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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.


October 26, 2014

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The Fool Returns - Kirkus Reviews

Kirkust Reviews ran a review of The Fool Returns online on October 26th, and in their print magazine November 1.



In Block’s newest, Bill Willis is a Jew who doesn’t realize he’s Jewish until he discovers he’s heir to a spiritual obligation originating with 13th-century philosopher Moses Maimonides.

Bill grew up without religion, failed at professional baseball and became a bartender, all without realizing his family was inextricably intertwined in the great polymath Maimonides’ desire to heal the Abrahamic rift by creating a covenant between Jewish cabala and Sufism theology. Long ago, "a 40-card deck [was] dispersed to the four corners of the world...imbued with spiritual powers...[to] bring these two religious paths together" by "the transposition of reality—perceived as well as unseen—into numerology." The axis was Cáceres in Andalusia, and the impetus was the Inquisition. Even Christopher Columbus carried one of the cards to the New World. Not knowing that "the ingathering of the cards will repair the original injury to creation," Bill has the final card, the Fool Card, tossed into his lap while riding the subway. Trapped by the prophecy, Bill is soon compelled to journey to the Iberian Peninsula and contact Jews who’ve lived as Christians since the Inquisition. There are visits to dank and dark underground reliquaries, meetings with scholarly relatives, a brief tragic love affair, a retired madam and assorted mystics. In fulfilling this "Tariqah…to acknowledge the injustice visited upon Hagar and Ishmael," Bill’s travels come to symbolize the Fool passing from the Formative World "into the Creative World, where everything is lost in a haze of ulterior meanings." While the writing is literary and full of imagery, the story is extraordinarily dense, heavily laden with surrealistic numerology and metaphors, especially the latter third, "the distillation of destiny."

Think of a Dan Brown–like adventure penned by an erudite Talmudic scholar.


October 18, 2014

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Sub-Basement - Athena Theatre Company producing at 59 E 59th Street Theaters (NY)

Just received the contract for a play I have been developing with Veronique Ory, Founding Producer of Athena Company.  The work, "Sub Basement," follows the tale of a French Canadian woman, Adrienne, an erstwhile poet, who has been sent to NY by her father for one last week on vacation, before she enters into the field that he has chosen for her: Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  Woman.

But something undeniable stirs in the depths of our heroine: the desire to create, to be a poet, to live life to the fullest, the restraining structures of normalcy be-damned.  

The man her father found for her on the Internet - Simon - meets her at the bus station and immediately sets her off on the straight path.  But something goes terribly amiss; Adrienne escapes into some interminable night where she meets a homeless dramaturge and out of work translator; is taken high up in some East Village tenemant to meet a guru who tries to get her to eat plantain chips, undergoes a dramatic fall on the subway and is pursued through the shadows of night by her now fiance Simon, who got engaged to her after she had fled from him initially.

In the end, with the Father pounding south on horses hooves to save her (again, we are to learn) from the creative desires that well up from within her, and with Simon offering to take her to a psychiatrist in the morning, Adrienne makes an irrevocable decision.  And all is either lost or found, depending on your point of view.

We are hoping to bring this play to the off-Broadway 59 E 59th Street Theaters in the next (2015-16) theater season.  Al-hamdillulah.

September 16, 2014

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The Fool Returns - novel in pre-release

Just signed the contract and finished proofing my first novel, in pre-publication and being officially released this December, of The Fool Returns.  Tom Block's The Fool Returns centers on the idea that Medieval Jewish mystics discovered the underlying impetus for current political issues between Jews and Muslims in the Biblical story of Isaac and Ishmael (Genesis 21).  They set a 500-year quest in motion, which was coming to fruition in 1992, when a hapless bartender had a card made from human bone thrown into his lap in the middle of the night, on the #1 train in Manhattan.

What ensues is a voyage – both physical and spiritual – which takes Bill far from his banal life as a bartender into lost Iberia, where he meets an increasingly bizarre collection of crypto-Jews who have been waiting for him, descends into hidden “bone chapels,” must leap across the vast space of a psychic abyss, work his way through subterranean tunnels deep beneath the city of Cáceres, Spain and bring the card to its final destination, somewhere on the other side of a bordello in the ancient Alfama district of Lisbon.


All the while, he is pursued by a shadowy figure from his past, a man named “Hoopoe,” who also has been awaiting the apparition of this same card.


