July 2007 Notebook
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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I've been going through Rolling Stone's "The 40 Essential Albums of 1967" (written by Robert Christgau and David Fricke), so I thought I'd take a look at my records and see what they missed. Some candidates:

  • Captain Beefheart, Safe as Milk (Buddah)
  • Leonard Cohen, Songs of Leonard Cohen (Columbia)
  • Miles Davis, Nefertiti (Columbia)
  • Duke Ellington, His Mother Called Him Bill (RCA)
  • Johnny Hodges, Triple Play (RCA)
  • Skip James, Devil Got My Woman (Vanguard)
  • Magic Sam, West Side Soul (Delmark)
  • Otis Redding, Love Man (Atco)
  • Otis Redding, The Dock of the Bay (Atco)
  • The Rolling Stones, Their Satanic Majesties Request (London)

Monday, July 30, 2007

Music: Current count 13447 [13406] rated (+41), 784 [800] unrated (-16). I can't recall a previous rated count over 40, and this one especially surprises me given what seemed to be a slow start. (OK, this should be easy enough to check out, with: fgrep 'rated (' *.nbk; which reveals: +60 (0503), +59 (0405), +54 (0602), +52 (0511), +49 (0503), +44 (0408), +42 (0403), +42 (0607), +41 (0512), +40 (0501). So it's not unprecedented, but the +60 and +59, for instance, included bunches of '70s LPs that I found in old records lists and remembered an approximate grade. The +49 week was spent playing unrated records and just grading them -- not trying to write much of anything. Some weeks are helped with catching up on sloppy bookkeeping, but I only recall one case this week where I found a missing grade. What helped this week was that I grabbed a pile of CDs from the library and ripped through them in one day, then I didn't get out of the house on the weekend. Still, I did quite a bit of jazz prospecting, and came close to finishing August's Recycled Goods column. The latter is at most a day away, and I'm in a good position to crunch down on Jazz CG.

Another thing the quick search shows is that the average rated count this year is 23.68. That amounts to a little more than 1000 per year. Also note that the unrated count dropped below 800 for the first time in ages. Last week was a very slow mail week, aside from everything else.

  • King Sunny Ade: Gems From the Classic Years (1967-1974) (1967-74 [2007], Shanachie): In 1982, Chris Blackwell's Island Records, having turned Bob Marley into a worldwide star, gambled they could do the same with Nigerian juju master King Sunny Ade. They released three albums, spent a lot of money schlepping Ade's entourage around, and gave up. Even at the time, Ade didn't seem like such a long bet: his Nigerian albums were legendary among the few who had heard them, and his sweet guitars, polypercussion, and hypnotic chants were as effervescent as any music anywhere. Two decades later Shanachie raided the earliest Nigerian albums for a stellar compilation, The Best of the Classic Years (1967-74 [2003], Shanachie). Here they belatedly return for more, signalling in title, packaging, and lack of documentation that these leftovers aren't quite up to snuff. They should be more confident. In fact, what they should do is track down an expert and reissue the whole series of pre-Island albums with histories and maybe even some bonus tracks. I've always heard that The Message, Ajoo, Bobby, and one from 1980 with a red cover are especially wonderful. A-
  • Miles Davis: Love Songs 2 (1956-84 [2003], Columbia/Legacy): Starts off with two terrific Cole Porter songs, including an 11:46 "Love for Sale" that's pretty much all you need to know about Miles c. 1958. The small group stuff doesn't prepare you for the slide into Gil Davis producerland, which at first appears unnecessarily ornate. I'm not a big fan of those records, but even I would rather have them whole, where they stand on their own. Then they jump to the '80s, landing in a funky spot that turns unpleasantly mushy. B
  • Bill Frisell: The Intercontinentals (2003, Nonesuch): Nice groove record, with oud (Christos Govetas), steel guitar (Greg Leisz), percussion (Sidiki Cmara, Vinicius Cantuaria, the latter also playing some guitar), and violin (Jenny Scheinman). Vocals don't help, but don't hurt much either. B+(***)
  • The Dizzy Gillespie Story (1945-50 [2003], Savoy Jazz): Eight 1950 tracks with Gillespie towering over Johnny Richards and His Orchestra, a strings-dominated classical confab that's as awful as the string ensembles Charlie Parker worked with. As with Parker's strings, it may have been gratifying to the artist at the time, but there's no need returning to the event. The album's padded out with four 1946 cuts with Ray Brown's All Stars, including Hank Jones, Milt Jackson, James Moody, and an alto saxophonist named John Brown who sounds an awful lot like Charlie Parker. Two bonus tracks pick up Gillespie in Boyd Raeburn's 1945 orchestra. B
  • Earl Hines: Swingin' Away (1973 [1995], Black Lion): Two sextet sessions with Doc Cheatham and Rudy Rutherford, fleet-footed, hard swinging, terrific piano player; what'd you expect? B+
  • Billie Holiday: Love Songs 2 (1936-41 [2003], Columbia/Legacy): Missed the first one, but no matter -- I have Columbia's nine Quintessential discs, but not the big box. With bits like "These Foolish Things," "A Fine Romance," "He's Funny That Way," "Body and Soul," and "I Cover the Waterfront," they're a long way from scraping bottom. Redundant to any other compilation. A-
  • LCD Soundsystem: Sound of Silver (2006 [2007], DFA/Capitol): Not much impressed by the vocalist, but each pulsing riff turns me on. From library, so I'm working fast. B+(***)
  • Daniel Lee Martin: On My Way to You (2007, Chin Music): Country singer -- maybe alt, certainly neotrad. I used to be getting some of these, but they've pretty much died off since F5 folded, and frankly I haven't had time. But I used to find a few gems in mail like this. This may be a cut below, but it's a real solid album. Sounds impeccable. Great voice. Pretty good songs. B+(**)
  • Fats Navarro: Nostalgia (1946-47 [1991], Savoy Jazz): Three sessions, four cuts each, about par for the 78 era. Although Navarro plays on all three, only the first four cuts were really his, where he leads a quintet with Charlie Rouse, plays the title cut, and filler like "Fats Blows." Next up is another quintet, playing four songs credited to the tenor saxman: three titles are "Dextivity," "Dextrose," and "Dexter's Mood." Gordon is terrific throughout. The other session, last on the record but first chronologically, is a sextet led by Eddie Davis, with someone named Huey Long on guitar. Research indicates that Long was one of the original Ink Spots, lives in Houston, and was still around to celebrate his 102nd birthday last September. A-
  • Putumayo World Party (1975-2007 [2007], Putumayo World Music): Groove-wise this holds up all right, with pieces from Haiti and Martinique in the lead, followed by one from Italy; the weak spot is a group called Laid Back from Denmark; the odd choice is a 1975 crossover by Osibisa (UK out of Ghana), which with a Zydeco cut violates the label's usual habit of only picking up recent, presumably cheap, obscurities. B
  • Pharoah Sanders: Moon Child (1989, Timeless): Cut with a no-name quintet in Paris, sandwiched between what may have been his two best albums (Africa and Welcome to Love), this pales only in comparison, and maybe in concept. The title piece includes a throwaway hippie chant, and the closer is an Abdullah Ibrahim thing he doesn't do much with but is wonderful anyway. B+(***)
  • The Spiritualaires of Hurtsboro, Alabama: Singing Songs of Praise (2004-05 (2007), CaseQuarter): One of the last active vocal groups from gospel's golden age, led by Robert Marion, who joined as a teenager in 1948, with new guy Jimmy Anthony joining in the early '80s; the rough-edged simplicity works as long as the guitar pushes them along, but free-form pieces like "The Lord's Prayer" are as awkward as ever. B+(*)


Jazz Prospecting (CG #14, Part 7)

Another week in the middle, with a little bit of this, that, and the other. Recycled Goods is still pending, but I should get past that in a day or two. I actually did manage to write a bit on Jazz CG this week, which tips it past the half-way point. This makes me think that it may be time to start to close down this cycle -- there's enough rated stuff to fill out a column, including pick hits if I don't get squeamish about Vandermark and Murray. Probably a dud down there too, somewhere. Hardly got any mail last week, so for once the replay shelves are fuller than the unplayed shelves. A quick check of this cycle's prospecting file adds up to 183 records, closing in fast on last cycle's 218. So maybe it's time.


Kelly Eisenhour: Seek and Find (2007, BluJazz): Jazz singer, originally from Tucson, graduated from Berklee, currently based in Salt Lake City, teaching at Brigham Young -- has an entry at "Famous Mormons in Music," along with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Osmonds, the Killers, Warren Zevon, and Arthur "Killer" Kane. Third album. Terrific voice, clear, sharp, arresting. Wrote the title cut and some vocalese lyrics, but mostly takes standards and gives them distinctive readings. Bob Mintzer gets a "featuring" on the cover, and repays it with tasty sax accompaniment. B+(*)

Alison Faith Levy & Mushroom: Yesterday, I Saw You Kissing Tiny Flowers (2002-05 [2007], 4Zero): Levy is a San Francisco singer-songwriter, with credits going back to a 1994 EP -- only one I've heard before is a bit part on Mushroom's Glazed Popems. AMG classifies her as Alternative Pop/Rock and Indie Rock. AMG classifies Mushroom as Experimental Rock, Prog-Rock/Art Rock, Kraut Rock, Instrumental Rock, Jazz-Rock, Avant-Prog, Psychedelic, and figures their influences to have been Herbie Hancock, King Crimson, Caravan, Can, and Gong. The group has a dozen or so records, but once more, I've only heard Glazed Popems (although I do have a new one with Eddie Gale in the queue), which is some sort of '60s London tribute. Among the others are titles that suggest they're a real critics band, like Mad Dogs and San Franciscans and Foxy Music. I haven't tried to work out the comings and goings, but aside from Levy, the only constant on the four sessions here is drummer Pat Thomas. Maybe it's the band vibe, but Levy reminds me enough of Grace Slick to make this sound like a postmodern, not to mention postrevolution, Jefferson Airplane -- certainly a more interesting tangent than Paul Kantner's Starship. [B+(**)]

Mushroom With Eddie Gale: Joint Happening (2007, Hyena): No recording date info -- lack of documentation is Joel Dorn's characteristic contribution to the dark ages -- but at least we have personnel information, which helps sort out who is in Mushroom. Pat Thomas (drums), Ned Doherty (bass), and Matt Cunitz (keyboards) are on all cuts, with Thomas production supervisor and Cunitz cited for production assistance. Four cuts add Tim Plowman (guitar) and David Brandt (vibes, percussion). The other three use Erik Pearson (guitar, flute, sax) and Dave Mihaly (marimba, percussion), to similar effect. Gale is guest and headliner. He produced two terrific avant-funk albums for Blue Note in the late '60s, then largely disappeared until Water Records reissued them in 2003, followed by a nice new groovefest, Afro-Fire, on subsidiary label Black Beauty. Both labels were handled by Runt Distribution, whose publicist at the time was Pat Thomas, q.v. Together, the obvious reference point becomes Miles Davis, although the groove's spacier, and the trumpet brighter and more loquacious. [B+(***)]

Bruford: Rock Goes to College (1979 [2007], Winterfold): An Oxford concert, broadcast by the BBC, two albums into prog-rock's premier drummer's solo career, still pretending his last name was a group, not quite ready to call the music made of Allan Holdsworth's guitar and Dave Stewart's keybs fusion, let alone the jazz that got there first. Added attraction: two Annette Peacock vocals, but little more than perfunctory. B

Paul Scea: Contemporary Residents (2005 [2007], BluJazz): Plays flute, soprano and tenor sax, wind synth, etc. Teaches at West Virginia University (Morgantown WV). Has co-led groups with guitarist Steve Grismore (present here) and drummer Damon Short (absent; Marc Gratama is the drummer here), but this is first album solely under his own name. Reports describe him as heavily influenced by the '60s avant-garde, with his flute coming out of a line from Eric Dolphy through James Newton. Hard to tell. There's some edginess in the soprano sax, but the three horns -- Eric Haltmeier plays alto sax and clarinet, Brent Sandy trumpet -- do a lot of bobbing and weaving, and in any case the electric guitar and bass -- Grismore and Anthony Cox -- run on fusion lines. Sounds promising at times, but each of three plays left me with no net impressions. B

Helen Sung: Sungbird (2006 [2007], Sunnyside): Pianist, originally from Houston, educated in Boston, based in New York. Trained in classics, didn't take up jazz until well into college, which brought he under Kenny Barron's wing. Works in postbop mainstream, definitely knows her stuff. First album, a trio on Fresh Sound New Talent, was an Honorable Mention here. This one is a quintet, with extra percussion and Marcus Strickland on tenor and soprano sax. It's built on a tour of Spain, with a couple of stabs at tango and other dance themes, including the attractive title cut. I haven't digested the piano yet, which starts solo and takes a while to cohere, but I adore the light melodic flair Strickland adds, and may for once even prefer his soprano over tenor. [B+(***)]

Joan Stiles: Hurly-Burly (2005 [2007], Oo-Bla-Dee): Pianist, sings credibly on two cuts, but that's not her calling card. Second album, after Love Call (1998-2002 [2004], Zoho), which I've heard but didn't think much of and barely recall. Don't have birth date or biographical info suggesting her age -- one side comment about liking Monk and Evans as a teenager suggests an upper bound of 60. Teaches at New School, and has an interest in Mary Lou Williams. So I didn't expect much here, at least until I read the band roster: Jeremy Pelt, Steve Wilson, Joel Frahm, Peter Washington, Lewis Nash. They appear as a sextet on 4 of 12 cuts, dropping down to subsets for the rest, with one piano solo, a duo with Wilson, and various 3-4 configurations. The songs favor Monk, Ellington, and Williams, with Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" and Jimmy Rowles' "The Peacocks" thrown in, a Ray Charles song (one of the vocals), and two or three originals -- the question is a juxtaposition of Monk and Ellington-Hodges called "The Brilliant Corners of Theloious' Jumpin' Jeep." The band is terrific, of course, but the pianist is impressively on top of everything. The Charles song has been sung better, but the other vocal, "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee," is a gas. Still need to play it again and pay some attention to the solo. [A-]

David Sills: Green (2006 [2007], Origin): Tenor saxophonist, based in Los Angeles, with a handful of albums since 1997, both under his own name and as the Acoustic Jazz Quartet. He has a big, smooth mainstream sound, the sort of thing I easily fall for. Also plays a little flute; nothing to complain about. Could be characterized as neo-cool, both in tone and in artful arrangement. Six-piece group, with Gary Foster's alto sax kept close, and both piano and guitar for chords. I don't find such complexity all that useful, but it's worth noting that this is the third appearance by guitarist Larry Koonse in my logs over the last two weeks, and again he adds something special. B+(*)

Ron Di Salvio: Essence of Green: A Tribute to a Kind of Blue (2005 [2007], Origin): Jazz pianist, from New York, lives and teaches in Kalamazoo, author of a book called The Marriage of Major and Minor, the Synthesis of Classical and Jazz Harmony. The booklet has some interesting theory about how this relates to the Miles Davis classic, but I'm just reacting to what I hear. Group is a septet, with Derrick Gardner's trumpet fronting three saxophones, and original band member Jimmy Cobb on drums. That affords a lot of harmonic options, a combination I find unappealing. Some pieces add a quartet of voices, arranged for vocalese. Some of this sails along marvelously, but too many things turn me off. B-

The Claudia Quintet: For (2006 [2007], Cuneiform): Booklet tells us nothing -- just four graphics, cutouts with large degradé pixels. Pattern shifting is also the music idea, but there at least it's grown far more sophisticated. When I first tuned in, on the group's second album (I Claudia), everything seemed to revolve around drummer John Hollenbeck's post-minimalist rhythms. Two albums later the music has broadened to the extent that there's no clear-cut center: Chris Speed's reeds, Matt Moran's vibes, Ted Reichman's accordion, even Drew Gress's bass, cloud up the picture, obscuring simple reactions or explanations. The hype sheet says "file under: jazz/post-jazz" as if anyone has a clue what "post-jazz" might be. The delta between this and what we conventionally think of as jazz is that this doesn't feel improvised, because it isn't built on individualism -- even when Moran talks, or Speed squawks. Rather, it has an organic vitality to it that envelops you, like something new age or ambient might aspire to but doesn't have the brains to make interesting enough. Yet I'm never really certain with this group: the last two albums took me ages to settle on, and this one raises the same conflicting responses. But it consistently scores points, and builds over time -- almost as if it makes marginality an aesthetic pursuit. Album title reflects each song having some sort of dedication, mostly to people I've never heard of -- the exception is Mary Cheney, who's offered an ode to pity. A-

Andy Milne: Dreams and False Alarms (2006 [2007], Songlines): Canadian pianist; studied with Oscar Peterson; moved to New York in 1991, working with M-Base; more lately formed a group called Dapp Theory. This is solo piano, mostly folk-rock tunes, with fellow Canadians Joni Mitchell and Neil Young the most frequent sources. Didn't readily ID familiar songs without listening closely, and wasn't able to manage that, although I found the deliberate pacing attractive as background. Life's not fair, but I'm pretty sure that if I stuck with it this is where I'd wind up. B+(*)

Andy Milne + Grégoire Maret: Scenarios (2007, Obliqsound): Maret plays harmonica. He's already won a Downbeat Rising Star poll, and seems likely to replace Toots Thielemans from his Misc. Inst. perch a year or two after he dies. He adds a complementary voice to Milne's piano, but perhaps a bit too complementary: interesting ideas, but not enough range to make for much of a contrast. Two cuts have a guest: Anne Drummond on alto flute; Gretchen Parlato singing "Moon River." B+(*)

Guy Klucevsek/Alan Bern: Notefalls (2006 [2007], Winter & Winter): I looked Klucevsek up in Wikipedia and saw that they have a link to "Avant-garde accordionists"; clicked that, and discovered that Klucevsek is the only one listed. That seems appropriate. I can think of some avant-jazz accordionists, but no one he's unique in having come out of the what I guess is called "modern composition" these days -- his early discography includes work with Lukas Foss, Virgil Thomson, Pauline Oliveros, people like that. Bern plays accordion as well, but his background is more common, coming out of the klezmer group Brave Old World. In the long run Klucevsek has ranged far and wide, including a fair amount of klezmer and polka, a lot of jazz, and an occasional appearance with someone like Laurie Anderson. This is his second duo album with Bern, who doubles up on accordion on several pieces, but more often plans piano, and in one case melodica. This is another record I'm cutting corners on. It feels composed through, and loses my interest in spots, but the upbeat cuts "Don't Let the Boogie-Man Get You" and "March of the Wild Turkey Hens" are choice. B+(*)

Albert van Veenendaal/Meinrad Kneer/Yonga Sun: Predictable Point of Impact (2006 [2007], Evil Rabbit): Dutch pianist, born 1956, leans avant, likes to work with prepared piano, in a trio with bassist Kneer and drummer Sun. Van Veenendaal's website lists 36 records, some credits pretty marginal; first is a 1981 LP, then a 1986 cassette, then a few side appearances from 1990; first with his name on marquee was a sax-piano duo in 2002. As far as I can tell, AMG only lists one of these records, with his name misspelled. Has one previous trio recod with this group, and two more prepared piano records on this label. I keep saying that I'll know a piano trio I like when I hear it, and this is it. Mostly hard rhythmic stuff, which bass and drums are clearly up for. One slow stretch shows off the prep very nicely, giving the roll a guitar-like sound. Elegant, low budget package, too. A-

Play Station 6: #1 (2006 [2007], Evil Rabbit): A sextet of more/less well known Dutch avant-gardists: Maartje Ten Hoorn on violin, Eric Boeren on clarinet, Tobias Delius on clarinet/tenor sax, Achim Kaufmann on piano, Meinrad Kneer on bass, Paul Lovens on drums. Strikes me as par for the course, with each player taking interesting but even-tempered shots without coming together into a more cohesive whole. Nothing wrong with that. B+(**)

Joachim Kühn/Majid Bekkas/Ramon Lopez: Kalimba (2006 [2007], ACT): Drummer Lopez has his name on the spine, but on the cover he's listed "with" below the title, while Kühn and Bekkas are in larger print above. He's a useful guy, but the action here is between the top-liners. Bekkas is a gnawa guy from Morocco. He plays guembri ("a bass-like lute"), oud, and kalimba, and sings, more like a stiff chant. I'm not sold on the latter, but I'm not turned off either. He makes for an interesting counterpoint to Kühn, who is dazzling as usual on piano, and surprisingly assured on alto sax. [B+(***)]

Nguyên Lê: Purple: Celebrating Jimi Hendrix (2002, ACT): Vietnamese guitarist, based in France, with ten or so albums going back to 1989. This is somewhat old, inexplicably showing up in the mail. A trio with guitar, electric bass, and drums, plus guests, including vocals and North African percusion. The vocals have a soft fuzziness, framing the words without really grabbing them, let alone cutting them off as Hendrix did. The guitar also lacks definition, although in the end the purple smudge does have some appeal. B

Nguyên Lê Duos: Homescape (2004-05 [2006], ACT): Home studio recordings, made at leisure with Lê on various guitars with various electronics and either Paolo Fresu or Dhafer Youssef. Fresu plays trumpet/flugelhorn; Youssef plays oud and sings. Not actually specified who played which tracks, but it wouldn't be hard to figure out if I had taken more careful notes. I could also point out choice cuts -- there are some, but not enough to draw another play right now. B+(*)

Kenny Burrell: 75th Birthday Bash Live! (2006 [2007], Blue Note): Advance had a different title, mentioning Yoshi's in Oakland, where some of this occured. However, other tracks were cut at Kuumbawa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz -- maybe the lawyers figured that out. Six tracks, mostly from Santa Cruz, feature the Gerald Wilsons Orchestra, sounding hoarse and wheezy. Joey DeFrancesco (3 cuts) hardly picks up the slack, especially when Hubert Laws (5 cuts) joins on flute. Burrell sings two, no help either. Early in his career Burrell established himself on solid albums with Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane; here the best he can do is Herman Riley, and it takes "A Night in Tunisia" to get Riley going. At least they didn't include any patter, but I'm too annoyed at the black-on-blue booklet print to cut them any slack over that. C+

James Carney Group: Green-Wood (2006 [2007], Songlines): Pianist, originally from Syracuse NY; studied in Los Angeles, where he was based until moving to NYC in 2004. Fourth album, widely spaced since 1994, and little side work, suggesting he sees himself primarily as a composer. Wrote or co-wrote everything here, including two pieces commissioned for the Syracuse International Film Festival. I'd never run across him before, but I recognize and have been impressed by everyone in his septet. The four horns -- Peter Epstein and Tony Malaby on reeds, Ralph Alessi and Josh Roseman on brass -- are especially formidable, but they also strike me as too much. But there are strong stretches here, and sterling individual play, not least from the pianist. B+(*) [Aug. 7]

Alan Ferber Nonet: The Compass (2006 [2007], Fresh Sound New Talent): Trombonist, twin brother of drummer Mark Ferber; not to be confused with saxophonist Alon Farber or trombonist Joe Fielder let alone drummer Alvin Fielder, though sometimes it takes some effort. Third album, second nonet, a configuration I almost always abhor. Played it to clear it off my shelf, then had to play it again to verify what I was hearing. It does have a fair amount of that complex postbop harmony I care so little for, but the delicate parts of something like "North Rampart" are luscious, even when the horns weigh in. And the charging trombone sells the hard stuff. B+(**)

Rodrigo Amado/Carlos Zíngaro/Tomas Ulrich/Ken Filiano: Surface: For Alto, Baritone and Strings (2006 [2007], European Echoes): Amado is a Portuguese saxophonist. Plays alto and baritone here, and wrote pieces where he accompanies a string trio -- Zíngaro plays violin and viola, whichever. Has a couple of previous albums, on his own and leading the Lisbon Improvisation Players. The string stuff here is what I like to call difficult music: arch, grating, hard to follow, sometimes hard to stand. I'm always surprised when I do and can, even more so when I start to enjoy it. [B+(**)]

Hugh Masekela: Live at the Market Theatre (2006 [2007], Times Square/4Q, 2CD): A 30th anniversary bash -- for the Johannesburg venue, that is; the South African trumpeter-vocalist goes back further, having started his globetrotting at least a decade earlier. This is a triumph, an informal career summary that tracks the struggle against apartheid and baser oppressions. Its two discs allow him to stretch out and work the crowd, even to preach a little, knowing there's more than celebrating left to do, but pleased to be there that night. A-

New Wonderland: The Best of Jeri Brown (1991-2006 [2007], Justin Time): Canadian jazz singer, with nine solid albums providing plenty of choice material, but it's the players who shine -- especially Kirk Lightsey on "Orange Colored Sky" and David Murray on "Joy." On the other hand, they gamble with four previously unreleased cuts, which are anything but choice. B

Daniel Carter & Matt Lavelle: Live at Tower Records (2006, Tubman Atnimara): A CDR, part of a series of items Lavelle sent me for background. Just a duo, eight pieces, both musicians moving from instrument to instrument: Carter plays tenor sax, alto sax, clarinet, piano, flute; Lavelle plays piano, pocket trumpet, bass clarinet, flugelhorn, trumpet. By far the most interesting is Lavelle's bass clarinet, but overall not a lot of chemistry or action. B-

Matt Lavelle and Daniel Carter (2006. downtownmusic.net): Another duo, just a CDR in a plastic scallop case, recorded at Downtown Music Gallery. Four pieces, much further developed than the Tower Records set. Still, typical of avant duos, limited pallette of sounds, a lot of feeling each other out, but strong performances if you pay attention. B

Matt Lavelle: Cuica in the Third House (2007, KMB): Solo project, with spoken bits I didn't really follow, and blasts of trumpet or flugelhorn and bass clarinet, as interesting as ever. Limited edition CDR, hand packaged. B

Spark Trio: Short Stories in Sound (2006, Utech): Another limited edition CDR, a trio with saxophonist Ras Moshe, drummer Todd Capp, and Matt Lavelle on trumpet and bass clarinet. Energetic thrash, especially from the drummer, who strikes me as overly busy. The horns are in your face throughout. I find them bracing and sometimese exciting, but this is not the sort of thing I can easily recommend to non-believers. B

Matt Lavelle: Trumpet Rising Bass-Clarinet Moon (2004, 577 Records): Recorded live, with a quintet. If guitarist Anders Neilson isn't a typo, he's as obcure as the rest -- Atiba N. Kwabena on djembe, flute, percusion; Francois Grillot on bass; Federick Ughi on drums. They provide a more varied background than the duo/trio albums, but the focus is still on Lavelle's trumpet and bass clarinet -- both distinctive. Lavelle describes this as "a summation of my work from 1990-2000," and dedicated it to the late Sir Hildred Humphries, his formative link back to the pre-bop era. B+(**)

Eye Contact: War Rug (2006 [2007], KMB Jazz): Musician credits in booklet are: "Cuica-Wind," "The Cuica-Earth," "Lone Wolf-Tree." Elsewhere they've been identified as Matt Lavelle (trumpet, bass clarinet), Matthew Heyner (bass), Ryan Sawyer (drums). Looks like there have been two previous Eye Contact albums, on Utech. Seems understated compared to the other Lavelle records, which may be a help but allows for some dull spots. B+(*)


And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.

Circus (2006, ICP): Dutch avant-garde group, with four more/less well known names -- Han Bennink, Ab Baars, Misha Mengelberg, Tristan Honsinger -- and vocalist Alessandra Patrucco. The fractured music is often interesting, but not enough to carry the fractured vocalizing -- at times shrill, often just thin. B

Michel Camilo: Spirit of the Moment (2006 [2007], Telarc): Dominican pianist, although even with Puerto Rican Charles Flores on bass and Cuban Dafnis Prieto on drums, this hardly counts as Latin jazz. The covers draw on the Miles Davis songbook, including Coltrane and Shorter, and the originals fit in. A skillful group, and an appealing piano trio record. B+(**)

The Tierney Sutton Band: On the Other Side (2006 [2007], Telarc): Her pursuit of happiness bags eight songs with "happy" in the title, plus "You Are My Sunshine," "Smile," and "Great Day!" -- more fascinated with the search than the attainment, which she has reservations about anyway. Maybe that explains the odd song out, "Haunted Heart" -- the whole album feels haunted, from its tentative opening exhortation ("Get Happy") to its wistful end. I never thought she had a good album in her, much less a great concept. Last time all she aspired to was to be with the band; this time the band's with her. A-


Unpacking:

  • Arjun: Pieces (Pheromone)
  • Dave Brubeck: Indian Summer (Telarc)
  • John Coltrane: Fearless Leader (1956-58, Prestige, 6CD)
  • Bruce Eisenbeil Sextet: Inner Constallation: Volume One (Nemu)
  • El-P: I'll Sleep When You're Dead (Definitive Jux)
  • Bill Mays/The Inventions Trio: Fantasy (Palmetto): advance, Aug. 21
  • Arturo O'Farrill: Wonderful Discovery (MEII)
  • Lalo Schifrin & Friends (Aleph)
  • Maris Schneider Orchestra: Sky Blue (ArtistShare)

Purchases:

  • Celia Cruz con la Sonora Matancera: La Guarachera de Cuba (1950-53, Tumbao)
  • Julio Cueva y Su Orchestra: Desintegrando (1944-47, Tumbao)
  • Benny Moré y Su Banda Gigante: El Legendario Ídolo del Pueblo Cubano: Grabaciones Completas 1953-1960 (Tumbao, 4CD)
  • Perez Prado and His Orchestra: Kuba-Mambo (1947-49, Tumbao)
  • Arsenio Rodriguez y Su Conjunto: Dundunbanza (1946-51, Tumbao)
  • Sonora Matancera: Se Formó la Rumbantela (1948, Tumbao)
  • Sexteto Nacional: Cubaneo (1927-28, Tumbao)
  • Sexteto y Septeto Habanero: Las Raíces del Son: Grabaciones Completas 1925-1931 (Tumbao, 4CD)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Posted the Tom Segev 1967 book quotes.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Weekly Links

It occurred to me that I should open a file where I jot down links to significant pieces I read on the web. Then it occurred to me that I could track them in my "scratch" file and dump out a report once a week, like I do with my Jazz Prospecting. Figured Saturday might be a good day for such a report. Here's the first installment:


TomDispatch: Agency of Rogues: Chalmers Johnson reviews Tim Weiner's CIA history, Legacy of Ashes, for TomDispatch. I've posted a quote from this already. I saw a bit of a Charlie Rose interview with Weiner, but turned it off as both were getting too stupid to bear. Rose wanted to know which secret intelligence agencies were actually any good, so Weiner offered that the UK's isn't bad. Both seem to still cling to the belief that the CIA is a necessity in today's world. Johnson argues that the State Dept. can collect info about foreign countries, and the Defense Dept. can blow things up on the rare occasions when someone thinks that is called for. He didn't go into this, but it should be straightforward to set up international laws regarding terrorism and organizations to coordinate policing and justice -- the FBI and DOJ would be the obvious US agencies to work on that.

A couple of weeks ago I saw Lawrence Wright on TV. He told a story about after many attempts finally getting a confidential copy of the CIA's dossier on Osama Bin Laden, and discovering that everything in it was wrong.

Rootless Cosmpoloitan: Why an EU That Knows Better Apes the US on Hamas: Tony Karon, Mark Perry, and others. One of the most discouraging things in the world these days is how Europeans who certainly know better have failed to break with Bush on almost every aspect of US policy in the Middle East -- the opposition to the democratically elected Hamas government in Occupied Palestine just one major case in point. Karon polls several friends on the subject. He doesn't get a lot of insight, but at least exposes the problem. One odd thing here is that eventually the EU will break free, once they get an American leader who is less demanding and less nuts than Bush, much like Eastern Europe broke not from Brezhnev, Kruschev, or Stalin, but from the one Soviet leader who offered reform, Gorbachev. On the other hand, the time when someone needs to stand up to Bush is now.

Rootless Cosmopolitan: The Dissembling of Dennis Ross: Tony Karon on America's favorite Israeli apologist:

Having presided over the failure of the U.S. to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, [Ross] now puts himself forward as a sage among sages (lately by writing a book about 'statecraft' in which he introduces some of the .101s of diplomacy as if these were prophetic revelations, and always evading the policy failures he helped author).

TomDispatch: Democratic Doublespeak on Iraq: Ira Chernus on Clinton, Obama, and Edwards, on how they won't quite withdraw from Iraq:

With an election looming, the Democrats portray themselves as the polar opposite of the Republicans. They blame the Iraq fiasco entirely on Bush and the neocons, conveniently overlooking all the support Bush got from the Democratic elite before his military venture went sour. They talk as if the only issue that matters is whether or not we begin to withdraw some troops from Iraq sometime next year.

TomDispatch: How Withdrawal Came in from the Cold: Tom Engelhardt on the latest offical parsing of how we can't really afford to withdraw from Iraq. Like Israel's West Bank settlements, it turns out there's just too much stuff to move:

Associated Press reporter Charles Hanley caught the enormity of withdrawal this way: "In addition to 160,000 troops . . . , the U.S. presence in Iraq has ballooned over four years to include more than 180,000 civilians employed under U.S. government contracts -- at least 21,000 Americans, 43,000 other foreigners and 118,000 Iraqis -- and has spread to small 'cities' on fortified bases across Iraq." In fact, such lists turn out never to end -- as a series of anxious news reports have indicated -- right down to the enormous numbers of port-a-potties that must be disposed of.

Then there's the canard about the future bloodbath if we withdraw -- a replay of Vietnam, as if that actually happened. But, of course, it would be even worse in Iraq, with all that age-old sectarian strife.

WarInContext: Sectarian bias is a blight on a rare Afghan good news story: The story describes the restoration of a garden in Kabul. The comment:

Just suppose -- even though it might seem like a fanciful notion -- but just suppose that the response to the 9/11 attacks had been this: President Bush had noted that the attackers regarded the United States and the West as a threat to their culture. He thus declared that with the support of the American people he was going to demonstrate otherwise -- not necessarily with the hope of influencing ideologically-blinkered jihadists but in order to reach out to the population at large across the Muslim world. The United States was going to lead and encourage others to follow in an investment program aimed at restoring a multitude of sites of Islamic heritage to their former glory. The U.S. would do nothing more than provide funding -- project management, choice of sites etc. would all be handled by local organizations. Imagine what could have been done for less than it costs to fund the war in Iraq for just one month?

In that event would the United States not now surely be less likely to be attacked than it is? Far from appearing vulnerable, would it not have demonstrated towering strength? Rather than expressing its fear of the world, would it not have shown supreme confidence in its ability to act as a positive force? And even for those Americans who don't give a damn about the rest of the world, wouldn't it have simply been a cheap and practical way of defying a small but troublesome enemy?

All that stopped this happening was a failure of imagination and lack of courageous leadership. The little men with weak knees, small minds, big egos and fat wallets could never have dreamed of such a thing.

A good question for those tough-as-nails Democratic presidential candidates is: Why do they insist on acting on the same moral plane as Al-Qaeda? If that confuses them, the follow-up asks why can't they see the equivalence of us and them inevitably killing bystanders?

Free Democracy: Paul Krugman: The Sum of Some Fears: Krugman's column on falling stock prices is itself unremarkable, citing the usual fears of risk, the housing bubble, and oil prices -- in the latter case mentioning Peak Oil without weighing in on it. But the first three comments did weigh in. E.g.:

The Saudis are notorious for witholding information on their reserves and production. However, you don't have to go to Saudi to see they are struggling to maintain production now. Just look at what they are buying from the oil services companies -- smart well technology to shut off early water production, sand control screens, and even ESPs, or electric submersible pumps. At the same time they are spending billions redeveloping fields they had produced and abandoned earlier. They are drilling expensive maximum contact horizontal wells and moving OFFSHORE and developing heavy and sour oil and gas resources. IF they had ready reserves, or their fields were not in the last stages of production, they would not be doing any of this.

Also:

I would point out that one of the basic ideas of peak oil, namely that we will exhaust the cheap sources of oil and then increasingly have to replace them with more expensive oil (from ultra deep water, Arctic, and heavy/sour reserves) is playing out right now. The supergiant oil fields in production have been producing for several decades, and there simply are no direct replacements for them.

Finally, more philosophically:

The idea that we can have endless growth in consumption when our resources are finite never made much sense to me anyway, and surveys show rampant consumerism has failed to make us any happier. But maybe I'm just ill informed; perhaps an economist can explain how the 6.5 billion people on the planet can all enjoy standards of living that match the average American, since although estimates vary most seem to predict we would need an extra 9 planets to live like this?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Fact Checkers

David Remnick has a piece in The New Yorker this week, on Israeli ex-politician Avraham Burg, called "The Apostate." Remnick frequently dwells in a fantasy world where Israel is always nobly seeking peace according to a two-state scenario that Remnick often proclaims as self-evident. Still, I was astonished to read:

More recently, Hezbollah's ideological ally in Palestine, Hamas -- the Islamic Resistance Movement -- led a violent uprising in the Gaza Strip, overwhelming its secular rival, Fatah. Suddenly, Israel, backed by the United States, found itself propping up the Fatah leadership, in order not to lose the West Bank to Hamas as well.

I always thought The New Yorker was legendary for its fact-checking department. Leaving aside the question of whether the Hezbollah-Hamas alliance is anything more than the fevered product of neocon imagination -- if so it is the only functioning instance of Sunni-Shia harmony in today's Middle East -- the key error is Hamas came to power not by violent uprising but by a democratic election, which the US (over Israeli objections) first insisted on staging, then (with Israeli agreement) rejected, as (oops!) the wrong side won. The "violent uprising" -- actually, a coup attempt against the Hamas government -- was started by US-armed warlord Mohammed Dahlan's gang, which Hamas managed to disarm in Gaza, but not in the West Bank.

Maybe this escaped the fact-checkers because it was too gross to be seen as mere fact. It amounts to no less than a systematic abuse of history.

The main part of the article consists of a couple of quotes from an interview of Burg by Ari Shavit, resulting in numerous people attacking Burg. One quote ends with Burg saying: "There is no one to talk to here. The religious community of which I was a part -- I feel no sense of belonging to it. The secular community -- I am not part of it, either. I have no one to talk to. I am sitting with you and you don't understand me, either." Burg's outrage was his slandering of Zionism: "He describes the country in its current state as Holocaust-obsessed, militaristic, xenophobic, and, like Germany in the nineteen-thirties, vulnerable to an extremist minority."

Remnick's article bears out that description. Burg's critics put their outrage out front to avoid having to discuss anything substantial. Or they just dither around the edges, avoiding the subject, as in this quote:

"The comparison with pre-Nazi Germany is absurd," Shavit said over lunch one afternoon in Jerusalem. "Also, Israel was much more militaristic in the old days. I don't like the role of generals in political life, and i regret the lack of a Truman to restrain the influence of generals -- a tough, decent civilian who understands the need to use power but who is decisive in controlling the Army. But there is nothing here of that Junker tradition or even anything like America's military élites and academies. Israelis live in an open, free society with a very free spirit, even verging on anarchy. To describe us as a Bismarckian state with expansionist chauvinism -- if there was a grain of truth to that, it was thirty years ago! Soldiers here take off their uniforms as soon as they come home. They're not proud of their uniforms or their ranks. Wearing a uniform doesn't get you girls." There are anti-Arab racists in Israel, he added, but nothing like those in Burg's favorite part of the world. "There are actual racist parties in Continental Europe that are far more powerful than any of the sickening elements here," Shavit said. "There is no chance that an Israeli Day parade will draw as many as the number of people who came out for the Gay Pride parade in Tel Aviv. So to describe this as a Prussian Sparta is ridiculous."

Then what is it? Much the same can be said about America, but still we have armed forces based in hundreds of countries abroad, including very hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have an arsenal large enough to toast the entire earth. Talk to Americans in the streets all across the country and you'd never imagine we're capable of doing the things our government routinely does, but there's such an enormous disconnect between everyday life and politics in the US that those questions never even come up for debate -- no one is allowed to debate them. It's not surprising that the same thing applies in Israel, but there's also a lot of willful self-deception. Remnick quotes one poll as showing that 30% of Israelis want Yitzhak Rabin's assassin to be pardoned. It's hard to reconcile that with Shavit's comment about how marginal the "sickening elements" are.


Postscript: After writing this, I saw a note at WarInContext on a piece from Haaretz noting that 4,300 Israelis have received German citizenship in the past year. Paul Woodward commented, quoting Berg, then adding: "The willingness of Jews to 'return' to Germany is an indication that the possibility is now opening for some Israelis to go move beyond the core of that trauma. At the same time, Zionists will clearly feel threatened by the possibility that a significant number of the 300,000 Israelis entitled to German citizenship might take up that opportunity."

Having recently read Tom Segev's 1967 and Sandy Tolan's The Lemon Tree, I've been thinking about revisions to the piece plan piece I posted a couple of years ago. I've been looking for unilateral acts -- things that do not require Israeli agreement -- that would move the argument toward resolution. One thing that I think should be done would be for as many other countries as possible to adopt Israel's "Law of Return" and extend it to Palestinians as well as to Jews. It's very unlikely that it would have much if any demographic impact in any countries, but it would establish the point that Jews don't have to go to or stay in Israel -- that the whole world welcomes them. It would also help settle Palestinian refugees, making some small progress against their tragedy -- and thereby reducing the settlement problem. It would require some soul searching, and a commitment to respect and protect minority rights, but both of those would be good things. It would also drive the Zionists crazy, or crazier, because it would show up how dated and dysfunctional their ideology is.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Accumulation of Ashes

Chalmers Johnson has another review of Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA, at TomDispatch. The dirt sure piles up there. He points out that Harry Truman justified founding the CIA by pointing to our need to never again be surprise-attacked like Pearl Harbor, a single mission that did us no good come 9/11/2001. The review pulls out more examples of incompetence and skullduggery, and comes to the same conclusions I did in yesterday's post -- that information collection and undercover operations are incompatible, and that the CIA should be abolished. But it adds something worth repeating about the role of journalism:

Tim Weiner's book, Legacy of Ashes, is important for many reasons, but certainly one is that it brings back from the dead the possibility that journalism can actually help citizens perform elementary oversight on our government. Until Weiner's magnificent effort, I would have agreed with Seymour Hersh that, in the current crisis of American governance and foreign policy, the failure of the press has been almost complete. Our journalists have generally not even tried to penetrate the layers of secrecy that the executive branch throws up to ward off scrutiny of its often illegal and incompetent activities. This is the first book I've read in a long time that documents its very important assertions in a way that goes well beyond asking readers merely to trust the reporter.

Weiner, a New York Times correspondent, has been working on Legacy of Ashes for 20 years. He has read over 50,000 government documents, mostly from the CIA, the White House, and the State Department. He was instrumental in causing the CIA Records Search Technology (CREST) program of the National Archives to declassify many of them, particularly in 2005 and 2006. He has read more than 2,000 oral histories of American intelligence officers, soldiers, and diplomats and has himself conducted more than 300 on-the-record interviews with current and past CIA officers, including ten former directors of central intelligence. Truly exceptional among authors of books on the CIA, he makes the following claim: "This book is on the record -- no anonymous sources, no blind quotations, no hearsay."

The key thing here is that Weiner is not just working to get the story but to establish the record. That's a high standard for journalists, one that achieves relative security against the by now commonplace use of leaks for spreading misinformation. But it also leaves us lacking the non-public part of the story, which in the case of the CIA is no doubt proportioned like an iceberg.

The main thing the CIA has going for itself isn't the secrets but the allure of secrecy -- our blind hope, or gullibility, that there must be something of more value than what they can disclose. Why anyone would believe that is hard to say: in this day and age, it's hard to imagine anyone, least of all a government bureaucracy, that wouldn't publicize, and for that matter glorify, anything it might pass off as an accomplishment.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Legacy of Ashes

Tim Weiner has a big new book out called Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (2007, Doubleday). He has previously written on the Aldrich Ames scandal, and has a 1990 book titled Black Check: The Pentagon's Black Budget, which while dated would be all the more relevant -- and no doubt much larger -- now. I'm not in a big hurry to read the CIA book, but a few paragraphs from Evan Thomas' summary in The New York Times Book Review will do for now:

Tim Weiner's engrossing, comprehensive Legacy of Ashes is a litany of failure, from the C.I.A.'s early days, when hundreds of agents were dropped behind the Iron Curtain to be killed or doubled (almost without exception), to more recent humiliations, like George Tenet's now infamous "slam dunk" line. Over the years, the agency threw around a lot of money and adopted a certain swagger. "We went all over the world and we did what we wanted," said Al Ulmer, the C.I.A.'s Far East division chief in the 1950s. "God, we had fun." But even their successes turned out to be failures. In 1963, the C.I.A. backed a coup to install the Baath Party in Iraq. "We came to power on a C.I.A. train," said Ali Saleh Saadi, the Baath Party interior minister. One of the train's passengers, Weiner notes, was a young assassin named Saddam Hussein. Weiner quotes Donald Gregg, a former C.I.A. station chief in South Korea, later the national security adviser to Vice President George H.W. Bush: "The record in Europe was bad. The record in Asia was bad. The agency had a terrible record in its early days -- a great reputation and a terrible record." [ . . . ]

When presidents finally faced the reality that the agency was bumbling, they could be bitter. Reviewing the C.I.A.'s record after his two terms in office, Dwight Eisenhower told the director, Allen Dulles, "I have suffered an eight-year defeat on this." He would "leave a legacy of ashes" for his successor. A fan of Ian Fleming's spy stories, John F. Kennedy was shocked to be introduced to the man described by C.I.A. higher-ups as their James Bond -- the fat, alcoholic, unstable William Harvey, who ran a botched attempt to eliminate Fidel Castro by hiring the Mafia. Ronald Reagan went along with the desire of his C.I.A. director, William Casey, to bring back the mythical glory days by "unleashing" the agency -- and his presidency was badly undermined by the Iran-contra affair.

In Weiner's telling, a president trying to use the C.I.A. resembles Charlie Brown trying to kick the football. The role of Lucy is played by scheming or inept directors. Dulles is particularly egregious, a lazy, vain con artist who watches baseball games on television while half-listening to top-secret briefings (he assesses written briefings by their weight). Casey mumbles and lies and may have been almost mad from a brain tumor by the end. Even the more honorable directors, like Richard Helms, can't resist telling presidents what they want to hear. To fit the policy needs of the Nixon Whtie House in 1969, Helms doctored a C.I.A. estimate of Soviet nuclear forces. In a draft of the report, analysts had doubted the Soviet will or capacity to launch a nuclear strike. Helms erased this crucial passage -- and for years thereafter, untilt he end of the cold war, the C.I.A. overstated the rate at which the Soviets were modernizing their arsenal. The C.I.A.'s bogus intelligence on Iraq in 2002-3, based on the deceits of dubious sources like the one known as Curveball, was hardly unprecedented. To justify the Johnson administration's desire for a pro-war Congressional resolution on Vietnam in 1964, the intelligence community manufactured evidence of a Communist attack on American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. [ . . . ]

High-ranking officials, it appears, were often the last to know. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Robert M. Gates, who is now the secretary of defense but at the time was the first President Bush's top intelligence adviser, was at a family picnic. A friend of his wife's joined the picnic and asked him, "What are you doing here?" Gates asked, "What are you talking about?" "The invasion," she said. "What invasion?" he asked. A year earlier, when the Berlin Wall fell, Milt Bearden, the leader of the C.I.A.'s Soviet division, was reduced to watching CNN and deflecting urgen calls from White House officials who wanted to know what the agency's spies were saying. "It was hard to confess that there were no Soviet spies worth a damn -- they had all been rounded up and killed, and no one at the C.I.A. knew why," Weiner writes. [ . . . ]

When Henry Kissinger traveled to China in 1971, Prime Minister Chou En-lai asked about C.I.A. subversion. Kissinger told Chou that he "vastly overestimated the competence of the C.I.A.." Chou persisted that "whenever something happens in the world they are always thought of." Kissinger acknowledged, "That is true, and it flatters them, but they don't deserve it."

