Archive for the ‘BOOKS/ART/CULTURE’ Category

“Hamilton”

Finally, we got to see that hit about our history,

And all the men who, bold, told old King George

We’re out to set our nation free.

We’d seen the news, the interviews, and heard the tunes.

Now our views are: this show’s great and one to celebrate.

We had great fun at “Hamilton.”

 

We didn’t waste our shot. No, we didn’t waste our shot.

‘Cause what we got

Was song and dance within a riveting plot.

 

And, we took a backstage tour.

Repeat, we took a backstage tour.

At “Hamilton,” we know someone

Who made it even more fun.

What’s more, we stood there on the stage

The very place where George-Three raged

While Hamilton talked revolution

And the solution to building a nation

For all. Big and small.

That’s one tall order,

Keeping it real from border to border.

Oh yes, we had a backstage tour.

Ooooh. Ooooh.

 

And ooooh, we met some of the cast,

Young people from all those backgrounds,

Producing all those sweet sounds,

Representing every branch of our family tree:

You and you and you and me.

Reminding us we are family because our colors

Blend into one red, white and blue humanity.

 

We didn’t waste our shot.

No, we didn’t waste our shot.

I thought about my family tree,

A shout out to my grandparents

Sailing into New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty

Welcoming them to the land of the free.

Nothing guaranteed but the will to succeed.

 

After more than a century,

I hold on to the memory and like to think how

Lady Liberty, her torch raised high,

Her eye on all those immigrants,

Welcomes my father Morris—Moishe still—and shy of three.

She sings, her silent voice so resonant

(Born in Poland he can’t be president

But what counts is what he can be):

“Know what you’ve got here, boy. A shot here, boy.

And listen now to what I say:

Let no one take your shot away.

Big shots with small minds seeking any lame excuse

To cut our Constitution loose

And trample on the glory of those who made us great.

Don’t let them be the ones to tell your story.”

 

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s right.

We all have rights. It’s worth the fight

For freedom.

Staying silent would be dumb. We’re all Americans,

Building our nation, reinforcing its foundation,

Seeking to rise up, rise up beyond our station.

Immigrants like Sam and Kayleh, Lyon and Minnie

Came for opportunity.

Not just for them but everyone,

Away from fear and squalor, hollering for just one thing:

Their shot.

Which they got.

 

So, let’s remember sun to sun,

There something more in store than fun

When the lights go on and voices rise.

You better bet we owe a debt to

Alexander Hamilton.

 

The post will take two weeks off and resume on Friday, May 19. Meanwhile, check out the first two chapters of The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht on this website.

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LET THE BOOK BURNING BEGIN

Political correctness recently broke out in Brisbane, Australia. Officials at a writers festival were so upset with novelist and keynote Lionel Shriver (The Mandibles), “they censored her on the festival website and publicly disavowed her remarks,” according to the New York Times. What horrific things did she say?

“Ms. Shriver criticized as runaway political correctness efforts to ban references to ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation from Halloween celebrations, or to prevent artists from drawing on ethnic sources for their work.” (“Lionel Shriver’s Address on Cultural Appropriation Roils a Writers Festival,” Rod Nordlund, 9-12-16). Re artists, some people believe that white authors should not create non-white characters. Ms. Shriver disagrees. “She deplored critics of authors like Chris Cleave, an Englishman, for presuming to write from the point of view of a Nigerian girl in his best-selling book ‘Little Bee.’”

Right on, Lionel! Like Incendiary, Cleave’s first novel, Little Bee is fabulous. Little Bee, the Nigerian girl who Cleave created, exhibits biting humor and remarkable courage. She offers a different perspective on England—one well worth examining. Oh, and Cleave creates sympathetic white Britons, as well—women as well as men.

Political correctness seems to demand that authors, playwrights and screenwriters create segregated worlds. Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn) and William Styron (The Confessions of Nat Turner) would be long forgotten. But all writers would pay the price. The Good Lord Bird by African-American James McBride would have its wings clipped since the white abolitionist John Brown plays a prominent role. Sherman Alexi, the Native American writer, would have to eliminate whites though they’re integral to his novels and stories.

