All posts by John Halle

Composer, pianist, writer on music and politics, former New Haven Alderman, supporter of the Sanders/Corbyn/Melenchon/ insurgency.

Chomsky Responds to Ken Burns

While I have no intention of watching the PBS Ken Burns Vietnam documentary, it is hard to avoid.  One indication is my school sponsoring viewings for our community, each segment introduced by faculty and guests who, it is assumed, will instruct today’s youth on the profound “ambiguities” and “complexities” of the conflict.  The unstated implication is that the oversimplified views of those  such as myself who regard our attack on Indochina as one of the great atrocities of the 20th century need to be challenged.

Along these lines, it was also hard to avoid Burns’s statement reported by the New York Times that the war “was begun in good faith, by decent people.”

Those of us familiar with the subject will recognize Burns’s phrase as a recapitulation of a familiar theme introduced by former Times’ columnist Anthony Lewis some decades ago.  For Lewis, our intervention was best seen not as a crime against humanity but as “blundering efforts to do good.

One might have thought that Noam Chomsky’s numerous books on the subject might have dispensed Lewis’s views to the trash heap of pith helmets, Gatling guns, Kipling’s White Man’s Burden and other relics of imperial overreach.  But no.  The same myths which were reflexively circulated to manufacture consent then are still in circulation now.

And so it will come as no surprise that a request for comment finds Chomsky registering something like despair:

“Have written book after book about it, going through the details.  Not sure I can face it again.”

Burns’s invocation of the “decency” of those having committed a near genocide makes it necessary for Chomsky to reassert a well worn analogy:

“Just like the German invasion of Poland, in defense against the ‘wild terror’ of the Poles.”

This type of comparison was common enough, even reflexively appealed to,  when the war was within living memory.   It is unfortunate that it apparently has not crossed into the current century .

Concealing their crimes behind a veil of sanctimony is, of course, a longstanding gambit of political elites.

Let’s hope that students here at Bard will be as capable as their predecessors were in seeing through it.

Chomsky: What are the Lessons from Weimar?

Though there is disagreement on what these are, pretty much everyone agrees that lessons can be learned from comparing the conditions which brought about so-called “classical” fascism in Germany and Italy and what we are confronting now.

Among those is Noam Chomsky who has recently argued that there is a indeed a Weimar analogy to be made.

But, according to Chomsky, before making it, it is first necessary to understand certain basic facts. Among these is that

“Allowing free speech to Nazis had nothing to do with their rise to power, legally.”

Indeed, preventing them from exercising free speech is seen by some historians as having played into the Nazi sense of victimization at the hands of lawless radicals which was crucial to their growth. As such, violent suppression of free speech was then (and is now), as Chomsky put it, “a gift to the right.”

For Chomsky, the main analogy to be drawn is based on the fact that the Nazis

“received less than 3% of the vote in the 1928 election, and Weimar democracy remained in force.”

Given these tiny numbers, what led to the Nazis success was not their own strength but rather the failure of opposition parties to unite against the far-right.

Specifically

“What led to the rise of Hitler was the decision of the huge Communist Party to condemn the labor-based Socialists as ‘social fascists,’ not different from the Nazis, and to refuse to join with them in barring the Nazis from political power.”

It is at this point we can draw the real lesson from Weimar. This has to do with

“the behavior of some of the left in the ’16 election, including many of those now advocating breaking up meetings and punching Nazis.”

Having failed to take action to oppose Trump and attacking those, including Chomsky himself, who pleaded with them to do so, they now seek to obscure their own complicity by appointing themselves the vanguard of the opposition to Trumpism’s most malignant, albeit predictable (and predicted) fascistic manifestations.

What they missed then was the obvious fact that the institutions necessary to oppose Trump were in place, most notably the ballot box.

The tragedy of a far right victory, here now and in Germany then, resulted from those who simply failed to make use of it.

Furthermore, the same institutional mechanisms exist to oppose the far right now that they are emboldened. Indeed, while it is rarely mentioned, the protests in Charlottesville were provoked not by radicals but by the majority of a relatively conservative city council having voted to remove a symbol of its white supremacist past. Other cities such as New Orleans had already done so and others were proceeding along similar lines.

