Seems too early to try to sum up 2005. Sheesh, it's not even done yet. Not that another week is likely to change much. But another year might start to provide some perspective. The signature event of 2004 was the U.S. presidential election, which showed that, in politics anyhow, fantasy outpolls reality. A good 50% of 2004's news content dealt with the election; as such, it stuck with fantasy -- the Kerry campaign was hardly more reality-based than the Bush show, as both were manipulations of the symbols we substitute for understanding the excessively complex world we live in. Some academic interested in epistemology and semiotics could have a field day sorting out how these ruts of rhetoric isolate us from the world, the acts of our nominal leaders, and their consequences. Given the way 2005 worked out, it's easy to see why we spent 2004 with our heads in the sand.
Most events just happen, but the 2004 election was scheduled: it was something the corporate media could budget for and depend on. The news media took their clues from the politicians, who took theirs from their pollsters. As a news story it was immensely flattering. It was, after all, a whole lot of us talking about us -- our moral rectitude, our good intentions, our bravery and steadfastness; why, oh lord, is everyone picking on us? With the election behind us, and the next risk of actually changing the balance of power far in the future, 2005 was a year when unscheduled events got a shot at the headlines.
The first big event of 2005 came a few days early, when a massive earthquake off the coast of Sumatra sent a tsunami across the Indian Ocean, killing over 200,000. The last big event of 2005 was also due to the Indo-Australian tectonic plate, where another earthquake killed another 80,000 in Pakistan and Kashmir. While such events loom large on a human scale -- too large for us to really get a grip on, even if we wanted to, which judging from the election we probably didn't -- they are piddling on a geologic scale. Over the last 50 million years or so, the northward movement of India closed a thousand miles of the Tethys Sea, plowing up the seafloor to form a ridge, the Himalayas, while tucking much more under Tibet. Compared to the geologic map, these two earthquakes are barely noticeable. On the other hand, such earthquakes are inevitable -- just two more blips following thousands or millions of comparable quakes.
Fortunately for us, India is on the opposite side of the globe, so all America had to do was pack up some canned goods and give ourselves a good pat on the back for our generosity. It's easy to imagine the same thing happening along the San Andreas Fault that bisects California -- Marc Reisner did just that in his unfinished book, posthumously published as A Dangerous Place, and the sobering portrait would easily rank as the worst natural disaster in American history. Or would have been: between Asia's earthquakes Hurricane Katrina flattened the Mississippi coast and drowned New Orleans, killing 1,383 and causing $100 billion in damage. Katrina, too, was an easily forseeable disaster, but it temporarily shocked America back to reality. The most striking thing about the storm wasn't its sheer destructive power but the ineptness of federal, state and local governments at providing relief.
One thing all "natural" disasters have in common is that their costs depend largely on where they hit: how many people live in the affected area, how much development exists, how prepared and how effective the political organization of the area is. Hurricane Rita was at one point larger than Katrina, but it weakened a bit more before it made landfall at a less vulnerable point, limiting damage to $8 billion. Reisner's worst nightmore would kill many fewer people than the Kashmir earthquake, but it would result in more dollar damage, and would affect more people. How bad they would be affected depends on how effectively federal government could respond to the disaster. In that regard, Katrina gave us plenty of reason to worry.
Bush's polls were sinking before Katrina, and despite the usual we're-all-in-this-together bump he got at the moment of disaster, they sank further quickly. There are two main reasons for this. The first was Bush's philosophy of government, which is that the purpose of government organizations is to provide patronage for the Bush political machine and not to provide any sort of useful service to the general public (who would become corrupted by and dependent on any form of government welfare). FEMA had been a relatively competent and popular organization under Clinton, but Bush fixed it by putting his cronies in charge, then repurposed it by moving it under Homeland Security.
The second reason was Iraq. The hard sell behind the war was based on fear and vengeance, but involved more lies and delusions than can be ennumerated here. Once the war was launched, a second line of lies and delusions were unveiled: that the war intended to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people, who had long suffered under tyranny. As the resistance proved able to disrupt US rule, a third line emerged: Iraq had by then become the "central front of the war on terror" -- with all the Vietnam corollaries: "better fight them there than here," "if we lose we'll lose the whole region," "failure is not an option," etc. However, sometimes failure isn't an option -- it's a fact, and by the time Katrina hit that fact had started to register. The question Katrina raised was why were we spending so much -- over $200 billion -- to "help" Iraq, a country that didn't appreciate our efforts, when we have such pressing needs here in America. Even Merle Haggard chimed in, insisting that we rebuild "America First."
