Thursday, February 28, 2013

Scalia Defeats Racism

And the point, I think, is of fundamental importance here is that that history remains relevant.  What Congress did was make a cautious choice in 2006 that given the record before it and given the history, the more prudent course was to maintain the deterrent and constraining effect of Section 5, even given the federalism costs, because, after all, what it protects is a right of fundamental importance that the Constitution gives Congress the express authority to protect through appropriate legislation.
That was Solicitor General Donald Verrilli in the closing remarks of his oral brief before the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, the case with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act at stake. The crux of the dispute seems to be simple: Shelby County in Alabama, a county that Justice Sotomayor noted had 240 discriminatory voting laws blocked by Section 5, a county in which the city of Calera redistricted in order to push its only black councilman off the seven-man city council, has demanded that parts of the Voting Rights Act be struck down because such federal oversight is no longer needed.

The consensus seems to be that the five conservative justices agreed with Shelby County for reasons that obviously have nothing to do with facts. Justice Kagan spelled it out pretty clearly for Bert Rein, Shelby County's attorney:
But think about this State that you're representing, it's about a quarter black, but Alabama has no black statewide elected officials. If Congress were to write a formula that looked to the number of successful Section 2 suits per million residents, Alabama would be the number one State on the list. If you factor in unpublished Section 2 suits, Alabama would be the number two State on the list. If you use the number of Section 5 enforcement actions, Alabama would again be the number two State on the list. I mean, you're objecting to a formula, but under any formula that Congress could devise, it would capture Alabama.
Hold fast, though! Chief Justice John Roberts came to court packing his own facts, which he whacked Verrilli with, sort of like a seventh grade nerd hazing a slightly scrawnier seventh grade nerd:
Do you know which State has the worst ratio of white  voter turnout to African American voter turnout?... Massachusetts. Do you know what has the best, where African American turnout actually exceeds white turnout? Mississippi....Which State has the greatest disparity in registration between white and African American? Massachusetts. Third is Mississippi, where again the African American registration rate is higher than the white registration rate.
That would have been a more dramatic revelation if 1. it turned out to be true (in fact, his rankings are slightly off) and 2. it mattered in the slightest. Michael Tomasky had the most appropriate response to that: "So what? That's a red herring. Massachusetts has a black governor. I'd like to know what year Roberts thinks Mississippi is going to elect a black governor."

But the real offender was Justice Scalia, whose sympathy for the petitioner, while absolutely expected, was so outrageously nonsensical it apparently brought gasps from the audience:
And this last enactment, not a single vote in the Senate against it. And the House is pretty much the same. Now, I don't think that's attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It's been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.

I don't think there is anything to be gained by any Senator to vote against continuation of this act. And I am fairly confident it will be reenacted in perpetuity unless -- unless a court can say it does not comport with the Constitution. You have to show, when you are treating different States differently, that there's a good reason for it.
There you have it... the Supreme Court has to strike this law down because it is so damn popular, in fact unanimously popular, we can't trust the legislative branch's motives. Here Scalia revealed three insights into his thinking:
  1. He is against an activist judiciary unless Congress acts too forcefully, in which case it is up to him to thwart the will of the people.
  2. Voting rights are apparently a "racial entitlement." The next thing you know, women will want the vote too.
  3. A good reason to treat states differently does not seem to include evidence of discrimination or for that matter history. Justice Breyer had a rejoinder for Scalia, although it came later in the arguments: "Of course this is aimed at States. What do you think the Civil War was about?"
It is pretty gross hypocrisy, so egregious that The Economist took him to task. The need to enforce anti-discrimination voting laws is evident, if not so overt as it was in 1965. Charles Blow wants the Voting Rights Act expanded, and with good reason. 2012 was a case study for how states without federal oversight can systematically work and sometimes unintentionally work to disenfranchise its minority citizens.

But that won't happen in the South... because Antonin Scalia has decided we have won the war on racism. Need proof? The same day the oral arguments were heard, a new statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled in the Statuary Hall of the Capitol.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Greatest Guitar Solo: Late Late Update

A final word from reader RLJ, who allegedly has some experience in the music biz, with his pick for greatest guitar solo:
I'm going with Eric Clapton's solo on Dylan's MSG 30th Anniversary Concert version of "Don't Think Twice"... great solo with wonderful form—the form that all the great true-blue "blues" players copied from earlier times.
I admit to having a soft spot for Clapton since his Unplugged album was my very first CD, a gift from my dad. It holds up, too. Feeling nostalgic? Find it in your swamp of mp3 files and give a listen to "Alberta."

