August 30, 2008

Welcome To The Terrordome

McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate certainly demonstrates one thing: living through the decadent phase of the American empire is going to be REALLY EXCITING. It could only have been more surprising if McCain had chosen a polyp from his large intestine.

McCain-McCain's Polyp '08
Putting Country First!

A well-functioning empire would produce presidential and vice-presidential candidates for both parties who (1) are experienced in running the empire, and (2) operate predictably within a narrow framework. And indeed, the US empire used to be like that. Eisenhower-Nixon gave way to Kennedy-LBJ. When Goldwater captured the nomination in 1964 with some real psycho vibes, the liberal imperial mainstream could easily crush him—because the empire, then at its height, had the breathing room to offer lots of inducements to regular Americans. Then it was back to Nixon, a competent imperial manager.

The ascendancy of Reagan, who was just slightly less insane than Goldwater, indicated the system was under stress. Still, he was surrounded by people like George H.W. Bush and James Baker, who kept him from going off the deep end. Bush-Quayle and Clinton-Gore supervised a period of needed imperial retrenchment.

But over the past eight years, things have truly gone off the rails. In previous times, destructive nutjobs like Cheney might have been in the room when decisions were made, but they certainly never had the final word. Yet there he is, cackling with glee as he sets fire to one after another of the empire's supporting columns. And the sane imperial managers haven't been able to do anything about it.

The failure of the sane imperial managers—*cough* Kerry *cough* New York Times—isn't due to their own personal faults. It's because there's much less slack in the system than there used to be. The empire no longer has the means to keep itself running in a rational way while simultaneously buying lots of people off.

Bush-Cheney have screwed up so badly there might be one last, small opening for sane managers like Obama-Biden. "Vote for us, and we'll give you a better-run empire, and, marriage!" However, while there is a long-term constituency for this, it's a pretty small one.

So before long, there will only be two options for the people who want to run things. First, they could organize a rational liquidation of much of the empire, which would free up enough resources to create a long-term winning coalition. Second, they could go completely bugfuck nuts, and try to maintain the empire while cutting back on all social benefits and counting on the thrills of military triumph and chiliasm to keep them in power. What won't be possible is the Obama-Biden approach.

In other words, the days of a rational American empire are drawing to a close. We'll be forced to discard either the empire part, or the rational part. And based on 10,000 years of human history, I'm guessing it's the rational part that will go.

Whether McCain wins or not, Sarah Palin is a harbinger of the future. The fact there was no one able to prevent McCain from choosing such an obviously inadequate imperial manager, and choosing her in such a bizarre, panicked way, indicates that—as during the decline of Rome, or the last years of Saddam's regime—everyone sane has already been eliminated from the power structure. And thus we're left with nothing but the whim of whoever's clambered to the top of the Crazy Pole.

Welcome to the Terrordome!

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 08:27 PM | Comments (74)

Joe Biden, Foreign Policy Expert

By: Bernard Chazelle

Unlike Sarah Palin, VP candidate Joe Biden is a foreign policy pro. One might even say he's a bit of a theorist. Name any school of thought in International Relations and he'll go on for hours elucidating for you its finest, most arcane subtleties, while putting them in their larger historical context. You're as likely to get from him quotes from Plato, Weber, and Nietzsche, with the occasional Hegel thrown in for good measure, as you are to hear heart-warming tales of his recent get-together with neo-Lukácsian scholars at Baku University to discuss the latest dissections of Gramsci's oeuvre.

Poor Sarah! How will she cope? In this interview with Josh Marshall, Biden explains the abstract concept of "power leverage" in the Straussian "neoconservative" school.

If there's ten people in the room and there's a guy out in the hall screaming and he's bothering us and I say we ought to stop that guy, we ought to stop that guy. And everyone says, "Oh no, no this guy's a bad guy, this is gonna cause all these problems and there'll be dadda dadda da," And if I say, I don't care what the hell all of you think and I get up and I go beat the shit out of the guy, and I come back in and sit down. They're all going to look around. When you misbehave, and then I say, "hey man," you're going to go "whoa, whoa, whoa." These are the nine guys that aren't going to be able to constrain him. He doesn't care what anybody else thinks. That's what they mean by leveraging power.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 03:50 PM | Comments (24)

August 29, 2008

Memo To Jamison Foser

TO: Jamison Foser, Media Matters
RE: Your recent column


You write today:

Voters can't be expected to parse the differences between the candidates' policies, according to [Ruth] Marcus -- and in many cases, she's right. But news organizations can be expected to do so: They have the time, and the resources, and they can hire reporters with the necessary expertise or the ability to obtain it. They can clearly and consistently explain what the candidates' policy proposals mean, how they would work, and how they differ. That would provide actual value to their customers, giving readers and viewers something that, as Marcus notes, they cannot get on their own.

The media's readers and viewers aren't the media's customers. The media's advertisers are their customers. The media's readers and viewers are their product.

And like all businesses, the media must act as though the customer is always right. There is no business that acts as though the product is always right.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 09:08 PM | Comments (15)

Why President McCain Will Bomb Norway

By: Bernard Chazelle

By picking Governor Palin (any relation to Michael?) as his running mate, McCain shows he's either a genius or a fool. Time will tell.

I know nothing about the smart, feisty, articulate, gorgeous Ms Palin (and "nothing" is an understatement), but McCain seems to be gambling that everyone will underestimate her. I can already hear Biden in the debate:

"I knew Dan Quayle. Dan Quayle was a friend of mine. Governor, you're no Dan Quayle!"

Anyway, to go from Cheney, the world's ugliest leader, to the American answer to Carla Bruni, that, my friends, is change Hollywood can believe in. I can only guess where the TV cameras will be pointing from now on. Obama's glamour factor will take a hit. His speech last night already seems like a distant memory.

Poor Hillary! She did all the hard work so that Americans can now accept the idea of a Ms Palin one heartbeat away from the presidency. If elected, I assume she'll keep a statue of Hillary in her office. She'll owe her big time.

Obama now has the unenviable task of keeping yet another woman away from a top job. It's getting to be a habit. Furthermore, he can hardly attack her inexperience.

Plus, she eats moose burger !!!

Maybe this balloon will pop. Or not. I have no idea.

But what this surprise choice tells me is that Norwegians should start supplying their basements with milk and cookies.

Expect a surprise attack on Norway in February 2009! (Don't tell your friends, or it won't be a surprise and my prediction will become only half true.)

Why Norway, you ask? Because:

1. Norway is a close ally of ours, so attacking it would be a HUGE SURPRISE! You know, like choosing Palin.

2. Norwegian troops are all in Afghanistan fighting with us, so Norway is defenseless against a sneak attack. So McCain would win the war! Like Lincoln and Eisenhower! Not like Bush, who lost his wars. That would be change we can believe in.

3. Norwegian moose is DELICIOUS!

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 06:15 PM | Comments (19)

August 28, 2008

The market mindfuck

By The Scanner

“I believe that America's free market has been the engine of America's great progress. It's created a prosperity that is the envy of the world. It's led to a standard of living unmatched in history. And it has provided great rewards to the innovators and risk-takers who have made America a beacon for science, and technology, and discovery…We are all in this together. From CEOs to shareholders, from financiers to factory workers, we all have a stake in each other's success because the more Americans prosper, the more America prospers.”

— Barack Obama, New York, NY, September 17, 2007

Mark Thoma is an economics professor who runs the informative blog Economist’s View. Politically, he’s your standard-issue Democrat and he recently treated us to a standard-issue vision of economics as seen by Democrats:

This article by David Leonhardt describes Barack Obama's view of economic policy, and it is very similar to my own. Most of the time, it is best to leave markets alone, to let them work without intervention, and that should be our starting point. But markets fail, and part of the disagreement with those holding more conservative views is over how often markets fail, whether they can easily self-correct when there are problems, and how effective the government is at fixing problems when they exist.

Thoma is a victim of what is clinically termed the market mindfuck – a malady believed to affect over 90% of Democratic politicians. Now, in his academic work, Professor Thoma is a specialist in monetary economics and Fed policy, and it’s fair to say that like most elected Democrats he’s an admirer of the institution in general (and of Ben Bernanke’s policies in particular). So to provide some context for the market mindfuck, let’s briefly review what the Fed does.

Pursuant to the 1913 Federal Reserve Act and subsequent amendments, the government is effectively given an absolute monopoly on private bank reserves. A committee of government planning bureaucrats in Washington, known as the F.O.M.C., dictates the nationwide price of these reserves and feeds instructions to a bureaucratic department in New York. Based on these instructions, the department carries out constant intervention in the market -- literally on a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour basis -- to control the quantity of bank reserves and ensure that the government-mandated price target is enforced at all times.

How do the government planners know what price to set? Being technically skilled state functionaries, they have developed a complex analytical apparatus that allows them to engineer just the right the price. It involves such things as calculating “output-gap estimates,” constructing “modified Taylor rules” and compiling “physical-input material balances” (whoops! sorry, that last one was Gosplan).

The health of the entire economy depends on this process. If the planning intelligentsia does its job well, the nation will be prosperous, demonstrating once again – to the mindfucked – that “most of the time it is best to leave markets alone” and “let them work without intervention” (though there is room to debate “how often” we will be forced, reluctantly, to permit exceptions to the golden rule).

* * *

The market mindfuck thus reveals itself as a formidable tool of ideological control. In accordance with the ancient principle of heads-I-win-tails-you-lose, it works as follows: If you advocate Policy A -- in which the government involves itself in economic decision-making to advance the perceived self-interest of the ruling class -- you will receive the warm approbation of the sages: What a sophisticated proposal; what a pragmatic approach. The Federal Reserve Act, as it happens, was a compromise between a reactionary plutocrat, an apologist for the Belgian rape of the Congo who called the income tax “communistic” (Sen. Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island), and a bloodthirsty Southern white supremacist for whom no law “is so obnoxious that I would be willing to submit its fate to 146,000 ignorant Negro voters” (Rep. Carter Glass of Virginia).

On the other hand, if you advocate Policy B, in which the government involves itself in economic decision-making to benefit the working class, you will be summoned in grave tones before a tribunal of the very best men, who are charged with the duty of upholding the sacred doctrine – the doctrine that “most of the time, it is best to leave markets alone, to let them work without intervention, and that should be our starting point.”

Swiftly you will see the ideological enforcers – journalists, economists, think tankers, politicians -- gather around you with looks of pity and concern on their faces. Somewhere in the room you will hear the sound of a door being bolted from the inside. Don’t be afraid, they’ll say in soothing tones. You’re among friends here. Believe us, we understand your feelings. But we’re concerned that you’ve lost sight of some fundamental truths. We want to help you, but first we need to hear you say, in your own words, that “most of the time it is best to leave markets alone, to let them work without intervention, and that should be our starting point.” You can say that, can’t you? Just say the words.

You feel the icy stare of the faceless men arrayed against you. With panic rising in your chest, your mind flashes wildly to the New York Fed trading desk where at this very moment the national price of bank reserves is being fixed by people who look exactly like these men. You catch sight of one of your tormentors in a corner of the room, a former IMF official holding a gleaming copy of the Economist with a pair of electrical pliers folded inside. You want to shout no, but gripped by terror you collapse and crumple in your chair. In a slow, mechanical drone, you mouth the words: “It is best to leave markets alone, to let them work without intervention; that should be our starting point.” Your statement is taken down by a clerk and sent off to the Washington Post for filing. Satisfied, the men rise and move toward the door. The IMF staffer gazes at you with a look of benevolent reflection. (“You were thinking of the F.O.M.C., weren’t you?” After a moment’s hesitation, you nod your head and begin to sob. An almost tender smile comes over his face. “You are no metaphysician, Winston,” he says paternally.)

* * *

Consider the New York Times Magazine article by David Leonhardt that Thoma points to. It begins its discussion of Obama’s economic policy by recalling the hoary “battle of the Bobs” of the 1990’s:

On one side was Clinton’s labor secretary and longtime friend, Bob Reich, who argued that the government should invest in roads, bridges, worker training and the like to stimulate the economy and help the middle class. On the other side was Bob Rubin, a former Goldman Sachs executive turned White House aide, who favored reducing the deficit to soothe the bond market, bring down interest rates and get the economy moving again. Clinton cast his lot with Rubin, and to this day the first question about any Democrat’s economic outlook is often where his heart lies -- with Reich or Rubin, the left or the center, the government or the market.

Here is the market mindfuck in all its gruesome fullness. Robert Rubin wanted the government to redirect income from taxpayers to bondholders. Therefore, he was in favor of “the market.” Robert Reich wanted the government to redirect income from bondholders to road-builders. Therefore, he was in favor of “the government.” Have you got the hang of this? Now try your hand at this stumper: In 2001, Alan Greenspan called for reversing the Rubin budget-surplus policy, announcing that we should now cut taxes for the rich – i.e., redistribute income from bondholders back to taxpayers. Okay. Was Alan Greenspan for “the government” or for “the market,” according to David Leonhardt? (No peeking!)

Or let’s take a different variation of the mindfuck, from the same article. Leonhardt says the “best example” of Obama’s embrace of the free market is his climate policy. Obama supports a cap-and-trade system to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. While many Congressional cap-and-trade bills call for giving away allotments of pollution credits to power companies, an option Leonhardt describes as a form of corporate welfare, Obama wants to auction the credits off. This is supposed to result in a more efficient allocation of credits as well as more money for the treasury. By supporting auctions, Leonhardt says, Obama has “moved the debate toward a more pro-market solution.”

Now, I don’t know much more about this debate than I read in the article; if you take at face value the reporter’s explanation of the issue, the auctions plan appears as the better of the two ideas. But the terminology is incoherent: Obama wants the government to invent a new commodity and create a new market that didn’t exist before, tradable pollution credits; maintain a monopoly on the production of the credits; unilaterally determine the aggregate supply of credits; and then forbid companies by law from emitting greenhouse gasses in excess of their holdings of credits. This is the solution that follows from the dictum that the government usually shouldn’t interfere?

Let’s try to follow the logic. The explanation, presumably, is that in the giveaway plan, the government would determine not only the total number of credits but also the initial allocation of credits among companies; whereas in the auction plan, “the market” decides the initial allocation. But wait! What would be the point of having the government decide how credits are to be allocated among companies anyway, except as a corporate giveaway? Only the total number of credits affects the environment, not their distribution. If there were some pressing environmental reason why we would want to control the allocation of credits, then the “pro-market” auction solution would be a total failure; the distribution of credits would end up being determined by the relative economic value of credits to each firm rather than by whatever environmental criteria we were trying to enforce.

Surely it can’t be the mere existence of an auction that makes the plan “pro-market.” (After all, wasn’t it “pro-government” Bob Reich who wanted to auction off Treasury bonds -- i.e., run a deficit -- to build roads that would probably get built through competitive bidding?) The pollution-credit giveaway plan is neither more nor less “pro-market” than the auction plan. In both cases, the government creates the market. It’s just that in one version, the market is apparently created so as to benefit polluters and in the other one it isn’t. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the auction plan is presented as “pro-market” solely because – at least in this presentation – it’s the better of the two plans.

* * *

The market mindfuck is all the more insidious because the victim, usually a hapless Democrat, is complicit in his own mindfucking. By accepting the premise of the mindfuck, the victim automatically places his own views – indeed, precisely those views which distinguish him from his right-wing opponent -- under a cloud of probationary suspicion. This suspicion can only be dispelled after a rigorous examination process in which the judge and jury are the very ideological enforcers who insisted on the slanted premise in the first place. When the verdict arrives, the victim’s ideas may turn out to be lamentably “anti-market” or intelligently “pragmatic.” Such verdicts closely correlate with cui bono.

There is only one cure for the mindfuck: The patient must refuse to recite the catechism. When enjoined by his ideological enforcers, a strictly rejectionist posture must be assumed: “No, I’m sorry. Most of the time the government should not refrain from intervening in the market. The market is not a better allocator of resources than the government. Government policies create markets. That should be our starting point. Once we all agree on that, then we can debate the real question: Who should benefit from those policies, and how?”

Judging from the Obama quote at the head of this post, we may not see a cure in our lifetime.

Posted at 07:22 PM | Comments (30)

Sgt. Hatley doth protest too much

Guest post by Nell of A Lovely Promise

Remember the right-wing screechfest last summer when soldier Scott Beauchamp wrote a pseudonymous article for The New Republic in which he related incidents of casual brutality by members of his unit, such as running over dogs with a Bradley and disrespecting Iraqi remains? The Army brass, some members of his unit, and eventually TNR hung him out to dry.

Now it turns out that at the very time some of Beauchamp's company members, including one Sgt. John Hatley, were denouncing his account as fabrication, at least seven of them were aware that Hatley and two others under his command had murdered four handcuffed Iraqi prisoners and dumped their bodies in a canal in southwest Baghdad a few months before.

But hey, they'd never kill any dogs, man.

Spencer Ackerman recently released a backgrounder/update he wrote last year on Beauchamp. He notes at his blog that the Army began an investigation into the murders of the prisoners this past January, though they wouldn't confirm at the time that the unit in question was Beauchamp's.

—Nell Lancaster

Posted at 04:31 PM | Comments (13)

The Grinch Who Couldn't Quite Bring Himself To Steal Christmas

Despite my grousing about all the problems with Barack Obama, Joe Biden, the Democrats, the universe, etc., it's still incredible to see a major party nominate someone who's African American. (At least by America's psycho identity standards.)

I did think I'd live to see this, but I wouldn't have been surprised if it had taken forty more years. And I never imagined the first black candidate would be mildly liberal; I'd always assumed they'd be like Alan Keyes.

Good job, America!

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 02:37 PM | Comments (38)

August 27, 2008

BREAKING: New Biden Plagiarism Scandal!!! MUST CREDIT TINY REVOLUTION!!!

