Jack Terricloth is Alive and at Large in Gotham

Film courtesy of Syndicate of Human Image Traffickers.

Many of us across the Coilhouse nation dream of becoming full-time artists, and some of us actually become so, but few follow our vision as fearlessly as Jack Terricloth.  Jack never learned any marketable skill like speed typing or graphic design or computer programming.  He’s never had a “Plan B” of any kind whatsoever.  He just jumped out his window and – wooosh! – he started flying.  While most of us were in college, Jack was a full-time punk rocker. In fact, he never even bothered to graduate from high school. What would cause an abundantly gifted, middle class kid from a stable family to behave so recklessly? Why wasn’t he disciplined by a fear of falling through the social safety net?

While our current global economic bust forecloses conventional career options for many of us, it’s also an opportunity to change consumption patterns and general complicity with an economic order that is clearly unsustainable in the long run. Will the economic downturn lead more people to unconventional lives or will it make us ever more desperate to fit into the economic system? Will global recession be good news for the planet and for making art? Is this the best time to follow Timothy Leary’s advice: “Turn on, tune in, drop out”?  Likewise, as file sharing rings the death knell of the music industry, will we see less mass-orchestrated pop sensations? Will musicians be more inclined to self-expression and artistic exploration once they no longer have the temptation to sell out?

jack terricloth on the beach in spain
Jack on the beach in Spain. Photo courtesy of the World/Inferno.

I first met our man o’ cloth way back in 1991, while I was working at Reconstruction Records, an all-volunteer punk record store in New York’s East Village. Back then, Jack was a snot-nosed teenager living under an assumed name with more than assumed parents in suburban New Jersey and fronted the band, Sticks and Stones. With Jack at the helm, Sticks and Stones restlessly explored new musical terrain – hardcore, punk, goth, techno, pop – until 1995, when his bandmates told him that they would go no further.  Undeterred, Jack started the current cabaret revival by assembling the World/Inferno Friendship Society.  The World/Inferno has since also explored a smattering of Northern Soul, pop, klezmer, and African-American spirituals. Now, several albums and scores of tours later, the World/Inferno has embarked in a more ambitious direction. They have integrated theater into their live performance in a production titled: Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre’s Twentieth Century. Doubtless, their tour will inspire some imitators, but there ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.

Lou Ponders The Infernal Nature Of Barack Obama

As you may or may not know Lou Dobbs — journalist, Birther, and cranky old man — resigned from CNN last week for the second time, for reasons that have not been made clear though it is speculated that he wanted more time to devote to his hobbies, like hunting illegal immigrants for sport; a hobby which has single-handedly kept this wonderful nation of ours from being overrun by a merciless tide of humanity intent on taking all the jobs that no one like Lou Dobbs wishes to do. Besides his outdoor hobbies, however, there are whispers that Mr. Dobbs may seek some sort of public office, thereby helping him to protect even more of America than he could alone in a tree stand armed with only his trusty rifle.

With that in mind, Mr. Dobbs has been making the rounds, getting his fleshy face out there and shaking his jowls gravely for the benefit of the public so that they may become more accustomed to his craggy, experienced folds. No appearance thus far typifies the direction that the Lou Dobbs Express will take than this recent interview on Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor in which the GOP’s favorite amateur pornographer asks the Border Baron — without even the slightest hint of irony — if he thinks that Barack Obama is the devil to which Lou, sounding every bit the glorious statesman he is destined to be, answers that no, Barack Obama is not the devil. He is just a terrible president. And a terrible person. Also, he may eat babies. In fact, he likes the taste of babies so much that he may mandate that every heterosexual couple in America must produce an extra baby which will be harvested by illegal, Mexican laborers for his sole, gastronomic satisfaction.

Or not, I’m just still flabbergasted that this question can be asked in full view of the public with a seriousness usually reserved for matters that are, well, not insane.

Larkin Grimm: Advanced Shapeshifter

I met Larkin Grimm in the springtime: she and her band came over to my house for tea and stir-fry one sleepy afternoon during SXSW last March, after playing the Leafy Green showcase at Emo’s with Vetiver, Sleepy Sun and Kid Congo Powers. The next day, we bravely explored the chaotic, throng-clogged streets of downtown Austin, in search of late night Thai food and transcendent musical experiences. Luckily, we found both, and got to know each other during the hunt.