A few years later, in 1979, Iranian revolutionaries seized the American embassy in Tehran. They captured a C.I.A. case officer named William Daugherty and accused him of running the agency's entire Middle Eastern spy network while plotting to assassinate Ayatollah Khomeini. Daugherty, who had been in the C.I.A. for only nine months, tried to explain that he didn't even speak the native tongue, Persian. The Iranians seemed offended that the Americans would send such an inexperienced spy. It was "beyond insult," Daugherty later recalled, "for that officer not to speak the language or know the customs, culture and history of their country."

I changed the order around, moving the Kissinger quote from the top to the bottom. Thomas winds up wondering, "Is an open democracy capable of building and sustaining an effective secret intelligence service? Maybe not." But rather than explore that question, he then throw in the towel: "But with Islamic terrorists vowing to set off a nuclear device in an American city, there isn't much choice but to keep on trying." Given these repeated failures, maybe a "secret intelligence service" isn't the right answer to such a terrorist threat. I doubt that the reason for the CIA problem has anything to do with the US being "an open democracy" -- that the CIA even exists suggests the US isn't as open as it should be, and the failures just go to show that the main effect of secrecy is to let the failures go uncorrected. I don't have a problem with intelligence gathering, but all intelligence is suspect unless it can be viewed and critiqued from all sides, which means it must be public.

If all the CIA did was to gather and analyze information, did so openly, in public from verifiable sources, and subjected it to open critique aimed at attaining the best understanding of the data possible, it wouldn't have the quality reputation it has, and it would also be spared the nefarious reputation of the "operations" department -- the dirty tricks branch of the spy racket. The record pretty clearly shows that the only thing worse than the CIA's operational failures has been its operational successes. Clearly, when the CIA backs a Mohammed Pahlevi or a Sese Mobutu or a Saddam Hussein or an Osama Bin Laden they have no clue what that's going to cost us in the end. When the Soviet Union collapsed, they shut down the KGB. We should have done the same to the CIA.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Leave Iraq Now

Davis Merritt wrote an op-ed in the Wichita Eagle today arguing that the US should leave Iraq now. Merritt's a former editor of the Eagle, where he pioneered some interesting ideas about how to develop a local newspaper as a dynamic force for democracy. After retiring, he wrote a good book, Knightfall, about how parent company Knight Ridder lost that vision. Haven't read much by him lately, but this makes two columns in a little over a week. Glad to see him back.

His conclusion is right, of course, but his argument has become such a cliché that it's worth commenting on:

For 1,400 years, radical elements of the Sunni and Shiite sects have been killing each other over questions of religion and tribal rivalries and resentments. They will continue to do it long after our surviving husbands and wives and daughters and sons are home.

What happened 1,400 years ago is hardly forgotten, at least on the Shiite side, but the intervening millenia haven't seen anything near continuous bloodshed. The real problem between Sunni and Shia is the recent violence, which is the result of cynical manipulation of group identity for political gain. It's generally true that Iraq has been dominated by Sunni elites going back from Saddam Hussein to the British to the Ottomans all the way back to the Abassids, but the real source of the violence has been political opportunism.

This started to emerge with the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, when Iran attempted to mobilize Iraqi Shiites to turn against Baghdad, much as Iraq tried to exploit Iran's Arab minority. Neither were all that successful, but in the 1990-91 war over Kuwait, George Bush managed to encourage a Shiite rebellion then let Saddam brutally suppress it, creating a sectarian wedge that a second George Bush could exploit later. Same thing happened with the Kurds, aided by Iran and/or the US to weaken Iraq, and often left hanging for their efforts. The more Kurds and Shiites threatened Saddam, the more he repressed them, and the more he depended on Sunni identity for a power base, the more anti-Saddam became anti-Sunni. Once the US removed Saddam, the Kurds and Shiites the US had cultivated as an opposition force saw a chance to take advantage not just from the ruling clique but from the whole Sunni elite opportunity. The US was dumb enough to allow the revolution to extend from the initial "deck of 52" to deep within the Baath party to all of Sunni Iraq, making enemies all along the way. But, ironically, the resistance allowed Bush to cling on by offering the Shiites protection against the Sunnis, and later vice versa.

Even now, the threat of the civil war the US did so much to unleash is used by Bush to rally support for an occupation that makes things worse -- by its direct actions and by extending the war indefinitely, giving all sides reason to fight on and not to compromise. It is strangely comforting for Americans to think that Iraqis would be fighting each other even if we were not there. But the evidence backing that assertion is limited: a few brief bursts triggered by external wars, and lots of background police-state repression, but nothing resembling the massive civil destruction that has occurred since 2003.

It is strange that Americans have so much trouble recognizing that our own presence is the source of such pervasive violence. It should be obvious that as long as US forces occupy Iraq there will be Iraqis willing to fight us. (General Abizaid predicted that US forces would be an "antibody" in Iraq.) Why isn't it equally obvious that when we leave their fight will be over? It likely is true that the more we fight them, the more they'll be inclined to keep fighting other Iraqis after we leave, but that's hardly a reason for staying. (It may be a reason for "our" Iraqis to leave also. It's worth noting that the US ambassador in Baghdad is so hard up recruiting Iraqi workers that he's trying to arrange visas for them now for when they have to flee later.) The Iraqi resistance against US occupation provides the context and cover for all of the other violence in Iraq. The US occupation is itself an even stronger force of division in Iraq than sect identity: anyone who tries to work with us becomes tainted with everything we do. The longer we stay, the worse that becomes.

On the other hand, some Americans, like Merritt, do see civil war as reason enough to leave. There are enough such people that the Bush administration spent a couple of years trying to deny that there was a civil war before they changed tune to the new refrain. The interesting thing about them is that they haven't internalized the sense that the US cannot afford not to dominate every square inch of the Middle East. In short, they don't seem to really understand how leaving Iraq would put the US empire at peril, or even why that is such a bad thing. They don't see it, of course, because for most Americans the empire is nothing but trouble. But it remains an unstated subtext because the empire itself is cloaked in so much denial.

But we should start talking about just that, because it's the real issue. You don't really think that Bush cares whether Iraqis kill each other after we leave, do you? He only cares about what happens to the empire, and to his own cabal. So if leaving Iraq causes the empire to collapse, where does that leave us? If you're deep in bed with Bush, that may be a bad thing. But for most Americans, losing the whole empire means next to nothing: lose some military jobs, but save the taxes; pay market prices for oil, but you're doing that anyway. That'll be an interesting learning experience for the American people, because the one thing the ever-worsening condition in Iraq portends is that sooner or later we'll realize we can't afford to sustain that empire. When we can't, we won't. When we don't, we need to face up to the people to conned so many of us into such a grand self-delusion.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Music: Current count 13406 [13383] rated (+23), 800 [811] unrated (-11). Looks pretty much like an average week as far as ratings go, mostly jazz including some reissues, plus a few other recycleds. No major deadlines looming, so I'm mostly trying not to fall too far behind.

  • Roy Acuff: Columbia Historic Collection (1936-51 [1985], Columbia): The first of three generations of Columbia/Legacy compilations, which surprisingly have very little in common. This one turns out to be the odd one out, probably because it avoided 12 of 15 cuts from an earlier 1970 Greatest Hits package. Consequently, only 3 of 16 cuts here reappear on 1992's 20-cut The Essential Roy Acuff 1936-1949, and only 1 reappears on 2004's 14-cut The Essential Roy Acuff. All are fairly interchangeable, with 9 cuts shared by the two Essentials. Compared to the honky tonkers who followed him, Acuff was rather stiff and proper, but his "king of country music" reputation wasn't unearned or undeserved. This one trails marginally, lacking key songs like "Great Speckle Bird" and "Wreck on the Highway." Also beware that a 2002 reissue by Sony Music Custom Marketing Group dispensed with virtually all of the documentation. Turns out I have a copy of both. B+
  • Dirty Dancing (Legacy Edition) (1956-87 [2007], RCA/Legacy, CD+DVD): The 5-song DVD sure doesn't justify the bump from $11.98 to $25.98 -- the only watchable cut has Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes looking like high school chapperones; on the other hand, the CD adds all 34:19 of More Dirty Dancing to the original 39:04 soundtrack, plus a previously unreleased Michael Lloyd waltz, and sorts them so the mixed bag originals bounce back with surefire oldies, bridged by Lloyd's dance exercises. B
  • Sidsel Endresen: Exile (1993 [1994], ECM): Legendary Norwegian jazz singer, way on the cool side, with a group that includes Bugge Wesseltoft, Django Bates, Nils Petter Molvaer, David Darling, and Jon Christensen -- Molvaer is the closest affinity, but without the drum programming. B+
  • Phil Woods: The Rev & I (1998, Blue Note): Featuring Johnny Griffin, who probably takes more leads than Woods, and steers it harder into bebop territory. Also with Cedar Walton, Peter Washington, Ben Riley. Much to enjoy; little to worry about. B+
  • World Circuit Presents . . . (1950s-2005 [2006], World Circuit/Nonesuch, 2CD): Front cover continues: Buena Vista Social Club, Orchestra Baobab, Ali Farka Toure with Ry Cooder, Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, Toumani Diabate, Oumou Sangare, Cachaito, Cheikh Lô. The back cover continues with a full list of lesser knowns, most from Cuba or Africa with Radio Tarifa a near miss from Spain looking south. Ann Hunt and Mary Farquharson founded the London-based label in 1986 as a sideline to their Arts Worldwide touring business, and with Nick Gold turned it into one of the more successful world music labels. Ry Cooder also helped out, working with Ali Farka Touré and Buena Vista Social Club, improving neither but adding a marketing angle. Like most eclectic label samplers, the hits warrant further study and the misses waste opportunity -- although flow is more of a problem than flopping. So you could cut to the chase and go straight to the A records: Orlando Cachaito López: Cachaito; Orchestra Baobab: Specialist in All Styles; Oumou Sangare: Oumou. B+(*)


Jazz Prospecting (CG #14, Part 6)

Another week, mostly jazz, but some Recycleds as well -- the high point turned out to be the Blue Note Connoisseurs that do double duty. This is roughly the mid-point in the JCG cycle, where I try to survey as much incoming as possible, but start thinking about how the column will shape up. Didn't make a lot of progress either way, just barely getting into the second round. Next week should be much the same, as I need to finish the August Recycled Goods column before I can focus squarely on Jazz CG. Incoming mail has been light. Sweltering weather. Don't feel all that good either, and of course there's way too much to do.


Erin McKeown: Sing You Sinners (2006 [2007], Nettwerk): Counted as a folk singer, a point reinforced by listing the dates of the songs -- aside from a new one, they range fromn 1930-56, clustered toward the ends. Still, it's no stretch to consider this as jazz: half or more of the songs are standards jazz singers like to work on, she approaches them with interpretive imagination, and the backing swings and shines with horns -- nowhere more so than on "Melody," her original. B+(***)

Helena: Bang! Dillinger Girl & "Baby Face" Nelson (2006 [2007], Sunnyside): The pictures are more suggestive of Bonnie and Clyde, but bank robbers in America are as interchangeable, not to mention boring, as anyone else. Dillinger Girl is Helena Noguerra, who has two previous albums of French pop under her first name. Baby Face Nelson is Federico Pellegrini, who had something to do with a group called Little Rabbits, and who has more recently styled himself as French Cowboy. This album was cut in Tucson with little if any French accent. I don't really know what to make of it. B

Theo Bleckmann/Ben Monder: At Night (2005 [2007], Songlines): Bleckmann may be the most interesting jazz vocalist to appear in the last 10-20 years, at least in the sense that he is doing things no one else has ever done, sounding like no one else has ever sounded. His high-pitched voice can sound fey or winsome, but it's less pleasing without appropriate words. Here he mostly exercises it as instrument, aided and abetted by live electronic processing, Monder's guitar, and Satoshi Takeishi's percussion. Monder gains traction when he goes heavy. Interesting, of course, but that's an odd form of praise, or dismissal. B

Diane Hubka: Goes to the Movies (2005-06 [2007], 18th & Vine): Singer; plays a little 7-string guitar, although most of the fine guitar here is credited to Larry Koonse. Website bio has no biographical information, and is otherwise dubious -- "arguably the biggest discovery since Roberta Gambarini"? (FYI, I've never heard Gambarini, although I recognize the name.) Looks like she came from Appalachia, worked in DC and/or NYC, has three previous albums, mostly on Dutch labels, and a favorable entry in Penguin Guide, likening her to Sheila Jordan. I don't hear that here, but haven't heard the earlier albums. She has a clear, clean, articulate voice, and gets unassuming support from a quintet led by pianist Christian Jacob, with Carl Saunders providing finish touches on trumpet and flugelhorn. Record rises and falls on the songs, which include enough melodramatic themes and noirish ballads to turn me off. Could use another play. [B+(*)]

Jacques Coursil: Clameurs (2006 [2007], Sunnyside): Trumpet player, born in Paris, his parents from Martinique; appeared on several avant records in 1960s (Burton Greene, Sunny Murray, Frank Wright) plus a couple under his own name. Then basically dropped out of jazz, pursuing a career teaching French literature and linguistics, winding up in Martinique. In 2005 Tzadik released a new album titled Minimal Brass. Haven't heard it, but this follow-up is pretty minimal, with percussion and spare trumpet juxtaposed with spoken texts, including a piece by Frantz Fanon and poems by Edouard Glissant. I can't vouch for the texts, but mix appealing in its simple drama. B+(**)

André Ceccarelli: Golden Land (2006 [2007], CAM Jazz): Drummer, from Nice in the south of France, been around since the mid-'70s, working with Jean-Luc Ponty, Didier Lockwood, Michel Legrand, Birelli Lagrene, Martial Solal, Michel Portal, Stephane Grappelli, Eddy Louiss, Dee Dee Bridgewater -- a few names further afield, like Aretha Franklin. Has several albums under his own name, going back to 1977. This one is a pan-European quartet, with Enrico Pieranunzi on piano, Hein van de Geyn on bass, and David El-Malek on saxophone. Pieranunzi has an especially good outing here, both on fast and slow pieces, but El-Malek is also a discovery. His sax has a deep, rich tone, and he plays with great ease. Born in France, has several albums I haven't heard, with side interests in Jewish folk music and electronics. Together they make impressive, slightly mainstream postbop, but two cuts add a singer I don't find the least bit appealing. Her name is Elisabeth Kontomanou, also born in France, of Greek and African heritage. I can imagine her as the sort who can be mesmerizing in a smoky bar, but here she slows the album down and takes the air out. B

The Phil Woods Quintet: American Songbook II (2007, Kind of Blue): Didn't get the previous American Songbook (2002 [2006], Kind of Blue), which leaned a bit more to Porter (3 songs, vs. 1 here) and Gershwin (2 songs, vs. 0 here). This one is pretty much what one would expect, with Bill Charlap holding the center together, the superb Brian Lynch on trumpet, and dependable Woods on alto sax. [B+(**)]

Los Angeles Jazz Ensemble: Expectations (2007, Kind of Blue, CD+DVD): Looks like another attempt to hide one of those unpronounceable Polish names. The leader here is bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz, who's also recorded as Darek Oles, and has four albums from 1994 on listed under Los Angeles Jazz Quartet. He was born 1963 in Wroclaw in Poland; moved to Krakow in 1983, and on to Los Angeles in 1988, studying with Charlie Haden, and teaching currently at UC Irvine. The Ensemble is a quintet with vocalist Janis Siegel added on four tracks. Guitarist Larry Koonse is a holdover from the Quartet. Bob Sheppard and Peter Erskine take over sax and drums, respectively, while the added position goes to Alan Pasqua on organ. The songs are a mix of pop and jazz standards -- Tom Harrell's "Sail Away" is the only latecomer. Oleszkiewicz arranged them, and they flow with marvelous ease, with Koonse and Pasqua taking especially attractive turns. I'm not so pleased with the vocals, which might have benefitted from a lighter voice. Haven't watched the DVD, but might. [B+(***)]

Stanley Turrentine: A Bluish Bag (1967 [2007], Blue Note): Two big band sessions, with 6-7 horns and 3-4 rhythm each, the former chopped up for two 1975-79 albums, the latter stuck in the vaults until now. Mr. T doesn't get a lot of solo space, but Duke Pearson's arrangements give everyone a lot to do, and several cuts really swing together. B+(***)

Frank Foster: Manhattan Fever (1968-69 [2007], Blue Note): The 6- and 7-piece groups here sound larger than that -- Foster's apprenticeship with Count Basie skilled him at sharpening the edges of the arrangements, and he never wastes an instrument, typically riffing against sharp blasts of brass, then parting the waters for a deft solo with a bit of piano; Duke Pearson produced, and must have pushed him hard. A-

Introducing Kenny Cox and the Contemporary Jazz Quintet (1968-69 [2007], Blue Note): A no-name hard bop crew from Detroit, cut two albums sandwiched together on one disc here, then mostly vanished -- a couple showed up on an MC5 record, and hung out with Phil Ranelin's Tribe, and much later Cox appeared on James Carter's Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge. Actually, they're sharp and lively, especially trumpeter Charles Moore. B+(***)

Andrew Hill: Change (1966 [2007], Blue Note): The fine print notes that this, minus two alternate takes, was originally issued under Sam Rivers' name as half of the 1976 2-LP Involution. That it should now revert to Hill's catalogue reflects the changing fortunes of the principals. Hill was a pet project of Francis Wolf in the '60s, but much recorded then went unreleased at the time, including this quartet with Rivers. From the late '90s, Hill mounted quite a comeback, with two much admired albums on Palmetto and a return to Blue Note, Time Lines, which swept most jazz critic polls in 2006. I'm not a huge fan of the late albums, but they've led to a massive reissue of Hill's 1963-69 Blue Note period, which has if anything grown in stature. Rivers' career actually parallels Hill's quite nicely, with Blue Note in the '60s, a long stretch in the wilderness, and a comeback in 1999, with two large ensemble albums, Inspiration and Culmination, released on RCA. Hill died in 2007, but Rivers carries on in his 80s, with an exemplary trio album, Violet Violets (Stunt) in 2004. Still, it is appropriate to restore this session to Hill's ledger: he wrote all of the pieces, and once you get past the ugliness of an 11:04 opener called "Violence" the sax calms down and the piano emerges, as impressive as ever. A-

Jimmy Smith: Straight Life (1961 [2007], Blue Note): A simple organ-guitar-drums trio, as restrained as anything he's ever done, which makes the eloquence of his phrasing on such a crude instrument all the more impressive. This has actually been a remarkable installment in Blue Note's Connoisseur Series: five albums, all so obscure I've never heard of them, each surprisingly close to my A- cusp. The series are nominally limited editions, although those that sell out have been known to return as RVG Editions. B+(***)

Joseph Jarman: As If It Were the Seasons (1968 [2007], Delmark): The arty 23:47 title cut was done by a trio plus voice, the sort of thing that AACM could do when imagining great black classical music. But when the gang -- including Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Anderson, and John Stubblefield -- showed up for the 20:58 "Song for Christopher" all hell broke loose. You already know whether you can stand this or not, but if you can, focus on the percussive thrash, credited to Everybody. B+(**)

Club D'Elf: Perhapsody: Live 10.12.06 (2006 [2007], Kufala, 2CD): The paper insert where you might expect a booklet merely explains the "biodegradable/no plastic/no chemicals/no toxins" packaging -- not that you'll really be in much hurry to throw this away. The diversity shown on their one studio album, Now I Understand, was the result of networking and taking eight years to record the thing. On any given night, they're likely to be much more specialized. On this one the absence of Ibrahim Frigane means no Middle Eastern charms, and the presence of John Medeski means lots of boogie groove. Indeed, it all sort of flows together. Only by the end does one start wondering why Medeski can't keep his own group motoring so effortlessly. Most likely, the answer is bassist and clubmaster, Mike Rivard. B+(**)

Charlie Haden/Antonio Forcione: Heartplay (2006 [2007], Naim): Forcione is an Italian guitarist, or as his website puts it, "acoustic guitar virtuoso" -- close enough for me. Haden you know. So these are bass-guitar duets, simple things, gorgeous in their own way. Similar to things Haden did with Egberto Gismonti -- I'm tempted to say better, but I haven't heard the best regarded one, In Montreal (1989, ECM). I only wonder if there's enough here. [B+(***)]

David Witham: Spinning the Circle (2006 [2007], Cryptogramophone): Pianist, works with electronics, plays accordion, all prominent here. This is only his second album, following the self-released On Line from 1988, but he has a fairly broad albeit scattered resume: studied with Jaki Byard and Alan Broadbent; worked as George Benson's "musical director" since 1990; produces a community TV show called "Portable Universe"; current projects with Ernie Watts, Jay Anderson, Jeff Gauthier, Luis Conte; dozens of credits, although there isn't much overlap between the obscure names AMG lists and the better-known ones listed on his website. This album pulls several of those threads together, but not into a clear picture. The record opens with a synth percussion rush, but rarely returns to it. There is a lot of texturing with guitar -- Nels Cline's electric on two tracks, Greg Leisz's steel on three more, the latter affecting a Hawaiian twist -- and reeds, with an occasional oasis of clearly thought-out piano. Most of the eight pieces have ideas worth exploring further, but few are followed up on. I've played this tantallizing album five times, and doubt that I'm going to figure much more out. B+(**)

The Nels Cline Singers: Draw Breath (2007, Cryptogramophone): The group name always throws me: there are no vocalists here, although Cline claims a credit for "megamouth" here, whatever that is. Cline plays guitar, electric more than acoustic, with or without effects. The group is what back in the '60s was called a Power Trio: guitar-bass-drums, like Cream, or the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Devin Hoff plays contrabass, which I take to be the big acoustic one. Scott Amendola is credited with drums, percussion, "live" electronics/effects. Glenn Kotche appears on one track, as if Amendola isn't enough. This is their third album, although Cline has other projects, including a rock band called Wilco -- or maybe he's just hired help there. This is as close as anyone's gotten to heavy metal jazz. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing; if I'm just not in the mood, or just got put out of the mood. I think I'll put it on the replay shelf and wait for a better time. Could be it's amazing. Could be it's not. I do recommend an earlier one called The Giant Pin (2003 [2004], Cryptogramophone). [B+(**)]

Rob Garcia's Sangha: Heart's Fire (2005 [2007], Connection Works): Drummer, based in New York (I think), plays Latin, mainstream, free, dixieland, whatever. This one leans Latin, and I'm impressed as long as I focus on the drummer. But I'm more dubious about all the flute and soprano sax, and simply don't care for the singer, who moves this into unappealing prog territory. B-

Boca do Rio (2007, Vagabundo): Unfair to make fun of these hard-working Brasil wannabes to point out that their rio is the Sacramento; the percussion is pretty sharp, and saxophonist Larry de la Cruz is always welcome, so I guess the problem is the vocals, and not just that Kevin Welch has swallowed way too much US pop harmonizing. C+


And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.

Abbey Lincoln: Abbey Sings Abbey (2006 [2007], Verve): Francis Davis raved about this in the Voice. I suspect that anyone else already in love with her will feel much the same. I've long been a disappointed skeptic, so the best I can say is that listening to her old songs redone here fails to remind me of whatever it was that annoyed me about her in the past. One possibility is that her voice has coarsened her voice, taking it off that pedestal I never cared for. But also, the arrangements are refreshing. The group is string-oriented, with Larry Campbell playing acoustic and electric guitar, National resonator guitar, pedal steel guitar, and mandolin; he's backed with cello, bass, drums, and accordion for color. The pedal steel is the biggest surprise, with "Blue Monk" played as a cowboy tune. The rest of the songs are originals, selected (I assume) for strong melodies that fit the framework -- a "greatest hits" effect, but given my ignorance without regrets. A couple of songs in I thought about suspending my skepticism, but the record runs long and isn't always convincing. B+(***)

The Puppini Sisters: Betcha Bottom Dollar (2005-06 [2007], Verve): The WWII-era pieces that set the stage here refer these figurative-sisters -- Marcella is the only Puppini; Kate Mullins and Stephanie O'Brien were added to the act in London -- back to the Andrews Sisters. Pieces like "Mr. Sandman," "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön," and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" always appealed to me, and here they're as bright and perky as ever. More recent fare, including Kate Bush and Morrissey, are harder sells, but at least I'll take their "Heart of Glass." B+(*)


Unpacking:

  • Don Cherry: Live at Cafe Montmartre 1966 (1966, ESP-Disk)
  • Happy Apple: Happy Apple Back on Top (Sunnyside)
  • The Harlem Experiment (Ropeadope): advance, Oct. 31.
  • Norman Howard & Joe Phillips: Burn Baby Burn (ESP-Disk)
  • Ed Johnson & Novo Tempo: The Other Road (Cumulus)
  • Movement Soul Volume 2 (ESP-Disk)
  • New York Voices: A Day Like This (MCG Jazz)
  • Michel Portal: Birdwatcher (Sunnyside)
  • Helen Sung: Sungbird (Sunnyside)
  • Billy Taylor & Gerry Mulligan: Live at MCG (1993, MCG Jazz)
  • We Love Ella! A Tribute to the First Lady of Song (Verve, DVD): advance, July 2007

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Day Off

I had a decent daily run going in July until yesterday, although most of the posts have been book quotes, and it helped that I had started to build up a backlog of them. Felt sick yesterday; spent most of the day in bed. Doesn't look like anything serious -- may have been something I ate. Does give me more time to read. I'm half way through Sandy Tolan's The Lemon Tree, which seemed like the logical successor to Tom Segev's 1967. The latter provided a lot of useful detail about how Israelis viewed the war, but failed to provide much context, either in terms of what others -- notably Arabs and Russians -- were actually thinking and doing or in terms of what the war's legacy actually turned out to be. It's as if the idea is that since Israelis are so schizophrenic, not to mention voluble, that one can cover all sides of issues by only examining the numerous Israeli variants. Tolan covers the same ground in 20 pages or so, including a Palestinian viewpoint that Segev omits. Still, I have a lot of remarkable quotes marked in Segev's book. Despite my critique, I came out wanting to read his 1949, but held back figuring I have the big picture anyway. I'm trying to gear my reading toward writing, and there are few subjects I feel I've researched more adequately than Israel. (My books section currently lists 29 books on Israel, plus there are a few others listed under Middle East, etc. An idea for a future post would be a short annotation of each book on the list.)

As it is, I'm mostly muddling through. The default activity is to listen to music and write notes about it. As I write this, I have 20 jazz prospecting notes ready to post, and the database rated count for the week is +21. Both numbers are close to long term norms, but certainly aren't banner weeks. Recycled Goods for August is pretty much written. Jazz Consumer Guide is up in the air, with no clear plan to close -- although there's something to be said for trying to knock it off quickly. I'm reading about as much as usual -- the Segev book that took me all week is 585 pages, but I've always been a slow reader. But I've fallen far short of keeping up with my usual web sources -- I have several TomDispatch articles open in tabs, but can't recall looking at Juan Cole or Helena Cobban in the last 2-3 weeks. I'm not making any progress on my book. I have been making fairly steady progress on many house projects. Also way behind on some website work; e.g., for Robert Christgau, who's 4-5 Consumer Guides ahead of me, plus I barely know what else. The big recent advance is that the Vista computer is finally running. Once I plug speakers into it I will be able to download music and play DVDs, which I haven't been able to do since February. The next big push is to get to where the piles of stuff all around me are shelved somewhat sensibly. I have both short- and long-term plans for that, which is good because short-term solutions never work.

The weather has finally gotten hot around here. Don't think we've officially had a 100-degree day yet, which may be some kind of record, but it's been well in the 90s for a couple of weeks now, and more humid than usual. All the rain pretty much ruined the wheat crop -- I've seen figures 30-40% down from norms. Most of the global warming models predict drought, but a pretty sure rule of thumb is that more heat means more rain somewhere. Even if the models are fallible, that doesn't mean the outcome is going to be favorable.

I'm rambling here, but wanted to get a post in. Jazz Prospecting tomorrow, then more book posts.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Decay and Disaster

New York City had an explosion yesterday, demonstrating once again that stupidity and incompetence can do things that terrorists can only dream of. David Caruso, writing for AP, picked up in the Wichita Eagle today, writes:

With a blast that made skyscrapers tremble, an 83-year-old steam pipe sent a powerful message that the miles of tubes, wires and iron beneath New York and other U.S. cities are getting older and could become dangerously unstable. [ . . . ]

"This may be a warning sign for this very old network of pipe that we have," said Anil Agrawal, a professor of civil engineering at the City College of New York. "We should not be looking at this incident as an isolated one."

From Boston to Los Angeles, a number of American cities are entering a middle age of sorts, and the infrastructure propping them up is showing signs of strain.

DePaul University transportation professor Joe Schwieterman said his city of Chicago, where much of the infrastructure dates to the early part of the 20th century, is now faced with tough choices on what to fix first.

"The aging infrastructure below the streets is an enormous liability for the city," Schwieterman said. "We know it needs modernization but the cost is staggering. We're forced to pick our battles wisely."

Thousands of miles of underground water and sewage pipes are nearing the end of their expected life, sometimes with a bang and a flash flood.

Electrical systems, operating with components that are decades old, have been groaning to handle record power demand.

Parts of New York were plunged into darkness for a week last summer when a series of power cables failed in Queens, and much of the Northeast was blacked out when power transmission systems failed across several states in 2003.

In New York and Boston, aging sidewalk utility panels were blamed for delivering electric shocks to pedestrians and pets in wet weather.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will take $1.6 trillion over the next five years to get the nation's roads, bridges, dams, water systems and airports into good condition.

$1.6 trillion is, like, double what Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the US since 2001. It is a number that is both prohbitively huge and more/less manageable. The only real difference is that nobody selling the Iraq war in 2002-03 came out and stated that the war would cost us a trillion dollars or more but would be worth it. Rather, we were told that the war would practically pay for itself -- mostly because no one would believe that anything over there would be worth spending trillions of dollars. For the warmongers, myopia was a necessity. But facing up to the infrastructure deficit requires exactly the opposite condition: it's easy to see that the investment is worth it in the long run, but hard to work it into the budget just now. Of course, as things do break, budgeting will get easier -- cf. the levies of New Orleans.

There are people who argue that government should be run like a business, which is scary given how notoriously short-term businesses think. The exact opposite is more like it: anything that a business can do most likely will be done by a business, unless government flat out obstructs it -- some businesses, like recreational drugs, even survive prohibition. The private sector responds to immediate demand, at least within frameworks where supply can be metered. On the other hand, government can act deliberately, subject only to politics. So government can do things that businesses cannot, like plan for the long term, or create public goods that need not be metered. The big problem is getting to where we can make sound political decisions. Politicians and government bureaucrats have notoriously poor reputations in that regard, in large part because government is relatively immune to the market corrections businesses respond to -- cf. the Iraq war. Getting better at political decision making requires that we get smarter about what we need government for, clearer about how we conceive of a public interest to counter against overly powerful private interests, more transparent and honest. It may even mean that we need to be willing to sacrifice some private interests to a broader, deeper good. That in turn requires trust and faith that most of our experience under unregulated power and greed turns us against.

Needless to say, this is going to get worse before it gets better. That much is clear from the people in power now and the trendline they represent and do so much to further.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Rory Stewart: The Places In Between

Rory Stewart's The Places In Between (2004; paperback, 2006, Harvest Books) is nominally a travel book, but you can just as well file it under shaggy dog stories. (Hint: a large dog is a prominent character here.) Stewart's idea was to walk from Istanbul to Nepal, or something like that. Due to political exigencies, he skipped over Afghanistan, then decided to fill it in after the Taliban scattered in late 2001 -- or fill some of it in, specifically the stretch from Herat to Kabul. It was winter, which gave him a notable predecessor: Emperor Babur, ruler of Kabul, made the same trek in 1504, describing it in a diary that provides a reference point here.


On a press conference with Ismail Khan, the warlord who took over Herat following the fall of the Taliban (pp. 53-54):

"I would like to say," said Ismail Khan, "that before we came there was no furniture here -- the Taliban was against furniture. We've bought all this furniture in the last two weeks."

Ismail Khan disagreed with the Taliban more about furniture than about Islam. He believed in the jihad and hated atheist foreigners interfering in Afghanistan. He had encouraged women to return to schools but believed they should be well covered and should not speak to men to whom they were not related. He was about to order new "vice and virtue" squads to raid the arcades I had seen and burn the DVDs. He had implemented laws requiring women to wear head carves and forbidding men from wearing neckties. Women who met men to whom they were not related could be forcibly examined in hospitals to determine whether they had recently had sex. But I was not sure how many of the people in the room understood his vision of an Islamic state. He was certainly not going to share his views on women with the reporter from Television France 2, who had not covered her blond hair.

In Jam, the famed Turqoise Mountain of the Ghorid kingdom (p. 159):

Antiquity looting is an ancient and highly controversial problem and because of the money involved, it is almost impossible to stop. But the situation in Jam was comparatively simple. A single, small site of immense historical importance lay in a remote location that could be manageably enclosed, policed, and monitored. Any items reaching the international market from Jam were not chance finds, but deliberately stolen. The local villagers were earning only a dollar or two a day digging and could have been employed by an archaeological team to work with an official excavation, rather than against it. Ismail Khan, the most powerful man in the provine, did not earn much from the illegal antiquities trade in comparison with the cross-border trade in other items from Herat. He would have seen providing security at the site as an inexpensive and uncontroversial opportunity to cooperate with the international community. One reasonably energetic and committed foreign archaeologist with decent funds could have stepped in to protect the site at any time. I guessed, however, that the international community would not act before it was too late, and I was right.

On the road to Chaghcharan (pp. 161-162):

In the Indian Himalayas, villagers had described their landscape in terms of religious myth. "This hill is where Shiva danced," they said, or, "This lake was made by Arjuna's arrow." But like Abdul Haq [Stewart's escort for the first leg of the trek], the Aimaq villagers defined their landscape by acts of violence or death. I was shown the hundred yards the young Commander Mullah Rahim Dad galloped when morally wounded after an ambush by men from Majerkanda, then the grave of a young man who had died of starvation on his way to the refugee camp.

Places in the Scottish Highlands are also remembered for acts of violence: the spot where Stewart of Ardvorlich shot a MacDonald raider, or where the MacGregors decapitated Ardvorlich's brother-in-law. Around my house in Scotland the Gaelic place-names record death: "Place of Mourning" or "Field of Weeping." But here the events recorded were only months old.

They were inflicted not by Russians but by one community on another. The settlement of Tangia was now only a line of red mud pillars like giant rotting teeth. The school in Ghar had been destroyed. Everyone knew the men who did these things. They had watchem them at it.

On the "new" Afghanistan (pp. 174-175):

The agreement setting up the future shape of Afghanistan had been signed in Bonn a month earlier. In five months a Loya Jirga assembly was to choose a new government. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Special Representative running this process, had staffed his Political Affairs office with some of the most competent expatriates in Afghanistan: people who spoke Dari or Pashto well, had worked in Afghanistan for years, and had experience with village culture. But these few people had to manage the conflicting interests of foreign governments, other UN agencies, warlords, international organizations, and Afghan technocrats. They knew too much of the reality on the ground to be popular with either the new Afghan government or the international bureaycracy. By the end of the year they had been moved into almost meaningless jobs.

On the changing of the Taliban (pp. 243-244):

In Herat many war reporters predicted Afghans would hate the American-led assault on the Taliban. They said the Taliban treatment of women, the Taliban's use of Sharia law, and their demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas had not been unpopular in the villages. The Taliban were "no crueller" than the Northern Alliance and had improved security in rural areas. Intervention would simply replace one group of crooks with another and anger Afghans in the process.

I had indeed found that Tajik and Aimaq communities wee not entirely opposed to the Taliban. They agreed that security had been better under the Taliban. Tajik women now wore head scarves in the village and only put on the full-face burqas to visit town, but no one objected to the lack of female education under the Taliban or the imposition of Islamic Sharia law. Seyyed Umar, who had complained the most about them ("They stole donkeys from me"), turned out to have been a Taliban commander.

But the Hazara I met were delighted the Taliban had gone, and they did not resent the Americans for expelling them. Nowhere in Afghanistan did the cruelty of the Taliban seem so comprehensive or have such an ethnic focus. In a three-day walk from Yakawlang, where the Taliban had executed four hundred, to Shaidan, where eighty shop fronts had been reduced to blackened shells, every Hazara village I saw had been burned. In each settlement, people had been murdered, the flocks driven off, and the orchards razed. Most of the villages were still abandoned.

The Hazara knew little and cared less about the World Trade Center. But in the short term things had improved for them. They were freer and more secure; they had some power again; and they were pleased with their own provincial governor, Khalili.

A footnote on the war reporters: "This may have been becuase many of them had been in the Balkans and remembered the fury of anti-Milosevic Serbs over the Kosovo bombing."

A footnote to "policy makers would find it impossible to change Afghan society in the way they wished to change it" (p. 247-248):

Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn't their home government would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.

Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression.

Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.

That first paragraph includes a lot of wistful romantic thinking. Nineteenth-century colonialists may have been racist and exploitative? No shit? While the threat of revolt provided a check on their greed and/or folly, as it still does now, the manageable containment of revolt isn't much of a metric of success. The 19th century case may have been better managed in the sense that it was longer-term profit-seeking, but it also benefitted immeasurably by happening in the 19th century, when natives had primitive arms and communications networks, and often didn't understand the full impact of what the imperialists were up to. That colonialists have fared much worse in the 20th century can't be wholly chalked up to losing their skill set.

Stewart later moved on to Iraq, where he tried his hand at running a chunk of the country for the British. That's the subject of another book, The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq. I haven't read that book yet, but I gather he didn't do all that well.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tony Judt: Postwar

At 933 pages, Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005; paperback, 2006, Penguin Press) is a big book on a huge subject. He does a masterful job of pulling together the main political, economic, and cultural threads, starting with the devastation of WWII and the postwar reconstruction -- literally, of course, but also structurally through the cold war division and the emergence of a distinct and ultimately unifying European identity. A marvelous synthesis, the starting point for thinking about post-WWII Europe.

I could have quoted much more than the quite-a-bit I do quote below. The most striking things for me were the immediate postwar period. From the vantage point of subsequent recovery, we tend to gloss over the extent of the devastation and the bitterness of recriminations. In particular, the "greatest generation" myth has left us thinking that the US did something brilliant in the postwar rebuilding of Germany and Japan, whereas the facts here and in John Dower's Embracing Defeat suggest we were just damn lucky. Such myths then inspire our neo-interventionists to think we can apply that same genius to places like Afghanistan and Iraq -- in fact, we never had much of a knack for telling others how to live, and to shift from the most left to the most right administrations in US history disposed of the good will that made our luck possible.

So I've tended to pick quotes thinking of now rather than attempting to cover the book evenly -- a task impossible with any breadth at all.


From the introduction (p. 6):

In the West the prospect of radical change was smoothed away, not least thanks to american aid (and pressure). The appeal of the popular-front agenda -- and of Communism -- faded: both were prescriptions for hard times and in the West, at least after 1952, the times were no longer so hard. And so, in the decades that followed, the uncertainties of the immediate post-war years were forgotten. But the possibility that things might take a different turn -- indeed, the likelihood that they would take a different turn -- had seemed very real in 1945; it was to head off a return to the old demons (unemployment, Fascism, German militarism, war, revolution) that western Europe took the new path with which we are now familiar. Post-national, welfare-state, cooperative, pacific Europe was not born of the optimistic, ambitious, forward-looking project imagined in fond retrospect by today's Euro-idealists. It was the insecure child of anxiety. Shadowed by history, its leaders implemented social reforms and built new institutions as a prophylactic, to keep the past at bay.

This becomes easier to grasp when we recall that authorities in the Soviet bloc were in essence engaged in the same project. They, too, were above all concerned to install a barrier against political backsliding -- though in countries under Communist rule this was to be secured not so much by social progress as through the application of physical force. Recent history was re-written -- and citizens were encouraged to forget it -- in accordance with the assertion that a Communist-led social revolution had definitively erased not just the shortcomings of the past but also the conditions that had made them possible. As we shall see, this claim was also a myth; at best a half-truth.

Some of what WWII wrought (pp. 18-19):

The overall death toll is staggering (the figures given here do not include Japanese, US or other non-European dead). It dwarfs the mortality figure for the Great War of 1914-18, obscene as those were. No other conflict in recorded history killed so many people in so short a time. But what is most striking of all is the number of non-combatant civilians among the dead: at least 19 million, or more than half. The numbers of civilian dead exceeded military losses in the USSR, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway. Only the in the UK and Germany did military losses significantly outnumber civilian ones.

Estimates of civilian losses on the territory of the Soviet Union vary greatly, though the likeliest figure is in excess of 16 million people (roughly double the number of Soviet military losses, of whom 78,000 fell in the battle for Berlin alone). Civilian deaths on the territory of pre-war Poland approached 5 million; in Yugoslavia 1.4 million; in Greece 430,000; in France 350,000; in Hungary 270,000; in the Netherlands 204,000; in Romania 200,000. Among these, and especially prominent in the Polish, Dutch and Hungarian figures, were some 5.7 million Jews, to whom should be added 221,000 gypsies (Roma).

The causes of death among civilians included mass extermination, in death camps and killing fields from Odessa to the Baltic; disease, malnutrition and starvation (induced and otherwise); the shooting and burning of hostages -- by the Wehrmacht, the Red Army and partisans of all kinds; reprisals against civilians; the effects of bombing, shelling and infantry battles in fields and cities, on the eastern Front throughout the war and in the West from the Normandy landings of June 1944 until the defeat of Hitler the following May; the deliberate strafing of refugee columns and the working to death of slave labourers in war industries and prison camps.

The greatest military losses were incurred by the Soviet Union, which is thought to have lost 8.6 million men and women under arms; Germany, with 4 million casualties; Italy, which lost 400,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen; and Romania, some 300,000 of whose military were killed, mostly fighting with the Axis armies on the Russian front. In proportion to their populations, however, the Austrians, Hungarians, Albanians and Yugoslavs suffered the greatest military losses. Taking all deaths -- civilian and military alike -- into account, Poland, Yugoslavia, the USSR and Greece were the worst affected. Poland lost about one in five of her pre-war population, including a far higher percentage of the educated population, deliberately targeted for destruction by the Nazis. Yugoslavia lost one person in eight of the country's pre-war population, the USSR one in 11, Greece one in 14. To point up the contrast, Germany suffered a rate of loss of 1/15; France 1/77; Britain 1/125.

The Soviet losses in particular include prisoners of war. The Germans captured some 5.5 million Soviet soldiers in the course of the war, three quarters of them in the first seven months following the attack on the USSR in June 1941. Of these, 3.3 million died from starvation, exposure and mistreatment in German camps -- more Russians died in German prisoner-of-war camps in the years 1941-45 than in all of World War One. Of the 750,000 Soviet soldiers captured when the Germans took Kiev in September 1941, just 22,000 lived to see Germany defeated. The Soviets in their turn took 3.5 million prisoners of war (German, Austrian, Romanian and Hungarian for the most part); most of them returned home after the war.

A long quote on populations movements during and after WWII (pp. 22-26):

The problem of feeding, housing, clothing and caring for Europe's battered civilians (and the millions of imprisoned soldiers of the former Axis powers) was complicated and magnified by the unique scale of the refugee crisis. This was something new in the European experience. All wars dislocate the lives of non-combatants; by destroying their land and their homes, by disrupting communications, by enlisting and killing husbands, fathers, sons. But in World War Two it was state policies rather than armed conflict that did the worst damage.

Stalin had continued his pre-war practice of transferring whole peoples across the Soviet empire. Well over a million people were deported east from Soviet-occupied Poland and the western Ukraine and Baltic lands between 1939-41. In the same years the Nazis too expelled 750,000 Polish peasants eastwards from western Poland, offering the vacated land to Volksdeutsche, ethnic Germans from occupied eastern Europe who were invited to 'come home' to the newly-expanded Reich. This offer attracted some 120,000 Baltic Germans, a further 136,000 from Soviet-occupied Poland, 200,000 from Romania and others besides -- all of whom would in their turn be expelled a few years later. Hitler's policy of racial transfers and genocide in Germany's conquered eastern lands must thus be understood in direct relation to the Nazis' project of returning to the Reich (and settling in the newly cleared property of their victims) all the far-flung settlements of Germans dating back to medieval times. The Germans removed Slavs, exterminated Jews and imported slave workers from west and east alike.

Between them Stalin and Hitler uprooted, transplanted, expelled, deported and dispersed some 30 million people in the years 1939-43. With the retreat of the Axis armies, the process was reversed. Newly-resettled Germans joined millions of established German communities throughout eastern Europe in headlong flight from the Red Army. Those who made it safely into Germany were joined there by a pullulating throng of other displaced persons. [ . . . ]

From the east came Balts, Poles, Ukrainians, Cossacks, Hungarians, Romanians and others: some were just fleeing the horrors of war, others escaping West to avoid being caught under Communist rule. A New York Times reporter described a column of 24,000 Cossack soldiers and families moving through southern Austria, 'no different in any major detail from what an artist might have painted in the Napoleonic wars'.

From the Balkans came not just ethnic Germans but more than 100,000 Croats from the fallen wartime fascist regime of Ante Pavelic, fleeing the wrath of Tito's partisans. In Germany and Austria, in addition to the millions of Wehrmacht soldiers held by the Allies and newly released Allied soldiers from German p-o-w camps, there were many non-Germans who had fought against the Allies alongside the Germans or under German command: the Russian, Ukrainian and other soldiers of General Andrei Vlasov's anti-Soviet army; volunteers for the Waffen SS from Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and France; and auxiliary German fighters, concentration camp staff and others liberally recruited in Latvia, Ukraine, Croatia and elsewhere. All had good reason to seek refuge from Soviet retribution.

