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Open letter to: Housing Advisory Commission, Mayor, and City Council
Re: Item 8, June 1 Commission meeting; June 13 City Council Public Hearing on affordable housing

Charlene M. Woodcock
Wednesday May 31, 2017 - 02:15:00 PM

The 12/16 figures that show Berkeley has met 278% of our ABAG quota for above-median-income housing but only 3% for low-income and 4% for moderate-income residents provide more than ample justification for a strong new policy from our city council to address this intolerable imbalance.

A new policy to require 40% inclusionary low-income and family units in all new residential developments and to require all new buildings both residential and commercial to meet LEED platinum environmental efficiency standards can be made effective immediately and can apply to any project that has not yet broken ground.

At this point we surely do not need to encourage any project except for those of non-profit developers and those that that provide a significant 40% percent inclusionary low-income and family units. A lower percentage of inclusionary units or an in-lieu fee are simply inadequate to the very serious problem we now have. Additionally, it is well past time that Berkeley as a city address climate change and ensure that any new building meets much more stringent energy and natural resource efficiency requirements than the very dated LEED Gold standards.  

A legal search provides the precedent for the council’s ability to establish more stringent requirements and apply them on already approved projects where ground has not yet been broken. I’m happy to send fuller descriptions of the Spindler and Anderson decisions.  

CA(3) (3) Despite minor factual variations Spindler and Anderson are clearly controlling; they stand for the proposition that neither the existence of a particular zoning nor work undertaken pursuant to governmental approvals preparatory to construction of buildings can form the basis of a vested right to build a structure which does not comply with the laws applicable at the time a building permit is issued. By zoning the property or issuing approvals for work preliminary to construction the government [****13] makes no representation to a landowner that he will be exempt from the zoning laws in effect at the subsequent time he applies for a building permit or that he may construct particular structures on the property, and thus the government cannot be estopped to enforce the laws in effect when the permit is issued. 

We’re counting on you to do what is necessary to address Berkeley’s gentrification problem which is pushing longtime Berkeley residents and families out of their homes and changing the character and diminishing the diversity of our city. This is the issue that motivated Berkeley voters in November. We need you to address it effectively.

New: San Francisco Silent Film Festival is this weekend

Justin deFreitas
Wednesday May 31, 2017 - 02:18:00 PM

In an age of streaming movies and social media feeds that are blowing up with “must-see” videos of every stripe, how does the San Francisco Silent Film Festival guarantee a full house for its annual program of century-old cinema at the Castro Theater? 

> Simple: by bookending a diverse array of dramas, comedies, and curiosities with two of the surest of surefire crowd-pleasers. The festival opens Thursday night, June 1, with Harold Lloyd, the undisputed box office champion of silent clowns, in The Freshman (1925), his genre-defining collegiate comedy, and concludes Sunday night with the irrepressible Douglas Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers (1921), an early entry in the actor’s enormously popular series of swashbuckling action adventures. 

But these popular American films just scratch the surface of this year’s festival. Between them are three days of cinematic treasures brought to life by some of the world’s foremost practitioners of live silent film musical accompaniment. 

Saturday starts with Magic and Mirth, a program of short films rediscovered and restored by the late silent film preservationist David Shepard. The day’s highlight is one of cinema’s touchstones, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), which employs the director’s signature montage theory and features one of the screen’s most indelible moments — a baby carriage plunging down the Odessa steps after the child’s mother is shot by soldiers trying to quell the revolution.Friday’s offerings include Get Your Man (1927), a long-neglected vehicle for “It Girl” Clara Bow, and The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), which was produced and choreographed by its star, the legendary ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, and helmed by an equally legendary woman, pioneering director Lois Weber. Friday’s marquee event is the screen debut of actor-singer-athlete-activist Paul Robeson playing dual roles in Oscar Michaux’s Body and Soul (1921). Robeson plays an escaped convict masquerading as a preacher as well as the convict’s twin brother. 

Among Sunday’s screenings is A Man There Was (1917), one of many stirring, poetic films made by Victor Sjöström, who almost singlehandedly launched Sweden’s golden age of cinema. The best elements of Sjöström’s art are in evidence in his adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s epic poem: soul-searching drama, elegant camerawork, and a deep appreciation of the natural landscape. A Man There Was is followed by The Lost World (1925), the first of many screen adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, which shows the Amazon overrun by stop-motion dinosaurs designed by Oakland-born Willis O’Brien, the man who would later animate the greatest of stop-motion cinematic creatures, King Kong. 

Nine other screenings round out this year’s festival, all accompanied by the festival’s usual stable of musicians — Stephen Horne, Guenter Buchwald, Frank Bockius, Donald Sosin, Berkelee Silent Film Orchestra, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Alloy Orchestra, Matti Bye Ensemble — and this year joined by Washington, D.C.-based electronic musician DJ Spooky, who will perform his score for Body and Soul

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Thursday-Sunday, June 1-4, at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St., silentfilm.org  

Nancy Skinner, real estate Democrat, backs three bad bills in next week's votes

Zelda Bronstein
Monday May 29, 2017 - 06:59:00 PM

June 2 is the final day in this session for the State Senate to pass bills that originated in that house. Berkeley’s state senator, Nancy Skinner, has supported or sponsored three dangerous bills that will be considered by next Friday: 


  • SB 35 (Wiener)
  • SB 595, (Beall)
  • and Skinner’s own SB 167, the BARFer bill.
SB 35: Housing Accountability and Affordability Act (Wiener)

SB 35, the brainchild of San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener, would force cities that haven’t met all their state-mandated Regional Housing Need Allocations to give by-right approval to infill market-rate housing projects with as little as 10% officially affordable housing.

SB 35 is anti-free speech and civic engagement. No public hearings, no environmental review, no negotiation over community benefits. Just “ministerial,” i.e., over-the-counter- approval.

SB 35 is pro-gentrification. As a statewide coalition of affordable housing advocacy organizations has written: 

Since almost no local jurisdiction in the State of California meets 100% of its market rate RHNA goal on a sustained basis, this bill essentially ensures by-right approval for market-rate projects simply by complying with a local inclusionary requirement [for affordable housing] or by building 10% affordable units.

The practical result is that all market rate infill development in most every city in California will be eligible for by-right approval per this SB 35-proposed State law pre-emption.
And as Berkeley Housing Commissioner Thomas Lord has pointed out, the RHNA program itself is a pro-gentrification policy. It follows that passage of SB 35 would further inflate real estate values and worsen the displacement of economically vulnerable California residents. 



SB 35 is pro-traffic congestion. It would prohibit cities from requiring parking in a “streamlined development approved pursuant” to SB 35, located within a half-mile of public transit, in an architecturally and historically significant historic district, when on-street parking permits are required but not offered to the occupants of the project, and when there is a car share vehicle located within one block of the development. Other projects approved under the measure would be limited to one space per unit. 

