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Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change in In These Times

The former Dempsey Steel Property in Youngstown, Ohio—the city where Alperovitz and Lynd once worked together to keep a threatened steel mill open. (Ohio Office of Redevelopment / Flickr / Creative Commons)

By David Moberg
In These Times
June 12th, 2013

New Visions from the New Left

Gar Alperovitz and Staughton Lynd have blueprints for an ‘America beyond capitalism.’

Both Staughton Lynd and Gar Alperovitz imagine that their new America would evolve through a painstaking process in which the virtues of democratic socialism would be prefigured.

From their inception, most New Left movements of the Sixties offered a radically democratic vision of America’s future—critical not only of capitalism, then in its supposed golden age, but also of much about the Old Left, “real existing socialism,” and Cold War liberalism.

As both scholars and activists, Staughton Lynd and Gar Alperovitz were two leading proponents of that democratic critique and of a decentralized alternative directly controlled by citizens and workers. They collaborated at times, each writing half of a 1973 manifesto on strategies for a new American socialism, and in 1977 helping steelworkers in Youngstown, Ohio, try to keep open a threatened steel mill through community ownership.

In two new books that draw on lifetimes of experience, Lynd and Alperovitz present refined statements of strategic visions rooted in their earlier work for a much-changed present-day America. Both still believe that democracy can only thrive in a less centralized system that Lynd terms “libertarian socialism” and Alperovitz calls “a Pluralist Commonwealth.” Government would play an expanded role, but people would exercise more direct power at work and in their communities, thus checking potential abuses of bureaucracies and the state.

Both men imagine that their new America would evolve through a painstaking process in which the virtues of democratic socialism would be prefigured. People could experience proto-socialist alternatives within a capitalist society, much as free cities, guilds and commercial agriculture provided glimpses of capitalism within European feudalism.

As even their 1973 book illustrates, however, each has focused over the decades on slightly different aspects of transforming American capitalism.

Alperovitz has written extensively on policies and institutions for an “America beyond capitalism.” In his new book, What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution (Chelsea Green), he argues that worker and community ownership is increasingly relevant as systemic failures of capitalism promise continued economic pain for most Americans. Traditional liberalism, focused on regulating capitalism, no longer provides solutions and is losing its political base as the labor movement shrinks, he writes.

With an economy working only for the rich, Alperovitz says that now, even more than in the ’60s, communities and workers need democratic control over wealth to provide a sustainable, just economy. After many years of expansion and experience, he argues, an increasingly sophisticated “New Economy Movement” has produced a “checkerboard” pattern of innovations in group ownership of wealth, including cooperatives, land trusts, worker- or community-owned enterprises, employee stock ownership plans, municipal utilities, financial institutions (including some pension funds, credit unions, and a state bank), and municipal investments in land and businesses. Eventually, this new economy could include a single-payer health system, and nationalized banks and corporations, as many Left analysts have proposed during the Great Recession for the failures of the banking, health care and auto industries.

As this new cooperative economy grows, Alperovitz thinks two things will happen. Many more participants will gain confidence that an alternative to capitalism can work. And as their experiences lead them to challenge reigning notions of individualism, property and wealth, they will become the base of a new political movement for economic democracy.

But will capitalists tolerate democratized ownership if it goes beyond filling marginal economic niches? Can the movement for this new egalitarian and cooperative economy flourish without gaining control of the economy’s “Commanding Heights,” such as the financial markets?

To counter the ways that the larger political and economic environment may undermine its goals, Alperovitz writes that the movement for democratic wealth needs to link local enterprises together to share knowledge, initiate new projects and gain customers and support through local governments and institutions like universities, as Cleveland’s worker-owned businesses have done. But even isolated democratic ownership projects can be worthwhile and compatible with other progressive strategies, as unions such as the Steelworkers have realized.

Lynd, a historian punished in the late ’60s by academia for his early leadership in the civil rights and anti-war movements, retooled as a lawyer and moved to Youngstown, where he and his wife, Alice, used their legal, organizing and writing skills on behalf of workers and then prisoners, as jails replaced factories in the area.

More than Alperovitz, Lynd emphasizes how workers and citizens can gain experiences of solidarity and power that also prefigure libertarian socialism through democratic movements that challenge dominant economic institutions, often through direct actions like strikes and occupations. But for Lynd the internal organization of movements and the human relationships they create are as critical in building a new society as their professed goals.

In Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change (PM), Lynd argues that the Left should stop organizing as unions, community groups and civil rights organizations have done in the past—sending outsiders into communities to pull people together on behalf of a project, then move on. Instead, he recommends a model of “accompanying,” in which an individual spends an extended time with a community and commits to “equality, listening, seeking consensus and exemplary action.”

Lynd first learned about the idea of “accompanying” from the writings of slain El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. But he realized that Alice had followed a similar path in her ‘60s-era counseling of draft resisters. Unlike religious or political missionaries bringing the true religion, an individual “accompanying” others treats them as equal collaborators and fellow “experts,” learning from them while sharing his own views honestly.

As they challenge entrenched institutions, Lynd says, people need to experience the direct democratic exercise of power, such as through the rank-and-file oriented “Solidarity Unionism” that he contrasts with typical union hierarchies. “There’s a question of power, changing the nature of capitalism,” Lynd tells In These Times. “Gar and I have very similar goals, a participative society. But I am much more concerned than he appears to be with the taking of power, and by that I don’t mean taking over the state as much as challenging basic capitalist institutions that hold this society together.”

