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August 1, 2016

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"Truth or Politics" essay published

My article on Trump, Machiavelli, lies and the lyin' press was published on the Three-for-Justice blog:

One of the greatest dangers to our democracy is the insignificant role that “truth” plays within our political discourse. The 16th-century Florentine political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli first enshrined the importance of lying within the political realm in his seminal treatise The Prince.  As Diana Schaub (professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland) noted in “Machiavelli’s Realism:” “Machiavelli deployed words as a weapon . . . Machiavelli, the supposed champion of the force of arms, was in fact a practitioner of verbal fraud and distortion.”

Far from fading away over the ensuing centuries, Machiavelli’s strategy has expanded to overwhelm our contemporary political discourse.  And this dynamic, nurtured by the media and exploited by politicians, has helped lead in a direct line from the Florentine thinker to the viable presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump.

Publisher and Founding Father Ben Franklin stated: “It is a principle among printers that when truth has fair play, it will always prevail over falsehood.”  But as Jim Rutenberg noted recently in the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s surrogates…regularly go on television to push the point of the day from a candidate who . . . has asserted more outright falsehoods than all the other candidates who ran for president this year combined.”

While truth may well overmatch falsehoods in a forum where each has equal play, as Rutenberg notes, that is simply not the case currently in our political discourse.  Truth is rarely utilized as the lodestar for public dialogue.  Our journalists and pundits opt instead for simply repeating outright lies, reporting them as “news,” or – in the best of cases – for a dubious objectivity, often representing little more than a midpoint between two opposing political or social opinions, regardless of these opinions’ relationship to the truth.  As was pointed out this July 18, 2016 in the New York Times, the press bears much responsibility for the unimportance of truth to our political discourse, and therefore the rise of Trump:

There’s still a real chance that [Trump] might win. How is that possible? Part of the answer, I’d argue, is that voters don’t fully appreciate his awfulness. And the reason is that too much of the news media still can’t break with “bothsidesism” — the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.

Ben Franklin must be spinning in his eternal resting place (Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia).

The sad and frightening fact is that what is perceived by the public as “truth” often represents little more than a stew of popularly held (though often misinformed) attitudes. These arise as a reaction to polling data, Super PACfueled propaganda (the $3 billion in dark money sloshing around this election season), surrogates’ meaningless blather on cable news programs, a narrow reading of history (“remember the good old days!”), the weight of tradition, and a basket of other impressions, none of which are forced by the press to relate in any meaningful way with the actuality of the matter.

It is certainly not difficult to see how politicians gleefully exploit this Machiavellian dynamic to “play” the media, spewing any garbage they think will help their cause, while suffering little (if at all) when their mistruth is uncovered.  Since I started paying genuine attention to this gloomy aspect of American democracy, I have been astounded by the bald-faced lies used to win political elections, running from Lee Atwater’s “Willie Horton” ads (Bush I v. Mike Dukakis in 1988) through Karl Rove’s “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” lies (Bush II v. John Kerry) and continuing through Mitt Romney, whose team falsely claimed, among many examples, that President Obama doubled the deficit (it was actually slightly down in his first four years) and that “up to 20 million people [would] lose their insurance as Obamacare [went] into effect” (almost the opposite of what’s actually happened).

Donald J. Trump has raised the bar of political falsehoods that perhaps all of us thought could go no higher.  None have exploited the media’s obsession with objectivity and false equivalency more successfully than the current Republican standard bearer.  His ability to lie, lie, and lie again, and not be called out once and for all(through references in every single citation as “Lyin’ Donald J. Trump,” for instance) allowed him to vault over 16 Republican candidates and stand at the precipice of taking the reins of the most powerful nation in today’s world.

As Machiavelli stated: “The great majority of humans are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are.”  The art of the lie is far more important to the leader than learning how to tell the truth.

Donald Trump follows Machiavelli’s dictum with the same passion that the devoted practice their religions. An astounding 70% of Donald Trump’s statements are mostly or completely false, according to PolitiFact, while only 15% are mostly or entirely true.  And though now, finally, there is a growing chorus of media members gingerly stepping in to call a lie a lie, they also dutifully repeat the lie over and over again before refuting it.  Through this repetition, the lie itself becomes embedded in the public consciousness, thus giving the many and absurdist propositions spewed from the latest Republican candidate for President a patina of reality.  Journalists should lead every article about Trump with this fact: he is, as Bernie Sanders averred, a pathological liar.  But unfortunately, despite the few truth-based journalists writing in alternative outlets like The Intercept or in the back pages of the Washington Post or New York Times, the media is central to the problem.

Journalists too often imagine their obligation to be simply reporting the “news” (whatever any partisan actor tells them), remaining indifferent to whether the statements have any relation to reality or truth.  In the journalistic code of ethics, this impartiality represents the highest code of honor.  As Sharon Bader noted in “The Media: Objectivity:”

Objectivity in journalism has nothing to do with seeking out the truth, except in so much as truth is a matter of accurately reporting what others have said. This contrasts with the concept of scientific objectivity where views are supposed to be verified with empirical evidence in a search for the truth. Ironically, journalistic objectivity discourages a search for evidence; the balancing of opinions often replaces journalistic investigation altogether.

