Monday, April 27, 2009

L.A. Times Festival of Books

I'm trying to return from the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. That's not as easy as it sounds. My Sunday night flight was delayed several hours, so I decided to bunk in Burbank last night.

But the festival is hard to leave for another reason. It's glorious to see so many readers and writers strolling the UCLA campus. Plus the panels are great, and the weather was gorgeous.

I also ran into a lot of friends: Malcolm Margolin, Sasha Abramsky, Frances Dinkelspiel, Cherilyn Parsons, Adrian Maher, etc. And I connected, in some cases for the first time, with some fellow authors. That includes Gustavo Arellano and Ernie Freeberg, whose Gene Debs bio I reviewed for the L.A. Times. That book, Democracy's Prisoner, was a finalist for the festival's book award in biography.

I also saw Randy Shaw, editor of Beyond Chron and author of Beyond the Fields, the UC Press book on the UFW organizers and their lasting influence. Randy and Ernie were on the same panel.

On Saturday night, Sasha and I attended a Truthdig panel and fundraiser. The featured guests were Amy Goodman and Chris Hedges, both of whom had plenty to say about American media and politics. Bob Scheer hosted the panel. Stanley Sheinbaum, Zuade Kaufman, and Peter Scheer were also there, and afterwards we repaired to Bob's digs for the post-panel wingding.

Unfortunately, I missed Frances's panel with Bill Deverell. I really wanted to make that--it also included D.J. Waldie, whom I've never met--but I ended up battling traffic to the Truthdig event downtown. It took me well over an hour (on Saturday afternoon) to get there. I arrived 30 minutes late, but I didn't miss anything, since Amy and Chris were caught in the same traffic. But I was riding good in my rented Mustang, so what the hell.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Silicon Valley--The Place

Silicon Valleys' staggering success, which depends on a new technological innovation every decade or so, fits a longstanding and powerful story about California that stretches back to gold rush. That story used to figure California as the Great Exception. Now it also seems more like the Great Template. What's happening here, we tell the rest of the world, will be happening near you soon.

But the Silicon Valley story tends to obscure at least as much as it reveals. Mostly it conceals the history (let's call it the people's history) and the everyday quality of life on the ground here. That part of the story is the focus of the California Studies Association conference I'm attending today at De Anza College.

I won't try to summarize the fine presentations I've heard here, but here's a little factoid for you. We usually talk about the San Francisco Bay Area. Makes sense, right? But the Census folks talk about the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland area. Yep, Santa Clara County is by far the most populous one in the nine-county Bay Area. It's also a huge economic engine. But I wouldn't dream of telling anyone I was from the San Jose area.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hemingway on Lee, Part II

Mark Hemingway replied yesterday on National Review Online to the Barbara Lee post. I really do want to let the Ramparts book do the talking on this point, because the context is important. But he's probably right that my main beef, at least in this instance, is with Barbara Lee's comment on the death of Betty Van Patter.

Did I make too big a deal out of the mistake in Hemingway's review? Probably. After all, the piece was a book review, and the mistake was in Lee's book. In fact, I tried to correct that error last year, when I saw the book in galleys at Book Expo America. I pointed it out to the fellow in the publisher's booth, and he took down the info, etc. Then the book appeared with the same mistake.

After I saw the galleys, I mentioned this passage to Tamara Baltar, Betty's daughter, who also worked for Ramparts (and later, Mother Jones and the Center for Investigative Reporting). It was a difficult conversation for me; I can't imagine what it was like for Tamara. That made it easier for me to assign a lot of significance to the mistake--both in Lee's book and in Hemingway's review.

The more important point is what Lee writes about the Panthers and Betty. Lee implies that the government may have committed the murder and then blamed it on the Panthers: "This kind of tactic had been seen before and was known to have been used by the government’s anti-Panther COINTELPRO group." I'm not convinced that's what happened here, and neither are Betty's former colleagues at Ramparts. But COINTELPRO's legacy makes that kind of comment more or less predictable.

And it wasn't just the FBI. The CIA was also keeping an eye on domestic groups, including Ramparts after the magazine exposed some of the agency's covert operations in Vietnam. When a CIA agent briefed his boss on his plans for screwing up the magazine, the boss reportedly replied, "Eddie, you have a spot of blood on your pinafore." Much of this illegality was exposed later by former Ramparts contributor Sy Hersh in the New York Times.

I don't think either end of the ideological spectrum has a monopoly on virtue here, but in the meantime, I'd like to do my small part to keep the facts straight. Sometimes that's hard enough, and I appreciate Hemingway's prompt correction to his review.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

National Review on Barbara Lee

Mark Hemingway of National Review Online posted a book review of Barbara Lee's Renegade for Peace & Justice with predictable results. Hemingway asks: "What exactly is wrong with her?"

Certainly Lee's recent visit to Cuba and her erstwhile connection to the Black Panthers are perfect grist for the right-wing mill. The review's title, "Comrade Barbara," is drawn from Bobby Seale's moniker for Lee after she became involved with the Black Students Union at Mills College.

Lee's book also figures in my Ramparts research, and on one of the points that Hemingway raises: her halfhearted defense of the Black Panthers in the murder of Betty Van Patter, the magazine's former bookkeeper. I won't rehearse the details here--that's what the book is for--but I don't think Lee's cursory discussion enhances her honor.

But let's not get too carried with Hemingway's argument, either. For one thing, he gets Betty's name wrong. He calls her Betty Van Tanner, thereby repeating Lee's mistake in the book. This despite the fact that Hemingway mentions David Horowitz's account of this brutal episode in Radical Son, which at least gets the names right.

I don't think I can credit anyone, left or right, whose control of the facts is that loose.

