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Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child... | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child...

I've got a new "Think Again" column called "Forget the Question. The Answer is Tax Cuts" and that's here.

My Nation column is "Money Well Spent" and it is about the capitulation of the liberal establishment to the money and pressure of the Kochs and company, here.

My Daily Beast post this morning is called "Obama's Finally Ready to Rumble" and that's here.

And my "Moment" column is called "Sparks Fly at a Hamptons Kiddush" and it's about a fight over "Seeds for Peace" and the increasingly nutty Abe Foxman, here.

Marty Peretz's "Spine": the gift that keeps on giving. A fun game to play with Marty is to replace the words "Islam" or the word "Muslim" with the word Jew: "But, frankly, Jewish life is cheap, most notably to Jews." Sorry, but I just wanted to take a moment to admire the courage of a man who would have the guts to admit what us Jews know to be true, but lack the courage to admit. Wait, wait, don't answer yet. Jews don't deserve the protections of the First Amendment either. "So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse."

True or false? "The New Republic is a magazine that promotes racism and the persecution against individuals based on their religion/ethnicity." We await Jonathan Chait's explanation that, while he does not agree with every word Marty said, Muslims should really clean up their act if they want to continue to enjoy the "privilege" of the First Amendment.

As readers know, I'm rather sympathetic to Barack Obama, despite my disappointments, but I sure as hell did not vote for this guy expecting him to fight tooth-and-nail to keep Bush torture tactics secret and protected. This really sucks.

I read the below in the Guardian. At first I thought it was by the great military historian, but it turns out it was by this other guy, I forget what his job is. "Much has been written about the apparent candour of Tony Blair's memoir. He even concedes that on occasion he stretched the truth past breaking point. And he asserts that 'politicians are obliged from time to time to conceal the full truth, to bend it and even distort it, where the interests of the bigger strategic goal demand it be done.' " This feels like a good time to mention that someone wrote a book about this topic.

Save the Classic, Steve. I was a little worried that Apple was getting rid of the Classic, until I read at the very bottom of this piece that while they are not updating it, they are not killing it either. It would be crazy if they did. None of the new iPods have more than sixty-four gigs and that one is $400. I have 25,000 songs on my Ipod, plus a few books, etc., and nothing else comes close to the 160 gig Classic for shuffling through your collection and being surprised almost all the time.

I'm really bored with women complaining about the attention being given to Jonathan Franzen as if it's somehow unfair. Women have been writing long enough so that we don't have to pretend that the reason Allegra Goodman and Sue Miller are not as popular as Franzen is because of sexism. Franzen is great and they are good. Jane Austin is great. Joan Didion is great. Janet Malcolm is great. Toni Morrison is great. Zadie Smith is great. It is condescending to women to pretend that they are victims here. As it happens, they pretty much run the publishing industry these days. (And pace Carol Gilligan, they are not any nicer about it than the men were.) It's a completely different argument than the one about whether the New York Times Book Review does not assign enough books by women or about women.

I do want to say, however, that the audio version of Freedom, read by David LeDoux, is perhaps the best read audio book I've ever heard, if you listen to your novels.

I was among the fortunate few who caught a David Bromberg show at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett last weekend. Back in high school, I used to see Bromberg often. Then one day he announced he was quitting the music biz to spend life as a violin maker. I went to his last show, which if I recall was in Central Park in 1978 and pretty terrific. I was there for history's sake, which Bromberg screwed up the very next day by making a post "final show ever" which, if memory serves, was at a WLIR music festival. Anyway, he really did quit. For twenty-two years. And was he ever missed. I've seen Bromberg four times since he changed his mind and each time, I can't believe what an amazing guitarist he is. He may or may not be what other musicians consider a virtuoso, I can't think of any other guitarist who is able to speak so clearly through his instrument. It's a beautiful thing. Bromberg also has great taste in material that runs through traditional blues and bluegrass and country and a little bit of jazz. He also writes the occasional killer song. I get choked up when he sings about watching his son fall. And at the Talkhouse, he even graced us with "Mr. Bojangles."

