Friday, March 27, 2009

Alpha & Omega

This is the last post at

My blog will continue at my new site:

Hope you will join me there.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Hobsbawm discussed on NPR

The first week of tutorials in the subject that I am teaching this semester is spent discussing Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes. It was interesting, therefore, to see Michael Kazin, an historian at Georgetown University, discussing it with NPR.

Hobsbawm, a former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, attracted a lot of criticism over this book and the way that he treated the Soviet Union in it. It is a useful pedagogical exercise for first-year historians to look at the controversy as it teaches them to approach secondary sources with skepticism as well as consider the role of ideology and personal experience in history writing.

Kazin mentions some of the controversy in his interview:

Certainly, Hobsbawm is too sympathetic to what used to be called "the Soviet experiment" -- the decidedly unscientific order that had a mostly deleterious impact on the history of the 20th century, particularly the history of those nations ruled by a party which modeled itself on the Leninist model. The tone as well as the brevity of his description of the millions of people whom the Soviet government exterminated suggests his psychological distance from their suffering: "the number of direct and indirect victims must be measured in eight rather than seven digits."

Yet at the same time, he does a masterful job of explaining why the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917. This was, after all, a time when no other political faction was able or even willing to take power and seek a solution to the chaos left by the collapse of the Czarist regime amid the slaughter on the Eastern Front. And Hobsbawm also evokes and explains what about Soviet Communism appealed so strongly to so many people for so long. Towards the end of the book, he provides a sober analysis of why the whole edifice of the USSR and its satellites crumbled so rapidly and thoroughly. These are vital questions for an historian to answer, and Hobsbawm's long but usually critical affiliation with the British Communist Party allows him to answer them quite brilliantly.

Hobsbawm's ideological bias does detract from this work for me, yet I have found that I have returned to this and the other volumes in the series often over the years. Kazin describes the importance of Hobsbawm in such a way that I realise now why I continue to read someone whom I often disagree with and whose omissions and interpretations annoyed me:

we need to understand the larger history of our planet and to do so with a certain coolness that views the barricades -- cultural, intellectual, as well as political -- from some distance apart and above. No historian writing in English does this with the lucidity and wit and eye for the telling detail and summarizing judgment that Hobsbawm has brought to the task since writing the first volume of this tetralogy almost five decades ago.

One example will suffice. In his chapter on the quarter-century after the end of World War II -- "the golden age" -- he writes not just about the diffusion of such technological marvels as TV, refrigerators, and automobiles to nearly every corner of the globe or the astounding rise in incomes that brought a cosmopolitan flavor to such poor nations as Jamaica and Algeria as well as to rich ones like Japan and Finland. He makes clear that behind this change of life lay a "sudden and seismic" shift in consciousness: "For 80 percent of humanity the Middle Ages ended suddenly in the 1950s; or, better still, they were felt to end in the 1960s."

Some scholars would object that "the Middle Ages" is not a meaningful concept to apply to the history of any country outside West and Central Europe. But that would miss the beauty of Hobsbawm's formulation. In fewer than 25 words, Hobsbawm manages to illuminate the revolutionary character of the unparalleled growth of industry and a global consumer economy -- with politicians and social movements of different stripes trying to understand and exploit this development, of course. And his habit of amending himself, within the same sentence, demonstrates the balance between material reality and consciousness that is perhaps the most beneficial aspect of the Marxist approach to history.

I expect that historians and, I hope, ordinary readers of history will continue to learn from Hobsbawm at the end of the 21st century as they do at its beginning. He is not my model, but he is my teacher.

Well said.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Hezbollah and Iran

Laura Rozen interviews Magnus Ranstorp in The American Prospect in "Contra Iran". It is an interview that is very enlightening about the nature of Hezbollah and its relationships with nations in the region. The best bits are below:

Some in the U.S. intelligence community have voiced concerns that Hezbollah has the capability to strike abroad; it’s not clear at this point they have the intent. What would their calculation be?

