Justin Krebs's blog

A Tax Day Dilemma

Drinking Liberally Shot of Truth
by Justin Krebs

To eat a free donut or not eat a free donut? That is the question.

When I was 13 years old, I overheard a friend's father say he wanted a bumper sticker that said, "Stop Whining and Pay Your Taxes." What I didn't get at the time was how likely it would have been that he'd be rear-ended with a message like that. Nor did I get just how important that message was.

Now, I get it. As our framing experts have helped us to understand, language of "tax burden" sure helps the right-wing demonize the notion that we should all invest in our nation together. We more often hear quoted Ben Franklin's quote, "In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes," than the message of shared responsibility from another American giant, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society." So it's no surprise that anti-tax crusaders win elections, and anti-tax messaging becomes common rhetoric on both sides of the aisle.

Living Liberally doesn't agree. Back in April, 2005, we threw "Rock Your Refund." Dubbed "A Tax Day Celebration" (and, in our somewhat less-catchy attempt to re-frame, "An Invest-in-America Day Celebration"), we hosted a dance party, and encouraged donations at the door that were directed to services which had been underfunded due to Bush's reckless war-time tax cuts for the rich. In a celebratory spirit, we encouraged people to think about what their "invest-in-America" money went to...and to feel proud for paying their share.

The party didn't become an annual event...but it could. You could throw events that celebrate all that your taxes pay for: drinking tap water instead of bottled water, dancing on well-paved roads, honoring schools and scientific research and the post office.

Which leads me to the dilemma of the donut. Dunkin' Donuts offered a Tax Day Special yesterday - get a free donut if you buy any-sized cup of coffee. Regardless of the Carlyle Group involvement in Dunkin', I haven't been able to kick the habit. Their ads get into my head, and their donuts into my heart (or at least my arteries), ever since it was the only 24-hour establishment high schoolers could escape to late night in the small town of Highland Park, NJ. So, in short, I love their donuts.

Do I take advantage of this magical moment to get a Boston Creme at no cost? Or would that just be buying into the right-wing frame that taxes are a burden from which I need the "relief" of a free treat? Would satisfying my tastebuds soil my soul?

Well...I wasn't able to resist. Consider it me eating away Carlyle's profits by taking their donut for free. And if anyone wants to throw a Rock Your Refund Invest-in-America-Day Celebration, count me in...I need to clean the taste of right-wing frame off my palette.

And one last question: if you were throwing a party with themes of all the public works and common good taxes support, what images, party favors, and festive games would you include? How would you Rock YOUR Refund?

How to Win The Iraq War Debate Against Your Dumb Friends

Laughing Liberally To Keep From Crying
by Lee Camp

Recently I was arguing with one of my dumber friends about the Iraq war. He loves Bush, and thinks bigger bombs is the answer in Iraq. I wasn’t gaining any ground in the argument until I used a simple analogy. I said, “Your solution is like shattering an expensive vase and then saying, ‘We need to keep smashing it until it’s fixed.’” I stumped him. He was silent. So here’s a brief list of other analogies you can use on your dumb friends. And the truth is, I’ve seen similar ones work on some of the smartest political pundits.

1) The country of Iraq has essentially been demolished. The right-wingers keep saying the answer is continued large-scale military action. That’s like if someone got into a car accident, went into a coma, and the doctors believed the patient could be healed by more car accidents. So they just keep putting him into cars and sending him off cliffs.

2) I’ve heard people say that being against Bush or Petraeus or the war in Iraq is equivalent to being against the troops. That’s like if I knew someone who repeatedly sent brave puppies out into traffic. I called that person an asshole for abusing the puppies and abusing their power. Then you accused me of being anti-puppy.

3) The administration talks about the success of the surge because violence has decreased, but we’re in fact paying the militias not to kill each other or our soldiers. It’s like if you were treading water, two sharks approach and begin biting you, you give each one a small piece of fish to distract them. While they take a moment to eat the fish, you sit there treading water and yelling, “Problem solved!”