Absent the provision of ample new public transit, the prohibition of parking in new development will worsen neighborhood traffic problems. SB says nothing about new transit. 

The construction of on-site parking is expensive, up to $50,000 a space. A measure that exempts new development, as designated above, from including parking without requiring developers to transfer the savings to affordable housing is a giveaway to the real estate industry. 

Nor does SB 35 say anything about funding the amount of infrastructure and local services—fire and police, schools, parks—that would be required by the massive amount of development it mandates. Are local jurisdictions expected to foot the bill? 

The lineup of SB’s supporters and opponents reveals serious splits in the state’s environmental and affordable housing advocates. SB 35 has revealed serious splits among advocates for both environmental protection and affordable housing. 

Supporters include the Bay Area Council, the lobby shop of the Bay Area’s biggest employers; BAC’s Silicon Valley counterpart, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group; the San Francisco and LA Chambers of Commerce; the Council of Infill Builders; several nonprofit housing organizations, including the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California and BRIDGE Housing; the Natural Resources Defense Council; the California League of Conservation Voters; and a panoply of YIMBY groups, including East Bay Forward and YIMBY Action. 

Opponents include the Sierra Club; the League of California Cities; the Council of Community Housing Organizations; the California Fire Chiefs Association; the Fire Districts Association of California; a handful of cities, including Hayward, Pasadena, and Santa Rosa; the Marin County Council of Mayors and Councilmembers; and many building trades organizations, including IBEW Locals 1245, 18, 465 and 551, and the Western States Council of Sheet Metal Workers. 

SB 595: Metropolitan Transportation Commission: toll bridge revenues (Beall) 

State Senator Jim Beall’s SB 595 would authorize MTC to place on a November 2018 ballot a regional measure to raise tolls on all Bay Area bridge except the Golden Gate, “to be used for unspecified projects and programs” vaguely specified as “improvements in the bridge corridors.” As a fee, rather than a tax, the measure would need only a simple majority to pass. 

The exact amount of the increase has not been specified. MTC has indicated it will seek a $1-3 raise. That would jack up the price of driving west on the Bay Bridge at most times of the day (5 to 10 am and 3 to 7 pm) from $6 to $9. A $3-dollar increase in bridge tolls would raise an estimated $5 billion. 

How can elected officials in good conscience vote for a bill to raise bridge tolls that doesn’t specify the amount of the increase? 

A bigger concern is MTC’s disastrous fiscal history. In 2011 the agency lost $120 million in bridge tolls after a bond-credit swap (think The Big Short) went bad. Its new palace on Beale Street in San Francisco had 50%—$80 million—in cost overruns. And then there’s the new Bay Bridge, a fiscal and engineering fiasco in whose “oversight” MTC played a major role. 

Bay Area public transportation is in desperate need of improvement, but giving an unelected rogue agency billions of new dollars to play with is asking for (more) big trouble. Instead, the state legislature ought to be considering how to make the governance of our region’s transportation fiscally responsible—a state audit of MTC is long overdue—and democratically accountable. 

SB 595 has one supporter, MTC, and no opposition. 

SB 167: Housing Accountability Act (Skinner) 

This bill, sponsored by the Bay Area Renters Federation (BARF), is a companion to SB 35. It would prohibit cities from disapproving a housing project containing units affordable to very low-, low- or moderate-income renters, or conditioning the approval in a manner that renders the project financially infeasible, unless, among other things, the city has met or exceeded its share of regional housing needs for the relevant income category. (As of November 2016, HUD defined a moderate-income household of four people in Alameda County as one earning under $112,300 a year.) 

The bill defines a “feasible” project as one that is “capable of being accomplished in a successful manner within a reasonable period of time, taking into account economic environmental, social, and technological factors.” It does not define “successful” or “reasonable.” 

If a city does disapprove such a project, it is liable to a minimum fine of $1,000 per unit of the housing development project, plus punitive damages, if a court finds that the local jurisdiction acted in bad faith. 

SB 167 authorizes the project applicant, a person who would be eligible to apply for residency in the development or emergency shelter, or a housing organization, to sue the jurisdiction to enforce SB 167’s provisions. The 

ill defines a housing organization as: 



a trade or industry group whose local members are primarily engaged in the construction or management of housing units or a nonprofit organization whose mission includes providing or advocating for increased access to housing for low-income households and have filed written or oral comments with the local agency prior to action on the housing development project [emphasis added].
The highlighted passage was added to the existing Housing Accountability Act to encompass BARF’s legal arm, the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA), whose lawsuit of Lafayette recently failed. Last week CaRLA re-instituted its lawsuit of Berkeley over the city’s rejection of a project at 1310 Haskell. 



SB 167 further amends the existing Housing Accountability Act to entitle successful plaintiffs to “reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.” 

Predictably, the bill is supported by the Bay Area Council, the lobby shop for the region’s largest employers; the California Building Industry Association; the Terner Center at UC Berkeley; the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition; and YIMBY groups, including East Bay Forward, Abundant Housing LA, and of course CaRLA. 

Opponents include the California Association of Counties and the American Planning Association. 

Nancy Skinner styles herself as a progressive. Her support for SB 35, SB 595, and her sponsorships of SB 167 shows that she’s just another real estate Democrat carrying water for the building industry and its YIMBY stooges, and the profligate autocrats at MTC. Her constituents in Berkeley, Richmond, and other East Bay Cities should urge her to change course and walk her talk.

SQUEAKY WHEEL: A Memorable Day

Toni Mester
Friday May 26, 2017 - 02:36:00 PM
Toni Mester

For the seventh time, Memorial Day falls on my birthday, less often than leap year. The holiday previously known as Decoration Day used to be May 30, but it was changed in 1971 to the last Monday in May. And with that began a coincidence that coincidentally first fell on my 29th birthday. 

I could claim that celebrating my birthday on Memorial Day weekend made me a patriot, but that honor belongs to my father, who had been a criminal defense lawyer in Brooklyn during the depression. He once told me that he had represented two kinds of clients, the blacks and the Italians. The blacks, he said, were charged with petty crimes, but he had trouble “getting them off” and they couldn’t afford to pay him. The Italians, on the other hand, were charged with heinous offenses and paid well. And once he managed to get “a murder rap” acquitted. The retired mobster was known in our family as Uncle Joe, who would send us the same Christmas gift from Florida every year, citrus fruit wrapped in colorful cellophane in a fancy basket. I thought he was a long lost uncle until I was old enough to understand, at which time I asked my father how he could have defended such lowlife. He replied, “I was defending the Constitution.” 

My real uncle Dudey and great uncle Sid were veterans of WWII, and Sid had also been a doughboy in WWI. He was over 40 when he enlisted to fight Hitler, but the Army was happy to take a mature chicken farmer who had a way with a rifle. He was motivated to save his sisters in Europe. The Uncles survived the Battle of the Bulge and after V-E day got permission to go behind Red Army lines to search for their family, but not a trace was left behind in Szatmar, now Satu Mare, Romania. 

