“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Justice Fascism:” A Comedy-Drama in Four Acts

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Cast of Characters:

Actress Lillian Gish
Producer/Director D.W. Griffith
Bowling Green State University administrator (“Mr. Gobsmack”)
Black Lives Matter (BLM) representative
Black Student Union (BSU) representative
Two anonymous soldiers

ACT 1
February 8, 1915: The Birth of a Nation premieres in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.

Lillian Gish: “I don’t know, Mr. Griffith, this moving picture could cause trouble.”

D.W. Griffith: “Oh, come now, Miss Lillian. Just because it depicts the Ku Klux Klan as saviors? This is 1915 and no one cares. Who in Robert E. Lee’s name is this ‘Jim Crow’ fellow anyway? Besides, it’s not my fault…it’s the guy who wrote the book.”

Lillian Gish: “Well, despite the unusual interpretation of history, it is an awe-inspiring achievement. Critics are already calling it a motion picture landmark. It’s a shame sound hasn’t been invented yet, so people would be able to hear my voice.”

D.W. Griffith: “And Lil, you’ve done so well in Birth, I would like you to appear in my next epic project.”

Lillian Gish: “Mr. Griffith! Thank you! My friends back in Ohio will be so thrilled! What is the title?”

D.W. Griffith: “I’m calling it Intolerance.”

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ACT 2
June 11, 1976: The GISH FILM THEATRE is dedicated at Bowling Green State University in northwest Ohio, U.S.A.

Bowling Green administrator: “…And in this glorious two-hundredth year since our nation’s birth, we humbly dedicate this new theatre to two of Ohio’s own, legendary actresses Lillian and Dorothy Gish, for their combined 136 years on stage and screen!”

(loud applause)

Lillian Gish: “Thank you, Mr. Gobsmack. I accept this elegant honor in honor of my late sister and myself. Dorothy was a better actress than I, and I only wish she, and mother, could be here to bask in this lovely moment.”

Bowling Green administrator: “And tomorrow we will be presenting you with the honorary degree of Doctor of Performing Arts!”

(more loud applause)

Lillian Gish: “Dear me, you are all so very kind. I have never been a doctor before. By the way, can everyone out there hear my voice?”

ACT 3
February 2019: Black Lives Matter approaches Black Student Union at Bowling Green State University

BLM representative: “Put your smartphone down, brother. We gotta remove another intimidating and hostile name. We’ve been spendin’ time researchin’. Do you know who Lillian Gish is?”

BSU representative: “Uh…doesn’t she have a cooking show?”

BLM representative: “No! She was a white actress from Ohio! Did a bunch of silent films! She was in that film Birth of a Nation!”

BSU representative: “Huh? You mean that racist Civil War movie with Cary Grant?”

BLM representative: “No! You’re thinking Gone With the Wind, and the actor was Clark Gable! (But don’t worry, that movie is next on our agenda.) No, I’m talkin’ ’bout a 1915 film dealing with Reconstruction where the KKK is a hero!”kkk

BSU representative: “Damn! And she acted in that shit?! Yeah, we need to wipe out another name, like Wisconsin did last year with Fredric March. I’m now intimidated by that hostility!”

BLM representative: “Good, glad you agree. Get with those university trustees and tell them to wipe that intimidating and hostile Gish name offa that theatre.”

BSU representative: “Got it covered. And I guarantee it’ll be a 7-0 vote in favor of wiping.  No American college official these days wants to risk being labelled racist. We can’t tolerate our university having a performing arts theatre named after a legendary actress from Ohio who had the intolerance to appear in a racist film 104 years ago. We will wipe!”

BLM representative: “Cool. Her sister Dorothy wasn’t in any racist films that our people can determine—yet—but she doesn’t have a voice in this. This is 2019 and no one cares that her name will also be…uh…whitewashed. Anyway, she was friends with that Griffith guy!”

ACT 4 (Epilogue)
July 3, 2063: Somewhere on a field strikingly similar to Cemetery Ridge near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

First soldier: “I think this battle could be the turning point in the war.”

Second soldier: “You could be right. Finally, the end of political correctness.”

First soldier: “Yep. You don’t need to correct anything when there’s nothing left to correct.”

(fade out)

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Book Talk: Harper Lee and John Densmore

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This is an unlikely pairing of authors, I’ll admit. A Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a ‘60s rock drummer?? But each has a couple interesting books in the news, so I’d like to talk about them.

