Look at President Donald J. Trump playing “Baby Pinochet”

As of this writing, secret police are cruising the streets of at least one American city, hustling citizens engaged in First Amendment-protected acts of protest off the streets in unmarked cars, where they are detained without charges in federal buildings.

Stated so plainly, is it really alarmist to accuse our president of playing at Pinochet?

It is tempting to use the rhetoric of fairness. After all, President Donald J. Trump, unlike Gen. Augusto Pinochet, is not disappearing his political opponents by the tens of thousands.

And this is, after all, America, where there’s a long, illuminating tradition of civil society, habeas corpus, checks and balances, and the Bill of Rights, all specifically designed to prevent such abuses of power.

Yet there is an equally long shadow cast by the American capacity and instinct for brutality and impunity — from Jim Crow to lynch mobs; from the Red Scares to McCarthyism; from the murder of Fred Hampton to the M.O.V.E. bombing in Philadelphia; and so on, and so on.

In that regard, our president has proven himself far too willing to ape the rhetoric of the fascistic authoritarian and the fear-baiting, outrage-stirring demagogue — and to use the powers of his office in a manner that incrementally ups the fascistic ante.

President Donald J. Trump’s secret police are apparently from Customs and Border Protection, or maybe the Federal Protective Service, or both.

President Donald J. Trump says he wants to send these paramilitary forces to Chicago, Oakland, and elsewhere, against the wishes of local authorities, and most certainly to the building alarm and anger of everyday citizens still fresh from massive, coast-to-coast protests against another long American tradition — that of murderous institutional and societal racism.

The potential for deeper abuse increases with each such deployment; President Donald J. Trump’s willingness to harness such dark historical forces for his political advantage is contemptible and criminal.

And, given any confusion or contested results in the forthcoming November election, we will most certainly see widespread civil unrest and further deployments of President Donald J. Trump’s secret police.

Yet with this comes an escalation of grassroots demands for accountability and redress, and the empowerment of countervailing civil-society forces and actors through an energized political process.

This fills me with hope — that we are in fact witnessing the death throes of American authoritarianism, and the demagoguery, race-baiting, and fascistic impulses that enable it.

What I fear is the terrible toll in life, love and all good hopes that the dying serpent will take — and has already taken — as it lashes about on the floor, spewing venom in its hideous convulsions.

I don’t think, given the strength of civil society, our civil institutions, and the burgeoning power of protest and civil disobedience, that President Donald J. Trump is ultimately capable of becoming an actual Pinochet.

But goddamn, it seems he is all too willing to play the part.

Hail to the victorious dead: A COVID-19 elegy

This is, strangely, a time of war, as consequential as WWII, and our choices will have impacts for generations to come.

Like all wars, this one is full of fallen heroes — martyrs. They are worthy of remembrance and a life of commitment to honor and live up to all they gave.

I say war but it is not like any conventional, unconventional, symmetrical or asymmetrical conflict.

There is a villain, an aggressor, an antagonist, if a virus can be such. But really, the virus is just a contagion brought into this world by our choices as a people. By our disregard for the sanctity of the natural world that gives us life. By the disregard of our political and economic system for basic human needs such as … housing. Health care. Education.

This society of ours, that cannot house all its citizens, that depends on the impoverishment of a major segment of the global population to enrich itself, that rations health care rather than invests wholeheartedly in it, that fails to provide sufficient and healthy food, and produces through its mass media a mental environment that cultivates division, sadism and acquisitiveness, that heedlessly devours the blessings of this Earth …

This is what we are fighting. The virus is just a symptom. In confronting the symptom we are confronted with life-altering choices about our priorities for our society and our selves.

This war, this conflict, is with ourselves — our whole people, our whole society, our entire set of priorities for the lives we are given.

To win this war, we have to conquer our worst impulses, our worst instincts, our worst behaviors as homo sapiens on Planet Earth.

