December 2002 Notebook
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Tuesday, December 31, 2002

The following year-end lists come from the New York Times (Dec. 29, 2002):

John Pareles:

  1. Bruce Springsteen: The Rising (Columbia).
  2. Red Hot + Riot (MCA).
  3. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch).
  4. Blackalicious: Blazing Arrow (MCA).
  5. Salif Keita: Moffou (Universal).
  6. Beth Orton: Daybreaker (Heavenly/Astralwerks).
  7. Bright Eyes: Lifted or the Story Is in the Soul, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (Saddle Creek).
  8. Korn: Untouchables (Immortal/Epic).
  9. Elvis Costello: When I Was Cruel (Island).
  10. Oneida: Each One Teach One (Jagjaguwar).

Singles and EP's: Missy Elliott: "Work It" (Elektra); Yeah Yeah Yeahs: "Yeah Yeah Yeahs" (EP, Touch and Go); Avril Lavigne: "Sk8er Boi" (Arista); Tweet: "Oops (Oh My)" (Elektra); Tom Petty: "The Last D.J." (Warner Brothers)

Neil Strauss:

  1. 2 Many DJ's: As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2 (PIAS).
  2. Bruce Springsteen: The Rising (Columbia).
  3. Korn: Untouchables (Immortal/Epic).
  4. Guy Clark: The Dark (Sugar Hill).
  5. Blackalicious: Blazing Arrow (MCA).
  6. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch).
  7. Queens of the Stone Age: Songs for the Deaf (Interscope).
  8. Notwist: Neon Golden (City Slang).
  9. Kinky (Nettwerk).
  10. Clinic: Walking With Thee (Domino).

Singles: Missy Elliott: "Work It" (Elektra); Eminem: "Lose Yourself" (Shady/Interscope); Ladytron: "Seventeen" (Emperor Norton); Justin Timberlake: "Cry Me a River" (Jive); LCD Soundsystem: "Losing My Edge/Beat Connection" (DFA).

Ben Ratliff:

  1. Wayne Shorter Quartet: Footprints Live (Verve).
  2. Jason Moran: Modernistic (Blue Note).
  3. Joe Lovano: Viva Caruso (Blue Note).
  4. Branford Marsalis: Footsteps of Our Fathers (Marsalis Music).
  5. Rebecca Martin: Middlehope (Fresh Sound).
  6. Bill Charlap Trio: Skylark (Blue Note).
  7. Dave Holland Big Band: What Goes Around (ECM).
  8. Ben Allison: Peace Pipe (Palmetto).
  9. Café Tacuba: Vale Callampa (MCA).
  10. Morelenbaum2/Sakamoto: Casa (Sony Classical).

Kelefa Sanneh:

  1. Bright Eyes: Lifted or the Story Is in the Soul, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (Saddle Creek).
  2. Missy Elliott: Under Construction (Elektra).
  3. Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Nonesuch).
  4. The Apex Theory: Topsy-Turvy (DreamWorks).
  5. The Streets: Original Pirate Material (Vice/Atlantic).
  6. Spoon: Kill the Moonlight (Merge).
  7. Triple R: Friends (Kompakt).
  8. Korn: Untouchables (Immortal/Epic).
  9. TLC: TLC3D (Arista).
  10. Eminem: The Eminem Show (Aftermath/Interscope).

Singles: Angie Stone: "Wish I Didn't Miss You" (J); Lil Flip: "The Way We Ball" (Sucka Free/Loud/Columbia); The Strokes: "Someday" (RCA); Cam'ron: "Oh Boy" (Rock-A-Fella/Island Def Jam); JC Chasez: "Blowin' Me Up (With Her Love)" (Fox Music/Jive).

Monday, December 30, 2002

Reading an article on new airport security procedures this morning, I'm reminded that I haven't flown since sometime before Sept. 11, 2001, and that I have absolutely no desire to ever fly again. If my view is at all common (admittedly, not many of my views are) this is bad news for our beleaguered airline/aircraft industries, which in my home town has already paid several thousands of jobs as part of the cost of antiterrorist paranoia. Given that the hijacking count of the last 15-months has been zero, we'll never know if these measures make any difference. But the thinking seems to be that Americans will tolerate any intrusion into their lives if it promises to make them safer. This is, of course, the soft sell for the expansion of the police state.

Thinking about Ellen Willis's defense of militant leftism, I thought of several definitions to help sort out her lineage:

  • Leninism: The conviction that a minority can seize power and force a revolution to happen (aka Bolshevism).

  • Stalinism: The realization that Leninism failed to force a revolution, but that it's better to be in power than in jail.

  • Trotskyism: The belief that Leninism was merely subverted by Stalinism, but would still work if they just tried harder.

  • Maoism: The belief that Leninism, Stalinism, and Trotskyism are all correct, and that any apparent contradictions can be resolved by thinking dialectically.

  • Orwellism: The idea that Marxism inevitably leads to Leninism which inevitably leads to Stalinism which is just awful (he didn't live long enough to fully appreciate Maoism) so you might as well just sell out all of your principles and friends.

As far as I know, Willis doesn't follow any of these doctrines -- although in reading her it entered my mind that maybe her ideal of the "radical democratic left" were the idealistic mercenaries who joined the Spanish Republican forces to fight against Franco and Fascism. I doubt this too -- although it does seem to be Christopher Hitchens' inspiration for his romantic embrace of the Kurds. The reason I doubt this is that what made Orwell, Hitchens, David Horowitz, and so many other impassioned leftists so unreliable is that their leftism was rooted not in their own experience but in their romantic views of other peoples' struggles. Presumably, Willis's feminism is more securely rooted.

Sunday, December 29, 2002

Music: Trying in particular to catch up with Year 2002 stragglers, where my A-list has now passed the sixty mark. This is leading me to be even more stingy with grades, with the result that my upper B+ is beginning to look pretty damn good.

