“There’s only one thing the ruling class really wants: Everything.” M. Parenti
“Since we seem to have landed in a battle, let us fight!” B. Brecht
A warm night with a hundred writers in a theater on the Westside talking about the government. What are the chances? No, not your typical “writers room” this LA confab. Organized by Jayne Lyn Stahl, poet and founder of Writers-at-Large (WAL), a statewide non-partisan advocacy group for free speech, the “Writers of the Storm” panel presented in conversation Joe Bosco, April Smith, Paul Krassner, Catherine Ann Jones and John Daly, among other authors. The Odyssey Theater’s 100-seat setting proved perfect. On stage behind the writers stood the set from “Reapers,” a play by John O’Keefe currently in production: A blown-apart shack’s back wall in front of a busted high brown fence, as storm clouds painted dark and possibly forever loomed as backdrop. Against such surroundings, this gaggle of embattled enemy combatants-with-PowerBooks discussed what words to take to the barricades.
Constitutional law expert and past president of the Southern California ACLU, Stephen F. Rohde (American Words of Freedom) sat snowy-haired in his serious suit and bow tie, announced twelve factors (so far) that showed the U.S. on a path to totalitarianism. “Especially in the media being in service of the state,” he said, bringing it home to those in the theater. For being, “a delivery system for government press releases,” Rohde blamed writers and journalists for their “failure to serve the function given to them under the First Amendment.” The moderator added this shocking tally: “43 percent of Americans say the media has too much freedom, while 14 percent know that freedom of the press is part of the first amendment.”
As sirens moaned outside on Sepulveda Boulevard bleeding through the theater walls, storyteller and healer Deena Metzger (Entering the Ghost River, Intimate Nature) paid attention to the moment: August 9th, the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. “Are we still stunned?” Metzger asked the audience. “Or have we just set it aside?” She called September 11, 2001, “our Reichstag”(the Parliament burning in Berlin in 1933, followed by the suspension of civil liberties by Hitler). Metzger said her editor told her to take 9-11 out of one book completely, and moderator Rohde, author of a new book on the freedom of assembly, said his editor asked him to, “make sure to write about the other side of Hoover, too.” For balance.
“All communication is political,” said David Koff, writer and performer with Frogworks Theater. Writers need to, “educate ourselves, speak out, and organize.” Jervey Tervalon, (Cocaine Chronicles, Dead Above Ground) offered up a new kind of civil disobedience: “When will the Blue States stop paying their taxes?”
Rohde said the Downing Street Memo proved, “we now have living proof the president committed high crimes and misdemeanors to get us into this war.” Here, Metzger snapped everyone to attention again. “I can’t enter this conversation,” she said sadly. “It seems so remote. This planet is on the edge. The Middle East is radiant with depleted uranium. The trees are going. Where is your heart?” It is the writer’s job, she said, to “speak in such a time as to break your heart open.”
Rohde said he meets with ministers from all faiths every Friday (ICUJP.org, the Interfaith Clergy United for Justice and Peace), and has done so since 9-11. But he ended the first panel with less inspiring news. Sixteen measures of the Patriot Act expected to end this December were all re-enlisted on July 29th. One of Patriot Act II’s clauses, Rohde said, makes activists committing civil disobedience face, “twenty years for what used to be a hundred dollar fine.” Huh? How? “If you have caused a risk to life…a change in government policy…” warned Rohde, citizens could face the death penalty under a provision in the proposed “Domestic Security Enhancement Act.”
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With fire in a crowded theatre about to break out angrily, Krassner and Bosco broke their own news. Co-founder of the “Yippies” (Youth International Party) in the 1960s, Krassner was called by moderator Rohde, “an iconic figure since the 1950s.” Krassner (Murder at the Conspiracy Convention, Psychedelic Trips for the Soul) told us he was “old enough to remember when the word media was plural.” His new book is called, “One Hand Jerking: Reports from an Investigative Satirist”(Foreword by Harry Shearer), and reveals how New York Times journalists believe Judith Miller outed Valerie Plame. Why? Joe Wilson’s op-ed column “was in effect an attack on Miller,” Krassner said, for those stories she wrote in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.
“There are so many asses being covered,” concluded Krassner, “it’s like a Christo art project.”
Bosco (A Problem of Evidence, Blood Will Tell) for the past three years has been professor of journalism at the Beijing Foreign University. He said he feels lucky teaching the first amendment to students, some who go on to work for China’s version of the Associated Press. Journalists there censor themselves, Bosco said, “Because they expect it.” But, “things are changing in China,” he announced. “Every day.”
As for science being undermined (“Galileo” by Brecht anyone?), writer Dick Russell (Eye of the Whale) said the clampdown began with Reagan. Now, Russell said, the EPA takes tax dollars for an office of Research & Development to fund stories and pr reports that fit the Bush agenda. “Then they’re planted in the press.”
April Smith, novelist (Good Morning Killer, North of Montana) and TV scenarist (Chicago Hope, Lou Grant Show), said she worries that, “underneath all the rhetoric is the ancient, ugly American grip of prejudice.” She said if she’s right, it signals “a core much more intractable than we know.” But, Smith suggested, “we can’t abandon our pursuit of drama” as the path out of this mess.
Russell told a story of leaving his job at TV Guide “to study a fish for seven years.” His new book Striper Wars changed his life. Take action, he said, via “ambulatory hopelessness,” where one keeps moving. (Perhaps invoking Mac Wellman’s lift from Locke: “Happiness is the weapon I wear in the war of all against all.”)
“I’m pissed off,” said Joe Bosco, who once took the stand in the 16-month Simpson trial to testify about protecting sources. Raised in a Jim Crow segregated Mississippi, Bosco became in 1966, “part of a movement that stopped a war and brought down a president.” He praised actor Ed Asner for always fighting the good fight. “Everyone knows what he stands for,” said Bosco, smiling at Asner and admonishing the others in the audience with him. “What about you? Are you sick of it? Then do something about it!”
(Prankster and Marx Brother-apparent Krassner admired Asner too, he said, for getting fired over a sponsor, Kimberly-Clark that exploited workers in El Salvador. “I’ve been boycotting Kleenex since then,” Krassner told Asner. What next? “Asner & Krassner” take it to D.C. September 24th?)
Near the end of the evening, a woman in the theater cried out: “WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? Speak out!” she exhorted. “You can make profit from the truth. Do we have to go down as a culture to remember why we have this, to remember that it’s not about money and fear?” Bosco told her their generation was “the last to receive a liberal arts education,” and that he reveled in being “part of the longhairs, who smoked dope and were part of that movement.” The right wing is still angry at the movement for taking back the country. Krassner said it was “the pioneers and Puritans who founded the country [who] have brought us to the culture wars.” Just returned from covering a “neo-Pagan festival” for The Nation, Krassner called the Pagans, “the canary in the cultural war coal mine,” citing recent burnings of Harry Potter novels.
“We need to support intelligence,” said audience member Terence McNally, who hosts a show on KPFK-Pacifica radio. “We need a way to make intelligence more robust, emotionally and physically.”
Emotionally, where is the writer’s heart? Deena Metzger’s words continue to resonate. “Self-scrutiny is required,” she told her fellow correspondents. “Everyone knows about Abu Graib. It should have taken the government down. But nothing happened.”
Hank Rosenfeld is a folk journalist in LA who writes for the LA Times, los angeles magazine, California Lawyer, Jewish Journal, and tells stories on NPR’s All Things Considered and PRI’s Marketplace and APM’S Weekend America.