August 22, 2016

“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Like virtually all African Americans who grew up in Mississippi during the first half of the 20th century, Fannie Lou Hamer endured many injustices in her life.

Some went beyond the typical day-to-day discrimination of the Southern “Jim Crow” social system.

In 1961, Hamer was sterilized without her consent or knowledge by a white doctor, as a part of an officially sanctioned plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state.

When she tried to register to vote, the white farmer she worked for fired and evicted her.

In 1962, Hamer become an active volunteer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the leading civil rights groups of the era.

In 1963, during a trip to register black voters in Winona, Mississippi, Hamer and four other SNCC volunteers were savagely beaten and arrested by the police. She later recalled that, from her cell, she could hear the sound of continued beatings and a policeman yelling: “Can you say, ‘yes, sir,’ nigger?”

It took Hamer more than a month to recover and she was left partially disabled for the rest of her life.

Undeterred, she went on to help organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

In 1964, the MFDP officially asked the the National Democratic Party to seat their chosen delegates at the party’s upcoming National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

This created a dilemma for the Democrats. At the time, the official Democratic Party delegation from Mississippi was all white. Those members demanded that the Credentials Committee reject the MFDP’s request. They warned that Southern Democrats would abandon President Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election if any black delegates were seated.

The Credentials Committee members were concerned about a white voter backlash in the South. But they were also concerned about appearing to be opposed to the civil rights movement. So, they invited Hamer and her group to make a presentation to them during the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

Hamer appeared before the committee on August 22, 1964.

She gave an amazingly moving account of the harassment and violence she and other blacks had been subjected to while trying to gain the right to vote in Mississippi.

President Johnson quickly tried to divert attention from Hamer’s appearance and the delegate seating issue by holding an impromptu press conference focusing on other issues. But, to his dismay, Hamer’s speech received widespread coverage in the national press.

Johnson then sent Senator Hubert Humphrey and other Democratic leaders to meet with Hamer and her colleagues. He offered to give the MFDP two non-voting seats at the convention. They refused to accept this crumb or any other token “compromises” the Democrats offered.

When asked why she persisted, Fannie Lou gave an answer she’d used before when asked why she persevered in her civil rights efforts.

“All my life I’ve been sick and tired. Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’”

The last part of Hamer’s response — “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” — became a famous quote forever associated with her.

After failing to get Hamer and the MFDP to accept a compromise, Johnson and the Democrats decided they feared a white Southern backlash in 1964 more than rejection by the black Americans who were able to vote. They refused to seat any MFDP members as voting delegates.

But the public attention generated by the issue and by Hamer’s speech added to the momentum for change.

A year later, the Democratically-controlled Congress passed — and President Johnson signed into law — the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited states from denying voting rights “on account of race.”

For its 1968 national convention, the National Democratic Party adopted a policy requiring African Americans to be fairly represented in state delegations.

One of the voting delegates seated at that 1968 convention was Fannie Lou Hamer.

I wonder what she’d say about the recent sad series of events in Ferguson, Missouri.

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August 07, 2016

“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream...”

On August 8, 1966, Capitol Records released the Beatles album Revolver in the United States. (In the UK, the LP was released by Parlophone on August 5.)

Revolver became an immediate chart-topper and is now widely considered to be one of the greatest albums in music history.

It includes several especially famous and popular Beatle songs, like “Eleanor Rigby,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “Here, There and Everywhere.”

Moreover, as a whole, Revolver was a watershed album for the Beatles and popular music — lyrically, musically and even technologically. (Some songs include recording effects never or rarely heard before on a mainstream pop album, like automatic double tracking, tape looping and flanging.)

Rock music historian and critic Richie Unterberger called it “one of the very first psychedelic LPs.”

One of the trippiest songs on the album is “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Written primarily by John Lennon, it is clearly an ode to the hallucinogenic drug LSD. (In 1972, Lennon openly referred to it as “my first psychedelic song.”)

Unlike some other songs on Revolver, few people can recall many of the lyrics from “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

If you look for them on the Internet or in books, you’ll find several variations. Almost none have all the lyrics right.

But the famous first line — “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream” — is well known, cited by thousands of websites and books and usually quoted correctly.

A year or more before they recorded Revolver, John and the other Beatles — Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — began experimenting with “acid,” like many other musicians who were on the cutting edge of rock music and pop culture in the mid-1960s.

As recounted in many books about the Beatles and psychedelic drugs, John got the opening words of the song from a guide for users of hallucinogens that was co-authored by the Acid King himself, Timothy Leary, with his fellow psychoactive drug pioneers Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass).

