Fighting the Good Fight

By Norman Lear
December 30, 2011

I was recently shown a picture from one of the Occupy protests taking place across the country. It featured a young woman surrounded by police. She was the only protester in the picture, but she didn't seem intimidated. All by herself, up against the police barricade, she held a handwritten sign saying simply "I am a born again American."
I've never met this woman, but I think I know exactly what she's feeling.

I had my first "born again American" moment 30 years ago, when I was moved to outrage and action by a group of hate-preaching televangelists who were trying to claim sole ownership of patriotism, faith and flag for the far right. One of them asked his viewing congregation to pray for the removal of a Supreme Court justice.

I did what I knew how to do and produced a 60-second TV spot. It featured a factory worker whose family members, all Christians, held an array of political beliefs. He didn't believe that anyone, not even a minister, had a right to judge whether people were good or bad Christians based on their political views. "That's not the American way," he wound up saying. I ran it on local TV, and it was picked up by the networks. People For the American Way grew out of the overwhelming response to that ad.

One of the most encouraging things to happen in 2011 was the birth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is giving the entire country the chance for a "born again American" moment. In calling attention to the country's widening chasm between rich and poor, the Occupiers have unleashed decades of pent-up patriotic outrage against the systematic violation of our nation's core principles by the "say good-bye to the middle class" alliance of the neocons, theocons and corporate America.

To those many millions of Americans whose guts tell them the Occupy movement is on to something but aren't the sort to camp out or protest in the street, I say find another way to let your voice be heard in the new year. Work with others who share your passion for equal opportunity and equal justice for all Americans, and find ways to channel outrage into productive action. I'm betting you'll find, as I have over my nearly four score plus 10, that you'll form some of the most rewarding relationships and have some of the most meaningful experiences of your life.

I have been lucky in many ways. I was raised by my immigrant grandfather to treasure the freedom and opportunities America offers. I also learned early to fear the power of demagogues with megaphones, as an 11-year-old listening to the anti-Semitic ravings and attacks on President Franklin D. Roosevelt from radio priest Father Coughlin, the spiritual godfather of those who poison our airwaves and online forums today. By the time I was a teenager, I knew that the values of individual and religious liberty were worth fighting for, which is why I dropped out of college to enlist in the war against Hitler.

Since then I have repeatedly seen Americans get off their couches to hold this country accountable to its stated values. They did it to fight for civil rights and the dismantling of the legal apartheid of Jim Crow; for the women's movement; for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. They have rallied to ensure that immigrants are treated with dignity and justice. All these efforts to overcome bigotry and institutionalized prejudice are still works in progress, but I am awed by the progress we have made.

Generations of Americans have worked to create a nation in which individual liberty can thrive alongside commitment to the principle that all members of a community should have the opportunity to pursue their dreams and build a decent life for themselves and their families. In recent decades, that dream has been betrayed.

The religious right leaders who got me engaged in politics often portray such things as free expression and equal protection for all Americans no matter their race, religion or sexual orientation as anti-Christian and un-American, as symptoms of cultural decline. I couldn't disagree more. What strikes me as un-American are the greed, deception and systematic corruption that have infected politics, business and so much of our culture in recent years. Some of those with power and privilege have worked to create a system that continually reinforces that privilege and power, leaving ever-increasing numbers of Americans without reasonable hope for the kind of life their parents worked to give them.

Many Americans are in despair, and it has left them open to demagoguery and political manipulation. Blame gays, liberals, unions, immigrants or feminists for your family's struggles, for shrinking economic opportunity, for foreclosures and disappearing wages and benefits. Blame secularists or Muslims, or both, for the sense that our values have gone haywire.

A year out from the 2012 election, I am already tired of those who use the phrase "American exceptionalism" to reassert the far-right's claim that God, the Founding Fathers and any decent freedom-loving American must share their reactionary political agenda. I embrace the idea too that our nation should be a "shining city on a hill." We are the spiritual heirs to those Americans who struggled to end slavery and segregation, to end child labor and win safe conditions and living wages for workers, to enable every American to enrich his or her community and country by finding a place and a way to flourish in the world. We must make ourselves worthy of that legacy.

Call it the American dream, the American promise or the American way. Whatever term you use, it is imperiled, and worth fighting for. It is that basic, deeply patriotic emotion that I believe is finding expression — bottom-up, small-d democratic expression — in the Occupy movement. We can, and I would say must, fully embrace both love of country and outrage at attempts to despoil it. What better cause? What better time?

Television writer and producer Norman Lear founded People for the American Way.


Mary Figures It Out


The Hobbit Trailer




Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011

Christopher Hitchens, the engaging and enraging British-American author and essayist whose polemical writings on religion, politics, war and other provocations established him as one of his generation's most robust public intellectuals, has died. He was 62.

Hitchens died Thursday night at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, said his literary agent, Steve Wasserman.

Hitchens was diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer in June 2010, when his memoir, "Hitch-22," hit the bestseller lists. He wrote and spoke unflinchingly of his grim prognosis and acknowledged that years of heavy smoking and drinking had placed him at high risk for the aggressive disease.

His openness about having cancer elicited thousands of letters and e-mails to Vanity Fair, where he was a longtime contributor. Many of the well-wishers offered prayers for the famously atheistic author, who had made his case against religion in the 2007 book "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." He maintained that his illness had not changed his mind about religion and, borrowing from Shakespeare, asked believers not to bother "deaf heaven" with their "bootless cries."

Erudition, a roguish sense of humor and passion for intellectual combat were hallmarks of his writing, which was prolific. In addition to Vanity Fair, he was a columnist for the online magazine Slate and contributor to Harper's, the Atlantic and a number of British publications. He wrote two dozen books, including highly regarded biographies of George Orwell, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, and co-wrote or edited at least eight others.

A swashbuckling opinionator, he loved few things better than a good argument — and he knew how to pick one. Once described by the New Yorker as "looking like someone who, with as much dignity as possible, has smoothed his hair and straightened his collar after knocking the helmet off a policeman," he tarred Bill Clinton as a rapist, Mother Teresa as a fraud and Henry Kissinger as a war criminal. He argued in Vanity Fair that women were less funny than men, which stoked the wrath of female comics. "I am programmed by the practice of a lifetime to take," he wrote, "a contrary position."

In his personal life he was no less the "rapscallion iconoclast," as historian Douglas Brinkley once described him. He left his pregnant first wife for another woman. He swore an affidavit during the Monica Lewinsky scandal that put his friend, Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal, at risk of a perjury charge. Over the years he fell out of friendship with a long list of notables, including novelists Gore Vidal and Saul Bellow, who dismissed Hitchens as a "Fourth Estate playboy thriving on agitation."

After the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001, he truly became the scourge of the left. Repulsed by what he saw as the left's desire to blame American foreign policy for the attacks, he championed the Bush administration's war on terrorism and resigned his longtime post as Washington columnist for the liberal Nation magazine. His polarizing views brought sarcasm from former allies, one of whom described Hitchens' shift as "the first-ever metamorphosis from a butterfly back into a slug."

"During all this I never quite lost the surreal sense that I had become in some way a pro-government dissident," Hitchens wrote, "and that of all the paradoxes of my little life this might have to register as the most acute one."

Writer Martin Amis said the controversy merely illuminated his friend's "autocontrarian" nature. Hitchens "sees, not only the most difficult position, but the most difficult position for Christopher Hitchens," Amis wrote in the London Guardian in 2011. "Christopher is one of nature's rebels. By which I mean that he has no automatic respect for anybody or anything."

He was born Christopher Eric Hitchens in Portsmouth, England, on April 13, 1949. The elder of two sons, he had a cool relationship with his father, Ernest, a commander in the British Royal Navy, but a warmer one with his mother, Yvonne. She taught him to love books and was determined that he would be the first Hitchens to attend college. "If there is going to be an upper class in this country," Hitchens overheard her telling his father, "then Christopher is going to be in it."

His parents saved enough money to send him to Leys, a boarding school in Cambridge, and then to Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics and bloomed as a political campaigner. He joined the International Socialists, a faction of the anti-Stalinist left, and charged into the anti-Vietnam War movement. A skillful debater, he discovered that "if you can give a decent speech in public or cut any kind of figure on the podium, then you need never dine or sleep alone." British literary critic Terry Eagleton, who had been a socialist comrade at Oxford, said Hitchens was so nakedly ambitious that he "made Uriah Heep look like Little Nell."

In 1969, Hitchens began writing book reviews for the left-leaning London weekly New Statesman, where he forged important friendships with writers Martin Amis, James Fenton and Ian McEwan. In 1970 he graduated with honors from Balliol and won a grant to travel across the U.S., which left him smitten by his "New World." He returned to England, where he burnished his journalism credentials writing for mainstream and leftist publications. One of his assignments was a New Statesman profile of Margaret Thatcher in which he riled the future prime minister's Conservative Party supporters by calling her sexy. In a subsequent encounter at a party, Thatcher called him a "naughty boy" and swatted his behind.

In 1973, when he was 24 and living in London, his mother committed suicide with her lover, a defrocked vicar, during a trip to Greece.

Years later, he discovered one of her secrets: She was Jewish, which made him Jewish. "My initial reaction, apart from pleasure and interest, was the faint but definite feeling that I had somehow known all along," he wrote in a 1988 essay, "On Not Knowing the Half of It." But he remained anti-religion and anti-Zionist.

With London as his base, Hitchens spent the 1970s covering revolutions and human rights: nail bombers in Belfast, anti-fascists in Portugal, persecuted leftist journalist Jacobo Timerman in Argentina.

While on assignment in Cyprus in 1977, he met Eleni Meleagrou and married her in 1981. He left her when she was expecting their second child and in 1991 married Carol Blue, a freelance journalist.

In addition to Blue, he is survived by their daughter, Antonia; two children from his first marriage, Alexander and Sophia; and a brother, Peter, a conservative columnist for the British paper Daily Mail.

Some Hitchens watchers trace his disillusionment with the left to 1992, when he called for military intervention in Bosnia, but Hitchens said it began later, during the Clinton era. The rupture was complete after the 9/11 strikes in New York and Washington, when Hitchens drew a line between himself and other leading liberals, such as Noam Chomsky.

He was contemptuous of Chomsky and others who argued that American imperialism, by turning much of the world against the U.S., had drawn the terrorists here.

"I can only hint at how much I despise a left that thinks of Osama bin Laden as a slightly misguided anti-imperialist," Hitchens wrote later. "Instead of internationalism, we find among the left now a sort of affectless, neutralist, smirking isolationism" and "a masochistic refusal to admit that our own civil society has any merit."
In September 2002 Hitchens wrote his last column for the Nation, which he said had become "the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace" than bin Laden, and organized intellectuals and activists to campaign against Saddam Hussein's rule. He was criticized just as harshly by his former allies, such as New Left Review editor Tariq Ali, who wrote that the Hitchens he knew disappeared in the 9/11 inferno, leaving a "vile replica" in his place.

In 2007, on his 58th birthday, Hitchens enjoyed a moment of high patriotism and irony: The onetime Trotskyite took the oath of U.S. citizenship in a private ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial, conducted by George W. Bush's homeland security chief, Michael Chertoff.

What Hitchens once said of Vidal was also abundantly true of himself: He possessed "the rare gift of being amusing about serious things as well as serious about amusing ones." In Vanity Fair, which he joined in 1992, he wrote of his personal encounters with waterboarding and Brazilian bikini waxes with self-deprecating humor and cerebral detachment.

Both qualities informed his writing on his bleakest subject: his cancer.

"I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death," he wrote in Vanity Fair last September, shortly after learning he had esophageal cancer that had spread to his lungs and lymph nodes. "But nothing prepared me for the early morning last June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse." Noting that his father had died of the same type of cancer, he added, "In whatever kind of a 'race' life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist." His cancer was classified Stage 4 and he readily conceded that "there is no Stage 5."

His illness caused him to cancel the publicity tour for "Hitch-22," which opens, eerily, with a rumination on death prompted by his recollection of an incident years ago when he was referred to as "the late Christopher Hitchens." In this prologue, he rejects fatalism and declares "I personally want to 'do' death in the active and not the passive, and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me."

He aggressively sought treatment, which included genetic testing to determine which chemotherapy drug might be most effective on his cancer. He was encouraged to try the experimental approach by his friend, Dr. Francis Collins, the eminent geneticist and born-again Christian with whom he had debated the existence of God.

He also kept up a frenetic pace of writing and, until recently, public speaking. In one of his most publicized appearances after being diagnosed with cancer, he faced Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and recent convert to Catholicism, in a sold-out Toronto debate on whether religion was a force for good in the world.

Despite his obvious frailty, Hitchens was in top form, provoking wide laughter when he compared God to "a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea."

At the debate's end, the audience of 2,700 voted him the winner.


Findings (Harper's Magazine Jan. 2012)

Power without status is the most corrupting.

Those who feel powerless attempt to gain prestige by eating larger portions.

Lonely consumers prefer unpopular products.

Agreeable people have lower credit scores.

Undeserved self-praise may induce depression.

People who wear less clothing are seen as less competent and moral but more sensitive.

Philadelphian teenagers who want to lose weight also tend to drink too much soda, whereas Bostonian teenagers who drink too much soda are likelier to carry guns.

Babies understand the thought processes of others around ten months and begin to behave fairly around fifteen months.

Psychologists found that high blood pressure reduces the ability to perceive anger,fearfulness, happiness, and sadness in facial expressions. "it's like living in a world of email," explained the lead researcher, "without smiley faces..."


Sugar Plum Fairy

Chapel of the Flowers, Las Vegas. Dec. 11, 1994


Another September 11 By Ariel Dorfman

The Nation

Epitaph for Another September 11
Ariel Dorfman

That September 11, that lethal Tuesday morning, I awoke with dread to the sound of planes flying above my house. When, an hour later, I saw smoke billowing from the center of the city, I knew that life had changed for me, for my country, forever.

It was September 11, 1973, and the country was Chile and the armed forces had just bombed the presidential palace in Santiago as the first stage of a coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. By the end of the day, Allende was dead and the land where we had sought a peaceful revolution had been turned into a slaughterhouse. It would be almost two decades, most of which I spent in exile, before we defeated the dictatorship and recovered our freedom.

Twenty-eight years after that fateful day in 1973, on another September 11, also a Tuesday morning, it was the turn of another city that was equally mine to be attacked from on high, it was another sort of terror that rained down, but again my heart filled with dread, again I confirmed that nothing would ever be the same, not for me, not for the world. It was not the history of one homeland that would be affected, not one people who would endure the consequences of fury and hatred, but the entire planet.

For the past ten years, I have puzzled about this juxtaposition of dates; I cannot get it out of my head that there is some sort of meaning hidden behind or inside the coincidence. It is possible that my obsession is the result of having been a resident of both countries at the precise time of each onslaught, of the circumstance that those two assaulted cities constitute the twin cornerstones of my hybrid identity. Because I grew up as a child learning English in New York and spent my adolescence and young adulthood falling in love with Spanish in Santiago, because I am as much American as I am Latin American, I can’t help taking the parallel destruction of the innocent lives of my compatriots personally, hoping that lessons may arise out of the pain and smoldering confusion.

Chile and the United States offer, in effect, contrasting models of how to react to a collective trauma.

Every nation that has been subjected to great harm is faced with a fundamental series of questions that probe its deepest values. How to pursue justice for the dead and reparation for the living? Can the balance of a broken world be restored by giving in to the understandable thirst for revenge against our enemies? Are we not in danger of becoming like them, in danger of turning into their perverse shadow—do we not risk being governed by our rage?

If 9/11 can be understood as a test, it seems to me, alas, that the United States failed it. The fear generated by a small band of terrorists led to a series of devastating actions that far exceeded the damage occasioned by the original ordeal. Two unnecessary wars that have not yet ended, a colossal waste of resources that could have been used to save our environment and educate our children, hundreds of thousands dead and mutilated, millions displaced, a disgraceful erosion of civil rights in America and the use of torture and rendition abroad that ended up giving carte blanche to other regimes to flout human rights. And, last but not least, the bolstering of an already bloated national security state that thrives on a culture of mendacity, spying and trepidation.

Chile also could have responded to violence with more violence. If ever there was a justification for taking up arms against a tyrannical overlord, our struggle met every criteria. And yet the Chilean people and the leaders of the resistance—with a few sad exceptions—decided to oust General Pinochet through active nonviolence, taking over the country that had been stolen from us, inch by inch, organization by organization, until we ultimately bested him in a plebiscite that he should have won but could not. The result has not been perfect. The dictatorship continues to contaminate Chilean society several decades after it lost power. But all in all, as an example of how to create a lasting peace out of loss and untold suffering, Chile has shown a determination to make sure that there will never again be another September 11 of death and destruction.

What is magical about that decision to fight malevolence through peaceful means is that Chileans were echoing unawares another September 11, back in 1906 in Johannesburg, when Mohandas Gandhi persuaded several thousand of his fellow Indians in the Empire Theatre to vow nonviolent resistance to an unjust and discriminatory pre-apartheid ordinance. That strategy of Satyagraha would, in time, lead to India’s independence and to many other attempts at achieving peace and justice around the world, including America’s civil rights movement.

One hundred and five years after the Mahatma’s memorable call to imagine a way out of the trap of rage, thirty-eight years after those planes woke me in the morning to tell me that I would never again be able to escape terror, ten years after the New York of my childhood dreams was decimated by fire, I would hope that the right epitaph for all those September 11s would be the everlasting words of Gandhi: “Violence will prevail over violence, only when someone can prove to me that darkness can be dispelled by darkness.”
August 30, 2011