Saturday, February 05, 2011

Freedom Is Hard (UPDATE)

As I write this, Pres. Hosni Mubarak has left the leadership of the National Democratic Party in Egypt, I'm listening to a discussion from a couple days ago on Al Jazeera with Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Zizek on the possibility of popular democracy in Egypt, and in the back of my mind is this interview I heard a couple days ago on Here and Now on the wider post-colonial revolution in the Arab world. Here in the US, there is so much fear-mongering regarding events in Egypt - Media Matters for America, to cite just one example, has a rundown of snake oil salesman Glen Beck offering the oddest collection of conspiracies responsible for the unrest in the Middle East - that the birthing of democracy in Egypt is raising all sorts of questions regarding its health here in the US. In particular, the key to our freedom, the freedom to speak one's mind without fear, has become the most hated freedom we have. The reaction to those who find distasteful Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity on the one hand and Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, and Glenn Greenwald on the other hand - their ideological opponents want them silenced as a danger to the Republic - is, perhaps, the most insidious, anti-democratic, anti-American idea imaginable.

It is clear enough, at least to those who have been following the story in Egypt on Al Jazeera, that conspiracy theories are not only an American phenomenon. The Egyptian people are eager to express fears of all kinds of conspiracies. It isn't the content of these expressions that worries me, any more than the content of FOXNews, or Rush Limbaugh's radio show, or even the occasionally sloppy, lazy mainstream journalism one finds too often here in the US. What worries me is the refusal to accept that, yes, there are people who think differently than we do. There are people who are fundamentalist Christians, and Muslims, and Mormon and Marxist, and libertarians who have political beliefs and want to have their voice heard. In Egypt, moving forward, we have the prospect of secular political views, of leftist views, of moderately sectarian Muslim views, and others - all of whom will want a voice in the governance of a new, emergent democratic Egypt. The key to a healthy polity isn't silencing those voices we don't like.

The key to a healthy polity is, first and foremost, accepting that there are all sorts of people, including people who have ideas very different from one's own. One does not have to accept the legitimacy of those ideas. The other part of this equation is the willingness to treat the ideas of others - yes, even the kooky ideas of Glenn Beck - with enough seriousness, at the very least, to laugh at them. More serious views should be treated with the seriousness they deserve.

All this occurred to me with regard to the fear-mongering in this country regarding The Muslim Brotherhood, which is little more than a moderately conservative Islamic party with deep roots in the history of Egypt. It is, in fact, little different from the current ruling party in Turkey, which we were told was going to go the way of Iran, but is as committed to Turkey's history of secular governance as any other party. It is little different from various conservative Christian groups in the US who seek to voice their views in the public sphere of the US. I may not agree with their view; I might not even like them. All the same, I am grateful for them, and would rather they were heard than shouted down by those who quite simply cannot tolerate views different from their own. Encouraging the development of this kind of social and civic infrastructure in Egypt means breathing life back in to it here in the United States.

UPDATE: This article is really, really good. It covers some of the same territory, not least the cluelessness of so many outsiders (including myself!) to the complex dynamics under way in Egypt.

The Music Must Change

For all his intelligence and insight, David Hajdu falls in to an all too familiar trap. In a section of Heroes and Villains in which he discusses the perils and possibilities of aging pop and jazz stars - Elvis Costello, Sting, Abbey Lincoln - he takes a moment to take an a cliched swipe at the alleged pretensions of late-60's, early-70's British progressive rock, getting his facts wrong in the process of arguing from a perspective of alleged authenticity. Neither Genesis nor King Crimson released any albums made with orchestras. Genesis only made one concept piece, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Yes, Rick Wakeman did wear a pointy hat and flowing, spangled cape, perform with a full orchestra for his solo album Journey to the Center of the Earth, and bands like Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, and Van Der Graf Generator sought in earlier musical styles and forms ways to enliven their music, keep it interesting to themselves as musicians and their audiences.

