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Fighting Words
Former Utne Editor in Chief David Schimke on conflict, compassion, partisanship, and peace

Remembering Sam Rivers


Upon hearing the sad news that the visionary jazz saxophonist and flutist Sam Rivers died just after Christmas at the age of 88, I started scrounging for the notes I’d taken at a special guest appearance he made with pianist Jason Moran on October 4, 2001. It took a while to sift through the scribbling, but the exercise led me to a short piece I wrote about the experience. That is took place at Walker Art Center, a modern art museum in Minneapolis, was particularly fitting, since the composer and bandleader will forever be remembered for his abstract expressions. Here are a few graphs from the review, which originally ran in Jazziz magazine: 

This much anticipated, one-night, one-time only gig was inspired by Moran’s third solo effort for Blue Note records, Black Stars, which features Nasheet Waits, bassist Tarus Mateen [Scott Colley played bass in Minneapolis], and Rivers on tenor, soprano, and flute. Like the CD, the 90-minutes set was an often stormy, sometimes sun-drenched, but always soulful journey to the sharp corners that define the outskirts of modern jazz. Unlike the studio summit, which showcases Moran’s promise as writer and River’s concision (which, like the hole of his career, is criminally underappreciated), the Walker performance bore a palpable urgency, a hang-it-all-out-there vibe characterized by telepathic teamwork and fearless individualism. In fact, after listening to Black Stars, I thought Rivers, who pushed Blue Note toward the avant-garde in the ’60s and fueled the New York loft scene in the ’70s, might have been holding back a little on the recording. I even wondered if it was Moran, not Rivers, who should’ve been billed as a special guest.

After watching the two of them onstage, though, there is no question that the pairing was not a commercial conceit, but a marriage of like-minded artists. Like Rivers, Moran uses the full range of his instrument, belies scholarly pretension, and manages to be as musical as he is adventurous.

Ultimately, though, it was Rivers, pushing himself physically, pulling at the edge of time-tested tunes such as his own “Inspiration” and “Unity,” who left the most stirring impression. Just ask Waits, who sat behind his kit, perpetually grinning in disbelief as Rivers played off his every snap, crackle, and pop. (Waits himself was an unexpected treat, working his equipment’s limitations with a harmonic sensibility rare among young drummers.) On soprano, Rivers conjured visions of Coltrane, searching for spiritual release. On flute, he was cat-like, skipping and scatting seamlessly above the fray. And on tenor, he jump-roped from register to register so quickly, so smoothly, that his most experimental wanderings seemed downright lyrical.

“It’s the guy’s integrity,” Moran told the crowd. “That’s what you want to emulate. He’s just so upfront and direct with everything he does.”

During the show’s high mark, a delicate duet featuring the veteran and the young lion, the two swayed gently, as if they had played together for years—as if they knew they may never share the stage again. Titled “For Peace,” the song paid tribute to a friend of Moran’s who was killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks. If you closed your eyes and let your imagination ride along, you could envision a world so beautiful, so harmonious, that such violence truly would be unthinkable.

Shout outs to photographer Mike Dvorak, who covered the show with me that night, and NPR’s A Blog Supreme, which recently posted a link to an exhaustive Rivers discography.

Image by Tom Marcello , licensed under Creative Commons  





Will the Next Ralph Nader Be a Conservative?

Voting Booth 

Given Barack Obama’s anemic approval ratings and the republican's underwhelming roster of presidential hopefuls (who, thankfully, will not be seen in another gang bang until 2012), it’s somewhat surprising that there hasn’t been more talk of a third-party movement in the mainstream media. Especially since, the horse race coverage notwithstanding, Mitt Romney has already purchased his party’s nomination, which is sure to leave a large percentage of conservatives disillusioned—again.

According to a piece written by Alec MacGillis for The New Republic, however, the D.C.-based political organization, Americans Elect is set “to hold an online convention to nominate a bipartisan ticket for president and vice president” next summer. And, the author opines, those who would scoff at the idea of a viable alternative to the two-party solution—especially Obama loyalists—do so at their peril.

Americans Elect, which has already raised tens of million of dollars and has a tony list of supporters, have gathered more than half the signatures needed to make next November’s ballot in all 50 states. And while the group is quick to criticize calcified hardliners on both sides of the aisle, they are particularly critical of the sitting president.

“Democrats suspect that Americans Elect, with its self-described appeal to the ‘socially liberal, fiscally conservative’ part of the spectrum, will pull more votes from Obama than from the GOP nominee,” MacGillis reports. “And they can hardly be reassured by the anti-Obama pedigree of some of those behind Americans Elect, including pollster Douglas Schoen, a so-called ‘Fox News Democrat,’ and Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, who famously dismissed Obama as an ‘elitist’ after the 2008 primaries.”

