12 June 2013


I’m moving to Clarksdale, Mississippi in the Mississippi Delta about 1-1/2 hours drive south of Memphis. I have been asked with great frequency – mostly by people who haven’t been to Mississippi – “why the hell would you move to Mississippi?”

This is why:

The Mississippi Delta is one of several places in the world where for some reason deep in my gut, I feel like my blood pressure lowers, I can breathe deeper and I simply feel at home. Indonesia is another place like that, even Jakarta (go figure.)

I first went to Mississippi, of course, because of the blues. I’ve loved blues music ever since I started developing my own taste in music around the age of 12. And the Mississippi Delta is where the music I love first began to develop in America. (I also love the music of Mali in West Africa, which could well be called the ancestral home of blues.)

But once the blues got me there, I began to fall in love with almost everything else about the place. I find it to be extraordinarily beautiful. As a photographer, the light angling across the big river and onto the levees and all the inlets and lakes and swamps and smaller rivers and then across the deep rich black soil and the black and white of the cotton fields when the cotton is in bloom, and the eerie brown and orange of the sorghum fields and all the greenery mixing in and fall colors, too, is unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere. The weather, with the big storms rolling in from across the Great Plains, adds another dimension to the landscape. Throw in the odd and old agricultural and industrial towns and the surprisingly wide variety of people I encounter in them – who are almost all friendly and welcoming – and the place is a visual and human feast for me. You can get a visual taste of what I love about the place here: http://ericstone888.smugmug.com/Travel/MississippiDelta

The Mississippi Delta is as rich in history, a very mixed bag of tragic and triumphant history, and culture – besides the music, the visual and literary arts thrive in the area – as anywhere I’ve ever been, more so than a lot of places.

Now that isn’t to say there aren’t problems. Coahoma County, where Clarksdale is, has been called the poorest county in the poorest state in the U.S. I don’t know if that is true or not, but it might be. But among other things that means there are opportunities for people who have skills, are willing to work hard, to invest some cash and are willing to learn from and become an active part of the community they are living in. Frankly, I can be of a lot more use to my community and to myself in a place like Clarksdale than I can be in Los Angeles.

I have ideas for several businesses that will, hopefully, provide needed services to Clarksdale, maybe some jobs, as well as bring some money and further investment into the area. I have some friends in the area who I can work with on some of those ideas. And, because the area is so economically underdeveloped, it is inexpensive enough that the small investments I can afford to make in it can potentially have a greater impact than they would in Los Angeles.

On a personal level, I can live as or even more comfortably, on a whole lot less money in Clarksdale than I’ve been able to do in Los Angeles. And I’ll have some money left over with which to travel. Not to mention that the Memphis airport is a lot nicer to deal with than LAX. (And about as far away in travel time as LAX currently is for me during rush hour, or even some other times of day.)

But when talking with my friends and acquaintances who haven’t spent much, or any, time in the South, there is always an elephant in the room – the region’s legacy of bigotry and racism. Mississippi is one of the last places that fought to preserve slavery, and battled hard to maintain Jim Crow laws and segregation. Much of the horror of that is still within living memory. And of course there still are bigots and racists there. Why, my friends wonder, would I want to move to a place like that?

According to a lot of surveys there are more bigots and racists and hate groups in the South than in other parts of the U.S. But they are hardly alone. There are plenty here, in Los Angeles, too, and in New York and Boston. The South doesn’t have a monopoly on morons and miscreants, not by a longshot.

And, just like in most places, most of the people I meet in the Mississippi Delta aren’t strongly political in their daily interactions. They react to people individually, regardless of their race, background, religion (or lack thereof in my case) or sexuality and treat the people they meet with the same respect, or lack of it, that they get in return.