  • MC Paul Barman: Paullelujah! (2002, Coup d'Etat). The first review of this that I read was in Pitchfork, a slam pan which tried to prove its point by extensively quoting Barman's well-read rhymes. I thought them hilarious. And of course you can imagine what the title cut sounds like. I think that's hilarious too, especially when it kicks in second verse. A-
  • The Breeders: Title TK (2002, 4AD/Elektra). A tough one. At low volume it is so fragile it almost seems aleatory, but its scattered fragments are not without interest -- just that they don't sustain interest. B
  • Buck 65: Weirdo Magnet (1988-96, Warner Music Canada). He's got his "big label deal" now -- Warner's Canadian subsidiary, which doesn't get him in US stores but has at made four nearly impossible-to-find albums slightly easier to find, launched the new one (Square), and assembled this collection of early work. Coming to this one last steals the thrill of discovery -- the modest breakthroughs here reiterate and reweave throughout his later work -- but almost everything here repays close listening. Twelve months ago I had never heard of him; now I wonder whether that B+ I gave Language Arts was too low. Artist of the year, by a huge margin. A-
  • Capital D & the Molemen: Writer's Block (The Movie) (2002, All Natural). As a song cycle this recalls A Prince Among Thieves, yet while there's more crime than I would like, this is nowhere near so pat: just a slice of life, with easy beats underlying a telling eye for detail. A-
  • Clipse: Lord Willin' (2002, Arista). Their regionalism -- in their case Virginia (VA to you) -- reminds me of Nelly (of STL fame, you know that, right?), at least as far as first albums go. Ditto the light gangsta shtick, the simple nigga/bitch rhetoric, the reflexive consumerism, the deft hooks. But they don't smoke near enough, the hooks are thin even with the Neptunes at the controls, and where the fuck is Cecil the Entertainer? A close call. B+
  • Coldplay: A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002, Capitol). It seemed like simple professional duty to check this much hyped album out -- much as I feel obligated to take the measure of such other nouveau Brit popsters as Blur, Oasis, Radiohead, Manic Street Preachers. (Not that I really have, but the obligation is gaining weight.) The problem is that this doesn't rock, swing, or hop even; it just sort of sits on the stereo like a plate of spaghetti with clam sauce. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with that, although it is a bit artier than the comfort rock of my own class upbringing. The lyrics are well-meaning, and the music is framed by heavy piano chords. I'm even getting to like it, but I still insist that anyone who thinks it great suffers from excess placebo syndrome. B+
  • Common: Electric Circus (2002, MCA). He's so nice and sensible it's tempting to also attribute him more smarts than his records really bear up. Until it Gods out at the end, there is some nice stuff here -- the jazz riff that propels the lightweight "I Am Music", the "ride my car/smoke my shit" hook that the Neptunes recycled from the Clipse album -- but there's also hairy psychedelia and fuzzy thinking. Superficially this parallels the Roots' album, perhaps because ?uestlove produced much of it, but the Roots are a working band with a consistent groove; this is pure studio, knee-deep in guest stars, and none the better for it. B
  • Dirty Vegas (2002, Capitol). This seems like the critical antihype of the year, but frankly I don't have any idea which piece here is their infamous commercial jingle, nor do I find anything here particularly unlistenable. But it's also true that none of their vocals are in the least bit compelling, and that their techno is passable but nothing special. B-
  • The Donnas: Spend the Night (2002, Atlantic). Pretty conventional rock group -- loud, punchy, lotsa cymbals -- but nowadays conventional sounds more like the Ramones than the Go-Gos. But more than conventional this is trashy and smutty, and if it seems less worldly than, oh, Sleater-Kinney, it's because their world is one that still befits them. A-
  • Steve Earle: Jerusalem (2002, E-Squared/Artemis). I can't say he's that dependable as a theorist -- I don't buy "Conspiracy Theory" (never thought that JFK would've backed us out of Vietnam, but I doubt that we would've done worse than his successors did), and don't care whether John Walker sings with a twang -- but in his own experience is on more solid ground -- "Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best That We Can Do)" about sums it up, and "What's a Simple Man to Do?" is truly a question for the times. And I love the Doug Sahm organ. A-
  • Liquid Todd: Solid State (2002, The Right Stuff). Pretty solid techno album, but nothing that really jumps out at you, like his previous Action did. B+
  • Little Richard: Shag On Down by the Union Hall, Vol. 2 (1955-64, Specialty). Inconsistent, sloppy seconds, occasional glimpses of sheer genius. B+
  • Smokey Robinson & the Miracles: Whatever Makes You Happy: More of the Best (1961-1971) (Motown/Rhino). I've never been much of a fan, but these supplements to his standard Anthology hardly drop off, either sounding better for their unfamiliarity, or remaking other Motown hits without disgrace. A-
  • The Roots: Phrenology (2002, MCA). Pretty good rock band, which carries them even when the logic of their raps gets dodgy. And not the one that touches on Steppin Fetchit, which seems as deep and thoughtful as it is uncomfortable, which is damn well what it's supposed to be. A-
  • The Rough Guide to the Soul Brothers (2001, World Music Network). A most welcome survey of the South Africa's classic mbaqanga group from South Africa, who since the early '80s have spun their gently propulsive rhythms and delicate harmonies. This selects from 10 albums, only 2 of which are listed on AMG. A-
  • Silkworm: Italian Platinum (2002, Touch & Go). Until I turned this up it was hard to tune in on anything -- that is, I think, its essential flaw. But in tuning in I flashed on a resemblance to the Go-Betweens, occasioned partly by the female vocal lent by Kelly Hogan, and partly by the chance word "clark" (as in "Clark Sisters," though I could be mishearing here). Slow as rock goes, textured, a bit dense. A good group, which could get better with familiarity. B+
  • Shania Twain: Up! (2002, Universal, 2CD). The tiny fragments I heard on the Borders machine sounded great -- bright, bouncy, hookful. It is indeed all of those things -- except great. It's not even very good. The two CD gimmick should've been a giveaway: with one CD mixed country (which means a little fiddle and a little more steel guitar), and the other mixed pop (which doesn't mean much of anything), we're clearly dealing with an artist who doesn't know who she is. That, of course, is fatal in country -- could you imagine Loretta Lynn indulging such a gimmick? -- and it's long been the rotten core of pop. While there's a veritable glut of hooks, they get to be oppressive over the course of a record that runs on fucking forever. And the lyrics? By now I don't even want to know. B-
  • The Vandermark 5: Free Jazz Classics Vols. 1 & 2 (2002, Atavistic, 2CD). Not what you'd call standards, and possibly not as interesting as a set might be of Vandermark dedications to these same auteurs, but a delightful primer on the by-now-long history of free jazz. A-

Saturday, December 28, 2002

Got a link today where Dissent polled some notable leftish intellectuals on a set of Iraq-related questions. They didn't ask me, but I thought I'd jot down my own views before checking what their panel had to say:

The Questions

  1. Do you support an American war against the current Iraqi regime?

    No.

    If so, under what circumstances?

    Unilateral US war against Iraq might be justified if Iraq militarily attacked the domestic United States. Multilateral (under the UN) war might be justified if Iraq militarily attacked other countries or if Iraq was committing genocide against its own people. (The most glaring examples of the latter in the last 20-30 years were in Cambodia and Rwanda. Note that the US did not intervene in either case.) In any case, war should only be a last resort, after all efforts at peaceful resolution have failed.

    And should this be a war for disarmament or for "regime change"?

    If a war is justified according to the criteria above, the regime responsible for provoking a war response should be dismantled, and its principals should be brought to face international criminal charges. So, yes, regime change.

  2. Do you favor a UN-imposed inspection system for Iraq?

    Yes. Iraq's past belligerence makes it reasonable for the rest of the world, through the UN, to insist on being able to inspect Iraq in order to be ascertain whether Iraq is re-arming itself. On the other hand, the UN should assure that when Iraq submits to inspections no other nation will be permitted to attack Iraq. (Note that inspections expose any weaknesses in Iraq's defense-by-deterence, thereby compromising its security.)

    Would you support the threat or the use of force to impose and sustain such a system?

    No, not force. Economic sanctions may be appropriate, especially in a case like Iraq which has an established record of military aggression. But once Iraq complies with inspections and monitoring such economic sanctions should be suspended, and Iraq's defense ensured.

  3. What is your view of the Bush administration's new doctrine of preemptive war?

    I believe it shows extraordinary wrecklessness and contempt for international law and for all people throughout the world.

  4. If there is a war, would you join an antiwar movement? Of what sort?

    There already is a war, so the need for an antiwar movement is manifest. I consider myself part of that antiwar movement.

  5. What are, what should be, the long-term goals of the United States in the confrontation with Iraq?

    The long-term goal should be to promote fairness, opportunity, and prosperity for citizens of Iraq and elsewhere, and to establish that US foreign policy is consistent with the normal aspirations of people throughout the world. The reason for this is that Americans and Iraqis live in the same world, use the same air and water, and both benefit from peace and prosperity. But this would, needless to say, require a profound reorientation of American foreign policy. A worthy shorter-term goal would be to defuse the widespread view that the US is responsible for injustices against Arab and Muslim peoples, of which the two prime examples are the Israeli occupation of majority-Palestinian territories and the antihumanitarian sanctions against Iraq. This means that the short-term goal of US policy towards Iraq should be to move as quickly as possible towards lifting the sanctions and normalizing relations.

Still, just answering these questions does not get to the heart of the issue. In particular, what my answers above suggest is that I would've supported the UN mandated 1991 war to expel Iraq from Kuwait. In fact, I did not support that war, and the reasons are still valid now:

  • The US had developed a war culture in the wake of WWII, increasingly focused on opposition to the Soviet Union which had resulted in the US fighting an endless series of hot and cold wars to oppose and subvert any foreign government that even leaned left, while supporting dozens of corrupt rightwing despots. This war culture had in turn steered American domestic politics rightward. In this climate we felt that opposing the US war machine and pacifying US culture was more important than which despot controlled Kuwait.

  • The US had not in any case made a serious commitment to international law and community. The US had long acted unilaterally, and had many times ignored UN resolutions (e.g., on Israel), so the fact that the UN had sanctioned war to expel Iraq from Kuwait was less the mandate of world opinion than a victory for American advocacy.

  • The US had a lengthy record of misjudgments in the region that was leading to considerable anti-US antipathy: in Iran, due to the CIA coup that overthrew Mossadegh and installed, equipped, and supported the Shah, leading to an Islamist revolution with a pronounced anti-US flavor; around Israel, which the US increasingly supported; throughout the Arab world, where the US consistently supported anticommunist despots and military dictators.

  • While it was agreed that Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was a violation of international law and peace, it wasn't clear that the only way to deal with that transgression was to up the ante by committing another act of war. Indeed, the need to come up with a non-military resolution was never clearer. And if a non-military resolution was possible it would seriously undermine the rationale for nations to maintain huge armies for defense, significantly advancing the case of world peace.

In retrospect, the 1991 war did have one significant benefit: it thoroughly crippled Iraq's ability to wage war on or intimidate its neighbors. However, it did so at the price of inflicting horrible damage on the Iraqi people and their economy. And the US judgment that the suffering of the Iraqi people would lead to "regime change" has proven to be utter folly. On the other hand, the war revived the US war machine (which had started to cut back following the collapse of its raison d'etre, the Soviet Union, but which now looms larger and more horrifying than ever). And it led to an escalating domestic political conflict where each party strives to outdo the other in belligerence toward Iraq. And it greatly led to the widespread feeling among Arabs and Muslims that the US is responsible for their oppression and economic straits -- a feeling that can emerge as terrorism, but which is significant even when it doesn't.

