Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

Actor’s death puts spotlight on addictions

February 10, 2014

I once interviewed a man named Harold Leventhal. Leventhal was a brilliant guy who managed the Weavers and, if the truth be told, was the single major force responsible for bringing Pete Seeger back into public life after he was blacklisted during the great Red Scare.

Leventhal told me that he had been approached by great musicians like Johnny Cash, asking him to manage their careers. He turned them down because of their drug addictions.

When a talented, sensitive actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman dies in his 40s with a syringe in his arm and an apartment full of drugs, do we feel badly for him? Do we ache for his family? Do we feel compassion and loss?

Everyone will have their own answer but for me, the answer is yes, I do. After all, addiction is an illness, a very cruel illness. Knowing all we do about heroin and the other drugs, it’s a wonder that anybody is foolish enough to go there in the first place.

But there are lots of reasons why people do self-destructive things. Sometimes it’s just plain arrogance. They think that they can beat the odds and it won’t happen to them. Some of these people start out just looking for thrills and by the time they realize they are addicts and need to turn things around, it’s too late. Sometimes they are running from something that is so troubling and painful they simply can’t face their lives with a clear head.

Think of all we know about the dangers of cigarettes: Smoking leads to lung cancer, heart disease, and everything else under the sun. Yet, cigarettes are readily available in stores all over our towns and villages. Heroin, of course, is against the law but cigarettes and alcohol are not.

So, when a friend or loved one dies of lung cancer, do we hate them for their addiction and for killing themselves? Because, let there be no mistake about it, they have indeed killed themselves.

Of course we don’t. We mourn them and grieve for them. We wish that there was something we could have done to help. We know that some of the brightest, most talented people in the world are, because of their psychological make-up, unable to resist the temptation of addictive substances. In many cases, they have everything to live for including their families and their work.

So what can we do? Arranged interventions sometimes help an addict recognize that they need help. Sometimes experts can help, people like Dr. Jennifer Michaels of the Brien Center in Pittsfield. Some folks have incredible success with 12-step programs and support groups that have been established to help addicts.

Many years ago when I was doing my Ph.D. in mental health politics, I was assigned to go out to a famous drug addiction rehab center in Staten Island. At the time, that institution believed that you had to start all over in life to ditch the addiction. I remember being horrified that some of these people were put in diapers and made to sit on stools wearing dunce caps.

We now have a major movement in this country to legalize marijuana. There are experts in the addiction field who will tell you that marijuana is a gateway drug to more dangerous narcotics. I am sure that with some people that is true. Did our famous actor start out with pot? How many other people have?

Yet there are many who never went beyond recreational use of marijuana. One might also make a connection between cigarette smoking and drug addiction or alcohol use.

It’s all pretty complicated. As the science advances we’ll probably find ways to make it easier to quit. All I know is that a brilliant actor has died. He knew he had a problem. He was battling it but in the end, it beat him. So sad.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 2/8/14

This is an opportunity to honor a great American

February 4, 2014

Pete Seeger has passed. I loved the man and truly respect all he did for our environment, particularly his work on the Hudson River. One day I sat with him in his two-room cabin in Beacon and watched the eagles fly over the Hudson. I saw the joy on his face as he responded to the beauty of nature. His goal was to be able to fish and swim in the once polluted cesspool of a river that has always been one of the most beautiful of America’s assets. Among all that Seeger did during his long, fruitful life, to me his contribution to the restoration of the Hudson stands out. His music extolling the Hudson, his commitment to teaching people about the river through his and his wife Toshi’s sponsorship of the Sloop Clearwater and all the environmental programs that it has generated leaves us in debt to the man. His legacy cannot be erased — he was a giant who left such a mark on all of us that there is no way we can repay him.

Years ago, it occurred to many people that naming the new Walkway Over the Hudson would be a fitting memorial to Pete. Many people loved the idea and came forward to endorse it. People from then-Governor Paterson’s office loved it; Maurice Hinchey, the then top environmental congressman in the nation who represented the district loved it; Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, whose district included the lower Hudson River loved it. Since the Legislature would have to get involved, all of that was a very good sign. We were ready to go.