For further information about this novel:


June 19, 2014

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Review of "La Bestia: Sweet Mother" CD

Tom Block, 'La Bestia: Sweet Mother, A Troubadour's Tale'

By Colin McGuire News-Post Staff | Posted: Thursday, June 19, 2014 2:00 am

Well, it’s impressive. And ambitious. There’s no denying that. “La Bestia: Sweet Mother, A Troubadour’s Tale,” what Silver Spring visual artist, playwright and author Tom Block describes as a “multi-media exploration of the mother as both creator and destroyer,” is a single track, 40-minute musical performance that takes you on a wild, if not somewhat eerie ride through Block’s creationism concoction. It ends with an ambiguous “Why,” and you can’t help but wonder how figurative and literal that utterance truly wants to be.

It’s not that there isn’t anything to commend in these movements; rather, one must wonder how well such a presentation works without the visuals that beg to accompany it. Maybe some dancing? Perhaps a bit of acting? Instead, this stripped-down, neo-classical, audio-only performance leaves any listener who doesn’t have an imagination wondering what could have been. As for those who have no problem visualizing the story at hand, however ... well, get ready. Forty minutes rarely feels this quick or this cluttered.

None of that is meant as a judgment value, of course. Becca Weiss has a richly perky voice that jumps from spoken-word to harmony-laden on a dime. Paired with cellist Desiree Miller, who fills out an empty background with a palate of colors that would make Georgia O’Keeffe blush, the attack works fantastically, from a technical standpoint at least. The two have an earned chemistry that makes the production whole.

Beginning with lush strokes of gloom that loom like a family of storm clouds over a hot summer evening, Weiss eases her way into the performance with strewn enunciations that showcase the depth of her range. It sets the stage for an intriguing wash of moods that drowns any preconception of inability. The woman can sing, and she can sing well.

Yet by the time that gives way to her storytelling abilities, you almost wish she wouldn’t stop crooning. Nothing against her talent as a narrator, but that textured pitch of hers could have been used in a more ingenuous manner, had she chosen to keep those intonations more flexible. Such a decision makes the end result feel as though it’s lacking at times, a mere fraction of the potential that appears often but not enough.

Those missed opportunities are forgiven, however, when Miller sprinkles in her brilliantly tasteful sound effects. Subliminal in nature, yet imperative in execution, her tiny bleeps and bops — all produced via her sturdy cello, mind you — should bring an easy smile to any listener. They don’t just break up the monotony of the production; they add a layer of intricacy that’s mandatory to appreciate.

Her expertise also helps make the best part of the performance, at about the 23-minute mark, work with a unique sense of versatility. It’s here where the orchestration dips into a darker place and the structure takes a right turn down an alley filled with jazz cats. On a whim, the duo trade in their dramatic flare for some smokey-cool berets and even a modicum of groove.

“Baby, his voice is a wide grin/ Against the broken moon, his chin,” Weiss asserts atop a cello-turned-bass approach that would make both Mingus and Clarke proud. The move is a wickedly fun departure from the classical influences that surround it, a welcome change of pace that all but paints a portrait for the contradicting scenery this performance often embodies. It’s like stepping out of an opera and into the Blue Note.

It also proves that the level of difficulty behind “La Bestia: Sweet Mother, A Troubadour’s Tale” is both exceptional and uncommon. Miller and Weiss wrote and performed the music, and while it was recorded in New York’s East Village, you almost want to believe it was created somewhere within the depths of your own headphones — the whole thing simply feels that personal. An amalgam of talent combines with otherworldly goals here, and it all adds up to one big Wow.

So, actually, check that first thought: Impressive and ambitious don’t even begin to scratch the surface.

2 1/2 stars out of 4

Colin McGuire is a writer and page designer at the News-Post, as well the music reviews editor at His blog, TV Without A TV, can be found Find all reviews plus local music podcasts, videos and upcoming shows at Email if you’d like your album considered for review.

June 11, 2014

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Coexistence with Oud: Article in the New York Jewish Week

Coexistence, With Oud


Ted Merwin

Special To The Jewish Week

With all the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway, the musical’s final scene of the shtetl-dwelling Jews being forced off their land lingers in our minds. But to visual artist and playwright Tom Block, it is not just Jews, but Arabs as well, who have suffered displacement from a cherished homeland.