I have been full of sorrow and fear, these past weeks, because of this awful affliction that is sweeping the blue-green globe that we live upon, that has borne us up through the eons, through its evolutionary alchemy, to our astonishingly exalted yet so profoundly fallen state.

But today I feel some hint, if not of gladness, then of hope, and confidence, that we can overcome this enemy, who is after all only our selves.

I am full of devotion to the future that is ours to make real, thanks to the heroic efforts and sacrifices of those who’ve gone before us, who’ve made real all the beauty and hope and truth in our lives.

Because, yes, there are heroes in this strange time of war, and martyrs, and the victorious dead should be remembered as such.

I salute the great heroes of our age who have been taken from us. For me, I feel the loss of great artists and arts advocates, such as John Prine, and Hal Willner, and Ellis Marsalis.

Closer to home is the bitterness and sorrow of a dear friend from childhood who lost his father, a great man who brought love and laughter and life into this word, and who was taken, taken, who is gone now.

I think of the other heroes and martyrs. The medical workers, from orderlies to EMTs to nurses to doctors. The grocers and service workers. Who put it all on the line to heal us, keep us fed, keep the wires alive with electricity and the web of communication humming and buzzing and alive.

I think of those voters of Wisconsin whose lives will be lost due to their exposure to the viral symptoms of a petty, unjust, pathetically cruel political culture.

I think of the black families in America whose losses to the virus _right now_ are exacerbated by a system that has neglected and rejected their needs and lives for countless generations, for the entire span of this country’s history.

I will not let their sacrifices be in vain. I will remember and fight for their honor, if it is given to me to do so. I will do my best to bear their gifts into the future, or open the way, in some small manner, if I can, if it is for me to do.

The virus is just a symptom. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It has never been so plain, and this moment, this lesson, must never be lost, forgotten or distorted.

Those who have been taken from us have given us too much, shown us too much — of the better world that awaits, that they brought into being merely by the fact of their blesséd lives — for us to turn back now.

Their sacrifices will not be in vain.

Our better natures will yet triumph.

Hail to the victorious dead.

Press Club panel on ‘Big Tech’ and journalism

Someone put me on a panel about Big Tech — Google and Facebook, mostly — and then someone else wrote an article about it.

The event was at City College, and was staged by the Press Club of San Francisco.

Check out the article here.

It was a fun panel. Also starring the extremely astute Ryan Singel (late of Wired and currently running the Context.ly recommendation engine), plus two Danish journalists — Peter Keldorff, a foreign correspondent at government owned subscription television station TV2, and Johanne Hesseldahl Larsen, the digital editor at Denmark’s national public-service broadcaster.

Kim Shattuck of The Muffs was awesome and died too young

I don’t know where my old Muffs cassette is these days, but that band carved out a little space in my music-loving heart, and I was so sad to learn that their frontwoman, Kim Shattuck, has died way too young — age 56, of ALS.

It’s not just their catchy little snarky/world-weary/get-over-it ditties. It’s the delivery, the embodying of those tunes, that expression of attitude through Kim’s huge, raw, roaring, gloriously fed-up and totally whole-hearted singing, shouting and screaming.

Gods, what a voice!

Though she wore her cutesy-L.A. punkette style with panache and flavor, Kim Shattuck’s voice was physically huge. Louder than just about any other rock’n’roll shouter that I can think of except, maybe, I dunno, Robert Plant? Paul McCartney belting it out in “Oh! Darling”? I mean, there’s no shortage of big voices in rock’n’roll, and I don’t intend here to diminish them. Specific to genre and gender, for example, Courtney Love, certainly, can bring it as viscerally as Shattuck did.

Yet they are different singers and different musicians. And Love’s songs have a depth of despair and anger that The Muffs never really plumbed.

But then again, The Muffs didn’t really need to plumb those depths; that wasn’t what they were about. Not knowing details of their personal lives, The Muffs did not come across as a band about life as a train wreck. Their songs were about moving on, about rising above, about living it and getting over it through sheer gumption, gusto and a game face. The mundane indignities of life’s stupid imbroglios, the scorn-worthy behavior of one’s self-absorbed, oblivious or just-plain-petty peers — you can deal with it all, and grab hold of some beautiful rock’n’roll catharsis along the way, by singing it all out as loud and as hard as you can.

