Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Chattanooga Chugs On

I found myself reading a small southern newspaper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press.  I thought I ought to somehow.  I equated it with tuning into Fox News now and again.  I want to understand red states, and Trump voters.  There are a lot of them, too many to disregard.  And so I read the paper to see what I could find that was either different or new.  I also wanted to see what kind of news readers on the Lookout were getting.

Almost half of Chattanooga, Tennessee, if you didn’t know, which I didn’t, is in Alabama.  It’s near that Lookout Mountain area, where Tennesee, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina meet.  You might call it sort of a nexus of the South.   All I knew about that town, to be honest, is its distinction of being in the title of a famous jazz standard, Chattanooga Choo Choo, made popular by Glenn Miller.   We Americans can be fairly ignorant of one another without hardly trying.  But heck, it’s a big country.  Let’s not beat ourselves up.

Chattanooga has almost 180,000 people living in it.  Along with Knoxville it’s the biggest town in east Tennessee.  And, as Glenn Miller might have observed, there are lots of trains in Chattanooga and now Interstate highways.  It’s a transit hub.  As an American town it has what all our towns have, babies and old people in geriatric homes, school kids and retirees, working men and women along with the unemployed, the prosperous, the poor, gay, straight, everything.

Racially Chattanooga looks like this: White 58%, Black, 35%, Hispanic and Latino 5.5%, and not much of each of all the other categories.  It’s growing.  It’s still smaller than Knoxville but growing faster.  It had the first Coca-Cola bottling plant in the world.  Chattanooga is home to Little Debbie snack cakes.  It has a lot of distribution centers.

But now, THE NEWS.

I read both the Saturday and Sunday editions, November 17 and 18.  I don’t know newspapers like reporters and editors do but I know newspapers are changing, tasked with surviving by finding new business models and cheap sources of information.  I’m not sure where this paper gets all its content but it is diverse in origin. 

Someone is quite proud of the paper’s history.  They still quote the founder, a guy named Adolph Ochs (1858-1935) as giving them their motto “To give the news impartially, without fear of favor.”  Grand.

The current publisher, Walter Hussman Jr. has a pretty wordy statement on his philosophy of journalism.  There’s a lot of blah, blah, blah in there but he does say a news organization must not just cover the news but uncover it.  He talks a lot about the truth being not always apparent, and the duty of journalists being to present facts and let the reader decide what is true.  He also thinks there must be a clear and sharp distinction between opinion and news.

I read a story written by a woman named Anita Wadhwani from the USA Today Network Tennessee, picked up and printed by the Chattanooga paper, about a new execution date for a local guy named Leroy Hall, who was convicted of setting his girlfriend on fire in her car.  He was one of six men (why always men?) who had just received new dates to die in 2019 and 2020.

These murders have been held up by legal challenges to Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol.  A federal judge denied a request by another bad actor, David Earl Miller, who was convicted of murdering a Knoxville man in 1981.  He had argued for the right to die by firing squad. He is scheduled to die on Dec. 6,l but not by being shot in the heart by a gang of riflemen.  If he is killed on that day he’ll be the third to die at the hands of the Tennessee legal system this year.  Tennessee previously killed two men this year, one in August by lethal injection and another in November in an electric chair. 

Tennessee is ready to move forward with killing long term prisoners, barring further appeal and stoppage, by killing Donnie Edward Johnson who was convicted of killing his wife in 1985 by stuffing a plastic garbage bag into her mouth; Stephen Michael West convicted of stabbing a mother and daughter to death in 1986; Charles Walton Wright convicted to premeditated first degree murder of two men during a drug transaction in Nashville in 1985; Leroy Hall mentioned above; Nicholas Todd Sutton convicted in 1986 for killing a fellow convict by stabbing him 38 times (Nick was already in prison at the time of that crime, previously convicted of murdering his grandmother).  And last but not least is Abu-Ali Adfur’ Rahman, formerly known as James Lee Jones, for the 1987 murder of a marijuana dealer. 

All of those grisly grimes were alleged to have taken place more than thirty years ago, with death sentences just now being scheduled and presumably carried out.  I hadn’t read a capital punishment article in some time.  Illinois established a moratorium on the death penalty in 1999.  Then Gov. George Ryan said he was tired of having prisoners on death row exonerated, many as a result of a coordinated effort led by Northwestern University, the Innocence project, which applied new DNA technology to old crimes.  He believed, rightly so I think, that the chances of killing a wrongfully convicted prisoner were too great.  Illinois abolished the practice in 2011.  Truthfully I’d forgotten how awful it is to compound such grisly death with more death.  Sixteen states have abolished the death penalty and four more have placed capital punishment on moratorium.  Tennessee isn’t among them.

