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Friday, September 30, 2005

Time for a news update:

  • Tom DeLay got busted. Of course, he's guilty of so much more than he'll ever have to address in court, but this should at least slow him down a bit. Our own Todd Tiahrt has been one of Delay's most diehard supporters. Hope someone runs hard against Tiahrt, and brings him down. Worst part of living in a so-called democracy is when your so-called representative doesn't represent you in any way, shape or form. For more on Tiahrt (and DeLay), see Steve Otto's blog.

  • The Senate sent John Roberts to the Supreme Court, after a weak discussion of what sure looks like a dangerous record. The good news, I suppose, is that he's probably no worse than the guy he replaced. I've been seeing flags at half-mast lately, and wondering who died. I could see flying the Confederate flag half-mast for Rehnquist, but not the American flag.

  • The House passed a bill to gut the Endangered Species Act. It seems to include a poison pill to pay landowners to not exterminate endangered species. This fits into the so-called Property Rights movement, and is similar to strategies they've use elsewhere, like that law in Oregon which is supposed to compensate landowners for not being able to develop their properties because of zoning or other regulations. There may be some cases where some compensation is somehow justifiable, but as a general principle this sort of thing sets a really nasty precedent. When you get down to it, the Endangered Species Act is really about trying to maintain some sort of sustainable environment in the face of development and extraction industries that have little other reason not to suck every last cent of value out of their property. On the other hand, I suppose we could afford this approach if we also taxed every speck of pollution and waste exploiters produce at the full value of what it would cost to reverse all their damage.

  • When Sharon announced his plan to withdraw Jewish settlers from Gaza, some of us cynics pointed out that withdrawal would just make Gaza easier to bomb. Now that the withdrawal has happened, the bombing has begun. Or should I say, resumed?

  • After Hurricane Rita hit near the Texas-Louisiana border, the headlines were quick to announce "Rita's No Katrina." To some extent, that may have been due to a sigh of relief, but it smacks of media spin. This makes me wonder why anyone feels the need to spin natural disasters. It doesn't make the damage less, nor make the response and reconstruction seem more competent. But most importantly, it puts the focus in the wrong place. The fact is that Katrina and Rita were damn near clones, the category 3-4 distinction almost meaningless when it comes to wrecking homes. The big difference wasn't in the storms -- it was where they hit, and how much construction was exposed to the full fury of the storm. Had Rita hit dead-on in Galveston or Corpus Christi, cities right on the coast, they'd look like Biloxi now. Maybe the storm surge would have been a foot or two less, and the seawalls there are a bit higher/stronger, but they would have been overwhelmed anyway. But where Rita hit, the main cities weren't on the coast -- Lake Charles and Port Arthur are situated well inland, with a nice protective barrier of wetlands to cushion the blow. Not that they didn't still get hammered, but the lesson here is that the destructiveness of a hurricane depends on the way people build and prepare for the eventuality. New Orleans was vulnerable for several reasons: that so much of the city is below sea level was the worst problem, and a unique one, but poverty was another, as was racial strife, government corruption, and misplaced faith in God. Houston isn't immune from those problems.

  • The bloodsuckers are lining up to get their fill of the $60 billion the government has allocated for reconstruction after Katrina (with more sure to come for Rita). Meanwhile, Louisiana and Mississippi are pushing for more money, something like $250 billion. By the time all the scandals are sorted out they're gonna stink worse than the New Orleans floodwater. Before Katrina, the Bush administration viewed FEMA as some sort of welfare/entitlement program that needed gutting. Now they've discovered that it's politically useful for patronage and graft. Bush's newfound enthusiasm for disaster relief seems to be tied to his discovery that the Defense Department can take a big role. This gives him a new war to lead, against a far less hazardous enemy than Iran or North Korea.

  • Simon Wiesenthal died. I read his book Murders Among Us back in the '60s. May have been the first book I read about the Nazi genocide, the Holocaust, but I also remember long and detailed plays by Rolf Hochhuth and Peter Weiss, all of which made a deep impression on me. Wiesenthal always said that his mission was to make sure people don't forget what happened. Yet a curious form of forgetting, selective memory, has in fact happened. Back in the '60s, when I first learned about the genocide, the commonly accepted number of people killed by the Nazis was ten million. You never hear that number any more. All you hear these days is the six million Jews killed. There can be no doubt that fact, how horrific it is, and how inexcusable the crime was. But somewhere along the way four million people -- four million victims of the same Nazi genocide -- did get forgotten. Sometimes you do still hear about Gypsys or homosexuals killed in the camps, but no numbers, and in any case they don't add up to anything near four million. Most of the four million were communists, socialists, left-wing opponents of Nazism. Sixty years of ideological cold war has swept them from history -- in particular, from the remembrance that they were the only ones who fought against Nazism and Fascism from the very start. This isn't Wiesenthal's fault: the murderers he tracked down killed ten million people, not just six. Of course, the discount from ten to six million doesn't exculpate the Nazis, but it does change their character. By only killing Jews, and only because they were Jews, we reduce the Nazis to pure racist evil, which makes them a caricature. What this covers up is that the Nazis embodied right-wing counterrevolutionary activism in the '30s. While the artifacts of the Nazi movement are safely buried in the past, right-wing counterrevolutionary activists still roam the earth and wreak havoc -- start wars, kill people, grind their opponents into dust. Sound like anyone we know?

  • On the theory that Kansans are dumb enough to buy anything, a bunch of rich government-wreckers have been traveling around the state lately in support of what they call TABOR, which somehow spells "Taxpayer's Bill of Rights." The idea here is to prevent democratically elected state representatives in the future from raising taxes by requiring all tax increases to be approved by a supermajority. They call this the "American Dream" tour, but everywhere things like this have passed they've led to nightmares, not dreams. Colorado is one example too close for comfort. Still, it's one more thing we have to fight, one more thing to keep us from doing something constructive. And, of course, it's designed with all the trick words. The way to fight these things isn't to develop our own clever framing, pace George Lakoff. It's to get people to realize that the people behind these schemes are just out to screw them -- they can't be trusted, and should never be believed. (Even when they smile like John Roberts.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

I have a few things I'd like to say about the question of "immediate withdrawal" from Iraq -- an argument that has worked its way through several of the blogs I read. Although it's hardly a new question, this particular thread started with Michael Schwartz arguing for immediate withdrawal. Juan Cole rejected Schwartz's main points, arguing that while US ground troops cause more trouble than they're worth, continued US air control (preferably under UN or at least NATO control) could still be critical in preventing an expanded civil war. Gilbert Achar wrote a response to Cole, which Cole published followed by his own rejoinder, eventually followed by a second response by Achar. Helena Cobban also wrote a critique of Cole's position. Meanwhile, Billmon weighed in on the same issue, citing Schwartz and Cole while adding his own arguments. Cole also posted comments on Cobban and Billmon (which I won't bother citing here), then eventually threw in half the towel in a post called Why we Have to get the Troops Out of Iraq, by which he meant ground troops. All this took place between Sept. 22-25. It all makes for interesting reading, although it also gets mucked up in speculations on military strategy, dubious historical analogies, misrepresentations, and general sloppiness. I won't try to recap the arguments or get into the details. I mostly want to write about what these people didn't write about, since all these people miss things that matter.

The first curious thing about all of these comments (with the partial exception of Billmon) is that the reasons they give for withdrawal (or not) are limited to the welfare of Iraqis. Schwartz argues that the Americans are already killing so many Iraqis that a civil war after withdrawal would be hard pressed to make up the difference. Cole is still concerned about that civil war. Very liberal, those arguments. But by not also considering what the war is doing to America, and what through America it threatens to do to the world, they ignore many of the most powerful reasons for getting US troops out of Iraq. And I'm not talking about dead and damaged (physically, mentally, morally -- see Billmon's discussion of "war porn") American soldiers, a shame and a waste. I'm not even talking about how the war was a godsend to Bin Laden. No, the real problem is how the war brutalizes politics in America, providing cover for a cabal that exacerbates every political and economic wound in the nation and the world.

First things first: why did Bush invade Iraq? The only rationale that holds up is that he thought a "quick, successful war" would be good for his political capital, which he could then convert for his political agenda. Afghanistan was a trial balloon, and that seemed to work. Iraq would be his prize. The rule of thumb is that war plays into the hands of the right. It leads people to vent their hate. It sends them looking for strong leaders. It gives Bush an excuse to strut and preen in front the uniforms. The Iraq war isn't much of an example of success, but then neither were Bush's businesses, his governorship, his economic policies, everything he touched. But it hardly hurt him that the pot kept boiling: unlike his father, who had prudently terminated his own Iraq war, the ongoing war let this Bush stay in Commander in Chief mode all the way to winning a second term. So war has been, if not very good to Bush, at least enough.

The only way to understand why the US has made the mess it has in Iraq is to view the war in the context of American politics. For Bush Iraq has always been a win-win proposition. Had the US succeeded in installing a pliant client regime, that would have been a testimony to the omnipotence of American superpower. But failure works too: it makes Iraq the "main front" of the War on Terrorism, reminding us of the Jihadist threat, which fortunately we're able to fight "over there, not here." At least that sort of rhetoric has worked until recently, as several doses of reality have set in. Undaunted, but rather desperately, Gen. Myers warns, "If terrorism wins in Iraq, the next 9/11 is right around the corner." (But then he got a little carried away, concluding "the outcome and consequences of defeat are greater than World War II.") One reason Bush has been able to get away with this is that, after having sold the war on the basis of fear of WMD, as soon as the invasion started the administration switched to a "democracy for Iraq" riff, usurping the rhetoric of his liberal opponents. And they fell for it: after all, they believe that the strong should help the weak, the rich should help the poor; they believe that when you break something you are obligated to fix it.

Bush, on the other hand, believes that when he has an advantage, he pushes it; when he doesn't, he spins it. He fights to win, and when he doesn't win, he slimes you. Democracy is a purely iconic, thoroughly meaningless word for Bush. He doesn't respect it, much less believe in it, here in America, let alone Iraq. The US occupation has been nothing but manipulation and skullduggery, as the US clings to promoting the baseless exiles, theoretically in our debt, certainly needing our protection. The US divided Iraq into warring political cliques: the illusion that all Sunnis are Baathists and/or jihadists, all Shias are Islamists, all Kurds are separatists. In doing so, the US started the civil war that many fear. Cole is right that it could get worse. Schwartz is also right that the most efficient killing force in Iraq is the US. But there's more going on: the "insurgency" is actually fighting two overlayed wars, one an anti-colonial revolt against US occupation, the other a civil war against the exiles and their parties. The latter has happened because the US put the exiles into positions of nominal power, propping them up as representatives of the new "democratic" Iraq.

One thing I find odd is how critics of US policy in Iraq, like Cole, can still imagine a positive role for US military force over there. At best, that force is a reflection is US policy, which at this point means Bush policy: dividing Iraq into two warring camps, where the one branded terrorist has to be slaughtered. But best is an elusive quality with any military -- collateral damage always undermines the intent of the policies -- and even victory can ring hollow, confirming the obscene dictum that "might makes right." Before promoting a military role, one must first set right the policy to be implemented. Cole can't do that: even if US or NATO or UN military force could be employed to stalemate civil war, there is no political consensus for such a policy. The Bush Plan A for ending the civil war is to win it; Plan B is keep fighting, since halting would look like he lost (and that's how Milosevic got his ticket to the Hague).