Accusations that Joe Biden was guilty of plagiarism during his 1988 presidential campaign seem to be mostly bogus.

However, I've uncovered recent, genuine plagiarism by Biden, during his 2007 Meet the Press appearance to announce his 2008 run for president.

What did his plagiarize? All of Dick Cheney's most egregious lies about Iraq and WMD:

MR. RUSSERT: I want to go back to 2002, because it’s important as to what people were saying then and what the American people were hearing. Here’s Joe Biden about Saddam Hussein: “He’s a long term threat and a short term threat to our national security.”

“We have no choice but to eliminate the threat. This is a guy who is an extreme danger to the world.”

“He must be dislodged from his weapons or dislodged from power.” You were emphatic about that.

SEN. BIDEN: That’s right, and I was correct about that. He must be, in fact—and remember the weapons we were talking about. I also said on your show, that’s part of what I said, but not all of what I meant. What I also said on your show at the time was that I did not think he had weaponized his material, but he did have. When, when the inspectors left after Saddam kicked them out, there was a cataloguing at the United Nations saying he had X tons of, X amount of, and they listed the various materials he had. The big issue, remember, on this show we talked about, was whether he had weaponized them. Remember you asked me about those flights that were taking place in southern Iraq, where—were they spraying anthrax? And, you know, what would happen? And, you know, so on and so forth. And I pointed out to you that they had not developed that capacity at all. But he did have these stockpiles everywhere.

MR. RUSSERT: Where are they?

SEN. BIDEN: Well, the point is, it turned out they didn’t, but everyone in the world thought he had them. The weapons inspectors said he had them. He catalogued—they catalogued them. This was not some, some Cheney, you know, pipe dream. This was, in fact, catalogued. They looked at them and catalogued. What he did with them, who knows? The real mystery is, if he, if he didn’t have any of them left, why didn’t he say so? Well, a lot of people say if he had said that, he would’ve, you know, emboldened Iran and so on and so forth...

Now, the rules of the road either mean something or they don’t. The international community says “We’re going to enforce the sanctions we placed” or not...

So I did not believe he had weaponized his materials. But he did have material that, in fact, could theoretically be weaponized. And to let it sit there at the time, I wanted the inspectors back in to force him that position of having to give it up.

So many lies. Just keeping track of them is exhausting.

1. "When the inspectors left after Saddam kicked them out..."

The UN weapons inspectors were withdrawn at the direct request of the US so that the US could bomb Iraq in Operation Desert Fox.

2. "[T]here was a cataloguing at the United Nations saying he had X tons of, X amount of, and they listed the various materials he had...he did have these stockpiles everywhere."

The UN never said Iraq still possessed WMD. Biden is talking about documents prepared by the UN about the theoretical maximum amount of biological and chemical weapons Iraq could have produced before the Gulf War in 1991.

For instance, Iraq only admitted in 1995 that they had an offensive biological weapons program. Iraq also claimed they'd destroyed all the relevant material in 1991, and provided some though not conclusive evidence for this. The UN discovered that they'd imported a certain amount of growth media, and calculated how much anthrax they could have produced if all of the growth media had been used for anthrax at maximum efficiency.

Of course, humans never do anything at maximum efficiency. And there was evidence Iraq indeed had everything destroyed in 1991, and no evidence it hadn't. And even if Iraq hadn't destroyed it, it would have remained dangerous for only a few years after 1991, so there would have been no reason whatsoever for Iraq to keep it.

Again: the UN never said what Biden claims it did.

3. "[E]veryone in the world thought he had them. The weapons inspectors said he had them."

"Everyone in the world" thought Iraq had WMD in the same sense "everyone in the world" thought Joe Biden should run for president in 2008—ie, everyone Joe Biden spoke to. The rest of humanity, no.

Just for instance, the head of the CIA's WMD section privately believed that Iraq had "not much, if anything."

And here's a story from October, 2002:

With a tense Mr Blair alongside him at his dacha near Moscow, the Russian president took the unusual step of citing this week's sceptical CIA report on the Iraqi military threat to assert: "Fears are one thing, hard facts are another"...

After confirming his foreign ministry's assessment that No 10's Iraqi dossier "could be seen as a propagandistic step" to sway public opinion, he made it plain.

"Russia does not have in its possession any trustworthy data that supports the existence of nuclear weapons or any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and we have not received any such information from our partners as yet. This fact has also been supported by the information sent by the CIA to the US Congress."...

"There may be a difference of perspective about weapons of mass destruction, there is one certain way to find out and that is to let the inspectors back in to do their job. That is the key point on which we are both agreed," Mr Blair said.

So Blair explicitly stated Russia didn't agree with the US and UK claims, but everyone agreed the inspectors should return. Later this morphed into "everyone in the world" believing Iraq had WMD.

There's a lot more to say about this tiny subject; if fact, you could write a long article about it. Perhaps one day I will, if someone's ever willing to pay me.

And just to repeat myself: "The weapons inspectors" never said "he had them."

4. "What he did with them, who knows?"

"What he did with them" is explained in excruciating detail in a 1000-page long CIA report. "What he did with them" turned out to be exactly what Iraq had been claiming since 1995.

The CIA report, which is available to anyone with an internet connection, came out three years before Joe Biden said this on TV. The US government spent $1 billion on it.

5. " [I]f he, if he didn’t have any of them left, why didn’t he say so?"

Iraq screamed at the top of its lungs for twelve years that it didn't have "any of them left." Iraqi officials said it on American TV over and over again throughout the nineties and in many reports submitted to the UN. They said it again in the 10,000-page report Iraq submitted in December, 2002 to the UN. Saddam Hussein said Iraq had nothing in an interview on 60 Minutes in February, 2003, and then again in Arabic on Iraqi national TV.

In fairness to Biden, however, the Iraqi government did refuse to send someone to the moon to say it there.

6. "Now, the rules of the road either mean something or they don’t. The international community says 'We’re going to enforce the sanctions we placed' or not."

The core of the Iraq-WMD issue was that the US had announced, over and over and over again, that the "rules of the road" didn't mean anything. According to the relevant UN resolutions, the sanctions imposed before the Gulf War in 1991 would remain in place until Iraq had disarmed. However, the George H.W. administration (including Robert Gates, then national security advisor) immediately announced the US would never allow the sanctions to be lifted as long as Saddam was in power. The Clinton administration repeatedly said the same thing.

This caused problems from the Gulf War onward, because our policy was directly at odds with international law, and guaranteed Iraq would have no incentive to cooperative with inspections.

7. "But he did have material that, in fact, could theoretically be weaponized."

He did not have material that, in fact, could theoretically be weaponized.

IN CONCLUSION: These are not the type of higher quality lies I've long hoped an Obama presidency would give America.

ALSO: Tim Russert was the greatest journalist who's ever lived.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 04:54 PM | Comments (23)

August 26, 2008


By: Bernard Chazelle

A blues gem from the master, Robert Johnson. It worked wonders for Cream, better than for Johnson, and, truth be told, Clapton's hard rock cover has always appealed to me. But it doesn't even begin to approach the complexity of Robert Johnson's original, which mixes at least 3 time signatures: 3/4, 4/4, and 5/4: amateur guitarists out there, good luck trying to pull off these polyrhythms!

I once read in a Very Serious Newspaper that Johnson was "a fine blues musician who had trouble counting to 12." No doubt, that same critic wrote somewhere else that Guernica was proof positive that Picasso was a fine painter who had trouble drawing horses.

I won't go over the story behind Crossroads, which most of you probably know. I only want to draw your attention to one line, which is often misunderstood.

I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above "Have mercy, save poor Bob, if you please."

Mmmmm, standin' at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride
Standin' at the crossroad, I tried to flag a ride
Didn't nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by

Mmm, the sun goin' down, boy, dark gon' catch me here
oooo, ooee, eee boy, dark gon' catch me here.

I haven't got no lovin' sweet woman that love and feel my care

You can run, you can run, tell my friend-boy, Willie Brown.
You can run, tell my friend-boy, Willie Brown.
Lord, that I'm standin' at the crossroad, babe,
I believe I'm sinking down.

Johnson lived in Mississippi, which had curfews for blacks in so-called "sundown towns." Anyone with the wrong skin color caught outside after dark would be jailed, maybe lynched.

Those damn Southerners! A good thing Northerners taught them how to behave:

The incidence of sundown communities in the South, Loewen reports, was actually far lower than it was in a Midwestern state such as Illinois, in which roughly 70 percent of towns were sundown towns in 1970.

Today we don't call them "sundown towns." We call them exurbs.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 06:55 PM | Comments (26)

August 25, 2008

Joe Biden, Savage Mule

Laura Rozen interviews a former Biden staffer about Biden's worldview:

FORMER BIDEN STAFFER: Joe Biden firmly fits into the liberal interventionist school of thought that dominated the Democratic Party during the latter half of the 1990s through 2003. At his core, he is a man comfortable with the use of American military power...he is not afraid to advocate for military power where appropriate, as he did correctly in the Balkans, to his regret in Iraq in 2002, and today when it comes to Darfur...

Biden unequivocally believes America is a force for good in the world. In this respect, his view dovetails with those liberal interventionists like Paul Berman and George Packer. He carries this belief to the core of his heart.

Here's Biden back in April, chairing a hearing at which Nir Rosen was a witness:

BIDEN: Based on what you've said, there's really no hope, is there? We should really get the hell out of there right now, right? There's nothing to do.

ROSEN: As a journalist, I'm uncomfortable advising an imperialist power about how to be a more efficient imperialist power. I don't think we're there for the interests of the Iraqi people. I don't that's ever been a motivation. However, I have mixed emotions on that issue. Many of my Sunni friends, beginning about a year ago, many of them who are opposed to the Americans, who supported attacking American troops in Iraq, began to grow really nervous at the idea of the Americans leaving Iraq because they knew they would be massacred. It could be Rwanda the day the Americans leave. The creation of these Sunni militias, the Awakening groups, militates against that kind of a massacre of civilians occurring because now there are actually Sunni safe zones...But I do believe that if Americans were to withdraw you'd seen an increase in violence at least temporarily, until some sort of equilibrium is reached—

BIDEN: But the good news is we wouldn't be imperialist anymore in Iraq, from your perspective.

ROSEN: (smiling widely) Only elsewhere in the region.

BIDEN: Only elsewhere in the region. I'm sure glad we invited you, I tell you. [Bloviates for ninety seconds, then turns to other witnesses.] Gentlemen, to the non-imperialist side of the witness stand...

Now seems like a good time to buy Savage Mules.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 04:09 PM | Comments (14)

August 24, 2008

The Felonious American Dream

McCain defends himself:

I am grateful for the fact that I have a wonderful life. I spent some years without a kitchen table, without a chair, and I know what it's like to be blessed by the opportunities of this great nation. Cindy's father, who barely finished high school, went off and distinguished himself in World War II in a B-17 and came back with practically nothing and realized the American dream, and I am proud and grateful for that, and I think he is a role model to many young Americans who serve in the military and come back and succeed.

I didn't realize the American Dream included being a mobbed-up convicted felon.

But seriously, usually it's the Democrats who are mobbed-up. Most Republicans have the money to engage in organized crime so high level that it's called "foreign policy."

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 05:54 PM | Comments (17)

It's All Wrong, But It's All Right

By: Bernard Chazelle

Like Jonathan, I am having trouble containing my excitement about Joe Biden. I heard on NPR that, unlike Obama, Biden knows where the bathrooms are in the White House.

That's very exciting news. But... how would NPR know? Did Neal Conan or Robert Siegel actually ask Biden to count, locate, and describe the White House urinals? Did they ask him whether he made use of the facilities and, if so, why? If the president calls you into his office to share with you his latest plan to carpet-bomb a poor Muslim country, do you go "Hold that B-52 thought just a sec, Mr President, where's the restroom?" Wouldn't that say something significant about your ability to lead? If you can't plan ahead to use the bathroom before meeting the president, why should I believe you can plan the reconstruction of a nation after you've annihilated it? I read that Napoleon lost at Waterloo because he had a bad case of hemorrhoids (think about it: if not for hemorrhoids, you'd all be speaking French.) A politician's intimate knowledge of White House plumbing should be cause for worry not reassurance. Trust NPR to miss that.

If you think my fears are ill-founded, check this out.

Six months before the invasion of Iraq, four US senators asked the CIA to produce a National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq's WMDs. Ten days after the report came out, Biden joined the majority of the Senate in authorizing war.

Biden read the report and saw immediately that the White House was peddling major-league crapola.

I did read it, and that's why I took issue from the very beginning, as you'll recall, from the very beginning, saying that what they were saying was not accurate.

Biden smelled a rat. So what did he do? Did he rush to inform his lazy colleagues who couldn't be bothered to read the NIE? No, that would be illogical. You see, when you catch a president in a lie, you draw the obvious conclusion:

[Y]ou have to accept the assertions Presidents make. I make the assumption, when the National security Adviser tells me something, when the President tells me something, when the secretary of Defense tell s me something, when the secretary of State tells me something, they're telling the truth... It shouldn't be a moral obligation that we have to doublecheck them.

Not a moral obligation, indeed -- a constitutional one.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 12:04 PM | Comments (14)

August 23, 2008

Trying To Think Of Something To Say

I'm a bad political bloggger, because I truly don't care about politics. All I care about is these cretins not killing me and everyone I know. It's like curling: I don't care about that either, but if all the world's curling teams were armed with nuclear weapons, I'd probably start a blogg about curling.

So, Joe Biden. Eh.

Pretty good by DC standards on Iran—ie, not completely insane.

Owned by the credit card companies, hence their loyal factotum on the hideous bankruptcy bill. Okay on economic issues otherwise.

Truly hideous in the march to war with Iraq. Here's his speech explaining why he was voting for the 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force:

I do not believe this is a rush to war. I believe it is a march to peace and security. I believe that failure to overwhelmingly support this resolution is likely to enhance the prospects that war will occur...

[Saddam Hussein] possesses chemical and biological weapons and is seeking nuclear weapons....For four years now, he has prevented United Nations inspectors from uncovering those weapons...

The terms of surrender dictated by the United Nations require him to declare and destroy his weapons of mass destruction programs. He has not done so. ...

President Bush did not lash out precipitously after 9/11. He did not snub the U.N. or our allies. He did not dismiss a new inspection regime. He did not ignore the Congress. At each pivotal moment, he has chosen a course of moderation and deliberation...

I am absolutely confident the President will not take us to war alone. I am absolutely confident we will enhance his ability to get the world to be with us by us voting for this resolution...

Maybe there's something else to say, but thinking about Joe Biden makes me too sleepy to figure out what it might be.

BUT: If nothing else, I'm grateful I'm not writing for late night TV right now. Those poor souls have to spend the next two months (at the very least) sitting around and trying to come up with something funny about Joe Biden that everyone in America can understand.

Let's see...

He, uh, plagiarized his hair transplants from Kenny Rogers?

I don't know, I got nothing.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 06:01 PM | Comments (14)

August 22, 2008

Glenn Greenwald Interviews Dennis Perrin

Glenn Greenwald just posted an intervew with Dennis. They spoke mostly about Dennis's new book Savage Mules: The Democrats and Endless War.

I agree with Dennis about the Democrats. But I'm also sure that if the Green Party ever reached a comparable level of power, they'd act in exactly the same way, and then he'd have to write a book called Savage Trees.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 03:52 PM | Comments (23)

Global Warming: Why We're Not 100% Doomed

Check out the National Clean Energy Summit, which was just held in Las Vegas. It was hosted by Harry Reid, with the opening speech by Bill Clinton.

It's things like this that make me believe human civilization will likely—despite current appearances—manage to mitigate global warming and survive. That's because this kind of event demonstrates climate change is one of the few political issues in which the Sane Billionaires are on the progressive side.

Almost all political conflict, especially in the US, boils down to a fight between the Sane Billionaires and the Insane Billionaires. It generally follows this template:

INSANE BILLIONAIRES: Let's kill everyone and take their money!

SANE BILLIONAIRES: I like the way you think. I really do. But if we keep everyone alive, and working for us, we'll make even more money, in the long term.


So from a progressive perspective, you always have to hope the Sane Billionaires win. Still, there's generally a huge chasm between what the Sane Billionaires want and what progressives want.

This is not the case with global warming. Take Thomas Friedman, who is a pure distillation of Sane Billionarism. (And he is literally a billionaire by marriage.) On trade, foreign policy, etc., Friedman—unlike, say, Dick Cheney—doesn't want to kill everyone on earth. He's intelligent enough to understand blood is a big expense. However, he wants to keep us all working to make even more money for him and his fellow billionaires, and is certainly willing to kill anyone who gets out of line. There's a gigantic chasm between this and anything that could be termed progressive.

But with global warming, Friedman is to a large degree on the progressive side. He's like Marriner Eccles, an industrialist who later became Chairman of the Federal Reserve under FDR. Eccles said this about the Great Depression:

"It became apparent to me, as a capitalist, that if I lent myself to this sort of action [by his fellow businessmen] and resisted any change designed to benefit all the people, I could be consumed by the poisons of social lag I had helped to create."

What does this have to do with the National Clean Energy Summit? Well, many of the attendees were from the Sane Billionaire class: T. Boone Pickens, Robert Rubin, a Google representative, and Michael Bloomberg. (Actually, Rubin may only be a Sane Semi-Billionaire.)

This doesn't mean progressives will win on global warming. It's a gigantic challenge in any case. And dealing with it might require so much change that some of the Sane Billionaires will flip back to the other side. But as with people like Eccles, the threat of the Sane Billionaires' own personal destruction combined with huge social movements can push the SBs to places you might not expect. (Note that this conference got these SBs to the same location as the Vice President of United Steelworkers.)

