochs himself:

Bound for Glory Redux

He sang all over this green and growing land,

From the New York island to the California sand.

He saw all the people that needed to be seen,

Planted all the grass where it needed to be green.

  And now he's bound for a glory all his own,

  And now he is bound for glory

He wrote and he sang and he rode into our hearts,

And he kept on going though he never made the charts.

He said all the words that needed to be said;

He fed all the hungry souls that needed to be fed.



He sang in our streets and he sang in our halls,

And he was always there when the people gave a call.

He did all the jobs that needed to be done;

He always stood his ground when a smaller man would run.


And its There but for Fortune wrote the sixties balladeer

And I'm Going to Say It Now, he wanted us to hear.

And the rising of the people will be sung about again;

And those Too Many Martyrs live on through the power of his pen.


Now they sing out his praises on every distant shore

But so few remember what he was fighting for.

Oh why sing the songs and forget about the aim?

He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same.


Saturday, December 17, 2005

from "Good King Wenceslas"

Good thing now that Scooter's out of his West Wing office,
When the snow lay round about, maybe Karl’ll lose his.
Democrats can’t sleep at night; wow that man is cruel!
Whenever he perceives a slight, attacking like a ghoul.
“Mehlman, come and stand by me, if you know it, telling,
Yonder peasant, who is he? Where and what his dwelling?”

“Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
“Bring me slander, bring me lies, bring me pine logs hither,
You and I will see him writhe, when we bear them thither.”

Pig and toady, forth they went, forth they went together,
Through the nation’s sad lament and threw him to the weather.
“Sire, the night is darker now, and the scandal stronger,
Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good stooge, tread now in them boldly,
You shall find the country’s rage freeze your blood less coldly.”

In a falling master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted;
Slime was in the very sod which the fascist printed.
Therefore, right-wing men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Turn away from Karl’s path and find yourself a blessing.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Couple of Carols and... Stevie Wonder's Gonna Kill Me

Oh Little Town of Washington

O little town of Washington,
How well we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sheep
The silence that you buy;
Yet on thy dark deeds knoweth
That we will shine the Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
WIll indict thee to-night.

Your threats are not so scary,
Though gathered from above,
We no more sleep, but start to keep
Tabs on our corrupt gov.
O liberal blogs, together
Proclaim the gread besmirch!
And praises sing to Fitz the King,
Let's bring peace to earth.

How silently, how silently,
Our trust in you was riven!
We forgave you with all our hearts
Because of nine-eleven.
But your lying war was coming,
For all the world a sin,
Where money was received in, still
Coming, rolling in.

Where once we were proud and happy
You've been running wild,
Now misery cries out to thee,
Disasters heavily piled;
Where charity stands watching
As you block every door door,
The dark night wakes, New Orleans breaks,
Incompetence comes once more.

O corruption of Washington!
Leave us be, we pray;
Cast out your sin and enter in,
Be true in us to-day.
We hear the Fitzmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide near us,
Where you belong--in jail!

Karl Rove Roasting on an Open Fire

Karl Rove roasting on an open fire,
Indictment nipping at his nose,
White House aides singing like a choir,
To Fitzgerald, smiling 'cause he knows.

Everybody knows a turkey and caught miscreants,
Help to make the season bright.
Tiny liberals with their eyes all aglow,
Will find it hard to sleep tonight.

They know that Fitzie's on his way;
He's goaded lots of boys and girls to make them say.
And every mother's child is going to spy,
To see if Rovie really will go bye-bye.

And so I'm offering this simple phrase,
To kids from one to ninety-two,
Although its been said many times, many ways,
A very Merry Fitzmas to you.

Delay's Dernier Date

A smiling DA is on earth like star
A frown can't bring out the corruption that you are
Bring him in and Earle begins smiling...
There're brighter days ahead

Don't mess with Texas, said our fears,
But Earle is gonna be what he is
It's okay, please indict Delay whose smiling...
Mug shot staring straight ahead

A smiling face you won't have, you see
'Cause convicted you're going to be
But we and Earle will begin smiling...
There're brighter days ahead

Luck's not competing, it's left your side
You should get life, so we'll let you cry
So for a mug shot please begin to smile - For us,
There're brighter days ahead.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Stifling Discourse in Academia

The constant pounding at academia by the David Horowitz’s and John Tierney’s is growing: another left-wing professor has been denied tenure, allegedly because of his open left-wing beliefs. This time it is Alan Temes , an assistant professor of health and physical education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (a school in the system I also teach for). Among other things, Temes had posted (and updated) the death counts of US soldiers in Iraq.

This isn’t an isolated case. Last spring, Yale decided not to renew anthropologist David Graeber’s contract, possibly because of his anarchist leanings.

As anyone who has kept up with my “Renovating Academia” series knows, I am concerned that we on the left aren’t doing enough to strengthen academia so that it can withstand such attacks. We become simply defensive… and often as simplistic as the right. To some extent, we are actually helping the right defeat us. Still, we can’t sit around and just express our woes and talk about how best to improve academia. There is a threat now, and it needs to be intelligently countered or we will lose more and more of our best as teachers as they decide that they can only remain in academia if they hide their political orientations—and there aren’t many who are willing to do that.

The comments on the story on Temes on are indicative of the problem.
Last time I checked, God didn’t give Mr. Temes the right to take control of the state’s property….
This professor was instructed to teach, eh, health, not lead leftist protests and make leftist attempts to change the world. As an employee of the university, he overstepped the bounderies. Another leftist loser....
I am always profoundly skeptical when folks claim they have been denied tenure because of “blogs” or public displays that fall clearly within first amendment parameters. My bet: the fellow did not meet the criteria for tenure at the institution….
because the professor is at a public institution, he should refrain from using that public space for political use….
Sure, there were as many (no, more) comments in support of Temes, but the impact of the Horowitz point of view (that teachers should stick to their subjects, bringing nothing more into the classroom—a point of view that he contradicts, by the way, by demanding greater “diversity” of political views in our universities) is clear: more and more people are accepting the view that it is “inappropriate” for college professors (especially at public universities) to express their views on campus.

