Wednesday, September 30, 2009
I'll admit to downplaying the Polanski case for years, strictly through my own ignorance on the matter. Given the almost always Puritanical approach to sex in this country - given our national inability to discuss sexuality in any capacity other than rigidly enforced lines of moral indignation or TV sitcom punch-line punctuation - I suspected that Polanski was being hounded by authorities over a perhaps distasteful but not criminal matter. As somebody who suspects that one's sexuality becomes fully formed at a much younger age than the law books decree, and who doesn't consider every May-December relationship to be predatory, I felt I had a right to be suspicious. This all changed when I actually came across the court documents and testimony in the case, courtesy of the ever-helpful Smoking Gun. Reading the evidence always helps. The details were enough for me to switch camps and lose much of my sympathy for Polanski. The events of that 1977 evening were not a case of a love that dare not speak its name, or a passionate teacher-student hormonal exploration. This was straight up rape, of a 13 year old girl, anally violated after being drugged with Champagne and Quaaludes.
The graphic details do need to be repeated, so that the full ramifications of the case are understood, and there have been some excellent articles written in recent days that consistently return to the main talking point that this case is about child rape. Some of these articles are marred by bad prose and an over-reliance on italics, exclamation points and even (shudder) lines in all caps. And I've noticed a tendency to play the anti-Hollywood card in a manner that isn't very flattering. Arguing that Polanski hasn't suffered at all for his actions seems more than a little silly, and the claim that fellow artists are rallying around him because they're outraged he wasn't able to accept his Oscar in person a few years back seems the most willful sort of wrongheadedness.
To consider one point that's being made constantly, many are ridiculing the quite valid observation by many of the entertainment and art business that a film festival is not the proper setting for a SWAT team operation. I think part of what angers people about this argument is that it seems to suggest that art and politics (or, even more accurately, art and the law) should operate in completely separate realms - that one should be allowed to dart between legal briefs with impunity if one remembers to never stray from the protective coverings of galleries and film festivals. I would argue that the finer point to be gleaned here is that, for many, art is an intensely political act, and in many countries outside the United States (much of Europe, in quite recent memory), artists and filmmakers were in many ways outlaws within their own state. One need only think upon the numerous awards given to Eastern European and Communist Bloc filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s, in which much of the delivered praise was a reflection on the very real physical and emotional risks such artists assumed. The possibility of such an artist being waylaid, accosted or persecuted on the eve of an opening or retrospective was always present. I think there's little hope in comparing Polanksi's situation to that of, say, Yilmaz Guney's, but I think it helps explain the severe reservations many Europeans and artists have with using a national retrospective as a backdrop for a sting operation.
But one can only have so many reservations, even with the flawed nature of the original trial and the odd timing of the arrest. If I'm made uneasy by the uninformed ranting and mob mentality of the Polanski-haters, much of the support offered up in his defense has been unconvincing at best, morally shameful at worst. I've seen apologists online and in print ranging from an almost charming naivete (he's already paid a price, isn't there a statute of limitations?) to the vilest sort of woman-hate (she wasn't innocent, what was she doing there anyway?). In a rather thoughtful editors debate on the New York Times, Jonathan Rosenbaum, a critic and intellectual I highly admire, comes off as rather dismissive of the whole deal, arguing that "many crooks...continue to go unpunished," such as figures in the recent financial meltdown, warmongers, torturers and corrupt politicians. I couldn't agree more with this point - the outrage directed at Polanski for a event involving one individual 30 years ago, especially by those with absolutely no connection or relation to the case, is a bit odd considering our collective disinterest in, to be completely partisan about it, punishing leaders who've caused the deaths of thousands of servicemembers and hundreds of thousands of civilians through deceit and misrepresentation. But I'm also wary of any move towards this sort of relativism. Put another way - why should one step out of a purse snatcher's path and allow for a clear getaway simply because one suspects there's probably a much worse crime being committed in another part of town?
I've seen articles calling for the boycotting of any director or artist who signed any sort of support petition for Polanski. Aside from the fact that I'm not sure how much David Lynch or Martin Scorsese are going to suffer from angered citizens leaving their latest DVDs on the shelf at BlockBuster, the notion that these and other individuals are supporters of child rape is rather simplistic. I'm glad that some of Polanski's fellow directors have distanced themselves from him in recent days, although if that's how you measure your boycott decision, good luck with all those Kevin Smith movies. Personally, I work hard to separate art and the individual. I know enough about economics and market forces to understand that my movie ticket or download in and of itself brings very little cash flow to the artist in question. Unfortunately, good art is not unique to good people. In fact, one might argue the exact opposite - wonderful individuals rarely make compelling art. They often make really bad art. Not to single anybody out or anything, but from all I've heard, Ron Howard is a kind, decent, thoughtful, generous man. He's a good father, a good husband, and he's probably nice to animals. He also offers up cinematic dreck that doesn't even have the heft or the smell to be labeled garbage. Alfred Hitchcock, on the other hand, was by all accounts a horrible, petty, brooding, manipulative sexual deviant who worked out his kinks on attractive young women by abusing them both on and off camera. He was also a master craftsman, visionary and artist. Sorry - that's how it works sometimes.
