Why LGBT people fear Trump could erase our history

We must protect the Stonewall Inn:

The LGBT community has been quietly under attack by the White House since Trump took office

The Stonewall Inn’s status as a national landmark may be at risk following Donald Trump’s plans to review all sites similarly designated by his presidential predecessor

The Salt Lake Tribune has reported that Trump will sign an executive order Wednesday calling on federal authorities to revisit all such designations made in the previous two decades in order to “discern whether their size and scope” are within the original “intent” of the Antiquities Act of 1906. Established under Teddy Roosevelt, the law lets the president use the powers of his office to preserve any “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects” deemed of “historic or scientific interest.”

One of the 29 landmarks subject to review by the Trump Administration is the Stonewall Inn, which President Barack Obama designated as a national monument last year. Revoking the landmark status of Stonewall, the site of the 1969 riots that marked a groundbreaking moment for the nascent gay liberation movement, would amount to the ultimate erasure of a community that has been quietly under attack by the White House since Trump’s inauguration. The president has spent his first 100 days relentlessly rolling back the rights of LGBT people, even as he has insisted that he’s a champion for queer and transgender equality.

Stonewall is more than just a bar. It’s a symbol for the crucial progress that the LGBT community has made over the past five decades, as well as a reminder that we still must struggle to be seen as human in a country where queer and trans folks continue to be killed for living our truths. To take Stonewall’s landmark status away would be more than an erasure of LGBT people. It would be assault upon the very foundations of our movement.

The recognition of Stonewall’s historical import came at a devastating time for the LGBT community. Obama announced that the iconic establishment, located in New York’s Greenwich Village, would be added to the monuments list following the June 12 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, in which a lone gunman killed 49 people. In a speech following the gay bar massacre, Obama remarked that Pulse had been a “safe haven” for the LGBT community. He said that the club was “a place to sing and dance, and most importantly, to be who you truly are.”

That is the purpose that bars have always served for LGBT people, as places to organize and build community but also to have the fullness of our identities recognized. The Stonewall riots, violence that erupted during a six-day standoff with police in June 1969, marked a watershed moment in the willingness of LGBT folks to fight for our visibility and our right to exist. The riots were a response to frequent police raids of gay bars across the country — disruptions that had provoked a similar demonstration at Los Angeles’ Black Cat Tavern two years earlier. That pervasive police brutality was a staple of gay life in the 1960s — with queer people being beaten and thrown into jail for doing nothing more than being themselves. And they had had enough.

Although LGBT folks had been organizing for decades, Stonewall forced a community that spent most of its history underground out into the open. The demonstration was commemorated the following year with the nation’s first Pride parades, but Stonewall would continue to serve as a symbolic site to which LGBT people returned for decades to come — in celebration, struggle and even mourning. It was the site where marriage equality activists cheered the legalization of same-sex unions in 2015, where we remembered the Pulse victims a year later, and where a community gathered in shock and sadness following the 2016 election. Last November crowds gathered outside Stonewall as the LGBT community struggled to figure out what was next.

Speculation that Trump will take action against Stonewall might seem to you like knee-jerk liberal outrage, and perhaps it is. We have no way of knowing what’s on the president’s agenda. But Trump has given the LGBT community every reason to be concerned that he will continue to do everything in his power to be applauded for being an ally while quietly working against our welfare.

During the 2016 election, Trump claimed he would be a “friend” to the LGBT community, but his administration has represented the greatest setback to queer and trans rights in decades. Shortly after taking office, the president announced that he would be revoking guidance issued by the Obama White House in 2016 on best practices for K-12 administrators in regard to respecting the identities of trans students. Although he has claimed he will not repeal a 2014 executive order that granted nondiscrimination protection to federal contractors, Trump has nixed oversight of those regulations, making the Obama order difficult to enforce.

Trump has done almost nothing to show the LGBT community he would be the defender of our rights that he claimed he would be. Under his watch, the government revoked questions about elderly LGBT people on two federal surveys, making it harder to gauge the needs of a marginalized and vulnerable population. Studies show that older LGBT adults are twice as likely as their peers to be single and live alone, as well as three to four times less likely than heterosexuals to have children to take care of them and offer support. This population needs our advocacy, not more isolation and invisibility.

That’s precisely what many fear is happening under the current presidency — that Trump is not only chipping away at LGBT rights but also erasing queer and trans people from public life.

It’s impossible not to feel that way when every single day Trump gives the LGBT community, which has weathered decades of struggle, a reason to be fear that his White House is no different from the police officers who kicked down the doors of Stonewall in the 1960s. Nearly every member of his Cabinet is a committed opponent of LGBT rights. This includes the secretary of state, who tried to block an LGBT student group from meeting on a public campus, as well as the secretary of education, whose family has donated millions to anti-gay causes. Most recently, Trump nominated as secretary of the Army,Mark Green, a Tennessee state senator who claimed that transgender people are “evil” and need to be “crushed.”

The president’s stripping Stonewall of its landmark status might appear to some to be an outrageous and absurd suggestion, but it would be no different than what happens on any other day in Trump’s White House. He might have waved a rainbow flag one time at a rally, but that doesn’t mean that the president cares one iota about what our community needs, wants or deserves.

If there’s one thing that could stop Trump from repealing Stonewall’s place among U.S. national monuments, it’s not his deep and abiding love for “the gays,” his preferred moniker for the community. It’s the limits of presidential power.

Robert D. Rosenbaum, the chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of the National Parks Conservation Association, wrote in The Washington Post that the president has the power only to make a particular site a recognized landmark, not to revoke the designation of previously recognized locations. Although members of Congress who want Trump to revisit designations like those for Utah’s Bears Ears Monument and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (both Obama picks) assert that he has “implied power” to take them off the registry, Rosenbaum has claimed the president does not. That power, Rosenbaum said, is allotted “exclusively to Congress.”

Stonewall, as it has for decades, will likely withstand this latest challenge to the LGBT community. But its future should be protected from people like Trump, who are the very reason that we must keep fighting for our liberty and our very right to exist. Our history is too important to erase.

 

http://www.salon.com/2017/04/26/we-must-protect-the-stonewall-inn-why-lgbt-people-fear-trump-could-erase-our-history/?source=newsletter

New Behind-the-Scenes Book Brutalizes the Clinton Campaign

‘Shattered,’ a campaign tell-all fueled by anonymous sources, outlines a generational political disaster

A new book by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes examines what went wrong during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Justin Sullivan/Getty

There is a critical scene in Shattered, the new behind-the-scenes campaign diary by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, in which staffers in the Hillary Clinton campaign begin to bicker with one another.  At the end of Chapter One, which is entirely about that campaign’s exhausting and fruitless search for a plausible explanation for why Hillary was running, writers Allen and Parnes talk about the infighting problem.

“All of the jockeying might have been all right, but for a root problem that confounded everyone on the campaign and outside it,” they wrote. “Hillary had been running for president for almost a decade and still didn’t really have a rationale.”

Allen and Parnes here quoted a Clinton aide who jokingly summed up Clinton’s real motivation:

“I would have had a reason for running,” one of her top aides said, “or I wouldn’t have run.”

The beleaguered Clinton staff spent the better part of two years trying to roll this insane tautology – “I have a reason for running because no one runs without a reason” – into the White House. It was a Beltway take on the classic Descartes formulation: “I seek re-election, therefore I am… seeking re-election.”

Shattered is sourced almost entirely to figures inside the Clinton campaign who were and are deeply loyal to Clinton. Yet those sources tell of a campaign that spent nearly two years paralyzed by simple existential questions: Why are we running? What do we stand for?

If you’re wondering what might be the point of rehashing this now, the responsibility for opposing Donald Trump going forward still rests with the (mostly anonymous) voices described in this book.

What Allen and Parnes captured in Shattered was a far more revealing portrait of the Democratic Party intelligentsia than, say, the WikiLeaks dumps. And while the book is profoundly unflattering to Hillary Clinton, the problem it describes really has nothing to do with Secretary Clinton.

The real protagonist of this book is a Washington political establishment that has lost the ability to explain itself or its motives to people outside the Beltway.

In fact, it shines through in the book that the voters’ need to understand why this or that person is running for office is viewed in Washington as little more than an annoying problem.

In the Clinton run, that problem became such a millstone around the neck of the campaign that staffers began to flirt with the idea of sharing the uninspiring truth with voters. Stumped for months by how to explain why their candidate wanted to be president, Clinton staffers began toying with the idea of seeing how “Because it’s her turn” might fly as a public rallying cry.

