Friday, October 21, 2016

The Garden of History: Trials Go Bad and "Justice Goes Awry" in Unhappy Times

            Yesterday's front-page Boston Globe story on efforts to prove that Ethel Rosenberg was wrongly convicted and executed for spying for the Russians includes a reference by Michael Meeropol (Rosenberg's son) to Dukakis's proclamation on Sacco and Vanzetti:
            Meeropol.. said they specifically are not seeking a presidential pardon. “A pardon is weird because it implies guilt,” he said. Rather, the brothers want a proclamation similar to one issued in 1977 by then Governor Michael Dukakis in the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case. Dukakis declared the pair had been unjustly executed in 1927 for murders they did not commit, proclaiming “any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed” from their names and those of their descendants."
            The Globe story also quotes this statement from Michael Meeropol on the proclamation:  “It would be a way of reminding people that every once in a while, our system of justice goes awry, especially in politically charged times."
            This statement strikes me as a keeper, a truth that goes beyond the particulars of the Rosenberg case.         
            Scholars and students of the case still disagree on whether the evidence the Meeropols have uncovered exonerates Ethel Rosenberg. But whether or not she was guilty of what the government accused her of doing, the charge hardly rises to a level deserving execution.
            Why do governments choose to execute people? The reason seldom has much to do with the evidence for the charges against them. So why the need for the judicially sanctioned homicide called "execution"? To protect our secrets? Why do we have so many secrets? Did we kill the Rosenbergs to scare off other spies? To teach us all a lesson?
            It is surely the case that the Soviet Union (like other autocratic regimes) executed people left and right with no regard, at the whim of its dictators, without regard to evidence or what American law calls "due process." But if we do the same thing to people such as the Rosenbergs for largely political reasons, how do we show that we are any better a totalitarian police state?
            To the best of my understanding the trial of the Rosenbergs was a complicated espionage case oversimplified by America's hysterical fear of Communism during the McCarthy period.
            According to Ron Radosh (co-author of the book "The Rosenberg File") Ethel Rosenberg assisted her husband's spy work by serving as a communication channel between him and Soviet agents. Radosh was interviewed by the "60 Minutes" staff as a rebuttal witness for that network news program's recent broadcast in which the Meeropols made their case for their mother's innocende. Here's a link to that show:
            Here's some of what Radosh had to say:
            The program’s producers and their staff worked extremely hard. Indeed, my segment was taped last winter, and they worked for months putting their report together. I and my associates... gave them a mountain of copies of KGB material from the Vassiliev files, specific KGB messages from the Venona decrypts, and answered many questions that they had. We left no stone unturned in giving them material that proved beyond any doubt that Ethel Rosenberg was indeed guilty of “conspiracy to commit espionage.”
            While Radosh clearly believes in Ethel's guilt, his next comment sums up the most significant point about the case's lasting historical value: "None of us believed she should have been executed, and no one on the program, including myself, argued otherwise."
            To read Radosh's detailed analysis of the "60 Minutes" show and his significant points of the legal evidence here's the link:
            He concludes:
            The Meeropols are given the last word. They say they were undoubtedly “damaged” by what their parents did, but are certain that Ethel Rosenberg was “killed for something she did not do.” True, she did not type any notes.
            But the Rosenbergs were charged and found guilty of “conspiracy to commit espionage,” not treason as many people think was the case. In a conspiracy indictment, any party who was part of a conspiracy is as guilty as the main perpetrator. That means legally, Ethel—who in fact did many things for the network—was no less guilty than her husband.
            Still, it seems an unnecessarily vengeful law that exposes someone to capital punishment for playing a decidedly secondary role in somebody else's espionage. Again, Ethel helped her husband, but in no way deserved execution.
            Radosh also acknowledges the impact of the executions on the couple's two young sons: when you kill people's parents, you traumatize their children.
            To me the value of looking once again at this 1951-1953 case seems to be the way it raises issues that currently bedevil American democracy: surveillance, secrecy, espionage, routine and systematic violations of individual privacy.
            Why do we have so many "official" government secrets? So many weapons whose engineering we need to protect? So many enemies? So many spies of our own? Why do we continue to ape the practices of dictatorial, authoritarian and totalitarian governments?
            So long as we have secrets we will have spies. And, inevitably, betrayals.
            Another conclusion the case suggests that whether you are likely to believe or disbelieve that Rosenbergs were guilty, or framed, comes down to political loyalty: Which side are you on? People like myself who despise the McCarthy Era and the entire Cold War period of my childhood tend to believe that anybody accused of helping the Communists would find it hard to get a fair trial in the political climate of those times. And their supporters were probably being smeared. Because Joe McCarthy was the biggest liar in American politics before the emergence of the current demagogue in the campaign of 2016.
            While I have not personally dug into the Rosenberg case, I have read widely about the 'notorious' Sacco-Vanzetti case, and I don't believe the state made any sort of a rational case for their guilt the crime for which they were tried: the robbery-murder of factory payroll in South Braintree Square.
            As noted earlier, the Rosenbergs' sons are seeking from the President for their mother what then Governor Michael Dukakis gave to the defenders of Sacco and Vanzetti: a proclamation repudiating their guilt. And I certainly agree with their larger thesis that "politically charged times" tend to pervert American justice.
            In times of stress governments have an observable tendency to reach and kill people for a host of political reasons: To demonstrate the seriousness of the threat; to reassure a threatened populace that he full weight of the law would fall on the enemies of public safety. To intimidate the perceived enemies. To make an example. 
            That tendency remains a weakness in our democratic system that we have to guard against. 
            In the desire to fulfill all the goals cited above, the state of Massachusetts (quite possibly encouraged by branches of the federal government) reached out in 1920 to kill anarchists.
            In the post-World War I years of 1918-1920, times were tense. Returning soldiers faced unemployment. Crime increased. Prohibition created vast new criminal enterprises. The example of the Russian Revolution governments and corporate interests.
            According the period's historians, some anarchists tied to the network inspired by Luigi Galleani declared war on the US government after Galleani was tried and deported to Italy because of his opposition to the draft and America's entry into World War I. This Italian-American anarchist movement was suppressed; their press shut down; their beliefs outlawed; their office raided; and associates of Galleani were also prosecuted and deported. Other members of the movement went underground and decided to strike back by planting bombs intended for officials or business leaders who played an active part in their persecution. They sent some bombs through the mail, although none reached their intended targets. Then they planted a bomb at the home of US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.
            This was the political climate in which Sacco and Vanzetti were charged with a most unlikely crime: robbing a workers' payroll.
            When anarchists turn to violence, history shows they have planted explosives or sought to assassinate heads of government. They do not become "ordinary criminals," steal money, rob banks or -- most unlikely of all -- steal workers' payrolls. American anarchists of the early 20th century regarded themselves as workers, and Sacco and Vanzetti were in fact workers all their shortened lives. Harming other workers by stealing the payrolls their families depended on is the last thing in the world they could imagine doing.
            And the government's case against them was nothing more than a vengeful fantasy. An attempt to kill anarchists, any anarchists, to get back at the bombers.
            But society cannot revisit a case in any more meaningful way than a governor's proclamation or change its mind about the fairness or truthfulness of a judicial proceeding when the defendants have been executed. 
            People shake their heads mutter that 'mistakes were made.'
            That sad truth remains the biggest objection to the practice of capital punishment.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Garden of Words: Song Lyrics are 'Writing,' and We Remember the Words