Many of the posts mention Stanley Fish, retiring Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who wrote an article on free speech in academia for The Chronicle of Higher Education last spring. Fish is used as a means for justifying the position that politics be kept out of our colleges and universities.

As usual, though, the right is simplifying a much more complex argument.

Fish, though he has never been one I’ve much admired, does make good points.
What you are free to say in some venues you are not free to say in all venues, and your lack of freedom is not a First Amendment matter; it is a matter, rather, of the appropriateness or inappropriateness of certain kinds of speech relative to certain contexts of employment or social interaction….

Before yielding to the impulse to yell "Free Speech, Free Speech," we should first ask some questions. Who is doing the speaking? Where is he or she when doing it? Who is paying the freight?...

it is not the job of a senior administrator either to approve or disapprove of what a faculty member writes in a nonuniversity publication…

I am not saying that political matters can never be raised in an academic setting; such a draconian requirement would mean the end of departments of political science, philosophy, sociology, English, criminal justice, and more. I am just saying that when political matters do enter an academic setting, they must do so in academic terms. A few years ago, a national conference was held at my university on an important topic. A flier advertising the conference went out before I saw it. One sentence in that flier began, "Now that we are fighting a racist war in Afghanistan ... " Because the flier carried with it the imprimatur of the University of Illinois at Chicago, it seemed to be the university that was issuing that judgment.

Fish’s views are often reduced to “on your own time and with your own dime” as a definition of when and how free speech is legitimate—but it isn’t quite so simple. The right does see mention of dead US soldiers as a political statement (witness Sinclair Broadcast Group’s reaction to the reading of the names of US dead on Nightline), but doing so is not in itself perjorative or instistive of a political point of view. From an academic standpoint, it is simply an insistence that an issue of importance to all Americans be kept before contemporary students. That Temes is a teacher of health and physical education is beside the point: it is the responsibility of all teachers to keep the topics of the day before their students. Isolating them from the “real world” actually harms student growth into aware and active members of a democracy.

In addition, life cannot be compartmentalized. Politics has an impact on all decisions. We are denying reality when we try to argue that politics can be kept out of the classroom and from hiring and promotion decisions. By pretending to keep politics away, we are simply giving precedence to the politics of the status quo, an inherently conservative position (however much Horowitz may argue to the contrary).

Temes, as far as I know, was doing nothing that would not stimulate academic debate, nothing that would intimidate students into following his “party line.” Instead, he was insisting that we recognize, even inside academia, that we are political creatures living in a world where political decisions affect us all. In addition, he did not claim to be speaking for the university (as the flyer Fish mentions seems to have accidentally done) and could in no way have been mistaken for an “official” representative of university policy.

Temes was doing what a good teacher should. He was being honest and open—and was encouraging thought.

Instead of being denied tenure, he should be congratulated. He was doing his job.

Even were Temes an anti-choice advocate who posted pictures of aborted fetuses on his door, I would support his application for tenue (assuming all other criteria had been met—some of the posters on criticize him for not having published enough, but his, like mine, is an institution that focuses on teaching and service to the university with a somewhat lesser emphasis on scholarship). For any of us to hide our beliefs is a bit of dishonesty that teaches our students that it is best to present a false face if one wants to succeed.

Insisting that our politics be opaque within the academic institution not only promotes an acceptance of dishonesty, but it also flies in the face of one of the basic tenets of democracy, that each individual is able to make up his or her own mind within a milieu of open discussion. It shows a lack of respect for our students and a belief that they are so feeble that we can manipulate them at will. It is, in fact, an elitist view

We on the left need to reject this, clearly and forcefully—and publically.

FYI: The president of IUP is named Tony Atwater. His email address is

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Renovating Academia, Part V

If I were founding a university I would begin with a smoking room; next a dormitory; and then a decent reading room and a library. After that, if I still had more money that I couldn't use, I would hire a professor and get some text books.

-- Stephen Leacock

My earlier postings on the changes needed in academia dealt with problems within our universities instead of those encompassing them. Perhaps that was the wrong way to start. If so, let me try to make up for my lapse by going back now and looking over a few of our basic assumptions about education and its structures at the post-secondary level. Let me describe what I think a university should be.

Given the realities of contemporary America, little of what I want to talk about has any chance of coming to life. The constituents influencing our educational structures (faculties, administrations, students, parents, governments, and employers) act as a brake on change, providing an innate protectionism governing most attitudes. This protectionism has grown stronger over the years, to the point where there’s hardly an “experimental” college left in the United States. Yet, by taking a look at the whole, perhaps we can identify ways that pieces can be modified, shoring up a tottering system, sure, but not one that’s necessarily bad.

As a college education has become more and more a necessary prerequisite for membership in the American middle class, ideas about what it should consist of necessarily have changed, though our colleges, really, have not—and do not. Within them, for example, one finds entrenched attitudes towards education reflecting a time when a college education wasn’t considered necessary, not even for many professional careers (once, even doctors and lawyers could train for their professions without first earning an undergraduate degree), when it was a place for the creation of upper-class and upper-middle-class “gentlemen” (and, in a few cases, “ladies”). The attitudes retained from this era have very little to do with education as it is constituted today, but the pressure exerted by the past cannot be ignored.

Another influence on education that has little to do with its actual, present-days needs was born, perhaps, along side of Isaac Newton—in other words, it was born a long time ago, though it has become something of a mania today. It is the attitude that “If you can name it and measure it, you can understand it.” That’s fine for collecting beetles or butterflies, but isn’t much use, in and of itself, when looking for the “why’s” of beetles and butterflies. Of course, Newton himself understood that measurement is only a part of learning, but that is one of the reasons we remember him today, and have forgotten most of his contemporaries in the sciences. This attitude stems from the unNewtonian misperception that the universe and knowledge are “things” and not “processes.” In this view, knowledge exists outside of the individual and, therefore, can be found—or received from another (see Paolo Friere’s “banking system of education” in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Education is no more than having facts at one’s fingertips. This is knowledge for the uncurious: once something is “known,” that’s the end of it.

