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Providing progressives a haven: Matt Funiciello of Rock Hill Bakehouse Café.

Photo By: Alicia Solsman

We Want Our Ivins

Adirondack progressives protest columnist’s disappearance from local news pages

The North Country, as the area of small towns and mountain outposts upstream from the Capital District’s suburban sprawl is rustically known, is generally considered to be a bastion of conservativism. So it was an unusual occasion last week when more than two dozen progressives representing a variety of liberal organizations crowded into the Rock Hill Bakehouse Café in Glens Falls in honor of Texas-based newspaper columnist Molly Ivins, longtime chronicler of “Dubya” and author of Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America and Who Let the Dogs In? Incredible Political Animals I Have Known.

The event, a read-in of Ivins essays by local leftist notables, was inspired by the writer’s upcoming appearance at a fund-raiser for Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs on Sept. 30. Ivins will be appearing just weeks after her nationally syndicated column was dropped from the op-ed page of the region’s daily newspaper, The Post-Star.

To the surprise of many in the community, the paper’s move sparked an outpouring of letters to the editor from readers of all political stripes. Green Party member Matt Funiciello, the upscale bakery’s owner and an organizer of Ralph Nader’s current campaign in New York state, told the gathering he was impressed with the “intelligent, academic” tone of the letters, which complained not only about missing Ivins’ good ol’ girl humor but about how her absence left the paper lacking in commentary from a liberal point of view.

“We believe that this action has taken what was hardly a ‘fair and balanced’ editorial section to begin with and has completely set it off-kilter,” Funiciello wrote in an open letter to Post-Star managing editor Ken Tingley. At the reading he collected 40 signatures on the letter, which implores the paper to bring Ivins’ column back. “With this terribly important election looming, her much-needed voice should not be stifled,” he wrote.

Ivins herself sent the group a message of support.

“Thank you so much for holding the reading on my behalf—an excellent example of how to raise hell and have fun too,” she e-mailed. “Hope it’s a grand party. When you are progressives living in a largely conservative area, you need to regularly get together for fun as well as activism, because as that great philosopher Jimmy Buffet has observed, if we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane. With all best wishes, Molly Ivins.”

With nearly every seat filled with Ivins fans indulging in high-carb baked goods and coffee, local mural artist Esmond Lyons, whose paintings adorn the café walls, took the microphone to speak about the parallel between the newspaper’s action and the decision of the Aviation Mall’s Regal Cinema not to show the anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.

“There is no conspiracy to silence Molly Ivins,” he intoned. “There was no conspiracy to silence Michael Moore.”

David Dawkins, a Glens Falls community volunteer and activist who organizes the city’s Martin Luther King Day celebration every year, said he wasn’t surprised by the column’s demise. He called the stifling of debate and difference of opinion a threat to democracy.

“I’m a lifelong independent,” Dawkins pointed out. “I don’t subscribe to any political party, but I’m distressed. Molly Ivins is the tip of the iceberg.”

Adirondack Green Party chair John Warren, who teaches broadcast journalism at Ithaca College, placed Ivins in the company of 20th-century muckrakers Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, who defied the courts to print the Pentagon Papers.

“Can you think of a single media mogul today who would be that brave?” he asked.

Warren, who lives in the tiny Adirondack community of Chestertown, tried to make the case that the GOP’s claim to the North Country is unfounded. (Warren County, which includes Glens Falls and Lake George, lists 22,896 registered Republicans out of 42,834 voters on its Web site.)

“There’s a progressive movement afoot,” Warren said. “It’s not that huge, but it’s persistent.”

Although Funiciello invited The Post-Star to cover the event, the paper declined. (City editor Bob Condon said the next day that he considered it sufficient to cover Ivins’ appearance itself.) A former feature writer and columnist for the paper, Stacey Morris, said she believes the Post-Star tries to be balanced but doesn’t always succeed.

“It’s just unfortunate that in the process they lost one of the best and most insightful writers they had,” Morris said.

Reached by phone the following day, Post-Star managing editor Ken Tingley said the decision to drop Ivins’ column, which he began carrying a few years ago, was part of a regular “shake-up” of the editorial page that occurs every couple of years. The reason, he said, was not Ivins’ political leanings, but the column’s “all politics all the time” content.

