This Thing Called Courage

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Scary Article From Today's UK Guardian

I USUALLY PERUSE THE FOREIGN PAPERS AND THE BBC every morning to see what's happening in the world. Since 911, really before that, I don't put much stock in American mainstream papers. In the 2000 election, Gore was universally portrayed as out of touch and unfriendly, while Bush was touted by the media as an aw-shucks 'average' guy that one would want to have a beer with, rather than the deeply disturbed, privileged, corporate-firendly, environmentally disastrous, utterly unfit, war-mongerering demagogue he was salivating to become. Since then the atrocities and outrages have followed in depressingly rapid order: deceit, war, corruption, torture, spying, Katrina, etc etc, while the MSM obsesses over missing white women and throw-away stories. Fluff is on the march, if not freedom. Locally the once respectable Boston Globe has been reduced to little more than a shopper, and the first place to turn if one is looking for Homes of the Week, of funny pet stories, if nothing else.
Without further ado then this is something from Tuesday's UK Guardian, and I pass it along as we will never read such pieces in our own papers:

Fascist America, in 10 easy steps

From Hitler to Pinochet and beyond, history shows there are certain steps that any would-be dictator must take to destroy constitutional freedoms. And, argues Naomi Wolf, George Bush and his administration seem to be taking them all

Tuesday April 24, 2007The Guardian

Last autumn, there was a military coup in Thailand. The leaders of the coup took a number of steps, rather systematically, as if they had a shopping list. In a sense, they did. Within a matter of days, democracy had been closed down: the coup leaders declared martial law, sent armed soldiers into residential areas, took over radio and TV stations, issued restrictions on the press, tightened some limits on travel, and took certain activists into custody.