And on any Muffs album, Shattuck’s voice is all the way on, all the time.

She was by any reckoning a top-notch guitarist and bandleader, and wrote great little tunes, but she took herself to another level by putting her whole being into every note she sang.

R.I.P. and thanks for such tremendous sound and feeling, Ms. Shattuck.

Here’s what I remember about President George Herbert Walker Bush

Here’s what I remember about President George Herbert Walker Bush, on the occasion of his passing.

In 1990, on a meandering cross-country road trip, I drove out of Yosemite National Park to see an enormous column of smoke reaching into the sky, so titanic and towering I at first wasn’t able to make sense of it or understand what it was.

The park was on fire, one of the epically huge fires of our times, and listening to the radio as I drove down out of the park, this gigantic pillar of sacrificial smoke and flame pouring in slow-mo up into the sky, I learned also that Operation Desert Shield had commenced.

Desert Shield … setting the stage for all the war and terror that has consumed the Middle East and the world since. If only we had given up oil and the carbon economy 10 years earlier, none of that military intervention would have been deemed strategically necessary by President George Herbert Walker Bush.

I ended up in D.C. and became a bike messenger for a spell. The big march on Washington happened and I participated. It seemed like a very happy event, full of drums and facepaint and all such. My thought was that if everyone were marching silently instead of banging drums — wearing black with tears painted on their cheeks instead of clown faces — that would have been a stronger statement, but, I get it. Joyous resistance and all.

A year later I moved west, to San Francisco, and I saw pictures of the Highway of Death, a chilling and grotesque monument to the blood we’ll shed to protect American access to oil resources. And around that time my car was parked on a hill and got hit and totaled by a driver that lost control … I collected the settlement, and haven’t owned a car since.

Many patterns were set in motion that are still playing out today.

I can still hear his strident, pinched tones decrying Michael Dukakis as a “card carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union” during his successful presidential campaign.

And those are my memories of President George Herbert Walker Bush.

“How Many Black Male Teachers Did You Have Growing Up?”

Black Enterprise Magazine poses the question: “How many black male teachers did you have growing up?”

(h/t Nettrice Gaskins for posting the article in her social feed.)

In WASPy Caldwell/West Caldwell, N.J., the faces of ethnic diversity were Irish and Italian Catholics, Greeks (Orthodox, natch) and the occasional Jew.

At James Caldwell High School, George Harriston, who taught Latin and Honors English, was AFAIK the sole African American teaching at the school and possibly the school system at the time.

He knew his classics cold, adored Thomas Mann, and made us sit through “Death in Venice,” his favorite movie, the subtleties of which were utterly lost on us. But his reaction at the movie’s denouement has been stuck in my mind ever since … a long, wistful sigh and an expression of longing for something lost and gorgeous.

His Honors English class was one of the few times I got an A in anything, because his class was one of the few I gave a damn about.

He was universally loved, his Latin students called him “Georgibus Rex,” deliberately misusing the conjugation (which I only know because he told me, I never took his Latin class, though I wish I had), and he would wave his hands in exasperated dismissal of the wiseacres while smiling slightly as he turned back to the blackboard.

I remember once, a shocked rumor went around the school … Mr. Harriston had been pulled over by Caldwell police en route to a faculty party for something that would later be called in mass media “driving while black.” That terminology wasn’t commonplace in that town at the time.

We (the students) couldn’t believe it. Pulling over MR. HARRISTON? WTF???

He never discussed it, never shared any of his experiences as an African American with us. It was never a topic of discussion and I never heard — or heard of — any derogatory racial discourse about him

While racism against African Americans undoubtedly existed in my home town, no one expressed that around me. Ditto for slurs against Asians or Latinos. It all seemed quite taboo. The derogatory jokes I did hear were largely aimed and Poles and gays, occasionally Jews, and were mostly told in elementary school.

I have come to understand now that racists, even today, are pretty careful about whom they express their views around; they ‘test you out’ with a few mild key phrases to see if you respond, and if you don’t, they clam up. Perhaps that’s why my ears were so virginal in those tender years.

I imagine today, knowing what we all now now about race in post-racial America, that Mr. Harriston probably dealt with racism on a fairly routine basis.

It haunts me, that this brilliant, kind, sarcastic man, with his faint smile and love of letters, should have been subjected to such behavior. That it would be a common denominator in his life and in the lives of millions of other African Americans.

George Harriston died in 1999 and any donations in his memory were put in a college fund for JCHS.

He was one of my favorite teachers and one of the people I credit for profoundly deepening my appreciation of English language and literature.

The 19th anniversary of his passage is this coming Saturday.

R.I.P. and thank you, always, Mr. Harriston.


HARRISTON – George E. Harriston, died on Aug. 11, 1999, at St. Barnabas Hospital. The cause was heart failure. Mr. Harriston was an English and Latin teacher in the Elizabeth and West Caldwell school systems for 37 years. He had been an advisor to the school newspaper at Caldwell and served as coordinator of foreign languages. A graduate of Montclair State College, he pursued graduate studies at Rutgers, Seton Hall and University of Minnesota. Mr. Harriston served as a member of the Board of Trustees of Orange Public Library. He also had been an adjunct professor at University College, Rutgers Newark for 20 years. He was a member of the New Jersey Education Association. Mr. Harriston served in the Army Transportation Corps during the Korean War. Born in Elizabeth, N.J., he lived in Newark, Orange, Montclair and Bloomfield during his professional life. In lieu of flowers, those who wish may make contributions to College Scholarship Fund of James Caldwell High School, West Caldwell, N.J.

New role at KALW

Over the past year, as the KALW News digital editor, I was constantly knocked out by the first-rate, frontline coverage produced here of communities and neighborhoods that are usually overlooked by local mass media.

I’m refocusing now on audience and community development via two new newsletter initiatives. One for the newsroom, and one for the station as a whole.

I’m thrilled to continue working with this incredible public-media outlet, helping to build their own engaged Internet audience beyond the grips of ad-saturated, data-gobbling social platforms.

On that note … If you are in the Bay Area and would like to get a different view of the news and issues of your home region, let me encourage you to sign up for our Friday newsletter wrapping up the week’s headlines from KALW News.

So go ahead and push the button …

Sign Up Now

Tree rings, milady

I saw the oldest woman in the world yesterday getting on the bus. She wasn’t the stereotype of a “bag lady,” however. Not odoriferous, nor ranting, drooling, twitchy, etc. She was, rather, the embodiment and definition of age.

She was a continent of wrinkles. She was like a fairy tale of an old woman. She could have been an oak tree that was already old when the pilgrims first made landfall. So gnarled and crinkly.

She could have been a forgotten goddess of some ancient mountain chain, once as high as the stratosphere and now worn down by wind and water to stubs and nubs.

Her hair was a huge flyaway mass of gray and a pale, washed-out color that may have once been yellow.

She was enshrouded by skirts and jackets and scarves and fabric, like the curtains of an old manor house.

And within this mobile agglomeration of antiquity was a face and a voice.

As the driver put down the ramp, we all leaped up to make room for what we assumed was a wheelchair. Everyone moved back a row, and I flipped up the right-side seating, where the wheelchairs go.

Then I saw it was in fact a walker she gripped, not a wheelchair.

I flipped the seats back down and apologized to her for assuming. She looked at me and her eyes were bright sparks.

She smiled and said, “Not a wheelchair, but we appreciate your effort,” and her voice was completely clear and fresh, like the dew on blossoms in the morning.

[I rescued this from Facebook; originally posted there on May 15, 2013.]