Then there were the newly-released men and women who had been recruited by the Nazis to work in Germanyu. Brought into German farms and factories from all across the continent, they numbered many millions, spread across Germany proper and its annexed territories, constituting the largest single group of Nazi-displaced persons in 1945. Involuntary economic migration was thus the primary social experience of World War Two for many European civilians, including 280,000 Italians forcibly removed to Germany by their former ally after Italy's capitulation to the Allies in September 1943. [ . . . ]

Another group of displaced persons, the survivors of the concentration camps, felt rather differently. Their 'crimes' had been various -- political or religious opposition to Nazism or Fascism, armed resistance, collective punishment for attacks on Wehrmacht soldiers or installations, minor transgressions of Occupation regulations, real or invented criminal activities, falling foul of Nazi racial laws. They survived camps which by the end were piled high with dead bodies and where diseases of every kind were endemic: dysentery, TB, dipththeria, typhoid, typhus, broncho-pneumonia, gastro-enteritis, gangrene and much else. But even these survivors were better off than the Jews, since they had not been systematically and collectively scheduled for extermination.

Few Jews remained. Of those who were liberated 4 out of 10 died within a few weeks of arrival of Allied armies -- their condition was beyond the experience of Western medicine. But the surviving Jews, like most of Europe's other homeless millions, found their way into Germany. Germany was where the Allied agencies and camps were to be situated -- and anyway, eastern Europe was still not safe for Jews. After a series of post-war pogroms in Poland many of the surviving Jews left for good: 63,387 Jews arrived in Germany from Poland just between July and September 1946.

What was taking place in 1945, and had been underway for at least a year, was thus an unprecedented exercise in ethnic cleansing and population transfer. In part this was the outcome of 'voluntary' ethnic separation: Jewish survivors leaving a Poland where they were unsafe and unwanted, for example, or Italians departing the Istrian peninsula rather than live under Yugoslav rule. Many ethnic minorities who had collaborated with occupying forces (Italians in Yugoslavia, Hungarians in Hungarian-occupied northern Transylvania now returned to Romanian rule, Ukrainians in the western Soviet Union, etc.) fled with the retreating Wehrmacht to avoid retribution from the local majority or the advancing Red Army, and never returned. Their departure may not have been legally mandated or enforced by local authorities, but they had little option.

Elsewhere, however, official policy was at work well before the war ended. The Germans of course began this, with the removal and genocide of the Jews, and the mass expulsions of Poles and other Slav nations. Under German aegis between 1939 and 1943 Romanians and Hungarians shunted back and forth across new frontier lines in disputed Transylvania. The Soviet authorities in their turn engineered a series of forced population exchanges between Ukraine and Poland; one million Poles fled or were expelled from their homes in what was now western Ukraine, while half a million Ukrainians left Poland for the Soviet Union between October 1944 and June 1946. In the course of a few months what had once been an intermixed region of different faiths, languages and communities became two distinct, mono-ethnic territories.

Bulgaria transferred 160,000 Turks to Turkey; Czechoslovakia, under a February 1946 agreement with Hungary, exchanged the 120,000 Slovaks living in Hungary for an equivalent number of Hungarians from communities north of the Danube, in Slovakia. Other transfers of this kind took place between Poland and Lithuania and between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union; 400,000 people from southern Yugoslavia were moved to land in the north to take the place of 600,000 departed Germans and Italians. Here as elsewhere, the populations concerned were not consulted. But the largest affected group was the Germans.

The Germans of eastern Europe would probably have fled west in any case: by 1945 they were not wanted in the countries where their families had been settled for many hundreds of years. Between a genuine popular desire to punish local Germans for the ravages of war and occupation, and the exploitation of this mood by post-war governments, the German-speaking communities of Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic region and the western Soviet Union were doomed and they knew it.

In any event, they were given no choice. As early as 1942 the British had private acceded to Czech requests for a post-war removal of the Sudeten German population, and the Russians and Americans fell into line the following year. On May 19th 1945, President Edouard Benes of Czechoslovakia decreed that 'we have decided to eliminate the German problem in our republic once and for all'. Germans (as well as Hungarians and other 'traitors') were to have their property placed under state control. In June 1945 their land was expropriated and on August 2nd of that year they lost their Czechoslovak citizenship. Nearly three million Germans, most of them from the Czech Sudetenland, were then expelled into Germany in the course of the following eighteen months. Approximately 267,000 died in the course of the expulsions. Whereas Germans had comprised 29 percent of the population of Bohemia and Moravia in 1930, by the census of 1950 they were just 1.8 percent.

From Hungary, a further 623,000 Germans were expelled, from Romania 786,000, from Yugoslavia about half a million and from Poland 1.3 million. But by far the greatest number of German refugees came from the former eastern lands of Germany itself: Silesia, East Prussia, eastern Pomerania and eastern Brandenburg. At the Potsdam meeting of the US, Britain and the USSR (July 17th-August 2nd 1945) it was agreed, in the words of Article XIII of the subsequent agreement, that the three governments 'recognize that the transfer to Germany of German populations, or elements thereof, remaining in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, will have to be undertaken.' In part this merely recognized what had already taken place, but it also represented a formal acknowledgement of the implications of shifting Poland's frontiers westwards. Some seven million Germans would now find themselves in Poland, and the Polish authorities (and the occupying Soviet forces) wanted them removed -- in part so that Poles and others who lost land in the eastern regions now absorbed into the USSR could in their turn be resettled in the new lands to the west.

This is the context within which the Israel's transfers occurred: the exile of 700,000 Palestinians in 1947-49, and the subsequent immigration of Jews from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East; one can also add India-Pakistan, which occurred at the same time, and Turkey-Greece from around 1920. There are reasons why Palestine should have been handled differently, but it's also arguable that the UN approval of partition implicitly mandated transfer. Britain had proposed, and the Zionist authorities had accepted, partition with forced transfer in 1937, before the Palestinian revolt forced some backpeddling. The forced transfers in Europe set the rule and made clear the assumptions that the Zionists would apply in 1948. On the other hand, the UN wasn't explicit, and started to back down almost as soon as Palestinian Arab leaders rejected partition -- Israel likes to point out that the UN approved Israel's founding in 1947, but not that Israel rebuffed every effort the UN made to negotiate a mutually acceptable settlement -- most dramatically when the UN negotiator was assassinated -- and that Israel has never honored UN resolutions calling for the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in peace.

Given the persistence of the nationalism, anti-semitism, and the general atmosphere of such transfers, it's easy to understand why Jews in Palestine felt entitled to their piece of the action, especially once they were strong enough to make it happen. On the other hand, Palestine was most clearly the responsibility of the UN, and the UN was created specifically to move the world past ideologies like nationalism that had led to world war. Palestine turned out to be the first big test of whether the UN could steer the world in a different direction; as such, it was the first case where the UN failed, reverting to politics as usual.

More on population transfer (p. 27):

At the conclusion of the First World War it was borders that were invented and adjusted, while people were on the whole left in place. [Footnote: With the significant exception of Greeks and Turks, following the Lausanne Treaty of 1923.] After 1945 what happened was rather the opposite: with one major exception boundaries stayed broadly intact and people were moed instead. There was a feeling among Western policymakers that the League of Nations, and the minority clauses in the Versailes Treaties, had failed and that it would be a mistake even to try to resurrect them. For this reason they acquiesced readily enough in the population transfers. If the surviving minorities of central and eastern Europe could not be afforded effective international protection, then it was as well that they be dispatched to more accommodating locations. The term 'ethnic cleansing' did not yet exist, but the reality surely did -- and it was far from arousing wholesale disapproval or embarrassment.

The exception, as so often, was Poland. The geographical re-arrangement of Poland -- losing 69,000 square miles of its eastern borderlands to the Soviet Union and being compensated with 40,000 square miles of rather better land from German territories east of the Oder-Neisse rivers -- was dramatic and consequential for Poles, Ukrainians and Germans in the affected lands. But in the circumstances of 1945 it was unusual, and should rather be understood as part of the general territorial adjustment that Stalin imposed all along the western rim of his empire: recovering Bessarabia from Romania, seizing the Bukovina and Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia from Romania and Czechoslovakia respectively, absorbing the Baltic states into the Soviet Union and retaining the Karelian peninsula, seized from Finland during the war.

West of the new Soviet frontiers there was little change. Bulgaria recovered a sliver of land from Romania in the Dobrudja region; the Czechoslovaks obtained from Hungary (a defeated Axis power and thus unable to object) three villages on the right bank of the Danube opposite Bratislava; Tito was able to hold on to part of the formerly Italian territory around Trieste and in Venezia Giulia that his forces occupied at the end of the war. Otherwise land seized by force between 1938 and 1945 was returned and the status quo ante restored.

With certain exceptions, the outcome was a Europe of nation states more ethnically homogenous than ever before.

On Jews in Europe (pp. 31-32):

The problem of the Jews was distinctive. At first the Western authorities treated Jewish DPs like any other, coralling them in camps in Germany alongside many of their former persecutors. But in August 1945 President Truman announced that separate facilities should be provided for all Jewish DPs in the American Zone of Germany: in the words of a report the President had commissioned to look into the problem, the previously integrated camps and centers were 'a distinctly unrealistic approach to the problem. Refusal to recognize the Jews as such has the effect . . . of closing one's eyes to their former and more barbaric persecution.' By the end of September 1945, all Jews in the US Zone were being cared for separately.

There had never been any question of returning Jews to the east -- no-one in the Soviet Union, Poland or anywhere else evinced the slightest interest in having them back. Nor were Jews particularly welcome in the west, especially if educated or qualified in non-manual professions. And so they remained, ironically enough, in Germany. The difficulty of 'placing' the Jews of Europe was only solved by the creation of the state of Israel: between 1948 and 1951 332,000 European Jews left for Israel, either from IRO centers in Germany or else directly from Romania, Poland, and elsewhere, in the case of those still left in those countries. A further 165,000 eventually left for France, Britain, Australia and North or South America.

The war in Greece, extending in to longer-term left-right struggle (p. 35):

Further south, Greece -- like Yugoslavia -- experienced World War Two as a cycle of invasion, occupation, resistance, reprisals and civil war, culminating in five weeks of clashes in Athens between Communists and the royalist-backing British forces in December 1944, after which an armistice was agreed upon in February 1945. Fighting broke out again in 1946, however, and lasted three more years, ending with the rout of the Communists from their strongholds in the mountainous north. While there is no doubt that the Greek resistance to the Italians and the Germans was more effective than the better known resistance movements in France or Italy -- in 1943-44 alone it killed or wounded over 6,000 German soldiers -- the harm it brought to the Greeks themselves was greater still by far. The KKE (Communist) guerillas and the Athens-based and western-backed government of the king terrorized villages, destroyed communications and divided the country for decades to come. By the time the fighting was over, in September 1949, 10 percent of the population was homeless. The Greek civil war lacked many of the ethnic complexities of the fighting in Yugoslavia and Ukraine, but in human terms it was costlier still.

On Nazi war crimes trials (p. 54):

It is thus hard to know how far the trials of Nazis contributed to the political and moral re-education of Germany and the Germans. They were certainly resented by many as 'victors' justice', and that is just what they were. But they were also real trials of real criminals for demonstrably criminal behaviour and they set a vital precedent for international jurisprudence in decades to come. The trials and investigations of the years 1945-48 (when the UN War Crimes Commission was disbanded) put an extraordinary amount of documentation and testimony on record (notably concerning the German project to exterminate Europe's Jews) at the very moment when Germans and others were most disposed to forget as fast as they could. They made clear that crimes committed by individuals for ideological or state purposes were nonetheless the responsibility of individuals and punishable under law. Following orders was not a defense.

On denazification programs (p. 56):

The real problem with any consistent programme aimed at rooting out Nazism from German life was that it was simply not practicable in the circumstances of 1945. In the words of General Lucius Clay, the American Military Commander, 'our major administrative problem was to find reasonably competent Germans who had not been affiliated or associated in some way with the Nazi regime . . . All too often, it seems that the only men with the qualifications . . . are the career civil servants . . . a great proportion of whom were more than nominal participants (by our definition) in the activities of the Nazi Party.'

Clay did not exaggerate. On May 8th 1945, when the war in Europe ended, there were 8 million Nazis in Germany. In Bonn, 102 out of 112 doctors were or had been Party members. In the shattered city of Cologne, of the 21 specialists in the city waterworks office -- whose skills were vital for the reconstruction of water and sewage systems and in the prevention of disease -- 18 had been Nazis. Civil administration, public health, urban reconstruction and private enterprise in post-war Germany would inevitably be undertaken by men like this, albeit under Allied supervision. There could be no question of simply expunging them from German affairs.

More (p. 57):

Germans in the 1940s had little sense of the way the rest of the world saw them. They had no grasp of what they and their leaders had done and were more preoccupied with their own post-war difficulties -- food shortages, housing shortages and the like -- than the sufferings of their victims across occupied Europe. Indeed they were more likely to see themselves in the role of victim and thus regarded trials and other confrontations with Nazi crimes as the victorious Allies' revenge on a defunct regime. With certain honorable exceptions, Germany's post-war political and religious authorities offered scant contradiction to this view, and the country's natural leaders -- in the liberal professions, the judiciary, the civil service -- were the most compromised of all.

And more (p. 58):

Opinion poll data from the immediate post-war years confirm the limited impact of Allied efforts. In October 1946, when the Nuremberg Trial ended, only 6 percent of Germans were willing to admit that they thought it had been 'unfair', but four years later one in three took this view. That they felt this way should come as no surprise, since throughout the years 1945-49 a consistent majority of Germans believed that 'Nazism was a good idea, badly applied'. In November 1946, 37 per cent of Germans questioned in a survey of the American zone took the view that 'the extermination of the Jews and Poles and other non-Aryans was necessary for the security of Germans'.

In the same poll of November 1946, one German in three agreed with the proposition that 'Jews should not have the same rights as those belonging to the Aryan race'. This is not especially surprising, given that respondents had just emerged from twelve years under an authoritarian government committed to this view. What does surprise is a poll taken six years later in which a slightly higher percentage of West Germans -- 37 percent -- affirmed that it was better for Germany to have no Jews on its territory. But then in that same year (1952) 25 percent of West Germans admitted to having a 'good opinion' of Hitler.

Eventually, the lessons of denazification did sink in, but it was more with the postwar generation than with those who supported Hitler at the time. And the reason probably had much less to do with what the denazification programme had to say than with the fact that the postwar era allowed Germany to rebuild and prosper where the Nazis had ultimately brought only defeat and despair. When Germany was ruined and starving, denazification was further punishment; in a prosperous Germany, Nazism became useless and unfashionable baggage.

The US patterned the Iraq debaathification program after the mythical German success. It failed for numerous reasons, especially because life got harder for most Iraqis in post-Saddam Iraq.

On the origins of the welfare state (p. 72):

But the 'welfare state' -- social planning -- was more than just a prophylactic against political upheaval. Our present discomfort with notions of race, eugenics, 'degeneration' and the like obscures the important part these played in European public thinking during the first half of the twentieth century: it wasn't only the Nazis who took such matters seriously. By 1945 two generations of European doctors, anthropologists, public health officials and political commentators had contributed to widespread debates and polemics about 'race health', population growth, environmental and occupational well-being and the public policies through which these might be improved and secured. There was a broad consensus that the physical and moral condition of the citizenry was a matter of common interest and therefore part of the responsibility of the state.

As a consequence, rudimentary welfare provisions of one kind or another were already widespread before 1945, although their quality and reach varied widely. Germany was typically the most advanced country, having already instituted pension, accident and medical insurance schemes under Bismarck, between 1883 and 1889. But other countries began to catch up in the years immediately before and after World War One. Embryonic national insurance and pension schemes were introduced in Britain by Asquith's Liberal governments in the first decade of the century; and both Britain and France established ministries of health immediately following the end of the Great War, in 1919 and 1920 respectively.

On punishing Germany (pp. 105-106):

So far as Germany was concerned -- and 85 percent of the American war effort had gone on the war against Germany -- the initial American intent was quite severe. A directive from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, JCS 1067, was presented to President Truman on April 26th 1945, two weeks after Roosevelt's death. Reflecting the views of, among others, Henry Morgenthau, the US Secretary of the Treasury, it recommended that:

'It should be brought home to the Germans that Germany's ruthless warfare and the fanatical Nazi resistance has destroyed the German economy and made chaos and suffering inevitable and that the Germans cannot escape responsibility for what they have brought upon themselves. Germany will not be occupied for the purpose of liberation but as a defeated enemy nation'. Or, as Morgenthau himself put it, 'It is of the utmost importance that every person in Germany should realize that this time Germany is a defeated nation.'

The point, in short, was to avoid one of the major mistakes of the Versailles Treaty, as it seemed in retrospect to the policy makers of 1945: the failure to bring home to Germans the extent of their sins and the nemesis visited upon them. The logic of this initial American approach to the German question was thus demilitarization, denazification, deindustrialization -- to strip Germany of her military and economic resources and re-educate the population. This policy was duly applied, at least in part: the Wehrmacht was formally dissolved (on August 20th 1946); denazification programs were set in place in the US-occupied zone especially, as we saw in Chapter Two; and strict limits were placed upon German industrial capacity and output, with steel-making particularly severely restricted under the March 1946 'Plan for the Level of the Post-War (German) Economy'.

But from the outset the 'Morgenthau strategy' was vigorously criticized within the US Administration itself. What good would be served by reducing (American-controlled) Germany to a virtually pre-industrial condition? Most of pre-war Germany's best agricultural land was now under Soviet control or else had been transferred to Poland. Meanwhile western Germany was awash in refugees who had access neither to land nor food. Restrictions on urban or industrial output might keep Germany prostrate but they wouldn't feed it or rebuild it. That burden, a very considerable one, would fall on the victorious occupiers. Sooner or later they would need to offload this responsibility onto Germans themselves, at which point the latter would have to be allowed to rebuild their economy.

To these considerations, American critics of the initial US 'hard' line added a further consideration. It was all very well forcibly bringing Germans to a consciousness of their own defeat, but unless they were given some prospect of a better future the outcome might be the same as before: a resentful, humiliated nation vulnerable to demagogy from Right or Left. As former President Herbert Hoover expressed it to Truman himself, in 1946, 'You can have vengeance, or peace, but you can't have both.' If, in American treatment of Germany, the balance of advantage swung increasingly to 'peace' this was largely due to the darkening prospect for US Soviet relations.

In retrospect, we like to think that enlightened, constructive occupation was just the American way -- proof that we always knew better than the vindictive Versailles settlement that ended the First and effectively started the Second World War. As this quote shows, that outcome was not inevitable, and was largely a pragmatic response to the cold war, and even more simply by our desire not to foot the costs of occupation. Moreover, a big part of why this worked was that the Soviets acted out the "bad cop" role so convincingly that our "good cop" appeared tolerable. (This was especially true with Japan, who surrendered quickly enough after the Soviet Union declared war to avoid being partitioned like Germany. Korea was not so lucky.)

The cold war arms race as economic stimulus (pp. 151-152):

The scale of Western rearmament was dramatic indeed. The US defense budget rose from $15.5 billion in August 1950 to $70 billion by December of the following year, following President Truman's declaration of a National Emergency. By 1952-53 defense expenditure consumed 17.8 percent of the US GNP, compared with just 4.7 percent in 1949. In response to Washington's request, America's allies in NATO also increased their defense spending: after falling steadily since 1946, British defense costs rose to nearly 10 percent of GNP in 1951-52, growing even faster than in the hectic rearmament of the immediate pre-war years. France, too, increased defense spending to comparable levels. In every NATO member state, defense spending increased to a post-war peak in the years 1951-53.

The economic impact of this sudden leap in military investment was equally unprecedented. Germany especially was flooded with orders for machinery, tools, vehicles, and other products that the Federal Republic was uniquely well-placed to supply, all the more so because the West Germans were forbidden to manufacture arms and could thus concentrate on everything else. West German steel output alone, 2.5 million tonnes in 1946 and 9 million tonnes in 1949, grew to nearly 15 million tonnes by 1953. The dollar deficit with Europe and the rest of the world fell by 65 percent in the course of a single year, as the United States spent huge sums overseas on arms, equipment stockpiles, military emplacements and troops.

The same thing happened with Japan as a result of the Korean War. This all created the illusion that war was good for business, which in turn gave neither side much incentive for toning the conflict down. This was especially true in the West, where memory of the Great Depression was still strong, and even diehard capitalists came to see military spending as acceptable Keynesianism.

Stalin and the Jews (pp. 182-183):

The first victims were the Jewish leaders of the wartime Anti-Fascist Committee itself. Solomon Mikhoels, its prime mover and a major figure in Russia's Yiddish Teatre, was murdered on January 12th 1948. The arrival in Moscow of Israeli Ambassador Golda Meir on September 11th 1948 was the occasion for spontaneous outbursts of Jewish enthusiasm, with street demonstrations on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kipput and chants of 'Next Year in Jerusalem' outside the Israeli legation. This would have been provocative and unacceptable to Stalin at any time. But he was rapidly losing his enthusiasm for the new State of Israel: whatever its vaguely socialist proclivities it clearly had no intention of becoming a Soviet ally in the region: worse, the Jewish state was demonstrating alarmingly pro-American sensibilities at a sensitive moment. The Berlin blockade had just begun and the Soviet split with Tito was entering its acute phase.

Western intellectual affection for communism (pp. 216-217):

But there was more to intellectual Russophilia than this. It is important to recall what was happening just a few miles to the east. Western intellectual enthusiasm for Communism tended to peak not in times of 'goulash Communism' or 'Socialism with a human face', but rather at the moments of the regime's worst cruelties: 1935-39 and 1944-56. Writers, professors, artists, teachers and journalists frequently admired Stalin not in spite of his faults, but because of them. It was when he was murdering people on an industrial scale, when the show trials were displaying Soviet Communism at its most theatrically macabre, that men and women beyond Stalin's grasp were most seduced by the man and his cult. It was the absurdly large gap separating rhetoric from reality that made it so irresistible to men and women of goodwill in search of a Cause. [ . . . ]

But even so, in th early years of the Cold War there were many in Western Europe who might have been more openly critical of Stalin, of the Soviet Union and of their local Communists had they not been inhibited by the fear of giving aid and comfort to their political opponents. This, too, was a legacy of 'anti-Fascism', the insistence that there were 'no enemies on the Left' (a rule to which Stalin himself, it must be said, paid little attention).

It seems simpler to me to say that these periods of blind support for Stalin correspond most closely with periods of rising right-wing aggression. Since the right focused its attacks on the Soviet Union, it seemed natural and necessary to come to its defense. Most people practice politics according to their local needs. Only when the local political context is neutral can one afford to be objective about somewhere else.

On religion in the near postwar period; that this reversed later on suggests a poverty-prosperity dynamic (pp. 227-228):

If anything, the war had set things in reverse. The modernizing fervor of the 1920s and even the 1930s had drained away, leaving behind an older order of life. In Italy, as in much of rural Europe, children still entered the job market upon completing (or more likely not completing) their primary education; in 1951 only one Italian child in nine attended school past the age of thirteen.

Religion, especially the Catholic religion, basked in a brief Indian summer of restored authority. In Spain the Catholic hierarchy had both the means and the political backing to re-launch the Counter-Reformation: in a 1953 concordat, Franco granted the Church not merely exemption from taxation and all state interference, but al so a right to request censorship of any writing or speech to which it objected. In return the ecclesiastical hierarchy maintained and enforced the conservative conflation of religion with national identity. [ . . . ]

To this was added a new cult of the dead -- the 'martyrs' of the victorious side in the recent Civil War. At the thousands of memorial sites dedicated to victims of anti-clerical Republicanism, the Spanish Church organized countless ceremonies and memorials. a judicious mix of religion, civic authority and victory commemoration reinforced the spiritual and mnemonic monopoly of the clerical hierarchy. Because Franco needed Catholicism even more than the Church needed him -- how else maintain Spain's tenuous post-war links to the international community and the 'West'? -- he gave it, in effect, unrestricted scope to re-create in modern Spain the 'Crusading' spirit of the ancien régime.

On the end of the colonial era, starting with the 1956 Suez war, when the US forced Britain, France, and Israel to withdraw after attacking Egypt (p. 298):

The first lesson of Suez was that Britain could no longer maintain a global colonial presence. The country lacked the military and economic resources, as Suez had only too plainly shown, and in the wake of so palpable a demonstration of British limitations the country was likely now to be facing inreased demands for independence. After a pause of nearly a decade, during which only the Sudan (in 1956) and Malaya (in 1957) had severed their ties with Britain, the country thus entered upon an accelerated phase of de-colonization, in Africa above all. The Gold Coast was granted its freedom in 1957 as the independent state of Ghana, the first of many. Between 1960 and 1964, seventeen more British colonies held ceremonies of independence as British dignitaries traveled the world, hauling down the Union Jack and setting up new governments. The Commonwealth, which had just eight members in 1950, would have twenty-one by 1965, with more to come.

More post-Suez (p. 299):

In 1968 the Labour government of Harold Wilson drew the final, ineluctable conclusion from the events of November 1956 and announced that British forces would henceforth be withdrawn permanently from the various bases, harbors, entrepôts, fuelling ports and other imperial-era establishments that the country had maintained 'East of Suez' -- notably at the fabulous natural harbor of Aden on the Arabian peninsula. The country could no longer afford to pretend to power and influence across the oceans. By and large this outcome was met with relief in Britain itself: as Adam Smith had foreseen, in the twilight of Britain's first empire in 1776, forsaking the 'splendid and showy equipage of empire' was the best way to contain debt and allow the country to 'accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances.'

The second lesson of Suez, as it seemed to the overwhelming majority of the British establishment, was that the UK must never again find itself on the wrong side of an argument with Washington. This didn't mean that the two countries would always agree -- over Berlin and Germany, for example, London was far more disposed to make concessions to Moscow, and this produced some coolness in Anglo-American relations between 1957 and 1961. But the demonstration that Washington could not be counted on to back its friends in all circumstances led Harold Macmillan to precisely the opposite conclusion to that drawn by his French contemporary De Gaulle. Whatever their hesitations, however ambivalent they might feel about particular US actions, British governments would henceforth cleave loyally to US positions. Only that way could they hope to influence American choices and guarantee American support for British concerns when it mattered. This strategic re-alignment was to have momentous implications, for Britain and Europe.

The illustrations between pp. 234-235 include a cartoon quoting Dean Acheson in 1962 saying "Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role." The cartoon shows JFK's head poking out the shoulder of a horse suit, with Harold Macmillan approaching him, the caption "Er, could I be the hind legs, please?" Could just as easily be recycled with Bush and Blair.

On free trade, globalization, and the exploitation of the Third World (p. 326):

In the forty-five years after 1950 worldwide exports by volume increased sixteen-fold. Even a country like France, whose share of world trade remained steady at around 10 percent throughout these years, benefited greatly from the is huge overall increase in international commerce. Indeed, all industrialized countries gained in these years -- the terms of trade moved markedly in their favor after World War Two, as the cost of raw materials and food imported from the non-Western world fell steadily, while the price of manufactured goods kept rising.In three decades of privileged, unequal exchange with the 'Third World', the West had something of a license to print money.

On the Sixties (pp. 477-478):

There is no doubt that this change in mood was also a response to the heady indulgence of the previous decade. Europeans who only recently had enjoyed an unprecedented explosion of energy and originality in music, fashion, cinema and the arts could now contemplate at leisure the cost of their recent revelries. It was not so much the idealism of the Sixties that seemed to have dated so very fast as the innocence of those days: the feeling that whatever could be imagined could be done, that whatever could be made could be possessed; and that transgression -- moral, political, legal, aesthetic -- was inherently attractive and productive. Whereas the Sixties were marked by the naive, self-congratulatory impulse to believe that everything happening was new -- and everything new was significant -- the Seventies were an age of cynicism, of lost illusions and reduced expectations.

On Thatcher (p. 545):

Most of Mrs Thatcher's Tory contemporaries, not to mention the party's cohort of elder statesmen whom she thrust aside as soon as she dared, were genuine conservatives, old enough in many cases to remember the bitter political divisions of the inter-war years and wary of arousing the demon of class warfare. Thatcher was a radical, bent upon destruction and innovation; she scorned compromise. For her, class warfare, suitably updated, was the very stuff of politics. Her policies, often dreamed up at very short notice, were secondary to her goals; and these in turn were in large measure a function of her style. Thatcherism was about how you govern, rather than what you do. Her unfortunate Conservative successors, cast out upon the blasted landscape of post-Thatcherism, had no policies, no goals -- and no style.

On Chernobyl and the decline and fall of the Soviet Union (pp. 597-599):

On that day, at 1:23 am, one of the four huge graphite reactors at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl (Ukraine) exploded, releasing into the atmosphere 120 million curies of radioactive matériel -- more than one hundred times the radiation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The plume of atomic fallout was carried north-west into Western Europe and Scandinavia, reaching as far as Wales and Sweden and exposing an estimated five million people to its effects. In addition to the 30 emergency workers killed on the spot, some 30,000 people have since died from complications caused by exposure to radiation from Chernobyl, including more than 2,000 cases of thyroid cancer among residents in the immediate vicinity.

Chernobyl was not the Soviet Union's first environmental disaster. At Cheliabinsk-40, a secret research site near Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains, a nuclear waste tank exploded in 1957, severely polluting an area 8 km wide and 100 km long, 76 million cubic metres of radioactive waste poured into the Urals river system, contaminating it for decades. 10,000 people were eventually evacuated and 23 villages bulldozed. The reactor at Cheliabinsk was from the first generation of Soviet atomic constructions and had been built by slave labour in 1948-51.

Other man-made environmental calamities on a comparable scale included the pollution of Lake Baikal; the destruction of the Aral Sea; the dumping in the Arctic Ocean and the Barents Sea of hundreds of thousands of tons of defunct atomic naval vessels and their radioactive contents; and the contamination by sulphur dioxide from nickel production of an area the size of Italy around Norilsk in Siberia. These and other ecological disasters were all the direct result of indifference, bad management and the Soviet 'slash and burn' approach to natural resources. They were born of a culture of secrecy. The Cheliabinsk-40 explosion was not officially acknowledged for many decades, even though it occurred within a few kilometers of a large city -- the same city where, in 1979, several hundred people died of anthrax leaked from a biological weapons plant in the town centre.

The problems with the USSR's nuclear reactors were well known to insiders: two separate KGB reports dated 1982 and 1984 warned of 'shoddy' equipment (supplied from Yugoslavia) and serious deficiencies in Chernobyl's reactors 3 and 4 (it was the latter that exploded in 1986). But just as this information had been kept secret (and no action taken) so the Party leadership's first, instinctive response to the explosion on April 26th was to keep quiet about it -- there were, after all, fourteen Chernobyl-type plants in operation by then all across the country. Moscow's first acknowledgement that anything untoward had happened came fully four days after the event, and then in a two-sentence official communiqué. [ . . . ] The bungling, the mendacity and the cynicism of the men responsible both for the disaster and the attempt to cover it up could not be dismissed as a regrettable perversion of Soviet values: they were Soviet values, as the Soviet leader began to appreciate.

Judt then notes that the impossibility of keeping Chernobyl secret led Gorbachev to "shift gears" and relax censorship, thus initiating how perestroika policy.

The book extensively covers the fall of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Here's a note on the rather anomalous case of Romania (pp. 622-623):

Romanians, however, paid a terrible price for Ceasescu's privileged status. In 1966, to increase the population -- a traditional 'Romanianist' obsession -- he prohibited abortion for women under forty with fewer than four children (in 1986 the age barrier was raised to forty-five). In 1984 the minimum marriage age for women was reduced to fifteen. Compulsory monthly medical examinationsfor all women of childbearing age were introduced to prevent abortions, which were permitted, if at all, only in the presence of a Party representative. Doctors in districts with a declining birth rate had their salaries cut.

The population did not increase, but the death rate from abortions far exceeded that of any other European country: as the only available form of birth control, illegal abortions were widely performed, often under the most appalling and dangerous conditions. Over the ensuing twenty-three years the 1966 law resulted in the death of at least ten thousand women. The real infant mortality rate was so high that after 1985 births were not officially recorded until a child had survived to its fourth week -- the apotheosis of Communist control of knowledge. By the time Ceausescu was overthrown the death rate of new-born babies was twenty-five per thousand and there were upward of 100,000 institutionalized children.

The setting for this national tragedy was an economy that was deliberately turned backward, from subsistence into destitution. In the early Eighties, Ceausescu decided to enhance his country's international standing still further by paying down Romania's huge foreign debts. The agencies of international capitalism -- starting with the International Monetary Fund -- were delighted and could not praise the Romanian dictator enough. Bucharest was granted a complete rescheduling of its external debt. To pay off his Western creditors, Ceausescu applied unrelenting and unprecedented pressure upon domestic consumption. [ . . . ]

Ceausescu's policies had a certain ghoulish logic. Romanic did indeed pay off its international creditors, albeit at the cost of reducing it spopulation to penury.

On the triumph of capitalism in Russia (pp. 688-689):

Capitalism, in the gospel that spread across post-Communist Europe, is about markets. And markets mean privatization. The fire-sale of publicly owned commodities in post-1989 eastern Europe had no historical precedent. The cult of privatization in western Europe that had gathered pace from the late Seventies offered a template for the helter-skelter retreat from state ownership in the East; but otherwise they had very little in common. Capitalism, as it had emerged in the Atlantic world and Western Europe over the course of four centuries, was accompanied by laws, institutions, regulations and practices upon which it was critically dependent for its operation and its legitimacy. In many post-Communist countries such laws and institutions were quite unknown -- and dangerously underestimated by neophyte free-marketers there.

The result was privatization as kleptocracy. At its most shameless, in Russia under the rule of Boris Yeltsin and his friends, the post-transition economy passed into the hands of a small number of men who became quite extraordinarily rich -- by the year 2004 thirty-six Russian billionaires ('oligarchs') had corralled an estimated $100 billion, one quarter of the country's entire domestic product. The distinction between privatization, graft and simple theft all but disappeared: there was so much -- oil, gas, minerals, precious metals, pipelines -- to steal and no-one and nothing to prevent its theft. Public assets and institutions were pulled apart and re-allocated to one another by officials extracting and securing quite literally anything that moved or could be legally re-assigned ot private parties.

On Bush-era politics (p. 786):

The European public (as distinct from certain European statesmen) was overwhelmingly opposed both to the American invasion of Iraq in that year and to the broader lines of US foreign policy under President George W. Bush. But the outpouring of anxiety and anger to which this opposition gave rise, though it was shared and expressed by many European intellectuals, did not depend upon them for its articulation or organization. Some French writers -- Lévy, again, or Pascal Bruckner -- refused to condemn Washington, partly for fear of appearing unreflectively anti-American and partly out of sympathy for its stance against 'radical Islam'. They passed virtually unheard.

Once-influential figures like Michnik and Glucksmann urged their readers to support Washington's Iraq policy, arguing by extension from their own earlier writings on Communism that a policy of 'liberal interventionism' in defense of human rights everywhere was justified on general principles and that America was now, as before, in the vanguard of the struggle against political evil and moral relativism. Having thus convinced themselves that the American President was conducting his foreign policy for their reasons, they were then genuinely surprised to find themselves isolated and ignored by their traditional audiences.

A little bit on what we remember as history, specifically on how France remembers itself (pp. 816-817):

Following the Liberation, for all the obloquy poured upon Pétain and his collaborators, his regime's contribution to the Holocaust was hardly ever invoked, and certainly not by the post-war French authorities themselves. It was not just that the French successfully corralled 'Vichy' into a corner of national memory and then mothballed it. They simply didn't make the link between Vichy and Auschwitz. Vichy had betrayed France. Collaborators had committed treason and war crimes. But 'crimes against humanity' were not part of the French juridical lexicon. They were the affairs of Germans. [ . . . ]

As so often in France in those years, such sentiments probably had more to do with wounded pride than with unadorned racism. As recently as 1939, France had been a major international power. But in three short decades it suffered a shattering military defeat, a demeaning occupation, two bloody and embarrassing colonial withdrawals, and (in 1958) a regime change in the form of a near-coup. La Grande Nation had accumulated so many losses and humiliations since 1914 that the compensatory propensity to assert national honour on every possible occasion had become deeply ingrained. Inglorious episodes -- or worse -- were best consigned to a memory-hole. Vichy, after all, was not the only thing that the French were in a hurry to put behind them -- no-one wanted to talk about the 'dirty wars' in Indo-China and Algeria, much less the torture practised there by the army.

Degreasing Kansas

Big local news yesterday was that the Barton Solvents plant in Valley Center, KS -- about 9-10 miles north-northwest of where we live -- exploded around 9AM and burned the rest of the day, spewing toxic fumes, mostly blowing north away from Wichita. Valley Center had to be evacuated. The plant had 36 large tanks of chemicals -- mostly degreasers and paint strippers -- and all 36 burned. The soot was noted as particularly corrosive. The company has played down the long-term risks of the chemicals, some known to be carcinogenic. This is the second major industrial accident turned ecological disaster in Kansas in the last few weeks, following a flood at a Coffeyville oil refinery that spread thousands of gallons of oil and chemicals throughout the town.

This isn't enough data to generalize into any assertions about how the right's pursuit of deregulation and underming of labor, job safety, and environmental regulations may be kicking back at us. But it is clear that whenever anything like this happens, everyone -- industry included -- looks to government to clean up the mess. Whether the Bush administration has stacked the deck to make such accidents more likely is something to look into, but it's certainly the case that Bush has made it harder to respond appropriately to such events.

On the world news, these events were overshadowed by a nuclear power plant in Japan, which leaked radiation due to damage from an earthquake. That's one of those things that critics of nuclear power have warned against for decades now. Offhand, the damage appears to be far less than one could imagine, but the costs to clean it up will no doubt be enormous. The earthquake was rated at 6.8, which is substantial but far from the top of the scale. Japan is very prone to earthquakes, but supposedly also skilled at building around them.

Nuclear power plants, oil refineries, solvent factories -- these have become necessary hazards of everyday life. Under the best of circumstances it is hard to evaluate the real risks they pose. Having them run by private companies in states dominated by crony capitalism makes it all the more difficult. The usual methods of risk assessment, like insurance costs, seem to be falling apart. One wonders whether anyone knows the real risks and potential liabilities of disasters anymore.


I'll be posting a quote from Tony Judt's Postwar on Chernobyl and the ecological disasters in the Soviet Union, which were far worse than anything listed above. Those cases were deeply rooted in the Soviet system, but that doesn't guarantee they can't happen here. Bush capitalism strikes me as converging on some of the worst aspects of the Soviet system: economic command systems outside of public scrutiny and regulation, protected by a cult of secrecy; the belief all problems are political, even to the extent that ideology trumps science; a cynical dependence on propaganda; a cavalier acceptance of corruption. It seems to matter least whether the polluters are private owners or state apparatchiks.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Recycled Goods #45: July 2007

Recycled Goods #45, July 2007, has been posted at Static Multimedia. Given that June's column had been delayed, I took a little extra time for July to space the columns out. I hope to adjust the schedule back to the start of each month by September or October, although they've always been somewhat hit-and-miss.

One error has already come to my attention: the Standells' hit was "Dirty Water" -- not "Muddy Water." Maybe it's that the floods here in Kansas have churned up so much mud -- I've never seen the Little Arkansas so thickly brown as it's been recently -- but in my haste I pull these references out of an increasingly faulty memory. Don't have much of a fact checking department here.

The album count is up to 1920. Currently have 42 records held back for August or later, plus 9 more for a future (September?) "In Series" on Cuban classics.


Here's the publicists letter:

Recycled Goods #45, July 2007, is finally up at Static Multimedia:

  link

46 records. Index by label:

  Asphalt Tango: Fanfare Ciocarlia
  ATO: Vusi Mahlasela
  AUM Fidelity: William Parker/Hamid Drake (2)
  Calle 54: Martirio
  Concord: Chet Baker, Art Blakey, Tadd Dameron, Bill Evans, Roy Haynes,
    Jimmy Heath, Roland Kirk, Thelonious Monk, Flora Purim
  Crammed Discs: Roots of Rumba Rock
  EMI (Blue Note): Donald Byrd, Booker Ervin, Dexter Gordon, Thad Jones,
    Jackie McLean, Art Taylor
  Heinz: Pink Martini
  MODL: Havana Carbo
  Mosaic: Bud Freeman
  Oy! Hoo: Pharoah's Daughter
  Retrieval: Red Nichols/Miff Mole
  Six Degrees: Azam Ali
  Sony/BMG (Legacy): Blue Oyster Cult (2), Johnny Cash, Electric Light
    Orchestra, Charles Mingus (2), Monty Python (3), Ray Price (2),
    The Remains, Joe Strummer
  Soundway: Panama!
  Stonetree: From Bakabush
  Sunnyside (CAM Jazz): Martirio/Chano Dominguez, Nino Rota

This is the 45rd monthly column. Thus far I've covered a total of 1920
albums in Recycled Goods.

Thanks again for your support.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Music: Current count 13383 [13358] rated (+25), 811 [818] unrated (-7). Just putting along aimlessly. Did some jazz prospecting. While working around the house pulled out some easier marks -- recycled items plus a few long-unrated things -- which is why the rated count stayed healthy. Recycled Goods is stalled, but I should get it in later today, and expect it out mid-week. I expected it to be late, but not this late.

  • Andrews Sisters: Greatest Hits: The 60th Anniversary Collection (1937-50 (1998), MCA): The great white pop group of the war years, running through their main hits, with a couple of Bing Crosby combos thrown in. It was a time when "working for the Yankee dollar" was everyone's dream, mostly because that's who had all the dollars. A-
  • Juan Atkins: Legends, Volume 1 (2000-01, Om): Not many dates, especially if we ignore the one that says 2020. Never heard of any of the legends either, assuming the title refers to the various artists whose work is remixed or whatever here. Says "file under techno/house." Don't know any better; certainly not enough to bump this up a bit more, although it's plenty attractive. B+
  • Kathie Baillie: Love's Funny That Way (2006 [2007], Aspirion): Country singer, solid title cut but not much to back it up; voice foregoes twang and sass for folkie purity. Ends with a prayer -- good enough to prove that she has one. B-
  • So Real: Songs From Jeff Buckley (1993-97 [2007], Columbia/Legacy): Two thoughts: 1) heavy metal is the new opera; 2) it takes someone who understand that to bring the true horror of the concept out; songs from Piaf and Cohen withstand much of the onslaught, succumbing only to his preciousness; his originals lack vested interests. B-
  • Jeff Buckley: Grace (Legacy Edition) (1993-94 [2004], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD+DVD): After the EP bait on Live at Sin-é (also available in a ridiculously expanded Legacy Edition), and before his swim date with the grim reaper, a grab at immortality; a preening, acrobatic singer, but a pretty fair guitarist (unless that's Michael Tighe I'm noticing); the excess is scattered, the best an instrumental "Kanga-Roo" that churns on and on. C+
  • Chris Connor: Sings the George Gershwin Almanac of Song (1956-61 [1989], Atlantic, 2CD): Starts unpromising with strings, but soon moves back to the jazz orbit. Great songs; a winning vocalist. In the end this is almost as good as Ella Fitzgerald's Gershwin songbook. A-
  • Dorsey Dixon: Babies in the Mill (1963 [1997], HMG): Carolina traditional, industrial, sacred songs, recorded in 1963 by a mill worker with a scattered recording career going back to the '30s. Title cut, about child labor, is fairly classic. B+
  • Jimi Hendrix: BBC Sessions (1967 [1998], MCA, 2CD): Just have a promo with no booklet on this, so don't have credits or dates; AMG gives recording dates as Feb 13, 1967 to Dec 15, 1967. Mostly redundant, of course, but "Hound Dog" blows me away, and other pieces are nearly as impressive -- their "Day Tripper" is certainly better than most Beatles covers. Christgau graded this down in favor of an earlier single-disc version, Radio One ([1988], Rykodisc), which I haven't heard. I could have graded this up, but held off in the end -- figuring I want to at least see a real copy, and always guarded in my reaction to him. Of course, the guitar is amazing. I'm getting used to the offhandedness of the vocals, too. Someday I may cease to be a skeptic. Someday I may revisit this and grade it higher. B+
  • TV on the Radio: Return to Cookie Mountain (2006, Interscope): Last year's near-consensus record of the year -- the only other one that won any significant number of polls was Dylan. Christgau warned me off their previous record, which made sense to me because the one of the few things I hate more than TV is radio. Christgau then turned around and gave this an A- (albeit not a very high one), so I felt like I had to give it a listen. I've given it 6-8 plays, in fact. The music is well trimmed and layered, and some of it is inspiring. But I'm not conscious of a single lyric on it -- I have trouble following rock lyrics, especially on records that sound like this. Maybe if I did I'd be more impressed, or maybe not. Has a stretch of silence before an extra track or two -- annoying, but some of the best stuff on the album. B+(**)


Jazz Prospecting (CG #14, Part 5)

I expected to have July's Recycled Goods out by now, but it's been delayed again. The publisher has it now, and it should be out later this week. I dabbled a bit on reissues and backlog and even made up my mind on TV on the Radio [B+(**)] but mostly I prospected jazz this last week, and found a few contenders. I wound up having to complain about not getting the Billy Bang and David Murray records -- struck me as a pretty major oversight, but in the end they sent Alvin Queen as a bonus. Also caught up with Clean Feed and their weird promo packages -- the last batch managed to get wet, like they had to swim from Portugal, but they played OK. Put quite a few back for further listening. Figure next week will be more of the same, possibly with some second passes worked in.