4) At the Petraeus hearings, he refused to give any sort of definition for “victory” in Iraq. That’s like running a foot race, you’ve gone 30 miles, you’re exhausted, and when you ask your coach driving along next to you how much farther, he just keeps saying “You’ll know it when you get there.” He keeps saying that until you collapse and die.

5) We claim to be “fighting the terrorists” in Iraq, but in fact our presence is helping to create more terrorists. The disaster in Iraq serves as a great training and recruiting tool for an entire generation of terrorists. It’s like trying to kill a gremlin by dousing him in water.

6) KBR, Halliburton, Blackwater and other companies have huge pull in our government (such as the vice presidency). So essentially they decide when the war is over. They also happen to be making millions upon millions of dollars from the war. So asking them to decide when the war is over, is like asking an ugly guy cast in a threesome porn movie to decide when the scene is over. Chances are the scene would go on for months, if not years. The entire crew would be standing around asking, “When will we know when it’s time to end it?” And the ugly guy would respond, “Um, it’s a bad idea to set timetables. Just trust me on this.”

7) Lastly, President Bush is like a colorblind child with a Rubik’s Cube.

The Stalk Brokers Who Pay Delicious Dividends

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Eating Liberally Food For Thought
by Kerry Trueman

Oh, you car-crazy, meat-mad Americans, look what you’ve done now! Everybody else wants to live the way you do, wolfing down Whoppers behind the wheel. So they’re ripping up rainforests to grow more grains for cars and cows, and that’s just accelerating global warming, which is worsening the droughts that are ruining crops from Australia to Zimbabwe.

As Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute and author of Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, told NPR’s Morning Edition on Monday, the current global food crisis wasn’t caused by some sort of temporary setback such as crop failure, but rather “systemic change” due to increased worldwide demand for meat and the fool’s gold rush to produce more biofuels, which Brown cites as the proverbial last straw:

“The grain required to fill a 25 gallon SUV tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year, and what we’re seeing now is the emergence of direct competition between the 860 million people in the world who own automobiles and who want to maintain their mobility, while the two billion poorest people in the world simply want to survive.”

Meanwhile, the subdivisions where so many of us park our precious cars--and our dreams--have proven, like Beanie Babies and Thomas Kinkade paintings, to be a less than stellar investment, leaving millions of Americans looking for a new bubble to float their boat while Wall Street and the rest of the world blanches at the prospect of a global recession.

But though our carnivorous, fossil-fueled lifestyle’s inadvertently worsened a worldwide shortage of grains and other staple crops, it’s also created some terrific investment opportunities! As the UK website everyinvestor recently declared, “Buy Food…It’s The New Gold:”

As we all know, food prices in the shops are rising. Prices of almost all agricultural commodities have soared over the past year as some experts predict major food shortages. Is this the right time to invest?

My unequivocal answer is yes! But not in the conventional, commodity crop sense that every investor meant. Forget about corn and soy shares; buy yourself a share of the harvest from one of your local family farmers instead.

It’s called a CSA--Community Supported Agriculture--and in return for an investment of a few hundred dollars upfront this spring, you’ll be rewarded all summer and fall with fresh-from-the-farm produce picked each week at its prime and packed into a box just for you.

Good as gold? I’d argue that it’s even better; after all, when food’s in short supply, you’re better off with carrots than carats. You can’t make stock out of bullion.

Here in the land of milk ‘n’ honey, milk prices are soaring and the honeybees we need to pollinate our crops are all going AWOL. The Washington Post reports that the cost of milk’s shot up so high that one school district in North Carolina’s gone back to serving its kids Yoo-hoo drinks, “which had been taken off the shelf in favor of healthier options…Sure, officials would rather the kids chugged milk. But each Yoo-hoo sale brings in 36 cents of profit.”

American institutions and individuals alike have been addicted for decades to cheap processed foods, aided and abetted by our own agricultural axis of evil: Agribiz, Big Food, and bottom-of-the-pork-barrel politicians. But with higher food and fuel costs looking likely to be the new normal, we may finally be ready to shed the shackles of this corrosive food chain.

