Recognition Through Violence

Within a few hours of the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, the film critic Roger Ebert made a provocative observation in a New York Times essay:

I don’t know if James Holmes cared deeply about Batman. I suspect he cared deeply about seeing himself on the news…

…Like many whose misery is reflected in violence, he may simply have been drawn to a highly publicized event with a big crowd. In cynical terms, he was seeking a publicity tie-in.

I don’t want to dismiss the extreme nature of Holmes’ obvious mental illness. Like psychiatrists say about Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Holmes might suffer from schizotypal personality disorder. Certainly he suffers from serious disturbances.

I do, though, want to make two additional points: 1) Recognition through violence is a common theme in American culture; 2) In the age of Facebook, Twitter and reality television, everyone seems to have access to a significant audience, but the recognition it brings is, usually, an illusion. When everyone’s a star, no on is a star.

Thinking a little about these things might open some avenues for understanding the epidemic of mass killings and other violent episodes in our recent history.

First, what do I mean by recognition? Isaiah Berlin said it best in his essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty”:

What I may seek to avoid is simply being ignored, or patronized, or despised, or being taken too much for granted – in short, not being treated as an individual, having my uniqueness insufficiently recognized, being classed as a member of some featureless amalgam, a statistical unit without identifiable, specifically human features and purposed of my own. This is the degradation that I am fighting against – I am not seeking equality of legal rights, nor liberty to do as I wish (although I may want these too), but a condition in which I can feel that I am, because I am taken to be, a responsible agent, whose will is taken into consideration because I am entitled to it, even if I am attacked and persecuted for being what I am or choosing as I do.

All humans want such recognition. But two things combine in our culture to make it problematic: the celebration of individualism and a mass culture which renders the individual invisible.

The viability of violence as a road to recognition may be uniquely exaggerated in America. Cultural historian Richard Slotkin wrote of “regeneration” rather than “recognition,” but the centrality of violence to the pursuit is the same:

Continue reading “Recognition Through Violence”

We Need a Little Light

What interesting parallels I’m having this week with the stories I wrote ten years ago as the Slate Diarist not long after 9/11. There was a lot of talk in the media then about how 9-11 had changed everything, but I suspect that less changed than we predicted. Ten years ago I was trying to shape my thoughts about writing simply, about telling stories that move me, and about my recently published Christmas book, When Angels Sing that has this past year been made into a feature film.

I was even more focused on my script, Waiting for Gordo, a South Texas adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s classic that I had set on the border, not far from where I am writing this week on the Rio Grande River in and around Laredo. Gordo was a small effort to personalize a story that is too often dehumanized and always politicized.

A decade later, the eight candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination – arguing like an octopus turned on itself – are arguing about border immigration and freeloading illegals in the same tone I was hearing then.  I’m not going to hold my breath for a solution, but I have learned this week that border intervention is a huge business and not likely to ever become a smaller one. It’s been an honor to look for a little understanding of border issues in the company of Time Magazine’s Joe Klein and one of the greatest and bravest photographers of our time, Lynsey Addario. Watch for Joe’s stories and Lynsey’s photos on Joe’s Swampland Blog and in Time Magazine for the next month.

But first, here’s my Slate Diary Blog from soon after 9-11 – a time capsule to a me that I hope I can hold onto.


The beauty of being a free-lance writer is you get to pick your subjects, themes, and characters. Unless they pick you. The age-old dictum, of course, is to “write what you know,” a philosophy that works for a time, though I wouldn’t recommend it as a tattoo. Much better to write what you learn.

So after a long day on a film set watching my words turn into pictures, the questions before me tonight are: What did I learn today? And what can I write?

Foremost, I learned that my daughter is not the only one plagued by dreams hanging on our fears of a darkness that threatens to envelop the earth. This morning, one person after another related their sleepless experiences until it seemed like half of America must have awakened at 4 a.m. from what I can only describe as a collective nightmare. Oh, if this war were only a dream, how sweet would be our waking tomorrow.

One thing I learned in that quest today, learned and relearned as I have to learn nearly every day, is the aspiration to write simply. Misquoting Faulkner—but raising a glass to his spirit—my goal is to write from the heart, not from the balls or brains (though those can be handy in a pinch).

A few years ago, while a guest on Sky TV’s literary talk show from London, I was talking with Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass series and other timeless tomes. Pullman is a former schoolteacher who started quite a row in the literary world by saying the art of storytelling had been foolishly devalued by hip literary stylists. I believe Martin Amis was one name that he singled out, though I don’t intend to reduce one great writer to hoist up another. But I do think Pullman was right to wonder if the literary hipsters weren’t forgetting to give something back to their readers.

I later shared a few ales and words on this subject with Richard Cohen, the British publisher of my novel, Fast Greens, which I was promoting at the time. Richard fell more into the Pullman camp than the Amis, saying that he had once worked for a marvelous publisher who only asked one question when Richard found a novel that he wanted to publish. “Did itmove you?”