People, such as David Horowitz, who argue that teachers should stick to “content” have fallen under the spell of this concept of knowledge as a “thing.” To many like him, this “thing” can be broken down, furthermore, into “good” components and “bad.” Such an attitude, also, externalizes knowledge to the point where it is perceived to be receivable passively and even without intent. As a result, Horowitz fears professors who extol what he sees as “bad” knowledge, for he sees their students as nothing more than receptors who will simply accept what they are told as “truth.”

Of course, neither the universe nor knowledge exists in static form—and students don’t learn passively, but engage in a dialogue with the material they are considering. Much of their education, actually (though those with beliefs like Horowitz’s would deny this), is not the assimilation of information but is a process of gaining the ability to negotiate information and to manipulate it towards desired ends. Instead of learning about the scientific method, for example, they learn to utilize it—even in arenas far removed from the sciences.

This, of course, is at the heart of why testing can’t be the sole arbiter of educational success. Ultimately, what one learns is much less important than what one learns to do with it. That’s why so many business people, when asked what they want out of colleges, say they look for the ability to think, not “mastery” of a specific body of knowledge.

Learning is the result of active engagement, not passive receptivity—and the ability to engage actively is what many employers seek. This has long been recognized, but the furthest anyone seems to go with it in today’s colleges is to discourage lecture classes in an attempt to get professors to increase student involvement in the classroom learning process. But this is hardly enough (and lectures can be an important part of active learning).

Let’s imagine, though, that these arguments have been settled. That no one expects a college education to provide a basis for a certain class identity. That learning has come to be seen as something more than an accumulation of facts. Even that employers act on the fact that they know but ignore—that “training” in a field is only a small part of what should be sought in most entry-level job candidates.

What would a college look like, in such an environment? Well, let me say this before anything else, nothing in my idealized academic environment is new. Much of it, in fact, is very old. But we’ve moved away from it, and not for good reasons. It’s really galling: we know how to give someone a good education. We just don’t do it.

First of all, my college would not look like the result of a detailed construction of category boxes followed by a willy-nilly dumping of unsorted items into them. It would not be based on divisions. Another organizational model would have to be developed, one that would replace departments and majors—and “courses.” Today, we rely on artificial delineations of content, but only because they do provide some sense of order, not because they have inherent value. There is no need for the particulars of the divisions we have created, and we maintain most of them simply because a re-drawing of lines would (by itself) accomplish nothing (something the proponents of forcing professors to stick to their particular “content” don’t understand). Yet few of us could teach effectively if we were forced to stick within the boundaries of our course descriptions: Nineteenth-Century American Literature can’t be taught without some consideration of earlier American writing, thought, and history, without mention of English literature, without examination of the political events of the century, or without a fundamental understanding of the scientific and technological advances of the time. Nor can it be taught without taking into account contemporary student mindsets… or without looking into the relationships of the older works with contemporary issues.

By the same token, Biology shouldn’t include only science, but might cover the role of science within society and the perceptions and misperceptions of science that allow for the continued adherence, say, to Creationism and its new offspring, “Intelligent Design.” Why something is not science is as important as understanding why something else is. Nothing in our lives exists in isolation, after all. It would be crazy to insist that studies of our world be conducted with a narrowness that the world has never exhibited. And the university should be set up in a way that reflects this reality.

In my idealized college, then, a “course” would not be a prescription but would simply be a focus. There might be goals, but there would not be things that “had” to be covered, certainly not to the detriment of something else. At first glance, this might seem to play havoc with the idea of a progression of learning through a series of requisite courses, but I don’t think it really would. Few courses meet their goals as it is, yet professors at the next level are able to make do. Professors would know more of what had gone on before their particular course: the schedule of classes would be such that professors could step in and out of each other’s classes, assisting when their particular areas of expertise were called upon.

No longer would the individual classroom be the domain of the particular professor. Responsibility for the class, in other words, would not translate into control of the classroom. Others, be they administrators, faculty, or students, could drop in, either to listen or contribute, learning about their students even before beginning to teach them.

For that to work there would have to be a concentration on developing collegiality amongst the teaching staff, not competition. Tenure, as now structured, could not be a part of this university. All teaching faculty would have to have what amounts to tenure in regards to their intellectual and teaching pursuits. That is, no position taken and no experiment (outside of those actually harmful to other beings) tried could be used as a basis for termination of employment. To provide a modicum of professional security, five-year contracts (perhaps) could be in place—but there should be no possible divisions between those with lifetime sinecures, those aiming for them, and those simply “filling in.”

Because this is an idealized world we’re dealing with, not only do all students concentrate on their studies, working in non-academic jobs only a minimum amount (and that on campus) but faculty live within walking-distance of the campus, making use of campus facilities for their own families—becoming much more familiar parts of their students’ lives than they could as simply classroom presences. College teaching should return to being an avocation, not simply a job.

There are many, many ways colleges could be structured effectively that don’t rely on the sorts of categorization we rely on today. Colleges have tried experiments over the years, and some of them with success—only to be pushed aside by the monolith of contemporary academia. St. John’s in Annapolis and Santa Fe still keeps to its great-books curriculum and tutorials, and Antioch still maintains its work program, but there are very few other institutions that have been able to maintain a structure even a little outside of the mainstream. Beloit College, my own alma mater, for example, once tried a program of three full semesters a year with all underclassmen completing three semesters their first year (going to school through August) followed by a middleclass period of two semesters on campus, two vacation semesters, and a “field term” (where each student worked for a semester at a job relating to their major) in an order determined by the student. The upperclass year was another three semesters on campus in a row. Though still a fine school, Beloit has retreated to a traditional two-semester schedule. Friends World College had a program in which each student kept a journal for four years while studying at the school’s various campuses around the world. The degree was awarded based on examination of the journal. There were others, the most famous having been Black Mountain College. Today, unfortunately, schools with experimental formulae are few and far between—most contemporary attempts at innovation being tepid, at best.