Emerging in the very late 1960's, in the wake of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Moody Blues Days of Future Past, progressive rock coalesced as a general term form a small group of (mostly English) bands who combined a certain technical ability, musical knowledge, and adventurous spirit, wondering if it was possible to make of the popular music of the day - rock and roll, which, as Yes bassist Chris Squire said, really means Elvis Presley; and rock, which emerged with Bob Dylan turning on amplifiers and adding The Band as his backup, followed by imitators from The Byrds and The Rascals to the San Francisco sound - something more than just blues changes and screeching guitars. This is not to say there is anything wrong with blues-based rock, or the blues in general. On the contrary, one blues-based band, Led Zepellin, also incorporated elements associated with "prog" as it was known, in many of their songs, cheek by jowl with the blues (Zepellin also incorporated elements from non-Western, particularly Moroccan music, heard on "Kashmir"; Robert Fripp of King Crimson would investigate and incorporate Indonesian gamelan during the period he was away from active recording and performing in the late 1970's, incorporating it in to later King Crimson music).

The existence of prog, and its on-going presence as prog merged with heavy metal, and related styles like jazz fusion - from The Mahavishnu Orchestra to the various Canterbury bands like Soft Machine and Matching Mole - is usually dismissed as self-indulgence, or, what's worse, surrendering the primal rebelliousness of rock, rooted in an adolescent celebration of bare-bones minimalist aesthetic and technique in a quest to make the music less angry, less primal, and (let's face it) less black. These criticisms all fail for me for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is the question begged by those who, as Hajdu does in his ignorant dismissal of the pretentiousness of some of the worst of prog, is, why not do this musical exploration?

Who says rock has to sound like Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones? Who says that the 12-bar blues is the only authentic rock form? If a musician with an ear for classical guitar - Steve Hackett from Genesis, say - or jazz - Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford, Alan Holdsworth - want to take certain elements from those musical styles and incorporate them in a rock setting, why not? The results could be bad; anyone listening to the attempts at group improvisation King Crimson tried during their 1972-1974 incarnation could conclude pretty easily that the attempt fails far more than it succeeds. On the other hand, group improv that results in song structure - again, the bulk of King Crimson's early 1970's recorded output was little more than refined jams with a lyrical pastiche - could be both beautiful and ear-shattering (Fripp considered this edition of Crimson to be little more than a heavy metal band, and songs like "Lark's Tongue in Aspic, Part II", "Red", and "Fracture" are, indeed, heavy metal).

Hajdu, in particular, insists as do many other critics that rock and roll, as it emerged in the 1950's as a part of adolescent rebellion, is most clearly rock and roll when it sticks to its roots in adolescence and adolescents. There is a certain amount of truth to that. The success, in England, of punk as an indigenous musical and social rebellion against the overbearing conformity of Britain's class system and the overweening presence of bands as diverse as Pink Floyd, Led Zepellin, and the Rolling Stones who had become far too big, far too unwieldy, and far too expensive to see live testifies to the power of music-based revolt. Yet, for all the punk succeeded, to a certain extent at least in Britain, and was much adored by rock critics in America (one reads Lester Bangs' articles on the early Clash as one reads someone's love notes from high school, with a smile on one's face and a shake of the head at wearing one's heart on one's sleeve like that), it really didn't change anything. Indeed, reaching back behind not only prog and the blues revival in Britain, but even the Beatles by imitating 12-bar, three-chord blues changes, played at high volume and very fast, one could argue it was not so much a revolution against an overly-bourgeois music, but a reaction, a kind of Heideggerian overcoming of modernity that sought not so much the future but Jung's and Heidegger's primordial past. It's primitivism - one can still hear it in bands today, like The White Stripes who sound barely competent on their instruments, and early records from Green Day who do little more than strum or beat their instruments as loud and fast as they can, screaming out their insecurities because that was the only way to be heard over the amplified din - is part of its allure. Yet, it is a primitivism that is rooted in a false yearning for a golden age that never was.

As Hajdu also points out, those early rock and rollers didn't want to rebel. Chuck Berry was a country-western musician who also liked the standards. Elvis Presley wanted to be a crooner like Perry Como. They fell in to the music more out of lack of opportunity than anything else, due to racism and class bias. The music that emerged, for all its edginess and novelty, bore signs of thoughtfulness rather than thoughtless emoting. While teenagers may have embraced it not least because of its novelty, for those initial performers, it was just a stage along a journey in a career they all hoped would be long and varied. Berry's career was long, but not all that varied. Presley's career was shorter, a bit more varied, but he was constantly harassed by critics, and his manager Col. Tom Parker attacked as a svengali, for giving Elvis exactly the career he wanted - a lounge singer cum movie star.

