There are lots of reasons to bemoan the choices in this year’s Presidential elections. The weaknesses of both candidates are manifest and telling, and have resulted in the largest collective moan from the voting public in decades. Moreover, the country is now faced with the prospect of Donald Trump being elected to the US Presidency. This has induced a collective panic unlike I have seen since, well, the prospect of Ronald Reagan becoming President. (Corey Robin has an excellent piece on the institutional amnesia of today’s commentators.) It’s interesting how people seem to have forgotten how genuinely awful the Reagan Presidency actually was—it’s all taken on some hazy glow, largely as the result of a still-supine media. But it initiated and validated the general meanness of the modern Republican Party, which has now reached extreme proportions, but the ground rules of which were initially laid out by Reagan and his Southern California car dealer and real estate buddies. Yes, yes, I’ve seen all the comparisons of Trump and Nixon, but Nixon wasn’t necessarily an awful President, although he was an awful person. Reagan was a genuinely awful President, and the county has been impoverished, both literally and culturally, by his legacy. Continue reading
So, after seven years and lots of pounds, the Chilcot report on “lessons to be learned” from Iraq has finally been published. It tells us nothing we didn’t already know, frankly, and takes away the rationale for the ongoing denial we have continued to see among Blairites over the years, although god knows they’re still trying. I could write a long post on this. Or I could just let The Independent summarize in seven sentences,which they have done, and which admirably seems to sum up the entire enterprise. Continue reading
Brexit could be a model for what nations should do if the political leadership was there. But it isn’t.
I imagine when British Prime Minister David Cameron secured an agreement with European political leaders last winter on immigration and other issues relating to continued UK membership in the European Union, he thought he had dealt with this. He seemed pretty confident at the time that this would persuade British voters with concerns about immigration and EU membership in general that their concerns had been addressed. Now, even though I dislike Cameron and his politics, I used to think that he had pretty good political instincts—he has led the Conservatives to two election victories, after all, the past one giving him a majority in Parliament. I was wrong—Cameron’s political instincts appear to be as muddled as the Republican leadership in the US who thought that Trump would fold after every outlandish statement. It turns out that this is the year of outlandish. This is not Mr. Gumpy’s Outing. Continue reading
What are we writing about when we’re “Nature Writing?”
This question is prompted by thoughts from the excellent three-day little festival in South London, the Balham Literary Festival, titled A Way of Being in the World. What a great title, because it leaves open any number of possibilities. The fact that it’s mostly nature and landscape writers involved is telling, though. There is no question there has been a resurgence in “Nature Writing” over the past decade or so here in the UK—the books just keep coming out. And we keep reading them. One of the running themes of the discussions after each session, and even in some of them, is why is this happening. There are presumably many reasons, but the basic one is that people feel the need to read about nature and landscape, and writers feel the need to be writing about it. So what we had here was an outrageously good line-up of writers who have done exactly that. Continue reading
For the past year I have had some health issues that have taken me out of active circulation—nothing life-threatening, but certainly life changing during the period, and for a little while yet. One of these was a broken bone in my foot that had me sitting in front of the television for a solid six weeks, leg up on the hassock and (for the moment) out of the boot thing they give you these days. The other stuff doesn’t need details, but it also involved being relatively immobile for long periods. Plus the interesting effects of some of what they put you on these days for various things. For someone with no real health issues since I got mono the summer I was 20 and some back stuff in my 30s, this came as something of a surprise. Continue reading
It’s time to try to kill a certain meme that’s already going around, and which we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the coming months–that people voting for Ralph Nader in the 2000 election cost Al Gore the Presidency and handed it to George Bush. This will undoubtedly be used, as subtly as a mace, to guilt Bernie supporters to vote for Hillary. But the notion that what happened in Florida in 2000 provides a precedent for what people should do this year is fallacious, and here’s why. Continue reading
I noted in a Facebook post the other day that the current political environment is reminding me of the early 2000s and the run-up to the Iraq invasion. I still believe this, and further thought has only deepened my concern. People seem to be losing their bearings, and since it’s happening to people I have often respected in the past, this is a bit disorienting. But it seems as if battle lines, once again, are being drawn, and I’m happy with neither the situation that’s developing, nor with the likely outcomes.