The Israelis know that if they assassinate [Hezbollah general secretary Hassan] Nasrallah, Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence will reach around the world and hit an Israeli embassy or diplomatic mission.

Why that sort of attack? To show they have global reach?

For retribution.


Why does Iran need Hezbollah to conduct terror operations? Their own intelligence operatives have conducted assassinations by themselves throughout Europe.

For plausible deniability. To operate under the cover of plausible deniability.

You’re right, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security is the most formidable intelligence agency in the region, surpassing even the Mossad.

Why is Iranian intelligence so effective?

Well, they have 30,000 employees. They have to survive in a hostile Arab environment. They export Hezbollah. They are at work in the Gulf, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So is the Lebanon conflict a result of Iranian hegemony?

This conflict has to be viewed in a broader geophysical context. The bottom line is that while it has to do, of course, with what’s happening in the Middle East in general, more specifically it has much to do with the brewing conflict, the U.S.-Iranian confrontation.

So you do see the Lebanon conflict as about the United States and Iran?

Without exception; with a great degree of confidence. There has been a lot of background preparation. Iran’s control is more than meets the eye.

Really, if you want to mess with Iran, Hezbollah is the Achille’s heal, the weakest link in the whole matrix. You take them on, not just because you want to mess with Iran, but for many reasons: for Lebanon’s sake, to get some solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, also to tackle Syria, which has been a staunch ally to Iran for 26 years.


Hezbollah has organized, personal, longstanding links with Iran, on a number of different levels. In 1992, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah became the personal representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in Lebanon…

Hezbollah currently has about 100 Iranian advisors in Lebanon. They don’t partake in the fighting. They are more tactical advisors…

[Hezbollah provides the Iranians with] the terror machinery. It’s not used very much anymore. Recently the main focus has been on trying to assist Hamas on a low scale, strategic consultations and kidnapping [the Israeli soldier]. That is coordinated via the Hamas representative in Beirut, Osama Hamdan. He used to be Hamas’ rep in Iran. They have recently been trying to infiltrate foreigners into Israel; people have been arrested for carrying out reconnaissance on Israeli troops.

But the connections with Iran go ever further. The entire Hezbollah collective leadership studied in Najaf [Iraq]. Nasrallah was there between 1976 and 1979, he was there during Khomeini’s rein there. The Iranian clerics were trained by the Palestinians in the 1970s...

Friday, August 04, 2006

Power Line on Bamford Article

Following up on the earlier post about James Bamford's Iran piece in Rolling Stone, Power Line has a very interesting series of posts that refute much of the article.

The first post, titled "Stoned", reprints a letter that Michael Ledeen, one of the major figures in Bamford's story, has written to the editors of Rolling Stone.

The second post, called "Stoned: Bamford Errata", has more from Ledeen. In this post, he takes direct quotes from Bamford and then provides rebuttal.

The third and final post (for the moment), "Stoned: An Addendum", is less persuasive and entirely unnecessary, seeking to further taint Bamford by noting that Rolling Stone has hired Robert Dreyfuss, a writer from the American Prospect who used to work for Lyndon LaRouche.

The first two posts are required reading for the full story. The third, with its guilt by association implications, is a drop in standard.

Lord Vader Being a Jerk

This is the funniest thing I've seen in ages: some guy has re-edited a couple of seconds from The Empire Strikes Back to show Darth Vader being a smartass.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Push Towards War with Iran

James Bamford's article "Iran: the Next War" in Rolling Stone and Laura Rozen's "Three Days in Rome" in Mother Jones should really be read together for the behind-the-scenes story of the push by certain segments of the Bush Administration to go to war with Iran. (If you aren't reading daily Rozen's blog War and Piece for up to the minute updates on international, especially Middle Eastern, security affairs, then you are missing out).

Bamford's piece focuses on the story of the disgraced Pentagon official Larry Franklin, who was arrested for passing intelligence to the Israelis. Rozen looks at the involvement of Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian exile who may or may not have access to information from inside Iran.

