Sunday, August 26, 2012

Ryan, Akin: Two More Reasons to Vote for Obama

 
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

If there’s anyone on the American Left who still believes there is no real difference between the Republican and Democratic parties and therefore it doesn’t matter which one wins this year’s elections, the Republicans are doing their level best to disabuse you of that notion. In the two weeks immediately preceding the start of the Republican National Convention on August 27, two things happened to prove just how savagely retrograde the current Republican Party is and how determined they are to turn back the clock not just to the 1950’s but the 1880’s, the 1820’s or even earlier.
The first was Mitt Romney’s selection of Wisconsin Congressmember Paul Ryan as his running mate. It was a surprisingly bold move for a presidential candidate who had previously told an ABC-TV reporter, “All I have to do is keep talking about the economy, and we win.” Romney’s hope had been that the American people would vote in 2012 “retrospectively and negatively,” as pioneering political scientist V. O. Key said they usually did — that they’d be willing to fire President Obama for the economy’s lackluster performance during his term and wouldn’t be too worried that Romney wasn’t clearly spelling out what he would do differently.
When he picked Ryan as his running mate, Romney decisively rejected that strategy and essentially bought into a long-standing far-Right Republican belief system that says that not only is government too big, it redistributes wealth and income to the wrong people — away from the super-rich individuals and corporations that supposedly create all economic value and to working people, low-income people, senior citizens and others who consume government services while paying few or no taxes. The budget Ryan has proposed as head of the House Budget Committee, and which would become law if Romney becomes President and the Republicans have majorities in the House and Senate, embodies those principles and turns them into government policy.
Ryan’s budget would replace Social Security with individual private accounts and thereby leave old people’s incomes dependent both on the ups and downs of the stock market and their own skills — or lack of same — as investors. It would replace Medicare with vouchers with which senior citizens would have to buy private health insurance — thereby offering them less care for more money than the current system. It would replace Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California), the government-funded health program for the poor, including the working poor, with block grants to the states, so whether you got health care if you weren’t covered through your job and couldn’t afford the astronomical costs of individual insurance would depend on the generosity, or lack of same, of the government of your state. It would also shrink the Medicaid budget by one-third and massively cut back other social programs while swelling the defense budget.
There’s a strong ideological agenda behind Ryan’s plans embodied in the so-called “Austrian School” of economics. Created in the 1920’s and 1930’s as a response to Marxism, the “Austrian School” was founded by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek, but it was principally popularized by novelist Ayn Rand. The essence of the Austrian School is that workers don’t create value; instead, value is created by heroic entrepreneurs who deserve all the wealth created by their enterprises. Any government interference with the distribution of wealth and income, whether it’s done directly through taxation to pay for social-welfare programs or indirectly by protecting workers’ rights to organize labor unions, is evil, according to the Austrian School, because it merely takes money away from those who create wealth to what Rand famously called the “moochers” who consume it. Another central tenet of the Austrian School, articulated by Hayek in his book The Road to Serfdom, is that any attempt by government to regulate businesses or the economy in general inevitably leads to socialism and tyranny by making the individual overly dependent on government.
Though in recent months he’s tried to backtrack from his formerly enthusiastic embrace of Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan is on record as saying that Rand’s works — especially her most important novel, Atlas Shrugged — were what led him to a conservative world-view. Ryan told New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza, for a profile published in the July 30 issue, “What I liked about her novels was their devastating indictment of the fatal conceit of socialism, of too much government.” Lizza also quoted a 2005 speech Ryan made to the Atlas Society, a group devoted to Rand’s ideas, in which he said, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” he told the group. “The fight we are in here, make no mistake about it, is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” After reading Atlas Shrugged he went on to the works of her inspirations, von Mises and Hayek from the Austrian School, and their principal American disciple, Milton Friedman.
Ryan’s attachment to Rand went beyond his own personal belief system. He told the Right-wing magazine The Weekly Standard in 2003 that he gave his staff members copies of Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents, and in the spring 2011 issue of Democracy magazine Jonathan Chait reported that Ryan was requiring everyone who worked for him to read Rand’s novel. Anyone who reads Atlas Shrugged or Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom will be aware of what a sweeping vision Paul Ryan has for America’s future: essentially a return to the days of the 1880’s, in which the U.S. government openly served the interests of the rich and powerful, and if you were unemployed or became disabled or the bank in which you’d deposited your life savings went under, too bad, you were S.O.L. and all society owed you was a chance to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and work … whether you actually could or not. (Rand was once asked whether government had an obligation to take care of people with chronic illnesses or disabilities. Her response: “Misfortune does not justify slave labor.”)
As a long-term visionary, Paul Ryan is willing to make compromises in the here and now. His 2012 budget made the private vouchers instead of Medicare “optional” instead of mandatory for everyone 55 and under, as his 2010 budget had. He’s not demanding the outright abolition of the welfare state and all government programs that help the sick, the disabled, the poor … yet. But that’s clearly the ultimate aim of his ideology. And by picking Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney has signed on to that class war. Romney’s choice of Ryan as his vice-president puts an end to the forlorn hope that as President, Romney would revert to the relative moderate he was when he governed Massachusetts.
And as if the Ryan appointment wasn’t enough to show just how far-Right the Republicans have become and how crazy their agenda really is, a week before their convention Rep. Todd Akin (R-Missouri), their party’s nominee against Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, Just when you thought the political season couldn’t possibly get any weirder, Missouri Congressmember Todd Akin — the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate against Democrat Claire McCaskill — told a sympathetic local TV interviewer that he didn’t think the federal government needed to pay for abortions for victims of rape or incest because he didn’t think victims of rape or incest could get pregnant. “From what I understand from doctors, that’s extremely rare,” Akin said. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.”
It’s hard to say what’s more appalling about Akin’s statement — the scientific ignorance behind it, the offensively patronizing reference to women’s reproductive functions as “that whole thing,” or his bizarre use of the word “legitimate” as an adjective to modify “rape.” The scientific ignorance would be appalling from any legislator but is even more astounding from a man the House Republican caucus put on the Science, Space and Technology Committee. A 1996 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology estimated the rate of pregnancies resulting from rapes of women of childbearing age as 5 percent — the same as the rate from unprotected consensual sex.
Not wanting a story like this to break just one week before the Republican National Convention — when the GOP is going to try to do its best to give Mitt Romney a sunnier image and introduce the country to his running mate, Wisconsin Congressmember Paul Ryan — the Republicans tried to cut Akin adrift. Both the official Republican Congressional organization and Karl Rove’s Crossroads PAC said they weren’t going to give any more money to Akin’s campaign. Romney and Republican national party chair Reince Priebus (whose name makes him sound like a character in a novel by Ayn Rand, until recently Paul Ryan’s favorite writer) urged Akin to quit the race against McCaskill in favor of some less tainted Republican. Akin’s response was predictable: he pointed to a poll saying that even after his “legitimate rape” remark he was still leading McCaskill, said he wouldn’t quit the race, and blamed the “liberal media” for attacking him.
