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Saturday, June 23, 2018

"Who We Were / Who We Are"


who we were / who we are

Today I read in The New York Times, in an unusually long and informative obituary that Dick Leitsch, an early leader in what would later become the LGBTQ movement, had died, at the age of 83. He died of liver cancer in a Manhattan hospice on June 15th.
      I never met Leitsch, but I had heard of his achievements from gay friends such as Jeff Weinstein and John Perreault, who introduced me to some gay activist friends (such as Jonathan Katz) when I lived for a year in Manhattan, wandering in and out many of the establishments which Leitsch had helped protect and made famous.
      
     Richard Leitsch (who preferred the name Dick) was born in Louisville, Kentucky on May 11, 1935. In interviews he has described that, despite his strong Roman Catholic upbringing, he began developing crushes on his school-boy friends even in his elementary years and began having gay sex as early as high school. At one point, when he shared the fact that he was gay with his parents and family members, he was, unusual for the time, quickly embraced with family support.
      In New York City, to where he moved in 1959, newspapers—including The New York Times—still described gay men and lesbians as “sexual deviants”; police regularly raided bars in which gays gathered or in bathrooms where gay sex was often rampant (the bathrooms in Washington Square, Grand Central Station, and the outdoor Rambles in Central Park) and often threatened those they had rounded up with trials which, in those days, meant the loss of jobs and the ruination of their careers and friendships. Even in 1969, when I lived in Manhattan, there was always the possibility that some stray cop would solicit sex and bring you into arrest. Thank heaven, in part due to Leitsch, I never encountered such an arrest.
      Once in New York, Leitsch was attracted to Craig Rodwell (another important figure in the gay movement, who would later open Oscar Wilde Memorial bookstore, one of the first gay bookstores in the country). Rodwell kept inviting him to Mattachine Society meetings, then the only organization in the country that openly spoke out for gays. Having attended a Mattachine meeting earlier, which Leitsch described as a disaster when Albert Ellis gave a lecture on homosexuality as an illness and was greeted with loud applause, he was recticent to attend.
      Yet, because of Leitsch’s attraction to Rodwell, he eventually began joining Mattachine meetings, and was particularly taken with a lecture by the then-notorious Frank Kameny, who with Jack Nichols co-founded the Mattachine Society. Kameny, who Perry Brass, writing in the Philadelphia Gay News notes, was jobless after a federal witchhunt deprived him of a position as an astronomer, while Nick Nichols’ own father, an FBI agent, plotted to have him murdered as a teenager. Even I, who was rather ignorant of those gay men and lesbian women who had come before me, had heard of the Mattachine Society and Kameny. With the lesbian group, the Daughters of Bilitis, the coalition picketed the United Nations, the Pentagon, the US Civil Service Commission, and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, along with the White House in order to change the rules about gay and lesbians not being able to serve in government. In 1963, he began a campaign to overturn Washington, D.C.’s sodomy laws, which finally passed in 1993.  Moreover, he worked to remove the classification of homosexuality as a metal disorder from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In short, Kameny was one of the heroes of 20th century American gay history.
       Kameny’s intense speech argued for gays to use some of the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement in order to make their cause. Soon, Leitsch had not only joined the Mattachine Society, but suddenly was elected President-Elect, with Julian Hodges are President; and when Hodges, later that year, unexpectedly stepped-down, Leitsch found himself as President of the organization.
       Gay bars in New York and others which gays even visited continued to be raided, particularly when the mayoral dictates seemed appropriate, as when New York mayor Robert E. Wagner Jr. closed the bars in 1964 to keep “unwitting” tourists visiting the city during that year’s World’s Fair from wandering into them by accident. What might have happened if they had was never made quite clear.
      When the more liberal Republican mayor, John Lindsay was elected, Leitsch pressured him to stop the raids and cease the police actions on sexual solicitations. But his most famous action, perhaps, is when he, Rodwell, John Timmons, and Randy Wicker, accompanied by a New York Times photographer Fred W. McDarrah, determined to create what Leitsch described as a “Sip-in,” obviously a kind of pun of the blacks’ sit-ins in Southern restaurants.
      For years the New York State Liquor Authority had a policy that, insisting that homosexuals were basically “disorderly,” would not allow bartenders to serve customers who they knew to be gay. If bartenders discretely excused themselves from the question, if one of their customers might actually solicit sex, or, perhaps, act a little too “nelly,” they would not be served, even in the famous Julius’ bar—a place where, after dance lessons at the Joffrey Ballet, I would often stop by for one of their wonderful hamburgers and a good beer, before slipping away down the street to stop by Stonewall before moving on to my favorite, riverside bar, which had a large back room that, at least in those days, allowed, after hours, open group sex. Well those were the days!
      But Leitsch, just a few months before me, had determined to visit bars which had these rules in play, to challenge their premises. What I didn’t know is that he helped me to be in New York.
      The true story of the “Sip-in,” not provided by The New York Times, is as hilarious and disconcerting as a gay comedy-dramedy. I’ll quote, in this case, from a fairly intelligent commentary from the often-unreliable Wikipedia:
      
     The three first targeted the Ukrainian-American Village Restaurant at St. Mark's Place and Third Avenue in the East Village, Manhattan which had a sign, "If you are gay, please go away." In Leitsch's words, "being gay, we got there late" when the three showed up after a New York Times reporter had asked a manager about the protest and the manager had closed the restaurant for the day. [I’ve been to that restaurant, and it’s good!]. They then targeted a Howard Johnson's and a bar called Waikiki where they were served in spite of the note, with a bartender saying later, "How do I know they're homosexual? They ain't doing nothing homosexual."
     Frustrated, they then went to Julius, where a clergyman had been arrested a few days earlier for soliciting sex.
    
