Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Considering a move

Folks, I'm considering moving my blog to tumblr. I haven't made the final decision yet. I want to try out tumblr a bit first. But in preparation for that, I've started a review of some of the information I've posted here in the past 3 years, regarding The Senator. I'll do that for a while, then make the decision as to whether tumblr is working better for me. Here's my tumblr blog.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Baltimore's Senator Theatre: Then and Now

I recently helped Friends of The Senator (FOTS) compile this YouTube video, documenting The Senator's appearance before and after Baltimore City forced a change in ownership and management:

The video is a companion to the FOTS petition, encouraging the new operators to maintain the theatre's exterior neon and incandescent lighting, the landscaping, and remove accumulated graffiti. The petition was started about a month ago and has garnered over 600 signatures, mostly from the Baltimore area, but also from across the nation and around the world. Hundreds of comments left by signers often go far beyond the petition's modest request for exterior maintenance.

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Sunday, December 04, 2011

William E. "Bill" Hewitt, 1936-2011

On Monday, November 21st, the world lost the great William E. "Bill" Hewitt, The Senator Theatre's film projection artist, manager, technical and film expert, and the man behind the curtain at The Senator for almost 30 years. I am overdue in writing about Bill, because I couldn't figure out how to convey the importance of a man who had touched so many lives over the years, while saying so little, and being hidden from most people's view.

Bill Hewitt, the tall older man in the middle, surrounded by Friends of The Senator volunteers and his beloved grand-dogs, Natty Boh and Nipper.

Friday night was Bill's memorial service. As I sat and listened to the reminiscences of so many people who had known, loved, and respected Bill, it was clear that he had been one of a rare breed of people who truly understand the fine art of film presentation done to perfection, in all of its nuances. He was the best of the best. The world has lost something extraordinary.

This morning, I was thinking about my first film experience at The Senator, when I had first moved here. I went to see "The Illusionist," a film starring Baltimore's native son Edward Norton. I had never heard anything about this film before I saw it at The Senator. I went to the film because it was at The Senator, and I was buying a house right down the street.

The experience of seeing "The Illusionist" at The Senator was one of those transcendent film experiences that hardly ever happens: when I walked out of the theatre, I felt disoriented because I had been so drawn into the world of the film, that I was momentarily unsure if I was back in the world of reality. I had been transported through a portal into another world.

As I thought about that experience this morning, it hit me: that film is very good, but the illusion of "The Illusionist" had been made complete only because of the subtle skills of The Senator's "illusionist," Bill Hewitt.

It was due to sleight of hand trickery that you don't notice at the time: the way the projector starts just before the curtain opens even a tiny crack, the way the curtain opens, the way the print is illuminated, having been inspected, inch by inch, for any flaws, before it was even put on the screen. I'm sure there are other arcane details of perfect film presentation that I can only imagine. As it turns out, the particular print of "The Illusionist" was a special one too: an especially fine print that Bill had raved about. Bill was a connoisseur.

Bill left The Senator in June 2011. At first I thought that it was quite symbolic that only a day or two or a week after Bill had left the building, the Sun's highly respected film reviewer, Michael Sragow, went to see a film at The Senator (I believe it was "Super 8," but I can't find Sragow's blog post now), and wrote about how the lights had gone on in the auditorium during the middle of the show, and the film had broken. Bill had left the building, and things had fallen apart almost instantaneously. At first I thought it was symbolic, but then I realized - it wasn't symbolic; it was inevitable.

The world has lost a great light.

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occupy the Future

Word on the street is that the Occupy Baltimore protesters are going to be IMMINENTLY routed from McKeldin Square. A couple of days? A week? Maybe two? Nobody knows, but the Mayor is rumored to be getting fed up with the occupation, and I’m sure that the Occupy protesters calling attention to the man behind the curtain, M.J. Brodie at the real City Hall, down on Charles Street (BDC), did not endear them to the city’s power structure.

Other cities have already ejected their occupations. Baltimore has employed an outwardly tolerant approach, but in reality, it’s almost certainly because our local occupation has been so ineffectual and silly that the politicians are laughing at the protesters behind the scenes. If they were a threat, they would be gone by now, and their lame applause at the BDC event probably reassured Mr. Brodie that they were no such thing. Still, even acknowledging that the man behind the curtain exists is itself a threat.

Me, I gave up on the local occupation a couple of weeks ago, after they were snowed by Brodie’s bullshit and actually applauded the little monster.

Revo, who was more enthusiastic about the Occupy movement from the beginning, only gave up hope last night, after attending the G.A. and realizing that in the face of imminent disaster for the camp at McKeldin Square, they were discussing bumper stickers and their triumphant glee over their YouTube hits for a video showing them acting like noisy children during Karl Rove’s recent talk at Hopkins. At the G.A. last night, the imminent eviction from McKeldin Square was apparently never discussed.

I’ll continue going to some marches. Most of the marches are actually organized by the unions, anyway, so they’re somewhat effective. The unions know how to organize.

I’ll continue to support the national Occupy movement too, as long as it stays focused on economic demands. I would like it to get more specific about those. Some of the reforms I would like to see:

A constitutional amendment clarifying that a corporation is not a person.