Akin’s comments aren’t just the ravings of one looney-tunes Republican in a mostly red state. He’s put his money — or at least his legislative power — where his mouth was. In 2011 he co-sponsored a bill to rewrite the federal ban on funding low-income women’s abortions to change the exception for “rape or incest” to “forcible rape or incest” — and Paul Ryan, who has a perfect voting record against women’s reproductive choice, signed on to this bill as another co-sponsor. It’s a distinction that reveals an old-fashioned view of what rape is, one which was actually the law in most U.S. states until the 1960’s and 1970’s, when feminist activists successfully organized to change it. The idea is that it’s only rape if the woman is physically overpowered by violence on the part of her attacker; if she’s drunk, drugged, or psychologically intimidated into having sex, that’s seduction, not rape.
One gets the impression from Akin’s 200-year-old ideas about how women’s reproductive organs work, and his belief that it isn’t really “rape” unless it involves physical force, that Akin is at once awed and fearful of women’s sexuality. His comments about “legitimate rape” signal a desire to return to the not-so-good old days when any underhanded thing a man did to a woman to get her to have sex with him short of actual physical assault was perfectly legal, and when the law made a married woman’s body her husband’s property, sexually available to him any time he wanted it. As with so many other issues, progressive activists who worked hard to change those laws two generations ago thought they had won — but those monstrous prejudices are alive, well, and hatching out of the swamp we thought we had confined them to 40 years ago.
In 2000, when Zenger’s endorsed Ralph Nader for President, it was still possible to make a fact-based case that the Republican and Democratic Parties were growing closer together on most of the important issues, from deregulating the economy and increasing the power of giant corporations through globalization and so-called “trade” agreements to maintaining a huge U.S. military presence throughout the world. That’s no longer true. Though both major parties remain part and parcel of the corporate system, the Republicans have become far more ideological and intense. The Democrats want to nibble at the edges of the social welfare system — including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which, under pressure from Left activists, they created in the 1930’s and 1960’s — while the Republicans want to smash it completely.
The Democrats depend at least in part on the existence of what’s left of a U.S. labor movement — labor supplies the Democrats with money and, more importantly, direct political “education” of their members (which is why unionized blue-collar workers are still much more likely to vote for Democrats than non-unionized ones) — while the Republicans want to get rid of it altogether. The Democrats want to develop renewable energy — albeit in the form of corporate-friendly mega-projects that enable the big utilities to stay in business but make little environmental or economic sense — while the Republicans outright oppose not only renewable energy but the whole idea that human activity is causing earth’s climate to change.
The widening gap between the two big parties doesn’t mean that the Democrats have become more progressive — they’ve steadily retreated from the ideals of the New Deal and the Great Society over the last 40 years. It’s because the Republicans have become so strongly ideological. It was once conventional wisdom among American political scientists that neither major party could stand too far on the ideological spectrum, for if it did, voters in a basically “centrist” country would reject it and force it back to the middle.
The Republicans were able to pull it off largely by developing alternative ways to reach voters. First they allied themselves with the radical religious Right and got a ready-made audience in churches. Then they used the opportunity created by President Reagan’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine to create their own alternative media, centered around talk radio and (since 1996) Fox News, which has abandoned all pretense of objectivity and constantly inculcates its audience with Right-wing propaganda 24/7 and trains them to think about issues their way and automatically reject all other points of view.
The Republican Right has followed a decades-long game plan aimed at winning total control of American politics and purging it of any pretense that anything other than the naked self-interest of privileged individuals should govern us. They are on the brink of their final success, and if they win the presidency, the Senate and the House in 2012, they will be able to enact their entire platform. And a look at their far-reaching rhetoric should be enough to convince anyone of how sweeping a transformation they intend to make in American society, rivaling in thoroughness the transformation Adolf Hitler put Germany through when he seized power in 1933.
In its current guise, the “Tea Party,” the radical Republican Right has proposed eliminating the income tax altogether, getting rid of direct election of U.S. Senators and returning that task to state legislatures, and rewriting the 14th Amendment to the Constitution — the basis for virtually all legislation and court decisions securing the civil rights of African-Americans, other people of color, women and Queers. The only power in society that has a realistic chance of stopping this agenda short-term is what Noam Chomsky has called “the reality-based wing of the ruling class.”
Many Leftists speak of “the ruling class” or “the 1 percent” as if it were a single entity, monolithically united behind a particular pro-corporate, pro-capitalist agenda. That is demonstrably untrue. There’s a world of difference between what Warren Buffett wants the government to do to save capitalism and what the Koch Brothers want. Indeed, throughout its history, the American Right has saved much of its bitterest venom for people they consider upper-class class traitors, rich and super-rich people who want to give something back to the working classes — not necessarily because they’re interested in “justice” or “fairness” than because they realize that if capitalists do too good a job of impoverishing their workers, then they won’t be able to make money because nobody will be able to buy their products. In the 1930’s Franklin Roosevelt was the upper-class “class traitor” the radical Right most loved to hate. In the 1960’s it was Nelson Rockefeller. Today it’s Buffett and George Soros.
When I saw Cindy Sheehan speak August 19 at a private reception in Ocean Beach, I was enthralled and exalted by her vision of a socialist revolution and a post-capitalist society in which education, employment at living wages, health care and housing were considered human rights — not privileges controlled by a capitalist class which could bestow or withdraw them at will. But when I left the room, I returned to a world and, in particular, a United States where the immediate task for progressives is not creating a Left-wing revolution but forestalling a Right-wing one that is on the brink of imminent and total success.
The radical Right has convinced millions of Americans consistently to vote against their class interests as workers and buy into the Randian theory that only a lassiez-faire economy based on unfettered corporate power and capitalist greed can create long-term prosperity. And the response of much of the American Left is to cling to the bad habits of the last 40 years that have essentially made us politically irrelevant: the outright rejection of major-party electoral politics (in some cases, of electoral politics at all!); the constant trashing of America’s historical icons, which has allowed the Right to claim the exclusive mantle of patriotism; the addiction to unworkable notions of “internal democracy” and “consensus,” “non-hierarchical” or (the current euphemism) “horizontal” decision-making that leave many Leftist organizations paralyzed and unable to do much of anything at all; and, most horrifying, a repeat of the mistake the German Left made in the early 1930’s, in which the Communists called the Social Democrats “the real enemies” and thereby paved the way for the rise of the real real enemies, Hitler and the Nazis.
Social change in a representative republic like the United States is not made solely in the halls of electoral power. Nor is it made solely by direct action in the streets. It takes both. The American Left used to know this; our successes in the 1930’s and the 1960’s were built on a strategy that encompassed both, one that got enough people into the streets in mass demonstrations and (occasionally) general strikes that the corporate elites conceded some of what we wanted for fear that if they didn’t, the whole system would collapse. Today we’ve forgotten it: all too often progressives who do direct action regard progressives who do electoral politics (especially within the Democratic party) with visceral hatred and scorn.
Meanwhile, the Right has learned to play the inside/outside game to perfection, using their electoral power within the Republican Party to swing the whole center of gravity of American politics dramatically Rightward and using the direct-action campaigns of the Tea Party to enforce ideological uniformity on the Republican Party. At the height of the Occupy movement I cringed whenever any Occupier told me, “We don’t want to be a Tea Party of the Left” — when I thought a Tea Party of the Left was exactly what the Occupy movement should become.
In order to reverse the Rightward trend in American politics, we will need direct activists and electoral activists not only to settle their differences but actively to work together — and unless we wake up to the short-term need to keep the Democratic Party and the reality-based wing of the ruling class in power, we will end up living under the Republican ideal of a government that lets corporations do whatever they want, makes labor rights and environmental protection a distant reality, and micromanages people’s private lives with a ferocity even the Nazis, who didn’t have today’s computer surveillance technology, would have envied.

