Friday, February 27, 2009

Every Era Has Its Music...

and our rough time of financial collapse, militarism, terrorism, war, and ecological degradation has finally gotten its troubadours.

Listening to Atlanta's finest indie radio station--WRAS 88.5 out of Georgia State University--while driving through rain-slogged streets this afternoon. One of the wonders of listening to a good radio station like Album 88 is that in doing so you leave yourself open to any interesting new music that might come across your car stereo. That is, you're liable to hear something that might come out of nowhere and truly surprise and enchant you; no need to wait for the thumbs up from Pitchfork Media.

Anyway, heard this song.

Discovered that the artist is a Minneapolis rapper called POS, and that the song comes from a brand new album titled Never Better.

A million times better than most things coming from the white-bread indie scene, I think. More spacious and imaginative musically, better lyrics, and amazingly it's music that actually takes notice of the world and not just solipsistic personal issues.

The lyrics in this song are actually honest-to-God incredible. "Arrow after arrow after bullet after sunflower," which reminds me of William Blake.

But best of all is the female rapper's verse. "Flight of the salesman/ Death of the bumblebee" isn't just a clever inversion; it's also a plain description of our current condition. This era might be remembered more for the death of the bumblebee than anything else. Seriously.

It seems like weve fallen out of favor/ the era ended on us/
Now the moneys just paper/ the houses all haunted/
We had a hell of a run before it caught up/
For all the corners cut/ we got an avalanche of sawdust/
Life of the party/ were the death of the novel/
The glass is half empty/ so pass the next bottle/
Its the flight of the salesman/ death of the bumblebee/
Nothing left for the/ attorneys and the tumbleweeds

Monday, February 23, 2009

Night Thoughts from Tocqueville

The territorial aristocracy of former ages was either bound by law, or thought itself bound by usage, to come to the relief of its serving-men and to relieve their distresses. But the manufacturing aristocracy of our age first impoverishes and debases the men who serve it and then abandons them to be supported by the charity of the public. . . . Between the workman and the master there are frequent relations, but no real association.

I am of opinion, on the whole, that the manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes is one of the harshest that ever existed in the world. . . . the friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in this direction.

-Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

An Analogy

To better savor the meltdown of our economic system (I don't mean capitalism, necessarily; more the dogmatic form of capitalism the US has been foisting on the rest of the world, not to mention its own citizens, for a few decades now), I've been reading up on financial crises of the past.

The Great Depression, and FDR's response to it, is all well and interesting, but somehow I think our problems more closely resemble those of former ages. Outbreaks of financial chaos (which often, of course, leads to other kinds of chaos) caused by predatory lending, unpayable loans, and credit for non-existent money used as a hammer with which to beat the poor, the weak, and the exploited. Our problems might have more in common with the troubles of agrarian Greeks in the late 500s/early 600s B.C. than anything in the 20th century.

I'm talking, of course, about Athens before Solon's "shaking off of burdens."

The Athenian city-state was in a bad way in the sixth century B.C. Wealth and political power were the exclusive property of the wealthy families , who owned vast fields inhabited by small farmers who worked for 1/6 of the profit drawn from their crops. The other 5/6 went to the aristocrats lucky enough not to be born into the farming class. Obviously, farming families could hardly survive on such a meager wage, so many of them took out loans from the wealthy. The wealthy, of course, charged interest.

Working for very little money and piling up debt because of excessive interest, very few peasants could find any way to pay back their loans. The punishment for unpayable debt was slavery. No more 1/6.

This sytem led to disaster in commerce and trade, and plunged Athens into a hideous state of affairs where the gap between rich and poor had become abysmal, slavery and serfdom were rampant--freeborn men and their families became slaves every day, fields that had once been free were seized by the bankers--and, needless to say, no one could pay off their debts. The situation was so bad that the elected (freeborn, non-peasant) assembly called the city's best poet, Solon, to become archon.

