June 2004 Notebook
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Sunday, June 27, 2004

  • Etta Baker: Railroad Bill (1999, Music Maker). Instrumental album 87-year-old guitarist, recorded on the front porch with the occasional bird chirping in. Smooth, fluid, soulful; nothing all that tricky, but I've heard a mess of albums like this, and none that I can recall seemed to get the tone so right so often. A-

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Music: Initial count 9291 rated (+4), 1010 unrated (+26). On the road, which means lots of opportunities to buy records, damn few to listen to them -- especially with the computer nearby to take notes. Expect this to happen for another week or two. The unrateds are already underreported, and whatever's showing up at home isn't accounted for either.

  • Charles Brown: Blues and Other Love Songs (1992 [2000], 32 Jazz). Produced by Houston Person, who also contributes some tasty tenor sax. Brown's singing seems increasingly stilted, or maybe tilted, just off a bit at some odd angles. His piano, of course, is timeless. B
  • Clifford Brown: The Complete Paris Sessions Vol. 1 (1953 [1997], BMG/Vogue). Two sessions from Sept. 28-29, 1953: the first with a large band called Gigi Gryce and His Orchestra, the second with the smaller Gigi Gryce-Clifford Brown Sextet. Four of the cuts come with alternate takes; three without. The big band is six deep in trumpets, but presumably most of the leads come from Brown, with Art Farmer coming in second. It seems like the first cut starts with uncredited strings, but that clears up soon. Good, solid work from Gryce and Brown, and Jimmy Gourley adds some nice guitar for a couple of the sextet cuts. Main reservations are that it feels a little ad hoc for big band, a little cluttered for small group, and a little archival for all the alternate takes. Impressive nonetheless. B+
  • Emmylou Harris: Stumble Into Grace (2003, Nonesuch). The softcore photography and the prematurely and unnaturally white hair, more than the white dress, make her look ghostly. But the title stumbles into appropriateness. Her mark in history is as the world's greatest countryish backup singer, but she's survived her mentor by a third of a century, and despite the ghostly appurtenances she still looks as good as ever. She's alternated pop and roots moves lately -- the pop following the ever-indistinct Daniel Lanois' leads. In general, her roots moves are well intended and formally accomplished but don't quite manage to convince, while her pop moves are understated and blurry, as if her true calling in life is as a backup singer. This is just a first-play reaction based on a borrowed copy, but this one -- one of the pop moves -- impresses me as better than most (certainly better than Wrecking Ball). Part of the credit goes to the McGarrigles, who contribute two sons and arrange a chanson. B+
  • Waylon Jennings: Love of the Common People (1967 [1999], Buddha). "Money Cannot Make the Man" is uncapitalist sentiment to a waltz beat. "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" is one of the worst Beatles covers I've ever heard. Jennings is a singer who always sounds arch -- often just full of himself -- which only begins to suggest how far wrong this cover goes. The title song is also arch, and a bit forced; don't know how common Jennings thinks he is, but if he don't he's condescending and if he does . . . well, I'm tempted to say he overrates himself. One place where the archness serves him well is on "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" -- Roger Miller's Vietnam war casualty song winds between poignant and pathetic, but Jennings' immodesty puts up a brave front. (The song is credited to Mel Tillis, but I only know Miller's version.) "The Road" is a solid, stately song, and "If the Shoe Fits" fits to a tee. By this point he's hitting consistently enough that the choir on "Don't Waste Your Time" doesn't sink it. Bonus tracks are OK, so on balance there's more good shit here than bad, but the good ain't great, and the bad can really stink up the place. B-
  • Norah Jones: Feels Like Home (2004, Blue Note). Almost bought her first album before anyone had heard of it -- it was priced low and sampling a couple of cuts indicated that it was not bad -- but then I was warned off ("can't write") and missed the boat. Still haven't heard the whole album, or even much of it. Writing this on the second play of a borrowed copy: this is the follow-up to a huge freak hit, so play-it-safe mode is a distinct possibility. B-
  • Susannah McCorkle: Most Requested Songs (1977-2000 [2001], Concord). McCorkle is credited with selecting the material here and as coproducer with Nick Phillips. But my recollection is that this appeared after her death (suicide), which occurred after Concord decided not to release (record?) a new album by her that year, and after she lost an accustomed cabaret gig. So to my mind this comp is marred by bad timing. But is it at least useful? Not clear. Most of her albums were composer songbooks, and they tend to have an underlying unity that gets lost in trying to span them all. She was a very clean, clear, purposeful singer. She treated each song she touched with great respect, and often did it justice. Her career with Concord ensured that she would work with first rate, highly sympathetic musicians. The main consequence of this was that she enjoyed a career of high competency if not a lot of inspiration or idiosyncrasy. B+
  • Dolly Parton: Hungry Again (1998, Decca). Before she ventured into bluegrass, she wrote the songs on this one. Makes a pass at Gary Stewart territory with "Honky Tonk Songs", as in "why don't wild women sing honky tonk songs." It's not as good as you'd wish. That's true of most of these songs, but they're also not nearly as bad as you'd fear. Production is clean, sharp, with musicians like Rhonda Vincent. The gospel choral "Shine On" stands out, but doesn't overwhelm like it's spozed to. B