“She was a one-trick pony,” Tingley explained. “I didn’t find that very interesting, as a reader.” He said he was also looking to give the page a more “regional feel.” The paper’s new columnists are Lenore Skenazy from the New York Daily News and Jim Shea from the Hartford Courant. Both write about a mix of topics, from lifestyle to politics.

Asked if he would reconsider Ivins’ removal, Tingley replied, “I never say never,” but reiterated, “I think we made the right decision.”

Tingley added he’s been a little surprised by the attention paid to the newspaper’s decision, including a mention on WAMC’s Roundtable program.

“Most of my tenure here we’ve been told we’re too liberal,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know why anyone would think we here in Glens Falls would have any pull on the presidential election. We continue to do what we do best, and that’s local news.”

—Kathy Ceceri

Kathy Ceceri wrote for The Post-Star for 10 years as a freelance correspondent.


Overheard

“What about these insurgents I keep hearing about?”

“Well, in any other war, everyone would have been killed—insurgents and all!”

—Dialogue from the
Spirit of America in which a
soldier tells his friend that the
presence of Iraqi insurgents is
evidence of America’s benevolence.



What a Week

Distracting Documents

The headlines are full of CBS apologizing for being taken in by some fabricated documents about George W. Bush’s military service, and Bushites are hoping this makes a dead issue of Bush’s “missing year.” Oddly, the fake memos have gotten far more media attention than the mountain of other, legitimate, evidence that Bush went AWOL. Kinda makes you wonder which side had an interest in concocting those fake memos. For more details, check
out http://www.salon.com/news/
feature/2004/09/02/allison/index_np.html.

It’s Not a Christian Thing

The United States remains deeply divided over same-sex marriage, with state constitutional amendments against being passed almost as fast as court-cases demanding equality are filed. While U.S. opponents rely on religious arguments against same-sex marriage, a recent survey in Spain, a strongly Catholic country, found 70 percent support for marriage equality. According to Gay.com U.K., the newly elected Spanish government is expected to legalize same-sex marriage on Friday (Oct. 1).

Bush’s Hometown Paper Endorses Kerry

The Lone Star Iconoclast of Crawford, Texas, a paper that bills itself as Bush’s hometown paper, endorsed democratic candidate John Kerry on Sept. 29th, explaining that its 2000 Bush endorsement was based on “the things he promised, not on this smoke-screened agenda.” The paper decried Bush’s mismanagement of social security and the economy, mistakes regarding terrorism and Iraq, and the “dangerous shift away from the basic freedoms established by our founding fathers.” The editorial urges Texans not to vote by the candidate’s hometown or political party but by what they intend to do for America.

New York Independence Party Backs Nader

The Independence Party of New York nominated the Ralph Nader at its state convention of 100 people in Albany on Sunday. The Nader ticket won by an overwhelming 95 percent, beating out Kerry’s 4 percent and Bush’s 0.4 percent. This was an odd move for a party that usually backs major-party incumbents, Republicans as well as Democrats, but party spokespeople attributed it to Nader’s ability to speak to the independent voter.



War and peace: protesters and students outside the Army’s Spirit of America.

Photo by: Chis Shields

The Army Wants Us

The U.S. Army invaded Albany last weekend, but critics contend that the military had orders to recruit, not to educate

Acid-rock and synthetic fog filled the Pepsi Arena Friday morning as green lights swept the floor and video screens taller than most homes flashed grainy images of helicopters unloading human cargo into the jungles of Vietnam. The crackle of gunfire sent a grade-school girl pitching forward in her seat, braids and red-white-and-blue ribbons splayed out on the seatback in front of her, hands pressed against her ears. Meanwhile, a live-action battle raged on the floor of the arena, complete with soldiers spastically feigning impact from round after round of blanks and dropping lifeless to the floor.

Make no mistake about it—when the most well-funded military in the world wants to put on a show, it’s going to be one hell of a production.

The Spirit of America, a multimedia performance arranged by the United States Army, arrived in Albany last weekend with all the spectacle of a rock concert. Featuring a narrative history of the American military complete with battle reenactments and performances by the U.S. Army Band, U.S. Army Drill Team and the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, the show has been performed annually in Washington, D.C., for more than 20 years. This year it branched out to two new locations—Worcester, Mass., and Albany.

