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Saturday, 11 March 2006
An open letter to lovers of theater, literature and justice:
Topic: antiwar
As you know, Rochester prides itself on being a cultural Mecca, not least because of its theater offerings. The city also is proud of its educational institutions – take recent PR bragging that our metro area is the functional equivalent of a “college town,” i.e. we’ve got a high student-civilian ratio. And of course, art and education get on famously together, as in Geva’s production of Inherit the Wind, which mounts a defense of freedom of thought and expression.

It’s great to live in a metaphorical Mecca. But today my cultural thoughts are turning not so much in that direction as toward the real world of Gaza – more precisely, to a theatrical production that, through the words of a young American who lost her life fighting injustice, showcases the daily tragedies of life in occupied Palestine and raises intriguing questions about free speech in America today.

I’m speaking of My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play produced by well-known actor Alan Rickman that had a successful run in London but just got the axe by the New York Theatre Workshop. (The Workshop’s director said the decision was a response “a very edgy situation” brought on by Ariel Sharon’s illness and the Hamas victory in recent Palestinian elections. Talk about weasel words. In artistic terms, such cowardice cuts the Big Apple down to the size of a sour cherry.)

Background shouldn’t be necessary here; if we had real independent commercial media here, Corrie would have long ago become a household name. But to review: In March 2003, the 23-year-old, who’d traveled from her home in Washington state to Palestine with other international solidarity volunteers, was crushed to death under a US-built Caterpillar tractor in Gaza. Corrie had been standing in the bulldozer’s path to stop the destruction of yet another Palestinian home in Rafah, a Gaza community on the Egyptian border.

Corrie didn’t present herself as a plaster saint. But her story has already inspired thousands of peace activists and certainly resonates among young Palestinians and Israelis. Likewise, her story would draw attention here in Rochester and other parts of Upstate. So how about it, Rochester theater aficionados and friends? Will you rise to the challenge?

Take a page from some New York City activists who are planning an informal production for March 22 at Riverside Church. Here’s what their webpage (www.rachelswords.org) has to say, as of 3/11: “An array of actors, academics, and activists will read the writings of Rachel Corrie and address how vital it is for the arts to provide a platform for difficult discourse, something that is greatly needed on the issue of Israel and Palestine. The current line up includes Maysoon Zayid, Kia Corthron, Malachy McCourt, Najla Said, Kathleen Chalfant, Betty Shamieh, Jonathan Tasini and Anthony Arnove. We are awaiting confirmation from many more who have expressed interest. We hope that ‘Rachel’s Words’ will provide a burst of light in the pervasive climate of fear and challenge to free speech that is increasingly prevalent in our society and open the door to many other silenced voices.”

Other groups around the country are staging similar events even earlier – on March 16, the third anniversary of Corrie’s death. You’ll find a growing list of these events linked to the URL above.

How wonderful it would be to find Rochester on the list. I guess it will depend on whether Rochester can shed its habitual stage fright about this thematic material - and take the cue.







Posted by jackbradiganspula at 10:25 EST
Updated: Sunday, 12 March 2006 08:02 EST
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Friday, 3 March 2006
The war at home
Topic: antiwar
Looking across New York State, decaying milltown by decaying milltown, you see the same old, tired parochialism calling the shots – attempting to define the future with no sense of the economic past. Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse – everywhere budget deficits stalk public services, political infighting serves as entertainment, political grandstanders make vapid promises to attract capital and jobs, and media types offer solutions shallower than the Erie Canal after winter draw-down.

Not to undervalue the microcosm. Consider two Rochester-area news items: first, the Transit Authority’s cutting bus fares for longer runs (good for exurban riders) while slightly boosting the cost of typical urban commutes (bad for the poor) and significantly hiking some Lift Line fares (terrible for the disabled); and second, an official plan to close the Highland Branch library - my neighborhood branch - if the city budget deficit maxes out, per Mayor Bob Duffy’s projections. Such actions, multiplied over a metro region, add up to real suffering. And local solutions, whether you’re talking about cleaning up the generic city hall or diligently crunching the budget numbers, do make a difference.

But not enough of a difference. Such things don’t expose the roots – the “macro” that’s brought us to the brink.

Upstate New York’s troubles have little to do with how we market ourselves to capitalists; how efficient or virtuous our local governments are, relative to those of other states or regions; or, much less, our weather and recreational attractions. Our troubles are rooted in historic, massive shifts in demographics and national economic policies. And these shifts are painfully obvious: depopulation, corporate disinvestment, planned or unplanned technological obsolescence.

An annual publication from the New York City-based War Resisters League makes the point – in black and white, and between the lines.

The publication is a modest two-sided flier: on one side, “Where Your Income Tax Money Really Goes: the US Federal Budget 2007 Fiscal Year,” and on the other, “Paying for [the Iraq/Afghanistan] War: How Much and For How Long?” You can access the flier at www.warresisters.org.

According to WRL calculations – and they’ve honed their skills over the years - in 2007 the nation will spend, or throw away, $663 billion on the military. That includes the well-known Pentagon outlay of $429 billion, plus the increasingly familiar $100 billion “off-budget” expense of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus often-overlooked items like the military portions of non-Pentagon federal agencies and departments (e.g. $17 billion for the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons activities) and interest on the military-related portion of the national debt (estimated at more than $350 billion for this one year).

That’s one impressive chunk of change. But what does it have to do with Upstate New York’s decline and eventual fall? Briefly, the military spending system – the dollars-and-cents elements of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex – is a topographical map of national political and social priorities and a road map of the nation’s physical, material responses to ideologies and power politics.

The biggest chunk of our discretionary funding (i.e. not including trust funds like Social Security) goes to war production and military personnel, and most of that sector is located in the Sunbelt and West; and further, with industry and research so beholden to Pentagon outlays, the bulk of the US economic infrastructure has followed the money south and west.

It’s slash-and-burn capitalism. We’re once again a “Burned Over District.” The good news is, it can’t go on this way forever. But I think it will go on for a good long time – absent the revolution of values our contemporary prophets (and alas, rarely our pundits) have demanded of us.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 16:58 EST
Updated: Saturday, 4 March 2006 08:51 EST
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Wednesday, 22 February 2006
Running the gauntlet
Topic: urban issues
A few days ago, young Shawn Beach, a Brighton resident who commuted by bicycle to a job near Pittsford Plaza, was struck and killed by a motor vehicle at the entrance ramp to I-590 North on Monroe Avenue. As reported in the D&C, a sheriff’s office spokesperson said the obvious: it was “an unfortunate accident.”

And it almost goes without saying: All of us mourn this loss of life. Our hearts go out to Shawn Beach's family and friends and coworkers - and also to the motorist who unintentionally played a tragic role and now must live with that.

It’s hard to tell what factors came into play. Beach was reportedly wearing dark clothing, and the collision took place at 6:25 pm, one of the worst times of the day for visibility. No charges are expected.

The case prompts some reminders. While sharing the road as provided by law, bicyclists and motorists have certain responsibilities. Bikers must wear bright, reflective clothing and use proper lights. Drivers need to operate their potentially lethal machines with due regard for others.

But one actor here is evading responsibility. It’s the transportation system that creates inherently hazardous conditions – for the dubious goal of shaving a minute or two off someone’s commute or shopping trip.

I know the stretch of Monroe that took down Shawn Beach – and I know that bicyclists have to watch their backs there. Indeed, going through there this like pedaling a quarter-mile gauntlet.

Put yourself in the saddle:

Say you’re biking west on Monroe between Clover St. and Twelve Corners. You’re required by law and prudence to keep as far to the right as possible. But as you approach the I-590 on-ramp from the east, you find you can’t do this. To stay on the avenue, you must cross a right-turn-only lane that feeds high-speed traffic onto the on-ramp.

(There are many other local examples of this kind of thing. One I love to hate is in downtown, where Monroe Avenue crosses over the Inner Loop just south of the Strong Musueum. At rush hour, especially, a bicyclist understands how high this complex intersection/crossover sits on the sliding scale of unintelligent design. Particularly impressive are the TWO right turn lanes that cyclists must negotiate.)

So how do you cope with Monroe at I-590?

Well, you can dismount and walk your bike across the pedestrian crosswalk – in other words, adopt a “back of the bus” status as user of the public highways. (Not that this will totally protect you.) Or you can check your rear-view mirror for a break in the traffic flow, and then zip leftward across the right-turn-only lane to the travel lane up ahead.

In either scenario, you’re at the mercy of the motor traffic. And believe me, people tear through the Monroe-Clover area like crazy. Whether they’re going to stay on Monroe Avenue or turn onto I-590, their eyes are on one prize: spending the shortest possible time between points A and B.

Not to put the sole blame on motorists as a class. (Disclosure and confession: I don’t own a car, but I do have a driver’s license and drive occasionally.) They’ve had their enablers, a.k.a. transportation planners, agency officials, and oil/auto/construction corporate types – the panoply of horsepower fetishists that together have made the public highways a killing zone. And this is more than unfortunate, or even a crying shame. It’s an ongoing moral crime.

Remember that, too, as you remember the life and death of Shawn Beach.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 11:15 EST
Updated: Friday, 3 March 2006 17:01 EST
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Sunday, 19 February 2006

I'm still stunned about Dennis Monroe's passing. But through the disbelief and pain come so many memories of his music, his voice, and his unfailing humanity, and such strong affirmation of what he meant to Rochester.

For those who didn't have the good fortune to know Dennis - well, you missed one of the most genuine human beings around. He was a master of strings: guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, you name it. And he sang up a storm, too, everything from lute songs to blues and rock. Above all, he was a man of community, one who lived for his students, friends, family. Certainly his kids and wife Joni are devastated by their loss. But hundreds, if not thousands of Rochesterians are in mourning still.

I knew Dennis for more than 30 years. In the early days, we played Renaissance and Baroque music together once in a while. There was a memorable Christmas concert in Mendon Center one year; I attempted a couple Polish carols, with Dennis accompanying on guitar. Now I think we didn't do enough of these collaborations. Nor did we hoist as many beers together as would have been ideal.

He and I shared a love of nature and the outdoors, too, and the hikes we took were spiritually the flip side of the music. On the trail, Dennis was as genuine as he was when holding a fiddle. I recall one hike especially (it became an in-joke). We were climbing up through the streambed in Clark's Gully, near Naples, and soon enough we found ourselves stuck above a waterfall that seemed impossible to go down, though we’d scrambled up the thing safely, or maybe foolishly.

Anyway, we had to improvise a way up and out via a steep, gravelly wall dotted with foliage. Dennis started up the wall up first. The gravel gave way a little, but soon he found some handholds and called back down to me: "No problem. There's plenty of stuff to grab onto." I followed tentatively. A minute later it was smooth sailing. But suddenly we realized the handholds were clumps of poison ivy. We stuck to the upward path, though. What else to do? But at the top, we had to furiously scrub our hands and arms with soil to remove the sap before it could do its dirty work. Then we laughed like crazy, as we did many times afterward, thinking about that Laurel and Hardy moment.

Well, I can’t say why this sticks in my mind. I do know I always admired – and tried to learn from – Dennis’s humor, his sense not so much of the absurd but of the delights of silliness, boyishness. He had a way of breaking through the small stuff. I’ll try to keep my eyes on that prize, as Dennis would want.

All of us can seek comfort in the music, of course, which, as Dennis knew, means a lot more than notes on a page or physical sounds.

(I urge you all to check out the tribute page soon to be at http://gitfidmando.com.)

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 06:48 EST
Updated: Sunday, 19 February 2006 15:25 EST
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Sunday, 5 February 2006
At war with ourselves
Topic: economy
The Republican right wing’s economic promises long ago became tangible threats, even to its geographical base. I’m sure plenty of Louisianans in the lowland suburbs woke up to this fact even before George Bush slighted them in his State of the Union last week. Everyone an entrepreneur, says Bush. That means you’re ultimately responsible for digging yourself out of the muck, and never mind reconstruction of the levees and floodwalls. New Orleans and Fallujah: two faces of compassionate conservatism in action.

And now comes the president’s budget proposal, with severe cuts in domestic spending across the board, except for defense of the Fatherland, I mean Homeland Security. The Washington Post reports Bush wants to slash Medicare funding by $36 billion over the next five years. He’d also take the axe to Medicaid. Overall, says the Post, 141 programs would be eliminated or cut back. Over at the Pentagon, of course, things would be rosier. Bush proposes a five percent increase in military spending, up to $439 billion, a new world record. That’s not counting tens of billions for the criminal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The full obscenity of this is not being reported, however. The War Resisters League calculated that last year the nation spent $643 billion directly on the military – the sum of the Pentagon budget, military-related parts of such agencies as NASA and the Department of Energy, and the off-budget outlays for Afghanistan and Iraq. And as WRL says, for a fair accounting, add another $384 billion for the fraction of the national debt attributable to past wars. So that comes to more than $1 trillion for “defense” in just one year.

Meanwhile on the home front, where Monroe County and Rochester both face huge budget deficits the next couple of years and federal cuts in revenue-sharing already are being felt, what are politicians asking for, Democrats prominently included? Local leaders are toying with a plan to spend $300 million, much of it from federal transportation funds, for a rapidly metastasizing complex of structures downtown: a combo bus terminal, college campus, and performance center at Main and Clinton, plus a couple more performance halls just to the east.

Maybe they’ll call it Renaissance Squared, a bad idea that seems to grow exponentially – and again the R word seems appropriate, evoking the urban policies of, say, 16th-century bourgeois who lived large while sharing just enough with their slum-dwellers to prevent revolution. (Luckily, the servant class didn’t always cooperate.)

Why aren’t the locals protesting what’s happening in Washington? Why do they keep pretending that “all politics is local”? Why aren’t they drafting realistic strategies to deal with the urban landscape, starting with a Northeast inter-urban collaborative to force change in Washington?

If Rochester saves itself, it won’t be by going it alone, and certainly not by building redundant arts complexes. Check out a recent AP story the Buffalo News carried on the front page. With the suitably Dickensian (though clich?d) headline “A Tale of Two Cities,” the article told the story of Detroit as it welcomed this year’s Super Bowl. Detroit is Rochester writ larger and lower - the world’s premier blue-collar metropolis now depopulated (down to 900,000 from a height of 2 million) and depressed, except for its grand downtown architecture, an off-color Emerald City of casinos and stadiums.

Poor Detroit. Poor Buffalo. Poor us. It’s enough to make you mix some oil-and-water historical allusions. “I have seen the future, and it works [for a few].” And “After me, the deluge.”

But enough pouting. Some day you'll see me in the ticket line for the inevitable road-show production of Les Miserables – at spanking new Renaissance Square. Can't wait.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 11:24 EST
Updated: Sunday, 5 February 2006 15:35 EST
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