Monday, January 23, 2012

Johnny Otis and Etta James, z''l

I was sad to read (at Stuart's blog) that both Johnny Otis and Etta James have passed away. Jimmy Castor, the less known cult legend, also died very recently. All three were "minor" artists in the sense used by Kafka in his note on "minor literature", and their passing has not been noted the way those of "great" or "major" artists. I knew several Johnny Otis songs, but I knew next to nothing about him. This Guardian obituary (h/t Jogo) captures something of how extraordinary he was. Born to Greek immigrants in Vallejo, northern California, he
one of the first white American musicians to cross the racial divide, aligning himself with the black community as a teenager and from then on regarding himself – and being treated as – a black man... His parents ran a grocery store in a black neighbourhood in Berkeley, and the teenage Otis chose to walk away from white culture. Black America, he wrote, possessed "soul", a quality he found lacking elsewhere. Having taken up the side drum in junior high school, he made his professional debut in 1939 with the West Oakland Houserockers before going on the road, playing in touring big bands
He backed Lester Young, gave Big Mama Thornton her break and thus helped invent rock 'n' roll (he produced and drummed on "Hound Dog", whose lyrics she wrote with Jewish kids Leiber and Stoller), was a politician and activist in the black community in LA, pioneered gangsta rap, and much more besides. His story says something about the way in which music always breaks out of ideas of culture as racial property.

He started Esther Phillips and Etta James, two of my favourite singers, in their careers. Here he is with Esther Phillips.

Here is Esther Phillips later, singing one of the most moving songs I know, "From a Whisper to a Scream", written by Gil Scott Heron, who of course also died this year. Phillips died aged 48; like Gil Scott Heron she was a heroin addict.

Here is Etta James, singing one of my all-time favourite songs, "I Would Rather Go Blind", a song which reminds me of the time of my life I spent more or less every Friday in the Marquis of Granby pub in New Cross, where it was on the juke box, and of the first flat I lived in with the woman I am now married to.

And another of my favourites, "Let's Burn down the cornfield".

Here is Johnny Otis with his son Shuggie, and the Scottish bluesman Roy Buchanan.

See also Soul Sides, 16 Corners, Popmatters, Sterogum, Hidden Track and 30 Days.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What can radical politics look like in 2012?

It does genuinely seem to me that things changed in 2011, in ways that have major consequences for radical politics. Marko Hoare’s “The year the worms turned” and Kenan Malik’s more downbeat “Chewing over the old year, spitting out the new” summarise this shift well. I am allowing myself a small measure of hopefulness that some of the morbid fixations that have afflicted the left in recent years might loosen their grip a little in light of these changes, and that a healthier radical politics might emerge.

For a decade, much of the left has been fixated on the Middle East in terms of the wretched of the earth in the position of victims of an all-powerful all-evil “imperialist” West. Any futile and destructive act of terrorism has been excuses as “resistance” to imperialism, and any bullying thug or theocratic clique that “stands up” to imperialism has been given support.  Now, we are forced to confront the fact (long obvious to the less myopic) that the anti-imperialism of tyrants has simply been an alibi for power, that the people on the Arab street desire freedom and self-government more than they hate “imperialism”, and that boring bourgeois liberal rights like free assembly are actually worth fighting and even dying for.

At the same time, here in the global northwest, with the financial crisis, the impoverishment and precariousness of masses of “formerly middle class” people (as the New York Times put it), the squashing of aspirations and squeezing of social mobility, and the naked aggression of “centre-right” governments to any kind of social safety net, the debate has been reframed away from anti-war protests and identity politics towards the bread and butter of life under capitalism.

It is a real measure of the sickness of the left, however, just how little forward movement it has made in the last couple of years, when even the financial press talks about capitalism being in crisis and suggests Marx might have been right. In a post on Margaret Thatcher’s death, James Bloodworth suggests that “the left should instead examine with clear-sightedness where it has gone wrong, how it has behaved and how it can do better – and boy, can it do better. Considering the complete failure to make any political inroads since the 2008 banking crash, this should be clearer today than ever.” (The title puts it pithily: “Instead of celebrating when Thatcher dies, the left should reflect on what a pig's ear it’s made of the past 30 years”.)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

First miscellaneous round-up post of 2012

Post of the week

Fighters for freedom
Yoani Sanchez and her on-going struggle for freedom from Castro’s authoritarian regime (h/t Jogo).

The Arab spring’s Islamist winter
2011 was an extraordinary year. (Check out this funky interactive timeline at Wired: "Hyper-Networked Protests, Revolts, and Riots".) But what comes next? Hussein Ibish is cautiously optimistic about the role of Islamism in the post-Spring moment, focusing on Egypt. A more pessimistic reading can be taken from this report from libertarian socialists in Egypt, who describe Muslim Brotherhood collusion with, and even incitement of, SCAF repression of leftists. A very subtle analysis – in a long post, which I recommend you print and read fully – comes from Andrew Coates, less optimistic than Ibish, but more pessimistic than many. Meanwhile, on Syria, Carl at TCF cautiously acknowledges the benefits of military intervention to save the democratic uprising there, in a post which draws somewhat on a report by Michael Weiss.

