Monday, May 30, 2011

Outstanding article in Reason on prison overcrowding decision of US Supreme Court

Read it here. Stephen Chapman is acting like a responsible adult here, which is always a good thing.

Powerful article on Roger Ailes and the FoxNews Propaganda Machine

From Rolling Stone, read it here. Personally, there was not much new, but it is an excellent primer for those who are unaware of Ailes' history in politics and television.

In my novel, knowing much of Ailes' biography from various sources, I gave Roger Ailes fairly high prominence, and he even gets some major quips in the book. One somewhat conservative reader told me Ailes was his favorite in the book because he was saying things he, the reader, would want to be said against RFK and the Democrats. Ailes was consciously a respected "foil." He defines the current era of media consolidation and propaganda, and he was a major player even in the RFK-alternative history.

Roger Ailes is an important personna in American politics. He, even more than Karl Rove, is perhaps most resembles Mark Hanna of the late 19th Century.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

JFK would be 94 years old today...

He was born on May 29, 1917.

We will always see him in the range from his teens through early 40s. He is frozen in time, like Marylin Monroe...

Revising opinions of WWII? How about demoting Churchill?

For decades, the right-wing and even Establishment centrists have been fairly consistent in attacking FDR as a naive appeaser of Stalin and praising Churchill as the "tough guy" with Stalin.

While Adam Kirsch has written a decent introduction to the revisionist analysis of World War II (a war I still consider one of the only reasonably necessary wars in US history, along with the Revolutionary War and Civil War), it could have been better had it provided more illumination on these conclusions regarding FDR and Churchill.

Therefore, I guess it's up to a not so humble blogger to take on the myth of Churchill:

From the time the US entered the War in December 1941, US generals and FDR wanted to open a second front to go after Nazi Germany. Churchill refused to agree, and FDR, realizing the Asian front was going to be a harder slog than originally anticipated, reluctantly agreed. Nonetheless, at nearly every meeting of the two leaders, FDR demanded to know when Churchill was going to agree to a second front. Churchill would initially try to placate FDR by agreeing to have Western allied troops enter through North Africa, but that was really a diversion by Churchill.

Meanwhile, the Russian Red Army, backed up to the gates of Moscow, started fighting mile by mile against the German Nazis, and began to gain momentum by 1943 into what we have called since the end of WWII "Eastern" Europe. By the time Churchill finally agreed to a second front in February 1944, which agreement led to D-Day on June 6, 1944, the Russians are well on their way to Berlin in Germany. Even the night before D-Day, Churchill was throwing doubt onto American General Eisenhower who was the single most important general charged with landing Allied troops into France and then deeper into Europe. This doubt-mongering by Churchill no doubt led Eisenhower to pen a note that would put the blame on himself--if the D-Day invasion failed. See here for that note.

In Churchill's defense, Churchill appears to have concluded by 1941 that British troops were simply not that effective, especially after the debacle of Dunkirk (Where a British evacuation was propagandistically styled a "victory"). And let's face it: For the US to fight two wars even in 1943 was going to be a gargantuan task.

Still, what needs to be recognized is that, in order to defend Churchill from either cowardice or a failure of judgment, one has to say the Russians were going to get through most of Eastern Europe, and take control at least militarily, no matter what FDR or Churchill did or did not do. But saying that, we have to now admit the narrative that would make Churchill the "tough guy" against the Russians, while FDR is the soft-headed "appeaser" begins to crumble.

For those persons who think Churchill was tougher with Stalin, those persons may wish to read this: Yes, Churchill made a deal with Stalin in 1944 that said, "Leave the British Empire alone in Greece, and you, Stalin, may have Eastern Europe." It was the opening agreement for what would later be called the "sphere of influence" theory in American and Western foreign policy. FDR was not told about this deal until months later, and FDR realized, as he was preparing for the Yalta meeting of the Big Three (Churchill, FDR and Stalin), that the two other leaders had definitely boxed him in, and that Poland* was lost to the Soviet influence and power. Yet, again, my father's generation after WWII was taught it was Communist influence (Alger Hiss and all that...) that led FDR to betray the Poles and others in Eastern Europe.

It's funny that Conrad Black's bio of FDR is far more incisive than most other historians' accounts of Yalta, though we should give David Greenberg credit in this insightful article at Slate.com. Still, while both recognize the Russian military was already in Eastern Europe by the time of the Yalta conference in early 1945, neither writer mentions that FDR was stuck trying to maneuver around the Churchill-Stalin deal. Contrary to the attack on FDR, FDR well understood the limits of trusting Stalin and was both shocked and disappointed in Churchill's deal with Stalin.

However, let's note something that people in the USA never want to hear: Stalin was, due to his ironclad dictatorship, better able to abide by the secret and not so secret deals than the British or American politicians Churchill and FDR. Stalin kept the bargain in Greece, and even stayed away for the most part from India. He kept the bargain against re-arming Germany, while it was US and England which started the re-arming (which led to the Russians blocking off the Eastern sector of Germany it controlled, which in turn led to the Berlin Airlift, showing Stalin we really meant business). See: Carolyn Eisenberg's "Drawing the Line" which eschews the usual propagandistic analysis that most have ingested about the Berlin Airlift and the circumstances that led to that US-led action.

