Music and the Black Panthers

Dorian Lynskey in The Guardian:

Photo-of-LAST-POETS-006 One day last December, Umar Bin Hassan of the Last Poets attended a gathering in Chicago to commemorate local Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, who was shot dead by the police 40 years earlier. There were about 30 people, including the widows of Hampton and fellow Panther Eldridge Cleaver, and former members of radical groups such as Weatherman. “We laughed and drank wine and talked about what we all had been through,” Hassan says. “I'm glad I made it. It was good to see a lot of those people still living, you know?”

They were survivors of a turbulent period. In 1968, just two years after Oakland residents Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panthers, FBI director J Edgar Hoover called the party “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and set about spending millions of dollars to infiltrate, sabotage and divide it. By the mid 70s, it was in terminal decline, and Hampton was far from the only fatality.

The Panthers' legacy has been fiercely debated ever since. Some people claim the leadership, especially Newton, were their own worst enemies: paranoid hotheads prone to violence and cronyism. Others regard them as heroes who gave young African-Americans power and pride in the face of endemic racism, only to be brought down by Hoover's machinations.

More here.

Freedom Trains

From The New York Times:

Oshinsky2-popup In the winter of 1916, as Americans read the news of unimaginable slaughter in a distant yet rapidly spreading European war, it was easy to overlook stories like the one in The Chicago Defender reporting that several black families in Selma, Ala., had left the South. A popular ­African-American weekly, The Defender would publish dozens of such stories in the coming years, heralding the good jobs and friendly neighbors that awaited these migrants in Chicago, even printing train schedules to point the way north. Smuggled into Southern railroad depots by Pullman porters, dropped off by barnstorming black athletes and entertainers, The Defender emerged as both cheerleader and chronicler of an exodus that would lead about six million African-Americans to abandon the states of the Old Confederacy between 1915 and 1970. “If all of their dream does not come true,” it confidently predicted, “enough will come to pass to justify their actions.”

Prophetic words, indeed, Isabel Wilkerson insists in “The Warmth of Other Suns,” her massive and masterly account of the Great Migration. Wilkerson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing at The New York Times in 1994 and currently teaches journalism at Boston University, has a personal stake in the story. Her mother left rural Georgia, her father southern Virginia, to settle in Washington, D.C. Wilkerson knows well the highly charged nature of this field. For many years, commentators routinely demeaned these migrants as the dregs of a failed society. Even the distinguished black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier fretted over the “ignorant, uncouth and impoverished” throngs that had invaded his beloved Chicago. Arguments raged for decades about the tangled pathology of black families divided from their rural roots and thrown together in dead-end Northern slums. “The migrants were cast as poor illiterates,” Wilkerson says, “who imported out-of-wedlock births, joblessness and welfare dependency wherever they went.”

But the more recent scholarship, which Wilkerson embraces, tells another story. Today, these black migrants are viewed as a modern version of the Europeans who flooded America’s shores in the late 1800s and early 1900s. What linked them together, Wilkerson writes, was their heroic determination to roll the dice for a better future. It is no surprise, therefore, to find census data showing that blacks who left the South had far more schooling than blacks who stayed. Or that the migrants had higher employment numbers than Northern-born blacks and a more stable family life, as shown by lower divorce rates and fewer children born outside of marriage. Put simply, Wilkerson says, the well-known “migrant advantage” has worked historically for Americans of all colors.

More here.

The Speech Obama Should Have Given about the Iraq War

Juan Cole in Informed Comment:

ScreenHunter_07 Sep. 04 12.42 Fellow Americans, and Iraqis who are watching this speech, I have come here this evening not to declare a victory or to mourn a defeat on the battlefield, but to apologize from the bottom of my heart for a series of illegal actions and grossly incompetent policies pursued by the government of the United States of America, in defiance of domestic US law, international treaty obligations, and both American and Iraqi public opinion.

The United Nations was established in 1945 in the wake of a series of aggressive wars of conquest and the response to them, in which over 60 million people perished. Its purpose was to forbid such unjustified attacks, and its charter specified that in future wars could only be launched on two grounds. One is clear self-defense, when a country has been attacked. The other is with the authorization of the United Nations Security Council.

