Sunday, July 6, 2014

Forward to Social Structures of Direct Democracy

About a year ago, I was contacted by John Asimakopoulos, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York. He asked me to write an introduction to his new book, Social Structures of Direct Democracy. Professor Asimakopoulos had written an intriguing and probing analysis of new ways to promote democratic governance. It's a discussion that is more necessary and timely than ever, and I'm proud to have been a part of it. That book has just been published, which means I can share with you what I wrote last fall:

The absurdities of our present political moment would tax the capacities of the most fervent satirists. The body politic bleeds from a series of self-inflicted wounds. We lurch from crisis to crisis like a hyperactive adolescent, seemingly unable to come to reasonable agreement on matters from the vital to the trivial.
The wealthiest nation on earth appears increasingly ungovernable: we have one political party unable to say no to its base, and another unable to say yes. The forces of oligarchy and reaction exert ever-wider control over our political, commercial and communications systems, yet are unable to buy themselves any kind of stability. We have gone well beyond ignoring the lessons of history; at present the lessons of history are being beaten with a truncheon in a back alley.
Meanwhile (and not coincidentally), the USA’s mentor and patron saint, the Global Capitalist Empire, is having trouble putting the finishing touches on its 500-year project to unify the planet under its ethos. After five centuries of conquest, colonization, co-optation, coups, countercoups, and free trade agreements, the Empire was tantalizingly close to ultimate success, seemingly a just a few years away from KFCs in Havana and Pyongyang.
And yet no sooner do they tack down one corner of the carpet when another comes undone, necessitating further efforts to bring recalcitrant populations in line. This global game of Whack-a-Mole continues with storm clouds looming on the horizon, in the form of a permanent alteration of the weather patterns that made human civilization possible in the first place. This, to say the least, could affect the bottom line.
What these two conundra have in common is that they are the result of a massively unequal distribution of resources – indeed, of systems which virtually guarantee a massively unequal distribution of resources. The systems invite conflict, and sustain their own unsustainability. Stein’s Law tells us that “if something is unsustainable, it will stop.” But perhaps a corollary to that is that it will not stop until its unsustainability is as obvious as being hit over the head with a two-by-four.
Our body politic, however, continues to whack itself with the metaphorical lumber, and though it staggers, it does not stop – yet.
Or rather, it did stop, for a few weeks in October of 2013. Ongoing services to the Empire continued uninterrupted, of course, but programs benefitting ordinary citizens ground to a halt while their elected representatives engaged in a game of chicken, through gritted teeth, over how much austerity to impose on a struggling economy. Eventually the differences were papered over and the lawmakers settled back to prepare for the next crisis.
The United States of America has been papering over its differences for so long, it’s become our default mode. We started out that way, after all, with an unworkable kludge that created the undemocratic Senate and Electoral College, and a friendly compromise that African-American chattel slaves should be considered three-fifths of a person – strictly for the drawing of political districts, of course. We papered over the differences between the “loyalists” and the “royalists,” and kicked the can down the road on the issue of slavery for the better part of a century.
And, incredibly, even after those differences erupted into a fratricidal civil war, they were papered over once again. The stolen election of 1876 paved the way for a backroom deal to end Reconstruction, withdraw federal troops from the south, and – concerning the rights of the emancipated slaves – kick the can down the road for yet another century. And when Dr. King and the civil rights movement finally forced the issue to be dealt with, LBJ famously remarked, as he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1965, “We have lost the South for a generation.” 
LBJ underestimated the force of that moment. For the next several generations, the nation’s electorate re-sorted itself, virtually eliminating Democrats from elected office in the South, while rendering nearly as extinct the Republican Party in the Northeast. LBJ’s successor, the machiavellian Richard Nixon, implemented a “Southern Strategy,” designed to appeal to the racial resentments of working-class whites.
This worked like a charm, until it didn’t. Over the half-century since LBJ’s prediction, the two parties, once overlapping fuzzily in ideology, became more and more polarized. African-American voters switched their loyalties away from the party of Lincoln (eventually voting Democratic by more than a 9 to 1 margin in presidential elections), while many working-class whites switched from Roosevelt Democrats to Reagan Republicans. Eventually, though, the GOP backed itself into a demographic corner, appealing to an ever-shrinking, anachronistically reactionary segment of the electorate – while simultaneously alienating the fastest-growing ethnic constituencies.
Rather than adapt to the new electorate, the GOP has instead doubled down, and then quadrupled down on the Southern Strategy. Party leaders keep trying to appeal to their steadily crankier constituency, herding them into computer-drawn gerrymanders to maximize their waning geographic strengths, resorting to ever more arcane campaign financing schemes to continue stoking resentment at non-white “takers.” Their incumbents fear primary challenges from the right far more than they do general-election voters, and the result has been an ongoing lurch rightward with every election cycle, and an increasing isolation, as more and more voters are alienated from the tarnished GOP brand. As one outflanked GOP Senator put it, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
This made the nihilistic showdown of Autumn 2013 virtually inevitable, as placating the ever-more-resentful base of the GOP required ever more brinksmanship. What we have evolved today is a parliament without a parliamentary system. The two parties are more ideologically distinct than ever, and subject to increasingly rigid party control over voting blocs in the legislative branch. But our political institutions are made to function within the deal-making, ideologically diffuse coalition politics of the 20th century. And in contrast to a parliamentary system, we have no prime minister; the president is not in control of Congress, which is often dominated by the opposition party. In short, we’ve outgrown our political infrastructure.
This is just as apparent in the pressures faced by the demographically advantaged Democrats as in the rump Republican Party. The ostensible “party of the people” is perplexingly unable to deliver a better life to its constituents, idling the economy in neutral for the first half of what promises to be a lost decade of low growth and high unemployment.
How did it come to this? Like the Republicans, the Democratic Party relies on a coalition of donor blocs to fund their media campaigns during election cycles. The GOP’s ascendency in the 1966-2008 political era coincided with the erosion of US labor unions, and their position as a counterweight to corporate influence over the Democrats. So the Democrats have become more beholden than ever to their corporate patrons. Unlike in other countries (which provide public financing and access to the public airwaves), US elections are staggeringly expensive. US politicians spend the majority of their waking hours in fund-raising activities, and precious few in legislating. They instead go hat in hand to one set of corporate donors in order to buy media access from another set.
