Twitter Facebook YouTube RSS

Wall Writings

Wall Writings
News analysis of politics, cinema, modern culture and the ambiguity of human existence addressed from a religious perspective.
Updated: 2 hours 57 min ago

Updated: “I Once Was Blind. . . But Now I See”

February 11, 2019 - 6:03am

The recent death of Albert Finney brings attention to his many appearances in film and television and on stage. Finney was 82 when he died February 7, 2019. One of his more memorable films was Amazing Grace. The Wall Writings posting from April 14, 2014, reprinted below, recalls Finney’s role as John Newton, author of the hymn, Amazing Grace. This 2014 posting links the evil of slavery to the still unresolved evil of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people. 

Originally posted on April 14, 2014 by

by James M. Wall

In a scene from the 2006 movie, Amazing Grace, set during the lifetime (1759 – 1833) of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd, right), Wilberforce presents his anti-slave trade bill to the British Parliament.

It is a task he performs annually.

Wilberforce is following the advice of his former preacher, John Newton (played in the film by Albert Finney), author of the hymn, “Amazing Grace”, who tells him that sometimes change occurs only through steady drips.

The purpose of Wilberforce’s annual legislative “drip” is to eventually persuade the majority of the Parliament to make it illegal for British ships to transport slaves from Africa to the New World.

At a crucial turning point in the film, speaking to an indifferent body of law-makers, many of whom have financial ties to the shipping industry, Wilberforce begins his annual plea:

“It is with a heavy heart that I bring to the attention of this House a trade that degrades men to the level of brutes and insults the highest qualities of our human nature. I am speaking of the slave trade.”

Immediately he is greeted with shouts of disapproval. Wilberforce continues:

I know that many of my honorable friends in this House have investments in the Indies. Others are ship owners. And I believe them to be men of humanity. I believe you all to be men of humanity.

If the wretchedness of any one of the many hundreds of slaves stowed in their ships could be brought to view there is no one among you who could bear it.”

The bill fails. Wilberforce invites a few select members of the House to join him and a few  of his abolitionist supporters for a meeting at his home.

The response is slight. Only one other Member of Parliament (MP), shows up.

That man is Sir William Dolben, who represents a constituency which does not depend on the slave trade for its economic well-being.

Wilberforce thanks Dolben for his presence. He then asks him to explain what prompted his  decision to accept Wilberforce’s invitation.

Dolben tells the group “he recently took  passage from Sierra Leone aboard a slave ship”.

“What I saw during those 15 days (he pauses, unable to describe what he saw. Then he continues) “I believe there are plenty of others in the House of Commons who share your feelings, Wilberforce. They are just afraid to show it.”

Wilberforce knows it is time to do more than drip away at the problem.

“Perhaps we should begin this journey with the first step. We are talking about the truth. So we should hand it out to people. Drop it from the church roofs. Paint pictures of it. Write songs about it. Make bloody pies out of it. (he pauses, speaks more quietly, and starts again.) There is a slave ship at dock at Tilbury with twice the slave berths it is insured for. I know that for a fact. But how do we prove it.”

Wilberforce already has his answer. He will trick members of the House into a moment of revelation.

Sir William Dolben, not yet known as an ally in the anti-slave movement, charters a boat and invites a number of MPs, and their wives, for an afternoon boat ride with food,  drinks and music.  They are enjoying themselves, until their boat suddenly halts next to what they discover is a slave ship.

William Wilberforce appears on the ship’s deck and speaks to the surprised MPs and their wives. He informs them that this ship has just returned from the Indies after unloading 200 slaves, all of whom had been confined for three weeks below deck chained in boxes.

The journey began with 600 slaves, men, women and children. The remaining 400 died during the trip. Their bodies were tossed overboard.

The MPs and their wives, dressed in their finest, reached for their handkerchiefs. They had begun to smell odors from the slave ship.  Wilberforce tells them to remove their handkerchiefs from their faces. “Breath deep. What you smell is the smell of death”.

Reluctantly, they do so. Wilberforce’s strategy has worked.  Previously, far removed from the smell of the deaths the Parliament has funded and sanctioned for many decades, this particular group of MPs and their wives, encounter their existential moment of reality.

A two minute preview of Amazing Grace (below) captures the essence of the film, including scenes of Wilberforce and his “preacher”, John Newton (Albert Finney), the former owner of a slave ship, who, when converted, wrote Amazing Grace.

Wilberforce is fighting an evil that has been embedded in the British economy for centuries. Wikipedia explains:

“The British initially became involved in the slave trade during the 16th century. By 1783, the triangular route that took British-made goods to Africa to buy slaves, transported the enslaved to the West Indies, and then brought slave-grown products such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton to Britain, represented about 80 percent of Great Britain’s foreign income.

British ships dominated the trade, supplying French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and British colonies, and in peak years carried forty thousand enslaved men, women and children across the Atlantic in the horrific conditions of the middle passage. Of the estimated 11 million Africans transported into slavery, about 1.4 million died during the voyage.”

Israel’s Zionist leaders have long been aware that if enough American voters smelled the death and suffering of the Palestinian occupation, Israel’s propaganda campaign to present itself as a victim, would collapse.

Like Sir William Dolben, Americans must travel on a 21st century slave ship. They must go to Gaza and the West Bank where they will hear, feel, and smell the brutality imposed on Palestinian families, who are locked in an occupation prison.

Israel’s Zionist leaders have always known they were riding into their carefully planned future on a weak platform of deception and lies. Their strategy was to disguise  this platform by pretending to be humane and willing to compromise.

The U.S. allies of these Zionist distorters have their own strategy. Take, for example, the recent comments by former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, now executive director of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

DeMint was interviewed by a right-wing conservative radio host. At one point he was asked about slavery.  His answer:

Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution, it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property, but the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the minds of God.  But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people, it did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong.