Efforts to thwart them are being met with the entire institutional weight of government on all relevant levels. The perpetrators of the Charlottesville violence are actively being sought for prosecution by the Charlottesville police department under an African American chief. State officials including the Democratic governor who sees as an opportunity to inflict wounds on a Republican administration are enthusiastically aiding in tracking down those responsible for initiating violence.

It is only in the fantasy world of the left that white supremacists and neo Nazis have any significant influence on the institutional mechanisms of government.

And it is only in the fantasy world inhabited by self-described “antifas” that the growth of the far fight will be prevented by the initiation of violence against them.

Update 9/3/17: the sentence which previously read:

Indeed, preventing them from exercising free speech is seen by almost all historians as having played into the Nazi sense of victimization at the hands of lawless radicals which was crucial to their growth.

was altered to

Indeed, preventing them from exercising free speech is seen by some historians as having played into the Nazi sense of victimization at the hands of lawless radicals which was crucial to their growth.

Thanks to commenters for the correction.

Free Google!

A satirical piece by me from 2009 proposing the nationalization of Google. Will the backlash from l’affaire New America be sufficient to make it happen? Doubtful, though I can see a wave of nationalizations following on the heels of a successful fight for Single Payer-now looking increasingly possible with the Kamala Harris’s endorsement. The fossil fuel industries should be next, and then the digital information monopolies after that.  
 
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Google to Sell Digital Archive for One Dollar
 
Montainview, CA: Google Inc. reported today that it would abandon its attempt to acquire rights allowing it to disseminate out-of-print materials through its “Google Books” online resource.
 
The announcement concerns primarily Google’s decade long initiative to digitize the entire contents of several major academic libraries. In a surprise move, this archive will, according to company sources, be sold for one dollar to the U.S. Department of Education with those works under public domain made available at the newly established website www.allinfo.gov.
 
A staff of former Google employees will administer the database as federal employees, in consultation with a staff librarians drawn from a consortium of the nation’s major research universities.
 
The decision shocked investors who had been anticipating the finalization of negotiations with the U.S. Copyright Office, Justice Department and major publishing houses. The agreement would have guaranteed Google a new source of annual revenue estimated by experts in the billions of dollars, according to some experts.
 
The news triggered a massive sell off of Google shares, which bottomed out at $35, less than a quarter of their value at the beginning of the trading day.
 
Bewildered investment professionals complained of being “blind sided” by management’s unilateral action, but company insiders were unsurprised noting an anti-authoritarian corporate culture at Google uncomfortable with charging for access to public domain materials, either on a fee per service basis or in the form of increasingly obtrusive on line advertisements.
 
“Wall Street cynics evidently assumed that our our company motto ‘Don’t be evil’ was nothing more than P.R. boilerplate. It should be clear now that we meant business” an unidentified senior project manager commented, alluding to the role which company employees played in forcing management’s hand.
 
The news comes on the heels of widely circulated rumors of the unveiling of a new free search engine designed to compete with to the core Google product. Dubbed “Froogle” by beta testers, it is said to be the product of current and former Google employees concerned about the increasing degradation of digital information resulting from the purchasing of high priority search rankings by commercial interests.
 
An anonymous statement from the developers referred to access to high-quality information as a basic civil right and calls for existing information retrieval systems to be consolidated and operated as a public utility.
 
Free information advocates are hopeful that anti-trust proceedings currently under consideration by the administration and Congress will result in a government takeover similar to that imposed on the oil and banking industries in late 2010.

Who are the (Sanders) Movement Candidates?

Those of us who grew up in activist households a half century ago will remember those who were referred to as “movement candidates.”  These materialized when activists, those involved in leafletting, sit ins, phonebanking, and the other retail aspects of anti-war and civil rights protest were either chosen or decided on their own to run for office.  While they were not necessarily reliable once elected, it was reasonable for the protest movement to assume that they would be more accountable and likely to advance their agenda than those who were nowhere to be found on the streets but were asking for their support.

It is with them in mind that the various candidates now being promoted by Democratic Party leadership should be assessed: Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Kirsten Gillibrand and Deval Patrick are in no way movement candidates.  Rather they are longtime party insiders being sold to the left with the expectation they will be able to mollify and demobilize what has become an increasingly effective insurgency centered around the successor organizations to the Sanders campaign.

