Thursday, January 31, 2008

Forgotten American Bastard Blogging: Anthony Comstock

Has there ever been a more loathsome American than Anthony Comstock? The self-appointed regulator of American morality, Comstock acquired great power during the late 19th and early 20th centuries through taking advantage of the anxieties of the upper classes to pass anti-obscenity legislation and prosecute those he thought were smut-peddlers. Loathed even in his own time, but with powerful protectors, Comstock represents the worst of puritanical America. His pernicious influence still lives with us today.

Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut on March 7, 1844. He grew up as a Congregationalist. I don't think the Congregationalists can engage in postmortem excommunications, but they may want to rethink this policy for Comstock. He enlisted in the Civil War, fighting for the Union between 1863 and 1865. Sadly, Confederate bullets missed Comstock. He started his moralizing crusades while in the military, protesting against the use of foul language by his fellow soldiers. By all accounts, the soldiers that served with Comstock ridiculed him mercilessly, seeing him for the uptight bastard that he was. He poured his own ration of whiskey on the ground, which would have convinced me to ridicule him too.

After the war, Comstock took a job with the YMCA in New York City. He saw a city teeming with prostitutes and pornography. While he was right about this, he was also disturbed that people might also enjoy sex. Even by this early date, the YMCA was a center for gay men to hook up, though I am not sure how aware Comstock was of this. While working at the YMCA, Comstock managed to prosecute two men for peddling pornography. One of the men later slashed him with a knife, leaving a good sized scar on his face. Like during the Civil War, Comstock managed to survive, helping to show that evil is hard to kill.

Comstock's first bit of fame came in 1872 when he attacked the feminist Victoria Woodhull after she reported a story detailing an affair famous American preacher Henry Ward Beecher had with one of his congregants. Woodhull was already famous in America in 1872. She declared she was running for president and convinced Massachusetts Senator Benjamin Butler to make a statement on her behalf before Congress, claiming that as citizens, women already had the right to vote. Woodhull also advocated free love, making her scandalous at the time. Woodhull's belief that sex might be a good thing brought Comstock's wrath upon her. Woodhull was arrested under obscenity statues for this story. She correctly argued that if she was a man, she would not have been arrested. But for Comstock, women talking about sex was even worse than men talking about sex. A technicality got Woodhull off, but Comstock became famous around the nation. He also destroyed Woodhull in the process. She lost her backers, moved to England, and married a proper gentleman, retreating into a traditional Victorian marriage.

Comstock frequently referred to himself in typical modest fashion as "the weeder in God's garden." In 1873, Comstock started on his national career of prudity by creating the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Through his powerful congressional benefactors, Comstock pushed through Congress in 1874 the notorious Comstock Law, which made illegal sending "obscene, lewd, and lascivious" material through the U.S. mail. Examples of such material included information on birth control and biology textbooks that showed accurate representations of the human body. Comstock believed the birth control devices caused lust to rise in the human body and lewd behavior to follow. It was primarily to stop birth control from being propagated that Comstock fought for the law that bears his name. Soon after, 24 states enacted similar laws to prevent the dissemination of birth control on the state level. The worst of these laws was in Comstock's home state of Connecticut, where even the use of birth control was a violation of the law. Married couples could be prosecuted for using birth control in the privacy of their own homes and sentenced to a year in prison.

Comstock saw all erotic material as, "a deadly poison, cast into the fountain of moral purity." Erotic books, "breeds lust. Lust defiles the body, debauches the imagination, corrupts the mind, deadens the will, destroys the memory, sears the conscience, hardens the heart, and damns the soul. It unnerves the arm, and steals away the elastic step."

Comstock used to brag about how 15 people had killed themselves because of his attacks. Among them was Ida Craddock. Craddock has been convicted violating the obscenity laws for authoring sexually explicit marriage manuals and sending them to paying couples who needed help in the bedroom. On the eve of reporting to federal prison for such a heinous crime, Craddock killed herself, leaving a lengthy note blaming Comstock for driving her to this. It was one of his proudest moments.

Comstock also had other obsessions. For instance, he managed to shut down the Louisiana Lottery, the only public lottery in the United States at the time. He really loved burning books too. He claimed to have arrested more than 3000 people and burned 15 tons of books in his career. He also fought against abortion and went after abortion providers with all the power he could muster. But abortion had many proponents during the Gilded Age. For instance, he had Sarah Chase arrested five times for violations of the Comstock Law because she was sending birth control through the mail, as well as for providing abortion. She was convicted only once, when a patient died after an abortion. Chase fought back too, suing Comstock for $10,000 after her 1878 arrest. She didn't win, but she continually outfoxed Comstock through their dual careers. Birth control and abortion were widely sought after in America, even though people had to go underground to find it.

Many of Comstock's contemporaries held a special place in their heart for hating Comstock. George Bernard Shaw coined the term "comstockery," meaning "censorship because of perceived obscenity or immorality," after Comstock attacked his play "Mrs. Warren's Profession." Shaw said, "Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all." Comstock, showing all the class you would expect, simply referred to Shaw as an "Irish smut peddler."

As the historian Andrea Tone writes,

After 1873 others, too, let their own views on morality and privacy guide their assessments of contraceptive criminality. Although Comstock took solace in blaming repeated acts of clemency on the ineptitude of officials or the treachery of his enemies, it was the reasoned deliberation of those who made up the court system, not its corruption, that returned birth control proprietors to the streets. To be sure, the leniency accorded birth control offenders may have been related to widespread loathing of Comstock, the man. Comstock's belligerence and courtroom histrionics offended judges, alienated prosecutors, and prompted a steady stream of derogatory editorials, cartoons, and poems in turn-of-the-century newspapers and journals. But, although the frequent ridiculing of Comstock may help explain support for violators of the Comstock Law in general, it cannot account for the special leniency accorded birth control offenders in particular. Rather, those entrusted with the responsibility for enforcing contraceptive laws made choices that bespoke tolerance of birth control and compassion toward those who sold it, a willingness to see as gray what Comstock could see only as black-and-white. The judicial decisions of an age when popular attitudes toward criminal behavior and reproductive control are often difficult to gauge index broad-based support of bootleg birth control. Such support had economic ramifications. Favoring acquittal almost as often as conviction and light sentencing as a rule, judges and jurors created an environment in which black market birth control could thrive.

Emma Goldman, the famous anarchist and feminist, loved Comstock almost as much as Shaw, called him the head of America's "moral eunuchs." Many local police officers and judges hated Comstock's laws as much as Shaw and Goldman and just refused to enforce them. Only 16 out of 105 people arrested for birth control violations between 1873 and 1898 were sent to prison. In virtually all the cases they were guilty of the violating the law, but sympathetic judges and juries usually either dismissed the charges, found them not guilty, or suspended the sentences. Ulysses S. Grant, who signed the Comstock Law, also felt sympathy and went out of his way to pardon 5 of the 12 people sentenced to prison during his presidency. His successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, also pardoned at least one person.

On the other hand, Comstock did have his followers. One big fan was J. Edgar Hoover. I guess cross-dressing wasn't so obscene in those days. I'm sure Comstock would have agreed.

Comstock died on September 21, 1915. His health suffered in his later years after an anonymous attacker whacked him in the head. Unfortunately, his assiliant failed to kill him and he managed to pollute the planet for several more years.

Immediately after his death, the young birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger began her campaign to overturn these laws. In 1916, she opened the nation's first birth control clinic, in New York City. She was arrested for violating the Comstock Laws. In 1918, courts sided with Sanger, making it legal for women to use birth control devices, though only for therapeutic purposes. In 1936, Sanger pushed a case that resulted in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in United States v. One Package that made it legal to distribute contraceptives across state lines. This made it legal to mail birth control devices around the nation.

Modern day disciples of Comstock must include former Attorney General John Ashcroft first and foremost. Ashcroft used his time in the office to fight against sex any way he could, including in 2002 covering up the semi-nude statue "Spirit of Justice" at the cost of $8000 of taxpayer money. The statue was in the press conference room in the Justice Department. The site of a nude breast on a statue was too much for Ashcroft to bear. Someday, after he dies, Ashcroft will deserve a Forgotten Bastard post of his own.

This information comes from a variety of places. Several websites to be sure. I also looked at Nicola Beisel's Imperiled Innocents: Anthony Comstock and Family Reproduction in Victorian America, published by Princeton in 1997, Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech's 1927 biography, Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord, which is more critical than you might expect, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz's article, "Victoria Woodhull, Anthony Comstock, and Conflict over Sex in the United States in the 1870s," published in the Journal of American History in September 2000, and Andrea Tone's excellent piece, "Black Market Birth Control: Contraceptive Entrepreneurship and Criminality in the Gilded Age," also published in the Journal of American History in September 2000.

Allow me to say how much I enjoyed researching and writing this post. May you all do something obscene tonight and dedicate it to the memory of Anthony Comstock, American Bastard.

Watching Michael Lind Change America's Racial Categories to Support His Own Half-Baked Ideas

Shorter Michael Lind: Don't worry America, your future is safe. Latinos are nothing like the blacks. You see, they are actually white.

I hesitate to actually recommend this Michael Lind piece in the British journal Prospect, but it's so astoundingly bad that I'll link to it anyway.

Lind's thesis is that all these myths about America (it's about to be taken over by fundamentalists, the Boomers are bankrupting the nation, it will be soon be non-white) are just that, myths.

The problem comes when Lind starts making shit up about race. Lind says that the idea of a future non-white majority is ridiculous because Latinos are actually white. He attacks the racial classification system in America, which is fine. But that system reflects actual beliefs among Americans that if you have one drop of non-white blood in you, then you are not white. Lind writes:

According to the government, "Hispanics" may be of any race as long as they are of Latin American ancestry. So, a blond, blue-eyed Argentinian-American whose grandparents showed up from Germany in Argentina mysteriously in 1946 is a "Hispanic" while an Arab-American Muslim is a "non-Hispanic white."

He's right these categories are stupid. But it is how Americans have thought for a very long time. Has he not read Twain's Puddinhead Wilson? You know, the story where two very white men in antebellum America are switched at birth. The slave mother put her very white baby in the master's son's crib and took the master's son and put it in the slave crib. This is not discovered until they are adults. Then they take the supposed master's son, who has turned into a real jerk, and put him in the slave cabins.

They were both white, but it didn't matter. While interracial relationships are becoming more common, including in small southern towns, that doesn't mean that society as a whole think their kids are white. Stupid classifications like this are going to continue, but this is also how many Americans will think of these people. So in their own way, these seemingly arbitrary categories are actually somewhat useful.

Lind is happy to note that 1/2 of second-generation Latinos speak no Spanish at all. Is this a good thing, as Lind suggests? That's the problem underlying this whole article. I don't generally think of Lind as a racist and maybe he just explained himself poorly. In fact, I still don't think Lind is a racist, despite this article's sheer badness. But he seems to assume that America should be a white nation and that all of these statistics he cites are good news. I have no idea why except that he thinks they mean that America won't experience any race wars. Well, great.

Also underlying this whole argument is that African-Americans are going to remain non-white, and well, what are you going to do. He cites a statistic showing that blacks are starting to marry outside their race, which he considers great, but sad that more don't. I'm not sure if it's great or not--to me it just is--but it's certainly not great because all this intermarriage will create the non-racialized American nation Lind seems to want.

But Lind sure seems awfully happy to report that Latinos and Asians are really white and because of this, America's future is secure.

However, you can't just redefine the nation's racial categories to make your argument. That's just weak.

Via Eric Rauchway at Edge of the American West who asks, "I don’t think Lind means that if there were going to be a non-white majority, that we could consider that America no longer still works, or that it would no longer be a great power. Does he?"


Historical Image of the Day

The body of South Vietnamese dictator/president Ngo Dinh Diem, November 2, 1963

I got the picture off of this amusing pro-Diem site. Awesome.

My Rock'N'Roll Lifestyle

Today is my birthday. I am 28 years old now. By having lived to see this day, I have outlived Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, none of whom made it past 27.

However, like all five of them, I have yet to have ever been gainfully employed in any type of "real" career. I plan on celebrating my obvious rock 'n roll lifestyle today with excessive partying that may or may not include massive amounts of blow, groupies, and a sound check. "Hello Cleveland!"

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Dowd's Hackery

MoDo brings her unique brand of gossipy hackery to the Obama-Hillary rivalry this morning. Her column discusses The Snub, which she names the photos of Obama not being too excited to shake Clinton's hand at the State of the Union address.

What does this accomplish? Absolutely nothing. But Dowd has to find a way to torpedo Obama's campaign with trivial gossip while claiming to be a Democrat. She already has her Hillary strategy. Now she sees the necessity of applying that to Obama.

Does Dowd ever have anything useful to say? The Times opinion page is a joke--Brooks, Collins, Friedman, Kristol for God's sake. But if I could get rid of any of them, it would be Dowd. Her work is beyond worthless.

Historical Image of the Day

Martin Luther King speaking in Chicago, 1967

Continuing to Punish Those Tied to Torture in Argentina

I've commented before on the value of continuing to try to get those involved with torture in Argentina's dirty war in prison for their crimes, be it in the military or in the Catholic Church. While it's not as good as trials and jailtime, I'm glad to see the Argentine military continues to punish those tied to human rights abuses during the "Dirty War" any and every way it can (even if it is for simply sympathizing with torture and disappearances).

January 30

Dick Cheney (1941) and Phil Collins (1951). (The alignment of evil should be obvious here).

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Worst Question Ever

Tonight, Glenn Beck asked this question of Republican strategist Amy Holmes:

"[Y]ou ever just pictured Ted Kennedy naked?" Beck added, "[Y]ou know, that picture with him with his shirt off just kind of pops into your head.

Well, clearly Glenn has!!!

Giuliani Out

Giuliani is dropping out.

Say what you will about St. John and Mittens, but Giuliani was the worst choice on the Republican side. That is one disaster avoided.

On the other hand, the idea of Giuliani as Attorney General in a McCain administration would be almost as bad. Great--Can't wait for the nightmare tonight.

Plus, is this nation really ready for an Italian to be president? That's the talk of bomb-throwing anarchists!

Horrible Birthdays Aligned

One night in Albuquerque a few years back, Erik, our friends Scott and Joe, and myself were seeing what famous and infamous people we shared birthdays with during a rain delay on Sunday Night baseball. We happened to come across some truly cosmic convergences of forces of evil being born on the same day. So throughout the year, just to make things even more cheerful, I'll be pointing out some of these days.

Craptacular Album Art!

There are many reasons I've never really enjoyed much prog rock - most generally, it's because I found the self-importance too humorous to be taken too seriously. But with album covers like these, the unintentional-humor factor goes up even further.

The White Buddha

Exactly 365 days ago, I proclaimed this to be the Christ Year. I turned 33. I fully expected someone to crucify me. In fact, I challenged people to do it. I hoped to establish myself as a spiritual leader in much the same way as Jesus Christ. I was sure that someone would betray me to the authorities for approximately 30 pieces of silver, or whatever that translates to in U.S. dollars. However, the decline of the dollar made such an activity not worth the time of my friends or my vast numbers of enemies.

Today, I turn 34. I survived the Christ Year. Does this mean I am not a world spiritual leader. No. The recent slaughter of world religious leaders suggests that someone out there is trying to eliminate all of us, myself included. But I held on, foiling the Man's attempts to kill me and my brethren.

My response then to my not dying last year is not to renounce my role as a guru. Rather, I have realized that my model is not that poser Jesus. Rather it is Siddharta Gautama, the original Buddha. He lived to be approximately 80. My new prediction is that I will live another 46 years. For, as of today, I am the White Buddha.

Historical Image of the Day

The Seven Stages of Matrimony, 1852

I suggest clicking on the image to read the small print.

Monday, January 28, 2008


The one show I really regret not seeing since I've been in Austin was Joanna Newsom with the Austin Symphony Orchestra.

What the hell was I thinking?

Obama and the Environment

One of the biggest reasons I have been hesitant to support Obama is his questionable record on environmental issues. He has come out and supported some unfortunate things, like against reforming the 1872 Mining Act and supporting a coal liquification bill.

I still worry about these things. But Tom Konrad lines us the candidates statements and plans on energy issues and finds that Obama is by a significant margin the best. In his seven categories, Obama gets a B in five and a C in two. Edwards gets an A in energy efficiency but an F in transport fuels and coal. Clinton is mostly a C and D student in these things.

This kind of real analysis matters a lot to me. I feel a lot more comfortable supporting Obama knowing that he may not be a great leader on environmental matters at this point, but he is solid and solid is a whole lot better than what we have now.

It is also worth noting that the only Republican Konrad takes serious enough on these issues to even bother grading is McCain, who doesn't fair all that great either.

NY-NOW Leadership Has Gone Crazy

This has been reported a couple of places now, but the news is worth spreading. The leadership of the New York chapter of the National Organization of Women released an embarrassing statement today concerning Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama.

Senator Ted Kennedy Betrays Women by Not Standing for Hillary Clinton for President;
Ultimate Betrayal Felt by Women Everywhere

ALBANY, NY -- January 28 -- Women have just experienced the ultimate betrayal. Senator Kennedy’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton’s opponent in the Democratic presidential primary campaign has really hit women hard. Women have forgiven Kennedy, stuck up for him, stood by him, hushed the fact that he was late in his support of Title IX, the ERA, the Family Leave and Medical Act to name a few. Women have buried their anger that his support for the compromises in No Child Left Behind and the Medicare bogus drug benefit brought us the passage of these flawed bills. We have thanked him for his ardent support of many civil rights bills, BUT women are always waiting in the wings.

And now the greatest betrayal! We are repaid with his abandonment! He’s picked the new guy over us. He’s joined the list of progressive white men who can’t or won’t handle the prospect of a woman president who is Hillary Clinton (they will of course say they support a woman president, just not “this” one). “They” are Howard Dean and Jim Dean (Yup! That’s Howard’s brother) who run DFA (that’s the group and list from the Dean campaign that we women helped start and grow). They are Alternet, Progressive Democrats of America,, Kucinich lovers and all the other groups that take women's money, say they’ll do feminist and women’s rights issues one of these days, and conveniently forget to mention women and children when they talk about poverty or human needs or America’s future or whatever.

This latest move by Kennedy, is so telling about the status of and respect for women’s rights, women’s voices, women’s equality, women’s authority and our ability – indeed, our obligation - to promote and earn and deserve and elect, unabashedly, a President that is the first woman after centuries of men who “know what’s best for us.”

Huh. Do they expect to be taken seriously. Kennedy is a traitor because he didn't endorse the woman? That alone is enough.

By that logic, clearly Ted Kennedy would also be a traitor if Phyllis Schlafly or Ann Coulter were running for president and Kennedy didn't endorse them! No doubt NY-NOW would see the logic in that!

What a disgrace.

Via Ann at Feministing

Get to Know a Brazilian: Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim

Antonio Carlos Jobim (also commonly known by his nickname “Tom”) isn’t exactly an unknown in the States, given his centrality to the establishment of Bossa Nova. Still, as this past Friday would have been his 81st birthday, he seems an appropriate guy to talk about.

Jobim was born in the neighborhood of Tijuca in Rio de Janeiro in 1927, and had planned on being an architect before he became a musician in his 20s. Well versed in the jazz music that he heard from the United States, Jobim tried to bring the sound of American jazz together with Brazilian samba, African rhythms, and lush orchestrations, leading to the central components of what became known as Bossa Nova. By the 1950s, Jobim was already gaining fame as a composer in Brazil after getting a great opportunity when he co-scored the play Black Orpheus (later made into a film) with Vinícius de Moraes.

Jobim’s international big break came in 1962 when the (then) also-unknown João Gilbert sang Jobim’s “Desafinado,” both men became global successes. Bossa Nova was particularly well received in the U.S. as artists such as Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd made Jobim’s pieces household tunes, leading to Jobim’s coming to be known as “the Gershwin of Brazil.” Soon, many less-accomplished jazz artists were offering their own rehashes of “Desafinado” or “The Girl from Ipanema.” It is almost impossible to find a well-known Brazilian artist (and many lesser-known singers) who haven’t tried to do their own Bossa Nova albums, some (Nara Leão) far more successful than others (Caetano Veloso). Likewise, in Europe and in the United States, it was almost impossible to escape some cultural reference to Jobim (indeed, in one Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode, Graham Chapman and John Cleese, dressed as British working-class housewives, start humming “The Girl from Ipanema”). By the mid-1960s, the songs had become overplayed and, as is too often the case, bossa nova was overplayed and cheapened. Musically, the jazz scene was fundamentally shifting by this time, and it may be that, in the socially divided atmosphere that saw the rise of rock’n’roll, Vietnam, and the Civil Rights, there wasn’t as much interest or room for the simple beauty of bossa nova. Although bossa nova’s popularity lived on in Brazil, coming and going up to the present, in the northern hemisphere, it did not fare as well. After the mid-1960s, it fell out of favor in the U.S. and Europe, coming to be equated in latter years with retirees living in Florida or Muzak soundtracks.

None of this ever stopped Jobim, though. Throughout the 1970s he worked on refining and changing his sound in small but significant steps. On Elis & Tom, he joined with one of Brazil’s most heartbreaking singers, Elis Regina, putting his music and lyrics with her mournful, soft voice. The sound didn’t change much, but the sadness he always expressed in his lyrics seemed to be getting even more personal and more concentrated. After that album, Jobim even began to alienate his Brazilian fans, deciding to try new instruments, sound, and structures on the albums Matita Pere and Urubu, the latter of which starts off with the berimbau, a Brazilian (but not at all bossa nova) instrument made of one string and used to keep rhythm in capoeira contests. Jobim’s music lost much of the “traditional” bossa nova sound on these albums while simultaneously expanding its “Brazilianness” and maintaining the soft, haunting, heartbreaking emotion Jobim had always used. Because he wasn’t making “The Girl From Ipanema II,” these albums didn’t sell the way his old material had in Brazil or in the international community, and Jobim’s output slowed down without ever stopping. This is a shame, because Matita Pere and especially Urubu are two remarkable and wonderful records, floating in and out sonically but with an emotional intensity that is lacking in most other bossa nova.

For whatever reason, his music again became popular in the international community in the mid- to late-1980s, as his music once again filled the living rooms of young and middle-aged bourgeois homes as yuppies tried to show how “cultured” they were, which again was a shame, because the music was far better than many of its “fans” probably realized. Still, the revival was enough that Jobim started hitting the road to tour, and playing and recording music (live and in the studio) both in Brazil and the U.S. It was on one such tour, in 1994, that Jobim died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 67.
Nowadays, Jobim’s music is really only known in the states by people who may have heard “Girl from Ipanema” or in the above-55-years-old demographic. The cheap commercialization of his early production still abounds (just go to your local Borders and take a gander at the jazz section). All of this is an enormous shame, because, despite its apparent simplicity, Jobim’s music revealed subtle complexities in the versions he himself recorded, with strings quietly swelling to add depth, subtle changes in tone and timber, and, later in his career, increasing instrumental experimentation. His bossa nova material is still top notch – just listen to the albums Wave or Stone Flowers, both with just instrumental songs, and the true beauty of bossa nova becomes crystal clear. It’s not hard to see why so many artists both thought they could also do that and failed so miserably.

