Category Archives: Obama

‘Tis of Thee: On Being an American in 2021

RBW, mid 80s

In the days following the White Supremacist Insurrection of January 6th, 2021, I struggled to name the emotions that overtook me. I still do. Turns out there is no single word to encompass the mixture of rage, anguish, terror, and anxiety. I was also astonished – although I should not have been – at the clear lack of concern, or even conception of consequences as the all-white terrorists bragged, posed maskless, willingly – proudly – gave out their names, and were eventually calmly ushered out, many high fiving one another and gloating.

This was the biggest mass delusion I’d ever seen. In the citadel of American democracy, they left behind feces and piss on the floor, garbage, graffiti, broken windows, a cowering Congress and Capitol staffers, beaten cops, and a five dead people. And a country changed.

I am changed. As the pandemic has played out alongside intensifying political upheaval, radically altering my life in many ways, I have often said to myself, “This is changing me” without really being able to accurately qualify that. Both physically and emotionally, I am different, older than these ten months, grayer. Parts of my insides feel broken, but what has seeped out is hardening around the cracks. It’s difficult to catalog the emotions because the combos are new, spiked with swirling, unfamiliar agents. Strange cocktails drugging my blood. Memories surge, thoughts of the future quicken. In that future I hope to better understand what is happening to me, what is simmering. The White Supremacist Insurrection added something potent to the mix, something hot.

To put it bluntly: how could I not be further changed by that asshole army? Those empowered, mentally ill bullies. I have seen their like in my day. I have been bullied. Physically, emotionally. Sometimes by someone “not in their right mind.” Bullies, in fact, helped create me. But what once was fear is now clarifying rage.

I had wondered about “the base.” Like: “Who, exactly, are these people attending the rallies? This powerful, angry mob?” I know some Trump supporters, but I know them only in our consensual reality. I don’t know who they are, and how they act, among their own, in the thriving ecosystem of an alternate universe. Now this internet-bred madness has a legion of faces attached. Many smiling dumbly, like drunks. MAGA writ large, heavily armed, joined at the hip with QAnon, a metastatic version of Charlottesville, with a higher body count. People intoxicated on a story as fantastical as any L. Ron Hubbard book. Any Tolkein book, for that matter.

I knew they’d kick up shit when their Dear Leader egged them on, but I didn’t think they’d storm the Capitol. Mainly because of the damage it would do them. Surely they must know this will mean jail time. But no, I was wrong. Naive me. I’m guessing it’s as close as I’ve ever seen to battle. On a battlefield, a soldier can’t acknowledge their enemy’s humanity. If they do, they can’t kill. Battle is a mass delusion.

The footage of the rioters’ baldfaced glee reminded me of Charles Manson, and particularly the unrepentant Manson Family members who smiled into the cameras at their 1971 trial. Those images of brutal murderers completely disconnected from the horrors they had committed will always haunt me, especially as I learned – and sadly can never unlearn – the details of what they did. Similar to the white supremacists, they were under the sway of a sociopathic father figure. A charismatic failure, a vampire. Also, not coincidentally, a white supremacist intent on waging a race war.

Considering how many of the anti-democratic hypnotized insurrectionists were armed at the Capitol, and the various pipe bombs and IEDs left behind, it seems miraculous there was not more death. Had Congress not escaped, it would have been a bloodbath.

Unfortunately, infuriatingly, news broke today that the hours-long close-quartering of Congress was a superspreader event. Because some Republicans refused to wear masks, and even derided those who did, three House Democrats – Bonnie Watson Coleman, Pramila Jayapal and Brad Schneider – have tested positive for Covid-19.

But wait there’s more. Directly after this superspreader event, Congress returned to the hastily-cleaned chamber in the wee hours to finish their business, as guards held firearms at the ready should some asshole be lurking. A long list of Republicans continued with their lethal and antidemocratic political theater of objecting to the Electoral College, all to appeal to Trump’s base, to get those votes. Even after the whole sham had almost just got them killed.