First, Harper Lee. She is, of course, the celebrated author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I’d rank this book in the Top 10 of American novels (and the film, starring Gregory Peck, is just as good). It’s a semi-autobiographical tale of how three children lose their innocence during the Jim Crow era in an isolated Alabama town (think moonshine, racial violence, rural poverty and weirdness… classic Southern Gothic stuff). “Mockingbird” was darkly compelling, alternately grotesque and transcendent, and it took America by firestorm when it was published in 1960.mockingbird book

But Lee was never comfortable as a celebrity, and she disappeared from public view long ago – not unlike her ghostly character Arthur “Boo” Radley. She never wrote another book.

However, this week the 88-year-old was pulled into the spotlight when news of a second book by her appeared. It’s called “Go Set a Watchman,” and Lee actually penned it before “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It deals with the main character, Scout. But instead of being a young tomboy, Scout’s a mature woman who revisits her hometown to visit her father, Atticus Finch (the Christ-like hero of “Mockingbird”). Lee intended this book to be her debut, but her editor wisely convinced her to instead focus on a story dealing with flashbacks to Scout’s youth. The result was “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The announcement of the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” has been met with skepticism and criticism. Was Lee pressured to authorize the release? Did the recent death of Lee’s elder sister Alice, who was her firewall against public scrutiny, influence the publication? Will the book, a fledgling attempt by an amateur writer whose editor shelved it, tarnish Lee’s legacy?

Times have changed since 1960. At one time, books – good, bad, or indifferent – were honored upon their release with insightful opinion by knowledgeable literary reviewers. But as one New York Times writer noted, “Internet culture, where a one-star Goodreads review by a 14-year-old can be as persuasive to some as a book critic’s 1,200-word newspaper essay, has leveled the field.”

Harper Lee is from the “old school.” In 2006, she famously emerged from seclusion and wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey about her fascination with books when she was a child.

Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.

I’m with you, Ms. Lee.

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“To Kill a Mockingbird” came out in 1960. Five years later, two UCLA film students joined two Maharishi adherents and formed a band called The Doors. They released one of the most phenomenal rock music albums in history. This musical debut was just as darkly compelling and powerful as Harper Lee’s literary debut.

I’m a big fan of The Doors. I bought their eponymous first record after my freshman year in college (summer of 1978). It was just before a huge Doors revival, which was ignited by publication of singer Jim Morrison’s sordid biography “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” the spoken poetry album “An American Prayer,” and the movie “Apocalypse Now,” which featured the band’s music.

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I liked everything about the band. Morrison’s looks and voice intrigued me (and to be honest, his mysterious early death). And as an impressionable and introspective English student, his Blake and Nietzsche-inspired song lyrics also appealed to me. But I especially liked the music. Clever, tight arrangements. Moody vocals. Ray Manzarek’s Tin Pan Alley keyboards. John Densmore’s creative jazz percussion. And guitarist Robbie Krieger had penned perhaps my all-time favorite song, “Light My Fire,” a stoned psychedelic classic that sent shivers through my tiny frame when I first heard it on the radio in 1967.

Today, I occasionally jump on the nostalgia train and pull out one of my old Doors records. Only recently I learned that drummer John Densmore had self-published a book in 2013: “The Doors: Unhinged.” Most of the stuff I’d already read about Morrison and the band I considered sensationalized junk. But I did sort of like Densmore’s earlier book, “Riders on the Storm,” a confessional memoir about his rocky relationship with the mercurial Morrison. So I decided to look into “Unhinged.”

The subtitle of the book is “Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial.” And as I soon learned, this legacy literally went on trial, because Densmore actually took his two surviving bandmates to court. These shenanigans are nothing new. unhingedMembers of rock bands have been squabbling in court ever since The Beatles crumbled. But usually it’s a fight over royalty payments. What makes Densmore’s legal battle unique is that he was fighting not to make money. Yes, you heard right.

In 2002, Manzarek and Krieger teamed to form The Doors of the 21st Century, a band devoted to resurrecting old Doors songs. Problem was, all of the advertisements displayed “of the 21st Century” in microscopic print! Also, Morrison’s name was frequently invoked to advertise the band – without his permission, of course.

Densmore contacted Krieger to complain that his and Manzarek’s actions stank of exploitation. But Manzarek and Krieger persisted. Densmore managed to enlist the help of Morrison’s family (including Morrison’s elderly father, George Stephen Morrison, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy), and they filed a lawsuit. This book discusses the long trial, which at one point resorted to the seedy and timeworn tactic of character assassination.