Community Supported Agriculture offers an alternative model of farming that nourishes us, the land, and our local economies. It produces fresh, healthy food, preserves open space, and enables small family farmers to actually make a decent living. In short, it’s the one bright spot in an otherwise bleak food forecast.

Ironically, uber-urban New York City’s at the vanguard of this pastoral phenomenon; we’ve got 60 CSAs right here in NYC and another 120 elsewhere in the state, giving New York the highest number of CSAs in the nation.

You may have only just started to hear the buzz about CSAs, but this grass-fed, grassroots movement’s been growing for more than twenty years now, as one of its pioneers, Columbia University nutrition professor emeritus Joan Gussow, noted at the recent CSA in NYC conference held at Columbia and hosted by Just Food, the powerhouse non-profit that’s done so much to promote the growth of CSAs in New York.

Gussow, author of This Organic Life: Confessions of A Suburban Homesteader and a mentor to Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan and the rest of us progressive foodie activist types, calculated that currently, a CSA feeds one out of every 727 New Yorkers, prompting Just Food’s executive director, Jacquie Berger, to reply, “Yeah, but we’re aiming for one out of 7.”

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik described Berger as “startlingly young-looking” in a piece last fall on the local foods movement, and she is, but as Gussow’s anecdote illustrates, Berger and her colleagues at Just Food are also wildly ambitious--and rightly so, according to Gussow, who’s been living La Vida Local for decades.

You might expect Gussow to be just a bit weary of fighting the good food fight after all these years, but she may in fact be more optimistic than she’s ever been about the prospects for our food culture shifting to a more sustainable model. As she told those of us who gathered for the Just Food CSA in NYC conference:

“…as I think about where we’ve come, it seems clear that nothing is impossible, as long as we know we’re heading in the right direction. For years I have listened to marketers and other people vested in the status quo say that people were unwilling to change their diets, that if we wanted them to eat well, we would have to sneak nutrients into the foods they already ate, fortifying Cokes and snack cakes, making broccoli taste like candy and otherwise violating innocent vegetables.

So who would have imagined that people raised among so many choices, among the ubiquitous markets, bodegas, delis, restaurants, fast food eateries, street carts, and the like—people who can grab and eat anytime, anywhere they are in the city—would choose to hand over money up front just to get bags that contain, at this time of year, boiling greens and leeks and parsnips?...

…what is going on here today supports and celebrates some of the most exciting and heartening and inspiring activities taking place in the nation. In a time when each of us wakes up every morning to new revelations about the coming apart of the world we live in, the kinds of communities you are creating around food are genuine sources of hope.”

And hope, as we all know, is a hot commodity these days. Maybe even hotter than corn and soy. So log on to Local Harvest or the Eat Well Guide and find the CSA nearest you! Your investment will be rewarded with some of the sweetest dividends ever.

Shyness, Unfairness and The Visitor

TheVisitorPoster.jpg
Screening Liberally Big Picture
by Josh Bolotsky

The emotional impact of Thomas McCarthy's new film, The Visitor, does not emanate from the fact it is set in post-9/11 New York City. The story, that of a graying economics professor who makes fast friends with a Syrian immigrant, only to have the latter detained and potentially deported to his home country without so much as a hearing, could easily have been set, with a few adjustments here and there, in Soviet Russia, or a theocratic banana republic, and it'd still be equally heartbreaking. But it's not set somewhere else, and the fact it doesn't spend too much time harping on that particular "this shouldn't be happening here" trump card, but instead largely allows the audience to recognize and stew silently in that irony - there's maybe one shot that lasts too long of an American flag, a glance at the Statue of Liberty that's perhaps a touch too ironic - is what makes The Visitor such an effective advocate for human dignity, and the best film of the year thus far.

