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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 Blacksburg 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.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 23775 [23744] rated (+31), 524 [523] unrated (+1).

Barely topped 30 records for an uneven week -- a couple days I did nothing, while others found me zipping through Bandcamp (mostly, but not only, Catalytic Sound) and Rhapsody. There is, after all, very little in the 2014 unrated queue -- at one point it dropped under 10 records, but two came in on Saturday and four more today so I'm up to 13. The good news, I suppose, is that what's left is relatively good: I reviewed eight actual CDs and came up with two A-, three B+(***), two B+(**), and one B+(*) -- well above the usual curve.

Rhapsody/Bandcamp also yielded two A- and eight B+(***), so I reckon this a pretty good week. At this point the Rhapsody Streamnotes draft file is overstuffed, so I'll try to get it ready to post tomorrow. Should be close to 100 records.

Recommended music links:

I started this section after Tatum moved "A Downloader's Diary" from my website to Odyshape, figuring it was all I could do to maintain a measure of continuity. Gubbels moved his "Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief" from his Tumbler blog over to Odyshape at the same time, and partly because he's more into obscure funk and jazz than Tatum, he became my favorite advance scout. A very large percentage of the better records I've found this year have come from Gubbels and Tatum, and I don't know how (or if) I'll be able to compensate for their loss.

Of course, they're not really gone. Gubbels has a paying job at Rhapsody and has been freelancing in Spin, and will be able to make more income out of his time, so he's basically moving up in the world. Tatum wants to focus more on the novel he's been working on for a while now, although he's also mentioned the possibility of continuing his "Hall of Records" project when the spirit moves him, and I could well imagine that reaching book length.

I don't know where that leaves Cam and Nicky at Odyshape, other than back to square one. A couple years back Tatum was trying to organize a group of writers to do some sort of webzine. We formed a mailing list and hashed over the name -- I have the domain name for Terminal Zone, after my 1977 venture with Don Malcolm, so that was the default -- but somehow the moment slipped by without issue. I had been posting Tatum's column, and posted some material from Cam Patterson, but it wasn't a good time when Cam offered more, so he wound up turning to Nicky and founding Odyshape. That wasn't my zine, but I took a certain pride in it even though my main contribution was negligence. It's a hard thing to do successfully, and evidently it's been hard for them to balance an aggressive publishing schedule off against all the other demands of modern life -- not least, maintaining an income that the zine couldn't possibly provide.

I wonder whether Odyshape might be looking up rather than down had Christgau gone through with his plan to publish Consumer Guide reviews there. That plan got shelved when Medium came through with an offer he couldn't refuse. (It's Twitter-like, so you'll need to use that link to "follow him" -- I think the accounts are separate but I don't recall just how they relate.) His debut there has been pushed back a couple times -- latest word I have is September 10 for an intro and reviews every Friday thereafter (so figure September 12). He's got about ten months to catch up on, so I don't expect many surprises for a while, but it will be good to hear from him again.

New records rated this week:

  • 5 Seconds of Summer: 5 Seconds of Summer (2014, Capitol): Australian group, combines boy group harmonies with beach party pomp, still orchestrated cheer wears thin [r]: B
  • The Bad Plus: Inevitable Western (2014, Okeh): having missed their Stravinsky, I wonder whether these mood-pushers are meta-outtakes [r]: B+(***)
  • The Cellar and Point: Ambit (2011-13 [2014], Cuneiform): strings-and-percussion group aim for ethereal chamber music with steady propulsion, but why? [cdr]: B
  • The Delines: Colfax (2014, El Cortez): novelist Willy Vlautin feeds story lines to Amy Boone, who intones them over a slow country simmer [r]: A-
  • Ben Goldberg/Adam Levy/Smith Dobson: Worry Later (2014, BAG Productions): clarinet-guitar-drums trio plays ten Monk tunes [r]: B+(**)
  • Joe Henry: Invisible Hour (2014, Work Song): singer-songwriter with a common touch for everyday life, like John Mellencamp with fewer hooks [r]: B+(*)
  • Ikebe Shakedown: Stone by Stone (2014, Ubiquity): Afrobeat band from Brooklyn, section horns, no vocals, no big deal one way of the other [bc]: B
  • Nils Landgren Funk Unit: Teamwork (2013, ACT): Swedish trombonist, nothing George Clinton needs to worry about but more fun than you'd expect [r]: B+(*)
  • Matt Lavelle/John Pietaro: Harmolodic Monk (2014, Unseen Rain): stark duets on Monk tune a l'Ornette as if not kinky enough in the first place [r]: B+(**)
  • Dave Liebman Big Band: A Tribute to Wayne Shorter (2014, Summit): arranger Mats Holmquist probably deserves more credit, as Liebman doesn't [cd]: B+(*)
  • Dean Magraw & Eric Kamau Gravatt: Fire on the Nile (2014, Red House): guitar-drums duo, they manage a steady groove but keep it honest and real [cd]: B+(**)
  • The Margots: Pescado (2013, Okka Disk): singer has a deadpan tilt, a bit arty over impeccable guitar and horns -- Ken Vandermark, of all people [bc]: B+(***)
  • The Margots: Soplé (2014, Okka Disk): more uptempo pieces, more ballads, Adrienne Pierluissi stays cool, the jazz band stays in character [bc]: B+(***)
  • The Muffs: Whoop Dee Doo (2014, Cherry Red): Kim Shattuck pop-punk outfit returns after a decade on oldies label, choppy, cheeky, cheezy even [r]: B+(***)
  • Pattern Is Movement: Pattern Is Movement (2014, Hometapes): hints of vintage new wave turn considerably softer, drippier, drearie r[r]: B-
  • Ivo Perelman/Karl Berger: Reverie (2014, Leo): sax-piano duets, the latter savvy enough to know that all he has to do is set the sax up [cd]: A-
  • Bruce Robison/Kelly Willis: Our Year (2014, Premium): [semi-]stars in their own right, married but play more as a team than a couple, and that works [r]: B+(***)
  • Jason Roebke: Combination (2014, self-released): Chicago avant-bassist sets one up for Greg Ward (alto sax), who comes off a bit thin and warbly [bc]: B+(*)
  • Akira Sakata/Johan Berthling/Paal Nilssen-Love: Arashi (2014, Trost): alto saxophonist, survived Hiroshima to create his own fury, fast & raw [r]: B+(***)
  • Akira Sakata/Fred Lonberg-Holm/Ketil Gutvik/Paal Nilssen-Love: The Cliff of Time (2013 [2014], PNL): add strings/electronics in the middle to take the edge off [bc]: B+(*)
  • Masahiko Satoh/Paal Nilssen-Love: Spring Snow (2013 [2014], PNL): piano-drums duo, another Japanese legend enterng the avant new world [bc]: B+(**)
  • Billy Joe Shaver: Long in the Tooth (2014, Lightning Rod): you may have heard some of these, but a good enough singer when he doesn't punt the verse [r]: B+(**)
  • Tim Sparks: Chasin' the Boogie (2014, Tonewood): doesn't chase it very hard, but his intricate fingerpicking is very engaging, e.g. "Blue Bayou" [cd]: B+(***)
  • Statik Selektah: What Goes Around (2014, Duck Down Music): DJ fattens the beats for guest rappers as the underground goes for the gold, often gets it [r]: A-
  • Wussy: Duo (2013, Shake It, EP): 7-track EP, solid songs and spirited performance but still feels slight, a Record Store Day throwaway [r]: B+(**)

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

  • Pete Magadini: Bones Blues (1977 [2014], Sackville/Delmark): drummer-led mainstream sax quartet, Don Menza strong on tenor in one of those basic blowing sessions [cd]: B+(**)
  • Hyperdub 10.1 (2006-14 [2014], Hyperdub, 2CD): 2CD label comp, appealing spacious sound at first but can get tedious in spots, unlike label's best albums [r]: B+(**)
  • Charles Lloyd: Manhattan Stories (1965 [2014], Resonance, 2CD): two early quartet sets with a striking Gabor Szabo on guitar, sax/flute searching open space [cd]: A-
  • The Magic Words: Junk Train (2006 [2014], Shake It, EP): Lisa Walker EP, of interest if you know who she is and can handle the lowest lo-fi in years [bc]: B+(**)
  • Don Pullen: Richard's Tune (1975 [2014], Sackville/Delmark): reissue of debut album, then called "Solo Piano Record" -- give credit to Muhal, wher he starts [cd]: B+(***)
  • Suburban Base Records: The History of Hardcore, Jungle, and Drum 'n' Bass: 1991-1997 (1991-97 [2014], New State, 3CD): cheapo 3CD hardcore, jungle, drum-n-bass comp, could use more doc, also differentiation but nice deal [cd]: B+(***)

Old records rated this week:

  • Artifact iTi: Live in St. Johann (2008 [2010], Okka Disk): Vandermark and Nilssen-Love go to Austria, find great trombone and not-so-cheezy synth [bc]: B+(***)
  • Sten Sandell Trio: Face of Tokyo (2008 [2009], PNL): Norwegian avant-pianist gets to show off in a brash and brusque trio setting [bc]: B+(**)
  • Alan Skidmore: After the Rain (1998, Miles Music): Brit avant saxophonist goes straight, playing ballads backed by lush strings, really lovely [r]: B+(***)

Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Dee Daniels: Intimate Conversations (Origin): September 16
  • Chris Dundas: Oslo Odyssey (BLM, 2CD): September 16
  • Hal Galper Trio: O's Time (Origin): September 16
  • Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio: We're Back (Whaling City Sound)
  • Jerry Heldman: Revelation(s) (Origin, 2CD): September 16
  • The Mark Lomax Trio: Isis & Osiris (Inarhyme)
  • Alexander McCabe/Paul Odeh: This Is Not a Pipe (Wamco)

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Hyperdub 10.1 (2006-14 [2014], Hyperdub, 2CD): Ten year label anniversary sampler, specializing in a variant of electronica called dubstep. Drums have a certain hollow log feel, pretty consistent for a comp and nice when the music is loose, but there are spots when it gets tedious. The label is planning two more anniversary sets. Not sure when/if I'll get to them. B+(**) [rhapsody]

Daily Log

Voted again in Joey Daniewicz's bracket thing. One of today's questions was John Coltrane vs. Art Blakey, the former leading 8-1 before I cast my vote for him. But I felt like saying something in defense of Blakey:

Sure, I voted for Coltrane, but let me say some things about Blakey. He started off as a pianist, but moved to drums to open up a slot for Erroll Garner. He was one of the first three drummers to get the hang of bebop -- it's hard to find any good bebop records before 1950 that don't have either him, Kenny Clarke, or Max Roach on drums. He was the first drummer who had any clue how to play with Monk. He pretty much single-handedly invented hard bop. Along with Roach, he was one of the first to explore African drumming. As a bandleader, he introduced Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons, many others. Late in his career upcoming players like Bobby Watson and the Marsalis Bros. sought him out. His last album was a delight with Dr. John and Fathead Newman. They had so much fun they made a second "Bluesiana" record with a different drummer, but it didn't have the same magic.

By the time I finished that, I was having second thoughts myself. Coltrane's early work is, well, if not mediocre not exceptional -- his sidework with Monk and Davis is notable -- but he didn't really break through until Giant Steps in 1959. That was followed by a terrific run, which may or may not include his final avant-garde phase (the Sunny Murray years). He became the most influential (or at least imitated) saxophonist since Charlie Parker, and he started the whole sideline craze for soprano sax (not really a plus, not that I can't listen to him playing "My Favorite Things" as long as he could play it, which was a very long time).

Later Daniewicz noted that Coltrane will face Charlie Parker in the next round, and Richard Cobeen added, "We know how Tom Hull will vote in that one." Indeed, that's a no-brainer for Coltrane. Still, I was struck by the similarities between Coltrane and Parker, so I wrote:

Parker and Coltrane are very comparable, both in the size and shape of their careers and in the way their legacies played out. Both died young, about 8-9 years after their breakthroughs (1945 for Parker, 1959 for Coltrane; they died in 1955 and 1967, but Parker produced very little near the end). Both introduced (I wouldn't say invented) and popularized radically innovative styles that were widely copied and became the basis for generations to follow. And they were both effectively canonized after their deaths (although only Coltrane was accorded sainthood; Parker was more charismatic but worldly). The differences were relatively minor: thanks to the LP, Coltrane recorded a lot more and at much (!!) greater length (even discounting his many pre-1959 recordings, which include notable sessions with Monk and Davis but nothing his legend rests on); Coltrane had the advantage of a regular group (an exceptional one at that) for most of this time; Coltrane also evolved much more after 1959, partly an intensely personal quest, but also because the music around him was moving faster (Coleman and Ayler were major outside forces, Dolphy and Sanders inside); Coltrane was largely responsible for the common practice of tenors sidelining on soprano (not that I consider that a plus); both have benefited from intense posthumous excavations, where sound quality greatly favors the later artist. On the other hand, most people regard Parker's breakthrough as more revolutionary, and the hype surrounding his accomplishments is just overwhelming. My preference, of course, is Coltrane, but my point is that when you compare these two you will be making the same arguments for either side, not weighing different qualities (as with Coltrane and Blakey, or Ellington and Rollins). By the way, a third saxophonist fits the same pattern as Parker and Coltrane: Lester Young. He didn't die as young, but he was very fragile and passe for his last decade, and he had a very distinct sound and style which was very widely followed (although not as widely as Parker or Coltrane).

Seems likely that Coltrane will win that contest, but that's more because we live much more in Coltrane's world than Parker's.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Weekend Roundup

The Wichita Eagle op-ed page featured Trudy Rubin' Decision Time on ISIS today, three days after the column originally appeared. Having clamored for more war for years, she must be happy now that Obama has vowed to "destroy and degrade ISIS" and hopscotched around the world lining up a new "coalition of the willing" to share the dirt and blame for another foreign intervention in Iraq and Syria (the last one having been such fun). Rubin, meanwhile, has gone on seeking further dragons to slay: If Putin's actions in Ukraine aren't an invasion, then what is? Obama's been busy working on locking the US into a war there too. (See David Frum: Obama Just Made the Ultimate Commitment to Eastern Europe, something Frum is ecstatic about.) This series of events has reduced my opinion of Obama to its lowest point ever. Some of this I explain in my comment on the Peter Beinart piece below, yet even now I doubt that I've pushed that argument far enough. Perhaps one reason I'm so appalled is that there doesn't seem to be much uproar over what has to be judged the most significant American pivot towards war since Bush invaded Iraq. As Beinart puts it, "[Obama's] fierce minimalism fits the national mood. President Obama's Mideast strategy is not grand. It's not inspiring. It's not idealistic. But it's what the American people want and what their government knows how to do." Really?

That so few rank-and-file Democrats feel up to holding Obama responsible for his repeated belligerence probably has more to do with the perception that the Republicans have become a full-fledged threat to civilization. This is in stark contrast to the 1960s, when we had no trouble turning on Lyndon Johnson -- and when the Democratic Party essentially short-circuited the accomplishments of the New Deal and Great Society out of a blind commitment to an insane war in Vietnam. Like Johnson, Obama seems bent on sacrificing whatever good he's accomplished on the altar of war. Little comfort that he hasn't accomplished much to squander.

Some scattered links this week:

  • Peter Beinart: Actually, Obama Does Have a Strategy in the Middle East: Argues that Obama is neither dove nor hawk, but "a fierce minimalist" -- which is to say he's a hawk who prefers small game taken with little risk or long-term commitment. Of course, that doesn't explain his "Afghanistan surge" -- in retrospect, that looks like a time-limited concession to the military, a way of saying "put up or shut up." Beinart goes further than the facts suggest:

    On the other hand, he's proven ferocious about using military force to kill suspected terrorists. [ . . . ] By contrast, Obama's strategy -- whether you like it or not -- is more clearly defined. Hundreds of thousands can die in Syria; the Taliban can menace and destabilize Afghanistan; Iran can move closer to getting a bomb. No matter. With rare exceptions, Obama only unsheathes his sword against people he thinks might kill American civilians.

    It's not that simple: Libya never was a threat to American civilians (at least not until he intervened there). And he's actually broken new ground in using drones to kill American citizens. So I think the focus on "terrorist" targets has more to do with scale and risk. He's come to realize that the US military isn't very effective (and often is down right counterproductive) when deployed en masse, so he's avoided that. He also seems to recognize that the US military isn't very effective as an occupying force: they inevitably embarrass themselves, breeding resentment and rebellion. On the other hand, give him the opportunity to kill some "terrorist" and he's happy to pull the trigger. Republicans taunt him as weak, so he's anxious to prove he's a natural born killer. One could do worse than minimizing risk and damage, but "minimalism" is a trap Obama walked into, either because he has no principles or because he has no willpower to defend them against his security bureaucracy.

