Blogeague and fellow musician Jordan Bloom wonders if Bob Dylan’s receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom isn’t
just an attempt to freeze a certain image of the man in the public’s mind. You know, the Dylan all of us hear first, the blowin-in-the-wind, times-are-changin’ Dylan, the one who brings “ancient traditions into the modern age,” as the disembodied voice from the C-SPAN feed said.
I’ve written quite a bit about Dylan over the years, so I’ll eagerly take Jordan’s bait — especially if he’s going to defend Dylan’s early-’80s recording output. His association during this period with one of my guitar heroes, Mick Taylor, is just about all it takes for me to second such an apologia.
More substantively, I join Jordan in his frustration over how Dylan is pigeonholed by the likes of Barack Obama.
To be sure, I have little doubt that, despite comically painstaking efforts to believe otherwise, Dylan is temperamentally progressive — at least in the sense of being, as he put it in a Martin Scorsese-directed public-television documentary, affirmatively “on the side of people who are struggling.” In the same quote, Dylan insisted this didn’t mean he was “political,” by which I took him to mean partisan.
It’s highly unlikely that Dylan is a closet Ted Nugent. Yet the picture that Obama apparently keeps of him — that of Woody Guthrie’s torchbearer — is probably equally as glitchy.
The Washington Post is continuing its drumbeat for war with Iran. Last week it ran an op-ed urging the West not to be fooled by Iranian conciliatory steps, urging instead harsher sanctions and a possible military option. A lead editorial followed three days later making the same points. But the piece de resistance was a Memorial Day front-page featured headline revealing that “US diplomats among targets of Iran-linked plot.” And lest anyone miss the point the tale was repeated in a Jennifer Rubin blog later that day.
The only problem is that if one actually reads the fairly long and somewhat disjointed original article it becomes clear that the tale is reliant on anonymous sources of unknown provenance and short on actual evidence. No one knowledgeable of the facts in the case is quoted. It is all similar to the widely debunked Iranian plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador in Washington which was reported in similar fashion late last year. The Post story, to its credit, even concedes that there is no evidence of any Iranian government involvement in the alleged conspiracy (even if the headline suggests otherwise). There are a number of alternative explanations, including criminal activity, for the arms shipments and communications intercepts that appear to be related to the plot as it was described to Post journalist Joby Warrick. Testimony from a number of Azeris who were arrested in connection with the alleged conspiracy and which is described in general terms might have been obtained through torture.
Based on last week alone, anyone relying on The Post for news about Iran comes away with the impression that Tehran is a) building a nuclear weapon and the missiles to deliver it, b) supporting terrorist groups that are targeting Americans, and c) trying to assassinate U.S. diplomats. At best, all three assumptions can be challenged and none of the allegations have been corroborated by United States intelligence or law enforcement. Quite the contrary, CIA has confirmed that Iran has terminated its nuclear-weapon program and the FBI has discovered no Hezbollah or other groups linked to Iran with infrastructure inside the United States. The only evidence that Tehran is seeking to kill American diplomats is as presented by The Post: anonymous sources and suppositions about how certain facts and events possibly connect and will play out.
Bob Dylan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom yesterday afternoon, along with Toni Morrison, former Justice Stevens, John Glenn, the chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, and the deceased founder of the Girl Scouts:
So who knows what it actually means. To be honest, I tune out whenever anyone calls him a “modern-day troubadour,” because those people haven’t listened to enough Dylan.
In fact, how could they give the nation’s highest civilian honor to a musician as inconsistent as Bob Dylan? Does a man who deliberately antagonized his audience and refused to give them what they wanted, first by plugging in at the Newport Folk Festival, then by releasing the inscrutable (and generally awful) Self Portrait, and then, some said, by going disco in the ’80s, really deserve it?
Of course the award doesn’t imply an endorsement of his entire oeuvre. Indeed, one wonders if it’s not just an attempt to freeze a certain image of the man in the public’s mind. You know, the Dylan all of us hear first, the blowin-in-the-wind, times-are-changin’ Dylan, the one who brings “ancient traditions into the modern age,” as the disembodied voice from the C-SPAN feed said. So in the interest of a more complete understanding of the man, I rise now in defense of those much-derided ’80s albums that came out after his born-again fervor had cooled. The period contains some of his most forward-thinking music, before he took up the role of chief stylist of Americana and surged back to popularity in the late 1990s, the same thing he’s been doing ever since (excepting that Christmas album). One is even tempted to call it his last stand before becoming a folkie again. But that decade also contained–and I don’t think this is too much to say–some of the most anti-empire statements of Dylan’s career. Sometimes I wonder if it took someone like Ronald Reagan to draw his fire.
