Friday, February 20, 2009

Too weird to live, too rare to die

Note: This is my annual tribute to Hunter S. Thompson's life and work, modified slightly from last year's.

One of my favorite writers died four years ago: Hunter S. Thompson. After a lifetime spent about as close to "The Edge" as was humanly possible, he crossed over to the other side - leaving a considerable legacy as a journalist and storyteller. Like a lot of creative people, there was an apparent madness that possessed him. With that madness, there was a method. And of course there is no doubt that when that cat was on, he was right on.

HST's writing was a merging of the profane and the profound, the trivial and the prophetic. His fans all have their favorite HST quotations memorized by heart. I too have mine:
"...The Edge...There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others -- the living -- are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later.

"But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it's In..."

--- Hunter S. Thompson (1967) , from "Hell's Angels"
"People who claim to know jackrabbits will tell you they are primarily motivated by Fear, Stupidity, and Craziness. But I have spent enough time in jackrabbit country to know that most of them lead pretty dull lives; they are bored with their daily routines: eat, fuck, sleep, hop around a bush now and then... No wonder some of them drift over the line into cheap thrills once in a while; there has to be a powerful adrenalin rush in crouching by the side of a road, waiting for the next set of headlights to come along, then streaking out of the bushes with split-second timing and making it across to the other side just inches in front of the speeding front tires."

-- Hunter S. Thompson
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72
As I noted in February, 2005:
Deep down, that cat was a street-level existentialist who knew all too well the fragility and absurdity of life. No wonder many of us drift over as close to the edge as possible. As I think about it, we're all damaged goods - some of us more damaged than others. More often than not, existence is filled with long stretches of tedium that maybe - maybe if one is lucky gets broken with some success or excitement. If only the buzz of success would linger a while longer. But like all good buzzes, eventually the sensation wears off, and it's back to the usual mind-numbing tedium and the sensation of being kicked when we're down.
As poet and rapper Gylan Kain (one of the founding members of The Last Poets) put it in a tune called "Look Out for the Blue Guerrilla":
You know life ain’t nothin’ but a river
Just moving through an empty hand
I said life ain’t nothin’ but a river
Moving through an empty hand
You can hold on if you wanna
But Lord when the truth hits the fan
HST knew all about the truth hitting the fan, offering up visions of what was about to go down. Take this quote, written just after September 11, 2001:
The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now--with somebody--and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives.


It will be a Religious War, a sort of Christian Jihad, fueled by religious hatred and led by merciless fanatics on both sides. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy.


We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Maybe Afghanistan, maybe Pakistan or Iraq, or possibly all three at once.


This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed--for anyone, and certainly not for anyone as baffled as George W. Bush. All he knows is that his father started the war a long time ago, and that he, the goofy child-President, has been chosen by Fate and the global Oil industry to finish it Now. He will declare a National Security Emergency and clamp down Hard on Everybody, no matter where they live or why. If the guilty won't hold up their hands and confess, he and the Generals will ferret them out by force.

In July 2003 (see the column "Welcome to the Big Darkness" reprinted in Hey Rube), he wrote, "Big Darkness, soon come. Take my word for it." Big Darkness is here my friends. In the years since his Sept. 12, 2001 column, what he said has come to pass. The US is in the midst of fighting Bu$hCo's (and now Obama's) Never-ending Holy War on two fronts (Afghanistan and Iraq), with a third front always one manufactured crisis away (Iran). The Constitution has become in Junior Caligula's words, "just another Goddamn piece of paper" to be shredded along with whatever other documents the White House chooses to keep secret. Bu$hCo spied on us, and barely a peep from Congress ensued - and it is unlikely that the Pope of Hope will voluntarily relinquish that particular power. The draconian Patriot Act has become a permanent fixture, with minimal protest from our presumably elected Congress critters. Hell, those very Congress critters are outdoing themselves each year, with among other things, "Homegrown Terrorism" laws that will affect everyone but the real terrorists who occupy luxury office space along Wall Street, as well as those terrorizing the planet from inside the White House bunker. Hell, those Wall Street terrorists are looting the temple as we speak. Habeas Corpus is now a mere historical artifact. Maybe having seen the worst of the Abu Ghraib pictures was enough to put the fear of God into those cats - that they too could meet the same fate if they rock the boat too much. Let's just say the accommodations aren't quite up to the Club Med standards that are more to their liking; and besides, any talk of impeachment would open up all manner of nasty skeletons in the old Congressional closet. Ho Ho! We can't have that, now can we! Yes, if we were to sum up the state of the union in late February 2009, it would be much along the lines of what HST said back in 2002: you were freer during the Age of Nixon than you are now.

Said it once and I'll say it again: Big Darkness has come. Whether it is a passing storm, or a more prolonged winter in America only time will tell. I'm betting on the latter, and in the meantime I'm taking Gylan Kain's advice to "look out for the Blue Guerrilla!"

I'd be remiss if I did not mention that there are still folks keeping Gonzo alive, including, of course, HST's widow, Anita, who also has a blog, Owl Farm; and Ron Mexico who runs Totally Gonzo.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Is Oklahoma about to go Nookyooler?

Apparently some of our fine state legislators are eager for Oklahoma to have nuclear reactors of its very own. I've got some pretty mixed emotions about relying on nukes for energy. On the surface, the construction and use of nukes would make a potentially attractive intermediate source of energy as our civilization transitions from petroleum products. Of course there is the issue of the health and safety of those residing near a reactor, as well as a host of environmental issues. Certainly the technology has improved a bit, and a lot of nuclear waste can be recycled. Still one wonders how waste storage would be managed, as well as how well-constructed and maintained the reactors would be (we are after all living in an era where deregulation is a religion in its own right). Then there is the length of time to build a reactor and get it operating - you're going to need about a decade from start to finish, meaning that if the goal is meeting immediate or short-term energy needs, the reactors should already have been constructed. Further, there is the question of how close the world is to - get this - peak uranium production. Then there's the question of how viable our current lifestyles (I include myself here) are globally, and whether looking at nukes is merely a way of continuing business as usual for just a little bit longer before some serious lifestyle changes are imposed upon us by nature itself.

If you're going to shield war criminals from investigation and prosecution,

at least be honest about it:

It cannot be emphasized enough that those who are arguing against criminal investigations for Bush officials are -- whether consciously or implicitly -- arguing that the U.S., alone in the world, is exempt from the laws and principles which we've been advocating and imposing on other countries for decades. There is simply no way to argue that our leaders should be immunized from criminal investigations for torture and other war crimes without believing that (a) the U.S. is and should be immune from the principles we've long demanded other nations obey and (b) we are free to ignore our treaty obligations any time it suits us.

It's just as simple as that: one must embrace both of those premises in order to argue for a bar against criminal investigations. And that's particularly true for those who argue that Bush officials should not be held liable for what they did either because (a) DOJ lawyers said it was legal and/or (b) Congress provided retroactive immunity to the torturers. As documented below, those are two of the most common and most universally discredited excuses in Western justice.

That fact may not lead anyone to change their minds about investigations and prosecutions, but those who are arguing for immunity for Bush officials ought to at least be honest and admit that they don't care about our treaty obligations and the principles we spent decades advocating for others because those rules -- for whatever reasons (e.g., we're special; we have too many other important things to do; we're the strongest and so nobody can make us do anything) -- don't apply to us. Those who oppose criminal investigations and prosecutions should acknowledge that this is what they believe (or at least are willing implicitly to embrace). Why pretend otherwise?

My emphasis added. That said, no matter how much of an intellectual contortionist your typical Beltway elite might happen to be, ultimately there is no getting around the very simple fact that the approach the US is using to shield its previous regime from potential criminal investigations has historically fallen flat:
One of the principal arguments made even by well-intentioned anti-investigation advocates is that it would be wrong to prosecute Bush officials for torture because (a) DOJ lawyers authorized those tactics as legal and (b) Congress provided retroactive war crimes immunity when it enacted the 2006 Military Commissions Act. This argument -- that prosecution is unfair because the torturers' government authorized and legalized the torture -- is one that has been raised by most war criminals in the past, and emphatically rejected by the Nuremberg Trials (which the U.S. led) and the War Crimes Tribunal against Serbian leaders (which the U.S. praised and supported). To raise that argument in order to justify immunity for Bush officials is, by definition, to believe that the U.S. is exempt from the most basic rules of justice which it has long demanded be applied to other nations.
Ultimately, if the Obama regime chooses to go the way of barring investigations at home, bullying other nations out of investigations, and trying to sweep the whole mess under the rug, he and his cronies had best get used to the idea that no matter how cool, slick, and personable they may come across, they're opening themselves up to a Pandora's Box of blowback down the road.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What you are now, i once was. What i am now, you will be.

On the topic of California's economic and political meltdown, Paul Krugman sez:

Everyone should be paying attention to the political/fiscal catastrophe now unfolding in California. Years of neglect, followed by economic disaster — and with all reasonable responses blocked by a fanatical, irrational minority.

This could be America next.
I have some idea about the fanatical irrational minority in question, they tended to represent state assembly and state senate districts where I lived (either the burbs outside of Sacramento, or later in The O. C.). These politicians were called "the cavemen" for a reason. An interpretation of God that I found rather alien and Social Darwinism formed the core of their ideology. There were others who were not legislators but who were sufficiently loaded and well-connected to abuse the already dysfunctional ballot initiative system in California to not only get toxic waste such as Proposition 13 on the ballot, but to buy enough propaganda to get it passed in 1978. The heirs to Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann are with us today in the form of Grover Norquist et al. Truth is, the state has been broken for a long time, patched up just enough to sputter along.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Quotable: Arthur Silber on the passing of John McGlinn

The world may barely note John McGlinn's passing, and it may place far too little value on the extraordinary work he did and what he accomplished against tremendous odds.

We should not be so unmindful, or so uncaring. We should do our utmost to follow McGlinn's own advice, and to be among those people who are "willing to dream" of a better world, just as he did. And in his life and work, McGlinn made that better world real.

That should be, that must be, our aspiration and our dedication, too.
That of course was the ending of the essay - make sure to check out the rest. Regulars here know I've got some pretty eclectic musical and artistic tastes. On the music front, I will groove on anything from hip-hop and industrial music to the occasional country-folk singer-songwriter. My real passion is jazz, and I've noticed far too often some very fine composers and improvisers toil in obscurity and pass away practically unnoticed. Just like you'll never experience mention of John McGlinn's life and work on Entertainment Tonight (or similarly idiotic entertainment "news" shows), good luck learning about such wonderful creators and human beings such as Dewey Redman or Alice Coltrane. Maybe they merit a couple paragraphs in the LAT or something. That's it.

I could probably spend some time on the pianist Randy Weston who has recorded for something close to six decades recording in settings ranging from solo piano to big band, and has been instrumental in both recording and preserving the rich musical and cultural heritage of the Gnawa in Morocco as well as incorporating Gnawa influences into the modern jazz tradition. The liner notes to his recordings are usually as much an educational experience as they are entertaining. And yes, the music and words communicate a desire to make the world a better place. He's been luckier than most jazzers in that he's managed to make a living in a hostile economic and cultural climate, and although he has been label-hopping a bit for the the last couple decades, there's usually someone who will open the doors to a recording studio and make some new music available to the public. There are some younger cats who have also been prolific and who have been innovators in the sub-genre known as free jazz, bringing a style thought (incorrectly) by many to be a relic of the 1960s and early 1970s into the 21st century: pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, saxophonist David S. Ware, among others deserve far more attention and appreciation for their compositional and musical prowess than they normally receive. Ware's interpretation of Sonny Rollins' classic Freedom Suite is a sublimely potent statement for our own post-9/11 cultural paranoia, in which the meaning of freedom has been severely corrupted. Ware is potentially at the peak of his career artistically, and one can expect a challenging and rewarding listening experience. The point is that there is a great deal of artistic endeavors available that go almost entirely ignored in what passes for our "civilization." We're talking performances that feed the brain while they entertain, if you get my drift.

Say Hello To

The Ward Churchill Trial, brought to you by the same cat who runs Kick Him, Honey.

Things are tough all over

California's budget situation is truly horrifying, but there are other states facing their own budget problems. I've been expecting a budget shortfall in my state of Oklahoma. We've weathered the recession (although calling it a recession seems understated somehow) better than some other states so far, but don't be too surprised if a legislature that is more hostile toward social services and infrastructure maintenance than ever turns the screws.

Maybe it just hits too close to home

That seems to be one reviewer's take on the film Revolutionary Road.

There are times I'm glad I don't live in California

I always thought that the way the state's budget was voted on was very dysfunctional under the best of times. Budgets rarely get passed before the fiscal deadline, and God help anyone who proposes even a minimal tax increase. When times are hard, the proceeding get downright surreal. The requirement of a supermajority to pass any sort of tax increase effectively grinds everything down to a halt. Seriously - from what I can gather, the state's government is in some sort of paralysis. In the meantime, while California burns (figuratively) the last of the anti-tax brigade fiddle.

All I can say is good luck to anyone there who is a state employee or requires any of that state's services. While you're surviving the impotence of legislators and the governor, this would be a really good time to demand some major reforms to the legislative process with a particular eye to overhauling the budget process. If the legislature and governor won't take the initiative (don't count on that happening), perhaps a ballot initiative is in order (although ironically enough, that particular relic from the old Progressive era is badly dysfunctional as well).

Music video interlude

Southside of Heaven by Ryan Bingham at Monforte in Jazz 2008 - though don't let the venue mislead you: this cat seems to be more in the Bob Dylan or Willie Nelson tradition. The music video promoting the tune has plenty of West Texas scenery that is quite familiar to me and much of my family. My current surroundings are slightly less arid, but similar enough.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Gitmo Whistle-Blower

I've been reading through Spc. Brandon Neely's testimony for the CSHRA. At this point I don't have much to add beyond Scott Horton's description. The extent of the involvement of medical professionals and paraprofessionals is certainly jarring - to say that there was a breakdown of professional ethics at Guantánamo Bay is apt. Whether there will be any repercussions for those in the health professions (or mental health professions) as a result of having participated in or enabled torture remains to be seen. The involvement of health and mental health professionals in torture should, under sane conditions, be something of a career ender (e.g., professional organizations would strip those involved of their memberships, licenses and credentials would be revoked, and so on). Similarly, those responsible for shaping the conditions that facilitated torture (e.g., those occupying the White House, CIA officials, Pentagon officials, etc.) would be brought to justice. Sadly, we do not exist under sane conditions in the US, and there is a certain pessimism in Neely's testimonial regarding the extent to which anything even remotely resembling justice will ever occur. The lot of a whistle-blower is often an unhappy and thankless one: I'll give this young man some kudos for simply showing a willingness to speak out and for encouraging others to do so as well.

¡Que Viva!

Venezuelans vote to remove term limits, meaning that Chavez can run for at least another term. American propagandists' heads explode. For shizzle.

Side note: there is quite the double standard operating in the US corporate media when it comes to covering the political scene in Venezuela, Bolivia, or Nicaragua versus, say, that of Colombia (see this recent example in the Washington Post). Fancy that.