As for the legacy of segregation, the Mississippi Delta is far less racially segregated than Los Angeles or most other big northern and western cities. All of my white friends in Clarksdale have a lot more African-American friends than anyone I know in Los Angeles does, including myself. They live in neighborhoods that are far more integrated. If you want to have more than just a couple of friends or take your pick from a variety of neighborhoods, it’s pretty tough to be a racist in Clarksdale. In one of the “reddest” states in the country, Clarksdale is in one of the “bluest” counties in the country – largely because it’s nearly 80 percent African-American.

That isn’t to say it’s anywhere even remotely close to perfect. In general the African-American population of the Mississippi Delta is a whole lot poorer than the white population. (Though a lot of the white population isn't exactly flush, either.) But I can’t think of any place in the whole country where that isn’t also true. That’s a disgrace for all of us, no matter where we live.

There is, however, another form of segregation that is growing rapidly in the United States and I don’t want to be a part of it. This whole “red state” vs “blue state” thing. Too many people are hunkering down in enclaves of like-minded neighbors; communities consisting entirely of residents who think the same way, believe the same things, react and act the same way. That’s bad for all of us. What has allowed this country to thrive over the years has been the diversity of its population and the free range and exchange of ideas and beliefs that all those different people bring to their interactions with each other.

In poll after poll about gay marriage, it is shown that people who have gay friends and family members overwhelmingly support gay rights, even if they are “red staters” or very conservative or very religious. Look at Dick Cheney, who has a lesbian daughter, if you don’t believe that. But when gay people, or atheists, or liberals, or conservatives or Christians cling only to each other and don’t socialize and do business with and hang out with people who don’t believe or practice the same things they do, then the sort of long-lasting, deep societal change that starts on a respectful personal, not a political, level can’t happen.

The bottom line is that I’m moving to Mississippi because I love the place and it’s beautiful and I can live better or at least as well there as I can here in Los Angeles for a whole lot less money, and there’s the music and the people that I love, too. And yeah, Mississippi’s got problems, some of them worse than the problems here in L.A., some of them not nearly as bad. But find me a place without problems – hell, they even had riots in Sweden recently – and I wouldn’t want to live there anyhow. It would be boring.

Come and visit. I’ll show you what I mean.

14 February 2013


I haven't blogged for quite some time. I've been relying more on Facebook - where I have a great many more "friends" than I have followers here on my blog. That makes me feel remiss. I like my blog better than I like Facebook, though it is less immediate and less gratifying in the responses that I get. Still, here I can blather on at a length that seems unseemly on Facebook.

What I am going to climb onto my high horse about today is guns. Here's what I've got to say:

The 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to apply to the right of individuals to own firearms. That horse has left the barn and there is no way to get it back in there unless the Court revisits and revises its decision - which is possible but unlikely - or Congress votes to amend the Constitution in regards to the matter, and then two-thirds of the states ratify that amendment - which is so unlikely as to be pretty much impossible.

But in all the carryings-on over defending the 2nd Amendment, people seem to ignore the words "well-regulated." Those words mean that the individual right to bear arms can be regulated by, for instance, restricting the ownership of certain types of weaponry - bazookas and tanks come to mind, fully-automatic weapons and by extension semi-automatic weapons or ammunition magazines over a certain size, or age requirements or background check requirements or a requirement that to purchase a gun a person needs to take a gun safety course first. There is nothing whatsoever unconstitutional about any of those regulations. You might not like them, you might be against them, fine, write your congressional representatives, but the constitutional argument against them doesn't hold water.

No constitutional right is absolute in any event. The classic example is that in spite of the guarantee of freedom of speech, you cannot yell "fire" in a crowded theater. Free speech, free press, freedom of religion (even if it's part of your belief system, you can't stone adulterers to death) are all regulated by the common good and common sense, and much of that is encoded into law.

And to be effective, those regulations need to be national, not state by state or city by city. Gun rights advocates love to point the finger of scorn at Chicago - a city with some of the strictest gun regulations in the country and a city with a horrifying amount of gun violence. See, they say, regulations don't work anyhow.