Solon began what has subsequently been called the "shaking off of burdens" by cancelling all debts. No one was indebted to anyone, interest wasn't a problem, small farmers didn't have to sell their slave labor in return for loans, and their confiscated land was returned to them.

In addition to cancelling debts, Solon encouraged Athenian farmers to direct all of their energy towards cultivating olives so they could boast of a well-made, desirable product to trade with other city-states. He abolished extravagant dowries; he invited foreign tradesmen to settle in Athens, and granted them immediate citizenship. He closed the gap between rich and poor, slave and free by restricting the export of grain (all grain was to be given to the poor), creating a prosperous and non-oligarchic farming class, and revising weights and measures to create a new currency.

He also wrote a fair set of brand new laws to replace the rigid, inhuman code instituted years before by Draco (the adjective derivation of his name is a term with us still). Writing two centuries later, Aristotle claimed that Solon had intended a parliament to which any citizen of Athens could be elected.

These humane reforms were as common-sensical as they were imaginative. The prosperity and democratic privelege that flowered under Solon set the stage for the explosion of great art, architecture, theatre, poetry, and philosophy during Athens' Golden Age.

In his poetry Solon exorciated the unchecked greed and arrogance of Athens' aristocratic land-owning families, whose extravagant ways had led to the great fiasco. But he also acknowledged that "public evil enters the house of every man; his courtyard gate can't keep it out." Meaning that greed and wickedness in high places will eventually infect every area and aspect of society if left unexamined and free to pillage.

Is there a Solon today? Can you imagine a politician (forget about a poet, or any kind of writer; the divorce between literature and public life seems almost complete in these United States; we've never been farther away from a Solon, a Montaigne, a Milton, a Burke, a Hugo, a Paz or Havel or Vargas Llosa or Kamplinski of our own) coming forth and prosposing, say, an abolition of excessive interest on loans? Or a tax on banker's trafficking in money? Or demanding a return to focusing on real sources of wealth, actual production and creation (industry, farming, craftsmanship) instead of electronic money-managing? Please. Our rulers are mediocre, unimaginative bureaucrats who don't want to see a flexible, pragmatic, creative change to our financial system.

For all his talk of reform and "change," President Obama seems dedicated to continuing the same technocratic corporatism that got us in this mess in the first place. I hope I'm wrong, because I do think he's a far-sighted man. But it's also clear that far from a shaking off of burdens, our rulers and owners want the burdens to be re-instated. They only began to panic when their supply of credit dried up; they don't have the slightest qualms about letting other people enrich them with their labor, their tax dollars, and their lives in exchange for minimal wages.

Translation: freeze all sub-division/McMansion development, cancel mortgage debts, nationalize the insolvent banks, get them working properly again, sell them off, enforce low interest rates by fiat, and use the revenue generated by selling the banks to build glistening new public infrastructure (mass transit, comfortable high-speed trains, alternative energies, smaller schools, urban renewal projects). Why not?

Tomorrow: Another analogy, this time involving a Grank Duke of Tuscany.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

And the women come out to cut up what remains...

Dennis Perrin on Obama's designs on Afghanistan:

A recent UN survey reports that violence in Afghanistan is surging, the civilian death rate up some 40 percent from last year. The Taliban is blamed for 60 percent of the carnage, but the US hasn't been slacking either, killing more than its share of civilians through airstrikes and raids on villages. Obama plans to add to the body count with no end in sight. What is the final purpose here? Kill kill kill until the Taliban and other armed groups surrender? Or is Obama simply planning to exterminate them, regardless of the civilian toll?


As a former, enthusiastic supporter of this war, all I can see is perpetual death for years on end. Obama's not going to turn Afghanistan into Sweden; he'd be lucky to turn it into post-Katrina New Orleans.

As it happens, I'm a "former, enthusiastic supporter of this war" myself. After 9/11 I figured the proper course of action was to overthrow the Taliban and somehow bomb an already-ravaged country into a European-style liberal society. Thinking about this now, I can't understand how I ever came to such a self-evidently stupid position. Maybe I subconsciously thought that the US had designed a new model of bomb replaces everything it destroys with a Cafe Nero. As if even that would be remotely desirable.

