Wednesday, December 31, 2008

City List, 2008

Since I'm sitting here half-sick rather than going out for New Year's (woo-hoo), thought I'd contribute to this little deal and list the cities I stayed at least one night in in 2008. From Dan Lewis. Why the hell not.

1. Georgetown, TX
2. Boise, ID
3. Springfield, OR
4. Southbridge, MA
5. Hyde Park, NY
6. Mount Vernon, NY
7. Lisbon, Portugal
8. Evora, Portugal
9. Santa Cruz, Bolivia
10. Coachabamba, Bolivia
11. La Paz, Bolivia
12. Sucre, Bolivia
13. Potosi, Bolivia
14. Copacabana, Bolivia
15. Uyuni, Bolivia
16. Tupiza, Bolivia
17. Various "roads" on overnight bus trips, Bolivia
18. Alexandria, VA
19. Albuquerque, NM
20. South Padre Island, TX
21. Houston, TX
22. Corpus Christi, TX
23. Denton, TX
24. Dallas, TX
25. Lake Charles, LA
26. Louisville, KY
27. Cooperstown, NY
28. Amsterdam, NY
29. Calgary, AB, Canada
30. Austin, TX

Jesus, that's a lot. It's also why I should not be owning a cat. Still, what can I do?

The Bankruptcy (Moral and Literal) of Conservatism

The future of the Republican Party sure looks bright, eh?

Just hours before the unemployment benefits fund was to run out in South Carolina, the state with the nation’s third-highest jobless rate, Gov. Mark Sanford relented Wednesday and agreed to apply for $146 million in federal funds to top it up, after weeks of refusing to do so.

The governor’s position had drawn rebukes even from fellow Republicans in the legislature, one of whom denounced him as “heartless.” Newspaper editorial pages in South Carolina questioned why he was adding to the anxiety of the state’s 77,000 unemployed residents. Legislators here said they could recall no governor ever refusing to ask for unemployment funds.

Leadership the nation can believe in! The Republicans are sure tuned in to the needs of the nation.

It's also interesting to know just how reprehensible a South Carolina politician can be before turning the collective stomach of arguably our least progressive state.

A Possible New Year's Resolution

I know this is a strange New Year's Resolution for an academic to make, but I'm wondering if I should vow to watch more TV this year.

Sure that sounds crazy. Don't I have better things to do with my time? I'm not sure. The sheer amount of quality shows of the last 5 years that I have either not seen or have seen very little of is staggering. The only shows that I have more than passing familiarity with are Deadwood, Arrested Development, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Even The Sopranos is a show I've probably seen 5 episodes of. I've never seen an episode of Rome or Big Love or The Wire. I've never seen Weeds or Mad Men. I think I've seen about 10 minutes of an episode of Monk.

So maybe I should watch more TV. What else am I missing?

From Colony to Superpower, Part VIII

This is the seventh installment in the 20 part series Rob Farley and I have commenced to review George Herring's From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. See the Herring Review tag below for previous entries. Forgive the late post this week. I was in Boston until Monday evening and literally within an hour of getting back was hit by a 24 hour flu. Good times.

Rob's entry for the week is here

This week covers the period from 1893-1901, arguably the most transitional period in the history of American foreign relations. It was during these years that the United States went to war with Spain to become a colonial power, subjugated a colonial rebellion in the Philippines that resulted from our occupation, annexed Hawaii, intervened in the Boxer Rebellion, and issued the two Open Door notes.

The consequences of this period cannot be overstated. The Platt Amendment turned Cuba into a quasi-colony, the previous Teller Amendment probably the only reason that the island did not actually become an official colony. Turning Cuba into a client state with no democratic accountability helped lead to the communist revolution that marched into Havana 50 years ago tomorrow. The Philippines rebellion showed the worst of the US--in fact, it seems to me that Herring underplays the issue. While he claims that atrocities were not ordered or condoned, that's like saying that the horrible things that have happened in Iraq were not ordered or condoned. In a technical sense that may be true, but in both cases it obscures the responsibility for atrocities that should be placed upon people in power.

The Open Door notes began the U.S. involvement in East Asia. I have always found this episode amusing because of the absurdity of calling for Europe and Japan to open their trading zones to U.S. trade. Had the U.S. gotten involved in the imperialism game a little earlier and had acquired a Chinese concession, I doubt we would have embraced the Open Door with such gusto. I have somewhat derisively refered to this idea as "Equal Imperialism for All." Of course, the Open Door is an example of the strong trade orientation of U.S. foreign policy throughout its history.

Rob wonders about the impact of the Spanish-American War on reconcilation between the North and South. He's right that very few military officers from 1865 were fighting in 1898, but the reconciliation was much broader than just issues between individual officers. The entire 1890s (and really going back into the mid 1880s) was a period where the North and South were reconciling, agreeing that the South was right about race relations, even if slavery was wrong and needed to end. This phenomenon affected many parts of American life, from reunions at the battlefields to battlefield monuments to the rise of Jim Crow. Within the military, the Spanish-American War created the first major conflict where North and South could fight together against a common enemy. The Indian Wars that Rob mentions simply weren't large enough to provide that kind of reconciliation. And while I know little about the makeup of the military of the 1870s and 80s, what I do know suggests that the leading military officers in the West had experience fighting for the Union. I can't think of one Confederate officer who was also an officer in the post-war Indian battles, though again, there may be exceptions that I don't know about.

Related to the culture of American expansion was the crisis of masculinity in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Herring mentions this as he sets the mood of the time, but it was quite important in understanding the period. For many upper class men, war the ideal experience to reclaim an Anglo-Saxon masculinity under threat from a variety of factors, including living in enervating cities, the closing of the frontier, the increased presence of women in the public sphere, the rise of bureaucracy in corporations, the decrease of wildlife populations, and the flood of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe pouring into the country. All of these things made many men feel that traditional American manhood was under threat. The response to this crisis influenced a series of actions that led to national parks, game laws, and the Boy Scouts. Getting out to nature was a good way to build manhood, but nothing could replicate the experience of war. This goes a long ways to explain why wealthy Americans such as Theodore Roosevelt leapt at the opportunity to join up to fight in Cuba. The Rough Riders and other outfits were full of wealthy volunteers looking to have fun killing and build the proper masculinity that would lead Anglo-Saxon culture in the future. And although some of these men died (including the grandson of Hamilton Fish, Grant's Secretary of State), the war was too short to end this fantasy. It would take World War I and the deaths of the British and German elite young men to do so.

A lot of interesting issues in this chapter, but I'll stop for now.

Will Oldham

Check out this profile of the great Will Oldham in the New Yorker. I've been a fan of his for basically forever, so it's awesome to read this piece.

Top 10 Jazz Albums

Here are my 10 favorite jazz albums.

I've talked before how much I loathe the jazz purists who think that the avant-garde after 1965 is "self-indulgent bullshit," to quote Branford Marsalis from the Ken Burns Jazz series. To make these kinds of statement misses the entire point of jazz and the experimentalism that dominated the medium from its beginning. At some point, that experimentalism was going to challenge the listener in ways that would drive some people away. The only other alternative is to declare to music dead and then to ossify it in a canon to be played the same way by people 100 years from now. This is what most jazz fans and many jazz artists, particularly Wynton Marsalis, are comfortable with.

Not me. An experimental album from 2008 is likely to be just as good as one from 1959. My list reflects this I think.

In no particular order:

Medeski, Martin, and Wood, It's a Jungle in Here
This album from the mid 90s came out before they got really big. I think it holds up far better than their appeals to the jam band and festival elements. This album demonstrates the best of these three players amazing skills, including some of my favorite covers of any jazz albums with some top notch originals. The album has some of the funk and groove stuff that made them popular but also a lot of more traditional jazz elements. First rate stuff.

Miles Davis, In a Silent Way
If I was ordering the albums, this would probably be #1. I think this is a much better work than Bitches Brew. I held the line at 1 album per artist, otherwise perhaps there would be more Miles here. This album captures Miles at that key transition point when he was just moving into the rock-oriented stuff. I like most of that too (especially the Jack Johnson album), but this is his music at the most beautiful.

Bill Frisell, This Land
My favorite contemporary jazz artists, Frisell is the greatest guitarist playing today. It was really hard picking one Frisell album. I went with this mid-90s album that was my first introduction to Frisell. It's a bit more uptempo than most of his albums, with great side players, including Joey Baron, Don Byron, and Curtis Fowlkes. Certainly though, one could argue for the Quartet album, Floratone, The Intercontinentals, Gone Just Like a Train or Unspeakable as a top 10 album. Frisell, like Miles, plays the silence as well as he plays the notes, painting a musical landscape of almost unspeakable beauty. Some of this has been used in what might be termed "Americana" projects, which theoretically would turn me off. This Land would be one of those projects. But it is so amazing that any inherent resistance to Americana is completely blown away. In recent years, he has turned to more production and a more international feel, which has led to a new height of awesomeness. Check him out!