Amy Tan? Imprisoned in Chinatown and the Middle Kingdom. Englishman Tom Rob Smith’s magnificent Child 44 set in Russia? Nyet! The late Bernard Malamud’s stories set in Italy with a Jewish protagonist and all those Italians? Bury the Italians. I’m sure I can find enough people to say Kaddish.

The foolishness never ends. Jewish Steven Spielberg directed the film version of The Color Purple with a screenplay by the Dutch-born Menno Meyjes. Scandalous! The Broadway smash Hamilton features minority actors playing America’s white founding fathers and mothers—and rapping. Man (and woman) the barricades! Then there’s earthling George Lucas creating all those aliens in Star Wars. Talk about intergalactic cultural insensitivity!

Let’s get real. Writers tell stories by drawing on their experiences with people of all ethnicities. They observe. They do research. And they imagine. Good writers create characters of any ethnicity who reveal human nature at its best and worst.

I don’t restrict my characters to Jews. Specifically, Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews. Specifically, men. Specifically, old men. In Flight of the Spumonis, the street kid Jimmy Q represents four different ethnicities, one of them Jewish. Do I get a pass? The private eye Moonbeam Cherney is a woman but Jewish. Cut me some slack? In my newest novel, the powerful executive director of a major museum, the holder of law and MBA degrees, is Black. Have I crossed a forbidden boundary?

Sure, we could purge our libraries, bookstores, Amazon and homes of all books guilty of cultural appropriation. But then we’d appropriate the cultures of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China and much of the Middle East. And our shelves would be bare.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And read a good book—whoever the author is and whatever ethnicity the characters. It’s a human thing.

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TORN BETWEEN WORLDS

The Hebrew word shalom means “hello,” “goodbye” and “peace.” It comes from shalem, which means wholeness. When we feel whole, we experience shalom—peace. When we don’t, our inner conflicts can have grave consequences for ourselves and those around us. This theme ran through the four movies Carolyn and I recently saw at the Jewish Film Festival in San Francisco.

A Tale of Love and Darkness by the Israeli-born American actress Natalie Portman is based on the autobiographical novel by Amos Oz (nee Klausner; Oz means strength in Hebrew). Oz’s parents came separately to Israel from Eastern Europe in the 1930s and met in Jerusalem. His mother, well educated and from a once-wealthy family, could not cope with the challenging life in Israel before and after independence. She became increasingly depressed and committed suicide. Interestingly, Jerusalem is equated with the biblical city of Shalem along with the Canaanite priest Melchizedek—about whom I write in God’s Others—mentioned in Genesis 14:18. In 1967, Jerusalem was reunited by the Israeli military. Yet it remains culturally divided between West (Jews) and East (Arabs).

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You focuses on the hit TV shows Lear created from the the late 1960s through the ‘80s. The controversial but highly rated “All in the Family” featured Carroll O’Connor as the right-wing, irascible Archie Bunker and Jean Stapleton as his beleaguered but loving wife Edith. Hunkered down in his Queens home, Archie resists the whirlwind of social and cultural changes in America. He feels lost in a time warp, hence the title music “Those Were the Days” with its brilliant line, “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.” Which we could not. Yes, Archie is a racist and a misogynist. Still, there’s something lovable about him because he cannot conceal his basic humanity.

The Writer is an Israeli TV series created by Sayed Kashua. Its protagonist Kateb (Yousef Sweid) mirrors Sayed as the creator of the actual Israeli hit show Arab Labor. Kateb reveals Sayed’s feeling of dislocation—an Israeli Arab sympathetic to the Palestinians but a thoroughly modern resident of Jewish West Jerusalem. Ultimately, Kateb takes a teaching position in the United States. Kashua has been at the University of Illinois for two years and is applying for his green card.