For most of the show, David was joined by his wife of thirty-one years—and remember, for twenty-two of them, he was hanging around the house—Nancy Josephson on bass. It was really touching. She's quite good and she's got her own band, called "Angel Band," is a female vocal trio with powerful harmonies. Angel Band's sophomore album Bless My Sole (7/27 Appleseed Recordings) highlights bandleader Josephson's strong songwriting skills and a breadth of influence ranging from Pasty Cline to Aretha Franklin. The album was co-produced by Lloyd Maines and features David Bromberg on guitar. And it has a really pretty cover.

Also out recently is the new Legacy Edition of Bitches Brew. It's got a couple of new audio tracks, but the real gift is the DVD that features a previously unissued concert performance by the Miles Davis Quintet filmed in Copenhagen in November 1969. (The really deluxe version also has an audio CD of the entire Copenhagen concert featured on the DVD. Additionally, this deluxe box includes an audiophile vinyl pressing of Bitches Brew across two LPs, a forty-eight-page 12x12 book with liner notes by Greg Tate and numerous photos, a memorabilia envelope, and a fold-out poster, if you go for that kind of thing.)

Yesterday I watched this Jackson Browne DVD called Going Home, which just came out again ten years after its original release. It's got some excellent performances on it and an awful lot of talk. The problem with the latter is not that it's all that annoying, though some of the encomiums get to be a bit much, but that almost all of it is in the middle of the songs. So you can't just have a Jackson Browne concert at home. It's cheap though.

OK, shana tova, and now here's Reed.

Reed Richardson writes:

General Principles

Within the US military, it's not uncommon to hear the term "stay in your lane" bandied about. This phrase is a shorthand way of reminding each servicemember that there are certain specific tasks he or she is responsible for, but that there are also many other larger things over which they cannot control and questions they need not try to answer. In fact, to focus strictly on the former and let others—whose job it is to do so—worry about the latter is perhaps one of the most fundamental operating principles of modern militaries. (So much so, that someone even summed it up using dactylic dimeter.)

At the deepest level, this core concept's roots can be traced back to the military's constitutionally mandated subservience to civilian control; and on a broader, societal scale it speaks to the military's strict policy of maintaining an apolitical role in our democracy. It's why it's inappropriate for political candidates to even imply that a member of the military has endorsed their campaign and why military policy prohibits active duty members from attending potentially partisan events in uniform. One would think that the flag officers assigned to the highest levels of the Pentagon and other major, theater-level commands would understand this thoroughly, but this past week, General David Petraeus, who has spent four decades inside this culture and risen to the level of four-star general, stepped out of his lane in a big way.

This is troubling for more than just the obvious lack of tactical judgment Petraeus displays. What can the US commander in Afghanistan really hope to accomplish by rhetorically engaging with an inconsequential, wacked-out religious charlatan and small-time cult leader in Florida who resells furniture out of his church's sanctuary and whose tiny, fifty-member congregation looks to be about a year or two away from the last resort of decamping to a Guyanese compound? I have no doubt that Petraeus is sincere in his feelings that the Koran-burning episode on a date as fraught with political baggage as September 11 could, to use the oft-abused phrase "endanger the troops," but Terry Jones, for all of his many faults, is an American citizen free to do as he so chooses and not a soldier under Petraeus's command.

Moreover, it is simply not Petraeus's job to sound off on Jones's incendiary, albeit constitutionally protected, protest, and by doing so he elevated what was admittedly a growing story—thanks, in part, to inaccurate reporting by some in the national media—into a cable-TV feeding frenzy. In fact, for someone supposedly adept at understanding asymmetric power relationships and counterinsurgency tactics, Petraeus, on one level, comes across as incredibly naïve. His entrance into the imbroglio, rather than helping, actually imbued Jones with much more power than he actually possessed and elevated him to a level where national religious and community leaders are now paying fealty to his "concerns" and begging him to reconsider his plans. That Petraeus apparently didn't consider that this would all play right into the hands of a megalomaniac like Jones, as well as feed the furor of extremists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is worrisome.