Photo by Ports Bishop.

Larkin Grimm is an elegant warrior, strong and tall and crowned with unruly ringlets. Her eyes change color, and her calm gaze penetrates even the most fortified defenses with a chthonic wisdom far beyond her 26 years.

Her legendary upbringing tends to precede her: she was raised in Memphis, Tennessee by devotees of the religious cult The Holy Order Of MANS. When she was six years old, her family moved to the Blue Ridge region of Georgia, where, as one of five children of folk musicians, she found herself largely left to her own devices. She was a wild mountain witch child who dropped out of public school at age ten, yet went on to attend Yale to study painting and sculpture. Nomadic by nature, she has rambled all over the world, learning healing arts in Thailand and engaging with entheogens with a shaman in the Alaskan wilderness. She taught herself how to sing and play music during these mind-expanding journeys, locked in dark rooms and deep in the woods, possessed by spirits. She recorded two experimental albums, Harpoon and The Last Tree, both of which were improvisational and intensely cathartic works.

The enchanting Larkin Grimm sings by the side of a lake. Shot and edited by Bow Jones.

After corresponding for years, Michael Gira (of Swans and Angels of Light) signed Larkin to his own Young God label, and was instrumental in the birth of her latest album, Parplar. In her own words regarding their time working together, “…he has this great ability to make me feel comfortable being my flamboyantly perverse Mary Poppins self, and the songs I’ve written under his whip are probably the best I’ve ever come up with, so I am super grateful for this time in my life.” Gira’s appraisal of Larkin captures her aptly:

Larkin is a magic woman. She lives in the mountains in north Georgia. She collects bones, smooth stones, and she casts spells. She worships the moon. She is very beautiful, and her voice is like the passionate cry of a beast heard echoing across the mountains just after a tremendous thunder storm, when the air is alive with electricity. I don’t consider her folk though — she is pre-folk, even pre-music. She is the sound of the eternal mother and the wrath of all women. She goes barefoot everywhere, and her feet are leathery and filthy. She wears jewels, glitter, and glistening insects in her hair. She’s great!

In a time when our culture seems to openly scorn –but secretly craves– magic, Larkin Grimm is an unashamed and forthright power to be reckoned with.

Photographer unknown.

Coilhouse: Listening to your first two albums (Harpoon and The Last Tree), I get the impression that there was something of a strange sea-change in both your music, and your mode of self-expression, kicking off with Parplar. It’s an incredibly powerful album, and it’s clear that you ventured to some fantastic other-worlds while making it. What was that process like? I’ve read that you recorded the album in a haunted mansion: did the ghosts put their two cents in?
Larkin: Well, my first album was incredibly strange. I was still thinking of myself as a visual artist and a noise musician at the time. I had no interest in songwriting back then. There were some elements of folk that came through, though, and on the second album I tried to explore my folk roots a bit, but still avoided song structure. The big change came when I met Michael Gira and we blew each other’s minds and there was a lot of excitement in our exchange of musical ideas. Michael would force me to sit down and listen to these tunes by Bob Dylan and Neil Young and The Beatles, all bands I avoided like the plague before.

Interview continues after the jump.

Still Night, Still Bright: Au Revoir Simone

Everyone say hello to Angeliska Polacheck from Austin, Texas! Angel attended SXSW earlier this year to cover some of the festival’s more enchanting performers for Coilhouse. First up, an interview with Au Revoir Simone. ~Mer

A.R.S. in Austin, TX for SXSW, 2009. Photo by Angeliska Polacheck.

The keyboard-playing trio Au Revoir Simone makes dreamy, lo-fi electro-pop music with wistful lyrics and dulcet harmonies that Spin Magazine aptly describes as “make-out music for your inner android”.  The band’s name is a line from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which makes them even more lovable! Heather D’Angelo, Erika Forster and Annie Hart have been together since 2003, recorded three albums, and recently completed tours with Air, We Are Scientists and Peter, Bjorn and John. Their latest album, Still Night, Still Bright, is the perfect late night/early morning soundtrack, filled with introspective melodies guaranteed to soothe a buzzing brain or keep one company at sunrise.

