Monday, August 31, 2009

Indestructable beats

I have been thinking a lot about boycotts, cultural boycotts, "smart" boycotts" and non-smart boycotts recently. And then I saw this at one of my favourite music blogs, Aquarium Drunkard:
The good news: The Indestructible Beat of Soweto, Vol. 1 is now available at eMusic — I can promise you it is well worth the 12 credits. A must for Afro-pop enthusiasts, at twelve tracks, this is a concise measure of the pulse of the regional radio and clubs of Soweto in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Aesthetically, the impact this compilation alone had on Paul Simon’s Graceland is inestimable. And, hey, just think how many people are borrowing from Graceland now….
(Cick here to listen to mp3s.)

This compilation, which I borrowed from my local public library on vinyl and copied to cassette on my parents' then new "hi fi", came out in 1986, at the height of - and breaking - the cultural boycott of South Africa. Read this review at 17 Seconds, which notes that it made The Wire's 100 important Records Ever Made List and adds that the
"rock world sat up and took notice. The albums made subsequently that both 'borrowed' ideas from this record have been well-documented, analysed and argued over. Forgot that, just for now, and check out this compilation."

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Class politics versus identity politics, Liberal anti-fascism versus militant anti-fascism

1. Garibaldy, a blog I don't think I've visited before until clicking a link from Johnny Guitar's place, has a good post up about class politics versus identity politics, taking as its starting point a pretty good piece in a recent LRB by Walter Benn Michaels. Michaels' makes interesting points about the recent Henry Louis Gates kerfuffle, and critically reviews the Runnymede Trust's Who Cares about the White Working Class?, a report I was quite impressed by.

2. The so-called Equality and Human Rights Commission ("Trevor Philips' equalities super-quango" as Simon Cooke puts it) has come up with the stupid idea of suing the BNP for discrimination in its membership. What an utterly absurd idea. It's idiotic because it gives them publicity and grist to the mill of right-wing ressentiment, and it's wrong because using the state to repress unpleasant views is just wrong. However, this is only the most ridiculous of many of the idiocies of liberal anti-fascism/anti-racism. Fascism and racism will never be defeated by legislation and censorship. Dave Semple has more, from a similar angle to mine.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ellie Greenwich, z''l

The great songwriter Ellie Greenwich died on Wednesday night. Ellie Greenwich was far from a household name, but the songs she wrote (many co-written with her husband, Jeff Barry) have seeped deeply into the consciousness of anyone who has lived in the Western world in the last five decades. Some of her songs are fairly light pop hits, like "Da Doo Ron Ron", "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" and "Hanky Panky". Others, such as "Be My Baby", "Leader of the Pack" and especially "River Deep, Mountain High", are in another league: fragile, emotional mini-dramas (or, to use Jerry Leiber's phrase, "playlets") of love, longing and loss.

Greenwich was gemisht: born in 1940 to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, and from Brooklyn. She went to the same college as my mother, Hofstra, but was already an earning songwriter by age 17. In 1959, she found her way to the Brill Building, the mainly Jewish centre of popular music songwriting, where Leiber and Stoller recognised her talent. She later played a key role in shaping the Phil Spector sound (half these archetypal Spector numbers are actually Ellie's), and was the person who discovered Neil Diamond. She also wrote and sang backing for Dusty Springfield.

Although "Be My Baby" has been recorded by more people and was a far bigger hit, I think her most important song was "River Deep Mountain High", written with Barry. It was released in 1966 and was a complete commercial disaster. Mick Billig, in his wonderful little book, Rock 'n' Roll Jews (my copy a gift from my friend Les), gives Ike Turner's explanation why. R&B stations wouldn't play it, Ike said, because by 1966, soul music was fully formed, and "River Deep" sounded too pop, too white. And pop stations wouldn't play it, because it was too soul, too black. As Ike put it, "America mixes race in it." While the Drifters, Coasters and Ronnettes in a slightly earlier moment had crossed racial lines to achieve chart success, that was no longer possible in quite the same way in 1966.