However, there may be more subtle, long-term trend at work here, one that makes Petraeus's comments a lot less incongruous when taken into consideration. In the mid-eighties, our military and foreign policy-making structure changed noticeably, thanks mainly to the so-called Goldwater-Nichols reforms that ostensibly reduced competition amongst the branches of service and greatly enhanced the powers of the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. Since then, high-ranking US military leaders have slowly undertaken a much more central, visible and, at times, strikingly independent role in foreign policy decisions, to the point that a 1994 article about civil-military relations in The National Interest was titled "Out of Control." In it, Richard Kohn demonstrates numerous examples of back-room maneuvering, policy sandbagging and outright disobedience of White House and Defense Department civilian oversight by high-level military officers. Most notably, Kohn called out one of the heroes of Operation Desert Storm and one the most popular public figures in America both at that time and still today, General Colin Powell, as one of the worst abusers of unchecked military policymaking (Powell's undermining of President Clinton's gays-in-the-military policy being a prime example).

A generation later, General Petraeus, thanks to his now famous counterinsurgency exploits in Iraq, has assumed this same mantle of peerless military leader and, perhaps not surprisingly, has displayed the same maverick instincts. In his book about the Iraq surge, The Gamble, Thomas Ricks reports that Petraeus unilaterally began using American tax dollars to pay off insurgents as part of his COIN campaign without asking for approval from the White House or Defense Secretary. That's why, though it may be tempting for progressives to approvingly cite Petraeus when he publicly comes out against citizens burning the Koran, military personnel torturing prisoners and our continued housing of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, such a move actually sets a dangerous precedent because not all of these positions are appropriate for him or other military leaders to take publicly. Plus, the same man who condemned torture of detainees also persuaded President Obama to abruptly reverse course and halt the release of photos detailing said torture. Petraeus, in this case, was thinking solely about his command's and his institution's well being, as is his job, but the president is charged with a greater responsibility, and sometimes the latter must trump the concerns of the former.

Ominously, few in the media even raised an eyebrow when Petraeus stepped into the middle of the Koran-burning controversy this week, providing the debate a clearly delineated hero and villain. Of course, the public's overwhelming confidence in the military when compared to other institutions, like, say, Congress and the media, might explain why no elected officials or major news organizations appeared eager to raise questions about the general's impropriety. But for either group to ignore this issue is a dangerously slippery slope. Pretty soon, any peaceful antiwar protest or defense budget cutback could be slapped with a seditious label, and if admirals and generals increasingly become accepted arbiters of what behavior does or doesn't "endanger the troops," then it's a short trip to where they are de facto deciding policy for a pliable Congress and White House that, demographically, has less collective military experience than at any other time in our nation's history. That's not how our democracy is supposed to function. After all, the one decision that actually endangers the troops the most, whether or not to go to war, was intentionally taken out of the hands of the military by the founders. It is the people's to decide and we must be vigilant in ensuring it remains so.

The mail:

M. George Stevenson
Bronx, NY
Dear Dr. A:
Letter writer Terry from Cheyenne's distaste for Clint Eastwood tends to support your sense of his career arc (though I'll have to suggest that my 1985 Video magazine review of Pale Rider as an anti-vengeance corrective to his 1973 masterpiece High Plains Drifter predates your theory) but seems to miss how brilliantly he's played with his own persona, not only in her despised example, Gran Torino (which I'll admit is not among his finest work), but in almost everything he's done since the Clyde movies enabled him to make Bronco Billy (1980), whose debt to Rohmer and Renoir allows its ending to bring a tear to my eye even today.

But her reliance on Sondra Locke's book to suggest that that wonderful actor's career as a filmmaker was killed by Eastwood is credulous, given the evidence. Her debut as a director/star, Ratboy (1986) is little short of embarrassing and only exists because Eastwood dispatched his Malpaso A-team to make it. I understand that their breakup was bitter, her palimony suit was successful, and that women in film haven't exactly been rushed by the Directors Guild. That said, her version of things is a poor argument on which to rest a case for discrimination; it's like Sofia Coppola suggesting that her successful directing career means that critics of her performance in The Godfather, Part III, are denotatively wrong. Being a great actor, as Locke is, doesn't meant that one can't blow one's directing career, just as giving an unpopular performance in a big film doesn't mean one can't have a stellar directing career. It's a performance issue, not a conspiracy (however it might feel at the time) when businessmen refuse to finance a director whose last picture flopped and whose current pitches don't promise to mint money.

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