Chatting with the girls during SXSW last March, I was utterly charmed by their sweetness. Despite having played a whirlwind of shows over a handful of days during the festival (the Moshi Moshi Records showcase, the Brooklyn Vegan & Agency Group showcase and to a packed rooftop at Maggie Mae’s) they were remarkably serene. Peaceful respite from the hubbub was found in a hedge-maze on the haunted grounds of the French Legation, where we discussed kindred spirits, darkness, haircuts, and David Lynch.

A.R.S. press packet photo. Photographer unknown.

Coilhouse: I’ve been listening to your new album Still Night, Still Light a lot lately, and have fallen in love with it.  What’s the title about?

Erika: We just came up with it in our practice space. We were asking ourselves, “What are these songs to us?” and we thought about the feeling of 5am, and the sort of clarity that happens when everything is quiet around you, and the stillness. It was free association, and just yelling out words in the practice space. Pretty much everything happens that way for us –our band name, our song titles– everything always happens that way, where we just kind of throw stuff out. We look around at each other and as soon as we’re all smiling, we know we’ve found the winner!

Heather: It’s hard enough to get two people to agree on something, so getting three people to agree… it’s never a fight, but if somebody’s like “hmmm” then you don’t feel as good about it.

[Interview continues after the jump.]

Shotgun and Paintbrush: Acker interviews Burroughs

Here is one of the holy grails of interviews, with visionary writer Kathy Acker quizzing the legendary William Burroughs.

They talk about many things: Word as Virus, Scientology, Jesus and the legion of apocryphal stories that followed Burroughs around like carrion crows. This took place in the late ’80s, and both had less than a decade to live, passing away within a few months of each other in 1997. We will not see their like again.

A particularly telling moment, at least to my eyes, comes early on when Burroughs talks about the power of “shotgun” methods — the cut-up method in writing or a spray blast in painting — that introduce a random factor. Yet at the same time, they don’t take away the importance of “careful brushwork.”

It’s an important point: it illustrates how false the line between inspiration and discipline is. Acker and Burroughs grasped that instinctually and their works put the lie to that division. I think many people wrongly draw the lesson from both that simply spewing up one’s subconscious visions makes for good writing or art, while missing the considerable craft they put into honing those thoughts into glistening brain-gems.

Lessons aside, the prime pleasure in watching this interview comes from witnessing two keenly unique minds in a fascinating conversation. The rest is below the jump. Enjoy.

Ross Rosenberg’s Advice for Aspiring Bloggers

Later this week on Coilhouse, we’ll be posting a Very Special Interview with one of our all-time favorite bloggers: Ross Rosenberg of ECTOPLASMOSIS! fame. If you’re unfamiliar with this man’s writing, proceed to ECTOMO immediately and read EVERYTHING that Ross – along with his wily co-editors – has posted there. We promise you, nothing will ever be the same. Ever. Again. For the abyss gazes also into you.

Here are some topics that Ross enjoys writing about:

Ross’s keen command of the English language, coupled with his mystifying ability to flush esoterica out of the grimiest and most cryptic corners of the web, has landed him in our RSS readers from day one. How does he do it? The full interview is still to come, but for now, the exalted 23rd level Chaotic Neutral Blogmaster is ready to divulge his secrets for success to future generations:

What advice would you give to aspiring bloggers?

1)     Respect: When starting out it’s hard to get noticed. Just like in prison, it pays to find the biggest, baddest motherfucker in the room and go at them full steam. Nothing gets attention like pointing out Perez Hilton’s grammar mistakes or a long opinion piece on how you could take Xeni Jardin in a knife fight.

2)     Choose your words carefully: Polysyllabic words are for pussies and Fascists. Keep it short, sweet, and guttural. Also, using the British spelling of any word will ensure that you’ll never get anywhere and people will make fun of you behind your back.

3)     Lists, lists, lists: Everything you write should be in the form of a list, whether it be the top ten things you smelled on Thursday or the top five tips for aspiring bloggers.

4)    Just because your paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you: Blogging is a dog-eat-dog business (see #1), consequently everyone is a potential threat, so do your best to take care of them early whether it be character assassination or just giving really bad advice.

5)     Blockquote: This is a big one. Why write something when someone else has written it for you? Just blockquote a big old chunk of text and add a one line introduction followed by a one or two line opinion at the end.  Even better, ask your readers to comment and give you even more content! “Warren Ellis wrote an interesting article about ferret juicing today:” Blockquote everything but the last paragraph. “It all sounds good, but I’m not sure everyone has access to a cider press. What do you use to juice your ferrets?”

