“If not for you” Praise for Bob Dylan (Nobel Prize for Literature, October, 13, 2016)


Peter Eisner

Word of Bob Dylan’s selection as winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature takes me back to a small apartment in West Berlin in October 1966, almost exactly fifty years ago.

Along with my dear friend and host brother, Reinhard, I had taken a double decker bus that skirted the Berlin Wall and then turned down Bundesallee, near where President Kennedy, then dead for three years, had declared “Ich Bin Ein Berliner.” Heading toward Reinhard’s apartment, we walked past the bombed out building next door, untouched in the two decades since the final days of World War Two.

We were sixteen years old and I was bleary-eyed. There was no drinking age in Berlin as far as I could tell and we had downed a beer or two. Reinhard spoke non-stop, though, more used to alcohol than I was.

We snuck past his parents’ and sister’s bedrooms and huddled in the penumbra of  streetlights and curtains along the French windows. He pulled out his worn copy of a vinyl record album, The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, released in 1963.

“I don’t understand the letter,” Reinhard said. “Help me with the letter.” He meant the lyrics.

So there, before dawn, we listened to Blowin’ in the Wind, and I stopped to listen to and think about the words of all of Bob Dylan’s songs for the first time. I realized then and forever after that one could make the mistake of listening to a song as a song without truly hearing:

With Reinhard’s encouragement, I realized that Dylan was demanding that we go further.

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man ?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand ?
Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned ?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Reinhard, whose fine English needed help in understanding nuance, asked me to confirm what he heard in the lyrics. Me with my very imperfect German, I was happy to stick with English and work on it with him.

What does it mean, or what do you think it means? Reinhard asked me:  “The answer is blowing in the wind.” Then and now, the feeling of the words, the juxtaposition of the words became clear: life is sublime and deeply serious. I was almost a man, and a man now, but let’s substitute man with the word “human” or “person.” We have a responsibility to live lives of honor and compassion for others and to seek peace (the white dove).

We were living through the days of the Vietnam War, and we could hear the protest in that song, ever so subtly, appealing to humanity, to our role in the world. And the words so fleeting, in flight, in the air.

Reinhard is long gone from this life, but I owe him that time in the shadow and light. Since then, I can always return to that place of my youth, and go back to a dream about the world and how it could be and center in on my feelings about love and morality.

Dylan’s words have inspired thoughts of peace for the half a century since then. The Nobel committee has a sublime way of linking its choices to the moment in which we live. Did the committee consider this time and place across the water in America, where Bob Dylan sent out that anthem to the world among his many other songs, many others, reminding us of decency and justice? I think it took the opportunity to do just that.

So thanks to them at the Nobel Committee for pointing us back to Bob Dylan, and many thanks to you, Bob.



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Blair and Bush: Best Friends in the March to War

Peter Eisner

Tony Blair and George W. Bush will be reviled for all time in the devastatingly bad decision to go to war. Now at least Blair — his hand forced by a gazillion page British inquiry released thirteen years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq — has apologized.

Don’t expect GW or Dick Cheney to follow suit or anyone in the divided United States to take responsibility for anything.

As the New York Times wrote in an editorial today:

“It seems a long time ago, and in a world far, far away, that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, enthusiastically supported by Tony Blair, went to war with Iraq. Thirteen years later, after voluminous studies and books and wave upon wave of terrible consequences, it would seem there is no doubt that these leaders created a false case for invading Iraq and then utterly mismanaged the occupation.”

Blair, the former British prime minister, issued an emotional apology following a long-delayed after release of the official and independent Iraq Inquiry Committee led by John Chilcot — 2.6 million words.

The document quotes Blair’s pledge to Bush at the time: “I will be with you, whatever.”

bush and blairBlair apologized tearfully for his role in the war — almost a generation after the death and damage to hundreds of thousands of people, loss of trillions of dollars and the legacy of instability and worldwide terrorism.

“For all of this, I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you can ever know or

believe,” he said.

“I did it because I thought it was right,” Blair said. He accepted “full responsibility without

exception or excuse” for the consequences of the war.

While Blair did at least apologize, he said he made his decisions based on the secret intelligence he had received. Now, he said, he realizes the intelligence was wrong.

Blair went much further than Bush and  Cheney. Both men and their minions still maintain that they acted on “the best intelligence information available at the time.”

That statement and Blair’s apology continue to be based on fraud and lies. The invasion was a conspiracy led by the United States to go to war.

While critics clamor for Blair to be prosecuted for war crimes, the idea has not been entertained in the United States.