Their main strategy, then as now, is to do what all politicians do which is to tell potential supporters what they want to hear:  Already, most of them signed on to one or another plank of the Sanders platform: Booker has come out in favor of marijuana legalization.  Harris appears to support some version of single payer health insurance.  Biden repeatedly praised Sanders’ focus on wealth inequality and served on a presidential commission supposedly devoted to addressing it. Former Blue Dog Gillibrand has arguably gone the farthest of all having voted against all of Trumps appointees,  becoming one of the first senators to endorse single payer along with strong stands on immigrants rights. The exception is Patrick who appears to believe that bland evocations of hope and change will be sufficient to overcome a longstanding relationship with Mitt Romney’s firm Bain Capital, whose paychecks he now cashes.

Sanders supporters will not be impressed nor should they be,  recognizing these as pro forma concessions to the left by candidates who will likely govern according to neoliberal orthodoxy demanded by the party’s financial backers, albeit with certain moves to the left insofar as the movement is able to pressure them.

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Will one of the approved candidates be successful?  That is history yet to be written.  The Sanders insurgency already has its 2020 candidate, namely Sanders himself.  And if, for some reason, he is unable to, there are others who could mount a credible national run.  The most likely of these is Congressman Ro Khanna who has become an admittedly somewhat unlikely though increasingly powerful and reliable voice of Sanders wing of the Democrats. The powerhouse Ohio State Senator Nina Turner is another possibility though having not held a national office may make her a less credible presidential candidate.

We should, needless to say, make every effort to insure that they succeed. If we do, 2020 and 2018 will provide us what we didn’t have previously, namely, candidates to vote for rather than to vote against. And we should be discussing and strategizing about what is necessary to bring that about.

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The final point which needs to be discussed is what happens if we fail and the eventual nominee is yet another pressed out of the Obama/Clinton neoliberal mold.  What should our response be?

Here the answer should be easy based on four years experience with “the most dangerous organization in human history” not to mention the recent atrocity in Charlottesville.

Those on the left who don’t understand by now why they need to be defeated, probably never will.

Meanwhile, our efforts to create a system which produces candidates to vote for rather than against are already bearing fruit.

The must continue and they will continue.

“Who Cares? It’s Only Chomsky” (Left Edition)

What with all the hosannas pouring in for Chomsky upon the announcement of his impending move to from MIT to the University of Arizona, Tucson, it’s worth pointing out, for the umpteenth time, that many of these derive from those who have repeatedly expressed complete contempt for his views.

To take two recent examples, Chomsky’s endorsement of a lesser-evil vote was greeted with an outpouring of hostility, and to this day will provoke the charge that he was a “despicable hack” for the Democratic Party, as one of them put it at the time. Another was his support for the Sanders candidacy and its subsequent post-electoral mobilization. This was also greeted with the usual snickers at the doddering fool who can’t recognize the obvious fact that this was only the latest “sheepdog” deployed to herd the left into the graveyard for left movements which is the Democratic Party. 

Finally, Chomsky’s recent criticism of self-described “antifacists” advocating the initiation of violent confrontations with the right brought forth this charming Facebook rejoinder from a character named Sebastian Budgen.

“Maybe we should simply snigger at ‘postmodernism’ and explain the facts of US foreign policy to the Nazis? That will surely change their minds…”

A commenter on the threat attempted to argue by reasserting Chomsky’s position that advocating “street brawls *is* the answer to their prayers.” He then went on to note that “even arguing that this is dumbassery even from a purely strategic point of view is practically the same as singing ‘sing heil’. Fucking hegelianism and its resilience… Street brawls will not push faster into the new “stage” in history; it is merely going to get people killed and guarantee that right-wing extremism grows.”

Presumably this position was so idiotic that it merited nothing but contempt. “Fuck off” was Budgen’s response.

It’s worth mentioning that Budgen is by no means marginal: he is a senior editor at Verso, perhaps the left’s pre-eminent publishing house. He is also a contributing editor at Jacobin where it can be assumed he exerts significant influence. In this connection it should be noted that Jacobin, while routinely rolling out Chomsky’s endorsement for fund raising purposes, conspicuously failed to publish a piece by Chomsky advocating for the lesser evil position during the run up to the election.

