Showing posts with label obits. Show all posts
Showing posts with label obits. Show all posts

1.04.2019

harry leslie smith -- rest in power, and thank you

Harry Leslie Smith, who sometimes called himself "the world's oldest rebel," died in late November 2018. I was unable to acknowledge his passing on wmtc at the time.

Smith, a writer and an activist, was a steadfast critic of neoliberal policies, especially the austerity agenda. He spoke out constantly and consistently for a more generous, more just, and more inclusive society -- in short, for the preservation of social democracy.

His obituary in The Guardian quotes him:
I am one of the last few remaining voices left from a generation of men and women who built a better society for our children and grandchildren out of the horrors of the second world war, as well as the hunger of the Great Depression.

Sadly, that world my generation helped build on a foundation of decency and fair play is being swept away by neoliberalism and the greed of the 1%, which has brought discord around the globe. Today, the western world stands at its most dangerous juncture since the 1930s.
Smith was at his most eloquent when speaking against war-for-profit and in support of peace. In 2013, he wrote "This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time". It's a brilliant and heartbreaking piece. I will print it below; I hope you will read the whole thing.

Smith gave his initials HLS new meaning with his Twitter name, @harryslaststand. Last year, Smith tweeted this. Then as now, it brings tears to my eyes. An incredible honour, and something that helped me through the ordeal.


This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time
Harry Leslie Smith

I will remember friends and comrades in private next year, as the solemnity of remembrance has been twisted into a justification for conflict

Over the last 10 years the sepia tone of November has become blood-soaked with paper poppies festooning the lapels of our politicians, newsreaders and business leaders. The most fortunate in our society have turned the solemnity of remembrance for fallen soldiers in ancient wars into a justification for our most recent armed conflicts. The American civil war's General Sherman once said that "war is hell", but unfortunately today's politicians in Britain use past wars to bolster our flagging belief in national austerity or to compel us to surrender our rights as citizens, in the name of the public good.

Still, this year I shall wear the poppy as I have done for many years. I wear it because I am from that last generation who remember a war that encompassed the entire world. I wear the poppy because I can recall when Britain was actually threatened with a real invasion and how its citizens stood at the ready to defend her shores. But most importantly, I wear the poppy to commemorate those of my childhood friends and comrades who did not survive the second world war and those who came home physically and emotionally wounded from horrific battles that no poet or journalist could describe.

However, I am afraid it will be the last time that I will bear witness to those soldiers, airmen and sailors who are no more, at my local cenotaph. From now on, I will lament their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world. I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one's right to privacy.

Come 2014 when the government marks the beginning of the first world war with quotes from Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling and other great jingoists from our past empire, I will declare myself a conscientious objector. We must remember that the historical past of this country is not like an episode of Downton Abbey where the rich are portrayed as thoughtful, benevolent masters to poor folk who need the guiding hand of the ruling classes to live a proper life.

I can tell you it didn't happen that way because I was born nine years after the first world war began. I can attest that life for most people was spent in abject poverty where one laboured under brutal working conditions for little pay and lived in houses not fit to kennel a dog today. We must remember that the war was fought by the working classes who comprised 80% of Britain's population in 1913.

This is why I find that the government's intention to spend £50m to dress the slaughter of close to a million British soldiers in the 1914-18 conflict as a fight for freedom and democracy profane. Too many of the dead, from that horrendous war, didn't know real freedom because they were poor and were never truly represented by their members of parliament.

My uncle and many of my relatives died in that war and they weren't officers or NCOs; they were simple Tommies. They were like the hundreds of thousands of other boys who were sent to their slaughter by a government that didn't care to represent their citizens if they were working poor and under-educated. My family members took the king's shilling because they had little choice, whereas many others from similar economic backgrounds were strong-armed into enlisting by war propaganda or press-ganged into military service by their employers.

For many of you 1914 probably seems like a long time ago but I'll be 91 next year, so it feels recent. Today, we have allowed monolithic corporate institutions to set our national agenda. We have allowed vitriol to replace earnest debate and we have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that wealth is wisdom. But by far the worst error we have made as a people is to think ourselves as taxpayers first and citizens second.