The ultimate irony is that Churchill, thrown out of office immediately after WWII ended, decided to re-invent himself as a Cold Warrior. As part of his re-invention, he traveled to the US to deliver his famous "Iron Curtain" speech in Harry S Truman's home state, Missouri in March 1946. What's always fascinating to me is that Churchill, in the speech, talks about the Iron Curtain as if it was essentially completed in Eastern Europe, when in fact there were still coalition governments in several Eastern Europe at the time. There is a strange pattern of US State Department memoranda that show the advisers, most of whom were now strongly anti-Communist, looking forward to the Russians completely dominating Eastern Europe to create the bi-polar world. See Frank Kofsky's book about the war scare of 1948 (which Kofsky thinks was pushed by US leaders to promote US government subsidies for the US airline industry, but which Kofsky indirectly, but more effectively proves was done to promote the Marshall Plan) for his discussion as to how blithe and nonchalant US policy makers were in ignoring the coalition government in Czechoslovakia in the months and even year before the coup.

Overall, the more one analyzes the facts and circumstances of Western and Russian foreign policies of the 1930s and 1940s, the more one recognizes that Churchill has been horribly overrated in American political discourse, and that Churchill's refusal to commit to a second front in Europe until early 1944 created the conditions of the Cold War. Further, one sees how Churchill's post-WWII actions are primarily those of a politician acting with ambition and not a little cynicism in promoting a fear of Stalin's Russia, which was hardly justified considering that Stalin was following more of the deals Churchill and to a lesser extent FDR had struck during World War II.

It is required for our American discourse to add that we should never excuse in the least the actions of Stalin's monstrous and barbarous dictatorship. We are here, however, analyzing the actions of too many Western leaders after WWII, including Churchill and especially Truman, in wanting to create a bi-polar world that caused many millions to be impoverished or die, in places from Vietnam, Greece, Indonesia, most of Latin America, parts of Africa and elsewhere. Truman's policies were based upon mendacity, summed up with Republican Senator Vandenberg's infamous advice to Truman, "We have the scare the hell out of..." the American people, and Truman's Secretary of State Acheson admitting he pushed Truman to propagandize our nation with a simplistic, war mongering analysis and to rely upon Americans' not reading or listening very carefully (See Acheson's memoir, "Present at the Creation", page 375).

But again, it is well past the time for us to take on the myth of Churchill as the tough negotiator with Stalin and the continued libeling of FDR as the weak appeaser. If we want a simple narrative, it is more truthful to say that FDR was a great military leader who led us into World War II and did more to promote human rights than nearly any other leader in that bloody time. He was courageous and he was farsighted in his vision for not only our nation, but the world. There, is that so hard to say?

* Poland was not identified in the infamous deal, but it was the most eastern of the nations discussed, and was obviously lost as far as Churchill was, practically speaking, concerned.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

More music, more music, more music, more music...

I once heard or read an interview with pop icon David Byrne about twenty years ago. In it, he said that American/Western music had definitely penetrated into other parts of the world, but that the most amazing sounds were beginning to wash back on our shores, where there was an amalgamation of traditional eastern, African, Latin American and other cultures with the American pop style.

Here is an example. The link is to a clip from Usman Riaz, a 20 year old from Pakistan. He's only been playing guitar for four years (!), having started on piano in elementary school. He plays the guitar the way a pianist would approach it. The sound is extraordinary, lush and full.

And here is "A Sailor's Tale" from King Crimson's 1972 album, "Islands." King Crimson will always find a place in a young intellectual's mind and heart, as it anticipated what David Byrne was talking about, where the amalgamation of sounds creates something familiar, but unique.

The title of this post comes from one of the adverts that appear on "The Who Sell Out" album from 1967, which is structured like AM Radio of the late 1960s. Someone has clipped all the adverts from the album here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The City of Grand Rapids' Creative Spark

This was from Crooks and Liars this evening. The video is one of the more hopeful and creative videos I've seen in a very long time. Still, there was an underlying poignancy that fits the song the people are lip-synching, and that is what gives the video its power.

One more thing to notice: It is all one take, no cuts for over 9 minutes. That's a wow...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Do nothing is the Democratic Party's formula for winning elections this year and next?

Yesterday, the Democratic Party candidate won in a special election in a district that has been historically Republican.* And the candidate won because the Republicans had two candidates, who split their vote.

Substantively, the Democratic candidate received more votes than usual in the district because of scared seniors who voted for Republicans in November 2010 against Obama's Republican-lite plan that called for "Medicare Savings"--can't have that, they cried, because it might cut Medicare for them--and now voted for the Democratic Party candidate because she pledged to do nothing to change Medicare.

Oy. The problem is that Medicare and the private insurance companies need to better control rising medical costs. Medicare is limited in this ability to stop rising medical costs because it is barred by law from negotiating with Big Pharma, and because it is treating a growing population of seniors who cost much more to insure than younger folks. Private insurers are hampered by their profit motive and the fact that 1,000 medical insurance companies have 1,000 layers of bureaucracy and cost far more to administer than Medicare. In other words, Medicare is a bargain, administratively and ironically does a better job of controlling costs as it is (Which is why your doctor complains about the reimbursement he or she receives from Medicare...:-)).

The obvious answer, Medicare for All, is ignored in corporate media because private insurers, hospitals and doctors--and their allies in management in corporate media--don't want everyone in the same pool as it would allow for a rational system that can cut costs, not services. So, yeah, the Democratic Party candidate won. Who-hoo! But really, folks, they won because it is one more tantrum from voters who are still not facing the full reality of how to best control medical costs as a society. And I'm not endorsing the Republican current plan in the least. Again, I am endorsing Medicare for All. That is the fiscally prudent solution that does the most for most if not all of the people in our society.

* The previous Republican who held the position had to resign because of this...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Netanyahu misses opportunity...embarrasses himself in posterity

Bibi yesterday lived up to the moniker I once gave him: Nutty-Yahoo. He has proven that the current Israeli government has rejected UN Resolution 242, a resolution that for years it was believed the Israeli government accepted.

Today, Bibi joked around with the Congress, which is sadly Likud-occupied. He knew he had no fear; he also knew most Democrats and Republicans would cower to whatever spin he wanted. It was a good thing Obama spoke last week and also good that the ADL and even AIPAC gave Obama some cover. One has to go back to French Ambassador Genet in the early 1790s for such an arrogant performance by a so-called friendly nation's foreign official against a sitting president.

Haaretz says US Jews should support Obama over Bibi on this issue, and that is definitely correct. If Israel blows this opportunity, it will eventually be seen as a fatal error the more years pass without peace.

US Supreme Court: You can't fit twice as many prisoners in the same prison

The US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that California's prisons are so overcrowded that the crunched housing conditions constitute "cruel and unusual punishment," hence, violating the 8th Amendment to the US Constitution.

This was a long time coming...Justice Kennedy's majority opinion is summarized in these two grafs:

Kennedy, whose opinion was joined by his four liberal colleagues, said the state's prisons were built to hold 80,000 inmates, but were crowded with as many 156,000 a few years ago.

He cited a former Texas prison director who toured California lockups and described the conditions as "appalling," "inhumane" and unlike any he had seen "in more than 35 years of prison work."


This is a direct outgrowth of California's draconian "three strikes" law, where our state puts into jail for life a person whose third strike is a non-violent felony of drug possession, mostly of minority men and not a few women. It is a shameful policy our state has followed for nearly twenty years. As noted at Calitics blog, we built three more state colleges in the past thirty years, but twenty-five more prisons--and they were still horribly overcrowded.

Another fact to consider: Twenty years ago, the state's budget stood at about 3% for prison services, and about 10% for higher education. Those figures are reversed now for prisons and higher education. And again, the overcrowding is worse than ever.

This represents such a failure of public policy that the LA Times editorial today should finally be the clarion call we need to change our sentencing policies, including the three strikes law. What is really sad is that the US Supreme Court is only seeking a reduction so that the population of prisoners is 37% higher than the allowable limit for prison housing. It's as if the Court is making a moral pronouncement, and then not following through with a goal that is consistent with the pronouncement. Still, the point is to change to policy.

One does, in one's dotage, think of songs for these things too. Here is Genesis' "Get 'Em Out by Friday", with one of the last lines being about cutting the height of people in half so that "we can fit twice as many in the same building site..."

Monday, May 23, 2011

Great documentary on J. Robert Oppenheimer

I just watched with my folks a great documentary on J. Robert Oppenheimer. It was on American Experience on PBS. It nailed the issues surrounding the coordinated and illegal attack on Oppenheimer. It very effectively explained how bad Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss was in his relentless vendetta against Oppenheimer, when their disagreement was about the hydrogen bomb--not that Oppie was any sort of security risk.

The documentary is well worth seeing--and buying.

This song about Oppenheimer by the brilliant House of Freaks is what I was compelled to find on YouTube after the end of the documentary. It too understands the role of Strauss, a truly odious character in mid-20th Century American History.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Obama is managing the decline, while Republicans hasten it

"...managing" the decline..."

That phrase is ringing in my brain as I read about the incredible decline in the wealth of the middle class and stagnation of their wages, the draconian cuts and cost increases of public higher education, the continued refusal to re-industrialize our nation and the tax cut cult.

And people wonder why I am likely not voting for Obama in 2012 and, again, looking at third parties. Still, I just wonder how much more damage a Republican president will do, just as Bush II did so much damage to our nation.

Obama, as with ill-fated president, Herbert Hoover, believes he is helpless to do anything constructive to arrest our nation's decline. But Republicans believe, and have the zealot's capacity to act, that destroying every remnant of government's social safety net is the answer. Such a set of policies will only hasten the decline, which will in turn lead Republican politicians to fan further the flames of racial, cultural and inner-class wars.

The failure of America's governing elite to understand Federalist Paper no. 11, Hamilton's most important contribution to the Federalist Papers, and the failure to understand the role of our national government to promote the general welfare of the United States is the most remarkable aspect of this situation. The disintegration of the labor movement is the most important loss because there is simply no other institution in the US that provides a vehicle to enforce economic power on behalf of the working and middle classes. We see what religious institutions do when they become politicized, and it is pretty ugly and often diverting. We see what happens to political parties when they must rely upon corporate funding. We see how corporate media propagandizes for a limited set of "solutions" even when polls show jobs, not the deficit remains Americans' most pressing concern.

As future 22nd Century historians sift through the wreckage of the American empire, as the US federal government disintegrates into regions that are Balkanized, historians will read and then cite commentators like Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky (not the pundits on television--other than perhaps for ridicule). Those historians will ask, "Why didn't the American people see it coming? Why did they elect politicians who had no vision other than 'managing the decline,' and failing even at that?"

The answer is that people tend not to see anything other than what is in front of us. We think since it always worked out before, it will somehow work out now. And the barrage of diversions emanating from the corporate owned media does keep us off balance, and does, as the late Neil Postman said, amuse ourselves to death.

