February 28, 2006

How the media and the politicians make the Mid East worse

Although Hamas says it is interested in a political truce with Israel, the news got little attention and even in the AP story it was coupled with a death dealing qualifier:

"The Palestinians' incoming prime minister said Sunday that Hamas is interested in a long-term truce with Israel but has no intention of seeking a formal peace agreement that would recognize the Jewish state."

The implication is that if Palestine won't "recognize" the Jewish state, then nothing much has changed. In fact, a political truce is a highly desirable goal whatever Palestinians and Israelis continue to think of each other. It's a little bit as if the Catholic Church were interested in ordaining women but still refused to approve of contraception. The two issues are important but they are not inexorably intertwined. Americans should be able to understand this being a society which has integrated much of its life but still leaves the Confederate flag flying abundantly.

The best way to make progress in such situations is to concentrate on people's behavior, not their beliefs and symbols. Both Israel and Palestine have arguable mythical versions of the past that will last for the indefinite future, but at the moment debating whatever should have happened decades ago to the land in dispute does not advance sanity or peace one iota. In such situations it is far better to win a compromise over reality than a controversy over myth.

What is needed is a Palestinian and a Israeli state based on the most reasonable agreement that can be reached to this effect. Every increment in this direction should be hailed and used like a cane to help the weak legs of those in conflict make the next step. The symbolic syrup that politicians and media like so much - such as "recognizing Israel's right to exist" - will come naturally after far more important work has been achieved, which is to get the two sides to stop killing - and start dealing with - each other.

February 22, 2006

A short history of the Long War

During the Bush regime, the U.S. captured the capital cities of Baghdad and Kabul while the United Arab Emirates won control of the ports of New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Baltimore and Miami.

February 21, 2006

The real Holocaust denial

Sam Smith

THE jailing of Holocaust denier David Irving in Austria is a reminder of how easy it is to imitate evil even as one excoriates it. The law that convicted Irving is of the sort the Nazis would have invoked, albeit for far different purposes, and was a routine offense in Orwell's 1984.

Many fail to see this irony because they are engaged in the greatest Holocaust denial of all: a refusal to look seriously at why there was a Holocaust in the first place. To blame it all on anti-Semitism is as dangerously ahistorical as to deny its existence. Yes, Jews were the victims, but why did an ancient and widespread prejudice produce such an extreme result in this case?

We avoid this question because it takes us places we don't want to go. Like the role of modern bureaucracy and technology in the magnification of evil. Like the commingling of corporate and state interests in a way the world had never seen before. Like the failure of Germany's liberal elite to stand effectively against wrong eerily echoed today in the failure of America's liberal elite to do likewise.

Some of the most important lessons of the Holocaust are simply missed. Among these, as Richard Rubenstein has pointed out, is that it could only have been carried out by 'an advanced political community with a highly trained, tightly disciplined police and civil service bureaucracy.'

In The Cunning of History, Rubenstein also finds uncomfortable parallels between the Nazis and their opponents. For example, a Hungarian Jewish emissary meets with Lord Moyne, the British High Commissioner in Egypt in 1944 and suggests that the Nazis might be willing to save one million Hungarian Jews in return for military supplies. Lord Moyne's reply: "What shall I do with those million Jews? Where shall I put them?" Writes Rubenstein: "The British government was by no means adverse to the 'final solution' as long as the Germans did most of the work. " For both countries, it had become a bureaucratic problem, one that Rubenstein suggests we understand "as the expression of some of the most profound tendencies of Western civilization in the 20th century."

How many school children are taught that, worldwide, wars in the past century killed over 100 million people? In World War I alone, the death toll was around ten million. Much of this, including the Holocaust, was driven by a culture of modernity that so changed the power of institutions over the individual that the latter would become what Erich Fromm called homo mechanicus, "attracted to all that is mechanical and inclined against all that is alive." Becoming, in fact, a part of the machinery -- willing to kill or to die just to keep it running.