But there are differences between 1991 and now that further change the equation. In particular, Iraq is no longer fearsome; their past aggression has cearly led to defeat and disaster, and this is both debilitating and humbling. There is no reason for them to think that they can overcome their problems by rebuilding their military; rather, their only path out of their disaster is through international cooperation, which includes effective disarmament and inspections, but does not require regime change. In fact, continuity of government is now the only alternative to chaos, occupation, and painstaking reconstruction, something the US has shown no stomach for at any time in the last 40-50 years.

This latter point is worth reflecting on. Although the US has shown little concern about inflicting casualties on others, its eagerness to sacrifice our own blood has steadily waned since the unlimited carnage of WWII. Even in Vietnam, where lower-class draftees were squandered, there was a strict accounting of the losses. The Russians, in turn, seemed to lose their taste for attrition in Afghanistan, the point of not just withdrawing but of abandoning their whole imperial stance. Even in Israel, by far the most militaristic society in the world today, there is significant wariness of the costs entailed by their occupation of neighboring Arab lands. I think this is all part of two longterm trends: that armed forces that occupy foreign lands see little sense or value in occupation and oppression, and that those subject to such occupation will desperately inflict enough damage to sour (if not necessarily repel) their occupiers. Those in Washington who advocate escalating their war against Iraq may well be confident in their ability to destroy and rout Saddam Hussein, but it's hard to give any credence to their fantasies about a pro-western democracy springing forth in its place, and no reason whatsoever to trust them to clean up their mess. So one simple way to encapsulate opposition to the US war on Iraq is to invoke the cliche, "if you can't afford to pay the time, don't do the crime."

As for the comments, a special raspberry to Ellen Willis, who argues that the antiwar movement against the US/Vietnam war undermined the "radical democratic left" by turning into an "apolitical moral crusade." It sounds like her crowd won't make that mistake again; indeed, once they seize power their first task will be to purify American power from its present corruption and put it to good use righting the wrongs in the world.

If forced to choose between the leftists and the pacifists, I'd take the pacifists any day. For one thing they have principles that one can practice immediately and build on in everyday life, while the anti-pacifist left can only struggle for power, becoming what they first hated and losing their bearings.

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Movie: Gangs of New York. The first thing you're struck by here is how intimately bloody the 1846 gang warfare was; the last thing you're struck by is how insignificant gang warfare had become with the mechanization of warfare even by 1862. The closing image, which shows the skyscrapers of New York growing over the graves of the gangsters featured here, could suggest that New York grew out of such struggles, but more likely just underscores how irrelevant the gangs actually were. A-

Monday, December 23, 2002

Here's a 20-year-old rock 'n' roll lyric that has been stuck in my mind for weeks, months, years:

Yankee dollar talk
To the dictators of the world
In fact it's giving orders
An' they can't afford to miss a word

I'm so bored with the U...S...A...
But what can I do?

We heard the news that Joe Strummer has died. The Clash was the greatest debut album in rock history -- perhaps the greatest rock album ever. London Calling was, if not better, easily one of the ten best rock albums ever. They expanded like supernovae through their fourth album, the 3LP Sandinista, where they started to diffuse into clouds of matter to seed new solar systems. After they split up, Mick Jones kept the slick funk they were evolving towards, while Strummer kept the gruff. Neither amounted to much without the other, but I thought that Strummer's LP side on the Permanent Record soundtrack was good enough to launch a second life. Never heard that Mescaleros album, and don't have any idea why Strummer never seemed to put together a solo career, or another band. I guess we'll never know -- although the prospect of someone piecing together a post-Clash Strummer anthology doesn't seem altogether pointless. But for a brief peak the Clash was the brightest rock group of all time.

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Movie: Bloody Sunday. Ireland, 1972. The remarkable thing about this movie is that is creates an uncanny realism, admittedly at the expense of every other virtue you might hope for in a movie -- plot, character, even the ability to see what's going on. I found it excruciating to watch, especially having no particular interest in or sympathy for any side of the conflict. But even if you look at it through the eyes of the British soldiers, you'd get an idea of just how unpredictably events turn when you're caught between orders to smash the protest and caught in the inevitable chaos that ensues. No grade. (I'm just happy to have survived.)

Music: Trying to catch up with the year-end hopefules, which include such likelies as MC Paul Barman, Captain D & the Molemen, Clipse, Common, Donnas, Steve Earle, Röyskopp, Roots, Silkworm, and the Vandermark 5. A new CG also touts Daniel Bedingfield, Kimya Dawson, Pretenders, and Justin Timberlake (none of which have made much of an impression yet) and the Mountain Goats (haven't heard 'em).

  • The Congos: Heart of the Congos (1976-77, Blood & Fire, 2CD). A minor vocal group from reggae's classic Rastafarian period, the vocals hew a thin high line, while Scratch Perry's production is equally thin. Hard to recommend -- certainly everyone should check out Culture first, maybe even the Itals and the Heptones before this crew. Yet it works just fine as translucent background music, which is more than you'd normally expect from a set that I'd still want to have as a historical keepsake. B+
  • Steve Earle: Transcendental Blues (2000, E-Squared/Artemis). Earle sounds great here, especially when he goes traditional, as on "The Galway Girl"; some of his writing is even better, as on the death row "Over Yonger (Jonathan's Song)." But it's not as consistent as one would want, the sort of set that awaits repackaging to put it into proper focus. B+
  • Highlights From the Duke Ellington Centennial Edition (1927-1973) (RCA, 3CD). This picks at the huge 24CD box in ways that are none too useful: the first CD jumps from RCA's criminally out-of-print early Ellington to his post-1939 return, ending with several classic early '40s tracks rather than a full helping of the early work; the second CD is a smashing tour if Ellington's '40s period, which has been kept in print both in complete and many fileted (or butchered) compilations; the third CD mixes pieces from Ellington's ponderous "Sacred Music" concerts and other trivia with extraordinary work from the '60s. B+
  • Bonnie Raitt: Silver Lining (2002, Capitol). There are three, four, maybe five nice things here, but none of them build on each other; examples include an off-tune blues from Roy Rogers and some Malian guitar from Habib Koite. Seems like I've spent most of my life surrounded by people who care much more about her than I ever have, and now that they don't like this record, I still don't understand why. B
  • Röyskopp: Melodie A.M. (2002, Astralwerks, 2CD). Electronica from Norway, easy going, chilled out. Too many vocals, perhaps, but I'm finding it to be the most listenable record in my "recent" rotation. Finally played the "bonus CD" today, and it's nice too. A-
  • Frank Sinatra & the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra: The Popular Frank Sinatra, Volumes 1, 2, 3 (1940-42, RCA). Got these from the Library, wrapped up in a box, but it looks like they're available separately. Of the three, Vol. 1 is much the more consistent, with the band in relatively good shape, and the Pied Pipers less of a drag. Great voice, of course. Respectively: A-, B, B+.
  • Tommy Smith: Standards (1991, Blue Note). Good intro to one of the finest tenor sax players of the '90s. B+
  • Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet: Cleanhead & Cannonball (1961-62, Milestone). This is one I've been looking for for years -- originally on Landmark, and long out of print -- so finally hearing it is

Friday, December 20, 2002

I somehow managed to wrangle an invitation to the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll, which I had voted in several times during the 1970s, and I think once after I wrote that "Jazz for Dummies" piece. My "comeback" as a rock critic was vouchsafed by Michael Tatum accepting a couple of short reviews and a year-end list to be published by Static MultiMedia. Ballots are due Jan. 6, but my album ballot is pretty well set:

  1. DJ Shadow: The Private Press (MCA) 14
  2. NERD: In Search of . . . (Virgin) 13
  3. Mekons: Oooh! (Out of Our Heads) (Quarterstick) 12
  4. Spaceways Inc.: Version Soul (Atavistic) 12
  5. Youssou N'Dour: Nothing's in Vain (Nonesuch) 10
  6. Cornershop: Handcream for a Generation (Beggars Banquet) 9
  7. Buck 65: Square (Warner Music Canada) 9
  8. Van Morrison: Down the Road (Universal) 8
  9. Spoon: Kill the Moonlight (Merge) 7
  10. Cee-Lo: Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections (Arista) 6

Coming up with a songs list is harder, and I'm not sure that I'll even wind up submitting one. Here are some ideas:

  1. Ani DiFranco: "Self-Evident" (from So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter)
  2. Evolution Control Committee: "Rebel Without a Pause" (from The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever)
  3. Nelly: "Nellyville" (from Nellyville)
  4. Northern State: "Dying in Stereo" (from Dying in Stereo)
  5. Eminem: "My Dad's Gone Crazy" (from The Eminem Show)

PS [2003-01-02]: This is the ballot I cast. The best new album that I've evaluated since originally writing this was the Roots, Phrenology, which I have in the lower reaches of top-20. While there are certainly A- records pending, I don't see any of them cracking the top-10 list. As for singles, I cut back from my original scratch list. Since I put the scratch list together I hadn't thought of anything new, and I was pretty much grasping for straws even there. Although I don't have a theoretical problem with a separate singles ballot, my own listening habits don't encourage thinking along those lines -- I don't listen to radio, don't watch music videos, and I've never been much good at singling out cuts (let alone remembering their names). These are just album cuts that stand out, from albums that didn't make the top-10 -- although the latter, this time at least, are more distinguished by their continuity than by their peaks.