Boots Randolph: A Whole New Ballgame (2006 [2007], Zoho): Tenor saxophonist, did some pop instrumentals in the early '60s which got classified as country because he was born in Paducah and based in Nashville. No idea what the title means -- there's nothing remotely new here, just a bunch of swing standards like "Stompin' at the Savoy" plus a couple of weak takes on Parker and Monk. Not much impressed by his tone, but I can't get too down on him. [Just noticed that he passed away on July 3, at age 80.] B-

Alvin Queen: I Ain't Looking at You (2005 [2007], Enja/Justin Time): Drummer, from Queens, has a couple of albums on his own, as well as side credits, going back to the '70s, including: Charles Tolliver, Lockjaw Davis, Horace Parlan, John Patton, George Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, Kenny Drew, Bennie Wallace, Dusko Goykovich, Warren Vaché. Going back to the '60s, as a teenager he played in a Wild Bill Davis Trio, spent six months with Don Pullen backing Ruth Brown, joined Horace Silver's band, then by the time he was 21 moved on to George Benson. I list all this not just to establish Queen's bona fides but because he manages to pull them all together here. Mike LeDonne's organ identifies this as soul jazz, underscored by opening with a Shirley Scott piece, reflected later in a LeDonne original called "Shirley's Song." The B3 usually covers for piano and bass, so most organ records are trios, with drums and either guitar or a horn. This does both, with Peter Bernstein on guitar, Jesse Davis on alto sax, and for good measure Terrell Stafford on trumpet and flugelhorn. Soul jazz may seem like old news -- only two originals here, both by LeDonne, both pointed straight into the past -- but it's rarely been done with so much flair. A-

Sten Sandell Trio + John Butcher: Strokes (2006 [2007], Clean Feed): Sandell is a Norwegian pianist, combines interests in free improv, avant composition (Cage, Feldman, Xenakis), classical music from around the world, art rock, and so forth. Also dabbles in voice and electronics, which are used here but not so obvious. Butcher is a British saxophonist; he's recorded quite a bit since 1990, but I've heard very little and don't have much of a sense of him. Two long pieces here, plus one short one at the end -- sort of a throwback to the '70s, when we still thought we could discover new things. Maybe we still can. [B+(**)]

Sonic Openings Under Pressure: Muhheankuntuk (2006 [2007], Clean Feed): Alto sax trio, led by Patrick Brennan, who's recorded under this group name with other people before -- this time it's Hilliard Greene on bass, David Pleasant on drums, etc. Brennan came to New York from Detroit in 1975. He plays tight, fast, complex runs over free rhythms, with a hard tone; unpretty, but rigorously functional. Need to play it again, but I'm impressed so far. Don't know how many records he has, but this is the first I've heard. [B+(***)]

Joélle Leandre/Pascal Contet: Freeway (2005 [2007], Clean Feed): Duo improv, with Leandre on bass, Contet on accordion. Record split into 12 pieces, titled "Freeway 1" to "Freeway 12." In short, scattered stuff that demands a close ear, and returns somewhat more than passing interest. B+(*)

Anthony Braxton/Joe Fonda: Duets 1995 (1995 [2007], Clean Feed): This is a reissue of 10 Compositions (Duet) 1995, previously issued on Konnex. Braxton plays C melody and alto sax, contrabass and B flat clarinet; Fonda plays double bass. Composition count doesn't quite add up: 8 pieces here, one of which is called "Composition 168-147"; two are covers, one from Cole Porter, the other from Vernon Duke. Elemental free jazz interplay, just Fonda's bass circled by Braxton's saxophones or clarinets; measured, thoughtful, too carefully planned and executed to be pure improv, but rarely what you expected. B+(***)

Evan Parker: A Glancing Blow (2006 [2007], Clean Feed): A trio with John Edwards on bass, Chris Corsano on drums. Parker's an important player with a huge discography that I've barely scratched the surface of and can scarcely claim to get. About all I can say is that I find his electronics baffling; his soprano sax can get pretty annoying (and sometimes amazing, as in The Snake Decides); but I usually enjoy his tenor sax, which is much in evidence here. Two long pieces, evidently live, from the Vortex in London. Would like to hear more. Indeed, he's a long-term project. [B+(***)]

Joe Morris/Ken Vandermark/Luther Gray: Rebus (2006 [2007], Clean Feed): Six pieces, each called "Rebus," with no composer credit -- at least that I can find in the weird and, in this case, severely mangled promo packaging -- so I figure this is pure improv, built around a Morris theme. I've tried focusing on the guitarist throughout: his solos sparkle, and he's played enough bass elsewhere in his career that he fills that role when Vandermark takes over -- which is most of the time. Vandermark sticks to tenor sax here -- he plays all sorts of reed instruments in his conceptual contexts, but the tenor sax is his native language, and I can listen to him spin its stories endlessly. Gray helps out on drums. A-

Raymond MacDonald/Günter "Baby" Sommer: Delphinius & Lyra (2005 [2007], Clean Feed): MacDonald is a alto/soprano saxophonist from Scotland. Has a group called the Burt-MacDonald Quintet ("one of the most adventurous jazz groups in Scotland"; Burt is guitarist George), and plays in the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, a/k/a GIO. MacDonald is pretty obscure, but Sommer has been one of the main drummers of Europe's avant-garde over the last three decades, despite spending much of that time in the GDR. His own discography is thin, but includes a number of notable duos, especially with Cecil Taylor and Irène Schweizer. He brings a lot to this duo, even when the main thing you hear is MacDonald's piercing squall. One section erupts in shouts. These guys are having a blast. [B+(***)]

Martin Speicher/Georg Wolf/Lou Grassi: Shapes and Shadows (2006 [2007], Clean Feed): Free jazz trio; alto sax/clarinet, bass, drums, respectively. Speicher is German, did a couple of records in the '90s, but otherwise I don't know anything about him. I know even less about Wolf. Grassi is an American drummer; runs a group called PoBand with 10 or so records, and has side credits going back to Roswell Rudd's Numatic Swing Band. Another fine record, although after a handful of these I'm hard-pressed to sort them all out; this one winds up as something people who like this sort of thing will like, but probably not much more. B+(*)

Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana: Miren (A Longing) (2006 [2007], Clean Feed): Indian percussionist, based in New York. Did a previous Trio Tarana album I liked a lot, called Climbing the Banyan Tree (Clean Feed), with Jason Kao Hwang and Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz. The group has changed this time, with Sam Bardfeld replacing Hwang on violin, Brandon Terzic replacing Blumenkranz on oud. Neither strikes me as an improvement -- the Chinese twang of Hwang's violin is particularly missed -- but the riddim rolls on just fine. [B+(***)]

David Lackner: Chapter One (2006, Dreambox Media): Alto/soprano saxophonist, in a Philadelphia quintet drescribed as "the Dreambox house band." I know very little about Lackner, other than that he's very young (20, I hear) and this is his first album. He wrote all but two of the pieces, covering "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" and "Cherokee." Has a very nice, warm tone on alto, playing fairly mainstream post-bop. B+(*)

François Ingold Trio: Song Garden (2006 [2007], Altrisuoni): Swiss pianist, in a trio with bassist Diego Imbert and drummer Fred Bintner. Looks like his first album. Don't know much more. I like the record quit ea bit, but it's one of those things I don't have much to say about. Given the nominal release date, no problem holding it back for later. [B+(**)] [Sept. 1]

Billy Bang Quintet Featuring Frank Lowe: Above & Beyond: An Evening in Grand Rapids (2003 [2007], Justin Time): They pulled this out of the files, recognizing it as the last time Bang and Lowe played together, but regardless of context it is simply fabulous. If Lowe seems uncharacteristically mild, Bang explains that Lowe was only operating on one lung, and in Cleveland "he was so out of breath at the end of the gig that the lady who promoted it wanted to call an ambulance." Lowe looks awful on the back cover here, and finally succumbed to cancer less than five months hence. But the word for his sound here is sweet. Andrew Bemkey's piano adds a contrasting sharpness, and Bang flat out swings. Some spots get rough, including an awkward, ugly close on one piece where all you can do is laugh it off. A-

David Murray Black Saint Quartet: Sacred Ground (2006 [2007], Justin Time): This record does not mark the return of David Murray to church. The title piece and a closer called "The Prophet of Doom" are based on texts by Ishmael Reed, sung by Cassandra Wilson, with little or no gospel reference. Five pieces in between are instrumentals, Murray originals played by his quartet. Just to single out one of them, "Pierce City" has the most intense, uplifting, overpowering tenor sax solo I've heard in this young century, followed by a piano run that flows from the comping and is good enough to forgive Lafayette Gilchrist's last album. Murray returns on bass clarinet to tone down the next cut. I'm not done with this -- the grade here is a minimum, and could rise. Given that my other favorite record this year is Powerhouse Sound, we could wind up with another Vandermark-Murray pick hit billing. I hate being so predictable, and hope someone else steps up to the plate. But this makes that a tall order. A-

Roscoe Mitchell/The Transatlantic Art Ensemble: Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2, and 3 (2004 [2007], ECM): I'm reluctant to rate this because I'm only sort of starting to get it, but objectively it's difficult enough that it's likely to end up more or less where it is. The US contingent starts with three quarters of James Carter's old quartet (Craig Taborn, Jaribu Shahid, Tani Tabbal), then adds trumpeter Corey Wilkes and Mitchell playing relatively inconspicuous soprano sax. The Europeans mostly cluster around Evan Parker, significantly including Barry Guy and Paul Lytton. There's also a string section keyed by Philipp Wachsmann's violin -- another Parker connection. Recorded in Munich, which gives the benefit of the doubt to Europe. Starts dull with strings, but flows, branches, flowers, whatever. Some of this sounds like what I imagine Barry Guy's bands should sound like if I could hear them, which thus far has never happened -- of all those I see as projects, he's one of the toughest. Intersects enough with Parker's electro projects, also on ECM, that it could be considered one. Don't know, but I do rather enjoy the complex layering. It's enough to get lost in. [B+(**)]

Stefano Battaglia: Re: Pasolini (2005 [2007], ECM, 2CD): That would be Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-75), best known for but by no means limited to his films. Battaglia is a pianist and composer who pays homage at great length, writing material that would no doubt work as soundtrack. The two discs have different groups with Battaglia the only common player, but cello dominates both, with violin added on the second, trumpet and clarinet on the first. I'm torn here, impressed by the stately, magisterial music, but anxious to move on. B+(*)

Ron Carter: Dear Miles, (2006 [2007], Blue Note): Well, he's got a right, and he's still commanding with his bass. The group is a quartet -- actually, a piano trio plus percussion. The pianist is Stephen Scott, a good fit. The songbook is mostly associated with Miles Davis, but only "Seven Steps to Heaven" has even a co-credit to Davis. Two pieces are by Carter, who's also associated with Davis. B+(**)

Russ Spiegel: Chimera (2006 [2007], Steeplechase): Guitarist, originally from Los Angeles (b. 1962), lived in Germany for a spell, now based in Brooklyn. First album, a sextet including vibes but no piano. Wrote all the pieces except "Cherokee." The two horns -- David Smith's trumpet, Arun Luthra's saxes -- offer rich and varied higlights, but the spots that most struck me were when the guitar rose to the top. Will get back to the album later, but for now I want to not how pleased I was to open my mail and find a Steeplecase CD in it. They're a Danish label, founded in 1972, with a large, well tended, and critically important catalog. Although they have had a few European artists -- Tete Montoliu, John Tchicai, Michal Urbaniak, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen -- they've primarily served as a haven for American artists, starting with Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, Duke Jordan, and Archie Shepp, while later filling their catalog with postbop notables like Doug Raney, George Colligan, Harold Danko, Joe Locke, Steve Stryker, Bob Rockwell, many others. Lately they've been hard to get in touch with and follow -- I could say much the same about Criss Cross, a similar Dutch label. [B+(**)]

Tomas Janzon: Coast to Coast to Coast (2006, Changes Music): Janzon noticed I had put this on down in the "low priority" section of that missed music list I published a few months ago, so he sent a copy. Glad he did. Guitarist, born in Sweden, based in Los Angeles (more or less) since 1991. Record is recorded with several configurations of trio and quartet groups -- no horns, the fourth instrument is either William Henderson's piano or Birger Thorelli's marimba. Cool, intricate style; attractive record. [B+(**)]

Rafi Malkiel: My Island (2006 [2007], Raftone): Latin jazz, with all the bells and maracas, the songs conscientiously broken down by style (bolero, guajira, bomba, danzon-cha, etc.) and country (Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Brazil, with New Orleans listed for Duke Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy." Malkiel is originally from Israel, now based on New York. He plays trombone and euphonium, composed the majority of the pieces, arranged the rest. I suppose I'll get flack for favoring this over the natives, but I love the light touch and imaginative arrangements -- even the old-fashioned vocals -- and I do enjoy good trombone. [A-]

Alexa Weber Morales: Vagabundeo/Wanderings (2007, Patois): Singer-songwriter, from Berkeley CA, on her second album; I find her command of Latin idioms completely convincing, entrancing even, but I can't say the same for her Afro-funk, 6/8 gospel, or ballad, and have the usual reservations about that goddess of war. B

Charmaine Clamor: Flippin' Out (2007, FreeHam): Jazz singer, from Subic-Zambales in the Philippines, presumably based in the US these days, on her second album. First song is a "My Funny Valentine" spinoff ("My Funny Brown Pinay") that I found annoying, and she continued to dig a whole for herself until midway through I noticed that her take on Nina Simone's "Sugar in My Bowl" wasn't bad. That was followed by a 5-piece "Filipino Suite" that started with some interesting percussion courtesy of the Pakaragulan Kulintang Ensemble. That didn't quite sustain my interest, but her "Be My Love" ballad came off well. So I figure I should play it again, but not now. [B]

Nicki Parrott/Rossano Sportiello: People Will Say We're in Love (2006 [2007], Arbors): I'm tempted to make this a Pick Hit just for the cover, with the gawky, awkward, besmitten pianist hovering behind the lithe, discreetly charming bassist/singer. He is actually an elegant accompanist, with light touch and considerable speed to build upon the bass melodies. He even joins in on singing one -- terrible voice, of course. She has a delightful voice -- not something you'd put on a pedestal -- but she's also content to just play bass more often than not. Standards mostly. Charming record. B+(**)

Joe Cohn: Restless (2006 [2007], Arbors): Al Cohn's son, basically a rhythm guitarist, which means he tends to disappear behind the horns regardless of how much swing he contributes. Co-led a group that put out a terrific album last year, but most of the credit went to his partner Harry Allen, who does that sort of thing all the time. Here Cohn is alone on the cover, mostly working with a mild-mannered alto saxophonist named Dmitry Baevsky. Their cuts are uniformly nice. But on five cuts, Allen appears as a guest, and he really slices the bacon. So in the end this is half a Harry Allen album -- an inconvincing step forward for Cohn, but one with much to enjoy. B+(***)

Barney McClure Trio: Spot (2006 [2007], OA2): This looks like a low-value target: organ-guitar-drums trio, three guys I've never heard of: the leader playing organ, drummer Kevin Congleton, guitarist, and with a "featuring" credit, guitarist Mike Denny. But Denny composed half the pieces, and outranks McClure in previous albums, two to one. (Correction: McClure's website lists five previous albums; haven't found any more for Denny.) Actually, this is a terrific record -- light, loose, and lively, none of which are common adjectives for organ trios. [B+(***)]


No final grades/notes on records put back for further listening this week.


Unpacking:

  • Chicago Tentet: American Landscapes 1 (Okkadisk)
  • Chicago Tentet: American Landscapes 2 (Okkadisk)
  • Hamilton de Hollanda: Íntimo (Adventure Music)
  • Joachim Kühn/Majid Bekkas/Ramon Lopez: Kalimba (ACT)
  • Nguyên Lê: Purple: Celebrating Jimi Hendrix (2002, ACT)
  • Machan: Motion of Love (Nu Groove)
  • Manhattan New Music Project: Performs Paul Nash: Jazz Cycles (MNNP)
  • The Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra: First Flight (Summit)
  • Charles Mingus Sextet With Eric Dolphy: Cornell 1964 (1964, Blue Note, 2CD)
  • Paul Motian Trio 2000 + Two: Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (Winter & Winter)
  • Andre Previn: Alone (Emarcy)
  • Matt Shulman: So It Goes (Jaggo)
  • Ricardo Silveira: Outro Rio (Another River) (Adventure Music)
  • Assif Tsahar/Cooper-Moore/Chad Taylor: Digital Primitives (Hopscotch)
  • Zap Mama: Supermoon (Heads Up)

Purchases:

  • Noisettes: What's the Time Mr Wolf? (Cherry/Universal Motown)
  • Spoon: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Nicholas von Hoffman: Hoax

I read Nicholas von Hoffman's Hoax: Why Americans Are Suckered by White House Lies (paperback, 2004, Nation Books) shortly after it came out, by which point is argument that the Iraq war was a trumped up fake was already taking flak from insurgents. Still, it is worth emphasizing that Bush picked the weak link in his Axis of Evil to roadtest his doctrine of preëmptive war.


First chapter ("The Big Lie"), first paragraph, and then some (pp. 1-2):

The frightening shark swimming with toothy grin in a giant aquarium does not see the human faces looking in from the other side of the glass. The shark is in a world of its own, with its own reality. Like the shark, Americans don't see the people outside the glass. It is as though America is in a 3,000 mile wide terrarium, an immense biosphere which has cut it off from the rest of the world and left it to pick its own way down the path of history. By the time the American army stepped into Iraq, the difference in world view between the United States and everybody else had grown to the size of he hole in the atmosphere over the South Pole.

A fanciful explanation for the two realities is that the United States is the continent-wide set for a large scale reenactment of the movie The Truman Show. The plot of that movie has the well-intentioned but naive hero go about his daily life without any suspicion that he is, in fact, in a gigantic soap opera. His hometown is actually the set for the TV show and from earliest childhood he has been manipulated and controlled by the producer and the director. The enthusiastic acceptance by the American multitudes of teh Iraqi stuff-and-nonsense coming out of the White House would be understandable if we all are living on a stage set in a village called Freedom Island threatened by a town called Evil Axis.

Americans believed, as they usually do when their government and their television tell them something, but the rest of the world laughed every time George Bush or Colin Powell or Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld thought up yet one more scary reason to invade Iraq. The ill-constructed, clumsy untruths were surprisingly crude for people who have had years to practice the craft of mass deception, and they had only to speak their latest falsehood to be cheered by their countrymen and disbelieved by non-Americans everywhere.

On body counts (p. 16):

When the losses were totaled up, the numbers revealed that the United States lost more troops at the hands of Sitting Bull at the Battle of Little Big Horn than it did at the hands of Saddam Hussein in Gulf War III.

The American biosphere (p. 17-18):

As nation after nation -- Arab, among some other nations, excepted -- has given up the death penalty, America, though it once toyed with the idea of abolishing it, has taken it up again with a zeal not seen since the early part of the 20th century. Then-Governor Bill Clinton broke off campaigning in New England in 1992 to fly home to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a half-wit to propitiate popular opinion. If not with relish, then with general approbation, Governor George Bush saw hundreds of his own people into the Texas death-operating room where the condemned are killed with chemicals but not in the whole manner of Saddam Hussein. Elsewhere a close career connection with the taking of life would exclude a politician from attaining the highest offices; in the United States it is a recommendation.

On memory and the self (pp. 49-50):

If a public opinion survey were to ask a question like "Would America ever drop the bomb first?", count on it, a healthy fraction of the respondents would say, "Never did, never will." Regardless of whether the Unitd States should or should not have dropped the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities, there is a part of the population who do not know it happened, and if told about it, will soon not know it happened again. Dropping atomic bombs has no place in the American gestalt. Every time the event is written on the national conscience the palimpsest of memory wipes it out and writes some good deed of the heart in its place. From the outside looking in, you might say it was a case of disassociative political morality.

(p. 75):

If it were not self evident, Machiavelli would have laid down a rule saying that you do not get to pick the boss of the other side. You do not even want to pick the other side's boss, because he will not be able to carry out the bargain you strike with him for the simple reason that he will have no support among his own people. Tot he Americans he is a responsible leader, to his people he is a Quisling.

For a quarter of a century the Americans and the Israelis have been looking tor replace Yasir Arafat, surely a less than loveable character, with an acceptable (to them) substitute. He is not, we were told, a "suitable partner for peace." But that is so much tail chasing. The only suitable partner for peace is he who can make a deal and make it stick. Slobodan Milosovic did that in Yugoslavia. Mass murderer or not, he made the deal and the guns fell silent.

(p. 92):

How the people in government thought they could get away with some of their whoppers is past imagining. After the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, talk started getting around that there were post-bomb deaths caused by radiation. The government immediately denied it and the head of the Manhattan Project, Major General Leslie R. Groves, pronounced that, "This talk about radio-activity is so much nonsense." What was the point of that one? And how long did they think they could get away with it? So much high level lying is purposeless, done from habit. How else to explain the line of half-baked, nutty, next-day-refutable lies coming out of the Bush White House about weapons, terrorists, plans, and intentions?

On invading Iraq (pp. 105-106):

Convention holds that a war demands two armies in some form of organized combat, be it ever so brief. What the reporters were involved in was a Boy Scout jamboree during which hostile persons, mounted on Bactrians or riding with grenade launchers in the back of pickup trucks, would, from time to time, hurl their darts at the Humvees in which the chem suit-clad Americans rode in extreme discomfort. This is not a war. To the correspondents who had covered Bosnia or Kosovo and knew of war, it should have been obvious that thee was no army in Iraq other than the American one, which was zooming through the desert more or less unopposed. The reporters who had read books describing war and "the crunch of the enemy's artillery" might have noted that no such crunches were to be heard, an observation which in its turn might have led to the thought that, whatever else they were involved in, it was not a war. The mathematically gifted among the journalists should have noticed there were more traffic fatalities than lives lost in combat -- a sign to drive slower and tone down the copy. [ . . . ]

Back home under the dome the generals and politicians lengthened their strides and set their jaws tighter as befits heroes and leaders, while the media outdid itself in praise of history's greatest war machine. In the list of one-sided conflicts, the American victory in Iraq was right up there at the top with Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia in 1936 or Stalin's flattening Latvia in 1939. The red, white, and blue yahoos in the media and out of it hailed this passage of arms as the last step in America's recovery from the Vietnam Syndrome, a white liver disease which had afflicted the nation since the peanceniks, the Reds, and the cowards had betrayed the army in the field and forced the United States to agree to a shameful peace. Until Vietnam, America was the country which liked to say that it had never lost a war (Korea was called a tie ball game), but now Uncle Sam was back and he was big. Even Bill Clinton's confused and ignominious withdrawal from Somalia after a brief firefight in Mogadishu was rewritten into another stanza in the Marine anthem when Hollywood gave the country Blackhawk Down.

(pp. 110-111):

Americans have a sub-abysmal record in regards to teaching other peoples how to live properly, starting with Indians or Native Americans. The white men have killed them, but hardly tamed them, or turned them into cheap imitations of their white selves.

Von Hoffman then goes on to Japan ("The Japenese concluded that if they were going to be forced at gun point to have congress with 19th centuryimperialism, they must get themselves a war fleet like the Americans'"), Haiti, Cuba, the Philippines, Mexico, and so on to Iraq.

(p. 175):

If a person stands next to a large wasp nest and repeatedly hits it with a stick, the person could consider what happens next an unprovoked wasp attack, if the person is so self-entranced that the person cannot discern cause and effect. Outside the dome, the person will be viewed with astonishment, consternation and, if the performance continues, with fear. As this puzzling individual goes on destroying the home of the now-maddened insects, they come at the person with suicidal fury, but he, as angered by the wasps' treatment of him as they of him, does not retreat even as his face is disfigured by venomous bites. He stands his ground killing his tormenters and being stung by them.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Frank Rich: The Greatest Story Ever Sold

Few newspapers have as tawdry a record in standing up to the Bush administration's manipulations as the New York Times. Judith Miller was so devoted to her role as administration mole and mouthpiece she went to jail rather than reveal her sources. Defense scribe Michael Gordon helped Miller out with the WMD propaganda. Baghdad bag man John Burns never got a CPA press release he wasn't willing to parrot. White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller fell so hard for the administration party line Matt Taibbi credits her as winning the Wimblehack contest for the most obsequious journalist involved in the 2004 presidential election. Opinion columnists like Thomas Friedman and David Brooks paved the way with excuses. About the only critical voices came from economics columnist Paul Krugman and drama critic Frank Rich. The latter got so worked up over Bush's propaganda the Times moved him to the opinion page. He then reworked his work into The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina (2006, Penguin Press). Here are some sample quotes.


This is the story of a story (pp. 2-3):

The chronicle of how a government told and sold its story is also, inevitably, a chronicle of an American culture that was an all-too-easy mark for the flimflam.

The synergistic intersection between that culture and the Bush administration's narrative is a significant piece of the puzzle. Only an overheated 24/7 infotainment culture that had trivialized the very idea of reality (and with it, what once was known as "news") could be so successfully manipulated by those in power. In an earlier America, it would have been far harder for a White House to get away with so many hollow spectacles and misleading public statements for as long as they did. When future Americans look back on this period and ask, "How did this happen?" the cultural context of the early twenty-first century may explain at least as much as the characters and official actions that played out against that backdrop.

(pp. 54-55):

Ashcroft's managerial follies continue to abound. The attorney general announced a plan for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to fingerprint one hundred thousand largely Middle Eastern foreign visa holders the day before his own department's inspector general testified before Congress that the INS and FBI were still "years away" from absorbing into their records the fingerprint files already in their possession. Responding to the cable-TV craze of that summer, recurrent horror tales of abducted girls, he went on the CBS Early Show to announce what he called the "first ever White House conference on missing and exploited children." (FBI figures actually showed a decline in the kidnapping of children -- this new "crisis" had been manufactured for the nation's entertainment much as shark attacks had been the summer before.) Perhaps most farcically of all, the attorney general held a press conference to boast that a thirteen-month investigation into prostitution in New Orleans had yielded twelve arrests -- not exactly the law-enforcement coup to inspire confidence in his ability to track down less conspicuous miscreants, such as terrorists.

(p. 104):

The White House concluded that this poor response was the press's fault. "The best way to get the news is from objective sources," Bush told a sympathetic interviewer, Brit Hume of Fox News, "and the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world." The news sources that the rest of America had to rely on, by contrast, were suspect. "There's a sense that people in America aren't getting the truth," the president said as the White House launched a new PR campaign. "I'm mindful of the filter through which some news travels. And sometimes, you just have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people." The mainstream news media just couldn't be trusted to get anything right, not even the point of the MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner crowing Bush's victory speech in May. To correct the record on that score, Rice went on Meet the Press in late September and explained that the banner signified only that "the mission of those forces that he went to greet had been accomplished."

(p. 114):

In the new speech, given on January 20, Bush emphasized the liberation of Iraq over the smoking gun Saddam had once pointed at America. For illustration, a smiling Ahmad Chalabi, one of the new democratic Iraqi leaders, was seated behind Laura Bush as TV window dressing. But however salutary the liberation of Iraq, the president did not want Americans to lose their taste for war, which had done so much to burnish his reputation as a leader since 9/11 and would be central to his reelection campaign. "I know that some people question if America is really in a war at all," Bush said, then added a stern admonition. "After the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers." This was a swipe at the supposedly soft-on-terrorism pronouncements of John Kerry, who had just vanquished Howard Dean in the Iowa caucuses to become the Democratic front runner. It was the opening salvo in what would become a Republican motif of characterizing political opponents as less manly than the Top Gun president.

(p. 137):

Before it did reappear, Kerry placed most, if not all, of his chips on presenting himself as a military hero at the July Democratic Convention in Boston. The point was to show that Democrats could be trusted to be strong in defending the country at a time of terrorism -- and to minimize the antiwar chapter of Kerry's story that followed his navy service. Much like Bush -- with whom he had in common a New England blue-blood genealogy, a Yale degree, and a life of fabulous wealth -- Kerry also wanted to repackage himself as a macho Joe Six-Pack of sorts. It seemed a preposterous ambition, but if George Walker Bush could get away with it, why not John Forbes Kerry? As Bush playacted at ranching in Crawford, so Kerry rode a Harley-Davidson onto Jay Leno's set. Both men hewed to the same Hollywood dictum: If you can fake authenticity, you've got it made.

(p. 148):

Having brought up Vietnam against the backdrop of this incipient quagmire, Kerry then choked. It turned out he had almost nothing to say about the subject except that his military service proved that he was manlier than Bush. Yet nearly anyone could look manlier than a president who didn't even have the guts to visit with the 9/11 Commission without his vice president as a chaperone. Kerry was a man's man not just because he had volunteered to fight in the war and Bush had avoided it. Kerry had also been brave when he came home from Vietnam and forthrightly fought against the war, on grounds that history upheld. But he hadn't been man enough to stand up for that part of his past during the campaign, and because he hadn't been, he was now doomed to keep competing with Bush to see who could best play an action figure on TV. In that race, it's not necessarily the man with the best military record but the best actor who wins. And Bush was easily the more practiced actor, with the more accomplished studio behind him besides. Kerry never understood that it takes a certain kind of talent to play dress-up and deliver lines like "Bring 'em on" with a straight face.

I think Rich is wrong here. What mattered is more that Bush played to type, whereas Kerry played against type. Those who wanted a war president didn't necessarily need the best warrior: it sufficed to have someone who's interests favored war, since that person could be trusted to pursue war. Republicans benefit from war because it distracts from domestic issues, which tend towards promoting general welfare over business interest -- issues that Democrats can be more trusted with. Democrats lose during war for the same reasons. The mystery is why do Democrats keep getting suckered into wars, which in the end kill them. One reason is that the Republicans are able to get under the skin of the likes of Kerry and Clinton -- and hey, remember Dukakis in that tank? -- and get them to wave their dicks.

On the Bush administration propaganda machine (p. 170):

As these revelations piled up, the Government Accountability Office got on the case, repeatedly finding that the government-made "news" segments amounted to "covert propaganda," which is illegal. But the administration's lawyers circulated a memo challenging the GAO's legal judgment and instructing federal agencies simply to ignore it. So they did. Patricia Harrison, the assistant secretary of state (and former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee) who had publicly championed her department's fake-news segments from Afghanistan and Iraq (she preferred to label them "good news" segments), was rewarded with a promotion. In 2005, with Karl Rove's blessing, she became president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an even more powerful platform for producing propaganda. The "good news" that had worked so well on commercial stations such as WHBQ in Memphis could now be expanded to public television.

In 2006, the GAO said that the Bush administration had spent $1.6 billion on advertising and public relations just from 2003 through the second quarter of 2005. Even that figure understated the extent of the propaganda. There was no way to quantify the fictionalizing in every corner of the administration, much of which came to light after the 2004 election. At NASA and NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), political appointees rewrote or censored public documents and agency speeches if they conveyed scientific findings about pollution and global warming that contradicted administration environmental policies. One NASA appointee even enforced the addition of the word theory to any mention of the Big Bang in NASA materials, in keeping with the Christian right's rejection of evolutionary science.

(p. 172):

The White House was brilliant at making prefab town hall meetings and scripted press conferences alike simulate real, spontaneous give-and-take, at least to channel surfers catching just a video bite or two while clicking past television news. The administration continued the practice after the election with a sixty-stop "presidential road show" in which Bush had "conversations on Social Security" with "ordinary citizens" for the consumption of local and national newscasts. As in the president's phony town hall campaign appearances, the audiences were stacked with prescreened fans. But The Washington Post discovered that the preparations were even more elaborate than the finished product suggested; the seeming reality of the event was tweaked as fastidiously as that of a television reality show such as The Apprentice. Not only were the panelists recruited from among administration supporters, but they were rehearsed as much as five times the night before, with a White House official playing Bush. Finalists who varied just slightly from the administration's pitch were banished from the cast at the last minute, like contestants on American Idol.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Morris Berman: Dark Ages America

Morris Berman is a cultural historian and sociologist, with a previous book called The Twilight of American Culture. I've been leery about people trying to derive political maxims from the state of popular culture at least since the late 1970s when I lost interest in the Frankfurt School, mostly in favor of rock crit. But Jane Jacobs' Dark Ages Ahead strikes me as fundamentally correct, and that led me to take a look at Morris Berman's Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire (2006; paperback, 2007, WW Norton). Good general view of the current situation. The quotes below mostly stand on their own.


(pp. 26-27):

In The Philosophy of Money, [German sociologist Georg] Simmel writes that the more money moves to the center of our lives, the more cynical we become about higher values. This, he continues, generates a culture of sensation, a longing for speed and excitement, because natural excitement is increasingly absent. One hundred years later, we live in a din of hip-hop car stereos, dial tones, airplane noise, Walkmans, air conditioners, Muzak, and so on. The world, says [Todd] Gitlin, has become an "electronic multiplex," and as we move through it we are literally drowned in a "corporate-produced pastiche." The intensity of this pastiche increases year by year. Television programs of twenty-five years ago seem sluggish to us now, and if we look back fifty years we see that in terms of action, movies were much slower, and that magazine articles were much longer and more complex. Since, as Simmel observes, the point of all this is speed and sensation, we should not be surprised that the content is largely banal. In the case of action films, for example, the goal is to deliver an adrenaline rush, so directors aim for the lowest common vocabulary. Sound bites from presidential candidates aired on television newscasts shrank in length from an average of 42.3 seconds in 1968 to 7.8 seconds in 2000. A survey of the top ten best-selling novels taken from the New York Times between 1936 and 2001 shows a drop of 43 percent in sentence length and of 32 percent in number of punctuation marks per sentence. The shortening of attention span that goes with all of this, writes Gitlin, leads to an emphasis on stereotypes. TV and movies have to have easily recognizable types for fidgety (and increasingly, simpleminded) audiences to pay attention to. Hence, the steady dumbing down of American culture, as life becomes more formulaic.

(pp. 45-46):

All of this falls into the category of the erosion of what has been called "social capital," the connections among individuals that are based on reciprocity and trust. What it really amounts to is the informal "institutionalization" of the Golden Rule: I'll do this thing for you without any expectation of return, but in the general expectation that someone else in the community will do something for me later on. The decline of this informal understanding, the erosion of social capital, was carefully documented in 2000 by Robert Putnam in his detailed study, Bowling Alone. His database is, in fact, enormous, drawing on surveys such as the DDB Needham Life Style, Roper Social and Political Trends, and the General Social Survey. These data reveal that during the last third of the twentieth century all forms of social capital fell off precipitously, something Putnam regards as a threat to American civic health. Americans have, he says, become dramatically disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and social structures; this has happened in every walk of life, and across all sections of the population, irrespective of gender, race, class, and educational background. Tens of thousands of community groups disappeared from 1973 to 1994; more than one-third of our social infrastructure vanished during that time. Church groups, union membership, dinners at home with friends, bridge clubs -- all have been decimated. By 1993, the number of Americans who attended even one public meeting on town or school affairs during the previous year was down 40 percent from what it had been twenty years before that time. Social capital, says Putnam, also includes things such as nodding to a jogger we might see on our daily route, and studies show that even casual friendliness of this sort has steeply declined -- something that can have a very powerful effect on the overall quality of a community. In the midseventies, Americans entertained friends at home an average of fourteen to fifteen times per year; by the late nineties, that figure had dropped 45 percent. Spending, social evenings with neighbors declined by a third between 1974 and 1998; getting together to play cards dropped 50 percent from 1981 to 1999. Between 1985 and 1999, there was a 30 percent decline in the readiness of Americans to make new friends. By 1993, 63 percent stated that most people couldn't be trusted, whereas in 1964 77 percent of people interviewed said that most people could be trusted. Decline in social trust, Putnam notes, has been especially steep among the young. From 1990 to 1996, violent aggressive driving shot up 50 percent. And so on. The social cost of all this is quite severe, because it has been demonstrated that communities with high levels of social capital are much better equipped to deal with poverty, unemployment, drugs, and crime; their general vibrancy and political effectiveness are much greater.

(p. 50):

Political scientist George Modelski, in Long Cycles in World Politics (1987), dated the onset of the decline of American hegemony to 1971-75, specifically linking the former date to the repeal of the Bretton Woods Agreement; but this was definitely a minority view. The dominant public has been one of insistent celebration, most especially during the 1990s, which brings to mind the astute observation of the British historian Arnold Toynbee, that it is precisely in the declining phase of a civilization that it beats the drum of self-congratulation most fiercely.

The focus on Bretton Woods strikes me as somewhat technical, given that Nixon's devaluation of the dollar and dismantling of the fixed exchange rate regime were consequences of deeper economic problems. Most commonly blamed is the deficit financing of the Vietnam War, with subsequent runaway inflation even when economic growth stalled. But looking back the peaking and subsequent decline of US petroleum production and the shift from trade surpluses to deficits loom large. Also evident is a long-term reduction in economic growth rates and productivity, and a long-term increase in income/wealth inequality.

(p. 114):

As is the case with the "war on terrorism," I believe much of the Cold War was an illusion, a large mythic structure or narrative co-created by the United States and the USSR for their own respective domestic political agendas. On both sides, the presence of a powerful enemy served to generate a huge apparatus of employment and government expenditures, including elaborate structures of espionage, military research and development, scientific research institutes, and the like. The two "threats" thus maintained each other and enabled each system to define itself in opposition to the other. After all, writes Ivan Eland (in The Empire Has No Clothes), if the main goal of U.S. foreign policy after 1945 had been to fight communism, the pax americana we had established during the Cold War years would have been dismantled after 1991. But our military spending never dropped below Cold War levels after that date. The truth of the matter is that the conspiracy theory of a global red menace threatening to engulf the world was grossly exaggerated by the United States for imperial purposes, to gain public support for military and political intervention in the affairs of other nations and for the huge defense budgets such intervention would require. In this way the Cold War became the justification for building a global empire.

On NSC-68, Paul Nitze's blueprint for the Cold War (p. 119):

The Truman administration felt that selling such a policy to Congress and the public at large would make it necessary, in the telling phrase of Senator Arthur Vandenberg, "to scare the hell out of the American people." Secretary of State Dean Acheson indicated that it would be necessary to use dramatic language, such as "the free versus the enslaved world." As General Douglas MacArthur later put it, the government kept the American people in a perpetual state of fear, and in "a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor." (The same sort of Machiavellian politics, of course, was resurrected when "terrorism" replaced communism after 9/11. Indeed, the similarities between the Truman and Bush Jr. administrations in this regard, and in the tactic of governing through fear, are quite obvious.)

(pp. 128-129):

The issue of the "shadow" brings us to another factor that has propelled U.S. foreign policy -- namely, the psychological motivations behind it all. This dimension emerges quite clearly in H.W. Brands' absorbing study of the Cold War, The Devil We Knew. Brands allows for strategic, economic, and political factors in the shaping of our foreign policy, and he believes that the United States and the USSR co-created the Cold War and "institutionalized" it, after which it took on a life of its own. But he points out that Kennan's assertion in the "long telegram" -- that the Soviet Union was able to function only with an enemy -- is a particularly apt characterization of the United States. Recall what Kennan wrote: that the USSR viewed the outside world as hostile, was persuaded of its own doctrinaire rightness, insisted on the elimination of all competing powers and ideologies, believed that no opposition to them could possibly have any merit, and saw their regime as the only true one "in a dark and misguided world." Let's not kid ourselves: it would be hard to find a better description of American postwar foreign policy, right down to today. Whether we're talking about Harry Truman declaring, "The whole world should adopt the American system"; or Ronald Reagan with his John Winthrop-ish "city on the hill" versus his Darth Vader-ish "evil empire"; or George W. Bush declaring a "crusade" against "the evildoers" and militarily intending or attempting to make the Arab states over into capitalist democracies -- all of this while accusing the other side of involvement in a global conspiracy -- it has only been by virtue of an enemy that we have had any identity at all.

(pp. 153-154):

Leaving the 2003 invasion of Iraq aside for the moment, we need to get a bird's-eye view of the overall foreign policy picture that emerged over the years 1992-2002, a development that highlights the precise nature of America's late-empire phase and gradual turn toward a Dark Age. To wit: Is the Bush Doctrine a major rupture in a century-long -- and especially, post-Cold War - American foreign policy? Certainly, the PNAC crowd believes this, because it sees its strategy as a rejection of containment or, more exactly, a going-beyond the ideas of NSC-68. And yet I am led to wonder. . . . Wasn't the Mexican War pre-emptive? Wasn't the Spanish-American War a bid for global hegemony? Wasn't all the CIA activity described in this chapter a bit of both? Let's face it: the only reason we weren't directly preemptive in a "bipolar" world is that it was far too dangerous to attack our adversary directly. For that reason, we had to be content with sharing the power on the world stage, and attacking peripheral, nonstrategic "enemies." Once the USSR collapsed, the gloves could come off; our real (imperial) strategy could be revealed once and for all.

(p. 155):

To realize their dream of a pax americana, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Cheney, et al. relied in the 1990s on a number of think tanks and front groups that have interlocking directorates and shared origins in those earlier organizations: the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Security Policy, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, among others. They provided the Bush Jr. administration with policy advice and personnel. They also relied on right-wing media empires to blanket the public space with their message, in much the same way -- if more powerfully -- that the yellow press of Hearst and Pulitzer did during the Spanish-American War. Thus Rupert Murdoch disseminates propaganda via Fox News, and the Weekly Standard is a mouthpiece for defense establishment intellectuals (for instance, Richard Perle, who is also a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute). There is also the National Interest and the Washington Times (the latter owned by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon), which also owns the UPI newswire. The result is a "seamless propaganda machine" that has effectively destroyed public discourse in the United States, to the point that we now dwell in a kind of right-wing propagandistic fog. Research into the tax records of the right-wing groups has revealed that since the 1970s, conservative backers -- basically, nine immensely wealthy families (Olin, Coors, Mellon Scaife, etc.) -- have poured upward of $3 billion into financing a war of ideas that has managed to move mainstream thinking in America toward the right. The money has gone into a whole host of institutions that market the conservative message to american citizens, and the investment has clearly paid off. Add to this the link to the military-industrial complex, exemplified by Lockheed Martin, whose employees sit on the boards of right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Center for Policy Studies. Meanwhile, Cheney was formerly the CEO of Halliburton Oil; Andrew Card (White House chief of staff) a vice president of General Motors; Donald Rumsfeld the CEO of G.W. Searle and later of General Instrument; Condoleezza Rice on the board of directors of Chevron -- the list goes on and on.

(p. 173):

Yet the logic of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" was a dubious one, and it had a powerful chain reaction. Afghan casualties included one million dead, three million wounded, and five million who were rendered refugees -- in all, about one-half of its population. (Since the United States no longer had use for the country by 1992, it just walked away from the entire mess. This too did not go unnoticed by the Arab world.) For all intents and purposes, Afghan society was destroyed, and the Taliban subsequently rose on its ruins. In the wake of September 11, the causal links are pretty obvious. Part of our funding for the operation found its way into the hands of Osama bin Laden, who was then a Saudi engineer in his late twenties. By the late 1980s, Saudi intelligence was, with America's approval, using bin Laden to channel millions of dollars to the rebel forces. Through Pakistani intelligence, he was indirectly trained by the CIA (we trained his trainers, in effect). According to a 2001 BBC report, in 1987 the CIA began illicitly issuing visas to unqualified applicants from the Middle East and bringing them to the United States for training in terrorism for the Afghani war in collaboration with bin Laden -- an opperation that apparently continued into the 1990s. Indeed, in the wake of 9/11, Newsweek reported that five of the hijackers had received training at secure U.S. military installations during the previous decade.

The last report is news to me, and suspect on a couple of accounts, although the likelihood that some hijackers were beneficiaries of US funds is high, and Saudi funds coordinated with US policies higher still. The US tended to be hands-off with Afghanistan, with Pakistan handling most of the direct contacts, and favoring groups that suited their political agenda. The only interest the US had in Afghanistan was in killing Russians. The US was so arrogant that it couldn't conceive of any blowback from Afghanistan ever causing us any real problem. It didn't matter who we supported or what they did because we knew ourselves to be untouchable by such pawns.

(p. 187):

In a 2003 interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the French demographer Emmanuel Todd remarked that "theatrical military activism against inconsequential rogue states . . . is a sign of weakness, not of strength. . . . This is classic for a crumbling system." He went on, "The final glory is militarism." The fact that we are dying, and perhaps know it on an unconscious level, may account for the virulence of our attack on an infinitely weaker nation. A major motivation for the Gulf war was "kicking the Vietnam syndrome," as Bush Sr. described it -- thereby demonstrating that the United States was still able to throw its weight around and could get what it wanted by armed intervention.

The book has a fundamentally accurate but still somewhat peculiar section on Israel, ultimately (p. 197) wondering: "Whether Israel actually does serve U.S. interests in the Middle East is, of course, a whole other question."

(pp. 216-217):

When a civilization has reached a kind of critical mass and goes into its final phase, the only people who can rise to the top are typically those who will, in the name of "national greatness," actually promote that process of disintegration. We began this phase in earnest between 1971 and 1975, as George Modeleski's "long cycles" theory states. Jimmy Carter was a temporary reaction against the causes of decline, but other than that we have been on a downhill course ever since. This decline can clearly be seen in a president who is little more than a fundamentalist marionette, mechncally uttering slogans and inanities, and dishonestly taking us into a foolish war while he gives huge tax breaks to the rich. Meanwhile, until recently, the majority of Americans approved of this war, and the majority still approve of this president and his administration. A great many journalists applaud him, often hailing his empty platitudes as "wisdom." What are we to make of a legislative body (the House of Representatives) whose members get so petulant over the fact that France will not endorse America's illegal neocolonial venture, that it orders its food services to change its menu listing from "French fries" to "freedom fries"? Could anything be more childish? [ . . . ] A headline in the Washington Post subsequently got it right: "Liberté, Egalité . . . Stupidité." But the incident goes much deeper than mere stupidity, for it is symbolic of an emptiness at the core, an America that has effectively stopped being a republic and whose official representatives cannot tolerate any other opinions than their own.

(pp. 235-236):

In her Massey Lectures for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1985, which she entitled "Prisons We Choose to Live Inside," the British novelist Doris Lessing stated that future historians might be puzzled by the fact that Western civilization had the knowledge it needed to avoid its collapse, but apparently chose not to use it. This is -- or will be, I believe -- true of America in particular, but how much flexibility we have in terms of deliberate choice remains an open question. Every civilization is a "package deal," as it were, and that configuration means that it necessarily follows a particular ptrajectory determined by the constraints of that detal, which are both positive and negative, and which typically crystallize in a specific pattern or direction very early on. It also means that every civilization is dialectically structured -- that is to say, the particular factors that made its rise to pwoer possible prove to be, in the fullness of time, the very factors that do it in. This is because in its rise to power, the civilization in question had to repress those factors that pointed in a different (and often opposite) direction; it had to be, in a word, lopsided, and this lopsidedness provided it with an enormous amount of energy. But the phenomenon of lopsidedness also leads any such system to become increasingly out of kilter, and at some point the rejected pathways or lifeways come back to haunt it, because they represent tendencies that are necessary for balance, for the overall health of the organism. But by then, it is usually too late to shift gears (if I may be permitted to mix metaphors); collapse or decline can be avoided only if the repressed alternatives, the "roads not taken," are substantively incorporated into the dominant paradigm. Since this constitutes what might be called "shadow" material, the resistance to it is fierce, and so decay is, historically speaking, the rule. [ . . . ] Individuals, it would seem, are like this as well. As W.H. Auden put it many years ago in his poem "The Age of Anxiety," "We would rather be ruined than changed."

(p. 254):

From its introduction, the car was greeted with huge enthusiasm. As early as 1907 it was referred to as a necessity, and by 1910 America had become the world's foremost automobile culture, with nearly a half million cars registered. By 1926 a Model T could be purchased for $260, and U.S. motor vehicle sales during that year had a wholesale value of more than $3 billion. That year alone, Americans spent more than $10 billion on automobile operating expenses, and traveled 141 billion miles. In 1929 the total production of American cars was in excess of 5.3 million units. By 1933, the President's Research Committee on Social Trends reported the existence of an "automobile psychology" in the United States, stating that the American citizen had become dependent on the car. The New Deal wound up spending vast sums on streets and highways -- $4 billion over the period 1933-42. The fantasy of "automobility," writes Jan Holtz Kay (in Asphalt Nation), endured alongside the grim realities of the times. Gas lines paralleled soup lines; eight years after the crash of 1929, there were 3 million more cars on the road. Americans literally drove to government offices to collect the food dole. When one local transit company offered people free rides to a Works Progress Administration site,t hey refused, preferring to drive. As for the WPA itself, the road-to-rail funding ratio during its history was twenty to one. All in all, the combined highway expenditures of local, state, and federal governments between 1947 and 1970 was $249 billion; during the same period, only 1 percent of what the federal government spent on transportation went for urban mass transit.

