Sunday, November 20, 2011

"American! Why do you not honor your poets?"

I found the title for this entry in Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids. It was a question addressed to her by a caretaker of a Parisian cemetery where Smith had gone to pay her respects to Jim Morrison.

I was reminded of this question this morning as I read in the New York Times Robert Haas' account of being beaten by baton wielding police while attending the Occupy Berkley protest.  This former U.S. Poet Laureate had gone to the demonstration with his wife to observe and to plead with the police for the safety of the students. Such intentions earned him bruised ribs and the consideration of what he refers to as contingencies, things that don't necessarily have to be so.

And I wonder what would it take for us as a nation to honor our poets? Where might we go as a people who respected the vocation of vision not tied directly to a bottom line? How might a polis be that could embrace the tension of disonance? What might it mean to encourage the production of poetry in our children, in our workers, our politicians, our elderly? 

Such questions, I realize, are dismissed as naive. Life is serious requiring hard-headed men making pragmatic decisions. Even so, I found the fullest answer to why we don't honor our poets in Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift:

 The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets' testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. Orpheus moved stones and trees. But a poet can't perform a hysterectomy or send a vehicle out of the solar system. So poets are loved, but loved because they just can't make it here. They exist to light up the enormity of the awful tangle and justify the cynicism of those who say, "If I were not such a corrupt, unfeeling bastard, creep, thief, and vulture, I couldn't get through this either."

So what little honor we allow poets, if honor it may be called, is to damn them with self-justification, it is to pity them.  As should be obvious in the illustration of Haas' experience at Berkley, pity is a brutal emotion employed to maintain the disadvantage of the pitied. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Iowa Straw Poll...What a Riot!

In the aftermath of the London riots many in the United States are asking, “Could it happen here?” There is fear in the question, an acknowledgement that if such events could occur in Great Britain with its civil social traditions what portends for us whose civil traditions are of a less restrained variety?

I’ll intentionally ignore the precedents of riots linked to political and social unrest on both sides of the Atlantic, not because I don’t think history should be ignored but because my point is more to the point of what has been called “the commodification of dissent.”

One need only consider the recent Iowa Straw Poll where Michelle Bachmann emerged as the front-runner in a pack of political midgets. Fun House mirrors furnished by the largely corporate media exaggerate to chilling affect Ms. Bachmann’s victory. And as outrageousness eclipses any vital political discourse, other charlatans join the fray.  Enter Rick Perry, the anointed candidate from Texas!

What I’m suggesting is our political process has degenerated to the “cult of personality” and that our campaigns are but exercises in vanity for those who parade, not ideas, but hubris. Once in office these egoists rum amuck behind the fa├žade of patriotism, behind   engineered catastrophe, behind self-righteous religiosity, and behind a fear promoted for the continued enrichment of the privileged. With faux outrage they loot the public coffers for their comrades in the private sector and ride roughshod over democratic ideals.

So, while the pundits continue to dissect the etiology of unrest in London, I’ll hazard this premise; in the United States we’ve domesticated unrest, tarted it up in ersatz Christian piety, shrouded it in notions of outraged elitism, and, every 4 years we run it up the flag-pole to see who’ll salute. And in a culture primed for spectacle the candidates can count on the bedazzled populace to make the appropriate gesture.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Bathhouse

That bathtub in which Grover Norquist wishes to drown a shrunken government  is crowded with children, single mothers, and the many colors of the poor. They circle the drain. The middle class have their collective toe in the water while the rich snap their naked buttocks with twisted towels of dirty dollars.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Back in the U.S.A.

I don't mean to mislead anyone; I know that most pieces that have a similar title begin with acknowledgments of gratitude to freedoms, football, stars and stripes, or some such iconic shorthand for "goddamn it's good to be back where things are done right!" So, don't say I didn't warn you. This ain't one of those pieces.

I always experience a bewildering sense of alienation when returning from abroad to the United States. I recall while still a high school student  recently returned from Brazil, and at a dentist appointment the hygienist said, "I bet you're really glad to be home." When I demurred, she became quite aggravated, and as her fist was clutching sharp, pointy dental implements I let her rant and scrape the foreign debris from my teeth(a bright smile is important in America, after all!).  Even at that tender age I detected a brittle, overly sensitive national image.

The mere mention of people leading rich, fulfilling lives outside the borders of the U.S.A. often provokes, I've noticed, rabid jingoism in my fellow citizens. Their bombast seems to always implicate me in some kind of anti-american stance when all I'm really trying to suggest is that throughout the world people live according to different norms, speak different languages, follow different religious traditions (or none at all), and count their existence as worthwhile. I struggle to see how this makes me anti-american.

