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And into this life we’re born… baby sometimes we don’t know why

In this edition: Playing musical metaphors with Van Morrison, walking on the bright side, America swings like a pendulum do, Tea Party Troubles, “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.” — William Gibson

The Bright Side of the Road

Lyrics excerpt:

Little darlin’, come with me
Won’t you help me share my load
From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the road

And into this life we’re born
Baby, sometimes, sometimes we don’t know why
And time seems to go by so fast
In the twinkling of an eye

Let’s enjoy it while we can
Won’t you help me share my love
From the dark end of the street
To the bright side of the road

– Written by Van Morrison (1979)

More of the lyrics: Van Morrison – Bright Side Of The Road Lyrics | MetroLyrics

“Bright Side of the Road” is a song written by Northern Irish singer-songwriter-troubadour Van Morrison and included on his 1979 album Into the Music. It was also one of the outtakes that made up the 1998 compilation album, The Philosopher’s Stone.

Autobiographical note: I have a fondness for the album The Philosopher’s Stone because it was the a gift from my son and possibly the first time that he thought of giving a gift that was special to me (a Van Morrison fan) and reasonably meaningless to him (probably into Ska music or Metallica at that time). The self-awareness of going outside yourself to please another person is an interesting thing to reflect on, especially in the gift-giving season we’ve just gone through, and some people never learn the art of it.

City-dwellers and commuters understand the concept of the bright side of the road (and the dark side) as we are offered the choice almost daily. The tall buildings leave one side shaded and other side lit. The preferred side probably changes with the temperature but nothing that I can think of beats the ability to be warmed by the sun after a long Chicago winter. Now that the solstice is behind us we can start thinking ahead to the Spring once more (and that’s the only way northern weather can be tolerated!)

But of course, the meaning is in the metaphor. We are often presented with difficulty in life. Where our focus goes determines the way that every day looks and feels to us. Morrison writes, “Won’t you help me share my load, From the dark end of the street, To the bright side of the road.” We don’t have to do it alone. Sometimes we are alone, and the rain just won’t stop falling (another metaphor, of course). The answer for the person on the dark side is probably to reach out to someone to share that load. The rest of us have to be available to listen, sympathize, and help where we can putting blame and regret aside. And as Bob Marley reminded us in “So Much Things to Say”, “when the rain fall, it don’t fall on one man’s housetop,” so we know that one day it might be us walking on that dark, dark side and needing a friend.

But I digress…

Morrison was born Belfast in 1945 and grew up in a musical home. His mother sang at social gatherings, and his father collected classic blues and jazz records. He learned guitar, saxophone, and harmonica while in school, and was playing with blues, jazz, and rock bands by his mid-teens. At 15, he quit school, joined an R&B outfit called the Monarchs, and toured Europe with them as saxophonist. Before he was even 20 he’d started an R&B club at a Belfast hotel and played there in the house band, which became the group Them. Them recorded two songs in 1964, one a local hit and one a U.K. hit “Baby, Please Don’t Go” by Mississippi Delta Blues guitarist and songwriter Big Joe Williams. It would take too much time and space to delve deeply into Van Morrison’s biographical journey, but two things further the thoughts here.

Morrison always fought back against classification as an artist and as a person. While many songs speak of spiritual discovery he will not speak much about it. The common theme seems to be forms of mysticism (the direct experience of the divine or transcendent through prayer or meditation). Around the time “The Bright Side of the Road” was written it seems like the basis was Christian Mysticism and this leads to a third interpretation of the song as the choice we make about spiritual “light” in our lives.