Journalists such as Thom HartmannGlenn GreenwaldRania Khalek, and other lesser known (to your average American, at least) writers do point out this problem, though they are always in a very slim minority. We find little succor in the mainstream media. Even such alleged “truth tellers” as the website PolitiFact, the Washington Post’ssoothsayer Glenn Kessler, and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman (now a New York Timescolumnist) have a dubious relationship with the facts.  As the editor of this blog has shown, all three of these sources have ignored evidence and/or gotten storylines completely wrong during this election cycle.

Without a genuine moral ombudsman to separate fact from fiction in our public square, all opinions – true or not – are simply viewed as offering differing “points of view.” Katrina vanden Heuvel (publisher and part-owner of the magazine The Nation)noted in the Washington Post:

For too many journalists, calling out a Republican for lying requires criticizing a Democrat too, making for a media age where false equivalence — what Eric Alterman has called the mainstream media’s “deepest ideological commitment” — is confused, again and again, with objectivity.

This quote comes from the last election (Romney v. Obama, 2012), though the situation has not gotten better, and perhaps has even worsened. As was noted in the aforementioned July 18, 2016 article from Krugman in the New York Times:

And in the last few days we’ve seen a spectacular demonstration of bothsidesism in action: an op-ed article from the incoming and outgoing heads of the White House Correspondents’ Association, with the headline “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.” How so? Well, Mr. Trump has selectively banned news organizations he considers hostile; he has also . . . attacked both those organizations and individual reporters, and refused to condemn supporters who, for example, have harassed reporters with anti-Semitic insults.

Meanwhile, while Mrs. Clinton hasn’t done any of these things, and has a staff that readily responds to fact-checking questions, she doesn’t like to hold press conferences. Equivalence!

Perhaps more frightening than these simple facts is that we’re not talking about a subterranean conspiracy of which only a privileged few are aware. This dynamic is embedded in the journalistic canon. Krugman has said, for example, that his editors at the New York Times did not allow him to use the word “lying” back in 2000 when debunking the George W. Bush campaign’s claims about tax cuts Bush proposed.  And in an editorial by the Los Angeles Times calling the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth allegations against John Kerry fictitious, the editors stated:

[T]he canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false. As a result, the voters are left with a general sense that there is some controversy over Dukakis’ patriotism or Kerry’s service in Vietnam…And they have been distracted from thinking about real issues (like the war going on now) by these laboratory concoctions.

The most disturbing line in this editorial is: “The canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false.”  Why is this so?  That they can’t call a lie a lie?  Who wrote these “canons,” which seem to explicitly demand that journalists lie to their readers, in the name of “objectivity?”

Although I have seen many instances of this overt self-awareness by journalists, I am still left with the mouth-agape question: why not?  Why can’t truth be the central pillar of journalistic ethics, instead of a “canon” of false equivalency which allows Lee Atwater, Karl Christian Rove, Donald J. Trump, and others to use lies to great effect?

Matt Taibbi (a journalist reporting on politics, media and finance for Rolling Stone and other outlets) noted in On the Media:

Though we’re tempted to blame the politicians, it’s time to dig deeper. It’s time to blame the press corps that daily brings us this unrelenting symphony of horseshit and never comes within a thousand miles of an apology for any of it. And it’s time to blame the press not only as a class of people, but also as individuals.

This lack of accountability in the media presents one of the greatest threats to democracy and the American republic. Greater then climate change, greater than the terrorist menace, greater even than a frontal attack by a nuclear North Korea, the media’s unwillingness to base their reporting in the truth, opting instead for a mushy and moving center point between whatever the members of the two major political parties are saying, reduces the public conversation on matters such as climate change, the terrorist menace, and a frontal attack by a nuclear North Korea to a debate over points of view (one often factually inaccurate), instead of an exploration of the unassailable truth of any issue.

The unwillingness to base reporting in truth allows lies to fester, metastasizing from the corners of the Internet into a presidential campaign (Donald J. Trump’s) which fuses White supremacists, climate denial, fascist undertones, and an increasing series of lies into a viable candidacy.

Even worse is the level of awareness and even pride some journalists show concerning this “canon” of objectivity.  As Washington Post journalist Melinda Hennebergerobserved, concerning her profession’s (lack of) attachment to truth in reporting: “Newspapers hardly ever haul off and say a public figure lied, and I like that about us.”

This same mainstream columnist stated, concerning some media outlets which tagged as “flatly inconsistent with the facts” a number of points vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan made in his Republican National Convention speech in 2012: “of course, each of these pieces is analysis or opinion rather than a straight news story.”  And this “opinion” (i.e. the truth) has less impact on the shared reality of the public square than a “straight news story” (i.e., one that does not separate fact from fiction).

