Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Hope keeps the weeds of cynicism from strangling democracy's flowers

By Nick Licata
Special to The Times

Chicago Police come at crowds with nightsticks and tear gas as they try to break up protests during the the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968.As the Democratic National Convention approaches, the one held 40 years ago in Chicago offers an insight into how the next election might turn out.

In 1968, the United States was embroiled in the unpopular Vietnam War, with hundreds of thousands of protesters marching in the streets. Today, the U.S. is stuck in the unpopular war in Iraq.

Although the number of protest marches is down, opinion polls show greater discontent with this war. It was not until after the 1968 election that a Gallup Poll revealed a slight majority of Americans favoring a withdrawal from Vietnam. Today, before the party's nominating conventions, three in five Americans (61 percent) think U.S. forces should get out of Iraq within a year.

Nevertheless, unlike the thousands of protesters battling police outside the Democrats' '68 national convention, there will be no mass protests at either party's convention, despite an ongoing war and an unpopular incumbent president.

There will be none for three obvious reasons. There is no draft and therefore college students, who formed the backbone of the Vietnam protests, do not have to think about trudging in a swampy jungle after trampling the trimmed lawns of their campuses. The number of soldiers in Iraq is a third of what we had deployed in Vietnam — 160,000 versus 500,000 — and that includes the latest "surge" of troops. Finally, this war's "embedded" media in our military limits opportunities to beam home images of civilian carnage and, thus, there is less anger and shock than accompanied the gritty Vietnam War photos from more independent journalists.

But, most important, there is another reason: cynicism has not corrupted our spirit. In '68, there was a growing sense of cynicism, best expressed by the growing baby-boomer population, that fed the nation's anger and discouragement with politics. At the June 1968 national convention of the Students for a Democratic Society, the largest student organization to ever exist in the U.S., the predominant attitude was that the upcoming election was a fraud that would only foster the illusion of democracy. There was little hope that electoral politics could end the war.

The chance for hope was dashed when Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated a week before the SDS meeting. He was on the way to winning over the doubtful; even anti-war folk singer Phil Ochs, known for his cynical ballad "Love me, I'm a Liberal," was a Bobby Kennedy fan.

Today, that sense of hope is being expressed most visibly through the younger generation embracing another relatively neophyte politician, Sen. Barack Obama, to the chagrin of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is as respectable a legislator as Sen. Hubert Humphrey was in '68.

Both Clinton and Humphrey have legislative track records that are significant and progressive. But fate dealt each a hand with an ace of spades, that killer card that portends doom despite its apparent value. In both of their cases, it's an ex- or soon-to-be-ex-president.

Humphrey, who was the strongest critic of the Vietnam War inside the Lyndon Johnson administration, had to keep his saber in his sheath during the campaign so as not to wound his commander-in-chief, who had chosen not to run for re-election. Clinton has to keep reminding everyone that she is not another Bill Clinton; she is truly a progressive in her own right.

Similar to Humphrey, she has a dominant ex-president as her closest and most public ally. And, in her eagerness for the ex-president's crown, she has muted her own potential for inspiring change in the way things are done in the nation's capital, as Humphrey did.

A replay of Humphrey's valiant but ultimate failure at the polls should cause a Democrat's heart to skip a beat. The question that many Democrats are asking themselves is, which ship can make it to shore this time?

The crowds, and their enthusiasm, point the way. Hope is what wins elections, not résumés, no matter how long or meritorious. Hope is what drives the voters to the polls. It's what keeps the weeds of cynicism from strangling democracy's flowers. It is why there will be no repeat of the '68 convention's roiling, mass demonstrations.

And, it is why the nominee who can capture the spirit of that hope will reach the shore next fall.

Nick Licata is a member of the Seattle City Council and a former chapter president of Students for a Democratic Society at Bowling Green State University.

Anti-war music event planned next week in Burlington

BURLINGTON -- The Peace & Justice Center in Burlington will present an evening of anti-war music, past and present, at 7 p.m. on March 7 at City Hall's Contois Auditorium.