Yet, even granting these realities, we are to reject what emerged in the wake of the musical experimentation of the late-1960's because it refused to stand still and accept iron-clad rules set down, for the most part, by non-musicians. Now, it is certainly true, as even Rick Wakeman acknowledges, that the music didn't always work and the musicians were occasionally, in his word, "pompous". One need only listen to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's live album to understand that reality. Then again, every musical style has its duds and flops, its failures, those who take two steps past the point where experimentation becomes true self-indulgence. Hell, even the Beatles flopped - The Magical Mystery Tour ring a bell?

At the end of the day, no musical style really needs a defense against critics. If musicians are honest in their appreciation and use of it; if audiences respond positively to it; if it offers to both musicians and audience something more, some aesthetic experience that is complete - it works. No one, not least the musicians who performed it, would ever argue that Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother was a rock and roll album.

That doesn't make it bad, or evil, or unmusical.

It just makes it what it is.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Cultural Criticism (UPDATE, UPDATE II Erratum)

As a welcome escape from the Egyptian situation - I am still following it via Al Jazeera - I have been re-reading my "move" book, the award-winning Heroes and Villains by David Hajdu. A collection of essays all but one of which were previously published in The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and The Atlantic, among other publications, these essays cover the gamut - jazz and hip-hop, the blues and Sting, The Beatles and Susannah McCorkle, Elmer Fudd and graphic novels - of pop- and high-culture phenomena. The one previously unpublished essay, which opens the volume, is a review of the importance of the life and career of Billy Eckstine. Once the most popular singer in America - he outdrew Frank Sinatra and was offered a $1 million contract by MGM for both movies and recordings; his first band as a leader included Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, names one might recognize - Eckstine's career came to a screeching halt when a photographer for Life magazine snapped one photo of a group of young women swooning over Eckstine, one leaning against his expansive chest as he laughed in seeming revelry at the event. The problem, sad to say, was the photo was taken in 1950. Eckstine was African-American. The young women in obvious physical desire, were white.

Hajdu's eclectic mix of the best - Lennon and McCartney each get separate essays; Ray Charles is remembered, as is his contemporary Bobby Darin - the worst - Alan Lomax, Sting, ignorant (mostly white) blues fans who focus on technical virtuosity at the expense of the totality of the musical experience - and the just-plain-odd - an appreciative essay on Elmer Fudd reveals that, in fact, Fudd was not voiced by Mel Blanc, among other glorious tidbits - is a rare gem among volumes of critical writing. Unlike Lester Bangs' gonzo-journalism-cum-narcissism (every essay of Bangs, no matter how brilliant, is far more about Lester Bangs than his purported subject matter), or Gary Giddin's insiders approach to writing about jazz, Hajdu writes for those who may never have heard, say, an Anita O'Day record, or truly appreciated the artistry of hip-hop artist/actor Mos Def, yet allows them access. He does not treat the reader like an idiot. Nor does he toss off phrases and jargonish nonsense that might make the reader feel like an adept of some secret world open only to those who truly understand.

As I read through these essays for the second time in six months, I have been thinking about the lack of serious critical acumen in the Church. One thing I will say for Wesley Theological Seminary, they had an actual Ph. D. in sociology on the faculty, who also happened to be a United Methodist clergyman. I wish even the introductory class in Sociology of Religion had been required of all M. Div. students, instead of those just in the Urban Ministry track. I was fortunate to take it, and continue to benefit from it, as I have moved with Lisa from south to north, from rural to more suburban churches.

All the same, some instruction in larger cultural concerns might also benefit our clergy. Wesley also houses the Center For Arts and Religion, and there is a strong emphasis on the role of the visual and graphic arts in the life of the local church. Classes in hymnody, however, are electives; one late professor, Jim Logan, used to begin his classes on Methodist History and Doctrine by playing a Charles Wesley hymn, integrating it in to his lecture for that day.

These, however, offered such a narrow scope for understanding the place of music and the other arts in the life of the local congregation. There was no introduction to critical writing, no entry for our clergy-in-training to learn to think critically about the culture in which the Church lives, and for which it lives. Seminary graduates escape after three or four years grasping in some general outline everything from liturgical practice to the classic doctrines of the church to an outline of its history; what they do not have when they leave are the tools to look at the larger world and understand it, come to grips with it, perhaps even see within its various cultural guises hints and possibilities of the blowing of the Spirit in song and poetry, in literature and art (there was a class on protest in African-American fiction, but the professor who taught that has long since passed away).