Political campaigns agree: facts can be presented as “spin” by partisans, and therefore fall under the rubric of “opinion.”  Consider, for example, this excerpt from an article in the Washington Post in 2012:

Jon Cassidy, writing on the website Human Events, said one fact-checking outfit declares conservatives inaccurate three times as often as it does liberals.  “You might reasonably conclude that PolitiFact is biased,” he wrote [as opposed to the fact that Republicans simply lie more often].

…Brooks Jackson, executive director of FactCheck.org, said he fears that the campaigns have come to see running afoul of fact checkers as something of a badge of honor.

Now, in Donald J. Trump’s America, even the lying spinmeisters are welcomed into the journalistic tent.  After Corey Lewandowski was fired as Trump’s campaign manager on June 21, 2016, he immediately resurfaced as a CNN political commentator – even though he had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Donald J. Trump!  As Rutenberg noted in his New York Times article:

Mr. Lewandowski has frequently wandered past the bounds of truth…[though, when he was hired by CNN,] Mr. Lewandowski told [fellow CNN journalist] Erin Burnett that he’d call “balls and strikes” in spite of his agreement with Mr. Trump.  But when he weighed in on Mr. Trump’s big economic speech last Tuesday, all he saw was a home run (“Mr. Trump’s best speech of the presidential cycle,” he gushed).

For the sake of full disclosure (and the truth), it must be noted that, although the Democrats are certainly not immune from this particular political sport (see: “Hillary Clinton” + “emails,” for instance), the Republicans have perfected the Machiavellian art of conflating “truth” and “lie.”  Two longtime Washington insiders, Thomas Mann (Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution) and Norman Ornstein (Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute), wrote a book that got at this idea and summarized it four years ago in an article entitled: “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans are the Problem:”

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition . . . “Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias . . . But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomena distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we could change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

Our advice to the press: don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth?

Finally! One true statement about the political situation in the United States.

However, those in the media did not appreciate the sentiment.  After publishing their book and then article in the Washington Post, these two writers were essentially ostracized for their bipartisan, honest point of view.  As the alternative news outletMedia Matters noted a couple of weeks after the publication of the piece, “their [Mann’s and Ornstein’s] recent conclusion that Republicans are responsible for political dysfunction has been largely ignored, with the top five national newspapers writing a total of zero news articles on their thesis.”  Media Matters also pointed out that, after years of being go-to voices on the various Sunday political programs, Mann and Ornstein saw those invitations dry up after the publication of their book.

Given all of this, the rise of Trump should come as no surprise.  He is simply better at using lies to shape reality than the other 16 candidates he bested.  And he is cognizant that the press – compliant concubine that it is – will mostly parrot whatever garbage he spews from his mouth.

Donald J. Trump has risen from the fetid fertilizer of years of Republican obfuscation, lies, false accusations and other pernicious verbiage, all of which have been dutifully reported as one “opinion” (countered by an equally-weighted “opinion” known as the truth).  And when respected journalists have attempted to point out the problem of false equivalence, they have been “ostracized” by their mainstream compatriots or even shut down by their editors.

Trump is not an outlier, surprise or anomaly. He is the natural outgrowth of years of terrible reporting, coupled with Republican exploitation of this dynamic.

In a sense, Trump is doing us a favor. He is exposing the undercurrent of American democracy which has been hidden beneath the surface of “civility” and “objectivity” provided by the supine press. However, we must learn from his rise, and demand – once and for all – that truth, and not false equivalence, becomes central to our political discourse and public square.

If not, we might well learn just how far America can go toward becoming a fascist government ourselves, instead of fighting against them as we have in Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea and other places around the world.  While all of us certainly want to “make America great,” the question becomes for whom, and at what cost?  A question that the mainstream media should – but never seems to – put at the exact center of the conversation about Donald J. Trump, and our public square in general.

 

June 30, 2016

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Arts and Humanities Council Grant to create artwork for Sub Basement

Just received the wonderful news that I was awarded a nice, four-figure grant to produce paintings for Sub Basement, the play I have been working on with Athena Theatre Company in NY.  Got a lot of pieces to pull together, but hoping to produce -- with new art -- this fall!  Stay tuned for further information!!

June 5, 2016

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La Bestia: Sweet Mother

Working with the producers Rose and Carmine Desena of Relationship Theater, and Jonathan Bruce King, of the Players Theater in Brooklyn, to build the full-length iteration of my multi-media exploration of the earliest creation myths, La Bestia: Sweet Mother.  After a few successful runs of the one-act version (Theater at the 14th Street Y, Theater for the New City and HERE Arts Center), I am working with recently hired director Suzanne Karpsinski (Theatre Uzume) to expand the piece into a full-length.  We'll be talking about all aspects of the work over the next couple of weeks, and I will be rewriting and preparing.  Then we'll cast from a series of invitation-only auditions.  We're looking to hold a staged, off-book reading of the piece (complete with my paintings) in late September at an art gallery in Chelsea, and then move toward a festival run this winter.  After that, if we pull all the elements together and garner some interest, we'll think about a full-run of the show.