“We wanted to go to a place where there wasn’t a large Army presence,” said Tracy Fitzgerald, spokeswoman for the Army’s Military District of Washington.

While few would argue that New York’s capital lacks the military presence of, say, the nation’s capital, the arrival of the Spirit of America prompted some residents to remind their officials that they would like Albany to remain that way. Many critics questioned not only the historical accuracy of the show’s content but the decision of many local schools to cancel classes in order to attend Friday morning’s performance.

On Thursday night, at a meeting of the Albany School Board, several speakers questioned the academic merits of the show, calling the production a “recruiting tool,” and urging the board to reject the Army’s offer of free admission and continue with classes as usual.

“We ought to be teaching our youth strategies of peace,” said Frank Houde, president of the local chapter of Veterans for Peace, which alerted local school districts to the presence of military recruiters at the event—a condition which many districts had not been made aware of when the tickets were first offered.

“How can parents give their consent when they have no idea what their children are attending?” asked John Amidon, another member of Veterans for Peace, at Thursday’s meeting.

While one of Albany’s School Board members, Bill Barnette, questioned the educational value of the event at Thursday’s meeting, the remaining members assured attendees that they had “looked into” the presence of military recruiters at the performance and decided that the show had significant educational content to merit canceling classes for the day.

A protest organized on short notice by the veterans’ group attracted more than 70 activists Friday morning, many of whom told the busloads of children on their way into the event to be certain they learned the truth about what they were about to witness.

“The Army never bothered to tell anyone that they would have recruiters greeting all of the children,” said Amidon, adding that “the best lesson the kids got from the field trip was seeing us on the street.”

Despite the picture of the event painted by many peace activists—full of aggressive recruiters pushing leaflets into the hands of second-graders and conning contact information from high-school students—there was little evidence of such activities at Friday’s show. Students who approached the recruiting stations often received little more than a handshake and a nod from the attending soldiers, and were only offered more specific information when they requested it. Even the promotional items such as lanyards and pencils were provided without the high-pressure sales techniques that often accompany giveaways.

“Contrary to what some people would like to believe, there really are people here who want information about what we’re doing and the options available to them,” said Lt. Col. Paul A. Fanning of the New York Army National Guard, gesturing to the booth behind him. “That’s why [the recruiters] are here. . . . It’s no different than what you see at a fair or any event sponsored by a certain group.”

However, while the process of recruitment was less overt than it typically tends to be—a condition peace groups attributed to the media attention the show received—there was no shortage of military propaganda to be found in the Army’s Spirit of America.

“Recruitment isn’t just a ‘go and sign up’ thing,” explained Houde, “it’s a process that starts by making the military more appealing—especially to young people.”

Several critics called specific sections of dialogue in the show rife with propaganda and misrepresentation. In one such exchange, a soldier returning from overseas tells his friend, “When we were in Iraq, we weren’t really thinking about why we were there. It didn’t matter to us—it was more like a distraction.”

And in the repetition of this message—that the mission comes before a soldier’s morals—lies the danger, claimed critics.

“Soldiers have an obligation to make moral judgments,” explained Amidon, citing 1968’s My Lai massacre—in which American soldiers who claimed to be following orders slaughtered more than 300 unarmed civilians—as evidence of soldiers’ responsibility to carefully consider the demands placed upon them.

Throughout the show, many simplistically pro-military messages—including that of “mission before morals”—quickly became oft-repeated themes, leaving many to question whether the Army’s production was aimed less at educating the public than at justifying its actions. “You think that we rely on you,” one character tells a soldier during the show, “but really, you rely on us—to be good citizens and support you and your mission while you’re overseas.” For some, the repetitive applause cued by soldiers positioned in the audience only made the show’s intent more questionable.

Yet, the most controversial aspect of the performance for some members of the audience was not the military propaganda or recruitment process, but the content of the show itself.
Although the information initially released to schools described the performance as a history lesson and musical revue, the graphic nature of the production took many teachers, chaperones and—in some cases—attending military veterans by surprise.

“The battle scenes were a bit much for a second-grader,” explained one teacher, on her way to escort one of her charges to the bathroom. “The guns were definitely more than we had prepared [our students] for.”