Friday, June 18, 2004

Concert: Los Lobos: Irving Plaza, New York, NY Got standing room tickets, and went with Laura and friends and acquaintances. The place is a medium-sized dancefloor with a balcony, and bars in the back of both. Some reserved seating in the balcony area. Place was pretty close to packed. Opener was Freddie Perez [sp?], singer-guitarist from Las Vegas, has an album called Poor Man's Son [need to check]. He's got some songs, but the music gets tedious or bland or something like that rather quick. Could have used a drummer, but that's par for that course. Los Lobos, on the other hand, is a seven piece group: three guitars (one switching off to something accordion-like), bass, two drummers (one mostly on congas and other percussion), and one guy who played baritone and tenor sax and keybds. They made a lot of noise for the place. I've followed the band sporadically since their first EP appeared in 1983. In those 21 years they've made at least two great albums: How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984) and Colossal Head (1996). Maybe more, especially if you count the spinoff Latin Playboys albums: Latin Playboys (1994) and Dose (1999). My caveats aren't doubts about the albums mentioned, but the rest of their oeuvre sort of melts together in my mind, winding up in two mounds: their alt-rock, which is straightforward but heavily layered (not my idea of a good thing), and their Mexican roots rock, which is what makes them distinctive. I recognized less than a third of the songs last night -- mostly things like "Don't Worry Baby," from their early work -- but much of it sounded generic, loud, and under the circumstances uncomfortable. On the other hand, the sidetrips and nods toward Mexico made better use of the band and were refreshingly different. I wound up wandering around the joint a bit, spending much of the concert in the hall with no sightlines and bad acoustics (slightly less volume, at least). When I returned they had loosened up a bit. And I lost track of the friends I entered with, and couldn't find them afterwards. Maybe they got tired (it was after midnight) and/or bored and left early. If so, they missed the highlight: to close out the encore they went Mexican, bringing extra people out on stage -- a lady sporting a steel apron for percussion, a probable roadie who came on for a show-off guitar solo, the percussion section exploded to four drummers. Quite a finale. But it took a long time getting there.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Book: Thomas Frank: What's the Matter With Kansas? (Metropolitan Books)

An excerpt from this book appeared in Harper's Magazine a while back, and it kicked up some dust in these parts. The Wichita Eagle devoted about a third of the editorial page to counter the perceived affront. When I've showed the book to other Kansans, I've gotten reflexively scornful looks. One thing for sure is that Kansans have gotten defensive -- even ones who have no reason to feel that this book doesn't stand up for them. That something is the matter with Kansas is almost an instinctive reaction. Opinions differ on what, why, and what (if anything) can/should be done about it.

