Sunday, November 18, 2007

Blues Break: Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee

Fred McDowell performs at the Newport Folk Festival (around 1965), followed by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. (It's too bad that both songs are cut short, but we can still be grateful to have this footage available online.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Islamofascism: construct and reality

As part of a symposium in Slate involving various discredited "liberal hawks" on the Iraq war, including Christopher Hitchens and Tom Friedman, Paul Berman writes:
It's all too true that better leaders could have made better plans, and the French and the Germans and the United Nations could help even now, if only they would. But it ought not to be so hard to see that, even so, the prospects of the totalitarian movement are looking a lot less healthy today than they did on Sept. 10, 2001 and the prospects of Muslim liberalism are looking up, somewhat.
Huh? Unless the perilous return of Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan is evidence of better "prospects" for Muslim liberalism, I must be missing something. The "totalitarian movement" in question, of course, is "Islamofascism," a meaningless term that Bush, Cheney and unrepentant neocons toss about recklessly in the hope that it will eventually gain some intellectual traction.

Writing in the neoconservative Weekly Standard, Stephen Schwartz—supposedly the "first Westerner" to use the term—attempts to define "Islamofascism" as the "use of the faith of Islam as a cover for totalitarian ideology. This radical phenomenon is embodied among Sunni Muslims today by such fundamentalists as the Saudi-financed Wahhabis, the Pakistani jihadists known as Jama'atis, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In the ranks of Shia Muslims, it is exemplified by Hezbollah in Lebanon and the clique around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran."

In lumping these groups together under the rubric of "Islamofascism," Schwartz seems to have overlooked the reality on the ground in Iraq, to mention just one example, where the schism between Sunnis and Shi'ites seems to have practical significance. Or the vast differences between the Sunni Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and the Shi'ite mullahs who dominate the current regime in Tehran. If there's an unifying militant ideology that unites these conflicting groups, he's unable to describe it in a coherent way.

Schwartz goes on to state that fascism is "distinguished from the broader category of extreme right-wing politics by its willingness to defy public civility and openly violate the law." By that standard, both Gandhi and Martin Luther King were "fascists."

Terror, Schwartz writes, is one of major "fascist methods" that define the "Islamofascist" movement. Terrorism, though, is a tactic and not an ideology—a fundamental distinction that seems beyond Dubya's grasp. In fact, the systematic application of terrorist methods has been a political tactic for centuries across a vast ideological spectrum, from the Zealots of ancient Palestine to the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution to the 19th-century Russian anarchists and well beyond into the current century. Not to mention state terrorism, which has undoubtedly killed more people than all other forms combined.

The U.S. Department of Justice, back in 1975, offered a workable definition of terrorism that is independent of any specific ideology: "Violent criminal behavior designed primarily to generate fear in the community, or substantial segment of it, for political purposes." Terrorists are motivated by some form of ideology that provides a moral cover, however suspect, for their conduct. It's misleading to focus on the conduct without looking at the specific convictions that animate it.

But back to Berman's argument in Slate. His reference to the condition of the alleged "totalitarian movement" reveals how much he still shares the assumptions of the Bush war planners: they can only understand conflict in terms of a reductionist Cold War paradigm. So this fantasy-based community posits an all-powerful "totalitarian movement" on the communist model, with Al Qaida manipulating every nationalist and Muslim insurgency from Iraq to Afghanistan to the Philippines. Increasingly, in Iraq and elsewhere, Al Qaida and "Islamofascism" have become synonyms. In the same way, Cold Warriors imagined that every nationalist insurgency, from Vietnam to Guatemala, was precisely orchestrated in the back offices of the Kremlin. The reality was, and is, far more complex.

By this familiar process, Bush and the neocons attempt to transform disparate national and religious ideologies into a monolithic "Islamofascism" and launch a global war on it. Ironically, there's a self-fulfilling quality to all this: their "global war" on this alleged "totalitarian movement" may yet bring into being a unified Muslim counterforce that didn't previously exist.

MAP: Islam by country, showing percentages of Sunnis (green) and Shi'ites (red). Click to enlarge. (Wikimedia Commons)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Norman Mailer (1923-2007)

Norman Mailer was a gifted novelist and journalist (The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, The Executioner's Song), but his political views were an infuriating stew of progressive eloquence and macho, antifeminist mush. The man was not lacking in grandiose aspirations or audacity, once stating (apparently without irony) that his goal as a novelist was to "transform the moral consciousness of our times." [1]

Mailer's ambitions for a career in New York politics were likely doomed even before he stabbed Adele Morales, his second wife, at a party in 1960. But his alcohol-fueled campaign for mayor of New York in 1969 was notable in two respects.
  • Mailer remains, to this day, the only U.S. politician who (as he boasted at the time) could tender affidavits from one or more psychiatrists to verify his sanity. [1] If voters had imposed such a requirement in the national elections of 2000, the history of the last seven years might've been radically different.
  • Mailer and fellow journalist Jimmy Breslin, who ran on the same platform for city council president, adopted "No More Bullshit" as their slogan, a theme that has since been claimed repeatedly (though more politely) by mainstream politicians from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama.
For anyone who aspires to write, Mailer's insights on technique and the writing process are invaluable. His passing comes just seven months after the death of Kurt Vonnegut, whom he deeply respected.


[1] Though I can't find the precise source of this statement, I remember it distinctly.

[2] Again, it's difficult to verify this incident, but it seems to me that Mailer offered affidavits from three psychiatrists.

PHOTO: Norman Mailer in 1948, the year that his first novel (The Naked and the Dead) was published. (Wikimedia Commons)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Blues Break: Robert "Wolfman" Belfour

Robert "Wolfman" Belfour performs at Del's General Store in Clarksdale, Mississippi, during the 2007 Juke Joint Festival. The vocals are difficult to follow in this recording, but the power of Wolfman's amplified blues guitar comes through clearly enough. After 35 years as a construction worker, this 67-year-old bluesman may finally be getting a well-deserved audience.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

A week in Manhattan

A few impressions

During a trip back east in June, I managed to spend a few days in New York City (where I lived many years ago). It was frustrating not to have more time, but at least I was able to see some friends and spend a full day at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). My latest visit of a full week, from which I just returned, was much more satisfying. A few impressions:
European, Japanese and Indian tourists were even more numerous than they were last summer, thanks to the weakened dollar. In midtown and the museums especially, English seemed like a minority language. It's just a matter of time before Chinese tourists become more common in the U.S. New York is a "world city" more than ever.

Traffic remains awful in midtown, where the only rule is: if you can get away with it, it must be legal. Cross traffic doesn't hesitate to block major intersections, causing hopeless (and mindless) gridlock. Drastic action seems necessary—and not just "congestion pricing" below 59th Street or 110th Street or whatever, since its effect would be to impose a regressive form of taxation. New York should follow Portland's example and establish fareless transit zones where private vehicles are banned entirely during the business day. (I rode the M10 bus from 59th Street to Battery Park, a trip of less than five miles that took over an hour.)

As in the rest of the country, public infrastructure continues to deteriorate despite the almost-inconceivable wealth generated in New York (whose private reserves of gold bullion vastly exceed the amount stored at Fort Knox). The subway stations are decrepit, though relatively free of debris and graffiti, and many need basic repairs (leaky ceilings are common). Many of the streets are potholed to the extent that axles are in jeopardy. The two exceptions are Central Park, which is superbly maintained and heavily used even on a rainy day, and the Staten Island Ferry, which has been upgraded and is now free.

After the second warmest October on record, the trees in the parks were shockingly (and somewhat disappointingly) green.

My old neighborhood on West 83rd (at Columbus) seemed eerily the same, decades after I moved away. The areas closest to Central and Riverside parks were gentrified long ago, but it was refreshing to see that the old block retains much of its former ethnic and economic diversity.
New York remains a paradox: the quintessential American city that bears little resemblance to any other urban area in the country. Compared to places like Portland and Seattle, Manhattan seems to be a third-world city in two respects: its ethnic diversity and extreme disparities in wealth. While there's a substantial African American middle class, most of the low-wage and menial work in Manhattan is still performed by black and Hispanic workers. I saw little evidence of racial or ethnic hostility, though it certainly exists near the surface, but the class and socioeconomic distinctions are clear and disturbing.

As just one small illustration of this reality, hardly any white people were visible on the packed subway to Jamaica, Queens, as I rode back to JFK for my flight home (see below). At least 95% of the commuters were black or Hispanic. Once in Jamaica, I transferred to the AirTrain, and suddenly the equation was reversed: 95% of the passengers were white. Though black and Hispanic travelers are hardly rare in airports, I was again reminded that there's a vast underclass, both white and nonwhite, that is nearly invisible in the debased political conversation in this country.

Wandering the museums

Returning to Oregon after strolling through the major museums of New York City, a few images emerged from the hundreds of paintings we saw: Vermeer's haunting Study of a Young Woman (c. 1665-67) at the Met's exhibition entitled "The Age of Rembrandt;" Rembrandt's self-portrait from 1660, which oozes so much self-confidence that it could've been painted with pure testosterone; MOMA's stunning new exhibition of luminous drawings by Georges Seurat, and its familiar galleries of important works by Cézanne, Van Gogh and Pollock.

But there were also disappointments [1]. Minor works by great artists can be worth a look, but a depressing number of the pieces in these museums are either mediocre or downright bad. They shouldn't be taking up valuable gallery space, so move them to the basement where they can be examined by future generations of art historians and specialists. Picasso and Matisse, for example, are overrepresented at MOMA. Many of Picasso's early works are splendid, and his long career displays endless versatility, but some of his paintings would've barely paid for his lunch in a Paris café. And, after Guernica, he seemingly became what he so often condemned: a connoisseur of his own works.

But the biggest disappointment was in what was absent from these collections. Between them, the Met, MOMA and the Guggenheim display just five paintings by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, the great postwar British figurative artists. And not a single work by their fellow Brit (born in Austria) Frank Auerbach. The limited selection of five works is impressive enough, but the curators would be well-advised to take down some of the Picassos and Matisses to make room for these worthy painters.

Equally disturbing is the underrepresentation of the post-World War I German and Austrian expressionists, including Emil Nolde, Franz Marc, Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann, Auguste Macke, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Käthe Kollwitz, Max Pechstein and—above all—the great Egon Schiele. Sadly, many of their works are apparently gathering dust in the basements of the great New York museums.

The Neue Gallerie, located on 5th Avenue between the Met and Guggenheim, is the one New York collection that specializes in the postwar Austro-German expressionists. Yet every square inch of wall space is currently devoted to a special exhibition of Gustav Klimt's works. Compared to the edgy and challenging work of Schiele, who died of the Spanish flu in 1918 at the age of 28, Klimt's works seem decorative and sentimental. It's understandable why the Neue Gallerie would focus on Klimt, since owner Ronald Lauder spent $135 million last year to purchase his Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I—the highest price ever paid for a painting until then (since surpassed by two paintings by Pollock and de Kooning). Still, I regretted spending $15 to gain admission to galleries full of paintings by an artist whose continuing popularity remains puzzling to me. I kept looking for the door to the basement, which houses some real treasures.

A tip to travelers

My friend and I shared the $50 (without tip) cost of a "limo" (actually an SUV) ride from JFK to midtown Manhattan. Taxis, without tip, cost $5 less but you may have to wait in line to get one. Returning by myself to JFK, I didn't want to spend that kind of money. So I took the E train from midtown to the Jamaica stop, where I paid $5 more for the AirTrain to JFK. The subway ride is long, even though the E train is an express, and crowded at rush hour. But it's very cheap (especially if you buy a 7-day Metrocard when you arrive), and the AirTrain quickly transports you (on elevated tracks) to all the terminals at JFK. So the cost was about one-tenth of what I would've paid for a limo/taxi, and I didn't have to sit in heavy traffic and breathe exhaust for an hour. I did have to wheel my luggage a few blocks from my hotel to the subway, but that proved to be quite bearable.


[1] Bias alert: as an amateur painter and drawer, I have a preference for portraiture and other figurative works. This certainly does not mean that I disrespect abstraction, landscapes or any other kind of visual art. It's simply a preference.

PHOTOS: Central Park near 59th Street (taken with a Sony digital camera).