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."

Read more!

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

Read more!

Review: Sandy Tolan, The Lemon Tree

Any book on such a controversial and emotional subject as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is bound to draw fire from all sides and Tolan's The Lemon Tree is no different. What is attractive about this book is that we get to know quite personally two people (Bashir and Dahlia) who are both caught up in the conflict, but who are also active agents in trying to further their respective causes. The story is even more compelling in that the two protagonists literally shared the same house. We aren't talking about abstract principles or faceless groups, we are talking about two individuals who claim the same piece of land as their home. The only difference is that one currently owns it and the other wants to return to it, but has no ability to do so. Also, that both come from left-wing political cultures (Dalia's family contained Bulgarian communists and Bashir is a Marxist/nationalist) makes the reader reflect on the struggle for freedom and the limits of nationalism (whether it be Israeli/Jewish or Palestinian/Muslim) as a vehicle for achieving it.

Tolan does a good job of intertwining the relevant history with the story. Although it is history, it is written more like a novel, with flashback and emphasis on the story while the occasional footnote and references are buried in the back. It is a gripping story and I didn't put it down until I was finished.

Regarding comments of pro-Palestinian bias, I don't believe the book misrepresents the Israeli position or misrepresents the history surrounding the founding of Israel, the 1948 War, the 1967 war, or the intifidas. He lets Dalia make the Israeli case in her own words for the most part, and she is about as reasonable as one can get. If Tolan went to the right wing of Israeli society, the case gets worse and more unreasonable, not better. I just think that Americans are so used to seeing the conflict through Israeli eyes, that a more balanced approach is bound to seem "biased." Tolan doesn't lionize the Palestinians either, but it is difficult to escape the reality that even the most reasonable Palestinian is in a bad position and often in a situation where there are no good choices.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Read more!

Review: Jonathan Cook, Blood and Religion

Jonathan Cook's Blood and Religion offers a different perspective on a problem if continuing import. Rather than focusing on the Israel/Palestinian problem as a dispute between two "states," Cook focuses on the internal problems in Israel regarding the disposition of Israeli Arabs and non-Jewish citizens and their contradictory role in Israeli society. Although officially "Israeli citizens," they are demographic "enemy's within," due to the legal mandate of Israel as a "Jewish State." As Israel is not a nation of its citizens, but a Jewish State, what if non-Jews became majority? What if they had political parties which could represent them effectively? What if they could change the nature of Israel from within using democratic means? According to Cook, this is the real threat that Israel faces with the issues of the "right to return," the extremist settler movement, and the decision to build a wall and limit the movement of Palestinians. Israel can't remain both Jewish and retain the cloak of democracy without tightly controlling the non-Jewish population in the area.

In some respects the situation is similar to the American South during the heyday of Jim Crow. The only way to keep a "white man's democracy" was through the systematic denial of rights to African Americans. Of course, there was no "black state" created in the US south (akin to Bantustans in South Africa), however, voter intimidation, violence, residential segregation and gerrymandering generated a similar result.

Overall, the book is interesting and well written and offers a different perspective on the problem. It is a little repetitive and some of the chapters could have been pared down, but overall it is a good read.

Read more!

Review: Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image

As Jerry Lembcke concedes, it is more difficult to prove something "didn't happen" than it did. Dispelling widely believed popular myths is even more difficult, particularly when they pertain to controversial issues surrounding a group whose word is supposed to be sacrosanct. Nevertheless, Lembcke offers a compelling argument that it was not common, nor is there any documentary record that anti-war protesters spat upon returning vets. Moreover, he argues that the myth of the spat upon vet is a product of a concerted effort by the Nixon Administration to distinguish between "good vets" (silent majority, did their job, got spat on) and "bad vets" (committed war crimes, grew long hair, joined the anti-war movement) as a means to isolate the anti-war movement and capture the "middle," which wanted "Peace with Honor."

To prove his point, Lembcke examined the historical record from 1965-1973 and found not a single documented instance of an anti-war protester spitting on a soldier. No arrests, no news reports, no photographs, no reference in any FBI file (protests groups were often infiltrated). Nothing. So if it was happening, virtually no one was reporting it or talking about it.

Moreover, the earliest examples of "spitting" being referenced during the war pertain to pro-war folks threatening to spit on anti-war protesters. The point that Lembcke is trying to make here is that it would not be difficult to imagine people interpreting the phrase "Vietnam Vets spat on at Anti-War Rally" to mean that anti-war protestors were doing the spitting when in actuality it was pro-war protesters spitting on anti-war vets.

According Lembcke, first hand accounts of being spat on began to emerge about 15 years after the war and share many of the characteristics of "urban myths"--peculiar similarities that don't add up--why always an airport? why is the spitter typically a female? Why did airport security allow protesters to "lineup" at a gate to spit? Why does the soldier always slink away rather than fight?

The shortcomings of the book are primarily that it is repetitive. It reads like it was originally a set of discreet articles which were later merged into a book, and therefore many chapters make the same point with the same facts. Also, the chapter on the nature of spitting and its psycho-cultural significance sounds like psycho-babble.

Beyond this it is an interesting and well researched account of a controversial subject.

Read more!

An Inconvienent Al Gore

I have begun to grow weary of the global warming debate. Although I sincerely enjoyed Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and accept the fact that we are doing serious and possibly irreversible damage to the environment and that if we don't change our ways soon, it may be too late, I have problems with how the whole global warming debate has shaped up.

Initially, the global warming debate seemed to be a proxy for the debate about whether the US should ratify the Kyoto Protocols. The Protocols strike me as a relatively common sense measure designed to reduce highly polluting gases which may contribute to the Greenhouse effect. The Protocols don't seem to be particularly onerous with the main problem being that developing countries which large populations like India and China don't have the same restrictions as already developed countries. So if anything the problem with the agreement is that it is too lax, not too strict. Therefore, I didn't really have a problem with the environmentalists and politicos like Al Gore playing the "global warming card"--the science is solid enough and the Kyoto Protocols are worthy political goal.

The right's predictable response has been to attack the science and the film in a very typically "Fox News Logic" fashion. First you imply that environmentalists and Al Gore are wackos and crazed anti-American liberals. Then you proceed to come up with counter-evidence which "proves" that their science is faulty and thus confirms your premise. The debate has become less about the environment or pollution than about Al Gore and the science presented in an Inconvenient Truth--which creates the first problem of the global warming debate. Global warming has gone beyond whether or not the US should ratify the Kyoto Protocols, it unfortunately has become a substitute for debating about the environment and humanity's impact on it. If conservative think tanks can come up some scientists that think that global warming is based on faulty evidence then the whole environmentalist movement must also be sham.

Although I don't think that this was Al Gore's intention, I began to wonder about Al Gore's agenda and to think about what, if anything, might be at work here. One thing that made me pause is the recent media blitz by BP and other energy companies emphasizing their pro-environmental inclination (BP apparently now means "Beyond Petroleum" in case you didn't know.) Then about two months ago I read a piece by Alexander Cockburn called "Is Global Warming a Sin?" (Counterpunch, April 28) and an ensuing debate between him and George Manbiot (published online at Zmag and Counterpunch).

Anyone who has read Cockburn knows he is no friend of liberalism and is one of its harshest critics, but from the left. Cockburn's argument, which makes a lot of sense, is basically as follows--Al Gore has been a corporate shill for his entire political career, so for him to support enviro-friendly and anti-corporate policies is out of character. What is in character is to embrace the same fear mongering that brought us the Cold War and the War and Terror, but now with the enemy of carbon emissions. Who will benefit from this? Energy companies that are prepared to gorge at the trough of government sponsored energy research and development which won't actually clean up the environment but will underwrite the profits margins of large corporations as they transition to nuclear or some other non-carbon based energy source. In other words, developing policies to stop global warming is a political maneuver to get the American public to subsidize corporate energy needs while thinking they are protecting the environment.

So what to make of all this. Is Al Gore just making up global warming to line the pockets of corporations? Are all the scientists that support the global warming theory corporate shills? Well, I don't think so. George Manbiot's responses do a pretty good job of establishing that well respected environmental scientists do believe that global warming is real and a product of human activity to a significant extent. Those who disagree are definitely out there, but at the margins. But, does that mean that we should accept uncritically whatever policy comes down the pike to solve the problem? Does that mean that we should let the global warming debate monopolize the debate about the environment. Of course not. My greatest fear about the global warming debate is that Cockburn is essentially correct--that whatever solution emerges, it will be a false one that simply compels the public, once again, to subsidize the profit margins of companies, not for high tech weapons to beat the Soviets or for defense measures against terrorism, but to "save the environment."

I guess the moral is always beware of politicians bearing inconvenient truths with convenient and pro-corporate solutions.

Read more!