Cohen also gave me a piece of advice I’ve carried ever since. One of the advantages of being a Southern writer (or a Texas writer), he said, is that the innate style and language of our region enables us to write close against the line of sentimentality. (He neglected, however, to mention the Sisyphean nature of defining the line that separates sentiment in its true light from blatant sentimentality.)

A couple of years ago, I wrote one of those little Christmas novels that a cynic might think the product of monetary desperation. But this was a story that chose me. I’d been thinking of writing something for my family’s Christmas but had no solid ideas. Then one morning I awoke from a late night’s reverie and began to write. Twenty days later, I stopped writing and sent the book to my friends and family as a Christmas present. One week more, and the editor of Algonquin Books called to say she’d like to publish When Angels Sing, which most critics lauded as a heartfelt story simply told. But two critics (fans of Martin Amis, I imagined) absolutely loathed my story of a man who had to shed his hatred of Christmas in order to hold the love of his son.

I dashed off irate letters to these reviewers—letters I later regretted, learning the hard way that it’s better to offer thanks to those who give us praise. I also learned a more valuable lesson—that we can’t make the entire world into what we want it to be. The writer’s job, if you put your faith in the verities of old, is to shine a light on what is already there. To help us all awaken from the dream within a dream so that someday we may realize the dreams within our hearts.

Samuel Johnson wrote that we tell each other stories in an attempt to be made whole. Through storytelling we reveal who we are at the core; through storytelling we lay bare the hearts and souls of humankind, 6 billion people whose DNA can all be traced to a handful of common ancestors. Can there be any wonder that we share the same dreams?

So let me tell you a story from the set of Going to California—a story that even a sentimental writer wouldn’t have the balls to make up. In my episode, “Waiting for Gordo,” the two guest roles are Pucho and Fortunato, Latino characters inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Pozzo and his slave, Lucky. As the coyote Pucho, we enthusiastically cast Tony Amendola, the kind of actor you always dream will say your words. A man of infinite moods, Tony moves so deftly from darkness to light and back again that I wish I could be his full-time scribe, following close behind and whispering everyday lines into his ear just to hear him make me sound brilliant.

More important to today’s story, though, is the young man cast as Fortunato. The show’s producers knew only that on videotape, Bernardo Verdugo seemed to be an angelic natural as an illegal alien who is discovered in the trunk of a car where he has been locked by a coyote. Like so many people from so many parts of the world, Fortunato’s great aspiration is to come to freedom, to make a new life in America. After the first few scenes this morning, I complimented Bernardo on his performance, and he said that it was not a difficult part for him. Six years ago, well before he got his green card and residency in the United States, Bernardo was brought to America by a coyote.

“How did you cross the border?” I asked.

“Locked in the trunk of a car,” he said.

And then I watched him climb back into the trunk of a car. The lid slammed shut, and I thought of him there in the darkness, wondering what awaited him. Cameras rolled and our director softly said, “Action.” As the trunk came open, the sun peeked out from behind a tall cloud, and long rays of light shone in upon the face of Bernardo Verdugo.

And on a film set high atop a hill on a ranch outside of Austin, the shared dreams of a young man from Mexico and a writer from Texas came true.

We finished the scene to everyone’s delight, then the sun slipped back behind the clouds. That’s when I heard someone say, “We need more light.”

Ten Years After – My Slate Diaries in the wake of 9/11

In the days before everyone’s grandmother had a blog, the Slate Diaries were one of the internet’s greatest outlets for interesting writing from widely disparate voices. I was asked by Slate to be a weekly diarist a month before 9/11, and when I scheduled my week for early October, I couldn’t have anticipated that America and the world would be in such a soul-searching and somber mood.

Writer and filmmaker Turk Pipkin looks back at some of his writing in the wake of 9/11 when he was the weekly diarist on

Turk Pipkin: In the days before everyone’s grandmother had a blog, the Slate Diaries were one of the internet’s greatest outlets for interesting writing from widely disparate voices. I was asked by Slate to be a weekly diarist a month before 9/11, and when I scheduled my week for early October, I couldn’t have anticipated that America and the world would be in such a soul-searching and somber mood. Rereading this story is a great reminder of the life I used to live, of the lives many of us lived in the decade before 9/11 when the economy was fairly good and the worst thing the fine members of America’s Congress could imagine was a blow job.

A decade later, we’ve blown three trillion dollars in two lost wars, bailed out billionaires with government money while hard-working men and women discovered that the hardest thing about work is finding it. For a few weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, we had the whole world with us, but we blew it all away with hubris, lies and a ten-year battle without end that has destroyed far too many lives and has fractured America into groups that are unable to recognize their common ground because of the massive focus placed on their differences.

 Frustrated at America’s response to 9/11, my wife and I ended up founding The Nobelity Project and, like so many people who care about a better way ahead, are trying our best to be a positive force in a world that needs us all. Here’s my Slate diary from October 8, 2010.