Next year, I won't wear the poppy but I will until my last breath remember the past and the struggles my generation made to build this country into a civilised state for the working and middle classes. If we are to survive as a progressive nation we have to start tending to our living because the wounded: our poor, our underemployed youth, our hard-pressed middle class and our struggling seniors shouldn't be left to die on the battleground of modern life.

6.24.2018

rip philip roth

I was literally reading this article in The New York Times about Philip Roth when I heard he had died. It's a wonderful story: an 85-year-old celebrated author who has come to the end of his career with no regrets, is grateful to wake up every morning, and is now bingeing on nonfiction to learn more and more about the world. I was so happy for him, experiencing an old age we all deserve, but so many never find.

I've read many of Philip Roth's novels, and have many more still to go. He can be a challenging read, sometimes deceptively simple, sometimes confounding, almost always thought-provoking and worthwhile. If you haven't read The Plot Against America, I recommend it highly.

To me Roth is best remembered as the author who taught me about the bright line between fiction and autobiography, and that readers would do well to stop conflating the two (although they never will). Critics and readers were obsessed with this question, and seemingly could not see Roth's novels through any other lens. The Guardian quotes him:
I write fiction, and I’m told it’s autobiography. I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide.
Roth grew so tired of responding to questions and accusations about which bits of his work were autobiographical and which were fiction, that he declared a moratorium on the subject. He wrote more than one novel that purposely obfuscated the distinction in weird twists worth of M.C. Escher. The narrator of Operation Shylock, for example, is a character named Philip Roth, who is being impersonated by another character, who stole Roth’s identity.

I haven't read any of Roth's work for a long time, and his death reminds me to keep his last body of work on my list: Everyman (2006), Exit Ghost (2007), Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009), and Nemesis (2010).

Philip Roth obituaries: The New York Times and The Guardian.

3.10.2018

rip barry crimmins: call me lucky to have known him

In late 2015, I blogged about a remarkable documentary: "Call Me Lucky," about the life and times of Barry Crimmins. Barry died last week at the age of 64.

Describing Barry as a comedian somehow seems wrong. He was a social critic who used biting humour and righteous anger to enlighten and to skewer. He was a fierce opponent of any system that furthers war, poverty, and repression, and a stalwart advocate for equality, justice, and peace. He was also a master of wicked one-liners, as his thousands of Twitter followers knew.

Barry was in many ways a cynic and a curmudgeon, but that didn't stop him from being an idealist. He constantly called attention to the mistreatment of children, the kind that happens every day in our own communities. Barry went public with his own horrific story of child sexual abuse. In the 1990s, he became an activist against child pornography, after discovering that AOL chat rooms were harboring pedophiles. As Barry often said, "Child pornography is not protected speech. It's evidence of a crime scene."

In my review of "Call Me Lucky," I noted:
Allan and I met Barry through a baseball discussion list in the 90s, quickly bonding over our politics and, for me, a shared identity as survivors of sexual abuse or assault. We stayed at Barry's place on the Cleveland stop of our 1999 rust-belt baseball tour, and went to a few games together in New York. We lost touch until re-connecting on Facebook. Barry is the master of the political one-liner, and his feed keeps me laughing about the things that anger me the most.
I have mixed feelings about Facebook, but re-connecting with Barry Crimmins is one of the best things I've gotten from social media. We caught his act in Toronto last year, and said hi and exchanged hugs after the show. The world is a poorer place without Barry, but call me lucky to have known him.

Barry Crimmins' obit from Rolling Stone, along with a few video clips, here.

1.07.2018

rip fred bass, who gave nyc a priceless gift


Is there a New Yorker alive who hasn't spend time in The Strand? A New York City tourist who didn't thrill to their first visit to The Strand? The man who gave NYC this unique gift died recently at the age of 89. Although his father founded the store, Fred Bass made it the book-lovers' mecca that it came to be.

Here you can see the
ever-present he outdoor shelves.
I won't recount my memories of the hours I've spent in The Strand, because I'm sure they're no different than anyone else's. After we moved to Canada, a wmtc reader told me the store had been ruined. I returned to find an elevator had been installed, and the public washrooms changed from nauseatingly dirty to liveable. There was a cafe, better lighting, and new books, at a discount. Not ruined. Just a bit modernized.