Article continues




They were not figuring these things out as they went along. If you look at history, you can see that there is essentially a blueprint for turning an open society into a dictatorship. That blueprint has been used again and again in more and less bloody, more and less terrifying ways. But it is always effective. It is very difficult and arduous to create and sustain a democracy - but history shows that closing one down is much simpler. You simply have to be willing to take the 10 steps.
As difficult as this is to contemplate, it is clear, if you are willing to look, that each of these 10 steps has already been initiated today in the United States by the Bush administration.
Because Americans like me were born in freedom, we have a hard time even considering that it is possible for us to become as unfree - domestically - as many other nations. Because we no longer learn much about our rights or our system of government - the task of being aware of the constitution has been outsourced from citizens' ownership to being the domain of professionals such as lawyers and professors - we scarcely recognise the checks and balances that the founders put in place, even as they are being systematically dismantled. Because we don't learn much about European history, the setting up of a department of "homeland" security - remember who else was keen on the word "homeland" - didn't raise the alarm bells it might have.
It is my argument that, beneath our very noses, George Bush and his administration are using time-tested tactics to close down an open society. It is time for us to be willing to think the unthinkable - as the author and political journalist Joe Conason, has put it, that it can happen here. And that we are further along than we realise.
Conason eloquently warned of the danger of American authoritarianism. I am arguing that we need also to look at the lessons of European and other kinds of fascism to understand the potential seriousness of the events we see unfolding in the US.
1. Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy
After we were hit on September 11 2001, we were in a state of national shock. Less than six weeks later, on October 26 2001, the USA Patriot Act was passed by a Congress that had little chance to debate it; many said that they scarcely had time to read it. We were told we were now on a "war footing"; we were in a "global war" against a "global caliphate" intending to "wipe out civilisation". There have been other times of crisis in which the US accepted limits on civil liberties, such as during the civil war, when Lincoln declared martial law, and the second world war, when thousands of Japanese-American citizens were interned. But this situation, as Bruce Fein of the American Freedom Agenda notes, is unprecedented: all our other wars had an endpoint, so the pendulum was able to swing back toward freedom; this war is defined as open-ended in time and without national boundaries in space - the globe itself is the battlefield. "This time," Fein says, "there will be no defined end."
Creating a terrifying threat - hydra-like, secretive, evil - is an old trick. It can, like Hitler's invocation of a communist threat to the nation's security, be based on actual events (one Wisconsin academic has faced calls for his dismissal because he noted, among other things, that the alleged communist arson, the Reichstag fire of February 1933, was swiftly followed in Nazi Germany by passage of the Enabling Act, which replaced constitutional law with an open-ended state of emergency). Or the terrifying threat can be based, like the National Socialist evocation of the "global conspiracy of world Jewry", on myth.
It is not that global Islamist terrorism is not a severe danger; of course it is. I am arguing rather that the language used to convey the nature of the threat is different in a country such as Spain - which has also suffered violent terrorist attacks - than it is in America. Spanish citizens know that they face a grave security threat; what we as American citizens believe is that we are potentially threatened with the end of civilisation as we know it. Of course, this makes us more willing to accept restrictions on our freedoms.
2. Create a gulag
Once you have got everyone scared, the next step is to create a prison system outside the rule of law (as Bush put it, he wanted the American detention centre at Guantánamo Bay to be situated in legal "outer space") - where torture takes place.
At first, the people who are sent there are seen by citizens as outsiders: troublemakers, spies, "enemies of the people" or "criminals". Initially, citizens tend to support the secret prison system; it makes them feel safer and they do not identify with the prisoners. But soon enough, civil society leaders - opposition members, labour activists, clergy and journalists - are arrested and sent there as well.
This process took place in fascist shifts or anti-democracy crackdowns ranging from Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s to the Latin American coups of the 1970s and beyond. It is standard practice for closing down an open society or crushing a pro-democracy uprising.
With its jails in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, Guantánamo in Cuba, where detainees are abused, and kept indefinitely without trial and without access to the due process of the law, America certainly has its gulag now. Bush and his allies in Congress recently announced they would issue no information about the secret CIA "black site" prisons throughout the world, which are used to incarcerate people who have been seized off the street.
Gulags in history tend to metastasise, becoming ever larger and more secretive, ever more deadly and formalised. We know from first-hand accounts, photographs, videos and government documents that people, innocent and guilty, have been tortured in the US-run prisons we are aware of and those we can't investigate adequately.
But Americans still assume this system and detainee abuses involve only scary brown people with whom they don't generally identify. It was brave of the conservative pundit William Safire to quote the anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller, who had been seized as a political prisoner: "First they came for the Jews." Most Americans don't understand yet that the destruction of the rule of law at Guantánamo set a dangerous precedent for them, too.
By the way, the establishment of military tribunals that deny prisoners due process tends to come early on in a fascist shift. Mussolini and Stalin set up such tribunals. On April 24 1934, the Nazis, too, set up the People's Court, which also bypassed the judicial system: prisoners were held indefinitely, often in isolation, and tortured, without being charged with offences, and were subjected to show trials. Eventually, the Special Courts became a parallel system that put pressure on the regular courts to abandon the rule of law in favour of Nazi ideology when making decisions.
3. Develop a thug caste
When leaders who seek what I call a "fascist shift" want to close down an open society, they send paramilitary groups of scary young men out to terrorise citizens. The Blackshirts roamed the Italian countryside beating up communists; the Brownshirts staged violent rallies throughout Germany. This paramilitary force is especially important in a democracy: you need citizens to fear thug violence and so you need thugs who are free from prosecution.
The years following 9/11 have proved a bonanza for America's security contractors, with the Bush administration outsourcing areas of work that traditionally fell to the US military. In the process, contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been issued for security work by mercenaries at home and abroad. In Iraq, some of these contract operatives have been accused of involvement in torturing prisoners, harassing journalists and firing on Iraqi civilians. Under Order 17, issued to regulate contractors in Iraq by the one-time US administrator in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, these contractors are immune from prosecution
Yes, but that is in Iraq, you could argue; however, after Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security hired and deployed hundreds of armed private security guards in New Orleans. The investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill interviewed one unnamed guard who reported having fired on unarmed civilians in the city. It was a natural disaster that underlay that episode - but the administration's endless war on terror means ongoing scope for what are in effect privately contracted armies to take on crisis and emergency management at home in US cities.
Thugs in America? Groups of angry young Republican men, dressed in identical shirts and trousers, menaced poll workers counting the votes in Florida in 2000. If you are reading history, you can imagine that there can be a need for "public order" on the next election day. Say there are protests, or a threat, on the day of an election; history would not rule out the presence of a private security firm at a polling station "to restore public order".
4. Set up an internal surveillance system
In Mussolini's Italy, in Nazi Germany, in communist East Germany, in communist China - in every closed society - secret police spy on ordinary people and encourage neighbours to spy on neighbours. The Stasi needed to keep only a minority of East Germans under surveillance to convince a majority that they themselves were being watched.
In 2005 and 2006, when James Risen and Eric Lichtblau wrote in the New York Times about a secret state programme to wiretap citizens' phones, read their emails and follow international financial transactions, it became clear to ordinary Americans that they, too, could be under state scrutiny.
In closed societies, this surveillance is cast as being about "national security"; the true function is to keep citizens docile and inhibit their activism and dissent.
5. Harass citizens' groups
The fifth thing you do is related to step four - you infiltrate and harass citizens' groups. It can be trivial: a church in Pasadena, whose minister preached that Jesus was in favour of peace, found itself being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, while churches that got Republicans out to vote, which is equally illegal under US tax law, have been left alone.
Other harassment is more serious: the American Civil Liberties Union reports that thousands of ordinary American anti-war, environmental and other groups have been infiltrated by agents: a secret Pentagon database includes more than four dozen peaceful anti-war meetings, rallies or marches by American citizens in its category of 1,500 "suspicious incidents". The equally secret Counterintelligence Field Activity (Cifa) agency of the Department of Defense has been gathering information about domestic organisations engaged in peaceful political activities: Cifa is supposed to track "potential terrorist threats" as it watches ordinary US citizen activists. A little-noticed new law has redefined activism such as animal rights protests as "terrorism". So the definition of "terrorist" slowly expands to include the opposition.
6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release
This scares people. It is a kind of cat-and-mouse game. Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the investigative reporters who wrote China Wakes: the Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power, describe pro-democracy activists in China, such as Wei Jingsheng, being arrested and released many times. In a closing or closed society there is a "list" of dissidents and opposition leaders: you are targeted in this way once you are on the list, and it is hard to get off the list.
In 2004, America's Transportation Security Administration confirmed that it had a list of passengers who were targeted for security searches or worse if they tried to fly. People who have found themselves on the list? Two middle-aged women peace activists in San Francisco; liberal Senator Edward Kennedy; a member of Venezuela's government - after Venezuela's president had criticised Bush; and thousands of ordinary US citizens.
Professor Walter F Murphy is emeritus of Princeton University; he is one of the foremost constitutional scholars in the nation and author of the classic Constitutional Democracy. Murphy is also a decorated former marine, and he is not even especially politically liberal. But on March 1 this year, he was denied a boarding pass at Newark, "because I was on the Terrorist Watch list".
"Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that," asked the airline employee.
"I explained," said Murphy, "that I had not so marched but had, in September 2006, given a lecture at Princeton, televised and put on the web, highly critical of George Bush for his many violations of the constitution."
"That'll do it," the man said.
Anti-war marcher? Potential terrorist. Support the constitution? Potential terrorist. History shows that the categories of "enemy of the people" tend to expand ever deeper into civil life.
James Yee, a US citizen, was the Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo who was accused of mishandling classified documents. He was harassed by the US military before the charges against him were dropped. Yee has been detained and released several times. He is still of interest.
Brandon Mayfield, a US citizen and lawyer in Oregon, was mistakenly identified as a possible terrorist. His house was secretly broken into and his computer seized. Though he is innocent of the accusation against him, he is still on the list.
It is a standard practice of fascist societies that once you are on the list, you can't get off.
7. Target key individuals
