Whackjob Sunday

February 18, 2007 at 4:29 pm (Uncategorized)

You can’t beat a good conspiracy wacko for laugh-out-loud entertainment. Enjoy.

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Anti-Imperialism and Waves of Rage

February 18, 2007 at 3:19 pm (Uncategorized)

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingBrendan O’Neill is editor of Spiked Online, the organ of one of the successor bodies to th Revolutionary Communist Party, an eccentric ultra-left organisation that converted en masse to libertarianism in the 1990s. Still, whoever he is, this post of his (from Comment is Free) is very interesting.

He’s commenting on the way that “Muslim Rage” seems to have replaced political analysis at the root of the politics of many in the anti-war movement, and among the self-appointed “community leaders” so beloved of both the government and sections of the left. This has disastrous consequences in terms of a crisis of representation that leads all sorts of people to think they can set themselves up to speak, unelected, for the UK’s Muslim communities.

Bizarrely, the prevailing wisdom among liberals and left wingers is simply to buy into this kind of politics as though it were self-evident fact. For instance, many people seem to simply accept that the war in Iraq and/or the Israeli occupation of Palestine were the cause of 7/7, as though the relationship were a direct and causal one. As O’Neill puts it:

“The idea that it somehow ‘makes sense’ for Khan and his three mates to kill themselves and others in protest at British foreign policy shows the triumph of the narrow and divisive politics of identity. There is also something uncomfortably racial about it. The assumption seems to be that there’s something in Muslims’ ethnic or religious make-up that makes it more acceptable, or at least more understandable, for them to carry out murderous acts in response to wars abroad, as if they are unthinking automatons driven more by emotion and instinct than rational political thought.”

It’s uncomfortable terrain, but he has a point. Could you seriously imagine progressives arguing, that David Khoresh or Tim McVeigh were driven by root causes based in unfair US policies towards the white working class, as though that was just the obvious explanation for the former’s arming of his followers or of the murderous outrages committed by the latter? I certainly can’t imagine a set of circumstances in which that would happen.

Have a look and see what you think. It’s food for thought, anyway.

(Hat Tip: Modernity Blog)

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Meanwhile, over at the Drink Soaked Trots…

February 17, 2007 at 8:13 am (Uncategorized)

The Scylla and Charybdis of international politics, Will and JohnG, are just beginning the predictable row about a putative invasion of Iran in the comments on this post. I found the as-yet very short exchange interesting, because it throws into stark relief some of the issues between the so-called “stopper” and “decent” tendencies on the left.

Peculiar discussion, this. Especially when it’s held between two people who are both putting arguments with virtually mirror-imaged flaws. Will is by far the politically sharper of the two, and quite rightly berates John’s (and most of the left that gravitates around the SWP’s) substitution of a simple disidentification with “imperialism” and de facto identification with any forces that oppose it – however reactionary – for actual political innovation, theory and analysis in politics on a global level. The consequence, he argues, is apologism for regimes that are brutally oppressive and/or actually fascist, purely on the grounds that they find themselves ranged against “imperialism”. This is true, and can be applied to many people on that spectrum, even those not quite so stupid as to get all jelly-kneed over Muqtada Al-Sadr.

However, where he and his chums, pro-war leftists who happen (unusually for those under that label) to actually be mostly left-wing, go wrong, is that such a critique seems to the translate somehow into backing for ideologically driven offensives against various regimes in one particular region of the world, led by one of the most right-wing US administrations in that nation’s history. They seem to have some kind of collective mental block that prevents them from disentangling neo-con rhetoric about spreading democracy in the Middle East from real liberatory goals. In other words, he (and they) would seem to have done a Cohen – ie, allowed legitimate criticism of glaring flaws in the politics of a section of the left, to lead them to have illusions in political initiatives led by a particularly malevolent section of the right.

By way of criticising the SWP-dominated left, Will says:

“The category of ‘imperialism’ so dominates and negates all other options that the imagination, the faculty of forming new ideas, the ability to be creative or resourceful is made reduntant.”

Very sadly, in this political area at least, he would seem to have fallen into exactly the same trap, even if he is led to the opposite set of political conclusions. At least, that’s the case if he (and other pro-war lefties such as Transmontanus, who wrote the actual post) is working himself up towards supporting an attack on Iran. Which I rather get the impression he is.

JohnG, on the other hand, manages to come to the right conclusion for all the wrong reasons: he rightly opposes the prospective attack on Iran. But then if the USA started distributing free apples to children the world over, John and his chums in the SWP would find some reason to oppose it. So I guess if you oppose anything and everything that one nation does in the field of foreign policy, then you’re guaranteed to be right at least some of the time. And as a little Brucie Bonus, much of the closed and shrinking circle that is the trot/ex-trot left will say you’ve got “sound anti-imperialist politics”. Oh, and you might get on the SWP Central Committee.