There are also many other ways colleges to be transformed into more learning-conducive environments—but this diary has already become too long.

Perhaps, for the next one, I can go into more detail, providing a more vivid picture of my ideal college.

[This is also posted at ePluribus Media as well as other sites.]

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Celebrating American Genius

Look at a silent movie staring Greta Garbo:  You will quickly realize just why she was the biggest star in the world during the silent era.  She did something on screen that no other actor of her time could pull off--she was natural, expressive, and understated in a medium that relied on motion and facial expression in lieu of sound.  Her contribution was a stark contrast to that of any other film actor of the era; she can only be called a genius of film.

I've been thinking about similar geniuses of another medium, of American popular music, especially after the radio stories of the rescue of important American musical figures from New Orleans, people like Fats Domino and Irma Thomas.  These stories made me think of the enormous contribution of New Orleans to American (and world) music, of the music we would never have heard, had that city never been built.  Also, as today is the fourth anniversary of 9/11, I am inclined to celebrate America as well as to mourn our loss.  What better for celebration than one of America's greatest contributions to the world, its popular music?
In addition to a desire to celebrate America on this day of all days, I have limited my pursuit to Americans because the world is huge and I don't know the popular-music traditions of many cultures.  Unfortunately, that keeps Bob Marley and John Lennon off my list--though both are personal favorites and, I believe, among the greatest artistic geniuses of the last century.

I have also left off people like Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra--for all of their tremendous popularity and distinctive sounds, I see little of actual genius in what they did.  There has to be something in each choice as startling in their music as Garbo is on screen.  

This is just a start, so I am open for suggestions (but, please, keep your justifications to a sentence):

Louis Armstrong.  What more is there to say?

Chuck Berry.  He created rock-and-roll guitar.

Henry Byrd.  Professor Longhair went his own way always.  Blues, rock, and rhythm-and-blues piano have had to trail along after him.

Clifton Chenier.  He is the object of one of those basic questions: Could modern zydeco exist if he had not?

Charlie Christian.  All electric guitar playing flows from his fingers.

Ornette Coleman.  He swung that sax through every barrier he could find, opening jazz to an avant garde that hasn't since been equaled.

John Coltrane. He made jazz resonate with spirituality and completely remade our expectations from the saxaphone.

Gary Davis.  He had his way with the blues.

Miles Davis.  As both composer and trumpeter, he both smoothed jazz and startled it.

Bob Dylan.  Sparked by his pen, the "song" rose to heights never before imagined.

Ella Fitzgerald.  With a voice and enunciation of deadly accuracy and beauty, her interpretations are responsible for what we now call, simply, the "songbook."

George Gershwin.  I heard a radio announcer say there are two pieces that never need introduction anywhere: Beethoven's Fifth and Rhapsody in Blue.

Woody Guthrie.  He took the song where it had never been, directly into politics and open social commentary.

Jimi Hendrix.  Under his fingers, the guitar became much more than simply an instrument.  It became a voice, a lover.

Billie Holliday.  She was the first singer to take full advantage of the microphone, using it not so much to augment her voice but to bring her audience closer to her songs.

John Hurt.  Unknown until the end of his life, he had taken the blues and the popular song, melding them into his unique storytelling almost forty years earlier.

Janis Joplin.  Dissatisfied by the vocal possibilities she saw around her, she reinvented her voice and its sound, creating her own inimitable blues idiom.

Scott Joplin.  He showed that a rag is much, much more than a piece of tattered cloth.

Jerome Kern.  If any show "made" the Broadway musical, it was his Show Boat.

B.B. King.  He integrated voice and guitar into a blues that galvanized generations of musicians.

Hudie Ledbetter.  With a powerful 12-string base line behind them, Leadbelly took blues lyrics places no one had imagined they could ever go.

Thelonoius Monk.  He took bebop and threw it into a future that, maybe, we have not even reached, yet.

Jelly Roll Morton.  Maybe he didn't invent jazz.  Maybe.

Charlie Parker.  He "unpacked" jazz.

Jimmy Rodgers.  The Singing Brakeman is called "the father of country music" with reason.

Earl Scruggs.  Maybe he didn't invent bluegrass... but the child would have died without Scruggs-style banjo picking.

Bessie Smith.  Often imitated, never equaled, she remains the greatest blues singer of all time.

Sarah Vaughan.  She could make a lyric resonate with meaning far beyond what its composer could have imagined.

Hank Williams.  By keeping things simple, he crafted heartfelt ballads of an elegance no one has ever equaled.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Law, Responsibility, and the Jury

[For a longer piece on my experience on the jury for this tobacco case, go here.]

Hearing what jurors on the Merck case in Texas had to say about why they awarded for the plaintiff even though her husband died of complications that have not been shown to be related to Vioxx reminds me of a jury I served on at the end of 2000.

Warning: those of you who are uncompromisingly against corporations aren't going to like what I am saying here. As you will see, it's my belief that justice has to pertain to the specifics of a case, not to whether the accused is "bad" due to other actions. "They may not have done this, but they did something, so deserve to be punished" doesn't work for me.

The case I served on concerned a RICO charge brought against the tobacco industry by the Manville Trust. It concerned the connection between asbestos and tobacco--and involved a huge amount of money. It lasted two months in the Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn, NY. Witnesses included Julius Richmond, a former Surgeon General of the United States, Jeffrey Wigand, the man on whom the movie The Insider is based, and James Heckman, a Nobel laureate, along with parades of anti-tobacco campaigners and tobacco company loyalists.

The plaintiff wanted us to find that they had been materially damaged by a tobacco-industry conspiracy. But, in terms of the law itself, for us to convict, it would have to be shown that the Manville Trust had been materially damaged--that it had spent extra money--because of fraud perpetrated by the tobacco companies.