Their view that “the left was under no obligation” to defeat Trump was unopposed and was reflected by and probably influenced much of its readership. The likely consequence  was the tragedy we will be living with every day for the next three years if not longer-assuming we survive that long. (Chomsky, in fact, also believes this to be the case: in fact, he predicted this result in June of last year.)

I suppose the bottom line of this is while the left is sure to issue pro forma hosannas on occasions like this, there is a huge amount of contempt for his stated views.

In my opinion, we would be better off if the situation was reversed.

Alas, it was not to be . . . (Climate and Capitalism)

Today’s Times reports on the development of alternative energy resources in Chile which are said to put it “on track to rely on clean sources for 90 percent of its electricity needs by 2050, up from the current 45 percent. ”

The word “bittersweet” is entirely insufficient to describe the emotions evoked by articles like this, though it strikes me as the best we have. That’s to say that during the next half century we will see a significant move to renewable energy sources, and this will occur, contrary to what Naomi Klein predicted, within the neoliberal capitalist order which has been dominant since the early 80s.

Of course, as Klein would immediately-and correctly-respond, it will be in no way sufficient to prevent massive, almost unthinkable destruction between now and then: hundreds of millions of refugees from Southeast Asia inundated by floods, hundreds of millions more from destruction of formerly productive agricultural regions, hundreds of millions more fleeing from temperatures which simply can’t support human habitation.

So yes, capitalism has responded. But far too little and far too late. Had a decent economic order emerged, one which allowed for some degree of centralized economic planning based on the needs of the population rather than the corporations, the survival of a large fraction of the species could have been secured.

Alas, it was not to be.

Musical Deplorables: Notes on Neoliberalism, Jazz Purism and Kenny G.

A few weeks ago, an off duty flight attendant discovered that her neighbor on a Tampa to Los Angeles flight was a musical celebrity. Having recently lost her daughter to brain cancer, she suggested an impromptu performance to raise money to for cancer research. The request was immediately agreed to, resulting in the artist strolling down the aisles with his instrument, passing the hat for donations which quickly exceeded the $1,000 goal.

All that would seem innocuous enough. But as might be expected within some corners of the internet, what was an anodyne act of charity became the grounds for opening the floodgates of abuse.

Why this was the case will make sense when name of the musician is revealed, a figure so universally reviled that to utter a word in his defense is to invite social ostracism, namely “the weasel-toned saxophonist,” as he was referred to by the New York Times, Kenny Gorelick, or Kenny G, as he is known to his fans. So toxic are the sounds he emits that an encounter with them constitutes “torture”-the aural equivalent of the United Airlines assault of one of its passengers, which had occurred only a few days before.

At least, such was the perception of the cross section of the left/liberal consensus which appears on my twitterfeed.

As was often the case within this sector, the apparent fact of the matter was something other than what was imagined. According to reports, many passengers on the flight found it the exact opposite having reveled in “the show of a lifetime.”

But these expressions of enthusiasm were easily written off. They were, after all, deriving from a “large crowd” whose “basest impulses” manifest “callous disregard for the larger issues . . .marking a new low point in modern culture – something that we all should be totally embarrassed about – and afraid of.” All this “we ignore. . . at our own peril.”

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Before revealing the source of these descriptions, it is worth pointing out what should be obvious, namely that, with a few substitutions, the passage could have occurred in any number of alarmed New York Times, or Washington Post op-eds in the months and weeks before the election, one of which mirrored the concluding phrase above in bearing the headline “We Ignore Trump at our Peril.” In fact, they could have emanated from the Democratic nominee herself who described her opponent as “the most dangerous candidate in history”, his supporters, notoriously, an “irredeemable basket of deplorables” impelled by a “negative, dark, divisive, dangerous vision.”

To answer the question left hanging, we owe the enumeration of the “dangers” of Kenny G. to guitarist Pat Metheny in a blog posting from some years back, one which is routinely resurrected and brandished as a club when a new round of Kenny’s G. bashing is initiated as it was last month.

