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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 23933 [23893] rated (+40), 543 [526] unrated (+17).

Back from three weeks on the road. I did manage to file a few blog posts with link comments, but there wasn't much I could do with Music Week, or indeed much to do until I got back. The incoming mail jumped up a level while I was gone. I didn't take any new CDs with me. I did take a Chromebook and listen to Rhapsody and jotted down a few record reviews, but I didn't have a lot of time for that. (I got flak for playing Wadada Leo Smith, so wound up switching to Oscar Peterson, but I wasn't able to sort out the songbooks until I got home.)

I also fell out of the habit of writing tweet-length review lines, and it doesn't seem like it would either be fun or all that useful to try to catch up at this point. I'm due to post a Rhapsody Streamnotes before the end of October, so you'll get the reviews soon enough. I only have about 50 notes in the draft file, so it will likely be the shortest one all year, but those are the breaks.

I'll resume the grade-tweets after this post. One thing on my "todo" list is to update the Music Tracking 2014 file. One thing not on my "todo" list is to organize another Turkey Shoot on Thanksgiving. I wouldn't mind running it if someone else stepped forward (or you could, as Christgau suggested to me, self-publish it on Medium). I am leaning toward doing a metacritic file based on year-end lists (as opposed to previous years when I folded year-long review data in). And I expect there will be a Jazz Critics Poll, but don't have any details yet.


New records rated over the previous three weeks:

  • Jhené Aiko: Souled Out (2014, Def Jam): [r]: B+(*)
  • Kenny Barron/Dave Holland: The Art of Conversation (2014, Blue Note): [r]: B+(***)
  • David Binney: Anacapa (2014, Criss Cross): [r]: B+(*)
  • Samuel Blaser/Paul Motian: Consort in Motion (2010 [2011], Kind of Blue): [r]: B+(***)
  • Buck 65: Neverlove (2014, WEA Canada): [r]: B+(**)
  • Lajos Dudas Trio: Live at Porgy & Bess (2009 [2013], Jazz Sick): [cd]: B+(***)
  • Lajos Dudas Quartet: Live at Salzburger Jazzherbst (2012 [2013], Jazz Sick): [cd]: A-
  • El-P/Killer Mike: Run the Jewels (2013, Fat Beats): [r]: B+(***)
  • El-P/Killer Mike: Run the Jewels 2 (2014, Mass Appeal): [r]: B+(**)
  • Bill Frisell: Guitar in the Space Age (2014, Okeh): [r]: B+(***)
  • David Hazeltine: For All We Know (2014, Smoke Sessions): [r]: B+(***)
  • Branford Marsalis: In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral (2012 [2014], Okeh): [r]: B+(**)
  • Angaleena Presley: American Middle Class (2014, Slate Creek): [r]: A-
  • Joshua Redman: Trios Live (2009-13 [2014], Nonesuch): [r]: B+(**)
  • Rafael Rosa: Portrait (2014, self-released): [cd]: B+(**)
  • Spoke: (R)anthems (2013 [2014], River): [cd]: B+(*)
  • Wadada Leo Smith/Bill Laswell: The Stone (Akashic Meditation) (2014, MOD Technologies): [r]: B+(*)
  • Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives: Saturday Night/Sunday Morning (2014, Superlatone, 2CD): [r]: B+(*)
  • Dann Zinn: Shangri La (2014, self-released): [cd]: B

Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries rated this week:

  • Jerry Heldman: Revelation(s) (1973-74 [2014], Origin, 2CD): [cd]: B
  • Oscar Peterson: Plays the Harry Warren & Vincent Youmans Song Books (1952-59 [2014], Solar, 2CD): [r]: B+(***)
  • Oscar Peterson: Plays the Richard Rodgers Song Book (1954-59 [2014], Solar): [r]: B+(**)
  • Oscar Peterson: Plays the Irving Berlin Song Book (1952-59 [2014], Solar): [r]: B+(***)
  • Oscar Peterson: Plays the Jimmy McHugh Song Book (1954-59 [2014], Solar): [r]: B+(**)
  • Lester Young: Boston, 1950 (1950 [2013], Uptown): [r]: B+(*)

Old records rated this week:

  • Oscar Peterson: The Oscar Peterson Trio at Zardi's (1954 [1994], Pablo/OJC, 2CD): [r]: A-
  • Oscar Peterson: Plays My Fair Lady (1958, Verve): [r]: B+(**)
  • Oscar Peterson: Plays the Harold Arlen Song Book (1954-59 [2001], Verve): [r]: B+(**)
  • Oscar Peterson: Plays the Cole Porter Song Book (1959 [1990], Verve): [r]: B+(***)
  • Oscar Peterson: Plays the George Gershwin Song Book (1952-59 [1996], Verve): [r]: B+(***)
  • Oscar Peterson: Plays the Duke Ellington Song Book (1952-59 [1999], Verve): [r]: B+(***)
  • Oscar Peterson: A Jazz Portrait of Frank Sinatra (1959 [1990], Verve): [r]: B+(***)
  • Oscar Peterson: Fiorello (1960, Verve): [r]: B+(*)
  • Oscar Peterson Trio: West Side Story (1962, Verve): [r]: B
  • Oscar Peterson: The Jazz Soul of Oscar Peterson/Affinity (1959-62 [1996], Verve): [r]: B+(**)
  • Richmond Fontaine: Winnemucca (2002, El Cortez): [r]: B+(***)

Grade changes:

  • Oscar Peterson: Plays the Jerome Kern Songbook (1959 [2009], Verve): [was: B+(**)] B+(***)


Unpacking: Found in the mail last three weeks:

  • Greg Abate Quartet: Motif (Whaling City Sound)
  • Allison Au Quartet: The Sky Was Pale Blue, Then Grey (self-released)
  • David Borbo & Paul Pellegrin: Kronomorfic Entangled (Origin)
  • Nels Cline & Julian Lage: Room (Mack Avenue): advance, November 25
  • Freddy Cole: Singing the Blues (High Note)
  • Kevin Conlon/The Groove Rebellion: In Transit (Blujazz)
  • Michael Denhoff/Uli Phillipp/Jörg Fischer: Trio Improvisations for Campanula, Bass and Percussion (Sporeprint)
  • Expansions: The Dave Liebman Group: Samsara (Whaling City Sound)
  • Jean Luc Fillon: Oboman Plays Cole Porter: Begin the Night . . . (Soupir Editions)
  • Brad Goode Quartet: Montezuma (Origin)
  • Jonathan Kreisberg: Wave Upon Wave (New for Now Music)
  • Thomas Marriott: Urban Folklore (Origin)
  • Delfeayo Marsalis: The Last Southern Gentlemen (Troubadour Jass)
  • Sam Newsome: The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation [The Art of the Soprano, Vol. 2] (self-released)
  • Clarence Penn & Penn Station: Monk: The Lost Files (Origin)
  • Rex Richardson & Steve Wilson: Blue Shift (Summit)
  • Boris Savoldelli/Garrison Fewell: Electric Bat Conspiracy (Creative Nation Music)
  • Ryan Schultz Quintet: Hair Dryers (Origin)
  • Pat Senatore Trio: Ascensione (Fresh Sound)
  • Judy Silvano with Michael Abene: My Dance (JSL): January 6
  • Tyshawn Sorey: Alloy (Pi)
  • The Spin Quartet: In Circles (Origin)
  • Lyn Stanley: Potions (A.T. Music)
  • Brian Swartz & the Gnu Sextet: Portraiture (Summit)
  • Natsuki Tamura/Alexander Frangenheim: Max (Creative Sources)
  • Touch and Go Sextet: Live at the Novara Jazz Festival (Nine Winds)
  • Marlene VerPlanck: I Give Up, I'm in Love (Audiophile)
  • Walter White: Most Triumphant (Summit)
  • Jason Yeager Trio: Affirmation (Inner Circle Music)
  • Peter Zak Trio: The Disciple (Steeplechase)
  • Miguel Zenón: Identities Are Changeable (Miel Music): November 4

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Oscar Peterson: Plays the Harry Warren & Vincent Youmans Songbooks (1952-54 [2011], Solar, 2CD): B+(***) [rhapsody]
  • The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara [Second Edition] (1980-2013 [2014], World Music Network, 2CD): B+(***)/B+(**) [rhapsody]

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Weekend Roundup

Having jotted down one or two of these on the road, I figured on doing a Sunday links column, followed by a Monday music column, just like normal times. Didn't work out that way, but thanks to the magic of back-dating my tardiness will eventually be forgotten.


  • Alex Henderson: Rise of the American police state: 9 disgraceful events that paved the way: Let's just list 'em:

    1. Ronald Reagan Escalates the War on Drugs
    2. Rodney King Beating of 1991
    3. 9/11 Terrorist Attacks
    4. Waterboarding and Torture at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base
    5. Growth and Expansion of Asset Forfeiture Laws
    6. National Defense Authorization Act and Erosion of Habeas Corpus
    7. Department of Homeland Security Promoting Militarization of Local Police Departments
    8. Growth of the Prison/Industrial Complex
    9. NYPD Assault on Occupy Wall Street

    Note that nothing facilitates the creation of a police state like war -- even pretend-wars like the one on drugs, but see how the pace picks up with 2001?

  • Paul Krugman: The Invisible Moderate: A more accurate assessment of Obama than the one Krugman put forth in his Rolling Stone puff piece:

    I actually agree with a lot of what David Brooks says today. But -- you know there has to be a "but" -- so does a guy named Barack Obama. Which brings me to one of the enduringly weird aspects of our current pundit discourse: constant calls for a moderate, sensible path that supposedly lies between the extremes of the two parties, but is in fact exactly what Obama has been proposing. [ . . . ]

    Well, the Obama administration would love to spend more on infrastructure; the problem is that a major spending bill has no chance of passing the House. And that's not a problem of "both parties" -- it's the GOP blocking it. Exactly how many Republicans would be willing to engage in deficit spending to expand bus networks? (Remember, these are the people who consider making rental bicycles available an example of "totalitarian" rule.) [ . . . ]

    It's an amazing thing: Obama is essentially what we used to call a liberal Republican, who faces implacable opposition from a very hard right. But Obama's moderation is hidden in plain sight, apparently invisible to the commentariat.

    Actually, when I think of Obama as a "liberal Republican" I flash back to an earlier Illinois senator, Charles Percy, who was better on foreign policy and no worse on economics or civil rights than Obama. But Obama doesn't have the luxury of being a liberal Republican, or for that matter a centrist Democrat. Today's Republicans allow no such luxury, nor do today's problems. As far back as 1998, Jim Hightower warned: "there's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos." Today there's just more roadkill.

    By the way, Krugman's too kind to Brooks, whom he quotes as saying, "the government should reduce its generosity to people who are not working but increase its support for people who are. That means reducing health benefits for the affluent elderly . . ." You may wonder why the party of the rich proposes adding means tests to Medicare. It's because they don't want anyone to think they have a right to medical care.

  • Seth McElwee: Why Turning Out the Vote Makes a Huge Difference in Four Charts: The charts show that non-voters are consistently more liberal than voters, which reinforces the by-now-conventional view that Democrats win when then can get the vote out, while the key for Republican gains is voter suppression. This doesn't go into the question of why non-voters don't vote, even though voting is one of the few ways they have to advance their own interests. Clearly one reason is that the economic costs of voting (which include things like the time it takes to vote) are high enough to suppress turnout. Another likely reason is widespread cynicism about politicians -- especially about Democrats, who appeal for public support on election day but more often than not spend the rest of their time triangulating between interest group lobbies, raising money that they often see as more valuable in securing reëlection than any work they do to benefit their constituents.

    When voter turnout is discussed in public it is often treated as a civic obligation, rather than a means to advance individual interests. Republican candidates often denounce low-income voters for voting for the party that best advances their class interests (while at the same time supporting massive tax cuts for their rich constituents). Yet when Benjamin Page interview the rich he finds that they, "acknowledged a focus on fairly narrow economic self-interest" when discussing their engagement in the political process. In this way, the recent Lil' Jon video, "Turnout For What," while tacky, has reframed the voting as a means to forward political interests, rather than as a civic obligation. Since some 41 percent of non-voters claim that their vote wouldn't matter, this message is important. It's also important to remove barriers to voting. Research by Jame Avery and Mark Peffley finds, "states with restrictive voter registration laws are much more likely to be biased toward upper-class turnout." In contrast, states that have adopted same-day registration and vigorously enforced the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) have lower levels of class bias in their electorate. Research also suggests that unions are an important mechanism for low and middle income voters to engage with the political process. Attempts to disempower than should also be viewed through the lens of voter suppression.

    Indeed, Republican opposition to unions seems to have more to do with reducing their political effectiveness than as a favor to the rich. Since their blip in 2010, when Obama voters took a nap, Republicans have seized the opportunity to do as much as they could to suppress voting (as well as to distort it through the infusion of extraordinary sums of money). I expect this to produce some kind of backlash -- the message for those who bother to pay attention is that your vote must be worth something, otherwise why would they be so eager to take it away? -- but thus far the clearest message is how shameless Republicans have become about their desire to exclude a really large segment of the American people. For more on voter suppression efforts, see Jeffrey Toobin: Freedom Summer, 2015 (and from 2012, Jane Mayer: The Voter-Fraud Myth).

  • Paul Woodward: Terrorism exists in the eye of the beholder: I was in Arkansas Tuesday [October 22], when a soldier on duty at a "war memorial" in Ottawa [Canada] was shot by a lone gunman, presumably the person shot and killed later that day in Canada's Parliament building. The TV was tuned into CNN, where they spent the entire day blabbing on and on based on scant information and fervid imagination. The shooter was later identified as Michael Zehaf-Bibeau.

    In 2012 there were seven murders in Ottawa (population close to a million), 2013 nine murders, and so far in 2014 there have been five (including yesterday's).

    The overwhelming majority of the crazy men running round shooting innocent people are on this side of the border. What makes them dangerous is much less the ideas in their heads than the ease with which they can lay their hands on a gun.

    It's often hard to be clear about what should be described as terrorism. What's much easier to discern is hysteria.

    By the way, Zehaf-Bibeau's gun was evidently a Winchester Model 94 lever-action rifle, a design that dates back to 1894 and is limited to eight rounds, which have to be individually loaded -- a very inefficient choice for a "shooting rampage."

    Then on Friday [October 24], a high school student in suburban Seattle went on his own shooting rampage, killing two and injuring three more before shooting himself. I missed CNN's wall-to-wall coverage (assuming that's what they did), but it's safe to guess that the talking heads spent much less time speculating on the shooter's ties to ISIS. For one thing, shooting each other is just something Americans do.

  • I don't have time to dig through Israel's recent garbage, but if you do here are some typical links from Mondoweiss:


Also, a few links for further study:

  • Tom Engelhardt: Entering the Intelligence Labyrinth: An introduction, or precis, of Engelhardt's new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (paperback, Haymarket Books). It bears repeating that the US annually spends $68 billion on 17 major "intelligence" agencies -- sorry for the quotes but it's hard to think of them without choking on that word -- that do, well, what exactly? Sorry, that's a secret, but thanks to the occasional leak or boast we do know a wee bit:

    You build them glorious headquarters. You create a global surveillance state for the ages. You listen in on your citizenry and gather their communications in staggering quantities. Your employees even morph into avatars and enter video-game landscapes, lest any Americans betray a penchant for evil deeds while in entertainment mode. You collect information on visits to porn sites just in case, one day, blackmail might be useful. You pass around naked photos of them just for . . . well, the salacious hell of it. Your employees even use aspects of the system you've created to stalk former lovers and, within your arcane world, that act of "spycraft" gains its own name: LOVEINT.

    You listen in on foreign leaders and politicians across the planet. You bring on board hundreds of thousands of crony corporate employees, creating the sinews of an intelligence-corporate complex of the first order. You break into the "backdoors" of the data centers of major Internet outfits to collect user accounts. You create new outfits within outfits, including an ever-expanding secret military and intelligence crew embedded inside the military itself (and not counted among those 17 agencies). Your leaders lie to Congress and the American people without, as far as we can tell, a flicker of self-doubt. Your acts are subject to secret courts, which only hear your versions of events and regularly rubberstamp them -- and whose judgments and substantial body of lawmaking are far too secret for Americans to know about.

    You have put extraordinary effort into ensuring that information about your world and the millions of documents you produce doesn't make it into our world. You even have the legal ability to gag American organizations and citizens who might speak out on subjects that would displease you (and they can't say that their mouths have been shut). You undoubtedly spy on Congress. You hack into congressional computer systems. And if whistleblowers inside your world try to tell the American public anything unauthorized about what you're doing, you prosecute them under the Espionage Act, as if they were spies for a foreign power (which, in a sense, they are, since you treat the American people as if they were a foreign population). You do everything to wreck their lives and -- should one escape your grasp -- you hunt him implacably to the ends of the Earth.

    As for your top officials, when their moment is past, the revolving door is theirs to spin through into a lucrative mirror life in the intelligence-corporate complex. [ . . . ]

    Keep in mind that the twenty-first-century version of intelligence began amid a catastrophic failure: much crucial information about the 9/11 hijackers and hijackings was ignored or simply lost in the labyrinth. That failure, of course, led to one of the great intelligence expansions, or even explosions, in history. (And mind you, no figure in authority in the national security world was axed, demoted, or penalized in any way for 9/11 and a number of them were later given awards and promoted.) However they may fail, when it comes to their budgets, their power, their reach, their secrecy, their careers, and their staying power, they have succeeded impressively.

    Speaking of secrets, also see: Nick Turse: Uncovering the Military's Secret Military (back from 2011, more relevant than ever):

    In 120 countries across the globe, troops from Special Operations Command carry out their secret war of high-profile assassinations, low-level targeted killings, capture/kidnap operations, kick-down-the-door night raids, joint operations with foreign forces, and training missions with indigenous partners as part of a shadowy conflict unknown to most Americans. Once "special" for being small, lean, outsider outfits, today they are special for their power, access, influence, and aura.

    That aura now benefits from a well-honed public relations campaign which helps them project a superhuman image at home and abroad, even while many of their actual activities remain in the ever-widening shadows. Typical of the vision they are pushing was this statement from Admiral Olson: "I am convinced that the forces . . . are the most culturally attuned partners, the most lethal hunter-killers, and most responsive, agile, innovative, and efficiently effective advisors, trainers, problem-solvers, and warriors that any nation has to offer."

    I suspect that the main target of that propaganda campaign is the president, to drive home the point that "special forces" are a no-risk, high-return, small scale option for any problem that can be solved simply (with a bullet, that is).

  • Rory Fanning: Why Do We Keep Thanking the Troops?: I can't be the only person who finds the constant adulation given to the "troops" of the US military downright disgusting, but it sure is hard to find anyone saying so in print. America has always cultivated hypocrisy, and those in my generation suffered through more than usual dose. We noted the beginnings of a cult of the troops in the Vietnam War, where failure on the battlefield was ever-more-generously decorated with medals, but memory was too close to WWII to get carried away: WWII was an intense, all-encompassing collective effort; with so few uninvolved it would have seemed silly to declare everyone a hero (although as memory dimmed that eventually happened with the "greatest generation" hype). The obvious excuse for putting troops on a pedestal today is that so few people sign up (and many of them are tricked into thinking it's some sort of jobs program). Still, this idolatry obscures one of the fundamental political questions of our time: do the sacrifices of US troops do any good for the vast majority of Americans who are otherwise uninvolved? The answer, I'm certain, is no. If all the US had done after 9/11/2001 was to put out a few Interpol warrants, I doubt that even the tiny number of "terrorist attacks" we've seen since would have happened. Had we practiced policies in the Middle East favoring democracy and basic human rights for all but eschewing intervention and arms sales we probably would have missed out on 9/11 (and both Gulf Wars). Sure, the troops had no real say in the decision to squander their lives in a vain attempt to buttress the Neocon ego, but I'm not so sure they shouldn't shoulder some of the blame. Back in the Vietnam War days there was a popular saying: "suppose they gave a war and nobody came." We were under no illusion that most of those who "came" for the war then were compelled to do so. I can understand, and even sympathize, how one might succumb to the force of the state -- I did, after all, feel that force -- but for me that made those who resisted, either by going to jail or avoiding that fate, were the era's real heroes; nothing one could do in battle came close. Since the draft ended, the choice to deny the war machine its bodies is less fraught, and indeed most people choose that path. So today's troops range from malevolent to the merely misinformed, but they all help to enable a set of policies that ultimately do massive harm to the nation and its people. And often, of course, they do great harm to themselves, adding to the public costs of war. (Aside from the dead and maimed, Fanning mentions that "there is a veteran suicide every 80 minutes in this country," nor does the PTSD stop there.) Of course, there are more nuances to the whole phenomenon, but at root is a common misconception that those who "served" did something to protect the rest of us, something that we all should be grateful for. That simply did not happen. That they sacrificed for something we should regret and be embarrassed by, well, that's more to the point. Only once we recognize that can we get past the charades, and that will be better for all of us.

  • David Bromwich: American Exceptionalism and Its Discontents: Speaking of hypocrisies, here's the hoary mother lode, the notion that we're so special the world wouldn't know what to do without our enlightened guidance. Needless to say, the tone has changed over time. Once America was unique in declaring that "all men are created equal"; today our self-esteem is the very celebration of inequality.

  • David Gerald Finchman: The hidden documents that reveal the true borders of Israel and Palestine: In 1947 David Ben Gurion begged the UN to vote in favor of partition borders for Palestine which would give 55% of the mandate to a majority-Jewish nation that represented only 35% of the total population, and 45% to an almost exclusively Arabic-speaking nation. In 1948 Israel's Declaration of Independence proclaimed a Jewish State but said nothing about borders. This unwillingness to define borders has kept Israel in a state of war ever since, with Israel grabbing another 23% of the Mandate's territory during the 1947-49 war, and the remaining 22% in 1967 (plus chunks of Egypt and Syria). This piece looks into the decision-making process from UN-borders to no-borders. A longer version is available here.

  • Karen Greenberg: Will the US Go to "War" Against Ebola? It's telling that Obama's initial response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was to send in the US military. That made some sense inasmuch as AFRICOM has money to burn and some expertise in logistics, but it also imposes a rigid worldview and introduces a dangerous level of intimidation. The one thing Ebola does have in common with Terrorism is an exaggerated level of hysteria, but that seems of a piece with the media's highly orchestrated kneejerk reactions. I'm reminded of the anthrax scare of 2001, which would have soon gone freaking insane had the perpetrator not had the good sense to stop. Greenberg points out many ways Ebola differs from the Terrorism model.

  • Louis Menand: Crooner in Rights Spat: A useful review of copyright matters:

    Baldwin joins Saint-Amour, the law professors Lawrence Lessig, Jeanne Fromer, and Robert Spoo, and the copyright lawyer William Patry in believing that, Internet or no Internet, the present level of copyright protection is excessive. By the time most works fall into the public domain, they have lost virtually all their use value. If the public domain is filled with items like hundred-year-old images of the back of Rod Stewart's head, the public good will suffer. The commons will become your great-grandparents' attic.

    As it is, few creations outlive their creators. Of the 187,280 books published between 1927 and 1946, only 2.3 per cent were still in print in 2002. But, since there is no "use it or lose it" provision in copyright law, they are all still under copyright today. Patry, in his recent book, "How to Fix Copyright," notes that ninety-five per cent of Motown recordings are no longer available. Nevertheless, you can't cover or imitate or even sample them without paying a licensing fee -- despite the fact that your work is not competing in the marketplace with the original, since the original is no longer for sale.

  • Katha Pollitt: How Pro-Choicers Can Take Back the Moral High Ground: An excerpt from Pollitt's new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.

    A man's home is his castle, but a woman's body has never been wholly her own. Historically, it's belonged to her nation, her community, her father, her family, her husband -- in 1973, when Roe was decided, marital rape was legal in every state. Why shouldn't her body belong to a fertilized egg as well? And if that egg has a right to live and grow in her body, why shouldn't she be held legally responsible for its fate and be forced to have a cesarean if her doctor thinks it's best, or be charged with a crime if she uses illegal drugs and delivers a stillborn or sick baby? Incidents like these have been happening all over the country for some time now. Denying women the right to end a pregnancy is the flip side of punishing women for their conduct during pregnancy -- and even if not punishing, monitoring. In the spring of 2014, a law was proposed in the Kansas Legislature that would require doctors to report every miscarriage, no matter how early in the pregnancy. You would almost think the people who have always opposed women's independence and full participation in society were still at it. They can't push women all the way back, but they can use women's bodies to keep them under surveillance and control.

  • Peter Van Buren: Seven Bad Endings to the New War in the Middle East: I know what you're saying: "only seven?" Van Buren doesn't get to the political effects of continuing the War on Terrorism -- of continuing to fund the surveillance state, of the increasing militarization of police departments, of the circumvention of the justice system, of how public funds are being drained as remote and preventable problems are prioritized over real and immediate ones by a political establishment deeply in hock to the security phantom.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

When I'm Sixty-Four

When I was sixteen I probably knew every lyric to every Beatles song extant, so it wasn't hard to recall at least the refrain of the jaunty little title tune on my 64th birthday. "Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?" Back then I wouldn't have had a clue who "you" might be, but I never worried about food: my mother's theme song should have been Cab Calloway's "Everybody Eats When They Come to My House" -- a house I also didn't have a clue how to escape. I celebrated my 16th birthday a couple months late by dropping out of high school. I stayed home a couple days after Christmas when a cousin was visiting. I went back the next day and was so sickened I never returned.

For the next five years I basically hid out in my attic room. I skewed my hours to minimize contact with my parents and siblings, going to sleep minutes before my father got up for work, waking mid-afternoon just in time to watch Dark Shadows and Star Trek reruns. I had a tiny black-and-white TV that ran out of stations shortly after midnight, a tinny stereo with not much more than a dozen LPs, a typewriter, and a growing collection of books and periodicals -- what I spent nearly all of my $10/week allowance on. Evenings I could take the family car out, mostly downtown to bookstores and the library. I was only at ease when surrounded by books, and while my own life was locked down reading made me aware of other worlds and other possibilities.

As I was traveling last week, it occurred to me that there are two types of people in America today: those who can mentally put themselves in other people's predicaments and empathize, and those who can't (or just don't). What triggered this thought was a depression-era story about Uncle Ted: he had heard vigilante threats against a destitute family that had been stealing, so he picked them up and drove them to another county where they had kinfolk; he explained later to his family that he could imagine being so hungry that he might resort to stealing too. Whenever I heard this story, I first think of my harsh experience with thieves, but having known Ted and something of his life and history I wind up recognizing that this story is more complex and nuanced than my own narrow experience knows.

Of course, the point was reinforced many times as I watched political commercials last week. The "two types" don't precisely split along party lines. Indeed, Democrats can appeal to a majority along self-interest lines -- and do so effectively when they point out how Republicans like Tom Cotton (their Senate hopeful in Arkansas) are out to undermine and even dismantle Social Security and Medicare -- but the Republican appeals almost invariably depend on drawing lines between the voters they court and everyone else (all those people outside their identity group, most obsessively president Obama).

Of course, I didn't get to the ability to empathize with others very early. As a child I was exceptionally selfish and greedy, and as an adolescent I withdrew from my social network even before I physically isolated myself. Therefore, much of my early reading focused on my own experiences: education, psychology, religion. One most influential book on the former was Charles Weingartner/Neil Postman's Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Their main argument was that the most valuable thing schooling could do was to encourage students to develop their own finely tuned "bullshit detectors." Needless to say, school as I had known it was strongly focused on rote learning -- including the stock moralism of the day. But there was no shortage of bullshit in the late 1960s, so detection soon became easy. I was soon reexamining every assumption I had been brought up to believe. I had an earlier interest in mainstream politics, so my move to the New Left had conventional framing (except that my ancestral reference system was rooted deeper in Populism and Republican Progressivism than in New Deal/Great Society Liberalism).

As I thought more critically, I came to realize that what gets called madness is often just social nonconformity -- something I had developed a literary and artistic taste for. As for my personal dysfunction, I was much taken with Gregory Bateson's "double-bind theory of schizophrenia": I could see how impossible it was to satisfy all the contradictory moral authorities of my youth. That insight turned my personality problem into a matter of logic, something that reason, and therefore I, could sort out.

Not that it was so simple. I had to force myself to socialize. In 1970 I got a GED and enrolled in Wichita State University. A year later I had 59 units of straight-A credit and a scholarship to transfer to Washington University (St. Louis). Two years later I got my first job, was finally able to support myself, and had had a couple of sexual relationships. A couple years later I moved to New York and soon moved in with my first wife. After she died several years later, I found another relationship, and we've been together for more than twenty-five years now.

And now I'm sixty-four -- a milestone monumental enough to inspire a pop song forty-eight years ago, but today it mostly means that I have one more year to suffer through Obamacare (and, sure, be thankful for that) before Medicare kicks in, eliminating one of the great worries of my de facto retirement. Fifteen years ago I used to joke on my "career assessment forms" that my "career goal" was retirement -- one of many times I've crossed some unstated but expected line of conformity -- but I'm more or less there now. My father retired from his factory job as soon as he could afford to, and thereby got a few good years before a stroke pinned him down. For him, as for most people fortunate enough to be able to afford it, retirement was freedom. I've enjoyed that same freedom since SCO let me go in 2000. But while my work ethic hasn't much flagged, I've become increasingly uncomfortable with my lack of accomplishment (what in engineering we call "deliverables").

My recent travels gave me some time to think about this. I spent, for instance, some time with the same cousin I played hooky to see when I was sixteen. We reminisced, but also she poked some holes in my inequality book outline, making me realize how difficult it's going to be to craft arguments that are almost too obvious to me. I believe that inequality is the core political issue of our time, but not so much to balance everyone's supply of stuff as because it profoundly corrupts our sense of justice, and losing the sense that the political order is ultimately just unravels the whole social fabric. Indeed, it may be that stuff is the wrong way to account for inequality. My working title, Share the Wealth (from Huey Long), could just as well be Share the Freedom -- assuming, as I've concluded, that it takes a certain level of wealth to be free, although it's not clear that more wealth makes one more free (although it has been shown that excess wealth doesn't make one happier).

Better developed is an outline for an essay on Israel, something I talked to several people about. The first two sections would explore the only issues of importance to understanding why Israel's leaders have acted for the better part of a century. The first concerns colonial settler demography: the only places where settlers have retained power are places where the population mix tilted decisely in favor of the settlers (the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina) while everywhere settlers remained in the minority power has reverted to the majority (most relevantly in South Africa and Algeria). Israel is in between -- secure enough within its 1967 borders but far less so with the Occupied Territories.

The second issue -- perhaps the first chronologically in that it concerns the initial founding of the Zionist movement, but I think it makes more sense to treat it second -- is the dependent dialectic between Zionism and anti-semitism, how it has played out over history, and how it has been twisted around in Israeli self-consciousness. As anti-semitism has waned in the West this link can be questioned, but it is deeply held within Israel, and that has many ramifications that have to be understood. (Israel's obsession with security, for instance, has as much to do with imagined enemies as with real ones.)

The third part would review all significant "peace" proposals since the Peel Commission (or maybe the Balfour Declaration) and pick apart why they have failed -- almost invariably because Israelis have been unable (or unwilling) to reconcile their colonial project with emerging standards of international law on human rights, and lately because Israelis have been able to exploit the archaic rightward turn in US foreign policy. In the past I've written up my pet ideas about how the conflict could be resolved, and some of those ideas may return in an epilogue but my experience is that few people care for my ideas as long as they can hope for something more advantageous.

The other book-like project that came up here and there is the idea of writing a memoir: basically a huge expansion of this post, although I also see it as an occasion to write a personalized history of the era from October 1950 -- a point just before the Chinese entered and turned the tide in the Korean War -- to the present: a long history of imperial decline, with most of the rot on the moral side. (It isn't exactly irony that the US empire expanded as long as we were plausibly anti-imperialist, then declined once we started believing in our destiny. It's just hubris.)

A memoir would also let me look back at where my family came from, how they represented America, and what has happened to more than just me. I could work in some of the stories we batted around on the Arkansas leg of my trip. One of the political ads I saw last week lamented that Arkansas was 48th of 50 states in job creation, but I know good and well that's an old story: seven of my mother's cohort of eight siblings left Arkansas in the 1930s looking for work elsewhere. (Three came to Kansas.) Their stories are interesting, and while I'll never know enough to do them justice, I'd like to know more, and use that as some sort of context. As odd as I grew up, I came from remarkably average roots, and maybe there's some hope in that.


I meant this to come out on my birthday, but events didn't let it work out that way. I was touched by all the good wishes on Facebook, but it was hardly a "great day" -- don't care to go into details, but it slipped out of hand. And the resulting post is rather "stream of consciousness" as I flit from one topic to another.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Weekend Roundup

Links for further study:

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Weekend Roundup

Some scattered links this week:


  • Thomas B Edsall: The State-by-State Revival of the Right: Points out that Republicans have "complete control" (governors and state legislatures) in 23 states, "more than at any time since Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidency in 1952." Also that "they are exercising their power to gain partisan advantage far more aggressively than their Democratic counterparts."

    The most visible effort is the drive to gut public sector unions, a key source of votes and financial support for Democrats. Wisconsin, under Republican Governor Scott Walker, has led the charge on this front. With support from the Koch brothers, the state has severely restricted collective bargaining rights for public employees, ended mandatory union dues and limited wage hikes to the rate of inflation.

    Both supporters and opponents of Walker's initiative realized that this was a key battleground -- pathbreaking, in fact -- hence the rallies, the recall and so on.

    Many Republican-controlled states have weakened or eliminated laws and regulations protecting the environment. In North Carolina the state legislature cut the budgets of regulators and prohibited local governments from enacting strict pro-environmental rules. The state chapter of the League of Conservation Voters has rated members of the legislature every year since 1999. Between 1999 and 2012, the group issued North Carolina a total of 48 scores of zero. In 2013 alone, 82 North Carolina Republicans got zeros. [ . . . ]

    Democrats today convey only minimal awareness of what they are up against: an adversary that views politics as a struggle to the death. The Republican Party has demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice principle, including its historical commitments to civil rights and conservation; to bend campaign finance law to the breaking point; to abandon the interests of workers on the factory floor; and to undermine progressive tax policy -- in a scorched-earth strategy to postpone the day of demographic reckoning.

    One key point here is that this does not represent a turn in public opinion toward the right. The Democratic Party collapsed in 2010 because Obama gutted the successful national organization that Howard Dean had built, then muddled all the key issues, many by thinking that bipartisan approaches would be superior to partisan ones -- clearly a mistake the Republicans didn't make.

  • Paul Krugman: In Defense of Obama: If some pollster came along and asked me the standard question of whether I approve or disapprove of the job Obama has done as president, I'd have to answer "disapprove." I'm not unaware of, or unappreciative of, some positive accomplishments under Obama. And I wouldn't withhold my approval just because I thought Obama could have done more and better than he did. On the other hand, I can't give him credit merely for not being as bad as any Republican -- especially John McCain and Mitt Romney -- one might vote for a "lesser evil," but that is no reason to approve of one. Nor should one go to the lengths of creating strawman arguments like Krugman does here:

    There's a different story on the left, where you now find a significant number of critics decrying Obama as, to quote Cornel West, someone who "posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit." They're outraged that Wall Street hasn't been punished, that income inequality remains so high, that "neoliberal" economic policies are still in place. All of this seems to rest on the belief that if only Obama had put his eloquence behind a radical economic agenda, he could somehow have gotten that agenda past all the political barriers that have constrained even his much more modest efforts. It's hard to take such claims seriously.

    That's hardly the only critique of Obama from the left, but it shouldn't be dismissed so cavalierly. One reason Obama failed to implement much of the "change" he campaigned on in 2008 was that he stopped talking about the need for such change as soon as he was elected. By backpedaling he not only gave up on success, he let the issues vanish from public discussion -- creating a vacuum that all the Tea Party nonsense quickly filled. Maybe we expected more from Obama than he was ever willing to deliver, but the ease with which he moved from critic of the status quo to defender should have been alarming. What alarmed me more than anything was how readily he dismantled the very successful Democratic Party organization that Howard Dean had built -- giving credence to David Frum's quip that where the Republican Party fears its base, the Democratic Party despises its core constituency. Time and again the people who paid the price for Obama's retreats were the people who voted for him, whose trust he squandered, whose interests he sold out.

    I pretty much accept Krugman's arguments for Obama's health care and finance reform programs, and for various other details -- the value of the stimulus, of higher tax rates on the rich, of more aggressive environmental regulation, etc. Where I disagree most strongly is on foreign policy, where Obama has failed to break decisively with neocon orthodoxy on everything from Israel to Russia to Iran to Iraq. That is -- what else can he do? -- the point where Krugman resorts to the argument that Obama isn't as bad as McCain. That strikes me as wishful thinking, inasmuch as Obama has wound up doing exactly what McCain wants.

  • Rick Perlstein: The Long Con: Written in 2012, hence the introduction on "Mittdacity," but the background info on the long association between Republican propaganda and mail order scams and other cons is as apposite as ever.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Midweek Update

OK, this is an on-the-road experiment: instead of collecting a week's (or half-week's) links and comments, then posting the final result, I'll try it bit-by-bit (with a delayed posting date):

  • Peter Beinart: Without a two-state solution, Americans will challenge Zionism itself: Behind their paywall, but the basic argument is that American liberals have tended to support Israel because they like the appeal of Israel as a liberal democracy (like us) -- and the only thing holding up the long-promised "two-state solution" is Palestinian intransigence. However, that is in fact wrong -- pretty much categorically so, as should be clear to anyone who listens to what Netanyahu and his cohort say. If, in the end, all the "Jewish state" has to justify itself with is an ethnocracy empowered by gratuitous violence -- i.e., about the only plausible explanation of Netanyahu's tantrum this summer -- few Americans (neocon militarists and Apocalypse-minded Christians) will be willing to continue supporting Israel. That strikes me as fair, even if a bit removed from the jingoism still dominant in US political discourse.

    This dawning of reality would be taken as good news by most critical thinkers, but Beinart remains committed to the Zionist idea that Israel's existence is a good thing for Jews not only in Israel (where they are, in Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar's phrase, "lords of the land") but also in the Diaspora. A more accurate analysis would show that Zionism is intrinsically hostile to the Diaspora, no matter how conveniently Zionists suck up to generous (albeit misguided) foreign donors.

    I still believe the best answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a democratic Jewish state alongside a democratic Palestinian one. I believe that because, in a post-Holocaust world, I want there to be one country that has as its mission statement the protection of Jewish life. And I believe it because among both Palestinians and Israeli Jews, nationalism remains a massively powerful force. To assume each community could subordinate its deep-seeded nationalism to a newfound loyalty to secular state strikes me as utopian. Secular binationalism barely works in Belgium. Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea it's probably a recipe for civil war.

    But this requires arguing that Israel/Palestine is, at least right now, fundamentally different than the United States. It requires defending Zionism as something alien to the American experience, something necessary because in Israel/Palestine, the civic nationalism we revere here is neither possible nor desirable. That's very different than arguing that the United States should support Israel because it's America's Middle Eastern twin.

    But if you take the "twin" aspect away, it's hard to see many Americans caring about Jewish nationalism, especially since the anti-semitism that Israel is supposedly the solution to is hardly evident -- nor is it clear that Israel's "solution" really works.

  • Paul Krugman: Why Weren't the Alarm Bells Ringing?: Review of Martin Wolf's The Shifts and the Shocks: What We've Learned -- and Have Still to Learn -- from the Financial Crisis, which explains the 2008 financial meltdown and ensuing depression using the now-standard Minsky model: that prolonged economic stability leads to financial laxness, excessive leverage, and collapse. Krugman is skeptical that that's all there is to it.

    First, while the depression that overtook the Western world in 2008 clearly came after the collapse of a vast financial bubble, that doesn't mean that the bubble caused the depression. Late in The Shifts and the Shocks Wolf mentions the reemergence of the "secular stagnation" hypothesis, most famously in the speeches and writing of Lawrence Summers (Lord Adair Turner independently made similar points, as did I). But I'm not sure whether readers will grasp the full implications. If the secular stagnationists are right, advanced economies now suffer from persistently inadequate demand, so that depression is their normal state, except when spending is supported by bubbles. If that's true, bubbles aren't the root of the problem; they're actually a good thing while they last, because they prop up demand. Unfortunately, they're not sustainable -- so what we need urgently are policies to support demand on a continuing basis, which is an issue very different from questions of financial regulation.

    Wolf actually does address this issue briefly, suggesting that the answer might lie in deficit spending financed by the government's printing press. But this radical suggestion is, as I said, overshadowed by his calls for more financial regulation. It's the morality play aspect again: the idea that we need to don a hairshirt and repent our sins resonates with many people, while the idea that we may need to abandon conventional notions of fiscal and monetary virtue has few takers.

    I've always found "secular stagnation" to be an oddly opaque term. The "persistent low demand" at its center is most certainly the effect of increasing inequality, where most people are increasingly denied the option to spend on real goods, while the rich often find their gains wrapped up in the illusion of inflated asset prices. This is, of course, a much deeper and more persistent problem than the stability of the banks. The Bush-Obama (or Paulson-Geithner) solution was to save the banks, figuring that if the front lines of the crisis held people wouldn't suspect that there was anything more rotten at the core of the crisis. But the fact that the "Obama recovery," like the "Bush recovery" before it, feels so hollow should dispel us of such illusions.

    Krugman's note on 2011 and All That is worth quoting at length:

    But [Bill] Gross was by no means alone in getting these things wrong. Indeed, 2011 was a sort of banner year for bad macroeconomic analysis by people who had no excuse for their wrong-headedness. And here's the thing: aside from Gross, hardly any of the prominent wrong-headers have paid any price for their errors.

    Think about it: 2011 was the year when Bowles and Simpson predicted a fiscal crisis within two years. There was never a hint of crisis, but BS are still given reverent treatment by the Beltway media.

    2011 was also the year when Paul Ryan warned Ben Bernanke that he was "debasing" the dollar, arguing that rising commodity prices were the harbinger of runaway inflation; the Bank for International Settlements made a similar argument, albeit with less Ayn Rand. They were completely wrong, but Ryan is still the intellectual leader of the GOP and the BIS is still treated as a fount of wisdom.

    The difference is, of course, that Gross had actual investors' money on the line. But you should not take that to imply that the profit motive leads to intellectual clarity; Gross has been forced out at Pimco, but I've seen hardly any press coverage tying that to his having the wrong macro model.

    Speaking of getting things wrong, also see Jeff Madrick: Why the Experts Missed the Recession. Madrick's sources are primarily recently released FOMC debates and "Greenbook" economic forecasts, which show how completely events blindsided the very "experts" who were responsible for setting Fed interest rates, and thereby adjusting the economy.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 23893 [23870] rated (+23), 526 [521] unrated (+5).

Actually, the week for me ended on Friday, October 3.


New records rated this week:

  • Marcia Ball: The Tatooed Lady and the Alligator Man (2014, Alligator): sings blues, plays boogie-woogie, spins a fine yarn then goes for the filler [r]: B+(*)
  • François Carrier/Michel Lambert/Alexey Lapin: The Russian Concerts Volume 2 (2013 [2014], FMR): more if you want more, but start with superv Vol. 1 [cd]: B+(***)
  • Jack Clement: For Once and for All (2014, IRS Nashville): the late Nashville producer reclaims a few of his songs, with genteel smiling cowboy aplomb [r]: B+(***)
  • Neil Cowley Trio: Touch and Flee (2014, Naim Jazz): Brit piano trio for fans of EST and Jarrett continue to keep semipopular jazz respectable [r]: B+(*)
  • Mark Elf: Returns 2014 (2013 [2014], Jen Bay Jazz): guitarist who admires Tal Farlow backed by David Hazletine, Peter Washington, Lewis Nash dream band [cd]: B+(**)
  • Alice Gerrard: Follow the Music (2014, Tompkins Square): pioneering harmony woman of bluegrass belatedly strikes out on her own, ancient and ragged [r]: B+(***)
  • Prince: Art Official Age (2014, Warner Brothers): wondered if he was done, but give him a major label and he'll lay out some major label funk for you [r]: B+(*)
  • Prince/3rdEyeGirl: Plectrum Electrum (2014, Warner Brothers): "all-female power trio" means they know Cream's basslines but don't sing like Jack Bruce [r]: B+(*)
  • Matthew Shipp: I've Been to Many Places (2014, Thirsty Ear): yet another solo piano record, louder than ever in case you didn't get the point yet [r]: B+(*)
  • Tricky: Adrian Thaws (2014, !K7): discovers own name and recovers old tricks for a wide range of poses, must be some kind of midlife crisis [r]: B+(***)
  • Ulf Wakenius: Solo: Momento Magico (2013 [2014], ACT): solo guitar, goes for thick chords to add gravitas to an intrinsically light album [r]: B+(*)

Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries rated this week:

  • Bambara Mystic Soul: The Raw Sound of Burkina Faso 1974-1979 (1974-79 [2011], Analog Africa): obscurities from the heart of the heart of West Africa [r]: B+(**)
  • The Evergreen Classic Jazz Band: Early Tunes 1915-1932 (1995 [2014], Delmark): Seattle trad jazz band with banjo and tuba, makes the old songs zing [cd]: A-
  • Charlie Haden/Jim Hall: Charlie Haden/Jim Hall (1990 [2014], Impulse): live in Montreal a year late for Haden's big fête, but this is more about the guitarist, drawing him out [r]: A-
  • The Rough Guide to Arabic Jazz ([2014], World Music Network, 2CD): rougher than need be, especially with the scene-stealing Cuban ringer the best cut by far [r]: B+(*)
  • The Rough Guide to Bollywood Disco (1965-93 [2014], World Music Network, 2CD): dance dance dance with a pre-disco highlight that reminds me of Chubby Checker [r]: B+(***)
  • The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara [Second Edition] (1980-2013 [2014], World Music Network, 2CD): label annoying as ever, not that they can't program a songlist [r]: B+(***)
  • Wild Jimmy Spruill: Scratchin': The Wild Jimmy Spruill Story (1956-63 [2014], GVC, 2CD): various singers sharing Spruill's guitar, a still vital r&b period compiled [cd]: A

Old records rated this week:

  • Ruby Braff: Linger Awhile (1953-55 [1999], Vanguard): early sessions led by Buck Clayton and Vic Dickenson, showing the company he keeps and progress [r]: B+(**)
  • Matthew Shipp/Guillermo E. Brown: Telephone Popcorn (2005 [2008], Nu Bop): piano-drums duo, half of David Ware's quartet, not quite finished [r]: B+(*)


Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Alessandro Collina/Rodolfo Cervetto/Marc Peillon/Fabrizio Bosso: Michel on Air (ITI)
  • Lajos Dudas Trio: Live at Porgy & Bess (Jazz Sick)
  • Lajos Dudas Quartet: Live at Salzburger Jazzherbst (Jazz Sick)
  • Eric Hofbauer: Prehistoric Jazz Volume 1: The Rite of Spring (Creative Nation Music)
  • Eric Hofbauer: Prehistoric Jazz Volume 2: Quintet for the End of Time (Creative Nation Music)
  • Will Holshouser/Matt Munister/Marcus Rojas: Introducing Musette Explosion (Aviary): November 1
  • Bill Watrous/Pete Christlieb/Carl Saunders: A Beautiful Friendship (Summit)

Purchases:

  • Dave Alvin/Phil Alvin: Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy (Yep Roc)
  • Shaver: Shaver's Jewels (1993-2001, New West)
  • Wild Jimmy Spruill: Scratchin': The Wild Jimmy Spruill Story (1956-63, GVC, 2CD)

Friday, October 03, 2014

Working Links

A quick listing of some open tabs as I'm shutting down the computer:

Monday, September 29, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 23870 [23843] rated (+27), 521 [523] unrated (-2).

