Monday, December 31, 2007

Kucinich for President

February 5 Election Endorsements


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

It’s hard to believe that California is actually going to have three elections this year — a February 5 Presidential primary (whose ballot has also been loaded up with seven, count ’em, seven propositions), a regular primary for state and local offices in June and the general election in November. (Is it really that far away?) Jealous that tiny states like Iowa and New Hampshire have such a disproportionate impact in who gets the major-party Presidential nominations, California and a lot of other states moved their votes to February 5 — only all that accomplished was to stretch out the entire process, to the point where we will almost certainly know who both the Republican and Democratic candidates are on February 6 and we will probably be excruciatingly bored with both of them by the time we finally get a chance to choose between them nine months later. It’s amazing that France can elect its president in two months, and it takes us two years.

Meanwhile, we’ve been subjected to so many televised “debates” between the candidates of each major party that one editorial cartoonist joked that a good, nonviolent way to torture the detainees at Guantánamo would be to force them to watch them all. The Republican debates in particular have been bizarre spectacles that if nothing else have shown just how far this country has moved to the Right since Richard Nixon and George Wallace got 57 percent of the vote between them in the 1968 election and established the modern conservative majority that has won all but three of the Presidential elections since. The candidates have fallen over themselves trying to see who can be tougher on “illegal” immigration, who can cut more taxes and who can pledge more loyal support to whatever the U.S. is trying to do in the Iraq war. The fact that one of these people might well be the next President is getting scarier and scarier with each debate.

There’s a basic difference in the attitude of national Republicans and national Democrats towards their parties’ bases: the hard-core supporters who generally turn out most of the volunteers, small contributions and word-of-mouth for their candidates. The Republicans coddle their base while the Democrats all too often give theirs the finger, abandoning liberal or progressive principles at the drop of a poll point and insisting that we have to be “reasonable,” “realistic,” “moderate” and realize that “the country has moved Right” — as if America’s political tendencies were like tectonic plates slipping and sliding over each other independent of human influence or activity.

America did not “move Right.” It was moved Right by a determined cadre of conservative activists and their funders, who mounted a campaign right after Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 to transform the American electorate and make it possible for someone with Goldwater’s politics and ideology to win. They achieved that 16 years later with Ronald Reagan, and their ideas and platforms have dominated American politics ever since. No progressive turnaround will ever occur until people on our side show the same level of dedication, determination and persistence as the Right’s activists have, and until we get at least a competitive level of funding to them, and until the Right’s bad stewardship of the state generates a catastrophe at least at the level of the economic collapse in 1929.

This isn’t a time for progressives, liberals and Leftists to continue ‘compromising” in the name of finding “electable” candidates. It’s a time for us to state our ideas boldly, unashamedly, proudly. That’s why, as we did in 2004, Zenger’s is endorsing Dennis Kucinich for President: because he’s spent his entire political career doing just that. On every significant issue except one, Kucinich has been on the progressive side since he first emerged as a Cleveland city councilmember and then as its youngest-ever mayor in the 1970’s — and on that one, women’s right to reproductive choice, he changed to a pro-choice position in the early 2000’s after (I think) realizing that his previous opposition to abortion was inconsistent with the rest of his agenda.

I’m not interested in conditioning my primary vote on “electability.” The fact is, despite President Bush’s low poll numbers and the Democratic Congressional victories in 2006, this remains a profoundly conservative country and the Democrats will have an uphill battle to regain the White House and keep Congress next year. The worst candidate the Democrats could possibly nominate, Hillary Clinton, would still be better than the best candidate the Republicans could nominate, Ron Paul. All three of the so-called “top-tier” Democratic candidates — Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards — have significant faults that will hinder them in a general election:

Hillary Clinton. I already discussed her flaws extensively two months ago in my November 2007 editorial, “Hillary: Democrats’ Death Wish.” Since then, polls have listed her negative ratings with the American people as between 46 and 50 percent; and, even more ominously, in one poll 40 percent of the respondents said she was the candidate they would most want to prevent from becoming President. With those kinds of negatives, it will be almost impossible for her to be elected — or, even if by some fluke she is elected, she won’t be able to govern effectively with so much of the population viscerally hating her.

Barack Obama. I don’t mind his inexperience — that was what they said about John Kennedy as well. (Technically, Kennedy had been in the U.S. Senate longer than Obama has when he ran for President in 1960, but he’d been ill through so much of his term they had about the same amount of “face time” on the floor.) What concerns me about him is his willingness to “compromise,” to look for “common ground,” to attempt to appease his Republican enemies. He’s even broached the possibility of appointing a Republican as his running mate. That’s not what I want in a Democratic nominee; I want a Democrat who’ll be our side’s version of George W. Bush — implacable, determined, willing to settle for half a loaf but not to offer to give up half the loaf in the first place. Republicans play politics as a blood sport; Democrats still think the Marquis of Queensbury rules are in effect — and that’s why Republicans keep winning elections and, even if they don’t, still run the agenda the way President Bush has been able to get just about everything he wanted in 2007 just as he did the past six years when his own party controlled Congress.

John Edwards. Of the three “top-tier” candidates, he’s at least vocally the most progressive — he’s willing to address poverty and class as issues while the other major candidates in both parties pretend they don’t exist — and he’s a Southerner, like the last three Democrats who actually won Presidential elections (Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton). But the Right-wing attack machine has already done such a heavy number on him that when I watch him on TV it’s hard for me to concentrate on what he’s saying because I’m too busy looking at his hair — and his connections with tax-evading, job-destroying hedge funds makes it hard for him to do his neo-populist tribune-of-the-people act.

There are some fascinating people in the rest of the Democratic field. I liked the way Bill Richardson handled the non-issue of drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants — stating forthrightly that as governor of New Mexico, he’d pushed through that issue at the recommendation of his law-enforcement people, and it had been good for public safety just like his police people had said it would be. I’m also surprised that the people who are embracing Hillary Clinton for her “experience” in foreign policy aren’t looking harder at Joe Biden, who’s had far more experience — 26 years in the Senate, including chairing the Foreign Relations Committee — and what’s more, he’s actually made decisions himself instead of simply being around while his spouse was making them. And the almost un-discussed Mike Gravel has been a hero of mine since he courageously stepped up to read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record in 1971.

But I’m sticking with Dennis Kucinich because he’s on the right side of virtually every issue I care about, from Queer rights (after a lifetime of support for our community, he voted against the corrupt “compromise” version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that eliminated protection for Transgender people) to health care (his support for a single-payer system indicates that he, unlike the so-called “major” candidates, realizes that the only way we’re ever going to afford universal coverage in this country is to take the money for it out of the swollen profits of the health insurance industry) to his support of impeachment proceedings against both President Bush and Vice-President Cheney at a time when the Democrats at the head of Congress were proclaiming impeachment “off the table.” He’s not going to be President any more than his opposite number on the Republican side, Ron Paul, is; but the more votes Kucinich gets in the primaries, the more progressive delegates there will be on the floor of the Democratic convention to hold the party to account and keep it from its destructive practice of trying to be Republican lite.

The California Propositions

No fewer than seven ballot measures will be on the ballot in California along with the Presidential primary. One, Proposition 91, offers the bizarre spectacle of the original sponsors using the “argument for” section in the ballot pamphlet to urge people to vote against it on the ground that last year’s Proposition 1A (which we opposed) did the same thing: it restricted California gas taxes to transportation-related projects. Given the meltdown of the California housing market, which has taken the state budget with it, the last thing we need is more restrictions on the governor and legislature as to what money can be spent on what. Vote NO.

Also vote NO — albeit more reluctantly — on Proposition 92, which would give community colleges the same kind of guaranteed slice of the state budget K-12 schools have now. It was a bad idea then and it still is. Proposition 92 has sparked a food fight between the teachers’ unions, but the main reason to vote against it is that ballot-box budgeting is a bad idea and needs to stop.