My uncles weren’t proud of their contribution to the defeat of the Third Reich. They didn’t boast like the other vets in town or join the American Legion because our people - the Hungarian Jews – had been decimated. The war didn’t feel like a victory. In comparison, another vet I knew, the father of a classmate, had brought home a big red flag with a black swastika and hung the trophy on a wall. My uncles seldom talked about the war, but on those occasions, we were eager listeners. Dudey had been landed on Utah Beach, Normandy, an experience that he summed up: “We were all shitting in our pants.” 

Years ago, I was taking a conversational French class in Paris when the talk took a decidedly anti-American turn. I got riled and gave a little speech in lousy French about how my uncles fought to liberate France. To my amazement, the class applauded, and the teacher said, “How soon we forget.” Later she told me that her Jewish father had been in the resistance. 

That Resistance 

It’s no longer enough to be a Democrat. We are now in “the Resistance” and fighting fascism, taking on the mantle of a heroic underground. 

My Danish sister-in-law Annette Mester translated Herbert Pundik’s chronicle of the flight of the Jews to Sweden, In Denmark It Could Not Happen, and there’s a Resistance Museum in Copenhagen that preserves video interviews with the partisans relating this and other exploits. It could be uplifting if you’ve never been to the Jewish cemetery and read the names on the memorial to those who died in Theresienstadt concentration camp. The rest were transported in small boats across the Sound in the middle of the night, aided by the underground, friends, fishermen, and the secret action of a good German. 

The resistance was dangerous citizen soldiery that demanded exceptional courage, coordination, and loyalty. Waking up on any given day, an operative never knew if she would live or die. The potential of capture and torture was constant. Folks, we are not doing that. If it makes people feel good to call opposition to Trump “the resistance” then fine; the meaning of words change, but for me, it rings hollow. 

Unseating the radical right is going to take a concerted political effort, but they are Republicans, not Nazis; they represent corporate power, not genocidal blood lust. The Republican leadership must decide whether they will continue to enable racists and lying scoundrels. In the long run Trump’s populist tactic is a losing game because of demographics and because the target population will figure out, sooner or later, that their interests are not being served.  

I grew up in a conservative Republican town, but when I returned decades later for a high school reunion, I was surprised at how smart my classmates had become, good hearted and worldly wise. Many Americans have already begun to see through the Trump bluster, as his unfavorable poll numbers indicate. 

At 74, I’m too old for glory, so I’m not signing up for any resistance. Any discretionary energy goes to absorb the not-fake news, write, speak my mind, attend meetings, lobby the City Council and write checks for causes and candidates further afield. That’s just ordinary activism. 

I fervently hope that we can assign Donald Trump to the place were he belongs: the dustbin of history. It is sickening to watch him parade around, masquerading as the leader of the free world, when he should go down the garbage chute Watergate style. 

I will never forget the day (August 8, 1974) when Richard Nixon resigned. We were traveling by car in Oregon and stopped at a roadside restaurant for dinner to find a large crowd at the bar watching TV. The President gave a short statement, after which nobody seemed to know how to react. A lot of muttering, and then we grabbed a table, silently smirking our delight. Please Goddess, please let it happen again. Visit those not yet brain dead good Republicans at night and sprinkle your magic dust on their eyes so they wake up and see the light. 

London United

The terrorist attack on innocents in Manchester this week brought back memories of the 2005 bombings in London. I was working in England at the time, running a theater tour based at Canterbury Hall, near ground zero of the four coordinated bombs. A bus was blown-up at our stop on Tavistock Square with 13 fatalities. The Russell Square tube station, scene of the most horrific attack with 26 dead, was our transit hub, and the other two stations where 13 people died were familiar ground. On the day of the attack July 7, we had left early on a day trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare Company. The bus driver got a call as we pulled into town, and for the rest of the day we managed to get the group to two shows and back into London early in the morning. The massacre occurred mid-way through the tour, and I credit an earlier experience of starting a bus trip to Ashland on September 11, 2001 for my ability to perform in a worse situation. 

It’s one thing to read about such events and quite another to be at the scene and responsible for 25 people, to make arrangements, reassure clients, and hear first hand from witnesses. For a week after the attack, everybody relied on the metropolitan police. They were amazing, fully in charge, helpful and prepared. The London transport police not only emerged as heroes, volunteering to enter the tunnels and recover the bodies, but also successfully rerouted the hoards that daily use the underground. 

The London bombings taught me that when chaos strikes, either an attack or natural disaster, people need the police. Please read the complete action item 55 on the City Council agenda of April 25, 2017 concerning the memo of understanding on distribution of Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant funds and the Berkeley Police Department relationship with the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC) and make up your own mind on this topic of concern. 

It’s bad enough that so many of our first responders live out of town, but when the Hayward Fault rumbles, we’re going to need resources including every penny in those pots. As for terrorism, it could happen here. 

Memorial Day is meant to honor the military, so here’s my birthday salute. On July 26, 1948 President Truman issued executive order 9981 ending racial segregation of the armed forces, which paved the road leading directly to the integration of the public schools in the 1950’s and the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s. We are still traveling down that road, which has fallen into disrepair, full of potholes and detours. But forward friends, forward.


Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley 




Remembering Dave Linn, 1956-2017

Carol Denney
Friday May 26, 2017 - 11:21:00 AM

If you saw Dave Linn up in People's Park the last thing you'd think is that he was a lawyer, or a teacher, or a journalist, because he dressed and spoke in such an unassuming manner and could only do so much with his long, unruly head of hair. But you might guess he was a poet if you had a chance to talk to him for a moment. He had an unexpected way of saying a lot with a few words. And seeing that he was an activist would be easy - it would be written all over his t-shirt, or on a political button, or painted right on the side of his funky car.

Dave was born in Napa, California, and died this year of cancer in Bellingham, Washington at only 60 years old. He organized with the Oakland Tenants Union, the Peace and Freedom Party, wrote for Grassroots newspaper, and took the hardest cases as a social justice attorney in Berkeley, in Washington, and in southern California. He took on immigration, civil rights, and criminal cases for people who often could pay nothing at all.  

When the University of California decided in 1991 to try to convert the Berkeley landmark known as People's Park into sports courts, Dave Linn was one of dozens of attorneys who offered to defend hundreds of people who were arrested almost daily after construction began and for years of protests afterward. It was chaotic. The initial 36 arrestees were held in a series of odd locations for detention over the course of three days including, ironically, a defunct fenced-off sports court only a block away. Those initial 36 were never charged with any crime. We watched our friends being chased and beaten all over southside on the large TVs in our pod at Santa Rita, and were finally released with a written warning that charges could still be lodged against us. 

