2016

[Sent April 27, 2015]

HELLOOO FOLKS! I hope your Monday’s going well. News! I’ve started archiving these things on a WordPress here if you don’t like reading emails.

News

Apologies for the late email. I meant to write this yesterday, but I was too busy seeing the thriller and early Oscar contender Unfriended.

So. The 2016 U.S. presidential election. We’re a solid year and a half away but the election Wikipedia page already has more citations than the page for the Presidency itself. For a while there I had this idealistic dream that I would ignore the horse race and only start writing about the election when it officially started, but the recent candidacy announcements are just dominating the news cycle and there are some interesting things going on so here we are.

The 2016 presidential election will be notable primarily because of the sheer amount of cash that’s going to be involved. This is the first open election for America’s highest elected office since the 2010 Citizens United decision, and the first presidential election since McCutcheon vs. FEC, and in terms of legal analysis we can just cut through all the bullshit and say that in 2016, people can give as much money as they can to however many candidates(‘s Super PACs) they want. People meaning corporations and billionaires, and money meaning speech.

In the 2012 race, Obama and Romney and their various PACs spent a bit over $2 billion dollars. They’re saying this one might be $10 billion. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Citizens United that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption … the appearance of influence or access will not cause the electorate to lose faith in this democracy” seemed naive at the time, but the 2016 election is where we will really see how destructive that naivete has been to the American experiment.

Who’s running, anyway? The Republicans have a gigantic and of course very classy field of wingnuts including (in order of odds of being elected) Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, John Kasich, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush. The last four are at least vaguely electable, and Kasich, Rubio, and Bush have the advantage of just pretending to be wingnuts, but everyone on the list either has or will have their own private billionaires whose cash will keep them active deep into the primary.

The other thing is that there are virtually no policy differences on this list. They’re all running in the same deep-red primary, and they’ll all toe the line. Pundits talk about Jeb Bush the moderate, but when he rolls out a platform next month we’re going to see boilerplate conservative talking points. Same with Rand Paul, who as a “libertarian” would in some other electoral system be capable of exploiting the natural divisions in American politics (obviously isolationist and warhawk Republicans, but also classical liberal Freedom Democrats and social democracy Equality Democrats), but in this one ends up saying the same shit as everyone else. This is unfortunate for the party. Young people and minorities broadly disapprove of the Republican platform, and the solution to that problem is not, as the party seems to believe, trotting out gleaming young robots like Marco Rubio who say they like Tupac.

This is going to be a long, entertaining brawl, but all this talk of the True Conservative Candidate finally winning the nomination is going to fizzle out like it has every four years since Barry Goldwater nuked that little girl in 1964. Just like in 2012, the establishment candidate will steamroll the rabid conservative opposition with his millions, and just like in 2012, the rabid conservative opposition will get its revenge by pushing the candidate (Jeb) so far to the right as to make him unelectable. (Which isn’t really a negative. These days it seems like modern conservatives, like liberals in the 50s, seem to fetishize losing, as if it’s just evidence of Mitt or Adlai’s holy purity).

And then there’s Hillary. After intimidating the rest of the Democratic Party out of the race, she now only has to contend with the copacetic but spectacularly doomed Martin “Eat It, Windmill!” O’Malley, who will probably end up digging ditches in Antarctica when Clinton wins this thing. It’s remarkable how this ultimate global elite insider who has been the center of a vast, venal network dealing in money, power, influence, and secrecy for more than two decades is now the Voice of the Downtrodden, but, hell, at least she’s not Ted Cruz (I’m assuming that’ll be her campaign slogan). Lately you can see a rhetorical shift leftwards in terms of economics, but honestly, just as you have to ignore the Republican field’s records (and instead look to the far-right party platform) when thinking about the candidates’ possible policy directions, you have to ignore every word Hillary says between now and November 8, 2016 because we already know her politics (centrist, interventionist, business-friendly, technocratic) and her governing style (aspirationally but ineptly secretive, combative, effective). It’s times like these that I have to remind myself what world we live in, and that voting for the lesser evil is part of democracy. But that’s all eighteen months away.

In other news, the two most ineffective groups in Washington gather for some joyous mutual masturbation, Ben Affleck continues his assault on history, Slate’s crack news team determines that Chipotle’s new delivery option inspires a “complex blend of emotions,” George W. Bush displays his deep grasp of irony, and after six short months we have a new attorney general!

On a positive note, courtesy of the wonderful Ms. Laura Hughes, an anonymous donor in Seattle pays off a landslide victim’s $350,000 mortgage!

Interesting Stuff

1. Susan Ager, “Tough, Cheap, and Real, Detroit is Cool Again” for National Geographic.

Really well-written story about the beginning of Detroit’s long comeback. Gritty, raw, occasionally heartwarming.