A reluctant NO on Proposition 93 as well. This is a sneaky device by the Democratic leadership in the legislature to get around term limits by slicing the number of years a state legislator can serve from 14 to 12 — but allowing them all to be in the same house. For the people who wrote it, including Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (who’s recently reminded us, in case we ever doubted it, that Democrats can be just as corrupt as Republicans in taking money and favors from corporate special interests), it’ll actually allow them to serve longer than they would have under current law.

Proposition 93 was put on the ballot as part of a deal by which the Democrats agreed to put a redistricting reform on the ballot as well. The last time legislative districts were redrawn in California, they were designed so meticulously to protect incumbents that virtually no district ever changes its representative from a Republican to a Democrat, or vice versa. This is not democracy; it’s a two-party oligarchy that (among other things) allows a small cabal of Republicans in the legislature to hold the state budget hostage for nearly two months without fear of retribution from the voters. The fact that Democrats reneged on redistricting reform and put this self-serving measure on the ballot anyway shows where their real priorities are — not the welfare of California but keeping themselves in power. It deserves to be rejected on both practical and moral grounds.

A reluctant YES on Propositions 94 through 97, which would expand Indian gaming in California by allowing four new casinos to open. Yes, there are problems with the expansion of Indian gaming — not only that it encourages compulsive gambling but environmental and labor issues as well (and the fact that the tribes with casinos haven’t always lived up to their initial promise that some of their profits would go to help out the tribes without them), but these measures will bring badly needed money into the state’s coffers, and in a time of severe budget crisis we need all the help we can get.


Building Bridges Over National, Sexual Borders


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Daniel Watman believes in building bridges, not walls. It’s a hackneyed saying, as he’ll readily admit, but it’s what this young Queer activist is doing both culturally and sexually. As the founder of the Border Meetup group, he organizes regular events that bring together people from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border and — at a time when undocumented immigrants are widely scapegoated as the source of virtually all America’s social ills — dramatize the fundamental absurdity of the whole concept of national borders.

Watman started the Border Meetups out of a desire to bring people from different cultures together and give them the opportunity to become friends. He joined the long-established Bisexual Forum for more personal reasons — he wanted to explore his own sexuality and learn how to live with attractions to both women and men — but as one of its current coordinators, Watman has become a bridge-builder in that arena too, challenging the notion that people are inflexibly “straight” or “Gay” and helping others like him find their place in between those identities.

In addition to these forms of activism, Watman is also a committed progressive who regularly joins demonstrations against the Iraq war and has helped organize the weekly Friday afternoon vigils (3:30 p.m. at 6th and University in Hillcrest) calling for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. For more information on his organizations, contact Border Meetup at or the Bisexual Forum at

Zenger’s: Why don’t we start with a little bit of your background, and how you got involved in both the Border Meetup and the Bisexual Forum?

Daniel Watman: Let me start with the Border Meetup, I guess. I’m a Spanish teacher, and the thing I really like about learning and teaching languages is the ability to reach across cultural barriers. It gives me the opportunity to get to know people on a more intimate level than if I don’t know their language. At first I just liked Spanish and just wanted to learn it, but I recognized that that it gives me the chance to see a different perspective on life. I really saw that as almost a root solution to a lot of problems in the world today: misunderstandings between people of different cultures and subcultures. I’ve been teaching Spanish for the past 12 years, and every semester, no matter what school I was with, San Diego State or Mesa College or wherever, I would take my students to Tijuana to give them the chance to get to know somebody from a Spanish-speaking culture.

Zenger’s: Essentially, “Here you are. Try it out on native speakers.”
Watman: To me, the crux of learning a new language is getting to know somebody from a different culture. Having Tijuana 15 minutes away by car is a huge advantage for someone who’s a Spanish teacher, and has that point of view that language is a way of breaking down those cultural barriers.

Unfortunately, the paperwork for taking students to Tijuana at a community college or at the university is horrendous. You have to fill it out and then bring it to a committee, and a year later you may be able to go on a trip. So normally I didn’t even ask or do any paperwork. I just said, “O.K., class. We’re going to Tijuana next week,” and we’d go to Tijuana and hang out with my friends there.

One time I decided to ask to see if it would be O.K., and that’s when I found out it would be a year’s process! I was kind of fearful for my job if I just took my students to Tijuana after I’d started the official process.. I was living in Tijuana at the time. It was just before I moved to San Ysidro, and I knew about Border Field State Park and the Playas, the beach in Tijuana, where you can literally talk to people through the fence.

So I told all my friends in Tijuana that I was going to bring my class to the border fence, because in general to do a field trip through Mesa College, there wasn’t too much paperwork involved. It was just bringing them to another country that took all the paperwork. I took them to the border, and my friends in Tijuana met them through the border.

It was an awesome experience, even better than I thought it would be. A lot of people made friends through the fence, and later got together, exchanged information had more of a motive to learn the language and learn the culture, because now they had friends that were living in the opposite culture. SoI decided, “Wow, what a cool thing, to bring people together through the border fence.” I started to think of different themes to bring people to the fence. We’ve had birthday parties and beach cleanups, and we planted a bi-national garden on International Water Day. We got high schools on both sides, and from there it’s grown.

I’m hooked up with philanthropic, environmental and humanitarian organizations on both sides. We often do an event so people with the same cause or interest meet through the fence. I’m happy about it, because I’m getting my agenda across, which is for people to get to know each other through the fence, and they’re getting people together from both sides who are interested in their cause.

Zenger’s: I noticed on your Web site you listed a number of the previous events, including two salsa dancing lessons, the beach cleanup, the border fence tour, the binational garden ceremony and the beach cleanup.

Watman: We did a yoga class this year, too. It was cool.

The border fence tour was an unorthodox thing. What I was hoping would happen — which often happens when we walk along the fence— is you can see people hanging out on the Mexican side, waiting for a chance to cross, and talk to them through the fence.. It didn’t happen that day, but at least it dispelled a lot of people’s fears about the border. People think there’s like a war going on there or something, and there’s really not much going on.

Also, a lot of people don’t realize the monstrosity of the triple fence they’re building across the border.. Doing our fence tour, when you see it in person, it hits home a little more. Where we normally do our Border Meetup events you can’t see that, but since we did a tour of the whole fence, they got to see it in that case.

Zenger’s: It’s my understanding the so-called “triple fence” is actually three fences with the width of a football field between each one, so the Border Patrol’s vehicles can do U-turns and maneuver in between the fences to try to catch undocumented immigrants.

Watman: From what I understand — and I go out there all the time as an activist, not as part of my Border Meetup activity — I check out what they’re doing, and I put up videos of what they’re doing on YouTube. I’ve talked to Border Patrol agents, and I’ve talked to the National Guard, who are doing all the constructing there. I can’t usually get much out of the National Guard, but I can get more out of the Border Patrol.

The plan that I’ve heard, that’s been pretty consistent, is pretty similar to what you said. As it is now, there’s already a second barrier that stops about four miles before the beach, and the reason it stops is there’s an ecological reserve there that was protected for 30 years by California state environmental laws. But since DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] has come into play, they’ve passed a law that allows them to override any state law to extend that second barrier.

And, like you said, in between the second barrier and the first barrier there’s going to be a big, wide road. I’ve heard it’s going to be 150 feet, so not quite a football field, but a wide road for the reason you were saying, so the vehicles can drive back and forth and do U-turns, and “get” people easier, “get” migrants easier. They’ve already built the road out a mile. They uprooted all the vegetation, all the native plants that were in the way there, as well as interrupted some archaeological sites to build this nice, flat road.

The plan that I’ve heard is for that150-foot wide road to go all the way to the park. I’ve heard two different plans: one where it goes all the way to the park, and one where it goes through the park to the beach. I don’t know which one is the real plan, but whichever one it is, it won’t happen for a couple of years. Then they’re going to extend the second barrier, which is this monstrous 14-foot-high thing — actually 17 feet, including the barbed-wire top — they’re going to extend that all the way to wherever they extend the road to, which is probably at or close to the beach. Then, like you said, they’re going to put another wide road beside that, and another fence beside that.

I think it’s crazy. The direction of enforcement, instead of reaching out to make friends, is definitely wrong for me. I think the best protection you can get is a friend, so if we want to be protected, we need to reach across barriers and build bridges. I know it sounds like a cliché, but build bridges, not walls. “Make friends, not fences,” I’d say.

Zenger’s: One thing that especially moved me when I looked at your Web site was the photos you had of people literally reaching their hands through the fence, and people shaking their hands, wanting to touch other people, through the fence. Was that one of the things you were expecting?

Watman: Not exactly that, no. But I had seen that already before I started doing this. I’d discovered Border Field State Park and the Playas area before I started doing the Border Meetup, and it’s quite common for families who have been broken up to meet at that area, because it’s a place where you can see and talk to your family. So I had seen people hug and kiss through the fence. I guess maybe I did expect it. But I’ve been doing it for four years now, and there have been so many events I don’t remember if I expected it the first tine, you know?

Zenger’s: What would be your message to the people who are really scared of the so-called “illegal” immigration: the people who say, “They’re taking our jobs, they’re destroying our culture, they’re threatening the United States, this is an invasion,” blah, blah, blah? What would your message be to people who feel that way about it?

Watman: I’ve talked to people who have that viewpoint, and I guess what I would want to do is talk to them and do the same thing that I want people to do across the border fence: break down the barriers. It’s created a kind of culture, the Minutemen culture and the anti-immigrant rights people versus the immigrant activists.

I also see there’s only so much to go around, and the population gets too big it’s going to cause a problem. I think that’s their viewpoint as well, and so I would try to maybe start with that common ground, I guess. I think I would do what I always do, which is invite them to get to know an immigrant as a person, and do it with an open mind, so that then —which is what often happens at the Border Meetups —all those ideas, all those fears, all those racist attitudes, just drop away and they see the person as a person, as valuable a person as someone who’s here legally.

I would also hope we could work together to try to make a more livable situation for everybody. I’ve had the idea of fighting for better working conditions and salaries at the factories in Tijuana, the maquiladoras, and I really feel that if that were to happen, then people wouldn’t have as much reason to come here. They would have a job where they could be able to feed themselves and their families without having to go through a treacherous, militarized border and risk their lives. That’s something that a Minuteman-type person might even want to do with me: to try to make conditions better for people who are working in the factories, because they might see the result that they want, which is that less people would come here.

Zenger’s: Actually, on that one my immediate reaction is I think you’re already too late. The maquiladora sector is already in decline, and achieving that goal would only hasten that decline as the companies that own the maquiladoras or buy from them would say, “O.K. Mexico has now burned itself out as a source of cheap labor. We’re going to China.”

Watman: Yes, but if you had some type of regulation where it was required for people who worked in the factories in Mexico to be given a living wage, that would give me hope that it could be accomplished in other places, too. It would be a tall order to start with, because I feel that the government and the corporations have kind of become one. But if that were accomplished, it would help.

Zenger’s: One of the arguments you hear from the Left is that what’s driving the waves of immigration is not — as the Right would have it — that an amnesty bill was passed in 1986, and that’s why you had 3 million undocumented then and 12 million now. The usual explanation from the Left is NAFTA. [the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1992, which took effect in 1994] By opening the Mexican economy to American corporations, has NAFTA been driving some of the immigration?

Watman: Yes, yes. I feel like I need to research it more, but from what I know, my impression is that NAFTA was huge in creating an influx of poor working-class people into the United States from Mexico, and from Central America too. It coincides with Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the Mexican president who stole from the national treasury and caused an economic crisis there. I think it was just the whole corporate power, and the Mexican and the United States governments in cahoots, to benefit from that corporate power, created NAFTA.

I think that the corporations and the governments knew what was going to happen when NAFTA took effect. They knew that it was going to cause people to have to come here, and so they built the fence and started Operation Gatekeeper that same year, 1994. The same thing is going on now with the whole enforcement mentality. It’s just a political ploy to get the people to think they’re being protected.

Zenger’s: You’ve got people saying, “Just by their very presence on our soil they are ‘illegal.’ They are breaking our laws. What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” How would a nice progressive activist like you defend their presence on American soil when they are breaking our law by being here?

Watman: My opinion is that people are people, and everyone has the same human rights, independent of where they are geographically. So the fact that they’re “illegal” doesn’t matter to me.

Also, politically speaking, I believe the reason they’re “illegal” is so they can be exploited. I think the U.S. government and corporations need this for their profits. They need a working class they can exploit. If the migrants were legally here, they might have to pay them higher wages and things like that. I sometimes wonder if they developed the whole “illegal” system in order to do that, or if it just kind of happened but now it’s convenient. But I think that corporations definitely want there to be “illegals” here, and the government’s in there with the corporations.

Zenger’s: I also wanted to ask you about your involvement in the Bisexual Forum. It did occur to me, looking over the material from the Border Meetup, that there’s an interesting similarity between the missions of the two groups. Both are about breaking down barriers — barriers of culture in one case, barriers of sexuality in one case — trying to get people in different communities to see themselves as kind of network of humanity, kind of a continuum. Is that a parallel that you’re conscious of when you’re working on both causes?

Watman: I’ve become conscious of it a little bit, but it wasn’t why I went into the Bisexual Forum at all. I feel like I’ve dedicated myself as a person to bringing people together across cultural boundaries, but the reason I joined the Bi Forum was because I was struggling on a personal level with my sexuality. I was looking for a safe place to get that out and to find myself, and the Bi Forum provided it.

Zenger’s: How do you see the mission of an organization like that? Are you seeking recognition for bisexuality as another orientation, or are you trying to get people to see beyond the categories of “straight,” “Gay,” “Lesbian,” what have you?

Watman: That’s a really good question. I don’t feel like I’m really trying to do either one. I’m trying to notice how sexuality in society is being viewed, how it’s being accepted, how people who are Bisexual are feeling, and how they’d like to be seen. It’s tough because it varies so much. There are a lot of people who really need a place where they can say, “I’m Bisexual, and I’m proud.” Often that comes just from being worried that people aren’t going to accept them.

There are a lot of other people who are just fine with being Bisexual or Gay or straight or whatever they are, and they don’t see any need to become part of a group or a club. I don’t know if this will ever happen, but the ideal is that people wouldn’t care: they’d just accept you for who you are, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being Gay or straight or Bisexual. Even though it’s looked at by a lot of people in society that liking the same sex, or loving the same sex, or having sex with the same sex, that there’s something wrong with it, I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. And I would like it if, some day, no one did. Then everyone, whether they like the same sex or the opposite sex, would just be accepted.

I do see a parallel between that and the immigrant rights movement. I see it all the time. Immigrants are being oppressed, and there’s a lot of racism going on, and a good way to stop that or to defend yourselves is to group together and say, “We’re immigrants and we’re proud.” Ideally, that oppression wouldn’t be there and they wouldn’t have to group together so much. They could get to know somebody and find out if they have common interests, if they like each other, regardless of where they’re from or whether they’re an immigrant or not.

But it’s a struggle. I see the need to group together and defend yourself, and then again I see the ideal where that need wouldn’t be there. I’m O.K. with people — Bisexuals, homosexuals, immigrants, whoever — who are feeling that they’ve been oppressed, doing essentially what I did with my bisexuality, finding a group of people looking similarly and getting comfort and strength in that. I think that’s a very healthy process, and I think it’s needed so that people can be more healthy in their lives. So I support that, and I still continue to hope that some day that won’t be necessary.