(pp. 257-258):

One of the most imaginative discussions of American cities is that of the historian Eric Monkkonen, who points out that since the American city developed in a postfeudal context, it was always conceived of as an economic project rather than a social one. The crucial issue, he says, is the wall. The medieval cities of Europe were surrounded by walls, and this meant that they had clear boundaries, onces that imposed restraints on physical growth. As Lewis Mumford remarked, this gave the towns a tight urban form, encouraged community and street life, and yet also provided sanctuary and solitude. The shift away from this, according to Monkkonen, began in the sixteenth century with the rise of the nation-state, during which time the state began to escape from its strictly urban base (for example, the French court moved from Paris to Versailles in the seventeenth century). This meant that the city no longer had to be defended by a wall, a pattern that was picked up (Wall Street in New Amsterdam -- later New York -- notwithstanding) by the cities of the American colonies. As a result, the American city has more in common with a business corporation than with its European counterpart; in fact, it differs from virtually all of the cities that had preceded it.

Note that some US cities, like New York (Manhattan, at least) and San Francisco have natural borders which function similar to walls. Berman goes on to talk about Portland (OR) as an exceptional US city, which had more artificial limits to sprawl, but also notably had such a small non-white population that "white flight" never kicked in.

(p. 277):

The truth is that cities and civilization are nearly synonymous, and if the former die out, so does the latter. Nor does renaming a phenomenon change it. Techno-oriented or not, the new suburbs continue the trend of racial and class segregation; have not become independent economic entities; and destructive of the environment; epitomize the culture of consumption; and lack the diversity, cosmopolitanism, political culture, and public life that real cities have. The ethos of the technocity remains what the suburban ethos has always been: resistance to heterogeneity, and the desire to live apart. It also represents the enduring triumph of the private over the communitarian and the Jeffersonian Republican definition of virtue over the classical republican one.

(p. 282):

Yet what if "the American people" are, in the words of Nicholas von Hoffman, a collection of "asses, dolts, and blockheads"? Americans, says Hoffman, are living in a glass dome, a kind of terrarium, cut off from both reality and the outside world -- "bobbleheads in Bubbleland. . . . They shop in bubbled malls, they live in gated communities, and they move from place to place breathing their own, private air in the bubble-mobiles known as SUVs." They unquestioningly take their "truth" from the government, whereas in other countries grown-ups know there is no truth teat to suck on, and if you want it you have to go dig up the information for yourself. If, for exmaple, Americans had wanted to know the truth about our record in the Middle East, there was enough reliable literature on the subject for them to do so. But they have no interest in these sorts of things; instead, von Hoffman continues, they are "taken up with more important things than war and peace, like pro football and self-improvement." The only way out of this destructive American insularity is for "the masses of moron manipulatees to demoronize themselves." What are the chances, really?

Chapter called "Ignorance" begins with several pages of examples (p. 295):

I'm assuming the reader gets the idea by now; I could fill dozens of pages with these types of stories, ones that were relatively rare thirty years ago, and that are fairly commonplace today. As for the statistics, read them and weep: 70 percent of American adults cannot name their senators or congressmen; more than half don't know the actual number of senators, and nearly a quareter cannot name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Sixty-three percent cannot name the three branches of government. Other studies reveal that uninformed or undecided voters often vote for the candidate whose name and packaging (e.g., logo) are the most powerful; color is apparently a major factor in their decision. Only 21 percent of college-age Americans today read a daily newspaper, as compareed with 46 percent in 1972. A 2002 study of college students in California found that most freshmen were not able to analyze arguments, synthesize information, or write papers that were free of major language errors. Over the past twenty years, the fraction of Americans age eighteen to twenty-four engaged in literary reading dropped 28 percent, and in general nonreaders now constitute more than half of the American population. All in all, the great mass of our countrymen talk, act, and "reason" as though their crania contained chopped liver rather than gray matter. Cicero wrote that "Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child." Most Americans don't seem to know what's happening during their own lifetimes.

(p. 298):

Nor is it of any use to point out that the United States still wins the most Nobel Prizes in the sciences, or that it currently has some of the world's most talented novelists alive on the planet today. All that is true (although, in fact, we are losing our edge in science); but a few islands of brilliance do not change the overall equation. As Charles Murray put it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, "bean-counting doesn't work. . . . Whether a culture turns out bits an dpieces of the admirable is irrelevant to understanding where it stands on the trajectory of history."

(pp. 310-311):

The name of Orwell, of course, brings up one other major difference between Kerry and Bush, one that lies at the heart of a free society: the matter of truth and evidence. That Kerry lives within a scientific and rational mind-set and that Bush lives within an evangelical-fundamentalist one is no mere difference in style. One might accuse John Kerry of lies of omission, of waffling on the issues, or of being as much a militarist in foreign policy as George W. Bush, but I don't think he can justly be accused of trying to persuade the American people that black is white, or that 2 + 2 = 5. Thus we have had "No Child Left Behind," which has been an educational failure; the "Clear Skies Bill," which permits the collapse of existing air-quality regulations; "sound science," which blocks all kinds of research from the standpoint of a thinly veiled religious bias; "democracy (or victory) in Iraq," which is contradicted by the daily reports of violence and instability; "tax cuts for small businesses," which in reality benefit the wealthiest 1 percent of the nation.

(pp. 312-313):

All of the social analyses of the "It can happen here" variety, beginning with Erich Fromm's Escape From Freedom (1941), are tied to a critique of popular culture that points to the existence of a large mass of people who are unable to think for themselves, operate out of an emotive basis, confuse entertainment with education, and desperately want to be "filled" from the outside. The ascendancy of fascism might be a lot less inexplicable than we think, and its attraction a lot more plausible in certain contexts than we can imagine at this particular moment. Thus Fromm held that a big part of that attraction was the need for a father figure who acted with conviction -- someone who, in uncertain times, was perceived (even if unconsciously) as being able to allay widespread anxiety. And what kind of "father" is George W. Bush? Fritz Stern remarked just prior to November 2004 that "if we re-elect Bush, it would be a judgment on all of us."

(p. 328):

In addition, our foreign policy, the Cold War mentality that ran parallel to these developments, was a big mistake -- even George Kennan saw that pretty soon after penning his famous "X" article. That we now persist in it goes back to the Hegelian theme of negative identity; and as aberrant as this Manichaean-imperial framework is, it has penetrated far too deeply into the American psyche for us to be able to suddenly (or even gradually) shift gears. Not only economically, but also psychologically, domestic and foreign policy reflect and reinforce each other, and this is a big part of why we cannot escape our fate.

I have another take on the question of "why we cannot escape our fate": it strikes me that the people who have gained the leadership positions we expect to help us were selected for those positions by the dysfunctional criteria that got us into this mess. Consequently, their instincts lead them to repeat what worked for them in the past even when it clearly doesn't work any more. I've worked for several companies that went belly-up, and generally found myself recognizing this likelihood well before it happened. Even when I managed to get management to acknowledge those problems it proved impossible to get them to change. That seems to be the general case. Kuhn's theory of scientific paradigm shifts describes the same problem in a different context: the old scientists don't change their views so much as give way to a new generation with different views.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Al Gore: The Assault on Reason

I suppose I may have read as many as five books by ranking US politicians in my life, especially if you count those little "broadside" pamphlets from the late '60s by J. William Fulbright and William O. Douglas, but certainly no more than ten. (Quotations From Chairman LBJ and Poor Richard's Almanack don't count, nor does Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s Crimes Against Nature.) I didn't bother with either of Al Gore's environment/global warming books, although the illustrations in the latter were impressive, and the movie wasn't bad. But this year I read Bill Bradley's wonkish The New American Story for a sense of how smarter mainstream Democrats were thinking after six years of Bush medicine. Then Gore came out with The Assault on Reason: How the Politics of Fear, Secrecy, and Blind Faith Subvert Wise Decision Making, Degrade Our Democracy, and Put Our Country and Our World in Peril (2007, Penguin Press), and I felt compelled to read it too, especially following Morris Berman's Dark Ages Ahead.

While I have my complaints about both, the Bradley and Gore books should ultimately be seen as damning indictments of the American voters in 2000. Both guys are well born, conservative and pious by nature and breeding, liberal especially on race matters, smart, knowledgeable, and above all conscientious. That any significant number of Americans chose George W. Bush over them is scandalous. Between the two, Gore is smarter, and much the better writer -- the words in his book flow so smoothly they sometimes disturb me. He's also a more inconsistent and deceitful politician, but that's less featured here. His book is actually not a political manifesto, and especially not a wonk-fest. It's a seriously argued book on what's become of America's political culture, and it's almost as damning as the election of Bush. In the end, this spends less time with the "dark ages" theme and more with the corruption of politics, with Gore constantly referring back to the Founding Fathers for authority. That may be politically cautious, or just a consequence of Gore's personal strain of American Religion. That doesn't carry a lot of weight with me, but it's certainly true as an argument against the New Right, whose appeal to "original intent" is as phony as Bush's Clear Skies and Healthy Forests scams.


Quite a few quotes here, some I take exception to.

On the rise of television (p. 7):

Television first overtook newsprint to become the dominant source of information in America in 1963. But for the next two decades, the television networks mimicked the nation's leading newspapers by faithfully following the standards of the journalism profession. Indeed, men like Edward R. Murrow led the profession in raising the bar.

In all the years since then, television's share of the total audience for news and information has continued to grow -- and its lead over newsprint has continued to expand. Millions of Americans have simply stopped reading newspapers. Afternoon newspapers were the first to go broke. Now, virtually all the newspapers are shrinking in profits, advertising, and circulation -- and more than a few are even shrinking in their physical size. One day many years ago, a smart young political consultant turned to an older elected official and succinctly described a new reality in America's public discourse: "If it's not on television, it doesn't exist."

The "tipping point," when television replaced the printing press as America's dominant medium, involved far more than the simple substitution of one medium for another. The ability of television to instantly convey moving images as well as words and music to hundreds of millions of Americans simultaneously increased the impact and inherent power of the television medium over the printed word by several orders of magnitude. The suddenness of this dramatic change was like moving in a single decade from the sandal to the space shuttle, from splicing rope to splicing genes.

It's hard to figure out just what it is about television that creates such a profoundly unsettling impact, no doubt because it is a confluence of factors. Clearly, we readily give way too much credibility to what we see, and that credulity is easily abused. The fact that television, at least in the US, was immediately usurped by advertising meant the abuse was present from the very beginning. Many other factors add to this, especially private ownership and its pursuit of private profit.

(p. 31):

When human beings developed a higher order of thinking, we gained an advantage in being able to anticipate emerging threats. We gained the ability to conceptualize threats instead of just perceiving them. But we also gained the ability to conceptualize imaginary threats. And when groups of people are persuaded to conceptualize these imaginary threats, they can activate the fear response as powerfully as would real threats.

This ability to conceive of something that activates the amygdala and starts the fear response is particularly significant because of another important and closely related phenomenon, called "vicarious traumatization." If someone, such as a family member or an individual with whom we identify has experienced trauma, that person's feelings can be communicated to us even though we didn't directly experience the traumatic event.

Recent research proves that the telling of traumatic stories to those who feel linked by identity to the victims of trauma -- whether the shared identity is ethnic, religious, historical, cultural, linguistic, tribal, or nationalistic -- can actually produce emotional and physical responses in the listener similar to those experienced by the victims.

(p. 34):

Research shows that television can produce "vicarious traumatization" for millions. Survey findings after the attacks of September 11 showed that people who had frequently watched television exhibited more symptoms of traumatization than less frequent TV viewers. One analyst of this study said of respondents describing their reactions to 9/11, "Those who watched the most television reported the most stress."

The physical effects of watching trauma on television -- the rise in blood pressure and heart rate -- are the same as if an individual has actually experienced the traumatic event directly. Moreover, it has been documented that television can create false memories that are just as powerful as normal memories. When recalled, television-created memories have the same control over the emotional system as do real memories.

And the consequences are predictable. People who watch television news routinely have the impression that the cities where they live are far more dangerous than they really are. Researchers have also found that even when statistics measuring specific crimes actually show steady decreases, the measured fear of those same crimes goes up as television portrayal of those crimes goes up. And the portrayal of crime often increases because consultants for television station owners have advised their clients that viewership increases when violent crime leads newscasts. This phenomenon has reshaped local television news.

(p. 38):

September 11 had a profound impact on all of us. But after initially responding in an entirely appropriate way, the administration began to heighten and distort public fear of terrorism to create a political case for attacking Iraq. Despite the absence of proof, Iraq was said to be working hand in hand with al-Qaeda and to be on the verge of a nuclear weapons capability. Defeating Saddam was conflated with bringing war to the terrorists, even though it really meant diverting attention and resources from those who actually attacked us.

Sorry, I can't let this one go by. From the very beginning, the Bush administration's response to 9/11 was entirely unappropriate; in fact, flat out wrong. First, they sought to use the tragedy to further their own political interests, even as the Democrats were falling all over themselves in trying to renounce partisanship. Bush's handlers made no effort to put 9/11 into any sort of real context -- to explain why it happened and what it meant, nor did they offer any reasoned evaluation of possible responses. They outright fanned the flames of war, not understanding that waging war half-way around the world would solve nothing and create new problems -- would, indeed, validate and glorify Al-Qaeda's aims. In short, they had an opportunity to respond sensibly -- to treat 9/11 as the gross crime it was and to work toward an international framework where the criminals responsible can be prosecuted. But they were blinded by rage and suckered by opportunism, drunk with their cult of American military prowess, and drugged with their belief in their own godliness, and that led them to respond in the worst possible way -- in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq. And people like Gore, who accepted half the loaf, helped make the other half possible.

One thing that Gore misses here is that Afghanistan and Iraq actually have one very important thing in common: they are both countries where the US has cavalierly prodded and provoked into wars for most of the period from 1979 (when we started arming Afghan jihadis, before the Soviet Union sent their own troops in) and 1980 (when Iraq attacked Iran, encouraged by our Sunni allies in the Persian Gulf) to the present, terminally bloody occupations. As such, it's easy to make the case that the US should do something to make amends for all the damage we have caused in both countries, but it's impossible to see how this administration can do anything but more harm. In fact, given how poorly Afghanistan has gone, it's likely that even a Gore administration would have failed there. And if failure is the end result, then good intentions are pretty much worthless.

(pp. 47-48):

Fear, however, can disrupt the easy balance between reason and faith -- especially irrational fear of a kind less readily dispelled by reason. When fear crowds out reason, many people feel a greater need for the comforting certainty of absolute faith. And they become more vulnerable to the appeals of secular leaders who profess absolute certainty in simplistic explanations portraying all problems as manifestations of the struggle between good and evil.

It may well be that the global epidemic of fundamentalism -- Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Jewish, among others -- has been partly caused by the dizzying pace of technologically driven change. This unprecedented globalizing tsunami has disrupted many age-old traditional patterns in families, communities, markets, environments, and cultures all around the world.

On Bush's "faith" (p. 61):

I'm convinced, however, that most of the president's frequent departures from fact-based analysis have much more to do with his right-wing political and economic ideology than with the Bible. I've alluded to James Madison's warning, over two centuries old, that "a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction." Now, with the radical Right, we have a political faction disguised as a religious sect, and the president of the United States is heading it. The obvious irony is that Bush uses a religious blind faith to hide what is actually an extremist political philosophy with a disdain for social justice that is anything but pious by the standards of any respected faith tradition I know.

On the right-wing coalition, and its affinity to a racket (p. 63):

The surprising recent dominance of American politics by right-wing politicians whose core beliefs are usually wildly at odds with the opinions of the majority of Americans is one that resulted from the careful building of a coalition of interest groups that have little in common with one another besides a desire for power that can be devoted to the achievement of a narrow agenda. This coalition of supporters includes both right-wing religious extremists and exceptionally greedy economic special interests, both groups seeking more and more power for their own separate purposes. All have agreed to support one another's agendas even when it is ideologically inconsistent to do so. The only consistent loser in these exchanges is the American citizen. As a whole, this coalition reveals exactly what our Founders warned against: that a faction might come to dominate politics and pursue power for its own sake.

(p. 66):

What is most troubling to me is the promotion of hatred as entertainment. Moreover, they have actively conspired to fan the flames of a vicious hatred aimed at one group in particular: Americans with progressive political views. They speak of "liberals" with a kind of dripping contempt and virulent hostility that used to be associated with racism and sectarian religious strife. One of the best-known right-wing commentators, Ann Coulter, advised her audience that she was in favor of executing an American citizen who had joined the Taliban "in order to physically intimidate liberals by making them realize that they could be killed, too."

One of the coalition's "constitutional scholars," Edwin Vieira, echoed Coulter's hateful rant at a conference on the so-called Judicial War on Faith by explaining how he would recommend handling the Supreme Court. He actually quoted Joseph Stalin, saying that Stalin "had a slogan and it worked pretty well for him whenever he ran into difficulty: 'No man no problem.'"

(p. 76):

When only those who have wealth can afford to enter the principal forum in which the majority of people receive their information then those who can pay the price of admission automatically become more influential. Their opinions become more important than the opinions of others. The nation's priorities then change.

To take just one of many examples, for the past several years, the felt need to eliminate inheritance taxes on the wealthiest 1/100 of 1 percent of the families in America (the only taxpayers who are still subject to it) has been treated as a much more important priority than the need to provide at least minimal access to health care for tens of millions of families who currently have no access to health care coverage at all.

(pp. 76-77):

The communication between candidates for national office and American voters is currently based almost entirely on one-way thirty-second television commercials purchased by the candidates at great expense with money donated to them largely by elites, many of whom are interested in purchasing specific policy outcomes with their contributions. Cash must be collected from those who have it. Those who have cash are typically motivated to give it to the candidates who promise postelection behavior that will be pleasing to the contributors -- upon whom everything depends in his system. This behavior would not necessarily be pleasing at all to the voters if they knew what was going on. But both candidates and contributors are capable of ignoring the true interests of the voters, because the voters' opinions can now be shaped by mass advertising campaigns, which can be purchased.

Sometimes Gore isn't so smart. He cites computer architect Danny Hillis for a metaphorical link between massively parallel computers, free markets, and representative democracy (pp. 101-102):

The metaphor of massive parallelism, or "distributed intelligence," offers an explanation for why our representative democracy is superior to a governmental system run by a dictator or a king. Where totalitarian regimes rely on a "central processor" to dictate all commands, representative democracies depend on the power and insight of people spread throughout the society, each located adjacent to the part of society in which he or she is most interested.

In the case of free market capitalism, decision making is even more widely dispersed. The Soviet Union's economy collapsed because it relied on a central processor to make all economic decisions, and it didn't work very well. Innovation withered, and corruption took root. The North Korean economy continues to rely on a central processor, and today its people are starving. But capitalist economies distribute the power to those located outside the center -- entrepreneurs and consumers, who make their own decisions independent of one another -- and the accumulated wisdom marries supply to demand and allocates both efficiently.

I don't doubt that centrally planned economies have some intrinsic problems -- mostly these have to do with political controls trumping market mechanisms, especially where those controls disincentivize labor (the big problem with collective farms) or institutionalize stupidity. On the other hand, most of North Korea's problems result from sanctions: they starve because they are resource-poor and cannot trade their potentially competitive manufactures for food. The Soviet Union can also blame a good deal of its problems on isolation -- e.g., as this cut them off from technological advances. Not all, of course, but central control hasn't worked so badly in Japan, South Korea, or China -- three countries that were permitted to engage in free trade.

The bit Gore got from Hillis goes like this (p. 101):

A few years ago, a friend of mine who is a computer scientist, Danny Hillis, patiently tried to explain to me the workings of a massively parallel supercomputer by pointing out that the first computers relied on a central processing unit surrounded by a field of memory. To find the answer to a particular problem, the CPU would send out a query to the field of memory to retrieve data, then bring it back to the center for processing. The result would then be placed back in the memory. All this necessitated three trips, back and forth, consuming precious time and generating unwanted heat.

The architectural breakthrough associated with massive parallelism was to break up the power of the CPU and distribute it throughout the memory field to lots of smaller separate "microprocessors" -- each one co-located with the portion of the memory field it was repsonsible for processing. When a task has to be performed, all of the processors work simultaneously, and each processes a small quantity of information, then all of the separate parts of the answer are brought simultaneously to the center, where they are assembled. The result: one trip, less time, less energy, less heat.

The last line is nonsense; the rest is mostly irrelevant. The advantage of parallelism in computing occurs when the processors don't care what the other processors are doing. But that has more to do with the problems than which architecture is better; indeed, in general, no architecture is better, because different problems have to be solved in different ways. The same is true with economics, but it's impossible to connect the two, because the problems are fundamentally different.

I don't mean to be harsh, because often what passes for creativity comes out of misapplied analogies. But the reach here far exceeds the grasp.

On Bush's comingling of Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein (p. 108):

In a comment that some felt belongs in a file marked "Jokes That Reveal Deeper Meaning," President Bush said, "See, in my line of work, you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda."

Usually, he was pretty tricky in his exact wording. Indeed, President Bush's consistent and careful artifice is itself evidence that he knew full well he was telling an artful and important lie, visibly circumnavigating the truth, over and over again, as if he had practiced how to avoid encountering it.

This may be the best line of the whole book. Bush's construction of his deniability shows how intentional his deceit was. This figures prominently in Elizabeth de la Vega's indictment for fraud.

(pp. 156-157):

The right-wing commentator Laura Ingraham said, "The average American out there loves the show 24. Okay? They love Jack Bauer, and they love 24. In my mind, that's as close to a national referendum that it's okay to use tough tactics against high-level al-Qaeda operatives as we're going to get." How perfect, and how sad a comment on what happens when we no longer have a robust public forum where individuals can use the rule of reason to hold government accountable. Our opinions on good and evil are interpreted through the Nielsen ratings.

Even worse, according to Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, DVDs of 24 have become widely popular among U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. Mayer quoted a former army interrogator, Tony Lagouranis, as saying, "People watch the shows and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they've just seen."

On dominance and torture (p. 158):

It is deeply disturbing that the administration so frequently uses the word dominance to describe its strategic goals. It is disturbing because an American policy of dominance is as repugnant to the rest of the world as the ugly pictures of those helpless, naked Iraqi prisoners being so "dominated" has been to the people of our country.

Dominance is as dominance does. Dominance is not really a strategic policy or political philosophy at all. Rather, it is a seductive illusion that tempts the powerful to satiate their hunger for still more power by striking a bargain with their consciences. And as always happens sooner or later to those who shake hands with the devil, they find out too late that what they have given up in the bargain is their soul.

One of the clearest indications of the impending loss of intimacy with one's soul is the failure to recognize the existence of the soul in those over whom power is being exercised, especially if the helpless come to be dehumanized and treated as animals and degraded. It has been especially shocking and awful to see these evils perpetrated so crudely and cruelly in the name of the United States of America.

Abu Ghraib clearly bothers Gore greatly, but he has already identified the Right with a culture of hate, and noted how well torture in 24 plays with American servicemen in Iraq. Torture, at least, still requires a personal relationship with the body if not the soul of the prisoner. The ultimate dehumanization occurs in war, when you bomb people from afar -- an act that Gore himself was willing to unleash on Afghanistan to fulfill his 9/11 revenge fantasy.

Of course, there is more to be insecure about (pp. 163-164):

From this new vantage point, we have an opportunity to forge and follow a new agenda for national and world security. First and foremost, our security is threatened by the global environmental crisis, which could render all our other progress meaningless, unless we deal with it successfully. Already, the increase in severe droughts, severe flooding, and stronger storms is having a harsh impact.

Second, there is a looming water crisis that reflects both the sharp growth in demand for freshwater, global warming's disruption of the natural storage system of mountain snow packs and glaciers, and a decline in water quality owing to the effects of pollution and inadequate water treatment.

Third, we must conquer the global challenge presented by terrorism, magnified by a growing access to new weapons of mass destruction.

Fourth, the global challenge of defeating drugs and corruption, which now spill across our borders, has never been more serious given the growing strength and sophistication of international crime organizations.

Fifth, new pandemics like HIV/AIDS are laying waste to whole societies, a problem compounded by the emergence of new strains of old diseases that are horrifyingly resistant to the antibiotics that protected the last three generations.

We tend to think of threats to security in terms of war and peace. Yet no one can doubt that the havoc wreaked by HIV/AIDS threatens our safety. The threat of the security agenda is protecting lives -- and we now know that the number of people who will die of AIDS in the first decade of the twenty-first century will rival the number that died in all the wars of the twentieth century.

When hundreds of people in sub-Saharan Africa are infected every hour of every day; when fifteen million children have already become orphans, and many must be raised by other children; when a single disease threatens everything from economic strength to peacekeeping -- we clearly face a security threat of the greatest magnitude.

I think the point here is that we need a reasoned discussion on how to evaluate and approach this long list of problems -- not so much that this is the list.

(pp. 166-167):

At the level of our relations with the rest of the world, the [Bush] administration has willingly traded in respect for the United States in favor of fear. That was the real meaning of "shock and awe." This administration has coupled its theory of American dominance with a doctrine of preemptive strikes, regardless of whether the threat to be preempted is imminent or not. George Tenet, director of the CIA from 1997 to 2004, made it clear that the Agency never said Iraq was an imminent threat. For this administration, the threat to be preempted didn't have to be imminent.

Mythmaking in Afghanistan (p. 168):

Over two decades ago, the Soviet Union claimed the right to launch a preemptive war in Afghanistan. We properly encouraged and then supported Afghanistan's resistance movement, which a decade later forced the Soviet army to retreat and withdraw. Unfortunately, however, when the Russians left, we abandoned the Afghans, and the lack of any coherent nation-building program led directly to the conditions that allowed the Taliban to take control and give al-Qaeda a home and a base for their worldwide terrorist operations.

This is a sad case of mythmaking that helps prevent us from understanding what actually happened. The Soviets didn't start a preemptive war in Afghanistan. The Soviets sent troops in to help defend a Communist regime that was being undermined by CIA-funded jihadists -- not to deny that other factors weakened the regime, not the least being their own incompetence. The US promoted this war as a revenge fantasy for the US's own failures in Vietnam, completely insensitive to the horrible effects that nearly 30 years of continuous war would have on Afghanis. The US withdrew because the Soviets left -- after all, the only thing that had attracted the US to Afghanistan was the opportunity to kill Commies. That left Afghanistan mired in a civil war, eventually tilting toward the Taliban because they were the jihadi group most closely aligned with our allies and proxies in the fight -- Pakistan's ISI and the Saudis. In other words, the Taliban won because we helped them. That they and our other buddies like Al-Qaeda turned on us can be viewed as ingratitude on their part or stupidity on ours. Given that our multi-decade war pounded their country that much further back into the stone age, it's fair to say that some ingratitude might not be surprising. They did, after all, fight for their freedom; why shouldn't they also fight for freedom from us?

On the other hand, Gore suggests that if we hadn't abandoned the Afghans, they would have come out of all these wars OK. That's a very optimistic reading of American aid -- history itself is not nearly so generous, especially in the case of nations as backward as Afghanistan was even before all the war.

Wry understatement on popular support for Bush following 9/11 (p. 178):

But now, years later, with the benefit of investigations that have been made public, it is no longer clear that the [Bush] administration deserves this act of political grace from the American people.

Gore is unusually qualified to call attention to Bush's negligence before 9/11 (p. 180):

I personally participated in, and sometimes convened and chaired, these meetings. And neither President Clinton nor I felt that we were going above and beyond our duties to the nation. These meetings were simply based on a commonsense response to dire warnings, of the kind that any police chief in America would recognize as part of the job. It is what any "reasonable person" would do in a similar situation if responsibility were his or hers.

By contrast, when President Bush received this fateful and historic PDB [President's Daily Briefing], he did not convene the National Security Council. He did not bring together the FBI and CIA and other agencies with responsibility to protect the nation. He did not even ask follow-up questions about the warning. He did, however, dismiss his CIA briefer with a comment. "All right. You've covered your ass now," Bush said, according to journalist Ron Suskind.

The bipartisan 9/11 Commission summarized, in its unanimous report, what happened. "We have found no indication of any further discussion before September 11th between the president and his advisors about the possibility of a threat of al-Qaeda attack in the United States."

It's always seemed somewhat unfair to blame Bush for not preventing 9/11, but the facts are: the Clinton administration had established a strong record of taking Al-Qaeda seriously, even if they weren't all that effective in dealing with them; the Bush administration's record suggests they couldn't care less. Bush was actually able to profit immensely from the attacks, so what motivation did he have to keep them from happening? Conscientiousness? Decency? Bush? Even though Bush had only been in office a little more than eight months, he had reiterated, and in cases like Israel/Palestine escalated, all of the usual charges about how the US treats Arabs/Muslims. If Bush had actually wanted to provoke 9/11, he needn't have done anything differently. He was at best an accident waiting to happen. As it turned out, he was far worse. So right now the only thing that holds back charges of negligence before the fact is that there's so much to condemn after the fact.

On the Iraq war. I'm going to reverse the order of three paragraphs here, since they make more sense to me that way (the ellipses indicate the reordering, not actual cuts; pp. 182-183):

Luckily, there was a high level of competence on the part of our men and women in uniform, even though they were denied the tools and the numbers they needed for their mission. But what a disgrace that their families have had to hold bake sales to buy discarded Kevlar vests so the troops can stuff them into the floorboards inside the Humvees they often have to ride around in without adequate armor. Bake sales for body armor. What kind of policy is that? [ . . . ]

The Iraq war plan was incompetent in its rejection of advice from military professionals. And the analysis of the intelligence was incompetent in its conclusion that our soldiers would be welcomed with garlands of flowers and cheering crowds. That mistaken assumption was one of the reasons the Pentagon did not respect the so-called Powell doctrine of using overwhelming force. [ . . . ]

The war in Iraq has become a recruiting bonanza for terrorists who use it as their most damning indictment of the United States and of U.S. policy. The massive casualties suffered by civilians in Iraq, shown routinely and constantly on Arab television stations throughout the Middle East, have been a propaganda victory for Osama bin Laden beyond his wildest dreams. This is tragic, and it was avoidable.

One reason for changing the order is that following the military advice wouldn't have avoided Iraq, except in the narrow sense that a more realistic accounting of the risks and costs might have slowed the war march. Rumsfeld pushed the lowball plan precisely because an honest assessment might have derailed the war. The Powell doctrine had to go as well, otherwise the cost of an activist military would have been prohibitive.

One other things needs to be noted somewhere, and this is as good a place as any without digging up a dozen or so silly quotes to make my case. Gore cannot allow himself to be at all critical of US soldiers, with the possible exception of a handful of generals who failed to stand up to the likes of Rumsfeld. While I don't see such specific wars as Iraq as the soldiers's fault, it's obvious to me that the willingness of people to join armies is a necessary part of what makes war possible. Conversely, if no soldiers enlisted, politicians wouldn't have the option of starting wars. But American soldiers hardly stop there; while I appreciate the exceptions, for the most part they are the heart and soul of militarism, the romance of war and its corrosion of society.

On postwar game plans (pp. 186-187):

Back in 1991, I was one of a handful of Senate Democrats to vote in favor of the resolution endorsing the Persian Gulf War. I felt betrayed by the first Bush administration's hasty departure from the battlefield even as Saddam began to renew his persecution of the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south -- groups that we had encouraged to rise up against Saddam. After a brilliant military campaign, our decision to abandon prematurely the effort to destroy Saddam's offensive military capability allowed him to remain in power. This precedent should have been debated and discussed by Congress in 2002. The Congress should have required, as part of any resolution regarding the proposed invasion of Iraq, explicit guarantees relating to the aftermath of a military victory.

I don't see how an administration could guarantee any particular outcome from the war, even leaving aside the question of whether this administration can be trusted in anything they say. When you go to war, you throw yourself into a dangerously uncertain future. What Congress could have done was to put some constraints on what Bush could do in Iraq. For instance, they could have prohibited any US military presence one year after the start of hostilities. They could have required turning the political process over to the UN. They could have established explicit limits on which Iraqi officials can be prosecuted, at least under US law. They could have established a small number of common sense guidelines that would have prevented Paul Bremer from acting as he did, thereby significantly reducing the likelihood of revolt.

Of course, Congress doesn't do anything like that. It's far easier just to pass the buck to the president and let him sink or swim with it. Bush, of course, was happy with that deal, especially given how much he had to hide in order to sell his war. So the vote ultimately came down to: do you trust the president? It's embarrassing now how many who should have known better didn't.

Continuing, an interesting personal aside (p. 187):

I first spoke against the regime of Saddam Hussein in the fall of 1988, soon after he used poison gas against a minority within his own people. My father's older brother had been the victim of poison gas in World War I. Because of that, my family's oral history has always emphasized the horror of those weapons. The World War I generation impressed that same lesson on peoples around the world. We went through all of World War II without poison gas, save some horrible experiments in the Far East. When Saddam became the first to break the taboo, it set off alarm bells.

Iraq used poison gas much earlier in the war with Iran, so 1988 was not the first time. So Gore should have spoken earlier if poison gas was his real concern. In any case, I don't fault him for speaking or bringing political pressure against Saddam Hussein; but resorting to war didn't solve the old crime so much as unleash a new one. That was true in 1991 when war failed to topple the Iraqi regime, or in 2003 when war led to something even worse. There needs to be some method for opposing criminals like Hussein short of compounding their crimes with war.

More platitudes (p. 193):

By now, it is pretty obvious to most Americans that we have had one too many wars in the Persian Gulf, where our troops have been sent for the second time in a dozen years -- at least partly to ensure our continued access to oil. And it is equally obvious that we need an urgent effort to develop environmentally sustainable substitutes for fossil fuels and a truly international effort to stabilize the Persian Gulf and rebuild Iraq.

It would be a good start to acknowledge that the 1991 war was a failure by any conceivable measure: it limited but didn't resolve the problems with Iraq; it started but didn't sustain an effort to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict; it if anything increased the disruptive effects of US presence in the Persian Gulf, and indeed throughout the world -- most notably allowing American hawks to blame the UN and multinational coalitions for our own failures, setting up the later wave of unilateralism. Much of the blame for all this lies in the hypocrisy of the first Bush regime, which made Saddam out to be Hitler then didn't follow through on its hyperbole. The subsequent containment operations was Bush's way of disguising his embarrassment. That so many Democrats are still so fond of containment just shows how little imagination they can muster.

The oil issue is ultimately neither here nor there. Something as huge as WWII may in fact turn on oil supplies, as Germany's failure to conquer Russian oil fields shows. But for a world at relative peace (at least by WWII standards) with a global market it's hard to make a strategic case for occupying oil fields or securing oil tradeways. The main effect the war in Iraq has had has been to depress supply and raise oil prices. The effect of this on the US economy is at most dislocating: it shifts around who wins and loses, but has little net effect. (Although oil companies, dear to the hearts of the Bush administration, are conspicuous among the winners.)

In a chapter "The Carbon Crisis" (p. 212):

We also have to connect the dots. When the Superfund sites aren't cleaned up, we get a toxic gumbo in a flood. When there is not adequate public transportation for the poor, it is difficult to evacuate a city. When there is no ability to give medical care to poor people, it is difficult to get hospitals to take refugees in the middle of a crisis. When the wetlands are turned over to the developers, the storm surges from the ocean threaten the coastal cities more. When there is no effort to restrain the global warming pollution gases, then global warming gets worse, with all of the consequences that the scientific community has warned us about.

The chapter "Democracy in the Balance" finally takes aim at Bush (p. 216):

But many of our Founders continued to worry about one particular scenario that they felt would remain especially dangerous: In wartime, the president would enjoy a politically enhanced position in his role as commander in chief. During their debates in Philadelphia, they identified the potential accumulation of power in the hands of the executive as a serious threat to the Republic. They worried that the president's suddenly increased political power during times of war might spill over its normal constitutional boundary and upset the delicate checks and balances so crucial to the maintenance of liberty.

(pp. 221-222):

President Bush has repeatedly violated the law for six years. In spite of the fact that the only judicial decision to have reached the question of legality has ruled comprehensively against the president's massive and warrantless surveillance program, both the Justice Department and the Congress have failed to take any action to enforce the law. There has been no request for a special prosecutor, and there has been no investigation by the FBI. There has been deafening silence. But the consequences to our democracy of silently ignoring serious and repeated violations of the law by the president of the United States are extremely serious.

(p. 223):

One of President Bush's most contemptuous and dangerous practices has been his chronic abuse of what are called "signing statements." These are written pronouncements that the president issues upon signing a bill into law. Throughout our history, these statements have served a mainly ceremonial function, extolling the virtues of the legislation and thanking those figures responsible for the enactment. On occasion, these statements have also included passages in which the president raises constitutional concerns with some provisions of the new law. What presidents have always avoided is delineating those provisions that the president simply disagrees with. Obviously, such a device would be unconstitutional on its face.

(pp. 226-227):

In yet another abuse justified by the unitary executive doctrine, the White House declared in early 2007 that all the rules and policy statements developed by government agencies will now undergo vetting and implementation by political appointees, providing another means through which political pressure can be brought to bear on the agencies that should be enforcing our health, safety, and environmental laws without political distortion.

(p. 227):

In the current administration, the president's new initiative to bend all executive branch policy making to the president's political agenda is part of this same power-seeking strategy. One disillusioned former official in the White House, John DiIulio, blew the whistle on this ubiquitous pattern when he left as adviser in charge of "faith-based initiatives." DiIulio said, "What you've got is everything, and I mean everything, being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis."

I'm not a fan of generalizing from psychology, but I found this interesting because the types it describes are certainly real, even if their causality seems overly deterministic (pp. 246-248):

By using this new approach, psychologists were able to discover that every infant learns a crucial and existential lesson during the first year of life about his or her fundamental relationship to the rest of the world. An infant develops an attachment pathway based on different patterns of care and, according to this theory, learns to adopt one of three basic postures toward the universe:

  1. In the best case, the infant learns that he or she has the inherent ability to exert a powerful influence on the world and evoke consistent, appropriate responses by communicating signals of hunger or discomfort, happiness or distress. If the caregiver -- more often than not the mother -- responds to most signals from the infant consistently and appropriately, the infant begins to assume that he or she has inherent power to affect the world.

  2. If the primary caregiver responds inappropriately and/or inconsistently, the infant learns to assume that he or she is powerless to affect the larger world and that his or her signals have no intrinsic significance where the universe is concerned. A child who receives really erratic and inconsistent responses from a primary caregiver, even if those responses are occasionally warm and sensitive, develops "anxious resistant attachment." This pathway creates children who feature anxiety, dependence, and easy victimization. They are easily manipulated and exploited later in life.

  3. In the worst case, infants who receive no emotional response from the person or persons responsible for them are at high risk of learning a deep existential rage that makes them prone to violence and antisocial behavior as they grow up. Chronic unresponsiveness leads to what is called "anxious avoidance attachment," a life pattern that features unquenchable anger, frustration, and aggressive, violent behavior.

The feelings of powerlessness are an adaptive function. The child adopts behavior that sets himself or herself up for more of the same. He or she becomes antisocial and stops evoking a feeling of warmth in other people, thus reinforcing the notion of powerlessness. Children then stay on the same pathway. These courses are not set in stone, but the longer a child stays on one course, the harder it is to move on to another.

By studying the behavior of adults in later life who had shared this experience of learning powerlessness during infancy, the psychologists who specialize in attachment theory have found that an assumption of powerlessness, once lodged in the brains of infants, turns out to be difficult -- though not impossible -- to unlearn. Those who grow into adulthood carrying this existential assumption of powerlessness were found to be quick to assume in later life that impulsive and hostile reactions to unmet needs were the only sensible response. Indeed, longitudinal studies conducted by the University of Minnesota over more than thirty years have found that America's prison population is heavily overrepresented by people who fell into this category of infants.

There's also a pretty high correlation between people who are poor and the latter groups, no doubt because poverty is both on the giving and taking end of such inconsistent and inappropriate responses. Gore goes on to draw lessons for democracy based on this psychology: "If democracy seems to work, and if people receive a consistent, reliable, and meaningful response from others when they communicate their opinions and feelings about shared experiences, they begin to assume that self-expression in democracy matters. When they can communicate with others regularly, in ways that produce meaningful changes, they learn that democracy matters."

On the other hand, the debilitating turn in American politics over the last 40 years -- since Vietnam and Richard Nixon, if you want to get specific -- isn't the result of mothers raising us wrong. It has a far cruder explanation, which is that those who have successfully sought to dominate American politics don't want informed and engaged citizens -- if such were the case, their agendas would be discarded.

Ending on an up-note (p. 272):

Today, reason is under assault by forces using more sophisticated techniques: propaganda, psychology, electronic mass media. Yet democracy's advocates are beginning to use their own sophisticated techniques: the Internet, online organizing, blogs, and wikis. I feel more confident than ever before that democracy will prevail and that the American people are rising to the challenge of reinvigorating self-government.

This optimism seems at odds with the initial focus on media, the brain, and psychology, all of which would seem to be deeper issues than can be combatted with a little Internet activism. (I suppose this is as good a place as any to note that both Bradley and Gore have business ventures involving promoting Internet use. I'm more than a little disposed to the democratic potential of the Internet, but thus far it's been a pretty marginal factor. E.g., it allows someone like me to publish things, but doesn't compel anyone to read them, and as a matter of fact damn few people ever do.)

It strikes me that the changes humans have faced in the last hundred years have caught us unprepared, following adaptations that presumably helped in far different, much more primitive circumstances. The tendency to rally around the guy who's most convinced that he's right is just one such no-longer-adaptive strategy. Over time, you have to figure that selection will start to favor more viable responses to the challenges of our times. So we may not fall into the dark ages our current leaders seem so committed to. For one thing, with communication technology such as it is, it's going to be awful hard to discard everything we have learned in the last few decades and centuries. On the other hand, it is already the case that no one can know enough to knowledgeably function in every aspect of daily life -- we may be getting smarter as a species in absolute terms, but individuals lose ground every day. The assault on reason just adds to this.

In Gore's relatively narrow formulation, the assault on reason is a political tactic meant to subvert democracy. He doesn't go much further, but it's clear that the reason behind the Republican political strategy is to promote the interests of the rich vs. the poor -- it's what us hackers call a greedy algorithm. They don't see reason as a goal in and of itself. Rather, they see it, like they see everything else, as a political tactic, a stratagem for pursuing self-interests, and they don't like it -- it seems like the sort of thing powerless people might appeal to when trying to gain ground on them. One problem with that is that disparaging reason leads them on a path to dumb and dumber. An even bigger problem is that their greed threatens to undermine the fabric of trust that allows us to function in such a dauntingly complicated world. The paradigm for the future has to start by understanding that we're all in this together. That is, after all, the only reasonable conclusion we can come to.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Bill Bradley: The New American Story

Bill Bradley's The New American Story (2007, Random House) doesn't look too bad. Bradley ran for president in 2000, losing the Democratic nomination to Al Gore. He left the Senate. Got a job as a banker. He seems to be a lot happier, probably because he feels more productive. But he also wants to remind us that he wouldn't have been bad as a president. This is basically a policy compendium. It might be viewed as a campaign book, but coming from a non-candidate it's just grist for the mill. He contrasts his "new story" against Bush's "old story," trying to tempt someone else to take his thinking up. For the most part it's pretty sound, although it's couched in conventional rhetoric which sometimes gets in the way. As a born Republican turned Democrat he still tries to cultivate a bipartisan consensus where none is possible.

Later I read Al Gore's The Assault on Reason, which is a much better book -- more focused, more coherent -- but still carries too many platitudes of American political propriety. I would have found few things more improbable in 2000 that that I'd wind up reading two books by presidential contenders seven years hence. Of course, they're not contenders any more. They're clearly too smart, too principled, too decent to stomach another run.

I marked a lot of quotes, and wrote more than usual about them -- partly because they needed to be argued with, partly because they served as convenient launch pads.


The opening to a section on terrorism (p. 32):

Another problem with the story we are told about our role in the world is that we have declared a war on terrorism but have been given no clear definition of terrorism. Any repressive regime, from Egypt to Kazakhstan, is thus free to label its domestic critics as terrorists and ruthlessly suppress them, all the while justifying internal persecution by declaring itself America's "ally" in the "war on terror." Vagueness is often useful in diplomacy; it is disastrous in defining a national doctrine. We call the opponents of unfriendly regimes (such as Iran) "freedom fighters." The domestic opponents of our authoritarian allies (such as Saudi Arabia) are "terrorists." Our rhetoric is all about democracy, but our actions suggest that we are quite comfortable with authoritarian regimes. This flagrant inconsistency damages our credibility around the world and provides support to those who charge us with hypocrisy.

On Iraq (pp.35-36):

Finally, toppling Saddam Hussein was supposed to give us a friendly government in control of the second-largest proven oil reserves in the world, so that when supply was tight we could get it to pump more oil, thereby moderating prices. In fact the war and the insurgency have caused oil production to drop below prewar levels, creating the largest cumulative oil disruption since World War II -- bigger even than the drop during the Iranian revolution of 1979 or the nationalization of Iran's oil fields in the 1950s. What will the widening civil war in Iraq produce for America, other than lost soldiers, lost wealth, and lost respect in the world?

It seems we've fallen into Al Qaeda's trap. Fouad Hussein, a Jordanian journalist, described in a 2005 book Al Qaeda's twenty-year plan to dominate a part of the world stretching from Spain to Indonesia. An early phase of the plan envisions the United States abandoning, as an Al Qaeda manual says, "its war against Islam by proxy" and going to war with a Muslim country in the region directly. The following phase involves a confrontation between the United States and Iran. In each phase, Hussein argues, Al Qaeda believes it will benefit. By doing exactly what they expected us to do, we've allowed the enemy to predict our actions and plan their responses before we've even taken them. [ . . . ] There is no evidence that our war planners ever considered the world as it might look to our adversaries. The Iraq War is the most serious foreign policy blunder I have seen in my lifetime.

Politics: Soft Power -- Hard Power (pp. 41-42):

For forty years it has been the policy of this country that the final status of the West Bank should come out of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians without predetermining the boundaries. The Bush administration abandoned this policy and explicitly promised Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that the borders of Israel and Palestine established in any eventual peace settlement would not be the same as those in 1967. The apparent reason for this policy shift was the need to pander to the Christian right -- an important part of the Republican Party's base -- which believes that God gave the land to the Jews and that the Jews' return to the Christian holy land is the necessary precursor to the conflict that will lead to the second coming of Christ (which would mean, to these same religionists, the eternal damnation of those Jews who choose not to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior). For loyal allies such as Tony Blair, who forcefully supported the Iraq War but has sought a more evenhanded policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, our defection was a stab in the back.

An interesting aside (p. 42):

In 1992, I sponsored a law creating the largest student exchange program in history between the United States and the countries of the former Soviet Union. By 2003, when I attended the tenth anniversary of that program in Kiev, more than 14,000 high school juniors [ . . . ] had lived a year with an American family. [ . . . ] The most striking thing about the 400 kids who came to Kiev as representatives of the 14,000 was what they recalled about their stay in America. They were impressed by our material abundance, our democracy, and our popular culture, but it was the nonprofit sector that inspired them. It was eye-opening to them that citizens would raise money and create organizations to help strangers with no expectation of getting something back for themselves. After returning home, many of these young people had raised money and started their own organizations.