Threaten civil servants, artists and academics with job loss if they don't toe the line. Mussolini went after the rectors of state universities who did not conform to the fascist line; so did Joseph Goebbels, who purged academics who were not pro-Nazi; so did Chile's Augusto Pinochet; so does the Chinese communist Politburo in punishing pro-democracy students and professors.
Academe is a tinderbox of activism, so those seeking a fascist shift punish academics and students with professional loss if they do not "coordinate", in Goebbels' term, ideologically. Since civil servants are the sector of society most vulnerable to being fired by a given regime, they are also a group that fascists typically "coordinate" early on: the Reich Law for the Re-establishment of a Professional Civil Service was passed on April 7 1933.
Bush supporters in state legislatures in several states put pressure on regents at state universities to penalise or fire academics who have been critical of the administration. As for civil servants, the Bush administration has derailed the career of one military lawyer who spoke up for fair trials for detainees, while an administration official publicly intimidated the law firms that represent detainees pro bono by threatening to call for their major corporate clients to boycott them.
Elsewhere, a CIA contract worker who said in a closed blog that "waterboarding is torture" was stripped of the security clearance she needed in order to do her job.
Most recently, the administration purged eight US attorneys for what looks like insufficient political loyalty. When Goebbels purged the civil service in April 1933, attorneys were "coordinated" too, a step that eased the way of the increasingly brutal laws to follow.
8. Control the press
Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 30s, East Germany in the 50s, Czechoslovakia in the 60s, the Latin American dictatorships in the 70s, China in the 80s and 90s - all dictatorships and would-be dictators target newspapers and journalists. They threaten and harass them in more open societies that they are seeking to close, and they arrest them and worse in societies that have been closed already.
The Committee to Protect Journalists says arrests of US journalists are at an all-time high: Josh Wolf (no relation), a blogger in San Francisco, has been put in jail for a year for refusing to turn over video of an anti-war demonstration; Homeland Security brought a criminal complaint against reporter Greg Palast, claiming he threatened "critical infrastructure" when he and a TV producer were filming victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. Palast had written a bestseller critical of the Bush administration.
Other reporters and writers have been punished in other ways. Joseph C Wilson accused Bush, in a New York Times op-ed, of leading the country to war on the basis of a false charge that Saddam Hussein had acquired yellowcake uranium in Niger. His wife, Valerie Plame, was outed as a CIA spy - a form of retaliation that ended her career.
Prosecution and job loss are nothing, though, compared with how the US is treating journalists seeking to cover the conflict in Iraq in an unbiased way. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented multiple accounts of the US military in Iraq firing upon or threatening to fire upon unembedded (meaning independent) reporters and camera operators from organisations ranging from al-Jazeera to the BBC. While westerners may question the accounts by al-Jazeera, they should pay attention to the accounts of reporters such as the BBC's Kate Adie. In some cases reporters have been wounded or killed, including ITN's Terry Lloyd in 2003. Both CBS and the Associated Press in Iraq had staff members seized by the US military and taken to violent prisons; the news organisations were unable to see the evidence against their staffers.
Over time in closing societies, real news is supplanted by fake news and false documents. Pinochet showed Chilean citizens falsified documents to back up his claim that terrorists had been about to attack the nation. The yellowcake charge, too, was based on forged papers.
You won't have a shutdown of news in modern America - it is not possible. But you can have, as Frank Rich and Sidney Blumenthal have pointed out, a steady stream of lies polluting the news well. What you already have is a White House directing a stream of false information that is so relentless that it is increasingly hard to sort out truth from untruth. In a fascist system, it's not the lies that count but the muddying. When citizens can't tell real news from fake, they give up their demands for accountability bit by bit.
9. Dissent equals treason
Cast dissent as "treason" and criticism as "espionage'. Every closing society does this, just as it elaborates laws that increasingly criminalise certain kinds of speech and expand the definition of "spy" and "traitor". When Bill Keller, the publisher of the New York Times, ran the Lichtblau/Risen stories, Bush called the Times' leaking of classified information "disgraceful", while Republicans in Congress called for Keller to be charged with treason, and rightwing commentators and news outlets kept up the "treason" drumbeat. Some commentators, as Conason noted, reminded readers smugly that one penalty for violating the Espionage Act is execution.
Conason is right to note how serious a threat that attack represented. It is also important to recall that the 1938 Moscow show trial accused the editor of Izvestia, Nikolai Bukharin, of treason; Bukharin was, in fact, executed. And it is important to remind Americans that when the 1917 Espionage Act was last widely invoked, during the infamous 1919 Palmer Raids, leftist activists were arrested without warrants in sweeping roundups, kept in jail for up to five months, and "beaten, starved, suffocated, tortured and threatened with death", according to the historian Myra MacPherson. After that, dissent was muted in America for a decade.
In Stalin's Soviet Union, dissidents were "enemies of the people". National Socialists called those who supported Weimar democracy "November traitors".
And here is where the circle closes: most Americans do not realise that since September of last year - when Congress wrongly, foolishly, passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 - the president has the power to call any US citizen an "enemy combatant". He has the power to define what "enemy combatant" means. The president can also delegate to anyone he chooses in the executive branch the right to define "enemy combatant" any way he or she wants and then seize Americans accordingly.
Even if you or I are American citizens, even if we turn out to be completely innocent of what he has accused us of doing, he has the power to have us seized as we are changing planes at Newark tomorrow, or have us taken with a knock on the door; ship you or me to a navy brig; and keep you or me in isolation, possibly for months, while awaiting trial. (Prolonged isolation, as psychiatrists know, triggers psychosis in otherwise mentally healthy prisoners. That is why Stalin's gulag had an isolation cell, like Guantánamo's, in every satellite prison. Camp 6, the newest, most brutal facility at Guantánamo, is all isolation cells.)
We US citizens will get a trial eventually - for now. But legal rights activists at the Center for Constitutional Rights say that the Bush administration is trying increasingly aggressively to find ways to get around giving even US citizens fair trials. "Enemy combatant" is a status offence - it is not even something you have to have done. "We have absolutely moved over into a preventive detention model - you look like you could do something bad, you might do something bad, so we're going to hold you," says a spokeswoman of the CCR.
Most Americans surely do not get this yet. No wonder: it is hard to believe, even though it is true. In every closing society, at a certain point there are some high-profile arrests - usually of opposition leaders, clergy and journalists. Then everything goes quiet. After those arrests, there are still newspapers, courts, TV and radio, and the facades of a civil society. There just isn't real dissent. There just isn't freedom. If you look at history, just before those arrests is where we are now.
10. Suspend the rule of law
The John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007 gave the president new powers over the national guard. This means that in a national emergency - which the president now has enhanced powers to declare - he can send Michigan's militia to enforce a state of emergency that he has declared in Oregon, over the objections of the state's governor and its citizens.
Even as Americans were focused on Britney Spears's meltdown and the question of who fathered Anna Nicole's baby, the New York Times editorialised about this shift: "A disturbing recent phenomenon in Washington is that laws that strike to the heart of American democracy have been passed in the dead of night ... Beyond actual insurrection, the president may now use military troops as a domestic police force in response to a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, terrorist attack or any 'other condition'."
Critics see this as a clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act - which was meant to restrain the federal government from using the military for domestic law enforcement. The Democratic senator Patrick Leahy says the bill encourages a president to declare federal martial law. It also violates the very reason the founders set up our system of government as they did: having seen citizens bullied by a monarch's soldiers, the founders were terrified of exactly this kind of concentration of militias' power over American people in the hands of an oppressive executive or faction.
Of course, the United States is not vulnerable to the violent, total closing-down of the system that followed Mussolini's march on Rome or Hitler's roundup of political prisoners. Our democratic habits are too resilient, and our military and judiciary too independent, for any kind of scenario like that.
Rather, as other critics are noting, our experiment in democracy could be closed down by a process of erosion.
It is a mistake to think that early in a fascist shift you see the profile of barbed wire against the sky. In the early days, things look normal on the surface; peasants were celebrating harvest festivals in Calabria in 1922; people were shopping and going to the movies in Berlin in 1931. Early on, as WH Auden put it, the horror is always elsewhere - while someone is being tortured, children are skating, ships are sailing: "dogs go on with their doggy life ... How everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster."
As Americans turn away quite leisurely, keeping tuned to internet shopping and American Idol, the foundations of democracy are being fatally corroded. Something has changed profoundly that weakens us unprecedentedly: our democratic traditions, independent judiciary and free press do their work today in a context in which we are "at war" in a "long war" - a war without end, on a battlefield described as the globe, in a context that gives the president - without US citizens realising it yet - the power over US citizens of freedom or long solitary incarceration, on his say-so alone.
That means a hollowness has been expanding under the foundation of all these still- free-looking institutions - and this foundation can give way under certain kinds of pressure. To prevent such an outcome, we have to think about the "what ifs".
What if, in a year and a half, there is another attack - say, God forbid, a dirty bomb? The executive can declare a state of emergency. History shows that any leader, of any party, will be tempted to maintain emergency powers after the crisis has passed. With the gutting of traditional checks and balances, we are no less endangered by a President Hillary than by a President Giuliani - because any executive will be tempted to enforce his or her will through edict rather than the arduous, uncertain process of democratic negotiation and compromise.
What if the publisher of a major US newspaper were charged with treason or espionage, as a rightwing effort seemed to threaten Keller with last year? What if he or she got 10 years in jail? What would the newspapers look like the next day? Judging from history, they would not cease publishing; but they would suddenly be very polite.
Right now, only a handful of patriots are trying to hold back the tide of tyranny for the rest of us - staff at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who faced death threats for representing the detainees yet persisted all the way to the Supreme Court; activists at the American Civil Liberties Union; and prominent conservatives trying to roll back the corrosive new laws, under the banner of a new group called the American Freedom Agenda. This small, disparate collection of people needs everybody's help, including that of Europeans and others internationally who are willing to put pressure on the administration because they can see what a US unrestrained by real democracy at home can mean for the rest of the world.
We need to look at history and face the "what ifs". For if we keep going down this road, the "end of America" could come for each of us in a different way, at a different moment; each of us might have a different moment when we feel forced to look back and think: that is how it was before - and this is the way it is now.
"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands ... is the definition of tyranny," wrote James Madison. We still have the choice to stop going down this road; we can stand our ground and fight for our nation, and take up the banner the founders asked us to carry.
· Naomi Wolf's The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot will be published by Chelsea Green in September.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Mountain Comes to Mohammed; Watch Bill Moyers Tomorrow Night-- Must See TV