The bottom line is that America can't help Iraq until we help ourselves first by driving Bush and his allies from power. And we probably won't be able to help even then. Getting Out Now may or may not help Iraq -- it could be done better or worse, and when the time comes we can talk about that -- but at least it cuts the cord that makes America responsible for Iraq's agony, and it lets America start to recover. Ever since WWII the US has repeatedly intervened in other countries affairs, often making disastrous mistakes in its choice of allies -- some that come to mind are Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, Suharto. It's such a shabby record that we really shouldn't be trusted to date anymore. It's time for America to chill out. Until "the indispensible nation" gets a grip on reality, the world should just try to cope.


More paragraphs that I wrote and discarded:

All these writers are well to the left on the political spectrum, which means: they have a strong sense of moral right and wrong; they recognize the rights and humanity of all people, including Iraqis; they feel a need to rectify the wrongs of their country, even when they had nothing to do with causing them; they have absolutely no power to influence the US government. Normally the powerlessness of the left leaves us a free hand to imagine alternative policies, but Bush's war in Iraq presents unique problems. A good deal of this is because as soon as the war was launched the debate changed: it was no longer a question of what we should or should not do, but how do we deal with the consequences of what "we" started. Before the war, the hawks' rhetoric was all about fear or Iraq; once the war started, the rhetoric shifted to the high ground, of democracy for the Iraqi people. The liberals who opposed the war found the main tenets of their liberalism being challenged by the warmongers, and many did as expected: they froze. Consequently, when the fact of war moved the antiwar position from don't-start to out-now, many liberals got left behind.

Cole clearly cares about the fate of Iraq, so he's been grasping at straws trying to come up with some workable scheme for salvaging what the US has done. What scares him is the prospect of an all-out civil war -- an oft-voiced concern of war critics who are reluctant to endorse out-now. His latest scheme is to remove US ground troops, but keep US air power, on the theory that the real civil war danger would come from set-piece battles, and that air power could punish any force that attempts to move en masse against another's territory. If the initial scenario is that the three major groups are controlled by local forces but unable to defeat the others, they will stalemate, and that will eventually force them into negotiations. This is an idea that I have thrown out a couple of times, mostly as a thought experiment to point out problems with how we understand the war. It is an idea that might work if it was seriously applied, but it won't work because the powers that be in the US cannot conceive of it.

The core problem here is that this strategy requires that the US become neutral: that we cease trying to influence Iraqi politics, that we show no favorites and admit no enemies. That can't happen, not with this administration, nor any conceivable alternative. The guiding principle of US foreign policy since WWII has been to fight presumed enemies by favoring putative allies. That policy is driven by, and justified by, pursuit of self-interest -- something we've raised to an ideological principle. Of course, we can argue about what are real self-interests are. For Bush, they line up with the superrich's narrow-minded greed, a world-view that accepts perpetual strife as the human condition.

Schwartz limits his argument to Iraqi concerns, especially the number of Iraqis already being killed by Americans. None of the pieces listed above, with the partial exception of Billmon, takes stock of what the war is and will do to America. That's perhaps the biggest blind spot in the liberal position -- the notion that the war is about what happens to other people, not to us. And I'm not talking about the real losses in soldiers, treasury, and good will here, or the strategic folly of playing into Bin Laden's hand. The more basic problem is that we've overlooked the only credible reason why Bush started this war: for the short-term political gain of leading a successful war. Successful? Won him an election and four more years after all the damage he did in the first four, so that's a big part of what continuing the war costs America. And as expected, war moves America to the right politically -- not that the right is any more competent at fighting wars, but they benefit powerfully from the hate war engenders. . . .


I read Chris Hedges' new book, Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commands in America (Free Press). It was a tough read at first, especially when he writes: "It is an act of apostasy. . . . It is meant to be a break from God. But you trade one god for another. This is how life works. We all have gods." Much like a recovering alcoholic claiming we are all addicts, even lifelong teetotalers. I haven't felt the least need for "that hypothesis" in over thirty years, so such formulations in others strike me as disingenuous or maybe just muddleheaded. But I did get more than my share of religion when I was younger, and it took me a while to find my way free of its labyrinth. Hedges' father was a Presbyterian minister, and Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity, but went to report the wars in El Salvador instead of getting ordained. It's fair to say that he changed gods, and that this book is his way of thrashing through the ensuing chaos.

Hedges makes his case for the ten commandments through stories of violators and victims -- often the same, such as the soldier haunted by the killing he did and saw in Vietnam. He labels his ten vignettes with condensed titles, like "Murder" for "You shall not kill." I had my doubts in thumbing through the book, but the one that intrigued me was "Lying" for "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." That reduction isn't obvious, but lying strikes me as a real problem, a fundamental attack on social life, where blasphemy merely annoys the clergy. "Envy" and "Greed" are similarly injurious; "Idols" depends on how religious you get about them.

Hedges' argument on "The Sabbath" strikes me as poorly framed, but he's after something meaningful there -- perhaps that the resolve to step back from the relentless everyday rush is necessary for health and sanity. But the section includes the book's most memorable quote, as he dissects the boarding school he attended as a teenager: "We were fed generous doses of social snobbery, told that we attended the best school in the country and that we were being molded into leaders. I remember few actual assemblies, but I remember the one about the importance of becoming 'Renaissance men,' men able to excel in the arts, science and athletics. One quick around the assembly at the slouching, bored gathering of pimpled and vacant boys, most of whom attended the school because their parents were wealthy, gave the talk a discernible ridiculousness. There were long windy talks about what it took to be a man, filled with the usual clichés. Intellectual independence, and with it the spirit of self-criticism, was ruthlessly crushed. Those who succeeded were those who obeyed, believed what they were told and assisted the authoritarians above us in maintaining order. Initiative an doriginality were threatening to the school, which like most schools, was designed to promote mediocrity."

Didn't the Bushes attend schools like that?

Monday, September 26, 2005

Movies: Haven't seen many lately, but haven't written about the few I have seen. Here's to catching up, before I forget even more.

Hustle and Flow. Terrence Howard plays a Memphis pimp who takes a shot at rhyme when he bumps into a music soundman he knew from high school. No rags to riches story, no tragedy, no melodrama, this stays real by keeping its ambitions in check, and shooting them down when they threaten to escape. The music is no great shakes either, but DJ Qualls nearly steals the show as a dorky white beatmaker. And the girls surprise in unexpected ways, emerging as more resourceful and complex than often happens. A-

March of the Penguins. Hugely successful French documentary on the emperors of Antarctica and their struggle to survive and reproduce in the world's deepest freezer. The matinee we attended was overrun with parents and young children, the latter not necessarily tuning into the film. The anthropomorphism can be highly suggestive, especially when they blur the marching scene, approximating the queue of pilgrims filing through the desert. Still, this seems like something warmed over from a TV nature special. B

Walk on Water. Israeli film by Eytan Fox, about a Mossad assassin shook up by his wife's suicide -- death does follow him everywhere. He is given a soft assignment: get close to a pair of Germans -- sister and brother, the former living on a kibbutz, the latter visiting -- whose grandfather is an absconded Nazi war criminal, by now a very old man. He succeeds in finding the Nazi, but fails to kill him -- certainly not out of forgiveness, more like the belated realization of what killing has done to his own life. Palestinians fare poorer in the film, but one does manage to interject a key comment: that the problem with Israelis is that they can't forget. In some ways the German storyline seems like a cop-out, but it's more manageable, hence more realistic, than trying to conjure a reconciliation story with Palestinians. The latter, too, have trouble forgetting -- especially what happened in the last few days, months, years, not to mention what's bound to happen again and again in the future. Nor is forgetting the real key. The two Germans haven't forgotten -- they're deeply ashamed of their grandparent's past, and it turns out that the generously liberal Axel can be a stern judge. A

The Constant Gardener. John Le Carré's storyline about the deadly greed of pharmaceutical companies and their skill at corrupting governments may be well deserved but isn't all that interesting or novel. Moreover, its erratic unraveling is hard to follow; the editing is choppy, with bits of handheld camera smearing scenes so much you feel the choppiness in real time. The acting is nothing special, the characters roughly sketched with little flesh. But see this for the images -- the urban squalor of modern Kenya, and the harsh beauty of the landscape. B+

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Music: Current count 11042 [11016] rated (+26), 961 [949] unrated (+12).