            If song lyrics are a kind of literature, then the Nobel Prize Committee is right. Bob Dylan is a Nobel Prize quality songwriter. Frankly, measured against living American writers in any genre, whose voice has had a bigger impact?
            Novelist Michael Chabon made the case a a few years ago in an essay published in "The New York Review of Books" that song lyrics are a kind of literature. Not the same kind as poetry, and they live harnessed to their music. But their own kind or category of literature. I thought that was a brilliant insight and still do. Has there really been a more influential American writer than Dylan in the last 50-plus years?
            Chabon, the author of "Werewolves in Their Youth," "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay," and "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" -- to choose my three favorites out of more than a dozen works of fiction -- examines his own literary influences in the essay titled "Let It Rock." He recalls receiving a book of song lyrics from an English teacher, in which he was happy to find the printed lyrics by songwriters such as Dylan, Joanie Mitchell and others. From this anthology of influential songs by Sixties-type songwriters he learned that the first line of Dylan's fairly early lyrical ballad "Chimes of Freedom Flashing," a song whose lyrics I've wrestled with myself, was actually “far between sundown’s finish an’ midnight’s broken toll”....that is, not "broken toe," an image that had caused him some pondering. Now I kind of like "midnight's broken toe" -- you know, midnight stumbles out of bed and bumps into the china closet, causing a heavy earthen keepsake from an old potter friend's first year on the wheel to fall off the shelf and land right on the toe. Some late nights feel that way... 
              Let's be honest. Those of us who loved songs in our youth -- whether 'werewolvian' or Wordsworthian -- embraced what we were hearing even if we were not hearing it completely right.
            Nevertheless, Chabon has a larger point to make: "Now when I think about [a teacher] and the book he gave me, back when he was trying to teach me how to be a poet, the question of whether or not Dylan’s lyrics are poetry feels irrelevant. Dylan’s lyrics are writing, and as writing they have influenced my own writing as much as if not more than the work of any poet," apart from a special few. "In fact, song lyrics in general have arguably mattered to and shaped me more, as a writer, than novels or short stories written by any but the most crucial of my literary heroes."
            The key idea is that song lyrics are writing. They are a kind of literature that is not identical to poems written to be read by themselves, unaccompanied by the other elements songs are necessarily part of -- the music, and the act of singing.
            I want to make two other borrowings from Chabon's marvelously predictive essay that bear on the question of whether the Nobel prize for "Literature" can reasonably be awarded to a songwriter. (If you want to read the entire essay here's the link:
            He points out that song lyrics stripped of their aesthetic identity as songs and left naked on the page frequently fail to make the grade as poems:
            "I saw that rock lyrics could not really be poetry because when you took away the melody, the instrumentation, and above all the voice of the singer, a song lyric just kind of huddled there on a page looking plucked and forlorn, like Foghorn Leghorn after a brush with the Tasmanian Devil."
            A sentence, if I may put in my two cents here, that shows a novelist's flair for the kick in the pants life-giving image.
            My last take-away from Chabon's essay involves an admission that many (if not all) of us given a youth in the era of classic rock or its succeeding decades will probably cop to: committing to memory many more song lyrics than lines of 'great' poetry.
             "Song lyrics [Chabon writes] are part of my literary firmware, programmed permanently into my read-only memory.... Not just words: writing. Tropes and devices, rhetorical strategies, writerly techniques, entire structures of allusion and imagery: entire skeins of the synapses in my cerebral cortex by now are made up entirely of all this unforgettable literature."
            This is simple truth. I can't remember my own poems nearly as well as I can summon lines and sometimes whole verses and choruses of the songs consumed by a youthful psyche. Memory is a talent of youth. Particularly exact memorization. Knowing all or most of the words of a song that stirred us, and may still do, is a function of hearing them over and over again. But what else have young people done since the dawn of electronic media but play (or wait for) their songs and listen to and dig them again and again? In the days when the transistor radio was your only personal app you waited for the Top 40 station to play your song yet again. Then you switched to the next top 40 station on the dial in the hope of catching it there.  
            In the digital age, you already 'possess' this song somewhere and you play it whenever you've got a spare minute. If you have a lot minutes you are free (as Spottify, for one, exults) to play it "again and again and again."
            And since song lyrics in this age of the world have an especially strong appeal in our youth, those that have imprinted their strategies, techniques, allusions and imagery on the brains on those who read and/or write literature throughout our lives... are still around. When I think of the lyrics that "speak to me," I realize they began speaking to me more decades ago than I care to remember. For example:

"... Even when Germany fell to you hand,
consider dear lady, consider dear man,
you left them their pride and you left them your land,
But what have you done for these ones?"
"Break up, To make up, That's all we do/ ...
That's a game for fools."
"Baby, baby, bay, where did our love go? .. . ..."
"... Is your money that good? Will it buy you forgiveness? Did you think that it could?"
[And pretty much every other line in "Masters of War." Which, it pains to realize, is as completely relevant today as it ever was.]
"Same as it ever was"
"You were talking while I hid
To the one who was the father of your kid
You probably didn’t think I did, but I heard
You say that love is just a four letter word"
[as recorded by Joan Baez]
"All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants, too
Outside in the distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
The wind began to howl"
(Preferably Hendrix version: If you've ever read any fantasy novels, that's what they all say, only they take hundreds of pages to get there.)
"My warehouse eyes, my Arabian drums,
should I leave them by your gate?
Or, sad-eyed lady should I wait?"
"Your faith was strong but you needed proof.
You saw her bathing on the roof.
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you..."
"I keep hearin' mother cryin'
I keep hearin' daddy through his grave
'Little girl, of all the daughters
You were born a woman
Not a slave'..."
"He's the universal soldier/ and he really is to blame/ His orders come far away no more/ They come from him and yo and me/ and brothrs can't you see/' this is not the way we put an end to war." ....

"Got up some time in the afternoon
And you didn't feel like much"
[Judy Collins version]
"I am leaving/ I am leaving/
but the boxer still remains." 
[Don't we all, though?]
"The dangling conversations and the superficial sighs..."
"And take off your thirsty boots,and stay for a while/
 your feet are hot and thirsty/ from a dusty mile."
(I had no boots. I walked no dusty miles. Did Eric Anderson? But he wrote this song and something in me believed it was intrinsically true.)
"I'm so glad, I'm so glad
I'm glad, I'm glad, I'm glad" 
"To be where I'm going/
In the sunshine of your love."
"Come, hear Uncle John's Band/ by the riverside
Got some things to think about/ here beside the rising tide..." 
There are scores and scores of these song lines, lyrical fragments,  including some I can't recall without a prompt, but often do return when some phrase, or image, or musical phrase starts them up inside my memory, brain, or whatever part of one's heart will always be "tangled up in blue." The first two or three notes will serve. The first two syllables uttered in a crooner's voice.
            Chabon's most original point may be that these permanently imprinted influences serve the creator/thinker/feeler within you ("and without you") by demonstrating what language is capable of. So do poems, novels, short stories, essays and even the occasional column in a newspaper or magazine. To me this recognition puts an end to the argument over whether song lyrics belong to the category of written literature or not.
            They obviously do, they are arrangements of words.         They get hold of some nexus of sense and sound; of brain cell and emotive response. And they don't let go.