The event - "I Ain't Marching Anymore," a Phil Ochs Song Night - marks five years of the occupation of Iraq. It is meant to pull the Vietnam War and Iraq War protest music into one show. Vermont musicians will be performing one Phil Ochs song and one original song.

Phil Ochs is widely known for writing and performing protest music during the Vietnam War 40 years ago. Och's song titles include "Draft Dodger Rag," "Cops of the World" and "Is there Anybody Here." At the time of his death in 1976, Ochs had written over 100 songs.

The show will feature performances by musicians that span generations. Some of the older performers have experienced both the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. The younger performers have the experience of the Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.

Performers include Amber deLaurentis & Tom Cleary, Jon Gailmor, The Magnolias, Colin Clary, Rik Palieri, Hannah Pitkin & Max Bronstein-Partiz of the Limes, and a rare Chittenden County appearance by Vermont's folk singing Senator Dick McCormack.

The concert is a benefit for the Peace & Justice Center's Recruiting for Peace Campaign. Tickets: $20, $15 for age 12 and under. Purchase tickets at the Peace & Justice Center, 863-2345 x2, or the Flynn Box Office.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Reclaiming a gallant voice

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / February 22, 2008

William Worthy reported from Communist China, the Shah's Iran, and Cuba in the early days of Fidel Castro.

He aroused the ire of the State Department by defying travel bans in the 1950s and 1960s and slipping into nations that were off-limits to Americans.

He was the subject of a famous Phil Ochs folk song, "The Ballad of William Worthy" that celebrated his exploits.

And now this journalism legend, born and raised in one of Roxbury's most prominent families, sits nearly forgotten in an assisted-living facility in Hyde Park. At 86, he is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

One of Worthy's fondest memories and professional highlights was his time as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, class of 1957. The Nieman Foundation will honor him today with the prestigious Louis M. Lyons Award, named after the program's longtime curator.

"The award is given to a journalist who represents the spirit of conscience and integrity that Louis stood for in his life and career," the current curator, Robert Giles, told me. "We're going to make this a real celebration of Bill's life and career."

The honor is overdue. But it won't do enough to rescue Worthy from his undeserved obscurity.

When I visited recently, he wasn't able to describe his exploits in detail, but many others have been happy to do it for him.

Worthy was a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper and a contributor to CBS News beginning shortly after World War II, when blacks were scarce in mass media. An early patron was Edward R. Murrow, the legendary newsman, who encouraged him to pursue a career in radio and then television.

Worthy was always drawn to left-wing causes, and much of his best-known reporting was from Communist-bloc countries.

Worthy combined activism and journalism in a way that would be more difficult today. His political activism began in his early 20s. Worthy refused to fight in World War II, becoming a conscientious objector. "There was no way I could kill another human being," he told me. He was a Freedom Rider in the early days of the civil rights movement and a friend of Malcolm X.

All of this was a departure from the genteel circumstances in which he had been raised. When Worthy entered college, he was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, a well-known obstetrician. But he discovered that his passion and his talents lay elsewhere.

Worthy's reporting career wound down in the early 1980s. He taught journalism at Boston University, where he clashed with president John R. Silber, and inaugurated a course in media criticism at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He retired from a post at Howard University a few years ago.

After that, he disappeared from view for a while. Michael Lindsey, who taught the media course with Worthy at UMass and greatly admired him, realized last year that he had lost track of his old friend. He tracked him down at the Park Place center in Hyde Park. He discovered that Worthy's money was gone and that he had fallen on hard times.

How he came to be destitute is, at this point, something of a mystery. An appeal by Councilor Chuck Turner has led to the involvement of the city's Law Department, which is working to save Worthy's family home from creditors. There is a trove of Worthy's papers in the home. Dorothy Joyce, a spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said yesterday that the city hopes that some of Worthy's papers will be placed at the Boston Public Library.

And today, while he is still able to appreciate the moment, he will be honored by the Nieman Foundation. Even as more recent memories have faded, he talks about his year at Harvard with glee.

With its relentless emphasis on the here and now, journalism doesn't do an especially good job of remembering its history. But William Worthy is part of it, reclaimed just in time.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist.