Re-Learning How To Brave The Heat

Early last week I was still wearing my winter coat around Portland. It was 55 degrees and mostly rainy. By Friday we had beat all previous heat records for this time of year; the temperature hovered around 95 and remained in the upper 80's throughout the weekend. It was purely by coincidence, but the drastic change in weather seemed to usher in a series of galvanizing events, as if it were not the sun but some sort of fire upon us.

On Friday I went to see a live performance of Voices of a People's History of the United States (based on the book by the same name, edited by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove.) I knew nothing about the event beforehand, only that a friend had secured me a ticket and a seat in the front row, and that Eddie Vedder would be performing a few songs. I drove down to the venue, the 1st Baptist Church, arriving as the performers were walking on-stage. These days, it is rare to approach something or someone without expectations; no written preview, no word of mouth recommendations, no clip off of YouTube to provide visual clues. When I am taken by surprise, the experience makes me feel refreshingly naive, unaware; it gives me a sense of wonder and awe; that life and art and events can unfold despite our best efforts to know what happens beforehand. It was with this sense of amazement that I witnessed Friday's readings. The reenacted speeches—by radicals, agitprops, dissenters, and activists of past and present—came to life as if happening in that room at that moment.

Below is a brief excerpt from Eugene Debs' incredible 1918 court speech, as performed in Portland by actor/teacher Eric Levine:


They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.

And here let me emphasize the fact-and it cannot be repeated too often-that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.

Yours not to reason why;
Yours but to do and die.

That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation.

If war is right let it be declared by the people.

The audience responded with tears, applause, and verbal affirmations, moved both by the words and the delivery. What felt most intense was how many of the speeches and songs—by John Reed, John Brown, and Bob Dylan among others—could have been written today (though this very fact filled me with a sense of futility as well, as in 'why is the refrain still so much the same?') And I couldn't help but wonder, despite cries from the audience in approval of ending the war in Iraq, who among us would risk personal harm, jail, even death (as these figures from the past had done) for a cause? Yet I did not leave the church feeling inert but instead inspired. As a side note, it turns out that many of the people at the event were there to see Viggo Mortensen aka Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. It made me happy to think that in exchange for a picture with the actor after the show, these fans had to sit through two hours of fiery speeches. Maybe this should always be the price we pay for frivolity, after all, bribes often work: One hour of history lessons equals one minute with your favorite star. Or, you must watch five documentaries or read two novels before you get to watch American Idol.

Below is a clip of poet Staceyann Chin performing a speech by Cindy Sheehan. This piece ended the reading portion of the event in Portland and was met with a standing ovation. This video is from a different performance.

Later that night I went to see Quasi at the Hawthorne Theatre. The band was the perfect complement to the Zinn event. Singer/keyboardist/guitarist Sam Coomes has never shied away from politics in his lyrics and the duo is a perfect analogy for lively conversation and debate: a combative meshing of ideas and sounds, of coherence and cacophony, discord and harmony, always willing to take the listener to the brink of agitation before easing up and delivering a moment of bliss.

Lastly, on Sunday, Barack Obama held a rally at Portland's waterfront. Over 70,000 people attended, a record number for his campaign. I rode my bike downtown and merged with a crowd of unfamiliars. My friends were far behind me in the audience or way towards the front and I floated in the middle, feeling perfectly content to experience the event on my own, mostly because I was hardly alone at all. I admit to getting chills when the Obama family took the stage, the crowd surging and cheering and allowing ourselves to imagine a new set of possibilities. Certainly that's been the part of me, of us, that needs rebooting when it comes to politics: optimism, and the will to fight.

Below are photos from the event.

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The first photo was taken from my phone, the next four were taken by Chelsey Johnson, who was clearly quite close to the stage, and the last photo is by Chris Carlson/AP.


Oregon's primary
is tomorrow, May 20th.

Comments

 

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I saw a taping of the Voices series in Boston a few months ago, and I, too, had no idea what to expect. I was floored by how powerful those words became when spoken aloud. Reading speeches and letters just isn't the same as hearing and seeing them, especially when you've read something over and over to the point where it's almost lost its power. And of course, glimpsing hundreds of years' worth of struggles over the course of a few hours is also chilling in its own right.
Also, I love the bribe idea.

Sent by sarah | 3:49 PM | 5-19-2008

Eugene Debs, so it would be Eugene Debs'...blah blah blah. Your proofreader is M.I.A. again ;)

Sounds like a great event!

Sent by Grammar police | 5:12 PM | 5-19-2008

I like how this post on activism in art, political optimism, fighting for what you believe in and all those good things has gotten only 1 comment and your post on song lyrics got 90 comments...

To be fair, I didn't pose a question as I did in the other post. But your point is duly noted -CB

Sent by marie | 6:01 PM | 5-19-2008

I've been reading A People's History of the U.S. on and off for months. Watching Mos Def recite a Malcolm X speech brought me back into the book.

Did you know Viggo Mortensen was supporting Dennis Kucinich during his run for the presidency? True story. It's a dream of mine to have Barack Obama find a place in his cabinet for Dennis Kucinich. He's an amazing politician.

Ah, Quasi! Sam Coomes writes amazing songs. I can't wait for a new album from them.

Sent by megan m. | 6:23 PM | 5-19-2008

Little known fact about Nick L's ancestry: one of my grandfather's uncles was the socialist candidate for vice president in the 1920's. I swear to God.

I read Zinn back in high school and it changed my life, not in that trendy indie Shins way but in a legitimately meaningful way. It gives me hope to know that people react so strongly to his work and research. At the same time, I wonder how much fight really exists in people. All of my friends claim to be activist liberals who wonder why people aren't bashing down the doors of the White House demanding change. My answer when they say that is always, "Let's go. Right now. I'll buy the baseball bats if you buy the gas." They always say, "But I might go to jail." What the hell is the point of wishing for something greater if you won't actually act for something greater?

And this brings me to the presidential race. I like Obama. I really do. If he is nominated I will vote for him (and I have decided that if Hillary is nominated I will vote for you, as a write-in). I do wonder, though, what he will change if elected. I want Iraq to end as much as anyone, but I'm bracing myself for a great swindling. It's one thing to talk big and rile up the masses. It's another to act on your promises. I wonder how many pockets Obama is in that we don't know about, how many special interests he's pandering to behind the scenes. Maybe this is my natural cynic thinking, but I feel like it's the most realistic outlook. The left doesn't have any balls. They talk a big game, but they can't govern and can't take winning stands because they cave in the first time Bush insults them, and they've already been bought and sold just like all the rest. Where is Debs when we need him? Where is Big Bill Haywood and the IWW? People are complacent enough to perpetuate oppression and swallow the crap that gets shoveled down their throats.

Sent by Nick L. | 6:54 PM | 5-19-2008

@ Grammar police: Plenty of grammarians disagree about forming the singular possessive of words ending in "s." Since when is an "emoticon" proper punctuation, anyway?

Sent by td | 7:11 PM | 5-19-2008

Nice post! It's not surprising that Viggo participated in the event, but I guess it does surprise me that people came just to see him. He's actually a really cool guy. He used to be married to Exene...one day me and my buddy went to her place for an interview and he hung out, fed us and offered to do the layout for the zine from pictures and paintings he was working on. I guess my point is that he's just a normal dude and it's weird how famous he is now. That he's using his fame for good is very commendable.
Also, yay Quasi and I wish Clinton would just throw in the towel so everybody can start concentrating on the November election.

Sent by A.R. | 7:44 PM | 5-19-2008

I was watching some old Dylan interviews/performances last night online and was moved not solely by the power of his lyrics themselves, but really by their overwhelming relevance today. I was also struck by Dylan's own seeming frustration at how much attention his lyrics brought on himself rather than on the issues he was addressing. In a 2004 interview on 60 minutes, Ed Bradley was insistent on trying to get Dylan to admit to being the "voice of a generation" in the 1960s. I think a much more interesting and fair dialogue would have included a discussion of the incredible continued pertinence of his words.

One of my hopes for Obama's victory (and he is, truly, a beacon of hope) is that it will be a clear and undeniable message to the world that the people of the United States are ready for a radical change (while I don't think Obama's politics are radical in the slightest, his election certainly would be). And that would be the first step in a very long path to reconciliation. Obama's N.C. primary victory speech was the most moving and masterful oration I've seen in a very long time.

Sent by Carolyn | 8:06 PM | 5-19-2008

I worry that whoever gets into office will go the way of all the candidate-to-presidents before them: getting little done with regard to things mentioned on the campaign trail. This is not always or even usually their fault. While it is heartening to hear talk of change, and feel like someone really means it, it is another thing entirely to find that change enacted in any real way.

Real change happens from the bottom up. Don't forget your local elections, people. Be as familiar as what your local reps think on what matters to you as you are on these political celebrities.

Regardless of my cynicism: Go Obama!

Sent by Elizabeth | 9:42 PM | 5-19-2008

staceyann chin is awesome- that video made me cry. did you see her on oprah not too long ago? she was way more interesting than the other guests...and she made me cry.

i hope that live performance thing is a tour cause i want to go.