While Lynd still sees a role for labor unions, especially with more democratic control and worker initiative (like the UFCW’s OUR Walmart campaign), neither he nor Alperovitz devotes much attention to conventional, electoral politics. But democratizing power and wealth on a large scale will require major changes in government, and a large-scale political effort may require additional strategies (such as, Lynd writes, going beyond consensus decision-making in small groups to representative democracy). Lynd advocates a mass labor or socialist party, but he gives higher priority to building movements that can pressure politicians, as the Left, he says, has failed to do with Obama. “Obama is a liberal, a good human being,” he said in our interview, “and we have failed him.”

Lynd’s and Alperovitz’s strategic visions differ, but they complement each other. Together they offer an important component of the answer to what a new New Left must do. A spirit of democracy and egalitarianism animates both visions, but neither fully imagines how the Left might gain and use state power or how to change the national or global economic rules to support their decentralized future.

Yet progressives would do well to incorporate their deep moral vision, whatever the scale of action. “Our most urgent priority is not to give someone else the authority to act on our behalf [or] the responsibility to remake the world,” Lynd writes. “No, we need to remake the world ourselves, right now, from below and to the Left.”

As “the sum of my best wisdom and counsel as an elder,” he proposes that “100,000 young radicals spread evenly across the United States”  beyond the hipdoms of major metropolitan areas to live in the country’s many Youngstowns, accompanying their neighbors on a journey to a new America. “Then see what happens in 25 years.”

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

More information about David Moberg


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Snitch World Reviewed in Counterpunch

by Ben Terrall
Counterpunch
Weekend Edition July 5-7, 2013

A Warped Valentine From a Vanishing San Francisco:

Life and Death in Snitch World


When you read crime novelist Jim Nisbet, don’t expect plot-driven mysteries involving square jawed detectives or damsels in distress (or the time-tested, and by now tiresome, hookers with hearts of gold). But unless you’re wedded to predictability, don’t complain about the dearth of traditional genre tropes, as that would be like criticizing Flann O’Brien for not following the model laid out by Charles Dickens. Instead prepare yourself for a world of hurt where good guys not only don’t win but often don’t even enter the picture. It’s a universe where, as crime writer James Ellroy described film noir narratives, “You are fucked!”

Nisbet, author of such sublime novels of all-embracing evil as Dark Companion and the stag-geringly dark Lethal Injection, is not well known outside genre circles in the U.S. but has been writing for more than four decades, publishing twelve novels which have earned him a considerable following in France. Aside from French, his novels have been translated into German, Japanese, Italian, Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Russian, and Romanian.

Nisbet’s just published (by the adventurous Green Arcade, an imprint from PM Press) Snitch World is a warped valentine to an all too quickly disappearing San Francisco where working class stiffs share stories of longshore union actions and class-consciousness dominates everyday life. Nisbet infuses this book with contrasts between the old school, bumbling street hustler Klinger, denizen of the deliriously lowlife Tenderloin dive the Hawse Hole, and the hi-tech smooth operator Marci, obsessed with getting rich quick from the development of bizarre new aps for portable gadgets.

Klinger can barely get from one day to another, living with no fixed address or phone on robberies and small time cons, while Marci resides in lavish digs and is seemingly unable to unplug herself from her state of the art phone that keeps her on the internet 24/7 (not that such mental illness is all that uncommon these days). The intersection of the worlds these characters inhabit is the meat of this novel.

Nisbet’s writing is both meticulous and anarchic, and given his mastery of English it’s no surprise that his published output includes five volumes of poetry. He is an incredibly erudite prose powerhouse who seems to know something about every-thing. He loves to fly off on tangents that take the reader in unexpected directions.

In Snitch World, a cabbie makes mathematical calculations of how many SUVs it would take to pave the planet and Klinger tells a stranger leaning out a window about the lack of water pressure that resulted in San Francisco burning down after the 1906 earthquake (“The hell you talking about?” responds the citizen).

More accessible than some of his other work, Snitch World is a fun, twisted book, and if as widely read as it should be, will further solidify Nisbet’s reputation as a writer’s writer.

Ben Terrall is a Bay Area journalist. He can be reached at: bterrall@gmail.com.

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Drawn to New York reviewed in The New York Journal of Books


by Mark Squirek
New York Journal of Books
July 2013

“. . . a story of home, life, people and ideas that you will return to often.”

Working in a variety of formats from watercolor to ink to paint, collage and pencils, Peter Kuper creates a deep, brilliant, beautiful, and colorful history of his time in New York City. The stories ring with humor, insight and tragedy.

On one page he speaks of both the abandoned and the well-off while on the next page addresses a dancing and a street fair. The wide variety of the city is perfectly captured on every page.

As an artist and writer Mr. Kuper’s ability to shift shapes and perspective, often within the same story, is amazing. His work can bring you to a sudden stop of self-awareness and then leave you laughing your bottom off. Anchoring this look at NYC is the way he moves so effortlessly between watercolors to pencils or collage and then into a comic-style short story.

His approach to his art is as varied as the people and buildings he writes and draws.

Adapting Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal into the modern era he illustrates the century’s old essay on society’s inability to care for it’s young in inks that hold deep and threatening shadows. The style resembles aged woodcut drawings.

In one two-page story he access multiple ideas and multiple styles making each part of the equation as relevant and modern as it originally was in Swift’s day. 
This isn’t the only time that he is able to utilize seemingly conflicting ideas or styles and bring them into a wonderfully coherent whole. Using simple, inked lines Mr. Kuper shows us the upper third of a man who stands equal to the towering rooftops around him.

