First of the Month A website of the radical imagination. 2014-10-24T17:50:26-05:00 Uncool World Questlove says it all well.

American hip-hop is usually based on imitation, and it is meant to produce artists who are users of the existing tradition, not creators. And because of that, black culture in general—which has defaulted into hip-hop—is no longer perceived as an interesting vanguard, as a source of potential disruption or a challenge to the dominant. Once you don’t have a cool factor any longer—when cool gets decoupled from African-American culture—what happens to the way that black people are seen?

Now is the strangest time in American history to be a black person. Never before was it so ambiguously defined. It’s not like someone is telling me “You are 3/5 of a human.” To which I could say “Uhhh, nah.” Most of the time, no one comments on my blackness. But I experienced a deep sorrow and terror looking at pictures of military tanks and the ongoing unrest in St. Louis. Then I remember my skin color is a permanent indicator of social inequities whose resolution has gone down slow for centuries, with all the confusion that can entail. Having access to a legacy of cool is one of the few obvious upsides about being black in America.

But as social and cultural institutions slowly accept the wide-ranging modalities of blackness, it becomes increasingly complex to understand what constitutes a “black experience,” and how the idea of black cool, as Questlove describes it, plays into that. What to do when there are so many pop rappers who make hip-hop look backward? What to do when the internationally-celebrated Ursula Burns, Gabby Douglas, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Beyonce, and Shonda Rhimes serve as proof that America is fair and colorblind to oblivious types who want to believe the killings of Mike Brown, Renisha McBride, and Trayvon Martin had nothing to with race?

When President Obama was first elected, I think most people, regardless of partisanship, wanted to believe he’s “tan”: a new color, neither hearty white or lite black, just the color of a beautiful, smart, cool people in a post-racial future. We’ve seen since, though, how Obama’s had to tactfully negotiate his blackness (primarily by ignoring it), in various politically fraught situations over the past six years. This negotiation has been ongoing on so many levels: what he talks about, how he talks about it, and when. Comedians Key & Peele used to do a funny series of sketches about Obama and his anger translator Luther who is a much more “excitable brotha.” Luther is a great example of a blackness that shows itself in the form of extreme entertainment, whereas Obama’s is one of the most idyllic interior cool. The two are presented as opposites that meet on the terms that “Cool is social engagement masquerading as a kind of disengagement.” The juxtaposition of the two men underscores that both are performing for an audience.


Questlove’s inquiries about the state of black cool are largely prompted by the full sublimation of hip-hop into mainstream and white culture, but President Obama has surely played a huge role in making it more acceptable for blackness to coincide with talent and intelligence in arenas outside of athletics and entertainment. As a figure-head, a role model, Obama’s face really does mean more than any president’s talking head ever did. And it goes beyond his meaningful blackness. What may matter even more is that the president’s heaviest connection with the majority of Americans is via media. That relation rarely comes down to politics qua politics. Even if Obama avoids talking about race in a pointed way, his image won’t let us escape it. And social media won’t let us escape the image. Technology, more than any other factor, is responsible for the mutation in the image of blackness and black cool.

You begin to see something in this virtual world that induces despair as you advance in life through any professional field: politics are everywhere, and social media exponentially increase the potency of image-first exchanges. In the cake-baking world, and in the balloon artist community there are virtual politics: the pageantry of making good impressions, of championing ideals that are rarely, truly believed in, the advertising and popularity contests, the “hot and new,” and the fulfillment of obligations for fear of the political (i.e. artificial) consequences of doing otherwise. When politics actually happen in the Political World—the nexus of human rights and conflicts over distribution of limited resources—it seems terrifying, and sort of hopeless. And also meaningless, meaningless, to quote Ecclesiastes. The pervasiveness of social media clarifies how shallow some institutions (and institutionalists) are willing to get, and how shallow many of them already are.

Aside from the constants that make democratic governance difficult, it’s double-trouble for anyone to be President in the age of twitter. It really is too soon to process what it means to have had a black president for two terms. It’s a trip to have entered Obama’s presidency feeling his blackness meant something, and knowing we will exit it feeling it means something else, or (worst case) nothing at all.

I’m having an identity crisis.

Not really. But Questlove’s article got me thinking harder about some questions I had been idly tossing around:

Once you don’t have a cool factor any longer—when cool gets decoupled from black American culture—what happens to the way that black people are seen, period?

Are they seen? That’s not rhetorical.

This is...a point, but it’s not THE point. The bigger takeaway is once you don’t have black cool, do you have ANY cool in America? We are a young country, whose culture, I would argue, is defined by the capital of white people, the erasure of Native people, and the culture of black people born out of a lack of capital. Everyone’s great-grandfather from Italy, or Colombia, or Nigeria and the whole melting pot thing are quaint embellishments to the main narrative. But what has given the United States edge in the world is slavery and all of its legacies. Truly. Black and white Americans are two poles of the same ethnicity, the same history.

Now that this girl exists


With comparable visibility to this man


Having a conversation about appropriation doesn’t really cut the mustard. Iggy Azalea and I are about the same age, so as much as she doesn’t impress me, I also feel her. She is just being a pop musician, which is the most unimpressive thing a person can be today (look at Beyonce, who is visibly struggling, with each performance, to deal with the fact that she cannot impress herself). So it doesn’t matter so much to me if she is a white girl with a fat ass who tries to rap. She’s no different from Rihanna (who has more catchy songs, but is really, besides her unique humanity—which I must give her the benefit-of-the-doubt of having—no different). It’s not like Jay-Z is a wellspring of creative genius and hard-hitting truths. Black people are appropriating black I’m kind of done with the word appropriation in the context of black and white American pop life.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is awesome. To the best of my knowledge he rarely talks publicly about race, maybe because like me, he has wanted to avoid giving white people more license to build in limitations (it’s okay for me to talk about white people... I have a lot of white friends). It’s interesting that race is not a big public thing for him. Perhaps that’s because his community isn’t fact-averse, and the fact of who he is as an astrophysicist is undeniable.

THE POINT IS: the question of COOL, which has always been black—and always American—now becomes a kind of existential question. Can it even exist here, anymore? Who will be its vessel? What happens when the people who have been the poster men and women for disenfranchisement for centuries are having highly visible successes, however non-normative they may be, and put in the place of widespread cultural influence across many fields and professions? That is to say, what happens when black people slowly, slowly start to acquire the social and real capital that white people have always had? Does everything go white? Does everything go stale? Does everyone become a square?

In a post-western world, how do we do anything new now that the original novelty of brown people is gradually wearing away? Even going to Mars won’t seem as fresh as stepping on the Moon.

As I’ve edited this essay, I realize that cool will probably be okay, but it will certainly evolve like everything else. Questlove’s main gripe is that pop hip-hop is the dictator of mainstream culture. And while this is true of a certain generation, I think that for the same generation, the ascension of black politicians, artists, intellectuals, scientists, executives, and alternative athletes have the potential to bring the power of coolness to intelligence and creativity in a way that we have never seen before. America has hope for a comeback.

culturewatch Lex Brown 2014-10-24T17:50:26-05:00
A Green Army Takes on Big Oil What follows is a small classic of reportage on the struggle against oil and gas companies who are trashing Louisiana’s wetlands and spawning toxic sinkholes in places like Bayou Corne. Journalist Lou Dubose doesn’t rely on rhetoric; he’s a reporter. Hip to self-delusive pieties, he lives to expose deviousness of faux-boyish pols like Governor Bobby Jindal. But Dubose isn’t a cynic. His article even hints at possibilities of local heroism, offering a snappy portrait of Russel Honoré—ex-Army general who’s encouraging a “green army” to resist the poison going on in Louisiana. Honoré’s straight talk stands out now as it did when he took command in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and complained (per Dubose) “about news channels’ perseverating rebroadcast of clips of black men breaking into stores. ‘They call it looting, I call it survival...’” Dubose leaves the one-liners to Honoré and others, but his own authorial voice isn’t locked on bland. (It’s a hoot to find a journalist unafraid to use a term like perseverating!)

Dubose’s piece first appeared this summer in The Washington Spectator and your editor thanks the Spectator for enabling First to reprint it.

The April 15 evening session of the Louisiana Senate began with a presiding officer working his way through a calendar of congratulatory resolutions. Senators wandered from the floor to the galleries adjacent to the art deco chamber, talking with staffers, conferring with lobbyists, and backslapping with visitors. The workaday chaos continued even as the presiding officer began a series of votes for final passage of bills.

Then a short balding Republican from northwestern Louisiana walked toward the front of the chamber. By the time Robert Adley was recognized by the chair, the body had come to order and senators were at their desks.

Adley, who until 2012 owned a gas-distribution company and is a consultant with deep ties to the industry, was introducing one of 10 related bills promoted by Republican Governor Bobby Jindal. The bills would undermine the independence of a flood-protection authority that had committed an act of political heresy in a petro-state: it sued oil, gas, and pipeline companies to compel them to repair tens of billions of dollars in damages they had done to coastal wetlands that buffer storm surges.

Adley’s Senate Bill 553 would retroactively require the approval of the governor and a legislative committee to pay private attorney fees. As neither Jindal nor Republican majorities in the Legislature would approve, the bill would effectively kill the lawsuit and cost the state $50 billion (or more) in reparations the industry would have to pay to restore coastal wetlands. (Louisiana’s total budget for Fiscal Year 2013-2014 is $25.4 billion.)

The lawsuit was filed in state court last year, then removed to federal court on a motion filed by Chevron, one of 97 defendants named by the flood-protection authority. A state district court has already ruled one challenge to the suit by an oil and gas association as frivolous. New Orleans Federal District Judge Nannette Jolivette Brown is deciding whether the case will be tried in state or federal court.

Against the Tide

John Barry’s office sits atop Tulane University’s Health Sciences Center on Canal Street, a short walk from the French Quarter. Barry is an author, most widely known for Rising Tide, an account of the great Mississippi flood of 1927. The lawsuit Governor Jindal has resolved to kill was Barry’s idea.

After Hurricane Katrina, activists in New Orleans promoted a constitutional amendment to create a flood-protection authority. In a city rebuilding after an unprecedented natural disaster—made worse by political and engineering failures—the amendment won by 94 percent. Statewide, it carried 81 percent of the vote.

To insulate the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E) board of directors from political influence, voters approved a nominating committee dominated by deans of engineering colleges and leaders of scientific associations. The committee submits nominees to the governor.

Barry, who immersed himself in the arcana of Mississippi River levees (and regional politics) to write Rising Tide, was the only non-scientist on the original board.

The SLFPA-E board also included the chief of floodplain management for the California Department of Water Resources; a University of North Carolina engineering professor who spent 20 years developing a widely-used storm-surge modeling system; and a former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Board members recognized coastal land loss as a serious problem. Over 75 years, 1,900 square miles of coastal marshland and islands have washed into the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that 16.57 square miles of coastal wetlands continue to disappear each year. Islands and marshland that once buffered Gulf storm surges are gone.

Thirty-six percent of that marshland, according to studies cited by Barry, has washed into the Gulf through ever-widening canals that oil companies dredged and failed to backfill when drilling operations ceased.

Barry told me that in 2012, while he was still on the board (his term expired and the governor did not reappoint him), he contacted Garret Graves, then Jindal’s “coastal czar.”

“I told him we were thinking about filing a lawsuit and suggested to him that we go to Chris John, the former congressman who heads the [Louisiana] Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, and talk about sitting down with the oil companies and discussing a statewide deal.”

Graves had already approached oil and gas executives. He told Barry: “they are not there yet.”

“He goes to the industry and says why don’t they help clean up the problem they created,” Barry said.

“And they say, ‘Take a hike.’”

The SLFPA-E board unanimously voted to sue and retained three Louisiana law firms on a contingency fee basis. In July 2013, they named 97 oil, gas, and pipeline companies as defendants in a civil suit that would require them to fund a restoration project that could cost as much as $100 billion if fully implemented.

Off the board, Barry created the nonprofit Restore Louisiana Now, and is relentlessly defending the lawsuit.

“A lawsuit with nobody to prosecute it”

Jim Swanson is a partner at one of the firms hired by the flood-protection authority. Suing multiple corporate defendants—ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips, Koch Industries, to name a few—is beyond the capacity of one assistant attorney general assigned to SLFPA-E. Swanson told me that the three firms already have 1,200 to 1,300 hours—and by his estimate $1 million—in the case.

The fee agreements they signed are similar to arrangements states made with private attorneys hired to sue the tobacco industry in the mid-1990s. The lawyers do not bill the state, but if they prevail, they earn large contingency fees.

Swanson said the law and the facts make for a strong case against the industry.

For more than 100 years, Louisiana courts have ruled on a principle known as “servitude of drainage.”

“When what you do on your property creates an unreasonable burden on another property owner, you are called upon to restore it to its original condition,” Swanson said.

Aerial slides of coastal wetlands the attorneys have collected depict a progressive loss of marshland and islands that begins with one or two oilfield canals dredged through a marsh and ends with extensive stretches of wetlands dissolving, sometimes into open water.

The attorneys have also gathered permits issued for drilling operations in the coastal wetlands.

“When you look at the language in those permits, in many cases very specific language, what you find is that at the end of the operation the companies were required to plug the canals,” Swanson said. “They didn’t do so.”

Swanson said oil companies are not responsible for all the coastal erosion. But he points to “30 peer-reviewed studies done by universities, by state and federal agencies, and by the oil industry itself … [E]very single one found that the oil and gas industry was a significant contributor to the loss of coastal wetlands.”

If legislators and a governor aligned with oil and gas abrogate the agreements signed a year ago, the result will be “a lawsuit with nobody to prosecute it,” Swanson said. And no money to pay for wetlands restoration.

A Coastal Protection and Restoration master plan has identified $50 billion in projects, some urgent because of ongoing flooding. The plan is not funded. If the industry cannot be compelled to pay, taxpayers will pick up the tab.

Jindal has his own plan, according to The Gambit, New Orleans’ alternative weekly. The governor wants to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a long shot, to compel the federal agency to pay for restoration, shifting costs to taxpayers in all 50 states.

The vote on Adley’s contingency fee bill pitted senators from north Louisiana against senators from south Louisiana, Democrats against Republicans, and black senators, most of whom represent districts south of Interstate 10, against white senators.

But it was a Republican who had once served as an appellate court judge who warned that a bill that retroactively abrogated contracts was illegal and that the Legislature was inserting itself in a dispute that “should by all rights be resolved in a court of law.”

Senator Bob Kostelka’s amendment that would have stripped the retroactive measure from the bill failed 20-17 and the bill went on to pass 23-15.

General Honoré’s Army

For most Americans over 30, the iconography of Hurricane Katrina remains vivid: thousands of (mostly black) New Orleanians huddled in desperation around the Superdome; families stranded on roofs of homes immersed in flood water; George W. Bush looking down on the city from the comfort of Marine One, and using the St. Louis Cathedral as a backdrop for a floodlit media event in a city where not even hospitals had electrical service.

Then there was Lt. General Russel Honoré, the cigar-chomping Creole in combat fatigues and a black, Army-issue beret, who led federal troops into the chaotic city.

Honoré was more than a man on horseback who demonstrated that the federal government could take on big problems.

He has traced his family history back to enslavement on the Destrehan Plantation. He attended segregated schools in Pointe Coupee Parish.
The commanding officer of Joint Task Force Katrina recognized the race and class subtext in national media reporting on the aftermath of the storm.

Honoré complained about cable news channels’ perseverating rebroadcast of clips of black men breaking into stores. “They call it looting, I call it survival,” he said.

He rode around the city, ordering soldiers to “point those damn guns down.”

The general the media called “the ragin’ Cajun” (ignoring racial and cultural distinctions between Cajuns and Creoles) changed the narrative. Troops were in New Orleans on a humanitarian relief mission.

At six-two, in khaki pants and shirt, and a khaki Army cap, Honoré was easy to pick out in a crowd at an Earth Day event at Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans in mid-April.

After 37 years in the Army, the retired general has found a new mission.

“Almost a year ago, I got a call from Bayou Corne,” Honoré told me.
Bayou Corne is a small community west of New Orleans, where a 30-acre sinkhole that opened up two years ago continues to grow and seep natural gas. More than 350 residents have been forced out of their homes.

“Those people down there were abandoned by the state government, the federal government, and the company [Texas Brine] that created the sinkhole,” Honoré said. “They called me because they thought I could bring some attention to their situation.”

After he took up the cause of residents of Bayou Corne, Honoré began to get calls from environmental victims in other communities: New Orleans, Lake Charles, Baton Rouge, and Mossville.

He now leads a coalition of environmental groups he calls the Green Army and is working to create a new narrative: “Clean air, clean water, and clean food are human rights. The culture of this state has to be changed.”

Honoré is a one-question interview. Ask him about his organization and he describes a state that functions like a minerals-extraction colony.

“The two agencies that regulate the industry, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Department of Environmental Quality,” Honoré said, “they promote oil and gas companies and provide them exceptions to the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act. That’s what they do.”

Regulators working in collaboration with industry, Honoré said, put peoples’ lives at risk.