Thursday, December 19, 2002

The Trent Lott story is interesting in several ways. The minor point is that once again it shows that the media's sense of news is to only report on what powerful people say, rather than digging into what they actually do. (Perhaps that point should be major, but it's so well worn by now that it shouldn't be necessary to repeat it.) Another minor point is that Strom Thurmond himself has managed to get away scott-free despite being a major public scumbag for over fifty years now, but the vaunted "teflon" that Ronald Reagan was so famous for, and so many other Republicans have gotten away with, sure doesn't seem to work for Lott. Perhaps this is because Mississippi itself is so fixed in the American mind as the most passionate and mindless bastion of white racism, segregation, poverty, and ass-backwards ignorance, that no politician as conservative as Lott can be expected to free himself from its grip.

But the major point is that Lott has finally stumbled on a definition of racism that even his fellow Republicans cannot abide. But it also is the first attempt by the Republicans to start to tidy up their own past -- a past that since Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act in 1964 has been drenched in racism. While Goldwater may have thought that he had some principles behind his stupid vote, it delivered five southern states to his presidential campaign, and led Strom Thurmond to switch parties. Ever since then the growth of the Republican party, leading to their slim control of Congress, has been built on racism -- most overtly in coaxing racist Democrats like Phil Gramm, Jesse Helms, and Richard Shelby to follow Thurmond in switching parties. (Trent Lott, as the hand-picked successor to the notorious Democrat Congressman William Colmer, followed this pattern to a tee.) But the Republican party growth was equally built on attracting white urban Democrats fleeing from increasingly black central cities to segregated suburbs -- and there is was mostly done through code, harping on crime and welfare. (Significantly, many of those ex-urbanites were Catholic, so the Republicans' newfound anti-abortion stance was tailored to appeal to northern Catholics as well as Southern Baptists.)

But the net effect of this "southern strategy" was that the Republican party was effectively taken over by southerners: most pointedly when Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott took over party leadership of Congress. The accession of Texas governor G.W. Bush to President would seem to cap the story, but as the Republican party becomes more doggedly Dixiecrat, the Democrat party is making corresponding gains in the North, and has even started to make gains in Southern states like Florida and North Carolina. This is largely because the old policies of segregation and racial discrimination have been totally discredited -- something that the mere success of even a handful of individual blacks (including the Republican's own crown jewel, Colin Powell) prooves.

To understand this, you have to realize that the Republican Party's success has largely been based on sleight-of-hand. At bottom, their economic policy is little more than to shamelessly favor the rich getting richer, while doing everything in their power to make government useless as a safety net for the poor, and somehow trick the middle class into subsidizing their pet military projects. The percentage of the populace who benefit from this strategy is miniscule (maybe 3%), while the percentage who are harmed in one way or another is huge. In a democracy, this should be a completely untenable political program, but the Republicans have been able to get away with it by controlling the media, by concentrating on single-issue constituencies (anti-abortion, guns), by cozying up to repressive religious groups, by panicking people over crime (which somehow appeases racism without being tainted by it), and by flaunting America's military might and world power (often to the point of war mongering). But whereas the Republicans in the 1990s put forward these programs with a pronounced Southern accent, Karl Rove's great innovation is to wrap them up in a self-deluding feel-good facade of liberal rhetoric -- the notion that America is eternally innocent and intrinsically valorous, which in turn requires a pretty damn short memory. Where Trent Lott erred was in dredging up that past and even worse asserting that the past was better than the present. But that can't possibly be so, at least to people who believe that the U.S. under Bush is just about perfect now.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

Music:

  • Anti-Pop Consortium: Arrhythmia (2002, Warp). Underground rap, with a vengeance, but not necessarily a point. B
  • Elvis Costello / Burt Bacharach: Painted From Memory (1998, Mercury). Sometimes Costello sings so well that you momentarily forget that the songs are tripe. B-
  • Ani DiFranco: So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter (2002, Righteous Babe, 2CD). I have a backlog of recent studio Ani which I've yet to make sense of, but this live double reinforces the notion that live performance is her natural metier, and that communication with her crowd is what really brings it to life. A-
  • Alejandro Escovedo: Burbonitis Blues (1999, Bloodshot). I guess if you're young enough you can incorporate the Velvet Underground into your folk-country repertoire. B+
  • Alvin Youngblood Hart: Down in the Alley (2002, Memphis International). This is formally a very tough record to grade -- the twelve songs are traditional blues, played and sung in traditional style, i.e. solo by Hart. In short, it's roughly equivalent to dozens, maybe even hundreds, of prior efforts, but with the crucial difference that nobody has really been doing this since the old-timers rediscovered in the folk-blues boom of the '60s died off. This raises the nagging question, why? It's easy to accept a Son House or Fred McDowell doing this, because we know this is what they did, and in doing it they validated its authenticity. As far as I can figure out, Hart's reason for doing this is that he's got the chops. And while House and McDowell are unique enough that they're unfair comparison, Hart has as much going for him as anyone in the next tier down in the pantheon -- guys like Barbecue Bob, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Willie McTell, maybe even Kokomo Arnold. But why now? I don't know. B+
  • John McLaughlin: Electric Guitarist (1978, Columbia). He has a tremendously distinctive sound, but these occasional pieces with a ramshackle assortment of collaborators don't really go anywhere with it. B
  • Medeski, Martin & Wood: Combustication (1998, Blue Note). Mild-mannered organ funk, with a few things to like: the scratches that fill out "Church of Logic", the beat rap on early bebop days in "Whatever Happened to Gus". B+
  • Rivers of Babylon: The Best of the Melodians 1967-1973 (Trojan). A classic reggae vocal trio, from the era before the U.S. discovered Bob Marley (or for that matter Jimmy Cliff), they are so slight that they are barely able to put over absolutely perfect songs like "Sweet Sensation" and "Rivers of Babylon" itself, which are highpoints of dozens of comps. B
  • Nils Petter Molvaer: NP3 (2002, Emarcy). Molvaer continues to make some of the most interesting, unclassifiable music around. He plays trumpet and programs drum machines. The latter give his music crunch and drive, but no swing; the former has the sound of a lonely voice in a desolate synthetic landscape. Not sure that this says anything useful about the human condition, but it makes for engaging listening. A-
  • Youssou N'Dour: Immigrés (1988, Virgin). An engaging albeit fairly lightweight set; nice rhythms, horns, quite a singer. B+
  • Elvis Presley: The King of Rock 'n' Roll: The Complete 50's Masters (1953-58, RCA, 5CD). Complete here means the Christmas album, an off-to-the-army interview, live shots and demos, although in their endless ardor to resell the King's carcass RCA has no doubt found more since this box was released. But aside from the trivia there is little to complain about, and much to admire. The most striking thing here is how effectively Presley works with backup singers, which would be the kiss of death to any lesser singer. A-
  • Django Reinhardt / Stéphane Grappelli: Swing From Paris (1935-39, ASV). As good a single CD sampler as I know of the seminal Quintet du Hot Club de France. A
  • Tidiane et les Dieuf Dieul: Salamita (2001, Justin Time). Another good Senegalese group -- sinuous vocals, funky horns, exotic instruments, tricky rhythms -- produced by David Murray, who also contributes some magnificent saxophone. A-
  • Vienna Art Orchestra: Concerto Piccolo (1980, Hat Art). Easily the most interesting big band to emerge since Sun Ra. When it all works, they're perversely amazing, and when it doesn't, they're perversely weird. But meditation on Mingus kicks out, but the piccolo thing and the circus music have to make you wonder. An auspicious debut, although not a particularly listenable one. B

Saturday, December 14, 2002

I want to go back to the Liberal Hawks again. What I'd like to do is to try to construct a better argument in favor of the U.S. invading Iraq in order to depose Saddam Hussein. This is, of course, a bit difficult to do, because I don't actually believe that such an argument is valid, but I can always explain why later. First, the argument:

  1. The issue is not whether the U.S. should initiate war against Iraq. It's too late for that, because the U.S. is already at war with Iraq. (Let's face it, there's no other word for it: the initial destruction from 1991; economic sanctions targeted at the health and welfare of the Iraqi people; constant surveillance, espionage, subversion; frequent bombing; propaganda.) The real issue is how do we bring this horrible war to an end.

