Thursday, April 29. 2010
I was struck by the following letter which appeared in the Wichita Eagle on Monday:
One could construct an argument that our elections are rigged up in various ways that make it possible for those elected to effectively ignore the voters' real interests and intents. (Money is the key to any such argument.) One could argue that bureaucratic culture results in governments being inefficient and sometimes flat out ineffective in implementing popular policies. (Although usually this is done by ignoring the dysfunctionalities of the private sector alternative.) The author doesn't make any such arguments here. He -- I've redacted the name but rest assured the author is a he -- settles for thrashing in a soup of clichés, a convenient substitute for thought, not to mention facts.
"Over the past few decades" is annoyingly vague: that sounds more recent than the 1960s-70s when government grew by taking on regulatory power over things like pollution and job safety; so is he referring to the deregulatory efforts of Reagan? the downsizing of Clinton? the crass politicization and imperial overreach of Bush? He can't mean Obama, who has been in office for little more than a year -- a tiny fraction of a decade -- and who has done nothing significant other than to offer jobs to relatively competent people (mostly held up by Senate Republicans).
As to the Founding Fathers, government is hardly the only thing in today's world they might find unrecognizable. Even so, so what? They had no single set of views or expectations. Jefferson, in particular, expected revolution every generation, so for him the greatest surprise would likely be that we've preserved so much of the constitution. Both conservatives and liberals like to claim the FFs, but this is almost always an historical fallacy -- an attempt to cite an authority too dead to speak for himself.
Same for Ronald Reagan, at least for conservatives. I saw a letter in the Eagle recently where the author cited Reagan as his authority for arguing against Obama's nuclear warfare policy amendments. Funny thing was that he claimed Reagan understood the need for an unfettered nuclear arsenal, when in fact Reagan was horrified by nuclear weapons and wanted to see them if not banned at least rendered impotent by a comprehensive antimissile shield. Conservatives just assume that they can cite Reagan in defense of whatever crackpot idea they have, even when Reagan had no such views.
Another cliché starts with the observation that it's insane to expect an experiment to produce a different result when it's always proven something else. This is handy for arguing against repeating failed behaviors, like arguing that occupying Afghanistan will work this time where doing the same thing in Iraq and Vietnam failed. Problem here is the author's assumption that everything government has tried to ameliorate has had the opposite effect. Sure, one can think of examples of government failure, but there are many more examples where government has made things better: the FAA has made air travel safer, the FDA has made food and drugs safer, the EPA has made air and water cleaner and less dangerous, Social Security and Medicare have made poverty rare among our elders, public support for schools has (until recently) made Americans among the world's best educated, regulations kept the banking system stable (until deregulated, which led to the thrifts crashing in the late 1980s and the investment banks melting down recently), and there are many other examples -- indeed, they are the rule, not the exception.
So where does "the greatest domestic threat this country has ever faced" come from? The federal government? You could argue that the counterterrorism apparatus built up by Bush and Cheney et al., and to an embarrassing extent continued by Obama, counts as a grave threat to our constitutionally-protected rights, but the focus there is still mostly external, much less directed at the regime's political opponents than what Nixon did, therefore less of an effective threat. No doubt Obama could do more, both to use his executive powers to reverse the travesties of the Bush administration and to nominate judges who will stand up for our rights against government intrusion. But one suspects that the author means something else. He's just unwilling or incapable of specifying the threat he sees. He would be easy to dismiss but it seems like whole masses of right-wingers have succumbed to a vague but powerful delusion that Obama is a bogeyman out to get them.
What's really disturbing is that people who know so little and understand even less have chosen this moment to give vent to their civic paranoia, and that they're so loud and certain and desperate about it even though they can't point to any evidence or explain themselves at all coherently. The first thing this makes me wonder is why this civic paranoia didn't appear when someone actually dangerous like Bush was in power. The main reason seems to be that conservatives aren't actually interested in policy issues -- at least in the sense that all parties should work together to find best (or least worst) solutions. They are primarily interested in power, and are willing to put up with virtually anything as long as their guy is in power, and absolutely nothing when someone not in their claque comes out on top.
What Obama has done that is so dastardly to the right is that he's cut their policy legs out from under them, leaving their obsession with seizing power naked. Sane conservatives, for instance, might argue for a somewhat regulated private insurance exchange program which curbs the worst excesses of private insurance while preserving a competitive range of coverage options, as opposed to a more efficient single-payer one-size-fits-all scheme, but Obama adopted the conservative option. Sane conservatives might argue for a market-oriented cap-and-trade scheme for limiting greenhouse gas emissions but, well, that's Obama's plan. Same thing on pretty much everything from Afghanistan to atomic power to offshore oil to finance reform, which I, hoping for better, find pretty frustrating, but at least I can argue Obama's shortcomings rationally. The conservative rank-and-file, who have by all accounts been dumbing down for a couple of decades now, have nothing but their primal rage to fall back on.
Which is pretty much all you can say about the letter's final paragraph. I forget whether patriotism or religion is the last refuge of scoundrels, but it scarcely matters when your conclusion is "Pray hard, praise God, and pass the ammunition." You can dismiss that as another idiot cliché -- originally "praise the Lord and pass the ammunition" and set in a shooting war as opposed to this bout of self-important indulgence -- but I don't see how this can end well.
Jonathan Bernstein: More on that Closed Loop: One of a bunch of recent pieces on "epistemic closure" -- the practice of dismissing out of hand opinions, analyses, and even basic reporting from sources not sanctioned by your political allies. This is a big enough problem on the right that conscious conservatives like Julian Sanchez and Conor Friedersdorf are fretting over it (and hacks like Jonah Goldberg are dismissing). I can't pretend that leftists, liberals, or any other ideological stripe are immune from this temptation, but a lot of asymmetries make this a peculiarly conservative problem. For starters, there is the matter of payroll, where rich right-wing patrons pay good money for intellectual workers, both through their media networks and their pseudo-academic think tanks. But there is also, as I argued above, a peculiar focus on political power on the right, which puts a lot of pressure behind talking points. The right doesn't care about truthful journalism or insightful analysis; they simply want foot soldiers to toe their line and put their focus-group-tested, poll-proven messages across. Every bit as important, there is a fundamental deceitfulness to the right's message, and that bears very little scrutiny: somehow in a democracy they have to convince average folks it's best for [the country, the economy, God, even average folks] to elect a bunch of people whose main project is to use the government to further enrich the already rich. So of course the right doesn't value truth, honesty, and integrity, because those qualities -- once thought of as conservative virtues -- spoil the message. Of course the right favors mediocre obeissance over initiative and independence, which helps explain why hacks do so well on the right -- and why whenever the right is in power they do so poorly with reality.
Matthew Yglesias: The Cushy Life of the Rightwinger: As I was saying, Yglesias adds: "There's a nice, very cushy gravy train out there awaiting anyone who wants to be a loyal footsoldier and one consequence of that is that the standards in terms of personnel are quite low." Also pulls up an old Julian Sanchez quote saying pretty much the same thing:
Conor Friedersdorf: The Fraud That Conservative Entertainers Can Never Acknowledge: Ronald Reagan used to have his so-called Eleventh Commandment about never saying ill of a fellow Republican. That's long since gone by the wayside given the slightest hint of RINO-ism, but still seems to be in play when considering anyone on the right, no matter how crackpot they get. Friedersdorf writes a "metablog" about bloggers on the right, which gets back to those "epistemic closure" issues. In particular, he deals with what he calls "conservative entertainers" -- Mark Levin in particular, although the first I heard of such beasts was a reference to Glenn Beck, who seems to regard his sense of humor as a get-out-of-reality pass. This is another area where you can look for asymmetries by thinking about who might pass as "liberal-or-leftist entertainers": names that pop into mind are Jon Stewart, Al Franken, Bill Mahrer, but quickly the differences emerge. For one thing, their typical humor is ironic, especially for unmasking hypocrisy, whereas a Rush Limbaugh, say, is more suited to spouting hypocrisy -- indeed, to bludgeoning you with it. Left-leaning entertainers like Franken and Dick Gregory also tend to get seriously wonkish, whereas it's well nigh impossible to find a carefully considered analysis in any work by a "conservative entertainer." Still, the bigger question is whether "conservative entertainers" are actually able to entertain anyone not already part of their flock. The profession they actually have more in common with is preaching, and there's no real symmetry to that on the left (except in black churches, which historically were havens for self-organization). You can unpack that a good deal further.
Matthew Yglesias: Freedom's Just Another Word for I'm an Orthodox Conservative With Orthodox Conservative Views: This relates to, but doesn't cite, George Lakoff's argument that the left needs to reclaim the word "freedom." Examples of its right-wing abuse abound.
Paul Krugman: Epistemic Closure in Macroeconomics: Another response to the "epistemic closure" debate, pointing out that of the two major camps of macroeconomists, one (saltwater) understands and argues against the other, while the other (freshwater) is merely ignorant and contemptuous of the first. One guess as to which is the more conservative.
Monday, April 26. 2010
Not much here: tempting to skip the week's post but A-list jazz records have been hard to come by this year so the two below are something of a bounty. (Non-jazz has been a different story, with records I like a lot from V.V. Brown, Kate Nash, Shelby Lynne, and Apples in Stereo in the forthcoming Rhapsody file.) I don't expect much more jazz prospecting this week: I hope to wrap up a big chunk of the current house projects, and I've had a tough time multitasking construction work and writing. Still expect to finish this Jazz CG by mid-May.