Speaking of National Review and its founder, William F. Buckley, some of us recall his television program, Firing Line. But did you know that Robert Scheer appeared on it? The title of that episode was "Is Ramparts Magazine Un-American?" If you know anything about the participants, you can imagine the tone of the exchange.

The Firing Line tapes are hard to find now--I had to visit the Hoover Institution to watch the Scheer episode--but I discuss that exchange in the book, whose publication date is September 8.


Friday, April 17, 2009

Secondhand Sounds Redux

Fanatical readers of this blog will recall that Secondhand Sounds, which airs on KCSB, is pushing back the frontiers of indie, R&B, and roots music broadcasting. What's less well known, perhaps, is that the show has moved to a new time slot: Wednesday from 6 to 8 a.m.

I know what you're thinking. Will this move dilute the fierce independence that helped the program dominate the airwaves every other Saturday between 4 and 6 a.m.? All I can say is, tune in and find out. You can catch the webcast at the KCSB link above. For those of you who are still fumbling around, trying to find out where the real action is, check the other link to see what you've missed. Just do it. Now.

We Used to Own the Bronx

Don't let the title fool you: Eve Pell's memoir, which features her privileged upbringing on the east coast, is also a fascinating portrait of San Francisco radical journalism during the 60s and 70s.

Eve traces her U.S. roots to the mid-17th century, when Thomas Pell received enormous parcels of land from the British crown and local Indians. When she says they used to own the Bronx, she really means it. Remember the book The Taking of Pelham 123 about the hijacked subway train? (If not, you'll get another shot at it with the John Travolta and Denzel Washington film this year.) Pelham is named after them, and they still have the right to claim a fat calf annually from the city of New Rochelle.

Over the years, the Pells have sold the land, married well, and lived very comfortably in WASPy bastions like Tuxedo Park. The family's public face, I suppose, has been U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, and their name still graces the student grants he cooked up in the Higher Education Act of 1965.

The California part of the story unfolds when Eve marries an architect based in San Francisco. There she begins working for Paul Jacobs and Saul Landau, who figure heavily in the development of Ramparts magazine. Her marriage dissolves when she begins to question many of the social and political conventions her family supported reflexively.

She goes on to work in the prison movement, meets George Jackson, and is brought face-to-face with a world that couldn't be less like the one she grew up in. Later, she crosses paths with former Ramparts editor David Horowitz, who, unbeknownst to her, is tacking hard right in his political voyage. That becomes a problem when Horowitz uses her as a source to discredit the movement she labored in for years.

I don't want to give away the whole story, which Eve tells briskly, honestly, and with a great knack for selection and emphasis. But in one up-tempo book, you get an ethnography of East Coast privilege and an insider's account of San Francisco movement journalism. That's good value, people.

Full disclosure: I interviewed Eve over the telephone for the Ramparts book. Though we've never met in person, she visited my home with her husband, who was my mother's boss at the Department of Labor in San Francisco.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Silicon Valley Event

Save the date: Friday, April 24. The California Studies Association is hosting an all-day conference called "Debugging the Silicon Dream: Real Life in a Virtual World" at De Anza College in Cupertino. Here's the description:
The Internet floats in the popular imagination like a disembodied utopia; the mecca of Silicon Valley rises out of nowhere, built by technological genius and entrepreneurial drive. In real life, however, these stories obscure more than they reveal. This conference aims to "ground" public discussion about the Internet, Silicon Valley, and high-tech California. The event will bring together scholars, artists, community leaders, and the broader public to explore both the real-world forces that shape these developments and their consequences for people and place.

Click here for more information: panels, speakers, schedule, etc. If you're a student in my San Francisco State class, you will receive extravagant credit toward your course participation grade for attending this. Free for students, but please register for food planning purposes.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Tom Braden ... and Ramparts Magazine

Tom Braden died this week. According to the Washington Post, he was head of the CIA's International Organizations Division, which secretly funded U.S. cultural, labor, and educational groups in an effort to thwart the spread of communism during the Cold War.

Ramparts exposed that funding in a 1967 article about the CIA's connection to the National Students Association. Braden defended the secret program, which he said was his idea, in an article for the Saturday Evening Post. The title of that article was "I'm Glad the CIA Is 'Immoral.'"

Braden went on to write Eight is Enough, which became a long-running situation comedy. He also appeared on "Crossfire," where he was the designated liberal. He was later replaced by Michael Kinsley.


Sunday, April 05, 2009

Fante's 100th Birthday

Zocalo will host an event at the Hammer Museum this Tuesday to celebrate the 100th birthday of Los Angeles novelist and screenwriter John Fante. David Kipen will moderate a panel that includes Fante biographer Stephen Cooper. Fanatical readers of this blog will recall how highly I regard Steve and his work.

Fante was a close friend of Carey McWilliams, who claimed that he kept his companion "reasonably sober, away from the race tracks, draw poker sessions, opium dens and other low dives, properly confined to home and hearth and study and in regular attendance at mass."

Ramparts Piece in California History

I should be receiving page proofs soon for a piece that will run in California History. I was delighted to hear from editor Janet Fireman, who suggested I submit something from the Ramparts book. The essay is adapted from Chapter 3, "The Perilous Fight," which covers the 1964-67 period. That's when art director Dugald Stermer and Robert Scheer, who would eventually become editor-in-chief, signed on to the magazine.

Another boon: Shelly Kale, managing editor of California History, decided to feature the cover art from the July 1966 issue of Ramparts. It's Edward Sorel's "The Aviary [Hawkus Caucus Americanus]," which is really something. It looks like that will run on the cover of California History, too.

The Ramparts book is now in production, by the way. The publication date is September 8.