Together these articles paint the picture of a small group of Iran hawks in the Pentagon who have gone beyond normal channels in their efforts to gain information in order to shift attention to the growing problem of Iran.

Bamford's article contains the most explosive new facts, detailing a probable double-cross by Ahmed Chalabi in which Chalabi may have tipped off Tehran that the U.S. had broken their communications codes.

The insights offered by Bamford and Rozen are frightening not because they show the movement towards war with Iran -- Iran is clearly one of the most pressing issues that the U.S. needs to deal with, and it is more and more likely that some degree of military action will be necessary. What is frightening is the way the business of international intelligence gathering and influence-peddling is conducted: it is apparent that many of the people that the Pentagon and other U.S. government agencies are forced to rely on are far from reputable. It is frightening that so many lives are held in such dirty hands.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Keegan on Lebanon vs the First World War

Sir John Keegan, one of the best and most respected military historians writing today, had a column in Sunday's Washington Post discussing the similarities and dissimilarities between the current situation in Lebanon and the First World War. In "It's Not Another World War One", Keegan successfully argues that what distinguishes the present crisis from the crisis in July 1914 is the lack of an intricate system of treaties and international agreements.

It was those treaties, between Germany and Austro-Hungary, Russia and France, and Great Britain and Belgium, that turned what might have been simply another localised Balkan conflict into the Europe-wide Great War. The Middle East, on the other hand, is a collection of states that exist without formal obligations to protect each other or join any conflicts. As Keegan writes,

No such system [of treaties] operates in the Middle East today. The United States is committed to protecting Israel, but it does not have a mutual assistance treaty with that country. There are no alliances binding Syria to Lebanon or Iran to Syria. There is a treaty between Israel and Egypt, but it is a peace treaty. So there are no automatic diplomatic arrangements in the Middle East that will cause one country to go to war with another if a third is attacked. Indeed,
the undesirability of interstate relations lies in their informality, not their formality. All the Muslim states except Egypt are on hostile terms with Israel, but none is involved in a mutual assistance treaty guaranteed to bring on a war in the event of Israeli aggression. Instead of fixed and formal treaty arrangements, the nations of the Middle East coexist in a state of mutual suspicion and hostility -- hostility that may turn to war without warning, or without the specific conditions that treaties impose.

Keegan also gives a very good quick summary of the system of alliances that existed at the outbreak of the First World War:

The early 20th-century treaties in particular obliged Russia to go to war with Germany if France were attacked and obliged Germany to go to the aid of the Austro-Hungarian empire if it were attacked by Russia. There were other alliances: Britain had an understanding, though not a formal alliance, with France that committed it to send troops if the French were attacked. Most important, it had a longstanding commitment to defend Belgium if it were attacked by any power -- a commitment dating from Britain's involvement in procedures that had set up Belgium as an independent country in the 19th century.

With a deadly inevitability, these treaties triggered one another in July and August of 1914. Austria mobilized to attack Serbia, which it held responsible for the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo on June 28.

Russia then mobilized its army against Austria, because it was committed to protecting its Slav brothers in Serbia. Germany then mobilized against Russia, and Russia's mobilization provoked that of France, which prompted the mobilization of Germany. When Germany invaded Belgium to forestall France's attack on Germany, as the Franco-Russian treaty required, Britain responded by warning Germany that it would go to war if German troops were not withdrawn from Belgium.

By the first week of August, all the leading states of Europe had gone to war, with the exception of Italy, which had wriggled out of its treaty responsibilities, and Spain, which did not belong to the system of alliances.

It was simply a matter of coincidence that this week's lectures for the subject that I am tutoring in this semester deals with the First World War. All my tutorials this week have begun with lively, and occasionally heated, debate about the causes and conduct of Israeli/Lebanese/Hezbollah war, with all my students seeing its significance and potential.

