Sunday, December 30, 2007

On the turntable--Levon Helm, Dirt Farmer

I love old timey music--and any genuine attempt to recreate the raw and unfettered, anguish, joy, heartache, and glee that old timey music brings. Levon Helm's Dirt Farmer fits into that category nicely. Helm, former drummer and singer for The Band (Dylan's original electric back up band), has recently come out of retirement following a bout with throat cancer to put together a wonderful piece of Americana. A compilation of traditionals and covers of recent artists like Steve Earle, Paul Kennerly, and Buddy and Julie Miller, Dirt Farmer successfully captures a jug band feel in an age of overproduced and over hyped pop music.

Telling tales of farmers, miners, love lost and love found, Helm's album reflects his musical upbringing. Helm's father, an Arkansas cotton farmer, bought him his first guitar when he was nine, and fashioned his sister a bass out of a washtub. And thus began Levon's musical career. Dirt Farmer is also a family affair, featuring Helm's daughter Amy, on vocals, drums, and mandolin. The familial intimacy is felt throughout the album, particularly on the sweet harmonies between Helm and his daughter.

Helm's voice is remarkably good given his struggle with throat cancer and, based on his NPR interview, that he has trouble talking. Overall, the album is not over produced--thankfully--sounding like it could have been recorded in Helm's living room (I'm sure he has a living room with good acoustics). Helm's cover of Steve Earle's "The Mountain," a sorrowful tale of resignation to a life in the mines and the love of the land, stands out as particularly representative of the work. Also, Paul Kennerly's tongue and cheek look at love, "Got Me a Woman," is excellent.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Mitchell Report

Former Senate MajorityLeader George Mitchell just released his report regarding steriod use in baseball. The results aren't terribly surprising at a number of levels. Largely based on hearsay and testimony from suppliers, it appears as if steroid use was an institutional problem in baseball going back to the early 90s, accelerating after the 1994 strike. The report presented evidence (mostly circumstantial or based on secondary testimony) that major names such as Roger Clemens, Eric Gagne, Paul Lo Duca, Miguel Tejada, Andy Pettitte, Gary Sheffield among many others used steriods, BALCO, or human growth hormones over the past 15 years. Additionally, according to statements made by former players and coaches somewhere between 20% and 50% of players were using performance enhancing drugs in the early 1990s. It looks like the moral outrage so focused on Barry Bonds has a lot of other targets--I am just curious how many will get hit with the same public ire as Bonds.

The other component of the report that isn't terribly surprising is that it lets the owners off the hook--at least in comparison to the Players' Association. Although the report indicates that baseball (owners and players) were "slow to develop" a response, by implication it suggests that the owners were interesting in doing something about steroids in the MLB but their efforts were obstructed by the Players' Association. According to the report, the Players' Association blocked testing for 20 years--which assumes that it was something the owners wanted. Following the 1994 strike, owners were very eager to get fans back in the seats, and what better way than increasing offense? Juiced players and juiced balls made the late 90s and early 2000s the most offense oriented era in baseball history. This was noticed by Joe Morgan who suspected steroids but states that he was discouraged from mentioning it on-air by ESPN because it might hurt viewership.

The fallout from the report is yet to be known. I hope it doesn't turn into a witch hunt, but I fear that it might with baseball weeding out the "bad apples" as a form of damage control. In reality the problems of baseball run much deeper. Steroids has been an institutional problem for two decades and I sincerely hope for the health of the players and of young people who aspire to be professional athletes that the owners and players can come to an agreement to effectively end steroid use while preserving the dignity of the players. Also, baseball has a salary and ownership problem. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer--and fans are frustrated. Is there any reason to think that the Pittsburgh Pirates have a chance for next year? And the season hasn't even started. And of course, baseball has an image problem. Steroids and an uncompetitive salary structure have turned America's past time into a farce.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Review: Rudolf Rocker, Nationalism and Culture

I suppose it is odd to review a book that is seventy-years old, but I do tend to procrastinate. I have been doing some research on the intellectual foundations of libertarianism and decided to read some neglected classics and reread some works that I had not read in a long time. On that list was Rudolf Rocker’s Nationalism and Culture (1937), his classic work exploring the intellectual and cultural foundations of modern nationalism.

Written in the wake of the Nazi takeover of Germany, Rocker, a German expatriate and anarchist, traces the history of nationalism and the “will to power” that is associated with the state. The epic tome is impressive in its scope and intellectual breadth. Freely interweaving examples from Roman, Greek, German, American, English, and Italian history, Rocker’s work is honestly amazing. It is much more than a discussion of the origins of fascism, but how nationalist ideology has permeated and debased so much of human society and been so destructive to the human spirit.

Rocker’s intellectual project is two-fold—he wants to expose the corrupting influence of nationalism on the struggle for human freedom and to demonstrate that libertarian socialism is the best alternative for humanity. For Rocker, classical liberalism, defined as the principled defense of individual liberty, and socialism, defined as the opposition to capitalist economic inequality, can only truly be realized in conjunction with one another. Although I am familiar with many of his arguments through other scholars, part of what I found amazing about the book is how he has prefigured later scholarly arguments which have challenged the nation-state paradigm.

Rocker views nationalism as a secular religion—a belief system that reflects man’s anxiety regarding his own weaknesses and his willingness to place his trust in some sort of higher power that will protect him. Modern nationalism evolved during the breakdown of the authority of the Catholic Church due to the Protestant Reformation and from the anti-clerical intellectual movements of the Renaissance. The discovery of America and the ascendancy of the mercantile class produced an increase in economic power of the privileged minority of commercial capital and enhanced state power to protect said interests. What these movements shared was not simply a desire to overturn older forms of authority, but to supplant new forms of authority in their place and the nation-state was their mechanism for achieving that end. According to Rocker, the “nation is not the cause but the result of the state. It is the state which creates the nation, not the nation the state.” The state creates “fictitious unity” between pre-national communal groups, separating humanity into hostile camps under leadership elements. It is fundamentally reactionary in nature, looking to mythical and romantic pasts to create a “tradition” which can be utilized for current political aims. It capitalizes on man’s instinctual and benign attachment to home and cultural achievements (what Orwell called “patriotism”) and transforms them to state worship. It seeks to homogenize language and culture, suppressing the true to creative spirit of the people, subordinating the popular will to the “will to power.” Speaking out against the nation is the new heresy, akin to the Albigensian, Cathari, Brethren, and Bogomil movements following the consolidation of the Catholic Church.

In opposition to the development of the nation-state stood classical liberalism, a distinctively individualistic philosophy that believed, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, the “government that governs best, governs least” and hopefully, according to Thoreau, “governs not at all.” Rocker sees liberalism as a philosophy least susceptible to nationalistic appeals, drawing from international revolutionary Thomas Paine’s statement that he is a “citizen of the world.” Conversely, ideologies like democracy and socialism are susceptible to nationalism because, in practice, they have been connected to rights and parliamentary efforts attached to particular nation-states. Historically, this has left popular democratic and socialistic movements disarmed in the face of nationalistic appeals, their failure to stop WWI or the rise of fascism being case and point.

Although Rocker champions the liberal tradition as being integral to any philosophy of liberation, liberalism’s association with the rights of property and capitalism are problematic. The abuse of liberal ideas, which have elevated the rights of property in the form of collective capital above the individual and the universalizing appeal of natural rights have combined with American nationalism to naturalize the US imperial project. Just as Trotsky imagined that the Soviet Union could export communism through “permanent revolution” so has the inverted Trotskyism of American neo-conservatism sought to export Americanism through the revolutionary ideology of liberal capitalism.

Rocker is clearly aware of the corrupting influence of capitalism to the liberal tradition; however, living in the current epoch, I would say that Rocker underestimates the ability of moneyed elites to pervert liberalism. Capitalism has grown hand-in-hand with the nation-state. Despite the laments of modern “free market capitalists,” the expansion and centralization of capitalist economic operations have developed in an almost mirror image to that of the “Great State”—each capitalist crisis requiring greater involvement of bureaucracies, both public and private, to manage dissent, and in the most extreme cases, save capitalism from itself. This not to say that all government expansion has been at the behest of capitalist elites, some of it come s from parliamentary reforms, careerist politicians, and military officials, but the state has been and remains a central component of capitalist development. This trend is pronounced in the United States going back to the origins of the Republic. More recently, it has become increasingly obvious as the New Deal welfare state (America’s version of social democracy) has given way to the warfare/nanny state—where hard won reforms like Social Security and Medicare are “in crisis” and “going bankrupt” but in reality are gutted to subsidize the Pentagon and provide tax abatements to corporations meanwhile the government tries to utilize the remaining welfare and education expenditures to shape public morality.

Rocker also predicts the globalizing trends of our period. He sees capitalism outstripping the nation-state, moving towards large regional blocs (America, Europe and Asia) and ultimately towards an integrated and Taylorized world-system. The growth of international trade arrangements and the attempts to use the UN to facilitate the needs of international capital are examples of the "state" moving beyond the reach of populations as a means of limiting popular input into decision making. It is the tension between “national interest” and the imperatives of global capital have created so much consternation as of late in the United States. The neo-conservative imperialists seek to reconcile the two by connecting American living standards to the health of transnational capital through wars of aggression and “free trade” agreements. A powerful counter trend is the development of “state capitalism”—the concentration of both economic and political power in the hands of the state. Modern examples of this would be China, which despite its “communist” label, functions relatively harmoniously within the capitalist system under the direction of “the Party.”

To counter such trends, those interested in social justice and equality must draw from the best of the intellectual traditions which have critiqued capitalism, respected individual rights, but also be sensitive to corrupting influence of nationalism. Rocker favors the libertarian tradition because it fuses the classical liberal notion of natural rights with socialism. Although he is favorably disposed to Marx’s contributions to political economy and his critique of capitalism, Marxism is not sufficient, because it offers little in the way of an alternative method of social organization. It is a revolutionary ideology whose goal is to seize the nation-state, but without a clear goal for the “day after,” which has led to its corruption by nationalism. Conversely, libertarianism has been more open to “utopian” experimentation (even if such experiments are failures, there are still lessons) and is more sympathetic to Martin Luther King’s notion that the "means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means."

Although anti-statist sentiment in the United States is quite powerful, it seems to be slowly eroding, largely due to the “War on Terror,” the increased militarization of the economy, and the emergence of political Christianity. The increased concentration of capital and the central role the United States plays in orchestrating international capitalism have further prepared the American public for the centralization of authority, whether it be political or economic. Unfortunately, “libertarianism” is almost totally divorced from socialism and often is used as an ideological bludgeon against popular reforms imposed upon the state and corporations by workers in favor of the “free market,” which is little more than the right of collective capital it impose its will upon workers. Of course, the relatively weak labor movement in the US compounds the problem, in part a victim of its own economic nationalism, thus leaving the political field open to right-wing statism. This creates an even greater imperative among the political left in the United States to redefine itself as the libertarian choice, to build upon existing forms of popular dissent, to resurrect the labor movement, to forge bonds with international liberation movements, and to recapture the popular mind. Although I believe it is necessary to defend existing, solidarity based reforms, like Social Security and public education, and to exploit openings in the current power structure to curtail corporate power (free health care!), leftists and progressives should resist the urge to run headlong to the state to solve every problem that capitalism creates. We must find ways to create alternative institutions, which aren’t connected to the state, which can provide the basis of a more just and egalitarian society.

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Some thoughts on Chavez

(from RealNews)

Last week Hugo Chavez lost his referendum which would have made substantial changes to the Venezuelan constitution, forwarding what he considers to be "21st century socialism." The barely restrained glee from the Bush Administration and most of the US news media was obvious. Analysts were very quick to argue that Chavez had been wounded in international affairs and the Bush Administration has begun to pressure Columbia to move forward with a Free Tree Agreement to further stifle Venezuelan influence.

Of course, the gross misreporting of the situation was enough to make Goebbels cringe. According to the US media, the referendum was the latest effort by a dictator and strongman to become even more dictatorial. Focusing almost exclusively on the constitutional changes that would eliminate term limits and expand presidential emergency powers, the US media presented Chavez as trying to use the referendum to make himself "president for life." The level of disinformation was even greater in Venezuela as the opposition, possibly aided by the Orwellian named, and US funded, National Endowment for Democracy, spread unsubstantiated rumors that the referendum abolished private property and would allow Chavez take people's children. At face value, much of this doesn't make sense--since when do dictators have to resort to public referendums to expand their power? And if they do, why would they allow public dissemination of information against the referendum, particularly false information? Such subtleties seem to be lost among the mainstream American press.

The reality is much more complex. The more substantive changes in the constitutional granted more rights to indigenous peoples, protected women and homosexuals from discrimination, shortened the work week, provided for an expanded social safety net, and protected communal property. It is these latter changes which make the proposal so threatening to the US, not the whole "dictator thing." Chavez is offering an alternative model for economic development that is at odds with the US dominated neo-liberal order--and the Bush Administration simply can't have that. The real problem with the referendum for Venezuelans was that it was too broad, to
complicated, and too much to grasp all at one time--in effect mobilizing anyone who opposed any one thing against the entire proposal. On a more practical level, Chavez's support for expanded presidential power is potentially dangerous, although I am less concerned about him than if he were to lose a future election to the opposition--the mechanisms of dictatorship would be dangerously close to reality (for a historical corollary look up the Bruning Administration). Of course, Venezuela was and remains a constitutional democracy, Chavez is not a dictator, and hopefully he has learned a lesson. And even more so, I hope the more redeeming aspects of the the Bolivarian revolution can continue, without unjustified and dangerous expansions of executive power.

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Sunday, December 2, 2007

Review: Joe Bageant, Deer Hunting with Jesus

In Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, Joe Bageant offers an enlightening, humorous, sad, and often scary look at the rural white working class. Ghettoized and economically oppressed in a manner that often defies widely held beliefs regarding race and class, “redneck” workers--ignorant, angry, and propagandized--have become the populist backbone of the conservative political resurgence, repeatedly voting against their own economic interests, and recreating the very causes of their anger driven, irrational political behavior.

Bageant, a journalist, former editor of Military History, and progressive populist, grew up in the working class community of Winchester, Virginia, a town of 25000 tucked between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains. He escaped what Marx referred to as the “idiocy of rural life,” thanks to the Great Society social programs, and subsequently joined the ranks of the New Left. Recently, however, Bageant returned home--to the people that "smell like an ashtray" and "praise Jesus for a truck with no spare tire." Thus, Bageant speaks with an interesting voice—he is redneck by birth, godless commie by choice. Although thematically similar to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, it is more stylistically similar to Jim Goad's Redneck Manifesto--non-academic and more targeted to a general audience. It is largely comprised of illustrative anecdotes interwoven with witty, ironic, and sardonic commentary: exchanges between himself and his old high school buddy; run ins with locals at the Royal Lunch; and discussions with his brother, a Baptist preacher.

The picture he paints is quite bleak—that of workers who have never heard the words “class war” and therefore are desperately losing it. Economically and politically dominated by local business owners, mired in debt by unscrupulous mortgage agents, and suffering from a lack of education and health care, most of the working class residents of Winchester are beat down, frustrated, alienated. Their primary means of understanding their oppression comes from right wing talk radio, internet urban myths, and the local prayer revival---all which place the blame for their problems squarely on the shoulders of the “liberal elite.” Local business people, often Republican Party operatives, reinforce this world view—repeating Limbaugh-esque sound bites drawn from NewsMax, FrontPage, and other right wing news sources; and in a world where few people question direct authority, it may as well be from God’s mouth.

The world of Winchester is characterized by a na├»ve belief in the way the world should be, with an irrational hatred of anyone that might want to actually bring that world about. Bageant comes across an old school mate who is convinced that revenue from “Support the Troops” magnets (probably made in China) actually goes to the troops—because why else would they make them? Bageant’s best buddy from high school has totally internalized the sound-bite defense of the American Empire, an Empire that offered him up as canon fodder in Vietnam and constantly threatens to outsource his job at Rubbermaid because American labor is too expensive. A lot of it simply comes down to symbolism—or what Bageant refers to as the American hologram—the blue collar denizens of Winchester would rather vote for a candidate that implores the public to “support the troops” and pretends to cut brush in his free time than a candidate that actually went to Vietnam and pretends to wind surf.

What is to be done? Bageant offers few specific prescriptions, his case is largely implied. The key difference between Bageant and “his people” is that he left and got an education. As Bageant argues, widespread access to quality education has a liberalizing effect upon society, and the post-integration withdrawal of many whites from the public school system has been to the detriment of both. The erosion of support for public schools and the rising expense of higher education have produced a new generation of under educated individuals, happily unable to sort fact from fiction—anti-intellectual in thought and practice. Moreover, the development of Christian academies and homeschooling has produced a new generation of highly indoctrinated individuals—convinced that the world was created in seven days and the rapture is nigh with the political goal of recreating a Christian Republic that never was. And of course, the Republicans have eagerly played into this—seeking to hasten the breakdown of the public education system and thus reproducing cohorts of ignorant and pliable workers for generations to come. The Left must work to reverse these trends through the aggressive defense of our public education system and resist attempts to privatize schooling through vouchers or other machinations of the tax code. Additionally, making college education more affordable to the working class is imperative.

The Left also needs to get “right” with the Second Amendment. As Bageant correctly points out, during the heyday of New Deal liberalism, being a Democrat and a gun owner were perfectly consistent, today, not so much. Few issues have been more cleverly manipulated by the Republicans than gun ownership. The beauty is that the solution is very simple—support the right to bear arms—the Black Panthers did, if that helps. Additionally, the Left needs to pressure the Democrats to be more aggressive in supporting class based legislation—protecting Social Security and establishing a real National Health Care Plan.

Alone, none of this will make much of a difference, because through the American hologram, all of these things will become distorted beyond repair. The only way to counteract this eventuality is if the Left and the Democrats step out of their comfort zone and talk to these people. Few people in Winchester know a real live liberal, much less a “red,” therefore mischaracterizations and stereotypes are easily held and reinforced. Rather than talking down to Evangelical Christians and redneck labor, it is time to learn to change our own oil and maybe change a few minds.

Make no bones about it, at times, this book can be tough to read. As someone who shares Bageant’s political sensibilities and certain aspects of his background (I can’t honestly state that I grew up a redneck, but my extended family is from rural Indiana, and the world of Winchester is not outside my experience), I am sensitive to terms like “white trash,” “hick,” and “redneck” as class based put-downs. I have as little use for middle class whites who mock lower class whites as I do for racism, and more than a few times Bageant’s mockery of “his people” rubbed me raw. But as I read, the more I realized there is a method to his madness. Bageant challenges us to rethink an implied assumption of many on the Left—that the white working class should be written off. Although it may very well be true that the remaking of the American working class is causing the rural white working class to be less significant numerically, the reality is that the white working class will remain a substantive part of American society for the foreseeable future and, in the worst case scenario, could serve as the shock troops of a fascist America—a looming possibility as oil prices threaten to undermine American living standards and the US becomes more dependent on the military to prop up its ailing domestic economy and to enforce its will overseas.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

On Libertarianism and Ron Paul

One of the interesting developments of this election season is the candidacy of Ron Paul. The Texas congressman has run a successful, internet based, campaign that has kept him in the Republican race, despite being a "maverick" within the party. What I have found interesting is how many young people seem to gravitate towards Paul. His "libertarian" message, which emphasizes personal freedom and responsibility, a strict interpretation of the constitution, his opposition to the Patriot Act, and his anti-Iraq War voting record seem to connect with politically minded young people.

We live in strange times--and times which are obviously political disorienting. Although I am not one squelch youthful exuberance when it comes to politics, I find Paul's "libertarianism" to be hardly liberating. It seems that the biggest attraction to Paul is the spirit which exudes from his positions--he believes that there is something special in the United States political system, something that has been corrupted by current politics, and he has taken relatively principled stands against an unpopular war and controversial legislation (primarily the Patriot Act). These are positions in which I am in basic agreement. That he is taking such stands as a Republican, makes him even more intriguing.

I find many problems with his positions as well. Clearly, Paul is closely entangled with the religious right--which is curious for a constitutional libertarian. He supports the notion of prayer in schools believing that the federal government doesn't have the right to speak on the issue--something which I find puzzling as the prevention of government sanctioned school prayer in public schools is a significant curtailment of government power. He is also pro-life believing that that the federal government doesn't have the right to find abortion laws illegal--which is also curious--since Roe v. Wade is premised on the right to personal privacy--something I would think a libertarian would support.

It seems to me that Paul's libertarianism, even accepting his limited definition of the term at face value, is highly selective. Most of his positions are not about shrinking government, but seem to be about moving authority out of the hands of the federal government to the states (shrinking one form of government and enlarging another) or into the hands of the private and unaccountable bureaucracies we call corporations. He is a libertarian when it comes to cutting welfare and education, a proponent of big government (even if it is the state government) when it comes to preventing women's right to choose and promoting religion and a proponent of the private tyranny of the corporation.

What is very clear is that the word "libertarian" in the American political context does not mean the same thing it means in most other parts of the world. Historically and worldwide, libertarianism has been almost synonymous with various strains of anarchism--an anti-capitalist ideology which believes that all sources of social authority must be challenged--including the notion that the government has the right to use the legal code to create and protect private property. The libertarian left has a strong tradition in the United States--including the multitude of 19th century utopian communities that dotted the American countryside, the IWW, Emma Goldman, Rudolf Rocker, various New Left organizations and utopian experiments in the 1960s, Noam Chomsky, Anti-Racist Action, Food Not Bombs, housing collectives and worker collectives, various anarcho-punk and experimental squatter communities, and, most recently, Michael Albert's "Parecon." But even with all this, somehow, "libertarian" has come to mean supporting corporate capitalism and entangling the government with religion--only in America!

By the same token, Ron Paul is right--there is something special about the United States--but it isn't the thing that he sees--it is the long tradition of libertarian and anarcho-socialist thought and action that has always tried to enhance personal freedom, equality, and challenge both the private and public tyrannies of big government capitalism.

So all you big government capitalists, beware of anarchists who vote!

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Frustrations of a Bengals Fan

My patience is running thin. I grew up in a black and orange household and have bled black and orange all my life. My Dad has been a Bengal season ticket-holder since 1970 (I was 2 at the time). Some of my earliest memories are of the strong Bengals teams in the mid-70s, I went to SuperBowl XVI and have suffered through the great nightmare that was the ‘90s and now to our recent period. I’ll never “give up” on the Bengals so long as they stay in Cincy, but it is getting frustrating. Adding insult to injury, I currently live in Pittsburgh, and having to regularly answer “What’s wrong with your Bungles?” while the Steelers put up competitive teams routinely is incredibly annoying.

Clearly, the 11-5 2005 season fooled Bengaldom into believing that the Lewis/Palmer era was on the cusp of bringing us a string of playoff appearances and possibly a Super Bowl. In reality, they have brought us “back” to mediocrity—which is better than being atrocious, but not much. A few observations ---

I don’t know if it is a fair comparison, but I find it amazing that the Steelers can continuously put up good teams while the Bengals cannot. How is Dick Lebeau a genius in Pittsburgh, but a loser in Cincinnati? Other than “tradition,” Pittsburgh has no natural advantage over Cincy---Pittsburgh is a comparable “medium market” city, the Rooney’s are tightwads and unsentimental, which makes them difficult to play for (just ask Joey Porter and Alan Faneca), and, like the Bengals, they build almost exclusively through the draft.

Part of it can be blamed on Lewis—Lewis may very well be overrated as a coach. But I don’t blame him that much—simply because he had almost nothing to work with defensively when he arrived—go back and look at our 2003 roster—it is disturbing at a couple of levels—primarily because, with the exception of Justin Smith and Brian Simmons, there aren’t too many guys that are still in the NFL much less Bengals—meaning he had less than nothing to work with, and this after several years of drafting under the “defensive genius” of Dick Lebeau. Thankfully, the defense in four years has totally turned over, however, it is obviously going to be several more years before we see any results. There is hope in Joseph, Hall, Brooks, Johnson, Geathers, Ndukwe and a few others—but we are still disturbingly thin.

The biggest difference is in talent scouting, recruitment, and retention—which I blame primarily on Mike Brown. Part of it is culture—the Steelers have a winning culture and attitude, which is easy when you win, but it feeds on itself—the Bengals have just the opposite. The more tangible difference is the Steelers’ ability to draft intelligently, keep those players on the team, and build around them. If you look at the past 8-9 years draft picks for the Bengals and Steelers, the difference becomes quite stark—with the exception of the 2001 and 2003 draft, the Bengals have really struggled to have impact drafts (meaning drafting players that quickly establish themselves as top grade starters) and to keep the players that make the impact. Arguably, our best impact defensive draft in recent memory was 9 years ago (Spikes, Simmons, Hawkins), for a team that “builds around the draft,” that is inexcusable.

Some of it I am willing to write off as bad luck—who can predict season ending injuries? Obviously not the Bengals--but “bad luck” isn’t really a good excuse either—although you can’t totally predict injuries, you can avoid picking players that are injury prone or don’t have the physiques or work out regimen to take NFL pounding—at least it seems like other teams are able to with some certainty. The point being that the Bengals are simply terrible at evaluating talent and constructing a long term draft plan. I have thought about whether the Bengals should offer up one of their big name offensive guys for draft picks, however, I am not convinced it would do much good.

A prescription for 2008--

The Draft--
Believe it or not, the Bengals should prioritize offense next year in the draft. I would like to see us use two of our first three picks on offense. Our first picks should comprise an offensive tackle, a skilled offensive player (TE, WR, RB), and a defensive lineman. As long as Palmer is vertical and has weapons, we have a shot. In later round picks, look to pick up some linebackers, pass rushing specialists, and perhaps a couple more skilled offensive players depending on what is available. As bad as the Bengals defense is, it will get better with our crop of young defensive backs--we need a front seven that can stop the run and put pressure on the QB.

The Coaching--
It is time for a new Defensive Coordinator. We have to change something at the top and I think that is a logical place to start. I would like to see us go outside the organization and recruit a young and hungry coach that will shake things up.

The Team--
Both offensively and defensively, the Bengals needs to learn to control a football game. The offense is the most capable of this and therefore, I am putting more pressure on them to do so. I'd like to see the Bengals move to RBBC arrangement and more of a spread offense consisting of ball control passing. In order to do this, we will need some pass catching RBs (hopefully Irons will be back) and a second possession receiver akin to Houshmandzadah (hence the draft priority). We also need to establish a running game (hence the linemen in the draft).

The Bengals have a decent core--but it is still going to be a couple years before this ship gets turned around. I just hope that we can hold onto Palmer, Housh, and Ocho Cinco long enough to give them a team worth being on.

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David Bromberg at the Rex

If you have to suffer to play the blues, then David Bromberg must have been hog-tied and beaten for the better part of his life. On Friday at the Rex Theater, he turned in one of the best live shows I have seen in a long time. Playing a mixture of blues, folk, and bluegrass, the mercurial Bromberg demonstrated why his reputation as a "musician's musician" is well founded while at the same time reminding me of why I love live music. Bromberg, perhaps better known for who he has played with (Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Vassar Clements, Willie Nelson, The Eagles, Phoebe Snow, John Prine to name a few) than for his own material, has just released his first studio album in 17 years and is currently touring, mixing in some new blues and some old classics.

Bromberg emerged in the 1970s as a heralded studio musician--a fantastic guitar player, he is also proficient on the fiddle, dobro, and mandolin. After releasing several albums, either solo or with his Quartet, Bromberg "hung it up" in the 1980s (didn't we all?), touring rarely throughout the late '80s and '90s. In the past few years, however, Bromberg has reemerged, touring with his quartet and with his wife's vocal trio, the Angel Band--and I am glad he did.

The Angel Band (Jen Schonwald, Nancy Josephson, and Kathleen Weber) opened and I was immediately blown away--"When I Sing this Song" was a bouncy bluegrass number that set the tone for the evening. I was particularly impressed by Weber. The youngest of the trio, Weber's soulful voice was more reminiscent of Etta James than that "high lonesome sound" of bluegrass, and she brought down the house on "Fountain of Good," a bluesy number that showcased her vocal range and power.

Bromberg followed with this band featuring Jeff Wisor (fiddle, mandolin), Bobby Tangrea (guitar, mandolin, fiddle) and Butch Amiot (bass). Possibly the best "song" was the three-way fiddle showdown between Bromberg, Wisor, and Tangrea. Beyond that, he mixed in some of his older classics with a few new blues numbers off his is recent album. "Big Road Blues" was particularly good. Bromberg brought back the Angel Band for a few songs at the end of the set, most notably "Sharon," which simply rocked. Bromberg's unique voice and witty lyrics are truly best appreciated live, as he has an incredible ability to make his songs "come alive" through his storytelling, expressions, and his amazing guitar work.

I am glad that Bromberg is back and I suspect you may see a few more reviews of Bromberg shows because if it gets anywhere near Pittsburgh, I'll be part of that "the same rowdy crowd that was here last night" and "is back again."

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

On the turntable--Robert Plant/Alison Kraus, Raising Sand

I heard about this little gem from a fellow Led Zeppelin aficionado
and since I am also an Alison Kraus fan, I had to run out and get it. Raising Sand is an interesting "duet album" between one of the greatest rock voices and one of the sweetest folk voices in the business. The songs are a collection of lesser known covers from well known song writers of the blues, rockabilly, and country genres including Mel Tillis, Dorothy Labostrie, Tom Waits, Allen Toussaint, Sam Phillips and Doc Watson.

The arrangements (produced by T-Bone Burnett) have a "wall of sound" feel--with syrupy slide guitar backed by a deeply reverbed, yet austere, rhythm section. Most songs have a pleasant folky--almost jug band--sound, not as bluegrassy as I anticipated, but you can almost picture them sitting on the front porch strumming the six string, plucking the banjo, playing the fiddle, and beating away on old paint cans. The works that stand out our those where the harmonies between Plant and Kraus are the centerpiece of the song. In particular, Roland Salley's (of Chris Isaak's band) "Killing the Blues," Phil and Don Everly's "Gone, Gone, Gone," and the haunting "Polly Come Home Again, " by Gene Clark of the Byrds. The CD also has an interesting remake of Page/Plant's "Please Read the Letter," from their Clarksdale collaboration. I like this version better. Kraus also shines on a rockin' version of "Little Milton" Campbell's "Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson."

The album doesn't feature a lot of heavy guitar work, although Marc Ribot does a very good job when called upon, particularly on the Kashmir-esque arrangement of Townes Van Zandt's "Nothin." The musical appeal of the album is more in the subtleties of the arrangements and the production value. If I didn't already have it, it would certainly be on my Christmas list, so I highly recommend it as a stocking stuffer for your favorite Plant or Kraus fan.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Paolo Nutini at Mr. Smalls

I had the good fortune of catching Paolo Nutini at Mr. Smalls on Monday. It was the first time I had been to Mr. Smalls and it was worth the trek out the North Hills. It is a nice little venue with cheap drinks, good size stage, and decent acoustics. This concert attracted about 500 people which I'd say is about right for the place.

Nutini is relatively new Scottish singer songwriter that I just happened to catch on WYEP several months ago. He is only twenty years old, but writes surprisingly lyrically sophisticated songs with catchy melodies. His music has a pop-folk sound with some rock-n-roll influence. His songs "New Shoes" and "Last Request" have gotten some airplay and have been featured as background music on television shows and in movies. Along with Nutini, Indiana native Jon Mclaughlin, and Canadian Serena Ryder were featured on the bill.

Ryder opened the show, playing only acoustic guitar with no backup. Her soulful and powerful voice was more than adequate to fill the room and she proved herself to be a more than competent songwriter. "Brand New Day" featured her lyrical ability and was my favorite song. Jon Mclaughlin was a more in the vein of a young Elton John--featuring driving keyboards mixed with a melodic rock sound. Mclaughlin's "Beautiful Disaster," which I had heard before, but just not sure where, was his highlight song.