According to Amidon, such problems often arise when isolated groups like the military venture into a public medium.

“The military is so isolated from the values of mainstream society that this type of performance would seem, to [the military], to be perfectly appropriate for children,” he explained, “so that’s the one part of the show I can’t really fault them for—they don’t know any better.”

And for the girl with the red-white-and-blue ribbons in her hair who covered her eyes and ears during the Vietnam portion of the show (and every battle thereafter), the lesson learned during the Spirit of America was probably far simpler than any of its opponents—or advocates—intended.

“There’s a lot of running around and shooting things in the Army,” she frowned, making her way up the stairs at the end of the first half of the show. “I don’t think I would like being in the Army very much.”

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net

To the Superintendent’s Office You Go

A controversial decision by Albany’s School Board may come back to haunt members up for re-election in NovemberDespite an initial announcement that the job would only be filled after a nationwide search, Albany School Board members voted 4-2 on Thursday in favor of suspending the search for a new superintendent of schools, giving the position to interim superintendent Eva Joseph. An unusually large crowd attended the meeting, with many speakers criticizing the process—though not the person—at the heart of the board’s decision.

According to board members, the decision to end the search and select Joseph was a result of board members’ fear that the district would be left without leadership for too long during what could develop into a long selection process.

Board President Scott Wexler said that the chance of losing Joseph as both a candidate and in the interim role—she had been offered a similar position in another district—contributed to the urgency of their decision.

Bill Washburn, the former principal of Albany High School, described the board’s action as a “fear-based decision.”

“The actions by the members of the current board to abandon the open search process for a new Superintendent . . . have had a chilling effect on an already fragile public trust,” said Suzanne Waltz, one of the candidates for school board in the Nov. 2 election. Albany’s last superintendent was also chosen without a nationwide search.

Yet, those opposed to the board’s decision stopped short of criticizing Joseph’s credentials. Like the union representatives and community residents who spoke in favor of Joseph’s appointment, even those who denounced the end of the board’s search acknowledged that Joseph, a longtime district administrator, was an exceptionally qualified candidate.

One of the most prominent complaints voiced by critics of the board’s decision focused on a need to include more representatives of the black community on the school board. Many of those in attendance at the meeting said that they hoped an open search might allow for black candidates to receive consideration. While the 4-2 vote was split along racial lines, with the two votes against cast by the board’s only black members, the two dissenting members insisted that their votes were a statement about breaking the promise of an open search and not related to issues of race.

Joseph’s three-year term will begin Oct. 1, and three of the school board seats will be up for election on Nov. 2.

—Rick Marshall

rmarshall@metroland.net


Loose Ends

The Republican candidate for Albany County Family Court judge, Lisa Harris, [“Family Rivalry,” Trail Mix, July 8] withdrew from the race when the party realized she was 51 days short of the required 10 years membership in the bar. Given the withdrawal, it is possible that the Democratic nominee, Margaret Walsh, could be appointed by Gov. George Pataki to fill the vacant position, but no decision has been made yet. . . . After a Mayor Jennings-precipitated detour to examine its possible use as a library [“Looking to Branch Out,” Newsfront, Dec. 4, 2003], the Washington Avenue Armory is back on track to be sold to former county executive Jim Coyne and transformed into a sports arena. The library plan turned out to be too expensive. As part of the current deal, Coyne will drop the lawsuit he filed against the state for backing out of the previous sale arrangement. . . . After Democrats dropped their campaign-finance lawsuit against the Democratic District Attorney nominee David Soares’ campaign [“Primary Shake-up,” Trail Mix, Sept. 16], the Republicans took it up, with the same claims: the Working Families Party shouldn’t spend money during a Democratic primary, even for its own nominee, and the Drug Policy Reform Network is a corporation and exceeded corporation giving limits. (DPRN says it gave the money through a political action committee, which would be allowed.) A hearing has been scheduled for Oct. 7, but on Tuesday a Republican judge lifted the temporary restraining order that had prevented Soares from spending any more campaign money. The Soares campaign continued to insist that the lawsuit is frivolous, and to point out that despite the outcry about downstate money, his campaign had twice as many local donors as Paul Clyne’s.


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