Sunday, June 24, 2007

Ruth's Report

Ruth: Last week one of my favorite programs addressed an issue. I was interested in the issue, I wanted to hear an informed discussion on the issue. I did not.

Thursday on WBAI's First Voices, Indigenous Radio, I imagine many listeners were confused or ticked off. The program is hosted by Tiokasin Ghosthorse. Mattie Harper used to be a co-host but she moved out West and now Mr. Ghosthorse handles the hosting duties solo.

The big issue was about representation and distortions. The topic was "This Land Is Your Land," the song by Woody Guthrie. The argument was that the song is demeaning and offensive to Native Americans.

I know the song and would add: "I assume most people do"; however, the host and his guest clearly did not. Tiokasin Ghosthorse stated at the start that he was just, basically, going to wing this discussion. That will not work when you have a guest who does not build on your points but basically says "Yes, but what I want to talk about . . ."

The song is at odds with Native American culture and spirituality because of the concept of ownership: The land does not belong to people. Mr. Ghosthorse managed to get that point across even with repeated interruptions and the guest leading the topic astray.

The end point the host and the guest appeared to be going for was that the song was xenophobic or racist and should not be utilized. At one point, the guest compared it to "Ten Little Indians." The problem with that comparison is that is that a song can be at odds with a culture, as a Jewish woman, I certainly hear many at odds with my own, but that does not mean it is racist or xenophobic. "Ten Little Indians" was a dominant culture commenting on a sub-culture and doing so in a simplistic manner that could be read by many, including myself, as insulting.

But the insulting thing was actually having a discussion about "This Land Is Your Land" that was ignorant of the song. I listened. I grimaced each time Mr. Ghosthorse was cut off by the guest and hoped, when it was his turn, Mr. Ghosthorse would return to the point he was making. As it stands, I do not agree with his point. Had he been allowed to develop it, I might have. Rebecca and I were listening and we both anticipated hearing some strong arguments that we could discuss after the show. I was really pulling for Mr. Ghosthorse to pull the topic off because I was highly interested in his take on the topic. I never heard his full take, due to interruptions by the guest, and what I heard was really embarrassing.

"Amber waves of grain" is offered as insulting at one point. If you are going to address "This Land Is Your Land" for a half-hour, you probably need to know the song. "Amber waves of grain" is in the song "America the Beautiful." It is not in "This Land Is Your Land." I doubt Rebecca and I were the only listeners to catch that.

When you get something that basic so wrong you make it very hard for even those wanting to hear the discussion to take it seriously.

I did not need a proponent of the song to be featured as a guest but I do think the guest and the host need to know the song they are discussing for a half-hour.

I do not believe either had ever heard the song "This Land Is Your Land" in full. For instance, the guest attempted to bring in the issue of African-Americans, to piggy back offense to the song by Native Americans on what the song supposedly does to African-Americans whom, the guest pointed out, were originally brought over as captives and turned into slaves. Again, the guest alluded to the lyrics of "America the Beautiful" which he felt were the lyrics to "This Land Is Your Land."

In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

As I went walking, I saw a sign there;
And on the sign there, it said, "No Trespassing."
But on the other said; it didn't say nothing!
That side was made for you and me.

Those are lyrics to "This Land Is Your Land." They are not the most famous lyrics from the song but two adult men discussing the song for a half-hour should be aware of them if they want to make a case that the song is damaging.

They should know the difference between the song they are discussing, the one they keep mentioning, and lyrics to "America the Beautiful" which are offered as examples, by them, as why "This Land Is Your Land" is a 'bad' song.

Now Woody Guthrie's song may be an insulting or bad song. I do not know everything. One reason I especially enjoy First Voices is because I enjoy learning and it is usually a highly informative program. But no one is served by a discussion that does not know the basics.

From what little Mr. Ghosthorse was able to get across before the guest would repeatedly change the topic or offer an example that was incorrect, I grasped that he found the song insulting. I hope he will return to the topic and explain that in depth because I would like to hear about that.

I attempted to follow up on the argument I did not hear presented on the radio. Online, I found this which is labeled "Native American Version:"

This land is your land,
It once was my land,
Before we sold you Manhattan Island,
You pushed our nations
To the reservations
This land was stole by you from me.

While I can certainly understand the sentiment and, in fact, agree with it, the song also goes against the one point Mr. Ghosthorse was making which was that the land does belong to any people.

"This Land Is Your Land" is a folk song. Further discussions might need to explore that aspect again and what the intent of the song was. Further discussions can also address the response of some Native Americans to the song. But no one is served by a half-hour discussion that repeatedly confuses "This Land Is Your Land" with "America the Beautiful."

I hope Tiokasin Ghosthorse will explore the topic further but without a guest who interrupts and uses his response not to build on or comment on Mr. Ghosthorse's remarks but instead to spin the conversation in another, often incorrect, direction.

To hear Mr. Ghosthorse speak, it was obvious he cares very much about this subject. I would like to care about this not just because I know it is something that bothers him but because I grasp why the song is painful for him and others. That was never addressed.

Turning to KPFA, Larry Bensky recently ended his program Sunday Salon. Although he has stated he is open to appearing as a guest on KPFA, his regular broadcasting has ceased. He explained why online in an open letter to listeners. Mr. Benksy's accomplishments are many and I have noted some of them in other reports. I am returning to the topic of Mr. Bensky today because of an insulting gift he was given for his "service." The gift? A velvet Elvis. Apparently, giggly girls who will be unnamed, but anyone reading these reports will know exactly which two 'girls' -- not women -- I am speaking of, thought it was 'cute' and 'funny'. They have repeatedly insisted that not only was that the intent, but that it was also the way the gift was received.

I checked with Kat and C.I. to figure out if I was right to be offended, as one visitor e-mailing who brought this to my attention, was? I informed them of the gift in a joint-call and there was silence followed immediately by rage. That gift was not just trashy and disrespectful, it was also insulting because Mr. Bensky was not doing a Vegas act, did not go "Hollywood," and was someone who demonstrated repeatedly all that alternative radio could accomplish. Kat stated Mr. Bensky was a groundbreaker and, were there any reason to give a painting, velvet or otherwise, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrisson or any other groundbreaker would have been appropriate. C.I. stated that it was offensive even as a gag gift and doubted Mr. Bensky would hold on to it "or should, so I will assume the pranksters have not only insulted Mr. Bensky, they've aided in polluting the environment because that nonsense is most likely headed for a landfill. It is not a funny gift. Those at the top of the KPFA chain especially need to worry about the tone they set and the only things that gift says, intended or not, is (a) We have no sense of humor and need to go to the tiredest joke possible, and (b) In overrating our own sense of humor, we are perfectly willing to insult someone we should be sending off warmly for all of his hard work over the years."

I thank visitor Kathryn for bringing this issue up. I was unaware of it and I share her dismay over it. She brought that up two weeks ago and we have exchanged e-mails on the topic, she writes wonderful e-mails and she would be doing a huge favor if she started her own site and shared her keen observations publicly. However, other topics that have come up in the last two weeks, brought up by visitors, if I contacted you and you never replied, your issue is dead now. C.I. implemented a policy that if you are writing, you note whether you are to be quoted and how. That has actually always been the policy at this site. With regards to myself, I have tried to track down information and reply. Two Saturdays ago, I replied to seventy-five visitors who all insisted that the issue they were raising was important. I replied to more than that, but the seventy-five wrote very passionate e-mails. Not one of the seventy-five ever bothered to reply. So your issues are now dead.

Public radio is a popular topic and there are many wonderful visitors, such as Kathryn, who share passionately and I am more than happy to include their topics when I can. However, if something is very important to you and I am attempting to get more information, it seems like you would reply. Since you did not, your issues are dead. Primarily, the report revolves around topics that members of the community brings up. In the future, I will continue to try to factor in visitors' opinions but in terms of spending five hours on a Saturday attempting to chase visitors down for more information or something as basic as whether this can be shared publicly and how they can be credited, I am afraid those days are over.