I'm not suggesting, either, that other countries don't have problems, corruption, etc. that make, by comparison, America the "best country in the world." But as the comedian Dennis Miller once quipped (back in the days when he was funny!) "claiming that America is the best country in the world is like being valedictorian of night school."

Perhaps, all I'm really trying to say here is "do we have to be so thin skinned?" Do we have to trumpet our xenophobia as a virtue? Can't we admit to our fears that, say, for example Finland has a more democratic system than do we? Or that Cuba has a health care system that serves the people and not profit motives? Can we acknowledge these and other foreign factors and work to make things better here without condemning and or threatening foreigners?

As for me and my alienation, well, perhaps it is just me. Maybe I'm not as cock-sure and yankee-doodle damn dandy certain of American superiority. And maybe, as has been suggested to me, I should live elsewhere. For those of you who embrace such intolerance I welcome you putting your money where your mouth is and send me a check so I may relocate elsewhere. For the more reasonable among you, let's talk.

Monday, May 30, 2011

War and Afterwards

The widespread jingoism which arises on Memorial Day usually sends me into hiding so as not to ruffle star-spangled feathers of sentimental hawks. Yet this  year, I'm going out on a limb and perch next to a few hawks and remind them of a history that I think deeply enriches this day and makes room for those who have served their country in the armed services and room for those who have not served with a weapon but who do the hard work of peace-making.

The original title of Memorial Day was Decoration Day. Started after the Civil War it had the twin purposes of Remembrance and Reconciliation.  Remembrance was a call to remember those soldiers who, on both sides of the conflict, lost their lives; Reconciliation was to build a peace, peace on an ongoing basis.

My father is a WWII Veteran. He is proud of his service. It was service that contributed to the halt of fascism. It came at a great price. He was lucky in that he was not physically wounded. His wounds did not show in a missing limb or worse. He was able to move on with his life, or so it appeared. His wounds emerged with a temper wired to a hair trigger tripped by domestic incidentals such as missing car keys, a crookedly mowed lawn, a spot on his trousers, spilled milk. Then and at other seemingly insignificant occurrences his anger would spill out in a loud, profane utterance and he would be white-lipped with rage. He would try to displace responsibility for his own emotions onto his children, onto his wife, onto some "goddamnsonofabitchincocksucking" other. Later, he would seek solace in the garage or in his garden. Still later he would collapse into his recliner and withdraw behind a curtain of newspaper.

Disorder was an enemy, yet the range of what was proper and correct was so narrow and so ill-defined at the same time that my brothers and I were constantly trespassing upon the minefield of his emotions. His scars were passed onto us; his trauma--transfigured, yes--became ours.

His trauma was vague  to us and all encompassing. We grew up seeking clarification, some clue from Dad, some essential architecture upon which we could hang what had become our emotional baggage. Sadly, he was unable to even admit to his confusion and the currents of alienation he experienced from his own family.

Memorial Day became, for me, an obstacle to working this stuff out. I worried about sounding ungrateful regarding Dad's and other veteran's sacrifices. I worry less about that now. I know that any observance of war time duty that does not at the same time seek reconciliation is a glorification of war and a justification of policies, often policies based on greed or fear, that serve not the American people but the narrow interests of a few who remain, by and large, the storm makers for the weather we all end up facing.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Jousting at a Windbag

In Minnesota a despicable bill has passed wherein the electorate will vote on proposed changes to the Minnesota Constitution that will define marriage as between a man and a woman.

I sent a letter generated by the Human Rights Campaign to the Minnesota Legislature urging them to vote against this procedure. I received an answer from Senator Parray. And then I replied.

Dear Senator Parry,

Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I take heart and thank you for pointing out that "there is nothing currently in state law or the state constitution that would prevent the legislature from enacting addition rights for same-sex couples or authorizing civil unions." Can I count on you to sponsor such a bill or to support such legislation in the near future assuring parity of civil unions with marriage?


Gregory Chamberlin

--- On Mon, 5/23/11, Sen.Mike Parry <> wrote:

From: Sen.Mike Parry
Subject: Re: Your actions have consequences
To: "Sen.Mike Parry"
Date: Monday, May 23, 2011, 10:03 PM

I want to first thank you for your email. I know that it has been a frustrating time these last few weeks, and I am happy to see that you are still willing to participate in dialogue with your legislators.