Zenger’s: One of the issues often raised at the Bi Forum is how many Bisexuals feel oppression from Gay and Lesbian people and the organizations in the Gay and Lesbian communities. Is that something you’ve personally experienced, and do you want to comment about it?

Watman: I haven’t personally experienced much of that. I’ve heard it quite a bit in the Bi Forum. It’s almost like an extra obstacle for Bisexual people sometimes. I experienced it a little here and there, but I’ve hung around with a lot of homosexual people, and I haven’t had anything close to that burden as far as the pressure to be Gay or something. There have been comments here and there, but nothing like that.

Zenger’s: You mean, no “Stop sitting on the fence, come out as a Gay man already”?

Watman: I did get that, actually just from one person. It was when I wasn’t even clear about my sexuality — less clear than I am now, I should say. All I knew was I was having these homosexual feelings and I didn’t know what to do about it. I had already tried to come out as Gay for a very short period of time, and found I couldn’t deny my heterosexual feelings, so I went back into the straight thing and said, “O.K., I have these homosexual feelings, but I’m straight,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s how I was feeling.

I didn’t know what to do about my homosexual feelings. I told a professor at San Diego State who I knew was Gay, and he esteemed me. We got along, and I felt comfortable enough to tell him about my homosexual attractions. He went through his whole Gay coming-out experience and he said, basically, “O.K. You’re Gay.” He didn’t want to hear that I could still like women. He was being really nice and comforting, but always in the back of his comforting was, “It’s O.K. All of us go through this. It’s O.K. to be Gay.”

Finally it was weird for me, because I was thinking, “What if I’m not Gay?” It was bugging me that I had to be Gay in order to get this comforting from him. I actually confronted him about it once. I asked him, “What if it turns out I’m straight? Would you still be my friend?” He said, “Oh, yeah, of course I would be.” But from that point on, he wasn’t as comforting as he’d been before. That’s a somewhat typical thing I hear in the Bi Forum.

Zenger’s: Where do you see yourself going, both as an activist and as a sexual being?

Watman: I don’t have a really clear picture. I consider myself an activist, but for me it’s secondary to bringing people together across cultural boundaries. That ends up including activism, sometimes. But with that in mind, I want to start a language school, probably in Tijuana, where I go to foreign countries and recruit people who are of low socioeconomic status and need a job to come to my school and teach their language and culture. I have had that idea, that goal, for a while and I would like to make it happen in the next four years.

I’m learning Arabic as part of my whole idea of reaching across language and cultural barriers. I see in the news, and just generally in society, how people in Arabic-speaking countries are demonized, and I don’t feel I know enough about their culture to defend it. So I’d like to learn Arabic, and I plan on going to Syria or Jordan next year to get going on the language and cultural thing, and then hopefully recruit some people for my school.

As far as the sexual being goes, I have a lot of personal issues with relationships in general that don’t have much to do with my sexuality. I don’t really see anything happening with the sexual part until I get my relationship things in order. But as far as me having sex with men or women, I’m O.K. with whatever I feel like doing. It’s fine.

Zenger’s: That does seem to be the nub of it. If you want to do something with someone, and the someone wants to do it with you, why not?

Watman: The sex thing has a really strong energy. With women, for some reason it ends up being — it brings up a lot of relationship issues for me, and so it makes it difficult to have that attitude sometimes.

Zenger’s: I’ve talked with Bi men who draw a similar line. They feel more able to be detached, to be just sexual, with men, whereas with women it brings up the whole emotion/relationship/love/marriage/settling down track that straight people are told they need to be on.

Watman: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate for me too. I’ve had much more experience with women than with men, but from the little experience I’ve had with men, I’m able to separate sex and emotion a lot easier.


First Openly Gay President of U.S. Young Democrats


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

On December 6, the Stonewall Young Democrats of San Diego (SYDSD) held a fundraiser at the Bamboo Lounge in Hillcrest to take advantage of the availability of David Hardt, recently elected president of the nationwide Young Democrats of America — the first openly Gay man to hold that position. It wasn’t as much of a milestone as it sounds. The national Young Democrats had long since gone on record as supporting full civil rights for Queer people and full marriage equality for same-sex couples, so Hardt didn’t expect his sexuality to be an issue in his election, and it wasn’t.

Hardt, who was in town for a business meeting and donated his time to the local group, turned out to be a 32-year-old, sandy-haired man with a seemingly laid-back manner, but he’s racked up enough achievements as an organizer to belie that first impression. He speaks with a soft drawl from his native Texas, where he’s lived virtually all his life, and though he concedes Texas is a conservative state overall he insists there are enclaves of progressivism, mostly in the major urban centers, which are as Queer-friendly as any large cities in the U.S.

Indeed, before we started the interview Hardt can be heard on the tape boasting that his native Dallas “leads the way in the number of Gay elected officials in any major city in America right now” and is part of “a solid Democratic county.” Indeed, he says that Dallas is on balance more liberal than Austin, the state capital and the place usually thought of as the epicenter of progressive Texas, and San Antonio and El Paso are also progressive, Queer-friendly enclaves.

Zenger’s: Why don’t you just tell me a little about your background, how you got involved in politics, and how you got into the Young Democrats?

David Hardt: I’m currently the chief financial officer for a manufacturing company in Dallas. Originally, when I was in college, I was on the other side [i.e., he was a Republican]. Growing up in Texas, that’s almost a given. I went to a very, very conservative school, and when I graduated I had met my current partner — we were dating at the time — and he got sick. We didn’t know what it was, and we had to take him to the emergency room. It seemed major at the time.

He was in the hospital, in the emergency room, and I tried to go back to see him. The front-desk nurse said, “No, you can’t go back.” She’d asked who I was. I told her I was his boyfriend, and she said, “They only recognize family members,” and since I wasn’t a family member they wouldn’t let me go back. This was Baylor Hospital, a very conservative Baptist-owned hospital in Texas, and of course, we didn’t choose for him to go there. That was just where it was closest for us.

After that happened, I called my Congressmember, who at the time was Pete Sessions — still in Congress now — a very conservative, anti-Gay Republican. His office essentially told me that there was nothing they could do, nor would the Congressmember be interested in doing anything anyway. So as soon as I talked to his office, I immediately decided, “Well, I don’t belong in this party.”

I went over to the office of his Democratic challenger, Pauline Dixon, a 68-year-old, I believe she was at the time, retired schoolteacher, grandmother, short African-American woman. I wrote her a check, and she grabbed me and said, “You’re going to volunteer on my campaign.” That’s how I got involved in politics, and I’ve been going ever since.

Zenger’s: When did you first become aware you were Gay?

Hardt: Gosh, I think I was about 15 when I started having the feelings. I didn’t actually come out until my senior year in college.

Zenger’s: Growing up as a Texas boy, what was that like?

Hardt: Well, Texas is a very conservative state. We all know that, and it’s not the easiest place to be Gay, unless you are fortunate enough to live in one of the urban centers — like Dallas, where I live now — that are very friendly to LGBT [Queer] people.

Zenger’s: How did you get involved with Young Democrats?

Hardt: Pauline Dixon lost, of course, but I had met some members of the local Young Democrats chapter in Dallas through her campaign.. I joined it right after the campaign. Probably about two months after joining the club I was declared the treasurer. A few months after that, the chapter president left and didn’t resign, so I essentially became the de facto president while he was gone, and helped build that chapter up from just a small handful of people to the largest chapter in the country.

Zenger’s: How did you do that?

Hardt: When I took over, essentially, as de facto president, I had already risen quite rapidly in my own professional career. I wasn’t quite a CFO at the time, but I took what I’ve learned in the corporate world and said, “Politics in this organization is pretty much like running a corporation. You need to treat it as such.” I went out and found a few key individuals I knew could be the backbone in the design of the organization. I was the face; the current president now was the brains of the design behind it; and we found a great communications person by the name of Greg McPike, who is now running our sheriff’s campaign locally.