Historical Image of the Day

Robert and Helen Lynd, sociologists, authors of the classic Middletown study about social stratification in Munice, Indiana, 1929

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Remember the Clintons

I've been bemused over the past two weeks as people have expressed outrage over the Clintons' tactics. From using race against Barack Obama to trying to steal the Michigan primary, Hillary and Bill Clinton have dismayed progressives.

And people are surprised by this?

I've read many Democratic bloggers, usually of the semi-moderate persuasion, usually in their mid-30s or older, who look back on the Clinton years as good years. They can't believe this is what they are seeing.

But their romanticized view of the Clinton years is off base. Sure, compared to George W. Bush, Clinton looks good. But that's like remembering back to the Millard Fillmore presidency as pretty good while dealing with James Buchanan. Clinton and Fillmore weren't the disasters that Bush and Buchanan are/were. But they sure weren't good.

It's too early for historians to have really looked at the Clinton years. But many commentators blame the lack of progressive legislation on the rise of the Republicans and the 1994 election. That is certainly part of it. But Clinton didn't exactly try very hard either. Between his personal behavior that gave the media and the Republicans more than enough ammo to avoid talking about substantive policy to his policy of triangulation (and the loathsome hiring of Dick Morris as an advisor) to the way Clinton could only seem to function if he was under attack, he sucked. After the summer of 1993, almost nothing good came out of the Clinton White House. When the health care reforms failed and Clinton caved on the gays in the military issue, it was all over. Clinton was fighting for nothing more than personal power.

Thus, a widespread dismay over Clinton and the search for an alternative. Unfortunately, that alternative was Nader.

I am reminded now why I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. There's no question--it was a colossal mistake to support Nader. But I can again understand what drove me to that--the political choices and priorities of Bill Clinton. Hillary doesn't seem different in any meaningful way on this front.

I'll vote for her this time because I am afraid of Roe being overturned after John Paul Stevens dies. But I sure hope to heavens that I don't have to do that.

Remind Me Why I Root For This Team Again?

It seems that the Seattle Mariners have traded Adam Jones and others to Baltimore for Erik Bedard.
Bedard is a good pitcher. Him and Felix give the Mariners a pretty good rotation. But players like Adam Jones come along for a team maybe twice in ten years if you are lucky. He is the best prospect the Mariners have had since Alex Rodriguez. He is going to be a special player for a very long time.

So why trade him? Bill Bavasi is desperate. He knows that he is still working for his job. Now that the Mariners luckily had a good season last year, despite a terrible run-scoring differential, expectations are high. If they suck again this year, he will be gone. So he makes the trade to save his job. Which it probably will do for a year or two. But that's all. Not only does Seattle have to resign Bedard, but he is several years older than Jones. His peak time is already here. In 3 years, Jones is going to be a monster. But Bavasi is an old-time baseball guy. He holds to the adage that you can't have enough pitching. This is absurd as you can find functional pitching far easier than consistent hitting. They may not have the next Bedard in their system but they sure as hell don't have the next Adam Jones.

Plus, the Mariners are not going to be a good offensive or defensive team this year. It's Ichiro, Beltre, and a whole lot of question marks. With AJ and some sketchy pitching, they are probably an 81 win team. Now they might win 86. But they still aren't going to the playoffs. And they still don't have any kind of sensible long-term plan for winning.


Lyrad's Random 10

"D.B. Blues" is a Lester Young song, but I don't have to tell anybody how great a bandleader Young was. This song is off of a compilation featuring trombone virtuoso Vic Dickenson, who played in virtually every major big band from the '30s into the early '50s. From Young to Sydney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins and on, Dickenson was everywhere. He was primarily a session man, but eventually led his own bands by the end of his career. The trombone has never been the most respected instrument for soloing in jazz, though the instrument was represented in most big bands, but Vic Dickenson was the exception. He was often granted extended solos that illuminated his breathy tones, much the same sound on his trombone that Stan Getz found on the saxophone, and his speedy delivery at any tempo. The solos are surprisingly emotive yet still maintain the energy level necessary for success in early big bands. I'd recommend the album this track comes from, "A True Trombone Master," from the EPM Jazz Archives label, but it is long out of print. This is too typical of jazz labels, which pull albums off the market without replacing them with viable alternatives, reissues, or the like. Especially for the more obscure artists and session players like Vic Dickenson, the market is never going to show large sales for them, but there are enough fans of early jazz to at least keep the albums marginally available to those who love it.

1. Lester Young w/ Vic Dickenson--D.B. Blues
2. Bob Dylan--The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
3. Rodion Shchedrin--Concerto cantabile for Violin & Orchestra; 1.Moderato cantabile (Maxim Vengerov, Vn; London SO, Mstislav Rostropovich, cond.)
4. John Zorn--Worms (from the soundtrack to She Must Be Feeling Things)
5. Nour Eddine--Dar Eddamanat
6. Roy Budd--Ride on (from the soundtrack to Soldier Blue)
7. Al Cook--When a Man Gets in Trouble
8. Radiohead--Anyone Can Play Guitar
9. Johannes Brahms--Symphony No.4 in e, Op.98; 1.Allegro non troppo (Cologne RSO; Rudolph Bashai, cond.)
10. Iceburn--Drop

Historical Image of the Day

1965 meeting of the East Coast Homophile Organizations conference, a meeting of early of gay rights groups.

Carnaval Outside of Rio

I've commented before on Seth Kugel's colonialist writing style for the NY Times Travel section, and this article doesn't lose any of that tone, but Kugel does have an article worth reading about Carnaval outside of Rio. This year, I am unfortunately trapped in Rio for Carnaval (which starts next Friday). Last year, I was fortunate enough to escape Rio for Carnaval, and it was one of the best things I've ever done. Sure, Rio's celebration is quite a spectacle, but it's also expensive and loud, everything shuts down, and the city gets flooded with tourists, and the celebration itself has become so commercial that some of the grassroots expressions that Carnaval originally established have disappeared.

That's certainly not the case in other parts of the country. "Carnaval" is not one uniform celebration across the country, and Kugel's article chronicling 4 different options in 4 very different parts of the country just further demonstrates that fact. Every region has its own celebration, its own cultural expression, and each Carnaval brings its own cultural and regional particularities into place. Racial and sexual identities that tend to be marginalized in rural societies are on full display and celebration. The rhythms and music, while not professional, are still extremely compelling, and as I commented last year, the fact that Carnaval outside of Rio is far more a labor of love than a commercial enterprise gives it even more meaning (at least to me). For anybody who considers coming to Brazil for Carnaval, or who is just interested in Carnaval, it is well worth checking out Kugel's article, just to see how much more Brazil has to offer outside of Rio.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Time on Kristofferson, 1959

For some reason, Time did a profile of Kris Kristofferson. In 1959. I have no idea why. I think they were just doing a story on a Rhodes Scholar and it happened to be Kristofferson. It's titled "The Old Oxonian Blues." But it was about Kris. It's not like he was about to hit the big time. His first album didn't come out for another 11 years.


Does Anybody Give a Speech Like Obama?

In my opinion, no. I'm pulling for Obama for a number of reasons, both ideologically and practically. But in the wake of his Iowa speech and now his South Carolina speech, a new part of me is pulling for him just to look forward to at least 4 years of speeches from him. Whatever his detractors may say, the man sure can give a great speech.