Musically, Dylan’s work through the 1980s often comes across as hackneyed and corny to modern listeners, and it’s hard to argue with that. But listen to the 1976 live album Hard Rain and try to tell me Bob Dylan doesn’t relish a corny backing band. Besides, you can’t front a group as talented and idiosyncratic as The Hawks forever.
For our purposes Dylan’s ’80s start three years late, with Infidels. Put yourself inside the head of an average fan of Highway 61-era Dylan in 1983. Out of nowhere, or rather, out of several years’ worth of gospel albums that nobody listened to, comes the lead single from his first album in two years, and it’s a montage of famous Western and non-Western art, cut with hammy close-ups of the Oracle of Hibbing himself. What on earth would you make of this?
In their book on the apocalyptic tradition in rock music, David Janssen and Edward Whitelock treat the “overlooked gem” Infidels at length, arguing it’s the best embodiment of the apocalyptic themes in Dylan’s discography.
When asked about his belief in evil–a relevant question as he emerged from the “Christian trilogy”–during in an interview with the Sunday Times just after the album came out, the notoriously evasive Dylan told Mick Brown,
“ever since Adam and Eve got thrown out of the garden that the whole nature of the planet has been heading in one direction–towards apocalypse…What it comes down to is that there’s a lot of different gods in the world against the God–that’s what it’s all about. There’s a lot of different gods that people are subjects of. There’s the god of Mammon, corporations are gods. Governments? No, governments don’t have much to do with it anymore, I don’t think. Politics is a hoax.
But despite that revelation, it was by far his most explicitly political album to date. There are songs about globalization (“Union Sundown”), homegrown American pacifism (“License to Kill”), and, depending on who you ask, Zionism or American imperialism or all of the above. In fact, “Neighborhood Bully” has become something of a touchstone for Zionists, who relish lines like, “Every empire that’s enslaved him is gone, / Egypt and Rome, even the great Babylon. / He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand, / In bed with nobody, under no one’s command. / He’s the neighborhood bully.”
Unlike in the 1960s when his songs were coopted by the anti-war movement, his reputation had diminished by the mid-1980s and the songs just didn’t have the same impact they used to. So for 1985′s Empire Burlesque, he recruited gospel backup singers, summoned a Tower of Power’s worth of synthesized horns, and released an album of what some less sanguine critics called “Disco Dylan.” Spake Robert Christgau, “no longer ‘relevant’ enough to make ‘statements’ that mean shit to any discernible audience–vide Infidels or, on this record, “Trust Yourself” (only if you say so, Bob)–he’s certainly talented enough to come up with a good bunch of songs.”
It’s easy to see how critics could take the album’s slick sheen as pandering. The opening track, rolled over from the previous album’s outtakes is musically paper-thin, and four of the first five tracks are standard pop fare with barely a hint of Dylan’s penchant for prophecy. But the odd offspring out, “Clean Cut Kid” is a levelheaded and personal indictment of the Vietnam War, framed around the opportunities and potentialities that war closes off:
His mama walks the floor, his daddy weeps and moans
They gotta sleep together in a home they don’t own.
They took a clean-cut kid
And they made a killer out of him
That’s what they did.
Incidentally, that song was first recorded in the Infidels sessions.
He closes Empire Burlesque on his own terms, first with the penultimate, drum cadence-driven “Something’s Burning, Baby,” and then the unaccompanied, fingerpicked “Dark Eyes,” perhaps the only song on the album to make it into standard accounts of the Dylan canon. Here’s a great version:
1986′s Knocked Out Loaded and 1988′s Down in the Groove are both kind of duds, the former for being cheesy and scatterbrained and the latter for its inexplicable, lifeless covers of songs like “Shenendoah” and Wilbert Harrison’s “Let’s Stick Together.” The backing bands sound cold and mechanical, which makes sense when you look at the long lists of studio musicians who played on both discs. (Highlights: “Brownsville Girl,” “Death is Not the End”)
Which brings us to Oh Mercy, which most critics recognized as a return to form. Bono–of all people!–suggested that Dylan work with producer Daniel Lanois, with whom he had recorded The Joshua Tree the year before, and they went to work in a New Orleans apartment without the same studio support that he had enjoyed for the last two albums. Lanois made him play some of the guitar parts rather than hiring studio hands. But the main reason I return to Oh Mercy over most of Dylan’s ’80s work is that the songs are better. “Ring Them Bells,” “Man in the Long Black Coat,” “Political World” (the first song he wrote for the album), or “Disease of Conceit” all hold their own next to any of his classic cuts from the 1960s.