This passage describes the mood inside the campaign early in the Iowa race (emphasis mine):

“There wasn’t a real clear sense of why she was in it. Minus that, people want to assign their own motivations – at the very best, a politician who thinks it’s her turn,” one campaign staffer said. “It was true and earnest, but also received well. We were talking to Democrats, who largely didn’t think she was evil.”

Our own voters “largely” don’t think your real reason for running for president is evil qualified as good news in this book. The book is filled with similar scenes of brutal unintentional comedy.

In May of 2015, as Hillary was planning her first major TV interview – an address the campaign hoped would put to rest criticism Hillary was avoiding the press over the burgeoning email scandal – communications chief Jennifer Palmieri asked Huma Abedin to ask Hillary who she wanted to conduct the interview. (There are a lot of these games of “telephone” in the book, as only a tiny group of people had access to the increasingly secretive candidate.)

The answer that came back was that Hillary wanted to do the interview with “Brianna.” Palmieri took this to mean CNN’s Brianna Keilar, and worked to set up the interview, which aired on July 7th of that year.

Unfortunately, Keilar was not particularly gentle in her conduct of the interview. Among other things, she asked Hillary questions like, “Would you vote for someone you didn’t trust?” An aide describes Hillary as “staring daggers” at Keilar. Internally, the interview was viewed as a disaster.

It turns out now it was all a mistake. Hillary had not wanted Brianna Keilar as an interviewer, but Bianna Golodryga of Yahoo! News, an excellent interviewer in her own right, but also one who happens to be the spouse of longtime Clinton administration aide Peter Orszag.

This “I said lunch, not launch!” slapstick mishap underscored for the Clinton campaign the hazards of venturing one millimeter outside the circle of trust. In one early conference call with speechwriters, Clinton sounded reserved:

“Though she was speaking with a small group made up mostly of intimates, she sounded like she was addressing a roomful of supporters – inhibited by the concern that whatever she said might be leaked to the press.”

This traced back to 2008, a failed run that the Clintons had concluded was due to the disloyalty and treachery of staff and other Democrats. After that race, Hillary had aides create “loyalty scores” (from one for most loyal, to seven for most treacherous) for members of Congress. Bill Clinton since 2008 had “campaigned against some of the sevens” to “help knock them out of office,” apparently to purify the Dem ranks heading into 2016.

Beyond that, Hillary after 2008 conducted a unique autopsy of her failed campaign. This reportedly included personally going back and reading through the email messages of her staffers:

“She instructed a trusted aide to access the campaign’s server and download the messages sent and received by top staffers. … She believed her campaign had failed her – not the other way around – and she wanted ‘to see who was talking to who, who was leaking to who,’ said a source familiar with the operation.”

Some will say this Nixonesque prying into her staff’s communications will make complaints about leaked emails ring a little hollow.

Who knows about that. Reading your employees’ emails isn’t nearly the same as having an outsider leak them all over the world. Still, such a criticism would miss the point, which is that Hillary was looking in the wrong place for a reason for her 2008 loss. That she was convinced her staff was at fault makes sense, as Washington politicians tend to view everything through an insider lens.

Most don’t see elections as organic movements within populations of millions, but as dueling contests of “whip-smart” organizers who know how to get the cattle to vote the right way. If someone wins an election, the inevitable Beltway conclusion is that the winner had better puppeteers.

The Clinton campaign in 2016, for instance, never saw the Bernie Sanders campaign as being driven by millions of people who over the course of decades had become dissatisfied with the party. They instead saw one cheap stunt pulled by an illegitimate back-bencher, foolishness that would be ended if Sanders himself could somehow be removed.

“Bill and Hillary had wanted to put [Sanders] down like a junkyard dog early on,” Allen and Parnes wrote. The only reason they didn’t, they explained, was an irritating chance problem: Sanders “was liked,” which meant going negative would backfire.

Hillary had had the same problem with Barack Obama, with whom she and her husband had elected to go heavily negative in 2008, only to see that strategy go very wrong. “It boomeranged,” as it’s put in Shattered.

The Clinton campaign was convinced that Obama won in 2008 not because he was a better candidate, or buoyed by an electorate that was disgusted with the Iraq War. Obama won, they believed, because he had a better campaign operation – i.e., better Washingtonian puppeteers. In The Right Stuff terms, Obama’s Germans were better than Hillary’s Germans.

They were determined not to make the same mistake in 2016. Here, the thought process of campaign chief Robby Mook is described:

“Mook knew that Hillary viewed almost every early decision through a 2008 lens: she thought almost everything her own campaign had done was flawed and everything Obama’s had done was pristine.”

Since Obama had spent efficiently and Hillary in 2008 had not, this led to spending cutbacks in the 2016 race in crucial areas, including the hiring of outreach staff in states like Michigan. This led to a string of similarly insane self-defeating decisions. As the book puts it, the “obsession with efficiency had come at the cost of broad voter contact in states that would become important battlegrounds.”

If the ending to this story were anything other than Donald Trump being elected president, Shattered would be an awesome comedy, like a Kafka novel – a lunatic bureaucracy devouring itself. But since the ending is the opposite of funny, it will likely be consumed as a cautionary tale.

Shattered is what happens when political parties become too disconnected from their voters. Even if you think the election was stolen, any Democrat who reads this book will come away believing he or she belongs to a party stuck in a profound identity crisis. Trump or no Trump, the Democrats need therapy – and soon.

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/taibbi-on-the-new-book-that-brutalizes-the-clinton-campaign-w477978

Obama lives it up in the lap of luxury

By Niles Niemuth
18 April 2017

Photographs published over the weekend show former US President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama in the lap of luxury, frolicking in Tahiti on holiday with rock musician Bruce Springsteen, Hollywood star Tom Hanks and media tycoon Oprah Winfrey on the Rising Sun, a super-yacht owned by billionaire entertainment magnate David Geffen.

The response from the entertainment press to the brief glimpse into the Obama’s lavish getaway was unabashedly glowing: “American Royalty Gathered in the South Pacific” gushed Vanity Fair, “Barack and Michelle Obama Are Hanging Out With Oprah, Tom Hanks, and Bruce Springsteen on a Yacht,” squealed New York Magazine.

Geffen’s superyacht The Rising Sun in 2006

All of those among the aristocratic coterie who gathered around Obama on the world’s sixth largest motor yacht are either multi-millionaires or billionaires. Oprah has an estimated net worth of $3.1 billion; Hanks has a net worth of $350 million; Springsteen, with a net worth of $345 million, had an income of $60.5 million in 2016.

Geffen, an early backer of then Senator Obama’s campaign for the presidency in 2007, is among the richest people in the world, with an estimated net worth of $6.5 billion, placing him in the highest echelons of the top 0.01 percent.

The former president has spent much of the first three months since he left office in January hobnobbing with the elite of the elite. In February the Obamas traveled with an entourage of 100 secret service agents and aides to British billionaire Richard Branson’s private Caribbean island.

While the Obamas’ combined net worth, estimated at a measly $24 million, pales in comparison to their travel companions, the 44th president and his wife have wasted no time in cashing in on his eight years in the White House, which saw a stock market boom and record corporate profits, making the already fabulously wealthy even richer.

A $65 million deal announced in February for two books from the couple is only an initial down payment for services rendered. It is expected that they could earn nearly $300 million off of book deals, speeches and pensions.

This is not the end of the former president’s earning potential. He will have help from his wealthy friends in his efforts to become one of the wealthiest ex-presidents in American history. Billionaire director Steven Spielberg has been working with Obama to develop a “narrative” for his life post-presidency.

Those overseeing the construction and operation of the Obama presidential library and foundation have set a fundraising floor of $800 million for the center, which will be built on Chicago’s Southside.

In the waning days of his presidency, Obama openly fantasized about the possibility of joining the highly profitable world of professional sports and taking part ownership of a professional basketball team, something well within the realm of possibility given his wealth and connections. If he decides to go this route, Obama would join other celebrity NBA team owners like Michael Jordan and Mark Cuban, both billionaires. One should not be surprised to someday see an Obama-branded Nike high-top shoe.

While there never was a golden age—many presidents, including George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR and JFK were quite wealthy—things have come a long way. Thomas Jefferson had to sell his personal library to pay off his creditors. Visitors could walk up to the door of Harry S. Truman’s home in Independence, Missouri and share tea with the former president and his wife, Bess.

Today, the former president vacations at exclusive $3,000-a-night Tahitian resorts and travels the world on the yachts and private jets of billionaires. The Obamas are paying $22,000 a month to rent a “quasi-mansion” in the exclusive Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, DC. They will share a neighborhood with billionaire President Donald Trump’s multi-millionaire daughter and son-in-law and chief advisers, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, as well as billionaire Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

While always a bastion of corruption, there is a new and distinctive odor emanating from the White House and the halls of Congress. Extreme wealth is not only the outcome of holding public office, it has in fact become the rule for holding office; most Congressmen are now millionaires.