The problem, of course, is that the Bush-led government that had proven so incompetent in Iraq fared no better in New Orleans. The Bush regime is conflicted over reconstruction projects. On the one hand, they believe that government aid to ordinary folks just makes them lazy and dependent, so the only real way to encourage people to learn to stand on their own feet is to deny them the crutches of government. On the other hand, they fully appreciate that shovelling money at their favorite businesses is what keeps their political machine nicely oiled. Their genius is in finding a way to do both at the same time. It's called graft. That's how they took some $21 billion in Iraq and used it to rebuild nothing. (But then, so much of the other billions just went to busting things up worse.)
Disasters challenge the fundamental ideology of the right in America: that government should be starved; that the private sector with its pursuit of self-interest always works best; that private, voluntarily funded charities (especially "faith-based") are all the safety net those struck by disaster need. Not only are these principles wrong -- no sooner than disaster strikes everyone looks first to government for help. The back-peddling and spin frenzy the Bush administration put on after Katrina prove this more than any argument I could make. Disasters attack indiscriminately enough to remind us we're all in this world together.
There have always been disasters, but the perception that they're getting worse is backed by some evidence. Growth, both more people and more development, drives us ever more toward marginal habitats -- earthquake faults, coastal surges, flood plains, mud slides, range fires -- where we are more at risk, and with intensive development put more at risk. The private sector's search for economic efficiency undervalues risk, leaving business and their insurers vulnerable. And at least some forms of disaster are becoming more likely -- mostly due to climate change: 2005 was the hottest year on record, topping a pronounced trend known as "global warming." Not coincidentally, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were part of an unprecedented Atlantic hurricane season.
Not all disasters are natural. It's just easier to talk about natural disasters than man-made ones, since no one's liable to fly off the handle and try to bring God to justice at gunpoint. But man is fully capable of producing disasters that rival nature's. One of 2005's worst man-made disasters was a benzene spill in north China that poisoned an entire river system. Don't know what happens when the benzene reaches the ocean -- certainly it's diluted, but is that enough? The most gruesome thing I read all year was a detailed account of persistent damage caused by the Chernobyl meltdown -- radioactivity degrades over time, but twenty years later Chernobyl is more dangerous than Hiroshima twenty years after the A-bomb.
But most man-made disasters aren't discrete events like these. They are gradual processes, slow accretions that at first seem negligible then become accepted as customary until they emerge as major, in some cases irreversible, problems. Poisoning from heavy metals like lead and mercury fit that pattern. Accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading to global warming, is another. So is exhaustion of resources, like fisheries and aquifers. (I could add oil to this list, but it differs in one major way: due to commodity pricing, oil depletion is visible -- it translates instantly into rising prices.) These processes are clearest on environmental and economic issues where the stakes are obvious enough to have attracted some study. But there are other threats, so obscure we have little idea they even exist. One I wonder about is what makes Americans so stupid they'd vote for George W. Bush.
Which leads us to a third category of disaster: the ones that we deliberately inflict on ourselves. More Americans have died in Iraq than succumbed to Katrina. Another year like last year and the number will top 9/11 -- throw in permanent disabilities and Iraq is already way ahead. Count dead Iraqis -- not something the US cares enough to do, or for that matter is even curious enough to wonder about -- and you'll get something in the range of the year's largest natural disasters. Factor in the disorder, fear, deprivation, and so forth, and you get one of the worst disasters of our lifetimes -- at least for those of us born after WWII. And this disaster wasn't the work of inexplicable forces. It was the work of a handful of ambitious, delirious politicians, skilled only in the manipulation of public opinion, contemptuous of all (even their supporters), reckless, careless, irresponsible. No sacrifice of others is too great for their vainglory.