Incidentally, the personnel on the record includes Barney Kessel , Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, all people who, as well as being amazing musicians, exemplified different forms of crossing and mixing.

As time went on, Ike and Tina "blackened" the song. This live version from 1966 is slightly rawer than the Phil Spector Wall of Sound single. Later performances on YouTube - this is 1967, when the record was re-released; this is from the late 1960s; this is 1971 in Ghana; this is from 1973 - get progressively more soulful, more fierce, more belting, more gospel. (For the sake of completism, you might want to check out a more recent Tina Turner version, smothered by an orchestra and slinky backing singers, for French TV, and a 2000 London performance on fine form.)

Greenwich attributed something of her musical sensibility to her own mixedness, as Ann Powers' wonderful appreciation captures:
"My father was Catholic and my mother was Jewish. I was destined for something -- half and half, and on the cusp of everything."

Greenwich emerged as a songwriter when America itself was on the cusp of everything, a whole set of conventions unspooling under the power of rock 'n' roll, the civil rights movement and the incipient counterculture. Her American polyglot upbringing prepared Greenwich, who died today at age 68 of a heart attack, for what she became: one of the great sound alchemists who turned the ambiguities of youth into the essence of American pop.
Greenwich was a singer in her own right. Her "I Want You To Be My Baby" (a belting distant relative of "Be My Baby") arguably stands alongside Dusty, as does more restrained 1966 Northern Soul favourite "Sunshine After the Rain". On both of these, she sounds as likely to be black as white, although this is less true of "Baby" (gosh, she liked that word!).

But, like most of the other Jewish artists in her milieu, she was a definitive backroom person, destined to obscurity. Thus she sang demo versions of songs by the other Brill Building kids, some of which (like this, "Love is Better", from 1963) could be hits in their own right with just a little more polish.

She was significant too in terms of gender. As Jess writes at the Volume Knob, Greenwich gave a public voice to female desire, as these YouTubes testify, in a way that was incredibly rare in the mid-1960s. Or, as one male blogger writes, "I probably gained more insight into the minds of teenage girls from Greenwich than from Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Judy Blume combined."

To round off, listen to some Ellie Greenwich covers: Glasvegas, DM Stith, Les Surfs, Bruce Springsteen, Beth Orton, Frank Alamo, and many more.

Bonus link: Pop Culture Cantina.

Death of an old friend

I am currently reading Rohinton Mistry's wonderful Such A Long Journey, borrowed from my sister. Because of this, the Pakistani government's brutality against Bangladesh during the 1971 war, a war in which 3 million civilians were killed, has been in my mind.

In the Spittoon, Faisal writes an appreciation of Ted Kennedy, who was one of the few friends in the world of politics that Bangladesh had then. The Nixon government, pursuing the "realist" agenda developed by Kissinger, aided and abetted the Pakistani slaughter. This "realism" - supporting murderers and dictators as the "lesser evil" against some perceived geo-political threat, or standing back when no perceived geo-political "interest" is at stake - has been the default position of American and other Western states since the Armenian genocide.

The courting of Gaddafi in the age of the war on terror continues this default position, a trend that includes the courting of Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein and the Mujahideen in the Cold War. There have been relatively few politicians who have stood up against this sort of realpolitik, and Ted Kennedy, ז״ל, was one who spoke out in 1971.

Previous: BHL and Bangladesh, Sharon and Bosnia; The genocide loophole; Conservatism, realism and the anti-war movement; A friend of Biafra.

More books

To add to this list, a great list from Martin. Poumista provides illustrated edited highlights.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Back in town

It seems from my site stats that more people read my blog when I'm not here than when I'm here, but never mind.