    Also see Kathy Gilsinan: To Kill a Terrorist, about one of Obama's minimalist "success stories": the killing of Somali "terrorist" leader Ahmed Abdi Godane. The most likely result there is that Al-Shabab replaces Godane with another even-more-embittered leader and nothing more changes. And I might as well point out Beinart's more recent post, Pursuing ISIS to the Gates of Hell. Obama's vow "to destroy and degrade ISIS" remains a bit muddled (why put the weaker verb second?), and framing it with a "Jacksonian" revenge drama doesn't help.

  • Andrew O'Hehir: From 9/11 to the ISIS videos: The darkness we conjured up:

    I think it's worthwhile to revisit the examples of Stockhausen and Baudrillard, and their ideas too, in considering a new outrage that is both literal and symbolic: the ISIS beheading videos. The criminal acts depicted in those videos are on an entirely different scale from 9/11, and it's important not to lose sight of that fact amid the understandable shock and revulsion they have engendered. But the intended effect is strikingly similar, and the ISIS videos are conceptually and historically related to 9/11 as tools of provocation and propaganda. They are designed to make a ragtag band of apocalyptic rebels look like a symmetrical adversary to the world's greatest military power; to incite an exaggerated response from that power, driven by panic and hysteria; and to attract rootless millennials, both from the West and the Muslim world, to their incoherent cause. So far it seems to be working.

    I'm far less certain that the intent behind the beheading videos is to provoke the insane response that Obama and nearly everyone on his hawkish right have committed to, but that's the effect. Rather, they show a profound inability to step outside of their own skin and see themselves as others will see them -- a trait that Obama et al. sadly share with them. If they were smart, they'd court journalists and get them to at least cast reasonable doubts about their fanaticism. Of course, if they were smart, they'd recall Islam's past tolerance for other religions, a principle ("no compulsion in matters of faith") which had allowed Christians and Yazidis (and Jews) to persevere through more than a millenia of past caliphates. And they'd play up the fact that they're seeking freedom from despotic police states in Damascus and Baghdad. But no side is playing this smart: they each tailor their propaganda to suit their own prejudices, confirming their greatest fears and enabling their most vicious and violent cadres to commit acts that will only exacerbate the initial problem.

  • Nick Turse: American Monuments to Failure in Africa? Until the US military created the US Africa Command in 2007, you heard very little about American military operations in Africa, because there really weren't many. Now the US military is all over the continent, shooting people and blowing shit up but also spreading their budget around on "feel good" projects, much like they did in Iraq and Afghanistan:

    As with Petraeus's career, which imploded amidst scandal, the efforts he fostered similarly went down in flames. In Iraq, the chicken processing plant proved a Potemkin operation and the much ballyhooed Baghdad water park quickly fell into ruin. The country soon followed. Less than three years after the U.S. withdrawal, Iraq teeters on the brink of catastrophe as most of Petraeus's Sunni mercenaries stood aside while the brutal Islamic State carved a portion of its caliphate from the country, and others, aggrieved with the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad, sided with them. In Afghanistan, the results have been similarly dismal as America's hearts-and-minds monies yielded roads to nowhere (where they haven't already deteriorated into death traps), crumbling buildings, over-crowded, underfunded, and teacher-less schools, and billions poured down the drain in one boondoggle after another.

  • More Israel links:

Also, a few links for further study:

  • Kathleen Geier: Can we talk? The unruly life and legacy of Joan Rivers: Seems about right, though I'm less of a fan.

    Some critics claim to discern a humanistic project behind Rivers' comedy of cruelty. For example, Mitchell Fain argued that River "says things out loud what we're all thinking, in our worst moments," and that by doing so, "the monster gets smaller." What seems far likelier is that the monster gets socially sanctioned. For decades, a staple of Rivers' act have been nasty jokes about female celebrities who are fat, stupid, or slutty, and male celebrities who are allegedly gay. If she ever talked smack about straight male celebrities, I'm hard-pressed to think of any examples.

    That brings us to Joan Rivers' politics, which mostly were horrible. On the plus side, she was pro-choice, an early supporter of gay rights, and an Obama supporter. On the negative side, there is pretty much everything else. Rivers was a lifelong Republican, and made many comments over the years that left little doubt about her right-wing views. She hated the movie Precious, not for aesthetic reasons, but for frankly political ones ("I thought, Oh, get a job! Stand up and get a job!"). Just last month, she voiced strong support for Israel's military actions actions in Gaza and said that the Palestinians "deserve to be dead." She adored Ronald Reagan and shamelessly fawned over the British royal family. When writers on her show Fashion Police, who were working full-time and only making $500 a week, went on strike, she refused to support them. At times, her humor was outright racist.

  • John Mearsheimer: Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West's Fault: A useful corrective to a lot of prevailing assumptions. Clearly, the US (neocon) effort to extend NATO to the borders of Russia has been deliberately and unnecessarily provocative, although one could also argue that deep-seated fears that Russia might revert its past patterns, both before and after the 1917 Revolution, of trying to control what it thought of as its satellites had more to do with NATO's expansion. Moreover, while US-backed "democracy projects" were effectively an attempt at foreign subversion, it would seem that Russia has been organizing support in Ukraine as well. In America we reflexively assume we're acting with the best intentions, but with Cold War blinkers we make little distinction between democracy and neoliberal economic policies that lead to inequality and corruption -- something the post-Soviet bloc has had bitter experience with. There is much to be said in favor of UN-based programs promoting democracy and human rights throughout the world, provided such programs focus on need -- Saudi Arabia is always a good place to start -- rather than the neocon checklist of governments they dislike.

    More dissenting pieces on Ukraine:

  • Jim Newell: GOP's Kansas nightmare: How a red state is on verge of unthinkable upsets: I'd caution against counting these chickens before they hatch, but so far the evidence does suggest that the Democrats greatly improve their prospects at the polls when they bother to run candidates. The Senate contest this year represents a different twist on that, with Democrat Chad Taylor dropping out to let independent Greg Orman run unfettered. I'm not sure that was such a good idea, but Orman has a lot more money to work with, and he might woo more Republicans -- they're pretty regimented on the far right at the moment, but in doing so they've pissed a lot of their own off. Also see Nate Silver. As for the governor, Brownback is widely regarded as a complete fuck up -- I look forward to campaign commercials showing him and Rick Perry praying for rain. But oddly enough he's not only doubled down on the lie that his tax cuts are "working" -- I think that's a euphemism for rich-getting-richer; the new joke is that the only thing flatter than Kansas is the Kansas economy -- but instead of moving center to pick up votes he's been moving right for more money. To be specific, the Kochs have been trying to kill wind power subsidies, which many Republicans (including Brownback until his flip) favor because it means manufacturing and service jobs plus big royalties to farmers. The Kochs regard wind power as heresy against free markets, but if you want to dig a bit deeper, see Lee Fang: Charles Koch founded anti-environment group to protect big oil industry handouts.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Daily Log

Ran across various problems with machine "miles" yesterday. Printer was inaccessible, and couldn't ftp to it. Attempts to install missing packages were thwarted by the inability to verify packages. It was running Ubuntu 12.10 and clearly needed an upgrade. Turns out it needs several, as you can't go from 12.10 to current (14.04 LTS) in one step. In fact, several suggested upgrade paths didn't work. I finally found a set of shell commands:

$ sudo apt-get install ubuntu-release-upgrader-core
$ sudo do-release-upgrade

I spent several hours archiving data on the machine (just to be safe; most of it turns out to be backups from other machines). Then I finally ran the commands above. Took fucking forever: I went to bed at 5AM, then when I got up (after noon) it was waiting for me with some dumb question or other. I was expecting them to bring me to 13.04 but it made the upgrade all the way to 13.10, and xfce was still working after the upgrade. I messed up something with mysql and phpmyadmin so still have to figure that out. I was able to install vsftpd easily. I should probably move on to 14.04 LTS soon, but will take a breather first.

Upgrading machine "duke" is likely to be even more daunting. It's currently running 12.04 LTS, so it's even more dated than miles. It also has a lot more valuable data. It might be best to pick up an external drive and copy everything to it first, although sooner or later I need to rationalize the multiple old backups: figure out what I need and get rid of the redundancy. Laura's machine also undoubtedly needs an upgrade. And to think that I originally switched to ubuntu because I thought it had the most manageable system for keeping up-to-date.

Also worrisome is that duke completely froze last night -- I could ping it and connect (but not login) with ftp, but I couldn't remotely log in. X was frozen, not even the clock updating. Did a power down and reboot and it came up OK.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Daily Log

Went to the dentist today for what I thought was a crown prep but after filling a cavity I got some kind of "temporary crown" and was told to wait a week to see whether they'd need to do a root canal before the real crown prep. Planning on driving east end of September, so this threatens to throw a monkey wrench into the whole trip. Wound up spending 2.5 hours in the dental office: late starting, more waiting, a new "computerized" novocaine gadget that didn't work, then old-fashioned injections that took three or four hours to wear off. Did some shopping after that, and had numerous people wish me a "great day" -- I suppose I should be thankful for the sentiments but the day itself wasn't panning out. One place I stopped was the new Whole Foods -- big crowds there but I didn't buy anything, in part because I didn't feel like eating, but also because the smoked fish I was hoping for didn't really pan out. Went to Fresh Market for the smoked fish (trout and salmon), then to WalMart for my daily yogurt -- only place in town that carries Yoplait Thick & Creamy.

Got home and read pieces at Odyshape by Jason Gubbels and Michael Tatum announcing they'll no longer be writing for Odyshape. I had heard from Tatum that everyone had trouble with the perpetual conflict between the grind and the rest of their lives. Tatum wants to work on his novel, which sounds wise, and Gubbels is getting paid to write elsewhere and wants to do more of that. I wish them well, and will sorely miss their prospecting. Makes me wonder if I shouldn't get to practicing what I've been preaching too.

Only played two records today (not counting one in the car, I guess): the new Ivo Perelman CD, and Bad Plus on Rhapsody. Still, when I went to Twitter I knocked out this:

Joan Rivers? At least she died doing what she loved best -- having plastic surgery. Funnier than Robin Williams, but not sadder.

Had I not run out of characters, I would have added "or more humane." Fact is, I almost never could handle Williams' stand up shtick -- he used to do a big deal about a fire & brimstone preacher that was a major turnoff, but that was hardly the only such bit -- and I found Mork & Mindy little short of repulsive. TV shows he hosted with Whoopi Goldberg (and/or Billy Crystal?) were better, but he was still the weak link. Some of the movies are OK, and I never saw Good Will Hunting.

I've seen a lot of Rivers on TV, especially long ago with Johnny Carson -- only thing recent was a documentary made about her, which played up the raunch. She was always a mean comic, kind of like a "mean drunk" (I suppose you could characterize Williams as a "giddy drunk"), so I'm not surprised that she has detractors for her politics and social views. (Laura's tweet: "#GazaUnderAttack It's really more than I can manage not to point out this divine retribution on Joan Rivers.")

Added another tweet:

Sorry to see Gubbels & Tatum pulling out of Odyshape -- key thing there was that they could prospect sytematically and write at whatever.

Wanted to say "write at whatever length suited them," but they could go at whatever subject as well. And I don't mean to be gloomy, but they're likely to have difficulty doing that elsewhere. I know from personal experience that it's hard to get a column space which lets you develop your whole personality. With freelancing you're always chasing someone else's ideas and interests, and while it's nice to get paid money or it, money isn't necessarily a very good judge of what a person should do. Jason, in particular, needs to maintain some sort of blog presence just to keep nudging his career along, and that's probably true for Michael as well (the hedging being that he doesn't really have a paying writing career, or a way to bridge to one).

I'll have to write more about them, me, Odyshape, and Terminal Zone for next week's Music Week.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 23744 [23701] rated (+43), 523 [530] unrated (-7).

Main thing that happened this week was that I stumbled across the Catalytic-Sound website on Bandcamp. Ken Vandermark set this up, and it currently showcases 137 albums by Vandermark and several of his closely aligned friends: Peter Brötzmann, Mats Gustafsson, Joe McPhee, and Paal Nilssen-Love. (Bassist Ingebrigt Háker Flaten has a comparable website with a good deal of overlap.) Shortly after I wrote my first Village Voice piece on Vandermark, he sent me a big box of his recordings -- I was thinking of doing something similar to my Parker-Shipp CG but never seemed to have the time -- so many of these are familiar. In fact, next RS column has a list of 80 Catalytic-Sound records I've previously reviewed/rated. Still, the site fills in some gaps, so I spent a good deal of last week picking off the Vandermark releases (I'll get back to Brötzmann et al. in due course). One problem is that not every album can be streamed completely, but the exceptions are (at present, anyway) few. Still, several omissions particularly disappointed me: the early Vandermark Quartet album Big Head Eddie (1993), and the brand new Audio One: The Midwest School (2014) -- its companion, An International Report, was the week's top find (I also gave an A- to the early Caffeine). One I have yet to get to is the 7-CD DKV Trio: Past Present box.

I suppose you could make arguments both ways as to whether omitting tracks maximizes cash returns -- the idea behind making all this music available is to sell it -- but for someone who tries to cover as wide a swath as possible and who has little time to double back, these sites are a terrific convenience and help. I wish there were more of them, and hope they stay as open as possible.

I haven't been able to update the blog this past week, although I occasionally do still receive mail about nonsense comments, so it must be sort of working some of the time. I haven't made any real progress toward moving on, and hardly know where to begin.

Recommended music links:

New records rated this week:

  • Audio One: An International Report (2014, Audiographic): yet another Vandermark large band, live at Green Mill, expect action, don't be too picky [bc]: A-
  • Cory Branan: The No-Hit Wonder (2014, Bloodshot): singer-songwriter from Mississippi, went to rock in Memphis but country songs are fresher [r]: B+(*)
  • The Bug: Angels & Devils (2014, Ninja Tune): best when he goes upbeat with that dub thing, but also has a penchant for horror soundtrack poses [r]: B+(*)
  • Common: Nobody's Smiling (2014, Def Jam): Chicago rapper explores and deplores his home town, not that it isn't tough everywhere else [r]: B+(***)
  • Eliana Cuevas: Espejo (2014, ALMA): originally from Venezuela, now "Canada's Latin Music Queen" -- a small fish in a barren pond [cd]: B
  • Dirty Loops: Loopified (2014, Verve): three Swedish gents: synth fireworks and histrionic vocals driven by a frantic post-disco beat [r]: C+
  • Four Year Strong: Go Down in History (2014, Pure Noise, EP): 5-song EP by punkish group so irrepressibly loud and catchy they're extra annoying [r]: B-
  • Larry Fuller: Larry Fuller (2013-14 [2014], Capri): mainstream pianist, came up working with singers and plays juicy standards in this trio, "C Jam Blues" a fave [cd]: B+(***)
  • Richard Galliano: Sentimentale (2014, Resonance): French accordion player works the jazz tradition for sentimental moods, played up to the hilt [cd]: A-
  • Ariana Grande: My Everything (2014, Island/Republic): no doubt she has what it takes to be a pop star; the question is whether she can make us care [r]: B+(**)
  • Eric Harland's Voyager: Vipassana (2014, GSI Studios): mainstream drummer's second album, assembles a fancy band then wastes it with vocal dressing [cdr]: B-
  • Horse Meat Disco: Volume IV (2014, Strut): old disco obscurities remixed to sound like old disco obscurities, plus "Gettin' to Know You" [r]: B+(**)
  • Ricky Kej/Wouter Kellerman: Winds of Samsara (2014, Listen 2 Africa): Indian keyboard player meets South African flautist for synth-not-so-exotica [cd]: C
  • Wiz Khalifa: Blacc Hollywood (2014, Atlantic): after two plays, all I can confirm is that this stoned rapper makes agreeable background music [r]: B+(**)
  • J Mascis: Tied to a Star (2014, Sub Pop): Dinosaur Jr. frontman returns to form, his voice cracking and hiding behind some pretty decent guitar [r]: B+(*)
  • Brad Paisley: Moonshine in the Trunk (2014, Arista): first half party anthems and livid fantasies; on the backstretch turns into a crunchy con [r]: B-
  • Jamie Saft/Steve Swallow/Bobby Previte: The New Standard (2014, Rare Noise): [cdr]: B+(*)
  • Carl Saunders: America (2013 [2014], Summit): spent most of his life in big bands but sounds great as the sole horn here, even when the covers turn corny [cd]: B+(*)
  • Side A: In the Abstract (2013 [2014], Not Two): Ken Vandermark reeds trio with Havard Wiik and Chad Taylor, more varied than Free Fall but lands there [bc]: B+(**)
  • Spider Bags: Frozen Letter (2014, Merge): garage-punk with a talkie-voiced singer who seems worth listening to, plus they can stretch a riff [r]: B+(*)
  • Ed Stone: King of Hearts (2014, Sapphire Music): guitarist-singer, touted as "the new George Benson," he isn't even that, much less the old one [cd]: C+
  • Street Priest: More Nasty (2012 [2014], Humbler): guitar-bass-drums trio, can't (or won't) fake the funk so they bust it into shards and stray noise [cdr]: B+(**)
  • Randy Travis: Influence Vol. 2: The Man I Am (2012 [2014], Warner Brothers): covers from the classics to Kristofferson, leftovers from Vol. 1 but ring truer [r]: B+(**)
  • Ken Vandermark's Topology Nonet: Impressions of Po Music (2013, Okka Disk): Joe McPhee plays McPhee a generation removed, scaled up, not so po [bc]: B+(**)

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

  • Cables to the Ace (2014, Communicating Vessels): [cd]: B

Old records rated this week:

  • AALY Trio with Ken Vandermark: Hidden in the Stomach (1996 [1997], Silkheart): Ken Vandermark joins Mats Gustafsson's rowdy trio, highlight Haden and Ayler covers [r]: B+(**)
  • AALY Trio with Ken Vandermark: I Wonder If I Was Screaming (2000, Crazy Wisdom): tighter songwriting limits meltdown by combustible sax men [bc]: B+(**)
  • Billy Bang Quintet: Invitation (1982, Soul Note): scrounging, found one I hadn't heard and didn't find it especially remarkable, relatively [r]: B+(**)
  • Caffeine: Caffeine (1993 [1994], Okka Disk): Ken Vandermark, Jim Baker (piano), Steve Hunt (drums): I've never heard Baker play so explosively -- sure lights V up [r]: A-
  • The John Carter Octet: Dauwhe (1982, Black Saint): adds decorative flute, oboe, tuba, African references to more visceral quartet with Bobby Bradford [r]: B+(**)
  • Cinghiale [Mars Williams/Ken Vandermark]: Hoofbeats of the Snorting Swine (1995 [1996], Eighth Day): Ken Vandermark and Mars Williams play sax/clarinet duets, w/surprising interactions [bc]: B+(***)
  • DK3: Neutrons (1997 [1998], Quarterstick): Ken Vandermark trio with guitar-drums from Jesus Lizard, one of those post-rock experiments he no longer does [bc]: B+(***)
  • The Frame Quartet: 35mm (2009, Okka Disk): Vandermark 4, scratches second sax for an admixture of electronics, interesting but not quite the same [bc]: B+(***)
  • The Kevin Norton Ensemble: Knots (1997, Music & Arts): drummer-vibraphonist, toys with Monk and swaps in various clarinets, a mix converging on same [r]: B+(***)
  • NRG Ensemble: Bejazzo Gets a Facelift (1997, Atavistic): post-Hal Russell group with Mars Williams and Ken Vandermark racing, crashing, flips [bc]: B+(***)
  • Territory Band-4: Company Switch (2004 [2005], Okka Disk, 2CD): Vandermark 11-piece big band, for once does more than just thrash and raise hell [bc]: B+(**)
  • The Thing: Action Jazz (2006, Smalltown Superjazz): Mats Gustafsson's power sax trio diversifies, not the worst thing that can happen to them [bc]: B+(**)
  • Vandermark Quartet: Solid Action (1994, Platypus): a blast from the past, when V was straddling avant rock and jazz, making trouble for both [bc]: B+(***)
  • Ken Vandermark: Standards (1994 [1995], Quinnah): four "improvising trios," nothing standard, just a first taste of DKV, more Mars, some guitar thrash [bc]: B+(**)
  • Ken Vandermark: Strade d'Acqua/Roads of Water (2008 [2010], Multi Kulti): soundtrack, hushed tones, moderate tempos, a little color, everyone makes nice [bc]: B+(*)

Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Jason Adasiewicz's Sun Rooms: From the Region (Delmark)
  • Charles Lloyd: Manhattan Stories (1965, Resonance, 2CD): September 16
  • Pete Magadini: Bones Blues (1977, Sackville/Delmark)
  • Dean Magraw & Eric Kamau Gravatt: Fire on the Nile (Red House): October 14
  • Parker Abbott Trio: The Wayfinders (self-released): October 23
  • Don Pullen: Richard's Tune (1975, Sackville/Delmark)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Weekend Roundup

Having a lot of trouble focusing these days. Partly the number of things broken and need of (often expensive, sometimes just time consuming) repairs has been mind-boggling. And with the blog on the blink, I've fallen into a two-day week rut, compiling "Music Week" on Mondays then trying to catch up with the world on "Weekend Roundup" on Sundays. Several of the bits below could have been broken out into separate posts -- indeed, I wonder if they shouldn't all be.

I'm thinking especially of the Michelle Goldberg "Two-State" comment as something I could have written much more on. I don't know if I made the point clearly enough below, so let me try to sum it up once more: there are several distinct but tightly interlocked problems with Two-State: (1) the natural constituency for Two-State (at least among pro-Israelis) is the "liberal Zionists" -- an ideology based on an unsustainable contradiction, and therefore a diminishing force -- and without supporters Two-State is doomed to languish; (2) when liberals break from Zionism (which is inevitable if they have both principles and perception) they must do so by committing to universal rights, which means they must at least accept One-State as a desirable solution (Goldberg, by the way, fails this test); (3) as long as [illiberal] Zionists refuse to implement Two-State (and they have a lot of practice at staving it off), liberals (anyone with a desire for peace and justice) should regroup and insist on universal rights (e.g., One-State); (4) under pressure, I think that Zionists will wind up accepting some version of Two-State rather than risking the ethnic dilution of One-State. People like Goldberg would be better off getting ahead of this curve rather than trying to nitpick it. Someone like Netanyahu has thousands of excuses for postponing agreement on a viable Two-State solution. On the other hand, he has no legitimate defense against charges that Israel is treading on the basic human rights of millions of Palestinians under occupation. That's where you want to focus the political debate. And that shouldn't be hard given Israel's recent demonstration of its abuse of power.

The march to war against ISIS is another subject worthy of its own post. There are many examples, but the one I was most struck by this week was a letter to the Wichita Eagle, which reads:

The threat of ISIS appears similar to the threat of the Nazis before World War II. The Europeans ignored Adolf Hitler's rising power because they were tired of war.

As ISIS spreads through the Middle East at will, our nation's leaders are assessing how to counter this threat. ISIS is well-equipped, having seized abandoned equipment the United States gave the Iraqi army, and it is growing in strength, numbers and brutality.

What is the U.S. to do? That decision is in the hands of our nation's leaders. However, with the future leader of ISIS having said in 2009 to U.S. soldiers who had held him prisoner, "I'll see you in New York," trying to avoid conflict because we're tired of war should not be the determining factor.

Much of Europe succumbed to Hitler because Europeans were "tired of war."

Similar? Germany had the second largest economy in the world in the 1930s, one that was reinvigorated by massive state spending on munitions at a time when the rest of the world was languishing in depression. Even so, Hitler's appetite far exceeded his grasp. Germany was able to score some quick "blitzkrieg" victories over France, Norway, and Poland, and occupy those countries through fronts offered by local fascists -- the Vichy government in France, Quisling in Norway, etc. But even given how large and strong Germany was, it was unable to sustain an assault on the British Isles, and its invasion of Russia stalled well short of the Urals. And, of course, provoking the US into entering the war hastened Germany's loss, but that loss was very likely anyway. It turns out that the world is not such an easy place to conquer, and authoritarian regimes breed resistance everywhere they tread.

In contrast, ISIS is a very limited backwater rebellion. Its extremist Sunni salafism limits it to about one-quarter of Iraq and maybe one-half of Syria, and it was only able to flourish in those areas because they have been severely war-torn for many years. They lack any sort of advanced manufacturing base. Their land is mostly desert, so very marginal for agriculture. Their "war machine" is built on confiscated weapons caches, which will quickly wear out or be exhausted. They do have some oil, but lack refineries and chemical plants. Moreover, their identity is so narrow they will be unable to extend their rule beyond war-torn Sunni regions, where they're often viewed as more benign (or at leas less malign) than the Assad and Maliki regimes.

So it's hard to imagine any scenario where ISIS might expand beyond its current remote base: comparing it to Germany under Hitler is laughable. The one thing they do have in common is an enthusiasm for war, developed out of a desire to avenge past wars. You might say that that the West after WWI was "tired of war" but that seems more like a sober assessment of how much was lost and how little gained even in winning that war -- after Afghanistan and Iraq, most Americans are similarly dismayed at how much they've lost and how little they've gained after more than a decade of war. Many Germans, on the other hand, were willing to entertain the delusion that they only lost due to treachery, and that a rematch would solve all their problems. It's easy in retrospect to see this asymmetry in war lust as a "cause" of the war, but jumping from that insight to a conclusion that the West could have prevented WWII by standing up to Hitler sooner is pure fantasy. To prevent WWII you'd have to go back to Versailles and settle the first phase of what Arno Mayer later dubbed "the thirty-years war of the 20th century" on more equitable terms -- as effectively (albeit not all that consciously) happened after WWII.

As with post-WWI Germans, ISIS' enthusiasm for war is rooted in many years of scars -- scrapes with the French and British colonialists, with Israel, with brutal Baathist dictators, with the US invasion of Iraq and American support for Kurdish and Shiite militias. Most ISIS soldiers grew up with war and know little else -- in this the people they most closely resemble are not the Nazis but the Taliban, a group which resisted long Russian and American occupations, separated by a bloody civil war and a short-lived, brutal but ineffective period in power. On the other hand the idea that the US should shrug off their "war weariness" and plunge into another decade-plus struggle with another Taliban knock-off isn't very inspiring. Isn't repeating the same steps hoping for different results the very definition of insanity?

Still, the war drums keep beating. The Wichita Eagle has had three such op-eds in the last week on ISIS: from Charles Krauthammer, Cal Thomas, and Trudy Rubin -- each with the sort of screeching hysteria and ignorance of ecology I associate with finding roaches under the bathroom lavoratory. Clearly, what gets their goat more than anything is the very idea of an Islamic State: it looms for these people as some sort of existential threat that must be exterminated at any cost -- a reaction that is itself every bit as arbitrary, absolutist, and vicious as what they think they oppose. But in fact it's merely the logical response to the past wars that this same trio have urged us into. It's worth recalling that there was a day when small minds like these were equally convinced that the Germans and Japanese were all but genetically disposed to hatred and war. (Robert Morgenthau, for instance, wanted to spoil German farms with salt so they wouldn't be able to feed enough people to field an army -- that was 1945?) Europe broke a cycle of war that had lasted for centuries, not by learning to be more vigilant at crushing little Hitlers but by joining together to build a prosperous and equitable economy. The Middle East -- long ravaged by colonialism, corruption, and war -- hasn't been so lucky, but if it is to turn around it will be more due to "war weariness" than to advances in drone technology. The first step forward will be for the war merchants to back away -- or get thrown out, for those who insist on learning their lessons the hard way.

Some more scattered links this week:

  • Michelle Goldberg: Liberal Zionism Is Dying. The Two-State Solution Shouldn't Go With It. This starts off with a point (a major concession, really) that bears repeating:

    In 1948, Hannah Arendt published an essay in the magazine Commentary -- at the time still a liberal magazine -- titled "To Save the Jewish Homeland." She lamented the increasingly militaristic, chauvinistic direction of Zionism, the virtual unanimity among Jews in both the United States and Palestine that "Arab and Jewish claims are irreconcilable and only a military decision can settle the issue; the Arabs, all Arabs, are our enemies and we accept this fact; only outmoded liberals believe in compromises, only philistines believe in justice, and only shlemiels prefer truth and negotiation to propaganda and machine guns . . . and we will consider anybody who stands in our way a traitor and anything done to hinder us a stab in the back."

    This nationalist strain of Zionism, she predicted, might succeed in establishing a state, but it would be a modern-day Sparta, "absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities." It would negate the very humanistic Jewish values that originally fed the Zionist dream. "Palestine Jewry would eventually separate itself from the larger body of world Jewry and in its isolation develop into an entirely new people," she writes. "Thus it becomes plain that at this moment and under present circumstances a Jewish state can only be erected at the price of the Jewish homeland."

    It's difficult to avoid the conclusion, sixty-six years later, that she was right.

    Goldberg then cites Antony Lerman's recent The End of Liberal Zionism:

    The romantic Zionist ideal, to which Jewish liberals -- and I was one, once -- subscribed for so many decades, has been tarnished by the reality of modern Israel. The attacks on freedom of speech and human rights organizations in Israel, the land-grabbing settler movement, a growing strain of anti-Arab and anti-immigrant racism, extremist politics, and a powerful, intolerant religious right -- this mixture has pushed liberal Zionism to the brink. [ . . . ]

    The only Zionism of any consequence today is xenophobic and exclusionary, a Jewish ethno-nationalism inspired by religious messianism. It is carrying out an open-ended project of national self-realization to be achieved through colonization and purification of the tribe.

    "Liberal Zionist" is a contradiction that cannot survive. Indeed, in Israel it is all but dead. The key tenet of liberalism is belief in equal rights for all. In Israel it is virtually impossible to find any political party -- even "far left" Meretz -- willing to advance equal rights for the "Palestinian citizens of Israel" much less for those Palestinians under occupation. On the other hand, the debate as to whether Zionism is inherently racist has been proven not just in theory but empirically. As Max Blumenthal shows in Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, everywhere you look in Israel you see growing evidence of racism.

    In America, it's long been possible for many people (not just Jews) to combine domestic liberalism with an unthinking, uncritical allegiance to Israel. Of course it's getting harder to sustain the ignorance that allows one to think of Israel as a just nation. (The so-called Christian Zionists -- or as Chris Hedges puts it, "American fascists" -- require fewer illusions, since they are likely to be racist and militarist at home as well as abroad.) It sounds like Goldberg -- an early J-Street supporter -- has started to make the break, but she's still not willing to go full-liberal and endorse full and equal rights for all Israelis and Palestinians -- the so-called One-State Solution. She wants to salvage the so-called Two-State Solution, with Israel returning (for the most part) to its 1967 borders and an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank (with or without Jerusalem as its capitol).

    The Two-State Solution was originally proposed by the UN in 1947, but the Zionist leadership weren't satisfied with the proposed borders, and the Palestinian leadership objected to the whole thing, preferring a unified democracy (with a 2-to-1 Arab majority) where nobody would have to move. After the 1949-50 armistice lines were drawn, Israel greatly expanded its borders and had expelled over 700,000 Arabs from its territory, ensuring Jewish demographic dominance. Those borders, which held until 1967, have long been accepted as permanent by most Palestinian groups and by all neighboring Arab countries: a deal that could have been made by Israel any time since the mid-1990s, but which wasn't, because no ruling party in Israel would accept such a deal, nor would the US or the so-called Quartet (which had endorsed the deal) apply significant pressure on Israel to settle. There are lots of reasons why Israel has taken such an intransigent stand. One is that the demise of liberalism leaves Israel with no effective "peace block" -- the price of occupation has become so low, and the political liabilities of peace so high, that Israel currently has no desire to change the status quo.

    This is, of course, a huge problem for anyone who believes in equal rights and/or who puts a positive value on peace in the Middle East. Such people -- by which I mean pretty much all of us (except for a few warmongers and apocalypse-hungry Christians) -- can only make progress toward a settlement by putting pressure on Israel, which is to say by increasing the costs to Israel of its present occupation policies. One way is to counter Israeli propaganda, to expose the facts of occupation and to delegitimize Israel's position. Another step is BDS, with the prospect of growing ever more extensive and restrictive. Another is to adjust the list of acceptable outcomes: that may mean giving precedence to the inclusive, equal rights One-State Solution over the unsuccessful Two-State scheme.

    The fact is that Two-State was a bad idea in 1947 and remains a bad idea today: it is only slightly less bad now because the "ethnic cleansing" that could have been avoided in 1947 is ancient history now; it is also slightly worse because it leaves us with a lot of refugees who will still be unable to return to Israel, and who still have to be compensated and patriated elsewhere. The dirty secret of the Two-State Solution is that it leaves Israel unaltered (except for the relatively trivial loss of some settlements) -- free to remain the racist, militarist Sparta it has become ever since 1948. That's why Israel will choose Two-State over One-State: Two-State guarantees that their Jewish state will remain demographically supreme, whereas One-State risks dilution of their ethnic solidarity. But even if the West's game plan is Two-State all along, you're not going to get there without playing the One-State card. If a US administration finally decides we need to settle this conflict, it won't start (as Obama did) by demanding a settlement freeze; it will start by demanding equal rights for all within whatever jurisdictions exist, and complete freedom from Israel for any jurisdictions that do not offer full and equal Israeli citizenship. Only then will progress be made. The problem with Goldberg's plea is that she's still willing to sacrifice her principles for Israel's identity.