Billy Bang, Vietnam, The Aftermath
No album I have heard about Vietnam blows me away as much as this. Bang, a Vietnam vet and violinist, got a bunch of other vets together to record this album about their experiences in Vietnam. Without a spoken word, this album captures the incredible sadness of the war. There's always the question of whether jazz without vocals can do politics. Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra is probably the most famous attempt to do so. Those are good albums but a) don't hold up that well sometimes because of how blatantly they romanticize revolutionary leaders and b) sometimes resort to musical cliche to express a political point. Bang never does either of these. Plus, he's an amazing violinist who has pushed the boundaries of jazz for the last 25 years.

Sun Ra, Purple Night
My favorite Sun Ra album is actually not one of his craziest ones. From the late 80s I think, Purple Night is a move back to the big band stuff of his earlier career, except it's big band with a serious touch of experimentation. The album works so well I think because it starts off fairly conventionally, with some beautiful arrangements. And then starting with his version of "Stars Fell on Alabama" things get pretty out there. Going experimental while also respecting the tradition of jazz is very appealing to me and no one did it better than Ra.

John Coltrane, A Love Supreme
What can be said about this that hasn't already? In many ways, the beginning of the modern experimental movement and the point where the more traditionally minded began to tune out, this is one of the most beautiful albums ever conceived in any genre.

David S. Ware, Surrendered
One of the most appealing things about experimental jazz is the spirituality so dominant in the music. To me, almost no album better epitomizes this than Surrendered. This is also an incredibly beautiful piece of music; in fact, listening to it and A Love Supreme back to back is something I strongly recommend as Surrendered is quite complimentary to that earlier landmark.

Lester Young, Lester Leaps Again
I like older stuff too! Lester Young is awesome, as most jazz fans know. I came to him somewhat late. What a mistake. This is my favorite album, others may disagree.

Duke Ellington, Black, Brown, & Beige
So much Ellington to choose from, but I probably listen to this more than anything else. Again, what can I say that others have not?

Wayne Shorter, Super Nova
A classic from the fusion era, Super Nova is far and away Shorter's best solo album. Beautiful and awesomely kick-ass at the same time. It makes me sad that so much of the fusion stuff died so quickly. The musicians didn't seem to know where to go. A lot of the later fusion albums are unspeakably bad. Many of the musicians either went back to their more traditional roots (Shorter, Herbie Hancock), continued with unsatisfactory and disappointing projects (Chick Corea), or just went into really bad and cheesy music (a lot of people). The job of pushing the envelope mostly went to the descendants of Coltrane's experimentalism rather than Miles. Pharaoh Sanders, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and later William Parker, Matthew Shipp, and David S. Ware have done a lot more than Hancock, Shorter, John McLaughlin, Corea and that group. The latter have made much more money but left less artistic impact, at least since 1975. I don't know why this is, but listening to Super Nova reminds me of the great potential these artists had.

I'll have at least a couple more of these lists in the new year.

New Year's Eve Reflections

Another year gone. Wow.

Thanks to everyone on here, both writers and commenters, for making this by far the most fulfilling year of blogging so far.

10 really positive things in my life this year:

1. Solidifying a really awesome relationship. Finding someone you want to spend the rest of your life with is hard. Very satisfying when it happens.

2. Going to Bolivia. Wow, that was awesome. The sketchiness of traveling there only makes it more so I think.

3. Going to Europe for the first time. It's about damn time.

4. Becoming a really good teacher. A bit self-proclaiming I admit, but I think I have really improved on my teaching this year. It's always a work in progress, but teaching is far and away my favorite thing about academia and it is something I care about deeply. I hope next year, I can say that I have continued to improve.

5. Obama!

6. Discovering Arthur Russell. Where were you my whole life?

7. My Oregon Ducks ending their year by beating Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl last night. Hook 'em Ducks!

8. Defending my dissertation.

9. Going to Connecticut and Massachusetts for the first time. New England is great. So is New York. That includes the winter. Bring on the cold and snow!

10. My cat. Torvald!

And 5 not so good things:

1. The economic collapse pulling the rug from underneath the job market. Ouch.

2. Ending the year with the flu. Bah.

3. Not getting outside enough. Lazy, lazy man.

4. Crappy movies. I know 2007 was awesome and everything, but did we have to have a truly dreadful year to even it out? Have there been any good Hollywood movies this year?

5. Rooting for the Seattle Mariners. Jesus Christ.

I hope you all have fun tonight.

Historical Image of the Day

Mount Vernon, George Washington's home.

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Belated Thank-You

Dear Anonymous NY Police Person,

I just wanted to give you a big thanks for giving me a ticket for being double parked two days before Christmas. I had rented the car, ran upstairs to my apartment, grabbed my suitcase for my 9 and a half hour drive through Jersey traffic (for the first two hours) and freezing rain (for the last two hours). You guys never check double parking on my street (including the day my visiting parents couldn't get their car out for 3 hours because they were double parked in). Yet right before the holidays, you decided to bring some holiday cheer to my neighborhood. I was literally in that spot for three minutes, yet you wasted no time in swooping out of nowhere to give me a $115 ticket. I really appreciated your big, brave act - it really made my Christmas holiday complete. Thanks a million.


Mr. Trend

Why Not Give Your Kids Ridiculous Names That Very Well Could Make Them Hate You More Than They Already Will?

Am I the only one who thinks it's perhaps a little inappropriate that Bristol Palin named her baby Tripp? I mean, one of the kid's grandmothers was just arrested and charged with 6 felony counts for drugs. And the kid's name is Tripp? Really? At least the giving of stupid names to children is officially a multi-generational tradition in the Palin family now.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Why I Have Little Hope on Environmental Issues

If people start turning to heating their homes through burning coal on a large scale, the environmental damage is going to be massive.

The problem is that I don't see much of an alternative for people. Americans want cheap fuel. They want to live a life of big consumption. If natural gas or electricity or fuel oil is too expensive, people are going to turn to the cheapest and easiest alternative, with absolutely no thought toward the environmental damage it may cause.

I sympathize with people on this issue--who doesn't want to heat their house at affordable costs? But I really believe that as resources become more scarce, it is not going to lead to people taking nature into account. Rather, there will be a rush to grab what is left and a move to mine every bit of coal, drill ever drop of oil, cut down every last tree, and kill every wild animal. It almost seems like human nature and I despair at what to do about it.

On the other hand, the Europeans seem much better at dealing with these problems than we do. Maybe there is hope across the pond.

Prescient Calvin & Hobbes

Or maybe business just hasn't changed since 1993.

Via Clusterstock.

Calvin & Hobbes almost has to be the greatest comic strip ever.

The line about worker salary and benefits kind of grates though.

Note that the image is much larger if you click on it. Also, I wish I knew how to make images bigger when I upload them.

Historical Image of the Day

Irish immigrants heading to America, 1846

Friday, December 26, 2008

Another Year, Another War on Christmas Completed

Today, I sit back and relax. For the last month, I've been working my tail off, fighting against Christmas and all it stands for. Throwing snowballs at live nativity scenes, pissing on the Bible, beating up pastors, you know, all the standard stuff.

But this year, I am taking it one step further. I am proposing that we all celebrate Tet as our winter holiday. I can combine my hatred of Christmas with my hatred of America! It's perfect. Every year, we can celebrate Tet as a way to remember how the Vietnamese kicked our ass! We can all share some rat meat and cold rice and the kids can sit on Santa's lap and learn about napalm and homeless veterans!
I'm taking it to a new level people. Will you step up to the plate with me? January 26 this year is Tet. Let's conduct some Viet Cong-esque guerilla tactics against churches and crosses around the nation.

Who's with me?

Meanwhile, in the real world, Yglesias links to this amusing Wikipedia bit on how much Puritans actually did hate Christmas.

Note: I am hoping that this post gets picked up by right-wing websites as a sign of just how loathsome the left is. It'd be pretty funny.

The Opportunities Blogging Brings!

For instance, I could become a hack for the coal industry!

Brad Johnson at Grist reports that the coal industry is looking for bloggers of their own to promote so-called "clean coal," if by clean you mean millions of gallons of coal ash polluting Tennessee rivers and forcing people out of their homes.

You can get into the debate. If you are interested in becoming an active member of ABEC's Blogger Brigade just send me an e-mail to and let me know you're interested. One of our team members will give you a call and walk you through the process. It's really easy -- and for those of you who don't already Blog, it is fun! You can join the online debate that's already going on and you and others can remain anonymous (if you want to) at the same time! We'll even set up a little competition to see how many Blog entries each person can make.