Thus, we have more wind at our backs than it first appears. No one can know whether this will be enough, even with a huge social movement. And it certainly won't be enough without a huge social movement. But we're not necessarily doomed.

MORE GOOD NEWS: Giant evil utility Xcel is shutting down two coal plants in Colorado and replacing their output with newly-built solar and wind power.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 12:06 AM | Comments (37)

August 20, 2008

Rick Perlstein: "A Liberal Shock Doctrine"

(Before reading, buy Nixonland.)

A Liberal Shock Doctrine
by Rick Perlstein

Progressive political change in American history is rarely incremental. With important exceptions, most of the reforms that have advanced our nation's status as a modern, liberalizing social democracy were pushed through during narrow windows of progressive opportunity -- which subsequently slammed shut with the work not yet complete. The post–Civil War reconstruction of the apartheid South, the Progressive Era remaking of the institutions of democratic deliberation, the New Deal, the Great Society: They were all blunt shocks. Then, before reformers knew what had happened, the seemingly sturdy reform mandate faded and Washington returned to its habits of stasis and reaction.

The Oval Office's most effective inhabitants have always understood this. Franklin D. Roosevelt hurled down executive orders and legislative proposals like thunderbolts during his First Hundred Days, hardly slowing down for another four years before his window slammed shut; Lyndon Johnson, aided by John F. Kennedy's martyrdom and the landslide of 1964, legislated at such a breakneck pace his aides were in awe. Both presidents understood that there are too many choke points -- our minority-enabling constitutional system, our national tendency toward individualism, and our concentration of vested interests -- to make change possible any other way.

That is a fact. A fact too many Democrats have trained themselves to ignore. And it sometimes feels like Barack Obama, whose first instinct when faced with ideological resistance seems to be to extend the right hand of fellowship, understands it least of all. Does he grasp that unless all the monuments of lasting, structural change in the American state -- banking regulation, public-power generation, Social Security, the minimum wage, the right to join a union, federal funding of education, Medicare, desegregation, Southern voting rights -- had happened fast, they wouldn't have happened at all?

I hope so...

The rest.

Plus, here's Part 1 of Perlstein talking with Mark Bazer in Chicago:

Part 2 and Part 3

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 11:27 PM | Comments (19)

New Tomdispatch


Apocalypse Later
A Futurologist Looks Back at 2008
By John Feffer

Being a futurologist means never having to say you're sorry. Our predictions always come true eventually -- or, if they don't, well, how quickly people forget. Look at Newsweek's George Will. He predicted that the Berlin Wall would endure, and in an article published on the very day in 1989 that the Germans were tearing it down. That should have been enough to revoke his futurology license and demote him to sports writing. But no, almost three decades later he's still peering into his crystal ball.

Never apologize, never look back: that's our motto.

But this time -- think of it as the exception that proves the rule -- I really screwed up. We all did.

If you look back at the predictions we made in 2008 about the United States and the world, you'll see just how wrong we were. Today, in 2016, it's time for a mea culpa on behalf of the profession. Both camps, you see, were wrong. The Chicken Littles who predicted dramatic catastrophe were just as far from the mark as the Panglossian utopians who predicted dramatic change for the better...

No one anticipated what would really happen over the two terms of the Obama administration, even though that's the job of us futurologists -- and I was one of the best paid in the profession.

Where did we go wrong? How could I have been so blind? That's what I'm going to try my best to explain.

The rest.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 10:06 PM | Comments (2)

Michiko Kakutani Jets In From The Late 1800s To Smack Around Thomas Frank

When you read the New York Times, it's often hard to tell whether we're living in 2008 or during the Chester Arthur administration. For instance, Michiko Kakutani's review of Thomas Frank's book The Wrecking Crew apparently was xeroxed from reviews the Times was giving of similar books during the mid-Gilded Age:

...hectoring...highly partisan, Manichaean-minded...screed...comes across as a sort of love with big government...opposed to all manner of capitalism...strident, impatient...undermines the possibility of a sober, nonpartisan discussion...antiquated...dubious...

Also: god damn that Samuel Gompers!

But this is the best part:

Mr. Frank does not help himself by relying on fuzzy — and poorly documented — illustrations of his theories. He writes, for instance, that in 2004 “a group of the country’s largest companies reportedly paid some unnamed K Street firm $1.6 million to secure a tiny modification of the tax code; once the law was rewritten in accordance with their wishes — and with almost no public notice — they saved $100 billion in taxes, an amount which you and I will eventually have to replace in the public treasury." He adds that if you do the math, “you will find that the rate of return these companies made on their lobbying investment was some six million percent”...He does not say, however, which companies paid which lobbying firm the money, nor does he describe which modification of the tax code was involved.

This is correct; Frank "does not say" any of these things. However, he does employ a literary convention known as a "footnote," which directs you to a long front-page Washington Post article which includes all the exciting details.

Michiko Kakutani has an English degree from Yale. Whether her education was a catastrophic failure, or worked exactly as intended, is a judgment you'll have to make yourself.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 03:54 PM | Comments (25)

Life Before Blugs

Looking through old email, I found this, which is something about Iraq's WMD that I sent to friends in summer, 2003. I think it holds up pretty well, and includes some details I'd forgotten about and have never stuck anywhere here.

And beside the content itself, you can also see why my friends encouraged me to start a blug: partly they may have believed other people would like to read this kind of stuff, and partly they wanted to stop getting emails like this.

* * *

The "missing weapons" really aren't anything like the mystery the US media has made it appear. In fact, the only mystery is why so many people believed the Bush administration's claims. Not only have they not found anything, they're not going to.

I know this is confusing, given all the nonsense that's in the news everyday. So here's an explanation of what actually happened in the past, plus some informed speculation on the present, that should clear things up:

Before the Gulf War, Iraq produced huge amounts of chemical weapons, including sarin, mustard, and VX nerve gas. The world knew about the sarin and mustard because they had been used on Iran, but did not know about the VX. Also unknown to the rest of the world was that Iraq had an offensive biological weapons program. Lastly, Iraq had an extensive nuclear weapons program, apparently funded mostly by Saudi Arabia, with the approval of the Reagan administration. (Iraq's main uranium enrichment technology seems to have been purchased from apartheid South Africa. And of course South Africa had the technology because Israel had given it to them, in one of the Israeli government's most brilliant foreign policy maneuvers. I guess their logic was: hey, if Israel can't trust a government based on race hatred, who can we trust?)

After the Gulf War, Iraq was required to hand everything over. At this point Saddam Hussein seems to have made a decision to (1) give UNSCOM the weapons everyone knew about -- ie, the sarin, mustard, etc.; (2) secretly destroy all the actual weapons that everyone didn't know about -- the VX and anthrax, etc.; while (3) secretly holding onto the documentation that would allow Iraq to restart the programs in the future.

UNSCOM got to work destroying the chemical weapons that Iraq gave it, but immediately realized Iraq was not telling the truth about the extent of its WMD programs. Over a period of years, Iraq admitted, under great pressure, to more and more and more. For instance, they fairly quickly told UNSCOM they'd produced VX, and in 1995 they told UNSCOM that they'd developed offensive biological weapons. Each of Iraq's admissions was accompanied by claims that they'd secretly destroyed these weapons in 91.

On this issue, it's not the case that Saddam's regime said "I've got nothing, but I'm not saying where it went or what I did with it." On the contrary, Iraqi officials took UNSCOM to where they claimed the weapons had been destroyed -- mostly right next to where they had been produced. UNSCOM verified that indeed large quantities of anthrax, VX, etc. had been destroyed at these locations, but couldn't verify exactly how much.

Then, in the summer of 1995, Hussein Kamel, the son in law of Saddam and the guy who'd run all the WMD programs, defected to Jordan. He told UNSCOM and the CIA that Iraq had indeed destroyed the weapons and had nothing left except documents, etc. (The US and Rolf Ekeus, the head of UNSCOM, decided to cover this up, a cover up that lasted until February of this year.)

With Kamel's defection, Iraq's game was essentially over. Saddam's regime took UNSCOM to Kamel's farm and pointed them to huge amounts of documentation hidden there -- while, amusingly enough, claiming that Kamel had hidden it on his own and the rest of the government had no idea it was going on. Although the Iraqi regime didn't know what Kamel had told UNSCOM, at this point they again reiterated that the VX, anthrax, etc. had been secretly destroyed in 91.

At this point, eight years ago, Iraq probably had nothing but the smallest scraps of its WMD programs left. However, Saddam's regime was now hoist on its own petard. It had admitted to producing the VX, anthrax, etc., and claimed it had destroyed it, but couldn't prove it.

So, this was the main origin of the "missing" chemical agents, anthrax, etc. described in the final UNSCOM reports that the Bush administration kept hyping. It was always fraudulent. The US knew some of the "missing" materials had been destroyed, knew that Kamel had said they'd all been destroyed, and also knew that even if they hadn't been destroyed, they would have long ago decayed to the point of uselessness. The fact is that despite Iraq's recalcitrance and lies, UNSCOM had been extremely effective, as Kamel himself said. Although Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc. lied about everything concerning Iraq in the lead up to the war, it was probably on this issue where they were the most brazenly mendacious.

As of 2002, the only real question was what Iraq had been up to since the inspectors had left in 1998. Once the inspectors returned, the answer pretty clearly was what it had seemed to be before they got there: nothing much. This is not to say Iraq was necessarily totally clean -- they may have continued very low level research (as opposed to actually producing anything).

Lastly, it's not true that before the war all the world agreed that Iraq retained weapons. I spoke to people at the UN before the war who said that France and Russia -- both of which had people in Iraq, unlike the US -- had believed for some time that Iraq had nothing.

Why, then, was there tension between Iraq and UNSCOM, particularly after 95? (There really wasn't with UNMOVIC.) Well, it isn't too hard to imagine why there would be.

A) From right after the Gulf War though the Clinton administration, the US government repeatedly stated that the sanctions should never be lifted, even if Iraq complied with the necessary UN resolutions, as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power. As Saddam's regime said many times, there was therefore no incentive for them to comply. In fact, a year ago Tariq Aziz was arguing that they shouldn't let inspectors back in, because the US was going to attack no matter what. It looks like he was right.

The real issue for the US government, I think, wasn't aggression and it wasn't the banned weapons. After all, the Carter administration encouraged Iraq to invade Iran, and the Reagan administration helped Iraq use chemical weapons during the war. Rather, the issue was that no one be allowed to be seen to defy the US and get away with it. This obviously became even more important to the Bush administration after the Sept. 11th attacks. Somebody had to get it, pour encourager les autres.

B) Perhaps most importantly, the US used UNSCOM as cover for espionage against Iraq to gather information for military strikes and assassination attempts against Saddam Hussein. When Iraq accused the US of this, the US media scoffed, but it was true. In fact, as time went on this may have been the prime US interest in UNSCOM. People from UNSCOM say that when Kamel was interviewed by the CIA, they didn't care at all about the Iraqi weapons programs, but wanted to know as much as possible about Saddam's security detail. And as Rolf Ekeus said, the US tried to use UNSCOM to provoke crises that would "form the basis for direct military action." This is what happened before Operation Desert Fox, when the US pushed UNSCOM to withdraw from Iraq.

So it's not at all surprising that Iraq wasn't completely welcoming to UNSCOM. What's actually surprising is that they revealed as much as they did -- for example, they even let UNSCOM personnel look through their army headquarters and examine their military doctrine. Generally speaking, countries are not overjoyed to let spies roam at will through their country, seeking to assassinate their leader.

C) Internal Iraqi politics. Saddam Hussein's main day to day concern wasn't the US -- it was challenges to his power from people within Iraq. Like all gangsters (and all political leaders) he couldn't allow himself to look weak, or it would invite attacks. Thus, while generally he seems to have acquiesced to UNSCOM materially, his regime produced lots of bluster for domestic and regional consumption.

D) Simple pride. No one likes people from other countries coming to where they live and telling them what to do -- particularly if many of the people are English and American and you're in the middle east. A recent story about Kamel quotes a friend in Jordan as saying "Kamel was very bitter about [the destruction of the weapons]... They thought Saddam Hussein had eliminated the nation's best defense. They were bitter." Also, the main scientist for Iraq's chemical weapons program recently said that the regime's behavior could be attributed to pride.

So, what appears to have happened is sort of complicated, but it's not THAT hard to understand. Saddam screwed himself, but not in a way that's so irrational it doesn't make any sense.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 02:33 PM | Comments (12)

August 19, 2008

This Just In: Powerful People Still Blind To Their Own Hideous Cruelty

In news that will deeply shock anyone with no knowledge of human nature, it appears Americans are utterly unaware of how they appear to others as they go around the world bludgeoning people to death.

This is from a literary piece by Air Force Major Jason Armagost from the Air Force Academy Journal War, Literature and the Arts, about his role in the bombing of Baghdad on March 19, 2003:

I am the sovereign nexus of ideology, weaponry, and a clash of civilizations...

The surface-to-air missile launches are starting. Three to our left on the east side of town and one off the nose. Un-aimed. Un-disciplined. We are—and remain—stealthy...

I crank my lap-belt tight and finger the grip of my pistol. Up to the horizon, look left, look right, left again out of habit. Another surface-to-air missile to the east—brighter—probably an SA-2. I watch it detonate above our altitude, guessing 10 miles away. Its final act, a steel rain on the Iraqis below to be blamed on the Americans later, I’m sure.

Those crazy Iraqis, with their non-Western civilization and value system! When they're attacked by another country, they actually blame all the consequences on the country that attacked them!

The West understands morality quite differently. For instance, elsewhere in the article Major Armagost mentions he has a wife and three small children. If they'd been standing on lower Church Street on the morning of September 11, 2001, and all four had been hit and killed by a speeding firetruck, Major Armagost would have placed all the blame where it belonged: on the firemen.


For two more examples of this gruesome phenomenon, from James Fallows and NPR's Scott Simon, see here.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 01:54 PM | Comments (15)

The Plight Of The Dean Baker

Dean Baker:

There has been an enormous rise in wage inequality over the last three decades. Most economists attribute this increase in inequality to the increased premium that highly valued skills can command in a globalized economy.

Fannie Mae (along with the rest of the financial sector) is working hard to prove these economists wrong. Daniel Mudd, the CEO of Fannie Mae, has earned tens of millions of dollars in this position over the last three years. In exchange for this extraordinary compensation, more than 1000 times what a minimum wage earner pulls down, Mr. Mudd pushed Fannie in bankruptcy. How many minimum wage earners could do that?...

Any normal worker would be fired in a second for such incredible incompetence, however Mr. Mudd is still in his job drawing a seven figure salary. Furthermore, no one seems to view this as strange, which suggests that it is common to have people with no skill whatsoever in the very highest paid positions in our economy.

Of course, Baker is well aware that Mudd possesses real, significant skills. True, Mudd is no good at keeping Fannie Mae solvent, but who cares? He wasn't hired to keep Fannie Mae solvent. He was hired to enrich his political patrons. And clearly he excels at that. So it's really not accurate to criticize Mudd for a lack of skill, any more than it's accurate to criticize bank robbers for a lack of skill at preventing bank robberies.

But Baker can't say that. Suggesting that the people who run America have any interest but Helping The Widows And Orphans is against the law if you need to be taken "seriously."

Thus, Baker's plight here is similar to that of the people who work at FAIR, as described by John Caruso:

One of my favorite things about FAIR is reading the careful, measured formulations they have to use in order to maintain an air of unbiased professional detachment, because you can practically feel the author doing everything in their power to restrain themselves from writing something like, "HOLY FUCKING JEHOVAH! HAVE THESE TOE-SNIFFING TURDS EVER EVEN CONSIDERED DOING JOURNALISM FOR ONCE IN THEIR LIVES INSTEAD OF KISSING GOVERNMENT ASS 24 HOURS A DAY? GYYYAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!" And that's why you should give lots of money to FAIR: so they can pay for the megadoses of Valium it takes to keep from going insane as they immerse themselves in this dreck day after day.

If it were up to me, people like FAIR staffers and Baker would receive (in addition to their ration of Valium) some type of mental combat medal.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 10:33 AM | Comments (3)

Coming To Terms With Losing

Unqualified Offerings has permanently and definitively beaten this site.

More background here.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 08:51 AM | Comments (1)

August 18, 2008

The New California Solar Plants, In Context


According to the New York Times, California is building two huge solar plants that will generate 800 megawatts at their peak production on sunny days, more than 12 times the capacity of the largest solar plants built previously.

800 megawatts sounds like a lot. And it is; it's exciting that anyone anywhere is doing this, and doubly exciting that Americans are the ones doing it. But it's useful to figure out how this compares to our total energy needs.

According to wikipedia, annual energy consumption by mankind is 138,900 terawatt hours, which translates into an average of almost 16 terawatts (138,000/(365*24)=15.86). Currently (again, according to wikipedia) about 85% of this comes from fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, the California solar plants will—according to the Times article—generate an average of one-third less than their peak potential due to cloudy days, night, etc. So the average production is about 536 megawatts.

This means that even if it were possible to run the entire world on solar electricity (it's obviously not, at least without many intermediate steps that would involve losing power), and even if we assume mankind will never need more power than we do today, we would need almost 30,000 more solar plants on the same scale as the new ones in California.

At least, that's how I calculate it; I could easily be wrong, since I have no idea what I'm talking about. So don't be shy about telling me if I've missed something here:

1 terawatt = 1,000,000 megawatts
16,000,000/536=29,851 new giant solar plants

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 01:23 PM | Comments (24)

New Tomdispatch


Double Standards in the Global War on Terror
Anthrax Department

By Tom Engelhardt

Oh, the spectacle of it all -- and don't think I'm referring to those opening ceremonies in Beijing, where North Korean-style synchronization seemed to fuse with smiley-faced Walt Disney, or Michael Phelp's thrilling hunt for eight gold medals and Speedo's one million dollar "bonus," a modernized tribute to the ancient Greek tradition of amateurism in action. No, I'm thinking of the blitz of media coverage after Dr. Bruce Ivins, who worked at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, committed suicide by Tylenol on July 29th and the FBI promptly accused him of the anthrax attacks of September and October 2001...