What makes those forwarding this document conspicuous is not just the high dudgeon, but their self-righteousness. The latter is evidently grounded in their certainty that Metheny’s critique transcends subjective opinion in being based on objective music/theoretical fact. Thus, Kenny G’s “harmonic and melodic vocabulary . . . . limited, mostly to pentatonic based and blues-lick derived patterns,” his “out-of-tune, noodlings” suffused with “wrong notes” and “harmonic clams” are all assumed to be data points providing the empirical basis for a unique conclusion: abject musical incompetence. This, presumably, in distinction to canonic jazz icons whose mastery is empirically demonstrable by means of technical musical analysis.

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It is at this point that those with professional expertise in music theory need to intervene to note that what is being played as a trump card here is in fact a bluff. Music theory can, of course, identify many significant aspects of musical structure-why composers chose the notes they did. What it can’t do, and what any minimally honest practitioner of the discipline will immediate concede that it can’t, is predict why a particular piece of music is regarded as good, bad, indifferent or deplorable.

For those in musical scholarship, this is all familiar ground explored, most notably, in Joseph Kerman’s classic (1980) essay “How We Got into Analysis and How to Get Out.” This appeared at the peak of influence of certain triumphalist variants of music theory which, in their most extreme form, tended to equate what Kerman called musical criticism (the evaluation of a work’s aesthetic merits) with analysis (the formal description of its structure). The latter, as would be noted by subsequent generations of musical scholars, was inferred to provide an objective basis for the claims for transcendent greatness of what was being analyzed, namely, canonic masterworks deriving from white, European, males. Relatively soon, all this would be exposed and criticized as cultural chauvinism at best white supremacy masquerading as objective scholarship at worst.

Metheny and those who cite him have evidently failed to learn the underlying lesson from the collapse of these defenses of the traditional canon. For it will be apparent that their criticisms amounts to little more than retrofitting the discredited assumptions of the old musicology to defend a post modern “high/low” distinction. The only difference is that pure jazz now occupies the summit (1) with the debased form represented by Kenny G and others viewed as fundamentally unserious and beneath discussion. The grounds on which this is claimed to be so is just as was the case in the benighted past: some analytic characteristic is shown to be present or absent in the objective structure of the music and taken to be a proxy for aesthetic merit, artistic seriousness of purpose or the lack of it based on the assumption the there is a necessary connection. But that matters are not so simple, while taken for granted within what was formerly known as “classical” music, has evidently yet to register with those who concerned with policing the boundaries of jazz.

For example, for them, G making use of a “limited vocabulary” constitutes a de facto criticism. It is, however, obvious that this is not the case and that Metheny himself doesn’t believe that it is: for if any composer can be described a making use of a “limited harmonic and melodic vocabulary” it is Steve Reich, whose Electric Counterpoint Metheny himself commissioned and presumably admires. What is the difference between the “minimalism” of Kenny G and that of Reich? Showing that there is one is not so trivial. But even if we could determine what it is, it would not answer the question why “we” (those claiming to have acculturated and informed musical tastes) tend to value the music of Reich above Gorelick.

Or, moving closer to Kenny G’s soul/pop/jazz idiom, if a “limited” harmonic and melodic vocabulary is a fatal flaw, what to make of the blues? Yes, one finds objectively less chromaticism in B.B. King, Muddy Waters or Albert Collins than in Wagner or William Byrd. But only a pedant or a chauvinist would suggest that this, or any “limitation” unearthed via a music theoretical analysis should take precedence over the visceral experience evoked by the blues.

A slightly more subtle issue is at stake in what Metheny characterizes as G’s “harmonic clams” or “wrong notes.” What is being referenced is what music theorists would refer to as unresolved, or inappropriately resolved dissonance. Here the problem is that the supposedly objective data is contested with even the most unambiguously tonal works many of which present numerous puzzles to the most sophisticated analysts. Perhaps Kenny G’s choice of pitches are, in some absolute aesthetic sense, “wrong”, but given there is no agreement on the distinction between consonance and dissonance within a Bach Two Part Invention or Chopin Prelude there’s no justification for deploying it as a weapon to attack any music or musician, unless doing so is nothing more than a rationalization for pre-existing aesthetic bias.