They also have a Facebook page and a Twitter feed.

So come on boys and girls, let's all be hacks for America's most vile industry! It'll be super duper rad!

Top 10 Alt-Country Albums

Alt-country is such a stupid category. It never had any real definable meaning. I never really got into the whole Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt/Wilco/Whiskeytown/Ryan Adams thing. Mostly, I find all of these bands boring. Nonetheless, the genre grew in popularity during the 1990s and I guess has some value to describe things that aren't traditional country and aren't exactly rock and roll either. Anyway, I decided to include a list here because I have a lot good albums that fit nowhere else.

This is not in any kind of order.

1. Chris Knight, Chris Knight.
Chris Knight is great. Another person who Lyrad and I have pushed on this blog pretty much endlessley, Knight sings of only a few things. Screwed-up men mostly. Some killing. Losing your farm. Dealing with a fucked up family. Your woman leaving you. That's about it. In another time, he might have been picked up by mainstream country. In fact, this first album did have a Nashville production. But he's a really raw dude who I don't think would have ever fit in the mainstream Nashville sound. All his albums are pretty much the same, but I like this one the best, probably because it was the first one I heard. Also because it kicks some serious ass.

2. The Gourds, Cow Fish Fowl or Pig
Sure the lyrics are pretty much meaningless. But the music is pure Texas--this band mixes everything together: country, rock, tejano, bluegrass, and pretty much everything else. Since the death of the great Doug Sahm, no band has better carried on the best of the Texas music tradition than the Gourds. Which makes me wonder why I haven't gone to see them since I've been in Austin. Sometimes you ignore the great things around you I guess. The Gourds are best known for their cover of "Gin and Juice," which is hilarious and fun but is a bit of gimmick, which I understand they kind of regret now. In any case, to me this is their best album--fun, amazing music, a variety of voices in the band.

3. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road
Lucinda sucks now. Her latest albums are all pretty much terrible. Car Wheels was her last great album. What can be said about this that hasn't already been said? Not much I guess. This propelled her into stardom, probably ruining her future career, at least from an artistic standpoint. Oh well, what can you do? She got deserved kudos for this great album; that she couldn't handle it and keep her artistic vision is a shame, but it happens. Her earlier albums are all really good too, but to me this is one of the great albums of the 1990s in any genre.

4. James McMurtry, Where'd You Hide the Body
It's hard to choose just one McMurtry album. When they are all of a great quality, you just have to go with one. I chose this one because it has his 2 most famous songs--"Levelland" and "Rachel's Song." If you haven't heard McMurtry, you are missing out on one of the 2 or 3 best songwriters in the nation over the last 15 years.

5. Old 97s, Fight Songs
The best album by one of the best alt-country bands. Like a lot of the actual "alt-country" bands, they moved from a more country orientation to rock and roll. This album was the key point in their transformation. "Oppenheimer," "Nineteen," "Let the Idiot Speak," all superb songs. This album also played an important role in a key period of my life and is one of the only good things I took out of that time. So there's a personal thing here too.

6. Gram Parsons, Return of the Grievous Angel
Parsons' finest moment was his last in my opinion. You could go with "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" or the Burrito Brother stuff, but I think he was really starting to come into his own as a songwriter here. "In My Hours of Darkness," "Return of the Grievous Angel," "Hickory Wind"--these are all fantastic songs. He died way too early. On the other hand, if you've ever read his biography, you know that this was a terrible human being. But then, I never wanted to actually know great artists.

7. Gillian Welch, Hell Among the Yearlings
I could listen to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings all day. Why the hell haven't they released an album in 5 years? Soon to be 6! Anyway, I could go with any of her albums and this is the one I am choosing today. "My Morphine" is just about the only song about drugs that actually makes you feel like you are on the drug in question, which is one hell of an accomplishment.

8. Steve Earle, Train A' Comin
Some might scoff at this pick. Including Earle. But this album, thrown together just after he got out of prison for heroin, is actually really great. For I think the only time in his career, he combined covers with originals, including a great version of Townes' "Tecumseh Valley." The originals are first rate too, especially "Tom Ames' Prayer," "Goodbye" and "Ben McCulloch." Much of his later work I've found shaky. Sometimes the political songs are good, sometimes they are really bad. But I think that in 20 years, this will hold up as one of his best albums.

9. Terry Allen, Juarez
I don't know if this is alt-country or not. In fact, I'm not sure what it is. Lyrad talked about Terry Allen in great detail in his Unsung Heroes of Modern Music series, so I'll just link to that.

10. Catherine Irwin, Cut Yourself a Switch
I once saw Irwin, a member of Freakwater, open for Neko Case. The audience had little patience for her dirges; they wanted to have a fun time. I guess Neko provided that, but Irwin is the much better artist. I like her solo album more than the Freakwater stuff, though that is pretty good too. There are many first rate songs here, including "Needle in a Haystack," "Hex," "Cry Your Little Eyes Out," and a really good cover of "The Only Hell My Momma Ever Raised." She really deserves a lot more publicity.

Historical Image of the Day

Silent film star Louise Brooks.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Unfortunate Ones

I always felt really bad for people born on December 25. Would it really hurt their parents and hospitals to conspire to give kids a different birthday? Would they ever know?

Anyway, here's a list of the sad unfortunate ones:

Rickey Henderson
Sissy Spacek
Barbara Mandrell (who may deserve such a bad birthday)
Jimmy Buffett
Annie Lennox
Anwar El-Sadat (though it probably didn't matter much for Sadat)
Humphrey Bogart
Isaac Newton
Cab Calloway
Shane McGowan
Larry Csonka
Ken Stabler
Noel Redding
Don Pullen
Ismail Merchant
Nellie Fox
Marguerite Churchill
Clark Clifford (who may also deserve a bad birthday)
Clara Barton

I should be roasting vegetables instead of screwing around like this. But what would the world do without my meaningless blog posts?

Historical Image of the Day

Cuban flag hosted over Morro Castle, marking official end of U.S. occupation, May 20, 1902.

However, the Americans would continue to essentially occupy Cuba until 1934 and would control the nation through puppet governments until December 31, 1958 with brief exceptions during the Grau presidencies.

And you thought it would be a Christmas image today. Ha! I refuse to cave to Christmas hegemony!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Worst Progressive Blogger?

Does M.J. Rosenberg ever write a useful column? Sometimes, but not too often. Today, he slams on Caroline Kennedy's critics for saying that she should have experience. He says experience is not the most important thing--well, duh. But he's also changing the debate--it's not only about her not having experience, it's about her coming out of nowhere, not being in politics for almost her whole life, and basically demanding the seat because of her name. At least Hillary a) won an election and b) had clear and massive political expertise.

But this kind of thing is all too typical of Rosenberg. He's been playing the Caroline card for awhile now, but today he goes too far.

Here he takes a gratuitous shot at Bill Ayers, calling him an unrepentant terrorist and comparing him to Scooter Libby. That he never heard of Bill Ayers before this year makes me question his knowledge straight away--not that everyone needed to know who this was but you would think that a middle-aged writer for a leading lefty publication would have some knowledge of the Weather Underground. I'm not defending Ayers, but who cares about him and why would you say this after the election?

To be fair, Rosenberg does write well about the Middle East and Israeli-Palestinian relations. But I wish he kept to those topics.

Top 10 Country Albums

Well, we might as well have music discussions during the holiday season. So I'll keep posting lists on and off for the next few days. Why not.

Today, my top 10 country albums. A note here. I am mostly avoiding compilations, with one huge exception at #1. This means that artists from the pre-album era are going to be mostly ignored. That's probably OK though. I love Hank Williams but I don't really listen to him that much and I'd rather focus on what I listen to. So no one is going to claim that this list is the 10 greatest country albums of all time. They are just my favorites. The first 9 are in no particular order. But #1 is definitely #1. Note as well that I am somewhat arbitrarily separating country from alt-country and bluegrass, which will probably get their own lists soon.

And to reiterate, yes I love Cash and Hank and George Jones and Loretta, etc. I'm just not including them on this list.

One thing this list really drives home to me is that despite the fact that I have been buying and listening to country music for the last decade or more, I am woefully unknowledgable about much of the genre, specifically actual albums by the more classic artists. I really need to work on this.

10. Joe Ely, Joe Ely. This seminal 1977 self-titled album still is Ely's best work. Great country songs throughout. What a breath of fresh air this must have been to hear when it came out. Not outlaw or Nashville, just great country songs with Ely's great west Texas twang. A lot of people prefer his second album, Honky Tonk Masquerade. That's a very good album too but I can't see this argument. Another thing I like about this album (and several of the other albums on this list) is that it is about 32 minutes long, an ideal length. Who wants to hear a 70 minute album?

9. Willie Nelson, Phases and Stages. I'll admit that Red Headed Stranger is a better album. But I actually like listening to this song cycle about a breakup better. Not all the pieces are there for a complete story. But you can't go wrong with "Bloody Mary Morning," "How Will I Know," or "Down at the Corner Beer Joint." One of the first outlaw albums, it still holds up well, even if it has been kind of forgotten about.

8. Waylon Jennings, Dreaming My Dreams. Another classic outlaw album sees Waylon at his best. He was a hell-raiser, but was really a ballad singer. This album highlights his strengths, with some bad-ass outlaw songs like "Bob Wills is Still the King" and "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way," but also great ballads like "The Door is Always Open" and "Turn Back the Years." I'll never forgive myself for not seeing Waylon, even though I'm sure he was a shell of his former self when I had the chance.

7. Guy Clark, The South Coast of Texas. Another underrated album. To the extent that people listen to Guy Clark, it's usually his first album, Old No. 1. That's a good album with a lot of his most beloved songs. But The South Coast of Texas is just a solid country album, most of which is about Texas. "Lone Star Motel" is one of my favorite songs about Texas, "South Coast of Texas" is a fun song about working-class fisherman, and "Rita Ballou," "Heartbroke," and "The Partner that Nobody Chose" are fantastic country songs.

6. Robbie Fulks, Georgia Hard. An album from a few years ago I have reviewed here. Fulks is awesome, funny and sad, sometimes in the same song. A true country artist. One might say that this list is way to present-oriented, but I prefer to move country music forward rather than just wish things were like they used to be. There's still great artists out there, but you have to search for them.

5. Hacienda Brothers, Hacienda Brothers. Another newish album, by a band Lyrad and I have hyped almost endlessly on this blog. Country Soul and damned if doesn't work as a great album in both genres. I am still really sad that Chris Gaffney died earlier this year.

4. The Louvin Brothers, Satan is Real. Jesus Christ, was Ira Louvin a weird dude. This is worth buying on CD, just for the album cover of a weird Satan cutout, a bunch of burning tires, and the band. I don't listen to a lot of Christian music, but I'll listen to this as often as possible. They have a great compliation too that you should buy, entitled When I Stop Dreaming.

3. Wayne Hancock, Swing Time. Yet another album from this decade, this shows Wayne at his best, kicking some serious ass at Austin's Continental Club. "Thunderstorms and Neon Signs" is one of the best country songs ever written.

2. Bob Wills, The Tiffany Transcriptions. This 6 CD set isn't a compilation. Rather, it's a series of live recording Wills and the Texas Playboys did for radio in the late 40s. Wow, is this stuff awesome. Fun as hell, these boys and girls were having a good time. If I could see any show ever in the past, I would go to the Santa Monica Pier in about 1948 and see Bob Wills. The greatest Bob in the history of music, I cannot recommend these albums highly enough. A good Wills compilation is good too, but the spirit of the music really comes through in these live performances.

1. Merle Haggard, Down Every Road. This is the exception to the compilation rule. Merle is the single greatest musical artist in the history of the United States. Rather than pick an album, just get the awe-inspiring 4 CD compilation. "Mama Tried," "Carolyn," "If We Make It Through December," "Silver Wings," "Sam Hill," "I Threw Away the Rose," "Sidewalks of Chicago." I could go on and on about all the awesome Merle Haggard songs.

Merry Christmas--From the Coal Industry!

Oh coal. What wonderful things don't you give Appalachia?

An estimated 500 million gallons of coal-ash sludge are seeping along the I-40 Knoxville-Nashville corridor in eastern Tennessee, after an earthen wall gave way on Dec. 22 at the TVA Harriman coal-fired plant. While no casualties were reported, the coal-ash spill -- the refuse left over after the plant burns the coal -- should be a terrifying toxic wake-up call about the thousands of coal-fired plants and refuse-pile accidents waiting to happen across the county.

I again state that for all the evil industries in the world (timber and oil, I'm looking at you), coal might be the most diabolical. Destroying our mountains. Changing our climate. Dumping coal ash in our rivers and soil. Awesome.

It'd also be nice if TVA actually cared about these problems or were at all accountable to the public. TVA may be the worst of the New Deal agencies and turning it into a corporation did not help matters.

Historical Image of the Day

Harvesting whale meat, Nantucket Island, MA, 1907.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Truer Words Never Spoken

Courtney on Sex and the City:

I know I'm going to get some shit for this, but I have to ask how we can
consider something truly feminist that has NO CLASS or RACE ANALYSIS. I enjoy
it. I'm down to watch it. But do we have to call it feminist?

I dislike that show for many reasons, but this has to be right at the top. Well, that and the bad writing.

Freaking Fracking Yankees

Have I ever mentioned here before how much I hate the New York Yankees? Well, I do. A lot. Almost as much as I hate the Republican Party. They are trying to buy a championship this year. Sabathia. Burnett. Now Teixeira.

I was OK with Sabathia and Burnett. Burnett is hilarious. He is hurt most of the time and isn't that great the rest. What a waste of money that will be. The Sabathia signing kinds of hurts because I like him. But we'll see if a 310 pound pitcher with a ton of innings on his arm can be effective in 2-3 years.

Teixeira is a lesser player than Sabathia, but he makes a lot of sense for them. 8 years? I don't know about that. But that's a solid, consistent contributor that is perfect for the Yankees.

Of course, this isn't soccer and none of this guarantees a championship. It doesn't even guarantee them the playoffs with Boston and Tampa in the same division. The average of the Yankees is I believe 41 years old and they are all paid about 98 million dollars a year--none of this guarantees anything. And I will be rooting for anyone but U.S. Steel/Microsoft/Republican Party/New York Yankees.

I was really hating on Boston a lot in the last couple of years as Yankees-lite. But given the Yankees taking this insanity to new levels, Boston looks like a good option to root for. I was saying I am a fan of the other 28 teams (outside of the Yankees and Red Sox). Now I guess I am a fan of the other 29 teams.


Top 10 Rock Albums Revisited

Some holiday trivialities to enjoy.

A year and a half ago, I posted my top 10 rock albums of all time. This was followed by contributions from the other writers here at the time, Lyrad, Trend, and Matt Duss, who has since moved on. I believe that between the 4 of us, we came up with 37 different albums. 2 had Who's Next, 2 had Daydream Nation (note: Sonic Youth is overrated; that should stir some shit up), and 2 had Dinosaur Jr's., You're Living All Over Me.

My 10 at the time were:

10. King Crimson, Red
9. Talking Heads, Remain in Light
8. Neil Young, Tonight's the Night
7. Drive By Truckers, Decoration Day
6. Alejandro Escovedo, A Man Under the Influence
5. Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life
4. The Band, Music from Big Pink
3. Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks
2. The Who, Who's Next
1. Marvin Gaye, What's Going On

18 months later or so, I still defend this list. All are great albums. However, I have trouble not including U2's Achtung Baby and Leonard Cohen's I'm Your Man on the list. So let's drop Red and Tonight's the Night for now and put them at 11 and 12.

I'd probably upgrade Who's Next to #1 as well and Decoration Day to about #4. Everything else would probably stay in the same order.

So I have two questions. First, to Trend and Lyrad. Would you keep your top 10 the same today?

Second, to everyone else, both writers and commenters, what are your top 10 rock albums?

Note as well that soon after, I also wrote up a list of my top 10 underrated rock albums.

Also, speaking of our former colleague Matt, check out his stuff over at Think Progress, including this piece on how conservative writers are redefining the Bush Doctrine as a success. Huh.

Historical Image of the Day

Daisy ad, run by Lyndon Johnson against Barry Goldwater, 1964

Reach Into My Pocket...

I think I speak for all Alterdestiny writers when I wish Bob Barker a happy 85th birthday. I know I always wanted to reach into Bob's pocket, play Plinko, and spin the big wheel.

Also, don't forget to spay and neuter your pets.

Monday, December 22, 2008

More on the UAW

To follow up the post below, my piece on the UAW and Bush's stuttering admission that the free market is not, in fact, infallible is up at Global Comment.

But Friday morning, Bush announced a $13.4 billion loan to the auto companies from the TARP funds—better known as the $700 billion bailout. The loans are for a three-year period, but will have to be paid back immediately if the companies do not show themselves to be “viable” by March 31.

Lucky for the auto companies, there’ll be a new president by then.

Bush said, “Government has a responsibility to safeguard the broader health and stability of our economy. If we were to allow the free market to take its course now, it would almost certainly lead to disorderly bankruptcy and liquidation for the automakers.”

I don’t know about you, but I have to smirk at least a bit each time a Republican has to admit that the free market doesn’t always do the right thing. I also giggle each time Bush has to use the word “responsibility.”

