Monthly Archives: October 2011

The funk of forty thousand years

Happy Halloween!

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On government, humanism, and Tony Bennett

Reason #5,167 why government matters: because Tony Bennett is absolutely sublime*…

…and he wouldn’t be who he is if the G.I. Bill didn’t play a big part in his musical education. From an interview on NPR:

I had very good training. I was in the service […] in the Second World War. And when I came out under the GI Bill of Rights, they gave us the best teachers. Zolinski was secretary to Stanislavski, the Method acting teacher, of Russia; performed with him on the stage. Pietro diAngeo was my bel canto teacher to keep my voice in top shape. And Mimi Spear was right on 52nd Street and she told me, “Never imitate another singer. Just listen to musicians and find out how they phrase and how they feel about a song, and imitate them.” […] Very good advice.

(The transcription is mine, and I’m not entirely sure about those name spellings.)

Also interesting: in the same interview, Scott Simon hands him the perfect opportunity to do the “God’s creation is wonderful” boilerplate, but Bennett doesn’t take it. Instead he talks about nature and the universe, sans any hint of religion:

I love life. I wish I could communicate to the whole planet what a gift it is to be alive. […] I paint every day, and I keep learning that the master, as Rembrandt said, is Nature. And you keep looking at it and you keep trying to understand it; you can’t comprehend the height of creativeness that Nature has. What a gift it is to be part of the whole universe.

Spoken like David Attenborough, or any number of poetic atheists.

I’d always assumed that Bennett, as an Italian-American of his generation, was likely a conventionally religious man; and perhaps he is, and merely keeps his faith private — nothing wrong with that. But could he be a secular humanist? It’s not impossible; in a statement clarifying remarks he made about 9/11, he says this:

My life experiences — ranging from the Battle of the Bulge to marching with Martin Luther King — made me a life-long humanist and pacifist, and reinforced my belief that violence begets violence and that war is the lowest form of human behavior. I am sorry if my statements suggested anything other than an expression of my love for my country, my hope for humanity and my desire for peace throughout the world.

Who knows if he means “humanist” with a capital H; but I can’t help remembering that self-declared, bona-fide humanist Asa Philip Randolph also marched with King, and I wonder if Bennett is intentionally making that association.

In any case, I’m just having fun speculating; it doesn’t really matter to me whether Bennett is a man of quiet faith or of no faith at all. What a joy it is simply to hear him sing, and to know that he shares a deep sense of human solidarity and of connection with the universe in the here-and-now. Perhaps for him — certainly for me — that’s enough.

_____
*Stevie Wonder is no slouch either.

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“Decisions are made by those who show up.”

Calls to action, from fiction (The West Wing):

…and from the real world:

Yes.

(h/t FlickFilosopher)

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True patriotism

Andrew Sullivan links to this video of NBA legend Maurice Cheeks, who, with a supportive crowd, comes to the aid of a young girl who falters while singing the national anthem:

Sullivan sees this as the American spirit at its best:

I love it because it really represents America. This experiment has never been easy, or its success foretold, as the questions of the anthem seem to illustrate. We have faltered, nearly given up, torn ourselves apart, segregated and murdered, boomed and busted more than a few times. The greatness of a nation lies not in some false narrative that you see in the Tea Party fantasists, the people who believe the Founding was intended to end slavery, rather than accommodate it, the people who see nothing but greatness and hegemony and pounce on all those who see flaws. It lies in a constant balancing of interests and ideas, and our collective response to failure. In this rendering, a black man rescues a white girl caught by nerves and close to collapse, and rallies her to the end, with the crowd. That’s a powerful symbol of America at its finest.

Indeed. Patriotism, true patriotism, is not jingoism, is not kneejerk pride, is not blindness to America’s flaws. To love this nation is to love a sick or struggling relative: you don’t ignore her troubles and pretend all’s well, but neither do you turn your back on her or proclaim her unworthy of your love. You stand by her and help her get better. You see her faults with clear eyes and love her in spite of them. You nurture her strengths. And you burst with quiet hope and pride at everything she is and everything you know she can be.

Sullivan also points out something I’d never really noticed before: that the key phrases in “The Star-Spangled Banner” come in the form of questions. “Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” It’s a note of uncertainty, almost, an acknowledgment that at some point the answer may well be No. As triumphal as the anthem seems, in other words, its final question — is this still true? is the American spirit intact? does the nation still mean what we want it to mean? — invites us constantly to interrogate ourselves, and to live up to the answer we want to give.

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Why libraries matter, cont’d: “Information is liberation”

The blog of The People’s Library at the Occupy Wall Street protest site fiercely and eloquently lays out its raison d’être:

To reimagine who we are, to understand who have become, is a group activity. It requires public truth-telling and personal reflection. For this to be a fair process, a just process, an inclusive process, we need to ensure that each and every citizen has access to that discussion and the facts that inform it. That’s why there is a library at OWS.

Libraries serve as an equalizer, reducing information-asymmetry so that all citizens can debate on a level playing field. They offer access to all ideas not because all ideas are equally good or true, but because all ideas deserve their chance to be heard and because nothing becomes more enticing than an idea censored or hidden.

“Information is liberation” is a truth that can be hard to grasp from a position of privilege. If you work for a university or live in a large city with a strong library system, information is like oxygen: always there, always (apparently) free. For the many millions who don’t work for a university and who don’t live in a large city with a well funded public library, information is scarce and often expensive.

It should go without saying, but we cannot be free as a people if we do not all have access to high quality information, including information that comes through stories and poetry. Without information and stories we can’t examine narratives put forth by the powerful and judge them from a position of information-equality. […]

Healing ourselves, redeeming our politics and our culture, requires a new understanding of who we have become as a people. It requires a reimagining of what it means to be an American, how we treat one another, and how we behave in the world. Democracy is only possible if we have political equality and political equality is only possible when each and every citizen has both a strong education and ongoing access to the stream of scholarly and cultural conversation.

Libraries are more important than ever in these times. They guard the right of the public to know and to seek answers, they provide all citizens with access to facts, to the cultural narratives that aren’t approved by the dominant power structure, and most of all they contribute to the creation of political equality between citizens by reducing the impacts of economic inequality.

The People’s Library at OWS, and all of the other occupation libraries,  are an expression of these roles. They stand in the midst of the protest as a living embodiment of the vision of a just and democratic society we all hold so dearly.  The creation of the libraries is an act of protest that says, “We are all one and together we will build the society we have all imagined.”

The New York Times highlights the thriving makeshift libraries at OWS, Occupy Boston, and beyond. Matthew Battles at HiLobrow points out a historical connection:

Books have been doing this kind of work for a long time. In the middle of the nineteenth century, England’s Chartist movement — its energies strikingly similar to those of the Occupy movement, its intent similarly misunderstood by the powerful — established reading rooms throughout Britain. This was an era when public libraries were not widespread; most lending libraries charged subscription fees. The free Chartist libraries were enormously popular — and for the elite, enormously unsettling. A commentator in Blackwood’s magazine argued that “Whenever the lower order of any state have obtained a smattering of knowledge they have generally used it to produce national ruin.” Utilitarian reformers sought public funding for libraries where, they argued the intellectual appetites of working class-readers could safely be turned to productive ends.

Battles also links to a fascinating post by Jo Guldi, who argues for the significance of the act of occupying itself — the assertion of the right to take up space and proclaim ourselves an integral part of the infinite city:

The right to the city — to inhabit it, to participate in its governance, to reshape it — is a right that has to be continually renewed. Over the last four decades we have sat upon the accomplishments of the 60s, the settlements bequeathed from lunch-counter sit-ins and free-speech protests. But those rights are now in question. Through the extension of private ownership the vry parks in which Occupy Wall Street protestors now sit are privately-held parcels opened to the public at the pleasure of a private corporation. Our right to the village green has become so tenuous.

An occupation by the people is a taking up of space by the people. It takes up the vacant concrete spaces slid through by glanceless men in peacoats and umbrellas. It takes up the concrete corridors clogged by heavy-moving SUVs. It takes up the visual space crowded by advertisements featuring half-naked women in perfume. It replaces all of that open, lifeless city with another city, a human city of faces, of voices, arguing, debating.

And this is something that libraries are a vital part of, as well. A free library is a public space — a physical gathering place for people, books, arguments, and ideas — in an era when such spaces, and the ideal of community and citizenship that they represent, are increasingly dwindling and increasingly necessary. Matthew Battles again:

[T]here’s something especially forcible about occupying, about taking up space. This is doubly true now, in a time when the virtual has grown so magically, richly figured, while the texture of public space becomes ever more inhospitable to the all-but-forgotten kinesthetic dimension of the public sphere. That is what’s palpable even on a rainy morning when people energized by ideas and stories come together in a sodden tent filled with books. The medium doesn’t matter so much, of course; it’s the people, the ideas, the stories, the charge that count. Perhaps the best word for it after all is utopia — ephemeral, tactile, tactical.

Information is power, and power belongs to the people. And the People’s Library — like all public libraries — makes its invitation clear: “Come down and get some power.”

(h/t The Dish; photos via The People’s Library and City Limits)

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Why government matters, cont’d: Advancing the frontier

A very lively exchange of ideas (and arguments) about the future of human spaceflight and exploration, from last summer’s The Amazing Meeting. Panelists are Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Pamela Gay, and Lawrence Krauss, moderated by Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy. It’s almost an hour, and well worth watching if you have the time.

I very much agree with Tyson’s argument (starting around 15:00) about the government’s role in advancing the frontier: that governments, historically, have been the engines for initial exploration and discovery; the epic voyages of Columbus, Magellan, and Lewis and Clark — not to mention Armstrong and Aldrin — were all government-funded affairs. Commerce follows in the wake of discovery, taming the risky into the routine (as trips into low Earth orbit are now passing into the purview of private enterprise) but forward-looking governments are still best-positioned to marshal the will and resources of their citizens to fund the first leaps into the unknown.

An earlier (and just as lively) discussion about the future of NASA here and here.

(via Bad Astronomy)

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Still vanishing

Oh, god:

[…] 56 exotic creatures — a fierce menagerie that included wolves, monkeys and 18 Bengal tigers, an endangered species whose numbers total less than 3,000 in the wild — […] had fled their cages on a 73-acre private reserve. Friends described the couple who ran it as animal lovers, but they also had a history of run-ins with the authorities.

By late Wednesday, a day after the hunt began, the authorities in this central Ohio city of 25,000 said they had killed or captured all but one of the animals, a monkey. It had not been seen all day, and officials believed that it might have been killed by one of the other animals, said Tom Stalf, assistant director of operations at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

The creatures had been freed on the reserve, a few miles west of downtown Zanesville, after one of the owners apparently cut open their wire cages or opened the doors and then fatally shot himself, the authorities said.

An attempt was made to tranquilize one of the tigers, but ultimately all eighteen were shot and killed.

I understand the authorities putting public safety first, but the deaths of so many innocent, frightened, and in many cases endangered animals are still a tragedy.

As I’ve written before (and as the article points out), there are only three thousand tigers left in the wild — with just a thousand breeding females — and their situation is no less dire today. Click here to help.

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