Finally, the problematic subject of “wrong notes” is perhaps best exemplified by the work of Eric Dolphy which consists almost entirely of “wrong notes”, insofar as the term has any meaning. But what makes Dolphy’s wrong notes “right,” as any minimally literate jazz fan knows, and Kenny G’s “wrong”? At this point, the question can only be answered by some variant of “because I said so”, an appeal to bien pensant consensus with respect to who belongs within the walls of an increasingly sanctified canon.

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At this point some readers are probably wondering why I devoted 1300 words to meta-theoretical questions provoked by the music of Kenny G-probably 1300 words more than any previous discussion of the subject.

I should make clear that, appearances aside, it is not my intention to defend Kenny G or his music for which I have as little intellectual and temperamental affinity as those attacking it. But while the music doesn’t require a defense, those being belittled for their musical preferences and, by implication, their lack of intelligence and sophistication do. And it is one which they deserve to have since, as was demonstrated above, the attacks on them are fundamentally fraudulent in that the supposed authority on which they are based collapses when subjected to scrutiny.

With that in mind, we can return to the comparison alluded to above: what accounts for near identical rhetoric deployed in jazz purist attacks on Kenny G and those emanating from the political establishment against Trump.

The key to answering the question involves recognizing that both, as I have pointed out, are reflections of deep-seated conventional wisdom as this is expressed by the agenda setting media, the academy and by the priorities of corporate philanthropy. Challenges to its authority, whether this takes the form of enthusiasm for the debased artistic expression of Kenny G or the debased politics of Donald Trump are viewed as heresy. More broadly, those challenging orthodoxies on free trade, permanent war or banking deregulation, were relegated to the margins just as those raising doubts about the sanctified status of jazz, as I myself discovered when I did just that in the piece linked to above. All that’s needed to dispense with them is to cut and paste from a well worn-lexicon of denunciations-“irresponsible”, “dangerous”, “uninformed” etc.-while appealing to the authority of acknowledged experts in their representation of what are claimed to be “the facts”.

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By now it is uncontroversial to identify the election of 2016 as a delegitimation crisis for this same expert class-the moment when “the twilight of the elites” turned to midnight. The public would vote based on the evidence provided by their own eyes making clear their contempt for the fairy tales of those who they regarded as frauds and mountebanks.

The unemployed steel worker working for near minimum wage at a 7/11 in a town ravaged by drug addiction, his home, and those of his neighbors, foreclosed on by banks stuffed with trillions of taxpayer dollars, now demanded that elite talking heads stop talking and begin to listen, as they have not for three decades. The Trump election was the two by four administered to the head of the neoliberal mule to get its attention. Reasoning with it, as the joke goes, which is to say development of actual progressive legislation responding to the immense suffering apparent everywhere will need to come later: after the catastrophe of the Trump/Pence administration is brought to an end.

It is at this point that the analogy between the admirers of Kenny G and Trump breaks down: I know of no instance where Kenny G’s fans have lashed out against at those who routinely make punching bags of them for the crime of enjoying simple bluesy tunes in high gloss professional arrangements. Rather they vote with their feet filling stadiums or opening their wallets when they are requested by him to throw a few bucks in a hat for a charity.

But that doesn’t mean that they don’t harbor plenty of simmering resentment towards those ridiculing them for their coarse and degraded musical tastes while patting themselves on the back for their sensitivity and refinement. The value of these and other purely cultural antipathies have, for years, been recognized by right organizers such as Grover Norquist whose electoral strategy, as he recently revealed, relies crucially on “changing the tone . . . towards bitter nastiness.”

That our own attitudes help pave the way for this tone to be established and thereby the success of the right raises a fundamental question for those of us whose lives have revolved around a passionate investment in forms of musical high culture, however we define it. How do we respond to artistic tastes which seem to represent an affront to our cherished aesthetic values, just as much as support for Trump seems to represent an attack on our core political and moral sensibilities.

How we resolve this is an individual matter, but one guideline should be clear: While we should make clear that while we regard their views as misguided, maybe even profoundly so, we harbor no ill will towards Trump supporters as individuals.

