Tuesday, March 31, 2015


Hundreds of people recently paid big bucks to hear Monica Lewinsky give a carefully crafted but also quite touching TED talk announcing her survival of a public shaming of planetary proportions.

Brené Brown, a leading researcher who teaches resilience to shame, asserts that a major root cause of our collective shame originates in a paradigm of scarcity: the main message of our culture is that our ordinary lives are not special enough. We are not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, interesting enough, accomplished enough. Adding to the mix are pervasive early experiences of humiliation. An art teacher once told my father there was no hope that he could ever learn to draw. This casual comment stayed with him all his life. School experiences of this sort are legion.

Notwithstanding Brown’s essential research, the roots of shame are even more existential than the superficial criteria of our materialist and appearance-obsessed culture; for proof we need only look to the primordial mythology of Adam and Eve covering their privates after eating the forbidden fruit. The meaning of the myth is still debated; in one interpretation, their shame represented not a disobedient fall into original sin, but a fall upward into consciousness and conscience—into the healthy vulnerability indicated by our capacity for shame.

Having earned my undergraduate degree, I was troubled for decades by a repetitive dream in which I needed to go back to my college as an adult and take one more year of courses in order to authenticate my diploma. It was only in middle age, as I began to fulfill my professional potential, by which time I had acquired enough experience to forgive myself for some serious mistakes of work and love, that the dream ceased to recur. The dream was a manifestation of shame, a deep sense of not living up to the birthright of what it was possible for me to be. Shame and its complement, empathy, are built-in software that helps weave people together in the web of interdependence we call culture—the culture that is and the culture that might be.

Our present culture shames selectively. Monica Lewinsky, whose moment of youthful complicity with a powerful man threatened only herself and one family, albeit a very public family, must carefully eat crow in order to move on. Richard Bruce Cheney, the proximate cause not only of the lies that engendered the ongoing deaths of hundreds of thousands in Iraq and surroundings but also of the environmental catastrophe of fracking, remains comfortably unashamed of the agony he has brought to whole peoples and landscapes.  Let’s not hold our breath waiting for him to do a repentant TED talk any time soon.

The shame of our planetary condition is even deeper than an oligarchic culture where those insulated by power get to pick who gets a pass and who does not.  After millennia of wars, the human family still accepts the shameless notion that killing each other will resolve our many conflicts.  Not a day goes by that we don’t hear from denizens of this or that prestigious Washington think-tank, often not speaking truth to power but beating the drums of power, lending a veneer of legitimacy to activities for which we should be thoroughly ashamed and embarrassed—secret arms sales to all sides in a conflict, hypocrisy around nuclear weapons, drones decimating wedding parties, military cost overruns in the billions that take food from the mouths of the poor.

When pundits encourage violent alternatives as logically inevitable, violence is rationalized, brought into civilized discourse, made credible and fit for daily consumption. At a delicate moment in complex diplomatic negotiations, the bullying and simplistic John Bolton was irresponsibly given a forum in the New York Times to argue that we have no other option but to bomb Iran, a country where ordinary people by the thousands went into the streets in sympathy with the U.S. after 9-11.

A piece of video footage available last year on the net reminds us of the shameful reality of the horror Bolton would plunge Iran into so casually. Much too raw for network TV, it showed a wide-eyed six-year-old child lying on rags somewhere in Syria awaiting medical attention with her intestines exposed in a tangled mound. The editors of this tape had partially blurred this slick protruding pile of guts, but it was still not an easy image to erase from one’s mind. It shouldn’t have been, because it exemplified something truly shameful, the civilian cost of war.

It is possible to imagine a world where violence and killing are universally agreed to be the most shameful, unmanly ways to resolve conflicts—because in fact they never really resolve anything, as tragically demonstrated by the chaos of today’s Middle East and the U.S. role in it. While unhealthy shame can feel almost as bad to children as getting their guts blown apart—“forget it, you’ll never be an artist”—we live in a world where healthy shame is still in very short supply.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Bob Dylan: Bird on the Horizon

Bird on the horizon
Sittin’ on a fence
He’s singin’ his song for me
At his own expense . . .

—”You’re a Big Girl Now”

Bob Dylan and I happen to be the same age. I have seen him live in concert only three times, once in 1960 at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, when he was just starting out, then 44 years later, in 2004, at a minor league baseball field in Brockton, MA., playing the second half on a bill with Willy Nelson, then, a few years after that, once more, at a rather rote excessively amplified concert in Essex, Vermont.

Before a reading in Manhattan, Wallace Stevens remarked to John Malcolm Brinnin, “on occasions like this, the voice is the actor.” (Stevens went on to “perform” his poetry that evening in an almost inaudible monotone.) Robbie Robertson of the Band said that Bob Dylan’s voice was an actor capable of playing many parts. Dylan, the improbable heir not only of Whitman and Hart Crane, but of Eliot and Frost as well, lives up to the billing. His voice has been an actor of Homeric scope.

A typical put-down of Dylan is that he never could sing (it is undeniable that his voice has lost much of its plangency in old age), but this is an abject failure to connect with his achievement. Frank Sinatra, a great singer whom Dylan admired, is nonetheless always Frank Sinatra through all his singing, more or less as Jack Nicholson is always Jack Nicholson no matter whom he is playing.

Dylan on the other hand, as Robertson said, has invented a diverse series of personae, characters whose unique styles match up with whatever he happens to be singing. Robert Frost evolved a theory and practice of poetry he called “the sound of sense,” where he played off tones of voice, the way people actually sound as they speak in ordinary conversation, against the strictures of traditional verse forms and beats, to create something fresh (“Some have relied on what they knew/Others on being simply true/What worked for them might work for you”). This is exactly what Dylan has done through hundreds of songs, from the caustic “What Was It You Wanted?” to the sensual “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” to the prophetic “You got to Serve Somebody,” to the poignant “You’re a Big Girl Now” or “Stayed in Mississippi a Day Too Long.” Individual performances of songs provide further elaboration and change. There is the Warholian “Visions of Joanna” on “Blonde on Blonde,” and the “Visions of Joanna” sung and played with tremendous joy (though Dylan has on his usual deadpan face as he tosses off this utter masterpiece of a performance) in Portsmouth England in a 2000 concert available on YouTube.

Dylan has achieved an infinitely more versatile set of performances than Sinatra.  Dylan’s accomplishment is all the more remarkable because it consists of a unique mix of the poetry of his own words, the poetry of melody, the poetry of instrumentation, and the poetry of the voice in individual performance. These cannot be separated. In vocal/instrumental music the combinations of melodic, rhythmic and spoken cadences breaking across each other are almost infinitely variable.  

That’s the biggest problem with any academic approach to Dylan: his poetry isn’t the half of it, or maybe even a third of it. The three halves together—that fateful congruence of poetry, specific voicing and the way verse and voice play off against their instrumental and rhythmic context—will always partly elude the scholars, even the most brilliant, like Christopher Ricks or Sean Wilentz. Dylan is irreducible and incommensurable. Dylan and the academy have always been oil and water. I happened to be in the audience when Princeton University presented him with an honorary doctorate, an occasion that inspired his song “Day of the Locust.” He couldn’t have looked more uncomfortable sitting onstage in his black cap and gown in the 90-degree heat, sweating along with the Secretary General of the U.N. and other more conventional notables. Decades later, appearing in the film “Masked and Anonymous,” he still looks uncomfortable—except when playing and singing.

Unlike someone like Marlon Brando, who made acting more authentic in the same way Dylan renews stale musical conventions, Dylan has not fallen into the temptation of holding his chosen medium in contempt. Instead, even though it hasn’t always been jolly to have to inhabit his own myth, he has expanded and reinvented song as endlessly and prolifically as Picasso reinvented painting. He takes risks exploring human depths that other artists wouldn’t even contemplate.  A song like “Disease of Conceit,” (Oh Mercy) with its seemingly lame idea and lamer rhymes, shouldn’t even get off the ground, but it ends up flying more than gracefully. And for every near pratfall there are literally hundreds of songs that are works of genius—“What Good Am I?,” “Most of the Time,” (both on Oh Mercy), “Sugar Babe.” (Love and Theft)

Further versatility and depth is provided by the way Dylan is one of the few who has continued to write songs in the authentic voice of a man in his teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties. It is silly to assert that Dylan let down 1960’s radicalism by abdicating themes of protest—because he never abdicated. He has gone on writing trenchant critiques of various kinds, “We Live in a Political World,” “Workingman’s Blues,” “Its All Good,” and on and on. The adolescent outrage and wry cynicism by which he first became known makes up only a small section of his Protean range of voices and poetic stances, including the poetry of the householder, the poetry of the despairing and alienated loner, of the sly indirect commentator on crime, corruption, violence and world catastrophe, and the poetry too of love and affirmation of human and divine goodness.