There’s a heaviness to the album as well, to go with the moss and taxedermied animals with which they filled the ersatz studio, and the first single from the album was the song Dylan was never quite satisfied with, “Everything is Broken.”
Dylan wrote about not wanting to “express myself in any kind of new way” on Oh Mercy, a point of frustration between him and the forward-thinking Lanois. So this is the album that really anticipates the Time Out of Mind/Modern Times, folk revival revivalist act he’s used to fill minor-league stadiums for the past 20 years.
And that, then, is really the paradox of yesterday’s award. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is an attempt by the powers that be to lift up an idealized version of the man, yet for the last two decades he’s been in his own world doing largely the same thing himself. That’s why it’s important to remember what came before Dylan’s turn homeward. In any period of his work there is experimentation, but the ’80s were the last time there was any real sense of uncertainty in his work. After he left the church and before he developed a consistent brand, to put it rudely. And though there will be very few songs from the ’80s on the obligatory online mixes put together for the occasion, they’re important to remember. His songs will be cherished and remembered by millions; what value could recognition from the empire of amnesia possibly hold for a man who lives where “life and death are memorized?”
I’m glad he didn’t take those aviators off.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s victory in the Texas primary makes it official: He’s the GOP’s man to beat President Obama.
My reaction, in a word, is: Oof.
Or depending on my mood: Ugh.
It hit me recently why I loathe Romney to the point of clinical derangement. He combines Bill Clinton’s mendacity with Al Gore’s charm. There’s simply nothing endearing about him as a person; and nothing appealing about him as a pol.
My Republican friends often ask me, incredulously, “But don’t you want to beat Obama?”
Beat him with what? A candidate who promises to close the deficit but whose budget plan will only make it worse? A candidate who’s pushing for yet more tax cuts for the wealthy when there’s no evidence that such cuts will spark more or faster growth than they did the last time they were tried? A candidate who compensates for ignorance on foreign policy with pointless bellicosity? A candidate whose general-election victory would at least marginally increase the chances of war with Iran?
The choice between Obama and Romney is no choice at all. It can be summed up in that famous two-word review of Spinal Tap’s Shark Sandwich album.
Ron Unz judged the American media. Pat Buchanan lamented the Kristol-caused demise of GOP realists, and Dan McCarthy set the stage for the controversy. Jim Antle canvassed conservative options in November. Jordan Bloom exposed Obama’s worse-than-Bain cronyism, while Scott Galupo punctured conservative Bain myopia, and linked angst over free trade to rising health care costs. Rod Dreher spotted the problem with the president’s secret kill list, thought through the Euro crisis, and repeatedly chewed over the gay marriage-religious liberty divide. Daniel Larison doubted Chris Christie’s strength as a running mate, and challenged the notion of Romney’s policy revanchism.
McCarthy suggested liberalism’s discriminatory contradiction, and Larison did not like Pagans. Dreher imagined a revolution in the Vatican, agreed with Dan Quayle, appreciated what it takes to be a writer, responded to Bloom’s choom gang analysis, listened to God, and parsed bad album covers. Samuel Goldman critiqued American interest in philosophy, and Galupo considered Chinese film buffs.
Andrew Bacevich investigated the never-ending special ops war, and William Lind proposed sending the F-35 stealth turkey to the chopping block. Philip Giraldi followed media bias on the Israeli riots. Larison probed the real influences behind Romney’s foreign policy, noted the real flaws in U.S.-Russian relations, asked if foreign policy campaign rhetoric matters, and told us to ignore Charles Krauthammer
My father likes to tell a story about the men living on the railroad tracks where he grew up in central Connecticut. When he was boy, he often rode the tracks on his bike and came across what he thought were “hobos” along the way.
He was surprised when my grandfather, a World War II Army veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, ruefully told him they were veterans. In essence, they never came home from the war, he told his son, a child of the New Frontier who had grown up on John Wayne celluloid depictions of the war, snug in the can-do image of boom and fortitude reflected in the monochromatic images provided by Hollywood and Madison Avenue. There was no room for misfits or traumatized veterans in this American Dream. So they were easily marginalized and forgotten by society, at least in our town, there on the tracks.