People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.

A former U.S. senator, DeMint appears to have a rather limited view of the legislative process. He also appears to know very little about Wilberforce, other than the fact that he was an evangelical Christian who worked against slavery.

Of course, Wilberforce’s arena was the British parliament, not the U.S. Congress. Wilberforce died in 1833, thirty years before slavery ended in the U.S.

Most U.S.  Zionist leaders are no doubt better informed on British history, and perhaps DeMint also knows that Wilberforce was British, not American. But the need to keep things simple appears to have led DeMint astray.

In Israel itself, Zionist leaders also rely on their ability to reshape history to their own purposes. They have long been devoted to shaping the historical narrative of the creation of the modern state of Israel.

To accomplish this  they have twisted and distorted their own biblical narrative for their own modern political ends.

To build a modern state that is exclusively Jewish, these Zionists have been guilty of falsifying doctrine. Creating a nation from scratch was a challenge even larger than one faced by the British shipping industry. In both cases, deception was paramount.

No single individual ended the slave trade, nor, for that matter, ended slavery in the U.S.  The right thing to do was forced upon the British and the Americans through the legislative process.

William Wilberforce finally achieved his goal.  Before the final vote on the British slave trade act, William Wilberforce visited his old preacher, John Newton, the former slave ship captain, who has been tormented by his memories of “20,000 ghosts” of slaves he took to their deaths.

At this point in his life, and in Amazing Grace, Newton is totally blind. In the film, he greets his former parishioner with the cry, “I once was blind, but now I see”.

He asks Wilberforce, “did I write that?”. Wilberforce answers quietly, “yes, you did”.

Freed from his years of torment after having finally been able to dictate his memoirs, what he refers to as his “confession”, Newton cries out to Wilberforce, “Now it is true!”

Wilberforce was the political leader of the abolitionist movement.  What he accomplished, however, he did not do alone.

He was supported in his legislative struggles by a team of abolitionists, which included his wife, Barbara Spooner, two clergymen, John Ramsay and Thomas Clarkson, and of course,  his”old preacher”,  John Newton, who was his initial spiritual guide.

Another key member of the Wilberforce team was a former African slave, Olaudah Equiano, who wrote a book of his life during, and after, his enslavement.

With Wilberforce’s dogged legislative leadership, and the joint educational and activist efforts of the abolitionists, the British Parliament finally outlawed the slave trade, in 1807.

In the final year of Wilberforce’s life, 1833, the Parliament outlawed slavery in all of its forms throughout the British empire.

Wilberforce’s close political ally, Prime Minister William Pitt, known as “the younger”, played a significant role in ending the slave trade. Pitt, the youngest man ever to become a British prime minister at age 24, died in 1806.

Pitt and Wilberforce are interred, side by side, in London’s Westminster Abbey. They understood that each had a role to play in the game of politics. At one point in the film, Amazing Grace, Wilberforce asks for advice from his friend and now prime minister.

Pitt responds: “As your prime minuter, I urge caution”.  Wilberforce then asks, “what about as my friend?”  Pitt’s response, “Oh, to hell with caution.”

Thus far, there is little evidence of a Wilberforce or a Pitt in the U.S. Congress who both understands the imperative of ending the Palestinian occupation, and who has the courage and the political sagacity to lead a Wilberforce-like struggle to make it happen.

That leadership is required, because, as Sir William Dolben said to Wilberforce, “There are plenty of others in the House of Commons who share your feelings, Wilberforce. They are just afraid to show it.”

 

 

Children and IDF are Israeli Occupation Pawns

January 25, 2019 - 12:50pm

By James M. Wall

There are times when one picture says it all.

This picture at right shows a terrified Palestinian child between two Israeli soldiers who, from my perspective, are ashamed of what they are doing.

Ponder that picture a few moments and then ask yourself, “Does Israel have a right to exist”?  It is the wrong question. It is actually a “trick question” intended to deceive.

Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, wrote an article in the liberal Jewish publication, Forward, which exposes “right to exist” as a trick question, a tactic designed to evade the political reality of Israel’s immoral and corrupting occupation of Palestinians.

Any occupation, by definition, is corrupting to everyone involved. It is corrupting to the occupied and to the occupiers. It is also corrupting to those who look at what is happening and pass by on the other side of the road. 

I have had the “trick question” hurled at me for almost half a century. It is universally employed by occupation apologists. It is a question which serves as a mental wall to hide the immorality of Israeli military control, which is not a defense force but a conquering force.

Up close, it is an ugly and heart-breaking sight.

On one of my 20 reporting trips to the Middle East, I needed to travel to Lebanon when Israel was involved in one of its armed conflicts with Lebanon. I signed in as a journalist with the IDF press office outside Jerusalem.

We traveled through Palestinian villages in an IDF jeep, heading north. The two soldiers escorting me took note of children along the way who had tossed a Palestinian banner on a wire and were eager to throw stones at our jeep. 

One soldier muttered, “we’ll take that one down on the way back”. I felt degraded for the two soldiers. They should have been home in Tel Aviv with their own children. Instead, they were escorting an American journalist who witnessed children mocking them.

When I told the story of that trip to readers, Israeli-backers fired back with the inevitable trick question, “Does Israel have a right to exist?” I wish I had known then to dismiss the question as a trick.

Well-protected behind the wall that trick question has built, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for a national election in December, motivated, the Guardian alleges, to delay pending legal action against him. Israel’s voters will have an opportunity to change course from a government that makes the IDF and children pawns in Netanyahu’s obvious plan to conquering all of Palestine.

Is Israel’s current government acting like a democracy concerned about the well-being of its own citizens and the well-being of Palestinians living under its military control? 