  • Luiz Bonfá: ¡Amor! The Fabulous Guitar of Luiz Bonfá (1959 [2001], Collectables): An old album by one of Brazil's master guitarists, mostly solo, with a few songs adding percussion, vibes, and/or flute. It hardly picks up a groove, but the delicate picking mesmerizes. Makes me want to hear a true solo album. B+
  • Anthony Braxton/George Lewis: Donaueschingen (Duo) 1976 (1976 [1994], Hat Art): Two duets, one a long piece written by trombonist Lewis, the other a short take of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee." Both artists went on to record notable tributes to Bird. This one's an interesting album; doesn't jump out at you, but repays listening. B+
  • Stanley Cowell: Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Volume Five (1990, Concord): Solo piano, mostly a standards program, with two originals near the end (plus one earlier). Nothing particularly bad about it, but I'm not much of a solo piano fan, and this doesn't quite fit my expectations for Cowell, who I don't regard as a standards guy. B
  • Festival in the Desert (2003, World Village): One from deep in the Sahara, with a couple of Malians I've heard of -- Oumou Sangare, Ali Farka Toure, Afel Bocoum -- plus a few ringers who showed up for the party (Robert Plant, a group of Navajo). Also a couple acts from Niger and Mauritania. I don't have The Rough Guide to the Sahara, which approaches the same territory though the discography, but this is a fair first step. B+
  • Gogol Bordello: Gypsy Punks (2005, Side One Dummy): Chernobyl refugee Eugene Hütz's band identifies with such primordial refugees as Gypsys and Jews while stiffening Slavic beats to punk-like intensity, but the social glue sounds Brechtian, especially on the rowdy "Start Wearing Purple"; lyrics in English, so you don't have to decipher "Think Locally Fuck Globally" from Ukrainian. A-
  • Sonny Landreth: Grant Street (2004 [2005], Sugar Hill): Live album by Louisiana guitar hero. AMG lists him as blues. I track him under Cajun. Doesn't sound much like either, nor is country much of an option. On this evidence he's a very mainstream rocker. Sings a little, but not much. Mostly just plays mind-numbing guitar. B-
  • John Lindberg Quintet: Dimension 5 (1981 [1982], Black Saint): The String Trio of New York bassist expands his pallette, working with Hugh Ragin on trumpet and Marty Ehrlich on alto sax and flute. The pieces are complex and abstract -- take some attention to follow, and don't always cohere. Bang is impressive on his solos, helpful otherwise. B+
  • MC Hawking: A Brief History of Rhyme: MC Hawking's Greatest Hits (1994-2002 [2004], Brash Music): he's the Kansas State Board of Education's worst nightmare: "But maybe there is hope for the young/if they reject the dung/being slung from the tongues/of the ignorant fools/who call themselves preachers/and listen instead to their science teachers/upon blind faith they place reliance/what we need more of is science"; but they're unlikely to get past his lesser tales -- bitchslapping TA's, plotting MIT drive-bys, extolling his big bizang. A-
  • Marian McPartland: Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, Volume Nine (1991, Concord): Solo piano again, except that the tradition is her bag (two originals here). She picks a couple of unusual things here -- Ellington, of course, but also a Brubeck piece called "The Duke," and "Turn Around" by Ornette Coleman. Takes them at a fairly leisurely pace, and hides the obvious melodies. B+
  • Lee Scratch Perry: History, Mystery & Prophesy (1984, Mango): A rather slick album for U.S. consumption. Reminds me a bit of Third World, but only a bit, since Perry's never that soft-headed, nor that slick, but he comes a bit too close here for comfort. B
  • Elvis Presley (1956 [2005], RCA): Having run out of ideas for new Elvis compilations, RCA is finally resorting to reissuing his old albums, starting with this first post-Sun effort. Expanded with six bonus tracks, including the two #1 singles they didn't have the confidence to include when they first released the album. So great the covers never fail to satisfy, even when we're talking originals by Ray Charles or Little Richard; so great songs I don't recall ever hearing before, like "One-Sided Love Affair" and "Trying to Get You," earned a slot on the desert isle tape. A+
  • The Real Hip-Hop: Best of D&D Studios Vol. 1 (1993-99 [1999], Cold Front): The names (Nas, Biggie, Jay-Z) aren't any more distinct than the near-names (Gang Starr, KRS-One, Jeru the Damaja, M.O.P.) or the non-names (Smif-N-Wessun, Black Moon, Blahzay Blahzay, Showbiz and AC), a backhanded tribute to the studio. Real means steady here, with the variations adding depth and harmony to the experience. Probably more gangsta than not, but not oppressively so. A-
  • Damien Rice: O (2003, Vector): Irish singer-songwriter, mostly works with a string section (or synthesized substitute). Listening to this sent me to the dictionary to check the definition of "mewling": "to cry weakly; whimper." That's about two-thirds of it. He also has a moan. He's the oldest young man I've ever met. Reminds me a bit of the pre-terrorist Cat Stevens, but Stevens at least understood that rhythm is something you strum along with. Also, Stevens never did opera. C-
  • The Best of Gil Scott-Heron (1970-84 [1984], Arista): Back in the day I reacted negatively to Scott-Heron's combination of agitprop, light funk, and smooth jazz. One record, From South Africa to South Carolina (1975) is still remembered in my database as a grade C. I was so turned off I never bothered with any of Scott-Heron's A-list albums (as my friend Robert Christgau graded them), including this retrospective of Scott-Heron's decade with Arista. But I've bumped into "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" frequently of late, and I find it as striking as it's meant to be. It's included here, the only pre-Arista cut. It's the best thing here, but the Reagan-era "'B' Movie" comes close, partly because it's another rap over jazz vamp, partly because it's got something to say: "what has happened is that in the last 20 years, america has changed from a producer to a consumer, and all consumers know that when the producer names the tune -- the consumer has got to dance . . . the idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia. they want to go back as far as they can -- even if it's only as far as last week. not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards. and yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment . . . they looked for people like John Wayne. but since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan -- and it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at -- like a "B" movie. come with us back to those inglorious days when heroes weren't zeros . . . when the buck stopped somewhere and you could still buy something with it." Of course, some of it's dated: "John Foster Dulles ain't nothing but the name of an airport now." Make that Reagan International Airport. B+
  • Wu-Tang Clan: The W (2000, Loud): So busy doing their own thangs, the Clan's first three albums came out with 3-4 year intervals. But it seems like RZA's thang is to take over the franchise. RZA is listed here as producer, but the multi-faced Clan is increasingly faced by guests: Snoop Dogg, Junior Reid, Redman, Busta Rhymes, Nas, and, uh, Isaac Hayes all feature here. Like all their shit, I find this hard to follow, but the thuds keep plodding along, and they can turn a chant into a mantra. B+
  • Legend of the Wu-Tang: Wu-Tang Clan's Greatest Hits (1983-2001 [2004], BMG Heritage): starts with seven cuts from their first and best album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), before they metastasized into a holding company of solo artists; subsequent albums, as RZA stayed on to manage the farm, yield 4, 2, and 1 cut, respectively, diminishing returns but consistent enough; the beats thud, the murk oozes, the chants turn into mantras -- "ain't nuthing ta f' wit" indeed. A-
  • Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon (1976-2002 [2002], Elektra/Rhino): he emerged at a time when singer-songwriter had become a synonym for lame, but distinguished himself for literary flair -- his most memorable songs were bigger-than-life stories -- and responded to punk by raising the energy level; two covers here ("A Certain Girl," "Raspberry Beret") waste space for his songs, but hold up musically; the title song appears as an epitaph, making me wonder what an alternate reconstruction guided by the missing "Ain't That Pretty At All" might reveal. A

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Sept. 12 issue of The New Yorker dedicated its cover and "Talk of the Town" section to New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, but what I found most interesting was the letters section. The first two letters were in response to an earlier piece on small/dead government guru Grover Norquist:

While reading John Cassidy's Profile of Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, I had to wonder: What has Norquist's conservative activism got him? ("The Ringleader," August 1st.) The Cato Institute has called George W. Bush "the biggest spending president in decades." Observers have resorted to using the term "big-government conservatism" to describe what the Bush Administration and the Republican majorities in the House and Senate are doing now that they have sweeping control of the government. (And we are not by any means just alking about defense-related increases -- there is also new spending in areas like the Department of Education, and new health entitlements of the sort that conservatives used to call "liberal spending.") The only thing Norquist has got from the Administration is tax cuts -- well, sort of. Since President Bush is growing the government at the same time that he is cutting into its current and future revenues, we are really getting deferred tax hikes. By some reckonings, Bush's deficit will amount to an annual four-thousand-dollar bill for each American household -- a bill that we are being forced to put on the national credit card, to be paid later, with interest. Instead of trying to, in Norquist's words, take big government and "drown it in the bathtub," Bush has presided over an astounding flood of government. And Grover Norquist doesn't seem to realize that he's been had.
Peter Hamlin
Middlebury, Vt.

If Grover Norquist's vision of drowning the federal government in the bathtub ever succeeds, he will be left with the gated community that is the logical extension of his aspirations. Private schools, private roads, privatized Social Security, private enclaves -- all guarded by heavily armed vigilantes to keep out those who can't afford them. America will cease to be a great nation, because to be truly great a modern nation must grapple with the greater good -- a messy concept that too many conservatives seem willing to entertain only in a Biblican context. Quality education, meaningful health care, a cleaner environment, constructive world engagement, and cultural advancement require an active, responsible federal government and a committed civil service. All that costs money, which means that we have to pay taxes. Our focus should be on improving government, not eliminating it.
Michael Lahr
Arlington, Va.

These are good points, but they leave the basic question unanswered, which is why? I don't know about Norquist, but the key issue for some Republican ideologues isn't the size of government so much as their wish to break the poor, and for that matter the middle class, of the habit of looking toward government to help solve their problems. Starving the government beast is one way to do this, but more effective still is to render government incompetent. Bush may have failed the straightforward task of shrinking government, but he's done a bang-up job of making it incompetent -- or at least making it useless to all but his political backers. For Bush, this is a multi-pronged attack, but the main thrusts are: 1) put political agents in charge everywhere, especially to maximize the patronage potential of the government; 2) undermine the civil service system and the unions; 3) muck up all regulatory processes; 4) start a few wars to suck up resources; 5) pile extra security responsibilities on top of all other government functions; 6) cut taxes on the rich, driving the government ever deeper in debt; 7) push as much unfunded work as possible onto state and local governments. In this framework, greater debt does double duty: it provides discretionary rationale for rejecting spending now, and it makes future spending more prohibitive. The resulting government will, for most people, become so useless that they won't mind drowning it in a bathtub. It may not be as clean and principled an outcome as Norquist might prefer, but the differences are more tactical than strategic.

Still, there may well be a growing split between the principled ideological conservatives and the Bush politicos in that the latter are much more concerned with the preservation and extension of their power than any principles they might espouse. The latter discovered that controlling government's purse strings is a dandy way to further their political prospects by rewarding their core constituencies. The latter turn out to include plenty of companies and organizations who have no real beef with government spending as long as they get theirs first. But note that none of the above -- not the anti-government ideologues nor the spoils grabbers, and least of all the politicos -- have shown the least bit of support for the traditional reason behind a balanced budget (the need for long-term stability of the dollar) let alone any concern that a functional, competent government might be a useful thing to have.

This all comes into stark relief in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where the disaster is of such magnitude that even a competent and sound federal government effort is going to be stretched beyond our imagination. Had ideologues like Norquist succeeded New Orleans would have to be written off as a lost cause, leaving a half million people stranded, a giant hole in the economy, and a massive blow to America's self-conception as any sort of power at all. Even Bush understands that's not a politically acceptable position, so the administration has struggled to regain its political footing the only way it knows -- by throwing money down. In the short-term that's no big deal -- adds to the debt, but that just burdens future governments. The real problem is that they now have to acknowledge that there's a part of the government that people expect to work. That's a tough one for those who believe in the government of the corrupt for the corrupt. They couldn't quite get away with failing to reconstruct anything in Iraq; do you think people won't notice the same failure here?

Ever since Ronald Reagan got elected in 1980, America has been in denial, and the Republicans have capitalized on that denial by feeding people fantasies. That worked because until lately it's never really been tested. First Reagan then Bush put together improbable coalitions of the rich and the foolish, and now that coalition is starting to show signs of fracture. Polls show that Bush is losing support among fringe groups like libertarians and racists. The more serious question is whether, or when, the rich will abandon him. The rich have more to lose than anyone -- do tax cuts matter so much that they're willing to countenance such thoroughgoing corruption and incompetence?

The third letter in The New Yorker is relevant at this point:

James Surowiecki, in his discussion of the latest surge of plans for aid to Africa, notes the backlash of economic objections (The Financial Page, July 25th). But what we need to acknowledge, if we are ever really going to help Africa, are the twin basic obstacles that the continent faces. The first is population pressure, which is already at labor-surplus levels, and will surely expand, as birth rates remain very high. The second is the weakness of aid plans in providing jobs for the swelling population, which is promised mainly immediate humanitarian relief. These conditions clearly call for family planning -- such as exists in India and, most intensively, in China. But this remedy is resisted so stubbornly by politically conservative fundamentalists in America that neither the aid planners nor the critics will touch it (a kind of "third rail of economic development"). The countries of Africa are still left to drown in overpopulation.

This is, of course, just one more example of where Bush's coalition of the rich and the ignorant leads to dysfunction -- where the insatiable demands of the anti-abortion diehards lead to greater impoverishment in the not-really-developing world, antipathy to America and its businesses, and worldwide strife. All for a few votes, to rig some tax cuts, to bankrupt the nation. In such lose-lose scenarios, how can the losers claim to be surprised?

Monday, September 19, 2005

It's proving impossible to keep up with blogging or much of anything else these days. In fact, I have trouble reading the few blogs I look at regularly. On rare occasions when I post almost daily I get little else done. Among the things that don't get done are: a redesign of my own website; a relaunch of Terminal Zone; a long list of project ideas, which as of today includes two more. I do manage to get my Recycled Goods and Jazz Consumer Guide columns done in a somewhat timely manner, but don't have enough surplus bandwidth to review much more music, and there's no way to economically justify myself as a music writer. My unrated list currently hovers around 950 records, which would take me at least nine months to drain if I got nothing new. I try to keep up a steady reading pace, but the books are piling up too -- not as fast as the records, but I read a lot slower.

The two new projects are:

  • New Israel Peace Plan -- not a new project, but a new directory for the draft I wrote last month. I don't know how far I want to go with this, since activism isn't something I have any desire to get into. But the new directory will allow for collecting comments, producing refined drafts and supporting materials, etc. Like many of my project ideas, this is one waiting for someone to pick it up and run with it.