Letisch’s drink, after he announced that he and his friends were homosexuals, was immediately covered over by the bartender. “I think it’s the law,” he declared. The photographer got the image.
      When the Mattachine Society began a suit against their beloved Julius’, the Liquor Authority chairman immediately denied that such a policy had ever existed; in short, they backed down, clearing the way, finally, to openly gay bars, wherein I sat or danced away in many a night. Things had suddenly changed.
      By the time, I came to Manhattan to live out my own gay fantasies (see My Year 2005) little did I know that Dick Leitsch had paved the way for my uninhibited behavior. As Brass writes, by then the Mattachine Society seemed like a bunch of old foggies:

Both Dick and Mattachine were loathed by many of my young GLF brothers and sisters, some of whom had been in it and, like unruly kids, resented their dowdier parents.

Dick was often referred to as “Pig Leitsch.” For us, he represented gay accomodationists, what we called “dragonfaggots,” “Aunt Sallies,” queer “Uncle Toms.” His very image seemed like a ghost.

     And then, just a few days after I left the city to return back to where I belonged and would meet by own life-time partner, Stonewall, that little bar wherein I sometimes stopped but in which I never truly felt comfortable, went wild, changing absolutely everything.
     Strangely, but perhaps we should never be surprised, Leitsch was there as well, rushing to the event to report on it in a remarkable series of statements that appeared in local papers but also in the important gay newspaper of the day The Advocate:

Momentarily, 50 or more homosexuals who would have been described as "nelly" rushed the cops and took the boy back into the crowd. They then formed a solid front and refused to let the cops into the crowd to regain their prisoner, letting the cops hit them with their sticks, rather than let them through. It was an interesting side-light on the demonstrations that those usually put down as "sissies" or "swishes" showed the most courage and sense during the action. Their bravery and daring saved many people from being hurt, and their sense of humor and "camp" helped keep the crowds from getting too nasty or too violent.

      
      We don’t know who that “boy” truly was, even today, but it may have been Howard and my artist friend Tommy Langian-Schmidt, the skinny boy in a stripped T-shirt in several of the photographs of the day. Thomas for years sent us small Christmas presents of saint-like figures which he surrounded in glitter and other pasted-on decorations. I loved them, and when I read a piece about Stonewall in 2016 from The Washington Post, I suddenly realized that even if I had not been there that day, I had been there in spirit, night after night, probably eyeing that young boy who, as he reports, loved the place because:

      It was the only place we could dance slow together. For that reason alone, the Stonewall was sacred to me.

      As The New York Times reports:

      On the morning after the raid, as the violent protests spread, Mayor Lindsay called Mr. Leitsch and pleaded, “You’ve got to stop this!”
       “Even if I could, I wouldn’t,” Mr. Leistch reportedly replied. “I’ve been trying for years to get something like this happen.”

After that event, people kept asking, what is the goal of Mattachine. Leitsch admits he would always say that the goal of Mattachine “is to put ourselves out of business.”
       And so too did he disappear from the landscape, a man who because of his completely “out” expressions was not permitted to be hired in viable jobs. He lived most of his life as a waiter, a bartender, a journalist, whatever jobs we might be allowed. And sometimes was forgotten even in the gay community which he helped to exist.
       Today, I can only say, I wish I’d met this major hero, and have been able (if nothing else) to kiss him on the cheek for his great achievements which made my life and Howard’s so very much easier and better.
      If Kameny and Leitsch fought for rights in New York and Washington, D.C., by the time we left DC, we were now permitted to be called a couple even in the pages of The Washington Post, no longer described as sexual deviants, no longer perceived to be in a relationship that had to be hushed up. Heroes like Leitsch, Kameny, Nichols, and so very many others, had broken down the barriers for us to simply enjoy our lives as who we were, as who we now are.

Los Angeles, June 23, 2018

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

"Should I Stay or Should I Go?" (current introduction of My Year 2018) [to be revised].




should i stay or should i go?