The attorneys we worked with were determined to make sure those who committed civil disobedience on behalf of People's Park would get legal representation. Many of them were poor, some were homeless, and some had traveled from many states away to take a stand for People's Park and its principles. The attorneys representing them faced an unsympathetic court system, but were committed to the idea that people's rights would be protected even with, if it was in their best interests, a jury trial.  

A jury trial is expensive. Most attorneys try to cut a deal to avoid one for plausible reasons. It's expensive for the attorney, who has to try to clear a busy schedule. It's expensive for the court, which usually counts on cutting plea deals to make any forward movement on a crowded calendar with a shrinking budget, and even then is often years behind the guarantee of a speedy trial. It's expensive for witnesses, who need to take off work, scour around for daycare, travel to the court location, and manage readiness for even a moment of often upsetting, emotional testimony. 

But a jury trial is what defendants who commit civil disobedience often need to clarify to a community and a jury the full context of an action which might otherwise look like gratuitous vandalism: the technical "defacement" of writing the full two million dollar public cost (as assessed by the spring of 1992) of the sand volleyball court in People's Park on its wooden wall in chalk netted this defendant three days in jail, a sentence handed out by a judge, a decision which might have gone in a different direction with a jury.  

Dave Linn took the hard cases, cases most people would assess as unwinnable, and gave them his full attention. He gave his frightened clients thoughtful attention and shared as much clarity of both the law and the woolly world around them as he could give, so that principles often at stake in a simple criminal charge received an opportunity for dignity and political context usually missed in a crowded court setting.  

Dave Linn defended Bob Sparks, who took a chainsaw to the center pole of the volleyball court in broad daylight in full view of police video, one of the park's few cases that ended in a criminal conviction. Dave's case in Sparks' defense was pretty basic: the vandalism was more symbolic injury, more embarrassment, than real damage, which was true. Nobody could play volleyball for awhile since the center pole held up both courts' nets, but the university repaired it within a few weeks. Sparks ended up paying a minimal fine, and the volleyball court vandalism continued for years until the university, finally bowing to continuous community pressure, removed the volleyball court on its own while the community watched and applauded.  

It is hard to defend high-profile People's Park defendants in a contemporary legal world. It is hard to be the one man in Birkenstocks surrounded by Italian suits. But Dave Linn made it look easy, weathering a lot of raised eyebrows along the way. People who loved Dave wondered about the fact that he, as an experienced attorney, had difficulty finding work here in the Bay Area as a public defender. Being a public defender is never a glamorous or well-paid job, but it's probably true that if the understanding in a particular county is that one always cuts a plea deal, there is no question that Dave Linn would be the less likely candidate to do so. He knew the disadvantage it would create for his clients, which in turn might well have affected his job prospects. Most of the attorneys in the Bay Area would concede that around here, and in many parts of the country, the public defender's office is a plea deal mill. 

But there is no shortage of work for a talented man. Dave found it while raising a family he adored. His complete enchantment with the magic of parenthood was transformational for those who had never seen such an unrestrained embrace of the absolute joy of being a father. He is survived by his daughter Autumn, his granddaughter Lucita, his father Abe and sister Judi. I was one of his friends who got calls from him all through his last year, and not to talk at all about his illness, but rather to marvel and wonder at length about the curious state of the world.  

Dave redefined every role he was ever in, and leaves behind a world of widened possibilities for those of us still here trying to make sense of things. He called once asking for help transforming a large grey storage container on top of his car into a whale, and we spent a grand day painting in the sun until it was indeed a most credible, delightful whale. Then he asked if I would add this small legend to the body of the car: "Rules for living: #1. Don't sweat the small stuff. #2. It's all small stuff." 

Donations may be made to: https://www.youcaring.com/autumnlinn-800398 # # #



What's news is not news any more

Becky O'Malley
Friday May 26, 2017 - 05:06:00 PM

For the last week I’ve been in a genteel suburb outside of Philly to celebrate my eldest granddaughter’s graduation from college. We stayed, unusually for us, in a relatively conventional on-campus commercial lodging, in what used to be called a fancy motel but is now dignified as an “inn”.

In a universe where in the last hundred+ days we’ve become accustomed to Le Scandale du Jour, having a huge television screen across from the bed was an unaccustomed luxury. We don’t even own a TV any more.

Like many of my peers, I get a lot of my national news from NPR, backed up in print the next day by the New York Times, and occasionally from the Chronicle. Sometimes I even see a bit of color on YouTube, maybe Rachel Maddow for spice or Steven Colbert for drollery. So it was a revelation to experience All Excitement All the Time via MSNBC, CNN or even CSpan.

My goodness, how they do go on! Eventually I got tired of so much Shocked, Shocked, even though what the various talking heads are reporting on continues to be genuinely shocking, even when delivered with solemnity by public broadcasters.  

MSNBC has an interesting technique for filling the bit of space between their many commercials. They have four or five anchors sequentially in prime time, but all of them seem to pick the same three top hits and repeat them several times within each segment. You do get the message. 

A great part of the airtime is the updated version of what used to be called Rip and Read. In the old days TV newscasters would just lift a story from print newspapers without attribution and make believe they’d reported it themselves. The contemporary version of this, much more honest and certainly more fun, is to get the New York Times or Washington Post hotshot to come on the program for an interview by Rachel or Chris or whoever about their latest scoop. Maddow, a well-educated smart cookie, seems to read a lot and report back on what she reads, which is all to the good in this post-literate society, and also she makes it seem twice as exciting.  

The last of the many unbelievable incidents I learned about on this trip was not, like the others, yet another revelation of the Trumpistas’ past trafficking with the Russian oligarchy. It was the one, seen on our last night in the motel, of the Montana oligarch, a Republican candidate for Congress, who body-slammed an eager newsie who got in his face the night before the election. You’d think this might be enough to make that bully lose the election, but you’d be wrong. He won. 

On Thursday my usual sources, the print NYT and the sanctified NPR, seemed to take the election results as confirmation that Trump voters would stand by their man regardless. But what’s interesting about the reporting is that the MSNBC crowd, card-carrying liberals all, had opined accurately the night before that the Republican would win anyhow because of the large number of early vote-by-mail ballots which had already been sent in before the incident. The fact that the assaulted fellow works for The Guardian, a British paper which has been running stories from a lot of U.S. stringers, might have given the on-air reporters timely information on the situation, since it happened after U.S. publications had just about finished for the day. 

Though we get what seems like a lot of news these days, it tends to be the top-down variety. There’s not a whole lot of original reporting going on, but what is reported in depth by the small number of surviving national print publications is echoed down through a variety of channels. The story that starts in the Times or the Post appears online and on MSNBC the night before it’s printed,and again in print in the Chronicle the day after.  

You can just about forget about local news. It’s disheartening, to say the least, that many of the fine people I know from my interest in the arts (and yes, they’re well-educated too) have absolutely no idea of anything going on in Berkeley. Conversational references to information learned from the several respectable local news sources are greeted with blank stares. 

