September 2007 Notebook
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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Weekend Roundup

Tom Engelhardt: Bush's Free World and Welcome to It. Another installment in Engelhardt's series on Bushian automythologizing in the Iraq war. Most useful for the background to the Blackwater news, which is hardly new at all. Ends on a Robert Gates speech viewed as the return of the realists, but you have to wonder what are those socalled American interests the socalled realists are so hardnosed about, and why in the end it makes so little practical difference whether the realists or the ideologues are setting the propaganda tone.

Dilip Hiro: It's the Oil, Stupid. Starting with Alan Greenspan's quote ("I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil") Hiro traces back what we know about what the Bush administration was thinking about oil in Iraq. (One wonders if Greenspan is also saddened that it's politically inconvenient for the Republicans to acknowledge how important it is that they cater to white racism.) This includes conflicting State and Defense Dept. plans:

By January 2003, a plan for Iraqi oil crafted by the State Department and oil majors emerged under the guidance of Amy Myers Jaffe of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. It recommended maintaining the state-owned Iraq National Oil Company, whose origins dated back to 1961 -- but open it up to foreign investment after an initial period in which U.S.-approved Iraqi managers would supervise the rehabilitation of the war-damaged oil infrastructure. The existence of this group would come to light in a report by the Wall Street Journal on March 3, 2003.

Unknown to the architects of this scheme, according to the same BBC Newsnight report, the Pentagon's planners, apparently influenced by powerful neocons in and out of the administration, had devised their own super-secret plan. It involved the sale of all Iraqi oil fields to private companies with a view to increasing output well above the quota set by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) for Iraq in order to weaken, and then destroy, OPEC.

Even now, about the only argument that the war was not over oil is the incoherency in the administration's policies, a problem which is certainly abetted by the mandate of secrecy surrounding it all.

Kathleen Christison: Whatever Happened to Palestine? A big part of this long piece is a screed against the US peace movement for ignoring the Israel/Palestine conflict. I clicked on this thinking I'd say something in defense of the beleaguered peace movement, but in the end the bill of particulars got to me. One reason antiwar Democrats in Congress seem so confused on Iraq (and Iran) is that they can't draw the connections to Israel. With Israel totally off base, they have no way to move American foreign policy to a grounding in justice, and that leaves them with no concrete, plausible plan for peace. As it stands now, Iraq is a bloody mess with no possible American-directed solution, even if the American doing the deciding wasn't a complete shithead. Israel/Palestine is a different situation altogether -- a place to start rebuilding an American strategy that is desperately needed to get along with anyone in the Middle East. But it's not just Bush who's gone over the deep end there.

Andrew Cockburn: Iraq's WMD Myth: Why Clinton Is Culpable. By 1997 UN weapons inspectors had determined that Iraq no longer had any WMD. The Clinton administration prevented that finding from becoming official by escalating US ambitions to include regime change in Iraq. Clinton succeeded in getting the UN inspectors pulled out of Iraq, and for the rest of his term used Iraq as a punching bag whenever his political situation needed a little distraction. By keeping WMD in play, Clinton made it possible for Bush to use WMD to promote his war. That much is all very straightforward. Cockburn doesn't go into Clinton's political predicaments, not least the Republians' constant hounding on defense issues, but a big part of that was that Clinton had no principles to defend. He and Gore had supported the first Bush war in Iraq, and he and Gore scored political points in the 1992 presidential campaign over the first Bush failing to get the job done. Clinton had escalated anti-Saddam containment operations after taking office. Clearly, he liked having Iraq as an open sore, as it gave him a common bond with the military and some high ground on hawkishnes to defend against constant Republican sniping. Clearly, he didn't give a shit what came out of his policies or positions. Like everything from Sister Souljah to Marc Rich, his only concern with politics was tactical, how to turn a bad situation (often of his own making) to his short-term advantage.

Of course, it's was mostly the right wing think tanks and their mostly Republican operatives who kept the fires burning under Iraq all through the Clinton years, and under Bush they carried their logic through to consequences that Clinton and Gore wouldn't have risked. In the end, blame for the war rests squarely on Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their little helpers. But they were able to do this because others failed to stand up to them -- Clinton, above all, because he was in a position to actually do something to defuse the situation. This was hardly Clinton's only failure: he managed to avoid doing anything constructive on Israel/Palestine until he put forth his compromise "principles" in the very last days of his term, after his cynical Camp David con had failed and blown up.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Chris Hedges: American Fascists

Michelle Goldberg's explored the same ground in her Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, but with the tentativeness of an outsider. Chris Hedges's American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2007, Free Press) minces fewer words. The book makes me wonder why, in this age of neoliberal and neoconservative, we don't just come out and honor the new American right as the neofascists they are.

These quotes have been gathering dust in my files for a while now. They could be better annotated, but are well worth reading.


Hedges starts by quoting Blaise Pascal: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."

He then reprints a piece by Umberto Eco, "Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt." I'll quote the subject heads and a bit more from two points I found particularly striking (no page numbers):

1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition. [ . . . ]

2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism. [ . . . ]

3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action's sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Herman Goering's fondness for a phrase from a Hanns Johst play ("When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun") to the frequent use of such expressions as "degenerate intellectuals," "egg-heads," "effete snobs," and "universities are nests of reds." The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.

4. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. [ . . . ]

5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. [ . . . ]

6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. [ . . . ]

7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. [ . . . ]

8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. When I was a boy I was taught to think of Englishmen as the five-meal people. They ate more frequently than the poor but sober Italians. Jews are rich and help each other through a secret web of mutual assistance. However, the followers of Ur-Fascism must also be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.

9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. [ . . . ]

10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak. [ . . . ]

11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. [ . . . ]

12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. [ . . . ]

13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. [ . . . ]

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, as the official language of what he called Ingsoc, English Socialism. But elements of Ur-Fascism are common to different forms of dictatorship. All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.

Hedges' father was a Presbyterian preacher, and Hedges attended seminary at Harvard Divinity School. Hedges talks about faith as he was taught (p. 2):

We were taught that those who claimed to speak for God, the self-appointed prophets who promised the Kingdom of God on earth, were dangerous. We had no ability to understand God's will. We did the best we could. We made decisions -- even decisions that on the outside looked unobjectionably moral -- well aware of the numerous motives, some good and some bad, that went into every human act. In the end, we all stood in need of forgiveness. We were all tainted by sin. None were pure. The Bible was not the literal word of God. It was not a self-help manual that could predict the future. It did not tell us how to vote or allow us to divide the world into us and them, the righteous and the damned, the infidels and the blessed. It was a book written by a series of ancient writers, certainly fallible and at times at odds with each other, who asked the right questions and struggled with the mystery and transcendence of human existence. We took the Bible seriously and therefore could not take it literally.

(p. 5):

There is enough hatred, bigotry and lust for violence in the pages of the Bible to satisfy anyone bent on justifying cruelty and violence. Religion, as H. Richard Niebuhr said, is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people. And the Bible has long been used in the wrong hands -- such as antebellum slave owners in the American South who quoted from it to defend slavery -- not to Christianize the culture, as those wielding it often claim, but to acculturate the Christian faith.

(pp. 10-11):

These values, democratic and Christian, are being dismantled, often with stealth, by a radical Christian movement, known as dominionism, which seeks to cloak itself in the mantle of the Christian faith and American patriotism. Dominionism takes its name from Genesis 1:26-31, in which God gives human beings "dominion" over all creation. This movement, small in number but influential, departs from traditional evangelicalism. Dominionists now control at least six national television networks, each reaching tens of millions of homes, and virtually all of the nation's more than 2,000 religious radio stations, as well as denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. Dominionism seeks to redefine traditional democratic and Christian terms and concepts to fit an ideology that calls on the radical church to take political power. It shares many prominent features with classical fascist movements, at least as it is defined by the scholar Robert O. Paxton, who sees fascism as "a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood by compensatory cultures of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of command nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."

Dominionism, born out of a theology known as Christian reconstructionism, seeks to politicize faith. It has, like all fascist movements, a belief in magic along with leadership adoration and a strident call for moral and physical supremacy of a master race, in this case American Christians. It also has, like fascist movements, an ill-defined and shifting set of beliefs, some of which contradict one another. Paxton argues that the best way to understand authentic fascist movements, which he says exist in all societies, including democracies, is to focus not on what they say but on how they act, for, as he writes, some of the ideas that underlie fascist movements "remain unstated and implicit in fascist public language," and "many of them belong more to the realm of visceral feelings than to the realm of reasoned propositions."

(p. 24):

It is perhaps telling that our closest allies in the United Nations on issues dealing with reproductive rights, one of the few issues where we cooperate with other nations, are Islamic states such as Iran. But then the Christian Right and radical Islamists, although locked in a holy war, increasingly mirror each other. They share the same obsessions. They do not tolerate other forms of belief or disbelief. They are at war with artistic and cultural expression. They seek to silence the media. They call for the subjugation of women. They promote severe sexual repression, and they seek to express themselves through violence.

(p. 81):

Fundamentalism, Karen McCarthy Brown wrote, "is the religion of those at once seduced and betrayed by the promise that we human beings can comprehend and control our world. Bitterly disappointed by the politics of rationalized bureaucracies, the limitations of science, and the perversions of industrialization, fundamentalists seek to reject the modern world, while nevertheless holding onto these habits of mind: clarity, certitude, and control."

(pp. 115-116):

In the promulgation of the totalitarian belief system, at first we are told we all have a right to an opinion, in short, a right to believe anything. Soon, under the iron control of an empowered totalitarian movement, facts become worthless, kept or discarded according to an ideological litmus test. Lies become true. And once the totalitarians are in power, facts are ruthlessly manipulated or kept hidden to support the lie. Hannah Arendt called the principle behind this process "nihilistic relativism." The goal of creationism is not to offer an alternative. Its goal is the destruction of the core values of the open society -- the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when judgment and common sense tell you something is wrong. To be self-critical, to challenge authority, to advocate for change and to accept that there are other views, different ways of being, that are morally and socially acceptable.

(p. 118):

Evolution implicitly challenges the possibility of miracles, the Second Coming of Christ, the Resurrection, and an apocalyptic end to human existence in which the saved are lifted up into heaven. For believers who have found in the certitude of Christian fundamentalism a shelter from despair, a despair that threatens to consume them again if they return to a reality-based world, evolution is terrifying. The miracles they insist they see performed around them, the presence of the guiding, comforting hand of God in their lives, the notion that there is a divine destiny specially preordained for them, crumbles into dust under the cold glare of evolution. Evolution posits what they fear most: a morally neutral universe. It obliterates the fantastic constructs of their belief system. And the steady efforts by creationists to erode the authority of evolution and discredit Darwin are, because of all this, unrelenting and fierce.

(pp. 142-143):

The strangest alliance, on the surface, is with Israeli Jews. After all, the movement generally teaches that Jews who do not convert are damned and will be destroyed in the fiery, apocalyptic ending of the world. It is early on Sunday morning in a ballroom on the second floor of the Hilton Hotel. The Israel Ministry of Tourism is hosting a breakfast. Several hundred people are seated at round tables with baskets of bread, fruit plates and silver pitchers of coffee. Waiters are serving plates of scrambled eggs and creamed spinach. Nearly everyone is white. On the platform is a huge picture of the Dome of the Rock, the spot where the Temple will be rebuilt to herald the Second Coming. Some 700,000 Christian tourists visit Israel each year, and with the steep decline in overall tourism, they have become a valued source of revenue in Israel.

Dominionists preach that Israel must rule the biblical land in order for Christ to return. The belief that Jews who do not convert will be killed is unmentioned at the breakfast. The featured speakers include Avraham Hirschsohn, the new Israeli minister of tourism; and Michael Medved, a cultural conservative and nationally syndicated radio talk-show host. Medved is one of the most prominent Jewish defenders of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and of the radical Christian Right. He wears a yarmulke and is warmly greeted by the crowd.

"A more Christian America is good for the Jews," he says. "This is obvious. Take a look at this support for Israel. A more Christian America is good for America, something Jewish people need to be more cognizant about and acknowledge. A more Jewish community is good for the Christians, not just because of the existence of allies, but because a more Jewish community is less seduced by secularism." [ . . . ]

He ticks off causes in which both Jewish and Christian people have been active, including the call for prayer in schools and the fight against abortion (although abortion is legal in Israel). He defends his Jewish integrity by saying he does not believe in the Rapture. But this is more than a religious alliance. It is a political alliance. It unites messianic Christians with right-wing messianic Jews, who believe God has annointed them to expand their dominion throughout the Middle East at the expense of the Arab majority.

(pp. 174-175):

The triviality of American popular culture, its emptiness and gossip, accelerates this destruction of critical thought. It expands the void, the mindlessness that makes the magic, mythology and irrationality of the Christian Right palatable. Television, the movement's primary medium, allows viewers to preoccupy themselves with context-free information. The homogenized empty chatter on the airwaves, the banal amusement and clichés, the bizarre doublespeak endlessly repeated on cable news channels and the huge spectacles in sports stadiums have replaced America's political,social and moral life, indeed replaced community itself. Television lends itself perfectly to this world of signs and wonders, to the narcissism of national and religious self-exaltation. Television discourages real communication. Its rapid frames and movement, its constant use of emotional images, its sudden shifts from one theme to an unrelated theme, banish logic and reason with dizzying perplexity. It, too, promises to lift us up and thrill us. The televangelists have built their movement on these commercial precepts. The totalitarian creed of the Religious Right has found in television the perfect medium. Its leaders know how television can be used to seduce and encourage us to walk away from the dwindling, less exciting collectives that protect and nurture us. They have mastered television's imperceptible, slowly induced hypnosis. And they understand the enticement of credo quia absurdum -- I believe because it is absurd.

Hedges reminiscences about Dr. James Luther Adams, his ethics professor at Harvard Divinity School, who had spent 1933-36 working underground in Nazi Germany with Christian opponents such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (pp. 195-196):

He saw in the Christian Right, long before we did, disturbing similarities with the German Christian Church and the Nazi Party, similarities, he said that would, in the event of prolonged social instability, catastrophe or national crisis, see American fascists, under the guise of Christianity, rise to dismantle the open society. He despaired of liberals, who he said, as in Nazi Germany, mouthed empty platitudes about dialogue and inclusiveness that made them ineffectual and impotent. Liberals, he said, did not understand the power and allure of evil or the cold reality of how the world worked. His long discussions with church leaders and theologians in Nazi Germany -- some of whom collaborated with the regime, some of whom resisted and most of whom remained silent -- were the defining experiences of his life. He was preoccupied with how liberal democracies, which could never hope to compete with the fantastic, utopian promises of personal and collective salvation offered by totalitarian movements, could resist. Adams was a close friend of the theologian Paul Tillich, a vocal opponent of the Nazis who in 1933 became the first non-Jewish professor barred from German universities and soon went into exile. Tillich, he reminded us, taught that the role of the church was in society, that the depth of its commitment and faith were measured by its engagement with politics and culture. It was this engagement that alone gave faith its vibrancy and worth. Tillich did not retreat from the looming crisis around him. He spoke out against the intolerance and hatred preached by the Nazis before they came to power. And Tillich angrily chastised those in the church who, preoccupied with narrow Christian piety, were passive. He thundered against this complacency and begged Christians to begin to "take time seriously."

Adams had seen how the mask of religion hides irreligion. He reminded us that "our world is full to bursting with faiths, each contending for allegiance." He told us that Hitler claimed to teach the meaning of faith. Mussolini used to shout, "Believe, follow, and act," and told his followers that fascism, before being a party, had been a religion. Human history is not the struggle between religion and irreligion, Adams said. "It is veritably a battle of faiths, a battle of the gods who claim human allegiance."

(p. 201):

Adams, finally, told us to watch closely what the Christian Right did to homosexuals. The Nazis had used "values" to launch state repression of opponents. Hitler, days after he took power in 1933, imposed a ban on all homosexual and lesbian organizations. He ordered raids on places where homosexuals gathered, culminating in the ransacking of the Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin and the permanent exile of its director, Magnus Hirschfeld. Thousands of volumes from the institute's library were tossed into a bonfire. The stripping of gay and lesbian Germans of their civil rights was largely cheered by the German churches. But this campaign legitimized tactics, outside the law, that would soon be employed against others. Adams said that homosexuals would also be the first "social deviants" singled out and disempowered by the Christian Right. We would be the next.

(p. 202):

Debate with the radical Christian Right is useless. We cannot reach this movement. It does not want a dialogue. It is a movement based on emotion and cares nothing for rational thought and discussion. It is not mollified because John Kerry prays or Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school. Naive attempts to reach out to the movement, to assure them that we, too, are Christian or we, too, care about moral values, are doomed. This movement is bent on our destruction. The attempts by many liberals to make peace would be humorous if the stakes were not so deadly. These dominionists hate the liberal, enlightened world formed by the Constitution, a world they blame for the debacle of their lives. They have one goal -- its destruction.

(p. 205):

The radical Christian Right calls for exclusion, cruelty and intolerance in the name of God. Its members do not commit evil for evil's sake. They commit evil to make a better world. To attain this better world, they believe, some must suffer and be silenced, and at the end of time all those who oppose them must be destroyed. The worst suffering in human history has been carried out by those who preach such grand, utopian visions, those who seek to implant by force their narrow, particular version of goodness. This is true for all doctrines of personal salvation, from Christianity to ethnic nationalism to communism to fascism. Dreams of a universal good create hells of persecution, suffering and slaughter. No human being could ever be virtuous enough to attain such dreams, and the Earth has swallowed millions of hapless victims in the vain pursuit of a new heaven and a new Earth. Ironically, it is idealism that leads radical fundamentalists to strip human beings of their dignity and their sanctity and turn them into abstractions. Yet it is only by holding on to the sanctity of each individual, each human life, only by placing our faith in tiny, unheroic acts of compassion and kindness, that we survive as a community and as individual human beings. These small acts of kindness are deeply feared and subversive to these idealists, as the Russian novelist Vasily Grossman wrote in Life and Fate.

Friday, September 28, 2007

David Halberstam: The Coldest Winter

David Halberstam's big (719 pp.) book on the Korean War is something I don't have time to read any time soon, but the war itself may be more interesting now with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bogged down. After WWII it must have been inconceivable to view Korea as anything like the defeat that Vietnam turned out to be, but it was certainly an immense frustration -- the first real taste that Americans had that post-WWII wasn't going to be like WWII. In lieu of reading the book, here's a quote from Max Frankel's New York Times review:

Ever the patriot, Halberstam bemoans not so much the fact of our intervention as the mind-set behind it, which led to "an American disaster of the first magnitude, a textbook example of what happens when a nation, filled with the arrogance of power, meets a new reality." The underrated North Koreans virtually destroyed two American regiments and cornered our retreating forces for three blood-soaked months at the edge of the Sea of Japan.

MacArthur responded with his career's most brilliant tactical stroke, which paradoxically inspired an even greater disaster. Instead of reinforcing his surrounded troops, he threw a Hail Mary pass, staging an amphibious landing at Inchon, 150 miles to the north, seizing Korea's narrow waist and decimating the suddenly encircled North Korean invaders. Feeling invincible now, MacArthur refused advice that he settle for a defensible line well south of the restive Chinese forces massing at their Korean border. And with Truman rushing across the Pacific to bask in the general's glory, no one was able to restrain him.

MacArthur ordered the swift conquest of all North Korea, confident that the Chinese would not dare challenge him. But hundreds of thousands of Chinese lay in wait to spring American history's greatest ambush. Halberstam writes: "The bet had been called, and other men would now have to pay for that terrible arrogance and vainglory."

Yet again the Americans were routed, and MacArthur's obsessive reaction was to agitate for total war against China, nuclear if necessary. He had to be fired by Truman in April 1951 so that more sober generals could settle for "a grinding, limited war" that asked men to "die for a tie," a stalemate that eventually restored the original border between the Koreas.

The Korean War was still mostly a set-piece war between regular military units, which is not to deny the violence aimed at civilians. As such, the US tended to draw on lessons from WWII, but with one major difference. From the start, the US bought into total war with Germany and Japan, demanding unconditional surrender and mobilizing the entire national economy behind the war effort. In Korea, the US had the option of choosing how much war it was willing to get into: with Korea only, or with Korea backed by China, or with China backed by Russia. MacArthur was reckless enough to bring China into the war, but Truman was prudent enough to keep Russia on the sidelines. Given limited war, there could only be limited results -- something close to the prewar status quo. But the US psyche couldn't handle anything less than total victory, and that drove a wedge between what we did and what we thought and said about it. That wedge proved to be poisonous in the long run. Indeed, it is still a big part of Bush's problems with Iraq and Afghanistan. What we see through the entire history of America's post-WWII wars is the increasing inutility of military power, and the increasing confusion and madness that is causing in people who can imagine no other way to get their way.

This inability to deal realistically with the world let the Korean War drag on stalemated two more years, and let America maintain a spiteful isolation of North Korea ever since. We treated Vietnam the same way. For that matter, every American foreign policy failure has brought out the same vindictive cold shoulder, especially countries so small and powerless we risked nothing -- Cuba, Iran, Iraq. Since the fall of the Axis Powers we are far and away the most hateful country on earth. I suspect the roots of all that are buried deep in WWII -- James Carroll argues that the fateful decisions were to build the Pentagon, fund the Manhattan Project, start area bombing of enemy cities, and demand unconditional surrender. The latter is a reflection of the unquestionable power we sought, and with victory over the Axis and the unveiling of nuclear weapons we thought we had achieved. We saw the submission of Germany and Japan as proof of our might and our righteousness, and we acknowledge that submission with some measure of grace. But one is hard pressed to find US grace in any subsequent history -- indeed, it is easier to argue that the real reason we rebuilt Germany and Japan (or more accurately, let them rebuild themselves) was to shore up our power against the Soviets. But we never lost the myth of our triumph in WWII. Indeed, when Bush's idiots flew into Baghdad in 2003 the few history books they bothered to consult were not about Iraq or the Middle East or Islam; they were about America's occupation of Germany and Japan. By then, Iraq had little or nothing in common with Germany and Japan, and we were little like the country we were then, so it's easy to dismiss such folly out of hand.

But Korea should have been different -- far closer in time and space and attitude and orientation to our WWII experience than any subsequent war, but still we see the same deep set failures. The root cause is, I believe, war itself. That we got away with it at all in WWII was an amazing stroke of luck -- in large part because the Germans and Japanese were so conscious of their own culpability for the war, and so exhausted by its consequences, that they lost the desire to plot their revenge against our own numerous atrocities (especially when we proved amenable to their reconstruction and independence). We've never encountered such luck again, not least because we've never again deserved it.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

In the Library

I stopped by the Wichita Public Library early this week, and took a look at the new nonfiction shelves. Once again, I was struck by the huge number of more/less interesting books. I jotted a list down on some scratch paper. These are all things I might consider reading, but given the numbers I'll never get around to more than a handful. The list, sorted alphabetically by author, follows, along with some notes. Some are no doubt wrong-headed, but I generally didn't bother with obvious losers, including 6-10 books that look to be promoting war against Iran (but none by Michael Ledeen or Norman Podhoretz, so their collection is incomplete).

  • Natalie Angier, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science (Houghton Mifflin): A general book on science and what it means to think about. I bought a copy of this recently as a gift for a niece who asked me for recommended readings on science. I was impressed, delighted even, by the few pages I read in the store.

  • Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (Perseus): Revised paperback edition of an older book. Not sure exactly what this is -- game theory, maybe. Author has another book, The Complexity of Cooperation. Important subject, the bedrock of civilization.
  • Tom Bissell, The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam (Pantheon): Travel journalist goes to Vietnam with his father, who fought there in 1965-66. I read his book on Uzbekistan -- beautifully written, and thoughtful enough that he no doubt has something to say about what Vietnam did to America and vice versa, some of which is bound to be uncomfortable.
  • Cynthia Stokes Brown, Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present (New Press): Still human-oriented, but in in big chunks favoring pre-history, focusing on things like agriculture and cities.
  • Matthew Carr, The Infernal Machine: A History of Terrorism: From the Assassination of Tsar Alexander II to Al-Qaeda (New Press): A global, comparative history, going back at least to 19th century anarchists, with at least some concern for what states do before and after terrorists attack.

  • Zev Chafets, A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man's Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance (Harper Collins): Menachem Begin's former press secretary. Strikes me as a pure horror story, but it may help that Chafets at least finds it weird. Another book on the same subject is Timothy P Weber, On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend (Baker Academic)
  • Zaki Chehab, Inside Hamas: The Untold Story of the Militant Islamic Movement (Nation Books): Probably an honest account, although a David Ignatius comment on the back cover makes one wonder ("it's obvious that Chehab has had access to some of the PLO's most sensitive files"). Chehab also wrote Inside the Resistance: Reporting From Iraq's Danger Zone. Both are impossibly difficult subjects, shrouded in secrecy and propaganda, and ultimately far less significant than the public policies of occupation that those groups are fighting against. There's also a boomlet of books on Hezbollah, including some I could have listed here but didn't bother.
  • Aviva Chomsky, "The Take Our Jobs!" and 20 Other Myths About Immigration (Beacon Press): You can probably guess the rest; most likely, you can also come up with a list of counter-myths.
  • Eric Clark, The Real Toy Story: Inside the Ruthless Battle for America's Youngest Consumers (Free Press): The toy racket; the muckraking possibilities are endless.
  • David Cole/Jules Lobel, Less Safe, Less Free: Why America Is Losing the War on Terror (New Press): Two law professors, so I suspect this leans toward less free, which is the less interesting part of the equation, not necessarily the less important.
  • Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Oxford University Press): Development economics, gets compared favorably to Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly, both of whose books sit unread on my shelf; e.g., by Niall Ferguson, whose paeans to imperialism cost him all credibility.
  • Trevor Corson, The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, From Samurai to Supermarket (Harper Collins): Food business, culture industry, etc.
  • Gary Cox, Think Again: A Response to Fundamentalism's Claim on Christianity (University Congregational Press): Normally, I wouldn't give a second thought to an attempt to save Christianity from the Christians, but the late Cox was a local minister involved in the peace movement here, and I appreciate the slack his emphasis on non-judgmentalism cut me. Incidentally, another Wichitan, Gerald Paske, has a book called Why the Fundamentalist Right Is So Fundamentally Wrong (Marquette). Paske taught the first philosophy class I took at Wichita State.
  • William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 (Knopf): Large history of England's takeover of India. I've read a bunch of essays/reviews by Dalrymple recently, and they've left a favorable impression, although the subject itself may have sufficed.
  • Mike Davis, Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (Verso): "The poor man's air force"; I read some of this at TomDispatch, probably enough.
  • Freeman Dyson, The Scientist as Rebel (New York Review Books): A collection of essays on science, especially book reviews on biographies of interesting scientists.
  • Ronald Florence, Lawrence and Aaronsohn: TE Lawrence, Aaron Aaronsohn, and the Seeds of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Viking Adult): Aaronsohn was a Zionist who organized a British spy ring in Ottoman Palestine, providing a contrast to the Arabophilic Lawrence. But both are tied to British imperialism, which hasn't gotten anywhere near its due share of the blame.
  • David Friend, Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 (Farrar Straus & Giroux): Mostly a day-by-day photo analysis/record of 9/11 and its immediate aftermath. I think it may be important to return to that record to see just how we were led to war. I doubt that this book does the job, but it may be a useful start.
  • Atul Gawande, Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance (Metropolitan Books): His previous essay collection, Complications, turned out to be a pretty useful book, especially for thinking about malpractice issues, and well written as well. This is evidently more of the same.
  • David Gelernter, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion (Doubleday): I've generally avoided listing examples from the enemy, and this is certainly suspicious with advance praise from William Bennett and Norman Podhoretz, but the idea of Americanism as religion has some attraction, even if it's likely to be misguided. Gelernter's argument that Americanism is "in fact a secular version of Zionism" is pretty scary, but maybe it helps explain what is otherwise simply bizarre.
  • Gary Giddins, Natural Selection: Gary Giddins on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books (Oxford University Press): Less on music, I think, and much already familiar. One of the great critics of our times.
  • Victor Gold, Ivasion of the Party Snatchers: How the Holy-Rollers and the Neo-Cons Destroyed the GOP (Sourcebooks): This looks to be the most entertaining of several recent books taking aim at the Busheviks from their right flank -- John Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience is another.
  • Jerome Groopman, How Doctors Think (Houghton Mifflin): An intrinsically interesting book. I've seen better reviews for this than for Atul Gawande's Better, which appeared at the same time. Health care is something I figure to write on, and there's something to be said there for the experiences of everyday professionals as opposed to politicians and economists.
  • Ann Hagedorn, Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919 (Simon & Schuster): A big (543 pp.) history book on a subject of minor but genuine interest: post-WWI trauma, the red scare, race riots, flu pandemic, the failed and flawed return to normalcy. The same issues returned after WWII, to be dealt with differently, but one wonders about the connections.
  • Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming (Viking): Green capitalist, not real sure what the point is, but my cousin was reading this along with Bill McKibben's Deep Economy for a labor conference she's working on. Has a long appendix that looks to be a useful reference.
  • Regina Herzlinger, Who Killed Health Care? America's $2 Trillion Medical Problem -- and the Consumer-Driven Cure (McGraw-Hill): Harvard Business School Dean, advocates some kind of market-driven system; not sure how that works, but looks like it could be a useful critique.
  • Robert Irwin, Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents (Overlook): A counterattack on Edward W. Said's famous book Orientalism, which itself discredited several generations of Western scholarship on the Middle East for their support of western imperialism. Seems likely to me that both views are true, in large part because texts inevitably reveal more than they intend.
  • Sasha Issenberg, The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy (Gotham): Food business, culture industry, etc.
  • Zachary Karabell, Peace Be Upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence in the Middle East (Knopf): A view worth shedding some light on.
  • Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture (Currency): This looks like an annoying elitist screed -- indeed, looking at the Publishers Weekly review it may be worse than that. I listed it because I find amateurism on the web not a cult but a sad effect of lack of cooperation and hope for anything better. But for me Wikipedia is the exception, not (as Keen seems to think) the rule. Maybe someone who doesn't moonlight for the Weekly Standard should rewrite this.
  • Jonathan Kozol, Letters to a Young Teacher (Crown): I haven't read anything by Kozol since Death at an Early Age, when I was still a teenager. The recent spate of "letters to a young [whatever]" books have become a cliché, but one thing they reveal is a sense that we're losing our grip on the handing down of knowledge. In any case, this one looks to be earnest and heartfelt. Kozol ranked high on Bernard Goldberg's list of 101 people screwing up America. I could see the logic of some picks and take others as back-handed compliments, singling Kozol out struck me as plain proof of Goldberg's moral rot.
  • Steven E Landsburg, More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics (Free Press): Presumably inspired by the chart success of Freakonomics, but Landsburg has been perverse longer. I started reading his previous Armchair Economist but got disgusted. Still, his description of "the principle of indifference" has haunted me ever since, perhaps the most dismal idea the Dismal Science ever concocted.
  • Brink Lindsey, The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture (Collins): Cato Institute VP, for figure on the predictable policy arguments, but it probably true that prosperity makes people more libertarian. To argue that libertarianism makes people more prosperous is harder to back up.
  • Alexander Litvinenko/Yuri Felshtinsky, Blowing Up Russia: The Secret Plot to Bring Back KGB Terror (Encounter Books): Covers the apartment bombings and Ryazan "training exercise" that helped start the Second Chechen War and bring KGB veteran Vladimir Putin to power. Has an air of paranoia to it, but Litvinenko was the Russian murdered in 2006 by polonium poisoning. Also available: Alex Goldfarb/Marina Litvinenko, Death of a Dissident: The Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko and the Return of the KGB, written with his widow. The latter also discusses the murder of Anna Politikovskaya, another murdered Russian journalist.
  • James Mann, The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression (Viking): There is a lot of nonsense written on China these days, and this is probably some, but Mann's The Rise of the Vulcans is a useful, albeit far from adequately critical, book.
  • Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Times Books): Possibly an important book, but not one I'm looking forward to. His The End of Nature did manage to convince me about global warming even though I had been pretty skeptical before, but it also annoyed me much in the process. The subject here is an important one: sustainable economy. He has some grasp of the problem, which itself is a rare accomplishment. But his solutions are likely to be annoying -- e.g., from an Amazon review: "Wow, makes me want to move to Vermont and become an organic farmer."

  • Paul Molyneaux, Swimming in Circles: Aquaculture and the End of Wild Oceans (Thunder's Mouth Press): General survey of aquaculture business, a major recent/future frontier in the domination of nature and the artificialization of everything else.
  • John Mueller, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them (Free Press): Certainly the threat of terrorism is overblown, at least compared to many other threats. Why is a more complicated question, and it's not clear how insightful this is on that score. I'm also disinclined to ignore the threat of terrorism because I regard it as symptomatic of deeper problems, like the arrogance and injustice of US foreign policy.

  • Cullen Murphy, Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (Houghton Mifflin): I figure this to be a forced analogy, but could be an amusing parlor game, and I have a lot of room (but not a lot of motivation) to learn more about Rome.
  • Katherine S Newman, Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-Wage Labor Market (Harvard University Press): Another book on "not making it in America" (Barbara Ehrenreich's subtitle), along with David Shipler's The Working Poor and others.
  • Sari Nusseibeh, Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life (Farrar Straus & Giroux): An interesting character, his life a prism for evaluating the reluctance of both sides to be reasonable.
  • John Perkins, The Secret History of the American Empire: Economic Hit Men, Jackals, and the Truth About Global Corruption (Dutton Adult): Haven't read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, which seemed like it could very well be true but also self-serving and glib. This is more general, with a region-by-region, country-by-country organization that covers a lot of ground briefly.
  • Anthony D Romero, In Defense of Our America: The Fight for Civil Liberties in the Age of Terror (William Morrow): ACLU Executive Director. We take such people for granted, but their value is impossible to underestimate.
  • Josh Rushing, Mission Al Jazeera: Build a Bridge, Seek the Truth, Change the World (Palgrave Macmillan): Story of an ex-Marine Corps propagandist who went to work for Al Jazeera, figuring he'd offer himself as a bridge between two hostile cultures.
  • Seth Shulman, Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration (University of California Press): Well, you know how that goes. Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science is an earlier book covering the same ground.
  • Michael D Tanner, Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution (Cato Institute): Cover has faded pictures of Goldwater and Reagan along with a sharply delineated Bush. One thing I find shocking about Bush is the extent to which he embraces the full ugliness of Hobbesian conservatism. Until recently, I always figured Hobbes was some sort of idiot satire, like Jonathan Swift.
  • Fawwaz Traboulsi, A History of Modern Lebanon (Pluto Press): From the 16th century on, a reasonable compromise between ancient and contemporary histories -- we've needed such a book for a while now. I'll also mention two new books in the wake of last year's war: Gilbert Achcar/Michel Warschawski, The 33-Day War: Israel's War on Hezbollah in Lebanon and Its Consequences (Paradigm), and Nubar Hovsepian, ed., The War on Lebanon: A Reader (Olive Branch Press; Amazon attributes this to Rashid Khalidi, who wrote the introduction).
  • Giles Tremlett, Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Secret Past (Walker): Travel/history book, often a very enjoyable as well as educational combination. More history than travel, I gather. Spain isn't all that far removed from decades under Franco, except perhaps in the minds of Spaniards, which may be for the best.
  • Werner Troesken, The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster (MIT Press): The politics of neglecting well-known health problems.
  • Fred Turner: From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (University of Chicago Press): This connection makes sense to me, but I tend to use my website as a massive unkempt file cabinet. Amazon led me to another book worth mentioning, although it appears to be out of print: John Markoff, What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.
  • Keith Ward, Is Religion Dangerous? (Wm B Eerdmans): Appears to be arguing "no" as opposed to Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, et al., although just raising the question opens several cans of worms.
  • Drew Westen, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (Public Affairs): Bill Clinton says, "This is the most interesting, informative book on politics I've read in many years." Westen seems to like Clinton, too. Evidently, Westen tries to offer practical political advice built on brain science. Something about the whole approach strikes me as disreputable.

