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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Abraham Lincoln: Only a Pawn in Their Game

And the Negro's name,
Is used it is plain,
For the politician's gain,
As he rises to fame

It’s not that hard to see why the media went out of their way to connect last Sunday’s Inaugural Celebration Concert at the Lincoln Memorial with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

From the eloquent articulation of a dream by a preacher-turned-political activist, to the realization of that dream by an equally eloquent community organizer-turned-president, you couldn’t have orchestrated a more defining set of bookends to mark a more transformative period in American history. Frankly, the media would have been castigated had they not connected the dots.

The most obvious comparison between the March on Washington and last week’s Inaugural Celebration Concert centered around geography, specially a pristine pool that begins at the base of the monument erected for our first president and ends roughly a mile later at the base of a stone temple consecrated for the man who served as our nation’s 16th commander in chief.

But to compare King’s address to the 250,000 people who assembled at the Lincoln Memorial on 23 August 1963 with Sunday’s concert simply because Obama was blessed with a crowd of similar size on that same, hallowed ground is not only ill founded, it does a disservice to the dream.

The truth is that the March on Washington wasn’t a celebration at all. It was a conflict narrowly averted. While King had reached a peace with the “Big Six”—as the six prominent civil-rights leaders were called—SNCC and CORE, two of the more militant factions of the movement, saw the March as a way of challenging what they believed to be a lack of support for civil rights by the Kennedy administration. For them, the speech King planned to deliver erred on the side of appeasement, rather than accountability.

Said another way, when King stepped behind the podium that warm August day he was stepping into a battle—both literally and figuratively.

Last Sunday’s Inaugural Celebration Concert, however, was anything but. So concerned about “how far we’ve come as a country,” the organizers allowed a emphatic sense of harmony to reduce this star-studded 3-hour event to nothing more than a cavalcade of stars burning brightly against a carefully lit marble backdrop.

And in all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Obama’s inauguration, the media fell into the same seductive trap as the rest of us. They got caught up in all the hoopla, and in the process failed to place the true measure of King’s prophetic proclamation on race in America in its proper context.

No disrespect to Steve Carell, Kal Pen, Jack Black, Marisa Tomei and Ashley Judd—all fine actors indeed—but it was painfully clear their involvement was more of a repayment for their financial contributions to the Obama campaign than a true recognition of an investment in any social cause beyond perhaps which Inaugural Ball they planned to attend.

And then there was the entertainment. The 1963 March on Washington featured performances by Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Josh White, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Each of these artists played a vital role in shaping and redefining not just civil rights, but human rights.

Bob Dylan performed several songs at the 1963 March on Washington. Among them, “Only a Pawn in Their Game.”

Yet with the notable exception of Stevie Wonder and Pete Seeger, the biggest role the performers who graced the stage Sunday played in the civil rights movement was their ability to recall the past trials and tribulations of the artists and activists who actually attended the 1963 March.

Bono, Bruce and Beyoncé are all compelling entertainers to be sure. But endearing homage does not equal the contributions made by those who actually affect change, no matter how heartfelt thei accolades may have been.

Let’s be clear. Drawing a historical parallel between Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama is perfectly in bounds. The MLK “I Have a Dream” speech has been taught in social studies classes for the last four decades, and rightly so. It remains a pitch-perfect piece of oratory given at precisely the right moment in history. Obama’s ascension to the highest office in the land is equally monumental—a moment of mixed gravitas and giddiness not just for ‘Black America,’ but a moment of immense gratification for all Americans.

So if I’m not taking issue with King, Obama or the events that elevated and celebrated their place in our nation's history, what then am I taking issue with? Actually, it isn’t the media’s linking these moments together that’s raised my ire, it’s the monument.

The Civil Rights Movement has often been compared to a game of chess. This past Sunday’s event, though light in substance, was dead on in terms of design.There was a Bishop (Rev. V. Gene Robinson), a King (Martin Luther King III), and a Queen (Queen Latifa).

But what about the pawn—the very centerpiece of this ungrateful grunt? I would submit the pawn in this 200-year-old game was none other than the man at whose feet they stood.