  • The Case Against the Bush Republicans -- a starting place for formulating the 2006 elections argument that follows from my 2004 letter arguing for electing Kerry over Bush. This one should go back deeper into Republican history and the evolution of their cynical, demagogic, and ultimately dangerous system of politicking. This may actually turn out to be a practical approach to the book I've been thinking about for the last decade.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Music: Current count 11016 [10995] rated (+21), 949 [951] unrated (-2). Working rather aimlessly this week. Started off knocking off some rather useless oldies I picked up from the library, but then I slowed down when I decided to tackle the Cash boxes and a few other largish, imponderable propositions. Quite a few Recycled Goods reviews in the can, but most will be swallowed up next month. Need to write something on Billy Bang this week, which right now feels like a not-so-good idea. Didn't get much mail this week, but what I got looks interesting.

  • Alabama: Ultimate Alabama: 20 #1 Hits (1981-93 [2004], RCA Nashville/BMG Heritage): Long-running country group, with a long string of hits -- a 2-CD compilation from 1998 claims "41 Number One Hits," so presumably these 20 have been judged to be exceptionally durable. Members: Randy Owen (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Teddy Gentry (bass, vocals), Jeff Cook (lead guitar, keyboards, fiddle, vocals), Mark Herndon (drums, although there seem to have been other drummers). Owen wrote four songs here; Gentry has a co-credit on one more. So it's fair to say that as auteurs they don't amount to much, but Nashville professionalism keeps them running. "Born Country" is a solid starter, but pure cliché. Bob McDill's "Song of the South" is real, but they probably picked it for the title, certainly not as a tribute to FDR -- anyway, Bobby Bare got to it first. At this level of distillation, they're solid pros, but never trust a band with a logo. B
  • Eagle-Eye Cherry: Desireless (1998, Work): Born 1971, in Sweden. The absentee father he complains about in one song is Don Cherry, the patron saint of avant-world-jazz-fusion. None of that comes through here, even if he does borrow a melody here and there. I'd be tempted to call him a folk singer but he doesn't have a folk. What we get instead is a singer-songwriter with a folkie guitar and easy songs that hide more than they reveal. Sounds OK at first, but wears thin. B-
  • The Cure (2004, Geffen): 25 years after their debut, 4 years after their previous, an eponymous album. This comes on heavy and loud, almost plodding; occasionally with a punk edge, or with a kernel of melody, but not at the same time. Probably in a line with the Smiths and the Manic Street Preachers, a line of serious men with educations they make too much of, but then I've only bumped into them at fleeting moments. Mostly brief, like this one. C+
  • The Derailers: Full Western Dress (1999, Sire): They got the duds (as in western apparel), a steel guitar, a sympathetic producer (Dave Alvin), and they add a good deal of twang to "Then She Kissed Me" (a role reversal of Phil Spector's girl group classic). And that's about it. B
  • Gary Lewis and the Playboys: The Legendary Masters Series (1965-68 [1990], EMI): Né Gary Levitch, son of comic genius Jerry Lewis, the singer/drummer was 18 when "This Diamond Ring" hit #1. The group lasted three years, producing 12 top-40 singles -- the first one #1, the next six top-ten. Their career coincided with the British Invasion, which they aped with a dorkiness that rivaled Freddie and the Dreamers or, in their more eloquent moments, Herman's Hermits, but they could also tap into the Beach Boys (most successfully on the #3 hit, "She's Just My Style"). Lewis has a limited, awkward voice -- on one piece of filler, "Time Stands Still," he sounds much like his father. The secret, as with so many period bands, were studio pros like Snuff Garrett and Leon Russell. The hits, at least the top-ten ones, flow as they should. The lesser hits toward the end tail off in comparison, again no surprise. The filler fills, awkwardly at first, then peaks a notch below the hits, then tails off again. Reports are that they fell off into bubblegum, but I don't hear that. More likely is that as the British Invasion waned their with-a-Yank-accent copycat act lost its allure, but it's just as likely that Leon Russell could read the charts as well as anyone, and found better things to do. B+
  • The Bunny Lee Rocksteady Years (1967-68 [2005], Moll-Selekta): transitional between ska and reggae, rocksteady's measured groove was meant for dancing, and even decades later hasn't lost its indefatigable utility; Bunny Lee was a producer of note, while Alton Ellis, Ken Parker, and Slim Smith were stars du jour, but in this retelling the producer wins out with consistency -- in the beats, of course, but also in the rising voices. A-
  • Living Things: Black Skies in Broad Daylight (2004, Loog/DreamWorks): German import, no U.S. release thus far. Musicians identified as: Lillian Berlin (guitars, vocals), Eve Berlin (bass), Bosh Berlin (drums), all male as far as I can tell, reportedly from the St. Louis suburbs. Recorded by Steve Albini. Sounds a bit like several '80s bands: Three Johns, Persian Gulf, Perfect Disaster. The Jesus and Mary iconography suggests other referents like Jane's Addiction, but the singer doesn't have the whine, and that's a plus. Don't have a handle on the lyrics yet, which are reportedly political. But this is one of the best sounding rock albums I've heard in quite a while. A-
  • Manic Street Preachers: The Holy Bible: 10th Anniversary Edition (1994 [2004], Epic/Legacy, 2CD+DVD): Ten years ago Epic shelved the U.S. release, fretting that the disappearance (probable suicide) of lyricist/rhythm guitarist Richey James left the album commercially unsupportable. Now the first U.S. release is a double with both the U.K. and U.S. mixes, extra tracks, and a DVD, in a package that folds out longer than a yardstick. After a hiatus, the band's remaining three members carried on, topping the U.K. charts with their later records, but never selling much in the U.S. Meanwhile, The Holy Bible achieved near-legendary status, appearing high on all-time great album lists in the U.K. The key is James' lyrics, a cauldron of working class struggle, obscure intellectual references, pain and loathing, only hinted at in titles like "Archives of Pain," "She Is Suffering," "On Walking Abortion," "The Intense Humming of Evil," or one on anorexia called "4st 7lb," or one bororwed from Lenny Bruce, "If White America Told the Truth for One Day It's World Would Fall Apart." The music doesn't quite match up with the lyrics: the division of labor was that James and Nicky Wire wrote lyrics, then James Dean Bradford and Sean Moore came up with the melodies. The latter favored post-Clash fury with extra bombast -- David Fricke described them as "Guns N' Roses with brains." They later toured Cuba, where critic Fidel Castro described them as "louder than war." A-
  • Dave Matthews Band: Before These Crowded Streets (1998, RCA): From a library copy, with no booklet. Don't know this guy, his reputation -- Christgau gave his highest-AMG-rated album a C+, although a Phish fan I knew thought highly of him. AMG says of this one: "it's their least accessible record . . . Some fans may find the new, darker textures a little disarming at first, but they're a logical extension of the group's work, and in many ways, this sonic daring results in the most rewarding album they've yet recorded." None of which sounds very promising. I hear the darkness, brooding, misery. Also the world music touches, strings and flutes, such like. When they slow down for a ballad ("The Dreaming Tree") the sound is amazingly sharp and clear, even though the music isn't. I gather that the strings come from the Kronos Quartet, which is both smart and foolish. Not bland. I can imagine that playing this more might help me understand it better. But I doubt that playing it more will make me like it more; most likely the opposite. C
  • Dave Matthews Band: Under the Table and Dreaming (1994, RCA): This is the one AMG liked, and Christgau panned "as bland as a tofu sandwich." I don't much like it, but don't find it bland either. Steve Lillywhite's production is sharp enough, and the details, including a little sax and violin, are effective. Evidently this was their commercial breakthrough -- combined with extensive touring and many live albums in their catalog, they've been a major act for a decade now. I don't much like it because it makes me work too hard to find a meaning -- I prefer pleasures more superficial or more profound or just funnier, and this isn't any of those things. B
  • The Best of Patsy Montana (1935-40 [2001], Collectors' Choice): Born Ruby Blevins in Jessieville, Arkansas, 1908. Big hit: "I Wanna Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart," which leads this off and towers over everything that followed, even though she never strayed far from its path. Later songs include: "I Only Want a Buddy Not a Sweetheart," "Cowboy Rhythm," "Little Sweetheart of the Ozarks," "Rodeo Sweetheart," "I Want to Be a Western Cowgirl," "Swing Time Cowgirl," "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Dreamgirl." The others don't vary much musically, which for one like "My Poncho Pony" is a plus. Good booklet. B+
  • Patsy Montana, The Cowboy's Sweetheart (1988, Flying Fish): Had J.P. Richadson lived longer he would have re-recorded his hit too. Her rewrite of "Sixteen Tons" is amusing enough ("sixteen pounds of dirty laundry") but the band would have been better advised to look up Merle Travis' original rather than trying to match Ernie Ford's swagger. Beyond that she sings cowboy songs, including an 8:43 medley to try to cram them all in. The best are Gene Autry's "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine" and Laurie Lewis' "The Cowgirl Song." B
  • Poison: Best of Ballads & Blues (1986-94 [2003], Capitol): Didn't ask for this, and didn't play it for at least two years after I got it. Publicist has gone on to greener pastures, and at this point I don't see any reason to run it through Recycled Goods, even though I usually tell folks that everything I get that fits goes there. I find the idea of heavy metal power ballads inherently awful, even if I can recall some Led Zeppelin that fits the bill and works fine. Still, they're not awful. "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" would be a good song in almost any form. Nothing else stands out, not even "Stand." B-
  • Rough Trade Shops: Post Punk Vol. 01 (1977-2002 [2003], Mute, 2CD): Roughly speaking, punk was rock furiously reduced to its crude raw core. Think of it as a fire that scorches the earth, leaving nothing but cinders in its path. In that case, post-punk is what came next -- like ferns and weeds following a fire, post-punk is the first flowering of art following the ravages of punk. Wire and the Gang of Four bracket the first disc with songs from 1977 and 1979 respectively -- songs wound as tight as punk but more complex and nuanced, but other variants are more disjointed or abstract. Three-fourths of these songs date from 1978-81, most from obscure singles. The later cuts fall in two clumps: five from 1984-85, like the Flying Lizards' bored stiff take on "Sex Machine," and eight from 1999-2002 -- bands like Erase Errata, the Futureheads, the Rapture and, for you Slits fans, Chicks on Speed. The new ones fit seemlessly with the old, but none stand out, which is perhaps why this underachieves. Having followed this scene first hand, I'm certain that a more imposing comp is possible. In fact, Rough Trade's long-out-of-print 1980 Wanna Buy a Bridge? is the obvious starting point, with four songs duplicated here, plus five more bands in common. B+
  • Kenny Rogers: 20 Great Years (1969-80 [1990], Reprise): Cheapo compilation, nothing but songlist and credits in the booklet, not even chart positions or dates, so I have no idea what the compilers were thinking, let alone what they thought they could get away with. But it's easy enough to look up the dates on the songs: all ten are among Rogers' 27 top-40 chart hits from 1968 (with the First Edition) or 1969 (as Kenny Rogers and the First Edition) through 1984, when the string ended. Obviously, they could have included more, and there's at least a dozen such comps in or out of print. But with an artist of Rogers' stature maybe concision is a plus. Still, half of these songs are soaring orchestral ballads -- whether his "Lady" is better than Lionel Richie's is an extra-credit exercise I'll forego, but in general he has a voice that goes half-way there. I'm as impressed by "The Gambler" as Wyclef Jean, whose version I prefer. "Lucille" and "Daytime Friends" are worthy. And I'd give him credit for Mel Tillis' "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" if I hadn't heard Roger Miller's version first. Concision no doubt does help. But it's hard to cut much slack for such crappy packaging. B-
  • The Rolling Stones: A Bigger Bang (2005, Virgin): The most vital (or as they preferred, "the greatest") rock and roll band from England's Newest Hit Makers in 1964 through Exile on Main Street in 1972. Nothing they've done since then matters much, even when it comes close as with 1978's Some Girls, or shows unexpected vigor as with 1986's Dirty Work. This one is doubly unexpected -- their first studio album since 1997's Bridges to Babylon (I passed on that one), their second since 1994's Voodoo Lounge (passed on that one too), their third since 1989's Steel Wheels (B-, why I passed on the next two), their fourth since Dirty Work (B+, I think Christgau got a little over-excited on that one). As Stripped proved as recently as 1995, they have a unique sound and can make it work, but their muse is rather limited and rarely consulted these days, now that they're just a bunch of rich old farts. One thing for sure about this album is that they didn't spend the eight years carefully cultivating songs so they wouldn't embarrass themselves again -- everything here (except "Sweet Neocon") sounds like it was thrown together in a day, tops. Eight years is arbitrary: the important thing is that Mick got pissed off enough to write "Sweet Neocon" ("how can you be so wrong?"), then figured the song needed an album, which pissed him off even more. The "redeeming social value" here (as Art Protin would put it) is its rudeness, which the band matches with rudeness in kind. We always knew they had it in them, but it's nice -- hell, it's cathartic -- that they finally let it out. But Mick's muse is so limited these days that one political song turns out to be his limit. Other than that, this is Some Girls Redux, or Hard Again. A-
  • Tiempo Libre: Arroz Con Mango (2005, Shanachie): Cuban timba group -- timba is more like salsa than son or the more Afro-rooted Cuban forms, but kicks the beats up a notch, and doesn't get swamped in horns; based in Miami, one wonders how they fit into the bigger picture, but the rush is undeniable -- so upbeat they're over-the-top, the nonstop lift wears me out just listening to it. B+
  • United Kingdom of Punk: The Hardcore Years (1979-84 [1999], Music Club): Obscure enough that I've only heard of two of these groups (Anti-Nowhere League, Peter and the Test Tube Babies), although a little research indicates that various others were productive. Sounds more like first wave UK punk than US (mostly LA) hardcore, which it is roughly contemporaneous with. Dates are somewhat uncertain, since most came out on singles or EPs before being collected into albums, and none of the above have inspired anal discographers to make up for the label's sloppiness. My research also indicates that they've been heavily compiled, which probably means they come cheaply licensed. The main source seems to be the "Oi!" compilations, which I've never caught. B+