First, some housekeeping on all the memery. Five words responses are in from Martin, History is Made at Night, and the Social Republican. And some thrilling academic reads are nominated in the comments by the Social Republican, Flesh is G, Mike and TNC, while On A Raised Beach contributes here.

Thanks to Jogo to alerting me to some interesting Trotskyana around the edges of the mainstream media, including a five-part National Review talkshow with Christopher Hitchens and Robert Service, an interesting book review by Lesley Chamberlain in WSJ, and some really fascinating mini book reviews at the excellent Tablet. More on this from Poumista. Related is Histomatist on George Galloway on John Cornford, which relates to what I wrote here - again, more from Poumista.

A few posts that have caught my attention as I try and catch up with the deluge in my inbox: Salman on The Curious Case of Dana Ali; Louis Proyect on Monthly Review and Iran and on the disgrace that is CounterPunch; and Flesh is Grass on Honduras – between democracy and equality is populism and on feminism, gender segregation and Jim Fitzpatrick. Other good round ups of all the things I should've read can be found at Anti-German Translation and Roland's place.

The picture at the top, "A tribute to a proletarian hero", comes from Dan's Polish photo-essay at The Third Estate.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

From Bob's Archive: Galloway's hubris

This is the last of my scheduled re-posts before I return to blogging. In the last one, I focused on one of my regular heroes. Here, I focus on one of my regular villainsm in a post dating from August 2005. As with an irritatingly large number of my posts, it trails off to nowhere, promising a follow-up that never came. Oh well.

Today, I got George Galloway’s I’m Not the Only One out of my local public library (along with James Ellroy’s Destination: Morgue, which I expect to be infinitely better on any conceivable scale). I figured it’s my tax money and my overdue fines that have paid for this, so I might as well make the most of it.

And I’ve no regrets. The opening words:

“I decided to write this book because I had a little time on my hands. What with the war, the resistance, the anti-war movement, libel cases, looking after my constituency, suspension then expulsion from the Labour Party, launching a new political movement, fighting the European elections, holding my seat in the House of Commons and writing my weekly column in the Mail on Sunday, I might have become bored otherwise.”
And the end of the Foreword:
“You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.”
If anyone was looking for a definition of the concept of hubris, the example of George would supply it. In his programme for capturing Britain back from the conventional politicians, “the boys in the bubble”, this call stands out: for MPs to be paid twice as much. Check this characteristically modest passage: “I have, as a Tunisian lawyer said between sobs after hearing me speak about the bleeding children of Iraq, ‘un Coeur oriental’ - an oriental heart.”

By page 2, I’d come across two political claims that make me angry. The first is the use of the word “resistance” in the passage I’ve quoted above. As he then names the anti-war movement, he can’t mean the resistance to war in Britain; he must mean the Islamofascist/Ba’athist insurrection/terrorism in Iraq. To call that the “resistance” is a moral outrage, as I’ve argued before on this blog.

The second is this line:
“There is no grimmer dictatorship than that of the prevailing orthodoxy.”
Er, yes there is George - the dictatorship of Pol Pot was pretty grim, as have been the dictatorships of your friends Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein…

I have to say, though, that Galloway has a ripping prose style. The style is marred, unfortunately, by a love of alliteration. And an overfondness of the word “mendacity”, which weighs in about every four pages. Here’s an example of both in one sentence: “nothing more than a mendacious, monochrome state of mediocrity” (although with that example I can’t work out from the rest of the sentence he is referring to).

Another stylistic tic he has is following up a morally heavyweight point with a silly pop culture reference. (If you want a definition of bathos as well as hubris, then, George would exemplify this too.) Here’s an example: “More people died of famine in British India in the last fifty years of the Raj than died on all of Chairman Mao’s ‘Great Leaps’ but, as Michael Caine might say, ‘Not a lot of people know that.”

He’s also not strong on consistency. On one page he describes the BBC as “the Bush and Blair chorus”; a couple later he’s praising it for standing up to Alistair Campbell.

