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Thursday, February 28, 2008

we are all Hussein

I don't know about you but I am sick of Republicans pronouncing Barack Obama's name like it was some sort of cuss word. It is a national embarassment that American political discourse stretches so far to the extremes of xenophobia and puerility that a candidate's name can become an object of propaganda. I'm not worried about the influence of such people. Like Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Republicans will learn that Obama is a bright, shining piece of rubber, and they are the glue. It just disappoints me to no end to hear it on the news day in and day out.

Jon Stewart made a clever joke about it when he reminded the audience at the Oscars of 'the ill-fated 1944 presidential campaign of Gaydolf Titler' (at 8.10 of this clip at YouTube). Shamelessly repeating his name over and over with seven months to go before the election will wear out whatever rhetorical force it might otherwise have in certain quarters. It's also a good example of what I like to call the 8 Mile defense, i.e. claiming one's own possibly vulnerable traits before one's opponent even opens his mouth, as in the Eminem film.

I think we can do even better than that. It's not just people named Hussein who are being insulted by the racist xenophobes among us. It's everyone who respects human dignity and who values things like courtesy and etiquette. There's a tradition on the left of identifying with the targets of injustice by saying, I am [those people you hate]. It shows up in popular culture sometimes disguised as comedy, as in the 1997 Frank Oz film 'In & Out' starring Kevin Kline. When Kline's character, a high school teacher, is fired after being outed as a gay man, his students rise to his defense, one after another, by declaring, 'I am gay.' More recently, and more apt in this case, Le Monde declared in its front-page editorial headline on September 13, 2001, 'Nous sommes tous Américains'.
'Dans ce moment tragique où les mots paraissent si pauvres pour dire le choc que l'on ressent, la première chose qui vient à l'esprit est celle- ci : nous sommes tous Américains ! Nous sommes tous New-Yorkais, aussi sûrement que John Kennedy se déclarait, en 1962 à Berlin, Berlinois. Comment ne pas se sentir en effet, comme dans les moments les plus graves de notre histoire, profondément solidaires de ce peuple et de ce pays, les Etats-Unis, dont nous sommes si proches et à qui nous devons la liberté, et donc notre solidarité.'

It's time for some good old-fashioned solidarité. With that in mind, I am changing my name for the rest of the campaign to Jeff Hussein Strabone, and I will urge others to do the same with their names. Between now and November 4, I will always try to include my new middle name, even when it might be difficult to do so.

In a broader sense, the law-haters have been coming for the Husseins for the past six and a half years. Right now I think we've got the haters on the run, but we can't let up. Many Americans can be proud of their activities in the fight for justice and the rule of law in this decade. If we recall the famous 'First they came' speech of Martin Niemöller, we can say that many among us did speak up and, if nothing else, at least put our money where our mouth was by giving to the ACLU and other groups. What if they came for the Husseins, and everyone was named Hussein?

In the modern era, we have an exaggerated sense of the fixity of names because of the legal exigencies of having definite, unchanging names. It was not, of course, always the case. Just a few centuries ago, people would spell their own names differently with each signature, as is the case with all of William Shakespeare's surviving signatures. If we adopted a more flexible approach to our names, we might be more awake to the possibilities of self-reinvention.

The name Hussein comes from the Arabic noun husn, which the Hans Wehr dictionary translates as 'beauty, handsomeness, prettiness, loveliness; excellence, superiority, perfection' and so on. Reader, do you feel beautiful? I surely do, and I invite you to feel the same way. For the next seven months I hope you'll join me in saying, 'I am Hussein.'

[Update: here are some pro-Obama sites that have reached out since I posted this blog entry. Check them out.

The Obama Minute posts action instructions and news for Obama supporters.

I Am Hussein is a proposal for YouTube videos of people adding Hussein to their names.]

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

baseball, too?

As I watched Wednesday's hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, I was stunned by what I saw. There was Roger Clemens, one of baseball's greatest pitchers of all time, implausibly denying accounts that he had used steroids and human growth hormone. And two seats to his right there was Brian McNamee admitting that he had supplied the substances to Clemens. What stunned me was not the charges or Clemens's denials but, rather, the conduct of the Republicans on the committee. Were they really turning steroids into a partisan issue?

Almost without exception, the Republicans on the panel embarassed themselves by one-sidedly praising Clemens, the accused steroid-taker, and attacking McNamee, the admitted steroid-supplier. Here is Representative Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, questioning McNamee:
'You know, Roger Clemens, unless it's proven that he used steroids—and so far I haven't seen anything like it, if he did, he ought to be held accountable. But Roger Clemens is a baseball—he's a titan in baseball. And you and with all these lies, if they're not true, are destroying him and his reputation. Now how does he get his reputation back if this is not true? And how can we believe you because you've lied and lied and lied and lied?'

Yes, that's the same Dan Burton who promoted the conspiracy theory that Vince Foster was murdered back in the Clinton years.

Alarm bells should have gone off when Clemens said this in his opening statement:
'I have had thousands of calls, e-mails from friends, working partners, teammates, fans, and men that have held the highest office in our country telling me to stand strong.'

If we take him literally, and we should, he meant that some plural number of U.S. presidents have, amidst his accusations of illegal conduct, called to offer their support. Later in the hearing, Clemens brought up his presidential support a second time:
'When all this happened, the former President of the United States found me in a deer blind in south Texas and expressed his concerns, that this was unbelievable, and to stay strong and keep your—hold your head up high.'

Lest there be any doubt about which presidents went to bat for the Texas native, the New York Times for February 15 quoted Representative Mark Souder, Republican of Indiana, as saying:
'It wasn't an accident that word got to me that he's a Republican, or he said that President Bush called him.'

Clemens has not been charged with a crime, but the facts against him are considerable: other players accused by McNamee have confessed; one such player, Andy Pettitte, said in a sworn deposition that Clemens told him of his steroid and hormone use; and Clemens admits that his wife was injected with HGH by McNamee.

My point here is not Clemens's guilt or innocence. It's the dual obscenity of the partisanship shown by the committee's Republicans and the conduct of the Bush family. Apparently, if one is a friend of the Bushes, one is entitled to the support of the entire Republican team without being seriously questioned, no matter the accusations or the strength of the evidence.

What makes this incident even more offensive is that the Bushes are supposedly baseball fans. Bush père played at Yale and roots for the Houston Astros. Bush fils owned the Texas Rangers baseball team before running for governor. Why would they tell their cronies on the committee to go soft on a player accused of sullying the game? I knew that George W. Bush had no respect for the rule of law, but I did not know that he had no respect for the rules of baseball either.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

torture helps the terrorists win

Torture has been in the news a lot this week. On Tuesday, in an interview with the BBC, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia justified the use of torture to extract information:
BBC: All I’m saying about it, is that it’s a bizarre scenario, because it’s very unlikely that you’re going to have the one person that can give you that information and so if you use that as an excuse to permit torture then perhaps that’s a dangerous thing.

SCALIA: Seems to me you have to say, as unlikely as that is, it would be absurd to say that you can’t stick something under the fingernails, smack them in the face. It would be absurd to say that 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 an infliction of pain be? There are no easy answers involved, in either direction, but I certainly know you can’t come in smugly and with great self-satisfaction and say, “Oh, this is torture and therefore it’s no good.” You would not apply that in some real-life situations. It may not be a ticking bomb in Los Angeles, but it may be: “Where is this group that we know is plotting this painful action against the United States? Where are they? What are they currently planning?”

Then yesterday, the U.S. Senate passed H.R. 2082, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, by a vote of 51-45. What does that have to do with torture? See sec. 327 of the bill:
(a) LIMITATION.—No individual in the custody or under the effective control of an element of the intelligence community or instrumentality thereof, regardless of nationality or physical location, shall be subject to any treatment or technique of interrogation not authorized by the United States Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations.
(b) INSTRUMENTALITY DEFINED.—In this section, the term ‘‘instrumentality’’, with respect to an element of the intelligence community, means a contractor or subcontractor at any tier of the element of the intelligence community.'

Simply put, the bill would outlaw torture techniques like waterboarding. Former torture victim and current flip-flopper John McCain voted against it.

Arguments against terrorism usually depend on considerations like moral high ground, the Geneva Conventions, the treatment of U.S. troops when captured by others, and, in a word, law. The pro-torture argument depends on the need to gather life-saving information as speedily as possible, hence the trope of the ticking timebomb. And really, what can one say to that? That respect for the rule of law is more important than saving lives? That the ticking timebomb is a foolish rhetorical figure?

While those may be winning arguments among reasonable people, these are not reasonable times. This is an age of hysteria, when appeals to law and reason carry little weight in many quarters. With that in mind, I propose a new argument against torture, one that addresses the ticking timebomb question head on, to wit: Is torture likely to help us find the ticking timebomb before we are blown to kingdom come?

This is not a question of law or constitutionality but, rather, a question of criminological reliability. No other basis for opposing torture has any chance of convincing people who have no regard for law. So let us ask then, does torture make us safer by yielding time-sensitive, reliable information or not?

I would not presume to answer this question myself, not being an experienced torturer and all. Let us turn then not to apologists for torture like, say, Alan Dershowitz, but rather to an actual U.S. military interrogator and see what he thinks of torture-generated information.

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing on November 8, 2007 with just such a witness. The occasion's formal title was Oversight Hearing on Torture and the Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment of Detainees: The Effectiveness and Consequences of “Enhanced” Interrogation, and the star witness was
Steven Kleinman
Colonel, USAFR
Intelligence & National Security Specialist
Senior Intelligence Officer/Military Interrogator.

Suspiciously, the hearing transcript is still not available via Lexis-Nexis, but the House Judiciary Committee's website has a pdf of Kleinman's written statement to the Committee.

According to Kleinman, torture actually compromises interrogations:

'As the parties argue the legal and moral implications of using coercive methods to extract information that, according to the scenario, would save thousands of lives, there is an erroneous pre-supposition both sides seem too willing to accept: that coercion is ultimately an effective means of obtaining reliable intelligence information.

This conclusion is, in my professional opinion, unequivocally false.' [Italics his.]

How can he say such a thing? What experience does he have?

'Before addressing the concept of what has been described as “enhanced” interrogation methods, I believe it might be useful to present a brief summation of what over twenty years of operational experience has taught me about interrogation, both what it is and, perhaps more importantly, what it is not.'

Twenty years' experience is great, Captain America, but what about the ticking timebomb? Don't we need to extract the information by any means necessary? What about subjecting detainees to stressful situations until they can't take it anymore?
'Excessive stress, insufficient sleep, poor nutrition, and other environmental influences can result in substantial memory deficits. This is manifested not only as gaps in memory—that is, difficulty in recalling specific events—but also in unintended fabrication. What this suggests is that after exposure to the various environmental stressors, the source will be more likely to report some combination of real and imagined facts, believing sincerely that both are true, but ultimately being sincerely wrong on many counts. From an intelligence collection perspective, this is exceptionally problematic.'

But can't an experienced interrogator tell the difference? Here, in the absence of the hearing transcript, let us turn to one of the few news items to cover the hearing, from Talking Points Memo:
'But if a detainee has his hands tied, or if a detainee shivers because a room is chilled, then "I don't know whether he's shivering because the room is cold or because my questions are penetrating," Kleinman said. That degree of abuse "takes away a lot of my tools."'

According to one of the nation's most senior military interrogators, a man whose patriotism and intelligence are amply evidenced throughout his statement, torture actually makes it harder to get useful information out of detainees. It takes away the interrogators' tools, as he put it.

Why do Antonin Scalia and John McCain, to say nothing of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, want to take away our interrogators’ tools and tie their professional hands behind their backs? How can they claim to love America when they are cleearly helping the terrorists conceal information from interrogators? Are they more interested in torturing detainees than in protecting American citizens?

I think there's only one possible conclusion to draw from these considerations: George W. Bush and the other advocates of torture want the terrorists to win. Why else would they take away our interrogators' tools and help the terrorists conceal what they know? If the pro-torture people want to continue to plead on the terrorists' behalf, I think it's our obligation to tell the world whose side they're really on.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

you can have him, we don't want him

Prediction: if John McCain becomes the Republican nominee for president, his running mate will be Senator Joseph Lieberman (CfL-CT). I have been saying this privately since last year, but today's report in the News-Times of Connecticut that Lieberman will 'quite possibly' attend the Republican convention suggests that he is already laying the groundwork.

It would suit McCain's empty 'maverick' brand to choose a running mate from the other party—if by 'other party' one means the Connecticut for Lieberman Party. To people who don't follow politics closely, it would probably look like a bold move to bring the two parties together and overcome the partisan rancor that supposedly accounts for government dysfunction. How strongly could conservatives object to a running mate as hawkish as Dick Cheney and as committed to the culture wars as Pat Robertson? And he would certainly add votes from Connecticut South, also known as Florida.

For Lieberman it would be a return whence he came. It's worth recalling the circumstances of his election to the Senate in 1988. Lowell Wiecker, the Republican incumbent, was a true maverick. Here is the first paragraph from the New York Times's coverage of the campaign for September 30, 1988:
'At a Free South Africa conference here last weekend, a crowd of liberals applauded the arrival of the senior Senator from Connecticut, Lowell P. Weicker Jr. They nodded when the rambunctious Republican from Greenwich reminded them that he was the first, and so far the only, Senator to be arrested at an anti-apartheid demonstration.'
The headline was 'Foe Slowed by Weicker's 2-Party Appeal'. Foe indeed.

It is hard to see how an anti-abortion, anti-gay, pro-war candidate like McCain can claim the mantle of maverick. A sitting Republican Senator arrested for civil disobedience outside the South African Embassy? Now that's what I call a maverick.

Lieberman squeaked by with a margin of victory of 7,000 votes out of almost 1.3 million cast (NYT, November 9, 1988), or 49.7% to 49.0%, and the endorsements of William F. Buckley and other Republicans who found him more conservative than their own party's candidate. And Republicans did the same thing to re-elect Lieberman in 2006 after he lost the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont.

Whatever happens, the Democrats will surely pick up more seats in the Senate this year, at least six say I, and won't need the CfL Senator from Connecticut to caucus with them anymore.

One last point: earlier tonight I was watching Christopher Dodd, Connecticut's Democratic Senator, on C-SPAN2 filibustering against retroactive telecom immunity on the Senate floor. Dodd's father was a prosecutor at Nuremberg, and Dodd fils, invoking his father's legacy, has taken a hard line against abuses of power by the Bush administration. That doesn't make him a maverick, but in an age of wanton abuse of power and equally wanton cowardice by the opposition party, it does make him a hero. I'll take the hero over the maverick anytime.

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Friday, February 8, 2008

psycho fashion

I read with delight and anticipation the following author blurb at the end of David Byrne's survival guide to the music industry in the January issue of Wired:
'David Byrne is currently collaborating with Fatboy Slim and Brian Eno. Separately.'

The first collaboration is 'Here Lies Love', Byrne's song cycle about Imelda Marcos, 'with musical contributions from Fatboy Slim (Norman Cook)', as Byrne's blog describes it. (See my entry for February 7, 2007.)

It's the mysterious Eno project that's got me all excited. The last time David Byrne and Brian Eno worked together, the result was four of my all-time favourite albums: Talking Heads' More Songs about Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light, and Eno & Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Think of the last one as Steve Reich meets Fela Kuti via Grandmaster Flash, and you'll get the idea.

That era, 1977 to 1981, was a special time in music and the arts generally. I like to think of it as the culmination of the 1960's, or, if you prefer, their last hurrah. It was a period of cultural experimentation, political skepticism, and young people being fabulous, but without the assassinations, nightly reports of war dead, and Richard Nixon. I can think of no better evidence than TV Party, Glenn O'Brien's love-in après la lettre on Manhattan public access cable.

Just think about all the fantastically weird/angry/trippy music that came out between 1977 and 1981 on both sides of the Atlantic by Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Chic, The Clash, Parliament-Funkadelic, Blondie, Joe Jackson, et al. Disco reached its peak and became the raw material for rappers and DJ's. And, perhaps for the last time, there was cheap real estate in NYC.

Besides the US and the UK, the other country that belongs in this conversation was Germany, where the excesses of youth, cf. Baader-Meinhof, took on a more extreme quality. It's Berlin, the walled city of the Cold War, that calls our attention back to Brian Eno and his collaborations, for it was there that David Bowie, at his most vampiric and drug-addled, retreated for his great strung-out trilogy with Eno: Low, Heroes, and Lodger. From the electronic melancholia of Low to the persona of the helpless egomaniacal DJ on Lodger, Bowie fed off the body of ideas in circulation at the time and gave them the tinge of the undead.

But here's the thing that I've always wondered, and the simultaenous Eno connection makes it all the more bizarre: why have David Byrne and David Bowie never collaborated? I've never even seen them photographed together. Think of all they have in common:
-They both recorded at least three albums each with Brian Eno between 1977 and 1981.
-They both live in New York and are devoted to contemporary art.
-They're both known for showing up at concerts all over the city to keep up with what the new bands are doing. (See also their live appearances with the Arcade Fire.)

How can two people in the same line of work walk the same streets, frequent the same galleries and concert halls, and collaborate with the same partners (Eno, Philip Glass, Adrian Belew) yet never appear together? Is one the super-powered alter ego of the other? (Hmm. Which would be which?)

So I got to thinking last week: what form could a Bowie-Byrne collaboration take? They could write and record a song together, but one song would not be enough to satisfy anyone. At the other end, an entire album of co-written duets doesn't strike me as a good idea either. Neither one is known for sharing the stage for long.

And then the idea came to me for something in between that would put the two of them in musical and creative conversation with each other but would be more imaginative than an album of duets—a four-song EP according to the following rules:

1. A new song co-written and performed by the two of them.
2. A Bowie song covered by Byrne.
3. A Byrne song covered by Bowie.
4. A joint cover of a song written by someone else that they both love and have never recorded.

I have suggestions for 2 and 3. Aside from Guster, Bowie and Byrne may be the only musicians who have recorded songs that include the lyrics 'Fa fa fa fa fa...' Think about it: David Bowie singing 'Psycho Killer' and David Byrne singing 'Fashion'!
'There's a brand new dance
But I don't know it's name,
That people from bad homes
Do again and again.
It's big and it's bland
Full tension and fear.
They do it over there
But we don't do it here.'

The declarative quality of these lyrics from Bowie's 'Fashion' sound like they were written by Byrne in the 70's but with the paranoid undertones brought to the fore.

'Ce que j'ai fait, ce soir-là
Ce qu'elle a dit, ce soir-là
Réalisant mon espoir,
Je me lance vers la gloire ... OK
We are vain and we are blind.
I hate people when they're not polite.'

Can't you just hear Bowie's jaded, disinterested sophisticate persona sing-saying these lines from 'Psycho Killer'?

Stranger things have happened than blog entries making their way to their intended targets and dreams coming true. In the meanwhile, while we wait for my magic wand to arrive from Ebay, what song do readers think they should cover together? The only rule is that it cannot be something that either has already recorded.

What do you think, reader? Now that my blog hiatus is over, show the love by posting a comment with your song title and explanation.

[Note: The first comment in the thread has somehow disappeared and now Dan's comment about late Bowie cannot be understood properly. The missing first comment was a provocation from a reader who said that Bowie was 'shot', whatever that means.]

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