AFTER A WEEK OF LOOKING FOR THE AMERICAN WOODOCOCK in Happy Land (The Middlesex Fells) I finally found him on Sunday night. I did not go back to Greenwood Park, where I had been looking last week, but to another location way across the Fells in a tract known as the Lawrence Woods, named after the benefacftor who donated this large southern chunk of Happy Land to the Fells back in the 1930's. Specifically it's known as the '90mm Site,' as the government placed anti-aircraft guns there during World War II. Nature, ever wiser, has replaced those guns with woodcocks and robins, bats and butterflies. The site is a meadow, though it is reverting to woods; the Friends of the Middlsex Fells have had a few volunteer days up there to clear the brush and help keep the meadow a meadow, as many species depend upon this kind of environment-- the American Woodcock among them.


My friend Robbie came with me Sunday night. We got there about 7:30 just as the sun was going down. The quarter moon was brightening and Venus was just dimly discernable between the bare branches of the trees. We were a little unsure as to where exactly to go-- unlike Greenwood Park, which is one big meadow, this place is much wilder (even though it borders South Border Road on one side) and there are in fact several swaths of open meadow, interrupted by thick tangles and copses of bushes and trees. We finally choose to split the difference and sit on a patch of old tar road halfway between two of the larger open spaces.

The minutes passed by. A man came by with an unleashed dog (a no-no for Woodcocks and against Fells regulations, but people do it anyway) and then passed on. The night grew darker. And then Robbie heard it (I had played some wav files at my house of the peet sound so he would know what to listen for). I did not hear it, but he was sure he did. It was off to the east, in a third little meadow that we hadn't noticed before, past the ruined foundations of an old barracks or something. After a bit we saw the woodcock streak upwards through the twilight, and then we made our move, running closer to where his 'singing ground' was. (You can get away with that without disturbing him while he's up in the air.) It was then that I heard it. Peet peet peet peet. We moved again, and then again a third time, and came quite close to him, so close that I could even hear his amazing whistle/flutter as he came back down to earth. I suppose he made about 7-9 trips up to the sky during the next half an hour. By 8:30, it seemed he had finished, and we left, but not before seeing a ton of small bats fluttering around (one zoomed about 12 inches past my face and I could feel the wind-flutter of him) and also a shooting star. It was so wonderful to finally see this amazing native bird and his breathtaking, spectacular spring display, not in an Audubon Sanctuary, not in a National Wildlife Refuge, but right in my own backyard as it were. It just convinces me that despite all the problems that besiege the world these days, some things are still right, some things are still working, some things are still beautiful and full of wonder-- and worth protecting. I also went out last night by myself, and saw/listened to him again. I sure hope there are some female woodcock up there, to keep the miracle going. Generally woodcock will return to the same field in which they were born. The female scratches out a nest on the ground (hence the danger when dogs run loose) and raises the young herself. The hatchlings (pic above) are born precocial, which means with feathers and bill, and can fly 24 days after hatching out.


Must See TV


This is taken from DavidMixner.com and his Live from Turkey Hollow blog-- I had heard about this a few weeks ago from young Scotty, and thanks David for the reminder:


Tomorrow night, Wednesday night on PBS, we get to see the return of Bill Moyers with a documentary entitled, Buying the War: How did the mainstream press get it wrong? Those who have seen a preview say it will change how we look at television news from now on. This documentary examines how the press played an important role in leading us into the Iraq War by blindly accepting the Bush Administration’s distortions and deceptions.


David Swanson, a guest columnist for truthout.com, previewed the program and gives it rave reviews. Listen to what he has to say and then be sure to tune in for this important show:
“But what comes out of watching this show is a powerful realization that no investigation is needed by Congress, just as no hidden information was needed for the media to get the story right in the first place. The claims that the White House made were not honest mistakes. But neither were they deceptions. They were transparent and laughably absurd falsehoods. And they were high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Swanson continues:
“Moyers also hits Tim Russert with a couple of tough questions. Russert expressed regret for not having included any skeptical voices by saying he wished his phone had rung. So Moyers begins the next segment by saying, "Bob Simon didn't wait for the phone to ring," and describing Simon's reporting. Simon says he knew the claims about aluminum tubes were false because "60 Minutes" called up some scientists and researchers and asked them. Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post says that skeptical stories did not get placed on the front page because they were not "definitive."
Moyers shows brief segments of an "Oprah" show in which she has on only pro-war guests and silences a caller who questions some of the White House claims. Just in time for the eternal election season, Moyers includes clips of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry backing the war on the basis of Bush and Cheney's lies. But we also see clips of Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy getting it right.
The Washington Post editorialized in favor of the war 27 times, and published in 2002 about 1,000 articles and columns on the war. But the Post gave a huge anti-war march a total of 36 words. "What got even less ink," Moyers says, "was the release of the National Intelligence Estimate." Even the misleading partial version that the media received failed to fool a careful eye.
Landay recalls: "It said that the majority of analysts believed that those tubes were for the nuclear weapons program. It turns out though, that the majority of intelligence analysts had no background in nuclear weapons." Was Landay the only one capable of noticing this detail?”
Bill Moyer’s Buying the War: How did the media get it wrong? airs on Wednesday, April 25 at 9:00 pm on your local PBS station.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Here We Come a Timberdoodling


