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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On marriage, gay and otherwise

I’m in Washington, D.C., this week doing a final round of research for my Jones’s Bones: The Search for an American Hero book project, and by sheer happenstance wound up renting an apartment just a couple of blocks from the Supreme Court building. And if I wasn’t heading back into the archives, I’d love to stop by the court today to witness the long-overdue judicial look at gay marriage.

Given the deep conservatism of the majority, I don’t have a lot of faith in the Court to make the correct legal and moral call. But I’m hoping they put prejudice aside and decide the cases before them – California’s Prop. 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act –based on common sense, and belief in a true separation of church and state. They should find that gays and lesbians have as much right to marry as anyone else.

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, which focused on state laws barring interracial marriage, that marriage was a fundamental civil right and government could not restrict it based on race. The government should not restrict it based on sexual orientation, either. All are equal in the eyes of the law, or so we are trained to believe (and lord knows that often proves not to be the case), and that should apply to the legal institution of marriage.

I’ve long believed that marriage should not be the state’s business in the first place. It is a religious rite and belongs in churches. But it is also in society’s interest, and thus government’s interest, to have a system that allows for the legal unification of lives, which is the legal side of marriage. I’d like to strip the word “marriage” from the legal documents – all of us who marry should be partners in civil unions. And the faithful can also be married in the eyes of their church.

But that isn’t likely to happen. “By the powers vested in me by the state of (fill in the blank)” is too much of our culture now to change in such a fundamental way. But the wording of that time-honored part of the marriage ceremony, when uttered by a minister, is meaningful. “Power vested in me by the state,” not by the bishop or other church higher up. There is no separation between church and state when the state gives authority to ministers to sanction legal unions.

But I digress. A right is a right. Marriage is a right. Gay marriage is a right. Let’s leave our Puritan past behind and move on as a nation. We have a lot of intractable problems in this country, from economic inequality to a government hijacked by corporations to a world standing built on violence rather than diplomacy. But this issue is an easy one to fix. And I hope the Supreme Court does so. Quickly, and decisively. Read More 
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On NPR, and looking at the problems of Detroit

I had the pleasure earlier this week of sitting through a 45-minute interview with NPR’s Don Gonyea to talk about the current state of Detroit, and the result of that session aired during Saturday’s “All Things Considered” weekend edition. Naturally, given the time restraints and multiple voices in the piece, they only used a couple of snippets of what I said, but I appreciate having my voice added to the national discussion – and am glad for the thoughtful attention NPR paid the issue.

Gonyea, incidentally, is an old Detroit hand himself. We used to run across each other while covering various Detroit stories in the 1980s and 1990s, and then again on the presidential political campaign trail after he joined NPR and I was working for the Los Angeles Times. Solid pro.

This link takes you to a story about the segment, which includes a transcript. The podcast of the show is available here. A catalyst for my book, Detroit: A Biography, was my desire to explain to people who don’t know Detroit what has happened there, that it is much more than tailfins on Cadillacs, Motown, sports teams, “ruins porn,” and drugs and crime. So I hope my inclusion in the program will bring some of that awareness to more people.

The only point I wish they had picked up from the interview and included in the segment is my argument that the current city government budget crisis – as significant as it is – is a symptom of Detroit’s problems, not the problem itself. The fiscal manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder – an abrogation of democracy, in my view – will likely use draconian measures to balance the city budget, primarily by selling off potentially profitable assets to the private sector, slashing services, and laying off hundreds, if not thousands, of people – adding to Detroit’s unemployment and poverty problems.

Those “fixes” will do nothing to help Detroit, the community, and far too many people conflate the two problems. By the time the manager is done, Detroit will still be a city of staggering poverty, and urban emptiness, with dysfunctional schools, massive areas of violence and blight, and no plan for improving the conditions under which 700,000 people live. It is a regional problem that requires a regional solution, but it is also a national problem that we, as a nation, have ignored for far too long.

None of that will change under a balanced city budget. Read More 
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Coming up: Me and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

I'm pleased to report that the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books has invited me back for another go-around, this time as a panel moderator. For you book-lovers who don't live in the Los Angeles area, the Festival of Books is one of the prime events of its kind in the country. The two-day gathering of authors and readers covers a large chunk of the University of Southern California, and is an exhausting blast.

The panel I'm moderating is called "Nonfiction: Landscapes Real & Imagined," and is slotted for 2 p.m. Sunday, April 21. The panelists are T.D. Allman (whose new book is about Florida), Greg Goldin (co-author of a book about Los Angeles), and Julia Flynn Siler (whose latest book is about Hawaii). I don't know Allman or Goldin but have known Siler for a number of years, and moderated a panel with her once at the Nieman Conference of Narrative Journalism. Very bright, and a very good writer (her House of Mondavi is a must-read for wine-lovers everywhere).

I'm anxious to start preparing for the panel by diving into the works of all three panelists. And the subject is of personal interest to me. In my Blood Passion and Detroit books, the landscape served almost as another character, as it does in my still in-vitro novel. So it should be a fun and interesting talk. I'll post more details - like building and room number - when I get them. Hope to see some of you there.... Read More 
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On Stephen Dobyns's The Burn Palace

The Los Angeles Times has posted my review of Stephen Dobyns's The Burn Palace, which I picked up with great anticipation and put down at the end feeling a bit dissatisfied. It's a good book, and he does a fine job creating a sense of place, and gently satirizing small-town life. But (from the review) ...
For all of Dobyns' skills in creating characters and place, the central plot line becomes transparent early. The subplots resonate better than the main plot, and the writing is strongest in the action scenes, which erupt with cinematic clarity.