The 2018 volume of My Year, much like its predecessor, began very early on in the previous year, and was written basically parallel to that volume. In a sense, when you have established the borders, as I had in the 2017 subtitle of “Barbarians at the Gate,” you have already declared a notion of insider and outsider narratives. And, of course, that had been President Trump’s dialogue even before 2017: we had to build a wall not only to keep the “barbarians” out, but to establish what was our notion of being American and what was the “dangerous other.” And in that sense, this volume might almost be seen as a continuation of the madness expressed in My Year 2017, during the year when each new day seemed to proclaim a significant breakdown in American government and governance. Yes, the news sputtered on about Trump’s daily transgressions, and the major newspapers seriously tsked-tsked his actions, but the absurdity of his behavior and political actions were so egregious that no one, least of all his Republican followers, could possibly assimilate them.
      I think the entire country, me among its citizens, were so daily stunned by the “noise” of his ridiculous assertions and political decisions that none of us quite knew how to respond, as if we were shell-shocked by this clown who had managed to wander into the American presidency. We might have been prepared to fight, but none of us could quite deal with the cynical absurdity, the kind of daily beat of a new kind of dictatorship that Trump drummed into our heads. I so recall not even wanting to get up, despite the fact that I am an early riser, to face the daily newspapers (we subscribe to both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times and listen every morning to CNN’s reports). What was the disaster of the morning, I always asked of myself, as I stumbled into the living room to face the media reports. The shock of the president’s daily twitters and tweets, along with the nearly always destructive policies of his cabinet members, sickened me and allowed to me to justify my natural alcoholic tendencies.
      How could anyone like me, an old angry man, do what was needed to stop this madman? I didn’t have much money but tried to give as much as I could to the very disorganized Democratic Party. I cried a lot. I even wrote some essays, but after a while even the outraged pleas of my Facebook friends failed to move me. All seemed to have no effect. And suddenly I realized how the Germans must have felt in the early days of Hitler. How can you destroy such a fiend, when you, yourself, have been convinced you are simply a puny voice?
       I had no friends of whom I knew of who had voted for Trump. My brother and sister back in Iowa—a state that regrettably had voted for Trump—had long ago assured me that they were not registered Republicans, and were, if nothing else, not Trump supporters. My own state of California voted strongly for Hillary Clinton. In fact, despite Trump’s attempts of denial, most of the country had voted strongly for Clinton. Why, given a few irate voters in states such as Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, were they holding us all hostage to the monster to which they had decided to support, I believe mostly out of hatred for the black president Obama, with a hostility to the democratic principles which had previously helped to make my country so great? Yes, I know this is a kind of simplicity. In these same states and others, many of which were suffering from vast unemployment and a strange over-prescription drugs, they had felt that they had been left out of whatever one might have imagined was the American Dream. I had never believed in The American Dream; but it doesn’t matter, they and many others had.
     Many a critic attempted to describe the source of this national dissatisfaction, but few had convinced me with their explanations. The few had clearly—not for the first time—used the Electoral College to select a president not of the majority choice. Is it any wonder why the despicable, but desperate-to-be-loved Trump spent much of his first year in office trying to explain his choice as president by explaining that close to 3 million Americans had voted illegally? Or that he was determined to describe his inauguration ceremony as the largest event of all time? He was not loved, and he was unpopular, and he blamed the press, the opposing party, and even members of his own Republican constituents for those facts. Although the cartoon below expressed his view of “America First,” in Trump’s case, the expression should have read “Trump First.” America (a country that might never in his thinking be described as a United States) was clearly not as important as his own ego.
       In his incompetent leadership, this man was clearly not even a Hitler, despite the fact that he desperately wanted to be a kind of dictator in the manner of Putin and other such iron-clad leaders (at one point even admitting that he wanted “his people” to sit up an listen to him like Korean dictator Kim)—anybody who led democracies to civically support democracy came under immediate suspicion, to this way of thinking, while true authoritarians he defined as models and friends—he accomplished in the first year nothing except to undo every civilized achievement Obama had accomplished, and to pass a tax bill that he and the Republicans lied about, suggesting it supported the middle-class (actually statistically a very small number of Americans these days), while it gave most of the benefits to the wealthy.
      Fortunately, he often failed in his odious promises to undo American civil liberties, while undoing such major changes of the former administration that it will take years for individuals and organizations to regain their proper protections and simple dignity. You might describe his tenure, at least in this first year, as one who that accomplished a great deal in breaking down anything one might have thought of value. The saddest thing I have ever seen in my now fairly long life was how so many congressmen and senators went along with his ISIS-like destruction of the great artifices of previous presidential administrations, not only Obama’s, but those of Clinton, Carter, and Johnson—even the Bushs’ and Reagan, whose presidencies also troubled me.
     Narrow-minded and loud-mouthed, with a propensity to lie about nearly everything, Trump displayed a verbal ignorance that has never before penetrated the presidential office since Andrew Jackson (one of Trump’s heroes), dismantling American icons as intently as the Taliban and ISIS soldiers had previously destroyed the masterworks of their own cultures. Many ignored him, even encouraged him, but most of us were utterly, if somewhat silently, shocked.
