Monday, December 20, 2010

I Feel a Strange Disturbance in the Force...

Look, goddammit.  Music has always been desperately important to me.  I've never been that firmly anchored, and without the solace and promise of the Rock n Roll I loved I'm not sure I can tell you unequivocally that we'd all be having this conversation today.

And I've never been terribly experimental in what I demanded from my music.  Guitars, loud and melodic, tunes you could sing along with and lyrics that spoke to more than the junior fucking prom was the extent of my requirements.  There are certain bands I hang my hat on, music makers who's product over the years is tied inextricably to my identity.  The riffs have become deep trenches in my pre-frontal cortex and the lyrics tell my life's story in a way I never could.  I could run through the all-to-predictable list, from Boston to Journey, from BTO to AC/DC, from Springsteen to Zevon, but you'll find no surprises on that list, even if you'll never understand why the songs cause me to tear up at apparently odd and unpredictable moments.

But if there was one constant, one band that represented the sound track of my life, one influence that was there for every important moment over a life lived profligately and without suitable care or caution, that band would be Aerosmith.  From my first love, our awkwardly passionate attempts at finding something special to her miscarriage and her father's proceeding and somewhat charming attempts on my life, through my descent into and experience with addiction and recovery, from Toys in the Attic and Rocks to Get a Grip, Nine Lives and Just Push Play, along with Warren Zevon, Aerosmith has been the musical anchor of my world, the lens through which I tried with uneven success to understand the world and my place in it.

So now what am I left to think?  The example I most often use to describe and define the vapidity and disengagement of the American population is American Idol, that mindless sop to our cultural worship of  immediate success and instant, unearned fame.  And so the arc of history brings us to a place where the hopelessly stupid, drug-addled and emotionally damaged Paula Abdul is forced to leave the shows staff of so-called 'judges' and is replaced with none other than that elder statesman of the music in my soul, Steven Tyler.  Now along with the vapid and mindless ranks of Jennifer Lopez and the charming but otherwise unemployable Randy Jackson, he'll form the nexus of illusory dreams and savage heartbreak for the millions who sit, curled up in a snuggy in dimly lit and poorly decorated living rooms from Burbank to Bangor drawing impossible emotional highs and lows from the airwaves like a Vampire sups from the underside of a cow.

And millions who know nothing of the past, who owe no debt of consequence to the complex guitars and soaring vocals of Aerosmith, who share no identity with the young madmen turned successful artist turned national treasure and know nothing of the twisted path they walked will find this exotic, odd-looking man strangely charismatic, and he will become something he is not, but will always henceforth be.  When all the danger and all the history and all the bad acts and redemption have all been left behind, he'll be that nice boy on American Idol, another Bon Jovi to be loved by old women who forty years ago would have found him frightening and obscene.

People will say "mikey, you don't have to watch" and it's true, and I won't.  And my memories of Mama Kin and Walkin' the Dog in endless summer nights in a pickup truck on the shore of Benbrook Lake will remain undisturbed.  The past immutable, the future unknowable, musical entropy takes hold as it must.  But I cannot help but be saddened, even a little disappointed.  I couldn't say what my expectations were, but if such a thing is possible, a piece of my life is now forever out of reach.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Didn't Your Grandmother Tell You Not to Settle?

The bribe was rejected.  Whether it was simply not large enough, or whether ANY bribe would have been accepted in this case is unclear, and ultimately unimportant.  The direction that Netanyahu and Lieberman along with the rest of the Likud leadership has chosen is unequivocally clear now, for all to see.  Only the most strident propagandists can continue to argue otherwise.  The talks never really had a chance - when the party with the power to enforce the status quo wishes to preserve the status quo, it is probably unreasonable to expect anything to truly change.  And now that the Israelis have made their choice abundantly clear, it is the Palestinians who have some difficult choices ahead of them.

If there is any glimmer of good news in all this, it is that at long last it appears that the Palestinians are beginning to learn how to play this game.  They know that in the current security and diplomatic environment, armed resistance is not just futile, but counterproductive for it accomplishes nothing and fuels the Israeli narrative of Palestinian violent intransigence.  At the same time, they have finally figured out that peace talks that don't start from a standpoint of Israeli borders and boundaries are not negotiations at all, but rather a manipulative ploy to keep a lid on a stateless people under military occupation while the land that might have eventually comprised a Palestinian homeland is systematically looted.

Instead, they have begun to look to the history of the South African people, and the end of Apartheid, and even to black Americans' own struggle for civil rights..  The comparison is imperfect, but the tactical mechanisms couldn't be more clear.  And this time, it's Europe and Latin America that will provide the impetus for widespread global opprobrium of Israel over the treatment of the Palestinian population both in the occupied territories and increasingly in Israel itself.  It is genuinely odd that the Israeli people are having so much difficulty in recognizing that the way history has played itself out, that it is Israel whose survival depends upon a viable Palestinian state even more than the Palestinians.  The other options are an Israel that ultimately succumbs to demographics and becomes a Jewish minority state or permanent occupation, conflict and apartheid, neither of which end well for Israel as we know it.

If the Palestinians can heal their rift and continue to become increasingly media savvy while the Israelis, led by their hard-line anti-Arab secular and violent expansionist religious fundamentalist factions continue to act in heavy handed and arbitrary manner toward their Arab and Muslim constituencies, time will work to move global public opinion to a position of sympathy toward the Palestinian position.  Increasing economic sanctions, divestment and boycotts, along with actions from the UN and other extra-governmental organizations will eventually force Israel to allow the creation of a Palestinian state, and at that point the terms will not be so much in Israel's favor.

Which brings us to the US.  No matter what the rest of the world might be doing, the US political leadership is deeply beholden to the Israeli lobby.  Particularly in Congress, the American elite will always work to enable the Israeli leadership, and will legislate with a bias towards implementing whatever the Israel lobby supports.  But while it would be nice to see the US adopt a more even-handed approach to mid-east political affairs in general and play a more aggressive role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking specifically, it is increasingly apparent that it's not necessary.  As long as the Israelis continue to take over from the Palestinians the task of shooting themselves in the foot, the US and Israel will find themselves increasingly marginalized in world opinion.  In Europe, Asia and Latin America, even in Africa the brutal oppression of the Palestinian people is driving people to exercise their political and economic power to influence what they see as an untenable situation.

But after being repeatedly snubbed, rejected and ignored by the Netanyahu government, America may well decide to moderate her position vis a vis Israel in the near future.  And she doesn't need to reject Israel or withhold economic or military aid, or even vote against Israel in the UNSC.  Indeed, all America need do is consider her own interests and global agenda in the decision-making process, just as she so commonly does when negotiating aid packages with other nations.  It's hard to imagine the US providing economic or military assistance to other nations, even Saudi Arabia or Egypt without insisting upon certain quid pro quos to align those nation's behaviors with American Interests.  Which isn't even to consider the outcome of those negotiations if those allies chose to ignore those demands and continue behaving in direct defiance of American interests and desires.  For that matter, it's easy to imagine what might happen if those nations were involved in a brutal military occupation in violation of multiple UN Resolutions.  By merely considering our own interests ahead of those of other nations, as is the case in all other bilateral relations, the US could send a signal to the Israelis that some some modification of their hard-line, unilateral intransigence is going to happen one way or the other - it might as well happen on terms the Israelis deem favorable, or at least less unfavorable.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

For a Minute There I ALMOST Thought You Said Joe Lieberman...

America's primary founding values are inarguably Freedom and Equality.  And the story of America has largely been one of a struggle, often a violent one, to make those values a reality for all Americans everywhere in America.  And in spite of the desperate rear-guard fights from the bigots and reactionaries, from the very beginning America as an entity has moved inexorably in the direction of genuine universal Freedom and Equality.

Certainly there is still inequality for many, fueled by fear and hate and superstition and nothing more than a pathetic inertial resistance to change that represents the parochial nature of many of the more tribal segments of American society.  Driven by a worldview absolutely dependent upon an unequal power hierarchy, many Americans continue to advocate discriminatory practices towards women, Latinos, Muslims, Gays, and in an indication of how enduring the structures of bigotry can be, African Americans.  But even so, the arc of history could not be clearer or more easily defined - ultimately, the fears are seen to be baseless, the hatred pointless and the discrimination corrosive and toxic, and Americans, as they so often do, follow the demands of their conscience and eliminate the institutional and statutory basis for discrimination, allowing society over the next several generations to forget the shameful behaviors of their grandparents.

And so it is today.  A shameful legal compromise that attempted to eliminate the worst effects of bigotry while retaining the institutional discrimination that has always been the core of the problem, a policy tellingly known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", has finally been legislated out of existence, and another group of Americans moves another step toward just being Americans, and not some kind of second class partial citizen with fewer rights and less comprehensive legal guarantees than enjoyed by us "regular" Americans.  It's important to recognize that changing the law doesn't change anyone's mind, it only starts a process whereby citizens in the future will experience a nation one less legal or institutional processes supporting discrimination, and as a result that discrimination will wither and eventually die.

There have been many unhesitatingly courageous voices driving the debate in the face of the bigots and those politicians that catered to their hatred, but one stands out, not only for the surprising ferocity of his sustained attack on DADT, but also for an unexpected unwillingness, even refusal to pander to what has become his core constituency.  That voice belongs to the otherwise loathsome Joe Lieberman.  Yes, in the past I have called him treasonous for his willingness to put the national interests of Israel ahead of those of an America he swore an oath to serve, and his sickening and disturbing desire to shed the blood of millions of innocents unnecessarily in the furtherance of ambiguous and uncertain policy goals can never be overlooked, and must never be countenanced.

But this is precisely where his courage in the name of equality is so surprising, and perhaps why it was so effective.  He has come to align himself so closely with the military leadership and the extreme voices of intolerance and prejudice of the extreme right wing that it really seemed a foregone conclusion that he would back away and pander to that constituency whose support he would need to further his foreign policy objectives.  And yet he never wavered, never took an opportunity to sit back in silence, to back away from this fight.  He stood up time and again, even a number of times calling out John McCain, whose Presidential run Lieberman famously backed, always making the point that it was about fairness and equality, more important issues than the hand wringing over some imaginary disaster that clearly was never going to actually come to pass.

I think it's very possible that without the contribution of Joe Lieberman, Don't Ask, Don't Tell would still be the law of the land.  I find that somehow both reassuring and disturbing at the same time.  I suppose the lesson is that nobody is truly how we caricature them, neither all bad or all good, and even those whose redeeming qualities are resolutely hard to see can, on occasion, do something courageous and important.  If that is so, it's equally important to remember that the opposite must also then be true - those from whom we have come to expect acts of honesty and nobility may well let us down on important occasions.

So tonight I'll turn Mother's picture to the wall and raise a glass to Joe Lieberman.  Joe, I hate you down to your treasonous black soul, but I can no longer ever say I hate everything you stand for.  You stood up and made America a little bit better, and you deserve to be recognized for it.  Thank you...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Who is a Terrorist When Everybody is a Terrorist?

Julian Assange has been called many things.  Hero, villain, journalist, criminal.  Some have gone so far as to call him a traitor, a particularly difficult allegation to support since he is an Australian citizen and the nation he has supposedly turned against is the United States.  But one particularly outrageous charge came last week when Mitch McConnell, among others, declared that Assange was a terrorist.  Under what tortured definition of terrorism, do you suppose, would the release of classified information fall?

Of course, this is part and parcel of a larger strategy of popular re-definition of certain words, a kind of linguistic area denial weapon that makes benign terms toxic and hides the most vile of intentions behind pretty verbal decorations.  People who thought a woman had a right to make her own medical decisions were designated 'Pro Abortion', so they fought back by identifying themselves as 'Pro Choice'.  After the Second World War, the threateningly-named US War Department was officially renamed the Department of Defense in order to emphasize that no matter the nature of any conflict, the US is never the aggressor and any war we find ourselves involved in is by definition defensive in nature.  And after a multi-decade concerted campaign of vilification and vituperation, virtually NOBODY wants to be called a Liberal anymore.

But even in light of this history of etymological violence, the word terrorist stands out as a special case.  We have always reserved certain categories for maximal opprobrium, if for no other reason that we have so many TV shows in need of ready-made villains, and therefore certain terms must come to function as verbal shorthand for the most hated of society's dregs.  We have previously used child molesters, Latin American drug kingpins, crazed Vietnam veterans and rogue KGB agents in this role, but after the 9/11 attacks, the number one feared and loathed classification in America became terrorist, a condition that has only grown and expanded in the intervening decade.

We've never settled on a firm, accepted understanding of what constitutes a terrorist.  Indeed, the aphorism (often attributed to Ramsey Clarke - I prefer the Michael Collins attribution) "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" has gained popular usage due to the underlying confusion of intentions and methods.  But as the debacle in Iraq ground on, with atrocity piled upon atrocity, it became a common way to describe anyone either a.) Trying to kill Americans or b.) Killed by Americans.  When Iraqis came together to defend Faluja from American attack, they were labeled terrorists.  When Ahmed Ghailani killed a soldier in a firefight in Afghanistan, he was taken to Guantanamo Bay as a terrorist. 

At first, terrorists were people who, logically, had committed acts of terror, usually defined as politically motivated attacks against civilians.  Later, it had evolved to mean people who had interest in committing acts of terror in the future, or even providing funding or material services to organizations that might, at some time in the future, assist in the commission of acts of terror.  Finally, we come to a point where the acts they plan or commit don't even have to qualify as acts of terror for them to be branded as terrorists.  The word has lost it's meaning, and at least from the standpoint of the American political leadership and media has come to mean anybody that either doesn't like America or America doesn't like, or both.

Of course, the American political leadership has found it convenient to rebrand other, similar terms of art.  When the Bush administration was providing justification for the invasion of Iraq, it was the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction, big, scary nuclear or biological weapons with the potential to kill millions.  A few days ago, Antonio Martinez was charged in Federal Court with the attempted use of a Weapon of Mass Destruction when he attempted to detonate what he thought was a car bomb.  Setting aside the fact that there not only never WAS a car bomb in this case, but there never WOULD have been a car bomb if the FBI didn't supply one, what is it about a CAR BOMB that qualifies it as a Weapon of Mass Destruction?  What do you suppose that makes a shotgun?  Do you suppose that the prosecutor thought that charge might garner a longer sentence than good old fashioned Conspiracy to Commit Murder?