It was a beautiful weekend. There was a chill in the air, and the monarch butterflies were winging their way to Mexico. I set all my writing aside, left my computer at home, and drove with my wife and kids to the Texas Hill Country, where I’ve been building a cabin overlooking the Llano River. Every trip I make to the river is a pilgrimage, for I spent much of my childhood at my grandmother’s ranch on the river’s headwaters—wading, swimming, and fishing in the cold spring water that eventually runs over the granite outcroppings at the property we now own. My family lost my grandmother’s ranch when I was in high school, and I spent the next 30 years trying to figure out how to get back a piece of the river.

But as a comedian, then a free-lance writer of books and television, the price of waterfront land was always just out of my reach. Whenever I started to make more money, the prices went up. Then on Valentine’s Day, 2000, while I was writing a magazine story in Belize, my wife sent me an e-mail saying her mammogram had shown something suspicious. I came home to a diagnosis of DCIS—Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. We went from doctor to doctor and the word “mastectomy” kept hitting us like a hammer. Eighteen months later, I still couldn’t say which one of us was more scared.

Running from what we could not escape, one day we dropped the kids at school and headed for the river, driving on back-country roads till we came to a low-water crossing built by German settlers in the 19th century. In the space of one day, we fell in love with the land overlooking that crossing, learned it was for sale, and made an offer to buy it. Eighteen months later—with my wife having beaten her breast cancer and having begun teaching yoga for a living—the river has become a central part of our lives.

We have no television or radio at the cabin; it’s too good here for all that. This weekend, with the wind blowing cool out of the north, we built a campfire in the late afternoon, then grilled steaks and vegetables by the light of an orange and violet sunset. Within an hour, the sky was brilliant with stars, the Milky Way shining bright from horizon to horizon. Just before bedtime, my daughters and I looked up and all saw the same shooting star.

It’s never easy for me to escape my work. People tell me they envy my carefree life as a writer, but they don’t have any idea how hard I have to work to keep from having a job. To cobble together one real income, I write for television, film, magazines, and try to turn out a book every couple of years. That means long, butt-throbbing hours at my desk and very short nights in bed. It’ll be a miracle if I get any writing done this week. A one-hour episode I wrote for a great new Showtime series—Going to California—will be filming in Austin, and I’m hoping to see as much of the action as possible. I’ll also be working on a documentary on Willie Nelson for American Masters on PBS, and I’m moderating panels and hosting events at one of my favorite events of the year, the Austin Film Festival.

At last year’s festival, I chaired a panel with David Chase, the creator and executive producer of HBO’s hit, The Sopranos. Before the panel, we talked a bit about my experiences in Italy interviewing lawyers and hitmen for the ‘Ndrangetta, the fearful Calabrian mafia. When the panel started, David was looking at me kind of funny, and I thought I must have said something wrong. Far from it—a couple of days later, the casting director of The Sopranos called to see if I’d videotape an audition for the show. The role was a total hoot—the born-again, narcoleptic boyfriend of Tony’s sister Janice. They faxed the script, I sent back a tape, and a couple of weeks later I was in Queens falling asleep on Tony Soprano’s shoulder and having him bounce walnuts off my sleeping noggin at the Sopranos’ Thanksgiving dinner.

For a writer whose future depends to a great extent on a larger audience discovering his work, this tiny brush with fame was a dream come true. All the better when the show brought me back for a couple more episodes, giving me some fun scenes with Aida Turturro, a wonderful actress who makes Janice one of The Sopranos‘ most memorable characters. When Aida was nominated for an Emmy for her work this year, I felt sure I’d soon be in front of the TV watching her accept her award.

NYC skyline and sunset from La Guardia just before 9/11

Then came Sept. 11. The week after the bombings, I could not look away from the television. I had to know everything, had to e-mail everyone I knew. For some reason, I felt a compulsion to be a reassuring voice, to tell my friends and family that somehow everything would be OK. A lot of nice words came back for my efforts, but I also got the worst possible news from too many friends whose family members, business associates, and college buddies had been in the Trade Centers. On one of my trips to film The Sopranos, I’d taken my 10-year-old daughter to the top of the World Trade Center. Now she wanted to know about the people we’d seen there, and what would happen to the children of those people who’d died. My voice began to sound less and less reassuring. And our refuge at the river began to seem more and more important.

It was still cool this morning when we hiked down the granite point to the river’s edge. It was a little late in the year for a swim, but I waded in till my knees were wet, decided it was too cold, and turned back to shore. Then I slipped on the slick rock, and the river gave me my baptism anyway. Once I was wet, I went ahead a paddled around in what turned out to be the best swim of the year. And then I headed back to Austin to watch Aida win her award.

It was a beautiful weekend, but then I turned on the TV. America Strikes Back was a harsh return to reality. The awards, of course, were pushed from our concerns, and the war had started without me. Now I find myself trying to remember my long-ago friends, David and Lynn Angell, who died on American Flight 11; find myself trying to imagine rushing to the rescue of innocent men, women, and children, knowing you might never return, or what it must be like to be under bombs and missiles raining down from the sky. I try to think of all the things we need to think of when our country is at war, but instead my mind keeps returning to the monarchs, their orange and black wings brilliant in the sun as they fly unknowing across the borders of man in their ancient pilgrimage of life.