"Maybe it was wrong, maybe it was too much, but it was not a fraud," said David Bernick, lead lawyer for Brown & Williamson. And fraud it had to be, if we were to follow the law in finding against the tobacco industry. Yes, Bernick said, his client and its co-defendants had tried to "push back on political pressure, regulatory pressure" to save themselves and their profits. In their public relations campaigns, they had claimed they would conduct research on their product and disease. Yes. In reality, they had done little more than deny a material link to disease. Was that criminal?

I had been hoping it was. For seven weeks, I had listened to argument and testimony surrounding the actions of the tobacco industry. From the beginning, I had wanted to hurt it, to make it pay for all of the suffering its products had caused--I wanted to do what the Merck jury did do. But now, listening to Bernick's summation, I was no longer sure I would be able to decide that fraud had been established and that damages were due the plaintiff.

Early in the trial, Edward Westbrook, the Trust's lead lawyer, had insisted that the tobacco companies should "pay their fair share" for disease caused by the particularly deadly combination of tobacco and asbestos. I had nodded. The Trust, established in the wake of the Johns Manville Corporation bankruptcy, had taken responsibility for paying for asbestos-related disease resulting from Johns Manville products. Because cigarette smoking exacerbates such diseases, the Trust felt that the tobacco companies should shoulder at least a part of the burden. I still think there is a strong moral element to Westbrook's argument--but that is not proof of a crime.

And our charge was to determine whether or not the tobacco industry had violated the very specific RICO regulations.

The Manville Trust was desperate for money. Created out of Johns Manville Corporation bankruptcy proceedings begun 1982 due to overwhelming asbestos disease litigation, it had taken over Johns Manville's liabilities. According to a statement by the Alliance for a Fair Tobacco Settlement to the House Judiciary Committee on 2/5/98:

Asbestos litigation defendants have paid... tens of billions of dollars in compensation to injured asbestos workers.... The asbestos trusts that stand in the shoes of those bankrupt companies pay as little as 10 cents on the dollar for their admitted liability. By contrast, the tobacco companies have paid nothing to asbestos workers injured by smoking.
The '10 cents on the dollar' paid continues to be true for the Manville Trust. Sufferers from asbestos disease are not getting fair compensation, and the Trust wanted to change that by forcing the tobacco companies to chip in.

The Trust claimed, with some justification, that the combination of asbestos exposure and tobacco use created a synergy that made lung cancer much more likely. What they were not able to do, however, was prove that the tobacco industry had acted in an illegal conspiracy that had materially affected them.

What the Trust was hoping for was an outcome like that of the Merck case in Texas. The tobacco industry reputation was deservedly low, and the Trust was hoping we would punish it by finding for the plaintiff, just as the Merck jury did this month.

But the Trust couldn't even make a convincing case that it had paid tobacco's share of the disease it was paying claimants for. I now felt that it surely couldn't be argued that it had been harmed by big tobacco's deceit.

Most of the other jurors agreed with the conclusion I came to, that the burden of proof had not been met by the Trust (in a RICO case, there are quite specific elements of conspiracy that must be proved). Two, however, did not. Or, rather, reacting like the Merck jurors, they felt that the tobacco companies were bad on the face of things, and should be punished. The rest of us felt we had to anchor our discussions in evidence and law, if we were going to reach an honest verdict. These two would not do that. The tobacco companies needed to be punished--and that was that.

"They have to be guilty," said one.

"There was fraud," said the other.

"And what about the destroyed documents?" asked the first. The plaintiff's lawyers had constantly harped on missing tobacco-company documents.

The rest of us explained that the burden of proof lay with the plaintiff, and that, were we to convict, we would have to see that proof.

"Show it to us," we pleaded. "Help us find it." They could not, but would not change their views.

Our attempts to engage the two went on for four frustrating days. We continued to try to get them to debate, even though we all knew that it was futile. They were not going to agree to acquit the tobacco companies, and that was that.

Once, when one of the dissenters finally said that "the tobacco companies should have done something, so should pay," I wrote, in big block letters on a pad on an easel: "Silence: Not A Crime."

But even that did not help. They, like those Merck jurors, wanted to "send a message" to the tobacco companies.

On the fifth and final day of deliberation, discussion got quite tense. We sent a note to the judge, asking him to clarify whether or not silence, in terms of RICO, could be considered a crime. Frustrated and fed up, people were shouting at each other. Finally, as foreperson, I grabbed my pad and pen and wrote. "That's enough," I said. "Let's send this in." I read what I had been writing, and what we had been avoiding for days: "We cannot reach unanimity."

While I was speaking, another juror, suddenly red-faced, yelled in agreement, "If this keeps up, somebody is going to kill someone."

A dissenting juror turned and screamed at him, "Don't you threaten me. Nobody threatens me."

"I didn't threaten you."

The other juror, seeming to ignore him, turned and started writing. "I heard what you said," she muttered. She folded her paper, opened the door, and handed it to the marshal outside.

"Do we all agree with this?" I held up my paper. For the first time, everyone nodded. I relayed my paper, too, to the marshal.

I'll let the Associate Press take it from there:

A judge declared a mistrial Thursday in a high-stakes tobacco trial after being warned that deliberations were so strained that one juror had threatened to kill another.

"I have an obligation to jurors to protect them," U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein said.

The last of three notes sent to Weinstein on the fifth day of deliberations read, "Juror has made threat against other juror to kill'' if they have to be "here much longer.''

Juror Maggie Altidor -- one of two holdouts in a 10-2 deadlock favoring the tobacco industry -- told reporters she wrote the third note after a male juror threatened that if deliberations lasted another day, "one of us would be killed.''

For the tobacco companies, the hung jury was as good as a complete victory. For the Trust, well, other avenues to revenue would have to be found. Westbrook said he would seek a retrial, but he never has.