The Saturday editorial, right under the paper’s banner, was a commentary by S.E. Cupp, writing for some outfit called the Tribune Content Agency.  Her headline was “Reasons Trump May Not Want to Run Again.  I’ll summarize her points.

He’s Running Out of Stooges-Republicans shielded him from investigations, and his aides carried out his imprudent ideas.  But that is all falling apart.

He Trusts No One-He continues to fire people.  The castle is crumbling from the inside and Trump feels like a ruler under siege.

His Base is Shrinking-He lost is constituency in the suburbs, he will not have the turnout he had in 2020 in 2016, nor will he face an equally horrible opponent.

It’s not Ego that Drives Him-It is his irrational, impulsive, insatiable id-the dominant part of his brain that craves immediate gratification and self soothing affirmation at all time.  He wants what he wants when he wants it.  As he gets less of what he wants, and finds fewer people to help him bend the rules, it is quite easy to imagine him deciding in the next year or so he’s had enough.

I didn’t expect that to be the lead editorial in Chattanooga for some reason.  I felt buoyed up somehow.

Another commentary they picked up and chose to run was written by Francis Wilkinson of Bloomberg News.


Paraphrasing again, Francis thinks the NRA took a bruising hit on election day, and then immediately shot itself in the foot by telling ER doctors to stay in their lane.  He observed that the NRA lost all over the place, and was outspent by gun safety groups.  His evidence?

Voters in Washington State approved a ballot initiative imposing expansive regulations on gun purchases and ownership. 

Nevada elected a Democrat for Governor who defeated an NRA backed opponent, and replaced a GOP governor who had consistently stymied gun regulation.

More than two dozen House races flipped from Republican to pro-gun regulation Democrats.  One, Kentucky Democrat John Yarmouth, regularly wears an “F” pin advertising his F rating from the NRA.

In Georgia, an NRA backed Republican incumbent U.S. Representative was defeated by a Democrat,  professional gun-safety advocate Lucky McBath.

In exit polls across the country, voters registered support for “stricter gun control measures by 59 to 37 percent.

And as for the reaction to their admonishment to ER doctors to keep their mouths shut, what ensued was nothing less than a social media avalanche, sharing pictures of blood-soaked scrubs and others consequences of our uniquely lethal gun policies.  Said one doctor, on a tweet that went viral, “Do you have any idea how many bullets I pull out of corpses weekly?  That isn’t just my lane, it’s my f***king highway!”

So read the people who we accuse of thinking of liberals as snowflakes, whom some of us dismiss as deplorable, in the November post mortem of the only poll that really counts-a national election.  I imagine it has them thinking.  As if they weren’t thinking before.  We’re all thinking aren’t we?

Finally I read a news article about Mark Pettiway written by Jay Reeves of the Associated Press.  Its title was “New Black Officials Rethinking Policing.” Mark Pettiway, a veteran law enforcement officer became that city’s first African American Sheriff of Jefferson County, in which lies Birmingham Alabama.  On that same day Jefferson County also elected its first black district attorney.

This is the same Birmingham Alabama, where on  September 15, 1963 members of the KKK planted 15 sticks of dynamite under the east steps of the African American 16th Street Baptist Church.  The dynamite was attached to a timing device set to go off on Sunday morning.  Four young black girls attending Sunday School were killed by the explosion: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.   That was but 55 years ago.

Mark Pettiway ran and won on an alternative message.  He favors decriminalizing marijuana, opposes arming school employees, supports additional jailhouse education programs to reduce recidivism, and plans for deputies to go out and talk to people more often, rather than simply patrolling.  Here is one of his thoughts about the future of Jefferson County.  I remind you, this is Birmingham, Alabama.

“Going forward we need to think about being smarter and not being harder.”

A strong turnout by African American voters, combined with national concern over police shootings of unarmed people of color, helped him defeat longtime Sheriff Mike Hale, a white Republican.

So there you go.  That’s what I read in a newspaper in what you might call the heart of the South.  It’s not for want of balanced news that those states are now red.  Print journalists, at least, are doing their job.