The shortness of the lines gives the impression that both he and his environment are almost made of wicker. His head clearly sits apart from the buildings around him while at the same time his body seems to be part of those very buildings.

The combination subtly reminds us that the city, as much brick mortar and cement as anything else, is also built of the people who live there. To the right of the body, in an area where the heart would normally sit, is an open window. The blind is raised to reveal a man sitting with his hands under his chin. Like the wicker man, there is a duality to this image.

The appearance of the man in the window suggests that he looking out over the city in front of him. There is also the idea that he is staring straight out at the reader as if you are on display as much as he is.

There is a yellow light behind him. This is the only color beside the darkness of the lines. It seems to silhouette the loneliness that exists while surrounded by eight million other people.

In another piece the motif of incorporating buildings and human beings into one appears with a different point of reference.

This time the perspective pulls back from the island of Manhattan. We see the skyline and a couple of bridges on the right.

At the very top of the buildings are block-type humans. They each bear straight, square jaws while wearing much smaller buildings or chimneys as hats. One smokes a cigar as he reaches down toward a bridge. The others are obviously having fun as they rearrange the skyline below them.

These are the giants of industry, the leaders of the city at work. The drawing also illustrates Mr. Kuper's skills as the colorist of his own work. The orange of the sky both frames and magnifies the fiery hubris the giants below them as the calm blue of the water that surrounds the port anchors the scene. It is as if the blue of heaven has switched with the pits of hell.

In the previously mentioned narrative "Off the Beaten Path" he creates shadows and uses darkness in such a way that you begin to feel as intoxicated as the folks in the story.

There is brilliance in the way he uses silence to tell many of his stories. In “One Dollar” he brings us the life of a single piece of currency. We watch that single bill moving from birth at the paper mill to its final resting place in a sewer. Without a word passing over the course of eight pages we see more of the city than you can possibly imagine.

In “Stars and Stripes,” possibly the most heartbreaking piece in the book, he begins with the image a plane approaching the twin towers. In brilliant red he shows the after effect of the explosion.

Across four exact panels in a line and seven lines total, he travels from the towers to the eye of a person half way across the world cradling a dead child. Inside his eye the original image of the towers appears. The final panel duplicates the exact same one that started the story.

The circular aspect of the story reminds us that no matter what we want to believe, the war at the root of the story is an age old one that will come back around again. The implication is also that we may a lot more responsible for what happened than we care to admit. A heretical idea to some, but one that needs to be acknowledged and addressed just the same.

The great artists entertain us and they amaze us with their gifted and studied skills, but they also challenge us and make us think. Mr. Kuper has given us biography, history, life, art, and just such a challenge inside this stunning thank you to the city that he calls home.

Don’t mistake this for a coffee table art book. It is a story of home, life, people and ideas that you will return to often.

Reviewer
Mark Squirek has written for Comic Book Marketplace, Comics and Games Weekly, Hogan’s Alley, and other magazines, including book reviews for the weekly email newsletter Scoop. He has also published several short stories in the pulp fiction genre for Pro-Se Press. In 2006 Broadway World named him Playwright of the Year for his one-act play, SOD.

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Better Than: Flag, Black Flag and possibly White Flag

By Tony Rettman
Village Voice Blog
June 23rd

In the summer of 1981, the Southern California band Black Flag went on a monumental tour of the U.S. where they unconsciously became the Johnny Appleseeds for the American Hardcore scene. From the Midwest to Manhattan, every fuck-up kid who witnessed their sonic assault and 'Tough crap if you don't like it' attitude on that tour more than likely started a band.

It is now the summer of 2012 and what do we got? Two different versions of the band touring the country. One playing the hits everyone wants to hear. The other playing a thermin. Where punk's past seems magical and organic, its present just comes off just bat shit whacky, no?

Outside the fug of old man reunion drama, we find ourselves at the NYC release party for Barred for Life, a book consisting of images of various ne'er-do-wells and miscreants from around the globe who don Black Flag's iconic four barred logo on their flesh like an official rejection stamp from humdrum normality.

The entertainment for tonight's event consists of an all-star band including not only Black Flag guitarist and vocalist Dez Cadena, but Todd Youth of Murphy's Law on guitar, Steve Soto of the Adolescents on bass and a Scissor Sister on drums. Yeah, still haven't figured that last one out...

But the fun thing here was the rotating line-up of vocalists for the night. A bevy of infamous NYHC front men got to take a stab at their favorite Black Flag tunes. Starting off the festivities was the chairman of the NYHC board, Jimmy Gestapo from Murphy's Law. In between his frenzy soaked renditions of "Nervous Breakdown" and "Wasted," he sat cross legged Masterpiece Theatre style on a crate whilst cracking jokes on the notorious gym shorts Henry Rollins used to don in the later years of the band. Within the three or so minutes it took to belt those songs out, he was out of there riding on a cloud of bravado and cheeb smoke.

The other highlight of the vocalists was Walter Schreifels from Quicksand. With all his wiry motion and angst ridden delivery, Walter seemed the closest in delivery to Black Flag's first vocalist (and current FLAG vocalist) Keith Morris.

But the cake taker of the night was definitely Paul Bearer of Sheer Terror. Prior to his spot on stage, I spied Bearer near the bar looking like his usual sullen self. At some point, two females flanked him on either side, smiled and greeted him. He still stood stone cold still whilst having a staring contest with oblivion. He eventually walked off to wait his turn to rock the mic. As I watch him do that trot to the stage, I knew that we were in for something special. He spoke about the darkened aloofness of Black Flag prior to launching into "Depression," a tune almost too fitting to Bearer's demeanor. The whole time he delivered the lines, he jerked and quivered and seemed to be the total embodiment of everything Black Flag stood for: lament, freedom, despair and twisted joy.