Despite these flaws, the first chapter, “The Boys in the Bubble”, is a superb piece of writing, very enjoyably skewering everything that is wrong with New Labour, from their treatment of the firefighters, their lies, their corruption, their snobbery, their hypocrisy and their racism, to their insane privatisation policies.

Even in the second chapter, “New World Odour”, basically a version of Chomsky for the less literate, he does occassionally hit the mark, as in:
“the former Soviet satrapies of eastern and central Europe [are] often led by the same [C]ommunist party apparatchiks who failed their countries in their last guise.”

Well, that’s enough of gorgeous George for today. More to come…

Friday, August 14, 2009

From Bob's Archive: Hannah Arendt - Thinking with an open heart

I'm still away, hence this stream of scheduled re-posts from the days when I got far fewer readers. This post, from August 2005, is one of my better (or should that be least bad) pieces of writing, if a bit high-falutin', so I thought I'd let it see the light of day again.

In this post and this post, I praised my intellectual hero, Hannah Arendt. Here, I will write about one aspect of her thought.

Against the teleological politics of the “isms”, Arendt counterposed “living in the open”, which she claimed she had learnt from the philosopher Karl Jaspers. He taught her, she said,

“that the only thing of importance is not philosophies but the truth, that one has to live and think in the open and not in one’s shell, no matter how comfortably furnished it is, and that necessity in whatever form is only a will-o’-the-wisp that tries to lure us into playing a role instead of attempting to be a human being. What I have personally never forgotten is your attitude – so difficult to describe – of listening, your tolerance that is constantly ready to offer criticism but is as far removed from scepticism as it is from fanaticism; ultimately it is simply the realization of the fact that all human beings are rational but that no human being’s rationality is infallible.” (DKJ 1994:213-4)

There are a number of important concepts here, which clarify Arendt’s politics and philosophy. There is a particular conception of the human which underlies her version of humanism: humanity as a unfinished project, an essay (“attempting to be a human being”), humans as universally rational but also fallible, limited.

There is a sharp critique of the totalitarian political implications of teleological isms and philosophical doctrines of necessity: we live unique lives, rather than playing a role in the grand narrative of Nature or History. (Later, in Eichmann in Jerusalem and essays like “Mankind and Terror”, Arendt would hone the idea of playing a role into the notion of the totalitarian “functionary”, who had not existence outside his function.)

And there is the very Arendtian concept of living and thinking in the open: openness in the multiple senses of publicity (living in an open space), risk (openness to one’s own intellectual fallibility), and tolerance, dialogue, friendship (openness to the other).

Linked, for Arendt, with this sort of openness, is what she calls “common sense”, the judgement shared by people who share common experiences and a common realm. The destruction of a “common realm between men”, characteristic of the twentieth century and especially of totalitarianism, is precisely what allows ideologies based on scientificality and logicality to flourish (U&P 1994:318). In a sense, Arendt is suggesting that because of the absence of a commons, a space in which we might reason openly together, we place our fate in the hands of scientific experts, and this is dangerous.

Political action, for Arendt, has something of these qualities. It is a venturing, a venturing out into the openness of the public world, and a venture in the sense that we can never (contrary to the ideologies of scientificality and logicality) know the results of our actions.

Monday, August 10, 2009

From Bob's Archive: Academic Bestsellers

I am away, so scheduling re-posts from my archive. No special reason for posting this, from June 2005, apart from it relates to a comment I left on Martin's blog not long ago. Feel free to treat this as an open meme, and make your own suggestions. I'd be interested, for example, in suggestions from TNC, this Martin, that Martin, Peter, Noga, Mike, the Brigada and Schalom Lib.