We sat down and designed a plan to go out and recruit members. We needed to talk to young people where they live, work and play, and tell them why they need to be part of the Democratic party, and get them involved in our organization. We did that by going into bars and clubs, having meetings at large companies where we had members, and going after people who were part of other progressive organizations — animal-rights organizations, LGBT organizations, Sierra Club, environmentalist groups and such.

Zenger’s: What would you say to the argument that neither of the major parties is particularly responsive to Queer rights? President Clinton, after all, was the person who signed “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the “Defense of Marriage Act” into law. We were unable to get an all-inclusive version of ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] through a Democratic Congress, and Congress hasn’t been willing to pass a hate-crimes bill that includes Queer people. So why should a Queer person in this country be a Republican or a Democrat?

Hardt: Do you mind if I talk first about ENDA? The Young Democrats of America were very opposed to what HRC [the Human Rights Campaign] and Congressmember [Barney] Frank did in removing Transgender people and gender identity out of that. We were one of the few specifically partisan organizations to be completely opposed to them doing that, and we were out-front in lobbying our members of Congress against it.

The reason I bring that up is that our organization is a pretty good indicator of what our party will look like in a few years, probably five to 10 years. When our leaders start moving up into the Democratic Party structure as a whole, we take our ideals with us. We’ve seen that in the past, with the progression of the Democratic Party as it is now. A lot of the stances and the policies that were in place in the Young Democrats 15 to 20 years ago are now in place with this new crop of leaders that’s running the show today.

It gives me great hope that our generation is so progressive. Our platform explicitly supports full Gay marriage and equality for LGBT citizens. We fully support gender identity and Transgender rights. So when our members and our leaders start progressing into the Democratic party infrastructure and leadership, we will see a change within the Democratic party, and we will see a change in this country. So there is hope.

Zenger’s: Of course, that assumes that the Democratic Party actually does well, regains the presidency and becomes the majority party. A lot of that seems like a pretty problematic assumption. Despite Bush’s unpopularity, the Republicans are doing quite well in the one-on-one polls for the presidency, and there’s been at least some argument that the 2006 election was just a fluke and the Republicans will be able to regain Congress as well.

Hardt: We have a ton of work to do, absolutely. We’re not going to take this election as a cakewalk. We’ll probably have the largest campaign we’ve ever had in our organization’s history, and I think Democrats are ready. I think the country is ready for a change, and if we don’t capitalize on the attitude of the country that’s ready for a change, then we don’t deserve to be in power.

Zenger’s: How is the Democratic Party going to make the case that it is the party of change, especially if Hillary Clinton is the nominee? Isn’t that just the same-old same-old?

Hardt: No, I don’t believe so. Hillary brings a great amount of experience to the table, and I think Americans like someone to have a little experience, especially in foreign policy. The change that I think not just her, but any nominee, will bring is our standing in the world, number one. As soon as we elect a new Democratic President, that Democrat will more than likely get out, meet with world leaders, start bringing back compromise with them and stop having this unilateral, “America does it all” stance that we’ve had for so long.

Two, I think the nominee is that ultimately wins the White House will have the task of trying to save our health-care system. I truly believe that the Democratic Party is the only party that can fix our health-care system.

Three, if you look back historically, when a Democrat gets in the White House our economy usually does better.

And the final thing I would say that most Americans want to see change is get us out of this war in Iraq somehow, some way. Every Democratic candidate says we should get out. Whether it’s a timetable of a year or six months or immediate withdrawal, they all agree that we have to get out of there in a reasonable time.

Zenger’s: It’s my understanding that Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards have all hinted that the American troop commitment in Iraq is likely to last until the end of their first term.

Hardt: Right, but there won’t be any new surge, and the surge numbers that they do have in Iraq right now will be brought home. Three of the major contenders have said that they would start allowing longer leaves and more rest time between deployments.

I don’t agree with them on it. I think twe need to be out within a year. Of course, I don’t agree that we need an immediate withdrawal. Most sensible people, most Americans, understand that it takes a little bit of time to withdraw so that people don’t get injured or killed on the way out. But I think we can reasonably get our troops out within a year and end this war. If the Iraqi people by now can’t take care of their own country, then quite honestly they’re a country that needs to figure it out, and if it means a civil war for them, so be it. They’re going to have to figure it out on their own. They can’t have us running their show any longer.

Zenger’s: I was just reading an interview with Naomi Klein in Rolling Stone magazine, where she said that the network of private contractors in government has been built up to such an extent that the next President, Democrat or Republican, will not be able to break a lot of these contracts. They’ll still be stuck with Halliburton and Blackwater and a lot of these companies with their own agendas, providing a lot of our services and a lot of our security.

Hardt: Right. I think that whoever’s appointed the next attorney general needs to find a way out of those contracts. I’ve heard that same problem before, and most Americans aren’t aware of it, unfortunately, but it is going to be a big issue with whoever wins the White House. Whoever our next attorney general is, they’re going to have to answer those tough questions of can we legally get out of those contracts, and were they allowed to be into those contracts in the first place.

Zenger’s: A related issue is that decades of Republican propaganda have convinced most of the American people that government can’t do anything right; that the private sector is inherently more efficient, and the more things you privatize, the better. How would you see a Democratic President — assuming they have a Democratic Congress to work with as well — trying to restore people’s faith in public solutions to these kinds of problems?

Hardt: First, we’re going to have to have a massive rebuilding of infrastructure. What happened in Minneapolis [the bridge collapse] is a prime example of just how bad our infrastructure has become. With all these years of Republican rule, there hasn’t been any investment, federal investment — or enough federal investment — in our nation’s infrastructure: trains, roads, air.

There was a report, I believe in the New York Times, just yesterday, talking about how close we are to a catastrophic mid-air collision over our nation’s airports because of the lack of federal funding for more air traffic controllers, and air traffic controllers being overworked and such. I think that once the Democrats get in and start investing immediately in infrastructure — our air, trains, roads — the American public will see that immediately. That’s something that we can see the government as working.

On top of that, again, I go back to health care. Americans know our health-care system is completely screwed up. I was in New Hampshire a couple of weeks ago when President Clinton was talking about the need for more AIDS drugs in Africa, yet there are so many people in America that don’t have health care and can’t afford to buy those drugs, the way our Western friends and our neighbors to the north can.

Even in places like Costa Rica and Brazil, a person can get this new medicine and live a longer and more normal life, and not have to pay for it out of their own pocket. In our own country, we let people go without these drugs and go into medical despair. That’s another thing I think Democrats can immediately start working on, so the American people can see that the government can work for them.

Zenger’s: Which brings up the fact that both major parties are dependent on corporations and wealthy individuals for their fundraising, and how far can either party go to challenge the corporate consensus when the corporations pay their bills.

Hardt: Right. I certainly believe that we need better campaign finance reform, and we need corporations completely out of the game. [Federal law doesn’t allow corporations to give directly to campaigns, but California state law does.] If corporations want to give, they can give to 527’s or other organizations, but they don’t need to be giving directly to campaigns. I think there needs to be a much lower limit [on individual contributions to campaigns], and I’m a firm believer in federal financing of campaigns, so we can get out of this campaign system that is specifically a bunch of media, mass mailings, media markets, and we’ve lost that go-knock-on-doors, that human touch of a political campaign.

We all attempt to say that field campaigns are still present. Well, they are, but not at the level that they need to be. Americans have lost their human touch of going to their neighbors and talking to them about what politics means to them, and how it can work for them.

Zenger’s: Your election as head of the Young Democrats is being touted as an historic milestone, the first openly Gay person. Was it a big deal when you were running, and do you think it’s a big deal personally?

