Monday, August 14, 2023

Power Street

In 1978, an artist named Mad Peck, nee John, designed what is now called The Providence Poster.  The four-panel poster includes a composite of one-liners written by Peck and his friend, Les ‘Doc’ Daniels.

Through witticisms spoken over the years by the pair about their beloved Providence, or Prov, Peck captures truths about New England weather and the human condition.

Providence, Rhode Island Where It Rains Two Days Out of Three
Except During the Rainy Season When It Snows Like a Bitch
(“A Mess, Ain’t It?”)

Boy, he got that right.  If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes; it will change, as they say.  Peck and Daniels’ comment is so twisted up, it’s funny.  It rains two out of three days except during the rainy season.  And when would that be?  Oh, that would be when it snows.

Then the poster/artist turns serious.

Friendship Is a One Way Street

How many people have been hurt by friends who betrayed them or left them at a moment when they were most needed?  How many people have been screwed by those they trusted most?  The artwork shows a terrible car crash.  Is it a metaphor or a warning to the unwary tourist?  If you look at a map of Prov, you will see that the caption can mean both:

But we all know there is more to life than friendship.

Rich Folks Live on Power Street

The poster was made in 1978, at a time when it was good to be rich in Providence.  According to Ted Widmer, a Providence historian and current director of the Library of Congress’ Kluge Center, “Providence in the ‘60s was a broken-down factory town with a corrupt Democratic administration.”  Peck came of age in the city and learned well.

But money isn’t everything either.

Most Of Us Live Off Hope

The contrast between the two panels is striking, and the two streets exist, appropriately, at right angles to each other in Prov:

Most of us DO live off hope.  Not the kind of hope we express when we say, for example, "I hope the Bruins will win the Stanley Cup" but a deeper kind of hope, defined in the New Testament sense, as full assurance, or strong confidence that God is going to do good to us in the future.

In the Power Street panel, three women are lounging around looking bored.  In the color version of the poster, Peck shows an interracial couple dancing in the Hope panel.  There is hope for us all.

Peck is still active in Prov.  In 2016, the Providence Journal called Peck 'a self-made man of peculiar taste,' whose job description falls somewhere between “renaissance man” and “hustler.” Over the 50-plus years he’s lived in Providence, the Mad Peck has been, at various times and in various combinations, a published comic book historian, nationally-read culture critic, beloved doo-wop DJ, commissioned poster and comic book artist, and television studies scholar, with early side trips through the electrical engineering and applied math departments at Brown University.

If all he ever did was make this poster, it would be enough.

Sunday, July 9, 2023


Stephen Biko has been on my mind lately, mostly because Peter Gabriel's song Biko keeps popping up on iTunes.

Hearing it reminds me of several things all at once.  Gabriel's song appeared on his third album, one in which he matched innovative music with political material, in songs such as Games Without Frontiers.  But it was Biko that blew the lid off what for many people in the West was a hidden system: apartheid.

Many recording artists have made themselves known by a certain style of music and then produced a song that was totally outside their previous catalog yet loaded with truth, heart-felt emotion, and often, anger.

The Cranberries were known for beautiful songs such as Dreams before uncorking Zombie, a protest song about the Troubles, a song full of emotion, pain, drums, and great guitar hooks.  In the same way, Bruce Cockburn wrote some very fine folk songs that got a lot of radio play, but his music became more progressive and politically-oriented over time.  Then came If I Had A Rocket Launcher, perhaps his best, most honest song.  It spoke of the despair and frustration he felt when he visited a Guatemalan refugee camp in Mexico in the early 1980s.

Even Norman Greenbaum, an observant Jew, came up with something totally different from his usual work.  The song Spirit in the Sky, he said, was inspired by Westerns he had watched on television when he was a kid.  In a Wikipedia article, he said, "The song itself was simple, when you're writing a song you keep it simple of course.  It wasn't like a Christian song of praise it was just a simple song. I had to use Christianity because I had to use something. But more important it wasn't the Jesus part, it was the spirit in the sky. Funny enough ... I wanted to die with my boots on."  In 2011, he said, "It sounds as fresh today as when it was recorded.  I've gotten letters from funeral directors telling me that it's their second-most-requested song to play at memorial services, next to 'Danny Boy'."