Morrison left Ireland in the early days of “The Troubles,” the name given to 3 decades of violence in Northern Ireland that took place from the late sixties to the end of the nineties. In 1921, Northern Ireland was partitioned from the Republic of Ireland, and many in Northern Ireland were strongly loyal to Great Britain. So while the bulk of Ireland is what we consider to be traditionally Irish, Northern Ireland is a mix of cultures from England and Ireland. The conflict was (and to some degree is) between Protestant supporters of Great Britain and a Catholic minority. Beyond religion, the issue is steeped in ethnic and class issues. Morrison was born into a Protestant family and his mother explored the Jehovah’s Witness faith at one point. Part of his prickly nature (and rejection of traditional religion) may well be based on his experiences in the Nationalist/Loyalist divisions of Northern Ireland.

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For me, and hopefully for the reader, thinking about the culture and politics of the sixties is a way to maintain perspective and to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that the dark side of the street (characterized in this day by real ignorance and hatred of all things Obama) is the way the future plays out. We can easily forget that public opinion is like a pendulum. The swing to the Left that started with Kennedy and lasted 20+ years until Reagan begat the counter swing to the right that now seems to be hitting its peak. (The current degree of ultra-conservatism might be unrivaled in terms of scope. The nearest thing I’ve run across was the race-based conservatism of Southern Democrats as noted in the last piece I wrote. Like the civil rights-opposing Southern Democrats of the past, the worst excesses of the anti-Obama era are Southern and at least partially racist.) Even the long rule of Republicans during the early 1900’s featured some pretty progressive thought including high taxation of the wealthy and tariffs on imports. And Reagan and the conservatives of the time would be characterized as liberal or RINO by today’s GOP extremists.

That the duration of the Reagan conservative period is extended may be due to three aspects. First, flat or declining wages and wealth, amplified by the Great Recession, steals power from the economic majority by shifting the balance toward employers and away from employees. Second, the system has energy being added by the push of conservative money from financial firms, energy companies, and individual billionaire would-be oligarchs.  Finally, that same conservative money supports our entire elections system giving corporations the ability to purchase policy by manipulating support of candidates and by providing the actual legislation through ALEC.

At the heart of the current American power imbalance is the fact that people like the Kochs and Waltons are greedier than the Tolkien dwarves. They can’t do with too much, they need to have way too much. Unless you are quite the pessimist, you believe that the majority of people are fair. You understand that we are all in it together. But in every way the greediest among us overplay their hand and gleefully and publicly poop on the concept of fairness. They work to convince people that climate change is a just theory and that renewable energy is not practical but people are figuring out that we’re living in a period of change and the likely culprit is CO2 from our carbon emissions. They work to keep payrolls down (and profits and dividends up) by attacking collective bargaining and efforts to raise the minimum wage, but then they lose out when the consumer can no longer buy their products. They create and elevate Tea Party candidates to lower their taxes and increase corporate welfare, but then the public sees that the Congress is dysfunctional and that the 113th Congress has been the least productive in post-war history, with the House and Senate passing only 57 substantive bills in the Congress’ first session. In this period, the second lowest productivity was 88 bills in 1995. (That makes sense because that was the year that Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” beta-tested minority rule in the U.S.) In the end, the brand called “Republican” gets smeared, and the brain-damaged zealots unforgivably given access to power are out there describing anyone to the left of Mussolini as Socialist–including Paul Ryan and the Pope.

There’s no reason to believe that we are stupid as a people (regardless of what some in Great Britain or elsewhere might think). There is reason to believe we live in a crazy time of misaligned values. Whether we end up as a divided country facing our own “Troubles” or not is, sadly, a real possibility. I personally believe that the extremes of the pendulum are where the undeniable excess takes place and that this excess is enough to shock the nation back into a realignment of values. Today we face the excesses of Americans blindly believing in jingoism and nostalgia for a simpler world, or those who willfully disregard the founding, enlightenment ideals of the rejection of aristocracy and state-sponsored religion. 30 years ago we faced the excess of liberal social values (yes Virginia, you can have too much “anything goes”) that led to Reagan’s “annointing” as President and the parade of conservative Republican and Democratic presidents that followed.