Then one day, the phone rang in my office. It was one of Pete’s grandsons. He told me that Pete had gotten wind of the plan and didn’t want it to happen. That was typical Pete. He generally eschewed personal honors, though there were two that he accepted — playing at Barack Obama’s inauguration and accepting the Kennedy Center’s top honors. It was hard not to cry as I saw the man who had been hounded and nearly imprisoned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities reach the apex of the country. No matter how leftist his politics were, one should take into consideration that World War II would not have been won without the Soviets. At the time, Franklin Roosevelt had a very good relationship to Stalin.

I sure loved Pete who was far and away, with no exceptions, the best folksinger and most principled human beings this country will ever see. I got to know him quite well and did a series of six hour-long interviews with him that lay out this incredible man’s commitment to social justice. No matter what the risk, he was there — in Selma, Alabama, at the great marches on Washington, and out on his local roads protesting wars that were based on lies and false information.

Now some people want to name the new Tappan Zee Bridge for Pete. It would be a great honor but this massive highway bridge hardly respects the man the way that naming the Bridge Over the Hudson would do. Pete believed in keeping things local. Plus, rumors abound that the new Tappan Zee will have the Cuomo name attached to it. Self-serving politics will all too often trump everything else, including extraordinary people like one of the greatest men America has ever produced. We have bridges and tunnels named for politicians like Carey and Koch and RFK. This is a chance to honor one of the greatest of Americans for what he has done for all of us. Every time you run by the Hudson or drive over it or just think about it, think about Pete. Think about his work. Think about “We Shall Overcome” and get to work making this happen.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 2/3/14

There will never be another Pete

February 3, 2014

Pete Seeger is gone. I first met him at Buck’s Rock Work Camp when I was 14. He was standing on the big cement porch, surrounded by kids. After hearing him, nothing was the same. He was my lifelong hero. I had few others. I wasn’t alone — many of you first heard Pete at camp or school. That’s how he made his living during the time he was blacklisted.

I’d borrow The Weavers at Carnegie Hall and The Weavers on Tour from the Donnell Library and listen until I knew every song by heart. I learned how to play the banjo from Pete’s “How to Play the Five String Banjo” book. I literally dreamed about meeting my hero one day. Once as a college student, a famous critic wrote a lousy review of a Pete concert in the Times and I wrote a letter of complaint to the editor. I received a note from the writer but I blew my gut because they had not printed my letter.

As a teenager, I would write Pete letters and either he or his wonderful wife Toshi would always respond. When I worked as a music counselor at the Bronx House Camps in nearby Copake, I would sing Pete’s songs. I remember taking a day off to return to the Ocean Beach Fire Island Youth Group where I would play banjo with some friends for the kids there. One of them, Bobo Peck, told me of taking Pete out for a sail and telling him the story of how I had changed Pete’s song “Abiyoyo” and made up a whole different story. When I picked up my copy of Sing Out! Magazine I was astounded to find that Pete had written a whole column about how I had changed the song around. It truly didn’t get any better than that. He called it the “folk process” and while he didn’t know or use my name, it was me all right. Years later when I first met Pete I told him that he once wrote an article about me in Sing Out! and without hesitation he said, “You’re the guy.” I couldn’t believe it.

Naturally, I went to every Pete concert I could. They would put a little notice in the paper and a few days later every seat was gone.

WAMC’s “very fund drive” featured one Pete song after another. When things got slow we would play, “We Shall Overcome,” or “Bring Them Home.” And then we got really lucky. In 2002, we called Pete and he agreed to sit down to talk about his life. We offered that recording as a premium and the rest is history. By the time we were through, we had a series of six tapes that have brought tens of thousands of dollars into the station. He was so modest. When I told him, how much money had come into the station he couldn’t believe it. “All that money,” he said.