Look at the record.

The Guardian writes:

According to the United Nations, Palestinians – many of them children – were killed at the rate of around one a day while taking part in protests along Israel’s perimeter fence with Gaza about their right to return to ancestral homes. They included medics and journalists. Most of the dead were unarmed and posed no danger to anyone, with little more than rocks in their hands and slogans on their lips.

Yet Israel continued with an immoral and unlawful policy that sees soldiers of its military, which is under democratic civilian control, teargas, shoot and kill protesters, including those who pose no credible threat.

Hospitals in Gaza, which already struggle under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, have been stretched to breaking point in dealing with the flood of patients ferried in from the protests.

The Guardian recalls a phrase from the late Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist who was a loyal Zionist with a conscience.

The novelist Amos Oz’ words that “even unavoidable occupation is a corrupting occupation” have been ignored for too long. Netanyahu’s nearest rival [in the upcoming election] brags that he sent parts of Gaza “back to the stone age” when in the military.  

Netanyahu would dismiss Oz’s warnings; but perhaps he ought to take heed of the recent spat between the historian Benny Morris and the Ha’aretz writer Gideon Levy.

Benny Morris is the historian who “lifted the veil” on the ethnic cleanings on which Israel was founded, but then drifted to the right to say that these heinous crimes did not go far enough. Gideon Levy is the left-leaning Ha’aretz columnist. They differ on much but agree that “the two-state solution is a fading prospect”.

[Meanwhile] Netanyahu lulls the public with the notion that a two-state solution will wait until Israel deems the conditions to be ripe. He hints that new friends in Washington, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will come up with a proposal the Palestinians will swallow.

This is pure cynicism. There is no new plan – just a rebranding of the status quo, maintained by force by Israel, and with Palestinians within and without Israel’s borders subjugated and dependent. Israelis must turn away from the occupation, which is debasing their society and suffocating the Palestinians.

Israel’s “right to exist” trick question, is a high wall built around the minds of those who are easily distracted away from Israel’s evil occupation.

It is time to say, “tear down that wall”. Let children grow up in peace and let the IDF soldiers go home to their own children.

The picture above of two Israeli soldiers and one small Palestinian boy appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

Why MLK Would Back Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

January 21, 2019 - 4:20pm

by James M. Wall

Juan Cole’s column, published today on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, links King to 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), the youngest woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress. 

This nation honors King on each third Monday of January, a day when we remember the civil rights leader who denounced through his grand eloquence, the sheer and unmitigated evil of this nation’s legal and long-standing bias against people of color.

Professor Juan Cole’s column, published today (1/21/19), makes a convincing case that had MLK, Jr. not been cut down on April 4, 1968, by a nondescript killer, assigned to the evil task by yet unidentified forces, he would have celebrated his 90th birthday January 15, 1929, by endorsing Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’ fight against racial and economic injustice.  

Cole begins his column:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, at 29, has become a lightning rod. She was recruited to run against a corporate Democrat by activists of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which has become a significant caucus within the Democratic Party.

Her advocacy of a higher marginal tax rate (no, she doesn’t want to raise taxes on you) and of a host of practical measures for addressing the exponentially increasing inequality and injustice in American society, has attracted the attention of the capos of the billionaires– the hatchet men working for the odious Rupert Murdoch and the mindless minions of the mountebank Trumps.

Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the DSA advocate Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions on Israel because of its extensive catalogue of war crimes and crimes against humanity in its treatment of the stateless, Israeli-Occupied Palestinian population. That position is seen by the Israeli government’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, headed by Gilad Erdan, as dangerous to that government’s propaganda effort.

Virulent Jewish-nationalist groups like the Zionist Organization of America and others have also attempted to marginalize especially African-American and minority voices who take up BDS.

Resistance to Ocasio-Cortez runs deep in the American soil and soul. It also runs even deeper in the increasingly malignant Zionist forces now running Israel and among the U.S. media and political  centers where Zionism holds power.

AOC will need the backing of U.S. citizens who must stand up to the vicious attacks aimed at her. In Cole’s column, he points to recent examples of what happens when American and Israeli oligarchs zero in on defenders of the oppressed,.

Their names are in bold face to signal the importance of remembering each one in the struggle ahead:

Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN for a speech upholding Palestinian rights within a one-state framework, and Angela Davis was denied a human rights award in Birmingham for her position on BDS. Other new members of Congress such as Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have also been attacked on these grounds.

Note carefully in Cole’s column, the video of AOC speaking.

Cole’s column deserves to be savored on this day because while King and AOC, spoke and acted in different decades, they sound the same note of righteous indignation.

Cole reminds us, further, of the reluctance of many U.S. leaders to honor King.

The American elite, people like Dick Cheney, had opposed the establishment of Martin Luther King Day, but once it was voted as a Federal holiday, they have attempted to defang it.

These elites watered down King’s image to remake him “as a gentle radical, deploying nonviolent noncooperation to dismantle Jim Crow structures of systematic discrimination on the basis of race. We are permitted to hear the ‘I have a dream’ speech over and over again because its diction does no more than express a mild hope for racial equality, and racial equality is now given at least lip service outside white supremacist circles.”

But we aren’t typically exposed on television to King’s anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism and anti-war message. If he were alive today, he would certainly be a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and would certainly lend his enormous charisma to the promotion of younger activists such as Ocasio-Cortez.

Below, Cole offers segments of King speeches to make this point. Your assignment, should you wish to accept it, is to find time this week to view this video. Then ask yourself what King would say today, about our new political force, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“There is No Crisis at the Border”

January 13, 2019 - 6:48pm

by James M. Wall

On January 11, the Washington Post took readers back to April 8, 1952, the day President Harry Truman (right) declared the nation was in a crisis.

