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In the last few days, there was a video from the Portland protests that showed a confrontation between a single protester clad in a sweatshirt and a baseball cap standing against several stormtroopers (how can they not be called that?) in full tactical gear, armed with batons and semi-automatic weapons while brandishing canisters of pepper spray.

This lone protester did nothing provocative, showed no aggression at all. In fact, he stood like a tree. He was a large guy and one of the stormtroopers stepped up to him and absolutely wailed on him, taking a stance like he was Mickey Mantle at the plate with legs spread wide and delivering several full swings with his baton to the legs and body of the protester, who stood stoically still without flinching as he absorbed the blows. Another trooper moved in with pepper spray and shot two huge bursts at point blank range into the protester’s face. At that point the protester wheeled around and walked away, defiantly raising both hands above his head to give the stormtroopers the finger with both hands.

It was like something out of a Marvel movie, Captain Portland, as he came to be called on social media.

Turns out that guy was a 53 year old Portland resident and graduate of the US Naval Academy named Chris David. He had wrestled for the Naval Academy and served in the Navy after his graduation. He was angered by the actions of the stormtroopers he had witnessed on the media and decided that he needed to face them directly so he could ask them face to face if they believed in their oath to the Constitution. At the protests, he stated the troopers emerged en mass from the Federal Building and immediately surged into the crowd. He observed that they had no discernible strategy or maneuvers that suggested that they had any knowledge of crowd control. He said they appeared to just be guys with sticks hitting whatever was in their path. Scared guys, as he noted, who were actually inflaming violence rather than controlling it.

It was a mesmerizing image, this large middle-aged bear of a man in a white sweatshirt and shorts facing several fully armed troopers and taking their heavy blows without flinching. I can imagine that the trooper swinging the baton was shaken that he couldn’t move this guy. The image of Chris David calmly walking away ( face on fire from the pepper spray and a hand so broken it will require surgery) while brandishing that symbol of angry defiance reminded me of another image, one that I saw as a child that has stuck with me for 52 years.

It was this photo taken by photographer Perry Riddle at the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It shows a group of protesters with a shirtless young man at the center giving the camera the finger with a gusto and anger that encapsulated the rage that was taking place at that time.

I was nine years old and saw the large full page photo in a Life magazine at our home. I didn’t exactly know the meaning or the actual wording behind “the finger” at that time but I sure knew that it was a symbol for expressing your anger at someone. The photo really burned its way into my memory and over the years I had futilely searched for it before giving up on ever finding it.

But seeing Chris David’s fingers of defiance sent me on a search for it yesterday morning. Within several minutes I finally uncovered one image of it with a caption with the name of  the photographer, Perry Riddle, and the name of the young man, Frank C. Plada, who it added was later killed in Viet Nam.

There had to be a story behind this Frank Plada and his death in Viet Nam. I did a search and turned up next to nothing. I finally did a search on a newspaper archive and came up with one story from 1978 that ran in the Chicago Sun Times. It finally shed some light on that angry young man who had been living for the past fifty years in my mind with his finger in full FU mode.

It turns out that Frank Plada wasn’t even originally a protester that night. He was just a 17 year guy, a junior high dropout fro m Chicago who had been knocking around at odd jobs, who went downtown to go to the movies. But seeing how the demonstrators were being treated by the police that night inflamed his anger. He joined in and was beaten, tear-gassed, and arrested for his trouble that night.

Ironically, instead of continuing to protest as you might think someone would whose image was viewed as a symbol of those Chicago protests, Plada enlisted in the US Army in the fall of 1968. He felt that he was going to be drafted so decided to enlist and do his three years. Get it over with.

But, contrary to the caption  on the photo, Frank Plada did not die in Viet Nam.

Well, not all of him.

While there, he contracted malaria and was treated with drugs. He also added a heavy diet of amphetamines and a heroin addiction that followed him home after his three years were up. The drugs and his experiences in Viet Nam took a heavy toll on him. He began experiencing seizures and had other health problems related to his addiction and PTSD. On January 1, 1976, Frank Plada died in his sleep. His family reports that the doctors said that it was not an overdose, though he had a low level of methadone in his blood from addiction treatment. They said he had experienced severe lung damage and they had simply collapsed in his sleep.

Frank Plada was 24 years old at the time of his death.

I was glad to finally see the photo again and to know the real story behind that angry young guy in the white pants who was throwing up his finger at the powers that be. The actual story is a sad tale, one that could probably be applied to any number of young men of that era. Knowing the story of Frank Plada tempers my memory of that Chicago photo a bit.