Is it possible that the relaxation or decriminalization of pot and the widespread acceptance of marriage for same-sex partners represent the first signs of spring in the conservative winter?

LB_Rule

Some chuckling will be found here: https://soundcloud.com/rockymountainmike

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Bring back Nelson Mandela

In this edition: A few words from Hugh Masekela. Are Americans under the age of 35 wondering who the heck Nelson Mandela is? Who stopped South Africa’s dehumanizing apartheid policies? WE did. Bam. Ray LaHood too Republican to stomach the tea party. Wendy Davis, America’s Sweetheart.

Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)

Bring back Nelson Mandela.
Bring him back home to Soweto.
I want to see him walking down the street in South Africa – Tomorrow.

Bring back Nelson Mandela.
Bring him back home to Soweto.
I want to see him walking down the street with Winnie Mandela.

— Hugh Masekela (1987)

I bought the 1987 CD Tomorrow by Hugh Masekela sometime in the late 90’s at a used CD store. This song, with just 6 lines of lyrics, is surprisingly effective as an anthem and IMHO lifts the soul and spirit, especially with retrospective knowledge of the historic significance of Nelson Mandela. Masekela is a South African-born trumpeter who through a series of fortunate encounters became an international star and key disseminator of African influence in music. In the late 1960s, Masekela had hits with Grazin’ in the Grass, a laid-back tune that hit the Top-100 charts with both Masekela’s instrumental version and soon after with a Friends of Distinction vocal version. He also had success with an instrumental version of the pop hit Up, Up and Away.

Here’s a version of Bring Him Back Home from a 1987 concert with Paul Simon in Zimbabwe.

Whatever happens in the coming days regarding Mr. Mandela’s health we should remember both his legacy of non-violence and the power that the international community brought to bear to overturn white supremacy and apartheid in South Africa. When given the chance, and with the proper circumstances, wide-spread agreement about injustice will and does create political change, even under a conservative swing in the federal government.

As an aside: Researching Masekela, I ran across a charity that he is associated with called The Lunchbox Fund at http://www.thelunchboxfund.org. With the slogan “Hunger Devours Potential” the fund provides one meal per day to disadvantaged South African students and deserves support.

LB_Rule Do they teach American children about apartheid, Nelson Mandela, and America’s contribution to ending white supremacy rule in South Africa? My best Internet friend, Professor Google, doesn’t show classroom support articles for that like they do for other topics I’ve explored. So in this post, as we frequently hear Nelson Mandela’s name due to his illness and hospitalization, I would like to tee up what nonmilitary government intervention, instigated by grassroots popular activism, looks like. SouthAfrica

The background. After World War II the conservative National Party came into power in South Africa, the southern-most nation on the African continent. They established 4 classes of race-based inhabitants: “native”, “white”, “coloured”, and “Asian”. Residential areas were segregated, sometimes by means of forced removals. As if this were not bad enough, in 1970 they eliminated political representation and South African citizenship for the black Africans. Instead, they were citizens of the semi-autonomous Bantustans which were ethnic or tribal-based “homelands” that evolved out of tribal reservations from the earlier part of the century.  The government segregated education, medical care, beaches, and other public services, and provided black people with services inferior to those of the governing white minority. Black children received 1/16th of the educational resources of their white counterparts.

It’s estimated that 3.5 million people were forced from their homes from the 1960s through the 1980s, many being resettled in the Bantustans. The government’s ultimate aim was the total removal of the black population from South Africa. A Minister of Plural Relations and Development told the House of Assembly in 1978:

“If our policy is taken to its logical conclusion as far as the black people are concerned, there will be not one black man with South African citizenship … Every black man in South Africa will eventually be accommodated in some independent new state in this honourable way and there will no longer be an obligation on this Parliament to accommodate these people politically.”