Bonus:  Boobs: Seriously, no matter what the subject matter is, stick some tits in there. Everybody loves tits.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Rosenberg Knows Things About Stuff, wherein the question of “boxers or briefs?” and other impenetrable mysteries of Rossness are finally answered.

SOW’s Anna Wildsmith: New Album Less Psychotic

Still from a promo for the song CryBaby

Early last year I wrote about Sow – what I thought to be spoken word artist Anna Wildsmith‘s long-gone project. “Sick”, Sow‘s skin-peeled-back, beautifully raw 1998 album affects me to this day and I’d been wondering what had happened to Anna since its release. As luck would have it, she came across the post and got in touch. Below, a new song and interview with Anna. She talks about her upcoming album, “Dog”, new collaborations, music that makes her tick and evolving.

You’ve been gone from the public eye for over 5 years now – how much of that is intentional, and why?
SOW has always been a part-time project of mine.  “Dog” took over three years in the making, simply because I live in France and the people I collaborated with on that album live in London. Finding time to work together that coincided with their schedules and mine was difficult.

What have you been up to during this break?
Living a nightmare, renovating a ruin that I should have demolished right from the start and writing and re-writing a never-ending, constantly mutating, increasingly irritating novel.

Listening to Sick for the first time was a thoroughly visceral experience. Every song on that album feels intensely personal – is there a specific experience or series of experiences that influenced you while writing?
I like to watch people, I like to watch myself and then use my imagination to do the rest and come up with lyrics that conjure up the type of atmosphere I wish to convey on any given track. Indeed, I have felt all the emotions I write about, but I have not necessarily experienced the lives of the characters I write about.

Your new album, Dog, takes SOW in a different direction. Sexy, angsty tracks like My House and Victim are sure to keep long-time fans happy, but now there are also catchy songs like Porno Star and More Candy, with a much lighter sound. Is this a natural part of your evolution as a musician, or did you specifically aim to make Dog more accessible?
I think it’s a bit of both really. After a while, you get bored with the same old sound of your words and voice ranting on. Tracks like The Kidnapping of Anna Wildsmith, Pornostar or More Candy were crucial in my attempt to becoming more light-hearted, having fun and being less psychotic in my approach to what I wanted to express with SOW. I didn’t specifically aim to make “Dog” more accessible; it just became so as it evolved in time, like me, I suppose.

Where did the album title come from?
My dog, Buster, was the love of my life. He died, last year, in my arms at the ripe old age of 15. I got him from a famous refuge in London called “Battersea dog’s home” and from the moment I saw him, he gave me much joy. He helped me get through some hard times in my life thanks to his un-adulterated loyalty towards me and without him, I would never have come to live in the middle of nowhere. Taking a walk just doesn’t feel right without him running around by my side, snuffling in the bushes and chasing after cats and rabbits. I wanted to pay hommage to him with this album by introducing some light-heartedness and humour to Sow, qualities, I believe he beheld. I miss you Buster: R.I.P. “Dogs are gods living out in space”.

Anna with her dogs, Buster in mid-air on the right

I love the acoustic elements in the song Blue Sheets. Could you talk about the history behind this dreamy piece?
Rob Henry and I met up in Paris to record in a studio but when we got there, the studio had supposedly never been booked by us but by another band who had settled in there nicely. There was no way of negotiating with the lying cunts and Rob only had three days to spare so it was too late to find another studio. I suggested sightseeing, but Rob got out his laptop and we recorded “Blue sheets” in a friend’s apartment with a lent microphone, a four track Mackie and a bewitching flamenco guitar sample.