Source: The New Republic 

Image by Warrenski, licensed under Creative Commons 



Literary Execution


According to journalist Anna Clark, last week’s decision by Governor John Kitzhaber to put a moratorium on executions in Oregon “is the latest step in the accelerating movement to abolish capital punishment in the U.S. through state-by-state moratorium’s and voter initiatives.”

Blogging for The American Prospect, Clark goes on to report that nationwide “the actual number of executions has dropped by nearly a third since the 1990s, which may reflect increasing public ambivalence. Publicity around exonerated inmates is also raising uncertainty even among those who otherwise support capital punishment.” Clark also notes that overall support for the death penalty has dropped 19 percent in the last 17 years.”

This analysis, along with recent headlines about the death sentence a Phoenix jury dealt convicted serial killer Mark Goudeau, got me wondering whether or not this might be one of those rare, fleeting times that the headlines conspire to get the issue of capital punishment off the back page to the forefront of America’s collective conscience. It also sent me back to an arts story being passed around the office last summer.

In a piece published by The American Conservative in September, author John Rodden encourages readers to revisit “A Hanging,” a moving, first-person story about the public execution of an unidentified Indian man in Burma. Published in 1931, the 2,000 word essay proved to be literary breakthrough for a 28-year-old author named Eric Blair—who, two years later, would adopt the pen name George Orwell.

“The success of ‘A Hanging’ turns on the fact that its narrative gradually and ingeniously shifts: its final paragraphs generate a perspective that ultimately induces us to consider ourselves the guilty parties—as executioners bereft of any moral high ground—rather than the condemned man,” writes Rodden. “We need to reread Eric Blair’s ‘A Hanging’ for political and moral reasons. We need to be reminded that the guilty are not necessarily—or only—those who are convicted of crimes. Let us pause and consider Orwell’s ending when we presume to sit in judgment and take another’s life.”

Source: The American Conservative 

 Image by Avia Venefica, licensed under Creative Commons 

Obama's Soft Power Outage


With US troops marching out of Iraq and Osama bin Laden’s head on a pike, it will be difficult for Barack Obama’s political enemies to characterize the president’s first-term performance on the international stage as indecisive, inexperienced, or weak-kneed—a strategy that helped unseat Carter and left Gore desperate for Florida’s electoral votes. Barring a domestic terror attack, in fact, hawkish Republicans will likely avoid serious foreign policy discussions and quietly cheer for the economy to continue its slumber.

The electoral ramifications notwithstanding, what worries Mark Lagon, International Relations and Security Chair at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service Program, is that Obama’s seeming strength (and good fortune, I might add) betrays a lack of inventiveness and depth—especially when it comes to projecting soft power, that combination of diplomacy and nonmilitary coercion essential to enduring influence and stability.

Writing in the October issue of World Affairs, Logan notes that when Obama initially took office he “made fresh start statements, such as his June 2009 remarks in Cairo, and embraced political means like dialogue, respectful multilateralism, and the use of new media, suggesting that he felt the soft power to change minds, build legitimacy, and advance interests was the key element missing from the recent US approach to the world—and that he would quickly remedy that defect.”

Since then, Obama has embraced unilateral military actions, accelerated the use of unmanned drones—despite the risk of untold civilian casualties—and has continued a number of the Bush administration most unpopular policies, including rendition and the suspension of habeas corpus domestic and foreign. Consequently, the administration lacks credibility on those occasions it does choose to engage in statecraft.

To prove the point, Logan looks in detail at events in Iran, Russia, and Egypt during Obama’s first term; countries where a “meaningful” expression of soft power could “have made a difference not only for those countries but for American interests as well.”

“[Obama’s] reaction to the challenges these countries have posed to the US suggest that it is not soft power itself that Obama doubts,” Logan concludes, “but America’s moral standing to project it.”

Source: World Affairs 

 Image by The U.S. Army, licensed under Creative Commons 

From Somalia to Minnesota to Jihad


As I write this, the FBI has yet to confirm that Abdisalan Hussein Ali, a 22 year-old man born in Somalia and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was one of two suicide bombers who killed at least 10 people in Mogadishu on October 29. According to a piece in the New York Times  published a day later and an update posted by Minneapolis Star Tribune  reporter Allie Shah the morning of November 1, however, circumstantial evidence is mounting to suggest a connection between Abdisalan Hussein and the bombing, which is linked to Somalia’s Shabab rebels.

Regardless how the story turns out (the FBI says it will have DNA tests completed insude two weeks), Abdisalan Hussein did disappear in 2008 and, according to the Times, was “known by the F.B.I. to be one of an estimated 30 Americans who have joined the Shabab, at least 20 of whom came from the Somali community in Minneapolis.” What’s more, Allie Shah reports, “to date, the FBI has confirmed that two suicide bombers in Somalia came from Minnesota,” which has the largest Somali population in the U.S. (over 60,000 according to the latest estimates).