     Since then, I have come to realize that individuals locked within a society so self-destructive often perceive the world in terms of an “inside/outside” perspective. Some, indeed, leave for the outsideseveral of my own personal friends being examples—while others of us are locked within, either because we feel too old to leave or can’t quite determine whether or not we might have an influence by remaining within, by staying behind. It’s not an easy determination, nor must it have been for Germans and other Europeans who began to suffer in the beginning of Hitler’s Nationalist Socialist rise. Can we still make a change, those of us who remain ask? Are things truly as bad as they appear to be? It’s not accidental, and incidental, that a popular hotel chain, Choice Hotels, uses The Clash’s song “Should I Stay, or Should I Go,” as a theme to question whether or not their guests might stay at home or leave to return to their hometowns for their class reunions and other events.
      I had originally subtitled this book, “Inside Outside.” And it was not merely coincidental, surely, that after I had chosen that 2018 subtitle, early in 2017, that my friend Brad Morrow had chosen the title Inside Out: Architectures of Experience for the title of his 2017 volume of his magazine Conjunctions, or that my friend Joe Ross (an expatriate living in France) chose to write a new series of works, with others, based on the same title. Ross, as he explained to me, wanted to give new essays and writing a context of “inside and outside” of whatever the writers might define as their own global identities.
      But over the year, I realized more and more, that it was not simply a matter of feeling “inside” or “outside” of a culture, but that we were all living in a world in which we might feel as if we were in “enemy territory.” Even though Trump might never be able to build his wall, we had all psychologically built up our own walls, as particularly those of us who were desiring to live in an international community, were truly living in enemy territory. Some of my friends had escaped, while I remained entrapped in a country with which I could longer identify. It was time to take on the fact that I wasn’t in a world of what might be perceived as documenting the inside and outside of it. I was already imprisoned, at least in the context of dialogue and discussion, as well as my personal actions. Suddenly I perceived it was no longer an issue of leaving or staying, but that, in my reticence to leave, I had already, at least psychologically become a prisoner of my own environment. And suddenly, the issue was no longer about escaping, but about surviving.
      Old fashioned art historians, of course, like to point to their artists’ encountering the work of other artists which made for determined changes in their own art. But we all know that such coincidences come out of the air and time in which writers and artists exist. World events help us all to conceive things in similar contexts. Mightn’t people caught in cultures as vastly different as Syria, Russia, Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, Venezuela, Turkey, and numerous other countries feel the same “Inside/Outside” perspective? Should I stay, or should I go, or if I might want to go, to where and how might I get there? Many certainly must have perceived themselves as living now in enemy territory, as journalists were imprisoned or killed, and law-abiding citizens were destroyed. Why did Gertrude Stein stay in France during World War II? And the question of why we are remaining in the US during the early destructions to American democracy by Trump do not seem, in hindsight, so very different; except for the attacks on particular religious and social groups—which are happening in more subtle ways in Trump’s reign—it is difficult to imagine abandoning one’s own culture if there are still possible ways of effecting change.
      But staying does, after all, begin to feel like a kind of prison in which one is trapped inside as opposed to the world we know lies outside of the walls our President is so determined to erect. The fear, of course, is that in our delay to escape, we might never be able to extricate ourselves from the guilt that must surely follow our election of such an absolute fool to lead our country. And the embarrassment of that choice, no matter what our personal votes and consciences, can never truly be truly assuaged. Generations of younger Germans, Japanese, and Italians have had to live with the guilt of their grandparents, just as all US citizens can never live down the generations before them who killed Native Americans, put African and other blacks into slavery, or locked up their Japanese citizens during World War II. Today, even writing this, my tears almost destroy the image of the computer screen upon which I try to write. I might just add, I’d move in a moment, but my husband Howard won’t and can’t. I am sure every generation has had precisely these indeterminations: Fritz Lang left Germany and his wife the very day he was offered the position of the director of German cinema; the great German poet Gottfried Benn, who’d had a relationship with the Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schüler, stayed behind.
      And then….and then…there is always the hope that things are not truly as bad as they seem. I began this introduction the very day after Trump tweeted (I hate that word) that all transsexual men and women must be expunged from the military and on the same day he attacked his equally mean Attorney General Jeff Sessions, not because he disagreed with Sessions’ concerted attacks on immigrants or his other terrible policies, but because Sessions had legally and necessarily recused himself from the appointment of special consul Robert Meuller, the independent prosecutor investigating the Trump administration’s Russian connections. Certainly, Sessions is no hero in this case, but yet Trump is still the monster, determined to destroy anyone whom he perceives is not loyal, meaning those who do not advance his interests—which increasingly are clear are both personal and financial connections with him.
     If anyone imagined that the New Year 2018, might possibly represent a shift in the President’s behavior and that his actions might have been more tolerable, they were badly mistaken as early January, through Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, revealed what we all know, the complete incompetence of Trump, highlighted by the utter stupidity and ignorance of the entire Trump family. Even his mean-spirited confederates, his close associates and cabinet members threw out pointed barbs directed at the President, such as “moron,” (Tillerson) “idiot,” etc. The President’s reactions, to have his lawyer deliver a cease and desist letter to the book’s publisher, only demonstrated Trump’s stupidity, as the publishers immediately pushed up the release date of what, despite Wolff’s own spotty past as a writer, would surely be a best-seller.
    The same day, only the 4th day into the year, my mother died at age 92, as I had predicted, after a visit to her late in 2017. I’d already written my eulogy and now had to immediately pack my bags for a trip to Iowa.
    If my mother’s death was expected, the sudden accidental death, in an automobile crash, of French publisher, Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens announced on the very same day, further devastated me. I wrote on Facebook:

     Really sad to hear today of Paul Otchakovsky‐Laurens' death, evidently in a car accident. He was one the great publishers in the world, presenting P.O.L writers such as Lilliane Giraudon, Jean Fremon, Henri Deluy, and returning many such as Georges Perec’s works to print. He was a great editor, a magnificent force, a dear friend, and a witty confidant. I so admired his press, and I published many of his authors, visiting him every time I traveled to Paris. He made the Parisian publishing scene over, giving it new visions for the 21st century. We will all miss him dearly. What with my mother's death, it's been a hard day!

    The very next morning, The New York Times reported that Trump attempted, illegally, to convince Jeff Sessions, his Head of the Department of Justice, to not recuse himself in the investigation into Trump and his family’s involvement with the Russians and his firing of FBI head James Comey, angrily shouting out “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump’s terribly nasty former friend and mentor had supported the most monstrous figure of American politics before Trump, Joe McCarthy.
    A few days before the New Year Howard and I encountered an artist friend, Susan Silton, with whom we briefly discussed the events of 2017. “Some say, at least, we now know the worst of what to expect,” she and Howard agreed. I responded, “I can’t imagine that it is good for us to try to accommodate ourselves to his insane behavior, nor do I feel that we’ve seen the worst. I think, alas, that 2018 will only be more terrible.”
    Yes, there was worse, when we discovered on January 25th that Trump had attempted to fire Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller, way back in June of 2016, but was stopped by his advisor Donald F. McGahn II, who suggested that if the President attempted to do so, we would resign. For all the months since, Trump and his staff had been lying about the President’s position, and even when faced with the evidence, argued that The New York Times and CNN’s reports represented “false news.”
    And then, as if to mock the seriousness of what Trump had already done, in March the President outdid himself in terrifying behavior. After promising that he would support changes with regard to the age which young people could buy guns, he quickly flipped his position when he perceived that the NRA would not even support that mild-minded alteration of the law.
     Porn star and director, Stormy Daniels (Stephanie Clifford), not only admitted that Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen paid her hush money of $130,000 (incredibly out of his own pocket after a personal loan) to shut her up about what she claimed was an affair with Trump but dared the President to try to shut her up. Daniels even claimed that she was willing to give back the hush money simply so that she might speak out about the events, which Trump and his lawyers claimed never occurred and who had secretly sought out a restraining order against the outspoken woman. Other women also spoke up again about being abused by the President. And that was only the beginning.
    After the nerve gas attack (a rare nerve agent created by Putin and the Kremlin) in England on a former Soviet spy Sergei V. Skripal and his daughter Yulia, delivered evidently in through the doorknob of his home in the small city of Salisbury, Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, admitted in The New York Times that “it was an egregious act” that appeared to have come from Russia. The very same day, Tillerson was fired (told through Twitter) from his position, while the hawkish CIA director, Michael Pompeo, was positioned to replace him. The very same day Trump’s personal assistant, John McEntee was ushered out of the West Wing, evidently because of background checks—slow to come in Trump’s administration—which had found him guilty of shady financial dealings. Trump promised him a position in his 2020 presidential campaign.
    Just the day before, the spineless GOP-controlled House Intelligence Committee determined to close their investigations of Russian meddling, arguing not only that there was no collusion on Trump’s part, but, against any findings of US intelligence sources, that it may not even been Russia’s intent to support Donald Trump in the US elections. This, on the same day that I finally finished Jane Mayer’s brilliant, insightful, and extensive essay on Christopher Steele in The New Yorker, which revealed the integrity of Steele’s report and the truth (to the best of possible knowledge) of Steele’s reportage of Trump’s sexual dalliances in Russia (where he was witnessed in the same hotel room where President Obama and Michele stayed, asking prostitutes to piss on the bed), but also was responsible for numerous acts of treason, working with the Putin administration to help put him into the American presidency. Mayer’s article convinces anyone who is not a dunce that Trump very much knew what was going on, but also was seeking help from Putin’s Kremlin. And the US GOP’s leaders, such as Nevin Dunes, Charles Grassley, and Lindsay Graham, have been using the very fact that Steele, as a former government employee, cannot openly speak, to create a series of lies and untruths to help to undermine his honesty, as well as putting him in harm’s way with the Russian government.
     Even Steele was openly shocked by what he discovered in trying to determine Trump’s relationships with Russia. Having already perceived, through other investigations, that a great many of Russian underground and illegal dealings somehow occurred in apartments rented in Trump Towers in New York City, even he was totally startled by what he had suddenly uncovered. As Steele’s friend Christopher Burrows put it, “We threw out a line in the water, and Moby-Dick came back.”
    Even more sorrowful is how hard Steele attempted to get the information to the American FBI, but either they simply ignored it or buried it as implausible truths. Much of the Dossier since has been confirmed.
     I love Mayer’s sense of detail, the meetings of Steele and others at Washington, D.C.’s Tabard Inn—a kind of out-of-the-way place where Howard and I dined many times with our former friend Frank Schork. Equally fascinating is how Putin himself may have tried to dissuade Trump from hiring Romney as head of the State Department, preferring the now suddenly disappeared Rex Tillerson. Indeed, Mayer’s work reads eerily like some of the events in All the President’s Men, or even worse, The Manchurian Candidate. No, we could clearly not imagine how bad it truly was.
    Soon there came the firing of his security advisor, H. R. McMaster, who also blasted Trump for his inability or his determinedness not to criticize Russia. His personal advisor, head of communications, Hope Hicks also left the White House, with Trump evidently feeling he need not even replace her. Increasingly in March and April Trump felt he could do all jobs alone, and ordered tariffs against Chinese products, setting off fears, after China responded with tariff demands of their own, of a trade war; the stock market fell.
   
     In early April he argued for a pull-out of US troops in Syria, something many of us long for, but cannot be so easily accomplished. On April 4 he ordered that National Guard members be sent to the Mexican border to protect it from border crossings. There seemed to be no possible end to the insanity of his inabilities and mis-perceptions of reality. In the annual Easter Egg Roll he lectured the children on his achievements and the power of the American military while a strange looking Easter Bunny stood by, his face frozen (by the costume) into what appeared to be total startlement. As the president himself said on April 5th: “It’s insanity. Nobody knows what’s going on.” Surely, he did not know where his own rhetoric had taken him. Most people also felt Trump’s confusion, but, obviously, it was Trump who had created it.
    As the year progressed, Trump bowed out of the only logical treaty the West might have made with Iran to stop them from producing nuclear weapons, startling the European countries, such as France, Britain, and Germany, whose leaders had attempted to talk him out of it. It was clearly another attempt to alter any achievements that Barack Obama made have made.
    His cabinet members (Ben Carson) determined to get rid of laws protecting the poor regarding housing (he planned to raise their monthly rents), to close down (Betsy De Vos) fraud cases against profit-making universities and to federally fund religious institutions, to crack-down even further on migrant workers and individuals who might cross our borders (Jeff Sessions), causing huge back-log decisions for US judges, to dump chemicals into US waters (Ryan Zinke), and to breakdown environmental protections (Scott Pruitt), the latter of whom was also under investigation for numerous financial offenses. Trump’s own son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was under investigation for numerous offenses, including his career in real-estate and rental properties. Trump himself was accused again for lying when his lawyer Michael Cohen’s home and offices were raided, and investigators revealed that he had not only paid to cover up Trump’s sexual peccadillos, but, as even as a replacement lawyer such as Rudy Giuliani admitted, was knowingly paid off by Trump himself.
      Yet as corruption was more daily revealed, Trump madly moved forward, denying all, permitting a lower aide to even make fun (a joke she called it) of Senator John McCain’s slow death from brain cancer, and even worse, refusing to fire her or even admit the moral indiscretion. Similarly, his new appointee to head the CIA, Gina Haspell, refused to characterize, despite her insistence that she would never allow it again, the enhanced interrogation methods (including the despicable practices of water-boarding, deprivation of sleep, and other methods of torture) as immoral acts.
    A revealing article in the May 21, 2018 issue of The New Yorker by Evan Osnos recounted just how Trump and his cabinet members worked in concord to dismiss or diminish the jobs of those they felt disloyal to the President, many serving under several different presidencies and most of whom had far greater experience than the often younger and unqualified people who replaced them. Entire departments, such as the Department of State, were decimated as replacements where not rehired, and the wisdom of hundreds were lost to the often clueless Trump administrators.
    Even events that might have been seen as presidential achievements came to nothing, such as the Trump-Kim summit meeting, which saw no major changes in North Korean policies, despite the President’s claim of a “major breath through.” We’re still waiting to here of real changes.
     In June it became even more apparent just incompetent this President and his administration were when his demands for tariffs—not only on China, but allies such as Canada, Germany, and England—began to severely effect the American and other world markets, surely the beginning of a trade-war which might end all the recovery of the economy over the past 3 years.
     That same month Jeff Sessions and others of the Trump administration announced that they intended to and, soon after, began to separate children from their parents at the borders. The terrifying conditions of these children, some held in converted WallMart stores and others sleeping on the floor old warehouses with Mylar covers, while other very young children screamed out in the night while being separated along the border from the mothers and fathers who had attempted to bring them to a better life. The shock of these events, and Trump’s and his administrator’s callous dismissal of all those who opposed these odious acts of child-abuse brought about a widespread criticism of his values, including from his own wife Melania, Laura Bush, and Hillary Clinton.
     Typical of Trump, he blamed the decision on a pre-existent “law” (although no such ruling to separate children was ever apparently in any statement about immigration) blaming it on the Democrats since they had failed to approve money for his beloved wall. Comparisons to the Nazis immediately arose, particularly since some of the border guards had evidently told mothers that they were taking their children to be bathed, only to report, later on to these women that they would not see their children again—which is probably the truth since the parents would be quickly shipped back to their home countries, while their children’s cases would take months to wind through the courts.
     In one tape the cries of children losing their parents was punctuated by seemingly uncaring guards who joked about “the symphonic chorus of voices.” The cruelty of this decision created an outcry across the globe.
    Usually, in these early pages I try to connect my numerous essays on film, poetry, fiction, dance, theater, television, and all other cultural endeavors, including politics, with the essays that follow. But this year, I’ll permit the readers to determine those connections. Every work I’ve included within, with far too many bows to film, has something—to my way of thinking at least—to the subject at hand.
      There are many ways to be outside and yet inside a culture: sometimes it involves immigrants who have not yet found a way to assimilate as in the films of the wonderful director Ramin Bahrani; or it involves sexual identity as in Gus Van Sant’s 2008 film, Milk, the older film, now revived as a play on Broadway, The Boys in the Band, dancer Freddy Herko’s sexual and drug addictions, or as in the Turkish-based film on Zenne dancers and Parvez Sharma’s story of a gay Muslin couple, A Jihad for Love, just being sexually different; religious separation is obviously the subject of 2017’s documentary film titled One of Us; or that sense of “enemy territory” can arise simply from experience of the confusions of adolescence as in André Téchiné’s The Witnesses; or, as Betty Davis discovered, by being a mother or lover who is unable to expose her true identity and feelings, and, finally, being an old woman who has lost her abilities to cope, as my own mother had. And then, obviously, you and your brother can just be perceived as “racial freaks” as were the original Siamese Twins, whose lives were recounted in Hunte Huang’s book Inseperable. There is a tortured history in all artistic forms about just this issue, with writers, artists, dancers, and theater writers desperately seeking to balance the inside of their lives with the often-destructive outside demands, or, just as often, vice versa, attempting to assimilate the inside demands with their outside aspirations. Either way, it’s a prison which isn’t generally of one’s own making. This same year, what might have once been thought of as a complete outsider, given the culture of the British royalty, Megan Merkle, a bi-racial American became Prince Harry Windsor’s wife.
      I fear, as I move on in years that my introductions and the essays behind them are becoming more and more dour. To counteract that, in part, I have spent long hours in 2017-2018 on writing about things I love, such as my piece of “My Favorite Musical Theater Songs,” and by attending opera, musical concerts, and art exhibitions; yet even in those events I often saw the living in enemy territory theme and the inside/outside dichotomy, which had originally been my focus.
     And then a minor miracle occurred: the outraged survivors of a Florida mass-murder shooting in Parkland, mostly students, spoke out, and began what I can only perceive as a new engagement of youth around the nation, all of which made me feel that perhaps we had all done something right, at least in educating our youth. Maybe as a country we might still survive. I write more about the event below. But even here Republican sympathizers attacked some of the students such as David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez personally, using the same tactics as Trump has throughout his career. And, of course, the NRA offered their hostilities as well. We seem to have become a nation of hatred.
     Is it any wonder that by even the middle of the year I was beginning to post titles with words such as “Sound and Fury,” “Going Crazy,” and “A Force of Madness”? As William Carlos Williams had long ago predicted, “The pure products of America / Go crazy.” Dear Bill, I’m nearly there.
     Every year friends and major artists leave our temporary existence on earth: and this year the Italian film director, Ermanno Olmi, whose film Il Posto I reviewed in February, died on May 5th; my own mother died, and I wrote several pieces about her death and funeral. Composer Harvey Schmidt (of whom I wrote of two of his musicals in “My Favorite Musical Theater Songs”) died in February at the age of 88. Noted film director Miloš Forman died at age 86 in April, when I determined to review his early Czech comedy, The Fireman’s Ball. And, obviously, the sad death of Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens and his wife occurred early in the year, which I mention above.
     Later in the year, fashion handbag designer Kate Spade unexpectedly committed suicide by hanging herself with a scarf (a death that brought back the memory of another young woman whom I’d admired, who did precisely the same thing). I hadn’t known anything about Spade—fashion and woman’s handbags are not on my radar. But a few days later, The New York Times reported that since 1999, the suicide rate had risen in nearly every state except one by 25-30%. What was happening?
      That same day CNN reported the death, again by hanging, of their food and cultural critic, Anthony Bourdain, someone who I had watched and admired for years, who had hung himself overnight in a French hotel. Reporters, such as author Benedict Carey sited that during these same years (1999-2016) the economic crises had perhaps been responsible for many of these deaths; at the same time the opioid addictions of many may have contributed to the problem; guns, the primary tool of such suicides were more available than ever. Marriage rates had declined, and social isolation had increased.
      Yet only a few spoke to what I and several of my friends perceived as the largest of whispered issues: perhaps the ugly politics of the period, the very divisiveness of American politics and culture, had helped people feel separated in a world that had once represented a broader and more openly shared community. Trump’s politics struck at the very heart of this issue, as he and his allies centered their tactics on a kind of divide-and-conquer method of governmental control. There no longer seemed to be any middle-ground, any shared sense of what our country was, and, furthermore, which sought to separate our own country from the rest of the world—surely a matter that would have meant a great deal to Bourdain.
     Thank heaven, my own life has been filled with loving friends and associates who daily present me with other alternatives. If this is a bubble in which I live, I am appreciative of their support. This year, many old friends and new helped me, as I hope I helped them, to survive a nearly unbearable political fog, among them Eleanor Antin, Thérèse Bachand, Lita Barrie, Susan Bee, Charles Bernstein, Régis Bonvicino, Paul Breslin, Diana Daves, Merion Estes, Rosemary De Rosa, Elsa Flores, Tom Frick, Peter Glassgold, Sid Gold, Rebecca Goodman, Michael Govan, Dan Gurerro, Kelly Hargraves, Yunte Huang, Kim Soo-bok, Mary and Ben Klaus, Tom La Farge, Zach and Alice Leader, Nikki Lindqvist, Deborah Meadows, Robert Messerli, Albert Mobilio, Jim Morphesis, Martin Nakell, Lucy Pollack, Marjorie Perloff, Murray Pomerance, Francesco Rodriguez, Paul Sand, Pat Thieben, Paul Vangelisti, Wendy Walker, Holly Wallace, Mac Wellman, and David Wilk.
      Once more, Pablo Capra helped to bring this book to life, accompanying me to many a performance; and my husband Howard Fox offered his gentle and, sometimes, not-so-gentle commentaries and support.