 Portions of this post have appeared previously on the East County Magazine Web site, www.eastcountymagazine.org

Saturday, August 25, 2012

City Attorney Backs Out of Equality Nine Prosecution

 
SAN DIEGO — Six members of the “Equality Nine,” marriage equality activists arrested on August 19, 2010 for enacting a “sit-in” at San Diego County Clerk’s office and demanding that marriage licenses be issued to same-sex couples, have been vindicated. The legal proceedings against them ended after two years and a “motion to dismiss” by the city attorney today. The activists see the end of this case as a victory in the struggle against restrictions on free speech, the inequality of Queer marriage rights, and an overzealous San Diego City Attorney.
The action that began with nine activists and their supporters peacefully asking the county clerks to follow their oath and the constitution to grant same-sex marriage licenses, ended not with an effort to find resolution or with respect for freedom of speech and assembly, but with nearly fifty riot-clad county sheriffs arresting the nine where they sat on public property. The Equality Nine and their dedicated legal team have spent the last two years and four days organizing and preparing to defeat the city’s two misdemeanor charges. “Too often prosecutors bully innocent defendants into taking bad plea deals,” said Zakiya Khabir, an Equality Nine member. “I’m in awe of the support we received from the community and our legal team: Gerald Blank, Todd Moore, Alex Landon, Michael Hernandez, Dan Greene, Michael Crowley and others. Without them it would have been easier to give in to Goldsmith’s intimidation.”
In the years since California was stripped of marriage equality, some have fought to overturn Proposition 8 at the ballot box; some have raised federal civil cases against the state to overturn the marriage ban; others, like the Equality Nine, have pursued direct action against the institution that oversees this state sanctioned discrimination. “We were right to be in the county clerk’s office on August 19, 2010, we are still right to be dissatisfied with any form of discrimination in society and we encourage people to organize and take a stand when they recognize it, ” said Sean Bohac, one of the former defendants and a member of San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.). “Though we still don’t have equal marriage rights in California, I know from first-hand accounts that our efforts have provided encouragement to those working for justice. I think the City Attorney finally recognized the trend of public opinion on marriage equality, and softened his stand against freedom of speech when he backed out of this expensive legal ego battle.”
While the legal case against them has ended, the nine recognize that the work is not done. “The victory for the Equality Nine is only a victory against our criminalization for speaking out.” said fellow Equality Nine member Cecile Veillard True victory is not ours until Tony & Tyler Dylan-Hyde, Claire Manley & Ditchi Davila, and other couples who had appointments to be married that day are finally allowed to exercise their full equal civil rights in this state, as Federal Judge Walker demanded they be allowed to do when he overturned Proposition 8 in his decision over two years ago, on August 4, 2010.”
Members of the Equality Nine, and S.A.M.E., will join the event host Canvass for a Cause (CFAC) for “Pussy Riot Solidarity Concert” Saturday, August 25, 7 p.m. at the CFAC Headquarters Building, 3705 10th Avenue in Hillcrest. The event will be a combination community performance and social which will give people a chance to meet the Equality Nine and learn about and support current political prisoners like Pussy Riot in Russia. “We are so proud of our colleagues who refused to surrender their civil rights and admit to false guilt just to make these charges go away. Today the charges were dropped, and although this belated justice does not erase the wrongs done to the Equality Nine and all LGBT people daily, it does mark one more victory on the side of equality. Canvass for a Cause is honored to work tirelessly in coalition with San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality, the Equality Nine, and the community to educate the public and work against oppression.” said Sarah Parish, spokesperson for Canvass for a Cause.
Members of the community are encouraged to attend the next S.A.M.E. meeting held the second and fourth Tuesdays at the San Diego Pride Office at 6:30 pm. See www.samealliance.com for more information.

Cindy Sheehan Speaks at Reception in San Diego

Anti-War Activist Is Peace & Freedom Vice-Presidential Candidate

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Cindy Sheehan

“For four years, half the country thought I was smart and half the country thought I was stupid,” Cindy Sheehan, anti-war activist turned socialist and vice-presidential candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party in the 2012 Presidential election, told a small but committed audience at a private reception in Ocean Beach August 19. “Now more than 99 percent think I’m stupid.”
Sheehan’s backstory is well known. On April 4, 2004 her son Casey, a U.S. Army mechanic, was killed in action in Sadr City, Iraq. Cindy joined other family members of deceased servicemembers in a group meeting with then-President George W. Bush in June 2004 but came away, according to an interview she gave soon afterwards, with the impression that “the President has changed his reasons for being over there every time a reason is proven false or an objective reached.” Over time, she became more militant in her opposition to the Iraq war and her conviction that her son had died in a meaningless conflict.
In August 2005, Cindy Sheehan became a national figure when she camped outside the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, and demanded another meeting with the President to ask him just what was the “noble cause” for which her son had given his life. She became a hero to Bush’s political opponents — until 2008, when she moved from Dixon, California to San Francisco to run for Congress against Democratic Congressmember Nancy Pelosi. Though her original motive for taking on a major Democrat was disgust at how both major parties had voted funding for the war, Sheehan broadened her critique to domestic issues like health care and attacks on what she called the “robber class” of wealthy individuals and corporations that, she said, controlled the country.
“Nancy Pelosi is erroneously regarded as a far-Leftist,” Sheehan said at her Ocean Beach appearance. “She’s actually Right-wing and pro-corporate, like a lot of Democrats in the upper echelon.” Sheehan ran her Congressional campaign largely on issues the leaders of both major U.S. parties have regarded as beyond the pale and excluded from political debate, including free education and health care for all Americans. “I believe society means taking care of people from the day they’re born until the day they die,” Sheehan said. “It’s not making our elders work until they die. It’s not making mothers go back to work six months after their babies are born.”
Rather than affiliate herself with either of the Left parties on the California ballot — Peace and Freedom or the Green Party — Sheehan ran against Pelosi as an independent. The down side was that she had to collect a huge number of petition signatures just to get on the ballot, though the up side was that anyone — not just someone registered in an alternative party — could sign them. Sheehan said she got 50,000 votes against Pelosi — 17 percent, “more than anyone else against her, before or since” — and her campaign volunteers and supporters were Peace and Freedom and Green Party members, Libertarian Party members and “a lot of Republicans who said, ‘We don’t like you, but we don’t like her even worse.’”
Following her 2008 campaign, she decided to join the openly socialist Peace and Freedom Party because, as she explained, “My platform was very socialist and I didn’t know it.” She was particularly incensed “when the government gave $800 billion as a bailout to Wall Street. We thought they should have bailed out the people instead of Wall Street. People are still losing their homes, their retirement savings and their jobs. In a revolutionary social situation, the money would have been funneled to the homeowners so they could stay in their homes, the banks would have been nationalized and housing [would have been declared] a human right. We have between two and seven million homeless people in the U.S. and 18 million empty housing units.”
Though Sheehan didn’t — and usually still doesn’t — use the rhetoric of the Occupy movement, her views are clearly similar in their class analysis. What she calls the “robber class” Occupy calls “the 1 percent” — though she says it’s more like the 0.1 percent that have the real power in the U.S. She expressed these views in a book she published in 2009 called Myth America: The 20 Greatest Myths of the Robber Class and the Need for Revolution. In Ocean Beach, she summed up the book’s message: “It’s not about the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, or about your religious affiliation or sexual preference. The robber class uses these as wedge issues.”
Sheehan knew her uncompromising anti-war and anti-1 percent position would cost her the support of Democrats who had backed her peace campaign against President Bush, but she didn’t care. “I never supported Obama,” she said. “I was not surprised that he ordered his first drone bombing just three days after his inauguration. I sent out an e-mail saying, ‘It didn’t take him long to become a war criminal.’ Even if you voted for him, you can’t say, ‘Just give him a chance.’ Thirty-six people died that day in that first drone bombing, and he’s increased the drone program 500 percent over the Bush administration.”
Like many American socialists, Sheehan points to the experience of other countries to counter the charge that the programs she favors — free access to education and health care, public ownership of the banking and energy industries, an end to the “war on drugs” and the “tough on crime” programs that have put a greater percentage of Americans in prison than any other country in the world — are unaffordable and unworthy of consideration. She pointed out that in Sweden, a new mother gets two years’ paid leave from her job; in the U.S., at best she gets six months, unpaid.
“We believe we’re better than anyone else,” she said, taking on the whole doctrine of “American exceptionalism” by which we’re propagandized to believe that we’re the greatest country in the world, we have a God-given right to export our system worldwide, and we have nothing to learn from other nations. “I’ve just written a book called Revolution: A Love Story, about socialist revolutions in Latin America, especially Cuba and Venezuela,” she said, expressing her view that the U.S. can learn from other countries’ experiences as well as from its own past.
“I grew up in Los Angeles in 1975, when education was still good and the university was still free for residents,” Sheehan recalled. “My grown daughter graduated from UC Davis and got her masters’ at San Francisco State, and she owes $50,000 in student loans. When I was going to school, corporations paid 35 percent in taxes. Now they pay at most 13 percent. And what does the establishment say? ‘If we raise their taxes, they’ll leave.’ What I would say is, ‘Goodbye. You may go, but your company and all of your assets belong to the people of the state of California. We’ll put your company under the democratic control of its workers, and we’ll use your assets and your profits to help the people of California.’”
Sheehan, who’s considering running for the Peace and Freedom nomination for governor of California in 2014, was particularly scathing against another Democrat who, like Pelosi, she feels is a Right-winger with an undeserved reputation as a Leftist: current governor Jerry Brown. “We had a $26 billion budget deficit last year,” Sheehan said, “and I heard Jerry Brown say, ‘We really don’t want to have to do this, but we’re going to have to balance the budget on the backs of the people who are already poor and vulnerable.’ Well, that’s bullshit. How much more are they going to take away? They’re cutting mental health care, education, aid for mothers and food stamps, when we have one of the largest economies in the world. There’s no reason why every Californian shouldn’t have a right to health care, education and a home.”
According to Sheehan, one of the reasons her ideas haven’t caught on with the American people is the sheer size of the United States. “We can’t get a groundswell, a movement, going because we live so far apart from each other,” she said. “The United States is over 3,000 miles wide, so here we are on the best side, but the government is on the other side. So it’s really hard for us to get anything going. But if we can get something going in California, California can lead the way, and not just in human rights. We believe [full employment, free education and free health care] are human rights, not just privileges for the robber class or the 1 percent. We believe in full employment, a 30-hour work week for 40-hour pay — and good pay, not minimum wage.”
Sheehan also spoke about the history of the Peace and Freedom Party — it was founded in 1967 after Los Angeles police violently suppressed a demonstration against then-President Lyndon Johnson over the Viet Nam war — and defended the party’s Presidential nominee, comedienne Roseanne Barr. They met when Barr came to San Francisco in 2008 to support Sheehan’s campaign for Congress, and Sheehan said she ended up on the ticket because “Roseanne just called me and asked me to be on the ticket.” While Barr’s Presidential candidacy has been ridiculed by many — including members of the Green Party, who rejected her bid for their nomination before she won Peace and Freedom’s — Sheehan argued that Barr’s successful 1990’s TV show Roseanne expressed progressive values because it showed working-class people in a sympathetic, non-judgmental way that avoided the usual classist stereotypes of the U.S. mainstream media.
For Sheehan, the big issue of this year’s campaign is the domination of American politics by wealthy individuals and corporations. As she pointed out, corporate control of American politics didn’t begin with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision but over a century earlier — in 1886, when, dismissing an attempt by a California county to regulate the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Supreme Court first ruled that corporations were “persons” and therefore, as Sheehan put it, “had all the rights of real people and none of the responsibilities.” As one might expect from a person whose latest book is called Revolution: A Love Story, her dream is that ordinary people will awaken to the power of their numbers and get the corporate beasts off their backs.
“We outnumber them, and they know it,” Sheehan said. “That’s why they’ve been building up their armies, police and hired goons. We’re in the end days of empire, and they’re trying to prop it up. We can organize now to be able to thrive after the collapse, or we can be scared and get crushed. We need to work on building both politically and socially before the collapse of the empire.”
Though Sheehan admitted her movement will “probably not” be able to win power before the collapse, she’s working to get the Peace and Freedom ticket on the ballot in as many states as possible. They’re already qualified in the so-called “swing states” of Colorado and Florida, and are currently targeting Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Michigan, Louisiana, Hawai’i, Utah and Mississippi. By 2016 Sheehan wants to see “a unified socialist party” with a presidential ticket on the ballot in all 50 states.