And the week is just beginning.

Learn more about The Nobelity Project and watch the trailer for Building Hope at:

I’ll try to update some of the other diaries this week, but in the meantime, all five of my daily posts from the week are archived at:



God(dess) Bless Rachel Maddow

photo by Paul Shoul

I watched part of “The Rachel Maddow Show” Wednesday night as I was running on the treadmill. (Okay, okay, the treadmill is lame, I know. But at 108 degrees outside it’s even too hot for me to run out there). And I was reminded of just how much of a bad ass she is. So I wanted to make a quick list of my

Top 5 Reasons to Love Rachel Maddow.

1. She doesn’t hesitate to call out the Republicans for advocating to strip the neediest and most marginalized Americans of current state and federal support services.

2. She doesn’t hesitate to call out the Democrats for being saggy old man balls and incite them to take some meaningful action. (I would call the Democrats pussies, but let’s face it, the vagina is an incredibly strong and muscular organ). And she presents Dems with viable ways they can take a stand, as she did during Wednesday night’s segment “GOP war on Unions presents advantage to Democrats.”

3. She speaks clearly about what’s at stake in the current political climate.

4. She’s hot to lesbians and bi girls. I mean, let’s face it, with her carefully crafted TV makeup on, she’s straight up gorgeous.

5. She’s hot to straight gals. I mean, let’s face it, in Buddy Holly Glasses and a hoodie she reminds every hetero leaning gal of our first tomboy crush…

Thanks, Rachel. Please keep showing us what it means to be a citizen!

AC360 digs into the dark world of “reparative therapy” in “The Sissy Boy Experiment”

How hard is it to love a 5-year-old child unconditionally, or a child of any age for that matter? If you believe God created each of us, how do you decide some of his creations, especially children, are disposable – that they are junk?

Yet, that’s what happens in the sick world of the charlatans who pass themselves off as “reparative therapists.” These people aren’t harmless quacks. They are psychological assassins who use fear to convince confused, vulnerable parents to give up their children to programs of mental terror.

Anderson Cooper 360 launched a three-part series about this on Tuesday. It included interviews with the mother and siblings of a preschool boy sent to a government-funded “reparative therapy” program at UCLA in the 1970s. The program was supervised by the infamous George Rekers, whose writings have been widely discredited but are still used by some who want to promote this violent destructive idea.

Varmints like Rekers, feigning professional credibility, work in communities in Texas and across the country. Some get rich, and many develop personal followings by holding out false hope that they can change the most fundamental aspect of a child’s psyche.

The disgusting unforgivable part of what they do is that those actually trained in psychology know better.

No credible study shows this type of “treatment” can alter something that basic in any human. In fact, the potential for irreparable harm is so great the American Psychological Association has issued an official statement opposing this practice. It reads:

Psychotherapeutic modalities to convert or “repair” homosexuality are based on developmental theories whose scientific validity is questionable.  Furthermore, anecdotal reports of “cures” are counterbalanced by anecdotal claims of psychological harm.  In the last four decades, “reparative” therapists have not produced any rigorous scientific research to substantiate their claims of cure.  Until there is such research available, APA recommends that ethical practitioners refrain from attempts to change individuals’ sexual orientation, keeping in mind the medical dictum to First, do no harm.

Cooper interviewed family members who recalled instructions Rekers gave to withhold maternal empathy from the boy and to construct a merit-punishment system for his behavior. That system included weekly beatings from the father that raised welts on the 5-year-old boy’s butt and back as punishment for not showing “masculine behavior.”

Cooper’s investigation works, because so far it hasn’t fallen into a political or theological “he said v. he said” debate. (Parts 2 and 3 air Wednesday and Thursday.) Part 1 had a narrative arc that found truth by tracing the undeniable impact and human toll of Rekers’ “experiment” more than 30 years later.

We learned in that story the boy quickly withdrew from all social interaction, and that he was unable his entire life to form lasting friendships or any romantic partnership. Seven years ago, at the age of 38, the man he grew up to be hung himself from a ceiling fan, half-way across the world alone in a small apartment in New Dehli, India.

I’m a bit puzzled that Cooper didn’t fully identify Rekers. Perhaps it’s because we all know in the back of our mind how stories like this usually play out.

Decades after Rekers tortured that child and others at UCLA, after using his “research” and “experiments” to make a national name for himself and testifying against gay adoption and gay marriage, and after serving on the founding board of the Family Research Council, Rekers was busted last year in a Miami airport returning from a European vacation with a male escort from

I don’t have children, but I was a gay kid. I also was a board member and volunteer years ago at a gay teen support organization in Austin. Some of those kids had been sent to “reparative therapy.”

One weekend, I got a panicked call from one of my favorites about another teen in our weekly “rap group.” The other kid had slit his wrists. I rushed to where they were, and we got him to a hospital. He lived, but I’ll never forget visiting that bright, sweet, handsome boy barely in his teens in a psychiatric ward with bandages on his wrists. An image like that stays with you the rest of your life.

