Archive for February, 2014

  • Blog
  • February 17th, 2014

Sunflower Silliness

By Joel M. Vance

The announcement by Missouri football star Michael Sam that he’s gay exploded like a wet firecracker in Missouri where the reaction mostly seemed to be “So what?”  And that is the way it should be, but there still are areas stuck in the 1800s (or perhaps the Middle Ages) where tolerance and acceptance is unknown.  “If you ain’t us, you ain’t” seems to be the operating credo.

Perhaps the worst of them is Kansas, a state which should know better.  It’s Midwestern and I like to think that the Midwest is a tad more progressive than the South or the Cowboy West.  But that’s wishful thinking—we have our share of redneck bigots too.  It’s just that Kansas seems to be proud of them.

By way of mea culpa Michael Sam could not get married to a man in my home state, Missouri, which has a ban on gay marriage (under legal challenge as it is in several states).  But in Kansas under a newly proposed law he probably could not have played football (and God knows, KU needs football players), much less get married—in fact he could have been denied a college education in the Sunflower State if the bill now in the Kansas legislature becomes law.

Kansas’s legislature, in a display of cosmic ignorance, is contemplating a bill that would allow any individual to deny ANY services, e.g.: accommodations, restaurant seating, ANYTHING to someone they believe is gay, based upon the bigot’s so-called religious beliefs.  Theoretically a restaurant owner could refuse to serve blacks, Jews or you and me merely by saying, “That guy looks queer to me!”  And you couldn’t sue the bastard either—immunity from lawsuit is part of this ridiculous bill.

The anti-gay legislation is just one silly bill among a whole covey that Kansas routinely proposes.  The proponents argue that the issue is religious freedom, although it’s puzzling how someone’s religious beliefs somehow collide with his or her sexual orientation (are there no gay preachers or parishioners?)

After all Kansas is the state that also will be considering a bill that would ban the use of public funds to promote or implement sustainable development.  Under the bill, all state and city dollars would be banned from anything related to sustainability.  God forbid that citizens should be encouraged in any way to take care of the environment—let’s rip ‘er up, tear ‘er up and the hell with a clean and livable world.

Several years ago when the late and great Pete Seeger graciously signed my copy of his autobiography, he included a couple of bumper stickers reading “Gravity is only a theory.”  “Send those to your friends in Kansas,” he said.  The point being that to Kansans provable fact is only a theory.  Evolution is a theory and so is global warming.  And so is gravity.  Wouldn’t it be justice if somehow gravity could be reversed just over the Sunflower State and all those naysaying nincompoops would just soar into space?

Seeger’s bumper sticker was prompted by a 2005 squabble among the members of the state board of education on whether to teach evolution only as a theory.  Board member Connie Morris sent a taxpayer-funded newsletter to constituents calling evolution an “age-old fairy tale” that was defended with “anti-God contempt and arrogance.” Describing herself as a Christian who believes in a literal interpretation of Genesis, Morris wrote that evolution was “biologically, genetically, mathematically, chemically, metaphysically and etc. wildly and utterly impossible.”

I guess if you believe that evolution proposes better results as time passes, the existence of Ms. Morris gives that idea the lie.  On the other hand it doesn’t say much for her alternative of “intelligent design” either.

Kansas is the state that inspired a whole book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America a 2004 book by historian Thomas Frank that examined how Kansas voters routinely cut their own throats with their ballot, consistently voting for candidates and issues that ultimately screw them over.   I think it goes without saying that these hypocritical politicos are Republicans—some light years to the extreme right of Dwight Eisenhower, a native Republican Kansan who is among a handful of great  presidents.

See, Kansas, it IS possible to elect a candidate who will fulfill his promises and who will not stir up your bigot genes with lynch mob issues like abortion and gay rights to get elected and then do what he or she damn well pleases, i.e. sell out to corporate buddies like the Koch Brothers, those odious excretions on the body politic.

Those who think that a gay NFL player is the end of civilization as they know it (i.e. the world of Alley Oop) say a gay guy in the locker room would be a “distraction.”  My feeling is that a 300 pound lineman distracted by a gay guy in a jock strap, does not have his mind focused on his job which is to play smashmouth football and that he should be more concerned about the possibility of a brain-rattling collision which will come back to haunt him in the future.  It doesn’t seem likely to me that a newly drafted gay NFL player is going to tour the locker room before a game begging his teammates for a kiss.

But out in Kansas commonsense is as rare as towering trees on the prairie.  Kansas is a state of beauty but one troubled by its citizens ever since the Indians got ousted.  We once owned a share in a section of rangeland in Western Kansas and I camped there once and woke to the sight of what seemed endless shortgrass prairie.  A tired coyote was drifting home after a long night of hunting and a buck deer walked slowly across my view, giving lie to the fiction that the prairie is a lifeless desert.

Kansas is the last bastion of the greater prairie chicken, largely because the same profligate attitude that infects today’s Kansans was practiced by their forebears who slaughtered the bison and grouse that once swarmed on the prairie.  Predictably Kansas lawmakers are fighting any attempt to list either the lesser or greater prairie chicken as threatened even though the lesser obviously is.

I confess to a sneaking admiration for the Kansas Jayhawk basketball team which has a glittering tradition of winning all the way back to Phog Allen (a terrible confession for a Mizzou grad to make).  I wonder if any of the hundreds of fine ball players for the Jayhawks have been practitioners of an alternative lifestyle and if the rabid fans would have accepted them had they come out?

But when push comes to shove, Missouri is only marginally better than Kansas except in basketball.  We just had an anti-gay marriage rally, designed to show just how regressive Missouri can be.  Fortunately it was lightly attended by the gay bashers who were heavily outnumbered by supporters of gay marriage in a counter rally.

And, as nuts as Kansas and Missouri can be, they don’t hold a candle to the ravings of Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Republican who incoherently said, “Because our K-12 public school system, of which ninety percent of all youth are in the public school system, they will be required to learn that homosexuality is normal, equal and perhaps you should try it. And that will occur immediately, that all schools will begin teaching homosexuality.”  That idiotic mumble should be tattooed on her forehead so everyone could see just how nuts she is.

But to sum it all up, it falls to the Sperminator (as he is known now after fathering an illegitimate child,  Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California Republican ex-governor and father of a love child, who said, ““I think that gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman.”  George W. Bush couldn’t have said it better.

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  • Blog
  • February 5th, 2014

A Great American

By Joel M. Vance

            He was called the Complete Folksinger.  I call him the Complete American.  Pete Seeger died recently at 94 and America lost a voice that spanned decades, a voice that asked where all the flowers went, that implored the downtrodden to overcome, that promised that for everything there is a season.

            He belonged to anyone who had been spit on by life and he spoke for them with  a long-necked banjo and a gentle spirit.  Pete Seeger for more than 90 years was just like the singer in one of his favorite folksongs, “I’m just a poor wayfarin’ stranger, a-travelin’ through this world of woe.”

He hung around with Woody Guthrie who wrote the unofficial American anthem “This Land Is Your Land.”  And it was Pete Seeger himself who wrote the anthem of black America “We Shall Overcome.”  When the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over the world, he summed it up with “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

He sailed past 90 years and outlasted Joe McCarthy and his sleazy band of thugs and he is thought of today as what he always was—a spokessinger for the common man and the best friend a union guy ever had.

His role as minstrel for the union man dates to 1939 when he sang in concerts for the New York Dairy Farmers Union. He and Woody Guthrie gypsied around the country until Seeger was drafted in 1942 and served in the Pacific.  He returned just in time to have a head-on collision with McCarthyism—a long-running battle that he ultimately won.

            Pete Seeger was a great American, no matter what the witch hunters of the 1950s said about him.  He never stopped sticking up for the little guy and he never stopped sticking up for the environment.  He was traveling the length of the Hudson River long before today’s environmentalists took it up as a cause, singing about the industrial outrages being committed against this gem of a river.

Seeger did belong to the American Communist party for several years in the 1940s when the Soviet Union and Joe Stalin were our allies against Germany.  He said his father Charles, whose family dates to the Mayflower, got him into communism.  Both later became disenchanted and quit.

Seeger said, “Some of my ancestors were religious dissenters who came to America over three hundred years ago. Others were abolitionists in New England in the eighteen forties and fifties.”  Seeger became involved with civil rights in the 1960s and joined the growing disenchantment with Viet Nam, still later he crusaded for the environment.

            In 1967, he wrote an angry song titled “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” which he sang twice on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour—the first time the song was cut by censors and the second time it did get broadcast The song had been inspired by a training accident when an incompetent officer led his heavily-loaded platoon into deep water, resulting in the captain’s drowning.

            But it really was about Viet Nam and everyone knew it.  “And the big fool says to push on….” was the repeated line and when Lyndon Johnson heard it he no doubt entertained dark thoughts about where he’d like to stick Seeger’s banjo because there is no doubt Seeger had LBJ in mind as the big fool.

            Seeger was quoted as saying, “In the sixties, during the Vietnam war, when anarchists and pacifists and socialists, Democrats and Republicans, decent-hearted Americans, all recoiled with horror at the bloodbath, we came together. “

            Seeger testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 and basically told the glowering politicos to stuff it.  He said he had a right to free speech under the Constitution and it was none of their business how he used it.  “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs,” he said.

            He went on to explain Americanism to people who should have known it already:”I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, that I am any less of an American than anyone else.”

            Ultimately he was cited and convicted of contempt of Congress (which today would put much of the public behind bars) and sentenced to 10 years in prison.  After a year the charge was dismissed and by 1969 he was more environmentalist than subversive (or maybe those are the same thing).  He and friends launched a sloop named the Clearwater on the Hudson River and his campaign to clean up and keep clean this great river has continued ever since with measurable results, although it’s a continuing battle.

What kind of example did the life of Pete Seeger set for his fellow Americans?  Well, he wrote “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” to crystallize the evils of racism and nuclear threat, but he also has written sweet songs for children. Back in the 1950s, before the McCarthyites got their claws in him, he led a group called the Weavers who had a huge popular hit with “Goodnight Irene,” as well as some others such as “The Midnight Special” and Woody Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.”

Before that Seeger and a group of proto-folk singers set the standards for everyone who has come since.  There was Woody Guthrie, of course, but also Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Leadbelly and Cisco Houston and many others whose names largely are forgotten today.   He and his wife, Toshi, married in1942—a marital longevity that most happy couples can only hope for and most couples in general never come within a light year of.  Toshi died in 2013 just days shy of their 70th anniversary.

            “I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other,” Seeger said.  It won’t happen, but it’s a nice daydream, especially for those of us from rural America who grew up in and around small towns.

             And Pete Seeger taught me how to play the banjo.  Not in person, unfortunately, but through his 1948 Manual “How to Play the Five String Banjo” which has been through numerous printings and revisions since.  Because I liked his music and banjo playing I bought both the book and a banjo.

            Fifty years later I realized it was time to say thank you, so I sent him one of my books and told him that he had inspired me both musically and philosophically.  I got a nice note of thanks and a couple of bumper stickers reading, “Gravity Is Only a Theory.”

            “Give these to your friends in Kansas,” he wrote.  Old crusaders never die—they just keep singing against whatever big fool is saying to press on, no matter what.

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