A few points and questions:

1. I hated the Taliban before the 9/11 attacks. I first became aware of them maybe one year before, when they dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan for being un-Islamic. Outraged by real-life cultural destruction in the 21st century, and knowing virtually nothing about the Islamic world, I did a bit of research on Afghanistan and its (at that time) current regime. Read about their campaign of murder, torture, and enslavement against women. Their fanatical morality, enforced by acid-throwing policemen, their hatred of modernity and liberty and experimentation.

The Taliban, then as now, were true and proper wicked goons.

2. An invasion later, I'm not so sure if Afghanistan is the just crusade many still make it out to be. The US insists on terrorizing villagers and farmers from the sky, rocketing weddings and dropping chemicals on fields that are many Afghans' only source of livelihood, and more or less replacing the evil fundamentalist Taliban regime with equally evil, equally fundamentalist non-Taliban warlords in the provinces and cities alike.

3. Afghanistan has been a tragic country for a long time, destroyed by war and ideological fanaticism of all kinds. I'm not sure what makes Obama think he's going to avoid the fate of Alexander the Great, the British and the Soviets in that empire-killing country.

4. I agree with Perrin that an escalation in Afghanistan will bring only perpetual death.

5. I hope that all the brave Afghans fighitng for liberty, feminism, pluralism, and secularism will succeed one day. One thing you can do towards ensuring some level of good fortune is supporting RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Their position on the troubles of their country seems exactly right to me:

The US "War on terrorism" removed the Taliban regime in October 2001, but it has not removed religious fundamentalism which is the main cause of all our miseries. In fact, by reinstalling the warlords in power in Afghanistan, the US administration is replacing one fundamentalist regime with another. The US government and Mr. Karzai mostly rely on Northern Alliance criminal leaders who are as brutal and misogynist as the Taliban.
RAWA believes that freedom and democracy can’t be donated; it is the duty of the people of a country to fight and achieve these values. Under the US-supported government, the sworn enemies of human rights, democracy and secularism have gripped their claws over our country and attempt to restore their religious fascism on our people.

6. These people are the heroes of our present bad and sad world. People like RAWA, the passionate Pakistani writer (and, if the tabloids can be trusted, the girlfriend of one George Clooney) Fatima Bhutto, the great Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail, the enchanting Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, and Arabic's greatest living bard, the vehemently anti-clerical and anti-imperialist Adonis, are the voices from the Islamic world we need to be listening to: brave souls who protest the twin brutalities of Islamic fundamentalism and US/Israeli militarism. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of these are women.

7. One thing the US government can do to deflate the Taliban is end the insane and criminal "war on drugs." If you destroy the only lucrative crop (poppies) many Afghans have, you destroy their trust and goodwill. Why the hell would anyone trust the US when the US is destroying their livelihood and destroying plenty of actual lives?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

More Negative Capability, Less Ideological Heroism, Please?

On the advice of Henrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker, I read Zadie Smith's new essay in the New York Review of Books, "Speaking in Tongues."

It is indeed a wonderful essay, and I recommend you all go read it now. I'm a bit hesitant to believe that Obama or any politician is as capable of negative capability as Shakespeare, but I hope the new President can at least approach it.

Some enticing bits, great for Smith's writing but enriched by the presence of Keats, Shakespeare, Lord Macaulay and a crazy, wonderful Frank O'Hara poem I'd never read before:

For reasons that are obscure to me, those qualities we cherish in our artists we condemn in our politicians. In our artists we look for the many-colored voice, the multiple sensibility. The apogee of this is, of course, Shakespeare: even more than for his wordplay we cherish him for his lack of allegiance…

