Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

now he belongs to the ages

It’s Martin Luther King Jr Day back in the States, and there seems to be a current of urgency in the online news services and among my friends and contacts. I’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of tributes and reflections on his legacy compared to recent years. King is one of my true heroes; I take inspiration from his life and words all the time, so trust me, I notice these things. Why the extra interest this year?

Is there an increasing sense of emergency on planet Earth? The economic slump grinds on; the endless war grinds on. Judges and little girls shot in the street. Injustice, poverty and violence haunt the entire world. Globalization seems to bless and curse us at once. Terror and hope live with all of us daily.

Do these teachings still hold weight? Can this man’s absolute commitment to peace and the power of nonviolence still apply in practical terms? Do you really have to ask?

Yeah, I think King’s message, like a seed that germinated slowly and is only now pushing above ground, is actually gaining in importance as we go on, as the world gets eerily small. We can’t escape the reality that this planet has become a community. We’re now involved whether we like it or not with what’s happening everywhere else, from drowning polar bears to mass protests in the streets.

King was there ahead of us. It’s only been in the last few years that I realized the extent of his global vision – that I understood how his push for peace and unity on a large scale were embedded in his teachings from quite early on.

Motivated by keen interest in the satyagraha teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta visited India in 1959. All agree that the experience of this trip had a profound influence on his career and ministry. On this post from last January on pan-Indian blog Sepia Mutiny, I found a recently-discovered recording of King speaking on the radio in India. (Note that the writer of the blog post admits he doesn’t think nonviolence necessarily applies to India in the global age. I don’t agree with him, but his argument is thoughtful, and he makes a connection between King’s work and the problems of modern-day Palestine, Sri Lanka and Iraq. This is the kind of discourse we need.) Here’s an excerpt from the speech:

Many years ago, when Abraham Lincoln was shot – and incidentally, he was shot for the same reason that Mahatma Gandhi was shot for; namely, for committing the crime of wanting to heal the wounds of a divided nation. And when he was shot, Secretary Stanton stood by the dead body of the great leader and said these words: “Now he belongs to the ages.” And in a real sense, we can say the same thing about Mahatma Gandhi, and even in stronger terms: now he belongs to the ages.

And if this age is to survive, it must follow the way of love and nonviolence that he so nobly illustrated in his life. Mahatma Gandhi may well be God’s appeal to this generation, a generation drifting again to its doom. And this eternal appeal is in the form of a warning: they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword.

We must come to see in the world today that what he taught, and his method throughout, reveals to us that there is an alternative to violence, and that if we fail to follow this we will perish in our individual and in our collective lives. For in a day when Sputniks and Explorers dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war.

Today we no longer have a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or nonexistence.

King draws a parallel between Lincoln and Gandhi, who were both shot and killed, saying they belong to the ages. It’s sad to remember he met the same fate. And belongs to the ages, aye.

Think about all of this for a second. This was 1959. His work in Alabama and Georgia had barely begun. He didn’t even have full civil and human rights under his own government. The situation of his people – the poverty, the social and political forces arrayed against their advancement – was desperate. And yet, there he was in India, talking about interfaith concepts of nonviolence and world peace. Many Americans of the day would not have been able to find India on a map or tell you one thing about it. Yet King was already trying to lift their eyes up, point them away from focusing only on their own problems. To me it’s an illustration of the yogic teaching that we do not apprehend knowledge, we are all born with it instilled within; and we realize it at different rates according to our willingness. I think King was realizing his true nature quite early. He was already a world spiritual leader, but most couldn’t see it yet.

Notice, too, that even then he was speaking out against the nuclear arms race and the potentially deadly paranoia of the Cold War. This would have been a very unpopular and even dangerous stance for the time; I’m sure it contributed to President Kennedy’s authorizing the FBI to spy on King. (In case you need a reminder that Kennedy wasn’t some great champion of the people.)

In a 1963 speech at Western Michigan University, King expounded more on his experiences in India:

Some time ago, it was our good fortune to journey to that great country known as India. I never will forget the experience. I never will forget the marvelous experiences that came to Mrs King and I as we met and talked with the great leaders of India, met and talked with hundreds and thousands of people all over the cities and villages of that vast country. These experiences will remain dear to me as long as the chords of memories shall linger.

But I must also say that there were those depressing moments, for how can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people going to bed hungry at night? How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes millions of people sleeping on the sidewalks at night, no beds to sleep in, no houses to go in? How can one avoid being depressed when he discovers that out of India’s population – more than 400,000,000 people – some 380,000,000 earn less than $90 a year? Most of these people have never seen a doctor or dentist.

As I notice these conditions, something within me cried out, Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned? Then an answer came, “Oh no – because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation.” I started thinking about the fact that we spend millions of dollars a day to store surplus food. I said to myself, I know where we can store that food free of charge – the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of God’s children that go to bed hungry at night.

All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be, until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be, until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

I just want to highlight a couple of things here. First of all – again – the enormous sympathy for the poor and needy living overseas felt by this man who wasn’t treated as an equal at home. The insight in connecting their struggles to his, and to the economy and well-being of his own nation and the rest of the world. And the advanced and holistic philosophy presented in terms that anyone can understand.

King was an intellectual giant and did not hide it; his practice of weaving his speeches with strands from a number of traditions and schools of thought is on display here. Elsewhere in this same speech he quotes or refers to Lincoln, William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, John Donne, Machiavelli, former British prime minister Harold McMillan, the Dred Scott and Plessy v Ferguson Supreme Court decisions, Margaret Mead, Aristotle, Plato, Bob Hope and Edgar Allan Poe. He explains the Greek concepts of eros, philia and agape, talks about Ghanian independence and the pan-African movement against colonialism and, of course, makes numerous and complex Biblical references. You could spend months reading history, philosophy and theology just to catch up with this one speech.

Sure MLK was one of a kind, but doesn’t this makes you wonder about how stupid our national dialogue has become? Last year, in another manufactured controversy, President Obama was decried for using terminology that was too complex for average people. Are you kidding? What would his accusers think of this speech? But King wasn’t playing politics; he was arming his listeners against injustice. It’s a basic principle of human relations and leadership: if you respect people’s intelligence, no matter how humble they are, they will pay attention to you. King’s mastery of the rare ability to impart knowledge in a natural and dynamic way of speaking is a key reason he became a hero.

But much more than just an inventory of higher learning, the speech is remarkable for the way it ties it all together, the way it reaches out to the poor of Asia and Africa and the rest of the world, expounds on the interrelated nature of all things – even touching on relativity – and reminds Christians of their duty to the poor and their commitment to peace. King’s philosophy had rock-solid foundations – the kind that don’t age – but real vision for the future. He really was on a mountaintop.

If you still have any doubts whether this message has urgency today, any relevance for a global society, listen to this famous speech from 1967. It’s all here. He identifies war, racism and economic injustice as a three-headed monster working to ravage lives all over the world – with America shouldering much of the responsibility. He affirms that his faith is what compels him to stand up and fight. And he calls for a multinational “radical revolution of values.” It’s breathtaking, and as fresh as the day it was spoken. It’s not just a dream.

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first night

First time I’ve written anything here for a really long time, and it’s about my first experience of Sydney Festival First Night. Kicking off the sprawling three-week-long Sydney Festival, the event has been a much-celebrated happening since it was inaugurated a few years ago.

This year, as summer began, the holidays passed and the start of the festival approached, there was a current of bubbly excitement about Festival First Night in conversations with friends and strangers alike. Plans were made to attend as a matter of course. I had no idea what to expect. But lately I’m down for anything.

The Saturday afternoon begins with another first: my first time DJing on the radio in Sydney. I’m at the 2SER studios on Broadway, playing a few tunes for a new friend, El Chino, on his long-running mix show, Departure Lounge. Shaking off the rust; feels pretty good. Making things happen on the Sydney scene. No train wrecks.

Leaving the station, I walk up to Hyde Park, headed for a meeting with my wife and our friend. It’s a lovely day. It’s summer in Sydney, I just played on the radio and I’ve got nothing to do but hang out in the park and check out a festival. But I’m tired and hungry. I stop at the first lunch counter I see, a kebab joint. I order falafel – my first Australian one. The counter lady asks me if I want cheese with that. I shouldn’t make fun; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them stuffed with French fries in the UAE.

I park myself on the grass in front of the ANZAC War Memorial, and down the falafel. It’s… interesting. But edible enough. Across the park there’s a commotion that sounds suspiciously like a festival under way. The girls arrive. They explain a bit more about what First Night is. They show me schedules and maps. Turns out Arrested Development and Emmylou Harris are involved. Emmylou, huh? Bigger than I thought.

We get in motion, head for the other side. Across Park Street, up the wide stone steps and under the huge trees that frame the old park’s central walkway. Elaborate decorations are set up on either side. Some of the trees are wrapped with fuchsia cloth. It looks sort of like lingerie. There are huge disco balls hanging in the trees. Soap bubbles, somehow processed to look like snow, whirl all around. We join a parade of people making their way to the center. A sound system blasts “Blue Suede Shoes.” Maybe it’s the atmosphere or maybe just me, but the tune seems to have a glimmer of its original raunch and camp. Other, bigger sound systems beckon in the distance. The parade gets more packed in. I realize there’s a huge stage set up over to the left and there are already thousands gathered.

We want no part of the thousands, for the moment anyway. We break away, out of the park. On our way out I see there’s another setup in another area, this one a big movie screen with a silent film showing on it. Hundreds more watching. Sounds like live musical accompaniment. We’d like to check it out, but drinks are a priority. We cross College Street to the plaza in front of St Mary’s, around a barrier to get to the bar. We elect a two-fisting strategy. Then realize we can’t cross the barrier again. That’s why it’s there, to keep drinks from getting out. OK, fine. We sit in front of the cathedral to skull our two each.

My beer’s not going down very well. Headache coming on; I feel a bit out of it. There’s another screen set up in front of us by the cathedral, this one looking like a big inflatable TV. But there’s only some festival collateral projected onto it. The sound system’s on, giving off a loud power hum that tunes right into my headache.

We take our time. Seems the festival’s going on without us, but it’s a great evening to just sit and drink and talk. Eventually we muster ourselves again and decide to head back across to grab some gözleme and see what’s afoot.

The park’s center is jammed now. There’s a queue just to get into the queue in the food corral. There’s some burlesque musical comedian on the big stage. Apparently his schtick is campy music with humorously violent lyrics. Why a headache now anyway?

Gözleme line’s way too long. Aussies love their gözleme, and for good reason. Line’s not moving at all. I wonder how those poor Turkish ladies can ever work fast enough making the dough and frying them. We settle for wraps (salad sandwich, anyone?), and more drinks. Amo can’t find Panadol in her purse. But this third beer picks up my spirits a bit.

From where we’re sat on the grass in the food corral we can’t really see out into the main area. Catching a glimpse at the big monitor, it seems the performers from the raunchy circus/cabaraet Smoke & Mirrors (which I’ll catch in the Spiegeltent in a few days) are doing acrobatic things on the stage a long way away. Festival’s going on without us. Back into motion, this time up Macquarie Street, headed for Chifley Square. Or maybe the Domain. We’ll know where we’re going when we get there.

Macquarie Street has been pedestrianized for the evening. Listen, pedestrianizing city streets is how to get on my good side. Hundreds of people of all ages, all races fill the street, in good boisterous Aussie spirits. Off to the right a crowd gathers and waits in front of the Mint. There are two dozen or more drummers in formation on both the ground floor and the second-floor balcony. They’re not drumming, they’re waiting for some signal. Arrayed like they are, evenly spaced between the columns of the historic building, all wearing identical black T-shirts, with big drums of several types below and little drums above, it’s apparent they’re very serious about making a lot of noise soon. All kinds of people in their ranks, too, including a couple of older ladies.

Still waiting. We can hear drums thundering from up the street. We’re not sure why those drummers are playing and these ones aren’t. The feeling of being perpetually in between whatever is happening. But while we’re waiting we get some ice cream. It’s been a busy day: the guy’s sold out of everything except drumsticks. (Aussies have another name for drumsticks but I’ve forgotten it.) Is ice cream good for a headache?

We give up on the drummers at the Mint and move up the street. The crowds thicken. The noise from the distant drums increases. Now we’re right in it: I realize there are batteries of drummers all up and down Macquarie, as far as I can see and hear. One battery is even elevated high above us on the balcony of an office tower. And now they’re all at it, pounding away in sequence. Each battery has a conductor with a baton; the conductor in turn has an earpiece. It’s clear they’re remotely coordinating the rhythm and sound. And it’s a huge sound: not so much deafening as all-encompassing. It seems to come out of the ground and occupy the air for miles. It’s electrifying. I’m thinking of how drums make people move – dance – fight. Never experienced anything like this. I’m truly impressed and say so to the girls. (Later I’ll learn the name of the ensemble, or tribe or whatever, is TaikOz.)

We’re moving still, that big sound behind us, down to Chifley Square. More pedestrianized streets. There’s another massive installation down here: images are being projected on the façades of tall buildings, but I can’t make out what they are, there are no screens, it’s all lost in the windows and architectural detail. An overworked sound system is blaring something that sounds like an old radio show. It’s meant to be about the history of Polynesia, but it’s difficult to latch onto. Still impressive though. Another crowd here, watching and listening. I wonder if they get it. But we give up. As we step away, up a side street, the distorted sound echoes off the buildings all around, becoming something ghostly and fascinating. Is this is the whole point of the installation, to be perceived as a huge haunted noise from blocks away?