So, there are two images, 52 years apart. Their fingers may be the only thing that links the two but both gave it in dissent to the injustice they were witnessing.

These fingers, that urge to rebel against authoritarianism, might very well be that part of the American character that will ultimately save us.

Good on you, Chris David. Rest in peace, Frank C. Plada.

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The Seven Social Sins

1- Wealth without work.
2- Pleasure without conscience.
3- Knowledge without character.
4- Commerce without morality.
5- Science without humanity.
6- Religion without sacrifice.
7- Politics without principle.

–Frederick Lewis Donaldson, Westminster Abbey sermon, March, 1925

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The list above has been attributed for years to Mahatma Gandhi who published this same list later in the year in 1925 but it first came from a sermon given by Anglican priest, Frederick Lewis Donaldson, at Westminster Abbey in March of that year.  Gandhi published it in his newspaper, Young India, in October, stating in a very short commentary that the list was sent to him by a “fair friend,” adding “Naturally, the friend does not want the readers to know these things merely through the intellect but to know them through the heart so as to avoid them.”

Though Gandhi may not have originated the list, his reputation sent the message worldwide.

Reading the list early this morning, I was struck that the entirety of the list could be applied to many of those who wield the power of government, most notably the person(?) who sits in our white house. He is devoid of all the positive social attributes on the right side of this list, existing without conscience, character, morality,humanity, or principle. Nor is he unwilling to work or sacrifice anything of his own to make the world better for those beneath him in the social pecking order.

Based on his comments stating that traumatic head injuries suffered by our soldiers weren’t real wounds, I think you can throw empathy and a few other positives into the list of things missing from his being.

In short, he is a hollow man.

A husk.

And the more we follow his lead, giving in to his twisted and selfish worldview, the more hollow we become as a nation. You can easily see it in the way he has affected the republican party which has many members in power who, like him, are crossing off more and more items on the list above. They have become a husk of a political party, one without conscience or principle or shame of any sort, all too willing to carry the water for the hollow man.

As a result, he is going to be acquitted in this trial. That’s a forgone conclusion.

As Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote over two thousand years ago: “Here is a man whose life and actions the world has already condemned – yet whose enormous fortune…has already brought him acquittal!

Some things remain the same. That doesn’t make it right nor does it undo the harm already done and the damage yet to come.

And the more hollow we become as a nation, the more of these sins that we normalize, the less able we will become to recover when that damage fully arrives.

We must ask more of our leaders. And ourselves.

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“I recall Gandhi said ultimately all things devolve into the political, but I’d argue that all things devolve into pro-people and anti-people. And I can pose the question, which side are you on?”

― Stetson Kennedy

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I came across the above quote from the late author/activist/folklorist Stetson Kennedy (1916-2011) and it really spoke to me, especially when applied to the current affairs taking place here in this country.

Myself, I see the current administration not being particularly pro-people. They tend to be more pro-corporation, pro-wealthy, pro-white. Actually, they tend are the wrong words here– they are those things.

I would call them anti-people.

This is fairly evident especially if you are a person of color, a woman, a gay or transgender person, a non-christian, an immigrant, a poor person, a sick person, a person who likes clean water and air, a person who prefers fair and honest elections, a person who doesn’t want to have to pack a sidearm to go to the market, a person who doesn’t like their nation’s leader* cozying up to our longtime foes and slapping down our allies, a person who values education and the sciences, a person who sees the value of collective bargaining and the pure falsity of trickle down economics or someone who prefers simple truth to absolute deception.

In these times, his question is a valid one– which side are you on? If you can’t answer this simple question, we’re all in world of trouble.

That said, I thought I would share a little more info on Stetson Kennedy because I am pretty sure he’s well off most of our radars. Part of the family of Stetson hat fame, he was a folklorist, having written a well regarded book on the folklore of his native Florida, as well as a civil rights and union activist through the early part of his adult life. Unable to serve in WW II because of a back injury, Kennedy turned his efforts to righting some of the injustices and dangers he saw in his own part of the world, primarily racial hatred and inequality. He infiltrated the KKK and wrote a book, I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan, which exposed the rituals and actions of the group and that ultimately led to a governmental crackdown on it, crippling the hate group for decades to come.