It bothers me that our jury system is used for things it was never meant for (it was meant as a means for determining guilt for specific crimes, of course). Using a jury to "send a message" or to "punish" someone or some entity for crimes other than the specific charges is an abuse of a legal system that, problems though it may have, has protected us for quite some time not.

The Merck jurors may not understand this, but they are making it easier than ever for the jury system to be abused. There's enough of that already, from the OJ jury on. They are making it easier for juries to "play God" and ignore law.

That's not good for any of us.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

This Is Just A Test…

At the US Department of Education website is this statement:
[Former] U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said, "Anyone who opposes annual testing of children is an apologist for a broken system of education that dismisses certain children and classes of children as unteachable." When we do not know whether or not a child is learning, how will we ever provide that child with a quality education?
The statement is peculiar on a number of grounds (for example, “broken system.” Our educational system consistently produced one of the most learned and curious populations the world has ever seen, right through the end of the 20th century. The system had, and does have, problems, but it has never been “broken”), but the presupposition that testing is the only way of assessing learning is the one I want to focus on here.

The DOE webpage goes on to discuss what it calls “MYTHS AND REALITIES ABOUT TESTING”:
Testing suppresses teaching and learning.

A teacher is effective when a student learns. It is impossible to determine teaching effectiveness without determining learning results. A teacher can present a great lesson, but if the students do not understand, then the lesson has no value.
Testing students on what they are taught has always been a part of teaching. The process of testing students on what they are learning over a course of instruction is universally understood and appreciated. Testing helps teachers understand what their students need, helps students understand what they need to learn, and helps parents understand how they might help their children.
As I said above, one of the presuppositions here is that only testing can determine “learning results” (whatever that means). The odd thing about “the reality” here is that it is actually an affirmation of “the myth.” That is, the belief that testing “helps teachers understand what their students need” is based on the idea that a pre-set body of goals can encompass necessary learning—and such a belief, by itself, suppresses experimentation in teaching and in learning.
Testing narrows the curriculum by rewarding test-taking skills.

Surely a quality education reaches far beyond the confines of any specific test. But annual testing is important. It establishes benchmarks of student knowledge. Tests keyed to rigorous state academic standards provide a measure of student knowledge and skills. If the academic standards are truly rigorous, student learning will be as well.
The fact is that testing (when it is used as the sole basis for advancement and for school assessment) narrows the curriculum. Period. It can only do so: No test can possibly be comprehensive; all tests must be narrowing.
Testing promotes "teaching to the test."

Those who say testing gets in the way of learning frame a false dichotomy. Testing is part of teaching and learning. Gifted and inspiring teachers use tests to motivate students as well as to assess to their learning. Effective teachers recognize the value of testing and know how to employ testing in instruction.
Sure, testing is a part of teaching, but when learning is evaluated only by tests, the tests become all of learning. In such a situation, a teacher has no choice but to “teach to the test.”
Testing does not measure what a student should know.

In a strong accountability system, the curriculum is driven by academic standards, and annual tests are tied to the standards. With this in place, tests not only measure what a student should know but also provide a good indication of whether or not the student has indeed learned the material covered by the curriculum.
It is fine to talk about “standards,” but what are they and who established them? Generally, they have been established by administrators and influenced by legislatures as much as by teachers. It’s quite scary to legislate what “a student should know,” for this can lead to biased standards. It is extremely difficult to determine what the appropriate standards are for any specific situation. Trying to establish generalized standards is impossible.
Annual testing places too much emphasis on a single exam.

Most Americans see the importance of visiting a physician for an annual checkup. They also recognize the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and monitoring their health throughout the year. Annual testing provides important information on student achievement, so teachers and parents may determine how best to improve student performance and diagnose problems that might be associated with poor performance. If a single annual test were the only device a teacher used to gauge student performance, it would indeed be inadequate. Effective teachers assess their students in various ways during the school year. As they do this, they not only monitor student achievement but also help to ensure that their students will excel on annual tests.
It’s not the test itself that is the problem, but the importance placed on it. Making it analogous to an annual physical check-up shows a misunderstanding of both activities. Ultimately, all a test shows is how well the taker did on that particular test on that particular date. It should not be used to predict future activity (as has happened in the past, leading to the placing of able students who did poorly on a test in remedial environments, for example).
Testing discriminates against different styles of test takers.

A well-designed evaluation system accommodates special needs. Evaluating the performance of all students is not easy. Some students do have trouble taking tests. Some students score poorly for reasons outside the classroom. A good evaluation system will reflect the diversity of student learning and achievement.
A little bit of bait-and-switch? From testing we suddenly get to a “good evaluation system.” Yes, a good evaluation system might include testing, but it should be based on much more, including the observations made by teachers.
Testing provides little helpful information and accomplishes nothing.

A good evaluation system provides invaluable information that can inform instruction and curriculum, help diagnose achievement problems and inform decision making in the classroom, the school, the district and the home. Testing is about providing useful information and it can change the way schools operate.
It is the last line that is the problem here, the claim that testing “can change the ways schools operate.” Yes, they can make them more focused on tests. It is easy to use numbers to make an argument—they look as though they defy argument. However, they should be only a small part of any decision-making process. “Useful information?” Perhaps the person who wrote that should find a copy of that old supplemental Economics text, Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics.
Testing hurts the poor and people of color.

The fact is that millions of young people—many from low-income families, many people of color-are being left behind every day because of low expectations for their academic achievement and a lack of adequate measures to determine academic achievement. These are the students who stand to benefit the most from annual testing. A strong accountability system will make it impossible to ignore achievement gaps where they exist. Moreover, where testing systems are now in place, low-income and minority students are indeed excelling. A recent study reports that there are more than 4,500 high-poverty and high-minority schools nationwide that scored in the top one-third on the state tests.
Hmmm… speaking of lying with statistics: I wonder how many high-poverty and high-minority schools there are? And I wonder what the criteria were for establishing which schools to include? Not that it matters: any test that is meant to cover all students in such a large country has to be biased towards the middle—and the middle, in this country, is neither poor nor of color.
Testing will increase dropout rates and create physical and emotional illness in children.