A week or two ago, Henry at Crooked Timber wrote:

"David Greenberg had two interesting articles last week about the gap between academic and popular history, and how to bridge it. This suggests an interesting question. Which academic books are fit for human consumption? Or, to put it less polemically, which books written for academic purposes deserve, should find (or in some cases have found) a more general readership among intelligent people who are either (a) non-academics, or (b) aren't academic specialists in the discipline that the book is written for. Nominations invited. To start the ball rolling, I'm listing three (fairly obvious imo) contenders myself.

E.P. Thompson, Making of the English Working Class. A classic, which reads more like a novel than a piece of academic history, rescuing organizers, sectaries, pamphleteers and gutter journalists - from the enormous condescension of posterity. Moving, smart, and wonderfully written.

Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty. A stunningly simple idea, worked out to its logical conclusions - it creates a new vocabulary for understanding how social institutions work.

James Scott, Seeing Like A State. Libertarians will like the critique of state-led social engineering, but be discomfited by Scott's account of the totalizing effects of markets. Traditional social democrats and socialists will have the opposite set of reactions. Both should read it (as should anyone else interested in the intersection between political theory and real life)."

Here's my suggestions:

1. E.P. Thompson Making of the English Working Class. This is indeed a wonderful book, a deeply human and humanist version of Marxism, which places the agency of ordinary folk (rather than oppressive structures) at the centre of the story. Thompson joined the Communist Party as a teenager during WWII, before going off to serve in the fight against fascism in Italy. This was the age of the Popular Front, when Stalin's Russia seemed like a great bulwark against Hitler. Anti-fascism remained a core element of Thompson's worldview, and he continued to be inspired by his older brother, who died fighting alongside partisans in Bulgaria. After demob, he worked in adult education in Yorkshire, so his first audience as an academic was not priveliged undergrads, but working class men.

In 1956, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Thompson (and his wife Dorothy, also a great historian) finally broke with Stalinism. The Making of the English Working Class was written in 1963 in the shadow of Stalinism, and the vision of human freedom it celebrates must be read as a critique of the Communist betrayal of Marxism.

Thompson was to be associated with the new left, but was always critical of the overly theorised versions of academic Marxism popular in the new left - his devastating critique of such positions being set out in his The Poverty of Theory.

In his later life, Thompson continued to attack Soviet stalinism and was a key link in the samizdat chain that allowed Eastern dissidents to get heard in the West, helping to sustain resistance to those regimes in the way that the messianic artisans he described in The Making helped sustain resistance in the dark times after the defeat of revolutionary France.

2. CLR James The Black Jacobins. This makes a nice companion to Thompson. As Peter Linebaugh has written, while Thompson was writing in the shadow of the Soviet tanks in Budapest, James was writing against the Communist murder of non-CP anti-Franco partisans in Spain. The Black Jacobins tells the story of the Haitian revolution, showing how slave struggles in the colonies helped drive the great revolutionary moment of 1776-1792, unveiling a different dimension to the emergence of the great values of liberty, democracy and rights which triumphed in the French and American revolutions.

James might not exactly qualify for this list, because he wasn't really an academic. He was a true scholar, but he wrote for the masses. His Notes On Dialectics was an introduction to Hegal written for sharecroppers.

James had many lives - Trinidadian novelist, Lancashire cricket correspondent, Detroit Trotksyist, Pan-africanist, Brixtonian. Also worth reading are his cricket book, Beyond a Boundary, and his book on Melville, Renegades, Mariners and Castaways, but the best way of getting a sense of his breadth is collections like At the Rendezvous of Victory and Future in the Present, both sadly out of print. See the CLR James Institute. (Previous post: Nello.)

3. Hannah Arendt Essays in Understanding. I could have chosen any of Arendt's books - her most well-known Origins of Totalitarianism, which carefully provides the tools to understand the terrible forms of oppression which dominated the twentieth century, her sadly neglected polemics within Zionism collected in The Jew as Pariah, or Men in Dark Times, her book of homages to Rosa Luxemburg, Walter Benjamin, George Lessing and Brecht.

Essays in Undertanding, though, is the best place to start who want to experience Arendt's importance to the political situation today - essays like "The Eggs Speak Up", which takes its title from Lenin's nostrum that you can't make an omlette without cracking an egg.

(If you can't get hold of Essays, try The Portable Hannah Arendt. Previous post: The real axis of evil.)

4. Richard Sennett The Conscience of the Eye. This is not Sennett's most accessible book (his recent books on work culture, The Corrosion of Character, and the welfare state, Respect, are easier to read), but it's my favourite. Essentially, it asks how we can live in cities, how we can live together despite our differences. Sennett was Arendt's student and, like her, he resists easy categorisation in terms of right and left, liberal and conservative. His Fall of Public Man is an attack on countercultural rebellion; Flesh and Stone is explicitly written as a religious believer, but also is in homage to Sennett's friend Foucault; while Corrosion of Character is about as socialist as it gets in mainstream publishing. Some of his writing is on-line here.

5. W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk. In my opinion, one of the most beautiful non-fiction books there is. It is soaked in the language of the King James Bible, each chapter opening with a snatch of music from a spritual. It moves between the personal (I cry every time I read "The Passing of the First-Born", on the death of his son) and the political, the ethnographic and the activist, in a way that today's academic writings, confined within strict disciplinary boundaries, simpy aren't allowed to. It's a long way from Souls to afrocentrism.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

From Bob's Archive: The glitz-based community and the axis of edginess

I'm away for a while, so as is my usual practice, I am re-posting stuff from the early days of this blog, from the days when I had far fewer readers. I am posting this piece, from May 2005, not because it is particularly timely now, or particularly interesting or important - but because I think it kind of represents me getting into my stride as a blogger and finding my blogging voice, something I realise it actually took me quite a while to do. The post kind of peters out at the end, which is also unfortunately typical of my style. Haven't checked all the links, so they may not all work!

I've been trying to get around to writing something about that rich idiot Chris Martin of the dreadful, bland, pop band Coldplay, and his stupid remarks about shareholders being evil (indeed, the greatest evil in the modern world), which kind of misses the point about what's wrong with capitalism, makes him seem like a daft hypocrite for getting letting EMI make him rich, and undermines the worthy causes (like Make Poverty History) he supports.

We can put this in the same category as Robert Redford calling Sundance a "festival of dissent". As LIBERTAS puts it:

"As Redford uttered his tired cliches about “diversity” and “dissent,” he never paused to reflect that the Sundance Film Festival, the largest and most powerful film festival in the U.S., is not a voice of “dissent” but actually the voice of a repressive and conformist liberal mainstream. If Redford were honest about celebrating “different voices in film,” he would not show movies that were only exclusively from the left."
To those who have, more shall be given, and celebrities who go to Sundance rake it in in terms of freebies. According to The Guardian (And the award for best goodie bag goes to ...):
"The recent Sundance film festival, another event supposed to promote small films, was overrun with companies eager to give their products away to the right people. Jewellery, clothing, hi-tech gadgetry, even an 18-carat gold vibrator and Krispy Kreme doughnuts were snapped up by eager celebrities."
The Sundance package adds up to $50,000.

Chris and Gwyneth also benefited from the Oscar package. From the same Guardian article:
"Four years ago the Oscar goodie bag was valued at $10,000. By last year that had grown to $120,000 and included a gift certificate for a resort in Mexico. Gwyneth Paltrow, who presented an award that year, used hers for her honeymoon with Coldplay singer Chris Martin. The bag included a 43-inch high definition TV. As unwieldy as that may seem, this year the Oscar goodie bag threatens to go further than ever to keep ahead of other ceremonies."
The smug liberalism of the glitterati is nicely disected by Neomi Emory in The Weekly Standard. [reached via Betsy's Page - in turn reached via Random Jottings - reached via Least-Loved Bedtime Stories who calls these fools the "Hollywood Phalanx of Frivolity" - reached via Photon Courier]