For information on how to get involved in the Barr-Sheehan Presidential campaign, visit the official Web site at http://roseanneforpresident2012.org/ or e-mail admin@barrsheehan2012.com

Queer Democrats Make Defeating Anti-Labor Prop. 32 a Priority

Club Also Hears Presentations on History of Women’s Rights Struggle

by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Brian Polejes

L to R: Carla Kirkwood, Dr. Sue Gonda

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democrats for Equality voted overwhelmingly at their August 23 meeting to make defeating Proposition 32, an attack on labor unions’ ability to raise money for political action, one of their priority races in the November 6 election. The club’s board had picked out four local races as the club’s top priorities — Bob Filner for Mayor of San Diego; Sherri Lightner for San Diego City Council District 1; Dave Roberts for San Diego County Board of Supervisors District 3; and Scott Peters for Congress against Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray — but the club added Proposition 32 after hearing a presentation by longtime member and union official Brian Polejes on just how devastating its passage would be not only to organized labor but all progressive causes, including Queer rights.
“It’s a game that’s been tried before by two of our not-so-favorite governors, Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Polejes explained. “It’s back, and now it’s been dressed up as ‘campaign finance reform.’ The proponents are calling it the ‘Stop Special Interests Now Initiative.’ We’re calling it the ‘Special Exemptions Act.’” According to Polejes, the initiative’s sponsors made it look even-handed by banning both corporations and labor unions from asking employees and members to fund political action committees (PAC’s) through automatic deductions from their paychecks — but corporate PAC’s get less than 1 percent of the money from automatic payroll deductions, while such payments raise over 95 percent of labor’s political funding.
What’s more, Polejes said, Proposition 32 is full of pro-corporate loopholes. “It exempts super-PAC’s, ‘independent expenditures’ and independent campaigns,” he explained. “It has key exemptions for Wall Street investment firms, hedge funds, real-estate developers, insurance companies and corporate-funded front groups. Meanwhile, teachers, nurses and firefighters would be effectively limited by this initiative. What that would mean to the Democratic party, women’s equality, the environmental community and the LGBT [Queer] community would not be pretty.”
In a column in the August 19 Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik listed the principal funders of Proposition 32: Hollywood mogul A. Jerrold Perenchio, the second-largest individual political donor in California in the last 10 years ($16.9 million, “mostly to Republican and conservative interests,” including $2 million to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super-PAC); Silicon Valley billionaire Thomas Siebel (who gave $250,000 to American Crossroads and once called Sarah Palin “the embodiment of pure, unadulterated good”); Public Storage founder and CEO B. Wayne Hughes (who has given $3.5 million to American Crossroads and $2.3 million to Republicans in California, and zero to Democrats); and Charles Munger, Jr. (third-largest individual donor in California in the last 10 years: $14.1 million, mostly to Republicans).
“The backers of this are the same ones who helped Governors Wilson and Schwarzenegger: Wall Street executives, anti-union activists, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association and the Lincoln Club of Orange County, the group that helped get Citizens’ United [the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that essentially ended all attempts to reduce the influence of big money in U.S. politics] through,” Polejes said. Among the opponents, he added, are the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and various newspapers, including the ordinarily conservative Orange County Register as well as the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee and Long Beach Press-Register. The California Democratic Party is also opposed because, as Polejes said, “Without [funding from] labor unions, this state could go back to being a Republican state, as it was in presidential elections before 1992.” He also warned club members that so far the Yes on 32 stealth strategy is working — early polls show it leading 55 to 35 percent — and said it’s important to get the word out to voters that 32 is a pro-corporate wolf in “reform” sheep’s clothing.
Polejes reminded his audience that organized labor had been a major donor to the campaign against Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that banned marriage equality in California. His employer, the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), put $2 million into the No on 8 campaign, and the California Teachers’ Association (CTA) gave $1 million to No on 8. Polejes didn’t have any trouble getting the club to endorse No on 32 — that took place as part of an omnibus motion in which the club adopted the California Democratic Party’s positions on virtually all the propositions on the November ballot — but the motion from a club member to make No on 32 a priority race proved unexpectedly controversial.
Craig Roberts, the club’s vice-president for political action, strongly opposed adding No on 32 to the priority list. He cited the warnings from club president Doug Case that fewer members are volunteering for the club’s endorsed campaigns than ever before and said the club would stretch itself too thin if it added another priority campaign. “We’ve never had more than four priority races in one election, and we have to be selective,” Roberts said. “Our efforts will do the most good in the [local] races.”
“This is not just a labor issue,” said Evan McLaughlin. If Proposition 32 passes, McLaughlin warned, anti-labor and anti-Queer U-T San Diego publisher Doug Manchester “will have special exemptions in every election, and your allies in organized labor will have nothing. There will be absolutely no money [available to labor] that can be construed as ‘political.’ The labor movement is the piggy bank of the progressive program, and California raises 25 percent of the labor movement’s political funding. Every group I work with — the Environmental Health Coalition, the ACLU, Equality Alliance — is putting No on 32 prominently on their campaign material.”
Allan Acevedo, the club’s mobilization chair, said he agreed with Roberts that No on 32 shouldn’t be designated a priority race. “A ‘priority’ doesn’t just mean it’s important,” Acevedo explained. “It means we’re going to work on it. This list is already a lot, and we need to get back to the grass roots. I think everything is important, but we need to set priorities.”
San Diego County Democratic Party chair and former club president Jess Durfee said that as a club board member, he had intended to make the motion to add No on 32 to the priority list during the board’s meeting but had let the opportunity slip by him. “It’s been said very eloquently that money for the progressive movement in California will dry up if Proposition 32 passes,” Durfee said. “None of these other races will matter if 32 passes. If nothing else, if we designate No on 32 as a priority our materials will say it’s important.” Eventually both the motion to add No on 32 as a priority race and the overall motion to designate it and the four local candidates passed overwhelmingly on voice votes.