What were you listening to while working on Dog? Is there any new music out there you find particularly inspiring?
All sorts of stuff.  I have never really been into any one type of music. I’m not very up to date with what’s going on in the music world at present. One of my heroes would be Brian Eno; a genius in my mind.  Including his own stuff, everything he has ever touched turns to gold (Devo, David Bowie, Roxy music, Talking Heads…). I listen to Iggy Pop and Patti Smith on Sundays and when I’m driving in my car, I play Big Black as loud as I can. A very, very important band in my  world is PULP. I love Jarvis Cocker, his lyrics, his sense of humour, he represents the ideal husband. I like Damon Albarn’s eclectic work and I can spend hours listening to Underworld whilst plastering a wall. Although it may sound crass to some of you out there, I am a fan of Depeche Mode (always was, always will be), and I love Dave Gahan’s latest album “Hourglass”. I get nostalgic when I listen to bands like Joy Division and Magazine, but I cheer up when I listen to The Clash or The Ramones. I love Wham and everything George Michael’s done since. I laugh to Ian Dury and I sneer with glee when I listen to The Stranglers. I like to dance to Motown and 70’s disco too. I enjoy reading to silence and relaxing with Arvo Part. Otherwise, there’s nothing better than a good Sex Pistols track to start off the day. I must sound so old-fashioned.

Are there any spoken word artists you admire?
I never listen to spoken word artists, I can barely bear listening to myself.

Listen to “My House” – a previously unreleased track from Dog, then click the jump for the rest of the interview.

The Last Days of Leni Riefenstahl

Edit: oops! Video doesn’t allow embedding. Click here to watch.

This was a student film made by Sundance filmmaker Madeleine Olnek about Leni Riefenstahl’s 100th birthday. If you take it literally, it could be a little mean-spirited towards the old lady. I mean, Leni wasn’t that obviously smug in the interviews that served as reference. There’s a little more depth to her. I mean, she never said that shit about Helen Keller in real life. Poor little Leni. What an unfair portrayal.

But if you take this short film as satirical commentary on artists who contribute to certain regimes and then try to pull that “I didn’t know there were politics going on!” shit later, which is how I think this film is meant to be taken, it’s fucking hilarious. My favorite real-life moment on par with the absurdity in this clip comes from a famous 1979 interview with (utterly homoerotic) Nazi sculptor Arno Breker, whose work was hailed by Hitler as the antithesis to all so-called degenerate art. Journalist Andre Müller, considered one of the hardest interviewers of his generation, described the scene thus:

When he mentioned the tragic consequences of his professional activities under Hitler, his isolation and desperation, his wife trembled with laughter. When I asked her what she found so amusing, she replied that normally her husband spoke in a completely different way. During a stroll around the garden, where several sculptures dating from the National Socialist period were on display, she told me: “I don’t listen when he tries to discuss politics, it bores me.”

A macabre incident occurred when I asked the sculptor about his attitude toward the gassing of the Jews. Precisely at that moment, [Breker’s art dealer] inserted a new tape into his recorder and mistakenly pressed the play button, so that my words were accompanied by a few bars of dance music.

And no. I can’t read the words “Nazi” and “dance music” in such close proximity to each other without bopping my head to this song. It’s funny. It’s not funny.

The Intimate Horror of Michael Gira

Photo by Eric Hurtado/Etante Donnes

On Monday, we received an email titled “Is that the Batlight I see?” from Agent Double Oh No (a.k.a. Jeff Wengrofsky), our intrepid correspondent in New York. “Hi. I noticed the rainbow puke signal on Coilhouse and thought, if there ever were a signal that could shine in the sky to invoke my powers, this would be it.” While we languish away in Issue 03 purgatory (it’s not really hell… yet), Jeff has kindly offered to let us run some interviews he did circa 2002 for a now-defunct site called in-nyc.com. For those just joining us, Jeff has conducted some of the most hard-hitting interviews that Coilhouse has yet featured, including conversations with Mark Mothersbaugh, Magenta Foundation and Sonny Vincent. We’re proud to present the first interview in a series by Agent Double Oh No that will run as we finish up the writing on Issue 03: Michael Gira. Enjoy! – Nadya

At first blush, his imposing frame, strong handshake, suspenders, and cowboy hat could well cast Michael Gira as a sharecropper cut from the pages of Steinbeck. Close up, his quick, blue eyes quietly mock fools, while his broad, rotting grin strives to put his prey at ease like a real-life Hannibal Lecter. As the principal behind Young God Records, Gira’s first two personas rub uneasy elbows, as he ambitiously peddles uncompromising music that demands attention. Taken together, Michael Gira is a living work of art, an exercise in American gothic, a true musical genius, a bit scary and quite unlike any other person that I will ever meet.