Frank's subject is the new right -- what he mostly calls "the backlash" -- which has developed into a major political force in states like Kansas, although it seems likely that each state is slightly different. At least Kansas is, and this book's value is in its details. Frank's discussion of the ideologists focuses on the platitudes that the new right pundits use to explain places like Kansas: David Brooks gets the once-over for his red/blue state dichotomies, and Ann Coulter pushes the same arguments over the top. But Brooks and Coulter just come off as hired flacks. It's harder to dismiss the local activists -- aside from some of the political opportunists like Sam Brownback and Phill Kline.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Music: Initial count 9287 rated (+16), 984 unrated (-1). This week was effectively cut short by my trip. I doubt that I will be able to do a very good job for the next week or two (or three, however long it takes to get back home), but I've brought a lot of unrated music along for the ride.

  • The Gordon Beck Quartet: Experiments With Pops (1967 [2001], Art of Life). We're not talking Armstrong here. We're also not talking the sort of shit that classical music orchestras crank out on their fundraisers. The "pops" here are huge '60s AM hits, mostly with soft, gooey cores: "These Boots Are Made for Walking," "Norwegian Wood," "Sunny," "Up, Up and Away," "Michelle," "I Can See for Miles," "Good Vibrations," "Monday, Monday." Still, there's nothing soft (let alone gooey) here. Beck had worked with Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott, and emerged as an exceptionally erudite pianist (his For Evans' Sake is a favorite). Jeff Clyne plays bass, and the drummer is the great avant-garist Tony Oxley. But most notably, the fourth leg of the quartet is John McLaughlin. B+
  • Sheila Jordan: Little Song (2003, High Note). Just got a chance to hear this at my host's house, so it's premature to grade, but what the hell: sounds to me like the best thing she's done at least since Lost and Found (1990). Like most jazz singers from the '50s, she loves to bend her phrases and skirt around little nuances in the music. And she also loves to scat, although there's not a lot of that here. Unlike anyone else (with the partial exception of Billie Holiday), her phrasing emphasizes complete control over her raging emotions, and she can really burn a slow one. A-
  • Aaron Neville: Ultimate Collection (1961-97 [2001], Hip-O). New Orleans-based falsetto singer with considerable talent but a very checkered career: a few '60s hits with Minit Records; a lead turn with his brothers' group, the Neville Brothers, which produced one great album, a couple of pretty good ones, and some junk; and a later solo career which featured his voice in setting as dubious as duets with Linda Ronstadt. This covers the gamut, with no evidence of a particularly good ear. A smarter comp might have searched harder for his odd contributions to tribute albums, which he has been rather distinguished at. A better comp might have zoomed in on some period (e.g., the '60s) or stylistic trait that works for him. But a little bit of everything just reminds you how unsingular he's been. B
  • Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee: Midnight Special (1960 [1989], Fantasy). Released previously as a 2LP set in 1977. This starts off pretty typical, which is commendable -- they kept a tight leash on their easy-going rhythm, which buoyed up almost everything they did. But I don't hear anything that distinguishes this from their typical fare. B+
  • Blues Masters: The Very Best of T-Bone Walker (1945-57 [2000], Rhino). Walker burst out of Texas playing an electrifying electric guitar and singing the blues in a style that split the difference between the old country blues and the latest thing in r&b. He recorded a bunch for Capitol / Black & White (1940-49, collected on a 3CD set) and Imperial (1950-54, collected on a 2CD set), and a bit for Atlantic (1955-57), and that was about it. A single CD comp should be just right for a well rounded blues collection, but this one doesn't feel ideal: it runs a bit short (16 cuts), and is rough at the start. A-

Sunday, June 06, 2004

A great man died yesterday: Steve Lacy pioneered and exemplified the avant-garde in jazz -- in particular, the notion that the new music doesn't evolve from the leading edge so much as it transcends all of the music that came before it. He was the first postmodernist in jazz, and he explored the music (Monk above all) and developed it in novel ways over 45 years of superb records. Ronald Reagan also died yesterday: he was a sack of shit who in his "what, me worry?" way destroyed far more than Lacy built. To describe Reagan as the intellectual forefather of George W. Bush is just sarcasm; for both ideas were nothing more than excuses for wielding power not just to vanquish the weak or to favor the strong but to bask in its own glory. Ideas, of course, did flower up around Reagan, as they do around Bush -- really bad ideas.

At the time my take on the Reagan administration was that they were responsible for fraud the biggest growth industry in the U.S. By the end of Reagan's second term almost every department of the U.S. government was awash in corruption scandals: despite all of the talk, the administration's most evident real program was to steal everything in sight. But ultimately the talk did matter. At the time there was much talk about a "Reagan Revolution" -- oblivious to the fact that the only right-wing revolutions in memory led to the triumph of the Fascists and Nazis, to WWII and the Holocaust. Those are big boots to goosestep in, and it's taken a while to fill them. That the U.S. does not yet exude the stink of Nazi Germany is due more to tactical success and luck than its moral claims to a legacy of freedom and democracy -- claims that are eagly exploited as propaganda even as they are cynically subverted.

I've been reading Mahmood Mamdani's book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, which places most of the responsibility for terrorism today on American policies which were given their most enthusiastic support during the Reagan administration. In particular, Mamdani shows how the two major "triumphs" of the Reagan administration -- the defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the expulsion of Soviet troops in Afghanistan -- were accomplished largely through U.S.-sponsored terrorism. Of course, U.S. use of proxies to subvert foreign governments goes back before Reagan, but Reagan combined them with a domestic policy that favored the wealthy over the poor to an unprecedented degree and that sought to subject government functions to private interests. The combination of proxies and privatization let the promotion of terrorism proceed with unbound glee. That the Afghan mujahideen -- Mamdani quotes Reagan comparing them to the Founding Fathers of the U.S. -- eventually turned on their previous masters isn't ironic: it's a staple of classic literature.

Mamdani talks quite a bit about the drug trade, which has turned out to be a useful means of clandestine financing for America's (and now the world's) terrorist operations. Nicaragua's contras were to a large extent financed by the cocaine trade (as well as illegal arms trade with Iran via Israel -- always a helpful partner when discretion and scrupulousnes are called for), while Afghanistan's opium trade was practically built from scratch for the mujahideen. One thing he doesn't point out is how the highly militarized "war on drugs" has been used to fortify U.S. military investments -- isn't the very definition of a scam a game where one controls both the creation of the problem and its supposed solution?

Reagan himself seemed harmless enough, but he was never more or less than a front for forces behind the scenes. They gave us the marriage of the Christian Right and the ultra-rich; they sought to dismantle any shred of a welfare state, by bankruptcy if not by law; they preached military might and sought to sought to extend America's military advantage to project hegemonic power all over the world, and they recruited and trained the scum of the world to do their bidding. Bush is a front for the same forces, but he's not as disarming an actor as Reagan, and he's got a lot more shit to cover up.

In the days to come there will be a lot of talk over Reagan's legacy, and people in/near power, especially in the media, will be reluctant to challenge anything. But his legacy is part of the political struggle today, and ignoring it only concedes ground that still matters.

Hopefully we'll hear more about Steve Lacy as well.


Music: Initial count 9271 rated (+28), 985 unrated (-19). First Jazz Consumer Guide done, but not yet edited. I wrote more than I need, and still haven't gotten to most of what I have. Working on the "May" Recycled Goods, which is a little ragged but damn near done too, with a start on "June" that I'm fleshing out at the same time. Terminal Zone is on the air, too, although for now it's just a repository for old shit by Michael Tatum and myself.