While we’ve been watching the Republic Windows and Doors protest, the kind of successful workers’ action we haven’t seen in years, some of us have been reminded of what solidarity actually means. Politicians from Barack Obama to Rod Blagojevich stood up for the workers, and workers around the country demonstrated outside of Bank of America offices and threatened boycotts until the bank gave in and paid the workers their compensation.

Yet the UAW appears to get nothing but scorn from America.

as always, read on.

United Auto Workers and the Progressive Movement

Over at Kos, Trapper John explores the history of the United Auto Workers and the progressive movement in America. While he's right that the UAW has been more consistently progressive than any other union since World War II, he overplays his hand a bit. One of his subtitles in his piece reads, "The UAW Created the Progressive Movement."

Whoa there.

Walter Reuther's UAW consistently supported the civil rights movement and the Great Society, putting it much to the left of other unions. But to claim that the UAW created the progressive movement, or even played the most important role, is deeply problematic. Certainly, one cannot say that the UAW did more than the civil rights movement, women's rights movement, or gay rights movement for the current progressive movement. Moreover, the UAW took good stands but did a pretty poor job of educating their members on these issues. They might support affirmative action, but the big industrial Midwest states turned out Reagan Democrats in huge numbers. Part of creating a movement is making it more than the talk of leadership and the UAW didn't do a very good job on that, particularly concerning racial matters. Moreover, the UAW was quite wary of the student-led wing of the civil rights movement and Reuther played a major role in tampering down John Lewis' more confrontational speech draft at the March on Washington. Reuther's UAW also did very little to stand up to the redbaiting of the 1950s and the expulsion of the CIO's left-leaning unions.

Don't get me wrong--Walter Reuther was a great man. The UAW was a great union. They supported Cesar Chavez at an early date. They sponsored the Port Huron Conference. They supported the Equal Rights Amendment. They were far ahead of any other union on questions of civil rights. And perhaps most relevant for today, they pushed for nationalized health care harder than almost any organization in the United States. However, let's not be ahistorical here or make outlandish claims. The UAW did a lot of great things and should be lauded for them, but again, the leadership was far ahead of the membership on these issues and it was a lot easier to support civil rights than to convince GM auto workers to accept blacks working next to them.

The reality of course is that the modern progressive movement has many ancestors. Trapper John's piece screams of the old union advocate line that no progressive movement is possible without being led by unions. Maybe, but I'm not sure I believe it. I certainly think that economic considerations should be central to a progressive movement. I also think that, at least theoretically, unions should lead that part of the fight. But there have been great progressive movements in the past that unions have not led, or even been overtly hostile to, including the anti-Vietnam protests. I hope unions step up to the plate in the current movement and I hope the non-union parts of the coalition respect the experience and outlook of the unions. But I don't think it helps to claim that the UAW created the progressive movement. The evidence just does not add up.

From Colony to Superpower: Gilded Age Military

Rob's discussion of Herring's chapter this week revolves around why the United States so severely downsized their military after the Civil War. He points out (with real statistics!) how small the U.S. commitment to their military was compared with Germany, Britain, and France.

It's a good point. I do find the comment thread to his post slightly frustrating though. I think it's because most of the responses feel somewhat ahistorical. While I don't claim to have the complete answer, I think it's really important to consider how Americans thought about their government and their role in the world during these years.

In a New Yorker profile of Karl Rove from I think 2003, Rove talks about how he wanted to send government back to the Gilded Age. He's a hypocrite and liar of course; he only wanted to kill social programs while creating a gigantic military and apparatus for the government to spy on American citizens. But there's a reason Rove and Grover Norquist look back at the Gilded Age as an ideal--it was a period when you actually could drown government in a bathtub.

Certainly, as Rob rightfully points out, the U.S. had the capability to create a strong central government and powerful military. It had just done so in the Civil War. But Americans didn't want this on a permanent basis. The period between Polk and Theodore Roosevelt saw one strong president--Abraham Lincoln. The 19th century was dominated by a general contempt for government and never was this stronger than in the Gilded Age. Rather, business dominated American society. When the economy tanked in the period, as it did not infrequently, the federal government didn't turn to the Secretary of the Treasury to find the way out--it went straight to the robber barons. The Gilded Age was full of social problems, but no one looked to government to figure out what to do. It was assumed that politicians were corrupt, but even if they weren't, they didn't have the responsibility or even the right to get involved in American life. The president was intentionally weak; part of the reason Gilded Age presidents did nothing is because they thought it was inappropriate for presidents to spur legislation or play the leading role in American political life.

Americans had always been relatively hostile to even the most basic government functions. That Henry Clay's American System was greeted with so much antipathy is a sign of that--as if the proper role of government is not to build roads and other basic infrastructure. But for many 19th century Americans, even that level of government interference in their lives was too much. And when the government did take an activist stand, say with the 1862 Homestead Act, the basic response of Americans was to have the government pass the law and then get out of the way so that the people could use that land however they wanted. Moreover, the Homestead Act could only be passed after secession and in the face of a severely weakened Democratic Party, the more anti-government of the two parties.

Within this paradigm of business-oriented small government existed our military and foreign relations. Americans took seriously Washington's warnings about entangling alliances in this period, but as Herring states, the nation was never isolationist. While we might avoid official foreign treaties, we also wanted to trade our goods across the world. When we needed a military force, Americans just figured we could raise one among our own people. Certainly our small military was sufficient for dealing with Native Americans. We had raised a volunteer military during the Mexican War and taken half of their nation. Clearly the Civil War had proven the unreliability of this method of recruitment, but that could be seen as an outlier conflict for so many reasons.

With business dominating our interactions with other nations then, it made sense for business to lead the way in all parts of our foreign policy. It was business who forced the elimination of the Hawaiian monarchy and pushed those islands into the American orbit. It was business who began getting concessions from Central American nations to grow bananas. Since we believed that trade would lead to national prosperity, it made sense to many Americans that business would make a large standing army unnecessary.

Of course, none of this worked well for long. The Progressive movement sprang to life because government was not able to solve the problems that racked industrial America. Many of those problems came from the corporations running the country; eventually, this would lead to the newly activist presidencies of Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson. Similarly, this business model of foreign relations that did not rely on a strong military presence could not operate successfully against expansionary European powers or against the revolutionary movements that became increasingly common in the early twentieth century developing world. Ultimately, the real power of United Fruit in Central America was that they had the Marines at their beck and call. Certainly, business alone was not going to create the sprawling colonial empire that many Americans wished for by the 1890s. An activist government and a standing military both were a response to the failures of Gilded Age policy and Americans' increased desire for a more regulations and a stronger central government and international profile by 1900.

Again, I don't think I have provided a complete answer to Rob's question concerning why we had such a tiny military in the Gilded Age, but I think the basic outline here is helpful.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

From Colony to Superpower, Part VII

This is the seventh installment in the 20 part series Rob Farley and I have commenced to review George Herring's From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. See the Herring Review tag below for previous entries.

This week's chapter focuses on American foreign relations in the Gilded Age. Never in American history were foreign issues less relevant than the Gilded Age. The nation focused its attention on internal issues, particularly incorporating the West, reintegrating the South into the nation, and building the economy. Nonetheless, there are a few interesting issues worth discussing.

In many ways, the most important issues with foreign powers that America faced during the Gilded Age happened within our own borders. It was during these years that Native Americans were fully subjugated to the U.S. government. Herring discusses this in some detail, but I'd like to see more. In addition, after 1880, the United States saw a massive rise in immigration. Those immigrants were often treated poorly. The 1891 riot against Italian immigrants in New Orleans that left 11 Italians dead caused a major international incident between the U.S. and Italy. Meanwhile, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act ended immigration from that nation entirely. Anti-Semitism ran rampant in American society, eventually spurring the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 and the rise of the 2nd KKK in the 1920s

The Gilded Age saw the explosion of American missionaries overseas. In many cases, the missionaries were peoples first real exposure to Americans. Those missionaries represented the best and worst of America. They fought against some of the worst social abuses they saw, including opium use in China. They brought democratic ideas to parts of the world. On the other hand, they rarely thought the nations they missionized deserved democracy, they were culturally biased, often influenced by social Darwinism, and were generally not respectful of other peoples. At the worst, the missionaries served as the vanguard of imperialism, telling their families of economic opportunities and assisting in the takeover of Hawaii. Of course, this bias was the norm of Victorian societies, but it's worth stressing the major role non-diplomatic actors played in American foreign policy.

The most interesting thing I learned about in this chapter was the so-called Pork War of the 1880s with the Europeans. American agricultural exports exploded after a European famine in 1879. While I don't doubt that European nationalism played a major role here, the Europeans were quite distrustful of American meat. Given that the this is the age of The Jungle, one can hardly blame the Europeans. Americans were infuriated that Europe resisted their delicious canned meat products. By the early 1890s, the issue faded when the U.S. compromised on some trade issues. But the centrality of food in American foreign relations is something that requires a lot of future exploration.