The economics professor is Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a lecturer at Connecticut College who, in his early 60s, is already a ghost of a man, ambling slowly to the one class he's consistently taught for the last twenty years, a bloodlessly basic Principles of Economics course. When we meet him at the beginning of the film, he talks in clipped sentences, communicating with the minimum words required to be grammatically correct, as if each word elicited its own unique quantum of pain. He maintains eye contact only when necessary. There are periodic references to an earlier, fuller life - a concert pianist wife who passed away years ago, perhaps a normal family life - but how he got to his current state is never fully explained. (Even though we spend virtually the entire film in Vale's presence, it is only once, an hour into the film, that he briefly mentions that he has a son living in London.) This is someone who knows that he has a certain allotment of life he is condemned to complete, and is hoping to get through it with at little further self-extension as possible - so when a departmental obligation requires him to travel to New York University to present a paper at a conference on globalization, he hems and haws at the invitation, doing what he can to get out of it. But the sentence is iron-clad, and he finds himself driving to his long-empty Manhattan apartment.

Only the apartment is not alone - an unscrupulous landlord has pawned it off as abandoned to the couple Tarek Khalil (Haaz Sleiman), a musician originally from Syria, and his girlfriend, a Senegalese artist named Zainab (Daina Gurira), who have been living in the apartment on their own. Unable to witness them leaving the apartment into a big apple where they have nowhere to stay, Walter, in the first act of kindness we see him offer in the film, offers them the ability to stay until they find a more permanent housing solution. Tarek and Walter bond over music, with the former's African drum serving as a sort of universal language between them.

And it is here while The Visitor really begins to shine, in the quiet, clever ways it details the ripening of a friendship. This is not, obviously new material, and the pitfalls for flagrant (and offensive) cliche here are obvious - an uptight white man learns to live life a little more openly and loudly with the help of an unerringly positive friend of color, you say? One who seems more at ease with his physical presence? Why, that sounds positively uplifting!

But it works, not just because of the stellar performances by Jenkins and Sleiman (more on that later), but because McCarthy foresees and corrects for the most obvious problem - turning Tarek and Zainab into "magical negroes" without real personalities, who exist primarily as inspiring foils for our white protagonists. Instead, these are genuine characters, with genuine flaws - Tarek's propensity to dismiss suggestions that everything will not be alright, Zainab's inability to trust in the goodness of people. And when we see that friendship develop, one notices that, unlike so many films, there's never one scene where Vale "decides" to open up a little more - it just happens gradually, his willingness to talk about himself becoming less forced and more free-flowing. (But even then, not that free-flowing - there is no magical transformation, and by the end of the film, he is still essentially a quiet man, albeit a quiet man with a few more outlets for his inner pathos.)

And then, disaster strikes - a few days into Vale's visit, Tarek is taken into custody by police in a subway station, and taken in for questioning, a questioning that turns into detention, a detention that turns into a potential deportation. Tarek's mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), leaves her Michigan household to visit the apartment, worried that she hasn't had her calls returned for the past five days. I won't say much more, for risk of spoiling the unspeakably dark and wonderful surprises of the second half, except that the film is primarily concerned from this point on with joint sufferings as they deal with the legal wrangling of a system that feels intentionally kafkaesque, trying to prevent Tarek's deportation on specious charges.

I will say this, though: "it's not fair!" becomes a sort of refrain in the film, a sort of security blanket for minds that're otherwise unable to process the sheer enormity of what they're facing. Like song lyrics, its credibility lies primarily in its delivery, and the delivery with which Jenkins imbues this line gives us more than enough credibility. Jenkins has long been one of my favorite character actors, particularly in the David O. Rusell films like Flirting With Disaster and I Heart Huckabees. However, finally given the lead role in a film, a development that would launch some actors into clearly-milking-it scene-chewing hysteria, Jenkins instead delivers a heartbreaking performance, entirely convincing as a shy man who realizes that his shyness, for once, may not cut it.