What concerned me then, and what concerns me now, is the extremes to which political alignment can go—what Eric Hoffer would have called the True Believer effect. This is hardly new, but it is still surprising when it occurs in unexpected places. Back then, it was clear that following 9/11, a number of people I respected and enjoyed reading had lost their bearings—or at least I thought they had. So I suddenly found myself on the opposite side of a major policy debate with people like Christopher Hitchens. I always had enjoyed reading Hitchens—he was thoughtful, a lively and elegant writer, and funny as hell much of the time. Best of all, he was almost always on the same side, and he made my arguments much better than I ever could, and the points on which we differed were trivial. Iraq changed that, and I thought changed him as well. Yes, he lived in DC, and was part of the intelligentsia there, in spite of being British to the core. But other intelligentsia (James Fallows, Michael Kinsley, and notably Paul Krugman) didn’t go down the same road, although there were a whole lot who did. And I thought it changed Hitchins—his intolerance levels rose, as did his condescension and outrage against those who didn’t share his commitment. So his books departed, sadly, from my library. Continue reading
Tennis star’s positive doping test comes as a real shock.
I guess I kinda sorta feel bad for Maria Sharapova. She has been a pleasure to watch on the court for a number of years now—eleven, I think—ever since first showing up and taking Wimbledon at age 17. Since then, she’s had injuries, as tall athletes tend to, that have sidelined her from time to time—and in the past couple of years she’s been completely stymied by Serena Williams. Still, she’s played consistently high level tennis for most of her career, and won her share, almost, of grand slams.
So today’s acknowledgement that she failed a drug test at the Australian Open, and is being “suspended” by tennis authorities, did come as a shock. While a gritty competitor, she has tried to maintain a positive public persona, which has largely worked, since she’s been the world’s highest paid female athlete for several years now. Now, though, sponsors are now dropping her like a hot potato. So you have to wonder who dropped the ball here.
The Clinton camp breaks out the Karl Rove Playbook.
So my man Bernie did fine in New Hampshire, and now the gloves have come off. I assume he knew what would be coming along, because the rest of us did. This always raises the question of why the Clinton people were asleep at the wheel in the first place, and what this means about her potential presidency, but no one wants to talk about this. What we have instead is a systematic attack on Bernie’s “Bernie-ness,” basically questioning his authenticity and liberal street cred. Since it seems to be his authenticity that has attracted a substantial amount of his following, this has the potential to be a big deal. And it’s straight out of the Karl Rove playbook. At least it shows the Clinton people are capable of learning from experience from time to time. Not often, but maybe just often enough. Continue reading
In our last discussion of the dangers posed by the current round of free trade deals under consideration in the US, Europe and Asia a while back, we noted (as have others) the potential of these deals to undermine domestic legislation if that legislation negatively affects the potential profitability of a company. Both NAFTA and the World Trade Organization (WTO) have this sort of mechanism, wherein a company affected by domestic legislation can appeal to the WTO to be compensated for the potential financial impact, or ask for fines against the country found guilty of trade agreement violations. This mechanism of trade agreements is clearly financial blackmail, designed by multinational corporations (mostly American, but a fair number of European and Asian companies as well) to prevent domestic legislation covering stuff like pesky environmental regulations, or recurring European attempts to ban beef hormones. This sounds very bizarre, of course—who in their right mind would tolerate this? But the US does, as do all signatories to the agreements that created the WTO and NAFTA. As we have just been reminded. Continue reading
The Democratic Party needs more attractive candidates—and they need young ones, to match the youth of the GOP.
