Friday, December 30, 2011

Why Ron Paul's Racist Newsletters Matter

Luis Suarez is a soccer player from Uruguay who stars for Liverpool FC in England’s Premier League. Suarez made sports headlines two weeks ago when he was suspended  for 8 games for racially abusing a black opponent, Patrice Evra, who plays for Liverpool’s heated rival, Manchester United. Some of the details of the exchange are in dispute but what seems clear is that Suarez, speaking in Spanish, called Evra a “negrito.” In response to the suspension, Suarez and other Liverpool supporters have come forward with a variety of defenses, ranging from the familiar: Suarez has black friends and teammates, is of mixed race ancestry himself and personally treats everyone with respect, etc. - to the more novel and nuanced: the Spanish term “negrito” is not necessarily disparaging, it can even be affectionate. (The more interesting aspect of the incident is the one-sided nature of the suspension. Evra, who is a French national, was reported to have provoked the incident when he called Suarez a “dirty South American.” Evra received no punishment).

But Luis Suarez is not a racist. And it’s not just his friends and teammates who say so. Patrice Evra, the player he insulted, says so. Even the FA, the league issuing the suspension says so. This begs the question:  Why is Luis Suarez receiving such a harsh suspension if nobody thinks he’s a racist? The answer is that the personal views of the player are beside the point.  It’s the behavior – the calling out of a person’s skin color and disparaging him on that basis - that will not be tolerated. If the penalty seems excessive, consider the history. Only a few decades ago, black players were routinely greeted in English stadiums with bananas and grunting noises from fans. Similar displays still take place in soccer stadiums in Eastern Europe and, on occasion, in Spain. And while an 8 game suspension might seem severe (by comparison, recklessly breaking an opponent’s leg merits only a 3 game suspension), at least the message is clear: It’s not sufficient to say that a person, in his heart, is not a racist. Words are actions. Words matter. And if athletes are to be held accountable for their words, what about public figures who seek the highest office in the land?

Which brings us to Ron Paul.

Paul, the libertarian Texan who is seeking the Republican nomination for President, has drawn fire for a variety of outrageous statements made in the Ron Paul Political Report, a newsletter published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Unlike the utterance of “negrito” there is no context in which these newsletters could NOT be considered racist or otherwise crudely offensive. For example, the newsletter reported that the order was restored after the LA riots “when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks." It declared that black protesters should gather "at a food stamp bureau or a crack house" rather than the Statue of Liberty. It suggested that AIDS sufferers "enjoy the attention and pity that comes with being sick"and it questioned whether the 1993 World Trade Center bombing "was a setup by the Israeli Mossad." The statements range from outright bigotry to crackpot paranoia and there’s plenty more.

These outrageous statements came to light in the 2008 campaign but the media mostly ignored the issue – probably because few took Ron Paul very seriously as a candidate. For his part, Paul didn’t take the matter very seriously either. He said he didn’t personally write any of those statements and that he disavowed them. His explanation?

"When I was out of Congress and practicing medicine full-time, a newsletter was published under my name that I did not edit. Several writers contributed to the product," Paul said. "For over a decade, I have publicly taken moral responsibility for not paying closer attention to what went out under my name."

Taken moral responsibility? How?

Questions are again being asked now that Paul is a real contender in the upcoming Iowa caucuses. Last week, Paul was confronted about the content of the newsletters on CNN. “These things are pretty incendiary,” the interviewer noted.

“Because of people like you,” Paul said.

Is that Paul’s idea of taking moral responsibility? When he was pressed to further explain his role in publishing such offensive comments, he tore off his microphone and walked off the set.

Got that? It’s the media’s fault that people are talking about the disgusting things that were published by Ron Paul in his newsletter. Sorry. Ron Paul might be an admirable guy and an intriguing political figure with interesting views, but no other candidate would be allowed to get away with such irresponsible drivel. So why should Paul?

But Ron Paul is not a racist. This is what his very enthusiastic supporters insist. He’s a man of integrity and a true patriot. They point out how uncharacteristic those statements are in comparison to everything else Paul has ever said about race. They tell us that he used to give free medical care to poor blacks in his Texas district. They say that Rosa Parks was one his heroes. They insist that his policies – like ending the “war on drugs” - are good for blacks. And, most incredibly, they tell us that Ron Paul can’t be a racist because true libertarians only see individuals, not ethnicity or group identity. (Evidently, nobody explained this to the non-libertarian writers of Paul’s own newsletter).

All of this misses the point. The belief that Ron Paul is fair and decent guy whose libertarian policies are good for minorities doesn’t change the fact that he has, in no way taken any serious responsibility for the outrageous things that he published.

And there’s massive denial here on the part of Paul’s supporters. It’s understandable that they resent the timing of these questions. This is politics. Of course they would prefer to talk instead about what they like about Paul or complain about taxes, the military-industrial complex or Paul's favorite bugaboo, the Federal Reserve. But they’re kidding themselves if they think this is just some minor baggage or some tenuous guilt-by-association. It’s not as if some random bigot just happened to throw together some racist tirades and independently publish them under Paul’s name. Paul was the president of the company that published the newsletter. The newsletter helped generate millions of dollars for him in fundraising. This isn’t a story that’s being “rehashed.” It has barely been scratched. Paul has a lot of explaining to do.

For instance: When did he first become aware that he was publishing such disgusting comments? Who wrote them? (Paul says he doesn’t know and that it is the editor’s responsibility, not the publisher’s. OK then, who was his editor?) Are the editors still affiliated with Paul’s campaign? How much money did Paul make from these publications? Why did it take so long for Paul to condemn the racist comments? If Paul didn’t know who wrote his own newsletter, why did he make no effort to find out when he learned of the remarks?

Paul has answered none of this.

Andrew Sullivan is a center-right political commentator who had offered a qualified endorsement of Ron Paul but is now thinking twice:

"a man who could win the Iowa caucuses and is now third in national polls has to have a plausible answer for this. It's what happens when you hit the big leagues. Obama did it with Jeremiah Wright, openly grappling with the past toxic association, owning it, explaining it. Paul has not had the wherewithal or presence of mind to do that. Indeed, he has not even named the association, the first step to disowning it. And unlike Obama with Wright, Paul got money from these newsletters."

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of Ron Paul’s populist appeal – his extreme libertarianism suggests a dystopian fantasy, the gold standard he advocates is nuts and the non-interventionism he preaches sounds more like head-in-the-sand isolationism – but still, I used to find much to admire about the guy. Paleo-curmudgeon tendencies notwithstanding, he’s not the kind of guy you’d ever expect to be taking a payment under the table and that is something that ought to matter. And it’s never a fair thing to judge a candidate by the excesses of his nuttiest supporters, but that’s not quite what’s happening here.  It’s not as if Paul is being called to answer for comments made by a random associate or a drinking buddy from his youth. Paul is responsible for his own publications. If all he was guilty of was negligent supervision, that would be serious enough to raise questions about the competency of a man seeking the highest office in our nation.

For Time's Joe Klein, the issue is crystal clear:  “The newsletters went out under his name. They are replete with hateful filth. They disqualify him from the presidency. The idea that someone else wrote them and Paul didn’t read them is utter nonsense–even if true, it would be a devastating commentary on Paul’s executive abilities.”

But it’s not just the aspect of negligent oversight. The Ron Paul Revolution promises to end “politics as usual.” But in Ron Paul’s own political life, the 12-term congressman has shown himself to be sufficiently opportunistic to exploit racial division and incendiary bigotry as long as nobody was asking questions… and as long as the checks were rolling in. There’s an arrogant refusal to be held accountable.

All partisans are susceptible to blindness. If we like a candidate, we tend to excuse a certain amount of ugliness and baggage if we think their election will ultimately bring a positive result. That’s especially true of Paul who, even more than Barack Obama in 2008, is regarded by his fervent supporters as a political savior. As libertarian and Paul supporter, Conor Friedersdorf, noted in a bit of eloquent hand-wringing  in The Atlantic, “figuring out what flaws to accept in a candidate is a brutal calculus.” As citizens and voters, we must all engage in this sort of calculus but we should at least do so with our eyes wide open. If you believe America is going down the tubes and if you truly think Ron Paul can fix what is ailing us, you just might conclude that some offensive newsletters written 15 years ago aren’t very important.

But for me, the newsletters, and Paul’s rather embarrassing response to them, are a fair illustration of why Ron Paul is not a good candidate to fix much of anything.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Top 50 Guitarists of All Time


First, the disclaimers. This is a list of my FAVORITE guitarists – not necessarily the best or most technically proficient. I don’t play guitar myself, but guitar playing is at the heart of most of the music I love best.   I’ve neglected certain genres:  classical music, heavy metal, reggae, flamenco and jazz – musical forms that lay claim to some of the most brilliant and artistic guitar playing. The emphasis here is on rock and blues, because it’s the stuff I listen to most.

50. Joe Walsh
Walsh doesn’t just make his guitar sing – he makes it screech, and delightfully so. His distinctive playing is instantly recognizable in memorable riffs (“Life in the Fast Lane”), classic solos (“Hotel California”) and slide guitar (“Rocky Mountain Way”).

49. Elmore James

One of the great delta bluesmen who plugged in and took Chicago by storm, James was renowned for his slide work and powerful playing on tracks like “Dust by Broom” and “The Sky is Crying.”  You can hear his influence on Hendrix, Stevie Ray, Clapton and many other blues and rock guitarists.

48. Richard Thompson

It's easy to overlook the great acoustic guitarists. I was familiar with some of Thompson’s early work with Fairport Convention and the recordings with wife, Linda (especially 1982’s “Shoot Out the Lights”) but I didn’t really appreciate his guitar playing until I heard him play a remarkable acoustic version of The Who’s “Substitute” on a radio program.

47. Jerry Garcia

Jerry Garcia was such a cultural icon that even worshipful Dead Heads sometimes overlook his guitar playing. Best known for the extended improvisational jams for which the band is famous, he also incorporated elements of country, jazz and blues to make a sweet sound very much his own.

46.  Robert Cray

The blues revival of the 1980s was partly owed to the success of Cray’s Strong Persuader, one of the staple albums of my college listening years. He’s a smooth and soulful singer, but what really stands out is his rapid-fire, staccato guitar solos and a sound that’s as clear as a bell.

45. Peter Green

Not everyone remembers early Fleetwood Mac but when you listen to the heavy blues of “Oh Well” or the lovely “Albatross,” you begin to appreciate why Green was regarded as a guitar legend who is still mentioned in the whispered tones reserved for the likes of Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.

44. Jack White

The musical force behind the White Stripes and the Raconteurs, White combines dirty blues with the raw energy of punk and garage rock, to create some of the best sounding rock of the new millennium.

43. Wes Montgomery

I hardly ever listened to jazz guitar but then a friend gave me the CD Smokin’ at the Half Note featuring Wes Montgomery and the Wynton Kelly Trio. I totally get it now.

42. Joe Perry

Aerosmith’s axe-man, is one of the quintessential rock guitarists. Rooted in the blues like his British guitar heroes, Perry is responsible for so many classic riffs.

41. Billy Gibbons

Forget the beards and the MTV videos, what makes ZZ Top is Billy Gibbon’s guitar work - the boogie shuffles, the classic riffs and killer tone.

40. Bruce Springsteen

He won’t make lists for technical proficiency and even die-hard Springsteen fans talk about his songwriting and his stage performance before they mention his guitar-playing. But when Springsteen plays the songs on Darkness on the Edge of Town, his guitar lends a violence that perfectly captures the emotions of the characters and the power of so many of the songs.

39. Dave Davies

As the guitarist for the Kinks, Davies is responsible for some of Rock’s classic riffs (“You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night”) and a use of distortion that influenced countless garage bands and punk rockers.

38. Johnny Marr

Morrissey’s misery may have been the signature feature of The Smiths, but it’s the guitar playing of Johnny Marr that made the songs so striking.

37. Slash

I never had much use for heavy metal or for the hair bands of the 80s but when Guns ‘n Roses came along, they seemed altogether different. The elemental force of their sound grabbed me by the throat. Slash’s guitar work was a big reason why.

36. Angus Young

Sure, the school boy outfits and on-stage antics are pure shtick, but when it comes to AC-DC’s guitarist, what it’s really about is power chords, high energy and ass-kicking solos.

35. Neil Young

No relation to Angus. Neil Young is a strange and unique artist. His acoustic playing and classic songs are impressive enough, but it’s when he’s rocking out with Crazy Horse that he reaches the height of his artistry, tapping into something that’s elemental and, at the same time, not of this world.

34. Neels Cline

Wilco is probably my favorite band of the last decade. As Jeff Tweedy transformed his outfit from a very good alt-country group into a truly great band, the guitar playing of Neels Cline became part of that evolution. A player of great versatility and power, he’s equally at home playing avant-garde jazz, dissonant noise rock and tasty pop-rock licks.

33. T. Bone Walker

Few bluesmen made a greater mark on rock guitar than T-Bone Walker, who recorded classic tracks, played a signature Texas shuffle and pretty much defined the guitar solo.

32. J. Mascis

The front man for alternative rock outfit, Dinosaur Jr, Macis is responsible for some of the most ferocious sounding guitar rock of the late 1980s and 90s.

31. Mike Campbell

Guitar World Magazine paid the ultimate tribute to Tom Petty's guitarist: “there are only a handful of guitarists who can claim to have never wasted a note. Mike Campbell is certainly one of them".

30. Stone Gossard/Mike McCready

I cheated here by choosing both of Pearl Jam’s guitarists. Gossard’s rhythmic riffs, and McCready’s shredding solos are both so integral to the sound that I can hardly imagine one without the other.

29. Nils Lofgren

Best known as one of Springsteen’s sidemen, Lofgren got his start with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. He’s equally accomplished at delicate finger picking, soulful slide guitar and fret board pyrotechnics.

28. Robbie Robertson

Robbie’s tasty playing with the Band is, for me, essential listening. And when Bob Dylan unleashed his electric rock sound to an unprepared folky audience, Robbie helped Dylan make history. Spine-tingling stuff.

27. Albert King

Along with B.B. and Freddy, Albert was one of the three great “King” bluesmen. An expressive and understated player, his “Born Under a Bad Sign” is of the greatest guitar albums of all time.

26. Brian May

Queen’s guitarist is a great technician and his harmonics and timeless solos were a crucial part of the band’s power and signature sound.

25.  Mick Taylor

A great English blues guitarist and member of John Mayhall’s Blues Breakers. He’s best known as a former member of the Rolling Stones from 1969-74 and it’s not an accident that the Stones recorded their best albums during that period.

24. Kurt Cobain

When magazines like Rolling Stone put Kurt Cobain high on their lists, the old school rock fans usually howl. But Cobain deserves his place.  He wasn’t just the creative force behind Nirvana, possibly the best and most influential band of his decade. As a guitarist, his riffs, hooks and tuning helped create the grunge sound.

23. David Gilmour

Many Pink Floyd fans insist that Roger Waters was the greater creative force in the band. But what I like best about Pink Floyd is the emotional expression in Gilmour’s playing.

 22. Eddie Van Halen

When I was growing up, every kid who picked up a guitar wanted to sound like Eddie Van Halen. For good reason.

21. Jeff Beck

Beck is a guitarist’s guitarist. Folks who play guitar tend to rank him higher.  His playing with the Yardbirds and Rod Stewart is what’s most familiar to your average rock listener. But his 1970s solo work (“Blow by Blow”) is probably the better measure of his artistic and technical prowess.

20. George Harrison

To be fair, the quiet Beatle was one of three very good guitar players in his band. But his playing – the rockabilly in the early years, the jangly sound, his excellent slide guitar and exploration of Eastern sounds on the late albums - stand out as the most lyrical and distinctive. His influence is massive.

19. Dicky Betts

Twin guitar harmonics, mind-bending solos and blues-based jamming are staples of the Allman Brothers Band, the group that pretty much invented Southern Rock. After Duane Allman died, Dicky Betts created some of the Allman’s most melodic guitar work.

18. Roy Buchanan

Never really famous, Buchanan was one of those blues guitarists revered by other great guitarists. I was determined to find out why. So I picked up his two-disc Anthology and was blown away by the power and range of emotion.

17.  Ry Cooder

The eclectic Cooder is a session man extraordinaire (from the Rolling Stones to John Hiatt), an expositor of world music and a terrific slide guitarist. Check out 1972’s Boomer’s Story and his LA concept album, Chavez Ravine.

16. Carlos Santana

Such a rich and fascinating career fusing different musical styles but what always emerges when you listen is a passionate guitar sound that is entirely his own.

15. The Edge

His distinctive playing gives U2 its unique sound. He's an innovator, making creative use of delay and digital technology, but it’s his sense of rhythm and feel is that really drives the music.

14. B.B. King

Iconic. B.B. King established a sort of prototype for what a blues guitarist should sound like and look like.  Never bothering with chords, he’s the master at putting everything into each note.

13. Keith Richards

The heart of the Rolling Stones.

12. Buddy Guy

Clapton called him the greatest living guitarist, but please don’t take his word for it (or mine). Just listen. Try his older classics and his 1990s comeback album (Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues.)

11. Steve Cropper

The ultimate soul guitarist and house band accompaniest, Cropper’s work with Booker T and the MGs and Stax Volt artists (Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Picket, etc.) is definitive. He always manages to find the right groove and play licks that are perfect for the song.

10. Pete Townshend

John Hiatt put it well: “It breaks my heart to see those stars, smashing a perfectly good guitar.” But Pete Townshend’s episodes of guitaricide were more than showmanship – the destruction matched the ferocity and nihilistic energy of the Who’s music. More importantly, Townshend was the king of the power chord, a great rhythm player and author of some of rock’s enduring anthems. (“Pinball Wizard” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” etc.)

 9. Django Reinhardt

The Belgian born Gypsy Jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt, could be the most influential guitarist of all time. I can listen to him all day.

8. Chuck Berry

It’s really this simple: Without Chuck Berry, rock and roll, as we know it, would not exist.

7. Duane Allman

Regarded by some as the best slide-guitarist of all time, Allman’s playing on “At Fillmore East” and with Derek and the Dominos is some of the greatest music ever played by any mortal.

6.  Robert Johnson

It’s not just the immeasurable influence he’s had on the guitarists who followed. Rock fans of today appreciate the influence and love the Robert Johnson mythology (the deal with the devil at the Crossroads) but many don’t actually find the recordings all that listenable. I find them thrilling. The first thing you notice is the emotional power - deep and haunting. And then you realize that something crazy is happening on the strings. You’d swear there were two guitars being played. It’s enough to make you wonder what really did happen at the Crossroads.

5. Steve Ray Vaughan

Critics used to knock him as a Hendrix rip-off artist. And if that was ALL he was, he’d still deserve to be regarded as one of the greatest guitarists ever. But the Texas blues he played with Double Trouble stands on its own brilliance. He would have amazed even Hendrix.

4. Mark Knopfler

I fell in love with his playing the very first time I heard “Sultans of Swing” on the radio. With Dire Straits, he created a distinctive sound that incorporated elements of classical guitar into majestic themes for rock anthems. His solo albums feature more understated playing and exploration into folk, country and Gaelic traditions, but his playing remains lovely, expressive and unique.

3. Eric Clapton

For sheer brilliance, I’m not sure he’s ever surpassed Layla and other Assorted Love Songs recorded over 40 years ago. But let’s suppose he had he died tragically in 1970 (the year Hendrix died). He’d by judged by Layla, his work with the Yardbirds, John Mayhall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, Delaney & Bonne, and his first (and arguably, best) solo-album. In other words, he’d be worshipped as a rock god and one of the greatest guitarists of all time. So let’s not penalize him for being a survivor. And some of his solo-albums are pretty damn good (461 Ocean Boulevard, Journeyman, From the Cradle). He makes it look so easy but can still blow you away.

2. Jimmy Page

The classic solos, the killer riffs, the heavy blues, the kick-ass tone, the manic energy, the timeless songs. Led Zeppelin’s guitarist was a force of nature.

1. Jimi Hendrix

No apologies for the obvious choice. Virtuosity, emotion, innovation, influence, pyrotechnics (literally), showmanship and great songs. Hendrix had it all and did it all before his 28th birthday. My favorite album just might be the posthumous Blues compilation released in 1994. Usually posthumous collections repackage what you’ve already heard in a cynical effort to squeeze more money from an adoring public. This one is different. Just when you think you’ve experienced the depth of Hendrix’s artistry, here was an album that went even deeper.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How Not to Remember 9/11


If you don’t feel like reading this, I understand.

I’m one of those people who sought to avoid all media coverage on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I stayed off the Internet. No radio. The only television I watched was the Giants-Redskins game but I purposefully tuned in late to be sure that I missed the pregame ceremonies. Not interested.

It’s not that I’m denial of the significance of 9/11. I certainly recognize the importance of remembrance, of communal ceremony and the need of individuals to react and express themselves (as I’m doing here), to share their memories and derive meaning from the day when the world, and everything we thought we knew about it, changed forever. And then there are the young people. College freshmen were 8 years old when we were attacked. Junior high school students have no memory of 9/11 at all. Education, commemoration and healing are all legitimate reasons for public ceremony and the sharing of memories.

But I’m a New Yorker. I don’t have a New York City address anymore but I did for ten years. In 2001, I lived in Brooklyn and worked in Manhattan. Nothing about the stories, memories and reflections of other people – even the poignant accounts of family members of victims - can make that day any more vivid or meaningful for me. I don’t begrudge anyone who wishes to partake in the ceremonies or to immerse themselves in the sea of media coverage. For some, this public sharing of various emotions – grief, anger, inspiration, pride – is cathartic and lends meaning to their remembrance of the day. But it’s not for everyone.

I ignored the media coverage not to escape memory or pain, but to avoid the inevitable preaching. I have no wish to be reminded to “never forget.” For me, as for most New Yorkers, the notion that such a message might even be necessary borders on the absurd. No public ceremony or public interest story can have a greater impact on me than the simple act of pausing for a moment outside of a New York City fire station or my countless glimpses of the vacant skyline. But I also wanted to avoid the baggage - the fetishizing of 9/11 by the media, the messaging of politicians and even the many well-meaning folks who regard 9/11 as a bumper sticker. (You have Facebook friends who do this – you know you do).

Here’s what I also wanted to avoid:

• Public squabbling over who should and who shouldn’t be taking part in the ceremony at Ground Zero.

• Anti-war protesters who utilize such occasions to condemn the killing of civilians by the U.S. military.

• Mawkish sentimentality.

• Politicians.

• Clergy.

• The bashing of George W. Bush and the praising of Barack Obama.

• The bashing of Barack Obama and the praising of George W. Bush.

• The crackpots who would have us believe that 9/11 was an “inside job.”

• The crackpots who would have us believe that 9/11 is the prelude to “The Rapture.”

• The debate over the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

I’m opposed to the effort to have 9/11 designated an official national holiday. Here’s one reason why (it’s an obvious one, but it’s one that people don’t like to talk about): What are we going to do the next time we are attacked? What if it’s worse? Will we create more holidays?

And do we really honor the memory of the victims by closing down businesses and government offices? I don’t think so. We run the risk of turning 9/11 into a sort of national religion where your individual patriotism is measured by your public display of 9/11 piety – essentially by the kind of show you put on. Or we might go to the opposite extreme and extend the summer season with another 3-day weekend, marking the occasion with family picnics, long weekends at the beach and scheduling of sporting events. Both scenarios – the sacred and the profane - strike me as distasteful.

What should we do? People need to remember and mark the occasion in their own way. But if it were up to me (and it is) here’s what I will do on 9/11 in the future. If I feel compelled to tune in or participate in a ceremony or moment of silence, it will be a short and dignified one. I will call my loved ones. I will take a few minutes out of the day to reflect on what was lost on that day and think about the things that matter most. And then get back to it.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Republican Evolution

At a Republican primary debate in 2007, John McCain was asked to give a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether he believed in evolution.

“Yes,” he said, without hesitation. 

The remaining candidates were then asked to raise a hand if they disagreed and did not believe in evolution. Several hands went right up. Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback and Tom Tancredo identified themselves as proud creationists who did not accept the scientific theory of evolution. (Later, Ron Paul explained that he too denied evolution. He would have raised his hand but he didn’t hear the question correctly).

It was a depressing display. I’m not a Republican but I took no pleasure in this backward race to the bottom - a sordid competition to see which candidate could go the furthest spouting nonsense and pandering to the ignorant. I'm old fashioned enough to actually think that we are best served as citizens when the respective parties actually put forth the best and more capable candidates. But I could take solace in the fact that four years ago, the majority of the leading Republican candidates actually kept their hands down. John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson were not about to declare that they reject basic science or the foundation of modern biology. Presumably, it’s because they don’t.

Four years later, it’s déjà vu all over again. Except this time around, it’s not just a few fringe Republican candidates who are boasting of their scientific backwardness and stupidity. It’s the entire top-tier.

The winner of last week’s Iowa Straw Poll, was Michelle Bachmann who wants creationism (i.e. “intelligent design”) to be taught in public schools. According to Bachmann, “Evolution is a belief…not a fact.”

Ron Paul finished second in the poll. He does not accept evolution.

Tim Pawlentey finished third and he also supports the teaching of creationism in public schools. (He has since dropped out of the race).

Finishing fourth in the Iowa poll was conservative culture warrior Rick Santorum. Santorum has been cagey on this issue, (possibly because his own church, the Roman Catholic Church, accepts evolution, whereas his political base does not). Santorum has previously stated that so-called Intelligent Design is a “legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in the classroom.” He doesn’t explicitly reject evolution but he refers to it pejoratively as an “ideology” and he has urged schools to “teach the controversy” (whatever that means).

Former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, Herman Cain (5th place), has avoided the topic, but Texas Governor, Rick Perry (6th place), dismisses evolution as “a theory that’s out there.” In response to a young teenager's question, he said, “In Texas we teach both creationism and evolution because I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one is right."

Sure, it’s embarrassing. But does any of it really matter? We’ve got big economic problems, high unemployment, tens of thousands of troops in harm’s way and serious global unrest. Why is it important to know where a Presidential candidate stands on evolution? Should we also test them with questions about geology or algebra? It has even been suggested that asking about evolution is an inappropriate inquiry into a candidate’s religious faith. Well let’s address that last charge first because the constitutional proscription against a religious test for public office is one that we ought to take seriously. But asking a candidate about his or her understanding or acceptance of evolution is NOT a religious test – it’s a test of scientific literacy. And scientific literacy matters.  For one thing, our economic future and competitiveness depends on it.

Yes, we have other challenges and many other problems. But a Presidential candidate who does not accept evolution, the unifying principle of modern biological science, is not fit for the office. For starters, it’s a mark of astonishing ignorance that ought to give any voter pause. It is also suggestive of a lack of commitment to scientific education and scientific achievement. At a time when our nation is lagging behind and is no longer the global leader in research and technological innovation that it once was, we can ill afford a leader who rejects basic science and scientific inquiry. And finally, it suggests a willingness to pander the worst elements of America's right wing Christian fundamentalists.  Such theocratic dominionists don't represent most Christians in the U.S. and they have already had far too much influence for far too long. Being a scientific ignoramus is bad enough. But rejecting basic biology and instead teaching creationism (a religious doctrine not a scientific theory) in our public schools, not only stunts the education of our nation’s children, it plainly violates the First Amendment to our Constitution.

One of the GOP candidates who has intrigued and even impressed me is Jon Huntsman, Jr., the former Governor of Utah and, until recently, the U.S. ambassador to China. Last week, Huntsman tweeted the following  response to Rick Perry’s dismissal of evolution and climate change: “To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

This tweet was the opposite of crazy. It was refreshingly sane.  But from someone who is seeking the Republican nomination for President in 2012, it may also have been political suicide. I hope I’m wrong.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Buffalo Shuffle

We hold these truths to be self-evident...

Mark Grisanti is the state legislator from Buffalo who cast the deciding vote approving same-sex marriage in New York State. He is also one of four Republican Senators who broke with his party to vote in favor of the bill. Without the Republican votes, the law would not have passed. This means that Grisanti is either a hero of conscience or an apostate and opportunistic sell-out, depending on where you happen to stand on same-sex marriage.

In my view, there is only one place to stand on this issue. Marriage equality is a matter of basic fairness and was long overdue. But there is something about the rush to make a hero of Grisanti that didn’t sit right with me. Before voting in the affirmative, Grisanti delivered a speech on the Senate floor and in it, he explained why he changed his mind about same-sex marriage. He was raised Catholic and had always believed that marriage could only be between a man and a woman but upon studying the matter carefully, he had changed his view. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart lavished heaps of praise on Grisanti for his courage and the speech has become something of You Tube sensation.

I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s pride parade, but I wasn’t that impressed with Grisanti’s speech. At least, that was my first reaction. He appeared to fumble a bit as he repeated prepared phrases several times (“a man can be wiser today then yesterday…”). I found myself appreciating his vote more than his speech. And I suppose I’m reluctant to credit politicians with courage or heroism simply for changing their mind to the position that I hold. Do we credit elected officials whenever they follow their conscience and appear to take a principled stand? Of course not. We only do so when we agree with their stand.

It’s not as if Grisanti is taking an unpopular position. New Yorkers favor same-sex marriage by a wide margin. (To be fair, I don’t know how the issue polls in Grisanti’s own district). He says his vote might be “political suicide” but this strikes me as bravado. It’s just as likely that this vote will be the making of him. The last state legislator to receive this much national attention was a young state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.

And if Grisanti is hero of conscience for reversing himself and officially supporting same-sex marriage, does that make President Obama a coward for not doing so? Most people believe that Obama supports same-sex marriage but can’t say so directly because of the political consequences. If you like Obama, you’re likely to excuse such pragmatism. If you don’t, you’re not. Doesn’t it work that way for all elected officials? Is Grisanti really so different?

But upon listening to Grisanti’s speech a second time (this time holding cynicism in check), two things stood out. First, he appeals to his training as a lawyer. He refers to his extensive research and the application of reason. “I cannot legally come up with an argument against same-sex marriage,” declared Grisanti. Proponents of same-sex marriage take this point for granted. They shouldn't. The familiar arguments against gay marriage (“Marriage is about procreation,” “the word marriage has a definition” “next people will be marrying their pets,” etc.) are based in either emotional reaction or religious authority. These arguments all crumble away before the light of reason. It was refreshing to hear it said on the Senate floor.

I also think that Grisanti’s speech resonates with people because in some ways, his change in attitude on same-sex marriage is illustrative of the way the public’s views have also changed. This moment was barely conceivable a few decades ago. Everyone of my generation was brought up to believe that marriage was something that only took place between a man and a woman. There is an evolution here that proceeds in roughly four stages:

Stage One. “****ing fagots!” Derision of gays is expected.

Stage Two. “I don’t care what they do, so long as they do it in their own bedroom.” Softer bigotry - tolerance within limits.

Stage Three. “OK, gay couples should have legal protections but marriage is between a man and a woman.” An empathetic ‘separate but equal’.

Stage Four. “Did you hear? Tony is bringing Steve to Thanksgiving dinner.”

Ultimately, what brings people around on this issue isn’t an extensive legal analysis. The argument for marriage equality has already been made and made very well by conservatives, Andrew Sullivan (who is gay) and Ted Olson (who is not). But what persuades people more than these arguments is actually knowing people who are gay and recognizing that they have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else.

Wherever his journey has taken him, in the end, Grisanti arrived at a position that was thoughtful, rational and just. That’s as much heroism as anyone has a right to expect in an elected official.

Happy Independence Day.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Farewell Clarence

Well, they made a change uptown. The Big Man has left us.

The loss of Clarence Clemons, at the age of 69, leaves a gaping hole in the E Street Band and in the hearts of Springsteen Nation. The tributes online have been warm and generous. As usual, Clarence is described in legendary terms. His influence on Springsteen was “transcendental.” He was larger than life, the band’s talisman. When Springsteen introduced the band on stage, Clarence was introduced last. The Big Man always got the biggest applause. More than a band mate, he was a soul mate. And for the fans, he was a massive presence. Even when he didn’t play much saxophone, it was reassuring to see him on the stage. He was a fixture, elemental to the band's identity and to the fan’s experience.

Because Clarence was such a perfect stage foil to Springsteen, his actual musical contributions are sometimes overlooked. He wasn’t the most accomplished musician in the E Street band, but his saxophone solos are an indispensible part of the band’s sound and Springsteen's greatest songs. There are detractors who saw him as part of a formula – get a big black guy with stage presence who can fill gaps in rock songs with sentimental sounding sax solos. Springsteen fans know better. There’s soul in those notes. Yeah, they can find someone else to play the parts, but Clarence MADE those parts.

And so, in the tradition of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, let’s honor Clarence Clemons with a list of his 10 greatest Springsteen sax solos:

10. The Ties that Bind

The opening track of The River. During the bridge, Bruce sings about feeling the hurt inside. Then Clarence delivers the release.

9. Trapped

The E Street Band started playing this Jimmy Cliff song on the Born in the USA tour. Being trapped never sounded so joyful.

8. Spirit in the Night

Not merely a soloist, Clarence plays the melody here, his tenor sax providing the heartbeat of the characters in the telling of this magical night.

7. Prove it All Night

A simple enough solo, it’s the perfect lead-up to the searing guitar that follows.

6. Bobby Jean

In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s character talks about this one: “And then one of those sax solos comes in and you get goose pimples, if you like sax solos.”

Well, I do.

5. Drive All Night

Gentle and soothing, the perfect part for this underrated track.

4. Thunder Road

It’s more of a coda than a solo, but it’s one of the most joyous things ever recorded.

3. Badlands

It’s a short simple solo that basically punctuates the main melody. But it’s a wonderful moment. Hearing it live, you stand at attention, completely absorbed.

2. Born to Run

A classic solo that runs with the fevered energy of Springsteen's most famous anthem.  Another blogger put it best: “That thing is the sound of freedom.”

1. Jungleland

Epic.  Definitive.  Transcendent.

Thank you, Big Man.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Messi Game

Last Saturday, the world’s greatest soccer player, Lionel Messi, led FC Barcelona to the UEFA Champion’s League title in a convincing 3-1 win over Manchester United. The Champion’s League final is Europe’s version of the Super Bowl. Only it’s bigger. This year’s final match was a true clash of titans. Man U and Barca both have storied histories and massive followings and have been the class of Europe over the past several years. By capturing its 3rd European title in six seasons, Barcelona can legitimately claim to be one of the greatest teams of all time. But more than that, Barca’s win represented an aesthetic triumph of style and skill. Something like beauty.

Soccer fans in Europe and South America (especially Brazil) call their sport, “the Beautiful Game” a name that might seem ironic to soccer haters in the U.S. To be fair, many American skeptics do give soccer a chance every four years. They’ll watch a game or two at the World Cup. They’ll see long-haired foreigners flopping to the ground and kicking each other as often as they kick the ball. They’ll see players moaning in agony at real or imagined injury. They’ll see more yellow cards than shots on goal. They’ll see a 1-0 game decided by questionable refereeing and a penalty kick. And they’ll say “Beautiful Game? Are you kidding me?”

And they have a point. The last few World Cups, though thrilling at times, have delivered more clunkers than gems. It’s not surprising to discover that the best professional clubs often play soccer at a higher level than national teams playing in International Tournaments. When Brazil, Argentina, France or Italy, send a team to the World Cup, it’s a bit like the U.S. sending a basketball team to the Olympics. Some of the player selections are political, the players are often spent, they have little history of playing together, and there is little time to practice. You get a collection of superstars, rather than a truly cohesive team.

But to watch Barcelona is to watch soccer at its finest. When their players have possession of the ball, they rarely lose it. They attack relentlessly with a short, one-touch passing game, constant motion and one daring give-and-go after another. The blend of technical proficiency and sheer artistry is, at times, breathtaking. It’s a style that is embodied in the play of midfielders Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, and above all, Messi. The diminutive Argentine is only 23 but he looks even younger. With his floppy bangs and impish grin, he looks like a slacker skateboard kid. But when the ball is at his feet, he is magic.

Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan author of the elegant Soccer in Sun and Shadow laments the way money and the pressures of winning have all but stamped out the poetry of the game. It’s a complaint that will resonant with fans of other sports too. But in Messi, he sees a shining ray of light.

“No one plays with as much joy as Messi does,” Galeano told the New York Times. “He plays like a child enjoying the pasture, playing for the pleasure of playing, not the duty of winning.” But of course, he also wins.

FC Barcelona’s motto is mas que un club (more than a club). Because soccer fanaticism is a world-wide phenomenon, this motto could well describe any number of teams with a rich history and rabid supporters. But it carries special meaning in Barcelona, where the football club is tied to a certain political or cultural identity and is regarded as the flagship of Catalan nationalism. For decades, under Franco’s rule, Barca became a powerful source of Catalan identity and a vehicle for political expression. (The fascinating history of the club is well-documented in Barca by Jimmy Burns).

The attraction of FC Barcelona extends far beyond Catalonia and Spain. In his book How Soccer Explains the World Franklin Foer, an editor with The New Republic, describes his first visit to Camp Nou, Barca’s stadium, where the museum dedicated to the football club had just opened in 1994. A young American abroad, he marveled at the enthusiasm shown by visitors, young and old, for artifacts and sepia photographs.

“I felt like a nonbeliever watching a religious pilgrimage,” wrote Foer. “And the sheer depth of their faith made me a believer too.”

I know what he means. I had a similar experience when I visited Camp Nou eight years later. When you walk amongst the trophy display cases and old blue and red striped shirts and the ghosts of the stadium, you may as well be walking through a cathedral. You are left with the unshakable feeling that FC Barcelona, no less than Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the Barri Gotic or the Picasso Museum, is a part of the city’s soul. You couldn’t hope to understand one without the other.

But Foer was also drawn to Barca for other reasons. For soccer happy Americans, it’s easy to be enticed by the quality and excitement of European soccer, but it’s more difficult to actually find a team to support. Within every large club, there seems to lurk a strain of xenophobia, racism or nationalistic fervor that strikes an ugly chord. One is drawn to the passion and the energy and the idea that here is a game that actually matters. But there is a dark side to this passion. Under the colorful banner of a club, national and ethnic pride turn easily to chauvinism or worse, especially in the terraces of stadiums where alcohol and unemployment levels run high. But in the blue and red of FC Barcelona, Foer found a balance, between Catalan provincialism and liberal tolerance, between local pride and cosmopolitan openness. This tension produces a unique and creative energy that is an indispensible part of the city of Barcelona itself.

Liberals also love an underdog. Never mind that when Foer visited Camp Nou , Barca was already the second most successful team in the history of Spanish football. Barca’s fans and players all saw Real Madrid’s historic dominance as yet another part of Franco’s oppressive dictatorship. To root for FC Barcelona was to cheer against totalitarianism. No wonder Foer joined the ranks of the blaugrana faithful.

Today, it seems absurd to imagine Barca as an underdog. On the field, they are imperious. They’ve won 21 Spanish League titles including the last three. Only Real Madrid, AC Milan and Liverpool have won more European championships. Like any other giant club, they spend enormous amounts of cash buying international stars (though they still retain a nucleus of local Catalan players – Xavi, Carles Puyol, etc.). And if their fans were merely prideful, these days, they can be arrogant and overbearing. But the way their team plays, I can hardly blame them.

Like Foer, I too became captivated by the style and legacy of FC Barcelona but unlike him, I already had a European team. When I visited London in 1999, I got my first taste of English football. I watched Arsenal play in their old ground, Highbury (which struck me as the Wrigley Field of soccer) and I was hooked. In recent years, Barca has made life difficult for Arsenal, defeating the Gunners in the Champion’s League finals in 2006 and knocking them out of the tournament in each of the past two seasons. A quarterfinal match in April of 2010 saw Barca dismantle Arsenal 4-1 with Messi scoring all four goals. It was the finest display of soccer I have ever seen.

It called to mind Eduardo Galeano, who, as a boy in Montevideo rooted for Nacional. But one day, he found himself admiring the brilliant play of Juan Schiaffino and Julio Abbadie even though they played for the hated cross-city rival, Penarol. Galeano then had a realization:

“I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: “A pretty move, for the love of of God.” And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”



Saturday, March 19, 2011

Bachmann's Burr

Which of the Tea Party politicians is the most unhinged? The most unprincipled? The most dangerous?

Disconcerting as it is, this is a game you can play for hours. But perhaps the strongest candidate in all three categories is Michele Bachmann, the Congresswoman from Minnesota, whose grasp of reality calls to mind not so much her fellow tea-partier, Sarah Palin, but Charlie Sheen.

One hardly knows where to begin. There’s her cartoonish ignorance of basic science, her paranoid fantasies about monetary policy, her rank dishonesty about healthcare and predictably enough, the disgusting charge that her political opponents share the common cause of radical Islamic extremists. Is Bachmann is merely an embarrassment for the Republican Party or is she actually dangerous for the nation? That’s an argument to be had. But either way, she’s proof that in the United States, you can never dumb it down too much, and a train wreck never wants for media attention.

But one recent remark stood out for me. The reason Bachmann became a Republican is because she read a novel, Burr, by Gore Vidal:

“He was kind of mocking the Founding Fathers and I just thought, ‘What a snot,’” she said. “I just remember reading the book, putting it in my lap, looking out the window and thinking, ‘You know what? I don’t think I am a Democrat. I must be a Republican."

That’s some pretty deep political analysis.

I delighted in the remark because Burr is one of my favorite books. It’s exactly what good historical fiction should be. The novel takes revered historical figures, pulls them from their marble pedestals and, drawing on historical research, humanizes them. It tells their story with such verve so that we are spellbound even though we already know most of it.

I find it doubtful that Bachmann actually read the book. More likely, she named Burr because the author, Gore Vidal, is one of those gay elite commie bastards of the left. Now I can hardly blame someone for taking issue with Vidal’s political views. Indeed, some of his more recent anti-government conspiratorial rants have left even liberals scratching their heads, wondering aloud if the old gadfly hasn’t himself become unhinged. But his writing is first rate, most especially, his historical novels, Lincoln (1984) and Burr (1973).

It’s a bit puzzling that any calculating politician would attribute her political awakening to the reading of a novel, much less one she didn’t like. When liberal politicians talk about what made them liberals, they don’t say “Well, I read Atlas Shrugged or The Lord of the Rings and then realized I was a Democrat.” They talk about personal struggles and influential events like the civil rights movement. Similarly, conservative politicians tend to attribute their political origins to real life experiences and to inspirational examples like Ronald Reagan. To the extent, inspiration comes from books, one might expect those books to be written by the likes of Edmund Burke or William F. Buckley. But this quaint notion presumes that an individual’s political ideology is shaped by actual political ideas. Not as a reaction to snotty fiction writers.

But let’s give the representative from Minnesota the benefit of the doubt and assume she actually read the book. What about it offended her? What’s the connection between the novel and her own political identity? Well, according to Bachmann, the book mocks the Founding Fathers. (I have taken care to capitalize the term, lest I too be charged with mocking them). Of course the book does nothing of the kind. But it does present them as three dimensional human beings with the foibles that all humans possess. George Washington is vain and calculating. Alexander Hamilton is ruthlessly ambitious. Thomas Jefferson is charming but duplicitous. Is Bachmann aware that these characterizations come from none other than the Founding Fathers themselves? Gore Vidal is far more generous to these great men than they were to each other.

Needless to say, Bachmann misses the obvious. The defining feature of the book is the unique point of view - telling the story of the American Revolution and early years of the republic through the eyes of the Aaron Burr. The portrayals we see of Washington, Hamilton and Jefferson are the glimpses of men who were Aaron Burr’s political enemies. The great strength of the book is that because it is fiction, it does what only fiction can do - it breathes life into the past by offering a fascinating and unique perspective that cannot be found in history books or any surviving documents.

For Bachmann and her tea partiers, the hagiography of the Founding Fathers is holy writ. The irony is that when it comes to the historical and constitutional foundation of the United States, Bachmann is a staggering ignoramus.

In a speech she gave in January, Bachmann credited the Founding Fathers with abolishing slavery:

“we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.”

This is puzzling news to anyone who paid attention in high school social studies class.

Standing alone, this sort of deceptive half-truth coming from a politician would be unexceptional. What makes it noteworthy in the case of Bachmann is 1) the frequency with which nonsense and dishonesty pours forth from her mouth, and 2) the fact that she claims to revere the Founding Fathers and their vision of America, but doesn't know the most basic facts about American history (much less our Constitution).

Bachmann is now considering a Presidential run. Earlier this month, she addressed a crowd in New Hampshire and said:

“You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord."

Astonishing. Yes, there is a "Concord" in New Hampshire - it's the state capitol. But every elementary school kid learns that Lexington and Concord, where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired, are in Massachusetts. This was no mere speaking gaffe. This was a prepared speech and she repeated the error several times.

It sounds like fiction, but you couldn’t make this stuff up.


Friday, February 11, 2011

Philadelphia, Paris and Cairo: A Tale of Three Cities

As events unfold on the streets of Cairo, many of us still don’t know what to think. Should we be feeling wonder or trepidation? Mubarak’s days are numbered but what comes next? Liberal democracy? Not likely, but perhaps a step in that direction? Is democracy merely the handmaiden for Islamist theocracy? Will the army have the final say? Does one strong-armed autocrat replace another? We don’t know. Political revolutions take on a life of their own. The drama is real and the stakes are enormous.

Historical examples of other nations can only teach us so much but they might teach us something. I’ve been reading a book called Cosmopolitan Patriots by Philipp Ziesche. It’s about the French Revolution as seen through the eyes of Americans who were living in Paris and witnessing the momentous events firsthand, from the storming of the Bastille in 1789 to the seizure of power by Napoleon Bonaparte a decade later, and the great political upheaval in between. These Americans – including Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Gouverneur Morris, James Monroe – had their own ideas about revolution and nation-building. In 1789, the ink on the U.S. Constitution wasn’t even dry.

In the beginning, the Americans in Paris embraced the French Revolution wholeheartedly. They saw it as an extension of their own revolutionary experiment in self-government, but they had no way of knowing how things would turn out. Even Jefferson, probably the most fervent American supporter of revolution in France, didn’t initially hope for more than a constitutional monarchy. These cosmopolitan American ambassadors did not support anything like “democracy” as we understand the term today. Democracy was understood as mob rule and chaos. It was equated with a breakdown in the social and moral order.

When Jefferson returned to the newly formed United States in late 1789, he was practically giddy about the prospects for revolution in France. But then, Jefferson had seen none of the violence. His replacement, the new U.S. minister to France was the well-heeled New Yorker, Gouverneur Morris, surely one of the more underrated Founding Fathers. Morris is most famous for his role in drafting the Constitution and, in particular, for adding the phrase “We the People.” Even the conservative Morris clearly understood that sovereignty, the very authority to govern, resided in the People.

By 1792, the streets of Paris turned bloody and heads began to roll, literally. (Thomas Paine almost lost his own.) In the first two weeks of September, more than a thousand prisoners were massacred by Jacobin radicals. Morris witnessed these events and, in a letter to Jefferson, he described the killing of a noblewoman, Madame de Lamballe, by a Parisian mob. He noted that her head and entrails were paraded through the street on pikes and her body was dragged after them. (Power to the people? Sounds fine. But THOSE people? On second thought…) Seeing a revolution up close can have a way of cooling the passions for change.

Last week, the demonstrations in Cairo took a bloody turn. The blame is generally placed on Mubarak who evidently didn’t get the memo announcing: The tides of history are against you! Please step down so that an orderly transition of power can be arranged! By cracking down on the demonstrations and the media’s coverage of them, Mubarak and his supporters are only delaying the inevitable. What’s more, they showed the world what many Egyptians have experienced for years – the blunt inclination of an autocrat to crush dissent. How could Mubarak be so foolish? So tone-deaf?  That’s what it is to be a dictator. But sometimes the devil that you know is better than the one that you don’t. Imperfect order is preferable to perfect chaos. That’s the argument in defense of Mubarak. It’s credible to a point, but it isn’t nearly enough. Events have pushed things too far.

Cairo, 2011 is not like Paris, 1789 or, for that matter, Berlin, 1989. The forces of revolution and reaction aren’t truly comparable. Could this be like Tehran in 1979? Yesterday happened to mark the 32nd anniversary of Iran’s Islamic revolution. Superficially at least, the Iranian example seems instructive – a secular autocrat, backed by the West, overthrown by a popular movement. But there’s good reason to think that Tehran isn’t the right example either. For one thing, Egypt is not Iran. While there is a long history of Islamist activity within Egypt, there is no galvanizing clerical figure in Egypt comparable to the Ayatollah Khomeini. Perhaps more importantly, 2011 is not 1979. Unlike the Iranians of 1979, Egyptians have the Internet (or at least they did before Mubarak’s crackdown). Facebook, Twitter, smartphones and satellite television mean that authority figures can’t control or filter information the way they once did. The revolution will not only be televised – it will be tweeted.

These communication technologies can have a democratizing effect but democracy is no guarantee of a liberal government or good result. One of the greatest foreign policy mistakes the U.S. has made in recent years was to promote “democracy” without adequately supporting the architecture that enables democracy to safeguard basic human rights. As if the mere holding of elections will somehow change what’s broken in a corrupt and backward political and economic system.

Here, the lessons of the U.S. founders are instructive. They created the United States as a constitutional republic and not as a democracy.  The distinction meant a great deal to them. Democracy amounts to elections and majority rule – it is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. But a republic includes constitutional protections, rights for minorities, an independent judiciary and a balance of power. The word “republic” seems quaint now. For many years, we referred to the free nations of the west as liberal democracies. The adjective "liberal" signalled a certain kind of democracy - one with constitutional provisions and a commitment to the political ideals of the Enlightenment.  But now the word has been swallowed up by partisan politics and is most often used either defensively or as a pejorative. Meaning becomes diluted. Now we hear “democracy” and we decide that’s a good thing but we don’t bother to make the distinctions that were so important to the founders.

The fear is that Egypt will go radical and the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological forbearers of both Al-Qaeda and Hamas, will rise to power. Or that chaos will reign, resulting in a much bloodier crackdown and Egypt will end up exactly where it was – with a strongman ruling the nation by force. We will be reminded that Mubarak, for all of his faults, at least kept the Muslim Brotherhood from the levers of power. Of course he did this by outlawing the Brotherhood, torturing their leaders and tossing their members in prison. But he tosses lots of other people in jail for the crime of political dissent. Those jailed have included Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egypt’s leading human rights advocate and Ayman Nour, a political opponent who champions a democratic movement that is neither Islamist nor autocratic. In the U.S., we often hear politicians and commentators ask “Why are there so few moderates in the Islamic world?” Well, it’s worth considering that at least some of them have been rotting in Mubarak’s jails.

Students of political science and European history learn that there are different theories of the social contract, that famous principle of the Enlightenment which explains government's legitimacy. Government authority comes from the consent of the governed. The concept was popularized by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, but his particular version provided the justification for monarchy and absolute rule. Another variation on the social contract was devised a century later by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, although the populism inherent within his version is blamed for the excesses of the French Revolution. In the United States, it has been the social contract theory of John Locke that is most often celebrated because of its emphasis on natural rights and individual liberty.

How does social contract theory apply to Egypt and the Muslim world? Does it apply? Reformers and critics alike have noted that the Islamic world has not experienced anything like a philosophical or cultural movement like Europe’s Enlightenment. Whether this is because of the severity of Islam’s religious doctrine or because of other political or cultural developments within the Islamic world is a favorite subject of historical debate. But it is fair to say that in Islam, government authority does NOT come from the consent of the governed, but only from Allah. This poses quite a challenge for Islamic reformers and legal scholars, like UCLA professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, who strive to reconcile Islamic faith with individual rights and popular sovereignty.

There are skeptics who don’t think meaningful democracy can succeed in the Islamic world. There are still others who don’t want it to. But what is widely agreed upon – by critics and supporters alike – is that what the Islamic world needs is a reformation on a large scale. Given the reality of terrorism in the nuclear age and the threat that failed states pose to the global order, we need this reformation too. What if THIS is it? Sure, political revolution is a risky proposition. If it goes badly, it might fuel terrorism, pose a threat to Israel, spread chaos throughout the region and crush the hopes of millions of Egyptians. But what is the alternative? To support a regime that denies basic human rights? Can we rationalize the fixed elections and suppression of free expression by telling ourselves that the worst of the Islamist radicals are held in check? (Is that even true?) Shall we make the condescending excuse that the people of Egypt cannot handle freedom? What is the price for supporting the status quo? What is the cost of being on the wrong side of history? Talk about risky.

But the reality is that we are bystanders. President Obama and other world leaders have called for Mubarak to step down. They seek an orderly transition of power, but do they have the ability to shape events on the streets of Cairo? The likely successor, Vice President Omar Suleiman, is seen by some Egyptians as just another Mubarak. He is also the commander of Egypt’s military. Mubarak, who was expected to resign, announced yesterday that he wasn’t ready to do so. Victory celebrations in Tahrir Square turned to demonstrations of outrage.

Cairo, the city of a thousand minarets, is a massive place. Each day now there are many peaceful protests and great showings of solidarity. There is also anger and tension, clashes with police and roving gangs of looters in the streets. Tanks and armored military vehicles are on stand-by. Today, millions have gathered in Tahrir Square to answer the Friday call for prayer. One suspects that this is still the beginning. The world holds its breath.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Day the Music Died

Today marks the 52nd anniversary of the plane crash that killed rock n roll legends and pioneers, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. The story of the crash and the meteoric lives of the ill-fated musicians on board have been shown in film in The Buddy Holly Story and La Bamba. But it was Don McLean’s song, American Pie, that did the most to immortalize this tragedy in art and it was McLean who coined February 3rd as “the day the music died.”

American Pie was one of the first pop songs that I can remember singing as a child. My dad taught me the lyrics to the chorus and I especially delighted in the rhyming of “Chevy” with “levee.” This was also an educational experience - it was because of this song that I learned what a “levee” was (we had no rivers or dikes on Long Island) and that “rye” was something that you drank. But I didn’t understand much about the song and when I marched around the kitchen cheerfully singing, “This’ll be the day that I die,” I wasn’t aware of the nod to Buddy Holly’s That’ll be the Day.

 American Pie has become one of the most analyzed songs in the history of popular music. It’s famous for its many references and allusions to musicians and events of the rock n roll decade. The February 3rd plane crash is simply the most obvious one, and of course it’s the event that kicks off the narrator's tale. For years, music critics and fans have discussed and debated the meaning of the lyrics. Is the “jester on the sideline” Bob Dylan? What about the marching band? Is McLean making a reference to Kent State? Altamont? Are the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost a reference to Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper? Or is the narrator talking about a more personal loss of faith?

Don McClean has been refreshingly tight-lipped about the meaning of his lyrics. (Supposedly, when asked what the song means, McClean replied "It means I never have to work again.”) But that’s how it should be when an artist creates a work. He’s already said what he’s had to say. That’s what the song is for. Still, we listeners can’t help ourselves and we’ve imbued the song with the importance of a Homeric epic. Like any epic poem, it’s a song about many things: music, love, the birth of rock n roll, the loss of innocence, the coming of age of a generation – all woven together in a melodic strum-along tapestry.

It seems somehow strange to think that McClean’s song was released in 1971, just 12 years after the fateful plane crash. He was fourteen years old when he heard about the tragedy (apparently, he really did have a paper route) and was 26 when he released American Pie. In cultural terms, the span between 1959 and 1971 seems massive. But 1959 was as near to McClean in 1971 as 1999 is to us today. For me, at least, 1999 seems like yesterday. Remember 1999? Some people thought the world was about to end. Don’t they always?


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

To Hell with Blasphemy


“It is clear that blasphemy, which is a sin committed directly against God, is more grave than murder" - Thomas Aquinas

I just finished watching the first season of The Tudors on DVD. It has some problems. For one thing, it’s a trashy bodice-buster (the series could have been called, Kings Behaving Badly). It also suffers from historical inaccuracy and too many of its characters are paper-thin. But if you like a dramatic period piece, there’s enough to maintain interest. They do a nice job of weaving the historical events of Europe with the personal ambitions of the characters, most notably in the connection between the Protestant Reformation and Henry VIII’s passion for Anne Boleyn. Anne is a bit like Helen of Troy. Instead of launching a thousand ships, she, by arousing Henry’s lust, launches England into its break with the Catholic Church, changing forever the course of European (and American) history. What I find most interesting about The Tudors is its portrayal of religion at this pivotal moment in 16th century England.

In the last episode, the newly-appointed Lord Chancellor, Thomas More, announces that he will vigorously defend the true faith from the growing Lutheran heresy. In a powerful and disturbing scene, More (played by Jeremy Northam) watches as a heretic condemned for blasphemy is burned alive at the stake. More stares intently as the flames consume the screaming man as if he is fascinated by the chemistry experiment, the combination of flame and human flesh. That he is carrying out God’s justice is never in doubt. Years later, Thomas More, would be venerated by the Church for his own martyrdom, and he was regarded as a learned, principled and compassionate man even in his own day. It says a lot about how far we’ve come. Back then, even a “humanist” would have no hesitation in concluding that a person who believed the wrong thing about God deserved to die in flames. For what is the agony of one man when compared to the eternal torment of the multitudes who might be infected by such heresy?

But have we really come so far? On the same day I watched this entertaining television program, I learned about the civil unrest in Pakistan over its blasphemy laws. In Pakistan, the world’s largest Islamic nation, an insult to Islam or defamation of the Holy Prophet may be punishable by death. This isn’t simply the case of an anachronistic law remaining on the books in a traditional society (like a law which criminalizes adultery in Virginia).  Blasphemy has been in the news because in November, Asia Bibi, a 45-year-old Christian woman, an agricultural worker, had been sentenced to death for blasphemy. Unlike the heretics convicted in Thomas More’s England, this woman published no incendiary pamphlets, preached no doctrine and criticized no religious authority. Her particular offense was the touching of a drinking bowl that was being used by Muslim co-workers. Judging by the reaction, you’d think she drew a cartoon.

Reformers and human rights activists, embarrassed and outraged by the harshness of such laws, have been trying to repeal or change them for some time now, but with no success. Although judicial convictions for blasphemy have not resulted in any state executions (in Pakistan, at least), the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has documented dozens of cases where the mere accusation of blasphemy has led to murder and false arrests of Christians and more often, members of minority sects within Islam. The Asia Bibi case has drawn considerable international attention and there has been pressure both within Pakistan and without to free the woman and to amend the laws. Pope Benedict XVI has weighed in and called for authorities to free the Christian woman. A reform bill was brought before Pakistan's Parliament. The bill did not call for the repeal of the blasphemy law, but it did eliminate the death penalty and called for some procedural safeguards against miscarriages of justice. It looked as if the reformers finally had some momentum.

What followed in Pakistan on Friday, December 31st was remarkable and every bit as disturbing as the burning of heretics by zealous inquisitors. Thousands of Pakistanis took the streets to protest any possible change to the nation’s blasphemy laws. Religious leaders called for a general strike, forcing businesses to close. Rallies were staged in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta. Karachi, a city of 13 million people was brought to a standstill and the police fired tear gas to stop protesters from marching on a residence of President Asif Ali Zadari. One Sunni cleric in Islamabad warned in his Friday sermon that any change to the blasphemy law would happen "over our dead bodies." To some religious Muslims, it is THAT important that such insults be punishable by death.

Does this kind of bullying and street politics on the part of religious extremists actually work? You bet it does. Within hours of the rallies, government officials were already distancing themselves from any bill or proposal to change the blasphemy laws. I imagine they'll figure out a way to pardon this poor woman and allow her to flee Pakistan to a place where, if she’s careful and sufficiently obscure, she should be able to handle as many water bowls as she likes. But don’t expect changes anytime soon to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws or to the culture of terror and intimidation that such laws engender.

Do these radical Islamists constitute a majority in Pakistan? Surely not, but their numbers and influence are sufficient that they can hijack the majority and get their way in an already unstable political regime. This time, the extremists left nothing to chance. One of their enemies and a prominent advocate for changing the law was Salman Taseer the Governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province. In November, Taseer said: "The blasphemy law is not a God-made law. It's a man-made law," he said. "... It's a law that gives an excuse to extremists and reactionaries to target weak people and minorities.” Yesterday, Taseer was shot to death by his own security guard.

Why did the guard do it? Because, he told the police while in custody, Taseer "did blasphemy of the Prophet Mohammed." Let’s consider the mentality here. To express an incorrect religious view or to offend Islam is to defame the Holy Prophet.  This is a crime punishable by the state and punishable by death. And to propose any change to this law is also to insult the Holy Prophet. How does one combat such a mentality?

In the West, people tend to agree that criminalizing attitudes about religion is a bad idea. In the United States of America we go even further to protect freedom of conscience. Under our Constitution, the state can play no role in the establishment or endorsement of any religion or religious view. Any law seeking to criminalize blasphemy violates our First Amendment. This secular formula has fostered both freedom and prosperity. We didn’t arrive at this moment overnight. It was a long struggle and, as any look at European history will tell you, it was a bloody one.

It is often said that what the Islamic world needs is its own Reformation and its own Enlightenment. But the theology of Islam and the present conditions of the Islamic world make it difficult to identify potential catalysts for that kind of sweeping change. We don’t see a Martin Luther, a Henry VIII or an Anne Boleyn (maybe in a burka?)  And we can’t readily identify the sort of Enlightenment figures who would play the role of Montesquieu, John Locke or John Stuart Mill. These observations may cause us to simply throw up our hands, ignore world events and take smug comfort in the superiority of the West. We shouldn’t.

For one thing, the killing of the Governor of Punjab serves as a reminder that there are indeed individuals (and Muslims at that) willing to risk their lives for change and reform within Islamic society. Following the assassination of Taseer, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti told CNN. "I will campaign for this... these fanatics cannot stop me from moving any further steps against the misuse of (the) blasphemy law." When asked if he feared for his own life, Bhatti acknowledged that he has received many threats, but he said “I am ready to sacrifice my life for the principled stand I have taken because the people of Pakistan are being victimized under the pretense of blasphemy law." This is courage. As a nation that purports to champion freedom, we ought to acknowledge it and support it.*

We should also not make the mistake of thinking that this stuff is none of our business. If 9/11 has taught us anything, it taught us that the world is a much smaller place than we might wish it to be. Political instability and religious fanaticism in central Asia impacts our security, our interests, our good relations with other nations and it directly affects our ability to combat global terrorism. And blasphemy laws aren’t confined to “backwards” nations from those scary parts of the world.  Blasphemy is a criminal offense in Ireland. No, you won’t be sentenced to death, but you may be slapped with a hefty fine for taking the Lord’s name in vain or for other “blasphemous material.” This is defined as material "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion” and it is criminal when the intent and result is "outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion." Asia Bibi would not be safe in Ireland. The law is an embarrassment to any civilized person.

Of course in Ireland, you are at least free to protest such a silly law and can probably do so without fear of being lynched or gunned down. Still, such anti-freedom measures can only serve to embolden the theocratic instincts of others. Recently, a coalition of Muslim nations introduced an anti-blasphemy law before the General Assembly of the United Nations. The law, if passed, would make the “vilification of religion” a crime internationally. This proposed law makes no mention of Islam or the Holy Prophet. Indeed it is dressed up in the harmonious language of religious ecumenism, but let’s not be fooled. It is an attempt to both criminalize speech, and to utilize laws and the power of the state to coerce the “correct” views about religion. It is an offense to human dignity and a blow to freedom.

*Update -- On March 2, 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in Islambad. In response,Pakistan's delegate to the United Nation's Human Rights Council said that freedom of speech does not justify blasphemy.