In his new play, “Oud Player on the Tel,” Block imagines a friendship blossoming between a German Holocaust survivor and a Sufi villager in the British Mandate period that preceded the founding of Israel. It will be read this Saturday evening at the 14th Street Y with live oud music played by Rabbi Zach Fredman (one of this year’s “36 Under 36” Jewish Week  picks). It is one of seven plays the Jewish Plays Project, founded by David Winitsky, is presenting at the Y.

“Oud Player,” directed by Winitsky, is the tale of Amir (Rajesh Bose), the Sufi leader of a small village outside Jerusalem, who strikes up a friendship with Melke (Matthew Boston), a middle-aged survivor. Meanwhile, Melke’s son, Mortiz (Adam Perabo), and Amir’s nephew, Mahmoud (Ryan Shams), each independently take the name of an American used car salesman, Herb Gordon, and compete to peddle vehicles to the local population. But political realities ultimately overshadow the desires of both the Jewish and Arab characters for peace and prosperity. Block’s own six-foot murals of Jewish and Arab mystics serve as the backdrop for the stage.

In an interview, Block called “Oud Player” a kind of “forensic history,” a “digging up of forgotten and overlooked” encounters between Jews and Arabs. But rather than a true story, he said, the play presents “one possible future” that was “buried under the Zionist and Pan-Arab nationalist energies” that both arose against Christian Europe in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

Like “West Bank Story,” the Academy Award-winning short film from 2005 about dueling falafel stands, in which an Israeli soldier falls in love with a Palestinian fast food cashier, “Oud Player” has what Block calls an “absurdist, tragicomic” dimension. But the play is also more serious in tone. “The Jewish characters see Israel as a phoenix rising from the ashes of the Holocaust, while the Arabs see it as a nakba — a catastrophe.”

According to Winitsky, “Given that the Israelis and Palestinians seem so far apart these days, it’s hard to believe in coexistence.” But he calls himself an “incurable optimist” who believes that “people who share so much can not only coexist, but even embrace each other.”

“Oud Player on the Tel” will be read on Saturday, June 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the 14th Street Y. A talk-back with Middle East peace activists will follow the reading. Tickets for this play (and the six other plays in the Jewish Plays Project series) are free, but must be reserved at

June 4, 2014

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Prophetic Activist Art: Handbook for a Spiritual Revolution - published

The Centre for Human Ecology

The Pearce Institute

840-860 Govan Road, Govan

Scotland, G51 3UU

Tel: 0141 445 3700


Prophetic Activist Art

 Handbook for a Spiritual Revolution


This groundbreaking work outlines a specific model for using art to spur social transformation, as an extension of both artistic and spiritual practice.  It is unique in that it moves beyond simply documenting past activist projects – as do the other works in this field – or showing how artists might express their opinions through their art, to developing a model for utilizing art to influence the social and political worlds.


Written by Tom Block, a noted art-activist with more than 20 years of using art to infiltrate business, social and political conversations, Prophetic Activist Art offers a step-by-step handbook for activist creators in any media.  Moving far beyond the oppositional activism of past art movements, Prophetic Activist Art insinuates artists and their ideas into the halls of power, money and influence.


As U.S. Major General (ret.) Charles Tucker noted:


Tom Block is a visionary at the intersection of art and conscience.  Written with style and conviction, his new work is a “must read” for those searching for an ethical fulcrum from which to nurture equity, justice and human security.


Prophetic Activist Art brings together medieval conceptions of prophecy, art's historic purpose to raise the human gaze to our highest spirit  and the contemporary "cult of the individual," to propose a mysticism of action, with art as the regenerating force.  This theory moves beyond using activist art simply to shock the audience, or raise awareness of social issues, to providing specific and quantifiable social change.  


This short treatise, part manifesto, part handbook, outlines a vision of how artists can use their talents to infuse a moral center into the public worlds of politics, the media and advertising, thereby introducing prophetic inspiration into the general society.  The author outlines specific manners of using art to inspire quantifiable positive social change, believing that contemporary mysticism must be expressed as action.


Mr. Block concludes that Prophetic Activist Art offers a rejuvenation of creativity’s historic purpose, for our era.  Here lies the nexus of prophetic inspiration and the contemporary artist’s studio.  This book is based in his belief that art has had a historic role in helping humankind reach our greatest spiritual potential, and that Prophetic Activist Art provides one manner of reconsidering that role for our era.