This is a complete re-do -- working with new dancers, musicians and singer, so should provide a jolt to this long-term project.

June 5, 2016

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Institute of Prophetic Activist Art

I will be teaching my third semester of coursework under the Institute of Prophetic Activist Art umbrella.  I am expanding to two courses next semester, the Prophetic Activist Art seminar I have taught the last two sessions, plus a Great Books course, looking at spiritual wisdom thinkers from the past three thousand years.

Great Books: An exploration of mystical core of all religions

September 19; October 10, 17, 24November 7, 14, 21, 28;  December 5, 12 and 19.

Prophetic Activist Art (the class I have taught the last two sessions)

September 20, 27; October 11, 25; November 15, 29; December 6 and 20        

 

COURSE DESCRIPTIONS:

 

Great Books

Mystical Foundations

Artists and activists have a very strong sense of spirituality, yet often do not consider themselves “religious.”  So from where is the spiritual wellspring from which they draw?  This course will help expand and develop an understanding of spirituality outside of religion’s social, political and legal grasp.  For a full semester, we will explore many thinkers who have plumbed the depths of the human spirit, yet were not always in accord with religious precepts. They range in time period, religion and ethnicity to include the full breadth of humanity – from ancient China through Greece and Rome, into medieval Europe and then the modern world.  Taken together, they can provide an important foundational intellectual and spiritual structure upon which to build a prophetic activist career. 

This course will be reading-intensive, in the area of 150 pages every week.  All texts will be provided free, emailed in pdf format.  Please be aware that this reading will be mandatory – class conversations will revolve around what we read the previous week.  There will be no writing assignments.  The price of the course is $150, which includes all digital texts.

The course syllabus will be as follows:

 

Mondays, 2-5 pm @ Dixon Place

 

September 19: Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

September 26: Buddha: The Dhammapada

                            The Long Discourses of the Buddha

October 10: Chuang Tzu: The Essential Chuang Tzu

October 17: Wisdom of Ancient Seers (Hindu Vedas)

October 24: Tibetan Book of the Dead

November 14: Aurelius, Marcus: Meditations; Epictetus: Enchiridion;  

                            Plotinus: The Heart of Plotinus

November 21: Eckhart, Meister: Selected Writings

November 28: Rumi Fihi ma Fihi

December 5: Buber, Martin: Tales of the Hasidim

                        Imagining Holiness

December 12: Weil, Simone: Waiting on God

December 19: Merton, Thomas: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

 

Prophetic Activist Art        

Strategies for a Spiritual Revolution

 

The Institute offers an intensive workshop to build individual art-activist projects over the semester-long seminar. Classes include an introduction to the specific aspects of the Prophetic Activist Art model (developed by Tom Block out of his own work), and then an exploration about how these ideas can be applied to each artist and their endeavor.

The Institute will consist of 12 activist artists who would like to build their projects during the semester-long seminar, basing their work on Tom Block’s manifesto/handbook of art activism: Prophetic Activist Art: Handbook for a Spiritual Revolution  (Centre for Human Ecology, Scotland, 2014).  Mr. Block (www.tomblock.com) will be running the seminar.

Building out from the belief that it is – and always has been – the artist’s obligation to raise the human gaze to their highest spiritual possibility, this model utilizes art to infiltrate and co-opt political, business and social structures to inspire specific and quantifiable social change.  Prophetic Activism is based on the idea that true social transformation must come from within societal pillars, and the best manner of implementing change is to influence these power centers.

The eight session seminar will introduce artists to the specific ideas of the model, including co-opting political, business and social energy; partnering with non-profit groups; making liaisons with other artists; utilizing unusual exhibition and outreach methods; “Machiavellian” activism; how to build a project from inception through completion; how to imagine and successfully attain quantifiable activist goals and other specific aspects of a Prophetic Activist Art intervention.  We will explore the minutiae of writing cover letters, approaching political and social leaders for their support, finding non-traditional manners of reaching audiences, raising awareness through press releases, media outreach, advertising and manner of aspects of the theory.

 

May 25, 2016

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Two new videos of me doing blind contour drawings at Mezzrow, my favorite Greenwich Village listening room . . .

Check out the videos of me drawing at Mezzrow -- and make cure to turn up the sound!  That's the best drawing sound track you've heard in awhile . . .  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9V9AfP43yn8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpd-QNzA-C4

 

November 24, 2015

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Shetterly Prize for a Portrait of a Hero or Heroism

Announcing the First Winner of "The Shetterly Prize" for Socially Engaged Art

http://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/news/announcing-the-first-winner-of-the-shetterly-prize-for-socially-engaged-art

This year, 2015, the MyHero Project and Americans Who Tell the Truth created "The Shetterly Prize". Entries were solicited from people of all ages and from anywhere. Entrants were asked to portray heroes, heroism, acts of kindness or courage by individuals or by groups. How, we asked, can art be used -- and artists inspired -- to promote the common good? This prize intended to push aspiring and established artists to think about the message in their work and how it might help create a more just society. 