Those who hold office, and the corporate executives at whose pleasure they serve, live in a separate world from the vast majority of Americans. They have access to the best medical care the world has to offer; can skip humiliating security screenings at the airport and fly first class or in private jets without fear of being dragged off the plane; eat the best food; and drive or get driven in the most expensive cars.

The presidency and a spot in the administration are seen as tickets to even greater wealth. Filled with billionaires and multi-millionaires from the outset, the Trump administration has taken this process to its logical conclusion. Trump and his associates no doubt see their time in the White House as a shrewd business maneuver and expect to follow in the footsteps of the Obamas.

WSWS

Bob Dylan’s prophecy: The kryptonite we need against Trumpism

Let’s get past the stupid Nobel debates: Dylan is not just a great poet, but a prophet whose genius can sustain us

Bob Dylan’s prophecy: The kryptonite we need against Trumpism
Donald Trump; Bob Dylan (Credit: AP/Getty/Ben Stansall/Salon)

Two weeks ago, Bob Dylan accepted the Nobel Prize in person; true to form, he did so not at the December ceremony (where Patti Smith performed in his stead), but during a previously scheduled tour of Stockholm. He has yet to deliver, on tape or in person, the acceptance speech that is a precondition for the prize money. When he won the prize it was just before the November election, and now we’re a few months into the unfolding disaster. Which makes you wonder: Does the Nobel Prize committee know more about us than we know about ourselves?

This may quite possibly be the best Nobel Prize choice ever for literature, right up there with the recognition of William Faulkner. It has been given to the right person at the right time, as the academy has made an urgent intervention into the vexing question of just what literature is, at a political moment when demagoguery is making a mockery of language.

Writers and critics know that nearly all the greatest writers of the past century — and we know who they are — failed to get the award. The Nobel for literature is most helpful when it brings someone deserving to the global audience’s attention. Such was the case with Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk; he was already at a young age a world-class author, but the award gave him millions of new readers. And though Dylan has been a songwriter’s songwriter, or musician’s musician, for 55 years, there couldn’t be a better time than now for his poetry of prophecy to soak through to everyone’s consciousness.

Perhaps millennials in pursuit of the latest musical illusion will seek out the timeless instead, in Dylan’s music, which should lead them back to the abiding sources of American music: the origins of the blues tradition, for example, in such singers as Charley Patton or Skip James, or Blind Willie McTell, about whom Dylan recorded a memorable song in the early 1980s, or later Robert Johnson and Leadbelly, all acknowledged influences on Dylan, whom he transformed and reworked in his own idiom.

Dylan receiving the award at this point in time is a reminder for us to seek the ultimate sources of poetry — and I certainly consider the blues as poetry of the highest order — rather than be distracted by the next vulgarization that comes along.

Purity, of the most extreme degree, to the point that it is prophecy, is what Dylan manifested, particularly in his peak 1962–1966 period, which I think is unparalleled in the history of music for its sheer genius, its fecundity and its deep tapping of the mystical poetic roots, all of which defy comprehension as to how it could have come about in such a short period of time.

Is Dylan a poet? To me, the question is, is Dylan the 20th century’s Arthur Rimbaud? Or Keats or Shelley? Or Yeats? Those are the valid comparisons for me, not whether he is a poet.

The Nobel academy is also recognizing, as it failed to do when the time was right, the entire Beat tradition, into which Dylan flows and which flows into Dylan. Remember that Allen Ginsberg was more Bob Dylan’s acolyte than the other way around. All of the Beats alive at the time of Dylan’s peak productivity in the early 1960s were keen to associate themselves with him, and for good reason. If Beat poetry is poetry — and I suppose some academicists would question even that — then Dylan was its purest, most acute, most immortal manifestation.

I would make the same connection with folk music, too. There is a long tradition of American folk music, almost necessarily associated with the left, or rather programmatic left causes, that Dylan tapped into and revived and intensified, put into a language of pop music, and later rock and roll, or folk-rock or whatever you want to call it, an endeavor that had eluded the so-called “purist” exponents of folk music.

The question of authenticity is front and center in any evaluation of Dylan getting the Nobel Prize. He was always secretive and still is, even in a supposedly tell-all work like “Chronicles: Volume One“ (2004) — about his origins as a middle-class Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, preferring to make up fabulous tales about himself when he first arrived in Greenwich Village in 1961, intent on becoming a “music star.” Robert Allen Zimmerman liked to claim to reporters then that he didn’t know his parents, that he had worked in carnivals around the country, that he had traveled everywhere as a hobo on freight trains — and in that era of impromptu reinvention, it was all taken in good spirit.

For that matter, Woody Guthrie, to whom Dylan rigorously dedicated himself early on, arguably mastering Guthrie’s oeuvre better than the master, was himself an act. A creation of the big cities, tutored by academic folklore experts, speaking for the “folk”? But he is as authentic as they come, right? Or Pete Seeger, how about him? Whenever you look behind any artist claiming to be authentic, you find the same story of invention, duplication, homage, unreality and indecipherability. Dylan, being perhaps the most lacerating of all the modern wordsmiths, represents these traits in the most intense manner.

Like the best poets or prophets, he is unknowable — to this day.

The 1967 movie “Dont Look Back — D.A. Pennebaker’s pathbreaking cinéma vérité record of Dylan’s 1965 English tour — remains the most astute example of its genre. Take a look at it to decide for yourself the issue of Dylan’s authenticity as poet, or prophet.

To me, Dylan’s dealings with the two journalists he meets in the film — the first of whom he treats in a Socratic or Wittgensteinian manner, questioning the very definition of such basic concepts as friendship or identity, and the second a Time magazine reporter Dylan interrogates about what is news (or fake news) — are particularly emblematic of the degree to which he was not a fake. He was immersed so deeply in all the intellectual currents of his time, in a purely intuitive manner — and this is where the obvious comparison with Rimbaud comes in — that he didn’t have the luxury to worry about such distinctions as fake or authentic, or to wonder about how he was learning what he was learning.

He acted a little put upon in that movie, but you can also sense that his degree of poetic intensity — poetry defining the person and persona of the artist, not just as a part-time or semi-habitual intellectual endeavor — couldn’t possibly be kept up for long, as was the case with Jesus, for example, and that the end was near.

It is said that Dylan’s first long-term girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, taught him much about poetry — and art and literature and radical politics — and that later Allen Ginsberg, especially after Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident, provided him with further reading material. But these are just ex post facto biographical explanations that don’t tell us much about where his poetry came from.

The motorcycle accident, oh yes. That was the dividing line, in 1966, in rural Woodstock, New York, after which the poetry and the music ceased to be what they were before the accident. I believe that, as any prophet-poet in his condition would have done, he terminated his prophecy at that point. The accident probably wasn’t serious after all. But Dylan retreated, didn’t tour for another eight years, and tried to rediscover himself, going back to the roots. Later, in his explicitly “spiritual” manifestations — the avowed Christianity, for example, or the reclaimed Jewish heritage — he tried to capture the spirit that had moved him, but the gift of prophecy had left him.

Of course, he had already committed the ultimate no-no, as far as folk purists were concerned, by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, but now, after trying the amplified rock and roll sound, he went back to the basics, consciously limiting the sound in “The Basement Tapes“ that eventually came out as a result of work he did in 1967 in Woodstock, removed from the public eye. He didn’t release this work at the time, instead trying on different modes, with a brilliant reinvention of the pastoral in “Nashville Skyline,” “Self Portrait“ and “New Morning,” work that I find increasingly meaningful with the passage of time.

How great his poetry and music were in the 1962–1966 period can be understood by the fact that Dylan himself was never able to approach his climax, despite half a century of relentlessly trying.

I’ve been diligently exploring album after album of the post-motorcycle accident era, and they’re all gems in their own way, but Dylan himself recognizes that he could never again reproduce the magic of 1962–1966, a period that includes “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited“ and “Blonde on Blonde.”

Weary of hewing to expectations, he wanted to terminate, also, any programmatic association with the progressive/alternative/leftist folkies, having mastered their tradition quickly, and having decided to move on.

He had to move along; the direction his poetry was dictating compelled him to. Can we imagine “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as an acoustic song? But “To Ramona” we can, and must. He had soaked it all up, the gentle radicalness of Joan Baez, the straight talk of Woody Guthrie, the surreal imagistic prolificity of Allen Ginsberg, incorporated it all in his poetry, and made something entirely new out of it in that climactic period, and then almost as quickly as he’d done it, he ended it and moved on. Isn’t that the way of all prophets?