I find it usually takes three decades for people to begin to see what a great political theorist sees. The Fifties' theorists, like David Riesman and Daniel Bell, said that there was a looming deficiency in leadership and in the industrial capacity of the US, and that the consequences for the long term were adverse and profound. I recall teachers, professors, business people laughing at these "longhairs" and "ivory tower thinkers" as Pax Americana continued on its way--that is, until the late 1980s saw some people in the academy and in business, and in politics, starting to wonder about what was happening and why. Those who saw the consequences of de-industrialization, like Perot and Nader (and to some extent Patrick Buchanan), were still laughed at in the 1990s by the Clintonoids and Republican leaders--and continue to be ridiculed on the cable political talk shows. Yet, American workers who feel the pain of economic loss are not laughing. But what remains frustrating is that American workers have no language to articulate issues of labor and capital, which language was utterly destroyed during the Cold War, and no effective understanding of why there is more and more economic loss around them. Blaming firefighters and teachers is just the latest example of how working class people act out as they are cornered.

I apologize for being so sad, but we sit here in late May 2011 as imperial wars continue, debt continues to be racked up without investment, and I hear the lament of parents who are feeling, but not knowing how much their children will be burdened by college expenses and the like.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Onion Explains It All...

On the true American government policy vis-a-vis Israel, see here.

On the demise of grown-ups, see here.

The Onion further reports that Republicans de-funding NPR stimulates the economy. See? I bet you liberals didn't know that...

And I bet you did not know that when the government finally decides to help regular people, it's got to be a mistake.

And that's the news. Good night.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Jared Bernstein's new blog

Jared Bernstein's new blog is well worth reading. He was invited into the Obama White House, then studiously and sometimes condescendingly ignored.

Obama's ignoring of Jared Bernstein is another reason not to vote for Obama next year, even if Jared ever says vote for Obama. Jared would just be a glutton for punishment if he actually said that now, at least...:-)

But give Obama credit where credit is due. His speech on the Middle East was crystal clear and I agree with his statements in that speech. It's about time a US president laid it out in clear language how the Israelis and Palestinians get to peace. Americans for Peace Now and the ADL are fine with the president's speech, too...AIPAC has not spoken nor anyone in the Council for Arab-Islamic Relations (CAIR)...We'll see...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Donald's campaign song...

Listen here.

10cc were great, weren't they?

ADDENDUM 5/18/11: Since The Donald upped and quit, perhaps this Monty Python song is his real legacy as he "bravely" ran away from his quest for the presidency...:-)

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Of Obama, his mother, and whether we parents have any significant influence...

I have long been fascinated with Obama's mom, and find her a deeply compelling human being who, were she alive, might well have been thinking of voting of someone else besides her son in 2012. :-) See here for a post I wrote in April 2008 about his mother and already making clear my ambivalence about Obama as a candidate for president.

And here now is Ian Buruma in the NY Review of Books on the new biography of Obama's mother, and an explanation of her thesis paper completed in 1992, but published after her too early death from ovarian cancer in 1995. Buruma further enlightens us as to Obama's mother, and how she may well have left her mark on Obama in his rebellion against her because she refused to be a "player"--and his desire to fit in with the most powerful elements in our society.

As I try to guide my son through his high school years, and realize how much more we have to develop our younger daughter's intellectual and social development, the argument between Tiger Moms and Laid-Back Dads is accelerating in our corporate media.

I'm more with Tiger Mom than Laid-Back Dad, but just not sure what is right. And it is not helpful that the example the article gives for the Laid-Back Dad, Bryan Caplan, is a younger man with a cushy, sedate job at a university that protects and promotes propagandists for corporate power--they call it "libertarianism"--that gives him more time than the usual Dad to spend with his family. But more importantly, he is dispensing this philosophy when his children, shown in the photo accompanying the article, are not even out of elementary school yet. It made me scream to myself, "Mr. Caplan, tell me about your Laid-Back philosophy when your kids hit their teens and start to feel the outside pressure of Advanced Placement courses, SATs, extra-curricular activities designed to promote well-roundedness, but are as much about increasing their chances for getting into a good college, and trying to limit the double cross of college loans that will, if too significant, likely tie down your child's post college choices in careers." One more thing: I didn't see any little girls in his brood, either, which means he is blissfully spared trying to combat the ill-effects of slutty, Disney culture on our collective and individual daughters.

I think the reason I myself go back and forth between Tiger Mom or Laid-Back Dad is because I find I am being humbled every day as a parent, and facing choices I detest and in which I am not always choosing so well.

It was therefore somewhat gratifying that right after I saw the above-linked article on child-rearing and families I read this article in the NY Review of Books, by biologist Richard Lewontin. The article gave me some solace that my continuing efforts as a parent will have some impact, good and hopefully not too bad, on my children. Lewontin is a former colleague of the late Stephen Jay Gould, and someone who recognizes that the whole nature-nurture argument is something that continues to obscure more than illuminate--and is an argument fraught with political overtones that try to get dressed up as "science." Lewontin's article, though not intended as such, is a healthy retort to Mr. Caplan's reductionism and Panglossian passivity. Lewontin also quotes, without attribution, one of the more brilliant Allan Sherman songs. The late Allan Sherman is a favorite at our house too...

Anyway, I'd chat some more about this, but I must now say farewell for the day, as I woke up too early this morning--stress, worry, guilt, i.e. the usual, choose one--and have to organize myself for the day. Our children and I made a promise last night to my wife that for Mother's Day we would help more around the house and, today, spend more time together as a family unit. We must keep that promise...