In other words, I'm certainly not about to print up any "Free Roman" t-shirts, but I'm also not about to return the recently issued blu-ray edition of Polanski's 1965 Repulsion, or start trash-talking Chinatown. The most level-headed argument against the Polanski defenders that I've come across is (surprisingly) Thomas Reese's analogy of a pedophile priest fleeing the country to avoid prison time, only to have the Knights of Columbus arrange for a medal or award to the fugitive priest years later. Reese suspects the outrage against the Catholic Church would be both universal and justified, and while I suspect one of his reasons for penning the article was to suggest the existence of anti-church sentiments within media culture, he makes a persuasive point.
In the end, I'm no closer to understanding the situation than I was when I began writing this entry. I simply do not see how anybody can feel good about anything in this case. A visionary artist committed a vile crime that helped destroy and disrupt at least two lives (the victim's and his own, among many others). An arrest was arranged under media lights with suggestions of Swiss complicity for future U.S. leniency. And complete strangers with opposite reasons for outrage are jostling for position and hurling accusations. What is the proper response to something like this other than sadness?
Monday, September 28, 2009
Sad follow-up to my previous post on the art of crate digging and beat sampling - another tragically early hip-hop death, as Grand Master Roc Raida died at the age of 37 from spinal injuries sustained in a martial arts mishap. This was no cliched rap death, a consequence of drug abuse or gunplay. This was the snuffing out of a soft-spoken and creative individual well before his time.
The celebrity-blitzed passing of DJ AM last month grabbed more headlines, thanks to AM's more mainstream following (and the bizarre fact that he survived a plane crash exactly a year ago, only to fall victim to a drug overdose). While I wouldn't stoop to comparing two recently dead artists, it is clear that Roc Raida was the more visionary of the two - an innovator and a mentor as well as a great entertainer. A Harlem native and ten-year inhabitant of The Bronx, the former Anthony Williams was dubbed "The Quiet Lion" by friends and associates, an accurate sobriquet given his calm nature and generosity off the stage, which in no way softened his aggressive approach to onstage turntablism. To watch Roc Raida in action (something I was only able to do via video) was not just to witness an inspired and fun-loving set of party grooves, but to marvel at his control, athletic abilities and showmanship. In an era of ever more cerebral approaches to scratching and mixing, Roc Raida maintained his down-to-earth style, yet never seemed anachronistic. Perhaps it was his deep hip-hop roots - his father was an original Sugar Hill label artist - that helped keep him real.
Like many mix djs, it can be difficult to track down his best work. So much of what he and others accomplish is done live, at night, in the clubs, and listening to recorded artifacts of live mixes can be a disappointing act of archival investigation. There are plenty of cds out there featuring his work with the legendary DJ troupe The X-Men (who eventually changed their name to the less-copyright-controlled X-Ecutioners), and one can find numerous documents of his legendary mix sets floating in and out of print on disc or perhaps even wax. But watch some of these videos to get a taste of Roc Raida's considerable skills. Check out fellow DJ A-Trak's blog for some personal memories of Anthony Williams the individual. And by all means give a listen (and a download) to Roc Raida's semi-legendary mix set "52 Beats" - a grand tour of classic funky breaks, inspired by the totally-legendary Kid Capri set of the same name. He truly rocked the party.
Friday, September 25, 2009
And yet, I'll admit that I long ago concluded I didn't need to sample every up-and-coming emo quartet or MTV2-hyped hip-hop figure to maintain a firm footing on contemporary pop cultural innovation. There's simply too many good and unheard sounds out there to get bogged down in the trend wars of the day. As somebody who's more likely to be reading 19th century novels than the latest offering from Dan Brown, I've always felt there was more to be learned by studying the past than getting too overwhelmed by contemporary supposed innovations - innovations that, all too quickly, resemble discontinued flavors-of-the-month. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were 2004's Butterscotch Lemon. Will Grizzly Bear be 2009's Cherry Tootsie Roll? (I'm not gonna tell you, you're gonna have to tell me....)