***

Almost a week later, as more information and footage emerges, I’ve experienced some satisfaction at images of rioters finally being arrested, escorted from airports, crying and screaming in protest, apologizing for “getting lost in the moment,” losing business, getting fired. But again, their resistance and outrage arouses in me that same anxiety: look how brainwashed these fully functioning members of our society are. My hope is these perps will all do serious time, but I won’t hold my breath. I’ve experienced some cold comfort at the political resignations, the outrage of some – but not nearly enough – Republicans. The banning of Trump from social media, the losses accrued from corporations pulling funding, canceling GOP events, refusing the GOP cash cow. At this writing there seems to be an outside chance Trump will be convicted in the Senate, and legit impeached. But I won’t hold my breath.

It’s been a week of talking about America. It’s actually been four years of talking about America, but more intensely following January 6th. I am reminded of the dark saying, War is God’s way of teaching people geography. Similarly, these recent events have sparked deeper conversation of patriotism, of what it really means to be an American. What is this thing we are part of? This democracy, or representative republic, or whatever it is. This thing that teeters on the brink of being something else, namely an autocratic fascist regime. Land of Charlie Parker, Tennessee Williams, Stacey Abrams, Katherine Hepburn, Questlove, Arthur Miller, Johnny Cash, Jackson Pollock, Jack Kerouac, Howard Zinn, Toni Morrison, The Ramones, Woody Guthrie, Emily Dickinson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Janis Joplin, Star Wars. What, exactly, does American mean to me? Why, exactly, am I so emotional, so wrought up about my country? Why am I so deeply injured by the desecration of the Capitol?

The words fail me. But the memories do not. I’ve found myself returning again and again to September, 1986, to the first time I ever felt like “an American.” The memory rises to the surface unbidden.

I was twenty-one. I had been living in New York City a year and a half, and had found an apartment, a band, a couple jobs, companions, and most important, independence. I bleached my hair. I saved enough cash from tending bar to visit London, and then a little town near Nuremberg called Fürth. I can still conjure the thrill of my first transatlantic flight. Passport always at my hip, I traveled alone, didn’t make many plans, went with the wind, took trains, lived on the cheap, enjoyed the kindness of strangers. With a companion I traveled to Munich, drank the best beer I have ever tasted. I walked the profoundly ugly Berlin wall, showed my passport at Checkpoint Charlie and spent a day in East Berlin, traveling back in time.

All around me were ghosts of WWII, the war to end fascism. Bullet holes remained in walls, craters were unfilled. Some buildings had not been rebuilt. My companion told me the lack of rebuilding was intentional, so that none would forget Germany’s descent into fascism, so none would forget the Nazis, and what Hitler and his henchmen had quite successfully wrought. The entire country had not quite shaken off that toxic dust, forty years on. This was no accident, but a choice, a kind of collective repentance.

While in the East, I saw a ballet, ate yogurt from a small shop. The East German marks were so flimsy they crumbled in the pockets of my coat, where I also kept a picture a beautiful young German woman had drawn of me, a sketch I still own, in which I am playing my bass, surrounded by American flags. I felt no deep emotional connection to the war, or to the Allied Forces victory that had shaped everything I was experiencing, yet people frequently told me I was so American. (Except for my bleach blonde ‘do, which everyone said reminded them of Bowie, which of course was my intent.) Like every American, I had apparently been configured by my country, whether I wanted to be or not. And as a wayfaring, wide-eyed twenty-one-year old, I dimly thought that made me very lucky indeed. I knew – and know – my country’s deep shame of slavery (I was raised in the Deep South), its ongoing humanitarian crimes, and I was – and am – deeply conversant in the continuing problems that need correction, most of them based in institutional racism. But at that time, I was glad to be who I was and where I was. Then my thoughts were pulled elsewhere.

It was a life-changing, romantic adventure. I was gone a month. As much fun as it was, however, I was surprised at my eagerness to return to New York City, USA. My life – the life that would lead me to this moment – was calling.

