“tentative description of a dinner to promote the impeachment of president eisenhower” – lawrence ferlinghetti (1958)

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Yesterday, acclaimed social activist, cultural critic, and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti officially became a centenarian.  Long before turning 100, Ferlinghetti became world-renowned for his poetry collections and political activism. Urging poets and artists to become more socially and politically engaged, Ferlinghetti was a pioneer in utilizing art to challenge the political establishment and the threats of nationalism on our democracy.  On the occasion of his 100th birthday, his chosen home of San Francisco declared the date as “Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day,” honoring the artist’s commitment to social justice within his own community.

The same day as Ferlinghetti’s birthday, acting Attorney General for the Trump administration, William Barr, issued a summary of the findings from Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into the president’s alleged involvement with Russia meddling in the 2016 presidential election.  While Mueller’s full report has not been released at this time, Barr issued a statement that said that while the report did not find enough evidence to prove Trump colluded with the Russians, the president could not be fully exonerated.

While politicians, pundits, and the public continue to debate the details over the report, and the aftermath of it, one thing remains quite clear to me. This summary, if accurate and entirely reflective of Mueller’s findings, emboldens Trump and his supporters.  This summary serves to validate their cries that the special counsel investigation was a witch hunt and that Donald Trump is the only person who can save America from the brink of tyranny from the political establishment.

Among Trump’s supporters, there is a subgroup of nationalists and white supremacists that have become the most emboldened and energized of the group.  These are individuals who are committing violence against liberals, people of color, and anyone else who is different from them in terms of ethnicity and ideology.  And this is nothing new in 2019.  Even before the mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, Trump has validated white supremacists going as far back as the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that erupted in violence during August 2017, with Trump blaming “both sides” for the violence.

Recent reports and polling have indicated that nationalism and white supremacy are not only on the rise within Trump’s America, they are on the rise around the world.  Even non-Americans, people who could never vote for Trump in any election, espouse his rhetoric and champion their toxic beliefs that undermine the rights of people they view as an other. And while opponents of Trump’s vitriol were putting their faith in the Mueller report, Trump’s supporters were becoming active, engaging social media on a grassroots level to sow discord and misinformation for mass public consumption.

It is important to stay grounded.  The report has not been officially released, and efforts will continue within the Southern District of New York.  So, work isn’t over.  Regardless of the report’s outcome, it is widely known that Trump is a vile criminal with campaign staff currently indicted or serving prison terms.  While his supporters are celebrating “so much winning,” it is important to realize that there is a long game here and not to give up hope.  If anything, we must step up more to counter this bump in nationalistic fervor.

The fact that Ferlinghetti turned 100 on the same day Barr issued his summary was an interesting coincidence to me, especially considering Ferlinghetti’s advocacy against nationalism and the Trump administration’s sponsorship of it.  I spent some time last night reviewing some of Ferlinghetti’s most political charged writings, to find something that reflected our current political climate with a kind of wisdom only the past can provide.

In 1958, Ferlinghetti released a spoken-word poetry album called Tentative Description Of A Dinner To Promote The Impeachment Of President Eisenhower And Other Poems By Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The album’s opening track is the poem “Tentative Description Of A Dinner To Promote The Impeachment Of President Eisenhower.”  Backed with a drum beating ominously in the background with varying rhythm and tempo, Ferlinghetti recites his poem.  “Tentative Description…” is a condemnation of American presidents, present and future, for not recognizing the devastating potential of nuclear oblivion, a subject Ferlinghetti came to understand after seeing the aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki while serving in the Navy.

While Ferlinghetti’s poem specifically addresses Washington’s complicit view of nuclear apocalypse, a few lines jumped out to me as poignant and relevant on a different level.

And after it became obvious that the President was doing everything

in his power to make the world safe for nationalism

his brilliant military mind never having realized

that nationalism itself was the idiotic superstition

which would blow up the world

Even though Ferlinghetti is addressing the carelessness of nuclear war, he identifies the true heart of why someone can commit such carelessness: nationalism.  Nationalism, now just as much as it was back then, is a philosophy based on hatred for others that don’t share the same characteristics as you or ones that you value.  Whether it is skin color, religion, creed, sexual orientation, or even political party, it is nationalism that gives violent and hateful people an excuse to exercise violence as an act of self-preservation, resulting from fear that their maligned and false sense of reality will be infringed upon by others practicing their own way of life.