  2. It is clear now that the U.S. and its allies made a serious error in 1991 when they failed to press the war against Iraq to its ultimate conclusion, which would have been to depose Saddam Hussein, to dismantle his military and security aparatus, and to rebuild a peaceable civil society in its place. (Japan is a good example where this solution has been successfully applied.)

  3. The reason why it was (and is) so important to remove Saddam Hussein and to reform Iraq is that Saddam had built a uniquely repressive state which he then used to wage war on neighboring countries and to disrupt world peace, and that even when faced with military defeat he continues to manipulate his repressive state to maintain his domination over his people in such a way that, if left to his own devices, he is very likely to again disrupt world peace.

  4. The failure to finish the job in 1991 was largely due to a failure of courage and willpower of the U.N. community of nations to stand up to their responsibilities to safeguard world peace by not permitting any bully or tyrant such as Saddam Hussein to so disrupt world peace and continue in power. That the U.N. failed in 1991 and to this day continues to fail is ample justification that the U.S. and its allies should step up to this responsibility and finish the job themselves.

  5. While an invasion and escalation of the war to remove Saddam Hussein and to reform Iraq will be costly by all measures, it is in the long run far less costly (by all measures) than continuing the present stalemated war. All measures here include Iraqi lives, other lives, the Iraqi economy, and the world economy.

Liberals may be tempted to extend this argument to cover other cases, especially genocide, but also cases where a government commits against its own people what would generally be considered war crimes against other states. Iraq's use of poison gas, both against Iran and against its own Kurdish population, is clearly an example of this, and is probably the single most graphic proof of Saddam Hussein's criminality.

Still, I find this argument highly suspect. I think this argument breaks down in several areas:

  1. The moral argument -- that war in this case is a necessary tactic for bringing a notorious war criminal to justice -- depends on their being a broad international consensus in support of the action, such as could be built through the U.N. However, the fact that the U.N. has not arrived at such a consensus means either that the U.N. is defective or that there are other mitigating factors which make war-enforced regime change in Iraq undesirable. In either case what needs to be done is to work toward making the U.N. and other international organizations more effective at judging war and other crimes against humanity, so that a clear cut consensus about Iraq (and other cases) can be formed and that more effective solutions can be put into effect. To just let the U.S. unilaterally bypass building an international consensus behind its actions degrades the conflict to a power struggle between two nations. In particular, this invites us to look at the U.S.'s motives as self-interested. (Which opens up several nasty cans of worms.)

  2. This argument assumes that the U.S. unilaterally is competent to invade, occupy, and reconstruct Iraq. There is in fact very little confidence that this is true. The only thing that is undoubted is that the U.S. has the ability to wreak tremendous devastation on Iraq, as in fact it did in 1991 and has done elsewhere many times during the last fifty years. However, not since World War II (with the partial exception of South Korea in the early 1950s) has the U.S. made any significant effort toward cleaning up its wreckage, rebuilding economies, and promoting democracy and respect for human rights in countries that the U.S. has made war against. However, without a significant commitment to reconstruction the argument that the Iraqi people will ultimately benefit from having the yoke of Saddam Hussein removed is hard to make.

  3. Even though Saddam Hussein may be a notorious war criminal, from a practical standpoint it is distinctly possible that it would be easier and more effective to reform him while leaving him in power than to depose him and face the consequences of rebuilding Iraq. The one thing that Saddam Hussein brings to the table is his ability to ensure order in Iraq -- this in itself seems to be the main reason that the international consensus in 1991 was to drive Iraq out of Kuwait but not to occupy Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein. If, for instance, Iraq agrees to significant demilitarization, U.N. weapons inspections, restrictions on future armaments purchases (including monitoring but not prohibition of "dual use" technology), and cooperation in intelligence gatherng and prosecution of Al Qaeda terrorists, which (except for the last point) Iraq has pretty much agreed to already, isn't that all that is really needed?

  4. Finally, we have to look at the prospective effects of invading Iraq on the U.S. If the U.S. proceeds unilaterally, this shows nothing but contempt for the rest of the world and their aspirations to live peacably together under international law. This also focuses all responsibility for the inevitable destruction of war onto the U.S., which has already turned itself into a primary target for disaffected Islamist terrorists. Moreover, this increases the isolation of the U.S. from the rest of the world, and works to bolster the most arrogantly imperialist forces in U.S. domestic politics. It seems clear now that the real force behind the U.S. war against Iraq, at least during the Clinton and Bush II administrations, has been domestic politics: that this has led to the sanctions, bombardment, subversion of the U.N. inspections, all of which have caused immense suffering in Iraq without weakening much less removing Saddam Hussein, but it has allowed the politicans to see themselves as tough guys. This in turn is rooted in the political embarrassment from the 1991 war that demonized Saddam but failed to remove him. (When Bush compared Saddam to Adolf Hitler, he effectively compared himself to Neville Chamberlain, which arguably cost himself re-election.) The overall effect of U.S. policy on Iraq, and more recently on the terrorism that that policy has contributed to, has been to brutalize the American people, to make them more indifferent to the suffering of foreigners, and to make them more enamored of flexing their own terrifying military powers. Were the world to indulge the U.S. on Iraq, this would in the short term only feed the fire that is turning the U.S. into the world's most dangerous rogue state.

There are, of course, many more reasons for opposing the Bush II regime's drive toward invasion of Iraq. In particular, until the U.S. does something to resolve the omnipresent (at least in the Arab world) fact of Israel's oppression of Palestinian Arabs anything that the U.S. does do in the Arab world remains suspect. Similarly, until the U.S. starts to control its insatiable appetite for oil its relations with oil-producing countries are suspect. And as long as Bush II keeps pursuing his fortress-building strategy, talking as he does about endless wars and ever-increasing defense budgets, he acts like he sees no need for world peace -- indeed, the occasional (and by his mind inevitable) terrorist attack only confirms his strategy. It's almost like he senses that the narrow ruling class that he represents and serves is so outnumbered that the only way to preserve itself is to terrify the rest of the world. Kind of like the way Saddam rules Iraq.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Spent some time padding out the "hyped" section of the 2002 Year End List, scraping off the year-end picks from Rolling Stone and Spin, few of which really seem all that promising. Last night I heard some fragments from Shania Twain, Missy Elliott, Mr. Lif, Clipse, MC Paul Barman, maybe some others. Elliott seems the most promising, but I bought Twain because it was $6 less. But Barman may be the one I look forward to most -- it was slammed in a Pitchfork review that tried to prove its case by quoting extensively, almost all of which I found amusing if not quite hysterical.

Monday, December 09, 2002

The New York Times Magazine has a piece by George Packer called "The Liberal Quandry Over Iraq". This piece focuses on five Iraq war hawks with liberal (or in one case leftist radical) self-identities: David Rieff, Leon Wieseltier, Michael Walzer, Paul Berman, and Christopher Hitchens. For me, this is mostly an excuse to hang some comments onto quotes (in crimson) from Packer. However, let me preface these comments with a couple of points:

  • I grew up during the Vietnam War, during which I moved from my first political inclinations, which could roughly be described as Goldwater Conservatism (without the racism), to a fully-reasoned embrace of the New Left. During this period (1963-67) most well known, self-identified liberals were committed to supporting the U.S. war against Vietnam, and this to my mind has always been the defining flaw of liberalism. (Cf. A Critique of Pure Liberalism, especially Robert Paul Wolff's section.)
  • There are tenets to liberalism that I do agree with, which include the notions that: human nature is substantially plastic, molded at least as much by environment and experience as nature; that culture, society, politics, and economics are subject to rational investigation; that culture, society, politics, and economics can in many cases be changed through reasoned, purposive action. Nonetheless, I think that there are limits to this plasticity, and that one needs to be very careful about what to change and when to change it. Note that the liberals in question here are not just liberals, they are intellectuals, and as such they find it very easy to conceive of things that are in fact very hard to carry out. I would go so far as to say that their intellectualism shields them from any sort of realistic anticipation of the effects of the politics they promote.
  • In the final analysis the biggest problem with liberal intellectuals, both in the Vietnam era and now, is that they don't hold the power to oversee the implementation of their ideas. That power is in fact in the hands of conservatives who share few of their assumptions or goals. And in a war situation the front-line soldiers are likely to find themselves in situations where they have to choose between self-preservation and whatever lofty or pragmatic goals the powers that be and their ideologues have projected for them. In my own case, when I was drafted in 1969 it was clear to me that my own government, for no better reason than the perpetuation of its anticommunist idiocy and its sense of omnipotence, was indifferent if not downright delighted to send me off to die a pointless death.
So, for me intellectual debates between liberals seem as distant as intellectual debates in far-removed foreign lands: given that their assumptions are so far removed from my sense of reality, they are at most oddly curious. Still, Packer's article gives one set of arguments for and against U.S. invasion of Iraq, so let's look into that.