This years winner is Tom Block, for his portrait of Sojourner Truth. 

 

Here is the statement from the MyHero Project on the winner and the prize. 

Tom Block, artist and human rights activist has won the 2015 Shetterly Art Award at The MY HERO Project's 20th Anniversary Celebration for his soulful portrait of Sojourner Truth. 

This is the first year that Robert Shetterly, founder of Americans Who Tell The Truth.org, has donated funds to celebrate an artist who has created a hero portrait that truly conveys the emotional power of hero art.

 

Tom Block is the founder of the Human Rights Painting Project in conjunction with Amnesty International and the newly formed Institute for Prophetic Activist Art in New York. His highly expressionist portraits of human rights activists include Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Sojourner Truth and individuals who are incarcerated around the world for their acts in the name of social justice.

 

Both Robert Shetterly and Tom Block have put their art- their talent, their imagination and their sense of outrage- to raise consciousness and to effect positive social change. These artists believe in the power of art and in the universality of art to shine a light on heroes and to do the right thing.

 

Here is Robert Shetterly's statement on selecting Tom Block's portrait of Sojourner Truth. 

I've decided to award the prize to one work: Tom Block's portrait of Sojourner Truth.

 

I think all his portraits are admirable -- especially because they honor courageous people little known to most of the world --- but I chose his portrait of Sojourner because it not only honors a courageous person but it succeeds  artistically by portraying her passion, dedication, courage and grief. That's what I'm looking for -- art that carries the emotional qualities of the subject. Tom Block has created a powerful portrait and the viewer cannot help but feel Sojourner's strength.

 

I thank all the other artists for their fine work. It's a noble goal for artists to celebrate our heroes of justice and conscience. Keep at it!

 

And, I was very impressed with the children's Art. Particularly the work of Rafael Augustin Villadiego Rios (he draws with a sophisticated wit), Vincent Gordon, and every Peace Pal artist. All of these works had finely developed compositions and were executed with imagination and artistry extraordinary for people their age. 

 

I feel very honored to have met all of these artists through their art. Together we can change the consciousness of the world.

 

Location: Brooksville, Maine

Date: December 7, 2015

October 29, 2015

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Institute of Prophetic Activist Art

Dixon Place has offered their homey salon space for another semester of the Institute of Prophetic Activist Art, which will fun from February through May of next year.  Although only halfway through the first semester, it is clear that there is a real need for this kind of workshop, and the discussion among the group are becoming every-more intensive as we delve deeper into the individual projects, as well as discuss ideas concerning art, activism and outreach.  A real success story -- and super excited that the project will be continuing on!  To follow what we're up to, please visit: http://propheticiactivistart.blogspot.com

September 10, 2015

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"The Interview" at the Long Island City One Act Play Festival reviewed

The one-act festival that "The Interview" was a part of was reviewed in the Queens Chronicle:

"None of the plays are shorter than 10 minutes, and in the second of four programs, several of the most successful shorts created irresistible magic in that time, whereas some of the longer acts don’t do enough with their time. The greatest challenge of the playwrights seemed to be creating a story that goes somewhere fascinating. The format’s limitations are no excuse for bland repetition or poor rendition.

In Tom Block’s “The Interview,” viewers are compelled to ask: Will a playwright find a director for his first New York production, or be swallowed whole by her? It’s entertaining, despite its unreached potential. Some of the other acts share its structure (with conflict played out formulaically), but this was the most successful of its ilk."

I've certainly had worse than that!  Full article here: http://www.qchron.com/qboro/stories/embark-on-deep-adventures-one-act-at-a-time/article_0b90b17a-f1f4-5e07-86f8-f40a67b973ed.html?TNNoMobile

 

March 23, 2015

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Mound - finalist at Manhattan Rep's "Spring Fling"

My 10-minute play "Mound" was voted out of the first round by the audience at four shows last week, besting four other works to advance to the finals on April 9, 10 and 11.  It will be going up against the winners from the other five series in Manhattan Rep's "Spring Fling" 10-minute play contest.  The play, "a heartwarming tale of karma, ants, love and America’s favorite pastime," stars Patrick Bolger as HOMER, James Tilton as CAT and Patrick Leonard as DES.  The did a great job in the preliminary round, and it will certainly only get better!

January 20, 2015

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La Bestia: Sweet Mother - at the HERE Arts Center, SOHO

Super excited to be reprising La Bestia: Sweet Mother -- with the same top-notch cast, no less -- at the Downtown Urban Theater Festival this upcoming May (exact date yet TBD).  This prestigious festival takes place at the HERE Arts Center in SOHO.  One show only, so make sure to watch this space.  This work was called "mesmerizing" by Broadway Director Ellie Renfield when it was performed at Theater for the New City's "Dream Up Festival" last September, and promises to be even richer and more powerful this time around. Still looking for a venue to bring the full-length, multi-media version to life.