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Greatest Guitar Solo Ever

What with stories of immigration, climate change, gun violence, unemployment and drone warfare littering the front pages of our newspapers, it is all too easy to lose sight of really important issues like: What is the greatest guitar solo of all time? Heady stuff, but let's try to tackle it.

A quick search on google reveals that not a few people have turned their attention to this question and with some bewildering results. For instance, quite a few top ten lists feature Joe Walsh and Don Felder's guitar work on "Hotel California" by the Eagles which, regardless of the quality of the guitar playing, is cause for immediate disqualification on account of it being "Hotel California" by the Eagles. (Included among these lists is, I'm sad to say, Gibson Guitar's top ten solos.)

Readers of The Guardian, Great Britain's most soulful mainstream news outlet, offered more interesting fare. One reader nominates Slash's solo on "Sweet Child O' Mine" by Guns N' Roses:
The best guitar solo of all time is Slash's unholy contribution to Sweet Child O' Mine. It's likely that even those who aren't too familiar with the band have at least heard the song once and been simultaneously astounded by the magnificently nimble fret-work of the guitar God, as he takes you on a religious journey up and down his fret-board for a few decadent minutes.
Another reader suggests Keith Richards' guitar on "Sympathy for the Devil," a solo described on Allmusic as "one of Keith Richards' most economic and incisive, like flames licking at the devil's feet." Here's the reader's endorsement:
Richards captures the dark themes of the record with a blistering solo delivered on the back of Mick Jagger's demonic lyrical confession. Listen to how notes are fired from the fretboard like the sting from a scorpion's tail and then as the vocal comes back in the guitar lines weave between the words with accuracy only a legend entering his playing and songwriting prime could muster.
Of course, another way to approach the problem is to begin with the question of the greatest guitarist, and then sort out solos afterward. Happily Rolling Stone has already done so. David Fricke came up with the idea of a Top 100 guitarists, which Rolling Stone published here, but Fricke had his own list with his own priorities. Both lists agree on the Number One slot, though. As Fricke said,
In the end, I looked at it this way: Jimi Hendrix was Number One in every way; the other 99 were all Number Two.
Immediately, Hendrix's version of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" comes to mind but Tom Morello, in his review of Hendrix, points to a different song:

The most beautiful song of the Jimi Hendrix canon is "Little Wing." It's just this gorgeous song that, as a guitar player, you can study your whole life and not get down, never get inside it the way that he does. He seamlessly weaves chords and single-note runs together and uses chord voicings that don't appear in any music book. His riffs were a pre-metal funk bulldozer, and his lead lines were an electric LSD trip down to the crossroads, where he pimp-slapped the devil.
It is possible that Morello is speaking metaphorically there, but I can't be sure. For my money, though, the most dazzling, incandescent guitar solo of all time is delivered by none other than Prince, whom Rolling Stone criminally awards the 33rd spot on their Top 100 list and whom David Fricke ignores entirely. They should watch this video of the 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction of George Harrison where Prince, who had been inducted that same day, appeared three minutes into an otherwise bland rendition of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, et al., and ripped a solo that shook the pillars of heaven. Take a look; have a listen, and watch for the 3:24 mark when George Harrison's son, playing guitar behind Tom Petty, starts grinning like a kid on Christmas just before Prince appears:

Late Update: Reader MS complains with some justice that J. Mascis is not mentioned in this post. As a point of interest, Spin ranks Mascis at #5 in their Top 100 edging out Prince at #6. Compelling, particularly in light of Rolling Stone's insulting placement of The Purple One. But then Spin puts Sonic Youth at #1 which is.... no. Interesting, but no.