Hardt: When I first started running, I didn’t think I could win, and I thought it would be a bigger issue than it was. Quite honestly, towards the middle and end of the campaign, I never really heard any negative remarks. Again, our organization has for quite some time now had a platform that explicitly supports Gay marriage and full equality for LGBT citizens. I never heard really any negative things about my campaign, and I won with 93 percent of the vote, which is the highest percentage in the history of the organization. I think that’s enough of a mandate to say our organization supports openly Gay, Lesbian and Transgender people.

Commentary by Leo E. Laurence

Copyright © 2007 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

The board of directors of the Hillcrest Business Association (HBA), which ought to be a leader in following the rules/law, is intentionally and knowingly violating the state’s tough Brown Act, its contract with the City of San Diego and its own by-laws, ac-cording to allegations filed with city, county and state prosecu-tors.

And it intends to continue doing so!

State Brown Act: The Special Operations Unit of the county District Attorney’s office is looking into the alleged Brown Act violations. They include (1) the failure of its executive director Warren Simon to mail complete agendas to board members before meetings, and (2) the use of prohibited secret ballots during voting.

Before a civil or criminal action can be filed in the courts, state law requires the HBA board to try to “cure and correct” the alleged violations.

A Dec. 4th “cure and correct” Special Meeting of the board was oddly presided over by the HBA’s attorney John Stump of City Heights (Why not use a Hillcrest attorney? Simon hasn’t done his homework to locate one, as he promised in September.) The elected president, Mike Wright, seemed totally overwhelmed by the problems.

Stump openly admitted that the HBA “cannot cure and cannot proceed” as required by state law. “Now we cannot undo what we did. We are stuck. My recommendation is to proceed, anyway.”

The problem facing attorney Stump is that he had recommended a procedure to “cure and correct” the alleged Brown Act violations that was NOT permitted by Robert’s Rules of Order.

Stump suggested that the HBA board simply “reconsider” the actions of the Oct. 9th meeting that allegedly violated state law.

Unfortunately, a Motion for Reconsideration has time limits, and is only valid on the same day of the original action – Oct. 9th. Additionally, it cannot be used where the previous action (election of officers) has been implemented, as here.

But state law, by-laws restrictions, City contracts or Robert’s Rules of Order hasn’t stopped the HBA from doing whatever it wanted to do, so the reconsideration was approved, albeit unlawfully.

On that night, the owner of the Crest Café, Cecelia Moreno, who had been elected HBA treasurer on Oct. 9th, was replaced by the former treasurer, Scott Crowder. She hated that, and wanted to get that power back.

So at the Dec. 12th board meeting, Moreno moved that the board “reconsider” the Dec. 4th votes. Unfortunately, that reconsideration was not on the agenda, and any vote would be yet another violation of the state’s Brown Act. It also violated Robert’s Rules.

But state laws and rules haven’t prevented the HBA board in the past from doing whatever it wanted to do, so Moreno replaced Crowder in the Dec. 12th vote – albeit unlawfully and improperly.

Unfortunately, because of limited resources (or, politics), the DA’s office may not prosecute these very obvious Brown Act violations.

Conflicts-of-Interest: The Marketing Committee (including treasurer Moreno, HBA president Wright and Urban Mo’s owner Chris Shaw) voted to buy display ads for their own businesses, paid for by the HBA.

However, the HBA’s contract with the city specifically prohibits conflicts-of-interest by board members. (When this was exposed, Shaw quickly repaid the HBA for his ad, saying he didn’t want to “violate the law.”) Morena and Wright did not.

The Assistant City Attorney, Don McGrath, is currently looking into these conflict-of-interest allegations. If they have merit, the HBA could lose its three-quarters of a million dollar annual funding.

By-Law Violations: For unknown reasons, the HBA board voted to in-crease its size from 15 to 20 in 1990. Unfortunately, the HBA By-Laws clearly state that only the membership can change the asso-ciation’s By-Laws.

Even knowing that their action violated their own By-Laws, the board voted on Dec. 12th to re-affirm the size of the board at 20 members. That vote wasn’t on the agenda, and was yet another possible Brown Act violation.

For comment, contact Leo Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or at

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Burton’s Sweeney Todd: Good but Way Too Gory


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: “Sweeney Todd” director Tim Burton (center) and star Johnny Depp (right) confer on set. (Photo: Peter Mountain / DreamWorks)

It’s only taken 28 years, and there’ve been at least two TV productions in the meantime, but Stephen Sondheim’s classic dark musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has finally made it to the big screen in a visually stunning, appropriately moody and Gothic adaptation by director Tim Burton featuring his favorite star, Johnny Depp, in the title role. For the most part, it’s a triumph; Burton’s direction is astonishing, Dante Ferretti’s production design appropriately stolid and imposing (reminiscent of such slient classics as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and The Phantom of the Opera) and the actors well suited to their parts even though they don’t always do full justice to Sondheim’s score. But there’s one aspect of the film that keeps it from greatness and makes it off-putting in the wrong way.

Sweeney Todd began life in London in the 1830’s, the brainchild of a journalist named George Dibden-Pitt. He concocted the basic story — a barber goes mad and slashes the throats of his customers, drops them to the basement of his building via a trap door under his barber chair, and his landlady and lover, Mrs. Lovett, disposes of them in a giant meat grinder, bakes them into pies and serves them to her unsuspecting customers — for a “penny dreadful,” a cheap and wildly inaccurate “news” publication whose closest modern counterpart was the recently deceased Weekly World News. Widely believed to be true — indeed, quite a few people reviewing Sondheim’s show seemed to think it was based on a real case — the story was such a sensation that Dibden-Pitt wrote it up as a play, and it was a smash hit on stage.

In 1968 actor Christopher Bond was working at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent in the British midlands when, having had a great success with another 19th century melodrama, his bosses announced that Sweeney Todd would be their next production even though no one at the theatre had actually read it. When they finally secured the old Dibden-Pitt script just two weeks before rehearsals were to begin, Bond recalled, “On the page the show was crude, repetitive and simplistic — hardly any plot and less character development.” Bond did a complete rewrite, keeping only the basic premise and inventing a motive for Sweeney’s madness. The show was well received and Bond’s script was performed in several theatres across England, finally reaching London in the mid-1970’s — where Stephen Sondheim saw it and determined to adapt it into a musical.

Sondheim originally conceived of Sweeney Todd as an opera, with sung recitatives linking song-like arias — a plan he might well have been better off sticking to, as the alternations between spoken dialogue and singing are even more jarring here than they usually are in musicals. He wrote some of the most powerful music of his career for this dark story, though this writer disagrees with the critics who regard the result as Sondheim’s masterpiece (the later and far warmer Sunday in the Park with George is), and with a book by Hugh Wheeler, direction by Harold Prince and orchestrations by longtime Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick, the show opened in New York on March 1, 1979 and was a sensation.

Sweeney Todd has had a long history on both big and small screens. There were two silent versions from Britain in 1926 and 1928, then a talkie from 1936 starring Tod Slaughter — one of those relentlessly hammy actors who can’t ask to be passed the salt at the dinner table without making it sound like it’s evoking horrible traumas. In 1970 it got a Hammer-style adaptation as a straight horror film called Bloodthirsty Butchers and then, even after Sondheim’s musical, the basic story got two non-musical TV adaptations in 1998 and 2006 with surprisingly top-tier talent for a horror story: the 1998 version was directed by John Schlesinger and starred Ben Kingsley as Todd, while the 2006 version boasted Beowulf star Ray Winstone in the title role. Meanwhile, the musical was also videotaped for two TV productions, a 1982 performance in Los Angeles with most of the original Broadway cast — including the incomparable Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett and Len Cariou as Todd — and a concert version from San Francisco in 2001 with George Hearn as Todd and Patti LuPone as Lovett.

