Friday, February 29, 2008

Blues Break: John Fahey - "Red Pony" (1969)

Here's the description of this performance from YouTube:
John Fahey performs "Red Pony" on Laura Weber's "Guitar Guitar" TV show in 1969. From the DVD "John Fahey in Concert and Interviews 1969 & 1996."
The guitar is in open G tuning (I think).

I saw Fahey (1939-2001) open for his protegé Leo Kottke at Reed College in Portland back in 1970 (or maybe 1971). Fahey walked onto the stage, sat down on a stool, chugged a can of beer and plunged into a dazzling (but too short) 30-minute set without a word. At the end he got up and said, "now it's time for the guy you really came to hear," then walked out. There was no hint of irony in his comment: a very sad, even shocking, moment. I never saw him perform again even though he moved to Salem, just an hour down I-5, ten years later.

There's a rumor in my family that Fahey was a distant relation on our paternal grandmother's side, but I have no confirmation of this claim.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Trivializing pursuits

One might be excused for thinking, for a moment, that columnists and pundits would be slightly more sensitive to stereotypes after Chris Matthews was forced to apologize to Hillary Clinton for a long series of misogynist remarks. Not so.

A case in point is a snide and profoundly unfunny column by Joel Klein that appeared in the Los Angeles Times (and locally in the Portland Oregonian). Professing that he will "miss" Hillary Clinton, Klein regurgitates clichéd references to her physical qualities, appearance and gender-based expectations:
  • "her creepy laugh"
  • "the way she tried to bring back the pantsuit"
  • "The woman even managed to get better looking as she aged." [A comment that, somehow, doesn't come across as a compliment.]
  • "You wanted cookies, and she whipped up an oatmeal chocolate chip recipe."
  • "As the mean kids figured out in high school, you can make the smart girl do anything."
  • "Hillary's problem is that she was too good."
  • "...such personalities are far less annoying whiny than self-satisfied."
  • "...that awful burst of cackle stayed with me."
Klein's litany overlooked only a handful of the more familiar adjectives that are applied to Clinton, like shrill and Tucker Carlson's castrating, overbearing and scary.

Unfortunately, the ancient sport of ridiculing women (and specifically Hillary Clinton) for their appearance is not limited to Maureen Dowd or the conservative right, as a minute of surfing will reveal.

Ridicule is a uniquely powerful, and often unanswerable, political tool. Hillary Clinton or any other other politician can, and certainly should be, subjected to a din of satire and ridicule when they deserve it. Everyone invites public derision when they act or speak stupidly—politicians especially, since their bad choices affect so many other people. But it's unfair and offensive to perpetuate stereotypes by ridiculing people for qualities that are beyond their control [1], including gender, race, age and physical appearance.


[1] Okay, fashion choices are within our control. But critics who dwell at length on Hillary Clinton's outfits—or Condi Rice's for that matter—would rarely report on the wardrobes of John McCain or (unless he's wearing a turban or no flag pin) Barack Obama.

PHOTO: Clinton and Obama making fashion statements.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Hillary Clinton in Texas debate

As promised a few weeks ago, here's an eloquent statement by Hillary Clinton at the most recent Democratic debate in Texas. As a lifelong Democrat, I have to say that I'm proud of both these candidates and look forward to voting for one of them. And that one, almost certainly, will be Barack Obama.

Although they've exchanged a few harsh words in debates, Hillary Clinton's many talents will probably not be overlooked if Obama wins in the fall. She deserves a prominent place in the new cabinet, or as the new majority leader in the Senate. Maybe she can overcome her regrettable tendency towards a kind of "bipartisanship" that often requires caving in to the opposition's agenda.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

"Into a different game..."

In an interview with the BBC on February 12th, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (left) addressed the question of torture in the following terms:

"To begin with the constitution... is referring to punishment for crime. And, for example, incarcerating someone indefinitely would certainly be cruel and unusual punishment for a crime."

Scalia argued that courts could take stronger measures when a witness refused to answer questions:

"I suppose it's the same thing about so-called torture. Is it really so easy to determine that smacking someone in the face to determine where he has hidden the bomb that is about to blow up Los Angeles is prohibited in the constitution?" he asked.

"It would be absurd to say you couldn't do that. And once you acknowledge that, we're into a different game.

"How close does the threat have to be? And how severe can the infliction of pain be?"

Here, once again, is Scalia's version of "strict constructionism" in action: the "punishment" narrowly refers to sanctions imposed by a court following a criminal conviction.

Scalia seems to believe that the authors of the Bill of Rights weren't really concerned about how people in pretrial custody, for whatever reason, were treated. He implies that the 9th Amendment doesn't restrict coercive interrogations during the investigative process, when the presumption of innocence applies to suspects or defendants in the U.S. legal system. So "smacking someone in the face" is permissible, then, for a suspect (or maybe even a witness) who's presumed to be innocent—but not, Scalia generously allows, for convicted criminals.

There's a separate and quite vast body of law, of course, that applies to coerced confessions by persons who are merely suspects in criminal cases. Seventy-two years ago, in Brown v. Mississippi [1], three black defendants were sentenced to death following their conviction for murder. Despite uncontested evidence of torture, the state Supreme Court affirmed the jury's verdict. Two courageous Mississippi judges dissented and described the events that led to the three "confessions:"
    "The crime with which these defendants, all ignorant negroes, are charged, was discovered about 1 o'clock p.m. on Friday, March 30, 1934. On that night one Dial, a deputy sheriff, accompanied by others, came to the home of Ellington, one of the defendants, and requested him to accompany them to the house of the deceased, and there a number of white men were gathered, who began to accuse the defendant of the crime. Upon his denial they seized him, and with the participation of the deputy they hanged him by a rope to the limb of a tree, and, having let him down, they hung him again, and when he was let down the second time, and he still protested his innocence, he was tied to a tree and whipped, and, still declining to accede to the demands that he confess, he was finally released, and he returned with some difficulty to his home, suffering intense pain and agony. The record of the testimony shows that the signs of the rope on his neck were plainly visible during the so-called trial. A day or two thereafter the said deputy, accompanied by another, returned to the home of the said defendant and arrested him, and departed with the prisoner towards the jail in an adjoining county, but went by a route which led into the state of Alabama; and while on the way, in that state, the deputy stopped and again severely whipped the defendant, declaring that he would continue the whipping... until he confessed, and the defendant then agreed to confess to such a statement as the deputy would dictate, and he did so, after which he was delivered to jail.
    "The other two defendants, Ed Brown and Henry Shields, were also arrested and taken to the same jail. On Sunday night, April 1, 1934, the same deputy, accompanied by a number of white men, one of whom was also an officer, and by the jailer, came to the jail, and the two last named defendants were made to strip and they were laid over chairs and their backs were cut to pieces with a leather strap with buckles on it, and they were likewise made by the said deputy definitely to understand that the whipping would be continued unless and until they confessed, and not only confessed, but confessed in every matter of detail as demanded by those present; and in this manner the defendants confessed he crime, and, as the whippings progressed and were repeated, they changed or adjusted their confession in all particulars of detail so as to conform to the demands of their torturers. When the confessions had been obtained in the exact form and contents as desired by the mob, they left with the parting admonition and warning that, if the defendants changed their story at any time in any respect from that last stated, the perpetrators of the outrage would administer the same or equally effective treatment.
    "Further details of the brutal treatment to which these helpless prisoners were subjected need not be pursued. It is sufficient to say that in pertinent respects the transcript reads more like pages torn from some medieval account than a record made within the confines of a modern civilization which aspires to an enlightened constitutional government."
In unanimously reversing the three convictions, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the notion of a "trial by ordeal," stating [citations omitted]:
"The rack and torture chamber may not be substituted for the witness stand. The state may not permit an accused to be hurried to conviction under mob domination--where the whole proceeding is but a mask--without supplying corrective process...The state may not deny to the accused the aid of counsel... Nor may a state, through the action of its officers, contrive a conviction through the pretense of a trial which in truth is 'but used as a means of depriving a defendant of liberty through a deliberate deception of court and jury by the presentation of testimony known to be perjured...' And the trial equally is a mere pretense where the state authorities have contrived a conviction resting solely upon confessions obtained by violence. The due process clause requires 'that state action, whether through one agency or another, shall be consistent with the fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all our civil and political institutions...'

"It would be difficult to conceive of methods more revolting to the sense of justice than those taken to procure the confessions of these petitioners, and the use of the confessions thus obtained as the basis for conviction and sentence was a clear denial of due process."
Is waterboarding even "more revolting to the sense of justice" than the treatment of the suspects in Brown? It's certainly not less revolting. Scalia's reference to a "smacking someone in the face" is disingenuous given the catalog of far greater horrors that have been inflicted on suspects in U.S. custody in places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. His comments to the BBC also focus on the extreme situation facing Jack Bauer in 24: the suitcase atomic bomb that's about to go off in Los Angeles [2].

Ah, but Scalia has already argued that the "unlawful combatants" at Gitmo don't have the same legal rights, and freedom from coercion, as the defendants in the Brown case [3]. In another speech in Europe reported by the BBC , he is quoted as follows:
"War is war, and it has never been the case that when you captured a combatant you have to give them a jury trial in your civil courts. Give me a break... If he was captured by my army on a battlefield, that is where he belongs."
Scalia, as usual, is quite reckless about expressing himself, and apparently prejudging, matters that are likely to come before the Supreme Court. To paraphrase the old bumper sticker from the days of the AT&T telecommunications monopoly, Scalia might just say: "I don't care, and I don't have to." Unlike other judges, the Supremes aren't subject to any ethical constraints whatsoever, apart from their own consciences.

While Scalia told the BBC that it would be "absurd" to rule out sticking "something under the fingernail" of a detainee in a difficult situation, at least he seems to think that detainees captured on a battlefield are entitled to the same treat as prisoners of war (although 80% of Gitmo inmates were not captured on the battlefield).

The Bush administration, meanwhile, refuses to grant the Gitmo "unlawful combatants" the same minimal rights available to POW's. The prosecution is seeking the death penalty for six detainees, a sentence that is strictly forbidden for POW's under international law, including the Third Geneva Convention of 1949. These show trials will likely be conducted as the fall election approaches, possibly winning political points for Republican waronterra candidates but deepening worldwide cynicism about the alleged "rule of law" in the U.S.


[1] Cite: 297 U.S. 278 (1936). The prosecutor in the case was John Stennis, who was the U.S. Senator from Mississippi from 1947 to 1989.

[2] Any minimally-competent terrorist group would arrange to limit the damage to its plans that might result from the capture of any of its members, especially as the plan is about to be realized. It's likely that the terrorists who had actual possession of such a suitcase bomb would be the only ones in a cell who'd know where it was or where it would be used. Torture would be very unlikely to extract any information of value in that situation.

[3] The three defendants were described as "ignorant Negroes" even in the dissent, and no doubt they were second-class citizens. But at least they were citizens entitled to minimal constitutional protections—once their case went beyond the trial court.

PHOTO: The Washington Note

Friday, February 15, 2008

Blues Break: Big Mama Thornton and Buddy Guy - "Hound Dog"

Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton (1926-84) performs this blues classic with a very young Buddy Guy in 1965. She first recorded it in 1952 and made it a big hit nationally in 1953. Four years later, Elvis Presley performed his rock-'n'-roll version* on the Milton Berle Show before forty million people and became a national sensation (and the subject of some controversy). His recording sold four million records in the U.S., making it Elvis' most popular single release.

[*NOTE: This video is from a later Ed Sullivan show.]

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Watching the parade

For a couple weeks now this site has gone into hibernation or, to be more accurate, an attempted sabbatical from politics after months of cerebral overload. The timing, right before super Tuesday, was dismal.

The result on the 5th, for Democrats, seemed to be a draw. But today's three caucuses, swept by Barack Obama, suggest that Hillary Clinton may have only temporarily blunted, rather than stopped, the impressive momentum that he has developed. He now has a small lead in the delegate count (not counting the superdelegates), with primaries in some major states (Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania) rapidly approaching.

My friends (who have mostly joined the Obama parade) have been taking pains to assure me that their candidate is a deeply closeted progressive who has to pass himself off as a moderate in order to get elected. More likely, given the dearth of convincing evidence either way, he's a blank screen on which people can project their own expectations (or wishful thinking) about his politics. His proposal on health care either reveals a deep conservative and corporate streak, or (as I prefer to think) it's an aberration.

For years, Hillary Clinton has been depicted in some circles as yet another closeted progressive (have you read her Wellesley commencement speech?). Even more than Bill. Like so many others in her party, the argument goes, she's had to conceal her true opinions due to the conservative marinade that this country has been steeped in for nearly 30 years.

With her longer public record, we can predict with greater confidence what Hillary is likely to do in the White House. But that's precisely her problem: we know what to expect, and many voters don't necessarily like it. On top of all that, she's been trashed so relentlessly and for so long by the political opposition and the MSM that she she can now be written off as too "divisive."

The brain reels from an overload of irony. The only truly gratifying result so far is the complete voter rejection of movement conservatives like Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney.

So voters demand "change," possibly even for its own sake. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, the Continuum of Change now reads something like this:
  • John McCain: the illusion of change, or change for the worse (100 more years in Iraq);
  • Hillary Clinton: incremental change, assuming she has 60 votes in the Senate to end filibusters;
  • Barack Obama: fundamental change of some kind of other, assuming he has the support of his party and 60 votes in the Senate to end filibusters
But the numbers, for now, can't be very reassuring for the Democrats despite two shining candidates who should easily trounce the nominee of a failed party. McCain, not exactly an unknown himself, is highly competitive in the current polling despite his close association with the disasters of the last seven years. The latest national poll for TIME:
Obama 48, McCain 41
Clinton 46, McCain 46
For now, McCain can have it both ways (despite some invective from Limbaugh and Hannity): he's still perceived as a maverick despite years of bellicose rhetoric and his shameless identification with Bush's policies on Iraq and the economy. While Obama has been annointed by the MSM, McCain enjoys a daily miracle of redemption.

The more profound question is whether Clinton or Obama can overcome the deep reservoir of sexism and racism that has percolated through U.S. politics for some four centuries. How many white voters, when faced with that blank ballot, will be unable to bring themselves to vote for a woman or an African American? How will the Republicans craft their campaign to exploit this reluctance? Will the Democrats retaliate by offering innuendo about McCain's age?

Sadly, the arch-reactionary poet e.e. cummings was wrong about most things, including this:
Listen; there's a hell of a good universe next door: let's go.
Too bad that's not an option—at least until November 4th.


Full disclosure: This blogger is undecided, and my final decision probably won't mean a damned thing by the time Oregon votes in three month. Lest I sound resentful, extensive reform of the whole ludicrous system of primary elections is long overdue, preferably along the lines recently proposed by the nonpartisan National Association of Secretaries of State.

[A shorter version was cross-posted on Hullabaloo.]