Tomasz Stanko Quintet: Dark Eyes (2009 , ECM): Venerable Polish trumpet player. Started out in avant-garde c. 1970. Has mellowed out, which is practically mandatory at ECM, but remains a strikingly lyrical player. After several albums with Marcin Wasilewski's piano trio, has a new group this time, a quintet with Alexi Tuomarila on piano, Jakob Bro on guitar, Anders Christensen on bass, and Olavi Louhivuori on drums -- haven't heard of any of them, but expect we will, especially Tuomarila. Record came out late last year in Germany, making some year-end lists. Doesn't blow me away, but is remarkably pleasing, and not all pretty. A-
Denny Zeitlin: Precipice (2008 , Sunnyside): I'm not good with solo piano, and I'm in no shape to sort this one out right now, but I can't just dismiss it either. Zeitlin is in his 70s, has had a long career making small scale piano albums -- solos, duos, a lot of trios. I've only heard a few -- notably missing his Columbia sessions from the 1960s which were wrapped up neatly in a 3-CD Mosaic Select box last year. Never found an album I can flat out recommend, but never been disappointed either. [B+(***)]
Jean-Michel Pilc: True Story (2009 , Dreyfus): French pianist, b. 1960, has recorded frequently since 2000, although he evidently has a few scattered earlier albums. Piano trio, with Boris Kozlov and Billy Hart. Can be a powerful, dynamic, lightning fast performer, although that is only occasionally evident here. B+(**)
Thomson Kneeland: Mazurka for a Modern Man (2007 , Weltschmerz): Bassist, in New York, first album, although he has three previous with or as Kakalla, a similar group with less emphasis on the horns. Group here has David Smith on trumpet, Loren Stillman on alto sax (4 of 9 cuts), Nate Radley on guitar, and Take Toriyama on drums/percussion, except for one track in the middle which has trumpet (Jerry Sabatini), accordion, violin/viola, and drums. Balkan influence, bebop drive, although the violin cut aims for something more chamberish, and is less convincing. B+(**)
Joe Chambers: Horace to Max (2009 , Savant): More Roach than Silver, but Chambers is a drummer, even though he mostly plays vibes and marimba here, with Steve Berrios on the kit. Nicole Guilland sings two Roach songs, one an Abbey Lincoln co-credit; I don't really care for either. I'm ambivalent about Chambers' vibes as well, but the marimba has an interesting sound. Much better is Eric Alexander's tenor sax. Old Blue Note-style cover art. B
The Nels Cline Singers: Initiate (2009 , Cryptogramophone, 2CD): Guitarist, b. 1956, had a solid jazz career with a couple dozen albums since 1980 before he joined rock band Wilco, leading to stuff like Rolling Stone dubbing him one of the "Top 20 New Guitar Gods." NC Singers is a long-running trio with Devin Hoff on bass (acoustic and electric) and Scott Amendola on drums. Cline gets credits for "voice, megamouth, thingamagoop," but those things elide into his guitar effects -- no one actually sings here. Two discs, the old one studio, one live deal. Live is better -- more straightforward fusion power, less layering, fewer mood grooves. Studio packages more ideas more tightly. A-
The Bickel/Marks Group With Dave Liebman (2009 , Zoho): Pianist Doug Bickel, bassist Dennis Marks, with Marco Marcinko on drums, Matt Vashlishan on alto sax, and Dave Liebman on soprano and tenor sax (mostly soprano). Bickel and Marks came up through the Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, and Arturo Sandoval bands, winding up with one or two albums each under their own names, plus this joint operation. They play a jaunty postbop, and Liebman adds something -- this is a rare outing where I think he might justify his soprano. B+(**)
Tobias Gebb & Unit 7: Free at Last (2009 , Yummy House): Drummer, from and in New York, with college detours to Berklee and the Bay Area (tempting to guess Berkeley). His debut Trio West album was an HM in these parts, but I didn't get inspired to play his Xmas album when it was in season -- it's still around here somewhere and someday I'll get to it, well, maybe. Unit 7 is a larger group, but not a septet, and not evidently a regular group: I count five or six musicians. Eldud Svulun plays piano on all eight, with the smaller group adding Mark Gross (alto sax), Joel Frahm (tenor sax) and Ugonna Okegwo (bass); the larger group features Bobby Watson (alto sax), Joe Magnarelli (trumpet), Stacy Dillard (tenor sax), and Neal Miner (bass), for a thick postbop stew. Title track offers "a special thanks to Barack Obama." Closer is "Tomorrow Never Knows," which I'd hazard a guess (but not a bet) is the Beatles tune most often recorded on jazz albums -- a big part of why jazzing up the Beatles never seems to work, although Frahm gives it a good run, and the sitar adds a little frizz. B+(**)
Matthew Shipp: 4D (2009 , Thirsty Ear): Solo piano. I've lost track of how many solo albums Shipp's done since the late 1980s -- half a dozen I'd guess. Seems like he's moved away from developing melodic lines and into rhythmic patterns built from dense chords, which sort of parallels his group context work, but is more bare and sparse here. Some covers on the home stretch, not that they help much. B+(**) [advance]
Jeff Healey: Last Call (2007 , Stony Plain): Canadian guitarist-singer, blinded at age one by eye cancer, formed a blues band in mid-1980s and sold a ton of records. Always had a passion for old jazz records, which he finally turned into a second act as a trad jazz artist, picking up trumpet as well. Died in 2008 at age 41 after another bout of cancer. This is presumably his last studio album. Trumpet switches off his vocals, but recorded guitar ahead of time, citing Eddie Lang as an influence but he hits it harder with more sting, almost getting a banjo sound. Drew Jureeka plays Joe Venuti on violin, and Ross Wooldridge plays piano and clarinet. Half the songs are pretty familiar. B+(***)
No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.
Some corrections and further notes on recent prospecting:
Abraham Inc.: Tweet Tweet (2010, Table Pounding): I erroneously identified the label as Dot Dot Dot Music. B+(***)
Jon Gold: Brazil Confidential (2010, Zoho): Artist's second album -- not his first as I had noted. Gold also tells me that his interest in Brazilian music predates his moving to Rio, and was in fact the reason to make the move. B+(*)
Unpacking: Found in the mail this week:
Friday, April 23. 2010
I promised a quick follow-up on the last batch of new book notes, here back on April 10, then decided to back off a bit, only making the backlog worse. Here are short notes on 40 recent books.
Greg Albo/Sam Gindin/Leo Panitch: In and Out of Crisis: The Global Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives (paperback, 2010, PM Press): Missed this in the big banking book roundup, which may mean that even I am marginalizing the left. Panitch has been writing books like Working Class Politics in Crisis: Essays on Labour and the State and Global Capitalism and American Empire at least since 1986.
Giovanni Arrighi: Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century (paperback, 2009, Verso): Substantial (432 pp) book on China's tryst with capitalism, from a late Italian Gramscian who takes the long view -- another recently reprinted book is called The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of Our Times.
Raymond W Baker/Shereen T Ismael/Tareq Y Ismael, eds: Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums Were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered (2010, Pluto Press): The images of looting in Baghdad upon the arrival of US forces are indelible, but less known is the purge of intellectuals, with over 400 killed, many more driven from their homes and often from Iraq.
Wendell Berry: Imagination in Place (2010, Counterpoint): A new collection of essays, mostly short, many on acquaintances and friends, literary subjects and history.
Stewart Brand: Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto (2009, Viking): Forty years after The Whole Earth Catalog, a new collection of ideas and tools for coping with climate change and so forth. Brand has written occasional books as well as updates to his catalog. The most interesting looks to be How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built.
Christopher De Bellaigue: Rebel Land: Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town (2010, Penguin Press): A Kurdish town in Turkey, Varto, formerly shared by a sizable percentage of Armenians -- a three-way struggle for control of the story line of the past (and present). Complicated.
Lisa Dodson: The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy (2009, New Press): Stories of "economic civil disobedience," where workers and even managers bend or break rules to make the economic system a bit more humane. Previously wrote Don't Call Us Out of Name: The Untold Lives of Women and Girls in Poor America.
John Ehrenberg/J Patrice McSherry/José Ramón Sánchez/Caroleen Marji Sayej: The Iraq Papers (paperback, 2010, Oxford University Press): Of course, no non-scholar who lived through such recent history actually needs 656 pp of primary sources on the whole WMD scam. On the other hand, it's worth keeping track of who said what when, and holding them accountable.
Timothy Ferris: The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature (2010, Harper): Science (mostly Astronomy) writer, takes a look back at the Enlightenment and the insight that reason rules the universe, with the founding fathers of US independence right in the middle of the story.
Charles R Geisst: Collateral Damaged: The Marketing of Consumer Debt to America (2009, Bloomberg Press): Credit cards, one of the leading vehicles for modern usury; how they have been marketed, how ordinary Americans have piled up hereto unimaginable levels of debt. Geisst has many banking books: one I missed in my round up was Undue Influence: How the Wall Street Elite Puts the Financial System at Risk. Main reason I missed it was that it came out in 2004.
Tom Hayden: The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama (2009, Paradigm): Fair enough for Hayden to write about the 1960s movements he was so prominent in, but Obama missed them, coming of age in the backlash years where he learned to be pragmatic, to couch his occasional idealistic-sounding rhetoric in obeissance to the powers that be. On the other hand, it's worth reminding that nearly all of the substantive agenda the 1960s new left succeeded -- civil rights were secured, the Vietnam War was ended, women made substantial advances both politically and economically, a serious effort was made to clean up the environment. Where the new left fell short was in not being able to secure the institutional power that would be needed to defend those gains. One might hope that Obama might succeed where the new left failed, but even if he had the inclination he may be too compromised. Still, how'd that '60s song go? "You can't always get what you want/but if you try sometimes you might find/you get what you need."
Steven Hill: Europe's Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age (paperback, 2010, University of California Press): As compared to what? The Tea Party movement? Kleptocracy and civil war in Africa? China's bourgeois revolution from above? I'm not sure Europe is such great shakes, but Americans have never wanted to follow the old world's lead. On the other hand, there is something to be said for sanity, which Europe proves is still possible.
Paul Ingrassia: Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry's Road from Glory to Disaster (2010, Random House): I imagine there's a lot one can say about this subject -- the first key question being when do you want to start? To get to some glory, you have to go back quite a ways. The collapse of profits is a more recent problem, more susceptible to scapegoating. Of course, even if he doesn't get the whole story right, a little dirt can't hurt. Previously wrote Comeback: The Fall & Rise of the American Automobile Industry, which appears now to have been premature.
Philip Jenkins: Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years (2010, Harper One): A history of the early Christian church, especially how political influences dictated theology. Author has a number of books, many on the ancient (and somewhat hidden) history of Christianity, but also Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South, Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, and Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of the Eighties.
Gordon Laird: The Price of a Bargain: The Quest for Cheap and the Death of Globalization (2009, Palgrave Macmillan): We're supposed to be thankful that globalization makes it possible for jerkwad companies like WalMart to keep their margins up while selling junk for less. Helps make up for the fact that working people in America are making less then they have in 30-40 years. Several people have written this up lately, so I'm not sure what distinguishes this account, other than that the title suggests it cannot continue indefinitely.
Jaron Lanier: You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (2010, Knopf): Computer scientist, developed some early version of virtual reality, disparages "Web 2.0" information aggregation (e.g., Wikipedia, Amazon.com) for undervaluing individuals and creating a hive mentality. Not sure how I feel about this.
Steven Lomazow/Eric Fettmann: FDR's Deadly Secret (2010, Public Affairs): Medical sleuthing, argues that Roosevelt suffered from an undiagnosed metastatic skin cancer (melanoma) that spread to his brain and killed him.