Women and Queers: Linked Struggles

The club’s two speakers on women’s issues — scheduled in connection with August 26, Women’s Equality Day — both had strong academic as well as activist backgrounds. Dr. Sue Gonda teaches at both San Diego State University (SDSU) and Grossmont College and has published extensively on the history of women in the U.S., including the so-called “crime of seduction” for which women were prosecuted in early American history and the roles women have played in America’s wars. Carla Kirkwood co-founded the first women’s studies program in the U.S. at SDSU in 1970. She also worked in blue-collar jobs at Solar Turbines in San Diego and Inland Steel in Chicago, and was active in unions on both jobs. A member of the California Teachers’ Association since 1989, she is currently coordinator for international programs at Southwest College.
Dr. Gonda began her talk with a joke that “it’s really easy with people like Todd Akin around” to establish the link between anti-women attitudes and other forms of oppression. She also said that Akin, the Missouri Congressmember and U.S. Senate candidate who made headlines recently with his statement that women don’t have to worry about becoming pregnant from being raped because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down,” was expressing a mainstream opinion … from the 17th century. “Among the things they believed then was that if a woman didn’t have orgasm, she couldn’t get pregnant,” Dr. Gonda explained.
The history Dr. Gonda told was one all too familiar to long-term women’s equality activists and scholars. “Before 1848, women’s bodies belonged either to their fathers or to their husbands,” she said. “In 1848 New York passed the first Women’s Property Act that allowed women to earn money and own property on their own. By 1900 all U.S. states had those laws. In 1848, the first women’s convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York. Most of the attendees were abolitionists who looked at how they were being discriminated against in anti-slavery organizations.” She said that the organizers of the Seneca Falls convention expected about 50 people and got 300, and passed a wide variety of resolutions unanimously on issues ranging from property rights to children’s custody.
But the one issue that split the Seneca Falls convention was whether women should demand and receive the right to vote, Dr. Gonda said. Though women didn’t win the right to vote nationwide until 1920, a few states and territories enfranchised women before that — among them Wyoming and Utah — partly to attract more settlers and partly “because they thought women would be the conservative vote,” she explained. California gave women the right to vote in 1911, nine years before the 19th Amendment was ratified and made women’s suffrage nationwide. (Dr. Gonda didn’t discuss the peculiar connection between women’s suffrage and Prohibition. Many of the pioneering feminists were also strong prohibitionists — largely in the hope that banning alcohol would stop domestic violence — and much of the funding to keep women from getting the vote came from beer and liquor companies.)
Another milestone year Dr. Gonda discussed was 1872, the first year a woman ran for the U.S. presidency and also the year feminist pioneer Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting. She also mentioned a much less well-known feminist of the period, Victoria Woodhull, an outspoken opponent of marriage whose argument that marriage was essentially prostitution — that “in marriage women were chattel; it was essentially money for sex” — was echoed by radical feminists in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Dr. Gonda also discussed the ways feminists were caricatured in the popular media in the 1870’s and compared it to the drawings that circulated during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008 of her riding a broomstick. (Actually Hillary Clinton had been caricatured as a witch by the Right-wing Weekly Standard magazine while Bill Clinton was President, well before she ran herself.)
Among less well-known feminist icons Dr. Gonda mentioned were African-American anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells; Latina activist Jovita Idar, whose family newspaper La Crónica (“The Chronicles”) attacked anti-Latino lynchings and other violations of Latinos’ civil rights; and women’s education pioneer Mary Emma Woolley, president of Mount Holyoke College from 1901 to 1937 who lived surprisingly openly with Jeannette Marks, head of Mount Holyoke’s English department and editor of Woolley’s papers after her death. She cited the partnership of Woolley and Marks as an example of what was then called a “Boston marriage,” two women (usually academics or independently wealthy people) living together in what a writer in the late 19th century said was “by all appearances a true union.”
Dr. Gonda also mentioned Margaret Burbidge, an internationally known astrophysicist who for many years couldn’t get laboratory or observatory time unless a man co-signed the application with her and got credit for her research; Madge Bradley, the first female judge in San Diego County, who for years wasn’t permitted to attend meetings and luncheons with her male colleagues; and Rev. Dr. Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray, the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest, who said she enrolled in Harvard as a “race woman” and left as a feminist, and whom Dr. Gonda said “would today be described as Transgender.”
The conclusion of Dr. Gonda’s presentation was a bit depressing. She noted that the jobs most readily available to women in the U.S. economy today are the same ones as in 1910: elementary- and middle-school teaching, nursing, secretarial and domestic. “There’s still so much we have to do,” she said ruefully. “While so much has changed, and you’re in the middle of a struggle over Gay marriage, just remember there’s a reason to embrace women’s rights.”
Carla Kirkwood, who said she prefers the late 1960’s/early 1970’s term “women’s liberation” to “women’s studies” because “it’s about taking stands,” set herself the uneasy task of reconciling the often bitterly anti-marriage stand of the women’s movement in the 1970’s to its support of marriage equality for same-sex couples today. What changed, she said, is the definition of marriage itself; largely due to pressure from feminist activists, she argued, marriage between men and women has changed from a male-dominated institution to a more equal partnership. “We fought for independent property rights for women,” said Kirkwood, who recalled that when she applied for a loan in the 1950’s her husband had to co-sign the papers. Thanks to the work of feminist activists, Kirkwood argued, “marriage is [no longer] an institution based on gender inequality and subjugation.”
Not that the task has been easy — or that the progress couldn’t be reversed. Kirkwood sees the position of anti-woman politicians like Todd Akin and his allies on the radical Right as “the idea that my body is public property and it has to be managed by men. Some of the most fearsome regulations are about my womb” — and she added a joke that if government is going to regulate her womb, “it should be declared a state park and I shouldn’t have to pay taxes on it.”
Kirkwood talked about the standards men impose on women in general and their sexuality in particular, noting that despite legal reforms “it’s still very difficult to find a man responsible for raping his wife. In some analyses, we are by nature ‘tempting sexual creatures.’ It’s like the so-called ‘choice’ between the virgin and the slut.” She also analyzed homophobia as an extension of sexism, saying that since according to the patriarchy the worst thing you can be is a woman, the patriarchy comes down especially hard on men who “reject the role of masculinity” and sexually submit to other men. “The Gay community stretches the bonds of patriarchial culture and society,” she explained.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

My Mother’s Jewish, My Father’s Irish, and I Think Steve Solomon Is Funny as Hell!