His so-called Never Ending Tour, consisting of thousands of concerts since the late 1980s, still with no end in sight, seems to me a prophet’s impossible search for what he was and what he has lost, though he doesn’t necessarily want it back. In the process he has been discovering himself and his songs anew for the last four decades, without any hope of ultimate success. Long ago, he lost his “voice” — literally.

It has been his greatest sacrifice, I think, this never-ending tour, which fueled the bootleg industry, and in which every Dylan song is a work in progress, different each time, coming across as provisional poetry for our time that refuses to let us see poetry as fixed words with fixed meanings. Dylan was as postmodernist as Charles Olson, the never-ending tour his expressive manifesto of poetry as contingent and hopelessly derivative and unself-sufficing.

He distilled the best of our literary and artistic values in that period of profound self-questioning in American culture — we have been going downhill in every respect since then — and this is another reason why the Nobel committee’s recognition of him at this time is an important reminder of what was best about America (all of which is rapidly dying, as even Dylan will cease to be in a short while). What was best about us was our ingrained quality of doubt toward highfalutin theories and our conviction in the decency of the common man, as evident in Thomas Jefferson as in Mark Twain. This has become all the more important at a time when demagogic manipulation has taken us a long way from our founding ideal of democracy as a practice of stubborn skepticism of — well, of bullshit.

There is no better antidote for the box we’ve put ourselves in, in this age of distorted politics, than any of Dylan’s music of that early period. The Nobel committee is also implying, by overlooking the “literary” names that are perennially mentioned as American contenders, that we are not good enough in what we think of as the literary realm; we are too conformist there, and this too is a timely rejoinder to us, a reminder that the game may well be over for us.

But the question remains, is it poetry?

How can anyone listen to “Masters of War” or “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” and seriously ask this question?

I think that the New Critical approach taken by British critic Christopher Ricks — breaking down each Dylan song according to conventional matrices such as rhyming and alliteration and assonance — is a bit reductionist and naive. It misses the point about Dylan’s poetry.

Of course all the techniques are there, the whole poetic arsenal, and also tremendous fluidity with transitions, handling meter in a way suited to both poetry and music (that is, reading and singing), giving complex intellectual life to the linguistically simplified blues and folk and country traditions by way of exploiting modern(ist) techniques, and exploiting images and metaphors to merge the personal and the political in a way that few writers have been able to do.

That’s all there, without a doubt.

But is it still poetry if it’s not put to music? I suppose that is the underlying question that bugs those who resent Dylan getting the award. (In asking that question we are also, by the way, questioning whether drama is literature, because it too is enhanced by or is meant for performance. It’s a point Dylan noted by mentioning Shakespeare as literature in his Nobel acceptance speech.)

I would argue that Dylan writes his poetry in a way that takes full advantage of the potentialities of performance. We cannot say that poetry is only that which is purely restricted to the page. Poetry can be written to take advantage of the latent possibilities of delivery and performance and spectacle and music and everything else we can think of doing with it. And it is the better for it.

Conventional modern poets — William Blake and W.B. Yeats and Robert Frost aside — have had a very difficult time with certain things. How can a ballad, especially one dealing with tragedy, not succumb to the weight of its form, and succeed instead in building a transcendent argument by repetition, or accumulation, making the story larger than the sum of its content? This dilemma, actually, is true of all conventional or academic poetry. When it is written down as poetry, it often loses form and flexibility. To what extent can a poet magically endow it with a life that refuses to die, once it’s written?

That comes from prophecy, or the kind of youth that is immune to ordinary views of decline and mortality (hence Rimbaud and Keats and Dylan), a beautiful youth that delivers the best of our human spirit without knowing what it is doing. It can condemn without being whiny. It can fall in love without being naive. It can exit politics or love without being coy. That is a much higher form of poetry that breaking things down by New Criticism methodology will not explain.

Consider how in his early composition “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” Dylan is completely unafraid — and this must have taken an incomprehensible degree of unselfconsciousness — to indulge in a form of satire that he knows must lead back to himself. In that period he often wrote very long poems, unafraid of the risks in doing so.

The Death of Emmett Till” is another condemnation, like the even better “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which presents racial oppression without self-consciousness (he sang “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” about the murder of Medgar Evers, in Mississippi along with Pete Seeger, and you can catch a glimpse of it in “Dont Look Back”). Perhaps this is why he needed what I would consider the crutch of folk music for a start, to convey his sense of the wrongness of things in a form that wouldn’t overwhelm him. His poetry contained the genre of folk music, rather than the other way around. Isn’t that amazing? But then, he was completely self-taught.

How is “Blowin’ in the Wind,” as short and concise a Dylan poem as we’ve ever seen, any less of a poem than the best that Hardy or Tennyson or Yeats wrote? The hinge, of course, is the “answer” that’s “blowin’ in the wind” — an answer Dylan has no intention of revealing.

Why does “Masters of War” not indulge in didacticism and pettiness, as is true of most political poetry, despite being a curse going back to a classical form? We might as well ask if the Bible is poetry. Or if the great religious scriptures of East and West rise to the level of poetry.

In “Masters of War” Dylan shows that he has complete mastery of the logic of the Bible, whatever his actual degree of study of it at the time may have been, because it’s what makes the curse work, it’s what elevates it to the highest degree of well-wishing (by naming sin) one could direct toward the enemies of humanity: “But there’s one thing I know/ Though I’m younger than you/ Even Jesus would never/ Forgive what you do.”

This, right here, is the greatest poem of our time, as I think “The Waste Land” was for the moment between the world wars. We are again in a moment between world wars, though we don’t know when the next big one will come — or possibly we are in the midst of the final one, perhaps with the planet itself, but are not yet aware of it. Here Dylan makes poetry rise to the highest task — of judging and describing reality as it is and assigning tragic value — that it can possibly perform. He does it, in this song, better than any poet has pulled it off in nearly a hundred years.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” takes off from a well-known Scottish ballad, “Lord Randall,” but consider the layers of transformation when Dylan gets to work on it. With his insistent play on “my blue-eyed son” and “my darling young one,” it is perhaps his most tragic song, his most ideally executed song. I have no clue how he writes something like this (and then pitches it in his incomparably poignant voice, the most penetrative musical instrument of the late 20th century): “I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it,/ I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,/ I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’,/ I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’,/ I saw a white ladder all covered with water,/ I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,/ I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children.”

It would take a petty bourgeois (f)rigidity of murderous proportions, a zombie commitment to academic poetry driven by mechanical identity politics and anti-humanistic neoliberalism, not to see the transcendent poetry in this. This is poetry that means business, it is written from the depths of the mystical soul whose origins no one can perceive, and it is presented with zero self-consciousness, both on the page and in the delivery, and it works!

He does compression, of the pressure of mortality, in “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” in a way that makes it a poem of cozy friendship, exploding the sonnet of mortality, if you will, into something else altogether. A dream of mortality, we are led to think.

Has any poem-song of our time managed to be as inclusive of the shifting paradigms of change, as consistently progressive, as beholden to the long long view, as “The Times They Are A-Changin’? With simple words like “rattle” and “battle” he cuts out all the excess and superfluity of “poetry.” “Admit that the waters/ Around you have grown,” he starts, which is as powerful today as it was half a century ago.

How is “To Ramona” any lesser than the greatest of Keats’ songs of love — such as the elusive “La Belle Dame sans Merci”? Actually, Dylan does one better, by wanting to fortify Ramona — though that is ultimately her own job — against the illusions of the world, which is not interested in love: “But it grieves my heart, love,/ To see you tryin’ to be a part of/ A world that just don’t exist./ It’s all just a dream, babe.”

Later, in “I Want You,” perhaps the most beautiful love song of our time, Dylan opens up that fissure between the distracting world and the purity of love, in simplified language that refuses to look at anything but love. Compare the burdensome language used to describe distraction — “The guilty undertaker sighs,/ The lonesome organ grinder cries,/ The silver saxophones say I should refuse you” — with the simple purity of “Honey, I want you.” This is a playful dialectic that shows full awareness of the potential of poetry in explicating deep philosophical quandaries by the weight one places on words, by where and how one places them, by how one combines strength and lightness in the same compact space.

The brief lines, the staccato buildup, the rapid-fire listing of traps and illusions in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” make for as great a poem of keeping your head under while the capitalists are out to get you as has ever been written: “The man in the coon-skin cap/ In the big pen/ Wants eleven dollar bills/ You only got ten.” Now we’re dealing with Apollinaire, or Tristan Tzara, or Mayakovsky, in the plangent refusal to go along with conformity, in seeing the unreal behind the real, in arguing against formal education and formal manners.

