Sunday, July 31. 2005
Here's a quote from Tom Engelhardt, the last paragraph in a piece on the Roberts Supreme Court nomination:
The stinging words here are: "If the Democrats were an actual opposition party, if they were really a party at all." One thing you can count on is that when the Republicans snap the whip all of their ducks line up and salute, both in Congress and in the pundit racket. This is partly because the Republican Party goes out and recruits candidates. And it's partly because so many Republicans are lemmings, incapable of formulating their own thoughts. On the other hand, Democrats think they're free-lancers, so each one has to grapple with each issue, mostly haphazardly. In principle, I like the Democratic approach better: it suggests that they have open minds. But that only works if everyone plays by that game, and the Republicans don't. Some Democrats may be willing to fight mano-a-mano, but the Republicans are a well organized phalanx. They would be unassailable and invincible if they weren't wrong so spectacularly so often.
One great shame about all this is that the Democratic Party does have clout if only they had the guts to use it. This is because the media takes hints from the parties and their most prominent politicians about which issues and arguments can be considered legitimate. When neither party supports a position, it just disappears from the public dialog -- even though there may be a substantial unrepresented minority that still cares about the issue. (Legalizing marijuana is an obvious example; a single-payer health system is another.) One issue that the Democrats should bring to the fore now is the venerable idea that U.S. government should be a system of checks and balances. As it stands, the executive, congressional and judicial branches are all under Republican majorities, and with the Republicans both marching rightward and becoming increasingly aggressive about forcing their agenda. A Supreme Court nomination is the perfect time to push an argument against one-party rule -- an argument which will gain resonance in the 2006 congressional elections.
Nothing in American history has prepared us for dealing with a group of politicians as underhanded and manipulative as the Bush administration. For most of history the two parties have had more variation within themselves than they had net between the parties. For most of history the parties have taken a second seat behind the individuals, much as the Democratic Party does today. The Republicans have changed all that, while the Democrats have done little-to-nothing to expose them. In the U.K. the idea of an opposition party extends to forming a shadow cabinet. For the Democrats, opposition is an unpleasant option, to be used only when they are allowed none other.
Last night we watched a stand-up comedy special by Bill Maher. He wasn't spot on, but he could give the Democrats some tips on how to stand up for what you believe. He could even give them a few things to believe in, since they seem to have trouble in that department on their own. Like Paul Krugman, he's a guy who started out thinking that he's so smart he could make a nice career picking on how dumb both parties are. But when Bush steered the ship of state sharply to the right, they were so dumbfounded they lurched to the left, and they've become so terrified of Bush that even Bill Clinton is starting to look good. Moreover, they have few scruples about pulling their punches. Not that they lack scruples, just that they recognize that Bush deserves no respect -- indeed, they must at least implicitly recognize that any respect shown Bush just lets him do more damage.
Maher had three points worth reiterating here:
Note that while much of what Maher said couldn't possibly be said by a sober politician, he managed to fill a sizable auditorium and consistently got laughs from every corner. Granted, that's only a subset of America, but they were there in flesh and blood, which isn't something you could figure out from listening to Democratic politicians.
A recent John Prine song singled out Bush, reminding us that "some humans ain't human." That's a tough point for a Democrat to grasp, but the facts are plain as day. The Democrats are supposed to be the "reality-based" party. Time for them to get real, and tell it like it is.
Thursday, July 28. 2005
Here's a news item from Michael Felberbaum of AP:
In other words: Four Boy Scout leaders did something extraordinarily stupid and died as a result. Four is an interesting number here -- in a group of four it would only have taken one to have had enough sense to prevent this accident, but it looks like the rest just sheepishly went along with the dumbest of the group.
Why this happened isn't explored, but it fits several trends in the way Americans behave. We associate leadership with assertiveness to the extend that anyone with the uninhibited ego to step forward is likely to be followed, regardless of common sense. Increasingly these leaders are "success oriented" -- a disingenuous way of saying that they assume that nothing serious will go wrong and everything will work out fine. Such leaders are positive; anyone with the temerity to point out that they may be skipping lightly over real risks is just being negative, a critic, a dissenter -- ooh, we can't have that, as if the only reason to point out a risk is to jinx the whole deal.
Another trend is that we're losing the ability to evaluate risks, in part because most of us understand so little about how the world works. To some extent this is because the expansion of science and the growth of technology are mind boggling, but also because we've become inured to their supposed benignness. Whereas our ancestors knew that danger lurked everywhere, we have learned to treat danger as the exception -- or more precisely, most of us have been lucky enough to get away with ignoring risks. Part of this is reasonable, inasmuch as we have developed relationships with experts we trust, but it also makes us easy prey to unscrupulous leaders.