Fortunately, Shakespeare was an artist and so had an outlet his father didn't have—the many-voiced theater. Shakespeare's art, the very medium of it, allowed him to do what civic officers and politicians can't seem to: speak simultaneous truths. (Is it not, for example, experientially true that one can both believe and not believe in God?) In his plays he is woman, man, black, white, believer, heretic, Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Muslim. He grew up in an atmosphere of equivocation, but he lived in freedom. And he offers us freedom: to pin him down to a single identity would be an obvious diminishment, both for Shakespeare and for us. Generations of critics have insisted on this irreducible multiplicity, though they have each expressed it different ways, through the glass of their times. Here is Keats's famous attempt, in 1817, to give this quality a name:

“At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

And here is Stephen Greenblatt doing the same, in 2004:
“There are many forms of heroism in Shakespeare, but ideological heroism—the fierce, self-immolating embrace of an idea or institution—is not one of them.”

For Keats, Shakespeare's many voices are quasi-mystical as suited the Romantic thrust of Keats's age. For Greenblatt, Shakespeare's negative capability is sociopolitical at root. Will had seen too many wild-eyed martyrs, too many executed terrorists, too many wars on the Catholic terror. He had watched men rage absurdly at rood screens and write treatises in praise of tables. He had seen men disemboweled while still alive, their entrails burned before their eyes, and all for the preference of a Latin Mass over a common prayer or vice versa. He understood what fierce, singular certainty creates and what it destroys. In response, he made himself a diffuse, uncertain thing, a mass of contradictory, irresolvable voices that speak truth plurally. Through the glass of 2009, "negative capability" looks like the perfect antidote to "ideological heroism."

Being many-voiced may be a complicated gift for a president, but in poets it is a pure delight in need of neither defense nor explanation. Plato banished them from his uptight and annoying republic so long ago that they have lost all their anxiety. They are fancy-free.

"I am a Hittite in love with a horse," writes Frank O'Hara.

I don't know what blood's
in me I feel like an African prince I am a girl walking downstairs
in a red pleated dress with heels I am a champion taking a fall
I am a jockey with a sprained ass-hole I am the light mist
in which a face appears
and it is another face of blonde I am a baboon eating a banana
I am a dictator looking at his wife I am a doctor eating a child
and the child's mother smiling I am a Chinaman climbing a mountain
I am a child smelling his father's underwear I am an Indian
sleeping on a scalp
and my pony is stamping in
the birches,
and I've just caught sight of the
Niña, the Pinta and the Santa
What land is this, so free?

Frank O'Hara's republic is of the imagination, of course. It is the only land of perfect freedom. Presidents, as a breed, tend to dismiss this land, thinking it has nothing to teach them. If this new president turns out to be different, then writers will count their blessings, but with or without a president on board, writers should always count their blessings. A line of O'Hara's reminds us of this. It's carved on his gravestone. It reads: "Grace to be born and live as variously as possible."

Dear God what fine stuff. Read the whole thing.

Monday, February 16, 2009

What TV Was/Could Be

Following up somewhat on that clip of Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer slugging it out on the Dick Cavett Show, I thought I'd share Cavett's visit with the great Mel Brooks as well:

I was born well into the Reagan Era, so I don't remember a time when American talk shows had this kind of panache. It's astonishing to think that once upon a time there existed a show where interesting, talented people could have long, meandering, witty, intelligent conversations on TV, with no salesmanly hysteria or contrived, predictable banter ("So tell us about your movie").

You have to love Dick Cavett's deadpan, sly but laughing demeanour. It's nearly impossible to find that kind of relaxed but warm insouciance on TV these days. To be a successful TV talk show host, it seems, one has to be snarky but glad-handing: you have to poke fun at all the scapegoat-idols of the culture ("Hey how about that Paris Hilton? Man she really must not like prison!"), but you must never penetrate too deeply into the culture; the audience has to feel that they're in the joke at all times.

Cavett is a highly engaging host, intellectual and funny, and he doesn't give a damn whether the audience is in on the joke or not. In his book Cultural Amnesia Clive James says something about how Dick Cavett's mixing of the frivolous and the serious was something unique in American cultural life. His combination of cultivation and comedy (why should they even be separated?) is something you don't see often in American culture. For whatever reason, we prefer our artists (including our talk show hosts) to specialize in one or the other. And we're especially alarmed by serious cultural or political matters being expressed light-heartedly.