There is no debate that nationalism is the cause of violence coming from a sect within Trump’s base.  Patriotism, not nationalism, is an expression of love for country.  However, through misinformation, nationalism has become a sacred right to these people, and they feel compelled to cause violence to uphold it. Nevermind that someone of a different belief system doesn’t infringe on your rights, nationalism has become a motivator to exert power and authority to uphold racist and classist hierarchies.  Nuclear annihilation, while still possible, can be argued as not being as much of a threat now as it was in 1958.  However, the vile acts of destructive nationalists spells doom for this country.  Though the body count is lower, the country and its democratic system will die a death by a thousand cuts.

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“big log” – robert plant (1983)

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I just recently returned from driving around and hiking through the southwest inspired by completing a recent book project where the desert is a tangential subject.  I wanted to celebrate by seeing, for the first time, a landscape that was unique to my experience and background.  And considering how I do things, I don’t just dip my toes in.  I dive in.

The itinerary of the trip was to fly in to Las Vegas, spend a few days in Death Valley, drive to Joshua Tree and hike there for a few days, and then wrap things up by hiking into depths of Grand Canyon.  A full circle through the desert, admiring the perfect bleakness and seeking the answer to its unsolvable riddle.

On this trip, I felt like I was living in a novel.  I hiked a lot of different trails and terrain.  I met some incredibly interesting people.  I had a near death experience on the second day.  I lived on a bus on a compound owned by Italian prince. I toured the remnant of a ghost town.  I discovered hidden aspects of the desert that I had never anticipated.

I also did a ton of driving.  So much driving.  Clocked in nearly 30 hours in the car and almost hit 1700 miles on the road.  Living in Chicago, I never drive.  I was a bit anxious about all the miles thinking that I was gonna be constantly maneuvering around fishtailing semis on four lane interstates.  Actually, the opposite happened. I expected small desert roadways in and out of the parks, but I never expected that driving four to six hours from one park to the next.  And It was rather lovely, peaceful, and quiet.

When I finished hiking through Death Valley, the next stop was Joshua Tree.  I got up at 5 AM from my Airbnb and hit the road.  For these long drives, I solicited album and playlist recommendations that had desert vibes or made sense in the context of the trip (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly soundtrack and Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs as examples).  I also put together my own playlists based on pop culture projects that evoked desert locales and imagery (Fallout: New Vegas soundtrack for example).  These were really helpful as not only they set the mood and elevated the context of the environment I was driving through, they gave me entertainment considering I as driving through areas with little to no radio reception.

On this drive to Joshua Tree, I spent half the trip driving through the Mojave National Preserve.  This was just a single two-lane road that went through the heart of the preserve where I would only see another vehicle every 30 minutes or so and, because of the timing of when I left Death Valley, drive through during sunrise which allowed me to see the sand, rocks, and trees change shape and color with the rising of the sun. It was absolutely stunning.

AS the landscape was slowly shifting from black to blue to purple to red to orange, I felt like I had the right soundtrack for the experience.  As one of the road trip albums I selected before the trip, I put on Robert Plant’s second studio album The Principle of Moments.  Released in 1983, this album is a departure from Led Zeppelin’s hard rock sounds incorporating a moody landscape of synth and pop, made ethereal with dreamy, existential lyrics.  A great album to get lost in while on the road.

The best song on the album, and the one that truly made this driving experience perfect, was “Big Log.” The first single off the album, it is a slow, methodical tune with tight percussion and a dreamy guitar lick that is reminiscent of the “Happy Together” by the Turtles.  In the song, Plant sings about his love of the highway and the excitement he gets seeing the cities fly by and the slow changing of light as the sun sets ad the tail lights come to life.  His relationship with the road and why he goes down it is unknown.  Plant sings that it is leading him on, joined by a soft chorus repeating line, almost as if he is pursuing something.  Perhaps searching for the unattainable truth all men seek when they wander into the desert.  Even the music video for the song finds Plant lost in the desert, seeking truth and knowledge as he eventually confronts his own limitations in a mysterious classroom.  Given that his car,in the end is towed, has he found what he has looking for, or as he perished on the journey for truth? Either way, there is no turning back.