For a nation already terrified by the attacks of September 11, 2001, the thought that a brutal dictator with weapons of mass destruction (who might even have turned the anthrax over to the terrorists) was ready to do us greater harm undoubtedly helped pave the way for an invasion of Iraq. The President would even claim that Saddam Hussein had the ability to send unmanned aerial vehicles to spray biological or chemical weapons over the east coast of the United States (drones that, like Saddam's nuclear program, would turn out not to exist).

Today, it's hard even to recall just how terrifying those anthrax attacks were. According to a LexisNexis search, between Oct. 4 and Dec. 4, 2001, 389 stories appeared in the New York Times with "anthrax" in the headline. In that same period, 238 such stories appeared in the Washington Post. That's the news equivalent of an unending, high-pitched scream of horror -- and from those attacks would emerge an American world of hysteria involving orange alerts and duct tape, smallpox vaccinations, and finally a war, lest any of this stuff, or anything faintly like it, fall into the hands of terrorists.

And yet, by the end of 2001, it had become clear that, despite the accompanying letters, the anthrax in those envelopes was from a domestically produced strain. It was neither from the backlands of Afghanistan nor from Baghdad, but -- almost certainly -- from our own military bio-weapons labs. At that point, the anthrax killings essentially vanished… Poof!... while 9/11 only gained traction as the singular event of our times.

The rest.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 12:00 PM | Comments (1)

August 17, 2008

Expert On Fly Life Cycle Needed

I swatted a fly today. When I picked it up to dispose of it, I noticed the swatting had caused the insides of its body to come out. Among the insides were dozens of squirming maggots.

What's going on here? According to wikipedia, the housefly gives birth to eggs which hatch into maggots, not maggots themselves. Someone please enlighten me.

Among other things, this experience made me dearly hope no doctor ever prescribes maggot therapy for me.

DISGUSTING UPDATE: Thanks for the comments. I now believe it was a blowfly, some of which turn out to be ovoviviparous (meaning their eggs hatch inside them). Also, they feed on carrion, and I keep a large dead horse in my living room.

Thanks also to Google for scanning in 140 year-old encyclopedias.


—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 09:42 PM | Comments (17)

Pouting at Putin

By: Bernard Chazelle

Pretend for a minute, if you will, that you're Russian.

Look back and what do you see? A Western power invaded you 67 years ago and killed 20 million of your compatriots. If you fear the West, perhaps you're entitled to your paranoia.

Look around and what do you see? In virtually every country in or bordering your defunct Soviet Union, US military forces as far as the eye can stretch. Please follow me on a quick tour of US military installations. Counterclockwise, you've got the NATO countries, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania. Outside NATO, you've got Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Georgia, all of which have a US military presence. Then Russia's near-abroad, Afghanistan, Iraq, and more NATO countries, eg, Bulgaria and Turkey: again, an arsenal of US weaponry.

So there you are, entirely surrounded by hostile US military forces. And all you hear from the Americans is that a missile defense system aimed over you toward Iran is on its way to Poland and the Czech Republic. All you hear is that Georgia and then the Ukraine need to join NATO just to complete the perfect encirclement of your Western front. All you hear is that it's perfectly OK for Kosovo to secede from Serbia but a triple Nyet for South Ossetia to bolt out of Georgia's hated mini-empire.

And all you hear is that it's unacceptable for big countries to attack small ones. As John McCain said,

In the 21st century, nations don't invade other nations.

Fine, maybe for McCain the US counts as an empire, not a nation, but what about Georgia, John? Isn't Georgia a nation? And didn't Georgia invade Iraq in the 21st century? If McCain wants us to sing "We're All Georgians," then perhaps Georgians can try "We're All Iraqis." Now that they know how it feels to be invaded, they can add genuine pathos to their singing.

The performance of the US media has been reliably Pravda-esque. A callow, excitable New York trained lawyer attacks a city in the middle of the night by shelling it. That's perfectly fine. Not a word of condemnation from the US mainstream media. Until, that is, the attacker gets a black eye; then it all becomes a "miscalculation."

Let's be clear about one thing: Russia did not attack; Georgia did. Yes, Russia has been destabilizing a region that, incidentally, wants nothing to do with Georgia. Yes, the Kremlin tried to bump off Shevardnadze, Saak's predecessor, at least twice. But is that an excuse for unleashing a massive, sustained barrage of rockets in the middle of the night on a civilian population?

Is Shock-and-Awe the new Western way of saying Hello?

Putin is a thug (ask Groznians). President Saakashvili gave him an opening and he took it. In 6 days, Putin has undone the 6 years of US-led military buildup meant to bring Georgia up to NATO standards. Perhaps not since Pearl Harbor has so much US military equipment been destroyed so quickly. Or sent to "enemy" labs for reverse engineering.

Bush is a thug (ask Fallujans). But there's a big difference between the two leaders. Putin has won every war he's fought. Bush hasn't won a single one. Worse, he's helped his friends lose their own (Lebanon'06, Georgia'08). No time for glibness, but if you want to lose a war a good first step would be to follow President Saakashvili's lead and rename the main road to your airport "George W. Bush Street," as a starstruck Saak gleefully did. Perhaps he could have gone one step further and renamed the nation of Georgia "GeorgiaBushi." Saak was so flattered to welcome thousands of US and Israeli military advisors to his country. Now, that really helped.

As thuggish as he may be, Putin does not seek confrontation with the West. All the evidence, in fact, points the other way. Contrary to Western propaganda, he never turned off the gas spigot to Europe and his only "crime" toward the Ukraine was to charge them for gas at "market price" (vile capitalist he!)

The consensus among the American power elite, from the White House to the MSM, is that Russia is the new evil enemy. Obama's advisor, Brzezinski (the man who armed bin Laden's Afghan friends) called Putin the new Hitler. (Did you notice how the US reincarnates Hitler about every 5 years on average?) Make no mistake, Bibi Saakashvili's "miscalculation" has changed everything. The Georgian Netanyahu has caused the US its biggest setback since 2003. Georgia and the Ukraine are essentially "lost" to the West.

What game is the US playing? Is it all about keeping the world safe for Cheney's pipelines? Well, yes, but you don't come to ATR for such banal insight, do you? There is a subtext. America's foreign policy nightmare is that Putin will decouple Europe from the US. Let's be more precise. The UK, the Baltic states, and Eastern Europe are safe, reliable poodles: when the US asks them to jump, they say "How high?" But Continental Europe, especially France and Germany (but also Italy and Spain) have had a long, privileged relationship with Russia (with its inevitable bumps... you know, Hitler, Napoleon, etc.) This predates the "energy" situation. Go back to Ostpolitik and de Gaulle's "Tous Azimuts" policy. More important, go back to the last 300 years of European culture and you'll find Russia an integral part of it.

Russia has been a responsible player on the energy front. It is a reliable gas supplier for Europe, which it needs desperately as a customer. Gas is different from oil in that it can't be rerouted without major infrastructure: Russia, as it happens, is the gas infrastructure king. Russia does not want to reconstitute its Soviet empire: it has legitimate security concerns and it wants its own regional Monroe Doctrine. (The US, on the other hand, has its own planet-wide Monroe Doctrine.)

NATO is a dangerous charade. If Georgia had been a member, does anyone seriously believe that the West would have gone to its rescue by risking war with the world's second nuclear power? In her recent trip to Georgia, Condi Rice, America's professional pouter, only confirmed America's weakness. She can huff, she can puff, but in the end it's up to Sarkozy to arrange a cease-fire. McCain is dispatching Lieberman to the region and Obama is sending Biden on the Great Senatorial Pilgrimage of Impotence.

America has no business encircling Russia with US military forces. Perhaps war is the only way Americans learn geography. But is it also the only way Americans will learn they don't own the planet?

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 02:28 PM | Comments (32)

Someone Should Write A Book About This Called Savage Mules

Sure, America's intelligence agencies concluded last year December that Iran no longer has a nuclear weapons program. But what do they know? Surely the Democratic Party is far more informed about the situation than them, which is why the Democrats refer to Iran's "nuclear weapons program" in their just-finalized 2008 platform:

Prevent Iran from Acquiring Nuclear Weapons

The world must prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. That starts with tougher sanctions and aggressive, principled, and direct high-level diplomacy, without preconditions. We will pursue this strengthened diplomacy alongside our European allies, and with no illusions about the Iranian regime. We will present Iran with a clear choice: if you abandon your nuclear weapons program, support for terror, and threats to Israel, you will receive meaningful incentives; so long as you refuse, the United States and the international community will further ratchet up the pressure, with stronger unilateral sanctions; stronger multilateral sanctions inside and outside the U.N. Security Council, and sustained action to isolate the Iranian regime. The Iranian people and the international community must know that it is Iran, not the United States, choosing isolation over cooperation. By going the extra diplomatic mile, while keeping all options on the table, we make it more likely the rest of the world will stand with us to increase pressure on Iran, if diplomacy is failing.

Note also that the Democrats are going to be "keeping all options on the table." I've always wondered whether this phrase includes the possibility of America and Israel giving up all their nuclear weapons. I mean, that's an option—surely if all options on the table, that means our complete nuclear disarmament is there on the table with all the rest of them.

IMAGINARY NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAMS WE CAN BELIEVE IN: According to Steve Clemons, the Democratic platform was mostly written by Obama's Senate office policy director Karen Kornbluh.

(Thanks to Don Bacon for pointing this out. Now go ahead and buy Savage Mules.)

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 02:18 PM | Comments (9)

August 16, 2008

If You Want a Draft, Draft Yourself!

By: Bernard Chazelle

My opposition to the draft, to any sort of draft, is fundamental. (Disclosure: I was drafted and I "served" in the French foreign service for two years, ie twice as long as it would have been had I chosen to serve in the army.)

I deny any government, elected or not, the right to kidnap my children and ship them off to a battlefield to kill or be killed. I accept to pay taxes and that's the sum total of my debt to my government. In every other respect, my government owes me, not the other way around.

Conscription is the most fundamental denial of liberty, on a par with slavery.

I am not a pacifist and I support a professional army. But I oppose the draft even in times of war. If your country cannot find enough volunteers to defend itself when attacked, then it's not worth defending.

Perhaps someone can mount a philosophical defense of the draft that I will reject but I can still respect. So far, no one has. Nothing I've read even rises to the level of respectability.

The typical line justifies the draft on the basis of its wonderful consequences. For example, a draft might make politicians think twice about starting wars, which would be good. Yes, that would be very good. So what? I can list all sorts of wonderful side benefits we got from slavery, too.

Even if a draft saved lives I'd be opposed to it. Just as if someone could make a persuasive case that enslaving a population would be the best way to protect it, I'd still be against it. I do not base my opposition to slavery on a cost-benefit analysis. Some things are wrong in and of themselves. The right of the state to own my life and turn my children into murderers and murder victims is absolutely, entirely non-grantable.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 04:18 PM | Comments (54)

August 15, 2008

New Tomdispatch + Andrew Bacevich On Bill Moyers

Andrew Bacevich will be on Bill Moyers tonight for the entire hour. Below are a few minutes of the program, plus part II of Bacevich's new piece in Tomdispatch. Part I is here. Both are excerpted from Bacevich's new book The Limits of Power, The End of American Exceptionalism.


Is Perpetual War Our Future?
Learning the Wrong Lessons from the Bush Era
By Andrew Bacevich

To appreciate the full extent of the military crisis into which the United States has been plunged requires understanding what the Iraq War and, to a lesser extent, the Afghan War have to teach. These two conflicts, along with the attacks of September 11, 2001, will form the centerpiece of George W. Bush's legacy. Their lessons ought to constitute the basis of a new, more realistic military policy.

In some respects, the effort to divine those lessons is well under way, spurred by critics of President Bush's policies on the left and the right as well as by reform-minded members of the officer corps. Broadly speaking, this effort has thus far yielded three distinct conclusions. Whether taken singly or together, they invert the post-Cold War military illusions that provided the foundation for the president's Global War on Terror. In exchange for these received illusions, they propound new ones, which are equally misguided. Thus far, that is, the lessons drawn from America's post-9/11 military experience are the wrong ones.

According to the first lesson, the armed services -- and above all the Army -- need to recognize that the challenges posed by Iraq and Afghanistan define not only the military's present but also its future, the "next war," as enthusiasts like to say. Rooting out insurgents, nation-building, training and advising "host nation" forces, population security and control, winning hearts and minds -- these promise to be ongoing priorities, preoccupying U.S. troops for decades to come, all across the Islamic world.

The rest.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 05:58 PM | Comments (10)

August 14, 2008

I Was Right! Right! Right!

Besides my main $1000 bet that Iraq had no WMD, I also had a small side bet with Robert Toteras that no WMD would be planted. I believed this not because the Bush administration is so so honest, but because planting anything would be too difficult. It wouldn't be like two policemen pulling some cocaine out of the evidence locker to plant on someone they'd just arrested. It would require lots of people. And it would be extremely difficult to find or create material that tests wouldn't demonstrate immediately to be non-Iraqi.

Clearly I was correct about the non-planting itself, but I'm pleased to see that a new Scott Ritter article suggests I was also correct about the reasons:

I made use of my connections within the community of former Iraqi WMD scientists to try to gain access to what they knew [for a prospective Harper's article]. One in particular, who, because of ongoing security concerns, will be identified only as Mohammed worked to facilitate my visit...

On a bright morning one day in late June 2003 Mohammed waited patiently on the side of a street in the Jadariyah district of Baghdad...Mohammed had been summoned to a meeting with a special intelligence cell that reported not to David Kay’s Iraq Survey Group, but instead directly to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld...

About five minutes into the session, Army lieutenant colonel...introduced himself as Dave. Dave...sported a gray T-shirt emblazoned with the seal of the United States and the words “U.S. Embassy Kuwait"...For four hours Dave questioned Mohammed about various matters dealing with the Iraqi’s former work.

The final line of questioning focused on weapons of mass destruction. Dave was on his feet, pacing before Mohammed, before turning to him and asking straight out, “Where are the weapons of mass destruction?” Mohammed, who had intimate knowledge of certain aspects of the Iraqi WMD effort, replied straight back: “There are no WMD in Iraq.”

Dave continued pacing back and forth in front of Mohammed. “My president,” he said, “is in trouble. Can you help him?”

Mohammed was taken aback by the question. “Excuse me?” he asked. “Could you repeat yourself?”

Dave sat down next to the Iraqi. “George Bush is in trouble. Our people did not find any WMD in Iraq. Can you help us?”

Mohammed looked back at Dave. “How?”

“Can we prepare something for that? We could bring in some nuclear material from the former Soviet Union, and pretend they are Iraqi.”

Mohammed, stunned by the unexpected nature of the request, indicated that such a ploy could be easily uncovered by forensic examination of the evidence by outside experts, such as UNSCOM (the United Nations Special Commission) or the IAEA, who would undoubtedly be called in to verify such a finding. Dave sat in silence for a few moments, before springing to his feet. “I have to leave for a meeting,” he said. “Stacey will show you out.”

Mohammed was to meet again with Dave, Stacey and Carol in the weeks that followed. The subject of WMD, Iraqi or otherwise, was never again broached by Dave or anyone else in his team.

Read the rest, which includes a plausible account of the CPA passing along information about Ritter's visit to the Badr Brigades' assassination squads.

QUESTION: I seem to recall something like this being reported elsewhere—suggesting that "Mohammed" has told this story to people besides Ritter—but can't remember where. Please let me know if you saw this too.

UPDATE: I think I must be remembering this, from Raw Story:

Yet at least one source close to the UN Security Council tells RAW STORY that the smaller team was acting on behalf of Office of Special Plans and Defense Department leadership, specifically under the guidance of Feith and in tandem with Cambone...

This smaller unnamed team was tasked with interviewing former Iraqi intelligence officers in hopes of securing help with a "political WMD" problem, a source close to the UN Security Council says.

During the summer of 2003 through the fall of 2003, the team, whose members who were not named by sources, is said to have interviewed many Iraqi intelligence and former intelligence officers. The UN source says that the political problem discussed had more to do with solving the lack of WMD than anything else.

"They come in the summer of 2003, bringing in Iraqis, interviewing them," the UN source said. "Then they start talking about WMD and they say to [these Iraqi intelligence officers] that 'Our President is in trouble. He went to war saying there are WMD and there are no WMD. What can we do? Can you help us?'"

The source said intelligence officers understood quickly what they were being asked to do and that the assumption was they were being asked to provide WMD in order for coalition forces to find them.

"But the guys were thinking this is absurd because anything put down would not pass the smell test and could be shown to be not of Iraqi origin and not using Iraqi methodology," the source added.

Former and current US intelligence officers explain that such forensics is essential and would have in fact proved if a weapons stash found was using Iraqi methodology.

(Thanks to Marcy Wheeler for the tip.)

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 09:26 AM | Comments (16)

August 13, 2008

So Horrible So Fast

As I remember the 1992 election, Bill Clinton didn't become completely horrible until after he'd won. But according to Steve Clemons, everything's sped up in the internet age:

Word has reached me that at Barack Obama's Hawaii retreat, Evan Bayh's chances to find himself the next Democratic VP candidate have moved to better than 50/50.

The conflict between Georgia and Russia has been one of several factors that has helped boost his status. Bayh's support of the Iraq War and general hawkishness are seen by some as a balance to Obama's call for a new and different kind of global engagement strategy that McCain's followers consider naive.