Over the past twenty years, Gira’s music has changed its face twice, but has maintained a taut focus on his lyrical thematic: the base and fragile elements at the core of the human condition. His is a dramaturgy of intimate horror and wakeful terror, exposed without a trace of moralism or even humanism. In his early years with Swans, Gira and his cohorts invented a musical idiom of striking immediacy, pairing his baritone’s sharp and nasty catalogue of human depravity with the heaviest dirges conceivable. Over their fifteen- year career, Swans’ music became more melodic, mysterious, and, at times, downright gothic. With Angels of Light, the name for Gira’s main musical output since the time of Swans, he methodically directs beautiful orchestrations over simple, repetitive motifs and his magnificent voice.

As the prime mover behind Young Gods Records, Gira has also brought Devendra Banhart and Akron/Family to the indie music world. In 1994, Gira further explored his aesthetic in The Consumer, a collection of short prose on Henry Rollins’s “1961” imprint. Michael Gira’s musical and written work can be yours after a visit to his site.

I nervously sat down to chew some words with Michael as the sun set over Brooklyn and I tried to not play the fool. This is how our conversation began.

As I understand it, you are originally from Los Angeles. In 1979, punk was dead. New York was suffering from fiscal woes, and, in many ways, was a city in deep decline. Why did you come here?
Maybe it was mean streets. I despised L.A. It’s such an alienating place. L.A. seems to embody the worst aspects of American culture. Even at that time, the primary ways of experiencing realty were watching television or driving in your enclosed car, or sitting at your cubicle, which are also sort of like television. It’s completely secondhand. I was involved, somewhat tangentially, in the L.A. punk scene. Most of it, with the exception of the Screamers, was just like rock music played faster, and held no attraction for me. I liked the extreme violence in the live shows. Musically, it was boring. New York was “No New York” at the time. I had heard some singles from the Theoretical Girls, Lydia Lunch, Suicide. I was a slavish, sweating, nervous, Suicide fan. I interviewed Alan Vega for my magazine, No Magazine. It was a proper magazine, made of newsprint, with art, pornography, and punk rock. Our second issue had autopsies on the cover. We had to get it printed in San Fransisco, because it was too obscene to have printed in Los Angeles. I was a fan of what was going on in New York and an art student at Otis Art Institute. I was friends then with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, who moved here and I moved six months later. I came because I thought that it was a more interesting musical environment. When I came here, all that stuff was dead, and the advent of English disco was starting to infect everything. The time wasn’t ripe, in the end. I came here with a hundred bucks and figured how to live.

If you were really interested in “mean streets” per se, even then there were tougher neighborhoods than Alphabet City, which already had a substantial artist community. When I think “mean streets,” I think Piri Thomas and Spanish Harlem, which was really wild in 1980.

Maybe it was “Taxi Driver,” then. I remember reading an article in the L.A. Times about a trash strike in New York. There were rats everywhere. I heard about rats leaping into people’s mouths while they walked down the street! There was some wino that fell through the grates on the street and half his body was eaten by rats. I just thought that it was an interesting place to be.

The Magenta Foundation Stares into the American Sun

What a historic day! Big, bonecrushing hugs from all of us here at CH headquarters to everyone else on planet earth who is rejoicing at the departure of the Bush administration. There will never be a better time to post the following human rights essay and interview that our staffer Jeff Wengrofsky (aka Agent Double Oh No) has been working on for months. At Coilhouse, we’re glad to supply subject matter ranging from the utterly frivolous to the deeply involved and intense. This piece goes in the latter category. We’re honored to provide a forum for Jeff’s in-depth, thought-provoking conversation with human rights activists Suzette Brunkhorst and Ronald Eissens. We hope that their story and struggle will move some of you as much as it has moved us. ~Mer

“Human institutions appear to be the obvious and obtrusive causes of
much mischief to mankind; yet in reality, they are light and superficial
…in comparison with those deeper seated causes of impurity
that…render turbid the whole stream of human life.“
– Thomas Malthus  (1798)

As membership is constitutive for a society, its conditions are routinely, if not essentially, contested.  More than any other society, America has wrestled with two competing notions of membership: one based on exclusion (class until 1824, race formally until 1870 and practically until 1965, and gender until 1920) and another based on inclusion and rooted in the Declaration of Independence’s influential clause: “all…are created equal.”  This quarrel over defining principles was apparent even in the drafting of the Declaration. Thomas Jefferson’s original document, later altered in a compromise, called for the abolition of slavery.  Jefferson himself was in love and sired children with Sally Hemings, an African-American who was the half-sister of his wife and his slave. And so, America was born in original sin under a star of some perversion with an ever-present element of redemption. Even today, America blinks like a giant, Masonic hologram, simultaneously symbolizing and embodying our greatest hope and, in the Bush years, our greatest disappointment.