Since my own interests lie in music, I think Hadju's volume, with its breadth of subject matter and depth of understanding, even as he occasionally lapses in to cliche - John Lennon-good/Paul McCartney - bad is his most egregious one - seems as good a place as any to begin to understand the possibilities for the Church if it had even a few folks who would approach cultural criticism from the unique perspective of the Christian faith. For example, what are we to make of the varied music of U2, The Alarm, The Call, P.O.D., and Lifehouse? Would it be possible to integrate, say, the moral lessons of Dostoevsky and Alice Walker in to a way of looking at the larger world? Is it even possible to take the pessimism of Jonathan Franzen and the exuberance of David Foster Wallace as different poles as we move toward acceptance of our diminished national status, as well as the diminished role of faith in our national life?

Sadly, I just don't know if there are enough folks out there who understand how necessary this is to doing good ministry. We cannot serve a congregation if we do not have the tools to help them grasp the world around them. If we don't have those tools, we cannot pass them on.

UPDATE: Courtesy of (who else?) The New Inquiry comes this wonderful example of critical writing. What makes it wonderful? Why, by taking on the cliches of a critic pretending profundity. The DJ who created Girl Talk - as evidenced, at least, by the video TNI produces so helpfully - is certainly clever. Beyond that . . . is the clever use of technology a technique the way, say, learning a musical instrument or singing is a technique? At this point, I would have to say . . . well, read the review at Riff Market.

UPDATE II: Speaking of writing well about culture . . . I have corrected an error. Above, I referred to the band Lifehouse as "Lighthouse", for God only knows what reason. I regret the error, especially as I was pleading for more intelligent writing about culture. Ah, well, physician heal thyself and all that . . .

Thursday, February 03, 2011

I Was Snowed And I Missed It

It isn't just Egypt that has me in near-obsession mode. We had a bit of a BLIZZARD and so I've been busy, being the only semi-adult in the house until later tonight. So, I was really busy and I kind of missed my new attempt to do the whole music thingy. It did give me a chance to buy some new music - the second Budos Band release among my new favorites. So, without anything like ado, a doo, or adieu, batteries to power, turbines to speed . . .

Going for the One - Yes (Live)
All Along the Watchtower - Bob Dylan (Live)
Hollow Years - Dream Theater
Festive Suite in A - Telemann
The Talking Drum - King Crimson (Live)
Sysyphus Part I - Pink Floyd
Lost Sailor - Grateful Dead (Live, Go To Nassau)
Blue and Evil - Joe Bonamassa
Adeniji - Budos Band
Maggie M'gill - The Doors

Along with the Budos Band and some other stuff, I got this song. I know it isn't cool, but it should be obvious from the past few weeks I don't really care all that much about being cool . . .

Life During War Time

I am continually amazed at the way history plays tricks on us. For most of my life, it was the Democratic Party, liberals, leftists who hated America so much they kept wanting to cut the Defense budget so that we could get taken over by the Russians.

Now, we're in the middle of a two-front (at least) war, and it is the emergent Republican majority that wants to cut the Defense Department budget by close to 20%. Let me say that again - the new conservative majority in the House of Representatives, in the midst of wars they promoted, hyped, supported, even demanded, want to cut 20% from the budget of the Department of Defense. At no time in the past four years have Democrats in either house proposed trimming anything close to that.

Now, we can certainly entertain arguments about whether or not our Defense outlays are too large. The fact that we, the US, spend more on military than the rest of the world combined, certainly at least suggests that. All the same, we have tens of thousands of our armed forces personnel in harms way; they need equipment, and the proper equipment. They need better pay. They need, perhaps, more than mere moral support, or vocal support, from so many here in the US.

We can have debates about the size, scope, and priorities of the budget for the Department of Defense, it is incumbent upon us - all of us, most especially members of Congress who hold the purse strings - to maintain our fighting force in the field so they can achieve their strategic goals, safely and securely. They need support, and that really means, where the rubber meets the road - money.

One small benefit, I suppose, is we have the spectacle of a liberal, anti-war type of guy like me insisting that our troops need to be supported and the Defense budget remain unchanged while a bunch of right-wingers in Congress want to undercut our personnel risking their lives in far flung countries.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


Last night I heard something I have never heard before. I have heard the wind howl plenty of times. Last night, the wind was roaring. It was vicious, without mercy or thought. As I drifted off to sleep I was more than slightly afraid concerning the very large, very old trees that surround our house in the face of all that wind and snow.