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

I don't usually scan the obituaries, but I did today and found a familiar name: Willard I. Brooks, "77, retired Wichita Public school principal. Died Sept. 11, 2005." I had Brooks for 9th grade science at Hamilton Intermediate School in Wichita. He was one of the few teachers I had who clearly changed my life. Before I had him science was my primary interest, most likely my career path. After Brooks, I never took another science course. Many years later I read dozens of biographies of eminent scientists. I could see much in common with those scientists, but they had something I didn't have: support from family, teachers and mentors who steadied them and inspired them to pursue nature's secrets. Brooks was probably not the dumbest teacher I had, but he was a thug, a heavyset butch-flattop musclehead who would never try to convince you of something as long as he thought intimidation might work. I don't remember learning any science that year; just being bullied on assignments, which despite the friction resulted in straight A grades. Before 9th grade I was a straight-A student -- well, except for English, where I was graded down for lack of penmanship. Midway through 10th grade I was so disaffected with the school system that I dropped out. Brooks wasn't the sole problem I ran into in 9th grade. My history and English teachers were every bit as bad. (The only teacher I remember fondly was a Mrs. Robbins, who taught Latin.) And it's not like nobody has problems at age 14. But I never lost my interests in history or writing, like I lost all interest in science.

My brother was three years behind me. Brooks had been promoted to principal by then, which gave him all the more opportunity to throw his weight around. One chore we all had to do in 9th grade was to assemble a poetry notebook. After I dropped out of high school, all I did was read, which included a lot of poetry. I was embarrassed by the crap I had put in my poetry notebook, so I put my discoveries to work and assembled a huge notebook for my brother. I didn't have any mentors -- my parents were ex-farmer factory workers who had never graduated high school -- but my brother had me. The poems I came up with ranged widely but favored the beats: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and "Wichita Vortex Sutra," Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Ed Sanders. When Brooks saw the notebook, he went ballistic. He expelled my brother for the rest of the year, and he insisted that my brother and I see a shrink -- who found the whole thing rather amusing.

The fundamentalist Christian war on teaching about evolution is big news in Kansas these days: a cause favored by the majority of the state's school board, an embarrassment to anyone who knows anything about the subject. The fundamentalists argue that we need to level the playing field, to give their theory a fair chance against the other guys' theory. That's an argument against teaching science at all: science isn't a theory or a bunch of theories -- it's a system for evaluating hypotheses (and mostly rejecting them). Anyone who actually teaches science can see at once that "intelligent design" isn't science at all. Which means what the fundamentalists really argue is that science shouldn't be taught at all. This is doubly dangerous: not only does it deny students vital insights into how the world works, it deprives them of any inspiration to pursue science further. I don't know whether Brooks was fundamentalist or not, though he certainly was a prude and an authoritarian -- bad signs. But he sure was one lousy science teacher.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Here's a rather apocalyptic quote from Bill McKibben, writing for TomDispatch:

Here's another way of saying it: In the last century, we've seen change in human societies speed up to an almost unimaginable level, one that has stressed every part of our civilization. In this century, we're going to see the natural world change at the same kind of rate. That's what happens when you increase the amount of heat trapped in the atmosphere. That extra energy expresses itself in every way you can imagine: more wind, more evaporation, more rain, more melt, more . . . more . . . more.

And there is no reason to think we can cope. Take New Orleans as an example. It is currently pro forma for politicians to announce that it will be rebuilt, and doubtless it will be. Once. But if hurricanes like Katrina go from once-in-a-century storms to once-in-a-decade-or-two storms, how many times are you going to rebuild it? Even in America there's not that kind of money -- especially if you're also having to cope with, say, the effects on agriculture of more frequent and severe heat waves, and the effects on human health of the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever and malaria, and so on ad infinitum. Not to mention the costs of converting our energy system to something less suicidal than fossil fuel, a task that becomes more expensive with every year that passes.

Our rulers have insisted by both word and deed that the laws of physics and chemistry do not apply to us. That delusion will now start to vanish. Katrina marks Year One of our new calendar, the start of an age in which the physical world has flipped from sure and secure to volatile and unhinged. New Orleans doesn't look like the America we've lived in. But it very much resembles the planet we will inhabit the rest of our lives.

McKibben's book, The End of Nature (1987), was one of the first important arguments made about the dangers of global warming caused by humans burning fossil fuels. I read it in the mid-'90s on an August trip to Florida, where the local (if not global) warming was quite a revelation -- a model to make sense of the coming world. McKibben is a writer I don't quite trust, but can't quite dismiss either. The science he writes about has only grown more convincing over the years. The metaphors are something else. Nature may have ended if we view nature as a global system independent from human effects, but if that's the definition it ended long ago -- and by many measure, including human longevity and population levels, one can argue it's a good thing. One can also argue that nature hasn't ended at all: nature continues in ever new forms as we perturb it, its newness upsetting our understanding of how it works. McKibben aludes to this when he talks about once-per-century storms becoming once-per-decade storms. But what happened to New Orleans had more to do with local and national breakdowns in our political and economic system than it had to do with global anthropogenic effects on climate. The real fear is not so much that nature is going to become deadlier as that we might lose our ability to understand and respond to its challenges.

To do so in what stands to be an increasingly perilous world, we're going to have to get smarter -- which includes more mutual support, fairness, justice, and a better understanding of what technology can and cannot do. Otherwise McKibben's prediction stands a good chance of becoming true. The shocking thing about Katrina wasn't the power of the storm so much as the utter breakdown in competency in response to it. That represents a much more urgent problem than global warming, and perhaps more important as well. I don't discount global warming: I think it is real now, and going to get worse, and I really doubt that there's much that can be done to slow it let alone to reverse it. On the other hand, what we can learn to do is to respond better to both the ordinary and catastrophic events it worsens. If we don't, McKibben is sure to be right.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Music: Current count 10995 [10983] rated (+12), 951 [936] unrated (+15). Doesn't look like much accomplished last week. Doesn't feel like it either, but I spent a couple of days getting to know Universal France's Jazz in Paris box sets, which are hard to grade for several reasons -- the packaging is lovely but dysfunctional; the illustrations are fine, sometimes great, but the texts are often unclear; the organization is geographical but the effect is arbitrary; the dates in the titles don't match the dates on the records; the music is good, but rarely flows. Should write them up this coming week, so more then.

  • Rodney Crowell: The Outsider (2005, Columbia): One song, "Beautiful Despair," envies Dylan's songwriting, while another covers a Dylan song, but not one to be envied. The one that goes "give it to me" is presumably ironic, as the proper title is "The Obscenity Prayer." "Don't Get Me Started" sounds more earnest, not that he really relishes the rant. All of the songs are good (well, except for the Dylan), none are great. My copy is an advance, with no booklet but a sampler to his last two albums. B+
  • Four Tet: Everything Ecstatic (2005, Domino): This seems too slight to get excited about, but otherwise it's hard to pick much of a fight. Before DJs and laptops, before electronica became a category, there was a music called minimalism that was like this, only more minimalist. Compared to it, slight can be wonderfully complex. Or just slight, which is OK too. A-
  • The Best of Paul Kelly: Stealin' in the Name of the Lord (1970-77 [1996], Warner Archives): a Southern soul singer in the old style, schooled in church, where he paid attention enough to come up with a minor hit, "Stealin' in the Name of the Lord" (#49 pop, #14 r&b). This consistent, even-handed comp reduces three albums -- all of his career except for a blues album in 1992 and a gospel in 1999. I'm impressed by his voice, his modesty, his mission, his ability to work inside and outside the church. A-
  • Taj Mahal: The Essential Taj Mahal (1967-99 [2005], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): Born Henry St. Clair Fredericks. Father a Jamaican jazz pianist, mother a gospel singer from South Carolina. Grew up in Massachusetts. Moved to Los Angeles, where he teamed up with fellow musicologist Ry Cooder in a band called the Rising Sons. His early albums were neoclassical blues experiments, which over time he expanded with pan-Africana from the Caribbean, eventually going global from Mali to Hawaii. His world music is an odd mix, but his blues were so distinctive that by now he heads his own school. His key 1967-75 work was recorded for Columbia, and has been oft-compiled, most successfully in 2000 as The Best of Taj Mahal -- with 12 cuts duplicated on the first disc here, and "Johnny Too Bad" on the second. The second disc then sashays through his other labels, an idiosyncratic taste of damn near everything he's done. Only the first disc can be deemed essential, and for that the earlier comp has a slight edge. But he's interesting enough that the second is intriguing. A-
  • Shesus: Loves You . . . Loves You Not (2003, Narnack): Seven songs in this sounds like everything you could ask for in a punkish mostly-female rock and roll album. "B-Side Radio" knocked it the mood down a bit, and the rest is good but not that good. This has been sitting on my shelf for a year-plus. About time I got to it. B+
  • Thunderbirds Are Now!: Justamustache (Frenchkiss): The spelling bee intro/outro isn't as cute as it was probably meant to be, but the new wavish hard rock in between holds up pretty well, with a piece like "From: Skulls" solidly impressive. B+
  • Luther Vandross: The Essential Luther Vandross (1981-96 [2003], Epic/Legacy, 2CD): as '80s hitmakers go, Vandross fell short of Lionel Richie and Billy Ocean, not to mention Michael Jackson and Prince, but he carved out the distinctly adult niche of "quiet storm" and affected such gravitas that I always figured him to be a major force; but as Richie, Ocean, et al. took over, I pretty much gave up on what used to be known as soul music and never made the transition to Vandross; looking back now, maybe crooning over smooth jazz wasn't such a great idea. B
  • Kanye West: Late Registration (2005, Roc-A-Fella): Only reference to Bush here is a spitted "George Bush got the answer," so the flap when he went on TV and asserted "George Bush hates black people" can be taken as useful clarification. Helps me, anyhow. Maybe it would have gone over more smoothly has he quoted himself, "don't you see that we hurt." The theme that ties these songs together is poverty, but it's not broke-down-and-busted poor-poor-pitiful-me poverty -- it's poverty with an attitude, as in the Marine chants about not driving because we can't afford the gas. (On that topic, the poor-poor-pitiful-mes these days are mostly white.) But there's more here than connections. The songs go from inspired to brilliant, each a rap playing off a sample, and that -- not his analysis or his gut-level politics -- is where he's at the game. I'm not convinced that a second-half stretch is as good as the first, but there's much to like about all of them, and the Otis Redding-blessed "Gone" is home free. I didn't stick with his first album long enough to acclaim it as record-of-the-year (unlike most critics). I've already gone further with this one. A