I do think Herring is a bit hard on Grover Cleveland. He sees Cleveland as a stubborn man without a lot of foresight. From the perspective of expanding American power, perhaps Herring is right. But couldn't we also interpret Cleveland as being anti-imperialist? Cleveland resisted the theft of Hawaii and other imperialist actions of the era. Isn't this a noble thing? While it doesn't make much sense to call Cleveland an anti-imperialist that we should revere today, his actions did delay American imperialism and I think deserve respect for that.

I'd also like to see Herring include the work of Kristin Hoganson in his analysis. Hoganson, in a 2002 American Historical Review article and, presumably although I haven't read it, in her in 2008 book Consumers' Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920, argues for centering American consumers of the Victorian Era in the beginnings of American imperialism. Consumers', often women, demand for exotic foreign items for their homes helped drive U.S. trade with the developing world during these years. Importantly, Hoganson makes a convincing case for including both consumers and women in foreign policy history. Note that I'm not really criticizing Herring here, but simply suggesting useful ways for foreign policy history to go in the future.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Trying to Punish Whites Who Openly "Hunted" African-Americans after Hurricane Katrina

Of all the horrible, awful stories that we've heard about Louisiana in the wake of Katrina over the last three years, but this story is the worst, most disturbing, and most infuriating yet:

after Hurricane Katrina, white vigilante groups patrolled New Orleans, blockaded streets, and shot at least eleven black men. It “was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it,” said one vigilante

Everybody knows racism's still around in this country, and I've never lived in the deep South, so maybe I'm just naive (though I've heard some pretty awful stuff from rural Ohio), but I've never heard people saying things like what the white Louisiana residents say in that video. Check it out, and though I don't usually push these things, take the 30 seconds it takes to fill out the petition asking the government to investigate these shootings.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Milk (part deux)

I'm not going to repost my whole review since Erik already blogged about it, but Karthika and I went to see Milk tonight, and I wrote about it over at my blog, if you'd like to go look.

Now, if any of you are wondering what to get me for Christmas, I would like one James Franco...with a big bow around him. Thanks. :D

Bush's Bailout

To start: Bush could have said "fuck it" and left the auto mess for the Obama Administration; I have to credit him for doing something.

But as always, the devil is in the details.

The current plan approved by the Administration today has several ugly pieces to it and some redeeming factors. Something, in this case, is better than nothing, but congressional failure to obtain full democratic unity and a coalition of moderate republicans will have a detrimental effect on autoworkers. The Bush plan mandates that the Jobs Bank be cut (a concession the UAW was negotiating in the round of congressional talks), and more insidiously, requires that half of the retiree health care fund be funded with company stock. The government can call for repayment of these loans as early as it sees fit, in order to force bankruptcy. Funding retiree healthcare with stock of a company that could be forced into bankruptcy on a government whim seems like a really, really bad idea. There are also provisions for the UAW to draw down wages to those earned by non-union domestic workers of foreign car companies.

Industry spokespeople have said that dealers are reporting that 20 - 25% of sales get to the final stage and people are unable to get financing because of the credit crunch. Why couldn't some money be thrown to the Big Three's financial services companies to free up some money for lending? After all, the credit freeze is the biggest thing hampering any kind of economic recovery. This is something Obama should consider.

Obama can change the rules next month. It will be interesting moment for him; a large part of his success was his ability to speak to working class workers in the Midwest (as evidenced by his wins in reliably republican Indiana and moderate Ohio). Will he make good on this?

I'm off to the embattled Midwest tomorrow; with 85% of my family laid off, this should be a somber holiday. Best wishes for the Alterdestiny community-- I won't have internet in the boondocks, so I will catch you all in the New Year.

Lula's Plan for Brazil's Military to Upgrade, Improve, Diversify

This has been in the works for awhile, but yesterday, Lula finally announced his restructuring plan for the Brazilian military. Among other things, the plan reorganizes the entire military into brigades for faster mobilization abilities; seeks to decrease Brazil's dependence on other nations for arms and weapons and increase its own military technology production (including satellites and nuclear-powered submarines); and, in what is perhaps the most novel part of the plan, to actually enforce mandatory conscription on people from all classes.

The technological and tactical parts of this plan are interesting, and could have a profound impact on Brazil's economy, it's role in the region and the world, and its military and international relations. I admit that, upon first learning of this, I was a bit uneasy - after all, Brazil's military was frequently involved in politics in the 20th century. (In addition to the 1964-1985 dictatorship, the military also intervened in politics in 1930, 1937, 1945, 1955, 1961, and finally, 1964; these interventions were not always direct, and could often take the form of "the military is providing vague threats if we politicians don't do X," as was the case in 1961; nor were these interventions always successful, as in 1955; still, one can easily identify at least those 6 cases of military involvement to one degree or another in Brazilian politics, and you can argue that there were other instances, too). Up until the announcement of the plan, there were just vague mentions of "increasing the military's power" in Brazil. Still, it seems that this is directed mostly at improving the ability of the military to mobilize, improve its standing in the region, protect Brazil's territory (no doubt, the discovery of a major oil field off Sao Paulo's coast providing some additional motivation for this latter issue), and other measures. Certainly, increased firepower and greater mobility could lead to a greater role of Brazil's military in politics down the road, and I'm still a bit uncertain about this, but it is at least not openly increasing the military's presence in the political sphere, which is a small victory I guess. And the fact that Brazilian progressive Roberto Mangabeira Unger (who, tangentially, was one of Obama's law professors at Harvard) is the author of this project is also encouraging if for no other reason than it wasn't drawn up by some conservative or a hawk.

However, I find Lula's efforts to actually enforce military conscription for everybody to be quite a fascinating aspect. Although the military is technically and legally supposed to conscript from all Brazilian sectors regardless of class, race, etc., the reality is Brazil's military ranks are composed overwhelmingly of the poor and marginalized who do not have recourse to get out of such service and who often accept it because they need the money. For decades and even generations (dating back to at least the Paraguayan War) there has been an unspoken understanding that elites and (more recently) the middle classes were "above" military service. So in one sense, any effort to break through this mold to prove that "mandatory conscription" applies to all Brazilian citizens, and not just those who don't have an economic/cultural/political way to avoide it.

While I like the idea of forcing the middle class and elite youths into the military, in practice I don't think is this automatically a great thing. Taking the most recent case, when Brazil's military led the coup in 1964, it did so with the support of the middle and upper classes. Many of the working class men who were actually in the military at the time were strong supporters of Joao Goulart, the deposed president, and the military really had to crack down on its own troops in order to "keep the ranks in line." Even today, a majority of the Brazilian middle class and elites are social and political conservatives with little tolerance for the poor or the racially marginalized (a marginalization made greater by the fact that Brazilians by and large culturally deny the existence of racism by claiming extreme miscegenation makes racism "impossible," which is, of course, bunk). Filling the ranks with conservatives who believe the poor are poor because they are "lazy" and "criminals" seems to make it more likely that, if the military were to launch another coup because somebody was too "progressive" in the future, the military would have much more support from the ranks than it did in 1964. What is more, it's not like conscription of all classes will lead to some amazing social levelling. It still seems highly likely that, even if the ranks were levelled out socially, the children of middle-class and elite families probably stand a much greater chance of promotion into the officer corps, due to factors such as better education as children, economic power, political connections, etc. Thus, while the face of the ranks might become more diverse, I really don't think the officer corps would, and given that it's the officers who are responsible for strategy, the power structure in the military would continue to be lopsided.

In spite of all this, though, I just don't see this enforcement of mandatory conscription for all happening anytime soon; rather, I think that part of the plan is simply the first step in trying to force the issue in Brazil. And I think that Lula's administration recognizes this, too - after all, Unger himself said this should start a "novel debate" on the issue of conscription and exactly what role sectors like the middle-class and the elties play in the Brazilian nation. Generally, if you're really trying to enforce a strong program, you don't comment that y our plan will spark an "novel" debate. Still, the fact that any presidential administration is even going so far to admit that there's definitely a social inequality when it comes to who has to serve in teh military and who does not is a decent step. I don't honestly know if this will go any further, and wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't (Lula has plenty on his plate between now and 2010, and there's no reason to believe his successor would strongly push this issue). But it is an interesting if subtle shift in the way the governments since 1985 have dealt with the issue of military service and nation. This fact, together with the significant changes in more technical and technological aspects of the plan, make it a fascinating and potentially game-changing plan not just in terms of military composition, but of Brazil's internatinoal relations, regional politics, and militarization throughout the continent in the near future.