  • The Blasters: Live: Going Home (2003 [2004], Shout Factory). Just another live reunion, featuring songs from back in the day ("Marie Marie," "Border Radio," "American Music"), some oldies, guest spots for Sonny Burgess and Billy Boy Arnold, and some local (Santa Ana, CA) talent. Sounds like you'd expect. B+
  • Cee-Lo: Cee-Lo Green Is the Soul Machine (Arista). Not as good as last time -- in particular, there's nothing killer, just a lot of his usual schtick. But his usual schtick is still pretty good. A-
  • Earth, Wind and Fire: I Am (1979 [2004], Columbia/Legacy). They hit their popular peak in the mid-'70s with That's the Way of the World, Gratitude, Spirit, and All 'n All, then caught a second wind (more creative than commercial) with Raise and Powerlight. This came in between. Still, it's much of the same cloth, including two great hits -- the magnificent falsetto ballad "After the Love Is Gone" and the rousing "Boogie Wonderland" -- and the usual filler; i.e., usual for them. B+
  • Anthony Hamilton: Comin' From Where I'm From (2003, So So Def/Arista). Second album from a well-regarded contemporary soul singer, flows smooth, shows quite a bit of style and some substance, although from the slickness it's hard to tell how much. I find this style hard to play close attention to -- the best examples just sort of wrap you up like a warm blanket. And that's more or less what this one does. B+
  • Woody Herman: The Jazz Swinger / Music for Tired Lovers (1954-66 [2000], Collectables). The first half a big band from 1966, produced by Teo Macero, with a cast that I barely recognize. Vocals not attributed, but certainly by Herman, who has always been a pretty good crooner. Bright, ebullient old-timey music, "Swanee" and "Dinah" and "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" and "Toot, Toot, Tootsie! (Goodbye)" -- more corn than is good for you, but tasty nonetheless. The second half is from 1954, just Herman singing in front of a piano trio that includes Errol Garner, a far cry from his usual bombast. Highlight is Ellington's "Beginning to See the Light"; Herman sings fine, and every now and then Garner does something to perk up your ears. B+
  • Kansas (1974, Kirshner). Eponymous first album by Topeka's answer to Boston, by way of Genesis. The raging John Brown portrait on the cover is iconic, but it could just as well have been Wyatt Earp or Carry Nation or William Allen White or Frederick Funston or Arthur Capper or Stan Kenton or Kirstie Alley or a sunflower or a meadowlark or a cowpie. Semiclassical rock, I guess, the vocals owing more to operetta, the guitars churning up huge gales of StŁrm und Drang. "Death of Mother Nature Suite" is all you feared. C-
  • Jonny Lang: Long Time Coming (2003, A&M). Famous from his first album at a 14-year-old playing an old man's game, this is his fourth album, and now that he's 21 there's no point in cutting him slack. Sounds rockish, the feverish "The One I Got" being a relatively good example. The nadir is possibly "Save Yourself" -- melodramatic bloat of the worst sort. Closes with a live romp through Stevie Wonder's "Livin' for the City," peddled as a "bonus track" -- smart move. C+
  • The Peter Malick Group Featuring Norah Jones: New York City (2003, Koch). AMG lists Malick under blues: despite having no albums under his own name until 1998, he seems to go back to the '60s, when he worked with Otis Spann among others. His resume also includes an association with Hair and a stint with the James Montgomery Band, but his connection with Norah Jones is the raison d'Ítre for this album. I've somehow missed her two albums, so this is my first exposure to her. "All Your Love" does have a strong bluesy feel, and "Heart of Mine" continues the vibe. "Things You Don't Have to Do" is a duet, and Malick's voice helps pick up the album. I don't fall for the "New York City/such a beautiful disease" thing -- seems defective both factually and as metaphor -- and that song, reprised at the end in a "bonus" radio edit, is languid. But overall this pleases. B+
  • Mandingo Griot Society (1978, Flying Fish). AMG files this under Foday Musa Soso, who plays kora and sings, but the only name that shows up on the cover or spine is "Special Guest Don Cherry." The rest of the group, despite their African robes, are, like Cherry, jazz musicians -- if Adam Rudolph's white face isn't enough of a hint, consider the drummer dba Hank Drake: the first record, as far as I can tell, for the formidable Hamid Drake. At the time it might have been seen as some sort of pathbreaking move, but today it mostly sounds rough. B
  • Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Godfathers and Sons (1954-2002 [2003], Hip-O). The first half is a pretty good -- well, ok, pretty great -- Chicago blues compilation: Muddy, the Wolf, Buddy, Little Walter, Jimmy Rodgers, Koko Taylor, Magic . . . well, they slipped in Slim instead of Sam. Then comes the connection to Chuck D and Common, which is a bit more tenuous. Robert Zimmerman is something else to ponder. The problem with the first half is the second half, which shortchanges you; the problem with the second half is that it isn't developed into something interesting in its own right. B+
  • Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Piano Blues (1938-2003 [2003], Columbia/Legacy). To get a film, Clint Eastwood invited some old-timers (Jay McShann, Dr. John, Dave Brubeck, Pete Jolly, Pinetop Perkins) over to his studio to talk and play, so inevitably their demonstrations show up in the soundtrack, along with some of the classic records they talk about. It's significant that Eastwood's concept of piano blues is an unorthodox one -- he starts with boogie woogie (Jimmy Yancey, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, Art Tatum on a lark), Kansas City jazz (Count Basie, Big Joe Turner -- this leads into McShann), New Orleans r&b (Fats Domino, Professor Longhair -- can you say Dr. John?), while touching a few other bases (Charles Brown, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Otis Spann). Aside from Spann (and late in the day Henry Townsend and Pinetop Perkins), all of those guys are associated either with jazz or with r&b; the usual blues tradition (e.g., Leroy Carr, Roosevelt Sykes, Big Maceo Merriweather) are ignored completely. My own caveats have less to do with Eastwood's conception -- that is in fact what is most interesting here -- than the usual skittish inconsistencies in crafting soundtracks. B+
  • Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: The Road to Memphis (1951-2002 [2003], Hip-O). Again, this is part great Memphis blues comp, although that's far less than half of the deal. The deal with soundtracks is you get what makes sense for the movie, which is predominantly a visual medium. The story line here has us following Bobby Rush on tour, which is interesting just because he's not all that great -- he's a journeyman at best, and his big moment here, "Hen Pecked," is mostly played for laughs. B
  • Paul Motian: Play Monk and Powell (1998 [1999], Winter & Winter). This is Motian's Electric Bebop Band, consisting of two electric guitars (Kurt Rosenwinkel, Steve Cardenas), two tenor saxes (Chris Potter, Chris Cheek), electric bass (Steve Swallow), and Motian on drums. I liked the very first Electric Bebop Band album quite a bit, but the second one (on Mingus) lost me, and this one hasn't found me either. One problem may be that neither the guitars nor the saxes have a lot of oomph to them, so the potential of the electricity isn't realized. The Monk material is, of course, much more obvious than the Powell: Monk regularly wrote for saxophone, or at least orchestrated his odd lines to torture his saxophonists, so we're used to hearing them that way, and used to hearing lots of variants on those themes -- that is, I think, the secret as to why Monk has proven to be much more successful as a repertory writer than Mingus, Powell, or any of their contemporaries. Powell, on the other hand, isn't obvious unless there's a piano in the house, which there isn't here. (Interesting that Motian, who's made virtually his whole career as a sideman accompanying pianists, never uses them in his own records.) I suspect that there's more here than I can readily hear -- that's a frequent suspicion with Motian, whose own work I often find oblique. I also suspect that I'm turned off a bit by the tone -- a problem I frequently have with Potter, in particular. Still, that's the way the game is played, and I've been through this record enough times to doubt that it's going to get better. B
  • Hilton Ruiz: Heroes (1993, Telarc). Big band cubano thing, big names too, tributes ranging from Billie Holiday to Sonny Rollins, an exercise in de trop that is ultimately hard to follow, although it's not without its moments. Steve Turre's trombone is one of them. B