Diarmaid MacCulloch: Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (2010, Viking): Huge (1184 pp), sweeping history, most notably tries to extend the history of Christianity back 1000 years before Jesus. Author previously specialized in The Reformation, especially in England where he has books on Edward VI and Thomas Cranmer, as well as something more general on the Tudors.
Shane J Maddock: Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Nuclear Supremacy From World War II to the Present (2010, University of North Carolina Press): Title phrase came from an Indian diplomat, offering a rare glimpse of how US policy looks to an outsider. There is much truth to it, and still is as the US scolds other countries for attempting to acquire nukes while refusing to relinquish its own useless stockpiles.
Micheline Maynard: The Selling of the American Economy: How Foreign Companies Are Remaking the American Dream (2009, Broadway Business): Foreign-owned companies located in the US were something of a scandal in the 1980s when a buying spree was fueled by the growing US trade gap. You didn't hear much about them in the following two decades, but they amount to a bigger slice of the American pie than ever before. This focuses on Tata, Haier, Airbus, and Toyota, and doesn't look to be negative about the changes. One of the ironies is that foreign companies, accustomed to markets with higher wages and much stronger safety nets, often turn out to be more generous employers than American companies, and they don't seem to be at a competitive disadvantage for doing so.
Bill McKibben: Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010, Times Books): I don't much care for McKibben's imagery in trying to peddle his global warming alerts. That was the weakest part of his early -- pathbreaking, really -- book on the subject, The End of Nature, and his pitch here is that the planet we've changed is so far removed from the one we inherited that it shouldn't even be called Earth anymore. On the other hand, as he gets more successful, he seems to be getting more upbeat.
Louis Menand: The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (2010, WW Norton): Short (176 pp) book on the state of the university, including a chapter on "Why Do Professors All Think Alike?"
Bill Minutaglio/W Michael Smith: Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life (2009, Public Affairs): A biography of the late, much missed columnist. Evidently also a Broadway play, and no doubt a movie some day. All the better to keep recycling some marvelous quotes, and a spirit that was more than America, let alone Texas, deserved.
Mwenda Ntarangwi: East African Hip Hop: Youth Culture and Globalization (paperback, 2009, University of Illinois Press): Short book (176 pp), but breaks some ground -- the African hip-hop I'm familiar with comes from West and South Africa, but I expect we'll find hip-hop in every corner of the world. In fact, one of the better comps I've come across leads off with something from Greenland.
Geoffrey Nunberg: The Years of Talking Dangerously (2009, Public Affairs): After a couple of books along the lines of The Way We Talk Now, Nunberg took a look at how right-wingers twist English to suit their purposes in Talking Right. This one looks like a scattered collection of essays; hard to tell how relevant or interesting.
Adi Ophir/Michal Givoni/Sari Hanafi, eds: The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Territories (2009, Zone Books): Big (650 pp) book, drawing on 19 contributors, looks at all aspects of Israel's occupation system.
Jurgen Osterhammel/Niels P Petersson: Globalization: A Short History (paperback, 2009, Princeton University Press): German historians, start in prehistory, find a "golden age" in the 1970s (of all times), all in less than 200 pp.
Benjamin I Page/Lawrence R Jacobs: Class War?: What Americans Really Think About Economic Inequality (paperback, 2009, University of Chicago Press): Short book (160 pp), does some polling and finds mass support for "conservative egalitarianism" -- i.e., some inequality is merited but more equality is better.
Fred Pearce: The Coming Population Crash: And Our Planet's Surprising Future (2010, Beacon Press): Science writer, has written some fairly inflammatory things on global warming (e.g., The Last Generation: How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change) and an alarmist book on water shortages (When the Rivers Run Dry: Water -- The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century), so his relatively moderate take on population growth, which he sees ending but not really crashing, is a bit of a surprise.
Henry Pollack: A World Without Ice (2009, Avery): Geophysicist, evidently an expert in paleoclimatology, writes about global warming. Pollack is described as "a co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize" with his foreword-writer Al Gore, but most likely that just means that he contributed to the IPCC reports. Pollack previously wrote Uncertain Science . . . Uncertain World, which doesn't seem like a book committed to pushing an agenda.
David Remnick: The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (2010, Knopf): New Yorker editor, his frequent pieces on Israel make me cringe, although on most other subjects he seems to be a reasonable liberal, a good writer, a dilligent researcher. Big (672 pp) biography, very likely the best general background book available on Obama. Previously wrote King of the World, about Muhammad Ali, which must now seem like useful practice.
Elizabeth D Samet: Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (2007, Farrar Straus and Giroux): Tom Engelhardt put this high up on a recommended book list a couple of years ago, which is the only reason I was ever tempted by it. Well, also have a fondness for meta-lit, ever since I discovered how much more fun it was to read Leslie Fiedler than the books he wrote about. My least interest is in the military mind, which is less interesting than no mind at all.
Ron Schalow: Bullshit Artist: The 9/11 Leadership Myth (paperback, 2006, Book Surge): Focuses on the day Bush met history, Sept. 11, 2001 -- a mixture of reporting and screed. I can't fault Bush for not knowing what to do, let alone not doing it, as the day unfolded. His real crimes came later, fully dressed up in leadership myth as he delivered us into blind, stupid war.
Simon Schama: The American Future: A History (2009, Harper Collins): Viewed through the prism of the 2008 presidential election, or maybe just a book on the election as a springboard to an excursus on American history.
Nancy Sherman: The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of Our Soldiers (2010, WW Norton): Philosopher, ethicist, psychoanalyst investigates psychological and moral burdens of soldiers, mostly US in Iraq and Afghanistan but some others. Previously wrote Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind, which seems to have been more stuck on the philosophy side -- Sherman taught ethics at the US Naval Academy. I'm dubious about the analytical framework, but the case histories no doubt reveal the damage caused by experience of war to minds that were none too healthy in the first place.
Michael Specter: Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives (2009, Penguin Press): Examines the revolt against science, or "progress" as he generalizes it, especially for reasons of political ideology which he blames on the left as well as the right. Amazon reviews are evenly scattered, not diametrically opposed.
Kristin Swenson: Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time (2010, Harper): I read Karen Armstrong's The Bible: A Biography, which helped with the broad historical view but wound up about half as long as this one, which seems to go more into interpretation of specific texts.
Roger Thurow/Scott Kilman: Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty (2009, Public Affairs): Famines in Africa, agricultural policy in the US and Europe, politics and business everywhere.
Jason Vuic: The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History (2010, Hill and Wang): Released in 1985 at $3990, at the time the cheapest car on the American market, barely under the newly released Hyundai. The only car from a Communist country ever released in the US. (I think; I knew someone who owned a Skoda, but I'm not sure how he got it.) Good idea, but not good enough a car to survive a hostile market, which liked to joke how overpriced it still was.
Chris Wickham: The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000 (2009, Viking): One of several recent books arguing that the Dark Ages weren't so dark. Previously wrote Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800.
Barton Gellman: Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency (2008; paperback, 2009, Penguin): Standard biography, at least for the eight years when Cheney was the worst vice-president in history. Does a good job of showing how Cheney was able to grab power early in the Bush regime. Also suggests that he lost his grip after the downfall of Scooter Libby, although it was also true that he was losing his grip on staffing more generally, and that he suffered some degradation due to what you might call job performance. I read this, but haven't typed my notes up yet. [book page]
William Greider: Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country (2009; paperback, 2010. Rodale): Having written pathbreaking books on the major political issues of our age -- Secrets of the Temple on the Fed and the financial system, One World, Ready of Not on globalization, and Fortress America on the imperial military-industrial complex -- he's settled into a mode of gently reminding us that democracy is still here for the taking. [book page]
Thursday, April 22. 2010
Gabriel Winant: You don't know Orwellian until you know Frank Luntz: Luntz's specialty is creating those annoying catchphrases that do so much to obscure and confuse real issues, like "death tax" to characterize estate taxes -- which if seriously implemented and seriously progressive would help limit the concentration of wealth in inherited aristocracies, as well as raise significant taxes in a way that creates no drag on the economy. (Estate taxes are almost unique in that even a 100% tax would have no behavioral effect -- people are no more or less likely to die regardless of the tax rate. Moreover, they would be especially effective in stimulating the economy, as they would force the liquidation of pent-up assets.) Luntz provided much of the noise on the health care and finance reform debates, but he's not just a reactionary strategist and ideologue, like Grover Norquist and William Kristol. The deeper problem is that what he does is profoundly destructive of communication, and as such of reason. He reduces words to tools for manipulation, to weapons for hidden purposes. As such, he seeks to undermine communication, and ultimately reason. He harkens a new dark age, where we parry slogans like brand names, unable to understand what's going and unable to reason our way back to reality. Tastes great! Less filling! All other alternatives excluded.
Needless to say, there's nothing terribly original about Luntz. The advertising trade broke the ground he treads on, an arena of deceitfulness that largely succeeded because so little of import actually dependend on it. I still believe that the single thing that did the most damage to American political discourse -- that, increasingly, is making discourse impossible -- was advertising-supported television.
Matthew Yglesias: Higher Taxes: The Solution to Obscene Wall Street Profits: One thing people that hardly ever comes up in griping about the obscene growth in executive pay is the growth has taken place in the context of significantly lowering tax rates on that same pay. The same trend applies to the entire finance industry, which represents a little less than 20% of the economy but typically captures more like 40% of all corporate profits -- and that's generally after the obscene salaries and bonuses and the like have been taken out.
Perhaps the best way to look at this is to turn the equation around. It is often said that raising marginal tax rates on the rich would be counterproductive because it would reduce their incentive to invest and make more money, which is supposedly crucial for driving the economy. This never made much sense to me. Maybe a worker would cut back on extra hours if taxed at an exorbitant rate -- for argument's purposes, the workers in this example usually turn out to be brain surgeons -- but people who make their money off their money have little time and leisure to gain by not working their money, even if the real return is very much diminished by taxes. What high taxes would do to them is to shift their focus from short-term gains to long-term accumulation -- it's hard to see that as a negative in an economy where there is way too much short-term focus. What is diminished in a high marginal tax world is the value of higher salaries -- the bigger the tax cut, the less they're worth seeking, and the less they're worth paying out.
Of course, that's just hypothetical thinking. There's a real world test case we can consult: in the 1940s and 1950s top income tax rates in the US climbed to 90%; during those same years the economy grew at rates never equalled before or since. The finance industry was much more regulated then, but managed to thrive while extracting far less toll from the economy. The more equitable economy translated into a dominant middle class. Moreover, there are other examples, especially in Europe. And there are counterexamples, especially in kleptocracies where government honchos like Suharto and Mobutu were able to suck up multi-billion-dollar fortunes tax free.