Titled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it was published in 1964, a couple of years before Leary began using his catchphrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

In the introduction of the “manual,” Leary, Metzner and Alpert gave this advice to newbie LSD trippers who might feel a bit anxious when they saw the walls melting or felt like they were dying:

       “Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream.”

They adapted that recommendation from a line in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an 8th century Buddhist text originally said to be a guide for people who actually were in the process of dying, prior to reincarnation.

That venerable book says that one stage in the process involves scary hallucinations, or “hell-visions.”

According to the translation in The Psychedelic Experience, the Book of the Dead helpfully explains:

       “The teaching concerning the hell-visions is the same as before; recognize them to be your own thought-forms, relax, float downstream.”

I can’t vouch for the translation or for how well this advice may work during the process of dying.

However, not long after the album Revolver was released, back in my Hippie days, I did do my own experimenting with LSD. And, in that context, I can say that the suggestion to relax and float downstream was pretty good advice.

In addition, having listened to “Tomorrow Never Knows” a thousand times or so, I can say that I’m pretty sure the correct lyrics are as follows (although, given the distortion effect used on Lennon’s voice, I can understand why there are several versions floating around):    

      “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,
       It is not dying, it is not dying.
       Lay down all thought, surrender to the void,
       It is shining, it is shining.
       That you may see the meaning of within,
       It is being, it is being.
       That love is all and love is everyone,
       It is knowing, it is knowing.
       That ignorance and hate may mourn the dead,
       It is believing, it is believing.
       But listen to the color of your dream,
       It is not living, it is not living.

       Or play the game ‘Existence’ to the end,
       Of the beginning, of the beginning.”

By the way, the title of the song has nothing to do with drugs or death or Tibetan Buddhism. Like “A Hard Day’s Night” it’s another Beatles song title that started out as a Ringo Starr malapropism.

During a 1964 interview, Ringo answered a question by saying “Tomorrow never knows.”

Lennon remembered the quip and later explained that he used it as the song’s title “to sort of take the edge off the heavy philosophical lyrics.”

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July 27, 2016

“I coulda been a contender!”

On the Waterfront poster (1954)
When On the Waterfront was first released to American movie theaters on July 28, 1954, the film’s director, Elia Kazan, was worried about how well it would do on opening day.

Actors Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb gave the film plenty of star power. And, the script was written by legendary screenwriter, producer and novelist Budd Schulberg.

But there hadn’t been as much advance publicity about the movie as Kazan had hoped for.

Richard Schickel’s biography of Kazan notes that the director was so worried on the morning of July 28th that he went to the Astor Theatre in New York’s Times Square to see how many people were coming to the film’s first showing, the early matinee scheduled for 11:00 a.m. 

Schickel says Kazan “was surprised to see something like one hundred customers in line at the box office” and immediately guessed that his film was going to be a popular success.”

Indeed, On the Waterfront was both a commercial and critical success.

The following March, it received eight Academy Awards, including a Best Director Oscar for Kazan.

Today, it is considered one of the best movies ever made. The American Film Institute lists it as one of the 100 Greatest American Films.

It also includes one of the most famous movie quotes of all time: “I coulda been a contender!”

The line is spoken by Brando, playing the washed-up boxer turned longshoreman, Terry Malloy, to his brother Charley (Steiger). Charley is an ethically-challenged lawyer who works for Johnny Friendly (Cobb), the brutal mobster who runs the local longshoreman’s union.

After Terry witnesses a fellow longshoreman murdered by Friendly’s thugs, Friendly tells Charley to make sure Terry sticks to the union’s “D and D” code (short for “deaf and dumb”).

When Charley presses Terry about this and even threatens him with a gun, Terry is shocked. It reminds him of how Charley had forced him to throw a big match and end his boxing career years before, at the orders of the same gangster.

I coulda been a contender quote clipIn one of the most memorable scenes in film history, Terry expresses the pain he feels over Charley’s betrayals:

“You was my brother, Charley,” he says. “You shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me, just a little bit, so I wouldn't have to take them dives for the short-end money...I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”

Terry goes on to become a hero when he testifies against Friendly before a Congressional waterfront crime commission.

Many observers have noted that, in part, On the Waterfront seems to be Kazan’s cinematic justification for his own testimony before the McCarthy-era House un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on April 10, 1952.

In the 1930s, Kazan was a member of the Group Theater, a New York City theater collective that included a number of politically progressive, left-leaning actors, playwrights and directors.