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

One of the signatures of debate over how to achieve peace in the Israel/Palestine conflict is how little semantic difference it takes to render communication impossible between sides. A Wichita peace group is organizing a demonstration on June 5 to bring attention to tragedy there. To that end they posted a notice on their website and passed around some flyers, which among other things suggested some possible sign topics. A Wichita rabbi protested the demonstration, and especially some of the terminology used in the postings, and his email found its way to Laura Tillem (one of the organizers) and myself (her husband). Laura made some changes to the posting, then wrote the rabbi, who responded as follows:

Ms Tillem,

Thank you for your e-mail. Since you open your letter by saying "it has come to my attention that you are upset . . . ," perhaps you have not read my original e-mail message; I know I did not send it to you. As you might imagine, I would not characterize my communication as "quibbling with how various individuals may express themselves." Such a characterization, I feel, belittles my point and ignores the instructions/advice your announcement actually gives to participants (I certainly appreciate your changing the wording, however changing the accusation that Israel engages in "genocide" to accusing Israel of "ethnic cleansing" is still inaccurate, unfair and inflammatory).

I may have a problem with the settlements and would look for an effective way of withdrawing; however, for the sake of fairness and justice, I cannot present the issue in as oversimplified a way as just (for example) "Israel withdraws from the land it won in battle with Jordan (who "stole" the land from the then Palestinian Arabs) and the land it won in battle with Egypt (who "stole" the land from the then Palestinian Arabs) and then all will live in peace." Such a belief is utopian at best.

I would, indeed, welcome the opportunity to join in a serious effort to bridge the violent divide between Israel and the Palestinians but it is clear that the activities you are promoting takes only one side of the issue, exaggerates it, and ignores "the other." I believe that the issues of both parties (as well as all of the Arab nations which have been at war with Israel since long before the 1967 war) must be addressed.

In short, I agree with Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel's former deputy foreign minister, who said a couple of years ago in Washington, D.C.:

Never has it been so hard to find the balance between protecting the lives of innocent Israelis threatened by terrorism and violence and the Palestinian civilians living in those areas from where acts of terror are emanating. Never has it been so hard to find a way of ensuring security while recognizing the humanity of the Palestinians. . . .

It is not an easy solution; it is one which I fear will not be found by this generation. It certainly will not be found with the ham-fisted tools of inflammatory rhetoric and revisionist history.

There are, in fact, several other points you make in your e-mail with which I disagree but electronic communication, which best supports brevity, is not the best way to address them.

I pray that during your demonstration the point is effectively made that there is room for blame on all sides of the question and that Israel's actions -- however one may disagree with them -- are born of Israel's struggle simply to exist.

The thing is, this letter seems tantalizingly close to being a starting point (albeit somewhat misinformed and somewhat misstated) that could be reasoned with until you get to the last sentence. The last sentence is in fact irrelevant to resolving the problem, but it sorely tempts one to retort, of course all these problems were "born of Israel's struggle simply to exist" -- that's the problem with Zionism, that's exactly why Zionism was such a bad idea to start with. This baits those of us who never endorsed the idea of Zionism, who in fact saw it as a tragic disaster in the making, to break off what is obviously a hopeless discussion.

But like I said, the issue of Zionism's inherent flaws is irrelevant to moving forward. Zionism is history: it has done done what it was bound to do. When we look back at history it is clear that some people benefited from Zionism's success, and that others were hurt by the same. (One of the key flaws of Zionism is that it posited a zero-sum game, where Jewish gains were only possible at the expense of the native Arabs. Arab rejectionism had the same flaw, but it was merely a reflection of Zionism.) But the real problem is not what happened then: it's what the status is now. Zionism created grave injustices at various points in the past, but those injustices can never be undone. What can be remedied is the existence of injustice in the present, but as the rabbi points out, Israel's actions today are still rooted in the need to defend its Zionist past. As long as that need exists, there can be no resolution, because it is after all impossible to undo the past.

To see the folly of such an argument, one need only substitute an analogous case, such as slavery in America. Staggering injustices were inflicted on human beings captured in Africa, forcibly shipped to America, and kept in a state of slavery until the end of the U.S. civil war in 1865. There's no way that we can undo those injustices, nor can we conceive of a world in which those injustices had never occurred. The only thing that we can do today is to work to build a just society today, which among other things demands that we recognize that injustices did happen in our past.