When it comes to those with an affection for Kenny G or any other artist for whom visceral contempt seems de rigueur it would seem that more is required of us. Namely, we need to take a step beyond tolerance by applying the kindergarten adage to either say something nice or nothing at all about the music people like, the cars they drive or the foods they eat. Doing so won’t by itself prevent a repetition of the electoral disaster of 2016 or install socialists at the helm of state power. But if we can our curb our reflexive pleasure in lampooning the bad taste of others, it will make it the longstanding project of the right to construct walls which divide us that much harder. And in so doing, we make our job to build bridges connecting us that much easier.

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(1) See my widely derided Jazz After Politics for arguments along these lines.

(2) Oddly, Metheny claims Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” as embodying the supposed virtues of jazz under attack from the debased idiom of Kenny G.

Corbyn and Sanders Coalitions: Hanging Together/Hanged Separately

A while back, I made a list of some of the key differences in the coalition which supported Corbyn compared that which backed Sanders. I left to the side the more or less separate question of their policies and how these are reflected in their rhetoric. It now occurs to me dealing with these is an easier job in that there is one which make all the difference in the world. Namely, that Corbyn makes direct appeal to working class unity largely undiluted by identity politics. To take a key example, Corbyn consistently referred to the victims of the Grenfell catastrophe as poor and working class-not “persons of color.”  

While Corbyn certainly pointed to the race, ethnicity and nationality of the Grenfell victims, his main rhetorical focus was always on the fact that they were victims of generations of public sector austerity. In doing so he united behind him a broad constituency who have suffered under it, one which has the potential to install him as prime minister over the next few years.

Had Sanders encountered something similar, e.g. a fire at one of the remaining public housing units in New York or Chicago, the issue of race would have immediately had to have been referenced. And the remedy for it which much of the left would have been on the streets for would be to address “institutional racism” rather than a decades long war of the rich against the poor-as even Warren Buffet recognizes.

This is what accounts for the fact that, while it remains a possibility (if we fight for it-which we damn well should be doing), the Sanders insurgency won’t become a governing coalition any time soon.

While I don’t have any solution to it, this seems to me to be the clear fact of the matter.

Letting the Holocaust Speak for Itself: A Rural Montana Teacher Speaks

Guest Post: by Beth Keyser

Superior, Montana is a small town nestled near the Lolo National Forest located between the Idaho border and Missoula, Montana. With under a thousand people living here, the community is close knit.  The people are friendly, kind, and generally conservative in their values. Superior was also the home of Slim Deardorff, an affiliate to Matt Hale and the American White Supremacist Party and World Church of Our Creator in the 1990’s, who maintained a small active group just outside of Superior.  When I began teaching here in August 2001, Deardorff still lived here.  Despite his group dissolving, there was still some lingering anti-Semitism. This I discovered when I began teaching my students the facts about the holocaust.  I was then and continue to be struck every year by the level of ignorance.  When I ask students what they know about it, very few have any information at all.

In spite or perhaps because of their lack of information, every year, usually at the beginning of the unit, an anti-Semitic incident, along the lines of name calling or graffiti, raises its head. Sometimes it is directed at me: twice in the last fifteen years, students challenged my credibility in not being Jewish enough to speak for the victims of the holocaust in any way. By dismissing my perspective, I believe they hoped to deny that it happened at all.  Also, every year, I find swastikas written on desks or in notebooks.  I used to worry that these incidents were a reflection of a broader problem of bigotry; however, I now believe they are a manifestation of students testing their own prejudices.  By doing so publicly and sometimes anonymously, these students inevitably hear responses, and can gauge their peers’ expressions of either rejection or agreement. It is as if students are asking questions without the pressure and perhaps embarrassment of being identified as anti-Semites while learning the effects expressing their prejudices have on their friends and community.

This year was no different. Community members put up a playground in our only park last fall with volunteers from all over town working together to build it.  This spring, while I was teaching my annual holocaust unit, someone wrote in crayon on the jungle gym equipment, “Death to all Jews.” A conscientious community member noticed it, called the police, and registered their outrage on Facebook.  Parents all over town condemned the incident. Some blamed my students. “Why would people blame us?” my students asked a colleague. She pointed out that indeed it made no sense that the class be blamed since it was learning about the holocaust. If indeed they understood what happened, they wouldn’t write such things. Whether it was a student of mine or someone else, I’m confident, based on my experiences over the years, that is was no accident that it coincided with the beginning of my Holocaust unit.