More from Ari Melber is here, including a pointer to Bayh's statement that "You just hope that we haven't soured an entire generation on the necessity, from time to time, of using force because Iraq has been such a debacle. That would be tragic, because Iran is a grave threat. They're everything we thought Iraq was but wasn't."

You really have to hand it to The System. They do good work.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 01:40 PM | Comments (21)

August 12, 2008

These People, Explained

At Matthew Yglesias' site, commenter Tomf explains why the administration can't be said to have "blown it" in its dealings with Russia and Georgia:

No one blew it. Playing the Great Game (and often losing) is far superior to not playing. Enabling, stoking, inflating, and simply declaring national security crises is deeply gratifying for nationalist-imperialist-authoritarian politicians and their large and influential intellectual and industrial clique. It legitimizes the national security state. It makes “Very Serious People” indulge in their “Very Seriousness”.

Emotionally, it distracts from the aching search for love and wholeness that is the human condition. Most of us do that with entertainment, sex, a good job (if we’re lucky), alcohol and drugs (if we’re not) but imagine accomplishing the distraction while inflating your own egoistic self-importance!

A new cold war, a Global War on Terror, the Red menace: its all partially-manufactured antidemocratic legitimation for keeping the population artificially dependent on a metaphorical father figure in Washington. And its all deliciously fulfilling for the Village elite.

Here's R.W. Apple writing in the New York Times on August 20, 1990, shortly after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait:

The obituaries were a bit premature.

There is still one superpower in the world, and it is the United States. More than any other country in the world, its interests, its exposure and its reach are global, as the events of the last two weeks have demonstrated so vividly.

Washington is not the backwater that it seemed to some when the action was all in the streets of Prague or at the Berlin wall....there is a rush of excitement in the air here. In news bureaus and Pentagon offices, dining rooms and lobbyists' hangouts, the fever is back - the heavy speculation, the avid gossip, the gung-ho, here's-where-it's-happening spirit, that marks the city when it grapples with great events.

''These days, conversations are huddled,'' said Stan Bromley, the manager of the Four Seasons Hotel, where King Hussein of Jordan stayed. ''People are leaning closer together. It's serious business.''

And here's Woody Allen explaining recently why he likes to work so much:

"It's a way of coping with the world. You know, in the same way that somebody copes with it by being a stamp collector or a sports addict or a titan of industry or an alcoholic or something. My way of coping with the horrors of existence is to put my nose to the grindstone and work and not look up."

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 09:31 PM | Comments (5)

August 11, 2008

What's Wrong with Western Music? Part III. "Passacaglia in Cm"

By: Bernard Chazelle

A few remarks first:
Don't waste your time "disagreeing" with me because, so far, I've only been stating established, known facts. Well, maybe not known to everyone and, hopefully, a few of you will find in these postings food for thought. But please try to dial the hostility down and the civility up. I find some of the aggressivity in the comments frankly baffling. This blog is all about pointing out weird aspects of things we love: art, politics, humor, etc. Those of you who still think I am trying to prove the superiority of music A over music B are missing my point entirely, and -- if I may add -- that of this blog, in general.

But many of the comments are from genuine lovers of music (you know who you are) who, like me, are perpetually puzzled by the mystery behind it. Yours are the voices I want to hear above all. Please share your thoughts and experiences, especially what and why music moves you.

Again, sounds odd to say it, but yes these are just hastily written blog posts (like all my blog posts). I discuss only a tiny corner of the musical world, the acoustic implications of harmony and the social choices they imply, and I greatly oversimplify. Music has so many other facets. One topic that fascinates even more than Western harmony is African rhythm, which is extremely intricate (much more so than in Jazz). It's a world onto itself. Anyway, let's get cracking. (If you spot technical mistakes, please let me know so I can correct them. I have no time to proofread this and I apologize in advance for the sloppiness.) Thanks.


So it's the small fractions (2:1, 3:2, 4:3...) that make music the physical art form that it is. Any true music lover knows exactly what it means to be overpowered with ecstasy while listening to [FILL IN YOUR FAVORITE MUSICAL PIECE]. For me, that would be Bach's Passacaille in Cm. (French spelling.) Amazing what Bach could do with 3:2! It's in a minor key. I still remember when I learned music theory and I discovered with amazement that minor and major "modes," which sounded so emotionally different to me, were in fact the exact same notes played in the exact same sequence, just starting from a different place! If you read Romeo and Juliet from the middle to the end, and then from the beginning to the middle, do you get a happy play? (Well, maybe you do!)

When it's all said and done, I cannot think of any music that has had more power on me.... (6:06-6:30 is scary). It's personal. My grandfather was an organist. The sound of the organ in a big cathedral is one of my earliest childhood memories, and so the effect of that piece on me has a context. Before he passed away, my grandfather confided to my mom that if he gets to sit between God and Bach, the afterlife shouldn't be so bad. Opera lovers will tell you similar stories of ecstasy. As will rock, blues, folk, Jazz buffs. I don't know enough about the visual arts to know if there's an equivalent. Can a painting cause people to stop breathing? I am curious to hear your experience. I played guitar in local rock & blues bands for many years. I can't count the number of times we'd look at each other while playing and think the same thought "How can living be so pleasurable?" Music buffs know exactly what I am talking about. If you haven't experienced the overwhelming physical power of music, you just don't know what you're missing.

This post is long, so you might want to let Bach make it more tolerable. Some oppose on principle the concept of playing music and doing work at the same time. (Not that reading this is work.) They're idiots. Life is finite and I have thousands of Jazz CDs to listen to before I die. (And I am very lucky to have a job that allows me "music at work.")

What Bach can do with small fractions is staggering. But he was the ultimate music genius (sad to think it peaked just as it got really started) and to draw from his example the lesson that pretty intervals properly placed makes great music would be a serious mistake. Humans are complex beasts. Sometimes pleasure is enhanced when it follows pain. In the end, make no mistake, music is about pleasure. But pleasure is a tricky thing. Too much of 3:2 and 4:3 will numb you. Muzak is "pretty." So what? And so perhaps preceding a 3:2 with a dissonance will sometimes enhance it. For example, take the tritone C-F#.

It's a fascinating interval: its ratio is sqrt(2):1, which means that, if you take the tritone of a tritone, you get an octave. The math is simple:

(sqrt(2):1)*(sqrt(2):1) = 2:1.

Millions of years of evolution have made your ear into a giant logarithm table (no one knows why for sure), so when air goes sqrt(2) of the way through its natural period, your ear thinks it goes log(sqrt(2))/log(2) = one-half of the way. So the tritone is very natural. Trouble is, as a small fraction, it sucks. First of all, sqrt(2) is irrational, which means? Well, which means precisely that it cannot be expressed as a fraction. A close approximation might be 45:32. But, hey, that's awfully close to the subdominant 4:3! Remember my chocolate sundae metaphor. The fraction 45:32 sounds horrible because it's so close to 4:3 yet so far! But then why is the tritone used all the time, not just in jazz and rock, but also in 19-c and 20-c classical music?

Being half an octave means that your brain treats it as not just a horrible dissonance but a very special one! So if you're going to use dissonance to prepare the grounds for higher pleasures, then a tritone might be the ideal candidate. Renaissance musicians hated it and called it a "Satanic interval," which of course implied their recognition of its special status. (Not every random asshole gets to be Satan!) Bach used it to create tension that only a motion to the root chord could resolve. In the 19th century it was used to modulate (more on that below). The idea was this: I am tired of meat so I'm going to yank that steak from your plate and replace it by a piece of fish. But I don't want you to scream WTF when I do that, so I'll distract you by yelling: Oh my God, did you see the flying pig over your head? And when you look up, pronto, I switch your dish. Then you'll eat your fish all happy without even realizing the change. The tritone is the flying pig. Wagner was a fanatic flying pig farmer, an obsessive modulator: he could easily change your dish every two measures for 10 minutes. (Trust me, with too much of that, you would invade Poland, too!)

Think of dissonance as the word "fuck" in comedy. It can be used to transgress, to liberate, to ridicule, to humanize, to bring down to earth, to change topics. In "Curb Your Enthusiasm," Elaine has a cameo appearance where she says fuck all the time. People ask her: Why are you saying fuck all the time? She replies: "Because I'm on HBO." By that she means to expose the hypocrisy of network TV. (As though American kids don't hear 'fuck' at school all the time that they have to be "protected" on TV.)

In "Last Tango in Paris," this is how Marlon Brando asks for forgiveness for the love he failed to give his now-deceased wife. He addresses her in her open coffin:

"You cheap goddamn fucking God-forsaken whore, I hope you rot in hell, you lying cunt!"

These are the necessary dissonances, if you will, of a scene that captures despair as poignantly and powerfully as film ever has. "You, lying cunt" is an eloquent affirmation of love. You have to see it to believe it, but this scene will leave you in tears. The dissonance works. But it works because it's great art. In any other context, it stinks. Art can make the stinky sublime. And, in music, bad sounds help you make it happen.

Life is a bitch, and sooner or later, believe you me, you'll need your tritones to get by, you'll need your Satanic intervals to make it through the day. But here's the thing: you also need a purpose. A stand-up comic who thinks of "fuck" as a "comedic enhancer" does not get it: "2+2 is 4" is not funny, but "2+2 is fucking 4" is not funny either. Dissonances should be in your music and, hopefully in your life, only where and when you need them. The artist has to feel the necessity of them, else it's manipulation.

Good, but now, if deep inside you really wished you had 3:2 but your technology or your culture imposed, say, 31:20, then it would be wrong. How can denying an artist her creative need be called right? Keep this in mind. I'll get back to it.

Change of scenery: Scales. You need them. Between 1:1 and 2:1 you need to specify special points (ie, notes) that you favor. You need them for many reasons. One of them is technological: many instruments cannot be built otherwise. But there's a more fundamental reason: writing down music on paper. Before the age of recording, people could learn music by oral transmission (but that does not work well for complex instruments) or by reading it. But to read it, you have to write it first. And to write it, you need an alphabet. Western music chose an alphabet of 12 letters (the 7 white keys on your piano between two Cs plus the 5 black keys). English has 26; Western music has 12.

Why 12? It's a cool number. The best way to see how cool is to draw a regular polygon (like the Pentagon in DC but with 12 sides). Then draw the diagonals. If you blink hard enough, you will see all sorts of beautiful interlacing patterns. If you have the time, do it. Take a circle and draw 12 equally-spaced dots on it. Number them 0,1,...,11 (with 0 at the North Pole and 6 at the South Pole). Now connect 0 to 7. There is exactly one other diagonal of the same length starting from 7. It goes to 2. Draw it. Then repeat. Lo and behold, this will take you back to 0 after 12 diagonals, and you won't even have to lift your pen! Exactly two diagonals connect 0: they are 0-7 and 0-5. Guess what? These correspond to 3:2 and 4:3! (Don't try to read the numbers 3:2 and 4:3 from the polygon: you can't!)

If you draw all the diagonals, you end up with a grand total of 66 lines. Every piece of Western music can be interpreted by looking at the symmetries among these lines! Neat, huh! This picture bends the diagonals for effect.


People weaving Persian, Chinese, or Indian rugs will not be impressed. Islamic artists will shrug their shoulders. The symmetries of the 12-sided polygon are, shall we say, babyish! To give you an idea, physicists sometimes use generalized polygons (called Lie groups) with one trillion "diagonals"! Not just 66...

There's one serious human limitation on music, though: one must be able to hear it, to play it, to memorize it. So big numbers are out. Certainly, 12 is on the low side. And that will come back to haunt Western musicians. (Much of Indian music uses 22 tones: 12 is to 22 what a bicycle is to a Mercedes, because the number of possibilities grows exponentially in the size of the scale.)

Anyway, we have our 12 notes, we have our diagonals, symmetries, and all that. We're ready to go. Except for one thing: what should these 12 notes sound like?

You need 12 notes between 1:1 and 2:1 ? That's easy:

1. Throw in 1:1 (our root)
2. Throw in 3:2 (the dominant, our favorite)
3. Throw in 4:3 (the subdominant, our second favorite)
4. Now what ?

Going 3:2 from anywhere sounds good, so let's take our dominant and move up by 3:2, which lands us at (3:2)*(3:2), which is 9:4. But we want a number between 1:1 and 2:1, so we raise the denominator 4 of (9:4) by an octave to get 9:8.

That gives us 4 notes:

(1:1) (3:2) (4:3) (9:8)

Keep on doing this (multiplying by 3:2 and bringing the numbers back to the range between 1 and 2) until you get 12 notes and that'll get you a scale.


Only one problem: the closest fraction to 5:4 (the major third) you get in this scale is 81:64, which is the difference between 1.25 and 1.27. Close but no dice. Can we just say we don't care about thirds? No, we can't! You need 5:4 or something very close to it because all chords in Western music are formed by stacking thirds, so if you get those guys badly wrong you're out of luck. Especially that by stacking them together the error gets compounded.

Let's fix it this way:

Keep (1:1) (3:2) (4:3) (9:8) as before but now add in the major thirds (5:4) above and below each of these 4 pitches, for a total of 12. This gives you:

(1:1) (16/15) (9/8) (6/5) (5/4) (4/3) (45/32) (3/2) (8/5) (5/3) (9/5) (15/8)


This is a great scale. You can still hear funny dissonances if you're not careful (but, remember, you want them to say "fuck" and to fly pigs!) For a measly 12 notes, you got yourself a good deal. OK, if you're dying to hear all those intervals you can't get in Western music, well, tough. Go get yourself a 22-sided polygon and learn to play Indian ragas. The trouble is that to be really good at Indian music takes enormous skill AND a lifetime of learning. So if you want young children to sing in a choir or music to dance to in the town square, 12 is better than 22.

Medieval European music was based on this principle. But then it all changed in the 17th century! (Yes, nitpickers, I know, nothing ever happens all of a sudden!)

Why? How?

First, why? Even though a mere 12-pitch scale is already asked to do way more than it can (ie, accommodate all these good intervals), the Western man asked for more and more. When the Western man sees a mule loaded with 1,000 pounds of bricks on its back, what does the Western man say? The Western man says: "Let's add another 1,000 pounds of bricks and see what happens!"

Why is the Western man (with an Italian/French/German accent -- for once the "Anglo-Saxons" are off the hook!) is being so demanding? Because of their sisters. You see, the way we defined the scale will get us good dominants, subdominants, and thirds, but only when we start from certain lucky notes. So the Western man looked at the 12-scale and said:

My sister doesn't like you! When I sing my song, I begin in C (ie, 1:1) and go up to a dominant and that sounds great. But C is too low for my sister, so she starts at the third note, which is labeled (9:8). We call it D. And then she goes up to the dominant, which is (9:8)*(3:2) = 27:16 But 27:16 is not in your damn scale. The closest you have to offer is (5:3), which is so way off it makes my sister's ears bleed. Fix yourself!

The answer could have been:

"Hey, buster, that scale is already overtaxed. It can't be changed. Ask your sister to get her own piano tuned to D and she'll be OK."

But for the Western man, you see, no mule is ever overloaded and devotion to one's sister knows no bound. Here is what the Western man will do. He'll find a number, call it R, and form this scale:

(1:1) (R:1) (R*R:1) (R*R*R:1) (R*R*R:1) (R*R*R*R:1) ..... (R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R:1)

If R were an integer you would get the harmonics, which would be, like, really stupid. You want all these ratios to be between 1 and 2. So, make R very tiny: so small that when you multiply it 12 times with itself you get 2. That means P is the twelth root of 2. So the last note in the list above is actually

(R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R*R:1) = (2:1)

The neat thing is that the ratio corresponding to any interval is the same. For example, take a third like (R:1) (R*R*R:1). [It's of length 3 because in our new scale, there is exactly one note in between.] See, you go from one note to the next by multiplying the numerator by R*R. But, now, consider the interval of length 3 from (R*R*R:1) to (R*R*R*R*R:1). Ah, you go from one note to the next by multiplying the numerator by R*R. Voila! All intervals of a given length like, say, all fourths, will sound exactly the same. Remember that your ear is a logarithm table. This means that it will perceive exactly the same increment as you sing an interval of a given length. This new scale is essentially a 12-step ladder where each step takes you up by exactly the same amount (or so your ear thinks). We'll call it equal-tempered (don't ask why).

So, the Western man and his sister will sing exactly the same music (only transposed higher). You can play from any note and as long as you go up and down as you should it does not matter a bit where you start. There's only one trouble. Yes, the music will sound the same wherever you start, but unfortunately it won't be the one you had in mind! All intervals have now ratios that are powers of R. But these powers can never be what we want, ie, things like 3:2, 4:3, 5:4. Never !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

But do we get close?


The scale is wrong in at least 3 ways:

1. It is an assault on the ear. You don't have to be Mozart to hear that it's all wrong. Every chord Maurizio Pollini plays on his piano at Carnegie Hall is off. It's off by at least 10% of a semitone, which most people can hear if they try. Worse, we're so used to hearing wrong music we don't let it bother us too much. But a classical Indian musician will be horrified by the sound of a piano. You've heard a sibling or a cousin butcher a tune so badly you wanted to get a lifetime membership to the NRA. Be honest, you have no qualms calling that singing "wrong." Well, then Ravi Shankar should have no qualms calling an equal-tempered piano "wrong."

2. The piano teaches singers to sing out of tune. To sing out of tune is hard. It takes practice. In fact opera singers will naturally revert back to form and sing in tune, with perfect thirds, dominants, etc, as soon as the piano shuts up! Barbershop quartets sing in tune naturally. In fact, humans who can carry a tune are pretty much incapable of singing out of tune as pianos do even if they try. The only way they can do it is when they're accompanied by a fucking piano! (Do appreciate the judicious use of a dissonance in the last sentence.) Piano accompaniment is, of course, how all singers practice! This is wrong because it's not wanted. It has no purpose, except convenience. This is wrong because not even the piano's biggest fan would keep that system if it could be fixed. But it can't. Unless, that is, you throw away equal temperament.