Meanwhile reader ER notes the irony in selecting "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" as a tribute song since George Harrison famously asked his friend Eric Clapton to play the solo. You have to wonder, then, if Prince performed with the intent of blowing Clapton's solo out of the water. Reader BS wonders "how much of its awesomeness is owed to the hat?" An important question. My impression is: a lot.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The State of the Union

Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night has elicited a lot of positive reviews from liberal writers, but Time Magazine's Joe Klein was not one of them. His column "Aiming Low, Missing Greatness" complained that Obama's speech was a laundry list of "depressingly conventional" spending priorities for tired Democratic programs. He concluded:
It turns out, though, that Obama is not a visionary. His moments of passion are a bit too accessible. His Inaugural celebration of the equality we have achieved was worthy, but not very challenging.
I'm an admirer of Presidential vision too, but I'm not really certain what Klein is after here. Presidents rarely put forward "visions" in the way Klein is talking about. Sometimes they attempt to do so rhetorically, like Clinton's "Bridge to the 21st Century," but that kind of speech has a shelf life of a few weeks. The best presidential speeches have spoken to their particular American moment. The Gettysburg Address has a universality embedded in its themes of death and rebirth, but the immediate context of the battlefield where 50,000 soldiers died was essential. Lincoln spoke to the war and its meaning, not a grand vision for the future beyond it. Nor was there any grand vision in his Inaugural Addresses. His First Inaugural was dry, legalistic, and focused exclusively on the issue of secession. His Second Inaugural was a reflection on the nature of the causes of the war, the national sin of slavery. His best speeches looked backward not forward, (I'd like to think) because he wanted Americans to derive their national purpose from an honest engagement with their past.

I posted some thoughts on Second Inaugurals just after Obama delivered his (which Joe Klein also disliked). Looking back through that post, it's hard to find any speeches there that match Klein's criteria. FDR's third Inaugural Address, his "Four Freedoms" speech in 1941, could serve as an example, since it laid a philosophical foundation for the New Deal state and the new role America had to play in international politics.
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world.
Forward looking, certainly, but the context was crucial. FDR was trying to nudge the nation toward committed involvement in World War II. He was also speaking with the knowledge that his New Deal coalition had won control of both houses of Congress. His speech was not intended to lay out a decades-long blueprint—he had immediate priorities and a Congress willing and able to implement them. Without that, a "visionary speech" would have been ineffectual if not fatuous, and FDR was all too aware of that. In fact, the next line in his speech after delineating his Four Freedoms was this:
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called “new order” of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
There are other examples, but again the political context dictated the opportunity. JFK's commencement address at American University in 1963, for instance, lays out a vision for global peace. But that wasn't the State of the Union, it was almost exclusively focused on foreign policy (in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis), it had an immediate political goal: creating and signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and again JFK's party had won control of both Houses of Congress.

Obama faces a different political reality in which the House is controlled by an opposition party unwilling to act or even think like responsible politicians. (The Senate too often slips into the same outrageous habits, as they did just yesterday in their indefensible filibuster of a vote for the Secretary of Defense.) Delusional centrist pundits like David Brooks cannot acknowledge this, so they continue to make ridiculous demands of Obama for middle-ground problem solving that have no hope of getting anywhere. To be fair, Klein is not like Brooks... he wanted Obama to articulate a more robust intellectual liberalism, as opposed to "push[ing] familiar moderate liberal buttons." But Klein quickly takes that logic into the same fantasyland where Brooks has been vacationing for the past four years:
That sort of discussion might change the shape of our politics, enabling new coalitions that make terms like liberal and conservative irrelevant. But this President, sadly--no, shockingly--seems to see the options as more or less, rather than better or worse. It may be that the blather of his opponents has been so oppressive that he is still in a defensive crouch, just a bit more aggressive after the election returns.
What politics, policies, or "vision" should have Obama have outlined in his State of the Union that would have changed the shape of our politics? Klein's example... Obama ought to have proposed a modernizing smartphone app to streamline the Bureau of Veteran Affairs.

I am unclear how that would "change the shape of our politics."

Obama seems to have had another agenda in mind, one that called for smart, center-left policies designed with two goals in mind:

  1. Use the debate over issues to solidify the coalition of voters that gave him a second term and that promise (though of course there is great uncertainty here) to make the Democratic Party dominant. That includes a minimum wage hike to appeal to the white working class as well as minority voters. The centrality of that proposal in Obama's speech indicates that he is on the offensive, not defensive. (As a counterpoint, Ruy Teixeira thinks he didn't go nearly far enough on this score.)
  2. Force Republicans to defend their obstructionism to reforms that seem modest, common-sense, and palatable to centrist voters. Among others, Jacob Weisberg thinks the speech was all about setting up Republicans.
Now I'm sympathetic to demands for a stronger progressive vision in federal government, particularly since Obama's candidacy in 2007-8 promised as much. But our political reality is this: the only path to passing any agenda let alone a liberal agenda will be if the Republican Party remakes itself or destroys itself. Progress, as Obama sees it, involves hastening that day.