Billy Holiday was famous for her haunting rendition of Strange Fruit, which was written and composed by Abel Meeropol (under his pseudonym Lewis Allan).  Nina Simone built a career out of singing unpopular yet incredibly honest and singable songs such as Mississippi Goddam, her first protest song.

These are all powerful and sometimes, out-of-character, songs.

And then there's Biko.

In this song, Peter Gabriel condemned the apartheid system in South Africa.  He condemned the killing of an innocent man.  And he issued a warning to all who heard this eulogy of a song.

September '77
Port Elizabeth weather fine
It was business as usual
In police room 619
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
- The man is dead

From Wikipedia: Stephen Biko was an anti-apartheid activist who was arrested because he would not keep quiet about the injustice of apartheid.  In August 1977, Biko was arrested for continuing to speak out, breaking his banning order.

After his arrest Biko was held in custody in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape for several days, during which he was interrogated.  During his interrogation he was beaten by some of the policemen questioning him. He suffered severe injuries, including to his brain, and he died soon after on September 12.

When I try to sleep at night
I can only dream in red
The outside world is black and white
With only one color dead
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
- The man is dead

Only one color dead.  Biko's goal was to overturn an unjust system which, if successful, would also overturn the government.  This made him a threat to the established order.  In the U.S. in recent years, we have seen other innocent men die - killed - simply because they were black and in the wrong place at the wrong time; all they wanted to do was get through the day.

You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Oh Biko, Biko, because Biko
Yihla Moja, Yihla Moja
- The man is dead

And the eyes of the world are
Watching now
Watching now

All of the songs listed here point a finger at those who look the other way.  As Jesus once said to a lawyer, of all people, what do you read there? (Luke 10:26)

* * *

Steven Biko image on a Heerlen church stained glass window.  Artist: Daan Wildschut; photographer: SergĂ© Technau - Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0,  

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Putin's War

 Maybe history will record it as the War of Unintended Consequences.

The Ukrainian people won't care what it's called, just that it ended and they won.  It remains an ongoing disaster, but they have unbounded confidence that they will win.  But not before Putin tries to redefine the whole thing into a war against Russia, of all things.

Writing in The Atlantic on September 30, Anne Applebaum said, "Russia’s actions under these circumstances [those being Putin's recent sham annexation of four Ukrainian provinces] show contempt not only for international lawyers in European capitals, but also for Chinese politicians who like to talk about sovereignty and African diplomats who have agreed that borders matter, even when they are arbitrary. In the upside-down reality that Putin has created, he will now claim that Ukrainians, by defending their own land and their own people, are somehow attacking Russia [emphasis added].

Would he really make such a claim?

Well, the Ukrainians didn't waste any time testing that assertion when they blew up a very nice and crucial bridge connecting Russia to Crimea, which happened to be a major supply route for the Russian Army.

Putin reacted exactly as Applebaum predicted.  The Wall Street Journal reported on October 9 that:

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his first public comments on the incident, blamed Ukraine and called it a “terrorist attack” aimed at civilian infrastructure.

“Its plotters, perpetrators, and masterminds are the Ukrainian security services,” Mr. Putin said Sunday in a televised recording of a meeting with his top federal investigative official.

Kyiv didn’t claim responsibility for the attack, though senior Ukrainian officials celebrated it on social media.

The nerve of those Ukrainian security services, daring to defend their country!

But then Putin decided to punish Ukrainian civilians with a massive rocket barrage designed to terrorize, kill, and maim.  According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, “The occupiers cannot match us on the battlefield, and that is why they resort to such terrorism.” Mr. Zelensky said this as he stood near a crater left by a strike in Kyiv.

Putin impressed no one, and we suspect he is running out of friends.

In the WSJ report, North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg condemned Russia’s “indiscriminate attacks on civilian infrastructure,” writing on Twitter that the Western military alliance would continue supporting Kyiv “for as long as it takes.”

A spokesman for the EU’s foreign-policy chief called Russia’s attacks a war crime. “As always in such cases, the European Union recalls that all those responsible will be held accountable,” spokesman Peter Stano said.

And in Ukraine, Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said, “Your attacks provoke only rage and contempt in us! Not fear, not desire to negotiate.”