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Too bad there was no university for Lanny Friedlander to play in...

This is an interesting obit from Reason Magazine about Reason Magazine founder Lanny Friedlander, who just died at the age of 63 following an adult life of bouts with mental illness (Thomas Szasz, where were you when we needed you?:-)).

Nick Gillespie hits it on the head in comparing Friedlander to Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd--someone who founded something that ended up quite different than initially imagined, but where the essence remains fairly constant. It is strange that Friedlander, a supposed libertarian, should choose to join the military, but perhaps that is the sign of a sublime mind.

The NY Times obit is pretty good, too. And Reason Magazine does have a nice photo of the young Friedlander here.

Friedlander needed a university as much as John Nash did. He might have developed some interesting perspectives and philosophies, and might have proven even harder to pin down than he was with his first writings and actions.

Despite my frustration with the modern business libertarian, I found the libertarian strain fairly exhilarating in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It offered a way out of the cant and self-destructiveness of the left without embracing the right wing. Even The Match!, an anarchist magazine a friend sent me in the early 1970s as a joke, but which my early teen mind found fairly fascinating, had an appeal that almost sent me into libertarian orbit.

Still, I never quite lost my New Deal sensibility, perhaps because I did not and do not think private charity can really do the job of a macroeconomic set of policies designed to promote better paying jobs with good conditions in terms of wages, hours, breaks, etc. And also because, while I knew police officers could sometimes be a menace to the poor and especially the unarmed radical, it is nice to have police officers around when there are true criminals among us. As usual, ideology gets lost the more one attempts to balance various interests in society along public policy lines. It is what Daniel Bell was trying to get at with his most misunderstood work, "The End of Ideology."

Still, I second Nick Gillespie's citation of Pink Floyd's "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" in his tribute to Friedlander.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

SNL: Weak Tea Political Satire

I guess the writer at Vanity Fair had to write the puff piece on Saturday Night Live's history of politically oriented humor to get his interviews. For the most part, SNL has always been very weak in its political satire--so weak that the politicians themselves relished going on the show and felt they were "made" through SNL.

The author of the article says at one point: "Still other entertainers...in recent years—especially Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—owe their careers in part to the brand of 'ripped from the headlines' humor that S.N.L. pioneered."

False. Stewart and Colbert represent a break from SNL and a return to Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. Stewart and Colbert are deeply engaged in the public policy debate, acutely sensitive to structure and content of corporate media propaganda and are far more willing to rip into politicians for their hypocrisies and their positions that defy logic, reason or especially humanity. "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" is far more an antecedent of Stewart and Colbert (though one should note the irony that a very young Chevy Chase and Steve Martin wrote for the Smothers show in its last season before it was taken off the air due to its often biting political humor).

In fact, one can say the SNL brass, from Loren Michaels to Dick Ebersol, worked from a position of a cowardice that said, "We don't want to get canceled like the Smothers Brothers did." Compare this (link fixed) set of Pat Paulsen editorials about Social Security, gun control and health care to Colbert's irony on similar topics. They also tell us how America's dialogue on these subjects has not progressed since 1968, a focal point year as those who know my novel well know. And if one searches YouTube, one may find very sharp jabs on the Smothers' show about the Vietnam War, about Nixon and other candidates, and one memorable skit about how media manipulates news, and tells news before it happens, and then the manager says something like, "We'll have to kill you now before anyone finds out..." Dark, but the presentation was very funny.

On the other hand, SNL restricts their "political" humor to an attack on the style of politicians, i.e. Chevy Chase's attack on Ford's supposed clumsiness (though Ford was a very athletic person in real life and his falls were more bad luck) or even Tina Fey's slamming of Palin's poor syntax and shallow statements. It can be devastating, no doubt about it. But when it comes to issues of empire, of wealth distribution, the way in which corporate media propagandizes for corporate values in terms of taxes, government services for itself, but not people, and the like, SNL is AWOL.

What Stewart and Colbert--and Bill Maher--did more than anything else is expose the vacuousness of SNL's so-called topical humor. But don't expect Vanity Fair to say that. Instead, there is something about SNL that makes journalists afraid to be critical. I think it's because they are afraid attacking SNL may make them less than "cool" or "hip." That of course is the worst thing to be in our self-conscious culture...

A personal recollection: I was a precocious elementary school boy who loved the Smothers Brothers (even their short lived sit-com in the mid 1960s) and religiously watched the Comedy Hour starting in 1967 at age 10. I lamented when it was canceled and was already aware of why it was canceled, as I had started reading the front page section of newspapers and Newsweek after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. I recall doing that because I was embarrassed that I had not known who he was, much to my parents' horror (Sound familiar?). Among other things, I studied whatever I could find that was written about the Smothers, including the people who wrote for the show, and the background of issues they raised, for example. Later, as I was entering my first year of college in 1975, and NBC announced the advent of SNL, I had also read that alumni from the Smothers show were going to be writers. I figured, "Wow, this is gonna be just like the Smothers show! Hard hitting political satire, just like my hero Lenny Bruce!" I will always recall trying to explain to friends why I was not impressed with the lameness of the political humor from its earliest shows, and that it did not deserve the edgy label "Not Ready for Prime Time."

