The last time I had the honor of addressing this congregation, you had invited me here to talk about the spiritual underpinning of my protest music. I had recently decided to cancel a performance at the University of Alaska Anchorage of my new cantata, The Skies Are Weeping, dedicated to the memory of Rachel Corrie. Corrie was a young American college student and peace activist, killed in the Gaza Strip by a bulldozer driven by a member of the Israeli Defense Forces. At the time, Corrie was attempting to stop the demolition of the house of a Palestinian doctor and his family.
Her death, on March 16, 2003, was four days before the onset of the current phase of the war between Iraq and a coalition led by the United States. Since the beginning of the ongoing set of American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, about 1.6 million people have been killed, over 2 million displaced, and several millions impoverished, physically injured or psychologically maimed.
Currently, the United States is scaling back the ongoing Iraq War and escalating the seriously mismanaged campaign in Afghanistan. And since the composition of my protest work about somebody killed in Gaza, the military forces who killed Corrie have bombed four countries, waged war against Lebanon and Syria, and have invaded Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, killing thousands of civilians.
The Skies Are Weeping, after subsequent cancelations in New York City and Toronto, was finally performed in London, on November 1, 2005. It has since been performed, in bits and pieces, several times in England, where the performances have raised thousands of pounds for relief efforts.
One of the most recent performances, at the Marybone Church, was to raise funds to rebuild the Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, destroyed by the Israelis in January and February. The hospital has been operated by the Anglican Church, so - unlike most of the hospitals destroyed in the Gaza operation - it is eligible to be rebuilt. It hasn’t though, as the Israelis have embargoed the necessary materials for construction at the border. None of the Gaza hospitals destroyed in Operation Cast Lead has yet been rebuilt.
It is ironic that this recent performance, dedicated to child victims of an unwise and illegal military operation, and introduced by His Grace, Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal, former Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, qualifies me to be arrested under the authority President Obama has retained from the Bush administration, to declare me an enemy combatant, for having materially assisted an organization associated - the Anglican Church in Gaza - with Hamas. Were I Muslim, the chances of that arrest would be significantly higher than they actually are.
Since the composition of The Skies Are Weeping, I have written other protest works, lamenting:
• The victims of Hurricane Katrina
• American Iraqi War dead
• The destruction of the Knik River flats by vandals and recreators
• The destruction of the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan by the Taliban
On November 4th, 2007, the day after the premiere of my orchestral work commemorating the life of Gordon Wright, I started a blog called Progressive Alaska. At the time, I didn’t know it, but the blog has kept me so occupied, I’ve only finished two musical works since. What the blog activity has taught me, though, is something that I hope to bring back to my musical works, when I return to full-time composing, beginning this coming week.
Treading the Edge:
The Skies are Weeping begins with a rare full setting of Psalm 137. Although this psalm, By the Rivers of Babylon, has been set by countless composers, from Medieval times through recent reggae-based hip-hop, the concluding lines are usually left out:
Happy shall he be,
that taketh and dasheth thy little ones
against the stones.
The Psalm, written out of the Babylonian Captivity of the Israelites, illustrates longing throughout, but these damning, cursing final lines, define one of the aspects of the imprecatory very well.
imprecatory: A curse [that] is [in] any manner of adversity thought to be inflicted by any supernatural power, such as a spell, a prayer, an imprecation, an execration, magic, witchcraft, a god, a natural force, or a spirit.
The edge of the imprecatory:
I Woke Up Today In A Country -- by Diane Benson
I Woke Up Today In A Country
That was once free
In an imperfect country
Where the colors of speech
Could fill the streets with ringing discourse
In a country that wakes a family
In Baghdad, with a morning bomb
Where dissent and reason might
Detonate discussion, excite the press,
Scorch the schools, echo in the halls of justice, so free...
The fractured bell of liberty labors
To be heard
Just a hollow chime of many
Still pushing freedom across Indian country
That once was free
Where we were told what we
Shall speak - only English - capiche
Woke up in the hope for a country
And we lined up to help
In the wake of now,
A Native soldier marches with a rainbow of soldiers
Into Baghdad, into Najaf, into Fallujah, to make
To make them free
Soldiers whose votes
Disappear in the sands
Quietly blown away
Like the reporting of numbers
That we are not told
So confused am I
That even the word, country
Looks foreign and strange to me
I woke up today in a country
That is now free
To ignore free will
A deafening ring, underscores the
New elections, like a
School bell to line up, boots marching
We will watch an inauguration for
I woke up today in a country
Do not disagree, do not disagree
I am scared for
I woke up today
Diane Benson’s powerful poem, about the early stages of the present phase of the Iraq War, was written soon after the 2004 national elections. It was created before her son Latseen was so seriously injured. It is a step back from the edge of the imprecatory, but one can see the edge from Benson’s sage-like vantage point.
I’ve learned more from Diane Benson over the past three years than from anybody I have known in Alaska. She is as close as I’ve come to having a “Guru.” And like any long-term relationship with a teacher, mentor or guru, I’ve learned almost as much from just watching what happens around her, as from her words and actions themselves.
Particularly illuminating for me, in the time I’ve spent volunteering for Diane in two campaigns, has been my resurgence of interest in the status of Alaska Natives I’ve gained through people met on her campaign teams. Over the past three years I’ve been able to meet and work with a wide array of Alaska Native women and men whose talent, education and passion for a variety of causes have taught me a lot.
When, a year ago yesterday, in a moment of sheer desperation, Sen. John McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate, I was still recovering from the results of the Alaska party primaries that had been held three days earlier. Diane Benson lost to Ethan Berkowitz in the Alaska-at-large U.S. House primary. For three days, I had thought I was free to return to more time for musical composition.
That was not to be.
Palin’s nomination to a national ticket prompted several other Alaska bloggers and me to warn the country of her vast shortcomings. Together, we probably posted about 1,800 articles about Palin on the internet. From the start, I had to promise my family to stay away from writing about what I know, from 19 years of awareness of Sarah Palin the politician and fellow Wasilla resident, of her family life. That was OK, as I knew her shortcomings as an administrator and primitively superstitious religious beliefs would eventually prove to cast weighty doubts.
My wife Judy Youngquist and I hosted a couple of authors - David Niewert and Max Blumenthal - who specialize in uncovering the dangers of fundamentalist sects and their intersection with armed militant groups from all religions. As we watched them work and conversed with them late at night, we realized that Palin’s supporters don’t just dabble in the imprecatory, they live by it.
Over the fall and winter, as we all saw a person who had been a fairly decent governor turn into an icon for people all over the USA, who wanted to grasp onto any anti-Obama image, I was struck by how little local, statewide and national media were capable of accepting the imprecatory nature of what her followers are willing to have implanted in their minds. And that is still the case. As example, here is what one of your fellow congregants ironically and sorrowfully wrote late Friday:
Just this week, a gubernatorial candidate in Idaho said we ought to go out and buy “Palin tags”. You know, the $11 hunting tags that you get when you want to go out and kill a wolf with a rifle. He basically said he was all in support of people going out and hunting Sarah Palin like an animal. Then he said it was just “a joke.” Ha ha.
And then there was the pastor who declared in his sermon entitled “Why I Hate Sarah Palin” that he was actually praying for Sarah Palin to die and go to Hell, saying that then she’d get what she deserved. One of his parishioners then went to a Palin speaking engagement with a loaded rifle slung over his shoulder, and walked through the crowd of people. “Good for you,” said the pastor.
And who could forget all the people who called her a Nazi, and the people who showed up outside her speaking engagements with signs saying she was the Anti-Christ?
Those things happened to Barack Obama.
The temptation to curse to Hell the people who speak so dangerously against our president is real. I have to deal with my frustrations on this every day.