  • Ezra Klein: The DNC'a braidead attack on Rand Paul: Paul's been reading Hillary Clinton's neocon ravings, and responded: "We are lucky Mrs. Clinton didn't get her way and the Obama administration did not bring about regime change in Syria. That new regime might well be ISIS." The DNC's response: "It's disappointing that Rand Paul, as a Senator and a potential presidential candidate, blames America for all the problems in the world, while offering reckless ideas that would only alienate us from the global community. [ . .  ] That type of 'blame America' rhetoric may win Paul accolades at a conference of isolationists but it does nothing to improve our standing in the world. In fact, Paul's proposals would make America less safe and less secure." Klein adds:

    This is the brain-dead patriotism-baiting that Democrats used to loathe. Now they're turning it on Paul.

    There are a few things worth noting here. The first is the ferocity with which the DNC responded to an attack that was, in truth, aimed more at Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama. The second is the degree to which a Rand Paul-Hillary Clinton race would scramble the politics of national security, with Democrats running against Paul in much the way Bush ran against Kerry. And the third is that it's still the case in foreign policy, the real divide isn't left vs. right, but interventionists vs. non-interventionists.

    Actually, the "real" political divide is between status quo cons like Obama and Clinton on the "left" side and various flavors of crackpots (including Rand) on the "right." But in foreign policy, the latter have come to include a growing number of non-interventionists, not so much because they believe in peace and justice as because they've come to realize that imperial wars bind us closer to the dark-skinned aliens we claim to be helping, and because some of them begin to grasp that the security apparatus of the state they so loathe (mostly because it's democratic, or pretends to be) could just as easily turn on them. Meanwhile, Obama and Clinton have managed to hire virtually every known "liberal interventionist" as part of their efforts to toady up to the military-security complex, even though virtually none of their real-world supporters buy into that crap. Someone smarter than Rand Paul could turn this into a wedge issue, but he'll tie it to something stupid like preventing the Fed from counteracting recessions.

    Also see Paul Rosenberg: Don't do it, Hillary! Joining forces with neocons could doom Democrats: One thing on his mind is LBJ and Vietnam (who like Hillary was willing to do "dumb stuff" to not appear cowardly), but there's also this:

    Here's the dirtiest of dirty little secrets -- and it's not really a secret, it's just something no one ever talks about: The entire jihadi mess we're facing now all descends from the brilliant idea of "giving the Soviets their own Vietnam" in Afghanistan. How's that for learning a lesson from Vietnam? Well, that's the lesson that Jimmy Carter's crew learned -- and Ronald Reagan's gang was only too happy to double down on.

  • Richard Silverstein: The Jingoism of Anti-Jihadism: Starts with a Netanyahu quote from September 11, 2001, that's worth being reminded of (from New York Times):

    Asked tonight what the attack meant for relations between the United States and Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, replied, "It's very good." Then he edited himself: "Well, not very good, but it will generate immediate sympathy." He predicted that the attack would "strengthen the bond between our two peoples, because we've experienced terror over so many decades, but the United States has now experienced a massive hemorrhaging of terror."

    I remember watching him on TV at the time, as well as a similarly gloating Shimon Peres, and a slightly more somber John Major offering to share with the US Britain's vast experience in cultivating terrorists. You couldn't ask for better examples of how to react badly and make a problem worse. Silverstein then quotes from Hillary Clinton's Atlantic interview ("They are driven to expand. Their raison d'etre is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank -- and we are all fit into one of these categories. How do we try to contain that? I'm thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat."):

    Here you have a perfect example of the sickness I outlined above. In the 1950s communism was the bugaboo. Today, it's jihadism. Clinton's conception of the latter uses almost exactly the same terms as those of the Red Scare: words like expansionist, angry, violent, intolerant, brutal, anti-democratic. There's even a touch of Reaganism in Clinton's portrayal of the fall of communism. There's the notion that through all of our machinations against the Soviet Union -- the assassinations, the coups, the propping up of dictators -- all of it helped in some unspecified way to topple Communism. She further bizarrely characterizes our anti-Communist strategy as an "overarching framework," when it was little more than knee-jerk oppositionalism to the Red Menace.

    What is most pathetic about this political stance is that it offers no sense of our own identity, of what we stand for. Instead, it offers a vague, incohate enemy against whom we can unite. We are nothing without such enemies.

    Next up is David Brooks, if you care. Richard Ben Cramer, in How Israel Lost: The Four Questions (by the way, probably the best single book about Israel in the last twenty years) hypothesizes that the reason Israel is so determined not to negotiate an end to the conflict is that its leaders fear losing the shared identity of having a common enemy in the Palestinians. Take the conflict away and the various Jewish subgroups -- the Ashkenazi, Sephardim, Mizrachi, Russians, Americans -- will splinter and turn on each other, fighting over diminishing spoils in a suddenly ordinary state.

    For more on Netanyahu, see Remi Brulin: Israel's decades-long effort to turn the word 'terrorism' into an ideological weapon.

  • More Israel links:

Also, a few links for further study:

  • Dean Baker: Subverting the Inversions: More Thoughts on Ending the Corporate Income Tax: Baker is arguing that the inefficiencies caused by the Corporate Tax Avoidance Industry are so great that we might be better off eliminating the tax altogether: if there were no tax, there'd be no need for corporations to pay lobbyists and accountants to hide their income, and we'd also eliminate scourges like private equity companies. First obvious problem here is that leaves a $350 billion revenue shortfall, which Baker proposes recovering with higher dividend and capital gains tax rates. (Of course, we should do that anyway.) One long-term problem is that federal taxes have radically shifted from being collected from businesses to individuals, which makes the tax burden more acutely felt by the public. A VAT would help shift this back, but so would anything that tightened up loopholes and reduced corporate tax evasion. Another advantage of having a corporate income tax is that it could be made progressive, which would take an extra bite out of especially large and/or profitable companies -- the former mostly benefitting from weak antitrust enforcement, the latter from monopoly rents -- which would both raise more revenue and take it from companies that are relatively safe from competition. I'm not strictly opposed to what Baker is proposing, but I'd like to see it worked out in a broader context that includes many other tax reforms that tackle inequality, lack of competition, globalization, and patents more systematically. I suspect Baker would prefer this too.

    Also see Baker's Patent Monopolies: The Reason Drug Companies Pushed Synthetic Opioids.

  • Andrew Hartman: Hegel Meets Reagan: A review of Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.

  • Medium's CSS is actually pretty f***ing good. [Warning: very nerdy.] CSS stands for Cascading Style Sheet. The visual design properties of web pages can generally be controlled by attaching CSS code to the "generic markup code" in a web page (something called HTML). Having worked with pre-Web GMLs (Generic Markup Languages, especially the standardized one, SGML), I've always been very "old school" about coding web pages, which means I've never embraced CSS as a programming paradigm. So my reaction here was first one of shock that so much work went into this. (Looks like four programmers for a couple years, although it's unlikely that they only wrote CSS.) I was also at a loss for much of the terminology (LESS? SASS? mixin?), not that I can't guess what "z-index" implies. It's not that I haven't learned anything in the 15 years since I started building web sites, and it's certainly not necessarily the case that what's changed has changed for the better, but if I'm going to get over the hump of embracing this change I need good examples of making it worthwhile. And this, I suspect, is one.

  • Anya Schiffrin: The Rise and Fall of Investigative Journalism: An international compendium, spun off from her new book, Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World. This, by the way, is one of the few things I've read this week that make me feel more hopeful.

  • Rebecca Solnit: Men Explain Things to Me: Reprints the title essay, or at least an early draft of it, to Solnit's new book. Of course, I've had clueless men explain things to me, too. (A few clueless women as well, but singling out men is within reasonable statistical norms.) And in groups I have a relatively sensitive CSMA/CD switch, so I'm easily interrupted and loathe to reclaim the floor, so the larger the group the more likely I am to be regaled with unrefuted (not irrefutable) nonsense. Much of my consciousness of such dynamics comes from reading early feminist texts long ago, revelatory even in cases where women are reacting not so much to gender as to implicit power relationships -- something gender was (and not uncommonly still is) inextricably bound up in, but something that didn't end with gender. So Solnit's stories speak to me, even when the precise terminology is slightly off. [One of my favorite tech acronyms, CSMA/CD stands for "carrier sense multiple access with collision detection" -- an algorithm for efficiently deciding when a computer can send data over a common bus network. The same would work for deciding who speaks when in an open room, but actual results are often distorted by volume and ego.]

  • A few more links on Michael B. Katz:

One more little thing. I put aside the August 19, 2014 issue of the Wichita Eagle because I was struck by the following small items on page 3A:

Man sentenced to more than 7 years in prison . . . Scott Reinke, 43, was given 86 months in prison for a series of crimes including burglary, theft, possession of stolen property, making false information and fleeing or attempting to elude law enforcement. . . . In tacking on the additional time last Friday, [Judge Warren] Wilhelm noted Reineke had a criminal history of more than 50 felony convictions.

Kechi man gets nearly 10 years for child porn . . . Jaime Menchaca, 34, of Kechi pleaded guilty to one count of distributing child pornography and was sentenced to 110 months in prison. . . . In his plea, Menchaca admitted that on Sept. 13 he sent an e-mail containing child pornography to a Missouri man.

There's also another piece on page 5A:

Sex offender pleads guilty to child porn . . . Dewey had a 1999 conviction in Pueblo, Colorado, for attempted sexual assault of a child. He admitted in court Monday that he was found last September with images and videos of child pornography that he obtained via the Internet.

Prosecutors and the defense have agreed to recommend a 20-year prison term when Dewey is sentenced on Nov. 4.

This struck me as an example of something profoundly skewed in our criminal justice system. I won't argue that child pornography is a victimless crime (although what constitutes pornography can be very subjective), but possession of a single image strikes me as a much more marginal offense than repeated instances of property theft. (I don't think I even noticed the last case until I went back to look for the first two; it's harder to judge.) Glad the burglar/thief is going to jail, but wonder if it wouldn't make more sense for the child porn defendant to spend some time with a shrink, and maybe pay a nominal fine.

Also on the front page of the Eagle is an article called "Kan. GOP lawmakers vow to look out for oil interests": Senator Roberts, Reps. Huelskamp, Pompeo, and Jenkins prostate themselves at a Kansas Independent Oil & Gas Association confab. They all agreed they wanted lower taxes and less regulation. Nobody said much about the recent tenfold increase in earthquakes.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Daily Log

Went to a movie yesterday, so I thought I should catch up, without going to the trouble of posting anything. (Notation appears to have gone out of date. This is everything I can recall from 2014.)

Movie: Cavalry: A-

Movie: A Most Wanted Man: B

Movie: Belle: A-

Movie: The Lego Movie: B-

Movie: The Grand Budapest Hotel: B+

That's all I'm seeing for the whole year. I've certainly never seen so few films eight months into the year any time since I've been with Laura. We must have seen some late 2013 releases early in the year. Several films in the theatre now I'm interested in: Boyhood; The Hundred-Foot Journey; Magic in the Moonlight; Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Wouldn't mind seeing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or Lucy either.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 23701 [23658] rated (+43), 530 [536] unrated (-6).

Was surprised to see rated count over 40, then looked closer and the subtraction result turned out to be an impossible 143. Looks like I slipped a digit two weeks ago. That was about when I had an editing accident and lost several hundred grades, sending me into a panic trying to figure out how to fix the breach. This seems to be the summer of things breaking -- I still figure that's better than the summers of mysterious lung diseases a few years back. Thinking about it, the 43 count means I've been listening to more Rhapsody, which I'll explain by last week's oversized Streamnotes plus the fact that my pending queue is nearly dry (18 new 2014 records, or 10 not counting this week's unpacking). I can remember days when I had more than 100 unrated in the queue. I still have some items from previous years I haven't gotten to (although only 1 of those was from 2013, a piece of vinyl I should look for), so we're talking real low priority stuff. No wonder my eye is wandering.

This year I decided not to do my all-consuming metacritic file (link is to 2013), but needing some kind of aide de memoire I've kept a running list of albums considered noteworthy and assigned priorities to them to give me something to work with. Recently, it looked like this, but since I was weeding out albums once I had heard them, it was pretty much useless for anyone else. So it occurred to me that it would be better to keep those records in, and for that matter to add my grades (where available). The combined file now looks like this. I've added some options to select based on priority levels, so you can get the old format like this if you have any reason to do so. There's also an option to get an even bigger file with all the "priority 0" records I've noted -- everything mentioned in AMG's weekly featured releases gets noted in the data file, even if I consider it to be of no interest whatsoever. Currently the data file lists 1644 records. Since last year's metacritic files ran to (7868+1100) records, I haven't been looking very hard. But as my queue drains I'll work on that some more. (I especially want to beef up the jazz listings.)

I fell behind on Twitter, wound up having to knock out nine tweets to wrap this up. Even so, I skipped a few of the "old music" albums -- they'll show up next Rhapsody Streamnotes, although you can check out Michael Tatum for Joy Division, below. Wrote one tweet for Jeff Palmer -- an organ player in my database I had no other consciousness of -- but played two albums, both good, but when you trade in Victor Lewis (a drummer I revere) for Rashied Ali you get an extra spark.

Speaking of Twitter, I retwitted one from Mike Konczal last night:

Sad that Michael Katz has passed away. A remarkable scholar, very important to me. Read Tom Sugrue's moving tribute: [link]

I added my own two cents:

Let me add that Michael Katz's history of the early school reform movement as class thought control/socialization was a key insight to me.

Katz wrote a lot of books, but the only ones I read were The Irony of Early School Reform: Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts (1968; reissued 2001), and Class, Bureaucracy, and Schools: The Illusion of Educational Change in America (1971; expanded 1975). He found that the early proponents of universal education like Horace Mann -- a name we knew because Wichita named a school for him -- were less concerned with offerng opportunities to Irish immigrants than with socializing them in proper New England ways, and conversely that the Irish resisted such efforts to brainwash them. I read these books when I was a high school dropout with my own intense distrust of an educational system that seemed geared to turn us into regimented factory workers (if we survived the army and Vietnam).

Katz later moved on to write about America's welfare system, in books like In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America (1986; expanded 1996), The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (1990), and Improving Poor People: The Welfare State, the "Underclass," and Urban Schools as History (1995), and more recently has published on immigration. Most recently, he wrote Why Don't American Cities Burn? (2011), about a murder in Philadelphia and all the attendant baggage of race and class. I hadn't thought much about Katz until The Undeserving Poor showed up in one of my recent book trawls. Interesting how his career developed. For more, see this In Memoriam by Thomas Sugrue (whose own books include The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (2005), Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (2008), and Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race).

One more Twitter note, or at least semi-related. Medium is either a spinoff or an independent venture funded with Twitter money -- I don't pretend to understand how it works, but I have heard that they have some money to hire writers, and have hired Robert Christgau to write some Expert Witness/Consumer Guide posts. He has an account now that you can follow. He'll explain it all in an introductory post on September 2, followed by the first actual CG reviews on September 5.

Recommended music links:

New records rated this week:

  • Auction Project: Slink (2014, self-released): violinist Heather Martin Bixler outshines the leaders, offering shape and substance to the usual postbop [cd]: B+(*)
  • Henry Butler/Steven Bernstein: Viper's Drag (2014, Impulse): band named Hot 9 after Armstrong-Hines, comparisons neither can live up to [r]: B+(***)
  • Calle 13: MultiViral (2014, El Abismo/Sony Music Latin): Puerto Rican rappers with a political agenda, unintelligible to folks like me, but at least I feel it [r]: B+(***)
  • Brian Eno/Karl Hyde: Someday World (2014, Warp): Eno teams up with an inferior singer, so he tries to compensate by writing better songs [r]: B+(*)
  • Dave "Knife" Fabris: Lettuce Prey (2010 [2014], Musea): guitarist into fusion and classical but also makes room for Ran Blake to do his thing [cd]: B-
  • Simone Felice: Strangers (2014, Dualtone): one of the Felice Brothers tries his hand solo, forsaking those nice harmonies [r]: B+(*)
  • The Felice Brothers: Favorite Waitress (2014, Dualtone): minus Simone, turns out they have more fun and edge, even a taste for mayhem [r]: B+(***)
  • FKA Twigs: LP1 (2014, Young Turks): the sort of singer Tricky uses, OK as long as she comes up with music on that level, which isn't often [r]: B
  • Hercules & Love Affair: The Feast of the Broken Heart (2014, Moshi Moshi): EDM, a bit slow, cartoonish even, but that's their shtick, isn't it? [r]: B
  • Jessica Hernandez & the Deltas: Secret Evil (2014, Instant): Detroit group, straight rock & roll with a slight vocal skew, distinctive I'd say [r]: B+(***)
  • Darius Jones/Matthew Shipp: Cosmic Lieder: The Darkseid Recital (2011-13 [2014], AUM Fidelity): dense piano chords slow the saxman down, for better or worse [r]: B+(*)
  • Dr. John: Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch (2013 [2014], Concord): a Louis Armstrong tribute that misses its mark on so many levels I never conceived possible before [r]: C
  • Roddy Frame: Seven Dials (2014, AED): singer-songwriter from Aztec Camera, 15 years into a solo career has pop charms but no more dazzle [r]: B+(*)
  • Phil Haynes: No Fast Food: In Concert (2012 [2014], Corner Store Jazz, 2CD): drummer-led trio with Dave Liebman and Drew Gress, all sharp edges for two live discs [cd]: B+(***)
  • Wayne Horvitz: 55: Music and Dance in Concrete (2012 [2014], Cuneiform): i.e., immobile: no swing, no bop, no hop, no strut, just fairly rich chamber jazz [cdr]: B
  • Rebecca Kilgore with the Harry Allen Quartet: I Like Men (2013 [2014], Arbors): title concept could use sharper songs, saxophonist could use more space [r]: B+(*)
  • Ricardo Lemvo/Makina Loca: La Rumba Soyo (2014, Cumbancha): Congolese star draws big beats and brass from salsa, supercharged with soukous guitar [r]: A-
  • John McLaughlin & 4th Dimension: The Boston Record (2013 [2014], Abstract Logix): as the fusion guitarist ages, he eschews transcendence for hard and clunky [r]: B
  • Hafez Modirzadeh: In Convergence Liberation (2011 [2014], Pi): George Russell student, explores high concepts with approaches I rarely care for [cd]: B+(**)
  • Myriad 3: The Where (2014, ALMA): Canadian piano trio, hits a semi-popular niche like EST even if they aren't the influence [cd]: B+(**)
  • Novox: Over the Honeymoon (2014, Label Z Production): French septet with fake funk horns, synths, turntablist, guitarist leader, vocal clutter [cd]: C+
  • Picastro: You (2014, Sonic Clang): intriguing little group, basically slowcore with falsetto vocals, fractured and crazed around the edges [r]: B+(*)
  • Pink Martini & the Von Trapps: Dream a Little Dream (2013 [2014], Heinz): the extra voices add a somber air, belying camp eclecticism from Brahms to ABBA [r]: B+(*)
  • Anthony Pirog: Palo Colorado Dream (2014, Cuneiform): guitar trio with Michael Formanek and Ches Smith, not much flow or groove, feedback helps [cdr]: B+(*)
  • Jeff Richman & Wayne Johnson: The Distance (2014, ITI Music): guitar duets, fancier picking than new age but fills that pleasantry niche [cd]: B+(*)
  • Ritmos Unidos: Ritmos Unidos (2014, Patois): Latin jazz octet from Indiana, Afro-Cuban bata drums, timbales, the distinctive splash of steel pans [cd]: B+(**)
  • Jonah Tolchin: Clover Lane (2014, Yep Roc): NJ singer-songwriter with warm voice and such fine country-folk form he could be new T-Bone Burnett [r]: A-
  • Seth Walker: Sky Still Blue (2014, The Royal Potato Family): blues singer-songwriter, hits paydirt with "Jesus (Make My Bed)" but everything else is a bit tepid [r]: B
  • The Bill Warfield Big Band: Trumpet Story (2013-14 [2014], Planet Arts): Randy Brecker solos, but the trumpet theme is underdeveloped; Vic Juris shines [r]: B+(*)
  • Anna Webber: Simple (2013 [2014], Skirl): sax/flute trio with Matt Mitchell and John Hollenbeck stretching and skewing, best when all three thrash [cd]: B+(***)

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

  • Smoke Dawson: Fiddle (1971 [2014], Tompkins Square):old-fashioned Appalachian solo fiddle, obscure reissue of a legend if playing with Peter Stampfel counts [r]: B+(***)

Old records rated this week:

  • Joy Division: The Best of Joy Division (1979-80 [2008], Rhino): [r]: A-
  • John Lindberg: Luminosity: Homage to David Izenzon (1992-96 [1996], Music & Arts): [r]: B+(**)
  • John Lindberg: Ruminations Upon Ives and Gottschalk (2001 [2003], Between the Lines): [r]: B+(***)
  • Paul Motian Quintet: Misterioso (1986 [1987], Soul Note): [r]: B+(**)
  • Paul Motian Trio: One Time Out (1987 [1989], Soul Note): [r]: B+(***)
  • Jeff Palmer/John Abercrombie/Arthur Blythe/Victor Lewis: Ease On (1992 [2013], Sledgehammer Blues): [r]: B+(***)
  • Jeff Palmer/Arthur Blythe/John Abercrombie/Rashied Ali: Island Universe (1994, Soul Note): organ player goes avant with Rashied Ali/Arthur Blythe, and John Abercrombie follows suit [r]: A-
  • Ted Rosenthal: My Funny Valentine (2007 [2008], Tokuma): piano trio nicely balanced for playing 11 juicy standards associated with Helen Merrill [r]: B+(***)

Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Richard Galliano: Sentimentale (Resonance): September 30
  • Jason Jackson: Inspiration (Jack & Hill Music): October 14
  • Kalle Kalima & K-18: Buñuel de Jour (TUM): September 16
  • Dave Liebman Big Band: A Tribute to Wayne Shorter (Summit)
  • Ivo Perelman/Karl Berger: Reverie (Leo)
  • Carl Saunders: America (Summit)
  • Wadada Leo Smith: The Great Lakes Suites (TUM, 2CD): September 16
  • Tim Sparks: Chasin' the Boogie (Tonewood)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Weekend Roundup

The first thing to note here is that the Four Wars of 2014 -- Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and Gaza -- are still going strong, and the conflicting interests super- and not-so-super-powers have in them offer excuses enough to frustrate any efforts at mediation. There have also been reports of shelling along the India-Pakistan border in Jammu, and the US is upset about China challenging a US "reconnaissance plane" near the Chinese border.

The least-reported of these conflicts is in the Ukraine, where various "pro-West" or "pro-Europe" forces staged a coup against Russia-leaning President Viktor Yanukovich in February. As Ukraine shifted to the West, various revolts broke out in heavily Russian southwest Ukraine. Crimea declared independence and asked to be annexed by Russia, which Putin readily agreed to. Other separatist militias seized power elsewhere in southeastern Ukraine, and the "pro-West" Kiev government has been trying to suppress the revolt the old-fashioned way, with bombing and strafing. It's unclear to what extent Russia has been actively promoting and supporting the separatists: NATO and Kiev have asserted various instances, and Putin has steadfastly denied them.

The result so far is that the civil war in Donbass (around Dontesk) has resulted in about 4,000 deaths -- I don't think that includes the Malaysian airliner that was shot down, surely an accident but part of the war's "collateral damage." The US has clearly sided with the "pro-Western" government in Kiev and taken a leading roll in attempting to punish Russia with sanctions. No one thinks Russia is totally innocent here, but the US position is the result of a long neocon campaign to advance NATO to Russia's borders, to corner and cower Russia to prevent the emergence of any non-US military or economic power center. And the failure to cover this war is largely due to blithe assumptions of US benevolence and Russian malevolence going back to Cold War dogma, as well as an abiding belief that force is an effective solution to the world's problems.

If the US was not so entangled in its faith in military force, you would see a concerted effort to mediate the four wars. Rather, Obama has embraced force as America's fundamental strategy in all four arenas. (Syria is only slightly murky here: the US dislikes both sides but can't see any option other than searching for a third side to arm.) The US is most directly involved in Iraq, where we've taken a sudden interest in protecting small minorities like Yazidis and Turkmen who have the most propaganda value. Then there is Gaza, where the ceasefire has been repeatedly broken by Israel, still refusing to open Gaza's borders to allow a semblance of normal everyday life. As I've written before, the "truce" terms Hamas offered at the beginning of the recent military hostilities were completely fair and reasonable. Netanyahu's continued rejection of the terms should make you reconsider just who "the terrorists" are in this conflict. The Gaza death count has continued to climb over 2100. Another Israeli civilian was killed in recent days, bringing the total to 4, in one of the most one-sided massacres of recent times.

While it is possible that ISIS is indeed a terrorist group one cannot negotiate with -- at least that's what the hawks want us to believe -- Hamas has practically been begging for a deal since they entered Palestinian electoral politics in 2006. Israel has not only rejected their every overture, Israel repeatedly drags them back into armed conflict. The US is schizophrenic about this: on the one hand we spend a lot of money trying to support the "good Palestinians" over in the West Bank in the vain belief that if we can improve their economic well-being that will help us move toward peace. On the other hand, any time Israel decides to trash whatever good we've done, we applaud and make sure to replenish their arms. I want to quote a section from Josh Ruebner's Shattered Hopes: Obama's Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace (p. 190):

Promoting "economic growth" for Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation, while simultaneously flooding Israel with the weapons and providing it with the diplomatic protection it needs to entrench this military occupation, is a nonsensical proposition. At best, these policies reveal that the United States is working at cross-purposes; at worst, they signal that it is trying to reconcile Palestinians to their open-air prison existence by making it slightly more palatable. What USAID fails to understand publicly is that Israel's military occupation is specifically designed to de-develop the Palestinian economy, not to encourage Palestinian economic growth.

Israel's eviscertation of teh Palestinian economy is integrally woven into the very fabric of its military occupation in innumerable ways. The hundreds of roadblocks, checkpoints and other barriers to movement that Israel maintains in the West Bank and East Jerusalem inhibit the transportation of people and goods, which forces the ever-increasing localization of the economy. Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip has reduced its population to penury and almost total reliance on international charity for survival. Even before, Israel's formal imposition of the blockade on Gaza in 2007, Israel's earlier destruction of the Gaza Strip's only airport and its prevention of the building of a seaport there had greatly constricted Palestinians in the Gaza Strip from engaging in international trade. Similarly, Israel's wall in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and its control of the West Bank's border corssings with Jordan, greatly reduce trade opportunities as well. Finally, Israel's widespread razing of Palestinian agricultural land and fruit-bearing trees, along with the expropriation of Palestinian land and water resources for its illegal settlements, have devastated the Palestinian agricultural sector.

The US at least nominally wants peace in Palestine, just not enough to stand up to Israel, which at most wants quiet but is willing to settle for hatred as long as Palestinians remain powerless -- which is one effect of mired in a hopeless economy. In one telling note, it's worth noting that the power plant in Gaza that Israel blows up every few years is insured by the US: Israel breaks it, we pay to fix it, then we pay Israel to break it again. It's a perfect example of government waste, but Americans don't seem able to see that, in large part because we think our interests extend everywhere, we think we have to choose sides everywhere, and we choose those sides on the basis of ignorance and identity.

Some scattered links this week:

  • Ed Kilgore: Jeffords and the GOP's March to the Right: Vermont's last Republican Senator, James Jeffords, has died. He's best remembered for switching parties in 2001, denying Cheney's stranglehold on the Senate. Kilgore drew up a list of "moderate" Republican senators from 1976, just 25 years back, on the even of the Reagan juggernaut, and found 17 (of 38) qualified (not including the likes of Bob Dole and Howard Baker Jr.), adding VP Nelson Rockefeller and (more of a stretch) President Gerald Ford. Since then the Republican Party has been purged as rigorously as Stalin's CP -- the only division today seems to be between those who are categorically insane and those who are merely deranged.

  • Philip Weiss: Hillary Clinton just lost the White House in Gaza -- same way she lost it in Iraq the last time: Some wishful thinking here, but it's worth noting that Clinton has strayed outside the bounds of partisan propriety, notably in attacking Obama's stated intent -- I'm hesitant to call it a policy without more evidence that he's actually trying to follow it -- of "not doing stupid shit."

    Hillary's done it again. Her pro-war comments in that famous interview two weeks ago have painted her into a right wing neoconservative corner. In 2016, a Democratic candidate will again emerge to run to her left and win the party base, again because of pro-war positioning on the Middle East that Hillary has undertaken in order to please neoconservatives.

    The last time it was Iraq, this time it was Gaza. Hillary Clinton had nothing but praise for Netanyahu's actions in Gaza, and echoed him in saying that Hamas just wanted to pile up dead civilians for the cameras. She was "hepped up" to take on the jihadists, she said that Obama's policy of "not doing stupid shit" was not a good policy. She undermined Obama for talking to Iran and for criticizing Israel over the number of civilian casualties in Gaza. She laid all the fault for the massacre at Hamas's door.

    And once again, Hillary Clinton will pay for this belligerency; she won't tenant the White House.

    Weiss knows he's "going out on a limb" so he cites some polling that's worth noting:

    Consider: Gallup says that Israel's actions in Gaza were unjustified in the eyes of the young, people of color, women, and Democrats, and overwhelmingly in some of those categories 51-25% disapproval among the young. 47-35 percent among Democrats, 44-33 among women, 49-25 among nonwhites.

    The problem, of course, is that while the majority of Democrats may have broken from AIPAC over Gaza, how many Democrats in Congress have? Not Elizabeth Warren. Not even Bernie Sanders. Certainly some hypothetical Democrat could score points against Clinton in primaries by painting her as a warmonger and pointing out how her obeissance to AIPAC only serves to prolong conflict in the Middle East, but it's impossible to identify a real Democrat who could effectively make those points. (Dennis Kucinich, for instance, tried twice, failed abysmally, and doesn't even have his House seat to stand on now. Howard Dean pretty much permanently discredited himself when he became a lobbyist for the Iranian terrorist group MEK.)

    The main thing that bothers me about Clinton isn't policy -- not that there aren't many points to disagree on -- so much as the stench of dynasty. More and more the Democratic Party resembles the so-called progressive parties of Pakistan and India, cynically ruled by corrupt families and cliques that needn't offer their supporters anything more than a small measure of protection from the viciousness of their opponents. You'd think that 238 years after the declaration of democracy in America we would have become more sophisticated than that -- indeed, we probably were, but have recently devolved into the present kleptocracy. Obama at least offered a symbolic break from the Bush-Clinton dynasties, but in the end that was only symbolic: his administration was rife with Clinton partisans, and he sealed the party's fate by breaking up the grassroots organization that had elected two Democratic Congresses -- foolishly or cynically preferring to "deal" with lobbyists and Republicans rather than risk democracy within his own party.

  • More Israel Links:

Also, a few links for further study:

  • Patrick Cockburn: How to Ensure a Thriving Caliphate: Excerpt from Cockburn's forthcoming [January 6?] book, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising. There is a shortage of reliable info about ISIS, as well as a lot of propaganda. (The most laughable was Trudy Rubin claiming to know "The Truth About ISIS.") Not sure this helps a lot either, although the key point that the jihadists derive from the US disruption of Iraq is well taken. More detailed and less inflamatory is The leader of ISIS is 'a classic maneuver warrior', although the tactical comparisons to Genghis Khan strike me as bullshit.

  • Thomas Frank: "Wanted Coltrane, Got Kenny G": Interview with Cornell West, reference is to Obama. "It's not pessimistic, brother, because this is the blues. We are blues people. The blues aren't pessimistic. We're prisoners of hope but we tell the truth and the truth is dark. That's different."

  • Rahawa Haile: Should Musicians Play Tel Aviv? This kicks around the various reasons foreign musicians shouldn't play in Israel, with some asides on other related cases -- apartheid-era South Africa, obviously, but Haile also mentions concerts in "unsavory" dictatorships like Libya (under Gaddafi) and Turkmenistan, plus Stevie Wonder's decision to not bother with Florida after the Zimmerman verdict. Oddly, Haile spends much more time on Israel's often rabid reaction to African refugees -- mostly from Sudan, where Israel tried to score anti-Arab propaganda points -- than with Israel's second- or third-class treatment of Palestinians (actually, those in Gaza are probably more like fourth). (Max Blumenthal's book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel has quite a bit on Israeli racism against African refugees, but that is just one instance of the more general loathing right-wing Israelis hold for nearly all goyim.) Neil Tennant is quoted: "in Israel anyone who buys a ticket can attend a concert." That, of course, depends on what you mean by "in Israel": if you live in Ramallah, 15 miles away, you can't buy tickets to see the Pet Shop Boys in Tel Aviv, nor can you if you live in Gaza, more like 40 miles away. Tennant is not only wrong, he is wrong in a particularly misleading way: his experience of Israel is of a normal, relatively peaceful and prosperous society, which is true enough for the "Tel Aviv bubble" but completely false for much of the territory subject to Israeli state terror. One thing that perpetuates Israeli state terror is the sense that its preferred citizens enjoy of never having to pay a price for their consent to living in such a state. When an international artists boycotts Israel, that at least sends a message that there is some cost to running such a state, even if it's not likely to have any real effect. The fact is that Israel cannot be forced into changing its ways: the only way change will come about is if Israelis become conscious of how far their nation has strayed from international norms of peace and human rights. For that reason I welcome all such boycotts. On the other hand, I don't keep track of who played Israel when or why. (One of the few I recall is Madonna, who made a documentary about a non-concert trip to Israel and the Occupied Territories, which if I recall correctly was very effective in exposing at least part of the brutality of the regime.) Nor do I discriminate against Israeli jazz musicians -- I must have written about close to 100 and I'd be surprised if the grade curve strays from any other national group. They are individuals, and while many may support their political leaders, many do not -- in fact a very large percentage of them are expatriates, living in New York, London, Paris, and elsewhere -- and in any case, as an American I know as well as anyone that there is very little individuals can do about their governments.

  • D.R. Tucker: The Powell Doctrine: Some notes on Lewis Powell, including his notorious US Chamber of Commerce memo that largely laid out the platform for right-wing business' takeover of American politics, and other things, including a defense of Roe. vs. Wade.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Daily Log

Went to a memorial event for the late Alice Powell at the Peace Center. They served tacos. She was a superb cook, and loved to invite people over for political socializing; evidently tacos were one of her specialties in LA, not that I remember them here. But I was asked to provide the ground beef. Having never made tacos in my life, I looked up a recipe, and came up with this, from Emil Lagrasse:


  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • 1.5 c onion, finely chopped
  • 3 tbs minced garlic
  • 3 tbs ground cumin
  • 2 lbs ground beef
  • 1 tsp ground chipotle pepper
  • 1.5 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 c beef broth
  • 1/4 c tomato paste


  1. Heat large frying pan, and add olive oil and onions. Sauté until translucent, 3-4 minutes. Add garlic and cumin and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  2. Add beef, breaking up pieces as they cook, until browned, about 8-10 minutes. Season with chipotle pepper and salt.
  3. Dissolve tomato paste in beef broth, and add. Bring to a simmer, starring occasionally until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 20 minutes. Remove and serve.

I used 3 lbs. ground round (15% fat), and "Better Than Bouillion" for the stock. I don't think I quite scaled the garlic and cumin, and cut back a bit on the chipotle pepper and salt. I boiled the meat vigorously until the liquid evaporated.

I also tried a variation on this with 1 lb. ground turkey (about 7% fat). I substituted chicken stock, and added a little cinnamon and paprika.

Lagasse says the 2 lbs. is good for 12-16 taco shells or warmed soft tortillas, and suggests garnishes: grated Monterey Jack or Cheddar, diced tomatoes, minced jalapenos, sour cream, shredded iceburg lettuce, and chopped red onion, with guacamole and salsa on the side.

For the guacamole, mash together: 3 ripe avocados (peeled and chopped), 3 tbs finely chopped yellow onion, 3 cloves garlic, 1 tbs freshly minced cilantro leaves, 2 tbs fresh lime juice, and 1/2 tsp salt.

For the salsa, mix together: 4 large tomatoes (about 2.5 lbs, seeded and chopped), 1 c white onions, 5 tsp minced garlic, 4 serrano peppers (stems and seeds removed, minced), 1/4 c fresh cilantro, 2 tbs fresh lime juice, 1/2 tsp salt.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Rhapsody Streamnotes (August 2014)

Pick up text from here.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 23658 [23634] rated (+24), 536 [546] unrated (-10).

Not sure why the rated count slipped this past week -- maybe just the drag of the server problems, not to mention the drag of all sorts of everyday hassles. The server problem is that more often than not the database connections used by the serendipity blog software have failed (either not established or dropped), resulting in various cryptic error messages or plain old indefinite hangs. The ISP ( has been even more unresponsive, but through all this time (3-4 weeks now) the server has been up, it's been serving static pages (i.e., everything on the website below ocston), although it's hard for people to tell that when the root index is inaccessible. Moving the whole blog to another database on another server is a huge and daunting task -- one that I don't doubt will be necessary, but still a ways away.

So it occurred to me that a short-term kluge around the database problem would be to write up a bit of PHP code to manage the most recent part of the blog with static files. I have that code sort of working now, so I'll install it and replace the root index page with something that will explain the problem and offer either the "real blog" or the "fake blog" options. In the future, I will initially install new posts using the "fake blog" system, then try the "real blog." I may add some bells and whistles to the "fake blog," but most likely it will just be a temporary bridging system until I can get something stable working.

Trouble finding new A-list albums this week, although three (of four) releases on Driff sorely tempted me -- I had given A- grades to the first two Whammies albums, a Pandelis Karayorgis album (Mi3: Free Advice) was a Jazz CG Pick Hit back in 2007, and Eric Hofbauer's The Blueprint Project was an A- in 2003. But some combination of bad attitude and excessive nitpicking held me back on all three -- as, by the way, it did on the two Punk 45 compilations Jason Gubbels praised last week (couldn't find the third on Rhapsody), and for that matter the first two records after played after I closed this week's tally: Steven Bernstein's Viper's Drag and Anna Webber's Simple. The only new record to top A- was the Calypso comp Michael Tatum wrote about last week -- I'm always a sucker for that beat and wordplay. The other A- doesn't exist on Rhapsody, but I pieced together a mixer list from other resources and came up with 47 (of 48) songs, close enough. Still, I'm of two minds about the record. I can't knock so many great songs, but I'm not sure how useful the compilation really is, or whether I'd even want a copy. And I am sure that if I was the sort of person who liked to put playlists together, I could easily top The Best Punk Album in the World . . . Ever -- so much for the title.

Reviews on all these records are accumulating, and should trigger a Rhapsody Streamnotes later this week -- assuming nothing else awful happens in the meantime, these days pretty wishful thinking.

One aside: Publicist Matt Merewitz wrote today to nudge me on the Lee Konitz First Meeting: Live in London Volume 1 album out in June. I wrote back, and thought I might as well share this as it bears repeating:

Got it, filed it as a high B+ (***), same as Enfants Terribles from 2012, slightly better than Standards Live: At the Village Gate (**) on Enja also this year. Could be he records too much and too casually to get anyone excited -- I haven't graded anything by him A- since 1999's Sound of Surprise (although I've missed a lot of albums in that stretch). He continues to play at a very high level at a time when he could just coast on his laurels -- his first really great album, Subconscious-Lee, came out in 1950. I'm not a huge fan, but given how much he's done for how long, I've voted for him for Downbeat's HOF ballot four years straight -- really ridiculous that he hasn't been voted in.

Recommended music links:

New records rated this week:

  • Laurie Antonioli: Songs of Shadow, Songs of Light: The Music of Joni Mitchell (2013 [2014], Origin): jazz singer plays the Joni Mitchell songbook straight, just a bit of sax [cd]: B
  • Bolt: Shuffle (2013 [2014], Driff): avant quartet -- Jorrit Dijkstra (alto sax), Eric Hofbauer (guitar), cello and drums -- play scratchy, eccentric [cd]: B+(***)
  • Mario Castro Quintet/Strings: Estrella de Mar/Promotional Edition (2014, Interrobang): tough young tenor saxophonist, but quintet cluttered, strings icky, singer? [cd]: B-
  • Collier & Dean: Sleek Buick (2013-14 [2014], Origin): vibes and bass plus friends, makes for bubbly, frothy groove music; sleek? sure; gaudy even [cd]: B
  • Wayne Coniglio/Scott Whitfield: Fast Friends (2012 [2014], Summit): mainstream trombonists play not-quite-standards in a celebration of the horn [cd]: B+(**)
  • Sylvie Courvoisier/Mark Feldman Quartet: Birdies for Lulu (2013 [2014], Intakt): piano and violin, he paints curtains of ice, she breaks them [r]: B+(**)
  • Jorrit Dijkstra: Music for Reeds and Electronics: Oakland (2013 [2014], Driff): sax choir (including oboe/cor anglais) with schmear of electronics [cd]: B+(*)
  • Jorge Drexler: Bailar en la Cueva (2014, Warner Music Latina): singer-songwriter from Uruguay, sounds like Caetano Veloso with a slightly more eccentric beat [r]: B+(**)
  • Pandelis Karayorgis Quintet: Afterimage (2014, Driff): Dave Rempis/Keefe Jackson saxes soar and rumble, almost obscuring the superb pianist [cd]: B+(***)
  • Azar Lawrence: The Seeker (2011 [2014], Sunnyside): huge sounding tenor sax man, wearing his Coltrane influences on his sleeve [r]: B+(**)
  • Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: Hypnotic Eye (2014, Reprise): 35-years on, he's still personable, still lightweight, still catchy (a bit) [r]: B+(*)
  • Rotem Sivan Trio: For Emotional Use Only (2013 [2014], Fresh Sound New Talent): guitar-bass-drums, doesn't fit easily into known schools but doesn't break far either [cd]: B+(**)
  • Sohn: Tremors (2014, 4AD): Brit singer-songwriter with electronics, Moby-ish if not quite Moby-like [r]: B+(*)
  • Matt Ulery: In the Ivory (2013-14 [2014], Greenleaf Music, 2CD): classical (symphonic/operatic) music from a jazz bassist, so well crafted I can't say I can't stand it [cd]: B+(*)
  • Harvey Wainapel: Amigos Brasileiros Vol. 2 (2013 [2014], Jazzmission): Bay Area sax player rounds up nine groups of Brazilians for some lush lounge music [cd]: B
  • The Whammies: Play the Music of Steve Lacy Vol. 3: Live (2014, Driff): avant tribute sextet hits the road, lands in Italy, roughs it up [cd]: B+(***)
  • Walter White: Most Triumphant (2013 [2014], Summit): trumpet player from Michigan; bright, sharp tone, band moves things along smartly [cd]: B+(*)
  • Tom Wolfe: Solerovescent (2014, Summit): guitarist plays bright, grooveful postbop, with Ken Watters on trumpet, both electric & acoustic bass [cd]: B+(*)

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

  • Calypso: Musical Poetry in the Caribbean 1955-1969 (1955-69 [2014], Soul Jazz): the wordslingers are all wits even if the tropes are cliched =k and the riddims help [r]: A-
  • Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66: Stillness (1971 [2014], Universal Sound): a classic according to reprint label, best I can figure title derives from Stephen Stills [r]: B+(*)
  • Punk 45: Underground Punk in the United States of America, Vol. 1: Kill the Hippies! Kill Yourself! The American Nation Destroys Its Young (1973-80 [2014], Soul Jazz): pre-Reagan US punk obscurities, not nearly as destructive or incendiary as the compilers would like to think [r]: B+(***)
  • Punk 45: Underground Punk and Post-Punk in the UK 1977-81, Vol. 2: There Is No Such Thing as Society: Get a Job, Get a Car, Get a Bed, Get Drunk! (1977-81 [2014], Soul Jazz): UK punk obscurities, surprisingly catchy in their neoprimitive ways, their social doom and gloom more earned [r]: B+(***)

Old records rated this week:

  • The Best Punk Album in the World . . . Ever! (1975-84 [1995], Virgin, 2CD): Sex Pistols, no Clash, but lots of famous songs, more new wave than punk [r]: A-
  • Richard Hell: Spurts: The Richard Hell Story (1973-92 [2005], Rhino): Voidoids mini-best-of, freshly shined up juvenilia, dimly remembered Dim Stars [r]: B+(**)

Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Ritmos Unidos (Patois)
  • Salsa de la Bahia: A Collection of SF Area Salsa and Latin Jazz: Vol. 2, Hoy Y Ayer (Patois, 2CD)


  • Jason Derulo: Talk Dirty (Warner Brothers)
  • ¡Mayday x Murs!: ¡Mursday! (Strange Music)
  • Spoon: They Want My Soul (Anti-)
  • Suburban Base Records: The History of Hardcore, Jungle, and Drum 'n' Bass: 1991-1997 (New State, 3CD)

Miscellaneous notes:

  • The Best Punk Album in the World . . . Ever! (1975-84 [1995], Virgin, 2CD): A- [rhapsody]
  • Punk 45: Underground Punk in the United States of America, Vol. 1: Kill the Hippies! Kill Yourself! The American Nation Destroys Its Young (1973-80 [2014], Soul Jazz): B+(***) [rhapsody]

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Weekend Roundup

It's been a very distracting week, what with the blog sometimes working and more often not. I've been working on a "pseudo-blog" system that should prove more robust -- throughout the troubles of the last few weeks we've always been able to serve static pages -- and I should unveil that soon. Meanwhile, a few scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Harwood: One Nation Under SWAT:

    When the concept of SWAT arose out of the Philadelphia and Los Angeles Police Departments, it was quickly picked up by big city police officials nationwide. Initially, however, it was an elite force reserved for uniquely dangerous incidents, such as active shooters, hostage situations, or large-scale disturbances.

    Nearly a half-century later, that's no longer true.

    In 1984, according to Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop, about 26% of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 had SWAT teams. By 2005, that number had soared to 80% and it's still rising, though SWAT statistics are notoriously hard to come by.

    As the number of SWAT teams has grown nationwide, so have the raids. Every year now, there are approximately 50,000 SWAT raids in the United States, according to Professor Pete Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University's School of Justice Studies. In other words, roughly 137 times a day a SWAT team assaults a home and plunges its inhabitants and the surrounding community into terror.

    In a recently released report, "War Comes Home," the American Civil Liberties Union (my employer) discovered that nearly 80% of all SWAT raids it reviewed between 2011 and 2012 were deployed to execute a search warrant.

    You can draw a couple short lines from the US counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to militarized policing: one is that surplus military equipment is often dumped no charge onto police departments (Tom Engelhardt starts with a story about the Bergen County Police Dept. obtaining MRAPs -- armored personnel carriers designed to survive IED attacks.) Another is the relatively high percentage of ex-soldiers in police departments. Another is lack of accountability: with the cult of the troops, it's virtually impossible for the US military to hold any of its personnel accountable for unnecessary or excessive force, and as the police become militarized that ethic (or lack thereof) carries over. (Israel, which used to pride itself on discipline, has lately become as bad or worse.) Then there's the increasing proliferation of guns (and "stand your ground" laws) in the general population. Harwood starts with a story of a Florida man who heard through social media that he was going to be "burned." When the man called the police with the threat, he was told to get a gun and defend himself. The threat arrived in the form of a SWAT team sent to serve a search warrant: seeing the gun, they killed the man. Harwood titles one section, "Being the police means never having to say you're sorry."

    Also see: Sarah Stillman: The Economics of Police Militarism.

  • Elias Isquith: Reagan is still killing us: How his dangerous "American exceptionalism" haunts us today: Always good to read a bad word about "the Gipper," but this piece is more about Hillary Clinton and her recent neocon unveiling in the Atlantic. She's always been eager to show how bellicose she can be, and it certainly doesn't hurt to put some distance between herself and Obama, especially as long as she takes positions that don't get tested in practice. But before going into her, and back to Reagan, I'm reminded of how Gordon Goldstein, in Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, quoted Bundy on the contrast between JFK and LBJ: "Kennedy didn't want to be dumb, Johnson didn't want to be a coward." In this, it's tempting to map Obama onto Kennedy, and Clinton onto Johnson. Except that Obama doesn't want to be seen as a coward either, so time and again he backs down and goes with dumb. Clinton is only promising to get to dumb faster.

    Weirdly, Clinton's decision to speak about the U.S.'s role in global politics as if she, in contrast to Obama, was an unapologetic, "old-fashioned" believer in American exceptionalism made her sound like no one so much as Ronald Reagan, the last president who told a humbled America to buck up and forget its recent mistakes. [ . . . ]

    So here's a prediction about Hillary Clinton and the 2016 presidential race. At one point or another, there will be a television ad in which Hillary Clinton will speak of bringing back the former glory of the United States. She'll say it's time to mark an end to nearly 20 years of terrorism, depression, war and defeat. It's time to feel good again about being the leader of the free world. It's morning in America; and everything is great.

    Actually, that sounds like a good idea, especially if she could combine it with a policy shift that gets away from the losing struggles of the last twenty years. One of the interesting things about Reagan is that with a few minor exceptions -- wasting a lot of money on the military and helping turn Afghanistan and Central America into the hellholes they are today -- Reagan was satisfied with "talking the talk" and rarely pushed it too far. For instance, he spent all of 1980 campaigning against Carter's Panama Canal Zone treaty, but once he was elected he didn't lift a finger to change it. On the other hand, Clinton won't be given a pass on her toughness. She'll have to earn it. How successful she may be will depend on how accurately she identifies the malevolent forces that have been dragging America down: namely, the Republicans, and their pandering to the rich and crazy.

  • Saree Makdisi: The catastrophe inflicted on Gaza -- and the costs to Israel's standing:

    Israel's repeated claim that it targets only rocket launchers or tunnels is belied by the scale and nature of the weapons it unloaded on Gaza. Its 2000-pound aerial bombs take down entire buildings along with everyone in them (almost a thousand buildings have been severely damaged or destroyed in such air strikes). Its 155mm howitzer shells have a margin of error of 300 yards and a lethal radius of up to 150 yards from the point of impact. Each of the 120mm flechette shells its tank crews fire burst into a 100 by 300 yard shower of 5,000 metal darts carefully designed to shred human flesh.

    Having sealed Gaza off from the outside world and blanketed almost half of the territory with warnings telling people to flee for their lives (to where?!), Israel has been indiscriminately firing all of these munitions into one of the most densely-inhabited parts of our planet. Entire neighborhoods have been leveled; entire families have been entombed in the ruins of their homes. The catastrophic result of Israel's bombardment is no surprise.

    No surprise -- but also not exactly thought through either; more a matter of casual disregard. For it's not as though Israel has carried out this violence in pursuit of a strategic master plan (its endless prevarications over its objectives in Gaza are the clearest indicator of this). Such gratuitous outbursts of violence (this episode is the third in six years) are, rather, what Israel falls back on in place of the strategic vision of which it is bereft. It can indulge in these outbursts partly because, in the short run at least -- endlessly coddled by the United States, where venal politicians are quick to parrot its self-justifications -- it does not pay a significant price for doing so.

  • Sandy Tolan: Going Wild in the Gaza War: "Going wild" was Tzipi Livni's description of how Israel reacts to any Palestinian provocation they bother to react to. The idea is to overreact so viciously and indiscriminately that the Palestinians will learn to fear offending Israel in any way, settling meekly into their role as "an utterly defeated people." The 2014 edition of "going wild" -- by no means finished yet -- has left over 1,900 Palestinians dead, over 12,000 injured, some 100,000 homeless, many more displaced, pretty much all of 1.8 million people without power or many of the other amenities of civilization, like the ability to shop in the globalized marketplace, or to take a holiday more than 20 miles from home. Those 1.8 million people have certainly been reminded of Israel's carelessness and cruelty. It's hard to see that as a lesson that bodes well for the future. Tolan's first point is that this war could easily have been avoided had Israel and/or the US recognized and worked with Hamas, and he steps through a series of initiatives and "truce" offers that were summarily rejected by Israel and the US -- to this day they insist that "once a terrorist, always a terrorist" (to which Tolan can't help but point out that the leaders responsible "for a horrific massacre in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin and the Irgun bombing of the King David Hotel, killing 91 people" subsequently became Prime Ministers of Israel). Tolan regards Israel as "a deeply traumatized society whose profound anxieties are based in part on genuine acts of horror perpetrated by countless terrorist attacks over decades, and partly on an unspeakable past history of Europe."

    Tragically, Israeli fears have created a national justification for a kind of "never again" mentality gone mad, in which leaders find it remarkably easy to justify ever more brutal acts against ever more dehumanized enemies. At the funeral for the three slain teens, Benjamin Netanyahu declared, "May God avenge their blood." An Israeli Facebook page, "The People of Israel Demand Revenge," quickly garnered 35,000 likes. A member of the Knesset from a party in the nation's ruling coalition posted an article by Netanyahu's late former chief of staff that called for the killing of "the mothers of [Palestinian] martyrs" and the demolition of their homes: "Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there."

    On NPR, Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the U.S., decried the "culture of terrorism" in Palestinian society, adding: "You're talking about savage actions . . . In the case of Israel, we take legitimate actions of self-defense, and sometimes, unintentionally, Palestinian civilians are harmed." That day, the Palestinian teenager Mohammed Khdeir was abducted and burned alive, and soon afterward, Israel began bombing Gaza.

    Within Israel, the act of dehumanization has become institutionalized. These days, Israeli newspapers generally don't even bother to print the names, when known, or the stories of the children being killed in Gaza. When B'tselem, the respected Israeli human rights organization, attempted to take out an advertisement on Israeli radio naming names, the request was denied. The content of the ad, censors declared, was "politically controversial."

    Actually, Israel is more schizophrenic than Tolan admits. One thing you notice over history is the extreme contrast between the confidence (to the point of arrogance) of Israel's top security officials (both in the military and in organizations like Shin Bet) and the dread held by large segments of public. No doubt that scaring the people lets the elites do what they want, but that's as much due to the one thing that both agree on, which is that Israeli Jews are different and infinitely more valuable than anyone else. Their specialness, after all, is the whole point of "the Jewish State." Once you believe that, there is no limit to the dehumanization of others.

  • More Israel links:

    • Dan Glazebrook: Israel's Real Target is Not Hamas: It's any possibility of Palestinian statehood.
    • Sarah Lazare: Only Mideast Democracy? In Midst of War, Israel Clamps Down on Dissent.
    • Dylan Scott: For All the Hype, Does Israel's Iron Dome Even Work?: "The essence of his analysis is this: Iron Dome's missiles almost never approached Hamas's rockets at the right trajectory to destroy the incoming rocket's warhead. . . . And if the warhead is not destroyed, but merely knocked off course, the warhead will likely still explode when it lands, putting lives and property in danger." The underlying fact is that Hamas' rockets almost never do any substantial damage whether they are intercepted or not, and since they are unguided, deflecting them has no appreciable effect on their accuracy (or lack thereof). One question I still haven't seen any reports on is what happens when the shrapnel from Iron Dome rockets lands. As I recall, in 1991 Israel's US-provided Patriot anti-missile system did about as much damage as the Iraqi Scuds they were trying to defend against. That was a heavier system, but another difference was that Israel's censors had less interest in suppressing reports of Patriot failures and blowback. Part of the significance of Iron Dome is that it exemplifies Israel's unilateralist strategy -- Ben Gurion's dictum that "it only matters what the Jews do" -- so any failure is not just a technical problem but a flaw in the strategy. Even if Iron Dome were 85% effective, that would still be a lower success rate than could be achieved by a truce. Also see: Or Amit: Checking under Israel's Iron Dome.
    • Tascha Shahriari-Parsa: Is Israel's Operation Protective Edge Really About Natural Gas? Turns out there's a natural gas field off the Gaza coast, estimated in 2000 to be worth $4 billion, so that may be another angle on Israel's "security demands" to keep the Gaza coast closed, to keep Gaza under occupation and deny any sort of independent Palestinian state.

Also, a few links for further study:

  • Jenn Rolnick Borchetta: One nation under siege: Law enforcement's shameful campaign against black America: not on Ferguson -- you don't think that's the only such case, do you?

  • Stephen Franklin: Lawyer: 'We Should Stay on the Parapets and Keep Fighting': The lawyer interviewed here is Thomas Geoghegan, argues both that the labor movement is essential ("People who talk about maintaining the welfare state without a labor movement behind it are kidding themselves. You will not be able to have a full-employment economy without a labor movement") as is working through the courts ("We don't have majority-rule here. We have a lot of gridlock, and lots of checks and balances. Over the years, to break gridlock, you do rely upon the courts to come in from the outside").

  • Paul Krugman: Secular Stagnation: The Book: Funny name for the condition where economies don't bounce back from recessions but drag on with higher unemployment rates and negligible growth for many years -- Japan in the 1990s now looks like merely an early example of a more general trend. There's a new VoxEU ebook with essays on this, something the US is very much affected by at the moment. Krugman explains more here:

  • And let me simply point out that liquidity-trap analysis has been overwhelmingly successful in its predictions: massive deficits didn't drive up interest rates, enormous increases in the monetary base didn't cause inflation, and fiscal austerity was associated with large declines in output and employment.

    What secular stagnation adds to the mix is the strong possibility that this Alice-through-the-looking-glass world is the new normal, or at least is going to be the way the world looks a lot of the time. As I say in my own contribution to the VoxEU book, this raises problems even for advocates of unconventional policies, who all too often predicate their ideas on the notion that normality will return in the not-too-distant future. It raises even bigger problems with people and institutions that are eager to "normalize" fiscal and monetary policy, slashing deficits and raising rates; normalizing policy in a world where normal isn't what it used to be is a recipe for disaster.

  • Martin Longman: On Rick Perry's Indictments: I just wanted to take note of the occasion. It's rare that sitting governors get indicted for anything, and I don't expect much is going to come out of this. Perry's supporters are not only likely to see them as politically motivated, they're likely to take that a proof that Perry's their kind of politician -- one not above getting his hands dirty.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Music Week

Music: Current count 23634 [23599] rated (+35), 546 [554] unrated (-8).

I've been struggling with MySQL database performance problems at my ISP (ADDR.COM), and got a frightful scare this morning when I realized they not only aren't responding to trouble reports, their "live chat" and "callback" service options are broken, and worst of all I got a message that they're not accepting phone calls. The static pages on the website continue to be served. I can login, update my files, and sometimes even login to the MySQL server. I week or so ago I was able to get an almost complete mysqldump of the blog database, but in three files as I went through the grind table-by-table, and in the end one table was hopelessly lost. Looking at the code that accesses that table, I decided that there's nothing important there, and tried hacking the code to avoid the table. Then I dropped and rebuilt the table, which didn't seem to help but is certainly cleaner. I also tried thinning out the very large "exits" table, which again isn't really useful -- unless one gets obsessive about user use patterns, and I'm not sure even then.

But late today the blog seemed to be working OK, so I posted yesterday's Weekend Update and if luck holds I'll follow up with this post. I'm not under any illusions that this will continue to work, or that I want to continue to do business with ADDR.COM. So I'm working on a couple of things to replant the site. The static pages are no problem, since I have a complete clone of them on a local machine. The blog is a problem in that it's updated on the server and not replicated elsewhere. I use a piece of free software called "serendipity" for it, and it has evolved quite a bit since I last updated the server. So for it I need to download a new copy, then figure out how the database dumps fit in with the new code. I also need to decide whether I want to continue using that code -- I've started using the competing "wordpress" code for other blog projects, mostly because it looks to be easier to train other people to use, and also because it seems to be simpler to keep up to date. And I need to decide whether to move the website to my "hullworks" server -- which has had its own problems lately -- or to go with another virtual server deal.

As a transition strategy, I'm working on a very simple version of blog software, one that uses the file system for storage and a small amount of PHP code to grease the wheels. I have some of it working now, will get more of it tonight, and if need be -- e.g., if I can't post this tonight -- I should be able to put it into use (with a limited data set and no comments or RSS feeds) tomorrow. Right now the main problem is figuring out how to use Apache URI rewrite rules, but that's only necessary to view single posts with more/less compatible pathnames. The bigger problem will be how much old data to collect under what should be temporary riggings.

But enough about my problems. Just finished a pretty productive music week, bringing the Rhapsody Streamnotes draft file up to 56 records (41+1+14). The two A- new jazz records were finds on the outstanding Swiss Intakt label -- one I hadn't noticed from 2013. Intakt also provided two A- old jazz records by Japanese-German pianist Aki Takase (the third A- Takase is on Leo, again accessible to me only through Rhapsody). The Nobu Stowe records had fallen through the cracks from a couple years back. (He's not even listed in Penguin Guide -- their loss.) I'm not normally such a piano fan, so this week is something of a fluke.

New records rated this week:

  • Clarice Assad: Imaginarium (2014, Adventure Music): distinguished Brazilian jazz diva tangos a bit, then trips and falls into the full-fledged operatic [r]: B-
  • Benyoro: Benyoro (2014, self-released): Malian music from New York, mostly yanks but the authenticity is assured at vocals and percussion [r]: B+(***)
  • Bobby Broom: My Shining Hour (2014, Origin): guitarist with soul jazz cred, bass & drums, makes a better album by picking better songs [cd]: B+(**)
  • Diva: A Swingin' Life (2001-12 [2014], MCG Jazz): two editions of drummer Sherry Maricle's hard swinging, brass busting all-female big band [r]: B+(**)
  • Golem: Tanz (2014, Discos Corason): punk-klezmer group led by accordionist-singer Annette Ezekiel Kogan, backed with violin and trombone, goes red hot [r]: A-
  • Michael Griener/Rudi Mahall/Jan Roder/Christof Thewes: Squakk: Willisau & Berlin (2012-13 [2014], Intakt): Rudi Mahall adds more than an option to trombone trio, more than a dimension too [r]: A-
  • Hans Hassler: Hassler (2011 [2013], Intakt): "the true Swiss king of accordion" with two jazz clarinetists and percussion, feels rushed and cramped [r]: B
  • Ryan Keberle & Catharsis: Zone (2014, Greenleaf Music): trombonist, quartet with Mike Rodriguez (trumpet), dense postbop until the lady sings, and sings [cd]: B+(*)
  • Gordon Lee with the Mel Brown Septet: Tuesday Night (2014, Origin): four horns, pianist Lee, bass, drummer Brown, play Lee's tunes, dull, indistinct [cd]: B-
  • Vincent Lyn: Live in New York City (2013 [2014], Budo): pianist and kung-fu master, no doubting his chops but Melissa Aldana (tenor sax) helps a lot [cd]: B+(*)
  • Bob Mamet: London House Blues (2014, Blujazz): Chicago pianist, smooth/crossover rep but this is a sparkling, standards-heavy mainstream trio [cd]: B+(**)
  • Medeski Martin & Wood + Nels Cline: Woodstock Sessions Vol. 2 (2013 [2014], Indirecto): where Scofield sweetened the groove, Cline stomps all over it [r]: B+(***)
  • Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble: Intergalactic Beings (2010 [2014], FPE): mostly roiling around the dirty bass end, so don't fear the flute [r]: B+(***)
  • Sam Most: New Jazz Standards (2013 [2014], Summit): the grand old man of jazz flute cuts a record a month before death, and sums up his whole life [cd]: B+(**)
  • Greg Reitan: Post No Bills (2014, Sunnyside): mild-mannered piano trio, mostly covernig fellow (but hipper) mild-mannered pianists [cd]: B+(*)
  • Dylan Ryan/Sand: Circa (2014, Cuneiform): drummer-led guitar trio, pushing hard for the proverbial jazz-rock fusion crown, maybe too hard [cdr]: B+(*)
  • Irène Schweizer/Pierre Favre: Live in Zürich (2013, Intakt): Swiss piano great specializes in piano-drums duos, most reliably with Favre [r]: A-
  • Spoon: They Want My Soul (2014, Anti-): Texas rockers with pop hooks go for edgier sound without losing their knack, upping their game [r]: A-
  • Steve Swallow/Ohad Talmor/Adam Nussbaum: Singular Curves (2012 [2014], Auand): first sense I've had of what a seductive tenor saxophonist Talmor is [cdr]: B+(***)
  • Aki Takase/La Planète: Flying Soul (2012 [2014], Intakt): piano-clarinet-violin-cello, a recipe for chamber jazz, but Pifarely won't leave it there [r]: B+(***)
  • Trio 3 & Vijay Iyer: Wiring (2013 [2014], Intakt): Oliver Lake's sax supertrio (Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille) plus guest, huge talent, some lapses [r]: B+(***)
  • Reggie Watkins: One for Miles, One for Maynard (2014, Corona Music): trombonist, also plays two from Matt Parker (tenor sax), postmodern retro swing [cd]: B+(**)
  • Steve Wilson/Lewis Nash Duo: Duologue (2013 [2014], MCG Jazz): sax-drums duets in the tradition from Ellington to Coleman, further proof of a great drummer [cd]: B+(***)
  • Wooden Wand: Farmer's Corner (2013 [2014], Fire): prolific Brooklyn singer-songwriter, mostly guitar, nice, shambling country-ish air [r]: B+(**)

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

  • Arto Lindsay: Encyclopedia of Arto (1996-2012 [2014], Northern Spy, 2CD): a best-of from his middling years, more recent (and weirder/noisier) live shots [r]: A-

Old records rated this week:

  • Michael Griener/Jan Roder/Christof Thewes: Squakk (2008 [2009], Jazzwerkstatt): German avant-trombone trio (Thewes has the horn), after Mangelsdorff/Bauer [r]: B+(**)
  • Oliver Lake: Heavy Spirits (1975 [1995], Black Lion): early album pasted from fragments: solo, w/2 violins, w/trombone-percussion, standard quartet [r]: B+(*)
  • The Oliver Lake String Project: Movement, Turns & Switches (1996, Passin' Thru): composes for string quartet, sometimes piano, plays along, or not [r]: B
  • Oliver Lake Quintet: Talkin' Stick (1997 [2000], Passin' Thru): alto saxophonist in fine form with Geri Allen sharp on piano and Jay Hoggard on vibes [r]: B+(**)
  • Oliver Lake Steel Quartet: Dat Love (2003 [2004], Passin' Thru): alto sax trio plus Lyndon Achee's steel pan drums kinda mellowing everyone out [r]: B+(***)
  • Nobu Stowe-Lee Pemberton Project: Hommage an Klaus Kinski (2006 [2007], Soul Note): [cdr]: B+(**)
  • Nobu Stowe & Alan Munshower with Badal Roy: An die Musik (2006 [2008], Soul Note): piano-drums-tabla trio, Stowe's uptempo riffing sets up percussionists [cdr]: A-
  • Nobu Stowe: L'Albero Delle Meduse (2009 [2010], self-released): mystery album of free improvs, Achille Succi's sax probing, scratchy, pianist fills in [cdr]: B+(***)
  • Aki Takase/Alex von Schlippenbach/DJ Illvibe: Lok 03 (2004 [2005], Leo): hip-hop turntablism mediates as crashing avant pianists bring the noize [r]: A-
  • Aki Takase/Silke Eberhard: Ornette Coleman Anthology (2006 [2007], Intakt, 2CD): bang up piano/alto sax (or clarinet) duets on the big songbook [r]: A-
  • Aki Takase/Louis Sclavis: Yokohama (2009, Intakt): piano-clarinet duets, Sclavis stays true to his ECM cool, Takase tones down, plays it safe [r]: B+(***)
  • Aki Takase/Han Bennink: Two for Two (2011, Intakt): avant piano-drums, the drummer making it easy to swing, to hop, to crash and burn and fly [r]: A-
  • Tama: Rolled Up (2009, Jazzwerkstatt): Aki Takase avant piano trio, block-chorded fury with a little moderation to show who's in control [r]: B+(***)
  • Leroy Vinnegar Sextet: Leroy Walks! (1957 [1989], Contemporary/OJC): trademark walking bass lines buoying a light, almost frothy West Coast group [r]: B+(**)

Unpacking: Found in the mail last week:

  • Cables to the Ace (Communicating Vessels)
  • Larry Fuller (Capri)
  • The Green Seed: Drapetomania (Communicating Vessels)
  • Phil Haynes: No Fast Food (Corner Store Jazz, 2CD)
  • Hafez Modirzadeh: In Convergence Liberation (Pi)
  • Ed Stone: King of Hearts (Sapphire Music)
  • Rotem Sivan Trio: For Emotional Use Only (Fresh Sound New Talent)
  • Ed Stone: King of Hearts (Sapphire Music)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Weekend Roundup

Some scattered links this week:

  • Phyllis Bennis: Obama's Iraq airstrikes could actually help the Islamic State, not weaken it: Could be -- at any rate they will more clearly align the US as the enemy of Islam, a meme that's already in fairly broad circulation both there and here (although thus far only Osama bin Laden bothered to construct the "far enemy" theory to strike at the US -- most Jihadists prefer to fight their local devils). For example, TPM reports: Graham Urges Obama Act in Iraq, Syria to Prevent Terrorist Attack in US -- he actually means "to produce terrorist attack in US" since no one in Iraq or Syria would be sufficiently motivated to attack the US unless the US was acting in their own countries. Of course, the idea that the only way to prevent something is to motivate it is a peculiar affliction of the fascist mindset, rooted not in logic but in the taste for blood. (Speaking of warmongers, TPM also reports, Clinton Knocks Obama's 'Don't Do Stupid Stuff' Foreign Policy Approach on Syria -- lest anyone think that if given the chance she would flinch from doing "stupid stuff." In another TPM report, Shock and Awe, Josh Marshall quotes an anonymous long-time Iraq war consultant on ISIS tactics -- similar to Taliban tactics right down to the shiny new Toyota pickups -- and suggests that Obama will see some initial successes against ISIS frontal attacks, at least until they adjust. I've noted before his the first flush of US airpower and advanced weapons creates a false sense of invincibility, "the feel-good days of the war," which soon ends as "the enemy" adjusts tactics and as the US blunders from atrocity to atrocity. So, pace Bennis, the short-run game is likely to look good to the hawks, and being hawks they're unlikely to ever look at something that produces perpetual war as having a downside. No, the problem with Bennis' piece is that she want to argue US policy in Iraq on the basis of what it means to Iraqis, instead of the affect intervening in Iraq will have in the US. Foreign wars are catnip for the right because they propagate hate and violence and they show the government doing nothing to make American lives better (even the ruse that they create jobs has worn thin).

    And, of course, there's always the oil angle: see, Steve Coll: Oil and Erbil. So far, Obama has been more active in defending Kurdish autonomy than backing Iraq's central government. Coincidentally, ExxonMobil and Chevron have made major deals with the Kurds, bypassing the central government. Favorite line here: "ExxonMobil declined to comment."

    Erbil's rulers never quite saw the point of a final compromise with Baghdad's Shiite politicians -- as each year passed, the Kurds got richer on their own terms, they attracted more credible and deep-pocketed oil companies as partners, and they looked more and more like they led a de-facto state. The Obama Administration has done nothing to reverse that trend.

    And so, in Erbil, in the weeks to come, American pilots will defend from the air a capital whose growing independence and wealth has loosened Iraq's seams, even while, in Baghdad, American diplomats will persist quixotically in an effort to stitch that same country together to confront ISIS.

    Obama's defense of Erbil is effectively the defense of an undeclared Kurdish oil state whose sources of geopolitical appeal -- as a long-term, non-Russian supplier of oil and gas to Europe, for example -- are best not spoken of in polite or naïve company, as Al Swearengen [a reference back to HBO's series, Deadwood] would well understand. Life, Swearengen once pointed out, is often made up of "one vile task after another." So is American policy in Iraq.

  • Elias Isquith: Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback on his growing unpopularity: It's Obama's fault! Brownback won the Republican Party nomination last week, with a 63-37 margin over Jennifer Winn. Winn had no political experience, and no money. Her campaign was managed by a libertarian who came out not of the Tea Party but the Occupy movement. Winn's primary motivation for running was the experience and sense of injustice she felt when her son was arrested for drugs. A big part of her platform was calling for legalization of marijuana. She was not, in other words, a natural fit with any identifiable fragment of the Republican Party in Kansas, and still Brownback -- a sitting governor, two-term Senator, former Congressman, rich, pious, with a postcard family, someone who's never faced a closely contested election in his life -- still couldn't run up a two-to-one margin among his own people. So, yeah, he should take the result as a wake-up call. Instead, he explained:

    "I think a big part of it is Barack Obama," Brownback said, referring to his only securing two-thirds of the primary vote. "[A] lot of people are so irritated at what the president is doing, they want somebody to throw a brick."

    Brownback continued: "I think it's a lot of deep irritation with the way the president has taken the country, so much so that people are so angry about it they're just trying to express it somehow."

    Why Kansas voters would be so irrational as to punish Brownback, who in many ways represents everything Obama does not, for the president's sins, the governor did not say.

    Having just suffered through a big-money Republican primary, it's obvious that Republicans in Kansas are totally convinced that everyone in the country (well, except, you know, for them) utterly can't stand Obama or anything associated with him (especially "Obamacare"), so they've concluded that the sure path to election is to go as far over the top in denouncing Obama as possible. But just working yourself up into ever greater levels of hysteria doesn't make that claim any more credible. On the other hand, Brownback has nearly wrecked the state government he was entrusted with nearly four years ago, and he can hardly blame what he did on anyone else.

    John Cassidy: Memo to Obama's Critics: He's Not Callow Anymore has an explanation why Republicans have turned up the vitriol against Obama, what with the Republican House suing the president while many among them talk of impeachment: "But it isn't his inexperience and glibness that's infuriating them. It's the fact that he's learned to play the Washington power game, and, perhaps, found a way to go around them." What Obama's done with all that executive power hasn't been very impressive -- except in Israel-Iraq-Syria-Ukraine foreign policy, where every step he's taken has been wrong, something Cassidy doesn't appreciate -- but Republicans were so used to pushing Obama around that any attempt to call their bluff is seen as a calamity. (I am, by the way, not very happy with Cassidy's recent posts on the four ISIU wars, nor his defense of Obama in them. Nor are the Republicans much concerned there, except inasmuch as they can paint Obama as weak. Too bad: when they impeached Clinton way back when, I wrote that I would have cast a guilty vote, not on the basis of the charges but due to his mishandling of Iraq. Obama is little if any better now.)

  • Ed Kilgore: The Tea Party Is Losing Battles but Winning the War: Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, so well ensconced in Washington he no longer bothers to own or rent any residency in the state he represents, defeated a rather weird Tea Party challenger named Milton Wolf by a 48-41 margin: Wolf's sound bite description of Roberts was "liberal in Washington, rarely in Kansas." Roberts had never been accused of being a RINO, but fearing Wolf's challenge he became noticeably more dilligent about his conservative bona fides over the last year (before that he was mostly known for routing federal money to agribusiness interests). So Kilgore chalks this up as yet another case of the Tea Party moving the Republican Party to the right even when they fail to get their crackpots nominated. (Wolf, an orthopedist, reportedly had a nasty habit of posting his patients' X-rays on Facebook along with denigrating "humorous" comments.)

  • Ed Kilgore: The "New" Rick Perry: "New" as in he's distancing himself from the "old" Perry who self-destructed in the 2012 presidential race, presumably to run again in 2016.

    As for Perry's famous message of presenting Texas as an economic template for the country, I think it's a mistake to view this as easy, non-controversial mainline GOP rap that the rest of us can live with. What Perry exemplifies is the ancient southern approach to economic development based on systematic abasement of public policy in order to make life as profitable and easy as possible for "job-creators," at any cost. If it sort of "works" (if you don't care about poverty and low wage rates and inadequate health care and deliberately starved public resources) in Texas thanks in no small part to the state's fossil fuel wealth and low housing costs (though as Philip Longman demonstrated in the April/May issue of WaMo, even that level of success is debatable), it sure hasn't ever "worked" in similarly inclined but less blessed places like Mississippi and Alabama, where the local aristocracy has been preaching the same gospel for many decades.

  • Mike Konczal/Bryce Covert: The Real Solution to Wealth Inequality: In The Nation, this appeared as "Tiny Capitalists":

    Democrats and Republicans advocate different solutions to inequality, but both seek to shift financial risk from the state to the individual. Republicans promote the "ownership society," in which privatizing social insurance, removing investor protections and expanding home ownership align the interests of workers with the anti-regulatory interests of the wealthy. Democrats focus on education and on helping the poor build wealth through savings programs. These approaches demand greater personal responsibility for market risks and failures, further discrediting the state's role in regulating markets and providing public social insurance.

    Instead of just giving people more purchasing power, we should be taking basic needs off the market altogether.

    Consider Social Security, a wildly popular program that doesn't count toward individual wealth. If Social Security were replaced with a private savings account, individuals would have more "wealth" (because they would have their own financial account) but less actual security. The elderly would have to spin the financial-markets roulette wheel and suffer destitution if they were unlucky. This is why social-wealth programs like Social Security combat inequality more powerfully than any privatized, individualized wealth-building "solution."

    Public programs like universal healthcare and free education function the same way, providing social wealth directly instead of hoping to boost people's savings enough to allow them to afford either. Rather than requiring people to struggle with a byzantine system of private health insurance, universal healthcare would be available to cover the costs of genuine health needs. Similarly, broadly accessible higher education would allow people to thrive without taking on massive student loans and hoping that their "human capital" investment helps them hit the jackpot.

    Emphasis added to the key point. Aside from moving basic needs off market, we would also be moving them into the realm of society-guaranteed rights. Also, from optional (something enjoyed by an elite) to mandatory (something securely available to all). Conversely, the political agenda of trying to impose greater market discipline over any area of life is meant to increase inequality, and to make its consequences more acute.

  • Paul Krugman: Libertarian Fantasies: I've always had sympathies for libertarian thinking: the lessons of the "don't tread on me" American Revolution were imprinted early, and the notion that the state was out to keep me from enjoying "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" was backed by clear evidence from my teens, most perniciously through the draft and the drug war. However, I eventually realized that while self-interested public menaces like J. Edgar Hoover occasionally worked in the public sector they tended to be the exception, in corporations they were the rule, so ubiquitous that their corruption lapped over and gnawed at the very idea of public service. But things like the continuing drug war show that there is a need for libertarian types. Unfortunately, they rarely stop at defending freedom from real threats. Many become obsessed with false threats, and have no clue how to go from critique to policy, mostly because their anti-government bias blinds them from the possibility of using government for increasing freedom. (For instance, I'd say that the FDA increases my freedom as a consumer by saving me time worrying about contaminated food. You might say that the FDA limits the freedom of food producers to cut costs and poison people, but there are a lot more of us than them, and regulation is a fairly efficient scheme to even out minimal quality costs and avoid a disastrous "race to the bottom.") Krugman has his own examples, concluding:

    In other words, libertarianism is a crusade against problems we don't have, or at least not to the extent the libertarians want to imagine. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of monetary policy, where many libertarians are determined to stop the Fed from irresponsible money-printing -- which is not, in fact, something it's doing.

    And what all this means in turn is that libertarianism does not offer a workable policy agenda. I don't mean that I dislike the agenda, which is a separate issue; I mean that if we should somehow end up with libertarian government, it would quickly find itself unable to fulfill any of its promises.

    I read a lot of Murray Rothbard way back when, and he actually spent a lot of time coming up with private sector solutions to functions like justice that are invariably performed by government. I easily understand why a public justice system may become corrupt and repressive -- traits ours exhibits way too often -- but I couldn't see how Rothbard's scheme could every work, even badly. Rothbard's cases for private firefighters and other services were more workable, but everything he came up was vastly more inefficient than what we already have.

  • Gideon Levy: Go to Gaza, see for yourself: An Israeli journalist, recently named by a right-wing Israeli commentator as someone Israel should lock up in a concentration camp:

    Let's talk about Gaza. The Gaza strip is not a nest of murderers; it's not even a nest of wasps. It is not home to incessant rampage and murder. Most of its children were not born to kill, nor do most of its mothers raise martyrs -- what they want for their children is exactly what most Israeli mothers want for their own children. Its leaders are not so different from Israel's, not in the extent of their corruption, their penchant for "luxury hotels" nor even in their allocating most of the budget to defense.

    Gaza is a stricken enclave, a permanent disaster zone, from 1948 to 2014, and most of its inhabitants are third- and fourth-time refugees. Most of the people who revile and who destroy the Gaza Strip have never been there, certainly not as civilians. For eight years I have been prevented from going there; during the preceding 20 years I visited often. I liked the Gaza Strip, as much as one can like an afflicted region. I liked its people, if I may be permitted to make a generalization. There was a spirit of almost unimaginable determination, along with an admirable resignation to its woes.

    In recent years Gaza has become a cage, a roofless prison surrounded by fences. Before that it was also bisected. Whether or not they are responsible for their situation, these are ill-fated people, a great many people and a great deal of misery. [ . . . ]

    But in Hebrew, "Gaza," pronounced 'Aza, is short for Azazel, which is associated with hell. Of the multitude of curses hurled at me these days from every street corner, "Go to hell/Gaza" is among the gentler ones. Sometimes I want to say in response, "I wish I could go to Gaza, in order to fulfill my journalistic mission." And sometimes I even want to say: "I wish you could all go to Gaza. If only you knew what Gaza is, and what is really there."

  • Andrew O'Hehir: Is Obama haunted by Bush's ghost -- or possessed by him? Lots of things have bothered me about Obama, but his disinterest to put any real distance between his administration and the Bush one on issues of war, peace, and security is foremost -- all the more so because by the time Bush left office those policies had been shown to be utterly bankrupt, and because Obama was elected with a clear mandate for change.

    As we were reminded earlier this week, Obama's efforts to separate his own management of intelligence and spycraft from the notorious torture policies of Bush's "war on terror" now look exceedingly murky, if not downright mendacious. Throughout his campaigns and presidential years, Obama has relied on shadow-men like former CIA director George Tenet, former counterterrorism chief and current CIA director John Brennan and director of national intelligence (and spinner of lies to Congress) James Clapper, all of whom are implicated to the eyeballs in "extraordinary rendition" and "enhanced interrogation techniques" and the other excesses of the Bush regime. [ . . . ] Despite all the things he said to get elected, and beneath all the stylistic and symbolic elements of his presidency, Obama has chosen to continue the most fundamental policies of the Bush administration. In some areas, including drone warfare, government secrecy and the persecution of whistle-blowers, and the outsourcing of detainee interrogation to third-party nations, Obama has expanded Bush's policies.

  • Stephen M Walt: Do No (More) Harm: Subtitle: "Every time the U.S. touches the Middle East, it makes things worse. It's time to walk away and not look back." Good argument, but could use a better article. Walt's list of all the things that have gone wrong is detailed and long enough, but when he tries to apply his "realist" paradigm he doesn't come with any clear sense of the American interests in the region that he assumes must exist. (Closest he comes is the desire to keep any [other] nation from controlling the Persian Gulf oil belt, which at the moment is so fragmented it hardly calls for any US action at all. He misses what strike me as the two obvious ones: peace and a sense of equality and justice throughout the region, which would in turn undercut past/current trends toward militant and repressive Islam.) He rejects isolationism, but that may well be the best solution one can hope for given how pathological US intervention has been. (After all, alcoholics are advised to quit, rather than just scale back to the occasional drink non-alcoholics can handle without harm.) He does suggest that the US give up on trying to guide any sort of "peace process" between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, he goes to far as to say that we shouldn't bother with Israel's imperious fantasies if that's what they want to do -- evidently being a "realist" means you never have to think in terms of principles. On the other hand, isn't such a total lack of scruples a big part of how the US became the Middle East plague it so clearly is?

  • Israel/Palestine links:

Also, a few links for further study:

   Mar 2001