Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Starving the Beast

“Starve the Beast” will forever be attributed to Ronald Reagan as his mantra for reducing the size of government, by reducing tax funding of programs.  That phrase ranks right up there for Republicans with “God Bless America” and “Obama’s a Kenyan Communist.”

It appears that phrase actually is attributable to one of Reagan’s staffers as told to the Wall Street Journal in 1985 (Starve the Beast: Origins and Development of a Budgetary Metaphor". The Independent Review. The Independent Institute ( Retrieved 2010-12-09.)   The term has two components, one is “The Beast,” and the other “Starve.”   The “STARVE” part of the phrase begins with the assumption that THE GOVERMNENT writ broadly, is inherently an unwieldy, out of control monster that needs to be starved into submission.  You constantly hear Republicans saying that, over and over again.  It rolls off their tongues like honey.

But as soon as one scratches he surface of what exactly THE BEAST refers to, one discovers that in the La La land of the Right Wing, it only refers to those parts of the government broadly called “social programs,” and “non-military foreign spending,” i.e. social security, health care, Medicare, Medicaid, Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and the State Department.  Some of the most radical Conservatives, like Paul Ryan, also include ALL non-military programs under that rubric.  That would include the various national scientific and health research programs such as NIH and the National Science Foundation, environmental protection and the Department of interior, Department of Energy, and of course there are other non-military foreign affairs  programs which they despise.   The Right Wing NEVER, EVER wants to STARVE the Defense agencies or Homeland Security, the CIA or FBI.  So THE BEAST, isn’t really the government at all, it’s stuff they personally despise which they consider socialist flap trap. They could never get Congress or a sentient president to actually vote to defund those programs on their merit because they are all well liked by the public, so they are trying to eliminate them by arguing that more generally, overall spending must be cut. Cute.

Let’s talk about STARVING.   The converse of starving, is tax cuts, essentially giving money back.  When one program receives tax cuts, such as oil drilling in the Gulf, according to STARVING THE BEAST thinking, in order to make up for those cuts, another area has to undergo greater starving to make up the difference, say Medicare for example.  So another strategy for STARVING THE BEAST (i.e. slashing social programs, research, environmental protection) is to give huge tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires, while arguing that in order to make up the difference THE BEAST (i.e. important programs that benefit ordinary people) have to be chopped up into bits and fed into a leaf shredder.  

In short, the Republicans flat out lie when they say they want to STARVE THE BEAST, i.e. cut government spending.  That is completely false.  They absolutely adore some Federal spending as long as it’s for the military, Fracking and other stuff they like.  They really want to eliminate all those programs that benefit ordinary people and shunt more and more and more money to millionaires and billionaires leaving no money to conduct the government’s business.  If the government becomes inefficient and incompetent because there is no one left to do the mountains of necessary government agency work, Republicans would all raise their hands in prayer and sing “Hosanna.” That is precisely Aynn Rand’s plan, just ask her acolyte Paul Ryan.  At some point they would declare, THE BEAST HAS BEEN STARVED!

So the next time you hear a Republican talk about STARVING THE BEAST, just say, “You’re full of shit! Say what you really mean.”  What they actually mean is that WE are the BEASTS they want to starve. They want us down on our hands and knees groveling and accepting whatever scraps they decide to toss our way.  Harsh?  Perhaps, but also a realistic appraisal of their overall policy plan.  Pictured here is a Republican trying to make amends for lying about saying he wants to STARVE THE BEAST. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Middle Eastern Xenophobia Masked as Indignation

Xenophobia has been way of life in the Middle East for centuries.  Historically outsiders have attempted to conquer Middle Eastern nations, from the Ottoman Turks, Persians, the English and French, the Russians and recently the US has exerted power. The Muslim Middle East has historically chosen totalitarian over democratic governance, and has elected to have little understanding of other parts of the world that provide wide latitude for individual citizens to do as they wish, including expressing their views.  Religious and racial bigotry is rampant in the Muslim Middle East, where religious sects insist their traditions are treated with respect by every living and breathing person in the West.  Any lack of the specified “respect” (i.e. absence of criticism of the Muslim state theocracy), by any single person residing in one of those countries, will be cause for violence to be meted out against all the people of those Western countries. The absurdity of such a demand is obvious. Plain and simple, the street in the Muslim Middle East is looking for a fight with the West and is seeking any excuse to lash out.

The attack in Libya was not a spontaneous eruption in response to an offensive video as claimed.  It was the work of terrorists who carefully orchestrated the attack. The terrorist attackers knew there would be no reprisal from their official Islamic government, so they assailed the Embassy and killed the US ambassador with impunity.  The recent broader outbursts by “the street” in Egypt, Pakistan and Libya and other largely Muslim countries have little directly to do with the insulting video made by the Coptic Christian from Egypt who currently lives in California. He could have lived almost anywhere in the world and posted the same video on YouTube.  Directing attacks against all Americans reflects political irresponsibility of those governments and their people, in much of the region.  Official tolerance of such atavistic behavior indicates those countries are not ready for a respected role on the international stage. They are oblivious and intolerant belligerents, not responsible nation states. Adolescent coercive mindlessness comes to mind.  Rather than engendering respect for them and their culture, their behavior provokes repugnant disdain.  [See Mabel Berezin’s, “Xenophobia and the New Nationalism,” in The Sage Handbook on Nationalism (2006)].

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Compromise & Re-Building a Progressive Coalition

Compromise refers to adjusting one’s political position to be someplace between two beginning positions of opposing sides.  In a murder trial the extremes are not guilty and the death penalty, so perhaps a compromise would be guilty of a lesser crime and a either no prison term or a short term.   In American politics, the problem with compromise is that the Right end of the political continuum has moved far further to the extreme right than at any time in the nation’s history.  None of the founders imagined a country run almost entirely by major corporations, as is the case today.   The Progressive position is similar to what was previously called liberal or moderate Republican positions, mainly on social issues, but fiscally more like conservatives.  There is basically no left wing position representing the American people, as that term is understood in the rest of the world, i.e. leaning toward socialistic solutions to national problems. The US is the only country among its allies with such an extreme form of Right Wing governance.  In the US today “compromise” from current beginning positions is between mildly conservative and radically conservative.  There are currently almost no liberal or left-leaning alternatives.   Most American working people, and lower income unemployed people’s values are more aligned with those of the former moderate to liberal candidates, but because of the vast power of financial interests influencing the electoral processes, these wealth interests in effect buy elections.  Electoral corruption has become rampant and public in America.

This has created a very unhealthy state of political affairs in which much of the country’s population is unrepresented, unconscionable for a country that boasts of its democratic governance.  No wonder much of the world has no interest in adopting America’s form of corporate democracy.  The Occupy Wall Street group was a disorganized attempt to begin to address this huge discrepancy, but was ineptly conceived and even more incompetently implemented.  Eventually, another group will come along, far better organized with strong connections with various important progressive power groups, and a commitment to truly democratic reform, rather than anarchy.   The conservative establishment will attempt to suppress such a group, recognizing its threat to continued unilateral control over the US government by corporate interests.  An administration that refuses to accommodate the interests of such a democratic group representing a very large component of the people, will do so at its peril, democrat or republican.  If governmental suppression becomes heavy handed, violence will very likely result, with widespread civil unrest.  Such a gross imbalance of power and lack of representation of such a majority of the American people will not be tolerated.

American unions are logical focal groups around which broader coalitions could be built among the American public.  Such coalitions would appropriately be seen as being interested in more than the wages and working conditions of union members, but as having a commitment to average working and unemployed Americans more generally.  Unions should begin reaching out to lower and middle income working Americans and providing basic services that are being denied by the Right Wing House of Representatives and Senate.  Local free or very low cost health care clinics, legal services, childcare, financial services, housing and transportation assistance, neighborhood watch and public safety, and other essential services could help build stronger bonds between middle and lower income communities and coalitions organizing for a more democratic America. If Obama is re-elected he will need every bit of support possible to proceed to rebuild an America that is consistent with our values. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Gosh, What Happened to Jazz?