This was such a remarkable trip and one I hope to do again someday.  The calm and clarity one obtains when hiking, driving, or wandering through the desert provides a value that is only clear when you realize and abandon the superfluous nature of the unnecessary aspects of our existence.

“hey, good lookin'” – hank williams (1951)

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One of the things I do in my spare time is volunteer for a local music school in their archives.  It is a really chill place where I do some data entry, help teachers and students find materials, and organize parts of the collection.  Sometimes, I just sip on a beer while reading or listening to one of the thousands of records available in the archives.  Other than the people who come in and out for any reason, I usually am just chilling by myself.  Though, once in a blue moon, I’ll be asked to train a new volunteer.

I received an email from the archives manager that a new volunteer was coming in and I was asked to train them.  Yeah, I could definitely train them.  I am the one who trains most of the new volunteers since I’ve been an active volunteer myself for several years.  Sometimes, these volunteers end up becoming regulars during shifts at different days or different times, or they might do a shift or two before moving on.  Usually, it is the latter.  And this was especially true for this newest volunteer, but not for a more typical reason like boredom.

Other than a first name, I had no idea what to expect from the person who was coming in.  Given that the classes tend to skew older most of the time, I was expecting someone my age or a retiree who was looking for something to do.  I certainly wasn’t expecting an extremely talkative, 23-year-old waitress sporting a cropped sweater and leather skirt, with an aspiration straight out of Hollywood.  Though, that is what I got.

Since I usually spend the three-hour-plus shift by myself, I am really unaccustomed to holding lengthy conversations in that place let alone lengthy conversations that involve me just silently listening to someone younger than me excitedly ramble endlessly about their dreams and aspirations.  I know I’m coming off as cynical and a bit judgmental, but I was not.  And the reason being is that this girl reminded me a bit of myself at that age.

It didn’t make sense to me why this girl was training with me when she told me she was leaving Chicago at the end of the month.  Within the last few months, she had developed an admiration for old country, western, and bluegrass music, which were all genres she knew nothing about and had generally avoided.  This all changed when she visited Nashville a few weeks ago and fell in love with the city.  Now, she was getting all her affairs in order so she could buy a bus ticket, carrying only her guitar and a single suitcase, and looking to make it big in the Nashville music scene.

Now, all of that really struck me as super weird at first.  Think about it.  Young women hops on a bus to travel across country pursuing her dream to become a star.  If that sounds like something you would see in a movie, it is because it is.  It is one of the biggest tropes of the entertainment industry.  However, she was so excited about all her plans and I couldn’t help but listen.

I am not naturally someone who is going to put someone else down or invalidate their feelings or aspirations.  Quite the contrary.  During the conversation, I gave her as much advice as I could as some of the things she was telling me I had considerable experience with.  For one, I used to work in Nashville while I was attending a university in Kentucky, which were only an hour apart.  And since Nashville was so close, friends and I would often go there to see shows and hang out in a city much larger than our college town.  Plus, I was super familiar with the Greyhound bus route she was taking, so I had learned all the tips and tricks to surviving a smelly, uncomfortable bus ride for ten hours.

Beyond the advice I could give her about life in Nashville and how excruciating Greyhound can potentially be, her story spoke to me on a more personal level.  She was telling me that other than that one visit, she had never been to Nashville before and she was trying to figure out everything as she went along.  I completely empathize with that because I went through the same thing at her age.  Like her, I was 23 when I made a major change in my life by moving to Chicago to work in the city’s film industry.  I had never been to Chicago before (except for when I was about five), didn’t know a single person in the city, and had no job or school or any other institution like those waiting for me.  It was as fresh of a start as you could get.  It was exhilarating and frightening all at the same time. I remember I had quite a bit of anxiety when I was trying to get settled (the economy was awful at that time), but this girl was expressing absolutely zero worry about such a move.