My wife and I have both come to the civilized agreement that, given limitations in space, funding and time, I should not be allowed to re-enter the world of vinyl anytime soon - a world I once had a passing familiarity with, and that now seems to be reaching the peak of a several-year revival. There's no denying that vinyl carries with it a sexiness that CDs and (choke choke cough cough) Mp3's do not - the heft, the crackle, the spinning ooze, the billboard-sized cover art. What adds even more to the mystery of the LP are the entire warehouses filled to the brim with obscure (many deservedly so) releases that never had a snowball's chance in hell of moving more than a few copies. Much of this detritus has little to offer beyond ghastly cover art and insipid, uninspired music (cringe-inducing lyrics, too, mustn't forget them). But those of us with a nose for the overlooked can't help but feel that lurking in every dusty crate or mold-infested record shop is a potential pot of gold - an obscure LP of notable quality.
Blame hip hop and beat hunters for taking much of the mystery out of these forgotten glories. Ever since the hipper DJs started realizing they'd need to start looking beyond The Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache" for suitable breaks, the hunt has been on. Literally thousands of records gained a second life as the basis for hip hop anthems large and small. And when the unlikely figure of Gilbert O'Sullivan changed the future of hip hop and sampling in the early nineties, beat experts merely went further underground, lifting beats and licks so obscure and manipulated that it would take a new kind of detective to track down the sources and throw copyright law at their feet. Think DJ Shadow, think Peanut Butter Wolf, think the ever-innovative Prince Paul.
Me, I'm no kind of DJ, although I play one in my head all the time. The innovations of late-20th century sonic collage has penetrated my subconscious so much that I tend to mentally deconstruct nearly every song I hear, wondering what that bass lines might sound like out of context, how that high-hat could be looped, whether or not the middle-eight could be dropped atop a King Sunny Ade percussive break. I dream of mash-ups between Keith Jarrett and Mongo Santamaria, looping a spacey Yo La Tengo interlude with an Idris Muhammad sample. That kind of thing. But lacking anything in the way of the necessary sophisticated equipment, the majority of this stuff just stays in my head, which is probably all for the best - most of it would never come close to being translated.
There's been something of a revolution taking place online over the past half-decade or so, in which music and file sharing has taken on a distinctly different hue from the original Napster revolution of the 1990s. One can take all sorts of positions on the legality or illegality of something like Napster, and one needn't feel much sympathy for the preening likes of millionaire Lars Ulrich to suspect that moral and legal boundaries were being overtaken during that drawn out episode. I'm not too concerned about teenagers downloading compressed sound files of over-hyped bands for their homeroom-listening pleasure. My own feelings on Napster were of the slightly bemused variety - interesting idea, of dubious legality, not applicable to me and thousands of other music lovers because our interests went beyond Top 40 artists. Downloading a Madonna single or a Papa Roach CD seemed almost too banal to bother with. Where was the mystery in that? Couldn't the internet help out those of us seeking more elusive prey?
More and more, that's what the post-Napster online music scene is beginning to resemble. There are still plenty of opportunities to download compressed files of your favorite artist or pop entertainer, and the mighty iTunes has made it easier than ever to purchase a desired track with the click of a mouse (and the removal of 99 cents from your PayPal account). But this is really little more than a slight adjustment in venue for market-driven music industry standards - where once you stood in line to pay for your product, now you wait in front of a screen. A bit more convenient, but a situation in which the consumer is still limited by the choices offered by the store / site in question. Far more interesting to me is a new generation of music lovers and collectors who have popped up throughout the murky world of the blogosphere to post ripped copies of obscure vinyl from their impressive collections and share them with fellow enthusiasts. For the most part, this is an informed and scholarly crowd, made up of kindred souls who firmly believe that the life of a piece of music should not flourish or wither based on the whims of record company executives - that if an LP has long been out of print, and has failed to be integrated into new media formats, then it's fair game for uploading and a new audience.
You can, I suppose, call this copyright infringement, although that seems a little boorish given the rather small audiences we're talking about here. One constant I've noted while visiting these music-sharing sites is that the individuals in question are quite upfront about only posting music that is unavailable and out-of-print - never transferred to CD, fetching ridiculous collector prices on eBay, long deleted from official catalogs, or originally released on small and now-deceased minor labels. When an album does receive the jaws of life and rejoins the world via a newly remastered CD version or a limited-edition vinyl run (and this is happening more and more, thanks to innovative reissue-focused record labels), the majority of these bloggers yank the albums in question and urge their guests to purchase the goods. I suspect many do. One can't worship obscure grooves without realizing that their creators rarely saw a dime for their work, and any opportunity to change this sorry situation is welcomed.
I can't offer any kind of definitive list of the great music bloggers out there, but I thought I'd offer recommendations for a few who have focused their efforts on a much-maligned genre of popular music - the world of electric jazz, or jazz-funk. Fusion has struggled to make any kind of comeback within the jazz crowd, possibly due to the sheer market saturation of the stuff by the late-1970s, and the advent of elevator jazz in the 1980s - a degradation of the improvisatory scene that has inflicted serious damage. But there are entire worlds of electric jazz that have been swept under the carpet in an effort to hide any evidence of Fender Rhodes or slapping bass lines. We have the beat hunters, the samplers, and the hip-hop crews to thank for keeping at least some of these grooves in the national subconscious, and with a quarter-century of beat worship now behind us, it's sometimes amazing how excellent these electric tracks now sound. I'm not going to make any wild claims about jazz -funk supremacy - there's no denying some of it (ok, most of it) is gimmicky and trendy, uninspired, silly, technology-infatuated and just plain asinine. But there are some killer grooves lurking inside those gaudy covers and sandwiched between the rote vocal tracks. If a company like Rhino Records ever feels up to the challenge, there's a monster of a box set waiting to be compiled of multi-label 1970s jazz-funk - an all killer, no filler type of deal.
I'll highlight two very different yet equally respected music bloggers of the jazz-funk variety, My Jazz World's Smooth and Never Enough Rhodes' Simon666. Smooth is seemingly inexhaustible, and his postings now run well into the triple digits. It's hard to put a finger on what his jazz world consists of, because he has clearly amassed a staggering collection of jazz and jazz-related albums from the early-60s era to the present time. At the risk of insulting a very generous individual, I'll state upfront that our tastes do not always converge. Much of what Smooth enjoys is far too, well, smooth for me, jazz-funk of a much silkier variety than the fiery stuff that gets me going. And yet, given the sheer number of albums he's uploaded there's no denying that he's introduced me to literally dozens of offerings that I'd never have stumbled across otherwise. Some of this has been interesting to me purely as a music scholar - I doubt I'll ever listen to something as polite as Vic Juris' 1980 "Horizon Drive" unless being ordered to do so by an armed felon, yet I was fascinated to discover, thanks to some YouTube sleuthing, that a two-second snippet found at the 3.29 point in the title song (heard here) would later form the basis for the great Gang Starr track "Mass Appeal" (heard here). As some wag posited in the comments section, what kind of golden ears and listening skills are required to pull such a killer sample out of such a limp track?
But I come to praise Smooth, not bury him. For every LP he posts that isn't my kind of thing, there are others that floor me. I'll keep it short.
- Neal Creque's 1972 "Contrast", a swampy rhodes-infested groove set, with upbeat workout "Bacalau" an early-morning favorite.
- several mid-70s offerings from acoustic piano great Cedar Walton on his "Mobius" series, who digs deep into his newly-purchased synthesizers and comes up with some surprisingly successful experiments (take out the uninspired vocal lines from his cover of War's "Low Rider" and you've got a track that'll get your party moving - attention DJs).
-stand up bass player Leroy Vinnegar's weird and wonderful venture into echo-laden electric settings, 1972's "The Kid". His melding of acoustic bass, wet keyboard squirts, and a slamming backbeat on "Doing That Thing" is the kind of find us groove hounds salivate over.
-Hysear Don Walker and his dual volume "Complete Expressions" from the early 1970s - miniature explorations in stunted grooves and rhodes patterns that sometimes sound like po-mo deconstructions of Ray Charles' intro to "What I Say".
-future peddler of soft jazz pablum Tom Scott in an earlier phase of 1970s r&b overblowing, with album opener "Looking Out for Number Seven" veering sharply towards honk 'n screech while floating atop a bubbling beat of epic proportions.
-weirdness from Wes Montgomery's electric bass-playing brother Monk, in a 1971 LP experimenting with fuzz pedals and the like over loping grooves. Music for walking sideways to.
-the unlikely yet captivating slice of disco "Scream and Shout" put down by the duo of Paul Humphreys on drums and Tony Drake on bass and guitar from 1979's "Me and My Drums" - not sure what audience they were aiming for with this lengthy stomp with minimal development and country-flavored guitar over swishing disco drums, but they've found a fan in me.
-the genre-bending "Marchin' On" by the Heath Brothers, with their African thumb piano and strutting snappy beat on the 4-part "Smilin' Billy Suite," lifted by Nas for "One Love," among others.
No need to go on. Suffice to say, if you go digging through the chaff, you'll come up with some wheat, of the golden variety.