An interesting part of this story is that while he was infiltrating the KKK, he was feeding code words from the group to the writers of the Superman radio show who used them in a 16 part segment on the show called Clan of the Fiery Cross. It had a huge impact in the public perception of the group and set back its recruitment and growth for decades.

No one wanted to be in a group that the Man of Steel was against. If only it were still that way.

Here are a few more words from Kennedy:

“There is more than one way to be Kluxed, and we need to think about ourselves and the kind of people we elect into public office.”

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“The bed sheet brigade is bad enough, but the real threat to Americans and human rights today is the plain clothes Klux in the halls of government and certain black-robed Klux on court benches.”

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“If the Bush brothers really think that women and minorities are getting preferential treatment, they should get themselves a sex change, paint themselves black and check it out.”

–Stetson Kennedy, 2004


That brings us to this Sunday morning music. It’s, believe it or not, a song called Stetson Kennedy from one of my favorite albums, Mermaid Avenue, from the collaboration of Billy Bragg and Wilco in creating songs from a group of previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. Guthrie was friend of Kennedy and when Kennedy ran for the governorship of Florida in 1952 — which he lost and for which he was vilified and basically ran out of the state– Guthrie wrote the lyrics for a campaign song that never came about. Bragg and Wilco did it many years later, in 1997. I liked this song before I knew Stetson Kennedy was particularly the line:

I ain’t the world’s best writer nor the world’s best speller
But when I believe in something I’m the loudest yeller

Give a listen and have yourself a decent Sunday. And, hey, pick a side, will ya’?

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“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.”

Aleksandr I. SolzhenitsynThe Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

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The term crossing the Rubicon generally means passing the point of no return, putting into action a series of events that cannot be undone. It originated from 49 BC when Julius Caesar was at that time the governor under the Roman Empire of the region of Gaul that is now northern Italy. He had gained a tremendous amount of strength as a conquering military commander during his term. He feared that he would be prosecuted for the crimes committed during his campaigns when his term as governor ended and the Roman Senate ordered him to disband his army.

He was ordered to return to Rome with the warning that he was not to bring his army across the Rubicon River which formed the northern boundary between Rome and Gaul. To do so would be considered an act of treason and insurrection. It would amount to a declaration of war on the empire.

Julius Caesar is believed to have said, The die is cast, as he and his troops waded across the shallow river, an act that led to the Roman civil wars and eventually to his brief reign as a dictator ruling Rome. It ended, of course, with his assassination in which he was stabbed 23 times  by a group of Roman senators.

Here in this country, have we crossed our own symbolic Rubicon during the past week or so? I have thought that line was crossed several times in the past three years but these most recent actions by Individual 1 seem even more outrageous and dangerous to both this nation and the safety of the world as a whole. This person sees himself and those protecting him as being above all laws and he feels free to use the vast power of this nation for his personal protection, advancement and enrichment.

This person believes himself to be a sort of omnipotent Caesar rather than a president representing all the people of this country.

The die seems cast now, for sure. There is no turning back and lines have been drawn. There is no neutrality. Those who remain silent are complicit with these actions. They are enabling the destruction of true justice in this time and in times to come. The words at the top from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his book The Gulag Archipelago are a warning to us based on hard earned experience. It is not mere speculation.

It seems we have crossed our own Rubicon here. We are required to speak up now.

We may not get another chance.

Nor may future generations.

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I Got Life

I woke up tired this morning. So tired. Stumbled over here in the already blooming heat which did nothing to revive me. Plunked down in front of my laptop with a cup of coffee and just wanted to close my eyes.

Certainly didn’t want to write this. But I felt a certain obligation to my routine to play a Sunday song here. I could at least say that I did something.

I at first thought that I’m So Tired from the Beatles would fit. It’s from their White Album released in late 1968. That made me think. I wondered what album was sitting at #1 on the charts back on this date in 1969, fifty years in the past. It was such an interesting time, one filled with monumental events and people who shaped the world we live in today.

We were still reeling from the murders of MLK and RFK, Nixon took office in January, the draft was still sending young men into battle in Viet Nam, protests and race riots raged in the streets, our astronauts walked in epic fashion on the moon, and hundreds of thousands of people gathered together on Yasgur’s Farm outside Woodstock for a concert that immediately entered into the mythic realm.