The overwhelming majority of students who drop out of school do so because they are frustrated. They cannot read or write or learn. Testing helps with the early identification of students who are having trouble learning so they may get the services they need to succeed. Testing, in any form, does sometimes cause anxiety. Effective teachers understand this and help students prepare for it. Testing is a part of life, and young people need to be equipped to deal with it.
I wonder what basis there is for this statement on frustration? Was it Ron Paige, whose “Houston miracle” of reduced drop-out rates was proved to be all smoke and mirrors? I suspect that as many students drop out because they are bored… and that more drop out because of other situations completely. I’m not sure that testing increases drop-out rates, but I doubt it decreases them, either.

Friday, August 05, 2005

With Abject Apologies to Lewis Carroll

However, the egg only got larger and larger, and more and more human: when she had come within a few yards of it, she saw that it had eyes and a nose and mouth; and when she had come close to it, she saw clearly that it was KURVIE ROVIE himself. `It can't be anybody else!' she said to herself. `I'm as certain of it, as if his name were written all over his face.'

It might have been written a hundred times, easily, on that enormous face. Kurvie Rovie was sitting with his legs crossed, like a Turk, on the top of a high wall -- such a narrow one that America quite wondered how he could keep his balance -- and, as his eyes were steadily fixed in the opposite direction, and he didn't take the least notice of her, she thought he must be a stuffed figure after all.

`And how exactly like an egg he is!' she said aloud, standing with her hands ready to catch him, for she was every moment expecting him to fall.

`It's VERY provoking,' Kurvie Rovie said after a long silence, looking away from America as he spoke, `to be called an egg -- VERY!'

`I said you LOOKED like an egg, Sir,' America gently explained. `And some eggs are very pretty, you know, she added, hoping to turn her remark into a sort of a compliment.

`Some people,' said Kurvie Rovie, looking away from her as usual, `have no more sense than a baby!'

America didn't know what to say to this: it wasn't at all like conversation, she thought, as he never said anything to HER; in fact, his last remark was evidently addressed to a tree -- so she stood and softly repeated to herself: --

    `Kurvie Rovie sat on a wall:
    Kurvie Rovie had a great fall.
    All the President's horses and all the President's men
    Couldn't put Kurvie Rovie in his place again.'

`That last two lines are much too long for the poetry,' she added, almost out loud, forgetting that Kurvie Rovie would hear her.

`Don't stand there chattering to yourself like that,' Kurvie Rovie said, looking at her for the first time,' but tell me your name and your business.'

`My NAME is America, but -- '

`It's a stupid name enough!' Kurvie Rovie interrupted impatiently. `What does it mean?'

`MUST a name mean something?' America asked doubtfully.

`Of course it must,' Kurvie Rovie said with a short laugh: `MY name means the shape I am -- and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like your, you might be any shape, almost.'

`Why do you sit out here all alone?' said America, not wishing to begin an argument.

`Why, because there's nobody with me!' cried Kurvie Rovie. `Did you think I didn't know the answer to THAT? Ask another.'

`Don't you think you'd be safer down on the ground?' America went on, not with any idea of making another riddle, but simply in her good-natured anxiety for the queer creature. `That wall is so VERY narrow!'

`What tremendously easy riddles you ask!' Kurvie Rovie growled out. `Of course I don't think so! Why, if ever I DID fall off - - which there's no chance of -- but IF I did -- ' Here he pursed his lips and looked so solemn and grand that America could hardly help laughing. `IF I did fall,' he went on, `THE PRESIDENT HAS PROMISED ME -- WITH HIS VERY OWN MOUTH -- to -- to -- '

`To send all his horses and all his men,' America interrupted, rather unwisely.

`Now I declare that's too bad!' Kurvie Rovie cried, breaking into a sudden passion. `You've been listening at doors -- and behind trees -- and down chimneys -- or you couldn't have known it!'

`I haven't, indeed!' America said very gently. `It's in a book.'

`Ah, well! They may write such things in a BOOK,' Kurvie Rovie said in a calmer tone. `That's what you call a History of the United States, that is. Now, take a good look at me! I'm one that has spoken to a President, I am: mayhap you'll never see such another: and to show you I'm not proud, you may shake hands with me!' And he grinned almost from ear to ear, as he leant forwards (and as nearly as possible fell of the wall in doing so) and offered America his hand. She watched him a little anxiously as she took it. `If he smiled much more, the ends of his mouth might meet behind,' she thought: `and then I don't know what would happen to his head! I'm afraid it would come off!'

`Yes, all his horses and all his men,' Kurvie Rovie went on. `They'd pick me up again in a minute, THEY would! However, this conversation is going on a little too fast: let's go back to the last remark but one.'

`I'm afraid I can't quite remember it,' America said very politely.

`In that case we start fresh,' said Kurvie Rovie, `and it's my turn to choose a subject -- ' (`He talks about it just as if it was a game!' thought America.) `So here's a question for you. How old did you say you were?'

America made a short calculation, and said `Two hundred and twenty-nine.'

`Wrong!' Kurvie Rovie exclaimed triumphantly. `You never said a word like it!'

`I though you meant "How old ARE you?"' America explained.

`If I'd meant that, I'd have said it,' said Kurvie Rovie.

America didn't want to begin another argument, so she said nothing.

` Two hundred and twenty-nine!' Kurvie Rovie repeated thoughtfully. `An uncomfortable sort of age. Now if you'd asked MY advice, I'd have said "Leave off at two hundred" -- but it's too late now.'

`I never ask advice about growing,' America said Indignantly.

`Too proud?' the other inquired.

America felt even more indignant at this suggestion. `I mean,' she said, `that one can't help growing older.'

`ONE can't, perhaps,' said Kurvie Rovie, `but TWO can. With proper assistance, you might have left off at two hundred.'