Such people are baffled by references to Berkeleyside or the East Bay Times, let alone to stories in those conscientious publications. Some have heard of the Daily Cal, but dismiss it as “just a student paper”, oblivious of the fact that those students frequently do good reporting. If they say anything about the Chronicle, it’s that “we cancelled our subscription because we never read it.” I myself wasted eight years of my life hoping to get the word out in print but always missed a sizable portion of the citizenry. And yet those same people get upset when things happen within their attention sphere, like the Saturday Farmers’ Market being cancelled, with no clue as to why this might have happened.  

None of these local news sources is perfect or complete, but if you check into them from time to time you can kind of figure out what’s happening. Some of these folks do read the New York Times online, for all the good it does locally. The Times’ coverage of the anti-Milo brouhaha missed the fact that most of the violent brawlers were NOT from Berkeley in any form, either UCB or CoB.  

I’m told that the young don’t read newspapers—I don’t know how true that is. They are reputed to get their news from social media, but the mother of a 15-year-old, a good student at a demanding high school, tells me that “no one looks at Facebook any more”—it’s all InstaGram or SnapChat, she says.(She also tells me that most SnapChats she’s seen are pictures of feet.)  

If you’re a political person, exactly how do you go about changing hearts and minds if what used to be known as “the press” is gradually fading away like the Cheshire Cat? Soon nothing will be left but the grin on Steven Colbert’s face. 

Steve Phillips had a good piece in The Nation not long ago suggesting that the millions campaigns spend on TV ads is wasted, and I think he’s right. TV watchers aren’t news fans in the main. His idea is that the tried and true strategy of ringing doorbells and looking people in the eye as you talked to them is still the best way of persuading them to vote for your candidate, and who knows? He might be right.

Public Comment

Manchester Bombing

Tejinder Uberoi
Friday May 26, 2017 - 11:50:00 AM

While the horrific suicide attack in Manchester has dominated international headlines, little attention has been paid to civilian casualties in the perpetual “war on terror”. Recent US airstrikes in Syria and Iraq have killed dozens of civilians during the past week. In Yemen, the human rights group, Reprieve, says U.S. Navy SEALs killed five civilians during a raid Tuesday night on a village in Ma’rib governorate. 

The journalistic monitoring group, Airwars, says airstrikes on Sunday and Monday reportedly killed up to 44 civilians in Mosul, mostly women and children. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says U.S.-led airstrikes have killed 225 civilians over the past month, including 44 children. 

Sadly, victims in conflict zones receive little media attention. It’s kept very ethereal, very distant and abstract. We never learn their names; we never hear the wailing cries from their families. One wonders whether such appalling deaths are the emotional driving force which motives Muslim youngsters on their suicide missions. Britain, the US and other western nations have been guilty of flooding the Middle East with billions of weapons which fuel the never ending cycle of death and destruction. This must stop. These wars are routed in centuries old conflict between Shias and Sunnis and the US and other western nations should remain neutral, otherwise we can only expect more “Manchester style” blowback tragedies. Finally, Muslim Imams need to do much more in “policing” their own youngsters and pruning their scriptures from hateful passages which justify killing infidels.

America becoming great again?

Romila Khanna
Friday May 26, 2017 - 11:44:00 AM

Are you happy to see America becoming great again? American history is changing. By changing the system in congress to get the required number of votes, by keeping everything secret, by killing the spirit of journalism, by depriving poor, sick and old from a chance to get their needs met, by giving the lion’s share to his own family and friends, President Donald Trump is keeping his promise to the voters. 

All his Hundred Days agenda, announcements and unthinkable doings, with the help of like-minded members of his Cabinet, reflect a greediness and the desire to hold their post. They forget that they are holding public office to make policies to help the public. But in reality they are trying to destroy the foundations of democracy.  

President Donald Trump is making America great again by taking from the poor, needy children and others of all of different ages. His motive seems to be to just keep the billionaires thriving in their dishonest work on the backs of the most vulnerable amongst us. Regardless of what he believes in, he is not paying any heed to the woes and cries of millions who have nothing to fall back on and who must select the health insurance with little choice. It seems like a joke to me. I wonder where the millions will go to take shelter. Where will they get the best of healthcare, the best of education and enjoy the quality of life? I really thought that moneyed people are generous towards the poor and needy, and create those situations where the poor and sick, young and old, get the opportunity to improve their lives, and learn new ways to help themselves and the community.  

Can our Top Leader of the country provide free housing to all those who don’t own their homes or lack the ability to pay sky-high rents? 

The time is now for all community members to take a pledge to help others before they help themselves and their families and friends, and bring back life in this dying democracy.

The meaning of "deadpan" government

Steve Martinot
Friday May 26, 2017 - 11:08:00 AM

The Uproar

It was night time. It wasn’t the right time. It was Tuesday, May 16, 2017, and the clock was just ticking past 11:30 pm. People looked at each other and asked, “What? Are we back with the Bates Council?” 

Over a hundred people had waited four and a half hours at the Berkeley City Council. Since March 14, 2017, the issue had been grating on the town – the issue of Berkeley’s police links to the federal government through federal Fusion Centers and the Urban Shield program. And when the Mayor opened the "item" while announcing that, because it was so late, they weren’t going to vote on it (the vote would occur at a future “special meeting”), it took a while for that to sink in. Some “public commenters” went through the usual ritual, playing the “ceding minutes” game. And then, suddenly, the room rose in outrage. 

The fact that there would be no vote, the fact that we would remain uncertain about where this council stood on ties to the Trump administration, and to the federal "intelligence" centers, was unsupportable. The pent-up energy after 5 hours of waiting with prepared statements, data from databases, and ethical outrage at the continued militarization of our society, was too massive for that small council room. As speakers proclaimed their information, whether calmly reported or emotionally wept into the microphone, a man stepped forth who called the entire proceeding a farce. And it touched the nerve of the crowd, already sick of the disrespect entailed in keeping people waiting two months and another 5 hours. Calling the meeting shameful and undemocratic, since the council knew that many people were going to be there, he said “we’re leaving,” and the entire room came to its feet, chanting “Stop Urban Shield,” and made for the exits. The council could not hear itself until we left. 

Then, the real travesty occurred. 

Once it was quiet again, the mayor said to the almost empty room in that calm, satisfied, and controlled voice of his, “Now that order is restored in the chamber, we’ll continue with public comment. People can speak." 

No kidding. It is there at the five hour and thirty minute point in the video. The banality of it takes your breath away. He says it with a straight face, deadpan. It reminded me of an offhand remark made by a councilmember the previous year that “if not so many people came to speak, maybe we could get some work done.” In other words, since "input" is only monologue, and is thus excluded from the dialogues by which policies are made, it is just an obstruction. 