So the Democratic nominating process this year has three candidates if one includes Martin O’Malley, whose chance of the nomination is not yet a negative number, but may as well be. O’Malley is 54, which makes him a spring chicken compared with the rest of the Democratic field. Chafee dropped out, not that anyone noticed he was in, and he’s 63. Jim Webb is 70, and he’s gone too. Biden does not appear to be a candidate at this point, but he’s 74. The main combatants at this point, Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, are 69 and 75, respectively.
On the other side, the ten thousand candidates vying for the Republican nomination are all over the place—Bush is 63, Kasich is 64, Fiorina is 62, and Trump is 70. Other 60+ candidates are (or were) Huckabee, Carson, Perry , Graham and Huckabee. But then there’s the other contingent—Jindal (gone) is 45, Walker (also gone) is 49. Of the remaining bunch, Cruz is 46, Rubio 45, Paul 54, Christie 54, and Santorum 58. Continue reading
If one were looking for an apt metaphor to reflect the state of modern America, which would you choose: the surprising success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, or the deliberate poisoning of the entire city of Flint Michigan? I’d opt for the latter. Yes, the Trump candidacy is perhaps a milestone of something or other in recent politics, but America has always had political hucksters, and some of them have done quite well. This is a country that at one point had an important “Know-Nothing” political party in the 1840s and 1850s (a central plank of which was fierce opposition to immigration, interestingly enough.) So while the sakes might be higher these days—Mr Trump looks like he has a real shot at the Republican Presidential nomination, and a surprising number of voters appear to be uninformed, or misinformed, about lots of stuff—I would still argue that this is one of the swings in American politics that one sees from time to time.
Flint is another story entirely. Continue reading
I did a post back in 2010 on my favorite guitar solos, and as I reconsider it, there’s not much I would change. It’s still a pretty good old fart guitar solo list, but it is a bit light on stuff after, say, 1990. Well, I’m an old fart. The thing about most of these guys is that there’s generally so much to choose from, it’s hard to winnow it down to one choice per guitarist. Dutch guitar supremo Jan Akkerman has written dozens of brilliant songs—the problem is picking just one. I have to say I really like Michael Smith’s breakdown of guitar solos into the two categories he mentions—loosely, the composed solo and the improvised one. I had never really thought of solos in these terms, not being a musician, but it’s a surprisingly effective way to break these down.
Mark Carney, the former Goldman Sachs banker and head of the Bank of Canada who now heads up the Bank of England, threw the City of London financial community into a bit of a tizzy recently. Carney picked up on a line of argument that a number of NGOs have been pushing for several years now—that investing in fossil fuels carries some potentially serious financial risks that investors should be giving some thought to. Carney simply pointed out the obvious, or what has been increasingly obvious to a number of investors for a while now. And that is the notion that if governments really do stick to adopting measures that will help to insure that global temperatures rise only 2 degrees Centigrade, many of the carbon assets currently on the books of fossil fuel companies—coal in particular, but other fossil fuels as well— will be “unburnable.”
This is not a new issue. A number of NGOs have spent the past several years leading the charge to “de-carbonize portfolios.” This portfolio de-carbonization effort is based on the perception that, aside from whatever “ethical” concerns may justify this, there is also a high likelihood of increased financial risk associated with carbon ownership—the exact point that Carney made. Much of this effort has been led by Carbon Tracker, a UK organization, but the original argument actually goes back to a presentation by environmental activist Bill McKibbin. Continue reading
After its election debacle last May, when Labour got crushed, the road back, or forward, or in any direction whatsoever has been a bit uncertain. Results were so bad that Labour’s Ed Miliband, the Lib Dem’s Nick Clegg, and UKIP’s Nigel Farage all resigned. Why Farage resigned is a bit unclear, although UKIP only gained one MP, against some higher expectations, and Farage himself didn’t achieve a seat. However, the thing to keep in mind about this election is how dominant the conservative vote was—The Conservatives and UKIP together managed to garner over 50% of the vote, and all those overblown fears about another coalition government, or about an outright Labour win, proved to be misplaced. Continue reading
Last night we attended the world premiere of Sentences, Nico Muhly’s homage to Alan Turing, composed as a performance by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies. It was a lovely performance, consisting of seven sections, each relating to an aspect of Turing’s life. As Muhly said earlier in the week, they didn’t want to put together a typical gay tragedy, and in this they succeeded. Time will tell, of course, how durable of piece of composition it really is, but the Barbican crowd certainly enjoyed it, giving both Muhly, who conducted the glorious Britten Sinfonia, and Davies several standing ovations.
The libretto was by Adam Gopnik, whose day job is as a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. In the program notes, Gopnik makes an interesting point—writing something new these days about Turing is like writing something new about Robin Hood. The myths have become so ingrained that’s it’s hard to come up with anything truly new. Turing has been not only rehabilitated, he’s nearly been canonized. Continue reading
We haven’t had a good Rock and Roll venting around here for a while, so here goes.
The 2015 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame took place a couple of months ago, and, let’s see, who’s in this year? Ringo Starr, The Five Royales, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Green Day, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Lou Reed, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Bill Withers. Compared to some other years, this isn’t a terrible list by any means. There are some good rock bands here, and some fine, if not particularly original, guitar work in Vaughan. I always thought Reed was over-rated as both a songwriter and a performer, but that’s probably just me—lots of people think he was really deep, and he had what a lot of non-New Yorkers thought was a New York attitude, or something. And I’m absolutely delighted about the (long, long overdue) induction of the Butterfield Blues Band. But Ringo Starr? As a solo performer? Really? Levon Helm was a much better drummer, put together much better All-Star bands, and he’s not in. What’s up with that? Well, Ringo is LA through and through, and Helm—upstate New York. There you go. Continue reading
So we’ve got post-Arthurian Britain here, with the Britons and the Saxons occupying the land in an uneasy truce. We’ve got a collective failure of memory across society—no one, literally, can remember much, if anything, about past years, or even months. We’ve got wandering knights on missions. We’ve got an older couple on a search for their son, who left under unclear circumstances—which is not a surprise, since no one can remember anything. We’ve got faeries, ogres and a dragon, monks of uncertain motives, and swordfights. We’ve got really, really big questions. And we’ve also got, sadly, a somewhat tedious and boring novel.
I was, and remain, a huge fan of Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro’s wonderfully understated, and very powerful, novel about a dystopian future where the central characters are bred as organ providers for humans. It was the understatement that made the book so powerful. Ishiguro isn’t much of a stylist, really, and he writes in a very flat prose style, which in NLMG served to reinforce the essential horror of the situation the principal characters found themselves in. But it served another purpose, which was to let Ishiguro spend time developing the characters of the novel at leisure. The strength of the novel came from these genuinely interesting and human characters that weren’t human at all, but rather organic creations—which made the story so heartbreaking. Continue reading
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the opposite of free trade
Like many, I have my share of disappointments with Obama. On balance, he’s infinitely preferable to any of the plausible Republican alternatives—can you imagine what Mitt Romney or John McCain and a Republican Congress would be getting up to these days? Still, there are areas—global warming in particular—where I wish he had been more aggressive. I fully concede the limits of what may have been possible throughout his term, given the implacable opposition he has been facing. But still, it would have been good to see a more deliberate attempt to change the trajectory of things.
The ongoing corporatization of nearly everything would have been another place to start. I suppose the failure to pursue the banks aggressively should have been a tip-off that the Clinton financial people were still running the show. Plus the Obama administration’s unwillingness to try to put Elizabeth Warren as head of her brainchild, the new (and pretty efficient, I gather) Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (although she has had her payback.) When people start telling me that there’s no real difference between the two parties, in the finance area I tend to agree, with some notable exceptions like Warren. Continue reading
And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive. Continue reading