This morning I awoke to 18" of fresh snow, with drifts two and even three feet deep in places. Our little cul-de-sac has yet to be plowed. Without a snowblower, digging out the driveway has proved to be exhausting. My kids already have tomorrow off from school.

To top it off, my wife is in Orlando, Florida for a conference. In fact, she had to extend her stay an extra day because of the storm. It's eighty degrees there. She keeps telling me that. She's walking around in her shirt sleeves. Not a cloud in the sky.

She insist she feels guilty.

Would you?

Actually, I don't mind the whole blizzard thing. After all, how many does a person experience in this life? This is the first time in 15 years for me. The kids enjoyed their little romp in the snow, and with two days off school, well . . . let's just say they're very happy.

We have electricity, heat, food, coffee - all the essentials.

Except a snowblower.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Lessons From Tunisia And Egypt

A friend of mine shared this with me on Facebook, and I couldn't let it just sit there without sharing it here.
The Tunisians and Egyptians, in shaking off long-standing dictators, have inspired the downtrodden and hopeless well beyond their borders. We can learn a lot from their experiences. Here are some of the lessons:

1. Courage trumps tyranny. Courage is contagious. It just needs to be nurtured and kindled.
2. An authoritarian police state is no match for nonviolent people power. An uprising grounded in the prayers of the oppressed is a tremendous thing. Ordinary people can change their own situation.
3. Expect no support from the “international community.” In fact, at best, expect ambivalence and a steady supply of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.
4. Change can occur without strapping explosives to torsos or vehicles, without bombs or bullets.
5. Change isn’t easy or free. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of martyrs, as Thomas Jefferson once said.
6. Once fear of the tyrant and his minions is removed from the hearts of the people, the game is up.
7. Once the tipping point comes, once the paradigm shift occurs, things change rapidly and suddenly. The mighty will fall quickly. The tiger, you will find out, was made of paper after all.
8. You don’t have to wait for a Great Leader. You don’t have to wait for the Messiah. You don’t have to wait for “Salaheddin.” You just need good grassroots organizing and will. Mosques and churches help. New communication tools like smart phones and social media also help.
9. Cruel, callous regimes don’t last forever. Regimes that limit freedoms and crush dreams certainly cannot last.
10. Tyrants are not immune from revolt. Revolts are not immune from tyranny either. The gains of change must be defended against chaos, anarchy, and other bad happenings.
The author, Mas'ood Cajee, is a board member of the Muslim Peace Fellowship.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The FCIC Report II - Voices Of Dissent From Pluto

The FCIC final report was not unanimous. The four Republican-appointed members dissented from the majority report. Three of them wrote a 29 page dissent. Among their complaints was the majority was restricting the size of any dissenting reports. That's funny, because the fourth dissenter, Peter Wallison - who uses his own dissenting report's title page for purposes of self promotion as ARTHUR F. BURN FELLOW IN FINANCIAL POLICY STUDIES, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE, and helpfully appends his email address to the bottom of the page - wrote 98 page, all on his own!

Right away, Wallison's dissent seems to contradict, in a fundamental way, the conclusion of the majority. Specifically, he places the onus of responsibility for the financial collapse not upon the myriad of factors sited by the majority, but to a single cause - the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977.
To avoid the next fi nancial crisis, we must understand what caused the one from which we are now slowly emerging, and take action to avoid the same mistakes in the future. If there is doubt that these lessons are important, consider the ongoing eff orts to amend the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 (CRA). Late in the last session of the 111th Congress, a group of Democratic congressmembers introduced HR 6334. Th is bill, which was lauded by House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank as his “top priority” in the lame duck session of that Congress, would have extended the CRA to all “U.S. nonbank fi nancial companies,” and thus would apply, to even more of the national economy, the same government social policy mandates responsible for the mortgage meltdown and the financial crisis. Fortunately, the bill was not acted upon. Because of the recent election, it is unlikely that supporters of H.R. 6334 will have the power to adopt similar legislation in the next Congress, but in the future other lawmakers with views similar to Barney Frank’s may seek to mandate similar requirements. At that time, the only real bulwark against the government’s use of private entities for social policy purposes will be a full understanding of how these policies were connected to the financial crisis of 2008.
The majority, on the other hand, took a different view of the role of CRA in the financial meltdown:
In conducting our inquiry, we took a careful look at HUD's affordable housing goals, as noted above, and the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). The CRA was enacted in 1977 to combat "redlining" by banks - the practice of denying credit to individuals and businesses in certain neighborhoods without regard to their creditworthiness. The CRA requires banks and savings and loans to lend, invest, and provide services to the community from which they take deposits, consistent with bank safety and soundness.