You pays your money, you takes your choice, I guess.

Update: Hak Mao has written a response to this post on the Drink-Soaked Trots site. As ever, it’s very good – albeit that I’m apparently having a “fit of the vapours” according to Ms Mao. Take a look.

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Big Al, Bugs and that massacre

February 14, 2007 at 9:27 am (Uncategorized)

On this day, 78 years ago, the forces of Big Al rubbed out key members of George ‘Bugs’ Moran’s organisation in a Chicago garage.

This incident has long posed a quandary for principled anti-imperialists: which side would we have supported? On the face of it, the answer is easy: Big Al’s mob was the biggest, most powerful outfit in town, whereras the Moran gang were the underlings: plainly, we support Moran (this analysis will have the added appeal, for some, that Moran was a deeply religious man, whose hatred of Big Al was motivated, he claimed, by his moral objection to the Capone mob’s involvement in prostitution).

But here comes the problem for us principled folk: Moran’s outfit, though predominantly Irish, were Anglophones, and therefore the historic oppressors. The Capone organisation, on the other hand, were Sicilians – long the victims of anti-Italian stereotyping and Siciliaphobia. Their strike against Moran was, therefore an entirely justified symbolic blow against the forces of oppression and racism worldwide, and would have to be supported on that basis, even if their methods were not ours.

Just goes to show, doesn’t it, that your initial response to events isn’t always the correct one. A little thought and analysis always pays off, especially when dealing with crucial issues like this one.

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February 11, 2007 at 9:42 pm (jazz, Jim D, literature)

“Trying to put music -especially improvisatory music-into words is somewhat like trying to bottle an ocean breeze. Yet it’s not entirely impossible, as Whitney Balliett…demonstrates”.
-Nat Hentoff

There are some specialist writers who are just so good, that you can appreciate them even if you don’t give a damn about their subject. Philip Larkin summed it up well:

There is a kind of imaginative journalism that one suspects has its roots in Wilde’s ‘The Critic as Artist’. When Cardus writes ‘During his first few overs , Grace’s bat was like a stout door bolted against evil’, or Liebling reports a boxer throwing a right ‘like an old woman throwing a pie’, Wilde’s sentence about the relationship of the critic to the work of art being precisely that of the artist to the visible world comes irresistably to mind“.

What Neville Cardus was to cricket and A.J. Liebling to boxing, Whitney Balliett (who died 1 February 2007), was to jazz. There is a further connection with Liebling: both wrote for the ‘New Yorker’ magazine, and both -inevitably-came under the influence of the great ‘New Yorker’ writers James Thurber and S.J. Perelman. Unlike Liebling, Thurber and Perelman, Balliet was not a deliberate humourist, but his jazz writing nevertheless contained the wit and perception of his great predecessors.

Doug Ramsey has commented that jazz writing “generally takes one of two paths, analysis or appreciation. Whitney Balliett was not a musicologist, but one of the field’s most gifted appreciators”. Ramsay goes on to cite the following example of Balliett’s brilliance – a passage about Thelonious Monk:

“His improvisations were attempts to disguise his love of melody. He clothed whatever he played with spindly runs, flatted notes, flatted chords, repeated single notes, yawning silences, and zigzag rhythms. Sometimes he pounded the keyboard with his right elbow. His style protected him not only from his love of melody but from his love of the older pianists he grew out of – Duke Ellington and the stride pianists. All peered out from inside his solos, but he let them escape only as parody”.

As Ramsey coments: “Musicians and academic analysts often found more poetry than accuracy in some of Balliett’s lyrical descriptions …”

However, I would defy anyone to fault Balliet’s ability to describe the great personalities of jazz – their sounds, and their characters: Billie Holiday, Henry ‘Red’ Allen, Mary Lou Williams, Pee Wee Russell, the Count Basie rhythm section (“its ball-bearing motion through an almost Oriental casualness and indirection, as if the last thing in the world it wanted was to supply the rhythm for a jazz band), … right up to Ornette Coleman.

Balliet’s ability was to both describe the individual (often in great physical detail), and his/her music. He was especially good with drummers, Big Sid Catlett being a particular favourite. Here’s Balliett’s description of the man:

“Catlett was nobly constructed. He was six feet three or four inches tall, and everything was in proportion: the massive shoulders, the long arms and giant, tapering fingers, the cannon-ball fists, the barn-door chest and the tidy waist and columnular neck…big men are often more graceful than small men, and Catlett was no exception. He could swim, play football and basketball, and dance beautifully. But he never learned to drive a car”.