These days, whenever I think of SNL's first main producer, Loren Michaels, I think of Frank Zappa describing the so-called "cool" guys who became powerhouses in the music industry, but who were so self-censoring and so reactionary that they were worse than the cigar chomping executives who didn't care about anything other than, "Does it sell?" Bill Paley was far more revolutionary than Loren Michaels ever was. Paley really pissed off very powerful people before buckling, and knew well the salesman's credo, "It is better to ask for forgiveness and do what you want, than ask for permission and not get to do what you want." I miss Bill Paley. I don't miss Loren Michaels...

The history of railroads in the 19th Century and the myth of "free" markets

This article, which is largely an interview with an economist Michael Perelman, is a fascinating and enlightening read. It relates a compact economic history of 19th Century railroads that is at odds with the assumption most Americans make about that century, and then brings us forward to today's fight over net neutrality and why we are now paying for our luggage when we fly on an airline today.

It proves again how ideology is a narrative that blinds us from seeing reality, and how the need for empirical analysis remains paramount.

One may, however, skip the intro, which is just a snarky attack on the new film based upon Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" and spells the lead female character's name wrong (Taggart, not Taggert).

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

I knew Geronimo, and Osama, You're No Geronimo...

This is an interesting perspective from a Senate staffer at the Committee for Indian Affairs, who objected to the use of the name Geronimo for bin Laden during the raid. When bin Laden was killed, the message back to the White House was "Geronimo EKIA" with EKIA meaning enemy killed in action.

As is often the case, the objection based upon "political correctness" diverts us from what I saw immediately as US officials being unintentionally ironic and tonedeaf to precisely what those who are angry at and oppose the US actually mean when they attack US motives and actions around the world.

We Americans find it highly insulting when people around the world say the US is acting as imperialists in Afghanistan and Iraq. We respond that our motives are simply to help others when it came to Iraq. And we invaded Afghanistan to root out the guy (bin Laden) and his organization who attacked our nation not merely on 9/11/2001, but in other acts of terror starting in the 1990s.

But, just as Geronimo was fighting against an imperial force designed to dislocate and destroy Native American homelands in use for hundreds and maybe a thousand years (sort of like the film, Avatar), bin Laden's epiphany to make the US his enemy came when US troops landed in his native country of Saudi Arabia in 1990 as the US prepared to attack Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait. The context of this biography article about bin Laden from the UK Guardian newspaper is now more illuminating than when it was published yesterday:

Bin Laden was born in Saudi Arabia on March 10, 1957. He became known as the most pious of the sons among his wealthy father's 54 children. Bin Laden's path to militant Islam began as a teenager in the 1970s when he got caught up in the fundamentalist movement then sweeping Saudi Arabia. He was a voracious reader of Islamic literature and listened to weekly sermons in the holy city of Mecca.

Thin, bearded and over 6 feet (1.83 meters) tall, bin Laden joined the Afghans' war against invading Soviet troops in the 1980s and gained a reputation as a courageous and resourceful commander. Access to his family's considerable construction fortune certainly helped raise his profile among the mujahedeen fighters.

At the time, bin Laden's interests converged with those of the United States, which backed the "holy war" against Soviet occupation with money and arms.

When bin Laden returned home to Saudi Arabia, he was showered with praise and donations and was in demand as a speaker in mosques and homes. It did not take long for his aims to diverge from those of his former Western supporters.

"When we buy American goods, we are accomplices in the murder of Palestinians," he said in one of the cassettes made of his speeches from those days.

A seminal moment in bin Laden's life came in 1990, when U.S. troops landed on Saudi soil to drive Iraq out of Kuwait.

Bin Laden tried to dissuade the government from allowing non-Muslim armies into the land where the Prophet Muhammad gave birth to Islam, but the Saudi leadership turned to the United States to protect its vast oil reserves. When bin Laden continued criticizing Riyadh's close alliance with Washington, he was stripped of Saudi citizenship.


(Emphasis added to the italics)

US officials, by giving Osama a codename of a Native American Apache warrior who fought and died against invading American (and also Mexican) government troops, was ironically giving Osama bin Laden more credit than he deserved and was in fact making bin Laden's argument that he was primarily fighting American and Western imperialism. Geronimo was considered so dangerous in his time to Americans and Mexicans that he was wanted "dead or alive." He hid in a cave, according to legend maybe more than fact. But unlike Osama, he was caught alive, imprisoned and then exiled from the land he fought to protect. See this article from the British Daily Telegraph which shows US officials knew some of these facts about Geronimo and still gave the codename to him.

I never thought of Osama as Geronimo. I considered bin Laden ultimately wacky, as well as violent in that twisted anti-human way that religious fanatics can be. Yes, US troops should not have gone into Saudi Arabia (and went in on a lie that Saddam was going to invade Saudi Arabia when he was not at all). But the US sent troops into the Balkans in the late 1990s that helped protect Kosovans who were Muslim, even though one has the argument that the Balkan intervention was itself problematic.

Still, the US officials who codenamed Osama "Geronimo" gave credence to what I previously thought was Chomsky's toughest (meaning hard to accept) argument, which is that 9/11/2001 and the other attacks could be legitimately seen as defensive in nature, and that the 3,500 Americans killed in the attacks on the USS Cole in 2000 and the 9/11 attacks were a form of revenge for US actions against civilians in that part of the world. In other words, what Chalmers Johnson, a noted diplomatic historian who became radicalized after the end of the Cold War, called a "blowback."