At one point Dylan was even nominated for the Nobel, and why not?  As a poet Dylan deserves and would himself give added prestige to the Nobel, except that the prize is not given for the ancient bardic enhancement of poetry by music. Neither Frost nor Stevens ever did get the Nobel, but should have. So should Dylan, though it may be the last thing he wants—or needs.

At Campanelli Stadium in Brockton, we were able to stand right in front of the stage, about fifty feet away from Dylan and his band. An announcer broadcast a hyped commercial-sounding message about how Dylan was thought of as a has-been but kept bouncing back—as if this mythological character needed the slightest justification.

Dylan played only keyboard throughout his entire set, standing with bent legs in his black suit and white cowboy hat. You could see the sweat flying off his face. He ran through “High Water Rising,” “Poor Boy,” the rollicking “Summer Nights,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and other classics. After every number the lights went down and he wandered off into the back of the stage—to tipple? At the end, he faced the crowd, swaying back and forth, an unexpectedly slight medium for so much song over so much time. Slowly he raised his left thumb and smiled slightly. Still standing.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Great Speech in Selma, Mr. President!

Very stirring and eloquent words at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Mr. President, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march.

“What they did here will reverberate through the ages.  Not because the change they won was preordained; not because their victory was complete; but because they proved that nonviolent change is possible, that love and hope can conquer hate.”

Not only that nonviolent change is possible, Mr. President, but that nonviolence is by far the most effective route to change both at home and abroad. So stop sending those drones to kill innocent children in faraway desert lands, murders that create more terrorists than they eliminate!

“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”  

Yes! So rather than forcing him into exile for fear of not getting a fair trial, let’s honor the heroism of Edward Snowden for exposing the lies of high officials and their trashing of our inalienable right to freedom and autonomy. You promised the most transparent government in the history of our country, but there is more secrecy and persecution of whistleblowers than ever.

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.  It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo.  That’s America.” 

Indeed it is. And that is why it is a tragedy that no one has been held accountable under the law for the web of deceit that led us into the tragic, budget-busting military campaigns that have only planted the seeds for further violence in the Mideast. These wars went forward in the face of the largest peaceful citizen protest marches in the history of the world.

“What a glorious thing, Dr. King might say.  And what a solemn debt we owe.  Which leads us to ask, just how might we repay that debt?”

One way we can repay that debt and we ourselves can shine in the light of Dr. King’s glory is not to forget Dr. King’s truth-telling connection of ill-considered, futile wars abroad with eradicable poverty and racism at home.

 “’We are capable of bearing a great burden,’ James Baldwin once wrote, ‘once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.’

There’s nothing America can’t handle if we actually look squarely at the problem . . . If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination.  All of us will need to feel as they did the fierce urgency of now.  All of us need to recognize as they did that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children.  And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.” 

Right on. These rousing words remind us of your past speeches advocating for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Instead, our government plans to spend untold dollars desperately needed for meeting real human needs on the renewal of our nuclear arsenal, arrogantly disregarding our solemn obligation as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to ramp down and finally eliminate these expensive, useless world-destroying weapons.

Of course, our democracy is not the task of Congress alone, or the courts alone, or even the President alone.  If every new voter-suppression law was struck down today, we would still have, here in America, one of the lowest voting rates among free peoples. . .

What’s our excuse today for not voting?  How do we so casually discard the right for which so many fought?  How do we so fully give away our power, our voice, in shaping America’s future?”

Could it have anything to do with cynicism and disillusion with a political game that is rigged against authentic democracy from the get-go, the corruption at the heart of our politics and economics encouraged by our own highest court, corruption that equates money with speech, rotting our electoral system from within, corruption that allows ethically challenged bankers not only to walk free but also to be bailed out by the hard-earned tax dollars of ordinary citizens?