`What a beautiful belt you've got on!' America suddenly remarked. (They had had quite enough of the subject of age, she thought: and if they really were to take turns in choosing subjects, it was her turn now.) `At least,' she corrected herself on second thoughts, `a beautiful cravat, I should have said -- no, a belt, I mean -- I beg your pardon!' she added in dismay, for Kurvie Rovie looked thoroughly offended, and she began to wish she hadn't chosen that subject. `If I only knew,' the thought to herself, 'which was neck and which was waist!'

Evidently Kurvie Rovie was very angry, though he said nothing for a minute or two. When he DID speak again, it was in a deep growl.

`It is a -- MOST -- PROVOKING -- thing,' he said at last, `when a person doesn't know a cravat from a belt!'

`I know it's very ignorant of me,' America said, in so humble a tone that Kurvie Rovie relented.

`It's a cravat, child, and a beautiful one, as you say. It's a present from the older Bush and his First Lady. There now!'

`Is it really?' said America, quite pleased to find that she HAD chosen a good subject, after all.

`They gave it me,' Kurvie Rovie continued thoughtfully, as he crossed one knee over the other and clasped his hands round it, `they gave it me -- for an un-birthday present.'

`I beg your pardon?' America said with a puzzled air.

`I'm not offended,' said Kurvie Rovie.

`I mean, what IS and un-birthday present?'

`A present given when it isn't your birthday, of course.'

America considered a little. `I like birthday presents best,' she said at last.

`You don't know what you're talking about!' cried Kurvie Rovie. `How many days are there in a year?'

`Three hundred and sixty-five,' said America.

`And how many birthdays have you?'

`One.' ...

`And only ONE for birthday presents, you know. There's a law for you!'

`I don't know what you mean by "law,"' America said.

Kurvie Rovie smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "law" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' America objected.

`When I use a word,' Kurvie Rovie said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said America, `whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Kurvie Rovie, `which is to be master - - that's all.'

America was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Kurvie Rovie began again. `They've a temper, some of them -- particularly federal ones, they're the proudest -- state laws you can do anything with, but not federal ones -- however, I can manage the whole of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

`Would you tell me, please,' said America `what that means?`

`Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Kurvie Rovie, looking very much pleased. `I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.'

`That's a great deal to make one word mean,' America said in a thoughtful tone.

`When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Kurvie Rovie, `I always pay it extra.'

`Oh!' said America. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Back to the Blues

When I was in college (more than 30 years ago) I would write, occasionally, about the blues music for the student paper. I haven’t written anything similar since.

Last night, however, I was watching American Masters: Good Rockin' Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records on PBS, I got to thinking about the blues, especially when Sam Phillips talked about hearing Elvis singing Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama”—something that galvanized Phillips into immediate action and that launched Presley on his way to stardom. Phillips knew that, given the racial climate of America at the time, he would not be able to promote the music of the black proto-rockers into popular success. But Elvis, a white boy who could sing the same songs with the same passion… well, that was something he could work with.

It wasn’t questions of race that interested me last night, though—but the dominoes that started falling, each with the name of a blues musician important to my own odyssey as a fan of the music. As I listened to the show, I opened a cabinet and started plowing through my old lp’s—that’s “long-playing” records, to those of you born after 1980. What follows, then, is a bit of nostalgia from my own record collection. No history of the blues, it’s a history of listening, of connections and leads.

My introduction to the blues came in 1963 with the base lines played on Hudie Ledbetter’s 12-string guitar—on a record someone I knew happened to own. Leadbelly stunned me, as he did many of my generation and even more of the generation preceding. I couldn’t get enough of him, or enough of the older Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had influenced him greatly. Wanting more, I soon was devouring the works of Bukka White, Bo Carter, Blind Boy Fuller, Fred McDowell, Lonnie Young, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy and more—not to forget Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Soon, I discovered Mississippi John Hurt and the Reverend Gary Davis… both of whom I still listen to regularly.

John Hurt led me to Dave Van Ronk and Taj Mahal—also still favorites.

Somewhere in there, I stumbled over the music of Bessie Smith. I’ve listened to her ever since, constantly astonished by the power of her music. With an assist from Bob Dylan (“Where Ma Rainey and Beethoven once unwrapped their bedrolls/Tuba players now rehearse around the flagpole”) and a couple of re-issues, I discovered Smith’s predecessor, Rainey, sometime in the late 1960s. By that time, I had also become a devotee of Tracy Nelson, who still carries Smith’s heritage.

Often, as I progressed into electric blues, it was white musicians who led me back to black ones. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band (which I may have discovered through Michael Bloomfield—whose guitar work on that same Dylan album with the Ma Rainey line--Highway 61 Revisited--had mesmerized me) was one of these. As was Canned Heat, a band I just loved listening to live. Then there were lesser-known ones, such as the Siegel-Schwall Band, Charlie Musselwhite, Marvey Mandel, and John Mayall. They led me to the likes of Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wold, Muddy Waters (and Otis Spann), Magic Sam, and B.B. King. This bunch, in turn, drew me back to Joe Turner, Elmore James, Ike Turner, and “Big Boy” Crudup—the musicians the Sun Records “sound” is most beholden to.

In the early 1970s, I lived not far from Chicago so was exposed to new Delmark recordings by the likes of J.B. Hutto and the Hawks and T-Bone Walker and the All Stars. Oh, and the early Alligator recordings of Son Seals, Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers, and Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell (thanks, Bruce Iglauer—he would sell the records, almost literally, out of the back of his car).

Soon after, however, I moved on to other musical interests, particularly the post-avant garde surrounding the ex-members of Ornette Coleman’s band and people like Carla Bley—a congregation that centered, for me, on the old 5 Spot in Greenwich Village.

But that’s another story.

I’ve watched the popularity of the blues grow over the past decade or two, but have not really returned to the music. Looking at those old lp’s, however, has convinced me I should.