Dobyns is sharp too, portraying people under stress. Some of the characters, though, never break out of single dimensions, a weakness of the novel. The gossipy coffee shop owner. The spunky old lady in the assisted-living home. The stoned war vet. State police Det. Bobby Anderson — "Hey, I'm their token black guy." — has potential as a nuanced character, but Dobyns doesn't break him out of the predictable either.

Anderson cracks wise with his white peers, drives a "magnetic black Nissan 370Z coupe with a rear deck spoiler," and, as Woody points out, keeps himself "hidden behind the jive mask." Which is fine if that's the public persona Dobyns wants to give him, but as a novelist Dobyns can, and should, create a more deeply developed and nuanced character, even if only the reader can see that particular interior landscape.

But those are wrinkles in an otherwise enjoyable work of popular fiction.
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Punk revisited: Richard Hell reflects on a surly birth

For music fans of a certain age - namely, mine - Richard Hell remains a key figure. He was among the founders of the punk era in music, and his torn shirts and spiked hair helped set the fashion tone for what became a cultural movement. And as a part of the bands The Neon Boys, Television, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers and, then, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, he claims paternity for a whole lot of noise.

I interviewed Hell a few years ago when I was still writing for the Los Angeles Times and met up with him at restaurant in his East Village neighborhood in Manhattan. That piece was tied to the release of a semi-autobiographical novel, Godlike, and you can read it here.

I got Hell on the phone a couple of weeks ago for another interview piece, this one a Q&A for Esquire.com about his latest book, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, a frank autobiograpy of his life up until the time he got clean of heroin and left music, for the most part, behind.

The Esquire.com piece is here, but this is a bit from it. And I gotta say, I really enjoy talking with Hell:
ESQ: What propelled you to write the autobiography?

RH: Since my 40s — which is now 20 years ago; I'm 63 — I've been disturbed and fascinated by having outlived my youth. When you're young, you don't especially think of yourself as being young. You're just alive and everything's interesting and you don't think of things in terms of age because you're not conscious of it. But then you hit your 40s and you realize, well, you're still alive but you're not young anymore. And things start taking a different kind of aspect. And you start getting curious about what it all adds up to. What does it mean to outlive your youth? I wanted to hold my life in my hands and turn it around and look at it in different ways to figure out what the hell had happened, to see if I could put it outside of myself and make it into a material object that I could grasp. So that was part of it. And the other part was I like writing books.
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On Detroit, and the wrong answer to difficult problems

Photo: Scott Martelle, 2010
The Los Angeles Times today published an op-ed piece I wrote over the weekend about the governor of Michigan moving to name a financial overseer for Detroit. At its heart, as I wrote, this is an abrogation of democracy, a managerial coup d'etat. And it is shrouded in race - majority black city, majority white state - and politics - Democratic city, Republican state government.

Appointing a financial manager might resolve some of the city government's current cash problems, but it won't do anything to fix the city itself, which, as I point out in the piece - and in my Detroit: A Biography - has been declining since the 1950s. Detroit's troubles demand creative solutions, and a mix of actions, not this expected dismantling of the city and selling off of assets.

There are some hopeful stirrings in Detroit, from the investments in downtown buildings and businesses to the growing economic vitality of the midtown area, anchored by Wayne State University and a cluster of hospitals. But these are just stirrings, and fragile ones at that. They should be cheered, and nurtured, but aso recognized as baby steps in a place that needs giant strides.

We have a tendency in this country to turn our backs on failed communities, and to blame the victims alone for their problems. But Detroit is a national problem, and a national responsibility. We should be marshaling national forces to not only fix it, but to use Detroit to begin to re-imagine what a city can and should be in this post-industrial economy of ours. For far too long our governments have looked first at the health of corporations, and last at the health of communities, which in itself strikes me as an abrogation of democracy.

From the op-ed piece:
The emptying of Detroit stems from a complex mix of intractable racism, corporate and governmental decisions, failed institutions and crime levels that have driven most of the middle class to the suburbs. Local governments have regularly undercut each other with tax deals to lure jobs (much as Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to do on his recent visit to California). These deals have helped corporations at the expense of communities like Detroit, causing the city's tax base to shrink faster than the city government could adapt and leaving it with massive debt, annual operating deficits, a demoralized workforce, an impoverished population base — and no plan for how to fix things.

It's time for new ideas. But the type that Snyder, a former venture capitalist (and onetime executive with the Irvine-based Gateway computer company) is likely to favor aren't what's needed.

Although the new financial manager for Detroit hasn't yet been named, it is likely that he or she will move to abrogate union contracts for city workers, gut city management ranks and sell off assets, thereby privatizing such government services as public transit, streetlights and trash collection systems. These things have the potential to reduce the city's costs and alleviate the immediate cash crisis, but they are disastrous over the long term, and they'll be done without approval by the city's elected leaders.

This kind of managerial coup d'etat is at heart an abrogation of democracy and a failure of vision. Slashing spending and privatizing assets won't fix Detroit, or any of the nation's other troubled cities. This crisis calls for reinvention.
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