Hardly a theory that emerged out of thin air, it grows out of Mr. Block’s more than two decades of activist artwork.  His activism includes being the founding producer of the Amnesty International Human Rights Art Festival (2010; MD); creator of the more than decade-long Human Rights Painting Project,

in conjunction with Amnesty International; the multi-media Shalom/Salaam Project, the Cousins Public Art Project and other activist artwork.


Mr. Block has also worked in conjunction with the Irish Centre for Human Rights; as a Research Fellow at the DePaul University International Human Rights Law Institute, where he produced an activist art festival entitled: "Iraq History Project,"  and as a keynote speaker at a conference in Scotland (2011) entitled: "Kandinsky in Govan: Art, Spirituality & the Future."


He has spoken about his theories of using art as an activist tool at conferences and universities, including: Al-Azhar University(Cairo), Irish Centre for Human Rights (Galway, Ireland), DePaul University (IL), Villanova University (PA), Xavier University(OH), University of Arkansas (AR), Ohio University (OH), Fetzer Institute (MI), Manhattan College (NY), Vanderbilt University(TN), University of Calgary  (Canada), Institute of Art (Birmingham, England), Emory University (GA), Columbia University (NY),Middlebury College (VT), American Popular Culture AssociationMid Atlantic Popular Culture AssociationInternational Peace Research Association and at other universities and conferences around the world.


His first book, “Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity,” which traces the influence of Sufism (Islamic mysticism) on the direction of Jewish spirituality over the course of 1000 years, was published in 2010 in the USA (Fons Vitae, Louisville, KY) and Turkey (Bilim Artı Gönül Yayıncılık Ltd. Şti., Istanbul).  “A Fatal Addiction: War in the Name of God,” examining the link between religion and violence, was published in 2012 by Algora Publisher (NY) and “Machiavelli in America,” looking at the spiritually-desiccated nature of American politics, was published this past April by Algora Publisher (NY).  Also a playwright, Mr. Block has had numerous plays produced in both New York and Washington DC.



April 1, 2014

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Machiavelli in America - published

 From the back cover: 

Does might make right?

Machiavelli in America traces the roots of America’s tough take on political power to the Florentine thinker. From the Founders (c. 1770s) through today’s rough-and-tumble political panorama, Machiavelli's rationale has been adopted in domestic politics as well as international relations. He proposed that the “ends justify the means,” and that any manner of fraud, violence or corruption must be utilized in attaining and retaining power.
Are people so mean, small and selfish that they will only act under necessity, as Machiavelli insists, so the successful leader must force the population, through whatever means necessary, to follow his dictates? He taught us that the most powerful form of fraud was the appearance of religiosity, and said that the “prince” must hold no art higher than that of war.
In this disturbing, erudite and highly readable book, America is shown to be a surprising example of Machiavellian politics, utiliz- ing the post-modern methods of information distribution and “legal” fraud and corruption. Just think about Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, George W. Bush, the Supreme Court and the Super PACs, the massive amounts of money that shape our elections and decision-making, and the intermingling of the language of religion and war.

The last section of the book offers a response to this kind of thinking, with a specific, implementable program that will begin to de- volve the power of American democracy back to the people and away from the shrinking numbers of oligarchs who control the po- litical system.
Thomas Block is a patriot pained by our nation’s falling short of the noble aims for which we strive. His last nonfiction work, A Fatal Addiction: War in the Nameof God (Algora2012), examined how the United States, one of the most religious countries in the world, could also be the most violent. A playwright and artist as well, Tom has several nonfiction books, a trilogy of plays, and a series of paintings in the works.
To see the information fromthe publisher, Algora's, website:


January 14, 2014

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Dual Identities

LABA Fellow, Tom Block, is a multi-dimensional artist presenting a premier play and art sponsored by LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture. His artwork is being shown in the Gallery at the 14th Street Y and his multi-media play “La Bestia: Sweet Mother” is making a premier at MOTHER: Creator/Destroyer on January 25th at 7:30pm at the Theater at the 14th Street Y.

Tom is letting us into his dual life as a father and an artist.

Q: You have an installation in the Gallery at the 14th Street Y, you had a staged reading of an original play in December, and now you are presenting a premiere play with dance and music at MOTHER: Creator/Destroyer on January 25th here at the 14th Street Y. WOW! What inspires you to work in so many mediums?