If I've given the impression the film is all dourness and thunderstorms, I apologize - The Visitor, for all of the misfortune it displays, is a story about the courage it takes to step outside of a holding pattern in your life. McCarthy's film is not just a plea for us to stand up to injustice, but to enjoy life for those who can not do so as a result of injustice. When The Visitor was over, I left the screening room in midtown Manhattan to find that the sky was overcast, rendering the whole afternoon an industrial gray. I walked uptown a few blocks, wondering who among the people I walked past and never spoke to could have been friends in another life. I wondered why everyone's face seemed to look so harried and strange. I made a mental note to look up and learn more about immigration policy and immigrant rights. And I called my mother.

Both the first shot and the last shot of the film show Jenkins approaching a musical instrument. In the first shot, he has his back to us in the privacy of his home, merely contemplating the piano in front of him, the instrument of his wife, alone. In the last shot, he has his newly acquired African drum splayed out in front of him, playing his heart out in one of the most public places imaginable, the platform bench of a busy New York City subway station, an action that would've been unimaginable to him a mere week earlier. The Visitor is about a man who realizes the unfairness in his own life, the unfairness that he uses to justify his own sadness and cruelty, is not the only unfairness worth ruminating over. That alone makes it one of the most important films for progressives in a long time.

Aborting Alarmingly

Reading Liberally Page Turner
by Amanda Milstein, Living Liberally

There's very little to say about Abortion Without Apology: A Radical History for the 1990s that isn't actively nauseating. Between a step by step guide to how to fill a vagina with blood and bits from a cow's liver in order to get a hospital to perform a D&C, and realizing that the dreams of the initial pro-choice activists would never be filled, the whole book was somewhat distressing.

The book talks about the three women who gave birth to the organization that eventually became NARAL and their impetus for becoming abortion activists. One of them married at 15 because of her family's extreme poverty, was told she would probably die if she gave birth to a second child, and then wasn't given information about or access to birth control.

The book also discusses groups like JANE, a Chicago-based women's liberation group that provided low cost abortions done by laypeople in a friendly and cookie-filled atmosphere before being shut down by the government, and feminist groups that encouraged their members to learn more about their bodies and think about how they would like to change their role in society.

I don't want to have the government controlling my body and when I reproduce (they'd have to start by giving me a federally-mandated dating class—did you know that when a guy offers to pay for dinner you're not supposed to say "Sorry, that would make blood pour out of my eyeballs?" I had no idea.). On the other hand, there is something to be said for having federal standards for medical care. I don't think I'm a radical right winger for thinking it might be safer to get an abortion from a professional, instead of by having a women repeatedly stick her thumbs through her cervix, or with an apparatus made with "a mason jar, a cork with two holes in it, two lengths of fish tank tuning, and a syringe." Do I think people who practice medicine without a license should be penalized? Absolutely not, but unlike the author of the book, it's not what I would hold up as an ideal--although with fewer medical students learning how to perform abortions it might be the only option in the future.

Abortion Without Apology ultimately conjured in me a kind of nostalgia—not for the days of living-room abortion classes or feminist abortion collectives, but for eighteen years ago when the author, Ninia Baehr, thought it a somewhat obtainable dream to hope for a day when there were no laws regulating or controlling abortions. I just hope that my daughters aren't going to have to give themselves abortions with their thumbs. Baehr's dream of a world where women have complete reproductive freedoms seems to be retreating behind a phalanx of voters who place no value on a women's right to control her body and her future.

Lou Dobbs: Homophobic or Homo?

Laughing Liberally To Keep From Crying
by Katie Halper

Last week Lou Dobbs told his viewers "I can’t say ‘I love you’ to a fellow in San Francisco." Me think he doth protest too much. Who was he talking about anyway?

Dobbs "came out" about having “one of those days” when “some folks are kind of just on you.” Specifically, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom "got on Lou" for hating on anyone who thinks that immigrants are human beings and not aliens. Menendez softened his criticism of Dobbs by saying "I love you, Lou" but a relentless Newsom spoke of "cable TV, where careers are literally being saved and salvaged, like Lou Dobbs."

Lovable Lou responded by saying "Senator Menendez said he loved me, and so I'm going to say I love you back. I can't say 'I love you' to a fellow in San Francisco I suppose." (Think Progress has the video.)