Yes, that’s right. Abraham Lincoln was a pawn in Obama’s game, just as he was a pawn in Dr. King’s March on Washington some 46 years before. Polished up, propped up and pimped out.

Yet despite the transparent attempt to manipulate and maneuver his memory like some paonic piece on the chessboard, in the final analysis perhaps this grunt is for naught. I doubt Lincoln would have minded the part he ultimately played in what is unquestionably the most overdue endgame in American politics…

On the stone that remains,

Carved next to his name,

His epitaph plain:

Only a pawn in their game.
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Sunday, January 18, 2009

A Dylanesque Adieu: It’s All Over Now, “W”

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last.

But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast.
Yonder stands your orphan with his gun,
Crying like a fire in the sun.
Look out the saints are comin' through
And it's all over now, Baby Blue.

On Thursday, January 15, 2009, at precisely 5:03 pm EST, a middle-aged man wearing a dark blue suit, white button-down shirt and a power blue tie stepped through a doorway, and walked down an elegant carpet-lined hallway before stopping behind a waist high podium bearing the emblem of an eagle, its wings outstretched against a royal blue background.

After taking a moment to acknowledge the appreciative crowd, the man smiled, cleared his throat and uttered the following opening salvo, “Fellow citizens, for eight years it has been my honor to serve as your president.”

Exactly 13 minutes, thirty-one minutes later, the man in the dark blue suit with the white button-down shirt and power blue tie turned and walked back down the hallway then passed through an unseen door. And just like that, it was over.

9/11, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Katrina, a collapsed economy—suffice to say, George W. Bush has presided over one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. You’d have thought the networks would have given him more than 13 minutes. Frankly, many pundits were surprised he even got that.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a recap of 2008 in which I paraphrased Bob Dylan’s enigmatic, surrealistic, ‘Desolation Row.’ Considering how well received the piece was, for the last week I had been toying with the notion of using another Dylan diatribe, ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,’ to bid farewell to our 43rd president.

When I sat down to write my postscript to the Bush presidency, however, I realized my intended Dylanesque adieu had already been written:

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last.
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast.

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you.
Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you.

In those two verses, taken from the first and last stanzas respectfully, resides all the angst, all the anger, not to mention a good dose of mournful lament that America has experience for the last eight years.

The saddest part, of course, is that it didn’t have to be this way.

Bush began his presidency with a 50% approval rating. Not bad considering he received less than 48% of the popular vote. But it only got better for Bush. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Bush’s approval rating skyrocketed to over 90%. It was an unprecedented moment in American politics—the highest popularity rating of a sitting president. Then something equally extraordinary occurred.

After only four months, Bush’s popularity began an equally unprecedented, unrelenting 7-year decline. It was truly as if someone had pulled the carpet out from under George Bush.

That ‘someone’ it turns out wasn’t so much the American public as it was the people Bush surrounded himself. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Michael Brown, Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, Carl Rove, Alberto Gonzalez, Hank Paulson: each pursued policies that not only eroded support for Bush and the institute of the presidency, they pursued policies that eroded our faith in virtually facet of the U.S. government.

In his defense, Bush has become the lightening rod into which all of America’s disdain and disgust has been directed. As the Administration’s point man, it's to be expected that the president would take a jolt or two. Yet considering the unrelenting, unilateral affront the team Bush assembled has made on every aspect of the American experience, it’s amazing Bush has hung on to as much support as he has.

Earlier in the week, George Bush told the press corps, “When I get out of here, I'm getting off the stage… one person in the klieg lights at a time. I've had my time in the klieg lights. I wish [Obama] all the best.” And while it came from an honest place, there’s no question there was a Nixonian ring to the refrain, as if to say: “You won’t have old 'Dubya' to kick around anymore.”

And while it’s probably not the last time we’ll hear from “43”, it is the last time we’ll have to listen. And I’m not sure who’s more relieved, him or us. But one thing’s for sure— we’re both better off now that it’s all over for ‘W’….

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you.
Forget the dead you've left, they will not follow you.
The vagabond who's rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.
Strike another match, go start anew
And it's all over now, Baby Blue.

The connection between Bush’s farewell and Dylan’s acerbic adieu goes deeper than the lyrical parallels...