Mr. Trend's Best of 2007

As I did last year, I thought it would be fun to go back and look at my "best of 2007" list and modify it, now that the albums have had a good 12-23 extra months to sink in (depending on when they came out in 2007 and/or when I got them). And going back through this list, I actually expanded it a bit. This year has been pretty good, but there's no doubt that last year was an exceptionally amazing year for great music. So here's my best of 2007 (with the best of 2008 to follow soon).

1. Panda Bear, Person Pitch - I liked this plenty last year, but after more time (and good headphones), there's no doubt - Noah Lennox (Panda Bear) pulled off not just the best album of the year, but one of the best of the decade.
2. Animal Collective, Strawberry Jam - This was one of those albums that, for whatever reason, just didn't click with me for a long time. Around March of this year, it finally clicked, and I listen to it almost all the time now. It's definitely my favorite of Animal Collective's, and marked a great year for the guys.
3. Marissa Nadler, Song III: Bird on the Water - She has one of the most alluring, sensual, timeless voices I've ever heard, a quality her music matches. This album is as hauntingly beautiful as they come, and is one of those rare records where one listen alone made me go out and get the rest of the artist's work, and I didn't regret it for one second.
4. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible - It didn't get any worse - it just turned out that other albums got better.
5. Burial, Untrue - I didn't know about "dubstep" before it, and I don't know much more now, but I do know one thing - this is an amazing album.
6. PJ Harvey, White Chalk - Who knows what PJ Harvey will do to follow up her first "piano album," but she continues to amaze with every new step.
7. Radiohead, In Rainbows - Some of the songs have lost a bit of their power over time ("Nude"), but the best from this album ("15 Step," "Bodysnatchers," "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," "Jigsaw Falling Into Place," and "Videotape") is unmatched by anybody.
8. Blonde Redhead, 23 - I didn't actually hear this until a few months ago, but it's been with me since. The dreamlike qualities are outstanding, and Kazu Makino's voice hits me just right.
9. M.I.A., Kala - It has all the power of a punch to the gut and a slap to the face. The percussive nature of it is that great, and it keeps you coming back for more.
10. Liars, Liars - That this ended up at my 10 really is just evidence of how amazing a year last year was for recordings.
11. Nicole Atkins, Neptune City - Not as haunting and timeless as Nadler's work, but Atkins' debut was a lot of fun, with crooning ballads, Roy Orbison melodies, and Ronettes' charm.
12. Electrelane, No Shouts, No Calls - Hey, if you're going to call it a day as a band, this is an excellent album to go out on.
13. Charlotte Gainsbourg, 5:55 - Best pop album of the year.
14. Heliocentrics, Out There - It's still an amazing combo of jazz, hip-hop, and 1950s science fiction
15. Thurston Moore, Trees Outide the Academy
16. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver
17. Deerhunter, Cryptograms - An excellent debut that really grew on me. This one really works best when listened to from start to finish - sporadic listening just doesn't do it justice.
18. True Primes, We Have Won
19. Love of Diagrams, Mosaic - An impressive, explosive debut that starts off in high gear and just rocks out for 35 minutes.
20. The Besnard Lakes, The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse - Brian Wilson comparisons get thrown around way too much in musical reviews, but it's really unavoidable here. Besnard Lakes have the perfect blend of Wilson-like melodies with heavy reverb and deep textures, making them far from a Wilson knock-off.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

(I've tried to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. See the damn movie, will ya?)

If this movie was any indication, it's going to be a good movie season.

I haven't seen a movie in a while that sent me this deep into film-geek heaven. The last one might even have been Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. From the opening scenes, with cameras behind the rotating cameras of India's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and Dev Patel sweating under the lights, I was sucked into a world that Danny Boyle has no right to have created so perfectly.

Boyle might not have grown up in the slums of India, but he understands the streets and feels for the kids and knows how to make you feel for them too. At heart, Danny Boyle is a romantic, which might sound funny for me to say of a man best known for Trainspotting and 28 Days Later. But it's true.

All the gritty realism of those films, the swirling action and heady plunge into an alien world, is here, plus a deeper love of humanity that showed up better in A Life Less Ordinary (and possibly Millions, which I haven't seen but which also revolves around a child). Slumdog Millionaire pulls together all the threads of Boyle's career into a movie that easily tops them all.

So many horrible things happen to Jamal (Patel) but he still manages to hope and love, and that's the deepest message of this film and the one that resonated and left me grinning like an idiot as I walked out of the theater. But it's also a movie about class and capitalism, not so much about the clash of East and West as it is the clash of money with humanity.

Jamal wins 10 million rupees on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," but since he's a poor kid from the slums, he's arrested for cheating. The movie flashes back through his life, explaining how he knew the answer to each question, and showing a life that would've turned a lesser kid hard and mean. That did turn his brother Salim hard and mean.

Salim as an adult is lanky-sexy and hard as nails, and we see in him all that Jamal could've become. But Jamal had Salim as a barrier against the world, and had Latika to love. So he remains wide-eyed and trusting and awkwardly charming, and with each bit of pain he endures we pull for him a bit more, like the Indian audience that tunes in to cheer for him on "Millionaire." He is, after all, a piece of all of them.

I could talk at length about gorgeous overhead shots--a market, a train, the Taj Mahal--or a scene in which the boys' clambering up a set of bleachers to steal purses is ten times more beautiful than the opera the rich folks are watching. I could talk about the kids from actual slums in India, who do an amazing job carrying much of the movie. There's just so much here that begs to be seen again, and again.

The movie takes on lots of weighty subjects and themes through the lives of the boys. Their mother dies in anti-Muslim violence, they have to learn to fend for themselves, and fight off a gangster who is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to turn kids into better beggars (in one of the movie's most horrific scenes).

And the boys learn to make money. One of the questions that Jamal answers correctly is which U.S. statesman is on the hundred-dollar bill, and Salim crawls into a bathtub filled with money at the film's end. Money is always there, but ultimately it's not what Jamal wants. He wants the girl, and when it comes down to the ending we're all reminded that the money more often than not is what hurt the boys the most (though plenty of other things do as well).

The coolness with which the police officers torture Jamal and then are captivated by his story and become the good guys is chilling, and a commentary on the willingness of good people to do bad things that sets up later events perfectly.

Of course, the obvious theme is that what Jamal learns on the streets sets him up for success more than anything he could've learned in school. That knowledge and wisdom are not things that can be bought and sold with a degree or a fancy house or any other trinket of privilege. What it says that his final question on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" is one about a classic of Western literature is something I'll have to think more about, and I wonder if it was the same in the novel the story came from. But the question also relates to Jamal's life, his bonds with his brother and the girl he loves, and these are the true meaning of the film.

Because Jamal is willing to throw away the money he's won at every turn, just to stay on TV a bit longer, just in case the girl he loves is watching.


More On Obama's Pick of Warren and the Left's Response

Since Obama announced that Rick Warren would be giving a prayer at the inauguration, the left blogosphere has been absolutely outraged. A bit of the focus has come on the fact that there's any religious presence at the inauguration, but the majority of the anger and even vitriol has been based on the fact that Warren is extremely conservative when it comes to abortion and gay marriage (which he likens to pedophilia, among other things). I commented in Erik's post yesterday that I thought the presence of Warren in the grand scheme of things was really being overstated, particularly given that Joseph Lowery is also going to be offering a prayer. Lowery's a well-respected civil rights leader and is in favor of gay marriage, and he will be giving the benediction at the inauguration. and going through the various blogs today has really confirmed that. However, this latter fact has apparently completely avoided the left blogosphere today, as everybody has singly focused solely on Warren.

Michael Berube had a particularly unique take on it, discussing the symbolic importance of picking Warren, even if it means nothing in terms of Obama's actual plans for civil rights for the LGB&T community. I fully agree that the pick of Warren is very disappointing, and I agree with Berube that the symbol of Warren is most certainly a kick in the teeth to the LGB&T community and to many of the left-wing progressives of the party who are waiting for Obama to at least throw us a bone. But I wanted to repeat and expand on my comments to that post.

Symbolically, the pick of Lowery does not undo the insult to progressives and the LGB&T community that picking Warren created, but it's not like that's the worst insult either group will ever face. Still, in terms of symbolic power, Lowery is as powerful if not moreso than Warren for what he represents - a Civil Rights leader who was a figurehead in the struggle from the 1950s onward providing the benediction at the inauguration of the first African-American president? That's a mighty powerful symbol, too. And let's not forget, it's the benediction, not the introduction - if we remember any prayer (which I doubt we will - anybody remember what Billy Graham said at Clinton's inauguration in 1992? Or who even gave the prayer at Bush's in 2000, and what that person said? Of course not - it's the policies, not the inaugural prayers), it very well may be Lowery's prayer that has more time to linger, and it's not like he won't have some personal involvement in that day at the emotional level that could really make his prayer resonate. And I'm willing to bet that, as a leader for years involved in historical struggles, he's a better speaker than the author of some crappy, poorly-written, "feel-good-about-yourself" evangelical book. As I've said, if we're talking about symbols, we certainly can't try to read the tea leaves of the Warren pick and what it "tells us" about Obama while completely ignoring Lowery - that just skews the views of this whole issue, which is, unfortunately, exactly what I think has happened in the progressive blogosphere today.