My brother was in town Sunday so I spent the day cooking old-fashioned "soul food" -- fried chicken and pan gravy, baked potatoes and cornbread, baked beans and creamed corn and greens with bacon -- with a flourless chocolate cake for dessert. Couldn't concentrate on processing records, so I wound up playing Coleman Hawkins, Lefty Frizzell, and Johnny Cash from the travel case. Couldn't come up with a Weekend Update either. Suffice it to say that the insane wars of the previous week are still with us, as are the usual stories of police brutality, corruption, inequality, bad economics, the subversion of democracy by the usual claque of billionaires, and that old standby -- global warming. Safe to say there'll be more of them next week (if there is a next week) and next month and next year as well.

Wasting Sunday kept the rated count under 30, but it was actually a remarkably good week quality-wise. I broke queue protocol and took the Buddy Tate reissue with me in the car even before I catalogued it, and it's kept me in a good mood all week -- not anyway near his most consistent record, but so glorious every time the sax appears. Roger Miller came up in some email correspondence -- I thought I had this particular album, so when I saw it unrated and on Rhapsody I dived right into it.

Four very different Sept. 23 releases wound up at A-: Aphex Twin, Leonard Cohen, Wadada Leo Smith, and Lee Ann Womack. I gave each at least three plays, hoping it's possible to be both first and right. Chris Monsen seems to prefer Smith's The Great Lakes Suites, which both overwhelmed me with its length and underwhelmed me with its music -- Red Hill has an air of danger and excitement I find lacking in the larger work, but Suites put a lot of talent on display, including Henry Threadgill and Jack DeJohnette. Microscopic Septet is another Monsen recommendation, languishing in my mailbox for months. Orlando Julius appeared on a Phil Overeem list (also Bo Dollis and a bunch of other records I haven't gotten to yet; worth noting that Overeem has John Coltrane's Offering: Live at Temple University on top of his "old stuff" list -- I wasn't all that impressed by it, but I often react negatively to Coltrane's last phase). Another EW person mentioned the Sun Ra. Only gave it one play, but it was a delight, and I think I tracked down all the dates (except for one of three previously unreleased cuts).

Given the extra overhead of managing the "faux blog" I may not have a Music Week (let alone a Weekend Update) post next week -- it may in fact be several weeks before I catch up. We're planning a trip east in October. Laura is flying to Boston and back from Newark, so that's tightly scheduled. I'll be driving, so that's real loosey-goosey -- I'm thinking Buffalo on the way out, and DC (and maybe Nashville) on the way back. There will be a few days on Cape Cod, but the main stretch will be six days at a friend's big country house in the NJ Appalachians. I'm hoping we can entice friends from NYC and environs to come out to visit. (One enticement is that I plan on cooking.)

I've lined up some new technology for the trip. I picked up a cheap Chromebook to replace the old Linux laptop, so I can try working in the cloud. That won't really allow me to do much in terms of programming, but maybe I'll focus more on writing. Also picked up a Bose MiniLink Bluetooth speaker, which works nicely with the Chromebook. I'll still have travel cases of CDs for the car, but may leave the boombox home and play Rhapsody when I'm stationary.

Should leave by the end of the week. Don't know when I'll get back. Best way to track whatever I post will be Twitter. Meanwhile, this week expect a Rhapsody Streamnotes (most likely tomorrow -- if not I'll have to rename files). Maybe a Mid-Week Roundup or a Book Report before I leave. If you want to get in touch during the trip, holler at me, and we'll see what makes sense. (I'm not looking to hook up with strangers, but know so many people along the way it's impossible to personally contact everyone I might want to see.)


New records rated this week:

  • Aphex Twin: Syro (2014, Warp): after more than a dozen year break, loses the ambient drag, speeds up the beats and kicks up the bass [r]: A-
  • Avi Buffalo: At Best Cuckold (2014, Sub Pop): falsetto lead, occasionally pines for the "In My Room" side of the Beach Boys [r]: B+(*)
  • Daniel Blacksberg Trio: Perilous Architecture (2012 [2014], NoBusiness): avant-trombone trio, varied enough, inventive even, your interest never flags [cdr]: B+(***)
  • Frank Catalano/Jimmy Chamberlin: Love Supreme Collective (2014, Ropeadope): sometimes flattery isn't imitation at all, just something else [cd]: B+(*)
  • Leonard Cohen: Popular Problems (2014, Columbia): his "golden voice" more gone than ever, his songs more biblical -- his way of feeling ancient [r]: A-
  • Jack Cooper: Mists: Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra (2014, Planet Arts): big band Charles Ives, postmodern but third stream only in that it could use some swing [cd]: B+(*)
  • Bo Dollis Jr. and the Wild Magnolias: A New Kind of Funk (2013, self-released): a little hip-hop isn't a funk breakthrough, but the tradition is in good hands [r]: B+(***)
  • Open Mike Eagle: Dark Comedy (2014, Mello Music Group): west coast rapper, very laid back, soft-edged, draws you in [r]: B+(**)
  • Jennifer Hudson: JHUD (2014, RCA): bids to be taken seriously as a soul diva in a hip-hop world, which means . . . branding [r]: B+(*)
  • Orlando Julius with the Heliocentrics: Jaiyede Afro (2014, Strut): London collective hooks up with another aged African legend, compounding respective strengths [r]: A-
  • Just Passing Through: The Breithaupt Brothers Songbook Vol. II (2014, ALMA): aspiring Broadway songsters, big in Canada, OK but who cares? [cd]: B
  • Gianni Lenoci/Kent Carter/Bill Elgart: Plaything (2012 [2014], NoBusiness): piano trio -- you don't know him (who knows Italians not on ECM?) but he's been around, turns heads [cdr]: B+(***)
  • Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood: Juice (2014, Indirecto): neither want to be remembered for organ grooves yet that's why they're drawn together [r]: B+(*)
  • The Microscopic Septet: Manhattan Moonrise (2014, Cuneiform): [dl]: sax quartet + piano trio, Forrester and Johnston write 'em, the band swings 'em A-
  • Wadada Leo Smith/Jamie Saft/Joe Morris/Balasz Pandi: Red Hill (2014, Rare Noise): what makes this better than Great Lakes Suites is a quartet that gets out of hand and pushes him [r]: A-
  • Rosenna Vitro: Clarity: Music of Clare Fischer (2014, Random Act): standards singer looking for new turf -- Clare Fischer is a bit stuffy, but she makes something of that [cd]: B+(*)
  • Lee Ann Womack: The Way I'm Livin' (2014, Sugar Hill/Welk): imagine that Nanci Griffith had a dark side, one that drinks and sleeps with the devil [r]: A-

Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries rated this week:

  • Rashied Al Akbar/Muhammad Ali/Earl Cross/Idris Ackamoor: Ascent of the Nether Creatures (1980 [2014], NoBusiness): avant quartet with three Muslim names you never heard of, now saved for history [cdr]: B+(***)
  • Aby Ngana Diop: Liital (1994 [2014], Awesome Tapes From Africa): from Senegal, some synth window dressing but overwhelmingly drums and shouted voices, tough as nails [r]: B+(***)
  • Sun Ra & His Arkestra: In the Orbit of Ra (1957-78 [2014], Strut, 2CD): Marshall Allen picks for Ra's centenary, more vocals than I'd pick, but you know [r]: A-
  • The Buddy Tate Quartet: Texas Tenor (1978 [2014], Sackville/Delmark): the new title has been used before, but with this guy the same old sax is timeless [cd]: A-

Old records rated this week:

  • Columbia Country Classics, Vol. 5: A New Tradition (1967-87 [1991], Columbia): first two are essential history; rest label onanism, this leaning neotrad [r]: B+(**)
  • Orlando Julius: Super Afro Soul (1966-72 [2007], Vampi Soul, 2CD): Nigerian saxophonist, earliest tracks suggest the Afrobeat that the later ones deliver [r]: B+(**)
  • Roger Miller: The Best of Roger Miller, Volume One: Country Tunesmith (1957-67 [1991], Mercury): old comp delves even deeper into pre-Doo-Wacka-Doo than the marvelous box [r]: A-


Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Tara Davidson: Duets (Addo): October 7
  • Mark Elf: Returns 2014 (Jen Bay Jazz)
  • The Evergreen Classic Jazz Band: Early Tunes 1915-1932 (1995, Delmark)
  • Milt Hinton/Ralph Sutton/Gus Johnson/Jim Galloway: The Sackville All Star Christmas Record (1986, Sackville/Delmark)
  • The Mike Longo Trio: Celebrates Oscar Peterson: Live (CAP): October 7
  • Miho Nobuzane: Simple Words: Jazz Loves Brazil (self-released): October 21
  • The Buddy Tate Quartet: Texas Tenor (1978, Sackville/Delmark)
  • Ezra Weiss: Before You Know It: Live in Portland (Roark)
  • Dann Zinn: Shangri La (self-released): October 1

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Weekend Roundup

Some scattered links this week:



Also, a few links for further study:

Friday, September 26, 2014

Daily Log

Phil Overeem's best-of 2014:

2014 Favorites (3/4ths through)
1. Wussy: Attica!
2. Allen Lowe: Mulatto Radio--Field Recordings 1-4
3. Chris Butler: Easy Life
4. Ty Segall: Manipulator
5. Bo Dollis, Jr. and The Wild Magnolias: A New Kind of Funk
6. Obnox: Louder Space
7. Latyryx: The Second Album
8. Ross Johnson and Monsieur Jeffrey Evans: Vanity Sessions
9. Neneh Cherry: The Blank Project
10. Phil and Dave Alvin: Common Ground
11. Marc Ribot Trio: Live at the Village Vanguard
12. Orlando Julius with The Heliocentrics: Jaiyede Afro
13. Natural Child: Dancin' with Wolves
14. John Schooley: The Man Who Rode the Mule Around the World
15. Leo Welch: Sabougla Voices
16. Tinariwen: Emmaar
17. Big Freedia: Just Be Free
18. Billy Joe Shaver: Long in the Tooth
19. The Stooges Brass Band: Street Music
20. Mr. and The Mrs.: Radiation Street Blues

Singles:
1. Bobby Rush: Upstairs at United
2. Marc Ribot w/Deerhoof: Who Sleeps, Only Dreams
3. Heavy Lids: "Gravity Reverse" b/w "This Horse"

Old Stuff/Reissues:
1. John Coltrane: Offering--Live at Temple University
2. Various Artists: Haiti Direct!
3. John Schooley One-Man Band: Schooley's Greatest Hits
4. Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys: Riding Your Way--The Lost Transcriptions for Tiffany Music 1946-7
5. Various Artists: Angola 2
6. Various Artists: The Rough Guide to the Music of Mali, Volume 2
7. D'Angelo: Live at the Jazz Café, London
8. Sid Selvidge: The Cold of the Morning
9. Gories: The Shaw Tapes--Live in Detroit 1988
10. Charlie Burton: Rock & Roll Behavior
11. Various Artists: Dylan's Gospel--Brothers & Sisters
12. Various Artists: Go, Devil, Go--Raw, Rare, Otherwordly Gospel

Music Docs:
1. AKA Doc Pomus
2. The Case of the Three-Sided Dream

Monday, September 22, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 23843 [23814] rated (+29), 523 [528] unrated (-5).

A sub-30 week. For a while I thought it was going to be even lower. On the other hand, more A- records than usual. Much of the credit for the latter goes to Robert Christgau: the return of his Consumer Guide (or as he now prefers Expert Witness) alerted me to Homeboy Sandman and Shaver, and prodded me to check out John Hiatt's latest -- I knew it was out there, but given his last half-dozen albums I wasn't in a big hurry to file another low B+. As it was, I followed up with Hiatt's best-of, which combs those low B+ albums for a much better collection. Christgau also wrote about Iggy Azalea in his new Billboard column. I knew the name and thought her appearance on the Ariana Grande album was its high point, but hadn't put together how much I might like her.

Blog status is still uncertain. I noticed I've been getting a lot of spam comments (I hardly know any other kind), which is an indication that the database is accessible. I also heard from a reader depending on the RSS feed, wondering whether I was all right. The "faux blog" doesn't generate any RSS, so that notification avenue had been blocked. (Pretty good solution: follow me on Twitter.) So I went back and added all the missing posts to the "real blog," and have kept them in sync for the last week. That's a pain, but not understanding what happened, and having no confidence that it won't happen again, for now I lack a better solution.

Shopping advice request: I'm going to be traveling a lot soon, and I'd like to buy a small Bluetooth speaker bar, like a Bose MiniLink (strikes me as pricey) or Jambox Mini (clearly not as good). Anyone have some advice/experience? I think it should allow for a wired stereo connection (so I can plug in that IPod I foolishly bought a couple years ago), but it will mostly be used with a new Chromebook, which should make it possible to listen to Rhapsody on the road (if not in the car).


New records rated this week:

  • Afghan Whigs: Do to the Beast (2014, Sub Pop): too heavy for me, but otherwise impressive, suggests growth over their long hiatus [r]: B+(**)
  • Iggy Azalea: Ignorant Art (2011 [2012], Grand Hustle, EP): debut EP mixtape, goes straight for the snatch not trusting you yokels to respond to anything subtle [r]: B+(**)
  • Iggy Azalea: The New Classic (2014, Island): Australian rapper sneaks up on America via the Dirty South -- she's got a mouth and is gonna use it [r]: A-
  • Kevin Hildebrandt: Tolerance (2012 [2014], Summit): guitarist-led organ trio with Radam Schwartz, swings hard especially on the covers, sings some too [cd]: B+(**)
  • Hal Galper Trio: O's Time (2014, Origin): veteran pianist, lot more crunch and risk than those Mehldaus but also more things that don't work [cd]: B+(**)
  • Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio: We're Back (2014, Whaling City Sound): Ron Carter and Kenny Barron make dreams come true, on '70s soul skewed to Wonder [cd]: B+(**)
  • John Hiatt: Terms of My Surrender (2014, New West): evidently included turning in his most consistent song album since Riding With the King [r]: A-
  • Homeboy Sandman: Hallways (2014, Stones Throw): alt-rapper, beats seem a bit off but he talks his way around them, makes sense, small pleasures [r]: A-
  • William Hooker & Liudas Mockunas: Live at the Vilnius Jazz Festival (2013 [2014], NoBusiness): drums-sax duo, free improvs sound like comsummate skill [cd]: A-
  • Imarhan Timbuktu: Alak Warled (2014, Clermont): average Saharan desert blues band, vocals never break ranks with the charming rhythmic lilt [dl]: B+(**)
  • Sami Lane: You Know the Drill (2014, Mixcloud, EP): Bournemouth DJ uploads a 29-minute hip-hop flow, hard stuff, for her 23 followers on Mixcloud [dl]: B+(**)
  • Alexander McCabe/Paul Odeh: This Is Not a Pipe (2014, Wamco): alto sax/piano duets, the latter steadying, but the sax is what you want to hear [cd]: B+(**)
  • Jason Moran: All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller (2014, Blue Note): a dance tribute to Fats Waller, impressive pianistics and a surprise sax solo, but singers are way off [r]: B+(*)
  • Nicholas Payton: Numbers (2013 [2014], Paytone): New Orleans trumpet legend laid down some cushy riddim tracks, decided they didn't need trumpet dubs [r]: B-
  • Peripheral Vision: Sheer Tyranny of the Will (2014, self-released): Canadian postbop quartet, cites Shorter and Rosenwinkel as influences, gets there [cd]: B+(*)
  • RED Trio & Mattias Ståhl: North and the Red Stream (2013 [2014], NoBusiness): Rodrigo Pinheiro's avant-piano trio plus vibes, not just for tinkle [cd]: B+(**)

Recent reissues, compilations, and vault discoveries rated this week:

  • John Hiatt: Here to Stay: Best of 2000-2012 (2000-12 [2013], New West): label/era best-of usefully reduces handful of inconsistent albums into one real solid one [r]: A-
  • Shaver: Shaver\'s Jewels: The Best of Shaver (1993-2001 [2013, New West): no doubt Eddy Shaver added something to his old man's songs -- guitar, also production smarts [r]: A-

Old records rated this week:

  • Steve Lacy/Andrea Centazzo/Kent Carter: In Concert (1976 [2006], Ictus): a trio, his most stable format, bass steadying the soprano warble [r]: B+(***)
  • Steve Lacy/Andrea Centazzo: Tao (1976-84 [2006], Ictus): duets, soprano sax and percussion on a cycle of pieces, constant invention with light touch [r]: B+(***)
  • Steve Lacy Trio: The Window (1987 [1988], Soul Note): an even better trio, original tunes, dazzling style and touch, none of the usual irritants [r]: A-
  • Steve Lacy Double Sextet: Clangs (1992 [1993], Hat Art): only piano and voice are doubled, and as usual voice is the problem, not just Aebi this time [cd]: B+(**)
  • Ron McClure Quintet: Descendants (1980 [1990], Ken): BS&T bassist, has had long, little noticed solo career, offers tasty bits of Scofield and Harrell [cd]: B+(**)
  • Medeski Martin and Wood: Last Chance to Dance Trance (Perhaps): Best Of (1991-1996) (1991-96 [1999], Gramavision): label best-of on their way up; the Monk-Marley segue is swell [cd]: B+(***)
  • Brad Mehldau: The Art of the Trio: Volume One (1996 [1997], Warner Brothers): piano with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy, makes big title claim, neither nails/blows it [r]: B+(***)
  • Brad Mehldau: Art of the Trio: Volume 4: Back at the Vanguard (1999, Warner Brothers): like Vol. 2, back at Village Vanguard, a bit faster and sharper, not necessarily better [r]: B+(***)
  • Brad Mehldau: Progression: Art of the Trio, Volume 5 (2000 [2001], Warner Brothers, 2CD): I've rationalized the titles, but actually they're not quite the same, same for the music [cd]: B+(***)
  • Brad Mehldau: Anything Goes (2002 [2004], Warner Brothers): continuing through the trio albums, always comes close, never quite blows me away [r]: B+(***)


Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • François Carrier/Michel Lambert/Alexey Lapin: The Russian Concerts Volume 2 (FMR): October 14
  • Frank Catalano/Jimmy Chamberlin/Percy Jones/Chris Poland/Adam Benjamin: Love Supreme Collective (Ropeadope): September 30
  • The Tommy Igoe Rhythm Conspiracy (Deep Rhythm): September 23
  • Darrell Katz and the JCA Orchestra: Why Do You Ride? (Leo)
  • Lefteris Kordis: "Oh Raven, If You Only Had Brains . . .": Songs for Aesop's Fables (2010, Inner Circle Music)
  • Rafael Rosa: Portrait (self-released)
  • Spoke: (R)anthems (River)

Daily Log

Shopping for portable bluetooth speakers. More detailed lists below, but let's see if we can sort this out better here:

  • Bang & Olufsen Beolit 12 ($599): E#20.
  • Bayan Audio Soundbook ($200); 3.5in/out, FM radio: CW.
  • Beats by Dr. Dre Pill ($149): E#16, HC#11.
  • Beats by Dr. Dre Pill 2.0 ($170): V#13.
  • Beats by Dr. Dre Pill XL ($299): E#5, PC#9.
  • Bitmore e-Atom Super Mini: Z#4.
  • BlueSYNC OR3: Z#1

  • Bluetune Bean: Z#2

  • Bose Soundlink II ($269): V#6.
  • Bose Soundlink III ($299): C#1, PC#4, TG(best-sounding)
  • Bose Soundlink Mini ($199): ASG#1, C#6, E#5, HC#3, PC#5, V#5, Z#3.
  • Boston Audio Phoenix ($39): E#7.
  • Braven 850 ($187a): E#2.
  • Braven 710 ($170); 3.5in/out, usb power-out: CW.
  • Braven 650 ($149): E#1.
  • Braven 600: HC#7.
  • Braven BRV ($194a): PC#1, V#8.
  • Cambridge Audio Minx Air ($499): E#8.
  • Cambridge Audio Minx Go: WHF(£150).
  • Cambridge Soundworks Oontz XL ($99): C#12.
  • Cambridge Soundworks Oontz Angle: HC#4.
  • Cambridge Soundworks Oontz ($39-82): C#13.
  • Carbon Audio Pocket Speaker: HC#2.
  • Creative Sound Blaster Roar SB20 ($199): PC#10.
  • Eton Rugged Rukus Solar-Powered: HC#10.
  • Fugoo Style; 3.5in/out: TG(best overall).
  • Geneva Model S: WHF(£400).
  • G-Project G-Boom ($99): C#10, HC#15.
  • Grace Digital Ecoxgear Ecoxbt ($82-110): C#11, E#14, HC#17.
  • Harman Kardon Aura ($399): PC#2.
  • HMDX Jam Plus: HC#8.
  • Jabra Solemate ($126-149): C#14, HC#16.
  • Jabra Solemate Mini ($100); 3.5in: CW
  • Jambone Big Jambox ($269): ASG#2, C#3, E#6, V#4, WC#2.
  • Jambone Mini Jambox ($110-129); 3.5in: C#9, E#9, HC#13, V#11, Z#6.
  • Jambone Jambox ($75); 3.5in: E#1, V#12.
  • JBL OnBeat Xtreme ($274): E#5, WHF(£300).
  • JBL Pulse ($149-249): C#8, E#6.
  • JBL Charge ($144): C#7, E#2, HC#5, WC#3.
  • JBL Flip ($87): E#6, HC#18.
  • JBL Flip 2 ($83): V#9.
  • JBL Clip: PC#6, TG(best under $50).
  • JLab Audio Crasher: HC#12.
  • Klipsch Music Center KMC 3 ($380): E#15.
  • Korus V600 ($399): E#5.
  • Libratone Zipp ($399): E#6.
  • Loewe Speaker 2go ($640): E#5.
  • Logitech UE Boom ($199a); 3.5out: C#5, CW, E:6, V#1, WC#4, WHF(£200).
  • Logitech UE Boombox ($184): C#4, Z#7.
  • Logitech UE Mini Boombox ($78): E#8.
  • Logitech UE Mini Boom ($77): E#7, HC#1, V#3, WC#1.
  • Logitech X300 ($69): E#7, PC#7.
  • Logitech X100 ($39): E#8.
  • Marshall Stanmore ($400): PC#3.
  • Matrix Audio Qube2 ($80): CW.
  • NAD Viso One ($499): E#7.
  • NYNE NB-250 ($199): E#6.
  • Panasonic SC-NT10D ($48-93): V#7.
  • Philips Shoqbox SB7200: HC#9.
  • Philips Soundshooter: HC#14.
  • Pure Jongo S340B ($199): E#18, WHF(multiroom).
  • Samsung DA-E750 ($59-599): C#15.
  • SOL Republic Deck ($113): V#2.
  • Sonos Play:5 ($399): E#5
  • Sonos Play:3 ($299): E#2.
  • Sonos Play:1 ($199): E#1.
  • Sony SRS-BTX500 ($299): C#2, E#6.
  • Sony SRS-BTM8: WHF(£100).
  • Sony SRS-X5 ($198): E#15.
  • Sony SRS-X3 ($148): E#9.
  • Soundcast Melody ($449): PC#8.
  • Soundfreaq Pocket Kick ($99): E#7.
  • Soundfreaq Sound Kick ($74): E#8, HC#6, V#10.
  • Voxx Canz ($30); 3.5in: CW
  • Wolf-it: Z#5.