The "politically correct" attack from those sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans is what will coarse through the veins of corporate media. It will devolve and descend into the familiar corporate media's definitions of "liberal" and "conservative" and that axis of ignorant dialogue about "liberal 'political correctness'". What will NOT become part of the dialogue is the long view of American foreign policy and actions. What will definitely not become part of the dialogue is precisely how the US officials in the military, in the White House, in the State Department and the CIA, ironically and with hubris channeled the very point they denied the most when pursuing bin Laden: Which is that America's ambitions and actions are first and foremost about empire building and maintaining.

That is profoundly sad, and it is something which should cause more Americans to stand up even more strongly against our continued military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and maybe elsewhere, too.



Endnote:

The title of the post has its own historical reference:

The title is a play on the infamous exchange during the 1988 Vice Presidentil debate between Democratic Party Candidate and then Senator Lloyd Bensten (Texas) and Republican Party candidate and then Senator Dan Quayle (Indiana) where Quayle, a then young, good looking guy, made a comparison of himself to JFK in terms of a lack of actual national experience. Bensten's famous retort, which became a signature line for years thereafter--even though the Republican Party ticket of Bush-Quayle defeated the Dukakis-Bensten ticket:

"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

The irony is that the first part of the sentence Bensten uttered was misleading. He never served in the Senate with Jack Kennedy. He may have served in the armed forces at the same time as Kennedy, but that's about all. He did know Jack Kennedy, but not well, as Bensten did not become a US senator until 1970, when he ran against the saintly Ralph Yarborough (then US Senator from Texas) in the Democratic Party primary, beat Yarborough by calling him a "soft on crime" liberal, and then defeated George Herbert Walker Bush (Bush Senior) in the US Senate race in Texas in 1970. Bensten was a reliable vote for the American empire and American-based oil and gas corporations. Bensten was a perfect example of what Gore Vidal calls the "Property Party" in the US, with both the Democratic and Republican Parties as merely two wings of that Property Party. Quayle was even worse. He was not merely a reliable vote for the economic elite and empire. He was a truly empty suit, and had very little knowledge of American history, American domestic or foreign policy, and was simply a shallow scion of a mid-west corporate media empire.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Can we leave Afghanistan now? Please?

So Obama announces that Osama bin Laden is dead. Per Obama's announcement, bin Laden was killed rather than simply found dead. And what is really interesting is that the US bombed Pakistan to kill him. And also, let's notice how gingerly the US leaders, starting with Obama, treat the Pakistani leaders and military as if they know the Pakistani leadership was harboring bin Laden all these years.

So when do we get to leave Afghanistan at the very least?

If it is so important that Osama was killed nearly a decade after the 9/11/2011 attacks, as opposed to the afterthought which the Junior Bush relegated this quest (just six months after 9/11/2001!) so he could pursue his imperial strategy in Iraq, then we ought to leave. But, let's stay real here. Obama has no intention to leave Afghanistan. None.

So count me as seeing this exercise as academic, sort of like the alternative history where Hitler escapes Germany after the US and Russia overthrow the Nazis, and the US finally tracks down Hitler in 1955 in Argentina and kills him there.

Sean Wilentz, a Dylan cultist, misses the essence of Phil Ochs

Considering time constraints, and the new New York Times policy of limiting our ability to link and read its articles, I'll only talk about one review in today's NY Times Sunday Book Review.

In today's NY Times Book Review, historian Sean Wilentz, tries his hand at trying to explain protest music in the US and elsewhere. He reviews a book on the subject that strikes me as itself problematic, but Wilentz's essay reveals once again the Bob Dylan Cult in action.

Wilentz is someone who generally writes in the liberal-left side of the political ledger, and so should be a sympathetic person to me. However, he is also the so-called "historian in residence" at Bob Dylan's website, which makes him a Board member of what I have disdainfully called the Dylan Cult. In the book review, Wilentz writes about Dylan and my favorite 1960s troubadour, Phil Ochs:

A perennial question about left-wing protest songs concerns this tension between art and politics: How much do the political agendas of the sort that dominates the music Lynskey examines undermine the music’s value? For many readers and listeners who came of age during the 1960s, the question long ago turned on the contrast between Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. The two were friends and rivals in the topical song movement of the early ’60s, but Ochs became the embodiment of the folk singer as dissenting provocateur, who refused to believe, in Lynskey’s words, “that politics and art were mutually exclusive.” Dylan squirmed at the smugness of the folkie left, shifted course and rejected what he called, in “My Back Pages,” the “lies that life is black and white.”

Lynskey is plainly more sympathetic to Ochs’s activism, and he calls Dylan’s turn away from traditional protest songs his “abdication.” The full significance of “protesty” music eludes him. And his treatment of Dylan’s and Ochs’s work does not do either of them justice. He makes a great deal, for example, out of Dylan’s snarling rant “Masters of War,” but passes quickly over Dylan’s lyrical masterpieces “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” whose subtlety and human concreteness make them all the more powerful both as political statements and as art. These songs surpassed Ochs’s preachier material. Yet Lynskey also says too little about how Ochs stamped his sense of humor on some of his best songs (like “Draft Dodger Rag”), which made him a better political satirist than Dylan. Nor does Lynskey’s analysis leave room for Ochs’s finest topical song, the poetic “Crucifixion,” about John F. Kennedy’s murder, as well as for some of Ochs’s most enduring compositions, including “Changes” and “Pleasures of the Harbor,” which are songs of weariness, sorrow and fate, not songs of dissent. Protest music cannot be understood isolated from the protest singer’s other songs, which holds just as true for U2 and Steve Earle as it does for Phil Ochs.