That journey resonates with our present moment as President Trump repeatedly insists the nation in a crisis because it does not have a wall separating the U.S. from Mexico. 

President Trump demands that Congress authorize five billion plus dollars to “complete” the wall he deems essential for the nation’s security.

The weakness of his case rests on the definition of what constitutes a crisis. 

President Truman acted on April 8, 1952. as this nation was winding down its involvement in a real war in Korea. Union workers in the nation’s steel mills were on strike. Owners of those mills refused to yield to the workers demands.

President Truman was a political ally of unions. He was reluctant to force the striking workers to return to work. They were, after all, an important part of his “base”. He was unwilling to offend his “base” by forcing an end to the strike. 

President Trump is not dealing with a strike. But his “base” had been hoodwinked by fear and fantasy. His “base”, those voters who helped put him in the White House after he promised to block immigrants from “pouring across the southern border”, demand their wall.

President Trump, the master hoodwinker, wants the wall because he believes that what he wants, he must have.  Nor does he want to arrive at reelection time in 2020 without winning his battle of the wall.

He threatens to get his five billion plus dollars from other pouches in the federal budget.. legitimate pouches designed for real emergencies. Congress has refused to give him his wall money for what Mark Summer described in the Daily Kos as a “wholly manufactured crisis with just one objective: to give Donald Trump the excuse to seize power with the aid of compliant Republicans”.

Steve Hendrix began his Post analysis of Harry Truman’s 1952 confrontation with Congress:

The president was frustrated. He was at odds with Congress. The regular workings of government didn’t let him do what he desperately wanted to do. So he went on national television to explain why a public policy impasse amounted to a national emergency allowing him to take extraordinary action.

“My fellow Americans, tonight our country faces a grave danger,” President Harry S. Truman said from the White House on the night of April 8, 1952. “These are not normal times. These are times of crisis.”

Truman went on to explain why he had just directed his secretary of commerce to seize control of the country’s steel mills. An ongoing dispute between the companies and their workers threatened to deny U.S. troops the weapons and tanks they needed to fight in the Korean conflict.

“I would not be faithful to my responsibilities as president if I did not use every effort to keep this from happening,” he argued.

Hendrix points to political parallels in the two events 67 years apart. In 1952, Truman’s action led to a Constitutional dispute that found its way to the Supreme Court through Youngstown Steel & Tube Co. v Sawyer, “a great test of presidential power”.

Hendrix continues:

The government argued that even though the Constitution did not explicitly empower the president to seize private property, his role as commander in chief gave him authority to do so in times of national emergency. The steel companies argued that not only did Truman lack the power to take over their mills, but also that Congress had considered granting him such powers while debating the Taft-Hartley Act and deliberately rejected it. Instead, it had approved another mechanism to protect national security by giving the president authority to suspend a strike.

Truman lost.

By a vote of 6 to 3, the justices sided with the steel companies. The “President’s power, if any, to issue the order must stem either from an act of Congress or from the Constitution itself,” Justice Hugo Black wrote in the majority opinion.

In his 2019 speech from the Oval Office, President Trump made his case that “the United States is facing a security crisis at its southern border”. Though he has threatened on several occasions to declare a national emergency, he chose not make that declaration during his short White House address. 

In his analysis of President Trump’s demand for his wall, the Daily Kos‘ Mark Summer exposed the absurd claim of  “crisis” in President Trump’s threats.

Summer writes of documented facts, not made-up fantasy stories: 

There is no crisis on the border. The influx of undocumented immigrants is at its lowest point since 1971. The drugs that Trump points to are entering through legal ports of entry. The State Department has made it clear that no—zero—terrorists have entered the country by illegally crossing the southern border.

Beyond that, the wall isn’t a solution, or even a strategy. It’s a talking point created by Trump’s advisers to keep him on message at rallies. There is no plan. There was never any plan.

So why do those who guide our President these days, continue to bolster his ego and play to his needs rather than to the needs of the country he was elected to lead?

This is a wholly manufactured crisis with just one objective: to give Donald Trump the excuse to seize power with the aid of compliant Republicans. That Trump didn’t try to push this funding for the wall through in the first two years, when he enjoyed a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, isn’t a coincidence. Because it’s not about the wall. 

And don’t expect the slightest push-back from the Republican side. Mitt Romney may have entered the Senate with an op-ed stating his disagreements with Trump. But just days later, when a crisis came, Romney demonstrated his true mettle, refusing to even say that there’s a problem with Trump overriding Congress, and hurrying away to the safety of the Senate GOP lunch.

When the executive asks for something and Congress says no, the answer is no. That’s a little thing called American democracy. A little thing perched very perilously on a knife edge.

The crisis in our nation is the one created by those members of Congress who lack the moral courage to resist the President of the United States, a man so emotionally stunted he does not care what damage he causes by demanding he get his way.

The major crisis at our southern border is not found in the false statistics of President Trump’s message of fear and danger. It resides in the suffering children and families who remain separated by the United States government, perhaps forever. 

“One Bright Shining Moment”

December 26, 2018 - 6:28am

By James M. Wall

Christmas Day comes and goes. You take a walk, or you sit in your easy chair, and think, who could I call to discuss the political miasma of the closing days of 2018?

Has it been this dark and poisonous before? Of course it has; still, the present Trumpian moment is existentially crying out for wisdom from the past.

Searching for a kindred spirit, I turned to a November 22, 2009, Wall Writings posting I wrote, Talking With McGovern in a Time of Palin and Israel’s Settlements.  It began:

I was fed up with the ugliness of American political dialogue. I knew it was time to call George McGovern. I found him on St. Thomas Island, where he was attending the funeral of an old friend, Henry Kimmelman.