The Strand was always expanding. It was like the expanding universe of books. You might think The Strand contained every homeless book the store took in -- but you'd be wrong. In this obituary, Bass is quoted from 1977:
I get an attack, something like a panic, of book-buying. I simply must keep fresh used books flowing over my shelves. And every day the clerks weed out the unsalable stuff from the shelves and bins and we throw it out. Tons of dead books go out nightly. And I bought ’em. But I just have to make room for fresh stock to keep the shelves lively.
Book lovers, do yourself a favour: go to the New York Times obituary, read it, look at the photos, and say goodbye to the man who gave us this special place.


10.03.2017

rip tom petty

The death of Tom Petty is terrible, shocking, dare I say heartbreaking news. From the moment I heard those unmistakeable first notes of "American Girl," I was hooked. I was a teenager when Petty first fought the battle to hold down the price of records. (Archival story about that here.) It would be the first of many battles for him, and he was always on the side of the good -- musicians and fans.

I didn't like all his music, and disliked some of his biggest hits, but once you saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live, you never forgot them. They were a bar band, writ large -- pared down, straightforward, bash, pop, and plenty of swing. I loved Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, and the energy between all the performers was electrifying.

This is a really sad and unexpected loss. The teenage American girl inside me is devastated.

3.19.2017

hail hail rock 'n' roll: rip chuck berry


To mark the death of rock legend Chuck Berry, everyone should watch "Hail Hail Rock 'n' Roll," Taylor Hackford's movie chronicling two concerts that celebrated Berry's 60th birthday.

If you want to know what all the fuss is about, if you need historical context to understand what Chuck Berry meant to all of rock, see this movie.

Here is Berry and "his band" performing my favourite version of my favourite Chuck Berry song.




I'm glad he lived to be an old man, and see his contributions honoured. This obituary by the great music writer Jon Pareles says it all.

11.29.2016

fidel castro, 1926-2016

More than any ruler I can think of, Fidel Castro defies our insistence on seeing leaders as solely either good or evil. As this excellent assessment in Social Worker (UK) puts it, "History must judge him both as the freedom fighter whose defiance humiliated US imperialism and as the ruler of a repressive, unequal society."

Castro was an inspiration to freedom fighters the world over, including Nelson Mandela. Mandela, we should remember, was formerly branded as a communist terrorist, and later lionized as a cuddly hero, without having changed his tactics or beliefs.

I'm told that coverage of Castro's death by US-based media focused on the celebrations of Miami's Cuban exile community, which is exactly what I'd expect. Remember the images of Arab children celebrating the 9/11 attacks -- images that turned out to be several years old?

I don't doubt that wealthy Cubans, whose unchallenged power and prestige was toppled by a socialist revolution, despise the man who brought them down. But the mainstream US's enduring hatred for Castro has nothing to do with sympathies for the Cuban ruling class. Castro is the world leader who the US couldn't assassinate, couldn't buy off, and couldn't control. Patrice Lumumba, Salvador Allende, Mohammad Mossadegh, Jacobo Arbenz, Ho Chi Minh, Joao Goulart, Juan Bosch, Jean Bertrand Aristide -- if you don't know the names, look them up. You can go back as far as Queen Liliuokalani. Castro was the one that got away.

Castro was also a dictator. Cuba suppressed dissidents, segregated and brutally punished LGBT people, and had virtually no free speech. Saying "So-and-so did that, too!" is not an appropriate response. For a socialist to rationalize oppression because it originated on the left is shameful and indefensible.

At the same time, this is still true.


The best eulogy of Fidel Castro that I've seen was written by the great Eduard Galeano, in his 2010 book Mirrors. Here's an excerpt, courtesy of Raiot.
His enemies say he was an uncrowned king who confused unity with unanimity. And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that if Napoleon had a newspaper like Granma, no Frenchman would have learned of the disaster at Waterloo. And in that his enemies are right.

His enemies say that he exercised power by talking a lot and listening little, because he was more used to hearing echoes than voices. And in that his enemies are right.