Sent by Lauren | 10:42 PM | 5-19-2008

I love your description of Quasi; I'm excited for their new album.

Also, after today's coverage of the campaigns, I sincerely hope Obama wins. He is so incredibly inspiring, so amazing.

Sent by Kirie | 12:09 AM | 5-20-2008

While we all love us some hot looking guys, consider how stereotypical and Other-izing Viggo's Hidalgo was re: 'sand-****ers'.

Or is it 'camel jockeys'? Is this more a propos?

It played like a fine propaganda piece. Damn straight he should be atoning for it. Its timing made it the perfect troop-rallying piece, the generic V.M. Euro-American and his romanticized, co-opted shamanistic Indigenous American traditions triumphing over the barbaric bedouin scoundrels.

It made my every cell want to vomit. Leni Riefenstahl was done proud. Not in terms of technical triumph, just the Triumph of the American Will over the Iraqis. Er, Bedouins.

Sent by fenssen den | 4:27 AM | 5-20-2008

Obama for u.s. presidency is A NEW HOPE.He's not Luke Skywalker but he's also not Al Gore.Oregon is yours Barack !!!!! America's next !!!!
I wish I was at this meeting

Sent by julien | 7:15 AM | 5-20-2008

I am so jealous of the Zinn event (and of the Obama rally, because the energy must have been amazing with that many people). Yes, we need more people excited, involved, caring. And that's what's really exciting about the Obama campaign, not the candidate himself but the promise of real involvement.

Sent by Sarah J | 8:16 AM | 5-20-2008

"...hovered around 95"? It was 101+ F. on at least one of these days--I thought I'd set my car's clock display wrong at 1st ('1:01'), not the temp.--and I was out ea. day, as I have been for 3 weeks, canvassing for Barack.

Hope the Decembrists didn't play '16 Military Wives'. We don't need *that kind of subversion* showing up in the opposition's ads!

Sent by nsf | 9:29 AM | 5-20-2008

Zinn's book is one of my favorites of all time. I'd love to see a performance of it sometime.

Sent by Andy C. | 12:23 PM | 5-20-2008

Even with all my cynicism, I listen to Stars to keep myself going. "Ageless Beauty" and "In Our Bedroom After the War."

"Cruelty makes its holes
But on the shoreline
Time will hold its promise
We will always be a light"

"Oceans won't freeze
So loosen your heart
Underestimated
Undefeated in this love"

"Wake up, say good morning
To that sleepy person
Lying next to you
If there's no one there
Then there's no one there
But at least the war is over"

"We won, or we think we did
When you went away you were just a kid
And if you lost it all
And you lost it
We will still be there when your war is over"

We're fighting a losing battle, but winning isn't the point. The point is to keep on fighting even when it looks like all hope is gone.

Still, voting is what got us into this mess. Do we really think voting is going to get us out?

Sent by Nick L. | 1:54 PM | 5-20-2008

Zinn is my personal Jesus, is that weird? I'm jealous. A portlander myself, I had no knowledge of this event. And while I felt like passing out, I also braved that endless line to see Obama on Sunday. What an atmosphere, a slew of people from every walk of life.

Sent by Kay | 5:14 PM | 5-20-2008

damn girl what a weekend!

Sent by chunk | 6:10 PM | 5-20-2008

This is a really great and inspiring post.

After spending nearly a third of my life, practically the entire adult portion of it living through the disappointment of the Bush administration, religious zealotry, social bigotry and war I have a hard time believing Obama is much more then an excellent speaker working with a great writer. I echo the post of Nick L... I want to believe in him and I think if I was about 8 years younger I would be crazy for him. Honestly, after Bush was re-elected I had lost all hope in the process of federal government. Being a proclaimed anarchist (in theory) I don't believe that any government can truly be all that Obama is promising.

Looking back at the progressive steps society and culture has made it's clear, as Howard Zinn would agree, it's nearly always US, the citizens that make change happen. This is the one truth that continues to shed a beacon of light on my utter cynicism with the social landscape. I do have hope things will change, and soon. We are realizing that they need to. Being green is completely mainstream now, gay marriage in CA!, and the possibility of electing either a woman or african american president are all reflective of a sea change. It's clear the people are getting fed up.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

Sent by KM | 8:56 AM | 5-21-2008

I just saw Obama here in Bozeman, Montana, this week. Great orator, and he exudes a palpable aura that can only be described as Presisdential.

Out of curiosity, how was Eddie Vedder? I've been pleasantly surprised at how much I've enjoyed his solo work.

Sent by Joe | 1:19 PM | 5-21-2008

Wow, looks like quite a crowd, even for a rock star errr... potential Democratic presidential nominee.