Each section ends with a laundry list of recommended policies, like this one, called "Our Special American Role" (p. 54):

  1. America must lead by the power of its example, with the realization that imitation by others will be more successful than intimidation of others.
  2. We must recognize that most of the twenty-first century's major challenges require international cooperation and then build the means to achieve it.
  3. We must use talk before action, diplomacy before war.
  4. We must maintain our military through investment in high-tech weapons, intelligence resources, and training of military personnel.
  5. We must continue the war on terrorism together with our allies but end the war in Iraq. Given the history of Iraq and the nature of the conflict, leaving has fewer long-term downsides than staying.

Actually, the one I marked was #4, which reflexively clung to armed forces that wouldn't be necessary if the first three points were followed, and would ultimately be dangerously subversive of them. The last point is also flawed, both in its notion that Iraq's big problem is its past (as opposed, e.g., to us) and in its naive notion that war is an answer to terrorism.

On consumption vs. savings (p. 58):

Consumption now represents 71 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, and savings 1 percent. The Chinese, by contrast, have a consumption rate of only 38 percent of GDP, a personal savings rate of 35 percent, and a fixed-investment rate of 48 percent, compared with America's fixed-investment rate of 17 percent. We fill our homes with flat-panel TV screens, MP3 players, and computerized refrigerators; they fill their bank accounts with U.S. Treasure bonds. In essence, the Chinese manufacture our products and do our savings. They save more of their salaries. We borrow, to consume more of their goods. It is a virtuous circle -- for them. They get jobs. We get debt.

I'm always suspicious of preaching about how we need to drive the savings rate up -- usually this cloaks a scheme to concentrate capital. If savings is deferred consumption, one would expect them to balance out in the end, or even to start drawing down on excess savings -- there's not much point saving more than you can possibly use. While the savings ratios look bad in the US, there actually doesn't seem to be all that much of a problem getting capital to invest. The fact that stocks and whole companies are commonly sold at inflated prices even suggests that there's more capital chasing assets than is actually needed to satisfy current consumption levels.

Clinton and Bush on taxes and deficits (pp. 59-60):

Clinton's 1993 budget was unusual in that not one Republican voted for it. They claimed that the tax package would stop investment and short-circuit the incipient recovery from the 1990-91 economic downturn that had claimed Bush I's presidency. Instead, the economy entered a period of sustained growth, with business investment leading the way. By 1997, the deficit had shrunk from $290 billion, which is where it was when Clinton took office, to $22 billion. By 2000, there was a $236 billion surplus. With no need to finance a budget deficit, the surplus made more capital available to the private sector, and net national investment rose to a level it hadn't reached since the 1970s. The result was robust economic growth, and because of the expansion of the earned income credit, which aids low-income working families, the growth was more fairly shared. For the first time in twenty-five years, weekly wages rose. Poverty decreased. In many ways, this budget was Bill Clinton's finest hour.

In 2001, George W. Bush assumed the presidency and immediately proceeded to squander the surplus. After 9/11, people wanted money spent on the war on terror -- but they wanted money spent on education and health care, too. Bush obliged, but he also insisted on three big tax cuts. By 2004, the deficit was $412 billion, the largest share of our national income sine 1993. The Congressional Budget Office reported that during Bush's first term, from January 2001 to January 2005, the budget went from a ten-year projected surplus of $5.6 trillion to a projected deficit of $2.6 trillion. The tax cuts accounted for half the swing. (The March 2006 ten-year projection, from 2007 through 2016, was for a $3.4 trillion deficit.)

A footnote (p. 63):

To ensure that globalization and technological change produce the maximum level of fairly shared economic growth, the government must create what I called in a 1993 speech "an economic security platform," providing health care for all; pension security; and a flexible education system with dramatic improvement in K-12 school performance, more high school graduates going on to college (especially in math and science), and innovative programs to offer retraining and education to people displaced by globalization or technological change.

A paean to economic growth (p.70 ):

Economic growth can indeed generate arising standard of living for most Americans. A rising standard of living fosters tolerance. If middle-class Americans are doing well, government efforts to help the poor don't bother them. If economic growth enables upward mobility, all Americans become optimists. Economic growth gives us the resources to educate our children, guarantee a secure retirement for our elderly, provide health care for everyone. With growth, we can afford most public goals; without it, those goals compete with one another for limited resources, and the country becomes a meaner place. In long economic downturns, racists and xenophobes have a field day.

Bradley buys into the Star Wars myth (p. 71):

One reason the Soviet Union fell was that its economy, with prices controlled by bureaucrats and corruption rife, couldn't produce the growth to support the large increases in military expenditures necessary to match U.S. technological advances. In this sense, President Reagan's Star Wars project and military buildup helped to bankrupt the Soviet state. Some on the left say that our own economy is propped up by what President Eisenhower termed the military-industrial complex. The truth is the opposite. The military economy sits atop the basic-research economy, the technological-development economy, and the adequate-capital-investment economy of our country.

This is nonsense several times over. Star Wars didn't bankrupt the Soviets, partly because they didn't take the bait and develop the MIRV systems, which they had on the drawing board, that would have overwhelmed any possible missile defense -- and arguably pushed the US to spend even more. The idea that the US could bankrupt the Soviet Union by pursuing an arms race goes back to the '50s -- Nelson Rockefeller was a pusher. It might have had more effect back then, as the Soviets under Kruschev were in a more competitive frame of mind. But for the most part, the Soviets were satisfied simply to be able to deter a US first strike. From the 1970s on the arms race was mostly a matter of the US psyching itself out, which became all the more obvious once the Soviet Union gave up the ghost. The only country the US is bankrupting with arms races these days is itself.

I suppose one might argue whether US arms spending, which currently matches or exceeds the rest of the world combined, is a matter of Keynesian force-feeding or simply a case of political graft. But it's hard to see it as a side-effect of basic research, technology development, or private investment. Up through the 1970s one might argue the opposite -- that military spending promoted those things, with the Internet a particularly successful example -- but after Star Wars took over military technology spending went into a stupid phase where it seems to be permanently stuck.

Here's Bradley's economic plan (pp. 85-86):

  1. Continue to invest in science and technology -- basic research and development -- in the public and private sectors alike.
  2. Provide free tuition up to $12,000 (the average tuition cost for a four-year public college) for any high school student int he top third of his or her graduating class, and more generous incentives for math, science, engineering, and foreign-language students in both undergraduate and graduate studies.
  3. Reduce the federal budget deficit.
    • Reform the income tax code to provide lower rates, fewer loopholes, and more revenue.
    • Impose a $1 per gallon gasoline tax or the equivalent in energy or pollution taxes and then offset either one by a reduction in employment taxes such as those for Social Security, Medicare, or unemployment insurance.
    • Raise the age threshold for receiving Social Security and the income threshold for paying into it, bring new state and local employees into the system, and change the way the annual cost-of-living adjustment is calculated.
    • Make Medicare changes as a part of overall health care reform by offering choices to the elderly and creating competition on outcomes and prices among the providers, recognizing that, absent reform, the only alternatives would be some combination of increased premiums on Medicare recipients, higher taxes on working Americans, and reduction of benefits for recipients.
    • Reduce defense spending by 10 percent.
    • Reduce farm subsidies for the wealthiest 3 percent of farmers.
    • Control budget earmarks, or cut them outright.
    • Cut corporate subsidies by 30 percent.
  4. Help working families.
    • Increase the earned income tax credit.
    • Increase the minimum wage.
  5. Regulate hedge funds.
    • Require all hedge funds that manage pension fund money to come under federal ERISA regulation.
    • Force hedge-fund managers to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission so that authorities would at least know who they are in the event of a financial crisis.
  6. Make changes in tax administration and budget rules.
    • Have the IRS fill out tax returns for those with only wage and/or 1099 income and no itemized deductions, thereby saving taxpayers the cost of tax preparation.
    • Cut tax fraud in half by beefing up the IRS to go after the big abusers.
    • Return to the pay-as-you-go budget rules that existed in the 1990s.
    • Put the entire federal budget on the Internet, with keyword accessibility.

There are some good ideas in that list. The one that I red-flagged was the 10% military budget cut: can't you do better than that? The US military budget has grown from ridiculous up more than 40% since Bush took office. The corporate subsidies, agriculture supports, and earmarks may be as wasteful but are far less dangerous. I also have to wonder about Bradley's skinflint approach to Social Security. The trend in Europe, for instance, has been toward lower retirement age, not higher. That seems like a preferable direction, one that should not be dismissed out of hand because it's easier to balance the books on the backs of the elderly.

On debt risk (pp. 86-87):

If we fail to take steps to increase our national savings, reduce systematic financial risk, and generate broad-based economic growth, there is a collision waiting to happen between us and the Chinese. As noted, we send them dollars by buying their exports, and they buy U.S. government debt with that money. Right now, they own more than $300 billion of very-low-interest U.S. government debt and nearly another $700 billion in corporate and quasi-government debt. At some point they will seek a higher return, at first by diversifying, not out of dollar assets but among dollar assets: They will buy fewer bonds and more stocks. They won't be satisfied with only portfolio investment. They will want to buy companies -- as they tried to do in 2005 with the oil company Unocal. Congress will huff and puff and threaten. This time, the Chinese, tired of all the saber rattling over Taiwan and trade deficits, will say, "Fine. You don't want our money. We'll sell more of your bonds, even at a poor rate of return, and put that money in euro- or yen-denominated assets, or even buy gold, platinum, and diamonds." To argue that they would never do this because selling off our Treasury bonds would reduce the return on their investment is to ignore their fierce nationalism. What are a few dollars, compared with national pride? Dubai and other Middle Eastern countries, who are fed up with U.S. bullying over port deals, accusations of shielding terrorists, and intractability on the Israeli-Palestinian problem, will intensify the precariousness of our position by selling some of their U.S. bonds, too. When these countries begin selling U.S. government debt, the dollar will drop and the Federal Reserve will have to raise interest rates to attract non-Chinese, non-Middle Eastern capital. When interest rates go up, many people will liquidate their real estate at low prices. With less money, they will cut consumer spending, and nothing will replace it. The recession will deepen. Bankruptcies and foreclosures will rise, and we'll have a major economic crisis on our hands.

Oil and the environment (p. 106):

The new story points out that global warming is fundamentally an air-pollution problem, and we have solved air-pollution problems before, at less cost than anyone thought possible. Technological advance has always given us pleasant surprises, once we decide as a nation that we want to reduce a particular pollutant and set tough regulations to achieve that reduction. In the 1960s, urban smog was a major health threat. "Either we stop poisoning our air," President Johnson warned when he signed the Air Quality Act of 1967, "or we become a nation in gas masks groping our way through the dying cities." Then the catalytic converter was invented, and smog dropped by nearly 50 percent. The same was true for chlorofluorocarbons in the 1980s. Since we banned them, some studies show that the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica has begun to close. Acid rain has decreased, too, because the credit-trading system of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments gave companies profit inentives for pollution reduction. Up to the tipping point, the environment is incredibly resilient. There is no reason why we could not at least prevent global warming from worsening. Author and lecturer Gregg Easterbrook, writing in the September 2006 Atlantic, lamented that Democrats minimize how solvable the problem of global warming is, while Republicans exaggerate the cost of solving it and ignore the efficacy of regulation.

Actually, I can think of several reasons why carbon dioxide levels are different from other air pollution problems, starting with the scale of use and how directly it is tied to fossil fuel energy use. Just blithely saying new technology will solve the problem may be baseless as well: technology operates within physical constraints aren't necessarily amenable to our desires.

On health care (pp. 144):

Health care should be a right. But rights come with responsibilities attached. Individuals must take responsibility for their own health by how they behave. Two-thirds of adults in America are overweight, in large part because they consume too much sugar and too many trans fats and don't exercise. In the new story, your employer tries to keep you healthy, because your health affects the firm's productivity. Employers discourage unhealthy lifestyles and reward people who exercise, get annual checkups, and lose excess weight. Schools do away with vending machines that sell junk food, require physical conditioning classes, and develop detailed health education courses, including anti-drug education from the sixth grade on. Learning the food groups is the beginning, but not the end, of health instruction. If you still insist on unhealthy behavior, then you'll be charged more for health insurance. Otherwise, the rest of us pay more because of your bad habits.

I'll quote more, but I have to break here. It's not intuitively obvious to me that the sorts of "bad behaviors" Bradley wants to charge more for actually cost more in the long run to treat -- i.e., is there really a cost basis for such charges, or is it just part of the American habit of punishing people who are out of fashion? I'm not arguing that these behaviors have no effect on longevity, let alone quality of life. But, to be blunt about it, if they kill you sooner, doesn't that save all the expense of treating you later? It seems more likely than not that those numbers wash out, unless the cost of treatment keeps going up like it has been, in which case it would be all the harder to argue that those who will die sooner should pay more.

As for employers' interests in keeping employees healthy, there is very little evidence that they care much about the long-term health costs of their employees. One could try to tax them accordingly, but that would be a pain, the data could take much too long to accumulate to affect behavior, and it may very well wash out in the end, for the same reasons mentioned above.

None of which argues that a good health care system shouldn't try to focus more on preventive measure, on improving quality of life and longevity. It's just that the reason for those things isn't cost reduction; it's quality of service. It also positively reinforces the integrity of the system: the idea, after all, is to provide good quality health care, and everyone should be properly motivated to do just that.

Continuing (p. 144):

The biggest driver of costs in American health care is advances in medical technology. Pharmaceutical companies create markets for expensive drugs, some of which are breakthrough drugs but many of which are not. The same goes for medical devices, such as heart stents or artificial knees. The marketing of devices, drugs, advanced treatments, and even hospitals directly to the consumer often confuses people. You used to leave it to your doctor to sort through these claims, but now, because of the increase in malpractice suits, doctors are often hesitant to respond to patients' inquiries. What is needed is a quasi-federal agency, perhaps the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, that will determine which drugs, medical devices, and new treatments are cost-effective. These items would have to be covered in a minimum policy, but insurance companies could always augment that coverage.

This starts off semi-true, but doesn't ask why advances in medical technology drive costs upwards. After all, in areas like consumer electronics the same sort of advances drive costs down. Medical technology is different because of the nature of the market, and that difference is powerfully amplified by government grants of patent monopolies, especially for drugs. Eliminating patents would introduce competition, which would reverse the cost spiral. The objection that patents are required in order to get private enterprise to invest in new breakthroughs can easily be overcome by public funding of research and development. The latter has the advantage that it can be directed at goals rather than profits; also that it allows competitive research based on common knowledge, and subject to common scrutiny. The huge marketing costs under the current system can be offset by underwriting independent groups to transparently evaluate technologies and treatments and inform professionals and the public of their unbiased findings. The resulting system would be something the current system is not: scam proof. The results should not only be much more cost-effective; they should be qualitatively better.

Continuing (pp. 144-145):

To make our new story a reality requires acceptance of several simple principles. First, the focus of the system should be on quality of care for the patient. Second, it must be mandatory for all Americans to have health insurance; low income cannot be an acceptable barrier. Third, individuals must do their part to stay well and not overutilize the system. Fourth, individuals, should retain some choice over the kind of coverage they receive. Fifth, recurring costs should be reduced, not shifted. Sixth, specific national goals should be set that improve health outcomes, such as slashing the number of medical errors in hospitals, reducing infant mortality, lowering the number of sick days at work, combatting obesity and diabetes, filing fewer lawsuits, and providing better information to prospective patients about which doctors and hospitals do what well and where they are.

Bradley's biggest problem here is that he's trying to keep some role for private insurance carriers when they are little more than parasites that are directly responsible for most of the system's problems, starting with spiraling costs and spreading to denial of treatment, inequitable treatment, and mistreatment. Actually, the problem is deeper than that: it derives from the notion that health care should be a profit-driven industry. The insurance companies are merely the worst offenders here, because they -- unlike doctors, hospitals, even the big pharmaceutical companies -- bring nothing worthwhile to the table. (Their strongest claim is to act as a brake against "overutilization," but quite frankly treatment itself is a pretty effective disincentive against unnecessary system use.)

Bradley then goes into commonsense things like electronic medical records, then goes on to errors (pp. 145-146):

The most important initial step we should tke to improve the quality of our health care is to adopt a goal of zero medical errors. Medical errors annually cost all of us billions of dollar in corrective health costs, higher insurance premiums, and unnecessary human suffering. The number of people dying in American hospitals from medical errors is the equivalent of a 747 airplane crashing every day of the year. The system catches only 1 percent of medication errors, and the hospital infection rate has been growing for decades, to the point where it now affects one out of twelve people admitted to U.S. hospitals. As a nation, we should regard such a situation as intolerable. To ameliorate it, we should start by holding hospital CEOs and heads of medicine responsible for developing data collection that will reveal the patterns of mistakes in their hospitals; only then can a system be developed that will prevent such errors from recurring.

It's not that Bradley doesn't understand the advantages of a single-payer system; he offers it as one of two options (pp. 150-151):

The simplest would be Medicare for All. It could be phased in by first establishing Medicare for children, followed by Medicare for people with incomes under $50,000, and then Medicare for everyone else who remained uncovered. Once everyone was in this single-payer system,t he aforementioned cost shifts would end. All citizens would have the same benefits and payment schedule. Advertising and marketing costs, which now amount to about 5 percent of health care costs, could be eliminated. Duplicate hospital facilities could be eliminated. Administrative costs would be slashed. The 15 percent administrative costs of the current private system, resulting from the bureaucratic tug-of-war between hospitals and doctors on one side and insurance companies on the other, would come to match the 1.5 percent administrative costs of Medicare. Doctors would spend less time battling insurance companies and more time treating patients. The coverage would be easy for people to understand. Businesses would no longer be burdened with paying open-ended health care costs for their workers; they could then hire more workers at better pay and become more competitive internationally. People would no longer have to stay in jobs they didn't like just to keep health coverage for their families. Government would have leverage in bargaining for lower costs with doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies. The crazy quilt of government tax subsidies, aimed at getting the private sector to serve the public interest through employer-paid health care, could be redirected to paying the health care bills for those who need help. Medicare for All would complete what everyone from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton has tried to do.

The other path is touted as "conservative means (vouchers) to achieve liberal ends (universal coverage)." Bradley concludes (p. 152):

The single-payer system, in which the government pays for everyone to have a basic health care plan, seems simplest and most effective to me, but a hybrid approach that uses conservative means to achieve liberal goals and embraces value-based medicine has the best change to become law and assures the most innovation.

On education (p. 171):

In the new story, the federal Department of Education becomes an action-oriented organization that deploys SWAT teams of experts to districts that request help on a wide range of issues: the introduction of innovative curricula, the creation of a self-motivated school culture, response to the unique challenges faced by a majority of non-English-speaking students. The employees of this reconstituted Department of Education are less like bureaucrats and more like Marines. To buttress efforts at the federal level, regional consortiums of schools will be established, so that schools can share their experience and best practices with one another. If we can put men on the moon, surely by the seventh grade our students ought to be technologically savvy, sound in math, reading, and science, proficient in at least one foreign language, aware of our history, and motivated to broaden their knowledge and skills in high school.

Else what? The Marines will introduce them to waterboarding? Sometimes the human brain is a truly scary thing. Next paragraph the fantasy flowers even further (p. 171):

In the new story, teaching will become one of the nation's most popular professions. With more freedom to do what they really want to do, teachers will thrive. College graduates will see elementary and secondary school teaching as a rewarding career, with sufficient pay -- one in which they can have a profound impact on other people's lives. Teaching will become a prestigious profession of meaning once again.

On the previous page, he at least started with more manageable goals, like "In the new story, teachers will know the names of all their students." Even that may be pushing it. The problem isn't that we shouldn't dream; the problem is that the actual trend is getting worse. Given that, what's needed first of all is an effort to stop the decline. This has to start with putting a credible positive value on better education, and that has to start in the real world. Even the lip service there reduces to "get an education so you can make more money," which reduces to credentialism -- especially when you see putatively successful morons with degrees like GW Bush.

In a section called "Media and Spin" (pp. 213-214):

Public relations techniques have come to dominate the nexus of public policy and politics. As a lobbyist I know once said, "My job is not to tell the truth, it's to tell my client's story. It's the press's job to determine if it's true." To the masters of spin, it doesn't make a difference what the truth is; they can create their own truth. If something is unpleasant, just deny it or muddy the waters. If you get pushed to the wall, just lie. The press will report the lie anyways, because they need opposing views on every issue. For example, as Paul Krugman pointed out in his July 28, 2006, New York Times column, Edward Lazear, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said the following about the Bush tax cuts: "The tax cuts have made the tax code more progressive and reduced income inequality." The opposite is true. By simply reporting a lie often enough, you create an impression of truth, especially in the absence of a countervailing story. But many point-counterpoint television shows simply result in shouting matches. Fairness and truth go out the window. Often it is two on one -- the moderator and the conservative against the liberal, or vice versa, depending on the cable channel. Given the twenty-four-hour news cycle and cable television's need for ever more material, having two politicians yelling at each other is a cheap way to fill airtime.

Political spin has gotten so bad that many people can't tell what the truth is. They eventually decide that both sides are lying, and they begin to think of the media simply as the pipe through which the lies flow.

On the Republicans (chapter title: "Why Republicans Can't") (pp. 223-224):

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Republicans became the party of William McKinley and his political guru, Mark Hanna, a man deeply admired by George W. Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove. Rove was fond of saying that the model for the 2000 presidential election was 1896, the year McKinley defeated the populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan. McKinley and Hanna won in 1896 by agreeing to turn the party over to business. Economic power became more and more concentrated. Lip service was paid to those who worked in the mines and factories, but little was done to balance the clout of private capital. In the American West during that era, these business interests violated vast areas of land, cutting down forests, extracting minerals, and draining rivers for irrigation. In the East, industrial and financial powers exploited their workers with impunity: Child labor, thirteen-hour days, dangerous workplaces, and meager pay were the rule.

Actually, those things were worse before McKinley, but in retrospect McKinley -- rather than Democrat Grover Cleveland -- has become the gold standard for Republicans wishing to dismantle the New Deal. What McKinley can be credited with is introducing an active, interventionist, imperialist foreign policy, of which the 1898 Spanish-American War is the prime, but by no means the only, example. That's no doubt something else Rove digs about him.

On the Republicans' crony politics (p. 240):

With this mind-set, it's understandable why, when [the Republicans] control government, they appoint cronies instead of competent professionals to head government agencies -- one prominent example being FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in charge of responding to natural disasters such as hurricanes. To Republicans, who have very little respect for government, these jobs connote patronage, not responsibility. Unable to abolish government agencies, they turn them over to advocates of the very industries they are supposed to regulate. The current administration is loaded with lobbyists who now "regulate" the industries for which they formerly lobbied and for which they will lobby once again, after they're out of government. One imagines that, when they return to their old jobs, bonuses will await them for their loyal work on the inside.

On Clinton's adjustments to the Republican coalition, previously broken down into the categories listed below (p. 246):

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton, in an act of political genius, defanged nearly the whole Republican coalition by co-opting issues they had used against the Democrats. He trumped the Main Streeters by running a budget surplus, the racemongers by instituting welfare reform, the crime busters by increasing aid to local police and supporting the death penalty, the realists by holding defense spending steady, the messianists by going into Kosovo, the libertarians by opposing government interference with abortion rights, the subsidists by leaving their sweetheart deals intact, the liberals by asking them to join him in a streamlined government constituted to solve problems, and the corporatists by pushing free trade and allowing an unprecedented consolidation of corporate power through massive mergers and acquisitions. Republicans -- with the exception of the now ascendant fundamentalists and supply-siders -- had little to criticize, because Clinton was doing what they had long advocated, but in his own way.

But the Republicans did nothing but criticize, pushing Clinton further and pounding him for not going far enough -- indeed, not giving him credit for doing their own dirty work. And while his personal popularity remained strong enough, he did nothing to rebuild his party, because he wound up standing not for the people who voted for him but for their opponents. In the end he proved that it is possible to run a more competent Republican administration, especially compared to his successor. To call this "genius" is very strange.

On the political superiority of Republicans (p. 259):

I have a friend who knows one of the Republican Party's most prodigious fund-raisers. In a candid moment one night over dinner, the fund-raiser confided to my friend that Republicans didn't have the issues to reach the majority of Americans and get their votes. To win, he said, they ran smarter campaigns than the Democrats: They raised more money, exerted more discipline on their candidates, conveyed a clearer message. They used the most advanced private-sector data-mining skills to target their messages at the precinct level and built grassroots organizations that pulled those voters to the polls. He cited the example of the fundamentalist Christians in southern Ohio, who dramatically increased their turnout between 2000 and 2004. Republicans also use state referenda in election years to get out their vote. In November 2004, eleven states (including Ohio) put state constitutional amendments opposing gay marriage on the ballot. The action served two purposes: It was a skillful diversionary tactic -- let's talk about gays, not about jobs or health care -- and a way to get out the vote, since those who trooped to the polls to vote against gay marriage would doubtless also vote Republican. Republicans have become masters at using culture as a wedge, by raising emotional but peripheral issues such as the death penalty, gun control, gay marriage, the Pledge of Allegiance, the Ten Commandments -- all in an attempt to draw a contrast between themselves and Democrats that favors them with targeted populations. All of these techniques explain why Republicans, according to political analyst Michael Barone, have dominated 97 of the 100 fastest growing counties in the country, and they are also why many of the party's big fund-raisers believe the debacle of 2006 was just an anomaly.

This isn't really news. What might be news would be to detail the issues the Republicans don't talk about because they know they're losing issues.

Last chapter is "Why Democrats Don't", which lists "The Eight Democratic Curses" (pp. 285-304, just the heads):

  • The first curse on the Democratic Party is its fear of thinking big. When Woodrow Wilson created the Federal Reserve, he was thinking bit. When FDR established Social Security, he was thinking big. When LBJ set up Medicare, he was thinking big. We seem to live in a time when the smaller the idea, the bigger the hype. [ . . . ]

  • The second curse is our capitulation in the face of the Republican charge that we are soft on defense. [ . . . ]

  • The third curse is our inability to counter the persistent accusation that we waste people's hard-earned tax dollars. [ . . . ]

  • The fourth Democratic curse is the impression we have created of a closed-minded devotion to the secular. [ . . . ]

  • The fifth curse is wealth bashing. [ . . . ]

  • The sixth curse is the curse of our special friends. It relates to certain members of the Democratic coalition itself: teachers, trial lawyers, and autoworkers. [ . . . ]

  • The seventh curse is that Democrats have ceased to take a strong stand on principle. The abolitionists, the progressives, the civil rights activists, and even some of the early environmentalists were willing to take a public policy stand that was rooted in a moral view of the world and based on individual conviction. [ . . . ]

  • The Democrats' final curse is that we are hypnotized by charisma. Ever since JFK's Camelot, Democrats have been looking for a leader whose very presence would ensure the nation's primacy. [ . . . ]

Actually, Bradley has a better explanation for what's wrong the the Democrats, although he doesn't clearly identify it as wrong. Backing up a bit (pp. 275-276):

The modern Democratic Party has, in effect, a second father. He was a Republican -- Ronald Reagan. Reagan cast a broad shadow, and many Democrats ran from it. His political journey was a long one: In the 1940s he was an FDR Democrat; i the 1960s he became a Goldwater conservative and advocated a smaller federal government. Still, Reagan often alluded to FDR in his speeches and, in a unique bit of political jujitsu, claimed the Roosevelt mantle even as he tried to destroy the New Deal's achievements.

After Reagan won in 1980 and nine Democratic senators were defeated, giving control of the Senate to the Republicans, Democrats lost not just their confidence but some of their convictions as well. Indeed, their pro-government stance of the previous forty-eight years was said to be the cause of the party's defeat. Ronald Reagan had tapped into the anxiety that many taxpayers felt about the nature of the federal bureaucracy, portraying it as too big, too intrusive, and too wasteful. A kind of Democratic panic ensued. It was as if "government" had become a bad word. Republicans had successfully defined the political moment, and we Democrats increasingly sought to be Republican lite. At the time, few of us seemed to understand the depth of our party's problem. "In politics," the late political scientist David Green wrote in The Language of Politics in America: Shaping Political Consciousness from McKinley to Reagan, "real intellectual victory is achieved not by transmitting one's language to supporters but by transmitting it to critics." When you adopt your opponents' definition of the situation, including their premises and even some of their substantive analysis, effective opposition becomes difficult. By 1984, when former vice president Walter Mondale ran, Democrats were no longer in control of the dialogue.

The Democratic Party's reaction to Ronald Reagan shaped a generation of Democratic politicians, as we sought to differentiate ourselves from both Reagan and FDR -- Reagan because he was a Republican and FDR because he was a "big spender." Instead of creating something new that was true to our origins, we tried to split the difference between the legacy of FDR and the political potency of Reagan.

This split, of course, was surrender, both as a matter of tactics and principle. What Bradley doesn't say is that Reagan's Revolution was the biggest crock in American history. The only thing that Reagan changed in America was our perception of reality, which became hopelessly (or was it haplessly?) distorted and perverted -- decline presented as New Morning. The 1984 presidential debates were revelatory: Reagan and Mondale might has well have come from different planets. When the voters chose Reagan, they abandoned Earth. Ever since then the central theme of US politics has been flattering the public and promising them favors. Some Democrats enjoyed some success doing that, but when the unattended or actively denied decline finally caught up with us they were clueless. And in the end, clueless realists were unpersuasive against rhapsodic fantasists -- at least as far as 2004 went.

Bradley's lecture against "wealth bashing" (pp. 297-298):

Many of the wealthy are as angry as populists are with those Americans who get rich not because of their genius or hard work but because of their political connections or bloodlines. They feel such unearned advantage demeans the efforts of the self-made person who has built a career from scratch. Inherited wealth is not intrinsically evil; it depends on what you do with it. Some build on the previous generation's success and deserve our praise. More than a few good companies became great companies because a son or daughter took the parental vision to a new level. You should have the right to pass along what you've earned to your children and those you love, up to a point. Democrats should propose reform of the estate tax but not its repeal.

Reform is a pretty vague word; we should greatly increase the estate tax. The occasional poster boy for nepotism, like Thomas Watson Jr. (IBM), hardly justifies letting a hereditary oligarchy establish itself, diminishing the opportunities of others and disconnecting wealth from accomplishment. Indeed, the basic idea of unbounded personal wealth is something we should be suspicious of. As we move closer to exhausting the earth's limited resources, we would be better off if people accepted the notion that there is some level at which one is well off enough.

Bradley's appreciation of estates may have been something he inherited along with the proverbial silver spoon, but rather than follow in his father's footsteps, he set a pretty good example of someone who created his success on his own merits. It would be impossible to take all of the advantages away from the children of the rich, but a stiff estate tax starts to make the point that people should rise or fall on their own merits. If that's good enough for the poor, it's the least we can expect from the rich.

On campaign tactics (p. 306):

As a party, we need a much greater investment in the technical aspects of campaigning: database management, branding exercises, and other business practices that Republicans long ago mastered. We need to develop our own wedge issues to split the Republican camp, just as they used race, gay marriage, and abortion to split ours. Budgets for marketing must be as robust in off years as in election years. We need to respond to people's beliefs about themselves and their communities, not simply enter debates with the idea of showing that our candidate is the brightest kid in the classroom. We need to contest Republicans on the twinned issues of patriotism and personal freedom. We need to castigate them for what they've done to the deficit, to the environment, to our standing in the world.

A promising wedge issue could be something as ubiquitous as the weather. We should go into the Republican congressional districts that have been hard-hit by hurricanes, floods, or droughts. We should assert that climate change has contributed to these natural disasters. We should then dredge up all the Republican congressmen's statements denying the existence of climate change, reveal the campaign contributions they got from interests that benefit from our continued addiction to fossil fuels, and then ask them to explain how refusing to act on climate change serves the national interest. We should bring the global to the local.

A more promising wedge issue would be war and empire: at least some Republicans are latent isolationists, but try to find a Democrat who could appeal to them. Personal liberties is another, but try to find a Democrat who's willing to tackle drug prohibition. If you want to break the "big government" habit, start with where it is biggest: the police state and the military-industrial complex. All the things that Democrats nominally believe in are compromised by supporting those things, but still Democrats fall into rhetorical traps which work against their interests. Bradley's insistence on showing his patriotism is one of them.

But perhaps more important than yearning to play offense like the Republicans, the Democrats should learn to play defense. Why does anyone believe the crap Republicans put out? Partly because the Democrats respond to it respectfully instead of dismissing it as part of the usual outrageous Republican con. It may or more likely may not be possible to fight Republican crap with counter crap, but it would be more effective just to immunize against it. I read a book once which detailed twenty-some sales closes, pretty much everything salesfolk use to sell everything. It ended with one paragraph on how to get out of all of them: just compliment the salesman on his close, identifying by name two or three of the close techniques. The greatest sales pros in the world are powerless if you're wise to them. Wising up the voters would save the Democrats from having to fight off a lot of flack.

On Republicans at church (pp. 308-309):

Republicans go to places such as mega-churches where real human contact takes place. Mega-churches have ongoing discussion groups on issues that affect people's lives: work, children, finances, child care, aging. In addition, some have book groups, sports teams, fitness classes, day-care centers, and even schools. What happens in the smaller groups bonds the members to the church as much as the pastor's sermon does on Sunday morning. Republicans often use these gatherings as focus groups. More important, Republicans plug into the politically active elements of the congregation, who become the local foot soldiers of the party's voter contact. Their role comes out of their involvement with the church and the meaning they derive from that association. Many of these same individuals also participate in community projects through their churches. Democrats ignore the potential of mega-churches for Democratic organizing, rarely talk about issues in a collegial way at a structured place, almost never (beyond the candidate's campaign) engage real people outside a focus group, and never provide ways for volunteers directly to help another human being.

A conclusion, of sorts (p. 338):

In recent years, we have headed down a dangerous path toward empire, environmental destruction, and a general blindness to the conditions of life for millions of Americans and billions of fellow human beings around the globe. But the future, with all its wondrous technology, increasing interdependence, and responsive democracy, can bring all of us a better life while reestablishing America's position of respect and power in the world. For that to happen, we must be bold enough in our leadership, generous enough with our neighbors, truthful enough with our citizens, and farsighted enough toward the world.

Then, of course, he wobbles off, finally quoting Abraham Lincoln about how we're "'the last best hope' of humankind." Poor us. Poor species.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Tzipi Livni's High Horse

The July 8 issue of The New York Times Magazine has a cover story on Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni by Roger Cohen. Mostly a puff profile, although the net effect is to show her as a dangerous ideologue -- her claim to be the one who put the words in Bush's mouth trashing the right of return is just one example. Still, two quotes struck me as interesting:

One of Livni's catchphrases is, "There is a process of delegitimization of Israel as a Jewish state." She sees herself in a race against time.

The second expands on the first:

"Stagnation works against those who believe in a two-state solution," Livni said in our first conversation. The West, she suggested, needs to tell Hamas, the Islamist movement battling Fatah for control of a Palestinian movement now split between Gaza and the West Bank, that it must not only recognize Israel's right to exist but also "the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, which is not that obvious anymore."

The West needs to get on speaking terms with Hamas before any telling becomes possible, but that's not what's important here. What matters is that Livni is acknowledging that in the eyes of more and more of the world the very concept of a Jewish State is untenable. This is obviously a big problem for Zionists, who see the Jewish State as existential. This happens routinely when someone -- more recently President Ahmadinejad of Iran -- offers an opinion that "the Zionist Entity" cannot persist, and this gets translated into a call for genocide against Jews. While it's possible that's what a few folks really think, the necessary linkage between the Jewish State and the Jewish People is pretty much a figment of the Zionist imagination. The Jewish State is a metaphysical ideal most parties in the Israeli body politic pledge allegiance to, but it's not even the same thing as the actual State of Israel -- the differences due to both secular and ethnic erosion within Israel, and to a worldwide distaste for racist colonial regimes.

The modern view, indeed the basic precept of democracy, is that states should reflect the interests and composition of the people they represent, with all due respect for minority as well as majority rights. Israel doesn't fit that view. For a long while lots of folks, especially those of pale complexion in Europe and America, gave the Zionists special dispensation, partly due to guilt over past crimes against Jews, partly out of indifference or worse regarding Arabs. But both of those rationales have softened over time, while we've witnessed the actual effects of allowing Israel to lord it over Palestinians and others. The net effect is that the Jewish State has mutated from being seen as a hypothetical sanctuary for Jews to an actual ghetto for Arabs. Little wonder the romance is fading; what's remarkable is that it's lasted as long as it has.

Livni is as committed to the Jewish State as ever, but at least she recognizes the dynamic. This is exceptional -- most Israelis still cling to the notion that time is on their side, that somehow all they have to do to win is to run out the clock. And this makes Livni more dangerous than your basic do-nothing Likudnik, since she feels the need to force something to happen. The thinking here is that if the Palestinians recognize the Jewish State the rest of the world will accept its legitimacy. The problem is that her notion of the Jewish State is unrecognizable, as it demands that Palestinians give up their history and accept a permanently subservient role to a nation built on their land in their forced absence. No such deal is possible, especially where Palestinians, too, see time as on their side.

Later in the article, Cohen looks at the other side:

You don't so much drive into the Palestinian territories these days as sink into them. Everything, except the Jewish settlers' cars on fenced settlers-only highways, slows down. Donkeys, carts and idle people replace Israel's first-world hustle-bustle. The buzz of business gives way to the clunking of hammers. The whole desolate West Bank scene, described recently by the World Bank as "a shattered economic space," is punctuated with shining garrisonlike settlements on hilltops and checkpoints where Palestinians see themselves reflected in the stylish shades of Russian-immigrant Israeli soldiers. If you are looking for a primer on colonialism, this is not a bad place to start.

Cohen goes on to visit Saeb Erekat, a key Palestinian negotiator under Arafat and now Abbas, who says: "Palestinians are tired of the no-partner-for-talks symphony. Livni has an interlocutor in me and Abbas. We don't ask why Israelis choose Labor or Kadima; she doesn't need to ask about Hamas. With a decent peace accord we can go to a referendum. Moderates would win. That would be Hamas's fig leaf. But Livni has to learn that peace and settlements don't go together, walls and peace don't go together and nothing is solved until everything is solved."

By making the issue recognition of the Jewish State, Livni subsumes all the inequities of the last sixty years into a precondition for any settlement. The settlements, the walls, the dominating security state, most of all denial of the right of return, those are all necessary parts of her Jewish State. Abba Eban used to quip that the Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity for peace. The punch line is that they never had one, because the Jewish State was predicated on dominance, and therefore on war. Ironically, only when that vision of the Jewish State is ended will Jews be able to live in peace -- which is pretty much the normal state these days for diaspora Jews who don't live in thrall to the metaphysical Jewish State.


I'm a little less than half way through Tom Segev's 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East. The annoying thing about the book is that, thus far at least, there is hardly anything about how anyone other than Israelis viewed the conflict -- well, a bit about the US, but that's it. On the other hand, the book is fascinating as a piece of Israeli navel-gazing. The nation appears to have been torn between militaristic hubris and existential dread, with both factors perfectly exemplified in Yitzhak Rabin's nervous breakdown. I suspect that Segev's final conclusion will be mine: that Israel found purpose in the 1967 war, and never dared risk peace again. Israel had two main opportunities to negotiate peace, and turned them both down. Following the 1949 armistices, Israel could have negotiated peace treaties with neighboring countries and worked to defuse the refugee crisis before it calcified into permanence, but chose to keep its borders unsettled, hoping for future expansion. The result was that they lost political ground to Arab nationalism, while building up military muscle, which led to the 1967 war. In 1967, Israel grabbed land it couldn't settle but could trade back for peace on more favorable terms, but preferred to keep the land and fight with the people on the land, trying to at last realize the expansion they dreamt of in 1949. (Some of it anyway: the Likud still insisted on both sides of the Jordan.) Again, failure to settle soon after the conflict hardened into long, self-perpetuating struggle.

I've always been somewhat sympathetic to the Israelis in 1967 -- although even then I had serious doubts about war as a solution to anything, and nothing since then has proven otherwise. The 1947-49 war occurred before I was born (in 1950), so I can only look back at it with hindsight. The original sin of the founding of Israel was the UN partition resolution of 1947, rejected by the Palestinian majority and radically reinterpreted by the Zionist leadership, in ways that were not uncommon nor surprising at the time. This led to the more/less forced expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians, who were stripped of their property, denied their homes and their rights, to be replaced with Jewish immigrants from wherever the Mossad could find them -- mostly Arab countries, eventually extending to Ethiopia, with a later massive influx from the former Soviet Union. In effect, the refugees looked like several contemporary population exchanges -- between India and Pakistan, or the Germans of Eastern Europe who were driven west. The Palestinian case was different primarily in that it was done under the nose of the UN and was presumed to be covered by international law, which demanded peace settlements and the refugees' right of return. The conflict then was about two things: the right of Jews to create a predominantly Jewish nation in part of Palestine to serve as a haven for Jews from all over the world, which is roughly what the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations Mandate promised and the UN reaffirmed in 1947; and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and live in peace. In hindsight the former is far more dubious, but it still held considerable sympathy in 1967, putting Israel in peril should its Arab neighbors eventually manage to reverse their previous military losses. This assumed, of course, that victorious Arab armies would kill or force into exile most Israeli Jews, but given the way both sides had fought in the past, that seemed likely enough.

Israel's quick victory in 1967 put an end to the Arab's ability to threaten Israel's existence, and Israel's development of nuclear weapons closed the issue once and for all. The subsequent wars up to 1973 were never more than border conflicts, as Egypt toned down its goals to recovering its lost territory -- eventually achieved diplomatically. Israel complained much about terrorists afterwards, but they were never more than nuissances, regardless of how hysterical Israelis got over them. The Intifada, as a mass revolt, was (and is) a more serious problem, but not an existential threat. So the net effect of the 1967 war was to shift power clearly enough to prevent future wars. While one could imagine other ways to do that, there is little reason to think that either side would have been interested. Given that, the 1967 war in itself could have been a starting point for peace.

Of course, we now know that it wasn't. Indeed, it's hard to find any wars that in the end promoted peace and justice. (Noam Chomsky is fond of the 1971 war that broke Bangladesh free of Pakistan, and may have one or two more. The abject defeat of Japan and Germany in WWII did encourage them to become more peaceable.) The usual pattern is that the winners want more, and the losers want a rematch. That's what happened in 1967, and why it took the less lopsided 1973 war to bring Israel and Egypt to an accommodation that was on the table but rejected by Israel in 1971.

We should have learned much since 1967, including that the Zionist solution to "the Jewish problem" was itself bogus, and has created far more anti-semitism than it ever defended against. Driving most of the Jews away from muslim lands has made those countries less tolerant and less cosmopolitan than they would otherwise be, while creating an underclass in Israel. Meanwhile Jews in Europe and America have fully integrated into secular democratic societies -- so much so that the closest thing they can find to anti-semitism is really just disappointment over Israel's unjust behavior. And in Israel Zionism has created the world's most militarist state to no purpose other than to deny citizenship and human rights to the descendents of the people who lived there before the Zionists moved in and took over. It's worse than a crying shame. It's sheer intellectual nonsense.


TomDispatch

The latest column at TomDispatch started with a note where editor Tom Engelhardt asked those of us who had signed up for email notices on new posts to send email to "perhaps 10 people you know who might benefit from getting TomDispatch regularly, urging them to go to the 'sign up' window at the upper right of the main screen, put in their e-mail addresses, answer the confirmation letter that will quickly arrive in their in-boxes, and so join the TD crew." I figured rather than spam my address book, I'd just make a post here. If you do sign up, you'll get 3-4 notices per week, each with a few paragraphs leading into an article you'll probably find interesting, with a "read more" link to the site. I've received his notices for several years now, until I recently fell behind reading every piece posted. I recommend it very highly. In fact, one of my ambitions in life is to join his guest authors list.

This particular piece is an update on the air wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sample quote:

Let's start with the nature of modern war. The very phrase "collateral damage" should be tossed onto the junk heap of history. For the last century, war has increasingly targeted civilians. Between World War I and the 1990s, according to Richard M. Garfield and Alfred I. Neugut in War and Public Health, civilian deaths as a percentage of all deaths rose from 14% to 90%. These figures are obviously approximate at best, but the trend line is clear. In a sense, in modern warfare, it's the military deaths that often are the "collateral damage"; civilian deaths -- "including women and children" -- turn out to be central to the project. The Lancet study's figures for Iraq indicate as much.

The article details many cases where US airpower has been used to kill civilians in both countries, the administration's efforts to spin such "collateral damage," and the actual historical trends, which are toward more air attacks and more indiscriminate killing. But also note that civilians are routinely killed on the ground. In particular, see this Nation piece by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, based on interviews with 50 US soldiers who served in Iraq. It's just a sample of what's gone on, and what the troops are bringing back here.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Music: Current count 13358 [13328] rated (+30), 818 [814] unrated (-4). Slow, lazy week, with two holidays in the middle, my brother visiting from Oregon, my nephew in from New York. Worked on the house. Saw a couple of movies (Sicko, A Mighty Heart). Decided July's Recycled Goods was done enough. Prospected some new jazz. Worked on my backlog of book pages.

  • Electric Light Orchestra: Out of the Blue (1977 [2007], Epic/Legacy): The inevitable double album move, although here it fits on one disc with three bonus tracks; turbocharged cellos power first-side pop wonders like "Turn to Stone" and "Sweet Talkin' Woman," while the third-side "Concerto for a Rainy Day" updates Sgt. Pepper like that was as natural as progress. B+(***)
  • Pure Prairie League: All in Good Time (2006, Drifter's Church): Country-rock band from 1971-83; thought they had vanished in the dust, but this is new, sounds surprisingly sweet. B+(*)


Jazz Prospecting (CG #14, Part 4)

I didn't plan on starting off with singers, but it sort of worked out that way. The early part of the week, up to Thursday or so, was mostly spent working on Recycled Goods. When I decided that was done, I shifted to new jazz, mostly because it's been piling up. Didn't do any re-listens, since we're early in the cycle, and those shelves are relatively empty. Don't have a game plan for the next column yet. I'm looking forward to at least the next two weeks just to get my space and head organized, and hopefully to start back on the book.