But some things his enemies do not say: it was not to pose for the history books that he bared his breast to the invaders’ bullets,
he faced hurricanes as an equal, hurricane to hurricane,
he survived 637 attempts on his life,
his contagious energy was decisive in making a country out of a colony,
and it was not by Lucifer’s curse or God’s miracle that the new country managed to outlive 10 U.S. presidents, their napkins spread in their laps, ready to eat it with knife and fork.

And his enemies never mention that Cuba is one rare country that does not compete for the World Doormat Cup.

And they do not say that the revolution, punished for the crime of dignity, is what it managed to be and not what it wished to become. Nor do they say that the wall separating desire from reality grew ever higher and wider thanks to the imperial blockade, which suffocated a Cuban-style democracy, militarized society, and gave the bureaucracy, always ready with a problem for every solution, the alibis it needed to justify and perpetuate itself.

And they do not say that in spite of all the sorrow, in spite of the external aggression and the internal high-handedness, this distressed and obstinate island has spawned the least unjust society in Latin America.

And his enemies do not say that this feat was the outcome of the sacrifice of its people, and also of the stubborn will and old-fashioned sense of honor of the knight who always fought on the side of the losers, like his famous colleague in the fields of Castile.

6.05.2016

the greatest, forever. rest in power muhammad ali.

Revolutionary thought of the day, from a revolutionary American.
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?

No, I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion.

But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…

If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.

Muhammad Ali, 1967

Two thoughts from my Facebook feed.
I was saddened to hear that War Resister Muhammad Ali has died.

His courageous refusal to fight in Viet Nam inspired and encouraged me in doing likewise. Nor was it simply a matter of his religious commitment. When he said "No Vietnamese ever called me "nigger"", he exposed the war for what it was, and African American life for what it was.

As a War Resister, Muhammad Ali was The Greatest.

Lee Zaslofsky, War Resisters Support Campaign

RIP peoples champ. And writer friends, could we please remember to mention Ali was a proud Muslim? Bold, yes. Brave, yes. Handsome, yes. But also a deeply spiritual person. That can't be forgotten today or ever. ‪#‎stopislamophobia‬

Joel H., Ottawa

Not all white people are racist?
There are many white people who mean right and in their hearts wanna do right. If 10,000 snakes were coming down that aisle now, and I had a door that I could shut, and in that 10,000, 1,000 meant right, 1,000 rattlesnakes didn’t want to bite me, I knew they were good... Should I let all these rattlesnakes come down, hoping that that thousand get together and form a shield? Or should I just close the door and stay safe?

Muhammad Ali, 1971

‘I Just Wanted to Be Free’: The Radical Reverberations of Muhammad Ali, Dave Zirin, The Nation

Muhammad Ali Risked It All When He Opposed The Vietnam War, Justin Block, HuffPo

Muhammad Ali: Worshipped. Misunderstood. Exploited., Ishamel Reed, New York Times Op-Ed

Official New York Times obituary, written by Robert Lipsyte, a steadfastly progressive voice in the overwhelmingly ultra-conservative field of sportswriting

If you haven't seen any of these movies, do yourself a favour. None is perfect, all are flawed, but all worth seeing.

When We Were Kings (1996)

The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)

I Am Ali (2014)

5.15.2016

rest in power, daniel berrigan and michael ratner

The world lost two great fighters for peace and justice this past week.

Daniel Berrigan was a lifelong peace activist, a man who was ready and willing to put his body and soul on the line. He was a writer, a thinker, a pacifist, an idealist, a pragmatist, and a priest.

Berrigan was also a leader, someone who, early on, helped make visible the connections between racism, poverty, war, and capitalism. He became a leading figure in the peace movement during the Vietnam War. Naturally, he was on the FBI's "most wanted" list and served time in prison.

Later in his life, Berrigan founded the Plowshares Movement, which used daring acts of civil disobedience to draw a spotlight on the US's nuclear arsenal.

Here are two pieces from The New Yorker celebrating Berrigan.
James Carroll remembers his "dangerous friend".

Eric Schlosser remembers how "a handful of a handful of pacifists and nuns exposed the vulnerability of America’s nuclear-weapons sites": Break-In at Y-12.
Following in the giant footsteps of Dorothy Day, Berrigan's life and work demonstrates that religion can be a positive force for social change.