For the Love of Spock tracks the development of the character Dr. Spock in the famed “Star Trek” TV series and movies. It also profiles Leonard Nimoy, the actor who brought Spock to life. Spock—whose famed hand salute is the sign of the priestly blessing given by descendants of the kohanim (priests) during Yom Kippur and observed by the young Nimoy in his Boston synagogue—is half-Vulcan, half-human. Spock’s cold logic typifies his Vulcan self, but echoing Archie Bunker, he periodically reveals his human emotions. Nimoy himself suffered a dichotomy. Most Trekkies saw him only as Spock and didn’t know about his other acting work or concede that Nimoy was a person in his own right.

The Jewish Film Festival runs through this weekend in San Rafael and Berkeley. It’s worth attending. It’s also worth looking at any of the films through the lens of human beings torn between worlds. To a great extent, this represents the human condition—as does the search for shalem.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And if you’re looking for someone with dueling personalities, check YouTube for my 2013 stand-up routine at San Francisco’s Purple Onion.

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SERIOUSLY FUNNY

Last Friday, I invited readers and Facebook friends to You Tube to see the stand-up comedy act I performed in 2013 at San Francisco’s Purple Onion as research for my novel The Boy Walker. I spent many hours writing that nine-minute set. Was it because I was a neophyte? Jill Maragos, a professional funny woman, confirms the axiom that it’s harder to make people laugh than cry.

Jill developed her sense of humor to survive growing up with a crazy family in Buffalo, New York. Also, she holds degrees in broadcast journalism and mechanical engineering. The progression to stand-up was natural and inevitable.

Four years ago, Jill was working on an acting career in Los Angeles. To better understand sit-coms, she took a stand-up course. She discovered she could write humor. Since she was a performer, Jill started doing open mics. Then she got gigs—most without pay. Her first experience hooked her. “I couldn’t shake the adrenalin rush from making people laugh.” She equates audience response to unconditional love. At the end of 2015, her husband Matt was offered a job in the Bay Area. Most of Jill’s best-paying gigs were up in the Pacific Northwest, and travel there from the Bay Area is as easy as from L.A. They moved north. Jill’s career headed north, too.

Like most stand-ups, Jill creates material by looking into herself. Pet peeves offer one reliable topic. Does she write eight hours a day? “My writing goes in spurts,” she says. She spends about 15 hours a month actually at her laptop. But writers are always working. “I gather a lot of material just walking around.” She takes notes in her joke book, a notebook she brings everywhere. “I try some of the jokes on friends.” Matt hears all of her material and offers advice. Some, she takes.

In addition to developing new bits, Jill constantly enhances her current routine. “I’m really particular about jokes,” she says. “I tend to overwrite.” She may spend hours on a bit to end up with a few minutes she believes will work. She experiments with new material at open mics. Jill’s also merciless. “I’ll toss out a good joke for a better one.” Her goal: always have on hand 45 minutes of top-notch material.

Probably the bane of all stand-ups is going on the road. Jill describes it as “like solitary confinement with half an hour like a surprise party at the end of the day with everyone you’ve ever loved and known. Then you drive someplace else or go home.” Still, she hits the road with enthusiasm. Those are paying audiences out there. In the next few years, she’d love to open for a headliner on tour. She reveals her approach to making that work: “My material is dirty enough for me to be interested in using it but not so much I’d conflict with the headliner.”

Some people wonder how Jill can devote her life to stand-up. “How could I not?” she responds. That’s why she’ll appear in San Francisco tonight (July 8) at the Hell Hat Improv Comedy Show and Friday night, July 15, at the Underdog Wine Bar in Livermore. Friday to Sunday, August 12–14, Jill will appear in Laughlin, Nevada at the Edgewater Casino & Hotel. Whatever happens at the tables, Jill’s show will be a sure winner.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And get more on Jill at jillmaragos.com.

The blog will take off July 15 and return July 22.

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GAME OF THRONES, TEL AVIV AND ORLANDO

Recently on HBO’s Game of Thrones, Jaime Lannister (the Kingslayer) sought to capture Riverrun, a castle commanded by Brynden Tully (the Blackfish). Sir Jaime headed a large force, but Riverrun boasted a deep moat and high walls making a head-on attack foolhardy. What to do?