Honoré has visited Mossville, a small historical freedmen’s community near Lake Charles. Fourteen industrial facilities surround the town, yet the Jindal administration is providing $2 billion in incentives for a $21-billion expansion of a South African chemical plant in one of the most polluted towns in the nation.

On another front, the Green Army is backing a bill in the Legislature to stop ExxonMobil and Georgia Pacific from pumping from the aquifer Baton Rouge residents use for drinking water.

Russel Honoré: “In February, the Department of Health tested the water. It is the color of tea, and it smells. They said it’s fine to drink. But they’re not drinking it.”

“Together they use 50 million gallons of water a day, more than five parishes,” he said. “Georgia Pacific, a company owned by the Koch brothers, says that if we make them use water from the river, they will close their plant and take 1,200 jobs with them.”

Using river water would cost “pennies on the dollar,” yet both companies refuse.

Louisiana, Honoré said, is run “by and for the oil and gas industry.”

“There are 6,000 unplugged oil wells in the state,” he said. “The drilling companies are required by law to plug them when they finish drilling. But the DNR lets them leave them, because of a provision that says if you might come back to them, you don’t have to plug them. They’re called ‘orphan wells.’ You tell me, how the hell does an oil well become an orphan?”

Honoré referred to Adley’s attempt to bust the fee agreements in the coastal wetlands lawsuit. “You saw what happened to [Senate Bill] 553 last week,” he said. “They are going to let the wealthiest industry in the history of mankind walk away from what it did on the coast.”

“Senator Adley goes up to Baton Rouge for three months, collects his $18,000 salary. But he’s an oil and gas man, he might as well be a lobbyist for his day job. He ought to recuse himself. How much money has he taken from the industry? More than $100,000?”

Adley, in fact, has received $120,000 from oil and gas interests; Jindal, $1 million.

Honoré said he will take no salary, raise no money, nor rent an office. He is an organizational and educational nexus, the point man for existing environmental groups, traveling the state in a long-term campaign to “change the culture.”

“He’s a real asset,” Anne Rolfes told me. Rolfes directs the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, one of the most effective environmental organizations in the South.

“General Honoré makes a phone call and gets a meeting with Exxon,” Rolfes said. “We can’t do that.”

Honoré’s stump speech addresses themes larger than the oil industry.

“Why is Louisiana the third-largest energy producer, but the second-poorest state in the nation?”

“There’s 100 refineries and chemical plants between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. They’re making money. Where’s all that money going?”

“Why don’t our kids have broadband in their schools?”

“Why are we ranked 46th in public education?”

“Why do we have some of the lowest health care standards in the nation?”

“This is not politics,” Honoré said, “this is warfare.”

During the week I spent in Louisiana, Honoré had addressed a group of retired professors and a Green Army meeting in Baton Rouge. He was the marquee name at the New Orleans Earth Day event on Sunday, then returned to Baton Rouge to work the Legislature on Monday and Tuesday.

I asked Honoré if he would consider building a gubernatorial campaign around his message.

“I’m asked that all the time,” he said. “They haven’t pissed me off enough yet.”

“We’re washing away”

If that’s all that’s holding him back, perhaps this session of the Legislature will make him a candidate.

Toward the end of the Senate debate on Robert Adley’s contingency fee bill, a Democrat-turned-Republican delivered an impassioned floor speech about life on the coast.

“When you come from Terrebonne Parish like I do, when you are elected by a chain of events, couple of hurricanes that put water up to my waist in my house that my daddy built and died in! We take this seriously where I come from,” Norby Chabert said, his voice rising in emotion.

But Chabert, who calls himself “Mr. Oil and Gas,” said the wetlands in his district were too far gone, and that the flood-protection authority should focus on protecting people, not trying to hold the oil industry accountable for erosion that started in the 1800s.

Yet Chabert’s 20th Senate District grows smaller each year, as erosion eats away coastal marshes and several of its towns are included on the inventory of communities that will have to be abandoned within 10 years due to rising water. Seven years ago, the director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program warned that without wetlands remediation, Gulf waters will reach the suburbs of New Orleans. Open water where there was once marshland will impact the oil and gas industry that created the problem, in particular during tropical storms. And the estuaries that are dissolving into open water produce half of the nation’s wild shrimp and a third of its oysters and blue claw crabs, according to The Times-Picayune, $103 billion in assets at risk.

Senator Chabert represents several communities that are sinking into coastal bays, but he also represents Houma, the largest oil-exploration town in the South.

“Very few people in my district would say that pipeline canals cause coastal erosion,” Chabert said during Senate debate.

The Pointe-au-Chien Indian community is a string of 75 houses and trailer houses on a narrow peninsula where the land ends in south Terrebonne Parish. Most structures sit atop tall wooden pilings. A French-speaking tribe of 600, the Pointe-au-Chien have lived in South Louisiana since the 1800s.

I found Pierce Billiot, a burly gray-haired man with a gnarled weathered face, working on a shrimp boat dock on Pointe-au-Chien Bayou. I asked him about erosion and subsidence in the area.

“There’s a cemetery right down this bayou,” he said. “Near a community where people used to live. My granddaddy is buried down there. The water goes up past him now. He wasn’t underwater when we buried him down there.”

“Every year, the land gets lower and the water gets higher,” Billiot said.

Billiot led me to the home of Donald Dardar, the second chairman of the tribe. Dardar, a short wiry man with graying hair, is a commercial fisherman.

I spoke with him under his large elevated house between fiberglass boats on the front lawn, a small chicken coop, and an old wooden pirogue that looked like it might still float.

“The oil companies have been cutting canals where there used to be solid land,” Dardar said. “They gutted that place with their rig canals. Then the land started washing away.”

Saltwater intrusion has killed trees and grass as tides flow into what was once a freshwater or brackish estuary.

“We got so much salt water,” Dardar said, “that we got no more mosquitoes. It’s killing them off.”

“We used to have islands out there to protect us,” he said. “But right now there’s no more islands. Now, it’s almost open water all away to the Gulf.”

Dardar no longer believes that Baton Rouge or Washington will act fast enough to save the land the tribe lives on. The industry that dominates the state always has its way.

“We’re washing away slowly,” he said.

“One storm after another, we’re washing away.”

nation Lou Dubose 2014-10-20T22:24:38-05:00
James Brown (Stay on the Scene) Get On Up, the James Brown bio-pic, has moved your editor to re-up on First's 2007 tribute to JB.

Get On Up's love-is-strange treatment of JB circles around the irreducible nuttiness of "the hardest working man in show business" even as it limns the maddening social continuum in which he pursued soul power. The Brits who wrote the screenplay and the black and white Southerners who starred in and directed the flic know the territory. As does Mick Jagger who produced the film. (I'm reminded just now of Jagger's more than obligatory blurb for Alan Lomax's memoir of musicking in the American South, The Land Where Blues Began: "a fresh insight into the strange and cruel origins of the blues.")

Jagger's role in giving back to James Brown through Get On Up has a redemptive quality that should inspire boomers who got stuck on the Stones before they heard JB. It's in tune with Jagger's (relatively) modest self-presentation at the White House Blues summit a couple years back.

Jagger's comments on Get On Up's soundtrack—"We kept changing the songs..."—hint the movie was energized by a performer's instinct. And the film-makers ended up making good musical choices.

Two of the songs featured in the movie—"Sex Machine" and "Night Train"—sparked comments by Charles O'Brien in his contribution to First's JB tribute. Six or seven years on, O'Brien's noticings feel definitive. His line on JB's aesthetic—"In performance, James Brown poured sweat. His music, no: it could be icy in its perfection"—has a new resonance in this moment when folks are wondering wh'appen to Afro-American canons of cool.

I was struck too when I re-read W.T. Lhamon's lovely invocation of one of JB's late tracks, "How Do You Stop." Back in the day, Lhamon lamented there was no Youtube clip of JB doing that song live. But now, there it is.

Lhamon locked on what James Brown meant for boomers. But if you're schooling a younger gen, you might start with "Lost Someone" from the first Live at The Apollo record. Jagger and Chadwick Boseman (who plays JB in the movie) have talked about how they prepped for Get On Up by listening to that record together but their nod to it points to something missing from the film. I don't recall a scene that nails Brown's black-and-forths with his core audience. (I'm thinking of how he stung those girls who cry out on "Lost Someone.") JB's great black music was his but it was owned by a great black audience too. (His call and response with them shouldn't be conflated with clunkier shout-outs or sing-alongs of crowds that turn out for rock icons like the Stones or Springsteen.)

My post-Get On Up dive into YouTube led me to this 80s clip of JB calling Michael Jackson out of the audience to join him on stage, which breaks down a process of cultural transmission. Take the following tribute to JB as an attempt to uphold the tradition all the way live on that stage. B.D.

Influence of

Black Mind is mine a mine
for the gold of past and future
Shine your gold black light
out of yr mind into the mine
of our time
Be James Brown and wish
The line to the mind is straight
w/ rhythm flyin, change up stride
in blinding light

And JB be
out flows black
streams black
gush black
shouting gold
force in Heaven
back above
A rich man
A priest of gold

Energy figures

Black juice royal time

& gushes
of energy
Rivers of movement
Oceans of Yea-ah
Oceans of Yea-uh
James Brown


In gold green orange and James
In maroon chartreuse silver and Brown
Digging in the black
gold mind

All the world and heavens moan forever
In sweet black angelic Boogaloosence


- Amiri Baraka

The Message

By Robert Farris Thompson

Sweat pouring down his face and neck, head titled back at the ecstatic angle, eyes closed in distant meditation, lips contorted in rage and majesty, James Brown goes on forever. Like his spiritual brother, Damaso Perez Prado, he was a master of non-verbal action. His grunts and his screams detoxified a nation. I remember ten years back when I was asked to talk about him for the BBC, I gave them a typology of James Brown screams. It was not what they expected. but boy was I honored to talk about Brown's sonic landscape. Once I saw a video in Brussels on the life and art of soul brother number one. They showed him singing for a Democratic candidate. Brown screamed. Brown got down. The white candidate stood still without a smile. I thought: damn, if he can't react to James Brown, he's gonna lose. He did. There aint no past tense big enough to hold James Brown. The cat, as I said, goes on forever. Locked in his screams, pain purified to pleasure, is a message from Kongo to all of us: mu diavwezwa mweti mena diansitusu! -- from humiliation stems grandeur.

Lineaments of a Promised Land

By Charles O’Brien

For a long time, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine)” (Sex Machine, Polydor, 1970 on vinyl) has been one of my favorite pieces of music; and I sometimes wondered if there wasn’t something unreasonable how much I loved it. But this was the song that was played over and over at James Brown's funeral. Judged by the title alone, it’d be hard to come up with anything more incongruous. The song as it is, though, was a great choice. “Sex Machine” is ten and a half minutes of prime JB built around practically nothing: a song called “Sex Machine” might hint at all kinds of prurience, but here it mostly just rhymes with “stay on the scene.” The song begins with JB "moving these things around.” Equipment, furniture, who knows? This is James Brown in the studio, “just proud and doing my thing.”

The full band starts the song. The horns play eight notes for just one bar; about halfway through, they play that same bar; and the song ends with that bar. Otherwise, they’re gone. The song is just guitar, bass, and drums, sticking to one chord, except for a short bridge, done twice, and a “taste of piano,” JB himself for about eight bars. In performance, James Brown poured sweat. His music, no: it could be icy in its perfection, as it is here.

At the end, he wanted to “hit it and quit.”

In other words we hit and we done.
Hit me!

The horns, eight eighth notes worth, hit him, and us, and we are done, and it could not have ended better –

But first, there’s a lot of ground to be covered. American music (movies, too, and literature) loves to throw out place names from around the continent. Think of Chuck Berry’s songs, or Bobby Troupe’s “Route 66”.

Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty

Well, maybe it does. The point here is that it sounds pretty. These songs are imagination taking joy in a map. James Brown’s place names are realer. In “Living in America”[1] JB sings:

You might not be looking for the promised land but you might find it anyway under one of those old familiar names

And he reels off some of them. But “Sex Machine” has more. When he goes to the bridge for the second time, he asks the band where he can go.

We got to go to Dayton
[Has anyone over spoken those words with such delight?]
Atlanta GA
Lovely Atlanta
Atlanta GA
(and I might go to Macon, if you don’t mind)

or Dallas?
Houston or Dallas?
Which one?
Both of ‘em!
Got to go San Antone, brother

Over to Memphis
I think I’ll go to Nashville, too
By the way of Chattanooga

And on and on. All these places are lively memories, all scenes of – this is the James Brown Band! – past troubles and past good times, troubles and good times just up ahead, near enough to taste. “Night Train” is not a James Brown original, but he takes it. The horns come in with a swell, emulating the Doppler Effect, what anyone has heard, dreaming of being taken away. You can see the train’s single light cutting through the darkness, speeding through the night. The train in Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” and Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” had showed only their rear lights, menace and regret. The “Night Train” is full of promise, and all the places the train travels are blest with that promise.

In his recent memoir, I Feel Good, JB reports that Hubert Humphrey wanted him to run for Vice-President in 1968. Think of it, though. James Brown, as President of the Senate, could have turned the place around, setting bounds on windy speeches, fining members for missing votes, running the place. An America with James Brown as its best-known diplomatic face to the world in 1969-1972, it would have been a different America, different world, different 1969-1972. And picture him doing the ceremonial stuff, like funerals. He could put aside the flashy threads and wear a suit as well as anyone – look at the pictures of him with Richard Nixon. And he could look as solemn as anyone has ever looked.

Even though JB was best known for dance music, he kept that solemnity near at hand. “Man’s World” is the obvious example. But I’d like to call attention to 1972’s There It Is album. The hits on that album were the up-tempo numbers, “There It Is,” “Greedy Man,” “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing”, “I Need Help.” The dope raps “King Heroin” and “Public Enemy #1” are undeniably a little ridiculous and may come across as filler. But listen again. This was 1972, and amid the wreckage of the civil rights movement – and the hopes it had engendered and the music that was its twin star – there was a mournful strain of black popular music – something new in its time, and a lot of the best hip hop in years to come would draw on it. Records like the Superfly and Across 110th Street soundtracks brought the bad news to your door. But sitting inside your door, hardly noticed, and probably even more powerful, were James Brown’s heavier, flawed dirges.

More often, of course, he was up. He recorded prolifically, and toured incessantly. On his deathbed, he was planning to see in the New Year on stage. On record, he has laughed more than even Al Green. It was notorious how he worked his band. There’s a story about his confrontation with some Nation of Islam heavies. They were berating him for having a white bass player, Tim Drummond. JB looked and looked around the room, trying to find this white bass player. Finally, he said, “Oh, that’s my bass player.” A story about race, obviously, but also a story about management style. P-Funk, a mutant form of James Brown’s band, has always been happy to get recognized names into the fold – Vanessa Williams, say, or Philippe Wynne. James Brown’s band was filled with James Brown’s players. Bootsy and Maceo could be musicians in his bands; they could become names only afterward.

His most important formal innovations were labor-intensive. Staying on one chord for ten minutes, and making it work, is a lot harder than running through a lot of changes. Stripping away (and minimalism doesn’t feel like the right word for James Brown’s music) often involves an appeal to an aural comfort zone, a false memory of past assurance. JB’s basics were the opposite. Listen to the 45 version of “I Can’t Stand Myself.” The instrumentation is this: an organ playing the same seven-note riff throughout the song; one guitar playing an invariant four-note riff; another guitar playing one two-note chord, slid down a half–tone and back once; a drummer keeps the beat; only the bass player (Bootsy) goes crazy – but this was 1968, when bass wasn’t received as a lead instrument, and the equipment to hear it didn’t exist, at least not where JB was likeliest to be listened to. This music is not your old time used to be. It is someplace you never guessed was there, and forty years later, the strangeness in the song remains. Much of what James Brown started has become familiar, either because the songs themselves are still heard, or he’s been sampled[2] or the formal stuff has been assimilated by others. The newness is untouched.

Mr. Dyn-ee-mite, Hard Working has rested.


1 Rocky IV is hardly a defensible movie. It has one great scene, though. Carl Weathers, as Apollo Creed, is about to fight Dolph Lundgren, playing a robotic Russian (He's acting). James Brown is on stage, his band, showgirls, everything cooking, doing "Living in America." The camera goes around the room, taking in Sylvester Stallone, Weathers (dressed in patriotic colors, and dancing with an Uncle Sam hat on), JB, the players and the dancers. JB ends the song throwing one arm out and shouting

I Feel Good!

Everybody feels good. A moment later, Lundgren bumps Weathers' gloves hard, and tells him, "You will lose." Weathers' face registers shock. And a moment later, Weathers , in his Stars and Stripes trunks, is carried unconscious from the ring.

However briefly, James Brown raises the movie from a delirium of silliness to a delirium of fraternity.

2 A personal favorite: the "Okay, I'll talk a little louder" sample on Technotronic's "Come Back."

Mr. Brown, May God Rest His Funky Soul

By Chuck D

Got the news Christmas eve from Davey D on the Westside of the country; we'd just left there. Thus at 3AM in the East, it's too early and too late to call anybody like my man KYLE JASON who, together with me, did our damnedest to catch his tour three years back. I had heard things like Mr. Brown was pushing it real hard, defying gravity and time itself. I myself saw a seventy year old man wear an Atlanta stage out, as well as the crowd. It was good to see some black folks in the audience for a change, checking out our classic creator of funky soul himself.