[From the top: The songwriters of the lyrics above, in order: Buffie St. Marie; Stylistics; Supremes; Bob Dylan; Talking Heads; Dylan, Dylan, Dylan; Leonard Cohen; Laura Nyro; Buffie St.Marie; Judy Collins version of Leonard Cohen's song; Paul Simon, Paul Simon; Eric Anderson; Cream re-arrangement of Gospel song; Cream; Grateful Dead]

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Garden of the Trees: Catching the Leaves (and a Leaf) on a Favorite Fall Weekend

            Somewhere on one of the handful of woodlands trails Anne and I hiked in our three-day Columbus weekend in the Berkshires, I caught a leaf.
            A breeze blows, and those autumn leaves at the very end of their seasonal tether come floating, swaying, riffling, picking up speed and pulling back, sometimes lurching off in new directions as currents of agitated molecules shove them this way and that -- just as they do in the cartoons -- and eventually landing.
            This happened on a path in Williamstown; and I turned a palm up and extended my forearm a little ways in front of me, and kept walking without moving my hand, and one of the smaller, maple leaves detached itself from the consensus of a somewhat numerous squadron and landed squarely on my palm.
            That's how you catch a leaf. It catches you. You can't really try to catch one. The mere motion of throwing yourself around, leaping after the flock, lurching one way or another in those last minute course-corrections in a futile attempt to respond to the many little twists and turns leaves experience from invisible, but commanding airflows -- your own motion, that is, creates another distortion in the airflow sending the leaves off course.
            You push them away by seeking. 
            Just be there. If a leaf has your name on it, it will find you.
            It may not happen at all. Wind currents are pretty erratic. The answer is not always blowing in the wind (regardless of the Nobel prizewinner's famous lyric). Still, when it does happen you can't help feeling a little bit, well, good about things. In the context of the religion of pagan nature worship it may perhaps feel a little bit like being -- to appropriate an idea from an entirely different religion -- "sealed in the Book of Life."  
            In Williamstown, in the Northern Berkshires, where this cheerful moment possibly took place, a series of walking paths in the woods and pasture land can be found directly behind the justly celebrated Clark Art Museum. The photo at the left is the Stone Seat, marking the favorite destination for a woodland walk by German-born, retired professor George Moritz Wahl, who died in 1923. His name is carved into the stone. I don't know anything more about the back story, but our trail guide calls the series of trails that lead to this site "Williamstown's favorite walk."
            According to Williams College, numerous trails on Stone Hill can be combined for hikes ranging from 0.7 to 4.0 miles in length and offering the hiker "dense forests, massive rock outcroppings and, at the trail's end, "a great view" of the town of Williamstown and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Which I don't think we knew about because we certainly didn't find it.
             We followed one of those busy trail maps complicated by numerous intersections of helpfully marked trails, arriving at the Stone Seat. Then started off in one direction, encountered a posted map, and reversed course back the other way. We followed a lovely quiet woodland course along leaf-filled paths, encountering not a soul while sending a score of tiny chipmunks racing to escape our ogre-ish presence.   
            We did bump into crowded parking lots and human multitudes in the retail streets around Williams College, one of the few such encounters on an otherwise subdued three-day October weekend in the Berkshires. Little traffic to speak of on Route 7, a road we've been locked up on during other Columbus Day weekends. Maybe everybody else knew the weather was going to be clouds the first day, followed by rain the second. The third day, the day we had to leave, was in true Berkshire fashion crystal clear and absolutely stunning.
            Our next site, after leaving the college (and parents weekend?) crowd, proved to be one of the best rural picnic spots we've ever found. It was right on the farmyard of the Sheep Hill farm (farm photo below), now a preserve owned by a local conservation foundation. A picnic table is surrounded by the steeply graded pasture on one side, and a view of thickly wooded ridges (across Route 7) rising up to Mount Greylock, the highest point in the state.
            We had the place completely to ourselves. No one else in sight. The 50-acre former dairy farm was purchased by the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation in 2000. Art and Ella Rosenburg and their son moved here in 1933 and owned a milking herd for more than 50 years, according to the group (see
            The property was originally called Sunny Brook Farm, and the landscape named Sheep Hill because sheep were raised here in the late 19th century.
            I took some photos of the strikingly furrowed tractor-cut patterns of the hayed meadow (above, left)The contours are more prominent and the gradient steeper than the camera is able to show. From a path along the top of the pasture I took photos of the foliage on the ridges, and one of the observation tower on top of Greylock.