I played a state-level role in McGovern’s 1972 campaign, my first entry into presidential politics. I came to know and admire George McGovern, a liberal U.S. Senator from South Dakota, while I served as chair of his Illinois primary campaign and was an Illinois delegate to his nomination convention.

If newspapers and, nowadays blogs, are the “first rough draft of history”, I propose a revisit to my 2009 “rough draft”, as a reminder that history might well consider it was McGovern’s 1972 loss and Nixon’s victory, that shoved this nation into our current 2018 darkness.

I would like to talk to McGovern in this time of Trumpism. I would make the call, but McGovern died, at age 90, October 21, 2012, two weeks before John McCain, and his choice for Vice President, Sarah Palin, were defeated and President Barack Obama was reelected to a second term.

George McGovern knew that the branch of the Republican party from which Sarah Palin had emerged, was still strong. What he did not know was that Donald J. Trump would one day emerge from that branch as our 45th President.

The 2019 posting below includes links to significant events in McGovern’s career. Clicks on those links will offer interaction with McGovern’s wisdom and depth. 

Talking With McGovern in a Time of Palin and Israel’s Settlements 

            November 22, 2009

by James M. Wall

I was fed up with the ugliness of American political dialogue. I knew it was time to call George McGovern.

I found him on St. Thomas Island, where he was attending the funeral of an old friend, Henry Kimmelman, his campaign finance director for McGovern’s 1972 presidential race.

We set aside a longer period to talk the next day when he would be back at his winter home in St. Augustine, Florida. He spends the rest of the year in Mitchell, South Dakota, across from the new George and Eleanor McGovern Library on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan.

McGovern abruptly left elective politics in 1980, shoved aside, with four other liberal Democratic US senators who lost their seats in the political tsunami powered by Ronald Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter: Frank Church (Idaho), Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin), Birch Bayh (Indiana), and John Culver (Iowa).

I first met McGovern when we campaigned together in Illinois for his 1972 Democratic nomination for president. I was running a losing race for Congress, and a successful one as a McGovern delegate.

In the Miami nominating convention prolonged by a needless ABM (Anybody But McGovern) last-minute-effort to nominate Hubert Humphrey, McGovern finally won the nomination. The old guard does not like change, as Barack Obama almost found out in 2008.

McGovern lost the general election to Richard Nixon. Eighteen months later, Nixon, facing impeachment over the Watergate matter, resigned in disgrace.

Two months after the election, I interviewed McGovern at his home in Washington. In its January 31, 1973 issue, the Christian Century magazine published that interview, Politics and Morality: A Postelection Interview with George McGovern.

At the close of the interview, I asked McGovern what he would have done in Vietnam had he won the election. His answer:

I would have ordered an end to all military operations in Indochina within minutes after I was sworn in as President. Then I would have announced that our forces were being withdrawn systematically, on the condition that our prisoners would be released. I would also have terminated any further military aid to General Thieu. . . .

I think it is conceivable that, depending on what my relationship to Nixon would have been, the war might have been terminated even before the inauguration. I would have requested him to join me in an effort to bring the war to an end. It is possible that without an electoral mandate behind him he would have been in the mood to accept that.

With Nixon, and Gerald Ford as presidents, the war lasted three more years. American Republican politics have not been the same since.

Thirty-seven years after McGovern’s defeat, the most passionately supported Republican presidential candidate for 2012, is Sarah Palin.

This month it is impossible not to encounter Palin. She is on a book tour, delighting her right-wing followers. What sort of a president might she be? She gave a hint of her foreign policy credentials in an interview with Barbara Walters.

Palin was asked about Israel’s 900 additional housing units now under construction in Gilo, a sprawling, ugly, massive Israeli settlement that butts up against the “little town of Bethlehem” where the Christ Child was born, in case former Governor Palin and her acolytes, have forgotten.

Her response:

I disagree with the Obama administration on [the settlements]. I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is, is going to grow.

More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I don’t think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand.

I did not want to ask McGovern about Palin. I knew it was no point in asking him that question. George McGovern does not speak harshly of anyone. Case in point: He says about Richard Nixon:

I bear no malice toward Richard Nixon. Indeed, he governed as a moderate liberal. His administration launched the Environmental Protection Agency, he supported civil rights, he established detente with the Soviet Union and opened the door to China, he invoked wage and price controls to stabilize the economy–just to name a few of his moderate liberal steps.

What we lost when George McGovern did not make it to the White House might best be understood when we realize that McGovern not only reads and respects the work of Israeli peace activist Avraham Burg, he agrees with Burg’s statement on the conditions for a just peace, which Burg wrote in the Israeli journal, Yediot Aharonot in 2004:

We cannot keep a Palestinian majority under an Israeli boot and at the same time think ourselves the only democracy in the Middle East. . . We must remove all the settlements and draw an internationally recognized border between the Israeli national home and the Palestinian national home.

The man who should have been elected president in 1972, offers a stark contrast to the former governor of Alaska, who would like to be the Republican nominee in 2012.

When George McGovern accepted his party’s nomination in 1972, he presented the nation with a vision that says, regardless of its ambiguity, politics is the arena where we must shape hope into organized, positive, action..

I wanted to be reminded of that vision, because in Ramallah, President Abbas plans to resign, while in Tel Aviv, Bibi Netanyahu continues to insult and defy the president of the United States, (Barack Obama), the only world leader who supports him.

McGovern’s vision echoes the wisdom and eloquence of Reinhold Niebuhr, who once wrote, “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

McGovern frequently quotes Niebuhr; he did, after all, spend a year in seminary before he shifted to Northwestern University’s graduate school, where he earned a Master’s degree in history.

Our current political dialogue, which McGovern is well prepared to critique, is conducted in such an environment of ignorance and anger, that it is hard not to sink into a dark funk over what comes next.

Of course, periods of darkness are not uncommon in the Middle East.