In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois declared “the color line” to be the defining issue of the 20th Century. The election of Barack Hussein Obama Jr. opens up the question as to whether the United States has begun the new century by transcending racial exclusion. Surely the America of 1903 looks little like the America of today: African-Americans are no longer its largest ethnic minority, its citizenry includes significant numbers of people who do not fit into the black-white axis, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts rendered discrimination illegal 43 years ago, Affirmative Action dates back to J.F.K., intermarriage is not unusual, Martin Luther King’s birthday is a national holiday, racial bigotry has long since fallen into disrepute in the sciences and is not tolerated in polite conversation, and even the Bush Administration had African-Americans in its cabinet. On the other hand, police departments are often charged with brutality and “stop and frisk” policies that target black youth, African-Americans continue to be overrepresented among our nation’s most impoverished and undereducated and imprisoned, and African-Americans are the victim of more hate crime than any other group in the United States.

Certainly it is very unusual for the people of any society to select a member of a minority (however understood) to its highest office and, perhaps, this event is even more profound in a country whose entire history can be understood as a long and troubled march toward the fulfillment of its inclusive promise. Can 300 years of racial difference be transcended by legislation or election? Will Americans whose biographies are not like Obama’s accept his leadership in a time of economic and ecological crisis? With the election of Obama, is the United States once again poised to provide moral leadership (as it surely did in 1776)? Is international moral leadership possible? It seems as though history itself has opened and the full range of human potential – the good, the bad, and the ugly – are all equally likely.

What is “racism”? Are all bigotries a form of racism? Is racism conceptually distinct from other forms of ethnic chauvinism? The major genocides of the past century were, aside from the Nazi extermination of the Jews, not understood in racial terms: the Turkish-Armenian genocide (1915-18), the Turkish-Greek genocide (1914-23), Stalin’s liquidation of the Kulaks (1932-33), the Japanese-Chinese genocide in Nanking (1937-38), the Nigerian-Biafran genocide (1966-1970), the Pakistani-Bangladeshi genocide (1971), the Tutsi-Hutu genocide in Burundi (1972), Pol Pot’s Cambodian purges (1975-79), the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda (1994), and the Serb-Bosnian genocide (1992-95).

Where do these cleavages, these notions of belonging and otherness, come from? They are found in various forms in every human society.  Sadly, our closest kin in the animal world also share this trait. Wars among chimpanzees and between apes have been noted by biologists since 1970. Are hatreds naturally rooted in “selfish genes”? If so, do we need unrealizable principles to inform our behavior and ground social criticism?

Is cosmopolitanism – the idea that one can be a “citizen of the world” – possible? Aren’t we always already embedded in cultural conversations, genetic inheritances, and political communities? Does anyone have arms long enough to embrace humanity as a whole? What do we do with those who return our embrace with bullets and bombs? Is cosmopolitanism an unrealistic retreat from the world as it actually is? Is cosmopolitanism a rhetorical strategy of the weak to keep the strong from winning?

Suzette Brunkhorst and Ronald Eissens.

On Thanksgiving, an American holiday whose lore bespeaks inclusion and exclusion, I sat down to discuss hate, race, and the limits of freedom in Holland, often considered among the freest places in this world, and on the internet, a transnational network, with Suzette Brunkhorst and Ronald Eissens, the Directors of the Magenta Foundation.  In their own words, “Magenta is a foundation that aims to combat racism and other forms of discrimination primarily on and through the Internet.” They have organized many high profile events in the name of inclusion and understanding, and have presented reports on bigotry before the United Nations and the O.S.C.E. Undeterred in the face of many death threats, they are cosmopolitan heroes. Sadly, just one day after this interview, Suzette was diagnosed with cancer and has since gone into chemotherapy. On this day, full of hope, let’s wish her a fast and painless recovery.

(Jeff’s full interview with Suzette Brunkhorst and Ronald Eissens appears after the jump.)