The goal was never achieved. Only about 55% of South Africa’s black population lived in the Bantustans; the remainder lived in South Africa proper, many in townships, shanty-towns, and slums on the outskirts of South African cities. The townships were usually fairly large areas bordering large cities. Outside Johannesburg, Soweto township had formed (from the words SOuth WEstern TOwnship). The residents were often low-wage domestic workers or laborers in the cities or if near mining areas like Soweto was, mine workers.

The National Party passed a string of legislation which became known as petty apartheid.  Marriage between white people and people of other races was made illegal by the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act 55 of 1949. The Immorality Amendment Act 21 of 1950 made illegal “unlawful racial intercourse” and “any immoral or indecent act” between a white person and an African, Indian, or “coloured” person. And that only begins to describe the history of repression and injustice that the conservative National Party wrought on South Africa.

Nelson Mandela’s clan name, as President Obama reminded us this week, is Madiba. Originally Rolihlahla Mandela, he was given the name Nelson by an early British teacher, as was the custom at that time. He was educated in Methodist schools and went to a University in the Cape area. He eventually joined the African National Congress (ANC) an organization dedicated to a free South Africa. His first marriage ended in divorce, and he became involved with, and later married, an activist named Winnie Madikizela. Winnie Mandela was very active in the ANC during the days of her husband’s imprisonment (August 1963 – February 1990), but the couple separated soon after his release and subsequent presidential career. Still politically involved and popular today, her legacy was damaged by advocating violence against black Africans seen as being conciliatory to the government and for a case where she was involved in the kidnapping and murder of young men.

In all, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for charges related to his activism, often in isolated and cruel conditions. He (and other activists like martyred Stephen Biko) became a focal point for rising world condemnation of the South African government and apartheid.

In the 1960s South Africa had economic growth second only to that of Japan. Trade with Western countries grew, and investors from the United States, France, and Britain rushed in to get a piece of the action. But the economy was poorly designed in that the majority population (70% black African) were too poor (and paid too little) to contribute to their consumer segment while the cost for security and the setup of homelands was great. The government relied heavily on outside investment and the sale of gold coins called Krugerrands.  Between 1974 and 1985, it’s estimated that 22 million gold Krugerrand coins were imported into the United States alone coinciding with a bull market on the metal.

The anti-apartheid movements in the United States and Europe were gaining support for boycotts against South Africa, for the withdrawal of U.S. firms from South Africa, and for the release of Nelson Mandela. South Africa had become an outlaw in the world community. An opportunity developed for people of conscience to have an effect across the globe and they took it.

In October, 1985 President Ronald Reagan instituted a ban on the import of Krugerrand coins. (I’ll give you a second to reflect on this fact!) From the October 2, 1985 Chicago Tribune newspaper:

President Reagan imposed a ban Tuesday on imports of South African Krugerrand gold coins, stressing that his action is  “directed at apartheid and the South African government” and not against that nation’s population or economy.

The ban, to take effect Oct. 11, follows up limited economic sanctions Reagan placed against the white-minority regime last month for its failure to institute racial and political reforms.

What would cause a conservative U.S. President (the ultimate icon of conservatism) to support economic sanctions against South Africa? Overwhelming public and bipartisan support forced his hand.

Universities, often overlooked as investors even though they manage large portfolios of endowment funds, rose to oppose apartheid during the mid-1980s. This was driven by student and faculty activism.  Disinvestment campaigns on campuses began on the West coast and Midwest in 1977 having early successes at Michigan State University,  at New York’s Columbia University, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The initial Columbia divestment, focused largely on bonds and financial institutions directly involved with the South African regime.  Backed by a diverse array of student groups and many notable faculty members the Committee Against Investment in South Africa held numerous teach-ins and demonstrations through the year focused on the trustees ties to the corporations doing business with South Africa. Trustee meetings were picketed and interrupted by demonstrations culminating in May 1978 in the takeover of the Graduate School of Business.