Sir Jaime laid siege, a tactic as old as warfare. Alas, the Blackfish had accumulated two years of food. Sir Jaime could have launched large rocks to chip away at Riverrun’s walls, but that would take time he didn’t have. Or he could have launched flaming arrows and burning objects, ultimately destroying Riverrun. He’d end up with a ruin.

I think of Riverrun’s walls in regard to the recent murders of four Israelis in Tel Aviv. Last September, a number of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs began waging the Knife Intifada augmented by shootings, as in Tel Aviv, and vehicles. Tel Aviv is an open city and thus vulnerable. But Tel Avivis refuse to bow to fear. Of course, parts of Israel are walled off from the West Bank. I’ve been there. Those walls, along with checkpoints, have reduced attacks against Israel. Still, the Knife Intifada points out their limits. Only a meaningful peace agreement will offer protection from violence. That’s not imminent. Both sides seek to dictate the terms of a two-state solution. Peace requires their coming together, not standing apart.

The Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, has walls. They can keep out heat and cold, rain and wind but not hatred. The ISIS-inspired gunman who murdered 49 innocent people and wounded 53 last Saturday night might have been kept out of the United States if higher walls were built around our immigration policy as well as our borders. But the murderer was born in New York City long predating the Islamic State and even 9/11. The battle against Islamist extremism (President Obama won’t say it; I will) will be long, difficult and bloody. Nonetheless, we will not protect America by destroying its cherished values.

What then of Sir Jaime and Riverrun? Faced with those high, thick walls, he developed a brilliant, if cruel, solution. He held prisoner Riverrun’s legitimate lord Edmuir Tully and Edmuir’s young son. Sir Jaime offered Edmuir his freedom if Edmuir would order the troops in Riverrun to stand down and open the gate. Otherwise, he’d catapult Edmuir’s son over the walls. Fire a single shot as it were. Edmuir relented.

A walled fortress, Fort Point, sits under the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge not far from my home. The first cannon was mounted there in 1861 to protect San Francisco Bay. Attacks by Confederate ships never came. Walled fortresses soon became obsolete thanks to powerful artillery and larger ship-based guns even before the advent of air power. There’s a lesson here.

Donald Trump wants to build walls to limit what people and goods can enter the United States. Some Americans respond enthusiastically. A changing society frightens them. In truth, our post-industrial economy has left many behind. But fear and frustration offer no solutions. They only drive people to vilify other religions, races and nationalities. Moreover, the walls that keep others out would imprison us. Still, they cling to the mantra, “Things were better in the past.”

Interestingly, that’s the mantra of ISIS.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And when you get a chance to reach out to someone, please take it.

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LOST IN SPACE

An eye-opening astronomy video—one of many in recent years—has been making the rounds of Facebook. It brings to mind a piece of Hasidic wisdom uttered when the observable universe was far smaller than now. Both pose fascinating questions regarding how we can make sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos.

This particular animated video beautifully demonstrates the nearly unfathomable size of creation. The camera starts on the massive Himalaya Mountains and pulls back to reveal the Himalayas as a small blip on our Earth, itself a fraction of the size of the sun, which is but one among billions of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy, itself one of billions of galaxies. We may know this intellectually, but the video offers a startling perspective. At its end we can’t help wondering how far creation extends and how we can ever truly understand it. We also marvel at our own diminutiveness.

On the religious level, Rabbi Simcha Bunim (1765-1827) presented the paradox of human existence quite in tune with science. He exclaimed that everyone should have two pockets. One should hold a note declaiming, The world was made for me. The other should hold a note stating, I am but dust and ashes.

We can easily take the vastness of creation as a negation of our human worth. But Rabbi Bunim warns against that. In the Torah, God puts human beings at the center of creation. Don’t take that lightly. After all, we can comprehend to a significant degree that same vast universe. We’ve made great headway investigating such incredible forces as gravity and black holes. So while within the known universe, human beings are barely specs, our self-awareness and comprehension encompass the creation that dwarfs us.