The Commission concludes the CRA was not a significant factor in subprime lending or the crisis.Many subprime lenders were not subject to the CRA. Research indicates that only 6% of high cost loans - a proxy for subprime loans - had any connection to the law. Loans made by CRA-regulated lenders in the neighborhoods where they were required to lend were half as likely to default as similar loans made in the same neighborhoods by independent mortgage originators not subject to the law.(emphasis added)
Hm. On the one hand, CRA is at fault. On the other hand, CRA-regulated loans were only half as likely to default; only six percent of the subprime market was covered by CRA anyway, so its overall impact on the much larger mortgage marketplace was negligible. Seems someone has some explaining to do.

I believe that the sine qua non of the financial crisis was U.S. government housing policy, which led to the creation of 27 million subprime and other risky loans - half of all mortgages in the United States - which were ready to default as soon as the massive 1997-2007 housing bubble began to deflate. If the U.S. government had not chosen this policy path - fostering the growth of a bubble od unprecedented size and an equally unprecedented number of weak and high risk residential mortgages - the great financial crisis of 2008 would never have happened.
Yet, the majority addressed the issue of federal housing policy, in a paragraph immediately following their assessment of the role of CRA-regulated loans and the end of the housing boom:
Nonetheless, we make the following observations about government housing policies-they failed in this respect: As a nation, we set aggressive homeownership goals with the desire to extend credit to families previously denied access to the financial markets. Yet the government failed to ensure the philosophy of opportunity was being matched by the practical realities on the ground. Witness again the failure of the Federal Reserve and other regulators to rein in irresponsible lending. Homeownership peaked in the spring of 2004 and then began to decline. From that point on, the talk of opportunity was tragically at odds with the reality of a financial disaster in the making.(emphasis added)
So, the majority agrees with Wallison that housing policy was far too aggressive in its pursuit of ever-greater home ownership. Yet, this in and of itself hardly could have led to the other causes the majority noted as contributing causes - everything from lax corporate oversight to outright illegality, predatory lending practices, and the dismal failure of what little financial regulation was left. In this regard, citing federal housing policy, and in particular the Community Reinvestment Act as the prime, or perhaps even sole source, of the financial crisis disregards the rampant risk-taking, disregard for financial solvency and fiduciary responsibility, and outright criminality that is a part of the public record.

For this reason alone, the notion that, absent an aggressive federal housing policy - which, Wallison notes, was a bipartisan goal, pursued by Congresses and Presidents of both parties - the financial crisis was avoidable simply disregards far too many facts to be believable.

The FCIC Report I - A Theory Of The Common Good

I learned yesterday that the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) final report was available on-line, including quite literally tens of thousands of pages of evidence and hundreds of hours of video testimony, both before the Commission as well as such testimony before Congressional committees as appeared relevant to the Commission's mandate, to "examine the causes of the current financial and economic crisis in the United States," as laid out in the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act of 2009. If it weren't for widespread unrest in the Middle East, including a successful revolution in Tunisia and an incipient one in Egypt, the report would certainly be the subject of closer scrutiny.

I decided to check it out, if for no other reasons that I could at least say I had read it, if matters related to the general topic of the financial collapse arose. With a handy link provided here, it would be easy enough to click it, or insist others do so.

What surprised me - and I was, quite pleasantly surprised - was embedded within the "Conclusions" (like the rest of the report, this is .pdf format) lies a marvelous, yet incomplete, theory of the common good that, juxtaposed as closely as it is, to the still-reigning insistence that markets are and should be autonomous spheres of activity, was refreshing. The majority report rests its conclusions - that the crisis itself was avoidable; that systemic oversight and regulatory failures created an unstable support for the financial markets; that there was a breakdown in corporate governance and risk management; that excessive borrowing, risky investments, and lack of transparency increased the possibility for a coming crisis; despite repeated warnings and even clear statutory and regulatory imperatives, the government was not prepared for the crisis, and its lack of preparation led to even greater market instability; that there was a systemic breakdown in accountability and ethics, both in private and public institutions; the rise of mortgage-backed investments as a tool for high-yield returns fueled ever riskier mortgage practices; the deregulation of so-called over the counter derivatives (OTC) led to their exponential growth, a specific area that contributed to overall weakness and instability; compromised by a number of factors, the credit-rating agencies failed in their independent and essential capacity as watchdogs of various financial instruments - upon a view of financial markets as a necessary, integral part of the larger economy and society of which they are a part. Their healthy, safe, and legal operations are necessary for the health of the larger polis of which they are a part. In that regard, while the majority report does hold certain public office-holders and corporate executives responsible, they also make clear that responsibility for what happened lies, too, with us as a whole. By allowing ourselves to succumb to the view that markets freed of the constraints of regulation and oversight will not only yield greater returns but will be self-regulating, we all share the blame for what was, as the first conclusion of the Commission says, a preventable, foreseeable disaster.