2. Julian Assange, “How ‘The Guardian’ Milked Edward Snowden’s Story” for Newsweek.

Kind of legendarily nasty review of Guardian writer Luke Harding’s new Snowden book from a guy who knows a little something about the story. “As hack jobs by Luke Harding go, a lot of work has gone into this one.”

3. Ed Cumming, “Matthew Crawford: ‘Distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind'” in the Guardian.

And a Guardian piece for fairness’ sake. Interesting book about how us moderns are all a screen away from the real world.

4. Tim Judah, “Ukraine: Inside the Deadlock” in the New York Review of Books.

Great, short piece on the current state of affairs in Ukraine. Good background and anecdotes.

5. Ken Armstrong, “Broken on the Wheel” for the Paris Review.

One of those lovely history-nerd pieces about how Voltaire started the modern anti death penalty crusade. Awesome story.

6. Ellie Hall, “Gone Girl: An Interview with an American in ISIS” for Buzzfeed.

Buzzfeed coming in with some great journalism. Fascinating and stunning throughout.

Music

THROWBACKS

1. Iggy Pop just killing “China Girl” at the peak of his Iggyness at the Ritz in New York, 1986.

2. Johnny Cash doing “Five Feet High and Rising” in the early 60s. How high’s the water, Mama?

3. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, “Less Than Zero” at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ, 1978.

“A pistol was still smoking, a man lay on the floor / Mr. Oswald said he had an understanding with the law…”

Argentina

[Sent April 20, 2015]

News

Argentina has been in the news lately, and for all the lovely familiar Argentine reasons. Bankruptcy furylabor strikesinflation denialFalkland Islands muscle-flexing, and of course Nazi hideouts are all making headlines, along with a demand for the arrest of Justin Bieber. It all seems like interesting timing to me. Why would President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner suddenly provoke a diplomatic crisis with the United Kingdom? And sue one of the biggest banks on the planet?

Well, maybe because the biggest criminal investigation in Argentine history is going down right now, and President de Kirchner is right in the middle of it.

On July 18, 1994, a suicide bomber drove a van loaded with a six-hundred pound fertilizer bomb into a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. The explosion killed eighty-five people and injured more than three hundred. No organization claimed responsibility for the attack, but Israeli and American intelligence laid the blame on Iran, acting through Lebanese Shi’a militia group Hizbollah; along with a great deal of other evidence, two years earlier, Hizbollah had bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. However, Argentina’s investigation into the bombing was a farce from the beginning. This BBC article notes the “repeated incompetence and deception” in the government case, writing “No proper autopsies or DNA tests were done on human remains at the site. In one of the most shocking incidents, police simply dumped in a bin a head found near the scene thought to have been that of the bomber.” Other incidents are almost comical. A federal judge presiding over the investigation was caught on tape offering a witness $400,000 in return for evidence. Argentine officials seized a suspect in Britain, but couldn’t even meet the evidentiary requirements to have him extradited. An investigator was kidnapped and tortured, allegedly by fearful Argentine intelligence agents. Why the screw-ups? Reports emerged that then-Argentine President Carlos Menem had intentionally obstructed the investigation in return for a $10 million bribe from Iran.

After ten years of embarrassing failures and under domestic pressure, in 2005 President Nestor Kirchner (Cristina’s husband), apologized to the world and to the Jewish community of the country, calling the government’s response a “national disgrace” and accepting a share of the blame. A new chief prosecutor was named: a Jewish Argentine named Alberto Nisman. Nisman plodded along in the mostly lip-service investigation for nine years, with the most exciting development probably being in 2013 when Nestor’s successor/wife Cristina announced her intention to set up a “truth commission” with Iran to look into the bombing, which is a little like teaming up with Osama bin Laden to find out what happened on 9/11. It became clear that Argentina had no intention of revealing what was certainly incriminating information. Besides, Iran was expanding its influence with left-wing leaders in Latin America, and under Cristina exports to Iran had ballooned to more than a billion dollars annually.

But then Alberto Nisman went rogue.

On January 14, 2015, Nisman delivered a 300-page presentation to a federal court accusing Cristina of covering up Iran’s involvement in the bombing, alleging with “irrefutable proof” that the president had “conducted secret negotiations with Iran through non-diplomatic channels in 2013, and offered to cover up the involvement of Iranian officials in return for oil to ease Argentina’s chronic energy deficit.” Under the proposed deal, which was never finalized due to the inability of Argentine officials to get Iranian suspects removed from Interpol’s arrest list, Argentine grain was to be exchanged for desperately-needed Iranian oil. Four days later, just hours before he was due to present his findings to parliament, Nisman was found in his apartment with a bullet in his head.