I wound up checking out Big History and Undermining Science, figuring that they fit a couple of immediate niches I have in my research, and may wind up being useful even if all I do is scan and poke. The books I'm actually most likely to read sooner or later are: Angier, Bissell, Dalrymple, and Groopman. Probably later, once they come out in paperback. As it is, I just ordered a batch of books: Daniel Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music; Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture; Geoffrey Nunberg, Talking Right; John Dean, Conservatives Without Conscience; Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City; Joel Kovel, Overcoming Zionism. Nor have I made much of a dent in the last couple of batches, which included: Taner Akcam, A Shameful Act; Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower; Ian Jackman, Eat This!; Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma; Julee Rosso/Sheila Lukins, Silver Palate Cookbook (25th Anniversary Edition); William Ashworth, Ogallala Blue; David Sirota, Hostile Takeover; Dave Lindorff/Barbara Olshansky, The Case for Impeachment; Edward Said, From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map; plus a couple of items I did get to. So much to read.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Michael Perelman: Steal This Idea

Michael Perelman is a fairly prolific left-wing economist. I noticed several of his books, then looked him up in the library, finding this one: Steal This Idea: Intellectual Property Rights and the Corporate Confiscation of Creativity (2002, Palgrave Macmillan; paperback, 2004, Palgrave Macmillan). I have my own critique of various issues in intellectual property, and consider it to be an important issue. This is a useful book, but Perelman makes a critical mistake in treating intellectual property as a single issue. It is, rather, an artificially agglomerated set of laws, each with its own issues. (Richard Stallman has lectured us to death on this point. The lack of any reference to Stallman, or more generally to free software, is a shortcoming in the book.) But while Perelman talks about intellectual property, for the most part he means patents. And his critique of patents does go beyond the usual norm to consider such issues as the negative impact of patents on scientific research and the contribution they make to a culture of secrecy and litigiousness.

The book has lots of case examples, especially on patents. One general point is the role of intellectual property in increasing inequality both within the US and throughout the world. This is one case where it may be appropriate to generalize about intellectual property, since even such innocuous properties as trademarks, backed by sufficient advertising and an appropriate culture, have precisely that effect.


The selected quotes are mostly self-explanatory.

Some general statements (p. 3):

Today, matters are completely different. Intellectual property covers just about everything. The system is riddled with overlapping claims. The contemporary system of intellectual property, rather than spreading information, creates a pervasive atmosphere of secrecy. Litigation is becoming far more important than creativity. In fact, I will show that intellectual property rights threaten to stifle creativity. Taking a historical view, we can compare the system of intellectual property to a stimulant that may well have promoted economic and cultural progress in an earlier period, but now threatens to exhaust creative activity.

Even in the arts, intellectual property rights offer very little to the mass of creative artists. In contrast, intellectual property rights grant enormous powers to corporations that distribute music or run movie studios. These corporations typically wield their power to the disadvantage of the artists, as well as society at large.

In science, intellectual property rights encourage secrecy and wasteful duplication of effort. They hold back economic progress by fostering inefficient monopolies. They encourage costly litigation that dissipates an unimaginable amount of time and resources. Over and above these problems, intellectual property rights pervert the entire scientific process by undermining the traditional incentives to engage in the basic scientific research essential to developing future improvements in technology.

Actually, Perelman doesn't have much to say about the arts case. The implication that copyrights benefit corporations at the expense of artists is certainly true, but that doesn't mean that artists don't benefit from copyrights, or that simply eliminating copyrights would benefit artists.

On developed vs. developing countries (p. 6):

Internationally, a regime of intellectual property rights condemns the poorest countries of the world to an even more disadvantaged future. For example, the United Nations reports that in 1993, just 10 countries accounted for 84 percent of global research and development expenditures. These same countries controlled 95 percent of patents registered in the United States during the past two decades. The rich, industrialized countries now hold 97 percent of all patents worldwide. Compounding the inequity, more than 80 percent of patents granted in developing countries belong to residents of industrial countries. No doubt this situation has worsened in the intervening years.

(p. 34):

Texas Instruments struck first. Typically license fees ran about 1 percent of revenues. In 1987, Texas Instruments raised its royalties on chips to 5 percent. The company filed a suit against one Korean and eight Japanese semiconductor companies, accusing them of infringing semiconductor patents. The settlements yielded the company more than $600 million in payments, according to a 1990 report. The company became so aggressive in seeking royalties that by 1992 it earned $391 million in royalties, compared to an operating income of only $274 million.

Other companies are even more successful. For example, IBM's annual report announced that the firm had earned more than $1.5 billion in income in 2000 from its intellectual property portfolio.

(p. 36):

From the standpoint of exports alone, this emphasis on intellectual property proved highly successful. In 1947, intellectual property comprised just under 10 percent of all U.S. exports. By 1986, the figure had grown to more than 37 percent. By the early 1990s, the best estimate was that intellectual property accounted for well over 50 percent of exports from the United States. In 1999, U.S. exports in the form of royalties and licensing revenue alone exceeded $37 billion -- topping aircraft exports, at $29 billion, and telecommunications equipment. Moreover, the trade surplus in intellectual property -- the exports minus imports -- is running at about $25 billion annually, and growing. As already noted, IBM alone enjoyed worldwide licensing revenues that exceeded $1.5 billion, according to its annual report for 2000. These figures exclude payments for physical goods, such as computer chips, which also embody intellectual property.

On radio patent conflicts, which the US Navy had worked to manage during WWI (pp. 51-52):

Once World War I was over, the litigation recommenced. Between 1900 and 1941, a total of 1,567 infringement suits entangled 684 different radio patents. These patent suits extracted a heavy price in terms of technological development. Reviewing the history of the British radio industry, one writer observed with a notable understatement that radio manufacturers in Britain wasted "a lot of ingenuity" during the 1920s devising circuit arrangements that reduced the royalties that would otherwise have to be paid to British Marconi. Although radio tube technology advanced in the process, this progress would have been much greater had researchers not directed so much energy to working around existing patents.

(p. 60):

Cadtrack was headed toward bankruptcy in 1983 when the head of licensing at IBM called to discuss the possible licensing of a patent for moving a cursor on a screen. In 1985, [Cadtrack CEO Eugene] Emmerich went to the board of his company and suggested that the company get out of the production business. The company then laid off all of its employees and concentrated on collecting revenues from its patent. By 1997, when the patent finally expired, he had signed deals worth about $50 million with 400 companies.

Emmerich was proud that only one company refused to take Cadtrack's license -- Commodore. He boasted, "So we took them to court and got a permanent injunction barring sales of their computers in the U.S. When that happened, their creditors called in their loans and they went bankrupt. That little patent of ours put Commodore out of business."

The latter paragraph helps explain why IBM brought up the issue of the patent in the first place. While it may seem to have added to IBM's costs, thereby cutting into profits, the net effect was to drive one of IBM's major PC competitors out of the market. Perelman doesn't go into this sort of strategy, but IBM has played this game before. In fact, their initial success in mainframes was at least in part based on their licensing of early computer patents: while IBM's competitors were busy suing each other over patents, IBM advanced to dominate the market.

(pp. 83-84):

The researchers who developed the transistor were not doing pure science. A 1931 paper had already laid out the basics of a quantum mechanical model of a solid semiconductor. Their work was not merely applied, either. It was something in between. The history of the transistor also illustrates how important accidents can determine intellectual property rights. A team at Purdue University was within weeks of discovering the transistor.

If AT&T had been free to use its intellectual property rights in the transistor the way contemporary firms can and do, modern technology would be far less advanced than it is today. Merges and Nelson have written:

Because of an antitrust consent decree, AT&T was foreclosed from the commercial transistor business. . . . [As a result] AT&T had every incentive to encourage other companies to advance transistor technology, because of the value of better transistors to the phone system. AT&T quickly entered into a large number of license agreements at low royalty rates. Many companies ultimately contributed to the advance of transistor technology because the pioneers patents were freely licensed instead of being used to block access.

Because of government intervention, intellectual property rights did not limit the revolutionary potential of the transistor as they might have. Richard C. Levin, economics professor and later president of Yale University, speculated some time ago that the computer industry might not have developed if AT&T had not been forced to license the transistor to all comers.

(p. 102):

In this world, academic careers rest on the ability to land corporate or government (mostly military) contracts. Researchers can either work at the behest of corporate "donors" or attempt to become independent by seeking out profitable discoveries either to patent or to use as the basis for their own firms.

The legal system is bending over backward to accommodate such practices. Today, when a biologist can patent a sequence of genetic material or a mathematician can patent an algorithm, money rather than the acclaim of colleagues becomes the coin of the realm. Researchers, who once worked in the open to win recognition from their peers, now shroud their research in secrecy in the hope of striking it rich.

(p. 133):

Dean Baker of the Center for Economics and Policy Research made a few rough calculations concerning the costs of intellectual property in the pharmaceutical industry. Presently, people in the United States spend close to $100 billion a year on prescription drugs. In the absence of patent protection, Baker estimated that the cost of these drugs would fall to less than $25 billion -- a savings of more than $500 a year for every household in the country. By contrast, the proponents of deregulation in the airline, trucking, and telecommunications industries put the gains from each of these policies in the neighborhood of $10 billion to $20 billion annually.

Yes, but what about the great medical advances that arise out of the efforts of these companies? Dean Baker observed:

According to its own data, the pharmaceutical industry funds only 43 percent of medical research in the United States. The federal government funds close to a third of all medical research, primarily through the National Institutes of Health. Universities, private foundations and charities account for the rest. These other methods of funding research have a proven track record. This research has produced a long list of major medical breakthroughs, including the discovery of penicillin, the polio vaccine and AZT (though not its use as an AIDS treatment). In just the past two months, NIH researchers developed a vaccine that will prevent the transmission of AIDS through breast-feeding, and a use for aspirin for people undergoing heart surgery. The industry is presently spending approximately $20 billion a year on research. Some portion of this spending, probably in the neighborhood of one-third, is devoted to researching copycat drugs. But in the absence of the patent and the amount of research spending that would have to be picked up in the absence of patent protection comes to approximately $13.3 [b]illion a year. This amount is approximately equal to what state and federal governments could expect to save on Medicare and Medicaid payments for prescription drugs in the absence of patent protection. . . . In other words, this would allow the patented price of drugs to fall to a free market price that on average would be less than 25 percent (and in many cases less than 5 percent) of the patent-protected price.

The quote actually says $13.3 million, but the math and logic argue for billion. Cost is actually only one issue here. Public funding of pharmaceutical development would also entail public testing, which would make it harder to hide dangerous complications -- indeed, it would pretty much eliminate the motivation to cover them up. That in turn would limit liabilities, a big expense for the industry in its own right. Public research would also put more emphasis on cures and vaccines, which are economically less profitable to the industry than long-term palliatives.

(p. 156):

Federal officials have not challenged the industry in this respect. In fact, they have not even bothered to keep track of the products, including drugs, that have profited from federally funded research. A 1995 study done at MIT found that of the 14 new drugs the industry identified as the most medically significant in the preceding 25 years, 11 had their roots in studies paid for by the government. In 1999, a preliminary report by the inspector general's office of the Department of Health and Human Services found that as many as 22 percent of discoveries financed by the federal health institutes were not reported by universities, as is required. More than 2,000 inventions developed with government money were reported to the health institutes last year, but officials told the New York Times that they had no idea which, if any, companies had licensed those inventions, or how they were being used.

(p. 159):

Like most forms of public investment, public health has suffered from terrible neglect in the United States. In the words of Laurie Garrett, author of a panoramic study of the decline in public health: "It took centuries to build a public health system, and less than two decades to bring it down. Once the envy of the world, America's public health infrastructure was, at the end of the twentieth century, indeed in a shambles.

The full consequences of erosion of the public health system will not be felt until the nation faces an emergency, such as the rapid outbreak of a dangerous epidemic for which the system is not prepared. The anthrax scare of 2001 should have brought home this point.

(p. 160):

The history of tetraethyl lead, the poisonous gasoline additive that has since been banned, brings together a number of threads in this book, including the point I just mentioned about the rationality of preventing rather than curing illness. Intellectual property rights were a central factor in the initial development of this lethal product. The early research on gas additives actually favored alcohol, which could be made from agricultural waste products. The opportunity to gain a monopoly through patent rights was the main advantage of lead-based additives.

(pp. 177-178):

But information, a major constituent of intellectual property rights, is not scarce. As Kenneth Arrow recently noted, "Patents and copyrights are social innovations designed to create artificial scarcities where none exist naturally." In spite of the efforts to make information artificially scarce, economists realize that information differs from scarce goods, such as detergents or canned soups.

These scarcities, however, serve no social purpose whatsoever. In fact, using the market to exclude people from access to information is self-defeating. It does not increase the supply of information. It only spreads ignorance. Nor does my consumption of information detract from the access of anybody else; it may even add to the pool of social information, possibly creating an advantage for others. As a result, fields of research are very different from agricultural fields. While exclusivity is imperative in the farmer's field, it makes no sense whatsoever in science. After all, the more information that I gather, the more potential information is available to you.

For example, if you let me read your book or use your computer program, you may benefit from sharing the fruits of my experience. In fact, unlike so-called rivalrous goods, which can be used up, the more that people partake of the supply of information, the greater the total stock of information becomes. In short, using information can spawn more and better information. For instance, as a scientist learns more about her field, she has more to share with others. While scientists might compete with each other for the priority of a finding, the discovery of one enriches all. [ . . . ]

I cannot emphasize this point enough: The concept of scarcity is absolutely irrelevant to information. The more the law restricts people's access to information, the less information will be available.

One might also point out that the classic theory of markets, per Adam Smith, assumes perfect information. As such, efforts to limit information only serve to subvert market efficiency.

(p. 182):

Most economists make the case for awarding intellectual property rights to the "owners" of information by applying one side of the logic of public goods. They accept that in competitive markets prices fall toward marginal costs and the marginal cost of information is zero. At a zero price, firms would not have an incentive to produce information because they could not make a profit for their efforts.

Such economists conclude that the solution is to treat the information as intellectual property, thereby converting a public good into a monopoly. In making this case, they ignore the other half of the logic of public goods; namely, the central proposition of economic theory, which maintains that efficiency is maximized when goods sell for their marginal costs. Habitually caught within the narrow confines of their economic models, these economists content that the monopoly is required to provide the incentive to create information.

I'm struck here by the either-or logic: that the only alternatives are free information and monopoly. Since monopolies are generally, and properly, understood as inefficient, economists should go out of their way to devise methods that provide a marketable value for information without locking it up in a monopoly. Such methods are possible; e.g., mechanical licensing for radio performance of music. Alternatively, one could devise systems to promote the creation of free information, putting a value on its creation as opposed to its marginal cost. That so many economists hasten to support monopoly just goes to show that their fundamental instinct is to rally behind the status quo.

(p. 187):

[Paul] Samuelson laid the framework of treating such goods as quasi-public goods by insisting that goods can be more or less rivalrous, falling along a continuum. For example, if a software program costs a few cents to reproduce, it is not entirely non-rivalrous, even though it has much more in common with a public than a private good. In this respect, Samuelson showed that it should be treated as if it were a public good.

While Samuelson was correct to insist on the inefficiencies caused by treating public goods as private goods, he missed a larger dimension of the problem: namely, that the privatization of public goods can distort the nature of the goods themselves, or even the way that they are produced. For example, the scrambling of television signals creates an inefficiency that harms society, but the damage arising from this practice may seem minimal.


I'll write more about this in the future, but briefly I don't see any justification for patent protection, even if it could be modified to limit the worst abuses of monopoly grants. There may be a few minor instances where privately funded research would be abandoned without the promise of a patent payoff (e.g., in pharmaceuticals), but those cases could easily be remedied with a little public funding, and the public information sharing and the ability to build on each other's advances would be a positive advance that patents currently preclude. In most other cases there is no value whatsoever. Indeed, patents are often no more than an artificial means of legally enforced inequity.

Other intellectual property issues are more vexed, and need to be sorted out case by case. But the one thing they do have in common is that they are all cases of creating property by legal fiat as opposed to by possession or obligation. As such, there is no necessary reason that they exist. So such cases need to justify themselves as serving some public good as well as private benefit. Mostly, those cases come down to how people get paid for work. Copyrights, for instance, help to support artists, and they have the advantage of doing so in an unpolitical way, but they are not the only way to motivate artists.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Music: Current count 13613 [13587] rated (+26), 791 [798] unrated (-7). It's been a long, slow, frustrating week, home alone (except for an initially oblivious, ultimately demanding cat), with Laura away for work. My brother was in town for the weekend, hoping to close selling the two ancient Hull family houses, so he can buy a new one up near Portland OR. The finality of the move has gotten me down. I dropped by their house Sunday evening, figuring it to be the last chance I'll ever get to drop by unannounced and chew the fat. I've missed that the two years he's been working away from home. My sister was out of town last week; took a vacation to go to Jefferson City and work with the Superartists. They came back Saturday evening after exacting a promise that I'd cook dinner for them. I recently picked up a copy of The Silver Palate Cookbook -- something I noticed in David Kamp's The United States of Arugula -- so tried my hand at the chicken marbella, French potato salad, technicolor bean salad, layered tomato and mozzarella salad, and the carrot cake. Wasn't a lot of work, and it all came out pretty good, but it did have the air of a last supper, and didn't help that Laura was away too.

Jazz Consumer Guide (#14) is done, sent off to the Village Voice, which will publish it sometime in late October. Did a little bit of everything this week, including playing some classic Cuban music I haven't gotten around to writing about. Recycled Goods is next week's project.

  • Kiran Ahluwalia: Wanderlust (2007, Times Square): A Punjabi who left India as a child for New Zealand and Canada, she returned for the heritage, studying ghazals and folk songs, which she renders with elegant clarity and cosmopolitan borrowings, like José Manuel Neto's Portugese guitarra; Rez Abbasi, a jazz guitarist who followed a similar path, produced and plays. B+(*)
  • Anti-Flag: The Terror State (2003, Fat Wreck Chords): Pittsburgh punk rockers and left-wing ranters, each having attractions but also liabilities. The punk is surefire most of the time but falls apart more often than it should. The rants are right on when they stay negative, but "You Can Kill the Protester, but You Can't Kill the Protest" isn't something I believe, much less something I want to risk. "The people united can never be defeated" is a noble old chant, but it soon turns in on itself, attacking the disunity of a people getting their asses kicked every day. It may be I've gotten too old for this shit -- not the punk, and not the rant, but the attitude that the only thing that matters is attitude. B
  • Miri Ben-Ari: The Hip-Hop Violinist (2005, Universal): Violinst from Israel, has the usual classical training, not to mention that all important Israeli Army String Quartet cred. Hip-hop is more of a callout than a calling, but she plays gamely in what's basically a various artists/producers record, where the classics -- including "Star Spangled Banner" -- are jokes and the jokers include Fabolous, Kanye West, Scarface, Akon, Pharoahe Monch, Lil' Wayne, Doug E Fresh, John Legend, and Anthony Hamilton. B+(*)
  • Vic Dickenson & Joe Thomas & Their All-Star Jazz Groups: Mainstream (1958 [1999], Koch): Originally released as LP on Atlantic. Actually two distinct groups, with two tracks from Dickenson (w/Buck Clayton, Hal Singer, and others) mixed in with four tracks from Thomas (w/Dickie Wells, Buddy Tate, Buster Bailey, Herbie Nichols, and others). Mostly blues based. Hard to spoil, especially with these guys. B+
  • The Inspiring New Sounds of Rio de Janeiro ([2007], Verge): Thirteen tracks of hip-hop by aspiring artists who are most likely unknown anywhere more than a few blocks from home -- what is basically a propaganda tract could have used some background story, but the hard knocks and high hopes are evident, and a whiff of samba leaves everyone at ease. B+(***)
  • Harry Manx & Kevin Breitt: In Good We Trust (2007, Stony Plain): Two guitarists, with occasional variants -- banjo, mandolin, mandola, bazouki, slide mandocello, lap slide guitar, national steel guitar, etc. Manx reportedly "fuses south Asian music with the blues" -- I can't really attest to either, nor can I see much reason to file this as folk or country or jazz but at least it's better than new age. Manx also sings, starting with Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," taken at a past that doesn't risk combustion. B+(*)
  • Abra Moore: On the Way (2007, Sarathan): Originally from Poi Dog Pondering, a group I didn't follow but don't mind. Now she has a series of solo albums. She has a tiny little voice, reminds me of what Carola Dibbell once dismissed as a geisha. You may find it charming or annoying; I'm not so sure myself. But the songs don't convince me either. B-
  • 17 Hippies: Heimlich (2007, Hipster): It's easy to peg this group as Germany's answer to Pink Martini: they sing in English and French but mostly in German, they sound less like cabaret because they don't want to give the impression that they are folkies, and they adopted hippies as in hip with no reference to San Francisco in the '60s; the number of musicians seems to vary since it was locked into their name -- I could 13, plus 2 Gasthippien. B+(*)
  • The Shins: Wincing the Night Away (2007, Sub Pop): Alt-indie pop-rock group, made a splash in 2003 with Chutes Too Narrow. This one is only momentarily charming -- wincing could well be code for whining. B
  • Dave Soldier/Richard Lair: Thai Elephant Orchestra (2000, Mulatta): I figure this for a novelty record, but it's not without interest. Twelve cuts of up to six elephants playing some large instruments specially constructed for them, including diddley bow and harmonica as well as various percussion, including something called a renat -- a Thai instrument, somewhat like a balafon, but scaled way up. The music is percussive, somewhat abstract, not at all unpleasant. Then there's a selection of natural elephant sounds, some mixed ensembles with humans, and some humans playing "music about elephants." The latter is not necessarily an improvement, although it does get more intricate. B


Jazz Prospecting (CG #15, Part 1)

Jazz Consumer Guide #14 is now at the Village Voice. I've heard that they will publish it sometime in mid-late October. Sometime between now and then we'll edit the draft, then they'll lay it out, realize that it doesn't all fit on their single page, and cut some things out. The cuts will be added to #15, which is already about half full. I hope to get back to it sooner rather than later, but the priority for the next week is Recycled Goods. I often take a jazz prospecting break between cycles, but I spent the early part of last week playing prospects, and have enough that I might as well go ahead and report them here.


Jimmy Bruno: Maplewood Avenue (2007, Affiliated Artists): Guitarist, from Philadelphia, b. 1953, fits in the line of mild-mannered, swing-happy guitarists from the '50s; started recording in 1991 for Concord, when they were trying to corner the market for mainstream jazz guitar. This is a trio with Tony Miceli on vibes and Jeff Pedras on bass, both named on the front cover. If Bruno doesn't leave much of an impression, that's because Miceli is so entertaining. B+(*)

Jonathan Kreisberg: The South of Everywhere (2007, Mel Bay): Guitarist, from New York, has several albums since 1996. This is a quintet with alto sax (Will Vinson), piano (Gary Versace), bass (Matt Penman), and drums (Mark Ferber). Some cuts drop down to a trio. The sort of record I find appealing while it's playing but can't remember much of afterwards. There are dozens and dozens of good jazz guitarists these days, and he's certainly one of them. B+(*)

Ezra Weiss: Get Happy (2006 [2007], Roark): Pianist, under 30, grew up in Phoenix, studied in Oberlin and Portland, wound up in New York. Has a couple of albums. Tends toward complex postbop arrangements, which here include a range of horns and three singers. Even with the familiar Arlen-Koehler title cut, nothing here strikes me as all that happy. Or all that interesting, but tenor saxophonist Kelly Roberge makes the most of his spots. B

Onaje Allan Gumbs: Sack Full of Dreams (2006 [2007], 18th & Vine): Pianist, b. 1949 in New York, 6th album since 1990, with a long list of sideman credits going back to Betty Carter's boot camp in 1972 and Woody Shaw's Moontrane in 1974. He's always struck me as an able supporting player, but I've never gotten a sense of his own style, and this strikes me as all over the map. One vocal track, featuring Obba Babatunde, disrupts the flow, despite noble sentiments. B

Gino Sitson: Bamisphere (2007, 18th & Vine): Vocalist, from Cameroun, based in New York, but still sings mostly in his native Medumba. Third album. Claims four octaves, "the only vocalist who is incorporating African polyphonic techniques into the improvisational jazz vocalese tradition." Hard for me to tell. He does work quite a bit in falsetto registers, with a lower range that sounds more spoken. He does his own backing vocals, and has credits for "vocal instruments" and "miscellaneous vocal effects." Opening track reminded me of mbube, but styles vary a lot after that. He does have a reputable jazz group backing him: Helio Alves on piano, Ron Carter or Essiet Essiet on bass, Jeff Watts on drums. They don't get to do much, and while I don't doubt his virtuosity, I don't get it either. Kind of like Cameroun's answer to Bobby McFerrin. B

Timo Lassy: The Jazz and Soul of Timo Lassy (2007, Ricky Tick): Finnish saxophonist, tenor and baritone, plus a little show-off flute. Looks like his first album, a sextet with trumpet and trombone shagging his flies; piano, bass and drums for rhythm. Website suggests: "He is the perfect melting of diverse characteristics triggering a likeness to Willis Jackson and Pharoah Sanders in one's mind." I can't say that he sounds like either, although the juxtaposition is bizarre enough that it helps locate where he'd like to be. He's not there -- simply doesn't have the sound or authority. But his band is happy playing soul jazz, and trombonist Mikko Mustonen, who also works with UMO Jazz Orchestra, earns a shout out. B

Alex Kontorovich: Deep Minor (2006 [2007], Chamsa): Credits are listed from drums forward with the leader last, rather than the convention of starting with the horns or the leader, in this case both. At first I wondered whether that was because I had heard of Aaron Alexander and Reuben Radding but not Brandon Seabrook (guitar, banjo, tapes) or Kontorovich (clarinet, alto sax), but then I figured that's cutting the market research pretty thin. Kontorovich was born in Russia, lives in New York, is 26, is working on a PhD at Columbia, in math. He has an interest in klezmer, but also wrote a "New Orleans Funeral March" and a "Waltz for Piazzolla." Solid record; first one this cycle I want to hear again. [B+(**)]

The Pizzarelli Boys: Sunday at Pete's (2007, Challenge): The senior figure here is listed as John "Bucky" Pizzarelli. Somehow I never noticed before that pčre et fils were Sr. and Jr. The father was always just Bucky, which seems like a natural nickname for a natural rhythm guitarist. John, on the other hand, could be a matinee idol. I never heard the well-regarded guitar duos they did in the early 1980s, before John started his singing career, but lately they've returned to the format -- cf. Generations (Arbors). The marquee is different here to accommodate a third Pizzarelli, bassist Martin, plus drummer Tony Tedesco, but the sound and feel are the same: old songs, tight leads accented by rhythm chords and a bit more. B+(*)

Harry Allen: Hits by Brits (2006 [2007], Challenge): Needing only ten songs, the limit doesn't cramp Allen too bad -- it means three songs by Ray Noble, including "Cherokee" and "The Very Thought of You." The others are hardly more obscure, and some, like "These Foolish Things," are even less. This is a quartet with his recent partner Joe Cohn on guitar, Joel Forbes on bass, and Chuck Riggs on drums, with John Allred's trombone added on four cuts. In his liner notes, Richard Sudhalter hedges that the album is "perhaps Harry Allen's best yet," which is certainly false. It strikes me as utterly typical. Sudhalter also likens Cohn to Wes Montgomery, but for once I'm inclined to be more generous. I'd say he's graduated into Bucky Pizzarelli territory. [B+(***)]

David Rogers Sextet: The World Is Not Your Home (2007, Jumbie): AMG lists 12 Dave or David Rogers, plus 3 more Rodgers. There are probably some duplicates in there, but there's still too much noise to find much out. This one is from Missouri; lived in Ghana, where he picked up an interest in talking drums; lives now in New York; plays tenor sax. It's hard to get a good take on this. Starting out awkwardly, he seems to be having a tough time getting the sax and the African percussion to mesh. Later on, especially on "Mobius Trip," the sax comes alive, but the Africana has vanished -- replaced by capable support work from pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver. B+(*)

Jacky Terrasson: Mirror (2006 [2007], Blue Note): German pianist, b. 1966, won the Thelonious Monk Piano prize in 1993, has nine albums on Blue Note or EMI, maybe a couple more, which should put him somewhere in the forefront of jazz pianists of his generation. I can't second that opinion. I've heard very little, and never been impressed enough to seek him out over dozens of other similar postbop players. This one is solo -- aficionados love the intimacy and/or freedom of the format, but I usually find solos underdressed, not to mention underdeveloped. This is no exception. B

Muhal Richard Abrams: Vision Toward Essence (1998 [2007], Pi): My usual caveats about solo piano apply here, but one thing I can't complain about is lack of ideas, and another is lack of sonic depth. Abrams plays the whole piano, with the rumblings and reverberations of the box a big part of his sound. Recorded live at the Guelph Jazz Festival, this is one piece, three parts, just under an hour. A lot to take in. [B+(***)]

The Jimmy Amadie Trio: The Philadelphia Story: The Gospel as We Know It (2006-07 [2007], TP): A veteran pianist, Philadelphia's favorite, or so I hear. Not actually a trio record: special guests Benny Golson, Randy Brecker, and/or Lew Tabackin play on virtually every track. Amadie is a throwback to the '50s, with his trio swinging hard throughout, the horns delightful. Nothing here not to like. B+(**)

Harry Manx & Kevin Breitt: In Good We Trust (2007, Stony Plain): Two guitarists, with occasional variants -- banjo, mandolin, mandola, bazouki, slide mandocello, lap slide guitar, national steel guitar, etc. Manx reportedly "fuses south Asian music with the blues" -- I can't really attest to either, nor can I see much reason to file this as folk or country or jazz but at least it's better than new age. Manx also sings, starting with Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," taken at a past that doesn't risk combustion. B+(*)


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


Unpacking:

  • Tony Bennett: Sings the Ultimate American Songbook Vol. 1 (1958-97, RPM/Columbia/Legacy)
  • Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album (1968, RPM/Columbia/Legacy)
  • Bloodcount: Seconds (Screwgun, 2CD)
  • Anthony Braxton: Solo Willisau (Intakt)
  • Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown: Bogaloosa Boogie Man (1975, Sunnyside)
  • Cique (Capri)
  • The Essential Fred Hammond (1991-2004, Verity/Legacy, 2CD)
  • Billie Holiday: Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles (1935-42, Columbia/Legacy, 4CD)
  • Charlie Hunter and Bobby Previte as Groundtruther: Altitude (Thirsty Ear, 2CD)
  • The Essential John P. Kee (1991-2000, Verity/Legacy, 2CD)
  • Stacey Kent: Breakfast on the Morning Tram (Blue Note)
  • Amy London: When I Look in Your Eyes (Motéma)
  • Memphis Slim: Boogie Woogie (1971, Sunnyside)
  • Memphis Slim & Roosevelt Sykes: Double-Barreled Boogie (1970, Sunnyside)
  • Eddy Mitchell: Jambalaya (2006, Sunnyside)
  • Frank Sinatra: A Voice in Time (1939-1952) (Columbia/RCA Victor/Legacy, 4CD)
  • The Essential Hezekiah Walker (1992-2005, Verity/Legacy, 2CD)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Weekend Roundup

Not much this week. Haven't done much browsing, and didn't find much of interest when I did.


American Exceptionalism Meets Team Jesus: A Tomdispatch Interview with James Carroll. A couple of quotes:

"When Americans talk about freedom, it's our secular code word for salvation. There's no salvation outside of the church; there's no freedom outside the American way of life."

"What's interesting is that this sense of special mission cuts across the spectrum -- right wing/left wing, liberals/conservatives -- because generally the liberal argument against government policies since World War II is that our wars -- Vietnam then, Iraq now -- represent an egregious failure to live up to America's true calling. We're better than this. Even antiwar critics, who begin to bang the drum, do it by appealing to an exceptional American missionizing impulse. You don't get the sense, even from most liberals, that -- no, America is a nation like other nations and we're going to screw things up the way other nations do."

Friday, September 21, 2007

David Satter: Darkness at Dawn

The third of my series of post-Communist Russian books is David Satter's Darkness at Noon: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (2003, Yale University Press). Satter wrote a previous book on Russia during the late-Communist period, Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union (1996; paperback, 2001, Yale University Press), which I haven't read but have seen highly recommended. Darkness at Noon finally quenched my thirst for a history of how Russia sunk so hard and fast following the fall of the Soviet Union. This is really a harrowing book. Reading it now it's impossible not to think of Iraq, one of the few comparable instances of a relatively advanced country sufferng a national catastrophe. Of course the two are not the same: Iraq was crushed under war and foreign occupation, but both involve major breakdowns in law, order, and basic civility, and both are conditioned by an American ideology -- capitalism in its rawest form, as the war of all against all -- given uncritical, unrestrained reign.

In Russia's case, you can chalk a lot of that up to ignorance. The Soviet regime had lost its legitimacy so completely that folks were prepared to believe anything about capitalism. I doubt that many Iraqis had any such illusions, but they were confronted with the most delusionary and coercive of American regimes. As Michael Schwartz has argued, Iraq's economy collapsed in a fit of Bremer privatization before the insurgency kicked into gear. Which makes me wonder whether Russia's fate isn't in the cards for the US, at least if you give Bush and his crowd enough time. It's often been commented that Washington's neoliberal economic dogmas have never actually been tried in the US or any other successfully developed nation. The fact that we haven't fallen apart like Russia or Iraq is testimony that we don't really believe all the crap that we routinely inflict on others. But we are starting to tatter around the edges, so much so that almost everything that is endemic in Russia is symptomatic and increasingly chronic in the US. Among the worst things is the Bush regime's contempt for law and their ability to rouse thuggish support for their cause. That they haven't started to whack their domestic enemies is a tribute to the enduring civility of American society, but if you spend much time with their dogs like Bill O'Reilly you'll start to appreciate how thin that veneer of civility has become.


The book starts with two chapters on specific events in 2000: the sinking of the submarine Kursk and a bomb scare in Ryazan. Exactly why isn't all that clear, but both represent failures of government and growing distrust of government. The books gets down to business in the third chapter, "The Young Reformers" (pp. 37-38):

The reformers' social darwinism was, in many ways, a reaction against Soviet society's professed concern for the needy and helpless. It was expressed in a refusal to consider the effects of their policies on the Russian population. When, in one of the new government's first acts, price controls were lifted on almost all products, wiping out the savings of 99 percent of the population, [Yegor] Gaidar answered objections by saying that the money in people's savings accounts was not real because it did not reflect the quantity of available goods.

The reformers' social darwinism was complemented by their economic determinism. It is an irony of the transition period that the reformers, intending to destroy socialism, preserved its most basic philosophical assumption, the belief that morality and law have no independent validity but are a function of underlying economic relations.

The reformers showed little interest in the sources of the legal framework that regulated the way in which the market economy in the West operated. In fact, conditioned by years of Marxist training, they dismissed moral idealism as "bourgeois thought," which was not based on anything real.

The consequences of social darwinism and economic determinism were greatly magnified by the most important practical effect of the worldview that the reformers brought to Russia's transformation. This was the reformers' indulgent attitude toward crime. Influenced by decades of mendacious Soviet propaganda, they assumed that the initial accumulation of capital in a market economy is almost always criminal, and, as they were resolutely procapitalist, they found it difficult to be strongly anticrime.

Because the bandits and black-market operators also wanted a free-market economy, the reformers began to see them as "socially friendly" and reacted to the criminals' growing wealth and property with equanimity and even approval, assuming that the gangsters would be able to hold on to their capital only as long as they were able to make it work "for the benefit of society."

The combination of social darwinism, economic determinism, and a tolerant attitude toward crime prepared the young reformers to carry out a frontal attack on the structures of the Soviet system without public support or a framework of law. The result was a catastrophe for Russian society.

(pp. 38-39):

The temptations that the new system introduced were overwhelming. The salaries of officials were low, and a single official decision could make a businessman rich overnight. As a result, decisions began to be sold. A businessman seeking an export quota, the right to hold government funds in his bank, or a favorable privatization decision was told, "It would help your application if you could make a loan to the following offshore company." Sometimes, particularly in the case of the city of Moscow, the transfer data for the offshore company were printed on cards for distribution. It was understood in such cases that the "loan" would not be repaid.

Bribery quickly became an integral part of the Russian way of doing business, and the expense of buying a government official was considered the most important part of a new enterprise's starting capital.

