James Randi Makes Himself Visible

Penn and Teller do a magic trick with James Randi. Unrelated… but cute.

Via John Brownlee, who posts on Twitter, “my hero James Randi just came out of the closet… although I wonder why he waited this long, or chose to come out now.” Normally, a famous person’s coming-out announcement wouldn’t really feel like big news to post about here, but something about Randi’s news struck a cord. Perhaps it’s his age; James Randi is 81 years old, and, according to his blog post, this is the first time he’s officially told even his closest friends. Perhaps it’s the fact that he’s also originally from Toronto; an antidote to Margaret Wente.

James Randi dropped out of school at age 17 to perform in a carnival roadshow as a turban-wearing stage magician and escape artist. He holds two Guinness records: one for being encased in a block of ice for 55 minutes, the other staying locked in a casket for 1 hour and 44 minutes, breaking Harry Houdini’s record from 1926. Bigger than his accomplishments in magic and escapology is his career as a skeptic/author. He entered spotlight for challenging the claims of spoon-bender/psychic Uri Geller in the 1972. Since that time, he’s made it his business to debunk those who prey on gullible people, especially for financial gain: televangelists, psychic surgeons, dowsers, vibrational healers, and the like. Randi runs an educational foundation (the JREF), which offers scholarships to a younger generation of skeptical thinkers. An excerpt from Randi’s coming-out post:

From some seventy years of personal experience, I can tell you that there’s not much “gay” about being homosexual. For the first twenty years of my life, I had to live in the shadows, in a culture that was — at least outwardly — totally hostile to any hint of that variation of life-style. At no time did I choose to adopt any protective coloration, though; my cultivation of an abundant beard was not at all a deception, but part of my costume as a conjuror.

Gradually, the general attitude that I’d perceived around me began to change, and presently I find that there has emerged a distinctly healthy acceptance of different social styles of living — except, of course, in cultures that live in constant and abject fear of divine retribution for infractions found in the various Holy Books… In another two decades, I’m confident that young people will find themselves in a vastly improved atmosphere of acceptance.

Before publishing this statement, I chose to privately notify a number of my closest friends and colleagues — none of whom, I’m sure, have been at all surprised at this “coming out.” I’m prepared to receive the inevitable barrage of jeers and insults from the “grubbies” out there who will jump to their keyboards in glee to notify others of their kind about this statement, which to them will be yet further proof of the perfidy of the rationalist mode of life that I have chosen. Those titters of joy will be unheard over the murmur of acceptance that I confidently expect from my friends.

This declaration of mine was prompted just last week by seeing an excellent film — starring Sean Penn — that told the story of politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. I’m in excellent company: Barney Frank, Oscar Wilde, Stephen Fry, Ellen DeGeneris, Rachel Maddow, are just a few of those who were in my thoughts as I pressed the key that placed this on [the JREF blog] and before the whole world…

I should apologize for having used [this blog] as the venue to publish this note, an item that is hardly the focus of what we promote and publish here, but I chose the single most public asset I have to make this statement. It’s from here that I have attacked irrationality, stupidity, and irresponsibility, and it is my broadest platform. Here is where I have chosen to stand and fight.

And I think that I have already won this battle by simply publishing this statement.

It just goes to show that it’s never too late to step forth, never too late to declare visibility. Thank you and congratulations, James Randi!

Farewell to Howard Zinn, the People’s Historian

“If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive movements of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”

—Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States

The news came yesterday that Howard Zinn — historian, veteran, playwright and activist — had died of a heart attack at the age of 87.

Zinn was best known for his magnum opus, A People’s History of the United States, and for relentless activism against war and oppression in every form he saw. He kept up the fight until the end; giving his last interview just days before his death.

Born to poor immigrants in Brooklyn, Zinn’s family constantly moved during his childhood, staying “one step ahead of the landlord.” He later recalled the experience of “living in poor neighborhoods, seeing people evicted from their homes, their furniture put out onto the street—it seemed to have nothing to do with race or ethnicity, just poverty and helplessness.”