What does the Mayor’s deadpan mean? Does it mean that he doesn’t care that the mass exit from the room was a vote of no confidence? Or that it was a community accusation of a loss of legitimacy? There was no recognition that something was wrong in the Mayor’s demeanor. Neither he nor the other councilmembers rose in dismay to say “this is what used to happen with the Bates council; we can’t let this happen with us.” He didn’t even ask anyone what they thought of what had just happened. Only Cheryl Davila made a small hesitant comment about how they had known this was going to be a long meeting, and that there would be a big turnout, and that it should have been a “special meeting” to begin with. Duh. 

But it already was. The Mayor said “this item was continued to this specific meeting,” from the March 14 agenda. Even as a "specific meeting” for this issue, it was placed behind a long list of other items. They knew it was going to be a long meeting. There was intention there, bureaucratic intention. 

What no one suggested was that they, the councilmembers, leave the room too, and go outside to where the people had congregated, and have an impromptu discussion, an actual dialogue face to face, there in the night air in front of the building, a direct two-way conversation with real people on how to obviate this kind of tear in the political fabric of the city. 

“Now that order is restored in the chamber,” the Mayor said, we can proceed. For the Mayor, the exit of the people was not a crisis in council legitimacy. It was a benefit. The deadpan meant good riddance, that we the people had relieved him of ourselves as a detriment to government. 

Are we too late to stop the spread of the police state ethos to the political structure? 

The Harm

There is a standard cynicism among people that the council, or at least the agenda-makers, organizes the agenda to defuse public sentiment around controversial issues by placing them at the end of a long meeting. As the meeting goes later and later, people get tired of waiting and leave. It saves the council from having to “deal with them.” Now we know that it is not public cynicism. The Mayor does not want to deal with us. We are a detriment. Our absence is a benefit. We have been relegated to the category of "disorder" for having come to his "chamber" to speak, and for having objected to disrespect. We came to warn in the strongest terms against bonding with a racist and misogynist administration. And he expressed relief that we were gone. 

There is an elitism in this condescension toward "input." And there is a harm committed. People who must go to work in the morning spend hours waiting to participate, because they are concerned about their future. To govern our concern for our future, we must act through the political system. We are dependent upon it. That is why we come to this council. We have to. It is a slap in the face to be told to return another day. The system does not have the right (though it assumes it has the luxury) to play with our dependence on itself. 

Bureaucratic behavior harms people. It forces people to sit and listen to policy-making to which they will be responsible, but for which they are marginal and ancillary – a "disorder." 

Because "public comment" comes first, after it is over, we are out of the way. We can no longer address or enter dialogue with the officials who govern our future. There should be a second step. After we find out what these councilmembers think, we should again get a chance to speak to them directly, from our own perspective, to argue with their positions. But our "turn" comes first, after which we are prevented from saying anything. 

Perhaps it is at least time to democratize the agenda. It should no longer be the hermetic and insular activity of a council committee. Involvement of the people in its construction might be a step toward de-bureaucratization. We know that the City Manager’s staff, which participates in agenda formation, has its own ranking of the importance of issues that come before council. The "equity" the city officials speak about all the time should mean that the people also “have a say” in constructing the agenda. 

The real issue

Urban Shield is the federal program that gives military technology and surveillance equipment to local police departments, as well as training and coordination in population control. The Fusion Centers located throughout the country are the federal institutions that network with and coordinate local police departments, transforming them into surveillance extensions of it. 

The Fusion Center for northern California is called the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC). At a time when California (as well as Berkeley) is in conflict with the federal government over immigration, sanctuary, and the sanctity of persons (aka racial and gender equality), we need our autonomy more than ever. The real issue is local political autonomy. 

We live in a society in which, at the urban level, police departments are now the most powerful institutions politically. They got that way through the war on drugs. [Cf http://tinyurl.com/zyadhec] The issue of tying Berkeley to federal government policies through police coordination has been debated for years. Many other cities in California have rejected such ties, and preserved their independence. Needless to say, the autonomy of a group or community is an essential prerequisite for democracy. 

Let’s face it, this issue is a Litmus Test.” The council has gone through its own first hundred days. Its choice is whether Berkeley will be an independent and autonomous city or not. However the council decides on this issue, we will know who and what this council is. Either it is an autonomous council that represents us as a city, or it is dominated by external forces. Its legitimacy is in question. 


ON MENTAL ILLNESS: The value of an accurate self-assessment

Jack Bragen
Friday May 26, 2017 - 11:38:00 AM

A clear self-evaluation helps with numerous things in life. It can lead to turning down a job offer, in instances where we realize a particular job would get us in over our heads. It is one thing to be able to obtain a good job by performing well in the interview process and by presenting well. It is another thing to be able to perform at such a job.  

We see that President Trump took on more responsibility than he can reasonably handle. This experience is to everyone's detriment. We would have been better off if Trump had had the insight to realize he isn't fit for the Presidency. But, the responsibility for this falls on the American public, and the public has flunked on this one.  

In accepting a position that is over one's head, one invites a possible fiasco. It is not considerate to ruin other people's business enterprises. It is easy to dismiss this by assuming that businesspeople are just a bunch of greedy, self-serving jerks. However, people in business are people. They have feelings. 

A clear and honest self-assessment is useful because it can prevent trying to do things that in reality are too demanding for us to handle. But also, such a self-assessment should include one's special talents. If we are talented in certain areas, we could pursue those areas.  

While I have limited ability to tolerate some styles of supervision, and while I am sensitive to environments, I have abilities in electronics and writing. Before I decided to put my hat in the ring in writing for publication, I was self-employed in repair of home electronics.  

The self-employment in electronics never really took off. I wasn't prepared to handle a workload that would have made my company profitable. An accurate self-assessment would have helped. And, it would have helped to know what was needed in order to be successful in a repair company.  

When thinking about undertaking a job, business, or other, we first need an accurate self-assessment, and then we need an assessment of what is needed--then compare the two.  

In social situations, a self-assessment is useful. I am married to another mental health consumer. She is perfect for me because she has an understanding of my limitations, and because she is very supportive on an emotional level. These are things I need. Going after someone else would be a grave mistake, because I would be throwing away something very good.  

Sure, I could get someone else to go out with me on a date. But could I afford such a date, could I pay child support for eighteen years? Other than that, I deeply care for my wife, could not lie to her, and, on an emotional level, could not make it on my own. For those reasons and more, my self-assessment leads to not cheating on my wife.  

An honest self-assessment led to my writing career. I decided I ought to try writing. I gave myself credit for having a good intellect, a good ability to focus, and the ability to supervise myself in a disciplined manner. This is paying off after about seventeen years of work.  

A definition of insanity: to continue trying the same thing, and expect different results. I had tried conventional employment numerous times, and, most of the time, this did not work. Ruling out what wasn't working led me to switch to writing instead of getting jobs and failing at them.  

People cannot be measured on a linear scale.  

You do not have to follow the assessments of treatment professionals in all cases. A worker at State of California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, (which was where I went to get help pursuing my electronics career) would never have credited me with having the ability to become an author.  