December 3, 2014

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Playwright in Residence: Athena Theatre Company (NY)

Founding Director of Athena Theatre Company Veronique Ory has anointed me this season's Playwright-in-Residence.  We are currently working on hiring directors for the production of my play Sub-Basement - developed with Athena - tenatively scheduled at 59 E59th Street Theaters (NY), and on gathering writers for the Athea Theatre Playwriting Group that I will run, starting in mid-January.  We are also planning a 10-minute play festival in May on this year's theme of "Undiscovered Inhibitions."

December 3, 2014

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Gazette Article: Silver Spring artist makes first foray into fiction

BOOKS: Silver Spring artist makes first foray into fiction

Block looks to bring medieval connection between Jewish, Islamic mystics to light

By Ellyn Wexler
Special To The Gazette

Tom Block has expanded his hat-trick of accomplishment in the arts. The 51-year-old Silver Spring writer, playwright and visual artist, a Montgomery County native who has produced impressive work in all three venues, recently branched out from nonfiction to a novel. “The Fool Returns” is his fifth published book.

Like Block’s first nonfiction book, “Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity” (2010), the new novel is based on the author’s “15 years [of] researching, writing and talking about the little know spiritual connection between medieval Jewish and Islamic mystics.”

The earlier book, Block said, “explored the specific historical interactions between these two religions.” Surprised at “how little is known about this positive relationship,” which he attributes to politics, Block’s goal has been “to find as many ways as possible to get the story into the public domain. The novel is one more manner of talking about it in a creative way.” He also has addressed the subject by writing articles and giving talks in Cairo, Istanbul, Barcelona, as well as the U.S. and Canada.

Block wrote a first draft of “The Fool Returns” in 1996, returning to it periodically until “the past year or so,” when he reworked the manuscript “rather extensively” and found a publisher. Early reviews have been encouraging. Kirkus Reviews said, “The writing is literary and full of imagery … Think of a Dan Brown–like adventure penned by an erudite Talmudic scholar.” And David Crumm, co-founder of Read the Spirit, a publishing company for important voices in religion, and interfaith and cross-cultural issues, called the book “a Jewish Da Vinci Code, the difference being that so much of the author’s research is based upon his own historic and verifiable studies.”

The established dramatist chose to use the novel form rather than a play. Not only was he not writing plays when he first drafted the novel, but also, Block said, “There is way too much information that I wanted to include for it to be a play.” He acknowledged, however, that a screenwriter who wanted to option the work would be welcome.

As the son of a journalist and an English professor, Block’s writing talent is no surprise. He grew up in Bethesda, graduated from Georgetown Day High School and Vassar College, and wrote freelance travel and feature stories for newspapers until burning out by age 26. A six-week introduction to visual arts course he took in 1989 at the Boston Museum School inspired a love of painting as well as a new career.

After three years of living and working in Spain, and showing his paintings there and in Portugal, Block returned to the D.C. area. Marriage, the birth of two children and a move to Silver Spring followed, and he continued to paint and exhibit “extensively,” and wrote drafts of his five now-published books.

As for theater, Silver Spring Stage performed Block’s one-act “Frank Johnson” in 2007, and his first full-length “White Noise” was on stage at the District’s Fridge in 2012, and off-off-Broadway at Theater for the New City the following year. The stage, he said, is his particular passion “because I can bring all of my creative interests together in one place.” In addition to appealing to his interests in writing and philosophy, he noted, most of his plays have a multimedia element, including music and/or modern dance, as well as his paintings, which serve as part of the set.

Block said he “absolutely plan[s] to continue firing on all cylinders.” He is now researching the “quantum basic of consciousness and doing preparatory location work” for a second novel – “The God Pill,” which he describes as “a thriller involving neuro-spiritualism, some rogue American government scientists now on the lam and the re-engineering on the geo-political situation through a scheme to reverse engineer the human brain.”

Productions and readings of several of his plays will take place in the next few months in New York City, and two Off-Broadway possibilities are in the works. Next up are a reading at the Ensemble Studio Theater, with a Broadway director and Broadway-seasoned actors, and a play in development with Off-Broadway’s Athena Theatre Company.

Only the painting arena is “quiet just now,” Block said, except for a viewing of his huge painting, “Broken Berlin Wall,” during the American Institute of Contemporary German Studies’ Global Leadership Award Dinner on Dec. 15 in New York City.

Everyone’s “quiet” is not like Tom Block’s.

