This is an interesting example of evolution through writing, Elegant Racism. It touches on the idea of "race" as a myth. It is something I fully accept as an intellectual matter. But as an emotional matter, I still grapple with it.
Glenn Greenwald wrote a very interesting article, Let's Not Whitewash George W Bush's Actual, Heinous Record on Muslims in the US. He accepts that Bush was indeed good regarding his rhetoric after the 9/11 attacks. He warned against the people using this as an excuse for blaming Muslims or people from the Middle East for the attacks. It is a minor thing in an absolute sense. But looking around at the Republicans who are currently running for president, it is remarkable. And no similar appeals were made by FDR after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I'm reminded of the "I Am an American" photo.
At the same time, Bush really was terrible to the Muslim community — both here and abroad. It wasn't just a matter of all his invasions, and things like Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. He was terrible to Americans who just happened to be Muslim:
Greenwald doesn't discuss why that was. I suspect there were many aspects to it. Greenwald does touch on one: Muslims voted overwhelmingly for Bush in 2000. In fact, if Gore had received just one percentage point more of the Muslim vote in Florida, he would have won the state (and thus the presidency) even with the bad count. So part of Bush's rhetoric was doubtless due to the wish to hang onto those votes. He didn't succeed. Muslims voted overwhelmingly for Kerry in 2004. That was certainly a rational vote, regardless of how many mosques Bush visited.
Bush wanted to control the abuse of the American Muslim community. It certainly didn't help the US fight any kind of "war on terror" when yahoos were out shooting up Sikh temples. In a nation that is deeply ignorant of everything that goes on outside its border, you can't have people taking the law into their own hands. Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists — they are all "foreign" and therefore "the people who hit us." It isn't just crazy white supremacists who don't know the difference.
This takes us back again to World War II. There was much effort put into distinguishing between the Chinese (our allies) and the "Japs" (our enemy). Another aspect of this is that after the Pearl Harbor attack, the FDR administration floated the idea of concentration camps before they presented the policy. They wanted to know if the people would push back against the idea. When they didn't, the government went ahead with its plans. Since Bush's plans were not to publicly target Muslims, it made far more sense to make nice with the Muslim community.
The reason that American Muslims voted so strongly with Kerry in 2004 was the Patriot Act. There was nothing in it that was specific to Muslims. But it was and still is used that way. And it is much more broad than that. Does the FBI commonly find unstable white Christians, talk them into participating in a terrorist attack, and then arrest them? No. It's just Muslims. The US government has it out for Muslims.
I don't know if Bush's nice rhetoric then or Obama's nice rhetoric now is genuine, or just a way to convince non-Muslims that the government isn't being unfair. But regardless, that is the kind of rhetoric that would be most useful to go along with the anti-Muslim policies that have been standard for the last 14 years.
When I was in graduate school, a fellow student loaned me a copy of Almost Blue. I had avoided it because it was just an album of covers — and country covers at that. But I was blown away with how much I liked it. Some time later, I bought a re-issue of the album, that contained a whole bunch more songs. And there at number 18 was Costello's version of Leon Payne's song "Psycho."
It is a perfect song. It tells a very compelling and complete story while maintaining the emotional core that all songs should have. It also has perhaps the best payoff line of any song I can think of. It reinforces the theme of the song while re-framing the plot. The interesting thing is that I have found no one covering the tune before Costello. He seems to have been alone in realizing what a great tune it is.
There is a live version (but I can't embed it). So here is the album cut:
It was 60 years ago that Rosa Parks effectively started the modern Civil Rights Movement by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Parks was not the first person to do this. Claudette Colvin had done the same thing in March of that year. But when it was discovered that she was 15 years old, pregnant, and unmarried, civil rights leaders decided not to use her as a test case. As we know today from incidents like the murder of Trayvon Martin, the first thing the power elite does is dig into the victim's background. Regardless, Parks was hugely important in the Civil Rights Movement.
I did learn something interesting today. She was not originally sitting in a "white" seat. The bus became over-crowed, and so the driver simply assigned four "colored" seats to "white." Parks was sitting in one of those four seats. She was arrested for violating a local segregation law, but she hadn't actually broken it, given that she wasn't sitting in a "white" seat.
What I find fascinating about this is how it shows what a sham segregation and "separate but equal" laws were. Here was a bug with seats for whites and blacks. But the moment there wasn't enough seats for whites, the bus driver just took seats from the blacks. This couldn't even be used as satire because it is too extreme. You might as well say, "Separate but equal": 36 seats for whites and 0 seats for blacks!
It's interesting to see that the bus is in the Henry Ford Museum. And that there are plaques and monuments to the event. But some (Most!) people will always be behind the curve. It doesn't matter what it is. We love our old civil rights heroes (especially after they're dead), but we hate our new civil rights heroes. We throw them in jail and applaud ourselves for our righteousness. But given enough time, we change our beliefs and claim we always thought that way. I don't place myself above anyone else in this way. But a little self-recognition would be nice.
Tonight will be the 50th showing of A Charlie Brown Christmas. I met my oldest friend Will in the 8th grade because of it. He had tape recorded the audio of the show and was typing it up because he wanted to do a production of it. Mostly, he just wanted to perform Linus' big speech, "Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about."
We did eventually get it performed and made $12 and some odd cents that we gave to the Optimist Society. I forget how it happened, but Charles Schulz's secretary contacted us telling us that it was a copyright infringement and that if we did that again, we would need to license it. It was all done very nicely. But it does rather show the silliness of copyright: kids doing their own theatrical version of A Charlie Brown Christmas and giving the money to charity should not be seen as a threat to an artist's livelihood. But that is a discussion for another day.
I rather liked it when I was a kid. Now all of those Charlie Brown cartoons drive me crazy. The voice acting is terrible. But there's also something a bit too sweet about them. And then there is all the religious stuff. The interesting thing is that by the end of his life, Schultz certainly could not be considered a believer. Of course, many people try to push against that, because there was a lot of Christianity in his early strips. But whatever he was at the end of his life, it wasn't a Christian — except perhaps of the universalist variety (and even I can consider myself one of those).
A Charlie Brown Christmas is incredibly heavy handed. It always reminds me of my aunt who used to say in a disappointed tone that we don't remember the "reason for the season." At the time, I didn't really understand what she meant. I mean, I understood that she was saying that we should remember it was all about the baby Jesus. But I didn't understand it in the full evangelical sense of the lament that Christmas should not just include Jesus but that it should be just about Jesus. I find it incredibly silly today, because if Christmas were just a religious holiday, no one would notice it. It be right up there with Flag Day.
The contrast in A Charlie Brown Christmas is between the commercialism represented by Snoopy and the "truth" spoken by Linus. And that truth is from Luke, chapter 2. And if it is really the reason for the season, it's pretty pathetic:
It's just the announcement of a savior. We are not talking the Sermon on the Mount here. There is nothing edify about it. And the truth is that by Christian theology, there is nothing special of Jesus' birthday. In fact, among many early Christians, Jesus was just the receptacle for the Christ, who entered him at some later time — most often when he was baptized.
The big holiday for Christians should be Easter. It is Jesus' death and resurrection that matters. Yet I never hear Christians complaining about the Easter Bunny and the commercialization of Easter. And I think I know why. Christians covet Christmas' popularity. They want it for their religion. It isn't about theology; it's about PR. And it is sad.
But here we have 50 years of A Charlie Brown Christmas — nothing short of full out Christian propaganda, Yet we have to hear each year about the war on Christmas. Imagine the outrage that would take place if a single television show presented Islam in a similar light!
I was listening to a lecture by Noam Chomsky, and he mentioned how curious it was that American presidents like to say things like, "Iran is the greatest threat to world peace." The US media repeat such claims as though there were obviously true, although depending upon the time and ideological need, the "greatest threat" can be China or Russia or Venezuela, for that matter. But the real irony about it is that if you ask the people of the world, by a large margin, they think that the United States is the greatest threat to world peace.
Let's think about Iran for a moment, because it is such a bizarre claim. I could be the most evil and violent person in the world, yet I wouldn't be high up on the list of the greatest dangers to world peace because I have almost no power. The claim that Iran (or Iraq before it) is the greatest threat to world peace is ridiculous because regardless of how awful you think Iran is, it doesn't have much power. Even a war involving only Iran and Israel would almost certainly lead to a major Israeli victory. About the only advantage that Iran would have would be its larger population.
On the other hand, the United States spends roughly 48% of all the money spent in the world on making war. So there is the US on one side and everyone else on the other side. The United States is a huge potential threat to world peace just on the basis of that. But of much bigger concern to me is what it says about a country that hasn't been attacked by another country in almost 75 years, but still feels it must spend roughly half of all the world's spending on military. That is a dangerous country — very much akin to the freaks who stockpile guns for the coming race war.
I read an old article by Eric Brown in the International Business Times, In Gallup Poll, the Biggest Threat to World Peace Is... America? You can tell from the headline that the writer doesn't think much of that stat. He's particularly surprised that "13 percent of American respondents rated their own nation the biggest threat to world peace as well." But why is that surprising? I would certainly be part of that 13%. Who else is powerful enough to be the biggest threat? Really, this is part of what makes America so bizarre: we gloat about how powerful we are at the same time we tremble because we are so afraid of all the threats around us.
There's also this idea that America is fundamentally a good country. We wouldn't intentionally do anything wrong. I was amazed this last week that the US military came out with their findings that the Kunduz hospital bombing was an unfortunate mistake. And the media just bought it. The fact that the military tried to cover up the My Lai massacre doesn't matter at all. We can always trust the US government, because America would never do anything intentionally bad!
Among these 13% like me who think that the US is the biggest threat to peace in the world, I'm sure there are very few who thought that Jade Helm was a secret government plot against its own citizens. Again: more American cognitive dissonance. Such people think that our government would kill its own citizens, but would never knowingly bomb a hospital that treated wounded soldiers regardless of who they fought for. And, for such people, it goes without saying, that our foreign policy is all about spreading democracy and helping the world.
One of the most dangerous things about America is just how ignorant we are about the way the world looks from outside our borders. And that's the way the power elite of this country want things. This is why we have so many classified documents. This is why Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are considered such villains. They do represent great threats to the military, because if the American people knew what our government was doing all around the world, they would be far less likely to fund it. Our documents are kept classified so we can keep our people infantilized so they believe the lies that we teach grammar school students: the US is just trying to make the world a better place.
I'm not suggesting that the US is a terrible country. But as the most powerful, it is the most dangerous. And the fact that it doesn't what its own people to know what it is doing shows that it is up to a whole lot of no good.
I was learning to play the bass guitar when I first heard Get Happy!! The bass playing on it is incredible. That would be Bruce Thomas. For whatever reason, he and Elvis Costello do not get along. I suspect that it is a personal thing. But it could be musical as well. Costello has talked about his tendency to rewrite in the studio. This causes problems for a bass player of Thomas' brilliance. It is hard to get a bass part that really works, and it has got to be annoying to get something that works and have the song suddenly changed.
Regardless, I've always been particularly taken with the bass part on the song "Black & White World." Even after all these years, I don't really know what the song is about. It has various references to photography and cinema — and the difference between the fantasy and reality. But more than that, I can't much say. Still, it is a fine song.
On this day in 3340 BCE, the first solar eclipse was noted. And it was in Ireland of all places. There is much dispute about this. But what the hell: it's a good excuse to talk a bit of eclipses. When I was younger, I always wondered why it was we didn't have solar eclipses on every new moon and lunar eclipses on every full moon.
The reason is because the solar system is really a mess — everything is tilted this way and that. So things have to line up just so in order to get an eclipse. It just so happens that we have very special solar eclipses here on earth because the apparent sizes of the moon and the sun are almost exactly the same. If you were on the moon, you would experience a whole lot more solar eclipses — they would last longer than our eclipses, but they would also not be so stunning in their near perfection.
Regardless, it isn't surprising that we humans would would have been making notes about eclipses for thousands of years. If this Irish notation of a solar eclipse is right, it is around the time that humans first developed written language. In other words: as soon as humans started writing things down, they were writing about eclipses. Because they are amazing.
Jonathan Chait wrote an interesting article at some point last week, Terrorism in the Age of Trump. I want to reflect on something that he mentioned in the article that I've found bizarre: the conservative establishment's belief that the terrorist attacks in Paris would cause Republican base voters to turn away from Trump and toward "reasonable" candidates like Marco Rubio. Who would think such nonsense? Why would the base run from Trump? How is Trump unfit to address ISIS compared to other Republican candidates?
The whole basis of Republican thinking on foreign affairs is that we just have to be "tough" and be willing to do "whatever it takes" and then all will be well. I've been amazed by this kind of thinking my whole life. There are still people who think that we would have won the Vietnam War if only we had nuked the North Vietnamese back to the stone age. According to this way of looking at things, the only reason we don't have clear victories like World War II anymore is because we don't have the political will to destroy an entire country.
Such people have not read their Carl von Clausewitz. They seem to think that the idea of war is to "win" — that we aren't trying to do something else. Given this ridiculous way of thinking, we could beat ISIS by dropping about a thousand nuclear bombs on Iraq and Syria. But what would we have "won"? Would it make terrorist attacks like those on Paris less likely? Hardly. It would make them more likely because the only remaining front would be on the streets of Europe and America.
This is the way that the Republican base thinks about war. In general, they don't think that any country (other than Israel) has an equal claim to existence to our own. And this is an idea that the Republican establishment has pushed for decades. This is the basis for Europe bashing. Liberals are horrible because they think that America might have something to learn from Europe. This is a sign of weakness. So of course the party base would think that being strong (that is: belligerent) is all that matters in a president.
I go back again and again to the 2004 interviews with James Hackett, where his big compliment was that Bush went to war in Afghanistan and he was certain that Gore would have treated the attacks on 9/11 as a police matter. Well, I always thought that was a stupid claim; Gore would have gone to war. But the point was that what was really important was to look tough. The right thing to do was not what would work best, but what would give Dr Hackett that conservative thrill that America was being "decisive" and "strong."
But what's most amazing is that Trump's ideas on how to fight ISIS are no different than anyone else running for the Republican nomination. What's more, we do have the example of George W Bush. He did, at best, a mediocre job in Afghanistan. Then he changed focus and went to war with Iraq. How would Trump be worse than that? At least if he took us to war in Iraq and Syria, I don't see him losing interest and going to war in Argentina because they wouldn't let him build a hotel or something.
The thinking of the Republican base is all messed up. But it is at least coherent. It is the establishment's thinking that is incoherent. They want the same kind of foreign policy that the base wants: unthinking belligerence. But they want the slightest difference in rhetoric — or something. It makes no sense.
So much of the time, I despair about politics and economics. These are not areas where people are honest. I might have strong opinions about which are the best translations of Don Quixote. But they aren't based upon the fact that I have a room full of them that I'm trying to unload. I know, politics has always been a messy business. But democracy was supposed to help in this regard, but I'm afraid that the power elite have become so good at manipulating people that the very idea of democracy in the kind of capitalism that we have may be impossible.
My mind constantly goes back to 2012 and the California Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of GMO foods. Now on this issue, I tend to side with the conservatives. From a consumer standpoint, there is no evidence that there's anything wrong with GMO foods. That's not to say that I don't have problems with them — especially in how they turn farmers into neo-serfs beholden to chemical companies. And I wonder about the environmental impact of GMOs. I don't especially see labeling doing that much. But I also don't see why the people have to be stopped from knowing. So I'm fine with labeling.
And in early 2012, the people of California were fine with GMO labeling. Early polling showed the law passing by a landslide. And then after months and millions of dollars of commercials featuring an old couple whose family farm was just going to be destroyed by the new law, Prop 37 went down to defeat by almost 3 percentage points. I was here during that time. This was not a case of the people being educated about the law. It was a case of an emotional campaign based upon gauzy romantic visions of the family farm and hysterical claims about the destruction of the California economy.
The situation is even more annoying when it comes to economics, which is supposed to be an academic discipline. But it isn't. That doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of people doing very good work. But in the public sphere, economics is used to make whatever point someone in power wants to make. This is why a careful think tank like the Tax Policy Center can always been offset with a conservative talking points mill to claim that whatever giveaway to the rich that the Republicans want to do will be fiscally responsible because it bring on 4% or 6% or 149% growth. It doesn't really matter, because these groups just pull their numbers out of the air.
I was thinking about this the other day when I read an excellent article by Dylan Matthews, Economists Tested 7 Welfare Programs to See if They Made People Lazy. They Didn't. This doesn't come as a surprise. There has never been much indication that welfare programs made people lazy. Humans tend to be dissatisfied. If you give them food and a place to sleep, they will look for better food and a nicer place to sleep. And in our society, where making money is considered the only important function of men, it is a question of self-respect.
So why did four economists have to do detailed studies of 7 welfare programs to show that they didn't make people lazy? In fact, the evidence indicates that helping out struggling people makes them less lazy. But you already know that. It is just that the whole "welfare makes people lazy" claim is a bit of "common sense" manufactured by the laziest people on earth: the rich. Take a man who has no money. He will almost certainly weed your whole back yard for forty bucks. Ask Donald Trump to do it. It isn't just that he's busy. He lives in a society that has lied to him — telling him that his time and effort is worth more money.
Anyone will get off the couch and work if you pay them enough money. But we've been sold a bill of goods. The poor are lazy, even though they will work for almost nothing. The rich are productive because they must be paid a huge amount of money to get off the bar stool at the Encore Wynn in Las Vegas.
So I find myself down south staying with my sister for the Thanksgiving holiday, many days of writing ahead. Still, since I will be driving all Sunday, I realized that I hadn't written Sunday's posts when I got here. And it's kind of hard to get work done here. It's a little better now. But still, I was panicking. So as I think I mentioned, I decided to do a week of Elvis Costello. I don't just have to get Sunday done; I also have to do Monday, because I'm sure I'm going to be a mess all Sunday night and probably all of Monday as well.
Costello does a great cover of the Rodgers and Hart classic "My Funny Valentine." But I really don't remember when I first heard it. I thought it had been on Get Happy!! But it wasn't. According to the Elvis Costello Wiki, it was actually on, Taking Liberties — which until now I didn't know was a compilation album. Regardless, the two albums came out at the same time, so I'm not totally insane.
Anyway, here he is performing the song live. It's a great combination: three of my favorite songwriters working together (although not as writers — both Rodgers and Hart were dead by then anyway). After our week of Thanksgiving music, this should be pleasant.
[Under normal circumstances, I would write about the Whitman massacre. It provides a good opportunity to discuss violence that I disagree with, but at a distance to allow an honest discussion of the causes. Regardless, I really don't like the whole missionary business. You know, if it were all about helping the poor and hoping by the example of your good works that you would convince them that your ways were the best, great. But that isn't the way it works. And that certainly wasn't the way it worked with the Whitmans. But I don't have the time, so I'm going to reprint last year's anniversary post, because it is about a very great man. -FM]
On this day in 1915, the great jazz composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn was born. He is best remembered for his work with Duke Ellington. Of course, he largely isn't remembered at all. Even people who don't like jazz at all know who Ellington was. But Strayhorn worked in the shadows, and he seemed to have liked it that way.
He was a phenomenon at an early age. While still in high school, he wrote a musical. He also formed his own trio that played on local radio every day. And he wrote a number of great songs, including "Lush Life." Here he is in 1964, performing it live:
Strayhorn wanted to be a classical composer, but he had the wrong skin color. His introduction to Art Tatum -- a classical composer in his own way -- pushed Strayhorn into jazz. And at the age of 23, he met and began collaborating with Duke Ellington. It is hard to say where one starts and the other ends. Ellington said, "Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine." But being the established great man, Ellington took credit for much of Strayhorn's work. Generally speaking, if you see a tune composed by Strayhorn and Ellington, it is Strayhorn's. And Strayhorn is probably even more important as an arranger in creating what we now think of as the Duke Ellington sound.
That's not to say that Ellington took advantage of the younger man. They had a symbiotic relationship. It is doubtful that Strayhorn would have accomplished so much without the protection and encouragement of Ellington. And Strayhorn got sole writing credit for the most famous song of the Duke Ellington orchestra, "Take the 'A' Train." Here he is performing the song on piano with the orchestra. At the end, Ellington lists some of Strayhorn's other compositions.
Sadly, in 1964 -- at the same time he recorded "Lush Life" above, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which seemed to ended his career. He died three years later.
Happy birthday Billy Strayhorn!
Morning Consult put out a very interesting bit of polling data, and found, Bernie Sanders Is the Most Popular Senator in America. They did polling of the people in all the states to come up with this. It's a massive poll. Martin Longman noted that there are some real problems in the numbers for Republicans, "The most troubling result for the Republicans is that several of their Senators who are up for reelection next year are near the bottom in the approval ratings." These include Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Rob Portman of Ohio. And rightly so!
You might consider Ohio a swing state, but I think it is now fundamentally blue. And Wisconsin and Illinois are clearly blue states. Why do they have Republican Senators anyway? The same goes for Colorado, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. It goes the other way too, of course. The following red states have one Democratic Senator: Indiana, Missouri (fluke), Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia. But even if you throw out Ohio, that's five red states that have a Democratic Senator and five blue states that have a Republican Senator. Seems about right. But the misrepresented red states account for only 16 million people whereas the misrepresented blue states account for 38 million. That's 134% more!
The same thing is going on when you look at the "pure" states. This is where a blue state like California has two Democratic Senators or a red state like Texas has two Republican Senators. But looking at all those states, the numbers are still disturbing. There are 20 pure red states and only 15 pure blue states. What's more, 103 million people are in these 20 red states whereas 116 million people are in these 15 blue states. If you look at all the data together, you see that blue states represent 154 million people and the red states represent 120 million.
So the blue states represent more than 56% of the nation. Yet they get only 46% of the representation in the Senate. Now in the old days, that wouldn't have been such a bad thing. If a blue state sent a Republican Senator to Washington, she would be a moderate. But that's just not true anymore. Ron Johnson is representing Wisconsin! At the same time, the Democrats representing red states are moderate — because the Democrats are still a regular political party and not a revolutionary power.
A lot of this is just the whining of a partisan whose party is losing. But there are also two important issues. The first is that we live in an oligarchy. The power elite have gotten great not just at manipulating voters, but making voting difficult — both directly (eg, not funding local polling places, voter ID laws) and indirectly (making poor people have to work too much). When was the last time you heard a Republican say (as Ronald Reagan did) that they wanted as many people to vote as possible? The truth is that the Republican Party has become very comfortable with the notion that their best chance of winning an election is to have as few voters as possible.
The other issue is that we have a terrible system of representation. It was perhaps the best that we could hope for two and a quart centuries ago. But it isn't the best we could have now. And that's not even to mention gerrymandering and the ridiculous Senate compromise where a conservative in Wyoming has roughly 66 times as many votes as a liberal does here in California. None of this is moral. But none of it will change, because it is great for the power elite. They know that if the Republicans are in control, they will money thrown at the rich. And if the Democrats are in control, they will throw slightly less money at the rich. (They will still end up doing better under the Democrats, because the economy will do better, because Democrats are not incompetent like Republicans are.)
This isn't just a question of voting. It is a question of organizing. It is a question of all of us talking to other people and allowing them to see that we've lost our democracy and that we are going to have to fight to take it back. It's not just going to be a difficult fight — it's going to be a really long fight.