Here's how I break down the liberal internal debate.

FOR WAR

  1. Saddam is cruel and dangerous.

    No doubt. Although it's hard to make a case that he is as irrationally cruel and dangerous as, say, Idi Amin or Pol Pot -- to pick a couple of universally recognized tyrants who were so unstable as to practically beg for merciful intervention. Indeed, cruel and dangerous political leaders are a too frequent problem, and there should be a universally recognized procedure for identifying and opposing them. But it shouldn't be easy to make the case that opposition should take the form of an inverventionist war, with inevitable destruction far beyond anyone's intents, even if the balance sheet looks good.

  2. Saddam has used weapons of mass destruction and has never stopped trying to develop them.

    The phrase "weapons of mass destruction" has been used so repetitively that it's bred the acronym WMD, but by combining chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons under one term we're creating a false equivalency between them. Nuclear weapons are indeed worthy of the phrase, as any assessment of post-WWII Hiroshima and Nagasaki proves. Chemical and biological weapons could more accurately be called "weapons of criminal irresponsibility". What makes them so irresponsible is that they cannot be reliably targeted, so their effect is not limited to a particular locale and time, as is the case with bullets or explosive bombs. (Mines are a special case, being indeterminate in time, which is a major reason why most countries are working toward banning their use -- as they have previously worked to ban the use of chemical and biological weapons.)

    The usual reason for developing such weapons is to provide defense through deterrence -- to make potential enemies shy away from aggression. Iraq has in fact much to fear from its neighbors, including longstanding disputes Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Israel. It is also the case that Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime is threatened by its sizable Kurdish and Shiite populations, and that there are foreign countries (most clearly, Iran and the U.S.) who have tried to foment rebellion to destabilize Iraq. So it is not surprising that Saddam sees a strong military and police organization as essential to the survival of his regime, nor that he has chosen to flaunt his power to intimidate his potential enemies.

    However, it is also clear that after the debacle of the 1991 war his ability to intimidate other countries has been lost. In this situation it is not at all clear or reasonable that he should continue to work on any so-called WMD, because at this point his principal foreign enemy, the U.S., would not be cowled by any sort of WMD deterrence, and would in fact use such developments to rationalize bombardment, invasion, and the destruction of his regime. So the fact that Saddam has used chemical weapons prior to 1991 is irrelevant to this point (although it does testify that Saddam is cruel and dangerous), and the assertion that Saddam "has never stopped trying to develop them" is unproven and flies in the face of logic.

  3. Iraqis are suffering under tyranny and sanctions.

    Tyranny is one thing, sanctions another. Iraqis suffered under tyranny long before the imposition of sanctions. This suffering included: arrest for any form of political threat to the regime; restrictions on travel, speech, assembly, practice of religion; conscription into military service; pervasive fear and loss of privacy. On the other hand, the suffering caused by the sanctions includes: shortages of food; inability to get medical supplies or services; shortages of all manner of consumer goods; and most likely a general worsening of the tyranny.

    The suffering due to the sanctions is hardly a cause for war: it could be relieved by unilaterally lifting the sanctions, or through negotiation in exchange for other concessions. This is not being done because the U.S., for what appears to be domestic political reasons, has insisted on the one thing that Saddam will not negotiate away, which is his regime.

  4. Democracy would benefit Iraqis.

    This depends a lot on what democracy would actually mean in Iraq. There are two key aspects to democratic systems, of which majoritarian rule is the less important one; what is most critical is that democracies be set up to protect and support minority rights. Nowhere is this clearer than in Iraq, which is split between three major groups each with longstanding antipathies and each with affinities outside the rather arbitrary boundaries that Britain imposed on Iraq. To make Iraq work as a democracy will require a period of civility that is hard to even imagine right now. That democracy would be developed in the context of what fanatics on both sides of the Christian/Islam divide view as a "clash of civilizations", with imperialism and the anticommunist "cold war" as unforgotten backdrops, makes this all the more problematical. Stable democracies have almost never been cut from whole cloth, and the liberal intellectuals' gap between theory and reality is exceptionally wide here. That does not mean that in the long run the theory is false, but it does suggest that the undoubted long run gains will automatically fall out of war and occupation is a lot of very wishful thinking.

  5. A democratic Iraq could drain influence from repressive Saudi Arabia.

    Any implications that a "democratic Iraq" might have for anywhere else in the world depend critically on just how that democracy is implemented and how successful it is. I think this is much too uncertain to make any sort of generalization from. Indeed, the most likely implementation of a democratic Iraq would in the short term at least be a chaotic mess with rising crime and a stagnant economy (Russia is a good example) that if anything would reinforce the Saudi's commitment to authoritarianism.

    The more interesting question here is why the interest in "repressive Saudi Arabia", and if there is some legitimate need to reproach Saudi Arabia, why not deal with that problem directly instead of through the highly volatile prism of Iraq. The conservative pragmatists will have a lot of trouble with this, not least of all because what they like about Saudi Arabia (beyond the cheap oil and the massive investments that help prop up western economies) is that they are repressive.

  6. A democratic Iraq could unlock the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.

    This is absolute fantasy. The stalemate exists because the Israeli right-wing refuses to back away from its settlements on lands it seized in its 1967 war against its Arab neighbors and from its self-conception which denies citizenship and human rights to the non-Jewish peoples of those lands. (This is not to claim that the Arab countries were wholly innocent in the 1967 war, nor am I denying that the political tactics of some Palestinian groups during the occupation have been criminal, but the decision whether or not to break the stalemate is completely in the hands of the Israelis.)

  7. A democratic Iraq could begin to liberalize the Arab world.

    Why Iraq? Why not Palestine, which is so desperate for relief from Israel that they'd welcome help from the U.S., and this would be one of the very few places in the Arab world where the U.S. could waltz in without producing more rancor than already exists. Moreover, the existing political leadership in Palestine is already committed to liberal and secular principles. They also have real potential for the sort of economic development that builds stable capitalist civil societies, whereas Kuwait (say, to pick another easier example than Iraq) would at best develop into an oil-financed welfare state.

  8. Al Qaeda will be at war with us regardless of what we do in Iraq.

    So what? Al Qaeda has reached an analysis of what's wrong with the world, and what should be done about it, that commits them to being criminals for as long as they exist. Which is and will be a problem that needs to be addressed on its own terms. But like all dedicated groups they will wither away over time, unless they are replenished by other people arriving at similar analyses and conclusions. The question here what effect the invasion and occupation (and maybe even reconstruction) of Iraq will have on Al Qaeda's ranks and objectives. It's hard to imagine a scenario where it will not make Al Qaeda more potent. One consideration here is that many terrorists cite other people's atrocities as rationale for their actions.

AGAINST WAR

  1. Containment has worked for 10 years, and inspections could still work.

    Depends on what you mean by working. Containment, which presumably means the sanctions, the inspections process up to 1998, the patrolling of the "no fly" zones, and the frequent bombardment of anything which looked suspicious or opportune, has manifestly failed to buckle or seriously weaken Saddam's regime (except in the quasi-independent Kurdish zone), regardless of the amount of suffering that this containment has inflicted on the Iraqi people.

    What appears to have been successful is the elimination of Iraq's ability to threaten its neighbors, both through disarmament overseen by weapons inspectors and general attrition of the armed forces. On the other hand, the single most significant contributor to the weakening of Iraq was the devastating military defeat it suffered in 1991 when it was dislodged from Kuwait. This should have been sealed with a process of inspections and disarmament complemented by otherwise normal commercial relations -- which was most nations' interpretation of the terms at the end of the 1991 war -- but the U.S. largely on its own decided to propagate this containment strategy, which has kept Iraq isolated and under foreign attack for over a decade now.

  2. We shouldn't start wars without immediate provocation and international support.

    First of all, we shouldn't start wars, regardless of the provocation or the international scorecard. The only place for war is as a last resort to stop an aggressor that will stop at nothing less. Although Iraq has acted aggressively against Iran and Kuwait before 1991, I'm not aware of any evidence that they have continued to do so since their massive defeat in 1991.

    The U.S. effectively conceded in 1991 that it would allow Saddam's regime to retain power -- this was in any event stipulated by the U.N. resolution which authorized the U.S. to act and spelled out the limits of international support for such action.

