First of the Month A website of the radical imagination. 2015-01-12T14:03:22-05:00 Fattening Frogs for Snakes When last we spoke...

One squireen was eulogizing yet another one [[]. The still living one, Perry Anderson, found hope in the existence of a newish magazine, Jacobin. It’s been said before: hope that is seen is not hope.

So: to the moment. Jacobin wasted no time posting a comment on this week’s killings in Paris, on the first round, anyway. ‘On Charlie Hebdo’ was written by a Richard Seymour, a regular Jacobin contributor, here reprinted from his blog, which is nothing less than Lenin’s Tomb. Mr. Seymour is further identified as the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder; and according to, he is also the author of a book-long posthumous excoriation of Christopher Hitchens.

Here’s the opening sentence:

Many journalists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo have been murdered by bampots brandishing what appear to be machine guns at close range.

And yet, Mr. Seymour seems to make a living with his pen. That ‘at close range’ is intriguing. The point, you’d guess, is that these people were shot at close range, an evocative detail. If only he’d said that. Instead the operative verb is—what? Murdered? Too distant, and murdered at ‘close range’ is hardly idiomatic English.

Brandishing? If someone holds a gun a couple of inches—‘at close range’—from someone else, it’s a significant detail—until the trigger is pulled, at which point the ‘brandishing’ loses its significance. Do we even know that these weapons were brandished at ‘close range.’ The trouble in Paris was not that somebody displayed a weapon. Somebody used it. Appear? They are machine guns, and Richard Seymour, for one, has not seen them ‘at close range.’

Two further points to be noted in this sentence. First, people have been ‘murdered.’ Murdered is a word to be avoided in serious political writing. The killing you don’t like is murder. If a given killing is particularly odious, you must show it to be so. The thesaurus is not your argument, and not your friend. Mr. Seymour, of course, is not alone in this slovenliness. But then, a Richard Seymour is never alone.

Second, ‘bampots,’ or as we might say here, headcases.

It might be comforting to view the Kouachi brothers as nuts—the lone nut tag is unavailable—but they are entirely rational actors. ‘We have avenged the Prophet’ (a reference to the legendary Arabian military commander, Muhammad). If, as many believe, and as many others, innocent of even the slightest Muhammadan beliefs, publicly profess, the ‘Prophet’ must not be insulted—in fact, even a flattering picture may be deemed a mortal offense—consequences can be expected. That they will be deadly should also be expected. Charlie Hebdo is being described as ‘satirical.’ Let’s consider the career of Nadr bin al-Harith. He, in his day, was a satirical poet, who singled out Muhammad as a comic target. Muhammad predicted an eternity of hellfire, whenever Nadr should die. Muhammad’s power grew. Nadr’s head was cut off. Satire closes on Saturday night, only if it makes it past Friday prayers. Anjem Choudary, a Muhammadan cleric in London, published a comment on the Paris events in USA Today. He said that, of course, those who insult ‘the prophets’ must be punished. He would, as you’d expect, be much less solicitous of say, Mousa/Moses or Isa/Jesus. But then, nothing prevents a true believer from being a liar. If he’s right, if, I repeat, Charlie Hebdo’s staff are in hell right now, as, in the blink of an eye, I will be, and Richard Seymour, too. We’re talking about different things. That’s all.

Howard Dean provides a useful contrast. ‘They [the Kouachi btothers]’re about as Muslim as I am.’ The no-true-Scotsman formulation is best avoided, even more so if you are not yourself a Scotsman. He also called the Islamic State a ‘cult’—one that rules an area larger than Vermont. Not a Muslim cult, he said, just a 'cult.’ it’s worse than we thought: an army of true believers, and they don’t beleve in anything! He added that none of this is to be found in the Qur’ān. A reminder: in 2004, Howard Dean told the press that his favorite book in the New Testament was Job. Is this (or Richard Seymour) who you’d send to teach the path of reason to those on the jihadi path.

True, Mr. Seymour’s article was written in great haste. True, too, that it were better never written.

Here’s the rest of the first paragraph:

It is too soon to have a complete, coherent political narrative of these killings. All one can have at this point are the correct but platitudinous points about there being no justification for this, that all attacks on journalists are abhorrent, that freedom of speech must be defended to the last drop of blood, and so on. If you really need that sermon, you’re in the wrong place.

After 9/11, Noam Chomsky published a comment. He opened with a throat-clearing acknowledgement of the event, perfunctory to the point of comedy, before making clear that at Chomsky Inc, it’s business as usual. Some people claimed that Chomsky was—go figure!—wanting in sympathy, in fact, a little cold. Compared to Richard Seymour, though, Chomsky is Johnnie Ray.

A few points about the paragraph:

‘All attacks on journalists are abhorrent.’ A piety. For his journalism, Julius Streicher was hanged at Nuremberg. If the radio stations in Rwanda that co-ordinated the genocide there, had been attacked—and announcers killed—where would the moral quandary be?

‘and so on’: too good!

‘you’re in the wrong place’: y’know...

But above all, ‘freedom of speech must be defended to the last drop of blood.’ For sure, that last drop won’t be his. But the question of freedom of speech shouldn’t be hurried. It can be viewed as an ideal, something to be aspired to, regardless of actual conditions at any time, in any place. It can also be regarded as a constituent element of an existing regimen, something that armed power has produced and maintains.

Freedom of speech is a value. But is it a Western value or a universal value? The Western/universal debate is hot these days, and implicates more issues than free speech. The veiling of Muhammadan women has inspired a lot of talk. Should a woman be forced to wear a burqa? Well, some ensconced here in the West will point out that women here are ‘expected’ to wear makeup in public, so same difference. Well: the religious police in Manhattan will not beat a woman for not wearing blush. What’s really wrong with the sort of dummy critique that defends the imposition of the burqa is that it is made by the sort of people who are not themselves subject to that imposition. Let others suffer, so long as I can preen. Or consider the ‘issue’ of clitoridectomy. There are some, safe here at home, who defend the practice, as authentic, and a bulwark against ‘cultural imperialism.’ But over there, those who are cut don’t have much say; over here, those who understand so virtuosically are at zero risk of suffering the procedure themselves.[1]

The debate—Western or universal?—is a little pointless. Any putatively universal value will be, by definition, also a Western value. Is it therefore only a Western value? Even the blandest ‘Western’ value can not be expected to command universal assent even from the least heterogeneous Western population. No universal value, then is possible.

Universal-enough values, though, are possible. Slavery and piracy are certainly not universally reprehended. Something loves the whip. But universally enough they are. And so, it became possible for armies and navies to scour the earth, exterminating every slaver and pirate they could lay hands on.

Freedom of speech, as an ideal, is pretty amorphous. Americans commenting on Charlie Hebdo have thoughtlessly referred to the First Amendment. American law is not binding on the Kouachis nor on French officials. What may be said in ‘the West’ varies from country to country. Libel judgments can be had in English courts that would be nowhere available in America. Promulgation of Holocaust denial is a felony in Austria, as David Irving learned. Freedom of speech acquires clear definition only as it is enforced. You are free to say what you will insist on saying. A state can be expected to use force to protect its citizens from those who seek to impose a narrower free-speech regimen. Popular resistance can claim greater free-speech rights from a state. Free speech is better understood, not as something separate and immune from power, but as a function of power. The question is not what you may say, but what you can. Adorno noted how much aggression is inherent in freedom. Free speech is not innocent. It had better not be.

Mr. Seymour goes on:

The assumption is that the killers are members of some sort of Islamist group, possibly linked to Islamic State, and are exacting political retribution for the publication’s regular satirical attacks on Islam by executing its journalists. And about that, I do have something beyond the obvious to say, just as a starting point.

What ‘that’ is—Mr. Seymour, remember, is a writer of books for a living—is hopelessly opaque (and we’re better off not bothering to ask). Now, there has been general agreement on both the identity and the motivations of the killers in Paris. About that—something or other in there—he’s got something ‘beyond the obvious’ to tell us. And about ‘that,’ he tells nothing, going on to talk about anything else.

He goes on to attack M. Hollande for using the word ‘terrorist.’ The word, he sniffs, is not ‘scientific’—a fetishized word choice; and as if anybody had called it scientific—but ‘normative’—whatever that might mean. It is true that the word terrorist should be avoided. It’s often been observed, though too often to weasely ends, that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Better to offer this definition: a terrorist is an armed man you don’t like. The word gets tossed around promiscuously, applied even where no violence at all is involved. So, point 2 of the definition: anyone you don’t like. Mr. Seymour has one simple objection: it makes Muhammadans look bad.

And now, at long last, ‘On Charlie Hebdo’ turns to Charlie Hebdo. Mr. Seymour summarizes it as ‘what is frankly a racist publication.’ (Whether the frankness is Mr. Seymour’s or Charlie Hebdo’s our author leaves us free to guess):

I will not waste time arguing over this point here: I simply take it as read that—irrespective of whatever else it does, and whatever valid comment it makes—the way in which that publication represents Islam is racist. If you need to be convinced of this, then I suggest you do your research, beginning with reading Edward Said’s Orientalism, as well as some basic introductory texts on Islamophobia, and then come back to the conversation.

Richard Seymour, the very model of an anti-racist, has here said what he came to say: Those dead guys? Racists! ‘I will not waste time arguing.’ True to his word, he offers zero argument. (The waste of time is a separate issue.) He ‘simply take[s] it as read’—pompous prick. The representation of Islam is racist, he says. It is wearying to have to go over this again. Muhammadanism is a religion. It is a body of doctrines. One may have negative opinions, even vilely negative ones, about it—or about any religion—without ethnicity coming into issue. Clearly, one could be anti-Muslim and anti-Arab. The distinction is possible. It is noteworthy that in this impassioned declaration of ‘anti-racist’ purity the words Muslim and Islam ring over and over. Such words as Arab, African, black, non-white, non-European do not appear even once. Think of a few real -world examples. Mockery of the ‘prophet’ Joseph Smith is not a racist assault on blondes. In Sudan, Muhammadan Arabs have waged genocidal war against non-Muhammadans, and they have done so in the name of Islam. They have also waged genocidal war against Muhammadans who were not Arabs. In the Levant, minorities have been largely eliminated. The Islamic State has attempted, mostly successfully, to cleanse the world of Yazidis. That they are a distinct ethnic group is incidental. Their offense is a theological one. Christians in the Levant (as in Egypt) are for the most part the remnants of the indigenous population from before the Arab conquest. They, too, have been targeted for their religion, not their ethnicity.[2]

To buttress his non-argument, Mr. Seymour offers a non-bibliography: ‘you do your research.’ He cites Edward Said’s Orientalism, notorious junk, and ‘some [unspecified] basic introductory texts [They would be ‘texts,’ wouldn’t they?] on Islamophobia.’

Ah, Islamophobia. An ailurophobe sees a cat and has a panic attack. A quick trip to the ER, the administration of an anti-anxiety med and we’re good to go. If there is somewhere in the world someone who reacts similarly to, say, the sight of a crescent: same prescription. A negative opinion, however justified, of a religion is not a phobia. The ailurophobe is sick, pathological, incapacitated. None of these words would apply to Charlie Hebdo. If a phobia is an irrational fear, Charlie Hebdo was not in the least irrational, and ‘fear’ is hardly a word one would associate with them (just as ‘courage’ is not a word one would associate with Richard Seymour). The term Islamophobia is the medicalization of an ideological disagreement. It has all the intellectual integrity of Soviet psychiatry.

And then, he allows,

come back to the conversation.

What conversation? With him?

He next offers ‘a detour.’ And why not? He wasn’t going anywhere anyway. Here, he harks back to 1988, when three members of the Provisional IRA were shot dead on Gibraltar.

The three Provos were unarmed when they were killed, just as he says. But they had gone to Gibraltar to bomb the military facility there. The pre-Gerry Adams Provos talked in a way that has grown unfamiliar. They shot at the English military; the English military shot at them. They laid ambushes for the enemy; the enemy laid ambushes for them. What they complained of was the official stance that there were no belligerents involved. There were only civil disturbances, with the forces of order on one side, and common criminals—murderers, in fact—on the other. If the army had a shoot-to-kill policy (see the Stalker affair), if it conducted military operations as military operations, this was a war. The prison protests and the hunger strikes turned entirely on the question of belligerent status. Amnesty International, he says, was mightily displeased. But so what? Amnesty's original remit was the defense of prisoners of conscience. Those who took up arms against a state would have to find other champions. By turning into an all-purpose shop, it lost a great deal of credibility. And so what? The point of resorting to arms is to overcome the opposing military force, not to look like the poor put-upon bastard in the piece. Seymour invokes the Tories. But Labour was in power in 1969, and through much of the '70's. The IRA was at war with the English state, irrespective of temporary party majority, or of Richard Seymour's preferences. Thatcher threw the word murder at the IRA. She did that often. The word was indispensable to Baroness Thatcher—and to Mr. Seymour, her rhetorical Mini-Me.

Is the detour over? Sure, but let’s take a moment to remember that for many years to use the word ‘terrorist’ in the UK almost invariably referred to the Republican guerrilla. So much for Mr. Seymour’s terrorist-is-code-for-Muslim claim.

Next, he invokes ‘You’re with us or against us’ and the War on Terror. When George W. Bush talked with us or against us—fourteen years ago—it was a piece of—uncharacteristic—bluster. Look at the reality. It was never part of American foreign policy—how would it be?—to deny other nations a right to neutrality or to remain uninvolved. Even The Islamic Republic of Iran and the Syrian Arab Republic, which spent years actively co-operating with forces killing Americans, suffered no adverse consequences.[3] The War on Terror was a clumsy usage, designed precisely as a sop to Muhammadan sensibilities. It was, in other words, the very opposite of Mr. Seymour’s portrayal. And the phrase hasn’t been used for six years. He has not gone rummaging through the storehouse of remaindered political slogans for anything real. Mr. Seymour knows his red meat, and he knows his dogs.

The penultimate paragraph: He says sternly that there will be no ‘decent interval’ [scare-quotes in the original]. Right: his article was contemporaneous with the autopsies. He then warns of the anti-Muslim backlash, or rather, the scale of the backlash. It’s coming, coming for sure, but when, but it's coming. And when it does... Richard Seymour will be there, tall on the wall, prepared to...and the paragraph is rounded out thus:

it is essential to get this right.

Not ‘important,’ not ‘think this through,’ not ‘not be over-hasty.’ It is essential to get this right. From Mr. Seymour’s pr page at Wikipedia:

Seymour was born in Ballymena, Northern Ireland to a Protestant family.

Why am I not surprised?

And his grand ending:

we also shouldn’t line up with the inevitable statist backlash against Muslims, or the ideological charge to defend a fetishized, racialized “secularism,” or concede to the blackmail which forces us into solidarity with a racist institution.

That backlash has been upgraded to inevitable. The Muhammadan population of France is large, and growing, with immigration from Muhammadan-majority countries continuing steadily. France’s Jewish population is declining, and the pace of that decline seems likely to pick up. But take it from Mr. Seymour: Muslims are under siege. The tally so far: four dead Jews in Paris, 2,000 dead in Baga, Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram, and in Iraq, and in Syria...’Fetishized’: lay Freud and academic Marxism, all smooshed up; ‘racialized’: that thing that needs no proof; “‘secularism’”: look at Charlie Hebdo, if you can find it, and judge for yourself how justified the scare-quotes are; ‘blackmail’: it’s very brave, how Mr. Seymour stands up to it. No solidarity with a racist institution. Of course not. But can’t he go further? Les damnés have struck a blow against their tormentors. Twelve racists, by Mr. Seymour’s lights—and they are very bright—have been struck from the list. Even better, a racist institution has been, for now, forcibly closed. Just rejoice.

Richard Seymour is anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-Zionist, very productive. He is a thoroughly illusioned bourgeois. A ‘leninologist,’ he dwells in Lenin’s Tomb (only virtually, alas). In this world, an Ulyanov without the Abwehr, without the Left Mensheviks, without the Cheka, is—nothing, is—Richard Seymour.


When Robespierre was led up the scaffold, his jaw had to be held in place with a length of cloth. After, none wept for him.

Jan. 11, 2015


1 A video from Iran has turned up on YouTube showing people dancing to a song by Pharrrell Williams. I find it appealing, but the government there took a dimmer view, and there were arrests. There are quite a few people over here who would be happy to justify that government, or at least insist that it mustn’t be criticized too strenuously. Foucault’s commentary on the ‘Monotheist Revolution,’ an older malignancy at rut with a newer one, provides one template.

2 Gabriel gave the uncreated word of God to an illiterate Seal of the Prophets, and—There’s a lot to be believed. You will believe it or you will not. Mr. Seymour, whose Christian name memorializes Richard I, England’s great Crusader king, fabled slayer of Saracens, singled out for abuse, incidentally, by Edward Said, believes none of it. Saying so would be insufficiently opportunistic.

3 The illustration for the Jacobin article is a photo of a Front National rally. The FN, which defeated every other party in France in the latest elections to the European Parliament, was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Charlie Hebdo and was barred from taking part in today’s march. The inclusion of the photo is, very simply, a lie. Whether the author or the editors came up with it, and which acquiesced are not very consequential questions. A better question: do the editors of Jacobin seriously believe that they are preferable, at all, to Marine LePen?

"war on terror" Charles O'Brien 2015-01-12T14:03:22-05:00
Who Is Charlie? I’m going to begin with an olive branch: not all of Sunday’s “Unity March” in Paris was a proto-fascist omen (Marine Le Pen and her National Front goons were, after all, cheerleading and hurling scatological slogans from the sidelines, which is a lot like when coaches of certain national soccer teams keep their divas or sexual predators off the field in spite of their universally acknowledged talent). Nor was all of it an insidious spectacle of war criminals and their lackeys attending to a rite of imperial violence, though it certainly was that (were Hitchens alive he at least would have spared an atavistic guffaw for the particularly unpleasant specimens of repressive state apparatuses: today’s liberal “laptop bombardiers” don’t even bother anymore with the old routine of “I can say bomb the shit out of the Middle East because I once said Kissinger shouldn’t have bombed the shit out of Southeast Asia,” as if the denunciation of one genocide comes with a “support another genocide free” card). A lot of it was just a risible recapitulation of the banality, the pathetic prostration, and the toxic consensus politics of the Stewart-Colbert “Rally for Sanity,” at which, with the country on the verge of a right-wing coup, the majority of the liberal class stood up jingoistically for the right to smoke pot, say that gays aren’t so bad, adulate the agitprop of shitty American culture, and beg for the restoration of reasonable white dude power, which, last year, sunk to a new low when its latest plenipotentiaries became the irrepressible hack James Franco and his flabby sidekick, Seth Rogen. Then as now we heard about the lurking dangers of yellow peril or Islamist intolerance, an innate disposition on the part of our enemies (the non-Charlies, or the inexplicably humorless North Koreans) not only to lapse into savage pique at so-called satire—that Voltairean product of the Enlightenment—but to spread epidemiologically, while a demoralized or feckless western populace submits to its own racial and cultural destruction. In France, this obsession with “humor” as a talisman for a quasi-biological western capacity for free society is tinged with a rank sexual nuance, exemplified in the overwhelming popularity of the novels of Michel Houellebecq. Thus all the outrage over those well-circulated photographs of terrorist femme fatale Hayat Boumeddiene in a bikini, posing sweetly with her black husband, and later in a burka, the inevitable racial metamorphosis proof of the specter of Islamic duality: a habitual oriental sexual license/tendency towards miscegenation that inevitably leads us into sharia totalitarianism. This may seem contradictory for certain liberal empiricists who demand “consistency” in all things, but it’s the classic schizophrenic discourse of all fascism, racism, and xenophobia: we are obedient to the law (while secretly not wanting to obey the law), while they have access to an unfettered jouissance, therefore we have to defend our law in an orgiastic release of violence in order to fight off their law, the bad law which prevents us from enjoying ourselves like they do. This dynamic can be found particularly in the neoliberal racism of the old or reformed European left, particularly the French left: it is the insubordinate swarthy masses of the banlieues who took away the republican golden age, they tell us. In this sense, the installation of Manuel Valls as Prime Minister last year was prophetic. He was brought in to entrench the ongoing austerity program of Hollande’s government (and bury the unregenerate left-wing of the Socialist Party), a program he justifies with a kind of Blarist ideology of expansionist military projects abroad and anti-immigrant “realism” at home. Valls has been the most hawkish politician in recent days, claiming, as Bush never did, perhaps out of a lingering decency if not in the man then in the times, that France is at war with radical Islam.

Speaking of Le Pen, it wouldn’t be too much to say that she acts as the repressed id of the new consensus in the same way that Hitler acted as the repressed id of the panicky Prussian Junker class in the 1920s until the eve of Hitler’s chancellorship. In fact, like many good fascists who sense they have the upper hand, it is Le Pen who today is sounding more reasonable (if you only listen to the tone and to the buzzing of her words), speaking of “solidarity” and “indecent polemic.” Meanwhile the left, both in the United States and in Europe, calls for blood.

Anyway, Le Pen’s absence on Sunday was more than made up for by a gallery of infamy that includes Mahmoud Abbas (with Gaza still in ruins), Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davotoglu (henchman of a government seemingly intent on annihilating a free press along with every other trace of civil society), and of course the literally shameless Netanyahu, whose presence should make all these newfangled leftist Charlies blush, but of course won’t, because—I hate to say it—white journalist lives matter (what, after all, provided the casus belli for Obama’s new adventure in Iraq and Syria but the murder of James Foley and Steven Sotloff?).

The bad faith of these leftists is astounding, sickening. They want to know how much they should be expected to “tolerate.” Is their paper solidarity (a word that has been covered in shit this past week) making them look bad in front of their more apolitical friends? Wasn’t it enough that they stood up for the Mexicans, the good disenfranchised, clamoring to become citizens, while these banlieues kids supposedly reject everything to do with French citizenship, which, it should be said, might not be worth saving, like all citizenship (I’m writing this from the battlefields of southern Chile, where everyday Mapuche Indians are fighting for their physical and cultural survival against what is essentially the same republicanizing project). Must they really be forced to look at a woman in a burka, that noxious vestige of difference that stands between them and their empty, homogenizing “solidarity?” If the genocidal legacy of the Bush wars that they once supported (and I’m not trying to be recriminatory here about the past, I’m talking about the present) turned out to saddle them with guilt and ignominy, can’t they at least have this bellicose outburst of moral clarity as a consolation prize?

But for better or worse these leftists have made their choice. They want to be Charlie, they want to be republicans, they want to be citizens. Perhaps it’s too much to expect them to come around to the utopian (or simply non-dystopian) demand of the Zapatistas for un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos (one world in which many worlds fit). That is the only world worth fighting for, obviously, or at least it’s obvious to me. But for that world to come into being, certain other worlds (single worlds, totalitarian worlds) need to disappear. Or rather, the world that exists needs to disappear, because despite the best efforts of Empire’s ideologues, there never has been and never will be a clash of civilizations. Salafi nihilism is not even the flipside of imperialism, it’s just further along the Mobius Strip of imperialism. The atrocious loss of life in Paris last week was the product of the very same processes, the very same corrupt order, that produces atrocious loss of life everywhere. That’s the trauma that needs to be addressed, not the superficial trauma of a wounded West. But to address that trauma, like all traumas, we need to give up our hypnotizing neuroses, our worthless narcissism, our infantile rage. I’m not optimistic, but I should be. The quoted-into-triteness dictum of Gramsci was wrong. In the face of an ongoing intellectual suicide, we need to cultivate not only optimism of the will, but optimism of the intellect, too.

"war on terror" David Golding 2015-01-11T21:31:10-05:00
The Four Lions, or: The Party Puffins of Allah The following piece appeared here first after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. We're re-posting it since the author's thoughts on satire and terror are on point now.

The Four Lions is a 2010 film comedy about a matey bunch of Islamist suicide bombers, all but one first or second generation South Asians from some place like Bradford or Leeds. They are convincingly played by actors who look as if they’re having great fun making each one of their characters ever more worthy of the excoriating ridicule coming their way from British director Chris Morris’ brilliant script. Fortunately for the actors, the ridicule on offer, although at times towering, is not of the sort that obliterates the humanity of its targets. Far from being interchangeable Hollywood terrorists, these Yorkshire jihadists are each highly individualized and not infrequently likable. They’re goofy, they’re ludicrous, they solemnly swallow the sim cards on their cell phones, they pretend to be musicians (one of them is, sort of) they posture for blooper filled martyrdom videos and have long convoluted arguments about how to do the most damage possible to “this bullshit, consumerist, Godless, Paki-bashing, Gordon Ramsay ‘taste the difference’ specialty cheddar, torture endorsing, massacre sponsoring, look at me dancing, pissing me about, who-gives-a-fuck-about-dead-Afghanis Disneyland!”

Of course in the in the end they show themselves to be, like so many enlistees in violent jihad, pathetic, deluded, and lethal losers. Their inept antics are comic, up to and including the ghastly way each hoists himself on his own petard, disappearing in clouds of ash and shreds of clothing during the London Marathon, taking with them their quota of innocent bystanders, including the stunned patrons of a kebab shop.

Because, yes, the London Marathon becomes their final objective, so that since Boston there has been an uptick of interest, or at least some web chatter, although whether the queasy fascination of life imitating art will edge over into an appreciation of its satire remains to be seen.

They are all youngish men, these Lions, at once alienated from and enthusiastic sharers in the “Disneyland”; one of them, the stupidest and most childlike, has a deep fondness for an amusement park ride called “rubber dinghy rapids.” With the exception of their leader, who has both, they have neither jobs nor women. They live in rows of red brick semi-detached houses on quiet, hilly little streets, once inhabited by the working class of the burgeoning industrial centers. Not one of the world’s fleshpots, perhaps, but for a susceptible Lion, there are damnable temptations: the pharmacy chain Boots is one. “Let’s bomb Boots,” declares one in a meeting to discuss possible targets, “they sell condoms. They make you want to bang white girls.” Oh, reason not the cause!

They’re also, for the purpose of clandestine communications, Party Puffins, or rather they take on the avatars of party puffins in an interactive online game. But it’s time to strike through the mask and meet them face-to-face. The best way I can think to convey their qualities (and perhaps some of the film’s) is by introducing the reader to the Lions one by one.

So then, meet Omar, faute de mieux leader, a security guard at just the sort of installation—a shopping mall vast glittering and soulless—that he’d like to eradicate. Omar, played with delicacy and pluck by Riz Ahmed, is a slight man with gentle eyes, a worried face and a tendency to curse fluently and eloquently in Urdu. Omar has a pretty wife who works as a nurse, an appealing little boy, and a pious brother who keeps trying to get Omar to study and suspects that Omar may be “planning something.”

Next is Wodge, Omar’s Little John, best mate, and easily manipulated tool, played by the American actor Kayvan Novack, diving happily into a thick Northern accent. Wodge is as dumb or “thick” as his nickname, and barely an adult: he’s the rubber dinghy rapids man, and when he accompanies Omar on a trip to a training camp in Pakistan, Wodge takes along a stuffed toy, a “prayer camel” that gives the Call to Prayer at the pull of a cord. Wodge’s truly depthless stupidity proves to be a liability when he makes a cell phone video of himself firing a machine gun, attracting a drone, and setting in motion a chain of events that leads to the accidental death of Sheik Osama bin Laden himself. “Am I God’s accident?’ he asks Omar.

Another dim bulb is Faisal, played by Adeel Akhtar as benighted, superstitious, obscurely cringing, who insists on wearing a cardboard box over his head for his martyrdom videos because images are haram, and who has been training a crow—the one depicted, on a stone wall in the English rain, looks, before being turned into a swirl of black feathers and white smoke, every bit as melancholy as its master. Faisal is an early casualty of Jihad, Lion-style; running through a field of sheep while carrying volatile bomb components he accidentally blows himself up, disappearing into the white smoke of what, since Boston, one has learned is produced by this particular type of bomb.

Two more Lions: the convert Barry, played by Nigel Lindsay with superb, unhinged aggressiveness. The character of Barry was based on a BNP militant who took to reading the Koran to confute Pakistani opponents and ended up converting to Islam. Or say to Islamofascism, most conveniently. Thickly set, truculent, the kurta wearing, Allah invoking, stringed instrument denouncing Barry has such flights of fancies as an idea of himself as the Scarlett Pimpernel of international jihad. In a scene fully the equal of the “What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?” episode in Monty Python's Life of Brian Barry argues strenuously for “bombing the mosque.” “Radicalize the moderates, the Ummah rises up, it all kicks off!” Barry shouts. Not even the reasonable suggestion from Omar that this would be like a man in a fight who decides to punch his own face can dissuade Barry from his conviction—or from punching himself, painfully, on his nose. Vexed, he head butts Faisal, who hadn’t been in the room.

Last to join but hardly least is the university attending Hassan Alli, son of a most conveniently prosperous manufacturer of party costumes. Hassan is into rap and hip-hop, a taste that spreads among the Lions; Barry recruits him after witnessing his disruption of a panel discussion at a local college under the ineffably anodyne rubric ISLAM—MODERATION AND PROGRESS. Ali accomplishes this with shouted rap lyrics, “I’m the Mujahedeen/and I’m making the scene/Now you’re gonna feel/What the Boom-Boom means/It’s like Tupac said/When I die I’m not dead/We are the Martyrs/You’re just smashed tomatoes” and a fake suicide vest containing the kind of thing the English give as party favors on Boxing Day, poppers that go pop and produce parti-colored paper streamers. Played with subtlety by Arsher Ali, Hassam’s upper-middle class imitation of imagined lower depths makes him an outsider among outsiders, although that doesn’t stop him from associating with his new comrades, who distinctly favor the “weapons” portion of the good old Marxist formulation about exchanging the weapons of criticism for the criticism of weapons.

I think Chris Morris achieves his goals in The Four Lions, which include more than just managing to pull off a comedy about suicide bombers, and that it be really funny, really. In the special features, among glimpses of ordinary South Asians driving around aimlessly, flirting with girls, bored, horny, making up solid sounding futures involving wives and good jobs and babies to the where do you see yourself in 10 years question, Morris can be seen musing that “you start to realize that there is a potential for a comic character in the sort of people that hitherto you just literally felt were one dimensional.” Yes you do.

Satire and ridicule have rarely been deployed to such devastating effect as in this collective portrait of obscurantists and fanatics who are never less than, and always all-too, human. The Lions are a menace to themselves, assorted fauna and livestock, Osama Bin Laden himself and a variety of innocent bystanders (although as Barry reminds us that last category “doesn’t exist” telling us this as he grimly and lovingly arranges the steel bolts to be packed into a bomb designed for the flesh of “Sodomites” “Gynecologists” and—I think I heard this right—“Leonard Cohen”). They are triumphant comic creations, as beastly and absurd as anyone or anything in Swift or Fielding, and if we’re ever going to prevail against their real life counterparts and imitators, the very English laughter that Chris Morris inherits from the great satirists should be deployed as often as the war-like procedures that sometimes seem to constitute the only response to Islamist terror.

An unlikely outcome, I’m afraid and a little sad to have to say. Coupled with the extreme unlikelihood of a film like The Four Lions being made in the US—the reasons why would require a separate and perhaps lengthier assessment—the Morris mix of dry mock, moral alertness, allowing the enemy to condemn itself abundantly out of its own mouth, and shrewd understanding of the resentments, rivalries, fantasies and sheer bloody minded childishness beneath the heroic images of jihad is not likely to gain much ground, even in the aftermath of the attack on the Boston marathon, carried out by two young men who by all accounts appear to be as absurd and as deadly as their fictional British brethren.

"war on terror" Oliver Conant 2015-01-10T00:45:53-05:00
Before the War A few months before her death, Ellen Willis emailed to say pieces by Charles O’Brien and Fredric Smoler on the Danish Cartoon Controversy posted on this site were “good.” (That was high praise from Ellen whose mode of approbation was the opposite of American idolaters.) Struck by how much those pieces “echoed themes” in what she’d written at the time of the Rushdie affair, she wondered if we “might be interested in reprinting the editorial I wrote in the Voice [in 1989] as a historical affirmation of the bad road we are going down.” What follows is the piece of the past that Ellen thought belonged in First. (It was originally titled “The West Betrays Its Principles.”) B.D.

Make no mistake: Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for Salman Rushdie’s execution is not simply a piece of lunatic demagogy directed at an individual, but a serious act of political intimidation with far-reaching consequences. The Iranian head of state has declared war – quite literally – on Western secular, democratic institutions. He has rallied his international troops in his most daring bid yet to extend the power of Islamic theocracy beyond his own country, even beyond the Moslem world, by force. Do the people and the governments supposedly committed to democratic values have the will to fight back?

Already Khomeini has won a few battles. Rushdie can hardly be blamed for going into hiding, and perhaps it’s too much to expect of his publishers that they go on with his book tour as a protest, with a video or audio tape of Rushdie taking his place. But Vikings’ craven statement that they never intended to offend anyone by publishing Rushdie’s book and “very much regret the distress the book has caused” is inexcusable. So is the action of the Waldenbooks, the country’s largest books chain in taking Satanic Verses off the shelves. (As the company’s executive vice-president, Bonnie Predd, sententiously put it: “We’ve fought long and hard against censorship. But when it comes to the safety of our employees, one sometimes has to compromise.” (How about simply offering any nervous employee a few days off.?) In France, Presses de la Cite, Rushdie’s publisher, has ‘postponed’ publication of the French edition (you remember France, home of Voltaire, but more recently the drug company that tried to scuttle the abortifacient RU 486 under pressure from anti-abortion activists). Nor will the West German house Keipenheuer and Witsch publish Rushdie’s book as scheduled.

There is no indication that the world’s governments are taking Khomeini’s move as seriously as it deserves. Britain has made the strongest statement, which nonetheless falls short of declaring that officially putting a price on the head of a British author exercising the right to free speech in his own country is an act of war against Britain and will be viewed as such. The United States has confined itself to a routine condemnation of terrorism. Canada gets the prize for moral oafishness. Revenue Canada, a government customs and taxation agency, has temporarily banned further imports of the Rushdie book, pending an investigation of the possibility that it contains “hate literature” (the ban was announced the first day of Canada’s National Freedom To Read Week). Will Britain, the U.S., or anyone else move to bring this issue before the United Nations? If they do, is there any chance the UN will vote for meaningful sanctions against Iran? And if not, will those Western nations that call themselves democracies get together to impose sanctions on their own, The last two questions are, I’m afraid, rhetorical.

The attack on Rushdie and the anemic response to it are not occurring in a vacuum. Democratic secularism is increasingly vulnerable to a religious fundamentalism that in all its forms – Christian, and Jewish as well as Islamic – is increasingly feeling its power. And Western governments, far from resisting anti-democratic absolutism, have been abetting it. The Thatcher government has enthusiastically pursued its own censorship of books and other media. The U.S. has, of course, been in bed with fundamentalist Christianity since the election of Jimmy Carter. The Reagan administration never got too exercised about violent attacks on abortion clinics, refusing to include them in its antiterrorist rhetoric, the political climate surrounding abortion has become so intimidating that no American drug company has been willing to test RU 486, must less market it. Our government also supports, on the grounds of the right to freedom and self-determination, the fundamentalist guerrillas in Afghanistan, who – if, as now seems likely, they end up in power – may make Khomeini look mellow. Is there anything left of the West’s loudly proclaimed commitment to freedom that goes beyond such ironies? More and more that question, too, begins to seem rhetorical.

"war on terror" Ellen Willis 2015-01-10T00:12:30-05:00
Endangered Species It’s Christmas Eve and it has been raining all day in a kind of incessant Blade Runner post-apocalyptic way: a muddy Christmas! Gasoline is suddenly well under three bucks a gallon so it’s hello greenhouse and goodbye ozone. Hunting season upstate and my dog has found a bag of guts a neighbor has left outside after butchering his doe. Yet the main thing about today, beyond the appalling weather, my rancid mutt, my worries for the environment, and the anniversary of the birth of the Infant Jesus is that I finished reading a great novel and I am surging with energy and feeling the aesthetic thrill of having experienced something original and important.

The name of the novel is Preparation for the Next Life and the author is Atticus Lish, and though the NYTimes has been attentive to its publication, very few of the very few outlets for book reviews and literary criticism seem to have noticed it and unless some kind of cultural cavalry comes to the rescue I fear this brave, searing work will never get the attention necessary for any novel that hopes to gain an audience in today’s cultural climate.

The novel itself is a relentless immersion into parts of New York City that many people–particularly those in the book-buying class–do not have even a glancing acquaintance with. In Tom Wolfe’s Vanity of the Bonfires, the story is ignited by a rich (white) man getting lost and finding himself in what is to him Hell, where his wealth and position cannot protect him from the humans with dark skins who dwell in The Bronx, a place where he may as well be naked with a rose in his teeth. In Atticus Lish’s story there is no bourgeois character to act as a liaison between the reader and the world of no money.

Most of the novel takes place in a part of Queens where a handful of Irish dead-enders do what they can to hold onto their old small privileges while the borough absorbs more and more Asian and Latin American workers, most of whom are frightened, exploited, and tireless. In a landscape of slapped together fast food restaurants, immigrant housing worse than some squats, soul-crushing bars, auto repair shops, construction sites, water towers, and trim little houses, Lish’s characters do not shrink back in neo-Kurtzian horror, nor do they nurture illusory aspirations of somehow getting out. Most of them have climbed as far up the economic ladder as they are ever going to get, and are far more concerned with not being swept into the oblivion of illness, arrest, or deportation than they are with making it to Manhattan or the suburbs. Though some of them, it must be said, are also concerned with getting drunk, and with hookers, and theft, and violence (there is a scene of a beating in this novel that is so graphic and convincing that I fear I will never forget it).

The large compassionate heart of this remarkable book is the relationship between a Chinese/Muslim undocumented worker, a woman named Zou Lei, and a recently discharged physically and psychically injured Iraq war vet called Skinner. It’s a love story full of yearning and need and dependence and misunderstanding and grief and daring, rendered over the course of 400 plus pages without one sentimental assertion or turn of phrase. Here, in a characteristic paragraph, Zoe Lei has brought Skinner food from the (dreadful) Chinese fast food restaurant where she works (for uncertain wages):

She took meat from the steam table and made him a care package. She filled a Styrofoam shell with rice, beef, dumplings, and put it in a plastic bag and hid it on the shelf by the cornstarch and took it to him after work. She had only one plastic fork and he said, no, you keep that, and he ate it cold with his fingers, having done this all the time in the infantry. When it was her turn, she leaned down and ate in her own way, like any Asian working person using the fork as a shovel. The two of them had to take turns at the trough or their heads would bump. She prodded him with an elbow and he looked at her.


Is that good?

Yes. Tongkuai is warm. We are very warm here. She gestured at the
purple-walled basement surrounded by the cold black night outside
the window. (p. 133)

The consistently convincing manner with which Lish portrays these two unprotected souls and their search for love and for each other (poverty here is a kind of shipwreck, and the city is a turbulent ocean) makes his novel almost unbearably suspenseful, and a kind of exquisite agony to read. But the real story of Preparation for the Next Life is the secret underpinnings of a city that is in many respects a stranger to itself.

Here is Zoe Lei in East New York, with only shower flip-flops to protect her feet from the city’s devouring concrete:

The police van’s white, red, and orange flashers disappeared behind her as the road bent and she passed silos for sand and gravel, a diagonal conveyor belt against the sky, cement trucks nose to tail like elephants behind a fence. (p. 387)

And here is Skinner, who is living in the basement of a house in Queens, surveying his new world:

The house looked the same as always, the three layers of roofs rolled out like dirty tongues separating each floor. From here, he saw the shed in back, the attic window stuffed with yellow-gray insulation. He went around the yard’s faded Jesus and let himself in. (p. 365)

Much of the publicity around Atticus Lish has been contingent on the fact that he is the son of the renowned (or, depending on your point of view, the notorious) editor and writing teacher Gordon Lish (who was known in Manhattan and MFA circles as Captain Fiction). Lish pere will most likely be given his spot in literary history for his forceful (or, depending on your point of view, heavy-handed) editing of Raymond Carver’s work when it appeared in Esquire. It could be argued that between Carver and Lish a distinct school of short story writing was born. The socially marginal characters, the kitchen sink realism, the drinking and the despair and the general sense of malaise was Carver’s own, but the sentences–short, understated, avoiding lyricism like a matador dodges the horns of a bull–were clearly shaped by Lish’s confident red pencil. (In fact, toward the end of his short life, when Carver had had enough success to get publishers to bend to his will, many of the Lish-ized stories were restored to their original forms and re-published.)

The curious thing about the concentration on Lish’s connection to Captain Fiction and the worlds of corporate publishing and graduate writing programs (after Lish senior left Esquire, he worked as an editor at Alfred Knopf, and taught fiction writing in Columbia’s MFA program) is that Atticus Lish’s work gives no evidence that he has any particular interest in either of those worlds. Preparation for the Next Life is published by Tyrant Books, a very small independent house, whose owner, Giancarlo diTrapano, runs the entire operation out of his small apartment, where, according to a reporter from The Los Angeles Review of Books, he offers visiting journalists wine, Xanax, and cocaine.

Though Lish was admitted to Harvard (after prepping at Andover), he dropped out after a couple of years to join the Marines. This year’s National Book Award winner, Phil Klay, whose fine book of linked short stories offered a multi-dimensional portrait of our all-volunteer fighting force, also went to an Ivy League college–Dartmouth–but Klay made it all the way through and went on to New York City to receive his MFA, giving his life a certain similarity to the many other young writers who are processed through the scores and scores of writing programs east to west, north to south. (It’s become something of a rarity to find a published younger fiction writer who does not have an MFA and is not posted at some college somewhere, helping the next wave of aspiring writers get their MFAs. After Lish left Harvard he worked at a number of hard laboring jobs, compiling a resume reminiscent of the author bios of fifty years ago. He did not (for reasons he seems to be keeping to himself) make it through his four-year hitch as a Marine–“not even enough to be eligible for veteran’s benefits,” he said to a reporter for The New York Times–but early on, Lish began learning Mandarin, taking himself to lessons in Chinatown when he was just 12 years old, unbeknownst to his family. His knowledge of Chinese led him to a job as close to white collar employment as he has yet to come: translating technical articles from Mandarin to English.

He has not resigned that position. At forty-three his first novel (as of this writing) is in the mid-3000’s on Amazon’s e-book site, and in print (it has come out in paperback) it is now just under 2000. The disparity may suggest that those who have purchased it might be older, or more analog in their inclination, or have purchased copies to give as Christmas presents–but either way, these are not the kind of sales figures that will allow a writer to live on royalties. Preparation has been enthusiastically (if not widely) reviewed, and Atticus himself has received more than a smattering of publicity–he is a perfect profile subject, with his semi-famous father, shaved head, athleticism (martial arts, rock climbing) and his out-sized talent. Yet with all that, Lish is going to have to continue working his day job while he prepares for the next novel.

Maybe Hollywood will come courting, but selling out ain’t what it used to be–more novels are optioned for $1000 than sold for a million. Maybe the MacArthur Foundation will step in, or the Pulitzer, or maybe the Booker–nomination for that prize plucked Joshua Ferris’s brilliant recent novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, from the obscurity into which distracted and tone deaf book review editors had cast it. But the economic reality of being a serious novelist in a culture which shows less and less interest in doing the work of reading literature is that finding a safe place in one MFA program or another might be one of the few viable alternatives left. (The other is trying to write for the movies or television, a short term fix, one that creates as many problems as it solves–you can take that from me.) As far as I know, Atticus Lish has eschewed both of these paths, yet with a publisher running his business from a kitchen table and the readers who ought to be devouring his work somehow unaware of it, how is he meant to carry on? Preparation for the Next Life is a novel about immigration, war, endurance, and what it means to try to hold onto a shred of your integrity and individuality in a world which could not care less if you were dead or alive. In it Lish has imagined himself into the psyches of two characters who society can find no way to comfort or protect, two compassionately portrayed individuals who the reader comes to know and love. Unlike so many first novels, it seems to be almost ruthless in its exclusion of any material that might be construed as autobiographical. Yet upon closing Lish’s novel I began to wonder if there might be a third endangered creature in this story, indeed an endangered species–the serious novelist who wanders through our culture without the protection of a university or a foundation or any other of capitalism’s gentler manifestations. Preparation for the Next Life is a high-wire act without a net and when I closed the book I was filled with admiration for its author and a great uneasiness over what happens when, like his characters, he is forced to look down.

culturewatch Scott Spencer 2015-01-09T20:06:29-05:00
Ol' Blue Eyes To get the preliminaries out of the way, at Bob Dylan’s third of three concerts at the Oakland Paramount, first, the band – Bob (piano and harmonica), Tony Garnier (bass), Donnie Herron (banjo, viola, violin, mandolin, pedal and lap steel), Stu Kimball (rhythm guitar), and especially, given the way the sound mix reached these ears, George Reville (drums) and Charley Sexton (lead guitar) – was terrific; but if you understood more than one-third of the lyrics, you beat the over-under. Second, they did nineteen songs, of which one was from the sixties and five from Tempest, Bob’s latest release of new material. (Last year, at Mountain View, they did fifteen songs, of which four were from the sixties and two from Tempest. The year before, in Berkeley, eight of fifteen songs from the sixties and none from Tempest, even though it had just been released and could have used the promotion.) Third, as for ingratiating stage presence, Bob no longer even introduces the musicians. (If he said anything, it was "Thank you. We’ll be right back." At least, immediately after something undistinguishable uttered from his microphone, everyone walked off stage and returned, fifteen minutes later, to resume playing, without any buzzings or dimming lights to alert those in line in the rest rooms, of whom, given the number of graying pony tails in the audience, male as well as female, there were likely to be plenty. (Of further demographic note, it being the night after the World Series, the audience sported about as many t-shirts saluting the Giants as it did saluting Bob.) And finally, when he’d played Mountain View, Bob was still varying his shows by a couple songs, night to night; but on most of this tour, he has been sticking with the same songs, in the same order, every night, regardless of whether he is moving on or sticking around.

With one exception. For four months, in forty-one concerts, in fourteen countries, on three continents, his encore had been "All Along the Watchtower," followed by "Blowing in the Wind." But in Hollywood, three nights before, he had switched. Now he sent us home with "Stay With Me."

That song, written by Jerome Moross and sung by Frank Sinatra, had been the theme for the 1963 film The Cardinal, directed by Otto Preminger, and based, not on the life of Enos Slaughter or Bob Gibson or Dizzy Dean of St. Louis, as one with Game Sevens on his mind when news of this switch reached him might have imagined, but on his eminence Francis Joseph Spellman of New York, who hadn’t played in any.

"Should my heart not be humble, should my eyes fail to see," a beseecher begins, "Should my feet sometimes stumble..., stay with me." Though he has wandered afield and become lost, he asks not be given up on. While he has blundered, even sinned, and, while weary, groping, stumbling through cold and darkness, sought shelter from the wind, he prays, "...stay with me. Stay with me." Wind, darkness, eyes that do not see, legs that cannot stand, the search for shelter in storms, there is much plucked from a Hollywood a half-century ago, familiar as yesterday to listeners to Bob Dylan. These are colors basic to his palette. These ordered-letters are talismanic objects to be re-arranged, re-shuffled and re-shelved in his touring cabinet of wonders.

They had been present in his previous encore too. Along that watchtower, a howling wind had promised listeners "no relief." And the blowin’ wind, which had once seemed to promise that men might someday "see," had been worn by ensuing decades into a tattered, poignant bleat of unrealized expectations.

Now here they came, reformed, again.

The obvious association is that Bob had once more tapped that portion within which had poured out Slow Train Coming. The reflexive choice is to pop him back in bed with Jesus. But I have what, for this non-believer, seems a more generous thought. I don’t think Bob is talking to God. (I bet he doubts there is a God.) I think he is talking to me. I think he stands on that stage, apart though in a group, and all he knows for certain exists above him in the dark is his audience, to whom he is speaking, in this song, in a way that's more profound and more affecting than if he was reaching to Heaven, as well as communicating more deeply and more personally than would a pandering "It’s great to be back in the Bay Area" or "This one’s for Pablo Sandoval."

Dylan is seventy-three, the survivor of a disabling cardio-vascular assault, a grandfather many times over, (maybe, secretive as he is, a great-grandfather), and winner of every honor short of a Nobel Prize. (Hey, what is it with you Swedes? Give it up!!) Yet the only way he can be is on the road half of each year, playing one-nighters from Romania, to Slovakia, to Austria.

It can’t just be the music. He could gig at home in Malibu. But to be Bob Dylan requires us. Everyone of us aging, mortal, sometimes, cold, sometimes weary, sometimes lost. I think Dylan knows his stumbles, his wandering, and blunders have irritated and disappointed us. He knows we want to hear "Like a Rolling Stone" sound like it did in 1965. (He knows we sometimes wish it was 1965.) He knows we wish he would sing out against global holocausts or over-sugared soft drinks. (Hell, he knows some of us – and I could name a half-dozen at the Wrench Café – are still mad he went electric.) But I also think he knows that, by now, whatever our preferences, most of us we respect his doing what he does in the fashion that he does it. I think he appreciates our sticking by him, and he is asking, for what remains us, one and all, to stand by him still.

We are on this journey together. We share the same boat, rocking atop the same flood. We frustrate each other. We try each other’s patience. We sing one song when another would be preferred. There is, as yet, no magic wand or baton to wave to change this. So acceptance and tolerance, patience, and trust for everyone on board may be the bearable solution.

The word is that Dylan’s next album will feature covers of multiple Frank Sinatra numbers. The only appropriate response for this man, with his continued capacity to enrich us with wonder and dismay, is "Why the Hell not?"

music Bob Levin 2014-12-17T23:37:08-05:00
Mirror Mirror

I am white, I can feed silence.
My children can breathe, though
the air’s fetid with fear
extinguished Black men
shared. Who will keen for
them? Outrage must be
boots on blood-stained streets. Can you hear
each victim’s last words echo?

Each victim’s last words echo.
Boots on blood-stained streets – can you hear
them? Outrage must be
shared. Who will keen for
extinguished Black men?
The air’s fetid with fear
my children breathe. Though
I am white, can I feed silence?

Alison Stone 2014-12-17T23:22:24-05:00
Obama's Executive Action David Brooks agrees with the substance of Obama’s executive action on immigration, but believes that he has transgressed the Constitution in the process. The president has usurped the role of the legislature. For Brooks, process transcends substance, so apart from expressing sympathy for the substance of Obama’s action he has little to say about what should be done in addressing the plight of millions of undocumented immigrants, given the gridlock that exists between the branches of government. When it is pointed out that Obama’s action has its precedents in the actions of his predecessors, Republicans as well as Democrats, Brooks responds by noting the scale of the action, 5 million rather than 1.5 million under George H.W. Bush. He does not explain how this makes Obama’s action, but not Bush’s, unconstitutional. Where in the Constitution is the line drawn on scale, and where in the Constitution are the extent and limits of permissible executive action spelled out? Brooks, a moderate conservative, has been one of the more temperate critics of Obama. Unlike Speaker John Boehner and others, he has not declared that the president has assumed the role of a monarch. (Obama opened himself to the charge by earlier declarations that he is neither a king nor an emperor. See below.) In making the charge, they do not mean to characterize executive action per se as an exercise of royal prerogative—after all, presidents of their own party, the revered Reagan and the lesser Bushes, have felt free to exercise such power. (As I learned from reading Aaron David Miller’s The End of Greatness, perhaps the most expansive executive action in our history was the Louisiana Purchase by one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, acquired without a constitutional amendment or consultation with Congress to the dismay of critics at the time. “The Federalists would blast him for purchasing ‘a howling wilderness.’…The acquisition doubled the size of the United States and would come to compose about 23 percent of its current territory.”) What is at stake for Boehner and others is not so much the scale of the action, but its substance. The difference in language between the two sides tells the story. For Boehner and his allies, the executive action means “amnesty to illegal aliens,” while Obama aims to document “undocumented immigrants.”

At stake, according to the president’s critics, is our democracy. Has the president usurped the constitutional authority of Congress? The question, it would seem, applies to all presidents who exercise executive power in making rules or laws unauthorized by the legislature. In answering the question, we need to separate the terms, “constitution” and “democracy.” They share common ground, but they do not coincide. There is nothing in the Constitution that either authorizes or forbids actions of the kind taken by Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. To which we might add: there is nothing in the Constitution that authorizes or forbids filibusters or the willful decision of the Speaker not to allow the House of Representatives to vote on the immigration bill that the Senate passed. Such a vote combining Democratic and Republican votes would probably have produced a bill that Obama could have signed, making his executive action unnecessary. Why has no one pointed out that Boehner is in effect a monarch preventing the majority will of the Congress from expressing itself? My point is simple: executive orders, senatorial filibusters on presidential nominees and holds on bills, often hardly democratic, are products of customs that have evolved and without authorization from the Constitution. Moreover, what is constitutional is not necessarily democratic. For example granting each state regardless of the size of its population the same number of senators hardly contributes to majority, that is, democratic rule. Though we hear criticism, there has been general acceptance of this constitutional arrangement by people across the political spectrum. The fact that there are two senators from Wyoming and two from New York does not provoke outrage. In the matter of immigration reform, the real cause of contention between Obama and his Republican critics is not whether he has violated the Constitution or betrayed our democracy in the process; it is the substance of action.

Let’s, however, stay with process. Constitutional scholars are divided on whether Obama has violated the Constitution. What about Obama himself, a constitutional scholar? Has he gone back on earlier declarations that he is constitutionally obliged to enforce laws and that he is therefore in bad faith in issuing his executive order on immigration? Here are two statements Obama made on different occasions. On March 2011 he said, “America is a nation of laws, which means I, as the President, am obligated to enforce the law. I don’t have a choice about that…With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportation through executive order, that’s just not the case, because there are laws on the books that Congress has passed.” And on January 2013 he declared, “I’m not a King. My job as the head of the executive branch ultimately is to carry out the law. When it comes to enforcement of our immigration laws, we’ve got some discretion. We can prioritze what we do. But we can’t simply ignore the law.”

So the issue is whether the executive order is suspending law that exists or making new law. He does neither. In his own words, he is not ignoring the law. He continues the policy of deportation, but exercises discretion in prosecuting it, as he has a right to do. Laws on the books are invariably selectively enforced, because the authorities do not have the resources and capability for universal enforcement. There is no way that the government could possibly deport 11 million undocumented immigrants or, for that matter, the 5 million of the executive order. By granting temporary visas to 5 million, it is doing what it normally does in executing laws, exercising discretion and choosing whom to prosecute and not to prosecute. The Administration will focus on those who commit crimes, not on those who “live by the rules.” Even without the executive order, this would probably be the case. What the executive order does or is intended to do is remove the fear from millions of undocumented immigrants, who probably would not be prosecuted in any event and thus “bring them out of the shadows.” It is true, as Obama himself acknowledges, that executive orders are not ideal vehicles for legislative action. (There is the risk that a Republican president will reverse the order and leave those who benefited from it vulnerable to the authorities.) Executive action should occur only in extraordinary circumstances, for example in the case of legislative gridlock—when there is a general sentiment that a critical problem needs to be addressed and neither the will nor the capacity of the legislature seems to be capable of addressing it. Fortunately, the Constitution is sufficiently porous to allow for the executive branch to act when necessary.

There are or should be limits to executive action. In their excellent book It’s Even Worse than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, Thomas Mann and Norman Orenstein provide a succinct summary of the expansive “theory of the unitary executive,” espoused by the Reagan Administration. “That theory holds that the president, as the single head of the executive branch and constitutionally charged to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed,’ has broad authority to direct how executive branch employees perform their duties, and that Congress’s authority to check presidential actions is extremely limited. A stronger version of the theory legitimized a very aggressive and controversial assertion of the president’s unique and unchallengeable authority during the George W. Bush administration particularly given seemingly permanent threats to national security after terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001” (173). As Mann and Orenstein observe, “recent Democratic presidents have shown no affinity for the unitary executive theory, with good reason.” Mann and Orestein believe that “the theory is way outside the bounds of the Constitution and the framers' intent,” and yet they do not repudiate all executive action. They are sympathetic with Clinton’s ambitious move “to conserve public lands, protect American’s medical privacy and create a welfare-to-work partnership.” They seem to have no objection to Obama’s reauthorization of “the No Child Left Behind Act in reaction to the inability of Congress to authorize” it (17), “despite bipartisan support.” Though they do not propose a theory of constitutionally permissive executive action, it is implied in their devastating critique of Congressional deadlock. Failure of Congress to act when necessary would seem to require executive action.

Executive action is a fact and a problem peculiar to our system. As political scientists have noted, European countries avoid the problem because their parliamentary systems combine the legislative and executive systems. They do not suffer divided government. Having fought against the tyranny of the English monarchy, the framers of the American Constitution were obsessed with the need to limit the powers of the executive by creating a system of checks and balances. What the Constitution does not sufficiently anticipate are situations like the one in which we find ourselves at present when the checks overwhelm the balances. A crisis arises and the legislature is not only at loggerheads with the executive, but also divided against itself and unable to act. Political logic dictates that executive action without authorization from the legislature may be required. Which is not to say that it is always justified. The crisis may be manufactured for political purposes. And indeed, even if the crisis is real there may be an admixture of political motives in the action. In the matter of immigration, Obama doubtless has in mind the Hispanic vote, but it is generally clear to Republicans as well as Democrats that the current system is broken, in which case, given Congressional gridlock, executive action would sometimes seem called for. The Constitution in its separation of powers assumes a political culture in which compromise between branches of the government is necessary to the functioning of government. It is the extremists on the right, not Obama, who have violated the very spirit of the Constitution.

nation Eugene Goodheart 2014-12-17T21:09:35-05:00
Strangers in the Land (and Humanism in the Arena) I

“Scripture tells us we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger. We were strangers once, too."

That line from Barack Obama’s speech on his executive order protecting millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation took on a different resonance in the wake of Grand Jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island. Obama’s vision of a more empathetic America seemed beamish if you read Darren Wilson’s testimony about why he had to kill the “demon” Michael Brown or watched video of police taking down Eric Garner (then mulling around him afterwards like he was a beast of no nation). The retaliatory assassination of the two cops (and family men) last Saturday in Brooklyn wasn't a blow to empire so much as a blow to empathy itself. Those head-shots went to the heart of the country.

But that doesn't mean the policy and poetry in Obama’s speech shouldn't be news that stays news. And not just for the millions of immigrants and their loved ones who won’t live in fear as long as he’s president. Obama upheld an American tradition of sympathy for the underdog that remains this nation’s richest source of moral capital. When he invoked the story of Astrid Silva—an undocumented immigrant who’d dared to advocate openly for herself and her parents—he made that tradition live again:

Astrid was brought to America when she was 4 years old. Her only possessions were a cross, her doll, and the frilly dress she had on. When she started school, she didn’t speak any English. She caught up to other kids by reading newspapers and watching PBS. And then she became a good student. Her father worked in landscaping. Her mom cleaned other people’s homes. They wouldn’t let Astrid apply to a technology magnet school, not because they didn’t love her, but because they were afraid the paperwork would out her as an undocumented immigrant. So she applied behind their back and got in.

Still, she mostly lived in the shadows until her grandmother, who visited every year from Mexico, passed away, and she couldn’t travel to the funeral without risk of being found out and deported. It was around that time she decided to begin advocating for herself and others like her. And today Astrid Silva is a college student working on her third degree.

Obama implicitly urged Ms. Silva and every American to keep stretching themselves. His language linked advocacy for the undocumented with other campaigns for broad-scale social change. Note his use of the term “out” in the passage above which connects shadows hanging over Ms. Silva’s family with fading stigmas against gays and lesbians. That word-choice amounted to a gentle jab at muy macho prejudices of more insular new immigrants.

Obama founded his brief on American verities (even as he evoked how “who we are” has changed): “Are we a nation that kicks out a striving, hopeful immigrant like Astrid?” It took a certain audacity to act like that’s a rhetorical question. Obama’s dare was informed by his experience as a political candidate. Americans’ attraction to underdogs/outsiders helped him overcome when he started his run for the presidency by taking on Hillary Clinton—the favored candidate of the Democratic Party establishment (and the Big Dog). And it surely figured in his campaign against that rich sociopath who always “looked like a chandelier was about to fall on his head.” [1] (Obama’s mockery of Trumpery comes to mind as well.)

OTOH, anyone aiming to uphold the underdog tradition has been going uphill in this country since the Age of Reagan. Obama managed to win one for The Democracy vs. The Plutocracy in the 2012 election. But plenty of citizens outside the One Percent wish he’d be a stranger. The thought of Obama and his black family occupying the White House affronts white-is-right dead-enders—especially in the American South. I doubt Obama meant to tweak them when he affirmed undocumented emigrant strivers like Astrid Silva were “as American as Malia and Sasha,” but that line must have felt like a double-diss to American nativists.


A Republican pundit like Timesman David Brooks may not identify with nativists but they’re a key constituency of his party. He’s not about to cross the base. (See this First analysis of Brooks’ polemic against Obama’s executive action.)

Brooks’ instinct is to deflect attention from intolerant angles on the multi-culture that define the GOP as the “Party of No.” In a post-Ferguson reflection, he focused on a different set of cultural contradictions, lamenting “the sharp social divide between people who live in the ‘respectable’ meritocracy and those who live beyond it.” In this strange piece Brooks conflated urban haute bourgeois mores with those of (what sociologists once termed) the “respectable” working class, conjuring up a common culture where:

…almost everybody you meet has at least been to college, and people have very little contact with features that are sometimes a part of the other world: prison, meth, payday loans, a flowering of non-marriage family types…People in the “respectable” class have meritocratic virtues: executive function, grit, a capacity for delayed gratification. The view about those in the untouchable world is that they are short on these things. They are disorganized. They are violent and scary.

Brooks' diagnosis of how “classism intertwines with racism”—“People are now assigned a whole range of supposedly underclass traits based on a single glimpse at skin color.”—implies a measure of self-scrutiny. When the author of Bobos in Paradise starts picking up on “latent and historic racism” and steering readers to Manchild in the Promised Land something black-and-going-on has impinged on his dailiness. But Brooks’ attempt to distance himself from genteel biases seems pretty disingenuous since he supports a party that breaks America into “makers and takers” (and relies on a racist Southern Strategy). His take on the “respectable class’s” meritocratic attitude fails to take in the mind-set of an activist like Ms. Silva (with her 3 degrees). Not to mention college-educated protesters against police brutality who’ve been in the streets lately. Brooks’ reactionary skepticism of leftish demonstrations, liberal governance and unions means there’s not a lot to his new-found clarity about the need for “common projects” that unite blacks and whites.

His recommendation of Manchild is a bit of a tell. That good book, after all, is 50 years old. Brooks hasn’t been keeping up with newer art that proves black lives matter. Or non-fiction that illuminates the back story of everyday people in struggle today such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent case for reparations in The Atlantic. (Brooks’ failure to notice that article—the most acclaimed magazine piece of the past year—despite his sudden interest in the legacy of racism, amounts to another tell.)


Coates has become the most vital public intellectual of the Obama era other than the president himself. His Atlantic posts over the past few years have repeatedly sent readers to writings that get to the root of white supremacy. His links, as well as his own perceptions, have turned his blog into a national resource—though that phrase seems inapt since Coates has been serving as our preeminent critic of “creedal” Americanism.

Coates' polemical reply to the president’s first statement after the Ferguson Grand Jury decision is on point here. He busted Obama for talking around the truth: “Barack Obama is the president of a congenitally racist country, erected upon the plunder of life, liberty, labor, and land…On Monday night, watching Obama both be black and speak for the state was torturous.” Coates argued Obama’s even-handed calmatives and willfully optimistic long views were a recipe for despair: “Hope is earned.”

Coates' unillusioned analysis was just. But I want to push back against his truth attack (without suggesting Obama seemed untired that night). Coates is right that Obama’s nods to America’s capacity for change sounded hollow and ahistorical rather than mindful. Yet Obama’s reflections on violence and the American Dilemma were more subtle than Coates allows. When Obama took up this issue, his tamped-down voice seemed to talk back to itself, investing his words with something deeper than their surface meaning:

What we need to do is…figure out how to make more progress. That won’t be done by throwing bottles. That won’t be done by smashing car windows. That won’t be done by using this as an excuse to vandalize property, and it certainly won’t be done by hurting anybody.

His emphasis on that end note made it sound like he’d arrived at a first principle—a moral bottom line that privileged people over property. Maybe I read too much into his words because I was watching video of a police car being trashed on a split screen as Obama delivered his statement. That juxtaposition might have made Obama look weak to some, but to me it underscored the wisdom of the (admittedly fine) distinction he’d made between breaking windows and “hurting anybody.”[2] While Obama’s injunctions were directed at African-American protesters, his warnings didn’t offer absolution-in-advance to cops who engaged in the sort of overkill that amped up rioting in Ferguson last August.

Obama has been more forthright lately about addressing police violence. (His recent felt comment on BET about the need to give black youth “margin for error” was right on.) His tone has become more urgent in part because (as he’s said) the Eric Garner video is a teachable moment that confirms black protestors aren’t “making things up.” But it’s not only that undeniable video that’s enabling Obama to ask Americans if they believe cops/prosecutors or their lying eyes. I hear Obama getting liberal with Coates’ radicalism when the president insists suspicion of police in African American communities isn’t a black (or brown) thing but an “American problem.”

Blood and treasure are in the equation here. The sharpest Ferguson-related reporting has followed the money, revealing how African Americans there and throughout St. Louis County are victims of a legal/financial system that treats them as subjects not citizens. This Mother Jones piece focused on how the town of Ferguson imposed punitive court fines on poor residents, turning violations of local ordinances into the city’s second largest source of revenue.[3] This Washington Post piece covered an incredible range of legal rip-offs being perpetrated on poorer neighborhoods of color by municipalities throughout the St. Louis area (where one town “passed a ‘saggy pants’ ordinance mandating fines for parents of children caught wearing droopy drawers”). The author nails a misconception that’s key to these little fiefdoms of fear where most folks think:

...if they can’t pay their fines, they’ll be arrested and jailed the moment they show up in court. So they don’t show up. In truth, you can’t be jailed if you don’t have the money to pay a fine. But you can be jailed for not showing up in court to answer a charge. So under the mistaken belief that showing up in court broke will land them in jail, people chose not to show up...which then lands them in jail.

A parenthetical detail hints why you should read the whole article. One small town named (you couldn’t make this up) Country Club Hills, where the population is now overwhelmingly black, “has over 33,000 outstanding arrest warrants, or an astonishing 26 per resident.” The Post journalist brings his analysis back to Ferguson, quoting a young defense lawyer who knows the town from within: “There are incidents of police brutality here, like anywhere else. But the anger in Ferguson was driven by something much more common and pervasive. It’s the day to day harassment and degradation that this system creates.”

Let fury have its hour? Our preceptor-in-chief couldn’t countenance violence in Ferguson. And anyone who talks it up from a distance deserves an ass-kicking. But truth is truth. Echoes from the sound of breaking glass there give the lie to this claim by Darren Wilson (in his recent interview with George Stephanopolous): “Ferguson loves Ferguson.”

I’m reminded just now of video of Michael Brown’s stepfather after the announcement of the Grand Jury’s decision—how he hugged Big Mike’s mother, trying desperately to comfort her though she was inconsolable. When she turned away, he was overmastered by her/his pain and cried out it was time “to burn this bitch down.” I doubt that mad sad man or underdogs who took their cues from him were all “scumbags.” To use the term that African American contrarian Charles Barkley laid on Ferguson’s rioters in a now notorious interview that delighted Foxy types.


Barkley sympathizes with cops who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner and believes those two “big men” bear the responsibility for the tragedies that left them dead. Sir Charles has been sipping that racist/classist brew imbibed in imperial middle America. But I’d bet he’ll have the wit to avoid becoming a folksy rep for David Brooks' “respectable class.” His raps–and America’s conversation on race—would be much enhanced if Barkley (who’s put off by those who Blame Slavery First) picked up on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ efforts to bring home the currency of white supremacy. In the meantime, Barkley’s broadcast partner, sports commentator Kenny Smith, has posted a worthy Open Letter to him. Smith isn’t a writer or scholar. He’s not able to school Barkley about, say, specifics of legalized plunder of black communities in the St. Louis area or the larger history of Affirmative Action for white people in the aftermath of the New Deal. But his letter is memorably lucid about the range of response among ghetto vets confronted by the clampdown: “they can overcome it, challenge it, live in it, or fall victim to it.” His last word should shame Barkley: “For those of us who are decades removed from ‘the struggle’ because of our life through sports or business, we now have to acknowledge every option exists. If not, then we are the ignorant ones.”

It's been a trip to see the wide world through the eyes of ex-athlete Smith and those Afro-American basketball and football players who’ve been wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts. Back in the late 60s, someone once mused student protestors were engaging in “modernism in the streets.” I prefer the cultural politics of today’s athletes who are enacting humanism in the stadiums. Their gestures resound (to borrow Stendahl’s phrase) “like a pistol shot at a concert.” Which brings to mind two other acts of protest. The first is this flash mob demo at the St. Louis symphony. (Hat tip to Lex Brown for directing me to the aghast culture vulture at 1:13 who’s been thrown off her feed.) The second is The Clash’s “Somebody Got Murdered.” I’ve been locked on a live version of that track from an old bootleg of their 1981 Bonds shows ever since I saw the “hands up’ video of two witnesses reacting to the killing of Michael Brown soon after it happened. What makes the song sound right now 30+ years down the line is its great refusal of ambivalence. The band’s wild and tight; singers Joe Strummer and Mick Jones are on the same mic—separate yet co-equal witnesses to: “MURDER!” The Clash sound like men who’ve been given the gift of certainty—“who see that revolution isn’t a word but a pointing toward what obviously, absolutely must happen, and [who have been] lifted up by this sight, by the freshening awareness of how criminally wrong a wrong can be known to be by a mere human beings.”[4]

The kids acting up in the street now don’t have a band commensurate with their acts of witness.[5] But they’ve got those athletes on their side and our black President too. When he invited seven young organizers of the ongoing actions in Ferguson, Columbus, Miami and New York City to the White House earlier this month, he told them to “shoot for the moon.” He also warned them change is hard. His double-truths mean he’s a Peguy guy (whether he knows it or not). It’s the centenary of the great Frenchman's death and there are riffs for our dark times in this undogmatic Catholic socialist’s incantations:

The longer I live, citizen, the less I believe in the efficiency of sudden illuminations that are not accompanied or supported by serious work, the less I believe in the efficiency of conversion—extraordinary, sudden and serious—in the efficiency of sudden passions, and the more I believe in the efficiency of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work. The longer I live the less I believe in the efficiency of an extraordinary sudden social revolution, improvised, marvelous, with or without guns and impersonal dictatorship—and the more I believe in the efficiency of modest, slow, molecular, definitive work.

Revolution on the real side, per Peguy, requires moony visionaries to become molecular change agents. His a priori patriotism—"citizen"—talks back (from the grave where he rests after giving his life for France on the battlefield) to those who'd prefer to "disarticulate" a domestic campaign against cops-who-would-be-gods from fights against mad dogs abroad. It's a reminder progress at home probably requires a refusal of chic anti-Americanism. (The terrorist attack in the city this weekend underscores the dangers of the lumpen kind.) Mobilizers of the black nation will need to figure out how they can take advantage of the liberal in the White House who wants to be useful. And when local history-makers get down to the molecular nitty-gritty, they'll find unobvious allies among powers-that-be closer to home too.

There’s a good Lieutenant in Ferguson who’s been proving that every night. A moving Times story tells how this white Texan (“with a buzz cut”) has established humane, respectful connections with African-American protestors. He eschews riot gear—breaking ranks with the rest of the force in Ferguson—and (more importantly) he’s ditched emotional armor that fends off democratic conversations.

“To talk on a one on one level does a lot as far as building bridges,” Lieutenant Lohr said. “They may not agree with what I’m doing but at least they know my name and my face. I’m human again. They realize I’m a person. I’m not just a uniform...”


Lieutenant Lohr’s personalism amounts to the antithesis of Darren Wilson’s post-Grand Jury presentation of self in his interview with George Stephanopolous. According to Wilson, there was nothing subjective on his side of the gun. The killing of Michael Brown came down to training and survival instinct: “I did my job.” Wilson kept an even tone during the interview though he might have sounded a little icier than he intended when Stephanopolous asked him: “What could have happened differently that would’ve prevented Michal Brown from dying?” Wilson’s keep-it-simple-stupid answer—“Him complying.” — suggested he didn’t quite fathom the difference between an authoritative voice and an authoritarian one. I was struck too by his account of what occurred when Brown turned around and started back toward the officer: “I gave myself another mental check-out. I asked myself can I shoot this guy. Legally, can I?" — The deliberative “check-out” may be evidence of Wilson’s professionalism—his “training taking over.” But it made me wonder if in the moment he might have been an angry cop checking off boxes before paying back Brown for challenging his commands earlier in their encounter. Wilson’s next movement of mind made me wonder even more. “And the question I answered myself with was: I have to. If I don’t he will kill me...” Wilson is not the most verbal fellow. His flipping of the terms question and answer could just be an inarticulacy. That slip, though, may have been a hint Wilson constructed his moral rationale for shooting an already wounded, unarmed Michael Brown in the head (i.e. My life was in danger.) after he determined he had a legal excuse to kill (i.e. The guy resisted arrest so he’s at my mercy.)

It wouldn’t be the first time he’d revised history for the public record. A few weeks back, a young white man named Arman whom Wilson once arrested back in 2013 uploaded a 15 second cell phone video of a sequence that immediately preceded that arrest. Wilson is seen telling Arman: “You wanna take a picture of me one more time, I’m gonna lock your ass up.” Wilson then approaches Arman and appears to accost him before the video goes dead. Wilson’s less than polite language might come as a slight shock to those who’ve only been exposed to the mannerly persona on view in his interview with Stephanopolous. But there’s a more interesting discrepancy. Wilson’s arrest report claims he told Arman to “remove the camera from my face.” But the video shows him to have been at the other end of Arman’s garden path when he first threatened to arrest the man.

Wilson’s sensitivity to putative violations of his personal space seems pretty extreme. Which may be on point when it comes to evaluating his account of how much of a threat Michael Brown posed. In the Stephanopolous interwiew he stated that after firing a second set of shots at the (supposedly) charging Brown: “he stopped.” Which would suggest there might be something truthful in all those accounts by witnesses who said Brown was standing still, staggering or falling down before receiving the final kill shot. But Wilson then reversed himself. “Correction, I stopped [meaning he stopped shooting] and said “Get on the ground. Get on the ground.” He insisted Brown kept running through the pause and the next shots, becoming ever more dangerous.

Wilson’s language again called attention to itself/himself during this phase of the Q&A. He described Brown as looking right through him: “the face and the image he was presenting was I wasn’t even there.” Wilson meant to underscore Brown was so far gone bullets couldn’t slow down the maddened teen. But the terms Wilson used were striking since presenting a blank image was precisely what he was doing as he spoke to Stephanopolous. Maybe this wasn’t a projection. Maybe it was Big Mike, not Wilson (after lawyering up), who wore the mask. But, in his interview, Wilson surely seemed intent on coming on empty. He insisted all his responses to Brown were reflexive. He denied having any strong emotions (other than fear). He denied having any second thoughts about what happened. He denied being “haunted” by the experience. By his account, he “wasn’t even there.”

His impersonality might not have been a shuck. A Times piece from last summer about his familial background suggests others found him to be a “bland” and “nondescript” character. But it also indicates that life story didn’t exactly square with his (repeated) avowals to Stephanopolous of his own ordinariness—“I’m a simple guy,”…“we’re everyday normal people,”… “nothing special.” In truth Mr. Wilson’s life history is anything but normal. His mother, who died in her mid-30s (of “natural causes”) was a convicted forger. (The Times reported on her criminal past in the issue where they detailed how Michael Brown was “no angel.”) She ripped off hundreds of thousands of dollars from her neighbors, using stolen credit cards to empty their bank accounts. And all the while, as one of her victims noted, “she’d come over and sit at my kitchen table and chat and say how she would help me with this terrible thing that was happening to me.”

“I’m surprised Wilson passed the background checks to become a policeman,” that victim told a reporter: “People can change but that was a bad home. His mother was a serial con-woman.”

Wilson is a stranger to me. He seems to have been born unlucky. And I don’t want to “oppress” him by assuming he’s a liar like his mother. (That would be un-American.) I don’t know Wilson’s heart. But I think it should have been tested in front of a jury of his and Michael Brown’s peers.


1 Geoffery Douglas’s phrase from The Classmates.

2 As I watched those cop car windows shatter, I flashed on Obama’s account of his first date with Michelle. They went to see Do The Right Thing, which climaxed with the African-American anti-hero smashing a window of a pizzeria owned by his Italian employer. That boss (as you’ll probably recall) had precipitated a racial dispute that had resulted in the death of another brother who got choked to death by cops.

Do the Right Thing’s fictional act of protest must look different to Obama since he became president. “The rule of law” is a shield for a Commander in Chief dealing with right-wingers out to deny his legitimacy. Yet Obama knows why so many African Americans believe the law is an ass and (per those pieces in Mother Jones and the Post) a pig.

3 The Mother Jones piece had this piece of “good news.” Back in the summer, “under pressure from local activists, the Ferguson City Council announced plans to eliminate some of the most punitive fees, including the $125 failure to appear fee and the $50 fee to cancel a warrant. Of course, nothing is set to change elsewhere in St. Louis County. But eliminating some of the most egregious fees in one town is [per one lawyer and community organizer on the ground] ‘huge progress.’”

4 Pace Benjamin DeMott: “Mississippi Learning.”

5 When I first heard the Clash play “Somebody Got Murdered” back in the day at Bonds, it was in the midst of an two-hour confirmation experience that was also a stretch. The Clash's opening act had been a hip hop group, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5. The overwhelmingly white audience wasn’t trying to hear Flash et al.’s new form of African American culture. They’d pelted the strangers on the stage with whatever came to hand. I almost got in a fist-fight when I argued with the rock and roll nativists in the crowd around me. My impulse to contest wasn’t disinterested. I’d brought a black woman—one of the loves of my life—to that show. It was a romantic imperative to distance myself from haters in the house. When the Clash came on and melded punk protest with their own spin on hip hop, reggae and other Black Atlantic beats, their (early) world music seemed to soundtrack my own attempts to be a traitor to my race and true to my desire.

Benj DeMott 2014-12-16T09:40:22-05:00
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