 by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

All right, Doctor. I’ve got a confession to make. Oh, that’s right, you’re not a priest, are you? Even though you sit all day and listen to other people talk about all the ways they’re screwing up their lives, right? Anyway, I’m really ashamed to admit it, but last year when comedian Steve Solomon came to town with his one-person play called My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish and I’m in Therapy!, I didn’t get to see it. No, I don’t have an excuse. It played for months at the Lyceum in Horton Plaza downtown, and it got extended several times, so I could have seen it. But I didn’t, and I’m ashamed of myself.
Why am I bringing this up, Doctor? Because I just got to see his sequel, My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish and I’m Still in Therapy!, and guess what? It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever been to! All right, so Steve Solomon is a balding, dumpy-looking Jewish guy, and he seems to have channeled just about every Jewish comedian who ever lived, from Larry David to Woody Allen to Mel Brooks to Lenny Bruce to Henny Youngman to those guys who played in the Catskills, and probably some guy before that who had them rolling in the aisles, or whatever they had back then, in Abraham’s time. He also says his mom’s Italian, but the dialect voice he does for her doesn’t sound all that different from the one he does for his Jewish father. It’s just higher-pitched and whinier.
But none of that matters, because, Doctor, Steve Solomon is funny. His new show takes place at a retirement home in Florida where he’s waiting for his family to arrive so he can throw a surprise birthday party for his dad. He’s even got a table full of gifts in packages, along with some bits of something that looks like food, and he’s got a banner on the wall above the table that says, “HAPPY BIRTDAY, LOUIE!” That’s “birtday,” without the “h.” Only he decides while he’s waiting to make a call on his cell phone to see if he can settle a $10,000 mistake on his bill. Yeah, you had that happen too, Doctor?
Well, the moment he makes the call he has to go through voicemail hell. Not only is his call answered with one of those Goddamned recordings, it’s in Spanish, and he has to figure out how to go through all those stupid menus. Remember when a menu was a list of foods you could eat at a restaurant? Yeah, me too. And when he finally punches the button to get connected to someone who speaks English, the person who answers is a guy from India who sounds like the casting director of Slumdog Millionaire rejected him because nobody in the U.S. or England could possibly understand him.
It’s like I’ve always said: for all too many people, and especially for all too many corporations, the “communications revolution” has been all about finding more and more creative ways not to communicate. I remember reading an obituary for the guy who invented voicemail and wishing there’s a hell so he can be in the nastiest, worst possible part of it — what Dante called the “ninth circle” — so he can suffer for all eternity the tortures of the damned he’s made us suffer all these years. Doctor? You can wake up now. I’m done with my tirade.
But I was talking about Steve Solomon, wasn’t I? Anyway, his show — no, don’t worry, it doesn’t have any nasty jokes about therapy — it’s all about his crazy family, including his sister, whom he calls “The Smoker” because she’s been smoking so long she can barely get three words out without falling into these wracking coughs. Yeah, just like my Jewish mom before she finally gave it up in her 80’s. And he got married and then he and his wife divorced when he was in his 50’s, so he can do jokes about his marriage and about suddenly being thrown back into the dating world when he’s middle-aged.
What’s really remarkable about Steve Solomon is he can tell the raunchiest jokes and do some really sick material and still have you laughing. The tale of how his first child got born by C-section is grotesque, but it’s also side-splitting. He even does fart jokes, and oh, how I hate fart jokes — and his fart jokes are funny! They’re the funniest fart jokes I’ve heard since I saw Blazing Saddles! And he talks about people “doing it” — young people, old people, people next to him on a ship whom he can hear through paper-thin walls, with this woman’s voice calling out “Marvin!” and he figures the guy’s last name is “Moore” because she keeps going, “Marvin! Moore! Marvin! Moore!” Yeah, that show with the long and awkward title — oh, yeah, My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish and I’m Still in Therapy! — it’s hilarious!
Oh, Doctor, you want to know how to go see it? It’s playing through Sunday, September 9 at the Lyceum Space — that’s not the Stage, that’s the Space, you know, that crazy theatre down there where the seats aren’t even bolted to the floor. No, I’m not kidding. The performances are Wednesdays at 2 and 7 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. The tickets are $45 to $55 — yeah, I know that’s a bit steep, but it’s worth it — and you can get them at the Lyceum Theatre box office at (619) 544-1000 or online at www.lyceumevents.org. And if you’ve got 12 or more people crazy enough to go to this show with you, you can call 1-(888) 264-1788 and ask for a group discount. Believe me, Doctor, you’ll want to see this show!

Mark Gabrish Conlan really does have an Irish father and a Jewish mother, and “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish and I’m Still in Therapy!” reminded him a lot of his mom and her Jewish relatives.

Friday, August 17, 2012

CHRIS HASSETT:

Queer Activist, Teacher Tells His Stories in Music

interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Chris Hassett is one of those people whom I’ve known so long I can’t say for certain just when, where or how we met. I’ve long identified him with the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club (now known as San Diego Democrats for Equality) but he’s been active in San Diego’s Queer community almost as long as I have. His career was teaching but he’s long pursued music as an avocation and has got good enough to play live and build a local following. He’s basically a folk singer but his music also shades off into pop, rock and jazz, and with other local folksingers he started the “Friends and Lovers” concerts in 1987 to raise money for local AIDS service organizations. Hassett and several of his friends gave a concert July 20 on the eve of Pride to celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Friends and Lovers” and highlight the continuing need to help people with or at risk for AIDS.
Hassett’s latest CD, This I Promise You, came out last May. It’s his first studio recording of original songs (his previous releases were a 2009 live album called Bring Love Home and a CD of holiday standards released in late 2011). Zenger’s interviewed Hassett in late June and talked about his family, his musical roots, and the wide and varied inspirations for his songs. We also shared opinions of other musicians, ranging from 1920’s singer-songwriter Willard Robison to Lady Gaga.

Zenger’s: I’d like some background on you, your life, your history, and how you got interested in music.
Chris Hassett: I was an unlikely candidate to become a singer. I came out of an Air Force family, had four brothers. Sports were a big part of our life. But my dad, even though he was a career soldier, was very artistic, very musical, and he sang around the house all the time. So I think all of us boys developed a love for music, from classical to Broadway to pop to rock to country, throughout our formative years.
I guess it took the deepest with me. I was the first one to love the Beatles, the first one to love Elvis, the first one to love the Mamas and the Papas, the first one to love Lady Gaga. I never did music as part of my studies, but from college on I always got into pick-up groups and sang, and became known as the guy who would sing; if you knew how to play a guitar, I’d join in. When I was having a career in teaching, coaching and a variety of other things, singing was always something I did on the side, and it was what gave me the most pleasure.
Coming to San Diego 30 years ago, I had a chance to collaborate with some very talented musicians. I started writing songs, putting on benefit concerts, singing at community events. My reputation as a community-based singer, a local star, grew. And that’s fine with me. I love entertaining. I love sharing my music with other people. I love interpreting other people’s music, and I am especially enjoying writing more of my own music now, and performing.

Zenger’s: Also I’d like to get your story as a Gay man.
Hassett: I’m the only Gay man in my family of five boys. I’m lucky enough that, even though coming out was a wrenching experience in my late 20’s and early 30’s, I’m very lucky that, even though I certainly had some apprehension, I never had anything but full support from my family. Maybe it’s the comfort I got from having four best friends, my brothers, who I always knew would fiercely defend me against any and all criticisms or bullying. And they often did. I know that made it far easier for me than for so many of my friends and other people, whose lives really take a blow when they come out to family and friends.
Coming to San Diego was part of my coming out. I chose to go back to school after teaching and coaching, and immediately started showing up at Gay bars and dating men whom I found attractive and interesting. I joined as many Gay clubs as I could identify, everything from running to politics to swimming to religion. I got very involved in the community and found it a wonderful way to participate in a community unlike any community I’d known before, where I felt I could bring my full self to the table and engage people on every level: intellectual, physical, sexual, emotional and everything else. So that was a new experience for me, and a gratifying experience, and I felt that’s when I really came of age, even though I was in my late 20’s and early 30’s.

Zenger’s: I noticed one of the songs on your album, “Never Once,” was, as you put in your liner notes, about your “troubled” relationships.
Hassett: Yes, it’s funny. I wrote a whole suite of songs in one fell swoop. I couldn’t get them through the guitar and onto the paper quick enough. But what I realized after I created them, “Never Once” being the kingpin of those songs, is that they were a catharsis of all the kinds of emotional growing and ups and downs I’d experienced decades ago. I was recalling difficult relationships and emotional funks, and all those other aspects of relationships that I think had obviously still resided in me, and they became grist for this musical mill. I love every one of those songs.
I love them because, even though they might talk about a troubled relationship, I know how much I’ve grown from those relationships and from being able to express them. “Never Once” is a very fun song for me to sing, because it can be a little tongue-in-cheek but it also has a lot of anger. It has a lot of movement, a lot of rhythm, and it’s got this just stinging guitar solo that I pleaded with my friend John Katchur to provide, that succeeded well beyond anything I was imagining in my head.
I was never a great guitarist, but I certainly love playing my guitar when I’m writing music. And that’s where I kind of get the rhythm and the feel, and the rest of the arrangement, in my head.