A psychiatrist believed I should give up my delusions about writing and suggested I enter a day program to deal with this illusion. I tried that.  

At this day program, a man in his seventies began to be physically assaultative toward me. Taking the man up on his willingness to fight would have been a grave mistake. I asked for help from staff and staff did nothing. I went home and got on the computer to do some more writing.  

(Later on, I found out that the old man who wanted to pick a fight suffered from some kind of stroke or seizures that led to his aggression.)  

My self-assessment that I could be a writer flew in the face of what I'd been told by mental health professionals--that I am unable to do something big, and that I am subject to delusions of grandeur. If you don't believe in yourself, you are never going to try anything.  

THE PUBLIC EYE: The four faces of Trump

Bob Burnett
Friday May 26, 2017 - 11:30:00 AM

After four enervating months of Donald Trump's presidency, Americans have seen four different sides of Trump.

Trump the politician: We've seen a lot of the same Donald Trump we saw during the 2016 political campaign. Trump the Tweeter. Trump the media basher. Trump the braggart. Trump the liar... 


There's no indication that Trump's move into the Oval Office has changed him. If anything, he seems more insular. So far, Trump's presidency has been characterized by scandals, such as the hiring and firing of Michael Flynn, and unprecedented disapproval. Trump has responded by retreating into the White House (or Mar Al Lago) and firing off angry tweets. (The worst job in Washington is being a member of the White House press corps.) The only time Trump seems happy is when he's giving his occasional campaign speech to the Trump faithful. (Who, so far, have stuck with him.) 

Trump the manager. During the presidential campaign, we got a glimpse of Trump's managerial style: he burnt through three campaign managers and preferred the advice of his family -- particularly daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared -- to that of seasoned political operatives. Once in the White House, Trump's managerial shortcomings have become more obvious. 

His primary criteria for hiring is not "can they do the job" but instead "are they loyal to me." He stuck with Michael Flynn way much longer than he should have because Flynn was loyal. Trump fired James Comey because Comey would not pledge loyalty to Trump (and because Comey would not reign in the investigation of Russian collusion in the election.) As a result of Trump's hiring bias, the White House is understaffed and those that stand by Trump's side are, for the most part, in over their heads. In general, the Trump Administration lags far behind other presidential administrations in the number of political appointees. 

Trump voters like him because he seems authentic: a guy who "shoots from the hip" and is not harnessed by Washington convention. Trump shoots randomly. He has no impulse control. Day-to-day there's no coherent Trump strategy. 

There's an old joke about Dwight Eisenhower's decision-making style: "He was most influenced by the last person he talked to." That seems an apt characterization for Trump's decision-making process: he seems to change his mind from day-to-day. For example, he was for the House Republican healthcare bill, then he was against it, and then he was for it. Trump disparaged China's economic policies until he met Xi Jinping, then he decided he liked China's policies. Trump will tell his communication staff to respond to an allegation in a certain manner and then he'll tweet something different. Trump has no consistency -- other than attacking the investigations into collusion with the Russians. 

Trump the Party Leader: By virtue of his presidential victory, Trump is also the leader of the Republican Party. This means he sets the Party's legislative agenda and ensures that Republican politicians are elected in 2018. 

Trump's legislative agenda is not going well. He promised to repeal Obamacare and, so far, this hasn't happened. He promised to build a wall along the Mexican border and this, to say the least, is off to a slow start. 

Trump and Congressional leaders seem to have agreed on a four-step plan: repeal Obamacare, enact massive tax cuts, reduce entitlements, and pass an infrastructure bill. While all of these have been discussed, the relevant legislation has been slow to take form. Part of this is due to confusion in Congress, where Republican leaders in the House and Senate are not on the same page. But much of the responsibility lies with Trump. He's not a hands-on policy guy and hasn't shown interest in pushing anything other than a big concept, such as "a terrific healthcare plan." 

Theoretically, Trump's other responsibility is to ensure that Republican continue their control of the House and Senate. Trump pays lip service to this job but in fact hasn't done much; he's a lone wolf and not a team player. 

Trump the ideologue: When he was running for President, Trump didn't seem particularly ideological, except on the issue of immigration. He often struck a populist tone in his campaign speeches. Nonetheless, as President Trump has taken an extremely conservative stance. 

Once Trump gained the support of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who had been Cruz supporters, many predicted that he would adopt the Cruz position on cutting government spending by eliminating the Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy, Housing and Urban Development, and the Internal Revenue Service. (The Mercers are also in favor of eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency.) 

So far, Trump hasn't proposed eliminating these Departments but he has appointed right-wing zealots to run them: Wilber Ross (Commerce), Betty de Vos (Education), Rick Perry (Energy), Ben Carson (Housing and Urban Development), and Scott Pruitt (Environmental Protection Agency). In his just-released budget, Trump proposes dramatic decreases in each agency budget . 

Summary: Trump the leader is what we expected: a petulant showboat. Trump the manager is worse than we expected. Trump the Party leader is actually hurting the Republican Party. Unfortunately, Trump the ideologue threatens to do grievous harm to the environment and the least fortunate Americans. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at bburnett@sonic.net or @BobWBurnett

ECLECTIC RANT:Senators: don't repeal ObamaCare, fix it

Ralph E. Stone
Friday May 26, 2017 - 11:35:00 AM

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) was repealed in the U.S. House of Representatives and replaced with the American Health Care Act (AHCA). The AHCA is now pending in the U.S. Senate.  

After the AHCA reached the Senate, all 48 Senate Democrats signed a letter asking the Republican majority for a fresh start on health care reform. In a letter released on May 9, the entire Senate Democratic Caucus asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and key Republican committee leaders for a "bipartisan, open and transparent" effort to improve the health care system. The letter proposes a number of issues to work on including reducing the cost of prescription drugs, decreasing the cost of premiums without cutting the quality of benefits, making the cost of care more affordable by reducing out-of-pocket costs, stabilizing and strengthening the insurance market, helping more struggling families get covered, and making it easier and less expensive for small businesses to provide health care. To my knowledge, the Senate Republican leadership has not responded. 

The letter points out that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had not analyzed the new AHCA before passage in the House. According to the CBO, a similar, earlier version of the AHCA would have reduced the number of insured by 24 million people by 2026. The AHCA would also cut "$880 billion from state Medicaid programs and important patient and consumer protections – especially for women and all those with pre-existing conditions."  

On May 24, 2017, the GBO released its analysis of the revised AHCA, finding that the number of people without insurance would be 23 million within a decade with 14 million losing their insurance within a year. In addition, the federal budget would shrink by cutting Medicaid by $834 billion and reducing subsidies for people who buy insurance on individual exchanges for a savings of $276 billion. The AHCA would reduce premiums for younger healthier people, and raise them for older and sicker people, including those with pre-existing conditions. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the AHCA, "Trumpcare is a billionaire's tax cut disguised as a health care bill: one of the largest transfers of wealth from working families to the rich in our history." 