All the vocalists mentioned above and the others who sang throughout the night were set on a path of outlaw living by the various swings Black Flag did out to the east coast throughout the '80s. Watching these dudes celebrate Black Flag's music in this manner was way more exhilarating and true than any reunion you could be dragged to. But hey...maybe that's just me.

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Towards Collective Liberation: Reviewed on Sadie Blog

by Katy Otto
Sadie Magazine
June 28th, 2013

I first became acquainted with Chris Crass through a series of essays he wrote in various publications I read on the topic of confronting white privilege. I didn’t always know they were his pieces until I was finished reading them—they just spoke to some of the needs my burgeoning political development brought me, after introductions in college to a host of incredible women of color feminist thinkers and a desire to interrupt some very real race privilege and lack of consciousness in my own life.

Through more digging and discovery, I learned of Crass’s work with The Catalyst Project, and was able to go to one of his training sessions led in conjunction with many other organizers from that project at the National Conference on Organized Resistance, dubbed NCOR. When I learned last year that Crass was in the process of compiling a book, I was eager to read it—and happier still when Sadie suggested the review.

Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy has a cover that would place it squarely on infoshop shelves throughout the country—two interlocking gears comprised of people working in tandem. However, there is much in this book that struck me as completely different from any activist tome I’d ever read. One thing Crass does that I’ve never seen before is credit other thinkers and activists throughout the book—including key people who helped him to develop analysis he cites throughout the pages. This honoring of the work of others, particularly women, queer people, and people of color, is really refreshing in a world where so many radical and anarchist texts that make it to a high number of readers are penned by white, heterosexual, cisgendered men. I appreciated Crass’s consistent sharing of credit in this unique way, and I would encourage this practice among other writers.

The book begins with a forward by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, longtime mentor of Crass and workers’ rights visionary and organizer, and is divided into sections—Building the Anarchist Left; Developing Anti-Racist Feminist Practice; Lessons for Vision-Based, Strategic, Liberation Organizing Praxis; Lessons from Anti-Racist Organizing for Collective Liberation; and a conclusion, pulling together some ideas for an effective path forward. Crass’s knowledge of anarchist history and leftist organizing is vast, and he weaves it into a story of his own political and personal development. While some of the historical information on movements is dense, his passion for history is clear and helps encourage the reader along.

I was most moved by the personal descriptions and history of his involvement in San Francisco’s Food Not Bombs organization. The trials the organizers faced in doing their work to raise awareness of economic injustice, meet needs of the homeless and hungry, and build both a strong movement and a community with shared values and practices in pursuit of a better world. I could relate to the stories about conflicts within the group and the stress of trying to deal with sexual harassment within radical communities while simultaneously facing great state and police repression.

Most of all, one idea that Crass talks about throughout the book stuck with me—the ongoing desire to build the new world you want to inhabit within the shell of the old, knowing that this is a necessary step if you hope for the collective liberation you’ve worked for to survive. He underscores this by talking about overcoming crisis organizing—that is, always operating under duress, never being able to take the time as a movement, organization, or group to dream about what it is we want to build and create in addition to those things we know we want to end and tear down.

This is what makes Crass’s book such a vital read. It provides a balanced look at the value of historical understanding, ongoing analysis, imagination, self-inquiry, critique, sustainability practices, communication and messaging, and loving interrogation of ourselves as equally urgent components to building a groundswell social change movement. Crass is honest about his own mistakes and shortcomings, and humble in his assertion that we must be able to, not only face these head-on as organizers, but also to recognize that addressing ingrained systems of oppression within our own thinking is absolutely necessary to doing this work authentically.

I’d be curious to see the kinds of reading groups and discussions this book would engender, and I highly encourage activists, students, thinkers, and organizers who work on social change efforts together to read it as a group. In his book, Crass has given our movement(s) a great gift, and I hope we take advantage of it as a jumping off point for our own imaginations. Use this as fuel. I sure plan to.


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Court ruling praised, but not by everyone

by Bill Silverfarb
The San Mateo Daily Journal
June 27th, 2013

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act was much welcome news for local marriage-equality advocates but many said the ruling did not go far enough and other non-supporters blasted the ruling outright.

The Rev. Terri Echelbarger with the Peninsula Metropolitan Community Church in San Mateo has a large congregation of gays and lesbians, many who attended an early evening rally in Redwood City yesterday to celebrate the ruling.

“This is an awesome day for California and the other 12 states that recognize same-sex marriage. It’s one more step for equality, we can celebrate. And, there are still 37 states that treat its gay and lesbian citizens as unequal citizens,” Echelbarger wrote the Daily Journal in an email before yesterday’s rally. “God does not discriminate but our nation still does?”

While the San Francisco Bay Area may have some of the most welcoming churches for gays and lesbians anywhere in the world, not all clergy in the area appreciated yesterday’s ruling, however.

Pastor Brad Allen with the Victory International Church in San Mateo is one of them.

“I worked on the Proposition 8 campaign and am disappointed that a lawful and democratically enacted law was struck down as a 'burden' on the most affluent and best educated subset of the American population. This group already, and quite appropriately, enjoys all of the same anti-discrimination laws that protect every other group,” Allen wrote the Daily Journal in an email.

Allen thinks the ruling is strongly inflationary and will drive up the cost for all goods and services because businesses will have increased costs for additional spousal benefits.

