I picked up an interesting book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, by Seth Rosenfeld, who says in the prologue that the book is based on hundreds of thousands of documents that took him years, and ongoing lawsuits, to obtain through FOIA.

So far I’ve been most fascinated by the portrait of Mario Savio and Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement that he found himself leading in 1964. A few months before the incident that sparked the movement, he took part in the Freedom Summer project–young whites converging on Mississippi to go door-to-door in an effort to convince blacks to register to vote, something most of them had never even attempted to do.

Two things in particular got my attention. First:

Savio worked hard to convince people to register. As he recalled, “We’d go in teams of two, and I talked oftentimes,” he recalled [sic]. “Knock, knock–person comes to the door: ‘What do you want, sir?’ It’s always “sir.’ So, ‘May I speak to the head of the family?’ And there always was one, it was always either the father or the grandfather

Second was the fear that everyone felt, knowing that racist whites, if not Klansmen themselves, might show up. Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney had already been murdered, and Savio himself had seen a friend brutally beaten on the street.

One night a strange car approached the Freedom House without giving the proper signal, and the volunteers ran through the dark woods, hearts pounding, to the homes of friendly neighbors. “We subsequently discovered that all the farms around us are armed to the teeth,” he wrote. “Holmes County–as comparatively safe as it may appear–is the peaceful exterior of a dangerously live volcano. If it were not so very well known that the Negro farmers are not non-violent, I seriously doubt that a non-violent student movement would be possible in Holmes.”

And then there’s this, a finger in the eye of today’s Orwellian speech codes that have turned “tolerance” into enforced conformity:

The Free Speech Movement set up an executive committee representing all the student groups involved in the movement, from the Young Socialists to the Young Republicans. Members of any political group were welcome to join so long as they supported the movement’s main cause.

It seems safe to say that Mario Savio was (a) an absolute advocate of the the First Amendment, and (b) aware that his enjoyment of the First Amendment was protected by the Second Amendment. All modern “activists” who fool themselves into thinking they’re his ideological heirs need to realize that they’re standing on the wrong side of the lines he drew.

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Today would have been the 90th birthday of the creator of The Twilight Zone (and a colossal amount of other excellent television).

Rod Serling was born Christmas day 1924.

Twenty years to the day later he found himself engaged in ferocious combat with his fellow paratroopers on the island of Leyte, in the Philippines, and described the day itself in a 1963 magazine article:

A long line of men rested along the sides of a jungle trail—gray jump suits blending with gray-covered beard; tired inward-looking eyes reflecting nothing. A nineteen-year-old second looie got to his feet and spoke. “All right—on your feet. Let’s move out.”

We rose—the packs, the ammo belts, the weapons, all fused to us like extensions of our bodies—and plodded through the ankle-deep mud—a long line of dirty, bearded samenesses.

And then somebody far up the line stopped dead. A whispered message started down the ranks. Each man froze and held his breath because any whisper from up front might mean a machine gun or a pocket of Japanese or mines or any one of a dozen other reminders that there was a war here. But this particular message was an incredible jar to memory—a reminder of a different sort. The man in front of me whispered, “It’s Christmas.”

I continued to lift my feet one after the other, and suddenly I wasn’t aware of the cold rain or the mud. I gave no thought to the sickening ache deep inside the gut that had been with me for so many days. Someone had just transformed the world. Those two words reminded me that people still lived and that we did, too.

Then a scratchy, discordant, monotone voice way up front started to sing, O Come, All Ye Faithful. Somebody else picked it up and then we all sang. We sang as we walked through the mud. We sang as we led the wounded by the hand and carried the litters and looked back on the row of handmade crosses left behind. We sang, O Come, All Ye Faithful. It had come—the Holy Day. The day of all days. It was Christmas.

As it happened, Christmas came mere days after the terribly ironic accident that would spark in Serling’s mind the idea for The Twilight Zone.

It’s taken me a number of years to get back the rights to my biography of him that was first published in 1989. I added a new introduction and changed the title, affixing the one–LAST STOP, THE TWILIGHT ZONE–I would have used if CBS hadn’t hinted that I might be sued. As of today, it’s available for Kindle, and will soon be in other formats.

Fascinating guy, Serling. I wish he were here now, still writing.

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Reindeer reconsidered

December 25, 2014

You ever listen to Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and pay attention to the lyrics?

All of the other reindeer
used to laugh and call him names
They never let poor Rudolph
play in any reindeer games.

Then one foggy Christmas eve
Santa came to say:
“Rudolph with your nose so bright,
won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”

Then all the reindeer loved him
as they shouted out with glee,
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,
you’ll go down in history!

The reindeer were total bigots. Because Rudolph had a red nose, they shunned him like he had leprosy.

Oh, and Santa–he never intervened to teach them about tolerance and loving their fellow reindeer. Not until “one foggy Christmas eve” does Santa get religion, but only because he was worried about being late on his rounds. Suddenly he realizes he can put Rudolph’s disability to good use.

So of course now that Rudolph is a rock star, all the reindeer who’d pissed on him before turn into star f–kers.

I’ll never look at reindeer the same again.

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Ode to a pickle

December 24, 2014

Humans have come a long way over the millennia, thanks to our infinite ingenuity. A list of jaw-dropping discoveries would itself be infinitely long, going all the way back to the wheel and fire.

But when you think about it, the wheel and fire are kind of obvious. You can’t, though, say the same about the pickle. Especially dill pickles.

Consider: Someone, somewhere, at some point took an ordinary cucumber and left it in brining solution, then added dill. The result is a food so perfect, it never fails to brighten a dark mood.