When I began teaching the unit this year, one of my students complained that he couldn’t understand the point of learning about the holocaust.  In any case, since it was history, it had no place in an English class. Others chimed in.  I’ve heard this before and proceeded to provide my students with a rationale that was dispassionate, lengthy, and detailed. Much of it, I suspect, they didn’t remember but it was enough to satisfy this young man’s complaint for now.  I proceeded through background information about the rise of Nazi Germany, its use of propaganda, and basic vocabulary items like anti-Semitism and genocide.  Again, this student complained; no one else chimed in at this point.  I finally convinced him to hang in there because the “gore” was coming.  I knew full well that when he did learn the truth about “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question”, he would be less jubilant in his desire for information.  After all, this wasn’t a You Tube video.

The day of presenting “The final Solution to the Jewish Question” came.  I put up posters around the room showing the stages of deportation to concentration camps and killing centers including cattle cars, gas showers, and crematoriums.  I had a few posters of open mass graves where hundreds of victims were thrown, which I did not put up on the wall because for some students these posters could be overwhelming.  I offered students an opportunity to look at them but did not require it. The atmosphere was subdued, which is rare for this class.  There were no more protests from my young dissenter.  In fact, the students who complained the most at the beginning of this unit, whispered to each other daring each other to look at the optional posters.  I stood near these posters so that I could initiate discussion with anyone who wanted to talk.  There was plenty of discussion.  They had a lot of questions.  Their disdain for this unit turned into outrage and disbelief that this could actually happen.

After that lesson, the general attitude changed as well.  Students walked into class, sat down, and silently waited for me to begin.  They asked productive questions and worked hard on their projects. One day a girl, who had been in trouble for bullying other students and who was extremely afraid to speak up in class, spoke out in empathy about the plight of the Jews and other victims of The Holocaust.  During a discussion about stereotypes, students talked about how they were ridiculed for being hicks and backward thinkers. We found common ground when I shared how, in high school, I was stereotyped for being Jewish.  Students also talked about their own heritage.  Many in Superior are descendants of Germans. During the gold rush, Superior attracted immigrants from Ireland, England, Canada, Germany, and Scandinavia. They didn’t want to identify themselves with Nazis, but at the same time, they were loyal to their German roots. One thing I have learned about young adolescents is that they love arguing but usually lack the patience and ability to articulate complex issues.  As a leader of discussions, I had to remain dispassionate and nonjudgmental or much of this rich discussion could have devolved into superficial bickering.

I am reluctant to draw too many conclusions from my experiences with my students over the years, but I will make one. Adolescents react to topics that challenge their values and prejudices without much introspection. As their teacher, I respect them no matter what their values and biases are because I am confident that by providing them with the facts and allowing them to process these facts in their own way is better than chiding them. Students won’t learn if they are put on the defensive either intentionally or unintentionally.  Whether this unit helps to dispel anti-Semitic prejudice is difficult to determine.

But at least they have the facts.

 

 

 

 

Nancy MacLean on Impeachment Mania

Historian Nancy MacLean, author of the soon to be classic Democracy in Chains, appearing on Jon Wiener’s Trump Watch

“I would urge the left to slow down on impeachment because you get (Koch supported) Mike Pence then. And he would be a lot more competent at pushing through (the Koch) agenda.

“Pence is one (Koch supported) person who’s already there, Mick Mulvaney his budget director is another coming out of  network, Mark Short comes from five years as the head of Freedom Partners which is a Koch donor operation. Scott Pruitt the head of the EPA, Noami Rao, you go through the list and at every key place there are people associated with this radical right donor network who are calling the shots and doing radical policy changes.

“So while we’re all focussed on Trump’s latest tweets, these people are pushing (them) through.

“So I’m urging people to experiment and try a week where they don’t focus on Trump himself, and they starting finding out what radical changes are being pushed through in his administration. Because I really believe that (he) is the classic con man: he stretches an arm out and catches your attention with something while meanwhile out of your view all these other things are happening. In the EPA, in the courts, in the labor department where the Koch agenda is going through.”

The next segment on Wiener’s show?  Yet another on Trump’s Russian connections could leading to his impeachment.

Oh well.