(pp. 46-47):

The creation of an oligarchic system began during the perestroika period, but its untrammeled development started in January 1992 with the beginning of the post-Soviet reforms. The reforms were dominated by three processes: hyperinflation, privatization, and criminalization. Their intersection led to economic collapse, mass poverty, and the effective privatization of the Russian state.

The hyperinflation began on January 2, 1992, after the abrupt freeing of prices, and it quickly divided the population into a minority of the very rich and a majority of the hopelessly poor. Yegor Gaidar, the deputy prime minister, predicted that prices would increase three to five times and then begin to fall. In ten months, however, prices rose twenty-five- to thirtyfold, driving millions into destitution. Soon hawkers and peddlers were everywhere as the members of the World War II generation took to the streets to sell their personal belongings. Within three months, 99 percent of the money held by Russian citizens in savings accounts had disappeared. Money that had been saved for decades to buy an apartment or a car or to pay for a wedding or a decent funeral was lost, causing psychological crises for millions of people.

The wiping out of citizens' savings was followed by the appearance of numerous commercial banks and investment funds, which were totally unregulated. At a time when spiraling inflation pushed ordinary citizens to seek ways to conserve their incomes, these investment funds and many commercial banks, a large number of which had ties to high-ranking officials, launched massive advertising campaigns, promising rates of return on investment of up to 1,200 percent. Most of these funds were pyramid schemes, and when they collapsed, more than 40 million people lost their savings a second time.

(pp. 47-48):

There were several ways of quickly accumulating vast, unearned wealth. One was to appropriate government credits.In 1992 inflation created a shortage of turnover capital, which paralyzed production and prompted the issuance of credits to Russian factories, whose value reached nearly 30 percent of the gross domestic product. With the inflation rate at 2,500 percent, these credits were offered at rates of from 10 to 25 percent. Instead of being used to pay salaries and purchase supplies, however, they were deposited in commercial banks at market rates, with the difference split between bank officials and the factory director.

A second way to acquire great wealth was to obtain permission to export raw materials. Although most prices in Russia had been freed from controls, energy prices, which at the beginning of the reform period were less than 1 percent of world market prices, continued to be regulated. Having abandoned the Soviet-era monopoly on foreign trade, the government began to allow anyone to export who could get a license; and since Russian raw materials were bought at the internal price for rubles and sold abroad at the world price for dollars, export licenses were akin to permission to print money. In Moscow they were frequently issued by the Ministry of Foreign Economic Ties, which functioned like a market, granting licenses in return for bribes, with the fee for the license insignificant in comparison to the size of the bribe.

A third source of wealth was subsidized imports. Out of fear that there would be famine in the country in the winter of 1991, the government sold dollars for the importation of food products at 1 percent of their real value, with the difference subsidized with the help of Western commodity credits. The products were sold, however, at normal market prices, with the result that the attempt to relieve the country's anticipated food crisis led to the enrichment of a small circle of Moscow traders. The value of import subsidies in 1992 came to 15 percent of the gross domestic product.

(pp. 51-53):

In theory, the "loans for shares" program provided for competition for the blocks of shares, with the winner determined by who could offer the largest credit to the government. In practice, however, the winner was the bank with the closest "informal" ties to the government, and the scheme, although it facilitated the handover of the most profitable Russian enterprises to the country's oligarchs, provided very little in badly needed revenue to the government. In 1995, for example, the total revenue from the mortgage auctions of twenty-one of Russia's most profitable enterprises was $691.4 million and 400 billion rubles.

Once an enterprise had been "mortgaged," the proprietary bank was free to exploit it; and when the government failed to repay the bank loans -- which, given the state's revenue shortage, was always the case -- it was up to the bank that held the mortgage to organize the final sale of the enterprise. Unsurprisingly, the enterprises became the property of the banks that had provided the original loans.

In 1995, Oneximbank won control of 38 percent of Norilsk Nickel, the giant nonferrous-metals producer, in exchange for a $170 million loan to the government. Two years later, in August 1997, it paid $250 million to retain the stake. After its repayment of the loan was deducted, the government had gained a mere $80 million for a major share in the plant that produces 90 percent of Russia's nickel, 90 percent of its cobalt, and 100 percent of its platinum.

In the meantime Oneximbank was free to expoit the giant combine as it saw fit. Norilsk Nickel was one of Russia's leading earners of hard currency, but by the spring of 1997 it owed its workers 1.2 trillion rubles in back wages. It was common for workers to faint from hunger, and that year, for the first time in decades, the children of Norilsk were not sent out of the polar city for the summer. The failure of Norilsk Nickel to meet its obligations raised the question of what Oneximbank was doing with the money that it earned from the combine. According to Obshchaya Gazeta, the bank was involved in highly profitable projects that required enormous amounts of cash. One such project was paying early on promissory notes from the federal government to the regional administrations in return for 20 to 30 percent of the note's face value. Inasmuch as the government had a budgetary debt of more than 50 trillion rubles to exployees, it was often unable to pay on these notes itself, and commercial banks used the income generated by their enterprises to buy these notes, leaving enterprises they controlled without enough money to pay salaries.

In fact the empowered banks, which soon controlled roughly 50 percent of the conomy of the country, began to feed continually off the state budget. They collected interest on budgetary funds, used the money to acquire the most valuable Russian enterprises, and then used the revenue from the enterprises to make huge profits by, in effect, leanding money back to the government.

The loan-for-shares scheme changed the relationship between major financial institutions and the government. The banks had long enjoyed the protection of patrons in government, but now, for the first time, the banks were in a position to put pressure on the government. Officials had to go to the banks to discuss such issues as changes in interest rates and the size of the government's indebtedness. Having created powerful banks by entrusting them with the government's money, the government fell into dependence on them.

With the approach of the 1996 presidential elections, it became clear that the government not only would not be able to repay the loans it had taken but, on the contrary, would need new loans. This state of affairs led to plans to put some of the country's most valuable properties, such as the Perm Motor Factory, which produces aircraft engines, Aeroflot, and Svyazinvest, the telecommunications holding company, up for auction, with the banks that had received shares in the enterprises dictating the conditions.

(pp. 53-54):

As was the case with privatization, the modern stage of criminalization in Russia began during perestroika. The Gorbachev-era reforms started with the legalization of "cooperatives," which became the only privately run businesses in the Soviet Union. The cooperatives quickly prospered, but, viewed as ideologically illegitimate,they were left without police protection at a time when it was illegal to hire private guards. They therefore became tempting targets for coercion, and gangs began to be formed all over the country to extort money from them.

By 1992 nearly every small business or street kiosk in Russia was paying protection money to gangsters. As a source of wealth, however, shops and kiosks could not compare with the state budget, and when, after the beginning of the Gaidar reforms, criminal gangs saw that former Soviet officials were using their connections to acquire vast, unearned wealth,they began to use terror ot take over the enterprises that the former officials had established. One sign of the gangsters' activities was the growing number of bankers and busienssmen who fell victim to contract murders.

The criminal terror against well-connected Russian businessmen, however, was short-lived. Soon the gangsters, businessmen, and corrupt officials began to work together. The gangsters needed the businessmen because they required places to invest their capital but, in most cases, lacked the skills to run large enterprises. For their part, businessmen needed the gangsters to force clients to honor their obligations. Before long, nearly every significant bank and commercial organization in Russia was using gangsters for debt collection.

The bandits' methods were simple. The debtor was contacted and informed that the gang knew his address and all his movements and that if he did not pay his debt by a certain date, he and his family would be killed. Usually this was enough to induce payment, in which case 50 percent of the money went to the gang. In cases in which the debtor was unable to make good the debt, he was usually murdered.

The partnership between business and crime did not stop with debt collection. In rapidly became clear that gangsters could be used for many purposes, from eliminating unwanted competitors to "persuading" potential business partners to soften their terms in contract negotiations. The most successful bankers and entrepreneurs became those with the closest criminal structures.

(pp. 53-54):

The ascendancy in Russia, however, of people who made their fortunes not through legitimate conomic activity but through stealing led to economic collapse. In the period 1992-1999 Russia's gross domestic product fell by half. Such a drop had not occurred even under German occupation. Russia became a classic third-world country, selling its raw materials -- oil, gas, and precious metals -- in order to import consumer goods. The value of investmen tin Russia fell every year for eight years, until in 1999 it was roughly 20 percent of its level in 1991. Having acquired their money, for the most part illegally, Russia's newly rich declined to invest in Russia lest a future government confiscate their wealth. Money was moved out of the country in enormous quantities; estimates of the amount that left Russia illegally during the Yeltsin era range from $220 billion to $450 billion.

The economic disaster was accompanied by a demographic catastrophe. In the years 1990-1994 male life expectancy fell by more than six years. In 1998 it was fifty-seven years, the lowest in the industrial world. IN the late 1990s the Russian population overall fell by 750,000 a year, and the country faced epidemics of drug-resistant tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

I included a number of quotes on the Second Chechnya War and Vladimir Putin's accession to power in a separate post (pp. 64-71). Satter argues that the apartment bombings that led up to the war were the work of the Russian FSB, led by Vladimir Putin, intended to start a war which would serve first as a distraction from efforts to reform Yeltsin's oligarchy and second as a vehicle to promote Putin's succession of Yeltsin. The Ryazan event in the second chapter is key to these charges: in it the FSB was caught red-handed, then claimed that they put the bombs there as part of a training exercise.

(pp. 74-75):

In late 1991 the Russian Exchange Bank began to pay 20 percent on deposits. This rate was several times higher than the interest paid by other commercial banks, and the offer was publicized with the help of professional advertising. Almost immediately deposits began to pour in. For the first time, the market saw that it was possible to attract huge amounts of money with high interest rates. This lesson was learned best of all, however, by unscrupulous operators who found that the possibilities for using high interest rates to attract money from a population with no experience of prudent investment were practically unlimited, particularly if there was no intention to pay.

From 1992 through 1994, 800 dummy firms defrauded nearly 30 million Russians of 140 trillion rubles in what became known as the "theft of the century."

(pp. 95-97):

The condition of the seamstresses at the Golubaya Oka Textile Factory was typical of the situation of workers in Russia. Privatization, which put 80 percent of Russian industrial enterprises in private hands by 1996, was supposed to make workers "co-owners" of their factories, but instead it made it possible to exploit workers in a manner that, in some respects, was worse than the expoitation that had existed under the Soviet Union.

The liquidation of state property removed Russia's factories from the control of the government but did not alter the working relationships inside the factories, leaving the directors, who were the last representatives of the Soviet regime following the dispersal of the Communist party committees, in complete administrative control.

In formal terms, ultimate authority was vested in the shareholders, but in reality the shareholders were not in a position to impose their will on the director. Because the director decided on hiring, firing, and promotions and controlled all information, he could dominate the shareholders' meetings even if he owned only a small number of shares. It was he who decided what information to make available to the shareholders,a nd with the shareholders' names printed on the ballots, the consequences of voting against him ranged from demotion to dismissal.

In a few short years there was a change in the character of Soviet-era factory directors. Men who had been dedicated to meeting the targets of the economic plan and often knew little else began to strip the assets of their factories.

One technique used was to withhold necessary payments, including salaries, and deposit the funds at interest. The director typically established close personal connections witha local bank, making it dependent on the factory, and thus on him. The factory's income was then deposited in the bank at high interest or invested, with the director and bank officials splitting the income.

Another technique for stripping assets was to create "daughter firms" that functioned as middlemen, charging exorbitant prices for inconsequential services. Finally, as a result of their access to shops and warehouses and control over transport and security guards, the directors were able to organize the theft of equipment, raw materials, and products, which, following privatization, began to disappear in large quantities from Russian factories. In the first years of the reform period, huge lines formed at Russian border crossings as trucks headed for foreign ports with materials stolen from factories at the behest of their directors.

Faced with the rapacity of the directors and their own vulnerability as a result of the collapse of industrial production, the workers often sank into a helpless passivity, which was reflected in letters to Russian newspapers.[ . . . ]

In fact, it was the defenseless of Russian workers that, amid the rise of a class of criminalized factory directors and the impotence of the official trade unions, gave rise to the first workers' protests. These protests were crushed ruthlessly, but they demonstrated by their futility the real condition of workers in the post-Soviet era.

Most of the stories involve companies not paying workers, as well as crushing unions and protests (pp. 98-102):

The delays in paying salaries soon reached two months, and the factory began to give workers part of their pay in the form of meals in the factory buffet. The food was of prison quality, but the workers accepted it eagerly, often bringing it home for their children without eating anything themselves.

After the factory was privatized, conditions became worse. Part of the production as well as truckloads of spare parts disappeared. Metal cutting machines were removed and sold on the side. Materials were taken from the construction site of a future sports complex and used to build three- and four-story dachas for the factory management.

By mid-1994, malnutrition and financial uncertainty had led to a deep social crisis. Families broke up as men found it impossible to support their children. Workers who became ill could not afford medical care and died prematurely. There were the first suicides. One day in the factory, a woman stopped Dorofeev and said to him, "Do you know what I'm forced to feed my daughters? Animal feed. I take cow feed, mix it with pearl barley, cook it, and serve it." Dorofeev recalled that the last time people had been forced to eat animal feed was during the siege of Leningrad. [ . . . ]

As a trade union leader, Dorofeev had the right to review the factory's financial records, and he soon made several discoveries. One of them was that although the factory was not giving workers their salaries, [company director] Pirozhkov had been paid 48.5 million rubles between December 1995 and June 1996. He also discovered that the factory had paid 391 percent intereston credits of 3.5 billion rubles from Credprombank, although the highest interest rate being charged for such credits during that period was 200 to 240 percent. At the same time, the factory's taxes were not paid directly to the government but to Credprombank so that the bank could first collect interest on the money. Payments had been delayed by two weeks for at least a year and a half. Dorofeev took this information to the prosecutor, and the police arrested the Credprombank executives responsible for the Leninsky raion.

By June the lag in paying salaries had reached eight months, and the workers survived only because they raised potatoes and other vegetables on their dacha plots. Every Monday they arrived at the factory exhausted after a weekend of hard work. [ . . . ]

One night, shortly before May Day 1997, Dorofeev was at home watching television when he heard the sound of bottles in another room. He got up and found his wife lying across their bed in an unnatural pose. He called an ambulance, and she was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors pumped her stomach and saved her life. She had taken sleeping pills. Vladimir found a suicide note, which summed up the impotent anguish of the entire workforce of the Heating Equipment Plant. It read: "Damn you, Pirozhkov."

On the police (p. 113):

There are several reasons why the police often do not make a serious effort to defend ordinary citizens. In the first place, the Russian police, as in the past, are organized to support the political authorities against society. They do not have a psychological predisposition to defend individuals. In this respect, the situation is little different from what it was in the nineteenth century, when the marquis de Coustine noted that police in Russia harass the innocent but, in a crisis, do not rush to offer aid.

Alao as in the past, the Russian police are judged according to a quota system that rewards a low crime rate and a large number of "solved crimes." This system induces the police to avoid anything that will ruin their statistics. As a result, they avoid accepting complaints from citizens who have been the victims of difficult-to-solve crimes. If a citizen's apartment is robbed, they may try to persuade the victim not to report it by saying, "Nonetheless, we won't find them." They also may avoid classifying a person who has disappeared as missign or an unidentified corpse as the victim of foul play because, in both cases, they may become involved in efforts that threaten their record for solving crimes.

Perhaps most important, the police in postcommunist Russia do not want to defend ordinary citizens because they regard it as an unproductive use of their time. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many of the best law-enforcement professionals left the intelligence services, the Interior Ministry, and the Office of the Prosecutor General to work for private security bureaus at fifteen times the pay. Many of thsoe who were left were incapable of getting a job elsewhere. These officers saw that government officials all around them were using their positions to obtain illegal wealth and, following their example, began to use every opportunity to solicit bribes.

In time, the police began to resemble just one more criminal gang, and their obsession with making money left them with neither the time nor the energy to enforce the law.

The book has many examples. One of the most striking is of Tatyana Zelinskaya and her estranged husband Vladislav Bezzubov. She divorced him in 1997. He was deep in debt, and starting making threats against her (p. 124):

In November 1998 Buzzubov moved out of the apartment but made harassing phone calls, sometimes simply breathing into the phone and at other times making threats. "For $200 or $300," he told her, "I can arrange to have you killed. No one will look for you,a nd no one will care." Despite the pressure, Tanya refused to sign over her share of the property. Instead, she tried to expedite court hearings, which, at Bezzubov's insistence, were continually postponed.

A series of criminal attacks ensue, both on Tanya and on her sister Nina. In each case Buzzubov calls afterwards and threatens again to have her killed. In each case Tanya goes to the police, who do nothing. Finally, Tanya is shot in the back, which she survives (p. 126):

In June someone set fire to the car belonging to a friend who had agreed to live with Tanya and Nina in order to provide protection. Thoroughly frightened, Tanya went again to the police. A duty officer took her in to see Chernikh, who told her that the police were fed up with this "domestic scandal." When Tanya told him that she had already been shot and now was afraid of being killed, Chernikh offered a suggestion. "Why don't you use the same methods against him that Bezzubov is using againt you?"

After that, Tanya moved to the Ukraine, and that's the end of the story, at least in the book.

On organized crime (pp. 131-132):

The situation in the Avtovaz factory reflects a central fact of Russian life, the power and savagery of organized crime. Gangsters in Russia are not a marginal phenomenon confined to such areas as the illegal economy as narcotics, prostitution, and gun running. They control large parts of the legitimate economy, and neither a powerless public nor the organs of law enforcement have the means to bring them under control.

In 1997, 9,000 criminal groups in Russia with nearly 600,000 members controlled an estimated 40 percent of the Russian economy. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency estimated that more than half of Russia's twenty-five largest banks were either directly tied to organized crime or engaged in other illegal activity. Criminals dominated the market in oil products, aluminum, real estate, restaurants, hotels, and alcohol, and they controlled the wholesale and collective farmers' markets. In large parts of the country, they subordinated the local government and, through it, received support for their businesses and direct access to government funds.

The influence of gangsters is so powerful that they dominate the culture. Their language -- "fenya," a form of labor camp slang -- is used by government officials, entertainers, and media personalities. Their songs are sung at social gatherings, and they are the heroes of novels, films, and television series.

Organized crime created a world of limited freedom in which millions of Russians live under constant threat of violence to replace the total lack of freedom that existed under communism. The success of the gangs in establishing their domination was in turn a result of police corruption, ties with political leaders, and a total disregard for human life. These factors made the gangs ruthless machines of coercion, ideally suited to the conditions of a society without law.

Satter devotes a whole chapter to Vladivostok and its governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko, who already played a key role in Meier's Black Earth (pp. 171-172):

By late 1994 the bleeding of the krai budget had produced a severe financial crisis. Teachers, doctors, and other state employees were going for months without pay, necessary maintenance and renewal of infrastructure were ignored, and hospitals, schools, and orphanages no longer received essential supplies.

The effects of corruption also spread to the coal-mining regions. As the krai administration took money from the federal government that was intended for Dalenergo, the state power company, and used it instead to plug holes in the krai budget caused by corruption, Dalenergo ceased paying the coal miners. The miners mounted strikes in late 1994 and hunger strikes in 1995. Finally they stopped supplying coal to the power stations. As a result there were cuts throughout Primoriye in electricity, heat, and water.

By early 1996, there were days when power in Vladivostok was off for twenty-three hours out of twenty-four.

On a typical day, most people returned home to find there was no heat or light. The first step was to light candles or a kerosene lamp. The next step was to heat up food in the dark on a butane gas stove. The food, as a rule, had been prepared the previous night. At some point, dots of light would appear in the buildings, and there would be shouts of "It's been turned on!" People then rushed to switch on everything that could be switched on -- cooking rings, stoves, teakettles, refrigerators, heaters, washing machines, and televisions -- in order to take a shower, do the dishes, wash clothes, and cook for the following day.

The disruption of daily life affected everyone. People were afraid to take an elevator lest they be trapped for hours inside a box suspended nine stories above the ground. It was difficult to wash or launder, carry out elementary business, or provide for oneself an done's family.

Another section is on the declining value of human life (p. 203):

In the first place, to facilitate the reforms, the government removed all restrictions on the sale of alcohol. The result was that Russia was flooded with cheap vodka, and while the purchasing power of the average Russian was cut in half, his salary in relation to the cost of vodka increased threefold. The period of unrestricted sale of alcohol coincided with the rapid privatization of state property. Tranquilizing the population with cheap vodka made it easier to carry out privatization, even at the cost of thousands of lives.

Another example of the new government's disregard for human life was the failure to finance the system of public health. For the first time, Russians found that they had to pay for many medical services, from necessary medicines to lifesaving operations, and inability to pay led many to give up on their own health. The failure to finance adequately even such hospitals of "last resort" as the Vishnevsky Surgical Institute in Moscow, which was underused despite a surge in the death rate, came at a time when well-connected insiders were acquiring giant Soviet enterprises for next to nothing.

The most important sign of the priority of political change over the need to protect lives, however, was the tolerance shown for corruption and organized crime. The absence of legal safeguards during the privatization process led to an increased level of conflict in Russia and destroyed the possibility of introducing elements of moral idealism in postcommunist society. For many people who had been raised under the Communist system, the resulting spiritual void was intolerable. It led to a sharply higher murder rate, a spiraling suicide rate, and an epidemic of heart attacks and strokes.

The "shock therapy" approach to reform resulted in a tidal wave of premature deaths. In the period 1992-1995, deaths exceeded births by 2 million, a demographic catastrophe not experienced in Russia in peacetime except during the famine of 1932-33 and the Stalinist terror of 1937-38.

This is a story about Galina Mkrtumyan, whose child Artyem fell into a sinkhole filled with boiling water, and whose husband Vladimir went into the pit to pull the child out. Both died days or weeks later as a result of their burns (pp. 209-210):

On March 21 there was a funeral and Vladimir was cremated. Galina hird a lawyer an dprepared to file suit against the city of Moscow. While doing so, she learned of the fate of Marina Yarova, a forty-three-year-old mother of two, who had been boiled alive after falling into a sinkhole in a field near her apartment whilewalking her dogs on March 11, seventeen days after the accident involving Galina's husband and son. With this news, she lost all hope for the future of her country. It seemed to her that there was no tragedy sufficiently horrible to shake the indifference of the authorities or their disregard for human life. She later told a reporter that her son had died a death that would not have been imposed on even the most hardened recidivist in the most barbaric and uncivilized country in the world. Becuase of the criminal carelessness of the city authorities, her life had been ruined. "What I feel now is terrible emptiness," she said, "and I am standing on the brink of an abyss."

Such crime was possible only due to a massive breakdown in the moral fabric of Russian society (pp. 224-225):

Against this background, three factors made it possible for gangsters to achieve legitimacy and even a form of respectability. The first was the gangsters' depiction of themselves as Robin Hoods who forced corrupt businessmen to "share" their wealth and, to a degree, redistributed it.

The second factor was the general belief that the gangsters, by using force to appropriate wealth, were not that much different from anyone else. Russians were raised on a depiction of capitalism as a jungle in which only the most ruthless survived, and they saw how, in Russia, huge enterprises were stolen and fortunes made on the basis of political connections. Accordingly, it often did not seem that the activities of the gangsters were particularly blameworthy.

Finally, Russians accorded gangsters legitimacy because, with the collapse of Communist ideology, which, to a degree, gave people a sense of meaning, the population was left without moral orientation.

The resulting moral vacuum often had murderous consequences. In the years 1992-1997 in Moscow alone, 20,000 people sold their housing and then disappeared. In the country as a whole, the number for the period was many times higher. A significant percentage, if not the vast majority, of these people were believed to have been murdered for their apartments.

Once housing was privatized in Russia, it became valuable, and apartment gangs formed in cities all over the country. They bribed building superintendents to give them the names of alcoholics or elderly persons living alone without close relatives. They then, under various guises, made contact with these persons, forced them to sign over their apartments, and then killed them. The "sale" was then registered with the help of cooperative notaries and officials of the passport department of the local police.

The success of the apartment gangs was, in part, a tribute to their ruthlessness. But it was possible because of the cooperation of ordinary citizens. The building superintendents, police officials, and notaries knew, or at least strongly suspected, that nothing good would come to the persons whom they identified or certified to have sold their apartments, but they did so anyway because the fate of these people was not their concern.

Similar moral indifference was demonstrated by high-ranking officials. In 1992 the Kremlin Palace of Congresses was rented out for an unusual spectacle. Members of Aum Shinri Kyo, the Japanese doomsday cult, dressed in tinsel-colored leotards danced around in clouds of dry ice in a musical written by the cult leader, Shoko Asahara, to markt he beginning of Aum's "Russian Salvation Tour." It was during this tour that cult members made the acquaintance of Oleg Lobov, the secretary of the Security Council and a close associate of Yeltsin, inaugurating an era of close cooperation between Aum and the Russian authorities.

With Lobov's help, members of the sect, described as "Japanese businessmen," trained at the bases of the Taman and Kantemirov Divisions near Moscow in the use of machine guns, rifles, and tanks; shopped for advanced weapons, including MiG-29 fighter jets, Proton rocket launchers, and nuclear warheads; and attended lectures at the Laboratory of Thermodynamics of the Academy of Sciences, where they studied the circulation of gases.

In 1995 members of the sect launched a sarin nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo metro that killed 12 people and injured more than 5,000. At the trial of the leader of the sect, Aum's chief of intelligence testified that the production designs for the sarin had been delivered to Aum by Lobov in 1993 in return for $100,000 in cash. (Yeltsin's response was to promote Lobov to be his envoy to Chechnya.)

The situation demanded the ability to draw clear morald istinctions, but in a society that had lost one worldview without having gained another one, many Russians found those distinctions impossible to make.

I suppose you can argue that the fact that no Soviet nuclear bombs have been used by terrorists suggests that maybe there was a limit, but maybe it's just that the price wasn't right, or maybe it's just the timing. In one notable event after the book was written, two Russian airlines were blew up by Chechen suicide-bombers who had bribed their way onto the airplanes.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Tom Bissell: Chasing the Sea

The second book in my post-Communist Russia series is actually set in Uzbekistan, an ugly piece of Soviet mapmaking in central Asia, combining the mountain-sheltered Ferghana Valley, the modern Soviet city of Tashkent, the ancient cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, and the desert area to the south of the Aral Sea. Although the population is nominally Uzbek, a Turkic grouping, there are notable minorities in all corners, and scattered Uzbeks elsewhere. In many ways this geographic sprawl and cultural disorganization mirrors Russia. One difference is that Uzbekistan didn't throw off its Soviet heritage; rather, the local strongman, Islam Karimov, saw which way the wind was blowing and took his fiefdom private, so the country remains a centrally-controlled dictatorship, albeit with less ideological baggage and less oversight from Moscow, or accountability to anyone else.

The book was written by Tom Bissell, who spent some time in the early 1990s in Uzbekistan working for the US Peace Corps. The book is Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia (2003; paperback, 2004, Vintage Books), or as the subtitle inside the book explains, "BEING A NARRATIVE OF A JOURNEY THROUGH UZBEKISTAN, Including Descriptions of Life Therein, Culminating with an Arrival at the Aral Sea, the World's Worst Man-Made Ecological Catastrophe, In one Volume." It's filed under "Travel/Adventure."


Arriving in Tashkent, having made arrangements to stay with a family there. I flagged this as much as a sample of the writing as for any other reason (p. 22):

What shocked me -- what always shocked me about Soviet apartments -- was how broken-spirited it seemed. The carpets did not cover as much as they clearly wanted to. The furniture seemed beyond the possibilities of reupholstery. The plain red wallpaper was lumpy and peeling dryly in every corner. A toaster-sized, intermittently color television convulsed in the corner of the living room. The flat's four snug rooms were arranged railroad-style, end-on-end-on-end-on-end. I had the last room. It had the only bed. I wondered where Oleg and Natasha would sleep until I saw that the living-room couch, bleeding spores of stuffing from every seam, had been turned into a cot.

Welcome to the Aral Sea story (pp. 25-28):

The story of the Aral Sea is a familiar twentieth-century narrative, that of Development and Industrialization, albeit a less happy version than the one to which we are accustomed. It begins with cotton, of which Uzbekistan is the world's second-largest exporter. Cotton has for decades been Uzbekistan's national agricultural religion, mirroring a larger Russian trend to triumphalize the "heroic Soviet success of socialized agriculture," which might be funny if it wee not so disgusting. Indeed, adulation of cotton extends so far into Uzbek culture that today Tashkent's soccer team is called the cotton Pickers.

Such a huge cotton output is a strange accomplishment for a nation that is mostly desert, as cotton is a thirsty, ecologically demanding crop. For this Uzbekistan can thank the American Civil War, which cut off the cotton supply of a powerful northern neighbor, tsarist Russia, which in turn began to search for a new, easily accessible agricultural base. It found that base in Central Asia. The river that forms part of Uzbekistan's southern border and feeds into the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya, known in antiquity as the Oxus, was irrigated and bled into Uzbekistan's vast deserts, and soon "white gold" was blooming within this newly arable but fragile land. The diverting of the Amu Darya was one of the rare tsarist policies the Soviest continued. Imperialism was another.

No one knows precisely how long the Amu Darya River has flowed into the Aral Sea, the region's natural depression area. One Turkmen chieftain told agents of Peter the Great in the early 1700s that the Amu Darya's original course poured into the Caspian Sea, not the Aral. Peter the Great had, for a time, used this information to design, though never begin, an ambitious terraforming plan to restore the river to its "original" course. This would have allowed goods to travel between India and Russia without passing through the region's hazardous, bandit-plagued deserts. Whatever the case, the story illustrates how long ago Russia had set itself upon modifying th Amu Darya's course.

For 600 years the Aral Sea basin has been the traditional home of the Karakalpaks, a nomadic people who, after the Bolshevik Revolution, were first made part of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, were then briefly granted autonomy, and in 1936 were finally ceded to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. From the Karakalpaks' consistent poverty and small numbers, one can conclude that life around the Aral Sea -- some scholars have suggested that "aral" comes from an old Tatar word meaning "between" -- could never have been easy. The surrounding land is not blessed with much by way of readily exploitable resources, and though irrigation-based agriculture has been practiced around the sea for hundreds if not thousands of years, its economy never much devleoped beyond melon growing. "The banks of the Aral," wrote the great explorer Sir Alexander Burnes in 1834, "are peopled by wandering tribes, who cultivate great quantities of wheat and other grain, which, with fish, that are caught in abundance, form their food. The neighbourhood of the Aral is not frequented by caravans." But the Aral Sea's proximity to an important center of Central Asia culture, Khiva, found in the Amu Darya's once-fertile river delta -- allowed a few Western travelers some early, pristine glimpses of life in the Aral Sea basin. The Englishman Anthony Jenkinson traveled throughout the delta in 1558 and wrote that "the water that serveth all that country is drawn by ditches out of the River Oxus . . . and in a short time all that land is like to be destroyed, and to become a wilderness for want of water."

In 1960 the Aral Sea was still the fourth-largest inland body of water in the world, its volume equal to that of Lake Michigan. Jenkinson's prophecies had not been fulfilled. But an increasing hunger for cotton, which grew exponentially as the Soviet Union attempted to overtake the West, along with the strain of a population that had increased by a factor of seven and an intensifying network of irrigation, began, quite simply, to drain the Aral Sea. Moynaq, once a prosperous seaside fishing town of 40,000 inhabitants and home to a cannery that produced 12 to 20 million tins of fish a year, found itself, by the late seventies, no longer even near the Aral Sea's shore. For years dust storms had been scouring the area with hundreds of millions of tons of salt and sand from the Aral's exposed seabed, much of which was poisonous, thanks to the Soviet insecticides and toxic waste dumped into the sea over the decades. The weather turned foul as the sea shrank and shed its role as the basin's climatic regulator, affecting temperatures as far as 150 miles beyond the shore's perimeter. In its unspoiled state, the Aral Sea absorbed the solar equivalent of 7 billion tons of conventional fuel, cooling the surrounding areas during summer and feeding the stored heat back into the atmosphere during the winter. Now that the Aral Sea had lost 70 percent of its water volume, summer temperatures ruptured mercury bulbs and vaporized the soil's moisture, and months of morning frost during the increasingly harsh winters doomed the irrigation-dependent crops the sea had been drained to nourish in the first place.

Those living near the sea fell apart commensurately. A place that for so long lived off so little found itself rapidly losing everything. One by one, Karakalpakistan's industries staggered, then collapsed. Fisherman, ferry captains, canners, and shipbuilders had to reinvent their lives within a planned economy that could not afford to admit they existed. With mounting rates of infant mortality, anemia among pregnant women (which ran, and runs, at virtually 100 percent), and tuberculosis, the Karakalpaks began by the mid-1980s to question publicly what was happening to their land and themselves. "Tell me," a Karakalpak asked the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies in 1989, "is there any other stae in the world which permits its own population to be poisoned?" "When God loved us, he gave us the Amu Darya," one poet wrote. "When he ceased to love us, he sent us Russian engineers."

On Russia in Central Asia (pp. 70-71):

Russian invovlement in Central Asia was not always of ill consequence. With them the Russians brought goods, medicines, railways, roads, electricity. For many years under tsarist rule Central Asia's courts were allowed to operate under the Sharia (Islamic law). Central Asia's tsarist governors-general, who took an oath that promised "to show fairness to the needs and interests of the Muslims," discourage the efforts of Mother Russia's more zealous Christian missionaries. (The total number of Central Asian Muslim converts to Christianity during the tsarist period was exactly fourteen. The number of Central Asian Russian converst to Islam was ten.) The irrigation and diversion of the Aral Sea's feeder rivers was ecologically damaging but not insanely so, as it would be under the Soviest. Less defensible was Russia's thorough exportation of alcoholism, the ruthless of tsarist storm troopers in putting down revolt, and its rule through native surrogates. Throughout Central Asia -- and no more so than in Uzbekistan -- this system spawned a hated indigenous elite the power of which came only through Russian conduits. Use of elites would spread in the Soviet era. They still existed, but now the elites answered to no one.

Russian involvement in Central Asia was rather akin to that of an irresponsible bankrupt maxing out a stack of credit cards in order to date women who do not love him and whom he cannot actually afford. Russia wanted to be a great power and could not pretend Great Power status without its captured khanates and miles of deserts and remote mosque-centered cities. And though Russia may have ruled Central Asia, Central Asia worked its own influence upon Russia. One does not merely "rule" a place of such apocalyptic possibility. How else to explain the varied roles Central Asia has played in Russia's great drama? Hope, savior, future, lifeblood, bane, and, to Solzehenitsyn, a "soft underbelly" that needed to be mercifully shed. In the last two centuries Russia has twice occupied vast territories it fought and connived for, filled the remaining world with awe and fear, and then, quite suddenly, collapsed from within. How did this happen? Any Central Asian will tell you: "That was us. We did that. We've been doing it for a thousand years."

Bissell has a pet peeve about Robert D. Kaplan, who passed through Uzbekistan on the way to writing The Ends of the Earth: A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy (pp. 80-83):

Kaplan's books are typically informed by an unimaginable lode of historical research, with bits of Conrad and Soyinka and the Qur'an paradropped into the text like little prose commandos. A partisan of the Clash of Civilizations Hypothesis, Kaplan's reporting often suggests that our future holds nothing less than some global Ragnarök. This may or may not be true, of course, But Kaplan's seeming addiction to prophecy (his book Balkan Ghosts is said to have "predicted" the meltdown in Yugoslavia) has given him over to an unhappy combination of gloom and credulousness. I am unable to speak to the accuracy found within his dispatches from most of the places he covers in The Ends of the Earth, but I can say his Uzbekistan chapters contain reporting of consistent, disconcerting inaccuracy. All travel books contain errors, and I am sure this one has more than its share. But Kaplan's hammering insistence upon figuring out What Culture Means requires an accuracy commensurate to the conclusions he draws. And yet once he is away from his books he begins to grease his analytical wheels with the highly anecdotal. This is accompanied by an almost perverse freedom to pinion entire cultures based upon how his morning has gone.

Start with Kaplan's ostensibly salutary commitment to confronting slums. As anyone who has traveled in economically stratified places knows, one cannot avoid slums if one tries. So one confronts this slum -- yes, before me stands a slum -- but to what end? This is somehow supposed to supply the key to all poverties? Additionally, Kaplan tells us that crime "is considerable in Tashkent." Kaplan was in Tashkent in 1994. According to those I know who lived there at the time, crime in 1994 Tashkent was minimal. Crime today in Tashkent is probably worse than it has ever been -- and still far, far below what one can expect on a sunny summer night in Chicago or Brooklyn. The crime that does exist in Tashkent, or any of Uzbekistan's cities, is almost always of a nuisance nature. Provided one is not looking to become a smack connoisseur or engage too deeply with the mafiya-run world of prostitution, bloodless muggings and pickpocketry are about as rough as Tashkent gets. (If one is a man, that is. Women unfortunately enjoy different worries.) "I was back in a place," Kaplan writes of Uzbekistan, "where the social fabric was thin." I have been mugged in Tashkent, more than once. Never, for one moment, did I fear for my life. It is impossible for me to imagine an average Tashkent criminal willing to murder his victim, particularly his Western victim. That is became Uzbekistan's social fabric -- and its attendant obsession with hospitality -- is so triple-ply strong. [ . . . ]

But this is small beer. Kaplan's most onerous failing in The Ends of the Earth is his willingness to pardon the dictatorship of Islam Karimov because he keeps Uzbekistan's "simmering hatreds" under control. [ . . . ] Uzbekistan does have its ethnocultural problems, as does every nation. Occasionally they have been violent. That said, Uzbekistan's culture is, in my experience, basically tolerant. This fundamental tolerance, not only to matters of ethnicity but also to gender, is one of the most benevolent legacies of the Soviet Union. And while many ethnicities -- Koreans, especially, and to a lesser extent Tajiks and Russians -- are glass-ceilinged from ascending too high within Uzbek officialdom or academia, people in Uzbekistan are not anywhere close to taking to the streets in search of different-colored hides. Their frustrations are almost wholly economic. Unless all of Central Asia collapses beneath some larger regional crisis -- a shortage of fresh water, for instance -- it is unlikely that Uzbekistan's average citizens will ever be ready to take up arms against their countrymen, Karimov or no Karimov. Indeed, the most pressing threat to Uzbekistan's stability is Karimov and his repressive policies.

[ . . . ] Karimov at least has the excuse of self-interested hegemony. Kaplan is merely disguising his fatalism as pragmatism -- never mind that dictators are not known for their willingness to think in terms of "the short run." Kaplan fails to address the pivotal issue here: pervasive naked power worship, something one sees again and again in societies based upon certainty-peddling creeds, be they Islamic or Soviet. Forget the Pandora's box of instability. Karimov works in the idiom of power alone, and his subjects respect him because of his power. Power worship is what George Orwell, in a different context, called the worship of the "continuation of the thing that is happening." He also called it "a mental disease." Worship of the continuation of the thing that is happening is what keeps thugs like Karimov safely ensconced in their palaces. It keeps those living benath them in obedient line. It holds up the faulty eye chart that legitimizes American foreign policy's myopia when considering such brutes. It lessens the guilt of the American diplomats who have to deal with loutish regimes on a daily basis. And it gives tea-leaf-reading journalists like Robert D. Kaplan their stony surety.

An aside on the Cold War (pp. 110-111):

These small, quiet farms were a reminder of what was one of the frailer ventricles within the Soviet heart. When it comes to the Soviet Union, American conservatives cherish many articles of faith. Few are as know-nothing as the belief that Ronald Reagan's buildup of the military during the 1980s handed the Politburo the tombstone upon which it chiseled its own busted-budget epitaph. Reagan's talk of evil empires, this view holds, along with his refusal to quail before the doddering faces of Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko, the first three elderly Soviet leaders he faced, forced Moscow to pass on the Soviet premiership to the youthful dynamo Mikhail Gorbachev, whom Reagan then cannily outmaneuvered. Like much American conservative thought, this belief fails to take into consideration anything not directly related to American conservative thought.

More on Gorbachev and reform, leading into a discussion of Uzbek farming (pp. 111-112):

One of Gorbachev's biggest motivators -- other than looking at the Soviet balance sheet every month and not being able to deceive himself, as Brezhnev had -- was the controversial 1983 publication of the Novosibirsk Report, written by a brilliant, courageous sociologist named Tatyana Zaslavskaya (who, among other accomplishments, first used the term perestroika). The report's main thesis was that the Soviet economy was crippled by human factors: laziness, incompetence, apathy, and alienation. Soviet jobs, Zaslavskaya concluded, offered no meaningful connection to those who did them, and the negligible quality of their work reflected this. Gorbachev, who grew up in farming territory in the northern Caucasus, where workers felt a deep and automatic connection to their jobs, was stirred by Zaslavskaya's analysis. He had, after all, lost family members to the mass starvation that descended upon his native soil following the spectacular failure of Stalinist collectivization. Gorbachev was also mindful of the example of Lenin, who seemed to have glimpsed the bankrupt writing upon the bloodied Soviet wall well before anyone else. In his late New Economic Policy stage, cooked up to address why the world's first socialist state was starving to death, Lenin put forth a tinkered-with vision of socialism as a society of "civilized cooperators." These barely implemented Leninist innovations -- an infant Stalin throttled in its crib -- resembled a greatly moderated form of capitalism which Gorbachev looked to emulate in taking further than ever before previous timid Soviet experiments with liberalization.

More Cold War illusions (pp. 112-113):

But American conservatives need to have the narrative this way. The Soviet Union, with its backward farms and wheat-scything cross-eyed peasantry, was a tyrannosaur of state power, as evil as it was massive. The Central Incompetence Agency did little to dissuade such thinking, predicting in the late 1950s that the Soviet economy would triple that of America by 2000. Around this time the CIA was still using Nazi maps to determine likely Soviet nuclear launch pads and confidently predicted a Soviet moon sortie by 1967. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, the CIA consistently overestimated the number and destructive capacity of Soviet warheads, leading to famous worries about the U.S.-Soviet "missile gap." When, in 1975, Soviet engineers began screwing nose cones onto new and unimaginably powerful lines of nuclear missiles -- the SS-17, SS-18, and SS-19 -- the CIA, as though on cue, began to report that the expansion of Soviet nuclear capabilities was finally "coming to an end." One might think that by the 1980s the CIA would have calibrated its thinking on the issue of Soviet economic might, which, as anyone who lived in Moscow or Kiev or Tashkent or Minsk could see, did not merit even polite comparison with our own. They did not. As far as "evil empires" go, the age of widespread Soviet terror had, by Reagan's time, mostly passed. The regime had relaxed into a posture of farting corruption and petty cruelty, it is true. It is also true, Cold War scholars now recognize, that Soviet leaders did believe they could fight and win a nuclear war, and drew up several first-strike scenarios to achieve that end. But a nation that only a decade before was dropping napalm on children in a war it already knew was unwinnable could hardly lob "evil-empire" opprobrium without provoking cynical Soviet chuckles. Let us say, however, that Ronald Reagan, wearing a loincloth of American righteousness, did indeed throw the spear that brought down the prehistoric Soviet lizard. What still needs explaining is why this mighty empire, when it finally did fall apart, suddenly found itself waiting in a breadline behind international starvelings such as Somalia, Nicaragua, and Bhutan. And what did the USSR get to alleviate its seven decades of mass hypnosis and disaster? Among other things, one plane after another of smiling Peace Corps ingenues not unlike myself.

The stuff about first-strike scenarios is new to me. Brezhnev explicitly renounced any first-strike use of nuclear weapons -- something the US has never done, and a policy that was eventually reversed by Putin, not so much as a threat as to establish some sort of parity of bullshit between superpowers. Later on Bissell authoritatively asserts (p. 363): "First Reagan war chest arrived in Afghanistan in 1986, seven years after the Soviet invasion." The US started funding Afghan mujahideen in 1979 when Jimmy Carter was president, before the Soviet invasion. As I understand it, Reagan continued that funding from his first days in office, and increased it significantly over time. The shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles may be what Bissell is thinking about. I'm not sure when they were first delivered, but 1986 seems about right. Much of this history is in Steve Coll's Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, which is not cited in Bissell's interesting bibliography.

Bissell has a translator named Rustam for much of the trip. Rustam is a young man from the Ferghana valley, hip, pro-Western at least culturally, wants nothing to do with Islam, despises the jihadists, fears the militsiya, etc. Bissell is constantly harping on the crimes of the Soviet Union, which finally leads to this moment at the Registan in Samarkand (p. 184):

"It takes a moment for the hole effect to set in, but it's pretty impressive, isn't it?"

Rustam nodded in courteous deferral. "The Soviets saved it, you know. Uzbeks did nothing for this place. For centuries they let the Registan fall apart."

"Sure, but the Soviets decided to restore it only after forty years of really half-assed administration. I read that after the Bolshevik Revolution they used the Registan as a granary, then as stables. Stables!"

Rustam head-shakingly regarded me. "What do you have against the Soviets? Don't you realize that without the Soviets I would have never been educated? That I would have never gone to America? Everything Uzbekistan has is because of the Soviets, dude. Uzbeks are simple people. The Soviets made us modern. Look at Afghanistan. The Soviets lost the war, right? But maybe if they had won, it would not be so unhappy there. Maybe the Taliban would not exist, and maybe all these fucking Muslims would not feel so free to kill and destroy."

"It's complicated, I admit that."

"Actually," he said, "it's not complicated. I have just explained it to you."

This is on the Wahhabi-backed Islamist movement in Central Asia, starting with movement leaders Tohirjon Yuldashev and Jumaboi Khojaev, a/k/a Juma Namangani (pp. 269-270):

After putting time in at various Tajik madrassas, Yuldashev went to Pakistan, where he found connections to Saudi Arabia's small Uzbek community, who had lived on the peninsula's immaculate Islamic soil since fleeing the Soviet basmachi [a word for bandits] annihilation of the 1920s. These exilic Uzbeks, now more Wahhabi than the Wahhabis, worked with the head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal, to funnel enough funds through Islamic charities to Yuldashev to allow him to spend the better part of the next decade organizing from Peshawar, Pakistan, another, bloodier Ferghana uprising. Jumaboi Khojaev, a younger and more reckless acolyte, stayed in Tajikistan to fight with the Islamic Resistance Party (IRP) against the regime of Tajik president Imamali Rakhmanov, who was holding on to power with help from 25,000 Russian troops sent by Boris Yeltsin to protect what many Russians still believed was their southern border in everything but name. Khojaev, reborn in Islamist fire as Juma Namangani, was indispensable in the fight against Rakhmanov. As the journalist Ahmed Rashid was gold by a Tajik political activist, "Namagani knew the tactics of the Soviet army and special forces, which was extremely useful to the IRP." In 1992 Namagani arrived in northern Tajikstan's Tavildara Valley with no more than forty Uzbek militants. In Uzbekistan itself, the number of committed Islamists dedicated to the overthrow of the Uzbek regime between 1992 and 1995 is thought to have never been more than one or two hundred, the vast majority of whom were concentrated in the Ferghana Valley. As Karimov squeezed the vise, more and more young men who had had only a cultural (and completely understandable) interest in Islam were beaten and detained. Many of these embittered souls, and their brothers, and cousins, and friends, rushed to join Namangani in Tajikistan. By 1996 the number of his followers reportedly approached a thousand, and as an aside, one is hard-pressed to find a lesson here. Suppressing violent manifestations of Islam clearly does not work, as we can see when the Wahhabi grandchildren of basmachi Uzbeks in Saudi Arabia are still seeking violent redress. Igoring militant Islam only hastens its spread. Accommodating militant Islam hardly seems an option, as hard-line Islam has, with the possible exception of Iran, proven repeatedly incapable of forming anything resembling a functional human society. The other option that comes to mind -- making a sign of the cross and grabbing a rifle -- is precisely what the Islamists most desire. If the strange career of Juma Namangani is any indication, it seems we all have a long, long century ahead of us.

Note on travel (pp. 290-291):

Travel did many things to a person, but the one thing it did most successfully was break a person down. Admittedly, my travel experiences were not very representative. My experience with travel was Central Asia. Central Asia, then, broke a person down. It did so first by exhilaration. Was this place real? Was I really here? It did so next by exhaustion. Nothing was easy, and each hassle and bribe and malfunction and injustice took something of one's spirit, bent it, made it meaner. Then came the most brutal breakdown of all: the knowledge of how easily one could live within that meanness.

Minor parenthetical note (p. 291):

At 11 PM it was still raining. Sleep was, for some reason, impossible. I got out of bed, having decided to write in my notebooks ("The most deceptive aspect of procrastination is that it, too, involves action; only, it is the wrong action") until the rain ceased.

The sorry history of Soviet environmental depredation, not to mention similar history in the US (pp. 314-315):

Even a brief catalog of the former Soviet Union's ecological and health misadventures stupefied, sickened, silenced. The Soviet Union was a nation in which one could stand next to a waste-spurting pipe near the town of Chelyabinsk and absorb a lethal dose of radiation in a single hour. Where surgeons were often forced by supply shortages to perform appendectomies with straight razors rather than scalpels. Where 40 percent of its medical-school graduates could not read an electrocardiogram. Where the Hippocratic Oath was forbidden, scorned as "bourgeois," and replaced with a pledge "to conduct all my actions according to the principles of Communistic morale." [ . . . ]

The Soviet Union was a country whose experts maintained that radiation sickness was basically a mental problem,and called the Aral Sea "nature's error" and hope it would "die in a beautiful manner." Whose medical personnel were sometimes instructed to wash bandages for a second use. Whose doctors, 66 percent of whom were women, took home 80 percent of the average male factory worker's salary. Whose minister of health in 1989 advised, "To live longer, you must breathe less." The Soviet Union was a country where, in 1990, remembering Nikita Kruschchev's boastful promise to overtake and surpass American standards of living, angry, abused, and exhausted protesters marched past the Kremlin carrying placards that read LET US CATCH UP WITH AND SURPASS AFRICA.

Some Americans might regard these statistics as proof of American capitalism's superiority to Soviet Communism in every imaginable way. (This is not even to mention other capitalist paragons such as Japan, its tropical logging practices, brutal whaling,a nd busy involvement in the international plutonium trade making it a veritable ecological criminal state.) Such citizens hexed Al Gore as a "radical environmentalist" on the basis of his sensitive and ideologically tame book Earth in the Balance. Their organizations have names like the Abundant Wildlife Society of North America. They have wiped from their minds a history in which Ohio's Cuyahoga River periodically burst into flames. They possess crusaderly faith in Le Chatelier's principle, which posits the tendency of the environment to restore itself in the face of destabilizing forces. But the ecocidal histories of the United States and the former Soviet Union are tartlingly similar. In the years following World War Two, Americans cut down vast forests, built thousands of factories, assembled millions of atmospherically toxic automobiles, and filthied the water throughout North America. In 1970 the United States passed the Clean Air Act twenty-0ne years after the Soviest had decreed their own version. (Interestingly, the president we have to thank for the Clear Air Act as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency is one Richard Milhouse Nixon.) Our Clean Air Act was actually more lenient toward polluters than the Soviet Union's in fixing carbon monoxide limits -- not that the Soviet Union, whose environmental pledges were filled with high-minded ideals, actually bothered to obey its own laws. The Pittsburgh of the 1940s and 1950s, to name one locale of acute American environmental shame, bore a ghastly resemblance to the manufacturing urban leviathans of the Soviet Union.

What to do about the Aral Sea? (p. 345):

Given the problem's gigantic nature, such recognition had the potential to make existence itself unendurable. How does one live with the biggest sword in the world held over one's head? Instead, many Karakalpaks chose to believe the old Soviet saw about the Aral Sea's historical tendency to wax and wane. They told me that the sea would return, eventually, that the ecology would improve, eventually, and Moynaq and Nukus would again come alive. Could one blame them for this failure to confront reality? The people of Karakalpakistan wee faced with a prisoner's dilemma so dire that I, for one, could not. They had two choices. The first was to completely restructure their cotton-based monoculture and prevent all but certain future ecological and economic collapse. The problem with this was that the resultant turmoil would open the doors to some of the worst privation any society has intentionally brought upon itself. The second was to do nothing, to carry on, and to watch the same malignant doors magically open themselves.

On rusted hulks of abandoned ships, miles inland from the Aral shores (pp. 351-352):

Everything around me had the same pleading obsecurity. What had happened here? What did these ships want to tell us? Was this the world's most potent symbol or merely local scrap? It meant everything, nothing. It meant there was still hope for those societies on the edge of environmental catastrophe, and it meant that all eventually came to rust. It meant that to remain ignorant of the Aral Sea disaster was to dodge deliberately its eschatological implications, and it meant that all the knowledge and attention in the world proved unable to save the Aral Sea. [MSF liaison Ian] Small regarded the Aral Sea as "a fable of our time," and it was that, too. Indeed, ti held a fable's multitude of dark, simple, immutable meanings. No society can consume heedlessly and expect to survive. Finite environments cannot withstand infinite economic expansion. The world could be unevenly divided between those who diet and those who starve, those who gobble antidepressants and those who die of curable diseases such as tuberculosis. American affluence was no mere bystander to that division, and while responsibility and complicity differ in both degree and intention, they are born of the same moral surrender. "Maybe," Ian Small told me, "it's time. The Aral Sea's already dead. It's all about palliative care right now. Maybe it will be a blessing when it's finally gone, and it will just become this remote postdisaster place that once had a sea."

The sea was not coming back, nothing would improve, people like Small would continue their impossible triage, many Karakalpaks would continue to sicken and die until, one day, the Aral Sea would be spoken of in the domed, sepulchral tones of Gomorrah, Pompeii, or one of The Tempest's "still-vexed Bermudas." A luckless place where angry fates and unwitting human need saw their devastating concussion. It meant there was hope, but not here.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Andrew Meier: Black Earth

Andrew Meier's Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall (2003; paperback, 2005, WW Norton) is the first of three straight books I read on post-Communist Russia. I figured that the economic collapse of Russia during privatization is a cautionary tale for our times. In effect, what happened was that the Soviet system had discredited itself so utterly that people were ready to believe completely in the most ideological model of capitalism. In the Communist world, only China and a few small countries preoccupied with their place on America's permanent shit-list were able to hold back -- whoever imagined that Albania and Mongolia would follow suit? Still, only Yugoslavia suffered as badly as Russia.

Meier's book doesn't go into the history nearly as deep as I would have liked. It's more like a snapshot from 2000, the year power shifted from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin. One part of my interest here was to read something on Chechnya, and Meier has a substantial chapter on that, but again it focuses on the present -- the "clean up" of the Second Chechnya War -- with little on its past. The third book I read, David Satter's Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State, goes deeper into the history. In between, I read Tom Bissell's Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, which while actually limited to the borders of Uzbekistan works as a smaller and more detailed Black Earth.


The book starts with a trip to war-torn Chechnya, reconquered by the Russians in early 2000 (pp. 114-115):

The troubles, however, were far from over. All that spring and into the summer, when I arrived in Chechnya, the pace of the war may have slowed, but to those on the ground, both Chechen and Russian, it remained as devastating as ever. After the fall of Grozny the Chechen fighters turned increasingly to a new tactic, low-intensity, but persistent, guerrilla warfare. As in the first war, they bought grenades, land mines, and munitions from Russian soldiers -- some corrupt, but some just hungry or awake to the grim reality that Putin's War would drag on with or without their patriotic duty. Almost daily Chechen fighters ambushed Russian convoys, checkpoints, and administrative headquarters. They killed at night and in the day, choosing their targets at random -- a clutch of Russian soldiers buying bread in a local market -- or with precision: high-ranking Chechen officials whom Moscow had appointed their administrative proxies in the region.

At the same time, the civilian population grew rapidly. By the summer of 2000 more than one hundred thousand Chechens had returned from Ingushetia. They came home to more than destroyed homes and fresh graves. Chechnya was now under Moscow's arbitrary rule. The sweeps continued, and with them, the cases of extrajudicial reprisal. Human rights advocates collected new reports of extortions and beatings, rapes and summary executions. For young male Chechens, however, the primary fear was detention. Each month more and more young men disappeared from the steets. At best the detentions were a rough form of intelligence gathering. At worst they served the enforcers' sadistic urges. But perhaps most commonly, the men were taken hostage merely for ransom. It was also not uncommon that days or weeks later their bodies would be found, dumped at a conveniently empty corner of town.

Shvedov and Issa accompanied Meier's in visiting Chechnya (pp. 119-120):

Shvedov liked to remind Issa and me that before declaring their independence in 1991, Chechens were not the most observent Muslims. "Of all the peoples of the Caucasus," he said, "the Chechens were the last to find Islam." As with much of his ramblings, Shevdov's claim was at best half right. It was true that for decades a folk Islam, not a strict adherence to the laws of the Koran, had predominated among Chechens. It was also true that Dudayev, when he seized power in Grozny, had led a movement for independence first and for religious freedom second. The first chief justice of Dudayev's Shari'a court smoked Marlboros during interviews. But as the first war raged, more and more young Chechen fighters donned green headbands and declared "Allah akbar" in Arabic. The Russian onslaught did what Dudayev had never envisioned: It turned the rebels ever more fundamentalist. By the time the second war began, the talk was less of independence and more of jihad.

Tolstoy had spent some formative years in the Caucasus, providing a reference point for Meier (p. 148):

Tolstoy in his works on the Caucasus blamed neither Cossack nor Chechen. In his 1863 tale The Cossacks, he marveled at the Cossacks' fortitude on the empire's edge. Yet he depicted both Cossack and Chechen as just and their cultures as equally exotic and endangered. Tolstoy left little doubt: Moscow's heavy hand would bring only ruin to the peoples of the south.

After going south to Chechnya, Meier travels north to Norilsk, the largest city on earth north of the Arctic Circle. The city was founded as a slave labor camp under the tsars and continued as a gulag under Stalin. Established for its mines and metals, it is nominally free now, but still a company town (p. 200):

In recent years, the Kombinat had gained fame as the leading single source of atmospheric sulfur emissions in the world. Its smelters have spewed, on average, more than two million tons of sulfur dioxide yearly since the 1950s -- six times the pollution generated by the entire U.S. nonferrous metals industry. Given the geography and the way the winds blow, Norilsk's bad air reaches all the way to Canada. "It's quite something," declared my breakfast partner one morning, a Finnish environmental scientist in town to survey the damage. "Norilsk is one of the largest landmasses on the globe ruined by air pollution."

A perennial question (p. 208):

Many years ago, when I was still living in the Moscow kommunalka a few blocks from the Kremlin with my friends Andrei and Lera, they took me to visit a dacha far outside town. It belonged to a friend of Lera's, an old Jewish woman, the soft-spoken matriarch of five generations of women. She had lived several lives, had survived the ravages of World War II and Stalinism. If anyone, I thought, she would know.

What was the difference, I asked, between Stalin and Hitler?

"Hitler," she replied without pause, "killed only his enemies."

Meier's third trip was east, first to Vladivostok in Primorye Krai and then to the island of Sakhalin, half of which had been ceded by Russia to Japan following the 1905 war (pp. 243-244):

For the politically astute, however, the favored target lay far to the west, in Moscow. The Kremlin, they sighed, knew how to take but not to give. Moscow, they said, created their misery by failing to domesticate the regional governor, Yegveny Nazdratenko. For nearly a decade Nazdratenko made Primorye his duchy. He had long gained renown -- "Nasty Naztradenko" local U.S. diplomats dubbed him. He relished the limelight and even the role of the rogue. He flouted public mores, ignored the mounting discontent, and throughout the Yeltsin era disobeyed the Kremlin itself. At one point he even made a point of presenting the skin of a Siberian tiger, a fine example of the endangered Amur species, to his good friend -- the Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, Europe's last dictator. At his peak, Nazdratenko performed on a split screen: He played to the Russian love of the outcast while currying the requisite favors among the elite in Moscow. In the end, however, the cold did him in.

In Primorye, thanks to the freezing winds off the Sea of Japan, winters chill to the bone. For years Nazdratenko so mangled the region's delicate energy policy that millions spent the winters without heat. The combination of mismanagement, embezzlement,and political brinksmanship was stunningly callous. Each winter the governor reprised the spectacle. Each year he blamed the crisis on rivals in Moscow. Vladimir Putin was not one to tolerate such insolence. Putin's ascent spelled Nazdratenko's downfall, although he did not fall hard or far. The new president named him head of the State Fisheries Committee. The position, as the Moscow press commented loudly, offered more than sturgeon and caviar.

On the prison camps (pp. 252-253):

The katorga -- derived from the Ionic Greek kateirgo, meaning "to shut in," and in the passive "to be kept down" -- was the system of servitude, instituted by Peter the Great, whereby criminals and political undesirables were shackled into the service of the state. Katorzhany, the poor souls sentenced to katorga, wore iron chains on their hands and feet. On Sakhalin they were often shackled to the wheelbarrows they used in the mines. The katorga, no matter how the Bolsheviks cursed it, presaged the Gulag. In his Gulag Handbook, Jacques Rossi, the French survivor of Norilsk, offers a comparative "Table of Tsarist and Socialist Penal Servitude." Tsarist norms, Rossi notes, had exceeded the Soviets'.

In 1881, after revolutionaries tossed a bomb under Alexander II's carriage, killing him, Alexander III, having heard reports of Sakhalin's riches and the impossibility of escaping it, established a penal colony on the island. By 1888 Sakhalin had become the empire's "most important penal establishment," in the words of the nineteenth-century American explorer George Kennan. A great-uncle of the renowned diplomat of the cold war, Kennan the Elder, as he is known, crossed Siberia but never made it to Sakhalin. The tsarist censor banned his book on the exiles of Siberia, but a Russian edition did circulate, and Chekhov had studied it. He knew the American had promised that "as long as General Kononovich," the commandant of Sakhalin, whom Kennan had befriended in Petersburg, "remains in command of the Saghalin prisons and mines there is every reason to believe that they will be intelligencly, honestly, and humanely managed." Chekhov was not as convinced.

On the state of the nation (pp. 257-258):

"We are a rich country of poor people," Vladimir Putin conceded not long after he settled into the Kremlin. Nowhere in Russia was that paradox more evident than on Sakhalin. In the Yeltsin decade of license that beggared the provinces and stole Russia's dreams of reform, few regions fell farther faster. Sakhalin ranked near the bottom of every economic indicator. By the time I arrived in 2000, per capital income hovered at around thirty dollars a month. Nearly all its coal mines were closed. Fishing trawlers rusted in its quiet ports. And the pulp mills, as its clear-cut timber was sold off island as whole logs, were shuttered. Several of the mills, built by the Japanese in the 1920s and 1930s, were shells and turning fast to ruins. Worse still, with so many of its factories and military bases closed, the population had contracted sharply -- from 714,000 residents int eh last days of the Soviet Union to fewer than 600,000 in 2000.

In Moscow government economists and Kremlin aides warned that Sakhalin was an aberration, an exceptional case exacerbated by the weight of the Soviet military collapse and the burden of its Japanese past. Yet in all the national plagues -- crime, corruption, disease, and despair -- the islanders scored high. For them, the onslaught of the oilmen and the accompanying talk of future reward offered little solace. The island's workers frequently had gone months without pay. For years they tried everything. They staged demonstrations, lay across railroad tracks, petitioned the bosses. Nothing worked. In their desperation they turned to drama. Viktor Lysenko, a millworker who had not seen a paycheck for two years, chained himself one winter day to the gates of a local mill. Then he drove a nail through his hand. His attempt at self-crucifixion failed. The police intervened. But Lysenko's coworkers were undeterred. They threatened to set themselves aflame. At last hey did see a trickle of cash, not long before the bosses closed the mill altogether.

You did not have to search far to see how the island that once haunted Chekhov continued to stagnate. Sakhalin was beset by an uncomfortable paradox. There was plenty of oil around, just none for local consumption. The paradox, in part, was the fault of the Soviet central planners. The old pipelines, first installed under Stalin, ran across the northern tip of the island, due west from the Soviet-era fields across the narrow Tatar Strait and over to the mainland. Sakhalin oil and gas had fed the defense plants of Komsomolsk and Khabarovsk, but not the apartment houses of Yuzhno. Little had changed since the Soviet collapse. Nearly all the gasoline on the island was still imported. And in the summer of 2000 Sakhalin boasted the highest gasoline prices in Russia.

Putin made a brief stop in Sakhalin in 2000 on his way to a G-8 conclave in Japan (p. 259):

Only once before had a Russian head of state visited. In 1990 Yeltsin had stumbled into Yuzhno for along lost weekend. Valentin Fyodorov, Sakhalin's populist leader at the time, did not have fond memories of the visit. "It was a disaster," he said, "for me, for him, and for the revolution." Yeltsin was drunk the whole time. In Moscow, Fyodorov had given me a photo of Yeltsin on Sakhalin. He was slumped on a sofa. "And that was in the morning." He sighed.

Yuzhno is the capital of Sakhalin, on the far south tip of the island. Northern Sakhalin has large oil fields, which are being leased to western oil companies, providing little or no direct benefit to those who live there -- even most oil workers are imported (pp. 266):

In Yuzhno I had learned that although the oilmen had brought the promise of transformation to Sakhalin, for many on the island the foreigners had also brought the threat of disaster. Even before I got to the camp, I had heard the worst fears: that a world-class oil spill not only would have a disastrous effect on the rich ecosystem of Sakhalin but could spread south to hit Hokkaido and Japan's fish industry. Concern for the future of Sakhalin's environment, oddly enough, pervaded conversations with the oilers. The company men went out of their way to detail how SakhEnergy had taken every possible precaution to avoid spills, while the contract men quietly told me otherwise. The confessions came from the most unlikely sources, at the most unexpected of times and places.

The fourth trip was to the west, St. Petersburg, where Meier focuses on the 1998 assassination of Galina Starovoitova, a leading liberal political figure, which provides a backdrop for the endemic crime in post-Soviet Russia. He visits a psychiatrist, Andrei Kurpatov (p. 335):

The increase in suicidal ideation, Kurpatov claimed, didn't arise from an isolated neurosis. It stemmed from 'the loss of self." He elaborated. Russians had never had the concept of, let alone the respect for, the individual. In the West there was a long-standing, time-honored cult of the individual. "Ever sine Freud," he said, "desires, fears, depression have been of supreme concern in the West." Russians, on the other hand, never enjoyed such attention. "No one in our country ever treated fear," Kurpatov said. "No one ever had fears." Just as no one in Soviet Russia ever suffered depression: "They were simply 'lazy.'" He took out a piece of white paper and placed it squarely in the center of his plain desk. He uncapped a black pen, seemed to consider making a line, but instead put the pen itself across the middle of the page. In the old days, Kurpatov said, for as long as anyone now alive could remember, the borders of the psyche were clearly drawn. "There were no individuals," he said. "Everyone belonged to the state."

More psychology related to war (p. 336):

Then there was Chechnya. The Chechen syndrome, which had crowded the halls of the Vladivostok clinic, here filled an entire wing. The illness exposed, he said, a fundamental fear that plagued all society. It was not the experience of battle, or a particular instance of brutality, that haunted the boys who came home from Chechnya. It was the loss of their guns. The war gave the Russian soldier a tool of survival. Once he was home, the state stripped him of it. The gun was not only power but the centerpiece of a new identity. "In Chechnya," Kurpatov said, "a Russian soldier learns to trust no one. Not his comrades, not his officers. He is alone, with one friend, his Kalashnikov. Naturally, when he comes home and steps out into the street, he feels naked, fearful, unable to cope. Unlike others, he knows what his life costs: nothing. If he cannot adapt, he goes into shock.

Presumably there's an Afghan syndrome as well, which may very well be the same, although at least during the Afghan war period there was a more coherent sense of state purpose than existed under Yeltsin. The Russian military in Chechnya seems to combine the worst traits of the US in Iraq with some additional dysfunctions, like the Russians' inability to trust their own officers or each other.

The last chapter is on Moscow. One further note on the Aldy massacre (p. 390-392):

Even before September 11, 2001, in the inconvenient "small" wars of the post-cold war era, mass murder had made a remarkable comeback. Massacres now arise so often then have become a staple of modern journalism. The news that the blood of innocents has again been shed is nearly certain to make the front page. Such prominence, however, may reveal a predilection for sensation over substance. For as often as such massacres appear in the headlines and flicker across the television screens of the West, they are not given the limelight for long. [ . . . ]

Aldy was no different. From Washington think tanks to Chechen kitchens, even the best informed reached for the catchphrases of the post-Soviet era to explain Aldy. To many, it was true that what had happened in the village on February 5, 2000, was "just another massacre." But this time even Russian officials recognized it was a war crime. Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions, the protocol governing internal armed conflicts, is eminently clear. Summary executions, even of armed combatants, even in war, are not acceptable practice. It was true, of course, civilians had been slaughtered in Chechnya before, and more would be afterward. Yet this time, at least in the first weeks that followed the massacre, the official response took a hopeful turn. Families of thirteen victims received death certificates stating that their relatives had been killed in a "mass murder." [ . . . ]

Not long after the dead in Aldy were reburied for the final time, Yuri Dyomin, Russia's chief military prosecutor, told an audience of Western human rights advocates in Moscow that he regretted "the time I have wasted" investigating reports of abuses "based on disinformation." He went on to accuse Chechen refugees of spreading shazki, fairy tales.

Over time western interest in Russia cooled. The country had, after all, been wrecked to the point where it wasn't much of a threat, and looted to the point where there wasn't much left to steal; the ideological kit had been sold and bought, and by then was best forgotten (p. 417):

After the debauchery of the Yeltsin era, the West's romanticism with reform cooled. By 2002, the powerful in Washington, London, and Paris no longer worried about, "Who is Mr. Putin?" After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they fretted about "losing Mr. Putin." Putin, after all, had made a historic choice. He had sided, however tactically and temporarily, with the West. He had given his blessing to the United States to use former Soviet bases in Central Asia to wage war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Washington's criticism of Russian excesses in Chechnya, never very vocal, became muted. Chechnya was suddenly not just a Russian problem but another front in the global fight against Islamic terrorism.

Russian capitalism comes of age (p. 434):

The U.S. Department of Commerce agreed. On June 6, 2002, it officially declared Russia a free market economy. The optimism was shared by few Russians. The poverty line after all still cut through a third of Russia's households. Per capita GDP, at twenty-one hundred dollars in 2001, was nearly a thousand dollars shy of Panama's. (Portugal's was more than six times higher at sixteen thousand dollars.) True, stocks were up again, but who owned stock? The capitalization of Russia's entire stock market, moreover, equaled less than a sixth of General Electric's. True, the fall of the Soviet bloc had opened new markets for the men who now controlled Russia's oil and gas, but the rest o the populace discovered only the downside of globalization: the onslaught of foreign brands and the competitive advantage of exporters East and West.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

SCO Bankrupt

SCO has finally filed for bankruptcy, a little six-plus years after the original SCO company sold their name and their Unixware business to Caldera Systems -- until then a minor Linux vendor whose only business success was in suing Microsoft. For a couple of years up to the sale I had worked for SCO, and had been vocal within the company about how critical it was that adopt Linux and recast the company based on enterprise-class Linux services. I was one of the first to go when the deal came down. That was always an uphill proposition at SCO, a company that was built on the principle of selling operating systems at $1000 a pop. That price point worked as long as one could save more money on commodity Intel hardware compared to the Unix workstations sold by Sun and others, but by 2000 that model was being squeezed on all fronts -- most seriously from Microsoft and Linux, both of which negated SCO's Intel hardware edge. At the time, I argued that SCO could sell to customers too smart for Microsoft, or to customers too dumb for Linux, but not both: the smart people would just move on to Linux, and the dumb people would go to Microsoft. Since SCO couldn't become Microsoft, its only chance was to become Linux. But in a classic case of companies wedded to their margin models, they did neither. They opted to try to protect their declining market by suing everyone who turned against them, including former Caldera sponsor Novell, former SCO partner IBM, and former customers like AutoZone. The only company they didn't sue was Microsoft, who fed them money to try to poison the Linux market.