As it turns out, not only were they not alone, but there were big hospitals (or in old-fashioned speak, sanitariums) for the thousands of men who returned from World War II with what the old timers called “shell shock” and we know now as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. That there was a high rate of “psychotic neurosis” among those vets is no surprise considering the scope and violence of the war, which claimed some 500,000 American lives. That society had nearly airbrushed them out of our contemporary understanding of post-World War II American life is extraordinary.
There are numerous reasons why these hospitals and their patients may not be widely known to us today. One is plain censorship, as in the case of the 1946 documentary “Let there be Light,” which was commissioned by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1946. The film, directed by powerhouse director John Huston (who was then a major in the Corps) and beautifully photographed by a team led by Stanley Cortez, followed 75 returning World War II vets suffering “psychotic neurosis” from the war.
Their conditions manifested in such maladies as stuttering, nervous tics, paralysis, amnesia, and social phobias, leading them to an 8-week stint in one of these huge Army hospitals. Huston and his crew had done such a wonderful job of drilling down 75 hours of interviews between the Army psychiatrists and their patients — exposing at a rare level (at least at that time) the pain, the sense of isolation, guilt, and melancholy these men brought home from them the war — that the Army simply banned “Let There Be Light” and kept it from public view for the next 30 years. Read More…
Ramesh Ponnuru remarks at how public support for free trade has fallen since the 1990s, and that even politicians who nominally support open trade rarely do so full-throatedly:
Instead they make mercantilist arguments for free trade, in which we must regrettably open our markets to foreign imports as the price for getting other countries to do the same for our exports. In debates over trade agreements, both sides typically accept the notion that imports are bad and exports are good. The question becomes whether the agreement will do more to boost imports or exports.
Ramesh concludes: “Falling support for trade has many causes, but the failure of almost anyone in politics to make the real and unequivocal argument for it has almost certainly been one.”
One cause among many, I think, has got to be the rising cost of health care.
A RAND Corporation analysis of the burden of health care costs on typical families between 1999 and 2009 noted this:
Although family income grew throughout the decade, the financial benefits that the family might have realized were largely consumed by health care cost growth, leaving them with only $95 more per month than in 1999. Had health care costs tracked the rise in the Consumer Price Index, rather than outpacing it, an average American family would have had an additional $450 per month — more than $5,000 per year — to spend on other priorities.
This trend is lost on no one and lamented by everyone, but its connection to other issues, like trade, might be less so.
Here’s what I think is happening: What you might call the Clinton-Rubin-Greenspan Bargain didn’t pan out as advertised. A cocktail of deficit reduction and tight money would keep inflation in check. Liberalized global trade would make consumer goods cheaper, and check inflation further still. Sure, the process of de-industrialization would mean a steady erosion of the kind of stable, high-paying jobs that middle-class Americans had become accustomed to. But even comparatively lousy-paying service jobs (not to mention homes that seemed like they’d increase in value in perpetuity) might still increase standards of living because a strong dollar could buy more goods that it could under a protectionist high-inflation regime.
Enter the spike in health care costs.
Whatever material gains that workers realized under the Clinton-Rubin-Greenspan bargain have been outstripped by the burden of paying for health care. In this light, the benefits of free trade — and indeed low inflation — don’t seem like, well, a fair trade.
The old hands of the Clinton administration would no doubt respond by saying they didn’t get their way on health care reform, which might have preempted the subsequent years of inflation. But that’s another argument. We are where we are — and it seems clear that, in addition to driving our long-term debt and entitlement problems, the cost of health care is at least partially to blame for angst over trade.
In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, The Chronicle of Higher Education columnist Romano maintains that Americans’ proverbial lack of interest in things of the mind conceals deep inclinations toward philosophy. According to Romano:
For the surprising little secret of our ardently capitalist, famously materialist, heavily iPodded, iPadded, and iPhoned society is that America in the early 21st century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, 19th-century Germany, or any other place one can name over the past three millennia. The openness of its dialogue, the quantity of its arguments, the diversity of its viewpoints, the cockiness with which its citizens express their opinions, the vastness of its First Amendment freedoms, the intensity of its hunt for evidence and information, the widespread rejection of truths imposed by authority or tradition alone, the resistance to false claims of justification and legitimacy, the embrace of Net communication with an alacrity that intimidates the world: All corroborate that fact.
Romano opposes his optimistic evaluation of philosophy’s role in America to the more critical tradition whose roots he identifies in Alexis de Tocqueville. On that view, Americans aren’t interested in philosophy primarily because they’re ignorant, but also because they consider it useless to business and citizenship, in which they’re really interested. Following neo-pragmatists like Richard Rorty, Romano argues that this judgment mistakenly identifies philosophical questioning with the transmission of learned doctrines. Americans are more philosophical than they seem, he suggests, not despite but because they ignore academic disputes in favor of practical concerns.
A couple of years ago, Pulitzer Prize winner Sydney Schanberg, one of America’s most celebrated Vietnam War journalists and a former top editor at the New York Times, explained to me the sad realities of our major newspapers. According to him, there was generally a strong inverse relationship between the geographical distance separating a newspaper’s headquarters and the willingness of its top executives to probe for malfeasance and corruption. So while the New York Times was always very eager to have its zealous investigative journalists plumb the depths of suspected scandals in Chicago, or even better in Kabul, Moscow, or Beijing, a similar scrutiny of improper doings a mile or two away in City Hall or upstate in Albany was normally far less encouraged. Read More…
The Obama campaign spent the better part of the last week trying to make the niggling argument that Mitt Romney’s career in private equity didn’t necessarily speak to his abilities as a job creator, citing underwhelming employment figures from his tenure as Massachusetts governor. Over at the American Spectator, Jim Antle discusses why Obama’s attacks on Bain have been less successful than Ted Kennedy’s. The biggest reason? “Ted Kennedy didn’t have to run for reelection on Obama’s jobs record.”
If Romney’s record in private equity is mixed, Obama’s record in public equity is much, much worse. The predictable backlash from the Romney campaign has arrived:
They’ve latched on to a Republican Party talking point about First Solar, the ailing solar company that received about $3 billion in loan guarantees and is now laying off workers. That is, despite the company’s penny-pinching use of the Export-Import Bank to sell solar panels to itself.
The lion’s share of those loan guarantees went to two California solar panel farms named Desert Sunlight–the 2011 North American Solar Deal of the Year!–and Antelope Valley. They will create a grand total of 35 permanent jobs, according to the Department of Energy’s website.
The single biggest misconception of ads like the one above is that taxpayers are footing the bill for all these failed projects. There’s some truth to it, especially in the case of Solyndra, but it’s more complicated, and possibly more cronyist, than that. Financing for many of the DoE loan programs including Antelope Valley and Desert Sunlight was provided through something called the Financial Institutions Partnership Program, by which the federal government works with various third-party lenders. In the case of Desert Sunlight, that meant Goldman Sachs submitted the proposal, and Citigroup was the lead arranger. On September 29th the federal financing came through for both projects, and the next day news broke that NextEra Energy, the nation’s largest renewable energy firm, announced that they would buy up the Desert Sunlight solar farm from First Solar.
Both the lead lender and the eventual owner of the Desert Sunlight farm are companies whose CEOs sit on the President’s Council for Jobs and Competitiveness. It’s hard to know just how much insider wrangling went on, but it certainly looks bad.
There was a third loan guarantee in the works worth $1.93 billion for a project entitled Topaz Solar, but the federal financing was scuttled after an insider trading flap. Thankfully, at least for advocates of green energy, it was quickly bought by Warren Buffett.
But how did First Solar, chosen beneficiary of the federal government’s beneficence, go from doing billions in business with Uncle Sam in 2011 to being the “worst performing S&P 500 component of 2012?” From having a net income in 2010 of $664 million to a net loss of almost $40 million in 2011?
The answer is complicated, and the biggest factor is probably the continuing economic troubles in Europe, which have proved disastrous for green energy subsidies there. The company is also still paying millions for a “manufacturing excursion.” President Obama seems to think First Solar is failing because they’re being undercut by those nasty Chinese solar panel manufacturers. So he’s going to punish them with a big fat tariff, which would work against nearly every one of administration’s energy policy goals.
Obama’s embarassing record on public financing pretty well ensures that this is a losing issue for him. If Bain represents creative destruction in all its positive and negative aspects, the Department of Energy represents institutional entrenchment and cronyism in its worst form. But overly simplistic arguments about lost taxpayer money aren’t the best way to convince people.
Millman on Bain here.