In our book, THE ITALIAN LETTER, my colleague Knut Royce and I detail the Bush administration’s  conspiracy to go to war. This is not a political treatise; the story is told by participants themselves.

Lawrence Wilkerson, long-time chief of staff of General Colin Powell, is one of those quoted, now a mighty critic of the decision to go to war. He said this about THE ITALIAN LETTER — “read it and weep for your democracy.”

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James Joyce at the Archives (off politics)

Discovering James Joyce at the National Archives

Peter Eisner with Miguel Pagliere

Every time I write a book, I spend weeks at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, searching for tracks and tidbits of information on the stories I’m pursuing. I never lose the awe of sorting through the documents, many mundane, all pieces of puzzles into another era. One of the great dangers — well, more like occupational hazards at the scale of library research — is that one can be drawn off on tangents that have nothing to do with the original matter at hand. Sorting through documents can become eye-wearying after a few hours at a clip.

A few years ago, I resolved to focus only on what I was looking for — documents in occupied France in 1940 and 1941 that gave hints to U.S. policy toward authorizing visas for people trying to escape the Nazis. Sorting through one box of letters filed in alphabetical order by name, I came across a letter under the “J’s” — a handwritten letter by James Joyce addressed to the U.S. Embassy at Vichy. “Interesting,” I thought, “I’ll have to get back to this.”

It took me two days to do a mental double-take —  I had just found and lost track of a letter written by James Joyce! Where was it again? I hadn’t written down the file reference.

With the pressures of other business, it took me a couple of years to tracking it down again. That’s the other pleasure about the National Archives — everything will always be there, waiting.  This past fall, I was prepared, even though I wasn’t sure how to find Joyce’s letter again. I brought along my friend, college roommate and frequent traveling companion, Miguel Pagliere — who happens also to be a professional photographer and a scholar on the works of James Joyce.

Miguel confirmed what I guessed, the letter is previously unknown and was written by James Joyce inJames-Joyce the fall of 1940. Joyce died less than three months later at the age of fifty-eight.

The letter is filed in an Embassy bound archive, cataloged among hundreds of consular letters. I found no index that would distinguish the famed author’s letter from other correspondence dealing with complex problems of law and civil issues in the midst of war.

Joyce, who was nearly blind at the end of his life, dated the letter October 25, 1940. It was addressed to a Mr. Cunningham, requesting assistance from the Vichy, France Embassy with arrangements to transport his daughter Lucia from a mental hospital near Nazi occupied Paris to a sanatorium in neutral Zurich, Switzerland. Additionally, he asked that two books that would be soon dropped off at the embassy by a friend be held for a few days until his son Giorgio could pick them up.

“I will be obliged if you will kindly keep these instead of forwarding them by post,” Joyce wrote, in a compressed script, using green ink on off-white woven paper. “My son will fetch them in due course in a few days.”

William S. Brockman, a specialist on James Joyce’s papers, agreed with Miguel that the letter had not been previously seen. “The Joyce letter is so far unknown,” Brockman said. “The green ink was typical of Joyce’s correspondence during his last years.” Joyce died shortly after arriving in Zurich on January 13, 1941, of  complications after surgery for a long undiagnosed ulcer.

The Joyce letter was accompanied by copies of telegrams that add context to the rapidly deteriorating events and desperate early years of World War II. Miguel theorized it was possible that shipping and selling annotated copies of his books would be a means of  transmitting funds from Random House, Joyce’s publisher in New York, to Joyce and his family. The Joyce family desperately needed money for their planned escape from St. Gerand-le Puy, a medieval town to the north of Vichy, in late December.  Joyce’s deteriorating health along with bureaucratic red tape to obtain exit visas would have contributed to their inability to leave France earlier.joyce letter

The serendipitous discovery of the letter is now cataloged and duly noted. A copy will now be added to a three volume compilation of previously unpublished correspondence by Joyce. Oxford University Press has said it will begin publishing the correspondence later this year, along with a one-volume abridged version. Editors of the project are Brockman, Kevin J.H. Dettmar of Pomona College and Robert Spoo of the University of Tulsa.

My next visit to the Archives will include another search for a recovered document, which I neglected to track when I was looking for something else. It involves a once-secret report to intelligence officials from a prominent American journalist during World War Two, who I don’t think has ever been identified as serving two masters during the war. Stay tuned.

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The Stakes in the 2016 Election


Historical perspective is in order for Democratic voters, a day after it became clearer than ever that Senator Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic candidate for president, and a day after a baseless federal court ruling on voting rights in North Carolina.