When Yasir Arafat was presiding over a newly formed Palestinian Authority initially created in Oslo, I traveled to Gaza in November, 1994, with an American church delegation.

We went first to meet with Arafat’s wife, the former Suha Tawil, a member of a politically active Palestinian family.

In the delegation was a United Methodist bishop from Ohio. Before we left, she offered a prayer in the Arafat home. After the prayer, Suha said to the bishop, “Please give that same prayer when you visit my husband in his office. Something needs to be done to lift the darkness over there.”

Which is why I wanted to talk with George McGovern.

I told him I had been watching the documentary film on his life, One Bright Shining Moment. I found it inspiring. McGovern thought it was a good film, but he felt it makes him look “too radical”.

Perhaps it does, but it also reminded me of the summer of 1972, when, in spite of all, the future looked both bright and shining.

I told McGovern I have been reading his latest book, Abraham Lincoln, which reveals that the initial campaign speech Lincoln gives from the front porch of his store in Salem, Illinois, was the same speech he used throughout a losing campaign for the legislature.

The speech is included, word for word, in John Ford’s film, Young Mr. Lincoln. I had always assumed it was the work of a script writer. McGovern’s research discovered the speech belongs to Lincoln.

I have also been reading McGovern’s superb defense of American liberalism, The Essential America, in which he describes his lifelong focus on bringing America’s policies closer to those of our founding ideals; ending the hunger of our world’s poor; and bringing peace to the troubled Middle Eastern region.

We talked on the phone about these three areas. McGovern is not slowing down. He still writes books and newspaper columns, and he still travels the country to give speeches, primarily on world hunger. He is also in demand on these trips for his political opinions.

After we concluded our telephone conversation, I went back to view the video of McGovern’s 1972 convention acceptance speech, which ends with a ringing three-minute challenge for the convention delegates, and the nation, to “come home America.

I stood on the crowded convention floor with the Illinois delegation, when I heard him give that speech on an early July, 1972 morning in Miami.

Read these closing lines from that speech, and let them break you out of darkness. We need to be alert and ready. There is work to be done.

Together we will call America home to the ideals that nourished us from the beginning.

From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America.

From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America.

From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick — come home, America.

Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream.

Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.

Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in that homecoming, for this “is your land, this land is my land — from California to New York island, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters — this land was made for you and me.”

May God grant each one of us the wisdom to cherish this good land and to meet the great challenge that beckons us home.

Do words like these matter in a time of Palin and Israel’s settlements? Yes they do, as the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, once wrote:

I want to sing. I want a language that I can lean on and that can lean on me, that asks me to bear witness and that I can ask to bear witness, to what power there is in us to overcome this cosmic isolation…I’m screaming at a moment when screams can go nowhere. And it strikes me that language must force itself into a battle in which the voices are not equal.

End of the Wall Writings post from November 22, 2009. 

I share the above at the close of the dark year of 2018 to revisit “one bright shining moment” in the history of our nation.

Somewhere in this land of ours, there are leaders like George McGovern. They may not be United Methodists, as he was. They might not come from a less-populated western state, as he did. They may not have spent a year in a seminary, as he did. But they are out there, men and women with a strong moral compass who envision politics as a calling.  Watch for, and work for such leaders. This is no time to despair. The miasma can be lifted. 

The picture of George McGovern from the 2009 posting was taken by Keith Robert Wessel at the 2005 dedication of the George and Eleanor McGovern Library in Mitchell, South Dakota. The picture of  McGovern at top was a widely-used 1972 campaign photo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sequel: The Best Film Ever Made About Politics

December 3, 2018 - 4:16pm

By James M. Wall

The 2020 presidential election is rapidly approaching. With the national day of mourning for George Herbert Walker Bush on Wednesday, closure arrives for our 41st President.

At the same time, candidates are lining up for the presidential election of 2020.

Ten years ago, as the 2008 party conventions loomed, I wrote a Wall Writings posting that identified outstanding political films, ending with my choice as to the best film ever made about politics.

This feels like the right time to revisit the Wall Writings archives to see if my 2008 analysis still stands. After a close look, I find that the films have not changed, but what has changed is the national culture within which the films are evaluated.

What follows is a revised version of that 2008 posting, a sequel written ten years later. Of course, “best” is a personal choice. Readers will have their own list, and will conclude for themselves what is “best”. What follows is one critic’s opinions.

Looking at the options for the best film about politics, Citizen Kane is often viewed as the best film of any genre, a legitimate claim. It is, indeed, about the political rise and fall of an ambitious man who moves from journalism to politics, assumed to be based on William Randolph Hearst.  

Orson Welles directed, wrote and starred in a story about lust for power.  I don’t view it as a political film because politics is the stage on which Charles Foster Kane’s career rises and falls. The dynamics of politics itself, is not the film’s focus.

The best ever political film list has to include the 1949 film, All the King’s Men, a fictionalized version of Louisiana’s Governor Huey Long. In the original novel by Robert Penn Warren and in the film, Long is Willy Stark. He is played by Broderick Crawford in Crawford’s finest performance over a long film and television career.  

Crawford serves as a (uncredited) narrator in another good, though not great, 1972 political satire, The Candidate, which starred a boyish-looking Senate candidate, Robert Redford.

Closer to the top of my list is John Ford’s 1958 film, The Last Hurrah, the story of big city Irish American mayor Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) who seems to float above the ugliness of his final campaign for his reelection. It is clear that Ford sees him as the quintessential political boss, part rogue, part tough guy, and always pragmatically oriented to every important wake in the city.

The film is based on Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 novel “The Last Hurrah”, a fictionalized version of former Boston Mayor M. Curley.

Tracy invites a nephew who is also a journalist, to travel with him through the campaign, and we are meant to see the campaign through the nephew’s eyes.