Hmmm. Is Lou engaging in some good old fashioned "Made in America" homophobia? Or is he trying to tell us something? Would saying I love you to Gavin Newsom be too close for comfort? I mean if there's one man who could awaken the latent homosexuality that lurks in the heart of another man, it would have to be Gavin "I can't believe he's not gay except I can because if he were he wouldn't be this comfortable with gay people and with legalizing gay marriage" Newsom. His sex appeal is so disarming, lesbians literally line up to get a piece, as this photo shows.

A version of this post originally appeared on Nerve Scanner.

A Detailed Analysis of Olympic Politics in Cartoon Form

Laughing Liberally To Keep From Crying
by Lee Camp

In a week that saw the Olympic torch extinguished not once, not twice, but thrice, our very own Lee Camp provides the hard-hitting analysis we at Laughing Liberally have learned to rely upon.

Apple A Day Helps Your Brain Cells To Play

Eating Liberally Food For Thought
by Kerry Trueman

Yes, there’s gloating galore in our Mac-happy household over the news that “even the briefest exposure to the Apple logo may make you behave more creatively,” according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research. No wonder we are just bursting with ideas that our cramped Manhattan apartment can barely contain; we’ve got more Macs per capita than you’ll find anywhere outside of an Apple store. (My Mac consultant husband) Matt would put one in the bathroom if I let him, which I won’t, because that’s my one tech-free haven in our hyper-wired world.

The study, conducted by researchers at Duke University and the University of Waterloo, Canada, found that even a split-second glimpse of the iconic Apple logo is enough to inspire folks to “think different”:

The team conducted an experiment in which 341 university students completed what they believed was a visual acuity task, during which either the Apple or IBM logo was flashed so quickly that they were unaware they had been exposed to the brand logo. The participants then completed a task designed to evaluate how creative they were, listing all of the uses for a brick that they could imagine beyond building a wall.

People who were exposed to the Apple logo generated significantly more unusual uses for the brick compared with those who were primed with the IBM logo, the researchers said. In addition, the unusual uses the Apple-primed participants generated were rated as more creative by independent judges.

As Duke professor Tanya Chartrand noted, “Apple has worked for many years to develop a brand character associated with nonconformity, innovation and creativity.” IBM’s logo, on the other hand, conveys an image to consumers that is “traditional, smart and responsible,” i.e., safe and dull.

Apples have a long tradition of tempting mankind to flout convention—just ask Adam and Eve. And don’t forget Johnny Appleseed, who was running around literally sowing the seeds of the conservation movement a couple hundred years ago, before voluntary simplicity and animal rights were even trendy.

The Beatles beat Steve Jobs by a few years, too, leading to a branding battle between Apple Corp. and Apple Inc., which rocked our collective world with their revolutionary music and machines, respectively.

That lawsuit was settled last year, but now Apple’s gone and picked another fight, this time with the Big Apple, which unveiled a new apple logo for its GreeNYC campaign to inspire New Yorkers “to walk, bike and unplug appliances when not in use,” as the New York Times reports.

Apple is reportedly concerned that the supposed similarity between the two logos could create “consumer confusion resulting in damage and injury.” But as the Times notes, the two apples are decidedly distinctive varieties. Yeah, they’re both apples, but New York City’s hasn’t had a bite taken out of it, and it’s green, whereas Apple’s trademark logo has evolved from its hippy-dippy rainbow phase into the more minimalist black/white spectrum.

Steve Jobs is reportedly worried that GreeNYC’s logo is going to lead to “dilution of the distinctiveness” of the Apple brand. Will people really confuse the two logos? I doubt it, but I’d be happy if they did; after all, if just flashing folks with an image of an apple is enough to encourage our brains to be more receptive to new ideas, it can only boost GreeNYC’s prospects for encouraging conservation. It seems only fair that the fruit that got us evicted from Eden in the first place should help us find our way back.

Walking, Literally, In Dr. King's Footsteps: A Photo Itinerary.