CNET "best bluetooth speakers of 2014" [C]:

  • Bose SoundLink Bluetooth speaker III: $299-$363
  • Sony SRS-BTX500: $299-$312
  • Jawbone Big Jambox: $269-$299
  • Logitech UE Boombox: $184
  • Logitech UE BOOM: $198-$240
  • Bose SoundLink Mini speaker: $199
  • JBL Charge: $144-$149
  • JBL Pulse: $149-$249
  • Jawbone Mini Jambox: $129
  • G-Project G-Boom (black): $99
  • Grace Digital EXOCGEAR ECOXBT: $82-110
  • Cambridge SoundWorks Oontz XL: $99 ("best under $100")
  • Cambridge SoundWorks OontZ: $39-82, Z#8.
  • Jabra Solemate: $126-$149
  • Samsung DA-E750: $59-$599

The Verge [V]:

  • Logitech UE Boom (9.0): $196-$199
  • SOL Republic Deck (8.7): $113
  • Logitech UE Mini Boom (8.0): $77-$87
  • Jambone Big Jambox (7.5): $269-$299
  • Bose Soundlink Mini (7.8): $199
  • Bose Soundlink II (7.4): $269
  • Panasonic SC-NT10D (7.3): $48-$93
  • Braven BRV-X (7.0): $189
  • JBL Flip 2 (6.8): $83
  • Soundfreaq Sound Kick (6.7): $74
  • Jambone Mini Jambox (6.5): $110-$129
  • Jambone Jambox (6.0): $75
  • Beats Pill 2.0 (4.0): $170-$172

PC [PC]:

  • Braven BRV-Xl (4.5): $199
  • Harman Kardon Aura (4.5): $399
  • Marshall Stanmore (4.5): $400
  • Bose SoundLink Bluetooth Speaker III (4.0): $299
  • Bose SoundLink Mini (4.0): $199
  • JBL Clip (4.0): $49
  • Logitech X300 Mobile Wireless Speaker (4.0): $69
  • Soundcast Melody (4.0): $449
  • Beats Pill XL (4.0): $299
  • Creative Sound Blaster Roar SB20 (4.0): $199

Wirecutter [WC]:

  • Logitech UE Mini Boom: $79
  • Jawbone Big Jambox: $260
  • JBL Charge Portable: $125
  • Ultimate Ears BOOM: $200

What Hi-Fi? [WHF]:

  • JBL OnBeat Xtreme (5.0): £500
  • Geneva Model S Wireless DAB+ (5.0): £330
  • Pure Jongo S3 (5.0) - best multiroom speaker: £175
  • Ultimate Ears Boom (5.0): £170
  • Cambridge Audio Minx Go (5.0): £100
  • Sony SRS-BTM8 (5.0): £85

Tom's Guide [TG]:

  • Fugoo Style - best overall
  • Bose SoundLink III - best-sounding
  • JBL Clip - best less than $50

Hi Consumption [HC]:

  1. Logitech UE Mobile Boombox
  2. Carbon Audio Pocket Speaker
  3. Bose Soundlink Mini Bluetooth Speaker
  4. Cambridge Soundworks Oontz Angle Ultra Portable Bluetooth Wireless Speaker
  5. JBL Charge
  6. Soundfreaq Sound Kick
  7. Braven 600 Speaker
  8. HMDX Jam Plus Portable Speaker
  9. Philips Shoqbox SB7200
  10. Eton Rugged Rukus Solar-Powered Sound System
  11. Beats by Dr. Dre Pill Speaker
  12. JLab Audio Crasher Speaker
  13. Jawbone Mini Jambox Speaker
  14. Philips Soundshooter Speaker
  15. G-Project G-Boom
  16. Jabra Solemate Speaker
  17. Grace Digital Ecoxgear Ecoxbt
  18. JBL Flip

Audio Speaker Guide [ASG]:

  • Bose Soundlink Mini Bluetooth Speaker
  • Jawbone Big Jambox

Computerworld [CW]: reviews of random set of speakers, not ranked.

  • Voxx Canz ($30)
  • Matrix Audio Qube2 ($80)
  • Jabra Solemate Mini ($100)
  • Jawbone Mini Jambox ($130)
  • Braven 710 ($170)
  • Bayan Audio Soundbook ($200)
  • Logitech UE Boom ($200)

ZDNet "eight of the best" [Z]:

  • BlueSYNC OR3
  • Bluetune Bean
  • Bose Soundlink Mini
  • Bitmore e-Atom Super Mini
  • Wolf-it
  • Jawbone Mini Jambox
  • Logitech UE Boombox
  • Cambridge Soundworks Oontz Angle

Engadget scattered reviews/ratings, rank = 90 - N [E]:

  • Braven 650 ($149): 89 [#1]
  • Jawbone Jambox ($82): 89
  • Sonos Play:1 ($199): 89
  • Braven 850 ($187): 88 [#2]
  • JBL Charge ($135): 88
  • Sonos Play:3 ($299): 88
  • Beats Pill XL ($299): 85 [#5]
  • Bose SoundLink Mini ($199): 85
  • JBL OnBeat Xtreme ($274): 85
  • Korus V600 ($399): 85
  • Loewe Speaker 2go ($640): 85
  • Sonos Play:5 ($399): 85
  • Jawbone Big Jambox ($269): 84 [#6]
  • JBL Flip ($87): 84
  • JBL Pulse ($199): 84
  • Libratone Zipp ($399): 84
  • Logitech UE Boom ($191): 84
  • NYNE NB-250 ($199): 84
  • Sony SRS-BTX500 ($312): 84
  • Boston Audio Phoenix ($39): 83 [#7]
  • Logitech UE Mini Boom ($77): 83
  • Soundfreaq Pocket Kick ($99): 83
  • Logitech X300 ($69): 83
  • Creative Sound Blaster Roar SR20 ($149): 83
  • Cambridge Audio Minx Air 100 ($347): 83
  • Logitech UE Boombox ($184): 83
  • NAD Viso One ($499): 83
  • Soundfreaq Sound Kick ($99): 82
  • Logitech X100 ($39): 82
  • Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200 ($499): 82
  • Logitech UE Mobile Boombox ($78): 82
  • Jawbone Mini Jambox ($98): 81

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Weekend Roundup

This week's scattered links:


  • David Atkins: Unsettling science:

    Steve Koonin has an obfuscatory piece in the Wall Street Journal today claiming that the science of climate change isn't settled. But it's not the usual radically ignorant posturing. As with much of the evolution of the conservative "debate" over climate, it represents another move in the shifting ground of conservative chicanery intended to paralyze action to solve the problem.

    Koonin doesn't dispute that the climate is changing and that the world is getting hotter. He doesn't dispute that humans are causing the change through greenhouse gas emissions. He doesn't even dispute that these changes are dangerous. His position is that because we don't fully understand all of the complex reverberating effects of climate change, we can't make good climate policy yet. [ . . . ]

    Of all the cynical arguments against action on climate change, Koonin's ranks among the most disturbing because it's so obviously calculated by a very smart person to make a radically irresponsible conclusion just to protect a few entrenched economic elites.

    By the way, a People's Climate March took place in New York City today:

    A comment I noticed on Twitter, from Robert Loerzel:

    GOP lawmakers say there's no definitive scientific proof that there's a Climate Change march today.

  • Carikai Chengu: How the US Helped Create Al Qaeda and ISIS: I've alluded to this many times of late -- it's hard to think of Al Qaeda without thinking of William Casey, even more so with Henry Kissinger hawking a new book -- but this bears repeating, especially since this includes a few wrinkles I didn't even recall:

    The fact that the United States has a long and torrid history of backing terrorist groups will surprise only those who watch the news and ignore history.

    The CIA first aligned itself with extremist Islam during the Cold War era. Back then, America saw the world in rather simple terms: on one side, the Soviet Union and Third World nationalism, which America regarded as a Soviet tool; on the other side, Western nations and militant political Islam, which America considered an ally in the struggle against the Soviet Union.

    The director of the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan, General William Odom recently remarked, "by any measure the U.S. has long used terrorism. In 1978-79 the Senate was trying to pass a law against international terrorism -- in every version they produced, the lawyers said the U.S. would be in violation."

    During the 1970's the CIA used the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a barrier, both to thwart Soviet expansion and prevent the spread of Marxist ideology among the Arab masses. The United States also openly supported Sarekat Islam against Sukarno in Indonesia, and supported the Jamaat-e-Islami terror group against Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan. Last but certainly not least, there is Al Qaeda.

    Lest we forget, the CIA gave birth to Osama Bin Laden and breastfed his organization during the 1980's. Former British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, told the House of Commons that Al Qaeda was unquestionably a product of Western intelligence agencies. Mr. Cook explained that Al Qaeda, which literally means an abbreviation of "the database" in Arabic, was originally the computer database of the thousands of Islamist extremists, who were trained by the CIA and funded by the Saudis, in order to defeat the Russians in Afghanistan.

    The article gets a little cloudier as it approaches ISIS. As far as I know -- and I haven't read Patrick Cockburn's new book on ISIS, The Jihadis Return, but I've read much of his reporting -- nobody's assembled a good accounting of the CIA in Syria. We do know, for instance, that ISIS arms are overwhelmingly American, but we do not know to what extent those arms were provided by the US by Syrian rebels, looted from Iraq, or provided by Saudi Arabia or Qatar -- nations which are nominally allied with the US but are free to use militant jihadis to implement their programs. Chengu does regard ISIS as an offshoot from Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq, but that runs somewhat counter to the fact that another Syrian group, Al Nusra, claims the Al Qaeda brand. The problem with secret organizations like the CIA operating in Syria is that there's never any accountability, and therefore never any reason for discipline or restraint. I think that's reason enough to abolish the CIA (at least he "operations" end of the racket): they can never plausibly deny anything, no matter how outrageous, because their entire existence is based on secrecy and lies. The US will never be able to be taken at its word as long as the CIA exists.

    Also see Andrew Levine: Fear of a Caliphate, long and rather rambling, but this much is surely true (bold added):

    Talk of caliphates serves the IS's purpose, much as beheadings on You Tube do. And talk is cheap, and become cheaper. Since 9/11, the cost of getting America to do itself in has plummeted.

    And so, the IS, wins: Obama's America is off to war again.

    Worry about that; not about what the IS says it wants to establish in the region or the world.

    The potential for harm resulting from the United States and other Western powers fighting against the IS is greater by many orders of magnitude than any harm that the IS can do in the areas it controls.

    As I've written before, what brought the World Trade Center towers down wasn't Al Qaeda; it was gravity. As long as the US responds to provocation with the same unthinking, unreflective automation as the laws of physics, we'll never be able to command our fate.

  • Juan Cole: Shiite Militias of Iraq Reject US Return, Threaten to Attack US Forces: More proof that US intervention against ISIS will be a colossal failure even the Americans manage to kill every Arab who leaves his house dressed in black. Nor are the threats only coming from Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army: the Badr Brigades and foreign minister Ibrahim al-Jafari are upset that the US snubbed Iran in putting together their "coalition of the killing." The Iraqi Army (effectively another Shiite militia) is beginning to chafe about depending on US air support. And Prime Minister al-Abadi is unlikely to have any wiggle room to make concessions to Sunni tribes with the Shiite militias staging their own revolt. Rather than destroying ISIS, the only thing the US mission is likely to accomplish is the secession of Kurdistan from Iraq. Cole adds:

    It is difficult to tell how serious these militia leaders' pronouncements are, since they might be attempting to save face with their followers even as they benefit from the US air cover. On the other hand, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haqq actually did in the past kidnap US troops, and the Mahdi Army fought them tooth and nail in spring of 2004, inflicting high casualties on them. Since President Obama's air campaign requires Special Ops forces like Navy Seals or Green Berets to be on the ground with the Iraqi Army, they should apparently watch their backs. The people they are trying to help against ISIL don't seem to appreciate their being there. And many of them seem to prefer Iran's help.

    Speaking of which, Kerry seems to have softened the anti-Iran stand (see Changing US-Iran Relations: Kerry: Iran has a Role in Defeating ISIL Militants, although I don't think we've heard the last from AIPAC on this). The fact remains that the US is opposed to Assad in Syria, but eager to fight against Assad's worst enemy, even if it winds up aligning with Assad's allies to do so.

  • Matthew Kalman: Hoping War-Weary Tourists Will Return to Israel: While Israel has generally been able to escalate its war on Gaza without incurring any real costs or hardships for its first-class citizenry, wars still make tourists nervous, so it shouldn't be a surprise that Israel's tourist business has declined of late. (I think it was during the 2006 war on Lebanon when we worried that some of my wife's relatives were going to Israel; upon checking, we were relieved to find out they had gone to Auschwitz instead.)

    This year should have been a record year for Israeli tourism. In 2013, Israel attracted 3.6 million foreign visitors. Numbers from January to June showed a 15 percent increase. Then the war began in July, and the number of visitors slumped. In July and August, the number of tourists fell to 400,000, down from 578,000 in the same period last year, a 31 percent decline. Ninety percent of cruise ship visitors canceled.

    United States flights to Israel were banned for 24 hours after a rocket landed near Ben-Gurion airport. There was little damage and few casualties, but those who came found themselves running for shelter as air-raid sirens wailed in Tel Aviv.

    The Israel Hotels Association said that occupancy rates, usually 80 percent in July, fell below 40 percent. Top hotels offered deep discounts. The new Ritz-Carlton in Herzliya slashed its room rate to $400 from $575. In Jerusalem, Hilton's new Waldorf-Astoria offered a 10 percent discount online and a 20 percent discount for inquiries by phone.

    Dan Hotels, which owns the King David in Jerusalem, warned shareholders in August that third-quarter revenue was liable to fall by 30 percent because of war-related cancellations.

    Wasn't the King David the hotel the Stern Gang blew up in 1948? Kalman doesn't mention the most famous tourist during the war: a Palestinian-American teenager visiting Jerusalem, where his cousin was immolated by Israeli settlers, after which he was beat and arrested by Israeli police, and was only allowed to leave the country after Israel's normally servile allies in the US embassy intervened. The article details various ideas Israelis have to revive the tourism industry, but they don't include forgoing future wars, opening up Gaza, or inviting Palestinian refugees to "come home" for a visit.

    Meanwhile, see: Alice Rothchild: Gaza and the American awakening:

    The seven week war on Gaza is theoretically over though Israeli forces continue limited incursions into the beleaguered and bombed out strip of coastal land and over 11,000 wounded and 100,000 homeless pick through the rubble of their lives, mourn their dead children, and survive hungry on the generosity of overstretched international aid. The headlines are all Abbas and airstrikes in Syria and Netanyahu declaring without a shred of credible evidence that ISIS is Hamas and Hamas is ISIS. Even more invisible are the ongoing land grabs, continued Jewish settlement growth, and arrests and killings of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. [ . . . ]

    Although the media has largely turned its gaze elsewhere, the war in Gaza has forced more of these kinds of contradictions to become painfully obvious to liberal Jews in the US. While the Israeli government talks about "pinpoint strikes" and "unprovoked attacks from Hamas" it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the massive destruction of the Gazan infrastructure, hospitals, schools, government buildings, UN facilities, homes. With more than 60 Israelis dead and a Jewish population fearful of the ever increasing reach of the primitive Qassam rockets, it is time to ask if three devastating attacks on Gaza in six years and a policy of periodically "mowing the lawn" is a long-term strategy that leads to an end to Palestinian resistance and a secure Israel.

  • Jay Caspian Kang: ISIS's Call of Duty:

    The similarities between ISIS recruitment films and first-person-shooter games are likely intentional. Back in June, an ISIS fighter told the BBC that his new life was "better than that game Call of Duty." [ . . . ]

    The use of video games as a recruiting tool is not new. The United States Army has, for the past decade, offered "America's Army," an online multiplayer shooter; it is among the most downloaded war games of all time and has been credited with helping boost enlistment. In 2009, according to the New York Times, Army recruiters hoping to attract enlistees from urban areas set up stations in a Philadelphia mall where kids could play video games and, if they so chose, talk to someone about what life in the armed forces would be like. [ . . . ]

    Aside from the recruitment films tailored to evoke video games, they also have released a series called Mujatweets, which stresses the brotherhood of ISIS fighters and shows them handing out candy to children.

  • Paul Krugman: Wild Words, Brain Worms, and Civility:

    First, picturesque language, used right, serves an important purpose. "Words ought to be a little wild," wrote John Maynard Keynes, "for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking." You could say, "I'm dubious about the case for expansionary austerity, which rests on questionable empirical evidence and zzzzzzzz . . ."; or you could accuse austerians of believing in the Confidence Fairy. Which do you think is more effective at challenging a really bad economic doctrine?

    Beyond that, civility is a gesture of respect -- and sure enough, the loudest demands for civility come from those who have done nothing to earn that respect. Noah felt (and was) justified in ridiculing the Austrians because they don't argue in good faith; faced with a devastating failure of their prediction about inflation, they didn't concede that they were wrong and try to explain why. Instead, they denied reality or tried to redefine the meaning of inflation.

    And if you look at the uncivil remarks by people like, well, me, you'll find that they are similarly aimed at people arguing in bad faith. I talk now and then about zombie and cockroach ideas. Zombies are ideas that should have been killed by evidence, but keep shambling along -- e.g. the claim that all of Europe's troubled debtors were fiscally irresponsible before the crisis; cockroaches are ideas that you thought we'd gotten rid of, but keep on coming back, like the claim that Keynes would never have called for fiscal stimulus in the face of current debt levels (Britain in the 1930s had much higher debt to GDP than it does now). Well, what I'm doing is going after bad-faith economics -- economics that keeps trotting out claims that have already been discredited. [ . . . ]

    And of course, people who engage in that kind of bad faith screech loudly about civility when they're caught at it.

    I never think of myself as a rock critic more than when I'm writing about politics. Rock critics are always sensitive to ambient noise, and looking for some choice words to break through the din.

    Also see Krugman's Return of the Bums on Welfare, about "John Boehner's resurrection of the notion that we're suffering weak job growth because people are living the good life on government benefits, and don't want to work." Conclusion:

    So basically the right is railing against the bums on welfare not only when there aren't any bums, but when there isn't any welfare.

  • Amanda Marcotte: Creationism is just the start: How right-wing Christians are warping America's schools: This, of course, is nothing new -- I recall reading Paul Goodman's book Compulsory Mis-Education back in the 1960s, when it first occurred to me that the ideological purpose of school was to brainwash the masses. Still, the broad consensus of received wisdom in the 1950s at least gave lip-service to science and smarts, and painted US history as progressive -- we were taught that the US fought for independence and free trade, that the North faught against slavery, and that the reunited US frowned on imperialism and put an end to fascism (although we still had to read Animal Farm on the evils of Godless Communism). Now, however:

    The attempts to indoctrinate children into the belief that America is basically a Christian theocracy are bad enough, but that's not the only conservative agenda item the books are trying to trick students into buying. The books also try to subtly discredit the civil rights movement by implying that segregation wasn't so bad, with one book arguing that white and black schools had "similar buildings, buses, and teachers," which the researchers argue "severely understates the tremendous and widespread disadvantages of African-American schools."

    Researchers also found that the books were playing the role of propagandist for unregulated capitalism. One textbook argues that taxes have gone up since 1927, but society "does not appear to be much more civilized today than it was" back then. It's an assertion that ignores the much reduced poverty and sickness, improved education, and even things like the federal highway system, all to make an ideological point. Another book argues that any government regulation whatsoever somehow means that capitalism ceases to be capitalism, a stance that would mean capitalism has never really existed in all of history.

    That these books are stuffed full of lies and propaganda is not a surprise. From the get-go, the State Board of Education made it clear it was far more interested in pushing a right-wing ideology on students than actually providing an education. In July, the Texas Freedom Network reviewed the 140 people selected to be on the panels reviewing textbooks. Being an actual expert in politics or history practically guaranteed you couldn't get a slot, as "more than a dozen" Texas academics with expertise who applied got denied, while conservative "political activists and individuals without social studies degrees or teaching experience got places on the panels." Only three of the 140 members of the panel are even current faculty members at Texas universities, but a pastor who used to own a car dealership somehow got a spot.

