Thursday, October 19, 2017

Treading Where Perhaps No Man Should and Murfin Verse

Floundering Puerto Rico, California ablaze, the latest cruelties and crudities of the Oaf-in-Chief, Constitutional crisis du jour all be damned.  The headlines of the week and the focus of countless hours of broadcast and cable babble have come from the graceless downfall of Hollywood super predator Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent fallout.  Neither the rapt attention paid to the story nor the lurid details themselves should have been no surprise.  After all it had all of the elements—a famous name of great accomplishment, glitz and glamour, wealth and privilege, and famous, fabulous victims. 
In many ways it came as no surprise at all.  The casting couch is a cliché as old as the theater and a long assumed common practice in the motion picture industries.  Abusive and lecherous power figures in Hollywood lore have stretched from the ridiculous—Fatty Arbuckle—to Howard Hughes, more than one legendary Golden Age of Movies studio Czar, to the middle age director caught sticking his tongue down the throat of the still teenage star of the Twilight franchise.  Great stars from Gloria Swanson to Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck to Marilyn Monroe boosted their early careers by being compliant.  A few stars like Shelley Winters have even been open about it in their memoirs. 
One would think that given the open secret of Hollywood sexual exploitation that the Weinstein story would make a splash and sell a lot of supermarket tabloids and slick entertainment magazines and then fade quickly as the public’s fickle attention was diverted elsewhere.
But it became a story that would not go away and which has taken a life of its own with far deeper than usual social consequences.  Perhaps because of a parade of other famous predators including the once beloved Bill Cosby.  Perhaps because we suffer under the reign and misrule of an open and notorious pussy grabber.  Perhaps because it came hard on the heels of the death of Playboy founder Hugh Heffner whose passing set off a national debate on his role in popularizing sexual exploitation.  But I suspect it was the sheer volume of women who stepped forward with their own tales of abuse.

Somewhere along the line that triggered the Twitter #MeToo which rapidly spread to Facebook and other social media.  Women of all ages, races, social classes, professions, and sexual orientation came forward to testify that, yes, they too were victims of sexual harassment, exploitation, assault, and rape.  Many did so by simply sharing the hashtag.  Others tore the scabs off of old wounds and told deeply personal stories.  Day by day the hashtags grew, seeming to take over social media platform.  Wednesday morning Facebook alone reported 4.7 million posts using #MeToo.
Tuesday I was stunned to see a never ending parade of dear friends, family members, college friends, former work associates, ministers, writers, and colleagues in social justice struggle, women I deeply admire and respect.  I created my own simple hashtag—#NearlyEveryWomanIKnow.  It didn’t exactly go viral, but it did set off a long string of reaction and commentary.  Some of that commentary chastised me at my naiveté for being surprised. 
A male friend jumped in to remind the thread that men, too could be victims of abuse and harassment which set off further discussion of the phenomena that so resembles the insistence that all lives matter when confronted by Black Lives Mater.  While acknowledging that such abuse was both possible and deplorable women in the discussion were unanimous in resenting a male attempt to co-opt the discussion and divert their outrage.  He responded with a graduate level seminar of defensive justification and classic mansplaining. 
The response of men to all of this cultural brouhaha was telling.  Most ignored the whole thing and I suspect a lot were hunkering down waiting for the hurricane to blow over.  Others, like my friend on the thread I started tried in one way or another to include men as victims of abuse.  In some threads this was welcomed or allowed by women, especially if the claimed trauma was a result of childhood abuse or in retaliation for gay or transgender identification.  Other women fiercely objected to any diversion from the issue of systematic patriarchal domination.
Given my self-selected friends I personally saw none of the vitriolic attacks and did not experience the vicious reaction and threats that many women faced for claiming their own experience publicly.  But I saw examples posted by others and know that there is a lot of hate and misogyny out there, some of it systematically organized and encouraged.  In the face of that reaction it took real courage for women to continue to speak out.
All of these testosterone driven responses gave me pause to examine my own life and relationships.  I can honestly say that I never committed assault or coercion.  Before I become too smug and self-congratulatory, however, I have to dig deeper and examine some dark corners of my own soul.  
I have written in memoir pieces how despite me being otherwise in the thick of the radical counter culture of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s that I somehow missed the sexual revolution.  Not that I never had a relationship, although I was a “late bloomer” but that my peculiar combination of awkward nerdiness, deep shyness with women, and a paralyzing fear of rejection, I completely missed the Free Love and love-the-one-you’re-with attitude that I saw all around me at college and in the hip street scene of Chicago.  Was my supposed good behavior a result not of innate nobility, but my fear of “manning up” and asserting what I probably felt was entitled to me?  It seems logical and likely.
Also, I was never in a position of formal power over the women in my life.  I was never a teacher, never a boss.  I worked for some women but never commanded any.  Women were my cohorts at work and my collaborators in social justice work.  I had no gifts to bestow, fame to offer, or the power to harm their advancement.  Perhaps given any of those advantages, I would have succumbed to the temptation to leverage them.  Perhaps my virtue was never challenged.