I got a train from Berlin to Frankfurt, and flew from there to JFK. I recall nothing of the flight home (I probably caught up on some sleep), but I do remember going through customs. A jovial, blue-uniformed African-American New Yorker sized me up, seemed to know exactly where I’d been and what I’d been up to. He grinned, took my passport, and said:

“Welcome home.”

A wave of emotion hit me. Indeed, I was home, and glad to be. I was not some rootless, wandering, life-in-a-suitcase, leave-in-a-cloud-of-dust nomad. No. I was, and am, an American. I am the descendant of immigrants and Native Americans. I am of this particular soil, part of a story in which I have increasingly, consciously engaged ever since. To keep it advancing in the right direction is much more work than I thought it would be. But the option to move that needle feels ever more precious. To my marrow, I am invested in an America that edges closer to ideals that have brought to me the most amazing people and experiences, the songs, stories, and spirit that have been so much a part of the richness of my life, and the lives of friends, loved ones, and tens of millions of wildly different people I will never meet.

Despite recent horrors, the promise of a country more like what I’m describing is closer than it was just a few weeks ago. And the delusional white supremacists who would raze the Capitol, build a wall, and murder those who are not like them, are as terrified as their man Hitler was in his bunker.

But the Capitol stands, and change is afoot. And next time I travel to another country, I will proudly take that change with me, in my passport. And then I’ll come home, and get back to work.

RBW, Phoenicia, NY, 1-13-21

 

 

I Am A Weekling, II: Six Things I Learned From the Syria Crisis

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Friends, Roamers, Countryfans,

Twice in one month, a Facebook exchange about the Syria Crisis resulted in my being called upon to express my impressions in other media. I was surprised both times. First, when Obama proposed military intervention, I posted something along the lines of “no way!” and my friend, WDST  DJ/programmer Jimmy Buff, saw it and invited me to come on the radio to talk to our Republican Congressman Chris Gibson, a veteran of both Kosovo and Iraq. Even though I’m a Democrat and would have a hard time casting a vote for someone as conservative as Gibson, I was eager to talk to him. We did not debate. Like a lot of conservatives (and liberals), Gibson is against military intervention in Syria, and his stance is part of an increasing Tea Party/Libertarian influence in his party. Interestingly, this puts us on the same side re: Syria, which is: diplomacy before missiles, because missiles will lead to even more death. I get the impression people look at Syria and think, “Well, it couldn’t get much worse, could it?” I firmly believe it can.

Regarding the Republicans and their shifting platform, I see Gibson’s stance auguring a different political landscape in the coming election cycles. (Last I heard, Rand Paul was the G.O.P. frontrunner in 2016.) Whether or not the conservatives’ “New Isolationism” is based on morals or money or both is debatable. In any case, I am almost always happy to talk to a politician,  especially a vet, regardless of whether or not we agree. (And Gibson and I disagree on a lot, including the Affordable Care Act, which I am in favor of and which he voted to defund.) It’s not often I get to compare notes with someone of Gibson’s experience, which humbles me. For God’s sake, he’s been shot at. (Our conversation is archived HERE. Gibson does most of the talking, but I did my  best to get a word in, and he was gracious.)

A couple weeks later (last week), my friend Greg Olear, writer, mensch, and editor of The Weeklings, posted a Washington Post op-ed by fearless badass journalist-filmmaker-documentarian Sebastian Junger (author of The Perfect Storm and War); Junger was/is dismayed at the outcry against intervention, and his op-ed is intense. While I wholeheartedly disagree with him, it’s a worthwhile read. He advocates military action as the best way to deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s as-yet-unproved use of chemical weapons, an attack which killed approximately 1400 people, 400 of them children. (Assad’s forces have already killed approximately 100,000 with “conventional” weapons.) As a journalist, Junger has spent time in Kosovo, Bosnia, Liberia, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, and, having seen outside forces quell, or, in the case of Afghanistan, moderate brutal conflict in those countries, he is an ardent, unapologetic advocate for America: World Police. Like most interventionists, he downplays past and potential future collateral damage, and he glosses over the elephant in the room that is Iraq. Above all else, the nail he hammers is this: anyone opposing military intervention – a catchall, and as-yet-undefined term – is actively supporting evil. That got my goat. I vented in Greg’s newsfeed. He took it well.