A: I find that different mediums reach different audiences, so the short answer is that the more manners of expressing myself, the greater audience I can find for my work and ideas.  Additionally, different media touch people in different ways.  By working with one theme across a variety of media, I can add depth, nuance and complexity to the message.  With a subject matter that is so near and dear to my heart as Mother as Creator/Destroyer (not only do I have a mother, and am married to a mother, but my personal theology is based on that exact moment when nothingness is destroyed by creation — and the desperation that the original Creator — i.e Mother — must have felt to undertake such a radical departure from perfection), I want to explore the subject from as many different angels as I can muster.

Also, I love creating.  I live to create.  If I am not creating something which attempts to be sublime — at the intersection of pain and beauty — I feel empty.

Q: Tell us about where you currently live, your family, and how you find the time to make so much new work?

A: I live in Silver Spring, MD and have a wife and two girls, ages thirteen and nine.  I actually live kind of a dual-personality life — at home, I am more or less a stay-at-home father (my wife works in the county government), getting the kids off to school, picking them up, getting them their afternoon snack, gently reminding them (!) of their various obligations.

However, I also (in my own eyes, at least) am a New York artist, and all time not occupied with my family, I am writing, painting, noting, sketching and creating.  I find that each half of my personality feeds the other.  A delicate but, in the best of times (which the LABA Fellowship era certainly represents) a wonderful and inspirational balance.

Q: How has LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture influenced your work?

A: Tremendously.  It has given me profound fodder (to put it in horsey terms) for the exploration of specific theological and philosophical themes with which I have been working my whole career.  The sessions with Ruby, Ronit and Elissa have stirred up many ideas and emotions, and the interaction with the incredibly talented and passionate collection of fellows has energized and inspired.  I am creating my first truly multi-media piece of theater as part of the fellowship and would not have had the inspiration or support to do so without the LABA Fellowship.

Q: Your new work premiering at MOTHER: Creator/Destroyer, “La Bestia” has spurred the creation of a play with original music, dance, and a series of original art with a Latin influence. How did you get a Latin vibe from your work with LABA and the texts you studied?

A: Well — hmmm.  By “Latin vibe,” I assume you mean basing the narrative of the theater piece (and title) on the freight train “La Bestia” (a real conveyance) which illegally brings illegal immigrants toward the US border from Central America.  Since I was working with the idea of Mother as Creator/Destroyer, this seemed like an ideal metaphor: not only is it literally a snake (think: Garden of Eden and the original mother, Eve) in its physical appearance, but it is also an object that gives new life (the hope that awaits in the United States) as well as takes it (many who board the train in Arriaga never make it to the US border, due to the dangers of the conveyance itself).  Additionally, it helps particularize the mythological and theological themes that I am working with.  As the French poet Baudelaire noted, “true beauty is a combination of the particular and the eternal.”

Q: Is there anything else you want the readers to know about you and your work?

A: My work is an ongoing artistic and philosophical exploration of what it means to be human — to be cast into this world with enough of a consciousness to know that something is going on, but not enough to be able to figure out exactly what it is.  At the heart of every work I produce, in all media, is a question mark, not an answer.

January 2, 2014

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La Bestia: Sweet Mother Project

The LABA Journal, multi-media introduction to this project is online now:

November 21, 2013

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Five Different Plays Under Development

I have five different plays under development in December and January.  On December 13, Spooky Action Theater, Washington DC ("spooky action" is actually a physics term indicating two particles that affect each other at a distance that implies a bond that breaks the speed of light - it has nothing to do with Halloween) will be reading my play "Night Out in Spain," which is the third of my trilogy exploring contemporary prophecy.

Then on December 18, 19, I have having three plays read at the off-off-Broadway 14th Street Y (East Village).  On December 18, two one-acts, Danny and the Therapist & Comic Book are being produced by Sanctuary: Playwrights Theater and directed by Katrin Hilbe.  Then on December 19, my full-lenght play Duck is being read by graduates of the New School for Drama MFA program and

directed by Brad Raimondo.

Finally, on January 25, my multi-media exploration of motherhood, entitled "La Bestia: Sweet Mother," and directed by myself, will be presented as part of the LABAlive Series at the 14th Street Y.  This work, based in the earliest human creation myths, involves, dance, cello, an acapella chorus, my paintings and a narrative involving four actors, three mothers and one male voice.  Should be a great evening!  As well as my directing debut.