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

"An Astounding Event" (on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Parkland school murders)

AN ASTOUNDING EVENT

The most astounding event of 2018 to date has been the murder of 17 youths and adults by a 19-year old ex-student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
      The shooting was not the astounding event; we had just experienced one of the very worst of US shootings a few months previously in Las Vegas. School shootings had gone up all over the country, and we all still held the painful memories of the terrible Sandy Hook Elementary murders in 2012. My Year 2013, “Murderers and Angels,” had focused on the very issue of the slaughter of Americans by guns. I might have every year since summarized the effects of guns and the murderers preferred automatic weapons, but it has just been too painful to do so. Gun violence is destroying many American cities such as Chicago and New Orleans, and is now a major terror for young grade school and high school students. 
     Just as when I was growing up, when we did major drills for the possibility of nuclear attack—the experience of which still haunts my dreams and probably accounts for a great deal of my world view—these children of two or three generations later are weekly undergoing drills for possible attacks by other young shooters. They represent, as even they see themselves, a gun-shocked generation, fearful always to be in what we, their grandparents and great-grandparents perceived as sanctuaries. Throughout so much of my youth, I spent more hours at school than I did at home, arriving early in the morning for band practice, and staying late into the night for theater rehearsals. My school was, in fact, my home, and I felt safe there. But quite evidently that has now changed.
      The astounding event about this sad and painful new shooting was not the “oh yet again” factor, but the reactions by the young survivors, all so-seeming intelligent, well-spoken, and so very fed-up with the violence they have had to witness.
     By all accounts, this is a very special school, made up of basically of well-to-do suburban-oriented families, and even their children have described their school as being “special” and, just perhaps, a bit elite. Yet here were a broad mix of Americans such as the young Emma Gonzalez, who brilliantly if tearfully spoke up:

“We will be the last mass shooting. Just like Tinker v. Des Moines, we are going to change the law. That’s going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas in that textbook, and it’s all going to be due to the tireless effort of the school board, the faculty members, the family members, and most importantly, the students.”

Student journalist interviewed classmates as shooter walked Parkland school hallsThe photogenic and most articulate senior, David Hoog, who refused to even return to the school until gun legislation was enacted, responded:

“Literally any legislation at this point would be a success considering the fact that so few legislators in Florida met with us. The fact that they want people to forget about this and elect them again as the child murderers they are, that’s unacceptable and we’re not going to let that happen.”

After visiting some of the Florida legislators, senior Chris Grady, repeated:

“We are going to talk to them about common-sense gun safety. We hope to get a lot done, but we also know how politicians are.”
They were students a week ago. Now they're survivors with a message  
     Over and over these young students articulately made their cases, arguing, as Junior Charlotte Dwyer spoke out:

“We’re not backing down. Usually it starts to die down around now. We’re not little kids. We’ve had to grow up so fast in the past week.”

   Predictably, the NRA and other gun lobbies fought back hard, demanding no changes to gun law were needed. Congress-leader Paul Ryan again restated the refrain, “This is not the time for such a discussion.” 
     The buffoon Trump at first seemed ready to possibly talk about changes in age requirements and maybe even a ban of the preferred weapon of choice, the AR-15, but then, after meeting with the NRA hacks, seemed to backtrack on his statements. NRA supporters even begin to attack the young students who had spoken out, proclaiming that were either actors or were “put up to it” by their parents, as if young people in high school might have no view of their own. Do they remember the student response about Vietnam?
     And we still do not know whether any changes might be made on either the national or state levels.
     What we do know, as writers in the Los Angeles Times, David Hughes and Mark Bryant, observed, “strong gun laws work.” Despite the denials of gun lobbyists, who claim there is no evidence at any law might alter the pattern of behaviors of such mentally disturbed killers, these writers convincingly argue, for example:

     Multiple studies from researchers at Johns Hopkins University have 
     found that such “permit to purchase” laws, which include a particularly 
     strong background check, reduce homicides, suicides and gun trafficking. 
     Literature reviews that examine a wide range of gun policies throughout 
     the U.S. also consistently find that these laws save lives.