Michael Ratner's life and work also defies stereotype: he was a lawyer who spent his entire career defending the scorned, the falsely accused, the scapegoated. He was a trailblazer who pioneered the use of the law to champion human rights. Long ago, when I contemplated going to law school, I dreamt of Michael Ratner as my role model.

Democracy Now! devoted an entire program to the celebration of Ratner's life and work.
The trailblazing human rights attorney Michael Ratner has died at the age of 72. For over four decades, Michael Ratner defended, investigated and spoke up for victims of human rights abuses across the world. He served as the longtime head of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Attorney David Cole told The New York Times, "Under his leadership, the center grew from a small but scrappy civil rights organization into one of the leading human rights organizations in the world. He sued some of the most powerful people in the world on behalf of some of the least powerful."

In 2002, the center brought the first case against the George W. Bush administration for the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantánamo. The Supreme Court eventually sided with the center in a landmark 2008 decision when it struck down the law that stripped Guantánamo prisoners of their habeas corpus rights. Ratner began working on Guantánamo in the 1990s, when he fought the first Bush administration’s use of the military base to house Haitian refugees.
I can't begin to do justice to either of these men, but I didn't want their deaths to go unnoticed on this blog. Their passing saddens me and their lives inspire me.

1.17.2016

in which the death of a rock legend makes me think about how our world has changed

When this came out, I hung the cover on my bedroom wall. 
Sharing memories of David Bowie, as so many of us were after his too-early death this week, led me to think a lot about the world I lived in when I was a big Bowie fan.

My world then

I saw Bowie in concert in 1976, after the "Station to Station" album came out. I was a few months shy of my 15th birthday.

I had a picture of him on my wall, a magazine cover with a green background. I had assumed it was the cover of Time, but a Google image search quickly revealed it was People. No one in my family read People, which means I bought the magazine for the Bowie story and photos.

Although I can't remember anything specific, I know I would have cut out, read, and saved anything about the new album and the tour from Rolling Stone (still an actual rock music magazine), The New York Times, and Time, because I subscribed to RS and my parents subscribed to the others.

In those days, we searched for images and stories about our musical loves, and when we found them, we pounced on and devoured them. They were very finite, and we hoarded everything we could find.

There were a few opportunities to see bands play on TV, and if you were into music, you never missed them. You stayed up for "Don Kirshner," as we called it, or woke up with Soul Train, if that was your music. (I did both.) When "Saturday Night Live" came on the scene, the best thing about it was another opportunity to see bands play.

Sometimes a concert would be broadcast on TV to promote a tour. I have a vivid memory of watching Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review on a small black-and-white set in my parents' bedroom, in self-imposed exile from the colour set that my parents were watching in the den, so I could drink in every detail of the show without annoying comments.

Even more exciting was footage of old concerts and TV appearances. We didn't call them videos: they were footage. I had an adult friend who had a stockpile of rock on film. My friends and I would plead with him to show us The Who smashing their instruments, or something rare like a clip from the Rolling Stones' "Cocksucker Blues".

Concerts were often broadcast on the radio. We would all tune in to the King Biscuit Flower Hour to hear past concerts, or even better, a live concert simulcast on the radio. Allan tells me that the Bowie show previous to the one I attended was broadcast live. Although I don't remember it, I'm certain I was listening.

It's difficult to explain what it felt like, compared to our present time, when a concert is uploaded for file-sharing an hour after it ends, and cell-phone videos are instantly posted to YouTube, and if you want to see what someone looks like, you simply type their name and hit enter. There was always a kind of hunger for more, and also a kind of mystery.

Another thing we have now: the almost instant ability to connect with other fans. In those days, fans of any given band were almost like a secret society. Members recognized each other by lyrics written on notebooks and t-shirts worn the day after the concert, something like a secret handshake.

This is not nostalgia! I don't think for one moment that life was better because I couldn't Google images of David Bowie. It was just very different.

The concert

It was 1976. A friend's parents bought her three tickets to the David Bowie concert for her 16th birthday, and I was a lucky tag-along.*

It was the second rock show I had ever attended, and the first that my parents knew about. I had to ask their permission to go, and - even though the friend's parents would be driving us there and picking us up - they weren't keen. My older sister intervened on my behalf, and got them to say yes.