When SCO sold out to Caldera, they were still doing around $150 million/year in business, down from over $200 million at their peak. Now they're down to around $6 million/quarter, and still dropping. I'd guess that all of those revenues are on legacy systems, and it's only a matter of time before those dry up completely. Those legacy systems were effectively money in the bank, requiring no new development and few employees. Indeed, SCO shed virtually everyone I knew there -- last time I heard there were still 2-3 familiar engineers on staff, but that was quite a while ago. So what led to the bankruptcy, at least in the Chapter 11 sense, wasn't revenue losses; it was legal setbacks. A federal court ruled that Novell, not SCO, owns the Unix trademark and source code -- something I heard back in 2000 when I proposed open sourcing much of that same code. It looks like the IBM case has turned against SCO as well, and maybe there are others.

I ran across a comment on Slashdot that covers the history fairly well, except for this paragraph:

Caldera didn't want the UNIX business either. They were a Linux business and thought they could convert SCO's UNIX distribution network to selling Linux instead. That didn't work out either; apparently the UNIX resellers didn't want to switch to Linux and Caldera was making more selling UNIX than distributing Linux. So they ditched Linux (and their CEO) and switched to concentrating on UNIX and changed their name to SCO for the name recognition.

Actually, Caldera always wanted to be SCO. They initially hoped they could ride Linux into that position, but they always wanted SCO-like VAR channels, and they always wanted to lock them in with proprietary bits of software. They failed repeatedly, then jumped at the chance to buy SCO. The first thing they did at SCO was to kill SCO's Linux project, which could have added a lot to Caldera's Linux product. They didn't want to convert SCO's customers to Linux because what they really wanted was SCO's proprietary margins. The real mystery is why they thought they could do a better job with a product line that was already failing.

Also, the real ogre here was Doug Williams. He had already dumped a fair chunk of his stock a year before, when SCO was peaking during the Y2K binge, just before the bottom fell out. He sold the company to Caldera not because they would help SCO survive but because they had more cash to burn than any other suitor -- cash that they hadn't earned, that fell into their lap from Microsoft to clear up Digital Research's antitrust suit -- and because they were dumb enough to believe they could make SCO's business model work. It's also quite likely that Caldera had only the vaguest idea what they were buying, although it's quite an irony, given their incestuous history with Novell, that they missed the fine print there.

I always feel sad about this because I had a great time working at SCO. I worked with a lot of great people there, including many who had followed UNIX out of Bell Labs through USL and Novell. It's too bad it's come to this. One thing I believe strongly is that employees should have a substantial stake in their companies, and consequently that companies have an obligation to their employees, as a group if not necessarily individually. SCO used to be pretty good to its employees, but in the end it was Doug Williams who called the shots, and it was Doug Williams who cashed out and sent the rest of the company off to oblivion. I knew him well enough to know that he knew what he was doing.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Music: Current count 13587 [13567] rated (+20), 798 [799] unrated (-1). It's been crunch week on Jazz CG, so I haven't had time to listen to much else. Mostly cleared second pass jazz prospects -- that shelf looks about half empty now, whereas two weeks ago it was full. Spent a lot of time playing records I have previously rated, trying to turn my notes into reviews.

  • Guy Clark: Workbench Songs (2006, Dualtone): A relatively new album, 30+ years after Clark first appeared with Old No. 1 as a Texas storyteller with a literate eye and an easy drawl. This sounds remarkably similar. B+


Jazz Prospecting (CG #14, Part 14)

Well, this is it for the 14th Jazz Consumer Guide. When I declared the clock to have run out Sunday evening, I had 50 records, 2562 words. Even so, I didn't get to everything I had prospected and wanted to write about -- the missing include: Chris Byars, Photos in Black and White and Grey; Adam Lane/Ken Vandermark, 4 Corners; William Parker, Corn Bread Moon; Art Pepper, Unreleased Art (both volumes); Alvin Queen, I Ain't Looking at You; Happy Apple, Back on Top; Rafi Malkiel, My Island. But when Jazz CG (13) finally ran it had slimmed down to 34 records and 1528 words, so I've already hacked 14 records and 800 words from my draft. More will fall out by the time this column is printed. This overshoot is mostly my fault. I should have closed this out a month ago. I let the prospecting run 14 weeks, during which I surveyed a record 269 albums -- the total for the previous cycle was 218. The cumulative cycle prospecting file is here.

I still have some minor clean-up on the draft, but will send it in to the Village Voice later this week. I don't have any idea when it will run. I've started some of the housekeeping work to move from one cycle to another, and will do more of that in the next week or two, including the inevitable purge. Again, I hope to shorten the cycle next time: having half a column left over at the start should be some incentive to finish the other half. I did manage to make up my mind on about half of the second-round prospects, but I didn't get to a lot of first-round records, including some that at any other time I would have rushed to the top of the stack. I've been under a lot of stress lately, and this column has been particularly frustrating. But, as usual, it does feel better in the end than it did during the middle or the crunch.


André Previn: Alone (2007, Emarcy): Veteran pianist, born in Germany in 1930, escaping to France and then to the US in 1938. Probably best known for film and Broadway and for conducting various orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra, but he has a long list of jazz records going back to the early 1950s -- mostly trios or less, many keyed to songbooks. I have no idea how they sort out, but this is about what I expected: mild-mannered, elegant, thoughtful, too slow and too straight to overcome my natural resistance to solo piano, but otherwise impeccable. B

Dave Brubeck: Indian Summer (2007, Telarc): Solo piano, again, even slower than Previn, and far less idiosyncratic than the work that made him famous. Still, I'm more sympathetic, although it could just be sympathy. Recorded in March, at age 86. Hank Jones is a couple of years older, but their seniority shows just how completely the pre-1945 jazz generation has passed from the scene. B+(*)

Lalo Schifrin & Friends (2007, Aleph): Pianist, originally from Argentina, 75 now, mostly known for 100+ soundtracks, but he studied classical music under Messiaen in France in the 1950s and, more importantly, jazz under Dizzy Gillespie in the 1960s. This takes a half-dozen of his songs including "A Tribute to Bud" [Powell, I presume], adds in "Besame Mucho," "Tin Tin Daeo," and Oscar Peterson's "Hymn to Freedom." The booklet has a lot of words, and generally good bios on the Friends, but doesn't actually have any credits. One assumes that Schifrin plays piano, James Morrison trumpet (or any other brass instrument that appears), James Moody saxes (and maybe flute), Dennis Budimir guitar, Brian Bromberg bass, and Alex Acuńa drums/percussion. It's a good group, relaxed, generous, warm, enjoyable. B+(*)


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

Sonny Fortune: You and the Night and the Music (2007, 18th & Vine): The veteran alto saxophonist sounds great, making giant swipes at familiar songs, with pianist George Cables and rhythm inclined to swing madly. Still, it may be that by making it look so easy they undercut our sense of their accomplishment. Or maybe it just is too easy. B+(*)

The Phil Woods Quintet: American Songbook II (2007, Kind of Blue): No surprises here. Woods may have started as a pure Parker bebopper, but over time he embraced the whole mainstream of American jazz. I don't see much live jazz, but did see him once, playing good student with Benny Carter. In the senior role here, his own good students include Brian Lynch and Bill Charlap, who hardly need his guidance but are too respectful to hint otherwise. The whole thing strikes me as too respectful, too self-satisfied, too easy -- I'm reminded that when I saw Carter and Woods, it was the much younger Woods who spent the whole set on his stool -- but it still sounds glorious more often than not. B+(**)

Bill Charlap Trio: Live at the Village Vanguard (2003 [2007], Blue Note): Recorded September 2003; not sure why it's coming out now, but the promo package seemed to be pushing the Village Vanguard more than Charlap and Washingtons Peter and Kenny. The latter are the best mainstream rhythm section in the business -- Charlap is lucky to have them, but not undeserving. This adds little of great import, but "The Lady Is a Tramp" stands out. B+(**)

The Neil Cowley Trio: Displaced (2005 [2007], Hide Inside): Scrounging for ideas on this record has led me up a lot of blind alleys, such as one reviewer comparing it to the Clash and concluding, "Actually, it's probably best to avoid the j-word." Their myspace page describes the group as "jazz, acoustic, shoegaze," so I had to be reminded once again what shoegaze is/was. Again, I see no relevance, although even that's better than the tirelessly repeated story about Cowley playing Shostakovich at age 10. Waiting until he turns 34 to release his first record suggests he's survived prodigyhood. Or is it just first jazz record? AMG lists a couple pages of credits, mostly producer credits on various artists techno compilations (titles like: Bossa Barva! Vol. 2, Distance to Goa Vol. 7, Café del Mar: Chill House Mix, Cafe Buddha: The Cream of Chilled Cuisine). Or is that the same Neil Cowley? (If it were me, I'd be more likely to brag about the techno than the Shostakovich.) Actually, they're a rock-ribbed acoustic piano trio, full of fat chords, pogoing beats, assured elaboration, calculated tension and release, showing they know their English folk music -- from Pink Floyd to Coldplay, anyway -- and hope to please as much as to dazzle. Ends with a whiff of electronics remixing a fast one, possibly their next stage. Won a BBC jazz album of the year prize, with acclamations of future stardom. Maybe in the UK, or even Europe; over here I doubt they'll be as big as Jason Moran, but I'm reminded a little bit of when Keith Jarrett broke through to rock audiences in the '70s. A-

François Ingold Trio: Song Garden (2006 [2007], Altrisuoni): Swiss pianist, first album, sounds impeccable, like what you'd expect in a first rate piano trio while hoping for a miracle. Don't have much to say beyond that, which is why I'm sweeping it under the rug. Not impossible that he'll come back and make us pay attention. B+(**)

Joan Stiles: Hurly-Burly (2005 [2007], Oo-Bla-Dee): She sings two songs credibly enough, but her main interest is piano jazz, which she organizes as a pyramid: Mary Lou Williams is her special interest; Ellington and Monk her guiding lights; Fats Waller, Ray Charles, and Jimmy Rowles are tapped for further examples. She writes things like "The Brilliant Corners of Thelonious' Jumpin' Jeep" to stitch it all together, but what moves this beyond concept is the dream band she commands in units from duo to sextet: Jeremy Pelt, Steve Wilson, Joel Frahm, Peter Washington, Lewis Nash. A-

Helen Sung: Sungbird (2006 [2007], Sunnyside): A pianistic tour de Spain, slow on the solo uphill stretches, fleet on the well oiled downslopes when percussionist Samuel Torres joins the trio, and soaring when Marcus Strickland adds his saxophone -- a rare context where the soprano proves more interesting than the tenor. B+(**)

Louis Sclavis: L'Imparfait des Langues (2005 [2007], ECM): I can't find a thread that ties this record together. Working with a familiar drummer and three upstarts -- Marc Baron on alto sax, Paul Brousseau on keyboards, Maxime Delpierre on guitar -- it's as if the veteran clarinetist's just throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. It pretty much all does: electronic drones, free sax riffing, rocksteady beats, airy meditations, noisy fusion -- the sounds of tradition passing down, and blowing back. A-

Gianluigi Trovesi/Umberto Petrin/Fulvio Maras: Vaghissimo Ritratto (2005 [2007], ECM): Title translates as "beautiful picture," or is it "vague impression"? Clarinet, piano, percussion. Starts slow, never really picks up speed. Lovely work, for which I'm short on words. B+(**)

Roscoe Mitchell/The Transatlantic Art Ensemble: Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2, and 3 (2004 [2007], ECM): Too scattered to hold your, or at least my, attention for any appreciable span, I nonetheless find these rambling abstractions more often than not delightful. The ensemble is a meeting of the continents, with James Carter's old Detroit rhythm section (Craig Taborn, Jaribu Shahid, Tani Tabbal) and Lester Bowie supersub Corey Wilkes following the venerable AACM saxophonist over for the Munich recording, and Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Paul Lytton, and Philipp Wachsmann among the Europeans on the other end. B+(**)

Evan Parker: A Glancing Blow (2006 [2007], Clean Feed): A trio with bass and drums, Parker playing tenor and soprano sax on two long pieces. Typical, or at least what I imagine as typical -- Parker is a long-term project for me, but some things, like his circular breathing, are becoming familiar. B+(**)

Chris Kelsey Quartet: The Crookedest Straight Line Vol. 1 (2006 [2007], CIMP): For some reason I find the sound of soprano sax and trumpet played in unison to be highly irritating. When the two horns -- the leader's soprano sax and John Carlson's trumpet -- diverge, as is most often the case, each takes an interesting path; all the more so when drummer Jay Rosen picks up the pace. B+(*)

Fred Lonberg-Holm Trio: Terminal Valentine (2006 [2007], Atavistic): The latest -- perhaps the title means the last -- of a series of Valentine albums by the Chicago cellist. Sounds sad to me, which may be inevitable given the cello-bass-drums lineup and that they never get out of low gear. B+(*)

Charlie Haden/Antonio Forcione: Heartplay (2006 [2007], Naim): Not much here, just simple but elegantly picked guitar and bass, with Haden in his hypersentimental mode. So modest, not to mention quiet, you could easily miss it, which would be a shame. B+(***)

Soweto Kinch: A Life in the Day of B19: Tales of the Tower Block (2006 [2007], Dune): It's just a matter of time before hip-hop seeps into jazz, unless this shotgun wedding spoils the idea forever. Kinch's previous album had a lot of blowing interrupted by a few raps; this is the opposite, with the raps not only predominant but also saddled with the full weight of a narrative concept Prince Paul isn't even ambitious enough to tackle. Moreover, it's so British it doesn't travel well -- like, what are "benefits" that one might worry about losing? And the surfeit of rap is set on grime beats, which seep into the jazz breaks like an oil spill. B-

Abram Wilson: Ride! Ferris Wheel to the Modern Day Delta (2007, Dune): Trumpeter-vocalist, from Arkansas via New Orleans but based in London now. Like his labelmate Soweto Kinch, Wilson has a concept album, but it's based on a mythic bluesman, which at least gives him a viable musical context to work with. The group is large, with two saxes, trombone, tuba, guitar, harmonica, piano, bass, and drums to go with the leader's trumpet. They can soar when given the chance. The booklet ends on a Katrina note -- not the concept here, but the fit isn't bad. B+(**)

Tord Gustavsen Trio: Being There (2006 [2007], ECM): Bankrolled by Keith Jarrett, ECM has cultivated a range of pianists who seem to be converging on a serenely peaceful style, one that is neither swing nor bop nor avant, that moves slowly with assurance, that supplants new age while reducing its avatars to shlock. There are a dozen or more ECM pianists who fit this bill -- even utterly different players like Paul Bley and Marilyn Crispell gravitate that way under Manfred Eicher's production -- but none more so than Tord Gustavsen. B+(***)

Susan Pereira and Sabor Brasil: Tudo Azul (2006 [2007], Riony): Brazilian singer working in New York, where her crack band is able to sustain the golden age samba they grew up on -- light, airy, the easy lilt enriched by guests like Claudio Roditti on trumpet, Hendrik Meurkens on harmonica, and Romero Lubambo on guitar. B+(*)

Rodrigo Amado/Carlos Zingaro/Tomas Ulrich/Ken Filiano: Surface: For Alto, Baritone and Strings (2006 [2007], European Echoes): Leader plays both alto and baritone sax, so don't expect much interplay there. Strings are violin/viola, cello, and double bass. The strings can be difficult, both to follow and to stand, but I've gotten used to them and even admire their arch abstraction. I do wish the saxophonist would put out more, which from other records I know he is capable of. B+(*)


Unpacking:

  • Steve Allee Trio: Colors (Owl Studios)
  • The Jimmy Amadie Trio: The Philadelphia Story: The Gospel as We Know It (TP)
  • Albert Ayler: The Hilbersun Session (1964, ESP-Disk)
  • Daniel Barry: Walk All Ways (OA2)
  • The Best of the Johnny Cash TV Show (1969-71, Columbia/Legacy, 2DVD)
  • Stanley Clarke: The Toys of Men (Heads Up)
  • Ryan Cohan: One Sky (Motéma)
  • Ani DiFranco: Canon (1993-2007, Righteous Babe, 2CD)
  • Bill Easley: Business Man's Bounce (18th & Vine)
  • Joe Friedman: Cup O' Joe (NAS Music)
  • Herbie Hancock: River -- The Joni Letters (Verve): advance, Sept. 25
  • The Very Best of Diana Krall (1993-2006, Verve)
  • Rob Lockart: Parallel Lives (Origin)
  • John McLean: Better Angels (Origin)
  • Sunny Murray (ESP-Disk)
  • Josh Nelson: Let It Go (Native Language)
  • Bud Powell: Live at the Blue Note Café, Paris 1961 (1961, ESP-Disk)
  • The Roots of Chicha: Psychedelic Cumbias From Peru (Barbčs)
  • Dave Tofani Quartet: Nights at the Inn (Solo Winds)
  • Luther Vandross: Love, Luther (1980-2005, Epic/Legacy, 4CD): advance, Oct. 16
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble: Pride and Joy (Epic/Legacy, DVD)
  • The War: A Ken Burns Film (The Soundtrack) (1939-2005, Legacy)
  • Gerald Wilson Orchestra: Monterey Moods (Mack Avenue)
  • Pablo Ziegler-Quique Sinesi: Buenos Aires Report (Zoho)

Purchases:

  • Common: Finding Forever (Geffen)
  • Kanye West: Graduation (Roc-A-Fella)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Will the Democrats Stand Up for Democracy?

Here are a couple of paragraphs from Frank Rich's New York Times column, "Will the Democrats Betray Us?":

Even if military "victory" were achievable in Iraq, America could not win a war abandoned by its own citizens. The evaporation of that support was ratified by voters last November. For that, they were rewarded with the "surge." Now their mood has turned darker. Americans have not merely abandoned the war; they don't want to hear anything that might remind them of it, or of war in general. Katie Couric's much-promoted weeklong visit to the front produced ratings matching the CBS newscast's all-time low. Angelina Jolie's movie about Daniel Pearl sank without a trace. Even Clint Eastwood's wildly acclaimed movies about World War II went begging. Over its latest season, "24" lost a third of its viewers, just as Mr. Bush did between January's prime-time address and last week's.

You can't blame the public for changing the channel. People realize that the president's real "plan for victory" is to let his successor clean up the mess. They don't want to see American troops dying for that cause, but what can be done? Americans voted the G.O.P. out of power in Congress; a clear majority consistently tell pollsters they want out of Iraq. And still every day is Groundhog Day. Our America, like Vietnam-era America, is more often resigned than angry. Though the latest New York Times-CBS News poll finds that only 5 percent trust the president to wrap up the war, the figure for the (barely) Democratic-controlled Congress, 21 percent, is an almost-as-resounding vote of no confidence.

The key words here are "what can be done?" The lesson Bush is most intent on teaching us is that the answer is nothing. That's actually been a consistent theme, ever since the day he first took office with fewer votes than his opponent and started working the levers of power as if he had a huge mandate, pushing an agenda that had little popular support. He knew that his regime would rarely have to face the voters -- once each two years, under peculiar circumstances that turned out to be easily distorted. Meanwhile, he was free to tout polls he liked and to disregard polls he didn't. He implemented policies by fiat when he could, by deceit and propaganda, by any trick at his disposal -- policies that more often than not turned disastrous. Even today, with less popular support than any president in history, he remains unperturbed. Give him credit, if you like, for sticking the course. But his persistent contempt for public opinion has exposed him as an intentional dictator.

Of course, Bush doesn't have all the trappings we normally associate with dictators: censors combing the news, the secret police tracking down his enemies, rubber stamp judges, the cult of personality, the total subversion of the state to his special interests. But he has a little bit of all of those things, and what he lacks doesn't seem to matter, because nobody seems to be able to do anything about him. One can point an accusing finger at the American people for not standing up for their democracy, but that's long been the point of the system, especially the bipartisan mandarins who have worked so hard since the early cold war to prevent the American people from second guessing their pet imperial projects and their attendant wars. Republicans have long wished to remove domestic, especially economic, policy from oversight as well -- something many Democrats, increasingly beholden to the same business interests, all too often conceed. This anestheticizes the public, furthering a cycle where citizens respond to their powerlessness by dropping out, further constricting the range of issues that politics can do anything about. Of course, this is one of those political dynamics that unevenly favors the Republicans, which is just one more reason why Bush has so little incentive to flatter Americans into thinking that their opinions count for a thing.

Continuing acceptance of this sort of dictatorship in turn undermines the very viability of any opposition political party. So Rich's question can be reformulated as "Will the Democrats Cut Their Own Throats?" Alas, even that formulation doesn't improve the odds.


Weekend Roundup

Calendar shows a three day posting gap this week. I've been trying to focus on finishing the Jazz CG column, and it's pretty much overwhelmed everything else. More on it tomorrow, in what should be the last Jazz Prospecting of this cycle. I should start to see something more like normalcy next week.

Note a couple of jazz items below, in addition to the usual Mess-O-Potamia.


Brian Morton: Far Cry. A column in Bill Shoemaker's online Point of Departure, about Morton's late Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings collaborator, Richard Cook. First I had heard of Cook's death (August 25). Much of what and most of who I know about jazz came from studying the Penguin Guide -- or Guides, as I keep all eight editions close by. The loss is inestimable.

Francis Davis: Melody Lingers On. Jewels and Binoculars do Dylan; Waverly Seven do Darin; Harry Allen and Joe Cohn do Guys and Dolls. Quote: "Reviewing the Art Ensemble of Chicago years ago, Stanley Crouch thought he detected joyous relief in the audience whenever the bass and drums lapsed into straight time. Nowadays, I notice a similar response -- in others and in my own heart -- whenever a band so much as alludes to a recognizable melody." So true. Of course, it helps, as in the J&B case, to be cagey. But it also helps, as with Allen, to bring out the melody's full glory. (I don't recognize this Allen record, but have several others in float.)

I've been negligent in following Davis' columns -- since Christgau left I just don't get to the Voice all that often. Early on I tended to duck doing Jazz CG entries on records Davis got to first, but my inattention is leading to more collisions: Jewels and Binoculars and Joshua Redman are written up; Vijay Iyer/Mike Ladd, Anat Cohen, Anat Fort, and Uri Caine appeared last time, unaware of the conflict. I also missed his rousing Charles Tolliver Big Band piece -- a record I found pompous and bloated and consigned to the Duds list. The other Davis columns this year were on Abbey Lincoln and Roswell Rudd. I did see them: I probably won't write more on the Rudd albums than I've already done in Recycled Goods; as for Lincoln, that's all the hint I needed to get out of the way.

Fred Kaplan: Who Disbanded the Iraqi Army?. Paul Bremer has all along insisted that he was ordered to issue the CPA orders disbanding the Iraqi army and instituting debaathization, but no one has stood up and taken credit for those orders, and at least two candidates -- Rumsfeld and most recently Bush, in a new book by Robert Draper called Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush -- have denied responsibility. Kaplan goes through the logic and concludes that Cheney issued the orders based on Ahmed Chalabi's agenda. Chalabi's own plum in the deal was heading the debaathification commission.

Tony Karon: Is a Jewish Glasnost Coming to America? Karon finds that "the ability of the Zionist establishment -- the America Israel Political Action Committee, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and others -- to impose nationalist boundaries on Jewish identity is being eroded." The reason is weakening sense of identity with Israel by younger diaspora Jews, recognition that the only real threat to Israel these days is its own reactionary politics, and the traditional focus on justice in Jewish thought: "Israel's relevance to Judaism's survival depends first and foremost on its ability, as [Avraham] Burg points out, to deliver justice, not only to its citizens, but to those it has hurt."

Tony Karon: Treading Water in Iraq. Acute vision through the week's fog. "The good news, as presented by military commander General David Petraeus, is that the situation is not deteriorating as rapidly as it was a year ago. The level of violence in Iraq, he appeared to be arguing -- although his metrics were widely contested -- has been reduced to those of the summer of 2006. Should such progress continue, it will be possible, he said, to reduce the US troop commitment in Iraq by the summer of 2008 to the force levels of the summer of 2006." Aside from the metrics, a good part of that reduction might be explained by the efforts of Iraqis to get out of harm's way -- the number of displaced keeps climbing, and the dead are no longer in play. "President Bush will console himself that at least he avoided the spectacle of an ignominious US retreat from Iraq on his watch. But his successor will be handed a poisoned chalice." Which Bush continues to piss into.

Paul Krugman: A Surge, and Then a Stab. Krugman points out that the smart oil money -- specifically, Ray L Hunt, who sits on the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board -- has given up on the Iraqi government and is now dealing directly with the Kurds, underming Bush's nominal attempts to pull the Sunnis into a stable Iraqi governing coalition. He also points out that instead of shopping Petraeus around to all the media outlets to build up public support for hanging on in Iraq, the White House gave Fox an exclusive interview, showing that their sole concern is to hold the Republican base. Moreover, Bush's belated discovery of analogies between Iraq and Vietnam is meant to convert his war into the Democrats' defeat:

At this point, Mr. Bush is looking forward to replaying the political aftermath of Vietnam, in which the right wing eventually achieved a rewriting of history that would have made George Orwell proud, convincing millions of Americans that our soldiers had victory in their grasp but were stabbed in the back by the peaceniks back home.

What all this means is that the next president, even as he or she tries to extricate us from Iraq -- and prevent the country's breakup from turning into a regional war -- will have to deal with constant sniping from the people who lied us into an unnecessary war, then lost the war they started, but will never, ever, take responsibility for their failures.

This, of course, is the scenario many Democrats are running scared from.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

September Rollouts

When Osama Bin Laden unveiled his latest message to the masses, I was reminded of Andrew Card's 2003 quip about waiting until August was over before rolling out a new product. Bin Laden's appearance was mirrored in the Petraeus/Crocker dog and pony show of purported progress in Iraq -- towards what remains the unasked and unanswerable question. I've been reading books about Russia lately, and have run across another September Surprise: this one from 1999, the salesman Vladimir Putin, the product the Chechen War rematch.

The following are quotes from David Satter's Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (2003, Yale University Press). The first Chechen War followed in the heels of the breakup of the Soviet Union, which left the Russian Union (former RSFSR) in control of dozens of non-Russian "autonomous" regions threatening further fragmentation. The war reached a tentative end in 1996 with substantial autonomy for Chechnya, and bad feelings all around. The independence movement attracted support from mujahideen anxious to advance their jihad beyond Afghanistan, a dangerous minority not content with de facto independence. No doubt similar elements were at large in Russia's military, spoiling for a rematch. And Russia in general was in wretched shape after eight years of kleptocracy had reduced GDP by half while unleashing rampant criminalism. By 1999 Yeltsin's approval ratings were down in the single digits -- he avoided impeachment only through flagrant bribery, and would be eased out at the end of the year with Nixon-like immunity from future prosecution.

Satter's thesis is that scandal was finally catching up with the new Russian oligarchy, but they escaped through the power shift and the distraction of war and terrorism. This started with Chechen militants crossing the border into neighboring Dagestan, another muslim region with a troubled history of Russian occupation (pp. 63-64):

On August 5, 1999, a Muslim force led by Shamil Basayev, a Chechen guerrilla leader, and Khattab, a guerrilla leader believed to be a Saudi citizen, entered western Dagestan from Chechnya with the purpose of starting an anti-Russian uprising. On August 9 [acting premier Sergei] Stepashin was dismissed, and Vladimir Putin took his place. On August 22 the force withdrew into Chechnya without heavy losses.

The incursion provoked indignation in Russia, but there were also immediate suspicions that the invasion was a provocation intended to prepare the public for a new war in Chechnya. The internal forces assigned to guard the border had been withdrawn shortly before the Chechens invaded, so the force led by Basayev and Khattab entered Dagestan without resistance. For two weeks, while the invaders fought with the local police, the Russian army made no move to attack them. The invaders then withdrew from Dagestan in a convoy of 72 Kamaz trucks without interference. Commenting on the invasion, Vitaly Tretyakov, the editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, which is owned by Berezovsky, wrote that the Chechens had been lured into Dagestan in an operation organized by the Russian intelligence services.

Alexander Zhilin, a prominent military journalist, wrote that he had spoken to high-ranking officers in the general staff, the Ministry of Defense, and the Interior Ministry and that all were in agreement that the invasion was a preparation for another preelection Chechen war. "In this connection," he wrote, "all my interlocutors without exception stressed a not unimportant point: the FSB and the Security Council were headed simultaneously by the present head of the government, Vladimir Putin."

Despite concern that it was a provocation, the invasion of Dagestan refocused the attention of the country on the northern Caucasus. In late August, the Russian armed forces began land and air attacks on villages in Dagestan controlled by Wahhabi Muslims in apparent retaliation for the earlier incursion. On August 31 a powerful explosion ripped through the underground Manezh shopping center next to the Kremlin, killing one person and injuring thirty. This event unsettled the political atmosphere, but the tension had to reach a qualitatively new level before the population was sufficiently galvanized to support a second Chechen war. This occurred as a result of developments over the next few days.

Then came the September product roll out (pp. 64-65):

The events unfolded as if according to plan.

At 9:40 PM on September 4, a car bomb exploded in Buinaksk, a city in Dagestan, demolishing a five-story apartment building housing Russian military families. The death toll from the explosion was 62, with nearly 100 people injured.

On September 9, shortly after midngiht, an explosion destroyed all nine stories of the center section of the building at 19 Guryanova Street in the Pechatnikisection of Moscow. Several bodies were hurled into the surrounding streets. Fires raged for hours under the smoldering rubble. By the end of the first day, the death toll had risen to ninety-eight.

Russian officials immediately blamed the Guryanova Street bombing and the bombing in Buinaksk on Chechen terrorists seeking revenge for their "defeat" in Dagestan. A spokesman for the FSB identified the explosive used in the bombing as a combination of hexogen, a military explosive, and dynamite. According to Yelstin, terrorists had "declared war on the Russian people."

The residents of Moscow now began to fear being blown up in their beds. Yeltsin ordered [Moscow mayor Yuri] Luzhkov to have all 30,000 residential buildings in the city searched for explosives, and residents organized round-the-clock patrols. The police received thousands of calls from city residents reporting suspicious activity, and a building near the scene of the explosion on Guryanova Street was evacuated in a false alarm.

On September 13 a massive explosion reduced a nine-story brick apartment building at 6 Kashirskoye Highway in Moscow to a smoldering pile of rubble. The bombing took place at 5:00 AM, and Muscovites awoke to graphic television footage showing emergency workers feverishly going through the debris. A rescue worker asked, "How can anyone tell how many people are dead if we find them in small pieces?" The death toll in the Kashirskoye Highway explosion soon reached 118.

On September 16, with funerals for the first bombing victims still going on, a truck bomb ripped off the facade of a nine-story apartment building in the southern Russian city of Volgodonsk, killing at least seventeen and injuring sixty-nine. The psychological shock of the explosion, which, like the explosion on Kashirskoye Highway, took place at 5:00 AM, was so great that afterwards hundreds of people were unwilling to sleep in their homes and insisted on spending the night outdoors.

In the aftermath of the explosion, Putin appeared on television and said that it was necessary to "wipe [the terrorists] out in their toilets."

With the bombings, the psychological preconditions had been created for a second Chechen war.

The effect was much like the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US: while it may have been good news for the jihadists, it was even better news for politicians and a military desperate to prove their mettle in a context where both had fallen on hard times (pp. 65-66):

Almost from the beginning, however, there were doubts as to whether the bombings were really the work of Chechen terrorists. Both Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen leader, and Basayev denied that Chechens had anything to do with the bombings. More disturbing than such denials, however, were the circumstances of the bombings themselves, which made the claims that they were the work of Chechen terrorists increasingly implausible.

First, all four bombings had the same "signature," as attested by the nature of the destruction, the way the buildings' concrete panels had collapsed, and the volume of the blast. In each case the explosive was said to be hexogen, and all four bombs had been set to go off at night to inflict the maximum number of casualties.

Second, to do what they were accused of having done without expert assistance, Chechen terrorists would have needed to be able to organize nine explosions (the four that took place and the five that the Russian authorities claimed to have prevented) in widely distant cities in the space of two weeks. They would have had to be able to act with lightning speed. In the case of the bombing on Kashirskoye Highway, the police checked the basement where the bomb was placed three hours before the blast.

Third, the Chechens also would have needed to penetrate top-secret Russian military factories. Investigators said that each bomb contained 450 to 650 pounds of hexogen, which was produced in Russia in only one factory, a plant in the Perm oblast guarded by the central FSB. Its distribution was tightly controlled. Despite this, the presumed Chechen terrorists were supposedly able to obtain the hexogen and transport tons of it to locations all over Russia.

Finally, Chechen terrorists would have had to demonstrate technical virtuosity. In Moscow, the bomb on Guryanova Street caused an entire stairway to collapse. On Kashirskoye Highway, an eight-story brick building was reduced to rubble.In Volgodonsk, the truck bomb that killed seventeen people damaged thirty-seven buildings in the surrounding area. To achieve this kind of result, the explosives had to be carefully measured and prepared. In the case of the Moscow apartment buildings,t hey had to be placed to destroy the weakest, critical structural elements so that each of the buildings would collapse like a house of cards. Such careful calculations are the mark of skilled specialists, and the only sources of such specialist training in Russia were the spetsnaz (special assignment) forces, military intelligence (GRU), and the FSB.

Another troubling aspect of the apartment bombings was the timing. The bombings were explained as a response to the Chechen-led Muslim invasion of Dagestan earlier in the month (regarded by many as a Russian provocation). A careful study of the apartment bombings, however, showed that it would have taken from four to four-and-a-half months to organize them. In constructing a model of the events, all stages of the conspiracy were considered: developing a plan for the targets, visiting the targets, making corrections, determing the optimum mix of explosives, ordering their preparation, making final calculations based on the makeup of the explosives, renting space in the targeted buildings, and transporting the explosives to the targets.

I don't find much of this logic convincing -- I suspect that the explosive expertise, and maybe even the hexogen, is relatively easy to come by in Russia, especially given the rampant bankruptcy and corruption; arguments of the form "only X has the expertise and/or organization to do this" are often wrong. But if you agree that the whole series belongs to a single hand -- the alternative that both sides divvied up the atrocities is harder to believe just given the tightness of the timeline -- then the organizational capabilities of the FSB have an edge. (Another possibility is that the Dagestan operations were initiated by the Chechen jihadists in an effort to support allied forces in muslim Dagestan, but that the bombings in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia were not.) Hexogen, by the way, is better known as RDX, the base for many plastic explosives, including those used to compress subcritical plutonium cores in nuclear bombs. The story continues (p. 67):

At first these inconsistencies troubled only a small number of people familiar with terrorist operations and the capacities of the FSB. But on the night of September 22, six days after the bombing in Volgodonsk, the "training exercise" incident took place in Ryazan, and the "terrorists" captured there were found to be members of the central FSB. A short time later, after weeks of insisting that the xplosive used in the bombings in Buinaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk was hexogen, the FSB suddenly changed its explanation and announced that the explosive was a combination of aluminum powder and ammonium nitrate, which can be found on any collective farm.

Many Russians did not want even to consider that the FSB might have been behind the apartment-house bombings, but these two events increased suspicion. The notion that a fake bomb had been put in the basement of the apartment building in Ryazan as part of a training exercise was more than many people were ready to believe. At the same time, the change in the identity of the explosive appeared to be an attempt to negate the impact of the fact that a gas analyzer in Ryazan had detected hexogen and that the only factory in Russia that produced hexogen was guarded by the FSB. The police had already arrested one person whose hands showed traces of hexane, a chemical similar to hexogen.

Such charges were impossible to prove, given that the FSB had control of the crime scenes, including the bombs seized in Ryazan. Besides, most Russians accepted their government's word, and felt the urge to war, which Putin pursued so vigorously that throughout Andrew Meier's Black Earth the Second Chechen War is almost always referred to as "Putin's War" (pp. 68-69:

In the aftermath of the bombings, Russia launched a new invasion of Chechnya, which now enjoyed overwhelming popular support. [This was just a few months after Yeltsin narrowly avoided impeachment on charges of having started the first Chechen War.] Putin was identified as Yeltsin's designated successor, and preelection propaganda on his behalf got under way at the same time as Russian troops moved across the northern Chechen plain toward the Terek River. In a country tired of criminality and chaos, the state-run television helped Putin project an image of competence, energy, and determination, and within weeks he went from having virtually no support in the country to being by far the leading candidate for president.