Zenger’s: I understand this is actually your third CD.
Hassett: It is. It’s my third CD after many decades of singing, performing, recording concert tapes and all that kind of stuff. But it wasn’t until I was turning 60 that I got serious about doing a recording project where I laid down my music, and also interpretations of Broadway show tunes, ballads, jazz. I really love it all. In the last 30 months I’ve put out three CD’s. Obviously there was just a ton of stuff that was waiting to burst forth, and I’m lucky to work with a number of talented, helpful, collaborative people who help me bring these CD projects to life.
I did a first CD [Bring Love Home], which was a live concert with a lot of my favorite songs and original songs. I did a second CD of Christmas music [December], which even though I grew up in a very liberal religious household, I’ve always been a nut for Christmas music. And then a third CD [This I Promise You], which I just came out with, which is originals, love songs, newer songs for me, although some of them date back a few years. But I’m very proud of it. I feel it’s the best work to date. And I’ve got more CD’s coming!

Zenger’s: One thing I noticed about your songs is that none of them are explicitly Gay. You take care to avoid any specific pronouns. I found it amusing that the song “Two Hearts,” for example, which you explain in the liner notes was about a Lesbian couple, but hearing a guy singing, “All my life/You’re my wife,” a lot of people are just going to think, “Oh, he’s a straight guy singing about his wife.”
Hassett: [Laughs.] Well, it’s not that I did these things because I’m embarrassed about being a Gay man. I think that anyone who’s going to take more than a few minutes to get interested in my music or my life is going to come face to face with the fact that I’m Gay, I’m proud, I’m out. I live my life, I don’t shy away from confrontation or controversy. I’ve never hid behind silence. You can take me off the soapbox any time you want, but the music speaks for itself.
I can also tell you that when I do concerts, I never try to attract just a Gay audience. In fact, it’s much more of a success if I have a very mixed audience: old, young, Gay, straight, skeptical, believers. That’s what I think community is all about: willing to try to bridge differences with music, not just try to solidify commonality. That’s what community is all about in my mind, and I think that shows up in my politics, in my music, in my writing.
In the book I wrote with my friend Tom on Gay/straight dialogue, we confronted the male issues head-on: Gay, straight, old, young, relationships, love odysseys, sexual expression. So it’s funny. I think I might have had the same observation you did when I was coming up with some of the songs and I put them all together and I said, “Boy, there’s nothing really raunchy here; nothing really fun; nothing really ostensibly Gay” — unless you look for it.
For instance, in “Roscoe’s Lullaby,” I’m singing my dog to sleep and I say, “Your dads are sleepy too.” Well, you can only have two dads, you know, if they’re Gay partners with a dog as their “child.” And that’s the case with my life. Or in “I Wanna Feel the Heat,” the sequel to my biggest song, “El Centro,” about two Gay cowboys who are in a dance troupe. They’re not in a rodeo; they’re in a dance troupe that’s touring the country, and it starts out, “Eighteen months on the road with Earl, and I’m feeling every mile. My two-step’s lame, my boots won’t slide, and I think I’ve lost my smile.”
I have fun singing it. It gets into very fun storytelling that would only have special meaning for the Gay audience, referring to “drag queen Miss Pearl” who dresses in chiffon and high heels, and cowboys trying to come between me and my man, that kind of stuff. So it’s in there.
I do want to call attention to “Two Hearts,” which is a song I’m extremely proud of. One of the ministers of my church was getting married, and she asked me if I’d be willing to sing at their ceremony. I said, “Of course,” and even though I only had a few weeks I said, “Boy, I want to do more than that. I want to write a song. These ceremonies are so special, these marriages are so emblematic of our time, that I’ve got it in me to write a love song for these two women who were joining their lives together.”
“Two Hearts” emerged from that, and I’m very proud of it. I actually wrote it so they could sing it to each other, and that’s why there’s two choruses that say, “You’re my wife,” and they can say it to each other. They can sing it to each other.

Zenger’s: Were you hoping when you wrote the title track, “This I Promise You,” that it would become a traditional song for same-sex weddings?
Hassett: No, but I would be delighted if that happened. “This I Promise You” is a track that was inspired by a book that a friend of mine wrote. He had challenged me to start thinking about writing some music about what might end up being a movie based on his book. I was especially taken by the relationship between two men in the book, one of them a career prostitute, male prostitute, and the other one, the Gay closeted son of a powerful man in the community.
Somehow they find each other, and they never expected to fall in love or have anything more tender than just a quick night together. But in fact they develop great feelings for each other, and yearn to have a life of dignity and openness and passion and love with each other. I wrote it for that, but I think it’s about the yearning that anyone has to find a partnership, that we do want to make the most ultimate promise we possibly can, because our love is that strong. We feel that deeply about this other person. It’s my favorite song, because I know how deep I reached to bring it out. But if you ask me, every song is my favorite, so — !

Zenger’s: I think I remember one musician who was asked, “What’s your favorite song?,” and he said, “The one I just finished.”
Hassett: That’s about right! And sometimes it’s the one I just listened to! I have favorite songs that are written by friends of mine, and I fall in love — I was just joking with my friend Peggy Watson some time ago, because we used to do concerts together. And I said, “Oh, my God, Peggy, we just have the heart of teenage girls. I fall in love with every song I hear, and I immediately bring it into my life until the next one bumps it out. And then I move with that one.” It’s like my life pulses forward song by song.

Zenger’s: This morning I was listening to your CD, and then I listened to a private-label reissue I got of the 1920’s singer-songwriter Willard Robison. He was from a family of ministers, and though he didn’t become a minister himself, he tapped a lot of religious imagery in his songs. And this was in the 1920’s, at a time when you had all these people writing these articles about “jazz, the music of the devil,” they way they would write later about “rock, the music of the devil.” Some of Robison’s songs have titles like “The Devil Is Afraid of Music” and “There’s Religion in Rhythm” that seem to be his consciously writing answers to all these attacks, saying, “No, this is not sinful. This is holy. This is beautiful. I’m in tune with God when I write these songs.”
Hassett: I’m curious about his work and I actually look forward to looking that up, Wikipedia, hearing some tracks. But like I said, I had to reach pretty deep to come up with “This I Promise You.” It might come off as a simple little love song, but the extent to which you are willing to reach deep is really what creates a good song. And it’s also what makes music forceful in your life as a songwriter. I don’t want to just be cranking out little pop songs with a catchy rhythm. I love some songs that really don’t go more than surface deep, but that’s not what I want to do as an artist.

Zenger’s: It’s one of those things that I noticed when I heard Lady Gaga. As someone who doesn’t generally like that kind of music, I was impressed that she knows how to write a song. They have beginnings, middles and endings. She’s not just barking a few lyrics out over a dance groove and calling it a song.
Hassett: I actually am a fan of Lady Gaga. She’s a phenomenon, and who knows what combinations of tricks and happenstance and look and image and style makes those kinds of things happen, because there’s a tremendous population of people who all, whether they admit it or not, would like to have the level of fame and fortune that Lady Gaga has. But she’s a remarkable talent, and I think she’s representative of a lot of tremendous energy, good energy, that’s going into songwriting and music these days. I would never want to discount newer music just by pointing to the obvious examples that might be a little too ridiculous, frivolous, junky or formulaic. There’s always that. I listen for the good stuff. I enjoy it.

Zenger’s: In fact, she’s on the opening track of the Tony Bennett Duets II album, doing “The Lady Is a Tramp.” My first thought was, “Given that her own music is in such strict dance tempi, how is she going to loosen up enough to sing a song like ‘The Lady Is a Tramp’?” And she did it beautifully.
Hassett: She’s far more than a so-called “dance diva.” You can’t put a quick boundary around her and say that’s all she is. She’s got far more dimension than that. I’m not surprised at all. In fact, it’s her more “unplugged” versions of her hits that I find more interesting musically. So I’m not surprised that she could hold her own with Tony Bennett.

Zenger’s: It occurred to me when Donna Summer died that I always loved the slow introductions of her songs, where she could sing out of tempo, she could phrase, she could show what a beautiful voice she had. And then the drum machines kicked in, the tempo sped up and I tended to lose interest.
Hassett: Well, I like it! I like the expression that comes from singers. I’ll take a ballad and some free tempo and some phrasing over just some throbbing beat anyday. Although I’m a big fan of ABBA and the Pointer Sisters, and that dates back.