Traveling Liberally Passport To Change
by Josh Bolotsky, Living Liberally

A quick note - in the post below, I talk about my first time visiting Birmingham, Montgomery, Atlanta and other crucial locations in the civil rights struggles of the 1950's and 1960's - all of them places which resonate on today's anniversary. I know other Open Lefters have visited, worked and lived in these locations, and I would love your reflections below.

My family is not rich, but I'd be willing to wager that I received the greatest graduation present of any college graduate in the United States last year, hands down.

A months-long trek through Europe? A garage full of foreign cars? Long-stowed-away wine collections?

Nah, considerably less decadent, but way cooler. My immediate family (mom, pop, middle brother Jeremy, youngest sister Ilana) haven't been on vacation together in a very long time - schedules clashed, schoolyears interfered and it somehow just wasn't meant to be. We'd had blocked away the second half of December to do something - something that hadn't yet been determined. My graduation present? Determine that something within a certain set of time/budget parameters, parameters likely to make it a roadtrip of roughly a week in length, likely in the eastern two-thirds of the continental United States.

For me, the decision was simple - as a good liberal American history buff, I wanted to go on a civil rights history roadtrip, with a focus on the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wanted to walk the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a block away from the city's Civil Rights Institute. I wanted to see the bus station in Montgomery where the freedom riders were surrounded. I wanted to walk the halls of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta. I wanted to find a supermarket that still sells Mr. Pibb, which is virtually nonexistent in my home base of NYC. On the 40th anniversary of Dr. King's assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, I want to share a little bit about this trip, which brought us through Birmingham, New Orleans, Montgomery, and, finally, Atlanta.

I hate to have to include this disclaimer, but I feel it necessary: I'm aware of the pitfalls here. I'm aware of the stereotype red-alert: a privileged college graduate beset by white liberal guilt goes on a 'civil rights history vacation,' implying not only that 'civil rights history' is finished, that there are no civil rights battles left to be fought so we can just classify the whole topic under 'history,' but also that we can visit the streets of Birmingham where children were firehosed and attacked by dogs the same way we can visit the beaches of Cancun with a pina colada in hand - or, worse still, to approach it as something to mark off a checklist. Yes, I am well-aware of the the risk of dishonoring sacred places by the camera hanging around the neck of your Hawaiian t-shirt, the ease of forgetting that in the schools of Jena and neighborhoods of St. Bernard's Parish and in countless border towns and so many other places there are still daily injustices, etc. etc. etc. I am setting myself up as quite the easy target.

Two thoughts.

1. I did my best over the course of this trip to do good. To make it clear that the civil rights battles we were discussing are not closed cases, to volunteer in New Orleans and to see the poor neighborhoods of Montgomery not far from Ralph Abernathy's 1st Baptist Church. To provide educational materials beyond the standard "MLK talked about having a dream while visiting DC, and then did nothing much else for the five years before his death" spiel. To listen to Taylor Branch's America In The King Years series on audiotape in the car and watch "4 Little Girls" and "When The Levees Broke" in the various hotel rooms along the long trip from Central New Jersey to central Alabama.

2. There is a point at which the fear of looking bad while examining the past means that one never, in fact, looks at the past. "If I go on a trip to the Birmingham City Jail, I might look like a rich liberal white kid." So you don't go to Birmingham. And you never get the chance to visit that jail. And an experience that might have made you a better ally in the fight to take America forward never happens, all because you were afraid of looking like a bad ally. Of being tacky. I can't tear the CD player from my parent's minivan when we drive by poor neighborhoods. And if I had to, family members who might have an enlightening experience in these areas wouldn't have gone on the trip in the first place.

(Before I delve into the itinerary, huge credit is due to my sister, Ilana, who took most of the below photos, as well as to A Traveler's Guide to the Civil Rights Movement, which was an indispensable resource.)

Birmingham.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (which, tragically, does not allow pictures to be taken inside its exhibit hall) is literally across the street from Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, the site of the infamous September 1963 bombing which claimed the lives of four little girls.

This is the view from the steps of the church - the statue you see in the front of the BCRI is a sculpture of Shuttlesworth.