Maria Muldaur: Naughty Bawdy & Blue (2007, Stony Plain): She sizzles when her handy man greases her griddle, but for a singer who's often put her libido first, this is less risqué than the title promises. The booklet includes respectful sketches of the first wave of what's now called classic female blues: Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey, Sippie Wallace, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, and Sara Martin. Spivey is remembered as mentoring young Maria D'Amato in the '60s, recording her first jug band, and urging her to step out and strut her stuff. Wallace offers another direct connection, but all these women who made their mark in the 1920s are long dead now, and the girl Spivey discovered is into her 60s -- perhaps that realization and respect blunted her edge? On the other hand, James Dapogny's band backs up these songs with more flair than anyone since Fletcher Henderson. And Muldaur is still a terrific blues archivist, able to warm up any creaky old song. And it's worth recalling that Hunter came back with her dirtiest album ever at age 84. B+(***)

Duke Robillard's World Full of Blues (2006-07 [2007], Stony Plain): Journeyman blues jockey, sings a little, plays a lot of guitar. Stretches to two discs, not because he has a lot to say -- more like he don't know what to leave out. Then calls the second disc a free bonus because he's not arrogant enough to expect you to pay double for mere encyclopedia; surprisingly, second disc actually kicks in quicker. B+(**)

Muiza Adnet: Sings Moacir Santos (2006 [2007], Adventure Music): Another spinoff from Ouro Negro, the project that brought Afro-Brazilian composer Santos some small measure of fame. Santos roughs in some vocals shortly before his death, but producer Mario Adnet is in charge of the delicate arrangements, and his sister Muiza is featured in what strikes me as an overly proper framing. Milton Nascimento and Ivan Lins also appear, as do guitarists Marcos Amorim and Ricardo Silveira. B

Anjani: Blue Alert (2006 [2007], Columbia): Young pianist-singer from Hawaii, wrote this batch of songs with Leonard Cohen, who co-produces. Sometimes his cadences come through, and you can imagine his croak too. The songs are slow, the arrangements rough; they seem to old for her -- "I danced with a lot of men/Fought in an ugly war/Gave my heart to a mountain/But I never loved before"; "Every night she'd come to me/I'd cook for her, I'd pour her tea/She was in her thirties then/Had made some money, lived with men" -- but she looks up them and through them. Maybe too young for him, too, but that seems more like luck than a problem. B+(*)

Barb Jungr: Bare Again (1999 [2007], ZC): Reissue of her first album Bare, named for its minimal piano-only accompaniment, with three extra cuts to grow the title. Jungr has some jazz flair, and picks songs come from '60s-'70s pop, with Jacques Brel's "Sons Of" a revelation, Ian Dury's "What a Waste" a surprise, and Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" a dud. B

Somi: Red Soil in My Eyes (2005-06 [2007], World Village): Singer-songwriter, born in Illinois of parents from Rwanda and Uganda. She calls what she does Holistic New African Jazz-Soul, aiming at "introspective bliss and inspiration" -- noble sentiments for music that goes nowhere. The jazz is nu, although musicians like Lionel Loueke and Jeremy Pelt are recognizable, at least on the credits list. The songs are half in an unidentified African language, half in English. B-

Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter, & James Cotton: Breakin' It Up, Breakin' It Down (1977 [2007], Epic/Legacy): Once Waters got Hard Again, he went out on the road, with Winter and Cotton above the line, Pinetop Perkins and Bob Margolin below. This previously unreleased concert won't hurt the band's reputation, but songs like "Caledonia" and "Rocket 88" aren't exactly tests of the blues great's mojo -- and the songs that do test him are sharper on the studio record, where more was at stake. B+(**)

Brian Stokes Mitchell (2000-06 [2006], Playbill/Legacy): First album by Broadway theatre actor/singer, evidently a notable star with credits going back at least to 1988. Most of these songs are show tunes, smartly arranged for a large orchestra with various soloists, and dashingly sung. Not my thing at all, although I only lost interest toward the end when the drama drowned the finesse, and only gave up when Broadway Inspiration Voices took their toll. B

Nanette Natal: I Must Be Dreaming (2005-07 [2007], Benyo Music): Jazz singer, with a dark, smoky voice, and deft feel for the beat. Bio says her career started in 1962 singing classical, then moved through blues and rock -- AMG gives two stars to a 1971 recording on Evolution called The Beginning -- before settling into the jazz lofts. Launched her own label in 1980, releasing an album every few years since -- I've counted 8, with 6 in print, but have only heard 2004's It's Only a Tune. This one has politics, and could use a lyric sheet -- "here living's hard if it doesn't come easy" and "the jails are filled to capacity/in the land of the brave and the free" are two lines I jotted down. Next time around I'll probably find more. [B+(***)]

Gloria Lynne: From My Heart to Yours (2007, High Note): Jazz (or pop or soul) singer, recorded a lot for Everest 1958-66, after which her discography thins out. Second record on High Note, after one in 1992 on predecessor label Muse. Interesting reading of "My Funny Valentine," like she's trying to build on Chet Baker's affectuations but can't make herself frail enough. Nothing else caught my interest, but there's no doubting her strength or skill. B

Tom Harrell: Light On (2006 [2007], High Note): A somewhat slick but fairly conventional postbop quintet, with Danny Grissett playing Fender Rhodes as much as acoustic piano, and Wayne Escoffery's tenor sax matching up against Harrell's trumpet and flugelhorn. Each player has his moments, but in the end they don't add up to critical mass. B

Arturo Sandoval: Rumba Palace (2007, Telarc): The percussion section is up to snuff, but can't salvage the slow ones. The trumpeter can burn white hot or negotiate tricky changes, but by now that's expected. He's turned me off more in the past, but he's also turned me on more. So this is a good example of what Christgau calls Neither. B

Akiko Tsuruga: Sweet and Funky (2006 [2007], 18th & Vine): Claims to be the "only Japanese female organ player in New York," which can't be much of a stretch. Blurb also quotes Dr. Lonnie Smith observing that "she can play!" True enough, plus she has a great smile. This is a trio with guitarist Eric Johnson and drummer Vince Ector, with percussionist Wilson "Chembo" Corniel added on half the cuts. The guitarist is good for this sort of thing, which is cheery more than bluesy. Mostly standard fare, with four originals. No great shakes, but a good deal of fun. B+(*)

Satoko Fujii Min-Yoh Ensemble: Fujin Raijin (2006 [2007], Victo): Her folk music group -- that's how Min-Yoh translates. Two trad pieces, plus originals. Quartet with Curtis Hasselbring's trombone complementing Natsuki Tamura's trumpet, with Andrea Parkins' accordion matched up against Fujii's piano. No drum, no bass, not much groove. Starts slow, gets loud. At one point someone -- Fujii, presumably -- sings. Another aspect to an amazingly varied oeuvre. B+(**)

The Blueprint Project: People I Like (2006 [2007], Creative Nation Music): Don't have a recording date, but the liner notes are dated 2006, so that works. Group consists of three chums from New England Conservatory of Music: saxophonist Jared Sims, guitarist Eric Hofbauer, and pianist Tyson Rogers. All three write and contribute strong performances, but as a trio they'd be short on rhythm. Last time they solved that problem by adding Cecil McBee and Matt Wilson, for a tightly played, craftily thought out postbop eponymous album that made my A-list. This one is much looser and more scattered -- further out, with veteran Dutch anarchist Han Bennink on drums and whatever. Harder to get a grip on this one, although I can say that a Latin piece is fairly wonderful, and Sims aces his clarinet feature. [B+(***)]

The Chip Stephens Trio: Holding On to What Counts (2006 [2007], Capri): Piano trio, with Ken Walker on bass and Todd Reid on drums. Stephens teaches jazz at Urbana-Champaign, after spells in Boulder and Youngstown -- this was recorded in Denver, where Walker is based. His web page there claims "nearly 40 records and compact discs" but AMG only counts 9, with this the second under his name. Five original pieces, plus covers of Cole Porter, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, and a Miles Davis medley. I'm tempted to write this off as textbook stuff, but Stephens' dynamism and flair raises the ante on the standard fare -- the Monk really jumps, the Silver sizzles, a bit of "Sweet Georgia Brown" swings. B+(*)

Steve Kuhn: Pastorale (2002 [2007], Sunnyside): Another piano trio. Playing this after Chip Stephens reminds me of the difference between college sports and the pros. Stephens is very good at playing other people. Kuhn is, well, Kuhn. He broke through with Kenny Dorham, John Coltrane (before McCoy Tyner replaced him), Stan Getz, and Art Farmer. He recorded as himself in 1963, and has worked steadily ever since. I haven't followed him closely -- I'm not much of a piano person, and don't care for some of his digressions, like the Latin-tinged Quiéreme Mucho. Even this is a bit too inside for my interest span, but he sounds terrific -- as he does on the more recently recorded Live at Birdland, an HM if I ever find the words for it. Major league bass and drums too: Eddie Gomez and Billy Drummond. B+(***)

Tord Gustavsen Trio: Being There (2006 [2007], ECM): Piano trio, from Norway, with Harald Johnsen on bass, Jarle Vespestad on drums. Third ECM album, nominally the culmination of a trilogy, but I doubt they are that thematic. Johnsen contributes one piece, Gustavsen the rest. Very low key, precise, sensible. I prefer the pieces that pick up some momentum to the ones that are all melody, but he's very adept at the latter. [B+(***)]

Lucky 7s: Farragut (2006, Lakefront Digital): This is where Jeb Bishop landed on leaving the Vandermark 5, although it's hardly his only project -- a new one called the Engines, which is the Vandermark-less 5 subbing Nate McBride for Kent Kessler on bass, looks most promising. Lucky 7s is led by Bishop and fellow trombonist Jeff Albert, who also plays tuba. Seven piece group, natch, with Josh Berman's cornet and Keefe Jackson's reeds, Jason Adasiewicz's vibes, Matthew Golombisky on bass and Quin Kirchner on drums. Takes a while to kick in, but when it does you get a thick gumbo of New Orleans polyphony gone avant-garde, with the vibes glittering above the fray. [B+(***)]

Todd Herbert: The Path to Infinity (1999-2003 [2007], Metropolitan): Tenor saxophonist, originally from Chicago area, moved to New York in 1997. Has played with Charles Earland, Freddie Hubbard, and Tom Harrell, although AMG doesn't give him any credits. Six cuts date from a 1999 session with George Colligan on piano, Dwayne Burno on bass, and Darrin Becket on drums, showing a straight shooter with some fire -- reminds me of Eric Alexander speeding. The odd cut out came later with David Hazeltine on piano, John Webber on bass, and Joe Farnsworth on drums. The rhythm there is more slippery and the sax less straight, more Prez than Hawk. Might be fruitful to follow up in that direction. B+(*)

Robert MacGregor: Refraction of Light (2006 [2007], Black Tri): Young (b. 1983) tenor saxophonist, from Los Angeles, part Chinese, studied at Manhattan School of Music under Steve Slagle and Dick Oatts. In a quartet here with folks I don't know, with trumpet and flute added for one song. I didn't expect much, but he's got a distinct sound, and maneuvers easily around tricky postbop. Pianist Miro Sprague holds his own as well. [B+(**)] [Aug. 1]

Paul Zauners Blue Brass: Soil (2006 [2007], PAO/BluJazz): Zauner plays trombone; also runs a label in Austria called PAO, which has released some very interesting records, often world-oriented -- I recommended Quartet B's Crystal Mountain in my first Jazz CG, and it's good enough to plug again, especially since Mihály Borbély is still not a household name in these parts. Looks like Blujazz has picked up the distribution, an improvement publicity-wise. Group is 7-piece: two brass, two reeds, piano (often Fender Rhodes), bass, and drums, with a lot of loose interplay among the horns. Starts off with Abdullah Ibrahim's "African Market Place," a surefire way to warm my heart and wiggle my toes, and returns to Africa for Osibisa's "Vo Ja Jo." Even better is a Latin thing by baritone saxophonist Peter Massink, called "Birds Have to Fly." Standards like "Georgia on My Mind" and "Come Rain, Come Shine" are nicely interwoven, as is a Louis Armstrong tribute. [B+(***)]

Jewels and Binoculars: Ships With Tattooed Sails (2006 [2007], Upshot): The group comes from a line in a Bob Dylan song. The group -- Michael Moore on reeds and melodica, Lindsey Horner on bass, Michael Vatcher on bass -- plays Bob Dylan songs. This is their third album, which still doesn't get them very far through the songbook, although the stuff that a non-Dylan fan like me can recognize is thinning out. That in itself matters little: one thing they've already proven is that Dylan is quite a melodist, even blanking out his legendary lyrics. One I do recognize is "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," even though they turn it into a fantastic improvisatory platform. Bill Frisell joins in on three cuts. Haven't noticed them yet. A- [Sept. 1]


No final grades/notes on records put back for further listening the first time around.


Unpacking:

  • King Sunny Ade: The Best of the Classic Years (1967-74, Shanachie)
  • King Sunny Ade: Gems From the Classic Years (1967-74, Shanachie)
  • At War With Self: Acts of God (Sluggo's Goon Music)
  • Black Bonzo: Sound of the Apocalypse (The Laser's Edge)
  • Tad Britton: Black Hills (Origin)
  • Celebrate! Songs of Worship (1994-2006, Columbia/Legacy)
  • Greg Duncan Quintet: Unveiled (OA2)
  • Amanda Carr: Soon (OMS)
  • Joe Cohn: Restless (Arbors)
  • The Foo Fighters: The Colour and the Shape (1997, RCA/Legacy)
  • Billie Holiday: Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles (1935-42, Columbia/Legacy, 4CD): advance, Oct. 9
  • Diane Hubka: Goes to the Movies (18th & Vine)
  • Charlie Hunter and Bobby Previte as Groundtruther: Altitude (Thirsty Ear, 2CD): advance
  • Los Angeles Jazz Ensemble: Expectation (Kind of Blue)
  • Raymond MacDonald/Günter Baby Sommer: Delphinius & Lyra (Clean Feed)
  • Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana: Miren (A Longing) (Clean Feed)
  • Joe Morris/Ken Vandermark/Luther Gray: Rebus (Clean Feed)
  • Evan Parker: A Glancing Blow (Clean Feed)
  • Nicki Parrott and Rossano Sportiello: People Will Say We're in Love (Arbors)
  • Putumayo Presents: Americana (2002-05, Putumayo World Music)
  • Quodia: The Arrow (Quodia, CD+DVD)
  • Enrico Rava: The Words and the Days (ECM)
  • David Sills: Green (Origin)
  • Martin Speicher/Georg Wolf/Lou Grassi: Shapes and Shadows (Clean Feed)
  • Russ Spiegel: Chimera (2007, Steeplechase)
  • Joan Stiles: Hurly-Burly (2007, Oo-Bla-Dee)
  • Tuner: Pole (Unsung)
  • The Phil Woods Quintet: American Songbook II (Kind of Blue)

Purchases:

  • Benny Carter: The Music Master (1931-52, Proper, 4CD)
  • Girl Talk: Night Ripper (Illegal Art)
  • Wynonie Harris: Rockin' the Blues (1944-50, Proper, 4CD)
  • Illinois Jacquet: The Illinois Jacquet Story (1944-51, Proper, 4CD)
  • Louis Jordan: Jivin' With Jordan (1939-51, Proper, 4CD)
  • Machito and His Afro-Cubans: Ritmo Caliente (1951-51, Proper, 4CD)
  • Buddy and Julie Miller: Love Snuck Up (1995-2002, Hightone)
  • Maxine Sullivan: Moments Like This (1937-47, Proper)
  • Ben Webster: Big Ben (1931-51, Proper, 4CD)

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Larry Beinhart: Fog Facts

Larry Beinhart is a novelist and screenwriter, perhaps best known for his movie script, Wag the Dog. His short book, Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin (2005; paperback, 2006, Nation Books) was, as best I recall, the book I was reading when I started posting my "current reading" list on the blog. Ever since then I've been looking forward to posting the numerous quotes I marked in this book, but I kept reading more books and making other posts. I suppose one problem is that the book's binding makes it relatively hard to keep open while I type. On the other hand, I've read few books in the last five years that I recommend more highly, especially if you're mostly interested in the big picture and how it's managed to get so fuzzy for so many people.


On the idea of "fog facts" (pp. 2-3):

The idea of fog facts emerged from a series of very casual conversations I had between tennis games with Robert Brill, city desk editor at the Albany Times Union. I would get to the courts full of umbrage over something that I had discovered searching the Net that had not been reported in the mainstream media.

Rob would reply, almost invariably, "Oh, there was a story about that three months ago."

I would go home and do a search, and sure enough, the Times had indeed reported that Halliburton was being sued by its shareholders for the accounting practices instituted by Dick Cheney. On page 3 of the business section or something like that.

The things I was getting so worked up over were not secrets uncovered by political spies and underground agents of the next revolution. They were snippets picked up from the Wall Street Journal, CNN, and Fox News and now brought ot my attention on a Web site. Even if they came from Greg Palast or Al Jazeera or the Atlantic or books by David Corn and Kevin Philips, they were all public facts. They were in print. They had been referred to, reviewed, and cross-referenced elsewhere.

Yet they seemed to be invisible.

Leading into a discussion of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the Nuremberg trials (pp. 21-22):

I highly recommend the second season of the TV series 24. It's The Perils of Pauline on crack. Like crack itself, it is neither coherent nor deep, but it is addictive.

Terrorists are about to set off a nuke in Los Angeles. The show is called 24 because it takes place over a twenty-four-hour period. It is urgent! Not only are the terrorists going to nuke L.A., the bomb is going to go off within twenty-four hours.

The most decent, ethical, thoughtful person on the whole show is the American president. You can tell, because he's black. Imagine a dark Colin Powell living in a thriller version of The West Wing. He discovers a suspect. Inside his own cabinet! The suspect will not talk. What to do? There are 10 million people in L.A., some of them really hot movie stars and some of them really appealing little tykes and, oh, all sorts of people.

The president not only makes the agonized decision to torture the suspect, he cranks the dial on the pain machine with his own hand.

This is the essential paradigm in which we live once we have accepted the necessary lie -- that the terrorists could not have been stopped by normal means -- and have accepted the big lie -- that we are in a War on Terror.

These lies make all things acceptable.

On Bush's political capital lesson (p. 50):

There is a story from Russ Baker. It only has a single source, which is why it ended up on Guerrilla News Network instead of some more "reputable" publication. Baker interviewed Mickey Herskowitz, a professional ghostwriter who had been hired to do Bush's campaign autobiography. Herskowitz told Baker he had met with the candidate about twenty times to talk to him for the book:

[George Bush] said to me: "One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief." And he said, "My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it." He said, "If I have a chance to invade . . . if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency."

Imagine being George Bush and watching your father, as president of the United States, soar to unprecedented heights in the polls, then slide and slide and be beaten by that liberal piece of trailer-park trash, Bill Clinton.

That's a life lesson.

Whether or not the Herskowitz story is verifiable almost doesn't matter, for it draws our attention to what the experience must have been like and it fits with the notions both of human nature and of Bush's actual behavior in office.

On Bush's tax cuts (p. 64):

The genius of Bush is in selling it to the voters as something that's good for them.

Any appearance of benefits to low and middle-income people is there to sell the programs. Whatever benefits there are will be more than offset by increases in other taxes, the loss of services, and the accumulation of debts that will at some point have to be paid off with interest.

The story that tax cuts for the rich will stimulate the economy so much that they will solve all the problems is also bogus. This was originally, under Reagan, called trickle-down economics, one of those inadvertently great right-wing names that really is a euphemism for piss on the poor. Under Bush Sr., the name was changed to Supply Side Economics; and under this Bush, it's called a stimulus package.

On deficits (p. 70):

Deficits that will, unchecked, bankrupt the country. Before that happens, foreign investors, who have already taken a hit of as much as 40 percent on their dollar holdings, will likely get out of the dollar, causing it to collapse, and our economy with it.

There are two questions. The first is: Why?

The most rational answer I've come across is that it's a game of chicken to force the Democrats, when they see us driving straight to the destruction of Social Security or the collapse of the republic, to flinch first and recommend a raise in taxes. Then the Republicans can call them "tax-and-spend" Democrats again. They hated that Clinton had robbed them of the use of that epithet.

Another possibility is that bankrupting the country (or at least the government) is intentional. The economist Paul Krugman, in his New York Times column of March 4, 2005, wrote, "Mr. Bush celebrated the budget's initial slide into deficit. In the summer of 2001 he called plunging federal revenue 'incredibly positive news' because it would 'put a straitjacket' on federal spending."

Bush's remark four years earlier was little noted when it was made. It's part of what is so peculiar about all of this. It's being done in plain sight yet it is unseen.

Our expectations of sanity and probity make it hard for us to believe that our leaders are recklessly senseless.

More on Bush's budgets (p. 72):

This is devious and destructive. Like playing chicken or driving cars over cliffs, if you do them when you're over twenty-one and you're supposed to be a responsible adult who knows the consequences, they are pathological.

Justin A. Frank, M.D., the psychiatrist who wrote Bush on the Couch, is perfectly willing to say that our president is exactly that. He believes that Bush's deepest wish is to destroy, that Bush is a sadist who takes particular delight in hurting those who need help and compassion, and that this budget process is ultimately designed to do that.

On Social Security (p. 122):

The Bush administration is not intent on destroying Social Security because it doesn't work or because it won't work sometime in the future. They're going after it because it does work and it represents the success of a heretical sect:

Social Security is the soft underbelly of the welfare state. If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state.

Stephen Moore, senior fellow, Cato Institute, contributing editor, National Review, president of the Free Enterprise Fund

By which he means: if the most cherished and popular program can be killed, the rest will fall.

On control (pp. 144-147):

In the eighteenth century the culture of independent artisans and small entrepreneurs was a refreshing opposition to a jaded aristocracy and to countries run by sycophantic ministers to decadent monarch, and the idea of an invisible hand was roughly true.

But capitalism has matured. Like all systems, its first duty is to itself. The Soft Machine is its security system, its enforcement arm and its army of conquest. Like the Internet, it is a work of unconsciously cooperative genius. Where the invisible hand guided all the individual greedy efforts into a greater good, the Soft Machine guides all individual efforts either into atrophy or into the greater good of the capitalist system.

Noam Chomsky is right. Consent is manufactured in modern capitalist democracies. Frequently there is little more significant dissent in democracies than in totalitarian systems. The qualifiesr "frequently," "significant," and "little more" are very significant. Soft-Machine states are vastly more comfortable places to live in -- and especially to dissent in -- than totalitarian states are.

Totalitarian societies use the Hard Machine. They are called police states. All those policemen are expensive. Police are necessary, but the more order you can have without police, the more efficient the society is. Just as the conquest of foreign states by business is more economical than conquest by force of arms. Conquest by business makes money. Conquest by force of arms always costs money.

Furthermore, the dysfunction of a police state is greater than merely the cost of the salaries and equipment of the constabulary. Police states are command societies. No matter how brilliant the people at the top are, random stupidity always kicks in. The harder the machine, the more certain it becomes that bad decisions will be enforced and remain in force.

Inherent rigidity and its maintenance of stupidity are the primary reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The genius of the Soft Machine is the genius of capitalism. It accepts a certain amount of anarchy. It sorts out and controls multiple voices with money. Multiple voices are important because the quality of being right is, to a certain degree, random. At a given time, it comes from logic, at another, from intuition. It might come from faith, from dreaming, from inspiration, and sometimes just from luck.

The Soft Machine can absorb conflicting ideas. While lots of people in the West regard our environmental record as dreadful, it is far superior to what happened in the old East Bloc, where the commissars simply ordered the rivers to be dammed, the lake to be drained, and the nuclear waste to be dumped.

The Soft Machine will readily absorb radical ideas, too, so long as they are moneymakers, and it will turn them into profits or souvenirs. The sexual revolution has become the multibillion-dollar porn industry. Rap is now all bling, bling, Bohemian styles have been the mainstay of chain stores int he mall since the birth of the mall. Che is a road movie and a T-shirt too. Malcolm X is a stamp.

Do you fear the Soft Machien or desire its embrace? If you have an idea, a great idea, an idea that people want, an idea that stirs things up and changes things, the Soft Machine will pay you for it. It will make it a product and bring it to market. Make you rich and famous and treat you with great, if temporary, respect.

The Soft Machine has, and will use, the hard instruments of power and rule. The Soft Machine does not give up police and military powers. Indeed, the United States is the world leader in the number of people imprisoned, in the employment of military force, in the possession and use of weapons of mass destruction. But we use those hard instruments only in the context of a consensus, however that consensus is built or has come about.

The Hard Machine uses the hard powers of a police state to suppress dissent and force that consensus. The mechanisms of control are visible: midnight arrests, the secret police, the informers, the political prisons, the disappeared people.

By contrast, you almost never see the Soft Machine as it moves to herd us all together. Sometimes, as with the misreporting of the election results, although you can't see it, you can see that something must have happened.

The Soft Machine is hard to fight. [ . . . ]

You can't fight the Soft Machine. You don't want to. The Soft Machine is you./p>

On Iraq, early in the game (p. 155-156):

If there were no WMDs, and if Saddam Hussein had no significant links to Al Qaeda, then the justification for our invasion of Iraq is that we made it a better place. Part of what made it a bad place was that Saddam Hussein killed people. Sure, it's a crude measure, but if we killed more people than he did, civilians in particular, did we make it a better place?

General Tommy Frank[s] was asked about Iraqi casualties. He said "We're don't do body counts." It never seemed to occur to the producers and editors at CBS, CNN, Fox, the New York Times, and the Washington Post or to the reporters on ground that they should do their own body counts, impelled by logic or curiosity, in search of a story or in search of the truth. Net searches for "Iraqi casualties" showed a single story from the Associated Press, recycled through several venues, that repeated the general's assertion and then went on to say that any estimates of Iraqi casualties would be very difficult to make. They did not make any. And that seemed to be the end of it. There was one exception, a Web site called Iraqbodycount.com, that appeared about six months after the invasion and attempted to track casualties through newspaper accounts. They were very cautious and conservative. After about a year they were up around 12,000.

Finally, in 2004, a research team from John Hopkins did the equivalent of an epidemiological study. They went to Iraq and conducted interviews and asked people how many members o their families had died sine the war and how many had died during an equivalent period before the invasion:

Iraqis were 2.5 times more likely to die in the 17 months following the invasion than in the 14 months before it. Before the invasion, the most common causes of death in Iraq were heart attacks, strokes and chronic diseases. Afterward, violent death was far ahead of all other causes.

International Herald Tribune, October 30, 2004

Their estimate was that 100,000 civilians had died as a result of the war:

The researchers found that the majority of deaths were attributed to violence, which were primarily the result of military actions by Coalition forces. Most of those killed by Coalition forces were women and children.

John Hopkins School of Public Heath
Public Health Center
October 26, 2004

Fog facts.

And a triumph for the Soft Machine.

To create 100,000 corpses and never have them seen.

On lobbying, the media, and interest groups (p. 180-181):

When the media gets pressure from only one side, they will yield to that pressure.

The left and the mainstream have fought many battles since the fifties.

While they are full of interest groups, from the Sierra Club to the NAACP to NOW,t hey have not invested in anything like what David Brock called the Republican Noise Machine: a loose but interlocked association of a political party with youth recruitment, scholarships, fellowships, think tanks, publishers, newspapers, and a television network.

This is in part because so much of what the right calls liberal and the liberals would consider mainstream has proven itself and it seems self-explanatory. Equal rights are good. Anybody should be able to study any subject and enter any field. Adults should be able to have sex with whom they want, avoid diseases, and control when they have children. Universal education and access to higher education are good. The success and the simple utility of Social Security, the FDIC, the Securities and Exchange Commission, keeping an eye on the banks, all seem self-evident. Clean air and clean water and keeping vanishing species alive all seem like sound ideas. That science is a better basis for biology than prayer is a choice we make every time we visit the doctor or take an aspirin.

But it has abruptly emerged that there are a lot of people to whom these ideas are not, in fact, self-evident. That means if we, in the mainstream, in the reality-based community, care about those ideas, we have to put in the effort to explain them and justify them and then to proselytize. The idea of proselytizing practicality, realism, and objectivity sounds strange, but in a world of theologians it becomes necessary. [ . . . ]

I would like to suggest that the split is not between right and left but between the faith-based and reality-based communities.

When the right attacks the liberal media, what it is really attacking is objective media, with fact-checking.

Actually, the whole book is quotable, even if citing Mein Kampf for tips on Big Lies is a bit depassé.

Beinhart also has a website. Doesn't look like it's all that up to date -- there are many weeks without a "fog fact of the week" -- but it does add some more.


Eric Foner: Who Owns History?

Eric Foner's Who Owns History? Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (2002; paperback, 2003, Hill & Wang) is a collection of scattered essays that in effect document his own history as a historian. The roster:

  1. My Life as a Historian
  2. The Education of Richard Hofstadter
  3. American Freedom in a Global Age
  4. The Russians Write a New History
  5. "We Must Forget the Past": History in the New South Africa
  6. Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?
  7. Who Is an American
  8. Blacks and the U.S. Constitution
  9. Ken Burns and the Romance of Reunion

Foner was another historian I read during my c. 1970 binge -- his first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men (1970), on the free soil movement's opposition to slavery, predating the founding of the Republican Party and the Civil War -- but never got back to. During that period I read a lot of history book, but more than that I read meta-history: I read footnotes, bibliographies, interviews, reviews, anything where a historian might step out from behind the neutrally documented narrative and express an opinion about what it all means. Looking at this book reminded me of that period, not least because Foner, as a born and bred leftist, is conscious of just how much the presence affects our interests, and therefore our understanding of the past.

Given the nature of the book, the quotes are necessarily scattered.


On Richard Hofstadter, in Foner's introduction to a new edition of Social Darwinism in American Thought; Foner had studied under Hofstadter (pp. 40-41):

Hofstadter had abandoned [Charles] Beard's analysis of American development, but he retained his mentor's iconoclastic, debunking spirit. In Hofstadter's hands, Jefferson became a political chameleon, Jackson an exponent of liberal capitalism, Lincoln a mythmaker, and Roosevelt a pragmatic opportunist. And the domination of individualism and capitalism in American life produced not a benign freedom from "European ideological conflicts, but a form of intellectual and political bankruptcy, an inability to think in original ways about the modern world. If the book has a hero, it is abolitionist Wendell Phillips, the only figure in The American Political Tradition never to hold political office. As in Social Darwinism, Hofstadter seemed to identify most of all with the engaged reformist intellectual. It is indeed ironic that one of the most devastating indictments of American political culture ever written should have become the introduction to American history for two generations of students. One scholar at the time even sought to develop an alternative book of essays on America's greatest presidents precisely in order to counteract the "confusion and disillusionment" he feared Hofstadter was sowing among undergraduates.

From Foner's AHA presidential address in 2001, "American Freedom in a Global Age" (pp. 50-51):

The year 1902 also witnessed a prediction with a somewhat different emphasis, offered by W.T. Stead in a short volume with the arresting title The Americanisation of the World: or, The Trend of the Twentieth Century. Stead was a sensationalist English editor whose previous writings included an exposé of London prostitution, Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon. Convinced that the United States was emerging as "the greatest of world-powers," Stead proposed that it and his homeland "merge" (by which he meant both political union and individual intermarriages), so that the enervated British could have their "exhausted exchequer" revived by an infusion of America's "exuberant energies." But what was most striking about Stead's little essay was that he located the essential source of American power less in the realm of military or economic might than in the relentless international spread of American culture -- art, music, journalism, theater, even ideas about religion and gender relations. He foresaw a future in which the United States would promote its values and interests through an unending involvement in the affairs of other nations.

More, later on (pp. 57-58):

Of course, the relationship between American freedom and the outside world works both ways. "America," as myth and reality, has for centuries played a part in how other peoples think about their own societies. The United States has frequently been viewed from abroad as the embodiment of one or another kind of freedom. European labor, in the nineteenth century, identified this country as a land where working men and women enjoyed freedoms not available in the Old World. In the twentieth, younger generations throughout the world selectively appropriated artifacts of American popular culture for acts of cultural rebellion. Some foreign observers, to be sure, have taken a rather jaundiced view of Americans' stress on their own liberty. The "tyranny of the majority," Alexis de Tocqueville commented, ruled the United States: "I know of no country, in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America." A century and a half later, another French writer, Jean Baudrillard, concluded his own tour of the United States with the observation that if New York and Los Angeles now stood "at the center of the world," it is a world defined not so much by freedom as by "wealth, power, senility, indifference, puritanism and metal hygiene, poverty and waste, technological futility and aimless violence."

In the same essay (p. 73):

At the height of the cold war, in his brilliant and sardonic survey of American political thought, The Liberal Tradition in America, Louis Hartz observed that the internationalism of the postwar era seemed in some ways to go hand in hand with self-absorption and insularity. Despite its deepened worldwide involvement, the United States was becoming more isolated intellectually from other cultures. Prevailing ideas of freedom in the United States, Hartz noted, had become so rigid and narrow that Americans could no longer appreciate definitions of freedom, common in other countries, related to social justice and economic equality, "and hence are baffled by their use."

Foner's conclusion to "Why Is There No Socialism in America?" (p. 145):

Perhaps, because mass politics, mass culture, and mass consumption came to America before they came to Europe, American socialists were the first to face the dilemma of how to define socialist politics in a capitalist democracy. Perhaps, in the dissipation of class ideologies, Europe is now catching up with a historical process already experienced in the United States. Perhaps future expressions of radicalism in Europe will embody less a traditional socialist ideology than an "American" appeal to libertarian and moral values and resistance to disabilities based upon race and gender. Or perhaps a continuing world economic crisis will propel politics both in western Europe and in America down a more class-oriented path. Only time will tell whether the United States has been behind Europe in the development of socialism, or ahead of it in socialism's decline.

From "Blacks and the Constitution" (pp. 179-180):

At the most basic level, the Civil Rights Act [of 1866] aimed to overturn the Dred Scott decision and to invalidate the South's recently enacted Black Codes, which severely limited the freedmen's economic prospects and standing before the law. The first statutory definition of freedom under the Thirteenth Amendment, the act's listing of specific rights focused on those central to the Republicans' free labor ideology -- the rights to choose one's employment, to enforce payment of wages, and to compete on equal terms for advancement in the economic marketplace. But beyond these, Republicans also rejected the entire idea of legal distinctions among citizens based on race, and the act invalidated many discriminatory laws on the Northern statute book as well as the Southern. The underlying assumption -- that the federal government possessed the power to define and protect citizens' rights -- was a striking departure in American law. Indeed, declared President Andrew Johnson, who vetoed the bill only to see it reenacted by Congress, federal protection of blacks' civil rights and the broad conception of national power that lay behind it violated "all our experience as a people." Moreover, Johnson went on, clothing blacks with the privileges of citizenship discriminated against whites -- "the distinction of race and color is by the bill made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race."

After reading this, I ordered a copy of Foner's The Story of American Freedom (1998). Should prove interesting.


Gordon S Wood: The American Revolution

Gordon S. Wood's first book, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, instantly moved him to the forefront of the period's historians. I was hugely impressed by the book when it first came out in 1969, but I never got around to reading his subsequent books, except for occasional glances at The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), a book I still hope to get back to some day. US history is something I read so extensively c. 1970 that I have rarely felt the need to dig further. But it occurs to me that it might be useful to sketch out a chapter on the progressive ideals that form one strain of American history before focusing on the rise (and hopefully the fall, certainly the Bush debacle) of the right. Then I noticed Wood's short primer, The American Revolution: A History (2003; paperback, 2003, Modern Library), and figured that would be an ideal refresher course.


The revolution was prefigured by the usual inept efforts of an occupying army to establish order (p. 34):

Hillsborough, believing that Massachusetts was in a state of virtual anarchy, dispatched two regiments of troops from Ireland. They began arriving in Boston on October 1, 1768, and their appearance marked a crucial turning point in the escalating controversy: For the first time the British government had sent a substantial number of soldiers to enforce British authority in the colonies. By 1769 there were nearly 4,000 armed redcoats in the crowded seaport of 15,000 inhabitants. Since the colonists shared traditional English fears of standing armies, relations between townspeople and soldiers deteriorated. On March 5, 1770, a party of eight harassed British soldiers fired on a threatening crowd and killed give civilians. The "Boston Massacre," especially as it was depicted in Paul Revere's exaggerated engraving, aroused American passions and inspired some of the most sensational rhetoric heard in the Revolutionary era.

The British rigged the law to help enforce order, furthering the rebellion (pp. 37-38):

To the British the Boston Tea Party was the ultimate outrage. Angry officials and many of the plitically active people in Great Britain clamored fora punishment that would squarely confront America with the issue of Parliament's right to legislate for the colonies. "We are now to establish our authority," Lord North told the House of Commons, "or give it up entirely." In 1774, Parliament passed a succession of laws that came to be known as the Coercive Acts. The first of these closed the port of Boston until the destroyed tea was paid for. The second altered the Massachusetts charter and reorganized the government: Members of the Council, or upper house, were now to be appointed by the royal governor rather than elected by the legislature, town meetings were restricted, and the governor's power of appointing judges and sheriffs was strengthened. The third act allowed royal officials who had been charged with capital offenses to be tried in England or in another colony to avoid hostile juries. The fourth gave the governor power to take over private buildings for the quartering of troops instead of using barracks. At the same time, Thomas Gage, commander in chief of the British army in America, was made governor of the colony of Massachusetts.

On British arrogance, or the failure of American military tactics to conform to British expectations (p. 54):

Two months later, in June 1775, British soldiers attempted to dislodge the American fortification on a spur of Bunker Hill in Charlestown, overlooking Boston. The British assumed, as one of their generals, John Burgoyne, put it, that no numbers of "untrained rabble" could ever stand up against "trained troops." Under General William Howe, British forces attempted a series of frontal assaults on the American position. These attacks were eventually successful, but only at the terrible cost of 1,000 British casualties -- more than 40 percent of Howe's troops. At Bunker Hill -- the first formal battle of the Revolution -- the British suffered their heaviest losses in what would become a long and bloody war. "Never had the British Army so ungenerous an enemy to oppose," declared a British soldier in the aftermath of Bunker Hill. The American riflemen "conceal themselves behind trees etc till an opportunity presents itself of taking a shot at our advance sentries, which done they immediately retreat. What an unfair method of carrying on a war!"

On the Declaration of Independence and slavery (pp. 56-57):

Congress removed a quarter of Jefferson's original draft, including a passage that blamed George III for the horrors of the slave trade. As Jefferson later recalled, South Carolina and Georgia objected to the passage, and some northern delegates were also a "little tender" on the subject, "for though their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers."

Indeed, all the colonists had long been implicated in African slavery. Of the total American population of 2.5 million in 1776, one fifth -- 500,000 men, women, and children --w as enslaved. Virginia had the most slaves -- 200,000, or 40 percent of its population. Although most of the slaves were held by southerners, slavery was not inconsequential in the North. Fourteen percent of New York's population was enslaved. New Jersey and Rhode Island held 8 percent and 6 percent of their populations, respectively, in lifetime hereditary bondage. Slavery was a national institution, and nearly every white American directly or indirectly benefited from it. By 1776, however, nearly every American leader knew that its continued existence violated everything the Revolution was about.

A little bit on the asymmetry of imperialist and insurgent warfare (p. 78):

Washington for his part realized at the outset that the American side of the war should be defensive. "We should on all occasions avoid a general Action," he told Congress in September 1776, "or put anything to the risque unless compelled by a necessity into which we ought never to be drawn." Although he never saw himself as a guerrilla leader and concentrated throughout on creating a professional army with which he was often eager to confront the British in open battle, his troops actually spent a good deal of time skirmishing with the enemy, harassing them and depriving them of food and supplies whenever possible. n such circumstances the Americans' reliance on amateur militia forces and the weakness of their organized army made the Americans, as a Swiss officer noted, more dangerous than "if they had a regular army." The British never clearly understood what they were up against -- a revolutionary struggle involving widespread support in the population. Hence they continually underestimated the staying power of the rebels and overestimated the strength of the loyalists. And in the end, independence came to mean more to the Americans than reconquest did to the English.

On General Washington (p. 84):

As the war went on year after year, his stature only grew,a nd by 1779 Americans were celebrating his birthday as well as the Fourth of July. Washington always deferred to civilian leadership and never lost the support of the Congress, even when exaggerated rumors of a cabal involving Thomas Conway, an Irish-born French officer, and General Horatio Gates, the victor at Saratoga, seemed to threaten his position int he fall and winter of 1777-78. He was always loyal to his fellow officers in the Continental Army and they to him; they trusted him, and with good reason. What he lacked in military skill he made up with prudence and wisdom. When in the wake of the French alliance the French nobleman the Marquis de Lafayette, who had been in the struggle since 1777, proposed a Franco-American scheme for conquering Canada, the excited Congress readily agreed. Washington, however, pointed out that France had her own interests and was scarcely to be trusted in the retaking of Canada, and the scheme quietly died.

On the philosophical shift of the revolution (p. 93):

Republicanism challenged all these assumptions and practices of monarchy. By throwing off monarchy and becoming republicans in 1776, Americans offered a different conception of what people were like and new ways of organizing both the state and the society. The Revolutionary leaders were not naïve and they were not utopians -- indeed, some of them had grave doubts about the capacities of ordinary people. But by adopting republican governments in 1776 all of them necessarily held to a more magnanimous conception of human nature than did supporters of monarchy.

On government vs. society (pp. 105-106):

Unlike liberals of the twenty-first century, the most liberal-minded of the eighteenth century tended to se society as beneficent and government as malevolent. Social honors, social distinctions, perquisites of office, business contracts, legal privileges and monopolies, even excessive property and wealth of various sorts -- indeed, all social inequities and deprivations -- seemed to flow from connections to government, in the end from connections to monarchical government. "Society," said Paine in a brilliant summary of this liberal view, "is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness." Society "promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections," government "negatively by restraining our vices." Society "encourages intercourse," government "creates distinctions." The emerging liberal Jeffersonian view that the least government was the best was based on just such a hopeful belief in the natural harmony of society.

On equality, wealth, and status (p. 121):

This growing egalitarianism did not mean that wealth was distributed more evenly in post-Revolutionary America. On the contrary: Wealth was far more unequally distributed after the Revolution than it had been before. Nevertheless, Americans felt more equal, and that was what mattered. After all, wealth as a means by which one person claimed superiority over another was more easily accepted than birth, breeding, family heritage, gentility, or even education, and it was the one most easily matched or overcome by exertion. Relationships were now more and more based on money rather than social position. Towns, for example, stopped assigning seats in their churches by age and status and began auctioning the pews off to the highest bidders. Wealthy men began to brag of their humble origins -- something nor commonly done before. When a South Carolina politician in 1784 was praised in the press for being a self-established man who "had no relations or friends, but what his money made for him," a subtle but radical revolution in thinking had taken place. When Benjamin Franklin's autobiography was posthumously published in the 1790s, the nineteenth-century celebration of the "self-made man" was born.

On post-revolutionary reforms (p. 125):

Jefferson and other Revolutionary leaders drew up plans for liberalizing the harsh penal codes inherited from the colonial period. Pennsylvania led the way by abolishing the death penalty for all crimes except murder. Instead of, as in the past, publicly punishing criminals by such bodily penalties as whipping, mutilation, and execution, Pennsylvania began the experiment of confining criminals in solitary cells in penitentiaries that were designed to be schools of reformation. Other states soon followed with these new kinds of prisons. Nowhere else in the Western world were such penal reforms carried as far as they were in America.

Schools, benevolent associations, and penitentiaries -- all these were important for reforming the society and making it more republican. But none of them could compare in significance with that most basic social institution, the family. By rejecting monarchy and the older paternalistic ties of government and asserting the rights and liberties of individuals, the Revolution inevitably affected relationships within the family. It abolished the older English patterns of inheritance and the aristocratic legal devices that had sought to maintain the stem line of the estate (entail) and to sacrifice the interests of younger children to the eldest son (primogeniture). Many of the states passed new inheritance laws that recognized greater equality among sons and daughters. Everywhere novelists and others writing in the post-Revolutionary years stressed the importance of raising children to become rational and independent citizens.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Neal Gabler: Life: The Movie

I had a hunch about Neal Gabler's Life: A Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (1998; paperback, 2000, Vintage Books), at least partly confirmed by reading a couple of snatches in the bookstore. I was thinking of something on how our accumulated sense of filmcraft affects the way we stage our imagination of current events. It's not just that film represents reality in certain ways; it presents us with a comprehensive system for imagining reality, which introduces various distortions, which in turn have something to do with why we don't know shit about the world anymore. At least that's my suspicion. Turns out that Gabler's book is about something else. It's basically a fairly useful history of the growth of popular culture in America since the mid-19th century. The early part mostly covers theatre -- among other things, it explains the presence of the theatrical troupe in Deadwood. Movies and television follow, with pervasive effects.


Just a few quotes here. This starts to get down to politics with the introduction of "the secondary effect" (pp. 96-98):

If the primary effect of the media in the late twentieth century was to turn nearly everything that passed across their screens into entertainment, the secondary and ultimately more significant effect was to force nearly everything to turn itself into entertainment in order to attract media attention. In The Image, Daniel Boorstin had coined the term "pseudo-event" to describe events that had been concocted by public relations practitioners to get attention from the press. Movie premieres, balloon crossings, sponsored sporting contexts, award ceremonies, demonstrations and hunger strikes, to name just a few examples, all were synthetic, manufactured pseudo-events that wouldn't have existed if someone hadn't been seeking publicity and if the media hadn't been seeking something to fill their pages and airwaves, preferably something entertaining.

But the idea of pseudo-events almost seemed quaint by the late twentieth century. Most people realized that the object of virtually everyone in public life of any sort was to attract the media and that everyone from the top movie stars to the parents of septuplets now had to have a press agent to promote them. What most people were also coming to realize, if only by virtue of how much the media had grown, was that pseudo-events had proliferated to such an extent that one could hardly call them events anymore because there were no longer any seams between them and the rest of life, no way of separating the pseudo from the so-called authentic. Almost everything in life had appropriated the techniques of public relations to gain access to the media, so that it wasn't the pseudo-event one was talking about anymore when one cited the cleverness of PR men and women; it was pseudo-life.

Yet not even pseudo-life did full justice to the modern condition. That's because the media were not just passively recording the public performances and manipulations of others, even when life was nothing but manipulations. Having invited these performances in the first place, the media justified covering them because they were receiving media attention, which is every bit as convoluted as it sounds. The result was to make of modern society one giant Heisenberg effect, in which the media were not really reporting what people did; they were reporting what people did to get media attention. In other words, as life was increasingly being lived for the media, so the media were increasingly covering themselves and their impact on life.

That we intuitively know life has become a show staged for the media may explain why by the 1970s there was such a fascination with the mechanics and logistics of entertainment: with conventional performers' hirings and contracts, with movie budgets and grosses, with television ratings, with backstage dramas and turmoil as well as with press agents, spin doctors, speechwriters and anyone else whose job was to contribute to creating an effect. [ . . . ] It is almost as if having lived for so long with the idea of the suspension of disbelief for conventional entertainments, we demand a confirmation of disbelief for the unconventional entertainment of life to prove to ourselves that we weren't being fooled, that we knew life was all a scam.

The president as "entertainer-in-chief" (p. 108):

Or at least that is how it was before presidents realized the centrality of perception to governing. This realization is usually attributed to John Kennedy, who had a wonderful flair for the dramatic and a keen awareness of his own charisma, but the pioneer, once again, may have really been Richard Nixon, who lacked Kennedy's natural ease and needed to compensate. According to political analyst Jonathan Schell, Nixon, borrowing a page from his own campaign playbook, "began to frame policy not to solve real problems but only to appear to solve them. . . . " What Nixon comprehended is that since the presidency no less than the campaign is played out in the media, one could provide them with set pieces -- staged rallies, an early-morning visit with Vietnam protesters at the Lincoln Memorial, a trip to Red China -- that presented you as having achieved what you had said you wanted to achieve whether or not you had actually achieved it, just as during the campaign one provided set pieces that showed you were what you said you were whether or not you actually were. It was government of, by and for images.