My sister lives in the heart of Chicago, right near Wrigley Field. The closest gun store to her is 3.7 miles away, just outside the Chicago city limits. The closest gun store to me, here in Los Angeles where there are fewer restrictions on guns, is 2.6 miles away. That's why Chicago's gun regulations don't work - if my sister wants a gun, I doubt that extra 1.1 mile drive is going to discourage her. It's not the regulations that don't work, it's the lack of coherence in them that doesn't work.

But, I have heard far too many people say, the right to bear arms protects all of our other rights, so it is the most basic, most essential right there is. If the government becomes a tyranny, how else are citizens to take matters into their own hands and overthrow it. To that I say - YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME. It's a romantic notion, but it's a fantasy.

Here in Los Angeles ex-cop turned cop-killer Chris Dorner took up arms against the tyrannical LAPD. He had extensive police and paramilitary training. He had a large arsenal of extremely powerful weapons - all of which, by the way, were obtained legally. (Even the fully-automatic weapons he used were legally bought semi-automatics that he had converted to full-auto with legally purchased kits to do just that.) He didn't last long and certainly didn't manage to change anything.

I actually read on Facebook, from several different people, that if only the Jews in Germany and Poland had been armed in the 1930s, the Holocaust wouldn't have happened. A couple of people cited the Warsaw Uprising as an example of what an armed citizenry could do in opposition to an oppressive government. Don't these people read history? The armed Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were heroes, certainly, but they were just as dead heroes by the end of it as the unarmed Jews in the extermination camps. It didn't work. It took other, more powerful, more populous, more technologically advanced governments to stop Hitler.

Even before the advent of modern weaponry controlled by the central government, the Confederacy took up arms in rebellion against the United States. They mounted huge armies, commanded by talented generals, possessed of weapons that while somewhat inferior to the Union troops, were closer to equal than any modern day insurgency could possibly employ against the government. The rebellion caused incredible bloodshed and destruction, but you might recall that it failed. It achieved, finally, only an unconditional surrender to the powers that be.

In fact, despite the occasional victory by groups of dedicated, armed insurgents against the generally overwhelming power of a government - the American Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, Vietnam - it usually goes the other way. And when the insurgents win, it is almost always because they are fighting off foreign occupiers, so they have tremendous support from the whole national population, or they are fighting a government that is barely clinging to power having lost all credibility with its citizens.

On top of which, other than the American Revolution, how many armed insurgencies can you name that resulted in a better country after they succeeded than the one they overthrew? Most of the people I know who are staunch defenders of gun rights sure as shit aren't about to pipe up with "Cuba, Vietnam..." And you sure as hell can't come up with any examples of a democratically elected government being overthrown by armed insurgents where it turned out for the best.

The thing about a democracy, even a flawed republican version of one like we've got, is that it is inherently vested with credibility by most of its citizens. Maybe you don't like President Obama, that's your right, but he was elected by a majority of voters in an election that no one has seriously claimed was in any way rigged. And his power is heavily constrained by something called the separation of powers. Perhaps you've noticed that he hasn't been able to do a whole lot of the things he has said he wants to do, because Congress won't let him. That's how it works. And in four years he will be gone and you will have your chance to elect your own President who plenty of other people also won't like, but too bad.

Our rights in this country are defended by a whole slew of things other than private citizens and their guns. By our laws. By our courts. By the separation of powers. By the fact that our population is so diverse, rather than homogenous - so it is very hard for any one group to gain full power over the others. (One of the arguments in favor of immigration that has, sadly, been lacking in the current discourse is that it helps protect our democracy and our rights.) By our culture of individualism and self-reliance. By the police, who are often called upon to defend even free speech that they might not like, but they know it is their duty to do so.

Sure, if in some fantasy dystopian future the president turns himself into a dictator and Congress and the courts allow it to happen and enough of the military and police forces go along with it to enforce it, I'd want to do what I could to overthrow that tyranny. But the chances of that are slim, while out of control gun violence in this country is all too real and immediate. And the chances of armed citizen insurgents succeeding against the armed forces of the U.S. are laughable.