3. Mathematically you're trying to do something that, in better worlds, gets people shot. I won't go into the math, but only mention a relevant anecdote. One of the world's greatest number theorists once told me,

"Bernard, do you realize that all of the world's mysteries can be traced back to the fact that addition and multiplication don't go together."
This is (in all seriousness) one of the most profound truths I've ever heard. "Equal temperament," which is what this new scale is called, pretends that addition and multiplication are compatible, when it is the very essence of everything that's beautiful in life that they are not.

Bach is often accused of having forced equal temperament down our throats. That is a lie! He wrote pieces for well-temperament, which is not the same. In equal temperament, all consecutive keys are equidistant. But piano tuners, especially before electronics, used their ears and their ears were still accurate so that they tweaked the tuning to "fix" the thirds and fifths, etc. In fact, Bach wrote his famous "Well-Tempered Clavier" as a set of pieces in all 12 keys, major and minor. Why did Bach bother with all these different keys? Because when you don't do equal temperament different keys will sound different. That too is lost in post-Bach music (OK, not quite true, because pianos get tuned in certain ways sometimes for certain pieces, like Beethoven's amazing Waldstein sonata being a good example). In equal temperament you get the famous joke:

"You say potato, I say potato; you say tomato, I say tomato." Hmm, I don't get it!

Now our 12-pitch mule has 2,000 pounds of brick on its back. Its sounds are all audibly wrong. The wrongness is undesired. So it's not like the dissonances we love to throw in. It's plain wrong all across the board. Is the cost huge? Yes, absolutely. Many musicians (including Western ones) have tried to break away from it.

But do we get a reward for our sins?

Yes, a huge bundle of prizes.

Transposition is one benefit. But the more important is modulation: changing tonal center within the same melody. When you start singing the note C, chances are you'll soon be hitting E, and F, and G. But playing F# would sound weird. (I haven't talked about the diatonic scale so I'll do it quickly: the white keys on the piano. Remember our first attempt to build a scale, get the root, the subdominant, the dominant, and then keep multiplying by (3:2). If you stop once you have 7 notes, that's your diatonic scale right there: C,D,E,F,G,A,B. Well not in that order. The cycle of fifths goes: F,C,G,D,A,E,B, etc. So your 7-note scale is built out of the 12 tones by cycling through the dominants. There are other ways of justifying its construction but this one will do. The famous pentatonic is built out of the first 5 notes from the cycle of 5ths (with its "minor" variant). I don't want to digress, but the way the pentatonic is understood in rock and blues is completely different: it's downright absurd to think a rock minor pentatonic as being extracted from a Western scale. It's no longer a matter of debate among musical ethnographers that the origin of that scale, as used in blues/rock/Jazz is non-Western. We simply define the minor pentatonic as its closest match in the Western scale, but it is a poor approximation.

Equal temperament allows you to do the same thing starting from anywhere, say, F#. This adds great flexibility to music writing. It allows you to break from the hierarchy imposed by tonality (which favors certain notes over others.) Our long diagonals in the polygon allow us to modulate to any key we like. So we gain great "syntactic" power at the price of poorer sounds. We bloggers know that well: the more we bullshit the more we can say.

Equal temperament was tremendously liberating for musicians. By sticking to 12 pitches, the language was still very simple, making innovations easier. Modulation allowed for the sort of versatility that is difficult to get in other musics.

Some have argued that if you want equal temperament, then 20 pitches should be the minimum acceptable; or 30. They say that 12 makes the music so wrong as to be offensive. I wouldn't go that far. For one thing, we Westerners are too conditioned to it by now to get so upset. But some non-Western musicians are horrified to see their compatriots abandon their much richer native musical vocabularies for the Western "approximation." Bollywood has a lot of Westernized Indian music which many natives regard as destructive. I think we can all agree that, in an ideal world, all musical traditions should enrich each other but not suffocate each other.

Equal-temperament costs a lot (wrong sounds: again, I use the word wrong because it violates the rules of acoustics in a way not even fans of equal-temperament like). The wrongness is accepted only because it opens new doors, transposition and especially modulation.

No other music cheats that much. But all do to some extent. Even Indian music has wrong intervals that it tries to hide with drones and harmonics, etc. But Westerners do it so much more.... Well, like this: Take pi=3.14159.... No one uses the exact value of pi numerically. It's impossible. But the great state of Indiana tried to pass a bill in the late 19c decreeing that pi would be officially 3.2. (Funny they didn't choose 3.1.) Many musicians, including American ones (but not Hoosiers), think of the equal-tempered rule of Western music as the pi=3.2 of music. Some will say: But imagine, as a thought experiment, that, without a literary equivalent of this ridiculous approximation, writing King Lear had proven impossible, wouldn't it had been all worthwhile then. Well, yes!

The choices made by Western music were without a doubt worthwhile. To say that Western music would have been better off if it had opted to be less wrong and, say, stick to "just intonation" (the scale I discussed before equal temperament) is silly because such a statement is entirely unfalsifiable.

The interesting question is why Westerners made a drastic choice that no other big music traditions seem to have made. (I could be wrong about that, but certainly not among the "major" ones). It was drastic because, when it was made, for many people, music was still a medium to communicate with God. It takes guts to offer God imperfect dominants just so that little Sis can sing Mary Had a Little Lamb! Why did it happen? Was it:

1. Technology?

2. Expediency?

3. Curiosity about modulation: much of Western harmony is really the art of modulating and substituting.

4. Dance music? Don't forget that Bach borrowed melodies from everyone, including local villagers singing folk tunes. In some ways, music was much more democratic then. I don't see modern classical musicians borrowing much from hip hop. (OK, Radiohead borrowed 1 measly sample from Lansky.) But Schubert spent his evenings in local bars to hear people sing folk songs. Also, remember that classical music often incorporated dance elements.

5. Church music? Bach was both a court musician and later a church composer. He'd compose music from one sunday Mass to the next. Local parishioners knew his music. Again, there was a smooth continuity between high art and vernacular music in the 17-19th c. that seems to have been lost. Which villagers today listen to Philip Glass?

6. A desire for abstraction? Equal temperament decouples harmony from acoustics. Since you don't care how things will really sound in the end, you're allowed much more freedom to explore. Composition acquires an abstract flavor whereby mathematical patterns matter more than aural perception. At the same time, political theory became more abstract; empires grew. The enlightenment made it easier to be seduced by the sure rationality of the new rules. (Just to clarify, Western harmony is perfectly fine mathematically as an abstract model. It only breaks down when you connect its impeccable logic to the logic of acoustics. It violates the math of acoustics, not the math of harmony.) So was it part of a general philosophical trend toward abstraction and universality?

Who knows? Take it away. I am done.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 07:22 PM | Comments (23)

Al Gore: Still Sucking

Matt Stoller makes some extremely important points about how Al Gore's DC-centric, centrist instincts cause him to continue to suck at creating any progress on global warming.

Meanwhile, it looks like the summer melt in the arctic may meet or exceed last year's, putting us on path to an ice-free summer arctic within five years. Not so long ago, it was believed this wouldn't happen until 2070.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 02:00 PM | Comments (4)

More Habbush Forgeries?

With Ron Suskind's revelation about the CIA apparently forging a December, 2003 letter from Iraqi intelligence's Tahir Jalil Habbush, Emptywheel wonders: were there any other forged Habbush letters? The answer appears to be yes.

Interestingly, there's some suggestive material about this in the transcript Suskind released of one of his interviews with CIA Near East Division chief Rob Richer:

RICHER: ...[Y]ou know, we got so much garbage that first couple—that year.

SUSKIND: Were there other things like this where we were creating product?

RICHER: You know, I don't remember that.

He doesn't remember? That doesn't sound too convincing. But maybe he wouldn't, if forging letters wasn't a notable event at the CIA:

RICHER: Let me tell you what I know, just so before you color any of it. Is that when you first asked me about it I remember just really telling you that it was a non-event, and if you were to ask me today I would tell you it was a non-event. It came down from the seventh floor. It was part of--as I remember it, it wasn't so much to influence America--that's illegal--but it was kinda like a covert, a way to influence Iraqis...

To characterize it right, I would say, right: it came to us, George had a raised eyebrow, and basically we passed it on--it was to--and passed this on into the organization. You know, it was: 'Okay, we gotta do this, but make it go away.'To be honest with you, I don't want to make it sound--I for sure don't want to portray this as George jumping: 'Okay, this has gotta happen.' As I remember it--and, again, it's still vague, so I'll be very straight with you on wasn't that important.

AND: This is a good example of why we should thank Jeebus every day for the internet. Without it, how would anyone be able to go back and research the other Habbush letters? And even if someone did, how would they ever tell anyone else about it?

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 12:45 PM | Comments (1)

New Tomdispatch


Illusions of Victory
How the United States Did Not Reinvent War… But Thought It Did

By Andrew Bacevich

"War is the great auditor of institutions," the historian Corelli Barnett once observed. Since 9/11, the United States has undergone such an audit and been found wanting. That adverse judgment applies in full to America's armed forces.

Valor does not offer the measure of an army's greatness, nor does fortitude, nor durability, nor technological sophistication. A great army is one that accomplishes its assigned mission. Since George W. Bush inaugurated his global war on terror, the armed forces of the United States have failed to meet that standard.

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Bush conceived of a bold, offensive strategy, vowing to "take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge." The military offered the principal means for undertaking this offensive, and U.S. forces soon found themselves engaged on several fronts.

Two of those fronts --- Afghanistan and Iraq -- commanded priority attention. In each case, the assigned task was to deliver a knockout blow, leading to a quick, decisive, economical, politically meaningful victory. In each case, despite impressive displays of valor, fortitude, durability, and technological sophistication, America's military came up short. The problem lay not with the level of exertion but with the results achieved.

The rest.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 12:38 PM | Comments (0)

August 10, 2008

What's Wrong with Western Music? Part II. "Hey, Jude"

By: Bernard Chazelle

Not sure why I'm doing this. I have mountains of work to do; nothing I have to say on the subject of music has any originality whatsoever; and since I am in such a rush and unable to proofread what I am writing, I am likely to get some details wrong. But, hey, with such a friendly audience, why not indulge? The topic fascinates me and, if I can let a few people in on that fascination, it'll be all worthwhile, I guess. Also, the main point of this series of posts is to ask questions, not provide answers. I want to point out something interesting and rarely discussed.

The point I will make is very simple but one that requires a tiny amount of background. This installment, therefore, has zero to offer to anyone who knows anything about music. But maybe not everybody knows the basics. And I need those basics to make my point.

I will explain why all musics are wrong and why the Western variety is the wrongest. Some readers already feel defensive, even before I make my point, and call the exercise silly, banal, offensive, and a waste of time. This is a strangely anti-intellectual reaction. I'll use the word "wrong" in a technical fashion, so there's no reason to be offended. And again all musics are wrong, out of necessity. Why Western music chose to be wrong in the way it did fascinates me. Fermat's Last Theorem fascinates me. Maybe it leaves you cold. Fine, just don't it call it silly.

Or banal. How can something that even 90% of musicians don't understand be banal? Is it "banal" that the only Western scales that make sense (in the cycle of 5ths sense) have a number of notes that is of the form N*(N+1) for N>2? Is that banal? I suspect most music theorists don't even know how to prove that. This result shows, in particular, that of all possible Western systems, Europeans adopted the simplest possible: N=3. Coincidence? No. They did it because it made it easier to learn music. Some Indians made a different choice (often using a 22-note scale). Why? I envy historians and ethographers who have the time to study those things. But it's just a matter of taste. I am the curious kind.

Please don't be offended by the harshness of the word "wrong" in the title. I am not using it for effect: wrong is exactly what it is. (I'll get to that.) I am using this word for two reasons: 1. It is the correct one; 2 It is useful to look at it that way. Art is often about breaking rules. One can simply dismiss the whole notion, but it's a methodological mistake to do so. Resolving tensions and violating rules is an essential part of what goes on in an artist's mind. But if nothing is wrong, then you can't violate anything, and there is no art. The notion of "wrong" is very useful. I don't use the word subversive because that's making assumptions. I say it's wrong, because it violates certain mathematical rules. But it does not in any way denigrate the art itself. Sometimes being wrong can serve a worthwhile purpose. At Yale, for example, I lived right across from Morse College, a weird place with no right angles! It was great "architectural art" no doubt! But the students complained that it was "wrong" because their beds didn't fit against the walls. But who cares about a whiny Yalie when the expression of an architect's genius hangs in the balance? Yet the big bumps the students had on their heads from falling off their beds were also a reminder that something was not quite right.

Well, music is not math or geometry, you'll say.

Except that it is. The great Boethius divided the field of mathematics into 4 subjects: one of them was called "music." And are you going to argue with the great Boethius?

I believe it's possible to get to the core of the issue without math or music theory. Let me try. (Of course, in good blogging tradition, I will greatly oversimplify.)

Musical pleasure is masturbation of the ear. Just like the other kind, it's a physical excitement caused by a periodic motion. Cultural norms then take over and either amplify or kill the feeling of pleasure but the root of the thrill is is universal, like gravity. Music is about air bumping into your ear but there's an easier way to think about it.

Bob and Alice speak together. Bob spells out the word AB repeatedly:


Alice does the same with A:


What you hear are two infinite words spelled out simultaneously:



(Damn! On some terminals these letters won't line up properly. Just imagine they do.)

When Bob and Alice say BA together, the two sounds produce a big incomprehensible mess. But when they say A simultaneously the two sounds are added together to produce one sound of A at twice the volume. I put A (with X inbetween) to show you where this happens. At each A before X, you, the listener, get a little jolt. That, in turn, will cause your brain great pleasure. Yes, yes!

We call this kind of masturbation 2:1 because Bob's word (AB) is twice as long as Alice's (A).

The pattern 1:1 would not produce any jolt, no periodic pattern, just a monotonous repeat of the same sound:


(1:1) is like one note sung by two people. Boring.

(2:1) is like one note C sung by Bob and another one very similar sung by Alice. In fact your brain is so wired that they sound like the same note, just one higher than the other, like two Cs on your piano 7 white keys apart. We call (2:1) an octave.

Octaves are kind of boring, too. How about other patterns? Well, 3:2 would be the most natural to try next: ABC and AD



Note how the As are spaced every 6 steps now. Remember that these As track duplicates.

We can also try 4:3 with the words ABCD and AEF



Now the spacing between As is 12 steps.

Next is 5:4: (ABCDE) and (AFGH)



The spacing is 20.

And so on... we could also try 153735237:126473423 but the problem is that the time between the As (in the row of As and Xs) would be very long and while masturbation based on a single jerking motion every 6 months is not technically impossible, it is equally lame in all cultures. This is a key point. The smaller the spacing between As the more pronounced the masturbation. Let me repeat: everything I am saying here applied to all humans regardless of history or culture. All humans agree on a hierarchy of masturbating pleasures: the shorter the run of Xs the better:
Vigorous masturbation is the way to go!

So we have this ranking:

Number one is 2:1
Number two is 3:2
Number three is 4:3
Number four is 5:4

How do we know no other pattern is better? Just try all small numbers and you'll see. (The cool thing about small numbers is that they are few of them, so it's easy to try them out.)

Ah, but what about 2:2? Well that's like 1:1 and


does not get the volume up and down. It's all flat so it doesn't count.

What about 3:1, 4:1, 5:1, 6:1, etc. Ah, gotcha! These form smaller intervals, right? So I lied to you!

Indeed, I did. But here's the thing. You don't need Bob AND Alice to get those patterns. When you pluck a string on your guitar, you get one Bob and many Alices. In fact you get an infinite number of Alices automatically, one for each pattern, 2:1, 3:1, 4:1, 5:1, 6:1, etc.

These are called harmonics. The play a huge role in music. They're the reason a violin sounds different from a cello. Think of instruments as recipes and harmonics as ingredients -- 2:1 is butter; 3:1 is garlic; 4:1 is milk; 5:1 is salt; etc. When you play G on a violin, nature throws in meat in the pan (that's your G) and then adds 5 units of butter, 3 units of garlic, 7 units of milk. Now when you play the same G on a cello, nature plays the same piece of meat in the pan but may add 2 units of butter, 12 units of garlic, 3 units of milk. Same meat, different flavors. If you want the note A, you put in fish in your pan and do the same thing.

If you removed the harmonics, you could not tell the difference between a violin and a cello. (Yes, I know, I am oversimplifying. The physics of a violin is such that harmonics get screwed up a little around the bridge, producing different overtones; drums produce non-harmonic overtones, partials, ... details, details...)

The recipe for a dish is a signature of the instrument. Can't be changed. That's why a violin always sounds like a violin. Of course, your headphones can change the dosages of harmonics, which is why you can hear both a violin and a cello on your iPod.

A good friend of mine who teaches at Julliard, Mari Kimura, surprised the music world a few years ago by discovering a new harmonic on the violin. You have to coax the instrument quite a bit to produce it. It's quite amazing. She found a new sound from an instrument that's hundreds of years old!

But I digress.