Amid the national uproar that followed, the government claimed it was a suicide. Cristina declared the allegations baseless, dissolved the country’s security service, and began to lash out against any enemies she could find. Her government took out a full-page ad in national newspapers accusing Nisman of attempting to destabilize the country. In a four-hour speech in March she made vague allegations against Israel, claiming “the country had shown tremendous interest in getting justice for the community centre bombing but not in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires” and trying to link Nisman’s death to the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran in some kind of vast Middle Eastern conspiracy. The President has also announced plans to revive the “truth commission” with Iran that Nisman had singled out as a specific result of the secret negotiations.

To call Cristina embattled is something of an understatement. Hundreds of thousands of protesters are yelling “Yo soy Nisman!” in Buenos Aires. They found Nisman’s own gun in a storage area, prompting the question of why he would kill himself with someone else’s. Yesterday Argentina’s former intelligence chief fled the country. Things are coming to a head, and so I am not surprised in the least that the government is making waves about the Falkland Islands and Citibank and Justin goddamn Bieber.

In other news, it’s Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts, a public holiday dedicated to civic pride, historical remembrance, and drunk teenagers heckling exhausted marathon runners. Besides that, a Florida man flies a gyrocopter onto the Capitol lawn in an attempt to raise awareness for alligator rights, Aaron Hernandez prepares to just dominate prison, Elon Musk’s rocket blew up, and the Surgeon General is denying reports of Elmo’s autism.

Interesting Stuff

1. Jack Thayer, “Jumping Ship: Getting Off the Titanic” for Lapham’s Quarterly.

Jack’s story of surviving the Titanic. This is an absolutely wild story.

2. Yaroslav Trofimov, “Would New Borders Mean Less Conflict in the Middle East?” for the Wall Street Journal.

Hint: No. There’s a lot of good analysis here about the future of the Middle East.

3. Graham E. Fuller, “Hidden Agendas in Yemen” on his blog.

Nice, short rundown of the different actors affecting the issues in Yemen. Interesting bits for every state.

4. Bill Jensen, “The Insane Story of the Guy Who Killed the Guy Who Killed Lincoln” for the Washingtonian.

Despite the Buzzfeed headline, this is a fascinating story about the self-castrating religious madman who killed John Wilkes Booth and fled West.

5. John Antonioni, “Game of Thrones: why hasn’t Westeros had an industrial revolution?” for The Conversation.

Deal with it.

Music

1. Hiss Golden Messenger, “Lucia” at WFUV in New York.

2. Parker Millsap, “Truck Stop Gospel” for Blackwatch Studios.

3. Steve Earle, “Tom Ames’ Prayer” live at the Factory Theatre in Sydney.

Rwanda

[Sent April 13, 2015]

News

“So what’s the deal with Rwanda?” is a question you do not hear very often. The last thing most of us heard about the country was back in 1994, when for perhaps the worst hundred days in human history the country’s Hutu majority organized the systematic genocide of almost one million Tutsi Rwandans. But that was (almost exactly) twenty-one years ago. And things have been very interesting in Rwanda since then.

On the Fourth of July, 1994, with hundreds of thousands of Tutsis lying dead in the cities and countryside of the tiny country, a Tutsi RPF rebel commander named Paul Kagame led a ragtag army of genocide survivors in a desperate attack against the Hutu-held capital, Kigali. Outnumbered, outgunned, and opposed by an indifferent or openly hostile West, Kagame defeated the Hutu forces, rescued the remaining Tutsi civilians, and drove the genocidal government out of the country. The RPF, led by Kagame, took over the country, and here the same old story changed. Almost three quarters of the Tutsis in the country were dead: the mothers, fathers, siblings, children of the RPF militia. The nation and the world at large braced themselves for the inevitable revenge massacres. But Kagame demanded an end to the killing. And it ended.

The state of the nation in post-genocide Rwanda was horrible. The new coalition government had to deal with lingering Hutu insurgencies, a mass HIV epidemic spread by war rape, millions of refugees, and a terrified population in one of the poorest countries on the planet. So what happened?

Simply put, to quote Jeffrey Gettleman, “No country in Africa, if not the world, has so thoroughly turned itself around in so short a time.” Paul Kagame, who had been a brilliant general, turned out to be quite a president as well. You can go down the list of Rwanda’s problems and see the effect his technocratic government has had. Poverty? The World Bank’s current lofty development goals seek to build on “remarkable development successes over the last decade which include high growth, rapid poverty reduction and, since 2005, reduced inequality. Between 2001 and 2014, real GDP growth averaged at about 9% per annum.” Kagame has built hundreds of schools to educate the population and championed women’s rights in government and the private sector, and his government has made Rwanda one of the best places on the continent to do business. Health? A new national health insurance program has reduced child mortality by 70% and increased life expectancy by 20 years. A massive malaria eradication campaign has slashed rates by 82%. Inter-ethnic relations? This one is trickier. The government has passed laws to effectively prohibit people from identifying as an ethnic group, but is regularly accused of favoring Tutsis. However, the days of massacres are over: Rwanda is now one of the safest countries in Africa.