But the biggest issue, he said, is adoption.

“All statistics show that children do best raised by their biological parents. Adopted kids do best when raised by parents of opposite sex. Kids being adopted into gay families will suffer the most,” Allen wrote in the email.

Married couple Derrick Kikuchi and Craig Wiesner, from San Mateo, published a children’s picture book titled “Operation Marriage” that tells the true story of a family with two kids who convince their mothers to get married during that brief window when it was legal.

It was based on a true story and shows the impact Proposition 8 had on the family and how the parents persevered, Wiesner said yesterday.

Kikuchi and Wiesner were married in their church more than 20 years ago and then married again legally almost 15 years later when same-sex marriage was briefly allowed in the state for less than five months before the passage of Proposition 8, Nov. 5, 2008. Proposition 8 was a voter-approved ballot measure that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Although many homosexuals in the state took advantage of that brief window, many did not, Wiesner told the Daily Journal yesterday.

“It was the people who were locked out that we were most concerned about,” Wiesner said about those couples unable to legally marry. About 18,000 same-sex couples married in 2008.

Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, married his husband, Dr. Dennis McShane, in 2008 and they have been a couple for roughly 30 years. He is also the state’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Caucus chair.

“In 2008, I had the privilege of marrying my partner of 26 years. This was one of the greatest days of my life, as we were finally able to stand together and say, in front of our friends, family and loved ones, ‘we are a family.’ This is an experience that many loving couples have been unjustly denied until now. We are not just a gay couple; we are two individuals who are deeply in love,” Gordon wrote in a statement after the court ruling was announced.

In San Mateo County, same-sex marriage licenses will be issued as soon as the injunction against Proposition 8 is lifted by the Ninth Federal Circuit Court, about 30 days, Mark Church, the county’s chief elections officer and assessor-county clerk-recorder wrote the Daily Journal in an email.

Proposition 8 was put on the ballot five months after the state Supreme Court legalized gay marriage and four years after then San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The state Supreme Court annulled the marriages, however, in August 2004.

People filled the streets of San Francisco for a good part of the day yesterday near the Civic Center plaza celebrating the decision and the city’s travel association contends it will bring even more tourists to the area.

“San Francisco is where marriage equality began in 2004 and, through the legal ups and downs, we have been a beloved location for weddings, commitment ceremonies and honeymoons ever since,” Joe D’Alessandro, president and of the San Francisco Travel Association wrote in a statement. “San Francisco looks forward to hosting weddings and celebrations for all loving couples.”

 

silverfarb@smdailyjournal.com

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

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'We, the Children of Cats' by Tomoyuki Hoshino (Review)

by
Tonys Reading List
June 18th, 2013

This year was a bad one for J-Lit in the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, with no Japanese book on the longlist for 2013.  Over in the US though, one Japanese work did make it onto the (very) longlist for the Best Translated Book Award, the American equivalent of the IFFP, so with Japanese Literature Challenge 7 upon us, I thought it would be a good chance to check it out - mainly to see if the BTBA judges knew what they were doing :)

*****
Tomoyuki Hoshino's We, the Children of Cats (translated by Brian Bergstrom and Lucy Fraser, review copy from publisher PM Press) is a collection of the writer's assorted short works.  It offers us five short stories and three novellas (although one of the novellas is only 32 pages long), enough for the reader to get a good overview of Hoshino's style and themes.

The first story, 'Paper Woman', gives us an insight into Hoshino the writer, right from the very start:

"As I've continued my professional writing career, I've come to think of it as an art that wavers, like a heat shimmer, between joy at the prospect of becoming something else and despair at knowing that such a transformation is ultimately impossible.  One could say that a novel's words trace the pattern of scars left by the struggle between those two feelings.  Which is why a novel should never be seen as a simple expression of an author's self."
p.1 'Paper Woman' (PM Press, 2012)
This idea of transformations is an important one for Hoshino.  In fact, in this story, the transformation is a very unusual and literal one...

Another thing we find out about Hoshino from this collection is his fascination with all things Latin-American.  Whether it's a privileged tourist searching for something worth living for ('Chino'), a dangerous teen sent to Peru to avoid trouble with the law ('Treason Diary'), or a bizarre, tango-influenced novella in an unnamed, imaginary city ('A Milonga for the Melted Moon'), the writer returns to stories of tropical lands, with guerillas, dancing, poverty and football of the round-ball variety.  While it would be easy to ascribe Murakami influences to Hoshino's stories, in this case García Marquez is probably a more likely source.

Many of the stories look at outsiders fleeing from rigid, dull Japanese society, and a couple look at the idea of 'Japaneseness'.  The young man in 'Chino' knows that his attempts to transform into a Latino freedom fighter are doomed from the start:
"No matter how dirty I might look, I knew my travels were buoyed on that lighter-than-air aluminum one-yen coin. A mode of travel little better than drifting and staring: never to touch down, never to make contact with other worlds, never to dive right in. I knew my body stank of yen, and would show me up as an outsider wherever I went."
'Chino' (p.37)

On the whole though, Hoshino is more interested in minorities than bored rich kids.  'Air' takes a magical look at gender identity, describing a man and a woman who both fall somewhere in the middle of traditional binary gender descriptions.  Forced to keep their 'irregularities' secret, they eventually find each other (at a GLBT Mardi-Gras-type event), culminating in a gender-bending climax which leaves both in a new state.