Where the Burton Sweeney Todd scores most is atmosphere, something of which Burton has always been a master — as witness how he was able to turn contemporary New York into a Gothic horror zone in the two Batman films he directed (an accomplishment the later directors in the series have tried for and fallen short). His version of 1830’s London, aided by Ferretti’s spectacular set designs, really looks like what Sondheim’s lyrics tell us it is: “A hole in the world/Like a great black pit/And it’s filled with people/Who are filled with shit/And the vermin of the world/Inhabit it.” It’s a city where rats (both the four-legged kind and their human equivalents) run freely through the streets and Mrs. Lovett doesn’t seem to care that cockroaches happily use her baking table as an exercise yard.

For the most part, Burton’s and Sondheim’s dark sensibilities mesh perfectly. The relentless, corrosive cynicism of the show is ably captured in John Logan’s screenplay, though the class consciousness of the original is toned down a bit and far too little is made of the irony that Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop becomes a sensational success once she and Todd start stocking her pies with their sinister secret ingredient. It’s true that there’s nobody in this story we really like — Todd’s madness is explained by the fact that 15 years before Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman, who practically steals the film) coveted Todd’s wife and framed him for a crime to get rid of him, but neither Burton nor Logan seem especially interested in What Makes Sweeney Run beyond that tidbit of backstory — and the ingénues, Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), who returns on the same ship that brings Todd back from exile, and Johanna (Jayne Wisener), whom Judge Turpin has raised from childhood and now wants to marry, and who is really Todd’s daughter, are too boring and ill-defined as characters to be truly sympathetic.

The casting is a bit more problematical. By now Tim Burton has become the Johnny Depp director, in the same way John Ford was the John Wayne director, John Huston the Humphrey Bogart director and Douglas Sirk the Rock Hudson director. In this sort of partnership, the director manages to get the best performances out of the star, while the star contributes his financial clout to give the director the chance to make his quirkiest, most personal films. Though as a personality type Ray Winstone would probably have been a better choice for this version as well as the nonmusical TV movie from last year, Depp is appropriately menacing and edgy even though he plays Todd with an almost unrelieved sullenness and gloom, never exulting either over his good deeds or his evil ones.

Helena Bonham Carter is good as Mrs. Lovett, though her characterization is hardly on a par with Angela Lansbury’s from the original Broadway production. In fact, throughout the film both leads do their own singing in careful, “correct” voices — much the way everyone in the cast of the film Chicago except Queen Latifah sang — and it’s a shock to come from this movie to the original-cast CD and hear Lansbury and Cariou belting out this music in devil-may-care screams that are obviously far closer to what Sondheim wanted.

Not that Sondheim is entirely blameless for the problems with this movie. He wasn’t interested in writing an opera; with Sweeney Todd he was straining at the limits of the conventions of the Broadway musical but careful not to break them completely. Sweeney Todd is full of songs that evoke wit and irony, some of them — like “Pretty Women,” the piece Todd and Judge Turpin duet on when they confront each other; or “By the Sea,” where Todd and Mrs. Lovett permit themselves to dream of ongoing success and bourgeois respectability with their gross business partnership — ironic in a way that contributes to the force of the piece. Others, like “A Little Priest,” the famous and delightful duet between Todd and Mrs. Lovett in which they discuss what flavors people in various occupations will bring to the pies, seem to be there more to amuse the audience than to advance the story or theme.

Burton has made a few eccentric decisions. He and Logan decided to eliminate the famous choruses that introduce the stage version and help advance its plot. Instead, Burton uses a more cinematic device: a silent prologue (though using Sondheim’s chorus music as instrumental background) showing gears grinding and discharging a red substance into the London sewers. Stranger is Burton’s decision to cast Tobias Ragg, barker for medicine man Pirelli (Sasha Baron “Borat” Cohen) and later for Mrs. Lovett, as a child (Ed Sanders). In Bond’s version of the play and in the stage musical this character was an adult; making him a kid turns his big song, “Not While I’m Around,” famously romanticized by Barbra Streisand on The Broadway Album, into something that sounds like it belongs in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! Indeed, there are eccentric musical reminiscences throughout the film; Pirelli’s song sounds a lot like “Largo al Factotum” from Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville and the quartet — one of the most powerful bits of music in the score — sounds like the quintet from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics).

But Burton’s worst mistake — and what keeps this often intensely chilling film from achieving true greatness — is the gore. He can’t bring himself just to suggest Todd’s murderous career. Every time Sweeney Todd gets a prospective victim into his barber chair in the flat above Mrs. Lovett’s restaurant, Burton has to show Todd’s razor slashing the victim’s neck and the victim bleeding profusely. It gets to the point where we’re no longer thinking of the horror of Todd’s actions; we’re bracing ourselves for the blood — just like we would be watching a cheap direct-to-DVD slasher movie made by a no-name hack. On two key occasions, Burton isn’t content to show the blood oozing out of the victims; he has to have it spurt in geyser-like fountains reminiscent of the ones in the Black Knight sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail — and acceptable in that film only because the whole concept was deliberately ridiculous.

Constrained by the movies’ production code, filmmakers of the 1930’s and 1940’s developed ways to hint at horror without actually showing it. Indeed, RKO producer Val Lewton made a series of films from 1942 to 1946 that elevated that to a high artistic principle, scaring audiences with shadows and sound effects rather than splashing blood and guts across the screen. It seems strange that Burton, in a December 18 Los Angeles Times interview, would express his admiration for “a certain style to those old horror movies — starring Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre — that you don’t see much anymore,” without realizing that the less-is-more approach enforced by the production code was the source of that “certain style.” Sweeney Todd is a story that cries out for that kind of subtlety, and for an approach that would keep our focus on what its horrors mean rather than what they look like clinically.

It’s a pity, because so much of Sweeney Todd the movie does work — but whether you’ll like it depends on whether you can see past the gore and appreciate Burton’s marvelous command of atmosphere, Sondheim’s wonderful (if not always appropriate) music and Depp’s taciturn performance in a role that under another director he might have drowned in Pirates of the Caribbean hamminess.

“Sweeney Todd” opens nationwide Friday, December 21.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Over 500 Attend SDSU “Rally Against Hate”

Case, Weber Appearances Highlight Event


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: A few of the audience members at the rally, Doug Case, Dr. Steven Weber

Over 500 people, mostly students at San Diego State University (SDSU), crowded onto the so-called “Free-Speech Steps” in front of the SDSU Aztec Center December 3 at noon for a “Rally Against Hate” sponsored by the school’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Student Union (LGBTSU). Called in response to various hate incidents directed at Queer students and staff members in the previous three months — an egg-throwing against a demonstration for same-sex marriage equality, the theft (for the fourth time in five years) of the LGBTSU’s rainbow flag, and an attack letter against openly Gay fraternity coordinator Doug Case in a student paper called The Koala — the rally hit its emotional high points from two speakers’ presentations.

One was Doug Case, who had missed the November 14 town-hall meeting on campus because of a schedule conflict. On December 3 he attended the rally and brought along his poodle, Angel, whom the anonymous writer of the Koala letter had threatened to “drop-kick.” The other was SDSU president Steven Weber, whose presence and strongly-worded speech stood in sharp contrast to the failure of any representative of the higher levels of the campus’s administrative hierarchy to attend the November 14 meeting. Case, a tall but normally uncharismatic man and far from the “flamboyant” or “flaming fag” he was described as in Koala, attracted rock star-style energy as he appeared and spoke. So did Angel, whom many of the rally attendees went up afterwards to pet as a gesture of solidarity towards both the dog and Case himself.

“The letter-writer in Koala chose to remain anonymous, which shows his courage; and he threatened to harm Angel, which shows his character,” Case said. “Angel and I will not be intimidated by an anonymous character. The publisher of Koala indicated that the purpose [of publishing the letter] was humor. Targeting someone because of sexual orientation, race, disability, gender or citizenship status is simply not funny. When I first read the letter, my initial reaction was to ignore it and not give the writer the attention he wanted. But not to respond would have been to give the idea that it’s O.K. to use hate speech against any community.”