As you have probably guessed, there is a catch. Paul Kagame, the frugal man with the modest house who famously stays up until 3 AM every night researching economic and social development, the man who speed-dials the Clintons and Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates to figure out solutions to Rwanda’s problems, is more or less a dictator. Rwanda is technically a democracy, and has a parliament and elected officials and basic rule of law, but twenty-one years after he took power, it also has a President Paul Kagame, and he’s not going anywhere. He sees himself as a man on a mission, and does not tolerate alternate narratives: his government ruthlessly suppresses political dissent and harasses and occasionally imprisons opposition journalists. My view on this, however, is fairly sympathetic. Two decades ago, Rwandans were massacring each other by the hundreds of thousands, and the region is not short on Hutu militias still preaching the genocide gospel. The most important thing for the country is stability and security, and as Aneeth Kaur Hundle writes, “the mode of governance via security politics (the promise of security of bodies in exchange for the compromise of other freedoms and rights) [has] become the norm in post-conflict Rwanda.” (The major donor agencies and development banks agree with me– Hundle calls him “the global elite’s favorite strongman”– but perhaps more cynically: they need a poster boy in order to keep working, and Rwanda, despite the human rights abuses, is a champion in an industry without many.) At any rate, recent history is full of examples of tribal countries that have democratized too quickly. Among the most successful development/democratization stories of the 20th century were South Korea, Singapore, Brazil, and Taiwan, all terribly poor countries with authoritarian governments who slowly built up infrastructure, institutions, and social capital, created world-class economies, and then surrendered the reigns to the people. They’re not calling Rwanda the Singapore of Africa for nothing.

Rwanda, as Taylor Mayol argues, “is an eco-friendly place of hope, innovation, available healthcare, and economic progress, but it is also a place whose government refuses to allow political identities to reflect the diversity of beliefs in Rwandaness.” But that might be exactly what the country needs right now.

In other news, Hillary Clinton tells us that we’re allowed to elect her president now, an Italian surgeon/lunatic announces plans for the world’s first human head transplant, apparently Argentina’s government has nothing better to do than hunt down Justin Bieber, and Florida is filled with baby-eating pythons!

This week’s Uplifting News Story of the Week! A new program to feed homeless and underprivileged families in Minneapolis, courtesy of Ms. Laura Hughes.

Interesting Stuff

1. Sierra Crane-Murdoch, “Sugar Days” for VQR.

This is one of the best essays I have read in a long, long time. Narrative about drifters, “the modern proletariat”, working the sugar beet harvest in North Dakota. Read this.

2. “George Washington’s Rules of Civility” for NPR.

George’s list of 110 social maxims. Fascinating (the obsession with social station!). Most are good advice: “A man ought not to value himself of his achievements or rare qualities of wit; much less of his riches, virtue or kindred.” A few have aged: “Kill no vermin, or fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others. . .”

3. Matt Kennard and Claire Provost, “Burma’s Bizarre Capital” for the Pulitzer Center

What happens when you build a giant gleaming new capital city in the middle of the jungle and no one lives there? Weird stuff, apparently.

4. Matthew Cunningham-Cook, David Sirota, and Andrew Perez, “As Colombian Oil Money Flowed To Clintons, State Department Took No Action To Prevent Labor Violations” for the International Business Times.

Great reporting, absolutely infuriating story. Sec. State Hillary suddenly cared a lot less about labor issues in Colombia after her foundation got a multi-million dollar donation from oil executives. Makes me wonder what else was in those deleted emails. I would think this would disqualify someone from being president, but what do I know?

5. Oliver Burkeman, “David Brooks: I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard” in the Guardian.

Interview. America’s least favorite weekly columnist knows it. I’ve always liked David Brooks. I feel like there’s something romantic about his dedication to holding opinions that make him culturally irrelevant. And this is an illuminating piece. “But, you know – you should be a little sadder, sometimes.”

Music

1. Father John Misty does “Chateau Lobby #4” for WFUV in New York.

2. Gary Clark, Jr. sings “Travis County” on Austin City Limits.

3. My future wife Caroline Rose, “Blood on Your Bootheels” for a One On One Session at The Public Theater, NYC.

Speech

[Sent April 6, 2015]

News

I want to write about free speech, starting with the controversy swirling around South African comedian Trevor Noah, the guy slated to replace Jon Stewart on the Daily Show later this year. Within about eight seconds of his announcement as Stewart’s successor, the internet exploded. Noah has nine thousand tweets on record dating back to 2009, and, surprisingly, some of them suck! Like this gem: “Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I’m sexy!- fat chicks everywhere.”

Now, this is hackneyed crap of the sort that bad comics have been leaning on since television came out. But I think that’s Noah’s greatest sin here, especially considering his long history of solid material. Others disagree. Noah has been subject to a rage-fusillade demanding his ouster, with the outrage industry, America’s only thriving economic sector, claiming antisemitism (including from right-wingers trying to win Jewish voters in the wake of the Obama/Netanyahu drama), racism, fat-shaming, misogyny, and homophobia. And yeah, the tweets are offensive. It’s hard to read something like “Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car!” without cringing. But the bigger question, the one that the outrage industry has yet to effectively answer, is so what?

Trevor Noah probably won this round (check out Patton Oswalt’s response), but the stakes are higher elsewhere, for me most interestingly on college campuses. I’ll let Jonathan Chait at New York explain what we’re talking about:

“. . . a growing number of campuses, professors now attach “trigger warnings” to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate ‘microaggressions,’ or small social slights that might cause searing trauma. These newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first p.c. movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses. Stanford recently canceled a performance of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson after protests by Native American students. UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student’s decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase I — one example of many ‘perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies.’ A theater group at Mount Holyoke College recently announced it would no longer put on The Vagina Monologues in part because the material excludes women without vaginas.”

I saw this sort of thing first-hand at my own school, and this is an issue that I care a lot about. It does not take too much exaggeration to say that places of learning are being transformed into tightly-buttoned centers of thought-policing, a charge led by crusading students and faculty and abetted by fearful administrators. And the thing is, if we’re talking about actually combating bigotry, free speech is the only successful approach. The metaphor that works best here, I think, is an economic one. Jonathan Rauch talks about the political marketplace: you put forth an idea, it is bought or sold, increases or decreases in value as open debate approves or disapproves. Good ideas rise, bad ones fall. This is the only way to successfully fight bigotry of any form. It’s why gay rights have gone from 0 to 60 in ten years. Because we can see what happens when you criminalize a product in the economic marketplace. Pot is illegal. It was pushed out of the open market and onto the black market. And when certain types of speech are penalized, they go underground as well. A student will keep her hand down because she thinks her comment about the Berlin Conference might be perceived as colonialist or her theories about Chaucer might reflect her privilege. And maybe they are. But no one finds out. What we are left with is an atomized student population, isolated in bubbles, secure and unchallenged and uneducated.

To me, what is most frightening about the new outrage movement is its fundamental alien-ness. Americans are inheritors of a small-l liberal tradition of free speech stretching back to Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, Enlightenment thinkers that saw absolute freedom of speech as the most important facet of a free society. The United States is the country with the strongest speech protections in the world because, as a nation, we have agreed that open debate is a precious thing and must be defended. This new movement rejects that tradition. And that’s scary. All this bull about Trevor Noah and Kimmy Schmidt isn’t just silliness. It’s a challenge to liberalism.

In other news, we might not have to invade Iran, Jeb Bush declares he is a proud Hispanic-American, Florida remains the only state where firefighters have to deploy hoses to stop bee rampages, America gets even Furious-er, and Happy Opening Day, America! Go Sox.

Interesting Stuff

1. Dr. Dean Burnett, “Why People Keep Electing Idiots” in The Guardian.

Right? Burnett, a neuroscientist, explains the link between trust, confidence, and intelligence. It’s not good.

2. Bryan Burrough, “Meet the Weather Underground’s Bomb Guru” in Vanity Fair.

Reads like a novel. Super interesting story about America’s most infamous domestic terrorist group.

3. Francis Fukuyama, “Dealing with ISIS” in The American Interest.

Short, level-headed analysis of what we need to do. I agree with everything here.

4. Robert Wachter, “How Medical Tech Gave a Patient a Massive Overdose” in Medium.

Hey Epic people! This one’s about you! Interesting dive into the decision chain at UCSF hospital.

And a couple bonus things:

There’s something heartbreaking and weird and fascinating here: Watch a lyre bird imitate the sound of a chainsaw.

I don’t buy a lot of the arguments about overpopulation but here’s some really cool photos.

Music

THROWBACK BLUES WEEK!

1. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (with Otis Spann), “Walk On” Live in France, 1974.

AND Otis Spann killing it on the piano.

2. Mance Lipscomb, “Motherless Children” from A Well Spent Life, 1971.

He uses a knife as a slide. That is all.

3. Mississippi John Hurt, “Lonesome Valley” from “Rainbow Quest,” 1965,

My favorite old blues player.

Middle East Dysfunction, Pt. 2

[Sent March 31, 2015]

News

I’ve been out of town and haven’t had much time to sit down and write, so this is going to be a short one. I want to write a quick follow-up to last week’s email, based off this article by Gary Brecher in Pando, since the two dovetail nicely. If you recall, last week I made the argument that the Middle East is primarily such a mess because it has been subject to colonial rule for most of the past six hundred years or so and hasn’t gotten a chance to participate in the big, nation-building trends that have created strong states in Europe: namely, mass-scale ethnic cleansing and assimilation and centuries of warfare (which drives state centralization via increased taxation).