But going back to seeing what the #1 album was on this date in 1969, I found that it wasn’t the White Album. No, it was the self titled second album from Blood Sweat and Tears which knocked the Original Cast Recording of Hair from the top of the chart. Looking further, the chart that year was topped by iconic albums from several genres. The White Album held the top for 8 weeks early in the year. There was a week with a compilation album from a TV special featuring Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations Then Wichita Lineman from Glen Campbell held the top for a month, the Johnny Cash at San Quentin album for another month, Blood Sweat and Tears for 7 weeks, and Hair for 13 weeks. The year finished with 2 weeks from the supergroup Blind Faith, a month of Green River from Creedence, 8 weeks of the Beatles’ Abbey Road until Led Zeppelin II closed out the final week.

That is an epic year of music on the charts. Probably at least a hundred songs on those albums alone that most people my age can sing along to. But when you consider that the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, the entire Motown roster and just about every other musical rock, pop and soul god was still alive and at the peak of their creative powers, it only seems fitting. I was just a kid then but I am so grateful to have been influenced by that time and its music.

Don’t feel quite so tired now.

Here’s I Got Life from Hair. That was an album that was ingrained in my mind from an early age and I can still listen to it over and over. I think this song speaks to people in any time. Have a good day.

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The piece above is called Mountain Etude. It’s a new 24″ by 30″ painting on canvas that works on a couple of levels for today’s blog post.

First, it is included in my solo  show, Moments and Color, that opens tomorrow, Friday, July 12, at the West End Gallery. It is one of a group that includes a new element in the form of the multi-colored flower beds along with the more recognizable Red Tree and Red Roofs.

Second, it is a nice illustrative point for a new article that came out this week in one of my favorite regional magazines, Mountain Home. I wrote about Mountain Home here back in 2010, describing the great quality of the writing as well as the journalistic pedigree of its founders and publishers, Theresa and Michael Capuzzo. They do a top notch job in covering the interesting aspects of this region which includes the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania and the Finger Lakes of New York.

They did a story on my work for the July issue. Jennie Simon, a writer based in Ohio with roots and connections in this region, did a phone interview with me and also visited the Kada Gallery in Erie, PA and the West End Gallery in Corning. Jennie had space limitations to deal with but produced a an article with a lot of info in a very concise manner.

Thank you, Jennie, for doing a bang up job. I truly appreciate it.

The magazine should be in outlets this week but you can read the article online by clicking here. Please take a look at the rest of the issue as well. Much to my liking, this month’s issue has articles about a local connection to major league baseball and the Bare Knuckle Hall of Fame out in Belfast in Allegany County. That area of western NY is now very rural and sparsely populated but just over century ago it was a hotbed of activity.  It was the center of a lumber boom as well as being adjacent to the oil boom taking place just to the south in northern Pennsylvania.

With its large population of young men in the lumber and oil fields and few distractions to occupy them in their off time, it became a center of sporting activity with boxing and wrestling matches taking place regularly between nationally known athletes. It’s a fascinating era and one that strikes close to the bone for many local residents. I know that, in both my family and that of my wife, there were a number of ancestors involved in the lumber field in this region. I had a great-great uncle who played in a band in one of the many hotels that sprung up to serve the oil field workers of that time.

While he didn’t travel as far west as Belfast for his matches, my grandfather, Shank Myers, had a professional wrestling career in the early part of the 20th century that coincided with this boom. In fact, one of the men enshrined in the Bare Knuckle Hall of Fame, Ed Atherton, has ties to my hometown and my grandfather. Atherton is an interesting case and I thought I had shared his story here before but cannot find it this morning. I will write more on him at some other time.

Anyway, please take a look at all of the current issue of Mountain Home. And please stop in at the West End Gallery anytime to see the show or spend a few minutes talking with me at the opening reception tomorrow night. It is open to all and runs from 5-7:30 PM on Friday, July 12, at the West End Gallery on Corning’s historic Market Street.

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I am sharing a favorite of mine for this week’s Sunday morning music selection. It’s from composer Philip Glass and is a piece originally from a soundtrack of the 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. The full title of this particular selection is String Quartet #3 Movement VI (also called Mishima Closing) and is performed by the Dublin Guitar Quartet. I have listened to this piece performed by a variety of artists and groups with different instruments and all are wonderful. But I like this version and it just seems to fit this morning.

The story behind the film that this piece is taken from concerns the life of the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima. Born in 1925, Mishima was considered one of the most important writers of modern Japan. That would be notable enough on its own but it was the end of his life that more often than not associated with his name.