Speaking of which, the weird part of this story isn't the dead Scout leaders -- it's President Bush. People go out camping and get hurt, mostly through their own ignorance and/or hubris, all the time. But something about this particular tragedy touched a nerve in the President, or at least in his pollsters and handlers. Part of this is that the Boy Scouts, famed for allegiance to God and Country, are the sort of group that Bush's Party wishes to be associated with, but beyond that it just seems like the sort of dumbass thing that Bush might do himself. On the other hand, it's turned into an ironic punishment: having reduced the survivors to a photo-op, the imperial cloddishness of the Bush Presidency winds up torturing the Scouts by not even showing up in a timely fashion. Bush is like a tornado of incompetence, leaving wreckage in his wake everywhere he goes. A more sentient being would have paid enough attention to feel like, gosh, lady luck just isn't on his side, but Bush knows that the real charm of leadership is never having to look back. That would, after all, just be a distraction from his calling of blundering forward into the abyss.
Other bits of news:
Saturday, July 23. 2005
Got back from Detroit last night. Drove for Detroit last Saturday, getting there Sunday evening after an overnight in Terre Haute, IN. Left Detroit yesterday morning, stopping overnight in O'Fallon, MO. Distance is close to 1000 miles, so both ways knocked off about 600 the first day out. Route was the same both ways -- Wichita to Kansas City to Indianapolis to Ft. Wayne and up to Marshall, MI, then skip north of Ann Arbor to get to Oak Park, just north of Detroit. Laura's father joined us for the return trip, which included one sightseeing stop -- the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, IN -- and two good off-the-highway restaurants: Schuler's in Marshall, MI and Fiorella's Jack Smokestack south of Kansas City.
Normally I avoid paying any attention to the news while I'm on the road, but that's impossible with Laura and Kal in the car. Some things I couldn't help but notice:
Wednesday, July 13. 2005
One of our two cats passed away last night, Laverne, survived by Shirley. We've had these two cats since late 2001 -- I don't have a date in the notebook, just a note that Laura's previous cat, Edna, died on April 4, 2001. We picked up Laverne and Shirley at a no-kill kennel, where they had been abandoned. I picked out Laverne because of her friendliness. She would come right up to complete strangers, hop onto a lap, and start kneading her declawed feet -- she was a lap-dancer. She was described as a "Siamese Flamepoint" -- white, with light tan markings on her face and tail. Lovely cat. Shirley is a slightly larger all black cat. They had lived together before the kennel, and were caged together when we got them. The kennel people prevailed on us to keep them together.
We always assumed that they were about a year old when we got them, which would make them five or so, but they could be older. (Don't know how to tell.) They were pretty frisky when we first got them. Less so now, although Shirley can move pretty fast. Laverne took ill several months ago: lost weight, became very dehydrated. We gave her antibiotics and fluids, and she bounced back a bit, but never regained her weight. Took her to the vet day before yesterday. She had abcesses in her gums, white cells in her urine. Doctor lanced and treated the abcesses, and gave us medicine. She seemed better that evening, but weakened a lot yesterday, and looked to be in bad shape last night. After we gave her medicine last night, she jumped down to the floor, then laid down, spreading out. We found her this morning where she was last night, quite stiff.
I bought Laura a digital camera this past Xmas, figuring it would mostly be used to take pictures of cats. She didn't take many, but we have a few. We haven't gotten the hang of this technology yet -- haven't managed to print any of the pictures, but I managed to get one picture scaled down and uploaded. In the future I'll get some more pictures up -- isn't that what websites are ultimately good for? So this picture is about six months old, before she got sick. Looks a little bleary-eyed, but all the pictures do, except the ones that show her eyes in weird reflections. She had faint blues eyes, but when the light hit her right they'd turn blood red.
Laverne spent much of the last few years sleeping on top of Laura's monitor. When Laura got a new computer with an LCD screen too narrow to sleep on, we bought the pedestal you see in the picture. But in the last couple of months Laverne discovered my CRT monitors and moved in with me. She bugged me a lot. Miss her already.