As both the Chechen war and the presidential campaign progressed, however, fears that the events leading to the war had been orchestrated became increasingly widespread. Some political observers in Moscow noted that events were unfolding in a manner that matched the conditions described by Harold Lasswell, a University of Chicago political scientist, as being optimal for successful propaganda. In a book describing Allied propaganda during World War I, Lasswell said that a propagandist's success is limited to the tension level of the subject population, which he described as "that condition of adaptation or mal-adaptation, which is variously described as public anxiety, nervousness, irritability, unrest, discontent, or strain." According to Lasswell, "the propagandist who deals with a community when its tension level is high, finds that a reservoir of explosive energy can be touched off by the same small match which would normally ignite [only] a bonfire."

There was no question that Putin's prosecution of the Chechen war was taking place in a society whose tension level after the September bombings had increased dramatically. When [Alexander] Voloshin began to investigate the Ryazan incident, he was advised to read Lasswell's book by friends who were aware of the popularity of American political science literature within the FSB. After doing so, Voloshin became convinced that events were being played out according to a scenario written by Lasswell.

At the same time, although the bombings were supposed to have a Chechen "trail," there was no proof of Chechen involvement, and for the Chechens the bombings made no sense. Having won conditional independence in the first Chechen war, the Chechens knew that they easily could lose it if Russia were sufficiently provoked. If it is assumed that the Chechens understood the danger of an invasion but -- out of sheer hatred -- bombed the apartment buildings anyway, it would have been logical for them to launch new acts of terror once the invasion took place. But none occurred. At the same time, by blowing up apartment buildings in impoverished, working-class neighborhoods while ignoring targets of strategic or symbolic significance, the Chechen terrorists appeared to be declaring war on the Russian people, a response that would have been completely illogical if their goal was to protest the actions of the Russian state.

There may never be conclusive proof of who organized the apartment-house bombings. Definitive evidence bearing on the Ryazan incident is in the hands of the FSB and presumably will never be made public. However, the political situation at the time the bombings took place, the level of preparation, organization, and expertise demonstrated in their execution, and the suspicious nature of the "training exercise" in Ryazan all suggest that the bombings were organized not by the Chechens, who had nothing to gain from them, but by those who needed another war capable of propelling Putin into the presidency in order to save their corruptly acquired wealth. These could only have been the leaders of the Yeltsin regime itself.

Andrew Meier describes the Second Chechen War at some length in Black Earth, focusing on a cleanup operation massacre in Aldy, a town just south of Grozny. The Russians launched a brutal assault on Chechnya, using massive air strikes and artillery bombardment to produce maximum damage while suffering minimal casualties. Russia was able to capture Grozny in February 2000, and Putin was elected president in a March 2000 triumph. The short-term effect of Putin's ascendency was to short-circuit reform of the criminal oligarchy that developed under Yeltsin (pp. 69-71):

The Chechen war continued to go well, and Putin's approval rating remained high, but there was no guarantee that this situation could be maintained until the scheduled election date in June 2000. If Yeltsin resigned immediately, however, Putin would become acting president, and elections could be held in three months, giving him an enormous advantage. Yeltsin's entourage persuaded him to agree, and on New Year's Eve, Yeltsin resigned, handing over the reins of power.

The elections were set for March 26, and Putin eschewed serious campaigning and avoided even explaining where he stood on the major issues facing the country. As a result, the Russian people elected someone about whom they knew nothing, which allowed them to invest him with hoped-for characteristics.

With the help of the September bombings, the anger of the population was redirected from the criminal oligarchy that had pillages the country to the Chechens. And since it appeared that the war was being prosecuted successfully, Putin was the recipient of the public support that would have otherwise gone to those trying to fight the death grip of criminals on Russian society. [ . . . ]

In nine months, the situation had changed to a degree that many would have not thought possible. With grants of immunity from prosecution for Yeltsin and his family, and a new government that looked very much like the old, the members of the ruling oligarchy no longer had to fear criminal prosecution, and all talk of a reexamination of the distribution of property during the privatization process -- the largest corrupt giveaway of state resources in history -- disappeared.

The long-term remains to be seen, but one side-effect of the war was that Chechens did eventually produce a number of significant terrorist actions in Russia. The idea that Putin and the FSB could be responsible for the September 2000 apartment bombings is monstrous, but wouldn't come close to a top-ten list of Russian (both Soviet and Tsarist, and arguably post-Soviet) state crimes against their people. In many ways the crimes of the Soviets were schooled under the Tsars, and Putin's apprenticeship in the KGB is hardly a break from that legacy. In any case, Putin's opportunistic use of Chechnya for his own political purposes is inarguable, and damning enough -- same for Bush's opportunistic use of 9/11. That they emerged after 2001 as kindred spirits, with Bush peering into Putin's soul and liking what he saw, seems fitting.

I don't find any 9/11 conspiracy theories other than al-Qaeda at all convincing, although it still seems probable to me that the post-9/11 anthrax attacks were some sort of operation within the greater US military-security complex, intended to ratchet up our fear of terrorism in order to gain support for military operations abroad. That remains a major unsolved crime, its critical import now forgotten but its immediate impact still reverberating.

Wikipedia mentions several Chechens arrested and convicted on charges related to the 2000 bombings after Satter's book appeared, but also notes that the evidence isn't public.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Recycled Goods #47: September 2007

Recycled Goods #47, September 2007, has been posted at Static Multimedia. Seems like I've been writing a lot about the trials and tribulations of getting music to review, and this leads off with another example. After much prodding, I did manage to briefly get on the Rough Guide mailing list, then got dropped without notice. Mark Gorney, the publicist, finally explained that he's only interested in supporting print and radio, not the web. He's not alone in that regard: anyone can set up a soapbox on the web, and the quality of reviews often reflects that. I'd like to think I'm an exception, but pickier editing and rigorous focus on space do improve my Jazz CG at the Village Voice, and the print run there elevates my exposure and, presumably, impact -- in any case it's much easier to get records for possible notice in the Voice (fewer than 20% eventually appear here) than it is for guaranteed review in Recycled Goods. On the other hand, the latter is a lot more fun to write.

More jazz than usual this time. Probably just because of the way things clump together, but it may also be because that's the way my mail breaks down. As the title notes, this is my 47th Recycled Goods column. I should also note that the cumulative album count has passed 2000 now -- 2007 to be precise. That seems like a lot, but I started working on this in early 2003, a month of two before Bush invaded Iraq. And since then he's managed to get American soldiers killed at about twice the rate I've managed to get records reviewed.


Here's the publicists letter:

Recycled Goods #47, September 2007, is up at Static Multimedia:

  link


More jazz than usual, which is partly clumping (both Blue Note and
Concord have batches), partly a side-effect of spending so much of
my time on Jazz CG. I blew off some steam in the intro. Bottom line
is that I get real good world music support from Allegro, Putumayo,
and Rock Paper Scissors, but that's about it. I would especially
like to cover more African music, but it's been hard to track down.
I could say something similar about the majors: Sony/BMG have been
terrific, but UME, EMI (except for Blue Note), and WEA have dropped
beneath my radar, and with them a lot of rock. On the other hand,
I haven't been very pushy lately. It's been a rough year personally,
and I feel lucky to have just hung on.

I normally just send this notice out only to publicists who have
records in this particular column, but I've added a few names this
time, just to remind you that I'm still publishing regularly: 40+
records each month, 47 columns thus far, 2007 records total. In
addition to appearing each month at Static Multimedia, all of the
columns are archived and indexed at:

  link

44 records. Index by label:

  Atavistic: Steve Lacy
  Concord (Fantasy): Andy & the Bey Sisters, John Coltrane (2),
    Miles Davis, Art Farmer, Red Garland
  Concord (Telarc): Billy Taylor/Gerry Mulligan
  Cumbancha: Gnobet Gnahore
  Cuneiform: Steve Lacy/Roswell Rudd, Steve Miller/Lol Coxhill
  Delmark: Joseph Jarman
  Easy Star: Ticklah
  EMI (Blue Note): Kenny Cox, Frank Foster, Andrew Hill, Charles Mingus,
    Jimmy Smith, Stanley Turrentine
  Justin Time: Quadro Nuevo
  Proper: Maxine Sullivan
  Putumayo World Music: Americana, Israel, Latin Jazz, Puerto Rico, World Party
  Sones de Mexico: Sones de Mexico
  Sony/BMG (Legacy): Air Supply, Alan Jackson (2), Ricky Jay,
    John McLaughlin (3), Jaco Pastorius, Prefab Sprout,
    Sly & the Family Stone, Muddy Waters
  Stony Plain: Maria Muldaur
  Sunnyside: Charles Mingus, Roswell Rudd/Yomo Toro
  World Music Network: Americana, Arabesque, Japan

This is the 47th monthly column. Thus far I've covered a total of 2007
albums in Recycled Goods.

Thanks again for your support.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Music: Current count 13567 [13541] rated (+26), 799 [814] unrated (-15). Jazz CG crunch time, although I've been distracted repeatedly with house stuff, and haven't felt all that much like writing. The rated count was helped by records I wanted to move off my shelves -- not necessarily the good candidates. One good week should finish Jazz CG, hoping that I can have one, for once.

  • The Paul Desmond Quartet: Live (1975 [2000], Verve): With Ed Bickert on guitar, Don Thompson on bass, Jerry Fuller on drums, playing the usual songbook, including "Take Five." Hard to recall anyone with a more gorgeous tone on alto sax, at least while he's playing. Hodges and Pepper come close, but are different. A-


Jazz Prospecting (CG #14, Part 13)

Faced with numerous interruptions and distractions, last week's crunch-time push to finish this now overdue Jazz CG broke down into three segments. Early on I procrastinated by playing relatively easy new stuff, mostly to move things along even when I didn't feel like it. Then I shifted to the replay shelves, again more interested in elimination than in writing, although I managed to bag a couple of honorable mentions. Finally, I started writing up previously rated A-list records, getting to my necessary word count. One more week will do it: I'm just shy of 1600 words, with another pick hit to pick and a dud left to dispose of.

One more note: I've decided to flag as "[advance]" every record I have to review in some condition significantly different from the form a paying customer would expect. Some of these really meant just to give writers a head start on deadlines, and sometimes in due course I do get finished copies -- Blue Note, in particular, is very good about this. (Thirsty Ear used to be, but hasn't been lately.) Others are specially manufactured promo editions -- Cryptogramophone and Palmetto do slick but thin sleeves with no doc; Clean Feed has a weird wallet-like thing. Some send discs with no packaging (Smalls has started doing this). Sometimes I get a CDR and maybe a thermal print of the cover art, nothing more than a homemade bootleg. There are good economic reasons for all this corner-cutting, but I still find them annoying and dispiriting -- enough so that I've broken down and griped about them every now and then. Hopefully the flag will save some of that while still keeping everyone honest. The whole system is intrinsically flawed: critics should be able to review real products, but can't afford to; labels can't afford to indulge every would-be critic, and don't want to, resulting in a system that is by turns unreasonably skinflintish and unreasonably generous.

The next stage in this trend is download promos, which I haven't gotten into yet -- ECM is the latest, following UME (which hasn't responded to my Recycled Goods requests for quite a while now, and thereby has pretty much dropped out of the roster). Ayler Records has gone almost totally to download products -- evidently complete with a do-it-yourself kit for their elegant artwork. I like the label a lot, but have trouble seeing what they're doing as real. I still review whatever advances I receive, and I can even imagine trying to deal with downloads in some cases. I'm sort of feeling my way through this maze, but sometimes I does weigh me down.

For the record, one form of cost-savings I don't mind is when a label sends production inserts (back cover, booklet, disc) but no jewel case. I buy jewel cases by the crate anyway, not least because so many get busted in transit, so it's easy to turn them into product-worthy packages. Also, most gratis copies come with some sort of marking on them -- stickers, scratched UPCs, drill holes or the like -- which in theory make them valueless but at least still preserve the form of the product. That's expected, and not an issue here.


Floratone (2007, Blue Note): I filed this under Bill Frisell, mostly because he has a file, unlike the other three principals. Actually, that's unfair to Tucker Martine, whose albums are scattered under aliases like Mylab, whose album, with Frisell the key musician, I liked enough to feature in an early Jazz CG. Martine has a long list of production credits, most based in Seattle, few related to jazz. I didn't recognize the other two principals; my bad. Lee Townsend, like Martine credited with production, has a long list of jazz production credits going back to 1981, with Frisell at the top of the list; other names include Joey Baron, Jerry Granelli, Dave Holland, Charlie Hunter, Marc Johnson, John Scofield. The fourth member, credited with drums and loops, is Matt Chamberlain. He has one album under his own name but more than 200 credits, almost all rock, especially female singer-songwriters (e.g., Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Melissa Etheridge, Macy Gray, Lisa Loeb, Natalie Merchant, Stevie Nicks, Liz Phair, Shakira). Closer to jazz he's worked with Dave Koz and Critters Buggin -- an "experimental rock" group with a good sense of groove and a honking saxman named Skerik. Martine and Townsend are both credited with "production" -- I think the actual chronology was that Chamberlain and Frisell recorded some jams, then handed them over to Martine and Townsend to sort out. Somewhere along the way guests got dubbed in: Viktor Krauss on bass, Eyvind Kang on viola, Ron Miles on cornet. The pieces all start out on grooves with guitar dressing -- there's nothing much to lift them up, so everything depends on the beats, and they rarely falter. Townsend calls this "futuristic roots music" -- he may be thinking of Frisell's take on Americana mirrored into the future, hoping it takes root. In any case, it sounds easier than it is. There are a lot of people trying to do something like this, but few actually making it work, and these vets have separately worked with most of them -- here they almost bring it together. B+(***)

Pietro Tonolo/Gil Goldstein/Steve Swallow/Paul Motian: Your Songs: The Music of Elton John (2006 [2007], ObliqSound): Don't know Tonolo except by name, as he has mostly been confined to Italian labels -- a dozen albums on Splasc(h) and EGEA, twice that in side credits, of which Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band is the exception. He plays soprano and tenor sax -- soprano is usually listed first, but tenor predominates here. Goldstein plays piano and accordion -- seems like I run across him most often on accordion, but these songs feature piano. Swallow and Motian you know. Same group got together in 1999 for Portrait of Duke (Label Bleu). This one was producer Michele Locatelli's idea, and they make a game effort, respecting the melodies but playing around them, much like Motian drums. B+(*) [advance, July 17]

Tied + Tickled Trio: Aelita (2007, Morr Music): German electronica group, dating back to 1994 when brothers Markus and Micha Acher spun off from Notwist. Advance copy, lists three additional musicians -- Caspar Brandner, Andreas Gerth, and Carl Oesterhelt -- but doesn't map them to instruments ("xylophone, glockenspiel, melotrone dismal sounds"). The named instruments add a toy sound to the ambient beats, which are pleasing enough. I would rather like to see more electronica coming my way, but much of it does strike me as anticlimactic. B [advance, June 19]

Mark Solborg 4: 1+1+1+1 (2007, ILK): Danish guitarist, also associated with groups Mold, Revolver, and Ventilator. This is a quartet with Anders Banke on tenor sax and clarinet, Jeppe Skovbakke on bass, Bjřrn Heebřll on drums. Banke plays in Piere Dřrge's New Jungle Orchestra and also plays in Mold. He has an attractive hard-edge sound, matching well with Solborg. B+(*) [advance, Apr. 26]

Bill Mays/The Inventions Trio: Fantasy (2001-05 [2007], Palmetto): Well-known, well-regarded postbop pianist, originally from Sacramento CA, Mays has more than a dozen albums starting around 1982, including a Maybeck Recital. First time I heard him was in 2005 on Live at Jazz Standard, an impressive piano-bass-drums trio recording. This is a totally different trio, with classical specialists Alisa Horn on cello and Marvin Stamm on trumpet and flugelhorn. The centerpiece is a three-movement original, "Fantasy for Cello, Trumpet and Piano." Other credits include Bach, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Gershwin ("Prelude #2"), and Charlie Parker. Meant to explore the intersections of chamber music and jazz, this slipped and fell into the chamber. B- [advance, Aug. 21]

Luigi Bonafede/Pietro Tonolo: Peace (2005 [2007], ObliqSound): Two Italians: Bonafede plays piano, Tonolo tenor and soprano sax. Tonolo played on the label's Elton John tribute. I know even less about Bonafede -- AMG credits him with a dozen or so albums, including one with Guido Manusardi in 1986 and one with Massimo Urbani in 1994 (Dedications to Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, a good one). An Italian website has more like 40 albums, mostly on Italian labels AMG never notices. Half of the cuts are duos, moderately paced, played with great care and feeling. The other half add guests playing marimba and/or cello, which fit in nicely. B+(**) [advance, July 17]

Richard Galliano Quartet: If You Love Me (2006 [2007], CAM Jazz): Accordion, more than any other instrument I can think of, signifies a deep emotional attachment to European folk music. Galliano is regarded as a jazz musician, but first and foremost he is an accordionist, and he milks this binding for all it's worth. He takes center stage here, with first rate bass and drums support from George Mraz and Clarence Penn. Most intriguing is the fourth: Gary Burton, on vibes. His fast moves and light touch provide a fanciful contrast to the accordion. [B+(***)]

Oregon: 1000 Kilometers (2006 [2007], CAM Jazz): The '70s vogue for naming groups (mostly rock) after places warned me away from these guys for a long time -- don't think I bothered until the late '90s, by which time they seemed to have faded into history. Even after I realized that they weren't pop jazz, I still tended to think of them as new agey. In fact, AMG's list of styles reads, unappetizingly: New Age, World Fusion, Fusion, Folk-Jazz, Chamber Jazz, Progressive Jazz. The World Fusion part could have been laid on Collin Walcott, who played sitar and tabla and died in 1984. The other three players -- 12-string guitarist Ralph Towner, oboe/English horn player Paul McCandless, and bassist Glen Moore -- are hard, maybe impossible, to classify. But after Mark Walker's drums settled into the percussion slot, the fusion analogies fell away. Still, such a sui generis act easily baffles me, and four straight plays tell me when to give up. Isolated bits, including Moore's bass solos, are fascinating, but I'm unable to get much further than that. B+(**)

Antonio Sanchez: Migration (2007, CAM Jazz): Drummer, from Mexico City, studied at National Conservatory of Music there, then got a scholarship to Berklee, graduated Magna Cum Laude, did some more study at New England Conservatory, and landed a spot in Dizzy Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra (post-Gillespie, directed by Paquito D'Rivera). First album as leader, but his credits list is impressive, and he calls in a few chits to help out here: David Sanchez (no relation), Chris Potter, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Scott Colley -- he even got Metheny and Corea to debut new songs here. The problem is that the band is so great it's hard to tell what the drummer brings other than mainstream postbop competency -- he has quite a bit of Latin jazz in his discography, but doesn't so much as hint at it here. Rather, we get an all-star game, with Potter and David Sanchez in full flower, Metheny and Corea making choice assists. B+(**)

Tineke Postma: A Journey That Matters (2007, Foreign Jazz Media): Dutch saxophonist, b. 1978, credited with alto, soprano, and tenor, in that order. Third album; first I've heard. Three Ellington/Strayhorn songs, the rest originals. Works with bass, drums, scattered pianists; three cuts have guitar; three have a wind section of flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon, and French horn. Studied postbop, elegantly crafted, with a lovely tone where appropriate. Can't get excited, but have to respect what she's done. B+(*)

Hope Waits (2007, Radarproof): Singer, co-wrote three of twelve songs, so not really a songwriter, nor much of a jazz interpreter, but she has an arresting, world-weary voice that is especially effective on blues -- "Drown in My Own Tears" is the most striking piece here. Peter Malick, of Norah Jones fame, produced and co-wrote those three originals. Some horn arrangements, and a bit of moody trad jazz background. B+(*)

Dave Mullen and Butta: Mahoney's Way (2006, Roberts Music Group): You must know by now that I hate Flash websites, but Mullen's is annoying enough to spur me into reiterating the obvious. Mullen is a saxophonist. Don't know where he comes from or when, but he's spent time in Boston and New York, and he's one of the hundreds or maybe thousands who have studied with George Garzone. Claims he was inspired by his father's record collection, accumulated as a DJ in the '50s/'60s, with honking sax the standout trait. He means to update that, with synth beats, guitar (including Nile Rodgers on one track, Marc Ribot on three), raps, and a chorus of True Worship Ministries Singers (three tracks). I'm not sure that any of that works, but I got up in a real foul mood this morning, heard most of it under that haze, and need to move on. Two cuts where he kicks back and plays sax ballads are quite nice. Don't know about the one called "For Rashaan" -- there's a picture of Mullen playing soprano and tenor at the same time so most likely he is thinking of Kirk, but is the typo deliberate or just sloppy? AMG likens him to Kirk Whallum, but I suspect he has a more determined vision -- could even be an American Courtney Pine, a concept I'll have to put off thinking about. [B] [Oct. 1]

Maria Schneider Orchestra: Sky Blue (2007, ArtistShare): I reckon my continuing indifference to Schneider's highly refined art is subliminal. She doesn't set off the gag reflex that I have long had to highly orchestrated classical music, but that's what I suspect is lurking, somewhere near the chronic level of an allergen. Clearly, jazz fans who also like euroclassical simply adore her -- it's not common for a self-released, no-retail-distribution record like her Concert in the Garden to win a Grammy. Still, for every time a nicely orchestrated motif catches my fancy, three or four fall off my ears leaving nothing. The band is full of well-regarded musicians -- over the last couple of years membership has been a plum on everyone's resume. The packaging has been padded out with pictures and notes in two booklets -- a feast if you're interested. I think it's good that she can record like this. Figuring my disinterest to have mostly been my problem, I was reluctant to saddle Concert as a dud, until it won that Grammy and I didn't have any response to my editor as to why it wasn't a dud. This one is no different, at least insofar as I care to tell. B

Josh Roseman: New Constellations: Live in Vienna (2005 [2007], Accurate): Trombonist, originally from Boston, based in New York since 1990, has a long list of side credits ranging from Either/Orchestra to Lester Bowie Brass Fantasy to Dave Holland Big Band to the Roots. Third album under his own name. Calls his 7-piece (trumpet, trombone, tenor sax, keybs, guitar, bass, drums) group the Constellations -- only one I recognize there is saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum; the bass and keyb players are from Groove Collective. Starts with a rarefied reggae groove on "Satta Massagana," credited to a different lineup with Will Bernard on guitar, although only one date is given. Shifts after that to postbop with an undertow of bent funk, but returns to Jamaica periodically -- Don Drummond song; another one credited to Drummond and the rest of his band, the Skatalites; John Holt song; also includes a Roseman dedication to Drummond; and, apropros of nothing I can tell, a Beatles song, ending with a live remix of same. Recorded in Joe Zawinul's playpen, so figure him as an influence. Interesting attempt to put something together that breaks ground both as improv and riddim. [B+(**)]

Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet: American Landscapes 1 (2006 [2007], Okkadisk): Peter Brötzmann's name has dropped from the masthead, but he's still here, and this is still his band, with Ken Vandermark in the background arranging the Chicago base. (Actually, Brötzmann's name appears in a logo-like thing on the front cover, but not on the spine.) The band is long on loud horns: Brötzmann, Mats Gustafsson, Vandermark (various reeds for all three), Joe McPhee (trumpet, alto sax), Hannes Bauer (trombone), Per-Ĺke Holmlander (tuba); with two drummers (Paal Nilssen-Love, Michael Zerang), and Kent Kessler's bass matched by Fred Lonberg-Holm's cello. One piece, 43:39, with a long front movement, a squeaky interlude for the strings, and a rebound. Play it at low volume, like I do, and it's easy enough to sort out the multiple waves of undulating rhythm, with the horns compressing into static noise. I'm sure that's not the plan, but I appreciate the sense of structure and the bare tightness. I can only speculate about what happens when you crank it up, but even at my volume level there are parts that pick me up. B+(***)

Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet: American Landscapes 2 (2006 [2007], Okkadisk): Same deal, only longer at 52:48, louder too, which I don't necessarily regard as a plus. For one thing the rhythmic structure is less clear, and that's the thread that all the noise hangs off of. This just makes you work harder, but as free jazz big bands go, this group has gotten remarkably tight. B+(**)

The Jason Lindner Big Band: Live at the Jazz Gallery (2005 [2007], Anzic, 2CD): Mainstream pianist, the young potential star Impulse favored over old Frank Hewitt when excavating Jazz Underground: Live at Smalls. Lindner manages to straddle advanced postbop and scattered world music interests -- his record on Fresh Sound World Jazz, Ab Aeterno, is on my Honorable Mention list. His Big Band dates back to 1995 at Smalls, so this particular event was touted as a 10th anniversary celebration. The line-up is notable, with Israelis and Latin Americans in abundance -- Omer Avital, Anat and Avishai Cohen, Rafi Malkiel, Miguel Zenon, Yosvany Terry Cabrera (limited to one track on chekere). Liner notes refer to similar large ensembles -- Maria Schneider, Guillermo Klein, Magali Souriau -- but this group is both simpler and more powerful, at least when they open up. That doesn't happen much on the first disc, but two cuts on the second ("Freak of Nature" and "The 5 Elements and the Natural Trinity") get off on more interesting Latin rhythms; they're also the ones that start with piano leads. B+(*)

Tom Teasley: Painting Time (2007, T&T Music): DC-based percussionist, composer, educator -- the latter two are pretty standard self-descriptions, but Teasley takes his educator roll public, presenting solo concerts called "The Drum: Ancient Traditions Today" and producing videotapes. He has a half-dozen previous records, mostly with titles like Global Standard Time, Global Groovilization, and World-Beat: The Soul Dances. Haven't heard them, but I reckon this to be some sort of advance, at least in titling. Teasley plays several dozen percussion instruments here, not least of which is the standard drum kit. The pieces are groove-based, but they also have some meat on them -- mostly John Jensen's trombone, which takes the leads even when trumpet and sax/flute are available. A surprisingly seductive album; will give it some more time. [B+(***)]

Marcus Strickland Twi-Life Group: Open Reel Deck (2007, Strick Muzik): Should have mentioned Strickland in my Downbeat poll comments. He's one of the best young tenor saxophonists around -- had I mentioned him, he would have been the only one under-30. He gets a lustrous sound with consumate ease and grace, and has a supporting group that merits the marquee -- especially E.J. Strickland, a drummer as telepathic as an identical twin should be, but Mike Moreno on guitar and Carlos Henderson on electric bass redefine how to put a postmodern sax quartet together. Still, the band spends a good deal of time backing guests -- trumpeter Keyon Harrold I'm undecided about, but Malachi's spoken word exploits are riveting. Jon Cowherd also appears on piano leading into his "Subway Suite 2nd Movement" which the band really builds on. Still working on this. [B+(***)]


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

Russ Spiegel: Chimera (2006 [2007], Steeplechase): Good mainstream guitar record, with all sorts of bells and whistles -- trumpet, sax, vibes, but no piano. Among the options, the guitar stands out. But given my space and time issues, not to mention interests tuned elsewhere, this falls just shy of my scratch line. That should be the definition of an honorable mention, but under current formulas, it's the definition of a near miss. B+(**)

Tomas Janzon: Coast to Coast to Coast (2006, Changes): Another good mainstream guitar record just below my line, its virtue in simple and elegant lines, uncomplicated by horns -- just bass and drums, and on a few cuts marimba or piano. Cool. B+(**)

Bruce Eisenbeil Sextet: Inner Constellation: Volume One (2004 [2007], Nemu): Another guitar record just below my line, this one well to the avant side of the spectrum. The bulk is in the 47:28 title track, a multi-movement mass improv thing with violin, trumpet, alto sax, bass and drums conflicting with the leader's electric guitar. It works about as well as those things do, but not much better. The tail end offers three short pieces where the guitar is clearer. No idea about a Volume Two. B+(**)

Kreepa: Inside-A-Sekt (2006 [2007], Monium): Abstract electronics, mostly, although any sort of instrument can be employed to similar effect, and trombone can occasionally be discerned. While the sounds themselves seem disconnected, they do on occasion add up to something vaguely resembling melody. But most of the attraction is in the minimalist junkyard jumble, a distinctly limited but real pleasure. B+(*)

Russ Lossing/Mat Maneri/Mark Dresser: Metal Rat (2006 [2007], Clean Feed): Abstract avant-chamber music, with Maneri's viola occupying the sonic center and providing most of the squeak. Still, it's likely that pianist Lossing is the one providing the bulk of the interest. B+(*)

Sonic Openings Under Pressure: Muhheankuntuk (2006 [2007], Clean Feed): Don't get as much free jazz as I'd like, but I manage to hear enough to have gotten used to it. Still, my standard for recommendation is that it has something non-devotees can grab onto, which leaves me with a widening gap of stuff I like well enough but can't see breaking out of its narrow niche. Most of this falls in that range, but two cuts in the middle stand out: "The Hardships" starts with a fast, regular beat, then erupts in a torrent of even faster words -- thank David Pleasant for both beats and words, while leader Patrick Brennan's alto sax settles into a skronk groove. That's the hook cut, pop materials done with avant flair. It then sets up "Prosified" with Brennan taking over, writhing snakey improv lines against the beat. B+(***)

Lucky 7s: Farragut (2006, Lakefront Digital): Chicago group, led by two trombonists: Jeff Albert, who also plays tuba, and Jeb Bishop, better known from his tenure with the Vandermark 5. When it all comes together -- cornet, tenor sax or bass clarinet, Jason Adasiewicz's vibraphone accents -- as on the last two cuts ("Farragut" and "Bucktown Special") they cook up a tasty polyphonic gumbo. But this starts off slow, with some weak spots along the way. B+(**)

Paul Zauners Blue Brass: Soil (2006 [2007], PAO/BluJazz): Austrian trombonist, runs a label with exceptional good taste, proves to be a worldwise connoisseur, mixing two African pieces with American standards and two originals, polishing them all up to a fine lustre. B+(***)

Tin Hat: The Sad Machinery of Spring (2007, Hannibal): Up to five players now, with most playing multiple instruments to keep the mix off kilter -- exception is Zeena Parkins, whose harp is odd enough she sticks to it. I never made any sense out of this -- near as I can figure, a bunch of interesting motifs that don't quite add up to pieces. B

The Bad Plus: Prog (2006 [2007], Heads Up): The usual mix of covers and originals, or unusual, given that Tears for Fears and Rush mean nothing to me, which makes them more difficult problems than the originals. On the other hand, David Bowie's "Life on Mars" means the world to me, so the climactic rise to its chorus towers above its surroundings like Denali. Still, the best thing here is Reid Anderson's "Giant," and I'm more impressed than ever by drummer Dave King. But I don't have any idea how to fit this into "prog" -- maybe they see it as stunted progress. If so, they're too modest. B+(**)


Unpacking:

  • Ira Cohen: The Stauffenberg Cycle (Paris): CDR
  • Robert Creeley: Really!! (Paris): CDR
  • The Karl Denson Trio: Lunar Orbit (Bobby Ace)
  • Jonathan Kreisberg: The South of Everywhere (Mel Bay)
  • Mostly Other People Do the Killing: Shamokin!!! (Hot Cup)
  • Quartet San Francisco: Whirled Chamber Music (Violin Jazz)
  • Claire Ritter: Waltzing the Splendor (Zoning)
  • Secret Oyster (1973, The Laser's Edge)
  • Secret Oyster: Straight to the Krankenhaus (1976, The Laser's Edge)
  • McCoy Tyner Quartet (Half Note)
  • Mark Weinstein: Con Alma (Jazzheads)

Purchases:

  • Fountains of Wayne: Traffic and Weather (Virgin)
  • M.I.A.: Kala (Interscope)
  • Nine Inch Nails: Year Zero (Interscope)
  • Public Enemy: How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? (Slamjamz)
  • Rilo O'Kiley: Under the Blacklight (Warner Bros.)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Weekend Roundup

Thought I'd move this thing to Sunday, so along with Jazz Prospecting on Monday, I get two regular things I work on incrementally during the week, and something resembling a weekend.

A couple items below concern Bush's VFW speech where he likened Iraq to his fantasy version of Vietnam -- the one where we were on the verge of winning but those yellow-bellied Americans didn't have the guts to stand by their troops and complete the mission. It's quasi-tautological that had the US not withdrawn from Vietnam we'd still be there today. But if so, it's certainly true that whatever's left of the Vietnamese would still fighting us, and that the extra thirty years of war would have taken quite some toll on us. As one who grew up with Vietnam, I'm thankful for the time we did have without any major war hanging over our heads. In many ways, the worst thing that Bush has done has been to dig up the ghost of that ordeal. And of course, the insult added to injury is the monumental misunderstanding that he brought to the task.


Tony Karon: Mearshimer, Walt and the Erudite Hysteria of David Remnick: A comment on The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy and the usual hysterical spin. I should probably look at the book, if only to find out whether it goes any deeper than the obvious lobbies. I tend to believe that they are not so much sources of manipulation as action-taking reflections of a deeper psychic and political confusion -- a nuance that Karon seems to share without starting from. Remnick's New Yorker piece is pretty much his typical assertion by fantasy: if Israel really was as well meaning and peace-seeking as Remnick images, you'd think there'd be some evidence of it . . . but, well, Arabs, you know. Still, even Remnick seems to be beginning to doubt his apologias, as if reality is somehow creeping in, disrupting his thought processes.

Bernard Chazelle comment:

Israel isn't that whitey white really, but Americans like to believe it is. Arabs are not that dark really, but Americans like to believe they are. So the analogy works: Arabs are the new Blacks and Israelis are the new Americans. . . . Israel and America are the only two Western countries still fighting the natives. That's a tie that binds.

TomDispatch: Empire of Stupidity: Tom Engelhardt starts by citing Bush's VFW speech where he brought back the spectre of Vietnam, not as the insanely debilitating war it was, but as a caution of what happens when Americans give up on a war.

In its own strange way, Bush's speech was an admission of defeat. Somehow, Vietnam, the American nightmare, had finally bested the man who spent his youth avoiding it and his presidency evading it.

Engelhardt homes in on a Bush quote from the same speech: "I'm confident that we will prevail. I'm confident we'll prevail because we have the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known -- the men and women of the United States Armed Forces."

Let's stop on that breathtaking, near messianic claim for a moment. [ . . . ] Past American presidents might perhaps have spoken of the "greatest force for human liberation" as being "the American way of life" or "the American dream," or American democracy, or the thinking of the Founding Fathers. But it took a genuine transformation in, and the full-scale militarization of, that way of life, for such a formulation to become presidentially conceivable, no less to pass unnoticed, even by fierce critics, in a speech practically every word of which was combed for meaning. [ . . . ] Much has been said about the Christian fundamentalist nature of the administration, but if that had truly been the essence of these last years, the President would have identified Jesus Christ as that "greatest force."

Not that a distinction need be made, but this administration's primary fundamentalism has been that of born-again militarists, of believers in the efficacy of force as embodied in the most awe-inspiring, high-tech military on the planet. This was the idol at which its top officials worshipped when it came to foreign policy. They were in awe of the idea that they had at their command the best equipped, most powerful military the world had ever seen, armed to the teeth with techno-toys; already garrisoning much of the globe (and about to garrison more of it); already on the receiving end of vast inflows of taxpayer dollars (and about to receive staggeringly more of the same); already embedded in a sprawling network of corporate interests (and about to be significantly privatized into the hands of even more such corporations); already having divided most of the globe into military "commands" that were essentially viceroy-ships (and about the finish the job by creating a command for the "homeland," NORTHCOM, and for the previously forgotten, suddenly energy-hot continent of Africa, AFRICOM.

Such naked worship of force was so closely associated with the rise of fascism in the early 20th century that Bush et al. would be more accurately labelled neo-fascists than neo-conservatives. Such distinctions may matter little: fascism in the first place arose to do the dirty work of conservatives once the aristocrats of the ancien regimes had fallen from power. Ever since the New Deal, American conservatives saw their mission not as preservation but as one of restoration -- hence their obsession with stripping government all the way back to the robber baron era. That in the end they've turned to latterday fascists is hardly surprising.

One more quote, a grisly prognosis:

In the meantime, we live with all the pointless verbiage, the "debate" in Washington, the "progress reports," and the numerology of death, while the Bush administration hangs in there, determined to hand its war off to a new president, while the leading Democratic candidates essentially duck the withdrawal issue and the bodies pile ever higher.