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The short-lived Doors of the 21st Century. L-R: Manzarek, Ian Astbury, Krieger, Stewart Copeland (ex-Police)

But there’s a larger theme to Densmore’s book. Densmore asks “How much money is enough?” for people who are already wealthy. He discusses what he calls the “greed gene,” which propels some individuals and corporations to amass and hoard ungodly amounts of money, while others struggle to eke out a living.

Of course, Densmore’s not a scientist or economist, and he uses the term “greed gene” only in a rhetorical sense. And this book won’t win a Pulitzer Prize. But it’s refreshing because, despite being a wealthy rock musician, Densmore comes across as an “everyman,” and an unlikely crusader. You don’t often hear rock stars turning down easy money to stand on principle. But the man backs up what he says.

Case in point: as the trial progressed, Manzarek and Krieger countersued Densmore for refusing to co-sign a contract with Cadillac, who wanted to use the Doors song “Break on Through” for a TV commercial. Densmore was the only one of the three to balk (“What’s next,” he asks, “’Break on Through’ to a new deodorant??”). He didn’t want to cheapen the band’s legacy, nor the integrity of one of their strongest songs. In the process, he showed how much integrity and strength he has: the Cadillac deal would’ve grossed the band $15 million!

Recent photo of Doors drummer John Densmore

Recent photo of Doors drummer John Densmore

But what does the “legacy” of Jim Morrison have to do with all this? According to Densmore, when Morrison was alive the band was approached by Buick, who wanted to use “Light My Fire” in one of their commercials. The other three were all eager to sign. But the Lizard King nixed the idea. He also insisted the band share equally in the song copyrights, and added a clause to their contract that each of the members had veto power. In true Sixties, hippie counterculture fashion, he wanted the band to be a self-contained democracy. No dictators, no power plays, no selling out to corporate America. The music would take precedence over the money. Sort of a rare thing these days, don’t you think?

One could argue that all this was just pie-in-the-sky idealism. After all, another part of Morrison’s legacy was anarchy and self-destruction. But the fact that Densmore still lives by the band’s original credo is, to me, admirable. Yes, the hippies made mistakes. Many were hangers-on, young hedonists merely latching onto fashion. But Densmore believes the Sixties also planted a lot of seeds, some little and some big, and many of them are now in full bloom… or, if not, they just need a little fertilizing to help them grow. He urges all of us to get out our “watering cans.”

Like Harper Lee, John Densmore is also “old school.” Which is fine by me.

By the way, he won the court case.

 

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A Chill in Mississippi, 1964: The Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner Murders

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Summer nights in rural Mississippi can be oppressively hot. The heat makes your skin stick to your clothes. Unfolding your arms and legs is like pulling Scotch tape from your skin. You always seem to be thirsty.

The Mississippi woods are filled with noise at night. As soon as the sun sets, the crickets and bullfrogs begin a loud, rhythmic chant. The sounds continue unabated for hours, long into the dark, until just before sunrise.

On the night of June 21, 1964, three young men drove a Ford station wagon through rural Mississippi. By sunrise they lay dead, buried like field compost by their killers. One can only wonder at the agonizing fright they experienced in the minutes before they were murdered. Did they smell the alcohol on their killers’ breath? Did they have an inkling of their fate?

Perhaps, by the time the shots finally rang out, they actually welcomed death.

What happened to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner on the night of June 21-22, 1964, at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), was horrific, and their brutal deaths shocked the nation. The racially motivated crimes were just several of thousands of beatings, lynchings, and shootings which had been occurring in the Deep South since slavery ended. But it was their deaths 50 years ago that sparked a firestorm of outrage which finally helped eradicate the state-sponsored, legalized racism known as Jim Crow.

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Other than being white males, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had little in common with their killers. They were educated, Jewish, and from New York. Goodman had been a classmate of singer Paul Simon at Queens College. “Mickey” Schwerner was an experienced social worker and had attended Michigan State, Cornell, and Columbia University graduate school. As a boy he’d befriended Robert Reich, later U.S. Secretary of Labor, and protected him from bullies. Members of the civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Schwerner and Goodman had volunteered during the Freedom Summer project to encourage Southern blacks to register to vote.

The third, James Chaney, was also a member of CORE. He started volunteering in 1962 when he signed up as a Freedom Rider, traveling on interstate buses in the South to fight segregation. He also organized voter education classes, and had recently introduced Schwerner to black congregants of a Baptist church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where Schwerner hoped to set up a voter education drive.

Chaney did have something in common with his murderers: he hailed from a small town in Mississippi (Meridian). But, unlike them, his skin was black.