His childhood left him experienced in desperation, and he soon found out about war as well. Enthusiastically joining the Army Air Force in World War II, Zinn flew bombing runs over Berlin, Czechoslovakia and Hungary before participating in the first military use of napalm in 1945. The horrors he witnessed drove him to become a life-long opponent of militarism, convinced that “war in our time is always indiscriminate, a war against innocents, a war against children.”

Upon his return, Zinn took up the career of an educator, but found his own experiences missing from the official histories of his country. He strove to change that, and, instead of standing back, leapt into the civil rights and anti-war movements, inspiring his pupils (including a young Alice Walker), securing the release of POWs from Hanoi and testifying about America’s role in Vietnam at the Pentagon Papers trial.

Through it all, he laid the groundwork for his masterpiece, a book that revealed an alternate universe of dissident uprisings and almost forgotten struggles, simmering just under the surface of the American Dream.

Portrait by Robert Shetterly

Stephen Hawking: “It matters if you just don’t give up.”

Yeah, yeah. Happy birthday to The King and The Thin White Duke. You were/are Teh Sex. Good on ya.

Stephen Hawking in zero-gravity, 2007.

Hey, guess who else was born on Jan 8th? World-renowned theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking. He turns 68 today. Here’s a small assortment of reverent (and not so reverent) clips and quotes concerning a brilliant and resilient man whose mind is arguably Teh Sexiest human organ on this entire planet:

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany

Krautrock: The Rebirth Of Germany. Part 1 of 6. Parts 2-6 posted under the cut.

Produced for BBC Four, this excellent hour-long documentary offers an engaging and comprehensive overview of the 60s/70s experimental music scene in Germany that came to be known as Krautrock. Here’s a fascinating glimpse of what it meant to be part of a generation of radical young musicians, artists and filmmakers struggling to redefine themselves in the rubble of post-war Germany. These kids were drowning in a sea of Schlager pop and classical schmaltz– arguably the music of cultural guilt and denial. Meanwhile, they had the most horrifying historical specters imaginable hanging over their heads. They were isolated, rebellious, and deeply disinterested in “traditional” anthemic western guitar rock. The synthesizer was newly invented, and electronic music as we know it today didn’t really exist yet. They breathed life into its lungs.

Featuring the works of Popol Vuh, Amon Düül, Can, Cluster, Neu!, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Faust and others.

Welfare, HIV and Palestine on Sesame Street

With Sesame Street celebrating its 40th birthday this week, many blogs are reflecting on the show’s greatest moments. While most of these lists celebrate the show’s charm and humor, Sesame Street should also be honored for its commitment to social issues. Last week, SocImages uncovered this touching clip from the 1970s:


Gwen puts the above segment with Jesse Jackson, titled “I Am Somebody,” in the following context:

In the early 1980s the Reagan Administration engaged in an active campaign to demonize welfare and welfare recipients. Those who received public assistance were depicted as lazy free-loaders who burdened good, hard-working taxpayers. Race and gender played major parts in this framing of public assistance: the image of the “welfare queen” depicted those on welfare as lazy, promiscuous women who used their reproductive ability to have more children and thus get more welfare. This woman was implicitly African American, such as the woman in an anecdote Reagan told during his 1976 campaign (and repeated frequently) of a “welfare queen” on the South Side of Chicago who supposedly drove to the welfare office to get her check in an expensive Cadillac (whether he had actually encountered any such woman, as he claimed, was of course irrelevant).

The campaign was incredibly successful: once welfare recipients were depicted as lazy, promiscuous Black women sponging off of (White) taxpayers, public support for welfare programs declined. Abby K. recently found an old Sesame Street segment called “I Am Somebody.” Jesse Jackson leads a group of children in an affirmation that they are “somebody,” and specifically includes the lines “I may be poor” and “I may be on welfare” … I realized just how effective the demonization of welfare has been when I was actually shocked to hear kids, in a show targeted at other kids, being led in a chant that said being poor or on welfare shouldn’t be shameful and did not reduce their worth as human beings. Can you imagine a TV show, even on PBS, putting something like this on the air today?

In response to Gwen’s post, SocImages reader Ben Spigel agues that Sesame Street would not shy away from doing something like this even today. He writes, “the Children’s Workshop, which produces all the Sesame Streets, has been very proactive in dealing with contemporary social issues. For example, they produce an Israeli-Palestinian version of Sesame Street, and their HIV-positive muppet for the South African version. In the American version, there was the very public change in Cookie Monster’s eating habits.”

The Palestinian version of Sesame Street, titled Shara’a Simsim, dates back to 1996 – an archived NYT article from that time chronicles the show’s tense beginnings. Since the show’s initial concepting phase, there existed a debate among the producers as to what kind of approach to take. Would it be unrealistic to show a world in which Israeli and Palestinian children played together? Yes, they decided – for the time being.  In 2002, the show producers’ complex quandaries were revisited by the New York Times in the wake of 9/11. Now in its fourth season, Shara’a Simsim is a popular show for children that places an emphasis on giving children positive role models. On the Sesame Street Workshop site devoted to Shara’a Simsim, executive producer Daoud Kuttab (who you’ll remember from both the 1996 and 2002 NYT articles!) says, “giving children hope would be a major accomplishment.” And here’s a clip:

Back in the Summer of ’69

Jimi Hendrix performs “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Woodstock Festival in upstate New York, 1969. You can hear the bombs, screams and ear-splitting jetfire of Vietnam in that guitar.

At first, I just figured I’d take a minute to mark the occasion of this country’s birth with the above clip of Hendrix’s string/mind/soul-bending rendition of the U.S. National Anthem.  It’s been almost exactly 40 years since the footage was shot at Woodstock, during late summer, in the astoundingly eventful year of 1969.

Then I got to thinking a bit more about 1969. Egads, what a dense historical American nerve cluster! Over the course of those twelve months, one seriously heavy, snaking cultural current swept humanity in some exhilarating and alarming directions. Countless aspects of life as we now know it were irrevocably changed, and it all happened overnight.

In a piece written recently for USA Today, cultural anthropologist Jeremy Wallach called 1969 “the apotheosis and decline of the counterculture” and Rob Kirkpatrick, author of 1969: The Year Everything Changed said: “I don’t think it’s even debatable. There’s an America before ’69, and an America after ’69.”

To give me and mah feller ‘Merkins something to chew on today besides corn on the cob, here’s a list of just a few of the country’s more momentous occurrences, circa 1969:

The whole world watched, breathless, as the lunar module Eagle landed and Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the Moon.  Dr. Denton Cooley successfully implanted the first temporary artificial heart in Texas. Four months after Woodstock, the infamously violent, miserable Altamont Free Concert was held at the Altamont Speedway in northern California, ostensibly bringing an end to the idealistic sixties. In NYC, the Stonewall riots kicked off the modern gay rights movement in the U.S.  Members of the Manson Family cult committed the Tate/LaBianca murders, horrifying Los Angeles and goading a prurient media circus. The first message was sent over ARPANET between UCLA and Stanford.  L. Ron Hubbard had his organization’s name officially changed to The Church of Scientology, and they started litigating. Confessions of Aleister Crowley: An Autohagiography and the Thoth Tarot Deck were both republished, and Kenneth Anger shot his lesser known –but deeply resonant– film Invocation of My Demon Brother. Barred from reentering the states to hold their planned New York City “Bed-In”, John Lennon and Yoko Ono relocated the event to the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Quebec, where they recorded “Give Peace a Chance”.  Everybody got nekkid in the Broadway muscial production, Hair…

Go With Grace, Pina Bausch (1940 -2009)

Photographer unknown.

Pina Bausch died on Tuesday, aged 68, less than a week after being diagnosed with cancer. Dozens of eloquent and heartfelt obituaries honoring the Queen of Tantztheater and her incalculable influence on modern dance are going up all over the web. Mark Brown’s eulogy over at The Scotsman contains some especially incisive remarks:

She was one of a select few modern artists – such as James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Ingmar Bergman and Samuel Beckett – whose work can be truly described, in the most profound sense, as transcendental.

Bausch’s immense influence extended – and will continue to extend – far beyond her fellow dance and theatre makers, into film making and the visual arts. She was described so often as a “revolutionary artist” that the term became almost a platitude. Yet there is no other phrase which quite captures the impact of her deeply intelligent, humane, fearless and iconoclastic aesthetic.

Hell to the yes. It’s very rare to find an artist (in any medium) who strikes such a perfect balance of craft, grit, and grace; laughter, tears and squirminess. That “Pornography of Pain” label bestowed derisively upon Bausch by the New Yorker years ago may have stuck, but considering the emotional commitment and complexity of her work, it just doesn’t ring true.

Photo via the AFP.

Obviously, I’m no expert, but based purely off my own intuitive response to her stage and screen work, I’d call Bausch’s vision one of compassionate absurdity. Life and death, male and female, joy and grief, discipline and abandon are all presented with courageous honesty. She didn’t just break down boundaries between the mediums of theater, dance and film; she challenged our perceptions of performance itself.  Stanford lecturer Janice Ross nails it:

In a Pina Bausch dance, the invisible divide between the real person and the stage character seems to collapse so that one often has the sense of watching barely mediated real life events. This isn’t art rendered as life so much as living rendered as art.

I’m not sure if it’s a blessing or a shame that Bausch died when she was still so actively, splendidly creative. What a tremendous gift that she was ever here at all. In her honor, I’ve added “Revolutionary” to the list of Coilhouse category tags. Long may her dance live on.

Funereal excerpt from Wuppertal’s Die Klage der Kaiserin.

Several more clips after the jump.

Blood in Tiananmen

We’ve all seen the photo. Some of us have put it up on our wall. There are few more primal symbols of the power of individual rebellion than Jeff Widener’s single shot of one unidentified Chinese man standing in front of a line of tanks.

There had seemed so much right with their movement, their ideals, the spontaneous coming together across political creeds and backgrounds to demand freedom, to build a towering “Goddess of Democracy,” which they then brought forth to challenge Mao’s old, looming portrait.

For a shining moment, it seemed like she was winning.

It is 20 years since June 5, 1989. Twenty years since a peaceful uprising of students, intellectuals, rebels and working people that seem poised to set free the world’s most populous nation finally ended in blood and tragedy in Tiananmen square.

Below the fold are some photos that you may not have seen. Some are, to give fair warning, quite gruesome, but they reflect reality: over a thousand people that lost their lives trying to push their part of the world in a better direction.

In a time when most interest in China involves how much money can be squeezed from it, Tiananmen has faded into memory for far too many. It is more important than ever to remember the atrocities its government committed — and still commits — to keep its stranglehold on power. News of the Chinese government ramping up censorship before the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacres serve as a stark reminder of the things that have not changed.

The truth cannot die. Nothing will erase the reality of what was done. It is a reminder too, that there is nothing inscrutable about the East, that hundreds of thousands were willing to risk and sacrifice for the same goals sought around the world.

Some things should never be forgiven — or forgotten.

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.

Saying Goodbye to J. G. Ballard

J. G. Ballard died today. He was 78 years old.

There’s not much I can say about Ballard that hasn’t already been said. He was definitely a Coilhouse patron saint. Because so much has been written about Ballard’s influence on everything from cyberpunk (check out this rich article, which buzzes with the excitement of the genre’s earliest memories of itself) to modern music (as this article asserts, Ballard could be credited for having “inspired the entire genre of industrial music”), I’m going to make this obituary very subjective and leave you with my favorite Ballard memories.

The first one was watching Empire of the Sun with my parents. I didn’t know at the time that this movie, starring a 13-year-old Christian Bale, was actually based on Ballard’s autobiography. But I remember that even then, watching that film, I wondered: how would this kid, with his confused Stockholm Syndrome identification with the Japanese who kept him prisoner, his fetishization of aircraft and explosions, turn out later in life? Later, a friend helped me put 2 & 2 together, and I found out exactly how he turned out. He wrote Crash. And it all made perfect sense. Here’s Young Ballard in Empire of the Sun; haunting to re-watch on this day:

My second favorite Ballard moment is actually a famous quote of his. This was his response to a question in Re/Search 8/9 on October 30, 1982:

I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring. And that’s my one fear: that everything has happened; nothing exciting or new or interesting is ever going to happen again… the future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul.

Suburb of the soul. It still makes me shudder.

Post your favorite Ballard memories/impressions/quotes in the comments. We honor his influence, and we will miss him.