Now here’s Balliett’s desciption of a Catlett drum solo:

“There is a section of his long and empyrean solo in “Steak Face” on the Decca “Satchmo at Symphony Hall” album in which he plays a repeated figure with a loose, and then increasingly complex, arrangement of rim shots, and it is astonishing. It makes you want to dance and jig and shake. Its timing and taste and impetus are such that the passage stands at the very heart of rhythm. One of his simpler solos might start with unbroken, surging, snare-drum rolls, whose volume rose and fell sharply, and whose wavelike patterns became more and more intense before suddenly exploding into rim shots. Then a stunning silence-followed by lightening shots delivered all round his set, by another silence and several choked-cymbal beats, and the solo was over”… (this description of Catlett’s playing, by Balliett, continues and intensifies – see “American Musicians”- Oxford, 1986).

…If anyone knows of a better written description of a drum solo, I’d like to hear of it.

The only complaint about Balliett that holds any water, IMHO, is that of Philip Larkin (who very much liked Balliett’s writing style): ” None of the complimentary remarks about Balliett…uses the word ‘critic’, and that may be significant…(since criticism) is alien to Balliett’s purpose”.

Larkin had earlier commented;

His chief characteristic, as a critic, is that he has virtually no characteristics: in a potted biography published in 1959 it was said that Balliet ‘professes equal interest in all types of jazz’.”

In fact, Balliett did once come close to expressing a clear-cut opinion, about the avant garde jazz of the sixties (and it was an opinion with which Larkin would most certainly have agreed, had he known about it):

At its worst, then the new thing is long-winded, dull and almost physically abrasive. At its best – in the hands of Ornette Coleman or (Cecil) Taylor – it howls through the mind and heart, filling them with an honest ferocity that is new in jazz and perhaps in any music”.

But back to Balliett’s amazing ability to capture in words, both the sound of a musician, and their personality. I think the best example of both is his description of the eccentric, alcoholic clarinet genius, Pee Wee Russell. First, Pee Wee’s sound:

“In his final chorus, he moves snakily up towards the middle register with a series of tissue-paper notes and placid rests, adopting a legato attack that allows the listener to move back from the edge of his seat”.

…Now, Pee Wee’s personality:

(From his wife, Mary, describing to Balliet a time when Pee Wee left her and then came crawling back): “Once when Pee Wee had left me and was in Chicago, he came back to New York for a couple of days . He denies it. He doesn’ remember it. He went to the night club where I was working as a hat-check girl and asked to see me. I said no. The boss’s wife went out and took one look at him and came back and said ‘At least go out and talk to him. He’s pathetic. Even his feet look sad.'”

That’s why I miss you already, Whitney.

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Oh fer fuck’s sake.

February 11, 2007 at 9:19 am (Uncategorized)

Just a quick one now.

Some of you may remember that some days ago I wrote another post explaining to the thick and uninspired why Jon Cruddas isn’t very left wing. In the course of that I had a less than subtle dig at Dave Osler, who at that time had just written something to the effect that he might vote for Cruddas if no-one better showed up. Predictably, Dave remained splendidly aloof from my barbed words – showing himself to be one of the few political class acts remaining on the left in the process.

However, in the course of the same post I tangentially mentioned some more certain Cruddas supporters, including one Antonia Bance, an ex-student leftie from Oxford University and now Labour councillor, whom I called “allegedly left wing”. I’d always thought this was a fairly simple phrase, meaning that someone claims to be left wing, but that I can’t see how that claim is justified. Not a big deal, and an opinion that can be retracted on production of some evidence to the contrary.

But no. First in the comments her (presumably) pal Don Paskini took me to task for my “spiteful attack” on her. He was, however, pacified once I explained that this was not a plot on part of “my comrades” (by whom one presumes he meant the AWL) to undermine her by, err, being mean. So all was well.

But now… she’s bloody posting about it herself! Apparently my little chiding words count as a “denunciation” in the rarefied atmosphere of Oxfordian politics. All I can say is that politics amid the ivory towers must be fairly Queensbury rules compared to the rest of the country, if “allegedly left wing” is an excessively pejorative thing to say about someone. Perhaps someone should introduce her to Will for a bit of toughening-up…

Antonia, I’m sure you’re a jolly nice person, left wing or not. Chin up. Pip-pip. TTFN.

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February 10, 2007 at 10:08 pm (Uncategorized)

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingPant-pissingly funny interview of the week can be found in the current Weekly Worker, where Peter Manson interviews Yasir Idris, the recruitment consultant who beat SWP full timer Helen Salmon to the Respect nomination for a seat in the next set of elections to Birmingham City Council. The article reveals a lot about the state of Respect and its internal politics – remember before reading it that Birmingham is one of their better areas, with the politically credible Salma Yaqoob standing an outside chance of taking a parliamentary seat at the next general election.

Idris certainly has a firm social background in the West Midlands:

“My father has been a businessman. Back in 1978, when I was born, my father owned most of the Ladypool Road. It’s known now as ‘Balti junction’ because of the number of restaurants there. He owned various retail units – clothes shops, newsagents, travel agents, restaurants, etc, etc. My father owned a good 20 shops on that stretch.”

What’s more, the family’s prestige may have helped with the (alleged) joiners on voting day who helped put Yasir over the top in the candidate selection ballot:

“It’s probably because of my influence as well. I’m well known among these people and my family are well known. I helped convince these people – hey, we do need members. Respect needs to move forward among the Asian community. We need to join together as a coalition, in unity with everyone else, to show these people that, yes, we can live side by side and we can live united.”

He’s not entirely au fait with Respect’s policies, but is apparently reading up on them. This news will doubtless come as a comfort to the SWP, who were so careful not to allow anything too radical through when writing them. Perhaps they had Yasir in mind?

Anyway, read the rest of it here. It really is incredibly funny. Unless you’re Helen Salmon or the SWP, that is.

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13th Carnival of Socialism

February 10, 2007 at 1:25 pm (Uncategorized)

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingOkay then, I’ve settled on a topic. This came to me via a problem that Stroppy had when she did the last carnival. Namely that in a carnival with a topic as supposedly broad as “liberation politics and the left”, she was (dismally but predictably) deluged with posts about Iraq and Palestine.

Now, before you all start going on, I know that they’re important issues. I know that the implications for global politics in both cases stretch well beyond the borders of either nation. And I know that most of what is written about them by people on the left is part of a genuine effort to show solidarity.

But… nevertheless I’d argue that the disproportionate coverage of both issues on the left is indicative of biases that we need to address. To read the sheer volume of left-wing writing on those subjects, you would think that nowhere else in the world even existed. Or that if it did, then there’s certainly no problem there. Uzbekistan? North Korea? Chad? Western Sahara? Algeria? All minor diversions from the struggle to liberate Palestine, comrade (although we’ll allow for a quick “Ooh ah Hezbollah” on the related issue of the Lebanon if we’re in a particularly moronic mood). Oh, and let’s not forget the struggle of those great progressives in the Mehdi Army, who so carry the banner of anti-imperialism in Iraq!

Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating. But not much. You only have to take a couple of steps backwards to see just how crass and myopic this obsession looks to the wider world.

So, following from that drumroll, the topic for the 13th Carnival of Socialism is “Why is the left obsessed with the Middle East?”.

Deadline will be February 24th 2007. You therefore have a fortnight folks – contributions to me either by email to voltaire_reincarnate@lycos.com or if you prefer, via link in the comments. From long posts to acidic one-liners, anything contributed (however mad) will be most welcome.

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Watch this space

February 10, 2007 at 10:37 am (Uncategorized)

Seeing as I faithfully promised Angliss that I’d do the next Carnival of Socialism, I suppose I’d better pull my finger out and do something about it. I shall have a ponder, and by the end of today I’ll have a topic and a deadline for all you incisive political bloggers out there. Watch this space for details.

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Big man, big voice (Ave Frankie, 1913-2007)

February 8, 2007 at 7:43 pm (jazz, Jim D)

High Noon (“Oh Don’t Forsake Me Oh Mah Dahlin'”), Gunfight at the OK Corral, Rawhide…etc; etc: those of us brought up on cowboy films and television series, will immediately recognise the voice of Big Frankie, (March 30 1913- February 6 2007) which was usually much more memorable than the film or TV series whose opening credits he sang over.

His big-vibratoed, emotive voice (early influences included Bessie Smith and Enrico Caruso) was – perhaps- little over the top, but ideal for horse operas, which are essentially melodramas.

He was a much more sophisticated musician than you might assume. His friend, the late Richard Boston quotes him from a 1974 interview: “In Lucky Old Sun (1957) in the middle of the bridge going into the last eight bars, I come in a fourth higher, which is startling -yet in this song it seems natural. A third higher is more normal.You don’t expect a fourth”. Boston comments: “When did a singer last say anything like that in an interview?”

Boston closes with: “He was a great singer, and a really nice man”.

So it’s perhaps not so surprising to learn that Frankie always regarded himself first and foremost as a jazz singer, whose early role model was Nat “King” Cole. And in 1955 he made a truly top-class jazz album with an all-star band organised by trumpeter Buck Clayton, entitled “Jazz Spectacular”; it’s well woth obtaining (last I heard, it was available on a’ Columbia Legacy’ CD CK 65507).

But none of that is intended to disparage his cowboy songs (including the theme for Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles!): so long pard’ner.

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