That short paragraph alone makes struggling through much of the report worthwhile. Here, within this official, Congressionally mandated report, is a view linking the common good, the demands of democratic governance, and the responsibilities incumbent upon all of us to ensure, as it says in the Preamble to the Constitution, domestic tranquility and enhance the general welfare.

I call it incomplete, however, because it does not go quite far enough in its criticism of the rise of the financial sector as a part of our larger economy. While investment may be necessary in some limited way to encourage business expansion, particularly as an alternative to increased private debt; with the major financial asset most Americans hold, their homes, needing to be purchased on credit, some sort of private credit should, indeed, exist; spreading, thus theoretically reducing, overall risk is a wise approach for insuring against the occasional shocks that are a part of the round of the business cycle; while all this may be true, to an extent, the exponential growth of the financial sector, and the increasing reliance upon it for a sense of the general health of the larger economy, as well as the inflated rewards offered to individuals and corporations within the financial sector for ever-greater short-term returns regardless of long-term risk raise questions about the place of financial markets within the larger economy. At one time, such were considered parasitic, earning a far greater share of wealth that was actually created through real work. The ever-increasing (computer-generated) wealth of investment firms, large banking houses, and even mortgage brokers is hardly the sign of a healthy, robust economy. It seems to me that even greater regulation and oversight, not least of which might include restricting the size and scope of the financial sector relative to the broader economy, is necessary to ensure a truly healthy society.

That being said, I have to admit I liked much of what was in the summary of conclusions.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The View From Israel

I became curious as to how Israel was reacting to the on-going incipient revolution in Egypt, so I turned to the English-language, online edition of Haaretz to discover that, by and large, the Israelis are as cautious and - let's admit it - behind the curve on events as the United States.

One article, in particular, stuck out for me. Written by Zvi Bar'el, the article's title suggests a simple-minded wonder that the no-longer huddled masses of Middle Eastern dictators are using new media and technology in support of their pursuit of revolution. The article itself, however, offers a far more broadminded, thoughtful analysis of events in the wake of the Tunisian uprising.
Up to now, the world has been divided into two camps: "complicated" countries where the government represents the public and every decision is subject to public oversight, and "easy" countries where business is conducted at the top and the public is just window dressing. The dividing line between the two has always been starkly clear. Everything north of the Mediterranean belonged to the first group and everything to the south and east to the second.

The north had political parties and trade unions, a left wing and a right wing, important intellectuals, celebrities who shaped public opinion, and of course, there was public opinion itself. In the south the division was simple. It was the distinction between moderates and extremists, meaning pro-Westerners and anti-Westerners.

If you're a Saudi king who buys billions of dollars of American weapons, you're pro-Western and therefore entitled to continue to rule a country without a parliament, one where thieves' hands are amputated and women aren't allowed to drive. If you're an Egyptian president who supports the peace process, you're pro-Western and have permission to continue to impose emergency rule in your country, jail journalists and opposition members, and fix elections.


And all of a sudden, into the whirlwind, into the era of certainty and the lexicon in which the region's countries are neatly packaged, the Arab "street" erupts, a sophisticated street. It uses "our" methods: Facebook and Twitter - the tools of democracy we have invented - to present us with a situation of disorder. How do you defend yourself against this? This Arab street has already used these tools to depose Tunisian President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, and its ideas have gone viral. What if it manages to establish democracy in Egypt? In Yemen? Look what happened to the Shah of Iran, albeit using now-outmoded cassettes.