When I made that move, a lot of my friends were telling me how scary they though that was.  And the reason being is that people these days, especially millennials fresh out of college, just don’t do that anymore.  However, uprooting your life and moving across country with no safety net was not uncommon in generations before mine.  People still do it, but it is far less common.  So, it can be fairly typical for someone to tell you all the reasons why such a change is risky, and it can be discouraging.  While I had some concerns about this girl I was keeping to myself (like the fact she’s moving into a giant mansion owned by a couple that just happens to be in possession of a tour bus owned by the band Alabama), I told her she should go for it and watched her eagerly take notes of the advice I was giving her as someone who had went on a similar journey.  Though, my journey involved a U-Haul and was less like a movie trope than a pretty, young woman hopping on a Greyhound with a suitcase and a guitar.

When the shift ended at 9:30, we were still talking about the trip.  Since I live really close to the school, she came over to chat about it further over whiskey.  Then, I pulled out my guitar and we played a couple of songs together.  It was getting late and she had work in the morning, as did I.  So, she called for an Uber and I wished her luck.  Even though she may not find what she is looking for, she’ll be fine.  When you get that itch, no matter how scary the journey may be or how much uncertainty you may have, you just have to chase that dream.  Or else you’ll regret it.

During our conversation, she was telling me about some of the country music artists she recently discovered that were inspiring her to go on this journey.  One of them, of course, was the country legend Hank Williams. You cannot say you like country music without knowing Hank Williams. And you for sure cannot walk around Nashville without his visage emblazoned somewhere.  His biggest hit, “Hey, Good Lookin’”, recorded in 1951, is a country music staple and, frankly, one of the greatest American songs ever recorded.

We listened to some Hank that evening, though that song didn’t come up.  She was very impressed by the size and variety of the archive that we ended up listening to a whole bunch of different country artists.  I don’t remember much of what was playing because it was primarily in the background as we talked, but this Hank classic seems appropriate for this week’s blog entry primarily for its legendary status in the genre and a reminder of the time I spent in Music City. The Country Music Capital of the World.  Nashville.

“power to the people” – john lennon/plastic ono band (1971)

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Though Donald Trump has only been in office for two years, it has seemed excruciatingly longer than that.  The election cycle for 2016 was brutal as Trump eliminated a whole group of Republicans, one by one, though he was considered a candidate to write off as a joke, his victory in the primaries ensuring a win for the democrats.  That did not happen, and now it is the liberal side of the spectrum struggling to achieve unity within an overcrowded field of democratic presidential hopefuls, debating and arguing over not only who will defeat Trump, but who also represents the diversity of the party’s constituents.  The presidential election is 20 months away, and this dynamic of a seemingly endless parade of candidates is already proving contentious.

Like almost everyone on the planet, I was shocked when Trump won the 2016 election.  After that, I took a step back and began researching what happened.  I read nearly a dozen books, countless editorials, and monitored social media trends to try to find an answer in hopes of getting closure.  All this information about Russian meddling, third party candidates, poor campaigning, and so much more, it was a lot to take and made me feel really uneasy how everything fit together to create this perfect storm that engulfed all Americans.

What I had noticed was the complete lack of accountability from the left. Hillary not winning was because it was someone else’s fault.  It was the Russians for weaponizing social media to undermine our democratic institution.  It was the Bernie Bros for being so militant in their support that they would refuse to vote for Hillary.  It was the Trump supporters who are so comfortable with their racism.  Never mind the fact the democratic party had no platform other than the virtue of not being Trump, it was not their fault.

I was left with the impression that the democratic party has a unity problem.  And the reason behind that is that they suffer from the narcissism of small differences; where the left spends more time tearing each other down over minutiae than they do targeting our ideologically opposed enemies on the fascist right.  It is interesting that lately I have been social media campaigns suggesting “Vote blue, no matter who.” It leaves me feeling rather cynical, which is a feeling I despise, because my thought oscillate between “where were you last time” and “people will throw a tantrum if their candidate doesn’t win.”

This is why the primaries are so important.  This whole “vote blue, no matter who” mentality really only works in the general election, and only if you’re willing to lick your wounds and support the candidate that may have defeated your original choice in the primaries.  And it is the importance we place on the primaries that has made the whole affair so ugly, with people arguing endlessly online over the minutiae between democratic hopefuls.  I applaud their passion and support of their candidate, but you must realize that there is a strong chance you may have to vote for someone else when it comes to the final showdown against Trump.