This is true also of “Maggie’s Farm,” which he sings, in early recorded versions, with a laughter in his attitude that makes a mockery of work as a nationally sanctified enterprise, of discredited puritan aesthetics, that is as valid as Kerouac or Vonnegut or Bukowski.

Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” takes on the “discovery” of America itself; but which America? Dylan sings, “He said, ‘Let’s set up a fort/ And start buying the place with beads/ Just then this cop comes down the street/ Crazy as a loon/ He throw us all in jail/ For carryin’ harpoons.”

This is argumentative poetry that should be sung on all our streets, poetry that is fortified with music on the mind, with Dylan’s or any other wannabe prophet’s whine (or wine) in mind.

Mr. Tambourine Man” is very artful in splitting the poet’s persona from his poetry, in seeing the divided self, in alienating him from his alienation — as Charlie Chaplin did in the movies, or as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini were doing contemporaneously (Dylan loved Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player”), making of the artistry of connectivity the greatest alienation of all: “In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you.// Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship,/ My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip.”

It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is one of our most conclusive modern poems. It is so good that you know that the end for Dylan can’t be far off, because this level of prophetic poetry just can’t continue: “Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn/ Suicide remarks are torn/ From the fool’s gold mouthpiece/ The hollow horn plays wasted words.” Everything redundant about poetry, all of its wasteful tricks, has been done away with in this poem; its essence is pain, and because it is pure poetry, it does not come across as narcissistic, as none of his great poetry does. This alone sets Dylan apart from all postwar American poets.

He resorts to what I would call a surrealism not of cynical laughter but joyous present-mindedness when he considers his situation as an artist, or really a thinking person caught up in murderous capitalism, in “Like a Rolling Stone”: “You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat/ Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat/ Ain’t it hard when you discover that/ He really wasn’t where it’s at/ After he took from you everything he could steal.”

His poetic technique here illustrates, embodies, executes to perfection the “no direction home” ethos. It has been interpreted, this song-poem, as a revenge fantasy with particular entities in mind (as has “Positively 4th Street”), this one with perhaps the suicidal actress and model Edie Sedgwick as the target. But none of his poems of that era work at that reductionist level; they are all ultimately about himself, the fame and glory of being the prophet of his time preventing any narcissistic consciousness, which I find the most unbelievable thing about his poetry then.

Ballad of a Thin Man” reminds us of Ivan Illich and Herbert Marcuse and the great social theorists of the 1960s, who talked about how functioning amid capitalist conformity has reduced us to intellectual and psychological ciphers, the Mr. Joneses of the world having their throats handed back to them: “You’ve been with the professors/ And they’ve all liked your looks/ With great lawyers you have/ Discussed lepers and crooks/ You’ve been through all of / F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books.”

His poetic technique here, in posing relentless direct questions, as is true of so much of his work then, exemplifies the thinness of our personalities: “Because something is happening here/ But you don’t know what it is.” There is zero poetic “technique” involved in this line; yet it is as high a poetry as Li Po’s in capturing the essential hollowness of our situation.

He plays on “stoned” (in both the Biblical and countercultural sense), with a duality of meanings opening up because of the unresolved tension, in “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Here, as in so many other poems, the repetition doesn’t come across as a lament seeking something as prosaic as a political solution, but becomes the summation of our tragic condition, as is true of all real knowledge: “They’ll stone you when you are set down in your grave./ But I would not feel so all alone, / Everybody must get stoned.”

Do I even need to talk about “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”? It is a bold reinterpretation of his own earlier songs in a wildly unpredictable surrealist landscape: “With your childhood flames on your midnight rug,/ And your Spanish manners and your mother’s drugs,/ And your cowboy mouth and your curfew plugs,/ Who among them do you think could resist you?”

Various women have been said to have been the intended subject of this poem — perhaps Joan Baez, perhaps Sara Lownds, Dylan’s first wife — but it sums up, better than any poetical venture of our era, what it means to maintain the mystery of one’s existence, its purity and innocence, in a time when everything militates against it. Our vision is enough to see it, is it not? Only poetry, only the song of poetry, cuts through to the indefinable essence of the beloved.

Here, Dylan reaches the peak of his mysticism, but despite the length of the song, so unusual for its time, there is nothing wasted. With each powerful metaphor — “your sheet metal memory of Cannery Row,” or “your magazine-husband who one day just had to go” — he piles on his own inadequacy to deal with, on its own terms, the beauty of women, or the beauty of anything beautiful.

Each of Dylan’s masterpieces from his peak deserves an extended breakdown to understand what he is doing poetically, though of course I can’t do it here. But any poet today who wants to know the source of life in poetry can learn untold amounts from making the attempt.

Dylan lent intellectual substance to popular music for the first time, and he was the first to show that complex poetic forms could be commercially successful. Rock and roll was already moribund, and had become silly after its inspiration from the original blues, by the time Dylan got started. But it got a new lease on life from him. Rock and roll stars — the Beatles were overwhelmed by Dylan — from Mick Jagger to David Bowie tried to reproduce a little of what Dylan had done poetically, but to one degree or another, they all failed. Heck, even Dylan after 1966 mostly couldn’t do it, which shows you how great his poetic zenith was.

His later “personal” poetry is just as “political” as his earlier songs designated as such. More than any other poet-songwriter, he completely erased the distinction between the two, more than even Allen Ginsberg, I think. That is a huge contribution both to music and poetry, one that has not been exploited since then, because it is so difficult to do. One that perhaps requires above all the gift of prophecy, for which we might have to wait another 500 years.

To experience, even at the remove of more than half a century, a tiny bit of what Dylan’s poetry achieved when he was the master of his game is to be transformed in the way that only the highest forms of writing can transform us. Through this award, Ginsberg gets a posthumous freebie, as do many others of that period who were plowing deep into the intensity of psychic experience, like John Berryman and Ted Berrigan. We Americans were never that good before. We never will be again.

What we need, at this point in time, more desperately than anything, is to return to the root of love, that is to say, to stare blindly, and with the highest intensity, at our human reality. Dylan did that better than almost anyone else in the last hundred years, except perhaps T. S. Eliot or George Orwell or Philip K. Dick. This is why he will be read and listened to and admired as long as the self exists in tension with the collectivity, as long as people fall in love and ponder their mortality, as long as they are oppressed or killed or helped or saved by society.

Poetry does all that, doesn’t it? It can deal with all that, can’t it? Of course I haven’t been surprised at the condemnation that has erupted on American social media since he won, the duly certified and credentialed writers asserting that Dylan is not literature, this is a slap in the face of literature, and what about the real writers? That tells you all you need to know about why he won the Nobel Prize, and yet why his poetry cannot truly be recognized as victorious.

On the Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens

By Hiram Lee
15 April 2017

There are few singers today as powerful as Rhiannon Giddens, and fewer still with so commanding a stage presence. Born February 21, 1977 in Greensboro, North Carolina, Giddens first made a name for herself as a member of the folk revival group Carolina Chocolate Drops. In addition to her singing, Giddens is an accomplished violinist and banjoist.

Giddens’ 2015 solo album Tomorrow is My Turn was among the best of that year and featured a striking version of the traditional folk song “Waterboy,” often associated with the late folksinger Odetta (1930-2008). Her latest album, Freedom Highway, will almost certainly be counted among the best of this year.

Giddens wrote nine of Freedom Highway’s 12 songs. In these, she reveals a deep feeling for her fellow human beings, as well as a seriousness about history. Moreover, there is nothing, not one note, on this album that feels self-involved or trivial. That, alone, is something remarkable given the current state of both popular and “indie” or “alternative” music.

Rhiannon Giddens [Photo credit: Appalachian Encounters]

Accompanying Giddens’ originals are strong versions of “The Angels Laid Him Away,” by blues singer Mississippi John Hurt, and two songs associated with the Civil Rights movement: “Freedom Highway” by the Staples Singers, and “Birmingham Sunday” by Richard Fariña. The latter concerns the 1963 bombing by the Ku Klux Klan of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which left four little girls dead.

Perhaps the most haunting of the many haunting songs on Freedom Highway is “At the Purchaser’s Option.” It was inspired by Giddens’ discovery of an advertisement from the 1830s announcing the sale of a young female slave. The ad mentions, in passing, that the woman has a nine-month-old child who is also available “at the purchaser’s option.” Giddens’ puts herself in the woman’s shoes and sings movingly of her suffering: “Day by day I work the line/Every minute overtime/Fingers nimble, fingers quick/My fingers bleed to make you rich”

Returning to modern day, “Better Get It Right The First Time,” sees Giddens turn her attention to police killings of innocent youth. She sings: “Young man was a good man/Did you stand your ground/Young man was a good man/Is that why they took you down/Young man was a good man/Or did you run that day/Young man was a good man/Baby, they shot you anyway”

Called a “Black Lives Matter” anthem in many reviews, the song doesn’t actually emphasize race. While many of Freedom Highway ’s songs do concern the history of what is commonly called the “African-American experience,” the poison of racialism does not make itself felt here. There is something far more humane and universal at work. Class, in a somewhat limited way, is also a part of many of the songs. This history, at any rate, is not the sole property of any one “race” and certainly not of the pro-capitalist Black Lives Matter movement.