Depsite playing the part of an ally at the Womens' March in Chicago this spring, I have more often than not failed when tested.
And then, of course, there are all of the so-called lesser things.  I may not have been a felon, but surely I have been a petty criminal with a rap sheet of sexual misdemeanors.  Like Jimmy Carter, I have lusted in my heart almost compulsively.  I have ogled and leered, told off color jokes, the whole panoply of male jerkiness 101.  I once broke up a sexual assault on a Chicago street, but that was simply fueled by adrenaline and the juvenile hero fantasies that played out in the movie in my mind.  More telling and shameful, I have remained silent about the misbehavior and abuse of friends and co-workers failing tests of cowardice repeatedly.
I want to be a better man, strike that, a better human being.  But so far I have failed to be what I pretend to be—a good guy.  I will try.  Maybe I will get better.  Likely I will fail again.
A year ago about this time despite these weaknesses—or perhaps empowered by them, I addressed uproar over Donald Grab ‘em by the pussy Trump in a poem.  Perhaps it has some relevance today…

My Two Cents
October 14, 2016

Ok, so I’m a stranger to locker rooms.
I was the furthest thing from a jock,
            a pasty flabby kid with glasses
            and a paperback perpetually
            stuffed in his back pocket.
In rancid and sweaty after-gym class
            dodging the snapped towels
            and hoots at my terror shriveled wanger,
            I recall no chatting about grabbing pussy
            or sticking lounges down startled throats.
But hell, it was a long time ago,
            perhaps the memory is hazy
            or perhaps I lacked the passport
            to the elite spaces of strutting stars
            where such things maybe were lingua franca.

But I was an accredited correspondent
            to the sexual revolution
            even if a failed participant
            and remember free love and hippy chicks.
I did doctorial research in scurvy dives
            with the 7 am eye-opener drunks
            and the reek of stale beer, vomit, and Pall Malls
            and snickered along with some dirty jokes
            and ogled the unattainable babes on the
            beer calendars and TV shows
            flickering in the high corner above the cooler.
I have spent my hours with men
            on oily shop floors where machines
            whirred, roared, and clanked
            and you counted your fingers
            to make sure they were attached
            and we ate lunch off the roach coach
            brushing crumbs from our aprons
            and spun foolish yarns and lies.
I have languished in the Joint
            where a commissary Hustler
            was worth a carton of squares
            and drifted to sleep on lumpy cots
            to the moans of cons pulling their puds,
            my hand in unison with the rest.
I have been in the company of men
            where civilizing women were
            nowhere around to shame or constrain us.

I have heard and said fucked up things—
            but I never heard that sneering, swaggering
            unashamed boast of being a—
            let’s not pull punches—a predator
            or the bland assumption that any other man
            would be impressed and approving.

            I have never laid a hand or tongue on a woman
                        who was not willing to accept
                        my fumbling advances—
                        hell, most of the time I was too shy
                        or too terrified to act when they practically
                        sent up flares of invitation.

            I may be a pig and a loser, Mr. Trump,
                        but I have never disgraced all swine
                        or turned winner into an epithet

—Patrick Murfin

This poem was included in my homemade chapbook Resistance Verse which I created last March in conjunction with the  Poets in Resistance reading at the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry, Illinois.  If you are interested, I can mail a copy for $4 including postage or send you a pdf version for free.  Just e-mail your contact information to, message me on Facebook, or mail to 522 W. Terra Cotta Avenue, Crystal Lake, IL 60016.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Eugene V. Debs Honored in Woodstock

Eugene V. Debs, bottom row far right, and the entire Executive Board of the American Railway Union were held in the McHenry County Jail in Woodstock, Illinois  in 1895 following the Pullman Strike.  Pictured are Rogers, Elliot, Keliher hogan, Burns, Goodwin, and Debs.