 

 

 

 

 

November 22, 2014

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The Fool Returns reviewed in "Books Buzz"

Nice review (and four "bees" out of five" from the Book's Buzz blog:

"If you're looking for the perfect historical fiction read, this one should fit the bill . . . It has a mesmerizing plot . . . The way the author was able to create an idea and promote his stories from facts was truly amazing . . . One thing I loved about this book were the pictures that were intertwined with the story. It was unlike anything I'd seen in a historical fiction book . . . I was really educated by the world that Mr. Block introduced to us."

Alex Ang

The Book's Buzz (NY) 

 

October 29, 2014

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"A Response to Machiavelli: Three Legislative Proposals" published in the 34 Justice blog

My piece proposing three specific manners of bringing some sense of a moral center to our public scrum ran in the 34 Justice blog:

Twentieth-century political theorist Hannah Arendt said of her friend Walter Benjamin (a philosopher and social critic) that he was a “clumsy theorist.”  Not that he couldn’t theorize and walk at the same time, but that he was only interested in developing theories which couldn’t be implemented, in the messy world of the public square.

I share this clumsiness with Walter Benjamin, and so I am transforming the theory for my Moral Ombudsman – proposed in my last posting in this space – into three very real proposals to begin implementation of this anti-Machiavellian political program in the rough-and-tumble world of contemporary American politics.

Though these ideas might at first appear heuristic (theoretical or exploratory), they are in fact common sense responses to some of our most pressing social challenges – and ideas which could be implemented at the local, state or even national level.

I. Family Legislation War Act

My fascination with the socially binding attitude toward war was heightened while watching the build-up to America’s incursion into Iraq in 2003.  An “adventure” which still haunts our economy and foreign policy today, more than a decade later.

My morbid attraction to the subject led me to write a book, A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God, which explored the conflation of war, spirituality and the state.  It investigated not only the religious language used in fomenting war fever in the country, but also the reasons why this framing of this deadly form of politics (which often amounts to genocide) resonated so successfully with the general public.

I also realized how ubiquitous war is, both in the United States and throughout human history.  By one count, the United States has been at war during 214 out of our 235 calendar years of existence.  Hardly surprising, however, when you learn that throughout the past 5600 years of recorded history, 14,600 wars have been fought, more than two wars for each year of human “civilization” (p. 17).

The American addiction to war has many causes: psychological (situating the generalized anxiety we feel inside in some far off “other” and then destroying it); economic (at least 50% of the American economy is dependent on the military-industrial complex) and political (nothing brings a population together or rallies them around a leader as does war).  As such, stemming this gruesome tide might appear nearly impossible.

However, for our psychic as well as social health, it makes sense to do everything we can to phase this activity out as a political option.  To this end, there is one simple legislative proposal which might help stop, or certainly slow, the pace of American wars – and if adopted throughout democracies and republics worldwide, could do much to stanch the bleeding around the globe.

If politicians were forced to vote a single member from their own immediate family into war at the head of the army, they might think twice about casting that politically expedient vote.   From Bill Clinton’s (42nd President of the United States) daughter Chelsea to President Barack Obama’s (44th President of the United States) daughters Malia or Sasha to one of George W. Bush’s (43rd President of the United States) twin daughters or even Senator Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY – at this writing, the Minority Leader in the US Senate) children: we could do much to lessen the rush to war if the vote was modified in this manner.

By personalizing the vote for bellicosity, the noxious pattern of sending other people’s children (usually from the underclass, as the armed forces often provides the best employment option for those who have few of them) to die for our country might be halted.  While it is easy for the rich and powerful to send unknown bodies off to other lands to be psychically or physically maimed, even politicians might think twice about involving their beloved kin.  And if a particular representative didn’t have children?  A sacrificial brother, sister or first cousin would suffice.

This simple law would allow even the most stolid of politicians to appreciate in its entirety what it means to go to war.  Not to say that all wars would be stopped – World War II, for instance, might well have been fought under these pretenses – but the succession of wars of choice that we have entered (and often instigated) over the past 75 years (currently numbering 18 and counting) would have been considered far more gravely beforehand than they in fact were.

II. National Service

My Father (b. 1933), drafted into the army as all of his generation and then recalled during the Cuban Crisis (1961-62), tells many stories about his experiences there.  In particular, he relates how people from all strata of American life came together to live in the shared cultural environment of the armed forces.  Living as equals, these men from rural, suburban and urban America, some toothless and poor, others headed to Ivy League colleges, shared an experience for months, a year or more which would stay with them for a lifetime.  Most importantly, it deepened their sense of the American community as one which involves people from all walks of life, even though they might have disparate political and social views, as well as economic prospects.

This sense of a national citizenry – in which all Americans got to personally know people from every segment of our society – has been lost with the passing of the draft.  In my opinion, much of the political and social fracturing of our country that we have seen over the past two decades might be due to this loss of shared experience.  We no longer get to know each other as equals, in a common American endeavor.  Community members from the rural South to the urban Northeast have grown insular, identifying more with their local culture than with the country at large.  And as our political life has suffered, our social discourse has soured and the answers we so desperately search for concerning everything from global warming to unemployment have become more and more difficult to come by.