Towering Humanity: Turk Pipkin’s Building Hope

Disabuse any inkling that Building Hope is cinematic broccoli. It’s a majestic and transformative entertainment and this documentary packs more emotional connectedness, stark naked compassion, unyielding gumption, and inspirational heft than a GooGooplex full of Hollywood fiction.

Building HopeDisabuse any inkling that Building Hope is cinematic broccoli. It’s a majestic and transformative entertainment and this documentary packs more emotional connectedness, stark naked compassion, unyielding gumption, and inspirational heft than a GooGooplex full of Hollywood fiction. And I am not the cheese here. This entirely true story of Turk Pipkin and the Nobelity Project’s tenacious creation of Kenya’s Mahiga Hope High School won the 2011 South by Southwest Film Festival Lone Star States Audience Award. It’s not important exactly how I know that you cannot jam that ballot box— the point is that Building Hope is a bona fide “feel good” movie (which is normally just marketing parlance for a trite and predictably happy ending). Also, insipid rom coms are not actually great date movies. Building Hope is (unlikely as that may sound at first blush). But really now, did the latest Kate Hudson vehicle (to pick a name) put you in touch with the energizing wonder of human existence and possibility? When the lights came up, my spectacles were quite literally spotted from teardrops (mostly from the joy of my heart melting but also from moments of it breaking).

Building Hope is populated with a gallery of inspirational and selfless folks, not the least of which are the students of Mahiga (whose smiles, especially on class picture day, are indelible). Amongst these folks are Greg Elsner, the volunteer on-site “hippie architect from Minnesota,” local educator and point man Joseph Mutongu, executive producer and international non-profit darling Christy Pipkin, and the three young Austin siblings who raised $10,000 for substantial kitchen improvements. A vital construction component is the RainWater Court, which collects and stores drinking water with solar powered purification for the drought prone rural area and also serves as a full basketball court. Mr. Pipkin introduces the sport to the community for the very first time. From demonstrating the concept of dribbling, to the initially carnival midway-esque and comically under-sized homemade rim, and to the students eventual mastery of the game is one of the exemplary narrative arcs of concrete progress that will make you marvel.

Mahiga Primary Choir at the High School grand opening
Mahiga Primary Choir at the High School grand opening

All proceeds from the forty-four screenings at the Violet Crown Cinema June 3rd – 9th, 2011, will benefit the Nobelity Project’s Kenya Schools Fund.

The following is a transcript of the impromptu visit I had with director Turk Pipkin right after the June 1st Crown Violet screening.

Steve Birmingham: I was struck by the statistic that it would cost 11 billion dollars a year to educate every child in the world through Grade 8 and, for Americans, 11 billion is less than our military spends in one week.

Turk Pipkin: You’ve zeroed in on something that’s fairly imprecise. That’s a quote that actually comes from Queen Rania [of Jordan] that was actually in One Peace at a Time [Pipkin’s previous film]. I talked to her about it at Clinton Global Initiative a couple of years ago after she had spoken there [See Pipkin’s Sept. 13, 2009 “One Peace at a Time – The Right to an Education”]. Later in the film I talk about the idea of universal secondary education and then we’re talking about much larger numbers. Free, universal secondary education is one of the Millennium Development goals. But when they started in 2000, there wasn’t even universal primary education. What happened in Kenya is in the early ‘90s the World Bank advised Kenya to quit paying for primary school (“Let parents pay for it”) because they weren’t paying back their debt to the International Monetary Community. So they suspended free primary school on the assumption that parents could pay a few bucks a month. And half the country no longer went to school. Which, in my belief, is one of the reasons that country was primed to have post-election violence a few years ago because there’s a big generation of young people that didn’t get educated and they don’t have any opportunity, they’re living in slums, and there’s political unrest. They’re easily swayed to go one-way or the other and, actually, they’re for hire (which is a lot of what happened in that political unrest they had for the contested election). So, in ’03 they reinstated free primary education but now we’re eight years later and what’s really happened is all those kids have come up and (just like there was in the first five or six years with the primary school) there’s not enough places for them to go to secondary school. But it’s not just in Kenya; it’s all across Africa. Worse there than other parts of the developing world but it’s ridiculous to think that the developing world is going to change in substantive ways if kids don’t get a high school education. What do you do with an 8th Grade, y’know?

SB: Exactly. And yet, again, that figure was approximately one week of the U.S. military budget?

TP: Yeah, less than a week. I think the new budget just passes in the 700 billion range but that doesn’t include the money we’re spending in Iraq and Afghanistan which is special appropriations, so we’re more in like the trillion a year— not counting covert money that we don’t hear about. So, what would it cost everywhere? It’s hard to say. But, in this community, which is really what I was going at, we ending up spending… probably not all in but with the new preschool, with all the high school and with everything else, and with rebuilding the primary school, we really built a functional facility for 800 kids from age four to eighteen for about $300,000.