I more or less ended my history with Arab independence in the years following World War II, where Brecher picks it up. He makes the point that after France and Britain left, Arab states began a modernization drive. In keeping with their post-colonial status, this drive had a distinctly leftist bent and a whole philosophy behind it: Arab socialism (which broke into Nasserism and Ba’athism, among others). This was pan-Arab nationalism with a little light Marxism at its core, heavy on Cold War neutrality, egalitarianism, and, most importantly, secularism. While in power in the 50s and 60s its governments (in Syria, Yemen, and most significantly Egypt under Nasser) suffered from the same structural issues that every socialist government does, but they were fundamentally modern: they pushed for industrialization, reform, and, again secularism. Which sounds pretty good (and pretty surprising) looking at the region with our 2015 eyes. What happened to those Arabs?

Brecher’s answer is grim. Sure, those governments were modernizing, but to the United States and our allies the more important issue was that they were socialists. And thus enemies. Brecher uses Yemen as an example: in 1967, after the British were forced out, Nasser’s Egypt backed a coup by modernizing Yemeni officers against the Shia ruler. The Saudis, who were left out of the Arab Socialism drive and were as knee-jerk crazy in 1967 as they are now, hated this new secularism, as did the United States, who found it a bit too left-wing. And so what happened? The U.S., Britain, Israel, and Saudi Arabia (among others) funded fanatical Islamist militants to overthrow this modernizing secular government. The same guys (literally) who are now yelling “Death to America! Death to Israel!” in the streets of San’aa. This short-sighted pattern  reoccurred, as Brecher writes, “over and over again, against every single faction trying to make a modern, secular Arab world, whether on the Nasserite, Ba’athist, Socialist, Communist, or other model . . . Arabs are reduced to choosing which Allah and which Emir to support because a half-century alliance between the . . . West and the most reactionary elements in their countries wiped out the alternative. That’s why it’s so grotesque to hear right-wingers blaming the Arabs for the lack of commitment to democracy and even more ridiculous that Leftists demand respect for fascist thugs like Islamic State, as if they were the voice of the Muslim people. These sectarian wars are what’s left when you’ve killed everybody else who was attempting to provide Arabs with an effective, secular, modern existence.”

Food for thought, eh?

In other news, Scott Walker continues to impress, apparently more that ten million Americans claim Obama is a Muslim but also support him, Indiana is great as always (Arkansas: “Yeah, that went pretty well up there, so …”), let’s all get excited for Trevor Noah, and you really just have to admire the balls on this guy.

Here I’ll introduce a new item: courtesy of Laura Hughes, the Uplifting News Story of the Week!

Interesting Stuff

1. Barack Obama and David Simon for Whitehouse.com.

Barack Obama interviews David Simon, the creator of The Wire, on the war on drugs, inner city poverty, and education. What else do you even want?

2. Andrew Marr, “The Centre Cannot Hold” in the New Statesman.

Great summary of the state of democracy in the U.K., but I think the conclusions can be extended to Europe and partly to the U.S.

3. Kathy Gilsinan, “The Return of the Mercenary” in the Atlantic.

Kind of astonishing interview about the recent rise of armies-for-hire after 400 years of state monopolies on violence.

4. Kai Friese, “India’s Great Wall” in n+1.

Fascinating look at India’s slow-growing border fence between it and Bangladesh. It gets complicated when you have Indian enclaves inside of Bangladesh inside of India inside of Bangladesh.

5. Ekaterina Loushnikova, “Interview With a Murderer” for Open Democracy.

It’s an interview with Valya, a Russian woman/inmate who just keeps trying to kill people. Everything about this seems very Russian.

Music

1. Lightnin’ Hopkins, “That Woman Named Mary” from The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins.

This is the coolest video ever made.

2. Deer Tick, “The Bump” for the BeatCast Live series.

Crazy bar band being crazy. At a show in Madison I saw the lead singer play a solo with his genitals. He might be the grossest person alive.

3. The Felice Brothers, “Marie” at the Firebird in St. Louis

Another great bar band. “I thought I was smart enough / I read Moby Dick and stuff.”

Middle East Dysfunction

[Sent March 23, 2015]

Hello and happy Monday!

News

Recently, I’ve heard a lot of people blaming the nightmare factory that is today’s Middle East on arbitrary European border-drawing (and, weirdly, “Sykes-Picot” has become a jihadist rallying cry). While European colonialism is guilty of many sins, I really don’t think this is one of them. After World War I, France and Britain took the corpse of the Ottoman Empire and divided it up. The theory goes that they drew a series of arbitrary borders that ignited ethnic tensions, and that they should have created more homogeneous states. Well, here’s an ethnic map of what they were dealing with. Faced with this almost inconceivable heterogeneity, Britain and France mostly just used the old Ottoman province borders. The only actually artificial state they created, Jordan, turned out to be the most stable Arab polity of the 20th century. So I don’t buy that argument. It seems to me that the principal cause of Mid-East dysfunction is the fact that the peoples of the region have never had a chance to grow: to divide themselves, fight wars, and form real, battle-tested states and borders.

1918 saw the end of World War I, in which the Ottoman Empire happened to choose the losing side. Its Caliph-Sultans had controlled the Middle East for hundreds of years (map). This means that from roughly the fifteenth up to the twentieth century, while the peoples of Europe were fighting war after war (often against the Ottomans), consolidating state power, assimilating or purging religious and ethnic minorities, and rising above tribal bonds to form strong, modern governments, the peoples of the Middle East were not. This incredibly religiously and ethnically diverse region didn’t get a chance to participate in the Great Sorting that created the modern nation-state: they were too busy being crushed under the thumb of the Ottoman Empire. Much has been made in recent scholarship of the Empire’s ‘toleration’ of ethnic and religious minorities, but in terms of basic facts this was an absolute monarchy that pounded everyone who wasn’t a Turkish Sunni into submission, occasionally taking a dip in the genocide pool when the Armenians or Greeks or Kurds got too inconvenient. The region was never allowed to develop politically or socially, and without the centuries of warfare it takes to establish nationalities and borders, loyalties remained with tribe, religion, and clan.

The Europeans just picked up where the Sultans left off. After World War I, Britain and France divided up the Ottoman Empire, grabbed the parts they wanted, and installed puppet regimes (map). The Ottomans, being Sunnis, had given preferential treatment to their Sunni subjects. The other groups, naturally, hated the local Sunnis who did the Sultan’s bidding, and when the Europeans took power they chose to favor these formerly marginalized minorities. ‘Divide and rule’ maintained control: by empowering one tribe, the Ottomans and then the Europeans focused a country’s resentment against itself instead of against the colonizers, hardening ethnic divisions and preventing the population from uniting. This would have terrible effects after independence.

In what is now Syria, for example, the French pushed aside the majority Sunni ruling class and decided to support the Alawites. This small tribe which had been violently repressed for centuries suddenly found that they could join the army, rise through the ranks, and wield real power over their Sunni former masters. In the storm of factional conflict following the departure of the French in 1946 the heavily-Alawite army was able to seize power, and from 1970 right up to Bashar Al-Assad the Alawites have ruled over the Sunni majority with an iron fist. The current civil war is what happened when the Sunnis decided to try and retake the country.

After World War II the Europeans left too, and all of a sudden the Middle East was independent. During the Cold War the region, with such fragile institutions and such deep sectarian divides (exacerbated by a series of colonial rulers), was dominated by dictators or monarchies propped up, of course, by either the U.S. or the Soviets. And, since the states of the Middle East have gained independence there have been warsSo many wars. But I think that’s normal. These countries have been independent for less than a hundred years; it took Europe centuries of vicious internecine conflict to create the nation-states that exist today. The history of France, for example, is a story of gradually increasing state centralization pushed by endless warfare, ethnic cleansing and assimilation, and the extermination of religious minorities. Why is the Middle East so screwed up? My answer is because they haven’t gotten the chance to fight themselves out of it.

In other news, Joe Biden incites a race war, the nation prepares itself for President Ted Cruz, California had a good run at least, Bibi Netanyahu endorses apartheid, and this one might be a little on the nose, guys.

Interesting Stuff

1. Clancy Martin, “We Buy Broken Gold” in Lapham’s Quarterly.

Lovely personal reflection on the gold-scamming industry from the ’70s up to today.

2. Yuval Noah Harari, “The Theatre of Terror” in the Guardian.

Terrorism and security as stage productions. Especially good for the last bit about the implications of WMD terrorism.

3. Scott Carrier, “The FInal Rhapsody of Charles Bowden” in Mother Jones.

Intense, unsettling portrait of a guy who spoke truth to power.

4. Mark Lilla, “Slouching Towards Mecca” in The New York Review of Books.

Courtesy of Mr. Lionel Barrow. I know we did Lilla on France last week but this is just a great book review. France, Muslims, the future.

5. Tom McKay, “Princeton Concludes What Kind of Government America Really Has, and It’s Not a Democracy” on Mic.com.

Courtesy of Mr. Chung Peng. Pretty self-explanatory. A couple holy-shit moments in here, but at least now we have hard numbers to back up what we already knew.