So I think the conclusion has to be that higher marginal taxes on the rich is a win-win proposition: more tax revenue, which can be redistributed downward to counter all the ways the rich get richer; but also more cautious, longer-term, less larcenous behavior from the rich.
Monday, April 19. 2010
Not much below, especially for two weeks. Allergies are hurting bad, and various other things distract me away from the computer. Spent a lot of time on Rhapsody, so actually my rated count is pretty high for the week, crossing 16600. Mail picked up a bit too, after lagging for a couple of weeks, so unrated count edged up over 800 again. Still in good shape for an early Jazz CG.
Should have a couple of corrections on previous notes, but don't have them written up yet. Unpacking is also incomplete.
Gabriel Johnson: Fra_ctured (2009 , Electrofone): After Robert Christgau A-listed this, citing Jon Hassell and Nils Petter Molvaer (and Miles Davis) as antecedents, and Chris Monsen added it to his 2010-in-progress list I had high expectations here, but never could quite hear whatever it was that I expected -- beats, I think. Rather, what I'm hearing (after way too many plays) is soundtrack electronica, closer to Morricone than to Miles, darker but with grandiose gestures. Don't get much out of his PR bios, which are as oblique and opaque as his music. Seems to have played everything here, or at least sampled it, but the trumpet is authentic. B+(***)
Satoko Fujii Ma-Do: Desert Ship (2009 , Not Two): Japanese quartet, with Fujii on piano, Natsuki Tamura on trumpet, Norikatsu Koreyasu on bass, and Akira Horikoshi on drums. Played this five times in a row and don't have a lot to say about it. Seems to work in bits without taking shape as a whole. Tamura as many strong spots, and the bass is a powerful presence. Fujii, too, when she feels like it, which isn't all that often. B+(**)
Gato Libre: Shiro (2009 , Libra): Trumpet player Natsuki Tamura's group, with wife Satoko Fujii taking a back seat on accordion, Kazuhiko Tsumura on guitar, and Norikatsu Koreyasu on bass. At its best (cf. Nomad) this group could channel a Euro folk vibe, largely aided by the accordion; here it tends to flounder, with the guitar lyrical, the accordion in the background, the trumpet neither here nor there. Second album in a role I found myself focusing on Koreyasu. B+(*)
Satoko Fujii Orchestra Tokyo: Zakopane (2009 , Libra): Conventionally-sized big band: 5 reeds, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones (no bass trombone), guitar, bass, drums, no piano -- Fujii composed and conducts, but does not play. B+(***)
Jason Adasiewicz's Rolldown: Varmint (2008 , Cuneiform): Vibraphonist, based in Chicago, the guy everyone else in Chicago goes to when they want a splash of vibes. Second album; the group now named after their first album. In Josh Berman (cornet) and Aram Shelton (alto sax, clarinet) he has two first-rate horn options, each contributing remarkable solos here. In Jason Roebke (bass) and Frank Rosaly (drums) he has a flexible rhythm section. All four are well known from numerous Chicago groups. Loose freebop, lots of space for the vibes to open up. B+(***)
Mose Allison: The Way of the World (2009 , Anti-): Pianist-singer, b. 1927, first albums date back to mid-1950s; first album since 2000. Joe Henry produced, presumably came up with the idea. Songs are uneven, but "My Brain" is a cool little cluster of perpetual inquisitiveness, "Modest Proposal" is the best one I've heard in quite some while; he's also the only jazz singer perfectly at home covering Loudon Wainwright III. B+(***)
The Wee Trio: Capitol Diner Vol. 2: Animal Style (2010, Bionic): James Westfall (vibes), Dan Loomis (bass), Jared Schonig (drums). Second album, following Capitol Diner Vol. 1, recorded in 2007. No recording date offered here, but their MySpace page says this was recorded "shortly after" the first volume. I found the first volume quite engaging, but this one sailed past me without evoking much interest. B
Alan Ferber: Music for Nonet and Strings/Chamber Songs (2009 , Sunnyside): Trombonist, b. 1975, based in Brooklyn, third album including a previous nonet on Fresh Sound I was impressed with, plus quite a bit of side work -- John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble stands out. I recognize about half of the strings, conducted by J.C. Sanford, from previous jazz work. The nonet has a wide pallette of sounds, notably including Scott Wendholt on trumpet, John Ellis on tenor sax, and Nate Radley on guitar. Takes some concentration to get past the third stream thing, but lots of rewarding details. B+(*)
Frank Glover: Abacus (2009 , Owl Studios): Plays clarinet and soprano sax. Based in Indianapolis. Has a half-dozen or so albums since 1991. This one is for quartet plus orchestra, the latter conducted by Dean Franke -- credits only list names, nineteen of them. The orchestra tends to overwhelm the clarinet, and early on this reminded me of the classical music I used to zero the volume on during my "required listening." Gets better toward the end, mostly because the rhythm picks up. B- [May 11]
Bob Greene: St. Peter Street Strutters (1964 , Delmark): Pianist, b. 1922, later organized a group called World of Jelly Roll Morton -- they have a record recorded in 1982, released by GHB in 1994; as far as I know Greene's only other record. Group here is a very trad jazz quartet, with Ernie Carson on cornet, Shorty Johnson on tuba, and Steve Larner on banjo. Carson, 27 at the time, is by far the best known. So old-fashioned swing would be showing off. Still, I've been enjoying this a lot, especially driving around where I'm not obligated to figure things out. B+(***)
No final grades/notes this week on records put back for further listening the first time around.
Unpacking: Found in the mail the last two weeks (give or take a couple of days):
Sunday, April 18. 2010
Movie: The Ghost Writer: Film by Roman Polanski, about a deposed British Prime Minister with a long history of servitude to and seconding of the United States, including roles in American wars in the Middle East and possible war crimes, and a ghost writer picked to help out with the PM's memoirs. Ewan McGregor plays the writer; Pierce Brosnan the PM. McGregor replaced a previous writer who had somewhat mysteriously perished from a ferry, and who had left evidence that compromised Brosnan's background story. The plot machinations aren't that important, although the CIA will be flattered both to find out that they were able to manipulate a foreign government over decades and that they were so effective at killing people who might blow the story open. Brosnan's crimes seem unlikely to provoke either the ICC or the sudden mass of protestors -- Tony Blair never did, nor does George Bush appear to have much to worry about even though he did far worse -- but I suppose Polanski is free to dream of a better world. One thing he does enjoy here is the notion that the PM/war criminal should be forced to take refuge in the United States, the country that currently regards Polanski as a famous fugitive from justice. Some justice. A-
Saturday, April 17. 2010
Movie: Green Zone: Not often that I've read the book a movie is putatively based on, but I did make it through Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone. You might as well read the quotes since you won't get any of the information much less the flavor from Paul Greengrass's movie, which abbreviates a good deal more than the title, and makes up so much stuff you wonder why they didn't go all the way and make up new names for Baghdad and Iraq -- the answer there was probably that the scenarios of mass destruction were too tempting. The background scenes and the thick swell of anonymous people are the most noteworthy parts of the movie. Matt Damon is determined to get to the bottom of the WMD nonsense, but his aperçu that General Al-Rawi is informant "Magellan" is based on nothing more than the concidence of Al-Rawi travelling to Jordan at the same time as Greg Kinnear's character -- didn't Jordan in due course turn out to be where anyone met everyone? Searching for someone in the US government to be less stupid than Kinnear, Greengrass appoints the CIA chief, played by Brendan Gleeson, a role I see "loosely based on Jay Garner" (i.e., not on anyone actually in the CIA). The cat-and-mouse game between Damon and Al-Rawi provides a few chase sequences, where the US forces, riding humvees and helicopters, are so burdened down with armor and gear they resemble nothing more than clunky reptillian alien invaders -- a half-movie idea given that they couldn't bother to characterize any of the victims of the invasion, except for a translator named "Freddy," who manages to get off the one true line of the story, telling Damon that it's not America's right to decide what happens in his country. B
Movie: Crazy Heart: Jeff Bridges is bad enough as Bad Blake in a country music-alcohol-rehab rehab film that doesn't get too cute or clever yet which still manages some uplift. B+
Movie: Shutter Island: Martin Scorsese film, based on Dennis Lehane novel, with Leonardo DiCaprio a marshall supposed to be investigating curious events at a Massachusetts Bay jail for the criminally insane before he and the film fall off the deep end. Flashbacks to the dead at Dachau and elsewhere unhinge any sense of reality, as does an improbably providential storm. C+
Movie: The Messenger: An injured Iraq War veteran assigned to the Army's Casualty Notification service (Ben Foster), partnered with a frustrated Captain who got no more than a cup of coffee in the first Iraq War. They serve notice on a half dozen next-of-kins, with a range of reactions, a fair cross section of the recruit class -- no doubt more poignant for focusing on the families as opposed to the soldiers. Samantha Morton has a strong part as one of the bereaved -- her stoicism attracts Foster, but I was more impressed the one time she lost it, chasing off a pair of Army recruiters at a local mall. As for Woody Harrelson, who got the raves including an Oscar nomination, he reminds me of why is revered for its discipline but deep down is simply fucked up. A-
Friday, April 16. 2010
Robert Christgau: Charlie Gillett, 1942-2010: Thought I'd point this out since it adds something to the little I had to say about the late British rock critic/DJ Charlie Gillett. I'll add that his book, The Sound of the City, loomed large for us in the first issue of Terminal Zone: Paul Yamada featured it in a piece, and I read the book to make sure Yamada wasn't pulling anything on me. Learned a lot, including my first acquaintance with Louis Jordan. I never tracked down those comps Christgau featured in his consumer guides, although by this point I imagine there's little from Memphis or New Orleans that I don't have in some form. That first issue of Terminal Zone was the point when I turned from writing up my subjective tastes to putting the music I wrote about into some form of historical framework.
Thursday, April 15. 2010
David Miliband: How to End the War in Afghanistan: I posted my schematic for ending the war in Afghanistan on Monday. The April 29 issue of The New York Review of Books arrived the next day, with a sketch of Hamid Karzai on the cover and a big banner for Miliband's title. Figured I should read it, albeit with some nervousness, like the expert author was checking my work. False alarm, as it turns out. Miliband's a the UK's foreign secretary -- remember when NYRB used to feature real critics instead of schmoozy insiders like Miliband and Peter Galbraith? Miliband does agree on the need to decentralize Afghanistan's government, and on the need for an international agreement to eliminate the outsiders' tug-of-war that has torn Afghanistan apart, although in neither case does he take the point as far to heart as I did. On the other hand, he misses the simplest, most straightforward point: the first (and most important) step to ending the war is to stop the shooting. He acknowledges that Afghans don't like foreign troops, but then he praises those troops and promises to keep them there -- as far as I can tell, forever:
As should be clear by now, it doesn't matter what General McChrystal says. What matters is what his troops do, and they mostly do what they were trained to do: kill people. That's their nature, and the failure of people like Miliband -- all politicians in the US and UK seem to feel duty-bound to pay obeisance to the troops, a trap which prevents them from comprehending what their policies really mean.
There is no military solution to Afghanistan. Thee is only a political solution, and that political solution requires that everyone voluntarily put their guns away. That necessarily means that we have to leave. It also means that Afghans have to learn to treat each other better: they need to develop a more civil and a more equitable society. I don't know how they do that, but it's clear that we aren't the solution -- in fact, we aren't all that good at it ourselves. If we were, our reaction to reading Miliband's boast that now 80% of Aghans have access to health care wouldn't be: wish that were true here.
Tony Judt: Ill Fares the Land: Better reading in the April 29 NYRB, an excerpt from Judt's short book on how decent societies were built in Europe and America before the right started tearing them apart. This was a world that Afghans might indeed have envied and aspired to, but especially in America it has started to crumble. (See especially this photo, which reminds us that neglect can ultimately take the sort of toll that bombs render instantaneously.)
Tuesday, April 13. 2010
Matthew Yglesias: Casualty-Minimization in Theory and in Practice: For all the Generals talking about how we need to stop killing civilians in Afghanistan, about how such incidents only redound to fand resistance to the occupation, the reality is pretty much same as it ever was. For example:
This is pretty much the nature of the US military. For that matter, it's pretty much the temper of the American people: shoot first and ask questions later. After all, we presume the right to self-defense, even on the far side of the world. If you want to change that policy, you have to start prosecuting every soldier who kills unnecessarily, regardless of inevitably limited information. Do that and you'll get revolts both in the ranks and among the war supporters back home. Don't do that and you'll keep taking a step or two backwards for every step forward, creating a hopeless situation in Afghanistan. Actually, that's what we've been doing all along, so the right word is perpetuating rather than creating.
Stephen Walt: On that viral video from Baghdad: The video -- I've only seen the short version -- shows a US helicopter crew shooting up a group of people in a Baghdad suburb, killing a dozen civilians including two Reuters journalists: evidently their cameras were misidentified as weapons. Note that the helicopter crew was not at any risk. They were just out looking for something to shoot. It's what they signed up to do. It's what they do. And by making more and more enemies, it's what you call job security. [Glenn Greenwald has more on this here and here. Also: Tom Engelhardt.]
Someone asked me a while back what we should be doing in Afghanistan. I didn't have a real coherent answer in store, but thought I'd try to sketch out one here:
I could throw in more nice-to-see details, such as that groups of provinces could agree on things like customs unions, but that starts to get presumptuous. Indeed, if a province prefers to have its government selected by loya jirga as opposed to elections, that may still be a reasonable concession. One would like to have a court system whereby someone unfairly convicted in provincial court could be freed on appeal. One would like to have a central power that could prosecute corruption. But the critical thing right now is to establish more-or-less popular order, even if it isn't ideal, to get the foreign troops out of the country, and to provide a fair and orderly system for redevelopment. The scheme here attempts to do exactly that: little more but no less.
The federal system I propose here is much looser than the United States ever was, even under the Articles of Confederation. Provinces can, for instance, levy tariffs. Although free trade dogma decries such things, they are for starters the easiest way of establishing a simple tax system, which any government needs. They also correspond to the current system of shakedown bribes on trucking, which they would quickly supplant. The main thing the provinces would not be able to do is to conduct foreign policy beyond Afghanistan.
One more thing not mentioned here is the drug trade. I believe that Afghans would be best off to simply legalize the drug trade, to legitimize it within the country then let the drugs slip into unregulated black boxes for export, at which point they become somebody else's problem. One of the key things to resolve is the sense that outside countries are imposing their ways upon Afghans, and any outside focus on the drug trade simply adds to that. In particular, Afghanistan has so little opportunity for earning export dollars that it seems unfair to strip them of any one.
As for Al Qaeda, keep your warrants warm but otherwise don't sweat it. Ending the war and the occupation will leave them with little if any relevance let alone legitimacy, and in the end that matters far more than revenge. Stop the killing first. End the squandering of wealth and the enrichment of crooks. Clear up the perception that outsiders are going to tell Afghans how to live or how to run their affairs. Take the first steps unilaterally, and slow down or back up only to stave off a collapse into chaos, and only temporarily at that. Realize you aren't wanted, you're not needed, and in the end you're not going to wind up doing anything useful or worthwhile. Be aware that no matter what anyone says, the only thing the US military is truly good at is target practice.
Monday, April 12. 2010
With Jazz Consumer Guide finally in the Village Voice this week, I found myself distracted. Played a few new jazz releases, but had trouble writing even cursory notes on them -- some stuck in rotation 5-6 times without inspiring me -- so wound up short of my minimum. Of course, there were other distractions that made it hard to focus: repainting a couple of rooms, building some (badly needed) CD shelves. Also got slammed by the tree pollen. Should have something next week. But with another publication date a couple of months off, this is a good time to get something else done.
Laura Tillem letter in the Wichita Eagle today, titled "Many Opposed":
The notion that the Iraq War was a bipartisan effort obfuscates reality. The decision to go to war was made in the White House, by George W. Bush and a few critical advisers. Once they decided for war, they orchestrated a campaign to line up support, including that of Democrats in Congress. They carefully selected which intelligence findings to popularize, including pure fabrications, and roled them out in a tightly orchestrated propaganda blitz, discarding anything that didn't fit their schemes -- up to and including Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki. They even went so far as to invent a new doctrine of preëmptive war to take out their imaginary WMD threats. (In fact, the whole WMD coinage was concocted to conflate chemical weapons, which Iraq had previously used, with biological and nuclear weapons.) Lots of people were snowed by this blitz, including most of the media -- Judith Miller, of the so-called liberal New York Times, was their most effective mouthpiece. Then they twisted arms on Congress, passed a weakly worded resolution, and got the UN to go with an even weaker resolution, at which point they declared their war authorized.
This has all been well documented for so long it's shameful or just plain ignorant to argue otherwise: see especially Greg Mitchell's So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq. The war where Democrats are more culpable is Afghanistan. Only Barbara Lee voted against the post-9/11 resolution that gave Bush carte blanche to launch his Global War on Terrorism. That vote tore Afghanistan to shreds, destabilized Pakistan, set up the war in Iraq, left the neocons licking their chops in their quest for Tehran, set off proxy wars from Lebanon to Somalia, made the Israel-Palestine conflict all that more intractable, breathed new life into moribund Islamist movements; and wasted a decade, thousands of American lives and trillions of American dollars in a selfish, fruitless, and ultimately self-defeating fit of vengeance. You can blame the Democrats for not opposing that, at least not soon enough; even so, Lee is a Democrat, and the one person who could have put a halt to this madness, president Bush, was not.
PS: Someone called today arguing that Laura had misrepresented the "Hypocritical outrage" letter: that the point was that everyone believed that Iraq had WMD, not that both parties were equally guilty of voting for the war. The only way one could believe that everyone believed that was to burrow inside a cocoon where Bush's propaganda machine ruled supreme. Congress was especially susceptible to such manipulation because Bush's operatives could take Senators and Representatives into closed rooms and show them classified "intelligence" selected to fit their story line. The shroud of secrecy worked especially well for Bush's purposes, as so many people foolishly assumed that he wouldn't be so convinced of the need for action unless he knew something we didn't.
Still, there was plenty of reason at the time to think otherwise. Scott Ritter was travelling around the country pointing out that he had seen the inspections work to root out Iraq's clandestine weapons programs. And much of the stovepiped evidence didn't withstand scrutiny: recall the famous aluminum tubes, and the forged documents about Iraq trying to buy uranium in Niger. Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence was Bush's eagerness to shut down the renewed UN inspections operation, which would have found anything real in short order. The war could easily have been avoided had Bush let the inspections proceed, which is why he moved so fast to shut them down.
Of course, there were people who bought the story that Iraq had WMD -- chemical weapons were the low bar there -- but still opposed going to war over them. But for most such people the WMD issue was irrelevant: the war was a bad idea in the first place, Iraq was never a threat to the US, and the way to deal with Iraqi WMD was inspections. Still, no one outside of the Bush administration had any evidence that Iraq possessed WMDs. To say that everyone knew puts an awfully low bar on knowledge: only the CIA had sources and resources to investigate the matter, and they were committed to supporting Bush. The only way anyone else could "know" that Iraq had WMD was by crediting what Bush was saying. That turned out to be a gross mistake, but it wasn't a case of spontaneous mass hysteria: it was consciously orchestrated by people who knew better.
We should draw some lessons from this episode. For one thing, the CIA is intrinsically compromised in at least two ways, which make it undependable and dangerous. The first is that it operates under a shroud of secrecy where its findings are not subject to outside review. Lack of outside review invites this sort of scam. Second is that the CIA reports to the president, which automatically lines it up under a political agenda. That's less obvious when wars are less controversial, but one thing that Bush has done was to show us how war can be a tool for the advancement of the president's party over democracy. Today, support for war and opposition to war has become largely partisan, even if many Democrats in Washington haven't gotten the message yet.
Sunday, April 11. 2010
Reading Richard Heinberg's Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis (paperback, 2009, New Society) is quite the bummer. Heinberg has written a number of gloomy books about a near future where oil production has peaked and is in permanent decline (e.g., The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies and Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines). His most profound insight has been the upslope correlation between energy use and population, with the implication that once energy use peaks -- we draw so much energy from petroleum that the two are close to inextricably linked -- population too will be forced into decline. In previous books he has been similarly pessimistic about coal and nuclear. Here he addresses coal in much more details, and comes up with a triple whammy: peak oil is imminent (if it hasn't already peaked) with a fairly steep decline over the next 30-40 years; estimates of hundreds of years worth of coal reserves are shriveling as declining quality and increasing extraction and transportation costs marginalize coal fields; plus any coal that we do manage to burn just adds to a near apocalyptic climate problem. In short, he has combined three worst case scenarios into a massive economic decline in short order -- well within the expected lifetimes of today's youngsters.
