A Worker Reads History by Bertold Brecht

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

Eva Dugan Lost Her Head, Don Harding Turned His Back

The history of the death penalty, like any other history, is made up of stories, some factually-accurate, some not, but which become accepted truth if repeated long enough.

History records that the reason the State of Arizona stopped hanging people and started gassing them instead is that there was an unseemly incident in which Eva Dugan’s head pulled off when they hanged her in 1930. It was decided that a method of killing that was less distressing to the spectators was in order.

It’s also popularly believed that the reason the state stopped gassing people and started poisoning them was because of the unpleasant demise in 1992 of Don Eugene Harding, who vomited all over himself, took a while to die, and flipped off Attorney General Grant Woods while dying. The witnesses were so distressed that the state decided it was time for a new method.

It turns out, though, that it didn’t happen that way.

My friend Chuck Kelly witnessed it. He tells me that Harding was facing away from the witnesses. “One of the witnesses - I don’t remember which one - did say that Harding appeared to be flipping off Grant Woods… I would say this would be a difficult interpretation to make, since Harding’s back was to us…  Also, some witnesses did say they were upset by the execution.”

Chuck kindly dug out the report he wrote for The Arizona Republic at the time. Here it is:

Bare Witness

Gordon Parks was the director of one of my favorite films, Shaft (1971) and its dull sequel Shaft’s Big Score (1972), and he made a cameo appearance in an excellent sequel - also entitled Shaft - in 2000. He died six years later.


Parks was also a novelist, poet, journalist, musician, and, perhaps most notably, a photographer. The Phoenix Art museum is showing Bare Witness, an exhibition of his photographs, until November 6. I was there last Friday, and I will be back as often as possible while the exhibition runs.

His iconic photographs of Muhammad Ali and Duke Ellington and other celebrities are worth the outing, but what makes this exhibition so compelling for me is the collection of photographs he took in ghetto streets and houses. A beaten man receives first aid, his shirt soaked in his own blood, a compress held to his injured head. A woman sits in her home with her grandchildren. Two children sit on the floor on either side of a doll, and it’s hard to tell whether the doll seems human or the children seem doll-like.

These images of people, of life, more than 60 years ago are so vivid, still so alive, that they seem like more than pictures. After looking at them, you find they stay with you, and there seem to be memories of sounds, tastes and smells. This is a beautiful and urgent show, and highly recommended.

Phoenix WAS a Pedestrian City

The Phoenix New Times website just published this picture of the Hotel San Carlos at Monroe and Central, taken around 1940.

Like most pictures I’ve seen of Downtown Phoenix back then, it shows sidewalks dense with people. Nowadays, people justify car-addiction by claiming that Phoenix was never designed to be a pedestrian city.

The heat-island effect makes it difficult to walk farther than the mailbox during the summer. But, as Jon Talton has written, Phoenix was once lush and green, a place of shade.

In spite of what the self-centered and the defeatist say, the problem with Phoenix is not in what it is. The problem is in what is being done to it.

Hall of Flame

On Tuesday, M.V. Moorhead and I went to a screening of the film Rise of the Planet of the Apes (it opens tomorrow, so I’ll post a review then). On the way to the cinema, we stopped at The Hall of Flame, the museum of firefighting history where Moorhead is the curator.

He’s had that gig for a few years now, but I had never visited, though I had meant to. I had imagined it as being small, with just a few exhibits, since few people have heard of it. I was very wrong; it’s a large space with a lot on show, including fire trucks from the 18th Century. Note that I don’t mean replicas of 18th Century fire trucks - I mean actual 300-year-old fire trucks. It also has ancient helmets, uniforms and other equipment from all over the world. It’s wonderful in every sense of the word.

Brian Victoria Grossly Misrepresents Sawaki and Suzuki

D.T. Suzuki
When Brian Victoria’s book Zen at War was published in 1997, it was regarded by many - including me - as a well-reported and long-overdue expose of how the Japanese Zen Buddhist clergy had supported their nation’s atrocities during the Second World War. Since then, the book has been shown to be a gross blend of exaggeration and outright fabrication.

Brad Warner has already debunked Victoria’s claims about Sawaki Kodo’s statements of support for war and killing. Now, in this article, Nelson Foster and Gary Snyder set the record straight in regard to Victoria’s equally scurrilous claims about D.T. Suzuki.

The King’s Speech: “A Gross Falsification”

As a peasant, I haven’t been able to get myself to care enough about a monarch’s speech therapy to go and see The King’s Speech, despite the accolades it has received. It’s for the same reason that I don’t read much “literary” fiction - I don’t care about the psychological hang-ups of privileged white people.

However, since such critics as M.V. Moorhead have effervesced about the movie, I was vaguely considering putting aside class hatred long enough to see it. Fortunately, I never got that far before I read this fine debunking by Christopher Hitchens.

I can’t take the Oscars seriously anyway, considering that the second-best movie of last year, The Town, has been almost completely ignored. (The best is The Fighter.)

America the Not So Beautiful

With the exception of Jimmy Carter, I can’t think of a single U.S. President of the last few decades whose speeches have not been in praise of a fictitious country.

It is a fiction that almost everyone, whatever their political leaning, buys into. Neil Postman, in his brilliant, prophetic book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), buys into it. Discussing the worldwide popularity of U.S. soap operas and other T.V. shows, he writes, “All of this has occurred simultaneously with the decline of America’s moral prestige worldwide.”

What moral prestige? When was there a golden age of American morality? The U.S. was built on genocide, theft and enslavement.

George Orwell also bought into the myth; he believed the 19th Century was a period of fairness, freedom, happiness and sound morality in this country. The slaves, and the Native Americans, and the poor whites, and the women who were unable to vote, saw it differently.

America has declined hugely in education, in discourse, in essential literacy. Postman is right when he says, immediately after the sentence quoted above, “American television programs are in demand not because America is loved but because American television is loved.” What is loved is illusion, the infantile fantasy that feeds its audience a story of imaginary greatness. To speak of America’s moral fall is to falsely claim that it once attained a moral height that it later fell from.