Maybe a year ago I had a call from Pete’s collaborator, Lorre Wyatt, who said, “Pete wants to do something for WAMC” and that led to one of his last concerts. It was the first time Pete had been back musically to Peekskill, N.Y., where he and Paul Robeson had been attacked as police looked on and did nothing.

Well into his 90s, Pete could be seen out on his land, chopping wood. One day Lorre Wyatt came into the station and handed me a log. “Pete told me to give you this,” said Lorre. I looked at the wood which is standing on a table in the middle of my office. On it is written, “To Alan and our extended WAMC family. Together we will keep the flame alive.” Pete signed it with his name and the little banjo he always signed with. I am grieving. There will never be another Pete.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 2/1/14

Will ‘purple’ voters buy into the two-cities philosophy?

January 28, 2014

You’d have to be lacking the usual senses not to see the fight unfolding between the Andrew Cuomo forces in New York and the followers of Mayor Bill de Blasio. Cuomo is a centrist who believes that New Yorkers pay too much in taxes and de Blasio is what we have come to call a “progressive” who appeals to the left of the party. Cuomo’s remarkable pollster, Andrew (Drew) Zambelli, says that people are unhappy about paying too much tax and thus are not going to be happy voters. As a result, Cuomo has become a passionate tax cutter. It’s good politics and it puts the governor in the center part of his party.

Despite denials, it’s obvious that Cuomo wants to follow his old boss, Bill Clinton, into the presidency. If he can demonstrate that he lowered people’s taxes and brought rejuvenation and relief to New York, he will appeal to all those citizens who believe that they are being strangled.

However, there is another group of Democrats. These are the Democratic leftists or progressives. The divide became clear during the recent mayoral election in New York. The “public advocate,” Bill de Blasio, emerged from the crowded Democratic field based on his philosophy that there was great inequity in America. He resorted to the old Mario Cuomo line that the senior Cuomo used so well, speaking eloquently of the “Two Cities on the Hill,” a reference to the inequity between the rich and the poor in New York. He called for universal pre-Kindergarten and made the point that if we want to give everyone a chance, pre-K is the way to go. Of course, Andrew Cuomo says he has always been for pre-K and the Speaker of the Assembly, Shelly Silver, has always made clear his commitment to the idea. But de Blasio pushed the concept and it resonated with the people to the point that he won the mayoral primary. It was his signature proposal. He made it his.

This is where it gets interesting. Centrist Cuomo was moving relatively slowly on the idea of pre-K. He now found himself looking over his shoulder at the progressive faction of his party and announced that while he was for universal pre-K, he opposed Bill de Blasio’s plan to raise taxes on New York City residents who earn more than five hundred thousand dollars a year in order to pay for it. This was dangerous to Andrew the tax cutter who is the ultimate chess player. He tried to head de Blasio off at the pass, saying in his State of the State message that the state will pay for pre-K and that it won’t be necessary to raise taxes on the rich. It would seem that de Blasio had won his pre-K but then de Blasio signaled “nope,” insisting that he wanted the pre-K program paid for by taxing the rich more. And here we have it, the centrist Cuomo versus the progressive de Blasio. Pre-de Blasio, New York City was run by Bloomberg and the centrists and the rich prevailed. Along comes Mayor Bill and the paradigm shifts. New Yorkers, mostly Democrats, say, “Enough is enough.” Suddenly everybody’s talking about de Blasio and progressives like Elizabeth Warren. This cannot be good news for Governor Andrew who risks getting outflanked on the left. It raises the question as to whether middle range voters (“purples”) will buy into the “two-cities” philosophy.

The New York Times chimed in, recommending that de Blasio take the deal. The teachers union says that the Cuomo offering is somewhat disingenuous because the governor would have to rob other parts of education to pay for the pre-K. De Blasio says that by raising taxes on the rich, there would be a dedicated revenue stream for funding pre-K in the future. De Blasio turns out to be one tough hombre and may be looking for something bigger in politics. That might just put him in direct competition with Andrew Cuomo as they fight for the soul of the Democratic Party.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 1/28/14

Getting past the impasse of politics

January 27, 2014

Laurie Norton Moffatt is the head of the Norman Rockwell Museum. Rockwell has long been a symbol of the American spirit and Moffatt herself has been honored at the White House under several different presidents. Visiting the museum, you will see pictures that will make you weep, from an American worker up on a telephone pole repairing the line to a little African American child being led into a newly integrated school by four behemoth U.S. Marshalls.