And I have to weigh that against my own increasing frustrations with President Obama. He’s just extended the contract for the guy many regard as having been one of the main architects of last fall’s financial catastrophes - Ben Bernanke. And he’s allowed the emerging torture investigation to be conducted by a prosecutor who has not shown courage or independence in the past.
Ten days ago, I gave testimony before President Obama’s Oceans Task Force. They were in Alaska as part of a national tour of hearings and appearances. The task force is supposed to decisively deal with, after decades of neglect during past presidential administrations, understanding the import of huge, cascading changes in the world’s oceans. While they were here, I realized the task force isn’t up to the task.
My testimony there was as close as I have skirted the edge of the imprecatory since the 2003 setting of Psalm 137. Here’s an expanded version of the testimony. I wrote this version as a memorial to Segundo Strongheart, a young Yupik man who died of a heart attack almost two weeks ago:
Ode to Segundo's People:
• When Jericho was destroyed, the Yupik were becoming distinguishable from other northern migratory groups.
• When the great pyramids were built, the Yupik had become a distinct cultural group.
• When the Phoenicians and others were cutting down the vast cedar forests in Lebanon, the Yupik were beginning to fish the lower Yukon.
• When the Romans left no stone unturned in Carthage's ruins and plowed the earth with salt, the first examples of wondrous Yupik art were being created.
• When the Roman Empire and vernacular Latin were dying, people had been speaking a language today’s Yupik would recognize as their own for over a thousand years.
• When Islam was created, Yupik spiritual ideas had already survived six times longer than Islam has now existed.
• When the Norse navigated the North Atlantic, the Volga and the Black Sea, the Yupik were expanding up the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers.
• When a language we can now recognize as English began to exist, Yupik culture was thousands of years old.
• When the Russians came to Alaska, stealing people, pelts and pride, the Yupik culture survived.
• When the Europeans brought smallpox, venereal disease, alcohol and influenza to the Yupik, they survived.
• When the Russian, Catholic, Baptist - and now - Franklin Graham/Jerry Prevo - snake oil salesmen came to the Delta and the rivers, Yupik culture survived.
Yet, within the mere past 30 years, the foundation of this vibrant culture has been ripped apart.
Nancy Sutley - Dr. Jane Lubchenco - David Hayes - Admiral Thad Allen -- and, YES - Sen. Mark Begich and President Barack Obama:
Unless you act very soon, and very, very sternly to end the depredation of the Bering Sea and other Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries, the miserable survivors of this once-proud, vibrant culture, will soon sing imprecatory, damning songs to your eternal memories, blaming you for their Holocaust.
I don’t wish this, but the ongoing destruction of Yupik culture through eradication of its foundation is such a crime that efforts to stop that cultural genocide need to be serious and immediate. Some scientists have told me that it is already too late to save the Yukon Chinook runs.
Four years ago, Diane Benson touched upon aspects of the desperation that must now be being felt, in Summer’s closing days and hours, by the Yupik on the deltas, in her poem:
lament, I sing
while dancing naked on fourth avenue
in our own
land, we cling to seaweed:
scream laughter from
grief, while they forget who
the old language
to sleep, keeping time with
reach our souls
wanting life....Who will remember
go I dancing
on salmon stained bottles spawning
This profound statement, as I read it last winter, pulled me back from wanting to cast a spell or invoke a horrendous spirit, or pray for the death of Alaska attorney general nominee, Wayne Anthony Ross, when I was afraid he would intensely polarize our state, already reeling in confusion, discord and the hatred so often exemplified by some of Sarah Palin’s most ardent supporters. Diane once again showed me that our songs have to want life, and that then, they will be heard. So, instead, I prayed that Ross bring himself down, as I continue to pray, regarding the person who nominated him.
Philip Munger --- August 30, 2009
images - 1) Rachel Corrie by ISM; 2) Chinese protester at Tienanmen; 3) Diane Benson by Celtic Diva; 4) The cemetery at Nunam Iqua by Oysters4me; 5) Yupik fisherment at Emmonak by Oysters4me