Democrats were handed a huge electoral gift in 2008 when the global economy melted down on the Republicans’ watch, mere weeks before the presidential election. It turned out to be the biggest economic crash since the Great Depression – which should have been relatively straightforward to address, given the example of how we recovered from the Crash of ’29, the deepest in series of financial “panics” that had beset the US economy over the years. Keynesian economics, as yet unformulated in 1929, was available in 2009 to inform us of the optimal policy response: an ongoing stimulus, anchored by government spending, to put people back to work, with multiplier effects leading to a swift recovery.
History teaches us that austerity and budget-cutting only exacerbated the effects of the crash, and that historically high levels of income inequality had led to a collapse of aggregate demand. With businesses failing to hire, the government could be the employer of last resort. Moreover, a steeply progressive tax on the fortunes of the super-rich would flatten out inequality and finance the stimulus. Despite some backsliding into austerity during 1937, it had worked well under FDR, and had led to a broad-based prosperity and flattening inequality during the 50s, 60 and early 70s.
But flattening inequality, broad-based prosperity and steeply progressive taxes were exactly what US elites did not want. They’d seen that movie before, and did not want a repeat. Not only would they fight like a cornered mongoose to (successfully) retain their positions of privilege, but they also feared the political empowerment of the masses that would arise from decades of rising living standards. The last time that happened, it had led to increased demands for civil rights and an organized opposition to US military adventures. In the parlance of 1970s think tanks, this was a “crisis of democracy” – meaning entirely too much democratic participation – and US elites had worked, with considerable success, to reverse it ever since.
Ever since the 1970s, and the high-water mark of the middle class, the US political system has struggled with the contradictions of trying to formulate policy that enriches elites, while crafting campaigns to appeal to the mass of voters whose interests are being sold out. New Deal restrictions on financial chicanery were steadily undone, and workers’ incomes stagnated for decades, and the gains from increased productivity were hoarded at the top of the heap.
After a series of baroque financial bubbles, scandals and crises during the 80s, 90s and 00s, the Crash of ’08 devastated the working people of America, and while their recovery was slow and halting, elite fortunes – both personal and corporate – returned to all-time highs. Even if the Democrats could have agreed on an economic path to prosperity within their own governing coalition, the “loyal opposition” retained enough veto points over the process to stymie any such effort. The Republicans have even less regard for Keynes than for Darwin, and so have dragged their feet, insisting on further austerity during every budget negotiation.
So the Democrats have instead focused their energies on a Byzantine health-care plan, designed to move somewhat closer to the ideal of universal coverage enjoyed by all other industrial democracies, without incurring opposition from entrenched stakeholders. The result pleases neither its supporters nor its opponents, and will be the subject of endless wrangling for years to come.
Again, we’ve outgrown our political infrastructure. This Rube Goldberg system – with its ostentatious financial shenanigans, bloated tax code, corporate welfare, ineffectual representatives, stymied voters, and brobdingnagian inequality – would be laughable (or rather, more laughable) if it were not sputtering into engine lock at such a portentous historical moment. Just as our political institutions become less and less responsive, the ecological bill is coming due for the Industrial Revolution.
The science behind greenhouse gasses has been known for over a century. And scientists have been warning of the planetary danger of increased carbon in the atmosphere for over a quarter century, with increasing evidence and certainty of the calamity that awaits. But in the face of warming polar regions, melting glaciers, ocean acidification, and increasingly catastrophic weather patterns, our political system continues to hit the snooze button on any attempts to ameliorate the situation.
Worse, the forces of oligarchy and reaction are actively organizing to prevent any such attempts. Fossil fuel barons and the politicians they sponsor are on the warpath against fuel economy standards and gas taxes, let alone any efforts to transition to renewable energy sources. This recalcitrance has cost us so much time, we have only a decade or two, if that, to halt and reverse the dumping of carbon into our atmosphere. It would require a coordinated international effort equivalent to executing a hairpin turn on a one-lane mountain road, while driving a 20-story high ocean liner.
So there you have it. If our political or economic systems don’t collapse first, our ecological system certainly will. This is as much a problem for the Global Capitalist Empire as it is for the majority of humanity who happen to live under its auspices. Already shifting agricultural patterns are leading to food and water shortages, and restless populations have forced political crises and toppled governments across the globe.
But this is only the beginning. The insurance payouts alone for the demise of coastal communities worldwide will be staggering. And the necessity of adapting and re-adapting to changing weather patterns will play havoc with agricultural interests. But the massive refugee flows, spreading tropical diseases, and, inevitably, the rising tide of warfare, will massively disrupt business as usual. All this is staring us in the face, and yet our political institutions simply stare back.
And as with our economic problems, solutions to the crisis of climate change are available; it’s only political will that is lacking. Moreover, converting our economy to renewable energy would ignite a new round of job creation – at a time when the supply of labor far outstrips demand. Still, as with our economic crisis, obvious solutions are not just ignored, but actively opposed.
This is all so glaringly, head-whackingly unsustainable that something has to give. In the face of this uncertainty, we can only be certain that change is needed. And luckily, the book you hold in your hands represents a good deal of thinking about what kinds of change we require. Our institutions are failing us; we need new, more responsive institutions. Herein is a considered outline of how a more representative system might arise.
The discussion within about direct democracy contributes to the important conversation we need to be having about what will replace the political and economic systems that are so obviously failing us. Not only do we have the lessons of history to inform us about what not to do, we have generations of thought to guide us in formulating a blueprint for a better world.
We don’t have a crisis of democracy, as our elites complain; we have a shortage. But at this point we have the technological tools to enable greater voter empowerment in plebiscites and referenda, as well as the experience of proportional representation systems, fusion voting and instant runoffs to guide us. We can even use a lottery system, as with our jury pools, to select representatives; could we do worse than we do now?
And as much as capitalists like to claim that “there is no alternative” to their exploitive system, we have the experience of countless worker-owned alternatives across the globe, from Mondagron to Gaviotas to Kerala. Worker-owned cooperatives, democratically elected corporate boards and other arrangements have worked across the globe, and their failures and successes strengthen our ability to plan a more responsive economy.
If we’re going to save ourselves from ourselves, we all need to be part of the solution. We can, in fact, do more than survive. We can thrive – if we have the will to create more egalitarian institutions. We know more than enough about the mess we’re in, but we have far too little discussion about the ways ahead. Let that discussion begin on the next page.

Friday, April 25, 2014

No, nukes will not save us from climate change

A lot of people have been touting nuclear power - and more specifically, the “next generation” of nuke plants, powered by thorium instead of uranium - as the solution to climate change. Proponents claim these thorium-powered plants will be safer, cleaner and cheaper, and ameliorate issues with proliferation and long-term waste disposal.

But you’ll have to forgive me if I remain skeptical. We’ve had these kinds of promises of the nuclear panacea for generations now, and we should all know better than to take industry claims at face value. Last Sunday’s episode of Cosmos was a sobering reminder of how polluting corporations can buy the science they want, and how successful they can be at moving their PR through the media.

Far from answering all my concerns, the overstated claims of thorium reactor proponents raise a whole set of new ones. First, as far as cost goes, the thorium fuel cycle is likely to be even more costly. Thorium is not itself a fissile material and thus requires either U-235 or Pu-239 to kick-start the chain reaction; some part of the thorium then has to be converted to U-233 to take over the job. So thorium reactors will still require uranium enrichment or plutonium separation in addition to the costs of thorium mining and thorium rod production– all of which have a carbon footprint of their own. In a breeding configuration thorium reactors will need reprocessing, which is both costly and produces significant disposal issues. Moreover, the thorium fuel cycle creates highly radioactive U-232 as well as U-233 in the reactor, which raises worker safety issues that will be expensive to address.

All of this while the cost of solar and wind power continue to plummet - more than 75% over the past five years, and still falling. Germany’s solar array produces as much as 20 nuclear power plants on any given day. And if nuclear power is going to save the planet, the existing 400-odd reactors are going to have to be decommissioned (at taxpayer expense) and thousands of thorium plants costing billions of dollars apiece will have to be built to replace them, as well as the fossil fuel plants.

Second, the idea that nuclear waste can be turned into the next generation’s perfect fuel raises concerns. Nuke fans are talking about reprocessing, which is, as mentioned, both costly and toxic. You take the spent fuel rods and dissolve them in powerful solvents, and then you’re left with some new fuel, but also with leftover radioactive solids, liquids and gasses. All this nasty stuff still has to be stored for generations and/or transported to storage (at taxpayer expense), with the attendant risk of leaks and spills, overseen by corporations fueled by the profit motive, or mortal governments with uncertain oversight.

Third, thorium proponents are claiming that there are no proliferation issues. But as mentioned, the fuel cycle involves the production of U-233, which is just as useful for bomb-making as plutonium. Some proposed thorium fuel cycles require as much as 20% enriched uranium, which governments could easily divert for further enrichment to weapons-grade material. Thorium proponents are claiming that it can be less of a proliferation risk is the U-233 is mixed with U-238, but that will result in the creation of more Pu-238 as the reactor operates. So if you want thousands of these nukes all over the planet, you will also need hundreds of reliable governments and non-government actors who will avoid the temptation to divert either of these byproducts. And let me just add: no terrorist organization has ever planned to attack a solar array.

Fourth, this brings up the question of safety. A recent Forbes article claims solar and wind cause more deaths - throughout the entire production cycle - than does nuclear. The article doesn’t discuss the risks involved in solar energy production, but the mortality rate for wind and solar comes mainly from mining the raw materials, which would of course also increase for nuclear even if we switch to thorium fuel – first, because there’s more of it than uranium, and second, because we’ll be needing thousands of new thorium reactors.

Which also means that the risk of accidents will be going way up as well. And meanwhile, taxpayers still have to pick of the insurance tab. But new solar and wind technologies are already improving their safety rates, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue. Either way, industry-friendly tables like the one in Forbes rely on deaths per kilowatt-hour, which makes nukes look safer because they have produced comparatively far more energy than renewables (so far). The total number of deaths from wind and solar is surpassingly small in real terms, while there have been 20 nuclear and radiation accidents resulting in fatalities, including over 4000 deaths from Chernobyl (Moreover, avian mortality from nuclear plants is double that from wind turbines).

I think the nuclear industry has been highly successful in getting friendly treatment in the press, not just lately, but over the past sixty years. Spinning tempting tales of how we can have all the energy we need with little downside distracts us from the hard work of converting to a sustainable economy. One way or another, we have to face the limits of global production capacity, and it’s still true that conservation is our number one source of untapped energy. We can’t go on pretending we can live on cheap energy forever, with the attendant wastefulness built into our transportation, construction and agricultural systems.

I will toss the pro-nukes crowd this one bone, though: since we’ve squandered the last 25 years when we could have been addressing climate change, avoiding a 2 degree increase in global temperatures will be nearly impossible at this point, and weaning ourselves off of nuclear may have to take a back seat to massive carbon reduction efforts. But putting all our energy needs into the nuclear basket would be yet another dangerous mistake.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The New Old-Fashioned Way: Holiday Classics 1963-2013

Recently Slate critic Chris Klimek lamented the absence of all but a few contemporary compositions from the canon of holiday favorites. In the chart at left (a cool interactive version accompanies the article), Time's Chris Wilson explains why that is: older songs are in the public domain, hence more lucrative to record.

And "number of recordings" is the way the music biz measures the popularity of Christmas songs. By those lights, the chart of recordings made since 1978 contains only one song written after 1978. It's the same one Klimek identified as the sole recent entry into the canon: Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You." It's not a bad song (I particularly like Ellie Goulding's cover version), but it's not the "last great original Christmas song" either, fergawdsake.  It's been joined in the songwriter-royalty sweepstakes by a select few others from the past half-century, notably George Michael's "Last Christmas" and Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas."

But I've been collecting Christmas songs ever since my DJ days back in the mid-80s, and there are plenty of contemporary classics that get big airplay at our house every December, some of which never see the light of day on the Xmas-station radio playlists. They live in our hearts, not on the charts.

If we use 50 years ago as the cutoff date, we exclude "Do You Hear What I Hear," written in 1962, but opt in for "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," written by Andy Williams in '63 (sorry, Mom, not one of my favorites). That year also featured great Xmas albums from the Beach Boys and Phil Spector, as well as the first of the annual Xmas singles from the Beatles. Spector's still-cool LP featured just one original composition, the certifiable classic "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." The Beach Boys, though, sounded better on the old standards than on Brian's just-okay new tunes (including "Little Saint Nick" and "The Man With All the Toys"). Meanwhile, the Beatles have never commercially released their Xmas recordings, so most people are unaware of their goofy originals like "Christmastime is Here Again" and "Everywhere It's Christmas."

1968 brought the first of a series of Motown Christmas albums, mostly a compilation of predictably excellent covers of the old standards, done Motown style. It wasn't until 1999 that the label saw fit to include Marvin Gaye's original composition "I Want to Come Home for Christmas." One must also bow in the direction of James Brown's annual series of endlessly funky Xmas jams. Attention must likewise be paid to the late, great Buck Owens and his "Christmastime's A-Comin'."

The most enduring 1960s songs come from a trio of TV Christmas specials: "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch;" "Holly Jolly Christmas;" and "Christmastime is Here," from Vince Guaraldi's beloved soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.

But one of my favorites is this blast of proto-punk Xmas angst from the Sonics:

The 1970s brought Hathaway's aforementioned neo-standard, along with Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad." There were also now-ubiquitous Xmas singles from ex-Beatles John and Paul. Squeeze, The Band, the Kinks, and Elton John all made durable, if less lucrative, contributions. Albert King kicked in with "Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'," and Tom Waits gave us his "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis," unlikely to be enshrined in any Time-Life box set. And in 1973, John Prine contributed "Christmas in Prison," easily one of the best of the past five decades:

The late-20th-century tunes tend to situate more towards the secular end of the Jesus-to-Santa continuum. But the 1970s also included Jackson Browne's "Rebel Jesus" and Big Star's "Jesus Christ." These sit nicely alongside U2's 1988 cover of Woody Guthrie's "Jesus Christ," a mainstay of our holiday playlists.
Speaking of the 80s, that decade gave us what turns out to be another near-standard that might stand sturdier on its own two feet if royalties were not an issue: "Christmas Wrapping" by the Waitresses.

Songwriter Cris Butler explains how the tune was written as "a toss-off, a favor to our label," how surprising its success was, and how "blissed out" he is when he hears it on the radio today.
Two of the finest Christmas songs of the past 50 years came from the 1980s: "2000 Miles" by the Pretenders and "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues. No disrespect to Mariah Carey or Jose Feliciano, but those are stone classics. 

Also not to be forgotten is "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)" by the Ramones - written by Joey, naturally. George Michael's aforementioned "Last Christmas" was released as a Wham! single in 1984, and has repaid its author with scores of cover versions to date. 

The first (and best) of the dozen A Very Special Christmas albums, a benefit for the Special Olympics, was released in 1987. Nearly all the tracks are covers (some of them quite splendid), but Vol. 1 contains what may be the first (and best) great Xmas rap, "Christmas in Hollis," by Run-D.M.C.

In 1985, the criminally underrated NRBQ released their Xmas album, featuring the criminally underrated "Christmas Wish."  This song deserves to be a classic as much as any other from the past half-century. There have been a few covers, notably the 2011 version from She and Him. Here it is performed by its composer, ace bassist Joey Spampinato:

There are, sadly (but unsurprisingly) no Christmas songs from most of my favorite 90s bands, like Pavement, Pixies, Sonic Youth or Nirvana. Radiohead did a passable version of "Winter Wonderland," while Björk has a 15-minute video called "The Jesus Prayer," which is, however, not very Christmassy.
But Tom Petty wrote "Christmas All Over Again" in 1992, and Steve Earle gave us "Christmas in Washington" in 1997. Japanese power-punk trio Shonen Knife released the charming "Space Christmas" in 1991. Each of these is worthy of wider coverage. And to my mind, the hands-down finest Christmas song of the past fifty years was gifted to us in 1994.

I speak to you of Robert Earl Keen's superb "Merry Christmas From the Family." It may be the funniest Xmas tune ever, but it's not a novelty song (for the purposes of this essay, we are ignoring such amusing but seldom-covered efforts from Bob & Doug Mackenzie, Elmo and Patsy, Martin Mull and Spinal Tap). Keen's family evokes universal feelings of bemused nostalgia for the Christmasses of our youth and the quirky people we grew up with. As funny as it is, it tugs at the heartstrings for me like no Christmas song since 1944's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Here's a live version before an adoring crowd who know every word:

So far the 13 years of the 21st century have given us many new Xmas songs to enjoy. Just last month we got an instant classic when Nick Lowe released "Christmas at the Airport." Paul Simon's "Getting Ready for Christmas Day" is a keeper, as is "Everything Is One Big Christmas Tree," from Great American Songwriter Stephen Merritt's band the Magnetic Fields. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have a charming entry, "All I Want for Christmas" (not to be confused with Ms. Carey's cash cow). Many are partial to "The Season's Upon Us" by the Dropkick Murphys, and I can't really argue with that. I'm quite fond of Mary Gauthier's "Christmas in Paradise," as well. Jonathan Edwards has eloquently made the case for "I Wish It Was Christmas Today" as a modern standard, and it certainly is in our household. In fact, the folks at Saturday Night Live have been livening up our holidays ever since Garrett Morris and friends unveiled their rollicking "Winter Wonderland" in 1975. Adam Sandler's "Channukah Song" is always welcome, and Darlene Love did us all a favor by belting out Robert Smigel's "Christmastime for the Jews." But no account of contemporary Christmas songwriting would be complete without a bow to the prolific Sufjan Stevens. He's released ten volumes of Christmas music, filled with both charming covers and dozens of originals, and tours regularly with his Christmas revue. Many of his songs may well stand the test of time, but who's got time to sort through them all?  My daughter, though, is partial to this one, which ends with an unlikely mash-up into a Joy Division classic:
The economics of Christmas songs being what they are, we may have to wait for these modern classics to fall out of copyright before the stars of the late 21st century start recording them in earnest. On the other hand, this cynic explains the paucity of modern Xmas standards as a function of the hegemony of Boomer nostalgia. And to that I say Pshaw, sir! My generation has no monopoly on sentiment, and we didn't ask to be born into a demographic bulge. I sympathize with the protest though, because in my book, they don't stop making good music just because you stop being young.

Friday, November 22, 2013

He Died in Vain

The bad guys won. They got away with it, covered their tracks and consolidated their power within the US government.

Was John F. Kennedy a threat to that power structure? You bet he was.

Was he a power-grubbing politician and a dangerous Cold Warrior himself? Of course he was, but one of the salient facts in the Crime of the Century is how rapidly he was changing towards the end of his short life.

His sins were mighty, and like all our presidents, his public image was a myth. But the JFK who the world saw in the fall of 1963 was very different from the one who took office in 1961.

Both Khruschev and Kennedy were profoundly shaken by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and both men had to defy their military advisers to pull back from the brink. Let us remember the message Bobby Kennedy brought to Anatoly Dobrynin, in an effort to find a way out: "If the situation continues much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power."

His enemies were not feckless losers, as defenders of the "double lone nut coincidence theory" would have you believe. The means, motive and opportunity belonged to well-dressed sociopaths in the halls of power, who had experience toppling governments and did not shrink from the use of lethal violence. 

Lee Oswald did not have the power to change the president's motorcade route so it would wend its way past his window. Jack Ruby did not have the power to delay the prisoner's scheduled transfer until he was ready and in place. And whatever else you can say about magic bullets, grassy knolls and autopsy reports, the coincidence theorists have a high bar to clear when it comes to their extraordinary claims. 

That would concern the details of Oswald's trip to Mexico City, where he was quite obviously impersonated by someone seeking to tie him to the KGB's assassination bureau – a few short months before the guns of November were sounded. If you don't know the details of this, you simply haven't done your homework. And if you can't explain that away, you shouldn't try to mock anyone who speaks of conspiracy theories. 

But the mockery is not in short supply. Critics of the absurd Warren Commission hypothesis are routinely conflated with those who believe the moon landing was faked, Elvis is alive somewhere, and a race of grey-skinned alien lizard people secretly rule the earth. The reasoning is that since wacky people believe wacky stuff, that means no powerful groups have ever conspired to seize or maintain power. 

I expected a torrent of lone-nutter bullshit around this anniversary, as previous milestone years treated us to portentous "debunkings" of the deluded conspiracists. Well-publicized tomes like Posner's and Bugliosi's were treated to hosannahs in the mainstream media, while their lapses and calculated omissions were ignored. Anniversary specials on TV routinely advance the daring claim that the Warren Commissioners actually got it right after all. Meanwhile, serious scholars and researchers are simply ignored, when they're not being compared to a cargo cult. 

The most common twist this year is a kind of smug armchair psychoanalysis of the "conspiratorial mindset." Such folks just have a deep need to explain away complex historical events with a simplistic "good vs. evil" explanation, unable to face up to the truth that coincidences sometimes happen. 

I think there is a good deal of projection involved here. The research community is fully cognizant of the complexity of the hall of mirrors that constitutes the historical record of the greatest murder mystery of all time. It's the coincidence theorists who seem to yearn for closure. Perhaps they simply have a psychological need not to question the self-serving confabulations of the cover-up. 

Or maybe they just like being on the side of the winners.

The most disheartening line comes from those who urge us to put this all behind us, because there's nothing more we can learn about it, and it wouldn't matter even if we could. But we're talking about one of the major pivot points of our history – and just like WWII and the Civil War, we live with its effects every day. 

The murder of JFK ratified the worldview of his killers. It was the paradigm Ike tried to warn us against. It was what Harry Truman recoiled from, when he cautioned, shortly after the events in Dallas, of the possibility of an American Gestapo, and the rise of a "right wing totalitarian country."

And now? We're marinating in it. The Global Corporate Empire pretty much gets its way, and no president will ever challenge it – the way JFK challenged the bankers, the oil companies, the steel magnates, or the military. Now, presidents look over their shoulders, knowing there are lines they will not cross – if it even occurs to them to cross them in the first place. 

Now we live in a permanent wartime economy, and Wall Street screws us all with impunity. The war on poverty has been replaced by a war on the poor. John Mitchell warned us that this country would be going so far to the right, we wouldn't recognize it anymore. And he was right. I don't recognize the country I was born into. 

Jack Kennedy died in vain. The ideals he stood for, the lessons he learned, were all for naught. That is, unless the rest of us learn them, too. However flawed a person he was, however hyped his myth, he really did inspire millions to work for a better world. What's most important about his life is just this: He evolved, and that's his real legacy. So maybe we can, too.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Daniels Rant

So I awake this morning to find that a Facebook friend has posted a 20-paragraph Charlie Daniels rant to my timeline, mostly about Obamacare. (not linking to it, but you can find it on Charlie’s FB page, where the most recent comment reads “Daniels/Nugent 2016!”) Since he took the trouble to do this (instead of posting it to his own timeline and hoping I'd read it), I have to assume he’s interested in my reply. So let's have a respectful exchange of views. Oh, and since Daniels took 20 paragraphs, this may take some time.

The first paragraph is actually one long formidable sentence. Aside from the violent imagery at the end, it boils down to the monstrosity of the less-than-sterling rollout of Obamacare. So yes, the right wing gets some bragging rights here: It's a slow website. If the website gets fixed, people will quickly forget about it, and if not, not. Moreover, the latest estimates show that roughly 3% of the public will end up paying higher premiums, though they will also be getting better coverage. When the president said people who liked their insurance could keep it, it appears he underestimated how many people really like crappy health insurance. Another point to the critics.
But the part I like best is the speculation that “even the most arrogant administration in history would be embarrassed by such a thing.” We already have a test case on this: the Bush Administration's rollout of its health care reform, Medicare Part D, complete with major website glitches. They may have been embarrassed, but they simply rolled up their sleeves and got back to trying to make it work. The interesting part is this: most Democrats passionately opposed the scheme (because it featured huge handouts to pharmaceutical companies, increased costs for seniors in the "donut hole," and, unlike Obamacare, was not paid for). But instead of having a hissy fit and shutting down the government, the Democrats in Congress decided that Medicare D was the law, and worked with the White House to help implement it.
Oh and by the way: Obamacare rolls back Bush's subsidies to Big Pharma and closes the donut hole.
So, Mr Daniels goes on to complain about the "fiscal monster" that gnaws at the vitals of future generations. This is pretty rich. Not only did President Bush put Medicare D on the credit card, he also passed along the costs of two major wars. Then he crashed the global economy, which, among other things, jacked up the price of the government safety net for the millions of newly unemployed. And meanwhile, Obama has cut in half the size of the deficit he inherited from W - and Obamacare is not only paid for, it reduces the deficit.
Paragraphs 3 and 4 write off 40% of the American public, down a bit from Mitt Romney's very successful "piss off 47% of the voters" strategy. Mr. Daniels is of the opinion that "entitlement checks" are about to stop being issued. Well, they would have if the GOP has forced a default last month, but that's a different story. Social Security is solvent through the 2030s and can be fixed with minor tweaks. Medicare spending is the main driver of future costs, but if the Republicans have a better idea than Obamacare for reining in those costs, they're keeping it a pretty big secret.
Paragraph 5 is a complaint about government bureaucrats. Previously we had health insurance company bureaucrats telling people that could not have any insurance if they had pre-existing conditions, and that if they got really sick they'd either be kicked off insurance or have caps imposed so that their costs would go through the roof. Now the government bureaucrats say that's not allowed. Apparently this is tyranny.
Paragraphs 6 through 11 constitute a potpourri of complaints unrelated to Obamacare, including the IRS, Solyndra and Benghazi scandals that worked so well in the last election. Other than to say I'd be happy to compare Obama's record on embassy attacks to George Bush's, I think we can move on.
Paragraphs 12 through 14 express the writer's disenchantment with both political parties. I think I speak for everyone on the left when I say that if Tea Party sympathizers want to break the Republican Party in two and start their own, they are more than welcome to do so.
Mr. Daniels concludes by yearning for a God-fearing person (who does not hail from a coastal community) to wield a sword and helmet and cleanse our nation. Let us assume for the moment that this is not a call for violent insurrection. All I can say is that if you can name a single such person, acceptable to the Tea Party, who has the remotest chance of coming anywhere near 270 electoral votes in the 2016 presidential election, I am all ears.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Ten Worst Things George W. Bush Did

Because on April 25 this smug, self-serving man had a smug, self-serving library dedicated to his memory, he's been in the news of late. Friends and foes alike have struggled, sometimes with awkward results, to find nice things to say about him. Others have made it clear that, given the immense damage he inflicted on our body politic, they will have none of it.

You can find attempts to describe the wreckage from Alternet and ThinkProgress.  You can find some indignant snark from Mother Jones and Daily Kos. One blogger produced a commentary-free list of both positive and negative accomplishments that turned out to be pretty damning in its dispassionate way.

I wanted to take some time to do what I did with Bill Clinton: write up Top Ten lists for the Best Things and the Worst Things he did. This difference here is that while Clinton had plenty of contenders for both lists, with W it's a challenge to pad the former and winnow down for the latter. In order to get a grip on the dystopic torrent of catastrophe that was the Bush presidency, I've combined several of the nastiest offenses into more general categories. This list isn't ranked; you can choose for yourself what you think hurt the most. But I have to start with this one:

1. It's the Sociopathy, Stupid
I'm not just glibly tossing around pejorative rhetoric when I suggest that Bush may be a sociopath. It's an idea that Kurt Vonnegut explained coherently, based on clinical studies of this particular personality disorder - the notion that many of our leaders simply lack a normal conscience. One study shows that as much as 4% of the population may have the disorder, and many of them have attained positions of great power and responsibility: "Because sociopaths are ruthless and will squash their rivals and burn institutions to the ground in order to reach their goals – but great at pretending that they care about people – they are incredibly destructive." That fits our fratboy president to a T. But more than most, he pulled the curtain aside to reveal his abhorrent moral character with remarks that illustrate his sadistic sense of humor. I'm thinking here of moments like the mocking of a death-row prisoner pleading for her life. Or the fist-pump he gave as a kiss-off to fellow world leaders at his final G8 summit, as he celebrated his achievements in quashing action to combat climate change, announcing "Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter." Or how, one year before the invasion of Iraq, while his aides were ostensibly discussing a peaceful resolution to the non-existent problem of WMDs, Bush poked his head in the door and quipped "Fuck Saddam! We're taking him out!" Which is much cuter than the WMD "comedy" video he showed at the White House Correspondent's Dinner, long after the falsehoods of his casus belli had led to needless death and destruction. And even though it wasn't meant as a joke, it's just as instructive to recall the infamous push poll question he used against John McCain: "Would you be more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?"Whether such despicable behavior makes Bush a sociopath or not is beside the point: in every case, the cruelty of his remarks prefigures the cruelty of his policies.

2. Invading Iraq: "I'm going to have a successful presidency."
The title here is a reference to the revelation that Bush was planning to invade Iraq even before being elected, and that his principal motivation, as he described it, was to bolster his political popularity as a way of enacting his preferred agenda. Bush's fans will inevitably cite his "taking out" Saddam as one of his greatest achievements, but keep in mind the cynicism underpinning the whole sordid debacle. Bush and his administration relentlessly pursued the war they wanted through an endless litany of lies and distortions, seizing on the 9/11 attacks to exploit the nation's fear and rage. Though he had long since decided to start a war there, Bush had to have the difference between Iraq's Sunnis and Shi'ites explained to him just two weeks before the invasion. While he assured Pat Robertson that our side would suffer no casualties, Bush's aides were making ridiculously low-ball estimates of the war's financial costs - no surprise, since anyone who didn't was fired. So while regime change was carried out swiftly due to the massive asymmetry in force capabilities, the occupation was bungled in every imaginable way. From lack of planning, understaffing, failure to secure explosives and munitions, indisriminate roundups of Iraqis into Saddam's reopened gulags, delegation of authority to inexperienced GOP operatives, and the infuriating looting of the entire capital (save for the oil ministry), it seems like Bush couldn't have done a better job of inspiring an insurgency if he'd tried to. So the war turned into a prolonged stalemate and Bush's presidency into the opposite of "successful." Apologists will point to the supposedly successful "surge" policy, which served, like Nixon's "peace plan" in Vietnam, to delay the inevitable withdrawal of our troops in order to save face and foist the blame for any continuing messiness onto his successor. And neither Bush nor Obama can claim any credit for bringing our occupation to a conclusion; essentially, the Iraqis kicked us out

3. The 9/11 Attacks: "You've Covered Your Ass." 
There are any number of legitimate unanswered questions about the backgrounds of the 9/11 hijackers, the forces behind them, and the events of that day. You could set the all aside and still look at the Bush Administration's handling of 9/11 as one of the biggest disasters in our history. Before, during and after the attacks, Bush and his aides displayed the familiar combination of hubris, arrogance and incompetence that marked so many other of their policies. As has been amply documented, Bush and his key advisers repeatedly downplayed and ignored the threat of terrorism in general and al-Qaeda in particular, up to the point of threatening a veto if FBI funding were diverted to counterterrorism efforts. In the weeks leading up to the attacks, a series of warnings came from multiple intelligence sources, culminating in the infamous August 6 memo "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US." The president responded to his briefer with the quotation above, and then went fishing. In the aftermath of the attacks, Bush, as previously noted, was quick to capitalize on them to advance his political agenda, as he and his allies painted anyone who dared to disagree with him as traitors. History might be kinder if he had also presided over an appropriate response, but history shows he spectacularly botched the capture of Bin Laden and quickly diverted our resources to his long-planned Iraq war. While, to be fair, counterterrorism efforts have improved markedly since that point, it's a stretch to assert, as his defenders inevitably do, that "he kept us safe." Claiming "no terrorist attacks on US soil after 9/11" conveniently ignores the unsolved anthrax attacks, the DC sniper case, and the LAX shooter. But the weasel words "US soil"obscure the rising rate of terror attacks killing US citizens across the globe during his watch. 

Stay tuned for:

4. Afghanistan: Our Longest War
5. Civil Liberties: You're Killing Me
6. Kyoto and Beyond: Trashing the Planet 
7. The CEO President: Bush's Worst Hires
8. Katrina: Abandoning New Orleans
9. Assaulting Democracy, from Forida Onward
10. And, Oh Yes, Crashing the Global Economy 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Monday, December 31, 2012

That Was the Year That Was

It's time now for a year-end list enumerating my favorite music from the past 52 weeks. Every December I send in my votes to the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop critics' poll (the results of which are due in a few weeks). To arrive at my Top Ten list, I run through my iTunes folder for the year (about 800 songs), forming about a dozen different playlists of 18-22 tracks each. These I burn onto CDs and hand out as holiday gifts to friends, family and colleagues. In this way I serve a a bridge between those who know a lot more about music than I do, and those who lack the time or passion to track down as much new music as me. In the process of selecting and refining tracks for these lists, I winnow down my favorites to the ones that have the most emotional resonance for me.

This year the Dirty Projectors (pictured above) ended up on the top of the heap with their masterful 7th album, Swing Lo Magellan. More on them below; the various sub-lists leading up to the master list went as follows:

Avant: These bands are all, if not cutting edge in the way the term avant-garde implies, possessed of a shared aesthetic involving quirky and angular rhythms, melodies and harmonics. The Projectors have always been my favorite in this genre, but this year featured a bumper crop of releases from bands such as Tame Impala, Micachu and the Shapes, Deerhoof, Yeasayer and previous Pazz&Jop champs Animal Collective. My tied #1 faves from last year, Tune-Yards and St. Vincent, fit comfortably into this category (the latter showed up on this year's playlist with a collaborative effort with David Byrne, while the former contributed a track to the Red Hot + Riot 2 compilation). This year I was lucky enough to see both Garbus and Clark when their brief tour rolled through Tucson, and caught another great quirk-rock double bill, Of Montreal and Deerhoof, at the same venue. I once made a mixtape called "Kid B," celebrating the collective lineage of these bands from the world's strangest #1 album. But another antecedent, Public Image, Ltd., showed up with a welcome comeback entry this year as well.
Dirty Projectors: Gun Has No Trigger

Americana: This list spans the turf covered by trad country and folk at one end, alt-country and country rock at the other, and everything in between. The massive success of Mumford & Sons proved once again that you don't have to be American to do Americana, but it helps. I'm not immune to their charms but this year I was bowled over, like many others, by the timeless tones of Alabama Shakes - folks apparently born 40 years too late, but fitting in fine nevertheless. It was great to hear from oldtimers like Nanci Griffith, Dwight Yoakam and especially Iris DeMent (pictured). I remember playing their stuff when I worked for the world's greatest Americana radio station, KPIG, in Freedom, CA. Younger folks like Ned Sublette and Kellie Pickler came on strong. Kelly Hogan made one of the year's best albums, but for me the single of the year was Willie Nelson's remake of Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe."
Willie & Lukas Nelson: Just Breathe

Catchy: Thanks to my kids I listened to a lot of Top 40 radio this year, and there was an awful lot of ear candy. This had to be one of the best years for catchy tunes since the early 90s, if not 1984. I certainly   couldn't resist the relentless ubiquity of "Call Me Maybe" and "Gangnam Style," or their myriad parody videos. My boy loved Neon Trees and Maroon 5 and my girl was fond of Ellie Goulding's "Lights." Of course there was plenty of crappy stuff on the radio, too (I'm lookin' at you, Flo Rida) and a lot of great tunes that never got within a mile of a radio playlist. Kishi Bashi wowed me when he opened for Of Montreal last fall, and his "Bright Whites" has a certain indelibility to it that deserves wider exposure. Even better is the awesome single "We OK" from the Very Best. Radio formats opened up a bit wider than in recent memory, with room for a little country twang and indie crunch amid the divas and thugs. But it's still a long way from the freedom that DJs used to have. More's the pity.
The Baseballs: Call Me Maybe

Elders: 2012 was a great year for the eligible-for-senior-discounts crowd, with none stronger than my man Zimmy. Dylan's Tempest was another winner in an unbroken series of late-career albums stretching back to 1997, this one making the transition from cynical and cranky to downright ornery. But others in his cohort, including Brian Wilson, Leonard Cohen, Dr. John and Bonnie Raitt also showed up with documented proof of the value of wisdom and experience. McCartney showed his versatility by starting the year showing off his crooning powers via a set of pre-rock standards, and finished by taking the Kurt Cobain chair in a Nirvana reunion. Fine entries also from Patti Smith, Jimmy Cliff, Santana, and the comeback of the year came from Bobby Womack (pictured). There were also splendid posthumous releases from George Harrison, Joey Ramone, and the Rolling Stones. Oh wait...
The Rolling Stones: Doom and Gloom 

Electronica: This is the real cutting edge, where the music of the future is being assembled, though I guarantee it sounds better through club speakers than on that laptop in front of you. Even Rolling Stone readers know who Deadmau5 and Skrillex are, but for my money the choicest beats of the year came from Flying Lotus, Dan Deacon and Andy Stott. I got a kick out of Scissor Sisters' "Let's Have A Kiki," and efforts from Matt Zundel, Crystal Castles and Todd Terje, how you say, "reward repeated listenings." My daughter really liked Swedish House Mafia's "Don't You Worry Child." Too bad they broke up.
Flying Lotus: Until the Quiet Comes

Not So Fast: This is the mix I always give my mom, filled with the year's less-frenetic music. There is some lovely work on Calexico's latest, as well as from next year's star/this year's critic's pet Jessie Ware. Usually louder bands like White Denim and the Dum Dum Girls contributed some hushed ballads, ("Lord Knows," and "Get Back to Love," respectively) and Canadian Invasion stalwarts Metric gave us the haunting "Speed the Collapse." If you like this sort of thing, you should know about Patrick Watson, Ariel Pink and TV Girl, and either way, you want to check out "Adorn," by Miguel, (channeling Marvin).
Miguel: Adorn

Obits: This is the only playlist I put together that is not full of music from 2012, and as such it's no help at all in compiling my ballot. On the other hand, it's usually one of the coolest mixes of the year, comprised as it is of all the finest musicians who passed away during the year in question. This year we lost some awesome nonagenarians, from Ravi Shankar and Earl Scruggs to Kitty Wells and Doc Watson (Not to mention centenarian Elliot Carter). Also, unfortunately, quatragenarian Adam Yauch (pictured). My mom waved goodbye to Andy Williams, and my wife to Robin Gibb, as I did to Davy Jones. Etta James and her mentor Johnny Otis passed the same year, as did disparate guitar virtuosi Terry Callier and Mickey Baker. Certainly the world will never see another like Levon Helm, who, like Etta, I had the good fortune to see onstage. A tip of the hat also to Fontella Bass and Mike Auldridge, who died too late in the year to get onto the tribute CD.
Levon Helm: Ophelia

Rock On: For those who find "less frenetic" to be synonymous with "soporific," this playlist celebrates the louder sounds of the year, not least of which is Joan Osborne's thunderous take on Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips." The aforementioned Rolling Stones stand up just fine next to rockers half their age, including comeback efforts from Soundgarden and Bad Brains. Japandroids and Ty Segal made some of the year's best albums, and newcomers The Men and Gary Clark Jr. came on strong. I would be remiss if I did not mention The Hives, a breath of fresh air to anyone who needs their ass rocked. Props also to the amazing Sleigh Bells, and, as always, to Mr. Jack White.

Urban: This is the playlist for your NSFW rap and hip-hop tunes. I'm partial to The Coup and Killer Mike, but also bow to the inevitability of Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean. Last year's contenders Shabazz Palaces contributed a cool single, "Bop Hard." I also really like the Knux, and totally got off on "Wut," a tune by Le1f (not sure how to pronounce your name, dude). Still don't know if Die Antwoord (pictured) is a Spinal Tap-style parody or not, and enjoy it either way. Danny Brown is one of my favorite new rappers, and gotta give props to Nas, now and forever. Look also to Macklemore's "Same Love" and Saigon's "Rap vs. Real."
Le1f: Wut

Women: Always offer this playlist to offset any testosterone imbalances, though the Avant, Catchy and Americana lists are generally full of strong female voices. Strongest of the year, though, is Fiona Apple, whose The Idler Wheel... is not easily pigeonholed into any recognizable genre. Love her or hate her, Lana Del Rey's "Born to Die" is a killer single in any year. On this list we also find the comeback effort from Garbage, the impossible catchy single from Norah Jones, and the underground sensations THEESatisfaction. Cat Power and Bat for Lashes are here, and Kelly Hogan, Iris DeMent and Bonnie Raitt visit from other playlists. I will always love Regina Spektor, likewise Santigold. And how could you not include Alicia Keys teaming up with Nicki Minaj?
Fiona Apple: Every Single Night

World: My world music playlists are usually strong on music from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, even though it's a bigger world than that out there (still searching for that Antarctic folk sound). Nevertheless, entries from Greece and Indonesia fit in just fine amidst fine efforts from superstars like Cafe Tacvba and Amadou & Mariam. Amazing debut effort from Fatoumata Diawara, great sophomore work from Bomba Estereo, and awesome compilation Ondatropica. Like many others, I was bowled over by the Debo Band and the Egyptian Project. But my favorite world album of the year was En Yay Sah by Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang. More of that, please!
Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang: Eh Mane Ah

So after all that winnowing and gleaning from such a wealth of musical riches, what did I end up voting for? Stay tuned...

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Thanks, Republicans!

I want to take a moment to thank the Republican party for working so hard to make themselves unelectable.

It helped that the last GOP president crashed the world economy and trashed our foreign policy, but they didn’t stop there. They managed to alienate key demographics: Latinos, by blocking immigration reform; young people, by promoting retrograde social policies; women, by blurting outrageous comments on rape and contraception; and seniors, by plotting to voucherize Medicare.

Their media pundits, with their relentless focus on Rev. Wright, birth certificates and Benghazi, made it clear to undecided voters that Republicans had no meaningful solutions to discuss.

And even though the Supreme Court allowed a torrent of corporate cash to sweep the 2010 midterms and gerrymander the House, Republicans trashed their own brand by blocking jobs bills, focusing instead on banning abortion and repealing new heath care benefits for millions of Americans.

And don't even get me started on the presidential candidate; he was the gift that kept on giving - not that they had anyone better to choose from.

Thanks, Republicans, for helping to re-elect Obama, institutionalize Obamacare, and lock down the Senate! We couldn’t have done it without you!

And PS: Even though you may have nailed down the Speaker's gavel for a while, I think we can count on you to overplay your hand again. Hey, don't ever change!