Interestingly, several of the stories are based (rather loosely) on real-life incidents, with Hoshino providing an alternative take on facts.  The novella 'Sand Planet', the longest piece in the collection, uses the story of Japanese settlers in the Dominican Republic, and a mass curry poisoning at an elementary school (a news event I remember very well from my time in Japan!), to create a fabulous story of a journalist attempting to make sense of his life.  The events of 'Treason Diary' are also based in fact, as the two main characters were suggested by two teen criminals whose families spirited them out of the country...

As fascinating as the true(ish) stories are though, it is Hoshino's imagination and style which catch your attention.  From the frankly bizarre 'The No Fathers Club', a piece in which the eponymous club is suggested by a strange sport called no-ball soccer, to the mind- (and gender-) bending events of 'A Milonga for the Melted Moon', the writer creates incredible, uncanny landscapes.  The latter story is the strangest (and best) in the collection, and it is a difficult tale to follow at times, mainly because of the constant switch in perspective between the two main characters, a man and a woman who switch clothes, viewpoints and bodily fluids (and if you think you know what that means, you don't...).

It really is a question of where one person ends and the other begins, and the language used reflects this.  At times, words and sentences melt into one another, and the image created is of a slightly off-kilter world, recognisable but foreign:
"You and I both, as we walk this earth, are nothing more than shadow sculptures carved from light.  Everyone here is just light thrown by the city in the sky as it shines in the night. This city is so filled with light the night shines like the midday sun, the silver from the sky as it falls on the surface of the river builds up and combines with the new light falling from the sky, the proof is in the way the light comes not just from the sky but from the ground beneath our feet: no shadows trouble the surfaces of this city.  Instead they hang suspended, unmoored from the ground, and eventually turn back into birds, back into people."
'A Milonga for the Melted Moon' (p.186)
The final story of the collection is fifty pages of elegant confusion and madness, and it's brilliant :)

While two translators are listed, Brian Bergstrom does most of the heavy lifting (Lucy Fraser's 'Chino' is the exception), and he also provides a wonderful thirty-page essay on the stories to complete the book.  This afterword discusses Hoshino's influences and fascination with Latin America, and also examines each of the stories in turn, teasing out common themes.  It's an addition which helps the reader to understand where Hoshino is coming from, and another example of the kind of extras which can make a great book even better (if only all publishers of translated fiction did this...).

I loved this collection, and I'm very glad I decided to check it out.  Having also received a copy of Hoshino's novel, Lonely Hearts Killer, from the publisher, he might well turn out to be my next new favourite J-Lit writer.  If you're in the market for well-written, fantastical literary fiction, this one is for you :)



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Operation Marriage: A Child’s View of DOMA, Family Diversity

by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
Shaping Youth
June 29th, 2013

With the repeal of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) sending whoops of joy among civil rights advocates throughout the nation and critics shouting about the upending of traditional values, it’s important to shine the spotlight with unity and clarity on how noisy, polarized media rhetoric impacts children, both in and out of the family diversity conversation.

As “All Children Matter” (FamilyEquality.org) reports, roughly 2 million children are being raised by LGBT families, and it’s not just the legal and social inequities that can harm kids, the media mud-slinging and incivility among adults who disagree on this topic can sear into the soul like a branding iron.

A new children’s storybook Operation Marriage by Cynthia Chin-Lee, published by our friends at Reach and Teach is a true tale told through the lens of a child, capturing the essence of how discrimination lands on kids with pain and confusion.  

The storyline? “Eight-year old Alex has a fight with her best friend, Zach, who says he can no longer be her friend. Why? Because “her parents (both women) aren’t married.”

You can see where this is going, complete with subtext and political Prop 8 lawn signs creating neighborhood tug-o-wars about banning gay marriage…It poignantly speaks to how children get caught up in the tornado spin of conflicting ideologies as innocent bystanders of sociopolitical jockeying.

Beautifully illustrated by Lea Lyon, characters Alex and Nicky urge their mothers to get married “while they can.” Operation Marriage received a Gold Medal in the annual Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, in the Spirit/Compassion category, for dedication to children’s books and literacy and for inspired writing, illustrating and publishing.

I enjoyed meeting the ‘real life’ characters at the Kepler’s book signing launch last year, and found the timeless over-arching theme of fairness and family diversity appeals to every age and stage, as the publisher aptly states:

“…Where there is love there is family; where there is family, there should be respect, dignity and support.”

So here’s my thinking as the DOMA deluge in media emerges this week and the Respect for Marriage Act is reintroduced to assure all married couples equal treatment for all federal programs and purposes:

Let’s raise a white flag in the name of all children, everywhere, to ask political pundits to surrender harsh verbiage and be “media mindful” of how epithets land on the youngest voices in our society.

These are children’s families being bumped and bruised in the political chess game.

Children have the least protection to process the negative spewage of venom and vile that’s become a talk show staple for profit and ratings.

Even if kids are not exposed directly to the baiting of media outrage, much like racism, any overheard adult fodder of intolerance, stereotypes and slams often gets parroted and perpetuated by peers.

So let’s ‘surrender to civility’ shall we? I see it as a first strike hit in the verbal arms race of media controversy…

Even if public opinion polls claim the freedom to marry is overwhelmingly positive by popular vote, there IS going to be a dust up…

Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie are hitting the cover of The New Yorker which in itself is being dissected by critics in pro and con critical thinking of why it is and isn’t a good choice to represent the human rights victory…

…The ‘are they or aren’t they gay’ cartoon convo…

…A social media post detailing when the cover art originated, (hint: a year ago) and countless parents’ rights conversations about letting kids be kids without having to explain so much, so often, so early. (separate post forthcoming on the role of media in social norming)

Then there’s the news that hit TV show Modern Family is considering marriage for Mitch and Cam…

And the so-called Hollywood gay agenda conspiracy that has “come out” in the press, along with  Glaad’s detailed infographic “paving the way on the road to marriage equality”…You see my point, right?