Dill pickles’ very existence is why I pay no attention to the catastrophic warnings of climate change. I figure that if human beings can invent and perfect pickles, they can solve any consequent problems from rising oceans. Besides, sea water is brine.

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Race relations appear to be at a longtime low.

A majority of Americans now say that race relations in the United States are bad, according to the latest NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll, which showed the most pessimistic assessment of racial issues in almost two decades.

Today, two New York City cops—one Hispanic, one Asian—were shot by a disgruntled black man who believed he was avenging the death of a black man who’d been placed in a modified choke hold by New York cops.

More than ever I think of my late friend Ezell Ware Jr., about (and for) whom I wrote a book. If I’ve ever known a better man in my life, using the connotation of better by which we’d all like to be judged, I can’t think of one.

This is saying something, too, given what Ezell endured in his life. Born in 1941 in Magee, 40 miles south of Jackson, the heart of KKK-Jim Crow Mississippi, he was raised by his sharecropping grandparents in a cabin without electricity or water, enduring the kind of racism that is, thank God, just a distant memory—racism that NO ONE (sorry for shouting and for repeating: NO ONE) endures in this country anymore.

Despite having no reason to believe the world would be friendly to his dreams, he grew up with two of them. One was to be a pilot and the other was to be a general. At the time and in the place, for a young black to have those dreams was equivalent, in today’s world, to a young white whose ambition is to ride a unicorn in the Kentucky Derby.

Yet Ezell accomplished both of those goals (how he did is described in the book, which these days is best found on eBay). He did it by attitude and will: “I don’t care how many obstacles you put in my way,” he said. “I’m going to go over, under, around, or through them to get what I want, because I only have one life, and I’m either going to get what I want or I’m going to die trying.”

I am delighted to say that he got what he wanted before he died, though he died way too soon, at age 68, about five and a half years ago. Doctors said his lung cancer was caused by the Agent Orange to which he was exposed both as a helicopter gunship pilot during his two tours of duty in Vietnam, and his three weeks in the jungle trying to evade the Viet Cong and NVA with his white racist captain after being shot down on a secret mission.

He used to say that every day you don’t improve yourself is a day you got worse. He used to say that no matter how humble your surroundings are, you clean them every day. He used to say that you can complain all you want only if you’re doing something to change your situation, but if you’re really doing something to change it, you probably don’t have time to complain. He used to say a lot of wise and wonderful things, all of them learned by experience.

The world is a sadder, poorer place without him—as is proven every day. Especially days like today.

R.I.P., Ezell.

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As we draw close to November, “voting rights” is a subject much in the news, with several states attempting to ensure that voters (a) are eligible to vote in that state and (b) do not vote multiple times. By a wide measure, most Americans agree that presenting valid identification as proof of voting eligibility is a pretty good idea.

But as The Atlantic reports, there is passionate resistance from people who believe ID is a right-wing conspiracy to suppress the votes of people who’d more naturally vote for the left—or at least that’s the argument:

A flurry of last-minute court decisions is upending voting rules in key states less than a month before the midterm congressional elections.

The Supreme Court on Thursday night blocked a restrictive voter ID law in Wisconsin after opponents said it would cause “chaos” at the polls and noted that ballot forms had already been sent out to voters that did not make clear they needed to provide identification. The brief order by Justice Elena Kagan overturned a September decision by an appellate court, over the opposition of conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas.

Also on Thursday night, a lower federal trial court struck down a 2011 voter ID law in Texas with a scathing opinion determining that the statute, which was designed to combat voter fraud, “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.”

To some people, me especially included, it seems like a prima facie case of racism to suggest that brown and black people are incapable of securing identification. Call it the hard bigotry of no expectations.

So who is “eligible” to vote? Here, again, is The Atlantic to explain:

What, then, about the right to vote? The phrase appears for the first time in the Fourteenth Amendment, which says that states shall lose congressional representation “when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime.”

That language appears in Article 14, and since it was written and passed almost 150 years ago, two subsequent Amendments (the 19th and 26th) have extended voting rights to women and lowered the voting age to 18.

There has never been an Amendment extending voting rights to non citizens. Which quite reasonably suggests that proof of citizenship is required.

How does one prove citizenship? The first time you apply for a passport, which is something granted only to citizens, you have to provide a birth certificate. And by the way, traveling somewhere where you need a passport requires valid identification, too. As does, for that matter, getting a Social Security number, opening a bank account, entering a federal building, enrolling in school, landing a job, receiving welfare benefits, checking into a hotel, renting an apartment, being stopped for jaywalking, etc.

So what’s the big deal about showing ID before registering to vote and then voting? I have my suspicions, but why bother naming them or arguing about the matter when there’s a reasonable solution, one that can be applied on a state-by-state basis?

Though the Second Amendment explicitly grants us the “right to keep and bear arms,” every state erects various obstacles to the exercise of this right. New York and California, for example, have restricted rights in a way that makes it difficult to purchase a gun, let alone keep and bear one. Vermont and New Hampshire, on the other hand, have few restrictions, allowing almost all non-felonious/dangerous citizens to buy and bear guns.

So let’s require by statute that each state/municipality apply the same rules to voting as it does to the purchase of a handgun. Both are constitutional rights, but only one is subject to onerous, disqualifying restrictions. Why, because guns are dangerous in the wrong hands? No one would deny that.

But the operative words are “wrong hands,” which apply also to the ballot box. The danger to the body politic from voter fraud is in its own way every bit as destructive as a thug with a .38.

In general, those who favor the least restrictive voting rights tend to favor the most restrictive gun rights, and on the other side the obverse is true. Which means this immodest proposal comes with built-in political stabilizers and—if we haven’t yet given up looking for ways to bridge the widening divide—unavoidable compromise.

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