Heinberg posits three hypothetical scenarios: a "do nothing" which actually allows for a lot of wind, solar, and nuclear, with disastrous results; a major "clean coal" push, which does little better (it does slow down coal depletion a bit); and a presumably recommended solution that involves a lot of government-managed rationing -- in some ways that's even more of a bummer than the "do nothing" trainwreck. I'm sympathetic to each of the arguments, and the long thrust of my thinking is to come up with ways not so much to solve these problem as to live within resource limits, but I always figured we have more time to work it all out. For instance, the way the world works now means that post-peak oil scarcity will be rationed through higher prices which will in turn reduce demand, first by wringing most of the unnecessary consumption out of the system, then eventually by imposing all sorts of hardships. This will mean that the world 30 years after peak will be much different than now, and it probably means that the economy will be somewhat smaller. There are things we can do about it to make the transition less painful, and most likely we will not do many of them, but even so it won't be for lack of understanding or ideas -- it's more because so many people only learn things the hard way.
Climate change is trickier for lots of reasons: it's less clear what's happening, and it's less clear how hard it will be to adapt to whatever does happen, but most of all because some climate change functions are catastrophic -- minor changes can push past thresholds where the results radically change. My impression is that thus far we've been pretty lucky that greenhouse gas warming hasn't disrupted the climate more than it has, but that happens sometimes when you're gambling, and there's no guarantee that luck won't change. (In fact, if luck is the right word, it will change.)
Paul Krugman: Building a Green Economy: Straightforward survey of most of the serious thinking on the economics of doing something about anthropogenic climate change. Sure, that means he ignores the people who deny that there's a problem or who deny that there is a solution, which leaves several arguments: command or market (cap-and-trade) approaches to limiting greenhouse gases, differences in urgency (gradual ramping or "big bang"; I would have named the latter "shock treatment," drawing an analogy to the forced privatization that wrecked post-Soviet Russia). One thing of note viz. Heinberg above is that Krugman cites various studies concluding that the costs of doing nothing, resulting in a global temperature rise of up to 9 degrees F, are on the order of 5% of GDP, while the costs of limiting emissions is more like 2% of GDP. Both of these numbers seem small, not things that would radically alter our way of life -- pace Heinberg. They are, however, far from certain. One key paragraph:
Andrew Leonard: Paging Paul Krugman: More apocalypse, please: A brief comment on the above piece, mostly dealing with the issue of whether Krugman was forceful enough in describing the dire consequences of unchecked global warming. More relevant to my concerns viz. Heinberg:
Krugman's stock-in-trade is explaining things with simple models. His models can be simple because they assume everything else remains essentially the same. That works all right most of the time, but almost by its very nature doesn't work so well here. In fact, we don't know what works. And the problem isn't doubting the science. It's our ability to understand what it all means. I suspect Krugman understands this well enough: that's why he cites Weitzman. Think of it as a hedge against a really bad possible scenario -- the sort of thing the banking industry didn't do because their models didn't admit the possibility of risk on the level that actually occurred, let alone factor in the cascading failures that ensued. Moreover, the sort of risk we are running on the climate isn't something we can easily fix just by inventing more liquidity. It impacts things like whether land is above or below sea level, whether we can grow food on it and what kind of food, whether we will have adequate water where we want it, at the same time as the fossil fuel energy we have depended on is certain to go into decline.
Saturday, April 10. 2010
More book notes, probably the first of two quick sets. Last one was the Banking Books survey on March 24, at which point I looked up a lot of things I couldn't (or didn't need to) use at the moment. Before that I did one on February 25. Only rule here is that I cut off at 40 books, anything that interests me and/or I have something to say about.
George A Akerlof/Rachel E Kranton: Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages, and Well-Being (2010, Princeton University Press): Sounds like another of those shaggy dog stories Akerlof theorized about in Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism. No doubt that there is something to the idea, but the analogous Identity Politics has a nasty reputation, mostly as a refuge for racism and bigotry.
Richard Ames: Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan's Workplaces to Clinton's Columbine and Beyond (paperback, 2005, Soft Skull Press): A history of random massacres in the American workplace, symptomatic of something more than the occasional loose hinge. A bit dated, especially at the post-2009 pace, which doesn't make it any less relevant.
Bernard Avishai: The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise Will Bring Israel to Peace at Last (2008, Houghton Mifflin): I recently picked up Avishai's 1985 The Tragedy of Zionism: Revolution and Democracy in the Land of Israel (reissued in 2002 with a new subtitle, How Its Revolutionary Past Haunts Israeli Democracy) because it seemed to have a sense of how Ben-Gurion's ostensibly pragmatic tactics locked Israel into an untenable prison of myths. Looks like he has a critical analysis of Israel's internal divisions and how they prolong the conflict, and a fanciful solution that thinks Israel can correct itself and become a normal nation.
John Avlon: Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America (paperback, 2010, Beast Books): Cover shows Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Keith Olbermann in the best plague-on-both-your-houses style. Still, for all the author's deliberate centrism -- his previous book was called Independent Nation: How Centism Can Change American Politics -- an Amazon reviewer slams the book as "leftist trash; he's just another socialist who hates the constitution, distorts the truth, and fawns over progressive elitists." After all, you're only right if you're right.
Edwin Black: War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race (2008, Dialog Press): A history of the eugeneics movement in the US, starting in the early 20th century, successful enough to forcibly sterilize some 60,000 Americans, and ultimately tarnished by association with an analogous movement in Nazi Germany.
Edwin Black: Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000 Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict (2004; updated ed, 2008, Dialog Press): Mostly recent, of course -- just 42 pp for the first 6,500 years -- as the imperial and corporate plots thicken. Black has mostly written on topics more/less related to Nazi Germany, including his detailing of deals between the Nazis and the Zionists which permitted a number of German Jews to escape to Palestine in the early 1930s: The Transfer Agreement: The Dramatic Story of the Pact Between the Third Reich and Jewish Palestine. He also has a forthcoming book called The Farhud: The Arab-Nazi Alliance in the Holocaust, which tries to link the Nazis to the 1941 anti-British riots in Baghdad via the Mufti of Jerusalem.
Edwin Black: Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives (2008, Dialog Press): More muckraking on the political influence of auto and oil corporations, some of which is well known and justified, although they really didn't have to twist arms very hard to sell oil power. Also wrote: The Plan: How to Rescue Society the Day After the Oil Stops -- or the Day Before.
Edwin Black: Nazi Nexus: America's Corporate Connection to Hitler's Holocaust (paperback, 2009, Dialog Press): Previously wrote the more detailed IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation. This is a short (192 pp) summary.
Mark Braverman: Fatal Embrace: Christians, Jews, and the Search for Peace in the Holy Land (paperback, 2010, Synergy Books): American Jew, seems to be sincerely committed to peaceful resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict, but sees the main problem being the inability of American Jews and Christians to have a meaningful dialogue that gets past myriad preconceptions -- like the long history of anti-semitism up to and including the Holocaust -- and approaches the real issues. Heartfelt, so they say.
Joel Chasnoff: The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid From Chicago Fights Hezbollah -- A Memoir (2010, Free Press): A 24-year-old American, Ivy League grad, failed stand up comic, joins the IDF, a tank brigade full of 18-year-old draftees, just in time to invade Lebanon. Maybe he'll go back to stand up now that he's got some fresh material. Probably won't go back to Lebanon again.
Ted Conover: The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today (2010, Knopf): A book on scattered travels around the world, focusing on roads and what they mean to people. Peru; Lagos; the West Bank, with apartheid roads for Jewish settlers and checkpoints for Palestinians. Conover previously wrote Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders With America's Illegal Migrants and Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails With America's Hoboes.
John D'Agata: About a Mountain (2010, WW Norton): About Yucca Mountain, Nevada, for many years the controversial planned burial site for all the nuclear waste the country can generate. (Obama finally ordered the project shelved and a new study to be done from scratch -- something Harry Reid can remind his angry voters of in the coming election.) A lot of threads come together here, like how can you run a nuclear power industry with no idea how you deal with the waste, or how do you sell a plan when nobody wants it anywhere near them, or what does the government do when everyone shoots holes in the only plan they bothered to come up with?
Robert H Frank: The Economic Naturalist's Field Guide: Common Sense Principles for Troubled Times (2009, Basic Books): Another entry in the "economics can explain everything in everyday life" Freakonomics-niche, following on the heels of the author's The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas. Has more sense than most economists working this beat, which also implies less flair for perverse contrarianism. [paperback Apr. 27]
Ken Gormley: The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr (2010, Crown): Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't it Starr vs. Clinton? At 800 pp, it seems unlikely that Gormley left out anything from Ken Starr's mudslinging report, which probably means there is at least some redeeming social content (i.e., smut). A sad, pathetic story, compounded by ill will from all sides, cheered on by a jaded media.
Peter Hessler: Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory (2010, Harper): China-based journalist, wrote an earlier China book that has intrigued me: Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China. This one travels around the fast-changing country, one of the best ways of getting a glimpse.
Dilip Hiro: After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World (2010, Nation Books): London-based reporter, has written much that is worthwhile on the Middle East, Central Asia, and oil politics. Book covers rising powers in China and India, and the relative decline of the war-logged United States.
Wang Hui: The End of the Revolution: China and the Limits of Modernity (2010, Verso): Chinese "new left" intellectual, an activist in Tiananmen Square, evidently has a four volume intellectual history of modern China somewhere in the translation mill. Something is happening in China now that we haven't begun to understand, but little pieces like this are bound to help. Still, as Chou En-lai said about the French Revolution, it's really too early to tell.
Tony Judt: Ill Fares the Land (2010, Penguin Press): Looks like a quickie political tract in defense of social democracy, the values the left had before losing our way, and/or getting run over by the right-wing propaganda machine. Judt's Postwar is one of the great historical books of the last twenty years, but despite its length is wound tight, a sketchy synthesis, which at least shows that no one understands the human progress of postwar Europe better. Recently diagnosed with ALS, Judt's disabling illness may add to the urgency of his thoughts, as if material conditions wasn't more than enough.
David Kirby: Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment (2010, St Martin's Press): The latest wholesale assault on the meat end of the agribusiness conglomerate, with plenty to easy targets to write about. Big book (510 pp), clearly much of what's going on should be exposed, and this looks like one of the most comprehensive books on the subject. Harder to find reasonable compromises.
Jonathan Krohn: Defining Conservatism: The Principles That Will Bring Our Country Back (2010, Vanguard Press): Teenage philosopher, self-published an earlier draft of this book when he was 13; is more like 15 now, out giving speeches at Tea Parties and CPAC. Identifies four principles: defend the Constitution, respect human life, minimalist government, personal responsibility. Those principles are sophisticated enough it might be possible to flip him, unlike less thoughtful conservatives whose principles are more like "be white" and "inherit (or steal) a lot of money" and "slaughter people not like us." Talks a lot about "natural laws" and gibberish like that. Clearly is a smart kid with a lot to learn.
