Thursday, October 30, 2008

Curb enthusiasm

This Sunday afternoon, from 2 to 5, Hampshire County supporters of Barack Obama will be standing on the curb in front of the county courthouse in Romney to wave Obama signs and pass out bumper stickers and literature to passing motorists.

I’ll be out there with the rest of the gang, waving a sign. This will be my first partisan event at what locals call “the stoplight” (there are actually two traffic lights in town, but the other one is for pedestrians from the West Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind to cross the street over to McDonald’s, so it generally stays green). We’ve had a number of demonstrations against the Iraq war there, where we usually get far more positive reactions than negative. It will be interesting to see what kind of reaction Obama gets.

There seem to be a lot more political signs around the county than usual this year, but I’ve only seen one Obama sign, and it was gone the next time I passed. Hampshire was the most Confederate county in the state during the Civil War, and the first county in the country to erect a memorial to Confederate soldiers afterwards, and the attitudes about race from that era still prevail pretty strongly.

When we moved out here from DC fourteen years ago, I hadn’t heard a white person use the “n-word” in years, so it came as a shock the first time. Since then, I’ve heard it a number of times, usually from older people who say it so naturally that it still makes me feel uncomfortable, but it seems as much as an anachronism as the dying small farm culture that they grew up with, an anachronism that I can no more affect than I can change their way of life. So it just makes me sad.

I wish I could say that the use of the “n-word” will die off in a generation, but I think hate will always be with us. And we do have a small hate group in the county, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a chapter of the American Nazi Party, to encourage the word’s use into the future. But I’m not sure the “n-word” has the same resonance it used to.

For example, I was talking with this old guy recently, and he was going on about how “that n…” seemed to make so much more sense than McCain. And then he ended up saying, “I’m probably going to vote for “that n…” This prompted a little cognitive dissonance on my part, but I was thinking that I didn’t want to mess up his vote by trying to correct his language, so I just told him I thought that was a good idea. I thought that he represented an unusual “post-racial” anomaly until a few days ago, when the Charleston Gazette quoted a voter in the southern part of the state saying, “I’m voting for that n…” Maybe it’s a trend.

The Obama campaign seems to think so. I remain skeptical. But if you happen to be in Romney WV on Sunday afternoon, you’re welcome to join us. We’ll have signs.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Palin: 9/11 truther?

One of the websites I try to check on a regular basis is, which keeps current with developments in the 9/11 truth movement.

Many of the posts at 911blogger are videos put up to illustrate various activities of the movement, including conferences, films, and confrontations with political and media figures who are asked sometimes uncomfortable questions about the events of September 11th, 2001.

Today there’s a video posted by WeAreChange Ohio (there are WeAreChange groups all over the country, trying to raise public awareness of the questions surrounding 9/11). One of their members attended a Sarah Palin rally in Ohio, and had a chance to ask her a question as she walked along a rope line after her speech. Since most of the video was filmed at waist level (probably by a cell phone), it’s unlikely she knew she was being recorded. But here’s how the exchange went (exact quotes):

WeAreChange: Will you support the victims’ family members and first responders of 9/11 that are calling for a new investigation?

Palin: I do. I do, ‘cause I think that helps us get to the point of never again, and if anything that we can do could still complete that reminder out there. Were you affected?

WeAreChange: Yeah, I have friends that were affected. I know people and a lot of them are still sick and dying from the EPA because they lied about the air quality like that.

Palin: Thank you for your concern.

Obviously, setting aside the grammatical confusion, Palin is not a 9/11 truther. And you can sense her discomfort when the interviewer mentions the “lies” of the Bush administration Environmental Protection Agency, who falsely assured New Yorkers a few days after the attacks that the air around Ground Zero was safe to breathe—contrary to their own reports.

But with this surreptitious interview, Palin becomes the only major party candidate to join Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney and independent candidate Ralph Nader to call for a new investigation of 9/11. I don’t, however, expect this to make news in the corporate media (see my post, “Coordinated media,” for why I’m skeptical).

* * * *

While we’re on campaign news…

Republicans have been howling for years about comparisons being made between George W. Bush and Adolph Hitler (guilty as charged). Of course, it was their regular stock-in-trade during the Clinton years to compare Clinton to Hitler (we all remember the black helicopters, don’t we?), but “hypocrisy” is not a word found in the GOP dictionary.

Predictably enough, we’re already seeing the inevitable Obama/Hitler comparisons, but they’re not just coming from the radical fascist wing. They’re coming from the GOP itself.

Jake Tapper of ABC News reports that the Republican Committee of Pennsylvania is sending out emails to Jewish voters reading, “Jewish Americans cannot afford to make the wrong decision…many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake. Let’s not make a similar one this year!”

McCain campaign officials are trying to deny responsibility for the mailing, but Bryan Rudnick, a political consultant hired by the GOP for outreach to Jewish voters, told the AP that “I had authorization from party officials” to send the email.

* * * *

Finally, for your amusement, a youtube video from Jumpin’ Joe Sixpack, “McCocain on the Membrane” (someday I’ll learn how to embed these things):


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Woe, scribes and Pharisees!

Today’s sermon is taken from the 23rd chapter of the book of Matthew, which begins, “Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.”

The book of Matthew was known in early Christianity as the favorite gospel of the “Ebionites.” The Ebionites (from the Hebrew word for “poor men”), according to some scholars, were the faction of 1st-century Christianity made up of the family and early disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, who were led after his crucifixion by his brother, James, the bishop of Jerusalem and leader of the Jerusalem Christian sect in the Acts of the Apostles. The Jewish/Roman historian Josephus documents their struggle against the Temple hierarchy, which culminated with James’ assassination in 66 CE.

The 23rd chapter states their case, from the mouth of Jesus himself.

After his initial accusation of hypocrisy against the Temple establishment, who essentially served as Rome’s provincial bureaucracy, Jesus continues, “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”

Hmmm…sounds like Jesus is preaching class warfare. How unRepublican.

“But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries [little prayer boxes with scripture inside], and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.”

More class warfare, and a direct challenge to the chief priests. But who would he be talking about today? Televangelists, for sure, who hardly do their praying in the privacy of their rooms, as Jesus recommended. But given that we’re a culture ruled by Mammon, you have to go to Mammon’s temples to get a precise corollary: luxury boxes at sports stadiums, or skyscraper penthouse conference rooms. CEOs, the high-level managers of our global empire, live a life different from ours, as the Temple poobahs did then.

But here’s where Jesus gets really subversive, and essentially guarantees his removal by the authorities:

“But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.”

This was the central principle of Jesus’ ministry, revolutionary in its rejection of imperial social structure, and responsible for Christianity’s viral spread among the imperial lower classes. It is also the same egalitarian principle central to the Enlightenment of the West, rediscovered (after Gutenberg printed his Bible for the masses) in the Judeo-Christian social gospel of “the poor,” those Jesus called “blessed,” and turned into concepts of democracy and freedom by philosophers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill. It was the basis for the abolitionist movement, and for the civil rights movement, and continues to inspire peace and social justice activists today. We are all created equal—what a concept.

I have to note an important point in these last verses, related to that. When Jesus talks about one “Master, even Christ,” he’s only talking about himself in the most general terms. Jesus was raised in a clan related to both the king “messiah” (a Hebrew word translated into the Greek “Christ”), David, and to the priest “messiah,” Aaron, through the tribe of Levi. “Messiah” is the essential noble spirit of humanity, as expressed through heroes and other “messiahs” like Moses and Joshua, or virtually anyone at a given moment in time. Heath Ledger is a modern “messiah,” having sacrificed himself to his art. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were “messiahs.” It’s an archetype of human hope.

The “Ebionite heresy,” declared as such by the imperial church after the pagans Paul converted became a majority of Christians, is explained by the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions: “The sect emphasized the ordinary humanity of Jesus as the human son of Mary and Joseph, who was then given the Holy Spirit at his baptism; it also adhered to the Jewish Torah.” But who knew Jesus better than his family? On the other hand, how could such a modest character keep an empire under control?

Jesus spends the next twenty verses, the bulk of the 23rd chapter, laying out a bill of particulars against the scribes and Pharisees, famous for its repeating opening line, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” It’s an indictment of the Sadducees who ran the Temple, and shut off the central sanctuary from the masses, and cheated the people and polluted the Temple with their own inner filth. It’s also an amazingly accurate portrait of today’s “Christian” right: their sanctimonious worship of “prosperity,” caring nothing for the victims of a massively unjust social structure; the demographic most loyal to corporate profit, shiny and clean in their persona, but “within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”

Iraq, anyone?

After his tirade at the scribes and Pharisees—concluding with, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”—Jesus then explains very clearly how the concept of “messiah” works: to redeem the nation from the corruption of the scribes and Pharisees, “Behold,” he says, “I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, all these things shall come upon this generation.”

(The last sentence can only be true if he’s talking about every generation--or if an early editor knew about the destruction of Jerusalem shortly after James' death--but it was to the early apostles’ advantage for prospective converts to believe, as they themselves did, that Jesus was talking about the generation he was directly speaking to—which he was. They were an apocalyptic sect; and the Kingdom of God was already within, even (or especially) after Jesus’ own crucifixion. Adjustments in interpretation only had to be made when the first generation of Christians finally died off. And the gospel writers knew it was good propaganda.)

More important than the possible inaccuracy of Jesus' prediction is the apocalyptic message that he is conveying here: you may kill me, and others, but justice will ultimately be done.

This is exactly the nonviolence philosophy taught by Gandhi and King, that "the arc of the universe bends toward justice," and is the essential messianic message: it is the nature of humanity that people will always stand up for the truth, and for each other, just as they are doing today. And in the end, the truth will finally set us free to live in the Kingdom of God, where we are all “brethren” and have no masters.

Jesus’ jeremiad against the scribes and Pharisees concludes on a tenderly sad note, and with an apocalyptic riddle:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.

“For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”

Saturday, October 25, 2008

"Coordinated media"

The primary goal of Joseph Goebbels in his Nazi propaganda management was to create what he called “coordinated media”—a diversity of viewpoints, but all expressed within the narrow parameters of party ideology. Adolph Hitler himself would complain if he thought news coverage was too monochromatic; he didn’t want to be bored by his own press operation. He considered himself a news consumer, along with the rest of the German population. With his precise sense of what people wanted to hear, Hitler knew that propaganda couldn’t be too blatant.

21st-century Americans can certainly relate to the concept of “coordinated media.” Often observed is the phenomenon of every major television network’s evening news shows featuring exactly the same stories in exactly the same order, the stories’ importance allocated in exactly the same proportions. How does this happen? How is it that every network editor exercises the same judgments about what is “news?”

Part of the answer is the growing concentration of media power in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. Six corporations now control ninety percent of American media output. Naturally, the ideological range of this output extends only as far as what will benefit the corporate agenda.

But another explanation for “coordinated” media messaging is what is known as “the mighty Wurlitzer”—an expression that originated with the late Frank Wisner, a legendary CIA propaganda specialist, in reference to the international media. He was comparing his ability to manipulate public consciousness through the media, to playing a giant pipe organ. Wisner ended his life mentally disturbed, shooting himself in the head. Too much power can twist the mind, and there are few institutions in this culture more powerful than the corporate media.

The role the Central Intelligence Agency plays in American media is rarely discussed (even by progressive media watchdogs), considering the long history of the agency’s relationship with Wall Street and media titans, and this relationship’s importance in molding the public consensus.

In his 2007 history of the dark side of the CIA, “Legacy of Ashes,” Tim Weiner writes, “From his first days in power, Allen Dulles [CIA Director, 195???-61]… kept in close touch with the men who ran the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the nation’s leading weekly magazines. He could pick up the phone and edit a breaking story, make sure an irritating foreign correspondent was yanked from the field, or hire the services of men such as Time’s Berlin bureau chief and Newsweek’s man in Tokyo. It was second nature for Dulles to plant stories in the press. American newsrooms were dominated by veterans of the government’s wartime propaganda branch, the Office of War Information, once part of Wild Bill Donovan’s domain.

“The men who responded to the CIA’s call included Henry Luce and his editors at Time, Life and Fortune; popular magazines such as Parade, the Saturday Review, and Reader’s Digest; and the most powerful executives at CBS News. Dulles built a public relations and propaganda machine that came to include more than fifty news organizations, a dozen publishing houses, and personal pledges of support from men such as Axel Springer, West Germany’s most powerful press baron.”

It is naïve to think that the close and informal relations with the media that Dulles cultivated to further CIA objectives have not been continued by his successors.

The Church Committee hearings into abuses by the CIA, conducted while George H.W. Bush was director of the agency in the mid-‘70s, revealed that hundreds of journalists and their bosses were either paid or volunteer CIA “assets.” I’ve often suspected that the primary reason the Bush family has received such a relatively free ride in the media over the years is that Bush refused to give the Senate committee the names of these assets. The committee accepted his counter-offer of vague descriptions of the agency/journalist relationship, instead of names (the power elite is a cozy little club).

What has changed over the decades (especially in the Bush Jr. administration) is that the intelligence community has been privatized, and many of the more questionable propaganda efforts have been shifted to private sector “consultants” who don’t have to answer to Congress. Another trend has been the growth of Pentagon influence in the media. When the New York Times reported last year that the Pentagon was coordinating its public “message” with the stable of retired military officers that all the major television networks depend on for “independent expert” analysis of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (virtually all of whom are also profiting from these wars as defense industry consultants), the story was quickly buried.

Where the evidence of a “coordinated” American media operation is most profound today is in the area of 9/11 truth. When “Jersey Girl” Patty Cassazza, who, along with her fellow New Jersey 9/11 widows, became a media darling when they were trying to get an independent 9/11 commission started, told a conference last year that she had been told by FBI insiders that the government knew the exact date, targets and plan of the 9/11 attacks beforehand, the revelation was universally ignored by corporate media.

Stephen Jones, the former BYU physicist who possesses physical evidence of controlled demolition of the World Trade Center towers, has not been welcome back at cable TV talk shows since he first appeared on the scene, with a persona too normal to be dismissed as a conspiracy nutcase. Jones’ revelation at that same conference that he’d been offered a bribe by a Homeland Security consultant not to publish his paper raising serious questions about the official conclusion of why the towers collapsed, also received zero corporate news coverage (the consultant offered an either/or deal, and indeed, one month later, the directors of Brigham Young were pressured by the government to force Jones’ resignation).

The importance of the internet and alternative media is that, like the samizdat in the old Soviet Union, they offer the opportunity to get out a message that would never pass through the official corporate media/CIA filter—the Matrix.

The challenge is to construct a message that can both penetrate the Matrix (whose agents pay close attention to potential threats in the information “battlefield,” and respond accordingly), and simultaneously be heard over the white noise of an oversaturated global media environment.

It will probably require a little “coordinating” of its own.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

While we were out...

Back in my early post-psychedelic period, when I became a spiritual seeker, I discovered the work of Edgar Cayce, known as “the sleeping prophet.” Cayce, who died in 1945, had a gift, while in a trance state, for what he called “readings” of people’s souls and bodies. So many of the naturopathic cures he recommended for people who came to him with ailments turned out to have real healing ability that the American Medical Association once called him “the father of alternative medicine.”

In the course of these readings, Cayce also talked about spiritual forces at work, both in his clients and in the world at large. Many of the “predictions” for the future he made—for example, the rediscovery of Atlantis—have not come to pass. Given his record of accuracy on the physical readings, I’m not particularly troubled by these seeming failures, for two reasons. One, he qualified these predictions by saying that humanity always possesses the power to alter its own future. And two, I think he always spoke on purely spiritual issues in symbolic language, like the language of the Bible around which his own spiritual life revolved (he analyzed the Book of Revelation, for example, as a map of an internal spiritual journey, rather than a prediction of apocalypse).

Because, over the course of decades, my personal spiritual “language” has moved beyond the Christianity that Cayce centered his beliefs on, his teachings no longer have the importance for me that they once did (though I still practice meditation, which was at the core of his practical spiritual recommendations). But, even though it may not be unfolding in the exact way he predicted, I think he was right about the enormous changes the world and humanity would experience at the turn of the millennium.

What brings this up for me today is one of the characteristics Cayce gave to the period in which we’re now living. He called it “the quickening.” It’s a phrase that I’m reminded of practically every day. This is a momentous, unprecedented era in which we live. Now we know firsthand why the ancient Chinese wish, “May you live in interesting times,” was considered a curse.

There is, of course, unprecedented and understandable interest in the American presidential election worldwide. I think that even most Americans, who have pretty much let their democracy operate on cruise control since World War II, are aware of the historic nature of the shift in global power that is occurring now, thanks to George W. Bush’s wholesale destruction of the American (and perhaps global) economy, as well as its military and government.

But there any number of issues that have been put on the back burner during this campaign, the discussion of which has been reduced to sloganeering, at best, by both campaigns (see Reid b’s comment at my post, “Hope and the left” for a good observation about this). And these issues will inevitably face whichever candidate “wins” the election. (With the recent spate of articles in the Charleston Gazette about touch screen voting machines already switching votes from Democrat to Republican, I think we can safely say an Obama victory is not a sure thing, no matter how many points he’s ahead in the polls, or even, more importantly, how many votes he gets.)

It was telling, for example, that at the last debate, when moderator Bob Schieffer asked a question about climate change, the answers from both candidates immediately veered into national energy policy, and the very real effects of climate change—agricultural destruction, water shortages, disease, rising oceans, and mass extinctions of plant and animal life, among them—went completely unremarked upon. Schieffer, corporate propagandist that he is, let it slide and did not, as he had promised before the debate, follow up.

Similarly, there’s no real discussion in the campaign about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither candidate wants to address the conclusions of a National Intelligence Estimate that was leaked a few weeks ago, that essentially says that the present “truce” between Sunni and Shia factions in Iraq is tenuous at best, and full civil war can break out at any time. This renders both McCain’s promise of “victory” and Obama’s promise to remove combat troops as too simplistic to address the real-world situation there. Nor will either candidate address the fact that the American military is facing the same ignominious defeat in Afghanistan that every would-be conqueror from Alexander to Andropov has been forced to swallow.

To Obama’s credit, he does address, with his tax policy, the inequality between the rich and everyone else that has grown so noticeable in the last eight years—but only to a degree. But it’s only to be expected that neither establishment candidate, supported as they are by a corporate-dominant political system, will discuss the fundamental question of whether the consumer culture on which the entire global economy is built has itself reached its natural endpoint, and is in collapse. Is Gaia, the Earth-spirit, in the process of self-correction?

Once the election is over, these questions will remain. Meanwhile, keep your seatbelts strapped tight. “The quickening” is a wild ride, and no matter what happens, it’s guaranteed that the world will change dramatically.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Recently, a computer-savvy friend of mine suggested that I might get more comments if I changed the blogspot default setting to allow people to comment anonymously. This seemed like a good idea until I gave it some more thought.

It had been my original intention (one month ago today!) to leave the comments section to the readers, and reply to interesting ideas in the posts, and that policy will continue. But I had worried, since I knew I’d be introducing some controversial ideas, that these comment debates had the potential to get ugly, as they do at so many websites. I didn’t realize that readers couldn’t make anonymous comments, under the blogspot settings.

Based on the comments that have come in so far, I think it’s wise to leave the settings where they are. Aside from the fact that some of the comments have been complimentary (which I naturally enjoy), all the comments have come from people I know personally, and have all been thoughtful and heartfelt. I think this may be the natural consequence of the fact that people have to identify themselves, which encourages the spirit of Ghandian “truth force” that I hope to cultivate here. Besides, I’m not anonymous (as many bloggers are). This keeps us on an equal footing.

I prefer having a few well-considered comments to hundreds of comments from people going back and forth, calling each other names. And frankly, I barely have time to write this blog, much less police a comments section. So you guys are on your own.

Having said that, let me move on to the most recent comments, at the end of “The whole story 5.”

Jim d, a local friend of mine, has left several comments about the political realities of life in Hampshire County that are dead-on in their analysis. It’s like reading an alternative history of the county (rather than the Chamber of Commerce-approved version you read in the Hampshire Review), reflected through the eyes of someone who has always had the courage to speak the truth, and put himself out there, in an environment that can often be hostile to the ideas of outsiders. I’m very grateful for his interest in this blog.

What inspired today’s post, though, is the second comment, from “winnacunnet jag,” someone who is obviously very close to me, and who deals every day, in her work, with the young casualties of recreational drug use, and who, from that perspective, quite legitimately challenges my opinion that an honest discussion of drug use in the media should include a “pro-drug” message.

Actually, there is very little in her comment that I would disagree with—for example, she’s absolutely right that “context” is important to any drug message, pro or anti (and the absence of context has been the persistent problem with the media dialogue about drugs). But let me add some nuance to my earlier conclusions, by answering some of her objections.

First, I very deliberately used the word “simple” to describe my former editors at the Hampshire Review, not only in the positive sense of rural people whose idea of America is virtually unchanged from the postwar optimism that characterized the ‘50s, despite the darkness of heart that has been revealed in the decades since (assassinations, Vietnam, Iraq, etc.), but also in the negative sense of “simplistic.” Unlike Winnacunnet, who clearly sees the damage that the drug war has wrought, Charlie and Sallie See are unrepentant drug warriors who, from my experience, are incapable of processing information that contradicts their views (and certainly don’t allow it in their newspaper), and use their powerful position in the community to perpetuate a policy that damages more lives than drugs ever do.

By coincidence, there’s a column today at by Joe Conason that makes my point, by suggesting to both presidential candidates that, if they’re looking for places to save the taxpayers money, they start with the drug war, which costs local, state and federal governments about 50 billion dollars a year (he doesn’t say where he got this figure, but I suspect that indirect costs would make the total much higher).

Conason discusses past drug use admitted by both Barack Obama and Cindy McCain, and concludes, “The only reason to talk about past drug abuse by Barack Obama or Cindy McCain is to point out the waste and injustice of the ongoing drug war. Both of them broke the law, repeatedly, by their own admission, but neither deserved to go to prison and no useful purpose would have been served by punishing them.”

You don’t need much imagination to realize that Obama’s name would not be on the ballot today, had he not been one of the lucky young black men to escape the drug war dragnet (or that his avoidance of arrest was more than likely due to the fact that he was living in a white community, rather than a ghetto, when he did his early experimentation). “Waste” would be exactly the right word, had his fate been different.

One thing that won’t change, whether drugs are legal (like Oxycontin) or illegal, is that people will continue to destroy themselves, like they do with alcohol. When alcohol prohibition ended, there was an upsurge in alcohol-related social problems. Yet the American people had discovered that, as grievous as these social costs were, they were much more manageable and less dangerous to society than the costs of prohibition. In today’s world, the costs of prohibition include the tragedies of meth labs and prescription drug abuse, which flourish in the subterranean underworld that prohibition creates.

This is the message that drug policy reformers have been trying to convey since the drug war ramped up in the Reagan era. But it’s a message that can’t get past the media gatekeepers who, for a variety of reasons that I’ll continue to explore in this blog, won’t allow it to be heard by the American people.

And it’s a message that most definitely requires “context.”

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Hope and the left

The other night, I watched a DVD of a PBS documentary, “Sisters of Selma,” about Roman Catholic nuns who joined the civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama, after the first attempt at a march from Selma to Montgomery was infamously met by violence from local and state law enforcement. In the wake of that outrage, religious people traveled to Selma from other parts of the country, to stand up for their fellow citizens’ voting rights.

It was an inspiring film, to which I responded at points with a reaction that I’ve learned over years to expect, but which still surprises me with its uncontrollable nature: I get choked up and tearful at expressions of hope and courage against the odds. A friend of mine who noticed this reaction one time when we sat together in a movie theater watching “Born on the Fourth of July” (with Tom Cruise, of all people, playing a disabled Vietnam veteran protesting the war), said afterwards that she had read that people get emotional when their most deeply-held values are touched.

This only makes sense, of course, as any rightwinger who chokes up at the national anthem can tell you. But what’s funny to me is that this reaction usually hits me when I’m watching or reading accounts about dissidents (whose uncompromising and idealistic radicalism certainly reflects my most deeply-held values), protesting a simplistic, conservative nationalism that leaves most leftists cold. Sometimes, though, the reaction happens when I’m listening to corporate politicians like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I’m an idealist by nature. I want to hope.

By coincidence, earlier in the day that I watched the “Sisters” DVD, I had read a commentary at Common Dreams by a regular contributor, Ira Chernus, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado. Titled, “Obama and the left 2,” it was a return to a topic he had discussed earlier which had received many critical comments from supporters of third-party candidates, who objected to being asked once again to vote for the Democratic lesser of two evils.

Chernus’ second commentary also received a lot of comments from readers (almost 400 as of this morning). It was interesting to read because it so accurately reflected the argument in my own mind between two sides with approximately equal weight: the side that says that incremental progress (or even backing up slowly) is better than the rapid decline—social, political, cultural and environmental—the nation inevitably experiences under modern Republican rule; and the side that says American democracy is already dead, and it hardly serves our long-term interest to pretend the rotting carcass is still breathing.

Every day, I go back and forth between these sides of myself, the idealist and the cynic. But which is which, when both sides are true? Is it idealistic or cynical to think that things will always be the way they are, with two corporate parties essentially serving the same military-industrial interests and playing good cop/bad cop with partisans who invariably see the other side as the bad cop, whose agenda must be prevented at all costs? Is it idealistic or cynical to think that all citizens should take a political Hippocratic oath to first, do no harm? Is it idealistic or cynical to hold fast to your principles, and refuse to compromise with a system that will never truly challenge the prevailing corporate order, whose steady march to fascism has been enabled by the actions of both major parties?

Do I give in to my hope that a Democratic administration, at this crisis point in American history, will crack the door open just wide enough that a flood of progressive legislation will be unstoppable; and that electing the first African American president will cause a subtle shock to the political culture, that will forever alter the system of white supremacy on which America has been built?

Or do I give in to my hope that enough people casting “protest” votes will open more people’s eyes to the fact that the American experiment in democracy has become a meaningless sham, with no real effect by either party on an ultimately militaristic empire, unresponsive to the public whim? Do I keep hoping that keeping my eyes on the prize of necessary and radical change, however hopeless that change may seem today, is the price that must be paid to see it happen (as it was for the early Abolitionists)?

At this moment, I have an answer. But it’s an answer that can change in fifteen minutes, so I won’t bother you with it. I suspect there may be millions of Americans on the horns of the same dilemma. And we’re going to have to figure it out for ourselves.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


As if to confirm the point that this blog isn’t real life, reality again intruded on my intention to write a regular blog post yesterday, and continues to do so today. I have to make an unanticipated trip to DC, on family business. So the regular post will have to wait until tomorrow, that receding horizon that, as Annie reminds us, is only a day away. I guess it all depends on what reality, that great jokester, may bring.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The whole story 5

Writing this blog, even after less than a month, has been an education. It had been my intention at the beginning to write at least five posts a week. But I’ve experienced in actuality what I originally suspected: this blog isn’t real life. Real life is the family medical crisis, or the friend who needed my help, or the faraway weekday benefit/gig, or even the day-to-day responsibilities that have all intervened since my last post (which, to the ear of an old altar boy like myself, makes this blog sound like the sacrament of confession—which I suppose, for me, it really is).

Something I didn’t expect—but should have—was to be sidetracked into a lengthy explanation of a personal insult that was itself the culmination of a tragicomedy of errors. The secret of life is the mathematical symbol Pi, a number that divides itself into infinity and is necessary to find any measurement of a circle. Life is a series of interlocking circles. It was foolish of me to think that this particular story wouldn’t circle around again, in some mysterious and unexpected way. But today, I’m coming round the bend to the finish line.

While I’ve been slogging through the swamp of my psychological confusion, the world’s been dropping deeper into economic Wonderland. And then we had the last presidential debate last night. As the media and polling have recognized, there’s not much change in the dynamic. Once again, Obama looked presidential, and McCain looked like an eccentric old man, wound up waaay too tight to trust with his finger on either the economic or the nuclear trigger. Not much more to say about that.

I’ll be back tomorrow with regular posts. But now, onto the conclusion of our story…

When I called Sallie See, editor of the Hampshire Review, a couple of weeks ago to apologize for screwing up the email address when I sent her the op-ed, “Reflections an a lawsuit” (posted here last month), I mentioned that I had intended my post, “Spiritual conundrum,” to be an answer to the previous week’s column on the Review’s “Religion” page.

The column is written every week by Don Kesner, an evangelical minister as well as a full-time reporter for the Review. Don and I have been friends since I first started at the Review twelve years ago, and have often discussed religion and the Bible, which we of course approach quite differently. Some of these discussions have been in the paper, both while I wrote my column, and afterwards, on the letters page.

I had sent Don a notice when I first started publishing this blog, and had been struck by the fact that Don’s next column, titled “Identity theft,” touched on some of the very topics I had discussed in my first post, “Radical Pantheism”—drug use, identity crisis, the creation of humans in God’s “image and likeness,” and the identity of Jesus as the “only begotten son of God,” among them. Don talked about the “darkness” into which those who use drugs or deny the divinity of Jesus descend. It was natural for me to think, given our history and my now-public conversion from “Gnostic” Christianity to pantheism, that Don was sending me a message. And even if not, I thought his column needed an answer. I emailed him when I posted “Spiritual conundrum,” to let him know it was online.

After I mentioned him in our conversation, Sallie told me that, at that very moment, Don was undergoing spinal surgery. He had recently had some hardware internally attached to his spine, to correct a worsening spinal degeneration, and a titanium rod they’d put in had failed. I asked Sallie to pass along my best wishes.

Two days later, Sallie emailed that she had changed her mind about publishing my op-ed, and I sent my (now infamous, locally) reply, “Fuck you,” and posted the exchange here on the blog (“Intercepted email”).

Two days after that, Don emailed me about “Spiritual conundrum.” He was uncharacteristically angry, and his email seemed rather confused. Twice, he misspelled the word “sacrilegious” (differently each time), which was his general reaction to my post. I figured he’d seen my reply to Sally, and was angry about that, and was probably on some pretty heavy pain meds—which would be extremely ironic, under the circumstances.

What Don found most “sacrilegious” in the post was the hypothesis advanced by Dead Sea scrolls scholar John Allegro in his book, “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross,” that Jesus and the apostles developed their spiritual ideas in a psychedelic state of ecstasy. For some reason, Don thought that this was my idea, and it only confirmed the “darkness” (that word again) in my soul, the foul residue of my own drug experiences. I had insulted the only son of God, the sacred object of Don’s worship (I may as well have been drawing cartoons of Mohammed, so similar was the emotional response). I was a hypocrite for singing gospel songs that I didn’t believe in, in his church. Don never wanted to hear from me again, and said he’d block my email.

I emailed him back anyway, pointing out where he had misinterpreted my thinking, and that he and I just had different conceptions of Jesus, as Christians have throughout the centuries. I assured him of my continued friendship, despite the email, and wished him well in his convalescence from surgery. I cc’d it to the Review, to make sure he got it.

It was sad to get that email from Don, but I’m glad he sent it anyway. Because it opened my eyes to the possibility that the Review’s rejection of my op-ed was neither political nor personal, as I initially thought. Instead, it opened my eyes to the fear with which Charlie and Sallie and Don see the world, and if this were indeed the case, it makes their actions more understandable, for being so completely human.

What all three of them have in common is an irrational fear of the unknown—drugs, in this case. And I am challenging their fear with my writing. They do not allow any kind of a positive message about drugs, either in their newspaper or in Don’s church, and they are afraid of the repercussions if such a discussion were to take place. They fear that even by simply drawing attention to a positive drug message, they will themselves be tainted with the stain.

There is naturally a certain amount of provincialism in this fear, in that the conjunction of government, church and media is more intense in America’s small towns. But even in the rural areas, it is not uncommon for young people to experiment with drugs (though it was probably less common when Charlie and Sallie grew up around here).

However, it is also a major problem in our national political and media culture that an honest discussion of the full spectrum of drug use is disallowed. It is rare in the mainstream media, even from advocates of drug legalization or decriminalization (which, after a brief period of interest in the early ‘90s, is itself rarely discussed anymore), to hear about positive benefits of drug use—spiritual, social, artistic, or physical—other than medical benefits. And even those are underreported. How many people know that the US government has funded at least four peer-reviewed studies that indicate that marijuana is a cancer preventative? Let me repeat that: a cancer preventative. Do you think people might have a different attitude about it if they knew?

As I wrote two decades ago, the war on drugs is a war on the American people. The majority of American adults have experimented with illegal drugs. In most cases, when presented with the facts, citizens will vote with their common sense—for example, in the eleven states where medical marijuana initiatives have passed, even in the face of opposition from politicians, police and the prison-industrial complex. But anti-drug propaganda nevertheless keeps most people frightened, and incapable of proper judgment.

The war on drugs is a multi-billion dollar industry that destroys lives. We imprison more people per capita than any other nation on Earth. It’s sick. The worst of it is, it’s also the key to understanding how the world really works. A 30-year counterintelligence veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration once told Congress that, throughout his career, he had never investigated a major international drug operation in which the CIA was not involved. American drug policy is the way it is because that’s the way the “black” operations, intelligence and military, that keep wealth funneling into the pockets of the global power elite, are funded.

The relentless decimation of the Bill of Rights that began with the drug war has brought us to our present fascist state, where schoolchildren are taught to sit with their hands on their desks, and are forbidden to use the restroom, while sheriff’s deputies search their classroom with drug-sniffing dogs—a bit of totalitarian conditioning that is regularly applauded in the pages of the Review. Small town newspapers all over America are the New World Order’s most effective propaganda. And usually it’s because the editors are simple people like Charlie and Sallie, who still believe that America is the fantasyland they read about in their civics books. All the evidence to the contrary exploding every day all around them, from the lies about Iraq’s WMDs to the collapsing economy, just intensifies their cognitive dissonance.

Closer to home, the Sees are afraid of something else—offending their mostly conservative Christian readership, or even worse, their advertisers. A friend of mine told me, several years after I quit, that he knew of a concerted effort that was made by enemies of my column to pressure Charlie to fire me. Looking back, and knowing Charlie better now, I’m surprised that he was able to withstand it long enough to let me go first. I’m sure it accounts for some of the tension I was feeling in those last months.

Charlie and Sallie not only have a position in the community and a successful business to protect. They also have a payroll to meet, and a certain responsibility for the welfare of their employees. So giving them the benefit of the doubt, I can see why, alarmed as they must have been by ideas so radical that they would cause even an even-tempered man of the cloth like Don Kesner to go ballistic, they would choose to think about their employees first. They are generous people, however fearful.

As a pantheist (by way of Gnosticism—not to throw the baby Jesus out with the bathwater), I have a forgiving nature. How can it be otherwise, surrounded as I am by God in every human form. So there’s nothing preventing me from extending a hand of forgiveness to Charlie and Sallie See, however much I may think they have wronged me over the years. I may no longer trust them, but I can forgive them. And I’m sure they have their own side of the story. It can’t have been too easy for a couple of solid burghers like them to have an unpredictable radical like me in their employ.

You never know where life is going to take you. I certainly didn’t expect to be spending all this time, right after starting my blog, on this tortuous personal history. But I’m glad I’ve gotten it out of my system, and I hope that you’ll forgive me, if you’ve been offended in any way, for my own all-too-human weaknesses (like surrendering to my temper, for an obvious immediate example).

I’m also glad to be able now to finally move on in this blog, away from my personal history and back to the rest of the world, with all its mysterious and confounding ways.

I hope we can travel together, and see what tomorrow may bring.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The whole story 4

It took me a long time to recover my emotional equilibrium after Charlie See refused to print my first post-column letter to the editor of the Hampshire Review. Like most humans, I suppose, I had been treated with disloyalty a few times in my life, by friends. But this was my worst experience. To let people think that I shared equal responsibility for the ugly tone into which “Thinking Locally” had descended in recent years, when I had been trying for years to get Charlie to use his position as editor to stop it, was just too unfair.

Finally, after a year of not writing, and watching the war in Iraq turn sour, with the 2004 election coming up, and seeing all the elements of fascism creeping further into American culture and government, I decided to start writing again. In January 2004, I sent a letter to the editor discussing the parallels between Bush and Hitler, including the torture charges that had just come to light (a small excerpt from my first article for Online Journal, “Paranoid Shift,” which appeared online a few days later). The Review printed it.

As might have been expected, the letter ignited a burst of gleeful outrage from the local trolls who had been regular respondents to my late column (and obviously missed it), and an exchange ensued for several weeks. I continued submitting letters and op-eds to the Review for the next four years, until the one almost two weeks ago about our lawsuit against the legislature.

Until that most recent submission, only two pieces I sent them were not printed—a letter and an op-ed. They both had one thing in common with the first letter they didn’t print: they discussed the reasons I quit writing the column in the Review. They were the only ones I ever submitted that did so. I never received a phone call asking for changes, or explaining why they were rejected. Nor was the subject ever mentioned during the occasional times I would visit Charlie in his office.

At the beginning of 2005, the Committee to Reform Hampshire County Government was gearing up to re-introduce the legislation setting up a county referendum that had passed the West Virginia Senate, but not the House, in the 2004 session (see my post, “Reflections on a lawsuit,” for details). The chief opponent of the bill in the House had been Hampshire County’s delegate, Jerry Mezzatesta. But Jerry had been defeated in the 2004 general election, tarnished by a scandal involving shifting state money from the county’s special services workshop to local firehouses, as a way of currying political favor with the volunteer firefighter community. (He was also in the dubious position of having been recently hired by the county board of education to write grants, while simultaneously serving as the chair of the House Education Committee, which dispenses education money.)

He was defeated by a Republican woman, Ruth Rowan, whose son-in-law was a member of our committee and had written the first draft of the petition. So we knew that she was sympathetic to the fact that our petition was the first one in state history where the legislature had failed to do its constitutional duty. The problem was, the committee’s leaders (in a group that was very informally organized), for various personal reasons, were not able to put in the energy needed to jumpstart the legislation, and keep the initiative going. So one snowy January night, when only a handful of us made it to a meeting, my friend Frank Whitacre, the county assessor, asked me if I would take the ball.

It was not something I was particularly interested in doing, not only for the work involved, but also because I’m something of a political lightning rod in this county, and it might be bad PR to have me seen as the campaign’s leader (although the “save the hospital” referendum I had championed just two years before had passed by a 3-1 margin, so I knew I wasn’t total political poison). But it was a cause I thought was important, and since there was nobody else who was willing to do it, I took it on.

After talking to Ruth, confirming her support and getting her pledge to re-introduce the legislation, I wrote a draft bill (mostly a rewrite of the original bill, with the bad parts edited out) and put her in touch with my friend in the Attorney General’s office to answer her legal questions. I’ve had primary responsibility for trying to get the bill passed every year since, writing all the press releases and dealing with the media, coordinating the committee’s lobbying efforts, recruiting our pro bono attorney when we decided to sue the legislature for their inaction, and traveling to Charleston for every judicial hearing. So as you can see, I have a lot of personal investment in this issue.

We didn’t get much cooperation from the Hampshire Review. I think Charlie, who had totally supported my efforts in the hospital campaign, had initially been intrigued by the changes in county government we proposed. But electoral changes had brought his political allies into county office, and had gotten rid of the good ol’ boy network that he openly admitted to me he had hired me to go after (he often told me that he admired my “courage,” by which I thought he meant that I was a big enough fool to rush in where angels like him fear to tread). So he no longer seemed to favor the proposals in our petition. Too radical, I suspect, for a centrist conservative like Charlie.

The articles he ran about the issue were either studiously neutral or negative, from our perspective. So I regularly submitted press releases reporting events and changes in status in the legislature and in the court. They would appear, instead of an article from a Review reporter, somewhere inside the front section, often below the fold, and at least on one occasion, with important info edited out. But at least we were getting our spin into print (a common practice with community groups and small town newspapers, not some special treatment we were getting). The op-eds were similarly downplayed. One time, my commentary ran in the middle of a large box, with the title as a subhead under an old piece from a long-deceased county citizen.

The only reason the issue got any coverage at all in the Review (we got much more prominent coverage in the Charleston Gazette and Cumberland Times-News) is its historic nature, which even Charlie had to admit to. Our lawsuit goes to the heart of what American democracy and republican government are all about—the right of the people to choose the form of government under which their democracy will function. If the West Virginia Supreme Court overturns the clear language of their 1981 opinion, affirming that right in the strongest terms, it will be a terrible loss for the people of this state.

I wish I could say that I’m sorry I emailed “Fuck you” to Charlie’s wife, Sallie, the Review’s current editor (Charlie’s the publisher now), when she took back her promise from two days before, that she would publish my op-ed on the Supreme Court hearing (see “Intercepted email”). But unfortunately, I’m not sorry. It turned out to be just the catharsis I needed to purge the demons of anger and betrayal and supreme injustice that have haunted me ever since Charlie refused to print that first letter. It was both an emotional and physical release, which I knew deep in my soul I needed. The next day, I gave one of my best vocal performances in my life onstage at the Burlington Apple Harvest Festival. My body and my voice never felt so free.

Yet that still leaves the mystery of why exactly Sallie (and probably Charlie) changed her mind, and sent me that email. Was it something political? Did I make the argument too well for a position that they oppose, so that’s why they wanted a straight news story instead? Was I too disrespectful in my language about venerable state institutions, the legislature and the Supreme Court? Or was it something else?

When I called her two days before that, to apologize for getting the address wrong when I first sent the op-ed and to discuss publication, I told her about my new blog. Did she or Charlie then look at my first post, “Radical Pantheism,” and see that I had once again given an account about quitting the Review, and decide that they didn’t want to bring any attention to the blog—which an op-ed from me might, but a press release with the byline, “Committee to Reform Hampshire County Government,” wouldn’t?

That’s what I first thought. And that’s what so consumed me with anger, the night I got the email from Sallie, that I couldn’t sleep, and had to get out of bed in the middle of the night and go to the computer and pound out a reply, and post it on the internet. It was the last link in a chain of personal betrayals that was finally strangling me, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to break free, to get it out of my system. I’ll never forget the sense of complete relief I felt when I hit the “send” button.

But a couple of days later, I got an email from the Review’s religion columnist, Don Kesner, that made me think that Sallie’s broken promise may not have had anything at all to do with either the politics of the lawsuit or the personal politics of our dysfunctional, disgruntled employee/employer relationship.

Next time, I’ll conclude this seemingly endless saga with what I was initially hoping to get to this time: why I think Sallie, in her heart of hearts, really thought she was doing the right thing in turning down my op-ed.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The whole story 3

Every once in awhile, even today, one of my friends will bring up the time my column was absent from the Hampshire Review. The column that didn’t appear was “Amerika,” my account of the incident at the drug checkpoint, the weekend of the Buffalo Gap bluegrass festival.

When I took the column into the Review office on Monday morning, Charlie was out in the reception area. He looked upset, and took me back to his office, and demanded to know what had happened Saturday night, because he’d already had a call from the state police lieutenant saying that they were sorry that they hadn’t arrested me for interfering with a police action.

I scoffed. They were going to arrest me? They were the ones who were breaking the law, and wiping their muddy jackboots all over the Constitution (about six months after this event, the US Supreme Court ruled in a similar case, also involving drug-sniffing dogs at a police checkpoint, that the police had violated citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights).

We debated the issue for awhile, with Charlie making the point that he had to be very delicate in his dealings with the state police, because if they didn’t like what he put in the paper, they were perfectly free to withhold information from Review reporters, which would put the Review at a severe disadvantage in reporting crime stories. Since I didn’t have a background in mainstream media, this revelation came as kind of a shock. I had never fully realized before how much the government controls what information goes out to the public, even in a local situation like this.

Finally, Charlie read the column. When he finished, he said, “I’m not printing this.”

I was flabbergasted. I hadn’t written anything objectionable in the column, just a straightforward account of the incident at the checkpoint, closing with the observation that if this had happened thirty years before, the cops may have picked up young potheads Al Gore and George Bush, who at that moment were running for president.

I didn’t bother to try to find out what exactly he thought was wrong with the column, because I was on my high, principled horse. So I just told him that I wasn’t going to write another column, and he’d have to run that one, or nothing, and left.

Two days later, my counterpart’s column appeared on the editorial page, but there was nothing from me. I had thought maybe Charlie would run an old column, one of my thought pieces or something. The absence caused a little hubbub in the community, because at that time, the column was about at the height of its popularity. The hospital issue was still hot, and we were right in the middle of the 2000 presidential campaign, so people expected me to be out there defending the Democratic position, not only nationally but locally. Friends called to see what happened.

As I talked to people, I realized that I’d made a mistake, and my principles were no substitute for the rare position I held of being able to argue a progressive point of view in a mainstream media outlet. So I swallowed my pride and went back in to talk to Charlie, who was also in an accommodating mood, and he welcomed me back—with one condition.

As it turned out, the reason he turned down the column didn’t have anything to do with my encounter with the police. What he had objected to was the fact that I had mentioned that Ralph Nader—whom I had endorsed in May—was advocating the legalization of marijuana. Charlie thought that if he published that column, people would think that he himself was promoting drug legalization.

Of course, this struck me as irrational nonsense, and I told him so. But Charlie was adamant. I was never to write about drugs again—at least, if I was saying anything positive about them. I could say all the negative stuff I wanted.

In the course of this conversation, Charlie revealed something that I found astonishing: he and Sallie, who are just about my age, had never experimented with illegal drugs. Maybe it’s the people I tend to hang out with—musicians, artists and assorted radicals—but I couldn’t recall ever meeting anyone from my generation, who came of age in the ‘60s, who hadn’t at least toked on a joint once. And if the Sees are a rarity among baby boomers for their pharmaceutical innocence, polls show they’re also in the minority of the total American adult population, most of whom have at least tried marijuana (which, simply put, is why our drug laws are so absurd). So I couldn’t help thinking as we talked, who’s the real weirdo here?

Nevertheless, we both, for our own reasons, wanted to work things out, and the next week, I wrote a sheepish column explaining how discretion is often the better part of valor, and we all have to compromise sometimes, and too bad for all the wingnuts celebrating my demise that I’m back.

But I carried the frustration about not being able to write about drugs through the rest of my years at the column. You see, I was kind of an expert on the subject, not only because of my own personal experience, but because I’d actually been writing about it for years before I moved to West Virginia. Back in DC, I had co-founded a local group, DC Citizens for HEALTH, with Eric Sterling of the National Drug Strategy Network, Sam Smith, editor and publisher of the Progressive Review, and Al Jardine, a community activist from Anacostia, advocating a public health approach to the drug problem, instead of the criminal justice approach that was ruining so many lives. We had sponsored mayoral debates in which all the candidates essentially agreed with our position.

For the rest of the time that I wrote the Review column, I would bring Charlie studies and data showing the benefits (medicinal and otherwise) of drug use, and the downside of the punitive approach to drugs--including a couple of studies that indicated that the DARE program in the schools, for which he was a great champion in the paper, actually encouraged children to experiment with drugs. But Charlie wasn’t interested. And I never wrote about drugs (directly, at least) again.

But in recalling this history the other day, it suddenly occurred to me why Sallie had rejected my op-ed about Tuesday’s Supreme Court hearing. And it was because she was trying to do the right thing.

I’ll explain, next time.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The whole story 2

Before I resume the tale I began on Monday, let me comment on a couple of developments from yesterday.

I ‘d never been in the West Virginia Supreme Court’s “temple” before Tuesday morning, so like any new visitor, I was awed by the grandeur—the beautifully sculpted and painted plaster ceiling, featuring a design of 16-pointed golden stars in a 4-square pattern, and the massive marble columns, four on each of three sides of the room, in front of deep maroon drapes. The justices sat at a long, dark, impeccably crafted bench, looking down at us.

My friend from the Attorney General’s office told me afterward that it was unusual for litigants to sit at the attorneys’ table, but I didn’t know that, so I just walked up there with Bob Bastress, our attorney, when the case was called, and took furious notes the whole time.

The legislature’s argument was primarily a confirmation of the observation that Shepherd University history professor John Stealey had made in his 2006 article, “Quiet Revolution in Hampshire County: Who Says County Government Has to Be a Three-Member Throwback to Virginia’s Old County Court System?” The attorneys said that, in the state’s 1872 constitutional convention, southern Democrats wanted to throw out the “township” model (which is similar to what we want to do in Hampshire County) that the Yankees set up in 1863, when the state “seceded” (it’s a complicated story) from Virginia. But they kept the provision giving county citizens the right to form their own government in the amended Constitution, as a concession to win support. But, the lawyers argued, the 1872 framers always intended for the legislature to oversee the county reform process, so the WV Supreme Court erred in its unanimous 1981 decision, Taylor County Commission v. Spencer, which requires the legislature to act on a county petition.

Our entire argument hinges on the Taylor decision, the centerpiece of Bastress’ presentation to the Court. He read from the decision:

“The use of the word ‘shall’ connotes a mandatory duty on the part of the Legislature. Its role in the reformation process is to expedite, within constitutional parameters, the will of the citizens of the county by producing enabling legislation which reflects the stated preference of the petitioning voters and provides the other voters of the county an opportunity to approve or to reject that alternative to the existing form of government. In effect, the Legislature is obliged by the constitution to vindicate the desires and designs of the voters of the county. This it is constitutionally required to do and beyond this it cannot act.”

In order for the legislature to win its appeal, the Court will have to overturn its own clear language.

Only two of the five justices asked many questions, so it was hard to tell where they would come down. I talked with a friend of mine on the Court staff later, and he said it would depend on whether the justices decide on principle or politics: if on principle, it favors us; if on politics, it overwhelmingly favors the legislature. He was glad to hear I didn’t have my hopes up.

I stopped off at the Charleston Gazette afterward, and they want an op-ed on the issue ASAP. The editor is under the correct impression that there’s a relationship between what we want to do, and Kanawha County’s attempt to consolidate the city and county government there, so I’ll talk about that. I’ll post it on the blog later. The Gazette’s got an AP story about yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing online today.

The other thing I wanted to briefly mention was the second presidential debate last night. It’s no surprise that virtually all the immediate post-debate polls gave the clear edge to Obama. McCain may think he does okay in town meeting formats, but maybe that’s when he’s the sole center of attention. The stunning contrast between Obama’s mature and leonine grace and McCain’s spiteful, doddering old stumblebum is no joke.

People have whispered about McCain’s mental deterioration. I’ve been watching him for years, the most frequent guest on Meet the Press, and this doesn’t look anything like the McCain of ten years ago to me. The erratic behavioral tics and Snidely Tonguelash routine he’s developed over this campaign are worrisome, especially with the Pentecostal fanatic (and her Zealot followers) he’s got slavering to take over from him. God help us all, if all the voting machines are rigged.

Now, back to our story.

It’s impossible to convey how devastated I was by the sense of hurt and betrayal I felt when Charlie refused to print my letter to the editor. All I was saying was something he’d heard me say a dozen times, at least: that I was as sick (probably sicker) of the vicious and ugly partisanship that was going back and forth between me and my counterpart in the column as the readers were.

But it was a trap that I hadn’t been able to escape. Sometimes I felt like I was in Thunderdome, tied at the wrist with a guy who I couldn’t get rid of until either I killed him or he killed me, with a crazed crowd cheering us on, lusting for blood. One local official once proposed to me that Scott and I stage a public boxing match, as a fundraiser for some charity. It was unnerving sometimes to see the sadistic glee in my friends’ eyes as they recited some of my more piercingly cruel comments.

I hated it. But what was I going to be—Alan Colmes? I had understood early on that in the Scots-Irish culture that prevails in this region, I couldn’t let insults go unanswered. And as a “liberal,” I was long tired of being bullied by ignorant fascists—which is essentially what my counterpart was. (I had heard rumors that he was connected with local Nazis—we have a chapter in this county—but never got any confirmation of that.) But the plain fact was: American mainstream media at every level (except on the Internet) is severely proscribed to a narrow range of political opinions that can be published (I call it the tyranny of the center), and I felt like I owed it to fellow progressives to hang on.

The most emotionally painful part of Charlie’s refusal to print the letter was the personal betrayal of our friendship. I couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t let me defend myself from this attack by simply and openly explaining my feelings. We had sat in his office once a week for seven years, sharing confidences and laughs about everything, and now he was letting me share equal blame for an ugly situation he could have stopped at any time, by editing Scott’s falsehoods. But he didn’t. And now I would be tied at the wrist with Scott in people’s minds for the rest of my life. It was too terrible to bear.

But really, I shouldn’t have been caught so off-guard emotionally, because Charlie had betrayed me once before. It was during the 2000 election, and the only time I was ever allowed to take photographs for the Hampshire Review.

My reporter friend who covered county arts events at that time was going on vacation, and he knew that I was planning to go to this “alternative” bluegrass festival in the county, featuring David Grisham and other big names. So he asked me if I would use his company camera to take some pictures.

A few months before, the county commission had tried to stop the permit for the festival, to be held at this funky and beautiful resort/campsite called Buffalo Gap, because they’d heard that a large number of “undesirables” tended to show up at this particular production company’s events. I had written a satirical column about this affair, describing a meeting of the “Hamster County Commission” in an alternative universe. This allowed me to read the thoughts of the commissioners as they conducted their ridiculous deliberations. Most people thought it was funny. But as it turned out, the county poobahs weren’t going to let their negative feelings about the festival go unexpressed.

It was a beautiful weekend. But on the road out of Capon Bridge going up to Buffalo Gap, a task force of the sheriff’s department and state police had set up a roadblock, and pulled over along the side of the road were about a half-dozen cars and vans, with all their contents—sleeping bags, backpacks, clothes, food, tents—spilled out on the gravel next to their vehicles. The occupants were being questioned by officers.

I couldn’t believe they were doing this. It was so patently unconstitutional (as the US Supreme Court itself ruled, several months later). I was furious, and embarrassed for the county, and incredulous that they would pull a move this stupid, this death blow to the tourist industry—because this story was going to get around (a few years ago, Buffalo Gap, unable to prosper, was turned into another subdivision). But they didn’t bother to stop me, alone in my pickup with West Virginia tags, so I continued on to the festival.

I had a great time that day, my fury quickly subsiding in the festival’s omnipresent good vibes. I ran into some old friends, and really enjoyed my first real experience with a camera, trying to incorporate all the ideas about balance and composition I remembered from art school days. This gave me an opening to talk with a lot of people, too, some of whom had been stopped and searched. Despite the good vibes, there was an undercurrent of anger about how the festival had been “welcomed” into the county.

I had such a good time, and the world-class music was so good, that it wasn’t until almost midnight that I left. So I was amazed, at that hour, as I was driving back down the road, to see that the police still had the roadblock up, and had several vehicles pulled over. Obviously, this was a job for Super-photojournalist, who, having quaffed a couple of beers, was feeling pretty brave.

I pulled over on my side of the road about fifty yards in front of the roadblock. As I walked toward it, I wondered if the digital camera would focus itself in the sharply contrasting shadows of the roadblock’s lights. As soon as I got close enough, I started snapping pictures, and would snap one every few yards until I came up to the deputy interrogating three kids looking down at their feet, and took a picture of the interrogation.

“Hey, you can’t do that,” he says. “Who are you?”

“I’m Michael Hasty,” I answer. “I’m taking pictures for the Hampshire Review.”

“Oh, yeah,” he says, in a tone that makes me think he’s probably a Republican, “I know who you are. You can’t take pictures here.”

It’s funny. I only thought for just a second before I replied, “What—you figure since you’ve already trashed the fourth amendment, you might as well trash the first one, too? Who’s in charge here? I want to talk to him.”

The deputy regarded me silently, with a kind of confused look on his face, for a minute, before he pointed at my feet and said, “Wait right here. No pictures.” Then he turned around and went over to caucus with the other deputies and state police.

The kids were all looking at me, wide-eyed. I apologized to them, on behalf of Hampshire County, for the way they’d been treated by some of our more overzealous ideologues, and hoped that they wouldn’t go away thinking everybody here is an asshole, because there are a lot of good people in this county. I asked them about what had happened. They were starting to tell me when the deputy came over and handed them their summons to the magistrate’s office, and told them to leave. Within a few minutes, the whole roadblock had closed down, and the only ones left were me and a couple of deputies.

I don’t remember how it started, but we had a rather earnest and vigorous conversation about the meaning of the Constitution for about twenty minutes, and then we left, too. The next day, I wrote a column about my outrage about this event (just titled “Amerika,” as I recall) and talking about how ironic it was that, if this had happened thirty years before, the roadblock could have snagged two of the three major presidential candidates, the exception being Ralph Nader, who despite his own teetotalling ways, nevertheless called for the legalization of marijuana—the Green Party platform.

When I took the column into the office on Monday morning, anxious to tell Charlie about the incident, the proverbial feces had already hit the proverbial fan.

You know, when I started telling this story, I didn’t really expect it to take this long. And now I seem to find myself caught in a diversionary thicket. But since this is supposed to be the “whole” story, I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s gone on like this. I know how it ends, but I’m as interested as I hope you are to find out how I’m going to get there. So here’s my commitment: I’ll keep going until we arrive back in the present, and then we’ll all find out together if it was worth the trip.

Seeya tomorrow.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The whole story


I guess I got that off my chest (see the previous post, “Intercepted email”).

In retrospect, the “Fuck you” seems a little gratuitous. But it was exactly the way I was feeling at the time. And frankly, I just thought it was a direct re-statement of Sallie’s email, only with the euphemism stripped away. You see, she had told me just two days earlier that she was going to run the op-ed in this week’s Hampshire Review, along with an update at the end that I would call in from Charleston after the WV Supreme Court hearing on Tuesday. So you can understand why I felt betrayed.

You may not understand why I was so very, very angry. Every writer gets rejection slips. Isn’t this kind of an overreaction?

For many years now, I have kept silent about the story of how I came to quit writing the column in the Hampshire Review, a job I dearly loved. Some of it came out in my first “epic” post, “Radical Pantheism.” But just what happened in Charlie See’s office that day is a story that’s only been shared with a few friends, for a variety of reasons: to protect the reputations of important local people who have their flaws, like every human being (the “cross” we have to bear), but whose lives, on the whole, are an overwhelmingly positive contribution to their community—people I always considered friends, despite their many personal betrayals; to keep a civil discourse that would help us function together in projects we worked on (for example, me buying ads for civic events in their paper); and because, if you’re organizing in local politics, you don’t want to make an enemy of the county newspaper.

Now, obviously, the time has come to tell the whole story. And ultimately, it is a story of my personal skirmish in the national culture war, as well as a friendship gone bad.

When Charlie first approached me about writing the “transplant” (the nickname by which county natives refer to the immigrants moving into the third fastest-growing county in the state) side of a transplant/native column format, my friend Michael O’Brien, a reporter for the paper, told me that Charlie had asked him if I was a conservative. I had sent the Review a 1,200-word op-ed responding to the negative comments in the man-in-the-street column they’d run the week of George Washington’s birthday. The interviewees were unanimously pessimistic about what Washington would think of the current state of the country—the unspoken subtext being the presidency of Bill Clinton.

I wrote an upbeat piece about how Washington would tell these people to buck up, how he was a get-up-and-go, can-do kind of guy, the model American, and how, if we just follow his example and roll up our sleeves, we can do the same thing today—he would expect it of us. I was experimenting with using patriotic language to express the same beliefs I always had, but to an audience of rural conservatives instead of the progressive urban sophisticates who read the left-wing newsletters I’d always written for before this. It fooled Charlie, the editor (at that time) of the Review.

When the column started in May 1996, my counterpart, the chair of the county Republican party, and I agreed that we wanted to conduct a civil dialogue. But it was an election year, and it wasn’t long before the culture war reared its massive ugly head. In an indirect response to my third column, something about the modern ramifications of the American Civil War, my counterpart’s fourth column was headlined, “Liberals lie.” He didn’t mention me by name.

We got pretty brutal—as you may have realized by now, I’m not exactly a milquetoast liberal—but we never got off speaking terms when we’d see each other around the county. He’s basically a good-humored good ol’ boy; and we were in fundamental agreement about our politics, despite the left/right thing, because he’s out of the party’s libertarian wing, and he’s just as afraid of the Council on Foreign Relations as I am.

Things changed when he ran for the state senate after two years on the column, and his little brother took over. We started with the same civil agreement, but it got real ugly, real fast. And he’s meaner than his brother.

The worst of it came when his political patron, the president of the county commission, tried to sell the county hospital to a friend who then leased it, and I became privy to information that led me to mount a “save the hospital” campaign in the column. After my former counterpart was elected to the county commission in 2000 and provided the majority vote to sell the building, I found out from a friend of mine in the Attorney General’s office about a provision in the WV Constitution that allows citizens to petition to sell county property. We opponents of the sale formed a committee and gathered enough signatures within days—which voided the commission vote. In the 2002 GOP primary, the county commission president was defeated (despite being voted “Republican of the year” in 2001), and the citizens voted 3-1 not to sell the hospital.

All this time, my counterpart was attacking me for “sour grapes,” by constantly bringing up my partner Nancy, who had worked as a nurse practitioner for the company that leased the hospital, at a separate clinic. When the clinic closed, her secretary, who was suing one of the company doctors for sexual harassment, was hired by the hospital, but Nancy wasn’t (most people think it was to get at me, for my columns). Every time, I reminded readers that I had started writing against the hospital sale while the clinic was still open, and there was no talk of closing it; and I knew for a fact that the company was lying about the clinic’s patient numbers, at the county commission hearing on the closure.

This would shut him up for awhile, but a few weeks later, he’d bring it up again, because he knew that it bothered me. I would sit in Charlie’s office in agony, because of course it embarrassed Nancy, but Charlie would say, “If I censor Scott, I’ll have to censor you, too.” And naturally, I didn’t want to lose what little freedom I had in my first real gig in mainstream media, so I suffered along. I begged him to separate the columns, so I wouldn’t be forced to answer some of the more outrageous vomit coming from the right. He would tell me about going to statewide editor/publisher conferences, and all these guys coming up to him in wonderment that he was printing my stuff, and saying they would never do it. “Michael,” he said, “I could never publish a guy like you without somebody to balance you.”

Freedom of the press? In America?


I told him I was going to quit in the spring of 2002, I was so sick of the back-and-forth. But he convinced me to hold out until after the general election, when he was going to get rid of Scott, because he’d found out that Scott’s brother had filed papers (partnering with a guy who recently pled guilty to embezzling the county) with the Secretary of State’s office, to start another newspaper in Hampshire County, and Charlie was pissed about this. I figured I could hold out that much longer.

After the election, I kept waiting for the change to happen, and occasionally dropping hints, but it never did. I came up with several candidates to replace Scott, Republican friends of mine, but for one reason or another, Charlie would dismiss the idea.

I wrote in “Radical Pantheism” about how nervous Charlie was at that time that I was against the coming war with Iraq, and how I kept talking about how Bush was lying about everything. It was our traditional practice since I began writing the column for me to come in on Monday mornings and hand-deliver it, to make sure it was acceptable (I only had two rejected in seven years), and because Charlie and I genuinely enjoy sitting around and talking about stuff. (At least, we used to. He confessed to me recently that my column had caused him “many sleepless nights.” I didn’t tell him the experience was mutual.)

One Monday morning in January 2003, I came in with a column that was mostly about Bush’s lies about Iraqi WMD, but had a short coda responding to Scott’s previous column. I don’t have a fulltime job, since I spend most of my time working around the farm, and he had alluded to me being lazy. I had answered with a list of some of the things I do around here, and closed with something like, “Anybody who confesses to being too fat to walk in the woods [as he had in his Thanksgiving column] should be careful about mentioning work.”

It was humorous, but Nancy had been embarrassed about being publicly linked to a shiftless husband type, so it was the last straw for me. I confronted Charlie and told him that, if he didn’t fire Scott or at least separate the columns, I was quitting. He got mad and said I didn’t have any right to put him on the spot like that. I reminded him of his promise a year before to fire Scott, and he says, “I said, I was thinking about firing Scott,” and I say, “That’s not the way I heard it” (remembering how mad he was at the time), and then say, “If you’re not going to fire Scott or separate the columns, I quit,” and he says, “Fine!” and I say, “Well give me back that column. I don’t want you to publish that one, either,” and he says, “Fine.”

Throughout this time, of course, our voices are getting louder and louder, and we kept on arguing. Now here’s something that might jog Charlie’s “memory” about what really happened that day (the last time I talked with him—this spring, as I recall—he kept hinting for me to agree with him that our separation was a mutual decision, but I let it pass): right in the middle of this heated argument, I suddenly stopped and said, “Wait a minute. Are you getting rid of Scott, too? Because I’m not quitting, if you’re not getting rid of Scott.” It was a suicide bomber’s logic. And Charlie said, “Scott’s going too,” and then we resumed our argument.

We argued until we exhausted ourselves, and then we stood up and shook hands, in the interest of the comity I mentioned above, and I left. Two days later, the column was replaced by a vague, sentimental editorial from Charlie about how things change, and sometimes you just have to move on.

In the next issue, somebody wrote in to say how glad he was that “Thinking Locally” had ended, because he was tired of the personal and ideological garbage. Naively thinking that I could still join the conversation, I wrote a letter to the editor in reply, saying how much I agreed with the reader, and that was exactly the reason I quit. Charlie didn’t print it. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe he was letting me take the rap for all this shit, when he knew better than anyone else in the county, except Nancy, that I had been begging him to make it stop for at least three years, for him to properly exercise his editorial discretion and cease the false and unfairly personal attacks.

But he was going to be above it all.

Well, this story has already gone on much longer than I intended, and there’s still a lot to tell, about further betrayals, and how drugs and religion and crooked state politics all fit into the picture. But I have to get ready for my drive to Charleston this afternoon, for tomorrow’s West Virginia Supreme Court hearing on the case, Committee to Reform Hampshire County Government v. West Virginia Speaker of the House of Delegates and President of the Senate, in which I’m a plaintiff (the legislature’s appealing).

I’ll be back on Wednesday to resume the story, and to give you an update on what happened in court.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Intercepted email

10/3/2008 9:12am
Subject: Re: Mistake
From: Sallie [See, editor of the Hampshire Review]
To: Michael Hasty


Why don’t you send me a press release on the Supreme Court hearing the Legislature’s appeal in the case. [sic] I’m not really interested in a first-person op-ed at this point.


10/4/2008 1:30am
Subject: Re: Re: Mistake
From: Michael
To: Sallie


In the past couple of years, you have published at least three personal reflections on the “tribunal” issue, that I can recall, by people who I know for a fact have not attended a meeting of the Committee to Reform Hampshire County Government in more than three years, if ever.

Yet now, in the week when the West Virginia Supreme Court meets to hear arguments in a case that has been historically unprecedented from the beginning—presented by the state’s pre-eminent constitutional law scholar, Bob Bastress, one of the losing candidates in this year’s Supreme Court Democratic primary, to Chief Justice Spike Maynard, the other losing candidate—you don’t want a first-person observation from the guy who wrote the first draft of the bill that resurrected the issue in 2005, after the House failed to pass it the first time; did all the back-door negotiations with the Attorney General’s office to get their cooperation on the bill; recruited Bastress as pro bono attorney in the case; personally talked House Political Subdivisions Chair Tim Manchin into leading the way to finally get it passed by the House in 2007 (though not the Senate); has written three major op-eds on this issue prominently featured in the Charleston Gazette; was the only—repeat, only—citizen of Hampshire County to attend all three circuit court hearings, in which we, the plaintiffs, won on every single count; and knows all the Legislature’s lawyers on a first-name basis.

You are not being honest, Sallie. It is extremely disappointing to me, your former friend, that you are as big a liar as your husband Charlie, who has never, in five years, had the courage to admit to anyone that I quit, and he didn’t fire me, because I injured his precious little male pride.

Please do not publish my op-ed. Pay a reporter to write your own story.

Fuck you,

Palin drone

Although I’ve seen Youtube clips, I didn’t watch Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican convention, so I’d never experienced the full Saracuda Hustle before last night’s debate.

I was as astonished as Joe Biden, in that happy-to-be-in-the-presence-of-such-a-wild-and-attractive-woman kind of leering male way, at Palin’s antics. She’s always struck me as a weird amalgam of Shirley Temple, the Church Lady, and Raquel Welch in designer eyeglasses. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see her suddenly strip down to a cavegirl bikini and sing “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” holding a cross.

Let’s face it, she was flirting with me the whole time. I mean, Bill Clinton was a flirt, but I don’t recall him ever crinkling up his nose straight into the camera. She winked at me at least twice. I kept thinking, what if this was Biden doing this? I can’t recall a single presidential or vice-presidential candidate in my lifetime, including Geraldine Ferraro, ever spending an entire television appearance doing a cutesy-poo routine.

I genuinely liked Joe Biden last night, who, especially in comparison with Palin, the talking Caribou Barbie doll, came off as a fully-rounded and compassionate human being, warts and all.

I’ve never really been a fan of Biden’s, who’s let too many oleaginous rightwing judges slip through his hands as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And one thing Palin got right was Biden’s interventionist history. But he seems a kind man; and the sad fact is, everybody in his political class, including Obama, the Lion of Afghanistan, is trapped in the military-industrial Matrix. By those standards, I thought Obama’s choice of Biden was yet another example of his brilliant mind at work.

Gwen Ifill, the moderator from PBS, did a good job keeping the conversation lively, but she left a lot of important questions unasked. She had a perfect opportunity—the specter of Dick Cheney having been summoned in the back-and-forth about the role of VP, and with the release of the Department of Justice report this week suggesting possible criminal politicization of the DOJ by Rove & Company—to ask about abuse of power, and asking political appointees to do questionable things. It’s curious that the media shows so little interest in stonewalled subpoenas as a general matter, from Troopergate to the fired US attorneys.

Lively as the discussion was, however, I had a hard time staying awake sometimes, which really irritated me because it was interfering with my fantasies about me and Sarah off alone in the woods. I’d been up late the night before, and sometimes the train of thought was gosh-darn difficult to follow, as Fantasy Girl might say.

I mean, Ifill would ask a question, or Biden would make a point, and then the focus would shift to Palin, who would take a beat while she shuffled through her note cards (in her mind or on the podium, I don’t really know, though they both were looking down a lot). Then she would start droning on with some floral and ludicrous right wing talking point or campaign slogan that I’d heard what, a million and a half times before, and Sarah and I would disappear somewhere off in dreamland.

In an unprecedented way, Palin’s presence in this campaign represents the final degrading step in the celebritization of presidential politics. Because I won’t give up hope, I’ll continue to hope that the Obama era will bring some return to the politics of reason favored by James Madison and his Founding Father associates (“Gee, willikers, Senator Omadison—can I call you Jimmy?—up in small town Alaska, we don’t go for that East Coast elitist church-state separation thingy, know what I mean?”).

Meanwhile, I choose Sarah Palin as the candidate I’d most like to go off in the woods and gut a moose with—though I’d keep a close eye on the knife the whole time.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Spiritual conundrum

One of the most convenient aspects of being a pantheist is that there are no churches or ministers.

I mean, really, what would be the point, when everything and everyone is God? You don’t need a holy place, because the entire universe is holy. And you don’t need a middleman, because everyone you meet is God. It has all the conveniences of atheism, but without the emptiness.

I’m not particularly anti-clerical—certainly not to the degree of Tom Paine, or even Thomas Jefferson. I was never raped as an altar boy, and I’ve had priest and minister friends all my life. I’ve always enjoyed the company of men and women of the cloth (though I have to admit, I’ve never met a TV evangelist; and I don’t like the feeling of biting my tongue in the occasional encounter when I have to, just to keep things on a pious plane). But I much prefer preachers who are more pastor than politician.

I’m sure that, now that I’ve publicly confessed to being a pantheist, I have minister friends who are concerned that I’m in danger of losing my immortal soul, that when the angels come calling to carry me home, I won’t be there, because I had to catch an early train to hell. They probably worry that I’ve lost my way, confused by all those drugs I took in my early years.

But they don’t have to worry. It’s been decades since I took psychedelics, and for me, aside from the occasional moment of terror when my soul was stripped bare, it was a far more positive experience than negative one.

This summer, when my band played at a party in Berkeley Springs WV, I met a couple of guys who were overseeing research at Johns Hopkins University on the spiritual effects of the psilocybin mushroom. Their research (which has since been published) showed distinct positive spiritual benefits from the mushroom. This result matches studies done at Harvard and other academic settings.

Other research includes the suggestion of an Israeli archeologist (also recently published) that Moses was high on a native psychedelic plant when he received the Ten Commandments, and saw the “burning bush.” The late Dead Sea scrolls scholar and philologist, John Allegro, wrote a book, “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross,” uncovering multiple hidden drug references in the Gospels, and suggesting that Jesus and his followers experienced their spiritual communion in a drug-induced ecstasy.

There is abundant archeological evidence that the ancient Hebrews smoked cannabis both as medicine and for recreation—a tradition that continues throughout the Middle East today (like the American government-sanctioned practice of using peyote in Native American rituals). There are multiple positive references to marijuana in the Bible. In the Book of Kings, David’s son Jonathan and his troops get hungry walking through a field of seed-bearing herb, and when they ate it, “their eyes opened,” and they have a great victory. Then, of course, there’s the Song of Solomon (nudge, nudge; wink, wink).

Another reason my minister friends may worry about the state of my soul is that I no longer “believe in” Jesus, either because he isn’t God, or because everyone else is, too.

But this is exactly what Jesus himself was talking about, when the Pharisees questioned what they perceived as his pretensions to divinity, referring to himself as a son of God, and he replied, “Is it not written, ye are gods?” He may as well have added, “What’s the big deal? We’re all made in his image and likeness!” When you go to those areas around Israel where the ancient Aramaic language Jesus spoke is still used today, you can see how wildly everyday expressions like “son of man” and “in my name” have been misinterpreted by contemporary Christianity.

Of course Jesus was a “messiah” (or “Christ,” in the Greek). Messiahs are a dime a dozen—at least, as they were understood by Jesus and his clan. Moses was a messiah. Joshua was a messiah. David was a messiah—which is why the messiah of their age had to be a “son of David.” “Messiah” is a concept hardwired into the human character, Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant,” represented in archetypal form in “gods” from Osiris to Elvis, the highest spirit of humanity crucified on a cross of flesh, leading the way to understanding.

When I’m standing onstage and singing my heart out in those old gospel tunes like “Wondrous Love” that “Christ laid aside his crown for my soul,” I mean every single word of it.

Just because I’m a pantheist doesn’t mean I don’t love Jesus.


Correction: I made a huge mistake when I sent "Reflections on a lawsuit" to the Hampshire Review on Monday, and mis-typed the email address. I was gone yesterday, and didn’t find out until this morning that they didn’t get it. So it won’t be in today’s Review. Sorry to everybody about the confusion.