Of course, we each have a natural perspective through which the world revolves around our hopes and dreams, accomplishments and failures. This, even as astronomers discover new planets capable of supporting life. Are we really alone? If so, our insignificance and uniqueness become even more pronounced. Still, we live our lives as if the universe were merely an extension of ourselves. This leaves us walking an intellectual tightrope. Not surprisingly, we often lose our balance.

My short story “Beautiful!” (REED Magazine issue 69), which I mentioned last week, deals with this subject. A retired astronaut marks his eightieth birthday. He has seen the earth from a weightless vantage point provided to only a few human beings. Like many astronauts in orbit before him, he exclaimed “Beautiful!”

But as with other astronauts, his elevated view of earth not only stimulated but troubled him. How, he wonders, can we fail to treat our fellow human beings—all of us so small and fragile—with compassion? Why do ego and lust make our brief lives so difficult for ourselves and others? On the other hand, given the size and age of the universe, what difference does it make what we do?

Will “Beautiful!” clear everything up for you? It will disturb as much as enlighten you. Living simultaneously on the macro and micro levels is no easy task. The sum of human misery testifies to that. Giving the matter some thought, however, just might make a difference in the way we struggle through our brief appearance here on tiny Earth.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And this Monday, give a little thought to what Memorial Day really means. May the memories of American forces who gave their all be for a blessing. 

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YOUNG MAN, OLD MAN

In New Orleans recently, an African-American cab driver said, “Have a good day, young man.” “Young man” (I’ll be 72 in July) is a term of respect in the Black community. It tickled me, because elders in America don’t get much respect.

Leviticus 19:32 states, “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old.” Generally, that gets little traction. Check out how often young people remain seated in senior-preference seats on San Francisco’s buses. (When offered a seat, I decline. The elderly need seats; I don’t.)

Dave Eggers offers a frightening look at youth chauvinism in his 2014 novel The Circle. A social-media company—a mash-up of Facebook, Apple, Google (Alphabet) and others—has a state-of-the-art Silicon Valley campus in which 30-year-olds are hard to find. The protagonist, a 24-year-old woman—and new employee—thinks 30 is over the hill. One can’t possibly contribute to society when three decades have sapped one’s energy and enthusiasm. But good judgment takes time to develop. The Circle’s increasingly invasive use of social media and related technology—promulgated, interestingly, by two senior executives of late middle age sprouting faux wisdom—threatens not only individual privacy but also sanity.

Granted, elders don’t always keep up with technology. (I call on my 20-year-old great-nephew Matthew.) Yet we have much to offer in terms of values—including thoughts on appropriate uses of technology. We provide perspective earned both by successes and our failures. Employees at The Circle think that enhanced technology automatically makes life better. Elders—and readers of The Circle—know the matter’s not that simple.

Perspective, however, isn’t all roses. Witness my short story “Beautiful!” in REED Magazine issue 69, the literary/arts annual of San Jose State University. I read a few pages Tuesday evening at the edition’s launch at Books Inc. in Mountain View. On his 80th birthday, a former astronaut marvels at how we can leap into space yet can’t—or won’t—provide for the basic needs of much of humanity. Old age and peace don’t always sync. The story’s ending is disturbing for a reason.

Still, while young people can learn from elders, elders must recognize the validity of youthful energy and ambition, and graciously yield their places to the young. Old age, after all, brings limitations—physical, intellectual, emotional. I’m still writing (and, I hope, making sense). I’m fit; I walk four to seven miles a day. But, for example, my night vision has worsened. Last week, we visited our son Yosi in middle Tennessee. He drove us on country roads at night. I’d have driven at half the speed. Actually, I wouldn’t have driven those roads at all. At night, I see 30 to 50 percent less than Yosi. That’s why many elders drive only in the daytime. Oh, and I’m in bed by ten, ten-thirty the latest.

Another caveat: Age doesn’t automatically confer wisdom. Many elders see the world through lenses distorted not only by physical weakening but also a lifetime of intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual limitations. Ignorant young people usually become ignorant seniors.