In the lead-up to the show, we read, watched, and listened to everything about Bowie and the tour that we could get our hands on. We skipped school to see "The Man Who Fell to Earth" the day it opened, and saw it three times that week. We talked about the movie constantly. (I don't remember if the film was before or after the concert.)

The scene outside Madison Square Garden was our warm-up act. There were men in drag, people of every gender in Bowie-inspired makeup, and many people dressed in imitation of Bowie's current persona. In those days, a rock show was like an open-air market for illegal drugs. We had smuggled joints on our person, wondering if we'd be able to smoke at the show.

I believe there was no actual warm-up act, although I can't swear to it. Bowie designed and controlled his shows very tightly, so I doubt he would have a warm-up band sullying the spectacle. But opening acts - billed as "special guests" - were typical in those days, so perhaps there was.

The lights went out, and all of Madison Square Garden became a cloud of pot smoke. My friends and I looked at each other in joy and wonder.

A screen was lowered in front of the stage, and suddenly we were seeing silent, surreal, black-and-white images. It was - I later learned - "Un Chien Andalou", the famous short film by Luis Bu?uel and Salvador Dali. Chances are good that few people in the audience had seen the film before. Another vivid memory: the very audible gasp of a crowd of 20,000 when an eyeball appears to be sliced with a razor blade.

The film ended, the screen rose, a white spotlight appeared, and there he was: the Thin White Duke. He was beautiful. He was intense. He owned your attention. I was a mile away, and it felt as if he was singing to me. Yes, I was 14 years old, and not exactly a critical audience. But the audience was rapt. He was absolutely captivating.

Incidentally, I never asked permission to attend a concert again. I just went. At some point I must have needed permission to go only with friends, without an adult, but I don't remember this being controversial. I was the youngest in my family, and the only child still living home. My father's health (mental and physical) was poor, my parents' marriage was disintegrating, and they were too tired or distracted to police me. This was sad, but it had its advantages.


* I would go on to have a strange love-hate relationship with this person, who was also my partner in all of my illegal activity. But we were both still innocent of that tangled mess.

1.18.2015

thoughts arising from the death of a defender of free speech

This week's obituaries included the last living link to two landmark moments in the history of freedom of expression.

Al Bendich was just two years out of law school when he wrote the brief that is credited with the victory in the famous "Howl" obscenity case. In 1957, Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg's masterpiece "Howl" in book form and sold it in his City Lights bookstore (now a San Francisco institution). Ferlinghetti was arrested on obscenity charges; the story of his trial is tremendous. You can read a bit about it in Bendich's New York Times obituary; the movie "Howl" is also a good primer.

A few years later, Bendich would successfully defend the performer Lenny Bruce. Of the four court trials that Bruce would endure, the case that Bendich defended was the only one to end in acquittal.

* * * *

I noticed Bendich's obituary while the law - and its many uses and abuses - was on my mind. We had just seen the documentary "West of Memphis," about a horrendous injustice perpetrated by the justice [sic] and legal systems in the US state of Arkansas. (A feature film "Devil's Knot" was also made about this case. It is terrible. Skip it and go straight to "West of Memphis".)

"West of Memphis" is the story of how three teenage boys were convicted of a crime they did not commit, while the man who very likely did murder three young boys was never even arrested. Two of the teenagers were sentenced to life in prison; one received the death penalty. Only massive, sustained, unrelenting public pressure - and the involvement of several high-profile celebrities such as musical artist Eddie Vedder and director Peter Jackson - resulted in the release of the convicted men, but not before they served 18 years in prison and without exoneration.

The personal and specific stories of what happened to these young men is awful enough, but far more terrible is the knowledge that these wrongful convictions were not unusual. The only unusual part was the public spotlight and their eventual release.

As we've learned through the work of people like Barry Scheck and The Innocence Project, and Northwestern Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions, wrongful convictions occur all the time. While they may happen for many reasons, most wrongful convictions have one root cause: political pressure. Prosecutors feel they must produce a suspect and get a conviction in order to retain public confidence in the criminal justice system, and ultimately, their jobs.

What kind of justice is that?