  • Heather Digby Parton: Wingnuts' crippling Ebola fury: Why they're enraged about fighting a disease: Superficially most of these wingnuts appear to be griping about ISIS rather than Ebola, but I suppose that's because they prefer threats they can misunderstand to ones they cannot grasp, or maybe they just prefer enemies they can kill to diseases that could kill them. For example, Allen West:

    The world need to step up against Islamo-fascism but I suppose fighting Ebola is easier for a faux Commander-in-Chief than to fight a real enemy of America. Nice optics there Barack, good try to change the subject, and make yourself seem like a leader fighting a really bad flu bug -- all the while you dismiss the cockroaches who behead Americans.

    Then there are the right-wingers who fear illegal child refugees will sneak Ebola into the country. Unless, of course, we head them off by setting up an ambush on the Syria-Iraq border.

  • Paul Rosenberg: We really must remember the epic failures of George W. Bush: Frank Bruni asks, "Whenever Barack Obama seems in danger of falling, do we have to hear that George W. Bush made the cliff?" Well, yes, not that there was no cliff before Bush, but it got much steeper and less study under Bush's eight years of malign neglect and extreme right-wing activism.

    But the real problem here was not that Obama supporters attacked Bush. It was that Obama himself did not. [ . . . ]

    While it's true that we can't undo Bush's mistakes, that hardly means it's foolish to keep them in mind. It would be foolish to forget them, after the terrible price we've paid -- and at the same time when the architects of that disaster are urging another mission in the Middle East to "destroy" ISIS.

    And yet, as with domestic policy, Obama's most significant mistake has been his reluctance to break sharply with previous Republican policy, call out their failures, and hold them responsible. War crimes have not even been investigated, much less punished -- only those who sought to expose them have been prosecuted. Yet, holding our own accountable for their misdeeds would work wonders for regaining trust throughout the world.

    I don't see how you can blame Obama's supporters. He did promise change when he ran in 2008, and I'm pretty sure most of us took that as meaning change from G.W. Bush, who gave us seven years of stupid, pointless wars; two huge tax giveaways to the already rich; runaway deficits; a bad recession early, a fake recovery, and an even worse recession late, which he turned into a trillions of dollars of gifts to the big banks; perversion of the criminal justice system and the right-wing politicization of civil service; major failure in federal disaster relief; complete inattention to festering problems like health care and climate change; utter disregard for international law. Obama, the Democrats, the press, everyone should have routinely repeated that list, not so much to heap scorn upon the Republicans (although they certainly deserve to be shamed) as to warn ourselves against repeating such disastrous policies.

    Indeed, most of Obama's problems since taking office result not from the few changes Obama did manage -- Obamacare, for instance, is a success by any measure, at least against the previous system if not against the single-payer system we would have preferred -- but from the many ways he continued and conserved Bush policies.

Daily Log

Alex Wilson posted this list of favorite 2014 records:

1. Wussy: Attica! (A)
2. Drive-By Truckers: English Oceans (A)
3. Withered Hand: New Gods (A-)
4. Lily Allen: Sheezus (A-)
5. Haiti Direct: Big Band, Mini Jazz & Twoubadou Sounds, 1960-1978 (A)
6. Spoon: They Want My Soul (A-)
7. Kool A.D.: Word OK (A-)
8. Iggy Azalea: The New Classic (A-)
9. tUnE-yArDs: Nikki Nack (A-)
10. Parquet Courts: Sunbathing Animal (A-)

11. Atmosphere: Southsiders (A-)
12. Shakira (A-)
13. Old 97s: Most Messed Up (A-)
14. Big Ups: Eighteen Hours of Static (A-)
15. Against Me!: Transgender Dysphoria Blues (A-)
16. Toni Braxton & Babyface: Love, Marriage & Divorce (A-)
17. The New Mendicants: Into the Lime (A-)
18. Skrillex: Recess (A-)
19. Bob Mould: Beauty and Ruin (A-)
20. The Hold Steady: Teeth Dreams (A-)

21. Homeboy Sandman: Hallways (A-)
22. Kris Davis Trio: Waiting for You to Grow (A-)
23. Sami Lane: You Know the Drill Mix (A-)
24. Tacocat: NVM (A-)
25. Homeboy Sandman: White Sands (A-)
26. St. Vincent (A-)
27. Cloud Nothings: Here and Nowhere Else (A-)
28. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib: Piñata (A-)
29. Jack White: Lazaretto (A-)
30. Pixies: Indie Cindy (A-)

31. Katy B: Little Red (A-)
32. The Roots: ...And then You Shot Your Brother (A-)
33. Sisyphus (A-)
34. The Rough Guide to the Music of Mali (A-)
35. Tokyo Police Club: Forcefield (A-)
36. Tweens (A-)
37. Young Thug & Bloody Jay: Black Portland (A-)
38. Young Fathers: Dead (A-)
39. Balani Show Super Hits: Electronic Street Parties from Mali (A-)
40. The Afghan Whigs: Do to the Beast (A-)

41. Tinariwen: Emmaar (A-)

Honourable Mentions

1. Let's Wrestle (***)
2. Sami Lane: Voyage I Mix (***)
3. Future Death: Special Victim (***)
4. Mac DeMarco: Salad Days (***)
5. Lykke Li: I Never Learn (***)
6. Mick Jenkins: The Water[s] (**)
7. Swans: To Be Kind (**)
8. Wiz Khalifa: Blacc Hollywood (**)
9. Neneh Cherry: Blank Project (*)

To Add

Owen Pallett: In Conflict (A-)
Amy LaVere: Runaway's Diary (A-)
Romeo Santos: Formula Vol. 2 (A-)
Perfect Pussy: Say Yes to Love (A-)
Miranda Lambert: Platinum (A-)
Dub Thompson: 9 Songs (A-)
Lil' Wayne: Redrum (A-)
Ought: More than Any Other Day (A-)
MF DOOM & Bishop Nehru: NehruvianDOOM (B+/A-)
The Coathangers: Suck My Shirt (A-)

Mostly stuff we know about, roughly speaking the union of several Christgau-influenced critics, including a few records that have been less than universally embraced (Skrillex, Tune-Yards, Jack White, Sisyphus).

Friday, September 19, 2014

Better Brackets

A while back Joey Daniewicz found a web application called Better Bracket Maker, which lets you set up a sudden-elimination tournament like the NCAA basketball tournament. He set up a tournament of 64 musical artists divided into four segments (rock groups, individuals, hip-hop, and jazz) and invited the members of the Facebook Expert Witness group to vote on the matchups. Seemed easy enough and harmless at first, but now that the initial 64 have been reduced to 4 I find myself thoroughly alientaed from the process. What's happened is that three of four of my top seeds have been eliminated, and the fourth is by far the lesser artist (Public Enemy in hip-hop).

The bracket layout is here. For what it's worth, I'll list my votes (as best I remember them -- I suppose I could look them up, but the process would be painful). My pick is in bold; bracket winner appears first; votes in parens.

First Round (64): I voted for 19 (of 32) winners, 59.3%

  • The Beatles (48) v. Wussy (18): Seems obvious, but in this crowd Wussy came closer than any band except for the Rolling Stones. One open question is whether to count post-group solo albums. I'm inclined to say yes, but weighted slightly less. Doesn't have much effect in most cases.
  • Talking Heads (48) v. R.E.M. (25): Former had 3 year-topping albums; latter had three A- records in over 30 years.
  • The Who (43) v. Sonic Youth (32): Big surprise here, but I've tended to look down on the Who ever since their 30 Years of Maximum R&B box -- I could only count six years remotely close (and I'm not a big fan of Sell Out or Tommy, but but I do like Townsend's Rough Mix with Ronnie Lane).
  • Steely Dan (33) v. The Beach Boys (29): Caught by surprise here -- hadn't thought of, much less played, Steely Dan in many years.
  • The Rolling Stones (52) v. Pavement (8): The latter was the best band of the 1990s, but that was the decade I turned to jazz.
  • The Clash (40) v. Creedence Clearwater Revival (19): Could have gone either way, and post-vote I started to lean Clash. The Clash probably had better albums, but they don't compile as well: each album belonged to its own era, which is a pretty unique feat.
  • Sleater-Kinney (31) v. Led Zeppelin (30): If you're a fan, S-K had more good albums, and more good post-group albums, so this isn't as ridiculous at it seems (especially given the way the voters keep going for the Beatles and the Who). But I've never been a S-K fan, and while I haven't played LZ in decades they once meant a lot to me.
  • The Velvet Underground (47) v. Parliament/Funkadelic (25): A toss-up for me, the two most important groups of the 1970s (I was late to VU, but also count Reed/Cale solo for something, balanced out by Clinton/Bootsy solo).
  • Bob Dylan (46) v. Al Green (13): Dylan's always been a problematic figure for me. Green never has been.
  • Bruce Springsteen (55) v. Madonna (19): I got over my initial distaste for Springsteen but for me this wasn't at all close. One of several votes that suggests the electorate was about 98% male.
  • Ray Charles (52) v. Paul Simon (13): I got over some of my initial distaste for Simon.
  • Elvis Presley (41) v. Bob Marley (12): Presley was less of an icon for me than he was for people a few years older -- I tuned in about the time of the Army thing, and can't say as it did anyone credit, and then there were the movies. Marley, on the other hand, was incomparable.
  • James Brown (45) v. Prince (19)
  • Stevie Wonder (41) v. Michael Jackson (14): Despite all the exaggeration you heard on the latter's death, not really close.
  • Chuck Berry (47) v. Joni Mitchell (6): Another contest where an all-male electorate makes the difference.
  • Neil Young (53) v. Frank Sinatra (11)
  • Public Enemy (56) v. Ice-T (2): One way to measure the relative strength of the four segments is how much the top seed beets the bottom seed: 28-to-1 here, 4-to-1 in jazz, a bit less in groups and individuals. In all four segments, it's possible to think of artists who were passed over, but there's a big difference between edging out Ice-T and running against Public Enemy. Best I can think of: Atmosphere, Blackalicious, Boogie Down Productions, Buck 65, Clipse, Common, The Coup, Lil Wayne, Nas, Nelly, P.M. Dawn, Serengeti, Wu-Tang Clan (but Ghostface Killah was seeded).
  • Beastie Boys (50) v. Jay-Z (9): Maybe the electorate is as white as it is male? I don't get this margin at all.
  • The Roots (34) v. Eminem (32): This doesn't disprove "the white hypothesis," since both artists blur the margin.
  • Run-D.M.C. (27) v. Ghostface Killah (21): Could have gone either way here (and not totally certain I didn't). Ghostface has quite a few more good albums.
  • Kanye West (32) v. M.I.A. (30): Surprisingly close for a 2-15 seed contest. West has the more substantial career, but I wasn't a huge fan of his first few albums.
  • De La Soul (35) v. Missy Elliott (16): I never liked 3 Foot High and Rising, and not just because of the Wichita dis.
  • The Notorious B.I.G. (27) v. LL Cool J (26): Not a big fan of either, though Mama Said Knock You Out is probably the best album here.
  • OutKast (43) v. Afrika Bambaataa (9): Several albums vs. a pathbreaking compilation. Not impossible I voted the other way.
  • Louis Armstrong (48) v. Louis Jordan (12): Jordan was the not-really-missing-link between jazz and rock & roll -- he should have fared well in the individuals segment. Armstrong did all the same things a generation earlier, and then some.
  • Thelonious Monk (38) v. Billie Holiday (14): Two nonpareil artists. Can't remember why I gave the edge to the singer.
  • John Coltrane (52) v. Art Blakey (3): I wrote a comment stating the substantial case for Blakey, but still voted Coltrane.
  • Charlie Parker (41) v. Benny Goodman (6): Probably would have voted for anyone against Parker: Sonny Stitt? Sure. J.J. Johnson? Yep. Wardell Gray or Fats Navarro: Probably not. Goodman was a towering figure.
  • Miles Davis (46) v. Count Basie (10): But sympathized with the latter.
  • Ornette Coleman (30) v. Ella Fitzgerald (24): The canonizer of the American songbook vs. the guy who broke all the rules. Surprised this was so close.
  • Duke Ellington (28) v. Sonny Rollins (23): Jazz's greatest orchestratator vs. jazz's most singular soloist. Ellington was my top seed, so no contest. Still, wouldn't have been so easy had Coleman Hawkins been in the running.
  • Charles Mingus (44) v. Dave Brubeck (4): I have a lot of respect for Brubeck, but Mingus is a one-man totality representing everything I love about jazz.

A few of the greatest musicians not bracketed: Big Bill Broonzy, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Lefty Frizzell, Coleman Hawkins, Earl Hines, George Jones, Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, Art Pepper, John Prine, Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Muddy Waters, Ben Webster.

Second Round (32): I voted for 11 (of 16) winners, 68.7%

  • The Beatles (35) v. Talking Heads (12)
  • The Who (33) v. Steely Dan (32)
  • The Rolling Stones (51) v. The Clash (17)
  • The Velvet Underground (47) v. Sleater-Kinney (12)
  • Bob Dylan (48) v. Bruce Springsteen (5)
  • Elvis Presley (35) v. Ray Charles (31)
  • James Brown (48) v. Stevie Wonder (12)
  • Neil Young (34) v. Chuck Berry (33)
  • Public Enemy (41) v. Beastie Boys (11)
  • Run-D.M.C. (35) v. The Roots (14)
  • Kanye West (40) v. De La Soul (26)
  • OutKast (39) v. The Notorious B.I.G. (9)
  • Louis Armstrong (30) v. Thelonious Monk (24)
  • John Coltrane (31) v. Charlie Parker (22)
  • Miles Davis (42) v. Ornette Coleman (19)
  • Duke Ellington (39) v. Charles Mingus (7)

Third Round (16): I voted for 4 (of 8) winners, 50%.

  • The Beatles (55) v. The Who (10)
  • The Rolling Stones (40) v. The Velvet Underground (30)
  • Bob Dylan (55) v. Elvis Presley (16): looked this one up
  • James Brown (40) v. Neil Young (18)
  • Public Enemy (51) v. Run-D.M.C. (8)
  • Kanye West (34) v. OutKast (30)
  • Louis Armstrong (39) v. John Coltrane (16)
  • Miles Davis (30) v. Duke Ellington (20)

Fourth Round (8): I voted for 2 (of 4) winners, %50.

  • The Beatles (41) v. The Rolling Stones (33)
  • Bob Dylan (40) v. James Brown (25)
  • Public Enemy (51) v. Kanye West (11)
  • Louis Armstrong (34) v. Miles Davis (23)

Now, consider some of the paths to get to the final four:

  • In groups, I voted for Parliament/Funkadelic, who lost to Velvet Underground; I voted for Velvet Underground, who lost to Rolling Stones; I voted for Rolling Stones, who lost to Beatles; I voted for the Beatles over Wussy and The Who, but not over Talking Heads.
  • In individuals, I voted for Bob Marley and Ray Charles, who both lost to Elvis Presley; I voted for Elvis Presley, who lost to Bob Dylan; I voted for James Brown four times -- the last he lost to Bob Dylan.
  • In hip-hop, I voted for Public Enemy every time.
  • In jazz, I voted for Louis Armstrong every time; but had Duke Ellington beat Miles Davis, I would have voted for Ellington over Armstrong.

Fifth Round (4):

  • Louis Armstrong (42) v. Public Enemy (11)
  • Bob Dylan (38) v. The Beatles (32)

In voting for the Beatles over Dylan, I finally complained:

Finding myself increasingly indifferent as this grinds on, probably because I've voted against so many of the "winners" along the way. I voted for the Rolling Stones over the Beatles (a choice that dates to 1966), also Talking Heads. I voted for Velvet Underground over the Rolling Stones, and Parlifunkadelicment over VU. I voted for James Brown over Dylan; also voted for Elvis Presley and Al Green over Dylan, so both contenders are at best 5th in their bracket. Voted for Bob Marley and Ray Charles over Presley, so make Dylan more like 7th (or 8th: voted for Dylan over Sprinsgsteen but wouldn't have picked him over Madonna, eliminated by Springsteen in 1st round; or 9th: it took James Brown to eliminate Neil Young).

I suppose this looks like I'm badmouthing Dylan and the Beatles. My database shows 12 A-list records for the Beatles (9 albums and 3 comps; add in solo albums and you get 12 + 4). Dylan actually does a bit better: 14 + 5. Those numbers probably top some of the people I voted for against them. Let's see:

  • Talking Heads (7 + 2; w/David Byrne 11 + 2)
  • Velvet Underground (6 + 4; w/Lou Reed/John Cale/Moe Tucker 23 + 8)
  • Parliafunkadelicment (10 + 4; w/George Clinton/Bootsy 18 + 6)
  • Al Green (12 + 6)
  • Madonna (11 + 2)
  • James Brown (12 + 7)
  • Ray Charles (1 + 3)
  • Elvis Presley (5 + 5)
  • Neil Young (22 + 2)
  • Bob Marley (9 + 2)
  • The Rolling Stones (18 + 8)
  • Bruce Springsteen (7 + 0)

Charles and Presley are at a disadvantage: their LPs were mostly replaced by compilations by the time I started catching up with them. I was, however, familiar with albums by Dylan, Beatles, and Rolling Stones as they came out in the 1960s, although I paid much less attention to Dylan.

Postscript (Sept. 22):

Sixth Round (2):

  • Louis Armstrong (34) v. Bob Dylan (33)

Surprised by that result. I don't have the data still available, but Dylan was comfortably ahead when I voted.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Kissinger Disorder

Every year dozens of books are published about a topic that only a handful of Americans care about: specifically, those with cushy "think tank" jobs, plus a few military officers and State department bureaucrats who aspire to those jobs. Most assume that the US has a rightful role running the World Order, with some fretting that China or some other nation is going to butt in and offering sage advice on how the US can secure its rightful role. Against these stalwart hegemonists, now and then someone will argue that a "multipolar" isn't such a calamity, but they are in the minority, and are still so obsessed with dominance they needn't fear about losing their status as Very Serious Thinkers.

The books, of course, are nonsense, predicated on unexamined ideas: that chaos and war are the natural state of the world, that order is so valuable you have to accept it from whoever can impose it, that inequality is the best we can do given man's venal nature. That is, of course, the way conservatives think about everything. Unfortunately, it is also the way liberals usually think about the foreign world, given how readily they have sucked up the prejudices of the West's imperial past. In 2003 Jonathan Schell published an antidote to that kind of thinking, a book called The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. It was published just as the neocon ideology had become fashionable and powerful enough to "create new reality" in Iraq, and predicted failure for such hubris. Ten years later the results should be clear, but still the foreign policy elite natters on, too absorbed in their own prejudiced thoughts to have noticed their failures.

Case in point: a new book called World Order by America's most venerable war criminal, Henry Kissinger. Fortunately, we don't have to actually read the book: we can skim through the New York Times' review by John Micklethwait -- editor-in-chief of The Economist, the kind of journalist who makes his living chronicling the rarefied world of conservative "think tanks." (Micklethwait's most famous book is The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, which every 4-5 pages reiterated the mantra that conservatives are America's "idea people." He also wrote A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization [2001] and God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World [2009], extolling the wonders of free capital flows and fundamentalism, respectively. His latest is The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, about how the future belongs to oligarchies that are able to usurp the powers of the state.) Rarely has reviewer and subject been so perfectly matched to bring out the worst in a book.

However, before we dive into the review, I should point out that there is an alternative approach to international relations that is wholly absent in the thinking of Kissinger and Micklethwait: the idea that order can be obtained through the consent of equal nations with a common commitment to basic, inalienable human rights and a just body of international law. In the wake of two horrific world wars, and the advent of even more destructive nuclear weapons, that idea got so far as the founding documents of the United Nations -- before that body got turned into a cartel of superpowers -- and the basic ideas have reappeared occasionally since. I could elaborate more, but for now just keep the idea in mind.


The first quarter of Micklethwait's review is sheer flattery:

If you want to understand the point of Henry Kissinger, play this mind game: Imagine that the nonagenarian had run American foreign policy since Sept. 11, 2001, instead of two groups that had spent much of the previous quarter-century condemning him. First came the democracy-touting neoconservatives, who saw his realpolitik as appeasement, and now liberal Democrats, who insist nation-building must begin at home -- and therefore hate foreign entanglements, let alone grand strategies.

Might a little realism have been useful in Iraq, rather than the "stuff happens" amateurism of the Bush years? Would a statesman who read Winston Churchill on Afghanistan ("except at harvest time . . . the Pathan [Pashtun] tribes are always engaged in private or public war") have committed America to establishing a "gender sensitive . . . and fully representative" government in Kabul? Would Kissinger have issued a red-line warning to Syria and then allowed Assad to go unpunished when he used chemical weapons? Or let a power vacuum gradually develop on Vladimir Putin's borders? Or looked on as the South China Sea became a cockpit of regional rivalries? [ . . . ]

Yes, passion, for this is a cri de coeur from a famous skeptic, a warning to future generations from an old man steeped in the past. It comes with faults: It is contorted by the author's concerns about his legacy and by a needless craving not to upset the Lilliputian leaders he still seeks to influence. It also goes over some of the same ground as previous works. But it is a book that every member of Congress should be locked in a room with -- and forced to read before taking the oath of office.

It's not as if Kissinger didn't have the ear of the Bush Administration after 9/11. He was, after all, Bush's first pick to chair the commission that would report on the 9/11 attacks. (He turned the job down for fear of having to disclose who his consulting clients were.) If he had any reservations about Bush's approach to Iraq or anything, he was remarkably circumspect about voicing them. And since when has Churchill been an expert on anything? He always said he hadn't been elected to preside over the dismantling of the British Empire, but no one did more to wreck it, which he repeatedly did by insisting on substituting his prejudices for any understanding of or empathy for the empire's subjects. On the other hand, Kissinger's own record is nearly as bad. The suggestion that he would have handled Syria and Ukraine better than Obama has -- admittedly a low bar -- overlooks how much his own policies contributed to those conflicts today.

The premise is that we live in a world of disorder: [ . . . ] Hence the need to build an order -- one able to balance the competing desires of nations, both the established Western powers that wrote the existing international "rules" (principally the United States), and the emerging ones that do not accept them, principally China, but also Russia and the Islamic world.

This will be hard because there never has been a true world order. Instead, different civilizations have come up with their own versions. The Islamic and Chinese ones were almost entirely self-­centered: [ . . . ] America's version, though more recent and more nuanced, is also somewhat self-centered -- a moral order where everything will be fine once the world comes to its senses and thinks like America (which annoyingly it never quite does). So the best starting point remains Europe's "Westphalian" balance of power.

The Westphalia treaties ended the 30 Years War in 1648 with a set of agreements between nations/states/cities to respect each other's autonomy and work with each other in prescribed ways. This later led to an ever-adjusting set of alliances to maintain a balance of power -- which mostly worked to keep the peace in Europe (and to export war to the third world) until its colossal failure in 1914. Kissinger always thinks in the past, and far enough back as to ignore recent novelties like the European Union, so balance of power is the best he can do. Unlike the neocons, he recognizes that the US isn't the sole power in the world, one suspects this has less to do with realism than with the fact that it takes multiple powers to balance.