That said, if I can share any wisdom as another birthday approaches, it’s this: Each year I have fewer answers and more questions. Young people just might want to give that some thought.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And if you have something to say about getting older, let me know. But do it now. Before you forget.

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MISGUIDED EXCEPTIONALISM

Who among us does not feel special? See himself or herself at the center of the universe? Think that if everyone does what I do, the world will be a better place? The answer: precious few. Which explains why not only individuals but also nations often come to grief.

The belief that I or “we” are different and thus better seems near universal. In “Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics” (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016), Stephen Kotkin of Princeton, and Stanford’s Hoover Institution, explains that “Russians have always had an abiding sense of living in a providential country with a special mission — an attitude often traced to Byzantium, which Russia claims as an inheritance.” Essentially, God made Russia spiritually greater than its neighbors. Russian dominance of Eurasia represents the natural order.

But Vladimir Putin’s Russia, despite its considerable nuclear arsenal, plays a limited role on the world stage. (For my earlier take on Russia, see “Irrelevance.”) According to Kotkin, Russia shares much with England and France—once great powers—as well as Germany and Japan. The former pair came to terms with the erosion of their prominence. The latter “had their exceptionalism bombed out of them.”

America and China also claim heavenly mandates. This, I propose, is based on ego fostered by historic power. Now, don’t get me wrong. While I oppose the idea of American exceptionalism—which often translates to “we can do no wrong”—I believe that America is an exceptional country. Although exceptional is not a synonym for perfect.

The United States, unlike its European forebears, never saw itself as a tribal or ethnic state. True, some people define real Americans as white Protestants. But the nation ultimately opened its doors to everyone and defined American as citizen. Yes, our history of slavery and racism is shameful. Still, America evolved under the rule of law. If the law has not always been adhered to, it nonetheless has offered great protection to citizens and non-citizens alike. Lack of perfection does not negate great accomplishment.

Exceptionalism can also be claimed on the religious front. I wrote in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters with God in the Hebrew Bible that Christianity and Islam often see themselves as universalistic religions of a particularistic God. Translation: there is only one way to believe, and God loves only adherents of whichever specific faith makes such a claim.

Judaism takes a different stance. It sees its exceptionalism not in being chosen for privilege but for responsibility. Performing the 613 commandments (many impossible since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE) does no more to earn a Jew a place in the World to Come (of which there are multiple concepts) than a monotheist who follows the seven Noahide commandments established by the Sages. Judaism thus stands as a particularistic religion—only Jews need follow all 613 commandments—of a universalistic God not concerned about which religion people follow, as long as it’s monotheistic.

During the presidential campaign to come—or at least its final segment—I hope both major candidates will refrain from references to American exceptionalism. Flag waving often conceals a bent for tyranny. Of course, humility is not a trait that impels individuals to seek the White House or voters to put them there. Still, downplaying exceptionalism could help the winner be a better president.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. It won’t take an exceptional effort.

The post will take off on May 13 and return on May 20.

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OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE

Merle Haggard died on Wednesday. I first listened to the Country Music Hall of Famer when I lived in San Antonio. One of his greatest hits stays with me—particularly in this election season.

I’m not a big country music fan, but country tunes still tickle me. As a writer, I appreciate that country lyrics are meant to be heard—to tell a story. I even wrote a country song for my novel Flight of the Spumonis: “A Good Ol’ Country Boy is a Sufferin’ Man.”

I love Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “The Bug.” She sings, Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. When it comes to explaining life and love, it doesn’t get better than that. And I’m drawn to Blake Shelton’s ode to rednecks, “Boys ‘Round Here.” Its great hook: Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit.

Back to Merle Haggard. One of country music’s fabled “outlaws”—he served time in San Quentin—he wrote “Okie from Muskogee” with Roy Burris. The song debuted in 1969. It was strictly middle American and silent majority. Haggard was proud of his roots. An Okie by descent, he grew up in Bakersfield at the southern end of California’s Central Valley. Oklahomans fled the Dust Bowl during the Depression in the 1930s for a better life in California. No one told their story better than John Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath.