Make no mistake, Junger is no wingnut, and I get his passion. I have not seen wartime horror up close, and he has. Like most, I have only seen the horrific photos, and I agree Syria is a tragedy verging on genocide, and Assad is a madman, a despot. We can all agree on that. But, simply put, I  believe military intervention will make things much, much worse. I also think Junger’s broad strokes are conveniently skewed. For instance, in his op-ed, he opens with a graphic scene from his time in Kosovo, and implies that the only way to stop similar brutality in Syria – and it is nightmarishly brutal – is to attack, like the U.S. did (with U.N. help) in Kosovo. But, as Rep. Gibson told me, Kosovo is not Syria. Far from it. In a nutshell, Gibson said, “We’d be helping the guys who shot at me in Iraq.” Of course it’s much more complicated than that, God knows, but that’s one of many things to take into account, and Junger doesn’t address it.

Anyway, Greg asked me to write something for the Weeklings, and I did. Below is a link to it. Please give it a read at your leisure. Feel free to comment. Thanks.

Six Things I Learned From The Syria Crisis

P.S. # 7: It’s not over.

Gun Fight at Town Hall

Last night, I spoke at the Shandaken  Town Board Meeting. Shandaken – “Land of the Rushing Waters” – is my town, population app. 3,100, a rural enclave about 2.5 hours from Manhattan. It’s subdivided into twelve hamlets, and my family and I live in the hamlet of Phoenicia. While our local School Board is diverse and progressive, the Town Board is heavily conservative Republican (only one Democrat out of five sitting members), and like a lot of conservatives, they take issue with Governor Cuomo’s recent SAFE Act, which enacts the toughest gun laws in the country. I am optimistic about the SAFE Act, and proud Cuomo took this risky move.

In direct opposition to (and arrogant disregard of) many of his constituents, council member Vincent Bernstein, like several other legislators, drafted a “proposal in support of The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.” (#58-13, seen HERE) In a nutshell, it states: “BE IT RESOLVED, that the Town Board of the Town of Shandaken does hereby oppose the enactment of any legislation that would infringe upon the Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms and consider such laws to be unnecessary and beyond lawful legislative authority granted to our State representatives, as there is no documented correlation between gun control measures and crime reduction…This resolution will be sent to every elected official from President Barack Obama to County Legislator John Parate.”

This proposal has no actual teeth, but simply “sends a message” to legislators, and ultimately to Cuomo and Obama, that “the Town of Shandaken” does not approve of the SAFE Act or Obama’s gun control propositions. The assumption that I would let it speak for me and my family made me furious.

What’s In Obama’s Gun Proposal

Like other gun advocates in New York State, the Shandaken Town Board (save one) seems to think Americans are entitled to a wide array of firearms, including semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines. I don’t. I have no problem with hunting and self-defense with reasonable firearms, but I believe weapons designed for combat have no place in a home, and responsible government can and should help out in that regard. Like enforcing laws wherein an owner of an assault rifle bought after the ban is, indeed, a criminal. By contrast, the Shandaken Town Board, especially council member Bernstein, sees any action by the government regarding gun ownership as an infringement on their 2nd Amendment rights and the first step towards a tyrannical, totalitarian state. You’ve heard it before, from Ted Nugent to Wayne LaPierre: The Founders said so. Councilman Bernstein, in fact, used that very phrase “tyrannical government,” when, after much protest, he spoke in defense of his proposal. For his conservative base, that phrase resonates. To me, the notion that the Founders could conceive of semi-automatic weapons  fighting off, say, the current U.S. Armed Forces, with their drones and god knows what else, is absurd, but of course impossible to prove. (Franklin maybe, just maybe, could’ve foreseen.) Yet that unsupportable fancy gets trotted out repeatedly, as if it’s an ironclad truth. The Founders said so. Even going beyond that fairy tale into cruel reality has little affect on die-hard gun advocates; the facts of mounting gun violence and even the recent horror of Newtown bounce off them like grease off  hot Teflon.