Thus, with Auschwitz-like efficiency, over 6,000 people perished every day during World War I for 1,500 days. Rubenstein recounts that on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British lost 60,000 men and half of the officers assigned to them. But the bureaucratic internal logic of the war did not falter at all; over the next six months, more than a million British, French and German soldiers would lose their lives. The total British advance: six miles. No one in that war was a person anymore. The seeds of the Holocaust can thus be found in the trenches of World War I. Individuals had became no better than the bullets that killed them, just part of the expendable arsenal of the state.

But we don't talk about this do we? We don't teach our children about it, do we?

The problem with using the outcome rather than the origins of the Holocaust as our metaphor and our message is that we are totally unprepared for those practices, laws, and arguments that can produce similar outcomes. We study the death chambers when we should be learning about the birth places.

How Washington thinks and why it doesn't work

In trying to figure out why Washington takes such a different view towards the security of business class and the security of cargo containers it occurred to me that most policy makers don't travel by container ship.

The possible application of this seminal observation covers considerable territory. For example, after the TWA 800 crash, it was unclear what had caused it. Logical explanations included a missile attack, A misaimed US test missile, mechanical failure, or a bomb on board. Without waiting for the answer, the Clinton administration swiftly installed a number of security procedures that implicitly assumed the final possibility. To this day, there is little interest in the considerable danger of missile attacks on domestic planes and absolute denial on the part of the government in the case of TWA 800. Further, virtually no attention has been given to the failure of the aircraft in question to be refitted in accordance with official recommendations. It is assumed by journalists and policy makers alike that the overwhelmingly logical source of danger is one of those funny looking passengers standing in line with them.

A similar indifference to the variety of ways that danger might enter the country is found at ground level. There was virtually no media attention given the fact the Chinese had taken over several ports of the Panama Canal. Or that a company owned by the Chinese Army runs the key port of Long Beach, California. After all, the Chinese are trading partners, not terrorists.

It wasn't until it was revealed that a corporation of the United Arab Emirates was about to take over some of our largest and oldest ports that the indifference towards the dispensation of American maritime manna was interrupted. It is still not clear whether if the Chinese Army, rather than the terrorist-hugging UAE, had taken over New York's waterfront there would have been any problem, but there certainly is now.

In the end, several factors probably drove the Bush regime towards this nutty decision. The first was the absence of American bidders for the port deal. This in itself is a telling reminder of how far downhill the country has gone. Second, the Bushists were probably trapped in their mode of 'globalization is good' rather than 'terrorism is bad.' After all, spin spins the spinners as well as the spun. Finally, however, people who run things and write things in Washington these days just don't know much about mundane, declasse matters such as ports and longshoremen. They proved this already with New Orleans. You can't expect people who think up things like the Long War to also know how to recover from a hurricane, build a skyscraper that won't collapse, or unload a vessel safely.

Older imperialists were a bit different. As the BBC notes of the British empire: "Overseas commerce was conducted within the mercantilist framework of the Navigation Acts, which stipulated that all commodity trade should take place in British ships, manned by British seamen, trading between British ports and those within the empire."

Perhaps Dubai will want to buy Ronald Reagan airport and the Chinese Army will take over JFK. Then, finally, the business class that runs this land will understand what the fuss is all about.

February 20, 2006


I GOT A GREAT present from Jimmy Hamilton the other day, a recording of the Decoland Band at Maryland's Kenwood Country Club in 1988. Despite more than four decades of playing gigs, first as a drummer and later as a stride piano player, I only had a few decent tapes of our performances and none of my own band, which had featured Jimmy (whom I had first heard in the 1950s at the Charles Hotel), Bob Walter and Paul Hettich, such a driving bunch of musicians that we got along most of the time without a drummer (although not at the Kenwood gig). Having two horns gave us a bigger sound and the lack of percussion got us gigs in places where drums would have been too much.

Today I watch with amazement at the electronic effluvia that accompanies my musician son Ben's efforts. Once, I found him in New York City with a large desktop hardrive among his baggage. He explained that he was making a new CD and that he was about to record one of the musicians. The concept of serial recording musicians still is regularly deported whenever it reaches the border of my brain.

Besides, for many years, we had no such flexibility and, when we did, I was too busy with other things to pay much attention - although I do remember a remarkable 1950s recording by Les Paul and the All Les Paul orchestra, in which Paul recorded himself playing various instruments, sang, and gave himself a four part backup. We didn't know that sort of thing was possible.

When I started as a radio newsman in the 1950s, battery operated tape recorders were so novel that there were only about a half dozen on the job in Washington. These devices were about three inches thick, five inches wide and ten inches long. The microphone, a small rectangular piece of plastic, was permanently attached by a cord just short enough to complicate the task of securing the mike to a stand at a news conference while simultaneously resting the recorder itself on the ground.

The engineer's union had initially insisted it send a member out with all reporters using one. Fortunately for the future of news radio, this particular piece of featherbedding was scotched. The tape recorders, however, presented a number of other challenges -- including a deep sensitivity to temperature. More than once I returned from an outdoor winter taping -- a burial at Arlington cemetery or a fire -- only to find my recorded voice sounding like Porky Pig as the batteries returned to full power once back in the studio . . .

In a manual on WWDC news reporting that I wrote in 1960, shortly before leaving the station, I outlined some of the peculiarities of the technology:

"The Mohawk is a temperamental machine that gives excellent service until the sunspot level gets too high or some other change takes place . . . [The Steelman recorder] is a useful machine when it works . . . The various machines operate in various ways at various times. For example, they have different proper recording levels and sometimes these change after the machines have been repaired. . .

"Do not let the speaker hold the mike unless he is in such a position that you can not comfortably reach him. You will find that the compulsive mike-grabbers often seem to be trying to record themselves internally. Saliva does not help the mike crystal."

The mike stands to which we secured our recorders often belonged to the networks. It took a combination of diplomacy and deference for a young newsman to safely affix his toy machine to the phallic symbol of CBS News, but over time these men -- all of whom looked like John Madden -- became accustomed to such intrusions. My suggestions included:

"The basis of successful operation alongside these other news people is largely intuitive and is worked out by experience. But if the WMAL cameraman asks you to move the mike a little to the left, you should do so as long as it does not hamper your work. If you need to get through a crowd of reporters with a mike, polite requests combined with the proper quantity of physical pressure will assure entrance. . .

"Covering national stories, the networks present a problem. The network engineers and cameramen try to intimidate new independent newsmen and like to play tough. . . It gains you nothing to get angry. Be good natured whenever possible; otherwise go about your business ignoring them . . . In time this policy pays off. One cameraman, without being asked, gave me the idea for the paper clip mike holder. NBC's Johhnie Langanegger repaired a transformer for me. A cameraman named Skip lent me a screwdriver at a crucial moment. . .

"Many interviews are done on a pool basis. In the case of fishing expeditions in the corridors of the Capitol, two independents may be seeking the same Congressman at the same time. It is often pointless and annoying to the interviewee to have to go over the same material two, three or more times in separate interviews. Make sure the other party agrees. Mike Turpin got so mad at Steve Dixon 'piggy backing" his interviews that the pair got into a fight that was broken up by a Capitol guard."

One of the problems with being on the cusp of new technology is that you don't always realize what you've got. Thus I blithely rerecorded over an early tape I had made in the late 1950s with one of Fidel Castro's top lieutenants in the Hays Bickford eatery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On the other hand, I do have a tape from that same period of a young boy looking at my little mike and saying, "What's that?" - probably the last young man in America to be puzzled by the object. And the tape I made covering the sit-in at Glen Echo amusement park had one of its periodic revivals last fall for the 45th anniversary of that event. But it was pretty much hit or miss.

It was the same with music. Life was mainly live in those days and we just didn't think that much about playing it back later.

Jimmy Hamilton, bless him, was an exception and hence the Decoland Band tape, an excerpt of which is now online.

What does this all have to do with news and politics? Only this, as I wrote in one of my books:

"The essence of jazz is the same as that of democracy: the greatest amount of individual freedom consistent with a healthy community. Each musician is allowed extraordinary liberty during a solo and then is expected to conscientiously back up the other musicians in turn. The two most exciting moments in jazz are during flights of individual virtuosity and when the entire musical group seems to become one. The genius of jazz (and democracy) is that the same people are willing and able to do both."

Bob Walter, trumpet; Jimmy Hamilton, clarinet; Paul Hettich, bass; Sam Smith, piano. Drums and trombone unknown

February 16, 2006

Immigration myths

IT IS taken as a given in the immigration debate that our current system for dealing with the issue has some sort of historical logic. It doesn't. The story of immigration in the U.S. is a mishmash of hospitality and hatred, encouragement and restriction.

The Naturalization Act of 1790, for example, said that "any alien, being a free white person, may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States." Blacks, indentured servants, and most women couldn't be citizens no matter where they came from, but the underlying approach to immigration would boggle the mind of today's strict constructionists. If you were a free white male, you came, you saw, and you signed up. As the Citizenship and Immigration Services describes ti, "the law required a set period of residence in the United States prior to naturalization, specifically two years in the country and one year in the state of residence when applying for citizenship. When those requirements were met, an immigrant could file a Petition for Naturalization with "any common law court of record" having jurisdiction over his residence asking to be naturalized. Once convinced of the applicantÂ’s good moral character, the court would administer an oath of allegiance to support the Constitution of the United States."

The essence of immigration as we know it today - i.e. the restriction of immigration - didn't become a major issue until the Chinese exclusion Act of 1882, hardly something of which Americans should be proud. This was the period of the great post-reconstruction counter revolution during which corporations gained enormous power but the rest of America and its citizens lost it.

The counter-revolution was not only an attack on would-be immigrants, it was aimed at American ethnic groups who had proved far too successful at adding to their political clout in places like Boston and New York City.

Richard Croker, a tough 19th century county boss of Tammany Hall, grew almost lyrical when he spoke of his party's duty to immigrants:
"They do not speak our language, they do not know our laws, they are the raw material with which we have to build up the state . . . There is no denying the service which Tammany has rendered to the republic. There is no such organization for taking hold of the untrained, friendless man and converting him into a citizen. Who else would do it if we did not? . . . [Tammany] looks after them for the sake of their vote, grafts them upon the Republic, makes citizens of them."

Alexander B. Callow Jr. of the University of California has written that Boston pol Martin Lomansey even met every new immigrant ship and "helped the newcomers find lodging or guided them to relatives. James Michael Curley set up nationalization classes to prepare newcomers for the citizenship examination . . . Friendly judges, anticipating election day, converted their courts into naturalization mills, grinding out a thousand new Americans a day. . . . Flags were waved, prose turned purple, celebrations were wild on national holidays. . . . Patriotism became a means for the newcomer to prove himself worthy."

By 1891 the federal government had assumed control of admitting or rejecting all immigrants and one year later Ellis island opened. By 1903 we had a law restricting Mexican laborers and during and after World I, laws were expanded greatly including a ban on all Asians save the Japanese.

We did not have the equivalent of a green card until 1940 and the actual card of that name only came in during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s. What we think of as our immigration system is in no small part a leftover from the McCarthy era.

It is common today to discuss immigration as though it were primarily an employment and economic matter. The trouble with this claim is that many of the people who are most anti-immigration are the same who have caused infinitely more economic harm to the country through globalization and outsourcing.

In truth, what really scares the exclusionists is the politics of immigrants, potentially more progressive than they would like. From Nordic populists in the northern middle west to European socialists, to the right immigration has meant left.

This, of course, isn't always true as in the case of Cuba but it helps to make the debate a bit clearer to understand what it is about.

In the end, we don't really have an immigration policy but an exclusion policy, outsourcing our prejudices by not letting their targets enter the country.