Dan Froomkin: Behind Bush's Vietnam Revisionism: This was cited by Engelhardt as an analysis of Bush's VFW speech, but is most interesting for how it frames the speech as part of a White House propaganda campaign to cow Congress and prolong the war. I've seen several other pieces touting Bush's triumph over Congress -- evidently the only opponent he can find these days and still whip.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Movies

Catching up on my movie notes, which by now cover quite a few months. Bill Warren sold his "Premier Palace" -- which had a virtual monopoly on films with intellectual merit around here -- off to a Baptist church group, promising to keep showing some such films in his other theaters, if for no better reason than because his wife likes them. But then he also divorced his wife, so we've lost even that thread.


Movie: The Namesake. The trailer was pretty good, but we saw it so many times the jokes all went stale and the exotic color turned ordinary. By the end I hated it so much I was reminded of the trailer for a movie with Kevin Kline a decade-plus ago which turned out to have excised every single good scene in the movie. This one turned out OK, although it does suffer from its schematicism, like trying to film the Cliff's Notes version of a bigger and richer novel. The story line, after all, involves two generations, two countries, a lot of people, and not enough time. Given all this, I was susprised (positively, if not pleasantly) that it proceeds chronologically with few flashbacks, so we get most of the parents' stories before having to deal with the children. B+

Movie: Grindhouse. Double feature by Roberto Rodriguez and Quentin Tarrantino, with extra trailers and missing reels. The former is a tolerable horror film, something I rarely grant the possibility of. The latter is a car-driven action film that is even better when the two sets of women are just talking. A-

Movie: Away From Her. Julie Christie plays a woman with Alzheimer's. It's a slight storyline, and a waste, of course, but the details work well enough, the treatment is horrible most of all in its coarse economy, the husband is credibly flawed, the end is temporarily kind. Throughout the movie we see brief glimpses of young Christie. I kept flashing back to when I saw Darling as a teenager. It's been a long strange life. B+

Movie: Waitress. Saw this on Father's Day, a pure accident -- as an orphan, and not a father myself, I pay no attention to the occasion, nor have anyone close who does. It's not a very nice movie to fathers, or to men in general, going way beyond the usual suspicions and complaints into the realm of pure caricature. I don't generally have much beef with that, so maybe it's just the occasion. Maybe it's just that the waitress at the center of this attracts such men: she certainly gives them plenty of opportunity to take advantage of her. B+

Movie: A Mighty Heart. Angelina Jolie as Marianne Pearl, wife of martyred journalist Daniel Pearl, in a film shot for realism and relatively free of cant. One thing that comes through is the privileged life of these well-connected journalists in poor Pakistan, and how the power structure bends to their will. B+

Movie: No End in Sight. Bush's Iraq war documented, emphasizing the disastrous failures of the first year of occupation. Draws credible witnesses from the occupiers, including some of the perpetrators -- with others refusing to be interviewed duly noted -- and some remarkable footage, like the inside of the bombed UN quarters. Main problem is that it leaves the impression that it could have gone better with saner figures than Paul Bremer in charge. I doubt that, in large part because the US military is mostly out of sight here. Their mission and their training made gross collateral damage all but inevitable, which most likely would have ignited the resentment even if the CPA had a clue. A-

Movie: The Bourne Ultimatum. Third movie with Matt Damon as trained CIA killer on the loose, broken free of his programming if not in full control of his senses, and therefore in need of killing to protect the bureaucratic bigwigs. First two installements were pretty good, and this one got raves, but I found it claustrophobic -- so tightly wound it's all increasingly preposterous action sequences. Moreover, the closer Damon gets to his source, the more ridiculous the story becomes. Also don't care for the way they build up the CIA's capability -- such lean efficiency has never been evinced in history. Even though they screw up here, they come much closer than they ever would in the real world. B

Movie: The Simpsons Movie. An early joke shames the audience for paying for something they could get for free, which is the ontological problem with this movie. Still, the storyline is a cut above the usual TV episode (or two, counting the "to be continued" break joke). But the usual big screen magnification and glorification is impossible, given their set look and feel. B+

Movie: Ratatouille. Pixar toon. I remember going to SIGGRAPH back in the '80s when the desk lamp animation was state of the art -- a giant leap forward over the usual run of teapots. Haven't seen the full set of toons they've released since then, but this one is remarkable both technically and for its story line. Both rats and people retain their essential characters, which are none too flattering in either case. The "little chef" succeeds without selling out, and his recognition doesn't upset the general order of things. Possibly the best chase scene ever, too. A

Friday, September 07, 2007

How I'm Feeling Now

Billmon used that title several times as he was contemplating giving up on his blog. In my case, the title is more homage than veiled threat, but it is occasioned by a break of activity. I've been dog tired and more than a little depressed all week -- eyes hurt, can't see the computer or anything else very well, probably some allergy issues although it's usually the spring pollen that gets me, not the fall ragweed that does the most damage in these parts. Thought I could at least pull some of my book notes out to fill in those calendar squares. That explains Tuesday's John Dower post, but even though I have pages almost ready for Chris Hedges' American Fascists and Sandy Tolan's The Lemon Tree, I didn't have the strength to post them. Those and many more like them will probably appear sometime this month, as I try to get out from under some things and back on track.

The foremost out-from-under is the Jazz Consumer Guide, which is in its 13th week of prospecting this week -- by definition of a quarterly cycle this should be its last. I'm stuck at 1061 words, needing 1600+, and procrastinating listening to records that have no real chance and even less urgency -- and having trouble making my mind up on them. I'm torn as usual between not tracking down many of the things I think I should be listening to and not being able to spend enough time to do justice to the records that are kind enough to track me down. I'm also annoyed that more and more of the latter are turning up lame, as CDs without packaging or with narrow slipcases that are hard to track or file -- for one, I can't find that Marty Ehrlich-Myra Melford duo on Palmetto that I wanted to play before moving on to the similarly stripped down Melford trio on Cryptogramophone. Then there are labels which let me download, which might be a nice perk for an I-Pod-wielding high schooler, but is a mechanical nuissance for me -- one of many new labor-shifting technologies, like self-checkout lines, that I've steadfastly refused to facilitate.

I don't read much about other critics complaining about these matters, which may mean I'm being overly sensitive, or may mean I'm just becoming overly frazzled. But it raises the question: if it all comes down to money for the label, shouldn't it all come down to money for me? It hardly takes any time at all to determine that writing Jazz Consumer Guide is a dreadful expense of time. Of course, it's not all money to me -- I thought about working on free software back when SCO expanded my free time, then came to the conclusion that free content was more needed. My website is a half-assed way of doing that, and Jazz CG does help feed the website. But how much that's worth is hard to gauge. And it's far easier to imagine that writing my book might somehow pay back the effort than that I could parlay any amount of music writing into a future.

One problem with Jazz CG is opportunity cost: it takes up so much time I can't get any traction on my book. I've alluded to the book many times in the past. Six months ago I started writing a post with a brief outline, then never managed to get back to it. Here's an even briefer outline:

  1. Introductory primer (60-80 pages): A rather schematic survey of the essential background that every reader needs to have in order to understand the sections that follow. Three sections: science (how the earth works, environment changes, life evolves, resources are used and wasted; population, diseases, stress); history (key points, especially developments in technology and economics; the making of current political geography); everyday life (the current state of the world, with the usual bias towards life here in the US). This section should be noncontroversial and unsurprising. Anyone who is literate about science, history, and society should be able to skip it, but I suspect those people are in fact few and far between, so this provides the essential reference background for topics that appear throughout the book.

  2. The progressive tradition in America (30-40 pages): This steps through events and movements in US history that promote the ideals of liberty, individual rights, equal rights, opportunity, cooperation, etc. Historical periods include the Revolution, the Civil War, the antitrust movement, the New Deal, the civil rights movement, feminism, environmentalism, the free software movement. I want to show how these ideas evolved from American experience, and to set up the contrast of how they've been misused by conservatives.

  3. Conservatism as ideology and organization (40-60 pages): Outline the growth of conservative thought and organization, mostly from post-WWII anti-communism of McCarthy and Goldwater, on through Nixon and Reagan to the point where Republicans were able to seize control of Congress (1994) and the Presidency (2000), with the emphasis on how tightly focused these forces were on arrogating power. Explores complementary threads of white racism and fundamentalist Christianity, which have deeper roots. The focus here is on winning arguments and elections, not on governing, implementing policies, or coping with things that go wrong.

  4. Conservatism in practice (60-80 pages): This was originally intended as the core of the book, a chronicle of how Bush took bad ideas and turned them into disaster. It should probably start with Gingrich in 1994, inasmuch as Republican control of Congress to a large extent determined what Clinton did and did not do. It could even look back further to the one institution that was thoroughly conservatized before 1994: the US military. But the main emphasis will be on Bush: the use of government for patronage and power to reinforce Republican political dominance, and the furtherance of militarized state power, expanding both across the globe and deep into the "homeland" security state. Bush's very success at these policies drives us into a cul de sac, where problems multiply and government collapses under the dead weight of its corruption and incompetence. Iraq is both an example and an ideal.

  5. The way things ought to be (60-80 pages): Title stolen from Rush Limbaugh, who doesn't deserve it. Alternate: prolegomena to any practical utopianism. Probably a rough sketch for a future book, but here a wormhole out of the conservative black hole. Starts by focusing on basics like trust, integrity, transparency, and how these concepts settle uneasily with individualism and the notion of a public interest. Then moves to basic economic models (entrepreneurship, cooperation) and the role of government in balancing ends. (Government's historic role has been one of groups pressing their advantage through force; I see a different role/function, whereby government implements the adjustments necessary to balance a public interest against individual interests. Democratic governments should lean toward the latter, but in practice are often perverted by group identities.) End with a case example, like health care.

  6. Appendix (who knows how many pages?): Main thing here is a glossary, which provides a way to hang brief comments on various topics of political interest, fleshing out the worldview through concrete examples (e.g., abortion, advertising, affirmative action, capital punishment, estate taxes, nepotism). Some may merely analyze problems, others may offer positions or programs. How broad and how deep this will be is open. Other appendices are possible, including a further study guide. Some of this could be withheld from book and published on-line, where size is much less of an issue.

Although virtually none of this is down on paper, much of it flows quite nicely in my head. Transcribing that, of course, is easier said than done. I would write the book largely in public on my website, both maintaining the reference text and every now and then dumping bits into the blog. Hopefully I'd get useful feedback along the way. The web would allow extra scaffolding for reference -- e.g., a timeline, a bibliography, a who's who, etc. Most of the book contents would be well known and unoriginal: certainly there are many books that cover the same ground, so much of what I figure to offer is my skill at pulling all that together into a clear and useful digest. I think I'm relatively good at that, and can imagine later moving on to longer and more detailed digests on science, history, economics, etc. -- maybe even music. The philosophical treatise in the last section is likely to be more novel. For instance, I see capitalism as a historically bounded epoch that corresponds to the rise in an S-curve over the period it takes humans to expand production to the point where it is limited by resources. Post-capitalism then needs to find an equilibrium with resources; otherwise we would be beset with repeated boom-and-bust cycles, most likely with diminishing booms and deepening busts. On the other hand, I'm quite conscious that we evolved in scarcity with selection in favor of disruptive expropriation, which is where many of our habits (often bad, but not always) have come from. Despite my reference to utopianism, I tend to think more like an engineer; i.e., as someone who understands that whatever one wants to do has to be done within the constraints of what's possible. Human nature is not immutable, but it's also not arbitrary. I have no desire to throw out something that's impossible, least of all because I'm attracted to the idea. After all, that's a big part of what's wrong with conservative thought, and that's the point of the book.

I always figured the more political parts of the blog make for rough drafts toward the book. When I started that post six months ago, one idea I had was to posit a second book, which could take the blog posts and various letters and documents and edit them down to a chronological journal of the Bush-Cheney years. That's still an idea. I'd merge a skeletal timeline in with them, edit the posts for clarity and compression, and tack on some footnote comments where appropriate. I had done some counting at the time, figuring that the notebook files (a superset of the blog posts) add up to something like 3500 pages. A lot of that is unusable -- lists and things -- and at least half is music, which may or may not be relevant. Don't know about letters and other files, but after weeding out there are probably a few hundred pages worth considering. So it's basically a big editing job, but it should be secondary to the book -- indeed, it would be worth more as a sequel, but it could be done any time.

Needless to say, there's also a huge cache of music writing scattered on the website. I've just handed in the 47th Recycled Goods column, which bumps the reviewed record count up to 2007. Don't have the Jazz Consumer Guide count handy, but it must be over 400. Jazz prospecting must be well over 1000. There's much more, albeit of decreasing quality, in the notebooks. And the rated record count is over 13,500. All this could be stuffed into a database and turned into a website. I built something like that for Robert Christgau, so it's never been beyond the range of possibility. I've just never settled on the compromises to make it work, something we can chalk up to what Brooks called "second system complex" -- the tendency to fail the second time because you got overconfident and overambitious after succeeding the first time. (Another fine example is the Iraq war.)

Meanwhile, I've spent, what, 4-5 hours working on this post about why I haven't been working on posts, interrupted mainly by shuffling low-probability jazz records and moving them from the pending to the flush files. My eyes hurt. It's late. I'd rather be reading. (Although I can't say that the recent spate of books on Russia has been cheering me up any. I look into their misery and see the same groundwork of idiocy and cruelty that Bush so aspires to.) I still have to jot down a note on a record that I neither like nor dislike. And post this.

Don't know whether I feel better or not. But I am pretty sure that the next couple of years are going to be rough going -- most likely even worse than the last few. Even if I do get that book written, I doubt that it will help much. But there's a certain satisfaction in knowing better even if you can't do anything about it. The book would help a few people know better. But a Jazz Consumer Guide would be a more immediate source of pleasure. Too bad it's such a bitch to write.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

John W Dower: War Without Mercy

One thing I noticed in reading John W Dower's Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II was the extent to which American racism framed the US occupation of Japan, and the good fortune that both sides enjoyed in the Japanese willingness to let such afronts slide by. To some extent that was a reflection of Japan's own sense of racial superiority, which appeared as condescension ever so politely phrased. I knew then that Dower had written a previous book that explored just these themes: War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986; paperback, 1987, Pantheon Books). The book deconstructs both sides of the racial divide, reflected primarily in the sheer brutality of the war and the propaganda of both sides.

We've pretty much managed to expunge the nastiness of our specifically anti-Asian racism from our historical memory -- one reason the Japanese-American concentration camps of WWII seem so unfathomable. In fact, the camps were a continuation of a long line of harsh anti-Asian discrimination going back to the first arrival of Asian laborers, who were treated much like slaves, and endured their own Jim Crow segregation. Even after WWII, the Asian stereotypes proved easily transportable from Filipinos to Japanese to Chinese to Korean to Vietnamese as we rotated our enemies around in something akin to Russian Roulette.

The following are quotes, mostly self-explanatory.


(pp. 4-5):

The blatant racism of the Nazis had a twofold impact in the anti-Axis camp. On the one hand, it provoked a sustained critique of "masterrace" arguments in general, with a wide range of Western scientists and intellectuals lending the weight of their reputations to the repudiation of pseudoscientific theories concerning the inherently superior or inferior capabilities of different races. At the same time, this critique of Nazi racism had a double edge, for it exposed the hypocrisy of the Western Allies. Anti-Semitism was but one manifestation of the racism that existed at all levels in the United States and the United Kingdom. Even while denouncing Nazi theories of "Aryan" supremacy, the U.S. government presided over a society where blacks were subjected to demeaning Jim Crow laws, segregation was imposed even in the military establishment, racial discrimination extended to the defense industries, and immigration policy was severely biased against all nonwhites. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, these anti-"colored" biases were dramatically displayed in yet another way: the summary incarceration of over 110,000 Japanese-Americans.

Such discrimination provided grist for the propaganda mills of the Axis. The Germans pointed to the status of blacks in America as proof of the validity of their dogma as well as the hollowness of Allied attacks on Nazi beliefs. The Japanese, acutely sensitive to "color" issues from an entirely different perspective, exploited every display of racial conflict in the United States in their appeals to other Asians (while necessarily ignoring the whit supremacism of their German ally). Racism within the Allied camp was, however, a volatile issue in and of itself regardless of what enemy propagandists said. Although only a few individuals spoke up on behalf of the persecuted Japanese-Americans, both the oppression of blacks and the exclusion of Asian immigrants became political issues in wartime America. Blacks raised questions about "fighting for the white folks" and called for "double victory" at home and abroad. Asians, especially Chinese and Indians, decried the humiliation of being allied to a country which deemed them unfit for citizenship; and for a full year in the midst of the war, the U.S. Congress debated the issue of revising the suddenly notorious Oriental exclusion laws. In such ways, World War Two contributed immeasurably not only to a sharpened awareness of racism within the United States, but also to more radical demands and militant tactics on the part of the victims of discrimination.

(pp. 6-7):

Officials in the West took the rhetoric of Asian solidarity painfully to heart. During the first year of the war, for example, Admiral Ernest King worried about the repercussions of Japanese victories "among the non-white world" while Roosevelt's chief of staff Admiral William Leahy wrote in his diary about the fear that Japan might "succeed in combining most of the Asiatic peoples against the whites." William Phillips, Roosevelt's personal emissary to India in 1943, sent back deeply pessimistic reports about a rising "color consciousness" that seemed to be creating an insurmountable barrier between Oriental and Occidental peoples. In March 1945, a month before he died, President Roosevelt evoked in a negative way much the same image of Pan-Asian solidarity that the Asian leaders had emphasized in Tokyo in 1943. "1,100,000,000 potential enemies," the president told a confidant, "are dangerous."

During WWII Frank Capra made a series of propaganda films under the general title Why We Fight, including one on Japan, Know Your Enemy -- Japan (p. 16):

In a memorandum to one of his aides when the project was still in the planning stage, Capra stated that there were two overriding objectives to the films: to win the war and win the peace. And he quickly hit upon a simple working motto that decisively shaped the style and texture of the films: "Let the enemy prove to our soldiers the enormity of his cause -- and the justness of ours." Capra also expressed this more colloquially. "Let our boys hear the Nazis and the Japs shout their own claims of master-race crud," he declared, "and our fighting men will know why they are in uniform."

(pp. 20-21):

Know Your Enemy -- Japan was a potpourri of most of the English-speaking world's dominant clichés about the Japanese enemy, excluding the crudest, most vulgar, and most blatantly racist. The filmmakers adopted a strongly historical approach, offering a lengthy survey of those aspects of Japan's past which Westerners believed had made the Japanese a modern menace. They began as almost everyone began in those days, and many still do, with scenes of samurai, echoes of a disciplined killer past. The film then cut to a commentary on the Japanese mind, which was portrayed as being imprisoned in an ideological cage built of two unique elements: the Shinto religion (as perverted by the modern state) and belief in a divine emperor whose role was both sacred and secular. Out of this Shinto-emperor amalgam came Japan's cult of racial superiority, its sense of holy mission, and its goal of placing the "eight corners of the world" under a Japanese roof (encapsuled in the slogan Hakko Ichiu). Warrior ideals of bravery and fanatic loyalty, as well as warrior practices of ruthlessness and treachery, were traced back to the emergence of feudal society around the twelfth century. The lust for overseas conquest was garishly illuminated by the invasion of Korea ordered in the late sixteenth century by Hideyoshi, the megalomaniac who ruled Japan (with the emperor as mere figurehead) and dreamed of an empire embracing Korea, China, and the Philippines. The invasion was abandoned when Hideyoshi died in 1598, leaving a ruined landscape in Korea and a grisly memento in Kyoto in the form of the "ear mound," which contained pickled ears and noses from forty thousand enemy corpses. This became part of the historic memory of the Japanese people, it was explained, an ember that remained alive, waiting only to be fanned into flame again. Three centuries later, that flame licked out: Japan struck against China in 1894 and embarked upon the course of conquest that led to Pearl Harbor.

Dower examines a Japanese booklet, The Way of the Subject, which the Japanese handed out to their own soldiers (p. 31):

It was not that the Japanese people were, in actuality, homogeneous and harmonious, devoid of individuality and thoroughly subordinated to the group, but rather that the Japanese ruling groups were constantly exhorting them to become so. Indeed, the government deemed it necessary to draft and propagate a rigid orthodoxy of this sort precisely because the ruling classes were convinced that a great many Japanese did not cherish the more traditional virtues of loyalty and filial piety under the emperor, but instead remained attracted to more democratic values and ideals. At several points, The Way of the Subject said this directly. In other words, what the vast majority of Westerners believed the Japanese to be coincided with what the Japanese ruling elites hoped they would become.

(p. 33):

Shortly after World War Two ended, the American historian Allan Nevins, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize, published an essay entitled "How We Felt About the War." "Probably in all our history," he observed, "no foe has been so detested as were the Japanese." Nevins attributed this to the infamy of the attack on Pearl Harbor, coupled with reports of Japanese atrocities and the extraordinary fierceness of the fighting in the Pacific. "Emotions forgotten sine our most savage Indian wars," he went on, "were reawakened by the ferocities of Japanese commanders" -- an analogy more telling to us today, perhaps, than Nevins intended.

(pp. 34-35):

The distinction between the war in the West and the war in Asia and the Pacific is in itself simplistic, however, for it obscures the fact that the Germans were engaged in several separate wars -- on the eastern front, on the western front, and against the Jews -- and their greatest and most systematic violence was directed against peoples whom most English and Americans also looked down upon, or simply were unable to identify with strongly. Foremost among these were the eastern Europeans, the Slavs, and the Jews -- all of whom, along with Asians, were the target of America's own severe immigration restrictions dating back to the 1920s. Thus, historians of the war in the Western Hemisphere emphasize that the German onslaught against the Soviet Union and eastern Europe was much more savage than the attack to the west; German atrocities on the eastern front were "planned and persistent," while on the western front they were more episodic; and as a consequence, notwithstanding a genuine horror at incidents like Lidice, as well as the normal war hate that simply came from direct confrontation,t he response to the Germans in countries like Britain and the United States generally was less violent than elsewhere. Scholars of the Holocaust, in turn, have demonstrated that although the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews was documented beyond doubt by November 1942, this generally was downplayed by American and British leaders, and was ignored or buried in the mainstream English-language media until after Germany collapsed and Western correspondents actually entered the death camps. Periodicals that regularly featured accounts of Japanese atrocities gave negligible coverage to the genocide of the Jews, and the Holocaust was not even mentioned in the Why We Fight series Frank Capra directed for the U.S. Army.

(p. 54):

[E]ven after the war ended and the Japanese turned their energies tot he tasks of peaceful reconstruction, a surprising number of Americans expressed regrets that Japan surrendered so soon after the atomic bombs were dropped. A poll conducted by Fortune in December 1945 found that 22.7 percent of respondents wished the United States had had the opportunity to use "many more of them [atomic bombs] before Japan had a chance to surrender."

(p. 55):

In May 1943, and for some time thereafter, the Navy representative to the first interdepartmental U.S. government committee that was assigned to study how Japan should be treated after the war revealed himself to be a literal believer in Admiral Halsey's motto "Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs." He called for "the almost total elimination of the Japanese as a race," on the grounds that this "was a question of which race was to survive, and white civilization was at stake." Prime Minister Churchill, in a triumphant visit to Washington the same month, roused a joint session fo Congress with a speech in which he spoke of "the process, so necessary and desirable, of laying the cities and other munitions centers of Japan in ashes, for in ashes they must surely lie before peace comes back to the world." Elliott Roosevelt, the president's son and confidant, told Henry Wallace in 1945 that the United States should continue bombing Japan "until we have destroyed about half the Japanese civilian population." While the president's son was expressing such personal views in private, the chairman of the War Manpower Commission, Paul V. McNutt, told a public audience in April 1945 that he favored "the extermination of the Japanese in toto." When asked if he meant the Japanese military or the people as a whole, he confirmed he meant the latter, "for I know the Japanese people." A week later, McNutt, a former U.S. high commissioner in the Philippines, called a press conference to make clear that his comments reflected his personal views rather than official policy. Several days before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Vice Admiral Arthur Radford was quoted as saying that "the Japs are asking for an invasion, and they are going to get it. Japan will eventually be a nation without cities -- a nomadic people."

Many more examples follow.

(p. 71):

In the opening days of 1943, almost a year and a half before Lindbergh arrived on New Guinea, General Blamey gave an emotional speech to his exhausted Australian troops, who were just beginning to turn the tide against the Japanese on that same bitterly contested island. "You have taught the world that you are infinitely superior to this inhuman foe against whom you were pitted," he said. "Your enemy is a curious race -- a cross between the human being and the ape. And like the ape, when he is cornered he knows how to die. But he is inferior to you, and you know it, and that knowledge will help you to victory." The general went on to compare his men to the courageous Roman legionnaires of ancient times, and to tell them that although the road ahead was long and hard, they were fighting for nothing less than the cause of civilization itself. "You know that we have to exterminate these vermin if we and our families are to live," he concluded. "We must go on to the end if civilization is to survive. We must exterminate the Japanese." In an interview around the same time that was reported on page 1 of the New York Times, Blamey, visiting the Buna battlefield, was quoted in much the same terms. "Fighting Japs is not like fighting normal human beings," he explained. "The Jap is a little barbarian. . . . We are not dealing with humans as we know them. We are dealing with something primitive. Our troops have the right view of the Japs. They regard them as vermin." The general even went on to refer to the enemy as simply "these things."

(p. 73):

Allied propagandists were not distorting the history of Japan when they pointed ot much that was cruel in the Japanese past. They had to romanticize or simply forget their own history, however, to turn such behavior into something uniquely Japanese -- to ignore, for example, the long history fo torture and casual capital punishment in the West, the genocide of the Indian population in the Western Hemisphere by the sixteenth-century conquistadores, the "hell ships" of the Western slave trade, the death match of American Indians forcibly removed from the eastern United States in the 1830s, the ten thousand or more Union prisoners of war who died at Andersonville during the U.S. Civil War, the introduction of "modern" strategies of annihilation and terrorization of civilians by Napoleon and Lee and Grant and Sherman, and the death marches and massacres of native peoples by the European colonialists in Africa and Asia, right up to 1941. In their genuine shock at the death rituals which the Japanese military engaged in, moreover, the Westerners tended to forget not only their own "epics of defeat" (immortalized in such names as Roland, Thermopylae, the Alamo, and Custer), but also the self-sacrifice against hopeless odds of thousands of Allied fighting men. To give but one example,t he numver of United Kingdom airmen who gave their lives in World War Two was ten times greater than the number of Japanese who died as kamikaze pilots.

(p. 82):

For many Japanese-Americans, the verbal stripping of their humanity was accompanied by humiliating treatment that reinforced the impression of being less than human. They were not merely driven from their homes and communities on the West Coast and rounded up like cattle, but actually forced to live in facilities meant for animals for weeks and even months before being moved to their final quarters int he relocation camps. In the state of Washington, two thousand Japanese-Americans were crowded into a single filthy building in the Portland stockyard, where they slept on gunnysacks filled with straw. In California, evacuees were squeezed into stalls in the stables at racetracks such as Santa Anita and Tanforan. At the Santa Anita assembly center, which eventually housed eighty-five hundred Japanese-Americans, only four days elapsed between the removal of the horses and the arrival of the first Japanese-Americans, the only facilities for bathing were the horse showers, and here as elsewhere the stench of manure lingered indefinitely. Other evacuees were initially housed in horse or cattle stalls at various fairgrounds. At the Puyallup assembly center in Washington (which was called Camp Harmony), some were even lodged in converted pigpens.

(pp. 105-106):

Such complacency naturally turned into astonishment and disbelief when the Japanese launched their bold, unorthodox, and meticulously executed attacks on the Western powers in December 1941. As is well known, the first electronic sightings of the Japanese attack force moving against Pearl Harbor were not taken seriously. When Japanese aircraft swooped in on the Philippines nine hours after Pearl Harbor and wiped out General Douglas MacArthur's air force on the ground, the general was caught by surprise and refused to believe that the pilots could have been Japanese. He insisted they must have been white mercenaries. At almost the same moment, the British defenders of Hong Kong were voicing similar incredulity as they came under pinpoint low-level fire from Japanese planes. They "firmly believed," as the official British history of the war in Asia put it, "that Germans must be leading the sorties." (In the Soviet Union, Stalin joined this early chorus that placed Germans in Japan's cockpits). In some quarters, disbelief that the Japanese could really master the weapons of modern war persisted long after they had presumedly proven their mettle. When battle-hardened GIs, accustomed to the light-arms combat of the jungles and island atolls, moved on to Okinawa in April 1945 and found themselves suddenly pinned down by accurate heavy-artillery fire, the rumor quickly spread that "German experts are directing the Jap artillery." In this respect, the war in the Pacific ended much as it had begun: in American underestimation of the technical capability of the Japanese.

Comparable rumors flourished concerning the Japanese mind. It was the sine qua non of virtually all Western commentaries that the Japanese did not think as other peoples did, and were certainly not guided by "reason" or "logic" in the Western sense. They were often said to "feel" rather than think, or to think with their "whole being" rather than just their brains. Their minds were described as "pre-Hellenic, prerational, and prescientific" -- labels which were also commonly employed in discourse concerning the inferiority of the female mind. On occasion,this equation was made explicit. "The Japanese mind works in a more elemental way," wrote Otto Tolischus, "as a woman's is supposed to do -- by instinct, intuition, apprehension, feeling, emotion, association of ideas, rather than by analysis and logical deduction.

(p. 108):

Westerners, however, tended to find essentially what they started out expecting to find -- and in the case of the president of the United States, as Professor Christopher Thorne has revealed, thtis turned out to be a brain that was not so much peculiarly slow as peculiarly small. For this expert information, President Roosevelt was indebted to the curator of the Division of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution, who, in a lengthy correspondence, explained that the Japanese were "as bad as they were" because their skulls were "some 2,000 years less developed than ours." The president's receptivity to this bogus empiricism reflected the durability of presumedly discredited nineteenth-century racist theories. And how could the Japanese escape this unfortunate biological curse? After they had been defeated, Roosevelt once privately suggested, they should be encouraged by every means possible to intermarry with other races.

Weston La Barre, a Yale-trained anthropolgist, published "a famous analysis of the Japanese character structure" in August 1945 (p. 136):

La Barre, like most commentators, accepted without question that the Japanese -- all Japanese -- did indeed desire to rule the world. He discussed this under the compulsive trait of self-righteousness, in which there was little ego examination of severe superego demands. "As with the Nazis in similar circumstances," La Barre observed, "the Japanese have manifested a sort of puzzled, hurt shock that other people did not accept their doctrine and domination, when their motives of civilizing the world under the divine ordainments of Amaterasu Omikami and her line were so pure and so self-evident." In both the German and Japanese cases, such self-righteousness was "part of a tribal theology of racial speriority and consequent divine mission." Unlike the majority of his anthropologist colleagues, however, La Barre concluded that this racist and militaristic sense of mission could only be expunged from the Japanese psyche by a direct and thoroughgoing attack on the mystique of the imperial institution. In this respect, he was a maverick among his peers, and far more in sympathy with those more politically radical analysts who analyzed Japan's dilemma from a historical and fundamentally socioeconomic perspective.

Other "experts" had counselled against confronting the Emperor. In the end, the US kept the Emperor, stripping his divine place in the Shinto state-religion, but also whitewashing him of all war crimes.

(p. 172):

Beyond this loomed the larger and more conventional Yellow Peril specter of China breaking with the Anglo-American powers and throwing its weight behind a Pan-Asian and antiwhite movement. In the war on hand, this would not simply have added the several million troops who comprised Chiang Kai-shek's nationalist forces to the ranks of the enemy, but would have freed an estimated two-million additional Japanese troops to fight against the Allies. Even assuming the Nationalists stayed the course in the battle against Japanese imperialism, however, it still remained to be asked where China and the rest of Asia would stand thereafter -- whether there would develop what William Phillips, a personal representative of President Roosevelt to India in 1943, perceived as a burgeoning "white against colored complex in the East." To the end of the war, the notion persisted in many circles that Japan could still "win by losing." This could happen, warned Robert S. Ward, an experienced U.S. foreign-service officer stationed in Chungking in May 1945, simply because "it is in the Japanese identification of imperial aims with the appeal to a race revolt that the real peril lies." The peoples of the East, he continued, had been exposed to "a virus that may yet poison the whole soul of Asia and ultimately commit the world to a racial war that would destroy the white man and decimate the Asiatic, with no possible future gain."

(pp. 173-174):

Like a stone cast into the water, the race issue made itself felt in ever-widening circles. Just as attacks on the Japanese enemy carried over into animosity toward Asian peoples in general, so did the Yellow Peril sentiment pass on into even larger fears concerning the rise of "colored" peoples everywhere. For the English,t he colored problem evoked a multitude of unsettling images linking the war to the clamor for independence from colonial rule in India, Burma, Malaya, and, though still muted there, Africa. For white Americans, "color" was a blunt reminder that the upheaval in Asia coincided with rising bitterness, impatience, anger, and militance among blacks at home.

The alarm which accelerating black demands for equality caused in U.S. military and civilian circles during the war cannot be underestimated [??]. Secretary of War Stimson agonized over the "explosive" and seemingly insoluble race problem, and confided to his diary early in 1942 that he believed Japanese and Communist agitators were behind Negro demands for equality. General Marshall confidentially told reporters in August 1943 that he "would rather handle everything that the Germans, Italians and Japanese can throw at me, than to face the trouble I see in the Negro question." A white Southern moderate writing in Atlantic Monthly early in 1943 painted a doomsday picture of race riots erupting throughout the United States, incited by both radical blacks and reactionary whites, with blacks soon coming to the conclusion that they had little to lose by a Japanese victory. "Like the natives of Malaya and Burma," he stated, "the American Negroes are sometimes imbued with the notion that a victory for the yellow race over the white race might also be a victory for them." At the same time, the article went on, should the United States erupt in racial violence, this probably would have "far-reaching and heavily adverse effects upon the colored peoples of China, India, and the Middle East."

The "cannot be underestimated" looks like a botched edit; "cannot be overestimated" is more like it, but "should not be underestimated" is probably most accurate. There was a growing civil rights movement before the war, but it was still focused mostly on anti-lynching laws. The war brought equal access and equal rights to the fore. Indeed, it could be credibly argued that those were things America was fighting for, even if few white Americans realized it at the time.

(p. 204):

Japan's modern experience itself generated an indebtedness to the West which made a Japanese equivalent of whit supremacism improbable if not impossible. In addition tot he rapid and often enthusiastic "Westernization" which took place in Japan during the decades that followed the overthrow of the feudal regime in 1868, moreover, one must take into consideration two further factors. First, the half century or more during which the Japanese initially turned to the West for education coincided almost exactly with the period when scientific racism dominated the natural and social sciences in Europe and the United States. In Japan, that is, the very process of Westernization involved being told that the racial inferiority of the Japanese was empirically verifiable, thus placing Japanese scientists and intellectuals in the awkward position fo either ignoring such arguments or attempting to repudiate their ostensible teachers. Second, by the 1930s the Japanese had been forced to endure racial slights and outright discrimination by both Americans and Europeans in a variety of highly public forms, including the unequal treaties of the nineteenth century, discriminatory immigration policies in the United States and elsewhere, and humiliation in the founding moments of the League of Nations, when Japan's request for a simple declaration of "racial equality" was rejected. To an immeasurable degree, there was thus a reactive cast to the anti-Western rhetoric of the Japanese during the years under discussion -- a clear sense of revenge for past indignities and maltreatment which, again, has no precise counterpart in the racism of white supremacists. The situation was compounded further by a decided assumption of Japanese superiority vis-ŕ-vis the other races of Asia -- a condescending attitude which rested in good part upon Japan's successful adaptation of Western machines.

Dower follows with a long survey of Japanese racial views. One key aspect of this was the notion of "purification" (p. 228):

If the average Japanese citizen had been asked what "purification" meant during these years, however, he or she undoubtedly would have answered in less abstract terms. At the everyday level, purification was understood to mean (1) expunging foreign influences, (2) living austerely, and (3) fighting and, if need be, dying for the emperor.