August 21, 2013

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LABA Fellowship

I just received the news that I have been accepted as a LABA Fellow, where I will spend the next year visiting with a select group of other artists (in all media) in a secular "beit midrash."  We will be meeting once or twice a month to discuss Jewish texts around the theme of "mother," and then I will be creating a full-length play and series of accompanying paintings.  The final product will be seen in the 14th Street Y's (East Village, NY) state-of-the-art off off Broadway theater next summer, as part of the LABA art festival.

Throughout the fall, I will be undertaking a series of creative explorations as a part of the fellowship, including exploring precursor creation myths to the Torah (Sumerian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Zoroastrian, Greek, Hindu and Etruscan); writing poems based on these myths; sketching mothers - current, latent and impossible; writing a series of ten minute plays on the subject; keeping an illustrated journal of my memories of my own mother (in Arabic), and finally, next spring, bringing it all to fruition.

Can't wait to get started in about a month!  For more information about LABA, please visit:

August 11, 2013

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31 Plays in 31 Days Interview: Meet Tom Block by Adrienne Pender

Meet Tom Block

Tom Block is a playwright living in “the graveyard” of the Washington, DC suburbs. His first play, White Noise, was produced in Washington D.C. last June and will be produced in New York next summer as a Resident Theater Production of Theater for the New City in the East Village. His second play, Butterfly, had its world premiere in February 2013 in Takoma Park, MD. In addition to his plays, Tom is a published non- fiction author and visual artist whose work has been exhibited in the US and Europe.

1              Is there an overall theme to your work as a writer?

The underlying premise of all of my work is that we (humans) have been given enough of a consciousness to understand that something is going on, but not enough to figure out what it is.  That is to say, creation itself is “the rape of man by God.”  I actually used this line in my first play, but as I have written more and more, I have buried this idea beneath layers of humor, metaphor, absurdist action and other devices.


2              When did you start writing?

I wrote my first poem when I was sixteen.  (“Hope, hope, better than dope . . .”)  Happily, I have refined my craft since then.  Actually, I am quite a late bloomer – I wrote dreck throughout my 20s and 30s; only in my 40s did I begin to finally produce writing of any worth.  I published my first non-fiction book (of four which have been published or have contracts) when I was 47, and had my first play produced when I was 49.  Now, at 50, I am rolling along, and finally think I understand the craft well enough to actually produce decent work on a regular basis.

3              When did you first realize you were a "writer?" Or, did you always know it?

A writer writes.  So, I’ve always considered myself a writer.  But not until I held my first book in my hands did I truly consider myself a “writer.”  As in, I would tell people in a bar: “Yes.  I am a writer.”  Now, much more confident, I am writing everyday.  Especially this August!

4              What was the first play you wrote; and what was it about?

The first play I wrote I actually worked on in my 20s.  It was a one-act called “Frank Johnson,” and concerned two people sharing a single life.  It was very text driven, but 20 years after I wrote it, it was produced in a local one-act play festival.  The first full-length play (“White Noise”), which was produced in both Washington DC and then off-off-Broadway in New York over the past year, concerns art, existential crisis, racism, sexual deviancy and the ghost of a 20th-century prophet, Simone Weil. 

5              If you could re-write that play now, as an experienced writer, how would you do it differently?  If     at all?

I think that I’ll just leave that one alone.  I am applying what I learned in that rather successful failure to what I work on now.  I am not one for beating a dead horse.  However, I definitely like to apply what I learned from killing that horse to keeping subsequent horses alive.  Metaphorically speaking, of course.

6              What do you struggle most with as a writer?

My personal struggle at the writing desk is to create characters that are human, engaging and sympathetic.  Because my work is highly philosophical and absurdist – idea and action driven – the characters themselves sometimes get lost in the shuffle.  If you want the audience to weep when the main character is crucified to the hood of a Volkswagen, then they have to have engaged the audience with that character along the way.  Right?

7              Are you a full-time writer? What do you do during the day?

I am a writer, activist and a visual artist.  I wear all three hats equally.  So for instance, this past week I had visits in my studio from two potential institutional buyers for my art (one a university I have worked with and one a developer looking for art for their new building); I worked on a play for submission to Theater for the New City (NY – where my first play was just produced); traveled to New York for a “Table Read” of a one-act of mine and then participated in the founding conference of a new Interfaith Institute of Peace, with a collection of academics and practitioners.  A bit confusing, but incredibly fulfilling – and I find that all of these interests can be channeled into my playwriting, in addition to using my art onstage with my productions.