Good speech, good strategy... since really there are no alternatives.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Fearless Lemmings

A midwinter lull here at The Union Marches as the grip of winter and student papers have slowed my productivity—apologies all around. But I have returned, driven not only by the compulsion to blog, but by the current precarious state of political negotiations between left and right. Living north of Boston, I sat staring out the window yesterday morning at the mountain of snow brought by winter storm Nemo (incidentally not named after the fish, but with origins even dorkier)... one cannot gaze into an abyss of descending white flakes for very long without wondering what the Republican Party is up to.

A confluence of events has created what might be called a storm surge of Washington politics: the election, Sandy Hook, the fiscal cliff, the sequestration, the inauguration, and the coming State of the Union address. With all that going on it is easy, at least for me, to get caught up in the day-by-day or week-by-week news cycles while losing sight of the tidal movements in party politics. In an attempt to remove the blinders, I revisited a pre-election interview with New York's Frank Rich in Salon about the reaction of the right wing to an Obama victory. (I linked to it in this blog's first post.) Rich argued that he saw no hope that the Republican Party would come to its senses, that the "fever [would] break," even if drubbed at the polls. When asked if any result would convince the Republican Party to change course from its relentless death march into right-wing oblivion, Rich replied "Who would represent it? Who are the people in that party to be that tempered voice?" He went on to predict how post-election Republican policy tactics would work:
Romney is already trying to put it on the down low, and took out an ad where the woman is saying, “He is pro-choice because it’s OK to have an abortion is cases of rape and incest and the life of the mother!” That shows that they know that they have to polish up that turd.

They’ll do it on gay issues, too. And my guess is, with Latinos, they will find a Rubio or someone like him — though their ideal candidate would be a Mexican-American and not Cuban-American — to move on that. And the truth is, their financial base wants immigration reform. Because it’s big business and it’s corporate America and they want immigration reform. So, if they can get themselves back toward 40 percent of the Latino vote — it’s not happening this year, may not happen two years from now, but could happen four to eight years from now. So that, in my mind, allows one to argue — doesn’t mean it’ll happen — that there is a way that they can outrun the demographic issue.
How does Rich's prophecy line up with the current debates? One way of judging, perhaps the only way of judging, is to measure the responses of House Republicans, who are the de facto gatekeepers to any legislative reform. Let's take a look at two issues currently in play:

Gun Violence:
For reasons not clear to me (although they bear more thought), it seems that the memory of the Newtown gun massacre at Sandy Hook has embedded itself in the American consciousness in a way that previous shootings have not. Democrats might imagine that spells promise, finally, for federal regulation of guns. Molly Ball makes the case that legislation is possible because of the left's shift in the last fifteen years to demand smart regulation rather than threatening to ban guns. Indeed, Senator Dianne Feinstein's reintroduction of the assault weapons' ban, defunct since it expired in 2004, has already been given last rites by pundits like Dave Weigel. Its demise might be worthwhile if it can be traded for other (perhaps more effective) action on gun regulation. Democrats, meanwhile, have been making all the fawning political overtures to the win the middle ground in this debate, from issuing a photo of Obama skeet shooting to proclaiming their deep love of the Second Amendment.

Yet House Republicans may yet obstruct all action on guns. In the House the assault weapons ban is all but dead on arrival, but even far less controversial measures have not been greenlighted for floor debate, much less a vote or passage. Greg Sargent, wondering in his post title if "Will House GOP really line up against law enforcement on guns?" noted that on two policies with the most bipartisan support there are no signs of life:
The House GOP leadership has not said whether it will allow votes on either the trafficking or background check proposals. So it needs to be reiterated that these are both no-brainers that don’t infringe on the rights of the law abiding and are supported by law enforcement. 
The NRA, at the moment, seems to be weathering the storm behind its levee of House Republicans. In the meantime, the death toll from guns rises everyday. Joe Nocera keeps track of incidents at "The Gun Report" and Slate has calculated with @GunDeaths that at least 1686 people have died from guns since Newtown as of Thursday.

The two ringleaders in the Republican effort to win Latino voters (therefore avoiding demographic electoral annihilation) are Marco Rubio in the Senate and Paul Ryan in the House, both staunch conservatives and both contenders for the 2016 presidential nomination. Rubio has put forward an immigration plan that looks a whole lot like Bush's 2007 reform proposal, which Ryan then endorsed. The opportunism is clear: immigration reform may be politically risky, but it may also be crucial to winning more Hispanic votes. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Rubio about it, producing this exchange:
Is immigration reform a magic bullet for the GOP's troubles with Hispanic voters?

"No," Mr. Rubio says, but "the immigration issue is a gateway issue for Hispanics, no doubt about it. No matter what your stance is on a number of other issues, if people somehow come to believe that you don't like them or want them here, it's difficult to get them to listen to anything else."
Jonathan Chait for at New York has argued that immigration is the area that Republicans will moderate their stance while they remain intractably right-wing on every other policy. The WSJ editorial board warmed to reform as well, since they too can read exit polls.

Other Republicans are not playing ball, though. The National Review's editor, Rich Lowry, has already maligned Rubio's plan as amnesty for illegal immigrants. At the end of January, Ezra Klein at the Post's "Wonkblog" published a guide to the Senate immigration reform plan that included optimistic subheadings like "The proposal is gaining support from a broad swath of Congress" and "It could pass in just a few months" before coming back to earth with "Boehner isn't a 'yes' yet" and "Immigration reform is likely to be a tough sell in the House." If that reality wasn't deflating, a few days later Eric Cantor, Republican equivalent to the Mouth of Sauron, signaled he wasn't on board with Rubio's plan. The same day, Greg Sargent wrote that House Republicans were perfectly capable of scuttling reform and had no incentive not to.
The problem is that many individual House Republicans don’t have incentives to back immigration reform, even if opposing it is bad for the GOP overall. Well over half of House Republicans represent districts that are over 80 percent white, and over 200 of them represent districts that backed Mitt Romney (who staked out a hard right “self deportation” position). What’s more, the average GOP district is only 11.5 percent Hispanic; by contrast, the average Dem district is twice that.

So the diagnosis is in and the news is not good. As of now it seems that Frank Rich was right, or perhaps he even undersold just how little change Republicans would tolerate in spite of the 2012 defeats. Other pundits have reached similar conclusions. Ezra Klein, even while acknowledging some signs of change within Republican ranks, had this to say:
The Republican Party isn’t reinventing itself so much as reverting to its previous form. There’s little evidence of a rethinking of core Republican policy ideas. There’s no obvious analogue to the Democratic Leadership Council of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was a moderating influence on the Democrats, or even to the “compassionate conservatism” that George W. Bush promoted to the nation in 2000.
The consequences of such rigidity are easy and disappointing to see in terms of policy: we can anticipate more needless gun violence because of the rabid, ill-conceived defense of the Second Amendment as well as the continued alienation of immigrants, legal and illegal, because of deeply racialized Republican politics. We should not ignore the consequences for the national Republican Party either. Talking Points Memo has suggested that continued Republican alignment with the NRA will alienate women voters, even in the 2014 midterms. Rejecting immigration reform would certainly not help Republicans win Hispanic votes either, and Ross Douthat claims that entertaining notions of winning those votes by embracing reform is fantasy.

In terms of electoral politics, and therefore legislative policy, Republicans have nowhere else to go. So they defiantly march on toward the cliff. Sam Tanenhaus for The New Republic argues as much in his essay on the historical roots of white men and the Republican Party. He, rightly, traces the story from the politics of slaveholding and nullification espoused by John C. Calhoun through the "Southern Strategy" of Richard Nixon to the current Republican dilemma:
A politics of frustration and rage remains, but it is most evident within the GOP's dwindling base—its insurgents and anti-government crusaders, its "middle-aged white guys." They now form the party's one solid bloc, its agitated concurrent voice, struggling not only against the facts of demography, but also with the country's developing ideas of democracy and governance.
Can we point to anyone within the elite Republican ranks who offers relief? I don't believe so. Chris Christie is not the answer to a problem like this. The party needs to spend ten years in the wilderness.