Gilad Atzmon
Everybody Hates a Tourist relates on Atzmon and his relationship with the Nazi Alexander Baron. Also, this is from a while back, but I’m not sure if I posted it and I noticed while getting the link for the Islamism post linked to above, Hussein Ibish had this piece in October: Gilad Atzmon and John Mearsheimer: self-criticism, self-hate and hate.

Ron Paul
But I Am a Liberal remains the go-to site for dissecting Ron Paul. See, e.g. “What is it that Ron Paul fans fail to grasp?”, contra Andrew Sullivan. See also these fine posts by AJA on Ron Paul and cranky libertarianism and then the reactionary libertarian. On other candidates, Roland also writes on Rick Santorum as the trojan working class candidate, and on the Gringrich campaign's faux-populist demolition of capitalist Mitt Romney.

Press TV
I missed the  BBC Radio 4 report about Iranian “soft power” in the UK, apparently focusing on the Iranian regime-controlled English-language broadcaster Press TV. Gene at HP gives a flavour, focusing on Tory grandee Norman Lamont’s whitewashing of the regime. (Talking of this, I’m not sure if I already linked to Rosie’s fisking of George Galloway’s anti-obit of Christopher Hitchens. This is the relevant bit: GG: Hitchens was “the Englishman in New York who discovered there were large bundles of right-wing dollars available for apostates like him. If they were prepared to betray their friends, their principles and sell the soul he didn't believe he had in the first place.” Rosie: “And I'm sure your work for Iran's Press TV is done for a small pittance, barely enough to keep you in cigars.”)

Christopher Hitchens
While we’re on the subject, here is Salman Rushdie on Hitchens – getting it both right and wrong, as Mick H and Norman G note. Oh, and I’m not sure if I already linked to this 2009 Platypus article on Hitchens by Spencer Leonard, which I reached via this argument between Ross Wolfe, Corey Robin and Doug Henwood, in which Wolfe comes across as verbose but basically right, and Robin and Henwood (someone I generally respect a lot) come off quite badly.

Two posts by Rokhl – whose blog has returned to life after a too long leave of absence – on Yiddish today 1 and 2.

South Africa/North Korea
A while ago, I posted about my youthful inoculation against the ANC, which was partly down to Paul Trewhela, who has recently written a hard-hitting piece “Kim Jong-il, blood purity, and the ANCYL”, which I read via PIIE, which I got to via Mick, whose post you should also read.

Stephen Lawrence
Another plug for some of the better best pieces I’ve read on the Stephen Lawrence verdict, by people who knew Eltham a little better than many other commentators: Owen Jones, Darryl Chamberlain, Sunder Katwala, and for my own first and second thoughts. Sunder returned here, and kindly linked to my pieces, summarising some of the issues clearly. And Darryl returns with a really interesting post here.

Militant anti-fascism

More miscellany from Entdinglichung.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Stephen Lawrence, contrarianism and right-wing anti-elitism

After I finished writing my first thoughts on the Stephen Lawrence verdict last night, I read two articles which gave me pause for thought. One, entitled "Stephen Lawrence and the politics of race", is by David Goodhart in Prospect; the other is "This isn’t justice – it’s politics" by Brendan O'Neill in Spiked. The two articles are very similar to each other, and have some similarities to my post, which is what gave me pause for thought, so in this post I intend to set out why I am not saying the same thing as them.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Thoughts on the Stephen Lawrence verdict

Chris Ofili: No Woman No Cry
So, the jury has decided and the judge has sentenced and David Norris and Gary Dobson, two of Stephen Lawrence's five or six killers, will be serving time. The wait has been long: almost the same length as Stephen's short life. And the time they serve will be short: the pair have been sentenced today as juveniles. And of course at least three other men took part in the killing, and they have not been brought to justice.

Although I can't claim any ownership of this tragedy, I feel as if I have lived closely with Stephen's death this past eighteen years. I was close in age to Stephen Lawrence and to his killers. I moved to Southeast London in 1991, I think, just months after  Rolan Adams was stabbed by a racist gang in Thamesmead, just months before Rohit Duggal was killed in Eltham, Ruhullah Aramesh in Thornton Heath and Sher Singh Sagoo in even closer to home Deptford. I went on marches, memorials and vigils in Eltham, Welling and Thamesmead, and was active against the BNP in other parts of South London too.

I live barely four miles from where Stephen was killed on Well Hall Road, and I drive past the site frequently. Eltham, along with Mottingham, New Eltham, Kidbrooke and Lee, marks the eastern edge of my part of southeast London. It's is tangibly different - whiter, leafier, quieter, less quirky, more suburban, more air to breathe, less pedestrian-friendly - than my manor.

I can't say I know Eltham well, though. In fact, I live much closer to Catford, which featured in the infamous secret video recording made of the young David Norris:
"I would, I would go down Catford and places like that, I am telling you now, with two sub-machine guns and I am telling you I would take one of them, skin the black cunt alive, mate, torture him, set him alight … I would blow their two arms and legs off and say, 'Go on you can swim home now.'"
In that rant, Catford symbolises inner London and its multicultural drift: the world that the killers' parents and their generation had fled in moving out to the leafy white suburbs. Stephen Lawrence and Duwayne Brooks were attacked, and Stephen slain, because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time: black men in a landscape the racist killers saw as their territory.