Saturday, January 16, 2010

Stating the obvious:

This weekend's must read:
The full scale of the destruction resulting from this earthquake may not become clear for several weeks. Even minimal repairs will take years to complete, and the long-term impact is incalculable.

What is already all too clear, ­however, is the fact that this impact will be the result of an even longer-term history of deliberate impoverishment and disempowerment. Haiti is routinely described as the "poorest country in the western hemisphere". This poverty is the direct legacy of perhaps the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in world history, compounded by decades of systematic postcolonial oppression.

The noble "international community" which is currently scrambling to send its "humanitarian aid" to Haiti is largely responsible for the extent of the suffering it now aims to reduce. Ever since the US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, every serious political attempt to allow Haiti's people to move (in former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's phrase) "from absolute misery to a dignified poverty" has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and some of its allies.


Haiti is now a country where, according to the best available study, around 75% of the population "lives on less than $2 per day, and 56% – four and a half million people – live on less than $1 per day". Decades of neoliberal "adjustment" and neo-imperial intervention have robbed its government of any significant capacity to invest in its people or to regulate its economy. Punitive international trade and financial arrangements ensure that such destitution and impotence will remain a structural fact of Haitian life for the foreseeable future.

It is this poverty and powerlessness that account for the full scale of the horror in Port-au-Prince today. Since the late 1970s, relentless neoliberal assault on Haiti's agrarian economy has forced tens of thousands of small farmers into overcrowded urban slums. Although there are no reliable statistics, hundreds of thousands of Port-au-Prince residents now live in desperately sub-standard informal housing, often perched precariously on the side of deforested ravines. The selection of the people living in such places and conditions is itself no more "natural" or accidental than the extent of the injuries they have suffered.

As Brian Concannon, the director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, points out: "Those people got there because they or their parents were intentionally pushed out of the countryside by aid and trade policies specifically designed to create a large captive and therefore exploitable labour force in the cities; by definition they are people who would not be able to afford to build earthquake resistant houses." Meanwhile the city's basic infrastructure – running water, electricity, roads, etc – remains woefully inadequate, often non-existent. The government's ability to mobilise any sort of disaster relief is next to nil.

The international community has been effectively ruling Haiti since the 2004 coup. The same countries scrambling to send emergency help to Haiti now, however, have during the last five years consistently voted against any extension of the UN mission's mandate beyond its immediate military purpose. Proposals to divert some of this "investment" towards poverty reduction or agrarian development have been blocked, in keeping with the long-term patterns that continue to shape the ­distribution of international "aid".

Sometimes the obvious needs stating and restating.

Nothing but hucksters

Well, I knew that much of the so-called "tea party movement" was being led by fronts for corporatist organizations. That's been clear for some time. I suppose I'm not at all surprised that other such organizations are led by individuals who simply wanted to cash in on others' anger and vulnerability, and still other associated politicians cash in on their celebrity status. That's not to dismiss the very tangible anger and frustration that many are feeling in the US. The economy sucks, and regardless of which party is nominally in charge of DC, Wall Street fat cats continue to make out like bandits while the rest of us pay for the "privilege". Regrettably, only the right-wing has been able or willing to capitalize on that anger, playing on fear and puerile racism, promising merely to continue in the Bush II vein if in charge. We really could use a hefty dose of leftist populism right now. I'd strongly suggest that those on the left with the wherewithal to organize on a mass level study the success of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales. There are lessons that could, I'd wager, be learned from their movements that could be applied to our current political context - and which would address anti-corporatist anger without all the baggage that comes from right-wing puppet masters and charlatans.

Too paranoid for our own good

You know there is something seriously wrong with a culture in which it seems acceptable for a school administrator to call a bomb squad over an 11-year-old's science project:
A San Diego school vice-principal saw an 11-year-old's home science project (a motion detector made out of an empty Gatorade bottle and some electronics), decided it was a bomb, wet himself, put the school on lockdown, had the bomb-squad come out to destroy X-ray the student's invention and search his parents' home, and then magnanimously decided not to discipline the kid (though he did recommend that the child and his parents get counselling to help them overcome their anti-social science behavior).
Clearly the family must be harboring some sort of mental illness for fostering an interest in science. The horror.

Finally saw Avatar

The special effects are amazing, and many of the themes (with the exception of the tired narrative of white dude goes native and becomes savior for indigenous tribe, which I could really, really live without) are quite prosocial. Still I can't help but wonder what the story would be like if told through Neytiri's perspective. That's the story I would have wanted to experience.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Musical Interlude: Wall of Voodoo

I had practically forgotten about Wall of Voodoo until this evening when I was watching Rumble Fish. No, WoV doesn't appear on the film's soundtrack, but their front man (or by the time of the film's release, former front man) Stan Ridgeway laid down a vocal for one of the tracks, "Don't Box Me In." I remember liking the single at the time - there was always a noirish quality to Ridgeway's voice and lyrics that easily fit the vibe of the film (which of course I would have to wait several years after its release to see - no bread, you see). But that tune got me thinking back a bit. I had first heard of WoV through my high school's newspaper sometime in late 1981 or maybe early 1982. Dark Continent was already out, and Call of the West was soon to be released. Somewhere around then, the band appeared on one of the late night shows that I'd catch when I was probably supposed to be asleep. The single, "Mexican Radio" was one of the tunes I distinctly remember being played. The tune itself was pretty catchy, definitely edgy and off-kilter, with a heavy dose of pathos bubbling just beneath the surface.

The success of "Mexican Radio" and the relative lack of attention that the rest of their early work received along with the lack of interest that the post-Ridgeway edition of the band generated usually gets these cats classified as one hit wonders. I'd like to think there was more to the Ridgeway era than just that one hit. Ridgeway had this knack for spinning stories about life's lost souls and losers, the deep dark pit beneath the veneer of the American Dream. And many of the tunes had that "spaghetti western meets rock's new wave" feel to them. Given my interests in the imagery and soundtrack music to the old spaghetti westerns, that hit it about right as far as I was concerned.

How about the somewhat menacing "Funzone"?

Or, "Lost Weekend"?

Or, "Factory"?

Not easy listening perhaps, but interesting and provoking.

Oh, and here's the old video for Copeland and Ridgeway's "Don't Box Me In":

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Scanners are not the solution

See the post here (h/t naked capitalism). Not only are they not effective, but there's the whole matter of the amount of radiation these machines emit - not to mention how invasive these machines are. Do I really want naked images of myself or my kids being made and looked at by who knows how many goons? Hell no.

I know this is not politically correct to say in contemporary America, but even with the occasional asshole who tries to set his undies on fire during a flight, air travel is on average far safer than other modes of transport. The odds of being killed or hurt in a terrorist attack on an airplane are exceedingly small. You're probably in more danger of choking to death on one of those pretzels served while in the air than from being killed by the actions of an extremist. In other words, don't let the fearmongers scare you. The marketing of airport scanners is just another instance of profiteering: nothing more, nothing less. I suppose if you're merely satisfied with the appearance that Homeland Insecurity is "doing something," then great. Enjoy the boondoggle. Hate to say it, but simply taking the tax dollars that would have been spent on the scanners and throwing it into incinerators would probably be just as effective in preventing future terrorist attacks. The government needs to go back to square one, rationally analyze the extent of any threat, and act coolly and calmly (and largely behind the scenes). Fat chance of that happening, of course.


If the government won't break up the big banks, then we should do it ourselves. Basically the idea is one I've probably mentioned before: put your money in a credit union or a more local bank where it will be considerably safer. Let the Goldman Sachs and BofAs of the world gamble with what's left until they implode. The world will not end without 'em.

The coverup is usually worse than the truth

Too bad politicians seem bound and determined remain in denial. Of course it's a phenomenon that generalizes across parties and nationalities. Today's episode includes a Senatorial candidate claiming to have never heard of the Tea Party movement, even though there is ample evidence of him speaking at a Tea Party event from last year. Politicians beware - false claims can be quickly debunked thanks to YouTube and Flickr. Lie at your own peril.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Musical Interlude: Deep Forest

There was a lot of great pop music in the early 1990s. "Sweet Lullaby" by Deep Forest is definitely one of numerous high-points from back in the day:

I've had a fascination with electronic music for a long while - probably as long as I've been aware of music (meaning we have to go back to the 1970s). One form I came to really groove on was ambient music, when by a happy accident I heard some of Brian Eno's mid-1970s experimentation with the form on a late night radio talk show. Needless to say, throughout the mid-to-late1980s, I'd try to pick up as much vinyl (and later CDs) by Eno and his numerous collaborators as I could. Eno's 1978 album Music For Airports is arguably the classic in terms of early ambient, and is the ultimate in chillout music. Although the form sort of stagnated during much of the 1980s, a new generation of recording artists, as well as the occasional odd musicologist, were studying 1970s and early 1980s ambient and would bring the form back in a big way in the 1990s.

Deep Forest's eponymous first album deserves mention in this regard. In a way, it wasn't like what they were doing was entirely novel. The development of so-called "fourth world" music had already been pioneered by Eno, Jon Hassell, and to a degree David Byrne. Fourth world recordings from around 1980 fused found sounds (or what we'd now call samples), traditional instrumentation representing the entire globe, and electronic wizardry. When I listen to Deep Forest's work, I hear the influence of such seminal albums as Eno & Hassell's Fourth World: Possible Musics Vol. 1 and Eno & Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. By the 1990s, Deep Forest would be updating the sound with digital synths, dance beats influenced by the numerous incarnations of house music, in addition to samples of traditional songs and chants of the Pygmies from field recordings. Like any good fourth world recording, there was just the right blend of ancient and contemporary, and a reverence for the cultures from whom the artists were borrowing. Deep Forest's tracks range from quite danceable (such as the title track) to ideal chillout music for tired ravers (such as "Sweet Lullaby"). The music holds up quite nicely roughly 17 years later.

Could it be...Satan?

Haiti is devastated by a major earthquake, and wingnut preacher Pat Robertson's response is to make up some b.s. story about Hatians making a pact with Satan a long time ago. A new low from someone I thought couldn't sink any lower. Never mind that Haiti's problems run much deeper, and in part the massive human death toll (which is upwards of 100,000) can be blamed on ages of economic exploitation by European and American imperial powers.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The heat is on

According to the available data, temperatures in the US for 2009 were above average - the 13th consecutive year this has happened. Globally, it was possibly the fourth, fifth, or sixth warmest year on record. All this would prove to the climate deniers that we're entering an ice age, no doubt.

The amount of influence non-extremists have over extremists can be summed up with three words:

There is none. The whole column is good, but this bit in particular should be read:
Here's the sad truth: Mainstream Muslims have zero influence over extremists. In fact, if one of those guys had a single bullet in his gun and you and I were up against the wall, he would shoot me first. He hates me more because not only do I not follow his perverse vision of Islam, I also represent an alternative interpretation. He insists Islam requires domination; I suggest Islam inspires cooperation.
Actually I could say something similar in commenting about white Christians. I denounce the various and sundry terrorist attacks committed by white Christian extremists (e.g., blowing up government buildings and family planning clinics, assassinating physicians who perform abortions, killing people at a Holocaust museum, etc.), but there is no way in hell that such activity will persuade the extremists to renounce their course of action. In fact, someone like me is more of a threat to the white Christian extremist for largely the same reasons that the writer above describes regarding Islam: I'm not following some perverse extremist vision of Christianity or white supremacy, and I represent an alternative interpretation that in an extremist's eyes constitutes an existential threat. Like the above writer, cooperation rather than domination is more my thing.

Of course at this point it is worth mentioning that unlike the above writer, if a white Christian hauls off and goes on a politically motivated killing spree, there will be practically no insistence by corporate media pundits that white Christians denounce the extremist's actions. On the other hand, a Muslim extremist does something like that, and the pundits have their proverbial knickers in a twist, demanding that their fellow Muslims "do more" or to "try harder." Not only that, but whatever attempts to denounce said terrorist attack or attempted attack will be dismissed as "not good enough." There is, on other words, a clear double-standard at work here.

Thing is, there is precious little one can do to reason with others who are fanatically devoted to a cause. It's not even worth the bother. What is worth the bother is to use that same energy to reach out to those who have not yet been swept up into religious, political, and/or ethnic extremism and give them sufficient information to inoculate themselves against extremist nonsense.

Strange bedfellows

Politics has its share. It's great when individuals transcend their tribal identities long enough to fight for human rights - in this case uniting to overturn Prop. (H)8.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Musical Interlude: Prince

Let's travel back in time to 1986, when Prince dropped the single, "Kiss" (from the album, Parade). When I would describe the song to friends, I'd simply say that it was funk stripped down to the basics. If asked to elaborate, I'd go on to say that the spare arrangements brought to the forefront pure, unadulterated, raw passion. And that cat could really sing falsetto. Damn! I hadn't been much of a Prince fan, but this was the song that won me over.

Prince - Kiss

Anthony | MySpace Video

An interesting review of the song can be found at
By completely dropping the bass tracks from the final version of his 1984 smash "When Doves Cry," Prince demonstrated his willingness to take chances on highly unorthodox arrangements. Yet not even he knew quite what to make of "Kiss," the chart-topping single from 1986's strange and arty Parade; reportedly, he was never completely satisfied with the version that ended up being released, nearly leaving it off the album and retooling its arrangement multiple times for live performances. Yet it's one of the most brilliant moments in a catalog filled with them. Repeating the no-bass trick of "When Doves Cry," "Kiss" essentially strips funk down to its barest essentials and then cuts a little bit more. When the song starts, there's only the sketchiest outline of a harmonic structure in the instruments behind the melody, partly because those instruments are nearly all electronic percussion. The backing is fleshed out a bit more as the song moves along, but much of the time it sounds like disembodied bits of an arrangement floating out of nowhere, especially the backing vocals during the verses. It's a weird, alien soundscape, and added to that effect is the fact that Prince sings nearly the entire song -- except for the last line and one note leading into the last chorus -- in the upper register of his generous falsetto range. The distance in pitch between his voice and the very few instruments playing on the track creates the impression that there's even more space left open, and at that point, all one can really do is marvel that the song works so well with so little. Aside from the drum machine and backing vocals, there's a faintly murmuring keyboard and a gently wah-wahed guitar that mostly plays seventh chords, whether during the chorus or the solo break. Lyrically, "Kiss" can be read as a plea for genuine warmth in the middle of the prosperous, image-conscious '80s, though at bottom it's probably a simpler homage to women with confidence and maturity; given those two traits, the singer of "Kiss" welcomes all comers, regardless of just about anything else. Few other songs in Prince's catalog demonstrate his idiosyncratic genius more startlingly.

Seems fitting

I was watching SNL, catching Alicia Keys performing Empire State of Mind (Part II The Breakdown). Beautifully performed. I can't help but notice an air of melancholy and somberness in the vocals and arrangements. Then again, these are rather somber times. I noticed some of the same mood in the somewhat more upbeat collaboration with Jay Z that was also released late last year. Personally I prefer her solo version with its spare ambient-like sound with the full band only heard during the last 15 or 20 seconds. The moodiness beneath the celebratory-like lyrics is haunting.

Here's a clip on YouTube of the track from her new album:

NOM conceding federal prop (h)8 trial?

Sure appears that way. Keep in mind though that the case will be winding its way up the appeals process for a while, and the final outcome is not at all certain.

You're a loony!

If some of the psychiatrists attempting to shape the next edition of the DSM have their way, I doubt there will be many of us left on the planet who are not mentally ill. A lot of this smells of a profession grasping at straws to justify its existence. After all there is a lot of money at stake, and expanding the definition of mental illness, as well as expanding the number of potential mental "illnesses" could expand the potential client base considerably. Have a thing for short people or play too many video games? Pop a few Prozacs, go into rehab, or spend a stint at a psychiatric facility.

Don't get me wrong. There is a legitimate role for psychiatrists and psychiatry, and I can see a rational for having a system in place to diagnose truly pathological conditions. That said, just like I found the DSM-IV a bit overboard, I find myself asking with the proposed new "illnesses" of which I am aware, "are you kidding?"

An inevitable problem exists in determining what constitutes "normal" cognition and behavior. Truth is, normality, such as it is, gets defined by whatever prevailing cultural standards are in place at the time. In other words, what is "normal" is often merely an artifact of a specific historical and cultural context that does nothing to address the actual mental states of those labeled "abnormal". Personally, I'd prefer erring on the side of caution before attaching labels, realizing that the science of psychiatry, such as it is, itself is in its infancy. What gets pronounced on high by the American Psychiatric Association is more of a political statement. In the meantime, I find myself siding with Thomas Szaz (I have my own issues with some of his positions, but that can be dealt with at another time perhaps) that much of what gets labeled as illness or pathology amounts at best to problems in living. Some of those problems may indeed rest within the individual, whereas others come from dealing with dealing with social ignorance and prejudices. But such a conclusion probably is further evidence that I'm a stark raving lunatic.