We don't have to wait for other regimes to fall to understand that the revolution is happening before our very eyes. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will not fall due to demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square, and Yemen's ruler will also continue to rule by force. But it's a revolution of awareness and of the fundamental notions of what the Middle East is. Most importantly, we need a revolution in the way the West views the region.
Another piece, by Gideon Levy, offers a stunning indictment of authoritarianism across the Middle East, including not just the usual suspects, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank as well.
Not only is the Fatah regime in Ramallah and the Hamas regime in Gaza destined to fall, but perhaps also, one day, the Israeli occupation, which certainly meets all the criteria of criminal tyranny and an evil regime. It too relies only on guns. It too is hated by all levels of the ruled people, even if they stands helpless, unorganized and unequipped, facing a big army. The first conclusion: Better to end it well, with agreements based on justice and not on power, a moment before the masses have their say and succeed in banishing the darkness.

A second, no less important conclusion: Alliances with unpopular regimes can be torn up overnight. As long as the masses in Egypt and in the entire Arab world continue seeing the images of tyranny and violence from the occupied territories, Israel will not be able to be accepted, even it is acceptable to a few regimes.
Parenthetically, I have to wonder how The New Republic's editor, the egregiously racist Marty Peretz, feels about these columns?

In any event, it seems to me these commentators, at least, understand that matters in Egypt, and perhaps across the (Arab, authoritarian) Middle East are out of the hands of the United States and Israel. Mr. Levy also seems to understand that, regardless of the regime that might replace Mubarak's, there will be little regard for Israel, considering its long-time, violent occupation of Palestinian territories, and that this might be the time to pursue a just settlement.

In all, impressive, thoughtful commentary.

In The Feet Of Father Abraham

With my attention focused on the ongoing unrest in Egypt - with Al Jazeera's coverage being superb - it was with a smile that I turned to today's lectionary reading and saw a passage from Hebrews 11.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised.* 12Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’

13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Right now, even now, the people of Egypt are gathering by the thousands in Cairo, in Alexandria, in Suez, in Luxor, and cities and towns across the country, defying a curfew the government cannot seem to enforce. They are demanding an end to two generations of dictatorship, half of which has been under the heel of Pres. Hosni Mubarak. They want an end to failure and widespread, abject poverty. They want an end to authoritarian rule, the arbitrary rule of self-imposed "leaders".

There has been quite a bit of talk about what the people might want as an alternative. There have been the dire warnings concerning Islamic extremists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, a small, violent terrorist group with little base of support. There have been whispers of "Iran". One journalist, as I noted yesterday, insisted this was a crisis "to be managed".

What do I see? I see a people, at the end of their collective rope. They are tired, poor, no longer afraid even of being afraid. What happens if or when Mubarak leaves? There has been little discussion of that. Perhaps, like such groups, there are a variety of thoughts, including a more rigid Islamic state. All the same, the point for the moment at least is not "What comes next?" Thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands across the nation, are pouring in to streets and alleys, demanding nothing more than an end to what is. What will be? Well, they do not seem as concerned about that as those who are at a remove from their experience. Whatever may be, it seems, is far preferable to what is.

Abraham was called by God to leave his native land. He ventured forth from what was, to a new place promised by God, a place that would be his new home. He was promised an heir, indeed, heirs that would number greater than the stars in the sky. An old man, his wife barren and past child-bearing years, he took this promise, and gathered up his household and left the city of Ur, that magnificent capital of the Sumerian Empire, and traveled to a new place. He had no idea, really, what to expect. All he had was the promise of this God.

From that momentous decision - a decision, we learn from the writer of Hebrews, made in faith, without any understanding what the final outcome would really be - we have the three great faiths named in his honor. From his son Ishmael, born from a liaison with his servant woman, we have the people of Arabia; the Muslims see themselves as heirs of Ishmael, as surely as Jews and Christians count Isaac, his son with his wife Sara, as their ancestor. We are all linked by Father Abraham, whose life was one rooted in a trust in the promise of a God he did not know, in acts that had not yet occurred, and seemed impossible.

The people of Egypt, right now, even now, are demanding a new future. The present is a place of death, with no promise. They want the dead to understand that they are, indeed, dead, while they, the people, are very much alive. My fervent hope and prayer is their demand for the heavy hand of the present to be lifted is granted; that their living faith not be answered by bullets; that we not be world-wide witnesses to mass slaughter. My fervent hope and prayer is this step the Egyptian people are taking, a step in accord with Father Abraham's journey, is done with that same promise, that same hope, that same faith. May the God of Abraham be with the people of Egypt.

Virtual Tin Cup

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