Friday, September 09, 2005

Sidney Blumenthal, in a piece called "What didn't go right?" in Salon, reviews the history of FEMA. He points out that FEMA had been widely criticized for its response to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but that Clinton appointed James Lee Witt as director and turned the agency around, "setting high professional standards and efficiently dealing with disasters." All that changed, of course, when Bush took over.

Bush appointed his former campaign manager, Joseph Allbaugh, as FEMA director. Allbaugh then "immediately began to dismantle the professional staff, privatize many functions and degrade its operations." Blumenthal quotes Allbaugh as testifying before the Senate: "Many are concerned that Federal disaster assistance many have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective State and local risk management. Expectations of when the Federal Government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters." The key word here is "entitlement": the idea that anyone might think that the government owes them, even that the government might lift a finger to help them, is the dividing line between the right and the sane in America today.

The sane position is that government belongs to the people, who charge it with the responsibility to support the common, collective interests of the people. There can be debates about what should or should not be supported, but when it comes to disaster relief, there are few who doubt that the government has to step in, and in all but the most marginal disasters that means the federal government. The plain fact is that state and local governments don't have anywhere near the resource level to handle anything like Katrina. Thanks to Allbaugh, his hand-picked successor Michael Brown, and the oversight of the Bush administration, the federal government didn't have the resources to respond either. Guess that'll teach Louisiana to do a better job of preparing next time? At least when a disaster strikes a state like California or New York there are competent people who care working for the state and local governments. In Louisiana and Mississippi, this sort of moral hazard argument is so ingrained that Governor Blanco's pre-storm preparations didn't extend much beyond urging residents to pray.

Due to the sudden, episodic nature of disasters, the rotting (or the looting) of FEMA didn't become unavoidably obvious until it was tested by a major disaster. Not that it couldn't have been measured. It certainly could, but no one in the Bush administration, and few in Congress, cared. And those who did care didn't have the clout or the visibility to make their case -- and in many cases didn't have the time, because they were too busy fighting other dumb and vicious acts of the administration. But it should have been clear what the plan was from Allbaugh's quote: make FEMA useless so people won't get used to the idea that the federal government might help them in times of crisis.

As Blumenthal points out, Allbaugh left FEMA in 2003 to cash in on his lobbying connections and, especially, to get in on the Iraq War graft. Leaving his crony Brown in place ensured that his work would be continued, and that he'd be well connected to help his clients siphon off any money that Congress foolishly allocates to FEMA. If Allbaugh was the only one doing this, he'd merely be a masterful crook. But he's not -- this is the way everything works in the Bush administration. The view there is that government spending is the new patronage system, especially where they can privatize: spend money, often wastefully (since they want agencies like FEMA to fail), get kickbacks (political contributions, jobs) in return. This system has built a powerful political machine, but at costs we're only beginning to be able to imagine -- because we've never seen such self-inflicted ruination before. Some still think this is incompetence, but there's too much malicious forethought for that to be the only problem.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a very good piece on the health care system in the U.S. It is called "The Moral-Hazard Myth," and appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of The New Yorker. Moral hazard is an economics concept, mostly used in regard to insurance. The argument is that if one is insured against costs or adverse consequences of some act, one has no interest in preventing the act from happening. For instance, if you're insured against your house burning down, why bother to work to keep a fire from starting? Moral hazard argues that insurance causes fires. With regard to health, moral hazard argues that if one has insurance, one will use health care resources without any regard to cost. Hence, with more/better insurance, costs will rise as resources are overused. Hence, a way to limit health care costs is to transfer costs back to the "insured" through deductibles, co-payments, etc. Of course, the only way to eliminate moral hazard from health care is to eliminate insurance.

Economic dogma says that if everyone paid for their own health care, they'd spend their money optimally, buying only what services they need, and skipping any services they don't need. That this is a myth isn't a big surprise. One need only fill in a few blanks -- little things that the theory assumes but doesn't spell out. For starters, patients would have to understand medicine better than their doctors do. Otherwise, how can you know when you need a procedure and when you don't? Second, how do you know when one doctor is competent enough and another isn't? Another important factor is that different people value money differently, mostly because some have more than others. What one pays for health care comes out of some other budget (assuming the money exists at all). It's much harder to rationally spend food or rent money than it is to spend money that otherwise might go to a second Porsche. So even as a theory moral hazard doesn't provide much insight into health care economics.

The data is as clear as the theory is dubious. People without health insurance don't get adequate health care. They put it off until it becomes unavoidable, and often too late. Gladwell's first example is dental care, and the stories are harrowing. I mentioned this story to a periodontist I was seeing, and he told me: "Tell me about it. I've seen people wait so long I can't help them. I tell them they have to go to the hospital, and if they don't they could be dead in two weeks."

I want to quote two paragraphs from Gladwell's piece. The first summarizes what happens to uninsured people in America. The second is the single best description of America's "system" I've read.

The U.S. health-care system, according to Uninsured in America, has created a group of people who increasingly look different from others and suffer in ways that others do not. The leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States is unpaid medical bills. Half of the uninsured owe money to hospitals, and a third are being pursued by collection agencies. Children without health insurance are less likely to receive medical attention for serious injuries, for recurrent ear infections, or for asthma. Lung-cancer patienrs without insurance are less likely to receive surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation treatment. Heart-attack victims without health insurance are less likely to receive angioplasty. People with pneumonia who don't have health insurance are less likely to receive X rays or consultations. The death rate in any given year for someone without health insurance is twenty-five per cent higher than for someone with insurance. Because the uninsured are sicker than the rest of us, they can't get better jobs, and because they can't get better jobs they can't afford health insurance, and because they can't afford health insurance they get even sicker. John, the manager of a bar in Idaho, tells Sered and Fernandopulle that as a result of various workplace injuries over the years he takes eight ibuprofen, waits two hours, then takes eight more--and tries to cadge as much prescription pain medication as he can from friends. "There are times when I should've gone to the doctor, but I couldn't afford to go because I don't have insurance," he says. "Like when my back messed up, I should've gone. If I had insurance, I would've went, because I know I could get treatment, but when you can't afford it you don't go. Because the harder the hole you get into in terms of bills, then you'll never get out. So you just say, 'I can deal with the pain.'"

One of the great mysteries of political life in the United States is why Americans are so devoted to their health-care system. Six times in the past century -- during the First World War, during the Depression, during the Truman and Johnson Administrations, in the Senate in the nineteen-seventies, and during the Clinton years -- efforts have been made to introduce some kind of universal health insurance, and each time the efforts have been rejected. Instead, the United States has opted for a makeshift system of increasing complexity and dysfunction. Americans spend $5,267 per capita on health care every year, almost two and half times the industrialized world's median of $2,193; the extra spending comes to hundreds of billions of dollars a year. What does that extra spending buy us? Americans have fewer doctors per capita than most Western countries. We go to the doctor less than people in other Western countries. We get admitted to the hospital less frequently than people in other Western countries. We are less satisfied with our health care than our counterparts in other countries. American life expectancy is lower than the Western average. Childhood-immunization rates in the United States are lower than average. Infant-mortality rates are in the nineteenth percentile of industrialized nations. Doctors here perform more high-end medical procedures, such as coronary angioplasties, than in other countries, but most of the wealthier Western countries have more CT scanners than the United States does, and Switzerland, Japan, Austria, and Finland have more MRI machines per capita. Nor is our system more efficient. The United States spends more than a thousand dollars per capita per year -- or close to four hundred billion dollars -- on health-care-related paperwork and administration, whereas Canada, for example, spends only about three hundred dollars per capita. And, of course, every other country in the industrialized world insures all its citizens; despite those extra hundreds of billions of dollars we spend each year, we leave forty-five million people without any insurance. A country that displays an almost ruthless commitment to efficiency and performance in every aspect of its economy -- a country that switched to Japanese cars the moment they were more reliable, and to Chinese T-shirts the moment they were five cents cheaper -- has loyally stuck with a health-care system that leaves its citizenry pulling out their teeth with pliers.

In the last week most of us have discovered that New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen. Even those of us who knew that much now know it in ways that were inconceivable before the fact. While the topography was critical in New Orleans, the region's poverty and its unrepresentative, uncaring government has also been exposed. The area is quickly becoming a public health disaster as well as a physical and economic wreck. The immediate response will be to suspend the rules: to provide emergency health care support to victims of the storm regardless of ability to pay. But the real problem goes a lot deeper and is much broader. The real moral hazard would be if the only way to get quality health care to poor people is in the wake of a hurricane.


Here's a little news item for you, from the Wichita Eagle, dateline Washington, which probably means Knight-Ridder:

In the wake of virtually every major hurricane of the past 25 years, bankruptcy filings have grown at almost double their usual pace as victims sought to shake off old debts in order to rebuild their economically ruined lives.

But unless changes are made to a bankruptcy law overhaul that is due to kick in next month, many of those affected by Hurricane Katrina and the resulting floods will have a substantially harder time winning court relief from loans they incurred for homes and businesses that are now gone, said a variety of judges, lawyers and policy experts. . . .

House and Senate Democrats are expected to propose . . . delaying the effective date for the new measure and easing some of its most stringent requirements. When it passed the bankruptcy overhaul last spring, the Republican-controlled House rejected an exemption for victims of natural disasters.

Just one of the ways the Republicans' agenda has worked to make a difficult situation worse. Other titles of short pieces on the same page: "Foreign aid stuck at the border"; "Disease may have killed four hurricane survivors"; "Evacuees unwilling to move onto cruise ships." No explanation why anyone thought cruise ships might be an emergency housing solution, let alone who stands to make money on the deal, which FEMA worked out. The larger pieces are: "Disasters new to FEMA leadership"; "Katrina's brewing a budget disaster." The latter piece noted that now's an inopportune time for the rich to carve the budget up even worse: "On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist postponed plans to push for a vote on repealing the estate tax, a move that would benefit the wealthiest 1 percent of households, costing more than $70 billion a year once fully put in effect."

Aside from the cruise ships, all of this was pretty easy to see coming, for anyone with their eyes open, that is. But today's letters page was full of people trying to cover up. Titles include: "Don't argue now; help relief effort"; "Share the blame"; "Keep it positive"; "Not an issue of race." The first author argues, "Hurricane Katrina has affected everybody worldwide. Here, a common effect on everyday lives is rising gas prices. We shrink every day, more uncomfortable with each record high." So everyone shares the pain! Another writes: "The criticisms only stir up resentmment and anger in victims, and prevent them from having a more cooperative attitude." So that's all it is! The latter piece started by dissing Kanye West for turning "the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina into an issue of ethnicity and race." On the contrary, "We, as Americans, have come together and supported the survivors with food and water. . . . Our government has done a good job in helping survivors, despite being shot at and under the adverse conditions that now exist in New Orleans." And that's just the Katrina-related letters: there's also one that claims Israel is a democracy, and another insisting Bush never lied, and certainly did not start the Iraq war: "The United States, through its elected representatives, deliberated and approved the war." Congress sure twisted Bush's arm on that one!

On the next page, in the rant column, we read: "I get so tired of Bush bashing all the time. He is our president. We should respect him even if we don't agree with him. Nothing is perfect, so quit whining." Touchy, especially after the Republicans took such pains to respect the previous president! Then there is: "I hope the leaders of the flood victims stop pulling the race card. Everything is being done, but it takes time to move supplies and reach disaster areas." Not to mention that it's hard work! Still, the Bush bashers outnumbered the shrinking apologists in the rant column, and Richard Crowson's cartoon nailed the point.

The rest of the opinion page featured columns by Cal Thomas and J.R. Labbe. The latter wrote: "What is a sham is to deny what military service has meant to generations of Americans who have found opportunities for education and career training that they would not have gotten anywhere else." Except any country with a competent universal education system, that is. "And it's nothing short of liberal fantasy to drone on about minorities being overrepresented on the front lines of the military." To disprove this, Labbe cites new enlistment statistics which show blacks no more likely to enlist than anyone else, without pointing out what a dramatic Iraq-era drop that has been. "Do the math. Anglos account for 3 of 5 new soldiers." So who's playing the race card now? Whatever else Katrina has done, and it's done a lot, it's been rough on self-conceptions and delusions. That doesn't bode well for Bush, since that's about all he had to run on.


I added Chris Floyd's Empire Burlesque and Billmon's Whiskey Bar to the blog links in the left navigation block. One thing I like about these blogs is that they don't pull their punches viz. Bush. I still believe that respect is the single most important quality of social and political life, but it has to be a two-way street, and Bush and his gang have lost their rights to respect -- mostly because they've shown respect to nobody else. For a good example, read Billmon's "Potemkin President" postings. I'm not all that pleased with Billmon's doctored photos, like the one with Bush strolling through a slave market. But then it's no more fake and much less misleading than the one with Bush and the firefighters.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Music: Current count 10983 [10963] rated (+20), 936 [930] unrated (+6). With Recycled Goods finished and posted for September, I meant to get a jump on next month this week. Did a bit of that, with most albums falling into the Briefly Noted category. The progress slowed down when I worked through a couple of 4-CD JSP boxes (pretty good ones). Will probably continue oldies next week, but the jazz is starting to get out of hand. In any case, jazz is threatening to overwhelm Recycled Goods again.

  • Breaking Out of New Orleans ([2005], JSP, 4CD). A-
  • Tyrone Davis: Give It Up (Turn It Loose): The Very Best of the Columbia Years (1976-81, Columbia/Legacy): the Chicago soulman's slow stuff convinces because he never goes soft or gets sloppy; uptempo is another story, his limits most obvious on the second-rate and superfluous "How Sweet It Is." B+
  • I Have Always Been Here Before: The Roky Erickson Anthology (1965-95 [2005], Shout! Factory, 2CD): a well-deserved career-spanning comp by the leader of the most overrated legendarily unheard band of the '60s, the 13th Floor Elevators, with a dozen vintage band cuts and much more later; the surprising thing is how consistent he sounds, the voice distinctive, the riffs repetitive, the evil metaphorical. B+
  • Flatt & Scruggs: Foggy Mountain Jamboree (1951-57 [2005], Columbia/Legacy): this is the classic sound of bluegrass -- after all, they invented it; this old comp, sonically spruced up with three bonus cuts, alternates vocals with instrumentals, letting them stretch out and pick between their prayers and revels; more consistent than their best-ofs, probably because it sticks to their prime. A-
  • Flatt & Scruggs: Foggy Mountain Gospel (1951-66 [2005], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): always a bluegrass staple, both as something to write about -- ten originals, mostly early when they wrote more and better -- and as easy, agreeable filler; Flatt's twang and Scruggs banjo always seem to shine when they dwell in the house of the lord, where those little mandolin flourishes can be taken as applause from angels. A-
  • Big Guns: The Very Best of Rory Gallagher (1970-90 [2005], Capo, 2CD): the Irish blues-rock legend was a steadier rocker than any of his obvious, but more purist, brethren: Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan in the U.S., or Eric Clapton in the U.K.; his blues mash makes for a very four-square, old-fashioned rock, all the better to cut loose with some stratospheric guitar. B+
  • Al Green: Back Up Train (1967-68 [2005], Arista/Legacy): these early cuts appeared in 1972 to cash in on Green's sudden stardom, with two cuts cracking the r&b charts; the voice is unmistakable, the raw skills and dynamics in place; what's lacking is the coherent platform Willie Mitchell provided, so this lurches about in search of redemption; time 30:32. B
  • Teena Marie: Robbery (1983 [2005], Epic/Legacy): she's customarily filed under r&b, a conflation that never made any aesthetic sense to me -- maybe it was that she started off with four albums on Motown? Chuck Eddy, not making much sense either, touted one of her albums as among the all-time greats of heavy metal; more precisely, she was a singer-songwriter working a new wave groove, too tightly wound for disco; except when she tried for a ballad, such as "Dear Lover" here, which is awful in almost every dimension. C+
  • Terry Reid: The River (1973 [2002], Water): an obscure British rock legend, better known for turning down a job singing for Led Zeppelin than for his own recordings; after two early blues-rock albums for Mickie Most, this one is looser and rootsier, sharp early on but ambling toward the end; with David Lindley on the better half, and an extensive, admiring booklet. B+
  • Terry Reid: The Driver (1991, WEA): An up-and-comer in the late '60s, a couple of erratic records in the '70s, one more in '85, then this one in '91. Singer-songwriter mode, but with a soul cover and strong vocals, not the usual folkie roots. Skills, but doesn't seem to have much to say. B-
  • Earl Scruggs With Special Guests: I Saw the Light With Some Help From My Friends (1971 [2005], Columbia/Legacy): Linda Ronstadt, Tracy Nelson, Arlo Guthrie, Norman Blake, Vassar Clements, Jeff Hanna, Gary Scruggs, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; Flatt-busted, the banjo great needed vocal help, but got too much clutter and confusion in the bargain, and barely got a chance to play his banjo. B
  • Rick Springfield: Written in Rock: Anthology (1970-2004 [2005], RCA/Legacy, 2CD). I lost consciousness about eight songs in, by which point this settled into an overwrought arena-rock rut and stayed there through the second disc: slash guitar, multitracked vocals, keybs, pounding drums; best thing here is the song-by-song brain dump booklet. Starts and stops with Beatles songs, otherwise an aesthetic not much in evidence. Second song, "Speak to the Sky," is pretty good. C+
  • Third World: Black Gold Green (2005, Shanachie). Thirty years ago they were the lamest of the reggae groups appearing on Island records. The power of their music has picked up since then, but it remains at least as much U.S. soul as Jamaican reggae. Problem here is the lyrics -- platitudes and homilies and clichés, nice intentions you may sort of agree with but would never describe this way. C+
  • Deniece Williams: Niecey (1976 [2005], Columbia/Legacy): the first of a dozen-plus albums for this articulate, polished, urbane soul chanteuse, produced by Maurice White with most of Earth, Wind and Fire on board; this spawned a hit, "Free" (reprised as a bonus), which barely stands out amid the craftsmanship. B+
  • X: Live in Los Angeles (2004 [2005], Shout! Factory). Not a band I ever got into, but as they cooled off, moving from their first two wildly hyped albums to follow-ups like Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the New World I came to think they held up pretty well. Good drummer. Good bass lines. Exene Cervenka always sounded like Grace Slick, but smarter and shrewder. Live dulls their sound, as it does for most rock groups, but they always struck me as overly compressed, so it doesn't hurt that live loosens them up a bit. Also that their breakthrough songs are two decades old, repertoire rather than revelation. B+

Friday, September 02, 2005

Note: started this entry then, but didn't wrap it up for several days, so I posted it a bit differently.

Four to five days into the disaster that hurricane Katrina brought to Louisiana, Mississippi, and thereabouts, and what do we know? The Gulf Coast of Mississippi has been decimated, and the city of New Orleans is under water and uninhabitable for a minimum of 4-6 months. The number of dead is unknown but certainly rising day by day. The number of people made homeless (our refugees) is huge -- a million, more or less. Louisiana's shipping and oil and tourist businesses are basically out of business. (Up here in Kansas gas prices have shot up to $3.30 a gallon and will surely go further, while the corn crop is going nowhere.) Government at all levels has responded poorly -- how poorly is hard to judge, but given that failures often cost lives it is likely that judgments will be harsh. Nothing comparable has ever happened to Americans -- excepting war, of course, but wars compound by our own actions. If you consider 9/11 as a natural disaster, it was remarkably tidy compared to this one. That we've turned it into something far more destructive was a bad choice made on bad values.

My habitual approach to events is to look at the historical context and try to draw some general principles out of it. I'm not all that interested in individuals, nor am I particularly compassionate. That's the opposite of the way the news has handled this -- I've seen and heard many tragic and/or poignant stories, but they're all part of some larger picture that isn't clear yet. What little I know about New Orleans, aside from its wonderful legacy in music, comes from John McPhee's book, The Control of Nature. I read that book so long ago it's far from fresh in my mind, but the lingering image is that New Orleans has long been a precarious proposition -- a city below sea level surrounded by water waiting to rush in. I'm sure that there is an interesting story in how it came to be what it is, and I'm also sure that the intention to build a death trap doesn't figure into it. What built the death trap was the normal desire to preserve property despite increasing adversity. That's a general principle, both in McPhee's book and for many other places. As long as one gets away with it, it's hard to question.

The best book that's been written about a hypothetical disaster in the U.S. is Marc Reisner's A Dangerous Place, with its sketch of the probable effects of an earthquake along the Hayward Fault, east of San Francisco Bay. To the best of my knowledge, no one wrote a comparable speculation of disaster in New Orleans, but the prospect isn't exactly unknown. I found one article, by Joel K. Bourne called "Gone With the Water" that provides what turns out to be a pretty accurate description of what just happened, except that it was published by National Geographic in Oct. 2004: "As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however -- the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm . . . Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States."