It appears thinking Southerners are beginning to change.  If they don’t change their party affiliation, perhaps the Republican candidates seeking their votes will change their positions to fit voters’ changing views.  Why do we fear our Southern and Western states will never change?  Change happens all the time.  Let’s watch for it, entertain it, and seek to bring it about.  Everywhere that people read and listen new information changes hearts and minds.  And people throughout the United States read, listen, and think.  

But we have to be able to read, listen, and think about their views as well.  It goes both ways.  How about this?  I’ll consider your point of view if you consider mine.  We don’t have to change each others’ minds right away, but I think we have an obligation to read, listen, and think it over.  Try it.  You might be surprised at what you learn.  

Friday, November 2, 2018

Vote with your Heart

I’ve had some medical issues and my older brother called to check on me.  I get tired of talking about it so as soon as I could I changed the subject.  The best way to do that with Darwin is to talk about politics.  He’s a student of current events, a voracious reader of recent books, a news watcher, and an historian of sorts about politics in America.  He’s 80.  He’s seen a lot and I think he remembers it all.  When he becomes discouraged, and he is so often these days, he worries not for himself but for his grandkids.  Lately he worries a lot. 
I was in my recliner with ice on my knee watching CNN when he called. Darwin was talking about the pipe bombs sent from Florida to prominent Democratic politicians and donors.  He often says how unprecedented the times are in which we live.  He likens it to the violence that broke out across the country in 1968, fifty years ago, but thinks the rapid spread of news, rumor, and lies on social media and the 24 hour news cycle today has those days beat all to hell for being incendiary. 

On my TV screen a constant loop of video showed police with automatic weapons dressed in military gear running down the sidewalks of a pretty neighborhood in Pittsburgh.  There was a swarm of emergency vehicles filling up the area.  An announcer repeated the solemn news of death inside a Jewish synagogue; a man believed to be the shooter was in custody, the possibility of the death toll rising higher. 
“Jesus Christ David, these pipe bombs.  Democrats all over the country, and their funders, getting packages from some crazy right wing asshole from Florida.  There’s so much going on nobody is talking about the white guy in Kentucky who walked into a Kroger store and shot two African Americans.  He didn’t even know them.  Shot them because they’re black.  He is supposed to have tried to get into an African American church, and when he couldn’t, went into the Kroger instead.  Somebody is quoted saying they saw him in the parking lot with his gun, was afraid, and he told them ‘It’s OK, don’t worry.  Whites don’t shoot whites.’  I can’t take it.”

“Have you seen this coverage on the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh?”
“Pittsburgh?  No.  What happened there?”

“Guy walked into a Jewish synagogue with an AR 15 during a bris.  Ceremony blessing a newborn baby.  Started shooting.  Eight dead that we know of.  They say it’s likely to go up.”
“I bet he didn’t know them.  They died just because they were Jews.  God help us David.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t know about it Darwin.”
“I had to take a break. When it gets bad I tune in MY TV and watch old westerns.  Gunsmoke is on right now.  Before that I watched Bonanza.”

I take my breaks in a different way.  I go to the shack where there is no TV, put my smart phone away, and listen to music.  I was drawn back to Bob Dylan’s music by a question my friend Sam posed on Face Book about the longevity and vocal quality of singers as they age.  He started by asking if Paul McCartney had written or sung anything decent since “Band on the Run” in 1973. 
The conversation turned to Dylan. I found myself missing the sound of his young voice.  So I dug into the vinyl out in the shack, starting with John Wesley Harding Dylan’s eighth album recorded in 1968.  I wanted to hear him hold those prolonged notes on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.”  While I was at it I remembered how much I liked “Down Along the Cove.”  But the best song, not for his voice but the lyrics, was “All Along the Watchtower.”  I felt the same chill I felt when he delivered that last stanza as I did when I was sixteen.

All along the Watchtower, Princes kept the view,
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants too,
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl

That was back when Dylan’s voice had range and was an asset, when he could sing up and down the scale in several octaves, and wrote songs that filled the musical spectrum.  As he aged, his songs became  musically narrow, to better fit the limits of his aging voice.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re still complex, and intricate songs.  But they’ve changed.  What hasn’t changed is his ability to write hard hitting, emotionally biting lyrics.  He puts his thoughts into words that I feel inside myself.  It’s a gift.