2005 was meant to be the Bush's triumph -- the year he cashes in his political chips to change the world. He got his tort reform and his bankruptcy reform -- both gifts for the rich. The latter retrospectively became his first reaction to Katrina -- the law ruled out natural disasters as a justification for bankruptcy protection. The "reform" word is clever here: like welfare reform before it, there was plenty that needed some sort of reform, but not what the Republicans ordered. But Bush failed to put his main quest over, which was to wreck social security. The ideological right had long had social security in its sights: it is precisely the sort of entitlement program that leads people to think that maybe government isn't such a bad thing. And of course the bankers, smelling fees and fodder for their tottering investments, pitched in. As a pure propaganda assault they might have gotten away with it -- most Americans are as misinformed here as they were on WMD in Iraq -- but they never were able to translate their ambitions into anything resembling a plausible program, so they failed.
Early in 2005 Robert Christgau queried me about writing some pieces on social security. I didn't decline, but pointed out that I didn't take the proposals or threat all that seriously, and didn't think they had a chance of succeeding. I did take the time to read Daniel Altman's Neoconomy, and I followed some of the debate, which mostly confirmed my expectations. Guess I missed a shot to get some political commentary into print. The only real mystery is why Bush wasted so much effort pushing something that he could never get away with. It was unspeakably arrogant and dumb, a sop to the fantasists in the right-wing think tanks, but more likely just hubris: the naive belief that the most powerful man in the most powerful country on earth should be able to get away with anything he wants. After all, look at all the shit he got away with in winning the 2004 presidential election.
The social security debacle was just one of many ways Bush got his comeupance in 2005. Iraq went from bad to worse, the ultimate result being that the long-procrastinated "democratic" election steered the "independent" country toward enemy Iran. Opposition to the Iraq war went from bad to worse when Cindy Sheehan cornered the cowardly warmonger on his Crawford hideout, stealing most of Bush's usual vacation headlines. Then it got worse again when the most hawkish Democrat in Congress, undoubtedly speaking for large segments of military brass, decided it was time to quit the war. Katrina hit, showing what four years of Bush mismanagement done for the previously respected FEMA. Meanwhile, a special prosecutor indicted neocon Lewis Libby for perjury. Republican congressional leaders were caught up in their own scandals. And none of those investigations appear to be anyway near done. Bush's polls have sunk to record lows, and the once mighty "right nation" looks more and more like a house of cards.
Here's what I filed as my Pazz & Jop ballot:
This doesn't quite jive with my year-end jazz list, nor with the lists I regularly post on the website. I only kept two of the jazz top ten (#1 Parker, #5 FME), while adding a third from out of the blue (Granelli). The latter was one of a cluster of records I like a lot but on the jazz list cusp -- Scott Hamilton, Gerry Hemingway, Sirone Bang, Alchemia, Billy Bang, George Russell, Ravish Momin, Ibrahim Electric. Of these, Granelli strikes me as the one that may be most interesting to non-jazz fans: the focus there is Rinde Eckert's spoken word stories. For the jazz list I went with Sirone Bang and Vandermark -- I thought they tied up that particular list nicely, but they also helped give it an unusually avant tint. Scott Hamilton got cheated both ways.
For a while now I've been saying that I listen to jazz for work and hip-hop for pleasure. This list may prove the point. Thought about leaving Kanye West off on the theory that he's going to win anyway, so why waste my vote? But the year-end lists I've seen thus far have been pretty evenly contested by West, M.I.A. and Sufjan Stevens, with Fiona Apple a distant fourth. I like both M.I.A. and Stevens -- haven't heard Apple -- but not so much. Also like the idea of having something in the loud pop mainstream -- cf. Kelis and N.E.R.D. in recent years -- and nothing else comes close.
Reports are that album sales are down 6% in 2005, although some of that has been made up by increased sales of downloads. I'm not inclined to read much into that. The idea of reducing prices seems to have passed without having any lasting effect. New major label albums hover near the $20 list ceiling, although bestsellers get aggressively discounted, with a handful of first-week titles at Best Buy for $10. As the dollar drops, imports get more expensive. (I haven't bought a CD from Europe in 3-4 years, and the cheapest I've seen Art Brut is $19.) Retail channels, internet excepted, continue to narrow. Wichita doesn't have an independent record store, and it's nearly impossible to find used discs of any sort.