I can think of few things more awful - more frustrating, more anger-producing, more disillusioning - than a person serving time for a crime he did not commit. And I can think of few things more useless in terms of justice. Wingnuts who complain about the (supposedly) liberal fixation on wrongful conviction conveniently forget that each wrongful conviction represents a murderer and/or a rapist who is free to continue to terrorize and kill more victims.

* * * *

I used to refer to myself as a law-school refugee; when I was in university, I was under a fair bit of paternal pressure to take the LSATs, apply, and attend law school. The idea held a certain amount of appeal. (Me and my subconscious puns.) Through my early 20s, I still occasionally considered it, to get involved in constitutional law, as practiced by organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights and other left-leaning public-interest groups.

"West of Memphis" left me thinking about the many paths lawyers may take. For a long time, I worked as support staff in law firms where wealthy lawyers help even more wealthy corporations make more profit, pay less taxes, destroy the environment, and buy legislation to do more of all three. They're on one end of a spectrum that ends, for me, with the legal warriors who work to overturn wrongful convictions, defend the environment, defend free speech, defend human rights and civil liberties.

So... thank you, Al Bendich!

12.12.2014

bobby keys, 1943-2014



Terrible news for the music world this week, and for the world of unabashed, unrepentant, hard partying rock-and-roll.

I have loved Bobby Keys for as long as I've known of his existence, which is to say a very long time. If you read Life, Keith Richards' memoirs, you know a few good Bobby Keys stories. And if you love the music of the Rolling Stones' best years, you've been loving Bobby Keys, too.

Keith and Bobby shared a birthday, and much of their lives. The death of Bobby Keys hits Stones' fans with a special kind of force.

Bobby Keys: Bruce Weber writes about him here.

10.13.2014

rest in peace, canine with a brave rebel heart


When I blogged about him a few years back, he was called Kanellos, the Greek rebel dog. Somewhere along the way, English-language media dubbed him Riot Dog. He was also called Louk, short for Loukanikos. Louk, Kanellos, and also Thodoris may or may not have been the same dog.

Whatever his name, he was brave, loyal, and handsome, and he stood on the side of the People. His health was diminished by tear gas, but he soldiered on. He died recently at the home of a person who cared for him. He was thought to be about ten years old.




9.07.2014

thank you, charley richardson! your legacy lives on

On Labour Day, I happened to see this on Twitter:



I am on my union's labour-management committee, the group that meets monthly with management to discuss members' concerns and try to resolve issues. I was intrigued and followed the link that Rank and File had posted.

To my surprise, the original "how to" advice was written by the late Charley Richardson, who passed away in 2013. I knew of Charley, mostly by his outsize reputation, from another part of his life: along with his wife Nancy Lessin, he co-founded Military Families Speak Out.

MFSO is now defunct, but the organization did tremendous work advocating for veterans and against wars for oil and profit. As it happens, MFSO bears a special place in my own anti-war activism. Shortly after the US invaded Iraq, while we were waiting to emigrate to Canada, Allan and I attended an MFSO event in New York. The tiny Judson Memorial Church was packed to the rafters, people applauding and weeping as parents, spouses, and siblings of soldiers testified to the terrible treatment they endured, and to the real motives behind the wars. I never forgot that meeting, although it would be many years before I reconnected with its mission.

Years later, working with the War Resisters Support Campaign, I often heard about Richardson, Lessin, and MFSO. They were incredibly supportive to the families of soldiers and veterans, whether or not they were active in the military, had finished their tours, or had deserted. A friend and comrade of mine was close with the Richardsons, and that's how I learned that Charley, only in his late 50s, was dying. Here is his obituary in the Boston Globe.

Now, more than a year after Charley's untimely passing, I had stumbled on some of his wise and practical advice. Digging a bit deeper, I learned that part of Richardson's legacy as a labour educator has been archived and preserved as "The Charley Richardson Guide to Kicking Ass for the Working Class".

And here, perhaps, is the best part of the story. I shared the article with our labour-management committee team. The response was strong and positive. We prepared for our next meeting with new resolve, and we had the strongest, most effective labour-management meeting I've seen since joining the team more than a year ago.

Thank you, Charley Richardson!

8.12.2014

depression is to sad as cancer is to pimple (a few thoughts after the death of robin williams)

Reading a news story about Robin Williams' death, I saw a tweet from Jimmy Kimmel. It said, in part: "If you're sad, tell someone."