Martin Place, not far away. A Senegalese reggae band is playing for hundreds more people on yet another stage, yet another sound system. Arrested Development will be on soon. The scope of this thing starts to sink in. They’ve basically shut down the center of the city and turned it into a gigantic party, a carnival, with attractions and distractions in every direction. We still haven’t found anywhere to be, but I’m beginning to love this.

We leave Martin Place and cross over into the Domain. There’s still another stage. Turns out this is the really big one. There are thousands more people here. Emmylou will be on in a little while. We find a spot on the grass. After all the drifting, it feels good to lay down and stretch out. Considering this is prime time, there are some, uh, quaint opening acts. A pair of young women playing old standards on ukeleles (their band name: you guessed it, the Ukeleles) are soon joined by a stout indigenous lady who sings her own regional variation on “Waltzing Matilda” and baas like a sheep, imploring us to baa with her.

Don’t want to make too much fun of the lady and her sheep. She’s happy to be here. So am I; it’s really pleasant. The broad meadows of the Domain stretch out before us, the Botanic Garden and the Harbour somewhere behind. There are people everywhere – laying on the grass, milling about, queueing up for food, working – but it’s a mellow and oddly cozy scene. From over here the big stage looks like a an expensive toy castle, lit from within. Beyond loom the buildings of the CBD, but they too seem far off and unreal. From somewhere over there in the city, searchlights quietly swoop through the glowing overcast sky overhead.

Emmylou comes on. She’s a tiny figure, but her blazing silver hair is an unmistakeable beacon. I’m a fan and have been most of my life. I saw her once before, at Carnegie Hall in 2003. Maybe this is too obvious, but it’s so interesting that life could bring us both, separately, two Americans, from there to this meadow on this night eight years later.

The first part of her set is much more country than we ware expecting, and she doesn’t seem to have written any new songs in eight years. Soon the crowd’s energy dissipates even more. It’s too mellow. I thought Aussies were into their country; but maybe not Sydneysiders. We all agree it probably wasn’t the best programming decision for opening night. I try to fight it, but somehow this musical legend has become a mere soundtrack, just another installation. An exquisite soundtrack it is: but we’re ready to move on.

Back at Hyde Park. One of the movie screens has clips from old Busby Berkely musicals being looped on it. A fedora-sporting DJ on the stage to the right of the screen is playing a set of house and breakbeat tunes that sample old jazz standards. Old movies, jazzy new music, get it? He’s making a performance out of it, bobbing his head, dancing around. The crowd – maybe a couple of hundred in all – is sat on the grass, just watching and listening, as if it was a conventional movie screening. Hanging over the stage is a massive crystal chandelier. Not sure what they are trying to do here. But I’m hypnotized by the impossible formations of dancing girls onscreen. I can’t always tell Berkeley’s wild choreography from the the video artist’s cheeky cutups.

There’s exactly one guy dancing on the lawn in front of the screen: middle-aged, with white chinos, a hot pink T-shirt and a shiny bald head. He’s dancing in place, staring at the screen, oblivious to the stares of others. The soft ambient light from the screen illuminates him like a saint. He’s awkward, he may be on something, but he’s feeling it and who can argue? As many people watch him as are watching the kaleidoscope of dancing girls. I hear a stranger ask another, How long’s he been at it? Oh, about half an hour.

Finally a couple of young girls get up to join him. He breaks into a huge grin and finds new reserves of energy, leaping about, hands in the air. Just like that, more people are up and moving over to dance with them. It took half an hour for anyone to join him, now they’re coming in droves, and it’s a party, something truly interesting, uniting music and film in a way  both new and natural. They all dance, while the girls on the screen looming behind them spin in complex loops, the DJ rocks, the chandelier hangs overhead. And the music is –

– wrapping up? Yep, the last record fades out, and nothing replaces it but power hum. The thing’s over just as it was getting started. Oh, well. This is the kind of night we’re having.

Down the central walkway of Hyde Park again, past a huge illuminated inflatable rabbit selling Chinese New Year to the masses. There are still masses in the park, untold numbers in the semidark, looks even more like a carnival, kids running around shouting and giggling, drunk adults, under the huge trees, under the disco balls, under the artificial fog and lasers.

Yes, there are lasers in the trees, green ones and magenta ones. Bright bold beams, cutting the fog, seeming more real than everything else. But something different happens when they touch the leaves of the trees high overhead. They splinter into thousands of little lights reflected off the leaves, like swarms of colored fireflies. I could stare for a long time. I feel a bit foolish, as if I’m acting like a kid, but I look around and realize a lot of other people, adults and kids, are stopping and staring too, pointing into the trees, getting snapshots. It’s like a celebration of something. Childlike wonder, maybe.

But we’re gone, leaving again, or going home. I’m tired and the headache never went away. Never did find anywhere to be. Quite a first night.