The instrumentation and arrangements employed by Giddens throughout seamlessly blend a wide variety of influences. On many songs, the grooves of R&B meld with the growling, muted trumpets of 1920s jazz, while old-time Appalachian banjos thump out their always-mournful melodies.

Giddens’ banjo playing has none of the biting twang commonly associated with the instrument today. It has a thick, full sound. She uses slides to great effect in her phrasing. It’s perfect for the flirtatious “Hey Bébé” which resides somewhere between jazz, folk and blues music.

Freedom Highway and Tomorrow is My Turn before it are a step forward for Giddens. They are superior to her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, however interesting that effort was at times.

Folk music is easy to do wrong. A dull, pedagogical tone creeps into the work of many revivalists. The importance of certain songs is explained and then they are performed in such a way that one never feels this importance in the music itself. They become museum pieces. This is often combined with a silly sentimentality for the “simple lives” of “pure” folk. Period dress and exaggerated “folk” accents are adopted and exploited. It feels like acting, and bad acting at that.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops were by no means the worst offenders in this regard, but neither were they entirely immune to it. Giddens appears to have broken free of many of these limitations. She retains her folk roots while singing and performing in a way that feels very much alive and relevant, both traditional and modern.

Unlike many folk revivalists (and occasionally her bandmates) Giddens does not pretend to be less sophisticated than she is. And why should she?

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/04/15/gidd-a15.html

59 Tomahawks and 5,900 years of slaughter: A brief history of Syria

Trump is leading us into another buzz saw war and, once again, we are not prepared to win the fight or the peace

59 Tomahawks and 5,900 years of slaughter: A brief history of Syria

A Kurdish Syrian woman walks with her child past the ruins of the town of Kobane (Credit: Getty/Yasin Akgul)

 

I visited the killing grounds in December of the third year of the 60th century.

It was back in 2003, and I was staying with the Bastogne Bulldogs, the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division out at Q-West, an Iraqi air force airfield west of Qayyarah, a town of about 15,000 souls sitting on top of a field holding an estimated 800 million barrels of oil along the Tigris River south of Mosul. There is so much oil under Qayyarah, it comes bubbling up out of the ground in the middle of the oil refinery there, so you have to walk on carefully laid out paths in order to not get stuck and it’s bubbling up alongside the roads and it’s bubbling up down by the Tigris River, that’s how much oil there is. But the Qayyarah oil field had nothing to do with the presence of the 5,000 or so heavily armed paratroopers of the 1st Brigade exactly 10 miles west at the airfield. No sir, as we shall see, they were just out there sightseeing, visiting the ruins at Hatra, stuff like that.

One chilly morning as the sun rose over the sands of Nineveh governorate, the brigade commander sent a Spec 4 to my bunk with the news that we would be flying into town for a big meeting of all the sheikhs in the region. The commander of the 101st Airborne Division, (then) Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, already somewhat famous by virtue of his quote in The New York Times asking, “Someone tell me how this ends?” would be chairing the meeting. So a bunch of us piled into a pair of Blackhawk helicopters and flew over to Qayyarah and landed in a field near the town hall and joined a large roomful of sheikhs in various tribal attire.

Up on a low dais, Petraeus and several Iraqi men in suits sat at a table along with a guy who translated Petraeus’ remarks to the gathered sheikhs. The place was packed, standing room only, but a young Iraqi guy made room for me to join him on a bench at the very back of the room. He was grinning ear to ear, and I had no idea why. Nothing funny seemed to be going on. The room, in fact, fairly crackled with tension. Sheikh after sheikh rose to his feet and yelled at the men on the dais, including Petraeus, something to which I had to assume the general was unaccustomed.

It had been advertised as a meeting where the region’s leaders could air their concerns. Petraeus had flown down to Qayyarah from his headquarters in a Saddam summer palace up in east Mosul as part of a listening tour around the region occupied by the 101st. It was an area stretching from just north of Tikrit to the south all the way up to the Turkish border in the north, from the Syrian border in the west, to a line between Irbil and Kirkuk in Kurdistan to the east. Petraeus and his 30,000 soldiers of the 101st occupied a landmass about the size of Connecticut, which was by any sane military measure absolutely ridiculous. New York City has a police force of 34,000 to take care of 304 square miles. The area the 101st was assigned to police was about 5,500 square miles. Absurd, right?

Well, Petraeus had come up with an answer that had more or less worked for the past six months — making up for what he lacked in soldiers by liberally spreading money around, most of which had been glommed up when his troops had blown away Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay and seized millions in cash from the house in Mosul in which they were hiding. But now the money had dried up and the sheikhs were restless. Some guy with a big mustache in a suit was trying his best to calm them, but the sheikhs kept jumping up one after another yelling at the guys on the dais and at one another.

The young Iraqi I was sitting next to kept cracking up, and I asked him what he was laughing at. “These fucking guys — they are all from different tribes and they all hate each other, but they hate the guys up there even more!” he exclaimed, pointing to Petraeus and his officials on the dais. I kept asking him questions, so he started translating for me — and not only translating, but telling me who was who, which sheikh led which tribe, what tribes hated which other tribes, the few that were allies, which sheikhs had been colonels and generals in Saddam’s army, who had been in the now-outlawed Baath party and who hadn’t.

My new friend was giving me a short course in local politics Iraqi-style. It wasn’t merely confusing. It was bewildering, and this was just the Qayyarah region, a tiny slice of greater Iraq. The best part of the whole thing to him was that four of the five guys on the dais with Petraeus, who had been elected to some sort of regional council some months previously, had all been prominent in the outlawed Baath party, and Petraeus didn’t know it. “Baath party guys weren’t supposed to be eligible to be on the regional council,” he told me. “They were banned from politics! But look up there! Four of them were Baath party leaders! The whole place is full of Baath party guys!”

One of the older sheikhs, a gray-haired guy with a long gray beard, stood up and suddenly the rest of them fell silent. “This guy is a big leader,” the young Iraqi whispered. “And he is pissed.” The old sheikh didn’t yell, but you could hear the anger in his words. My friend translated: The Americans had screwed everything up. They banned the Baath party. They disbanded the Iraqi military and fired all of its officers. There was no one in Mosul to run any of the departments in the Nineveh governorate because all of the bureaucrats had been in the Baath party. No one working in the department of power knew anything because the professionals were gone. There was no one competent to run the water system. There was no one in charge of sanitation. The police had all been in the Baath party, and now a bunch of idiots were walking around in police uniforms doing nothing. Traffic was crazy. Crime was everywhere. The courts were broken because the judges and prosecutors had been in the Baath party. Everything had fallen apart.

There were murmurs of assent as he made each of his points. “You know what he’s saying?” asked my new friend. “He is saying, What is wrong with you Americans? You came in here and you beat us and now look what you’re doing! You’re fucking everything up! When you are conquerors, you are supposed to co-opt the power structure, not disband it! He is asking, What’s going on? Are you crazy!”

The answer then was yes, and looking back from the perspective of 14 years, it’s hell yes. We did something very, very crazy when we invaded Iraq. And then we did something even crazier when we didn’t have any idea what to do once we owned the place. The reason these Iraqi sheikhs couldn’t understand what we had done to their country was because they were inheritors of a long, long history of conquering or being conquered and collaborating with the winners until they could drive them out. This had to be the first time that their ancient history had not repeated itself, the first time the conquerors, instead of acting like any sane conqueror was supposed to — kicking ass and taking names and ruling the roost and ordering people to do stuff — were instead spazzing around and making things up on the fly.

The old sheikh was exactly right. The Americans were crazy. Petraeus was standing up there representing a country that had not only lost its way, but lost its mind, and from the looks of him, his mind was going, too. He’s not a big guy. He has a slight frame, and even his custom-made BDUs looked a little big on him, and his head seemed to be sinking down a little further into his collar with each verbal blow. You could see on his face that he couldn’t wait for January, only a month away, when orders would arrive to pick up the whole 101st Airborne Division and get out of the Nineveh governorate and go home. Which is exactly what he and the 101st did.

They took all their Humvees and howitzers and M240 and .50-caliber machine guns and Blackhawks and Apache gunships and they loaded them up and they went back to Kentucky’s Fort Campbell, where they could drive down the road a few miles and find not an oil field but a Burger King, where they could order a Whopper or they could hie themselves over to the O-Club and slap back a double shot of Jack or they could stop off at the local Clarksville Gentleman’s Club and ogle a few pairs of inflatable boobs. Yessir, heaven on earth, and fuck all those sheikhs back there in Qayyarah in their weird head wraps and shower clogs yelling and complaining and shit. We’re out of there.

And now here we go again. Fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles without a military strategy, without a plan for what comes next, without really even knowing who the hell we fired the damn things at.

Wouldn’t it be useful to know who those sheikhs were back in Qayyarah? What makes them tick? Why do they do stuff like chop enemy heads off and gas their own people? You think a little down and dirty history might help? Iraq? Mosul? Nineveh Governorate? Syria? Idlib, the town Bashar al-Assad gassed? Anybody know anything around here? No? Well, pay attention because it’s time you learned what the hell has been going on over there for the last 5,900 years.

First, however, we’re going to travel back to that day in December of 2003 when I visited the big meeting between Petraeus and the sheikhs in Qayyarah because that wasn’t all we did.

Later that day we loaded back into the Blackhawks and flew out to Hatra, in the desert about 30 miles west of Qayyarah. The ruins at Hatra are famous as the site of the archaeological dig shown in the first few moments of that classic horror movie “The Exorcist.” Remember? They’re digging around in these stone ruins and somebody comes up with a little amulet depicting the devil himself, a rendering of the Numero Uno evil one, which becomes important later in the movie. Anyway, Hatra was an ancient city that was probably built sometime in the second or third century B.C. surrounded by a wall about a half mile in diameter that once had temples and holy buildings supported by some 160 columns. The Great Temple of Hatra had walls nearly 100 feet tall, one of which was used when night fell as a stone screen on which soldiers from the 101st’s public affairs office projected a slideshow of photos telling the story of the division’s six-month stay in the Nineveh governorate.

To say it was a bizarre scene is to do the word “bizarre” an incalculable injustice. Images of tanks and Humvees and soldiers handing candy bars to Iraqi children and helicopters landing in huge clouds of dust, all of it playing to Phil Collins singing “In the Air Tonight.” I mean, this is going on with about a hundred Iraqis standing around watching and another gathering of even more sheikhs from other towns, and some younger Iraqi men and even a few women in long, ankle-length black garb, and moving through all of them, Maj. Gen. Petraeus with a coterie of aides and a translator, shaking hands and greeting sheikhs and assuring everyone that all they had to do was be patient because the month before, in November, the Congress of the United States had passed an enormous supplemental appropriations bill of $70 billion for the Iraq War and only one month hence, in January, the money would begin to flow into northern Iraq and All Would Be Well.

Before the sun set, I set up my camera on a little tripod and climbed up on the wall around Hatra and took a picture of myself surrounded by all that ancientness — columns and stone walls and stone steps leading down through narrow tunnels to hidden vaults. It all seemed so old that nothing could be more ancient, more historic, more beginning of it all than Hatra.

But that’s how stupid I was because it had all begun about 4,000 years before Hatra 300 miles south in Lower Mesopotamia in the Uruk IV period, which refers to the truly ancient city of Ur, way back at the time the first known historical writings were scratched in sandstone in pictographs. It would be another thousand years before the words and deeds of dynastic kings would be recorded in an actual early language on cuneiform tablets. But even back then, even in the land of Ur, they were drawing pictures of wars on the wall because that’s pretty much what they did. They went to war and they either won or they got beaten, and then they went to war again.

Sometime in the third millennium, about 500 miles north and west of Ur around the city now known as Idlib but then known as Ebla, a long war was fought with Mari. Now listen up: We’ve got Sargon of Akkad and some goddamned grandson of his called Naram-Sin, and they pounded Ebla over and over again in the 23rd century B.C. until they could make Ebla a part of Mesopotamia under the Akkadian Empire. And man, they were off and running. One century after another, one ruler after another, one war after another. By 21 B.C., some guys called the Hurrians moved into the northeast part of Syria and the town of Mari — remember Mari? conquered by Ebla? — made a comeback until it was conquered by a ruler known as Hammurabi of Babylon.

Then along came Yamhad — now better known as the destroyed city of Aleppo — which controlled northern Syria around the 19th and 18th centuries B.C., when eastern Syria was ruled by Shamshi-Adad I, king of the Old Assyrian Empire, which was then taken over by the Babylonian Empire. You following me? Yamhad was famous for having even more slaves than Babylon, and those dudes in Yamhad ruled the roost up in Syria until it was conquered, along with Ebla, by the Hittites around 1600 B.C. Idlib and Aleppo couldn’t catch a break even back then.

So here we are, we’re only halfway to A.D., and we’re already waist deep in blood and kings and wars and cities and conquered peoples and up comes the Assyrian Empire, and it’s a goddamn battleground for the Mitanni, the Egyptians, something called the Middle Assyrians, and up comes Babylonia again! Around 900 B.C., along came Adad-nirari II and he took Assyria into Anatolia, the Levant, ancient Iran and back down to goddamned Babylonia again, and he was followed by some butcher called Ashur-nasir-pal II in the mid-800s B.C., who pushed even further south into Mesopotamia and got himself into Asia Minor until Shalmaneser III came along a couple of decades later and unsatisfied with how much land that lazy Ashur-nasir-pal II conquered, cranked up his armies and marched right into Israel, Damascus, Canaan and the goddamned foothills of the Caucasus.

And then along cams a real mother whomper, Adad-nirari III, son of Queen Shammuramat, and this guy started slaughtering Phoenicians, Philistines, Neo-Hittites, Persians, Israelites, Medes and Manneans, and he was just getting started. He went down to Babylon and beat the shit out of the people there, and he basically enslaved all of eastern Mesopotamia. Then about 700 B.C., the Egyptians and a whole bunch of locals got together and decided to teach the Assyrians a lesson. So King Lule and King Hezekiah and King Sidka and the king of Ekron teamed up with the Egyptians, and they took on this new Assyrian King Sennacherib, who had relocated to Nineveh (Mosul). That pissed off Sennacherib, who slashed his way through the lot of them and kept on going for Jerusalem, taking out 46 towns and villages along the way. Then he turned east and took out Babylon again. Then a couple of Babylonian guys took it back until King Sennacherib got pissed enough to go after Babylon one final time, this time diverting the canals around the city and flooding Babylon, turning it into a swamp.

You with me? No? Well, who we have been talking about all this time are the murdering, thieving, slave driving butchers who ran Syria when modern butcher Assad wasn’t even a quark in some future molecule. Before we come within a few centuries of the birth of Christ, the ancestors of today’s Syrians had conquered and basically enslaved 28 nation-states and occupied all of what is now Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Syria, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, Cyprus and large parts of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkey, Armenia, Libya, Azerbaijan and Georgia. They still had to face Alexander the Great and the Romans and then the Byzantines and then came the Aramaeans and the Jews and the Christians and then the invasion of Duma by Muhammad and then came the Arabs followed by the Crusades and occupation by Germans, French, Italian armies and then some Turco-Mongol dude called Timur-Lenk took over and then came the Ottoman Empire and a period of comparative peace until the Ottomans made the mistake of taking the side of the Germans in World War I.

After the war, a couple of the winners, England and France, in the persons of Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot secretly agreed to divvy up the Ottoman Empire and drew the infamous Picot-Sykes line creating the modern Middle East and present-day Syria, including, of course, the descendants of the murdering, thieving, enslaving monsters we’ve been talking about.

So my pals, the sheikhs over in Qayyarah and Hatra and the ancestors of all the various tribes and religious factions and ethnic minorities and majorities in northern Iraq and all over Syria and the Sunnis and the Shiites and the Kurds and the Yazidis and the Turkmen and the goddamned Persians of Iran and the Turks of Turkey for crying out loud have been at one another’s throats for 5,900 years and we’re going to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at some deserted airbase in the middle of a Syrian desert that has seen more bloodshed than a goddamned Kansas City slaughterhouse and we expect these fuckers to pay attention?

I keep thinking of Petraeus up there on that little dais in Qayyarah listening to those sheikhs yelling at him and he’s looking all confused and then when he got out of there and was heading over to his Blackhawk that already had its rotors turning he looked positively giddy with the thought that in about two months he would have his ass and the asses of all 30,000 of his soldiers in the 101st out of that sandy hell and back on the heavenly clay soil of Kentucky, and I keep thinking, Who the hell do we think we’re fooling? We sent a few hundred thousand troops over there in rotating shifts of one-year deployments and then we shipped them right back home, which is where they remain today — all but the 5,000 troops we’ve got over there slogging through the wastelands and looking around and wondering what they’re doing.