As part of her plan to honor Norman Rockwell and his vision, Laurie has developed a series of Thursday evening events based on Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms.” The program is designed to bring people together in honest civil discourse. Laurie is no slouch when it comes to moderating these events. If someone has taken too long to make a point, she stands up and they know it’s time to wrap it up

I was delighted to participate in last Thursday’s program, called “A Nation Divided: Getting Past the Impasse.” We discussed ” Š how to find common ground despite our differences.” It was a freezing night but a nice crowd came out to participate. The speakers were quite good. Jim Bronson, the head of the Berkshire County Republican Association, spoke passionately about the problems with big government. He spoke of people accepting personal responsibility and he talked about his problems with those who might categorize Republicans as uncaring. His responsibility, he said, was to family, church and neighbors. He recently brought Charlie Baker, the Republican candidate for governor, to Berkshire County for an hour long television show.

While I got my five minutes, I tried to keep it political science focused. I wanted people to know that there were a number of reasons why we had come to loggerheads on contemporary issues. I pointed out that by allowing political parties to draw gerrymandered districts, we were rewarding the misbehavior of people like the Texas Republicans who reconfigured districts so that only they could win. I spoke of the primaries in which the super-convinced in each party turned out in small enough numbers so that it was no surprise that the Tea Party had been victorious in some races. Okay, okay, so I somehow used the word “wackos” in my remarks and that got a few people upset, which was the exact opposite of what was supposed to happen in the evening.

Sheila Murray is the head of the Berkshire Brigades in the county. It’s funny, the whole evening was dedicated to bringing people of varying political persuasions together but when the Democratic Party uses the name “Brigades,” I get the image of people marching off to war under flags. That might unite the true believers but it is hardly the kind of thing that will make the “purple people” in the middle excited about voting for you. I tend to vote Democratic but I think it’s a mistake for a party to name itself a “brigade.” Anyway, Ms. Murray is a good, disarming speaker who laid out the objectives of an egalitarian society quite nicely. She seems quite sensible to me and tomorrow she’s bringing all the Democratic candidates for governor together at the ITAM Lodge. Sounds like a good show to see them duking it out.

Also on the panel was a distinguished professor type, James Arpante, from Berkshire Community College, who talked about the Constitution and made the point that if our students knew more about government and civics, we would be a whole lot better off. He was articulate and his words were echoed many times by members of the audience who believed that civic education was the way to go. The audience appeared to be equally divided between Democrats and Republicans and I don’t think anyone’s mind was changed, but in the end, everyone behaved. It was great to see Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech” at work.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 1/26/14

It’s always the cover up that gets these guys

January 21, 2014

The single sin that can knock a politician right out of the game is arrogance. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had it made in the shade. He had a very good chance of becoming the president of the United States. His voters loved him. He showed humility. Like so many of the rest of us, he was battling obesity. Against the backdrop of Hurricane Sandy, he gave the American people what they wanted — a politician who put the people first and politics way behind. He was sharply criticized by fellow Republicans for daring to hug Barack Obama, an act of political perfidy. But if the Republicans were to win the presidency, they would have to find a candidate who could appeal to the center and Christie was the man who could do it. The middle range (purple) voters loved the big man and Democrats deserted their party in huge numbers to vote for him. Yes, he would have had to run against Hillary Clinton, but the polls seemed to have them neck and neck in the race. The same polls showed that the other Republican right wing candidates couldn’t win.

Now arrogance has reared its ugly head and Team Christie got stupid, very stupid. They decided to punish Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, and his constituents by tying up traffic for up to four hours at a time, supposedly to get even with the mayor for his lack of political compliance. Apparently his sin was that the Democratic mayor wouldn’t endorse Christie. Even that seems nuts in retrospect since it is unclear that the Fort Lee guy was even approached about the endorsements.