An editorial in the New York Times tells the story well:

“Late Monday, a federal district judge upheld one of the most regressive and restrictive voting laws in the country — a 2013 North Carolina law that eliminated same-day voter registration and preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds; cut back on early voting by a week; barred counting votes cast outside voters’ home precincts; and required voters to show identification at the polls.”

The federal judge issuing this decision was one Thomas D. Schroeder, who was rubber stamping a law issued by the Republican governor and legislature of North Carolina, one of 24 states where Republicans control the legislature and the statehouse.

Schroeder was nominated to the federal bench in December 2007 by then President George W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate a month later.

About that time, I interviewed Ralph Nader, who in 2000 ran for president as an independent and drained enough votes away from Al Gore in certain states to allow George W. Bush to take the presidency (did Bush really win in Florida, by the way?) Nader said then that the choice between Gore and Bush, a Democrat and a Republican did not make a difference. Both parties, he said, were of the same corrupt feather.

Think about the administration of George W. Bush: a trillion dollar war in Iraq based on lies, a recession, the appointment of two Supreme Court justices, sixty-two court of appeals judges, two-hundred-sixty-one federal district court judges and more federal appointments — all followed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 that threw open unregulated campaign financing to the highest bidder.

Judge Thomas D. Schroeder’s ruling on North Carolina’s regressive voting law — aimed at restricting the ability of poor people, minorities and the least likely to have access to fulfilling the regulations — is not an accident.

The Times editorial concludes thus:

“Republicans have admitted that they do better when fewer people vote, and that voter-identification laws and other restrictions are intended to deter Democratic-leaning voters from getting to the polls. That’s the reality, and Judge Schroeder was wrong to disregard it. His decision will be appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which should waste no time in knocking down this latest obstacle so that all North Carolinians can exercise their voting rights in November.”

Before weeping along with reading, ask whether voting for president in 2016 matters or not, despite what Ralph Nader said one more time in May 2015:

It really doesn’t matter. If the power structure persists, it doesn’t matter who’s in office. It doesn’t matter what ethnic, racial background. It doesn’t matter how much they know, how much they don’t know. They’re all molded by the corporate power structure that controls Washington from Wall Street, to use a symbolic tour.

Nader was and is still wrong. Argue, but deal with the system you have, imperfect though it may be. Otherwise, go down once more on a principle and a mindless argument that will be lost and lamented for a generation.

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Worth Fighting For

The death of Antonin Scalia resurrects the decision he wanted us to forget: his protagonist’s  role in the Supreme Court decision that gave us eight years of George W. Bush.2014supremecourt640

As in November 2000, Republicans are again trying to hijack the Constitution and undermine the democratic process.

Back then, Gore did in fact win the presidency, not only in popular vote nationally, but also by the electoral vote in Florida. Republicans railroaded Bush into office. In November 2000, a consortium of major news media investigated and found that Gore had won in Florida. They did not push the “send” button when the Democrats gave in for fear that the institution of the U.S. government would be in jeopardy if they protested the Supreme Court’s decision.

Now Democrats face another monumental choice:  to push and rally public opinion for confirmation and then to make sure they have an electable candidate for president.

One Supreme Court justice still serving and now praising Scalia said that the Bush v. Gore decision was tantamount to a coup d’etat. (The comment was made off the record.)

Get over it. It’s so old by now,” Scalia said once and again when people harped on the majority-Republican Court’s decision to hand the presidential election to Bush. As Scalia is eulogized as a brilliant and a charming friend by those who knew him and even those who disagreed with him, look no further than Bush v. Gore. We will not soon “get over it.” That decision will be forever tied to Scalia and his dominant role on the Court in the late 20th and early 21st Century.

Scalia, the man who championed decisions based on the letter of the Constitution, did not have a constructionist explanation for his vote in that shattering decision — the Court majority chose its favorite to be the 43rd president of the United States.

Republicans now argue that the appointment of a new justice should be “left to the people,” meaning the 2016 presidential election should be a referendum on the Supreme Court.

They would thus declare that President Barack Obama — chosen by a majority of the people — is not entitled under the Constitution to appoint a new Supreme Court justice.

President Obama’s authority to replace Scalia is a settled matter by virtue of the 2012 presidential election. And he says he will fulfill his part of the bargain of popular democracy and will nominate a Supreme Court justice.

Democracy is worth fighting for.

I side with Paul Krugman’s modest suggestion: “Maybe we should all start wearing baseball caps that say, ‘Make America governable again.’ “

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Hillary and the World of the Possible

After several weird clown shows performed by the Republican right, the first Democratic debate gave people something to think about.