A constitutional amendment clarifying that money is not speech.

I happen to believe that the founding fathers never intended for corporations to be people or for money to be speech, because they probably had a dictionary, and they probably understood what the meaning of “is” is. Some federal judges need these things spelled out, though. Next we’ll have to be telling them that war is not peace and thought is not a crime.

The above two amendments to the constitution would, if enacted and enforced, go a long way toward reforming the system. They would clarify that the rights of the people supersede the rights of corporations, and that the right of individuals to free speech supsersedes the right of corporations to drown out their speech with money that speaks louder than words.

Others in the movement have also come up with very good ideas for reform. The original Occupy Wall Street group came up with this statement of purpose, which notes some specific problems that need to be addressed. One of the working groups of the New York protest has come up with the 99% Declaration. It contains a list of suggested reforms, which the group hopes to have representatives from all over the country vote on in a national convention on July 4, 2012 in Philadelphia. I agree with the ideas expressed therein, some more than others, but I certainly agree that all of these issues deserve to be part of the national debate.

Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine has been investigating the corruption on Wall Street since long before the Occupy movement began. His advice to Occupy Wall Street contains a specific list of reforms to the financial industry that would “hit bankers where it hurts” and would help return our government to serving the people. I particularly like the one where a tax on all trades would make the financial industry pay for its own bailouts, and return our tax money to us.

I think between these documents listed above, there is a useful start to getting our country back.

The Occupy movement, and the local occupation in particular, have also discussed some ideas that I consider really silly. Chief among them is this “consensus democracy” model that consists of endless discussion, open balloting via wiggly fingers (snap, twinkle, pop!), and where decisions are only made when a clique of people who all agree with each other manages to shout down or intimidate all other participants. It doesn’t work among 20 people. How is it going to work nationwide?

The worst aspects to the “consensus democracy” model being used in the Occupy movement are the lack of secret ballots, which means that individuals are easily intimidated by self-appointed leaders into going along with whatever the mob decrees, and also the fact that, since decisions effectively only seem to happen when some individual or group manages to dominate everyone else, there is real danger, if this ever became the national model, of it leading to dictatorship and authoritarian rule, complete with slaughter of dissidents.

The local occupation has already been shouting down anyone they don’t agree with. In their Google group, when Revo started speaking up, they couldn’t handle even one dissident. How would they tolerate real democracy, if they ever got into power? The answer is, they wouldn’t.

Give me the U.S. Constitution any day, folks. Its three branch system with its checks and balances and its bill of rights have been emulated the world over. That’s because, until the system gets badly corrupted, as it is now, it works about as well as you can expect a system that governs millions of people to work.

Occupy the Constitution. Occupy Wall Street. Occupy our Government. Occupy the Future.

Previous posts in my series on Occupy Baltimore:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Unions to the Rescue, at Least Temporarily

In previous parts of my series on Occupy Baltimore, I mentioned the open Occupy Baltimore Google Group. Anyone with an email can sign up, but the majority of the posts on there are by the group I’ve been calling the Callow Clique (who are not down at McKeldin Square most of the time, except for during the nightly G.A., but are posting on the Google group). If you want to see some real dysfunction, sign up and check it out.

Continuing my series, where I’m still struggling to catch up to the present day at Occupy Baltimore, we go back to late October...

Participation was dwindling. The city was making noises about evicting the occupation from the square, and had given the protesters a deadline to agree to a stringent set of rules for use of the space. Just as the wolves of FAIL seemed certain to overcome OB, a group of union leaders, under the banner of the AFL-CIO, came to the rescue.

The October 26th AFL-CIO letter to the Mayor was just in time, urging the City to let the protesters remain in the square. In their letter, the union leaders wisely reframed the OB protest, casting it as being in alignment with the economic concerns of the national Occupy movement, instead of the tangential concerns it had actually focused on to that date.

“The Occupy Baltimore protests have given expression to a widely shared belief that our economy and our politics are controlled by corporate interests to the detriment of the overwhelming majority of working people...”
Well, no, up to that point in time, Occupy Baltimore had conspicuously failed to articulate any such thing, but the national movement had, and the Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York had succeeded in releasing this impressive statement of purpose. The local union leaders were wise to assume the local occupation was in solidarity with the national movement, in spite of the local failure to coalesce into anything useful.

A big thank you to the Unions for saving the local occupation’s collective butt, at least temporarily.

After the union letter, the local occupation did gain a measure of focus on local and national economic issues. (Whether or not this was due to private pressure from union leaders, I can only speculate.) In any case, the focus shifted quickly to living wage jobs, demands for economic development that benefits the local population, the city’s suit against Wells Fargo for predatory lending practices targeted at minorities, and direct action protests at the banks and the Baltimore Development Corporation.

I’m pleased to say that the committee that was working on a protest against the Baltimore Development Corporation did, after much delay, come up with an open letter to the BDC that’s more or less on point. While it’s true that they dismissed voices of experience that would have advised them to take a more demanding stance, instead opting to naively assume the BDC can be negotiated with, it wasn’t bad for a first round that would seem reasonable to the general public. If they would succeed in avoiding being placated by insincere promises of change and diplomatic liars telling them what they want to hear, they could then move on later to a more realistic assessment of the tyranny and corruption they’re actually dealing with.