     We’ll have to wait and see if the statements of the Parkland school survivors, who so all brilliantly have spoken out, will truly influence legislative bodies, national or local. But quite clearly, at least in this case, something has changed. These kids have attempted to alter the way the cynics among us have long dominated such discussions; the children have spoken up, quite intelligently and magnificently, and they will all soon be voting. For the first time in years, I can feel hopeful about the future of my country, particularly if the educated students of Parkland are voices in that future.


Los Angeles, February 28, 2018

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Steven Spielberg | The Post

THE AWAKENING
by Douglas Messerli

Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (screenplay), Steven Spielberg (director) The Post / 2017

Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film, The Post, had to be made this year, and was an almost inevitable product in a time when our current President is threatening journalists and other sources with erasement of free speech almost daily.
     The result of this rather quickly made film (it began shooting on May 30th, and was in the theaters by late December) is a well-made and engaging work, with superior acting across the board, surely a sign of Spielberg’s remarkable artistry, although he’s never been a favorite director of mine. Nor, has anyone who has followed my writing must perceive, is actress Meryl Streep (who I have often criticized for disappearing into her roles) or Tom Hanks (who I feel is often a kind of lumbering giant of good intentions without deep depth); yet both here served wonderfully in their roles, bringing subtlety and true complexity to the figures they portray, Washington Post leader, Kay Graham and the newspaper’s famous editor, Ben Bradlee. I guess I still think Jason Robards, Jr. in All the President’s Men, is more convincing, but then he is the greater actor. Hanks does a more than commendable job, downplaying his do-gooder behavior. And I don’t think anyone could have better captured Kay Graham, known by all in those days, as “Mrs. Graham,” socialite heir from a father and husband who had headed that paper until her husband committed suicide.
     The story of this film, on its surface, is about how the Post, undergoing an amazing change from paternalistically private to public financial support, jumped on the Daniel Ellsberg (played here by Matthew Rhys) release of the stolen Pentagon Papers, which detailed from the Truman administration to the present Nixon White House, how our leaders had consistently lied about the reasons we were in Viet Nam and the possibilities of our winning such a war, which cost the nation hundreds of lives. It was The New York Times who actually released the papers and courageously investigated and reported on the large trove of documents. But this version focusses instead on the scrappy little local paper, in those days, who with the help of reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) contacting his old acquaintance Ellsberg to procure a second set of the stolen documents. When The Times is handed a court injunction by the Nixon lawyers, the question becomes whether The Post will rise to the occasion to continue the reporting, a prelude, of course, to their later, very brave covering of the Watergate affair.
     But the real story here, fortunately, is not simply that fact that Bradlee and others were able to make that happen, but the gradual awakening of a previously protected and male-dismissed highly intelligent woman, Kay Graham, who over just a few weeks finds that she must not only alter her relationships with life-time friends such as Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) and speak out against her all-male board, but chance the entire reputation of her beloved family heir-loom by speaking openly and freely in a time in which the Nixon administration was determined to protect itself by misusing all of their power.
      Howard and I were in Washington, D.C. only a few years after, and I would soon write book reviews for The Post under Pulitzer Prize-winning William McPherson’s editorship; and I too, as critics such as Kenneth Turan have written, experienced that storied newsroom, recreated in this movie to perfection.
       So too does Streep manage to somehow recreate the spirit of Kay Graham, showing her literally “coming out,” so to speak, from a somewhat clumsy, highly self-aware woman facing entirely hostile rooms of her male colleagues, to become a savvy and quite fearless woman, suddenly able to tell Bradlee to run the articles when all of her other worthy lawyers and board members warn her just what it might mean, including the destruction of all she loves.
      Sarah Paulson plays Bradlee’s proto-feminist wife, who finally helps him to comprehend just how brave Graham has been, and Alison Brie performs her equally proto-feminist daughter, Lally, the latter of whom quietly helps Graham come into her own. But it is Streep’s remarkable acting which gives the role the slow-growing depth of personality, where, as if she were suddenly perceiving her power and perception, Mrs. Graham gets stronger day by day, until we now can imagine her as the strong force who made The Washington Post into a major American newspaper during the last dark days of the Nixon reign. This film is not really about the Ellsberg Papers as much as it is about the awakening of that powerful newspaper publisher, and that’s what makes it so moving and significant as a movie, better, in my thinking, than the much showier and plot-driven All the President’s Men—still a movie I greatly admire.
      An excellent highlight of this work the moment Bagdikian delivers up a shopping bag to Ben Bradlee, containing newspapers from across the country that have continued with the Ellsberg coverage, meaning that in order to prosecute The New York Times and The Post authorities would have to close down the entire US newspapers, a shocking possibility. The Supreme Count weighs in, 6-3, that the press has the right to report the truth, something we might remind ourselves in our own dark days.
      At moments, the script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, is perhaps a bit too overtly didactic—after all they are retelling a story that most younger Americans no longer remember. And I do wish we might have had a bit more of the actual content of the Ellsberg Pentagon papers to work with, instead of quick headlines. The shocking news they revealed suggested that all politicians lied and lied and lied over the decades, a fact we must face again with the release of the papers by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden—and god knows what Mueller may eventually reveal about Trump.
      But Spielberg’s film quite clearly points to where it’s going, when, at movie’s end we hear Nixon on the phone, outlawing any Washington Post reporters from ever entering the White House—the very same moment a young police detective finds that there has been a break-in to the Watergate office of the Democrat Headquarters.


Los Angeles, January 20, 2018