Sorry, couldn't resist.

Sent by Brian A. | 1:33 PM | 5-21-2008

Covering a serious issue? I salute you.
Being there during the Hippie protest generation, I lived through a little activism. I felt at first that this generation was not one that fought back but tried to fit in. Now I'm changing my mind. I think that this generation is slow to change but is changing and becoming less zombie-esque. A new century ushers in many new things. It is not just politics that seem to be on the brink of change - its arts, lit, music, and every aspect of the arts. New times, require new arts.
Speaking of the war - see Neil Young's site for over 2,600 protest songs. Carrie why not talk about that. How can there be so many protest songs that no radio is playing? Doesn't that upset you?
http://www.neilyoung.com/lwwtoday/lwwsongspage.html
And finally remember, "Old soldiers never die, they send young ones to do that for them", Art S Revolutionary.

Sent by Tom Hendricks | 2:17 PM | 5-21-2008

A view of history disparate from Zinn's would be Michael 'Savage' Weiner's. A S.F. Chronicle blog relates: "Even Ted Kennedy's political enemies spoke kindly of him when they learned that he had a malignant brain tumor.

"But not conservative talk show host Michael Savage [Weiner]. As a form of "respect" to Kennedy on his syndicated talk show Tuesday, Savage [Weiner] played The Dead Kennedy's "California Uber Alles"...and he dropped in a couple of "Kindergarten Cop" sound clips of the Arnold Schwarzenegger character saying, "It's not a tumor."

While I enjoy punk chutzpah, and the thought put into his son Russ Weiner and a wife J. Weiner's
innocuous cash-cow project, 'Rockstar Energy [sic] Drink'; it seems that there's been a line crossed.

Sure, he's a shock jock, sure, he's poking fun at a powerful lifetime member of what Noam Chomsky calls the ruling class.

What kind of Ebola-Reston ending would be appropriate for this clown (Weiner)? His millionaire son in a blender? Hypothetically, of course. How can I be consoled by this thought and uplifted by the rest of CB's blog entry? Is that a conflict or a coincidence?

Sent by hispanola hystr | 5:55 AM | 5-22-2008

Your description of attending the "voices of people's history" event- having no expectations and being so truly and pleasantly surprised- reminds me of the first time I heard slam poetry. I didn't even know what it was, and suddenly I was experiencing the crazy beauty of Anis Mojgani and Buddy Wakefield. Ironically, Staceyann is an excellent slam poet herself.

Sent by Natalie in PDX | 9:55 PM | 5-23-2008

I had a hunch that Matt Damn was a smart with-it type guy and when I heard he grew up in Zinn's neighborhood and reads the audio version of the book, that notion was confirmed. Zinn's book should be on high school history reading lists. It's a life changer.

Sent by Gina V. | 9:44 PM | 5-24-2008

Dear Cindy,
I took issue with your report as I found it to be very judgmental, narrow minded, biased, and self-righteous.

I bet the people primarily there to engage in "frivolity" as you so eloquently put it, enjoyed the entire event as much as the next person - and didn't see it as a punishment, or a bribe, or an exchange, or a history lesson, or extra homework that was handed out as a sentence for a crime. Most would view this event, in addition to meeting someone as well and widely respected in variety of communities as Viggo Mortensen, as a bonus.

REQUIRING people to "sit through fiery speeches" or "watch 5 documentaries and read 2 novels" as PUNISHMENT for their frivolous entertainment (in your opinion) places those very activities you claim to promote in a negative light as they become punishments! I see it rather as an enticement -- not ONLY do you get the PRIVILLAGE to "sit through fiery speeches" or " watch 5 documentaries and read 2 novels", you also have the opportunity to meet someone who's work you respect.

And what is so criminal about enjoying entertainment, such as American Idol? If you don't like, don't watch it! I don't! But what gives you the right to demean and judge those who do? What happened to Honor Diversity and TOLERANCE?

May I suggest you temper your future reports with a little more kindness, tolerance for other people's values, and respect for your fellow Oregonian.

Sent by commonsense | 9:02 PM | 5-27-2008

Thanks for putting that up, I had never heard of Staceyann Chin before. WOW!!

Sent by Leah | 8:51 AM | 5-30-2008

Wow, I went to the Quasi concert and Obama rally too! The whole post was totally cool.

Sent by Amelia | 3:21 AM | 5-31-2008

To learn more about those people putting thier lives on the line to both fight in Iraq and resist it check out www.ivaw.org .

One member, Camillo Meija, is featured in the play.

Sent by Jen | 1:45 PM | 7-15-2008

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