The winners of the Down Beat Critics' Poll provides a window into trends jazz, and is a place to check out some of the better players and promising young talent. There are some terrific jazz musicians on the list like Gary Smulyan on baritone sax, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone and the very talented Anat Cohen on reeds. Most of the other top-notch players have been around for quite awhile, like Branford Marsalis and Christian McBride.  

Anat Cohen
There were other outstanding musicians in the top tier, but many of them don't seem to be jazz musicians, or minimally so, which raises the question why they appear on Downbeat’s Jazz Poll.  A surprising number of their recordings seem to have little to do with jazz.  It's a given that I'm an old curmudgeon and stuck in my ways, but I do expect music of a given type, say Indian Raga or Spanish Flamenco, to actually be what it claims to be, in this case jazz.   Many of the sides I sampled were discursive, introspective, highly self-absorbed solos more in common with Gy├Ârgy Ligeti or John Cage than Ellington, Monk, Parker or Coltrane.  They were usually accompanied by bass or drums, providing a nodding reference to jazz, with otherwise, lacking its basic elements.

Charlie Parker
Jazz is perhaps the only uniquely American music, rooted in gospel and blues traditions. Its African roots are evident in its use of blue notes, improvisation and syncopation.  Jazz has always incorporated music from American popular music, most notably ballads as the framework for improvisation.  Inherent to jazz is "swinging" and coordinated improvised group interaction.  Early blues was commonly structured around a repetitive call-and-response pattern, a common element in the African American oral tradition. These features are fundamental to jazz.  If music doesn’t refer to that tradition, as far as I'm concerned, it isn't jazz.   It is difficult to find these jazz roots in many of the Down Beat Critics' top rated musicians' pieces.

Many of the latter recordings were composed by the performers.  With a few exceptions, there are no jazz standards on albums.  I recently reviewed Charlie Parker's discography and found most are standards that he improvisationally and by arrangement turned into his own compositions, or were pieces by Monk, Gillespie and other Bop era musicians.  There are few of his compositions.  These mostly younger musicians are virtuoso masters of their instruments, which apparently lead them to assume whatever improvisation they decided to perform were worth someone's listening.  For example, pieces by Rudresh Mahanthappa, on Alto Saxophone and Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, were technically very skilled and some pleasant, but after listening to them, I understand why many of today's "jazz musicians" are struggling to make a living playing jazz. 

Quite a few songs on the last two years Down Beat lists had non-referential titles, while others have one word exotic or mysterious titles, like "Aroca," and  "Dingmandingo, "Tirtha," "Mehndi," or "Parakram."  Odd titles aren't new in jazz.  Thelonius Monk titled his songs strangely, like "Epistrophy," but most of Monk's songs made at least some semantic sense, like "Nellie's Crepuscle," and "Yardbird Suite."   When every song on an album has a one-word title in a language unfamiliar to English speakers, who are likely a major audience, or is intentionally opaque, that's a bit different.  Some songs might as well be assigned numbers or dates on which they were recorded.  Eric Dolphy often played recognizable songs written by others, though he started the trend of meaningless song titles, like “245”, “G.W,” and “Number 5.”   Occasionally titles on the 2012 list cleverly allude to other music or literary sources, but that seems to be the exception. Titling songs this way implies that it is an inside joke, disrespectful of the listener, who the player assumes couldn’t possibly get the joke.  

One gets the feeling much of this music was intended for the performer and some of their musician friends.  I would guess the audience for most of this music is other musicians or people who have studied music, especially classical music or other cultural traditions in music.  It is not user friendly to others, including to me, to whom jazz is an integral part of my life.  I try hard to imagine people listening to most of this music 20 years from now and referring to them as classics, but my imagination fails me.