Depression is "you're sad" the way cancer is a pimple. And telling someone doesn't make it go away. For severe depression telling someone is... well, it's nothing.

I'm assuming Kimmel meant, if you're depressed, seek help. Yes. Good advice. But Robin Williams did seek help. He was in treatment. So was David Foster Wallace when he killed himself. So was... I could go on.

Severe depression is often untreatable. That's the terrible truth.

Today I'm thinking of a friend I've lost to mental illness. And I'm thinking of everyone I love who lives with the absence that suicide leaves behind.

I'm thinking of my friends who struggle with depression but are winning their battles. Please keep fighting.

7.15.2014

nadine gordimer, 1923-2014


Nadine Gordimer was a great writer, and a steadfast voice for justice.

Gordimer, a white South African, was a member of the African National Congress when the organization itself was illegal. Several of her novels, which explored the affects of apartheid on those who lived it, were similarly banned.

Gordimer was a courageous woman, an outspoken intellectual, and a writer for whom art and politics became inseparable. She lived life on her own terms, and died at the old age of 90. Despite that, her passing feels like a great loss to the world.

Nadine Gordimer's obituary in The Guardian, and The New York Times.

tommy ramone, and how can it be the ramones are gone from this world?

Back-to-back obituaries again. Obits are taking up a large percentage of wmtc real estate these days, yet another indication of how little I'm writing.

The passing of Thomas Erdelyi this week, better known as Tommy Ramone, brings an uncomfortable reminder of mortality for people my age and younger: the last surviving original Ramone.

Like a lot of people, I discovered the Ramones in a kind of backwards fashion, through the Clash and other great British punk and new wave bands. No matter how many times I've read and heard that these guys from Queens were a heavy influence on British punk, to me it always seemed the other way around.

The Ramones, perhaps more than any other band, embodied the true spirit of punk. So strange that they are gone.


Tommy Ramone, 1949-2014

6.23.2014

charles barsotti, 1933-2014


Two obituary posts in a row, and I didn't even mention Tony Gwynn. My favourite cartoonist, Charles Barsotti, has died from cancer at the age of 80.

My favourite Barsotti character is, of course, The Pup.




The Pup often saw his therapist.


And sometimes lawyers were involved.


But Barsotti had a political side, too. This cartoon has pride of place on my desk, next to Mankoff's "...assuming the FBI is making copies."


Here's another great political cartoon.


I'm so pleased that I emailed with Charles Barsotti some years back, after ordering some goodies from his website. If you love someone's work, please let her or him know. You might imagine that successful artists or writers know how much we enjoy their work, but in my experience, people are so pleased to hear from fans.

Charles Barsotti's obituary in the New York Times and Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker, on Barsotti.

6.18.2014

ruby dee, 1922-2014




Ruby Dee was a towering figure in the American theatre. She was a great actor, a poet, playwright, and screenwriter, and a steadfast voice for equality. Along with the actor Ossie Davis, her husband of nearly 60 years, Dee never stopped campaigning for full civil rights for all people.

Dee and Davis' marriage was something to marvel at and to emulate, a partnership, as the New York Times obit puts it, that was "romantic, familial, professional, artistic and political".

Dee grew up in Harlem, performed in many Broadway plays, and was a quintessential New Yorker. On Friday, the marquee lights on Broadway theatres were darkened for one minute in her honour.

2.11.2014

shirley temple black, breast cancer activist, former child star, 1928-2014

Shirley Temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson
Growing up watching old movies, I was a big fan of Shirley Temple, whose dimples, singing, and tap-dancing charmed my parents' generation.

Temple danced with some of the tap greats, African-American men who Hollywood cast as servants, yassuh-ing their way into the dance scenes. The popularity of the adorable child star opened the back door for many talents.

When I was a young teen, Shirley Temple, then known as Shirley Temple Black, spoke out about undergoing a radical mastectomy. This was unheard of, and took enormous courage in a time when breast cancer was considered shameful - and fatal. She was a real trailblazer. She was also a United States
Ambassador to more than one country.

I was sorry to see that the wire-service obituary referred to Black as "Shirley Temple," and made no mention of her later accomplishments.