What a mess.  Even if Putin can pull this off, he has lost the hearts and minds of millions, not to mention their trust and respect.

Maybe they can replace his portrait in the Kremlin with something like this:

Go, Ukraine!

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

'Our captors asked us for songs'

The revised common lectionary this week includes two choices from the Book of Lamentations matched with Psalm 137.  We’re going with the selections from Habbukuk and the Gospel according to Luke, regarding faith, but the other readings are compelling in their own right.

In his commentary on the Psalms, James L. Mays writes that, while Psalm 137 is not one of the 'songs of Zion,' it is a song about Zion.  In songs of Zion, Jerusalem is majestic and invincible, secure against hostile threats and foreign armies.  In this psalm, Jerusalem has been flattened; the psalm is full of pain.

The psalm describes a particular time and place, and the theme is about remembering.  Linda Rondstat even sang a song quoting from the psalm:

The singers vowed not to forget but to remember Zion when they were in Babylon.  The psalm sings of resistance to one city and devotion to another.  And in the end, it also makes an appeal for retribution.

There is faith in our remembering.  Faith can never forget Jerusalem - see Luke 6:6-11 and compare it to Psalm 137:5.

Laments helped the people keep their relationship to Jerusalem alive, in the same way Christians remember Jesus at the Communion Table, to keep that relationship alive.  It's the same for anyone we remember after losing them.  Even Jesus lamented.  Few of us can get through life without some experience that challenges our faith.

Lamentations was written for a specific time and place: Israel’s exile to Babylon.  It was traumatic for the nation.  Families separated, the Temple destroyed; every-day life disrupted.  More than one prophet wrote about it, warned about, and, yes, lamented it.  After the Exodus event, the Exile was the next big thing and is remembered to this day, and for good reason.

How many exile-style events has the world experienced and lived through since the turn of the last century?  We can start with World War I (or, The War to End All Wars; missed that one by a mile), and then move on to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria; the German invasion of Poland; Soviet Russia’s response in eastern Europe; World War II in general; China in North Korea; the French and Americans in Indochina; the revolutionary upheavals in Central America; Lebanon; Syria; Somalia.  And our national lament: 9/11.

That’s just the big stuff.  It’s a long list.  We can add to it the Uighur genocide in China (also documented elsewhere on this blog) and Russia’s recent and ongoing aggression in Ukraine.

The Russians expected Ukraine to crumble.  It didn't happen, and Ukraine, with the help of the West, is fighting back.  Take that, bully.  But Russia (that is, Putin) won't go down easily, if at all.  They can rattle sabers with anyone too.  A new conscription callup may tip the balance in terms of numbers they can put on the battlefield, but Ukraine is proving to be a nimble force of resistance.

Ukraine can win.  Russia, thanks to Putin, can lose.  A lot.

In a world in perpetual pain, Scripture tells us to never forget, to never give in.  To lament for a time, but also to resist.  There is much for both free peoples and the oppressed to lament.

There is always hope and God is always at work in the world.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Dissension in China

We have talked about the Uyghurs in China before, here and here.  Now we have to talk about tennis players who dare to criticize their government and how it covers up the dirt, so to speak.

Today, Bari Weiss posted this on her blog here (read the whole thing): 

'[The] Chinese Communist Party has now targeted Peng Shuai, a tennis star who accused a former top Chinese government official of sexual assault.  “Even if it is like an egg hitting a rock, or if I am like a moth drawn to the flame, inviting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you,” she wrote on the social media platform Weibo.  Then her message disappeared.  And so did she.'

Weiss reports that the head of the Women’s Tennis Association, Steve Simon, announced that the WTA was immediately suspending all tournaments in China because of what the country had reportedly done to Peng Shuai.  Here is his statement:

'While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation. The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation—without censorship—into Peng Shuai’s sexual assault accusation.

'None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded—equality for women—would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players. 

'As a result, and with the full support of the WTA Board of Directors, I am announcing the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong. In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault. Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.' [Emphasis added]

Good for the WTA!  Good for Steve Simon.  One would think it a no-brainer to come to this conclusion given everything China has its hands in these days.  But money speaks loudly.

We will not hold our breath waiting for the rest of the sports world (and the world of corporate sponsors) to catch up.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Uyghurs: In the News Again

 The Uyghurs are in the news again.

