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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