Zenger’s: I remember when I was watching one of these “Music Mania” shows, where there were these young bands trying to appeal to the young audience, and in my comments on one of them I said, “They sound like ABBA, and I mean that as a compliment.”
Hassett: [Laughs.] It would be.

Zenger’s: It was like, “How nice to have dance music that actually invites you to dance, instead of making you feel like you’re being ordered to.”
Hassett: [Laughs.] That’s a nice distinction! I think you’re right. It’s got that sound where the expectation is set, “Oh, my God, I have to get up and dance to this boing-boing music.”

Zenger’s: I really liked the song “Each Day of the Week.” When I heard that I thought, “Wow, this is a very jazzy song.” I could see you doing that with a Dixieland band, actually.
Hassett: It could be done. There are a number of genres it would fit in to. I wrote it with the idea of the songs that I grew up loving when I first — just in my early, early adolescent years — realized some of the language of songwriting. And I feel like I rediscovered some of that language when I was writing it. I wanted to write it in a kind of formulaic way that would tell a story, which would have a kind of a gimmick to it, but I knew that I was coming up with something strong enough musically to do a three-part harmony, and have some interesting chord changes and kind of a nice groove to it.
I’m really pleased that you liked it. I have in mind to try to do it in concert with two other male singers, and we would dress up in plaid jackets and look like the Crew Cuts or the Coasters, or one of those “Sh-Boom” groups.

Zenger’s: On the record, are all the voices yours?
Hassett: Yes. That’s the case on all of the songs that have some double-tracking. There’s one song on there that actually has about seven tracks. It’s “We Are the Village,” which is probably the biggest anthem-type song supporting the idea of embracing a global village and the human family and, again, reaching across borders.

Zenger’s: In your liner notes on that one you mention two people that it’s dedicated to, Bill and Nancy Bamberger. I was wondering who they were, and if they actually did live and work in Third World villages.
Hassett: I’ve known Bill and Nancy the entire time I’ve been in San Diego. In their retirement they said, “Hey, life’s not over. We’re going to start a fund to build schools in poor Cambodian villages.” In a few short years they’ve managed to do that. They started the Cambodian Village Fund. They’ve just had a ceremony where they were honored for the brand-new classroom building in a small village in Cambodia. And they’re still going strong. I was so taken by that.
They asked me to do a benefit concert for them, and I was pleased to do that. We’ve done it for a couple of years now, and we’ve raised some money. They’ve had a couple of other fundraising activities, and I am so impressed with what they’ve managed to do with their lives, and just how generous they are. It inspired me. It’s really central to how I want to live my life, in service to good causes, to people who need the help.

Zenger’s: You’ve briefly touched on your involvement with the Unitarian-Universalist Church. I wanted to just ask you what you do for them.
Hassett: I was raised Unitarian, even though my mom came out of a Baptist background and my dad was Christian Scientist. When they got married and the war was over, and they were raising a young family, my mom went on a search to find a faith that she would feel comfortable raising a family in. She took that on, and at some point I think she decided if Unitarianism was good enough for Adlai Stevenson, it’s good enough for the Hassetts.
So we became a member of the church in Orlando, Florida, and every time we moved to another air base they either started or became integral to the fellowship or the church that we were closest to. When I came down to San Diego to go back to school and realized there was a big, beautiful church here, the First Unitarian-Universalist Church of San Diego, I became involved, took part in a lot of committees, was on the board for a while. I’ve always been a featured soloist there but I’ve never been on staff. But I’ve certainly been a prominent member of the community there. And I enjoy my affiliation with that church tremendously. I have tremendous respect for the leadership, the congregation, the social justice programs that they support, and the benefit concerts we’ve done there go to support some of those social-justice programs.

Zenger’s: Any anecdote behind the song “Not a Game to Win”?
Hassett: Sure. “Not a Game to Win” was kind of a reaction to “Each Day of the Week,” the song we talked about a little earlier, which is almost this fairy tale: you meet the person of your dreams on a Monday and by the time Sunday rolls around, or a Sunday rolls around, you’re getting married and launching the rest of your life in an environment of just extreme happiness and bliss.
Well, my first love was not that experience at all. It was in fact not a game to win. I tell the story — although there might be some pronouns missing — of my straight roommate, whom I fell in love with. I had not really come out to myself, much less to the world. And I just found it a very confusing thing that I should yearn to partner with this person in my life who really had no interest, and yet it was just gut-wrenching and difficult to understand.
It’s an uptempo song, again with a great guitar solo woven in there to kind of reflect some of the emotions that I was feeling. You come out the other side, and many years later you find that you are able to put together a life that makes a little more sense, and choose partners that can be more available to you and accept love and give it back, and friends and family, and have comfort in your life. But for me, first love was not a game to win. It’s just something I had to get through. That first man-crush.

Zenger’s: I once said that straight guys who are just entering puberty and looking for dates have to worry about being rejected. Gay guys have to worry about being rejected and being beaten up.
Hassett: Exactly. I didn’t choose that poorly, even though it took many years before it finally came to a head, where we just had to sort things out and move on in our separate directions. It never came to that, even though I put up with a little bit of roughness and some bullying during my school years, I never had to be subjected to that as an adult, or as a Gay man trying to figure out what the hell was going on. And I was probably an easy target.

Zenger’s: Well, maybe not with four highly supportive straight brothers from an Air Force family.
Hassett: Yeah, as long as they were around, I was safe! They’re still my best friend. They’re great guys, just great guys.

Zenger’s: I noticed the song, “I Cried for You,” where you said it was inspired by Patsy Cline. I wrote in my notes, “I wish she were still around to sing it.”
Hassett: [Laughs.] I actually imagine a female voice behind that song, but it was fun for me to sing. Patsy Cline had a huge impact on me growing up. The first time I heard that clarity and that just absolute accuracy and expressiveness at the same time. had it all. What a gift. And it was so expressive that I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do as a singer and songwriter down the road. Decades later that woman is still inspiring people, and always will. That’s the amazing thing about music in this recorded age.

Zenger’s: As you look ahead, what do you think you’re going to do in the future? You said you had more material, more recordings, more local stuff.
Hassett: I’m curious to see how it rolls out. I’ve got about four projects I’m balancing in my heart right now, and I’m just going to have to pick one and run with it. But, regardless of which recording project I do, I am taking time to create some new songs. So when it’s time to do another album of originals, I’ll have the material for it.
I love doing the American songbook, and I’m thinking of doing a series of concerts or recordings around that. Of course that would include the giants: Gershwin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and others. But maybe some newer composers as well, like Stephen SondheimI think I have my own unique “take” on interpreting some of those songs. It’s fun for me. It’s challenging for me. It’s a wonderful way to interact with other musicians to interpret music, especially music that has the power of already being in the heads and hearts of the American public, and certainly anyone who would be coming to our concerts or buying our CD’s or downloading our songs. So there’s another CD.
I’m also pulling together a more theatrical event, where the songs that I’ve written create a musical narrative for my life, or it’s woven together with a narrative and it contributes to that narrative. I think it would be a nice way to combine my love for storytelling, my love for music, and my love for performing. That’s something I’d actually like to go on the road doing, as a one-man show. I can’t talk too much about it! There are a lot of directions I could go, and I’m still busy doing some free-lance marketing, and part-time work here and there, and being a family man.

Zenger’s: Yes, as you said on the last song of your album, you have a husband and a dog to come home to.
Hassett: [Laughs.] That’s right! Which I’m very happy about.

Chris Hassett’s CD’s, including This I Promise You, are available from his Web site, http://www.chrishassett.com/

Chris’s friends Bill and Nancy Bamberger can be reached on the Web at http://travelswithbillandnancy.com/. The Cambodian Village Fund is accessible online at http://cambodianvillagefund.org/index.html

The CD of Willard Robison’s pioneering recordings of his own songs in the 1920’s is available on the Web at http://www.squidoo.com/SUPERBATONE. Additional Robison recordings, including his performances of songs by other writers, can be downloaded free at http://www.archive.org