Not much space left here, but I'd like to throw some props up to my other blogging discovery, Simon666 of Never Enough Rhodes. Simon is less active than Smooth, posting fewer albums, but what he may lack in quantity he more than makes up for in quality, and his blog post descriptions are often worth the price of admission alone. He hands out personal compilations of Brazilian 70s funk prominently featuring his beloved Fender Rhodes keyboard, or showcases hip hop tracks sampling or incorporating the contraption. He generously offers links to and from other music blogs when files are down. He amasses staggering lists and collections of entire discographies, and helped gather together a collection of Herbie Hancock electric bootlegs that now number nearly 50. This is killer stuff - the "Live in Bremen 1974" lift has become a recent favorite, with excellent sound quality picking up every cymbal brush and bass thump as the Headhunters lurch their way through three extended funk workouts, although I'm even more partial to the murky sound on Hancock's "Live at Ultrasonic Studios 1973" - I'd love to hear something from this surface on the next Mos Def release. And what can I say about wonderful obscurities like the amazingly Anglo-Saxon The Daly-Wilson Big Band Featuring Kerrie Biddell, which must win the award for being The Least Likely Album to Sport a Killer Mobb Deep Sample - "Dirty Feet," later to appear on the Mobb's "Shook Ones Part II". And there's an extensive collection of early 70's "spiritual jazz" recordings that were only released in small runs from local labels, exclusive to overlooked scenes like Buffalo, NY, that Simon666 has brought out - things like The Cosmic Twins, The John Betsch Society, and Birthright. Think mid-period John Coltrane, heavy on modal vamps, tinkling percussion, and electric keyboards fitted with wah-wah pedals. It's much more intriguing than I'm making it sound.
Why go on? I've given a taste here of what's available from just two of many, many record collectors with the technical know-how and dedication to share their findings with the rest of the music loving community. I still think compressed music files sound shitty compared to the rich whomp of vinyl, and I'm not even close to waving goodbye to record labels and stores - I recently bought into the hype and repurchased a few newly remastered Beatles albums on CD (final verdict : decent), and have fallen hard for the brave efforts of the Dusty Groove label, who just this year brought Bill Cosby's swampy electric one-off, 1971's "Badfoot Brown & the Bunions Bradford Funeral & Marching Band," back into print after years of obscurity. Not a word or joke in sight, just two long jazzy tracks of the Bitches Brew-variety, with echoed keyboards courtesy of Cosby himself and long liner notes detailing Martin Luther King's funeral written by The Cos that bristle with intelligent black rage. A Tribe Called Quest sampled a section of the melancholy funeral march for "We Can Get Down". That's what crate digging is all about.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Lately, I've had a hankering for shrimp, perhaps because they're such a perfect late-summer choice - skewered over the grill, roasted quickly on the stove top, or chilled Southern-style. I recently came across this fantastic and authentic preparation, hailing from the Indian subcontinent's small coastal state of Goa. Called richeiado, this flavorful and wonderfully spicy (perhaps even fiery) dish requires little extraneous effort beyond assembling the proper spice paste. You'll need to put your elbow into it, but after that, the marinating time is short, and the cooking process even shorter. The paste ingredients are pretty important - I wouldn't skimp or do too much experimenting with substitutions (with one major exception, as noted below, in the case of fenni). I also suspect that this spice paste would be excellent slathered onto other main ingredients, from chicken wings to tofu.
Spice-Rubbed Grilled Shrimp (richeiado)
1 lb. large shrimp, peeled (leave tail fin on)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon peeled & grated fresh ginger (none of this ginger powder nonsense, folks)
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons fenni, or gin (you're probably going to have to substitute gin here - fenni (or feni, or fenny) is a type of liquor specific to the Goa region made either from the distillation of cashews or coconut. Drunk straight or over ice with lime juice, the good folks of Goa love their fenni so much that supposedly none is ever left over for export outside of the state of Goa, much less India itself)
1 teaspoon palm sugar (if you don't have palm sugar, you should try and find some. In a pinch, mixing equal parts brown sugar and white sugar will come close to approximating the distinctive taste of palm sugar)
2 tablespoons olive oil (mustard oil would be an even better choice)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1) Place the shrimp into a shallow dish. Make the spice paste by combining the garlic, ginger, cayenne pepper, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, fenni (gin), and the palm sugar. Mix well, mortar and pestle being the best option. Rub the paste evenly over the shrimp. Set aside at room temperature for 30 minutes.
2) In a large frying pan over high heat, warm the oil. When quite hot, add the shrimp and cook, tossing, until they turn pink and begin to curl, about 5-8 minutes. Sprinkle with lemon juice and cilantro. Serve immediately.
The shrimp should have a lovely burnt-red look to them. They should be just spicy enough to make the eyes water and the nose run, in that good spicy-food kind of way. Cold beverages to accompany are a must, preferably of the alcoholic variety (although I imagine a tangy lemonade would be wonderful). I sampled a bottle of Le Freak, the IPA / trippel-style mash-up offered by San Diego County's own Green Flash Brewing Company - fantastic stuff. Here's what a fellow blogger had to say about the concoction.
As a final bonus for those food lovers out there reading this, I thought I'd include the side dish I chose for the shrimp, a probably-not-at-all-Indian roasted cauliflower recipe that, nevertheless, was the perfect compliment to the dish and a breeze to assemble. This has quickly become our go-to recipe when we have cauliflowers lurking around the house.
1 head of cauliflower
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled & minced
salt and ground black pepper
1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut cauliflower into florets. Assemble in a single layer in an oven-proof baking dish.
2) Add garlic. Squeeze the lemon over the cauliflower and drizzle with olive oil (the more, the better). Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
3) Place baking dish into oven, uncovered, for 15-30 minutes, until the tops have turned a nice brown. After removing from oven, sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese.
(I've made this dish both with and without the Parmesan sprinkle at the end. It tastes wonderful either way.)
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Basically, I only make room in order to fill up the newly allotted space. Donating a paperback to the library or trading one in at the used bookstore results in a tiny shelving gap between volumes - a gap with a shorter lifespan than most adult mayflies. And these gaps appear rarely - the vast majority of our book purchases become as familiar to our home as heirlooms or treasured dining ware. The less-loved of volumes often get transferred into cardboard boxes and stored in the gloom of the garage, thanks to some vague, half-formed theory about some future day in which we will revel in a surplus of shelving space and reading rooms, some glowing era of sophisticated urban living with a bookshelf in every corner.
I was recently thrown a bit of a lifeline in this never-ending struggle, thanks to the recommendation from a friend of mine who's waged his own battle against the tyranny of the printed word. A five-year old experiment in soft socialism, PaperBackSwap.com is a site devoted to the notion that one should only purge one's holdings in order to make room for more goods, and if this sounds even less like socialism than our own modest national nods in that direction, I should add that the only money or profit at play in PaperBackSwap is that forked over to the U.S. Post Office (which is, of course, an official Government Agency).
The idea is simple. You enter the ISBN of a book you no longer want, and the system creates a holding for that book. At the same time, you create a list of books you are interested in. Another online member may have a request for the book you've just posted. You are then obliged to send this book along to that member, courtesy of the postal service, which means you pay media mail rates - generally $2.35 or so, at least for smallish paperbacks (while the site name suggests they traffic exclusively in paperbacks, one can send along and trade any book of any size, with the understanding that shipping costs will go up a bit the larger and heavier the book). When you send your book off, you gain a credit for one book owed you. At this point, any available book you've listed as wanting will be shipped to you, free of charge, by another member (they will pay the postal charge). It's pretty simple. And for those with a large number of small paperbacks, the site even offers simple wrapping materials that comes directly from your home printer.
In the handful of weeks I've been a member of this (so far) free service, I've unloaded over a dozen unwanted or non-necessary volumes, and have gained a nice new stack of books that have long existed on a personal mental grocery list. The vast majority of these have been semi-contemporary fictional works of authors whose names have been familiar to me but whose works have not, such as :
-Edward Whittemore and The Sinai Tapestry (terrible vintage cover)
-East German writer Christa Wolf's 1984 reinterpretation of Cassandra
-Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk's Snow (a novel my mother-in-law explicitly dissuaded me from reading, but oh well....)
-South African J.M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (my wife recently read and enjoyed Coetzee's Disgrace, so it was time to play some catch-up)
-Michel Houellebecq's supposedly graphic and controversial The Elementary Particles (note to self and others: this book has also been translated and released as Atomised, which I only discovered after receiving a copy of each)
-Iris Murdoch's The Bell (never too late, right?)
-Joan Didion's collection of California essays, Where I Was From
-William Trevor's The Story of Lucy Gault (our recent trip to Ireland had me hungering for contemporary Irish literature)
-and critic James Wood's venture into the novelistic form, The Case Against God
That's quite a nice stack already, and no doubt I'll be shuttling some of these volumes around in boxes or between shelves in the following years, many possibly still unread, as we move along our merry way. But that's the way of things. Whereas a closet full of never-before-worn clothes is a sad and drooping sight, running the risk of burst seams from changing waistlines and the infestation of moth and mold, a shelf of unread books is merely the promise of a later day. They won't be going anywhere, and hopefully, neither will I.