“That’s what it means to love America.  That’s what it means to believe in America.  That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional.”

Sadly, America is also exceptional in its grinding contradictions, as your speech itself demonstrates despite its obvious good intentions and unifying rhetoric. America is indeed exceptional in the incarcerated percentage of its population, in infant mortality, in the number of people who may be uncertain from where their next meal is coming. The exceptional promise of our country will truly be realized when principles applied in one compartment of our national life become relevant to all compartments.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Servant Leaders Vs. Empty Suits

In a normal world, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress would have been roundly mocked by the audience for its hypocritical fear mongering. In a normal world, 70 years beyond Hiroshima, major powers would have long since acceded to the wishes of their constituents and established far more extensive arms reduction treaties. In a normal world, there would be a single, not a double, standard challenging the undiluted evil of nuclear weapons, no matter who possesses them. That single standard would underpin not only a regional but also a planet-wide effort at nuclear disarmament. And in a normal world, a foreign leader would not have been handed the most prestigious possible venue to undermine delicate, complex negotiations merely to allow him to score political points in two countries simultaneously.

To focus upon the existential danger of a nuclear Iran is to miss the point Albert Einstein, one of the most prophetic Jewish thinkers, made back in 1946: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” By making Iran into Israel’s nemesis, Netanyahu particularizes and localizes what should be universal and planetary: for Israel to be secure, all nations must be secure. Every nuclear point of tension on the planet today is equally an existential threat to all of us: Ukraine-Russia, India-Pakistan—and Israel-Iran.

Netanyahu did not call for general nuclear disarmament because he is stuck in an old mode of thinking based in his limited identification with his own nation, a nuclear-armed nation tied in ethical knots by the need to choose between democracy and privileging a particular ethnicity. In this old mode, self-interest is defined in terms of what’s good for my own country, in particular for the Jewish citizens of my country, rather than the planet as a whole.  The scenario of a nuclear-free zone in the region is dismissed because it doesn’t fit with the Israeli—and American—right wing’s hyper-macho view of response to perceived threats. The drift toward nuclear catastrophe continues, even accelerates, in an atmosphere of mutual paranoia and denial.

In this obsolete mode of thinking, “we” are exceptional and “they” are the axis of evil. “We” project our own unacknowledged aggressiveness onto adversaries and dehumanize them, justifying endless mistrust, closed hearts, and killing that resolves nothing. “We” become more and more like the very thing we fear and hate, descending into torture, unjust land appropriation, secret arms sales, assassination, imperial expansion of spheres of influence—dysfunctional tactics common not only to both Israel and Iran, but also to the U.S.  Fear of non-state actors having the same power as the nine nuclear states to incinerate millions in seconds rationalizes extreme behavior against perceived extremists. Would the United States have descended into torture so quickly and completely without the specter of an extremist Muslim with a suitcase nuke?

A new mode of thinking would acknowledge that the nuclear genie cannot be put back in the bottle, that the impossibility of victory in a nuclear war is a challenge shared by all nations, and that it is imprudent to let the tail of fear wag the dog of arms sales, both conventional and nuclear. In the new mode of thinking, the emphasis is taken off bilateral conflict and becomes a cooperative international effort to inventory, control, and lock down loose nuclear materials everywhere. This would cost infinitely less than the trillion dollars the U.S. is planning to spend over the next decade to refurbish its nuclear arsenal.

Netanyahu is inarguably right to assert that Israel lives in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world, but there is much that he and his fragile coalition could do to begin to make it a safer neighborhood for themselves—beginning with restraining illegal settlement colonization of Palestinian land.

An alternative vision of global security is taking shape, based in initiatives that slowly build trust on the basis of overlapping environmental crises and other challenges that simply cannot be addressed by militarism. To grow this embryonic vision toward robust maturity, we need fewer empty suits, pawns in the dangerous game of arms sales and endless war, and more servant-leaders, figures like Dag Hammarskjold, Oscar Arias, Vaclav Havel, and Aung San Suu Kyi, people who exemplify the new mode of thinking for which Einstein implied the need if our species is to survive beyond the nuclear age.  As Netanyahu’s hero Churchill once said, “To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.”