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Category Archives: Personal Essays

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As I write, October 16th, 2013, the grand Kabuki drama of the nation rises to one of its cyclical peaks as the structural weaknesses of our Constitution come into synchronicity. In the next day or two this media orchestrated minuet will play out,  with a temporary collapse of the Tea-Party Republican extremist’s efforts to block so-called Obamacare, claiming the real concern is the Federal deficit, by threatening to defund the government, though most of the same people blithely upped the deficit, slashed taxes, and started two fraudulent wars without a care during the reign of George W. Bush – as VP Cheney famously said way back then, “Deficits don’t matter.”  But today, with a black man in the White House, they matter, if only as a rhetorical weapon-of-the-moment.  Or, instead, this dance may see the little hard-core of Tea Party Representatives willing and able to risk a global financial melt-down as the rigged “reserve currency” of the post-World War II era runs aground on the fractured politics of the nation which prints those famous old Greenbacks, as the “exceptional” USA defaults on its debts.  This in turn will accelerate the process where the great sloshing of globalized, unaccountable wealth is shifting its currency into what those with it imagine to be safer forms than silly old abstractions, like money.  Instead they buy “art” or real estate in places like London, New York, Abu Dubai, and other enclaves of the increasingly “only rich welcome” sanctuaries.

[Note: barring some last minute glitch, it appears the Republicans have blinked, and our grand Kabuki drama will carry on, with another riveting crisis being revved up off-stage at this very moment.]

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rothko1_2214608aMark Rothko painting, sold for $86,882,500koons01_Jeff Koons work sold for $33,682,500

A Rothko painting is composed of a thin sheet of canvas, and some thin layers of paint, and a wooden frame.  Materially it is both easily degraded (the red tones in this work are especially vulnerable to fading), or destroyed.  Materially it is worth perhaps $100.   Clearly what is being bought is something else – either the experience of looking at it, or, the assumption that its investment value in terms of money will increase faster, say, than the value of stocks, or interest from loaning the money.   While the Koons work is materially more substantial, the money to purchase it was animated by the same assumption: that the “art” aspect would multiply its “value” more rapidly than other investments.  In both cases, the reality is that, exactly as is the case with “money,” what is being assumed is that a social agreement that something “abstract” has material value.  Money, whether “represented” with things like gold or silver (chosen long ago because they do not readily oxidize and change their atomic structure), or paper, is in effect a social contract, one which says X currency is worth X material something.  When I was young a cup of (bad in the USA) coffee cost 5 cents.  Today in most cafes a cup of perhaps good coffee would run $3 or so. You can do the math on the inflation and figure out that the social contract regarding the numbers shifted terms rather drastically in my life-time.   In a similar way the social contract in America – between Americans – has also drastically changed.

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Two years ago Occupy Wall Street materialized, and shifted our political dialog sharply:  the phrases “we are the 99%” and its corollary, “the 1%” emerged from decades of suffocation with barbs about “class war.”  OWS was initially ignored by the press, and then briefly given coverage as it spawned across the country.  At the same moment the NSA, CIA and FBI, in a Federally coordinated effort, collaborated with local police departments to heavily clamp down and as best they could, destroy this movement.  But the cat had been let out of the bag and a broad social awareness of the ever increasing disparities regarding the grossly tilted distribution of wealth, topics which are now almost everyday conversation, and around which our thoroughly corrupted politicians must dance, had been birthed.  Hence today’s minuet, which, as I write, appears headed towards an absurd “settlement” of kicking the can down the road 4 months.  And behind the curtains, cynic that I am, I can see the next act in this American theater of the Absurd:  in the coming months, as the Congress sits down to “seriously” decide on the Nation’s budget for the coming years, decade, whatever they say, in a signal of his “flexibility” President Obama will agree to cutting Social Security costs, cutting Medicare and Medicaid costs, and doubtless many other things.  However our sacrosanct military, and its burgeoning adjunct of the vast security state which has blossomed since 9/11, will not be touched.  And perhaps, as a signal of its reasonableness the counter-party will admit to some tiny tax here or there, though preferably it would be along the line of a VAT, “so we can all share the burden.”  Bets?

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Senate Republicans Address The Press After Weekly Policy Luncheon

But, just in case the dog and pony show in the District of Columbia doesn’t provide enough sleight-of-hand to duly befuddle the citizenry, we can always count on mass media circus to do the job.

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As this scenario has essentially been going on since we started, at the very outset anointing ourselves as “exceptional” and telling whatever untruths were necessary to support our illusion, beginning with our blatant theft of an entire continent from its inhabitants under the ironclad law that “might makes right” – after all, what were “they” doing with all this except wasting its values?  And on through a founding document which asserted that “all me are created equal” which was written by wealthy men who owned slaves, and whose document actually only considered white male landowners as “men” and on through the rest of our sordid mountain of self-delusions, which we must confront every day, and which confound our politics and society as they historically have.  To untangle this mess of contradictions is certainly more than our institutions can cope with, which as the stresses of these days indicate, will lead to a breaking up of our Union, as the diverse interests and beliefs of our populace decide myth is not a good place in which to actually live.

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20130705-TRAYLOR-slide-DYTS-slideBill TraylorhalloTrick or treat!

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Last year, around this time, I received word that a long ago friend of mine, with whom I had sporadic communications in the previous decades, had died.  She was Shulamith Firestone, whom I met way back in 1964, in Chicago.  It was after I’d returned from bumming around Europe and then Mexico for around a year and a half, and had made some of my first films.   We met because she was the girlfriend of my friend Charles (Chick), from my days at the Institute of Design, (IIT).  I went to Mexico to be in a film for him – which if I recall he ended up cutting me out completely though I was, comically, his lead character!  On my return to Chicago in summer of 1964 we shared a flat at the south end of the Loop, immediately beside the “L.”  The trains went by, loudly, like clockwork, right out the window.  Through this I got to know, fall in love with Laya, (and the rest), Shulie’s younger sister.  I remained in touch with her through all these years, as, fitfully, I did with Shulamith, who went on to become a kind of shooting star of the then birthing feminist movement.  She was deeply involved, as the following material will show.  I saw her occasionally after she moved to New York, and once took a little trip with her from there to Boston, I think in the early 70′s – the reasons for which are lost in the fog of my memory.   I saw her a handful of times since, and corresponded with her a little.   The last email, perhaps less than a decade ago, said something to the effect that she – the Shulamith I had known – no longer existed, deleted by the meds and institutionalization she’d been through.

While I couldn’t say I’d been present enough to actually observe, I did see enough, and my experiences in the radical left of the time (one of the founders of the left group Newsreel; deeply involved in the Chicago convention, and many other things) showed me in principle how such things seem to work, and to surmise that Shulamith, way out front in what at the time was a social heresy, got chewed to pieces by the mass media, and then by her erstwhile radical sisters.   Such is the way of politics, of whatever tilt.  As noted in the following, she withdrew in consequence, though perhaps it did not withdraw from her.

With Laya’s OK, I post the following, as I think it provides a glimpse into the tenor of those times, and perhaps in turn a small bit of history for those who were not present then, and for some who were, but were not actively involved inside, a clearer picture of what happened in those years.

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Perhaps it is a function of time, age, experience, and of course a close personal connection – but as I read this my eyes tear.  I am thrown back upon my whole life’s trajectory, back to those fervid days of youth, one in this instance arbitrarily set in the turmoil of the 60′s.  For those who preceded me it might have been the trauma of the Great Depression of the 30′s, or of World War Two which left its stamp.  For those of the current younger generation it might be the shock of 9/11 (and perhaps realizing that their own government had a hand in it).

As I watch the age spots blossom across my skull and skin, and see the slackening muscle tissue of my body, and am proffered the clear message that death is next – be it tomorrow or 20 years – it cannot help but provoke reflection.  Talking with my peers these days, often we concur that it – life, this process we go through – all means nothing, that whatever success (or failure) we have experienced, at bottom, it means nothing.  It is a process, which goes nowhere, and finally is empty of any meaning.  Such is the wisdom with which a long and fully lived life concludes.  The day of Shulamith’s death isn’t really known – her body was found some days after she had died, perhaps of a heart attack, perhaps of starvation.   As in the old black spiritual, you must cross that river by yourself.   By necessity, Shulamith did, though in a real sense tragically, she lived much of her life in the isolation of herself.

I do not in any way believe in an after-life, or the other consolations we invent for ourselves to wash away the reality of death, or the termination of ourselves, and the final meaninglessness of our lives.   I wish I had had the opportunity in life to give Shulamith what she needed and deserved, a kind of comfort which life refused her.

[For an excellent article on Shulamith, by Susan Faludi, see this.]

_L.Ehrlich2010_2678xLaya Firestone Seghi,  and myself, shooting 1967′s LEAH (foto Linn Ehrlich)

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Ten years ago, coaxed by a massive global propaganda barrage orchestrated by the US government, and for the most part supported fully by our corporate owned and controlled mass media, the United States went to war in Iraq.  It did so under false pretenses, on the basis of willfully fraudulent “intelligence,” prompted by the attack of 9/11/2001, the story of which itself is highly suspect.  I refer the reader to the document of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which was signed by many figures of the Bush administration, including Richard Cheney, and which called, publicly, for an event like 9/11 to jolt the American public into actions like the war on Iraq and Afghanistan.  The initiation of the way was presented as grand spectacle, and was breathlessly reported by the “embedded” media.

Ten years later, having lost this war, and the war in Afghanistan, and having collapsed its own economy in process, America scarcely whispers a word about the catastrophic actions it took.  Though our military – demonstrating its corruption and incompetence despite its massive expansion and absurd costs – carries on with the top brass shifting from their executive roles as failures, directly into the lucrative corporate offices of the military-industrial complex.  When, if ever, they are punished for matters, it has to do with sexual peccadilloes and public relations scandals, and not with their incompetence as military commanders and strategists.  Exactly as are the golden-parachuted managers of failed American corporate enterprises, or the criminal officers of TBTF banks and Wall Street trading companies.  The corruption runs throughout America’s economic, political, military and cultural systems.

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George Bush, cod-piece strutting “pilot” of 2003, is 2013′s non-person, disappeared by our political mandarins and the media which is their servant, just as is the war with which he is associated.  The patriotic admonishment for the American public which he delivered in the wake of 9/11, “Just keep shopping,” now falls flat on the ears of a public which has largely been stripped of its income and wealth by the events of the last decade – not merely the negative effects of the war, but of the “neo-liberal” economic policies which have gutted America’s economy in the interests of corporate profits for the benefit of the 1%.

So as we enter this grim anniversary, and the cocky presumptions of PNAC’s neo-con fevered dream of American dominance has shriveled, it is perhaps proper that rather than silence, voices of those most deeply effected speak.   John Gianvito, who initiated and organized the making of a film, Far From Afghanistan, sent me today a letter he saw on Truthdig (one of the sad small minority media outlets which dot the internet in an attempt to counter the corporate mass media which dominates the world’s “information” system).  I thought it a good way to mark this dubious anniversary of America’s lunge into an immoral, dishonest and in the long run, utterly disastrous and failed warring.

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A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran

18 March 2013

To: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney
From: Tomas Young

I write this letter on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War on behalf of my fellow Iraq War veterans. I write this letter on behalf of the 4,488 soldiers and Marines who died in Iraq. I write this letter on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been wounded and on behalf of those whose wounds, physical and psychological, have destroyed their lives. I am one of those gravely wounded. I was paralyzed in an insurgent ambush in 2004 in Sadr City. My life is coming to an end. I am living under hospice care.

I write this letter on behalf of husbands and wives who have lost spouses, on behalf of children who have lost a parent, on behalf of the fathers and mothers who have lost sons and daughters and on behalf of those who care for the many thousands of my fellow veterans who have brain injuries. I write this letter on behalf of those veterans whose trauma and self-revulsion for what they have witnessed, endured and done in Iraq have led to suicide and on behalf of the active-duty soldiers and Marines who commit, on average, a suicide a day. I write this letter on behalf of the some 1 million Iraqi dead and on behalf of the countless Iraqi wounded. I write this letter on behalf of us all-the human detritus your war has left behind, those who will spend their lives in unending pain and grief.

 I write this letter, my last letter, to you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. I write not because I think you grasp the terrible human and moral consequences of your lies, manipulation and thirst for wealth and power. I write this letter because, before my own death, I want to make it clear that I, and hundreds of thousands of my fellow veterans, along with millions of my fellow citizens, along with hundreds of millions more in Iraq and the Middle East, know fully who you are and what you have done. You may evade justice but in our eyes you are each guilty of egregious war crimes, of plunder and, finally, of murder, including the murder of thousands of young Americans-my fellow veterans-whose future you stole.

Your positions of authority, your millions of dollars of personal wealth, your public relations consultants, your privilege and your power cannot mask the hollowness of your character. You sent us to fight and die in Iraq after you, Mr. Cheney, dodged the draft in Vietnam, and you, Mr. Bush, went AWOL from your National Guard unit. Your cowardice and selfishness were established decades ago. You were not willing to risk yourselves for our nation but you sent hundreds of thousands of young men and women to be sacrificed in a senseless war with no more thought than it takes to put out the garbage.

I joined the Army two days after the 9/11 attacks. I joined the Army because our country had been attacked. I wanted to strike back at those who had killed some 3,000 of my fellow citizens. I did not join the Army to go to Iraq, a country that had no part in the September 2001 attacks and did not pose a threat to its neighbors, much less to the United States. I did not join the Army to “liberate” Iraqis or to shut down mythical weapons-of-mass-destruction facilities or to implant what you cynically called “democracy” in Baghdad and the Middle East. I did not join the Army to rebuild Iraq, which at the time you told us could be paid for by Iraq’s oil revenues. Instead, this war has cost the United States over $3 trillion. I especially did not join the Army to carry out pre-emptive war. Pre-emptive war is illegal under international law. And as a soldier in Iraq I was, I now know, abetting your idiocy and your crimes. The Iraq War is the largest strategic blunder in U.S. history. It obliterated the balance of power in the Middle East. It installed a corrupt and brutal pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, one cemented in power through the use of torture, death squads and terror. And it has left Iran as the dominant force in the region. On every level-moral, strategic, military and economic-Iraq was a failure. And it was you, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, who started this war. It is you who should pay the consequences.

I would not be writing this letter if I had been wounded fighting in Afghanistan against those forces that carried out the attacks of 9/11. Had I been wounded there I would still be miserable because of my physical deterioration and imminent death, but I would at least have the comfort of knowing that my injuries were a consequence of my own decision to defend the country I love. I would not have to lie in my bed, my body filled with painkillers, my life ebbing away, and deal with the fact that hundreds of thousands of human beings, including children, including myself, were sacrificed by you for little more than the greed of oil companies, for your alliance with the oil sheiks in Saudi Arabia, and your insane visions of empire.

I have, like many other disabled veterans, suffered from the inadequate and often inept care provided by the Veterans Administration. I have, like many other disabled veterans, come to realize that our mental and physical wounds are of no interest to you, perhaps of no interest to any politician. We were used. We were betrayed. And we have been abandoned. You, Mr. Bush, make much pretense of being a Christian. But isn’t lying a sin? Isn’t murder a sin? Aren’t theft and selfish ambition sins? I am not a Christian. But I believe in the Christian ideal. I believe that what you do to the least of your brothers you finally do to yourself, to your own soul.

My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.

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By the laws of the government which they controlled and directed, George Bush and his entire entourage, committed grievous crimes, crimes for which they have not and will not be prosecuted.  They will not be prosecuted, nor convicted, nor punished, because though the names have changed, that government is run and controlled by the same parties who brought us these catastrophes, and like our self-serving CEOs, who gut their corporations for personal profit, within the now fully corrupted system of USA.inc., one is rewarded for failure, however disastrous it is to the country, so long as it serves the 1%.

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sol·stice  (slsts, sl-, sôl-)

n.

1. Either of two times of the year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator. The summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere occurs about June 21, when the sun is in the zenith at the tropic of Cancer; the winter solstice occurs about December 21, when the sun is over the tropic of Capricorn. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year and the winter solstice is the shortest.

2. A highest point or culmination.

[Middle English, from Old French, from Latin slstitium : sl, sun; see swel- in Indo-European roots + -stitium, a stoppage; see st- in Indo-European roots.]

Encroaching on 70 circumnavigations of our nearest star, it is “natural” that life imposes certain modes of thinking, and feeling, for better and worse. The passing of years brings an accumulation of one’s own history, the threads which make up a life – events, relationships, joys, disappointments, tragedies. All the hum drum stuff of our daily lives is added up, measured out in a bloom of liver spots, shrinking flesh and wrinkling skin, aching joints and diminishing mobility. We see it in our friends and family, and, perhaps reluctantly, in ourselves. In a constant shift of perspective, life alters its terms within us. The gaping length of single spin around the sun, which in youth seemed endless and found one eagerly looking forward to imagined rewards of the coming year, now seems all too brief. Contemplations of “the next” are limned with a silent “if.” It all makes a perfect sense, and philosophers and poets have long since mined the realm to seeming exhaustion. One would think we collectively all understood.

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On some levels the human experience is collective, and we are able to store up the knowledge of our shared experiences in mechanical and intellectual ways, so that this experience is drastically changed through time.   150 years ago messages in the advanced world were sent by Morse code, and before that carried in letters by horseback or ship, while today vast volumes of digitalized information are sent in tsunami proportions at the speed of light. Likewise myriad advances in medical technology have turned once-fatal matters into mere annoyances. Thanks to these shared and cumulative realities, our lives are radically different (at least those in the so-called advanced countries, or those who are “rich”). And yet, as the old hymn goes, “you gotta cross that river for yourself.”  As that crossing approaches many markers point the way: friends and family begin to die, your own body shape-shifts, its asymmetries becoming more pronounced, and in little or large descending plateaus, your physical functions deteriorate.    And, at least to my observations, the kernel of your “self” solidifies.   Most of the people I know – and I presume it applies as well to myself – are essentially the same, psychologically, as they were 40 years ago:  those given to anger remain angry, those closed off from wider experiences are more closed off; those eager to learn and experiment continue to do so.  This observation inclines me to accept the Greek sense of Fate – that we are born and can do only what that original gift allows (these days it would be measured in genetic components, slivers of DNA intertwined such that one is a composite of mother and father).   I can point to the tooth of mine which is exactly as my father’s was, or the drooping eyelid that replicates that of my mother – and on down the genetic gifts or curses of each strain of my own DNA.  I see the same in my acquaintances.   Whether, in turn, one becomes more forgiving of the quirks of those friends, or whether one crosses them out of one’s life, doubtless marks one’s own in-stamped nature.

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In the past few years, in my own life, death has visited directly within my family, and more generally among acquaintances and friends.  Last December my father died, aged 98.  It caused scarcely a quiver in me, thanks to a near life-long alienation from him.   At a very young age – perhaps 9 or 10, I’d already checked him out of my life as best my circumstances permitted.  At the time I didn’t really seem to know why, though much much later I was told that he’d whipped me with some regularity – which he owned up to in a letter I demanded he write after my mother’s death, some 27 years ago.  That, along with almost all memories of my childhood were totally expunged from my mind, and even with that knowledge I cannot remember it at all today.  And yet, this year, I did imagine and shoot a new film, Coming to Terms, which in its manner is about a father dying and so, perhaps, in the manner of art, I absorbed this event and creatively transmuted it.

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FATHER IN HAWAII 97 YRS OLDcrpHarry Frederick Jost at 98, 2011Wilhelm Leibl

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Sensed far more closely and personally, in the last years, were other deaths which though in some senses far more distant, seemed to have touched me inwardly far more deeply.   Though it is not as if death had not visited before to leave its mark.  While in prison, in 1966, I received, sent by a friend, a black framed newspaper notice announcing the death of a young woman, Kathy Handler.  She’d been briefly a lover before I went in.  It was said she committed suicide, though other rumors had her having taken acid and going for a misguided swim in a cold Lake Michigan.  (And recently I learned that the friend who had sent the notice, who had been in an early film of mine, had died some time ago -  Laura Volkerding, by name.) Whatever the truth, my response – under the sway of reading a lot of Kierkegaard, Heidegger and other philosophers in my “free time” in prison, and having felt vaguely responsible – was to write a text which on leaving prison a year later became the film Traps, my first foray into sound.   The film is a rather devastating one, certainly it is weighted with deaths – not only that of Kathy, but in the tone of the times: those of the Vietnam war, the penumbra of violence which encompassed the era, and led shortly afterward to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and more locally, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, murdered by the Chicago police.

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Robert F Kennedy lies in a pool of blood after being shot in 1968Robert Kennedy, Los Angeles, 1968

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In 1978, another death left a mark, again with a sense of guilt.  The former partner of a close friend of mine had moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, where we shared an apartment.  She later moved to San Francisco, and in 1978 I had a brief pass through The City for a screening.  I had meant to contact her and see if she would come to the screening – she was in the film world -  which I thought she might like, and also to see her.  In the rush of life I had forgotten to call her, and did my screening, and the next day left.  As I sat down in the plane, and opened the San Francisco Chronicle and leafed through it, my eye caught an item which was titled something like “Masseuse hit in crosswalk” or something like that.  In glancing the name caught my eye – it was my friend.  The time was the same period when she would have been coming to, or at, my screening.  She was dead. For years I have carried with me a consciousness that in some strange, indirect, irrational manner I may have caused her death simply by having forgotten to contact her.

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brendaBrenda Bierbrodt, 1945 – 1987, picture from HS yearbook_L.Ehrlich2010_2674Myself and Brenda, 1968  -  Photo © Linn Ehrlich

Some time later, in 1983, aged 70, my mother died of pancreatic cancer.  My father, who in my view had, in his manner, coerced her into participating in his post-Army evangelical fundamentalism, had tried “laying on of hands” and “talking in tongues” and belatedly had taken her to the military hospital in Niceville, Florida, where “exploratory surgery” revealed a terminal cancer.   In a phone call to me in San Francisco he said she had “a year of quality living” and they would go on a world cruise.  Then he put her on the phone, and I immediately heard the rattle of death in her voice and set off in my VW van, driving straight through as fast as I could, and arriving two days late.  So much for a year of quality living.  She was dead and shortly after my arrival, after a shower and shave, I went to her funeral services with the fundamentalists singing her praises, and a teenaged proslyetizer coming up trying for a conversion in this presumed moment of vulnerability.  I politely suggested he fuck off.  The rattle of death had become something familiar during my stint in 1978 caring for Nick Ray in New York, where I’d been asked to help him make a final film, but was cast instead as nurse-caretaker and cigarette run-boy.   He was riddled with cancer, and the toilet was often red with the blood he coughed up.

The eighties was the decade of the AIDS epidemic, and being in the arts world, gays were a given.  Many, including some of my friends, died.

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790px-Schadow_Grabmal_Alexander_2Grave marker, illegitimate son of Kaiser Friederick Wilhelms II, Berlin

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In 1987, I think it was, I met Jon A. English, in process of looking for someone to write some music for my film Bell Diamond.  He did that film, a very modest bit of composing, as the film needed, and along the way we became friends, and as time passed, he did the music for a number of my other films – Plain Talk & Common Sense, Rembrandt Laughing (in which he also played a lead role), All the Vermeers in New York, Frameup, and Uno a te, uno a me, e uno a Raffaele.   He was wonderful to collaborate with, and a wonderful person – and it didn’t hurt at all that he was a great musician and composer.  And we became very good friends.  Sadly, as the years passed by, his health slid down, step at a time, the consequence of an early diagnosis for Hodgkins disease decades before.  He was “treated” then, in the 70′s, at a very early stage of the “cure” for this, and way over-blasted with radiation.   In turn the areas that had been hit, were drastically aged, and his neck, esophagus and the whole upper area of his torso deteriorated as time passed, and periodically he’d be hospitalized, dropping to a lower plateau each time.   Asking him to work with me became a balancing act of gauging if it would be too much for him, versus knowing that his creative soul liked nothing more than to do music.  He died in 1996, at the age of 54, while I was living in Italy.  There were some people of my acquaintance whom I would have readily shifted places with him.

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english crpdJon A. English, 1942-1997

A year and a half ago, a long ago girlfriend from 1964, Laya (Firestone) Seghi, – with whom I have stayed in touch since, and very infrequently seen – wrote me a lovely letter describing a trip she’d taken with her husband, Tom, to see and meet family in Israel, where her mother lives, and in the mountains of northern Italy, near Venice, from where his family originally emigrated.   It had been a wonderful journey, and her description, elegant and simple, had a kind of unselfconscious literary quality which made the story she told all the more wonderful.  Reading it simply made me feel good – for me, and for them.   I recall being genuinely joyful on reading it.  Not long afterward I wrote expressing my happiness about their trip and lives, but also including word that in my own life things had taken a turn and my wife Marcella had decided she should go on her own way.  It wasn’t what I wanted, but at the same time I thought Marcella should do what she felt was best for her, and if severing our paths was it, then it was OK with me.  She was half my age, and I could understand only too well.   A few weeks later I received another letter, which as the previous one, had a literary simplicity and directness which marked it, but told a very different story, though written with the same disarming clarity.

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_L.Ehrlich2010_2678x

_L.Ehrlich2010_2679xLaya, in film Leah, 1967, fotos © Linn Ehrlich

On returning home to Miami, following their trip, a nephew of Tom’s was getting married in Chicago, and they went north for the occasion.  There, for the first time, he showed her the home he’d grown up in, in the Italian-American Bridgeport neighborhood – which happened to be adjacent to where I’d gone to college at IIT, and where I had lived a year and a half.  His home was now lived in by Mexicans, who welcomed them in, happy to know a little of the history of the house.  And they visited his brother’s grave in a nearby cemetery.   That evening at the wedding party, they danced, and following on the heels of their joyous journey to Israel and Italy, and their 40 years together, she thought, as she wrote, “I am truly happy.”   And in the same moment her husband had a heart attack and died, literally, in her arms.  Needless to say, she’s had a difficult time since – having to put into hard practice the things she does as a living as a psychological counselor.

And then, as if that were not enough, this past August, her sister, a long-ago rather famous early radical feminist, Shulamith Firestone (The Dialectic of Sex), whose own life had taken a hard turn, and who was a friend of mine back in 1964 – the reason I met Laya was her sister was my flat-mate’s girlfriend at the time – died in New York City, apparently of a heart attack.  Laya, being close (as much that Shulamith allowed in her later years) to her sister, and being the family in the USA, became the person to deal with the aftermath, which included a memorial service attended by many feminists of Shulamith’s period, and those after.  [I will in a later posting publish the comments made at the memorial, as I think it is instructive, in many ways, of the tenor of those times.]

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Shulamith FirestoneShulamith Firestone, 1945-2012

When I returned to the US this past March, it was in some parts consciously to visit friends and family, in a kind of “last hurrah” -  to see, perhaps for a last time, those people still living, who were my friends in life.  I’ve seen a few already and hope to see them again – Linn and Marilyn and Peter in Chicago, Bruce in Minneapolis, Marshall in Butte, Terri in Livingston, Swain and Kristi in Missoula, and just today, Ron and Mary Lou here in Portland.  And as I anticipate traveling a lot in the US in the coming year, I expect and hope to see them all again.  We – all more or less in the same time-wise peer bracket – are aware, whether said or unsaid, that any visit could be the last.  As time brings its curtain over us, I think for those of us for whom the Fates accorded us the space, we’ve become closer, more forgiving and understanding of each other.  And in a manner not accounted for in the casual “love you”-speak which affects us casually, we have learned, in a very real sense, where love animates our relations, and, however obscure and difficult to pin down in a clinical sense, how much we have meant to one another.

As a person habitually transient, living in places scattered across the globe, for periods of a year here, 3 or 5 there, I have very consciously kept in touch with those people in my life who in that ineffable manner which over the years shows itself, left a deep implant.  I know well enough that probably, in most cases, had I not kept the lines open, dropped by this decade or that, that these thin threads would have been lost.  Such is the life which I chose or was given.

And, as life is capricious, and neither announces its beginning or end to us, to all those whose lives have crossed mine, in ways deep, however inarticulately we were able to express it, should my life end tomorrow, or yours, here’s thanks for having known and shared our brief time on this planet we are so busy violating.  I am a hard-core atheist and we won’t be meeting anywhere “else” some other time, so it is best to say it while here.  Love to you each, and I am glad our paths crossed on this brief journey.

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MoonPhases

Kurt, la famiglia Rebosio, Laya, Bill, Errol, Linn, Peter, Dennis, Marilyn, Susannah, Ron and Mary Lou, Elayne and Erinn, Barbara, Swain,  Robina, Bob, Roger, Tom, Marshall, Roxanne, Alicia and Morrie, Rick and Julie, Martin, Claudia, Alenka, Jon, Dan, Terri, Hal, Jolly and Bob, Michael, Jane, Steve, Kate, Lynda, Eugenia, Edoardo, Anna, Erling, Nancy and Howard, Hilary and Stuart, Clara, and Brad and Miki and children, and Joel, Rui, Jean, Steve and Todd, Jane and Mark, Marcella, and many others known briefly in passing or lost to memory.  And then there are a few people I suppose I’d prefer not to have met, left out knowingly.      

sun-3

In 3.5 billion years, our Sun will have boiled away all the water on earth, some billions of years after life became impossible on this planet. In 6 billion years it will become a red giant, and then collapse.  8 billion years from now it will be “dead,” an Earth sized diamond with the mass of a star. This is a white dwarf, and it will still be hot enough to shine with thermal radiation. But it will no longer generate solar fusion, and so it will slowly cool down until it becomes the same temperature as the rest of the Universe; just a few degrees above absolute zero. This will take about a trillion years to happen.  The Sun’s death will be complete.

Hurricane Sandy rolls off the American East CoastGrand Coulee dam, photo JostPhilip GustonGrant Wood

Above photos: J Jost

WeegeeJasper JohnsJost

Russell Means, AIMSusan RothenbergJostThe Real Thing

With the blessings of the Supreme Court’s  Citizens United ruling, which has sanctified money as a form of speech and proscribed any limits for it, the present quadrennial cycle of America’s political landscape has flourished as never before, with literally billions of dollars being spent to broadcast a flood of bile and lies, amplified by the corporate owned “press,” which now merely repeats the calculated sound-bites of the candidates and their PACs and party propaganda organs, and has unleashed a flood worse than that with which Hurricane Sandy inundated New Jersey and New York.  Our electoral system has gone berserk on a hit of endless greenback steroids, and a “politically correct” 4th Estate which seems unable to call a lie a lie, and is clearly in the pockets of our corporatocracy.  Awash in a constant dose of fraud and corruption, our citizenry is numbed, as is clearly the intention of the Wizards of Oz who manipulate this social landscape with the purpose of concentrating the land’s wealth into ever fewer hands and stripping any control of political and economic levers from anyone but themselves.  The Plutocracy is in full flower, shamelessly.   Their advocate Mr Romney, himself of minor wealth by comparison, is game for any contortion required, and the exhausted and corrupted body politic applauds this as if politics were a bizarre circus in which the greater the pretzel twisting, the more the reward.  America has descended in a political death spiral, as if instantly turning itself into a mode of Berlusconi’s Italy in which criminality runs the show and the larger part of the population gazes in admiration at the capacity of the crooks to bend the system to their will.  Where we once pointed to others as the ultimate in corruption – Italy, Egypt, some Central American “Banana Republic” – we can now only honestly point to ourselves.

Edward Hopper

Jost

Shulamith FirestoneEmily Dickenson and Kate Scott TurnerJackie and JFKBrooks Range, Alaska; Sebastian Salgado

Bikini Island nuclear test X-ray1Sol Lewitt drawing

3D Holga picture by Mark Eifert

As a little test run of new/old 1991 Subaru with ’95 motor alleged to have 110K on it, I drove with friend Jane Schreibman from Seatac on up the Olympic Peninsula to Forks and Port Angeles.  Properly greeted with a deluge of rain, she camped in tent and I tried out my new wheeled bed.  More or less OK for the coming year and more.  Subaru seemed to run OK, if smelling of oil spilled on motor, and not quite the MPG I’d like.   Had a good time, despite the rain-forest wetness, and spent a few days in PA with friends Steve and Todd.

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Then on to some more camping near Port Townsend and a stay with a friend of Jane’s in the Skagit Valley.  Seem to have gotten a good start on new film, Plain Songs: American Essays, with a nice shot in Conway WA, 15 minutes of commentary drawn from a chance meeting with just another American.   Moving on to Seattle I stayed at a funky, if costly ($100 a nite, but I wasn’t paying) old hotel, The Panama,  in the former China  Town area.  It was a place with character, if limited old-time amenities.  If the lady running it charged $30 instead of $100 she’d fill the place – I was one of 2 or 3 people each night.

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I went to Seattle to screen some films at the North West Film Forum, which had moved addresses since I’d screened there last.  Though, like the 4 screenings I had in Portland at the North West Film Center, it seemed to me like a bit of Kabuki theatrics:  in Seattle the first screening, of  The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima, was to all of 15 people, among them a few friends, and mostly of souls with grey or no hair.   One couple left right near the end, and the rest stayed for a nice conversation and we retired to a nearby bar to continue the talk.  The responses seemed dominantly very positive.  The next screening, of Dissonance was for a grand audience of 10.  It was split pretty evenly between old and young.  None left.  The first Q&A person, seemingly seriously agitated, said he thought it was awful – lazy filmmaking, with no purpose, that said nothing, and….   I let him have his say, acknowledged he was welcome to feel that way, and said there’s 7 billion people in the world, each with a little cranium crammed with zillions of synapses, and what you bring in the cinema with you is as important to what you see and experience as what is put on the screen.   Clearly still agitated, the young man persisted in insisting the film was a waste.  I pointed out to him that while he said it was boring and worthless, for some reason he didn’t leave, and that my only hoped for intention was to disturb the viewer and apparently it had succeeded well in doing so to him.  At that point others joined the conversation, directly contradicting his view that there was little or nothing, and saying in fact for them it was almost too rich with energies.   At the end he seemed alone, though he stuck around for the 45 minutes or so of discussion the film generated.  He waited at the door as a handful of us left and invited him to join us for a beer – he passed on the offer.

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Back in Portland the screenings had been similarly sparsely attended, one there being only of a handful of my own friends.  And likewise the audience had been dominantly older.

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Frank Gehry’s EMP Museum in Seattle

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Which had me wondering just what explained this.   The urban area of Portland has about a half-million people, and the metropolitan area has 2.3 million.  Of these there is a large chunk which is more or less young, “hip,” into various kinds of culture and so on (they also have a culturally similar older population).  Likewise Seattle (660,000 the city proper; 3.5 million metro area).  Both institutions have been around many years.   I’m happy to figure I am an out-0f-fashion old guy (I wear a cowboy hat – though in Seattle as I was leaving an older black man passed me, returned, and asked, “Where’d you get that hat?”  I replied, “Valentine, Nebraska.”  He responded, “Man, you look good in that!”  Made my day.)    I know I’m an obscure figure in these days, though some 20 years ago I was very modestly “known,” and I know culture and fashion is very fickle, but I find it difficult to think that in a major urban area, rich with cultural interests, there’s only 10 or 15 people who are interested in some not-so-marginally known filmmaker and his work.  And while I concede that these days it is difficult to promote anything which doesn’t reek of “making money”  and that in general newspapers and television will not cover anything which is not “commercial,” (even “alternative” papers), I still find myself wondering where the flaw is.  First it would be in myself – for some decades I have done nothing to “promote” myself and my work; I have not genuflected to the altar of “the market” and made my work somehow more “commercial.”  For this I am 100% at fault.    Yet it is still difficult for me to think only 10 or 20 people, on any given night in these urban areas would find what I have to offer worth their time and a ticket.  Not when I know that millions flock to lousy movies, television and the rest.  I’d happily settle for an audience of .5% of the participating population, but somehow .000001 seems rather off.

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I have my speculations on all this, but I’ll keep them to myself and save the ruminations for another time.  For now I have to console myself with the thought that 4 young people came all the way from Vancouver BC to Seattle to get a look at my work – so I can figure there is a tiny tiny little fraction of people who appreciate what I do – something confirmed by a nice flow of comments and notes I get from around the world, thanks to the internet.

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In the academic sense, I have never been a “good student,” and in fact my career in school has been checkered with what the outside eye would perceive as failure.   I hated high school and contrived to escape it early by going to summer school each year in order to accrue credits enough to leave in 3 years rather than 4.  Along the way I was antagonized by the mostly bad teaching, and in turn I antagonized the system.   At the end of those 3 years I declined to go to my graduation ceremony and later found out I was punished for this transgression by formally not receiving the papers that said I had completed my studies.  I found this out much later on, when I went to prison for refusing to participate in the American war machine, when they suggested I do remedial classes there because there was no record of my having graduated.    I noted for the prison people that I’d done two years of college and they let it go.  I was busy reading Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Silone, John Barths, Duras, Brecht, and things like that while in prison.

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Jon singing at Sadie Hawkins dance 1958

Going on to college in 1960 I anticipated a big change in the academic reality, but at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, where I landed to study architecture, it didn’t really seem that much different, except I wasn’t living at home.  Within 6 weeks I concluded I would never get a degree, and figured out how to manipulate the system to my advantage by dropping all courses I didn’t enjoy within 6 weeks, in which case these – like my high school diploma – vanished from the record as if I’d never signed up.  I hence was on the dean’s honors list my first two semesters, and got a scholarship.   After that year I also concluded that architecture was a business and I didn’t feel at all comfortable with that.  So secretly, with regard to my parents, I applied to go to an art school in Britain, the Bath Academy of Arts, and was accepted.

Crown Hall, IIT, home of architectural school and Institute of Design

That summer I went to the UK on a ship, checked the school and found it was a playground for rich kids, with snazzy MG’s and Morgan’s and such, and decided I would not fit in or like it there either.   So after a summer of hitchhiking in Europe I returned to the US, where the Pratt Institute accepted me, but wanted me to wait a semester as I’d applied late.  I didn’t like that so I went back to Chicago and got into the Institute of Design, at the time considered one of the top schools in the States for such things.  I excelled, got straight A’s and the second semester did all the work equally well but rebelled and told them they were just like the academies of old which they criticized, and that they just taught a different set of rigid cliches, those of modernism.  And I left, looking to find a job over the summer,  but the Postal Service, whose test I’d passed, required a Pledge of Allegiance, which I could not do.  I returned to ID, talked with the dean of the school, Jay Doblin, and told him I didn’t want to get a degree, and would like to attend solely to use the equipment and take classes that were of interest to me, but not other things.  He told me that in his view I was already beyond what they had to teach, and let me stay under the terms I described.   But that didn’t last long as the Marines sent a recruiting team on campus and I and a few friends did a political protest.  We were called up to the IIT dean and told to cease and desist, which the others agreed to do.  I, instead, knowing I had no interest in a degree anyway, announced I would protest against the Armour Research Institute, which was part of IIT, and did research for the military.   Meantime the Cuban missile crisis arrived, and I hunkered down with my friends to smoke dope and drink lousy red wine waiting to be incinerated in a nuclear war.   I sold everything I had (some books) and checked the process of moving to New Zealand.  However, by the time I had it all together to make that move the crisis had blown over.  So, almost arbitrarily, I decided to become a filmmaker, spent a month going to movies at the Clark Street Cinema, which showed 2 different films each day – old Hollywood and European classics, and new European and Japanese art house films – and got my film education.  I bought a Bolex in NYC, and decamped for Europe.   And that was the end of my academic life.   While I had “dropped out” in 60′s fashion I later found out I’d also been expelled – not that it mattered to me.  I spent a year and a half in Europe and Mexico, hitch-hiking and making my first three films.  And then returned to the USA knowing I would go to prison for refusing to serve in the military.  I was locked up from March 1965-June 1967.   It was another education, as meaningful and useful to me as the two years I’d spent in college.

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And that was my academic career, until in 2007, I was invited to teach at Yonsei University in Korea – considered one of the country’s top three schools – and was magically elevated to a full Professorship at the age of 64.  It was my first ever actual job.  A year later they informed me that in Korea mandatory retirement comes at 65, but they solved that problem by making me a “Distinguished Professor,” and I spent 3 more years teaching (in the easiest job one can imagine) and quit of my own choice last July, 2011, though the school wanted me to stay.  And thus ended my brilliant academic career.

In the many years from leaving prison to becoming a professor I did have the experience of showing my films at many universities, colleges and art schools, which for the most part was an eye-opening process.  Back in the early 70′s, along with many other things, these schools began to do “Film Studies” and related courses – history, theory, and making.   It was indeed quite fashionable, and in turn it bred a peculiar kind of academic filmmaking, often weighted with theoretical or other ideological baggage – feminism, “minority” tilts,  and all kinds of things.   In my glancing passages through these institutions I was often asked to look at work and give my opinions, sometimes to PhD candidates who would then enter teaching film.   The work I saw was most often mind-bogglingly bad, though presented by the professors or teachers as good work.   Usually it was clotted with whatever fashionable intellectual winds were sweeping through, and usually they evinced not even the most basic artistic sensibility.  Most of these films seemed to strain to demonstrate some intellectual “thesis,”  and they were terrible.  And over the decades this kind of “filmmaking” was taught, reproducing itself.   It also reproduced the notion in our groves of academe that after such studies, with one’s fresh diploma, a job in the industry – either the actual filmmaking industry or the film studies industry – would materialize.   Anyone remotely connected with the industry is well aware that a degree is worth a little less than toilet paper in the business, as the statistics available to those very schools, busy charging students 40K a year and up, show, and of which they are quite aware.  Similarly the chances for snagging the next generation’s academic slot are rather dim as the line is endless and the places few and becoming fewer.   So, like many other things in our culture, what is offered up is more or less a fraud.     I bring this up, perhaps prompted by a letter I received last autumn, from a friend, Ray Carney, who teaches at Boston University.  Over the years he’s told me of his situation, which has steadily worsened, even as I have in the same years crossed paths with former students of his, whose testimony is of a teacher who genuinely changed them for the better, opened their eyes, and, well, did what a teacher should do:  helped them learn to comprehend the world honestly.   I think his blog, now blocked by BU, offers testimony in its very high hits-per-day, and the positive commentary on it, that Ray has been an inspiration to a generation of students.  Which seems to make him a threat to BU.  (See www.Cassavetes.com.)

About 6 years ago I was invited to do a workshop at BU, a 7 day matter for BU students, but also open to others.  So I had around 12 students, including a few BU graduate film school ones, down to some young girls utterly inexperienced.   I’m used to this, and my teaching philosophy is to cut the bullshit talk, and get  down to a very carefully bracketed bit of work – work which should also be play.   So after some days of this – essentially little guided exercises that open up one’s creative spirits to what digital video can be – I had them each make a little film, and at the end of the week we had a screening of films running around 90 minutes total.  And most of it was from very good, to quite creditable.  Of course one can’t make those without innate talent suddenly acquire it, though you can nicely tell them they should find some other outlet suitable to whatever talents they might have, though film schools seem loathe to do so.  In any event the person who’d invited me was rather surprised and told me he hadn’t really expected the students to actually “do something” over the week, where in reality they’d each made three or four simple “learning” films, and then the final one.   The students were, naturally, excited and pleased with themselves and the process, and I suppose with this kind of teaching which so quickly and successfully prompted them to learn so much so fast, and make something worth showing.  As it happened, the teacher who’d invited me had also required the participants to write a little diary of the process.   He passed those along to me, and in those done by the BU grad students there were comments to the effect, “why didn’t we do this the last two years?”    Indeed.  And, being reasonably well acquainted with many film schools, I know most would be deliriously pleased if their students made work so good as this workshop’s at the end of an entire year.  But, for the most part, those teaching don’t really know how to make such work themselves, and less how to convey to students the sensibilities to try themselves.   There are exceptions, of course – I’d point to Cal Arts as one school that seems to work, but then it has some real filmmakers on the faculty – Jim Benning, Thom Andersen, Nina Menkes among them, and from the viewpoint of students from there that I’ve met, they’re good teachers as well.

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While doing that workshop, there was a little gathering for me, which the faculty seems to have pointedly avoided, except as it happened, for Ray Carney.   I’ve been to many schools and this seems endemic.  If not of the glamor/fame bracket (I am sure they’d show up for Spielberg or someone of contemporary Hollywood fame) – my experience is that the filmmaker/teacher faculty seldom shows up for such things.  I feel they perceive someone like me as a threat – someone who actually makes films.  When they have materialized I have literally heard some teachers tell me they have, once upon a time, made one film, doubtless one I’d fear to see.  And they are the teachers!  During that BU visit Ray told me a little bit about what the administration was doing to him, and in turn I wrote a letter to the President of  BU.  In the turgid language of a bureaucrat he replied that the Film Department was undergoing an administrative change of some sort, and that he’d take my note into account.    And indeed the Department did change a bit – it became more Hollywood oriented, more technical, and more averse to creative thinking.  In effect it became a trade-school with the little caveat that the industry for which it cranks out techies has no room for them.  I was told a year at BU runs around 60K.  An expensive con.   Though, I guess one must, in light of the rest of American culture these days, from Wall Street to K Street, and doubtless down your nearby Main Street,  rack it up to a generalized corruption – economic, moral, ethical – which is now the nation’s “norm.”   One would like to fantasize that universities are pristine exceptions to this rule, but even the most casual look shows they are in reality – with perhaps their sports programs demonstrating it most clearly – paragons of corruption, basically in the service of our corporate overlords.  Money talks and bullshit walks.  Even in our most respected educational institutions.

Here’s the letter Ray sent me:

From: Prof. Ray Carney
Subject: Faculty treatment at Boston University
To: Jon Jost
Date: 26 November 2011

Dear Jon,

Hope you are thriving. Sorry to take so long to respond to your questions about the BU situation and whether it has changed in the past few years. I’m racing a deadline on a French project, but have a little time tonight to give you a summary account. The basic thing you have to keep in mind, and that I’d assume you wouldn’t already know, is that the treatment I have experienced for the past eight or nine years (I’ve lost count) is part of a much longer history of faculty-administration problems within Boston University that extends back four or five decades. The university has a long history of abusing, mistreating, and retaliating against faculty who say things administrators don’t agree with. Google “John Silber” and “Howard Zinn” to read the highest profile, but by no means only, instance—in that case involving the administrative abuse of one of BU’s most distinguished history professors for more than three decades because his politics did not coincide with those of the administration. I was, in fact, warned about the faculty-hostile situation before I arrived at BU (many academic friends told me to avoid the school at all costs), and during my time here have witnessed a number of the most creative faculty members being driven away by administrative high-handedness and stupidity. The university continues to have faculty recruitment problems on this count. Although there have been a few administrative changes at the top in the past six or seven years, not much has actually changed in terms of the attitudes of some of the middle- and upper-level administrators who cut their teeth, and formed their anti-faculty attitudes, under the old system. Many of them are still in place and continue to perform their duties no differently than they did ten or twenty years ago. As any MBA “Introduction to Organizational Behavior” course teaches, a large bureaucracy fights change tooth and nail. It takes more than a few changes at the top, or a Kumbaya speech from a new President, to change an entrenched institutional culture. File under “Democracy in Iraq.”

The current President, a guy named Robert Brown, talks big about leaving the bad old BU behind, but, if my situation and the treatment I have received (some preceding, but much, even most, of it taking place during Brown’s administration) counts as evidence, he has not done anything to alter the unethical behavior, anti-faculty attitudes, and anti-intellectual understandings of the function of a university at the middle- and upper-management levels. Most of the faculty think Brown is simply too naïve to understand the depth of the problems he inherited—or too imperceptive about human nature. (His background is in science.) Others say he is afraid to make real changes. If you want a good sardonic laugh, look up what happened to the man who preceded Brown, a guy named Daniel Goldin, who announced that he was actually going to “clean house at BU” and that he intended to remove the worst-behaving individuals in middle- and upper-management and put the university on a completely new path. He made the announcement one day, and a few weeks later was canned—by the very individuals he sought to remove! They went to the Board of Trustees and had him fired! Many BU faculty members consider it a “lesson learned” for Brown. He learned it was OK to talk a good line, as long as he did not actually rock the boat by doing anything to threaten the entrenched powers. (You’ll only find a skeleton account of this on the internet, but enough to read between the lines, since as much as possible was hushed up by the university with a multi-million dollar buy-out and a non-disclosure agreement. That’s BU’s customary way to deal with “problems.” They buy silence and keep them out of the paper with payoffs. There are lots of unmarked graves.)

Well, that’s the university I’ve devoted the best part of my career to for something like 22 or 23 years. Everything went terrific for me for the first thirteen or fourteen of them: As you know, I am a highly published scholar with many books in many languages and am invited to speak or participate in events all over the world; as a university teacher and colleague, I received superlative annual evaluations; I was entrusted with high-level committee assignments; I was asked to speak at major university functions; my classroom teaching and professional mentoring of students was judged to be superb; and I was even asked to play an administrative role, serving as the Director of the program I teach in for close to a decade, and, more briefly, serving as department Chair during the regular Chairman’s leave of absence. But everything—and I do mean everything—changed in 2003, following the appointment of a new Dean (the highest administrative position in my college). He was an absolute terror—and a horror—as an administrator. He demanded a series of changes in graduate admissions, course requirements, and student evaluation and grading methods that would significantly lower academic standards in order to attempt to bring in more tuition dollars. (He was nothing if not candid about his reasons.)

If the Dean’s ideas were bad, his character and morals were worse. He was emotionally off the chart—with, as a psychologically-minded colleague put it, “major anger-management issues”—uncontrolled rants, rages, tirades, and explosions of anger, garnished with obscene language (“asshole” was the special term of endearment I personally earned for my service to the university over the years) and actual physical threats—believe it or not. (“If I meet you in a dark alley and have a baseball bat, watch out…,” was one uttered at a gathering of faculty and staff members, and the friend who told it to me was pretty sure the Dean wasn’t talking about playing a night game of fungo with her; she was scared.) Morally speaking, the Dean was completely beyond the pale (guilty of an uncounted number of ethical and procedural violations). He administratively punished faculty “enemies” (his designation for anyone who wasn’t in favor of his changes or who asked embarrassing questions about his violations of procedure) and rewarded faculty “friends.” The first group had their leaves denied, their perquisites withdrawn, and was berated, yelled at, badgered, or as I say called obscene names or threatened with bodily harm. The second group was given high evaluations, pay raises, money for research and travel, promotions, and, yes, last but not least, teaching and service awards at Commencement. (Could someone make this stuff up? Would anyone believe it if it was in a novel or a movie?)

Absolutely everything was “personal” for this guy—and nothing too low or too unethical for him to stoop to doing it, including gaming the faculty evaluation and review system to achieve the results he wanted. To illustrate the depth of the Dean’s paranoia and retaliatory machinations, though it sounds comical to mention it, this guy even enlisted specific faculty members to serve as “spies” to report back to him if someone said something negative about him in a closed-door meeting, the better to speedily punish the offender. Needless to say, there were individuals willing to do this; there are always individuals willing to do such things. (Both the Dean’s bullying personality and his thuggish behavior were established facts long before he was appointed, since he had behaved similarly as a college faculty member and department Chair—and had, in fact, been forced to resign his Chairmanship a few years earlier after being charged with plagiarism. Only at BU could a faculty member guilty of that degree of academic misconduct be promoted to the Deanship a few years later! And only at BU could he continue in the Deanship with this sort of behavior, because virtually everyone on the faculty was either too afraid—or bought-off with bureaucratic bribes—to protest. Good old Boston University.)

It’s a basic principle of bureaucratic behavior that when the person at the top not only endorses shady practices, but pressures the people under him to achieve certain kinds of results, the sleaze can spread like an oil slick throughout the organizational flow chart. The Dean taught the people under and around him what was and was not acceptable behavior to deal with faculty “troublemakers” (another of his tender terms, directed at me personally on more than one occasion), and other college administrators (not all of them, but more than a few) were not slow to learn the lesson, particularly when they were being given raises, promotions, and awards for being good soldiers. Much of the same unethical behavior (tweaking faculty evaluations and reviews to achieve “desirable” results, punishing individuals who expressed reservations about the Dean’s plans to increase tuition income, etc.) started being practiced by administrators in my own department shortly after the Dean came to power, and these administrators or their successors continue many of the same shady practices right up into the present.

Leopards don’t change their spots and a situation like this does not magically heal itself if the person at the top leaves. In point of fact, the Dean had to resign his position in late 2006, after he was charged with a series of additional, unrelated ethical violations, including lying on his résumé. (Thanks to the predictable generosity of the university senior administration when it comes to supporting one of its own, even after these events, he was not drummed out of the university in disgrace, but remained on the faculty and continued to collect a fat salary—those tuition dollars he was so obsessed with pulling out of students’ pockets now being used to support him.) But, as I say, the Dean’s resignation didn’t change very much, given that most of the other administrators who had worked hand-in-glove with him to carry out his orders remained in place after his departure, and the additional fact that, by the time he stepped down, the practices he had pioneered had become generally accepted, especially by my department Chairman and most of the program Directors. In summary: even after the Dean stepped down, very little changed, particularly in my department.

Well, you can probably see where this is headed. My mortal sin—like Howard Zinn’s two or three decades earlier, and like that of other fired or discredited Boston University faculty members before and after Zinn—was that, starting in 2003 and continuing right up through the present, I dared to argue against the lowering of academic standards and had the audacity to object to the ethical and procedural violations I witnessed or was told about. Just call me stupid. I made the mistake of speaking out on the basis of my intellect, my conscience, and my principles—not based on calculations of what would curry favor with the Dean and his successors, or with other college and university administrators.

A few others in my college also spoke up over the years, but it was never more than a handful. The overwhelming majority of college faculty and staff serve on renewable, limited-term contracts; they couldn’t possibly speak up about these things without being fired; but I was different. I had tenure. This kind of situation was, as far as I was concerned, the reason tenure existed: to allow a faculty member to speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves (particularly students who are unknowingly being defrauded of receiving a first-class education, even as they take out enormous loans to pay astronomical tuitions in the expectation of obtaining one), and to defend the highest possible pedagogical, procedural, and ethical standards (even as the administration headed pell-mell in the opposite direction). I spoke up at meetings; I wrote memos; I sent emails; I held face-to-face meetings with the Dean and his successors and with administrators inside and outside the college to express my concerns.

But, as should be clear by now, taking principled stands and reporting ethical issues has always been hazardous to one’s health at Boston University, and as the past decade of my experience proves, it continues to be extremely dangerous. The response of the entire administrative system at Boston University, right up to the present moment, has been to attempt to force me to shut up, and if I won’t be silenced, to savage me. I have been attacked and punished in every way possible—personally, professionally, pedagogically, financially, and emotionally. My annual evaluations (which, as I said, had been the highest in my department before I began speaking up) have been reversed and are now at the bottom; my pay has been docked; support for my research has been withdrawn; my student advisees have been taken away from me; my courses have been assigned to undesirable times (how about one class that meets 8AM and another that meets at 9PM, and on the same day—worse hours and a longer workday than the building custodian would be given) and impossible locations (all-too-easy to do to a film teacher—all you have to do is force him to show the films on a tiny TV so that students can’t read the subtitles—while other teachers’ classes, on the very same days and times, are assigned to a movie theater classroom); and, to add insult to injury, I have been abused and reviled—had my morals, character, and performance of my duties viciously attacked—in a series of truly unbelievable ceremonies of public and private humiliation (staged both behind closed doors and in public places to humiliate me in front of students, staff members, and junior colleagues).

Perhaps most unethically of all (though it’s hard to rank the circles of hell to which these individuals have descended), when my department program Director, my Chairman, the Dean whose conduct I have described, and others designated by them saw that I was not going to stop speaking up or writing memos no matter how much they docked my pay and lowered my evaluations, they held meetings with students to publicly criticize my teaching and the performance of my duties and instructed them to complain about me, with the student being pressured to submit a criticism of something I had published or said in class, with the administrator coaching the student what to say or actually editing or writing the text, all the while concealing the meetings and the coaching and editing sessions, with the goal of making the complaint look like it was spontaneously initiated and written by the individual student. It shouldn’t be hard to imagine how this affected my teaching and relationship with students. Can you picture what a teacher’s classes are like after the students’ minds have been poisoned in this way—after this kind of toxicity has been created by a trusted administrator telling students vicious (and false) things about their teacher—or after a student has seen his or her teacher being yelled at and upbraided in a public place by an administrator?

Another strand of the retaliation involves censorship, or punishment directed against me if censorship fails, for what I have written or said. To give credit where credit is due, I want to acknowledge that the Dean whose behavior I have been describing apparently initiated the censorship plan. He deserves full credit as the first one to scream at me at the top of his voice, in private and public, that things I published be changed or suppressed, and was the first to threaten me with bureaucratic punishment if I did not comply. (Him to me, in his most bellowing, threatening voice: “There will be consequences … there will be serious consequences….[if you don’t retract what you wrote].” And, of course, there were.) But, as I noted, the Dean was a master at getting others to do his bidding, and around 2004 or 2005, he enlisted my Chairman and the new program Director (I was forced out of my position as Director at the Dean’s insistence, of course) as his allies and surrogates, which ensured that the censorship efforts continued, and, in fact, even increased, after he was forced out of the Deanship.

As you know, a good part of my publication record involves reflections on issues affecting film and arts education in American universities. For close to a decade now, BU administrators have asserted their right to censor, suppress, edit, or otherwise meddle with what I publish or say on this subject—or, if censorship fails, to punish me (in my evaluations, pay, and perquisites) for what I have said or written. I have been forbidden to talk about certain things when I give interviews. I have been told what I can and cannot say in my classes. I have been told not to tell my students about the challenges of the job market. I have been told I should not have written confidential memos pointing out problems in my department. I have been told to remove my web site from the BU server because it had views about education that the administration disagrees with.

The catch-all criticism (and justification for the subsequent negative evaluations and hits on my pay) is that I am “not being a team player”—though why in the world I would want to be a member of this sort of intolerant, dictatorial, censorious, anti-intellectual, and unethical “team” has never been explained to me. I had thought I was hired to follow the dictates of my conscience in ethical issues and to think with my own brain in intellectual ones. I had thought that that’s what my job was: to think as originally and creatively as possible; but I was mistaken. BU clearly hired me to think with its administrators’ brains.

In terms of the censorship issue, if the facts weren’t so appalling, they might make for an absurdist black comedy. Since it may be good for a laugh, or at least to demonstrate that the BU administrators have no sense of humor, I’ll mention that the two pieces that subjected me to the most vicious administrative attacks and the most serious punishment (lowering my evaluations and pay based on my “uncollegiality”) were two interviews I gave: one was with a reporter from the UCLA Daily Bruin, titled “A Modest Proposal: Let’s Replace Film Production Programs with Majors in Auto Mechanics (at least majors would be able to get jobs…),” and the second was with a former BU student, titled: “About Art, Life, Hollywood, Independent Film, Critics, Professors, Universities, and How to Make a Fortune in Real Estate.” As the titles indicate, both were semi-comic in nature, but about serious issues—from the false values fostered by academics who fawn on celebrity speakers and host movie-star events; to the consequences of staffing the professoriate with Hollywood-trained (and entertainment-addled) writers and directors; to the pernicious effects of journalistic film reviewing on American film appreciation and commentary (and the bad effects of including newspaper reviewers on the faculty); to the shocking lack of intellectual content in most film production courses; to the dishonesty of film programs representing themselves as preparing students for meaningful careers. I was told in no uncertain terms—and with the financial and institutional penalties I have described—that these subjects were no-nos. They were things I was not supposed to say. They were bad for student recruitment; they would hurt enrollment; they could affect student morale; and heresy of heresies: what I said might actually encourage students to major in something other than film—an absolutely unthinkable outcome to administrators more interested in defending departmental turf—by maintaining course enrollments—than in helping students pursue their true callings. I was not allowed to say such things. Since this material appeared on several pages of my web site, I was given a formal, written order by my Chairman to take the entire site down and given a deadline by which to do it. The over-the-top extremity of my Chairman’s demand—the fact that it also meant censoring hundreds of other pages of writing and interviews (probably close to a thousand pages in all) that did not contain material that had been objected to—or that could not possibly be objected to even by individuals as intolerant and narrow-minded as my college’s administrators—was central to the punishment. It would not punish me and my work sufficiently if I was forced to remove only five or ten or twenty pages of writing and interviews and was able to leave hundreds of other pages in place. I was told to remove everything I had published on the internet.

It may amuse you if I add that when the censorship threats against me were initially made, my first response was to tell my Dean, Chairman, and everyone else that if they didn’t like what I said, and felt that their views needed more visibility and publicity, I would gladly engage in a public debate with them on these issues, and if they didn’t want to do that, I would be delighted to post their responses to anything I had said that they disagreed with on my web site, complete and unedited, at any length they submitted them, prominently displayed next to my own statements so that no one could miss them. The offer was rejected out of hand (and jeered at as “a trick”). So much for the commitment to the free and open exchange of ideas at Boston University. No, no, no—dialogue, conversation, the expression of a range of views and opinions was emphatically not what BU administrators wanted. They demanded that their ideas and only their ideas, their views and only their views be represented. They repeated—frankly, I have to admit I’ve lost track how many times a BU administrator, month after month, year after year, angrily yelled it at me, both in public and in private, screaming at me in front of students in a hallway, in front of junior colleagues at a faculty meeting, or pounding the table in an office—that I was not to have published these opinions, and having published them, I was to be punished for having done it. The administration position was non-negotiable and unyielding. As my Chairman told me several times in front of the entire department faculty, if I wouldn’t take down the web site “voluntarily” (a new and different sense of the word than the one I was familiar with), university administrators would “bring in the lawyers” and do it themselves. He was not asking; he was telling. The web site would not be tolerated. (I’ll pass over the sheer institutional stupidity and counter-productiveness of his fiat. My web site was arguably the largest, most important, and most highly visible site by a BU faculty member. It was known all over the world, read by as many as 50,000 viewers a month, and was one of the major recruitment tools for BU’s own graduate programs. Now that it has been suspended and discontinued, all of the benefit it provided the university has, of course, been lost.)

It bears repeating that the financial, bureaucratic, and personal punishments administered to me have been doled out not for anything I have done or failed to do as a teacher, advisor, or mentor, but for the expression of my ideas, for my reports of ethical issues—in meetings, memos, and emails—and for the statements about film education I made in my writing and in interviews like the two I mentioned. Now I don’t know your personal feelings about it, Jon, but to someone who has devoted his entire professional career to academia, this is the most shameful, most destructive action a university can take: to punish a faculty member for the principled expression of his or her views. In my definition of it, this is the reason that a university exists, and the thing that most distinguishes a university from a profit-making corporation—namely, that its faculty are not only allowed, but as the very heart and soul of the performance of their duties are required to speak the truth and to defend the honesty and integrity of their dealings with others. That’s what it is to be a professional with professional standards of conduct, and not a wage-slave doing the bidding of a corporate boss to shill a product to turn a profit. But that distinction is clearly something administrators at Boston University are unable to grasp. My Dean, my program Director, my Chairman, and others treat my job as if it were about generating flattering press releases, not about telling the truth—and they are willing to punish me for my non-compliance with their gag-orders.

My point is that the issues these administrative actions raise have nothing to do with the merit of any particular idea I may express. My Chairman always told me, as justification for his censorship, that my ideas were “wrong” or “put things in a false light”—as if that made it all right to suppress them. Of course I disagreed with him; my ideas were not wrong. But the rightness or wrongness of my views is not what ultimately matters. What matters, supremely, to the lifeblood of the university is that I and other faculty members be accorded the right to express our ideas, to say what we honestly think and believe, without fear of censorship or punishment.

That’s what academic freedom is about—not about pleasing people, and certainly not about putting the acceptability of a faculty member’s ideas up for a vote—as my Chairman did before telling me that I was not allowed to publish what I had—and that I was being formally censored for having done it. Now that was an experience I’ll not soon forget. Can you imagine sitting through three months of department meetings where excerpts from my publications were projected on a screen, distributed in Xeroxed packets, and read out loud by my Chairman and others while, in an orgy of abuse personally orchestrated and presided over by my Chairman, I was called names, yelled at, and had my morals and character viciously attacked for what I had published? That’s how BU treats faculty who “think differently.” All I could think while the rigged, one-sided “show trial” went on (at an early point in the proceedings I was told that “no one is interested” in anything I might say in my own defense so that for most of the time I was forced to sit there and take the hurled abuse in silence) was that it was good practice if I—or any other BU faculty member who similarly said something BU administrators disagreed with—ever ended up teaching in China, Iran, or North Korea.

These actions raise important questions about the university attitude toward (and treatment of) public intellectuals. Public intellectuals are lauded if they talk about (and locate) problems elsewhere in society, but are criticized and punished if they turn their attention to what goes on in universities. The modern corporate American university, like the rest of modern corporate America, puts a premium on unanimity of opinion and homogeneity of expression, and penalizes genuine diversity of points of view. There is of course much lip service given to something called “diversity”—i.e., racial, ethnic, and sexual diversity; however, intellectual diversity, the expression of genuinely new, different, or—God help us—unpopular or controversial ideas and opinions, the only kind of diversity that means anything intellectually—is frowned on. Like other corporations, the educational corporation aspires to speak with one voice—a sanitized, safe, uncontroversial, politically-correct voice—since the goal is never to offend or upset anyone—particularly anyone with money, anyone who wields the power of the purse, like students, grant officers, politicians, or alumni contributors. The goal is to “build a brand” (there has been much appallingly straight-faced discussion in this vein in my college) that will upset no one, change nothing, and threaten nothing that really matters—particularly cherished beliefs. But this is the opposite of the true function of a university and the death of true education—which is to allow everything, absolutely everything, to be looked at, questioned, examined, and re-thought where necessary. These “branding” discussions, pointedly, focus not on how to better educate students, how to get them to see the limitations of their current understandings and preferences, but about how to please them and teach to their desires—once more in the service of getting tuition dollars out of their pockets and burdening them with ever larger student loans.

If you can stand to read even more on this subject some day, ask me sometime and I’ll send you a memo I wrote my current Dean a few weeks ago, after he vehemently objected to my raising a few fundamental questions with my students (e.g., about the real purpose of their education, and the relation of an education to a career, and of a career to a life—controversial, and hence forbidden, topics, as my Dean angrily told me). If you can believe it, one of the things he went ballistic over was that I sent my students a link to an article about film education in The New York Times—that’s an article in The Times, not a link to something by Noam Chomsky or Karl Marx! My Dean made clear—in a nasty, sarcastic critique of my actions—that articles like the one in The Times are not things I am supposed to be exposing my students to. They are apparently too controversial, too subversive, too dangerous for Boston University film students to grapple with. What does that tell you about his views on education—not to mention his opinion of the intellectual ability of the students in his college? They should be picketing his office to protest his contempt for their intellect.

In what I wrote him in reply I tried to explain why these issues (i.e. about the value and purpose of an education) were important ones for a teacher to raise with his students—and specifically why sending my students links to articles in the New York Times and elsewhere was an important part of my duties as a teacher; but my Dean’s mocking, sarcastic, and completely dismissive response demonstrated one more time (if it weren’t already abundantly clear) that everything I said represented a vision of education that not only had never occurred to him before, but that was something he still couldn’t wrap his mind around even after I had spent several thousand words trying to explain it to him. Not really a surprise. Like many other BU administrators, my Dean spent his entire previous career in corporate America, and has clearly internalized its values, where you don’t ask fundamental questions or raise difficult issues. You “sell a product” to a “customer”—in this instance, a college degree to students. You don’t ask people to think deeply about purposes and values and the meaning of their lives; you just yammer a sales pitch, convincing the customer that the commodity he or she has purchased is worth the tens of thousands of dollars and multiple years of his or her life required to obtain it. If the past is prologue, I am bracing myself for one more hit on my annual evaluations and pay as a result of that exchange. The beat—and the beating—goes on.

In short, the modern American corporate university, like its close cousin the modern American corporation, puts financial considerations ahead of educational ones, and analyzes educational projects (including faculty publications and a teacher’s exchanges with his students, in my case) not in terms of their educational benefit, but their potential effect on the bottom line. The educational experience takes a backseat to budgetary considerations, and the educational process is never allowed to pose questions that might jeopardize fund-raising, grant support, or alumni boosterism. As a professor friend of mine put it, the “cost” of education, in this state of affairs, is education itself—which gets dumbed-down or forgotten in the relentless competition universities (and professors!) wage with each other for students, grants, and alumni support. The budgetary—or enrollment—tail wags the educational dog. Meanwhile, as it didn’t take the Occupy Wall Street protestors to point out, the ballooning cost of college tuitions (required to pay the ridiculous salaries of the very administrators who are setting these mistaken priorities) staggers generations of students under the weight of loans they may never be able to work their way out from under—no matter how many false promises about the value of their degrees and the glorious careers that await them are self-promotingly proffered by the schools they are persuaded to attend.

Now none of the preceding observations is particularly new or original. Everything I am saying is really just common sense and conventional wisdom. And there is nothing terribly controversial about any of it, beyond the fact that it is being said by a university faculty member rather than an outsider, and the fact that it is being said out loud rather than merely whispered or muttered under the faculty member’s breath during or after a meeting. When someone who is actually a member of a university raises these kinds of issues in public, or, for that matter, raises them behind closed doors in a committee or staff meeting, he or she is ostracized or retaliated against as betraying the institution—or “pissing in your own soup” as my current Dean vulgarly put it in a recent memo excoriating me for having informed my students about the challenges of the job market in an email I sent to them that apparently veered too close to the truth. A faculty member who says such things must be penalized—or marginalized and made irrelevant. It’s worth noting that, on top of the other punishments that have been administered to me, I have also been removed from (or excluded from service on) university committees where these sorts of issues might come up and be discussed—e.g., committees in charge of admissions, curricular matters, and faculty reviews, promotions, and hiring. It is apparently too dangerous to give me a platform to express my views, even to other faculty members within Boston University. Who knows what might happen if I actually persuaded a few others to go along with my ideas? My Chairman actually cited this as his reason for removing me from a graduate admissions committee I had previously chaired, after I expressed my opposition to the Dean’s dictates about lowering admissions standards to bring in more tuition dollars. He told me that if he left me on the committee he was afraid I would persuade other faculty members to agree with me about the importance of maintaining academic standards and consequently might jeopardize the execution of the Dean’s goals. So much for the virtues of discussion and debate at Boston University. The only kind of faculty input that is wanted—or tolerated—on the admissions committee is unequivocal, unthinking, obedient academic hucksterism.

The censorship I’ve personally experienced is part of a larger system of surveillance and control of expression at Boston University. The college I teach in, the College of Communication (ironically named in the light of what I am going to tell you) can stand as an example. The current Dean of the college is the same guy I have already mentioned a couple times (the guy who eviscerated me for raising philosophical issues about the meaning of education with my students), a fellow named Tom Fiedler. Unlike the Dean who preceded him, Fiedler is not a total disaster as a human being, but being a normal human being is not sufficient to qualify one to be a university Dean. It takes a lot of knowledge and insight into how a large, complex academic organization devoted to scholarship and pedagogy functions, and Fiedler is clearly not qualified in those areas, about which he knows more or less nothing, since he has no academic background. As I noted, his previous career involved working for a corporation, specifically as a journalist whose apparent claim to fame (it’s the lead item on his bio sheet and something he is obviously extremely proud of) is that he was one of a team of Miami Herald reporters who forced Democratic hopeful Gary Hart to drop out of the presidential race in 1987 by stalking his girlfriend and secretly staking-out Hart’s residence, to catch the two of them in a compromising relationship. Fiedler and his reporter buddies trailed, spied, stalked, and staked-out Hart in a private residential neighborhood night and day for days at time (with, at one point, Fiedler actually putting on a costume to continue the surreptitious snooping!). Then, like the pack of yelping jackals they were, they swooped in for the kill as a group, unexpectedly surrounding a stunned and off-guard Hart on the street when he hadn’t even known they were there, swarming, confronting, and barraging him with a series of privacy-invading questions about his sex life, then broadcasting the results of his stammering, stunned replies on the front page of the newspaper.

In other words, Fiedler and his pals were practitioners of the trashiest form of headline-grabbing tabloid journalism, based on covert surveillance, deceit, trickery, concealing your identity, and a final Perry-Mason-like “gotcha” confrontation with the individual you have snared in your trap and deliberately caught off-guard. It’s the sensationalism and trivialization of journalism that the Watergate scandal and television shows like 60 Minutes inspired, as practiced by reporters who would rather “investigate” who a politician slept with than what the effect of his policies will be—and a quintessential example of the transgression of every normal and customary standard of human decency and respectful treatment that American and British journalists (and executives like Rupert Murdoch) so proudly and self-justifyingly feel their profession entitles them to. Cheaters has become the standard of excellence for the new journalism. It’s not about ethics; it’s about getting a big headline you can cite on your bio sheet.

Well, given that kind of “investigative” predilection, and that sense of what constitutes acceptable (and ethical) professional behavior, I guess no one should have been surprised that when Fiedler arrived at Boston University he chose to pursue a covert spying and surveillance policy against his own faculty members. He revealed to surprised college faculty last year that his office had had a long-standing policy of remotely electronically monitoring what faculty members printed on their computers (it’s amazing what can be done nowadays in that way), and subsequently revealed that he had authorized staff members to call telephone numbers faculty had dialed from their offices to check up on them (allegedly to verify whether college equipment was being used “properly”). The spying policy was divulged to the faculty in the form of a memo that attacked specific individuals for printing material that Fiedler did not approve of. When questioned about the extent of his surveillance activities at a subsequent faculty meeting—I was the questioner of course—Fiedler asserted his additional right to read the emails faculty send and receive (though he noted that he didn’t “have the time to do it,” as if that made a difference). Shades of News Corps’ Rupert Murdoch and Hewlett-Packard’s Patricia Dunn, with the major difference being that at least Murdoch and Dunn initially denied that they had authorized what they had, since they knew it was wrong, while Fiedler defended his right to do everything he did—and he and the BU administration continue to defend his right to continue to do it. At BU, it’s not only OK to spy on your faculty, but you don’t apologize for it or abandon the practice when you are forced to divulge it.

Can you imagine the climate of fear and intimidation this policy has created among faculty members—or the chilling effect it has had on faculty expression? Some faculty members have stopped using their office computers to print sensitive documents, stopped using their university email accounts to write anything important or confidential, stopped using their office telephones, and stopped using the Xerox machine—oh, I forgot to mention that, as one of his other administrative innovations, Fiedler had the faculty copier pulled out and requires that everything faculty members want to Xerox be left for 48 hours with one of his staffers to read and check its contents before the job is performed by the staffer on a locked machine controlled by the Dean. So much for the confidentiality of communications between faculty members or between faculty and the senior administration. If you copy a letter before you send the original off to the President or a member of the Board of Trustees (or copy anything else you want to send to anyone else), the Dean’s office gets to know about it before you’ve even put it in the envelope. (And remember you can’t just print out a duplicate on your computer, since printing is already covered by the Dean’s other surveillance practices.) That, by the way, is why I am writing this at home and e-mailing it to you from a non-BU account. If I didn’t, or if I printed this out on a university printer, my Dean could conceivably know that I was writing you—or what I was writing about—before you did. That’s the BU I and other faculty members know—the so-called “new BU” under the leadership of President Robert Brown.

I had initially assumed that many of the things I am describing (and particularly the attempts to control and censor what I write and say) were taking place “under the radar” of the most senior university administrators, but I was disabused of that notion in 2007 when my Chairman told me that many of the punitive actions he was taking against me to censor my publications (or to punish me for having published them) had been personally authorized by the Provost, the second most senior administrator in the university—a fact which the Provost (David Campbell) subsequently confirmed when I met with him in person to object to what was being done. (For the record, Campbell didn’t yield a nanometer. He told me he saw nothing wrong with censoring my publications, and that I should obey my Chairman’s dictates.) In the three or four years since then, I have made sure that the previous university Provost (David Campbell), the current Provost (Jean Morrison), and the President (Robert Brown) have been made fully aware of the events I am describing, by sending them reports and memos (or by sending them carbons of memos and reports I have sent to others) describing everything I have described here—and more. So nothing I have mentioned in this email is news to the Provost or President. Since none of the misconduct I have told them about has been stopped, or even questioned, the only possible conclusion is that it is endorsed and approved by the Provost and President. Only at BU would that not be surprising.

For five or six years now, I have done everything but get down on my knees in front of these administrators, both those in my college and those above them, either in person or via memo, to plead with them, to beg them for fair treatment and redress, but the obvious problem is that, at the level of my college, I am appealing to the very people who have been guilty of the mistreatment and unprofessional behavior I am asking to be remedied. I have written memo after memo and held meeting after meeting with my program Director, Chairman, and Dean, but the only reply (if I can dignify it with that word) I have received from any of them has been more name-calling, more sarcasm, more verbal abuse (shouts and attacks on my morals, character, and performance of my duties), more threats that I am not to talk or write about certain things, more anger, and more negative evaluations, hits on my pay, and withdrawals of research and other support, etc..

In a vicious circle, my appeals have actually been used against me on the grounds that, by appealing for fair treatment, I am being “difficult” and “uncollegial.” BU administrators have told me this over and over again when I have met with them in person. If I just stop making these reports and stop pointing out that administrators have failed to act on them (or, to all appearances, even to read them), I might stand a chance in the future of getting a better evaluation or a raise in my pay to make up, even slightly, for the past. (Do you get it? Is it clear why they would say this? Do you understand the bribe I am being offered to withdraw my reports of their misbehavior?)

Dean Fiedler’s first conversation with me on the subject can sum up the Catch-22, upside-down, inside-outness of the situation. When, a few months after he took over the Deanship, I sent him a memo detailing some of the unethical behavior I had witnessed in the College of Communication, and (after receiving no response for a number of months) asked to meet with him in person to discuss what I had sent him, he told me that my memo only confirmed what he had been told when he took over the Deanship, namely that I was a “troublemaker”—someone, he said, he had been “warned” to “watch out for.” In the light of that, he told me that what I had written about professional misconduct was of “no importance.” He didn’t take anything I wrote or told him seriously then—or since. He concluded the meeting by saying he hoped I would agree not to “make trouble” (i.e., not submit such reports) in the future. He laid it down as a condition he expected me to live up to if I wanted to restore myself to his good graces—and the good graces of other administrators. He called it “wiping the slate clean.” And that was the end of his response, the end of our meeting, and the end of the ethics inquiry. The ethical problem was me!—for writing what I had. And the only action to be taken was to be taken by me!—I was to stop making reports.

But I guess you can call me a hardened criminal, since I compounded my initial felony since that first meeting by continuing to write or visit Fiedler’s office (but only a few times, of course, since he’s made it more than clear on numerous occasions that he simply doesn’t want to hear about such things) to continue to express concerns about ethical issues, administrative misbehavior, transparency of decision-making, violations of procedure, treatment of faculty members who think differently from others, faculty review procedures, and related issues. Predictably enough, Fiedler’s subsequent responses have been even more rude, sarcastic, or nasty than they were at that first meeting—increasingly rude, sarcastic, and nasty—and of course my evaluations and pay (which he determines) have continued being negatively affected. My problem, my failure, the reason for the scornful, mocking words and the punishments? I continued to express ethical and procedural concerns.

The humor of it is that the Dean’s logic is actually unassailable since, once he’s defined submitting reports of ethical violations and professional misconduct as “making trouble,” I have to plead guilty to indeed having been a bona fide “trouble-maker”—in that definition of it. And, in that definition of it, I continue to “make trouble” right up into the present, every time I submit another report about a problem. With each statement I make, the Dean is clearly more exasperated with me than he was the last time. By this point, three or four years into the process, his responses have ceased being either thoughtful or logical (not that they were so eminently thoughtful or logical even in our first meeting): they have descended to sheer mockery, sarcasm, name-calling, and the “pissing in your soup” vulgar insult I already quoted. Fiedler clearly doesn’t want reports of ethical and behavioral “trouble” to cross his desk—just like the administrators at Penn State didn’t want them to cross theirs. He wants positive stories and good news. He wants “team spirit” (and, if you can believe it, actually showed a sports video to the faculty to make the point!). He wants “salesmanship” and “brand identification.” He wants flattering press releases. In his (corporate/sports-nut) view, that’s what a professor is paid for. My reports and meetings with him about ethical issues obviously don’t fit into those categories or perform those services. They “make trouble” for him, which is reason enough, once he has committed himself to this view of the function of a Dean/Coach and the function of a professor/team member, to punish and retaliate against me. Quod erat demonstrandum. What part of “stop telling me about ethical issues” don’t I understand?

The chief difference from the Penn State situation that I can see is that the Penn State events apparently consisted of an administrator simply not responding to a “troubling” report, while Fiedler has taken a much more active stance and decided to “shoot the messenger”—to punish me financially, bureaucratically, and personally (with verbal abuse)—for bringing him the message. So, you see, that’s my crime: I have told and, like a complete fool, continue to tell my Dean things he doesn’t want to hear and refuses to listen to. That’s the man President Brown chose as the successor to the previous Dean, to restore ethical conduct and respectful faculty treatment to the College of Communication. Welcome to BU. Welcome to my world. Ah, the joys of the academy and the life of the mind, and the deep satisfaction of devoting your life to an institution committed, as President Brown frequently boasts, to the highest standards of ethical conduct.

As I say, I have sent long, detailed memos (or copies of reports submitted to others) to the current Provost (Morrison) and President (Brown) describing the behavior of the individuals in my college and the unprofessional treatment and unethical behavior I have witnessed and been subject to, appealing for fair treatment and redress. And what has been the result? I have yet to receive a single sentence in the way of a reply, an invitation to meet with them to discuss the issues I have raised, or seen any change whatsoever in the treatment I am receiving. (I have waited months for a response from either one, and have even written follow-up memos reminding them about the original memos, which they also never responded to.) If a university administrator can’t even be bothered to respond to a memo about serious ethical violations from a long-serving, senior, tenured professor—let alone take action based on it—he or she is clearly not interested in addressing serious ethical issues.

Call it one more manifestation of the Penn State see-and-hear-no-evil syndrome. Middle-level administrators (my program Director, my Chairman, and my Dean) ignore my appeals for fair treatment since they would be admitting their own present and past misbehavior and culpability. And senior-level administrators (the university Provost and President) are unable to sympathetically enter into the situation of someone who is so far below them (Jerry Sandusky’s victims, or me in this instance—not that I am equating myself with them). BU is very top-heavy administratively (and very top-down in its management style) and faculty do their jobs many layers down, near the bottom of the totem pole. I can only conclude either that the bad behavior is taking place so many levels below the President and Provost that it is effectively “invisible” (notwithstanding my detailed reports) from the skyscraper heights they inhabit, or that it is too dangerous for them to deal with, since dealing with it would involve rattling the cages of the administrators below them who perpetrated the situation—or who, at least, repeatedly turned a blind eye toward my reports of it. Since the individuals guilty of the misbehavior undoubtedly deny that anything untoward has taken place, it becomes easy for the President and Provost to pretend that nothing happened. As at Penn State, when in doubt, put your head in the sand. To quote the lyric to the old song: Out of sight; out of mind. It’s easier to look the other way and deny ethical problems exist than to go to all the trouble of dealing with them. “Denial”—in every sense of the concept—is a major BU administrative coping strategy, at all levels.

I am tenured; I cannot easily be fired (baring a trumped-up morals charge against me, which might sound like a sick joke, but given the Nixonian dirty tricks I have already been subject to—like the secret meetings administrators held with my students to say nasty things about me—nothing is beyond the realm of possibility). Tenure is supposed to grant me the right to speak my mind and teach my courses without fear or retaliation; but the treatment I have received obviously raises questions about what is tenure worth at Boston University? Not very much apparently. If you say something university administrators don’t like, they can make your relation to your colleagues so unbearable, the performance of your duties so difficult, and your mentoring of students so untenable—in short, make your life so hellish—that they will succeed in making you quit in disgust and discouragement, tenure or no tenure. That’s clearly what they have been trying to do to me. At BU, tenure is, in effect, worthless.

Well, that’s a very long answer to a very short question. Forgive any typos in the preceding. I am writing quickly. It was early in the evening when I started, but it’s now well past midnight. Yikes! And sorry for the length. I’ve undoubtedly told you more than you wanted to know; but, if you can believe it, there is more to say about all of these issues—and many other instances of administrative misconduct and ethical violation at BU. (It’s a basic principle that if someone is capable of the kinds of unprofessional and unethical behavior I have described, they are capable of others.) I’ve left out a lot. I have hundreds of pages of memos and reports documenting additional events. But this will do for now. Basta. Thanks for reading this far—if you did!

I wish you well in your work, Jon. You are truly one of the most important living artists, and I only hope I can do justice to your work in the book I am writing. The sooner I finish, the better to celebrate the importance of your films and your personal example. Keep going. It matters—all the more in the world we find ourselves living in. As a greater man than I said: “Truth and love will triumph over lies and hate.” Given my experience at BU, I sometimes have my doubts, but we have to keep believing that is true. It’s the only way to live our lives.

All best wishes.

Cordially,

Ray

Ray Carney
Professor of Film and American Studies

Author of: The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism and the Movies (Cambridge University Press); The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World (Cambridge University Press); Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer (Cambridge University Press); American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Cambridge University Press/University Press of New England); American Dreaming (University of California Press at Berkeley); Shadows (British Film Institute/Macmillan); Cassavetes on Cassavetes (Faber and Faber/Farrar Straus); The Adventure of Insecurity; Necessary Experiences; Why Art Matters; What’s Wrong with Film Criticism; and other books, essays, and editions.

Web site: http://www.Cassavetes.com (suspended at the demand of my Chairman and Dean)

Mailing address:
Prof. Ray Carney
College of Communication
640 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston University
Boston, MA 02215

Office telephone: 617-353-5976
Office e-mail address: rcarney@bu.edu

What this little tale tells is in keeping with a broader phenomenon in America: the steady seep of corruption into all levels of our society, a hand-maiden to the take-over of corporations, with their financial power warping all aspects of life in America.   I will do another post on this in the near future.

Meantime support the Spring Occupation where ever you live.

ADDENDUM:

The following is a response to this posting from the President of Boston University, Robert Brown:

April 1, 2012
Dear Mr. Jost:
It is inappropriate for me to comment externally on faculty performance and university personnel matters.  Boston University has well established and fair processes for faculty members to bring forward grievances.  Sometimes they do not like the answers that result.
Sincerely,
Bob Brown
President
Boston University

This is, naturally, the kind of response one can expect from corporatized souls, reciting like a mantra cliche phrases defending their institution.  Boston University in truth has a good track record of harassing faculty who don’t toe the proper political line of the administration.  Howard Zinn is the most visible case.   The response to the letter I sent to Mr Brown some 6 or so years ago, was pretty much the same boiler-plate corporatese CYA.    Our universities have long been the subject of scathing novels on the petty politics of internal department politics, bloated egos, etc., and recently, as in the case of Penn State, of pure unmitigated corruption.  Universities are now very big business, with spin-off research institutions, close ties to corporate interests, sports incomes, and of course their original mission of “education” has been duly corrupted in process.  They largely function as farm systems for corporate interests.  Along the way they charge exorbitantly for their “services” and leave their students, clearly as part of a larger social project, with a massive debt in loans, which puts those clients on a treadmill of corporate servitude.  Student loans are particularly odious as most are structured precisely to put the borrower in an untenable position, under the lash.  It is clearly a purposeful system as the universities are transparently part of the larger social con in which it is insisted that without a vaunted degree one will get nowhere in life.  It has all degenerated into a cruel farce in which corruption is the moral, ethical, economic, social and political norm.   These universities play a significant role on constructing this fraud.

The upcoming Presidential election is in full swing, with the Republican Party seemingly intent on committing suicide in full public view.  Leading off with their endless “debates,” in which the vapidity of the self-chosen nominees was put on full display – - or is it newly-minted billionaire superPAC anointed?    Then segueing into the primaries, the GOP has managed to compound its folly with the media-hyped roller-coaster shifting of favored dunces bouncing wildly from Cain to Romney to Perry to Gingrich with some of the lesser lights in their dim world cast aside earlier – Michelle and Sarah, and most recently landing in the lap of Rick Santorum.  Traversing the nation, this circus seems to live in some other-world bubble, firmly detached from the every day realities of the ostensible public to which they appeal for votes.  Of course in most states this particular public is winnowed down to the narrow band of Republican stalwarts who vote in these primaries – strident ideologues, racists, Christian fundamentalists and evangelists, and those who genuflect at the altar of St Reagan, patron of the party, even if in these times, like Eisenhower, he would be vilified for the actual things he did (raise taxes, critique the military-industrial complex).  Of these things those of the current Grand Old Party can hardly be bothered to notice: facts are distinctly not within their peripheral vision, not to mention in-your-face.

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St Reagan

With nary a hint of irony, these would-be political leaders all fall into lock-step, as rigid as that of the Third Reich or the unlamented long-gone USSR.  Bedecked in mandatory stiff suits for their debates, American flag lapel pin correctly shown, or “common folk” jeans and plaid when on the hustings, they preach a gospel of “family values,” of “bring back America” and a long litany of sure-fire cliches as fraudulent as their own selves.   Between the lines are racist cue words, carefully placed.   One by one, caught up in messes of their own making – sexual, financial, “ethical” or “political” they march to the gangplank and leap.   What the Great American Public actually thinks of these people – mired in hypocrisy, transparently bought and sold in the new Supreme Court version of “free speech” in which the ancient axiom of America “money talks and bullshit walks” was given legal sanction – is presumably to be deciphered in the tea-leave readings of our vaunted “pundits” who presume to have their fingers on the pulse of the nation, though they seem only to talk to the somnambulant zombies residing “inside the Beltway.”

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One is told that the vast American public learns everything on television, a medium some time ago seized by profit-minded corporate moguls who naturally attempt to seize any medium which demonstrates that it indeed reaches masses of people, or, in their minds, “clients” or “customers.”   Mass communications equals big numbers, and hence, big profits.   And so news became a commodity, just like anything else, and in keeping with the capitalist impulse to place money uber alles, the news had to be repackaged to be more attractive, exciting, and engaging.    So, like the dazzlingly packaged bag of puffed sugar/salt coated air carefully placed before your eyes at the check-out counter – a bag scientifically designed to catch the eye, and full of substances designed to be nearly addictive  (like cigarettes), and for sure you “just can’t stop eatin’ them,” the “news” also morphed into a high-profit margin substance full of air and little else. And so we got celebrity news, famous name violence (AJ on the Freeway), and whatever else seemed to hook the biggest audience for the longest time, the better to feed them the sin qua non of American television:  advertisements.

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At the same time “serious” news got shoved into the background, unless,  as in the events of 9/11, it is forced by circumstances to the headlines.  See, for example, the history of OWS and the news organizations. The news, shifted to being a conduit for profiteering, like any entertainment, is altered and takes on a curious semblance to “commercial” television and filmmaking: heavy on stupid comedy, sex and violence.  Very thin on serious “content.”

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String-pullers, media moguls Jeffrey Bewkes and Sumner Redstone

String-puller supreme: Rupert Murdoch (wire-tapping)

Not content with merely shaping the consumer desires of the populace, once having demonstrated through the wiles of Madison Avenue the effectiveness of advertising, as well as through scientific social research which focused ever more exactly on how to manipulate the consumer – so that now many people proudly wear the corporate emblems of the products which they purchase, be it high-end clothing, or bottom-end costly Nike shoes, or anything between – the corporations realized that they could themselves write “the news” and go directly to pure propaganda:  Fox “News.”   In a manner far more directly than their network predecessors, which reported news of a narrowed, provincial, “about/of concern to America” range, the new systems dispense with any pretense to objectivity.  Of course, in Orwellian language, they claim the opposite: “fair and balanced” they loudly announce as the exact opposite spews over the airwaves.

Draped in the requisite red-white-n’-blue, culled by a systemically corrupt order in which only certain things may be said, and certain things may not be said (for example, with regard to cutting the government deficit one must not mention the biggest and most needless hog at the trough – the military-industrial complex), our political process coughs forth these puppets, who with no small irony echo those of our arch-nemesis of not-so-long-ago, or the present.  The particularities of the costumes may be a little different – stars & stripes instead of hammer and sickle – but the genuflection to a given style is exactly the same.

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Chinese PolitburoUS Congress

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Bequeathed the toxic legacy of the Bush administration – a massive deficit incurred by tax cuts for the rich combined with two unpaid for failing wars, the lack of enforcement of existing regulatory laws and a peel back of regulation in general, and the fiscal bubble it provoked bursting shortly after the 2008 election – Barack Obama entered his office under the dark clouds of an economic crisis for which Republican policies were almost wholly responsible.   They have spent the last 3 years doing what they could both to prolong the economic trauma for Americans, and to shift the blame onto Obama and his policies.   It is a case of pure hard-core right-wing politics, no matter what the damages to the nation.  The consequences are the massive foreclosures, loss of jobs, and the human misery it produces.  Naturally the right blames the victims for their situation.  Class warfare in action.

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Foreclosure heaven

“Creative destruction”

Following 3 years of being pummeled by the Republicans – a process which began the day of his inauguration, and perhaps culminating in the Astro-turfed Tea Party events of last year – President Obama has seemingly stood aloof, distant from the political fray.  And seemingly he was whipped one time after another.   With each seeming triumph the rabble and potentates of the right smelled blood and upped the ante, moving in for the kill:  Boehner stated simply that his work as Speaker of the House was to assure Obama had only one term, and he very much acted out that role, painting himself in purely negative terms.  Others questioned Obama’s legitimacy, whether he was “American” at all.  Throughout this  scourging Obama remained largely silent, drawing to himself critiques of a failure to fight in equal kind to  the vulgar abuses dished out by the voices of the right – from Limbaugh onto the various personages vying for the Republican nomination.  As the vocal turmoil mounted, Obama seemed almost to disappear.   And now, whipped to a frenzy, those on the right, in their eagerness to produce a corpse, have interestingly turned on themselves.  Denied the victim they wanted, who declined the role, the Republican nominees are slicing and dicing one another.

Sitting back these last months, Barack Obama has been gifted this bloodletting by his ostensible opponents, and one imagines he recalls another famous African-American, who likewise bore a Muslim name, and likewise incensed the fury of our legions of racists.   In his profession he had a tactic, which bears some similarity to the political moves of Obama.  He called it rope-a-dope.  He’d let his opponent spend himself in a fury of punches, exhausting himself, while he, Muhammed Ali, laid back against the ropes, seemingly being whupped.  Once the flourish of energy spent was finished, he’d bounce back and deliver the coup de grace.  It was a kind of pugilistic Zen, of a kind Obama appears to exercise in politics.

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Ironically, in this theater of the political absurd, it is the king-makers of the “elite” ruling class who are likely to have the last laugh.  Once all the grand media drama of the election has subsided, and the fulminating of ideologues has drifted into momentary silence, and the votes have been cast (and perhaps, if necessary, jiggled, as recent history indicates is becoming our norm), those eminences, hiding behind their Wizard of Oz curtain, will doubtless be pleased with the success of their latest shell game.   After all the sturm und drang, indeed, the best and most useful Republican in the field will have triumphed:  Barack Obama.   Carefully masked as a “liberal” in the last election, this time around he is clearly put forward as a domestic, somewhat centrist Republican, though calling himself a “Democrat.”  He can do this thanks to having spent the last 3 years being vilified by the mindless shriekers of the right as a Kenyan anti-imperialist “socialist” (unsaid, “nigger”) who is, OMG, trying to turn the nation into a servile European-style welfare state.  Tarred with this, his actions on domestic matters slip easily into the mold of old-time mainstream Republican policies.  Which makes those behind the curtains happy.  And on the foreign front, Barack is happy to drones away whomever disturbs American imperial prerogatives, never mind the Constitutionality of it.  And likewise, while feigning to curb the ravenous appetite of the military-industrial complex, our biggest feeder at the Federal welfare trough, the figures show nothing of the kind.  Rather the numbers are shifted to focus on our new very costly very high-tech kind of warfare in which 10 million dollar Hell-Fire missiles are used to take out a few peasant guerrillas at a time.   Mr. Obama not only pursues this policy, he seems to relish it.  A virtual warrior on behalf of the empire.

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Manchurian candidate Barack Obama and the Harvard Class of 1991

Of course, this scenario might have a monkey-wrench thrown in it should the OWS emerge from its winter hibernation having learned from its militarized-police-imposed FBI/CIA nationally coordinated attack, and accompanying corporate-media rub-out, that it needs to acquire some new tactics.  I’m inclined to think they’ve taken this seeming down-time to hone their thoughts.  It was only 6 months ago that any national discussion about class warfare, income disparities, the 1%, or the ugly consequences of yahoo capitalism was simply unthinkable, totally taboo!  Without recourse to the governing establishment’s usual requirements – appearing on Sunday talk shows, having a clear bullet-point agenda, a “leader,” a party,  and all the rest – OWS seized the high-ground and pressed these issues into the national consciousness and discourse.  No small feat in our highly manipulated society.  The 1% are no longer invisible or chronically lauded; rather they are criticized and their actual actions are under scrutiny.   Whether their shell-game with Mr Obama will suffice to smother the discontent brewing across the nation remains to be seen.

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Gary Beydler, 16mm film, Hand Held Day (1970)Trader, NY Stock ExchangeForeclosureRustbelt, DetroitTornado, Grand Island, NebraskaMitt Romney and Rick Perry, Presidential aspirantsNina Mannering, killed at 29 in meth’ed out Ohio townMap, Jasper JohnsAttica State Prison, New YorkOccupy, SeattleOccupy, OaklandTodd Morten, Scott’s Bluff, Ne.Hank Williams
George Kuchar, 1942-2011Paramount Cinema, Oakland, Ca.

Rupturing through the slick apathy of corporatized America, where last the semblance of public utterance was underwritten by the Koch brothers in the form of the Tea Party, this autumn found another voice.  Unlike the AstroTurf patriots of the tri-corner hat costumed shills of wealth, whose origins were transparent in their corporate logo mass-produced placards, the Occupy Wall Street movement – triggered by the example of the Arab Spring, fueled with Twitter and Facebook and ironically their corporate heft, as well as seeded by the Canadian anti-corporate magazine Adbusters – is instead truly a grass-roots phenomenon, as signaled in their simple hand-made singular signs.  Willfully lacking “leaders,” the Occupy movement has baffled our “authorities,” be they of the government or pundits representing the ruling class, all of whom take hierarchical order as a natural state of affairs and cannot comprehend its absence.   At its outset, occupying Zuccotti Park in New York City, OWS was seen as a brief quirk, a small cluster of mostly college kids camping in downtown Manhattan.  Palin’s “lame-stream” press did its best to ignore them, in a manner tipping its corporate hand:  when the Tea Party entered the scene the coverage was instant and massive.  But of course, hidden behind the screen, it was their party, supporting corporate interests.   OWS was certainly not theirs, and in the classic Pravda style of the good old USSR, if they didn’t report it, it wouldn’t exist.   And so the major media of America issued its black-out fatwa, very much as the Mubarak regime had done, and officially Occupy Wall Street vanished from view.  But, just as in Egypt, the internet provided the mechanism for an end-run around the the views of officialdom, and rather than withering in a matter of days, variants of OWS began to pop up around the country.  Flummoxed, authorities applied their usual remedies:  police were used to cordon and attack, rules were suddenly applied or invented.  And yet with each maneuver of suppression the movement gained support and within a short period, despite repeated attempts at official suppression and ridicule from the punditry, Occupy Wall Street managed to gain from 47 to 70% favorable polling (depending on which), and the national conversation drastically shifted from discussing how to slash Social Security or Medicare, into  discussing how it was that 1% of the population sucked up most the wealth, had bought the government and the press, and had pretty much ruined things for the 99% below them.  All in six weeks.  Without a “leader.”  Without a talking-point agenda.  Without going on one of the TV network talk shows, or Sunday morning political platforms.  Without all the requisites of corporate dictated politics.

Whether in its current form Occupy manages to survive, or develops into a potent political force, it can reasonably be said that it has already been a massive success in articulating the rage underlying our political and economic system.   Without presenting a platform or a list of requested demands, it has made clear that our economic system is utterly out of balance and does not serve the larger public, and it has pointed the finger at the Masters of the Universe who occupy the suites of Wall Street and K Street, and dictate to our corrupted politicians – from Barack Obama to Mitch O’Connell and on out to the far-right extremes of those presently running for the Republican nomination.   In changing the national conversation from the bullet points of neo-liberalist economics and neo-con foreign policy, it has made a major contribution already towards correcting the insanity which has engulfed our national politics.

Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin

George Kuchar sees the futureScott Olsen, Iraq war vet attacked by Oakland policeFrom Nathaniel Dorsky’s “The Visitation”

Autumn has arrived here in Seoul a bit late – the leaves aren’t yet turned, though in the last days a hint of cold arrived.  Perhaps, as was this past summer, autumn will be truncated – a more direct shift to the oblique light and harder temperatures of this hemisphere’s winter.    In my life the change is also signaled other ways:  the body seems a bit more cranky, prone to morning pains.  On the left side of my torso a bulge near the groin suggests another hernia operation, slap in a piece of plastic meshing to do what the muscle wall no longer can.   Maybe next week.  And, as drifted by in previous years, autumn, at this age, induces autumnal thoughts – pondering if this may or may not be one’s last.   Other changes carry the same tonal shift:  singular again.  And again, no longer employed, back upon the tight-rope of fiscal insecurity.  In my case, it is something needed, and already I feel the juices of creative urges running – somehow my soul works better without a safety net.   Two weeks ago, shoved into a self-made corner, managed to shoot a new film – 60-80 minutes long I imagine, shot in less than 3 days on tsunami ravaged island near Sendai, Japan.  Devastatingly simple, I think it should be strong.  With help from Moe Toema, young woman who took my workshop in Tokyo and speaks English well thanks to 3 years in Australia.

We arrived in the morning, meeting up with a man who works with a non-profit organization.  He took us on a little drive around the island, introduced us to some people.   I did a handful of shots of the place, got a sense of things.  We stayed overnight in a kind of B&B guest home, slightly damaged by the quake – things out of line – but on high-ground and untouched by tsunami.  Excellent fresh seafood dinner.  Next day we went to shoot some people, not interviews but coaxing them to talk about their experience during the earthquake and then tsunami.  For the most part it worked well, with Moe figuring out how to keep them going without talking herself – lots of nods and smiles.  Lighting and set-ups were catch as catch can: I wanted blank backgrounds and in haste found what I needed; lighting was whatever was there.  Got six of these, ranging from 6 minutes to 15 minutes long.  Moe suggests what is said was interesting, so I think there’s a short feature in it.  I figure to round up some Japanese poems or haiku’s about earthquakes and tsunamis, find some old graphics or paintings around the same, and get it all done by the end of November.

The man above, a fisherman, was swept away by the tsunami, and managed to grab hold of something for dear life, and survived.   Shooting him was its own little adventure – a little ferry ride to another island to which he’d moved, Moe’s deadline to get back to Tokyo in time to make a medical appointment, and the crush of time.  When we got to his house Moe told me we had five minutes before we had to go back to catch the return ferry in time to make her train.  We walked in, I sized up a place to set him, shot for 7 minutes and as we were leaving to walk back the man said he had a little pickup truck and he’d drive us.  I shot from the back while he drove and Moe worried I’d fall out as we bounced along the ravaged once-road.  I had fun, it all reminding me of long ago days of shooting while sitting unharnessed on the hood of a pickup truck (opening shot of Last Chants for a Slow Dance) and other such things.  We made the ferry with about 30 seconds to spare.  The whole wham-bam two and a half day shoot seems to have rejuvenated my creative spirits.

Nakai-san and Moe TomoedaAbstracted tsunami

While I was in Japan, another kind of tsunami seems to have risen – an echo of the Tunisian, and then Egyptian and then Libyan uprisings: our own Occupy Wall Street.   Triggered by the mix of social networking tools, an economy in a deep swoon, and the utter arrogance and disconnected manner of our ruling elite – financiers, politicians and their courtiers all – a small minority of people have decided to speak and act out.   They occupied a small privately managed park near Wall Street, camping out.   At the outset it was a pitifully small number – a few hundred.  The press and local authorities initially simply ignored them as if they were unworthy of notice.   They stayed.  Slowly through the internet news was spread.  The mainstream press – including such allegedly “liberal” papers at the New York Times – then reported, but in a petulant and snide manner – both in articles and on their opinion pages.  Right-wing media began to ventilate.   And yet OWS grew, and branches began to sprout around the country – in Washington, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and even in places where such protest was virtually unknown: Tampa, South Carolina, Denver.   Again the numbers were small, but despite hostile press and politicians, they kept growing.  Their tactics seemed to confuse the “authorities” who fumbled with evicting such camps, surrounding them with heavy police forces, and most recently attacking them.   As if they could learn nothing from the recent history of our Arabic friends, with each effort at suppression by authorities and the media, the participants grew, and a reading of polls showed that a majority (53 to 70%  depending on which poll) of Americans were supportive.  This, in contrast to the Tea Party of last year, which the press gave wide coverage, and where the police were invisible despite the many gun-carrying TP people, provided a clear lesson in how America is presently run.  In turn OWS and its off-shoots enlarged again, and finally the mainstream press began to report in something other than a negative manner, and started to pick up on issues raised by OWS.  Clearly it had grown too big to ignore.

Occupy Albany, NYOccupy Atlanta, Ga.Occupy ChicagoOccupy Wall Street

Occupy !

Confronted with a national uprising rooted in the real problems which beset the country, and which declines to enter into the binary Republican/Democrat so-called two-party system, the governmental authorities – acting at the behest of their corporate masters – are showing their impatience, and in the last few weeks have begun to carry out heavy-handed policing actions such as the entrapment on the Brooklyn Bridge and now in the forced closure of Occupy camps across the country.  The most visible case of such tactics was demonstrated in Oakland, where police used tear-gas, stun grenades, and seriously injured an Iraq war vet.  By such mis-steps do the government and the corporations it supports, show their hand transparently.   Like Mubarak, like Gaddafi, their recourse is to force when they are unable any longer to dissuade with fraudulent politics.

Police in Oakland, Ca.Oakland, Ca.

Scott Olsen, hit by tear gas bomb which fractured his skull

There is no question that those who rule America will behave exactly like those who ruled Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, when push comes to shove.  They will not leave willingly, nor admit their errors, nor concede any power.  They will if necessary deploy the military and declare martial law and institute a police-state.  They have already done many things towards this end.  Under Bush there were “free speech” areas cordoned off, where the Constitution allegedly applied – though “free speech” is a Constitutional right and should be allowed anywhere in the USA.   By such means are “rights” diminished – such as habeus corpus, which the Patriot Act deleted in many cases.  Step by step our corporate masters, acting under the guise of the government, are reducing America to a version of the USSR:  a defunct economy, a bloated military, and rampant corruption among the elite – socialism for the rich, and “capitalism” for the poor.

I encourage everyone to fully support the Occupy movement: with your body, with your voice, with whatever support you can give.

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