Mishima was an avowed nationalist of sorts and for many years trained physically and mentally according to the bushido, the code of the samurai. He formed a civilian militia with the purpose of defending the emperor in the event of a communist revolution and takeover. On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four members of this militia, the Tatenokai or shield society, entered a military base in Tokyo and barricaded themselves in the office of the base commandant, who they detained, tied to a chair.

Mishima then went out onto the balcony and delivered a manifesto he had prepared to the soldiers of the base who were gathered below. His speech was intended to inspire a coup within the ranks that would restore the powers of the emperor.

But the soldiers only mocked and jeered at Mishima.

Finishing his manifesto, he went back into the commandant’s office and performed seppuku or harikari, a suicide ritual in which he would stab himself and then be beheaded with a sword by one of his aides. The aide failed in three attempts at the task of beheading Mishima and another took over the task. This aide then performed the same act on the first aide who had failed in his original task.

It was a strange event and one of which I have to admit I was not aware until several years ago. I also have never seen the film but Glass’ soundtrack is powerful and beautiful. Give a listen and have a good Sunday.

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“In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.” 

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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I thought for this installment of Gratitude Week, I would start with the quote above from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The name might be familiar. I featured him a post last year, On Stupidity, that has been pretty popular, consistently getting quite a few views each week. He was the German pastor who spoke out against the Nazi regime throughout the 1930’s, later being sent to a concentration camp before being sent to his death on the gallows in the last days of the war. On Stupidity described the sort of blatant ignorance that led to the rise of the Nazis and seems to exist here today in forms. Bonhoeffer also coined the term Cheap Grace which also seems abundant these days. It’s a post that is worth another look.

But the words above from Bonhoeffer offer a different and positive thought, that we receive much more from this life than we ever give in return. Understanding this concept and living with a sense of gratitude gives our lives a richness beyond material wealth.

In that vein, I want to point out that there is a political/economic philosophy that has been out there for some time now, one that has led to the increasing disparity of wealth between those at the top and those in the middle and at the bottom.

It basically labels people as Makers and Takers. In the eyes of those at the top, the Makers are those who control the wealth and means of production and the Takers are everyone else. They believe that no matter how integral a person might be in assisting the Makers amass their wealth, they are only there to take from them.

They see the world as a zero sum scenario where there are only winners and losers. Those at the top are winners and anyone below them are losers. The loser Takers are tools at best to be used in their view. When their usefulness has went away, they are nothing more than dead weight.

It’s a distressing idea, one that I would love to say couldn’t exist, but there is ample evidence to support that this belief is flourishing.

I would like to offer a counter-thought.

In my eyes I see the Makers described above as the real Takers. By doing all they can to gain and gain at the expense of others, they extract joy and compassion from this world, along with dignity,respect, and honor. They take away from the humanity of all people with an extreme selfishness that creates a world of solely winners and losers.

But in my worldview anyone can be a Maker because wealth is not the only factor that makes for a better world. Anyone who acts to better people’s lives is a Maker. Those who inspire, those who teach, those who heal, those who put their own lives on the line to rescue those in harm’s way, those who come to the aid of others in need, those who give what little they have until it strains their budgets, those who volunteer, those who work to least the least among us a voice, those who stand up to power so that our air is clean and our food safe, along with so many others—these are the people who make this world a better place, who bring a sense of dignity to all people.

These are the true Makers. These are the people who create the richness of this world.

Please understand that what you have in this world is the result of being assisted by others. You may be the most fabulous, self-sufficient being in the universe but you have done nothing absolutely on your own.

We are the beneficiaries of the work and care of others.

Let us acknowledge that and be grateful. Be a Maker.

 

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The words above are on a wall at the United States Holocaust Museum. Most of you are most likely aware of them. First They Came… is a poem written by the German Lutheran minister Martin Niemöller in the aftermath of World War II. In the early 1930’s, Niemöller was initially a nationalist— yes, there’s that word again–and strongly supported the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. But as the Nazis increased their persecution of those they saw as inferior, he began to sour ( even though he still sometimes used anti-Semitic rhetoric in his sermons of that time) on Nazism and eventually began to speak out against their policies.

He was arrested in 1937 and spent 1938-1944 in prison camps including Dachau, narrowly escaping execution. In the aftermath of the war Niemöller spoke openly of his regret for his early support of the Nazis and the fact he did little to help their victims in that time. He became an advocate for pacificism and an opponent of nationalism in any form. First They Came… was a poem that he used often in different iterations in his speeches and sermons after the war.