There is much to parse and ridicule here. Wilentz says Dylan's "Hattie Carroll" (starts 6:50 in) and "Pawn" (starts at 3:30) "surpassed Och's preachier material." Really? Those two songs "surpass" "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore"? "Here's to the State of Mississippi"? "Santo Domingo"? "Is There Anybody Here"? (I wish "Santo Domingo" was uploaded at YouTube. It brilliantly takes a general story of an invader and each time, the verse ends, "...the Marines have landed on the shores of Santo Domingo..." It is a powerful attack on imperial wars of aggression.) "Cops of the World"? (Hooray, there is Och's version on Youtube!).

Wilentz talks about the "rivalry" of Ochs and Dylan in that sort of false equivalence one sees in corporate American media. Sorry, Sean. Dylan actively trashed Ochs to his face and with others, saying his songs didn't last past the morning's headlines. Dylan at a party of folksingers in the early 1960s, went around the room and told each what one was--meaning that they were not folksingers, they were something else. To Ochs, he dismissed Ochs as a "journalist" not a songwriter. Ochs was devastated by Dylan's continued remarks of this nature.

There is also a story that somehow Ochs was invited by Dylan to hear a song or two from Dylan's then upcoming release of the "Blonde on Blonde" (1966) album. After hearing it, Dylan invited Ochs into the limo the record company had procured for Dylan. He asked Ochs how he liked it. Ochs, who was mostly transparent, good or bad, said he thought there should be more work on the songs because it appeared Dylan had lost control of his imagery. Dylan had the driver stop the limo, and told Ochs, "Get out." Ochs tells the story in an interview in 1968 that was recorded on an album (see here). They did not speak for seven years, until a reunion of sorts occurred at a rally in New York against the new military junta the US had helped establish in Chile.

The reason for this, after thinking and analyzing the various events, is that Dylan was jealous of Ochs. It really is the most direct primary motive that explains how Dylan stopped writing topical songs around 1964 and became as airy as a hippie caricature, while attacking the very idea of a protest song.

Wilentz is not completely wrong in his discussion, however. For example, he is correct to say that Ochs had a sense of humor in some of his songs, and cites Ochs' "Draft Dodger Rag." But even then, Wilentz shows no more than a passing familiarity with Ochs and does not mention the irony and tough sarcasm that Ochs was able to express in a creative and fairly profound way. He does not mention Ochs' only semi-hit on corporate radio, "Small Circle of Friends," or "I'm Gonna Say It Now" or "William Worthy."

There are so many brilliant Ochs' songs, from "Changes" (which Wilentz mentions) to "When I'm Gone" to "When in Rome" to "Tape from California", and on and on and on. But the Dylan Cult really does not want us to hear Phil Ochs. When the Cultists can ignore Ochs, they do. And when the Cultists feel they have to mention Ochs, it is mostly with words that are condescending, denigrating and ultimately dismissive.

My feelings about the overhyping of Dylan, and critique of the Dylan Cult are in posts which are here and here.

I wish this new documentary on Ochs was available on DVD already...

Phil Ochs' songs are the soundtrack of the American student movement of the 1960s. The problem with Baby Boomers like Wilentz is they are unable to transcend their own time. He lived through and sang along with the airy-fairy Dylan songs such as "Like a Rolling Stone" or "Mr. Tamborine Man" emanating from a transistor radio. Wilentz is really writing from a perspective of nostalgia, not with any larger perspective. In this, he resembles my folks, who can't really tell the difference between Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. It's all the same to them, because they recall both when growing up in the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s. Again, it remains a fact, not even an opinion, that when one wishes to analyze the rise and fall of the Sixties Student Movement, Ochs is a far better guide than Bob Dylan.

Still, Ochs' music continues to find resonance and inspiration today, contrary to how Dylan Cultists may want to ape their leader's attacks on Ochs. For example, some of the more recent rockers and folkies, whether it is Eddie Vedder (start at 0:51) or Ani DeFranco, record Ochs' songs or sing Ochs' songs at protest rallies. British troubador Billy Bragg recognized that Ochs fits within the pantheon of the great activist folk singers, such as heir to Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie.

The Dylan Cult will continue to thrive, however, as long as we Baby Boomers are alive. Later, after we are largely gone, some post-Baby Boomer historian will come along and correctly diminish Dylan's legacy, and exalt Ochs to his rightful place. It is sort of like how from the 1910s through the 1970s, Charlie Chaplin was the epitome of the silent film comedy among those who wrote about film. Then, somewhere during the 1980s, film intellectuals began to recognize the genius of Buster Keaton, to the point where younger people today who know anything about the silent film era know Keaton at least as well as Chaplin, and would largely agree that Keaton is the epitome of the silent film comedy.

It may seem strange to take the so-called "seriousness" of protest music and compare it to silent film comedy, but there is a debate here over aesthetics that underlies this topic of Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. I do love the music Ochs wrote in so many instances, and it is something not remarked upon because most of the writers of the left are so terribly ignorant of music theory. I would say that those steeped in music theory--even a political conservative--would find themselves pleasantly surprised to analyze chord structures of Ochs' later works, for example. With one of the best supporters of progressive rock music, S.T. Karnick, being a "political conservative," this is less far-fetched that it may at first seem.

Still, the Dylan Cult will eventually be vanquished, though whether I live long enough to see that is a whole other story...:-)

And of course, Tom Lehrer, reminded us, in the middle of the 1960s decade, why we should never get too serious about "protest songs."