Sunday, July 10. 2005
Here's a quote from Michael Lind's New York Times book review of Pat Choate's Hot Property: The Stealing of Ideas in an Age of Globalization:
I don't know whether Choate has any evidence for these assertions, but the logic is fairly simple: what's good for Microsoft and Disney is good for America, and what's good for America is good for the world. With so much "good" flowing out of this system, it is hoped that one would overlook the money flowing the other way -- needed, of course, to produce even more "good," although the more cynical might view this as a self-perpetuating rent cycle, one more way rich countries keep poor countries poor. As Lind/Choate note, the U.S. patent law back in 1793 only protected American inventors, exempting the U.S. from paying rent to foreign countries -- a practice subsequently adopted by Japan and Germany. It sure is convenient that the protectionism that built Europe, America, and Japan has been deemed counterproductive for all those developing countries.
But the more basic question is whether the assertion that patents really do stimulate advances in science, new medicines, new products, etc. The idea itself it counterintuitive. Research and development, after all, are human activities -- work. The more people work, the more they produce. But a patent is a prohibition: it says you can't work on developing my idea, and I can't work on developing your idea. So how do you get more research and development out of fewer people working on any given idea? The trick, of course, is money: most work in research and development depends on money, and a patent monopoly promises a substantial return on private investment. But that raises further questions: How important is money really, especially at the research stage where most ideas are formulated? How much does that monopoly grant cost everyone else in the economy, both in terms of high prices and lost opportunities? And does the privatizing of intellectual property harm us further by increasing secrecy and introducing the moral hazzard of exploiting that property for private interests? (E.g., Microsoft has been able to extend its monopoly by exploiting network effects of its operating system software with no public access or purview of what they're really up to. Pharmaceutical companies have been known to not disclose adverse test results until many people have suffered and the tort liabilities exceed their potential profits.)
I think that the answer to these questions is that the obvious and hidden costs of patent monopolies far exceed the advantages of private financing and control. Certainly that's the case of software, where closed source code hides defects and special cases. And the case of pharmaceuticals is even worse. Less critical developments may be able to tolerate patent abuse, but the time has come to reconsider whether any patents have net social value. The core question of whether patents stimulate innovation can easily be answered just by rephrasing it: without the incentive of patents, would anyone work to advance science, solve health care problems, develop new and innovative products? The free software movement is one clear case where the answer is yes. The development of science, especially in the first half of the 20th century, is another. Most product development embraces good ideas regardless of whether they are patentable. (The pharmaceutical industry is an exception here.) In all of these cases, ready access to open knowledge is critical -- it is what lets us improve and refine each other's ideas. The only downside I see is for products that require a lot of money to develop. For them, eliminating patents with all their drawbacks can be replaced by public investment.
Intellectual property is not just patents. It bundles together a lot of different things, each with their own benefits and drawbacks, and they need to be considered separately. Patents are by far the worse, and as such the clearest case. Microsoft actually depends more on trade secrets than patents, although its patent portfolio is a potential menace. Disney depends more on copyrights. At some point I'll write more about the latter, maybe even broaching the inevitable music piracy/sharing debate, but those are issues of much less import. Patents are a fundamental shackle on the human brain, a legal practice that seeks to entrench established powers against the world. The argument that that's good for us is easy for people like Lind/Choate to throw out, but it's hard to swallow. I don't even buy the part about what's good for Microsft and Disney is good for me.
Saturday, July 9. 2005
I got a piece of mail today about how this is the time to press for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, citing political shifts in Congress and in the polls that show "higher majorities of the American people support demands for troop withdrawals." I'm not in any way opposed to a U.S. cut and run. Continued prosecution of this war along current lines takes a bad situation and makes it worse. Even were the U.S. forces able to significantly suppress the resistance, doing so poisons the prospects for democracy and freedom in Iraq, not least by creating a tainted class of collaborators to foreign occupation. But it's hard to see any trend or prospect of a trend toward any sort of stability, and the prospect that rebellion and war might spread further is real. It seems obvious that Bush's desire for a modest, successful little war has blown up so severely that some sort of cutting and running is inevitable. Certainly, if Bush ran the government like a business -- that old Republican mantra -- he would have spun Iraq off to the hapless U.N. long ago.
But there are several problems with just calling for the U.S. to get out of Iraq now. One is that it would leave a deeply divided country sadly lacking in any sort of unifying leadership -- Vietnam at least had the Communists -- surrounded by nervous neighbors all to likely to meddle. But consider the tactical problem: withdrawal without a stable guarantor of peace, gives the war mongers fuel to charge that their failure was the result of our cowardly lack of will, while allowing them to sweep their misdeeds out of sight. As with so much else, the Vietnam model applies here: while we were happy just to get beyond the war, they plotted a redemptive return to war that has, if anything, blown up even more disastrously. Whatever we do, we shouldn't allow them to get away with their delusions. Losing this unjust and evil war isn't enough: we need to strip away any shred of credibility that the people who dragged us into this war ever had.