But then, at the actual meeting with the BDC on November 7th, Brodie smoothly delivered a bunch of smiling diplomatic PC bullshit, and the majority of the protesters ended up giving him enthusiastic applause. Some revolutionaries!

The signs wielded by some protesters, which called the BDC “Baltimore’s Dysfunctional Cabal” and “Baltimore Demolition Corporation,” were the most confrontational part of the protest, but they were designed by Revo and me.

Brodie acted all nicey nice, promised future meetings that probably won’t materialize, and then in all likelihood got on the phone immediately after the meeting and told the Mayor to get rid of these people.

Getting rid of these people is now rumored to be in the works, according to some credible scuttlebutt we heard shortly after the BDC meeting. But instead of resorting to force, Baltimore City is apparently relying on the coming cold weather and the attrition that the protesters themselves have engendered.

The day after the BDC meeting, the Baltimore Quaker Peace and Justice Comittee, a committee of Stony Run Friends Meeting, Homewood Friends Meeting, and Old Town Friends Fellowship, also lent their support to Occupy Baltimore with an official statement of support. Much like the union leaders, the Friends nicely articulated an economic focus that OB itself had largely failed to articulate, with a pithy quote from William Penn, followed by their own short statement.

"That the sweat and tedious labor of the farmer, early and late, cold and hot, wet and dry, should be converted into the pleasure of a small number of men --- that continued severity should be laid on 19 parts of the land to feed the inordinate lusts and delicate appetites of the 20th, is so far from the will of the great Governor of the world, [it] is wretched and blasphemous."
William Penn, 1669

“The Baltimore Quaker Peace and Justice Committee supports the nonviolent protests against economic injustice that have spread from Wall Street to hundreds of locations across the country. The Occupy protestors’ commitment to nonviolence, inclusion, and consensus decision-making are our Quaker principles in action. We will support Occupy Baltimore by gathering donations and in witness to their efforts to draw attention to the injustices in our society which perpetuate excessive disparities in income and political influence.”

To date, however, the Callow Clique continues to dominate OB, continues mostly to divert its focus from economic issues, and continues to shout down anyone they disagree with, especially if that person is over 40. (Revo was told “This isn’t your revolution, grandpa. Take your walker and go home.”)

At the meeting on the steps of the BDC, Revo and I witnessed as one of the main “stars” of the Callow Clique accosted an older man (who happened to be one of a very few African Americans at the protest), accusing him of being a provocateur. After the meeting, Revo and I spoke with the man who had been accosted. He turned out to be Mitchell Ferguson, a playwright, actor, and acting coach who’s a co-founder of Nommo Theatre, who told us that this young group of activists from Red Emma’s doesn’t even realize that he himself has been invited, as a guest of Red Emma’s in the past, to give presentations there.

According to messages on the Google group, a person described as “Iranian Human Rights Activist” Saeed Salehinia recently showed up at a reading group meeting, started to articulate a point of view that was critical of anarchists, and was also shouted down by the same person that we witnessed shouting down Mitchell Ferguson. Although some in the group want to invite Salehinia to speak at a G.A., there is concern among the Callow Clique that he does not represent their point of view and will therefore be “divisive.”

That same person who did the shouting down in both of those cases, a revered figure in the Callow Clique, had, after an early confrontation with Revo over the music issue, walked up to Revo and shouted, in a voice that was meant to be menacing, "I know your legal history." (Revo's "legal history" consists of a false accusation, made for political purposes, that did not result in a conviction.)

Based on this person's initiative, the clique has also discussed researching the legal histories of anyone who wants to sleep in the communal tents, in spite of the real concerns, expressed by others in the group, that the legal system is inequitable, and statistics showing that the national rate of incarceration for African Americans is seven times the incarceration rate for whites. (Statistic: Open Society Institute)

Last night, a group from OB, led by the Callow Clique, went to a public talk by Karl Rove at Johns Hopkins University, and instead of attempting to engage in constructive critical dialogue, shouted him down and disrupted the event. While I agree that Karl Rove is a jerk, the vast majority of the audience had come to hear what he had to say, as an influential figure in American politics. The shout-down was simply counterproductive.

Occupy Baltimore does not employ a consensus democracy model at all. They employ mob rule, shouting down anyone the clique disagrees with. As I described it in an email to one member of the clique,

“One problem I see with OB's ‘consensus’ model is that the initial group that formed OB seems to have come from a revolutionary, fairly radical motivation, and therefore when individuals who might have more modest goals come in and try to influence the ‘consensus,’ since the ‘consensus’ is already coming from a more radical place, those individuals tend to be shouted down. They then leave, and the local movement does not grow, because people who are more mainstream in their orientation are being turned off - one by one, before any potential ‘consensus’ of these more mainstream views can ever grow.”

Occupy Baltimore's nightly General Assembly has turned into the OB kids table, with most adult protesters refusing to participate.

Time for Occupy Baltimore for grownups?

Previous posts in the series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

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