If the House had waited for this CBO analysis, would some House members have voted "no," considering the vote was close, 217 to 213? No wonder House Speaker Paul Ryan rushed passage of the AHCA with little time for House members to review it, with no amendments allowed, and only three hours for debate. 

The ACHA is diametrically at odds with Trump's pledge on the campaign trail to cover everyone and avoid Medicaid cuts. 

While Trump's general poll numbers are at an all time low, he still polls high among republican voters. Republicans in the House and Senate are aware that repeal of the ACA may have political consequences at the midterm elections and payback from the White House.  

However, now that a special prosecutor has been appointed to look into whether or not Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and whether there was any coordination with Trump campaign officials. The Special Prosecutor is also permitted to investigate any attempts to impede the inquiry, which would include the circumstances surrounding the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey. Hopefully now that Trump is operating under a black cloud, Republican Senators may be less susceptible to White House intimidation.  

Many of us would rather have a single-payer national health insurance or "Medicaid for all,” where a single public or quasi-public agency organizes healthcare financing, but the delivery of care remains largely in private hands.  

Until the U.S. is ready for a Medicaid-for-all healthcare system, I join the Senate Democrats in proposing that the U.S. Senate take the ACA and establish what is working and what is not, and what is learned should guide their tweaking of, rather than a repeal of, the ACA. There are certainly plenty of healthcare experts with plenty of ideas to help the Senate in this bipartisan task. 


Arts & Events

New: Guest Conductor Manfred Honeck Leads Symphony in Shostakovich & Tchaikovsky

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday May 30, 2017 - 02:34:00 PM

In a series of concerts at Davies Hall, May 25-7, San Francisco Symphony offered Dmitri Shostakovich’s Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarotti and Piotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64. Austrian-born Guest Conductor Manfred Honeck led the Symphony in these concerts, making his local debut. In Shostakovich’s Michelangelo Suite, heard here for the first time, baritone Matthias Goerne sang Michelangelo’s verses in a Russian translation by Abram Efros.  

At the Saturday concert I attended, conductor Honeck energetically brought out all the contrasts between these two works by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. Where Shostakovich’s Michelangelo Suite is, for the most part, quietly meditative, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, on the contrary, is mostly boisterous and, occasionally, bombastic. However, there are similarities in that both of these works offer a somewhat gloomy outlook on life. 

In 1974, the last year of his life, Shostakovich set to music eleven of Michelangelo’s sonnets, a selection drawn from nearly 300 such poems. To each of these eleven verses Shostakovich added terse titles, such as Truth, Love, Creativity, Death, and Immortality. The titles help to orient the listener to various significant aspects of both Michelangelo’s life and Shostakovich’s own life. When baritone Matthias Goerne sings of Truth in the opening sonnet, there is a bitter note expressed in the world’s preference for falsehood over Truth. Throughout this Suite, Goerne gave a very sensitive interpretation of these verses, modulating his dark-hued voice to express now meditation, now anger, now resignation, and, occasionally, a ray of hope.  

To some listeners, including Joshua Kosman, music critic for San Francisco Chronicle, this work offers only gloom and despair. I beg to differ. While the Michelangelo verses and Shostakovich’s music emphasize the downside of human existence, they also celebrate the upside. This whole Suite, in my view, hinges on the delicate balance between these competing views on human life. 

Horns open the verse on Truth with an anguished refrain, which is later repeated as the opening of the verse on Death. For Shostakovich, who at the time of composing this work was suffering from cancer and knew he had not long to live, the ultimate Truth is Death. Low strings open the second verse, entitled Morning. In the third verse, entitled Love, Michelangelo ruminates on whether beauty resides in the loved one looked at or in the beholder, whose love colors his vision. In a later verse, a whip snaps and wood blocks repeatedly ring out, colorfully conveying an outburst of Anger. It is in this verse, I believe, that Michelangelo writes bitterly that “Heaven scorns every virtue it puts on Earth, then tells us to seek fruit on a barren tree.”  

Next, a lengthy verse extols the Tuscan poet Dante, and the following verse bemoans Dante’s Exile from his native Florence. This latter theme also resonates with suggestions of the forced exile of Soviet artists such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Galina Vishnevskaya, who all left Russia in the months immediately preceding composition of the Michelangelo Suite. A verse on Creativity features repeated blows from wood blocks to suggest the blows of Michelangelo’s hammer on the marble he is carving. His own creativity, the sculptor asserts, is as nothing without aid from God who created everything. A verse entitled Night offers gentle harp refrains. The opening of the verse on Death takes us back to the opening horns of Truth. But Death is not the end, for a verse follows on Immortality. For this Shostakovich drew on a childlike song he had composed at the age of nine. There ensues a lovely flute solo, played here exquisitely by Tim Day; and the work ends on quiet notes from the harp, beautifully played by Douglas Roth, accompanied by celesta. Throughout this entire work, baritone Matthias Goerne navigated these verses in exquisite fashion, modulating his voice to express each nuanced sentiment. I found this late work from Shostakovich immensely moving. 

After intermission conductor Manfred Honeck returned to the podium to lead the orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. This work begins with low clarinets and low strings offering a slow theme that will underlie nearly every aspect of this work. It has been dubbed the theme of Fate. In its first appearance it somewhat resembles a funeral march. A second theme is heard in clarinet and bassoon, though the underlying chords are the same as in the Fate theme. Tchaikovsky heats up this second theme until it boils over in a boisterous fortissimo climax. In the second movement there is a gorgeous solo for French horn, superbly played here by Robert Ward. Later, the horn solo is taken over by clarinet and bassoon, but the Fate theme suddenly intervenes, cutting off the horn melody. Pizzicato chords then provide punctuation, and the horn melody is resumed in the violins. Another boisterous climax occurs only to be cut short by another return of the Fate theme. 

Next comes a charmingly melancholic waltz theme, which goes through numerous variations until it too gets interrupted by the Fate theme, this time a mere gossamer version of itself that is suggestively haunting. For the final movement, the Fate theme reasserts itself, initially in a long, slow introduction identical to the work’s opening. Then a volcanic theme erupts in the strings. A lyrical section for woodwinds and strings brings some repose. However, the Fate theme returns, this time in an outcry by the brass. There is now nothing gossamer about the Fate theme. It races full speed ahead, modulating from minor to major, in which guise it marches forth with tedious repetitions that verge on bombast. Is this the relentless victory of Fate or is it a successful overcoming of Fate? And what does Tchaikovsky mean by Fate? Is Fate, as some suggest, Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality? Nothing is clear; but the work races on to a headlong presto that brings the Fifth Symphony to an effective though somewhat dubious close. Enough already on the Fate theme, one might say. 

It was an auspicious debut here for conductor Manfred Honeck, who is Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony. The San Francisco Symphony orchestra responded well to Honeck’s energetic yet sensitive conducting. Let’s hope Honeck returns here often.