Friday, September 11, 2009
What has long stayed fresh in my mind, however, was the remarkable sense of unity that gripped the country in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Never much prone to flag waving, I was moved by the genuine affection others displayed in affixing pins to their lapels, and when a homeless African-American patron entered our library with a large American flag dangling from his shabby backpack, I think my heart swelled to a degree I wouldn't have thought possible in an old cynic like me. It seemed a time to listen to others, to reflect on similarities rather than differences, and to acknowledge that now was not the moment to lapse into petty bickering or partisan politics. Perhaps it was that spirit of compromise that led me to offer at least moral support to the campaign in Afghanistan - a military effort that most of my fellow leftists staunchly, if silently, opposed. To this day, I'll argue that the reasons given for launching attacks upon Afghanistan were far more reasoned, justified and perhaps necessary than those offered for our ill-fated mission into Iraq. On a personal level, ever since reading of the Taliban's destruction of the majestic and historic Buddhas of Bamyan in the spring of 2001, I had harbored a hope that the international community might come together to stop this menace to civilization. Religious extremists of any stripe have never and will never receive any quarter from me.
The unity of post 9/11 America has faded rapidly ever since, and to reflect back on those early days now seems almost a quaint exercise in nostalgia. Politically, at least, we seem to have once again entered a phase of rancorous inertia, an era in which both political parties offer little but utter disdain for each other - not simply for each other's political philosophies, but each other's constituency and the very air they breathe. No doubt many observers on both sides of the political aisle see very little that was noble in the actions of Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who found himself so moved by the topic of offering (or not offering) health coverage to individuals deemed illegal that he inadvertently called out the president as a liar during a televised speech to Congress. I have my doubts as to how inadvertent such an action was, and suspect the behavior was both premeditated and modeled after the numerous displays of disruptive actions taken at town-hall meetings across the nation - shouting matches that may have their roots in good old fashioned Yankee pluck (I doubt our Revolutionary founders would have spent much time sitting calmly on their hands during rancorous debate), but that represent a more dismaying turn towards obstruction over discussion.
My fondness for the United Kingdom includes a respect for the often raucous behavior on display during addresses to the House of Commons and Parliament. The back-and-forth shouting between bemused politicians and a prickly Prime Minister seem rooted in a love for discussion, debate, argument and humor. Yet, I'm not at all sure we're ready or will ever be ready for this kind of tradition in the U.S. of A., where our gift of gab and wordplay lies far below that of our British brethren, where our educational systems continually spit out poorly-informed and small-minded representatives, and where the art of debate is considered something as quaint as the Geneva Conventions by a group of individuals who have left the teachings of Cicero behind in their eagerness to adopt the methods of military-think and business-speak. And one might add that even in the nearly-anything-goes world of British politics, accusing a speaker of lying is considered off-limits, seen in this factsheet on House customs.
I'm not surprised that the first instance in recent history of a president being heckled during a Congressional address came from a South Carolina good ol' boy and was directed at a black man. I'm not sure what else one would even expect from the likes of Mr. Wilson, who was one of only seven senators back in 2000 to vote against the removal of the Confederate Flag from the state capitol, who served as an aid to the noxiously racist and notoriously pro-segregationist Strom Thurmond, and who has continually inserted himself into anti-immigrant and anti-gay rights issues. His post-apology tour has already led him into the welcoming arms of Sean Hannity's FOX News program, in which both discussed the double-standard of a political landscape in which Democrats are allowed to lustily boo President Bush but a Republican daring to speak truth to power must go on the defensive.
The booing of President Bush following his claims that Social security funds would run out within the next several decades wasn't one of the Democrats' finest moments, but neither was it their worst. Congressional disapproval has always largely been limited to body language, coughs and snorts of derision, laughter, a few "no's" here and there. One certainly shouldn't sit in silence to something one passionately disagrees with or believes to be an untruth. But a wide gulf exists between wordless sounds of disapproval and disgust and the shouting out of an explicit charge of lying. This is far from civility and far from open candor. This is the response of an enraged and entitled child who thinks it's his turn to speak.
Just in case anyone suspect me of playing a rather predictable political hand by attacking those to the right of my sensibilities, perhaps I should outline another fairly recent incident of improper behavior during a Presidential address. When the anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan was invited to attend the 2006 State of the Union Address by President Bush, as the guest of Rep. Lynn Woolsey, my first thought was one of satisfaction that there would at least be the presence of a civilian in the building who disagreed with and challenged White House actions. Whatever one thought of Ms. Sheehan personally, one could not deny her grief and her right to speak out against policies which had killed her son. She might serve as a silent sentinel in the balcony, quietly and nobly rebuking the powers that be. Sheehan, however, did not choose this approach. Like an earnest college sophomore attending their first cafeteria rally, she chose to wear a t-shirt emblazoned with the legend, "2,245 Dead. How many more?" Hardly the most reactionary of slogans, yet still out of bounds inside a House that does not allow slogans on any clothing. Personally, I'm somewhat annoyed to live in a country where one can be arrested for wearing a T-shirt at a mall but can lawfully bring automatic weapons to a President's speech, but there's only so much room here for my proselytizing. Suffice to say that instead of remaining in the hall as a silent rebuke to the President, Sheehan put up a fight, refused to cover up the shirt, and was escorted out in handcuffs. While many of my political friends focused more on the injustice of such actions, I had to counter that there is a time for angry protest and a time for calm dissension. Sheehan's absence in the hall that night, to my mind, could only be viewed as a loss, not a gain.