The argument that the U.S. must leave Iraq has an implicit subext: that the U.S. cannot bring peace and prosperity to Iraq. Accepting that argument accepts the position that the U.S. is irredeemable, a force with no prospect of doing the right thing. This is pretty much the track record, but right now the problem is specific to the Bush administration -- a party that cannot do right because their own goals are so wrong and because their own tactics are so cynical that nothing they say has any credibility. This suggests an alternate tactic, which is to insist on complete conformance to the ideals that they bandy about. To do this, we need to identify fundamental rights and principles to be secured, and to sharply criticize every action, by the U.S. or other foreign and domestic forces, that might undermine the development of a free, democratic, peaceful, prosperous Iraq. The most grievous of these is the sectarian division of central government which criminalizes one-fifth of Iraq's population: Iraq's Sunni Arab population must have a stake in a political system that guarantees them rights and security same as other sectors of the population. But the failure to install democracy and respect freedom and human rights starts with individuals: fundamental is a legal system of due process, with protections against unreasonable search and seizure, against cruel and unusual punishments (which certainly includes collective or colateral punishments). If the U.S. occupation has no respect for such rights -- and clearly under Bush it does not -- then the U.S. cannot justify continuing the occupation.
The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was a terrible idea from the start, not least of all because the current administration cannot be trusted -- not by the Iraqi people, and not by us. This war started in a cloud of lies, and the lies have continued every day since. Getting the U.S. to leave would limit the damage, and may be a necessary step, since the U.S. administration seems to be incapable of constructive change. But we should be clear that it is specifically Bush and his administration that are at fault, and that the main reason they are at fault is that they never delivered on their freedom-and-democracy promises. Indeed, they don't believe in any such thing, and their lies are just pissing in the pot of anyone who does.
Thursday, July 7. 2005
Catching up with some news items:
Recently read David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? -- a tragic story of the duplicity of key politicians with unrealistic expectations of war. But the book doesn't get past the first days of the war, so I thought I'd move on to Walter Karp's The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered the Political Life of the American Republic (1890-1920), which I'm a little over half way through right now. Karp's characterization of Woodrow Wilson as "a man of high ideals but no principles" sums up the problem nicely. But it wasn't just Wilson: "Nothing in America's political experience as a nation had prepared Americans for Woodrow Wilson." Much the same thing can be said of George W. Bush, even though Nixon, Reagan and his old man pointed in GWB's direction. On his own Wilson, preoccupied with his own greatness and full of idealistic schemes for running the world, was probably scarier, but Wilson didn't have anywhere near Bush's level of resources and weapons: the presidency has grown vastly more powerful, the military and intelligence networks more imperial, the Republican party machine more effective (especially with its mass base of Christian fanatics), the oligarchy solidly behind him, the media complacent, the opposition party befuddled. Americans have a lot of experience living with bad presidents, but not much living with truly evil ones. Wilson was one, Nixon another, and now there's Bush. Their abuses and madnesses eventually caught up with Wilson and Nixon, which may be some comfort. But in many ways Bush stands on their shoulders, compounding their crimes. It seems probable that disaster awaits, but increasingly one wonders whether Americans will recognize the roots of what happens in the malfeasances of such political schemers.
Sunday, July 3. 2005
Static Multimedia has posted the July 2005 edition of Recycled Goods. This is #21 in the series. It includes 10 paragraph-sized reviews and 45 briefer reviews, bringing the total for the series to 798 albums. The big chunk of "in series" reissues this time is Verve's reissues of the Free America albums, originally released in Paris circa 1970 and long forgotten. Otherwise, the mix is all over the map, literally even as the world music count is perhaps at an all-time high.
I continue to be struck by how many records I'm moving through this column, and by how little dent it makes in the reissues domain. I try to keep up with my mailbox, but don't make much of an effort to round up records from outside my usual set of sources -- maybe 3-5 letters per month for odds and ends that strike my eye, plus every now and then I buy something I can't get otherwise, such as this month's pick hit, Annette Peacock (also James Chance, African Underground, the Luaka Bops, Amalgam and Evan Parker). Going with the flow is one reason why the jazz reissues threaten to overwhelm the column. I'm not likely to get much more aggressive here until I work through the backlog, which appears as daunting as ever.
Speaking of backlog, I have several large series of jazz comps on the shelf. So many that I'm thinking that next time will be nothing but jazz comps.