As I sat waiting to speak, I kept thinking about an article by Garry Wills, written in a compressed rage after Sandy Hook, and well worth your time. It’s called Our Moloch. It addresses what my friend Clark Strand refers to as the “God shaped hole” in people. As a species, we’ve evolved  with devotional imperatives, and with the decline in church attendance and the rise of science in the face of faith, many folks have a God-shaped hole, a vacuum they may not even consciously acknowledge. But it is there, and it must be filled by hook or by crook, by Justin Bieber, Football, NASCAR, American Idol. what have you. (I fill mine with music, family, and books.) The post-Sandy Hook gun-owner hysteria – indeed, gun sales skyrocket after every massacre – seems of a piece with mass religious delusion, the kind that blights the history books, even the Bible.

Shandaken Town Hall was crowded, largely with the constituents who elected the current board, many of whom have been in the area for generations. They express categorical distrust of government, for the DEP, the DEC, the EPA, etc. I’ve been in this area as a permanent resident for eleven years, so the Libertarian-esque suspicion of government is nothing new, and frankly, sometimes it’s hard to argue with. In fact, the locally-run nonpartisan Rotary Club did an amazing job of mucking out, feeding and cheering Irene-ravaged Phoenicia, long before FEMA and the Red Cross got here, and the few times I’ve crossed paths with a deadbeat teacher at my son’s school (exceedingly rare) my inner, home-schooling Libertarian has risen.

But for the most part, I abhor the politics of the majority of the town council, as well as their supporters’ politics. Outside of politics, however, we get along. Most of these people are sharp, kind, some – like Bernstein – are distinguished veterans deserving of deepest respect, and a couple know how to command a room, which, as showfolk, I admire even when I hate the message.

While listening to that message, and joining in debate about it, a notion I’d harbored crystallized into a certainty: they’re scared. The cultural tide of America is turning away from them, and the man in the White House, with help from Latinos and gays, is pivoting towards a less conservative vision of America, a more inclusive complexion, a more level playing field economically, etc. So the conservatives, even those who will benefit from Obama’s economic policies, are understandably freaked out. And Obama’s tough – although yet-to-be-enacted –stance on guns, combined with Cuomo’s politically risky SAFE Act,  gets them where they live, literally. And Bernstein is consolidating fellow frightened constituents, gunning (pun intended) for a repeal of the SAFE Act. It’s actually a gutsy political move on Bernstein’s part, a circling-the-wagons gesture designed to galvanize put-upon conservatives. Rumor has it Bernstein has aspirations beyond town councilman, so perhaps this is his opening gambit, reaching out to those who feel recently disenfranchised by the folks in the mansions on the hill. Time will tell.

I was nervous about walking the gantlet. I do a lot of public speaking, and I’m a performer, but last night I sought support. Both my son Jack and my wife Holly were there, and it gave Jack, who is politically curious and astute, a chance to see democracy – or rather representative republicanism – in action. He witnessed hubris, courage, contempt, anger, dignity, humor, and even a little drunken idiocy play out in real time. He came away inspired by the many people who spoke against Bernstein’s resolution. He said they gave him hope. Only one person spoke in favor of the resolution (a former gun dealer), and only one supportive email was read, out of at least a dozen. I was proud of my fellow protestors, all of whom had succinct, incisive, and sometimes withering criticism for the proposal. In voice, we were in the majority.

We lost, though. Although Town Supervisor Rob Stanley, citing the divisiveness and questionable merit of the proposal, had called for it to be tabled. Council member Doris Bartlett (D), was clearly moved by emotional testimony, especially after reading an email from someone who knows parents of a slain Sandy Hook child who was shot six times. Bartlett emphatically asked first for a tabling, then voted NO, but the resolution passed 3 to 1 (Stanley was absent) and the supporters cheered.

Today the Shandaken Dems  are abuzz with talk of a petition to counteract the resolution, which will happen. I am disappointed about the resolution, but not really surprised. Perhaps this will help to get more Democrats on the board, in which case Bernstein’s gambit may backfire. I’ve seen that happen in local politics. Pride before the fall. The whiplash of hubris. People getting just pissed off enough to vote individuals out of power. It can happen. I will be doing my part to make sure it does.