Of course, it gets worse (p. 109):

Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, thought of presidential image-making strategically rather than, as Nixon did, tactically. Reagan intuited that in a society where movies are the central metaphor, everything boiled down to perception and that therefore there was nothing but perception. "What he wanted to be, and what he became, was an accomplished presidential performer," wrote Reagan biographer Lou Cannon in President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. Other presidents, of course, have been consummate performers; Franklin Roosevelt comes immediately to mind. But for Roosevelt the performance was always a function of the presidency, a means of selling his policies. For Reagan the presidency was a function of the performance. What he was selling was good vibes.

More on Reagan (pp. 111-112):

Summarizing Reagan's first administration, the political columnist Morton Kondracke rhapsodized that he "has cast a kind of golden glow over the past 4½ years, his programs representing a return to bedrock American values and his optimism shielding the country from bitter realities such as burdensome debt, social inequity and international challenge. Reagan is a kind of magic totem against the cold future." [ . . . ]

And if Americans readily acquiesced in the illusion, it was not because they were credulous enough to believe that there were no problems in the nation but because Reagan's presidency was a pretty good movie as movies go: well executed, thematically sound, coherent, deeply satisfying and, above all, fun. If made people feel how they wanted to feel. "You believed it because you wanted to believe it," President Reagan once told a columnist who insisted he had seen the young actor on the set of the movie Brother Rat, even though Reagan had not been there. "There's nothing wrong with that. I do it all the time."

Sports become entertainment; so does religion (p. 120):

If sport didn't have a difficult time transforming itself into entertainment, neither, it turned out, did religion. Evangelical Protestantism, which had begun as a kind of spiritual entertainment in the nineteenth century, only refined its techniques in the twentieth, especially after the advent of television. Televangelists like Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart recast the old revival meeting as a television variety show, and Pat Robertson's 700 Club was modeled after The Tonight Show, only the guests on this talk show weren't pitching a new movie or album; they were pitching salvation.

One thing this leads to is an idealization of life as grand as is possible in the movies (p. 233):

By the 1990s, with the deliberation that people were bringing to their entire existence, one could talk in the same way about "trophy lives," like Donald Trump's, which were designed as vehicles big enough and brilliant enough for the magnitude of stardom that the successful and wealthy had achieved.

There are numerous books that discuss the effect of media upon politics -- Joe McGinniss's book on Nixon's 1972 campaign, The Selling of a President was one that I read back in the day, and Al Gore's The Assault on Reason is a more recent one. One that may be closer to my original interests here is Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death -- a book I was at the time inclined to dismiss given my fondness for amusement. My druthers there have changed little, so I don't see a necessary relationship between popular culture and our debased politics. In particular, it seems to me that if you fix the politics the culture may or may not improve, but at least it won't matter so much.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Nikki Keddie: Modern Iran

Nikki R. Keddie's Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution was originally written and published in 1981, and has subsequently been revised and updated for this republication in 2003 (paperback, Yale University Press). It's one of the best general histories of Iran from the fall of the Qajar dynasty in 1914 through the Shahs and the Khomeini revolution. I read it back in August 2006 when the Bush war drums were signaling preemptive attack on Iran. At the time I also read Scott Ritter's Target Iran, and thumbed through Dilip Hiro's The Iranian Labyrinth, which had more useful detail on the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war. I had previously read Stephen Kinzer's All the Shah's Men, on the 1953 CIA coup, and various travel books of Robert D. Kaplan and V.S. Naipaul schlepping through the country.

Keddie has a brief but useful introduction on earlier history: 20 pages up to 1800, 50 more to 1914, mostly focused in 1890-1914, when political upheavals established a constitution and parliament (Majlis), weakening the Qajars. This led to the coup by Reza Shah, who despite his monarchical claims is probably more accurately characterized as a forerunner of Europe's fascists.


A few quotes:

On responsibility for the CIA's 1953 coup (pp. 130-131):

The 1953 coup, which culminated a year later in an oil agreement leaving effective control of oil production and marketing and 50 percent of the profits in the hands oof the world oil cartel companies, had an understandably traumatic effect on Iranian public opinion, which has continued down to the present, with varying intensity at different times. Although most Iranians understood almost from the start that both the British and Americans were involved, by most the Americans were and are especially blamed. Not only were the Americans more directly involved, but Iranians expected little ore of the British, especially since their oil company was in question, whereas America had raised high hopes among some Iranians in the past. In the early stages of the oil dispute, men like Ambassador Henry Grady and Max Thornburg had expressed support for Iran's stand against AIOC's proposed terms, partly because they were unfair in comparison to those that the United States had to give elsewhere, and both they and Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson had aroused some hope that the United States might be a counterweight to the British. Iranian reaction to the progressive American betrayal of these hopes, accompanied by American media attacks on Mosaddeq as a virtual madman whose "support" for the Tudeh party and obstinacy over oil were supposedly driving Iran into the Soviet sphere, was rather parallel to the Iranian reaction to the Anglo-Soviet 1907 entente dividing Iran into spheres of influence. In both cases a power that had been seen by nationalists, on the basis of some experience, as a possible counterweight to a more dangerous foreign power ended up by combining with that dangerous power and undermining a popular nationalist movement. After 1907 it took a few years for the Iranian constitutional revolution to be overthrown by Russian pressure and troops, combined with British acquiescence and troops in the south. In 1953 the joint overthrow by two powers of a major Iranian nationalist movement was quicker, but the pattern was similar. In both cases the foreign power formerly favored by Iranian nationalist was especially blamed, as it was seen as a betrayer and not just an old enemy.

For details on the coup, see Kinzer's All the Shah's Men (cited above), and much more briefly Kinzer's Overthrow.

Reza Shah was deposed by the British during WWII, figuring the shah's fondness for Adolph Hitler a liability. They replaced Reza with his more pliable son, Mohammed Reza Shah. The net result was a restoration of democracy, especially with the Majlis supporting Mosaddeq -- a European-educated notable from the Qajar era -- as prime minister (p. 133):

During World War II the Allies had pressured the shah to adopt more liberal and democratic forms than had his father, but after the Mosaddeq threat to the interests of the world oil cartel, dominated by American and British companies, Western governments and corporations felt safer with a centralized government under a pro-Western ruler who would not again allow into power a regime that might threaten economic and political relations with the West. While many in the United States and Britain spoke mainly of a Communist threat, in which they may have believed, the source of most of their outrage in 1951-1953, as with Nasser's 1956 nationalization of the Suez Canal, was a non-Communist nationalist government taking over, in defiance of the West, economic and strategic resources important to the West. Occasional Western pressures to mitigate his dictatorship, as in the early 1960s, were finessed by the shah, who probably knew where the real priorities of American governmental and business interests lay. Such pressures were in any case rare. In the widely read American press between 1953 and 1973 there is very little basic criticism of the Shah or of United States policy in Iran; the shah was overwhelmingly presented as a progressive, modernizing ruler whose problems lay in a backward population and some Iranian fanatics. Only after the shah pioneered in the OPEC oil-price rise in late 1973 did part of the American press and a few officials begin to note some of his faults.

On living standards under the Shah (pp. 162-163):

This does not mean that most of the poor literally got poorer. Given the huge increase in GNP per capita, the rich could get much richer and many of the poor get somewhat richer. The poorer classes started from such a low income level, however, that even doubling or tripling their effective income would not bring them to anything like European working-class standards. Also, they saw the conspicuous consumption of the elite all around them, and this gave rise to increasingly vocal discontent. The consumption patterns encouraged by this distribution along with dizzy oil-based growth after 1973 created a host of national problems: constantly increasing spending on imports; orientation of the economy toward dependence on foreigners; the huge population flow into overcrowded cities; and a lack of urban low-cost housing and sky-rocketing housing prices, exacerbated by the growing presence of foreigners whose high wages added to rising prices and scarcities, particularly in housing. [ . . . ]

The oil component of Iran's economy became increasingly important over time. Even before the OPEC quadrupling of oil prices led by the shah in late 1973, oil provided a steadily rising income as production went up, and also an increasing percentage of plan funds, rising finally to 88 percent of these. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Iran was able to renegotiate the terms of its agreement with the consortium so that Iran took some control of production levels and pricing, leaving a guaranteed supply to the consortium companies for marketing. Although this involved a partial return to nationalization, it did not hurt the consortium companies; to the contrary, they have profited immensely from every OPEC price rise. [ . . . ]

Ironically, the shah was in part undone by his OPEC triumph and its consequences within Iran. The processes described above -- stress on big industry and agriculture with the resultant overrapid migration and shortages in housing and other goods and services -- increased to crisis proportions. In cities shortages of food items, power blackouts, traffic jams, overcrowding, and pollution made life increasingly difficult, and loud arguments and physical fights in the streets were one sign of the strain.

But the shah preferred guns to butter (p. 163):

The shah's virtual mania for buying large amounts of up-to-date and sophisticated military equipment from abroad had free rein from 1972, when the Nixon administration underwrote the shah as the policeman of the Gulf, and agreed to sell him whatever nonnuclear arms he wished. Western governments and corporations, with the United States in the lead, were happy to sell, with little consideration on either side of possible negative consequences. Western eagerness to sell billions of dollars of military equipment to Iran each year was reinforced by the economic drain on the West caused by the OPEC price rise; arms purchases seemed a fine way to recycle petrodollars.

On Ali Shariati's appeal in opposition to the shah (p. 206):

[Shariati] became famous at the time when Iran experienced a great expansion in higher education and when new social groups, without ideological preparation, were confronted by new cultural problems -- accelerated urbanization, Westernization, industrialization, spectacular speculation and corruption, and many other phenomena tied to Iran's dependence on the West. Demographic growth affected most of the less Westernized, poorer classes, who were the most religious. His ties to Islam made Shariati, who was well equipped to respond to other ideologies, the rampart against the undermining of traditional values. Islam, the religion of the Algerian National Liberation Front, of the Palestinians, was the religion of anti-imperialist combat. Feeling stiffed by the West, Iranians rediscovered an identity.

US reactions on the eve of the revolution (p. 235):

Carter followed no clear policy but did send General R. Huyser to Iran in early January 1979 to report on the state of the armed forces and work to keep them unified and intact. If either Bakhtiar or a largely moderate government won out it was seen as important to keep the army intact as a conservative, anti-Communist, and potentially pro-American force. Huyser worked to unify the generals behind Bakhtiar, with armed force or a coup as final options, but in the end key generals saw the cause was lost and did not fight. The unexpectedly rapid march of events and the continuing indecisiveness of the shah forestalled any possibility of a coup and paved the way for Khomeini's accession in February 1979. Neither the embassy nor most of Washington policy makers considered a coup a viable possibility by 1979, given the overwhelming strength of the revolutionaries. By late 1978 many in the embassy and State Department were convinced the shah could not last and were in contact with secular and religious figures who might enter a governmental coalition with which the American government could deal. American military intervention was not a serious possibility given the united strength of Iran's revolutionary movement, not to mention American post-Vietnam wariness of dubious military adventures.

The left supported the revolution and was in turn done in by it (p. 254):

The Khomeinists used Tudeh support to help put down their other opponents and to facilitate relations with Moscow. Until 1983 the Tudeh was allowed to publish and spread its influence. In early 1983 the government turned on the Tudeh, arresting over seventy members, including several from the Central Committee and the armed forces. The party was accused of spying for the Soviet Union and planning to overthrow the government. Their army officers were executed, while ideologues like Ehsan Tabari and Nureddin Kianuri were imprisoned. They then appeared on television asking for forgiveness and mercy, condemning their past, implying their party was a spy network for the Soviets, and saying that Shi'ism was superior to Marxism. Some observers said the confessions, and also confessions during these years by those with non-Tudeh affiliations, were based on torture and drugs. Some of the Feda'iyan Majority were also arrested, and both parties were declared illegal in May 1983. This left the IRP and the Freedom Party the only parties allowed to function.

On Reagan's dealing with Iran (p. 258):

Regarding the West, Foreign Minister ali Akbar Velayati tried first to move closer to Europe. But the main foreign policy event of the mid-eighties was the "Irangate affair," marking Iran's hope to get outside assistance for the war and the economy. Iranian arms had come heavily from the United States before the revolution, which increased the need for American supplies. Parts of the ruling elite also favored better relations with the United States. The Irangate affair on the U.S. side sprang from the desire of President Ronald Reagan to free American hostages taken in Lebanon. The United States, which was giving Iraq substantial help in the war, also worried that a weakened Iran might become subordinate to the Soviets. Israel was already helping Iran. In January 1986, Reagan authorized the CIA to purchase four thousand Tow missiles from the Defense Department and sell them to Iran via Israel. Robert McFarlane, ex-national security adviser, was sent to Iran to try to further rapprochement with so-called Iranian moderates (including Speaker Rafsanjani and his supporters), but the mission failed. The secret of United States-Iran ties was kept until early November, when a small Beirut newspaper, ash-Shiraa, revealed the U.S. weapon sales, and the affair was exposed to considerable public indignation in both Iran and the United States.

On the end of the Iraq-Iran war (p. 259):

In July 1987 the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 598 calling for a cease-fire; Iraq accepted, but Iran did not respond. From September 1987 through April 1988 the United States destroyed a number of Iranian ships and oil platforms, partly in response to Iranian attacks on United States-flagged ships. On July 3 an American cruiser, the Vincennes, mistakenly, but recklessly in view of the information available to the captain, shot down a civilian Iranian airlines, killing 290. In Iran pressure was growing to end the war. Khomeini transferred command of the armed forces from Khamene'i to Rafsanjani, who was becoming known as the leading pragmatist. The economy was collapsing, enthusiasm for the war was gone, and the United States was increasing its support for Iraq. Backed by Khamene'i and majles leaders, Rafsanjani said there was no choice but to accept Resolution 598. Khomeini had to agree, saying on July 20, 1988, that the decision was for him "more deadly than poison" but was needed to save the revolution.

The US relationship under Carter and Reagan can be characterized as passive-aggressive. However, with the end of the Cold War, the US needed new enemies, and Iran served that role, even though the death of Khomeini removed much of the hostage-period rationale (pp. 265-266):

In May 1993, the Clinton administration announced dual containment, including partial economic sanctions, against Iran and Iraq. Some U.S. companies could still do business with Iran, but when Conoco announced a billion-dollar deal to develop Iran's offshore oil the Clinton administration, under pressure from Congress and the pro-Israel lobby, announced a total embargo on dealings with Iran in April 1995. Trade with the United States, which had climbed after the war, virtually ended. The U.S. Congress passed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in 1996, which threatened even non-U.S. countries making large investments in energy. The act was denounced by the European Union as null and void, but it still blocked some needed investment, though some foreign companies did invest, thus improving production. As internal consumption needs grew, Iran could not export as much oil as before. But Iran remains one of the world's top oil exporters and has huge natural gas reserves.

Left to its own devices, clerical rule became unpopular, and might wither away (pp. 310-311):

By 2002-03 dissatisfaction with clerical rule had spread even among clerics, at every level from clerical student through ayatollah. In the summer of 2002 Ayatollah Jalal ed-Din Taheri, the Friday prayer leader in Isfahan, resigned with a scathing statement attacking the clerical government, and some months later he called on clerics to join one hundred majles deputies and others in defending Ayatollah Montazeri from house arrest and other indignities. His letter appeared on several reformist Internet news sites, which have become substitutes for about ninety publications that have been shut down. Audio cassettes by Montazeri and other critical clerics circulate widely. Another grand ayatollah, Yusef Sane'i, has issued enlightened fatwas especially on women's rights and also on human rights and ethnic and sexual discrimination; Hojjat ol'Islam Yusefi Eshkevari is still in prison owing to his participation in the Berlin Conference and to his liberal statements on Islam, especially those opposing mandatory veiling. Clerics of all levels are reacting to a growing public disaffection that is increasingly reflected in hostility toward them, from the well-known refusal of most taxi drivers to pick them up to the hostile reception they get if they speak at universities. More clerics are listening to the arguments of religious reformers, many of whom were students of Montazeri. Some note that Shi'i leaders before Khomeini did not advocate clerical rule. Some favor the separation of religion from politics and are open to an Islam that incorporates some modern ideas and behavior patterns regarding gender and other questions. Open expression of such views can bring arrests and punishment by the special court for th clergy, but some are letting their views be publicly known.

The book ends before Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, as part of a right-wing crackdown on the liberalization shift noted above. This occurred after the Bush administration repeatedly threatened Iran, although in many ways what Bush has done has continued the Clinton-era policy of "dual containment" sanctions. Both should be viewed as part of the US military's need to justify itself through the promotion of external threats.


Scott Ritter: Target Iran

I'm way behind in my book notes, and working to catch up, in no particular order. These posts will be archived in the Books section, which is growing steadily but still way behind.


George W Bush has been targeting Iran at least since his 2002 State of the Union address located Iran in the so-called Axis of Evil. The Bush administration's rhetoric has waxed and waned ever since, with escalations occurring both when the US feels particularly strong or weak. The far right wing in Israel has developed comparable obsessions with Iran, so much so that it is hard to tell which dog is wagging which tail. Scott Ritter assesses all this in Target Iran: The Truth About the White House's Plans for Regime Change (2006, Nation Books). The main thing the book provides is a fairly detailed account of the conflict the US and Israel have advanced against Iran's development of nuclear power (and potentially nuclear weapons) technology. The book has little if anything to offer on Iran's views of this dispute, and has little grounding in Iran's foreign policy views.


Ritter focuses on an Israeli intelligence official, Amos Gilad, who had a strong record of accurate assessments until he got involved with Iran (p. 16):

This new Israeli assessment of Saddam dropped him from the number-one threat facing Israel in 1994, to number six by 1998. The Israelis viewed Saddam as the evil they knew, and as such felt that as long as he was contained by U.N. weapons inspections, they would rather live with him in power than confront the great unknown of a post-Saddam Iraq governed by unknown and unpredictable forces.

On Israel's past association with Iran and the Kurds in Iraq (pp. 19-20):

Up until a year before the 1979 Islamic revolution that swept the Shah of Iran out of power, Israel had long-standing ties with Iran. The Iranian monarchy was one of the first nations to recognize Israel as a new state in 1948, and from 1948 to 1949, Iran worked closely with Israel to facilitate the relocation to Israel of Iranian Jews who wanted to live in the new Jewish state. In 1958 Israel initiated an intelligence and military exchange program with the Shah of Iran, and that same year, with the cooperation of the Shah, Israel started arming and training Kurds in northern Iraq, using bases inside Iran, in an effort to destabilize the Iraqi government. This cooperation expanded considerably in 1963, to the extent that by 1965 Israeli personnel were on the ground in northern Iraq, training and advising the Iraqi Kurdish rebels. The close nature of this cooperation mainfested itself in June 1967 when, at the behest of their Israeli advisers, the Kurds of northern Iraq launched an offensive against the Iraqi Army in an effort to tie down Iraqi forces that might have been offered up in support of Syria, Jordan or Egypt. A similar rebellion by Iraq's Kurds in 1973 was timed to support Israeli military interests.

In the end, Gilad bends his analyses to the politically preferred conceptual thinking -- something Israeli intelligence organizations had previously dismissed as "konseptsia" (p. 27):

Amos Gilad was presented with a quandry. When assessed in isolation, each component of the threat spectrum facing Israel could be moderated on teh basis of fact, or in Gilad's opinion, the lack of fact. However, when packaged together, the threats combined into a single package that left no doubt as to the danger Israel faced. Amos Gilad had to assess the entire scope of the threat faced by Israel: the increased militancy of the Palestinian Authority, combined with a dramatic increase in the number of terrorist attacks inside Israel, the increased militancy of the pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah party, and the actions by Iran to acquire nuclear capability and missiles capable of reaching Israel.

In Amos Gilad's mind, these factors combined in a sort of modern konseptsia, where gut feel trumped hard fact. Gilad's tough approach was increasingly welcomed by the hard-line government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a system which prided itself on a disciplined approach to intelligence analysis, Amos Gilad's konseptsia was heresy. But under Netanyahu, the intelligence won out over objections from within the Military Intelligence branch, even when officers senior to Amos Gilad voiced those objections.

Most of the book reviews in great detail the intelligence gathering, inspections, and diplomacy surrounding Iran's nuclear fuel cycle program. The US and Israel consistently drove this matter into crisis mode, leaving the Europeans stuck in the middle -- wishing to avoid confrontation, unwilling to defend Iran, and therefore unable to stand up to the US (p. 163):

But the fact was that no German politician had the wherewithal or political courage to stand up to the United States. Germany, together with Britain and France, were behaving in a manner that was strikingly similar to the behavior of British [P]rime Minister Chamberlain in 1938 when he backed down over Hitler's demands over the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Ion an effort to forestall another American illegal war of aggression, the Europeans were negotiating with Iran to convine the Iranians to give up a nuclear program that operated demonstrably within the framework of international law. Europe committed to the principle of Iranian legal rights regarding the enrichment of uranium, all the whle caving into pressure from the United States to deny Iran this right. The inherently contradictory policy position taken by Europe in this regard was clear to all, it seemed, except Europe. Iran refused to give up its right to pursue the nuclear fuel cycle, while the United States refused to give Europe any maneuver room in this regard.

Confusion over aims, both of US and Iran (pp. 189-190):

With typical diplomatic alacrity, the United States proceeded to issue statements which questioned its commitment to a diplomatic solution. Secretary of State [Condoleezza] Rice, remarking on the debate unfolding in the Security Council, noted that "Perhaps one of the biggest challenges that we face is the policy of the Iranian regime, which is a policy of destabilization of the world's most volatile and vulnerable region. And it's not just Iran's nuclear program but also their support for terrorism around the world. They are, in effect, the central banker for terrorism around the world." Clearly the United States was casting a larger net on the issue of Iran than simply bringing a nuclear enrichment program to heel.

Ritter attempts to imagine the consequences of a preemptive US attack on Iran (pp. 204-205):

Any aerial bombardment of Iran would result in the immediate attack by Iranian missiles on targets in Israel, followed by a major Hezbollah rocketing of northern Israel. If U.S. military forces were deployed from the soil of any nation within striking distance of Iran, those nations, too could be expected to come under Iranian attack. Iran will fire missile barrages against American forces in Iraq, and then engage the entire coalition occupation force on the ground, either with Iranian paramilitary forces infiltrated into Iraq, or using Iraqi proxies in the form of the various pro-Iranian Shi'a militias that are in power in Iraq today. American freedom of movement, such as it is, will be eliminated almost overnight. Lines of communication with American logistics bases in Kuwait and Jordan will be cut, and the sole remaining line of communicationt hrough Kurdistan into Turkey, already tenuous, will become untenable. American forces will become almost exclusively dependent on aerial re-supply, which will expose American helicopters and aircraft to great risk from Iranian surface-to-air missiles. Americans will be forced to abandon some bases in favor of consolidation of resources, and eventually America will be forced to quit Iraq altogether or suffer extremely heavy casualties (Iranian intensification of the conflict in Iraq could have U.S. casualty figures approach weekly KIA/WIA rates that approach those suffered during the Vietnam War).

Iran will do its utmost to play the oil card, not only shutting off its exportation of oil and natural gas, but also threaten the oil production of Iraq, Kuwait, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, either through missile attack or direct action by pro-Iranian Shi'a activists or Iranian military commando unit. U.S. naval forces operating in the Persian Gulf will be put at risk, and there is a real possibility that Iran would succeed in sinking or heavily damaging a number of U.S. capital warships, including any aircraft carriesr that might be operating inthe region. There is a better than even chance that Iran would succeed in shutting down the straight of Hormuz, choking off the global oil supply.

The Iranian reaction will have global reach, with Iranian agents or their proxies conducting terror bombings, kidnappings and/or assassinations of American, Israeli, and allied orces diplomats and civilians. Attacks will definitely occur in Europe, and may even spread to American soil.

Any American ground invasion of Iran would be doomed to fail. [ . . . ] Faced with such a disaster, the United States would have no choice but to escalate the conflict along military lines, which means to engage Iran with nuclear weapons. At this juncture, the equation becomes unpredictable, the damage done incalculable, and the course of world history, including America's role as a viable global leader.

This all seems rather excessive. It's unclear to me that Iran's relationships with Hezbollah, SCIRI, and others are such as would ensure their participation in the military defense of Iran. While Iran has forces that should suffice to make the US think twice before attacking, the use of those forces as anything other than deterrence may be unwise -- the escalation Ritter envisions would certainly hurt Iran much worse than the US, even though it might be unacceptable to the US as well.

Actually, what Iran should do if the US and/or Israel attacks is to take the case to the UN and demand censure and reparations for the attacks. A UN failure at that point would be a disastrous reflection on what the US has done to international law. It would also give Iran a green light to shut down the Straits of Hormuz, a pinch-point on the world's oil supply, and also Iran's most defensible position.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Sic Semper Tyrannis

The Wichita Eagle had an article today titled "Bush likens Revolutionary, Iraq wars." Makes sense. After all, both are revolts against tyrants named George.

Elsewhere on the news page is a piece "Iraqi Sunnis won't accept oil-sharing laws." The official propaganda line is that the law in question is a sop to Sunnis to lure them into the occupation government, so their rejection of it suggests that something is amiss -- like that the principal beneficiaries of the sharing are the big oil companies.

The opinion page has a column by a couple of Washington tank thinkers called "Brownback plan could extricate U.S. from Iraq." Brownback's solution turns out to be the work of another deep thinker, Joe Biden. The idea is to chop the country up into a United States of Iraq, and the key turns out to be oil sharing: "The plan would end the oil feud by dividing revenue equitably among the three groups -- a cheap price for us to yield, given oil's estimated $15 billion annual value, versus our paying more than $100 billion a year for the war." That $15 billion seems like a curiously low figure. The prewar production rate of two million barrels per day adds up to $44 billion at $60/barrel. Even that makes the oil war look like a foolish investment, but the oil companies aren't footing the war bill. The tankers claim that Brownback's approach has been successful before, in Bosnia -- another big success metaphor, like Korea, Vietnam, and Israel/Palestine.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Washed Out

It seems rather appropriate that the Fourth of July celebration here in Wichita got rained out. Mother Nature is hardly the only one putting a damper on America's penchant for self-celebration lately. Rain has become a constant feature here this month, as if someone else's monsoon has gotten lost and wound up on the edge of what used to, and most likely will again, be called the Great American Desert. As it is, much of southeast Kansas is flooded, including an ecological disaster in Coffeyville, where the toxic waste of one of America's smaller oil refineries has been spread about town. This will most likely lead to another large, unbudgeted cleanup bill -- Bush has already bankrupted the Superfund meant to cover environmental disasters.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Libby

I'm surprised at the depths of my revulsion over Irving Libby's sentence commutation. It's almost as if I still harbored some secret faith in the American political system. Even if it seemed inevitable that Bush would pardon Libby just before closing the White House door, like his father did with criminals like Elliott Abrams, waiting until the end would at least show some small measure of respect for the law and public decorum. In sparing Libby jail, Bush shows us nothing but his utter contempt not just for the law but for the conventional sense of proper appearances that conservatives are presumed to revere. He's saying, literally, that he and his crew are above the law.

Or so it seems -- by not pardoning Libby he hasn't quite gone that far yet, which makes his plea for mercy all the more suspicious. This makes me suspect that Libby had been promised no jail time all along, at least as long as he doesn't maintains the cover-up that lets Rove, Cheney, and Bush himself stay clear of criminal charges. It is clearly a cover-up, and these guys have much more to hide than the Plame leak -- itself a rather silly conceit in media manipulation, meant more to show that they can do it than that it makes sense. (That much was proved by Judith Miller's willingness to suffer jail rather than lose her insider connections.)

One thing we can be sure of is that Bush isn't doing this for mercy, a concept wholly alien to his record and personality. Clearly, he needs to keep Libby from breaking ranks -- the old adage about hanging together or hanging separately is as true as ever -- and Libby doesn't strike us as the kind of guy who'd tough it out like Nixon goons Erlichman and Haldeman. In fact, Libby's whole defense fund and team are suspect and should be investigated. (Reports are that Libby's defense fund has raised over $5 million, which in itself pretty much proves something rotten.)

The question is who's going to investigate what, and who's going to prosecute it. Bush has just significantly raised the ante here, much like Nixon did when he sacked Elliott Richardson. How strongly the nation stands up to him will say much about our future prospects of standing up to anyone and anything.


Database Twiddling

I made a minor change to the database this week: I combined the previous Jazz Vocals (jazz-voc.md) and Pop Vocals (vocal.md) files, then split the results into three files sets by era: from 1920-50, 1950-80, and 1980 on. I might have preferred 1945 and 1975 as dividing lines, but all other cases work on decade-sized chunks. The main reason for doing this was that it's become increasingly difficult and arbitrary to decide where to slot vocalists, most of all new ones. I've already forgotten who pushed me over the edge here -- maybe Carol Sloane -- but the idea has been evident for a while now. The resulting lists hang together much more coherently than the old ones did.

One side effect is that I'm moving Easy Listening from Vocal -- where it fit only insidiously -- to Pop Jazz. I'm not sure I have this cleaned up, but there's so little Easy Listening of note that it doesn't amount to much one way or another. The boundary that is more likely to prove troublesome at this point is between Rock/Pop and Jazz/Pop. Those distinctions seemed clear in the '50s even if there are arbitrary borderline cases -- e.g., Joe Liggins on one end, Pat Boone on the other. But into the '70s few pop singers were so unhip as to get consigned to pre-rock vocals -- cf. Jane Olivor. In the '80s jazz singers became a niche as retro picked up its own backhanded hipness -- Susannah McCorkle was the model there. And since niches are mostly self-selected they're less arbitrary: I don't have to decide whether Dena DeRose or Rebecca Martin are jazz singers, because their labels have already decided that.

I've tried on several occasions to come up with a usable genre system, but never came up with anything very satisfactory -- each scheme wobbles between being too fine and too gross. The current system is mostly an accident of development, with one big file gradually breaking into smaller files for balance and/or focus. The main value of categorization is to facilitate browsing by grouping similar albums. A better scheme would be to construct many overlapping views, but that would involve overlapping sets. To do that requires that I put the album data into a table and add additional tables of links -- something that's straightforward with a database, but impossible with flat files. I've never moved on to that level. Part of the reason is that I've never figured out what those views should be.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Music: Current count 13328 [13295] rated (+33), 814 [828] unrated (-14). Jazz CG appeared last week, as did the delayed Recycled Goods. Given the latter's tardy appearance, I decided to hold the next one back a bit, and used the time to catch up with some of the world music that has been accumulating, including a pile of Cuban classics. Almost missed doing any jazz prospecting, but some marginal stuff qualifies. Got some work done on the house. Expect next week will be more of the same -- July's Recycled Goods should close out, and Jazz Prospecting should finally get under way in earnest. But I reckon there'll be more distractions. Don't have plans for July 4, except to avoid fireworks as much as possible.

  • Boukman Eksperyans: Vodou Adjae (1991, Mango): This may have been more interesting when it first came out, before we had any idea what Haitian music sounds like. Now it seems a bit on the pop side, like Third World in Jamaica, but better. Picks up some steam toward the end, too. B+
  • Shelly Manne: Perk Up (1967 [1995], Concord): Not sure when to start dating postbop, but this is a milestone in its evolution. While the avant-garde was still committed to pushing limits and breaking down barriers, these players -- Frank Strozier on tenor sax, Conte Candoli on trumpet, Mike Wofford on piano, Chuck Domanico on bass -- were focusing on more complex harmonic territory. Especially Strozier, who doesn't have a lot in print. Not released until 1976 -- indication that this was ahead of its time. B+
  • Pharoah's Daughter: Haran (2007, Oy! Hoo): Starting out from Hasidic Brooklyn, Basya Schechter tramped around Africa and the Middle East, picking up bits of mbira and oud and santur, creating a personal saga of exile and exodus that, less profoundly, resembles a variously spiced stew. It's meant, of course, to be more profound, but we inevitably miss meanings in world music, leaving us with mere impressions -- mildly pleasant in this case. B+(*)
  • David Sanchez: The Departure (1993 [1995], Columbia): In retrospect, a breakthrough. In fact, the whole album just bursts at its seams -- Latin, postbop, supercharged Coltrane. The basic group with Danilo Perez, Peter Washington, and Leon Parker is solid, with Perez making the most of his space. Andy Gonzalez and Milton Cardona spice up the Latin parts. Tom Harrell appears on three cuts -- indeed, he's the first guy you really notice, but Sanchez is the one you remember. A-
  • Toots Thielemans: For My Lady (1991, Gitanes Jazz/Verve): With the Shirley Horn trio, i.e.: Shirley Horn on piano, Charles Ables on electric bass, and Steve Williams on drums. Horn sings "Someone to Watch Over Me," but otherwise sticks to piano. Thielemans is credited with guitar and whistle as well as harmonica, but the latter instrument is the lead, and very effective. Mostly standards -- two each from Ellington and the Gershwins, one each from Basie and Jobim. Not much here, but it's a very eloquent example of what Thielemans does, and how rich and supple a lead instrument harmonica can be. B+


Jazz Prospecting (CG #14, Part 3)

Rather big week for me, with Jazz CG appearing on schedule, and June's Recycled Goods column coming unstuck at the same time. Got quite a bit of gratifying feedback from both. Only embarrassing snafu was misspelling Chris Byars name in the prospecting file -- mistakenly reported as a review. Actually, the real review will have to wait until next time, but in the meantime I'll offer a plug: Byars' Photos in Black, White and Gray is the best "Smalls thing" record to appear by a still-living musician. Also worked through a sizable pile of world music for Recycled Goods, including a stack of Tumbao's Cuban classics gathering dust for well over a year now: unequivocally recommended are Mambos by Benny Moré: El Barbaro del Ritmo (1948-50, Tumbao 10) and Ignacio Piñeiro and His Septeto Nacional (1928-30, Tumbao 19), with Arsenio Rodriguez y Su Conjunto's Montuneando (1946-50, Tumbao 31) coming in third. I was impressed enough to order another batch, so will hold the report back until August.

Given Static's delay on June's Recycled Goods, I decided to hold July's back a week or two, with the idea that I'll gradually edge back to the start of the month. I expect that this means that I'll spend next week more with oldies than new jazz, although the latter is accumulating at a frightful pace. I almost didn't come up with any Jazz Prospecting, but eventually decided I have enough to report. Actually played quite a bit more during the week, but working on the house kept me too distracted to write. Things are starting to look up here -- aside from the creeks, which are flooded over much of southeast Kansas, that's good.


That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History Volume 1 (1895-1927 [2007], WHRA, 9CD): Allen Lowe turned his 1997 book American Pop: From Minstrel to Mojo: On Record 1893-1956 into a remarkable 9-CD box set that jumped effortlessly among what we subsequently decided were genres, providing us the the most comprehensive general survey of early American music (recorded, anyway). His follow-up is That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History, 1900-1950, published in 2001, but only converted to CD form in late 2006. The tighter focus of the book is amplified by expanding the CD set to 36 discs, split into four compact boxes each with 9 discs and nearly a quarter of the book. It's a daunting task just to play the discs, and I haven't had time to do more than thumb through the book, so this is very preliminary. But I've played all of the first box at least once -- several discs twice -- so I figure I can at least note this. The first nine discs only bring us up to Louis Armstrong's "Hotter Than That" in 1927 -- the first Armstrong title, although he appears a couple of times, starting with King Oliver in 1923 on disc five. Lowe works his way into recognizable jazz slowly, not getting to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (1917) until the third disc, offering one song each by Ethel Waters and Mamie Smith (both 1921) on the fourth, introducing Jelly Roll Morton (1923) on the fifth; he sprinkles in early bits by Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Bennie Moten, but holds Bix Beiderbecke off until the second box. One result is that the first two or three discs don't sound much like jazz at all; while the last three clearly do sound like jazz, they are still much cruder than your average New Orleans retro band today. I haven't studied this, but it also looks like Lowe has avoided duplicating standard anthologies you're likely to have -- no "Tiger Rag," no "Dippermouth Blues," no "Cake Walking Babies From Home"; the only "St. Louis Blues" is a 1917 version by Ciro's Coon Club Orchestra. But maybe that's not a hard and fast rule. I see two dupes from The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz: "Hotter Than That" and Morton's "Grandpa's Spells." Another curiosity is the lack of anything by Scott Joplin here. Guess I'll have to read the book to figure that out, as well as how all the vaudeville fits in. [A-]

Marc Broussard: S.O.S.: Save Our Soul (2007, Vanguard): Peace, love, and chicken grease -- the signature of a Louisiana man with Cajun credentials as he dives head first into vintage soul -- "Inner City Blues," "I've Been Loving You Too Long," "Respect Yourself," "Love and Happiness," "Yes We Can Can," "You Met Your Match"; overly familiar, marginally distinguished, monumental. I like the closing ballad, "Come In From the Storm," the one original here. B+(*)

Martirio: Primavera en Nueva York (2006, Calle 54): Without grokking the Spanish, I'd take this "bolero suite" for torch song -- slow, steady, packing emotional weight regardless of the words. The bonus is in the New York musicians, including two cuts each with Paquito D'Rivera and Houston Person, one with Claudio Roditi, and exceptional piano support from Kenny Drew Jr. B+(***)

Pink Martini: Hey Eugene! (2005-06 [2007], Heinz): Morris Berman's Dark Ages America makes a case that Portland, Oregon is untethered to American culture without even citing this faux French band. I won't try to claim them for jazz, but their "Tea for Two" puts all the standards interpreters I can think of to shame. So cosmopolitan they sing in a half-dozen languages, and even more styles. I'm tempted to call what they do world cabaret. It's always been rather hit and miss, but this time they have enough high points to carry the rest. In fact, I wonder whether the stuff I don't get isn't just over my head. A-

Frank London: A Night in the Old Marketplace (2006 [2007], Soundbrush): Alexandra Aron conceived this "tragic carnivalspiel" based on a 1907 Yiddish tale, tapping playwright Glen Berger for the words, klezmerist London for the score, and a dozen or so singers -- best known are Susan McKeown and Lorin Sklamberg. The drama unfolds with Brechtian flair, but I distrust a shady character called "G-d" -- leaving me in doubt as to what it all means. B

Roswell Rudd & Yomo Toro: El Espíritu Jíbaro (2002-06 [2007], Sunnyside): Robert Palmer once called Yomo Toro "the Puerto Rican Jimi Hendrix," but from what I've heard -- and his solo "Inspiración" bears this out -- he's comes closer to John Fahey. Rudd, playing with Steve Lacy and Archie Shepp and leading his New York Art Quartet, was the great trombonist of the avant-'60s. He had a second wind as a Herbie Nichols interpreter, and a third as a world music sojourner, hooking up with musicians from Mali, Mongolia, and now Puerto Rico. Percussionist Bobby Sanabria is a third name on the cover, likely the most responsible for taking such a broad swath of Latin jazz here -- bolero, guaracha, marcha, merengue, cumbia, tango, son (of course). Toro's jíbaro is usually considered a country music, but he swings plenty here. B+(***)

John Sheridan and His Dream Band: Swing Is Still the King (2006 [2007], Arbors): A Benny Goodman tribute, more or less, with Ron Hockett on clarinet -- sometimes also Dan Block and Scott Robinson, although they most play saxes -- and Rebecca Kilgore singing a majority of the songs. But it doesn't feel like a Goodman tribute -- the swing is looser, cooler, more delectable. Sheridan is credited with arrangements as well as piano, and its the arrangements that push this past the usual retro limits. A-

Carol Sloane: Dearest Duke (2007, Arbors): Jazz singer, first emerged in late 1950s with Les Elgart's orchestra, moving on to replace Annie Ross in Lambert, Hendricks, Etc., with a comeback on Concord in the 1990s, and a 2001 album for High Note insisting I Never Went Away. I never heard her before, but my first impression is that she's a complete pro. The songbook here is Ellington's, which isn't all that easy for a singer. The accompaniment is Brad Hatfield on piano and/or Ken Peplowski on clarinet or tenor sax -- strictly minimal stuff, which doesn't make it any easier either. She does fine, and Peplowski has some especially nice moments. B+(**)


No final grades/notes on records put back for further listening this week.


Unpacking:

  • Billy Bang Quintet Featuring Frank Lowe: Above & Beyond: An Evening in Grand Rapids (Justin Time)
  • Michael Bisio Quartet: CIMP 360: Circle This (CIMP)
  • James Carney Group: Green-Wood (Songlines)
  • Alex de Grassi: In Concert (Mel Bay, DVD)
  • Rob Garcia's Sangha: Heart's Fire (Connection Works)
  • Stephen Gauci Trio: Substratum (CIMP)
  • Charlie Haden/Antonio Forcione: Heartplay (Naim)
  • David Haney & Julian Priester: Ota Benga of the Batwa (CIMP)
  • Lisa Hilton: The New York Sessions (Ruby Slippers)
  • Chris Kelsey Quartet: The Crookedest Straight Line Vol. 1 (CIMP)
  • Steve Lacy-Roswell Rudd Quartet: Early and Late (1962-2002, Cuneiform, 2CD)
  • Mat Marucci-Doug Webb Trio: Change-Up (CIMP)
  • Hugh Masekela: Live at the Market Theatre (Times Square/4Q, 2CD)
  • Steve Miller/Lol Coxhill: The Story So Far . . . Oh Really? (1972-74, Cuneiform, 2CD)
  • David Murray Black Saint Quartet: Sacred Ground (Justin Time)
  • Alvin Queen: I Ain't Looking at You (Enja/Justin Time)
  • Joe Satriani: Surfing With the Alien (1986, Epic/Legacy, CD+DVD): advance, Aug. 7
  • Daniel Smith: The Swingin' Bassoon (Zah Zah): advance, Oct. 1
  • John Vance: Dreamsville (Erawan)
  • Danny Weis: Sweet Spot (Nordost)

Panang Curry Duck

A few weeks ago we went out to dinner at Thai Tradition, a very nice Thai restaurant on Carriage Parkway (off Central east of Edgemor) here in Wichita. I got to talking to the waitress about a favorite Thai dish I used to order in Brookline, MA: panang curry duck. She offered to make it next time I came in. Thai Tradition offers panang curry with pork, chicken, etc., and they have several duck dishes -- I usually order the red curry duck. Anyhow, we dropped in last night, she remembered and made the same offer again, I ordered, and it was wonderful: just roasted, chunked duck in a thick, rich peanut sauce -- a little hotter than I like, but as with kung pao, peanuts can handle quite a lot of heat. The Brookline dish came with spinach and chick peas and a thinner curry. I found a recipe like that and made the dish once -- my duck fell apart, but still made for a tasty dish. Just thought that if you're in Wichita, you might seek the restaurant out and try ordering the panang curry duck. Especially recommended to my nephew.

While on the subject of Wichita restaurants, let me also offer a plug for Cafe Istanbul, on West just north of Douglas. It's a small Turkish restaurant. It doesn't exactly have my two favorite Turkish dishes -- yogurtlu kebap and imam bayildi -- but their "Alexander style" chicken and doner kebabs come close enough to the former to qualify as utterly delicious, and I've never been able to duplicate their eggplant salad. I also recommend the cizbiz kofte and the cigar boregi. There are lots of pretty good middle eastern restaurants in Wichita -- N&J's, Byblos, as well as Lebanese-based French- or continental-oriented places -- but Istanbul far surpasses them.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Poverty of Empire

There's a new book on world poverty by Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (2007, Oxford University Press). The New York Times tapped imperialism advocate Niall Ferguson to review it. He finds it vastly superior to other recent books in the field, notably Jeffrey Sachs' The End of Poverty and William Easterly's The White Man's Burden, probably because Collier's less prone to blame the Third World's problems on western imperialism. However, Collier does put a lot of the blame on war, but in terms Ferguson can get behind. The following quote from Ferguson is worth pondering:

Reflecting on the tendency of postconflict countries to lapse back into civil war, he argues trenchantly for occasional foreign interventions in failed states. What postconflict countries need, he says, is 10 years of peace enforced by an external military force. If that means infringing national sovereignty, so be it.

At a time when the idea of humanitarian intervention is selling at a considerable discount, this is a vital insight. (One recent finding by Collie rand his associates, not reproduced here, is that until recently, former French colonies in Africa were less likely than other comparably poor countries to experience civil war. That was because the French effectively gave informal security guarantees in postindependence governments.) Collier concedes that his argument is bound to elicit accusations of neocolonialism from the usual suspects (not least Mugabe). Yet the case he makes for more rather than less intervention in chronically misgoverned poor countries is a powerful one. It is easy to forget, amid the ruins of Operation Iraqi Freedom, that effective intervention ended Siera Leone's civil war, while nonintervention condemned Rwanda to genocide.

There's no doubt that civil wars are vastly destructive of any countries unfortunate enough to suffer them. But the notion that the solution is foreign intervention is dubious. There are two big reasons for this. The first is how extremely difficult it is to convince a polarized nation that the intervention is benign -- that the occupiers are neutral in regard to conflicting forces, that they are committed to greater welfare of the nation, and that they will work toward an endstate that includes going home. How many interventions actually meet those criteria? I'm not sure I can think of any. US foreign policy is dictated by a doctrine of self-interest that only becomes humanitarian in the fevered minds of its advocates. This is not just policy; it derives from the US political system, which conceives of government as serving a democratically-determined set of private interests. Moreover, most interactions between Americans and foreign countries are in the private sector, which doesn't even give lip service to public interests. And it's precisely these private interests, mostly in pursuit of extracting maximum profits, which call on the US for support. (Of course, it's not all private sector; there are also bureaucratic interests driving US foreign policy, mostly DOD and CIA.) To break out of this cycle would require a massive conscious effort -- specifically to use government power to counter rather than enforce destructive private initiatives.

The other big problem is that intervention brings its own problems and piles them on top of what was already going wrong there. This is all the more so in the case of a heavy military footprint such as the US is most prone to using. At worst this leads to nonsense about having to destroy villages to save them, but the more basic point is that by intervening you're disrupting and trampling on a nation in ways that are bound to offend and incite one group or another -- even if not by design, by accident. The other aspect of this is that intervening forces are almost necessarily less effective than local forces -- the barriers of language, culture, and intelligence are so severe that armed forces as disciplined and technically savvy as the US are unable to stabilize or even operate effectively in nations as weak and inept as Iraq and Afghanistan.

I suppose it's possible to conceive of some sort of international peacekeeping force that could be constructively applied in certain circumstances -- e.g., in the context of an agreed-upon ceasefire, as an agreed-upon token of mutual assurance. But the idea that you can impose a benign occupation appears to be fantasy, even when it doesn't harbor hidden agendas. The best the international community can do would be to provide support to local groups willing to settle their differences.

On the other hand, the one thing we should insist on is that foreign powers stop working to make civil conflicts worse by supporting some side against others. A large percentage of civil conflicts in recent times have been sponsored by foreign interests -- most often by the US, who wound up invading Iraq and Afghanistan only after decades of interference and subversion (and for that matter decades of failure).


Jun 2007 Aug 2007