This all foreshadows some serious outrage baiting media warfare which could put children smack dab in the blast zone as collateral damage…Maybe media producers will ‘behave’ with civil discourse instead of polarizing hateful slurs…but I’d brace for a backlash.

Whatever your personal convictions are, please fact check your tongue before engaging, put the kids first, and use positive media to instill your own family values of love and universal truths.

Full disclosure, it’s no secret I’m in the “straight against hate” contingent, supporting family diversity of every race, creed and color…

I’ve purposely used media like the Berenstain Bears books over the years to be a springboard for socio-emotional learning, from empathy to life lessons…So in addition to resource roundups like “Modern Children’s Books Help Families Explore Diversity” and specific titles gleaned from Publishers Weekly newly launched “Openly YA Tour” here are a few facts to frame the macro lens on gay marriage and parenting from a wellness and public health perspective:

The American Academy of Pediatrics four-year study Promoting the Well-Being of Children Whose Parents Are Gay or Lesbian affirms,

“…children have similar developmental and emotional needs and receive similar parenting whether they are raised by parents of the same or different genders. If a child has 2 living and capable parents who choose to create a permanent bond by way of civil marriage, it is in the best interests of their child(ren) that legal and social institutions allow and support them to do so, irrespective of their sexual orientation.”

(Here’s the full AAP report from the committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health, Mar 2013)

As I watch an entire tribe of suburban teens dress up in rainbow regalia for this weekend’s Pride Parade (some gay, some not, none caring about who is/isn’t, but all united in a ‘freedom to marry’ human rights belief system) it heartens me to realize that youth have the courage and convictions to carry forth a torch of love over hate for the next generation…

Let’s hope youth get equal if not more media time than the blowhards and hate bait…“Operation Marriage” will no doubt continue to be a battleground for quite some time…

Sample book reviews from experts via the Reach and Teach.com site:

Children need a permanent and secure nurturing family to help them thrive. Decades of research have shown that children’s social, academic, and emotional development are similar whether they have two mothers or a mother and a father. Their parents’ marriage gives children the security and the legitimacy they need to dispel stereotypes and to thrive in school and society.” -Ellen C. Perrin, M.D., Division of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics, Floating Hospital for Children, Tufts Medical Center, Boston, MA

Even 3rd-graders know that commitment ceremonies are not weddings and domestic partnerships are not marriage. Operation Marriage shows how important marriage is to children and that they understand that anything less, is less than equal.”– Dr. Davina Kotulski,  Psychologist, Motivational Life Coach, and Author of Why You Should Give A Damn About Gay Marriage (2004) and Love Warriors: The Rise of the Marriage Equality Movement and Why it Will Prevail (2010)

Operation Marriage is a well-constructed, age-appropriate story with an appealing cast of characters. Spunky Alex doesn’t let her best friend’s abandonment get her down; instead, she enlists her brother in a campaign that is filled with humor-blasting wedding music throughout the house, making a fake wedding program-things that will ring true to all children who’ve found creative ways to beg their parents to do something for them.  — Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of Gringolandia a 2010 ALA Best Book for young adults. Click here to read the full review.

 

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Left of the Dial on Psychobabble

Psychobabble
June 26th, 2013

Left of the Dial: Conversations with Punk Icons compiles twenty-two interviews David Ensminger conducted for such landmark ’zines as Thirsty Ear, Maximumrocknroll, and yes, his own Left of the Dial. My interest in his book was sparked by the inclusion of a chat with The Damned’s Captain Sensible, so I was slightly disappointed when I saw how brief that conversation was and how many post-first wavers comprised Ensminger’s anthology. My disappointment melted when I realized how fine an interviewer our host is and how insightful and articulate his selection of punk icons is.

Left of the Dial offers a fascinating range of experiences from such subjects as The Dils’ Tony Kinman, a first waver who lays out a near academic history of Rock & Roll, and Minuteman Mike Watt, who offers a harrowing account of the illness that nearly killed him. The diversity is impressive too as we get perspectives beyond the white, hetero dudes who constitute the prevailing punk stereotype to dig the experiences of what it’s like to be Latino (El Vez of The Zeros), female (Kira Roessler of Black Flag), gay (Gary Floyd of The Dicks), or black (Freak Smith of Beefeater) in the scene. Ensminger is a good interviewer too, respectful of his subjects but not afraid to call out the somewhat prickly Shawn Stern of Youth Brigade about the apparent weakness of the 1992 comeback record Come Again or query Lisa Fancher of Frontier Records on her sometimes-criticized business practices. Best of all is a riveting mini-oral history of San Francisco’s Deaf Club, an actual gathering place for hearing-impaired patrons to feel the beat from such performers as X, The Dils, Dead Kennedys, and a performance artist who’d receive an enema on stage.

My only gripe is that Ensminger could have oriented the reader better by indicating exactly when his interviews took place. It was a little jarring to be reading along only to discover that 9/11 had just taken place or Bush had just invaded Iraq. But that’s a pretty minor quibble about a selection of interviews so readable that I guess they now qualify as timeless.