What then, are the similarities, if any, between the First World War and the Lebanese conflict? Probably the biggest is the fact that much of what has followed has been the result of an underestimation of the enemy: Hezbollah's leader Nasrallah, in ordering the initial incursion into Israel in which the two soldiers were kidnapped, quite obviously did not expect that Israel would react so strongly. Likewise, Austro-Hungary (and Germany) did not expect Russia to be so staunch in its support of its Slavic cousins in Serbia. The "Great Risk", as it has been called, set off a series of mobilizations on both sides that eventually led to the outbreak of war proper.

The commonality, therefore, seems to the willingness of actors in both conflicts to make calculated gambles on the response of the other side, which in both cases had terrible consequences.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

My Spidey-sense is tingling

Which Superhero are you? Apparently I am Spider-Man: intelligent, witty, a bit geeky and have great power and responsibility. [Via Oxblog]

Monday, June 19, 2006

Danger Mouse Profile in NYT

Danger Mouse (Brian Burton), the hip-hop producer, was given a lengthy profile in the NY Times Magazine this weekend, in "The D.J. Auteur", by Chuck Klosterman. Danger Mouse is the producer behind Gnarls Barkley, DangerDoom, and the latest Gorillaz album. He rose to prominence when he mixed The Beatles' White Album with Jay-Z's Black Album to create the very popular and illegal The Grey Album.

The first striking aspect of the interview is the fact that Danger Mouse feels more closely akin to film directors than other music producers. He describes how the example of Woody Allen changed his perspective on life:

When I got to college, I saw 'Manhattan' and 'Deconstructing Harry.' I thought to myself: Why do I relate so much to this white 60-year-old Jewish guy? Why do I understand his neurosis? So I just started watching all of his movies. And what I realized is that they worked because Woody Allen was an auteur: he did his Thing, and that particular Thing was completely his own. That's what I decided to do with music. I want to create a director's role within music, which is what I tried to do on this album.

Klosterman agrees with the idea that Danger Mouse is the sole guiding figure behing Gnarls Barkley:

When Gnarls Barkley performs live, there are 14 people onstage. Technically, however, Gnarls Barkley is just two people: Danger Mouse (the aforementioned Burton) and an Atlanta-based singer-rapper named Cee-Lo (born Thomas Calloway). But in a larger sense, Gnarls Barkley is really just one person, and that person is Burton. Cee-Lo is essential, but he's essential in the same way Diane Keaton was essential to "Annie Hall": he is the voice that best incarnates Burton's vision, so he serves as the front man for this particular project. Burton will aggressively insist that Gnarls Barkley is a two-man game, but that seems more magnanimous than accurate.

Klosterman goes on to compare DM to Phil Spector and Brian Eno, other producers who often had defining influence on the sound of the music they produced for other artists. DM has a lot in common with Eno in particular, Klosterman believes, since both could be said to use artists simply as vehicles for their own sound. There is, however, a difference, Klosterman observes:

Though Eno was the intellectual force behind groups like Roxy Music and albums like "Heroes," he was never the star; the star was always someone else (like Bryan Ferry or David Bowie). What's atypical about Gnarls Barkley is that the star is Burton, even though he's barely visible onstage. Burton has the kind of paradoxical personality that's weirdly familiar among creative types: he's simultaneously confident and insecure, and he's a natural introvert who elected to become a public figure. More significant, he's a highly focused dude, and that focus is clear - Danger Mouse wants musical autonomy. He wants to be the first modern rock 'n' roll auteur, mostly because he understands a critical truth about the creative process: good art can come from the minds of many, but great art usually comes from the mind of one.

This may seem a new phenomenum to Klosterman, but to someone the same age as DM, it is not surprising. The last fifteen years have seen the rise of the superstar producers. Those who in the 70s and 80s would have stayed hidden and largely anonymous in the recording booth are now recognisable and putting out albums under their own names. This is roughly contemporaneous with the growth of the commercial appeal of hip-hop and electronic music. Rather than being obscured behind the guy with the guitar, in the 90s the person who fiddled and tweaked the knobs became the creative force. The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, Geoff Barrow of Portishead and Liam Howlett of The Prodigy all became as famous as traditional rock'n'roll stars. These days, I am as likely to look for music based on producer as the artist. Producers like The Neptunes and Kanye West go on to be more famous than the artists they produce.

The biggest asset of the article is DM's description of the story behind The Grey Album, which Klosterman calls "the most popular album in rock history that virtually no one paid for". Hearing the rationale behind and origins of the album from the man himself is the centrepiece of the profile:

'The Grey Album' is so misunderstood. I didn't even call it 'The Grey Album.' If you look at my original files for those songs, they're labeled 'The Black-White Album.' And the thing is, most people who have that record think the way it sounds is the way I wanted it to sound. And that's not the case at all.


One day I was cleaning my room and listening to the Beatles' White Album. I was kind of bored, because the other hip-hop work I was doing was really easy. Somebody had sent me an a capella version of 'The Black Album,' but I was already doing stuff with Cee-Lo and Jemini and Doom, so I didn't want to waste my beats on a remix record.


So I'm listening to the White Album and I'm putting 'The Black Album' away, and I suddenly have this idea: I decide to see if I could take those two albums and make one song, just because of the names of the two albums and because they're perceived as being so different and because I've always loved Ringo Starr's drum sound.


I sat down and tried to make one track, and it happened really fast. Then I tried to make a second song, and it took a lot longer, but it still worked. And I thought, Wow. What if I can do the whole album? It was almost this Andy Warhol moment, where I made a decision to do something artistically without a clear reason as to why, except to show people what I could do. And I could never do an album like that again. I still don't know where I found the patience to make those songs. It took me about 20 days in a row, and those were all 12- and 13-hour days. And the whole time I was doing it, I was terrified someone else would come up with the same idea, which would have ruined everything. Because really, the idea is pretty simple.


I thought it would be a weird, cultic record for techies to appreciate, because they would be the only people who would understand how much work was involved," he says. "But then it was taken into this whole different world, where a million people were downloading it at the same time. At best, that record is just quirky and odd and really illegal. I never imagined people would play those songs in clubs. I also think the people who love it tend to love it for the wrong reasons, and the people who hate it tend to hate it for the wrong reasons. I think some people love it for what it supposedly did to the music industry, which was not my intent. I did not make 'The Grey Album' for music fans. I made it to impress people who were really into sampling.

Danger Mouse's love of genre-bending seems inevitable when one considers his youth: growing up in a white neighbourhood in New Jersey he listened to Poison. When his family moved to Atlanta, he started listening to RZA and immersed himself in hip-hop. He describes how a beer in a bar caused him to look beyond the rap world:

I remember hearing Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here' in a bar... This was around 1995. And I remember thinking it was so beautiful. It just put me in a daze. I asked someone what it was, and they were like: 'You don't know? This is Pink Floyd.' Now, I had heard of Pink Floyd, but I never really knew what they sounded like. I had never actually played Pink Floyd records. And I suddenly found myself wondering, Why have I spent all these years never listening to this music? And the reason was that I was afraid to do anything that would have seemed socially unacceptable. I was afraid that people wouldn't think of me as this hip-hop guy, because hip-hop was my Thing. So then I went out and bought every Pink Floyd record.

The article ends with a description of the current popularity of Danger Mouse and Cee-Lo's project Gnarls Barkley. There are plenty of interesting nuggets of info, for example, that their touring drummer used to be the drummer for Nine Inch Nails (hard to imagine that this could be a NINer in a Chewbacca costume). Or the origin of the name Gnarls Barkley:

Burton was in a cafe with several friends in Silver Lake, Calif., and everyone at the table started making up fictional celebrity names like "Prince Gnarls" and "Bob Gnarley." When someone came up with "Gnarls Barkley," Burton wrote it down. That's the whole story.

Danger Mouse has upcoming projects with members of The Roots and Damon Albarn, so it is quite possible that his best is yet to come.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Billy West interview on TVSquad

TV Squad has a very good interview on their site with Billy West, who voiced Fry, Zoidberg, the Professor and others on Futurama. West discusses his career, the behind the scenes workings of voice-recording, and reveals that Philip Fry was named in memory of Phil Hartman.