That scenario wasn't a unique piece of forecasting on Bourne's part. It's been common knowledge for quite a while, even if few people took it seriously. Much of the scenario was repeated in the evacuation warnings the government gave out before the storm. Mark Benjamin describes the "Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Evacuation and Sheltering Plan" in Salon. The plan describes a disaster similar to what actually happened, and the plan was more/less implemented. However, it sounds like the plan left out a lot of things. "It says nothing about people having to be air-lifted from their rooftops. It says nothing about how looting, violence or sheer desperation-driven anarchy might overtake the city. It says nothing about untold gallons of chemicals, gasoline, excrement and dead bodies floating through the city. It does say, though, that people should get in their cars and drive away before the storm, or hide in the Superdome, until the water recedes." One reason you want to have a plan for things like this is to know what to do when such a disaster strikes, and the plan sort-of helped in that regard. But another reason to plan is to test whether you have the resources to implement the plan. New Orleans didn't have anything remotely close to what was needed. A thorough, rigorous, realistic plan would have other values, especially if it would make people think twice about draining a swamp.

I've complained all along not just that the Global War on Terror is not just a bad response to the terrorism problem: it's also an unrealistic, impractical assessment of risks. Aside from the 9/11 attacks, the most destructive terrorist attacks worldwide kill a few hundred people and cause damage over a couple of blocks. Also, the countries attacked are usually engaged in some kind of affair that if they ceased they'd be much less likely targets. 9/11 was the worst case, and still it is tiny and tidy compared to Katrina. Compare also the likelihood of storms like Katrina. Just one year ago another hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico threatened New Orleans, before veering toward the Florida panhandle. Most informed warnings about impending disaster are phrased as "when" not "if": the odds of such a disaster accumulate over time until they reach inevitable. This is true of many other "potential" disasters, most obviously California earthquakes.

Following last December's Indian Ocean tsunami I concluded that disaster relief is going to be one of the dominant political issues over the next few decades. What we call "natural disasters" are an interaction between chaotic natural processes and human development. If Katrina turns out to cost more than the tsunami, it's because we put more development in its path. This isn't a problem that can be solved -- it's a chronic problem, something that we'll have to live with. The prospects are mixed. The good news is that we're getting a better idea how these processes work. The breakthrough regarding earthquakes was the development of plate tectonic theory -- before the '60s we knew little about what causes earthquakes and what we thought we knew was wrong. The science relating to Katrina is more complex -- not least because it has to factor in several centuries of human acts (most committed with no real grasp on what the long term effects might be), including the building of levees and canals, the extraction of vast amounts of oil and gas, and the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Whether we know enough now to know what ought to be done is unclear, but we certainly know much more than we ever did before.

On the other hand, our capacity to use science to manage or to mitigate natural disasters seems to be diminishing. This is only partly because the political right has decided they don't much like science any more. The bigger problem is that the right doesn't want government to be of any use to anyone but the special interests of the rich, and in the U.S. they've been pretty successful at limiting what government can do. In particular, their "starve the beast" tax cuts keep support for the poor at levels that test the limits of subsistence, policies pursued with special rigor by the oligarchs controlling the state governments of Mississippi and Louisiana -- the two states with the highest poverty rates in America, and arguably the two states that do the least to help people get out of poverty, or to keep more people from falling in.

But poverty isn't just a Mississippi-Louisiana specialty -- it's national policy. Under Bush's presidency more people sink below the poverty line each year. This happens because the social contract -- the idea that we're all in this together -- has given way to this overwhelming cult of self-interest. Back in the '80s Robert Reich wrote about how the rich were "seceding" from America -- moving into their own ever-more rarefied circles, leaving the poor and the ordinary to fare for themselves. Bush didn't start that trend, but living and "working" in his fantasy world he exemplifies it, and he's done more than anyone to help the rich loot America. One of his first acts following the storm was to shelve air pollution standards for gasoline. When he finally made a heavily scripted, filtered and faked appearance, the only promise he made with any conviction behind it was to rebuild Trent Lott's mansion.

On the other hand, the news media fawning over "the President" has never seemed more irrelevant. With Iraq, at least, Bush was a critical actor, a person who by force of his position, his idiot beliefs, his extraordinary ego, and his ruthless opportunism led the U.S. into a monumentally stupid blunder. So with Iraq, Bush is singularly guilty. Bush has no comparable claim to have caused this catastrophe. But he's also no help, and worse, he's a major obstacle and embarrassment.

Bourne finished his article describing New Orleans as "the city that care forgot, but that nature will not." Since the storm we've seen a vast outpouring of private aid to try to compensate for the obvious lack of public aid. This shows that America still cares, at least at the moment of tragedy, even if the ruling clique does not. The question remains whether America cares enough to throw that clique out and to restore some sense of public interest, a sense that we're all in this together. One thing we can count on is that nature won't be impressed by rhetoric or prayer, least of all by the cult of the rich. Right now, Trent Lott's house looks a lot like everyone else's.


It's a week or more after the storm, 3-4 days after I started this entry. The following are more paragraphs I unhooked from the above, because they started to dig a hole I couldn't get out of.

It's not as if the federal government hasn't put plenty of money into Louisiana and Mississippi. The economic infrastructure of the region is largely taxpayer-financed, but it's mostly gone to the special interests who can lobby for short-term gains. Deep down we still adhere to the naive idea that we are best served by private interests pursuing private gains. This works impressively as an engine for development, but often at the expense of public interests -- the environment, the future, those unable to press their own competing interests. In a nation dominated by private interests, the only practical check on private power would be a government that represents the common interests of all people -- an organization which is able to implement deliberate policy not subject to the cost-profit calculations that direct the private sector. The need for such a government is most obvious in times of emergency, like now.

Back in January, after the tsunami hit, I wrote: "What this means is that as disasters mount up government has not merely become the insurer-of-last-resort, it's increasingly becoming the only insurer of note. This should give us pause, especially as the political geniuses of the Republican party have set out on a program to systematically bankrupt government. In doing so they run the risk of leaving us in the rubble." Of course, given the physical immediacy of the rubble, the suffering of Americans in its midst, even Bush will pony up some money -- most likely borrowed from the next disaster they won't be able to anticipate. The irony is that as much as Americans detest government -- and they have plenty of good reasons to do so -- when trouble strikes they expect the government to bail them out. (Of course, nobody should understand that better than an oft-bankrupt oil man like Bush.)

Thursday, September 01, 2005

I wrote the following, sort of first reactions to the New Orleans disaster, in a letter to Robert Christgau. His line that provided the starting point for my comments was: "What an unnecessary fucking mess. How ugly and dangerous the blaming will be." Thought I'd file them here:

I wouldn't say it was unnecessary, given that it was inevitable. Almost happened a year ago, you should recall, but the storm was smaller, later in the season, and turned north to hit the Florida panhandle instead. Could happen next year. There will probably be 3-5 more hurricanes this year, so it could even happen again this year. New Orleans wasn't designed to be a death trap, but that's mostly because it wasn't designed at all. It looked dry enough when the French set up camp there, but as the town grew it expanded into more dubious terrain, plus it finally dawned on people that the town was sinking. The levees and pumps and so forth were added to protect what they had blundered into, and the whole system is a stack of cards that at any moment could have been knocked down from many angles. John McPhee covers some of this in "The Control of Nature", which is most of what I know, but not most of what there is to know. I wonder what's going to happen to all that rain in Tennessee and Kentucky when it drains down the Mississippi, but maybe that's manageable compared to the usual annual floods. One thing that will become obvious over the next few months is that flood in New Orleans is fundamentally different from flood almost everywhere else. Right now Mississippi is getting as much or more coverage, but they can start fixing things in Mississippi now. New Orleans will be under water for months, and there's no telling what will or won't be salvageable when they finally pump it dry. It will be tempting not to rebuild it at all. One thing that's already started is that everyone with an axe to grind is viewing this through their own prism. Same thing happened after 9/11: I knew people who saw that as a wake-up call to dismantle Israel's settlements or stop using foreign oil; Eric Raymond thought the answer would be to let all airplane passengers carry guns on board; dumber still, Bush invaded Iraq. No telling what all is going to come out of this. Racism, for sure. The all-idiots team on Fox news are already bitching about how federal disaster insurance lets people think they're safe building in dangerous places, and complaining about how people around the Great Lakes wind up paying for such stupidity. Global warming has something to do with this. Unchecked, badly planned development is another aspect. Long-term underinvestment in infrastructure is another, and of course bankrupting the federal government doesn't help in this regard -- and this shouldn't just include levees and roads and such, the social and educational and economic deficits are coming due, too. One thing this shows is that keeping 20% of America below the poverty line packs its own hidden costs. People have already pointed out that the helicopters and National Guard are all in Iraq -- don't you think that the liberal argument about how we have to help poor Iraq (cynical as it is) is going to wear thin pretty quick? The gasoline price stories seem to have the jump on all else, probably because they were already a story, so were easy to do. It's telling that Bush's first act was to suspend air quality standards for gasoline blends. Stock market went up yesterday, mostly people buying oil company stocks.

Several times this year I've written that one of the big issues of the coming decades will be how governments respond to disasters. The Indian Ocean tsunami was a distant example, but this (actually lesser) disaster will make a more immediate impression on people here. It should scare the hell out of us -- even if New Orleans is unique, much of the story translates elsewhere. Marc Reisner has a sketch of a very possible CA earthquake in "A Dangerous Place", which makes for harrowing reading. To the best of my knowledge, no one sketched out what could happen in New Orleans, but that's no longer a question for the imagination.

I suppose the good news is that it's going to be a lot easier to explain to a Mississippian what a storm surge is.

Christgau responded: "Not positive you're right about the rebuilding -- should Holland be scrapped too? Definitely agree that global warming is the reason the hurricane season has intensified, and I'm not a global warming alarmist." So I wrote more:

I don't mean to predict that New Orleans won't be rebuilt or argue that it shouldn't. But I do predict that people in right-wing think tanks, like Cato, and other right-wing pundits will argue that it shouldn't, at least not with taxpayer money and insurance. It's hard to dismiss them as the loony right anymore, given that the biggest difference between them and the Bush Admin is that the latter lies much more to cover its tracks. This is going to be a problem for Bush because his instincts are to insist that all problems are fixable but he's not actually any good at fixing anything -- pretty much everything he's touched so far has broken. And the underlying weakness of the economy, the balance of payments, growing debt public and private, the weakening of government in all respects, the terror wars, etc., are going to make it hard to rebuild, hard to make good decisions rebuilding, etc. And I need hardly add that the state gov'ts are LA and MS, the two most piss-poor, useless, and probably corrupt in the country (although on most days I'm inclined to give that honor to OK). So I expect that there will be a lot of problems along the way.

Holland's got problems too -- there was stuff on that in New Yorker's global warming series (pretty good set of pieces). They're losing ground (literally) and may run into their own disaster, despite all their efforts to the contrary. And they're no doubt more competent at it than we are.

I'm not alarmist about global warming, but I do think it's pretty much a done deal. It's not a question of what can/should we do to keep it from happening; it's a question of how do we respond to its effects, which are compounded by how many people we have, how we use land, how wealth is owned and distributed, etc. Hunter- gatherers 20-15k years ago faced worse environmental disruption, but mostly they could pick up and move on. Hard to do that now, although obviously a lot of people have to do that this week. Note that a week ago these events were inconceivable by almost all of the people directly affected.


Aug 2005 Oct 2005