We're the poorer for it.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Melt Downs

I'm sure you've all seen Joaquin Phoenix's burly appearance on Letterman from a few nights ago. God bless the American public, for in their innocence they don't realize that Joaquin was pulling an elaborate Borat-like joke for a movie filmed by his brother-in-law Casey Affleck; it's much easier to talk about how "messed up" the guy is, how he'll probably OD soon, etc.

Joaquin Phoenix on Letterman wasn't a TV melt-down. It was funny because he was Quantum Weird AND allowed Dave to make fun of him. Great performances by both of them.

If you want to see a real TV chat show melt down, try this wondrous clip: two great Americans, who depending on the day were good friends or great enemies, going at it on the show of another great American. Mailer comes off like the most pompous man alive, Vidal is his impish self, but the best lines of the night belong to Cavett. Watch and enjoy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Stimulus Passes, Deformed

Via the indispensable news organ Wonkette, a helpful chart detailing how the stimulus bill changed between the House and the Senate. The Senate decided to cut money from a bunch of things, add money to some others, and some provisions just disappeared entirely.

Some fun facts:

- The Senate decided to add $4, 600, 000, 000 for "fossil energy research," ha ha ha, which wasn't even in the original bill. Oil execs gotta eat too, right?

- The National Science Foundation, the CDC, the National Institutes of Health and "university research facilities" saw ALL of their intended money cut from the final bill, as did (best of all) some Communist plot called "school construction and technology."

- After I mentioned this yesterday, the Senate Republicans thought it'd be a fine idea to cut substantial funds from Transit. Asshats.

What a stupid country.

"We Do Not Torture"

Oh man, this is the funny.

The 25 lines edited out of the court papers contained details of how Mr Mohamed’s genitals were sliced with a scalpel and other torture methods so extreme that waterboarding, the controversial technique of simulated drowning, “is very far down the list of things they did,” the official said.
Another source familiar with the case said: “British intelligence officers knew about the torture and didn’t do anything about it.”

Fighting them over there, etc.

Pity that our new President seems to be following the Bush-Cheney regime's exact line on renditions. I really can't add anything to Greenwald's forensic outrage.

Monday, February 9, 2009

You Know What Would Create Jobs and Stimulate the Economy?


Rebecca Solnit on Iceland: The New William Morris?

Interesting that Rebecca Solnit, one of our finest writers (see her spell-binding, unclassifiable books River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West and A Field Guide to Getting Lost, not to mention any of her great occasional essays for Harper's or Tomdispatch), seems to be all of a sudden as interested in Iceland as William Morris was in the late Victorian period.

There's definite similarites between the two: you could even say that Solnit, as a radical activist concerned about the destruction of natural and urban beauty and life who also writes luminous essays about art and culture, is a direct descendant of Morris.

It's worth noting that another of our finest writers, Eliot Weinberger, devotes a few pieces at the beginning of his book Karmic Traces to Iceland. He calls it the perfect society--one without crime, poverty, or "conspicuous wealth"--but one that's impossible to replicate anywhere without Iceland's unique history and geography.

At any rate, check out Solnit's excellent recent essay on Iceland's financial collapse at Tomdispatch, as well as an account of a journey there (complete with cameos from Bjork and Sigur Ros) she wrote for Harper's. It's titled "News from Nowhere." Hm.


It's like they're doing Zoo TV or POPMART again.

Any pseudo-radical hipster types who don't like U2 because just they're unthinkably popular can fuck right off. And don't forget to burn your Shakespeare books, and never go to another Scorcese or Spielberg movie.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


Decided to finally create a blog where I can write about culture and politics and whatnot more freely than on my hockey blog.

It's an experiment. We'll see what happens. Stay tuned. Name of the blog is a bastardization of some lyrics in a Fugazi song.