This primary season has been fascinating to me.  We are still seeing people announcing their candidacy for the presidency, and people being vocal for why they support their preferred candidate.  It can be quite inspiring to see people advocate for their candidate, but it can be downright ugly as well.

I voted for Bernie in the 2016 primaries but voted for Hillary in the general election.  Sanders supporters were upset at perceived corruption within the Democratic National Convention and vocalized that support.  It fueled this public conception of the archetype Berne Bro, a Sanders supporter who is so militant in their advocacy that they negatively affected the election after Sanders’ candidacy ended in concession. Regardless that the Bernie Bro phenomenon is an exaggerated misconception, an idea supported by experts including Malcolm Nance, it seems that the admiration that surrounded Sanders in 2016 is being met with a lot more resistance in 2020 election cycle. And there’s an explanation for that.

In 2016, Sanders was the outlier. Someone on the fringes who had managed to achieve a lot of momentum through grass roots efforts, and really rattled the cages of the democratic establishment.  Sanders was fresh and exciting, and top brass in the party took note.  Now, as we enter the 2020 election cycle, presidential hopefuls are looking to capitalize on that Bernie momentum from 2016 which has shifted the establishment party to the left.  Now, you have a whole bunch of candidates who are campaigning on the platforms and ideas that have become popular since Sanders’ run in 2016.

This ideologically shift in the democratic party has ignited a peculiar debate, one exacerbated by the coverage on both traditional and social media; that people just don’t want Bernie Sanders anymore that that we have so many other candidates to choose from who share the same ideals.  I’m now seeing editorials and posts from friends to support candidates who are younger, ethnically diverse, and not a man. Now that there are candidates who are not old white men who say the same things as Sanders, an actual old white man, we can now find a candidate who reflects America’s growing diversity.

I think that kind of thinking is valid, and some of the candidates are admirable, but I’m not going to risk Trump getting a second term by playing identity politics with my vote in 2020. In the primaries, Sanders will have my vote.  And he’ll have my vote purely on the facts that he has been consistent in his views for several decades.  I like many of the candidates who are campaigning right now, and I find it inspiring that we have more women and people of color running for the highest office in the land.  However, many of these candidates have taken millions in corporate dollars and have sketchy voting histories.  If push comes to shove and one of these candidates become the democratic party’s nominee, I’ll vote for them.  However, in the primaries, I’m not letting identity politics stop me from supporting the old white guy candidate who has been consistent throughout his entire career.

Last night, I attended a presidential rally for Bernie Sanders at Navy Pier.  Thousands of people were there, and the energy was absolutely fantastic. The guest speakers were passionate, inspiring, and reflected the diversity of Sanders’ supporters.  Speakers included a renowned West Chicago poet, a young organizer from a Logan Square youth organization, one of Bernie’s former classmates, and one of the co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

When Sanders spoke, he reflected on his life’s work fighting for racial, income, and environmental equality.  Specifically advocating for things like an end to police violence, a $15/hour federal minimum wage, and real initiatives to slow down and reverse the devastating effects of climate change. I was certainly inspired by his words, and I cannot believe that people can be so cynical about a candidate just because he is older and white, especially when they support the ideals he campaigns on.  I know we want someone who looks and sounds different.  However, we are in the midst of an existential crisis in this country, and our biggest goal is to defeat Donald Trump.  And Sanders has garnered more money ad support than any other candidate, and that’s why his opponents are so loud and vocal. They’re afraid he will succeed.

The music at campaign rallies can be kind of monotonous.  They are powerful in their messaging and what they represent, but tend to lose meaning when you hear them all the time and they become nothing more than an election trope.  “Power to the People” by John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” is one of those songs.  Released as a single in 1971 during the sessions that would produce Lennon’s Imagine album (though this song would not be included), Sanders walked onto the stage to this liberal anthem. And I really felt excited by that.  Sure, it has been overplayed a lot of places.  Much of Lennon’s music is overplayed.  However, I really felt moved by the song last night, and that is a reflection of the context in which I heard the song.  It felt powerful because when it comes to Bernie, it isn’t just a trope.  The song means what it says, because Bernie means what he says.