Its themes of persecution, irresponsibility and cowardice are pertinent in any time when autocrats seek to take control through scapegoating and division.

These themes were employed in a 1951 poem, The Hangman, written by Maurice Ogden. It is a poetic parable about a hangman who enters a small town and erects a gallows. As in Niemöller’s poem, the townspeople stand idly by as he takes their neighbors. They believe because they are somehow different from their neighbors, they will be spared.

But, of course, they are not.

The Hangman was made into a an acclaimed animated short film in 1964. It is pretty crude when compared to today’s animations. But that crudeness seems to add a sense of menace to the power of this parable.

Perhaps you don’t see the parallels between this film or Niemöller’s poem with the events taking place in the world today. Perhaps you not concerned with the huge rise in anti-Semitic here over the past two years, the election of an openly fascist leader in Brazil this week or the widespread surge of nationalism and racially biased hate groups around the globe. Maybe you even think the so-called caravan of death and disease is a real threat, as ridiculous as that whole thing is.

Maybe you think that you are safe and secure, hardly a target for hatred or persecution.

That is exactly why you should speak up for those who are targeted now. Because when you become the persecuted, who will be left to stand up for you? The cowards that allowed things to get to that point will not suddenly gain the courage to defend you.

Take a look at the film if you have the time. It’s about eleven minutes in length. You can also read it by clicking here.

Speak up. Don’t look the other way. And vote hard. 

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Ralph Fasanella- May Day -1948

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Today, May 1, is May Day. Some folks see it as a festival of spring  that began as an ancient pagan celebration, complete with May Poles, May Queens and May Baskets. Others recognize it as a day celebrating laborers, trade unions and the working class, otherwise known as International Workers’ Day.

I think that labor unions have been integral to the rise of the American middle class and to many things that we now take for granted. Things like eight hour workdays, weekends, child labor laws, workplace safety, minimum wages, health insurance, paid vacations, retirement pensions and on and on. Things that provide a sense of comfort, security and self-worth for working folks.

I believe that the demise of unions goes hand in hand with the growing chasm in income inequality between the owners and the workers of this world. The owners had the shrewdness and the resources to mount a sustained campaign over the years that constantly painted unions in an unflattering light, to the point that many workers began to side with the owners, often against their own self interest.

It’s the same kind of thought control that makes workers believe that big tax breaks and other benefits reserved for owners will have a magical trickle down effect and will somehow enrich their own lives.

Unfortunately, human nature overrules trickle down economics every time. The benefits that the people in  labor unions fought and died for — yes, died for— are soon under attack from owners who need more and more and more. The labor battles will no doubt have to be fought again at some point and lord knows what ugliness will come from that.

The painting shown at the top and a favorite of mine, is titled May Day and is in the collection of the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. I thought it was a fitting image for today. It was painted in 1948 by a favorite artist of mine, American folk artist Ralph Fasanella, who I have written about here a number of times. He was a labor organizer in the 30’s and 40’s when the workers’ movement was making the powerful strides that created the mythic middle class that inhabited the America of the 1950’s. I am not going to spend a lot of time describing his career here but will point out that his work often portrayed labor and workers.

It is powerful stuff, to say the least, and pertinent both for its own time and now.

Here is the description for the painting from the museum’s website:

Ralph Fasanella was born in New York City to Italian immigrant parents. He spent his youth helping his father on his ice delivery route, and absorbed the streets, tenements, and people that would later inspire his art. His mother, a literate and socially conscious woman, introduced Fasanella to antifascist and trade union causes. He eventually became a union organizer until he began to paint in 1945. Fasanella was an acclaimed “primitive” painter in the 1940s, and then painted in obscurity for 25 years until his “discovery” in 1972. May Day represents Fasanella’s attempt to capture the spirit of the workers’ movements of the 1930s, focusing upon the huge May Day parades that annually drew up to 200,000 demonstrators to Union Square in New York City. At the left, marchers pour out of the crowded streets and tenements and descend upon New York’s Union Square. Their large banners proclaim support for organized labor and racial unity under the overarching cause of “Peace, Democracy, Security.” At the head of the parade is a magnificent horse-drawn float, complete with May Pole and women in ethnic costumes. The marchers pass a reviewing stand with a backdrop that serves as a shrine to labor heroes. Across a colorful bed of flowers lies the artist’s utopian vision at the right. It is a place where workers, liberated from the burden of twelve- and sixteen-hour shifts, have the freedom to pursue cultural and recreational activities.

 

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