  3. We could inflict terrible casualties, and so could Saddam.

    This is certainly true if you concede that any casualties would in fact be terrible. But that is not the normal sense of the terms as used by military strategists -- although it should be noted that in the U.S., and indeed in many armies throughout the world, that the willingness to sustain large numbers of casualties has progressively weakened since the bloodbaths of WWII. But while the U.S. undoubtedly has the ability to start a war in Iraq which could produce thousands or even millions of casualties, Saddam has no known capability to attack far beyond his borders, and is probably powerless even to defend Iraq against U.S. attack. So unless one is squeamish or principled, this in itself may not be much of an argument against war.

  4. A regional war could break out, and anti-Americanism could build to a more dangerous level.

    I don't see how a regional war could break out, unless the U.S. gets extremely sloppy and extends the war into Iran -- which continues to be the target of U.S. opprobrium -- or the regime of a country like Saudi Arabia collapses in turmoil over its role in supporting the U.S.-led war. Neither of these seem very likely, although the logic that has thus far driven the Bush regime to pursue an invasion of Iraq offers little comfort that such scenarios are impossible. The other possible scenario is that if Iraq attempts to defend itself by lashing out at Israel (as Iraq did in 1991), Israel could take it upon itself to retaliate severely, perhaps even with nuclear weapons, which could lead to unimaginable turmoil.

    But while it is very unlikely that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would lead quickly to a broader regional war, an invasion and subsequent occupation will certainly increase the amount and fervor of anti-American feeling throughout the Arab and Muslim world, and this will very probably be reflected in increased incidence of anti-American terrorism. Moreover, a lengthy occupation will be increasingly untenable, and the alternative of a premature withdrawal may very well leave Iraq in more dangerous shape than it currently is in.

  5. Democracy can't be imposed on a country like Iraq.

    Historically, democracies have risen when people were ready to take power from their previous rulers. It is not clear that the Iraqi people are not ready for this, but it is likely that there will be many bumps on the way to forming a stable democracy. In particular, it seems unlikely that enough Iraqis are tolerant enough of their minorities, and it seems very likely that many Iraqis will prefer strongman order to democratic chaos. (The early failure of Weimar democracy being a classic case in point.)

    But the more serious problem here and throughout the liberals' touting of democracy is that the powers-that-be have proven to be staunchly opposed to anything resembling democracy in Iraq. The 1991 decision to leave Saddam in power was in many ways predicated on the belief that a weakened despot would be better for neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait, and Turkey than any whiff of democracy. The U.S. as well has never promoted democracy in the Arab world when theocracy and/or militarism was available as an alternative.

  6. Bush's political aims are unknown and his record is not reassuring.

    This argument is remarkably understated. Bush's domestic program can be roughly summed up as: 1) vastly increase the role of the military and police state; 2) bankrupt government to undermine any form of social welfare spending; 3) make welfare the function of private sector churches and charities; 4) strip the government of mineral resources and anything else not irretrievably nailed down. Bush's foreign policy is mostly a matter of flaunting U.S. military power while excepting the U.S. from any sort of responsible. Given this record, what it suggests for Iraq is little short of apalling. The notion that the real U.S. goal here is to seize control of Iraq's enormous oil reserves cannot be discounted.

  7. America's will and capacity for nation building are too limited.

    Bush has stated many times that he has no interest in nation building. While the liberal pro-war argument assumes that the U.S. will be generous enough to rebuild Iraq, there is no evidence that Bush will fulfill any of those promises. Indeed, he has already welshed on Afghanistan, taking the position that America's job is to do the bombing, and that the allies can clean up the mess and rebuild the nation.

  8. War in Iraq will distract from the war on terrorism and swell Al Qaeda's ranks.

    Presumably at this stage the war on terrorism is being fought by police agencies around the world, so there is little actual need for the military to participate beyond their work in Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda's training camps and to disperse their operatives. In a sense the U.S. has this huge military with little excuse for its continued existence, so to perpetuate itself there is a need to puff up a series of boogeymen ("rogue states", "axis of evil"). The fact is that the military is remarkably ineffective and inappropriate for combatting terrorism.

    On the other hand, the military's very clumsiness and aloofness makes it well suited for regenerating terrorism, both in terms of its direct destruction and its general example of the malfeasance of U.S. power.

Neither of these lists strike me as very well constructed. In many ways the liberal anti-war argument is little more than the nagging doubt that their pro-war argument doesn't work. The pro-war argument is little more than a series of conceits -- that democracy is better than despotism, that democracy leads to liberalism, the U.S. is in this to promote liberalism throughout the benighted Arab world. Packer makes the point that many liberal hawks cut their talons in the Yugoslav wars, where they saw American air power as the only alternative to genocide on the ground. Indeed, the Yugoslav case does provide some support for the notion that external power diligently applied can stabilize a self-destructive region -- although it also provides testimony that it isn't necessarily the best solution.

But pushing the Yugoslav analogy to cover Iraq is frought with troubles. For one thing, the Yugoslavs are Europeans, and their experience with imperialism comes from long dominance by the Ottomans, very different from Iraq's experience with Britain. Moreover, in Yugoslavia the U.S. was able to make relatively fair and honest decisions about who to support, including a willingness to support Muslims against Christians. When it comes to Iraq, the U.S. is full of poisonous prejudices; and while the U.S. previously had minimal involvement with Yugoslavia, the U.S. has been all over the Middle East and Persian Gulf for the last fifty years, making oil deals, propping up dictatorships, fighting against any whiff of socialism, and above all supporting Israel's occupation of Palestine. In Iraq itself the U.S. has been on all sides when it seemed convenient, using Iran to promote Kurdish insurrection in Iraq, using Iraq to attack and destabilize Iran. Arguably the worst thing the U.S. has done in the Arab world has been the containment policy against Iraq, which despite imposing great hardships on the Iraqi people has utterly failed to dislodge Saddam, and given the fact that the U.S. and its allies consciously chose to leave Saddam in power in 1991, this vicious policy appears to be little more than a cynical ploy in the run of American domestic politics. That this cruelty is condoned so blithely by the American populace is not something that the Arab populace can be expected to ignore.

The ultimate problem that liberals have in being hawks is not merely that their ideas are ill conceived but that they depend on people who are not liberals to carry them out. The Kosovo bombing program, in particular, may have been dressed up with liberal ideals, but to a large extent it was just NATO's way of making work for itself. The same self-promotion is clearly at work in Iraq, but whereas Clinton could be counted on to provide a liberal shine to Kosovo, Bush's program to invade Iraq does not offer a shred of hope that anything positive might come out of it for the Iraqi people. It seems clear that Bush could care less; that for him this is just about the U.S.'s prerogatives as the last great world power, and that it would be nifty if he could strut into his reëlection campaign with Saddam's shrunken head on his spear.

Sunday, December 08, 2002

Music: Note also that I've kicked The Eminem Show up to A-. Once you get past the "gee I'm a superstar" conceit the first five songs are solid A, the closer is even better, and even the stupid and vile Obie Trice thing is outrageous in a cartoony way. The middle section is padded and stretched, and there are other flaws, but while Eminem's claims about how miserable teenagers look up to rap stars sound patronizing at first, more than that they sound pathetic, and like Eminem knows that it's pathetic, that that's what's touching about it. Haven't dropped Sleater-Kinney back to B+ yet, but I played it the other day and I'm hard pressed to name another album that I've rated A- that I enjoy less.