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Left of the Dial on The Arts Fuse

by Adam Ellsworth
The Arts Fuse
June 29th, 2013

In the introduction to Left of the Dial, David Ensminger writes that his “journalism-meets-folklore” writings on the now decades old phenomena known as punk rock are not attempts to “undo the myths” or “tear down the walls” that are associated with the genre.

Instead, it is his intention to “recreate punk on a human scale, person-to-person, and ask questions that flow like ticker tape in the back of my mind.”

With Left of the Dial, he has succeeded.

To be sure, the book is not an attempt to tell the complete, or even incomplete, history of punk. It is essentially a collection of interviews with a handful of punk rock’s leading figures.
Some of these interview subjects might be a little obscure, even to the more enlightened music fan, but that’s one of the book’s greatest strengths. After all, we already know what Johnny Rotten/John Lydon thinks about everything, right down to his preferred brand of butter, but how often do we get such revealing, informative interviews from Captain Sensible of the Damned or Tony Kinman of the Dils?

While the likes of Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi), Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), and Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE) will already be familiar to anyone who’s read Our Band Could Be Your Life, Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana, or just about any other book on punk/alternative music history, Ensminger goes beyond questions of simple biography and discography to unveil some of these artists’ more unlikely influences and explore their philosophies on not just punk, but life.

In some instances, this strategy of eschewing backstory in favor of getting under the surface does slightly backfire, however. For example, I was particularly confused while reading the interview with Jack Grisham of TSOL, a band I simply don’t know that much about. Once I did a little research on the band’s history and its various iterations though, I found what Grisham had to say pretty interesting. I just had to work for it.

But a little extra work never hurt anybody, and for the truly committed music fan, an invitation to dig deeper is always welcome.

Ensminger himself is certainly qualified to go deep on his subject. Not only is he a fan and longtime drummer, he’s also a Humanities, Folklore, and English instructor at Lee College in Baytown, Texas. As such, he approaches punk with both his head and his heart, and he understands that punk is not just a style of music but, at its best, also a way of life.

Fred “Freak” Smith — illuminating on what was it was like to be a black punk musician.
The politics of punk get as much play in Left of the Dial as the music does. While there are certainly right-wing punk bands (not to mention white supremacist/neo-Nazi punk bands), they aren’t what Ensminger is interested in. To him, and to the musicians he interviews, punk is an inclusive, and basically left wing, community. And while the interviews in Left of the Dial were conducted over many years, and in some cases first appeared in other publications (including Ensminger’s own fanzine, also titled Left of the Dial), this ideology is a thread that runs through the book from beginning to end.

To his credit, that doesn’t mean Ensminger tries to paint a picture of punk rock as utopia. His interview with Fred “Freak” Smith, an African American guitarist who played with the DC band Beefeater, is particularly illuminating. “What was it like to be a black punk in DC?” Ensminger asks Smith during their Q&A. The guitarist responds,

Let us keep in mind that DC is what, 80 percent black, and this punk rock scene was fueled by angst-ridden white kids, a lot of whom I found out had fucking trust funds waiting for them when they became of legal adult age. Shit, I didn’t even know what a fucking trust fund was back then. It was very strange to be these “token negroes” playing in front of predominantly all-white audiences, but we did it. As Shawn Brown [singer of the DC hardcore band Dag Nasty] and myself will attest, there were fucking issues, man. A lot of fucking issues that we had to address when we did shows.

Interviewing Dave Dictor of MDC, Edminger asks, “Did you feel hardcore punk was less tolerant of gays?” to which Dictor responds,

It definitely wasn’t tolerant of gays on the whole. There were individual scenes that were more political and cooler; of course Austin, Texas, was probably as good and friendly of a scene and not as homophobic. We were very connected to the 1970s punk rock scene, which was more like a freak revolution than say, what started happening in the early 1980s, when a lot of younger kids got involved, like Minor Threat, SSD, and 7 Seconds. That was more like young guys in the crew that didn’t have a background in which they were into the Dead Boys or New York Dolls or into all that. That was one of the first divisions that we began to notice: people had different backgrounds. The original hardcore pioneers—Ian MacKaye, Kevin Seconds, most of those people per se—were not homophobic, but the fans they attracted [. . .] I would say were.

(In case you care about these things, it should be noted that Dave Dictor is not gay himself, but he has never hesitated to call people out for being homophobes.)

David Ensminger — he believes that punk is best when it’s open to as many different sounds and people as possible.

Obviously, no scene or musical genre is perfect. What’s interesting to Ensminger though is that there are always new bands coming along who are willing to use punk rock not just as a way to express themselves musically, but to create a more just world. The book ends with an email exchange between Ensminger and Thomas Barnett of Strike Anywhere, a band that formed in the late 1990s. As is often the case with email interviews, Ensminger asks long, wordy questions, and Barnett provides even longer, wordier answers, but at the heart of their conversation is the fact that punk can be a force for social change and that newer bands are part of a tradition that goes back not just to Fugazi, or The Clash, but to the pre-rock days of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

“I remember reading an interview with Tad in Flipside in the early ‘90s,” Barnett writes to Ensminger, “where he said, ‘Punk rock is just urban folk music.’ I agree with that and raise him all of the subversive and independent arts, especially conscious underground hip-hop, garage bands, and dance punk hootenannies. Some of the hardcore electronic shit, too.”

These are of course Barnett’s words, but after reading Left of the Dial, I’m sure that Ensminger shares their sentiment. From the questions he asks to the musicians he chooses to interview, it’s clear that Ensminger believes that punk is best when it’s open to as many different sounds and people as possible, and when it’s rallying for a good cause—even if that cause is just to be free from boring, corporate rock and roll.

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