OKAY, I MAY AS WELL JUST ADMIT THAT UNTIL TIMBERDOODLE SEASON IS OVER (which I don't know exactly when that will be) I'll probably be writing about them. As those who are still with me on this may remember from previous posts, rumor has it that the American Woodcock lives right down the street, in Greenwood Field, a small soccer field/playground thingy right down the street. I went down there Saturday night (the first night I heard about this) as well as Monday night and Thursday night-- no dice yet, but all those nights were very raw and cloudy, when the ritual is not as liable to happen. So tonight I'm hoping for results! As I write at 5:40 pm it's sunny and a lovely 59 degrees. I was reading a bird book last night, and in the author's accounts of watching for the woodcock, the male began his peet peet peet calls, which precede the mating flight, exactly at the moment of sunset on several occasions-- tonight's sunset is at 7:31, so I'll plan on being down there by 7:20. Last night, I was there from 6:45 (admittedly way too early) and a young girls' soccer game or practice was in session. I mentally shooed them off the field, and they, surprisingly, complied shortly thereafter, big fat SUV's coming to pick them all up. Then a guy came by with an unleashed dog later, and off into the woods off to the side they went (unleashed dogs are of course verboten in The Fells, but alas too many people ignore that, especially the ones with big dogs, hence, I never go into the Fells with Fionn alone, though I used to with Biscuit.) He left after about 30 minutes. I was just about to go home when a car pulled up and two very nice people, a man and a woman, about early sixties maybe and the bird watching type by the looks of things, got out and starting hanging around. They, too, were looking for the Woodcock and in fact the woman was doing a breeding survey for Audubon and this was part of her section. We waited together for about 25 minutes before finally calling it quits at about 8:10 or so. So....here's hoping for a sighting tonight, which I will of course duly report. If he doesn't show tonight, I'll try the old 90 mm gun site in the restored meadow on the other side of the Fells (the Lawrence Woods, in medford) on Sunday night.

Wednesday night we saw Matt and Shanno Heaton perofmr at Club Passim, along with Nightingale, a trio from Vermont combining Celtic, French, Quebecois, Scandanavian, and other influences-- what a great concert it was! Tomorrow night we are going to see the amazingly wonderful Loreena McKennet at the Wang Center-- can't wait!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Of Woodcock and Vonnegut (Which is, Of Course, Not to be Confused With Sixpence and Lucy)


A NUMBER OF FRIENDS HAVE COMMENTED, "Joe, you're getting obsessed with this Woodcock," and it's true enough-- in fact I am revelling in it. God knows it's cheaper than cocaine and much more enjoyable than, say, a stick in the eye or an abusive lover. And now that I know this wonderful, bizarre creation with its even more astonishing, bizarre mating dance lives in my own backyard (i.e., The Fells) and has been observed 400 yards from where I lay my head at night, I am delirious as only the obsessed can be. But (there is always a but!) since I have made this amazing discovery the weather has devolved into a November-ish, Hawthorne-esque, Longfellow-esque New England Nor'easter gale. Essentially it's been raining since Saturday night (here it is Tuesday at 11) and the wind is rattling my house on the hill tonight as much as it did Sunday night. I am anxious about my Timberdoodles (a common name for American Woodcock) and have been haunting the field down the street where they were observed (but not yet by me) every night since, though I skipped tonight as it was far too miserable for man or Timberdoodle. Saturday night I think I got there too late, or maybe it was the raw, cloudy weather-- or maybe Fionn (whom I brought with-- probably not the brightest thing I've ever done) discouraged the performance. At any rate, below is THE VERY BEST SOUND WAV I HAVE FOUND THAT GIVES BOTH THE NASAL PEET OF THE WOODCOCK BEFORE HE TAKES OFF AS WELL AS THE CRAZY WHISTLING SOUND HE MAKES ONCE HE IS AIRBORNE. Anyone know how I can download this on my phone? Such things are beyond me. Check the calls out, the link is in the paragraph below:


"The other time when a woodcock is likely to be observed is during its elaborate courtship ritual; but it is the call of the woodcock that will first attract your attention. The American woodcock will make several nasal peenting sounds before it launches into the air, spiraling up to 300 feet and then returning to the ground in what can only be described as a controlled fall. While in the air a twittering sound emanates from the bird - a combination of vocal calls and wind flowing through specially designed wing feathers functioning as musical reeds.

Listen to the American woodcock. (Real Player required)The sight and sound of the woodcock's sky dance cannot be adequately described. One needs to observe the phenomena to fully comprehend the intricacy, absurdity and wonder of the performance. So, pick a warm still evening in early April, head towards an open field (if it has a low boggy area, all the better), walk and listen for the telltale "peent" or "zeeeep", and then try to see (moonlit nights will be best) nature's whirling dervish - the American woodcock."


Finally, a shout out to a great man of letters, Kurt Vonnegut, who died last week. Like many American writers of the Old School (and it makes me feel old to say that) he was a man of keen social/political observation, and would no longer NOT comment on the current state of affairs than, well, than most of today's writers apparently would. His second-to-last book was God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, in which he imagines that he has been 'temporarily' killed by Dr. Jack Kevorkian for the purpose of going to Heaven and interviewing the famous and not so famous. In one of these imagined interviews, Vonnegut meets one of his life-long heroes, the now almost forgotten Eugene Victor Debbs, (1865-1926) who was a five-time candidate for President under the Socialist Party, when this country still had a sizeable Socialist Party (if one can imagine such a thing). Debbs was also the organizer and leader of the first successful strike against a major US industry (the railroads). Vonnegut begins the interview by telling Debbs that one of his favorite quotes, which he uses often in speeches, is one by Debbs, in which he said, "As long as there is a lower class, I am in it; as long as there is a criminal element, I am off it; as long as there is one soul imprisoned, I am not free."


After saying this, Vonnegut is asked by Debbs how these words are received nowadays on planet earth in general and the USA in particular.

"They are ridiculed," Vonnegut replies. "People snicker and snort."

Then Debbs asked what our fastest growing industry was.

"The building of prisons," I told him.

"What a shame," he said. "And tell me," Debbs added, "how is the Sermon on the Mount going over these days?"


Before Vonnegut can answer him, however-- Debbs spreads his wings and flies away.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever, But Forever is Gone to Some

Pearls Before Breakfast-- This is a great article that appeared in last Sunday's Washington Post Magazine. It reminds me of the time I was waiting for a train in Harvard Station's underground, and these two buskers working together-- a black guy and a white woman-- were making amazingly happy music. It was the Christmas season, so they were playing holiday tunes-- but like you never heard before. It was all reggae and funky and just-- happy, infectious, joyous. They were both beaming and laughing as they played their instruments and sang, seemingly oblivious to the fact that most people were ignoring them at best or annoyed by them at worst. I just had to keep listening. I let one train go, then two. My feet started tapping. Finally the guy said, "Go ahead, man, dance! Dance!" and so what the heck I did. I believe people thought I was part of the act after a while. Now it was my turn to feel the aversion of the crowd. People tssked if I happened to spin around or cut a caper and interrupt their strident path. Of course, some people were probably mourning the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, an illness, a horrible boss and a more horrible job which they were already late for. But surely ALL of them couldn't have been in that listing boat! Eventually I said goodbye, warmed to my soul by the happiness floating in the air that morning, which was free to all for the taking. No doubt I was late for wherever I was going-- but I can't even remember my destination that day; but that music, and the gift of it given so freely, will always warm my heart.
And speaking of which-- I have been writing lately quite extensively of the spring mating ritual of the amazing American Woodcock. I can't adequately express the unbridled joy witnessing this miracle of nature has caused me. To coin a phrase, to think this has happening all along, and I never knew! Well, it has, for hundreds of thousands of years in fact, if not millions, and it still happens today, though we have banished it into forgotten corners that have somehow escaped our ravenous appetite for strip malls, highways, and McMansions. It still amazes me that the birds that are performing this ritual today stretch back, egg to precarious egg, young, just-hatched chick to young, just-hatched chick-- for millions of years. And all we have done to ruin this amazingly beautiful world hasn't stopped it-- yet. (The numbers of American Woodcock, alas, like so many other species, are in sharp decline.) I have been going somewhat far afield to see and hear this miracle of spring-- to Sudbury's Great Meadows, to the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary-- and all along, this thing was happening virtually under my nose. I wrote to Hue Holley, a member of the Friends of the Middlesex Fells who runs the annual Big Night event (when the male salamanders come out to 'congress') and asked him if he knew of any places in the Fells where the American Woodcock did their thing. In the meantime, Chris and I finished a hike yesterday morning by stopping in at the Botume House, the headquarters of the Fells-- it was there that we read, from a birding survey conducted some years ago, that the American Woodcock did in fact call the Fells home. But where? It didn't say. Hue Holley's answer came via email yesterday afternnon. One of his birding friends had actually seen the bird while sitting in the car with his wife down at the soccer field at Greenfield Park-- which is literally about 400 yards from my home. What a metaphor this is, for the tender, miraculous, life-worth-living beauty that very often lives under our noses, and we too busy to see!
Which I think is the perfect segue into the article from the Post, which is here in its entirety. Very thought provoking.

Can one of the nation's great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let's find out.

