Sunday, August 08, 2010

Due Process

Nassar al-Alwaki, father of alleged terrorist and Al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Alwaki, is suing the U.S. government for putting his American-born son on the military's so-called "capture or kill" list. (All reports seem to indicate that the "capture or" part is rarely heeded. For all intents and purposes, these lists serve as execution orders.) The lawsuit is being backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights, and it represents the first direct challenge to the government's "right" to employ lethal force against its own citizens-- without charge, trial, or any judicial process-- as a counter-terrorism strategy. Obviously complicating this case is the delicate issue of al-Alwaki's American citizenship. Although he is believed to be in hiding in Yemen, Anwar al-Alwaki and his father are still both U.S. citizens. And although the son (an Islamic lecturer and former imam) appears to have been a significant religious and ideological influence on several "known terrorists"-- including 3 of the 9/11 hijackers, as well as Nidal Malik Hasan (the "Fort Hood shooter") and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the "Christmas Day bomber")-- he has not himself engaged in any violence against the United States. Nevertheless, President Obama approved Anwar al-Alwaki's addition to the CIA and DOD's "capture or kill" list earlier this year, designating him as an imminent danger to national security. He is the first and only U.S. citizen to ever be placed on such a list.

The fact that the United States regularly and admittedly engages in "targeted killings" ought to be a matter of serious concern to its citizens, as should any other practice of extrajudicial punishment. Assasinations are proscribed under domestic law, per Executive Order 12333, though that proscription has been pretty liberally interpreted by the last three Presidents. Whether or not "targeted killings" are synonymous with "assasinations" has also been the subject of some creative hermeneutic exercises, but not until this case (al-Alwaki's case) have the stakes of that distinction hit so close to home. The lawsuit that the ACLU and the CCR have filed on al-Alwaki's behalf challenges the constutionality of our governement's "capture or kill" lists-- the criteria for determining how one is placed on them has never been disclosed-- attempting to limit what they argue is an overreach of Executive power.

Of course, what lies at the foundation of these lists, and authorizes the power that authorizes them, is the Ausnahmezustand (the "state of exception"). It is the exceptional danger of terrorism, and the emergency state in which it places our State, that justifies extrajudicial judgment and punishment, or so it is argued. I cannot help but reminded in this case of Agamben's description of the state of exception, "in which a human action with no relation to law stands before a norm with no relation to life."

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Bon Mots: Fanon on Racism

From his essay "Racism and Culture" in Toward the African Revolution (Grove Press, 1964, p.59-60), Frantz Fanon writes:

It is at this level that racism is treated as a question of persons. "There are a few hopeless racists, but you must admit that on the whole the population likes..."

"With time all this will disappear..."

"This is the country where there is the least amount of race prejudice... "

"At the United Nations there is a commission to fight race prejudice..."

Films on race prejudice, poems on race rejudice, messages on race prejudice...

Spectacular and futile condemnations of race prejudice. In reality, a colonialist country is a racist country. If in England, in Belgium, or in France, despite the democratic principles affirmed by these respective nations, there are still racists, it is these racists who, in their opposition to the country as a whole, are logically consistent.

It is not possible to enslave men without logically making them inferior through and through. And racism is only the emotional, affective, sometimes intellectual explanation of this inferiorization.

The racist in a culture with racism is therefore normal... One cannot with impunity require of a man that he be against "the prejudices of his group."

And, we repeat, every colonialist group is racist.

Monday, August 02, 2010

More Good Listenin'

One advantage of sabbatical life (a.k.a. the solitary writing life) is that you get all the music-listenin' time you could ever want or stand. Assuming you're one of those people who can work while you listen to music, which I am, you may find yourself compelled to supplement the ol' iTunes Music Library from time to time. (I mean, there's only so many times that I can "shuffle" my music library, which is considerably large, over 5000 tunes and counting.) This last week or so I've been doing just that a lot. I have to admit that most of my additions have been truly "supplemental," by which I mean the additions have largely been composed of albums by artists whom I already know and love. But, still, a new album is a new album. So, here's a taste of what's been getting me through the day of late:



Solomon Burke's Nashville
I love, love, LOVE Solomon Burke. The first thing I did a couple of weeks ago when I was looking for new music was to download Solomon Burke's Nashville, which is soooo good and makes me hate all my friends who haven't alerted me to it yet. (Elizabeth, you're obviously excepted from that.) If you don't listen to another new song for the rest of your life, listen to "That's How I Got To Memphis." And if you only listen to two songs for the rest of your life, add "Honey Where's the Money Gone?". I love this album chiefly because it confirms my longstanding belief that country music and blues music are basically the same. That is to say, poor people's music. The stories are the same, the chord progressions are basically the same, there's a slight difference in the rhythm, but the heartbreak is absolutely identical. Also on regular rotation from Solomon Burke is Don't Give Up On Me, the title track of which I would give at least three fingers (of my right hand) to have written.