(pp. 259-261):

Much as happened in the case of the Americans and the English, Japanese at all levels allowed themselves to be misled by distorted perceptions of both their own strengths and the purported weaknesses of their enemies. They exaggerated their social cohesiveness and supposedly unique spiritual and moral qualities, while at the same time grossly underestimating the material strength and moral fiber of the other side.

This was most conspicuous in the year preceding and the year following Pearl Harbor. The decision to attack the Pacific Fleet in its Hawaii anchorage was not reached easily, not was it irrational once the decision had been made that Japan could not survive without control of the southern region. As researchers such as Michael Barnhart and others have demonstrated, however, the brilliance of the military's operational plans for the opening stage of the war was offset by an astonishing lack of serious intelligence analysis of a psychological and economic nature. Prior to 1940, the Imperial Army virtually ignored the United States and Great Britain altogether in its intelligence gathering, being more focused on China and the Soviet Union; English was not even taught in the Army schools. Neither the Imperial Navy nor other key government organs made a major investigation of U.S. productive capacity before initiating the war. Because the plan to attack Peal Harbor was so secret, moreover, Naval Intelligence was kept out of the planning (which was done by the Operations section), and no serious evaluation of the probable psychological effects of a surprise attack were undertaken. Admiral Yamamoto himself, as previously noted, hoped the attack would discourage the Americans and destroy their will to respond.

This blithe assumption reflected an arrogance and ineptitude every bit as great as that displayed toward the Japanese by the British and Americans in the period prior to December 1941; and in a similar fashion such wishful thinking rested on disdainful racial and cultural stereotypes. Briefly put, Westerners were assumed to be selfish and egoistic, and incapable of mobilizing for a long fight in a distant place. [ . . . ]

For a half year or more after Pearl Harbor, this impression of a soft enemy appeared to be true. The huge size of the U.K. force that surrendered without much of a fight at Singapore was incredible by anyone's reckoning, and the combined U.S. and Filipino army that capitulated on Bataan was twice as large as the Japanese expected. (They expected forty thousand prisoners, or possibly many fewer, and approximately seventy-eight thousand men surrendered.) Japanese casualties were light, and Japanese euphoria knew no bounds. For the Western Allies, these were the months of humiliating defeat that spawned the myth of the Japanese superman; to the Japanese, they were months of glorious victory that once and for all confirmed their innate superiority. It was during these months that there emerged in Japan what after the war was called the "victory disease," the fatal hubris of invincibility. Even the most cautious of military leaders were not immune to such wishful thinking. Ont he eve of the decisive battle of Midway, for example, Admiral Nagumo Chuichi's intelligence concluded that Americans did indeed "lack the will to fight."

(p. 289):

While public speakers called for Pan-Asianism, racial harmony, and liberation from the white colonial yoke, privately the Japanese managers of the new imperium were advised to pay careful attention to relations among the different races and countries under their leadership. They were told to "take advantage of enmity and jealousy among these peoples" and pursue, wherever feasible, a shrewd "divide-and-rule" policy. They were also warned to be particularly cautious in dealing with the mixed-blood offspring of Southeast Asians and Caucasians or overseas Chinese.

(pp. 298-299):

The total of over 2,100,000 military and civilian Japanese deaths amounts to 3 percent of the total Japanese population at the time, but this does not convey the full picture on the Japanese side. It is estimated that only one third of the military deaths occurred in actual combat, the majority being caused by illness and starvation. Over 300,000 men were wounded severely enough to qualify for government pensions during and after the war. In 1945 alone, some 4,470,000 of the Japanese troops repatriated to Japan immediately after the surrender -- the vast majority of the total fighting force -- were found to be suffering from illness or injury. The condition of the imperial forces was so wretched by war's end that over 81,000 Japanese died overseas after the cease-fire before they could be repatriated by their Allied captors (other than the Soviets) -- a startling figure in itself, although it went virtually unnoticed at the time and survives only as a forgotten historical footnote.

The standard listings of Japanese war victims also generally neglect other deaths, both military and civilian, that occurred after as well as during the period of actual fighting. As many as 10,000 Japanese civilians may have perished on Saipan, while a recent study of the last great battle of the war, on Okinawa in the spring of 1945, places civilian deaths (including citizens recruited for war work) at 150,000 -- one third of the island's population. For hundreds of thousands of Japanese, moreover, the war did not end in 1945. Scores of thousands of soldiers became absorbed by Chinese armies engaged in the civil war that wracked the mainland after Japan's defeat; thousands of others were held as Allied prisoners in Southeast Asia until as late as October 1947; and an immense number fell into the hands of the Soviet Union. The Japanese government estimated that over 1.3 million Japanese soldiers and civilians surrendered to the U.S.S.R. in Manchuria and northern Asia in August 1945, but over the course of the next four years only 1 million were repatriated to Japan -- leaving more than 300,000 unaccounted for and presumed to have died after August 1945. Countless Japanese civilians, many women and children among them, failed to survive the chaos that followed the end of the war in continental Asia. In Manchuria in the winter of 1945-46 alone, it is estimated that well over 100,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians perished from hunger, cold, and epidemics.

When such neglected figures are added to conventional tallies, the human cost of the war for the Japanese themselves appears to be close to 2.7 million individuals -- much smaller than China's losses and less than half the combined military and civilian deaths suffered by the Germans, but twenty-five times greater than American combat deaths in the Pacific theater, and eight or nine times greater than the total number of Americans killed in World War Two.

(pp. 300-301):

On August 10, the day after the Nagasaki bomb (and two days after the Soviet Union declared war on Japan), the Japanese government made clear it intended to surrender, although the terms remained to be ironed out. Between then and the actual end of the war, two now-forgotten happenings took place that symbolize the war hates and race hates which had driven both sides so far, so disastrously. After the saturation bombing of Japanese cities began in March 1945, the Japanese military in the home islands commenced summarily executing the small number of U.S. airmen who fell into their hands. On August 12, eight were executed in Fukuoka; on August 15, the formal cease-fire a whisper away, eight more were killed by the military command in the same city -- marking Japan's last moment of war with a final atrocity. While this was taking place, General Henry H. Arnold, one of the major planners of the U.S. bombing strategy, was desperately attempting to arrange "as big a finale as possible" to end the war. I twas his dream to hit Tokyo with a final 1,000-plane air raid -- and on the night of August 14 he succeeded in collecting such a force and sending it against the already devastated capital city. A total of 1,014 aircraft -- 828 B-29 bombers and 186 fighter escorts -- bombed Tokyo without a single loss. President Truman announced Japan's unconditional surrender before all of them had returned to their bases.

(p. 309):

With the "anti-Communist" allure of postwar Japan, one moves on to a fuller appreciation of the true resilience of code words concerning the Other. Not only are such concepts capable of evoking constructive as well as destructive responses; they are also free-floating and easily transferred from one target to another, depending on the exigencies and apprehensions of the moment. The war hates and race hates of World War Two, that is, proved very adaptable to the cold war. Traits which the Americans and English had associated with the Japanese, with great empirical sobriety, were suddenly perceived to be really more relevant tot he Communists (deviousness and cunning, bestial and atrocious behavior, homogeneity and monolithic control, fanaticism divorced from any legitimate goals or realistic perception of the world, megalomania bent on world conquest). Indeed, as influential American spokesmen such as George Kennan and John Foster Dulles occasionally pointed out at the height of the cold war, the Russians were really an Asiatic, or Oriental, people. They were, as Churchill liked to say even before the war ended, the real menace from the East.

Enemies changed, with wrenching suddenness; but the concept of "the enemy" remained impressively impervious to drastic alteration, and in its peculiar way provided psychological continuity and stability from the world war to the cold war. If this was true in the shaping of anti-Soviet sentiments, the transferral became even more vivid when China joined the Communist camp and Japan and China changed places in the eyes of the Americans and the British. Heralded by Americans during the war for their individualism and love of democracy, the Chinese suddenly inherited most of the old, monolithic, inherently totalitarian raiments the Japanese were shedding. They became the unthinking horde; the fanatics; the 500 (or 600 or 700) million blue ants of Asia; the newest incarnation of the Yellow Peril -- doubly ominous now that it had become inseparable from the Red Peril. The Chinese, like the Russians, explained the diplomat O. Edmund Clubb, one of America's leading China specialists, in April 1950, "do not think like other men." On the contrary, they acted out of a "madness born of xenophobia."

Monday, September 03, 2007

Music: Current count 13541 [13519] rated (+22), 814 [815] unrated (-1). Worked on September's Recycled Goods column, which is written but not posted yet. Jazz Consumer Guide is next, by now urgent.

  • Harry Allen: How Long Has This Been Going On? (1989, Progressive): With Keith Ingham's trio, an early record, his classic sax style barely developed, the pianist edging him along. B+
  • Dave Douglas: Witness (2000 [2001], Bluebird): Cut near the start of his big label, big budget phase, when he could (and often did) strike out in any direction he liked. Some strings here, some electronics, a long piece with Tom Waits' spechgesang for a Brecht-Weill flair. Doesn't all work -- I'd be beside myself to try to figure it all out, let alone why -- but often enough it does, sometimes remarkably, sometimes miraculously. Got it from the library; don't have the time to nail it down (as if I could). B+
  • Ricky Jay Plays Poker (1914-2001 [2006], Octone/Legacy, CD+DVD): In a fancy box, with a 66-page booklet, full of remarkable illustrations and casually dispensed expertise but somewhat lacking in discographical details, with a deck of cards to justify its thickness. The DVD itself is a little thin, running 29:47, with Jay dealing from the top, bottom and sides of the deck, demonstrating card tricks and cons. The CD, on the other hand, is a remarkable exercise, holding tight on subject while playing loose with genres -- the extremes are Bert Williams' 1914 "Darktown Poker Club" skit, sped up to song form by Phil Harris in 1946, and a 1991 piece of Saint Etienne techno built around sample dialog from Jay and Joey Mantegna, hustling in the David Mamet movie House of Games. Blues and country-folk predominate, with bits from Anita O'Day, Lorne Greene, and the Broadway cast of Fiorello! uncanny exceptions. List price $39.98. B+(**)
  • Putumayo Presents: Israel (1982-2006 [2007], Putumayo World Music): Most Israelis I listen to have returned to the diaspora, which makes them more accessible, and shelters them from bombs, bullets, and the strictures of the ultra-orthodox, so I have no way to judge authentic this soft-pedaled sampler of pop tunes is -- it could be just like picking America to represent American music; the only cut that jolts me is by a Yemenite named Zafa, because it sounds more Arabic than token Palestinian Amal Murkus. B
  • Putumayo Presents: Puerto Rico (1959-99 [2000], Putumayo World Music): Cuba's poorer cousin up through the 1898 war that handed it from Spain to the United States, setting up a pipeline between the Caribbean island and New York that in time outflanked Havana (and later Miami), producing synthesis in salsa, leaning back on cuatro-driven bomba and jíbaro from the hills; this stays upbeat all the way, and is willing to reach back for a surefire hit. A-
  • The Rough Guide to the Music of Japan (1991-98 [1999], World Music Network): A mixed bag of folk or classical shamisen and shakuhachi mixed in with jaunty little pop ditties that owe more to rock and roll with some oddities in between, like a James Bond theme; doesn't flow much but makes you wonder what else -- besides world-class jazz and classical, comic heavy metal, and ear-shattering techno-noise -- the world's second largest economy has to offer. B+
  • Sones de México Ensemble: Esta Tierra es Tuya (2007, Sones de México): Chicago-based ensemble, they take a rigorous approach to their Mexican roots, not just bragging about their 50 "all-acoustic instruments from Mexico" -- they spread them out for a poster, and come up with a diagram mapping instrument to song; their traditional son is pristine, but they're clever enough to use it as a prism for refracting Led Zeppelin, Bach, Woody Guthrie -- the latter a potent political pill, the others mere novelties. B+(*)
  • Ticklah: Ticklah vs. Axelrod (2007, Easy Star): Roots reggae dub with Spanish and Ethiopian tinges, constructed by Brooklyn DJ Victor Axelrod wressling with his alter ego; he's worked in Antibalas and Sharon Jones' Dap Kings, but aims for King Tubby here, getting the reverbs right and the overtones wrong, probably the way he planned it. B+(***)


Jazz Prospecting (CG #14, Part 12)

Spent most of last week working on Recycled Goods, which explains the initial flurry of older jazz here. Didn't expect to get to the Coltrane box, but I used it to fill up a day interrupted by people working on the air conditioning system, and was pleasantly surprised by music I'd been mostly familiar with. Tried to have a normal Labor Day weekend, too, which involved taking in The Simpsons Movie and Ratatouille, both better than I had expected -- in fact, the latter has a better chase sequence than anything in The Bourne Ultimatum. Tried to get back into Jazz CG, which has moved into overdue territory. I should be able to crunch down this coming week, at least after another day or two with the air conditioning. I figure it will be done in two weeks. I have much more at the top than I can possibly fit in, even more at the honorable mention level, and a few duds for credibility's sake. Don't have the picks yet. Bothers me a bit that the leading candidates seem so predictable -- Vandermark, Murray, Bang, Parker -- but they're such bold talents they naturally stand out.


Steve Miller/Lol Coxhill: The Story So Far . . . Oh Really? (1972-74 [2007], Cuneiform, 2CD): This Steve Miller was a pianist from Canada who enjoyed a brief spell in Canterbury's jazz-rock underground, playing with Alexis Korner, Caravan, and bald soprano saxophonist Coxhill. This rescues two albums with the latter and as many relevant spare parts as they can fit: mostly duos, sometimes augmented by bass, drums, and/or guitar from Miller's slightly more famous brother Phil -- uh, Hatfield and the North, Matching Mole, National Health, 6-8 albums under his own name. Also very brief appearances by relative superstars Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt. Coxhill has a long discography going back to the 1950s, one I'm almost totally unfamiliar with. But they come up with an appealing mix of abstract dithering and tone-poem minimalism, and the historical interest makes up for the incongruities. Miller died in 1998, so this is one of his few souvenirs. Coxhill is pushing 75, still working, a subject for future research. B+(*)

Steve Lacy-Roswell Rudd Quartet: Early and Late (1962-2002 [2007], Cuneiform, 2CD): One thing that distinguished both Lacy and Rudd is that they vaulted directly from trad jazz to the avant-garde, pausing only to snatch up the songbooks of Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. Instrumentation had something to do with this: before Lacy, the only known soprano sax master was Sidney Bechet, while, pace J.J. Johnson, the trombone had long been a New Orleans staple for dirtying up the lead trumpet -- Louis Armstrong never went anywhere without a Kid Ory or Trummy Young or Jack Teagarden. The first Lacy-Rudd quartet only cut one album, School Days (1963), but it was landmark enough that Ken Vandermark named his trombone-powered pianoless quartet after it. The four early cuts here are unreleased demos -- three takes on Monk and one on Cecil Taylor -- and they are major finds, keys to how to turn a song inside out and make something new of it. The group broke up with Lacy moving to France and Rudd teaming up with Archie Shepp and others before fading into obscurity. Finally, they regrouped for tours in 1999 and 2002, with a new album, Monk's Dream. The balance here are live shots from the tours -- long pieces, mostly Lacy's improv frameworks, plus Monk and Nichols and a sprightly pseudo-African riff from Rudd. They don't blow you away so much as they resonate with the authoritative voices of two major careers bound together at their ends. A-

Don Cherry: Live at Café Montmartre 1966 (1966 [2007], ESP-Disk): One annoying thing here is that the booklet doesn't provide the actual date of the performance, and I can't find any secondary sources (like a gigography or even a detailed sessionography) that help narrow it down. The Cherry discographies don't even get down to the song level, but it does appear that this is a different recording from the ones released by Magnetic in two volumes as Live at "Café Montmartre", although all three discs include Bo Stief on bass. Cherry appeared in Copenhagen a number of times in 1966, early on with Jean-François Jenny Clark on bass, then on March 31 with Stief on a 69-minute radio broadcast, which also doesn't match this song list. Musically this may not matter, but part of the reason behind issuing rare historical recordings is to provide the history. This has a non-trivial booklet, so the omission is glaring. The group is a quintet with Cherry on trumpet, Gato Barbieri on tenor sax, Karl Berger on vibes, Stief on bass, and Aldo Romano on drums. The play is red hot, on the cusp of breaking into chaos, and the sound is tuned to rattle your cage. The centerpiece is a 13:20 "Complete Communion," followed by something called "Free Improvisation Music Now" which most likely just combusted on the spot. I have mixed feelings: as a document, the main thing this shows is how ragged they were willing to run to pump up the excitement; still, there are spots where it works, Cherry much more than Barbieri, but the real revelation here is Berger, whose vibes provide a shimmering undertow. B+(*)

Fred Katz: Folk Songs for Far Out Folk (1958 [2007], Reboot Stereophonic): About all I know of Kabbalah is that it seeks to peel off the illusions of G-d, only to find more illusions. I'm tempted to add that's because there is no God, so the only things you can possibly find are illusions. The peeling off metaphor is one we can apply to history. The most nominal categorization of Katz is anthropology professor, a post he used less for science than as a license to indulge his own interests -- mystical religion, political radicalism, ethnomusicology, the "oneness of man." But strip all of those back to their roots, and you find a boy playing classical music on his cello. That at least validates the metaphor, inasmuch as we've found a seed from which all else grows. But peeling off could just as well leave us with an uncomfortable void, as in seeking God, or in peeling off the history of knowledge, where each new achievement reveals a previously held falsehood. The most striking thing about Folk Songs for Far Out Folk is how much our evolving view has change the meaning of those words over the 50 years since the record was conceived. Katz takes three sets of folk songs -- African, Hebrew, and American -- and arranges them for three different orchestras. The African tunes get West Coast brass and Jack Constanzo's bongos for the drums we now know should be there. The Hebrew psalms get flutes and reeds, but nothing suggesting klezmer. The American songs get vibes and guitar. They're interleaved to juxtapose rather than flow, but what they all share is the arranger's classical fix on control. That the albums was marketed as jazz is an artifact of the time, much like the notion that these are still folk songs, and that we are far out folk. B+(*)

Billy Taylor & Gerry Mulligan: Live at MCG (1993 [2007], MCG Jazz): Like J.J. Johnson on trombone, or later Jack Bruce on electric bass, Mulligan took an instrument out of the back of the band and moved it up by playing in its upper range with the virtuosity expected of the front men. Mulligan's instrument was baritone sax. This has the charm and intimacy of a Stan Getz quartet, but not quite the sweet sound. Taylor gets top bill because he's on his home court, carries his end, and makes his guest feel welcome. B+(***)

Joe Temperley/Harry Allen: Cocktails for Two (2006 [2007], Sackville): Bought this used in Detroit, not even realizing that it's recent -- cover is old-fashioned, and Allen's so baby-faced you don't recognize him as 40. No new ground here, but Temperley's baritone sax makes a fine foil for Allen's tenor, and the rhythm section -- stalwarts John Bunch and Jake Hanna, Ornette bassist Greg Cohen -- do everything right. I know I'm a sucker for sax that swings this hard, but I could give in and grade this up. [B+(***)]

William Parker/Raining on the Moon: Corn Meal Dance (2007, AUM Fidelity): Another group named for a previous album, which was in turn built on his O'Neal's Porch quartet -- Rob Brown on alto sax, Lewis Barnes on trumpet, Hamid Drake on drums -- plus vocalist Leena Conquest for a couple of songs. This one adds pianist Eri Yamamoto and feeds Conquest a full plate of lyrics. The piano holds the group together, giving it a unifying swing that Parker didn't want with the quartet, but which buoys up the singer, while trimming back the horns. Still, if this was an instrumental album, it would be faultless, a tour de force that could sail right down the mainstream admired by everyone. The caveats concern the singer, who strikes me as too gospelly, and the lyrics, which tend toward the didactic. Still, those concerns may pass. If Parker wants to assert that "God made the land," at least he's not conned by owner "Mister Johnson." And while the prayer that opens the second song seems too crude -- "I am your brother please don't cut my throat" -- the title "Tutsi Orphans" reminds us that such is too often the case. A-

John Coltrane: Fearless Leader (1957-58 [2006], Prestige, 6CD): Trane's claim to genius conventionally starts with his aptly named 1959 Atlantic debut, Giant Steps, and extends through his universally acclaimed 1964 Impulse! masterpiece, A Love Supreme, or possibly up to his death in 1967, depending on how far out you're willing to go. In the early '50s Coltrane tended to be written off as a Dexter Gordon wannabe, but in 1956 he made a series of appearances that could eventually be seen as prophetic: playing in the Miles Davis Quintet, the Thelonious Monk Quartet, and sparring with Sonny Rollins on Tenor Madness. Between '56 and '59, Coltrane recorded massive amounts for Prestige -- the sessions were eventually collected in a 16-CD box, which by all accounts is a minimally interesting hodgepodge of leader and side sets. It's easy enough to blame Prestige: they may be viewed as a major independent label of the era, but at the time they specialized in quick and dirty: just round up a few guys and reel off some standards, often holding them on the shelf and raiding them after the artist had gone on to greener pastures -- Coltrane's 1957-58 records kept appearing through 1965. Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins managed to record great albums on Prestige anyway, but Coltrane didn't join them until later, when he figured out modal improvisation, found his distinctive eternal search sound, and felt the full brunt of the avant-garde. Searching his Prestige records for that post-1959 development is unrewarding, the big box de trop and the individual titles too slight. But this far more selective box, packing 11 LPs into 6 CDs, gives us a chance at last to savor his post-1956 plateau: at this point he's still a straight shooter, with fast and assured bebop riffing and an authoritative voice for blues and ballads. He still can't tear a standard apart like Hawkins or Rollins, but he's just a tier down. And frequent collaborator Red Garland gives him steadying support. Another big plus is the booklet, especially the indexes by session and album -- as useful as any box booklet I've seen. A-

Kenny Garrett: Beyond the Wall (2006, Nonesuch): I've been griping for years now about Nonesuch not sending me their jazz records, and this was one I had in mind, especially when it started showing up in year-end lists. Found a copy at my local public library, so I thought I should give it a spin. Starts heavy-handed, tightening up around itself to build up tension, riffing Coltraneisms in search of mystic aura, which is ultimately provided by a chorus on two songs, after Tibetan samples and erhu proved little more than flavoring. Garrett has pursued Coltrane before, and dedicates this one to McCoy Tyner. (I've read that Tyner was the intended pianist, but unavailable; Garrett reacted with the obvious move, hiring Mulgrew Miller.) But the real heavyweight here is Pharoah Sanders, whose claim on Coltrane is more organic and more singular. I found this more than a little irritating at first, and still find much I don't care for. But it's good to hear Sanders wail, and Miller and Bobby Hutcherson fill in admirably. B

Michael Bisio Quartet: Circle This (2006 [2007], CIMP): Seattle bassist with a two saxophone quarter, featuring Avram Fefer (tenor and soprano) and Stephen Gauci (just tenor), and CIMP regular Jay Rosen on drums. Title on spine and cover includes CIMP 360, the label name and number, figuring that ties in nicely with the first song title. I've gone back and forth on the title, opting here for the simple version. Bisio moved to Seattle in 1976, and has recorded since 1980, with a dozen (maybe more) records either under his own name or matched with others -- the latter include duets with Eyvind Kang, Joe Giardullo, and Joe McPhee. Website spends a lot of time extolling his skills as a bassist, which between CIMP's acoustics and my system are hard to verify. The main thing I hear is two horns engaged, sometimes pulling together gently but more often roughhousing. B+(**)

Stephen Gauci Trio: Substratum (2006 [2007], CIMP): Tenor saxophonist, from New York, plays avant, in a trio with Michael Bisio and Jay Rosen -- same group as Bisio's Circle This minus Avram Fefer, but working on Gauci's material rather than Bisio's. Seems like an interesting player, but the record is often inaudible over the ambient hum of my antiquated computers -- he can play hot, feverish runs, but also favors quiet stretches that can be annoying when they drop below my hearing threshold for any appreciable spell. CIMP does this on purpose: they want to create a perfect live sound with a full range of dynamics, but to get the full benefit you have to own the sort of high-end audiophile gear they also hawk, have a perfect room, and sit properly in front of the speakers, volume cranked up, ears cocked for minute details. I don't live like that, which doesn't kill all CIMP records for me, but hurts in cases like this. I like what I can hear, and would like to hear more. B

David Haney & Julian Priester: Ota Benga of the Batwa (2006 [2007], CIMP): Piano-trombone duet, the second match for Haney and Priester. Haney is a pianist, born 1955 Fresno CA, grew up in Calgary, studied in Portland OR; has several records since 2001, but this is the first I've heard. Priester is better known, in his 70s now, with a career that straddles avant and mainstream. Duos are an avant staple, a chance for two players to feel each other out with a minimum of preconditions and distractions. They demand such close listening that I often have trouble with them. This, at least, is a good mix of instruments, and Haney adjusts well to the limits of the trombone. The dedication is to Ota Benga (1884-1916), a Batwa pygmy exhibited at the 1906 St. Louis World's Fair. He wound up working at the Bronx Zoo, at first ending to the animals until crowd interest inspired the management to make an exhibit of him. After protests, he was sacked, sent away, and finally committed suicide, hoping to return his spirit to Africa. B+(*)

Mat Marucci-Doug Webb Trio: Change-Up (2006 [2007], CIMP): Third member of the trio strikes me as better known than the two leaders: bassist Ken Filiano, who gets a "featuring" on the front cover. Drummer Marucci wrote the pieces, excepting "Body and Soul" and one group collaboration. Webb plays soprano sax, tenor sax, and stritch, so he has the dominant voice, making this a basic sax trio. Marucci is the senior member, b. 1945 in Rome NY, with 11 albums going back to 1979, and side credits with Jimmy Smith and John Tchicai, and a more performing credits, mostly mainstream. Webb is younger, b. 1960, has three co-leader albums with Marucci and a forthcoming quartet album under his own name, but it looks like he's done a lot of session work -- his website claims 150 albums but only lists 75; most are unknown to me, none avant-garde, some big bands (Doc Severinsen), some retro (Chris Barber), more pop jazz (Brian Bromberg, Stanley Clarke), quite a few not jazz at all (Rod Stewart, Carly Simon, Holly Near). Webb lists most sax weights (sopranino to baritone) on his instruments list, as well as dozens of flute and reed instruments, whistles and ocarinas. In his notes, Webb writes, "Living in Los Angeles, I don't often get a chance to play as artistically as I would like, so I would like to thank Mat and Bob Rusch for giving me the opportunity." B+(***)


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

Barney McClure Trio: Spot (2006 [2007], OA2): Hammond B3 organ-guitar-drums trios are normally as routine as electric guitar blues, a conservatized form that persists in vague remembrance of some primal significance -- the distilled essence of funk, actually. This is not just a cut above run of the mill -- it's light, loose, and lively. Sweet guitarist Mike Denny has a lot to do with that, earning his "featuring" credit. B+(**)

The Rocco John Group: Don't Wait Too Long (2006 [2007], COCA Productions): Cut his teeth in the '70s lofts with Sam Rivers, an influence on alto saxophonist Rocco John Iacovone, then waited plenty long, including a stretch in Alaska, before returning to find young trumpeter Michael Irwin and find that the two horn, bass and drums quartet is the optimal free jazz vehicle. B+(**)


Unpacking:

  • Muhal Richard Abrams: Vision Toward Essence (1998, Pi)
  • Harry Allen: Hits by Brits (Challenge)
  • Michael Camacho: Just for You (New Found): Oct. 8
  • Gil Coggins: Better Late Than Never (2001-02, Smalls): advance, Oct. 9
  • Champian Fulton with David Berger & the Sultans of Swing: Champian (Such Sweet Thunder)
  • Toni Iordache: Sounds From a Bygone Age, Vol. 4 (Asphalt Tango)
  • Los Angeles Guitar Quartet: LAGQ Brazil (Telarc)
  • Myra Melford/Mark Dresser/Matt Wilson: Big Picture (Cryptogramophone): advance
  • Shahram Nazeri and Hafez Nazeri: The Passion of Rumi (QuarterTone)
  • Alan Pasqua: The Antisocial Club (Cryptogramophpne): advance
  • The Pizzarelli Boys: Sunday at Pete's (Challenge)
  • Ari Roland: And So I Lived in Old New York . . . (Smalls): advance, Oct. 9
  • Marcus Strickland Twi-Life Group: Open Reel Deck (Strick Muzik)
  • Harry Whitaker: Thoughts (Past and Present) (Smalls): advance, Oct. 9

Purchases:

  • Fountains of Wayne: Traffic and Weather (Virgin)
  • M.I.A.: Kala (Interscope)
  • Nine Inch Nails: Year Zero (Interscope)
  • Public Enemy: How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? (Slamjamz)
  • Rilo O'Kiley: Under the Blacklight (Warner Bros.)

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Rovian Ways

The Aug. 27 New Yorker has a comment by Nicholas Lemann on Karl Rove's departure from the White House. A couple of quotes:

It would be a mistake to think of Rove as an entity separate from Bush. The President has behaved with the same overreaching swagger in realms that weren't Rove's as he has in realms that were. It was surely Bush's decision, after the 2004 election, to spend political capital by launching the grand, doomed attempt to privatize the Social Security program. That plan generally gets credited to Rove, as the war in Iraq gets credited to Dick Cheney, but they are Bush's failures, and not just by virtue of his having stood idly by while his aides manipulated him. The similarity of his mistakes demonstrates that he really is the decider.

This seems right. It's easy to look at politicians like Reagan and Bush and see them as actors, mere front men for rarely seen powers pulling their strings in the background. But the office of the presidency seems to exert its own force, gradually swelling the heads of its occupants until they start improvising on their lines -- especially when their roles call for them to act tough and dynamic. Reagan, we now know, strayed from the party line in negotiating with Gorbachev. Bush has gone much farther. Most of the time his administration carefully polls before anyone speaks, so unguarded moments like Bush's instinctive defense of the Dubai Ports deal are especially revealing.

It wasn't always easy to tell when [Rove] was kidding, or being disingenuous. An example is his professed admiration for William McKinley, one of the country's least memorable Presidents. Is it just a thinly disguised way for Rove to compare himself to Mark Hanna, McKinley's Rove and arguably a more important historical figure? Or is it a sign of Rove's preoccupation with Republican majority-building above all? Or is it just perversity for the fun of it?

Whatever Rove really thinks about McKinley, it's fair to say that his vision of the good in politics (and maybe Bush's, too) is rooted in the late nineteenth century, when parties and bosses were at their most powerful, when the federal government was run on patronage, and when the distinction between "politics" and "policy," and the idea that "partisanship" is bad, hadn't occurred to anyone but a few patrician reformers. If Ronald Reagan was trying to abolish Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, Rove and Bush were trying to abolish the Progressive Era, which, in their view, had given liberal "élites" -- judges, journalists, policy analysts, bureaucrats -- an electorally unearned thumb on the scales of government.

One can argue that all of the reform movements since McKinley's time have, at least by the time they came to power, have primarily worked to save capitalism from the excesses of capitalists who were well on the way of wrecking the system, but that was especially true of the first generation of progressives. Most of those progressives were Republicans, most conspicuously Teddy Roosevelt. (Woodrow Wilson was as reluctant a progressive as Richard Nixon; both bent to popular will in passing legislation while working to subvert it behind the scenes. They also had similar records in foreign policy, combining war with flights of fancy, and they both went out of their way to buttress white supremacy. They also ended their reigns as the two most unpopular presidents in history, excepting Andrew Johnson and, very probably, George W Bush.) The first progressives recognized that the trusts and oligarchs threatened not just workers and consumers but all smaller businesses and the basic tenets of America's cult of individualism. The new anti-progressives have managed to forget all of that, dooming themselves to repeat all those same mistakes.

McKinley wasn't an anti-progressive so much as the last dull conservative before his rambunctious VP Roosevelt took over. But McKinley did accomplish something that makes him a fitting hero for Bush and Rove: the Spanish-American War, which started with a deceitful propaganda campaign and a faked cassus belli and led to an American empire and our first counterinsurgency quagmire.

[Rove] was consisently better than the other side at reaching the groups that felt shut out of politics, usually through local organizing. There are plenty of these groups on the left as well as on the right, but Democrats have let the muscles needed to reach them grow slack. Organizing is hard, unglamorous work; the language it requires is combative, self-interested, and non-seigneurial. It's no accident that the fortunes of Hillary Clinton, which Rove spent a good part of last week running down, have risen, and the excitement she generates among liberal élites has fallen, as she has become less focussed on a rhetoric of "vision" and more adept at dealing with interest groups, from dairy farmers to preschool parents and wounded veterans.

The real "silent majority" in America are the people who don't vote, in large part because they don't see anyone running who can help or even represent them. Rove was able to at least temporarily move one such segment, Christian fundamentalists, to the polls. No one has a comparable scheme for the left. I suspect that a large part of this is that the usual populist rhetoric has been ridiculed to the extent that it has little if any credibility -- at least coming from the mouths of politicians. Rather than posing for a tryst of rich and poor, it makes the most sense to me to try to lift up poor by expanding their rights -- health care, of course; access to education and information; consumer rights; improvements in baseline protections for workers; systems for dispensing advice and help insecuring rights, including legal representation; etc. Nothing on this list necessarily entails attacking the rich. You can say that expanding government-supported services to all will tax increases, and that taxes should be spread out equitably by how much money you have and handle. You can also make a positive case that progressive estate taxes help restore the relationship between earning and wealth. You can make unearned income taxes progressive based on lifetime earnings, encouraging workers to accumulate wealth and only increasing their taxes once they have successfully established savings habits. You can make credit and guidance available for starting and nourishing small businesses, cut their red tape and limit their risks. You can tax businesses progressively, giving the young and small a competitive break against large established concerns. There's a synthesis here that combines capitalist growth with a growing sense of shared interest and identity.

On the other hand, we don't see anything like this happening. Most Democrats seem to feel that it's enough not to be quite as bad as the Republicans. While the Bush memory is firmly planted, they may be right. But they're not going to sustain anything that way, let alone start solving the myriad problems the Republicans intend to leave them.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Weekend Roundup

In a week with no shortage of "new material" -- as one comedian put it -- I didn't surf much and lost track of much of what I found. Wound up with just one, so I changed the plural title to one less demanding, and backdated the post to keep it on a Saturday schedule. The Sen. Larry Craig meltdown also speaks volumes about the soul of the Republican Party. One wonders whether they would have been so eager to sack him had it actually cost them a Senate seat. It comes off as anothe example of their cavalier willingness to sacrifice an individual for the greater good of the unseen party masters. Such party discipline is reminiscent of Stalin, an irony exposing just how pathetic Republican championing of American individualism is.

Lots of Iraq, too. The NY Times ran an article on Aug. 30 titled "White House is gaining confidence it can win fight in Congress over Iraq policy." While that may be the only front that really matters to Bush, it says something that the sole bit of upbeat "news" they can muster for the week or month is what they think might happen 10,000 miles away from the action, in a forum which is damn near totally cloistered and confused.


Paul Krugman: Seeking Willie Horton: Krugman argues the obvious: that the secret people don't talk about to the Republicans' political success since the 1970s is racism -- specifically, that they've managed to get southern whites to vote for them. He could have added northern racists as well -- what the strategists like to call Reagan Democrats:

Ronald Reagan didn't become governor of California by preaching the wonders of free enterprise; he did it by attacking the state's fair housing law, denouncing welfare cheats and associating liberals with urban riots. Reagan didn't begin his 1980 campaign with a speech on supply-side economics, he began it -- at the urging of a young Trent Lott -- with a speech supporting states' rights delivered just outside Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964.

The curious thing is how no one talks about this. Part of it is that the Republicans use code, but it's not like people don't see the code. It's just that code gives them a cloak of deniability, and that's all their propaganda machine seems to need. But they should be called on it, because as soon as you bring it out in the open, it becomes a lose-lose proposition for the Republicans. Either you establish that they're really just a bunch of racist scum, or you show that they're just cynical manipulators of hate. Either way, they're a bunch of disgusting little shits, taking advantage of other folks misfortunes and doing their best to pile them on. Krugman doesn't go that far in saying it, but at least he breaks the ice. The occasion, by the way, is the Republican presidential campaign, which is already turning into a contest to see who's the meanest shit of all.


Aug 2007 Oct 2007