Israel's apologists are unable or unwilling to distinguish between the past and the present, because they are stuck in their past. They still feel haunted by centuries of persecution. They still insist that Israel is facing a struggle to exist. They are able to persist in those convictions because they can more or less plausibly point to opponents who mirror their views; indeed, the Israelis' ability to project their story seems to have such an impression on the Palestinians that the Palestinian story comes back as an echo: most obviously, substitute Nakba for Holocaust. Israel has provided the Palestinians with the concept of a people hated and tormented by the whole world, Israel has given them a taste of what such an implaccable foe feels like, and Israel has given them a model of the need to stand and fight, even to the point of martyrdom (or Masada-dom). And any time the Palestinians do fight back, that just reinforces Israel's story.

Still, that story is wearing thin, partly because the facts are getting harder and harder to reconcile, and partly because the story itself has been more and more honed for sale in America, as if the only people outside of Israel who matter to the Israelis are the Americans. Regardless of the rabbi's points on the 1967 war, the fact is that today Israel faces no existential danger other than perhaps its own tendency to shoot at its own feet. And regardless of who occupied the West Bank and Gaza before 1967 (Jordan and Egypt, respectively; before that the British, the Ottomans, and many others, most famously the Crusaders), the fact is that today it is Israel who is in control, and it is Israel who is responsible for the lack of freedom and the lack of justice in those lands today.

Israel's apologists not only dwell in the past; they've fallen into the habit of only talking to themselves, because no one else understands and no one else matters. That tactic still has some resonance in the U.S., where many of us feel the same. One liberal pundit (Robert Reich) wrote a book a while back complaining that the U.S. was becoming a gulag of gated communities; well, the U.S. is nothing in that regard compared to Israel, but we're moving in that direction. The Bush policies of unilateralism and preŽmptive war are modelled on Israel, and anticipate a world where the U.S. stands as a lonely fortress amidst a worldwide sea of hostility. It isn't hard to visualize because Israel has already created just such a worldview. That Israel's story no longer plays outside of Israel and the U.S. just reinforces all that its apologists believe.

The rabbi's pessimism reflects this: he dwells within Israel's cul de sac, behind a set of conceptual walls that are every bit as debilitating as Sharon's "security fence." He dismisses the belief that one could live in peace as utopian, despite the fact that most of the world does just that. Especially curious is how he bemoans "the ham-fisted tools of inflammatory rhetoric and revisionist history." Rhetoric, of course, is rhetoric, and while Israel's apologists can dish it out with the best of them, it is at best meant to simplify and more likely meant to obfuscate; in neither case does it help much. Reasonable people try to work around it, but the field of discourse is so mined with it that sensible people just try to see past it. Revisionist history, on the other hand, has a specific meaning here: it describes the efforts of honest historians to focus our understanding of history more on fact and less on myth. Israel's so-called revisionist historians -- perhaps a more accurate term would be real historians, but rhetoric has its druthers -- have done us an immense service in helping to clarify what has happened in the past, but in a normal frame of reference that should mostly be of academic and intellectual interest. The only reason it isn't is because the apologists have let themselves be mired in the myths of the past -- for them alone revisionism is the same as "inflammatory rhetoric." In such a world pessimism is indeed the order of the day: as long as the problem is the past, it cannot be solved. To the immense frustration of those of us who live in the present and see no valid excuse not for dealing with today's problems today. There is so much that can and should be done that trying to talk with people who can't and won't do anything is quickly seen as a waste of precious time and effort.


PS: For anyone who's interested, there has been a continuous stream of books on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which help to explain where we are now and what the prospects may be for progress. Bernard Wasserstein's Israelis and Palestinians: Why Do They Fight? Can They Stop? covers some relatively deep-trending issues like demography and ecology which at almost tectonic speeds are moving both sides to a point where they have to reconcile. Richard Ben Cramer's How Israel Lost goes deeper into the political movements, their rhetorical blinders, and the ensuing disaster. I recommend both of these books highly (also Baruch Kimmerling's Politicide, which adds some important flesh to the sketch of how Israel's occupation affects the Palestinians); perhaps Cramer most of all, because he paints the most vibrant portrait of the widest range of Israelis and Palestinians. Also because his explanations of how "explaining" functions as propaganda in Israel, his assertion that "competitive talk" is their national sport, and that the rabbis are the reigning champs of such talk -- those all contribute to my analysis above.


May 2004 Jul 2004