Noting that the letter-writer in Koala signed his missive “The Greek Community,” Case thanked “the real Greek community” — the fraternity and sorority leaders who came out in support of him and said emphatically that the letter targeting him did not represent them. “Silence is the voice of complicity and the ally of hatred,” Case said. “When Ben [Cartwright, director of the SDSU LGBT Resource Center and former LGBTSU president] organized this rally, I agreed to participate and wanted to make it clear this rally is not only against hatred based on sexual orientation but against all experiences of hatred in the SDSU community.”

Case recalled receiving a letter of support from a fraternity president who’d been inspired by a poster hanging on Case’s office wall. The poster contains the famous catechism by Pastor Martin Niemöller, a priest in Germany when the Nazis took over, about how the Nazis first came for the Communists, the Jews and the trade unionists, and he didn’t speak up because he was none of those things, “and then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up for me.” During the rally, Case received a proclamation in support from three fraternity presidents.

“The fraternity president who wrote the letter said he’d seen that quote many times, but when he first read the Koala letter his first instinct was to do nothing,” Case recalled. “Then he read that quote on my office wall and decided to speak up. I challenge you to speak up whenever you hear a racist joke or a homophobic slur. … I believe that if each one of us here at SDSU speaks out against injustice, hatred and intolerance, we can build a ripple effect that will eradicate hatred from our campus.”

President Weber — whose appearance surprised many at SDSU who are unused to members of the campus hierarchy coming out so intensely on behalf of equality for the campus’s Queer students, faculty and staff — made, if anything, an even stronger speech than Case did. “The question you need to ask your friends is why weren’t they here, too,” he began — a rhetorical device he used several times during his talk. “Universities have bigots, too,” he continued. “They are not insulated from humanity’s embarrassments. But universities are the best tool ever invented to rise above these hatreds. That’s why this rally is so important, and I’m so glad you’re here.

According to President Weber, the university’s mission is “human growth and development” — not just for its students as individuals but for the human community as a whole. “Progress has been driven time and time again by broadening and welcoming others in the human community,” he said. “This country was founded in the belief that only free, white, land-owning males were fully human. We have broadened that quite a lot, and our society has become better for it. But that fight will go on for a very long time. Bigots will always be with us. It’s not someone else’s job to confront them; it’s our job. So ask your friends why they weren’t here today.”

“We’re tired of dealing with oppression,” said Alan Acevedo, vice-president of Stonewall Young Democrats of San Diego — whose president, Brandon Shawn Tate, was MC’ing the rally. “Have you ever had to wonder what would be safe to wear and how to walk across campus without being called a name? I’m sure you’ve heard about the hate incidents on campus, and I want you to yell out if you think this is acceptable. SDSU is a hate-free zone.“

Dr. Edith Benka, chair of the University Senate — the organization within the administrative structure that represents faculty — called the large attendance at the rally “a testament to the strength of our community and its commitment to diversity and the educational mission. I do not believe SDSU is a homophobic campus, but a few individuals [here] are. But we should not let them overshadow our institution.” Dr. Benka said that a minor in LGBT [Queer] studies, “created by dedicated faculty,” is currently going through the aproval process. She also recalled an incident in which she was teaching a class in Queer history, the discussion was about the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy restricting Queers in the U.S. military, “and one student was against the policy but wouldn’t criticize it because her father was in the military and supported it.”

Ayari Aguayo of the Gamma Rho Lambda (GRO) sorority described it as “a Queer-based social sorority and part of the Greek system” — and, by example, a challenge to the bigoted attitudes of the Koala letter-writer and the arrogance of his claim to represent “The Greek Community.” After describing her group’s struggle against both the stigma attached to sororities in general and the belief of many Queer women students that all sororities are straight, despite which at least 40 people have come forward and joined, Aguayo said, “This rally against hate is not just for the Queer community. It’s for anyone who feels oppressed. Please stand up against hate.”

Christina Larez, chair of SDSU’s chapter of the Latino/a student group MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil de Chicano de Aztlán), expressed similar sentiments when she said, “The administration needs to hear that we’re against all forms of hate. MEChA has been on this campus 40 years and we stand up for the Queer community. Society tells us there’s only one form of beauty, and it’s important to us to say that’s not true, we are all beautiful.“ Larez said the large crowd at the rally “is really good to see, but the struggle does not stop today. We must take this message to our families and communities because that’s the only way we’re going to stop hate.”

“I’m glad that the president was here today,” said Crystal Brandon, a student involved in both GRO and MEChA. But she devoted most of her talk — the final one at the rally — to a complaint about the campus policy restricting the use of amplified sound at outdoor events in order to avoid interfering with classes. “When did we decide to restrict free speech?” Brandon said. “I’m sorry the people in the back couldn’t hear. This is about more than just a childish letter in a bigoted paper. We need to fight the hate with a revolution of love and try to make people a little more conscious.”

“I would like to challenge everyone here to be invincible, to realize your dreams and work towards them every day, living an authentic life,” said female-to-male Transgender student Ed San Filippo. “Last Tuesday I was in a large retail store, and I was escorted out of the men’s room by security. I called for a manager. I didn’t want to make a political point. I just wanted to use the bathroom, but within five minutes I was able to educate at least five people about my reality as a Transgender person.”

Dorothy Emmett, vice-president of external affairs for the Associated Students at University of California, San Diego (UCSD), said, “We are ashamed that these hate words came out of the UCSD Koala.“ (Actually, they didn’t, but two years earlier a similar bit of anti-Queer hate speech had been published in UCSD’s version of the Koala.) “We need to change our mind sets,” Emmett said, asking students to support a social-justice issue removed from hatred or anti-Queer prejudice: a labor dispute between the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and UCSD over pay and working conditions for service workers at UCSD’s hospitals.

Other speakers were representatives of programs at SDSU that target hateful or prejudicial actions by members of the campus community, and seek to reach out to their victims and offer support. Dr. Tayna Stark of the Cross-Cultural Center said her program’s job is to make sure the university “provides all students, student organizations and cultural groups a safe environment to learn from each other. The Cross-C ultural Center advocates for the underserved and underrepresented students. We cover sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity and other categories. If you or someone you know has been the target of a hateful act, please report it immediately to the campus administration and police.”

Women’s studies professor Dr. Susan Cayliff came to promote “a Safe Zone for LGBT students, faculty, administrators and our allies.” While she was unclear about what a “Safe Zone” would be and whether it would involve an actual physical location on campus, she said other universities throughout the U.S. have already instituted them. “We want to create a campus environment that is more than just a livable place for LGBT students,” she explained. We want to offer information in classrooms, counseling and student services. We want to provide evidence of support to LGBT people and their allies, and assist LGBTQ members of SDSU to achieve their academic and work goals.”

“Every time I hear about hate speech, I get angry,” said Dr. Ann Donovan of the University Committee on Diversity, Equity and Advocacy. “There are a few things the Diversity Committee can do. We will try to work through the University Senate to make a few changes. This university is committed to a mission of pride in its diversity and furthering social justice on campus. We also have an anti-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation, and we will try to get it amended to include gender identity and expression so it will cover Transgender people as well.”

One demand that had been a prominent feature of the November 14 meeting that wasn’t brought up at the rally was the demand of LGBTSU and other Queers on campus for a university-funded LGBT Resource Center on campus. (The current one is a tiny room within Aztec Center and the Associated Students, not the school itself, funds it and pays Ben Cartwright to run it.) This demand had been publicly criticized by a number of people in San Diego’s Queer community, including returning SDSU student and sometime LGBTSU activist Keith Ramsey, as unnecessary and motivated only by envy that UCSD recently dedicated an entire building on campus to its LGBT Resource Center. Various speakers at the November 14 meeting had demanded a similar LGBT Resource Center for SDSU — as had Doug Case in the letter he wrote to be read at that meeting — but the December 3 rally featured no such call.