The first of those bombers, Shirwa Ahmed of Minneapolis, drove an SUV packed with explosives into an intelligence office in Bossaso, a port city in the Somali state of Puntland, killing at least five people in October, 2008. Believed by the FBI to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a suicide bombing on foreign soil, Shirwa Ahmed is the subject of a must-read story from Virginia Quarterly Review, which is excerpted in the May-June 2010 issue of Utne Reader.

Author Nicholas Shmidle tracks Shirwa Ahmed’s tragic trajectory from refugee to Minnesota high school student to terrorist recruit and, in the process, helps the reader understand the challenges and temptations that face Somali-born men struggling both to assimilate and stay connected to their war torn homeland. (As the Times points out, “many Somali-Americans have returned, not to fight, but to help rebuild the country, including the current prime minister and his predecessor.”)

“Paul Gill, a lecturer and terrorism expert a that University College in Dublin, believes that group psychology oftentimes provides a better template for understanding terrorism recruitment than religion does,” Shmidle writes. “When it comes to suicide bombers, ‘the group becomes the primary source of sustenance. It becomes more about group in-love than about hating America or hating the West,’ Gill told me. ‘It’s much like joining the marines or becoming a member of a football club: It’s hard to back out once you’re in.’ ”

Image by ExpertInfantry.com, licensed under Creative Commons 

No Latter-Day Gays


Even though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which claims to have 14 million members, is one of the fastest growing religions in the world—reportedly converting over 200,000 souls in 2009 alone—the 182 year-old American-born sect has, until just recently, been largely ignored by pop culture’s cool kids.

In part, the recent emergence of shows such as HBO’s Big Love, TLC’s Sister Wives, and the Broadway smash, The Book of Mormon, is due to the rise of republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, a member of the mainstream Mormon Church, which considers polygamy a violation of civil and religious law, and the fall of Warren Jeffs, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FDLS), a proponent of plural marriage and convicted sexual predator.

It also doesn’t hurt that the religion was founded by Joseph Smith, a larger-than-life, outlaw prophet with multiple wives. After all, society has an insatiable appetite for the sensational and taboo.

Given that Romney remains the odds on favorite to win his party’s nomination, it’s a good bet that both the LDS and FDLS will be increasingly scrutinized over the coming year. But according to Jennifer Sinor, a creative writing teacher at Utah State University, even this sort of intense media attention will only begin to scratch the surface of the faith’s social implications and deep allegiances, especially in her chosen home, where the Mormon Church is headquartered.

“Mormons themselves who come to live in Utah from other parts of the country make the distinction between Mormons and Utah Mormons. The climate is different here,” Sinor, who is a devote nonbeliever, writes in The American Scholar (Autumn 2011). “In this theocracy, in a place Mormons refer to as Zion, I will always be an outsider, but I have made a kind of peace with the state. You have to if you want to remain. The peace is both hard earned and uneasy, tested continually. And it has been the stance of the LDS Church on homosexuality that has most recently challenged any goodwill I have fostered over the years.”

Sinor’s incisive, first person essay—which includes a collection of expertly crafted, haunting scenes—begins and ends powerfully with anecdotes from her classroom, where gay Mormon students dare to write and talk about their homosexuality, despite the risk of banishment, ridicule, and memories of verbal and physical assault when others suspected they might be gay. She also revisits the LDS’s financial commitment to passing California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, which deems that only marriage between a man and woman will be recognized by the state; considers the sexual repression and prudishness inherent in Utah’s dominant culture (fashion magazine like Vogue are covered in opaque plastic in local supermarkets while the state has the highest Internet pornography subscription rate in the country); and honestly examines her rage regarding Mormonism’s anti-feminist doctrine and missionary zeal.

What makes the essay particularly salient is that it ultimately pivots on the power of fear and the importance of tolerance, subjects citizens must take more time to debate and consider this election season, no matter their religious heritage or political affiliation.

“It begins at the kitchen table where your father cracks gay jokes,” Sinor writes. “It is furthered at school where the teachers allow kids to call each other fag. It grows into a hot flame in the church pew on Sunday where you are told that the door to eternity is narrow and policed, where the lines between lost and saved are engraved into your skin. All of that fear must go somewhere. It cannot be contained. And so it erupts in ignorance and baseball bats.”

Source: The American Scholar   

Image by TheManfromUtah, licensed under Creative Commons  


A New Peace Symbol


Here’s an image worth posting on Facebook, putting on a t-shirt, or sticking on a bumper.

“Free as a Man,” created by Serbian artist Predrag Stakic, is the winner of an online competition conducted by the Human Rights Logo Initiative, which is on a mission to make the design an internationally recognized symbol for human rights.

An initial call for entries went out in May and kicked-up 15,000 submissions from more than 190 countries. After a healthy period for public comment, a jury made up of 36 designers, human rights advocates, and concerned politicians from around the world chose 10 finalists.

Because the aim of the initiative—which was supported by a host of supporters and partners, including Google, Typo London, and Cinema for Peace—was to create an image “by people for people,” the logo is an open source product, free for use without restrictions.


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