After all, while the neocons hate Kissinger, he has never really reciprocated. The reason, I think, is that both worship power. It's just that the neocons think they have so much power they can create their own reality, and Kissinger, well, he's never been to type to point out "the Emperor's new clothes" -- he's too much of a flatterer for that, too worshipful of power.

The review goes on and on iterating Kissinger's past examples, a litany of Richelieu, Metternich, Palmerston, Talleyrand -- curiously enough, courtiers like Kissinger and not the monarchs they served. Kissinger goes on to belittle the European Union:

. . . as Kissinger notes in one of his more withering asides, unifications in Europe have only been achieved with a forceful uniter, like Piedmont in Italy or Prussia in Germany.

For Kissinger, historical change not accomplished by force hardly counts. Then he explains Putin and Russia:

Kissinger also canters eloquently through Russia. Vladimir Putin's nationalism makes more sense once you understand the historical chip on his shoulder and his country's centuries-long, remorseless expansion: Russia added an average of 100,000 square kilometers a year to its territory from 1552 to 1917.

Again, nothing like a historical factoid to explain away current behavior or policy. This one is about as facile as trying to explain the Bush occupation of Iraq as the latest wrinkle on Manifest Destiny. It may indeed be that a nation capable of the former is predisposed to the latter, but that leaves a lot of intervening history unexamined in favor of a pat answer.

Still, the book stalls a bit with Islam. Religion used to be one of Kissinger's blind spots: The word does not appear in the index of Diplomacy. Now Kissinger seems to have swung too far the other way. Islam's failure to differentiate between mosque and state suddenly explains virtually everything (though not, presumably, the success of the largest Muslim-dominated state, Indonesia). Iran is perfidy personified. By contrast, Israel is a victim, "a Westphalian state" in a sea of unreason. He does not mention its unhelpful settlement-building or examine the Jewish state's own extremists (the man who killed the peacemaking Yitzhak Rabin is a "radical Israeli student"). It all feels like a rather belated olive branch to the Israeli right and its supporters in America's Congress.

I suppose this is where you notice that Micklethwait is British: he can't quite fall for the poor, tiny, beleaguered Israel line that is political orthodoxy in the US. Kissinger has been around the block enough to know better too, but to say so would take principles, or courage, neither a Kissinger staple. Propounding ignorance about Islam, on the other hand, takes neither. It's right up his alley.

The book recovers speed with Asia. Kissinger compares Britain's effect on India to Napoleon's on Germany: In both cases multiple states that had seen themselves only as a geographic entity discovered a national one.

Another remarkable example of Kissinger's ability to look at al the complexities of history and only see power relationships, then to take the narrowest thread and explicate it through some totally unrelated event in European history. Sure, Britain united India politically -- more Bismarck than Napoleon, I'd say, until they also split it into two warring halves -- but they also destroyed India economically. (One thing I wonder is whether Kissinger would have been so successful had stayed in Europe, where his audiences and patrons might actually know much of the history he revels in.)

There is some repetition here with his last book on China, but he moves quickly through the Middle Kingdom's self-absorbed history, where foreign policy was largely a matter of collecting tribute through the emperor's Ministry of Rituals and where soldiery was little valued ("Good iron is not used for nails. Good men do not become soldiers"). In 1893, even as Western forces were overrunning the country, the Qing dynasty diverted military funds to restore a marble boat in the Imperial Palace.

Middle Kingdom? Another example of forcing the present into the distant past so he can avoid having to understand what's happening there. I like the line -- "Good men do not become soldiers" -- but modern China does not lack for soldiers, or for nails. While modern China must in some sense continue to reflect and resonate ancient China, the nation's remarkable economic growth of the past 20-30 years is more due to forced modernization. This is a modern (perhaps even postmodern) phenomenon -- unexplainable through ancient history, but also non-analogous to the processes that created similar results in Europe and America. In particular, China (and most of East Asia, Japan a partial exception) achieved its wealth without building on imperialism, so is unlikely to look at the world the same way Europe and America do. Needless to say, that's a thought Kissinger is incapable of.

Is modern America capable of leading the world out of this? Kissinger never answers this question directly, but the chapters on his own country read like a carefully worded warning to a treasured but blinkered friend. America comes to the task with two deep character faults. The first, bound up with its geography, is a perception that foreign policy is "an optional activity." As late as 1890, its army was only the 14th largest in the world, smaller than Bulgaria's. This is a superpower that has withdrawn ignominiously from three of the last five wars it chose to fight -- in Vietnam, Iraq (the younger Bush version), Afghanistan. The second is that the same ideals that have built a great country often made it lousy at diplomacy, especially "the conviction that its domestic principles were self-evidently universal and their application at all times salutary" -- the naïveté of Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations and the neoconservatives' forays in the Islamic world. [ . . . ]

But the current disorder is more complex: chaos in the Middle East, the spread of nuclear weapons, the emergence of cyberspace as an unregulated military arena and the reordering of Asia. The challenge is "not simply a multipolarity of power but a world of increasingly contradictory realities," Kissinger writes. "It must not be assumed that, left unattended, these trends will at some point reconcile automatically to a world of balance and cooperation -- or even any order at all." [ . . . ]

How do America's current leaders shape up? Here the book is both irritatingly coy and implicitly devastating. There is no direct criticism of the Obama administration and even a slightly comic paragraph expressing Kissinger's deep personal admiration for George W. Bush -- in the midst of a section on the cluelessness of his foreign policy. But under the equivocation and the courtiership, the message is clear, even angry: The world is drifting, unattended, and America, an indispensable part of any new order, has yet to answer even basic questions, like "What do we seek to prevent?" and "What do we seek to achieve?"

One of my favorite rock lyrics is from the band Camper van Beethoven, and goes like this: "If you weren't living here in America/you'd probably be somewhere else." There are several problems with being self-centered. One is that you can't see yourself as others see you, and as such you have no clue when you do something wrong. Back when the US army was smaller than Bulgaria's it still did things that were wrong -- 1890, the very year Micklethwait cites, was the date of the Wounded Knee Massacre -- but those wrong things were much smaller in scope and more isolated from the rest of the world than they are today. I don't know why Kissinger/Micklethwait complained about the size of the 1890 army. Back then, the US was already the most prosperous nation in the world, without getting into the trap of managing overseas colonies (although it often treated Central America like one). Nor was the US isolated: with the possible exception of the UK, no nation traded more all around the world. What more do they want?

The notion of America as an "indispensable nation" dates from WWII, when latent industrial might turned the tables against the Axis -- although we conveniently forget that most of the actual fighting was carried out by the Soviet Union and China. Unfortunately, Americans had too good a time in that war -- a massive Keynesian stimulus, strict profit controls, and a sense of common purpose pushed a previously depressed economy into overdrive, while all of the war's destruction took place elsewhere. By the time the war was over, over half of the world's industrial capacity resided in the US, and America alone had the financial power to jumpstart the world economy. After some early gestures to build a peaceful world community, Truman got distracted and decided that the US should side with capital in the international class war, so efforts like the Marshall Plan were turned into political weapons against not just the Soviet Union but the whole working class. The "Cold War" somehow managed not to destroy the world, but the US repeatedly supported desperate attempts by colonial powers to recapture their empires, and corrupt dictators and oligarchs when independence was inevitable, while isolating nations that had the gall to turn toward communism. Ultimately, the big loser of the Cold War wasn't the Soviet Union, which gave up the game, but America's own middle class democracy.

Micklethwait, possibly echoing but at least distilling Kissinger, described the Cold War thusly:

In the Cold War, America's moral order worked: There was a clear adversary that could eventually just be outmuscled, there were compliant allies and there were set rules of engagement.

After the Soviet Union fell, America's foreign policy elites were beside themselves with triumphal glee -- proclaiming The End of History and looking forward to The Clash of Civilizations -- but their triumph was little more than a con. Had Reagan's rhetoric caused the Soviet Union to disintegrate, why did communist states the US confronted much more aggressively (like Cuba and North Korea) stay communist? If communism was a dead end, how was China able to post the world's strongest economic growth record over the last 25 years? Moreover, when you sift through the real rubble of the "Cold War" you find enormous chasms where the US took the wrong side of history and left enormous destruction in its wake: the "chaos in the Middle East" that Micklethwait bemoans is largely the result of America's Cold War embrace of Salafist jihadism -- a program, by the way, initiated in the 1970s when Henry Kissinger came up with the bright idea of propping the ultraconservative Saudi monarchy up as a US proxy in the Middle East (and soon thereafter Afghanistan). To say "America's moral order worked" is well beyond insane.

This isn't to say that the US should have no role in the world (although that would clearly be an improvement over the one the US has practiced for nearly seventy years now). Clearly there are useful and valuable things a large and rich nation can do in the world -- the $750 million Obama just proposed to fight the ebola epidemic is a nice gesture (although, as Nick Turse recently documented, the US has a terrible track record of running "humanitarian projects" in Africa). But what needs to be done is for the US to meet other countries in forums that give everyone a fair and equal shake, and for that to happen the US has to stop throwing its weight around, trying to bully everyone else into submission. More specifically, the US needs to develop a genuine commitment to peace and human rights, to equality and justice, to a sustainable stewardship of the earth. To do that, a good first step would be to stop listening to Henry Kissinger. In fact, a good step would be to extradite him to the Hague, to finally be tried as the war criminal he was (and is).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 23814 [23775] rated (+39), 528 [524] unrated (+4).

After posting Rhapsody Streamnotes last Tuesday, I kept diving into the old music, moving from Julius Hemphill to Henry Threadgill, then to Steve Lacy (still not done there). I was surprised to find that I liked the two early albums so much (both *** in Penguin Guide; I went back and replayed the 4-star all-Monk Explorations but left it at B+). And I was further surprised that none of the later albums rated that high -- though I am just filling in holes in a catalog I've previously heard much of. (Before this week I had 37 albums rated filed under Lacy's name; now 51; there are still 21 unheard albums in the database.) For the record, I previously had the following Lacy records rated A- or A (counting one filed under Roswell Rudd's name):

  • School Days (w/Roswell Rudd, 1963)
  • The Forest and the Zoo (1966)
  • Esteem: Live in Paris (1975)
  • Regeneration (w/Roswell Rudd and others, 1982)
  • Morning Joy: Live at Sunset Paris (1986)
  • Sempre Amore (w/Mal Waldron, 1986)
  • One More Time (w/Joëlle Léandre, 2002)
  • Early and Late (w/Roswell Rudd, 1962-2002)

A couple of those came out after his death in 2003. I suppose I should also note that Lacy has more low grades (B or below) than nearly any other jazz musician of his stature: I find a lot of his 1970s work to be very sloppy, and I have a lot of trouble any time he hands the mic to his wife, Irène Aëbi (although my horror has somewhat diminished with this latest batch of records). He also has a lot of solo albums that are intrinsically limited -- Only Monk (1985) is one of the B records, even though it seems like it should be better. Some more in the queue, and any time I find something more I'll give it a listen.

Not many new records: most of last week's haul came in today and barely got catalogued. Spent a lot of time with the two TUM records. It should be noted somewhere that they have the best documentation and packaging of any jazz label in the world. Also spent quite a bit of time with Lomax, whose 2010 album, The State of Black America, made that year's top-ten list. Saxophonist Edwin Bayard is key to both, one of the most powerful young players I've heard this decade.

I've kept the original tweet grade for Loudon Wainwright III below, but the database grade is somewhat more generous. Although I single out one extraordinarily bad song, it should be noted that nothing else on the album rises to the level of Older Than My Old Man Now (my top-ranked record of 2012). Also, my complaint about that "2nd Amendment Xmas anthem" isn't political (as I tweeted, "even if it's satirical and anti-gun"). Some brilliant ideas just don't work, nor do stupid ones, regardless of artistic license. (By the way, Matt Rice has a more judicious Wainwright review here.)


Recommended music links:

  • Robert Christgau: Expert Witness: first installment of the new Consumer Guide focuses on alt-rap records: Atmosphere, The Roots, Homeboy Sandman, Open Mike Eagle; three A-, two HMs. More coming each Friday. There's also an interview with Christgau where he pegs Black Portland as his favorite album of the year. I thought Atmosphere and The Roots might have some upward potential when I reviewed them back when, but I didn't get anything promising out of Black Portland -- although Tatum, Rice, and others did.


New records rated this week:

  • Ryan Adams: Ryan Adams (2014, Blue Note): singer-songwriter narrowly framed, both on cover and with guitar, as if we should pay more attention, but should we? [r]: B
  • Jason Adasiewicz's Sun Rooms: From the Region (2013 [2014], Delmark): vibes-bass-drums trio with Flaten & Reed, doing much to let the leader roam/soar [cd]: B+(***)
  • Kalle Kalima & K-18: Buñuel de Jour (2013 [2014], TUM): guitarist, quartet adds bass, accordion, and alto sax, all melting together, thick & juicy [cd]: B+(***)
  • The Mark Lomax Trio: Isis & Osiris (2012 [2014], Inarhyme): drags early, but Edwin Bayard's sax is often mesmerizing, drummer pretty good too [cd]: A-
  • Wadada Leo Smith: The Great Lakes Suites (2012 [2014], TUM, 2CD): another 2CD monster but spare, with Henry Threadgill jousting, Lindberg & DeJohnette [cd]: B+(***)
  • Loudon Wainwright III: Haven't Got the Blues (Yet) (2014, 429): pretty good album, as usual, except for that 2nd Amendment Xmas anthem [r]: D-

Old records rated this week:

  • John Wolf Brennan/Alex Cline/Daniele Patumi/Tscho Theissing/John Voirol: Shooting Stars and Traffic Lights (1993-97 [2006], Leo): [r]: B+(**)
  • Julius Hemphill: Raw Materials and Residuals (1977 [1993], Black Saint): early sax trio with cello and percussion, explosive postbop, seductive melodies [r]: A-
  • Julius Hemphill/Warren Smith: Chile New York (1980 [1998], Black Saint): sax-percussion duets, kind of sketchy as improv can sometimes be [r]: B+(**)
  • The Julius Hemphill Sextet: At Dr. King's Table (1997, New World): ghost band, six-piece sax choir laying out some of his most storied harmonies [r]: B+(***)
  • The Julius Hemphill Sextet: The Hard Blues: Live in LisbonB+(***)
  • Jay Clayton & John Lindberg: As Tears Go By (1987 [2014], Jazzwerkstatt): half tortured voals, half String Trio of New York, some pretty great Marty Ehrlich [r]: B+(*)
  • Steve Lacy: Soprano Sax (1957 [1991], Prestige/OJC): first album, shows his horn off on Monk & Ellington, with very engaging Wynton Kelly on piano [r]: A-
  • Steve Lacy: The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy (1960 [1985], Candid): mostly trio as Lacy lays out his unique soprano sax style, covering Monk, Parker, and Taylor [r]: A-
  • Steve Lacy with Don Cherry: Evidence (1961 [1990], New Jazz/OJC): two-horn quartet with bass/drums, indecisive squabbles over the usual fare (Ellington, Monk) [r]: B+(***)
  • Steve Lacy: Scratching the Seventies/Dreams (1969-77 [1997], Saravah, 3CD): box rolls up 5 albums as Lacy gets weird, often several ways at once [r]: B+(*)
  • Steve Lacy/Andrea Centazzo: Clangs (1977 [2006], Ictus): soprano sax and percussion duets, a rickety contraption with whistles, bird calls, clanging [r]: B+(**)
  • Steve Lacy Quintet: Troubles (1979, Black Saint): tricky, slippery tunes with Steve Potts on second sax, Irene Aebi on violin or cello (or voice) [r]: B+(***)
  • Steve Lacy: The Flame (1982, Soul Note): trio with Bobby Few (piano) and Dennis Charles (drums), bits of genius and bouts of flailing [r]: B+(*)
  • Steve Lacy/Mal Waldron: Live in Berlin (1984 [2007], Jazzwerkstatt): typical mix for frequent duet partners, can get dense, also somewhat fanciful [r]: B+(**)
  • Steve Lacy: More Monk (1989 [1991], Soul Note): solo soprano sax, all Monk tunes, played fairly straight but stripped to bare bones [r]: B+(*)
  • Steve Lacy/Mal Waldron: "Let's Call This . . . Esteem" (1993, Slam): duo, one of many they've done but too often they play past one another [r]: B+(**)
  • Steve Lacy Trio: The Rent (1997 [1999], Cavity Search, 2CD): trio, with Jean-Jacques Avenel and John Betsch, live before enthusiastic crowd, stretches into 2CD [r]: B+(***)
  • Steve Lacy Trio: The Holy La (1998 [2002], Freelance): same trio, cut in studio in France, lovely kalimba stretch, two Aebi vocals (not too bad) [r]: B+(***)
  • Steve Lacy: The Beat Suite (2001 [2003], Sunnyside): fine texts from famous beat poets, slippery and kinky music as only Lacy can, starchy vocals [r]: B
  • Steve Lacy: November (2003 [2010], Intakt): solo soprano sax, probably his last, a nice summation of his art; one vocals shows he can't sing either [r]: B+(**)
  • John Lindberg: Trilogy of Works for Eleven Instrumentalists (1984 [1985], Black Saint): belabored title and scores but somehow comes together impressively [r]: B+(***)
  • John Lindberg: Quartet Afterstorm (1994, Black Saint): bassist-led, but trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff and pianist Eric Watson star in taut ensemble [r]: A-
  • John Lindberg Ensemble: A Tree Frog Tonality (2000, Between the Lines): quartet with Wadada Leo Smith and Larry Ochs bursting out, Andrew Cyrille superb [r]: B+(***)
  • Pago Libre: Stepping Out (2004 [2005], Leo): pianist John Wolf Brennan's avant-chamber group, violin dominating alphorn/flugelhorn, no drums [r]: B+(***)
  • Henry Threadgill Sextett: You Know the Number (1986 [1987], Jive/Novus): three horns, cello, bass, two percussionists, a boisterous avant-garde circus [r]: A-
  • Henry Threadgill Sextett: Easily Slip Into Another World (1987 [1988], Jive/Novus): picks up where predecessor left off, more or less inspired, vocal ok [r]: B+(***)
  • Henry Threadgill: Song Out of My Trees (1993 [1994], Black Saint): five pieces all over the map, like a grieving vocal over accordion/harpsichord/cellos [r]: B+(**)


Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Rashied Al Akbar/Muhammad Ali/Earl Cross/Idris Ackamoor: Ascent of the Nether Creatures (NoBusiness): CDR [LP only]
  • Daniel Blacksberg Trio: Perilous Architecture (NoBusiness): CDR [LP only]
  • Gianni Lenoci/Kent Carter/Bill Elgart: Plaything (NoBusiness): CDR [LP only]
  • Jack Cooper: Mists: Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra (Planet Arts)
  • William Hooker & Liudas Mockunas: Live at the Vilnius Jazz Festival (NoBusiness)
  • Peripheral Vision: Sheer Tyranny of the Will (self-released)
  • RED Trio & Mattias Ståhl: North and the Red Stream (NoBusiness)
  • Ken Thomson and Slow/Fast: Settle (2014, NCM East)
  • Rosenna Vitro: Clarity: Music of Clare Fischer (Random Act): September 30

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Weekend Roundup: ISIS Edition

On September 10, getting a jump on the unlucky 13th anniversary of Al-Qaida's planes attacks, President Obama laid out his plans for the fourth US invasion and assault on Iraq:

Barack Obama became the fourth consecutive American president to deliver a prime time speech to the nation about Iraq on Wednesday, vowing to wage "a steady, relentless effort" to wipe out ISIS, the Sunni militant group in Iraq and Syria which recently beheaded two American journalists.

"Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy," Obama said.

The president was quick to emphasize that this won't be a war like Iraq or Afghanistan, instead likening it to U.S. engagement in Yemen and Somalia. He said it "will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil," and will instead involve "using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground" to attack ISIS (also called ISIL).

"If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region -- including to the United States," Obama said. He stressed that the strategy will be conducted with global allies, saying the four elements of his plan are air strikes, support for rebel forces on the ground, counter-terrorism and intelligence and humanitarian assistance to civilians.

[Some quick notes: the second invasion of Iraq was under Clinton, when US forces drove Saddam Hussein's forces out of the Kurdish enclave; that was done without a military engagement, although Clinton also conducted a sporadic air war against Iraq over much of his two terms, a practice Bush continued upon taking office in 2001. US troops first entered Somalia in 1992, so how is that working? The first person Obama ordered killed was a Somali pirate in 2009. The US killed a leader of Al-Shabab there as recently as Sept. 2. The US started using drones over Yemen to assassinate alleged terrorists in 2002, so that, too, is at best a slowly evolving "success" story.]

As usual, Obama managed to offend everyone with his position -- the hawks for not acting sooner and more recklessly; the rest of us for throwing us back into another pointless, hopeless war. For a guy who claims his first principle of foreign policy is "don't do stupid shit," Obama just blew it. As near as I can tell, he did this for three reasons:

  1. When US troops finally left Iraq, due to the Iraqi government's refusal to sign a "status of forces agreement" that would give US troops immunity to commit crimes against Iraqis (as they had been doing since 2003), Obama chose to celebrate the occasion as a great American success story, and as such he became party to a war that he had campaigned against. So when the success story unraveled and Iraq sank back into a civil war that the US had started by turning Shiite death squads against Sunnis, Obama felt obligated to repair the damage, even where Bush and 160,000 US troops had failed. (Obama made a similar gaffe when he touted a false recovery from the Bush recession, leading people to think he was responsible for the whole crash.) The net effect is that Obama is willing to destroy his own reputation in order to salvage Bush's. That sure isn't the "change" millions of people voted for Obama to bring about.

  2. Obama is a pushover, and he let himself get snowed here. A lot of people have been pushing for war against ISIS lately, and they've painted the group as unspeakably evil, pulling out every cliché and playing on every prejudice that has ever been used to sell Americans on a war in the Middle East. Granted, most of the people who've been agitating for war against ISIS were already trying to push the US into war in Syria against ISIS' primary enemy, the Assad regime. Many of them belong to the "real men go to Tehran" faction that wanted to extend the 2003 invasion of Iraq to overthrow the governments of Iran and Syria. But all the publicity of ISIS' beheadings and massacres has gripped people initially inclined against escalating a war, even, some would say, the Pope (but see this for a more nuanced reading). For someone like Obama, who periodically feels the need to prove he's no pacifist, the chance to vanquish a foe as abhorent as ISIS was irresistible.

  3. Finally, Obama has outsmarted himself, thinking his peculiar combination of aggression (bombing, special forces) and restraint (no regular combat troops) will work magic while avoiding the risks, the abuse and blowback that inevitably follows American troops all around the world. The fact remains that no matter how light or heavy you go in, bombing will inevitably kill the wrong people, intelligence will inevitably be incomplete or faulty, and the proxy forces that the plan so relies on will have their own agendas, ones that will become more rigid with the commitment of American support.