It was because the French, British and Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956 contravened these provisions of the United Nations Charter that President Dwight D. Eisenhower condemned that war and forced the belligerents to withdraw. When Israel looked as though it might try to hang on to its ill-gotten spoils, the Sinai Peninsula, President Eisenhower went on television on February 21, 1957 and addressed the nation. These words have largely been suppressed and forgotten in the United States of today, but they should ring through the decades and centuries:

“If the United Nations once admits that international dispute can be settled by using force, then we will have destroyed the very foundation of the organization, and our best hope of establishing a real world order. That would be a disaster for us all . . .

More here.

Ralph Miliband

20100825_2010+34ralph_w Jonathan Derbyshire in The New Statesman:

During a recent televised debate, the five candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party were asked to name their “Labour political heroes”. Diane Abbott and Andy Burnham both chose John Smith, Tony Blair's predecessor as party leader. Ed Balls's implausible choice was Blair, and Ed Miliband chose the architect of Labour's first election landslide, Clement Attlee. But by far the most interesting nomination was David Miliband's: his Labour hero, he said, is Anthony Crosland, the author of The Future of Socialism (1956) and the leading theoretician of postwar social democracy.

It's an intriguing choice because, as his bro­ther, Ed, acknowledged in a lecture in 2006 on the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Future of Socialism, “in the household in which [we were] brought up, Crosland and his ideas were not popular – his critique of Marxism, his views on public ownership”. The Milibands' father, Ralph, a Marxist intellectual who died in 1994, spent much of his working life warning his comrades on the left not to be seduced by “siren” voices such as Crosland's.

“It's a great irony that people are saying of David and Ed that they are the inheritors of Croslandism in the Labour Party,” says Leo Panitch, who studied under Ralph Miliband at the London School of Economics in the 1960s and later co-edited the annual journal Socialist Register with his former supervisor. “Ralph's finest book, The State in Capitalist Society [1969], was written very consciously as a critique of Crosland's position.

“Crosland believed that Marxism was no longer relevant, because the state had detached itself from the influence and control of the capitalists. But Ralph set out to show that the state was not independent of the capitalist class.”

Miliband remained locked in intellectual combat with the kind of revisionist social democracy represented by Crosland for the rest of his life.

Great Pretender

Feldmann_468wSally Feldman on Pope Joan, in Eurozine:

Lust, violence, feuds, corruption, intrigue and romance – all the ingredients of any respectable blockbuster jostle for attention in a new film portraying the rags-to-riches story of a destitute young woman who rises to the very highest echelons of power and glory. But this heroine is no ordinary tycoon or gold-digger. She's the Pope.

Die Päpstin tells the story of a young woman from a poor clerical family who disguises herself as a man, pursues her studies in a monastery and ends up in Rome where she's finally elected Pope. Only when she gives birth in the street while in a procession in full papal regalia is her true identity revealed.

So far, the film has only been shown in Germany, where it was made, and in Italy where this summer it reached the top ten, just behind Robin Hood and Sex and the City 2. Frankly, it can't really compete with either of those, for despite its sensational subject matter it's teutonically ponderous and compulsively chronological, peopled by ciphers with no real character – not even leavened by the unlikely appearance of John Goodman as a slightly Friar Tuck-like Pope Sergius. Joan herself is played by the German actor Johanna Wokalek, who manages to confine her facial expressions to just one, applied consistently throughout, conveying, as Dorothy Parker once put it, “the gamut of emotions from A to B”. As for the crowd scenes, they mostly consist of a ragged band of wretched peasants straight out of Monty Python. But despite its feebleness, the film has already been dismissed by L'Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Bishops' Conference, as “a hoax” and a film of “extremely limited vision”.

And that's not too surprising, really. After all, just this summer, the Vatican has pronounced that to allow women to become priests would be as sinful as child abuse. Anyone attempting their ordination will risk immediate excommunication. This new definition of the crime, part of a more general revision of serious offences against church law, including sexual abuse of children by priests, came days after the Church of England's General Synod voted in favour of legislation to consecrate women bishops.

So if the Vatican won't tolerate the notion of women priests, let alone bishops, no wonder it's touchy about any suggestion that there could ever have been a woman Pope.

Norman Podhoretz in Black and White

Podhoretz_book_covers_300Norman Birnbaum reviews two new books on Podhoretz, in truthdig:

The biographer’s evident discomfort with Podhoretz as political and social critic is surprising. After all, Podhoretz himself has written for five decades of his change of mind. The text provides ample evidence of what bothered him. One event does not quite receive the attention it merits: the mixed reception of “Making It.” I thought the book very good on the New York literary milieu and its honesty about ambition. I recall Podhoretz’s distress at the publisher who having commissioned the book, refused it, at the sententious advice of Trilling not to publish it, at hostile reviews by others. I found Trilling’s fastidiousness absurd: He praised ambition in 19th century English novels, found it distasteful in a student of his from Brooklyn. In the end, the indignation of the critics reinforced Podhoretz’s tendency to think of himself as isolated, his antipathy to other intellectuals. He saw arguments with others as proof of his own virtue.

By 1968, indeed, he had broken decisively with the New Left. He found the tactics and what there was of strategy of the movements for social change mistaken, and aligned himself with the leadership of the AFL-CIO in rejecting them. He abjured the cultural and political separatism, as he saw it, of many of the African-American and feminist leaders. The rejection by much of the student movement of high culture offended him, and he joined with the liberals who dismissed it as adolescent if not infantile self-indulgence. Opposition to the war in Vietnam was no longer a matter of critical distance from imperial power, but became ignoble capitulation to illusions about communism. His criticism changed rapidly from the common sense of an old progressive to the overwrought anxiety of a threatened deacon of the established order.

3 Quarks Daily 2010 Philosophy Prize: Vote Here

Dear Reader,

ScreenHunter_06 Sep. 03 14.05 Thanks very much for participating in our contest. For details of the prize you can look at the announcement here, and to read the nominated posts you can go here for a complete list with links.

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Results of the voting round (the top twenty most voted for posts) will be posted on the main page on September 10, 2010. Winners of the contest, as decided by Akeel Bilgrami, will be announced on September 22, 2010.

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P.S. If you notice any problems, such as, a nominee is missing from the list below, please leave a comment on this page. Thanks.

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Wolf in the Heart

From Guernica:

War Newsweek, which emblazoned “God Bless America” on its post-9/11 cover and followed that issue with articles in the coming weeks entitled “A Fight Over the Next Front” and “Blame America at Your Peril,” became perhaps the most visible of the Ernie Pyle-wannabes. By December of 2001, Thomas, an editor-at-large who announced last month he will be leaving the magazine he joined nearly twenty-five years ago, was on CBS calling Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “a great war leader,” and by March 2002 his byline was on a story about a “growing consensus” in the Bush administration that “the next target” in the war on terror was Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. All this less than twelve months before the magazine’s “Shock and Awe” cover breathlessly reported the devastation that resulted.

Seven years later, all of the media outlets above have recanted some of what they published back then, even as the buzz for a new war with Iran threatens to repeat the cycle (with participation of some of the same personnel, such as Jeffrey Goldberg, now with The Atlantic). Beyond a few journalism-ethics seminars, few have tried to examine why they did it. Thomas, who now admits that he and the others were in the grip of “war fever,” has turned to history to help himself understand what that means.

More here.

Forget Mice, Elephants Really Hate Ants

From Science:

Elephants A nose full of biting ants can really spoil your appetite. Especially if your nose is 3 meters long. African bush elephants (Loxodonta africana) avoid this discomfort by refusing to munch on acacia trees that house swarming ant colonies. Their aversion, a new study suggests, helps maintain the savanna's delicate balance between forest and prairie. Trees and grasses constantly vie for control of the savanna, but wildfires, drought, variable soil chemistry, and giant herbivores prevent either plant from taking over. Not enough fire to keep the trees in check, and the canopy will close in; too many elephants eating the trees, and the savanna would become grassland. Or so scientists thought. They seem to have underestimated the acacia's ability to defend itself.

Unlike many acacia trees that are stripped bare by elephants, whistling thorn trees (Acacia drepanolobium) seemed immune. The trees bristle with the 5-centimeter-long thorns typical of many acacias, but some of the spikes also swell into hollow bulbs the size of ping pong balls. Crematogaster ants colonize the empty thorns and feed on nectar secreted from the plant's leaves. That makes a whistling thorn tree the ants' territory—which they defend against intruders. Todd Palmer, an ecologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, wondered whether the tiny bodyguards could really protect trees from the world's largest land animal.

More here.

Friday Poem

Without Mercy

There is a sweet music,
but its sweetness fails to console you.
This is what the days have taught you:
in every long war
there is a soldier, with a distracted face and ordinary teeth,
who sits outside his tent
holding his bright-sounding harmonica
which he has carefully protected from the dust and blood,
and like a bird
uninvolved in the conflict,
he sings to himself
a love song
that does not lie.

For a moment,
he feels embarrassed at what the moonlight might think:
what’s the use of a harmonica in hell?

A shadow approaches,
then more shadows.
His fellow soldiers, one after the other,
join him in his song.
The singer takes the whole regiment with him
to Romeo’s balcony,
and from there,
without thinking,
without mercy,
without doubt,
they will resume the killing!

by Mourid Barghouti

from Midnight and Other Poems
Arc Publications, Todmorden, Lancashire
translation: Radwa Ashour

String theory ties us in knots

It's time to stop searching for a grand plan that explains the Universe and accept that Nature is imperfect, argues Professor Marcelo Gleiser.

From the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

ScreenHunter_05 Sep. 03 12.01 Einstein spent the last thirty years of his life looking for the unifying force, as did the brilliant pioneers of atomic physics, Heisenberg, Pauli, and Schrödinger.

Following in their footsteps, I grew up a Platonist, fascinated with the idea of unification: the idea that all the forces of nature are but different expressions of a single force. So, I went to graduate school in England to pursue this intellectual Holy Grail and worked on superstring theories, the epitome of the unification dream.

But as the years passed I watched with growing apprehension as hundreds of my colleagues published papers on ideas so far-removed from reality that they couldn't (and still can't) be tested: papers proposing six invisible dimensions of space curled up in a ball a trillionth of a trillionth of a billionth of an inch; or proposing that there are an infinitude of universes out there popping in and out of existence throughout eternity, ours being only one of them; papers suggesting that whenever a measurement is made, reality forks into separate paths, each a different universe.

Were they playing intellectual games? Were they delusional, pursuing a fantasy? Had they lost their sense of commitment to their true vocation, the description of natural phenomena? Were they even physicists?

Surely, there are natural laws, and they reflect observed patterns of organised behavior. But are these laws the true blueprints of physical reality? Or are they logical descriptions that we create to represent it?

I realised that the order we see in Nature is the order we seek in ourselves. And this can be a dangerously misleading game to play.

More here.

Religion and Democracy in the United States: Danger or Opportunity?

J9349 Rosa DeLauro's Introduction to Alan Wolfe and Ira Katznelson's new book:

To be sure, I am not a political scientist or theologian; nor do I study religion’s role in politics with an academic’s eye. But as a public official, a Democrat, and a Catholic, I do experience it firsthand on an almost daily basis. And so this article is not to be any kind of final analysis but rather something closer to a work in progress: I intend to offer a snapshot of my own faith and its effect on my work as a policy maker today. In the process, I hope to provide a practitioner’s opinion on the role that religion ought to play in American democracy.

Religion is an integral part of our national discourse, and there is no doubt that it has played a key role in the last three presidential elections. It is clear that the perspectives and influence of religious communities weigh heavily on our policy debates, whether the issue is poverty, war, the environment, stem-cell research, or reproductive health. Often, this can be a constructive thing: these trends, in no small part, moved Catholic Democrats in the House of Representatives, including me, to draft a Statement of Principles declaring that our faith does have bearing on the broad range of issues that we champion in the Congress and in our communities. It also moved me to work with my colleague, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, to draft legislation that seeks common ground on the sensitive issue of abortion.

Other recent developments at the intersection of religion and public life, however, give me reason for concern: legitimate scientific conclusions manipulated toward ideological ends; religiously affiliated organizations allowed to discriminate with taxpayer dollars; and a communion controversy that flared up in 2004 and continues to threaten every Catholic politician’s ability to participate in our faith’s most sacred ritual. Indeed, too often religious faith has been used cynically as a political weapon and an election-day wedge. Our challenge today—in the Congress, in academia, and even for those in the Church’s hierarchy—is to respond by presenting a better alternative.

Cool and Calmly Composed: Nico Muhly, Changing the Face of Classical Music

598.x231.class.muhly.opPaul Sullivan in The National:

The world of contemporary classical music is a traditionally foreboding place. As the British critic David Stubbs underlines in his recent book Fear of Music, the sonic avant-garde, in many ways, lacks the mainstream resonances of its visual equivalent (the volume’s pithy subtitle is Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen). Yet Stubbs’s thesis ignores one or two key facts: contemporary composition amounts to much more than abrasive anti-melodic experiments, 30-minute instrumental loops and minutes at a time of subversive silence. Leading this charge of adventurous new music that doesn’t make listeners leap for the eject button is Nico Muhly.

Effortlessly straddling the academic and the popular, the 29-year-old Muhly’s sprawling oeuvre spans pieces premiered by the Chicago Symphony and American Symphony orchestras, film scores for Choking Man and The Reader, special commissions for the American Ballet Theatre, not to mention a long-term working relationship with Philip Glass (as editor, keyboardist, and conductor for numerous film and stage projects), and a multitude of creative exchanges within the upper echelons of the alt.pop world: think Antony and the Johnsons, Björk, Bonnie Prince Billy and Grizzly Bear.

Muhly’s natural eclecticism and Herculean work ethic have made him a poster boy for the edgier side of the classical scene, with newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic drooling over his multifarious talents and infectious energy. In what can be seen as a breakthrough moment, The New Yorker published an in-depth profile of him in 2008, while the UK’s Daily Telegraph has hailed him “the planet’s hottest composer”.

Frank Kermode

Kermode.2 Mary-Kay Wilmers in the LRB:

Papers speak through their writers. And of all the London Review’s writers Frank Kermode was the one through whom we spoke most often and most eloquently. In all he wrote nearly 250 pieces for the LRB, the first in October 1979, a review of J.F.C. Harrison’s book on millenarianism, the last, in May this year, a review of Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. ‘Eloquently’: was that the right word? Not really. Frank’s writing was so much more exact, more stylish, more patient, more ironic, more playful, more attentive, more cunning, more cagey than ‘eloquence’ can suggest. ‘Stealthy’ is another possibility – a word Michael Wood used in introducing the collection of Frank’s essays we published to mark his 90th birthday. But as I pile on the epithets I hear Frank’s voice in my head and I stop.

Last February Frank gave a lecture at the British Museum – one of three LRB ‘Winter Lectures’. It had been going to be a talk about Shakespeare, to be called ‘The Shudder’, he said when asked for a title; he also said he had no idea what it would be about. In the event the ‘shudder’ turned out to have little to do with Shakespeare and much to do with T.S. Eliot, and also with Frank. When we printed the piece in the paper, Don Coles, a Canadian poet, wrote in to say that he thought ‘the four pages of this essay the finest I have read in the LRB, this issue or any other’. Before publishing the letter we sent it to Frank. ‘What an odd fan letter that was,’ he replied while thanking us for sending it. ‘Still, no harm done.’

Milan Kundera’s Encounter

Bu-Kundera_Milan_0502143518Linda Asher in the San Francisco Gate:

In his celebrated fiction (“The Joke,” “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”), the world-renowned writer Milan Kundera has always shown a penchant for the witty essayistic aside. His book-length study, “The Art of the Novel,” singled out for special praise the philosophical novel of Marcel Proust, Robert Musil and Hermann Broch, with its love of reflection and rumination.

So it is no surprise that this author should also take confidently to the essay form. “Encounter” is, in fact, Kundera's fourth volume of essays to appear in English. Ably translated by Linda Asher, it allows us, if nothing else, to enjoy the company of this cultivated, worldly, charming and spirited observer as he roams freely over literature, music and art. The prospective buyer is still entitled to ask: How well does the collection stand up on its own? Another way of putting the question: We know he is a first-rate fiction writer; how good an essayist is Kundera, really?