I do not advocate reinstating the draft.  As you can see from my first idea, I am far more in favor of fazing out the standing army, rather than getting more Americans to serve in it.  However, I do strongly feel that we need some kind of national program to help knit our American community – far more diverse now than when my father was in the army fifty years ago – together into a singly polity.

I propose a democratizing event that brings all segments of our society together.  A year of national service concentrating on public and social work – from environmental cleanup to light infrastructure jobs to helping the poor in cities or rural areas where there is need – would reinstitute this shared sense of American community.  Taking place for one year between high school and college, and perhaps modeled on an existent program like Americorps, Teach for America or even the Depression-era Works Projects Administration (WPA), this endeavor would help heal the fissures that have been appearing in our culture, and threaten to grow from cracks into chasms of difference between disparate segments of our population.

Not only would young adults at a formative time in their lives come to feel the warmth of working for the common good, they would also be forced to work with and perhaps even befriend people from different socio-economic, religious, ethnic and geographical backgrounds.  This would do much to combat sectarian, economic and racial rifts that have yet to be healed (and sometimes seem to be on the rise) in our society.

III.  Into the Voting Booth

One of the unfortunately, though rarely remarked upon, concerns with our democracy is that such a small percentage of the voting age population votes in elections.  In presidential years, a bare majority of Americans vote – not even 60% of the voting age population in recent elections (since 1960, the percentage has ranged from a high of 63% in 1960 to 49% in 1996).  In off-year elections, known colloquially as “midterm elections,” a little more than a third of the voting public casts ballots, allowing only a 20% minority of voting age citizens (the majority of those voting) to make decisions that affect the whole country!

According to Howard Stephen Friedman (a professor at Columbia University and economist at the United Nations), the USA trails virtually all advanced democratic, economically healthy nations in voter participation.  According to his graph, the United States of America lags far behind Belgium, Australia, Italy, Greece, Spain, Korea, Portugal, Japan and many other industrialized nations, coming in with a paltry 38% of eligible voter participation, on average.

Different countries address voter participation concerns in different manners.  Unfortunately, in our country, legislative energy has recently been expended indepressing voter turnout even further, rather than encouraging it.  One party has realized that the majority of Americans do not agree with their political program, so the surest way to electoral victory is to make it more difficult to vote, not easier.

As Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, noted:

For the first time in decades, voters in nearly half the country will find it harder to cast a ballot in the upcoming elections. Voters in 22 states will face tougher rules than in the last midterms. In 15 states, 2014 is slated to be the first major election with new voting restrictions in place.

These changes are the product of a concerted push to restrict voting by legislative majorities that swept into office in 2010.  They represent a sharp reversal for a country whose historical trajectory has been to expand voting rights and make the process more convenient and accessible.

It should also be clearly stated that these restrictive measures were passed in response to a problem (“voter fraud”) which has been shown time and again not to exist.  Andthat “of the 22 states with new restrictions, 18 passed them through entirely Republican-controlled bodies.”

American democracy should not be about inventing fraudulent, though “legal” (in the narrowest sense of the word) means to assure electoral victory.  We should work toward the kind of voter inclusion of Belgium (93%) or Australia (80%), instead of being satisfied with a little more than half of a bit more than a third of our voting age population making decisions for the whole country.

To this end, I propose not only making access far easier, but also moving the election day to the weekend (or declaring it a national holiday); having voting laws administered by the Federal Government (instead of a patchwork of state and even local jurisdictions, allowing partisan election judges to make, shift and change laws to the best effect for their political party) and even go so far as to – like Australia or Belgium – pass a law making voting in this country mandatory, instead of attempting to restrict it to partisan friends, while discouraging others from participation.

Democracy (a system of government by the whole population) cannot be healthy if certain segments of the citizenry are discouraged or even prevented from voting.  Current election tightening – something, that Weiser assures, hasn’t happened on this grand a scale since Reconstruction, more than 125 years ago – is bad for the country, though certainly better for one of the major parties.

We must take the ballot box back for all Americans.  Twenty two countries in the world have some form of compulsory voting, including much of Latin America, Australia and Belgium.  The State of Georgia (USA) had such a law on its books in its Constitution of 1777 which stated: “Every person absenting himself from an election, and shall neglect to give in his or their ballot at such election, shall be subject to a penalty,” though it was omitted from the State Constitution of 1789.

We cannot live in a democracy where some people control who votes, while more than half of the country doesn’t even cast them.  This leads to results which do not reflect the “will of the people,” but simply the will of the powerful.  As Joseph Stalin noted: “It is enough that the people know there was an election.  The people who cast the votes decide nothing.  The people who count the votes decide everything.”

A participatory democracy must include the voices from the vast majority of its citizens, even if their voices are compelled to speak.  If we, as a country, can pass laws to narrow the vote, then we can just as assuredly pass one that will compel it.  And if we truly want to live in a “democracy,” we should do it sooner rather than later.