In the meantime, I’ve pasted below my letter. if you’d like to read and comment, please do. Discussion is good. And feel free to browse around the blog while you’re at it, maybe even sign up to get my erratic but pretty much once every three-weeks postings.

Thanks – RBW

VIDEO OF MEETING
Me at 6:40

2-4-13

To the members of the Shandaken Town Board:

I come to you tonight with respect and thanks for your service. My family and I are proud to be Shandaken residents going on eleven years. We chose to live and pay taxes here, and we’ve raised our son in the shade of these mountains. We feel good about him going off into the world after he graduates Onteora with memories of this diverse community as the bedrock of his life. It is for him that I speak against your proposed resolution to overturn Cuomo’s recent tighter gun control laws. Cuomo’s actions come not only in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, but also the Aurora massacre, the Virginia Tech massacre, the Columbine massacre, the Westside Middle School massacre, et cetera, all real-life horrors that have occurred since I became a parent in 1998. You clearly want to send a message as “the voice of Shandaken” that, among other things, you object to any effort to control, prohibit, or monitor the sale of any type of guns or ammo, even those used in the aforementioned massacres. In your proposal, you do not speak for me or for my family.

To be clear: I’m fine with the second amendment, and I have no problem with rifles, pistols, or the use of these firearms for sportsmanship, or even self-defense. Assault rifles designed for military use, however, have, in my opinion, no place in a home, just as a rocket-propelled grenade launcher has no place in any citizens’ backyard. None of us can prove the Founders couldn’t conceive of assault weapons, but that is what I believe. With my friends who see any limits on gun ownership as a slippery slope towards loss of liberty, or who see tighter restrictions as a means of making citizens less prepared for self-defense on a grand scale, I can only disagree. Outside of Hollywood, there is no precedent for the scenario of a takeover in which citizens need to fight off enemies in the streets. In the real world, by contrast, we witness mounting scenarios of assault weapons in the hands of deranged citizens who brutally murder innocents. Gun control opponents say this is mainly a mental health issue, but I maintain: you cannot legislate crazy. You can, however, as an elected official bound to the wellbeing of the general public, legislate semi-automatic weapons, the controllable common denominator in the aforementioned tragedies. The fact will always remain that if these shooters had no access to their weapons of choice, the death tolls would either be much, much lower, or nonexistent.

Our culture moves ever further from facing real-life horror head-on, and I believe that willful blindness is part of the problem. As a child watching the nightly news, I was repulsed by images of torn, mortally wounded soldiers being carried off the battlefields of Vietnam. But in recent decades, the military has forbidden battlefield cameras. These days, we see a young vet getting new arms, but we do not see him losing those arms. We don’t see the blood, the bodies, the anguish of those left behind. Those images are rare. It has become ever easier to shut out the horror until it is on your doorstep.

It is now, and forever will be, at the doorstep of Veronique Pozner, mother of youngest Newtown victim Noah Pozner. She insisted Governor Malloy view her son’s destroyed face in his open casket, in the hope that Malloy would keep that image in mind when gun legislation crossed his desk. She said, “We all saw how beautiful Noah was. He had thick, shiny hair, beautiful long eyelashes that rested on his cheeks. He looked like he was sleeping. But the reality of it was under the cloth he had covering his mouth there was no mouth left. His jaw was blown away. I just want people to know the ugliness of it so we don’t talk about it abstractly, like these little angels just went to heaven. No. They were butchered. They were brutalized. And that is what haunts me at night.”

It haunts me, too. I have known parents who have lost children to disease, to overdose, to accidents. No elected official could have prevented their loss. But elected officials can indeed stem the tide of gun violence. It will take time, likely decades, but it can and must be done and it must start now. Anyone who opposes any effort to stem that tide does not speak for me, for my family, or, I daresay, untold innocents. Thank you.

Robert Burke Warren and family

Phoenicia