Things went further south when two of Christie’s top people quit the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where the New Jersey governor gets to appoint the chairman. For most of us, that was the tipoff that the rumors about the get-even scheme were true. Are you kidding? Two of your top people quit their prestigious jobs and you don’t ask why? When Christie went before the microphones and said that he knew nothing, his words rang hollow. Now he’ll be investigated forever by the New Jersey Assembly as well as the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. If it turns out that he knew about the plan, he’s a fried fish. As we all know, it’s always the cover up that gets these guys.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is going full throttle because the mess that was caused on the Fort Lee side in New Jersey had major consequences on the New York side. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who always sees his opportunities and takes them, will seek changes in the power sharing arrangements in the running of the Port Authority. Cuomo made it clear in his recent State of the State message that New York should be running things at La Guardia Airport and JFK. Trust me on this, when Andrew gets a chance to take on someone like Christie with few consequences and much to gain, he will not let up on his choke hold.

There is a long time between now and the 2016 presidential election. Some people will forget this whole thing and trivialize it. But try to remember that after Dick Nixon lost to Pat Brown in the California gubernatorial election so long ago, he famously intoned the immortal words, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Of course, he went on to become president of the United States before he had to resign in disgrace. If one of his fired or resigned aides doesn’t throw Christie under the bus, he might have a chance at political resurrection. But if that same aide were to make a deal with a prosecutor for no jail time in return for implicating Christie, and if he really did know about the payback scheme, it is all over.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 1/21/14

Tightrope act: Safety vs. privacy

January 20, 2014

When the events of 9-11 occurred and the miscreants brought down the towers, the age of innocence was certainly over. America had come to a new place. It was then that each president decided that if it happened again, it would be on their watch, and they would get the blame. In fact, you might think the same thing if you were president.

So, all kinds of protections were put in place. Something called the Patriot Act was passed, complete with a secret court with secret judges, reminiscent of the star chambers of old. In fact, if you consult your Constitution there is a line in the Bill of Rights that reads, “The accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial.”

To my mind, secret courts with secret judges are a violation of the public part of that sentence. That wasn’t all, apparently. A whole bunch of other things were happening that were meant to protect us. The problem was that we had no idea what they were. Some, it could be argued, did not protect us but potentially hurt us.

Anyway, along came an obscure man named Edward Snowden who said that he was shocked to see what was happening to American civil liberties and he blew the whistle based on information he had access to. Right now there are those in this country who think that the guy is a hero and others who believe he is a traitor.

As for me, I tend to fall into the first group because I have always taught my students that you can’t have a democracy in which citizens vote and opine their views unless those same citizens know what is going on. I know one thing: if Snowden had not blown the whistle we would not be having this debate right now. In fact, upon release of the information, people were shocked.

We all know that based on the Snowden revelations, it turns out our phone data were being collected by the National Security Administration (NSA). Added to the TV surveillance cameras that are everywhere, the idea that our freedoms of association and privacy are being violated has really taken hold among vast numbers of Americans.

However, when asked if security and freedom from the bad people beats out our privacy concerns, people still want to be protected from dirty bombs, poison gas and be assured of the security of their drinking water. When it comes to worrying about Big Brother watching them, a number of people believe that, “Hey, I didn’t do anything wrong so I don’t care.”

Along comes the president and gives a major address and makes it clear that he understands all that Americans are feeling, and he pointed out that the FBI had his hero Martin Luther King under surveillance. That was a very important point because we all know that even if the president is right and the people at the NSA are just like us, how long can it be before another J. Edgar Hoover, or Dick Nixon comes along and decides that he’d like to know what Alan Chartock is up to because I wrote something that he didn’t like?

In fact, it’s high time that I finally get off my duff and ask the FBI for my file. Yes, I will guarantee that while the people who are in possession of this information may be Boy Scouts, inevitably someone will come along who will act more like Vladimir Putin or the present Chinese leadership than said Boy Scouts.