During his 1952 HUAC testimony, Kazan named eight former Group Theater members who he said had once been Communists, including Clifford Odets and Paula Miller, who later married the famed acting mentor Lee Strasberg.

Kazan also criticized the screenwriters and producers called the “Hollywood Ten” for refusing to cooperate with HUAC’s hunt for alleged Communists in the movie industry. (Often now described as a modern day “witch hunt.”)

Kazan’s testimony (online here) made him a controversial figure throughout his life. And, the controversy has continued since Kazan’s death in 2003.

His supporters feel his artistic achievements as a director outweigh the fact that he was one of many people in the film and theater world who “named names” and went along with the anti-Communist hysteria that led to the “blacklisting” of many actors, writers and directors in Hollywood.

His critics view him as a despicable snitch, who was willing to hurt former friends to protect his lucrative career.

Reading things Kazan said about the controversy himself over the years, I get the sense that he viewed his HUAC testimony as an act of conscience that was similar to Terry Malloy’s testimony to the waterfront crime commission in On the Waterfront.

Elia Kazan, A Life 1997For example, two days after appearing before the House un-American Activities Committee, Kazan paid for an ad in the New York Times in which he tried to justify what he had done. He said in one paragraph:

“Whatever hysteria exists — and there is some, particularly in Hollywood — is inflamed by mystery, suspicion and secrecy...Secrecy serves the Communists. At the other pole, it serves those who are interested in silencing liberal voices. The employment of a lot of good liberals is threatened because they have allowed themselves to become associated with or silenced by the Communists. Liberals must speak out.”

Decades later, in his 1997 autobiography, Kazan wrote:

“If you expect an apology now because I would later name names to the house Committee, you've misjudged my character. The ‘horrible, immoral thing’ I would do, I did out of my true self...The people who owe you an explanation (no apology expected) are those who, year after year, held the Soviets blameless for all their crimes.”

I love On the Waterfront and many other movies Kazan directed (my other special favorites are A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!  East of Eden and Baby Doll).

But I do question whether “exposing” former friends who seem to have been at worst “guilty” of having some misguided political views in their younger days is similar to exposing graft, extortion and murder committed by a gangster.

I hope that, if I had been put on the HUAC hot seat, I would have had the guts to respond like author Lillian Hellman.

In a letter she sent to HUAC Chairman John S. Wood on May 19, 1952, Hellman explained that she was willing to appear before the committee, as requested. However, she made it crystal clear that she would not name names.

Her letter includes a famous quote about acts of conscience and defiance of political witch hunters:

“To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable,” Hellman wrote. “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”

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July 12, 2016

“Prose = words in their best order; — poetry = the best words in the best order.”

Most of the best-known quotes by the British poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge come from his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) and Kubla Khan (1816).

But one of his most famous quotations is not something he wrote.

It’s a remark he made in a conversation that was jotted down by his nephew and son-in-law, Henry Nelson Coleridge.

Yes, it is a little strange that he was both Samuel’s nephew and son-in-law. Apparently, the Coleridges were a very tight knit family.

Anyway, from 1822 to 1834, Henry took notes about things he heard Samuel say at gatherings of family and friends, figuring they might someday be worthwhile biographical records about the life of his famous father-in-law/uncle.

In 1835, a year after Samuel died, Henry published a two-volume collection that included his notes, under the title Specimens of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

These volumes, usually referred to as Table Talk for short, include an oft-cited quotation by Samuel about prose and poetry.

Henry recorded in print like this:

       “Prose = words in their best order; — poetry = the best words in the best order.”

According the Henry, Samuel Taylor Coleridge spoke those words on the night of July 12, 1827 during a wide-ranging conversation about a number of famous writers, including Sir Walter Scott, John Dryden, Algernon Sydney and Edmund Burke.

Presumably, Samuel said the word “equal” where the equal signs appear in Henry’s written version.

Coleridge made this remark after saying that Edmund Burke’s popular essay “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” was “neither profound nor accurate” and making an equally snarky comment about a poem by the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto.

Samuel’s complete quote about prose vs. poetry, as recorded in Table Talk, is:

“I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; — poetry = the best words in the best order.”

Some people find Coleridge’s definitions of prose and poetry to be quite profound.

Others may find them a bit pompous and question whether they actually make sense. Who decides what the “best order” and “best words” are? And, why shouldn’t prose use the “best” words?

Nonetheless, Coleridge’s pithy comment about prose and poetry is one of the best known quotes from Table Talk.