Three years earlier Bob Dylan was 24 and made an album called Highway 61 revisited.  The world, since he made it to New York City from Minnesota six years earlier, has opened up to him.  He may have been the hottest song writer in America, and certainly the hottest folk music performer ever.  Despite his age, consider the wisdom these lyrics reflect from the song “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”

Up on Housing Project Hill, its either fortune or fame

You may pick on or the other, though neither of them are to be what they claim

Did you have that perspective about notoriety and money when you were twenty four?  Could you verbalize it, write it, and convey it as Dylan did six years out of high school?  I certainly couldn’t.  But when he sang those lines he brought his ideas to me.  I was fourteen.  He was bringing me, and I’m sure many of us, along with him.  

In the title track “Highway 61 Revisited”, Dylan starts the song with the story of Abraham hearing God’s voice commanding him to sacrifice his own son.  Only Dylan could boil it down so succinctly.

God said to Abraham, kill me a son.

Abe said ‘Man you must be putting me on.’

God say no.  Abe say what?  God say you can do what you wanna

But the next time you see me comin’ you better run.

Abe said ‘Where you want this killin’ done?’

God said ‘Out on Highway 61.’

The real paved Highway 61 runs from the Canadian border through Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth Minnesota, to the Mississippi Delta, and in the song that bears its name comes to represent the place where everything evil happens; filicide, incest, chaos, fraud, the seeds of war (think Vietnam).  In the song with the same name Dylan lays it out in a rolling fast tune, complete with a siren whistle.   It’s a hellishly dark song, but jaunty at the same time.  I didn’t quite know what he was trying to say when I first heard it.  But I kept listening and thinking.  

Dylan’s lyrics had my attention from the start.  The first track on Highway 61 Revisited, “Like a Rolling Stone”, blares out brash and captivating electric guitar chords impossible to ignore.  He’d recently made the switch from acoustic folk to electric rock which infuriated some.  Me?  I was both listening to his lyrics and loving the music, with no bias toward the instruments.  He words were allegorical at times, but in other cases personal and direct.

You used to laugh about

Everybody that was hanging out

Now you don't talk so loud

Now you don't seem so proud

About having to be scrounging your next meal.

“Like a Rolling Stone“ challenged me to consider how I would handle life alone.  I was living on a farm surrounded by a family which kept very close to home.  The small town where we went to church and I went to school was wrapped around me so closely.  Those song lyrics were from someone outside my world, but talking right to me.  Dylan challenged me with the prospect of new scenarios and unknown locales.  He made me ponder answers to direct questions.

How does it feel, ah, how does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.

I didn’t have answers to Dylan’s questions.  But I desperately wanted to feel that individuality, that aloneness. Who knew how it would feel?  I didn’t tell anyone, but I was determined to one day find out. 

 Dylan is no longer giving me advice.  He’s 77 and has not released an album in some time.  He is designing iron gates and recently lent his name to a whiskey called Heaven’s Door.  He doesn’t owe his listeners anything, but I would love to know what he feels about his country today.  He’s not talking. 

When Darwin can’t take it he dives back into the fictional drama of black and white images of the old west filmed in the 50’s and 60’s.  Kitty and Sheriff Dillon sitting in the Long Branch Saloon solving community problems.  Hoss, Ben, Adam, and Little Joe eating Hop Sing’s cooking and planning to  thwart the rustlers threatening the Ponderosa in a way that Ben Cartwright would approve.
When I can’t take it I go back to when I was young and the songwriters, poets, and novelists were catching me up in their words and testing my beliefs.  The whole world was ahead of me and I had the rest of my life to figure out what they were telling me and what I wanted my life to be. 

But escaping the reality of our collective here and now is a luxury.  We’re challenged by the need to impact and influence the direction of our government and its effect on civil society.  It’s falling apart.  You may want to spend your days putting a record on the turntable from 1965, or finding a re-run of “Gunsmoke” on some obscure cable channel, but there are bigger fish to fry.  You have the ability to make a difference by as a citizen with the right to vote. 
Decide what direction you want the United States to go.  Do you want more of the same hateful rhetoric we’ve heard for the past two years, and corresponding damage to our institutions, or do you want to signal your dissent?  It’s up to you and in the collective sense us.  Look closely at what is going on in the news.  Determine how you can best use your vote to represent your views.  And if you haven’t already done so, go to your polling place and speak directly to power with your vote.  It’s important.  We can watch fluff TV and listen to records later.