Sean Wilentz. Good Historian, Political Hack

It's probably not in my best interest to come after famous historians, but I can't help myself. Not when they decide to use their historical knowledge in service of political hackery. Sean Wilentz does just that. It's clear that Wilentz wants to be the Clinton's Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a historian in service of the nation's most powerful Democratic family.

That's fine and all. But don't bend your historical interpretations and make dubious assertions to do so. That's what Wilentz does in his Los Angeles Times op-ed. Wilentz attacks Obama for comparing himself to Lincoln and Kennedy, saying that Obama is wrong in claiming that they didn't have tons of experience before becoming president. Wilentz is just not right about this. In fact, Lincoln's experience matches up quite reasonably with Obama's, for whatever that is worth. Wilentz is also wrong, like the Clintons, in discussing Obama's claim that under Reagan, the Republicans were the party of ideas. Obama is, of course, exactly right. Clinton attacked him for saying this, accusing him saying they were good ideas. Obama never did that. Yet Wilentz reinforces that bogus argument.

Allow me to quote Kevin Levin on this issue.

"I've commented on the recent public declarations of support for the various presidential candidates by historians. I don't have a serious problem with such declarations; however, if you choose to enter the public debate please don't ask me to interpret your words as those of a historian rather than as just another political hack.

Historians cannot expect all politicians and their supporters to know as much about American history as, say, John F. Kennedy, who won the Pulitzer Prize for a work of history. But it is reasonable to expect respect for the basic facts -- and not contribute to cheapening the historical currency.

What basic facts is Wilentz referring to? The misuse and abuse of history is the bread and butter of politics. If the Obama team wants to praise Reagan or compare their candidate's history with Lincoln and Kennedy than so be it. There is no fact of the matter here. Wilentz would have us believe that his support for Clinton plays no role in the way he interprets the comparative claims made by the Obama camp. I find that to be a "cheapening" of Wilentz's "historical currency."


Shorter Romney: How Dare You Accuse Me of Taking a Sensible Position. I Demand an Immediate Apology!!!!

Mitt Romney is demanding an apology from John McCain. Why? McCain accused Romney of having once supported a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.

This shows how utterly out of touch the Republican candidates are with the American people. A majority of the nation wants out of Iraq, either now or very soon. Yet Republicans are fighting to see whose position is closest to a president with an approval rating south of 30%.

Does McCain or Romney really expect to argue in front of the entire electorate that we should stay in Iraq for the long haul? Are they really looking to be the next Barry Goldwater?

Historical Image of the Day

Aimee Semple McPherson, preacher, key figure in the history of American evangelicalism, fraud, died of drug overdose.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Mister Trend's Random 10

Generally, the people I know who listen to Tom Waits love his early stuff up through Rain Dogs, the album this week's seventh song "Clap Hands" is from. Personally, while I like his early stuff, I really dig Waits's latter stuff. Bone Machine is good, and I really like Alice and Blood Money. Real Gone is probably one of my 3 favorites by him (though most everybody I know who has heard it thought it was garbage), and his Orphans collection from a few years back was great. All this stuff has such a raw, circus-like, bizarre element to it, I just prefer it a lot to his jazz/nightclub-style stuff from the 1970s and early 1980s. Just a weird guy with a great output, all around (just see Fishing with John for the weirdness).

1. "Dona do Raio/O Vento/A Dona do Raio e do Vento" - Maria Bethania
2. "Fire Coming Out of the Monkey's Head" - Gorillaz
3. "Mateus Enter" - Chico Science & Nação Zumbi
4. "Caravan" - Efterklang
5. "Straighten Up" - Eddie Hazel
6. "Dying Gambler" - Blind Willie McTell
7. "Clap Hands" - Tom Waits
8. "Le Sacre du Printemps - Action rituelle des ancetres" - Igor Stravinsky
9. "Don't Be Afraid, You Have Just Got Your Eyes Closed" - Múm
10. "Next to Nothing" - Fatboy Slim

The Immorality of American Wars: Vietnam

I cannot recommend highly enough the fantastic Nick Turse article about Vietnamese amputees at Asia Times Online. Turse allows these two amputees, Nguyen Van Tu and Pham Van Chap, to tell their stories of life as amputees. Both had a leg torn off by the Americans or South Vietnamese in the war.

Pham Van Chap asks a basic question of American readers: "Americans caused many losses and much suffering for the Vietnamese during the war, do Americans now feel remorse?"

Turse writes:

I wish I could answer "yes". Instead, I tell him that most Americans are totally ignorant of the pain of the Vietnamese people, and then I think to myself, as I glance at the ample pile of tiny, local potatoes on his floor, about widespread American indifference to civilians killed, maimed, or suffering in other ways in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Precisely. Americans don't care. I don't think they ever did. Just like we don't care today about what happens to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the fundamental immorality of modern American war. It is one thing to not care about the wounded of your enemies. No one expected us to worry about the wounded of Nazi Germany. They were our enemy. Of course, geopolitical concerns led us to care an awful lot about reconstructing Germany, but that's an issue for another day.

Beginning in the Cold War though, we supposedly fought wars around the world to help the people we were fighting for. Central America, Vietnam, Korea, endless CIA operations around the world. In name at least, these were about protecting the people from some sort of oppression. Yet, not only did we promote oppressive dictatorships on our own, but we showed no interest at all in how our wars affected average people.

One might argue that is not the job of a nation at war. OK, perhaps. But what about when that war is over? Don't we have some kind of obligation to the people we were fighting for? Shouldn't we at least provide them prosthetic legs or arms? Help them eat?

But no, we don't care. Most war supporters sit at home and see the wars through the eyes of America kicking ass. The people on the ground aren't people, they are video game people. The U.S. government is playing a giant video game for them and they love watching it. They don't care any more about an Iraqi, Vietnamese, or Salvadoran than they do about the nameless characters they blew away on their video games.

Nothing is going to change in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if we win these wars, if we can win such conflicts, does anyone really think there will be the slightest interest in reconstruction? The tiniest amount of money to putting people's lives back together again?

I sure don't believe we will. And that cuts to the fundamental immorality of American wars since 1945.

Let me close by quoting Turse again:

I wish I could tell Nguyen Van Tu that most Americans know something of his country's torture and torment during the war. I wish I could tell him that most Americans care. I wish I could tell him that Americans feel true remorse for the terror visited upon the Vietnamese in their name, or that an apology is forthcoming and reparations on their way. But then I'd be lying.

Erik's Random 10

1. Bonnie Prince Billy, God's Small Song
2. Jason Isbell, Dress Blues
3. Ginger Baker Trio, Taney Country
4. Sly & The Family Stone, There's A Riot Goin' On
5. Dave Alvin, You've Got Me
6. Bill Frisell, I Know You Care
7. John Hartford, Annual Waltz
8. Orgone, Do Your Thing
9. Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time, Saturday Night Special
10. Warren Zevon, Play It All Night Long

Historical Image of the Day

Jamestown Massacre, 1622.

347 English killed in effort by the Powhatan Confederacy to drive the English out of Virginia.

Sadly, it failed.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Forgotten American Blogging: Ella Baker

Kevin Levin, the writer of the excellent blog Civil War Memory, wrote this on Martin Luther King Day:

Martin Luther King Day has become too fashionable. At its worst it reinforces a skewed memory of the Civil Rights Movement as beginning with his organization of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and ending with his assassination in 1968. It also obscures the complexity of organization on the grassroots level and the fissures that existed within the movement that followed generational, geographic, and gender lines. King's words are no doubt stirring and his actions are a model of civic dissent, but we run the risk of reducing the struggle for civil rights and its importance to the broader narrative of freedom down to a few choice lines and poor generalizations.

I could not agree more. I have complained about this myself. Levin chose to remember Vernon Johns on that day, a man certainly worth a Forgotten American post. Check it out.

I am going to take this opportunity to discuss another forgotten member of the civil rights movement, Ella Baker.

Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia on December 13, 1903. Her grandmother installed a sense of injustice in her, telling her stories about being whipped in slavery for refusing to marry a man her master had picked out for her. She attended Shaw University, where she began developing her activism. She graduated as valedictorian and moved to New York where she became a full-fledged activist, including joining the Young Negroes' Cooperative League in 1930, which was an early black power organization, working for black economic self-sufficiency. She taught courses on African and labor history, as well as consumer education while working for the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal. She worked to free the Scottsboro Boys, protested against fascism, and more generally engaged in the social and political ferment of the 1930s.

Baker started her work for the NAACP in 1940. Beginning in 1943, she served as director of various branches of the organization, which she continued until 1946. In 1952, she became president of the New York City branch of the NAACP where she worked on issues of police brutality and school desegregation. In 1957, she left the NAACP to work for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that had been founded by Martin Luther King, Jr. following the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott. While working for the SCLC she organized voter registration campaigns among other things.

But here's the thing--because she was a woman, her incredible organizing skills were almost completely ignored by the extremely sexist leadership of the civil rights organizations. They had almost no one more qualified than Baker, but they never utilized her talents to the extent she deserved. Baker was also a strong feminist and had involved herself in women's rights campaigns since very early in her activist career.

Baker knew this of course and chafed against King, Ralph Abernathy, and the other sexist leaders of the movement. She respected their work on civil rights of course; that's why she stuck it out. But she was constantly frustrated, both by the overt sexism and because she knew she should take a larger role in the movement.

Rather than wait for the SCLC to understand gender equality, Baker moved on her own. When the four North Carolina A&T students engaged in their sit-in at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth's, she recognized the potential of student activism far faster than the men of the SCLC. One thing that is forgotten in traditional narratives of the civil rights movement is that by 1960, it had stagnated. The success in Montgomery brought international fame to King and he continued to speak out and work on the issues. But there was deep disagreement within the SCLC on where to go next. Some wanted more bus boycotts, others wanted to work within the courts to overturn segregation. Remember that the only event between 1955 and 1960 that ever gets talked about is the Little Rock desegregation case and King had very little to do with that.

It took students to get the civil rights movement back on track. Baker quit the SCLC after the sit-ins. She organized a conference of the new student activists spreading across the South at her alma mater, Shaw University. Out of that was born the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which served as the core student organization within the movement until the late 1960s. Baker was their mentor; an experienced veteran who understood the long history of organizing around civil rights, a woman who encouraged students' direct actions and both listened to their issues and provided guidance and leadership. Among the activities that SNCC coordinated was the Freedom Rides in 1961 and the Mississippi voter registration that led to Freedom Summer in 1964. Baker herself played a key role in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964 that traveled to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City to challenge the seating of the all-white delegation from Mississippi.

After 1964, Baker moved back to New York where much of her family lived. She took a bit more of a backseat on national campaigns after this, but remained active the rest of her life. She played an important role in the Free Angela Davis campaign, traveling the country speaking about the issue in 1972. She supported the independence movements of the developing world and particularly spoke out in favor of Puerto Rican independence and against South African apartheid.

Moreover, Baker got pretty annoyed as she saw the King-centered narrative of the civil rights movement developed. She notoriously said things like, "[the] movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement" and "There is also the danger in our culture that because a person is called upon to give public statements and is acclaimed by the establishment, such a person gets to the point of believing that he is the movement." Even during the movement's height, she told activists that they needed to take control of the movement and not rely on a leader with "heavy feet of clay." Baker reflected the feelings of many of the more direct-action oriented in the movement on these issues.

Baker continued the struggle until her death on December 13, 1986, her 83rd birthday. Both during her life and after her death, Baker's role has been consistently ignored by mainstream narratives of the civil rights movements. Among historians, Baker is mentioned but most of us tell fairly traditional stories about the movement with King in the middle. Even if we do focus on student radicalism, as I do when I teach the survey, Baker gets less attention than she should. It's far sexier to talk about the direct actions than the planning that went into those actions. Students are more interested in freedom riders being beaten by Alabama mobs than conferences in North Carolina. Yet none of this would have happened in the same way without the leadership of Ella Baker.

Baker believed strongly that collective power could counteract evil. In her own words:

“The major job was getting people to understand that they had something within their power that they could use, and it could only be used if they understood what was happening and how group action could counter violence…”

While she was talking about southern racism specifically, we can apply these words to fighting any sort of evil. Baker also fought against top-down political structures within activist communities, working to promote the participatory democracy that is so prevalent within social justice movements today. While occasionally I have found decentralized structures frustrating because it can lead to a lack of things getting done, consensus building also serves to empower people and get members to buy into organizations and the ideas they work around.

Where Baker is remembered is the activist community. I particularly want to point people to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which seems to work on African-American and urban issues in Oakland.

Unlike many of the people I write about in this series, Baker does have an excellent biography. Barbara Dansby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2003. Ted Glick has a wonderful remembrance of Baker at ZNet as well. There is also a 1981 documentary about Baker but it doesn't seem available.

Bottled Water Sucks

Bottled water is one of the most pointless products we consume. It is often no cleaner or better than tap water. In fact, it not uncommonly comes straight out of the tap, including one company that uses the Houston municipal water system. It is expensive. $1 for a bottle???? That is more expensive than gas. For something you can get out of your tap safely for free. Plus, bottled water is such an invented consumer product. Nobody drank bottled water 25 years ago. Today, everyone does. Has our tap water become less safe? No.

Bottled water also has tremendous environmental costs. While some people recycle those bottles, most just toss them in the trash. Ashley Braun has a great piece at Grist showing the damage these bottles cause.

They take three times as much water as they hold to create. Plastics make up 11% of landfills and no small amount of this are bottles. Much of the bottled water is coming out of the Great Lakes (and what bad has ever been dumped in those?), literally leading to lower water levels. The plastic in the bottles comes from oil.

There simply is no good reason for people with safe water systems to consume bottled water. If you want to make a simple move to help the environment, stop using these bottles. Buy a Nalgene bottle instead. It's still plastic but you can use it endlessly. You'll save tons of water, oil, and space by doing so.

Historical Image of the Day

Barbara Stanwyck, 1942

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Concert Review--Bill Frisell

Some days, you just feel lucky. Bill Frisell with Tony Scherr and Kenny Wolleson came through town last night. Instead of playing at one of the concert halls or college facilities, instead of playing in a larger venue in Dallas or Austin where he could have charged a lot more for tickets, he came into Denton and played at Dan’s Silverleaf, the little bar that I’ve gone on and on about for a while. Because of the university (UNT was the first school to offer a jazz degree), there is a deserved reputation for music, but it still seems hard to believe that a little place like Dan’s is going to draw a world-class name like Frisell. I’m not complaining, of course. How Dan is able to get people like this to come is beyond me, but more power to him.

The place was sold out and turning people away at the door. The last time I had seen that was for the Alan Holdsworth show a couple of years ago. I didn’t make the same mistake twice: I bought tickets in advance. There weren’t a lot of seats, but I paid the extra $5 for one and, at a very reasonable $25, sat about six feet from the stage. I’d seen Frisell before at a concert hall in Santa Fe, the name of which I don’t remember, with a larger group and at Yoshi’s in Oakland with the Intercontinentals, but those shows weren’t anywhere near this small or intimate. For anybody who has seen him, to say his show is awesome is redundant. For those who haven’t seen him, his show is awesome. Guitar, bass, and drums work very well for a jazz band, though it’s not used all that often, and Frisell does it the best. His old trio with Joey Baron and Kermit Driscoll is one of the best groups I’ve ever heard, and that doesn’t slight Scherr and Wolleson, who are both amazing in their own right. What Bill Frisell does to tie everything together is so great, though I can’t really put my finger on what it is. Unlike a lot of great guitar players, he doesn’t play a lot of notes, but those he does play are some of the most expressive I’ve ever heard. His guitar speaks and, it’s one thing on an album, but live it’s really something to witness. They played a little bit of everything; from jazz standards to Amazing Grace to some stuff that reminded me of Frippatronics, and every song was great. He gave a lot of time to Scherr, who often played the lead parts with the bass, his fingers doing complex dances along the strings in his solos. Frisell always gives a lot of time for his band to shine, and they were great. In my pantheon of guitar players, he ranks right at the top with Django Reinhardt, and I feel as lucky as I possibly can to have been granted the opportunity to see him. Thanks Dan.

Modern Music Criticism

Sator Arepo found a particularly horrible Bernard Holland article on how much he doesn't like modernist music in the Times. He proceeds to tear it apart.

One sentence really sums up the problem critics have with modern music:

You wish it was 1774 and you're at the new Haydn symphony.

Yep, that's about right. So-called classical music critics are so beholden to the canon that they cannot handle innovation at all. Holland does in fact wish it was 1774 and he was at the new Haydn symphony. He probably dreams about it at night, in between the nightmares he has of Elliott Carter and George Crumb.

Rather than provide intelligent criticism of modernist music, Holland and others dismiss it outright as unlistenable, i.e., completely unchallenging and exactly what they heard their whole lives.

Critics like Holland remind me of Bad Company fans. What?!!???!! Am I comparing Mozart to Paul Rodgers? No. While Mozart only wishes in his grave that he could write "Feel Like Makin' Love," I'm not denying the greatness of most canonized figures. But like classic rock fans who listen to the radio hoping to hear "Hotel California" for 4000th time, too many members of the classical music institutions just want to hear the same thing over and over again. Interpreted by different people, it is true, but ultimately they want no challenges.

Of course, one can legitimately criticize much modernist music. It is often an investment. It's one that I usually find worth making, though when we get to pieces like Morton Feldman's "For John Cage" which only goes on for around 80 minutes (literally), I begin to get impatient. But to dismiss it outright because it makes you think and work a little bit is absurd. However, such absurdity never stopped the Times from hiring writers.

The Failure of the Thai Coup

The Siam Sentinel has some interesting observations on the failure of the Thai coup. If you remember a year ago, the Thai military committed a coup d'etat to get rid of Thaksin, the nation's populist prime minister. Thaksin was loathed by the country's elite and rising middle class, but beloved by the large rural populace. They hated him for what he stood for and who he represented, but also widespread corruption (likely true) and his inability to crush the rebellion from the Muslim dominated southern provinces.

"The palace-backed coup d’etat achieved almost nothing. Though the new constitution allows many of the senators to be appointed, one would have expected the generals who led the coup to have done more with their time in Government House. They not only failed to crush Thaksin’s powerbase, they may have alienated a large number of their one-time supporters. The general impression is that the coup, though initially seen as a positive, has been bad for Thailand. The generals demonstrated a lack of competence in economic policy, failed to bring peace to the South, and engaged in shady deals (though few Thai newspapers have openly labeled these dealings corruption). Though there are still fears that other opportunistic generals could stage another coup in the near future, the military will now have a harder time justifying its actions. But does the failure of the Sonthi-Surayud government also highlight the waning power of the royal palace?"

I kind of doubt this last bit. One cannot overestimate the influence of the King on all aspects of Thai life. He is aging and I understand the next king has authoritarian tendencies that are likely to be controversial. On the other hand, the palace backed the coup and the coup leaders were turned out in the recent vote.

Coup leaders lacked the will and political power to change Thai politics permanently. The problem with a coup is that if you don't have the ability to oppress the opposition, you become a joke when you find out that the populace doesn't support you. This is what happened in Thailand. Coup leaders inability to solve any of the problems of the Thaksin, combined with his party's continued popularity among the rural poor, doomed the coup. Good riddance.

Stimulating the Economy

Joseph Stiglitz provides several possible ideas for stimulating the economy. Unfortunately, they all make far too much sense for the Bush administration to implement.

Stiglitz suggests radical ideas like expanding the size of unemployment checks, federal assistance to state and local governments, and a bigger overall budget for education. You know, things that would actually help people. Crazy.

But of course Bush won't do this. Since he has imbibed deeply of the tax-cut kool aid, his policies exist primarily of creating and extending tax cuts. This will only help the rich. Some small tax rebate will provide a very brief respite for the poor and middle-class but will ultimately do nothing.

Given Bush's absolute lack of flexibility on everything, I see little reason to think that anything positive will come out of this administration in the next year as the economy continues to tank.

Historical Image of the Day

Armored car during war games, Camp Livingston, Louisiana , 1941

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Overall, this has been kind of a bad day. Heath Ledger's death sucks. I found out this morning that a paper I had submitted to a conference in Paris did not get accepted. I also found a stain on a shirt that is not going to come out. Bummers all around.

But the Oscars always bring a smile to my face.

Shockingly, the Oscars seem to have gotten a lot right this year, probably for the first time in my lifetime.

I'm not prepared to list my best movies of the year yet (have to wait until the day before the Oscars so I can watch more of them). But they seem to have made good choices all around.

Best Picture--No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood are unassailable choices. I was pleasantly surprised to see Juno nominated--not only is it completely deserving but it is not the kind of movie that gets nominated often. I have no desire to see Atonement, though I guess I will now. There's always some sort of costume drama that looks utterly uninteresting and Atonement was the 2007 version. Michael Clayton is a fine movie, but has no business here. The Savages and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead are significantly better, as are Knocked Up and Superbad. Still, it's hardly a bad film.

The best actor nominations are all pretty defensible. I haven't seen Sweeney Todd or In the Valley of Elah, but by most accounts Depp is good and Tommy Lee Jones deserves a nomination on principle. It's hard to not see this going to Lewis and that is fine. I was glad to see both Hal Holbrook and Tom Wilkinson nominated for best supporting actor. Holbrook should win, but it will probably be Javier Bardem, and again, that's fine. I have only seen 2 of the 5 best actress nominees. Ellen Page is deserving as is Laura Linney. That seems like a pretty open category. The Oscars love their big stars and that might favor Cate Blanchett, but by all accounts that Elizabeth movie was atrocious. Blanchett seems like she could be the favorite for the supporting actress category. I thought her performance is I'm Not There was mimicry instead of real acting, but people seem to like imitations as acting. Me, I'm happy to watch Don't Look Back for that Dylan. That said, Blanchett is fine in the role. What could doom her though is the split vote between the two categories. I suppose they'll be some support for Ruby Dee and it's hard to argue with that. I thought Tilda Swinton was quite good. The real winner should be Catherine Keener for Into the Wild, but she got gypped out of the nomination. Of the 3 I've seen in this category, I'll be rooting for Swinton.

I was also quite pleased at movies that did not receive many nominations. I feared that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Into the Wild would be best pictures nominees; not only did they not deserve it, but they are both rather bad movies. For some reason, if you make a slow pointless movie that tries to say something and put it in iconic American scenery, the critics love it regardless of the film's actual quality. Into the Wild has excellent supporting acting throughout though. I would have liked to see a little more love for Eastern Promises, but I'm comfortable with the single nomination for Viggo.

What's great is the lack of any obviously laughable choices. Usually the laughable choices win--Crash, Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, Chariots of Fire, Dances with Wolves, Chicago, etc. So if the ceremony actually happens this year, I can watch with comfort.

Now let's hope they don't make my head explode by pairing Celine Dion with Ennio Morricone again.

Heath Ledger, RIP

I was going to write about the Oscars, and I probably still will, but the nominations are shadowed by the death of Heath Ledger. As I write this, I don't know why he died. Certainly when a 28 year old actor dies, one suspects drugs, but maybe it's not. It really doesn't matter.

Ledger will always be remembered for his brilliant role in Brokeback Mountain, one of the greatest films of the decade. He turned Ennis Del Mar into a truly tragic character, a man who lived in an intolerant time and place, a man who knew the kind of person he was but had no emotional capacity to express himself except with the single man he loved. The final scene of that film, with him speaking to the clothing of his dead lover Jack Twist, is one of the most powerful conclusions to a film I have ever seen. It continues to haunt me today, particularly with Ledger's death.

I haven't seen too many of his other films. I thought his work in I'm Not There was really quite strong given what he had to work with. Everyone talks about Cate Blanchett's performance, which was fine but is really just a impression of Dylan in Don't Look Back. Ledger had to create one of Dylan's more abstracted personas and I thought did a good job showing Dylan as more of a normal artist, which is still to say a fucked up and incredibly selfish guy. For me, it was the strongest performance in the film, along with Charlotte Gainsbourg as his wife. I thought he was also very strong in Monster's Ball, where he played Billy Bob Thornton's son who kills himself after Thornton berates him for his weakness in leading a man to execution.

But for Brokeback alone, Heath Ledger will always be remembered.

Historical Image of the Day

President John F. Kennedy signing Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, August 6, 1963

Monday, January 21, 2008

Portland Trail Blazers--Smarter Than Your Average Team

I have long hated the culture of stupidity that surrounds professional athletes. It's probably the worst in baseball, but in all sports, if you read a book or have an opinion that doesn't conform to evangelical Christianity or right-wing politics, you are seen as a freak.

So I was surprised when I read J.A. Adande's story about the Portland Trail Blazers taking a trip to see sites surrounding Martin Luther King in Atlanta before today's game with the Hawks. I thought, cool, but of course it's MLK Day and people might make exceptions for it.

But no,

The NBA schedule just happened to put the Blazers here at this time. Without knowing it, the league picked the right team. Chris Bowles, Portland's director of player programs, tries to schedule educational field trips when the team is on the road, adding a dose of black history to the usual NBA itinerary of arena-airport-hotel-mall-club. On this road trip, in Boston, they stopped by the Massachusetts Archives and Commonwealth Museum, which featured an exhibit on Massachusetts blacks in the Civil War. On their next stop, in New Orleans, they are scheduled to meet with Mayor Ray Nagin. Past visits have included the civil rights museum at the site of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where King was assassinated.

Wow. As if I didn't like this team enough, their staff is teaching the team about African-American history. Awesome.

Democrats--Still in a Good Place

I disagree somewhat with Paul Starr's assessment that the Democrats may have lost their favored status in the 2008 race. I suppose he's writing a cautionary tale here more than really thinking the Democrats are going to lose. And he's probably smart for doing that. We all need to hear it.

But I still think the Democrats are in great shape for the election. The battles between Obama and Hillary will fade away quickly once the nominee is decided, which could be fairly quick if Obama can't pull out some wins in the next 2 weeks. Starr worries that the Democratic base could lose their enthusiasm for the candidate, but I don't think that will happen. It's true that the netroots has no love lost for Hillary but only a complete freaking idiot would vote for a 3rd party candidate this time around. Unless people have learned nothing from the past 8 years, they realize that electoral politics is how change happens in this country and that another 4 years of a Republican president means the likely overturning of Roe, likely war with Iran (particularly if McCain if the winner), economic policies that serve the top 1%, and other unspeakable damage.

McCain seems like a tough candidate. But I'm not as convinced as most people on this. First, he's campaigned with relatively little energy. That's been overshadowed by the joke that is Grandpa Fred. But he's an aging man and he shows it. Second, he's not a nice guy. Americans have not seen McCain day after day on the media. He's known for exploding at reporters. How will that play? What will happen after his inherent meanness comes out? Third, his membership in the Keating Five provides a major theme that should undermine his straight talk narrative. It's old, but I think effective. Fourth, he will be campaigned in the shadow of the Bush disaster. Troop levels will have to come down in Iraq before the election--what will happen there? Look at the economy. McCain has no economic plan and is likely to fall back on standard Republican staples. Will voters want another 4 years of Republican economics? The Democrats will have the advantage on every single issue--Iraq, the economy, health care, immigration.

The Democrats, particularly if Clinton if the candidate, will have to overcome the media's collective erection for McCain. But the more people know Hillary, the more they like her. The media influences our elections, but it doesn't decide them. I feel that something bad could happen. But I don't think it will. Regardless of the nominees, I predict a Democratic landslide in the fall.

Article of the Year

Article title of the year:

"The Ocean's Hot Dog: The Development of the Fish Stick,"

By Paul Josephson in the new issue of Technology and Culture.

Given that I am teaching a course titled, "Food, Drugs, and Sex: The History of Human Bodies and the Environment" for the fall, I will be reading this awesome looking piece.

Historical Image of the Day

African-American family arriving in Chicago during the Great Migration

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Real Bill Clinton

One annoying fact of the Bush presidency is that it has many progressives look back wistfully on the Clinton years. We forget what a total bastard that guy is. This isn't a fair link really, since he seems to have taken it down, but Ari at The Edge of the American West, states:

I was one of the thousands of moronic progressives who lived through Bill Clinton’s presidency by gritting my teeth. I totally underestimated what an effective leader he was — at the time and given the givens. In retrospect, though, I think he was one of our better presidents*, perhaps even cracking the top five.

So, it has been with considerable anguish that I’ve watched him demeaning himself with his odious attacks on Barack Obama. And let me be clear: Bill should be stumping for Hillary. For more reasons than I have time to catalog. But I wish that he would campaign with more dignity. And I find his tendency to attack and then throw up his hands with a “What? Me?” expression on his face maddening. If he keeps this up, I think he’s going to end up doing Hillary more harm than good. And he’ll certainly damage the party’s reputation, as he remains, to a very great extent, the most visible and popular Democrat in the country.

But that IS Bill Clinton. This isn't an anomaly. This is what Bill Clinton has done his entire career. Clinton was not a particularly good president from my point of view, largely because he got a shockingly small amount of progressive legislation passed. He seems good now, but he was not good at the time. There is a reason many progressives voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. Really, there are many reasons. But one very important one is named Bill Clinton. We were wrong to go Nader, but we were not wrong in our sentiments about how terrible the Democratic Party had become.

Scott quotes Brian Beutler:

I don't know Bill Clinton, so I can't say why he does what he does, but it's hard not to conclude that--whether he became habituated to a way of politics in a bygone era or whether he just is this way--he's still disposed to some of the things that made liberals bristle when they were supporting him a decade ago. But the political realities in the 1990s were much different than the political realities today, and there's much, much less chance that people like Mike Tomasky will countenance the Ricky Ray Rectoring, welfare-reforming, Obama-smearing side of Bill Clinton now, when such behavior isn't really construable as an unfortunate side-effect of the historical moment.

Indeed, but who is going to do anything about it? Although the Democratic Party voters as a whole seem to want to distance themselves from this kind of distasteful politics, Clinton is doing things the way he always has--nasty and self-serving. And we are so desperate to end our long national nightmare that as bad as the Clintons might be, I have to think that nearly all progressives will hold their noses and vote them back in.

The thing about this incident is that it helps me believe that a Hillary Clinton presidency is going to be a lot like the Bill Clinton presidency. Triangulation, a lack of progressive policies, pandering in the worst way, throwing allies under the bus. In other ways, kind of bad. But still a zillion times better than George W. Bush.