New Orleans/St. Bernard's Parish.

I wish I were sharp enough to initially realize, as I did later, that New Orleans was the intended destination of the Freedom Rides - however, no choice to visit New Orleans was quite that eloquent. Instead, I knew that if we went to some of the most famous locations in American civil rights history, without contributing something back in the area which most obviously indicates that those fights are still ongoing, that we'd be making an egregious mistake. As such, we made a two-day stop to volunteer in St. Bernard's Parish, next to New Orleans - one of the areas hit hardest by the negligence surrounding Katrina.

There are some great new organizations doing work in the gulf coast generally and New Orleans specifically, with Hands On New Orleans being a particular stand-out, but we decided to go ahead with Habitat For Humanity New Orleans, which assigned us to a storm-hit elementary school that was slowly, in a multi-year project, being repaired and brought back to a usable state.

A room assigned to a group of volunteers to paint.

It's impossible to communicate just how nauseating the state of the area was that late December, a full 26 months after Katrina first made landfall - I can only do my best.

The car windows were fogged by our pressed-up faces, part of us knowing that we looked like schoolkids passing by a horrendous pile-up by the side of the road, knowing just how voyeuristic we were being, and yet, being unable to help ourselves - the horror of the moment outweighing our more reserved instincts.

But there's a peril to emphasizing this horror, which is the fear that you'll discourage tourism to New Orleans - which is why I'll note that the tourism-friendly parts of New Orleans, e.g. the French Quarter, look much the same. (There's something really sad about this balancing act - that one must try to accurately report the horrors while also requiring a tacky mention of tourism potential - but in a world where the aid isn't coming from our federal government, there ain't much other choice.)

Montgomery.

The entrance to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Civil Rights Memorial Center, whose centerpiece sculpture is portrayed at the top of the post.

The ethereal view from below of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where King served as the chief pastor from 1954 to 1960.

I include this picture because it epitomizes a phenomenon I found myself silently remarking upon throughout the entire trip. On the left side of this picture, in the background, you see the Albama State Capitol, a site of so much history - the first capitol of the confederacy, the end-point of the march from Selma, the building from which George Wallace reigned as Governor - and, literally down the street, is the church whose basement served as the incubator for the Montgomery bus boycotts, the formation of the SCLC (though it started in the Montgomery Improvement Association), and so much more. All within a 1000-foot radius. One has a similar feeling in Birmingham (where the Baptist Church is just a few blocks away from crucial sites in the children's crusade) and in...

Atlanta.

...where the Ebenezer Baptist Church seems like a sort of nucleus around a map of vital history.

Across the street from the Baptist church were King's father pastored, until King took over those duties in 1960, is the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, which includes MLK Center for Nonviolent Social Change, King's childhood home, and his final resting place.

Postscript.
It didn't strike me until a few weeks after the trip's end that we had sort of looped around the intended path of the Freedom Riders - stopping in Birmingham, circling the entire path to New Orleans, coming closer again in Montgomery, and finishing out int Atlanta.

There is, of course, so much we didn't get to see, but perhaps the site I missed the most was one nowhere near the intended freedom ride path - Memphis, TN, which today, and for the rest of the weekend is hosting The Dream Reborn conference on a green economy; it's good enough to know that not everyone has forgotten that the dream didn't end in 1968.

We've Got Our April Fools...If Only They Were Joking

As Americans face a home mortgage crisis,
McCain suggested they fend for themselves,
while wanting to bail out the industry
that enabled the crisis in the first place.

As new violence erupted in Iraq,
revealing how little progress we've made,
McCain claimed the surge was working.

As the media enjoysed McCain on Letterman,
they laughed off as a simple "gaffe"
his continued false statements on Al-Qaeda.

For April Fools Day, McCain & his media fans
revealed themselves a group of April fools...
if only his stances were just a bad joke.

Forget the fools & find the friendly fun
of like-minded lefties lifting a libation
at your local progressive social club.

DRINKING LIBERALLY
Find - or start - a chapter near you.

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