Freedom from Blog

Don't call it a comeback . . . .

Monday, January 31, 2011

Pyramid Scheming

Having no special understanding of Egypt, I can't offer much fresh on the extraordinary events of the last week. But I can comment on some of the commentary. Maybe the least surprising aspect of the uprising has been the aggressive jockeying of one and all on this side of the pond to claim the foreign policy high ground. Leon Wieseltier at New Republic caught my eye today, and as always the question is whether his eloquence outstrips his intellectual vanity or vice versa.

For all his insight, alternately prescient and pompous, Wieseltier fears nothing so much as losing a war for moralistic nuance. Obama drives him crazy. People seem to think that this mere whelp of a pol is an eloquent and nuanced intellectual, not having seen the real item. So whenever LW writes on Obama it reads like the desperate grasping of an overshadowed older brother. What provoked the Salieri complex this time? Obama's famed Cairo speech of 2009, where the new president addressed the Muslim world and called for a new beginning based on mutual respect, democracy, human rights, and shared interests in peace. Here's LW's take:

There is nothing wrong with crisis management in a crisis, but the problem that the Obama administration now confronts is precisely that it has not been a cornerstone of American policy toward Egypt to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people. It has preferred cronyism with the regime occasionally punctuated by some stirring remarks. What we are witnessing, in the confusion and the dread of the administration, are the consequences of its demotion of democratization as one of the central purposes of American foreign policy, particularly toward the Muslim world. There were two reasons for the new liberal diffidence about human rights. The first was the Bush doctrine, the second was the Obama doctrine. The wholesale repudiation of Bush’s foreign policy included the rejection of anything resembling his “freedom agenda,” which looked mainly like an excuse for war. But whatever one’s views of the Iraq war, it really does not seem too much to ask of American liberals that they think a little less crudely about democratization—not only about its moral significance but also about its strategic significance. One of the early lessons of the rebellion against Mubarak is that American support for democratic dissidents is indeed a strategic matter, and that the absence of such American support can lead to a strategic disaster. Such are the wages of realism. It is a common error that prudence is thought about the short-term; the proper temporal horizon for prudential thinking is distant and long. Realism does not equip one for an adequate appreciation of the historical force of the democratic longing. In this sense, realism is singularly unrealistic. It seems smart only as long as the dictators remain undisturbed by their people, and then suddenly it seems incredibly stupid.

LW goes on to complain that Obama has practiced foreign policy in a "vigorously multicultural spirit" that has "the effect of aligning America with regimes and against peoples," as if academic gripes from two decades ago somehow haunt the American left's (i.e., Obama's) inability to call a dictator a dictator. A straightforward reading of Obama's speech reveals no such relativistic shibboleths, however. I'm not sure where LW finds the specter of autocratic "acceptance" in a speech that trumpets American exceptionalism so unapologetically. Surely the breach that Obama sought to heal in that speech was NOT the one between the US government and an Egyptian dictator who already liked us (and our $2B/year) just fine thanks. Obama was repairing our relations with the fabled "Arab street," relations which had been sorely tested by eight years of Bushian neo-conservatism. That speech could only have encouraged democracy to the Arab world, and if, as LW says, it threatened Mubarak not one whit, well it should have, whether we intended it to or not.

If, in the aftermath of Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution," we have had trouble sufficiently distancing ourselves from Mubarak, it has little if anything to do with Obama's overconfident rhetoric, multiculturalism, or supposed fears of democracy promotion. Indeed, our failures have one simple source that somehow LW never found the nuance (or the moral courage) to acknowledge: Israel. Full Stop.

We like "Democracy." We also like Israel. But in countries like Egypt the former has been a mere abstraction since, well, forever, while support for Israel is a cold, hard fact, and one of the few such facts in the region that has prevented our constant headaches from turning full-on migraine for the last 30+ years. There's no real blame here. These facts just are what they are, and no matter how much we would like to pretend otherwise there is no coherent or magical foreign policy that somehow threads this needle. I do not say this to disparage our support for Israel, which, as you know, I share, but to recognize the complex and tragic nature of all political action. TNR used to have such a Niebuhrian sense. Now I have to find it elsewhere--who would have guessed Douthat!? There are, indeed, "wages of realism." Wieseltier just refuses to pay them.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sprawl Killed the Car Pool?

Interesting story in the Times on the decline of car pooling, despite efforts to encourage it (HOV lanes).


Of course, DC is perhaps one of the last weakholds of the car pool, what with all our HOV lanes: "What remains, of course, is traffic, and in places like Washington, where it adds hours to commutes, people car-pool to take advantage of the fast-track car-pooling lanes."

Traffic was especially an issue this week, with the snow. Not much snow, but it was preceded by ice, and as everyone knows, an hour of ice is worth about 6-8 inches of snow in terms of causing problems, traffic and otherwise. At least one large limb fell on our street, and 100's of 1000's were without power for a day. I heard horror stories from colleagues at work--who drive--of 12-hour, 8-hour trips home.

As someone who walks to work, and my walk takes 20 minutes at a leisurely (toddler) pace, all I can say is, I can't imagine.

Monday, January 24, 2011

On Feeling Old

TMcD's music post is as good an opportunity as any to open this topic. I rarely listen to new music, as I think we've discussed before. Going even further, I've come to the conclusion that "music" is something young people "do." In the sense that when I was young(er), I used to "get into bands." Now, it's difficult to imagine the energy or interest in, say, listening to the same record over and over again . . . at least, to a record that is new to me. I still do this, on the iPod, of course, with music that I once obsessed over. But I can't remember the last "new to me" record that was thus--probably The Soft Bulletin?

I have been feeling old lately. Partly this is chronological--none of us are getting any younger, as they say. Partly it's having a child--nothing like a toddler to make you feel old, except, probably, an older child. But that will come, I guess. Partly it's work. Having a lot of responsibility at work has its upside, but also its burdens, obviously. There is certainly less opportunity to pass the buck. And one can only hold and carry so many bucks.

So chronology, parenthood, work . . . and probably the weather. Not that it's THAT cold here, but I think that one feels older in the winter than in warmer months.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Music Roundup 2010

Has it only been a year since I last did this? Feels like five. Which would be the number of different places we've lived/stayed for at least a week this year (at least 2 months each in 4 of 5!). More on that in a future post. But 2009 seems like a lifetime ago. Maybe that's partly why this year in music feels so much fuller than last--the boom that follows the bust. The top half dozen or so albums on my list for this year all could have been my #1 for last year. So, without further ado, here's my annual metaphysical perfection.

1) Band of Horses, Infinite Arms. Good to see this CD get a Grammy nom, but it still slipped under the radar of most critics, many of whom seemed confused by its more subdued pace than Cease to Begin (2007). For me it was a slow reveal, but with songs like "Laredo," "On My Way Back Home," "Dilly," "Evening Kitchen," and "Older," I'll be listening to this one for years to come. Sounds a bit like Neil Young singing campfire songs with My Morning Jacket.

2) Patty Griffin, Downtown Church.

3) Justin Townes Earle, Harlem River Blues. Smooth, old school rockabilly that sounds a bit more like his middle-namesake than his dad. I saw him play guitar on a few songs with his old man in an epic three hour show at 328 Performance Hall back when I was in grad school and he was maybe 13. Go watch this clip of him on Letterman a couple of weeks ago, singing the indelible title track. A few more faves: "Christchurch Woman," "Workin' for the MTA," and "Rogers Park." Mrs. TMcD needs to hear this CD at least twice a day and gets the DT's if it's not within arms reach at any given moment.

4) Kings of Leon, Come Around Sundown.

5) Black Keys, Brothers.

6) Arcade Fire, the Suburbs.

7) Spoon, Transference.

8) John Mellencamp, No Better Than This. Speaking of old school. The 13 songs here were all recorded in mono, mostly at Memphis' Sun Studios, but a few at Savannah's First African Baptist Church, and one in room 14 of San Antonio's Gunter Hotel, where Robert Johnson recorded his first blues classics. They sound like lost recordings from more than half a century ago.

9) Robert Plant, Band of Joy. Is this as good as Raising Sand? Probably not. But it's got some really great tunes, notably covers of Richard Thompson's "House of Cards," Low's "Monkey," and (my favorite) Townes Van Zandt's "Harm's Swift Way."

10) the National, High Violet. A close call between this and Vampire Weekend's much loved Contra. But the epic brood of "Bloodbuzz, Ohio" edges the eponymous pop of "Holiday" by a nose.

One oddity of this year's list is that half of it involves either Nashville acts (#s 2, 3, 4, 5; the Keys are recent transplants) or Nashville recording (2, 9). Add in the White Stripes, Raconteurs, Dead Weather and whatever other side project Jack White decides to start next week, and Nashville has quietly become the center of the rock and roll universe. So I'd be amiss not to mention another act that almost made my list, Glossary, the belles of the Boro. These guys (and girl) have been around for a decade or so, and they're our local answer to the Drive By Truckers. Feral Fire sounds like Thin Lizzy playing the honkey tonk. "Lonely is a Town" is especially great: barroom stomp with surprising poetry. The album as a whole can feel repetitive, but I do love this band.

Did you guys hear anything good this year?

Friday, January 21, 2011


Maybe he should have changed the segment to "Worst TV Executives in the World!"

I'm finding it hard at the moment to find words that adequately express my shock at MSNBC's unprovoked firing of Keith Olbermann, their highest rated host and the man who, quite literally, made their network work. I would add the word "single-handed," but that would miss the genius of KO. Unlike the preening FOX cele-(not-too)-brities, who are rival sharks in a shared tank, KO spent a lot of time finding smart liberals and helping them launch their own shows at his network, even giving up his own prime air to do so.

Yeah, he could be infuriating, especially when he took his own rhetoric too seriously or applied his searing moralism to minor tactical disputes within the Dem coalition (say, Hillary's campaign rhetoric or the tax cut compromise). But you knew his heart was in the right place, even when his head wasn't. The frequent self-deprecation helped, as when he chortled with glee at Ben Affleck's brilliant parody of him on SNL. I always thought you had to cut KO a lot of slack for his occasional lapses. From roughly 2005-8, he was the voice of freedom in a dark, dark time. Aside from Jon Stewart, tolerated by the DC press corps only because he could be dismissed (wrongly) as just-a-comic, KO was for many years the only host on my TV who could or would speak the truth and name names. Best of all, he reveled in the fight against FOX and made it fun. He even managed to get under their skin, rattling O'Reilly & Co. into paroxysms of hilarious hate.

The big question tonight is whether Comcast, which completed its purchase of NBC Universal just days prior, made the firing of KO their first priority. If so, a horrible omen. By sacking KO, Comcast will have undermined the credibility of TV's only liberal-leaning network with much of its core base, and it is hard to imagine there not being blowback that damages the other key shows as well. If liberals stop watching to protest Comcast, the bastards win. If liberals keep watching and the other hosts now pull punches, the bastards win.

Tonight, though, the focus should be on the man done wrong and the wrongs he did right. God bless you, Keith, you made my day more times than I can count. Don't stay gone long.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Kid Book Cringing

Welcome back, 3! While I'm mulling over Chicago politics, I have a random question. What's the most offensive kid's book you know?

We've been reading Amelia Bedelia some lately, and that gets my vote for now. If you don't remember this insanely popular series, Amelia Bedelia (they always say the whole name) is a staggeringly stupid housekeeper who misunderstands every instruction she's ever given, effectively ruining the home of her benevolent, rich employers. But as angry as they get at her, and as incapable as she is of ever learning anything, they keep her around because she bakes great pies, cookies, and cream puffs. Well, at least she's white, I think to myself. Except that, according to Wikipedia, her real life inspiration was a black African maid. And the author is a white woman from rural, heavily black, plantation country in lowland South Carolina. Can you top that?

A New Hope

So, I "decided" to take a long hiatus at the blog. Not deliberately, but things steamrolled me, and then I hadn't done it in a long time. Hard to start back. Then I found that I had little to say other than that I am deeply troubled by the state of the world . . . and had little (interesting) to say, other than that. "I am deeply troubled by the state of the world."

But TMcD called me yesterday to see what was going on. And I promised him that I would blog again, even if just to type "I am deeply disturbed by the state of the world," maybe as often as once a day.

But yesterday, as well--fate?--there was this curious article in the WP on Rahm's bid to become mayor of Chicago. Worth a looksie, especially to the vast number of readers of this blog who reside in Chicago. The point of the article seems to be that Rahm's opponents are seeking to use his associations with Obama (and, to some extent, Clinton) against him with . . . black and Hispanic voters. Even though, as the article points out, a couple of times, Obama is incredibly popular with Chicagoans of color.

It's almost like the reporter doesn't know very much about Chicago politics?

The Cornel West quotes are the best, though. I guess if you're a national reporter doing a story on racial politics in a Chicago mayoral primary, it makes sense to call Cornell West for a quote!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Don't Cry For Me, Arizona

I don't have a lot to add to the discussions of yesterday's speech-off between Palin and Obama. Her decision to release that video the morning of the Arizona memorial was a train wreck in slow motion. You knew she was going to do it even before she did, you knew the tone would be all wrong--a preening, whiny, narcissistic mess--and you knew she would probably toss out some ill conceived red meat of victim chic ("blood libel"?!) that would look petty and shrill next to the high-minded mourner-in-chief role that Obama was likely to knock out of the park. Which she did, and he did. Just an extraordinarily moving and cathartic service. But you knew that already.

One interesting thing here, however, was watching the left's scramble toward the high ground, which began really early. Despite Palin's lament about how's she's the real victim of Tuscon, the liberal pundits and sites I read--Kevin Drum, Josh Marshall, Steve Benen, Salon, Jonathan Alter, etc.--were falling over all over themselves to exonerate her long before she spoke out herself. If there was a unified lynch mob on the left, I missed it. The standard line seemed to be that (a) she was obviously not responsible for the psychotic Loughner's actions, but (b) purely independently, it sure would be nice if she took it down a notch.

Really? Isn't this a bit too easy? Given her long history of incendiary rhetoric, Palin's like a raging drunk who emerges from a car crash only to discover that it was the meth head in front of her who started the pile up. So if she didn't cause the wreck, it was by sheer dumb luck. Good for her. Now she wants a good driver award. One of the things not mentioned enough so far is that it's not just the tone of her rhetoric that's the problem. It's the lies. Death panels, socialism, "pallin' around with terrorists," apologizing for America, etc. It's one thing to react with passion to things that actually happened, it's quite another to start burning torches over things that exist only in her fevered imagination. Is blaming her for the spree kill fair? No. But she's not really in a position to demand fairness, is she? Political careers, of much better people, have been torpedoed over much, much less (Muskie and Gore come to mind). And, really, no one should be happier about this than the GOP elders. They knew she'd lose to Obama by 25 points, but they were powerless to stop her. Now they aren't.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Crazing Arizona

Horrible news from Arizona. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Tuscon) shot and in critical condition, and Fed. Judge John Roll dead at the scene. So far, six are dead (including Giffords's regional director) and twelve more wounded.

Early report is that Jared Loughner, 22, is the shooter. Here's his Youtube site. From the looks of his videos, he's a mentally disturbed Ron Paul-ite, obsessed with the "terrorist" federal government, the gold standard, and creating your own currency. Giffords, who represents a swing district--"targeted" by Sarah Palin's infamous rifle-bull's eye and an M16 party by her GOP challenger--had been stalked and vandalized by crazed Tea Partiers as a result of her vote on HCR and her strong opposition to AZ's draconian immigration law. Neither of those issues figured into the videos I saw, however. He does appear to be fixated on "grammar" and "conscience dreaming," and his rather odd commentaries make it look like he took at least a few philosophy and writing theory classes, although his frequent grammar errors and twisted syllogisms suggest he did not do very well in them. Then there's the video where he dresses up in a garbage bag and Scream-like mask and burns an American flag in the dessert. Just bizarre. What happens when mental disease meets conspiracy radio.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

True Grit a Hit

If you see only one movie this year, make it True Grit. Which I can say because I've seen only one movie this year. I think that includes rentals.

Anyway, TG was well worth being "it." I saw it nearly two weeks ago, and I'm still thinking about it. A few critics dismissed it, in part because the bar for Coen Brothers movies is now set pretty damned high, especially after they won an Oscar for No Country. The thing about the Coens is that you can't always tell immediately how good one of their films really is. O Brother got mixed reviews--and still pops up as a two star film on my Comcast guide--but it's one of their best, a film that gets better and funnier every time I see it. I still don't fully get The Big Lebowski (too LA?), but it has become one of the great cult movies of our age. And hardly anyone seemed to notice Miller's Crossing, although it still burns in my memory years later ("Ahn-achy!"). True Grit, on the other hand, seemed great the first time through, and it made me want to sit through a second show, although I compromised by just watching the trailer on-line over and over again (kudos to the Johnny Cash!).

The other reason for the early critical ambivalence may be that this was a "remake," which didn't go so well when the Coens did Ladykillers, maybe their weakest film. A lot of critics have fond memories of the Duke in the original. All apologies to the Man Marion, but the new one kicks his ass six ways to sundown. Far better film-making, and all around better actors this time, with the caveats that it is hard to top either Robert Duvall (Lucky Ned) or Strother Martin (of Cool Hand Luke fame, here as the horsetrading Colonel), but the excellent Barry Pepper and Dakin Matthews at least fight those duels to a draw. Meanwhile, Stanley Fish, who I like only intermittently, has a great review here, explaining its thematic superiority to the elder version.

Somehow, TG turned into the big popular hit of the Oscar season. Really love to see some nominations here: Bridges, Steinfeld, Damon, etc. And I can say that with confidence, because I've seen one movie this year.