SB: I was really taken with how positive the students are despite their economic station in life and the community also seems so wonderfully jovial. I’m just curious from all your travels…

TP: You know, it’s interesting, people say “Why Kenya?” And one of the reasons for Kenya was just luck. I’ve worked in a lot of countries in the developing world and Wangari [Maathai of the Green Belt Movement] got me there and Joseph [Mutongu of Mahiga] got me there, and so it was really kind of a series of luck. It is easier for me because Kenya is an English speaking country— more Swahili than English every year. This really is a great community, it really is. But truthfully, I think that the perception that we get in America of the rest of the world and of the despair in Africa and how messed up everything in the world generally is— I think most of that is horseshit and that wherever you go, the people are actually just like that. People are exactly like people are here if they were living in dire circumstances. They’re just parents and kids and they all want their kids to have a better opportunity. The kids are not spending their time going, “Oh, why don’t I have a Porsche?” The kids are spending their time with their friends and their family and they’re enjoying life. And school is one of the things they enjoy in life.

SB: Because education is not something they take for granted… there was the sixteen-year-old young lady who said that her favorite class was physics and that she wanted to be a journalist. I wonder how many other American sixteen-year-olds would say that physics was their favorite class?

9th and 10th graders at newly completed classroom building
9th and 10th graders at newly completed classroom building

TP: Yeah, and that girl is an orphan who’s had other family loss since this film was made. And she still perseveres. I dunno. They are a very special bunch of kids. It’s not like there’s no problems, y’know, but they deal with them. Every once in a while the school committee or Jane Wainaina, the new principal who’s great, will call us up or send us an email and say, “Oh we had a problem with something and what do you think we should do?” And we say, “Whatever you think, it’s your school” [laughs]. And they’re, “Oh, we were just checking to see if you had any input?” “Yeah, we do. Whatever you think.” So the autonomy that comes with that and I think it’s the same thing for the kids— the kids realize, “No it’s not about [The Pipkins].” It’s actually about them. They like it when we come over and I’ll be over in a few weeks but it doesn’t really change the school situation. We still have teachers that are probably not quite as qualified as the teachers in Nairobi. We’re still going to have challenges on the KCSE [an exam for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education] when you finish high school. We’ll only have our first senior classes next January, so we’re a year and a half away from trying to send our first kids to college. It’s going to be a challenge with the rural area and getting these kids accepted into college, but they’re trying!

SB: It was quite moving to learn that the students hadn’t visited these incredible nature preserves that are so frequented by tourists but are just a few miles from their homes. What was that like for you to see them witnessing this wildlife and having them being introduced to the idea that they are to be the stewards?

TP: It was great. And we were developing a mentor program for the school. So one of the mentors, Joseph, he’s a guy who was just lucky to get someone to sponsor him and go to high school and they he earned a scholarship to go to England and study to be a naturalist in a special program and he went right back to his community. He’s really quite a brilliant naturalist. But the preserves are there and they have to be there. You talk about the encroachment; Joseph talks about the elephant migratory route between Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, which is gone now. And he’s one of the many people trying to restore that route but it’s not likely to actually ever happen. It’s just become too over-settled. The Aberdare National Forest has the rhino fence. It was just completed last year. Heck, we have a new school project that’s right next to the rhino fence. But, it’s the longest game fence in the world. It’s 400 kilometers of super high voltage electric wire— strong enough to hold elephants in. Although, elephants are so smart that they can work in concert. They can go up to five or six concrete pylons in a row, and in unison put one tusk against the concrete pylon and push the whole fence over and hold it down while others step over to go raid farmers’ fields when their corn is ready. They go to Joseph’s house where his wife hand tills an acre field of corn every year and the elephants come in and raid it right before they’re going to pick it— three years in a row. What are you going to do? So the fences are there for good reason and the preservation of these forests and of these animals is absolutely essential but it costs money to go inside. For tourists, it costs sixty bucks a day. For the locals, it costs like less than a buck but you got to get there and you got to be in a vehicle and they don’t have a buck and they don’t have a vehicle. So, taking them there is really cool and that’s something we’re going to continue to do.

SB: With any construction project, there are always delays and expenditure overages but yet you’re doing it in Africa where things like roads, basic materials, and equipment are a real challenge. You had the rains and the RainWater Court project manager just disappeared. What was the biggest logistical challenge? But it didn’t seem that it was ever radically off-track compared to people who just build here in remote areas.