Dylan recorded "It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” in Columbia Studio ‘A’ on January 15, 1965—44 years to the day of Bush’s final official appearance before the American public.
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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Bob Dylan’s ‘Neighborhood’: The World's ‘Bully’ Pulpit

Well, the neighborhood bully, he's just one man,

His enemies say he's on their land.

They got him outnumbered about a million to one,

He got no place to escape to, no place to run.

He's the neighborhood bully.

Written for his 1983 Infidels album, “Neighborhood Bully” is often cited as a defense of Israel’s volatile foreign policy. With a long history of angst and, as recent events have suggested, a good dose of antagonism the subject of the song, much like the man who wrote it, is pure Dylan.

But whether you believe Israel is bullying the Palestinians, or that Hamas is the harasser, the intent of this grunt is to be neither incendiary nor seditious. The only person I am siding with is myself; the only insight I offer is an interpretation of a song that, I would argue, is just as relevant today as when it was penned over a quarter century ago.

On the surface, this rather straightforward 11-stanza narrative could be construed as a litany of the events that have confronted Israel over the last six decades. Considering the following:

‘Then he destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad,

The bombs were meant for him,

He was supposed to feel bad.’

Given the topical nature of Dylan’s songwriting, the lyric is literal (albeit volatile) reference to Israel’s bombing of the Osirak nuclear plant near Baghdad on June 17, 1981. A place where, as the song suggests, bombs could very well have been built for use on Israel.

Yet despite the seemingly obvious political underpinnings of the song’s subject matter (historical facts are evoked, sides are taken, battle lines are drawn), this is not a political song. Or more to the point, we cannot be sure exactly whose 'politics' Dylan is extolling since he never actually utter the word, ‘Israel.’

As a result of this notable omission, Israel and Palestine can, and have, both laid claim to the song as a defense of their actions. In fact, “Neighborhood Bully” was cited in 2001 in the Jerusalem Post as a “favorite among Dylan-loving residents of the territories.”

You can see how such confusion could occur. Take the line"

He got no place to escape to,
no place to run.

On one hand, Dylan is referencing the fact that for the last 6000 years the Jews have been forced to be a nomadic people lest they be persecuted, punished and put to death for their beliefs.

So the line is a defense of Israel, right? Not so fast.

Were a member of Hamas, one of the Gazan militant groups controlling the Gaza Strip, to ruminate over the exact same line, his interpretation would be decidedly different.

He got no place to escape to,
No place to run.

This may be metaphorically true for the Jews, but it is a literal truth for the inhabitants of Gaza. Water to the west, Israel to the north and east, Egypt to the south—the citizens of Gaza are literally trapped by geography.

But “Neighborhood Bully” isn’t just about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As expected considering its author, the song works on another, more universal level.

And while the world’s focus may now be turned on that particular conflict, couldn’t the tenets the song examines—condemnation, survival, an ardent belief structure—apply to all conflicts?

Last week, the U.N. approved a resolution intended to resolve the Israel-Gaza conflict. But the US—the parental figure to whom the world is now looking to sort out this whole sordid schoolyard skirmish—abstained from the vote. And when the world then turned to the Obama transition team, they copped out, too, claiming that perhaps it would be best to let the ‘kids’ work it out.

The problem, of course, is that Israel and the Palestine aren’t 'kids on a playground.' The ‘neighborhood bully’ motif is just that—a motif. What’s happening in Gaza is real; the lives of thousands are at stake. And if you buy into Book that both sides rather fervently ascribe so, too, does the future of the world. And since one of those countries can destroy a lot more than some enchanted garden paradise in the desert sand should they chose to, perhaps a little parental intervention might not be such a bad thing.

Whether his intention or not, Dylan has always used his songs as a de facto ‘bully pulpit’—a place from which he can cast out demons and comment on the topics that confront not only him, but those topics that confront us all.

The fact that his songs are not only prophetic but that each of us can read our own point of view into them is the real insight here, not which side Bob may or may not have been on at the time of his profession.

The neighborhood bully just lives to survive,

He's criticized and condemned for being alive.