These initial successes set a pattern which was later repeated at many more campuses across the country. Activism surged in 1984 on the wave of public interest created by the television coverage of the  resistance efforts of the black South Africans. Students organized to demand that their universities cease investing in companies that traded or had operations in South Africa.  The University of California system authorized the withdrawal of three billion dollars worth of investments from the apartheid state. Nelson Mandela has stated his belief that the University of California’s massive divestment was particularly significant in abolishing white-minority rule in South Africa.

In 1985 Steven Van Zandt (little Steven of the E-Street band) organized Musicians Against Apartheid. Dozens of top artists participated in the song “Sun City” with the chorus “I’m not going to play Sun City.” Sun City was an entertainment venue in South Africa that catered to the country’s wealthy and to wealthy tourists. It was a song and it was a promise to boycott the venue. Sun City became another economic pressure point in the opposition to apartheid.

Eventually, 26 states, 22 counties, and over 90 cities had taken some form of binding economic action against companies doing business in South Africa. The time to reach critical mass, resulting in the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, was more than 20 years. The movement had small beginnings with protests at docks where South African goods were arriving and students closing bank accounts at banks providing loans to the regime. The American Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war efforts, the Women’s Rights Movement, and Gay Rights Movements all created a framework where activism could be directed to a new and worthwhile cause. This milieu of activism inspired the movement in South Africa as well.

Although Reagan vetoed the Anti-Apartheid Act (pause a second to reflect on that) the veto was overridden in a striking testament to the strength of the anti-apartheid movement by the Republican-controlled Senate. It’s interesting to note that the Carter administration was sympathetic to the anti-apartheid cause but enacted no legislation. Reagan’s “new right” administration explicitly supported the South African white power structure. This may have stimulated progressive-minded people to work even harder at the dissemination of information that would lead to sanctions and divestment. So while the government turned more sympathetically to South Africa (partially due to GOP interest in business above all else and partially due to the sense that black rule would be communist), the people continued to build anti-apartheid sentiment and seek solutions.

In 1990 the government released political prisoners including Mandela and talks began to dismantle the apartheid system. In 1994’s democratic elections Nelson Mandela became president, counseling reconciliation over retaliation. Presiding over the transition from apartheid minority rule to a multicultural democracy, Mandela saw national reconciliation as the primary task of his presidency. The lessons to learn include the power of the people to enact change, the incremental nature of change, and the ultimate triumph of reconciliation in response to injustice. For our role in ending South Africa’s apartheid Americans can take great pride.

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I read a great piece in the paper by outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. At his last press conference he said:

“What I believe it is,” he said, “is a small group, maybe 30-40 in the House, who have come here to do nothing — and that’s what they’ve done. They’ve done nothing. They’ve accomplished nothing. . . They didn’t come here to vote for solutions. They came here to do nothing, and they stand in the way of the president and his agenda. But also I would say they stand in the way of getting a bipartisan immigration bill passed or a bipartisan farm bill passed.”

Apologists, like the Washington Post that carried the statements, would say that the do-nothing House is there serve as a bulwark against increasing government size and intrusion. If the obstructionists believe this, it flies in the face of 200 years of democratic principle. LaHood added:

“The idea of getting elected to Congress has always been about moving America forward, solving America’s problems, not about stymying, not about stopping, not about ignoring.” He added: “The idea of their (Tea Party faction’s) philosophy doesn’t square with the traditions of Congress, the traditions of why people come here, the traditions of how we move America forward. These are people without a vision.”

Is it time to start believing that sanity can return to the House? When will Speaker Boehner face the fact that he has squandered his big shot? Instead of being part of the long tradition of speakers that hammered together deals that moved our country forward, he’s allowed a minority of 40 to undo the interests of the other 194 Republican representatives as well as the 201 Democrats of the 113th Congress. Will he just stand there blinking when the American people clean house in 2014?

The Washington Post article is here.

LB_RuleA star is born.

Wendy Davis: From teen mom to Harvard Law to famous filibuster

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