Music

1. Hurray For The Riff Raff, “Look Out Mama” for Waverly Sessions.

2. J. Roddy Walston with Shovels and Rope, “Boys Can Never Tell” in the backyard.

3. Avett Brothers, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” at Virginia Tech.

Ferguson

[Sent March 9, 2015]

Hey everybody,

Welcome to the most exclusive club in the world! We’ve made it to issue number two, which I think is a good thing. Thanks to everybody on this list for your kind words. It’s a bit stressful to send something like this out into the world. A couple administrative things. First, I’m gonna send these out on Mondays from now on, so you can all start your week off on an (I’m assuming) extremely depressing note. Also, a couple people mentioned that a space for discussion would be a good way to parse some of the articles and ideas I’m sending around. That sounds like a great suggestion to me, but I also have no really solid ideas about how to go about doing it. If anyone does, definitely let me know and maybe we can get something going. Anyway, without further ado . . .

News

Last week the Justice Department concluded its investigation into the shooting of Michael Brown, issuing a statement that the accused officer, Darren Wilson, would not be prosecuted, along with a 103-page report that illustrates the context behind the shooting. What the report makes clear is that the Ferguson Police Department (94% white in a town that is 67% black) is a revenue-generating machine that preys upon its own African-American citizens to fill its coffers. Law enforcement personnel, from beat cops to judges to the chief of police, have their job performances evaluated based on how much cash they can squeeze out of people. I encourage you to read it in full but here a taste of what we’re talking about:

“We spoke… with an African-American woman who has a still-pending case stemming from 2007, when, on a single occasion, she parked her car illegally… From 2007 to 2014, the woman was arrested twice, spent six days in jail, and paid $550 to the court for the events stemming from this single instance of illegal parking… As of December 2014, over seven years later, despite initially owing a $151 fine and having already paid $550, she still owed $541.”

In these pages we read about 90-year old men arrested for not paying their tickets on time, officers admitting to (illegally) arresting everyone in a car if they refuse to produce identification, and a woman who reported a domestic disturbance jailed because her abusive boyfriend was not listed on her house’s occupancy permit. Ferguson police are told to generate revenue, they are trained to generate revenue, and their careers depend on generating revenue: in 2015 almost a quarter of the city’s $13.26 million revenue projections are anticipated to come from police fines. And these are almost exclusively against black people. African-Americans make up 95% of jaywalking tickets, 94% of failure to comply tickets, 93% of arrests, and 85% of traffic stops, despite being 26% less likely than whites to carry contraband. But why? Most of the liberal crowd has focused (understandably) on racism, which is certainly a factor (the DoJ report says “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs,” but as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “the ‘focus on revenue’ was almost wholly a focus on black people as revenue”), but why the push for revenue at all?

Ferguson’s budget itself, linked here, paints a picture of a city in crisis. Since the 2007 crash, taxes and fees have declined or plateaued, and aid from the state is falling. With growing capital expenditures and pension and health obligations, Ferguson finds itself falling deeper and deeper into the red. A $2.2 million deficit in 2012 became a $5.7 million deficit in 2013 became a $7.3 million deficit last year. So they try to fill the gap in other ways. Bond issues are up every year, the city is frantically seeking short-term grant money, and it is cynically, brutally mining its own (black) constituents for cash. However gleefully the policemen of Ferguson took to their tasks, the fact is that those tasks were borne of desperation. And Ferguson is far from alone. Cities across the country are drowning in unfunded debt obligations from pension and health schemes. Ferguson’s approach to raising revenue is obviously unsustainable: the public pressure to reform their law enforcement system is now (thank God) immense. But the great majority of state and local politicians doesn’t have the guts, or is too beholden to conservative ideology, to raise taxes. So, at the end of the day, these racist tactics are just a desperate, detestable effort to delay the inevitable destruction of public pensions. Woo hoo!

In other news, Senate Republicans commit treason, I continue to celebrate my decision not to attend the University of Oklahoma, Hillary Clinton demands that us peasants just give her the presidency already, Vladimir Putin is back from his secret stint on Sesame Street, and, on a rare positive note, Barack Obama delivers an absolutely wonderful speech that made this reporter tear up a little bit.

Interesting Stuff

1. Graeme Wood, “What Isis Really Wants”

If you read one article here this week, read this one. ISIS’s ideology explained. A month or so old now but fascinating.

2. Libby Nelson, “25 maps that explain the English language”

Self-explanatory. I like maps.

3. John Crutchfield, “Go West”

Interesting, surprisingly unpretentious article on how Westerns comment on American culture.

4. Mark Lilla, “France on Fire”

Great read on how France, and by rough extension Europe, is dealing (and not dealing) with its growing Muslim minorities post-Charlie Hebdo.

5, Gay Talese, “Assignment America: Selma”

A reporter who covered Bloody Sunday fifty years ago returns for the anniversary. Just so well-written. Read this and then watch the Obama speech.

Music

1. Shovels and Rope, “Coping Mechanism” on Letterman.

2. Scott H. Biram, “Gotta Get to Heaven” on Seattle’s (awesome) KEXP.

3. Jason Isbell, “Goddamn Lonely Love” in The Living Room, NY, NY.