TP: No, it wasn’t. Well, if you look at Madonna trying to build her girls school in Malawi— where she took the opposite approach. Rather than partnering with the local community, she said, “I’m going to go take charge of an area. I’m going to buy land. I’m going to hire staff. I’m going to do everything.” Y’know, the way an American or foreigner would envision that this would be done. We could’ve built almost twenty Mahiga Hope High Schools for what she spent before she abandoned and fired everybody and never even bought a piece of land. And she’s about six million dollars into it. She still says she’s going to build it and I hope that she will but I think the lesson is if you have the community as a partner and you’re not pretending that you’re the person that knows the best thing in the world about how to operate a school in another culture, you know. They have a great education system in Kenya; they just don’t have enough funding to run it. Actually, the Kenyan government spends a higher percentage of their tax revenue on education than any country in the world. They’re number one— twenty-seven percent of their federal tax revenue. If you look per capita, they’re 125th. They just don’t have enough tax revenue. The biggest challenge… I don’t know. The classroom building turned into a money challenge and we found the money. We had a lot of people and support here. We just continued to raise money here, longer. But the vision of the school grew a lot. We built a full soccer pitch on that sloping field which had eight feet of incline and the first bids to build that soccer pitch were about twenty-five grand. I basically turned the school committee loose on it and [Austin’s] Westlake High’s soccer team raised a thousand dollars and a couple of other people donated about $500 and we built a twenty-five thousand dollar soccer field for about two thousand bucks. So, there were a lot of places where we went way under and were able to do a lot more. Just from a personal point of view, Christy fighting cancer was by far the hardest part of it. And it’s also very hard to build a school and do a project and make a film at the same time. We don’t have a lot of the coverage that we would have because when I’m in meetings I’m not shooting. And there’s no crew. I mean it’s just me and George [laughs] [George Abraham, a student on a journalism scholarship shot footage of the RainWater Court’s stormy raising]. And it turned out Greg couldn’t shoot. I don’t know. Greg was not a good shooter. He’s a better architect than a shooter. It’s absolutely crazy. Look at the credits— they’re tiny. It’s really crazy that this little core of people [made] this movie. I’m not foolish enough to edit the movie; I did have Molly [Conway] and Matt [Naylor]. Mostly, it was just a lot of eighteen-hour days for about two years straight.

SB: Just a small aside. What kind of travel time is it to fly?

TP: It’s about twenty-four hours… in the back of the bus.

SB: And not to be “poor Turk” but does the accumulation of that much back and forth traveling get taxing?

TP: Yeah, I guess it is but you get to the point because of the time and the money involved… I fly back of the bus. The cheapest ticket you possibly can. The B.A. flight from London, there’s four classes. So you really are with the chickens back there. In the second cabin I think they cook the chicken but back there, they’re in boxes. You know, we hit the ground running over there. We get to the hotel at midnight and the next morning we’re at the bookstore when they open at 8 o’clock in the morning, shopping for the library. We’re at the computer store at 9 o’clock. We’re on the road at 10 o’clock and we work straight through until you leave the country. There’s no jet lag allowed in international development. Malaria medicine? Forget it. You don’t take antimalarials. You don’t rest for a day when you get there or when you get back. You just say, “This is it, I’m not taking anything else for an answer.”

SB: Now that this film is being released and getting out there, what is your sincere hope that audiences take away?

TP: Well, I’d really like for people to spread the word because we don’t actually have distribution on the film and we’re just taking it one day at a time. But from the issue point of view, I think that I’ve gotten more out of this film than Joseph Mutongu got out of it and my kids, in the long run, may get more out of having built this school than his kids will get out of going to it. And the love that you take really is equal to the love that you make. Bhagavad Gita and the Beatles had it right all along. I would like people to see the opportunity to become engaged with other people. It doesn’t have to be in Africa. It can be anywhere. It doesn’t even have to be in East Austin. We live in an increasingly isolated world. I think it’s just a symptom of our times in that the more crowded the world is the more you tend to live in an isolated circle. People coming to this movie probably will know more than most people but most Americans don’t know much about the world other than what they see on TV about a war or a natural disaster. What do we see from Africa? The Sudan? What’s the last thing anybody knew about Kenya? That Barack Obama wasn’t born there, you know, and there was election violence and that there was an al-Qaeda bombing of the embassy there— that’s it. And more people learned about the Kenyan Olympic gold medal runner [Sammy Wanjiru] when he killed himself than when he actually won the gold medal. What does that say about our knowledge of the world? So… for people to engage. Whatever it is— across the street or across the world. It’s for your own good. What do you put here on Earth? The idea of universal secondary education, to me it’s as big of an idea as the Girl Effect (the idea of changing the world through empowering girls), and as clean water (which has made amazing things happen all over the world and continues to). It’s the next logical step but right now unfortunately it’s coming at a time where the world doesn’t seem to have a lot of resources to focus on it.

For screening and other information visit:

There’s a reception with the filmmakers in the lobby every evening at 8 pm. If you attend the 7pm screening, they’ll be waiting for you when the film ends. If you attend the 9 pm, the reception will help warm you up for the movie. And the Violet Crown is offering happy hour specials every night.

Good Will, Good Faith, Good Grief

Given an understanding that politics is not much more than war without weapons (usually), it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s a lot of ill will involved.

Still, it seems today like all the good will and good faith have been drained from the American political environment. When Nevada Nut Sharron Angle says it’s time to turn to guns if conservatives don’t win at the ballot box, she means it. Her hatred of liberals is so intense she wants to kill us, and she doesn’t keep it a secret. It’s barely even news.