Perhaps the worst thing about Obama's speech and the policies he previously put into place is the open-ended commitment he's made to the very same Iraqi political leaders whose misbehavior made ISIS appear to many Iraqis (Sunnis, anyway) to be the lesser evil. Now they know that when they fuck up again the Americans will have to stick with them, because the US can never afford to lose face. (On the other hand, maybe they should review the story of Ngo Dinh Diem.) But nearly every aspect of the speech/plan is flawed. ISIS came into existence in the crucible of Syria's civil war, and some group like it will inevitably reappear as long as the civil war goes on, so it will prove impossible to stop ISIS without also ending Syria's civil war. Chances of that are thin as Obama has sided with the rebels against Assad, not realizing that the most prominent rebel group is ISIS, and that the US-favored "moderates" are firmly aligned with ISIS. The situation in Iraq is no simpler, with the US fighting in favor of the central government against ISIS but also siding with Kurdish separatists against the central government. The desire to work through proxies adds complexity, but perhaps not quite the mess of a full-blown invasion and its inevitably messy occupation. Plus you have the problem of managing domestic expectations. Obama came out with a clever limited intervention plan in the much simpler context of Libya and, well, look at how that blew up. Obama put a lot of emphasis on the counterinsurgency doctrine Gen. McChrystall tried to implement in Afghanistan, and failed totally at. American soldiers are peculiarly inept at fighting Muslims, yet the are held on such high pedestals by politicians like Obama that their repeated failures are overlooked. Similarly, the diplomatic alliances the US will surely need are often unapproachable due to other conflicts -- Iran and Russia are the major cases, but the traditional wink-and-nod green light for Saudia Arabia to finance groups like ISIS also comes into play.

And one should probe deeper, although there is little chance that Obama will. Nothing is so opaque to those who believe that "America is a light unto the nations" as the actual past behavior of the US. Since the 1970s the US has financed Jihadis, and has encouraged the Saudis and others to actively proselytize their fundamentalist brand of Islam, even as it has turned back against us. Similarly, America's Cold War ideology, still very much institutionalized, keeps us from working in any meaningful way to with liberal, socialist, or any kind of progressive movements in the Middle East.

The US government is similarly ignorant about ISIS, as are the American people -- even more so as they only enter the equation as targets for propaganda, where ISIS is made to look at evil as possible while the good intentions and great deeds of the US are never subject to scrutiny. We are, after all, the leader of the free world, as such obliged to act to defend civilization, something no one else has the resources or moral character to do. And so on, blah, blah, blah. To be sure, part of the problem here is that ISIS hasn't been running the sort of media relations program that, say, the Israelis mount when they go on a five-week killing binge like they did this summer in Gaza. Rather, ISIS has contemptuously killed journalists who might have helped them get their story out. They must, after all, have stories: even the Taliban, who weren't much better at PR, could go around the room and recount the lost limbs and eyes that scarred nearly every one of their commanders. Like the Taliban, ISIS sprung from the killing fields of despotic regimes and foreign occupiers.

I'm not aware of any journalist who has gotten close enough to ISIS to present their side of the story, although Nir Rosen's In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq (2006) and Dahr Jamail's Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq (2007) got relatively close to earlier generations of anti-US resistance fighters in Iraq. The journalist who has written the most about ISIS is Patrick Cockburn, who wrote The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (2006), and who has a new book on ISIS: The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising. For a sampling of his recent writings on ISIS, see:

Some quotes from Cockburn's Sept. 9 piece:

The US and its allies face a huge dilemma which is largely of their own making. Since 2011 Washington's policy, closely followed by the UK, has been to replace President Bashar al-Assad, but among his opponents Isis is now dominant. Actions by the US and its regional Sunni allies led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Turkey, which were aimed at weakening Mr Assad, have in practice helped Isis. [ . . . ]

So far it looks as if Mr Obama will dodge the main problem facing his campaign against Isis. He will not want to carry out a U-turn in US policy by allying himself with President Assad, though the Damascus government is the main armed opposition to Isis in Syria. He will instead step up a pretense that there is a potent "moderate" armed opposition in Syria, capable of fighting both Isis and the Syrian government at once. Unfortunately, this force scarcely exists in any strength and the most important rebel movements opposed to Isis are themselves jihadis such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Front. Their violent sectarianism is not very different to that of Isis.

Lacking a moderate military opposition to support as an alternative to Isis and the Assad government, the US has moved to raise such a force under its own control. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), once lauded in Western capitals as the likely military victors over Mr Assad, largely collapsed at the end of 2013. The FSA military leader, General Abdul-Ilah al Bashir, who defected from the Syrian government side in 2012, said in an interview with the McClatchy news agency last week that the CIA had taken over direction of this new moderate force. He said that "the leadership of the FSA is American," adding that since last December US supplies of equipment have bypassed the FSA leadership in Turkey and been sent directly to up to 14 commanders in northern Syria and 60 smaller groups in the south of the country. Gen Bashir said that all these FSA groups reported directly to the CIA. Other FSA commanders confirmed that the US is equipping them with training and weapons including TOW anti-tank missiles.

It appears that, if the US does launch air strikes in Syria, they will be nominally in support of the FSA which is firmly under US control. The US is probably nervous of allowing weapons to be supplied to supposed moderates by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies which end up in the hands of Isis. The London-based small arms research organisation Conflict Armament Research said in a report this week that anti-tank rockets used by Isis in Syria were "identical to M79 rockets transferred by Saudi Arabia to forces operating under the Free Syrian Army umbrella in 2013."

In Syria and in Iraq Mr Obama is finding that his policy of operating through local partners, whose real aims may differ markedly from his own, is full of perils.


Some more links on Iraq, Syria, and ISIS:

  • Tony Karon: Obama promises a long and limited war on Islamic State:

    The IS thrives as a result of the alienation of Sunni citizenry by Syrian and Iraqi regimes and the breakdown of the central state in both countries. The Islamic State has taken advantage of the enduring hostility to U.S. intervention in the region -- and also of Washington's subsequent retreat and passivity. It trades off Iran's sectarian support for allied Shia militias, Gulf Arab support for equally sectarian Sunni militias and Turkish hostility to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which translates into an open border for thousands of international volunteers to cross and join the IS. The gradual collapse of the nation-state itself in Syria and Iraq has allowed the IS to break away from the transnational conspiracy strategy of its Al-Qaeda precursor to raise its black flag in a growing power vacuum that covers huge swathes of territory.

  • Phyllis Bennis: The Speech on Diplomacy That Obama Should Have Given Last Night:

    What's missing is a real focus, a real explanation to people in this country and to people and governments in the Middle East and around the world, on just what a political solution to the ISIS crisis would really require and what kind of diplomacy will be needed to get there.

    President Obama should have spent his fifteen minutes of prime time tonight talking about diplomacy. Instead of a four-part mostly military plan, he should have outlined four key diplomatic moves.

    First, recognize what it will take to change the political dynamics of sectarianism in Iraq. [ . . . ]

    Second, instead of a Coalition of the Killing, President Obama should have announced a new broad coalition with a political and diplomatic, not military, mandate. It should aim to use diplomatic power and financial pressures, not military strikes, to undermine ISIS power. [ . . . ]

    Third, the Obama administration should, perhaps this month while Washington holds the presidency of the UN Security Council, push to restart serious international negotiations on ending the complex set of multi-faceted wars in Syria. [ . . . ]

    Finally, an arms embargo on all sides should be on the long-term agenda.

    Without political agreement, there is no solution. All you can do with military power is try to shift the power relationships between the sides -- in the hope of getting a more favorable agreement. But if all you have are military goals, they are pointless. And the value of shifting those power relationships goes down if you're willing to consider an equitable agreement. No side can legitimately ask for more.

  • Paul Woodward: Is ISIS a terminal disease?:

    President Obama might have been slow to come up with a strategy for defeating ISIS but he seems to have been much more resolute in his choice of metaphor for describing the enemy.

    After James Foley was murdered, Obama said, "there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so it does not spread." A few days later he said: "Rooting out a cancer like [ISIS] won't be easy and it won't be quick." Again, last night he said: "it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL."

    Woodward offers three reasons why he thinks Obama like the cancer metaphor, concluding:

    Obama's political goal appears to be to secure support for an open-ended relatively low-key military operation that will be of such little concern to most Americans that it can continue for years without any real accountability.

    I'm less impressed by his "reasons" -- what struck me more from the quotes is (1) the assumption that it is his (or "our") body that has been struck by the cancer, and that therefore the US is entitled to treat it; and (2) how reducing the acts of people to the level of a disease sanitizes our process of killing those people.

  • John Cassidy: Obama's Strange Bedfellows: The Right Liked His Speech: Quotes from Rush Limbaugh, John Podhoretz, Charles Krauthammer, and Larry Kudlow applauding Obama's speech. (Podhoretz called it "the most Republican speech Barack Obama has ever given.") However, afterwards, the right started looking for high ground further to the right:

    If a vote takes place in Congress -- and, at this stage, it's unclear whether that will happen -- most G.O.P. members will likely express support for unleashing the U.S. military on the jihadis. (Opposing the President "would be a huge mistake," Kudlow warned.) The pressure from the right will be aimed at expanding Obama's war, not stopping it. More bombing; more U.S. service members involved; more everything. That will be the line.

    It's already being laid down, in fact. "Air strikes alone will not accomplish what we're trying to accomplish," House Speaker John Boehner said on Thursday. "Somebody's boots have to be on the ground." Some of Boehner's foot soldiers went further -- quite a bit further. "This is a stalemate strategy," said John Fleming, a Louisiana congressman who serves on the House Armed Services Committee. "I think that we would want to see an all-out war, shock and awe. We put troops on the ground, we put all of our assets there after properly prepping the battlefield, and in a matter of a few weeks we take these guys out."

    Of course, when you're the greatest power the world has ever known, all it should take is a few weeks.

  • Andrew J Bacevich: Obama is picking his targets in Iraq and Syria while missing the point: Starts off by trying to out-think David Brooks, offering that "the core problem" of the era is "a global conflict pitting tradition against modernity." That conflict exists, of course, but Jihadists aren't militant defenders of tradition. They belong to a more specific reaction, one in response to imperialist exploitation working through the corrupt elites of many Muslim countries, not against modernity's individualistic ethos. Still, the following point is well taken:

    Destroying what Obama calls the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant won't create an effective and legitimate Iraqi state. It won't restore the possibility of a democratic Egypt. It won't dissuade Saudi Arabia from funding jihadists. It won't pull Libya back from the brink of anarchy. It won't end the Syrian civil war. It won't bring peace and harmony to Somalia and Yemen. It won't persuade the Taliban to lay down their arms in Afghanistan. It won't end the perpetual crisis of Pakistan. It certainly won't resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    All the military power in the world won't solve those problems. Obama knows that. Yet he is allowing himself to be drawn back into the very war that he once correctly denounced as stupid and unnecessary -- mostly because he and his advisers don't know what else to do. Bombing has become his administration's default option.

    Rudderless and without a compass, the American ship of state continues to drift, guns blazing.

  • Fred Hof: We Can't Destroy ISIS Without Destroying Bashar al Assad First: Hof worked for the Obama administration 2009-12 and has not rotated to a Middle East policy think tank, so I count him as untrustworthy, but his main point strikes me as true:

    The Islamic State -- just like its parent, Al Qaeda in Iraq -- cannot be killed unless the causes of state failure in Syria and Iraq are addressed and rectified. Although such a task cannot be the exclusive or even principal responsibility of the American taxpayer, the president's strategy, its implementation, and its outcome will be incomplete if it remains solely one of counter-terrorism.

    The essential problem that has permitted the Islamic State to roam freely in parts of Iraq and Syria amounting in size to New England is state failure in both places. Redressing this failure is far beyond the unilateral capacity of the United States, as occupation in Iraq and ongoing operations in Afghanistan demonstrate. Still the fact remains that until Syria and Iraq move from state failure to political legitimacy -- to systems reflecting public consensus about the rules of the political game -- the Islamic State will remain undead no matter how many of its kings, queens, bishops, rooks, and pawns are swept from the table. And yet a strategy that does not address how America and its partners can influence the endgame -- keeping the Islamic State in its grave -- is simply incomplete.

    Hof refuses to consider the possibility that in order to kill ISIS the US could change sides and support Assad, possibly under some face-saving deal that would cut the "moderate" rebels some slack, maybe promising some democratic reforms to isolate ISIS. He basically wants to run the entire US Army through Damascus ("Airstrikes will not suffice . . . A ground element is essential, as it has been in Iraq.") What he doesn't explain is how, once Assad has been swept away, the US establishes a government in Syria that is broadly accepted by the bitterly-divided Syrian people as legitimate -- one cannot, for instance, point to US efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or Somalia as providing any comfort or confidence.

  • US Pins Hope on Syrian Rebels With Loyalties All Over the Map:

    After more than three years of civil war, there are hundreds of militias fighting President Bashar al-Assad -- and one another. Among them, even the more secular forces have turned to Islamists for support and weapons over the years, and the remaining moderate rebels often fight alongside extremists like the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria.

    "You are not going to find this neat, clean, secular rebel group that respects human rights and that is waiting and ready because they don't exist," said Aron Lund, a Syria analyst who edits the Syria in Crisis blog for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It is a very dirty war and you have to deal with what is on offer." [ . . . ]

    The Obama administration's plans to arm Syrian rebels have been troubled by false starts since April 2013, when Mr. Obama first authorized the C.I.A. to begin a secret training mission in Jordan.

    Months after the authorization, the White House still had not delivered details to Congress about the C.I.A.'s plans, and it was not until September 2013 that the first American-trained rebels returned to Syria from Jordan.

    To date, the C.I.A. mission in Jordan has trained 2,000 to 3,000 Syrian rebels, according to American and Arab officials.

    To expand the training, Mr. Obama announced a plan in June to spend up to $500 million for scores of American Special Forces troops to train up to 3,000 rebels over the next year. But the proposal languished on Capitol Hill as lawmakers complained that the plans lacked specific details. A revised plan now calls for as many as twice that number of fighters, analysts said.

    Even if Congress approves the Pentagon plan, as now appears likely after Mr. Obama's speech on Wednesday, military planners said it would be months before the fighters, to be trained at a base in Saudi Arabia, would be battle-ready.

    Fatigue from three years of war has left most of those forces exhausted and short of resources. Since pushing ISIS from parts of northern Syria early this year, Syria's rebels have few military advances to point to and in many areas have lost ground, to Mr. Assad's forces and to ISIS. But in many places they remain busy fighting Mr. Assad and are not eager to redirect their energies to ISIS -- even while many say they hate the group.

  • Rami G Khouri: Why Obama Has Picked the Worst Allies for His War on ISIS: Khouri thinks that the Arab states that Obama is trying to line up for the war against ISIS may be effective in the short-term but will only make Jihadism more prevalent in the future.

    The combination of foreign-led military power and local Arab government partners that must anchor a successful attack to vanquish the Islamic State is the precise combination of forces that originally midwifed the birth of Al-Qaeda in the 1980s and later spawned its derivative -- the Islamic State -- today. [ . . . ]

    The jails of Sunni-majority Arab regimes represent an important aspect of the mistreatment and humiliation that many prisoners experienced, especially those jailed for their political views rather than crimes. Their jail experiences ultimately convinced them to fight to topple their regimes as part of Al-Qaeda's aim to purify Islamic lands from apostate and corrupt leaderships.

    The fact that tens of thousands of Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, Sudanese and other Arabs are in jail today on often questionable charges -- including many in Gulf Cooperation Council states who are jailed simply for tweeting critical remarks about their governments -- suggests that Arab autocracy continues to define and plague the region as a driver of homegrown Arab radicalism and terrorism.

  • Moon of Alabama: The Caliphate's Anti-Imperial/Imperial Dualism: Asserts: "The Caliphate is based on original Wahhabi ideas which were in their essence also anti-colonial and at first directed against the Ottoman rulers." Those anti-imperial ideas also work against the US, but the juicier target is the Saudi royal family, which made the original pact with Abd al-Wahhab and, in their general subverience to the UK and US may be seen as not holding up their end of the deal. Much of this has to do with the way the Saudis distribute dividends on their oil. A small fraction of the money goes through the state to build a social welfare network which keeps the peace by making Saudi citizens wards of the state and elevating them above migrant workers who do the real work and are kept on very short leashes. But most of the money goes to the numerous princes of the royal family, who are much like the pampered scions of rich estates all over the world: spoiled, sheltered, conceited, given to flights of grandeur and folly. American bankers love these Saudi princes -- some are serious, but most are easy marks. The princes themselves are schizo: blessed with wealth they never earned, some turn into notorious playboys, some turn pious and shameful. The latter, plus some wealthy scions of non-royal families like Osama Bin Laden and their cohort in the Persian Gulf monarchies, are the ones who finance jihadists, who hire poor, disaffected Muslims to die for God, to expiate the sins of the Saudis. Of course, when the Americans come calling, the top Saudis are quick to condemn the traitors in their ranks, but they are less eager to cut them out because deep down they are trapped in their piety. The caliphate is a deep idea dating back to Muhammad himself -- indeed, the Turks wouldn't have made a mockery of it had it not worked -- so it's no surprise that its first appearance of reality should be so dramatic.

    The new Caliphate followers are copies of the original Wahhabis who do not recognize nation states as those were dictated by the colonial "western" overlords after the end of the Ottoman empire. They do not recognize rulers that deviate, like the Saudi kings do, from the original ideas and subordinate themselves to "western" empires. It is their aim to replace them. As there are many people in Saudi Arabia educated in Wahhabi theology and not particular pleased with their current rulers the possibility of a Caliphate rush to conquer Saudi Arabia and to overthrow the Ibn Saud family is real.

    In that aspect the Caliphate is anti-colonial and anti-imperial. That is part of what attracts its followers. At the same time the Caliphate project is also imperial in that it wants to conquer more land and wants to convert more people to its flavor of faith.

    Both of these aspects make it a competitor and a danger to imperial U.S. rule-by-proxy in the Middle East. That is, I believe, why the U.S. finally decided to fight it. To lose Saudi Arabia to the Caliphate, which seems to be a real possibility, would be a devastating defeat.

    The author cites two pieces by Alastair Crooke that are worth checking out: You Can't Understand ISIS If You Don't Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, and Middle East Time Bomb: The Real Aim of ISIS Is to Replace the Saud Family as the New Emirs of Arabia. A lot of interesting material in those two pieces. (One thing I didn't realize was that King Abdullah has made a number of reforms liberalizing Islamic law in Saudi Arabia: recognizing legal doctrines other than the Salafist, and Shiites to consult their own legal scholars. All this, of course, exacerbates the split with hardcore Wahhabists.)

    He also cites a "twitter story": Billmon on Doublethink in U.S. Foreign Policy. Punch line:

    Whether U.S. diplos still believe their liberal international bullshit isn't a particularly important question but it is interesting. I tend to think that they do: Both as classic Orwellian doublethink, a product of social conditioning, and on time-honored principle that a salesman has to believe in his/her product, no matter how fantastical. "Goes with the territory."

  • Richard Phillips/Stephan Richter: The dumbest US foreign policy question asked this century: Who "lost" Syria?

    And this begs the question: What are U.S. politicians saying when they say they want to save Syria?

    The answer to this can only be found in American hubris. Syria is not America's to save. The reality is that only Syrians can save Syria -- just as it is only Iraqis who can save Iraq and only Afghans who can save Afghanistan.

    Seeking an answer to the question "Who lost Syria?" is a foolhardy quest on the part of U.S. politicians. Rather than a serious question, it is just another manifestation of Washington's favorite political sport -- blamesmanship.

  • Davis Merritt: Americans not ready for the truth about ISIS: Former Wichita Eagle editor, usually a level-headed thinker, gets all wrapped up in the futility of wars in the Middle East:

    The religious extremism that defines the Middle East has been going on for more than a thousand years. The West has been involved for more than 900 of those years. From Pope Urban's first crusade in 1095 to President George W. Bush's ignorantly declared "crusade" amid the rubble of the World Trade Center, extremists on both sides have periodically fanned the flames.

    No American president can erase that history nor diminish its allure to radical Islamists who want to write the next chapter in our blood. Anyone who believes a few months of bombing can eradicate this latest iteration of religious intolerance is living a fantasy.

    Our 21st-century mindset doesn't tolerate lengthy wars; the half-life of our resolve is about 18 months. So the president best avoid the word "war," which implies beginning and ending points.

    Unfortunately, neither can he say the truth: This is going to be life in our world; learn to live with it.

    A year ago Americans so overwhelmingly rejected Obama's proposal to bomb Syria for using chemical weapons, recognizing that it wouldn't solve anything and wouldn't even make a dent given all the other acts of war. Indeed, it seemed probable that Congress (for once listening to the American people) would have voted authorization for bombing down. Now, supposedly an air war against ISIS enjoys popular support, with Congress gung ho not only to authorize strikes but to appropriate billions of dollars to train American proxies to fight the ground war. This turnaround depends on being able to identify ISIS as uniquely evil and dangerous, and while flashy stories of beheadings and mass killings help, I suspect the main cause is deep-seated islamophobia triggered by the prospect of resurrecting the caliphate. Last year Syria was viewed as just another internecine sectarian conflict between people we don't know or care about thousands of miles away. The caliphate, on the other hand, would be a symbol of growing Islamic power, an alarming shift in the world order, and that's what starts dredging up reassuring memories of Pope Urban -- even though most people who know the history of the Crusades regard them as an embarrassing blight on European civilization. Merritt accepts such wars because, regarding "religious extremism" as timeless, as if the fight today is about an ancient character trait, and not about anything more tangible -- like oil, or the ability of US bankers to fleece Saudi princes, or the international market for arms, or the constant jockeying of regional powers and their never-very-dependable proxy groups. Those are all things that, pace Merritt, we really shouldn't have to live with.

  • Paul Woodward: Most Americans support war against ISIS but lack confidence it will achieve its goal: A NBC News poll says that "62 percent of voters say they support Obama's decision to take action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while 22 percent oppose it." But also that "a combined 68 percent of Americans say they have 'very little' or 'just some' confidence that Obama's goals of degrading and eliminating the threat posed by ISIS will be achieved." Woodward dissects these numbers. Among other points:

    1. "Do you think President Obama presented a credible strategy for destroying ISIS?" If the answer's "no" and this is why you lack confidence in this war, then I'd take that as a fairly good indication that you are following this story reasonably closely.

    2. Of course the most obvious reason why Americans would be skeptical about the chances of success for a war against ISIS is the fact that after sinking trillions of dollars into wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terrorism, al Qaeda still exists.

      As has happened so many times before, Obama formulates his policies in reaction to banal, superficial, political imperatives whose primary purpose is to fend off critics.

      On Thursday he presented his strategy for destroying ISIS because only days before he got slammed for admitting he didn't have a strategy.

      After he made various comments suggesting that he only aimed to contain ISIS and was thus criticized for underestimating the threat it poses and for being too timid in his response, he answered critics by saying that his aim was to destroy ISIS.

      After it was pointed out that fighting ISIS in Iraq would accomplish little if it could continue to consolidate its strength in Syria, Obama said the fight would be taken to Syria.

      Each of his steps is reactive and political -- as though the primary task at hand was to deflect criticism.


Probably more stuff to write about, but that's enough for now. I'd be happy to return to writing about inequality, which is really the big chronic issue of our era. Or maybe that old standby, the stupidity of conservative Republicans (here's a Ted Cruz example; and here's Steve Fraser: The Return of the Titans, on the Kochs and their ilk). Or global warming even, but the last couple months have been overwhelmed by war news, and the one person who could do something sensible and constructive to defuse conflicts and resolve problems has repeatedly, almost obsessively managed to make them worse. That person is US President Barack W. Obama. Yes, he's finally sunk that low.

Friday, September 12, 2014

ISIS and Truth

I've seen two pieces in the Wichita Eagle over the last couple weeks to feature both "truth" and "ISIS" in their title. One was by Trudy Rubin ("The Truth About ISIS" although the original title appears to be Tell the truth about ISIS threat, the other by Davis Merritt: Americans not ready for the truth about ISIS. Of course, they're not the only op-ed columnists who think they have the authoritative scoop on the Islamic State -- Charles Krauthammer, Cal Thomas, and Thomas Friedman have also weighed in on the subject and none of the above has the slightest doubt they know what of they speak.

Long ago I learned that no one who claims to be able to tell you "the truth about" something is to be trusted. The very fact that they choose to assert that what they're saying is true should suggest that their facts don't speak for themselves. Everyone above (except Merritt) has a long history of parroting received talking points even when they don't make up shit on their own -- just look up their op-eds in the drumbeat toward Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq: the bullet items have changed but the goal is exactly the same, to send American troops into Iraq (and now Syria) to rid the world of something they suddenly see as evil. Granted, they've had twelve more years to study the region -- probably why Friedman is no longer so gung ho -- but still, how much do they really know about ISIS? For that matter, how much does anyone really know?

I submit that the answer is really very little. Even when I read the press reports by someone like Patrick Cockburn -- who has been covering Iraq closely for more than a dozen years, who has several books on Iraq including a new one on the very subject (The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising) -- I still can't get a coherent sense of the group. (For example, see: Saudi Complicity in the Rise of ISIS [July 15]; ISIS: the Birth of a Terrifying New State [Aug. 12]; ISIS Consolidates [Aug. 21]; How to Ensure a Thriving Caliphate, an excerpt from the book [Aug. 21]; Syria and Iraq: Why US policy is fraught with danger [Sept. 9]; also Alexander Reed Kelly: Truthdigger of the Week, a review of the book [Aug. 30].) No doubt Cockburn offers a better informed and more nuanced view, but still he's working from the outside. As far as I can tell, no one is reporting from behind the ISIS battle lines, and no one has routine access either to ISIS leadership or to those who live under their rule. (Admittedly they haven't treated the press very well.)

Of course, I don't know any better, either, but when I try to judge whether what I hear makes sense, I draw on historical precedents and common sense, and I try to discount arguments where prejudice enters into one's arguments. Merritt provides a good example of the latter. He writes:

The religious extremism that defines the Middle East has been going on for more than a thousand years. The West has been involved for more than 900 of those years. From Pope Urban's first crusade in 1095 to President George W. Bush's ignorantly declared "crusade" amid the rubble of the World Trade Center, extremists on both sides have periodically fanned the flames.

No American president can erase that history nor diminish its allure to radical Islamists who want to write the next chapter in our blood. Anyone who believes a few months of bombing can eradicate this latest iteration of religious intolerance is living a fantasy.

Merritt is certainly right in his last line: "a few months of bombing" won't rewrite history; it will only do what it always does, which is to kill a lot of people, and harden the resolve of the survivors to fight back against those who bombed them. But framing the neocon compulsion to destroy ISIS as a continuation of Pope Urban's Crusades only shows us two things: for Moslems it provides comfort in knowing that the Papal Crusades were eventually beaten back (a process which took more than two hundred years); and for us it tape into the deepest of prejudices against those of different religions (a prejudice that has risen ever closer to the surface as "the clash of civilizations"). And tying it to the "religious intolerance" of Jihadis is a convenient cushion against recalling our own intolerance -- one can't even qualify it as "past" given how much our disdain for Islam is a driving force to destroy ISIS.

Linkage to the Crusades may fuel ancient passions on both sides, but it also helps to obscure other driving forces, both ideological -- the neocons were explicitly committed to the projection of unchallengeable US military and economic power throughout the world -- and material: you know, oil. The Crusades continued to hold sway over European thinking for several hundreds years -- Columbus longed to be a Crusader, and Spain spent almost as much effort saving the souls of heathens as it did enslaving them. But by the time Europeans started to take control of the Middle East away from the Ottomans -- starting with Napoleon in Egypt (see Juan Cole's Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East) -- they never challenged and often embraced Islam. (After the French Revolution outlawed the Catholic Church, Napoleon appealed to Muslim clerics as fellow non-Christians. The British made a point of favoring clerics, picking the sons of the Sherif of Mecca to be Hashemite Kings.) When Britain and France seized the Middle East, their goal wasn't to save souls or to rid the Christian world of the scourge of Islam, but to project themselves as world powers, and to help themselves to whatever natural resources they could cart off.

When the US entered the region, we sided with the reactionary monarchies set up by the UK against nearly every nationalist or progressive movement. In particular, we encouraged the Saudis to promote their fundamentalist version of Islam (Salafism) far and wide. In 1979, in a kneejerk response to a pro-Soviet coup, the US started arming Mujahideen to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. With US blessing, the Saudis and other Arab monarchs not only followed suit, they expanded their proselytizing so that their variant of Islam not only became widespread but became the leading ideology of Sunni Muslims seeking to resist domination by foreign forces -- an ideology custom-built to blow back against us.

It's hard to overstate how incoherently the US has acted in the Middle East since the mid-1970s -- even without factoring in the US-Israel relationship. Most Americans assume that the US tries to practice a foreign policy based on two fundamentals: (1) one that promotes (without getting too pushy or sanctimonious) what are generally regarded as American values -- democracy, tolerance, peace, free speech/assembly/religion, and free enterprise, on the theory that the world is a safer place if more people enjoy the freedom and material wealth Americans enjoy; and (2) one that helps to benefit the American economy (both producers and consumers, the latter especially interested in low gasoline prices). The reality is far different. Our own government is readily corruptible, and in the Middle East that mostly means it does favors for defense contractors and oil companies. Both depend on maintaining equally corrupt autocratic governments in the region, and both benefit not from peace but chaos (oil companies have trouble producing under chaos, but make record profits every time supply is disrupted and prices rise -- in fact, the economic viability of Canadian oil shale depends directly on the Middle East not flooding the market with cheaper oil).

Since US policy in the Middle East leads directly to more conflict and chaos, cynics may think that policy has been crafted precisely to meet the lobby needs. However, no US politician could afford to defend US policy on those grounds -- imagine the uproar (not to mention the sheer dumbfounded reactions) if Obama explained that the purpose of his drone assassination policy was to stimulate terrorism to try to drive up US arms sales and gas prices, even though the causal links there are pretty ironclad. Secondly, specific policy actions almost never produce the results we're led to expect, so even if the cynical goals are achieved there's no reason to think the policymakers understood what they were doing. (For instance, if all the US wanted to do was fuck up Iraq, did they have to sacrifice 4,000 US soldiers just to make it look good?)

Still, even by past standards the US campaign to "destroy and degrade" ISIS is extraordinarily incoherent. For instance, the main goal is to allow the Iraqi central government to reassert sovereignty over those parts of Iraq now under ISIS control, but for now at least US forces are mostly aligned with Kurdish militia intent on separating from Iraq. Moreover, it will be impossible to defeat ISIS as long as the latter has a sanctuary across the border in Syria. However, the US is not allied with the Syrian government against ISIS. On the contrary, the US supplies arms to various rebel movements intent on overthrowing the Assad regime, and they in turn are allied with ISIS as well as the Al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front (crossing another of Obama's red lines). And as with all Middle Eastern conflicts, the US is not the only outsider interfering with events. Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah in Lebanon are all aligned solidly with the US in Iraq but they also support Assad in Syria, making them more coherently anti-ISIS than the US is. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (our great allies in the region) have been backing anti-Assad forces in Syria, including ISIS (Cockburn regards ISIS as a Saudi front, while crediting Qatar with Nusra). Israel, meanwhile, has bombed both sides in Syria. Turkey originally supported anti-Assad rebels, but lately has lost interest, and has denied the US (a NATO ally) use of its air bases to attack ISIS. Obama, meanwhile, has vowed to limit US intervention to air power and special forces -- probably assuming both have mystical powers, or at least will limit exposure.

Then there are broader circles of incoherence. The success of ISIS is directly related to the failure of the Iraqi state -- the "best" state the US could build in eight years of occupation, built at a cost measured in trillions of dollars. The most effective way to defeat ISIS would be to build a state that would attract the loyalty of the people who currently support ISIS, but the US has manifestly failed its first attempt to do so. Nor is it clear that short of another trillion-dollar splurge the US will get a second chance. Nor is Iraq the only example where the US has messed up a state-building project: Afghanistan is another beauty, nearly as expensive and possibly even more of a failure. Nor does doing it on the cheap seem to work: cf. Libya. Nor does supporting decrepit dictators work very well (cf. Yemen), nor installing new ones (cf. Egypt), nor bad-mouthing old ones (cf. Syria). What good does it do then to destroy ISIS if you're incompetent to build anything to fill up the void? A sensible, self-conscious country would realize it's time to give up and get out of the nation-wrecking business. But the US is no such thing: we are, after all, the world leader of the coalition of the deaf, dumb and blind, and as such obligated to stumble all over the world in a neverending quest to turn bad scenarios into outright disasters.

Still, the case for going to war with ISIS focuses exclusively on ISIS, and proving that they are pure evil -- a malign force that cannot be reasoned with, that cannot be negotiated with, that will destroy us if we don't defend ourselves and stop it with force now. The evidence for their evilness is mostly what we can see from their videos: that they wear black masks, yell a lot, behead journalists. They've managed to take over a fairly large amount of territory in two failed states: states that have failed to govern fairly, that have in fact gone out of their way to make war against their own people. In the identity politics of the Middle East they have become extremists: both in defending their chosen group (Sunni Muslims) and in attacking all others (the Yazidis and Christians have gotten most of the press attention, probably because as non-Muslims they seem more sympathetic -- and because 13 years of war against Muslims have made us all the more callous and prejudiced).

Sure, those videos and scattered reports of violence ISIS has committed make them out to be really uncivil dudes: as someone who disdains all forms of violence, as someone who has little regard for established religion, I'm certainly not going to come to their defense. I will point out, however, that they live in a part of the world where violence chose them, not the other way around. And I have noticed that everywhere people have been subjected to violence from on high, people have tended to retreat into a shell of their deepest religious beliefs -- that is one way of coping. And while some people respond to violence non-violently, a good many choose to fight back, even at the risk of become as brutal as their adversaries. So given the conditions in which they exist, in which they evolved, it's not surprising that some group like ISIS should emerge. That doesn't strike me as any more evil than those people and groups that created the conditions in the first place -- indeed, the failures of Assad and Maliki, their backers and supporters (a list which conspicuously includes the US, and more specifically Bush and Obama) are at least as responsible for what ISIS does as ISIS itself is. If ISIS is evil, they are not alone. And yet who among us thinks that the solution for the evil that the US does is to destroy it? Let alone slaughter all of its constituent people?

After all, when the US bombs ISIS, it isn't the Islamic State that feels the brunt -- it's the people who live under that state, for better or worse. The idea that you can destroy a state by degrading its people has been tested many times and generally found wanting. (The classic example was Churchill's program to starve WWI Germany into submission. It worked for the moment, but twenty years later Germany was preparing to resume what Arno Mayer called the 30 Years of the 20th Century.) And going one step further and killing all the people only turns you into a bigger monster than the one you want to slay.

The more I read about ISIS, the more they resemble the Taliban. I'm no fan of the Taliban, but I can understand the idea that when you are surrounded by violence and corruption you'll seek out leaders from among the devout and humble -- provided your identity is compatible with theirs. The Taliban were never able to extend their support base beyond the Pashtun, so they were never really able to secure Afghanistan even though they were very popular among Pashtuns. The Taliban also exists in Pakistan, but again is limited to the Pashtun minority. ISIS, similarly, will never be able to extend its range into Shiite Iraq, Alawite Syria, Turkey, or Kurdistan because identity is self-limiting.

Why, then, are we so fearful of ISIS? For starters, "Islamic State" suggests far greater range than ISIS actually possesses. The original Islamic State was founded by Muhammad and within fifty years of his death had spread as far west as Spain and as far east as Pakistan, an area roughly the size of the Roman Empire at its peak. Other religions have been adopted as state religions, but Islam was founded as one, Islamic states have been common throughout history, and several exist today: notably, Saudi Arabia, which the US has no evident problems with. Iran is another: by any objective measure it is more tolerant and progressive than Saudi Arabia, but is viewed as a rival to US power in the region so we've grown accustomed to playing it up as a threat. (Israel took the lead in that regard, claiming Iran would develop nuclear weapons in less than five years from as far back as the mid-1990s. They have been wrong time after time, but they've managed to prevent any sort of rapprochement and normalization of relations.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Daily Log

Movie: Boyhood [A]. My tweet:

Movie "Boyhood": rings true even with much I can't relate to (e.g. stepdada, girlfriends; OTOH, I've bowled 19), long but perfect pace [A]

Actually, I saw a lot of myself in the first boy, except I didn't have an older sister -- a younger brother and younger still sister. The girl really acts out early and becomes progressively more shy, but still one hopes they're shooting a parallel "Girlhood" story, and not just for gender equality reasons. It would be really hard to do.

Saw a notice in EW that Gerald Wilson has died. I wrote back:

Clicked on the article and discovered that Joe Wilder (92) passed away in May. Really fine mainstream trumpet player. More than anyone else, Gerald Wilson kept big band jazz going in and past the 1960s, when the working bands folded up and the ghost bands faded into obscurity, by forming ad hoc groups in the studio, vehicles for arrangers. Still, his finest records didn't appear until the last decade -- "In My Time" (2005) and "Detroit" (2009) are personal favorites -- when his legendary status attracted the finest talent.

Not especially related to music, but just the other day I noticed that Robert Sherrill died in August. He was one of the great political journalists of the late 1960s. One of his books, about the Vietnam-era military justice system (but only the details have changed), was called Military Justice Is to Justice as Military Music Is to Music.

My tweet on Loudon Wainwright III got some queries:

Loudon Wainwright III: Haven't Got the Blues (Yet) (2014): pretty good album, as usual, except for that 2nd Amendment Xmas anthem [D-]

Richard Karpel asked:

So a D- because you disagree with the politics of one song?

I replied:

The grade won't stand but the song does spoil the album; the problem isn't really political (even if it's satirical and anti-gun).

The grade in the database is B+(*). I usually don't knock an album more than a notch per bad song (e.g., this has happened a lot when Aëbi would sing on a Steve Lacy album). Without the offending song, the album would have gotten B+(***), maybe A-, so I was exceptionally pissed, and that carried through to the D- (very, very few of those in the database). Even before the 2nd Amendment stuff comes up, the song starts "I'll be killing you for Christmas," so we're not talking about gun rights for any of the usual publically arguable rationales. Of course, he's trying to be satirical there -- you can tell from the icky music even if being LWIII wasn't fucking disclaimer enough. I rarely have a problem with satire but this just blows up in a really weird and pointless way. Also the little dash of Xmas music at the end rubbed me really wrong. I tried to play it for Laura later but she walked out of the room, and I couldn't stand to let it finish myself.

Karpel later wrote back: "Have loved his recent work, especially the last." That last, Older Than My Old Man Now, topped my 2012 list. I don't think this album has anything that would have helped that one, but it does have several songs that suggest LWIII's making the best of his dotage. Like I said, good album, except for one glaring fuckup.


Robert Christgau published his Cuepoint Expert Witness intro today. One memorable quote:

One reason I'm good at grading records is that I'd rather be right than first. Not right for everybody, of course--tastes differ, and should. Just for me, which is hard enough. This was unusual even in the print era, and online it's simply not done--except by me.

Several ways one can read this so it's not a slight against me, but it felt like one. I am online, and I have graded, let's see, 23791 records. Of course, I do it a little differently than he does, but the difference isn't that I'd rather be first than right. (My latest grades post has a number of 2013 records, plus a bunch more that are older still.) The real differences are: (1) that Christgau is really certain not just of his grades but of nearly everything he holds any opinion on, whereas I regard everything that I know as fundamentally uncertain -- so I have fewer qualms about publishing what I do know at any time. (2) Christgau insists on getting paid for his opinions, so letting any unpaid opinions out would undercut his income. I probably would too if I could, but I can't. (Even when I did get paid it wasn't very much, at least compared to the amount of work it took. He often tries to justify his insistence on getting paid by pointing to the amount of work involved. No dispute there.) (3) He maintains a pretty high standard of writing (he is, after all, paid for that), and I don't (but then, I'm not getting paid; I'm providing a public service, as best I can given my limited time, resources, and skills, and the world is lucky to get as much as they get).

Those differences may add up to us doing qualitatively different things -- he's an "arts journalist" and I'm a "blogger," something like that -- but that's not the only way of comparing the two bodies of work. It certainly should not be surprising that there would be a quality/quantity tradeoff here, as there is in many kinds of work. I am often willing to post a grade based on a single play, knowing that it is more tentative and approximate than it would be if I had played the record the 4-5 times Christgau reportedly does, and I am especially willing to do that if the grade is so low there's no practical value in refining it (e.g., would you be more eager to buy a B- record than a C+?). Not wasting time on bad records is one way to work more efficiently, as Christgau realized in 1991 when he tried to stop covering them completely. We both do it, but I'm more transparent here, posting an approximate grade on a bad record whereas Christgau generally ignores them, leaving no record of what he's heard and hasn't heard.

The writing quality issue also has much to do with listening time. I don't doubt that Christgau is the better writer, nor that he has a much better ear for lyrics than I do. Still, the main reason for playing a record many times isn't to refine the grade; it's to flesh out the review. In order to write a 500-word Riffs-length review, I almost never played a record less than 10 times -- double Christgau's 5-play standard -- because that's how long it took to get the review written. If I wanted to improve the quality of my RS reviews, all I would have to do is put more time into writing them, which means put more time into listening -- which means I'd get around to listening to fewer other records.

I'm not saying this because I think I could (let alone should) replace Christgau. I can't and won't, for lots of reasons including skills (he's a "lit guy" and "arts guy" and I'm more of an engineer than anything else), personality, location, experience, and drive. And he's a friend, and I already worry a bit about taking money off his table (although I've probably put some back on with the website). But I also think second opinions are worth something, and I can see ways to scale up what I'm doing to something many more people can do, so while Nth opinions may be progressively less valuable they could add up into something tangible.


I later found out that Dan Weiss singled out the same quote above on a Facebook post, which elicited about 140 comments. First was Maura Johnston: "Patting oneself on the back because of (earned, but still) privilege is a bit unseemly." Later Johnston added: "dude bragging that you're getting paid for something a lot of other people would kill to do is, like, the definition of privileged - and even if you take money out of the equation, there's a concept called 'opportunity cost' in the mix."

There follows a bunch of stuff on canons vs. consensus which I scarcely understand. Arielle Castillo broke that string with the more existential question: "Respect to Christgau but I always knew, as a young teen, that I never wanted to ~grow up~ to become the kind of cultural reporter who could slap a definitive, full-stop grade on someone else's work. This Medium post is very strange to me." My answer to this is: (1) I hate reviews that don't venture an opinion on how much the reviewer really likes the record (this is because I mostly read reviews for consumer guidance; i.e., to decide whether the record is worth the time/money to pursue); (2) the clearest, most economical way to quantify that is with a grade (otherwise, you have to write a sentence converting quantity into qualitative words, and that's never as clear); and (3) nothing a reviewer says should be taken as "definitive, full-stop" -- least of all by the artist, which is the person Castillo fears offending.

Then there was Greg Morton's response to Castillo:

GRADES: I agreed with Arielle about grades when I first encountered them. How arrogant, "who is he to decide . . ." Then I began to listen to albums differently for the purpose of either validating or disagreeing with the grade, after which I did come to hear that there was a recognizable qualitative difference between a B+ and an A-. And then I thought about trying it myself. AND THEN, I realized how difficult it was to hear that difference (before anybody else told you), to be certain about it and then finally to have my discernment turn out to be accurate over and over again. At that point, my opinion changed. Christgau says that grading is hard work. I agree with him. Wordsmithing, for someone with a gift, is easy and fun and rewarding. Grading is none of those. Sure it's a short hand. Sure it doesn't replace the breadth and depth of long form language (that's what words are for after all). And, worst, sure it can be done poorly by almost all of us. But with Christgau, I've come to see the grades as a part of his personal art form. Agree or disagree (Sly and Robbie's Rhythm Killers has one excellent track and is in no way an A album) is almost irrelevant. What they do is provide a window into an interpretation of the words used in the capsule, which then becomes a window for our discernment. And you know who else does it well? Tom Hull. You try to listen to a handful of jazz albums once or twice through and be able to accurately ascertain the difference between B+(**), B+(***) and A-. Getting it right is an amazing skill. Finally, if he's still out there, I'd love to hear Michael Tatum's take on grading. He's the only other person who has worked as hard at it as Bob and Tom have that I know of. It takes experience, smarts, and an internal fortitude that I don't think I could ever match for an extended period of time."

Nobody responded to Morton's comment. Earlier Bradley Sroka had described Christgau's reluctance to spit grades out off the top of his head:

Further, Christgau's grades are not permanent--go ahead and ask him for a permanent grade on Tha Carter III and watch his anger swell. He told me that determining what he likes and doesn't like isn't too hard; instead, it's the determining of how much he likes something that proves difficult. The grades are meant to gauge his level of enthusiasm and professional judgement. But his opinions can change and be changed.

Personally, I don't find grades hard -- probably because of force of habit they're always on my mind, always shifting as I hear something. Sometimes remembering is hard, and that's really the reason I started writing grades down: before the current database, I had a flat file called "records.txt" with a couple thousand record names and grades. Then if someone wanted a recommendation, I could look it up and offer a consistent answer. I could use it to figure out whether I already had an album, or whether I did (or did not) like a particular artist. Writing is highly variable: sometimes it comes easy, often not, but in all cases being able to tack a grade on at the end simplifies the ending, otherwise the hardest part for me.

Some time ago I started thinking about a website which would aggregate individual record ratings. I need to get back to working on that.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Rhapsody Streamnotes (September 2014)

Pick up text from here.


   Mar 2001