Nutini played for a little over an hour with a three piece backup band, featuring songs from his latest full length release, "These Streets." The first thing I noticed is that his voice is very different in person than it is on the LP. It is much more soulful and "dirty"--but also with a hint of a Scottish accent--things that did not come through on the studio mix. After I got used to the different voice, I actually liked it better and wondered why the producer altered it so much. In addition to his entire album, Nutini also worked in interesting covers of Moby's "Natural Blues," Bo Diddley's "Can't Judge a Book," and Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'," which reflected the many influences upon his music. Overall it is a solid show at every level.

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Monday, October 8, 2007

Why I like John Mellencamp

I almost never see music videos anymore. Honestly, I am not even sure where to look for videos . I don’t believe they show them much on MTV, I am sure they show them someplace, but I guess I am not really that interested. Recently, I happened upon John Mellencamp’s “Our Country” video on YouTube and viewed it and thought it was a very nice video. It also reminded me of how much I like John Mellencamp.

I had the good fortune to attend Indiana University during the late 1980s and early 1990s, during Mellencamp’s heyday as a popular rock and roll singer. Living in Bloomington was always quite exciting because of Mellencamp, he gave many free concerts, would occasionally jam at local pubs with his good friend Lou Reed, and could be seen from time to time around town. I had the luck to meet his drummer and guitar player, Kenny Aronoff and Mike Wanchic, a couple of times, which was exciting for a young aspiring musician. And my greatest moment was during a gig (I was in an acoustic duo) Larry Crane, JCM’s lead guitarist, got up on stage and sat-in with us—we played “Midnight Rider” and “Independence Day” (one of Crane’s solo songs)—it was great.

Being someone with a developing social conscience and lefty political views, I found Mellencamp to be quite pleasing to my political sensibilities in addition to simply liking his music. Although rural Indiana has a reputation for being a bastion of reactionary politics, JCM has consciously tried to change that image. As my family is from rural Indiana, I am well versed in the good and the bad of Hoosier social views, and I always felt that Mellencamp’s songs always stayed true to his rural roots, while at the same time representing the best of rural populism. Classics like “Scarecrow” could have been very easily written about my family, “Little Pink Houses” is a brilliant, yet subtle critique of the American Dream, and “Jackie Brown” is a beautifully tragic comment on rural poverty. His work with progressive populist Willie Nelson on the Farm Aid concerts cemented his place as one of the great politically minded musicians of our era.

When Mellencamp released “Our Country,” I was slightly dismayed because it was immediately sold to Chevrolet for use on their commercial. Although it was clear that the song was a patriotic protest song in the vein of “This Land is our Land,” that JCM had apparently “sold out” was frustrating. I saw him interviewed on the subject and his explanation was understandable—that in today’s music industry, where radio/cable/digital music is all so programmed, it can be difficult for even established artists to get their music out to new audiences, hence the sale of the song to a commercial enterprise. Sadly, JCM’s analysis is correct. As a self-aware music consumer, I often have trouble finding music that I like and am still stumbling upon artists that have been around for years but somehow have been off my radar because there are so few avenues for them to tap new audiences. The fortunate position of Mellencamp is that he can use the commercial nature of our society to promote a song which reflects values that are at odds with that very same commercialism. I suppose it is the luxury of being famous. Having recently watched the video for the first time, it only reaffirmed my appreciation for the song, in spite of its “commercialism.”

More recently, Mellencamp has released “Jena,” a lament about racism in American society. The song reminds us that racism is still very much a part of American society, but only because we let it be. As with many of Mellencamp’s political songs, the subject is sad, but moral is one of hope. Not surprisingly, the Mayor of Jena has criticized the song as being “inflammatory”—as if trumped up charges and racial double standards aren’t inflammatory. I was glad to see Mellencamp still willing to mix-it-up and keep it relevant—and it might make him some money in the process.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Two Minutes of Hate

As the debate about the war in Iraq limps along and as the mission seems even less accomplisheder than it did three years ago, all eyes of have turned to Columbia University, where fanatic, jew-hater, and terrorist extraordinaire, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a speech at the request of the University as part of their "World Leaders" forum. In his opening remarks, University President Lee Bollinger, ultimately responsible for inviting Ahmadinejad, took the tough-minded position of opposing cruel dictators (Ahmadinejad was elected, but that is beside the point) and made it clear that he didn't care for Ahmadinejad--not one bit (you are off the hook, Lee!).

So what is Ahmadinejad's crime? Well he's from Iran which is an Arab country (oops no it isn't, they are Persian)--well, he was good friends with Saddam Hussein (oops, Iran was one of Hussein's victims and its most bitter enemy), well at least all the hijackers of Sept. 11 were Shia Muslims (oops, they were Sunnis and hate Shias almost as much as the American infidels). But hey, he has nuclear weapons, right? (not according to IAEA inspectors, but what do they know about weapons of mass destruction anyway?) Well at least it's true that the US has officially hated Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis (except for the whole Iran-Contra thing, but we'll just pretend like that didn't happen.)

This is not to say that there aren't many legitimate reasons to dislike Ahmadinejad--there are. He definitely panders to the right wing extremists of his own country and the Arab world, his theocratic government is repressive to women and homosexuals, and Iran is hardly a bastion of free thought. Of course the US may have had something to do with this (remember the cruel dictator known as the Shah? Where were all the University Presidents then?), but again that is water under the bridge. Making things worse, he is prone to making bombastic statements on controversial subjects, which make him regular cannon fodder for the American news media. Everyone already knows that they are supposed to hate him, so it is a lot easier to hate him on cue. So why is it necessary to hate him for reasons that don't make sense when their are so many reasons that do?

It gets to the complexities of American political culture and the need to populate the world with "mad men" who "must be stopped." The American intellegentia's united crescendo of moral outrage and denunciations of Ahmadinejad could not have been scripted better by a Russian Comissar during Stalin's heydey. Lee Bollinger, NY State assemblymen, NYC city council members, all taking "courageous" moral stands against Ahmadinejad because he said that he wanted to "wipe Israel off the map" (he didn't) and because his visit is an affront to the victims of 9/11 (huh?) makes one wonder about America's intellectual culture. It is the exact same mentality that got us into war in Iraq--the 9/11 hijackers are from the Middle East, Iraq is a country in the Middle East.....enough said.

Which, of course, is the point--the US has been grasping for reasons to attack Iran for over a year now. And as the situation in Iraq continues to raise questions among the American public, as US depends more on more on mercenery and unaccountable contractors, as the Taliban continues to regenerate in Afghanistan, and Pakistan becomes further destabilized by the war next door, there has to be a solution--find a new enemy, a new "Hitler," a new country to bomb, and just in time for the elections.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Spy vs. Spy in the NFL

The most recent controversy in athletics is the accusation of cheating against the New England Patriots. According to the NFL, the New England Patriots used spies to video tape the New York Jets’ signals during their September 9th football game. The Pats used the tape to steal the Jets’ play-calls and thus provide an unfair advantage to themselves. Apparently, after years of complaints against the Pats, the NFL’s crack team of investigators pretty much caught the Patriots red-handed, took their tapes and confirmed that the illegal act occurred. Additionally, former foes have suggested that the Patriots may also have used non-NFL radio frequencies during the game, interfered with opponents’ radio transmissions, sent spies into opposing teams’ locker rooms to acquire information, and used other forms of technological espionage. And yes, I am still talking about football, not the overthrow of a small third world government.

So when did the NFL become a game of spy vs. spy? It may be true that, as George Orwell once said, athletics is simply warfare without the bullets and such activity is a logical extension of this axiom. This may be particularly true for football. As my other favorite George (Carlin) humorously reminds us, the lexicon of football is pretty warlike-- QBs are field generals who avoid the blitz by using a shotgun to pepper defenses and throw bombs, the whole game revolves around ground acquisition and is ultimately won in the trenches, occasionally ending in “sudden death”-- as opposed to “pastimes” like baseball where the object is simply to be “safe at home." Maybe I’m just getting old, but seems to have gotten worse in recent years. Part of it is the advance of technology, with computer printouts, immediate ability to crunch data, digital photography and film, plus the ability transmit this information quickly and accurately. It seems like more and more of the game strategy occurs away from the field than on it. The other reason is the “win at all costs” attitude which so prevalent in our society, which professional sports has come to epitomize. This perspective is so prevalent that the prospect of a “forfeit” for cheating was never seriously discussed, as presumably, to enforce a loss on a team for cheating in a game is too severe to be even considered. In other words, to punish a winner by making them a loser apparently sends the wrong message. The worst thing that the NFL considered was a suspension of Coach Belichik. In actuality, the NFL fined Belichick and the Patriots and deprived them of a yet to be determined number of draft picks. Only the latter of the sanctions will have any impact on the team, and that impact will be impossible to measure and won’t be felt, if at all, for years to come.

I have never considered myself a Luddite or put much stock in past “Golden Ages” but I have to admit that this controversy has waxing nostalgic for the halcyon days of old. Isn’t the best way to analyze the opponent’s defense by sending a 230lb fullback up the middle and see who has fortitude to stop him? What is wrong with communicating with players and other coaches the old fashioned way, by yelling at them? What happened to sending in plays with messenger guards or through ridiculous looking hand signals on the sideline? I don’t have a problem with pre-game preparation, studying the opposition for tendencies and formations, but once the game starts all that should go out the window and the game should be decided on the field. If it was good enough for Vince Lombardi, it should be good enough for “geniuses” like Bill Belichik.

Therefore I propose these 10 changes in the NFL rules—

1. All coaches must be on the designated sideline for their team for the duration of the game (no coaches “in the booth”)
2. The NFL (and only the NFL) will film all games and those films will be provided to teams upon request (and of course with the express written consent of the NFL) when preparing for a future game, but the film will digitally edited, removing sideline communications
3. No transmitters/radio receivers of any kind on the sideline or in a helmet
4. There will be special officials designated to police the above rules. If teams are caught cheating, they lose the game and all statistics from the cheating team for that game are zeroed

—and while I’m at it--

5. No games on Astroturf or in a dome
6. No more challenging bad calls—bad calls are a part of the game, get used to it
7. Superbowls rotate so every city gets a chance to host (yes, even if it snows and is thirty below)
8. Put everyone in leather helmets and leather pads (should actually reduce injuries as players won’t be able to use their head as a weapon)
9. Bring back the drop kick
10. Each team has to have a player named “Bronco,” “Night Train,” or “Crazy Legs”—this player must play both offense and defense

Are you ready for some football?

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Friday, September 7, 2007

The Vietnam Syndrome and the Re-"Righting" of History

On Wednesday Aug. 22, in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Bush specifically drew parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, arguing that this was a good thing and America should firm its resolve in Iraq. This was a fascinating and flabbergasting statement. After years of deflecting Iraq and Vietnam comparisons because of the negative connotation, the Bush administration has embraced the comparison. This essay will offer some thoughts on why the Bush administration would do this and conclude my series of articles on the comparison between the wars.

At the heart of the issue is this thing called the "Vietnam Syndrome." In the wake of America's smashing victory over Iraq in 1991, George "Papa" Bush stated that the US had finally "kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all." So what is this "Vietnam Syndrome" that was so important to kick? To put it
succinctly, it is the reluctance of the American public to accept facile and dubious justifications for invading another country, particularly when the goals of the war are unclear and open ended. This perfectly logical reluctance, which has a long history in the US that predates Vietnam, has been reduced to a "syndrome"--an irrational psychological condition caused by America's inability to subdue Vietnam. The US government has gone to great extents to break the American public of this syndrome. Namely, by eagerly searching for "madmen" who are militarily vulnerable and that the US can easily overthrow and thus reassure the American public that every time we invade another country, it won't turn into a quagmire, and that there are an endless amount of dictators which deserve the business end of a stinger missile. In practice what this has meant is the US has taken to picking on virtually defenseless countries, hoping to compile a series of "quick and easy wins" so Vietnam seems like a distant memory. The invasion of Grenada and Panama are case in point.

Bush Sr.'s Iraq gambit was the first major military operation that entailed some risk since Vietnam. Hussein did have a sizable conventional army, nothing that the international coalition created to stop him should not have easily handled, but it looked good on paper. Did the first Gulf War then prove that the Vietnam Syndrome was dead? Hardly. Although support for the war was high for the brief period of combat, anti-war protests emerged
pre-invasion--something almost unheard of in the annals of anti-war protests. Moreover, the limited nature of the war and that Bush could not capitalize politically upon the conflict suggest that support for a prolonged war was thin, and the Bush administration knew it.

Fast forward to 2003. In the wake of Sept. 11, the predictable rage militaire allowed the Bush Administration redux to "finish the job" that public and international opinion prevented Papa Bush from completing. Similarly, protests emerged pre-invasion, not just in the US but around the globe. The thin public support for the war has definitely affected war strategy and the rhetoric surrounding the war. The Bush Administration has tried to keep troop levels low, resisted any talk of a draft, and has tried to create the impression that this war is a genuine international effort (any examination of troop levels and casualty levels should dissuade anyone of this notion). Additionally, the Bush Administration has been in the uncomfortable position of reminding us that we are making progress ("mission accomplished" and "the surge is working") while also making sure that the public knows that the mission isn't really accomplished or that the surge isn't working sufficiently to withdraw. Again, the Vietnam Syndrome is with us.

Thus, Bush's attempt to
reframe the Vietnam War and to rewrite history to serve current political ends. Although much has been written on Bush's historical myopia, there are points that are worth highlighting. Central to Bush's argument is that the US withdraw from Vietnam produced a humanitarian disaster in South East Asia (the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese boat people); and the subsequent decline of US credibility allowing for later humiliations including the Iran hostage crisis. It is a classic example of the "correlation/causation fallacy," common among people who either don't know history, or among propagandists trying to use history to their own ends. The correlation/causation fallacy is basically that if the rooster crows at 5:30 and the sun comes up at 5:40, the rooster caused the sun to come up. Bush's fallacy goes much deeper, however, as the humanitarian disaster in SE Asia predates the US withdraw and was directly a result of US intervention. US carpet bombing of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos produced directly and indirectly millions of deaths, facilitated the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and prevented a non-military solution to the conflict in Vietnam. That the killing didn't stop after the US withdraw somehow proves that the US should not have withdrawn, belies basic logic, much less an understanding of cause and effect. In Vietnam, there was no "communist blood bath" that had been predicted (this is not to say that the Vietnamese communists did not engage in human rights violations, but there was no mass slaughter)--the blood bath that did occur was in Cambodia, a blood bath that the Vietnamese tried to stop by invading Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge, while America's new friend, China, invaded Vietnam and the US offered clandestine and indirect support to China's new ally, the Khmer Rouge, as a way to put Vietnam "in its place." Genocide sure makes strange bedfellows--but such facts are reserved to the memory hole.

Thus we return again to America's credibility in the world. That the respect the US earned following the liberation of Europe from Nazism and SE Asia from Japanese militarism has run out in a series of foreign policy blunders and imperial power grabs, this is the fault of the "Vietnam Syndrome?" Of left-wingers and peacenicks? Hardly. All I can say is I hope the American public remains insane enough to question every war and every leader that would drag us into one.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Iraq, Vietnam, and the New World Order

This is the second in my series comparing the Vietnam War and the Iraqi War. The first explored the situation on the ground in both countries, this essay will deal with the situation in the United States and the reasons for the respective invasions.

Although the situation "on the ground" in Iraq and in Vietnam were significantly different, the reasons and events surrounding the respective invasions share some similarities, but are also dramatically divergent. The US invasion of Vietnam was largely the product of a Cold War ideology that required the United States to fight communism wherever it threatened to spread. The "domino theory," which argued that if Vietnam fell, communism would spread through Asia, the Middle East, and eventually Fidel Castro would be dating your sister, required the United States to stop the first domino. In the case of Iraq, the invasion is symptomatic of a lack of ideological coherence to US foreign policy in the post-Cold War period. At the root of the problem is the US government's desire to assert itself as the only country that can legitimately use force in the world, while at the same time securing resources crucial to the geopolitical/geo-economic landscape--but to do so in terms acceptable to the US public.

Vietnam was the product of the commitment to stop the spread of communism, a commitment so unquestioned that any independent nationalist movement, communist or not, was perceived as a Soviet plot. The operational question was always "How best do we fight communism?" The US adopted a number of strategies--go through the UN (Korea), use the CIA and proxy forces (Guatemala, Iran, Chile), or use the nuclear threat (Cuba). It was the failure of all three of these strategies that eventually led to the US invasion of Vietnam. Vietnam had no resources of particular importance to the United States, it isn't located in a particularly strategic part of the world, but the US commitment came to stand for the greater US commitment to stop the spread of communism. The tunnel vision that US policy planners adopted prevented peaceful solutions to the conflict in 1946, 1954, and 1963. At every juncture, the United States chose to "turn up the heat" on the people of Vietnam while continuing to support undemocratic forces within the country rather than allowing free and internationally monitored elections (which would assuredly produced a victory for the immensely popular Ho Chi Minh.) By 1968, the United States found itself "waist deep in the big muddy"---in a bloody and brutal war it could not win against a weaker enemy that would not give up.

If Vietnam was a product of the tunnel vision of the Cold War, Iraq is a product of the US attempt to reformulate US foreign policy in a different manner, but along similar lines, and with predictable outcomes. As the Cold War came to a close, the US policy makers tried to find a new ideological security blanket to wrap themselves in. It was Ronald Reagan who first announced the "War on Terror" and used it as a justification for the state directed international terrorism against Nicaragua (a crime for which the US stands as the only country in the world convicted for international terrorism by the ICJ). George Bush subsequently announced the "War on Drugs" which became his justification for the invasion of Panama to arrest Manuel Noriega (a former CIA operative who help fund the Pentagon's Latin American terror operations through the sale of drugs, some of this while Bush was head of the CIA). On the heals of Panama, Saddam Hussein invaded its much weaker neighbor to the south, Kuwait, and all of a sudden the United States declared that it believes that powerful nations shouldn't bully weaker ones (a major revelation)--and thus Gulf War I and the United States' 16 year struggle to subdue Iraq.

Of course, Iraq does have resources which are important to the United States and the world economy, therefore, US (rather US and European based multinational corporations) access to this oil is a major factor in the war. The other root cause is less obvious, but possibly more important. The "failing" of the first Gulf War was largely a derivative of the international (UN led) coalition's interests in turning back Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The northern imperial powers (Russia, France, England and to a lesser extent the US) could not tolerate independent and aggressive nationalists like Hussein, but they also wanted to keep Hussein in power (just weakened) so oil could continue to flow and a relative stability would exist in the region under the auspices of no-fly zones and an international military force. The neo-conservative vision, however, has no tolerance for internationally brokered agreements of this sort. There is only one country that can and should use force in the world, and that is the United States--and the United States does not subordinate itself to the "international community" or the UN. This is the real significance of the US invasion of Iraq--to remind the UN (and our "allies") who is boss. Although Rumsfeld argued that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a "humanitarian war" (Stalin just cringed) in reality it was a lesson in realpolitik--in the New World Order, the New World gives the orders.

Since September 11th, 2001, America's attempt to assert itself militarily and to secure Iraq as a dependable source of oil has been justified as a necessary battle in the new "War on Terror." Much of the logic is similar to the "domino theory." If we don't fight them in Iraq, we will fight them here, and the WMD facade is very similar to the Gulf of Tonkin deception, which provided the initial justification for invasion. The logic is equally dubious now as it was then, but the Bush Administration has gotten enough traction that a significant portion of the electorate accepts the war (Iraq is unusual in that there were protests before the 2003 invasion but obviously popular outcry was not sufficient to stop it) thus he has not been politically compelled to alter the course of the war dramatically. However, just as Vietnam did serious damage to the Cold War ideology, I suspect the Iraq War is undermining the neo-con's long term ideological project--but only the future will tell.

Certainly, it is this new "tunnel vision" which has placed the United States in the current mess it is in. Again, the US has had numerous opportunities to bring about peaceful resolutions to the conflict, to scale down its troop presence and to support indigenous democratic movements in Iraq--we have foregone those and instead have slowly bled Iraq through an invasion, sanctions, bombings, more sanctions, a second invasion, and an occupation. Most recently, the US has even taken to arming former Ba'athist militias (if only they had strong man who could take the reigns!). And just as in Vietnam, it is the people of Iraq who are paying the true price. Now, we being told that the "credibility" of the United States is at stake. Our credibility to do what? To invade a country and slowly bleed its population for over a decade for the sake of oil and our position vis-a-vis other lesser powers?

There is no doubt that Vietnam and Iraq have hurt US credibility in the world, but not in the way our political leadership would have us believe.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

How similar are Iraq and Vietnam?

In a very interesting rhetorical move, President Bush recently invoked Vietnam and its legacy as a reason for the United States to stay in Iraq. Of course, comparing Iraq and Vietnam isn’t all that original; critics of the war have been using the “V” word to attack Bush’s open ended military commitment to an apparent quagmire from the very beginning. The following is the first installment of a series of blog entries comparing the two conflicts and how the comparison affects the popular debate about the war in the United States.

The national crisis in Iraq and Vietnam were both the product western/imperial attempts to do what was “best” (best for the maintenance of imperial influence) for the respective people of those nations. On the ground, however, these arrangements manifested themselves in very different ways, differences which are crucial to understanding the nature of the conflicts. Although both situations are the products of their imperial legacy, the differences on the ground far outweigh the similarities.

In Vietnam, the country was artificially partitioned, first by the French, and then again after WWII by the United Nations with the support of the United States and the Soviet Union. Predictably, the struggle to unify what had been artificially divided manifested itself in the form of Vietnamese nationalism through Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh, and its inheritor organizations, the North Vietnamese Army and the National Liberation Front. Although there were ethnic and political differences within these organizations, the Vietnamese largely viewed the struggle as an expression of their nationalistic desire to expel the French and the Americans by overthrowing their puppet, the South Vietnamese government.

In the case of Iraq, the situation is almost exactly opposite. The country was artificially unified under one government with the support of the winners of WWI. Iraq’s government historically has been either subordinate to or heavily dependent on a foreign imperial power, whether it was the Ottomans or the English. Internally, the country has been subject to ethnic and religious tensions between Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis and has often been a pawn in geopolitical chess matches between England, France, Persia (Iran), Turkey, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The result is that the Iraq has never been a “nation” in the true sense of the word and Iraqi governments have either been grafted onto the landscape by foreign powers or have been the product of coups (often with foreign support) and ruled in spite of the population not because of it. Therefore, Iraqi nationalism barely exists and is not a significant factor in the conflict.

The absence of Iraqi nationalism makes the respective wars very different. In Vietnam, the lines between those who supported the South Vietnamese government and those who didn’t were very clear—there were two sides to the conflict, either you supported a unified Vietnam, or you didn’t. The situation in Iraq is infinitely more complicated. There is no equivalent to the NLF in Iraq. Instead there are dozens of localized militias and political groupings with conflicting agendas, many with foreign patrons, who spend as much time fighting each other as they do fighting the American occupiers. Although some of these groups support a unified Iraq, they have different visions of what “Iraq” should look like ethnically, religiously, and politically—a secular plural society, a Sunni dominated caliphate, a Shia dominated Islamic Republic, or some permutation in between. And of course, many do not support a unified Iraq, preferring ethno-religious based partitions.

In both Iraq and Vietnam, the United States has put itself in the very awkward and unenviable situation of defending a government which lacks popular support, and in both situations the United States has continued to commit troops until this government is stabilized, which could mean indefinitely. The nature of the insurgency, however, is so dramatically different that to argue Iraq is “another Vietnam” is deceptive and detrimental to understanding the situation.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

On the turntable--Iron Horse, Whole Lotta Bluegrass

I just picked up this interesting little piece the other day--Iron Horse's 2004 release Whole Lotta Bluegrass: A Bluegrass Tribute to Led Zeppelin. Iron Horse, a veteran bluegrass outfit based out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is known for its cross-genre recording and has also produced Fade to Bluegrass: A Bluegrass Tribute to Metallica, among other similar releases.

I was pleasantly pleased with the the ten song effort. I am appreciative of bluegrass, but hardly an expert on the music, and I love Led Zeppelin, so it seemed like a could fit, particularly considering Jimmy Page's assertion that rock and roll is little more than folk music with distortion and amplifiers.

All I can say is that until you've heard "gonna give you love, every inch of my love" in four-part harmony, you've never really heard it. Ironically, the best song on the CD is "Rock 'n' Roll" which makes me want to start clogging to the fiery banjo and mandolin work. Less surprising is the smooth sounding "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp," already a folksy song, which could just as easily been written in the Tennessee hills as a Welsh farmhouse. Additionally, "Ramble On" translates remarkably as a bluegrass ballad.

Other songs like "Kashmir," "Dazed and Confused," and the "Immigrant Song" don't quite come off as well and I question their presence on the album compared to some more logical acoustic Zep classics. Basically, they come off sounding pretentious--of course, they were pretentious to begin with, so I can't fault them too much.

Nevertheless, if you dig bluegrass, dig Zeppelin, or want to hear songs about characters from the Lord of the Rings in four part-harmony, this CD is for you.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

On the turntable--Assembly of Dust, Recollection

Assembly of Dust's third release, Recollection, weaves together clever songwriting, haunting melodies, poppy hooks, and smooth musicianship into a cohesive and infinitely listenable alt-country masterpiece. It secures Reid Genauer's reputation as a fantastic story-telling lyricist that is also able to capture the ear with sweet melodies.

Stand-out songs on the album are the gently rocking "Telling Sue" which fuses a rockabilly sound with a bluegrassy four part harmony hook; the softer, and slightly funky "Whistle Clock," Genauer's lyrical zenith on the album; and the "Bootlegger's Advice" which sound like it could have come straight off any release by Little Feat or The Band. Collectively, each song flows into one another so naturally, I have found myself listening to the album three times in a row without even realizing it.

Although the album doesn't contain much of their trademark jamming, the more polished sound does them more than justice.

For anyone who likes the alt. country or classic country rock influenced by the Grateful Dead, the Eagles, The Band, Little Feat, or CSN&Y, you should do yourself a favor and check these guys out.

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Thursday, August 9, 2007

Hypocrisy and Homers--Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds has finally broken Hank Aaron's home run record. Without a doubt it is one of the more impressive records in baseball. But, it goes without saying that a long shadow has been cast over Barry Bonds record. As Bonds moved towards the record, he was constantly hounded by death threats, accusations of being a "cheater," and assurances that his record should not be taken seriously. All of this due to his alleged steroid use as documented by Sports Illustrated and a couple of scathing biographies (Love Me, Hate Me by Jeff Perlman and Game of Shadows by Williams and Fainaru-Wada).

Although I can't consider myself a Barry Bonds fan, I found myself repulsed by the public's and Major League Baseball's reaction to his record chase. It is one thing to heckle opponents, and it is certainly part of the game. Even to scream "Bonds you, suck," when he is arguably the best player to suit up in the past 10 years, I can tolerate. But to single out Bonds for such vituperative ire and to assert that Bonds' record shouldn't count because he used steroids is silly and hypocritical. The same fans that are booing Bonds didn't seem to have a problem rooting for Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and any number of lesser players who, with as much certainty, (meaning that none of them, including Bonds, ever failed a drug test) used steroids. These fans didn't have any problem watching balls zing out of the park throughout the 1990s and cheering accordingly. And to argue that Barry's record isn't "fair"--what about all the records that were made before the game was racially integrated? Are they fair? What about all the World Series that were won with players on steroids? Do we take them away as well?

The reality is that steroids was an institutional problem in baseball throughout the 1990s and early 2000s and everyone who was paying attention knew it. But no one did anything. Now, all of a sudden, baseball is claiming purity and offering Barry Bonds as a sacrificial lamb to the public. It is Barry's fault, not ours. But again, such is hypocrisy.

Bonds has never been a media darling, but he has done a remarkable job of handling this bad situation with some class. So enjoy it while you can Barry.

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Monday, August 6, 2007

Review: MIA: Mythmaking in America by H. Bruce Franklin

I stumbled across this book while doing some research on Vietnam and found it to be fascinating. Franklin argues that the POW/MIA myth is a concoction of politicians, right-wing political activists, and hucksters who have kept the POW issue alive as an open wound and thus reframed the Vietnam War with Americans as the true victims. This myth has been kept alive by Hollywood films such as Missing in Action and Rambo and has done a disservice to Americans' attempt to understand the Vietnam War.

Having grown up in the post-Vietnam era, I was also fascinated by tales of POWs and the possibility that some may still be alive. As I got older, however, I came to suspect that this was largely a myth designed to deceive the American public once again about Vietnam. This book has confirmed by suspicion.

Franklin examines the "numbers game" of POW/MIAs and explodes the possibility that any are still alive or that the Vietnamese government has not fully accounted for POWs or had any reason to keep some secretly, while releasing others. Franklin also debunks many of the alleged "live sightings" and the conspiracy theories associated with alleged POWs.

The reframing of the Vietnam War with the United States as the true victim has had major implications for the development of US Foreign policy in the post-Vietnam era. Tragically, it has blinded many Americans to the true cost of US intervention overseas--for the people living in those countries, for US soldiers, and America's credibility in world affairs.

Well worth the read.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

On the turntable--Robert Randolph, Colorblind

Colorblind is a slightly more commercialized follow-up to Robert Randolph and the Family Band's previous efforts that is well worth the listen. I was recently "turned on" to Robert Randolph with their Wetlands album and was immediately hooked. I eagerly bought this album and was not dissappointed. As some of the critics have pointed out, it is a little more commercial, has some "big names" added, and has an unnecessary cover of the Doobies "Jesus is Just Alright" (it isn't bad, but I would prefer another original.) Seems like the band is trying to breakthrough to a broader audience (can you really blame them?). The stand out songs are "Thrill of it," "Ain't nothing wrong with it," and "Deliver Me,"--all are rockers with a great driving beat and guitar work.

The sound is still solid, and I can imagine several of these songs becoming concert staples and jammable hits. Some of the southern rock sound which was so much of Wetlands is lost and is replaced with more of a funk/r & b sound, but it works.

After listening to it a few times, you will definitely find yourself turing it up to "eleven."

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Review: David Zeiger, Sir, No, Sir (video)

This documentary is a necessary corrective to the widely held perception that the Vietnam anti-war movement was anti-soldier. In fact, a key component of the anti-war movement was the soldiers. As early as 1965, highly decorated "lifers", who joined the armed services convinced they were doing their duty to their country, began speaking out against the war, refusing orders, and faced court-martials to stop the war in Vietnam. As one former Green Beret said, "I was doing my job right, but I wasn't doing right." By 1969 war resistance among GIs, which had started as individual acts of defiance spread among draftees "in country" and among vets returning home, and emerged as a crucial component of the anti-war movement. So much so that even the US military had to concede that the majority of US troops were anti-war.

Sir, No, Sir is a very well done documentary that weaves together interviews, news footage, and commentary about the "forgotten" anti-war movement--the GI coffee house movement, the underground GI press, and the "alternative" USO-style shows that featured an anti-war message that was tailored to the soldiers' expereince. It closes with some parting shots on how the GI anti-war movement was "erased" from popular memory through films like Hamburger Hill and Rambo--which situate the anti-war movement as being anti-soldier.

The extras on the DVD are also quite interesting. Of particular interest is the interview with the infamous "Dave Rabbitt." Years ago, I received a copy of a recording of a "pirate" radio station in Vietnam and had often wondered about its authenticity. This film confirmed that briefly an unofficial radio station (Radio First Termer-FM69), which was "for the troops" but against the war, operated in the Phan Rang area of Vietnam. It broadcast "hard acid-rock music" for the "first-termers and non-reenlistees" in Vietnam. An interesting story in and of itself, and just one part

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