8              How do you balance day job/school/family with your writing?

I don’t know.  I have a wife and two kids, and am spending more and more time in New York as my career begins to go better.  I’m kind of all over the place, but it is a hell of a lot better than being no-place, which is somewhere me and my art spent a lot of time for many years.

9              How does where you live impact your writing? Or does it?

Interesting.  I live in the Washington D.C. suburbs and I hate it.  The American suburbs: the graveyard of art and thought.  Still, I have done an incredible amount of quality work in the small basement studio and writing room at the back of the house.  Pain comes in many forms – and pain is always necessary for the creation of true art.  Right?

10          What made you decide to participate in this year's 31 Plays challenge?

A story: I was in art school a couple of decades ago for a short time.  During this short time, I took a six-hour drawing class, which would run from 9-noon and then from 2-5 pm.  It was autumn in Boston.

The day was long.  The morning session was full of students, and then in the afternoon, the class would begin two-thirds full and then bleed students, so that by the end of the day, only a handful of us remained.  Add to this the dying winter sun and no electric light in the room.  By the end of the class, the few of us left were pretty much drawing in the dark. 

I drew straight through.  By about three pm, I was exhausted and by four – with an hour left – I hated drawing more even than boiled cabbage.  I was exhausted, my eyes ached, I hated the paper and charcoal.  The room had gone completely quiet by this time.  The only sound the scrabble of charcoal on paper. 

Yet.  It was here, as I was so sick of drawing that I thought I would vomit, that I did my best work.  I was beyond caring.  I hated the act of drawing and therefor I stopped being in any way a conscious participant in the work.  Yet I drew.  The charcoal had to move across the paper. 

“Men marched asleep; many had lost their shoes, but limped on, bloodshod.” 

I was just one such man.  I would draw until five pm and then pack my things quickly, not even looking at my work.  I would find Emilie and Alex and get my ass to the Linwood Bar as fast as I could and wash the bitter bile of hatred of art from myself with cold Bud tall necks.

And guess what?  The next morning, when I opened my portfolio to look at what I had done, I saw some beautiful work.

And I discovered that true art can emerge from the place beyond exhaustion, when the ego and caring and self have all been quashed, and one is left with only the act of creation.

That is why I want to write a 10-minute play a day for 31 days.  To reach such a level of disgust and hatred and misery.  And art. 

11          What do you hope to achieve while writing in August?

I want to work on dialogue.  I want to carry a story with dialogue.  Little action.  Dialogue.  

12          Do you have a strategy for finishing 31 Plays?

Yes.  To move beyond everything and force myself to write one 10- page play everyday.  No questions.  No excuses.  That’s the strategy.

13          What one piece of advice would you give a new playwright?

Write, write, write, write and write.

14          Open Paragraph!  Please write a paragraph or two on any hobbies or things you do outside of work/school and writing. What do you do for fun? Are you an expert gardener? Obsessed with Scrabble, or Game of Thrones? Jot a few things here! J

This is funny.  Hobbies?  Well, everything I love to do, I do.  I write, paint, research, develop and implement projects.  When I am exhausted, all I want to do is watch sports.  Baseball.  Football.  Hockey playoffs.  Basketball if nothing else is on.  If I am exhausted and there are no sports on TV, I lie on the couch and stare at the ceiling.  Maybe there is an answer up there?

Well, and of course, my kids.  They aren’t a hobby, though – but they do take up a lot of time.  Wonderful time.  And now that they are writing plays and making films themselves, it is wonderful to see their work.  And steal from it, when necessary.


July 24, 2013

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Sanctuary: Playwrights Theater

Sanctuary had me back for a table read of "Danny and the Therapist," beautifully interpreted by core members Patrick Bolger (Danny), Adam Perabo (The Therapist) and Katherine McDonald (Chloe).  Managing Director Anastasia Gammick had this to say about my one act: 

Tom Block introduced us to "Danny and the Therapist." The audience never went 3 minutes without laughing. I think that the actors were as surprised as the characters when we were asked to accept constantly shifting rules. Core Artist Patrick Bolger, as Danny, pulled us along on this delightfully chaotic roller coaster.