As to the song, Haggard first twangs: We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee. We don’t take our trips on LSD. We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street. ‘Cause we like livin’ right, and bein’ free. Haggard said the song was a tribute to his father, who died when he was nine. But there’s no question about it making a conservative political statement. Richard Nixon was serving in the first year of his presidency. Hippies challenged Nixon’s and the establishment’s views while much of a new generation protested the Vietnam War and embraced sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But not all.

Am I a closet redneck? Nope. There was much about the ‘60s I didn’t like, but I didn’t identify with Merle Haggard. We’re from different backgrounds and cultures. But living in Texas for six years gave me insights into other folks’ ways of looking at things. And I just loved singing along with that tune.

I note that the second verse includes We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy/Like the hippies out in San Francisco do. I moved to San Francisco in 1974 and never looked back. I also note that for some time, a number of major country stars have worn long hair and beards—like the hippies they or their parents reviled. Times change. Attitudes change.

And I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee, Haggard sang. It’s incredible that someone can write and perform a culturally or politically oriented song that you don’t agree with all that much—or at all—and you still like it. As the race to presidential nominations moves towards its conclusion, I ask myself why there’s something special about hearing someone out even if they come from something of a different world. I answer: It’s because their world is different. Tearing down walls beats building them.

If you’ve been enjoying these posts—and you weren’t too bored to get through this one—suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. Give “Okie from Muskogee” a listen, too. And be proud to be whoever you are.

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DECODING BRUSSELS

In the early days of the American revolution, Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” The Islamist attacks in Brussels last Tuesday reminded us that these are always the times that try men’s (and women’s) souls.

Despite security efforts—additional arrests have been made since Tuesday—some terrorists slip through the net. U.S. security has been effective but hardly foolproof. European security lags, particularly regarding sharing information. But Europe is also challenged by large Muslim communities—most isolated from national cultures—which spawn and serve as havens for discontents.

How to prevent further attacks? The movie Eye in the Sky ponders moral limits on our use of force. Helen Mirren plays a British colonel commanding a multi-national force seeking to capture or kill members of the Islamist al Shabaab in East Africa. All Western military personnel work from home bases. A crew outside Las Vegas operates a drone—an eye in the sky. Hovering above a Kenyan house, it sends back images of wanted British and American Islamists. Small optical devices put in place by a local operative reveal the house to be the staging ground for imminent suicide bombings.

I give nothing away when I write that the “eye” carries two Hellfire missiles. But launching risks killing innocent people. The film offers a fairly even-handed debate about whether even a single “civilian” casualty is acceptable if a strike will eliminate the threat of attacks that may kill dozens of others.

As to Brussels, the attacks came only days after Belgian security forces captured Salah Abdeslam, wanted for participation in the November attacks in Paris. Belgian operations may have been flawed. “They’re way behind the ball and they’re paying a terrible price,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Better communication with Turkish security might have helped prevent the bombings. Regardless, Europe’s Schengen Area, 26 nations in which borders can be crossed without documents, may become the next casualty.

We in the U.S., particularly during election season, must face the reality that another attack can happen here. We must also decide how to use our security and military forces wisely. On Tuesday, Donald Trump again called for using torture in questioning Islamist suspects. Ted Cruz said that police should secure Muslim neighborhoods. He likened Islamist acts to gang crimes. But gangs commit crimes in their own neighborhoods. Jihadis don’t. What neighborhoods are police to secure? What does that even mean?

Fighting Islamism requires maintaining a level of humility and avoiding demagoguery while aggressively pursuing those who wish to harm us. Military action must be part of the mix. The Defense Department today announced the killing of ISIS’ finance minister. That’s good. But as defense secretary Ashton Carter advised, leaders can be replaced.

According to Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at London’s Royal United Services Institute, “There is a realization that this is not a war you can bomb or shoot your way out of, but you have to deal with individuals who are radicalized at home, to examine the reasons that they are exploring this other identity.”

So once again our souls confront a world in which violence or its threat remains a constant. Our greatest challenge may be protecting our values along with our security.

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