Matt Labash: Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures With Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys (2010, Simon & Schuster): Features Dick Cheney's mug on the center of the cover. In case you thought this might be critical, consider that it's just a compilation of pieces recycled from The Weekly Standard, and on the blurb draws praise from David Brooks, PJ O'Rourke, and Christopher Hitchens.
Annie Leonard: The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession With Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health -- and a Vision for Change (2010, Free Press): The expanded book version of a pretty good little animated video, exploring the life cycle of stuff and our role in pushing it through the economy and the environment. Basic, and basically profound.
James Mahaffey: Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power (2009, Pegasus): Another effort to bootstrap the nuclear power industry -- clean, safe, you know the drill.
Jason Mattera: Obama Zombies: How the Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation (2010, Threshold Editions): Bet you didn't realize that "in 2008, Barack Obama lobotomized a generation." The Liberal Machine? Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube. A nice case of transference, but not as amusing as John Gibson's How the Left Swiftboated America: The Liberal Media Conspiracy to Make You Think George Bush Was the Worst President in History.
Mike Moore: Twilight War: The Folly of US Space Dominance (2008, Independent Institute): The best book I've seen on the folly of attempting to militarize space is Chalmer Johnson's Nemesis. This covers the subject in much more detail, but the basic arguments are the same: satellites provide essential peaceful services, and are easily wrecked by war, which means any space-based conflict will make us much worse off.
Malcolm Nance: An End to Al Qaeda: Destroying Bin Laden's Jihad and Restoring America's Honor (2010, St Martin's Press): Author is certainly right that the way to undermine Al Qaeda is to marginalize it in the Muslim world, and the way to do that is to back away from America's hostile stance within that world. His view of Obama as a credible spokesman leans on wishful thinking, as is his notion that Americans can continue to operate in that world under a reformed image.
Nell Irvin Painter: The History of White People (2010, WW Norton): Author has mostly written about Afro-American history, from Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction (1992) to Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present (2005), so this must seem like a fair turnaround.
Robert Perkinson: Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire (2010, Metropolitan Books): A history of the US prison system, the world's largest since the Soviet Gulag was shut down, focusing on the South and Texas in particular, where prison labor was seen as the second best thing to slavery. Eventually, the Texas paradigm of punishment and exploitation took over the nation, driving out any ideas about reform and redemption and turning the justice system into a sefl-perpetuating spiral of crime and prison and more crime.
Mark Perry: Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage With Its Enemies (2010, Basic Books): Basically a military historian -- cf. Four Stars: The Inside Story of the Forty-Year Battle Between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America's Civilian Leaders (1989), and Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace (2007) -- although he's also written about Middle East issues -- e.g., A Fire in Zion: The Israeli-Palestinian Search for Peace (1994). Perry's favorite example is the Awakening group in Iraq, which did more to stabilize Iraq than the US ever could have hoped for. Hamas and Hezbollah, with popular roots formed in resistance to Israeli occupation, are essential components of any post-conflict scenarios in their countries, as most likely is the Taliban. Perry sees Al Qaeda as beyond reconciliation, although I'm less clear why that should be the case.
David Priestland: The Red Flag: A History of Communism (2009, Grove Press): Long enough (720 pp), nuanced, willing to acknowledge that communist movements varied greatly in place and time even while insisting that all were doomed. Traces origins, both utopian and authoritarian, to the Jacobins. The liberature is full of simplistic, silly books, but maybe we're starting to get beyond that. If not this one, I'd be tempted to write such a book myself some day.
Diane Ravitch: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010, Basic Books): Former Assistant Secretary of Education under the first Bush offers second thoughts on the latter Bush education reforms: I gather she lacked first thoughts, which may or may not count for something, but it suggests the tide is turning after years of dumb and senseless failure. Previous books include Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform and The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. The latter has the usual sendups of political correctness, but also notes how a textbook publisher censored a line about fossil fuels being the primary cause of global warming because "we'd never be adopted in Texas."
Eugene Rogan: The Arabs: A History (2009, Basic Books): A general primer, but evidently starts with the Ottoman period up to the present, more or less.
Karl Rove: Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight (2010, Threshold Editions): The big payoff for so many years of carrying the right's water and, more importantly, jockeying right-wing political campaigns. An important enough figure his book must have some value as a primary source, but there's no reason to think he'd start spinning truths now. He sees he still has work to do, money to make, a nation to ruin.
Michael Schuman: The Miracle: The Epic Story of Asia's Quest for Wealth (2009, Harper Business): The history of Asia's tiger economies, including major ones in Japan, China, India, and Indonesia. Looks like useful background, although he has a tendency to favor stories that elicit the correct capitalist answers.
Victor Sebestyen: Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire (2009, Pantheon): "The principal reasons the Soviet empire fell was the USSR's disastrous decade-long war in Afghanistan, which is eerily reminiscent of the conflict the West is involved in now. Soviet generals of 20 or 25 years ago were saying almost identical things about their war against the Mujahideen (The Army of God) as NATO soldiers are saying now fighting the Taleban." I'm inclined to argue differently, but Afghanistan, Chernobyl, and a few other incidents may have been critical in dismantling the mythic powers of the Soviet military; some comparable comeupance is needed in the US. Sebestyen on Reagan the "Evil Empire" fighter: "When he took a hard line Reagan got nowhere. In fact, it nearly led to a nuclear war by accident. He was successful when he took a soft line and began negotiating with the Russians, in particular with Mikhail Gorbachev."
Patti Smith: Just Kids (2010, Ecco): Memoir of the poet-singer and photographer Robert Maplethorpe. Bohemians slightly ahead of my generation, i.e., from a time when it made more sense (although I was plenty smitten for a while). Everyone compliments the writing.
Michael Steele: Right Now: A 12-Step Program For Defeating the Obama Agenda (2010, Regnery Press): Republican National Committee chairman, starts with the assumption that Obama is up to no good, and moves far enough to the right to start to focus that picture (or lose track of it altogether). Along the way we find out that the reason Bush stunk so bad was that he was too left-wing. I suppose the Republicans have nothing else to campaign on, but doubling down on their far right fringe isn't an obvious reaction to losing badly in 2006-08.
Marc A Thiessen: Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack (2010, Regnery Press): Former Bush speechwriter turned CIA mouthpiece. The difference between the CIA under Bush the CIA under Obama is presumably the former's embrace of torture -- no doubt that Thiessen is a huge fan of the practice, which most likely gets us into psychosexual territory I don't want to get into. Otherwise he's just engaging in the big lie, a skill he no doubt honed nicely under Bush and Rove.
Janine R Wedel: Shadow Elite: How the World's New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market (2009, Basic Books): Author's background is in post-Communist East Europe, where she developed a theory of how corruption is exploited by actors she describes as "flexions." She identifies some Americans along those same lines, including Richard Perle, Barry McCaffrey, and Larry Summers. No doubt there are more, but those are certainly good examples. Previous book: Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe.
John-Paul Wilson: Political Bias In Historical Writing (2009, Xlibris): Cover shows Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Case study involves the Sandinistas, which Carter tolerated and Reagan waged a long, bloody, patently illegal war against. Not sure how this plays out, but there certainly is political bias in historical writing, as in much of everything else.
Previously mentioned books (book pages noted where available), new in paperback:
Adam Cohen: Nothing to Fear: FDR's Inner Circle and the Hundred Days That Created Modern America (2009; paperback, 2010, Penguin): Useful survey of FDR's famous first 100 days, how he worked out the kinks between his conservative inclinations and his liberal impulses. [book page]
Gregory Feifer: The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan (2009; paperback, 2010, Harper Perennial): Good basic history of the Russian occupation/war in Afghanistan. Among other things it shows that nothing much worked, but that they could hang on indefinitely if they could stand the stupidity of it all. Unlike us, they couldn't, so they left -- although it was Gorbachev who called that shot, not the military. [book page]
Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore: Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 (2008; paperback, 2009, WW Norton): A long, detailed history of the few white people who stood up for civil rights before it became fashionable among post-WWII liberals: communists, socialists, radicals. You might call them "premature antiracists" -- it's important to recognize them because they've always been the first people to stand up for human rights.
Nicholas Schmidle: To Lie or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan (2009, Henry Holt; paperback, 2010, Holt): A useful travelogue to Pakistan, going into some neighborhoods you'll be glad someone else went to, meeting some people you'll be glad someone else met, with some historical background. [book page]
Friday, April 9. 2010
Another month, another batch. Monthly seems to make sense given that I copy the monthly Recycled Goods entries into the archive -- if I did this more often I'd have a blank slot. Also means I tend to second-guess Christgau's Consumer Guide toward the bottom of the post -- entries toward the top sometimes get written before Christgau gets to a record, as is the case here with Love Is All. Since I use Rhapsody for Jazz Prospecting and Recycled Goods, those records drop out from the main list below. On the other hand, I am including occasional older records here. Usually I'm filling in some background -- earlier albums by Love Is All or Eddy Current Suppression Ring, or that White Stripes I missed -- without seeing any good reason to file the note in Recycled Goods. For what it's worth, I have started a 2010 meta file, which helps me decide what new things I should check out. The methodology is very erratic at this point.