Rufus Wainwright's Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall
I have no shame whatsoever in admitting my complete and unabashed love for show tunes. And, what's more, I've been a fan of Rufus Wainwright's vulnerable, desparate, and quietly pining baritone for a long time now. So, you can only imagine the total elation my inner-gay-boy felt upon hearing Rufus do a whole concert of Judy Garland tunes, in CARNEGIE HALL no less! (How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, dahling!) In my more sober moments, I will deign to concede that Judy Garland-ish lounge and show tunes are not everyone's cup of tea. but surely even those otherwise-heartless automatons who do not love Rufus and Judy can appreciate the sweeping, dramatic, emotive, orchestral brilliance of this album. Well, maybe they can't. Because I guess you already need to have a refined appreciation for the melodramatic to really get it. Hell, I don't care. I love it with both of my jazz hands.

Buena Vista Social Club
Back in the day, when I was a student at the University of Memphis, all of the Philosophy department parties involved, at some point, pushing all of the furniture aside and indulging in a generous sampling of Afro-Cuban music. Which means those parties involved sweaty, drunken, percussion-driven dancing and groping...usually quite late in the humid, hot and sweaty summer and quite late in the night. Buena Vista Social Club is really the best of that music, and I was so happy to be reacquainted with it when I downloaded it recently. Ibrahim Ferrer is featured here, and all by himself is enough to make you fall in love with whomever you might be dancing with at the moment. If you haven't seen it already, it's definitely worth checking out the film about this group as well. But even if you're all alone and listening to it by yourself, as I've been recently, there's just no resisting the impulse to get up and shake it.

Buddy Miller's Poison Love
A lot of people have told me in the last few years that I needed to check out Buddy Miller. And I did know of a few of his tunes through No Depression. But, I have to admit, for the first couple of tracks on Poison Love, I was a bit disappointed, thinking it sounded too much like a kind of phone-it-in alt-country album. The third track "Don't Tell Me" changed my mind, though. And although it took a couple of listenings to really convert me, I can now see the brilliance of Poison Love. At the end of the day, I think I may prefer Buddy Miller's collaboration with his daughter, Julie Miller, on the album Written in Chalk. but the more I listen to Poison Love, the more I appreciate it. His version of "That's How Strong My Love Is" is good enough to buy the album on that count alone. But there are a lots of other counts, too.

Ryan Adams' Elizabethtown Sessions
To Whomever or Whatever It May Concern: if there is such a thing as reincarnation, please let me come back as Ryan Adams. Quite simply, he is the sole legitimate inheritor of a whole generation of country (mis-labeled, in my humble opinion, as "alt-country") music. Ryan Adams is so nauseatingly prolific that he generates more than his fair share of haters, what with his putting out sometimes as many as three albums in a single year, but the truth is that you just can't hate too much on a genius for indulging his gift. Adams has probably 3 or 4 song in my "Greatest Songs of All Time" list, by which I mean I would give more than three fingers on my right hand to have written. (Seriously, if you've ever seen the sunrise in a bar and you've never heard Adams' "This Bar Is A Beautiful Place," then you should reconcile that existential dissonance post haste.) Anyway, I downloaded both Adams' Elizabethtown Sessions and his New York Session, and although I haven't really found anything to knock my socks off in either, they are both consistently Ryan-Adams-good... which means, they're reflective, simple, sometimes smart, sometimes tragic, well-constructed songs. A songwriter's workshop, just like every other Ryan Adams album.

John Mellencamp's Words & Music
A little back-story is in order here: I'm going to see Bob Dylan and John Mellencamp in concert together in Bend, Oregon in a little less than a month. So, the main reason that I downloaded Words & Music was to bone up on my Mellencamp, But, the truth is that after downloading it, I realized that most of the songs on there were ones that I already knew. I don't suppose there's anything I can say about Mellencamp that hasn't been said before-- he's clearly in the same leaugue of Great America Songwriters as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dyan, John Prine, and Kris Kristofferson-- but let me just add to the chorus of voices that sing his praise. For a long time, I've held that "sucking on chili dogs outside the Tastee Freeze" is one of the greatest lines EVER penned in American music. Followed closely by "Got nothin' against the big town, I'm still hayseed enough to say 'Look who's in the big town'." I mean, c'mon, ain't that America? I've seen Dylan a dozen or more times in my life, but I've never seen Mellencamp in concert, so this is like a songwriter's wet dream. I can't wait.

Smokey Robinson and The Miracles' Greatest Hits

I remember running into this guy at a gas station, over a decade ago now, in the midst of one of those oppressive Memphis Augusts (kind of like we're experiencing now), and he turned to me and said: "You know what'll cool you off? Listen to some Smokey." Truer words were never spoken. Smokey is just the coolest of cool. He radiates cool. He quite simply is aural cool. If you could liquify Smokey and put him in a bottle, I'm absolutely positive that bartenders would no longer have to ask "what would you like to drink?" I've always been partial to tunes like "Second That Emotion" and "Tracks of My Tears," but after downloading this album, I have to put my final vote toward "Cruisin'", which is as cool as a freshly-shaved sno-cone. Ice cold.

So, there you have it. Enjoy!

Briefly Noted

I'm working against some fast-approaching deadlines-- also working in the midst of some please-ice-me-down-or-shoot-me-now heat indices here in Memphis-- so all I can rustle up are a few truncated reflections on things that have piqued my interest of late. For those of you playing along at home, I've provided helpful and handy-dandy guides for filing away these gems. You're welcome.

1. From the "Thou Dost Protest Too Much" file:
The New York Times (ahem, excuse me, cough, and another ironic cough) is all aflutter about plagiarism again. The recent article by Trip Gabriel, "Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age," rehearses that same old song about it being Just. So. Damn. Easy. for students to cut-and-paste. And it asks the same old tired questions about the aughts and the oughts. I wish someone would say something interesting about the alleged increase of cheating in higher education. Or, at the very least, I wish someone would forego the school-marmy indignation and at least try to present this as a complex issue. Oh wait, nevermind, I already did that.

2. From the "Get Offa My Lawn!" file:
Over at Slate, Mark Oppenheimer gives us the crotchety-cum-endearingly-nostalgic piece "Judging A Girl By Her Cover," in which he pines for the halcyon (i.e., pre-Kindle) days. Remember when you could indulge in snap judgments about a stranger's taste, character, history and possible romantic compatibility just by slyly checking out the book he or she was carrying? Yeah, well, blame Kindle for its disappearance. Kids today, they just don't know how to share.

3. From the "That Depends on What The Meaning of 'Is' Is" file:
Also at Slate, William Saletan asks: can a black-white performance gap be hereditary but not racial? What prompted this question was a recent study ("The Evolution of Speed in Athletics: Why the Fastest Runners Are Black and Swimmers White") that appears, on its face, to be yet another contribution to the various pseudo-sciences of racial essentialism. Only-- hold on a sec!-- the study's authors refuse to employ "racial" categories to explain their observations about performance gaps in speed sports. They even concede, right there at the beginning of the study, that "race" is a social contruct-- almost certainly guaranteeing their disinvitation to any future Scientist Cocktail Parties for the offensive use of such a grossly postmodern term-- and they insist that their study tracks heritable phenotypic characteristics that obtain in populations with a common geographic root. And that "geographical population" is not equivalent to "racial population." Because, scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as "race." Whoa, dude.

4. From the "Eat the Rich" file:
In perhaps the best article title EVAH from The Economist, "The Rich Are Different From You and Me: They Are More Selfish," we learn that a recent UC-Berkeley study shows that poor people are more inclined to charity than rich people. My prediction: soon-to-be-released (and generously funded) follow-up study shows that rich people don't give a sh*t if you think they're selfish.

5. From the "Reality: It's What Happens On TV" file:
As an unrepentant and unashamed lover of television, especially "reality" television, I LOVED Troy Patterson's explanation of The Hills and Jersey Shore as psycho-cultural emandations of the last decade's economic boom and bust. We don't care about the nauseatingly privileged, shallow but beautiful, and thoroughly self-absorbed characters of The Hills anymore because that love-bubble burst, leaving us with the same resentful distaste as befits a sub-prime mortgage holder. Now we love the tacky, brash, hedonistic, GTL (gym, tan, laundry) characters of the Jersey Shore, whose makeshift and scrappy-- but, in the end, fundamentally humanist-- communal bonds are as authentic and as open-hearted as one can find among the downtrodden. It's a hard knock life, after all. Despite all of their creeping and cat-fighting, the Jersey Shore kids nevertheless stand as reminders of one of the basic tenets of friendship: He ain't heavy, he's my brother.

6. From the "Nerdgasm" file:
Blogging philosohers are debating whether or not Kant's moral psychology is implausible. You probably don't care... but for some of us, it's a little like Jersey Shore.

And, finally...

7. From the "When Red Bull and Vodka Just Ain't Enough" file:
There's always Perky Jerky.