The big picture of the economy is that it's adjusting to the depredations of the Bush era. There's some increase in jobs around here, but wages and benefits got hit hard the last couple of years. My brother lost his job at Boeing due to his age and/or health -- there's a lawsuit pending on that -- so now he's doing the same job for Boeing in Portland as a contractor, making more money but with no security, bad insurance, and it's taking a toll on him. But it's stupid just to try to sit this administration out -- I'm one of the few who's had the luxury to do that, and I'm beginning to have my doubts, too. So working people slog on, fall further in debt, lose their security. The economists crow about productivity gains and healthy profits, and the Foxheads claim the growth of the economy to be good news for Bush.
I don't have time to run all the statistics I ran last year, but here's a sample. New 2005 albums I own or have heard (some still unrated): 569. Breakdown by genre: jazz (453), rock (34), world (24), country (17), electronica (14), rap (13), folk (4), reggae (3), blues (2), latin (2), classical (1), gospel (1). A-list by genre: jazz (63), rock (14), rap (8), world (8), country (4), electronica (4), folk (2), blues (1), latin (1), reggae (1). Old music is less jazz-centric, but not a whole lot. Breakdowns are arbitrary -- e.g., there are lots of latin things listed under jazz.
The following is my current A-list, including 2004 releases (*) I got to too late for last year.
Obviously, if you look at my genre breakdowns the jazz is sifted out pretty systematically, and everything else is second-hand. (One small set of exceptions is a cluster of obscure alt-country artists -- Hayes Carll, Wayne Scott, Kate Campbell -- mostly from one publicist in Nashville.)
Last shot before I turn these comments in. Looking back, last year I wrote about:
More political stuff, especially the 2004 elections. It's worth noting here that John Kerry curled up into a ball after he lost and hid from sight for 6-8 months before he came out and made a completely ambiguous statement on Iraq -- at a time when John Murtha was quite clear. After the 2000 election Al Gore went into an even deeper coma. Both lost close, hard fought contests, to a public menace who became all the more dangerous once he escaped the scrutiny of an election. Both were presumed to be the leaders of the 50-plus million people who voted for them, but by their inaction and invisibility showed that they weren't leaders, or for that matter opponents. By cutting Bush so much slack they screwed everyone who voted for them. Gee, thanks.
Statistics: As noted above, the jazz percentage of my new records is up from 75% to over 80%. Don't have the numbers handy, but the count of Christgau's Consumer Guide picks that I haven't heard is greater than ever. The number of records I've heard from Rolling Stone's year-end list is up slightly (17 vs. 16), but down on Blender (11 vs. 21), Spin (9 vs. 16), Pitchfork (7 vs. 11), and Pop Matters (9 vs. 23). Time, money, interest: I've played samples from many more records so I doubt that many of the omissions would make much difference. But who knows?
Predictions: Kanye West, M.I.A., Sufjan Stevens, in that order. Fourth is either Fiona Apple or New Pornographers, with Hold Steady a possible breakthrough. I have a collection of lists I've collected from elsewhere, and will probably add to it over the next month. The most-mentioned record I'd never heard of is My Morning Jacket. Over the years I've written up various "a priori" lists, based on my impressions of other folks' impressions. I have a fragment of one, but haven't sorted it out. Probably nonsense anyway.
Singles: Didn't vote there. Started way too late to compile a list, but only got to three songs. Don't have the consciousness, and relate to music that way.
Books: Read a bunch of them, but don't have a list handy. Still stuck in the history/politics rut, with more economics than is really healthy. I'm giving myself one more year to get my book done. If I can't do it, I should adopt Feynman's principle, give up on the world, and settle into something I can do. Not sure what that is. Maybe open Wichita's first tapas/mezze buffet.
Obits: Constructed a list, mostly unannotated. Struck by the number of intellectual heroes from my early education (Harold Cruse, Barrington Moore Jr, James Weinstein, Harry Magdoff, Vine Deloria Jr; might also add Andrea Dworkin, whose first book made a big impression, but my note on her was "famous femi-nazi") as well as notable figures from the civil rights and Vietnam war movements (including politicians, like Shirley Chisholm and both senators from Wisconsin). Most important jazz musicians were Lucky Thompson and Jimmy Smith. Non-jazz is harder to sort out and surprisingly shorter (but then I skipped over the guy from Foghat and many more at that level), but Jimmy Martin is one.
Out of time. Bottom line: 2005 sure sucked, but there's no reason to think 2006 isn't going to be worse. Not even music seems to help like it used to.