The Soft Pack (2010, Kemado): The group formerly known as the Muslims, which seems about as inacurrately useless a name as the Girls. Second album, ten songs, none long, with crunchy guitar riffs -- sounds just like an alt-rock group should, with diction clear enough that their words reward your interest -- not that, oh, "Pull Out" was ever in very deep. Had a terrible time with Rhapsody, but finally got a clean play. A-
This Moment in Black History: Public Square (2009, Smog Veil): Punk band from Cleveland, hardcore actually, even smack of metal but harder and faster and catchier. Fourth album, second I've heard. I still prefer the other one, probably because it's easier to decipher the attitude. Hint: title is It Takes a Nation of Assholes to Hold Us Back. B+(**)
Drive-By Truckers: The Big To-Do (2010, ATO): As dense as the smartest Southern rock band ever plays, it can be hard to tune into the details. I wouldn't bet against them finally putting the album over, but after three plays, I'm still not sold -- except for "This Fucking Job" and a slow one near the end. Still, density can be its own reward, and this has plenty of that. Hope to get a chance to listen further. B+(***)
The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights (2010, Warner Brothers): Live albums have always been for fans, except when they exist merely to rip off fans. I've never been a Jack White fan. None of the few albums I'm down in print as liking actually stuck in my rotation long enough for me to recognize the songs -- the only one I can readily ID here is "Jolene." Actually, I don't recognize this loud, trashy band at all. Never realized they ripped so many Black Sabbath riffs. Never realized they sounded so much like Foghat. I'm not unimpressed with the guitarist. Can't say as I like the vocalist much. B
The White Stripes: De Stijl (2000, Sympathy for the Record Industry): The only White Stripes album I'd managed to miss, just sitting there on the screen, so thought I'd give it a click. The sound basically matches the live album: a bit simpler, less intense, less showy too, but similar talents, comparable nuissances. Two blues covers for old-time sake, one from Son House that tries to be hoary, one from Blind Willie McTell that aims for sly. Latter is better. B
The Chieftains/Ry Cooder: San Patricio (2010, Hear Music): Irish folk band, been around since the early 1970s. I used to have a bunch of their early numbered albums on Island, but never wrote down any notes to help me sort them, and they're long gone by now. As they gained fame, they started playing around, teaming up with anyone who would have them, kind of like John Lee Hooker, but Hook always floated to the top while the Chieftains sunk to the bottom. Cooder is another promiscuous collaborator. He probably came up with the idea of doing a Mexican folk album, as well as some musicians and singers who could hack it. Good enough as long as they stick to the plan, although you can't help but suspect that the Mexicans could do better without the outside help. And every now and then the outside help reverts to type. B
Pantha du Prince: Black Noise (2010, Rough Trade): German techno producer Hendrik Weber, for the most part works gentle grooves with percussion sounding much like marimba poking through the synthetic ambience. I would like it better if not for the cut(s) with vocals, reportedly the work of Panda Bear/Animal Collective Noah Lennox. B+(*)
Massive Attack: Heligoland (2010, Virgin): Trip-hop, the sad clown face on the cover beneath the monotone rainbow is a giveaway, although it's never as dreary as Portishead nor as perverse as Tricky. B
Love Is All: Two Thousand and Ten Injuries (2010, Polyvinyl): Swedish rock band, fronted by singer Josephine Olausson, who feels like the auteur because she's got plenty to say. Not that I can quite follow it all, but life doesn't come easy -- unlike the melodies. The sound has evolved to include a shimmering klang around songs like "Never Now" -- a plus when it works but also a step from punk to new wave. Not sure this couldn't grow on me, but I checked out the first album before settling, and it wasted no time. B+(***)
Love Is All: Nine Times That Same Song (2006, What's Your Rupture?): Sharper formally than the new third album, even if it doesn't keep a straight line and has way too many changes for punk revivalists. Most likely a minor group, but the first two albums break through often enough, and the third has something new going on. A-
Dan Reeder: Dan Reeder (2004, Oh Boy): Folk singer, b. 1954 in Louisiana, released his first album 50 years later. Found an announcement of his third album, This New Century, in my email and thought I'd look it up. Rhapsody doesn't have it, yet anyway, but has the first two, so why not? On John Prine's label, should get by on his wit, and starts off well enough, making a feeble comparison to Van Morrison. Alas, doesn't have much of a voice, which is strangely muddied by multitracking his harmony -- everything seems to be choral, which is rather peculiar in a folksinger. Could be deeper too, unless you think "Food and Pussy" counts. B-
Eddy Current Suppression Ring: Primary Colours (2007 , Goner): Australian group, punkish, probably closer in spirit and ethos to the 1960s pop-punks than to the 1970s protest-punks, although that may just be the keyboard. Group has a new album out, their third, but I thought I'd start to catch up here, their second. Glad I did: tight songs, simple, relatively clear. A-
Eddy Current Suppression Ring: Rush to Relax (2009 , Goner): More is a bit less, as their skills pick up with practice, their ideas thin out a bit on the road, and the ending title track runs up 24 minutes of surf, not the same thing as surf music. Still a first-rate post-punk group. B+(**)
Allison Moorer: Crows (2010, Rykodisc): Country singer, Shelby Lynne's sister, married to Steve Earle, eighth album since 1998. Always assumed she was more or less neotrad, which you'd expect when she was on MCA and Sugar Hill. First album on non-trad Rykodisc has little country feel: mostly teary ballads, pitched high, sort of stuff that I instinctively tune out, although in the end doesn't seem too bad. B
Gretchen Wilson: I Got Your Country Right Here (2010, Redneck): I doubt if her embrace of right-wing jingoism is any more heartfelt than her embrace of whiskey. But whiskey was more fun. Without it the belting delivery and bigger and richer production start to grind you down. B-
Alan Jackson: Freight Train (2010, Arista): Title song on Jackson's 16th album is from Fred Eaglesmith, which is why it mostly just sounds familiar to me, but if you haven't heard it before it will blow you away. Jackson may do it better, but it's not really his kind of song -- he's hard to beat on the soft love songs, at least unless they're too full of shit. He's got a couple of each here, as well as a self-penned nod to the working man, which could use less of God's blessings and a little more class consciousness. B+(**)
MC Paul Barman: Thought Balloon Mushroom Cloud (2010, Househusband): Whiny voice, nerdy allure, rapper gets by on brains and wit when he gets by at all, not that the beats do him any disservice. Cut an album in 2002 that was pretty great, back when he had Prince Paul for context and cred. This almost works too, but is harder to latch onto in general, and the one about circumcision turned me off both plays -- not so much the posture as the line about kidnapping the baby to save him from such a dire fate. Then again the whole thing could be as ironic as the one about the AIDS Diet, but I doubt it. B+(***)
The Bundles (2009, K): Antifolk supergroup, with Jeffrey Lewis and Kimya Dawson and some others trading barbs and bloopers over minimal guitar thrash. Hopes for a Have Moicy! are unfounded: not as distinctive as either principal's solo albums, and not as surprising as The Moldy Peaches, but something new and unpredicted. B+(***)
Carolina Chocolate Drops: Genuine Negro Jig (2009 , Nonesuch): Jug band, the trio traps straight back to the 1920s when black and white folk music were hard to distinguish, except perhaps by the added confection of blackface that is memorialized in this group's name. Somewhat surprising that the shtick is so rare given how authoritatively the sound reverberates even today. Their previous album was all trad tunes. This is about half, with covers hitting and missing. B+(***)
David Byrne/Fatboy Slim: Here Lies Love (2010, Nonesuch, 2CD): This much is weird: a concept album about Imelda Marcos and her nanny, which is probably safer than writing about her husband, the general-dictator whom James Hamilton-Paterson wrote the biography America's Boy about. Byrne cites Hamilton-Paterson and also Robert D. Kaplan's Imperial Grunts waxing on the War on Terrorism's struggle to secure the frontier by subduing "Injun Country." The songs, on the other hand, go on and on about love, they're sun by a plethora of (mostly) female voices, and they're set to perennially sunny beats -- nothing weird about that. Still, the only one I paid much attention to was voiced by Byrne himself, titled "American Troglodyte." B+(*)
Madonna: The Sticky and Sweet Tour (2008 , Warner Brothers): Third live tour album since 2006, each with a DVD -- I normally disapprove, but the one I've seen, on I'm Going to Tell You a Secret, is actually worth watching; better, I'd say, than Truth or Dare, which was released through the theatres -- during a stretch which otherwise has seen one studio album and one best-of. Can't vouch for this DVD, but the CD is a nonstop blast, mostly built out of medleys with "2008" versions of "Vogue" and "Music" and "Like a Prayer" and one song "feat. Kanye West." B+(***)
Madonna: The Confessions Tour (2007, Warner Brothers): London concert, following release of Confessions on a Dance Floor, a pretty good record albeit one I don't know well enough to follow here. Mixes Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" in with "Future Lovers" to start, then does "Like a Virgin" like all the others except louder. "I Love New York" may seem out of place until she disses G.W. Bush. But more than anything else I'm struck by how hard this rocks, and how gnarly the guitar can get. I also have to admit I love how the live arena sounds resonate within the mix -- that's true of all of her live albums. Bigger than life. Wouldn't be surprised if the DVD isn't even better. A-
Lil Wayne: Rebirth (2010, Universal Motown/Cash Money): I clearly don't have whatever it takes to track down much less sort out Dwayne Carter's dozens of mixtapes -- I bought The Drought Is Over 2 and Da Drought 3 a couple years ago, packed them for a car trip, and never got through them. This one, released as Carter is starting his Rikers Island sabbatical, is billed as rock-rap. Fairly jumpy at first, with some guitar thrash, not quite heavy metal, nor ultimately much of anything else. I suspect the bad reviews of piling on, but this does feel like a rush job, not that committed and after a while not that interesting. Then again he's a tough dude to get into. B-
Dr. Dooom: Dr. Dooom, Vol. 2 (2008, Treshold): Kool Keith alias, previously used in a 1999 album called First Come, First Served, no relation to MF Doom aka Doom, but the concept is similar. Didn't follow it all that well, except for a bit about the late Dr. Octagon, another Kool Keith alias. B+(**)
Ludacris: Battle of the Sexes (2010, Disturbing Tha Peace): Evidently this was conceived as a duo album with Shawnna returning Cris's barbs, boasts, and bullshit, but she's only there on occasion, not enough counterweight. Raucous beats, riotous porn, more stamina than I can imagine. At some point I start to wonder if it's really worth all this trouble. B
Felt: 3: A Tribute to Rosie Perez (2009, Rhymesayers Entertainment): Side project for Slug (Sean Daley, of Atmosphere) and Murs (Nick Carter), produced by Aesop Rock. Evidently there are two previous records, A Tribute to Christina Ricci and A Tribute to Lisa Bonet, with A Tribute to Heidi Fleiss forthcoming. Not sure that this has anything to do with its subject. Actually, I don't know what any of it is about -- just have a hard time following hip-hop in one take on Rhapsody, but that's partly because the sound itself is so satisfactory, and partly because the word snippets I do get are clever and smart. B+(**)
Souls of Mischief: Montezuma's Revenge (2009, Clear Label): Oakland rappers, or poets as some put it, working over Prince Paul beats, starting with a live intro. They had a good record in 1993, '93 'til Infinity, and I haven't thought of them since, although they've had a couple of albums. Looser and smoother than the other rap records I've heard lately -- Felt, Ludacris, Lil Wayne, even Dr. Dooom; so much so it reminds me of the Jungle Brothers. B+(***)
DJ /rupture & Matt Shadetek: Solar Life Raft (2009, The Agriculture): Rupture (Jace Clayton) in a turntablist with several records I've heard thus far, starting with Gold Teeth Thief in 2001. Don't know squat about Shadetek. This I take to be a mix tape with about half of the material attributed to the auteurs. Scattered stuff, something about Philadelphia, a propensity for reggae, not much shape. B+(*)
Archive file: here.