Specifically, with her fine-tuned performance, Hillary Clinton gave Bernie Sanders supporters much to mull over.

Clinton’s performance and her preparation, persona and demeanor were calculated with precision to appear presidential, to soften the negatives people see about her and to be ready to appeal to the left flank sufficiently while not being harsh with Sanders.

Clinton won the debate with skill. Good acting is best when you don’t seem to be acting. She made it look easy.

She handled Sanders skillfully when he spoke about democratic socialism and Denmark, and gently but forcefully reversed left to left alignment on Sanders’s stand on gun control. hil bernie

No one was great on foreign policy — Bernie was strange and stumbling about Syria and Putin. Hillary has no good answer, if anyone does, on the Middle East. [The other candidates don’t factor well–Jim Webb was self-referential and not convincing as the moderate right option; Martin O’Malley did not impress; and Lincoln Chaffee was oddly inconsequential]

More broadly, Bernie Sanders fit into an expected role.  He is a one-note samba about wealth in America and it is a tune we need to hear and deal with. He pulls Hillary in that direction. However, acknowledge it or not, Bernie Sanders is basically a tool of the Billary campaign to energize progressives who he will eventually then encourage to vote for her.

It was a strong evening for Hillary Clinton. She appeared to achieve a presence and persona that eliminates any other candidate–Biden, that is– from jumping in.

In short, Hillary Clinton re-introduced herself and restarted her campaign. She jumped over the media gabble against her. If the issue was email and Benghazi and trust, she turned the corner. That comes thanks to the bumbling admission by Kevin McCarthy, the failed Republican candidate for Speaker of the House, and Clinton’s ability to use that in her upcoming appearance before the politically venal House Benghazi committee. Sanders’s call to put an end to the email business took it off the table as a question, if it ever was, during the Democratic vetting of their potential candidates.
Many would agree that a country of 320 million people could have a better candidate and one who is not named Clinton. But Hillary Clinton was working to counteract that sentiment. She sought to coax the progressive coalition in her direction: listen to her repeated support for LGBT issues and mentioning, by the way, that America stands to follow the first African-American president with the first woman president. Combined with choosing — as one can imagine — Julian Castro as her running mate, Clinton took a giant step in the first debate on her march toward the presidency.

There is an implicit reminder, meanwhile, about Bernie Sanders’s electability. He did not do much to help his cause and he probably realizes where this is headed. He is not Ralph Nader, and Ralph Nader voters should take heed. Years after the 2000 election, Nader told me in an interview — after eight years of the Bush presidency — that the choice in 2000 between Bush and Gore was no choice. He was wrong.


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There is a broad majority in favor of changing gun laws in this country. That majority should reject anyone who dismisses the insanity by saying or supporting the statement: “stuff happens.”

I wrote the following in 2012, after the mass killing at Sandy Hook.

in Homicide Rate U.S. versus Britain: 100 TIMES GREATER CHANCE OF BEING SHOT IN U.S.

I was having dinner at an outdoor café one afternoon in London when suddenly I saw a scene that could have been from a movie. First a man holding a package ran past us as fast as he could run, followed by a man dressed as a chef waving a meat cleaver in pursuit, shouting “stop thief!” Both in turn followed by whistle-blowing Bobbies. The cops caught up with their man and paraded by in the opposite direction.

Something evidently was missing from the picture: no f-ing guns.

We are all at a loss for what to say about guns after the Connecticut [note, or Colorado, or Oregon or…..] massacre. How many more times before leaders will stand up?

Listen to Europeans this evening or read their newspapers tomorrow. Another mass killing across the water, they will say — “the Wild West,” using those very words in Spain, Italy many other countries in the original, not bothering to translate. There will be sympathy in Europe, but there will be sneers.

Britain, where bad guys have to run for and their pursuers carry sticks, has one of the toughest gun control laws in the world.

The intentional homicide rate in Britain is 0.03 per 100,000 people, ranked just under Japan at 0.02 per hundred thousand. Among other European countries, the rate in France is 0.06; Spain, 0.63; Germany, 1.10; Italy, 1.28.

The rate of intentional homicides in the United States is 2.98, 100 TIMES HIGHER than the rate in Britain.

No gun control advocate in Britain — where people with a license have no problem to go hunting and shoot squirrels and foxes with shotguns – right-wing or not could ever use guns a campaign issue.

The gun lobby in the United States is wrong and has to be stopped. No one will lose his or her right to go hunting. Everyone must lose the right to carry concealed or automatic weapons to kill.

What country is this and what century is this?


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