The close runner up as the best film ever made on politics is The Best Man (1964), written by Gore Vidal from his own original stage play. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, the film centers on backstage dramas that unfold during one party’s nominating convention. 

The leading candidates hold smear cards against the other, ready to be played. The cards are familiar to us today: homosexuality (rarely mentioned this overtly in films in the early 60s), a pending divorce, and mental episodes from the past.  Will they be used and who will use them?

Vidal’s writing is sharp and perceptive. In a key scene, Henry Fonda, as William Russell, a former Secretary of State, confronts Cliff Robertson as Joe Cantwell, a sitting U.S. senator. Both want to be their party’s nominee for president.

Cliff Robertson: “I don’t understand you”. 

Henry Fonda: “I know you don’t. Because you have no sense of responsibility toward anybody or anything. And that is a tragedy in a man, and it is a disaster in a president.”

This exchange captures a division in American political dynamics which has become greatly solidified in the decade from 2008 and 2018.

The New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, offers his analysis as to what has helped lead this nation to its current solidification of right versus left, a division far more severe than it was when the film appeared in 1964.

Comparing the Nixon and Trump eras as evidence mounted against each, in his Monday column, Charles M. Blow writes:

When the evidence of wrongdoing was clear and incontrovertible [against Nixon], people began to peel away, tails tucked and full of shame.

But that was a different time, one in which media wasn’t so fractured and partisan, before the advent of social media and our current dissociable mentalities.

Nixon had no propaganda arm. Trump has one. It’s called Fox News. There is little daylight between the network’s programming and the White House’s priorities. If Trump goes down, so too does Fox, in some measure.

So the network has a vested interest in defending Trump until the bitter end, and that narrative-crafting could impede an otherwise natural and normal disaffection with Trump.

Movies are created to relate to viewers. Film-makers reflect the culture they wish to reach. Audiences are shaped by their culture. Currently, our culture is divided between right and left to such a degree that each side protects its turf to a degree rarely seen in our history.

Major news outlets and social media have divided us and enhanced that turf loyalty.

This current harsh reality only enhances my 2008 choice for what is for me the best film about American politics ever made, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

A word about the plot and the film’s setting, told briefly:

The two stars of that 1962 release are John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. At the center of the film is the conflict between the traditional story of the early American west, where the white invaders often confronted one another in gun fights in places like the OK Corral.

 Liberty Valance (in an over-the-top performance by Lee Marvin) is the embodiment of absolute evil, a killer who uses fear as an instrument of control.  

The film is told in a flashback: A US senator named Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) returns to the town of Shinbone to attend a funeral of an old friend, Tom Doniphon (Wayne). The local newspaper reporter and his editor insist that the senator explain why this funeral is so important to him.

He does so frankly, which goes so much against the prevailing cultural narrative that the journalists refuse to report Stoddard’s version, giving rise to the famous quote from the film: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

This is a rich film, an old fashioned western, a love story and a story of a lost love, a favorite Ford theme. But it is also a story of politics and how sometimes goodness finds its ambiguous way into the future, there to find creative ways to address the truth.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance demands that viewers remember it as a work of political art.  

It remains for me the best film ever made about the realities this democracy has to confront, especially in a culture locked in conflicting realities. 

The Shinbone editor was wrong in Ford’s 1964 film, and he would be wrong today when he asserts, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”.

 

Thanksgiving Good News from Palestine

November 20, 2018 - 1:18pm

by James M. Wall

I have it on good authority that almost the only Thanksgiving celebrations in Palestine this week are those enjoyed by U.S. expats, that is, those who “leave one’s native country to live elsewhere”.

That does not deter this American blogger from sharing one good news story at Thanksgiving which involves the Palestinian people.

Yes, in spite of having to live under an Israeli military occupation run by an authoritarian politician named Netanyahu, there is positive news for the civilized world to include when joining our American rite of giving thanks this season.

Those who do not gather about an American-style Thanksgiving table may still utter words of gratitude for the results emanating from the sumud practiced by the Palestinian people.

And since I have already seen fit to define “expats” above, pause with me for a moment to define the Arabic word, sumud, as it appears in the very-American Wikipedia.:

Sumud (Arabic: صمود‎) meaning “steadfastness” or “steadfast perseverance” is an ideological theme and political strategy that first emerged among the Palestinian people through the experience of the dialectic of oppression and resistance in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War.

For the good news about which we should be thankful, journey with me to a Gaza news report about “coding” from Al Jazeera’s Fedaa al-Qedra, which explains the good news found in the life experience of one young Palestinian woman’s summd when she discovered coding.

Fedaa al-Qedra’s Aj Jazeera report begins:

When Yasmin Helles (picture above) was an English literature student at a Gaza college, she would spend most of her time online looking for information that could help her in academic life.

She always wondered who designed these websites, making all this information available.

She wanted to become that person.

Six months ago, the 24-year-old saw an advertisement by Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG), a rapidly growing business and tech incubator, calling for young graduates to enrol in the first coding school in the beleaguered Palestinian territory, which only recently saw yet another round of deadly Israeli air raids.

Helles took the unexpected step of quitting her job as an English teacher to spend more time pursuing her dream.  Now, she has joined the coding academy.

“I said to myself ‘Yes, that was what I wanted,'” Helles told Al Jazeera in GSG’s main room, a computer lab, taking a respite from typing lines of code.

“I’m proud that I can now build a mobile app to serve a large slice of people who need it”. 

Gaza is home to roughly 2 million people and experiences one of the highest unemployment rates in the world – more than 50 percent are without work.

The unemployment is a product of its isolation. Gaza has been under an Israeli blockade, assisted by Egypt under the governments of former President Hosni Mubarak and current leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, since 2007.

But Gazans are finding opportunities beyond the besieged strip. There is a rise in entrepreneurial start-ups and tech accelerators, providing residents of the strip with outside opportunities previously unavailable.

GSG’s coding school was established in 2017 with funding from Google and London-based coding boot camp Founders & Coders [and others]. It aims to empower students to be full-stack developers, which means they will be able to handle software building for mobile, computer and web.

Graduates learn to deploy production-grade software online and secure high-quality jobs with companies or work as freelance developers.

During this Thanksgiving week, no matter where you are, when you turn on your computer, give thanks to young Palestinians like Yasmin Helles, who has risen above an oppressive military occupation to find her future serving others through work she enjoys.

And, don’t forget to be thankful for Fedaa al-Qedra, who told us this good news story.

The picture above of Yasmin Helles is by Fedaa al-Qedra in Al Jazeera.

“Hate Is on the Ballot Next Week”

October 31, 2018 - 1:37pm

By James M. Wall

If you are an American voter and your ballot is not cast by closing time on Tuesday, November 6, you will have missed participating in the most momentous political event of modern times.

Don’t just take my word for it. Take the word of President Donald Trump, who has campaigned in rallies across the nation—to highly partisan crowds—with the cry that a vote for Republican candidates is a vote for Donald Trump.

It is also a vote for hatred, which Trump has promoted in a steady venomous stream of lies that demonize those in the world who are not White and Christian.

He says of himself, “I am a Nationalist”. His devoted followers insert the White because they know how to read and hear, “dog whistles”.

This is a man who lies about marchers still a thousand miles away, who seek asylum within the United States. He tells his rallies these marchers are an invading army seeking to destroy us.

His personal house organ, also known as Fox News, joins him by reporting the marchers will bring diseases, some of which have long been eradicated. That was such a provable lie, that even Fox had to quietly acknowledge that leprosy and smallpox no longer exist.

Those who largely ignore politics, do not hear the denials. They hear and feel the fear and hatred their leader wants them to fear.

The mid-term election November 6, is momentous  because if both the House of Representatives and the Senate, remain in Republican control, this nation will be led by Trump and a distressingly compliant Republican Congress for two more years.

And if you are still not convinced of the momentousness of this election, turn your attention to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman whose warning reached us through his Sunday column with the headline,

“Hate Is on the Ballot Next Week: Don’t let the whataboutists and bothsiders tell you it isn’t.”

Who? You read that right, “the whataboutists and bothsiders”, two words we must examine and think about in this momentous election.

 Krugman gets right to it:

In America 2018, whataboutism is the last refuge of scoundrels, and bothsidesism is the last refuge of cowards.

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the midst of a wave of hate crimes. Just in the past few days, bombs were mailed to a number of prominent Democrats, plus CNN. Then, a gunman massacred 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Meanwhile, another gunman killed two African-Americans at a Louisville supermarket, after first trying unsuccessfully to break into a black church — if he had gotten there an hour earlier, we would probably have had another mass murder.

All of these hate crimes seem clearly linked to the climate of paranoia and racism deliberately fostered by Donald Trump and his allies in Congress and the media.

It cannot be put more directly. This is not a partisan statement. It is a connecting of hate crimes to their immediate source, killers already sick and warped enough to hate and kill others, currently stimulated by the hateful lies espoused daily by President Trump.

The alleged killer of 11 Pittsburg Jewish worshippers believed he was attacking those who belonged to the religious and ethnic community who organized the marchers  headed for our southern border.

That is a lie put forth by Trump and his allies. The man who lied about the size of his inauguration audience, now tells dangerous lies for votes and cares not for the evil those lies evoke.

Krugman expands:

The man arrested at the Tree of Life synagogue has been critical of Trump, who he apparently believes isn’t anti-Semitic enough. But his rage seems to have been fueled by a conspiracy theory being systematically spread by Trump supporters — the claim that Jewish financiers are bringing brown people into America to displace whites.

This conspiracy theory is, it turns out, a staple of neo-Nazis in Europe. It’s what our own neo-Nazis — whom Trump calls “very fine people” — were talking about in Charlottesville last year, when they chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”…

False equivalence, portraying the parties as symmetric even when they clearly aren’t, has long been the norm among self-proclaimed centrists and some influential media figures. It’s a stance that has hugely benefited the GOP, as it has increasingly become the party of right-wing extremists.

You might have thought that the horrifying events of recent days would finally break through that norm. But you would have been wrong. Bothsidesism is, it turns out, a fanatical cult impervious to evidence. . . .

This needs to stop, and those who keep practicing bothsidesism need to be shamed. At this point, pretending that both sides are equally to blame, or attributing political violence to spreading hatred without identifying who’s responsible for that spread, is a form of deep cowardice.

This is no time to waste on whataboutists and bothsiders.

The evil of this moment, before the November 6 election, and the compounded evil that awaits if President Trump and his Congressional allies remain in power, demands a change in national leadership.

There is evil rampart in the world, which is what the “whataboutists” say to deflect your disagreement with our homeland evil. And those “fair-minded” among us will whine “there are two sides to every issue”.

Not this time, is the right answer to the “bothsiders”. The man we elected President in 2016, is unfit for the office,

If you were born and bred to be a Republican, and you know your grandfather expects you to remember your promise to never leave the party, tell him, “this Trump-compliant party, is not your Republican party, Grampop”.

Paul Krugman ends his column:

The fact is that one side of the political spectrum is peddling hatred, while the other isn’t. And refusing to point that out for fear of sounding partisan is, in effect, lending aid and comfort to the people poisoning our politics. Yes, hate is on the ballot next week.

 And never fail to vote and get others to vote. A n0n-vote in this election is a vote for hate,

The picture of President Trump at a rally is by Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty