Category Archives: On Politics

So nobly advanced…

By Dennis Hartley

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On this date in 1863, President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg address, which opens with: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Earlier today, channeling the spirit of this rich tradition of  presidential eloquence, our current commander-in-chief Donald Trump tweeted:

I’m sorry, memory fails…what was that Civil War all about again?

A special guest post: Looking for comedy in the Muslim world

By Brad Upton

Note: Brad Upton is a Seattle-based comedian with whom I had the pleasure of working with during my stint in stand-up. He has just wrapped up a tour in Pakistan with several other comics, and has been posting on Facebook about his experience.  As we all know, there’s no crying in baseball…or comedy. Nonetheless, Brad wrote a post today that I found incredibly moving and inspiring; and in light of all the bellicose nationalist rhetoric coming from the top these days, it is a much-needed reminder that people are people, wherever you go. With his permission, I am re-publishing Brad’s thoughts here. – Dennis Hartley

Please allow me to ramble.

Karachi, Pakistan

Last Wednesday night I went back in time and was able to relive what it was like when I started doing stand up. That feeling of excitement, anticipation, feeling the collective energy of the room, of the possibility….of the future. It felt like my beginning in 1984.

After a day of promotion, meals and being ferried throughout Karachi in traffic that can’t adequately be described other than a mass of scooters, motorcycles, 3-wheeled motorized rickshaws, buses, donkey carts, horseback and cars….none of them following any observable rules, we pulled up in front of a 5-story building on a side street. Everywhere we pull up in Karachi: a restaurant, studio, or hotel, a man or men, stand up and emerge from the shadows carrying highly modified automatic weapons. Blue slacks and blue polo shirts, this is security.

There are offices on the first floor. Five of us enter a hot, humid elevator that should probably only hold three. We emerge on the top floor. It certainly isn’t a bar, or a restaurant, or banquet room, or any kind of theater. It is an empty office space and this is where you find Karachi’s two-year-old, open mic comedy scene. There is a logo on the wall behind the comics proudly calling this place the Thot Spot. As we emerge from the elevator we can hear laughter as we slip quietly into the back of the room. The audience sits in rows of folding chairs. The room holds about 70 and is packed.

The room is electric with energy, each comic is getting big laughs. What takes me back in time is how the comics and audience are enthralled with what is happening. This vibe doesn’t exist at an open mic in the US; stand up is part of our culture and some of the comics have been going up for years.

This is different. This is new. This is fun. We’ve never done this. We’ve never had this. People are standing in front of their peers and talking about life in Karachi, their awkwardness, sex, politics, traffic, social media, dating, school, family, etc. Young Muslim men and women speaking their minds in ways that make their peers laugh.

Wait, I haven’t mentioned something VERY important. I THINK these are the topics. This entire show is being performed in Urdu. Many Pakistanis are bilingual but it seems Urdu is usually the first option.

I. Am. Mesmerized.

To hear stand up performed in a language I don’t understand is fascinating. I love the rhythm of the words and can quickly recognize an approaching punchline just by the pacing and nuances. I can hear the beats. I find myself laughing at jokes I don’t understand, verifying that laughter is contagious.

The audience and comics are aware that this night is different. The international professionals that have just arrived from Great Britain and the US will go up at the end and do 7-10 minutes each.

Our host, our organizer, our MC, Umar Rana, takes over the hosting duties at the conclusion of the Urdu sets and quickly converts the audience over to English. Keep in mind that myself, Dwight Slade and Shazia Mirza aren’t quite sure what we’re in for. We are almost sick with jet lag. We are confident, veteran professionals….but this is Pakistan. Will they like us? Have I chosen the right material? Will this joke make sense?

Suddenly I have the open mic feeling that I haven’t felt in over 30 years. I go first, followed by Dwight and Shazia. For all three of us, everything works. Every joke, every expression, every nuance. All three of us destroy and delight in the experience. The show wraps up and we stand around laughing and smiling and talking with our Pakistani cohorts. I suddenly have new friends!

This audience has given these pros a taste of what the weekend is going to be like. It is humbling. I witness what has happened at this open mic in Karachi and am proud of my profession. I got more out of this evening than they did. These people want to laugh and be entertained. These kids are Pakistan’s future. Inshallah.

Days of future past?

By Dennis Hartley

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Yesterday, I had CNN on with the sound muted while doing household chores.  Before realizing what was being shown, I caught strikingly apocalyptic images of the Northern California firestorm out of the corner of my eye. For a split second, a deep dark dread came over me, and the first thing that popped into my mind was “Oh my god…he’s really done it. He has actually started World War III.”

Seriously.

Why would I even think that? I’m a somewhat rational person.

Hiroshima aftermath, August 1945

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Napa wildfire aftermath, October 2017

Paranoia…or premonition? I guess that’s where the zeitgeist is now.

Bang bang, shoot shoot

By Dennis Hartley

(In light of the tragedy in Las Vegas, I am re-posting this piece from February 16th of this year).

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Oh, boy.  From  The Washington Times:

Congress on Wednesday approved the first gun rights bill of the new Republican-controlled Washington, voting to erase an Obama administration regulation that would have forced Social Security to scour its lists and report some of its beneficiaries to the firearms no-buy list.

The Senate approved the bill on a 57-43 vote. The House cleared the legislation earlier this month.

If President Trump signs the bill into law as expected, it will expunge a last-minute change by the Obama administration designed to add more mental health records to the national background check system that is meant to keep criminals and unstable people from obtaining weapons.

 The previous administration had proposed requiring Social Security to search its records and report people receiving disability benefits or supplemental income payments and who had someone else managing their finances, deeming them “mental defectives” who shouldn’t be able to buy firearms. Republicans said that trampled on Second Amendment rights by casting too wide a net.
                                 

“It results in reporting people to the gun ban list that should not be on that list at all,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and chief sponsor of the effort to repeal the Obama rule. “It deprives those people [of] their constitutional rights and, in a very important way, violates their constitutional rights without even due process.”

Oh, I see…it’s just those “compassionate conservatives” selflessly looking out for the interests of Americans with disabilities; standing up for their rights. At least when the Second Amendment is in peril. Because, as you know, they’ve always been there for those folks:

Good times!

This development strikes me as particularly odious, coming  as it does hot on the heels of PBS’ February 14 broadcast premiere of Tower, a harrowing documentary recounting the 1966 mass shooting  at the University of Texas.  Over an agonizing hour and a half period, a deranged sniper who had stationed himself on the observation deck of the UT Tower, methodically picked off nearly 50 people-killing 16 and wounding 3 dozen. He still had plenty of ammo left when two Austin policeman and a hastily deputized civilian were able to make their way to the top and take him out.

Last June, in a piece I wrote about the Orlando nightclub mass shooting, I pointed to the 1966 incident as a sad marker for America:

But there is something about [Orlando] that screams “Last call for sane discourse and positive action!” on multiple fronts. This incident is akin to a perfect Hollywood pitch, writ large by fate and circumstance; incorporating nearly every sociopolitical causality that has been quantified and/or debated over by criminologists, psychologists, legal analysts, legislators, anti-gun activists, pro-gun activists, left-wingers, right-wingers, centrists, clerics, journalists and pundits in the wake of every such incident since Charles Whitman  perched atop the clock tower at the University of Texas and picked off nearly 50 victims  (14 dead and 32 wounded) over a 90-minute period. That incident occurred in 1966; 50 years ago this August. Not an auspicious golden anniversary for our country. 50 years of this madness.  And it’s still not the appropriate time to discuss? What…too soon?

All I can say is, if this “worst mass shooting in U.S. history” (which is saying a lot) isn’t the perfect catalyst for prompting  meaningful public dialogue and positive action steps once and for all regarding  homophobia, Islamophobia, domestic violence, the proliferation of hate crimes, legal assault weapons, universal background checks, mental health care (did I leave anything out?), then WTF will it take?

(sigh) I have to ask again. WTF will it take? BTW, here is what it “took” for President Obama to lobby for the regulation that has just been overturned:

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But thank God the 2nd Amendment got through all this unscathed!

No words

By Dennis Hartley

(I am re-posting this piece from 2016, in commemoration of 9/11)

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I don’t get out much. In 60 years, I’ve yet to travel anywhere more exotic than Canada. That’s me…born to be mild. Oddly enough, however, I  was “out of the country”  on September 11, 2001.

OK, it was Canada. I was enjoying a 3-day getaway at Harrison Hot Springs, a beautiful Alpine setting in British Columbia. I was booked to check out of the hotel on Tuesday, September 11th.

I woke up around 9am that morning, figuring I had enough time to grab breakfast and one more refreshing soak in one of the resort’s natural springs-fed outdoor pools before hitting the road for the 3-hour drive back to Seattle. I was feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.

Then I switched on CNN.

Holy fuck. Was this really happening? I actually did not understand what I was watching for several minutes. It was surreal. It was especially discombobulating to be out-of-country at the very moment the United States of America appeared to be under attack.

My first impulse was just to get back to the U.S.A. I was overcome with a sense of urgency that  I had to “do” something (realistically, of course…what could I do to help those poor souls in the towers?).

I went to the front desk to check out, and was advised by the clerk that there were reports that the U.S./Canada border checkpoints were closed (to this day, I’m not sure if that was just a rumor-I can’t track down any historical annotations). I was also hearing from fellow guests that lines of vehicles were miles long at the checkpoints. At any rate, they were offering   American guests with a September 11 checkout a reduced rate if they preferred to try their luck on Wednesday.

With all the uncertainty and fear in the air, I decided to take them up on the offer and leave Wednesday morning instead (for all I knew, I could be returning to some kind of post-apocalyptic hellscape anyway). I was less than 200 miles from home geographically, but spiritually I might as well have been Matt Damon’s character in The Martian.

As I didn’t own a cell phone or a laptop (yes, I know they existed in 2001…but I was a latecomer to  personal devices), CNN became my lifeline for the remainder of that horrible day. One thing I’ll never forget is Aaron Brown’s marathon reportage. As awful as the situation was, he maintained the perfect tone. This may sound corny, but he was not only a level-headed source of information, but also my friend that day.  And apparently, I’m not alone in that assessment:

That, my friends, is what a good journalist does. Remember them?

Accept the obvious: R.I.P. Dick Gregory

By Dennis Hartley

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“The most difficult thing to get people to do is to accept the obvious.”

-Dick Gregory

Man, did Dick Gregory pick a bad weekend to go. With the passing of Jerry Lewis and eclipse mania building to a fever pitch, his death in Washington D.C. this past Saturday earned him but a few perfunctory thirty second obits on network and cable newscasts.

Truth be told, Gregory was not so much a “comedian” who went out of his way to make you laugh as he was a righteous, erudite truth teller, who also happened to be very funny.  He was a trickster of a sort;  he would lower your guard with a perfect zinger, then seconds later he would raise your consciousness with a sharp social insight.

“Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’  I said: ‘that’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’ “

-Dick Gregory

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When it came to his political activism, he didn’t just talk the talk:

[From The Los Angeles Times]

An invitation from civil rights leader Medgar Evers to speak at voter registration rallies in Jackson, Miss., in 1962 launched Gregory into what he called “the civil rights fight.”

He was frequently arrested for his activities in the ’60s, and once spent five days in jail in Birmingham, Ala. after joining demonstrators in 1963 at the request of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Gregory, who was shot in the leg while trying to help defuse the Watts riots in 1965, made a failed run for mayor of Chicago as a write-in candidate in 1967. A year later, he ran for president as a write-in candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party, a splinter group of the Peace and Freedom Party. Hunter S. Thompson was one of his most vocal supporters.

In the late ’60s, he began going on 40-day fasts to protest the Vietnam War.

In 1980, impatient with President Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis, he flew to Iran and began a fast, had a “ceremonial visit” with revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and met with the revolutionary students inside the embassy. After four and a half months in Iran, his weight down to 106 pounds, he returned home.

Not exactly your everday “ha-ha funny” type of clown, was he?

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His activism never stopped. From today’s Democracy Now tribute (I’d recommend watching the entire tribute-its quite moving)…

Gregory became one of the most popular comedians in the country, paving the way for generations of African-American comedians. On Sunday Chris Rock wrote on Instagram, “We lost a king. They’ll never be another. Read his books. Look him up you won’t be disappointed. Unfortunately the America that produced Dick Gregory still exists.” Dick Gregory was the first African-American comedian to sit on the couch of The Tonight Show, then hosted by Jack Parr. As his popularity grew, so did his activism.

[…]

More recently, his face appeared in newspapers across the country for his community action to — approach to investigate allegations behind the CIA’s connection with drugs in the African American community. He camped out in dealer-ridden public parks and rallied community leaders to shut down head shops. He protested at CIA headquarters and was arrested. Throughout his life, Dick Gregory has been a target of FBI and police surveillance. And he was virtually banned from the entertainment arena for his political activism.

The last sentence above  explains in part (sadly) why, despite his long career, you’ll find virtually no Dick Gregory performance clips on YouTube. That’s because he has essentially been blacklisted for years; there are very few archived TV or club appearances that exist.

Here’s a little taste of his early standup days:

Here’s a rare latter-day television appearance, on Arsenio in 2014:

There’s a lot of truth-telling going on in that interview. Interesting to note that Arsenio Hall’s “revival” run (that started in 2013)  was cancelled soon after (file under “Things That Make You Go: ‘Hmm.'”)

“To me, seeing a great comedian is a bit like watching a musician or a poet.”

-Dick Gregory

Accept the obvious:  America’s conscience has lost its Poet Laureate. R.I.P.

In the Seattle mist with Confederate Dead

By Dennis Hartley

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A friend and I were commiserating the other day about how demoralizing the events in Charlottesville were. Being a couple of old lefty Seattle hippies, we were of course feeling the need to “do” something; how to make a counter-statement to this brazen display of racism and hate? I joked, “It’s not like we can go out and pull down a Confederate statue…good luck finding one in this town, amirite?”

In Seattle, you’re more likely to bump into a public statue of Lenin:

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Or Jimi:

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Or a troll under a bridge, crushing a VW bug in his huge maw:

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Seattle is funky. Whimsical. Confederate memorials? Nah! Well, shit:

[via The Seattle Times]

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray expressed “concerns” about a monument to Confederate soldiers in Capitol Hill’s Lake View Cemetery, which closed Wednesday afternoon for security reasons.

A statement issued by Murray’s office said he called a cemetery representative Wednesday regarding the monument, which was erected in 1926. The cemetery is privately owned.

Lake View Cemetery closed Wednesday afternoon after receiving threats related to the monument, said Craig Lohr of the Lake View Cemetery Association. Seattle news media recently reported on the existence of the monument.

The cemetery — best known as the final resting place for martial-arts star Bruce Lee and his son Brandon, as well as Seattle’s founders — will likely reopen Thursday morning.

The mayor’s statement said:

“We must remove statues and flags that represent this country’s abhorrent history of slavery and oppression based on the color of people’s skin. It is the right thing to do. During this troubling time when neo-Nazis and white power groups are escalating their racist activity, Seattle needs to join with cities and towns across the country who are sending a strong message by taking these archaic symbols down.”

The mayor’s office couldn’t be reached to clarify Murray’s statement.  A petition on Change.org calling for the removal of the memorial had more than 3,200 supporters late Wednesday afternoon.
Also on Wednesday, a small group of protesters gathered around the Vladimir Lenin statue in Fremont to demand its removal. The statue, located on private property, has been for sale for years and has been vandalized with red paint on one of its hands.

What our mayor said. And I’m sure Bruce Lee would concur.

And OK, I “get” what the handful of protesters calling for removal of  the Lenin statue are trying to say…in theory. And if it was any other week, I’d give ’em a fair hearing. But you know what? In the context of the events of this past weekend, that’s a false equivalency. I don’t believe I spotted any overt Leninist marchers carrying (and beating people with) tiki torches in Charlottesville. I believe some of those fine people were self-avowed, oh, what are they called again…Nazis?

In this case, what the mayor (and most of the other people of the world who aren’t Donald Trump) are saying is, that if the first step in purging this legacy of violence, bigotry, and (oh yes) sedition against the United States of America is to take these archaic symbols down…then by all means, take all these fucking archaic symbols down.

The president stated that history and culture are being “ripped apart” by tearing these statues down. That is just an extension of the tired old argument that’s been used in the past by individuals and organizations who concern troll about “historical preservation” when attempting to legally block Confederate flags from being removed from government property. The Jim Crow laws are also part of the south’s history and culture…is anyone clamoring to have those resurrected and preserved as well? (I’m sure there’s some.)

It is possible to purge such symbols of hatred while keeping your democracy intact. Just ask any German.  From The Washington Post:

Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said Monday that the violence that unfolded in Charlottesville was “sickening.” He described the symbols and slogans employed in “the right-wing extremist march” — including swastikas and chants of “Blood and soil,” a Nazi-era motto — as “diametrically opposed to the political goals of the chancellor and the entire German government.”

[…]

“Most people in Germany have difficulty understanding that gatherings like in Charlottesville are possible in the U.S., because we have drawn a different lesson from history,” said Matthias Jahn, chairman of criminal law at Goethe University in Frankfurt. “Our German law centers on the strong belief that you should hinder this kind of speech in a society committed to principles of democratic coexistence and peace.”

Those Germans sound like a bunch of old lefty Seattle hippies.

They can always get him on tax evasion

By Dennis Hartley

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I’ve been trying to process  President Trump’s insane “impromptu” press conference yesterday, in which the leader of the free world obstinately stood his ground in tacit support of the odious ideology that fueled the tragedy in Charlottesville. I have never witnessed any presidential press conference quite like this one in my lifetime:

You know who he’s really beginning to remind me of? I know what you’re thinking…but Hitler and Mussolini are too easy; I’m thinking in terms of form, over content. I think he’s modelling himself (consciously or subconsciously) after underworld kingpin Al Capone.

Think about it. Trump, like fellow native New Yorker Capone was wont to do, revels in public attention, and the more outrageous and/or egregious his misdeeds, the more unapologetic his public stance. Granted, Trump hasn’t murdered anyone (that we know of), but shares a gangster’s intuition for opportunistic profiteering.

That’s why Trump’s base loves him. He’s a natural-born outlaw:

As the historian notes in the clip, regarding Capone’s bluster:

“…he’s not going to deny that he’s a bootlegger; he’s not ashamed of being a criminal.”

And as “Capone” himself confides to the viewer:

“Those twits kept trying to nail me, and came up with squat. Of course, they didn’t have enough evidence to bring me to trial.”

Remind you of anyone else who calls impromptu press conferences, ostensibly to strut about and tout their ill-gotten power, amazing accomplishments, and gloat over the inability of the law to nail ’em?

General Kelly? Sir, we feel you. We really do.

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We are all Freddy

By Dennis Hartley

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It is often pointed out that the presidency provides a “bully pulpit” for whomever holds  office at the time. But generally, that is a figure of speech; not every POTUS necessarily abuses that “privilege”.  And yes, “they’ve all done it” at one time or another, regardless of party affiliation. However, I think I can safely say that (in my lifetime, at least) we’ve never seen a bigger bully in the White House than Donald J. Trump. And as we all remember from grade school, bullies are empowered by submission. Which is why this was so cathartic:

Of course, due to certain restrictions imposed upon a network TV host, Stephen couldn’t say what we are all really thinking. Freddy?

What Freddy said.

# # #

UPDATE 5/6/17– Are you fucking kidding me? From Rolling Stone:

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission revealed Friday that the agency is considering whether to fine Stephen Colbert over the Late Show host’s controversial joke about Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

On Monday’s Late Show, Colbert quipped that “the only thing [Trump’s] mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin’s cock holster.” The joke drew accusations of homophobia, a viral #FireColbert campaign and FCC complaints against Colbert.

In an interview Friday, FCC chairman Ajit Pai told a Philadelphia radio station, “I have had a chance to see the clip now and so, as we get complaints — and we’ve gotten a number of them — we are going to take the facts that we find and we are going to apply the law as it’s been set out by the Supreme Court and other courts and we’ll take the appropriate action.”

Pai added, “Traditionally, the agency has to decide, if it does find a violation, what the appropriate remedy should be. A fine, of some sort, is typically what we do,” Variety reports.

On Wednesday, Colbert commented on the controversial joke. “At the end of that monologue, I had a few choice insults for the president,” Colbert said. “I don’t regret that.”

However, Colbert admitted that, in retrospect, he wishes he chose his words more carefully. “While I would do it again, I would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be,” he added.

As for whether the joke was homophobic, Colbert added, “I’m not going to repeat the phrase, but I just want to say for the record, life is short, and anyone who expresses their love for another person, in their own way, is to me, an American hero. I think we can all agree on that. I hope even the president and I can agree on that. Nothing else. But, that.”

Stay tuned for state-controlled media…