He's not supposed to fight back, he's supposed to have thick skin,

He's supposed to lay down and die when his door is kicked in.

He's the neighborhood bully.

Dylan has often been noted for the ‘topicality’ of his songs. Well, my fellow Disgruntled Dylanologists, you just don’t get more topical, or timeless, than this…

Bob Dylan's "Neighborhood Bully" from 1983's Infidels.
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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Dont Look Back: 2008 in Review

A poetic look back on 2008, set to the tune of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row":

They’re printing tickets to the coronation
They’re fitting his thorny crown
The district’s filling up with Democrats
A new sheriff is in town
There goes the Maverick from Arizona
And gal from Wasilla
Couldn’t quite get the votes they needed
Their platform was too vanilla
Eight long years they ran this place
Now it’s time for them to go
As ‘43’ and Laura lament the passing
Of Republican Row

Congress, they make it look so easy
“This won’t hurt a bit,” they smile
As they slip $700 billion in their back pocket
Hank Paulson style
In come the auto makers, they’re whining
“What about our piece of the pie?”
“Talk to 16th and Penn,” the gentleman from Alabama says,
he’s gonna be your guy
And the only sound that’s left
As theyfill their Priuses with dough
Is the sound of Wagoner, Nardelli and Mulally cleaning up
On Republican Row

And the banks are also empty
Lehman, Stearns and AIG can’t console
As America’s fortunes disappear
Down a dark, rat-infested black hole
All except for T. Boone Pickens
And the Oracle of Omaha
Everybody’s future is bleak
No one can believe the gall
And Bernard Madoff, he’s in lockdown
$50 billion and nothing to show
A house of cards has come tumbling down
On Republican Row

Now Hillary, she’s buckin’ for a promotion
The Senate could not hold
Less than eight years in New York
Her true ambition did unfold

To her, New Hampshire seemed quite inviting
She wore her emotions on her sleeve
An act of pure political theater
Even crocodile tears could not deceive
But were it not for her former rival
To whom she does now owe
She’d be serving the rest of her sentence
On Republican Row

OJ, disguised as an All-American
Reclaiming his memories from a fan
Into a Vegas suite he burst
A pistol in his hand
He must have looked rather frightful
Waving his USC letter vest
Then ran off with the Heisman
Clutched tightly against his chest
Got off years ago after killing his wife
It seems you reap what you sow
Thirty-two got 33-to-life
On Republican Row

Spitzer, he keeps all his names
Inside a little black book
But it’s what he said on the phone
That got him cooked
Now the girl, quite a looker
Had the lungs to be a singer
It was the Governor’s tit, however
Got caught in the ringer
For years he blew the whistle on corruption
This time he took the blow
Just another self righteous prick sent packing
To Republican Row

Meanwhile in California
Another sexless battle begins
Gay marriage goes on the ballet
And then abruptly ends
It seems America wasn’t ready for Casanova
To come marching down the aisle
With a partner on his arm
Who can’t produce a child

And the Religious Right is shouting
“It’s not natural, don’t you know”
One Casanova at a time
On Republican Row

And we learn the governor of Illinois
For months has been trying to sell
Obama's seat in the U.S. Senate
To whomever has the most cash to shell
But despite a jury’s indictment
Blago still refuses to concede
Replacing the people’s trust
With his own gluttonous greed
But soon his house will shatter
When he runs out of stones to throw
His fortunes crashing like everything else
On Republican Row

Praise be to Phelps’ Neptune
A solitary beacon of hope
Brought the whole world together
Eight men out with a single stroke
And another show of mettle
Naked aggression in the Gaza Strip
A millennium of distrust and malice
Of which this latest skirmish is only the tip
In Iraq the war still rages
Would Iran have been the next to go?
You can bet they had it all mapped out
On Republican Row

Yes, America is at a crossroads
(As if you didn’t already know)
But hope and change is coming
Though some would say too slow
But now that the people have finally spoken
And the world has heard their plea
All these people we mentioned
Into exile were forced to flee

The Commander in Chief bids farewell.

Let’s just hope they’ve taken with them
The anguish and the woe
That’s been festering these last eight years
On Republican Row
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