On Memorial Day 1964, Schwerner and Chaney met at Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi. They talked to the audience about setting up a Freedom School for blacks. A very different audience, an aggressive wing of the KKK known as the White Knights, later heard about the talk. Doing what they did so well – spreading hatred and terrorism – the White Knights decided to set fire to the church. After the burning, Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman traveled from Meridian to Longdale to view the church’s charred remains, and also to reassure local blacks.

On June 21 they began the return journey to Meridian.

But early in the evening of June 21, a tire on their station wagon went flat in the town of Philadelphia. This stroke of bad luck enabled the Neshoba County cops to jail them on a trumped up charge of speeding. The threesome were eventually released, but they were refused permission to make their legally permissible one phone call. Worse, by the time they started on the road again, a mob of about 18 members of the White Knights had formed. The mob included the so-called protectors of law and order – the police – as well as a so-called minister. They’d heard about these three CORE workers stirring up trouble around Neshoba County. One of the Knights referred to them as representatives of a “nigger-communist invasion of Mississippi.” [Don Whitehead (September 1970). “Murder in Mississippi.” Reader’s Digest: 194.]

Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner left the Neshoba County Jail at about 10 pm. It was dark. The crickets and bullfrogs had begun their nighttime chorus.

Later testimony revealed they initially traveled south along highway 19. They were hoping to reach Meridian without further incident. For some reason, however, they turned westward onto highway 492. Maybe they’d made a wrong turn.

Or maybe they were trying to elude the headlights behind them.

(continued)

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The March on Washington

50 years

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Wednesday, August 28 is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  The 1963 gathering at the Washington D.C. mall was one of the largest rallies for human rights in history.  Most of us associate it with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered (supposedly impromptu) in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  It’s perhaps the most celebrated speech in America after Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, memorable not only for its noble precepts, but the oratorical power and grace of its deliverer.

The march was conceived as a rally for jobs, specifically better job opportunities for African Americans.  Through the influence of civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, both of whom in the 1940s had pressured President Roosevelt to end discrimination in the U.S. military, it evolved into a mass protest for civil rights.

Originally it was conceived of as a march for jobs, but as 1963 progressed, with the Birmingham demonstrations, the assassination of Medgar Evers and the introduction of the Civil Rights Act by President Kennedy, it became clear that it had to be a march for jobs and freedom.

(Rachelle Horowitz, aide to Bayard Rustin, from Smithsonian Magazine article “A Change is Gonna Come”)

Until the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, blacks had been oppressed under the stasis of “Jim Crow” statutory legislation – essentially, legalized bigotry and segregation, mainly in the Southern states.  The March on Washington was intended to publicize these injustices nationally.  It ultimately drew 250,000 people, both blacks and whites, and included luminaries like singers Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary; actors Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, and Ossie Davis; and comedian/activist Dick Gregory.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Although there was a large contingency of police, there was no violence.  According to Julian Bond, then communications director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Dr. King’s speech was the centerpiece:

When Dr. King spoke, he commanded the attention of everybody there.  His speech, with his slow, slow cadence at first and then picking up speed and going faster and faster… you saw what a magnificent speechmaker he was, and you knew something important was happening.

Andrew Young, aide to King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), recalls that the march helped broaden the civil rights struggle by illuminating exactly why blacks down South were being beaten, hosed, and even murdered: these weren’t rabble-rousers, but non-violent men, women and children trying to gain some dignity and basic human rights:

(News reports) didn’t say they put the dogs on us because (we) were trying to register to vote.  That never came through.  Or (we) were in places trying to apply for jobs and they ran (us) out with dogs and fire hoses.  Everybody had a 90-second view of the movement from the 6 o’clock news.  And (the march) gave (us) an opportunity, especially in Martin’s speech, to put it in the context.

After the march, organizers met President Kennedy at the door of the Oval Office where, according to John Lewis, chairman of SNCC and now a 13-term Georgia congressman, “He greeted each one of us, shook each of our hands like a beaming, proud father.”

Over the last 50 years, civil rights have come a long way.  Today, minorities and women have unprecedented economic and political clout.  But the human rights movement is forever pushing against those who would denigrate and deprive people living on society’s fringes.  One can still see it in those 90-second bits on the 6 o’clock news:  state constitutions banning same-sex marriage and unions; xenophobic congressmen stonewalling against immigration reform; the Supreme Court striking down sections of the Voting Rights Act; red states engaged in redistricting and devising creative, new, illogical barriers to voting.

But the March on Washington is proof that, when enough oppressed people organize and loudly proclaim “We have our rights!,” society can progress just a little.

(quotations courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine, July issue)

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March organizers meeting President John F. Kennedy