What led us into this awful circumstance? Is it just economic anxiety?

Consider this: conventional wisdom tells us the Republicans are going to gain significantly this election, perhaps retaking the House and maybe even the Senate. Now, the GOP is the party that caused the economic crisis. And voters are poised to return them to power because they advocate the very policies everyone knows led to the collapse?

That can only happen when there’s a significant disconnect between reality and the political sphere, or what remains of the political sphere. It’s a dangerous situation. Those in charge of the lifeboats don’t even know if the ship is sinking.

It’s the distant and artificial nature of today’s politics that makes shooting liberals and burning Korans thinkable for some.

Jurgen Habermas noted fifty years ago that the public sphere in the west had vanished.

The extent to which the public sphere as an element in the political realm has disintegrated…is measured by the degree to which it has become a genuine publicist task for parties to generate periodically something like a public sphere to begin with.

In other words, it’s the job of political professionals to create an audience – not a conversation or debate. It’s pretend politics, or Disneyland politics as a sitcom or video game where you can just hit reset if too many liberals get shot or too many women’s health clinics get bombed. It’s not real, so what does it matter?

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Requiem for Reality

Emerson said, “…wise men pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things.” It’s in his essay, “Nature,” and he was talking about the sacrifice of sacred truth to profane ambitions:

When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise,–and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not; a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections.

Oh how I wish America had listened. The reality of visible things is in retreat, and in its place we have Glenn Beck, Drudge et al, masters of the art of replacing simplicity and truth with duplicity and falsehood.

It’s no idle worry. When that infamous Bush aide scoffed at the idea of a “reality-based community,” he meant it. Nearly 20 percent of Americans believe President Obama is a Muslim, more, probably, than know what a Muslim is. For many, the villain is not unemployment. The villains are the unemployed. Bush didn’t wreck the economy, Obama did. Health insurance companies aren’t the problem, government is the problem.

Cry, baby, cry, for reality is in retreat, driven back by the power-mad and the impossibly irresponsible. Reality’s assailants do not realize that once they’ve virtualized the earth, they too will float free of its blue assurance, vulnerable to the next big illusion. Gravity needs mass, and right now American politics is massless.

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Mesmerized by the Right

When our sideshow news cablists, the White House, the NAACP and others began their carnival barking outside Andrew Breitbart’s tent once again – this time echoing Brietbart’s slander of Shirley Sherrod – the predictable puerility followed. The White House apologized and blamed the media culture, Fox News denied its role, pundits claimed the high ground and called for Sherrod’s reinstatement. The NAACP’s quick admission – “we were snookered” – was the only adult behavior around.

It’s a rare day that Sarah Palin, the Klondike Queen of Kooks, doesn’t get a front-page turn on Huffington Post. Left, Right, Middle or Ozone, commentators of all stripes are mesmerized by the Right. No matter how nutty, nasty or distant from reality, the extremists talk and the whole political sphere gets all rubbernecked.

I’ve fought white conservatives’ annual voter suppression and intimidation campaigns for decades in the South. It was and is hard to get attention on the issue. But let a couple of black guys dressed up as New Black Panthers hang around an African-American polling place in Philadelphia, and FoxNews has America thinking the Liberty Bell down the street has finally fallen apart.

When CBS News’ Bob Schieffer somehow avoided the Right’s hypnotists on this unscandal and failed to make it a subject on “Face the Nation,” Fox’s Megan Kelly was so shocked she attacked Schieffer on the air. That’s how accustomed the Right is to having its daily way with the minds of America’s newsies and pundit class.

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Mark Twain on the Interview

In a newly discovered essay, Mark Twain takes down interviewers of all stripes. Take that O overpaid interrogators of contemporary American media. When the guy who quipped that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds takes you down, you feel it. Here’s Twain:

The Interview was not a happy invention. It is perhaps the poorest of all ways of getting at what is in a man. In the first place, the interviewer is the reverse of an inspiration, because you are afraid of him.

The perils of confronting an interviewer are many, Twain writes.

You close your shell; you put yourself on your guard; you try to be colorless; you try to be crafty, and talk all around a matter without saying anything: and when you see it in print, it makes you sick to see how well you succeeded. All the time, at every new change of question, you are alert to detect what it is the interviewer is driving at now, and circumvent him. Especially if you catch him trying to trick you into saying humorous things.

And, by flitting quickly from subject to subject, the interviewer pulls just enough words from you to be hanged by them.

Now his interruptions, his fashion of diverting you from topic to topic, have in a certain way a very serious effect: they leave you but partly uttered on each topic. Generally, you have got out just enough of your statement to damage you; you never get to the place where you meant to explain and justify your position.

I have interviewed and I have been interviewed. Believe me, it’s better to ask than be asked, which journalists past and present will gladly admit. Ah, the power, the power. The mighty undone and the drop of a pencil on a pad, a raised eyebrow that disconcerts and discombobulates the interview subject….those were the days, my friend, those were the days….