When Eugene V. Debs was last in Woodstock, Illinois 122 years ago in 1895 he was carried from the old McHenry County Jail on the town square on the shoulders of thousands of residents and working people to an awaiting special train that took him to Chicago for an equally boisterous and even larger welcoming crowd.  The six months that he and the other officers of the American Railway Union (ARU) spent as inmates at the Jail after the epic and historic Pullman Strike of 1894 had literally changed the life of the labor leader.  While under the none-too-onerous custody of Sheriff George Eckert Debs, a Democrat and former local office holder in his Terre Haute, Indiana hometown read and studied intensely and emerged a convinced Socialist.  

The McHenry County Court House with the Sheriff's House and Jail from a hand tinted postcard circa 1910.
Now after three years of effort Woodstock Celebrates, an organization dedicated to promoting the city’s cultural heritage, will unveil an Illinois State Historical Society’s historic marker for Sheriff’s House and Jail, 101 N. Johnson Street this Saturday, October 21 at 11 a.m.  The Illinois Labor History Society (ILHS) were co-sponsor of the effort and the McHenry County Federation of Teachers donated $1,500 to cover the City’s share of the cost of the   plaque.  The City Council approved the marker last May, which was required because the City owns the Court House and Jail buildings. 
Debs adresses a massive crowd on Woodstock Square after his release from jail.
No one worked harder to make it all a reality than Kathleen Spaltro who had a vision not only for the plaque but for a series of events marking Deb’s connections to Woodstock and especially his critically important role as a free speech figure.  Although originally conceived as a clustered series of events much like those honoring Orson Welles a few years ago, many of the events have stretched over the past year. These have included a public recreation of Deb’s release from Jail by the Perkins Players of the McHenry County Historical Society, The Prisoner of Woodstock stories and panel discussion featuring Steve Avang, Dr. Bill Belz, Len Kaufmann, and Jim May at the Stage Left; Eugene Debs and the Suppression of Freedom of Speech during World War One presentation at the McHenry County Historical Society in Union.  In addition Debs has been honored annually for the last three years at a Labor Day Celebration on the Square organized by local progressives and labor union representatives.

Kathleen Spaltro  was a driving force behind the Debs recognition.
But events this Saturday are the icing on the long awaited cake.
Spaltro and representatives of the Illinois State Historical Society, the Labor History Society, the Teacher’s Union, and the Deb’s Foundation in Terre Haute will all be on hand to speak.
Folks will be free for a spell to enjoy picturesque Woodstock and its attractions—check out the new mural on the pedway by Woodstock Theater before an important historical program.
Eugene V. Debs and Constitutional Liberties, 1895 and 1919 will be presented at the Woodstock Public Library, 414 W. Judd Street from 2 to 3:30 pm.  Noted Debs Scholar Ernest Freeberg of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and author of Democracy’s Prisoner:  Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent was the originally scheduled speaker but just cancelled due to a family emergency He will be invited back on another occasion.  Meanwhile Kathleen Spaltro, local historian Steve Avang, and noted Woodstock attorney Gunner Gitlan will ably lead a discussion of the two United States Supreme Court cases concerning his constitutional freedoms decided in 1895 and 1919. The first Supreme Court decision, In re Debs, sent him to McHenry County Jail. The second, Debs v. United States, upheld his ten-year sentence in federal prison for delivering an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio in 1918.  Debs ran for President on the Socialist Party ticket while a prisoner held in harsh conditions at the prison in Atlanta, Georgia

After the program Avang will lead a walking tour of sights associated with Deb’s Woodstock stay and his fellow Alsatian Sheriff Eckert.

It promises to be a jam packed weekend for folks interested in social justice and civil liberties in McHenry County.  Saturday night at 7 pm the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry will present an evening of contemporary art music with Forest Ransburg, John Urban and friends to benefit the Compassion4Campers program serving McHenry County’s homeless population.  Tickets are $15 per person or $20 per couple and can be ordered in advance from Brown Paper Tickets at  or purchased at the door subject to availability.
On Sunday evening October 22 even non-religious Eugene Debs would turn out in support of the rights of immigrants now under attack in the county and around the country.  Be with him in spirit at the Interfaith Vigil for Immigrant Justice at Bates Park, 1500 North Seminary Avenue in Woodstock across the street from the current McHenry County Jail and ICE Detention Center from 7 to 8 PM.
It’s a weekend to learn, be inspired, act and resist.