Of course, what's the use of dissension if all dissension has come to mean is plugging one's ears or blacking out a television address? If one begins to argue that one needn't consider any opposing argument - indeed, if one begins to suggest that any member of the opposition is unworthy of attention, respect or courtesy - events like the rather silly tussle over President Obama's harmless back-to-school speech to students will simply become more and more common on both sides of the aisle. It's disheartening to read of Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer describing the planned speech as "an invasive abuse of power," as if Presidents have never before addressed a national audience, or to watch TV pundits work themselves into a lather of outrage over the potential brainwashing of helpless students. One wonders how such apoplexies might have gone over a few years back, when any questioning of presidential authority was being commonly labeled "un-American". But such is the nature of politics - idiocy masquerading as bravery in order to gain short-term victories. Far more disheartening were events like as the decision by a local San Diego-area school board decision to black out the President's speech. Following some angry responses by parents, two trustees at the La Mesa - Spring Valley school board who voted in favor of the blackout have offered apologies for their decisions, claiming that upon actually viewing the speech, they realized their fears were overblown. One particularly outspoken trustee has refused to capitulate, informing the local newspaper that the President's request for a national audience represented a "direct assault on the Constitution" and added that he "would not and will not ever support this sort of selfish, socialistic message as public school curriculum".
Now, I've never exactly turned to school boards for nuggets of wisdom or insight into complex world affairs, having long ago concluded that most boards represent people at their most small-minded, reactionary and ill-informed, a small slice of American life more concerned with banning books than opening minds. And so I'll leave the comments by the enraged trustee to soften and shrink in the sun, noting only that, whatever one might think of socialism or indeed the entire ongoing debate over health coverage, I'm not sure "selfish" is the operative term that springs to mind (in fact, I'm not sure what the correlation would be between socialist theory and selfishness, and have always thought that one thing proud capitalists should insist upon is that their philosophy will always have staying power due to their unapologetic defense of the notion of human selfishness and self-interest). I'm more interested in the blacking out of a speech, any speech, that one suspects one will have disagreements with. No doubt I might have felt uneasy with the notion of my child being asked to attend a lecture given by our preceding President in favor of military expansionism. But the act of censoring the speech itself - of labeling the very event so dangerous as to require pure expurgation - probably wouldn't have crossed my mind as an acceptable response.
Why do we have such difficulty stressing the toleration of opposing viewpoints as an admirable human trait? We are we losing the ability to disagree with others while maintaining a modicum of respect and civility? One often hears the response that "the stakes are too high," but the stakes are always high for the concerned parties, whether one is discussing Islamic fascism or school lunch programs. No, I suspect a larger reason is a general disdain for the very features of the Enlightenment that help distinguish much of Western thought from that of the rest of the world - an insistence upon empathy and broader cultural understanding. This notion is still anathema to many. One need only consider Allan Bloom's late-1980s questioning of all Greek-inspired modes of Western thought to see how prevalent this suspicion remains. Why, he asks, do college curriculums force Western students to study and partially accept non-Western thought and customs when these very non-Western cultures being studied teach an unapologetic ethnocentrism? Why, he asks, is it only in Western nations that one finds "some willingness to doubt the identification of the good with one's own way"?
I would argue it is this very openness that allows for the greatness of Western thought - a willingness to engage the unknown and ponder the unfamiliar. Rather than waste valuable energies defending the gates against any and all dissenting thought, why not open up the discussion, consider the opposition, offer counter attacks, and agree to disagree while taking away newly gained insight? Perhaps such an approach is radical - certainly, questioning one's own knowledge and certitude flies in the face of the moral smugness currently on display in Washington. But I view the true radicals as those wishing to shut out the flow of human thought through sheer noise and expurgation. Eight years ago, at least a few artificial boundaries fell as citizens viewed one another as fellow individuals, regardless of differences. At the turn of the next decade, I find it truly dispiriting to think that we require acts of atrocity to help us recognize each other's worth and importance.