By Gene WeingartenWashington Post Staff WriterSunday, April 8, 2007

HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L'ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.
It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L'Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.
Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?
On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?
The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls.
The acoustics proved surprisingly kind. Though the arcade is of utilitarian design, a buffer between the Metro escalator and the outdoors, it somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and resonant. The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician's masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang -- ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.
So, what do you think happened?
HANG ON, WE'LL GET YOU SOME EXPERT HELP.
Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked the same question. What did he think would occur, hypothetically, if one of the world's great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people?
"Let's assume," Slatkin said, "that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don't think that if he's really good, he's going to go unnoticed. He'd get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening."
So, a crowd would gather?
"Oh, yes."
And how much will he make?
"About $150."
Thanks, Maestro. As it happens, this is not hypothetical. It really happened.
"How'd I do?"
We'll tell you in a minute.
"Well, who was the musician?"
Joshua Bell.
"NO!!!"
A onetime child prodigy, at 39 Joshua Bell has arrived as an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston's stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements. But on that Friday in January, Joshua Bell was just another mendicant, competing for the attention of busy people on their way to work.
Bell was first pitched this idea shortly before Christmas, over coffee at a sandwich shop on Capitol Hill. A New Yorker, he was in town to perform at the Library of Congress and to visit the library's vaults to examine an unusual treasure: an 18th-century violin that once belonged to the great Austrian-born virtuoso and composer Fritz Kreisler. The curators invited Bell to play it; good sound, still.
"Here's what I'm thinking," Bell confided, as he sipped his coffee. "I'm thinking that I could do a tour where I'd play Kreisler's music . . ."
He smiled.
". . . on Kreisler's violin."
It was a snazzy, sequined idea -- part inspiration and part gimmick -- and it was typical of Bell, who has unapologetically embraced showmanship even as his concert career has become more and more august. He's soloed with the finest orchestras here and abroad, but he's also appeared on "Sesame Street," done late-night talk TV and performed in feature films. That was Bell playing the soundtrack on the 1998 movie "The Red Violin." (He body-doubled, too, playing to a naked Greta Scacchi.) As composer John Corigliano accepted the Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score, he credited Bell, who, he said, "plays like a god."
When Bell was asked if he'd be willing to don street clothes and perform at rush hour, he said:
"Uh, a stunt?"
Well, yes. A stunt. Would he think it . . . unseemly?
Bell drained his cup.
"Sounds like fun," he said.
Bell's a heartthrob. Tall and handsome, he's got a Donny Osmond-like dose of the cutes, and, onstage, cute elides into hott. When he performs, he is usually the only man under the lights who is not in white tie and tails -- he walks out to a standing O, looking like Zorro, in black pants and an untucked black dress shirt, shirttail dangling. That cute Beatles-style mop top is also a strategic asset: Because his technique is full of body -- athletic and passionate -- he's almost dancing with the instrument, and his hair flies.
He's single and straight, a fact not lost on some of his fans. In Boston, as he performed Max Bruch's dour Violin Concerto in G Minor, the very few young women in the audience nearly disappeared in the deep sea of silver heads. But seemingly every single one of them -- a distillate of the young and pretty -- coalesced at the stage door after the performance, seeking an autograph. It's like that always, with Bell.
Bell's been accepting over-the-top accolades since puberty: Interview magazine once said his playing "does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live." He's learned to field these things graciously, with a bashful duck of the head and a modified "pshaw."
For this incognito performance, Bell had only one condition for participating. The event had been described to him as a test of whether, in an incongruous context, ordinary people would recognize genius. His condition: "I'm not comfortable if you call this genius." "Genius" is an overused word, he said: It can be applied to some of the composers whose work he plays, but not to him. His skills are largely interpretive, he said, and to imply otherwise would be unseemly and inaccurate.
It was an interesting request, and under the circumstances, one that will be honored. The word will not again appear in this article.
It would be breaking no rules, however, to note that the term in question, particularly as applied in the field of music, refers to a congenital brilliance -- an elite, innate, preternatural ability that manifests itself early, and often in dramatic fashion.
One biographically intriguing fact about Bell is that he got his first music lessons when he was a 4-year-old in Bloomington, Ind. His parents, both psychologists, decided formal training might be a good idea after they saw that their son had strung rubber bands across his dresser drawers and was replicating classical tunes by ear, moving drawers in and out to vary the pitch.
TO GET TO THE METRO FROM HIS HOTEL, a distance of three blocks, Bell took a taxi. He's neither lame nor lazy: He did it for his violin.
Bell always performs on the same instrument, and he ruled out using another for this gig. Called the Gibson ex Huberman, it was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master's "golden period," toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been refined to perfection.
"Our knowledge of acoustics is still incomplete," Bell said, "but he, he just . . . knew."
Bell doesn't mention Stradivari by name. Just "he." When the violinist shows his Strad to people, he holds the instrument gingerly by its neck, resting it on a knee. "He made this to perfect thickness at all parts," Bell says, pivoting it. "If you shaved off a millimeter of wood at any point, it would totally imbalance the sound." No violins sound as wonderful as Strads from the 1710s, still.
The front of Bell's violin is in nearly perfect condition, with a deep, rich grain and luster. The back is a mess, its dark reddish finish bleeding away into a flatter, lighter shade and finally, in one section, to bare wood.
"This has never been refinished," Bell said. "That's his original varnish. People attribute aspects of the sound to the varnish. Each maker had his own secret formula." Stradivari is thought to have made his from an ingeniously balanced cocktail of honey, egg whites and gum arabic from sub-Saharan trees.
Like the instrument in "The Red Violin," this one has a past filled with mystery and malice. Twice, it was stolen from its illustrious prior owner, the Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman. The first time, in 1919, it disappeared from Huberman's hotel room in Vienna but was quickly returned. The second time, nearly 20 years later, it was pinched from his dressing room in Carnegie Hall. He never got it back. It was not until 1985 that the thief -- a minor New York violinist -- made a deathbed confession to his wife, and produced the instrument.
Bell bought it a few years ago. He had to sell his own Strad and borrow much of the rest. The price tag was reported to be about $3.5 million.
All of which is a long explanation for why, in the early morning chill of a day in January, Josh Bell took a three-block cab ride to the Orange Line, and rode one stop to L'Enfant.
AS METRO STATIONS GO, L'ENFANT PLAZA IS MORE PLEBEIAN THAN MOST. Even before you arrive, it gets no respect. Metro conductors never seem to get it right: "Leh-fahn." "Layfont." "El'phant."
At the top of the escalators are a shoeshine stand and a busy kiosk that sells newspapers, lottery tickets and a wallfull of magazines with titles such as Mammazons and Girls of Barely Legal. The skin mags move, but it's that lottery ticket dispenser that stays the busiest, with customers queuing up for Daily 6 lotto and Powerball and the ultimate suckers' bait, those pamphlets that sell random number combinations purporting to be "hot." They sell briskly. There's also a quick-check machine to slide in your lotto ticket, post-drawing, to see if you've won. Beneath it is a forlorn pile of crumpled slips.
On Friday, January 12, the people waiting in the lottery line looking for a long shot would get a lucky break -- a free, close-up ticket to a concert by one of the world's most famous musicians -- but only if they were of a mind to take note.
Bell decided to begin with "Chaconne" from Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Bell calls it "not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It's a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect. Plus, it was written for a solo violin, so I won't be cheating with some half-assed version."
Bell didn't say it, but Bach's "Chaconne" is also considered one of the most difficult violin pieces to master. Many try; few succeed. It's exhaustingly long -- 14 minutes -- and consists entirely of a single, succinct musical progression repeated in dozens of variations to create a dauntingly complex architecture of sound. Composed around 1720, on the eve of the European Enlightenment, it is said to be a celebration of the breadth of human possibility.
If Bell's encomium to "Chaconne" seems overly effusive, consider this from the 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Clara Schumann: "On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."
So, that's the piece Bell started with.
He'd clearly meant it when he promised not to cheap out this performance: He played with acrobatic enthusiasm, his body leaning into the music and arching on tiptoes at the high notes. The sound was nearly symphonic, carrying to all parts of the homely arcade as the pedestrian traffic filed past.
Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something.
A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened.
Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.
No, Mr. Slatkin, there was never a crowd, not even for a second.
It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.
Even at this accelerated pace, though, the fiddler's movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience -- unseen, unheard, otherworldly -- that you find yourself thinking that he's not really there. A ghost.
Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.
IF A GREAT MUSICIAN PLAYS GREAT MUSIC BUT NO ONE HEARS . . . WAS HE REALLY ANY GOOD?
It's an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?
We'll go with Kant, because he's obviously right, and because he brings us pretty directly to Joshua Bell, sitting there in a hotel restaurant, picking at his breakfast, wryly trying to figure out what the hell had just happened back there at the Metro.
"At the beginning," Bell says, "I was just concentrating on playing the music. I wasn't really watching what was happening around me . . ."
Playing the violin looks all-consuming, mentally and physically, but Bell says that for him the mechanics of it are partly second nature, cemented by practice and muscle memory: It's like a juggler, he says, who can keep those balls in play while interacting with a crowd. What he's mostly thinking about as he plays, Bell says, is capturing emotion as a narrative: "When you play a violin piece, you are a storyteller, and you're telling a story."
With "Chaconne," the opening is filled with a building sense of awe. That kept him busy for a while. Eventually, though, he began to steal a sidelong glance.
"It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . ."
The word doesn't come easily.
". . . ignoring me."
Bell is laughing. It's at himself.
"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change." This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.
Before he began, Bell hadn't known what to expect. What he does know is that, for some reason, he was nervous.
"It wasn't exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies," he says. "I was stressing a little."
Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the anxiety at the Washington Metro?
"When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me? What if they resent my presence . . ."
He was, in short, art without a frame. Which, it turns out, may have a lot to do with what happened -- or, more precisely, what didn't happen -- on January 12.
MARK LEITHAUSER HAS HELD IN HIS HANDS MORE GREAT WORKS OF ART THAN ANY KING OR POPE OR MEDICI EVER DID. A senior curator at the National Gallery, he oversees the framing of the paintings. Leithauser thinks he has some idea of what happened at that Metro station.
"Let's say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It's a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: 'Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'"
Leithauser's point is that we shouldn't be too ready to label the Metro passersby unsophisticated boobs. Context matters.
Kant said the same thing. He took beauty seriously: In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Kant argued that one's ability to appreciate beauty is related to one's ability to make moral judgments. But there was a caveat. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America's most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal.
"Optimal," Guyer said, "doesn't mean heading to work, focusing on your report to the boss, maybe your shoes don't fit right."
So, if Kant had been at the Metro watching as Joshua Bell play to a thousand unimpressed passersby?
"He would have inferred about them," Guyer said, "absolutely nothing."
And that's that.
Except it isn't. To really understand what happened, you have to rewind that video and play it back from the beginning, from the moment Bell's bow first touched the strings.
White guy, khakis, leather jacket, briefcase. Early 30s. John David Mortensen is on the final leg of his daily bus-to-Metro commute from Reston. He's heading up the escalator. It's a long ride -- 1 minute and 15 seconds if you don't walk. So, like most everyone who passes Bell this day, Mortensen gets a good earful of music before he has his first look at the musician. Like most of them, he notes that it sounds pretty good. But like very few of them, when he gets to the top, he doesn't race past as though Bell were some nuisance to be avoided. Mortensen is that first person to stop, that guy at the six-minute mark.
It's not that he has nothing else to do. He's a project manager for an international program at the Department of Energy; on this day, Mortensen has to participate in a monthly budget exercise, not the most exciting part of his job: "You review the past month's expenditures," he says, "forecast spending for the next month, if you have X dollars, where will it go, that sort of thing."
On the video, you can see Mortensen get off the escalator and look around. He locates the violinist, stops, walks away but then is drawn back. He checks the time on his cellphone -- he's three minutes early for work -- then settles against a wall to listen.
Mortensen doesn't know classical music at all; classic rock is as close as he comes. But there's something about what he's hearing that he really likes.
As it happens, he's arrived at the moment that Bell slides into the second section of "Chaconne." ("It's the point," Bell says, "where it moves from a darker, minor key into a major key. There's a religious, exalted feeling to it.") The violinist's bow begins to dance; the music becomes upbeat, playful, theatrical, big.
Mortensen doesn't know about major or minor keys: "Whatever it was," he says, "it made me feel at peace."
So, for the first time in his life, Mortensen lingers to listen to a street musician. He stays his allotted three minutes as 94 more people pass briskly by. When he leaves to help plan contingency budgets for the Department of Energy, there's another first. For the first time in his life, not quite knowing what had just happened but sensing it was special, John David Mortensen gives a street musician money.
THERE ARE SIX MOMENTS IN THE VIDEO THAT BELL FINDS PARTICULARLY PAINFUL TO RELIVE: "The awkward times," he calls them. It's what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn't noticed him playing don't notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord -- the embarrassed musician's equivalent of, "Er, okay, moving right along . . ." -- and begins the next piece.
After "Chaconne," it is Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria," which surprised some music critics when it debuted in 1825: Schubert seldom showed religious feeling in his compositions, yet "Ave Maria" is a breathtaking work of adoration of the Virgin Mary. What was with the sudden piety? Schubert dryly answered: "I think this is due to the fact that I never forced devotion in myself and never compose hymns or prayers of that kind unless it overcomes me unawares; but then it is usually the right and true devotion." This musical prayer became among the most familiar and enduring religious pieces in history.