Another is something Coleridge said about the actor Edmund Kean: “To see him act, is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.” You can read the backstory on that quote by clicking this link.

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June 26, 2016

President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech

One of the famous quotations associated with today’s date is a line President John F. Kennedy spoke in German on June 26, 1963: “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Kennedy used the line twice that day in a historic speech in West Berlin, which was then separated from communist-controlled East Berlin by the Berlin Wall.

His intention was to express his solidarity with the people there, by symbolically calling himself a citizen of Berlin. And, the straight literal translation of “Ich bin ein Berliner” is indeed “I am a Berliner.”

However, there’s a long-running debate over whether Kennedy’s grammar was a little off.

His use of “ein” is the issue.

Ein” does means “a” in English. But Germans use the word “Berliner” without “ein” to mean “a citizen of Berlin.” They say “Ich bin Berliner” when they want to say the English equivalent of “I am a Berliner.”

The term “ein Berliner” — when used as a noun — refers to a a jelly-filled, doughnut-like pastry Germans call “ein Pfannkuchen Berliner” or “ein Berliner” for short.

For this reason, Kennedy’s line “Ich bin ein Berliner” has generated both amusement and heated discussion over the years.

Some observers say that what Kennedy said in German was essentially “I am a jelly-filled doughnut.” Thus, they find the line laughable.

It has also been suggested that West Germans laughed at Kennedy when he said it.

Other people claim the use of “ein Berliner” is grammatically correct for someone who isn’t really a citizen of Berlin. They say the doughnut theory is an urban legend.

I’m not fluent in German. But a close friend of mine, Matt Eckstein, grew up in West Germany and was there in 1963.

Matt explained to me that, technically, Kennedy’s grammar was non-standard and could be interpreted as a reference to the pastry.

What Kennedy should have said, to say it like a German, is “Ich bin Berliner.”

Similarly, my friend explained, if you wanted to say you are a citizen of Frankfurt, Germany, you would say “Ich bin Frankfurter,” rather than “Ich bin ein Frankfurter.” The latter could theoretically be interpreted to mean “I am a hot dog.”

However, my friend also noted that, much more importantly, the people of West Berlin knew what Kennedy actually meant when he said “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

They knew he wasn’t talking about a jelly-filled doughnut. And, they found his words inspiring, not laughable.

You can see why by reading or watching a video of Kennedy’s speech.

It’s one of the most famous speeches in history. And, the crowd of more than 120,000 West Germans who were there on June 26, 1963 were cheering loudly — not laughing.

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John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech

Delivered in front of the Berlin Wall at Rudolph Wilde Platz in West Berlin
June 26, 1963

I am proud to come to this city as the guest of your distinguished Mayor, who has symbolized throughout the world the fighting spirit of West Berlin. And I am proud to visit the Federal Republic with your distinguished Chancellor who for so many years has committed Germany to democracy and freedom and progress, and to come here in the company of my fellow American, General Clay, who has been in this city during its great moments of crisis and will come again if ever needed.

John F Kennedy Ich Bin Ein Berliner speechTwo thousand years ago, the proudest boast was “Civis Romanus sum.” [“I am a Roman Citizen”] Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

I appreciate my interpreter translating my German.

There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin.

There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin.

And there are some who say, in Europe and elsewhere, we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin.

And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’ sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.

Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect. But we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in — to prevent them from leaving us. I want to say on behalf of my countrymen who live many miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, who are far distant from you, that they take the greatest pride, that they have been able to share with you, even from a distance, the story of the last 18 years. I know of no town, no city, that has been besieged for 18 years that still lives with the vitality and the force, and the hope, and the determination of the city of West Berlin.

While the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system — for all the world to see — we take no satisfaction in it; for it is, as your Mayor has said, an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together.

What is true of this city is true of Germany: Real, lasting peace in Europe can never be assured as long as one German out of four is denied the elementary right of free men, and that is to make a free choice. In 18 years of peace and good faith, this generation of Germans has earned the right to be free, including the right to unite their families and their nation in lasting peace, with good will to all people.

You live in a defended island of freedom, but your life is part of the main. So let me ask you, as I close, to lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today, to the hopes of tomorrow, beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin, or your country of Germany, to the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.

Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free. When all are free, then we can look forward to that day when this city will be joined as one and this country and this great Continent of Europe in a peaceful and hopeful globe. When that day finally comes, as it will, the people of West Berlin can take sober satisfaction in the fact that they were in the front lines for almost two decades.

All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.

And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

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