While I am sure you understand that the “Marriage Amendment” bill puts the decision to amend the constitution on the 2012 ballot, I want to be clear that this bill does not change a single state law or have a single impact on the existing civil rights of any Minnesotan. Furthermore, there is nothing currently in state law or the state constitution that would prevent the legislature from enacting addition rights for same-sex couples or authorizing civil unions. A "yes" vote on the bill means, yes, the legislator wants all Minnesotans to decide whether or not to amend the constitution. A legislators' vote on the bill says nothing about their position on same-sex marriage, but will say a lot about their interest in letting the people have a voice in this issue that is important to many Minnesotans.

I would also like to take point with the idea that we are somehow neglecting our jobs. While I can understand that it may look this way on the outside, it’s just absolutely not true. Being the chairman of the State Government Innovation and Veterans Committee, I can tell you that I worked with senators and staff day and night to provide a budget for Governor Dayton that would right-size state government, promote agency efficiency, and do so without raising a single dollar in taxes. We are increasing spending by 6%, something the other side of the aisle has been very quick to mislead the public about. And all the while, the DFL has not offered any budget bill to speak of, any redistricting map to speak of, and they voted against Dayton’s tax increases.

While I can certainly understand your frustration because I share that same frustration, it is not in us that you should find it. The majority party sent a complete budget package to the governor’s desk, and he has decided that he will not sign them. But even worse, he won’t even work with our offices to find a solution that he will sign. We have been transparent in our entire budget process, and the Governor refuses to work with us on any points.

Again, I do understand your frustration; I don’t want a special session either. I would suggest that in these final hours of the legislative session, you contact the Governor’s office (which he has shut down for the night on the last night of session) and tell him you want him to work with us just as we are trying to work with him.

Again, thank you so much for your email. I really appreciate you taking the time, and I hope that we can continue to keep the dialogue open.

Senator Parry

Senator Mike Parry  SD 26
State Capitol Building 309
75 Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd
St. Paul, MN 55155
(651) 296-9457

My Reply:

Dear Senator Parry,

Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I take heart and thank you for pointing out that "there is nothing currently in state law or the state constitution that would prevent the legislature from enacting addition rights for same-sex couples or authorizing civil unions." Can I count on you to sponsor such a bill or to support such legislation in the near future assuring parity of civil unions with marriage?


Gregory Chamberlin

As of yet, Senator Parry has not replied.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Caught in His Ear

Bombs exploding, the cries of the wounded, the last gasp of the dying.
This desperate cacophony won't be dislodged by a Q-tip, or by anti-biotics, or
by a doctor's hand.

It is the soundtrack to his memories, to scenes he wishes he could delete
And to which he adds his own lament.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Doctor My Eyes

A week ago an intern where I worked came into the office and announced she has Pink Eye. She was instructed to return home and not return until she was free of this malady.

Yesterday, I was in the copy room when the Operations Manager asked me, “Does my eye look red?” Indeed it did.

Shortly thereafter my eye began to ache and itch, and I told myself I was being dramatic in imagining things. This morning, however, my eye feels as if a cruise ship has anchored in its blood-red waters. A visit to the doctor confirmed my suspicions.

So as I spend the day in quarantine, remaining contagious until the prescribed eye-drops eradicate the catchiness (24 hours), I read that Michigan’s Governor Snyder has at his disposal emergency powers with which to appoint corporations and CEO’s, should he see fit, to run communities. This can be imposed by his decree, this subversion of democracy. No elections need by called or held, and as I understand it, no appeal possible.

This planned action echoes the agenda made more famously obvious in Wisconsin by Governor Walker and reverberating through, I hear, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Florida. These actions are trumpeted as necessary measures with which to restore the economy. They are really the continuation of a giant swindle in which wealth is transferred upward.

This nonsense gained traction under Reagan and has remained the wet dream of the wealthy ever since. Suppression of worker’s wages, decimation of unions and labor laws, rigging of the market to benefit the top 1 to 3 % of the population, disenfranchising of significant portions of the electorate, and now a naked power grab by Governor Snyder.

Optimistic observers of the political scene predict that student and worker outrage as occurred in Wisconsin will become the take away lesson eclipsing the audacity of Walker and his minions. I hope they are right. Recent calls for a general strike sound a pleasant echo in my ears.

Yet, as I squint out at the world such clarity eludes me. The boundary between government and corporation is fuzzier than ever, and the boundary between politician and businessperson even more blurred. Years ago it was said, “The business of America is business.”  Now, it appears that the poor and workers have been given the business. I grope about for a corrective, a remedy that, like the eye-drops my doctor prescribed, eradicates what he diagnosed as an invasive infection.

Monday, January 10, 2011


The Elite

They look down

but never get down

'Else the little people

would spit in their eyes