Now this news. It makes one really understand that time is God itself.

Thus we shall praise God and cherish the time. James Brown is somewhat woven into my professional and entertainment regimen. In my travels on the tour bus from Sacramento to Spokane, I'd just picked up yet another JB CD; this one from Universal Millennium MASTERS 'JAMES BROWN and FRIENDS' for my drive time groove pleasure, in the hotel the BLUES BROTHERS were on AMC where JB did that scorching preacher scene in the church backed by the JAMES CLEVELAND CHOIR. While everybody seemed to relish in the now of comedian KATT WILLIAMS on the long bus ride, I locked my DVD player and headphones to Mr. Brown's classic SOULTRAIN and PARIS performances. When talking music, JB was/is just part of the day, thank God for recordings. As a 70's B-boy I recall panic on the floors of hip hop while GIVE IT UP TURN IT LOOSE roasted off the 1969 SEX MACHINE LIVE LP transfixing the forming rap nation ten years later, as if it were a discovered oil well. While the rest of the disco and rock country had not a clue.

As barely a social hum registered at the recent passings of ATLANTIC RECORDS founder AHMET ERTEGAN and ATLANTIC RECORDS star R&B artist RUTH BROWN, I as a music student felt those losses. Good peer and buddy GERALD LEVERTS passing was a shock and largely just black folk's pain at the loss, like a family member...nationally only a few sentences because an Anglo-nation couldn't possibly understand. Now MR. JAMES BROWN is entirely another magnitude, a seismic passing - the level of a KING, the Cincinnati record label he recorded on or a very funky president, the title of his 1975 political hit.

Recently I covered some ground being interviewed for a movie documentary his latest wife TAMI RAYE was producing. I myself felt extremely honored to have been asked to be interviewed for that and his prior SOUL SURVIVOR special and DVD. I promised myself to reach and do all I can when the legends callout.

I missed out on MR. RAY CHARLES, wanting to catch any show during 2002, then I heard he got sick. The founders of rock and roll are still doing gigs - LITTLE RICHARD, CHUCK BERRY, BO DIDDLEY, and we almost lost FATS DOMINO to Katrina. JERRY LEE LEWIS just released a new album, and IKE and TINA TURNER continue to defy time. Still MR. JB is it for me. I have yet to meet MR. MUHAMMAD ALI, and only met RICHARD PRYOR one brief two minute period at the 2000 BET AWARDS in LAS VEGAS. I met MR. JAMES BROWN. Backstage in the concocted green room looking at the screens - just me and another gentleman were checking it out. I was behind this man dressed in a bluish suit, but I could tell it was James Brown. Reading everything about the man beforehand I knew to address him as MR. BROWN. I tapped him on the shoulder and said "Hello, er, MR. BROWN" and introduced myself. He asked my name again and when I answered it must've registered, because he let out a "Whoa", and smiled with a hug. I didn't have a damn camera and asked him to hold on. When I came back a minute later he was gone, on stage doing his thing with singer GINUWINE. Off stage he left through another way...and that was the one time for me.

Man, no lie, whenever I see a frozen pond, I take myself to 1967 when us kids did the James Brown I Feel Good dance on any patch of ice. Global warming has somehow produced fewer patches of ice, just as soul loses a bit of itself every ten years. The sheer magnitude of SAY IT LOUD I'M BLACK AND I'M PROUD was an implanted, soundtracked theme into understanding that our minds, bodies, and souls were black and beautiful. ALI, PRYOR and JB were our snap, crackle and pop from the transcendent, previously silenced black male in 60's-70's Amerikkka. It ain't never left me. Never will. This is why spreading the word is our jobs as modern day griots. I've had phone conversations with HUEY NEWTON before he passed, KWAME TURE respected my works of words, and Minister Farrakhan and the Nation Of Islam have introduced PE to parts of the darker earth where few like us had gone before. Yes time is God indeed, and all of our words and deeds are in passing, but the passing down and forward is so important. My children know MR. JAMES BROWN's music, as well as LEVI STUBBS of the FOUR TOPS and REVEREND AL GREEN (whereas it was a trip at the SCREAM TOUR 5 in Madison Square Garden NYC hearing 16,000, mostly young black girl, teenagers finishing off singing LETS STAY TOGETHER during YOUNG JOCs DJ set as if it was a clear channel hit).

In the fifty years of MR. BROWN's recorded music, since his 1956 hit PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE; we PUBLIC ENEMY head into our 20th year of existence with full dedicated honor to the fabric MR. James Brown provided for hip hop's founders AFRIKA BAMBAATAA, KOOL DJ HERC, and GRANDMASTER FLASH to weave. Expect the utmost respect for the architect. Again I expect the executive asses of the record industry ashes to say little, and do less. The radio stations are eerie in their silence, proving there ain't no such thing as black radio, just robot fuel from white corporations who continue to argue that race ain't an issue. And in the end there will be folks who will dedicate and play 50 years of soul, that realize that black is important to say it loud and proud because amerikka continues to discredit it and strip it away. But this should make us realize how lucky many of us are to have witnessed, experienced, and infused the work and pride ethics of the godfather of soul into our daily lives. For that alone we are all better for it. Probably the hardest working man in heaven right now ...but may his funky soul R.I.P ... Mr. Dynamite

“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud!”

By Michael Lydon

Singer, songwriter, dancer, showman, rhythm master, entrepreneur, humanitarian, and self-proclaimed sex machine, James Brown is dead at seventy-three, mourned by millions of passionate fans who love his music and have long followed each pioneering step of his artistic growth, each twist and turn of his tumultuous career. Like his contemporary Ray Charles, James Brown did so much in his lifetime to improve the soundscape, the mindscape of America, that we can measure how far he came (and we have come) only by looking back to his beginnings.

In January 1956, Ralph Bass, a producer for Cincinnati’s King Records, was in Atlanta scouting talent when a deejay played him an acetate, “Please, Please, Please,” by a group who called themselves, with more optimism than truth, The Famous Flames. The rough but exciting demo knocked Bass out. Where could he find the group, he asked. In Macon, said the deejay; the lead singer, James Brown, was a twenty-three year-old ex-con paroled out to a local promoter, Clint Brantly, who also managed Little Richard. And Bass had better hurry: Leonard Chess of Chess Records was flying down from Chicago to sign the same band. Bass jumped in his car and drove the hundred-odd miles to Macon through a blinding rainstorm.

“Macon was a real Jim Crow town,” Bass recalled years later. “Brantly told me to park in front of a barbershop by the railroad station and come in when the Venetian blinds went up and down. I did, we sat down. ‘I got a contract from Leonard Chess in my hand,’ Brantly tells me, ‘he’s coming to sign it.’ But in those days, if the weather was halfway bad, airplanes couldn’t land at little airports, and Leonard was grounded. I gave Brantly two hundred bucks and said, ‘You want to sign right now?’ ‘You got a deal,’ he said.”

Brantly introduced Bass to Brown that night after his show. “James was so browbeaten with that Southern shit that he called me ‘Mister Ralph.’ I said to him, ‘Man, don’t call me no Mister Ralph. Call me Mister Bass or call me Ralph, but don’t call me no Mister Ralph.’”

A week later, Bass got Brown into King’s Cincinnati studio then went home to St. Louis. There he got get a screaming phone call from his boss, Syd Nathan. “‘You’re fired,’ Syd was telling me,” Bass recalled. “‘You cut the worst piece of shit I ever heard in my life. The man sounds like he’s stoned, all he’s saying is please, please, please.’ ‘Tell you what,’ I told Syd, ‘put that record out in Atlanta and if it don’t sell, baby, don’t fire me, I quit.’ A month later ‘Please, Please, Please’ hit #5 on the R&B charts. The rest is history. Who knew then that James would be what he is today?”

Grassroots & the Gray Lady

By Mel Watkins

“That dude is down as a chitlin’,” one black teenager shouted at his friend as they filed out of the Apollo Theater ahead of me after a James Brown concert in the late 1960s. I was there on assignment to write an article about the Apollo Theater and its legacy as a cultural showplace for the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times — it was one of my first freelance assignments for the newspaper — and, of course, I jotted down the remark. As it turned out, the Times editors cut the teen’s colorful quip as well as much of my commentary on James Brown’s performance that night. Despite his status in the black community, Brown and his brand of funky music had not yet been embraced by mainstream pop culture; it was certainly much too raw to be taken seriously by editors at the Gray Lady. Another decade would pass before Brown and his impact on pop music was fully acknowledged outside the black community.

Still, my most vivid memory about researching and writing the piece was the JB concert. When I entered the theater that evening Brown had already taken the stage. And as I walked down the aisle toward my seat I distinctly remember that the floor — pulsing with the insistent stomping of a packed, screaming audience — was literally rocking, undulating under my feet. The place was truly cooking. It was a remarkable performance, one of the best I’ve ever seen, and an unforgettable experience.

It wasn’t the first time I saw Brown perform, however; less than a decade earlier, as a teenager, I’d witnessed one of his early appearances at the Elks Ballroom, a gutbucket night club in Youngstown, Ohio, my hometown. At the time, “Please, Please, Please” and “Night Train” were his only recognizable hits but everyone in that sweaty, tightly packed joint seemed to sense that he would soon carve out a unique place as a musical trailblazer. And when I went off to college at Colgate University in upstate New York, the box of personal items I carried with me included several of his early 45s. In that glaringly de-funked atmosphere, they were rare but surprisingly popular commodities even with my mostly white-bread classmates. By the mid sixties, with the release such popular hits as “Papa Got a Brand New Bag” and “Cold Sweat,” Brown’s popularity had increased, but his audience was still primarily black. During that time I saw him several times at the Apollo, and, only occasionally, did the audience include any downtown visitors. It wasn’t until the seventies, when new media outlets like Rolling Stone magazine started to tout his music that he gained any substantial crossover appeal.

I’d go on to write several articles about James Brown and his cultural significance during the seventies and eighties. Those articles included a piece on the lyrics of his songs, which surprised some because comedians like Eddie Murphy had often satirized the verbal element of his work. (“Does anybody know what the hell James is talking about?”) They of course conveniently forgot or ignored socially relevant songs like “I’m black and I’m Proud” and “Don’t Be a Dropout.”

Among my friends, Brown’s music was an absolute necessity at any set where people wanted to jam or get down during those years. At parties where the era’s most influential young black writers gathered (Ishmael Reed, Nikki Giovanni, Claude Brown, to name a few) Brown’s music was always the key ingredient. Like Aretha, Sam Cooke, and, later, Marvin Gaye, he was a both a symbol and personification of the grassroots black musical heritage that wielded such tremendous influence on America’s popular culture during the latter part of the 20th century. Whenever I think about the man, I think about that 1968 concert. After that night I had no doubt about why he was called the “hardest working man in show business.”

As it happened, the show was recorded that evening and later released as a two-record LP recording “James Brown: Live at the Apollo — Volume II.” It remains my favorite James Brown recording, and, every time I play it, I’m reminded of that evening and of the perspicacious teenager that I overheard in the Apollo Theater lobby. “Down as a chitlin’,” that’s still the way I like to remember the Godfather of Soul.

Mel Watkins is the author of On the Real Side: The History of African American Comedy; his latest book is Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry.

Time Will Take You Out

By W.T. Lhamon Jr.

James Brown died? Quick as a wink, the late riser at my house wondered, “Overdose?”

James Brown excessively lived the legends of our time, their blooming for tabloid fascination. Beginning by dancing for pennies, just the way Black Guinea did in Herman Melville’s nineteenth century novel, The Confidence Man, James Brown went on to White House invitations, to TV, to pop film. In words, he was incommunicado--just listen to Terry Gross’s embarrassment asking him on NPR to explain any aspect of his work. In song, however, his grunts made novels about living in America. Like no one else leading early boomers through their paces, James Brown embodied the momentum of our time.

Brown bore that momentum in his body and carried its thickening weight wherever he went. It kept him company through prison terms, through his several troubled marriages, while he learned to code that momentum as punctuated sound. For all their compulsion, it’s not news that his earliest songs were slight, even derivative. From Little Richard he learned screams, sentiment, and spectacle. From Louis Jordan he learned joy and the jump beat. Through all that development, you can hear his originality grow. He gave us more than one new style of rhythm ’n’ blues, but he also shows how originality can realize and amplify what’s essential in extant moods and ongoing modes. So, I’ll let others laud his middle career when he passed beyond Doo Wop to speak up for rhythm, black pride, staying in school, and the hard work of black capitalism. I want to recall, instead, the late performance of, “How Do You Stop?” That’s where he tamped his experience into song that found its own meaning without heeding any chamber of commerce.

In 1986, we were all more than three decades into James Brown’s stream of hits. His lyricist and producer for the song was Dan Hartman, but the two most important phrases in the song are not Hartman’s. They are the two that Brown mumbles at the beginning and end: “relaxin’” (or, maybe, “relax it”) and “no lies.” He’s giving himself directives parallel to his famous hand signals that fined his musicians’ missed beats or wrong notes. Brown’s music always finely sliced discipline, but here his topic becomes the penalty of excess, both too much control and too much laxity. It’s the threshold from one to the other that the brilliant beat constantly reiterates and crashes. The rhythm of this song enacts the “runaway train” that drives past the one to the other. And the continually stuttered triplets before the downbeat are the threshold he cannot hold. You think love will wait and you don’t hold on, and then it’s gone. Anh Hanh! It’s not in Hartman’s words that this performance communicates, but in the grunted vowels that remark the threshold’s going. Then it’s gawWwn.

“How Do You Stop?” anthemizes the brave dignity of carrying one’s compounded meanings well past their decades. Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, Art Buchwald, Eartha Kitt, James Brown: they all learned to make their whole maturing selves convey their message. The endgame for boomers, it turns out, requires pop guidance as much as the rocky beginning. I cannot find a video of Brown doing “How Do You Stop?” on You Tube, but there are lots of him doing “Living in America” from the same time. His thickened fire-hydrant body with its chunky belly and stubbed face are broad, marked like the boxers his performance precedes in Rocky IV. He is in calculated contrast to Stallone’s demure cuteness--he who is not marked by pain. The paradox is that Brown needed disco’s spectacle to salt his complexity and nestle his roughness. And disco needs him as a reality check. In that context he doesn’t lecture me but growls articulate vowels. I miss him already. No lie.

W. T. Lhamon, Jr. has written Deliberate Speed (1990),Raising Cain (1998), and Jump Jim Crow (2003).

In Place, In Time

By Anne Danielsen

“Now when we finish with this session, they’ll know where funk come from. Every time I look, listen at the radio, I hear, I hear JBs. I hear James Brown. Can’t even say, “Good God.” But that’s alright, I don’t care. They don’t never give me no royalties, and when they get on the different shows they say, “Yeah, I put it all together by myself.” Listen to James Brown, that’s all they got to ask me. But that’s alright, I can take that, yeah, cause I’m sayin’ it loud. But we gonna get on down, ’cause reality don’t ever lie.”

—James Brown introducing “Dead on It” (1975)

Funk developed into a trendy musical style in the 70s. No longer just a bit of African American slang denoting deep, soulful feeling, the word Funk became a faddish term - a label many artists, white as well as black, wanted to stick on their music. Funk was a new commodity - something some claimed to have invented last week, all on their own. But as James Brown stressed, on stages and pages, there was funk long before it smelled like money in the 70s.

In the liner notes to the 4-CD anthology of his musical career called Star Time, (Polydor) James Brown wrote: “It [Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag] had its own sound: the music on one-and-three, the downbeat, in anticipation.” But what did Brown mean by “the music on one-and-three”? What’s the big deal about a downbeat in anticipation? Why does it count when a beat hits, not exactly on the beat, but slightly ahead of it?

In the ten years that followed “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” Brown and his bands focused on what might be called the micro-rhythmic aspects of a groove. Each funky funk groove bears witness to the fact that playing the right patterns is not enough, equally important is how they are played. The matter and the manner are inseparable. This might be what James Brown hints at when he claims it all started with the light, early accent on an expected strong beat that marked his “Bag’s” groove. Under the leadership of Mr. Brown, his band would become a lab for developing perfectly imperfect metrics and for the cultivation of advanced rhythmic sensibilities.

After Brown’s “Bag”, one beat, and especially the One - the first beat of the bar - ceases to exist as a fixed point in time. Rather it might be approached as a rhythmic field, almost a whole rhythmic world. Brown’s famous “Get Up!” from ‘Sex Machine’ is characteristic in this respect. His cry gets right to the beat though it comes perhaps a little early in the metrical flow. And that is exactly why it is such a musically satisfying gesture. Brown’s utterance seems to conduct the entire rhythmic fabric that unites in an anticipatory downbeat just before the one. JB and the band, in other words, do as they say: they “Get up!” for the downstroke. The creative flow here takes place at the margins, impelled by what feels like a sort of impatience, as if one can’t keep from loosing the attack of the One a little early, thereby focusing the energy for a hot second before the release comes and a new repetition commences.

Brown’s downbeats in anticipation would spread to all parts of the groove - to the drums, to the guitar riffs, to the bass. According to Brown’s autobiography, James Brown. The Godfather of Soul (1997), the significance of the One and the shaping of the dynamic aspects of that moment in time was something the legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned during his time with the JBs: “I think Bootsy learned a lot from me. When I met him he was playing a lot of bass—the ifs, the ands, and the buts. I got him to see the importance of the one in funk—the downbeat at the beginning of every bar. I got him to key in on the dynamic parts of the one instead of playing all around it. Then he could do all his other stuff in the right places—after the one.”

When funk first surfaced as an international pop trend, nobody seemed to remember where this aspect of the One, this little funky disturbance before the metrical one, came from. Now we know better. We know that Brown’s funk is funky in a way that has made it a source of spiritual uplift and get-down bodily engagement, of presence and pleasure, for generations of fans. Brown’s funk is the origin of the experience of being in funk, which is not a state of being in flux — out of place, out of time, but rather — in place, in time.

Anne Danielsen is the author of Presence and Pleasure. The Funk Grooves of James Brown and Parliament. (Wesleyan University Press). She is a researcher in the Department of Musicology at the University of Oslo.

A JB Memory

By Richard Torres

Fifteen years ago, James Brown indirectly gave me the only movie moment of my life. It was another sweltering summer in New York City and I was walking south on Broadway - between Eighth Street and Astor Place - holding hands with my then-girlfriend. We were on our way to Tower Records in search of new music and free air-conditioning. (More the latter then the former.) The south-bound traffic was light; just a few cars with their windows open – radios wailing - waiting at the red light. On the sidewalk there were about ten people on the stroll. A couple of them were carrying boomboxes. My girlfriend and I glanced at each other when we realized everyone was tuned into the same radio station – WBLS -playing the JB’s “Funky Good Time.” James and Fred Wesley were wailing over and over “We’re gonna have a funky good time.” When they paused for the break is when everybody – driver and pedestrian - stopped what they were doing, threw a hand up in the air and shouted the next line “we’re gonna take you highhhhhhhhhh-er!” Then there was a scream of approval, the light changed and we were all on our merry way. That was the power of Mr. James Brown. He made music that could uplift and transform us at any given time of any given day. During a week where I heard about the deaths of both Mr. Brown and that same ex-girlfriend, I’ve thought about that moment a lot. In fact, it’s the only memory that right now can ease my spirit.

If Loving You Is Wrong…

By John Leland

One thing you can say for James Brown is that everything about him was wrong. Not just the hair or the marital habits, I mean the whole nine. Like calling himself the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. Please. You might as well be Most Punctual or Best Insured – nice for a civil servant, but Americans need to imagine our entertainers sleeping till mid-afternoon, stirring only so that unearned Cadillacs and pussy can fly to them on gossamer wings. Why taint the leisure world with shadows of hard work?

By the same token, what kind of lover tells you that when you kiss him, when you miss him, or even just hold his hand, he’ll break out in a cold sweat? America abjures a clammy hand or a clammy kisser.

But by his liberties James turned the world upside down. Instead of escaping work – which is always a false promise – he redeemed it. Instead of speaking promises to his own lover, he hurled you-gonna-miss-me’s at the lovers of all the guys who joined him on the goodfoot. He’s singing his sweat to the fellas, for them, not to his woman. They too break out in a cold sweat. Now they can be proud, at least until he sings “It’s Too Funky in Here.”

Still, he left us some riddles. Like on “I’ll Go Crazy,” what did he mean by:

You’ve got to live for yourself
Yourself and nobody else
If you leave me I’ll go crazy?

Do we live for ourself and leave him? Do we stay so he won’t go crazy? It’s a Delphic dilemma for the ages, never to be resolved.

Much like his friendship with Richard Nixon, but that shit was just fuct up.


By Casey Wasserman

On December 30th in Augusta, G.A., James Brown’s Homegoing cemented his legacy for eternity in a carefully constructed fusion of mythology and musicianship. The funeral, following a public viewing in the hometown arena bearing his name, exemplified the strangeness, capitalist impulse, and true genius of the man who gave America the cultural imperative, “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

The capitalist impulse Brown endorsed throughout his career was inadvertently invoked by local entrepreneurs shilling bootleg t-shirts to mourners lined up outside the arena as well as by Fannie Brown Buford, Brown’s sister, who hawked “authorized” souvenirs inside the arena doors, including the most amazing pieces of James Brown paraphernalia known to man - laundry bags sporting Brown’s face and the phrase Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag, sets of pot holders emblazoned with Brown’s face and signature on one pot holder and the words, Oohhh Hottt Pan(t)s on the other, cold sweat washcloths. All merchandise was located less than ten feet from the operational concession stands. My first Fast Foodie Funeral. (Confession: I had a pretzel and a Diet Pepsi. In my defense, I was there for seven hours from the arena’s opening to nearly the end of the Celebration. JB wouldn't want me to go hungry, and he definitely wouldn't have wanted me to eat questionable looking nachos.)

While the event was certainly a celebration of Brown’s musical and cultural contributions to American life, it mainly served to cook up a mythical Elvis-esque postmortem meal ticket for an assortment of friends, family, and hangers-on. This was demonstrated, of course, by his souvenir-selling kindred and the seemingly never ending fiasco concerning his final resting place and children’s inheritance. From Michael Jackson’s fashionably late entrance to manager Charles Bobbitt’s retelling of Brown’s final moments and last words (“I’m going home tonight”) to the honorary doctorate bestowed upon the singer from Augusta’s Paine College, the day’s events were in keeping with the singer’s penchant for over-the-top showmanship, spectacle, and bizarre ritual. It is only a matter of time before Brown’s current band, the Soul Generals, go on tour while playing alongside video footage of the Godfather a la Elvis.

The Homegoing ceremony might yet turn out to be one of the greatest achievements of Brown’s later career. It managed to mobilize an audience of several thousand mourners, freak seekers, and the generally curious to attend an event in which his band misplayed several of his hits (the very mistakes for which they would have been fined previously), his wife of questionable legality gave a B-grade performance of grief and song on stage, and stories invoking the numerous peaks and valleys of his career were told in an effort to give JB a chance to take in the show for once. After all, as Rev. Sharpton stated, “Only God could have made James Brown possible, and only God could give James Brown rest.” Perhaps our opportunity to entertain Mr. Brown has indeed arrived, and I hope we can get up from those splits.

In The Funk World

If Elvis Presley

Who is
James Brown

- Amiri Baraka

music Amiri Baraka, Chuck D, Anne Danielsen, John Leland, W.T. Lhamon, Michael Lydon, Charles O'Brien, Robert Farris Thompson, Richard Torres, Casey Wasserman, & Mel Watkins 2014-10-19T19:52:23-05:00
Reeva Steenkamp Cameras adore him—
that chiseled face, all
angle and shadow,
bright with tears. He sobs
about waking from nightmares,
won’t look at the picture
of what used to be my head.
His beauty blazes from each
newspaper and magazine
as they sell his
cripple to hero myth.
Me they confuse with Nicole
Brown, Bonnie Bakley, Natalie Wood.
Only my mother, granite-faced
in the front row, knows
my nickname, my favorite food.
He swears when I went
to bed that night, I felt loved.
Whether the judge buys it or not,
he’ll make the history books. I’m just
the dead girl, forgettable,
common as a shoe.

Alison Stone 2014-10-19T00:53:58-05:00
L.C. Cooke: Truth & Time You can hear L.C. Cooke get into a familial groove on recordings his brother Sam produced for him back in the 60s. Those recordings were archived after Sam died, but they were finally released this summer. Decades down the line, L.C.'s collaboration with his brother still sounds like Friday night. My favorite cut is "Put Me Down Easy," which Peter Guralnick notes is "unquestionably one of Sam's great songs." Guralnick tells the story behind it in his liner notes for L.C. Cooke: The Complete SAR Records Recordings.

["Put Me Down Easy"] is yet another of Sam's perfectly constructed masterpieces, but in this case L.C. took it from his brother, rather than just having it given to him.

"Now the way I got it, I was going to record, and Sam was on tour—he would always call me just before he finished his tour to teach me the songs he wanted me to do. This particular morning he was singing, 'Let Me Down Easy.' I said, 'Man what is that?' He said, 'Oh, L.C., it's just a little song I'm messing with. I haven't it finished yet.' I said. 'That's my song Sam.' So he laughed and said, 'Oh you're going to take it just like that, huh?' I said, 'Yeah, I'm taking it.'

'But you know he never finished it. I kept on bugging him. 'When are you going to finish my song?' He said, 'Oh, man, we'll get to it.' The day we recorded, that's the day he finished the song. On the way to the studio he gave me the verses. After he sung it for me, I told him, 'I got it.' He said, 'You got it?' 'Yeah, I got it.' He said, 'Okay, I'm going to see if you got it.' That ain't what he really said. He said, 'I'm going to see if you got it, fucker.' That's what he told me. 'You so smart with your smart ass. I'm going to see if you got it.' Because he didn't think I knew it that quick. I said, 'Sam, I got it. You don't need to tell me no more. That's my song, and I got it.' I started singing, and I looked up at the booth, and Sam was smiling his ass off. Sam was in there just smiling. I said, "Didn't I tell you?' He said, 'You got it. You satisfied me.'"

Guralnick checked in with L.C. this summer and wrote up this addendum to his liner notes.

It’s not often you get to congratulate someone on the release of an album that’s been held up for fifty years.

But that is the case with 81-year-old L.C. Cooke’s Complete SAR Recordings (plus three). Originally scheduled to come out in 1964, it was initially postponed—and then, with Sam’s death, shelved—until its release just a week or two ago.

Even for me, for all my familiarity with both L.C.’s recordings and L.C. himself, it came as a real revelation.

You sang higher, I said to L.C. You sang harder. “I know it,” L.C. said. “Because if I sung in my natural voice I’d sound too much like Sam. Sam said, ‘I hear you, man, and I swear to God, if I didn’t know different, I’d think it was me.’ So that’s when I started singing in a higher pitch.”

He does sound like Sam—a lot like Sam. No one who gave L.C.’s recordings even a cursory listen could deny it. But that’s because they both shared the Cooke sound, L.C. says—that’s what their father sounded like when he was preaching, that’s what their brother Charles, who sang lead with their brother-and-sister family group, the Singing Children, and retired from singing forever the day he turned twenty-one, sounded like, too.

I don’t doubt it. If L.C. tells you something, you can believe him. “I’ll tell you something, Pete,” he told me, not long after we met, over twenty years ago, “some people tell you different things different times, but my stories never change. Because I’m gonna tell you the truth, no matter where it fall.”

Early on, he told me matter-of-factly about the time he met Elvis. He was singing with the Magnificent Montague’s group, the Magnificents, performing their hit, “Up on the Mountain,” at the WDIA Goodwill Revue. This was the famous occasion in 1956 when Elvis unexpectedly showed up and the all-black audience went crazy. “I’ve got all of your hits—‘Up On the Mountain’ and the other side,” Elvis told the group with disarming good humor, but once he heard L.C.’s last name, the Soul Stirrers were all he could talk about, as he offered up titles and verses from their gospel songs. Like all of L.C.’s stories, it is a tale not of glorification but of recognition.

Sometimes L.C. can get in trouble with his penchant for the truth. “What you tell that man all those things for?” his sister Agnes demanded of him after my biography of Sam came out. Both Agnes and L.C. told me the story—Agnes simply thought he had gone too far in his frankness, not just with regard to Sam but with respect to himself. But L.C. had no second thoughts—just as he does not entertain any regrets. “I just told the truth.”

I was reminded of this when I went out to Chicago with Teri Landi and Jody Klein to talk with L.C. last year. I was writing the liner notes for his album, and we were talking about his memories of the various sessions (“Sometimes he remembers things he shouldn’t remember,” said his wife, Marjorie, an ordained minister, laughingly), and L.C. was talking about one of the ten songs on the album that Sam wrote, the previously unreleased “Gonna Have a Good Time,” a carefully crafted number made to sound, L.C. said, “like it’s from long ago” and yet at the same time remain resolutely contemporary. It was one of the few times, L.C. said, that his brother offered him advice in the studio. “He never told me how to sing,” L.C. said unprompted as we listened to the tracks on the album, just before “Gonna Have a Good Time” came up. “The one thing he ever said—when I said ‘before’ he said, ‘Don’t say before, say ‘fore. Remember our heritage!’ In other words, I was singing too correct.” And then sure enough, there it was on the tape, which L.C. had not previously heard, just as he remembered it from fifty years before.

There are some wonderful songs on the album—“Put Me Down Easy” could take its place in any collection of soul or r&b—but not just the songs Sam wrote. L.C.’s favorite is one he wrote himself. “’If I Could Only Hear’ was probably the best song I ever did in my life. To me. You know, sometimes you cut a song and you listen. You say, ‘I could have done that better.’ But ‘If I Could Only Hear'—if I had sung that song for 100 years, I couldn’t have done that song no better than what I did. That’s always been my favorite song. And I think you all will agree.”

Well, you be the judge. But I think this eminently listenable album offers something for everyone. And how great is it to have L.C.’s debut SAR album come out after 50 years sounding as fresh and new as if it were recorded yesterday.

Thanks to Peter Guralnick for letting First reprint this piece which was originally posted at

music Peter Guralnick 2014-10-18T19:56:24-05:00
Confessions of Ben Rhodes, Speechwriter & Deputy National Security Advisor Sure, I’ll yuck it up with the press about my novel, Oasis of Love, but the truth is if it wasn’t as good as Jonathan Franzen it was at least no worse than Jonathan Safran Foer, that cocksucker, vegetarian, limp-wrist, he’s never saved hundreds of Yazidis on a hill, he’s never bombed the shit out of ISIS, he’ll never write a Nobel Prize acceptance speech (not at this rate), he’ll never know how to strike the right balance between humanism and war, he lacks seriousness, testicularity, is what I’m saying, Franzen’s a different story, what Tolstoyan scope of vision, almost like a drone of the heart, a sad and susurrant drone hovering over the parched desert of history, what murderous clarity, like how Midwestern housewives are all secretly dying for cock and like how environmentalists end up becoming frackers, because in the end one never knows where one’s going, I gave Obama Freedom to read and we all agreed, that dork Franzen got to the messy heart of this strange country, the blood and semen-stained heart (I used to write poetry, too), he’s tough, like me, almost as tough as James Foley (would I flinch in the awful daring of a moment’s beheading?), but the truth is fuck James Foley, what was he doing in Syria anyway?, doesn’t he know he can get all his news from the State Department?, I told Obama, Absolutely not, no ransom money for some journalist interloper, a free press is a privilege not a right, I told him, Don’t watch the video, I’ll watch the video for you, I’ll take on all the sins of the world for you, like Judas did for Jesus according to certain Gnostic readings, the Yazidis too are Gnostics, noble aboriginal monotheists in the cradle of our beautiful civilization, our beleaguered civilization, I’m going to write a screenplay or a lyric poem about the love between a Yazidi woman and a Navy Seal, or maybe an American novelist, no I shouldn’t get carried away, a Navy Seal is better, I told Obama, How would it look if at the very moment of our standing side by side with our ally Israel we capitulated to a sentimental politics of life, to Munichian appeasement, let him die, the same way we let Erdogan and his thugs gas the Syrians, we’ll blame it on Assad but behind closed doors we’ll let them know what we think of them, there are so many dirty people in this world, a luxury to think you can hole up in Williamsburg and write novels, on 9/11 I was there and I heard the orgiastic call to arms, I saw those beautiful flame-licked towers fall softly like winter rain, I heard the call to a new seriousness, I wish I’d come up with term “the new seriousness,” I wish I’d written that Claire Messud novel about those over-sexed creative-class types whose empty lives come undone under the cruel and glaring sun of 9/11, that was good, I could have done it with more virility, but good nonetheless, Hitchens, now there was a man, Samantha Power, now there’s a woman, Power and Slaughter, what strong names for the New Woman, leaning-into the abyss of the future, their hot mouths on my strong cock, we all need a fantasy life, even the President on occasion, I’d take Power softly but firmly up the ass, I wonder if she can get me a gig at the Kennedy School when this is all over, if they gave it to Ignatieff why not me?, imagine the happiness, on the side I’d write novels, of course, my true calling, it won’t matter that I’m going bald, lots of attractive bald writers, I wish I looked like Arthur Koestler, now there was a man, I’d settle for Orwell, I used to want to be Hemingway but now I know he was impotent, I’ll show them what I can do, I want to castrate Putin, that would be satisfying, instead I’ll write a novel that ethically castrates Putin, or I’ll reread The Brothers Karamazov and write an essay showing how Putin is an incarnation of Russian nihilism and Russian will-to-power, I’ll imply he’s gay, bare-shirted, all that unnecessary cartoonish machismo, must be compensating, sometimes I want to punch an Arab, I’m just saying that any honest American man must face up to that, the desire to punch an Arab, it’s okay to have a fantasy life, Netanyahu doesn’t need a fantasy life, he can just kill Arabs, lucky bastard, the balls on him, bombing UNRWA schools, Power wasn’t too happy about that, she has a U.N. fetish, understandably, but seriously I tweeted Ramadan greetings to the world’s Muslims, Oasis of Love wasn’t all that bad, I thought the mega-church stuff struck the right oracular Mailerian balance between populism and cynicism, do you think they caught the allusion to Baudelaire, oasis of horror in a desert of boredom, not the best title I’ll admit, I should have called it Oasis of Whore, ha ha, I’m not a failed novelist, I’m just a man who knows what he wants, I’m not the kind of guy who says the novel is dead, I know it’s a taboo thought but who was the Proust of the Papuans?, the Tolstoy of the Zulus?, I don’t believe in experimental writing, in the same way that I don’t believe in revolution, I think the avant-garde led to the gulag, I think the Congress for Cultural Freedom was a good idea, all my MFA friends are calling themselves socialists these days, that worries me, the state needs its writers, after all, in the same way that it needs its executioners, or in a similar way, Vargas Llosa’s still standing strong, Eli Wiesel’s still standing strong, that was a nice touch in the New York Times about the biblical history of child sacrifice, the Jews rejected child sacrifice, now it’s your turn Hamas, you Moloch-lovers, you idolaters, I should crib from that for a speech, a little lighter on the theology, but writers aren’t what they once were, that’s true, maybe the novel is dead, I’m not a failed novelist because the novel is dead, such sweet melancholia, now is the age of the new seriousness, from the ashes of history must rise the phoenix of the new novelists, me, Ben, Homage to Kurdistan, I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work, a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, in the shit and the piss of the human spirit, not my first Nobel Prize speech, ha ha, but the first one to which I’ve attached this accidental insignificance of history, my name, Benjamin Rhodes, for our nothingness differs little, good people of Sweden and Norway, it is a trivial and chance circumstance that you should be the audience of this speech and I its author, etc. etc., I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Yazidi girls used under the Security Fence and I thought well as well Obama as another and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes my mountain flower and he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his cock was pulsing like mad and yes I said yes I will yes, etc. etc., for a man of genius like myself there are no errors but only sinecures of discovery, in the beginning was the Deed, not the Word, that loser, that cuckold, that imposter, the Word, the scrotum-crushing Word, yes I will.

David Golding 2014-10-17T13:19:28-05:00
Media Narratives and Their Unreliable Narrators The unreliable narrator is a notable feature of the modern novel. The sophisticated reader is expected to pick up clues (planted by the novelist as distinguished from the narrator) in order to correct whatever false impressions he or she receives from the narration. The novelist forgoes the privilege of omniscient narration to awaken the reader from the torpor of passivity, encouraging intelligent resistance to what the narrative voice is saying about the world it is representing. In the world of politics, we speak of the media narrative of our political life. The narrators (and there are many) are called pundits. Their reading or listening audience are generally uneducated in the practice of distinguishing between the unreliable, who are legion, and the reliable narrators, who are few. There is no overseeing presence like the novelist to provide us with clues to distinguish the reliable from the unreliable. This is unfortunate since the media even more than political parties and their propaganda machines shape our perceptions and understanding of political life. We may discount the effusions of the propaganda machines, knowing where they come from, but the pundits with their reputation for wisdom (whether earned or unearned) tend to disarm our critical faculties. The result is that media narratives have too often distorted our understanding of the political life and have faced little effort from readers and listeners to counter the distortions. The media may boast of speaking truth to power as if the media itself (a collective noun) is not in fact a power equal to if not greater than the political powers to which it presumes to speak the truth.

What follows is a review of the media narrative of the Obama Administration. I begin with the chapters on foreign policy, in particular the president’s actions or his inaction in Iraq. The main arc of the narrative is that Obama’s predecessor made the mistake of invading Iraq without an inkling of what the consequences would be and Obama made the mistake of prematurely withdrawing troops without an appreciation of the consequences. The narrative in effect implies a false equivalency, both presidents being viewed as equally responsible for our plight in Iraq. Pundits, not confined to conservatives from whom we expect disparagement of Obama no matter what he does, seem generally agreed that he has withdrawn troops prematurely. They never say how long the troops should have remained in place and at what point a withdrawal would achieve the kind of stability that would not require the presence of American troops. They never say, because they do not know. Nobody knows. Given the intensity and long history of the Sunni-Shiite conflict, it is clear to no one what it would take to overcome that conflict and create a decent order not only in Iraq, but in the Middle East generally. Pundits without a stake in the formation and execution of policy never stop to consider the uncertain consequences of virtually any decision that the president might make in acting or not acting. Talk is cheap. We do know the consequences of our disastrous shock and awe invasion in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. The decision to invade was made by a deceitful and incompetent Administration. (There were no weapons of mass destruction threatening “the homeland,” and those in charge probably knew it. The Administration at the time certainly lied about their certainty that the weapons existed.) Even those who supported the war, the neo-conservatives who engineered it and liberal hawks who went along for the ride, have in many instances conceded that “a mistake was made.”

The decision to withdraw Iraqi troops after more than decade of fruitless war making can be debated, but it is hardly comparable to the egregious invasion that took place under the previous Administration. There is no equivalence. On the current crisis in Syria: the liberal Cokie Roberts states with unearned confidence that Hilary Clinton was right that we should have supported the moderate, secularly inclined, Syrian rebels earlier in the Civil War. The result of not having done so has been at once an advantage to Assad and to the terrorist groups, in particular ISIS. Here are possible consequences that she does not consider. A no fly zone executed by the American Air Force might result in our planes being shot down, no essential change in the Civil War and mission creep. Supplying the rebels with arms could easily turn into a situation comparable to that which has recently occurred in Iraq. The more effective terrorist groups would defeat the secular rebels, which could easily lead to arms falling into the hands of the terrorists. Doesn’t it make sense for Obama to hesitate and reflect before reentering Iraq or intervening in Syria and any other place where our presence might make things even worse than the horrors already being committed? The reactionary Laura Ingraham in an uncharacteristic moment of disinterested reflection concedes that there are no good choices for American policy in the Mid East, but then can’t resist dumping on Obama for his supposedly feckless leadership without the slightest suggestion of what he could do or should do that he is not already doing. Obama has now made an understandable and controversial decision in deciding to intervene in Syria, because of the truly dangerous expansion of Isis in Iraq, which effectively erodes the border between Iraq and Syria.

In response to a question weeks ago about strategy in the current crisis with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Obama stated that the Administration does not yet have a strategy. The Administration was in the process of debating alternative strategies. Inevitably, the statement was reported as a reflection of the president’s indecisiveness and weakness. (If he had the chance to revise the sentence, he probably would have said, “we are in the process of formulating a strategy.”) Presidents are not supposed to admit openly that they have not immediately decided what to do when confronted by a crisis. The fact is that sane leaders sit down with advisers and take the necessary time (if time is a available) to figure out what has to should be done. What distinguishes Obama’s statement is his transparency, presumably a virtue only on occasions when he is not transparent. The pundits draw a portrait of the president as a ditherer, a waffler, weak in resolve, incapable of decisive action—as if decisiveness is a value irrespective of what one is being decisive about. When reminded of the decisiveness of Bush and his premature declaration of Mission Accomplished, those who sit at the roundtable on Sunday morning talk shows nod dismissively in acknowledgement, but then express their dismay that the president has no grand strategy (no large narrative?) for addressing the dangers that the terrorists pose to “the homeland.” It’s as if a grand strategy is available for the having, though we rarely hear a word of what that might be from the wise men and women who sit around the table and talk, talk and talk. When Obama does decide to reenter Iraq in a limited way to protect the ancient religious sect the Yadizis from the genocidal ambitions of ISIS and defend the American presence in Iraq as well as the Kurdish forces who are probably our only effective allies, we hear complaints about the narrow scope of the intervention without any reflection on what a wider intervention and its consequences would look like. Obama, our writer/president, intuitively understands that narratives (real life as well as fictional) conceived in the head before events actually unfold themselves will probably not hold up and only disappoint or injure those who have been made to believe in the narratives. Obama’s caution and hesitations reflect a salutary uncertainty about consequences and a desire for flexibility in responding to unforeseen circumstances. Unlike his predecessor or his critics on the right, he has the capacity and courage to admit that he failed to foresee the consequences of certain actions he took, for instance in Libya when he had no strategy for what would replace Gaddafi. He also acknowledged his surprise at the speed at which ISIS evolved into a dangerous power. (Remember, when asked at a press conference about any mistakes that he made as president, George W. Bush was dumbfounded—as if such a question was inconceivable.)

Turning to Ukraine, the pundits remind us of a mistake the President Obama did make and which he has not acknowledged: he failed to act on his apparent promise to act when he drew a red line on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical warfare. The mistake is not that he failed to act, but that he drew the red line in the first place. (What the critics rarely mention is the Administration’s accomplishment in getting the Syrian regime to rid itself of its stockpile of chemical weapons.) But then the leap is made: Obama’s failure to act was a signal to Putin to retake Crimea and support the ethnic Russian revolt in eastern Ukraine. Where is the evidence for this view? Putin doubtless knew that any sane president, decisive or not, would not commit the insanity of going to war over Ukraine. Whether or not Obama intervened in Syria seems to have no bearing on what has been happening on Ukraine’s eastern border. The fact is that Obama has acted with greater determination in imposing sanctions on Russia than have his European allies, who have much more at stake than does the United States. The general point to make about the state of media punditry is its disposition to find fault as if a negative disposition automatically reflects critical intelligence.

George Will is a striking example of punditry as the dismal art. He mocks Obama’s statement that the solution in the Mid East and elsewhere is reconciliation between conflicting sides in which there is no vanquisher and vanquished, noting that ISIS is in its essence devoted to vanquishing. For all his vaunted intelligence and command of language, he is remarkably ungenerous, if not obtuse, in his reading of Obama’s policy. Obama is not speaking of ISIS and AL QAEDA, which are incapable of thinking of the world other than in apocalyptic winner-take-all terms, but he is of course right to appeal to those who may be capable of compromise and reconciliation. (Without reconciliation between Shias and the Sunnis, the state of Iraq may fall apart.) He is stating what is desired and necessary for peace and stability, not what is. Nor is he is promising that what he desires will be accomplished. Yes, the world is full conflicts in which enemies look for victory and not reconciliation. Is George Will saying, “forget about the possibility of reconciliation,” that the world everywhere and always is defined by winners and losers? Isn’t the very idea of democracy, certainly our constitutional democracy, dependent upon the possibility of resolving conflicts in which each party comes away without feeling vanquished?

I have not addressed the media narrative of Obama’s failure on the domestic front. It can be summed up by a statement made by “the Senate Republicans’ campaign committee,” which sums up “the latest evidence from polls, pundits and policy controversies attesting to the incompetence of the president and, by extension, the Democratic Senate majority. ‘The increasingly long list of scandals, crises and government incompetence (from Benghazi to the I.R.S, Obamacare to the debt, to the Bergdahl affair, to negotiating with the Taliban, to the VA scandal, to the situation in Iraq) have created an extremely toxic environment for Democrats.’” (Jackie Calmes, NY Times, August 14, 2014). This summary narrative is reported without a resisting commentary. We learn nothing about the achievements of Obamacare, or about exaggerations and distortions of the behavior of the I.R.S. by the Republicans (the organizations, liberal as well as conservative, vetted by the I.R.S. were faux self-described welfare organizations that are really political PACS), or the long standing problems in the VA that preceded the Obama Administration or, the originating cause of all our problems in Iraq (the behavior of the party in power that preceded the present Administration). We should expect nothing less from the party that issued this statement about the Obama supposed failures. What we should also expect is a fair, corrective narrative from the reporter of the statement. Which is not to say that such a narrative would absolve the Obama Administration of all responsibility for its problems. But it would place the major responsibility for the radical dysfunctionality of our federal government on the legislative obstructionism of Republican House of Representatives. As Norman Orenstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institute have convincingly shown in their book, It's Even Worse than You Think: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, the “balanced” view of equal responsibility on both sides is a false equivalence.

The pleasure of unreliable narrative in fiction is that it challenges the reader to remake the narrative in his own imagination in order to get at the truth of the fictional reality being depicted. The reader has the advantage of the novelist’s complicity in providing clues for remaking the narrative. In the real political world, there are clues aplenty, indeed an overabundance of information. The problem is sorting out what is true from what is false and misleading with the help of a scholar or pundit one has learned to trust. The first habit one must form as a consumer of news is that of a discriminating resistance to the media without being intransigent. Just saying no can lead one as far astray as just saying yes. What one must always mistrust is the narrative, i.e. a grand strategy that confidently describes a future, which is always uncertain. The media seems always to be asking Obama about his strategy, about his goals and expected outcomes. In a time like our own when all choices for action are bad (have past presidents ever faced so many bad choices as Obama?), his “watchful waiting” (a medical phrase) to see how the disease progresses before acting seems like the best strategy.

The unreliable narrator assumes the existence of a reliable narrator. Reliable narration implies the possibility of objective truth. Postmodern skepticism throws all in doubt. For the postmodern historian there is no objective truth. The political equivalent of the omniscient narrator is the despot, either benevolent or malevolent. The political equivalent of the radically skeptical postmodern narrator is anarchy or chaos. A healthy skepticism need not preclude a modest belief in objective truth (small letters)—always with the proviso that never being certain of getting things right one is or should be always subject to change and correction. This is the disposition of the writer and the philosophical pragmatist, a disposition to be found in our president. Precociously alert to the uncertainties and “messiness” (his word) of the world, Obama is that attractive rarity, a writerly president with all the political disabilities that being writerly entails.

What are Obama’s disabilities? Frank Bruni, an Op Ed columnist for the New York Times in a column titled “Obama’s Messy Words” (Sept. 2, 2014 A29) makes the case. Bruni is generally sympathetic with Obama’s foreign policy, but critical of his public presentation of it. Obama “has lost sight” of an important distinction. “There are things that you think and things that you say.” He should not have said in public that in the matter of Syria he had as yet “had no strategy.” It is understandable, Bruni concedes, that he does not yet have one, but saying so in public “gives no comfort to Americans” and “puts no fear in our enemies.” Bruni does not ask himself whether simply being silent on the matter would give comfort and what comfort can or should be given. It may be the case that silence or a revised statement: “we are in the process of formulating a strategy” would have been reassuring to the American public and put some fear in the enemies. Bruni goes on to fault Obama for characterizing the world as it is, indeed, as it always has been as “messy.” (He questions, rightly I think, the relevance of Obama’s citing the time of the Cold War as more dangerous than the present time.) The word “messy” reflects complacency, a lack of a sense of urgency about the serious problems facing us. Bruni also faults the president (paraphrasing him) for telling the public “technology and social media amplify peril in a new way and may be the reason you’re feeling on edge.” Bruni wonders whether “the president [is] consoling us—or himself.” He finds such statements “rattling” rather than reassuring. As does the “defeatism” of “reminding us that ‘America, as the most powerful country in the world does not control everything.’” Such statements are not “savvy, constructive P. R.,” and he attributes Obama’s current low popularity to his failure to be reassuring. He criticizes Obama for saying “that the United States shouldn’t be expected to act on its own. Isn’t that better whispered to our allies and negotiated behind closed doors?” Is it better? The open statement is a challenge to our putative allies. The whispered statement is hardly a reflection of the decisiveness that Bruni apparently wants in the president. Whispers can easily be ignored. Bruni is right to point to Obama’s weakness of tone when more forcefulness would seem to be in place, but he misfires, it seems to me, when he wants the president to keep from the public the limits of American power. Invoking PR savvy in this connection is unworthy of Bruni, who deserves a place among the more reliable narrators. What Obama lacks is a Machiavellian disposition, which by definition is a political disposition: politics is not simply truth telling; it is about instilling confidence even when times are bad. It is about knowing when to reveal and when to conceal.

Whether Obama’s transparency was right or wrong for the occasion in his candor about having as yet no strategy for combating ISS, it is hardly a cardinal sin. Narratives vary in their economies. There are admirable narratives rich in episode and prose (Dickens comes to mind), and admirable narratives austere in both (Hemingway is an example). Our political narratives are bloated and repetitive, melodramatic in their amplification of events, the result of the 24/7 news cycle. Relatively insignificant items achieve a hugely disproportionate size in the way they are represented. The president says, “we do not yet have a strategy,” and the sentence becomes a world-historical event. If one suspends judgment of his rhetoric, its tone, indiscretions and occasional inconsistencies, one must give high marks for a progressive agenda, partially enacted.

nation Eugene Goodheart 2014-10-16T23:49:27-05:00
Buzzfeed Bill McKibben’s Oil and Honey is a Jeremiad about Global Warming that’s also a charm offensive. The author’s faith in the appeal of his teacherly Yankee persona seems almost as strong as his certitude rising levels of atmospheric carbon will have a devastating impact on the climate.

The book jumps between McKibben’s life on the road—or online—as a campaigner out to build “the first Green movement for the internet age”—and off-the grid scenes with a Vermont beekeeper/farmer who pursues his calling on property McKibben bought for him (though it will be inherited by the author’s daughter).

McKibben bets readers will be engaged by the dailiness of his life in both worlds. He’s eager to share his feelings and tastes as well as his analysis of climate change:

I had my baseball cap on, my earphones pulled down tight and now my northern soul playlist has turned over to the too-soon-forgotten Prince Philip Mitchell and his not-quite-a-hit “I’m So Happy.” Don’t know if we’re going to win, but we were rolling…

McKibben’s self-presentation sparks resistance in this reader (for reasons I’ll get to later), but I’ll cop to being won over by the mellow Italian bees he describes in his book’s Honey sections. They act like they’re “from a warm country, where plants blossomed most of the year, winters were mild; life was good.” According to McKibben’s beekeeper bud, “they almost mimic the stereotypes of Italians...’” (FYI, Russian bees seem to be mimics too: “’They are more conservative...Once they’ve put up some honey in a sealed cell they have to be at death’s door before they’ll open up that cell and eat it. And they’re used to a long hard winter.’”)

McKibben’s memoir of his works and days seems most genuine when he’s learning bee lore or zeroing in on wilder animals:

Moose are exquisitely well-adapted to the cold, which is to say that they’re exquisitely badly adapted to the heat—above 20 degrees Fahrenheit they start looking for shade...By contrast ticks love the new warm weather...and the Minnesota scientists were reporting that moose, who had evolved, to deal with ten thousand ticks, now were carrying as many as seventy thousand at a time. The insects were driving them so crazy that they were scratching off their fur—biologists reported finding animals with only 10 percent of their fur intact. And then, what if we have the occasional old school cold spell? “With no hair, if you’re trying to survive in a cold climate, you’re basically going to die from exposure,” said one expert.

McKibben’s reporting here should get under your skin. But you might be tempted to brush him off when he mashes up existential threats to moose in Minnesota—or Antarctic polar bears—with heavy rains his neighbors in Vermont have been experiencing more often than previous generations of New Englanders. McKibben’s narrative links flooding in Vermont caused in 2011 by Hurricane Irene to a coming “chain of disasters that will turn civilization into an emergency response drill.” On his account, the morning after “Thatcher Brook and the Winooski River overtopped its banks in Watertown” ought to live in memory like the night of the Johnstown flood. I don’t want to seem callous about any natural disaster—and I appreciate the “generous spirit” displayed by Vermonters in Irene’s aftermath—but when McKibben suggests that storm was a telltale sign of a process that will “make humid New England a swamp” he sounds overwrought.

McKibben believes the atmosphere has already reached the tipping point—the number in the name of his NGO “refers to the theoretical maximum safe level, in parts per million, of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a level we have already surpassed.” Per the summation by the Atlantic’s Charles C. Mann (in “How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen”) who likens the fearful futurism of McKibben and his doomier colleagues (shall we call them inconvenient truthers?) to Paul Ehrlich’s discredited projections in The Population Bomb. Ehrlich is the shrill Malthusian who assured readers in 1968 nothing could be done to stop hundreds of millions of people from starving to death due to overpopulation. A year later, “he gave even odds that ‘England wouldn’t exist in the year 2000.’” McKibben never mentions Ehrlich’s follies or acknowledges The Population Bomb’s fizzle complicates any attempt to convince non-believers about the dangers of global warming.

Straight talk from a longtime labor organizer is on point here. McKibben and friends should try to hear this potential ally who’s been willing to criticize “unions that forego alliances with Greens that could strengthen workers’ power (and establish a new economic development model) in order to protect a couple of thousand temporary pipeline construction jobs.” Yet he's put off by mainstream eco-rhetoric that...

has the apocalyptic character of the “population bomb,” and similar movements: divorced from the really existing political economy and devoid of any interest either in preserving the status quo or driving change. And using the "tipping point" imagery to characterize an incremental process just seems stupid from an organizer's perspective. If we've already passed the point of no return, why bother? Might as well just move to higher ground and stock up on canned goods.

McKibben almost goes there in Oil and Honey, using the example of his tenant farmer to map a provincial utopian alternative to actually existing political economies. His devolutionism seems irreal. (Though it’s good news to find out the Feds have reported—“after a century of decline”—there are now 30,000 more farms—mostly small ones like McKibben’s—in America.)

McKibben aims to reconcile his localism with the global nature/challenge of climate change. His crusade against global warming has taken him all over the world. And Oil and Honey is full of virtual journeys too. Like this one in McKibben’s account of his’s “Connect the Dots Day of Action” web-campaign:

On Cape Town’s Table Mountain climbers rappelled down from the top to hang a giant red dot above the nearly sea level flats where hundreds of thousands of poor people live in shanty towns. At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, the largest church in the hemisphere, the priests blessed hundreds of bikes...

But this sort of birds-eye enviro-internationalism passes right over whole ways of struggle. You can’t truly connect those dots if you’re not fully alive to all that distances the damned in shanty towns from blessed bicyclists on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (or those South African rappellers?). “Short of genius,” said Peguy, “a rich man cannot even imagine poverty.” It’s not McKibben’s fault he’s no genius but he needs to try harder. After all, he’s up against one actual genius—theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson—whose critique of the science behind global warming alarums is informed by clarity about fossil fuels’ link to economic development that’s lifted millions of people out of poverty. I can’t tell if Dyson’s right when he claims computer models of the “holy brotherhood of climate experts” fail to take in “the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests..the real world that we live in.” But, beyond this scientific dispute, Dyson has summed up a larger culture-clash between humanists (like him) and naturalists (like McKibben):

Naturalists believe that nature knows best. For them the highest value is to respect the natural order of things. Any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil. Excessive burning of fossil fuels is evil. Changing nature’s desert, either the Sahara desert or the ocean desert, into a managed ecosystem where giraffes or tuna fish may flourish, is likewise evil. Nature knows best, and anything we do to improve upon Nature will only bring trouble.

The humanist ethic begins with the belief that humans are an essential part of nature. Through human minds the biosphere has acquired the capacity to steer its own evolution, and now we are in charge. Humans have the right and the duty to reconstruct nature so that humans and biosphere can both survive and prosper. For humanists, the highest value is harmonious coexistence between humans and nature. The greatest evils are poverty, underdevelopment, unemployment, disease and hunger, all the conditions that deprive people of opportunities and limit their freedoms. The humanist ethic accepts an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a small price to pay, if world-wide industrial development can alleviate the miseries of the poorer half of humanity.

McKibben might reject Dyson’s antimony between naturalists and humanists. But he avoids the h-word in Oil and Honey. He stakes a claim on another term, though, insisting Greens like him must be seen as the planet’s true conservatives. Perhaps he’s right on. Yet there’s a high-low tradition of conservatism that’s long been defined by skepticism of any projection that assumes revolutionary transformations in human civilization/nature are imminent. Subtle or silly minds biased against the-shock-of-the-new (and in favor of the Zen of Ike) aren’t likely to be over-awed by dizzyingly complex—and very variable—abstractions of climate modelers.

Not that there aren’t self-described conservatives who break with the consensus on the right that climate change is a scam. Andrew Sullivan recently gave McKibben a platform. And the unorthodox “pro-science” rightist Charles Johnson at the Little Green Footballs website upholds the environmentalism of Margaret Thatcher (whose responsiveness in the 80s to warnings about carbon in the atmosphere was amped up by her antipathy to British coal miners).

McKibben doesn’t bring up the Iron Lady in Oil and Honey. His ideal of a heroine is Naomi Klein who is famously a woman of the Left. Though his connection to her isn’t chiefly about ideology. (McKibben jokes he’s more Methodist than Socialist.) When he invokes Klein’s role in the “road show” he launched after the 2012 presidential election, her je ne sais quois trumps any political message (though the phrase infantile leftism did come to mind as I read the following passage):

Thank heaven that was night Naomi Klein joined the tour live...The video she’d cut was sterling, but having her there in person made life much sweeter...We got to play around with [her infant son] Toma for an hour backstage before the show (life would be much better if everyone just went around blowing raspberries on each other’s tummies) and then I got to play around with her onstage. She took half the script, and we threw lines back and forth like pros. It couldn’t have gone better, which was nice, since my mother was in the third row.

Oil and Honey doesn’t make much of a case for McKibben’s home-training. Take his take on that tour. It’s an ego-trip that includes a how-you-know-I-told-you-so boast about his debate with an oil company exec—“a rout”—as well as a thumbs up review of his last gig: “I gave the truest talk of the whole long month, a valedictory that gathered in strength as it rolled to its end.” I was struck by another prideful passage that made me worry about McKibben family values earlier on in Oil and Honey. It’s a praise-song to McKibben’s daughter that mixes up Nature with The Meritocracy: “By the time she was fifteen she’d climbed all forty-six of the high peaks in her native Adirondacks, which made me at least as proud as her college admissions letter did a few years later.” Readers might be missing part of the back story here—perhaps the mountaineer had to overcome unobvious academic barriers—but it’s hard to see why Harvard man McKibben should take such pride in his entitled daughter’s cultural climb.

McKibben recalls his own transition as a young man from Harvard to the New Yorker, which gives him a chance to cite his mentor, editor William Shawn.[1] But his stance in Oil and Honey is pretty far removed from Shawn’s recessive ways.

A glance at McKibben’s nod to another magazine’s editors hints how his campaign against climate change is predicated on self-promotion that might have seemed unseemly to Mr. Shawn:

The editors [at Rolling Stone “who’d published the longest magazine piece I’d written in years”] didn’t make me pull any punches. “We have met the enemy and they is Shell,” I’d written and they hadn’t blanched.[2] I was glad to get it in print…But I didn’t expect much of a reaction...I was wrong. Not since The End of Nature had I struck such a nerve. Within a day, five hundred thousand people had read it on the web, and the numbers kept climbing past two million. By the time the week was out it had been “liked” 100,000 times. Since I’m not a facebook user that didn’t mean much to me...

But McKibben’s all in when the subject is his own (relative) significance—“ExxonMobile, the top company on the Fortune 500 had but 8,800 likes.” And our life-long learner wants extra credit—“twelve times more likable than ExxonMobile!”[3]

McKibben’s giddy response to writing a piece that went viral isn’t in sweet harmony with his notion Americans might learn from his beekeeper friend “to adapt to a crazed world with care and grace.” A writer with a better moral imagination might help readers see around the contrarieties. But McKibben doesn’t come across as a conflicted visionary agitated by the contradiction between birthing a social movement and buying that farm. He seems like a bicoastal promo man who can’t keep his shticks straight. His small-is-beautiful riffs get old quick since he’s so obviously fiending to live large.

McKibben’s exemplary beekeeper/farmer isn’t made for this world. (As far gone from modernity as the Amish—he’s a law-abiding cousin to wild ones who reject “the Culture of Maximum Harm.”) But there’s not much that’s countercultural about his landlord. McKibben is not only at peace with the internet (and at ease with the Meritocracy), he’s out to align himself with those who are most at home in the bad new days. Oil and Honey is stuck on stars. McKibben’s rapture in the nearness of Naomi Klein isn’t a one-off. There are name-checks of (former) movie stars at a demo: “Margot Kidder, who’d played Lois Lane...Tantoo Cardinal...—you saw her in Dances with Wolves. Darryl Hannah.” He’s thrilled by a side-trip to Old Hollywood where he heads up “Mandeville Canyon to what may be the single most beautiful house I’ve ever seen, the hilltop property of Norman and Lyn Lear who were hosting a session for fifty or sixty screenwriters in the hopes they’d insert story lines about climate change into their films and tv shows.” Back on the East Coast he’s juiced by a younger player: “Omar Metwally who’d starred in Rendition and was about to play a Vampire in the next Twilight film, stayed half a day.”

Movie stars are only the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Oil and Honey is full of nada meetings with remarkable men and women. McKibben’s encounter with Gary Snyder—the poet who was the model for the character Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums is typical of the book’s empty star turns:

We drank tea and talked about fellow writers we loved, such as Wendell Berry and Terry Tempest Williams; about the woods east and west, about words and gods and hopes and fears.

McKibben’s chattiness will charm certain readers but this is one of numberless passages in Oil and Honey that traduce the Beat idea a book could be like a friend. There’s nothing compelling about McKibben’s discourse with Snyder. It comes down to clichés—those “hopes and fears,” that undifferentiating “love” that conflates fan-ship with close imagining.

McKibben’s afternoon with Snyder leads to a starry night. Snyder introduces him to Jerry Brown who attends McKibben’s evening lecture:

[P]eople were actually scalping tickets outside, something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen at a talk of mine. I gave it my best, partly because the governor and his wife were in the front row, each of them scribbling notes like graduate students, and partly because Gary had introduced me...

McKibben’s celeb-mongering is one aspect of a larger addiction to hype: “Al Gore was the greatest climate advocate on the planet”...“Bob Semple, the legendary editorial writer for The New York Times”...“the great writer Rick Bass...” In the beginning, McKibben applies gift words to others, but as the book moves on he gives back to himself. That Peter Travers-like rave for his own “valedictory” I quoted above isn’t the low point. In the book’s oiliest passage a “clearheaded friend” becomes a vector for pure self-celebration:

She quoted from the end of a recent profile of me in Outside Magazine:

“‘If, as is far more likely, he has zero impact, and we become Venus 2, all of those pixels of snowflakes and sand castles and little girls holding signs nothing but melting chips of silicon on a dead server, then it won’t be because William Earnest McKibben didn’t give it a shot.’”

She finished her upbraiding [!] like this:

“If you make any mental adjustment, I wish it would be to move away from the self-description that you’re ‘a mild-mannered Methodist Sunday School teacher.’ You’re not. You’re a fighter and a hero. That’s how others see you. So really the only one you’re now fooling with the Sunday School line is yourself.

Maybe it’s time to shift from being Clark Kent to being Superman.”

This is not an aside. It’s meant to be one of Oil and Honey’s key takeaways. The book is, in part, a chart of McKibben’s ever-growing readiness to become a legend in his own mind—to Superman up.

Post-publication, though, McKibben has flipped this script. The paperback edition of Oil and Honey includes a “never mind” Afterword: “As the pages of this book make clear...I’d come to think of myself as a leader...In recent months I’ve come to like that idea of leaders less and less.” That afterword might inspire more confidence in McKibben’s changes if it had been recast as a foreword to let a buyer beware.

McKibben says he’s into de-centered politics now. He’s looking past top-down models of leadership. Alternative energy practices provide him with a metaphor for a “distributed, loosely linked power network,” though he acknowledges his analysis of democratic practice isn’t fresh: “Much of this is old news to people who have been building movements for years. I haven’t.” Fair enough. Yet this reader’s impulse to cut him slack is undercut by the rote quality of his responses to folks who know much more than him about movement-building. Near the end of Oil and Honey, he recalls a moment of frisson: “the biggest thrill came when we were joined by Julian Bond, the former head of the NAACP and got to listen when he told of his days in 1960 when he went to jail for helping to desegregate lunch counters in Atlanta. You could feel the movement broadening, deepening...” Actually, this episode makes you feel just the opposite since the passage is a dead ringer for an earlier one in the book describing how Benjamin Jealous, “the young and dynamic head of the NAACP,” “thrilled” a crowd of environmentalists with his “tales of Civil Rights organizing:” “It felt like we were taking the movement new places...” Bond and/or Jealous don’t enable McKibben to get deep into a useable past. Their role in his text is to provide color (and cheap thrills).

McKibben mentions he’s been reading Taylor Branch’s history of the Civil Rights Movement with his students at Middlebury College. But that turns out to be a tease since Oil and Honey isn’t a contribution to the history of the American organizing tradition. McKibben doesn’t try to provide an account in real time of a burgeoning social movement. His book, with all its self-checks, is best understood as an attempt to enhance unconditional positive self-regard among a niche-market of green politicos.

That market overlaps some with other sectors of the reading public that buy into ideologues on the left. Noam Chomsky, for example, may soon be competing for market share with McKibben. Chomsky has begun to work the threat of global warming into his s’all bad raps on current affairs.

Eighty years ago, Martin Heidegger extolled Nazi Germany as providing the best hope for rescuing the glorious civilization of the Greeks from the barbarians of the East and West. Today, German bankers are crushing Greece under an economic regime designed to maintain their wealth and power.

The likely end of the era of civilization is foreshadowed in a new draft report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the generally conservative monitor of what is happening to the physical world...

McKibben’s tone is sunnier than Chomsky’s and his happy didact’s product is probably an easier sell than the dark mandarin’s. I don’t know how much McKibben’s voice has been shaped by marketing imperatives, but his in-it-to-win-it side is on display in a column (“Inside the List”) on bestsellers in a recent New York Times Book Review. The column addresses the success of Naomi Klein’s new book, published on Sept. 16th:

[F]ive days, as it happened, before hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered in Manhattan for The People’s Climate March. Klein was among them. “How did it feel,” the author and march organizer Bill McKibben asked her earlier that week, “to see 200,000 people coming to New York for your book party?”

McKibben knows from book parties. The paperback of Oil and Honey ends with pages summarizing the contents of four recent works by him. One of them is Enough—a title that acquired an unintended connotation once I got through Oil and Honey.


[1] Over-the-top praise for a famous F.O.B. provides cover for McKibben to spread the self-love:

When Si Newhouse bought the New Yorker and fired the editor, William Shawn, who was only the greatest editor who’d ever lived, I quit the best job in journalism and walked away. So, ok, gut check and I passed.

McKibben sounds like a wannabe insider when he invokes “Si” and an eternal suck-up in re the late Shawn. His memory of walking tall got me thinking about another better-known episode where editorial succession at the New Yorker led to a public break between a writer and a newish boss. Back in the 90s, George Trow quit the New Yorker in a protest against Tina Brown’s attempt to make the magazine over into a celebrity-first pub with sizzle. But Trow wasn’t moved to go when Robert Gottlieb replaced William Shawn. Did Trow fail some kind of gut check then? As long as I’m wondering, it occurs to me McKibben’s latest stuff would’ve fit right into Brown’s hype-ridden pages. And one more thought. McKibben has bowed to—and blurbed—Trow’s works of cultural criticism, but I’m not sure he’s been upfront about how much he owes his former colleague. Try the following quote (attributed to McKibben’s The Age of Missing Information at the Good Reads website):

TV was like a third parent—a source of ideas and information and impressions. And not such a bad parent—always with time to spare, always eager to please, often funny.

Compare it with Trow’s lines from Within the Context of No Context (which came first):

Your parents had a third parent—television. If you went back to 1952, you would be surprised. Many people—of all kinds and conditions—had just two parents.

McKibben’s version doesn’t improve on the original. His spin on Trow, though, suggests he might not be wrong when he talks up his own audacity. There's no reference to Trow in The Age of Missing Information's index. But in the book's acknowledgements, there's this: "George Trow, dear friend and colleague, made me think very hard about the media and I am immensely grateful to him." Maybe that covers it/him.

2 Given McKibben’s hoary Pogo reference, I’m not sure those editors deserve credit for being so hands-off.

3 If corporations are people too, I guess I’d rather hang with Bill McKibben. Though his affirmation of “a windy party at St. Stephen’s church, with my friend DJ Spooky spinning records and telling stories about his trip to the Antarctic” proves his idea of a good time isn’t mine. Back in the 90s, I once was stuck waiting in a cavernous Manhattan club for a friend who was running late. The place was dead—nobody at all on the dance floor. And there was nothing to concentrate attention except the impossibly awful music. It was an evening to forget but it snuck into memory because it occurred to me in that moment I was listening to the single worst DJ I’d ever heard in decades of musicking in New York City. The One (who was never on the one) that night was DJ Spooky. Word he’s adding stories about watching snow melt to his mixes seems apt. Perhaps the secret meaning of climate change for Spooky is: Become what you are.

The DJ’s role in Oil and Honey as a designated African-American F.O.B. isn’t that far removed from Julian Bond’s or Ben Jealous’s. (Though they're blameless and Spooky's not.) I’m just now recalling McKibben cites R&B singer Frank Ocean too. (Not in the context of rising sea levels.) And of course McKibben wants you to know he’s a Northern Soul Man.

His Green/Black thing notwithstanding, someone should tell old Bill he’ll be vanilla till he dies.

nation Benj DeMott 2014-10-15T12:46:05-05:00
IMMA LET YOU FINISH “Shake It Off,” director Mark Romanek’s recent clip for Taylor Swift, depicts bad new trends in beautiful old ways. It works the same way as the best ‘80s-‘90s music videos—using semiotics to express up-to-the-minute changes in pop culture, producing the sort of imagery commentators and marketers now glibly call “iconic.”

The video shows Swift—a young blonde of model-like proportions—out of place among several sets of professional dancers representing a range of styles from stage to street. Rather than trying to find a way to slot herself into the dance, Swift flaunts her difference as a “normal person” trapped in this freakshow of talent. Her “comic” antics (e.g., nodding in self-satisfaction as she flagrantly botches a move) are in fact ambiguous, pitched precisely between self-deprecation and impertinent mockery of the dancers. They contain a sort of chastened appreciation for the dancers’ accomplishments that somehow only bolsters Swift’s centrality as protagonist and the primary object of audience identification.

Yet Romanek’s camera confers slo-mo grace and glory on the dancers nonetheless. The sharpness of HD photography (along with DP Jeff Cronenweth’s deceptively subtle lighting) augments one’s awe at the ballerinas’ impeccably poised serenity, the future-disco troupe’s defiance of the accepted limits of a limb...even the twerkers’ commanding vectors, which put 3-D in the shade.

This helps explain why the controversy over “Shake It Off” supposedly misappropriating black culture is beside the point. Old ways of framing exploitation have little relevance to 2014’s pop machinery. Taylor Swift is not Madonna (though she’s just as bad a dancer). The issue is no longer what it means when empowered whites take up black and subcultural modes of meaning, but what it means when a privileged perspective interposes itself between its audience and those modes. And it should be noted that in the video Swift co-opts high styles as well as low, as any good child of postmodernism would. (Her upcoming album is called 1989, after the year she was born.)

Practically every frame of “Shake It Off” begs the question: Why is Taylor Swift a star? The only possible answer: Because she is. The winds of commerce deposited her where she stands, so it’s useless to blame her unduly.

Romanek’s ballerinas (the first dancers we see in the video) subliminally critique Swift’s irreducible white privilege by evoking Kanye West’s 2010 “Runaway” video, which also prominently featured ballet. It was probably West’s sense of that privilege that drove him to rush the stage in protest at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards after a top prize went to Swift over Beyoncé. The run-in with Kanye clings to Swift’s identity as a popstar, even as she tries to ditch the country-pop genre, with all its racial associations, for the more “inclusive” and lucrative mainstream. Her grand rebranding effort doesn’t even permit moments of gamine expressiveness, such as the endearing swish of her ponytail in the video for “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” or collapsing with her legs bent back in “I Knew You Were Trouble” (both 2012).

The blows Swift strikes for “normalcy” here remind us that banality is hypocrisy—the hypocrisy of today’s cultural mainstream. “Shake It Off” ends with Swift convening an amateur dance party for her real-life fans, a gesture torn from Lady Gaga’s ersatz-empowerment handbook. Indeed, our current cultural condition—in which art has been reduced to “content,” [1] moral neutrality passed off as nuance, and the audience’s thirst for meaning-and-pleasure-together slaked with celebrity worship—is widely regarded as something “progressive” worth celebrating. It’s the Golden Age of television, after all! Is the tween audience that flips over Taylor Swift so very different from their affluent parents, who binge-watch in obedience to New York Times hype?

Cheers to Mark Romanek for making a video that at least portrays honestly how contemporary culture operates, and how the banality of privilege (to the extent that we accept it) diminishes our dreams.

But let’s not end there. Dreams are relaunched in Swedish pop singer-songwriter Tove Lo’s recently released debut album Queen of the Clouds. Tove’s musical milieu isn’t far from Swift’s (in fact, they have collaborators in common), and she’s only a year or so Swift’s senior, but their divergent approaches make them nearly perfect pop foils. While Swift’s infamous serial monogamy seems tailor-made for the era of singles over albums (ensuring at least a few bite-sized dramas per promotion cycle), Tove aims for a full-length examination of the stages of one relationship, sequenced as a three-act drama complete with intertitles: “The Sex,” “The Love,” and “The Pain.” (That about covers it!)

Ironically, the song “Shake It Off” is about brushing off haters, while the video evinces repressed envy toward those who have what Swift lacks. Tove is never that petty, even when describing her betrayal (sexual and otherwise) of a lover: “And I know that you’re so gonna hate me/If you did what I did, I would hate you too,” she sings on non-album track “Over.” There’s something akin to a ballerina’s poise in the way Tove exposes the worst of herself without self-protective abjection or narcissism. Her complex candor might make Taylor Swift blush, but it should make mature listeners wince. And even though Queen of the Clouds’ sound doesn’t transcend the AutoTune zeitgeist, in today’s environment that’s enough to make the album pass for countercultural.


Per Lex Brown's commentary on ArtRank.

Ben Kessler can be reached at His Twitter handle is @koolfresh.

culturewatch Ben Kessler 2014-10-10T22:22:57-05:00
Reality Check At our editor’s request, I write in response to Eugene Goodheart’s essays Hamas’s Self-Destructive Leadership and What Israel Must and Must Not Do. I share what I take to be two of Mr. Goodheart’s premises: that both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to national self-determination, and that combatants are obliged to observe the laws of war. While these premises are not wholly uncontroversial—it is pretty easy to find people who argue that that only one of the belligerents possesses the right to a state in any of the territory currently controlled by Israel, along with some who claim that the laws of war do not restrain the tactics of a people resisting occupation, and others who assert that they must not restrain a state facing existential threats—I shall not engage those arguments here. What follows are only a few reservations about some of Eugene Goodheart’s observations, although I should state in advance that two of the many things I admire about his writing are on display in both pieces: his avoidance of both the toxic pleasure of indignation and the comforting simplicities of a party line.

In the piece on Hamas, Mr. Goodheart asks “What if... Hamas joined the PLO in acknowledging Israel’s right to existence, but not its current borders? What if, in other words, a united Palestinian organization promising non-violent action to promote its cause called Israel’s bluff?” I agree that these methods, coupled to reported previous PA offers on the right of return, would be much likelier to achieve Palestinian statehood in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank than Hamas’s current and disastrous tactics. On the available evidence, however, Hamas has a profound and unyielding objection to Israeli statehood and a conviction that ‘what was taken by force can only be retrieved by force’, which I take to mean an unwavering insistence on its absolute right to use force, also on the necessity of violence, and perhaps on the ethical superiority of violence. There are some people in Hamas who have hinted that a long term truce might be possible, but on the current evidence expecting any more than that from Hamas seems at best quixotic, and even if Hamas offered a long term truce, it is far from clear that Hamas would be willing to use force to quash attacks on Israel by other militant factions operating on its territory. There is still a large political space for Palestinian rejectionism. Hamas now occupies that space but does not occupy it alone, and almost certainly fears the consequences of being seen to abandon that space. So while I agree with Mr. Goodheart’s advice to Hamas, I cannot imagine Hamas taking that good advice.

In his piece on Israel, Mr. Goodheart asserts that “the response must be proportionate to the provocation. It must be particularly scrupulous about avoiding killing innocent civilians—even in situations in which weapons are embedded where civilians live. Which seems not to be the case, despite the Israeli government’s claim to the contrary.” While the laws of war certainly prohibit targeting innocent civilians, absolutely avoiding killing innocent civilians is more than the law requires, and I think more than it is possible to achieve. On the other hand, I agree with Mr. Goodheart’s use of the word ‘seems’, because while we do not yet have too many undisputed facts, some of the facts alleged are deeply disturbing.

The standards that most obviously apply to Israel are set out in the 4th Geneva Convention (1949), although there are other relevant principles and statutes. Loosely speaking, Israel can endanger innocent civilians only in proportion to the military importance of its military necessities, an imprecise standard, which in particular cases will often be debatable even when the parties agree about the facts. As of now, a lot of the facts remain in dispute—were half of the Palestinian victims militants, or were a tenth of them? What would various ratios imply? For comparative purposes, the ratio of civilian to military casualties in WWII, Korea and Vietnam was on the order of 2:1; in Iraq, the ratio for Coalition forces’ killing through 2013 was 1:2, although for that period in Iraq as a whole the ratio was appreciably worse than 2:1. At the level of casualties the IDF claims, the most recent Gaza war ratio would be around half the 20th Century average, although worse than the IDF’s claimed ratio in the previous Gaza wars. But the raw ratio tells us very little: how many innocent civilians were killed by Israeli weapons vs. how many by Palestinian rockets and mortars, hundreds of which inevitably landed within Gaza? Most urgently, how often did Israeli fire endanger, wound or kill innocent Palestinian civilians for no proportionately important military purpose? How many were killed by Hamas as collaborators? Israel does not seem to have been completely indiscriminate—today’s New York Times notes that “The Times analysis, looking at 1,431 names, shows that the population most likely to be militants, men ages 20 to 29, is also the most overrepresented in the death toll...women and children under 15, the least likely to be legitimate targets, were the most underrepresented...”

When as many of the facts come out as will ever come out, will Israeli conduct generally satisfy the requirements of the 4th Geneva Convention as normally understood by the militaries of combatant states? My guess is that it may well meet that standard, although there will many hard calls and some ugly exceptions. But most people have not reserved judgment until the facts are in, and Israel’s legal obligations have been pretty consistently overstated, sometimes very grievously overstated, e.g. when UN officials furiously asserted that the immunity of hospitals is absolute, which is an absurd claim: the Fourth Convention’s Article 18 states that “Civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict.”, but Article 19 immediately adds that “The protection to which civilian hospitals are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy...” This sort of officially-spouted misinformation matters, because in much of Europe the Israelis are being portrayed as peculiarly given to atrocity, with predictable results: Berlin crowds chanting “Jude, Jude, feiges Schwein, komm heraus und kämpf allein!", and what would once have been called Jew hunts just outside of Paris.

Mr. Goodheart also writes that “Israel needs to acknowledge Hamas as an enemy, not as a terrorist organization...One negotiates with enemies, if not with terrorists. This can occur only if Hamas recognizes the legitimacy of Israel as a state, if not its current borders. The immediate issue in negotiation would be the ending of the blockade of Gaza, a goal that could be reached if Hamas promises that freedom of movement will not be freedom to attack Israel…Settlements, the status of refugees, the location of a Palestinian capital of a new Palestinian state, all need to be negotiated without the threat of violence on either side.”

I think this is good advice, but again, I do not think that Hamas will give Israel the chance to take it. My sense is that between Oslo and the Second Intifada there was an Israeli majority for a two state solution, and that after the Second Intifada Israel’s sharp drift to the Right was a result of the discovery that there did not seem to be either a Palestinian leadership or a Palestinian majority committed to a two state solution. Recent PA proposals, as reported in leaks, seem to have been much more generous, and were, maddeningly, spurned. But rumored PA proposals are not always imaginable Hamas proposals. The negotiations are beginning as I write, and I very much hope that I am wrong, that Hamas takes Mr. Goodheart’s advice, and that in consequence an Israeli majority produces a government that will make that compromise peace.

world Fredric Smoler 2014-08-06T20:41:42-05:00
Women and Childen First Coincident with the centennial celebration of the outbreak of World War I, I finished David Fromkin’s excellent A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Fromkin’s message, if I may paraphrase, is that since in took Western Europe 1500 years to get its shit together after the fall of the Roman Empire, we may have another 1400 of reports of madnesses and slaughters to look forward to ingesting each morning over coffee in The New York Times. By also detailing the arbitrariness, the power thrusts, the scheming, the horse swapping that led to the map that now confronts us, his book furthers my belief that the nation-state must not have been such a good idea in the first place.

In a sense, they all boil down to tribes squabbling over dirt; and until we recognize we are one tribe (people) on one patch of dirt (Earth), we may not make it to next Tuesday, let alone the millennium and a half Fromkin has his eye on.

LSD in the water supply may be the only answer.

Recent events in the corner of the globe Fromkin had under discussion—as well as some others—led me to recall an evening in the spring of 1968 when my roommate responded to a report on the evening news of protestors decrying the killing of women and children in Vietnam by saying, "Of course, we’re killing women and children. That’s how you win wars. Kill the women and children." He was not even stoned when he told off Walter Cronkite.

Ron and I were VISTA volunteers, living and working for a legal services agency on the South Side of Chicago. We were both graduates of Ivy League law schools (Harvard, in his case, and Penn, in mine) and, to varying degrees (totally, for him and partially, for me), neither of us would have been volunteering in service to America but for a desire to avoid the draft. Still we did not see eye-to-eye on everything. I, for instance, a West Philadelphia guy, relished the experience of our being, along with another VISTA pair in our building, the only whites in an, oh, mile-and-a-half radius, and he, from an Iowa farm town, once told our program director, "How do you expect me to do my best work, when I am terrified to walk from my apartment to my car?" I thought VISTA provided a grand opportunity to deepen myself while I pondered the mystery of what to do with the rest of my life. He could not wait to assume his already secured position with a white shoe, LaSalle Street firm and feared his present place of employ might place a permanent stain on his resume as he sought to scale the partnership ladder.

But Ron possessed the most professional orientation of anyone with whom I’d yet closely associated. And he had the sharpest legal mind of anyone on our staff. So I took note of what he said. Over the decades, I have thought about his analysis from time to time. Now I think about it often.

The world record holder in this murderous event was probably set by Genghis Khan against the Khrwarezmians: millions massacred and enslaved; pyramids of skulls erected; towns and farms destroyed; a river even diverted over their emperor’s birthplace in order to eradicate it. But excellence is well-rooted in the western classic tradition as well. See, for instance, Rome against Carthage: 445,000 Carthaginians slain; 50,000 sold into slavery; their cities razed; their crops destroyed; their fields sewn with salt. In fact, it is even an accepted part of our Judeo-Christian heritage, what with the Children of Israel following Jehova’s instructions to wipe the earth clean of those sinful Canaanites, every last man, woman and child. Anyone finding the Lord’s alleged roll in this operation worrisome need only consult ("The Bible has answers; we’ll help you find them") for reassurance. There a theologian—no, not Stephen A. Smith—points out those women were "seductive"; and, as for the kids, well, "no human person (including infants) is truly innocent."

Anyway, the proof is in the pudding. When was the last time you heard of any Khwarezmians giving anyone trouble?

Look around. All over the globe, people are killing people over disputes that started 1500 years ago. You keep hearing the argument, "You can’t kill that guy, or you’ll create three or four more who want to kill you." Not if you wipe out his women and children, you won’t.

And slavery’s just not an option any more. I mean, it is in Africa and Asia; but in the west, the economic opportunity just isn’t there, plus you’ll give your country a branding problem. So I say, if we’re going to keep war on the table as a foreign policy option, let’s do it right! No more pussy-footing around. Stop pretending we are something we are not.

world Bob Levin 2014-08-05T21:41:55-05:00
Tight Connections to My Heart But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain’t the time for your tears

Bob Dylan


Dylan once praised Meir Kahane (a name that should be on everyone’s lips these days, if we don’t choke on it) and has been ventriloquized by Abe Foxman/Alan Dershowitz at least since 1983, with the release of “Neighborhood Bully” on Infidels, a lame piece of agitprop for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, now a beloved anthem among Israeli fascists (it’s also furnished with the usual dreary Zionist chauvinism: Jews invented medicine and single handedly fought off the Ku Klux Klan, and made “a garden of paradise in the desert sand,” etc.). He spent the 1970s in the arcane gutter of evangelical Christianity cum Jewish longue durée mysticism and the result was predictable. I respect every one-time radical’s right to turn reactionary, in the same way that I respect death as a bad joke.


When I listen to critics of Hamas (and in the largest sense, Hamas needs not only to be criticized but defeated) (I’m not talking about Netanyahu but the so-called moderates who take time out of their presumably busy days to worry about Hamas’ strategy or its charter, which is to say its thoughts on the Zionist project), I wonder what these people were saying in the seventies and eighties when Israel, like other despotic regimes in the Middle East at the time, gave its full support to the Muslim Brotherhood as a bulwark against Palestinian/Arab leftism, or what they were saying before July 2013 when Mursi was trying to crush the trade unions and the workers who made the Egyptian Revolution, or what they have to say about the bloody and corrupt comprador rule of the current Palestinian Authority, or for that matter what they have to say about the tactic of criticizing a strange and unpalatable (I won’t say orientalized) leadership as a means of giving practical support to the cruel and wide-scale oppression of that leadership’s people, and this isn’t rhetorical, because I really would like to sit down and talk with these people, because I still have faith in the humanist project, or what’s left of it.


A Fanonian thesis on materialist psychology in the context of settler colonialism: think of resistance as a pendulum, or rather the institutions that act on behalf of that resistance as a pendulum (because true resistance never wavers and never ends). Who gets to speak on behalf of the oppressed? At first, I’d say, whoever is closest to the oppressed (because as Primo Levi told us, the Muselmann never speaks). Then that voice has two choices: collaboration or resistance, although practically speaking everyone chooses both in varying degrees. The institutions that succeed combine collaboration and resistance deftly, with an almost Lenin-like foresight. But, in the end, gravity does its dirty work. Right now, Hamas, Israel’s former pet project, is like a ball about to sink (towards its own destruction or towards some rapprochement with the Israeli state). Its rockets are epiphenomena, hopeless interventions in the realm of chance. Hamas will and is suffering a catastrophic military defeat. In all likelihood, given the unsustainability of the not really open-air prison that Israel has set up in Gaza, Hamas will also suffer a political defeat. The entrenched Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, grievous collaborators with this current slaughter, are smiling.

But they shouldn’t be smiling. Their smiles are disgusting, the smiles of people who believe in gravity and materialist psychology. Because, as we’ve seen in recent months, Palestinians in the West Bank are having none of it. Palestinians around the world are having none of it. Jews—courageous Jews, like the Jews who invented medicine and went to the South to fight against white supremacy and to be killed, sometimes, for their courage—are having none of it (I’m thinking of those honorable men and women who went to occupy the New York headquarters of the Friends of the IDF and were, naturally, arrested by that truly villainous occupying force, the NYPD, about whose crimes we’ve heard so much recently, crimes that are essentially no different than, or rather are essentially the same as, the crimes of the IDF: and yes I know there were only a dozen or so Jews at that event, but courage and resistance have nothing to do with numbers, because those nine Jews who were arrested are worth more, to me, on a moral level, than the 1,661 American Jews, according to The New York Times, who have enlisted in the IDF as if they were joining the boyscouts or as if they were joining the Spanish Blue Division, or more to me, too, than those American frat boys cum Kahanist footsoldiers who called Obama a nigger and a faggot on the eve of his 2009 speech in Cairo (what happened to that speech? Reading First’s contributions on it are like visiting a museum of messianiana, or like viewing a petri dish of intellectuals in which you come to understand that it’s an intellectual’s destiny to be optimistic, that an intellectual, on some level, knows his optimism is false, is shit (but golden shit), but that an intellectual, or what’s left of her or him, won’t have any truck with cynicism, which is a different thing than pessimism, since pessimism is only the foundation or the skeleton of optimism).


Here’s a joke I’ve heard a lot lately:

What’s the difference between Israel and Hamas?

Israel uses rockets to defend children while Hamas uses children to defend rockets.


Last night I watched a documentary called The Black Power Mixtape which was aired in 2011 on something resembling what my friend Benj DeMott calls “PBS’s affirmative action program.” It suffers from a glut of commentary from black celebrities (Talib Kweli, I still love you!) but the footage of the black power movement, filmed by Swedish journalists between 1967 and 1975, is close to miraculous (when Stokeley Carmichael takes over for a Swedish journalist and interviews his own mother about the suffering of his own family, you’ll have to forgive me for thinking “that’s the voice we need to hear, not the voice of those fucking hypocrite Swedes, who chanted, ostensibly as an anti-Vietnam War protest, ‘nigger, nigger, go home’ to Nixon’s black ambassador to Sweden, Jerome Holland, although fuck Nixon and Nixon’s feudal racial politics). And when I saw footage of black children at a Black Panther school in Oakland, ostensibly “brainwashed” and singing bellicose anti-white-power songs, and when I was reminded of J. Edgar Hoover’s absurd but absolutely not absurd statement that the Black Panther’s free breakfast program was the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States of America, and when I heard someone else say that the greatest legacy of the Black Panthers was universal free breakfast programs (not that they really exist anymore universally, in spite of Michelle Obama’s revisionist history/activism), and when I heard a clearly sick and abused Angela Davis, in prison, smoking a cigarette, respond incredulously to questions about the so-called violence of the black power movement, talking about her schoolmates who were killed by white supremacist bombings in Birmingham, Alabama—I thought about Hamas and about failed revolutions, revolutions that can’t succeed and whose only real goal is that children will be able to eat, and about the disgraceful and racist insults that are hurled at Hamas, and about how little the world, whatever that is, gives a shit, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, although the truth is that I laughed and I thought, as if I were a resurrected Jean Genet, that Angela Davis and Stokeley Carmichael were the two most beautiful human beings I’ve ever seen.


Uri Avnery: let’s have a drink (do you drink? Your website shows you smoking a pipe, which goes well with whiskey). It must be hard being a humanist in Israel these days. I think we disagree on a lot of things, but that’s okay.


If death is a bad joke, who are its (hack) comedians? Jodi Rudoren, The New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief, seems to be a funny woman, as evidenced by the Youtube video her husband shot of her hamming it up with Abe Foxman (on which Foxman, that consummate charlatan, admits his own charlatanry, the same Foxman who told Haaretz that surveillance against Muslim Americans is a good thing and argued that blacks and Hispanics are “infected” with anti-Semitism). Her husband, Gary, an archetypal aging Brooklynite creative-class Zionist and sketch comic artist who’s made propaganda videos on behalf of Jewish-American immigration, videos in which he plays a clueless Jewish-American, or himself, seems like one of those harmless assholes you have to put up with whenever you have to meet up for drinks in a Middle Eastern country with a woman who works for The New York Times and the husband, who’s slightly overweight, which is okay, has a supreme but highly partisan knowledge of the local cuisine and will put the natives in their place if something’s not to his liking. And I’m not saying that’s something that I’ve experienced, but it’s not something I haven’t experienced, either. Jodi Rudoren’s close friend, the feminist rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of the comedian Sarah (who gets it but doesn’t, like all comedians, playing the Lolita-Nazi-Jew to parody but also to shock (shock: what can shock us anymore?), admitting Israeli crimes but treating them like all crimes, as the truth of this depraved reality, tweeting psychosexual-cultural “realities” like “Israel is this bizarre world where Jews r gorgeous & kick-assy instead of sneezy & shirt-stainy.” Dylan should have added comedy as one of his fabled Jewish inventions. He should have written a Dostoevskian parable in which one has to choose between supposedly Jewish comedy and supposedly Jewish medicine (echoes of Nazi pseudo-intellectualism) and supposedly Jewish human rights activism and sparing the life of thousands of Gazan Palestinians. Is it worth it?

If you don’t have the patience or the stomach to watch the video, at least read Blumenthal’s article. It leads you down a rabbit hole, but if you look through the rabbit hole to the bottom (there’s always a bottom) you’ll see the truth of the warped, myopic mind that is the main pillar of America’s cultural, economic, and ethnochauvinist support for Israeli crimes.


The truth is, death isn’t a joke. I didn’t mean to say that death was a joke. A lot of people who have bad intentions talk about death as if it were a very serious matter. I think it’s a serious matter. (I never saw anything of myself in Lee Harvey Oswald, although I did see something of myself in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev). It doesn’t matter what I think, anyway, or what anyone else thinks. Because thoughts are their own punishment (forgive my theology). Anyone who defends what’s happening right now, or what was happening two months ago, in Gaza, is like Dylan’s amnesiac bourgeois killer, “them that defend what they cannot see/With a killer’s pride, security/It blows the mind most bitterly/For them that think death’s honesty/Won’t fall upon them naturally/Life sometimes/Must get lonely.”

Concluding Unscientific Postscript:

An email, August 4, 2014:

Subject: Security Message for U.S. citzens: Demonstration this evening

Santiago, Chile

Security Message: Protest Tonight

U.S. Embassy Santiago informs U.S. citizens that a protest in support of Palestine is expected to take place in downtown Santiago this evening starting at 19:00. The protesters will be on bicycles and their route will begin at Plaza Italia/Metro Baquedano and continue to the Israeli Embassy (San Sebastian 2812, Las Condes). Protesters may also continue on to the U.S. Embassy. It is unknown how many people will participate. Please avoid these areas this evening as even peaceful protests have the potential to become violent.

world David Golding 2014-08-05T15:24:34-05:00
Double-Truths Eugene Goodheart offered two angles on the war in Gaza just before the cease-fire, speaking truth to powers that be on both sides of the conflict.

Hamas’s Self-Destructive Leadership

The scenes of carnage in Gaza are awful. Israel’s bombing has caused massive destruction disproportionate to Palestinian missiles indiscriminately rained upon Israel’s civilian population. Those who support the Palestinian cause (and the support is world wide) justify the firing of missiles into Israel as an understandable reaction to the misery of life in a strip of land blockaded by Israeli military power. I have no desire to defend the policies of the Netanyahu government toward the Palestinians. However, in focusing exclusively on Israel’s behavior in blockading Gaza or on its failure to restrain expanding settlements or on its military actions, one loses sight of the egregious behavior of Hamas in betraying the interests of its own people. It is within the power of its leadership to stop the killing by agreeing to a longterm ceasefire. Since it is obvious that the suffering inflicted on the Palestinians far exceeds the suffering incurred by the Israelis, it would seem to be in the Palestinian interest to end the violence. Why then should Hamas want the war to continue? For at least two reasons: 1) the worldwide sympathy it elicits, thereby strengthening its own leadership position and 2) the ending of the blockade. The willingness to allow hundreds of its people to die and thousands of people to suffer injuries in order to gain sympathy from the outside world is grotesque. (As to those adults in Gaza who speak of a preference for martyrdom to life in what is in effect an open air prison, the question should be put: do would-be martyrs have a right to jeopardize the lives of children, who do not have the capacity to speak and decide on the matter of martyrdom? In a recent interview shown on television, a twelve year old Gazan already “educated” in martyrdom vowed to become a suicide bomber.) As for the blockade, is it possible to end a blockade with violent action, sending missiles into Israel and armed militants through tunnels to capture or kill the Israeli enemy? In such circumstances, would any Israeli government, even one willing to negotiate with Palestinians in good faith, reasonably contemplate ending the blockade? If there were a chance that the blockade would end if Hamas persisted in sending missiles, it might justify the action, but, on the contrary, the building of tunnels and the firing of missiles only intensify the understandable resolve of Israelis to persist in military action and concede nothing. What if in stead Hamas joined the PLO in acknowledging Israel’s right to existence, but not its current borders? What if, in other words, a united Palestinian organization promising non-violent action to promote its cause called Israel’s bluff? Hamas, we know, was losing support in Gaza: it is now apparently willing to risk the lives of its own people in order to strengthen its position without any prospect that Palestinian suffering will end or be alleviated. In fact, the firing of rockets into Israel only increases Palestinian suffering. Those who sympathize with the Palestinians need to speak out forcefully against such leadership.

What Israel Must and Must Not Do

Would any country not respond militarily to rockets fired indiscriminately upon its civilian population? This is the rhetorical question, really a challenge, the Israeli government addresses to its critics. Yes, the government has to respond, but the response must be proportionate to the provocation. It must be particularly scrupulous about avoiding killing innocent civilians—even in situations in which weapons are embedded where civilians live. Which seems not to be the case, despite the Israeli government’s claim to the contrary. (Even swat teams take care when hostages are taken.) In the self-interest of Israeli society as well as the interests of justice to the Palestinian people, any action must also take into consideration and acknowledge the grievances that inspired the firing of rockets. There is blood on the hands of both Israelis and Palestinians—at this point in history quantitatively more blood on Israeli hands given its much greater military power. Neither the firing of rockets upon Israel nor the disproportionate response of the Israeli military will bring either peace or justice. Israel will not disappear as a state as a result of rockets, and neither will Hamas be liquidated or demilitarized by Israeli bombs. What then is to be done? Israel needs to acknowledge Hamas as an enemy, not as a terrorist organization. Which means that Hamas would qualify as a negotiating partner in a peace process? One negotiates with enemies, if not with terrorists. This can occur only if Hamas recognizes the legitimacy of Israel as a state, if not its current borders. The immediate issue in negotiation would be the ending of the blockade of Gaza, a goal that could be reached if Hamas promises that freedom of movement will not be freedom to attack Israel. Given the deep mutual mistrust that exists on both sides, the Israeli side would want assurances that such a promise would be kept. The Palestinian side would want a good faith effort from the Israeli government to lift the blockade. Settlements, the status of refugees, the location of a Palestinian capital of a new Palestinian state, all need to be negotiated without the threat of violence on either side. It is unrealistic to expect a quick resolution of any of these contentious issues, but both sides need to negotiate so that mutual trust can evolve. Israel would also have to agree, perhaps with American support, to launch a version of the Marshall Plan to help Palestinians both in Gaza and on the West Bank to build the economy and institutions that would sustain a Palestinian State. All this will not be achieved overnight, but it can begin with a clear declaration on the part of the Israeli government that it would be willing to deal with a Palestinian authority united with Hamas once a permanent ceasefire had been established. What Israel needs to do is abandon its desire and the rhetoric that accompanies it to destroy Hamas just as Hamas must openly renounce its desire to end the State of Israel. The current course of mutual desired destruction will succeed only in realizing destruction.

world Eugene Goodheart 2014-08-05T14:26:30-05:00
Wonders Come to Pass in 1856, Walt Whitman predicted
the coming of a race of fierce and athletic girls

...tann'd in the face by shining suns and blowing winds,
Their flesh has the old divine suppleness and strength.
They are ultimate in their own right--they are calm, clear
...well possess'd of themselves.

at the time pretty much everyone thought he was crazy
that those lines were obscene blasphemy
a vision of unnatural women impossible freaks

mornings walking Gracie the collie I see them
on our street running pony tails waving spandex agleam
sun spangled divine fierce graceful fast
visions of the golden age of the dreamtime
here now real

culturewatch Sam Abrams 2014-07-29T17:35:40-05:00
1 + 1 Jerk De Soleil

I was wide open
outside my frame
when the whole world burst into
my latest flame

she stunned me with her dictionary
where all the words are mean
it's a thick motherfucker from cover to cover
and nothing but hate in between

I was wide open
she stormed away
that's why I'm not
wide open today

she caught me napping
she caught me off-guard
she thought I was asleep at the wheel
so she drove me extra hard
(find my bones tomorrow in a junkyard)

I was wide open
in spite of my frame
when the whole world burst into
my latest flame


she's in denver she's in nebraska
she's in L.A.
I'm in love with a phone sex girl
further than a phone call away

15 minutes 25 dollars
or whatever I could pay
to keep someone to talk to
that'd last all day

I'm not saying I've never made love
to a human being
but there's no denying phone sex girls
were the only ones I was seeing

I gave her my high school ring
by extension
I pawned so much stuff back then
it deserves honorable mention

I gave her my heart I gave her
my soul
I gave her the benefit of doubt
when she kept me on hold

she's in new york city she's in nevada
she's in montego bay
I'm still in love with a phone sex girl
who's more than a phone call away

Carmelita Estrellita 2014-07-23T23:49:53-05:00