Indeed, I think the left's vitriol focused on Warren and the complete ignoring of Lowery's presence has had the unintended consequence of giving Warren more symbolic power than he deserves and than Obama intended. I’m not saying the pick was without symbolic power before we all started discussing this and condemning Obama so broadly. But by ignoring the “other” (sorry for lack of a better term) of Lowery, in some ways Warren’s message is getting even stronger shrift. Instead of saying, “Well, Warren’s a pain, but at least there’s Lowery, too,” we’re so vehemently against Warren that it becomes an even richer symbolic force. There is no "pro gay-marriage" voice in the left's discussion today, no tempered "well, it's tough to say, because there are conflicting messages" - instead, there is an anger that has left me rather stunned, given that, at the end of the day, it's a prayer, not an amendment or an executive order.

To be clear, I agree that it’s an insult to the LGB&T community, and I’m disappointed in Obama’s picking of Warren. But the left has been so narrow-minded in this "story" (if it even is really much of a story), I think it has done a great disservice, not necessarily to the progressive part of the Democratic party (though maybe to that, too,) but to Lowery and to Obama. Obama has proven time and again that he's not an idiot, yet the left has bestowed so much symbolic power on Warren in its vitriol today without any thought to Warren or what the symbolic power of his presence means, that it's really disappointed me. Maybe I'm naive, but I expect this kind of response from the right, not from the left.

Still, I can't wait for January 21st, when we can worry about actual policies, rather than who is making a public appearance at an (admittedly historical) public performance.

Why Vilsack Sucks

Sharon Astyk has a good post on why Tom Vilsack is such a bad choice for Secretary of Agriculture and what is at the heart of the problem with Obama's cabinet. In some ways, Vilsack could be the worst cabinet secretary. Vilsack is pro-ethanol, pro-farm subsidy, pro-expansion of corn production, pro-agribusiness--basically he is the ultimate representative of everything that is wrong with American agricultural policy. Of course, he's also a very powerful Democrat, former governor of Iowa, and former presidential candidate, so it's hardly a surprising choice. But as Sharon points out, we can't expect any real discussion of food policy or agricultural reforms on a national level.


Well, we were just bitching and complaining about Obama's appointments, but an extremely pro-labor blogger friend of mine just exploded with glee at the news that Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA) will be labor secretary.

A woman (obviously), the daughter of immigrants, and with a 97 AFL-CIO rating, this is a bit of good news, finally.

More info, via LuckyWhiteGirl:

Video of her standing up for farmworkers.

Opposition to new H2A regulations.

And her page on labor issues.


Amy has a good rebuttal to this annoying Charles Blow article where he bemoans "the end of dating" and hookups.

She writes:

Hooking up is not some sort of evil social phenomenon that will destroy our culture; it's a no-bullshit way of getting to know someone for people who are interested in sex. Frankly, a lot of sadness has been reaped in this world because of marriages (or relationships) between one person who loves and needs sex and another who can do without, or would just rather not. What's wrong with these two pools of people having such drastically different "loving" styles that they become less likely to mix?

Indeed. The unfortunately named Blow, is well, a blowhard who tries to explain what he sees as the culture of those crazy kids to other clueless people. There's nothing inherently wrong or right about hookups, or about dating for that matter. People should do whatever they want to so long as it isn't hurting someone else. Just because it seems strange to out of touch people over the age of 40 does not mean it is wrong. And even if it was wrong, writing an article as an explanatory guide of the insanity of youth to fuddy duddies is not a very appealing genre.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Obama's Poor Choices

Quite a couple of days of bad choices for Obama.

I talked yesterday about Ken Salazar, who I still think is a bad choice for Interior that has many environmental groups upset. I am somewhat annoyed, though not surprised, with Tom Vilsack at Agriculture. Vilsack is a friend to agribusiness and big supporter of ethanol, which as I have said many times here, is a really bad idea. Certainly he doesn't bring any kind of forward-thinking leadership on food issues to the table.

Ray LaHood at Transportation is very disappointing. I suppose a second Republican cabinet secretary is not surprising and I'm not sure where else I would rather see one, but it's unlikely LaHood is really going to go gangbusters over alternative transportation technologies.

Finally, what in the living hell is Obama thinking having Rick Warren say a prayer at the inauguration. I know that this is the least meaningful of these selections, but Warren supported Prop. 8 in California and is hostile to gay issues. The GLBT community may rightfully see this as a slap in the face.

I was hoping that after naming centrists to the big cabinet posts that Obama would promote progressives in some of the lesser positions. I was wrong. I can't think of one true progressive in any cabinet post. Some of the picks are pretty good (Napolitano, Shinseki, Chu), but from a progressive point of view, it's a pretty disappointing group so far. With the selections for Interior, Agriculture, and Transportation, 3 departments that progressives tend to care a great deal about, all going to center to center-right figures, my hopes for the Obama administration have taken a hit. With the Warren prayer, I am disgusted with Obama for the first time.

Is music piracy wrong?

I thought this might stir up some interesting debate on the heels of Erik's rant about iTunes.

Found here, reprinted in full:

In Defense of Piracy: Democratizing the Public Library

Music is primarily an art form, not just a product to be consumed. I mean this in two ways. First, the logic of music creation follows that of other art forms, literature, painting, sculpture, theatre, etc., not the logic of supply and demand. Music has always been and will always be created as a form of expression regardless of the economic circumstances surrounding its distribution.  Artists create because they have to create, not because it is profitable. Writers continued to write, painters continue to paint, musicians continue to play, not because they know they will receive a paycheck every two weeks, but because of something inside them that requires this form of expression. Second, the enjoyment of art should not require certain financial resources, much like public sculptures and murals, free access to public libraries, taking pictures of anything found or created that one considers art, etc. Art has been maintained in various ways, including certain styles of music (i.e. jazz, classical) not because it is profitable, but because it is considered something valuable, something that represents the beauty and the absurdity within us all.

Free access to museums and galleries (in many places), and free access to books through libraries has not destroyed other forms of art. Why has it come to the point where free access to music has been considered a crime? The absurdity of this crime becomes all the more incomprehensible when we view music as art, not as a capitalist product with a copyright. The fight to restrict music to those who can pay has a striking similarity to those who ban books, to authoritarian regimes who restrict internet access and censor cultural production. Is music revolutionary? Music can be powerful, but I’m not so idealistic to think the message of music will destroy the dominant forms of power. What are they afraid of?

For years, music has been available for free through public libraries, although the selection was somewhat restricted due to budgetary and other constraints. Libraries have not killed music, artists still create, labels still produce music, people still attend concerts. Home taping was considered the death knell of music in the 80s. But surprise! music is still around. 

Think about what it is that libraries provide to our societies. I can go to the library, check out a book, read it, return it, and never have to pay a penny. I can do the same with a compact disc, a vinyl record or cassette (for those libraries that still have them), or a DVD or VHS. Nothing stops a person from copying any of these works, yet a campaign to shut down libraries to protect copyright laws would be unthinkable as many have come to depend on library access or consider it a right.

While through libraries and other public institutions, many people have access to the greatest literary and artistic creations, for some reason, it is considered inappropriate to have access to the greatest (and no so great) musical creations. To become educated about literature, about painting, and about other arts, requires very little in terms of financial resources. However, to become educated about an equally valid art form, music, regardless if you think that applies to Mozart, John Coltrane, Morbid Angel, Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, Kanye West, Albert King or the Dead Kennedys, is extremely difficult without a significant financial investment. Music is a record of the human experience, to protect this form of art for the benefit of all, for enjoyment, for enlightenment, for educational purposes, does not require making everyone pay for it, it requires making it available to as many people as possible.

File sharing, music blogs, mp3s, home taping, burning CDs, these are all ways of democratizing art, of creating a democratic library of music that ensures everyone can enjoy a popular form of art.  Lovers and appreciators of music have taken it upon themselves through the internet to revive lost musical creations to educate the young and the old about all they missed because of the absurd idea that only one art form can be enjoyed if you pay for it (while others can be free). The nameless and anonymous individuals who provide music for free are creating a historical record of music that could easily be lost or only enjoyed by a very few. Libraries and other public institutions have failed in this regard, appreciators of music as art have come forward to not only protect, but revive and share what should be available to everyone.