  • Barenaked Ladies: Maroon (2000, Reprise). Seems competent enough. Not sure that I should care. B
  • The Blind Boys of Alabama: Spirit of the Century (2001, RealWorld). Standard-issue gospel on a solid foundation of blues. Easily done, solid nonetheless. In a world yearning for authenticity but too lazy to search it out, they're good enough. B+
  • The Chemical Brothers: Surrender (1999, Astralwerks). Not sure why this sounds better than the usual techno, nor even the usual Chemical Brothers. Maybe because the melodies and soundscapes that they mechanize sound faintly classic, like Beatles with maybe a dash of Pink Floyd. Doesn't end strong, but this is captivating until then. A-
  • Etoile de Dakar: Volume 4: Khaley Etoile (1981-82, Stern's African Classics). The last and not surprisingly most measured of Youssou N'Dour's classic group albums. After reviewing the Rough Guide, this went down so smoothly that I should probably reconsider Vols. 1 & 2, and keep my eye peeled for Vol. 3. A-
  • Harlem Hamfats: Hamfat Swing 1936-1938 (EPM). Only the name comes from Harlem: this fine small swing group came together in Chicago, with roots in New Orleans jazz and Mississippi blues. The later cuts backing vocalists Rosetta Howard and Johnny Temple tail off a bit, but the early cuts swing magnificently, and "Let's Get Drunk and Truck" sticks in your mind. A-
  • George Harrison: All Things Must Pass (1970, Capitol, 2CD). Somehow it's taken me over 30 years to finally getting around to listening to monument to the pent-up frustration of the #3 Beatle. And it's better than I always figured -- the jams are fashionably heavy, the guitar sweet, the voice familiar, the songs, well, none too special. B
  • The History of Township Music (1944-81, Wrasse). A long stretch of history, stylistically scattered, some sublime, others, er, historical, none overly familiar. A-
  • Kings of African Music (1997, Music Club). Perhaps a little overly general, the notion that all these styles belong together on the same record more a function of our distance and ignorance than anything else. Still, it's impossible to pick bones over the music itself. A-
  • The Rough Guide to Youssou N'Dour & Etoile de Dakar (1979-82, World Music Network). Anyone not merely beguiled by N'Dour's gorgeous acoustic roots album Nothing in Vain but feeling an itch for background can hitch a ride on this Rough Guide sampler to N'Dour's early work. As a teenager N'Dour joined Senegal's reigning Star Band, but soon split off to form his own alternative, Etoile de Dakar, which kicked the typical Cuban-influenced rumba into a higher orbit of rhythm and volume. These 1979-1982 cuts are very rough -- the guitars and horns driven to the edge of distortion, the rhythms among the most complex ever recorded, the vocals gymnastic in negotiating such rugged terrain. It can be rough going, but N'Dour shines in this league as much as the equally young Sam Cooke in the Soul Stirrers. Hardcore archaeologists will want to track down the 4-CD Etoile de Dakar series on Stern's African Classics, of which Vol. 1 (Absa Gueye) and Vol. 4 (Khaley Etoile) are especially recommended. A-
  • Talvin Singh Presents Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground (1997, Quango). OK jungle and dull trip hop, nothing that you'd be tempted to call exotic. B
  • Shania Twain: The Woman in Me (1995, Mercury). Built like a pop record, with a little twang for the country audience -- probably the best place to break such a straightforward singer. Also lets her get away with the chaps-and-navel back cover. B
  • Bennie Wallace: Moodsville (2002, Groove Note). More standards, long on ballads, he's getting older and settling into his groove as surely as Uncle Ben (Webster, that is). Just a hair less gratifying than his last two, but with music as gorgeous as this I'd be a churl to complain. And while I've heard dozens of "Love for Sale", this one takes the cake. A-

Sunday, December 08, 2002

For simplicity of management, I've moved my Year 2002 (In Progress) music list back under the ocston umbrella. Last year's list had 35 records at actual year end, and has stalled out at 54 (since I haven't been updating it since June or so). This year's list has already hit 51, with a couple of pending items (Vandermark 5, Bennie Wallace, Alvin Youngblood Hart) likely, some records on the hyped list probable (Steve Earle? Public Enemy? Silkworm? David S. Ware?), and undoubtedly more things that I'm thus far unaware of. However, the reissues list is pretty short at this point. Maybe I'm catching up? But musicwise it looks like a pretty good year.

Thursday, December 05, 2002

Just heard that David Eyes has set up an "alumni directory for the former Santa Cruz Operation", reviving the lapsed ocston name. At this point it's mostly just a directory, with a limited ability to add a web page. My web page is here. So the concept thus far seems to be networking of past associates. It seems like the same sort of thing would be nice for rounding up ex-Contex employees. What makes the latter an interesting prospect is that it might have some potential for focusing on an open source project.

Sunday, December 01, 2002

Music:

  • Albert Ayler: Spirits Rejoice (1965, ESP). More of the usual primitivist cacophony, with Charles Tyler's alto piling on top of Albert's tenor saxophone, and Donald blowing his trumpet with his usual ineptness. Still, this has a good taste of the odd energy and raw nerve that put Ayler over the top. B+
  • Terrence Blanchard: Let's Get Lost: The Songs of Jimmy McHugh (2001, Columbia). Blanchard's arrangements and trumpet are gorgeous on this tunesmith set; the weak spots are the guest vocalists, of whom only Cassandra Wilson has much to add. B+
  • Jean-Paul Bourelly & the Blu-Wave Bandits: Rock the Cathartic Spirits: Vibe Music and the Blues! (1997, Koch). Like James Blood Ulmer, or for that matter like his other avatar, Jimi Hendrix, Bourelly is a prodigious guitarist with a weak sense for vocals. B
  • The Ruby Braff Trio: Bravura Eloquence (1988, Concord). A trio, with guitarist Howard Alden's saccharine comping behind Braff's eloquent cornet, and bassist Jack Lesberg adding next to nothing on the bottom, this slides by barely managing to tickle the consciousness. B
  • Dan Bryk: Lovers Leap (2000, Scratchie). A singer-songwriter who's not uninteresting and certainly not untalented, yet I can't bring myself to care much about his trials and travails, nor his falsetto. But I do love the unlisted bonus cut at the end, built on the organ riff to "Palisades Park". B
  • Buck 65: Synesthesia (2002, Warner Canada). The follow-up to the brilliant Man Overboard, this apparently dropped in late 2001, but I only found out about it now that what passes (in Canada anyhow) for his major label deal has put his catalogue back in print. This is denser beatwise than its predecessors, and more pop than the new one (cinched with remixes of "Centaur" and "Attack of the Nerds"), but this Nova Scotian is the only rapper in history I find myself listening to for the words, which are not quite as perfect this time out. Too much dread commiserating over that F-word? A-
  • Buck 65: Square (2002, Warner Canada). DJ Shadow brags about his ability to find "just the right thing", but the only other DJ to hit that mark anywhere near as consistently is this guy. But as consistent as the beats are, the value added here is mostly in the offhand brilliance of the words: not the sort of gross analysis that the Streets practice, just everyday life. A
  • John Coltrane: Kulu Sé Mama (1965, Impulse). This is a relatively mild example of Coltrane's far-out avant-garde period. It doubles up Coltrane's quartet, with the title track based on a poem sung by Juno Lewis. Fascinating stuff. B+
  • Ethnic Heritage Ensemble: The Continuum (1997, Delmark). Kahil El'Zabar's group plays Africanized jazz standards reworked to establish the continuities between African and Afro-American musics -- most notably the Monk piece and El'Zabar's self-evident "Ornette". B+
  • Faudel: Baïda (1997, Mondo Melodia). Excellent, very listenable Algerian Rai album. A-
  • Hot Jazz on Blue Note (1940-55, Blue Note, 4CD). Although Blue Note is best known for their hard bop and post-bop records from roughly 1955 to 1965, Alfred Lion started the label because of his devotion to traditional jazz. This collects an extensive set of such recordings, almost a third featuring Sidney Bechet, and well over half with Art Hodes on piano. Other veterans make appearances, including George Lewis, Edmond Hall, Baby Dodds, and James P. Johnson. And while these cuts are mixed up, the overall listening experience is remarkably uniform. Not sure anyone needs this much, but I wouldn't begin to know where to start cutting. A-
  • Bobby Hutcherson: Oblique (1967, Blue Note). This may be the best case I've heard for Hutcherson's preeminence as the modern vibes player, in part because here he carries most of the load himself, as opposed to Dialogue where he shares space with two horns (Freddie Hubbard and Sam Rivers) and Andrew Hill's imposing piano. A-
  • Keep It Rollin': The Blues Piano Collection (1982-99, Rounder). Interesting collection of New Orleans pianists, playing solo and singing a bit, which provides a nice mix of consistency with variety. James Booker plays fancy, but the norm is to just roll along, with Charles Brown taking it easiest to greatest effect. B+
  • Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali / Temple of Sound: People's Colony No. 1 (2001, RealWorld). An electronica remix of the Nusrat-related vocal group, it makes for easier listening than the group's A Better Destiny, but by pulling its punches it also impresses less. B+
  • Rev Up: The Best of Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels (1965-71, Rhino). In the final analysis, a good but rather ordinary rock band. This pads their heyday with Ryder's solo takes and a couple of cuts from his 1971 Detroit group, which probably cost the grade a notch. B
  • Spoon: Girls Can Tell (2001, Merge). They sound to me like the best American alt-rock band since Pavement, but this is the most problematic of the three CDs I'm familiar with -- neither as engagingly rough as A Series of Sneaks nor as thoroughly accomplished as Kill the Moonlight. Not sure this is my final grade here -- it might have been fairer to take them in order. B+
  • The Streets: Original Pirate Material (2002, Vice/Atlantic). I can't say as I find the idea of a White English rapper strange -- The Best of International Hip-Hop pretty much settled the case that the style is everywhere from Argentina to Greenland, while my own favorite rap artist of the last three years (Nelly aside) comes from Nova Scotia -- but the thick Birmingham accent absolutely pinpoints the record, and the "day in the life of a geezer" schtick paints the neighborhood. The beats are fashionable English electronica ("two-step garage" or something like that), but they mostly just serve the raps, which push things forward with eyes wide open. A


Nov 2002 Jan 2003