This puts President Obama in a really bad place. If something bad happens, he’ll get blamed for it. I refer you to the killing of the ambassador in Benghazi. On the other hand he has to understand that alot of us are afraid of the potential misuse of Big Brother’s information trove. So he cuts the baby in half, moves some people around and it looks like he’s creating yet another agency to take possession of our information. Do you really think that will protect us? I’d hate to be president.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 1/20/14

It’s always the cover up that gets these guys

January 14, 2014

The single sin that can knock a politician right out of the game is arrogance. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had it made in the shade. He had a very good chance of becoming the president of the United States. His voters loved him. He showed humility. Like so many of the rest of us, he was battling obesity. Against the backdrop of Hurricane Sandy, he gave the American people what they wanted — a politician who put the people first and politics way behind. He was sharply criticized by fellow Republicans for daring to hug Barack Obama, an act of political perfidy. But if the Republicans were to win the presidency, they would have to find a candidate who could appeal to the center and Christie was the man who could do it. The middle range (purple) voters loved the big man and Democrats deserted their party in huge numbers to vote for him. Yes, he would have had to run against Hillary Clinton, but the polls seemed to have them neck and neck in the race. The same polls showed that the other Republican right wing candidates couldn’t win.

Now arrogance has reared its ugly head and Team Christie got stupid, very stupid. They decided to punish Mark Sokolich, the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, and his constituents by tying up traffic for up to four hours at a time, supposedly to get even with the mayor for his lack of political compliance. Apparently his sin was that the Democratic mayor wouldn’t endorse Christie. Even that seems nuts in retrospect since it is unclear that the Fort Lee guy was even approached about the endorsements.

Things went further south when two of Christie’s top people quit the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, where the New Jersey governor gets to appoint the chairman. For most of us, that was the tipoff that the rumors about the get-even scheme were true. Are you kidding? Two of your top people quit their prestigious jobs and you don’t ask why? When Christie went before the microphones and said that he knew nothing, his words rang hollow. Now he’ll be investigated forever by the New Jersey Assembly as well as the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. If it turns out that he knew about the plan, he’s a fried fish. As we all know, it’s always the cover up that gets these guys.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is going full throttle because the mess that was caused on the Fort Lee side in New Jersey had major consequences on the New York side. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who always sees his opportunities and takes them, will seek changes in the power sharing arrangements in the running of the Port Authority. Cuomo made it clear in his recent State of the State message that New York should be running things at La Guardia Airport and JFK. Trust me on this, when Andrew gets a chance to take on someone like Christie with few consequences and much to gain, he will not let up on his choke hold.

There is a long time between now and the 2016 presidential election. Some people will forget this whole thing and trivialize it. But try to remember that after Dick Nixon lost to Pat Brown in the California gubernatorial election so long ago, he famously intoned the immortal words, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Of course, he went on to become president of the United States before he had to resign in disgrace. If one of his fired or resigned aides doesn’t throw Christie under the bus, he might have a chance at political resurrection. But if that same aide were to make a deal with a prosecutor for no jail time in return for implicating Christie, and if he really did know about the payback scheme, it is all over.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 1/14/14

Cuomo will find the money for de Blasio’s pre-K plan

January 7, 2014

Don’t let anyone tell you that New York City and New York state are not absolutely interdependent. Half the population and most of the money are located in the Big Apple. That puts upstaters at a clear political disadvantage. Andrew Cuomo knows that he needs those upstate votes, and as a canny political tactician, he spends a lot of time upstate. It also explains in part why upstate used to vote Republican but is becoming increasingly bluer (Democratic).

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My list of political things that just ain’t right

January 6, 2014

It ain’t right. I know that our English teachers do not approve of the word “ain’t” but I love it. It adds emphasis to whatever we are trying to say. It makes people sit up and take notice. How long can it be before the word is an accepted part of the language? The dictionary is filled with words that were once verboten but are now accepted. To that end, I give you a few examples of things that “just ain’t right” in our politics.

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