We’ve got the Iraqis around Mosul, which is rapidly on its way to being in ruins, and the Syrians over there around Aleppo which is a maze of heartbreak and rubble, and Idlib which just got hit by poison gas killing 100 of its citizens, and their ancestors have been slaughtering each other and various invading armies using everything from rocks to sticks to knives to swords to spears to bows and arrows to muskets to AK-47s to RPGs to mortars to Russian-made jet fighters and high explosive and gas bombs. And they’ve been doing it pretty much around the clock for almost 6,000 years, and you know what they haven’t been doing? They haven’t been out on the hustings campaigning and running political ads, and they haven’t been voting, and they haven’t been doing shit like going on shows like “The Apprentice” and “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and they haven’t been playing “Naked and Afraid” and “Survivor.”

What they have been doing is just hoping to survive, and as usual, their ruler of the moment has been killing them by the hundreds of thousands without pausing for breath and that’s who we’re supposed to impress with 59 Tomahawks and three talking heads on “Morning Joe” babbling about freedom and our national credibility and how we’re the bulwark of liberty?

God help us, for we know not what the fuck we do.

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives on the East End of Long Island and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. He can be followed on Facebook at The Rabbit Hole and on Twitter @LucianKTruscott.

NIGHTLIFE LEGEND JIM FOURATT TALKS WHAT REALLY HAPPENED AT STONEWALL AND BIRTHING DANCETERIA

Hello, Jim. Let’s start with the famed Stonewall rebellion of 1969, which came to define the modern gay movement. You have said that the presence of people of color at the rebellion is actually overstated.

Yes, I have said that, and there is a reason for me saying it. The way the Mafia, quote unquote, meaning organized crime, operated gay bars in the ’60s and ’70s was they had gay bars for people of color, mostly black gay people, but they were on 42nd Street and up in Harlem. In the Village–except for Keller’s, which was specifically aimed at black gay people and rough trade—most of all the other gay bars in the ’60s had very little mix of races. Of course, if you were a great beauty, no matter what color you were, you got in, but people of color weren’t catered to. It’s called racism. There was systematic racism. The problem I have is people trying to claim to be a part of something which they weren’t. The whole question of both drag queens and people of color at Stonewall…

The Stonewall Inn was pretty well known as a place where closeted gay men, usually married men, went to make arrangements with younger gay men, and the younger men, for the most part, were certainly not drag queens. There was drug dealing and prostitution, so all these romantic ideas of what happened did not happen. It was not a bar I liked particularly. It did not have a good dance floor. The jukebox was like every jukebox in every Mafia bar in the city. It was not a specialty jukebox. I know this goes against myth, but putting a straight ’60s template on what happened that night robs us of who we are and what actually did happen, which changed how lesbians and gays saw themselves. By no definition can what happened that night be called a riot. I’ve been in riots. They’re very scary events—people out of control, looting and robbing, the breaking of windows and turning over of cars. That did not happen the first night of Stonewall. The Stonewall rebellion actually started out quite small. I happened to be coming home from my job at Columbia Records. I saw a sole police car outside of the Stonewall Inn. I was out in the New Left movement and the anti-war movement and there was an incredible amount of homophobia—in the old and new left. Like a good ’60s radical, I went to see why that car was there. There might have been 20 people around—this was 10:30 at night. The door opens and out comes one police officer and a “passing woman”—a biological female dressed in men’s clothing. I’m using the language of that day. “Bulldyke” was said if you wanted to put somebody down, while “passing” was a nice term. She had been handcuffed. By now, about 40 or 50 people had gathered. It was a Saturday night, warm, June, summer. Her bulky body started rocking the police car. To the cheers of the crowd gathering, one of the doors had not been locked. She got out, and as bulky as she was and acted, she had small female wrists and was able to get out of her handcuffs. Given the cheering, she stepped up to play her passing woman masculine butch dyke role. She started throwing herself against the police car and it started to tilt almost to turning over, and that was a flashpoint. Something happened in that crowd that I cannot describe verbally. That’s why I call it a rebellion–they finally rebelled against their internal and external homophobia and repression and started to cheer. A police officer came out, to look at the crowd and went back inside. From what I understand, he called for reinforcement. Within 10 minutes, a number of police cars arrived. Contrary to what David Carter’s Stonewall book describes, there were very few arrests. The only arrest I actually saw was a folk singer, Dave van Ronk. He was drunk and saying “What’s going on here?” The cops said, “Get away,” but he was persistent.

Thanks for the insight. Let’s move on to your achievements in nightlife. You were instrumental in the legendary club Danceteria, which started in 1979, along with your then-business partner Rudolf Pieper. That club is where new music was broken, along with art and videos. It was a veritable culture emporium. Did you realize how magical it was?

You’ve known me a long time and our paths have crossed many times. My political work I’ve always seen as cultural work. I’ve been an actor and appeared in plays and at Caffe Cino. It was around that period of time that was very fertile in terms of alternative culture. I took over the dead disco Hurrah and made it very successful and that became the template I was working on as to how to maximize culture–high art, low art, and politics. When I had the opportunity to take over the space on 37th Street (the first Danceteria), which had been an after-hours gay black bar, where there had been many killings, I wanted to make a club similar to what had happened at Hurrah. I hired people who had worked for me, including security people who looked like the people I wanted to come. People who were incredible but unemployable, I gave them jobs. Keith Haring was a busboy, and so was [artist] David Wojnarowicz. Keith did art on the walls the first three months. It all predates MTV, AIDS, and crack cocaine because what happened to nightlife was MTV changed how people went about seeing live music–they wanted to see the bands they just saw on TV, usually a British band which was incapable of recreating the sound live because they hadn’t played that much.

Photo by Rhonda CorteWhen you opened the second Danceteria (on 21st Street), video became more prevalent.

Yes, video art began to come out of Downtown. I hired Kit Fitzgerald and John Sanborn, who were part of that scene, and I asked them to curate. It became the people who are now at the museum level of collection. The thing about New York that was different from L.A. and San Francisco is we all live for the most part in small apartments, and we all go out for social interaction, hoping to get laid essentially, straight or gay. I wanted to create an environment that was safe—no fights—and that was the purpose of the door policy. I also wanted a mixed club, and anyone was welcome who could behave in that mode. We started branching out in different kinds of programs—Word-Beat (spoken word) with Patti Smith and John Giorno, and Serious Fun (with people like Philip Glass and Diamanda Galas). The first club was three floors, and the second club was three floors and a roof. Once you were in, you had the option to do what you wanted to do. We did a whole lot of benefits–this is where the political stuff came in. With my door people—Haoui Montaug and Aleph Ashline—gay boys and women got in without any hassle. With straight guys, the test was they’d have to wait a few minutes and see if they didn’t get hostile. We never had a rape or a fight, or any of those kinds of things that happened in those kinds of clubs. It took a long time for John Argento to destroy that template. Many people went to Danceteria 3 after I’d been locked out by Rudolf and Argento. Those people didn’t know about the backroom drama going on, they just wanted to have a good time. I never criticized anyone if they had a good time under those circumstances.

The music at Danceteria was thrillingly good.

The DJs were the heart and soul of the club. The dance music that Mark Kamins and Sean Cassette did at the first Danceteria! I discovered Sean at the Mudd Club; he’s the one who introduced me to Rudolf. And Mark was recommended to me by Nancy Jeffries, who did A&R at RCA. Mark played every club I ever had. Sean stopped playing after the first Danceteria. Chi Chi Valenti was a bartender. These people needed jobs, and the bottom line is I was able to give people jobs. I had an open call like a Broadway show, and I was very proud of the staff.

Tell me something really offbeat that happened at the club.

At Danceteria 1, the boys in the backroom found a loophole where people would buy a ticket for liquor, and we’d stay open very late.

The mob guys?

Yes. You couldn’t do a club at that time that didn’t have organized crime involved. They’d apply for these one-day permits over and over again. It was quasi legal, but it was an abuse of the law. The headliner would play two shows and the opening act would play the middle show and the last show would go on around four in the morning, so people could come from the other clubs and see that artist. If I was the owner of the Underground [a rival club], I’d be pissed that I couldn’t do that. At the second Danceteria, the late show would be at three in the morning.

What’s your take on then and now?

It’s a different time. We don’t have those kinds of clubs I’m aware of anymore. It wasn’t as hard to survive in New York in the late ’70s and ’80s as now, though you still had to pay the rents.

Splash image: Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns