Monthly Archives: December 2013

Making one rich tone of your voices: 2013 in review

Averse to reflection in public, I won’t waste my readers’ time because in 2013 I learned what having readers meant. This blog got the highest number of visits ever — by some distance. I read more books than ever. I published more professional articles and reviews than ever, some of which represent my best work to date. As a reader I often forget the pleasure a writer receives knowing the work is appreciated. To quote Henry James, hearing from friends and admirers “making one rich tone of your many voices, the whole story of my social experience…There is scarce one of your ranged company but makes good some happy train and flushes with some individual color.”

The richness of my writing life is a compensatory pleasure for a drab personal one. May I learn to join my vocation and avocation in 2014.

Buhloone Mindstate: “Much soul on the down-low tip”

To commemorate its twentieth birthday, Oliver Wang celebrates Buhloone Mindstate, De La Soul’s excellent third album:

“We went to Japan and experienced hip-hop that we could not understand one bit, but felt a flow, felt something that made us feel like, ‘Wow! These guys are amazing!’ ” says Trugoy. “Not knowing what they were saying, what they were talking about, but you felt the energy and you felt that they had it.”

The album also included the candid “.” The song was an accident of sorts, says producer Paul Huston, aka Prince Paul. “‘I Am I Be’ — I actually made for myself,” he says. “The guys came by the house one day and I was just playing music, and I kind of passed through that one. They were like, ‘Yo! What’s that?’ ‘Eh, that’s not really for you guys. Let’s go to the next one.’ They was like, ‘No no no, what is that?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, we want to write it and use it for the album.’ I was like, ‘Are you sure?’

I flirted with glibness in this 2006 reassessment I published in Stylus Magazine, but the larger point stands: 1993 and ’94 were superb years for keyboard-heavy, big-bottomed, swinging hip-hop as buoyant as the sampled Maceo Parker riffs. Think of Digable Planet’s (A New Refutation of Time and Space) and Blowout Comb (Mark Richardson wrote a lovely appraisal of a recent vinyl reissue), A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders, Warren G’s Regulate…G Funk Era.

“The Darkling Thrush”

Thomas Hardy wrote the best NYE poem:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Dull, duller, Dulles: John Foster and Allen Dulles

In Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, the last vestiges of the nexus between Christian messianism and imperialism emerge, triumphant. Thanks to the patronage of Dwight Eisenhower, the Dulles brothers — Secretary of State John Foster and CIA director Allen — represent the culmination of their grandfather John Watson Foster’s policies. Foster was himself secretary of state to Benjamin Harrison and who arranged for tidy ferment on the Hawaiian islands that led to the abdication of Queen Liliuokalani. But John Foster and Allen surpassed him. Mossadegh, Arbenz, Patrick Lumumba lost first favor and then power after the CIA at Ike’s orders destabilized their respective regimes with psy-ops that included leaflets, the bribing of nascent oppositional forces that pledged their troth to the American free market, and the suppression of journalism critical of the dirty tricks. Foster was the starchy prig with halitosis (“Dull, imaginative, uncomprehending,” Churchill said once. “So clumsy I hope he will disappear.” Also: “Foster Dulles is the only case I know of a bull who carries his own china shop around with him”); Allen the pipe-smoking womanizer besotted with the romance of cloak and dagger heroics, an enthusiast of Ian Fleming (the agency’s failure to duplicate Fleming’s inventions for James Bond disappointed him). When Foster died of stomach cancer at the end of the Eisenhower administration, the white European world aligned with the U.S. mourned his loss. Allen got a new DC airport named after him. And dat’s dat for the last fifty years.

Their reputations in abeyance and pedigrees forgotten as declassified documents by the hundreds of thousands reveal their skullduggery, the Dulles brothers deserve reexamination and renewed opprobrium. Forget the maxim about their legacies living on. Our foreign policy remains spellbound by a neo-Wilsonian vision of the soothing power of Starbucks opening in Guinea, of Gap in Suriname. In 2013 you will find few liberals who question the dictum that capitalism and democracy are synonymous.

Thank the Dulles boys. Foster got his start in Sullivan & Cromwell, the law firm whose tentacles would have terrified Frank Norris and whose transactions would re-energize Trilateral Commission conspiracists. Like many blueblood plutocrats and conservatives of his type he had sympathy for the Nazis because they stabilized a chaotic post-Great War nation-state that was bled dry by loan obligations. At debt conferences Foster negotiated what Kinzer calls “complex restructurings” of debt that eased German access to American banks. As an anti-Bolshevik Hitler won Foster’s affection. “In his mind,” Kinzer writes, “defending multinational business and fighting Bolshevism were the same thing.” Allen meanwhile partnered with “Wild Bill” Donovan at the OSS — the World War II precursor to the CIA — and recruited the likes of Julia Child and Sterling Hayden. By the time Harry Truman signed National Security Directive 68 and thus made containing Soviet Communism the express goal of American foreign policy, CIA operations changed from the collection of data to White House secret police. To the end of his life Truman insisted that the CIA “was intended merely as a center for keeping the president informed on what was going on in the world.”

I’ve praised Ike as the best of the Cold War presidents, a judgment tempered by knowledge that he rarely met an intelligence operation that didn’t arouse him. He personally authorized the overthrow of Third World potentates like Arbenz , whose crime was resisting the transformation of Guatemala into a United Fruit Company fiefdom; and of Iran’s Mossadegh for daring to take literally the anti-colonial rhetoric of FDR and Truman (if free peoples could buy U.S. goods instead of from a malnourished British state, FDR reasoned, all the better). Thanks to the Dulles axis in State and the CIA, Ike received counsel unmitigated by bureaucracies that knew much more about these non-European peoples. Kinzer, who writes with force and clarity but will say in two paragraphs when one will do, savors the historical ironies, such as the prominence of Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt; Kim’s talent for deposing governments came almost fifty years after his grandfather TR brought the United States into the regime change era. The credulity of the American press, steered and cajoled by a phone call from Foster, cannot be overstated. Thus assertions like the following in Life magazine:

To call Mossadegh a fanatic maybe correct, but it explains almost nothing. Mossadegh is a far more complex character than the most baffling men the West has yet to deal with, including misty yogis like Nehru and notably unmisty commissars like Josef Stalin…Mohammad Mossadegh, with is faints, his tears and wild-eyed dreams, is a whirling dervish with a college education and first-rate mind.

Whirling dervishes. Commissars. Yogis. Thanks to Henry Luce and the Dulles brothers, universities boast thriving programs in orientalist studies. In his place the Americans placed the pliant Reza Pahlavi on the Peacock Throne; as shah he ruled as a feckless cruel despot until student fundamentalists abetted by the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew him in 1979. The sapience of this fact matters because Hollywood liberals like Ben Affleck helm critically and Oscar-validated bosh like Argo that propagandizes the CIA mythos of ugly men in worse rooms smoking and hatching plans for freedom’s sake.

Drunk with success, the Dulles brothers turned to Cuba and the Congo, whereupon their determined ignorance of popular unrest caught up to them at last. Belgium had done such a magnificent job purloining resources and treating its subjects as savages that the erratic, bumbling Lumumba briefly became a hero, which was a no-no to Ike. With the help of Belgians and rebels bought by CIA dough Lumumba was placed under house arrest. He escaped, was recaptured, and tortured. No evidence could exist though. Disinterred, the corpses were dismembered and thrown into barrels of sulphuric acid. When it ran out the men burned what remained. Kinzer: “The skulls were ground up and the bones and teeth scattered during the return journey. The task proved so disgusting and so arduous that both Belgians had to get drunk in order to complete it.” They completed it. The Cuba story we know well. Allen’s late life torpor meant his assistant Richard Bissell supervised the Bay of Pigs operation, planned and approved by Eisenhower in the last months of his term and accepted without question by John F. Kennedy. Keepers of the holy flames of Camelot accept JFK’s version of the events: the tearful young president seeking Ike’s counsel at Camp David; Ike gently excoriating him for not allowing dissent (for eight years Eisenhower tolerated no dissent regarding his conduct of foreign policy); JFK accepting the criticism. He should have done, received wisdom says, what Ike boasted he would have done under similar circumstances between 1953 and 1961 and somehow never did, to the despair of Hungarians in 1956: once committed, send in the goddamn army. Kennedy accepted the resignations of Allen and Bissell.

But the Dulles clan persists. Foster’s son Avery became a cardinal. According to Kinzer he criticized the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for “being too ‘extreme’ in seeking to expel accused pedophiles from the priesthood.”

“This is already a mass extinction event. The question is, how far is it going to go?”

These developments make long-term planning easier, I must say:

“The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet,” climate scientist James Hansen has said. “There are potential irreversible effects of melting the Arctic sea ice. If it begins to allow the Arctic Ocean to warm up, and warm the ocean floor, then we’ll begin to release methane hydrates. And if we let that happen, that is a potential tipping point that we don’t want to happen. If we burn all the fossil fuels then we certainly will cause the methane hydrates, eventually, to come out and cause several degrees more warming, and it’s not clear that civilization could survive that extreme climate change.”

Yet, long before humanity has burned all fossil fuel reserves on the planet, massive amounts of methane will be released. While the human body is potentially capable of handling a six-to-nine-degree Celsius rise in the planetary temperature, the crops and habitat we use for food production are not. As McPherson put it, “If we see a 3.5 to 4C baseline increase, I see no way to have habitat. We are at .85C above baseline and we’ve already triggered all these self-reinforcing feedback loops.”

He adds: “All the evidence points to a locked-in 3.5 to 5 degree C global temperature rise above the 1850 ‘norm’ by mid-century, possibly much sooner. This guarantees a positive feedback, already underway, leading to 4.5 to 6 or more degrees above ‘norm’ and that is a level lethal to life. This is partly due to the fact that humans have to eat and plants can’t adapt fast enough to make that possible for the 7-to-9 billion of us—so we’ll die.”

If you think McPherson’s comment about lack of adaptability goes over the edge, consider that the rate of evolution trails the rate of climate change by a factor of 10,000, according to a paper in the August 2013 issue of Ecology Letters. Furthermore, David Wasdel, director of the Apollo-Gaia Project and an expert on multiple feedback dynamics, says, “We are experiencing change 200 to 300 times faster than any of the previous major extinction events.”

Wasdel cites with particular alarm scientific reports showing that the oceans have already lost 40 percent of their phytoplankton, the base of the global oceanic food chain, because of climate-change-induced acidification and atmospheric temperature variations. (According to the Center for Ocean Solutions: “The oceans have absorbed almost one-half of human-released CO2 emissions since the Industrial Revolution. Although this has moderated the effect of greenhouse gas emissions, it is chemically altering marine ecosystems 100 times more rapidly than it has changed in at least the last 650,000 years.”)

“This is already a mass extinction event,” Wasdel adds. “The question is, how far is it going to go?

These are worst-case predictions, but our flailing energy policies don’t help. We still dither about the Keystone Pipeline. We’re very proud of our producing more oil than Saudi Arabia:

All these steps are particularly toxic because we’ve learned something else about global warming during the Obama years: Most of the coal and gas and oil that’s underground has to stay there if we’re going to slow climate change.

Though the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 was unquestionably the great foreign-policy failure of Obama’s first term, producing no targets or timetables or deals, the world’s leaders all signed a letter pledging that they would keep the earth’s temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius. This is not an ambitious goal (the one degree we’ve raised the temperature already has melted the Arctic, so we’re fools to find out what two will do), but at least it is something solid to which Obama and others are committed. To reach that two-degree goal, say organizations such as the Carbon Tracker Initiative, the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, HSBC and just about everyone else who’s looked at the question, we’d need to leave undisturbed between two-thirds and four-fifths of the planet’s reserves of coal, gas and oil.

“The state now owes me $1,400 for eight weeks of unemployment.”

I’m glad to see websites through which millions of people get essential services work:

Florida’s ongoing claims for unemployment benefits plummeted to the lowest level in six years from mid-October to early December. The average of 20,000 fewer weekly claims from the prior nine weeks represents a plunge of 18 percent, the sharpest decline in 15 years.

Yet rather than herald an improving job market, chalk up Florida’s shrinking claims numbers instead to the troubled debut of the state’s unemployment claims website, CONNECT.

Since its October launch, the $63 million website has been plagued by glitches, sowing confusion and despair among many of the 235,000 claimants who file every other week to help pay for essentials like food and rent. Difficulties in logging on or navigating CONNECT have precluded thousands from collecting.

“I’m about to be thrown out on the street,” said Allen Schwalb of Seminole, who was laid off from a warehouse job in October but as of this week had yet to receive any benefits despite many attempts to file. “The state now owes me $1,400 for eight weeks of unemployment. I don’t know what I will do if I don’t receive it soon.”

To those who live in other states, a reminder of how Florida law affects the unemployed:

Florida is notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to unemployment benefits, which makes CONNECT’s failings even more glaring.

The state’s proportion of unemployed people who actually get jobless benefits was 16 percent in 2012, the lowest in the nation. Because of a 2011 law passed by the Legislature and signed by Scott, recipients must register online, a requirement that a federal report found earlier this year violated the civil rights of the unemployed.

In other words, those least likely to afford internet providers suffer the most trying to get benefits (we’re having troubles paying for libraries too).