In April, Jonathan Tobin wrote the world ‘is too busy or too intimidated by China to do more than raise a token protest about what’s happening to the Uyghurs.’  See a previous post, here, to learn more about that.

Now, with political tensions rising in Asia (Hello, Hong Kong and Taiwan) along with disputes between the U.S. and China over human rights, national security, and the theft of intellectual property, China still has time to take it to the Uyghurs.

A recent Wall Street Journal article describes how Beijing has seized millions in assets owned by Uyghur business owners.

Eva Xiao and Jonathan Cheng write: "In recent years, China's government has clamped down on the predominantly Muslim and Turkic-speaking Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, razing mosques and other religious sites and confining hundreds of thousands of people in a network of internment camps.

"The auction entries also shed light on what Uyghurs say is another aspect of China’s campaign: the dismantling of companies and personal wealth belonging to Uyghur business leaders."

The problem is assimilation, or the lack of it, according to Chinese authorities.  Ethnic minorities in China's Xinjiang region want to remain who they are.  Beijing thinks otherwise.

Xiao and Cheng put it in a nutshell: "Western scholars and rights groups say Chinese authorities level these types of charges as a pretext to implement policies targeting minorities in Xinjiang more broadly. China says it is fighting terrorism and separatism. Uyghur activists say Beijing is intent on destroying Uyghurs’ culture and ethnic identity."

Before the crackdown began, Uyghur business owners were good guys, acting as a bridge between the government and their communities.  Some scholars feel  that the Uyghurs actually helped create interethnic tensions between the Han Chinese majority and the various ethnic minorities, but that seems counter productive to me.

Apparently, Chinese is okay with seizing property and then letting it sit fallow.  Or to seize bank accounts and bankrupt their owners.  As Vito Corleone might say, it's not good business; it's retribution for a failure to come to heel.

This four-story building, adjacent to an iconic mosque in Kashgar, China, was seized from a jailed Uyghur businessman and listed for auction by Chinese authorities.

Meanwhile, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, formerly governor of Rhode Island, seeks to improve business ties with China.

Bob Davis, also in the Journal, wrote that, according to Ms. Raimondo, Chinese economic policies disadvantage U.S. companies by subsidizing exports at below-market prices and winking at the theft of intellectual property.  Even so, she said the U.S. must trade with China given the size of its market.

“It’s just an economic fact,” Raimondo said in an interview. “I actually think robust commercial engagement will help to mitigate any potential tensions.”

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo

What amazes me is how we (meaning the U.S. and the West as a whole) continue to turn a blind eye to what repressive, non-democratic countries inflict on their own populations while we seek to do more and more business with them.  In the case of China, we are more concerned with keeping the smartphone and cheap plastic goods pipelines open than in keeping our allies secure, even while a storm is brewing in the South China Sea.

God help the Uyghurs, not to mention Tibetans, Taiwanese, and Hong Kongers, all of whom have been or continue to be in China's crosshairs.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Sunrise Doesn't Last All Morning

George Harrison’s song All Things Must Pass has been in my head since before I woke up.  The internet tells me that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first album Harrison released following the breakup of the Beatles, so maybe that’s why.  It was no surprise to learn that the album has been remixed from the original tapes and re-released in a variety of formats.

Now the darkness only stays the night-time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good at arriving at the right time
It's not always going to be this grey

The foundation stones for the ‘new’ Salisbury Cathedral were laid in 1220.  The original Salisbury Cathedral was completed at Old Sarum in 1092 under Osmund, the first Bishop of Salisbury.  By any measure, these are old buildings.  The original building didn’t last very long but the new cathedral is still going strong.

It’s unclear to me how these two things – Harrison’s breakout tune and Salisbury Cathedral – are connected, but they are, maybe because I’ve been to Salisbury and I know how much Harrison loved the gardens at Friar Park, his country estate.  Somehow, my brain linked them together.

Harrison faded away in 2001.  Salisbury Cathedral carries on, stoically, but requires ongoing maintenance to hang in there, as most of us do.

My parents are both gone now.  My sister recently moved out of the family home and, for the first time since 1949, there are no Aucellas living on Crosby Road.  All things must pass indeed.

Amen and Godspeed.