A couple of minutes into it, something revealing happens. A woman and her preschooler emerge from the escalator. The woman is walking briskly and, therefore, so is the child. She's got his hand.
"I had a time crunch," recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a federal agency. "I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training facility in the basement."
Evvie is her son, Evan. Evan is 3.
You can see Evan clearly on the video. He's the cute black kid in the parka who keeps twisting around to look at Joshua Bell, as he is being propelled toward the door.
"There was a musician," Parker says, "and my son was intrigued. He wanted to pull over and listen, but I was rushed for time."
So Parker does what she has to do. She deftly moves her body between Evan's and Bell's, cutting off her son's line of sight. As they exit the arcade, Evan can still be seen craning to look. When Parker is told what she walked out on, she laughs.
"Evan is very smart!"
The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother's heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.
There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.
IF THERE WAS ONE PERSON ON THAT DAY WHO WAS TOO BUSY TO PAY ATTENTION TO THE VIOLINIST, it was George Tindley. Tindley wasn't hurrying to get to work. He was at work.
The glass doors through which most people exit the L'Enfant station lead into an indoor shopping mall, from which there are exits to the street and elevators to office buildings. The first store in the mall is an Au Bon Pain, the croissant and coffee shop where Tindley, in his 40s, works in a white uniform busing the tables, restocking the salt and pepper packets, taking out the garbage. Tindley labors under the watchful eye of his bosses, and he's supposed to be hopping, and he was.
But every minute or so, as though drawn by something not entirely within his control, Tindley would walk to the very edge of the Au Bon Pain property, keeping his toes inside the line, still on the job. Then he'd lean forward, as far out into the hallway as he could, watching the fiddler on the other side of the glass doors. The foot traffic was steady, so the doors were usually open. The sound came through pretty well.
"You could tell in one second that this guy was good, that he was clearly a professional," Tindley says. He plays the guitar, loves the sound of strings, and has no respect for a certain kind of musician.
"Most people, they play music; they don't feel it," Tindley says. "Well, that man was feeling it. That man was moving. Moving into the sound."
A hundred feet away, across the arcade, was the lottery line, sometimes five or six people long. They had a much better view of Bell than Tindley did, if they had just turned around. But no one did. Not in the entire 43 minutes. They just shuffled forward toward that machine spitting out numbers. Eyes on the prize.
J.T. Tillman was in that line. A computer specialist for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he remembers every single number he played that day -- 10 of them, $2 apiece, for a total of $20. He doesn't recall what the violinist was playing, though. He says it sounded like generic classical music, the kind the ship's band was playing in "Titanic," before the iceberg.
"I didn't think nothing of it," Tillman says, "just a guy trying to make a couple of bucks." Tillman would have given him one or two, he said, but he spent all his cash on lotto.
When he is told that he stiffed one of the best musicians in the world, he laughs.
"Is he ever going to play around here again?"
"Yeah, but you're going to have to pay a lot to hear him."
"Damn."
Tillman didn't win the lottery, either.
BELL ENDS "AVE MARIA" TO ANOTHER THUNDEROUS SILENCE, plays Manuel Ponce's sentimental "Estrellita," then a piece by Jules Massenet, and then begins a Bach gavotte, a joyful, frolicsome, lyrical dance. It's got an Old World delicacy to it; you can imagine it entertaining bewigged dancers at a Versailles ball, or -- in a lute, fiddle and fife version -- the boot-kicking peasants of a Pieter Bruegel painting.
Watching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one thing only. He understands why he's not drawing a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday. But: "I'm surprised at the number of people who don't pay attention at all, as if I'm invisible. Because, you know what? I'm makin' a lot of noise!"
He is. You don't need to know music at all to appreciate the simple fact that there's a guy there, playing a violin that's throwing out a whole bucket of sound; at times, Bell's bowing is so intricate that you seem to be hearing two instruments playing in harmony. So those head-forward, quick-stepping passersby are a remarkable phenomenon.
Bell wonders whether their inattention may be deliberate: If you don't take visible note of the musician, you don't have to feel guilty about not forking over money; you're not complicit in a rip-off.
It may be true, but no one gave that explanation. People just said they were busy, had other things on their mind. Some who were on cellphones spoke louder as they passed Bell, to compete with that infernal racket.
And then there was Calvin Myint. Myint works for the General Services Administration. He got to the top of the escalator, turned right and headed out a door to the street. A few hours later, he had no memory that there had been a musician anywhere in sight.
"Where was he, in relation to me?"
"About four feet away."
"Oh."
There's nothing wrong with Myint's hearing. He had buds in his ear. He was listening to his iPod.
For many of us, the explosion in technology has perversely limited, not expanded, our exposure to new experiences. Increasingly, we get our news from sources that think as we already do. And with iPods, we hear what we already know; we program our own playlists.
The song that Calvin Myint was listening to was "Just Like Heaven," by the British rock band The Cure. It's a terrific song, actually. The meaning is a little opaque, and the Web is filled with earnest efforts to deconstruct it. Many are far-fetched, but some are right on point: It's about a tragic emotional disconnect. A man has found the woman of his dreams but can't express the depth of his feeling for her until she's gone. It's about failing to see the beauty of what's plainly in front of your eyes.
"YES, I SAW THE VIOLINIST," Jackie Hessian says, "but nothing about him struck me as much of anything."
You couldn't tell that by watching her. Hessian was one of those people who gave Bell a long, hard look before walking on. It turns out that she wasn't noticing the music at all.
"I really didn't hear that much," she said. "I was just trying to figure out what he was doing there, how does this work for him, can he make much money, would it be better to start with some money in the case, or for it to be empty, so people feel sorry for you? I was analyzing it financially."
What do you do, Jackie?
"I'm a lawyer in labor relations with the United States Postal Service. I just negotiated a national contract."
THE BEST SEATS IN THE HOUSE WERE UPHOLSTERED. In the balcony, more or less. On that day, for $5, you'd get a lot more than just a nice shine on your shoes.
Only one person occupied one of those seats when Bell played. Terence Holmes is a consultant for the Department of Transportation, and he liked the music just fine, but it was really about a shoeshine: "My father told me never to wear a suit with your shoes not cleaned and shined."
Holmes wears suits often, so he is up in that perch a lot, and he's got a good relationship with the shoeshine lady. Holmes is a good tipper and a good talker, which is a skill that came in handy that day. The shoeshine lady was upset about something, and the music got her more upset. She complained, Holmes said, that the music was too loud, and he tried to calm her down.
Edna Souza is from Brazil. She's been shining shoes at L'Enfant Plaza for six years, and she's had her fill of street musicians there; when they play, she can't hear her customers, and that's bad for business. So she fights.
Souza points to the dividing line between the Metro property, at the top of the escalator, and the arcade, which is under control of the management company that runs the mall. Sometimes, Souza says, a musician will stand on the Metro side, sometimes on the mall side. Either way, she's got him. On her speed dial, she has phone numbers for both the mall cops and the Metro cops. The musicians seldom last long.
What about Joshua Bell?
He was too loud, too, Souza says. Then she looks down at her rag, sniffs. She hates to say anything positive about these damned musicians, but: "He was pretty good, that guy. It was the first time I didn't call the police."
Souza was surprised to learn he was a famous musician, but not that people rushed blindly by him. That, she said, was predictable. "If something like this happened in Brazil, everyone would stand around to see. Not here."
Souza nods sourly toward a spot near the top of the escalator: "Couple of years ago, a homeless guy died right there. He just lay down there and died. The police came, an ambulance came, and no one even stopped to see or slowed down to look.
"People walk up the escalator, they look straight ahead. Mind your own business, eyes forward. Everyone is stressed. Do you know what I mean?"
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
-- from "Leisure," by W.H. Davies
Let's say Kant is right. Let's accept that we can't look at what happened on January 12 and make any judgment whatever about people's sophistication or their ability to appreciate beauty. But what about their ability to appreciate life?
We're busy. Americans have been busy, as a people, since at least 1831, when a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited the States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.
Not much has changed. Pop in a DVD of "Koyaanisqatsi," the wordless, darkly brilliant, avant-garde 1982 film about the frenetic speed of modern life. Backed by the minimalist music of Philip Glass, director Godfrey Reggio takes film clips of Americans going about their daily business, but speeds them up until they resemble assembly-line machines, robots marching lockstep to nowhere. Now look at the video from L'Enfant Plaza, in fast-forward. The Philip Glass soundtrack fits it perfectly.
"Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi word. It means "life out of balance."
In his 2003 book, Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life, British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for beauty in the modern world. The experiment at L'Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, he said -- not because people didn't have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.
"This is about having the wrong priorities," Lane said.
If we can't take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that -- then what else are we missing?
That's what the Welsh poet W.H. Davies meant in 1911 when he published those two lines that begin this section. They made him famous. The thought was simple, even primitive, but somehow no one had put it quite that way before.
Of course, Davies had an advantage -- an advantage of perception. He wasn't a tradesman or a laborer or a bureaucrat or a consultant or a policy analyst or a labor lawyer or a program manager. He was a hobo.
THE CULTURAL HERO OF THE DAY ARRIVED AT L'ENFANT PLAZA PRETTY LATE, in the unprepossessing figure of one John Picarello, a smallish man with a baldish head.
Picarello hit the top of the escalator just after Bell began his final piece, a reprise of "Chaconne." In the video, you see Picarello stop dead in his tracks, locate the source of the music, and then retreat to the other end of the arcade. He takes up a position past the shoeshine stand, across from that lottery line, and he will not budge for the next nine minutes.
Like all the passersby interviewed for this article, Picarello was stopped by a reporter after he left the building, and was asked for his phone number. Like everyone, he was told only that this was to be an article about commuting. When he was called later in the day, like everyone else, he was first asked if anything unusual had happened to him on his trip into work. Of the more than 40 people contacted, Picarello was the only one who immediately mentioned the violinist.
"There was a musician playing at the top of the escalator at L'Enfant Plaza."
Haven't you seen musicians there before?
"Not like this one."
What do you mean?
"This was a superb violinist. I've never heard anyone of that caliber. He was technically proficient, with very good phrasing. He had a good fiddle, too, with a big, lush sound. I walked a distance away, to hear him. I didn't want to be intrusive on his space."
Really?
"Really. It was that kind of experience. It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day."
Picarello knows classical music. He is a fan of Joshua Bell but didn't recognize him; he hadn't seen a recent photo, and besides, for most of the time Picarello was pretty far away. But he knew this was not a run-of-the-mill guy out there, performing. On the video, you can see Picarello look around him now and then, almost bewildered.
"Yeah, other people just were not getting it. It just wasn't registering. That was baffling to me."
When Picarello was growing up in New York, he studied violin seriously, intending to be a concert musician. But he gave it up at 18, when he decided he'd never be good enough to make it pay. Life does that to you sometimes. Sometimes, you have to do the prudent thing. So he went into another line of work. He's a supervisor at the U.S. Postal Service. Doesn't play the violin much, anymore.
When he left, Picarello says, "I humbly threw in $5." It was humble: You can actually see that on the video. Picarello walks up, barely looking at Bell, and tosses in the money. Then, as if embarrassed, he quickly walks away from the man he once wanted to be.
Does he have regrets about how things worked out?
The postal supervisor considers this.
"No. If you love something but choose not to do it professionally, it's not a waste. Because, you know, you still have it. You have it forever."
BELL THINKS HE DID HIS BEST WORK OF THE DAY IN THOSE FINAL FEW MINUTES, in the second "Chaconne." And that also was the first time more than one person at a time was listening. As Picarello stood in the back, Janice Olu arrived and took up a position a few feet away from Bell. Olu, a public trust officer with HUD, also played the violin as a kid. She didn't know the name of the piece she was hearing, but she knew the man playing it has a gift.
Olu was on a coffee break and stayed as long as she dared. As she turned to go, she whispered to the stranger next to her, "I really don't want to leave." The stranger standing next to her happened to be working for The Washington Post.
In preparing for this event, editors at The Post Magazine discussed how to deal with likely outcomes. The most widely held assumption was that there could well be a problem with crowd control: In a demographic as sophisticated as Washington, the thinking went, several people would surely recognize Bell. Nervous "what-if" scenarios abounded. As people gathered, what if others stopped just to see what the attraction was? Word would spread through the crowd. Cameras would flash. More people flock to the scene; rush-hour pedestrian traffic backs up; tempers flare; the National Guard is called; tear gas, rubber bullets, etc.
As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn't arrive until near the very end. For Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department, there was no doubt. She doesn't know much about classical music, but she had been in the audience three weeks earlier, at Bell's free concert at the Library of Congress. And here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what the heck was going on, but whatever it was, she wasn't about to miss it.
Furukawa positioned herself 10 feet away from Bell, front row, center. She had a huge grin on her face. The grin, and Furukawa, remained planted in that spot until the end.
"It was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen in Washington," Furukawa says. "Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn't do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?"
When it was over, Furukawa introduced herself to Bell, and tossed in a twenty. Not counting that -- it was tainted by recognition -- the final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was $32.17. Yes, some people gave pennies.
"Actually," Bell said with a laugh, "that's not so bad, considering. That's 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I wouldn't have to pay an agent."
These days, at L'Enfant Plaza, lotto ticket sales remain brisk. Musicians still show up from time to time, and they still tick off Edna Souza. Joshua Bell's latest album, "The Voice of the Violin," has received the usual critical acclaim. ("Delicate urgency." "Masterful intimacy." "Unfailingly exquisite." "A musical summit." ". . . will make your heart thump and weep at the same time.")
Bell headed off on a concert tour of European capitals. But he is back in the States this week. He has to be. On Tuesday, he will be accepting the Avery Fisher prize, recognizing the Flop of L'Enfant Plaza as the best classical musician in America.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The People We're 'Freeing' Iraq For

JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT THERE COULDN'T BE ABY WORSE NEWS OUT OF IRAQ, this came in from the UK Guardian. Nice to know our tax dollars are spreading democracy:


Danger at every turn
Peter Tatchell
March 30, 2007 9:00 PM
http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/peter_tatchell/2007/03/iraqs_homophobic_terror.html
Hasan Sabeh was a happy, talented 34-year-old transgender fashion designer, affectionately known as Tamara. He lived in the al-Mansor district of Baghdad. Two months ago, he was tending his fashion accessories stall in a street market. Out of the blue, an Islamist death squad, wearing Iraqi police uniforms, seized Tamara. They stripped off his clothes in the street and, discovering that he was a man dressed as a woman, shot him dead. Tamara's brother-in-law was nearby and rushed to cradle his body. He, too, was shot dead at point blank range. The killers then took Tamara's body, and hanged and mutilated it, as a warning to other gay and transgender Iraqis.
Gay people like Tamara are now being systematically targeted for execution by Shia death squads. The killers are hell-bent on turning the country into a fundamentalist Islamic state, cleansed of all "impure, unIslamic elements." Some operate within the police and others independently. All owe their allegiance to firebrand, militant clerics.
Large parts of Iraq, including many Baghdad neighbourhoods, are now under the de facto control of fundamentalist militias and their elite death squad units - the Islamist equivalent of the Nazi SS.
Gay people are not the only victims. The militias enforce a savage interpretation of Sharia law, summarily executing people for what they denounce as "crimes against Islam". These "crimes" include listening to western pop music, having a fashionable haircut, wearing shorts or jeans, drinking alcohol, selling videos, working in a barber's shop, homosexuality, dancing, having a Sunni name, adultery and, in the case of women, not being veiled or walking in the street unaccompanied by a male relative.
Two militias are doing most of the killing. They are the armed wings of major parties in the Bush and Blair-backed Iraqi government. Madhi is the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, and Badr is the militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), which is the leading political force in Baghdad's government coalition. Both militias want to establish an Iranian-style religious dictatorship - or worse.
Some of the anti-war left in Britain and the US support Muqtada al-Sadr, despite his goal of clerical fascism and his militia's involvement in death squad killings. They hail him as a "national resistance hero" (sic) for fighting the US and UK occupation of Iraq; callously ignoring his militia's sectarian murder of innocent Sunni Muslims, women, gay people and others. The allied occupation of Iraq is bad enough. But victory for the Madhi or Badr militias would result in a reign of religious terror many times worse.
The execution of lesbian and gay Iraqis by Islamist death squads and militias point to the fate that will befall all Iraqis if the fundamentalists continue to gain influence. The killing of queers is the canary in the mine - a warning of the barbarism to come.
Saddam Hussein was a bloody tyrant. I know. For nearly 30 years, I campaigned in support of democratic and leftwing Iraqis who were struggling to overthrow his regime. Where were Bush and Blair in the 1980s? Not protesting against Saddam.
While Saddam was in power, discreet homosexuality was usually tolerated. There was certainly no danger of gay people being assassinated in the street by religious fanatics. Since his overthrow, the violent persecution of lesbians and gays is commonplace. It is actively encouraged by Iraq's leading Muslim cleric, the British and US-backed Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In late 2005, he issued a fatwa ordering the execution of gay Iraqis. His followers in the Islamist militias are now systematically assassinating lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
Lesbian and gay Iraqis cannot seek the protection of the police. Iraq's security forces have been infiltrated by fundamentalists, especially the Badr militia. They have huge influence in the interior ministry and the police, and can kill with impunity. Pro-fundamentalist government ministers are turning a blind eye to the killings, and helping to protect the killers.
Typical of the reign of terror is the fate of Wathiq, aged 29. A gay architect, he was kidnapped in Baghdad. Soon afterwards, the Badr militia sent his parents death threats, accusing them of permitting their son to be gay and demanding a £11,000 ransom. The parents paid the money, thinking it would save Wathiq's life. But he was found dead a few days later, with his body mutilated and his head cut off.
The UK-based gay rights group OutRage! is working to support our counterpart organisation in Baghdad, Iraqi LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender). Despite the great danger involved, Iraqi LGBT has established a clandestine network of gay activists inside Iraq's major cities, including Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Hilla and Basra. These courageous activists are helping gay people on the run from fundamentalist death squads; hiding them in safe houses in Baghdad, and helping them escape to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The world ignores the fate of LGBT Iraqis at its peril. Their fate today is the fate of all Iraqis tomorrow.
Iraqi LGBT is appealing for funds to help the work of their members in Iraq. They don't yet have a bank account. They have asked that cheques be made payable to "OutRage!", with a cover note marked "For Iraqi LGBT", and sent to OutRage!, PO Box 17816, London SW14 8WT.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

American Woodcock, Part III: Timberdoodle with Venus


THERE WAS A PROGRAM LISTED ON THE WEBSITE for the Massachusetts Audubon's Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, touting the American Woodcock. These are the odd looking, beautiful birds that arrive in late March from the Gulf area, and immediately get down to the business of breeding. It is one of the joys of the birder to see the male American Woodcock's spring mating ritual, the nasal peet peet peet call, then the bursting upward (as much as 300 feet) and then the return dive, during which it emits a series of shrill whistling fluttering sounds.
So Chris and I signed up for the program, and went last night up to the Audubon's Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, located in Topsfield, Massachusetts, in what we call the North Shore, Essex Country. It's beautiful country of rolling hills and farmland, horse farms, and of course ocean (and, of course, suburban developments of greater or lesser tackiness). The Sanctuary is the largest Audubon property in the state, at 2265 acres. It was a cloudy, raw daw, but the sky cleared just as we were heading north. The Sanctuary Headquarters are located in a cluster of buildings at the top of a rolling hill, looking out over meadows and forests. American Blue Bird nesting boxes decoate the fields, and wood duck boxes are scattered over the ponds, rivers, and marshes of the Sanctuary. I had been told yesterday when I was trying to register for the program that it was at capacity. I think the very nice woman on the other end of the line felt bad for me, as I moaned and groaned and generally whined something fierce. She called back an hour later to say that she had sought out the program leader for the evening's adventure, a guy by the name of Scott, and he said two more would be okay. Whoopee!!!
We got there in plenty of time and even had time to dawdle a little at the local Richdale store down the way. It was lovely and bright out now, and we met in the barn, a wonderful old building with a great barny (some would say musty) smell. There were about 20 participants, and Scott introduced himself to everyone as we came in, and provided a very welcoming atmosphere. He gave a thirty minute talk on Woodcocks and there habitat needs and characteristics and behaviors, a Q and A session, and then Scott passed around Woodcock feathers, a woodcock's egg, and two woodcock skulls. He also had a stuffed woodcock for us to look at. Then he had us go around the room and introduce ourselves and talk about why we were there. One older couple were visiting from Alberta, Canada, and wanted to see Eastern birds. Well alright! Another guy said he was there for the eroticism.
Then we saddled up and headed out. Scott had explained that woodcock are crepuscular, meaning that they operate and are most active at dawn and again at sunset-- this keeps them out of the way of many of the predators that can go after them. So, the males perform their ritual flight dance at dawn for 30-50 minutes, and again after sunset for the same time, depending on the weather-- more during the full moon and clear skies, less when its cold and/or cloudy and/or rainy. He also explained that Woodcock are odd birds (with the their three inch long, needle-like bills) in that they are shore birds that, somewhere along the line, decided to change their habitat to upland meadows at the edges of woods. (Shades of Eddie Albert singing 'Green Acres.') They now subsist chiefly on earthworms-- on a good day, a woodock can eat his/her own weight in earthworms. They can live up to eight years-- but most of them only make it to two years of age. There are many risks and threats, from loss of habitat (as New England fields and farms revert to woods, or are developed) to hunting (2,000,000 a year are killed by hunters-- bastards!) and predation, by weasals, skunks, owls, hawks, etc. One of the things the female will do is burst from the nest when a predator is near, fluttering about on an (apparent) wounded wing to lead the predator away from the nest, risking her life to save the young. The young are 'precocious,' which means they hatch out, not naked like many birds, but fully feathered. They immediately can start walking around, and can fly at 2 weeks of age, but generally stay with Momma for at least a month to fifty days, by which time they have reached adult size. If the male is successful in attracting a mate during his ritual flight and dance, a female emerges from the woods with her tail feathers raised, they mate, and then the male goes right back to his mating dance, trying to attract another female.
So, we went outside, and Scott told us when the male took off upward during his flight, we would move silently closer; when he returned (when the whistling started) we would have to remain still. We tried one field, but no go, though there were about half a dozen, beautiful white-tail deer grazing there. Then we tried another field-- bingo! We soon heard the distinctive peet peet peet call, then-- there he goes! The burst upward and the crowd oohed and ahhed. We moved closer each time the male flew off from his 'singing ground,' and finally got quite close-- close enough that I could hear the whistling sound of his return, which I had never heard before.
In the meantime it was growing darker, and from the height of this west-and-south facing sloping field we had a panoramic view of a glorious sunset and twilight, and then the stars and planets came out blazing-- especially Venus to the west-- breathtaking. When we were looking at the latter through the binoculars, we spotted just to the northwest the Seven Sisters, the Pleides (sp?) of the constellation Taurus. Really just beautiful. After about 40 minutes of woodcock watching, we returned to the barn area, and there Scott had us listen to the Barred Owl-- haunting and wonderful. Click here to hear the Barred Owl: http://www2.biology.ualberta.ca/uamz.hp/BarredOwlCal2.wav
Scott from time to time would put his hands up to the sides of his mouth and give his rendition of the call to see if he could 'get him going.' It was actually a pretty good imitation. But the neighborhood dogs seemed to respond to it more than the owls themselves.
All told it was simply a magical night, and we felt so lucky and privileged to be able to witness something that's been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. I am definitely joining Audubon, and will take advantage of the many wonderful programs the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary has to offer.