To summmarize, all musics recognize that musical pleasure, like masturbation, comes in repeated patterns. These shapes can be ranked in descending order of pleasure:

2:1 (C-higher C) -- octave
3:2 (C-G) -- dominant
4:3 (C-F) -- subdominant
5:4 (C-E) -- major third

I've added the names of the intervals in English plus how to play them on your piano. These are the good masturbating sounds. When the length of the period goes up, the pleasure seems to go down. This has been proven in many ways. But it's crucial to understand that many intervals are neither good nor bad: they are excruciating! Say you get 3000:2000. That's the same as 3:2 so it's good. Now what if you try 3001:2000? Your ear can't tell the difference so it still sounds fine. But what about 3047:2000? That's enough to make Mozart cry. Because it's far enough from 3:2 that you can hear the difference, but it's close enough to it that you feel it's all wrong. Think of it as a chocolate sundae that sits one inch from your mouth but that you're not allowed to touch. So close to heaven yet so far from it! Excruciating intervals are those that are close enough to good ones to suggest them but far enough to make you realize what you're missing. This should not be confused with "sensitive" notes composers use that cry out for resolution. Some intervals are plain rude.

How to get sequences of notes that produce many great intervals and keep the excruciating ones
at bay while keeping a listener's attention with anticipation and surprise is what music is all about. All musics!

Before I sign off today, let me add one more important point about the dominant interval.

Neuroscientists still don't know precisely why we like 3:2 but they know we do. By "we" I include monkeys. Experiments were made on chimps where classical music was played to them with the dominant sounds removed. By tracking the neuronal response of the monkeys, researchers discovered to their astonishment that the monkeys filled in the missing 3:2 sounds themselves! All babies around the world master the 3:2 and 4:3 intervals before any other! This has also been shown experimentally.

Remember that the brain is trained to think of octaves as the same note, so that if you hear 3:2 you basically hear the same as 6:2 (because 3 and 3*2 sound the same), but 6:2 is 3:1, which is a harmonic. So when you play C on your piano, the instrument also emits the sound of G (the garlic, remember?) By the same token, 3:2 should sound similar to 3:4 (again because 4=2*2 and multiplying a number by two only raises the corresponding sound by one octave). So 3:2 is "like" 3:4. Let's go back to Bob and Alice.

3:4 would be Bob saying ABC and Alice saying ADEF, as in


But wait! Switch Bob and Alice, you get ADEF and ABC


But this is precisely the pattern for 3:2 !!!! (renamed with different letters).

This shows that the only difference between 3:2 (dominant) and 4:3 (subdominant) is Bob and Alice switching places (and one raising their voice by an octave).

For this reason, musicians call the subdominant the "inversion" of the dominant.
Much of pop music is based on these two sounds (which are the "same" in disguise).

Hey Jude is a good example of what you can do with these 2 sounds alone (almost).

Next post, I'll show that as soon as you try to put these ideas in practice you're faced with a huge math conundrum, which you can only solve by cutting corners. Tell me how you cut corners and I'll tell you who you are.

Meanwhile, enjoy Paul's music, written for the Lennon kid to help him cope with his parents' divorce.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 02:29 PM | Comments (27)

August 09, 2008

Change We Can Believe In

Ron Suskind has posted excerpts from his interviews with Rob Richer touching on the forged letter issue. One of the people Richer says was involved is Jim Pavitt, then the CIA's Deputy Director of Operations:

SUSKIND: The intent--the basic raison d'etre of this product is to get, is to create, here's a letter with what's in it. Okay, here's what we want on the letter, we want it to be released as essentially a representation of something Habbush says. That's all it says, that's the one paragraph. And then you pass it to whomever to do it. To get it done.

RICHER: It probably passed through five or six people. George probably showed it to me, but then passed it probably to Jim Pavitt, the DDO, who then passed it down to his chief of staff who passed it to me.

Interestingly, Jim Pavitt gave $2,500 to the Obama campaign in the first and second quarters this year. I don't know what this means about Pavitt or Obama, but it probably doesn't indicate the total transformation of American politics is imminent.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 08:15 PM | Comments (6)

Death of a Poet: Mahmoud Darwish

By: Bernard Chazelle

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish has died after surgery at the age of 67, hospital and Palestinian officials say.

Oh man! This is heartbreaking. I think of my friends in Ramallah.


A woman told the cloud: cover my beloved
For my clothing is drenched with his blood.

If you are not rain, my love
Be tree
Sated with fertility, be tree
If you are not tree, my love
Be stone
Saturated with humidity, be stone
If you are not stone, my love
Be moon
In the dream of the beloved woman, be moon
[So spoke a woman
to her son at his funeral]


On a day like this, in a hidden corner
of a church, in full feminine magnificence,
in a leap year, when eternal green
meets navy blue in morning,
when form meets content and the sensuous
meets the mystic,
beneath a teeming arbor
where the shadow of a sparrow wearies
the image of meaning - in this emotional place
I'll encounter my end and my beginning
and say: To hell with you both. Have your way
if you must take me and move on,
leaving the heart of truth fresh
for the hungry daughters of the jackal.
I say: I am not a citizen
or a refugee.
And I want one thing, nothing more,
one thing: a simple, quiet death
on a day like this, in the hidden heart
of the lily,
maybe compensation for a lot or for little,
for a life measured in moments and departures.
I want a death in this garden.
No more no less.

Posted at 07:53 PM | Comments (2)

Georgia On My Mind

By: Bernard Chazelle

With friends like this, little wonder the West can't catch a break. Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili is one of our most devoted lapdogs. He even sent troops to Iraq (which he might soon recall home to protect him in his bunker). If you define liberty properly, you'll find that encircling Russia and weakening it is part and parcel of the freedom agenda. And of all our allies in this cause, none is more gung-ho than our Georgian puppy, Saak. He is dying to join NATO. So is Bush. But it was up to Angela Merkel to point out that the "A" in NATO stands for a big ocean that's two-and-a-half trillion miles away from Tbilisi. OK, we'll wait. Today's events means we'll wait for ever.

Georgia and Russia have been sniping at each other ever since the Soviet Union broke apart, but this was a major offensive that must have been prepared long in advance. Mikhail Saakashvili thought he was one smart puppy to attack South Ossetia when everyone was too high on Beijing's polluted air to pay attention. (Mikhail: for spoiling China's coming-out party, no invitation to the Great Happy Communist Sunshine Youth Festival for you!) Maybe Saak thought that attacking South Ossetia would invite Russian retaliation (he was right), which then would cause Bush to say, "OMG, get Georgia into NATO presto!" No such luck.

Some perspective: the Kremlin hates Saakashvili and has always wanted to cause mischief in South Ossetia. The territory voted overwhelmingly to be independent 2 years ago. Ossetians are mostly ethnically non-Georgian and speak their own language. Their economy is entirely dependent on Moscow. They carry Russian passports, the currency is the Ruble, etc. While Georgia may have a claim on Abkhazia, it has less of a claim on Ossetia than Serbia has on Kosovo. Papa Stalin divided up Ossetia into South (for his native Georgia) and North (for Mother Russia).

I suspect Putin and Medvedev are delighted. They've been eager to teach Saak a lesson (as Reagan would have if Mexico had pursued membership in the Warsaw Pact) and reassert to the world that after the Chechnyan nightmare, Russia is back. They might even want to draw the West into the fight (there are US military advisors in Georgia), confident that they will win that one.

Russia is no angel. It's pursuing its interests ruthlessly (who is not?) and its destabilizing role in the region is legendary. And feel Georgia's pain: it is seeing 3 minority enclaves (Adjaria and Abkhazia being the others: reconquering the latter might have been the ulterior motive for Georgia's current attacks) clamoring for independence and, understandably, does not like it.

But this week's events were triggered by Georgia. Its president planned a major military offensive which began with massive killing of civilians and Russian "peacekeepers." War is a ghastly beast and, as we speak, human suffering in the region is enormous. Saak miscalculated badly, as Bush lapdogs tend to do. There's simply no way Putin will fold, no matter the cost. After Kosovo, after the missile defense system in Eastern Europe, after the constant humiliations from the West, Russia will not concede that point. Georgia, with all its shiny new US military equipment, will lose that war.

Saakashvili gambled with the lives of others. No wonder he's Bush's friend.

But which side will the US media take? In the Times, James Traub quotes approvingly from a "senior American official." :

Russia has become "a revisionist and aggressive power," and the West "has to be prepared to push back."

Translation: Russia is not willing to roll over and let the US control the energy routes in the Caucasus.

Saakashvili compared Georgia to Czechoslovakia in 1938, trusting the West to save it from a ravenous neighbor.

It's Munich 1938!

the border where Georgia faces Russia, with South Ossetia and Abkhazia between them, has become a new cold war frontier.

Oops, no, it's Prague 1968!

Traub assures us in his best purple prose that:

Georgia ardently aspires to join the peaceable kingdom of Europe.

The trouble for the West is that it is divided over Russia. The US/UK and Eastern Europe want to weaken Russia in the Caspian/Black Sea/South Caucasus regions; hence the NATO push, but France and Germany (despite Merkel's strong anti-Russian sentiment) won't play along.

Meanwhile, people are dying.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 11:51 AM | Comments (11)

August 08, 2008

What's Wrong with Western Music? Part I. "Brown Eyed Girl"

By: Bernard Chazelle

All musics are wrong. And Western music is the wrongest of them all. Some of it is sublime art, of course, and I rush to add that its intrinsic wrongness in no way makes it inferior to other kinds. Art doesn't work like that.

Western music was codified into a high-art form by an elite that sought to shape it into a medium to reach God and please kings. This took place, after a long period of gestation, over a small area in the 17th century in what are today Italy, France, and Germany. Now, if your goal is to honor God, why in the world would you cheat? I've always been fascinated by this. I suspect it says something deep about human nature in general and Western civilization in particular, though I'm not exactly sure what that is.

The tonal system of Western music is its signature. Many of the greatest Western composers rebelled against it (even as early as the 19th c), and today it is confined mostly to pop/rock. (I leave Jazz aside because its roots are non-Western.) No one listens to modern classical music (Stockhausen anyone?), so for all practical purposes Western music is anything you can buy at your local Barnes & Noble that does not have the label "World music" or "Jazz."

Why is Western music wrong? By way of introduction, an anecdote:

Ravi Shankar, if you remember, is a great fan of Western music -- he often worked with George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin. And of course he is the proud dad of the one and only Norah Jones. (Just to say what a magnificent fellow he is!) After an All-Mozart concert at Carnegie Hall, Ravi Shankar congratulated his good friend Leonard Bernstein on his brilliant conducting:

"Nice music, Leonard. I really enjoyed it. But, tell me, don't you get tired of playing baby tunes?"

Ouch. What was Shankar trying to say? I'll talk about that in a subsequent post. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, enjoy this ultimate baby tune. It's very catchy because of the way the tune is harmonized in thirds and sixths (which are forward and reverse ways of doing the same thing). To harmonize in 6ths is one of the first thing any rock guitarist learns to do, because it just sounds so cool. But remove the harmonization and the song is just "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" + sex.

PS Cute video by a mother for her kid and husband.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 07:22 PM | Comments (29)

Suskind: Bush Jeopardized Airline Terror Case And Deceived British For Political Advantage

Dean Baker: is there anything he doesn't know?

Here's email Baker sent out on August 10, 2006, talking about the UK Airline Bomber Plot:

So, do you think the British airplane plot is the response to Lieberman's defeat? It certainly is conveniently timed, and we know that we are dealing with people who would have no qualms whatsoever about pulling a stunt like this. Having it down in Britain also is helpful to bush, since it removes his crew from the direct line of fire, while still providing the same benefits in terms of hyping terrorist paranoia. Needless to say, lapdog Tony would gladly do as told, if the orders were given.

I was skeptical of this perspective at the time. Yet it was almost exactly correct. Here's Ron Suskind yesterday on Fresh Air describing what happened:

NPR: I want to talk just a little about this fascinating episode you describe in the summer of 2006, when President Bush is very anxious about some intelligence briefings that he is getting from the British. What are they telling him?

SUSKIND: In late July of 2006, the British are moving forward on a mission they've been--an investigation they've been at for a year at that point, where they've got a group of "plotters," so-called, in the London area that they've been tracking...Bush gets this briefing at the end of July of 2006, and he's very agitated. When Blair comes at the end of the month, they talk about it and he says, "Look, I want this thing, this trap snapped shut immediately." Blair's like, "Well, look, be patient here. What we do in Britain"--Blair describes, and this is something well known to Bush--"is we try to be more patient so they move a bit forward. These guys are not going to breathe without us knowing it. We've got them all mapped out so that we can get actual hard evidence, and then prosecute them in public courts of law and get real prosecutions and long prison terms"...

Well, Bush doesn't get the answer he wants, which is "snap the trap shut." And the reason he wants that is because he's getting all sorts of pressure from Republicans in Congress that his ratings are down. These are the worst ratings for a sitting president at this point in his second term, and they're just wild-eyed about the coming midterm elections. Well, Bush expresses his dissatisfaction to Cheney as to the Blair meeting, and Cheney moves forward.

NPR: So you got the British saying, "Let's carefully build our case. Let's get more intelligence." Bush wants an arrest and a political win. What does he do?

SUSKIND: Absolutely. What happens is that then, oh, a few days later, the CIA operations chief--which is really a senior guy. He's up there in the one, two, three spots at CIA, guy named Jose Rodriguez ends up slipping quietly into Islamabad, Pakistan, and he meets secretly with the ISI, which is the Pakistani intelligence service. And suddenly a guy in Pakistan named Rashid Rauf, who's kind of the contact of the British plotters in Pakistan, gets arrested. This, of course, as anyone could expect, triggers a reaction in London, a lot of scurrying. And the Brits have to run through the night wild-eyed and basically round up 25 or 30 people. It's quite a frenzy. The British are livid about this. They talk to the Americans. The Americans kind of shrug, "Who knows? You know, ISI picked up Rashid Rauf."

DAVIES: So the British did not even get a heads-up from the United States that this arrest was going to happen?

SUSKIND: Did not get a heads-up. In fact, the whole point was to mislead the British...The British did not know about it, frankly, until I reported it in the book...

What's interesting is that the White House already had its media plan already laid out before all of this occurred so that the president and vice president immediately--even, in Cheney's case, before the arrest, the day before--started to capitalize on the war on terror rhetoric and political harvest, which of course they used for weeks to come, right into the fall, about, "The worst plot since 9/11, that has been foiled, and this is why you want us in power."

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 03:45 PM | Comments (7)

Suskind Will Release (Some) Transcripts From Book Interviews

Jeff Stein at Congressional Quarterly:

Author Ron Suskind says he will release transcripts of his interviews with a top CIA official that will confirm his story that in 2003 the White House ordered the agency to fabricate a phony document linking Iraq to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C...

But in a telephone interview this evening, Suskind said he is planning to release transcripts of his on-the-record interviews with Richer to back up his story.

"There are lots of transcripts, lots of tapes," Suskind told me. "In the next couple days the transcripts will be coming out."

Suskind said he will probably post them on his own Web site...

Suskind says that Richer had pledged to him that he would not deny his quotes when the book came out...

But Suskind said he would not release transcripts of his "hours and hours" of interviews with [second source on the forgery] Maguire, "at least at this point, because "he hasn't had a chance to read the book yet."

Read it all.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 10:02 AM | Comments (1)

Monty Python Justice

By: Bernard Chazelle

In an American kangaroo court, bin Laden's former driver, Salim Hamdan, has been sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison. Prosecutors had asked for 30 years. Upon completion of his sentence, in a few months, Hamdan will be released to... Guantanamo, where he will be imprisoned as "enemy combatant."

5 years for chauffeuring OBL. Interesting. Leni Riefenstahl spent only 4 years in detention after World War II. But her crime was only to make propaganda movies for Hitler. Piddling stuff. Nothing like driving around BIN LADEN in his beat-up Chevy.

I believe bin Laden's dentist is next. Then his 1st-grade teacher. Then... his CIA handler. (What's that? Sorry, did I say something wrong?)

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 12:21 AM | Comments (8)

August 07, 2008

Suskind: Congress Preparing To Investigate, He'll Play Tapes If Necessary, Sources Previously Said They'd Testify

Here's Ron Suskind on NPR's Fresh Air today, starting at about 29:00:

SUSKIND: Ultimately you feel a kind of humbleness as a reporter. There are some things books can take you up to the gates of, the precipice of, but can't go all the way, just in terms of these issues of people having to testify under oath, hopefully with immunity and also the threat of perjury...And some people in Congress of course are getting ready to do that at this point.

NPR: One person that people are going to want to talk to is you. Are you prepared to play recordings which substantiate what you have in this book?

SUSKIND: If it comes to that, of course. I would hope it wouldn't, frankly. And my estimation is that everything in this book is true, and findable. And other reporters are out on the hunt right now. There are other sources that, uh, are near to the surface, let's just say. And I think lots of these things will be moot fairly quickly. I have not a shadow of a doubt, having spent hours with Maguire and Richer and others—Buzzy Krongard, the number three guy at CIA, talks also about some of these issues of Habbush—other people in the know know bits about it...

NPR: ...As a journalist—and you're not some hack who's come up with a scoop here, you have a long record, you've won a Pulitzer Prize—but if in one of the most controversial parts of the book—one which, as you say, could have grave legal implications—two of the most prominent on the record sources are saying, it's just not true, what do you say to those who say, why should believe other parts of the book?

SUSKIND: Sadly, this is the way the world works. These guys are under stress, this sometimes happens when that's the case, and I think people are looking at it in terms of the context of the situation. I've been at this for a long time, and I have sources who spend a long time with me, we tape their conversations, I put it in a book or a magazine piece. And then the heat comes, of public attention. And it's startling for them, especially at the beginning. It's quite jarring. I'm used to it. But for private citizens, even tough guys, like both of these are—and both of them, frankly, are big believers in the truth process. And I've talked to both of them: "You're never going to feel heat quite like this." And they said, both of them, Richer and Maguire, I'm ready to go in front of Senate committees, and House committees, I'm ready to have my moment. They knew everything that was in the book. Once they get there and the moment arrives, sometimes their knees buckle. And then you say, all right, let's take a deep breath, and you get them upright, and they tend to often then walk forward...They're reacting to that first blast.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 08:24 PM | Comments (3)

Was Office Of Special Plans Behind Forged Iraq Letter?

Philip Giraldi:

An extremely reliable and well placed source in the intelligence community has informed me that Ron Suskind’s revelation that the White House ordered the preparation of a forged letter linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda and also to attempts made to obtain yellowcake uranium is correct but that a number of details are wrong.

The Suskind account states that two senior CIA officers Robert Richer and John Maguire supervised the preparation of the document under direct orders coming from Director George Tenet. Not so, says my source. Tenet is for once telling the truth when he states that he would not have undermined himself by preparing such a document while at the same time insisting publicly that there was no connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda. Richer and Maguire have both denied that they were involved with the forgery and it should also be noted that preparation of such a document to mislead the media is illegal and they could have wound up in jail.

My source also notes that Dick Cheney, who was behind the forgery, hated and mistrusted the Agency and would not have used it for such a sensitive assignment. Instead, he went to Doug Feith’s Office of Special Plans and asked them to do the job. The Pentagon has its own false documents center, primarily used to produce fake papers for Delta Force and other special ops officers traveling under cover as businessmen. It was Feith’s office that produced the letter and then surfaced it to the media in Iraq. Unlike the Agency, the Pentagon had no restrictions on it regarding the production of false information to mislead the public. Indeed, one might argue that Doug Feith’s office specialized in such activity.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 06:41 PM | Comments (7)

August 06, 2008

"The Thrill Is Gone"

By: Bernard Chazelle

Gladys Knight is magnificent.

BB King, the ultimate bluesman, has had more influence on rock guitar than anyone else. He absorbed like a sponge everything that came before him: especially, Charlie Christian, T-Bone Walker, and Lightnin' Hopkins. To learn American music, playing on Beale Street in Memphis in 1948, as BB did, beat going to Berklee or Julliard. (BB King often said: "Yes, I went to college: I went to Beale Street College.")

"Thrill" is a blues in Bm. Otis Rush is a big minor-blues aficionado but he's an exception. Blues guitarists tend to play the blues over major chords. So here's the "paradox." One associates minor with sadness and major with joy. The blues is sad, right? So why in the world are most blues tunes in major keys?

Two answers: first, the blues is not a sad genre (unlike hip-hop) -- it's a music about love, pain, and hope; second, the blues scale is neither major nor minor. It is full of those "blue" notes (flatted 3rd/5th/7th) that don't quite fit into a standard Western scale. The minor-major tension of the music is the blues' signature. In "Thrill," of course, the third is resolutely minor so there's no tension there. To even hint at a major third would kill the tune.

BB opens at 0:35 by descending to the minor 3rd from one step up. He repeats the same move but starting from the "blue" flatted 5th. At 1:03, Gladys uses the same approach from a 6th up. In other words, she reaches the tonic (an octave up) from the 9th, again hinting at the corresponding blue note. This was a favorite Creedence Clearwater Revival device. Then she does the same motion again, except upward now from the flatted 7th. Inflecting sounds around diatonic notes goes back to West Africa. So does polyrhythm: Robert Johnson and early blues pioneers loved carrying different rhythms in parallel: a very hard thing to do. The idea got lost when the blues moved North to Kansas City, Chicago, and New York. Only in late bebop was the idea reintroduced.

What makes the blues non-Western? I'll address that in another post. Meanwhile, enjoy Gladys and BB!

PS: I dedicate this tune to scientific editors everywhere. I once wrote an advocacy piece in computing theory with a friend of mine. The title was: "The Thrill Is Gone?" The copy-editor scratched the title and wrote "Is the Thrill Gone?" I returned the galleys with "No, it should be 'The Thrill Is Gone?'" He replied: "But it's not grammatical." I said "I know." He then wrote "But we can't publish something that's not grammatical." I said "Did you ever hear the song?" He replied "What song?"

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 09:05 PM | Comments (15)

Suskind's Sources Deny Book's Forgery Charge; Suskind Has Sources On Tape?

Last night Countdown read statements from Ron Suskind's two main named sources for the charge in his new book that the White House ordered the CIA to forge a letter from Iraq's intelligence chief to Saddam Hussein. Rob Richer, the former head of the CIA's Near East Division, spoke for both himself and John Maguire:

“I never received direction from George Tenet or anyone else in my chain of command to fabricate a document from Habbush as outlined in Mr. Suskind‘s book.

Further, today, I talked with John Maguire, who has given me the permission to state the following on his behalf, ‘I never receive any instruction from then Chief/NE Rob Richer or any other officer in my chain of command instructing me to fabricate such a letter. Further, I have no knowledge to the origins of the letter and as to how it circulated in Iraq.”

And here's some of Suskind's response:

OLBERMANN: Why do you believe they‘re backtracking now?...

SUSKIND: You know, I‘m sympathetic in a way to all these guys. They‘re under acute pressure. They‘re individuals. They‘ve got to feed their families. They really survive off the government, both of them, they‘re contractors and whatnot...

[T]hey may still stand up—and Maguire, I think, will still stand up in daylight...

You know, these guys, though, are feeling now great pressure. And, you know, what you realize in this process is that there is a limit to what a journalist can do even with taped interviews, people talking for hours at a time, when they can be brought into a moment of crisis by the government saying, “You‘ll never work again, you‘ll never earn a living.” That‘s the kind of thing that mostly happens in terms of what congressional hearings do testimony under subpoena with threat of perjury.

OLBERMANN: Well—and that‘s what we need. But in the interview, I presume the Maguire and Richer interviews are on tape, is that right?

SUSKIND: You bet, yes. And there‘s a lot of them. They‘re very detailed.

The obvious questions now are whether Suskind will release any of his interview tapes, and whether there will be any congressional investigation with witnesses testifying under oath.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 03:54 PM | Comments (13)

August 05, 2008

CIA Agent Allegedly Involved In Forged Iraq Letter Ran Previous Operation To Create Pretext For War

In Ron Suskind's interview on NPR today (and also in his new book), he names CIA operative John Maguire as one of the people allegedly involved in the Iraq letter forging. This is from Suskind's NPR appearance:

SUSKIND: In the fall [of 2003]...the White House, they decide that a letter should be fabricated, dated July 2001, a handwritten letter from [Iraqi intelligence chief] Habbush to Saddam Hussein. And the letter should say that in fact Mohammed Atta, the 9/11 hijacker, trained in Iraq prior to 9/11, showing a connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, and the letter should say Iraq was buying yellowcake uranium from Niger with the help of al-Qaeda...

NPR: Are you saying the White House ordered the CIA to fabricate evidence, even after the invasion of Iraq, fabricate evidence linking Iraq to 9/11, in effect.

SUSKIND: Absolutely. George Tenet comes back from a White House briefing...folks at CIA remember seeing the creamy White House stationery. Tenet says, we want a letter fabricated, and we want this letter to essentially emerge, this handwritten letter from Habbush, to Saddam, which is essentially a checking of the box on all the controversies on WMD that are unfolding that the United States may have been taken to war under false pretenses...

NPR: Are you saying George Tenet told you, I was given this order to lie, and I fulfilled that?

SUSKIND: There are off the record sources in the book, but there are on the record sources who are right in the thick of this operation: Rob Richer, the head of the Near East Division, just a notch or two below Tenet. Richer turns to Tenet, as [Richer] remembers it, and says, "Listen, Marine"—Richer's a former Marine—"you're not going to like this, but here goes." Richer then takes it, he turns to John Maguire, who runs Iraq for the CIA, another senior manager. And Richer talks to Maguire, old intelligence hands, and they say, goodness gracious, all right, well, an order's an order. And it goes down the chain.

This is the description, in Hubris by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, of part of a pre-war covert CIA plan named Anabasis and run by John Maguire. It had been authorized by George Bush in February, 2002:

Who needed evidence of weapons of mass destruction? John Maguire, the deputy chief of the CIA's Iraq Operations Group, and the agency officers working the Anabasis project had their own plan for starting the war, and it had nothing to do with the WMD debate. They also had a small army of Iraqi commandoes—led by a former Iraqi war hero—willing to put the plan into action...

The plan was a core element of the original Anabasis program. These were the CIA-backed commandoes who would seize control of an Iraqi case at Nukhaib, near the Saudi border. Then they would go on the radio, announce a coup was underway, call on military units within Iraq to join them, and request that other nations support their bid to topple Saddam. Saddam, the thinking went, would be compelled to send troops to regain the base. But that would require him to violate the no-fly zone. The United States and Britain would then have a reason to attack Saddam's forces, and the war would be on. The Bush administration, Maguire later said, "was too wedded" to the WMD argument for war. "The idea was to create an incident in which Saddam lashes out." If all went as planned, "you'd have a premise for war: we've been invited in."

However, the administration continued to rely on the WMD justification, and this plan was never put into effect.

Amusingly, Anabasis was almost a xerox of Saddam Hussein's scheme for his invasion of Kuwait; while no one on earth remembers this now, Iraq justified their attack in the same way. This is from the New York Times on August 3, 1990:

Iraq said it struck to support a coup by young Kuwaiti revolutionaries against the Sabah family, whom it denounced as ''traitors and agents of Zionist and foreign schemes.''

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 04:54 PM | Comments (17)

George Tenet And White House Admit Iraq's Intelligence Chief Told Them Iraq Had No WMD

Ron Suskind was on NPR this morning to discuss his new book The Way of the World, which alleges Iraq's intelligence chief Tahir Jalil Habbush told the US before the war that Iraq had no WMD.

NPR asked George Tenet and the White House for comment, and, remarkably enough, they both essentially admitted this was true.

SUSKIND: What we now know from this investigation is that a secret mission was conducted in which a British manager, intelligence agent, met with the head of Iraqi intelligence in a secret location in Amman, Jordan. And what the Iraqi intelligence chief told the British—and essentially the Americans, because we're all in this together—is that there were no WMD in Iraq. And what that meant is that we knew everything that became so obvious by the summer after the invasion. And the president made a decision essentially to ignore that intelligence...

NPR: We have called key players in Ron Suskind's account...George Tenet says the Iraqi failed to persuade, and a White House spokesman adds that any information the Iraqi may have provided was, quote, "immaterial."

Further corroboration appears in a November, 2003 New York Times story by James Risen. Risen's article is about last-minute attempts by Iraq to avert war, using a Lebanese-American intermediary named Imad Hage who knew Richard Perle:

A week [after February, 2003 meetings in Beirut with the Iraqi Intelligence Service's chief of foreign operations], Mr. Hage said, he agreed to hold further meetings in Baghdad. When he arrived, he was driven to a large, well-guarded compound, where he was met by a gray-haired man in a military uniform. It was Tahir Jalil Habbush, the director of the Iraqi Intelligence Service, who is No. 16 on the United States list of most wanted Iraqi leaders. Mr. Hage said Mr. Habbush asked him if it was true that he knew Mr. Perle. "Have you met him?"

Mr. Hage said Mr. Habbush began to vent his frustration over what the Americans really wanted. He said that to demonstrate the Iraqis' willingness to help fight terrorism, Mr. Habbush offered to hand over Abdul Rahman Yasin, who has been indicted in United States in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Mr. Yasin fled to Iraq after the bombing, and the United States put up a $25 million reward for his capture.

Mr. Hage said Mr. Habbush offered to turn him over to Mr. Hage, but Mr. Hage said he would pass on the message that Mr. Yasin was available.

Mr. Hage said Mr. Habbush also insisted that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and added, "Let your friends send in people and we will open everything to them."

Mr. Hage said he asked Mr. Habbush, "Why don't you tell this to the Bush administration?" He said Mr. Habbush replied cryptically, "We have talks with people."

Mr. Hage said he later learned that one contact was in Rome between the C.I.A. and representatives of the Iraqi intelligence service. American officials confirm that the meeting took place, but say that the Iraqi representative was not a current intelligence official and that the meeting was not productive.

In addition, there was an attempt to set up a meeting in Morocco between Mr. Habbush and United States officials, but it never took place, according to American officials.

This can be added onto the pile:

• The CIA sent thirty relatives of Iraqi scientists to Iraq to ask them what WMD Iraq had, and they uniformly reported it had nothing.
• Iraq's foreign minister Nouri Sabri secretly told the US in 2002 that Iraq had no active WMD programs.
• Alan Foley, the head of the CIA's Weapons Intelligence Non-Proliferation and Arms Control Center, told an acquaintance just before the war that he expected we would find "Not much, if anything."

UPDATE: The White House actually refers to the Risen reporting in its statement on Suskind's book:

This is a rehash of very old reporting -- reports of this particular contact were reported on extensively in 2003.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 11:22 AM | Comments (6)

August 04, 2008

Anthrax And The Iraq War

If you haven't already, be sure to read Glenn Greenwald's posts about ABC and the anthrax-by-mail case here, here and here. As Greenwald details, the behavior in this of ABC and the government has been even more horrifying than normal, which is saying a lot.

Greenwald argues the anthrax case had a large impact on the willingness of Americans to invade Iraq. I think he's correct, but there's some important evidence he doesn't cite. In particular, we should remember that Colin Powell used the anthrax case in his UN presentation, carefully giving the impression that Iraq may have been responsible without explicitly saying so:

Less than a teaspoon of dry anthrax, a little bit about this amount--this is just about the amount of a teaspoon--less than a teaspoon full of dry anthrax in an envelope shutdown the United States Senate in the fall of 2001. This forced several hundred people to undergo emergency medical treatment and killed two postal workers just from an amount just about this quantity that was inside of an envelope.

Iraq declared 8,500 liters of anthrax, but UNSCOM estimates that Saddam Hussein could have produced 25,000 liters. If concentrated into this dry form, this amount would be enough to fill tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of teaspoons. And Saddam Hussein has not verifiably accounted for even one teaspoon-full of this deadly material...

The Iraqis have never accounted for all of the biological weapons they admitted they had and we know they had. They have never accounted for all the organic material used to make them...This is true. This is all well-documented.

Dr. Blix told this council that Iraq has provided little evidence to verify anthrax production and no convincing evidence of its destruction. It should come as no shock then, that since Saddam Hussein forced out the last inspectors in 1998, we have amassed much intelligence indicating that Iraq is continuing to make these weapons.

We're not saying it definitely was Saddam! Just that it easily could have been! If, you know, it hadn't been made in the US Army's own labs!

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 03:09 PM | Comments (5)

August 02, 2008

Memo To Jamison Foser

TO: Jamison Foser, Media Matters
RE: Your recent column


You write today:

There's nothing inherently "effective" about an attack like this [Republicans ridiculing Obama for saying we'd save a lot of gas if everyone kept their cars' tires properly inflated]. Reporters have a choice: They can simply repeat the GOP claims, in which case the shot is effective. Or they can do their jobs and give their readers and viewers an accurate understanding of the situation, in which case the attack will be ineffective -- and, in fact, counterproductive, since it will make the attackers look ignorant or dishonest.

Reporters don't have a choice. Repeating stupid right-wing claims is their job.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 01:47 PM | Comments (7)

August 01, 2008

Ho-Hum, Just Another Day In The Craziest Country On Earth

So Seymour Hersh says that Vice President Cheney and his staff sat around back in January and discussed having Navy SEALS dress up as Iranian sailors and then attack American ships. This would fool Americans into supporting a war with Iran, you see.

In non-insane countries, this would merit screaming headlines and congressional investigations, all leading to mass resignations if it turned out to be true. In America, it merits a few blug posts.

Oh, and remember all stuff about how Saddam was killing us with his evil anthrax?

In October 2001, [Wayne] Downing, [Paul] Wolfowitz, and other proponents of a war with Iraq thought they had yet more ammunition for the case against Saddam. A series of deadly anthrax-laced letters had been sent to the Capitol Hill offices of Senator Daschle and Senator Patrick Leahy and to several newsrooms. Mylroie asserted that Saddam was behind the mailings. An early forensic test of the anthrax letters (which was later disputed) appeared to show that the anthrax spores were highly refined and "weaponized." To the Iraq hawks, the news was electric. "This is definitely Saddam!" Downing shouted to several White House aides. One of these aides later recalled overhearing Downing excitedly sharing the news over the phone with Wolfowitz and Feith. "I had the feeling they were high-five-ing each other," the White House official said.

Turns out we were a little off on that one—it looks like the perpetrator was probably someone from the US government's own biological weapons lab. Well, no harm, no foul. Ho hum.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at 12:26 PM | Comments (14)

All Under Control

By: Bernard Chazelle

I read the news today, oh boy!

Some American officials have begun to suggest that Pakistan is no longer a fully reliable American partner.

The Indian embassy in Kabul was attacked 3 weeks ago, and Pakistan's ISI (its CIA) seems to have had a hand in it.

American officials say they believe that the embassy attack was probably carried out by members of a network led by Maulavi Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose alliance with Al Qaeda and its affiliates has allowed the terrorist network to rebuild in the tribal areas.

Who's Mr Haqqani?

Jalaluddin Haqqani [...] has had a long and complicated relationship with the CIA. He was among a group of fighters who received arms and millions of dollars from the CIA, but his allegiance with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda during the following decade led the United States to sever the relationship.

But, fear not, we're on the case.

Britain and the United States had each offered to send about two dozen military trainers to Pakistan later this summer to train Pakistani Army officers who in turn would instruct the Frontier Corps paramilitary forces.

CNN Headline News, September 11, 2012:

The masterminds behind the nuclear attack that destroyed Chicago this morning include two former Pakistani Army officers. They appeared to have had a long and complicated relationship with the United States, which included active training by the US military in 2008.

— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at 10:31 AM | Comments (6)